Red Post-Election Blues.

There was a kind of depressed lull after the Sept 20 election, none of us on the left had much to say. I was overtaken with post-election blues; a kind of energy-sapping disappointment, frustration and despair. One of my friends posted a fb note saying that he was still processing, so could we please not talk to him about the election. I got together with a group of friends that week to provide mutual solace, and ended up kissing an environmental activist who walked me to my bus-stop. So clearly, there are always silver linings.

But overall I’ve felt that there is more to say –

We are facing an emerging picture of the impact a third National term will have. John Key has come out backing the so-called ‘child poverty’ advice of the Ministry of Social Development, even though MSD officials disregarded the main recommendations of the report. Ignoring research-based findings in favour of right-wing discourse smacks of arrogance, but clearly Key’s government feel they have a clear mandate from the election to keep rolling out quasi austerity policies.

I’ve felt disappointed by the election summations of the left. Chris Trotter gnashed his teeth about the gender quota issue in the Labour party, complaining that less than 1/5 New Zealand men gave their Party Vote to Labour. It’s interesting that even amongst the left, scapegoating marginalised groups – like women – who are more exploited for their labour is an acceptable practice. The failure of New Zealand men to vote Left speaks to the uneven distribution of  emotional labour and nurturing in our culture (i.e. that women are more often responsible for children and elderly) not the failure of feminism. It means New Zealand men largely voted in their own self-interest, rather than voting for the good of dependents. It also reflects New Zealand men’s greater earning power.

Labour is facing a four-way Leadership race between Nanaia Mahuta, David Parker, Andrew Little and Grant Robertson. I’ve felt really irritated by social media calls for people to vote on merit rather than ‘special interests’ or ‘political correctness’. It’s just really embarrassing that left-wing commentators have such a poor understanding of how structural inequalities work. Even if you are a die-hard old-school Marxist who puts the exploitation of the worker at the centre of your analysis, you should know that capitalism effects different groups of people differently, i.e. some workers are more exploited and exploitable than others. Because of the impact of structural racism (in education and the justice system for example) Maori and Pasifika peoples are more vulnerable to exploitation as low-paid workers. Even without that level of analysis, Maori and Pasifika voters did turn out for Labour, and deserve party accountability. That’s not even going near the politics of indigeneity, and what I would want to say about colonisation and Te Tiriti. So pull your heads in.

So is there a better way to theorise National’s landslide win? What stands out to me is the level of saturation of neoliberal discourse after the previous two National terms, and in a global context of ongoing austerity measures. Chomksy’s recent comments about the business classes in America fighting a ‘class war’ to challenge opposition, and discussion of the decimation of the union movement, have made reflect me on the impact on growing income inequality in New Zealand.

What if the failure of Labour to secure voters was less about political claims-making along a mutable political spectrum, and more about the division of haves and have-nots without the buffering “middle-class” we’ve generally seen?  Marx argued that we act in our own self-interest. The interests of the wealthy elite is far removed from the social and economic needs of New Zealand’s working class; perhaps why Cunliffe’s gesture towards raising the minimum wage didn’t make a dent in political consciousness.

What does it mean if New Zealand’s political process has come to represent the interests of the business classes?  We are already in a global environment where corporations have more power than individual governments. The only solutions I can think of lie with mobilising globally across different disenfranchised groups (like the global poor), and directly challenging corporations instead of simply channelling our efforts through government.

I’m really interested in hearing other people’s views on how we can create meaningful social change. Do we need to get radical?

Advertisements

What’s in a Name? White Bourgeois Cruelty Culture in Auckland

Okay, I’ll admit, being irritated by the naming of high-end venues and ‘concept stores’ doesn’t even seem like an issue particularly worth blogging about. It’s just that it feels so gross that nowhere along the design process did anyone go, “hey, do you think that might be – like – a little off?” So I’m going to discuss “Sweat Shop Brew Kitchen” (the rebranding of Sale St in Sale St) and “The Shelter” a ‘concept store’ in Ponsonby.

So, “Sweat Shop Brew Kitchen” of course sounds like what you would call a brewery in a very dark children’s novel with characters, like “Mr. Amis Greed”. Or perhaps what you might ironically call a bar in a dystopian novel, or a piece of contemporary art, all the while signalling that sweat shops are not known for their fun and joie de vivre.

It’s ironic, you groan. Sure enough, “Sweat Shop Brew Kitchen” is so-named because it used to be a clothing factory (See Metro’s review) where machinists used to produce denim wear for the shipbuilders and yachts down in Westhaven. A nice little slice of history, made palatable with your ageing meat sandwich.

So this is where it begins to bug me. The marketing of ‘Sweat Shop’ is about combining clothing factory historicity – think blue denim – with symbolic markers of working-class American culture – think  American BBQ cured meats, and trying to entice consumers to follow on the bandwagon of the American Charcuterie boom. Working-class Americana looks hip. The “About Us” section of their website makes these hilarious claims about being “the hardest working bar in Auckland”, which is of course not about their actual work practice, but about marketing themselves in relation to our fascination with an American narrative of hard work, sweat and beer.

So marketing working-class culture to the bourgeois in Ponsonby seems ugly, but not terribly new because in New Zealand we expect a little exotification in our marketing; how will the bourgeois know it’s any good if it doesn’t look like it’s come from somewhere else? Of course, bourgeois enjoyment of the spectacle of working-class culture depends on their distance from it (you can enjoy your stylised brew a lot more with no actual poor people around).

The part that really bugs me though is that even though the name “Sweat Shop” is what Jameson would have called ‘blank irony’ (referring to how irony in branding in late capitalism is only drawing attention to it’s referentiality or pastiche, rather than being pointed at something) the joke only works because of the consumer’s distance from actual Sweat Shops. That is, because the drinker is able to go “haha. Sweat Shop. Good one.” and not think about how “sweat shops” are so-called because of their unacceptable working conditions, and are still commonplace in the garment industry in Bangladesh, India and China.

Doesn’t that put you off your drink, even slightly? Doesn’t it seem like the pun is actually only witty because it is also slightly cruel, referring to something we know is sinister?

That’s when we come to “The Shelter”. Now generally, a shelter is a temporary residence for people or things that need shelter. So, people that are living rough, or animals, or women and children escaping abusive homes, or people who are trying to avoid being killed or maimed by bombs.

But in Ponsonby, “The Shelter” is a “concept store” (hehe as in, a store with a concept) of “like-minded” brands to provide an “artistic experience” for the “discerning shopper”. Now, my analysis would be similar to “Sweat Shop” , i.e. it is bad taste and relies on a cruel, vacuous irony to describe a place that is actually luxurious, for the rich. But bizarrely, “The Shelter” is kind of worse. How?

Well, when I looked at the marketing, there was a noticeable lack of irony. The graphic on the website has a visually opulent image of a white building that almost evokes a church. The categories on the website offer ‘Eat – Wear – Shelter – Watch’. The text reads ‘The Shelter houses a carefully curated selection on new and established brands’.. . You get the sense that Vicki Taylor genuinely imagines her store is providing a form of care and nurture via protecting the aesthetic sensibilities of the very rich. Sigh.

This is part of the continuation of discourse amongst the wealthy, white elite told over and over to nurture themselves through consumption. And what poor, wee fluffy bunnies they are. How they very definitely deserve to take shelter in a design-led haven, away from the harsh realities of a world of people needing shelter.

It seems to me a sign of things getting worse in New Zealand (and globally) when white, bourgeois folk have lost their capacity to be embarrassed by this level of stupid. Maybe it’s because we have grown. Previously you knew that the conversation would carry across different sectors in society enough that it would get back to someone’s grandmother. Someone would have pulled Vicki Taylor aside and said “hmm not a good idea honey, that’s going to sound really tacky, because you know, of the people needing actual shelters”. Maybe there is such a burgeoning gap between the wealthy and the rest of us that many upstarting bourgeois are in a bubble having conversations in closed circuits. Their white, bourgeois lack of exposure to other worlds and other world-views can breed a form of careless cruelty.

Stop Blaming Poor Folk for the Effects of Neoliberalism

Eva Bradley wrote an opinion piece yesterday after some protestors challenged the Prime Minister in Napier, entitled ”Poor’ should Stop playing Blame Game’.

Frankly, I’m too bored and frustrated by vacuous media commentary to want to put any work into eloquently crafting a more analytical response – so excuse my brevity and bad mood.

Bradley mobilises rhetoric about poor people and poverty that is connected to some broader social and political discourses. She tells us ‘the (reputed) poor were having a whinge’. “Having a whinge” – while obviously part of Kiwi slang – is a feminised act. Whinging is usually associated with women (the “whinging wife” or “his girlfriend was having a whinge”), and when it is used in relation to men it is often done to mildly discredit their masculinity as well as their concern (i.e. saying “He’s having a whinge” is comparable to saying “he’s being a wuss”). The phrase “having whinge” is a means of trivialising the concern of the “whinger”. It’s a way of delegitimising their claims.

Why would it be so important for Bradley to delegitimise the claims of some people protesting about poverty in Aotearoa? Why would their chant, “Stop the War on the Poor?” get under her skin? I know some of my friends outside of Aotearoa would be incredibly bemused by the idea of local media in the Hawkes Bay standing up for the Prime Minister. They would expect that media would take the role of critical inquirer in the very least, and at times expect that media might be provocative or deliberately antagonistic towards political leaders. It is about an expectation that our democracy should be robust. Politicians are doing a job, and part of that job is dealing with both media and the public. And yet, mainstream New Zealand often treats John Key as if he is a mix between a celebrity and an affable uncle, whose congeniality makes up for his forgetfulness and contradictory statements.

Bradley’s claim that ‘the “poor” should take a reality check” speaks to the way mainstream New Zealanders often harbour a sense that Aotearoa is ‘a lucky country’ or that we are fairly egalitarian. Our national imaginary is informed by the Pakeha colonial experience of “escaping” from poverty and the class system in Britain. As significant as this was as an affective experience for Pakeha people’s great-grand-parent or grand-parent generation, it doesn’t fit with social reality in Aotearoa. Neoliberal policy reforms in the ’80s and ’90s meant the stripping back of the welfare state that Aotearoa had previously known.

Susan St John’s (2013) research article on income-related child poverty in New Zealand shows that 270,000 New Zealand children live in poverty, some experiencing serious deprivation over extended periods of time (see Child Poverty Action Group).

Bradley drags out the usual tired, truisms about how the poor could avoid poverty; ‘attitude’, ‘hard-work and commitment’, ‘responsibility’ and ‘tough love’. She claims ‘I was free to rise or fall according to my own efforts and decisions’. All of these ideas are examples of neoliberal discourse, that premise the individual and thus seek quasi-psychological solutions for poverty at the level of individual action. The problem with neoliberal discourse is that it obscures the relationships between people and communities; institutions; and social and economic structures. The reality is that within a global system of neoliberal capitalism, New Zealand’s economy is linked to global market forces, flows of capital and financialisation.

People have a right to be angry about the level of poverty in New Zealand. They have a right to hold political leaders to account for their policy decisions. While poverty is complex, there are also tangible steps that governments can take to reduce poverty. So before you vote, how about asking the following of each political party:

  • What would you do to reduce child poverty?
  • What actions will your party take to ensure that children in poor families have the same access to education and health care as other children?
  • Benefit rates are currently too low relative to high housing and food costs in New Zealand, meaning that children in families on benefits are at risk of nutritional lacks and poor health. Will your party consider raising the benefit base rates to account for raised costs of living?
  • Working poor families are also impoverished in New Zealand because of the low minimum wage, and relatively high household costs. Will your party raise the minimum wage?
  • What actions would your party take to create jobs in New Zealand?

 

4 Ways To Really Push Back Against Your Privilege

Mia McKenzie is a fab QPOC writer, but her post on “4 Ways to Push Back Against Your Privilege” totally irked me. The premise was great. She explains that privileged folks sometimes get as far as acknowledging their own privilege, but then think that is all they need to do. What was more difficult for me was that the strategies she outlines are very self-focused, they focus on reducing your privilege as if it is a private stash of social capital, instead of actually dismantling the structural systems of oppression we actually need to dismantle in order for things to change. The problem with seeing your own privilege as a guilty stash of opportunities that just need to turned down is that a whole lot of well-meaning, academically-educated, left leaning folk can do exactly that and the only tangible effect will be that they feel less guilty. The systems that bring about structural inequalities will still be in place. So here is my poor Pacific queer woman version of how you can really push back against your privilege.

1. Fight The Power

McKenzie’s first method to push back against privilege is to “Relinquish Power”, which on the surface seems quite good. I’m all for white, able-bodied, straight, cis-people thinking about the ways that the social ease they are given produces rewards they don’t really deserve, and then figuring out ways to redistribute them. My problem with McKenzie’s explanation is that it shifts privilege too simply into something which can be given up by an individual. She gives an example of a white manager “pushing back” by taking on the opinions of her POC workers. My problem with this is that even when white managers take on the opinions of POC workers, the structural inequalities that so often hierarchically position white workers above POC workers are intact. There is no real challenge to structural racism, or to global capitalism as a system that produces racialized hierarchies. If you really want to push back, you can’t just turn down the advantages that forms of privilege give you and think that you are doing enough. Why? Because structural inequalities (via gender, race, class, ability, sexuality or gender identity) reproduce forms of violence and harm for some at the same time as they reproduce privilege for others. The real issue is recognizing that when you are being privileged someone else is being harmed. And even when you are privileged by a system, that doesn’t mean you are the only winner. Class privileges middle-class, first world kids, but the real winner is capitalism. You can turn down your labelled clothing or your entry ticket to a top-notch university, but unless you are doing more to protest against multinational corporations, trade deals, the pervasive spread of neoliberalism or poverty, you are still part of reproducing the status quo.

2. Speak Out.

McKenzie’s second point is that when you have access to something that others do not, just don’t go. She gives the examples of not going to an event which isn’t wheel-chair accessible when you are able-bodied, or to a woman’s event that excludes transwomen. She’s pointing out that privileged people need to sacrifice things that they are used to being given automatically. And this is a fair call. But really, it’s not going to undermine privilege in any way because privilege is often institutionalised, and reproduced through long histories of exclusion. And while you might have the luxury of not going and therefore feeling good about your cis-privileged and able-bodied self, people who are marginalized don’t have the same opportunities to be heard. So instead, complain loudly to everyone who will listen about how such-and-such event is unjust. If an event you are interested in doesn’t have disability access, email the organisers and complain. Don’t just leave it to people with disabilities to have to fight for their own right to be included. Exclusion is about everyone.

3. Name it and Figure out how to Change it. Dialogue.

Okay, so this is really reiterating the last points. McKenzie suggests that people with privilege “Shut up” in those spaces where their privileged voices carry more weight. And I think that’s a great start. But so often what I find really challenging is when power dynamics are at play and one person or groups systematic advantage is not named. It’s not enough to be quiet. Here’s why. The way I’ve really witnessed male privilege being reproduced is when “nice, average guys” stay quiet and don’t name the way sexism or misogyny is playing out. Staying quiet can work covertly with the way privilege is made invisible. Recently in Aotearoa, there has been a lot of ongoing public dialogue about rape culture. It’s frustrating to me that women have been having to bear the brunt of this by talking out about our experiences of rape culture as survivors, while men have stayed relatively silent about the impact of rape discourses on their own actions.

4. Be careful about what ideas and structures you reproduce.

McKenzie’s final point is to “Be careful what identities you claim”, arguing that you shouldn’t claim a marginalized identity if you don’t have a marginalized experience. She uses this unjustly to challenge “white-presenting” POC who apparently:

” claim POC but by their own admission don’t experience oppression based on race”

This statement is scary enough to me that I’m considering writing a whole blog-post about oppression and being a fairly pale POC (admittedly as a Pacific woman in Aotearoa we are discussing very different contexts), but what I want to focus on here is the way that making sense of racial or ethnic identity as solely based on skin-color buys into the system of imperialism, colonization and racism that we are trying to undo. Like McKenzie, I think attending to marginalized experience is really important. But sometimes even in well-meaning activist talk, categories of people get reproduced in very binary, rigid and stereotypical ways. We need to be careful that we are not reproducing violence through perpetuating a system of meaning that was created by the oppressors. I get really frustrated with how well-meaning Pakeha (white New Zealanders) sometimes talk about the negative social indicators connected to “Pacific peoples” in ways that seem to reinforce messages of social futility. Likewise when middle-class people talk about people living with poverty, or when straight cis-privileged people talk about diverse gender expression in ways that naturalize heteropatriarchy. For example, it’s not ” respecting gender diversity” to give a masculine-identified trans-kid a toy gun. It’s reinforcing the heteropatriarchal ideas that masculinity is about the ability to use violence, and that force is a valid way to solve conflict.

Finally, challenging oppressive structures takes a lot of hard work over time, often for small gains. So often what we really need to do is to build a critical counter-public, and it’s hard to know how to work together. I’d love to get some feedback about these ideas and how to practically challenge privilege and the systems that produce them.

What Tampons Taught Us about Poverty and Gatekeepers, or My Questions for Paula Bennett

Last week I blogged about how my friend was told by her WINZ case-worker she couldn’t buy tampons with her hardship grant. What followed was a social media sandstorm, due in part to the twitter hashtag # unnecessary tampons. The post received 32,977 views, and over 90 comments. Public interest was further fueled by Paula Bennett tweeting to clarify that there was no ban on women’s sanitary items, and responding to journalists that you can’t believe everything you read on social media. That’s very true Paula, you have to be discerning.

The emerging picture seemed to indicate that case managers may not always correctly advise beneficiaries, who are left in fairly vulnerable positions.  Several comments and facebook messages alerted me to similar experiences of beneficiaries being treated with disrespect or disdain. This ill-treatment occurs alongside continuously not being given enough assistance and struggling for basic necessities. As Jan Logie’s blogpost pointed out,  misinformation from WINZ staff about policy occurs in a context of punitive policy changes and an organisational culture that is stigmatising.

Auckland Action Against Poverty is a direct action and education organisation that
both advocates for beneficiaries and protests against the neoliberal agenda on jobs, welfare and poverty.

Sarah Thompson, a spokesperson from Auckland Action Against Poverty, explained that
they are seeing an ever emerging gatekeeper culture in Work and Income, where people
are often told “no” as a first response from W&I staff. “At least 9 out of the 10 people that
our advocates work with have been incorrectly or unfairly denied assistance – from being misinformed, as in your friends case, about using a special needs grant for tampons to being denied a benefit altogether when W&I incorrectly assume someone is living in the nature of marriage, to not applying discretion in the case where a mother needs additional assistance for food”. These conditions make it near impossible for people to receive the assistance they are entitled to.

The most damning indictment on the relationship between sanitary items and unacceptable level of poverty in New Zealand for me last week was from the Child Poverty Action Group who facebooked that child well-being organisation KidsCan are supplying pads to intermediate and high school girls as they or their families can’t afford them. CPAG quoted Jules from KidsCan:

“We have many sad stories of girls getting bladder infections as they are reusing soiled sanitary items or toilet paper. This is a major issue in some of our schools which most people be would not be aware of. We recently had 1000 packs of pads donated to us for this purpose.”

Paula Bennett tweeting about tampons was a curious event. If you are media savvy you
know that politics often about send the right message to the right audience. It’s obviously a tricky one for Paula, because on one hand she wants to appeal to voters. Paula is walking a fine line though. As the Minister for Social Development, Paula Bennett has a more direct obligation to beneficiaries to ensure that New Zealand’s welfare system has integrity.

So Paula Bennett, a week on from tampongate, here are the questions I really have to ask:

  • What were the communications costs (branding, design and publications) associated with essentially “rebranding” seven benefit categories as three categories? Are the changes primarily cosmetic? Are the changes meant to assist beneficiaries or assuage voters?
  • What are you doing to actively prevent misinformation and bullying that could occur in WINZ offices as an effect of the “gatekeeping” organisational culture?
  • How does the basic benefit rate relate to average food and housing costs? How are beneficiaries expected to meet the shortfall between the benefit rate and their weekly costs?
  • With this in mind, what do you think is an acceptable level of hardship? What every day items should beneficiaries be prepared to go without?

 Auckland Action Against Poverty are going to be holding an impact action outside Work and Income in New Lynn from the 10th – 12th September, from 9am to 4.30pm each day. Beneficiaries are able to meet with advocates to assist them in getting their full entitlements. For more information, see www.aaap.org.nz or email contact@aaap.org.nz

No Paula Bennett, Tampons and Pads are Not “Luxury Items”: WINZ and Institutionalised Sexism

A close female friend who is a “job seeker” went to WINZ because she had absolutely no money for food. After the usual evidence-providing procedures, her case officer provided her with a supermarket card. But when he gave it to her he carefully explained that the supermarket card was for “necessity items only”, and she could not use it for various “luxury items” including tampons and pads.

Is her case officer just a lone example of a stressed and harried WINZ employee? A lone ranger of necessity-zealousness who doesn’t understand that most women of reproductive age do in fact menstruate on a monthly basis?

Unfortunately not.  Another female friend had a humiliating experience. She tried to use a WINZ supermarket card at the check-out at her local supermarket, and the card didn’t work. The cashier called WINZ to find out why the card wouldn’t work, and found out it was because she had tampons amongst the items she was purchasing. She had to return them.

The mind boggles. What does Paula Bennett want us to use instead of tampons and pads? Are tampons really the equivalent of wine and cigarettes? Does she think menstruating is something that women do for fun? Does she have any suggestions on how we could cut down on menstruation?

Supermarket cards are only given out when the beneficiary is in serious financial hardship. Nevertheless, the exclusion of tampons and pads from the list of “necessity items” that beneficiaries can buy when in financial hardship is a fairly extreme example of institutionalised sexism.

Institutionalised sexism is when an institution makes decisions that produces unequal effects on men and women’s lives. The decision-making does not need to be a deliberate attempt to undermine women. It may occur through the institution not sufficiently considering the different needs of women, or the gendered consequences of decision-making.

In this instance, the gendered consequences of WINZ defining tampons and pads as “luxury items” are fairly obvious. It means women facing financial hardship are put in a more vulnerable position then men. We cannot “choose” not to menstruate.

Paula Bennett, this is a new low. Not being able to buy tampons is frankly pretty third-world for New Zealand.

UPDATE:

Just to update this story, Paula Bennett has taken to twitter confirming that tampons can be bought with payment cards, so this is not a decision that has been made at a policy level:

http://www.newstalkzb.co.nz/auckland/news/nbpol/2006223257-paula-bennett-takes-to-twitter-over-tampon-ire

However, it shows to me – what many of you have astutely pointed out in the comments – that there is a level of confusion about what constitutes “necessities” and even “food items” with front-line WINZ staff ( and possibly also supermarket staff). Even if the WINZ staffer was incorrect in telling my friend that she couldn’t buy pads or tampons, this error is an effect of policy changes that make it harder for beneficiaries to receive their entitlements. For me, this interpretative error is still a consequence of institutionalised sexism, because it has unequal effects for the women who experience it. Multiple vulnerabilities come into play here, my friend is a young woman. It may be a case of WINZ staff being heavy-handed in their one-to-one interactions. Either way, the policy and information on the website needs to be made clearer.