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Interview: Alex Pirie (Part 2)

category aotearoa / pacific islands | economy | interview author Wednesday December 27, 2017 05:02author by AWSM - AWSM Report this post to the editors

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-

AWSM: So that covers one aspect of your involvement. What’s something else you’ve done?

Alex: Well, directly from that of course, Unite was very heavily involved with ‘Supersize My Pay” 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. You’ve 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 “Mom and Pop Investors” just didn’t ring true. Once you lose these assets you either won’t 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 wasn’t open slather.

AWSM: And you’d say the campaign was an influential element in that?

Alex: It’s 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 wasn’t 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 Energy…”Own a piece of your country” 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 that’s 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: It’s a paradox. You want mass support. You want the message to get through to wider public consciousness. It’s unavoidable that it will cover a wide spectrum of people.

AWSM: The TPPA is an ongoing saga. What’s your take on that from its genesis till now?
Alex: It’s 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 ‘go to’ meetings that are seen as the be all and end all that must be attended because if they don’t nothing will ever happen. There’s huge pressure that ‘we’ don’t 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 haven’t reached an agreement. I think it’s 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 it’s 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. That’s part of my reason or root for being anti-Tory. I know it’s not only them because in recent times Labour governments have promoted free trade as well but that’s 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 we’ve been talking about from wage conditions, working conditions, to trade, to government policy. Neo-liberalism is “Slash and Burn” which benefits those who are already wealthy and the corporate groups, it doesn’t 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 you’ve mentioned?

Alex: Yes there’s a difficulty in getting engagement. We’ve done well on a number of issues to raise awareness but engagement is still a vexed issue because it’s often the same people involved in numerous issues. It leaves the door open for them to be accused of being renta-crowd. That’s 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, that’s why their names come up. That’s the issue for the broader movement. Awareness has improved but…enough to change a corrupt system that’s 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 the” rank and file members”. What does that expression mean to a 19 year old? Unfortunately individualism has had an effect on society so you’re trying to get somebody on board who sees themselves as an individual even if they aren’t.

AWSM: One of the most effective successes of neo-liberalism has been that people become very atomised. They DO see themselves as individuals. There isn’t 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. It’s hard to think of the bigger picture. That’s where the struggle needs to work on in the future. It’s not just about immediate gains such as a better paid job for myself but it’s about society. The problem is that people who have very little money are focused on surviving. So they don’t 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 don’t have time for other things. When you tie in consumerism, there’s the danger that it keeps people isolated. Likewise Facebook. It’s very hard to keep yourself in the right mind-set 24/7.

AWSM: Also when you’re outside the metropolitan centres in a country like this your physical environment doesn’t encourage activism. There isn’t 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. It’s very easy to click a button but actually going to a march on Saturday is harder.

AWSM: Do you think there’s 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 they’ve done ‘it’.

Alex: Yes “clicktivism”. There’s a lot of truth in that and I don’t think its only youngsters, I think we are all prone to it.

AWSM: It does supply instant gratification or righteousness….”I’ve done my bit for the day.”

Alex: There are constant petitions for worthy causes but I’m 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 doesn’t 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. It’s a Labour lead one. You used to be in the party but you’re not now. So what happened?

Alex: I realised as an independent thinker and somebody who wants to get involved in NGO’s in the future, it’s helpful not to be a member of a political party.

AWSM: So it’s 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 party’s role on paper is to represent the people but in reality it’s to get elected and stay elected. Parties promise cheques they can’t 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! I’ve had so many placed on me. If you have a positive label it’s a huge job living up to that. If you say “I’m a socialist-feminist” then they say “Oh but you did this, so you can’t be”. I don’t like the constraints that labels put on people.

AWSM: Isn’t 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. I’m somewhere on that spectrum. Mind you even that’s problematic but basically I’m on the side of people who want better for society. I will work with people to achieve that goal.

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