Offering Resistance: At the tender age of 26, I learned the hard way that mass support should never be assumed, or demanded. It has to be earned. "Resistance" was modelled on the Polish "Solidarity" (can't ya tell!). In theory a "movement of movements" seemed like a fine idea. Putting it into practice turned out to be a little more difficult.
HAVE YOU EVER HEARD of Resistance? No, not The Resistance, which fought the Germans in occupied France during World War II, but Resistance – as in the single word – like Solidarity? Don’t worry. Unless you lived in Dunedin in 1982, and have a very good memory, there’s no reason why “Resistance” should mean anything to you at all.
The only reason I remember it, is because I set it up.
Radicalised by the Springbok Tour protests of the year before; despairing of formal electoral politics following the narrow return of Rob Muldoon’s National Government; and inspired by the exploits of Poland’s free trade union, Solidarnosc (Solidarity), I was hoping to set up, right here in New Zealand, a similar extra-parliamentary people’s movement, broad enough to encompass all of the big issues of the day.
The movement was to be launched at what I called, with youthful grandiloquence, “The Dunedin People’s Congress”. Invitations went out to interest groups of all kinds: unions, students associations, environmental organisations.
It was a flop. Only a handful of people turned up. And, at the tender age of 26, I learned a bitter – but immensely valuable – lesson about political agitation. Mass support cannot be assumed, or demanded. It must be earned.
The then President of the Labour Party, Jim Anderton, summed it up for me a few months later, when he advised the radical core of Labour Youth’s Dunedin branch to: “Always build your footpaths where the people walk.”
Today, nearly thirty years on, the “Occupy Wall Street” (OWS) movement, and its multitude of emulators in the USA and around the world, are inspiring a new generation of activists – just as Solidarity inspired activists in the early-Eighties. In Auckland and Dunedin, small encampments have been erected in the city-centre by “occupiers” eager to assert the OWS slogan “We are the 99 Percent!” Occupy Auckland has even borrowed OWS’s ultra-democratic, consensus-based, decision-making process: setting up its own “General Assembly” to govern the occupation.
I simply couldn’t avoid a wry grin of recognition when I saw the big “General Assembly” banner unfurled in Aotea Square. “Dunedin People’s Congress” anyone?
The central question that Occupy Auckland and Occupy Dunedin now have to answer, after six days of occupation, is whether or not “the people” are walking on the “footpaths” these groups have, with such enthusiasm (and not a little self-importance) constructed? Or, like the doomed “Dunedin People’s Congress”, is their General Assembly only attracting the most idealistic and/or naïve of the Radical Left?
Earlier this week, a friend of mine e-mailed me the link to a YouTube clip of the 15 October demonstration in Madrid. The Spanish capital’s most central public square – La Puerta del Sol – and the broad avenues leading into it were filled with demonstrators. There must have been at least 100,000 of them; an angry swarm of “indignant” Spanish citizens. The sort of crowd that, here in New Zealand, only great sporting events like the Rugby World Cup can assemble.
When Occupy Auckland and Occupy Dunedin are able gather support on a similar, massive, scale, their claim to speak for “the 99 percent” of the population which cannot boast great wealth, nor wield great power, will acquire a measure of credibility.
But that day is, I fear, far away.
New Zealand is not Spain. We do not face an unemployment rate of 20 percent. Our government has not unleashed the sort of savage austerity measures that have so incensed the Spanish people. At time of writing, Police have yet to pepper-spray, tear-gas or baton-charge any of the non-violent occupiers camped-out in Aotea Square or the Octagon. And, if for some reason (the MV Rena sinks, for example) people do become indignant enough to fill those public spaces, the radical Left will soon discover just how conservative most ordinary people really are. Broad agreement is possible on economic issues – but on precious little else.
I speak from experience. Because, you see, I did end up at a Dunedin “people’s congress” – of sorts. It was called the Otago Trades Council, and its 100-plus delegates represented more than 25,000 unionised workers throughout the province. You dared not take these ordinary New Zealanders for granted. Their trust was a precious commodity – and you had to work hard for it. But when you’d earned it: when it was given; resistance was guaranteed.
This essay was originally published in The Timaru Herald, The Taranaki Daily News, The Otago Daily Times, The Greymouth Star and The Waikato Times of Friday, 21 October 2011.