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Upton-On-Line 2/6/05: French Referendum Aftermath

Upton-on-line


Diaspora Edition

http://www.arcadia.co.nz

2nd June 2005

In this issue:

The aftermath of the French referendum on the European Constitution; and Stuart McMillan explores the NZ/Australia security relationship in an address to the NZ Institute of International Affairs.

Slamming doors shut

Upton-on-line’s normal morning routine starts with a brief dash to the local boulangerie followed by a turn past the news kiosk to pick up Le Figaro. This Monday, the morning after Sunday’s referendum on the European Constitution, the boulangerie was in business but the kiosk was closed. Its owner had gone on strike for the week. This is not unusual - small traders do go on strike in France, not against themselves but against a general dissatisfaction with the state of the universe. In this case the message read:

"In view of the proliferation of titles, DVDs, cassettes, gadgets of all kinds, inserts, ambiguous titles, the enormous weight of the supplements of journals and their extravagant thickness;

"In view of their excessive quantities and the non-payment of services relative to our sales and the size of our kiosk;

"In view of our profit margin (one of the slimmest in Europe);

"In view of the above, this kiosk will be closed from 30 May to 5 June."

Never mind if the owner was just taking a late spring holiday. It was too good an opportunity to miss. And all fittingly grumpy and in tune with the determination by French voters to overturn the plate of constitutional vegetables set before them by lecturing leaders and throw a general electoral tantrum.

With 54.9% opposed to ratification in a big turnout that had none of the apathy that so often afflicts electoral campaigns, French voters (in the words of the ultra-sovereigntist Philippe de Villiers) decided to “slam in the door in the face of a system that tries to control what we think day by day.” Despite the scale of the rejection, the consequences for France are much easier to measure than they are for Europe. The losers are obvious. The President, Jacques Chirac, demonstrated once again his ability to extract defeat from the jaws of victory. His interventions in favour of the Constitution are largely judged to have assisted its opponents. Ironically, an even bigger loser was the Socialist Party leader, François Hollande who also backed the Constitution thinking he had squared the case for a ‘oui’ off with a party referendum earlier in the year. And after a painstaking 24 year long rehabilitation following his ignominious defeat at the hands of François Mitterrand, the Constitution’s ‘father’, Valéry Giscard d’Estaing finds himself once more destined to be little more than a footnote in history.

The winners are equally obvious. Laurent Fabius emerges as the Machiavellian genius of the left. Having wrong-footed the entire leadership of the Socialist Party he was the only big name able to spend the election evening far from the television cameras. He alone had no explanations to make – the result spoke for itself. More importantly, he couldn’t really be seen gloating alongside the unsavoury list of fellow-travellers who jumped aboard his pirate ship. With a crew of Trotskyite leftists and extreme right xenophobes like Olivier Besançenot and Jean-Marie Le Pen, the man who would be President had rapidly to throw a cordon sanitaire around his reputation.

For the uncomfortable truth, as Le Monde grimly noted, is that the anti-Europeans of the left not only added their voices to those of Jean-Marie Le Pen and Philippe de Villiers; they took over some of their messages. Certain arguments of the far right took root on the hard left. There is of course nothing unusual about this as any detached reading of twentieth century European history will reveal, but it comes as a heavy charge when France’s most prestigious paper fingers self-appointed progressives with the taint of the devil.

In short, there will now be another internal paroxysm. M. Chirac’s little-appreciated (but to upton-on-line’s conventional mind, affable and competent) Prime Minister, Jean-Pierre Raffarin has already fallen on his sword to be replaced by the infinitely more swashbuckling but never popularly-elected Dominique de Villepin. This sets the scene for potentially scathing exchanges with France’s most savvy politician, Nicolas Sarkozy who on the eve of the poll made a transparent attack on the President’s latest protégé by gravely insisting that only those who had submitted themselves to the French people at least once in their lives were worthy of the highest offices.

No-one, for all that, reads this as the pique of a man who wanted the Prime Minister’s job. Sarkozy has alone on the right managed to stay well clear of ground zero. While half the political establishment – left and right – has been sucked into the presidential destruction zone, M. Sarkozy has remained at his station far out to sea and stands ready to save France in due course. While vast expanses of France succumbed to the ‘non’ tide (including M. Chirac’s remote rural stronghold on the Corrèze), M. Sarkozy’s west-Paris stronghold in the Hauts-de-Seine was resolutely on line. In his Neuilly fiefdom just across the Seine from the Bois de Boulogne amidst impeccably manicured gardens and impeccably coiffured matrons, the yes vote hit a record 82.5%.

The end of French exceptionalism

But it would be too easy to conclude – as some have suggested – that the result was yet another case of the French deciding to take it out on the government and supply a party political verdict to the wrong question. Because along with M. Sarkozy’s west-Paris version of Beverley Hills, Paris proper – all twenty arrondissements, including the poorest – backed the Constitution. Paris’ socialist mayor, Bertrand Delanoe, likewise backed the treaty. The socialist ‘oui’ vote carried the day in the capital as it also managed to do in Strasbourg, the seat of the European Parliament. Again, a socialist mayor led the ‘oui’ to a decisive victory in cosmopolitan Lyon. This at the very least suggests that this may have more to do with insiders and outsiders than simply ideology.

The fact is that France’s governing elite – and the people who live in proximity to them - have, whatever their rhetoric may suggest to the contrary, come firmly to the conclusion that France can go nowhere unless it is at the heart of Europe. They also know that when you assign the drafting of its Constitution to a Frenchman and then reject it, you will have some difficulty persuading people to take you seriously. While France still has a handful of flagship companies and areas of technical excellence, it simply isn’t a world power; and Europe can only be an economic power if countries like France are prepared to see the European continent’s astonishing financial and human capital depth used more effectively.

The political leadership knows this. But it hasn’t been prepared to say what this means. In fact, it has done the opposite. In fairness so have their counterparts in many European countries. Rather than explain why breaking down barriers and protective practices within Europe will be good for the overall prosperity of the Union, France’s leaders – regardless of party - have repeatedly used Brussels as an easy scapegoat for the less palatable consequences of economic and social change. They have known full well that much French exceptionalism (for which read protectionism and go-it-alone-ism) was unsustainable; but they have preferred to blame it on Brussels, in some cases implying that they were simply going along with the best deal they could get but by no means what they were really after.

It was a dangerous tactic because at some point voters were, not unreasonably, going to conclude that if Brussels was the problem, it was time to dump it. The EU’s opportunistic detractors did too good a job. When the day came to defend the institution, they discovered that had drained their own – for once respectable – arguments of any credibility. Voters decided to dump on the constitution for reasons which had little to do with the fine print and everything to do with economic failure that they have been tutored to attribute to Brussels and European enlargement.

Polls indicate that unemployment and general insecurity featured highly in the minds of voters. That is hardly surprising. Only four EU countries top France’s towering rate of unemployment – Greece, Spain, Slovakia and Poland. This is scarcely flattering company for a country that, in terms of its natural and human endowments could effortlessly do so much better. French exceptionalism has come to mean exceptional failure.

Exceptional invective

After several months of kid gloves treatment on the part of Brussels and member states alike in the hope of clearing the field of any possible source of parochial paranoia, the massive ‘non’ vote has enabled people to start speaking their minds again. One of the most vitriolic is the former EU Commissioner Frits Bolkestein who had the misfortune to try to defend the idea – enshrined in the EU’s founding treaty – that there should not only be a single market for services on paper but also in reality. The Bolkestein Directive (crudely termed the Frankenstein Directive by populist politicians) became a cause célèbre which no-one had read but everyone hated. Mr Bolkestein has now unburdened himself in these terms:

“A single market for services promises to create millions of jobs. The directive creates not a single right that does not already exist. The freedom to sell services across Europe is one of the basic freedoms contained in the Treat of Rome. But that freedom is frustrated by many bureaucracies. Hence the directive is intended to deal with petty but awkward obstacles…

“Martin Schultz, president of the European Socialist party in the European Parliament at Strasbourg, has said that if the services directive were passed unchanged, it would mean the destruction of the European social model. How social is an economic model that throws up 12% unemployment as in Germany or 10% as in France? Mr Chirac likes to sneer. He told the east European newcomers to shut up about Iraq. He belittled British jobs growth. But surely the French unemployed prefer small jobs to no job at all. There was a time when the Bonn-Paris axis moved the EU forward. The present couple, Mr Schröder and Mr Chirac are a drag…” ( Financial Times, 31st May)

An even more withering judgment was offered by Jacob Arfwedson and Sylvain Charat, the latter, Director of Studies at the Paris-based Eurolibnetwork and thus one of those collector’s pieces, a French liberal:

“The strong rejection of the treaty highlights the final throes of a regime reaching the end of its socialist tether, largely thanks to Mr Chirac. Elected in 1995 and again in 2002, the French president is emblematic of all things wrong in France. He has done everything to bolster interventionism and support for public sector lobbies, scorning anything smacking of free markets. He even recently managed to denounce liberalism as being “worse than communism” without raising eyebrows inordinately. French EU policy is predominantly concerned with its own influence and the common agricultural policy; the rest is silence. Internationally, Mr Chirac has abundantly proven the one constant in his career: a sustained critique of western democracy and capitalism, coupled with excuses and support for dictatorships in the name of cultural relativism.”

Perhaps it’s not surprising that this excoriating attack also surfaced in the Financial Times. But the Think Tank’s President is Alain Madelin, an authentic and respected source of political conscience on the right. The right may have held together during the campaign better than the left, but as the consequences of France’s ‘non’ start to demand an alternative policy, the tensions will build.

The same applies to the left where an entire leadership class has been disowned by its core constituency. Having spent the campaign becoming less and less veiled in its contempt for Fabius, its leaders have now more humble pie before them than is reasonably digestible. Needless to say, the hard left has already portrayed them as collaborationists – leftists who threw their lot in with the forces of evil (i.e. liberals and Eurocrats). The Communist Party leader, Marie-George Buffet, has excitedly pronounced that “we are in the midst of a popular uprising which evokes the great moments of the Popular front or May ‘68”. This is scarcely going to be music to the ears of the social democratic mainstream that has just been disowned by the overwhelming majority of its constituency.

What might it mean for Europe – and the rest of the world?

While France descends into a reasonably predictable period of internal recriminations, the wider consequences for Europe and the world at large are harder to predict. It seems highly likely that the Constitution as it stands is dead. But constitutional rigor mortis may be a rather less final thing than its biological counterpart. After all, the Constitution didn’t have to cover all the ground that it did – it didn’t even have to be called a Constitution. Only its size and portentousness made it seem a necessary candidate for plebiscitary endorsement – and even then not in every case. It would not be too difficult to cannibalise and serve up in less contentious chunks for endorsement by national parliaments. Europe has rarely moved forward in neat, tidy steps and there’s no reason why it has to now. No-one need lose any sleep that the EU will suddenly cease functioning.

On the other hand, the French referendum has unleashed some pretty visceral currents of thinking and the extent to which they spread may be much more the long term worry. While there was obviously a significant element of ‘up-the-leadership’ in the ‘non’ vote, some voters clearly wanted to call a halt to some of the forces of integration, plurality and openness that are associated with the Union. Le Figaro conducted its own ‘voyage into the France of the noes’ and detected some currents that should give anyone interested in Europe pause for thought. Here are some verbatim verdicts from voters:

“They told us that the ‘oui’ was a vote in favour of peace. I think, rather, that it would have brought us economic warfare.”

“I’m for a flexible Europe but not for a fusion of everyone together. What will we do when the Catalonians, the Bretons or the Flemish demand their independence? Nothing, because Brussels will come down in their favour based on rights that we’ve transferred to the Union”

“I fear the emergence of a new sectarianism in which you’d claim at one and the same time to be Breton and European but not French.”

“Each country has to find its own way. I’d prefer an authoritarian French leader to lead any reforms rather than have them imposed by Brussels which would just cause chaos.”

Random, anecdotal quotes prove nothing. But France offers more fertile ground for intolerance and xenophobia than is compatible with being one of the foundation stones of the European project. Those dislocated by change in parts of Eastern Europe and Germany – change stemming from much tougher political and economic realities – could be forgiven for turning on their leaders if the French have started to talk this way. Europe has been a space of peaceful and constructive engagement for over half a century now and it is sometimes too easy take that for granted. It shouldn’t be. In the absence of strong leadership, sclerotic economic mis-management can have real political consequences.

Upton-on-line has observed a less than happy Anglo-Saxon trait that involves immoderate delight when the EU gets into trouble – especially the Latin portion of it. Brussels is always good for a horror story and apocryphal after dinner yarns. But the EU has also been a means of forging a very wealthy single market – and one that has had to steadily open itself to the world. It has also been a mechanism for forcing some European countries to tidy up their acts. It is the EU that has revealed the extent to which countries (like Greece and Italy) have generated fictitious national financial statements. It is the EU that has made the Euro possible placing monetary policy largely beyond political manipulation and thereby putting the pressure of economic adjustment on the need for long overdue structural reforms that can only in turn benefit those who trade with Europe.

It is clear from the French referendum result that any lingering hopes of a single mega-state, federal Europe are dead in the ground. But it is also clear that much less grandiose – and valuable - elements of inter-European co-operation that had once seemed absolutely cast in stone could yet be vulnerable to a spasm of nationalist introspection. Whether that happens will depend on the extent to which leaders are prepared to level with their electorates and take responsibility for what they sign up to rather than take refuge in numbers and use the EU as a shield against domestic dissent.

If the EU were a spacecraft you would have to conclude that it has burnt through quite a lot of its heat-protective layers. It is also in the process of burning off quite a large stock of political leaders and the institutional memory they should be able to bring to bear. The future may be less predictable than we have all thought.

Footnote from the Franche-Comté

In case fears about dissolving national identity seem far-fetched, Le Figaro reports (1 June) that one bunch of unhappy campers in the eastern region of France known as the Franche-Comté is organising a campaign to reunite its territory with Switzerland! To anyone who has driven through the area, the idea is not totally far-fetched. The neat little farmhouses look all of a piece with their Swiss counterparts. As the Franche-Comté Federalist Party points out, there’s no reason why they shouldn’t also enjoy Switzerland’s 4-5% unemployment rate. (Upton-on-line wonders how, for all that, the strike rates compare). Switzerland is a confederation of cantons which has from time to time extended its borders. Geneva was the most recent defector from France. With 200 kilometres of common border, the Franche-Comté would fit very nicely into Switzerland. As Figaro ruminated, we’re only waiting now for the Basque Country to join up with Spain and the Pas-de-Calais to join up to England. After all, Calais was English until 1558 and with the Channel Tunnel can now claim physical contiguity. The present Queen Elizabeth II is, amongst other things, still the Duke of Normandy though forced to exercise this title from the Channel Islands. Perhaps Calais could join Jersey as a tax haven and become a sort of Hong Kong…

Some hens’ teeth wisdom on the Trans-Tasman security relationship

Because New Zealanders consider that they live in the geo-political security equivalent of a black hole (in which the normal laws of power politics have been suspended), public debate rarely ventures into the realm of security. A welcome glimpse of the rest of the universe came to light recently when Stuart McMillan addressed the NZ Institute of International Affairs.

He spoke on “Australian perceptions of New Zealand and Australian defence and security”. After rehearsing the long history that spans the ANZUS falling out through to the genuine thaw that accompanied New Zealand’s contribution in East Timor, McMillan turned to on-going Australian doubts in these terms:

“…there have been occasions in which Australia believed New Zealand had agreed to a military contribution but the political process became unstuck somewhere. It would be unwise on the part of NZ for this to happen often…

So where does this leave the defence and security relationship at present.

I have already mentioned that Paul Dibb has described NZ as a strategic liability to Australia. I think NZ has to find some way of countering this view of NZ.

Similarly another view has to be tackled. After the New Zealand decision to scrap the Skyhawks Hugh White said: “At last it’s official. Australia and New Zealand are going separate ways on strategic policy. Australians can stop worrying about New Zealanders getting a free ride… most New Zealanders do not even want to be on our bus.” It was not being said in an accusatory way, but more as a way of finding a basis from which the security relationship could move forward. It is not the official position of the New Zealand Government. Again, I think something has to be done to counter this view.

My own opinion is that the New Zealand Prime Minister or a senior minister ought to give a considered view of the country’s strategic thinking to a knowledgeable strategic audience in Australia. I am sure that it would be listened to hard. We should spell out what New Zealand’s assessment of the region is. This should not be used as an opportunity to preach but to make a serious contribution to thinking about the region. Possibly we wisecrack too often, ask to be excused because we are small, or slide away into philosophical debates about how security should be defined. The last course is ultimately a cop-out. If we seriously believe that Australia has got its reading of the region wrong we should not be afraid to challenge it and give our evidence. Of course there are niceties about how this should be done so that we do not appear to be taking sides in a domestic Australian debate or criticising Australia but these things can be managed. That’s what diplomats are for.

It should be noted here that when she was in Sydney addressing the Trans-Tasman Business Council last year Helen Clark had the question put to her by Neville Wran, a former premier of New South Wales about the criticism made in Australia that New Zealand was not pulling its weight in defence. In reply the Prime Minister cited, in considerable detail, New Zealand’s military involvement in various parts of the world and drew the conclusion that “our record is second to none”. Interestingly enough, there was huge applause at the end of her reply from an audience predominately Australian. Neville Wran commented on the audience “obviously a majority of people agree with you.”

McMillan broaches the ultimate strategic nightmare issue for Australia – conflict over Taiwan – in these terms

"Another aspect of where things are at present is that it seems more likely that Australia will continue to participate in coalitions of the willing. Any conflict between China and Taiwan would test Australia’s willingness to fight alongside the US against China. Australia has some conventionally powered submarines that the US would probably like to be able to use. But for Australia to go to war against China might be more than even a loyal ally of the US, as Australia is, could tolerate. The tension between China and Taiwan might never come to war. Let us hope that it does not. But there is undoubtedly a dilemma for Australia. Just where it would leave NZ is another question."

Finally, McMillan has something to say about the divergence between Australia and New Zealand’s respective national identities and security stances. It is the biggest issue for kiwis to think about – if ever NZ politicians ever decide to take a more than cursory interest in engaging public debate on these issues. Here is his conclusion:

"Lastly, let me dwell on the questions of national identity. First, Australia. I think that Australia has developed a strong sense of national identity and self confidence. The logic of its defence position appears to have led it to a fairly wholehearted support for many positions taken by the US, including the 2003 war in Iraq. It is in the nature of things that a smaller partner will make much more effort to attract the attention of the larger partner than the other way around. Nevertheless, I am not personally convinced that should a problem arise between Australia and the US, that the US will remember all the loyalty it has had in the past. I might be mistaken but I think Australia has yet to feel the wrath of the US. Of course it may be the case that successive Australian Governments manage the American relationship in such a way that it does not happen. Group thinking develops in Washington and everyone else is expected to fall into line. I will be interested to see how Australia develops after there is a major security conflict between Australian interests and those of the United States.

I turn to New Zealand. This country’s sense of national identity is going to be more complicated. The bicultural elements have yet to play themselves out in relation to the European culture and to the multicultural society NZ has become. On top of that is the strain of what Colin James calls Pacific-isation – by which is meant the influence of the Pacific islands in New Zealand society and culture. Probably that is inevitable, given the demographics. I must confess that I do not understand how all those things will affect New Zealand’s foreign and security policies. I would have thought that now was a good time to help enunciate policies which make it clear where New Zealand’s national interests lie. One of those national interests is to maintain a good relationship with Australia including a good security relationship."

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    To understand the origins of this “ecosystem emergency” we need to understand the “dominion” worldview of capitalism. A worldview can be seen as a kind of self-replicating societal mind-virus or meme perpetuating and spreading its reality and manner of seeing the world. The scientific theory of memetics helps explain the power of such memes to spread a set of ideas throughout society. As Alnoor Ladha and Martin Kirk explain, memetics is increasingly validated by various branches of science, including evolutionary theory, quantum physics, cognitive linguistics, and epigenetics.

    The dominion worldview of the current global capitalist system is based on an inherently racist and patriarchal meme inherited from the bible. In this meme, God (usually depicted as an old white guy) grants Adam (a younger white guy) “dominion” over the earth and all of nature to “control and shape it.” (God: Genesis 1:26) This meme spread was globally through the enlightenment and places both nature and non-European people (or poor people in general) as inferior beings in a hierarchical construct called the “chain of being.” 

    The logic of the capitalist system sees eternal growth and control of nature and humanity as the primary motives within a game played by rational self-serving players. However, this dominion meme underpinning capitalism is ultimately predicated on the absolute rationality and morality of the cannibalistic consumption of both natural resources and human energy. This worldview ultimately leads to a narrowly materialist and reductionist vision of “human progress” that ignores the inherent importance of human and ecological diversity and interconnection with nature. 

    This mind-virus of the capitalist project has proven so infectious that it has spread its absolute dominion over the entire planet to achieve near-absolute hegemony and catastrophic consequences for the ecosystem and indigenous peoples. As Ladha and Kirk state “in order for Christianity to become dominant, the existing pagan belief-system, with its understanding of humanity’s place within rather than above nature, had to be all but annihilated.”

    Over the latter half of the 20th and early 21st centuries, the global economy has orchestrated an unprecedented acceleration of the destruction of nature in its quest for eternal growth from ever-dwindling resources. This is simply because the rules of its operating system depend on this expansion and consumption of new territories and natural and human resources for its continued existence. However, as Ladha and Kirk outline, the exponential nature of the World Bank’s 3% global GDP growth imperative to avoid recession, means we now need over US2 trillion in growth every year “just so the entire house of cards doesn’t crumble.”

    The ever-higher levels of consumption of the commons needed to provide grist for this mill, has also given rise to an increase in authoritarianism and an associated chilling of the freedom of the press and human rights globally. A fierce suppression of whistleblowers, inconvenient journalists, and activists, all but ignored by the mainstream media has effectively ended the accountability of governments and businesses for this human and ecosystem devastation.

    Meanwhile, the propaganda arm of this capitalist mind-virus has entered a golden age by taking advantage of the unregulated social media frontier and the breakdown of real journalism. In this new environment, the use of memes as warfare to control, manipulate and misinform the populace to perpetuate and spread the dominion mindset has been perfected.

    What is the end game of this dominion worldview? It appears to be incapable of stopping anywhere short of the destruction of all life on Earth. As Nafeez Ahmed defines it: 

    “This is a life-destroying paradigm, a death-machine whose internal logic culminates in its own termination. It is a matrix of interlocking beliefs, values, behaviours and organisational forms which functions as a barrier, not an entry-point, to life, nature and reality.”

    The First Great Extermination

    What is the Rojava Revolution? | Accidental Anarchist

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    “This Is Not the Sixth Extinction. It’s the First Extermination Event. What we are witnessing is not a passive geological event but extermination by capitalism.”  

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    Developing nations and indigenous people are at the forefront of this struggle as the commons in the global south have increasingly come under pressure from privatisation. Indigenous nations account for less than 5 percent of the global population, but are protecting 80 percent of its biodiversity. This ecological wealth is largely in the form of commonly held ecosystems such as forests, oceans, wetlands, and other wildernesses that are crucial reservoirs of biodiversity and buffers against climate change.

    Indigenous peoples and developing nations are also suffering disproportionate losses due to an increased reliance on and interconnection with the natural world. Many have already faced, or now face Cultural Extinction due to the fact that their languages, stories, religions, and customs are inextricably interconnected with the ecosystems being destroyed. Nowhere is this process more evident than in the Amazon, where Guardians such as Paulino Paulo Guajajara (above) are being killed for defending their ancestral lands from deforestation.

    Due to indebtedness and years of extractive imperialism and capitalism, these nations have minimal ability alone to resist the destruction of these commons or to fund mitigation or adaptation measures. However, they also hold the key to our survival. Unless we are prepared to aggressively challenge this destruction of the remaining commons in the developed world, our chances of preserving biodiversity and a habitable climate on this planet are slim.

    Ah… About That “Hope”?


    Tree at dawn. Image by Johannes Plenio from Pixabay

    “Hopelessness isn’t natural. It needs to be produced.” – David Graeber

    Hope and belief in a better future is an important and subversive act of defiance against the possibility-limiting paradigm of this dominant worldview. In such concerning times, it is all too easy to fall into the trap of “learned hopelessness.” However, as anthropologist David Graeber states in a recent “Tactical Briefing,” to make sense of the seeming impasse of our current situation we must realise that this feeling is the product of:

    “a vast bureaucratic apparatus for the creation and maintenance of hopelessness, a kind of giant machine that is designed, first and foremost, to destroy any sense of possible alternative futures.”

    So where is one to find hope in the face of this death machine? 

    There are plenty of indications the people have finally had enough of this worldview driving life on the planet towards extinction. Worldwide uprisings of Extinction Rebellion, the Youth Climate Marches, or other little-publicised uprisings in Ecuador, Iraq, Algeria or Lebanon are all evidence of a desire for a more equal and sustainable world. Perhaps most significant are the protests raging in Chile – the birthplace, most extreme testing ground, and now death ground? of the neoliberal project. 

    However, past uprisings teach us that in order to ensure this distributed energy succeeds in bringing about lasting change, we require a clear shared vision of the future world we seek to create. The emergent cooperatism worldview gaining traction worldwide provides such a potential framework for the more “life-affirming” future these many groups are seeking to create.

    Hope In Common 


    Protesters react as they gather during the evacuation operation by French gendarmes in the ZAD at Notre-Dame-des-Landes, near Nantes, France, April 11, 2018. Stephane Mahe

    “Every time a civilization is in crisis, there is a return of the commons”

    Michel Bauwens

    The current crisis can be seen as stemming from the failure of the dominion worldview and the increasingly strained institutions of the capitalist system to protect our environmental and social commons. One result has been a global resurgence of interest in the commons. This resurgence is underpinned by the cooperatism worldview which stands in direct contradiction to the assumptions of the dominion paradigm of global capitalism.

    As Michel Bauwens of the P2P Foundation summarises, “The commons are three things at the same time: a resource (shared), a community (which maintains them) and precise principles of autonomous governance (to regulate them).” This complex and inherently cooperatist nature makes the commons a powerful and popular organising system for managing natural resources and ecosystems amongst people across the world.

    This broad-based nature of the commons increases human agency by redistributing power and control over land-use decisions and favouring direct, participatory decision-making by the greatest number of people affected. The bottom-up and decentralised nature of the cooperatism worldview enables solutions and responses to environmental challenges to emerge from those most intricately familiar with particular ecosystems.

    This upsurge in the ground-up approach to land-use is evident in the many distributed, local-level collaborative initiatives taking on the guardianship and sustainable use of common lands and resources. In NZ examples include the landscape-scale community conservation literally in my own backyard in Miramar, the self-governance of Te Urewera or the granting of legal rights to the Whanganui river. Ellen Rykers’ recent article on The Dig explores the potential of the Community-centred to biodiversity action in Aotearoa.

    More ambitious commons-based approaches abroad include commons fisheries management in Kenya or Nepal’s Community-owned native forests or a plethora of tea, coffee and cacao cooperatives across the developing world. Then there is the astounding (ZAD) “Zone a Defender” – an occupied autonomous zone near Nantes, France (pictured above). Here occupiers have been conserving the forests and wetlands, collectively farming the commons and with community support, resisting forcible eviction by the police for decades. 


    Zapatista Women work on community-owned and operated farms. Tim Russo

    There are many other examples of the cooperatism approach emerging to create a parallel economy of self-governing alternatives alongside the global capitalist system. These range from small neighbourhood cooperatives and Community Land Trusts to large-scale anti-capitalist experiments like the autonomous indigenous communities of Chiapas, Mexico’s indigenous Zapatista movement.

    Such alternatives also include the occupied factories in Paraguay, Argentina or the USA, and autonomous institutes in Korea or the cooperatives, self-governed city areas, and free medical care centres formed in Greece after the recent political and economic crisis. As David Graeber says, such forms of mutual aid associations “spring up pretty much anywhere that state power and global capital seem to be temporarily looking the other way.” 

    Perhaps most inspiring of all is the success of Rojava, a self-governing, non-denominational and non-patriarchal, autonomous Kurdish region amidst the chaos of Syria. Sadly, this revolutionary “democratic confederalist” project is currently being crushed by surrounding authoritarian powers clearly threatened by the precedent it sets.

    Bringing Out The Best In Humans

    A commons-based or cooperatist approach to organising society, offers a more rational and scientifically sound way to relate to natural resources than the top-down and growth-based imperatives of the dominion worldview.

    The standard argument for the application of a dominion approach to land and resources is Garrett Hardin’s theory of “The Tragedy of the Commons.” However, Elinor Ostrom’s worldwide Nobel Economics prize-winningstudy of “common-pool resource” (CPR) groups in the ‘90s, debunked this idea entirely. Ostrom concluded that groups are capable of avoiding the tragedy of the commons without requiring top-down regulation, as long as certain “core-design conditions” are met. 

    Even that champion of neoliberal economic theory, The Economist is now on board. The September 2019 issue featured the article:“The alternatives to privatization and nationalization: More public resources could be managed as commons without much loss of efficiency.” The author cites Ostrom’s Nobel Prize acceptance speech, in which she called on policymakers to “facilitate the development of institutions that bring out the best in humans.” 

    However, the fact is, a thermodynamics perspective actually demonstrates the commons approach is MORE energy efficient than standard methods. A research project led by the P2P Foundation on the thermodynamic efficiencies of peer production found that a transition to open and shared models can result in an 80% saving in the amount of matter and energy used in running our society.

    Hope From The Edge of the World


    April 2019 protest in Brasilia (Sergio Lima)

    “The kin networks that bind people with other living systems resonate with the science
    of complex networks, key to understanding many ‘wicked problems’ of our time…”


    Dame Anne Salmond, Gary Brierly and Dan Hikuroa.
    Let the Rivers Speak: thinking about waterways in Aotearoa New Zealand

    We can also take much inspiration from those indigenous people acting as guardians of the natural world against extermination where states and institutions have failed to do so. Examples such as the Guardians of the Amazon, Mauna Kea or Ihumātao represent a refusal to accept the arrogant and materialist dismissal by the dominion paradigm of ancient indigenous knowledge and locally-derived wisdom, democracy and sustainability. 

    Understanding the worldviews of indigenous societies offers important shifts in perspective, consciousness, and behaviour that global society needs to make urgently in order to have any chance of surviving the coming wave of ecological and social disruption. These worldviews are imbued with a deep understanding of cooperatism and shaped by long histories of using the commons as an approach to land-use and social organisation.

    Growing understanding in anthropology and archeology and the science of complex networks confirms the validity of the fundamental tenets of indigenous worldviews: 1. that cooperation is what defines us evolutionarily as a species (Graeber), and 2. that humanity and nature are inextricably interconnected (Salmond et al). Veronika Meduna previously discussed these concepts in relation to Mātauranga Māori in her article on The Dig: Kaitiakitanga: Seeing Nature as your Elder.

    We are not, as the dominion worldview of capitalism holds, hierarchical and self-serving beings governed by a “selfish gene.” For most of our history, humans have existed in a mode of cooperation and relational interconnectedness with each other and the natural world. We must all urgently remember and recreate this way of being.

    Changing Our Minds


    Roy Scott Getty Images

    “The reasonable man adapts himself to the world: the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man.”

    George Bernard Shaw 

    Widespread adoption of a worldview grounded in Cooperatism is the fastest way to get public support for an overhaul of our approach to land-use and rapidly regenerate ecosystems. However, this is easier said than done. The theory of ‘cognitive dissonance’, holds that when reality falsifies our deepest beliefs, we’d rather tinker with the nature of our reality than update our worldview. This accounts for the growing tribalism of populist politics and the susceptibility to disinformation and narrative control that holds the status quo in place.

    Cognitive dissonance means that changing minds regarding the environment and our insane economic paradigm will not be done by using facts, statistics or rational debate to convince people of the merits of such an approach. Rather, as Maarten Van Doorn outlines, “Ideas change the world by upgrading people’s ‘normal’… by showing people what is possible, and changing their views about what is socially acceptable.”

    In short – the most effective way to change minds is to actually build the world (and worldview) of the commons all around us, making it the new normal as ordinary people rub up against it in their everyday life. Ensuring as many people as possible are able to participate in or benefit from commons-based and ground-up initiatives is one of the most powerful solutions there is to have an impact on the current crisis. 

    A Global New Deal For The Commons 

    Launch your meme boldly and see if it will replicate—just like genes replicate, and infect, and move into the organism of society… I believe these memes are the key to societal evolution. But unless the memes are released to play the game, there is no progress.

    ~ Terrence McKenna

    To have any chance of being adopted en masse, proposals for environmental action must directly benefit everyone, but especially disadvantaged communities in most need – migrants, working-class communities and developing nations. As Naomi Klein argues on The Intercept (and in her new book), if we do not link the intersecting climate, migration and social justice crises together into a holistic response, we will face a popular backlash. Klein’s astute hypothesis is that “only a Green New Deal can douse the fires of eco-fascism.”

    However, proposals for a Green New Deal and other green-growth based approaches such as New Zealand’s Zero Carbon Act, simply do not go far enough. They fail to effectively challenge the core extractivist and dominion assumptions of the paradigm that has created the biodiversity crisis. Such approaches miss the point entirely unless they ensure that the basic needs of people and planet are met. The neglect of these core needs for so long by the establishment is the breeding ground for both the increased susceptibility to fascist and authoritarian memes and environmental catastrophe.

    There is an existing proposal and petition for a Global Deal for Nature, which I fully support and recommend. However, due to the importance of language and memes to changing worldviews, I still wish to launch this slightly different framing.

    So allow me to launch my meme: A Global New Deal For The Commons:

    I propose that what humanity and the planet desperately needs is a Global New Deal For The Commons. Such a deal would require a global mobilisation to ensure that the natural and cultural commons are protected and sustainable biodiversity-friendly and cooperatist land-use is adopted. If structured right, such a deal would have a massive impact towards restoring the planetary ecosystem and biodiversity, as well as healing deprived and hopeless communities everywhere in the process.

    To truly turn the biodiversity and climate crises around, this new deal needs to happen at least on a scale of wartime efforts such as the Marshall Plan of WWII or the New Deal of the Depression-era. As Rutger Bregman argues, centralised state action will be essential to any realistic efforts to drive an environmental effort on the scale required. However, I am less cynical than Bregman about the power of bottom-up efforts, and believe a properly balanced combination of the two is essential.

    A biodiversity-focused investment on this scale could combine central investment with an approach focused on catalysing, fostering, and scaling bottom-up land-use initiatives and ideas. It could prioritise local communities as workforces and support the emergence of ground-up, decentralised solutions and initiatives over centrally imposed or market-based solutions wherever possible.

    Such a new deal for the commons would require associated work on reforming land tenure and local democratic and economic institutions on a scale not attempted since the communist project. However, rather than the top-down command and control approach of communism, it would provide a framework, resources and tools for communities to re-learn how to live harmoniously with each other and with nature’s abundance. This approach could spread knowledge, technology and best practice for environmental restoration globally through open sourcing IP and implementing solidarity networks or networks of mutual aid across society.

    This new deal would also require real action on the national and global level to reform global governance and regulation and build a more just international order and institutions. This would require new agreements such as an international law of “ecocide,” and strengthened international environmental laws and enforcement mechanisms to ensure the compliance of corporations and rogue imperialist nations. This new order would also need to address debt-enslavement, eternal growth imperatives, and rebalance global wealth disparity to stop wealthy nations from shifting the impacts of growth onto vulnerable populations and ecosystems.

    However, crucially, to bring about this new order, we must find ways to continue challenging the narrow confines of permitted thought and debate keeping us locked in the destructive dominion paradigm. It would need to restore the rule of law and ensure the protection of whistleblowers, journalists, activists and politicians challenging this narrative. If not, who will hold power accountable for their inaction or blocking of real progress? Who will continue to tell the stories and defend the rights of those on the margins building the alternative futures discussed above?

    The debate around Te Koiroa o Te Koiora, and the to-be-finalised national biodiversity strategy and policy provide an excellent opportunity for New Zealand to lead the way in protecting and restoring the commons with such a new deal. There are good indications that a more community-focused approach is being considered and that more radical proposals resonated well with the public in our recent HiveMind engagement. However, we must ensure that translating this into real progress to fund and support ground-up and cooperatist environmental initiatives is seen as a priority for the Government.

    Please indicate if you agree with this statement of hope and declaration of intent here. You can also add your own statements for others to vote on if you wish: