Here is part 2 of an interview by AWSM with social campaign activist Alex Pirie. This installment discusses neo-liberalism, asset sales and political labelling. Part 1 can be found here-http://www.awsm.nz/2017/12/06/interview-alex-pirie/
AWSM: So that covers one aspect of your involvement. Whatís something else youíve done?
Alex: Well, directly from that of course, Unite was very heavily involved with ĎSupersize My PayĒ during that same period and just after. I was elected delegate for my worksite and eventually was elected onto the Executive Committee for English as a Second Language issues. I did that for a few years.
AWSM: Another issue that has been on the national agenda over the past decade or so has been that of asset sales. Youíve had some involvement in that. Could you elaborate on it a bit?
Alex: I became aware of it through joining workshops about campaigning. I was always around activists campaigning for things, so that gave me some courage and wish to become involved. I guess I was a bit more involved behind the scenes even though I did go on many marches. There was a new [centre Right] National Party government and they made that a cornerstone of their electoral promises or threats. It felt intrinsically wrong to so many people. As a side effect of that you had the TPPA [Trans Pacific Partnership Agreement] and global trade versus control. In the case of asset sales they would inevitably end up in the hands of the wealthy whether they be local or international and the spin off for ďMom and Pop InvestorsĒ just didnít ring true. Once you lose these assets you either wonít get them back or you end up spending heaps of millions of dollars getting them back. So why go through that bother? Just keep it. We campaigned hard. I know we had a small effect. Although the government did sell assets I think they put the brakes on a little bit. It wasnít open slather.
AWSM: And youíd say the campaign was an influential element in that?
Alex: Itís hard to measure. They could say for example that their priorities had simply changed, rather than admit to having been pressured. However the fact people were marching in the street meant they may have lost some of the appetite for it and when the initial sales showed that the government got very little bang for its buck they quietly admitted to themselves that maybe it wasnít working.
AWSM: There was a petition that got 250,000 signatures but you just saw adverts on TV going on about how wonderful having shares was.
Alex: Yes, for example, Mercury EnergyÖĒOwn a piece of your countryĒ and so on. All that spin. I think we almost got enough signatures for a referendum but it just fell short, although that would have been non-binding. The positive side was the publicity so thatís the way we chose to see it and that incoming governments may back away from it as a result of the publicity.
AWSM: The dilemma is though that you want a broad campaign but that results in a muddying of the water. You have people like NZ First and their right-wing populism and even outright fascists like the National Front infiltrating it. Is there any way of avoiding that? It is troubling, right?
Alex: Itís a paradox. You want mass support. You want the message to get through to wider public consciousness. Itís unavoidable that it will cover a wide spectrum of people.
AWSM: The TPPA is an ongoing saga. Whatís your take on that from its genesis till now?
Alex: Itís conveniently had its name changed. Nice little publicity trick. Takes some of the heat off. It seems a ridiculous process that has gone on for years. These Ďgo toí meetings that are seen as the be all and end all that must be attended because if they donít nothing will ever happen. Thereís huge pressure that Ďweí donít want to miss out. They agree to another meeting in six months and it seems to go on indefinitely. Every meeting is crucial apparently but they still havenít reached an agreement. I think itís a mess and whatever they end up with is going to be detrimental.
AWSM: What are you particular concerns with it?
Alex: Trade is only a very small part of it. Anyway itís a matter of who that trade is benefiting. If I could see conclusive proof that it might benefit ordinary people then maybe I could get behind it a bit more but it only seems to benefit the already wealthy by cutting down tariffs. The companies that trade can make heaps of money but will it be reflected in wage rises and conditions? No, I doubt it. Thatís part of my reason or root for being anti-Tory. I know itís not only them because in recent times Labour governments have promoted free trade as well but thatís my main concern. There is also the ISDS clauses. When a government is being sued by a company, do you want tax payers money being used for that dispute instead of helping the plight of the general population?
AWSM: This ties into the phenomenon of neo-liberalism. How do you see that?
Alex: It ties into all of the things weíve been talking about from wage conditions, working conditions, to trade, to government policy. Neo-liberalism is ďSlash and BurnĒ which benefits those who are already wealthy and the corporate groups, it doesnít help society.
AWSM: A lot of your work around this is online, right? Do you get different responses or level of involvement compared to the face-to-face interaction in the other campaigning youíve mentioned?
Alex: Yes thereís a difficulty in getting engagement. Weíve done well on a number of issues to raise awareness but engagement is still a vexed issue because itís often the same people involved in numerous issues. It leaves the door open for them to be accused of being renta-crowd. Thatís unfair. These issues are all tied in so much that people tend to be interested in a broad range of things that effect social justice. The same people are so passionate, thatís why their names come up. Thatís the issue for the broader movement. Awareness has improved butÖenough to change a corrupt system thatís disadvantaging a vast number of people? No.
AWSM: Is there a danger of seeing these things too hermetically? As an English teacher are you aware of the rhetoric being used? Do people understand the issues and how to express them?
Alex: People are troubled by the use of traditional language. So in terms of unionism we talk about theĒ rank and file membersĒ. What does that expression mean to a 19 year old? Unfortunately individualism has had an effect on society so youíre trying to get somebody on board who sees themselves as an individual even if they arenít.
AWSM: One of the most effective successes of neo-liberalism has been that people become very atomised. They DO see themselves as individuals. There isnít that collective perception. The pendulum is swinging away from neo-liberalism in terms of the pure economics of it but in terms of the mind-set, the superstructure or psychology of it, its more entrenched?
Alex: Yes I would agree with that. Itís hard to think of the bigger picture. Thatís where the struggle needs to work on in the future. Itís not just about immediate gains such as a better paid job for myself but itís about society. The problem is that people who have very little money are focused on surviving. So they donít have the energy or mind space to be thinking of those things. The system has got people boxed in so much by the constraints of their situation and just getting by, so they donít have time for other things. When you tie in consumerism, thereís the danger that it keeps people isolated. Likewise Facebook. Itís very hard to keep yourself in the right mind-set 24/7.
AWSM: Also when youíre outside the metropolitan centres in a country like this your physical environment doesnít encourage activism. There isnít a lot going on. That lends itself to a malaise or sense of just getting by.
Alex: And doing your own thing.
AWSM: Nevertheless do you feel you are currently getting successes in putting your message out about neo-liberalism online?
Alex: I like to think that opportunities will come up. Online things are great for awareness but not the best for organising and action. Itís very easy to click a button but actually going to a march on Saturday is harder.
AWSM: Do you think thereís the perception from digital natives and those who have grown up with the internet that clicking itself constitutes activism? They might not even see the need for a march because theyíve done Ďití.
Alex: Yes ďclicktivismĒ. Thereís a lot of truth in that and I donít think its only youngsters, I think we are all prone to it.
AWSM: It does supply instant gratification or righteousnessÖ.ĒIíve done my bit for the day.Ē
Alex: There are constant petitions for worthy causes but Iím not sure about it. Movements like Action Station can make use of them. They recently presented one to the new Minister of trade about the new TPPA and the response was there is going to be public consultation. As we know that doesnít always mean much. The danger for the current government is that they got in to a certain extent because of feeling against the TPPA.
AWSM: We have a new government now. Itís a Labour lead one. You used to be in the party but youíre not now. So what happened?
Alex: I realised as an independent thinker and somebody who wants to get involved in NGOís in the future, itís helpful not to be a member of a political party.
AWSM: So itís a practical thing rather than a sense of disillusionment or ideological difference?
Alex: I joined so I could see inside the tent. To be fair there are lots of great people involved in the Labour party at the grassroots. My misgivings are with the parliamentary system itself. A partyís role on paper is to represent the people but in reality itís to get elected and stay elected. Parties promise cheques they canít cash. My disillusionment is with the system. Now I can say what I like. If I was still with a party for example this interview would have a very different shape. If you are working for a party you have to tow the party line.
AWSM: So what label do you apply to yourself at the moment?
Alex: I hate labels! Iíve had so many placed on me. If you have a positive label itís a huge job living up to that. If you say ďIím a socialist-feministĒ then they say ďOh but you did this, so you canít beĒ. I donít like the constraints that labels put on people.
AWSM: Isnít there a danger in excessive pragmatism?
Alex: Yes. Another thing though is the way that labels separate people from working together who might otherwise have the same outlook. A lot of energy is spent in defending your turf. I will work with and respect anarchists, socialists, and those who are broadly Left. Iím somewhere on that spectrum. Mind you even thatís problematic but basically Iím on the side of people who want better for society. I will work with people to achieve that goal.