Category Archives: Aotearoa (New Zealand)

Billionaires Plan Escape From Apocalypse

Well, the harsh truth about the integrity and fortitude of billionaires is finally out in the open for all to see, and the results are repugnant: Billionaires are gutless, chicken-hearted cowards. The proof is found in the pudding as several Silicon Valley billionaires purchase massive underground bunkers built in Murchison, Texas shipped to New Zealand, where the bunkers are buried in secret underground nests.

All of which begs this question: What’s with capitalism/capitalists? As soon as things turn sour, they turn south with tails between their legs and hightail it out of Dodge. However, they feast on and love steady, easy, orderly avenues (markets) to riches, but as soon as things heat up a bit, they turn tail and run.

History proves it time and again, for example, FDR rescued capitalism, literally rescued it, from certain demise by instituting social welfare programs for all of the citizens as capitalists fled and/or jumped off buildings.

Then during the 2008 financial meltdown capitalists were found curled up in the corners of rooms as all hell broke lose. Taxpayers, “Everyday Joes,” had to bail them out with $700B in public funds, and even more after that. All public funds! Taxpayers, average Americans, bailed them out!

Capitalists can’t take the heat as well as gritty American industrial workers that ended up bailing them out of the “jam of the century.” As explained by Allen Sinai chief global economist for Decision Economics, Inc, discussing Milton ‘laissez-faire’ Friedman’s free-market dogma vis a vis the 2008 economic meltdown: “The free market is not geared to take care of the casualties, because there’s no profit motive.”

The chicken-hearts from Silicon Valley already have Gulfstream G550s ($70M each) readied at a Nevada airstrip for the quickie escape journey to NZ.

Escape, from what?

Well, of course, the 99%, you silly!

This revelation comes from Robert Vicino, founder of the Vivos Project, a builder of massive underground bunkers who claims the Silicon Valley elites developed detailed plans to flee to New Zealand while attending the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland where the world’s richest biggest kahunas meet every year to take victory laps and discuss future biz battles.

According to Vicino: “They foresaw a revolution or a change where society is going to go after the 1 per centers. In other words, them.”1

Maybe a copy of Jean-Paul Marat’s Chains of Slavery (published 1774) was passed out as bedtime reading material at Davos. Surely a radical political theorists like Marat’s verbal flailing of “princes/aristocrats” with extremely harsh mean-spirited judgment must have dealt them a sleepless night or two.

And maybe the nighttime reading packet also included Victor Hugo’s Ninety-Three (published 1874), which discussed the beheading of King Louis XVI, the Terror, and the monarchist revolt that was brutally suppressed by the new Republic. Heads rolled!

Whatever the source or reason, something happened to flush-out these yellow belly lily livered fraidy-cats, out into the open, but actually deep underground where they’ll live in constant fear that the 99% will hunt them down. Lest they forget, when mobs ruled France, thousands of aristocrats lost their heads to the guillotine, not a fun prospect, which likely has today’s billionaires shaking in their Lucchese boots. Otherwise, why the elaborate plans?

The sorriest part to this story has everything to do with the “privileged” aspect embedded in the glory of capitalism, which ratchets upwards in lock step with vast monetary accumulation. The formula seems to be that the more money one has the more “privileges” one is entitled to at the expense of everybody else, same as 18th century France in Hugo’s Ninety-Three, wherein an aristocrat’s carriage hit and ran over (and killed) the child of a poor family but the aristocrat, without hesitating, kept on going lickety-split to his estate to hide behind locked gates, which is another example of a yellow belly lily livered chicken that can’t take the heat when times get rough.

Evidently, money doesn’t equate to toughness because a principled billionaire would stay back and help in times of trouble, not run for cover. Billionaire plans to escape as soon as things turn rough is a sure sign of weak-kneed namby-pamby pansies on the premises!

Victor Hugo comprehended the French Revolution very well. The aristocrats, whilst prancing about in goofy ruffled clothes and sprayed with perfume and riding in golden carriages, turned up their noses at the masses, looking down upon them with contempt. No help for the starving. In turn, their hubris turned hungry masses into a machine of mass murder as they roamed the streets in search of some dignity, similar to America’s bereft industrial cities today; loss of dignity turns people into something different, nothing to lose, anger, elect Trump, get really mad, do crazy things. In Paris in the 18th C they killed the rich, with abandon.

Actually, billionaires today have much more to consider other than a French Revolution-style uprising that targets the one-percent (them). There are other factors at work like nuclear war, a killer germ, or climate Armageddon, when every street turns dangerous with gangs trolling for food and gasoline and ammo and rich people.

Solving all of those nasty problems, New Zealand allows émigrés to buy residency via investor visas. As a result, super wealthy Americans have poured a fortune into the country and whenever possible acquire palatial estates. For example, James Cameron of Titanic fame bought a mansion at Lake Pounui.

Sotheby’s claims several well-heeled Americans have bought multimillion-dollar properties in the Queenstown area over the past two years. Maybe these billionaires are privy to information of a pending alert or upcoming disaster. Who knows?

Peter Thiel, the PayPal billionaire and renowned super-super-super libertarian and unapologetic Trumpster love-fester achieved New Zealand citizenship in only 12 days and bought not only his citizenship but a $13.8M estate in Wanaka, a lakeside community.

According to a phone interview with the former PM of New Zealand John Key:

If you’re the sort of person that says I’m going to have an alternative plan when Armageddon strikes, then you would pick the farthest location and the safest environment – and that equals New Zealand if you Google it… It’s known as the last bus stop on the planet before you hit Antarctica. I’ve had a lot of people say to me that they would like to own a property in New Zealand if the world goes to hell in a handbasket.2

Hence, when Armageddon hits, all of the billionaires will huddle together in New Zealand.

That’s real creepy!

  1. Olivia Carville, “Wealthy Americans Have Stepped up Investment in New Zealand. Parliament Votes to Ban Foreigners From Buying Bolt-Hole Homes”, Bloomberg LP, September 5, 2018.
  2. Ibid.

Mission Accomplished: Why Solidarity Boats to Gaza Succeed Despite Failing to Break the Siege

When Mike Treen, the National Director of the ‘Unite Union’ in New Zealand arrived at the airport in the capital, Auckland, on August 1, a group of people were anxiously waiting for him at the terminal with Palestinian flags and flowers. They hugged him, chanted for Palestinian freedom and performed the customary native Haka dance.

For them, Mike, as all of those who set sail aboard the Freedom Flotilla to Gaza last July, were heroes.

But the truth is Mike Treen and his comrades were not the only heroes for braving the sea with the aim of breaking the hermetic Israeli military blockade on the impoverished and isolated Gaza Strip. Without those who were present at the Auckland airport, upon Mike’s arrival, and without the thousands of supporters all across the world who have mobilized as a community – held numerous meetings, raised funds, created a powerful media discourse, and so on – Treen’s attempted trip to Gaza would not have been possible in the first place.

The first boats to successfully break the Gaza siege, in October, 2008 were the ‘Free Gaza’ and the ‘Liberty’. They carried 44 people from 17 countries. The activists wanted to push their countries to acknowledge the illegality of the Israeli blockade on Gaza and to, eventually, challenge the siege.

Their triumphant arrival in Gaza ten years ago, marked a historic moment for the international solidarity movement, a moment, perhaps, unparalleled. Since then, Israel has launched several massive and deadly wars on Gaza. The first war took place merely weeks after the arrival of the first boats, followed by another war in 2012 and, the deadliest of them all, in 2014. The siege grew tighter.

Also, since then, many attempts have been made at breaking the siege. Between 2008 and 2016, 31 boats have sailed to Gaza from many destination, all intercepted, their cargo seized and their passengers mistreated. The most tragic of these incidents was in May 2010 when the Israeli navy attacked the ‘Mavi Marmara’ ship – which sailed alongside other boats – killing 10 activists and wounding many more.

Even then, the stream of solidarity boats continued to arrive, not only unhindered by the fear of Israeli retribution, but also stronger in their resolve. Palestinians consider the killed activists as ‘martyrs’ to be added to their own growing list of martyrs.

However, none of the boats made it to Gaza; so why keep on trying?

Last May, I arrived in New Zealand as part of a book tour that took me to other countries as well. However, in New Zealand, a relatively small Pacific island with a population that does not exceed five million people, the solidarity with Palestine was exceptional.

I asked about the strong Palestine solidarity work in New Zealand, inquiring with the coordinator for ‘Kia Ora Gaza’, Roger Fowler, who, at the time, was busy with final preparations for the Freedom Flotilla.

In New Zealand, he said, “for many years support for the Palestinian struggle lingered, often perceived as being too distant, and falsely portrayed as being ‘too complicated’. But the global outrage at Israel’s murderous attack on the ‘Mavi Marmara’-led humanitarian flotilla to Gaza in 2010 was a major turning-point that changed all that.”

Fowler, himself, along with other New Zealand activists joined the ‘Lifeline to Gaza’ convoy soon after the attack on the ‘Mavi Marmara’, reaching Gaza with three ambulances, packed with badly needed medicine, as the Israeli siege also deprived the Strip of hospital equipment and urgently needed medicine. Coordinating all of this was not a simple task as it also needed to be streamlined with the global efforts for the convoy, which included the dispatching of 140 other ambulances and 300 activists arriving from 30 countries.

“There were many moving scenes as Palestinians learned how far we had come from to offer solidarity – their Israel overlords had told the Palestinians for years that nobody cared about them, which is a big line,” Fowler told me.

I also spoke with Mike Treen upon his return from his Gaza sea journey. Treen is a seasoned activist, who works daily at defending the rights of workers from across the country. He sees his struggle for workers’ rights in New Zealand as part and parcel of his global solidarity outlook as well.

“In my role as part of the union movement in this country, I was also able to explain (to New Zealanders) that innocent working people (in Gaza) are the victims of this siege and that Israel has driven unemployment to over 50% for working people – one of the highest rates in the world,” he told me.

Treen, just like Fowler, understands that the boat solidarity is not merely an issue of providing urgently needed supplies, but as a well-coordinated effort at exposing the evils of the Israeli blockade.

“Unless Israel is directly bombing Gaza, the siege and its hideous human implications simply drop off the radar of public consciousness,” he said.

And this is precisely the real mission of the Gaza flotillas: While Israel wants to normalize the Gaza siege as it is currently normalizing its Occupation and Apartheid regimes, the solidarity movement has created a counter discourse that constantly foils Israeli plans.

In other words, whether the boats arrive on the Gaza coast or are hijacked by the Israeli navy, it makes little difference.

The power and effectiveness of this kind of solidarity goes even beyond Gaza and Palestine. “Our involvement in international solidarity endeavors, such as the Freedom Flotillas has, in turn, sparked a resurgence in other important elements of building the strength of the world-wide movement for justice”, Fowler told me, soon after Treen’s return to New Zealand.

Mike Treen also has his work cut out for him as he is now busy engaging the media and various communities in his own country, sharing his experiences on the boat, which led to his arrest, beating, tasering and deportation.

And like the horrific Apartheid regime in South Africa, the Israeli Apartheid will collapse, too, because Palestinians continue to resist and because millions of people, like Mike and Roger, are standing by their side.

Canada’s Justin Trudeau Promotes “Anglosphere” Spying

While the media has been full of news about information-gathering by Facebook and other Internet giants, other secretive organizations that are a major threat to our personal privacy and public security are seldom mentioned. And when they are, it has most often been because politicians are praising them and offering up more money for them to spy.

For example, Justin Trudeau recently promoted the “Anglosphere’s” intelligence sharing arrangement. Two weeks ago, in a rare move, the PM revealed a meeting with his “Five Eyes” counterparts. After the meeting in London Trudeau labelled the 2,000 employee Communications Security Establishment, Canada’s main contributor to the “Five Eyes” arrangement, “an extraordinary institution”. Last year Trudeau said that “collaboration and co-operation between allies, friends and partners has saved lives and keeps all of our citizens safe.”

The praise comes as the government is seeking to substantially expand CSE’s powers and two months ago put up $500 million to create a federal “cybersecurity” centre. This money is on top of CSE’s $600 million annual budget and a massive new $1.2 billion complex.

Since its creation CSE has been part of the “Five Eyes” intelligence-sharing framework. The main contributors to the accord are the US National Security Agency (NSA), Australian Defence Signals Directorate (DFS), New Zealand’s Government Communications Security Bureau (GCSB), British Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) and CSE. A series of post-World War II accords, beginning with the 1946 UKUSA intelligence agreement, created the “AUS/CAN/NZ/UK/US EYES ONLY” arrangement.

Writing prior to the Internet, author of Target Nation: Canada and the Western Intelligence Network James Littleton notes, “almost the entire globe is monitored by the SIGINT [signals intelligence] agencies of the UKUSA countries.” With major technological advancements in recent decades, the Five Eyes now monitor billions of private communications worldwide.

The Five Eyes accords are ultra-secretive and operate with little oversight. NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden labeled it a “supra-national intelligence organisation that doesn’t answer to the known laws of its own countries.”

In addition to sharing information they’ve intercepted, collected, analysed and decrypted, the five SIGINT agencies exchange technologies and tactics. They also cooperate on targeting and “standardize their terminology, codewords, intercept–handling procedures, and indoctrination oaths, for efficiency as well as security.”

CSE Special Liaison Officers are embedded with Five Eyes counterparts while colleagues from the US, Britain, Australia and New Zealand are inserted in CSE. NSA has had many long-term guest detachments at CSE facilities. An NSA document Snowden released described how the US and Canadian agencies’ “co-operative efforts include the exchange of liaison officers and integrees.”

NSA has trained CSE cryptanalysts and in the 1960s the US agency paid part of the cost of modernizing Canadian communications interception facilities. With CSE lacking capacity, intelligence collected at interception posts set up in Canadian embassies in Cuba, Jamaica, Russia, etc. was often remitted to NSA for deciphering and analysis. In his 1986 book Littleton writes, “much of the SIGINT material collected by Canada is transmitted directly to the U.S. National Security Agency, where it is interpreted, stored, and retained. Much of it is not first processed and analyzed in Canada.”

Five Eyes agencies have helped each other skirt restrictions on spying on their own citizenry. Former Solicitor-General Wayne Easter told the Toronto Star that it was “common” for NSA “to pass on information about Canadians” to CSE. Conversely, former CSE officer Michael Frost says NSA asked the agency to spy on US citizens. In Spyworld: Inside the Canadian and American Intelligence Establishments Frost reveals that on the eve of the 1983 British election Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher asked GCHQ to spy on two cabinet ministers “to find out not what they were saying, but what they were thinking.” Reflecting the two agencies close ties, GCHQ requested CSE’s help on this highly sensitive matter. Frost notes that CSE wasn’t particularly worried about being caught because GCHQ was the agency tasked with protecting Britain from foreign spying.

In the lead-up to the US-British invasion of Iraq NSA asked Canada and the rest of the Five Eyes to spy on UN Security Council members. On January 31, 2003, NSA SIGINT Department Deputy Chief of Staff for regional targets wrote alliance counterparts: “As you’ve likely heard by now, the agency is mounting a surge particularly directed at the UN Security Council (UNSC) members (minus US and GBR [Great Britain] of course) for insights as to how membership is reacting to the ongoing debate RE: Iraq, plans to vote on any related resolutions, what related policies/negotiating positions they may be considering, alliances/dependencies, etc. – the whole gamut of information that could give US policymakers an edge in obtaining results favorable to US goals or to head off surprises.”

While CSE reportedly rejected this NSA request, a number of commentators suggest CSE has shown greater allegiance to its Five Eyes partners than most Canadians would like. Littleton writes, “the agreements may not explicitly say that the United States, through its SIGINT organization, the National Security Agency (NSA) dominates and controls the SIGINT organizations of the other member nations, but that is clearly what the agreements mean.”

An NSA history of the US–Canada SIGINT relationship released by Snowden labelled Canada a “highly valued second party partner”, which offers “resources for advanced collection, processing and analysis, and has opened covert sites at the request of NSA. CSE shares with NSA their unique geographic access to areas unavailable to the US.”

The Five Eyes arrangement has made Canada complicit in belligerent US foreign policy. It’s time for a debate about Canadian participation in the “Anglosphere’s” intelligence sharing agreement.

In Almost all Western Colonies no Alternative Views Allowed

Her name is Cinta, which in Bahasa Indonesia means simply Love.

Cinta in pink shirt

She lives in a tiny village near Sukadana town, in Indonesian West Kalimantan, otherwise known as Borneo – the biggest island in Asia, the second biggest in the world – now totally destroyed by unbridled logging, palm oil plantations and mining, perpetrated by countless, and due to corruption and savage capitalism, unregulated local and multi-national companies.

Nearby Sukadana there is a national park, Gunung Palung. It is vast and by Indonesian standards, well guarded, although even here, at its edges, several desperate local people are beginning to burn the ancient forest, while engaging in various other nature-destroying commercial activities.

I talked to them and soon I understood: they actually have no choice. Nothing is given to them by the state, and they have to live. They have to survive, somehow.

Cinta’s mother

I talked to Cinta’s mother. She has no money, and no mobile phone. She has been to the nearby city only once in her entire life, and it was when a relative of hers got seriously ill. After talking for several minutes, mother begins to cry; desperate, humiliated and helpless.

I asked her whether the family realizes that the political and economic system in her country is thoroughly rotten. She nodded.

I asked whether she knows that in many other countries things are very different. She has no idea. She stared at me, blankly. This remote village was her entire universe. She never heard anything about socialism or communism or even about stuff like social democracy. After the great massacres of the leftists and intellectuals after the Western-orchestrated 1965 coup, even the word ‘Communism’ became illegal, as a prominent Indonesian historian Asvi Marvan Adam told me. Banned also were words like ‘class’, just in case anyone would like to ignite ‘class struggle’.

Cinta’s family thinks, and they say that they know, that Western multi-party ‘democracy’ is a total farce. With dozens of competing political parties (all owned by Indonesian businessmen and right-wingers), local poor people (the great majority of Indonesia’s inhabitants) have absolutely no power, no say in the way their country is being governed.

It is not only in Indonesia, of course, although Indonesia is an extreme, almost grotesque case. I was told several years earlier by a Cambodian peasant near the border with Vietnam:

Vietnamese have only one political party – Communist – but their people participate in governing their nation much more than we, Cambodians do, despite the fact that we have several political parties. When we get sick, we have to cross the border to Vietnam and we get help. When we get hungry, we do the same. You see; you cannot eat political parties, no matter how many of them there are…

The peasant at the Cambodia-Vietnam border knows intimately two totally distinct political systems, because he lived just 500 meters from the borderline. But even in the capital, Phnom Penh, where anti-Communism is something resembling a new religion and has been already converted into the best ‘prerequisite’ for getting a well-paid job at an international NGO or at a foreign embassy, the situation is thoroughly different. There, conveniently, nobody knows anything. The only way is the Western way, with its clichés and pre-fabricated simplistic slogans.

*****

The West is manufacturing simplistic, uniformed and one-sided ‘pseudo reality’ for all of its colonies and client states. It is one-type-fits-all sort of ‘pseudo reality’, intended to sustain collaborators and their regimes and to make the voices of people who are tormented, completely irrelevant. In fact, those who are robbed of everything are not supposed to even realize that they are being bled.

Actually, the majority of people who live in the neo-colonies are fully aware of the fact that they are suffering, but do not understand why. They tend to blame themselves, or each other: for being too lazy, too irresponsible, for producing too many children, or simply for not knowing how to compete or to get ahead.

Moreover in some countries where the propaganda is too extreme (like in Indonesia), many do not even realize, anymore, into what deep shit they have been thrown.

A few years ago, when I was filming the documentary film “Surabaya – Eaten Alive By Capitalism” (for the Latin American network TeleSur), I literally stumbled over a woman who was living in a slum, washing her dishes just a few steps away downstream from a place where a child was naked and defecating into the same polluted waterway. She had no electricity, no clean water, and her ‘house’ was made from rusty metal sheets. I asked her how she felt about being so poor, while just a few steps away rich people were burning money as if there was no tomorrow in a luxury mall. She looked at me for a few moments, then grabbed a broom and chased me down the gangway, screaming like possessed:

How dare you insult me like that? You called me poor? I’m not poor!

A few months later, in the enormous Mathare slum in Nairobi, Kenya, a gangster with the nickname Fire, literally cried in front of my camera:

I’m 32 year old, but I feel so old… I had several friends but they are all dead; I’m the only one who is still alive.

My friend gangster “Fire” Mathare, Nairobi, Kenya

Fire worked with me on a film, as my guide and a bodyguard. I liked him a lot. I trusted him. He was a good man who had made many mistakes in life, but then tried to correct them and find his way out of the terrible trap and vicious cycle of poverty and violence. He was aware of his condition and of the condition of his fellow slum-dwellers. However, living in Kenya, a country which became a neo-colony of the West, as well as some sort of a ‘service station’ for the US, UK, Israeli and other militaries and intelligence agencies, he was never told that there are different political, economic and social systems than the one in which he grew up – a savage capitalism and total subservience to the Empire.

He wanted to ‘make it’, to ‘help his slum’, to change his life and the lives of his neighbors. But he was not aware of the fact that some great and fundamental change could come from a revolution, from a radical change. All his life he was told that the only way forward was some sort of personal ‘improvement’, because the system in which he had been living was essentially right and just.

In that system, of course, the great majority of people are living in misery – they are terribly abused, exploited and unprotected. The violence, terribly low life expectancy and hopelessness are just logical by-products of a brutal neo-colonialist and turbo-capitalist system; they are not the results of shortcomings of a specific group of people or of some individuals.

Fire was very intelligent. I told him then, personally, what I’m writing here now. He understood. He understood well. But when we were parting, he said:

I agree with you, but people here were never told any of these things. Almost nobody comprehends what is going on in our slums. We are only taught how to blame each other. Nobody here would ever blame the UK or the US. We were all told that our misery is fully our own fault.

*****

In Northern Kenya, not that far from the border with war-torn Somalia, I once visited a neat wildlife preservation facility. There were cute orphaned rhinos being taken care of by well-trained staff, as well as other protected but endangered species. The facility was owned and administered by a British family, and there was a very high fee charged at the gate.

After the visit, when I drove out, right outside the gate, which was manned by two robust dudes armed with submachine guns, I spotted two humble crosses. As I drove further down the dirt road, there were more and more crosses on both sides of my car. I stopped at a local deprived grocery store and asked about what I saw. A wrinkled woman explained to me in her broken English:

There is a draught here… a famine… People die while they try to get away; they drop dead… Villagers have no strength to carry them back; they just bury them on the spot.

In Kenya elephants are protected — if only people would be

Protecting animals is often very good business, an excellent commodity. Animals are cute, and they look (and often really are) defenseless. People who are starving are rough, unrefined, and scary-looking. Those who are dying from hunger or disease are far from enchanting. Saving their lives is often not such a good business.

I asked a food seller: “They feed, wash and shrink animals, but not people?”

She had no idea what ‘shrink’ meant, but about the other things she was sure:

We are worth nothing. We are poor.

I asked her whether she was angry, whether she found this system insane, beastly, in short: absolutely repulsive?

Her big hands were rough, carved with deep wrinkles. The wrinkles looked like those dry rivers around Nairobi. Then I saw her eyes and I realized: she was most likely younger than me, perhaps in her early 30’s. She looked 60 or older. She looked like she will most likely not live much longer.

She looked back at me:

Angry? Why? It is all in His hands.

She looked up.

I looked down. ‘That’, I thought ‘is definitely not going help you’. Then I bought five cans of condensed milk that I didn’t need, and some crackers.

I drove away; angry like hell, going 100km/h on narrow dirt tracks, a cloud of dust behind me, rising towards the sky.

Later, my Ugandan friend, a leading left-wing politician Arthur Tewungwa, wrote to me:

The animals roam on land that has fuck all to do with Kenyans, per se. Madness! Lord Aberdare owns 300,000 acres, Cholmondely the same etc. Elephants, rhinos, hippos are pests to poor villagers and they can’t anyway afford to go and see them as they are shuffled across the border by “beaters” depending on which side tourists are. Comedy!

But it is a comedy, which ruins tens of thousands of human lives, while nobody dares to protest.

*****

It is often simply unbelievable, how people who have been robbed of everything, are fooled into believing that in this wide world there are absolutely no alternatives and no better arrangements for society. Or they were taught not to think at all along these lines.

Samoan man – he served in the navy and keeps blaming himself for something

Religions help to keep poor and plundered people in submission, of course, and the West has historically both been implanting and then supporting the most radical forms of religion, in virtually all of its colonies. Not just one sort of religion, but all of them, the more extreme and fundamentalist, the better.

For three full years I lived in the South Pacific, where I wrote a book, I believe the only one of its kind, describing the terrible plight of Micronesia, Melanesia and Polynesia – a part of the world which is being literally liquidated by the various cruel geopolitical and military interests of the US, Australia, New Zealand, UK, France and Taiwan. The book is called Oceania.

There, some island nations including Tuvalu, Kiribati and Marshall Islands, are literally disappearing from the face of the Earth, or more precisely becoming uninhabitable because of climate change and the rising of ocean levels.

People are forced to evacuate their countries. But are they blaming imperialism, unbridled capitalism, and Western selfishness? Far from it! All the newspapers and media outlets are to some extent controlled by the foreigners, through ‘foreign aid’ or through the ‘educating and training’ of local journalists abroad. The education system is dependent on foreign funding as well. Consequently, capitalism is never questioned. Western imperialism is hardly ever mentioned.

The streets of Apia, the capital of Samoa, or of any other capital in Oceania, are no strangers to tall, blond young men wearing white shirts and black name tags that read Jesus Christ. They are ‘ambassadors’; they belong to all sorts of extremist religious movements and fundamentalist Christian sects based in the United States, from Jehovah Witnesses to Mormons.

Churches in Oceania are brutally exploiting most of the poor and helpless citizens. They are literally blackmailing parishioners into paying unreasonably high dues. There is constant fear of sexual abuse and rape on their premises, but there is also the tremendous pressure of local ‘cultures’ to force all islanders into religious straight jackets. There is also absolutely no criticism of these practices from the West. Why? The answer is simple: extremist religious practices keep people in total ignorance and full obedience towards religion itself, towards the feudal family structures, but also towards the economic and political regimes. And all the political regimes of Oceania are corrupted and upheld by the Western powers and lately by Taiwan.

And so, the West (US, UK and France) have been blowing up their nukes in this part of the world, essentially experimenting on people, but there is hardly any ideological challenge that Europe, US and Australia have to face here, perhaps with the certain exception of France in its colonies.

The US shoots long-range missiles from California to the center of the largest atoll in the world – Kwajalein on the Marshall Islands – but no one is taught that it is all an absolute insanity. ‘Kwaj’ proper is off limits to almost all people (it is fully controlled by the US military) who are only allowed to work on the base as manual workers, commuting by filthy ferry from the horrid and overpopulated nearby island of Ebeye. Around 90% of the people on Ebeye are suffering from diabetes, because they are literally forced to eat shit, as the country, like most of Oceania, has become (already some decades ago) a dumping ground for the most unhealthy food produced in the US, Australia and New Zealand.

Ebeye – Pollution from nearby US military base at Kwajaein, Marshall Islands

Both the former Foreign Minister of the Marshall Islands, Tony deBrum, as well as the Paramount Chief Mike Kabua, once told me how outraged they were, but do common people realize what has been and is being done to them?

First the monstrous nuclear experiments and destruction of Bikini Atoll, and now, these bizarre star wars in the middle of the once pristine atolls. And on top of it, the nation is facing global warming and almost inevitable demise. The Compact of Free Association with the United States” (in reality, an agreement which allows the US to colonize, ‘legally’, a great part of Micronesia) is never challenged and very rarely even questioned.

As elsewhere in the colonized world – the rich are profiting, while the poor (great majority) are plundered and destitute. While being looted, the have-nots are smiling or even dancing. They never heard from their TV sets or at school (if they ever went to one) that they are actually the victims. Living in misery is their karma or fate, or punishment for something they committed, by something supernatural. It is a truly great arrangement for the religious leaders, and especially for the Empire. For Washington, London and Paris it is simply: mission accomplished!

*****

For hundreds of millions of girls like Cinta, it means: their lives will never change. It will be the same as the lives of their parents and grandparents, and it will consist of near slavery, of no security, of bad but unbreakable marriages, endless religious rituals and absolute ignorance about the fact that there are many alternatives and countless other ways how lives could be lived.

Not only that the Empire is spreading nihilism to all of its colonies; it is also censoring all people-oriented and revolutionary alternatives.

It is incredible how successful it is! It really is, so far. Only so far… It cannot continue like this, forever.

One day in the not so distant future, girls like Cinta may finally wake up; they will break their shackles and with newly discovered pride and hope, depart to the mountains to fight for their nation. Ciao Bella Ciao style!

How does one give them the impulse? How does one make them see, to realize their condition?

At night, in the city of Ketapang, I could not sleep. I was tossing and turning, thinking about the girl named Cinta. I had to go back before leaving Borneo. I had to talk to her and to her parents: to tell them it was all totally wrong, and that there is another life possible.

I went to a local shopping center. I bought her a green bear and few small gifts in a Japanese store. In the morning, instead of continuing my work in an area that had been destroyed by mining and palm oil plantations, I instructed my driver to go back to Cinta’s village.

But she was gone. Her entire family was gone. A neighbor informed me:

They went to far away fields, to work on a durian plantation. They will not return for several weeks.

I left the green bear in the village. I cursed imperialism and modern day slavery, and then I left.

Once again, the Empire had won. But we are not helpless either. Now my readers, on all continents, will learn about that little girl named Cinta. The stories of enslaved people are the same, all over the world. There are Cintas in Honduras, in Uganda, in Yemen, in Marshall Islands.

Imperialists should know: we are documenting, we are watching, day and night. We are connecting the stories of their victims, on all continents. We are connecting real people. And El Pueblo Unido, jamas sera vencido! ‘United, people will never be defeated!’

Alternative views can be censored, at least for some time. But the ability to dream, the capacity to hope, is eternal. And it is stuff consisting of dreams and hopes that is the most frightening enemy of the tyrants.

*****

• First published in New Eastern Outlook

• All photos by Andre Vltchek

The Veiled Threat: Australia’s Campaign Against New Zealand Refugee Policy

Another twist in the farce over the stained treatment of refugees on Papua New Guinea’s Manus Island has surfaced.  New Zealand has been insisting for some time that it is more than willing to welcome some 150 to its shores. Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, much to the irritation of Australia’s Turnbull government, has been particularly enthusiastic.

Australia has remained resolutely cold to the offer, insisting that such an arrangement would undermine its own blunt approach of discouraging boat arrivals and the industry behind it. For the perplexed on this issue, Australia keeps funding alternative camps on Manus, hoping for the remaining refugees to shut up and slide quietly to other destinations.  A number are being encouraged to go to the United States in a deal US President Donald Trump deems “dumb”.

Now, New Zealand’s angle has shifted, largely prompted by the crisis following the closure of the Manus Island facility at the Lombrom Naval Base.  The PNG government is being asked directly as to whether some arrangement might be reached, thereby avoiding Australian intransigence.

The response from the Australian Immigration Minister was characteristically sinister and appropriate for a former police officer.  With barely veiled menace, Peter Dutton suggested that New Zealand “would have to think about their relationship with Australia and what impact it would have”.  “They’d have to think that through, and we’d have to think that through.”

Dutton’s playground remarks did not stop there. He also rebuked New Zealand’s announcement that aid money would be offered to those on Manus Island and Nauru: “Well, it’s a waste of money in my judgment, I mean, give that money to another environment somewhere, to Indonesia, for example.”  Found wanting, Dutton has taken to lecturing a sovereign state.

Dutton then did what every Australian politician glancing across the Tasman does: suggest that New Zealand was somehow benefiting from Canberra’s punitive approach to boat arrivals.  Not that New Zealand has been ever openly asked about this take of the unwanted sacrifice.

We have stopped vessels on their way across the Torres Strait planning to track their way down the east coast of Australia to New Zealand… We have put many hundreds of millions of dollars into a defence effort to stop those vessels… We do that frankly without any financial assistance from New Zealand… If new boats arrive tomorrow these people aren’t going to Auckland, they’re going to Nauru.

This is a repeated Australian gripe: its small neighbour benefits from having a natural shield to the north; it can afford to be more moral on issues and idealist in its aspirations.  Hard, realistic Australian politicians and policy makers must underwrite this.  They, goes this straw man reasoning, are the ones making the hard, unsavoury decisions.

To beef up Dutton’s claims, Australian papers have been receiving classified material (or so it is claimed) that New Zealand has become a more attractive “target” for people smugglers in recent weeks.  The Queensland based Courier Mail, hardly the high priest of journalistic integrity, has been the grateful recipient of claims that “chatter” on this subject is becoming effusive.

Australian border protection forces have, according to the classified sources, also been busy, intercepting four boats destined for New Zealand, with 164 people on board.  This latter point is notable in flying in the face of the military grade secrecy such interceptions supposedly command.  Operation Sovereign Borders, as it was termed by the previous Abbott government, was a means of stifling the disclosure, and discussion, of any “operational matters” at sea.  Boat arrivals remain mysterious and enigmatic.

The assault on Prime Minister Ardern’s position is assuming tangible form through Australian channels.  A conscious and very public effort from Australian government sources is underway to diminish the humanity of refugees who have, for all intents and purposes, become subjects of mental disturbance.

Damaged and psychologically ruined, they have become the subjects of further demonisation, portrayed as opportunistic, rapacious and venal. Leaks have found their way to The Australian Financial Review, timed to ill-effect, suggesting that a group of Manus Island asylum seekers have been wooing underage girls with sexual intent.

The intelligence cable which was the subject of the leaks outlines advice from PNG from early October making a set of claims.  “In addition to broader allegations of drug taking and dealing (Marijuana), there were overarching community concerns regarding allegations that some residents were engaged in sexual activities with underage girls.” Certain “residents were renting rooms throughout Lorengau and luring underage girls between 10 and 17 years of age, with money, goods, and food.”

These claims, the report concedes, were never investigated.  There were never any formal complaints, and no investigations ensued.  No matter – the report goes on to advance the claims of the local provincial health authority concerned by “increased interaction between the residents and the young girls from a health perspective, saying they had seen an increase in sexually transmitted infections and HIV”.  In a world of innuendo, anything goes.

The report is clearly an effort to square the ledger, neutralising the concerns by asylum seekers and refugees at their general safety in being in the Manus Island community.  Encounters with the local populace have been frowned upon; relations between the men and local females have also triggered the ire of community leaders.  The inevitable thrust of such reports is simple: they deserve it, so why care?

The report avoids the obvious point that Australia’s pseudo-colonisation policy – of relocating refugees of considerably diverse background to the homogenous Manus Island community rather than abiding by the Refugee Convention – is itself the problem.

Ardern is also facing local opposition to her refugee stance.  Bill English of the Nationals insists that this is a “showpiece”, a dangerous moral binge. The Australians need to be acknowledged.  New Zealand, he suggests, ought to take the efforts made by its neighbour to stop boats heading to his country seriously. And so, the wheel turns, the old arguments on power, cynicism and brown nosing, entertain us once more as people suffer.

The Trans-Tasman Spat Show: New Zealand-Australian Tensions

It was an awkward moment for Australia’s foreign minister, Julie Bishop. News had arrived that a New Zealand government had been formed after a lengthy period of deliberation.  (The election took place on September 23.)

Veteran maverick and occasional political suicide Winston Peters of the New Zealand First party had played the familiar role of kingmaker, picking the New Zealand Labour party to form government.  The 37 year old leader, Jacinda Ardern, was evidently too good to fob off.

This placed the Australian government in a prize pickle.  Australian ministers had more or less designated the NZ Labour party persona non grata after questions were asked, in the NZ parliament, about matters of that country’s citizenship.

These queries all seemed provincial and inconsequential, but had potential consequences for Australia’s own deputy prime minister, Barnaby Joyce.  Joyce, it seemed, had been a New Zealand citizen when elected to the Australian parliament, thereby rendering him ineligible to sit.  (The High Court will, in time, rule on that point.)

Ardern had her own description of the events.  “Yes, someone from the ALP put some legal question to [NZ Labour frontbencher Chris Hipkins] around citizenship.  No mention was made of anyone’s name, no rationale for any particular case being pursued was ever raised.”

Bishop proceeded to have a distinctly anti-diplomatic meltdown.  Culprits were needed, scalps sought.  “New Zealand is facing an election.  Should there be a change of government, I would find it very difficult to build trust with those involved in allegations designed to undermine the government of Australia.”  This was particularly so given that “members of a political party […] had been used by the Australian Labor Party to seek to undermine the Australian government.”

Ardern was left puzzled, offering to placate the indignant, glacial Bishop. “I will not let false claims stand in the way of that relationship.”  She would have called the irate Australian foreign minister to chat about matters, but did not have her personal number.

Australian prime minister, Malcolm Turnbull, offered an analysis that was not much better. The issue was less with Ardern than the conduct of the Australian Labor Party, filled with its fifth columnist apparatchiks.  Its leader, Bill Shorten, had been “willing to interfere in the political system of a foreign country.”  Shorten was no less than a conspiratorial thief hoping to, in Turnbull’s words, “steal government” in collusion with “a foreign power”.  Foreign, conspiracy, stealing – all words fashioned from the modern news desk of insurgent politics and cock-eyed fantasy.

It was difficult, then, to reconcile this language of hyperventilating insurgency, subversion and Putin-like destabilisation with the prospect of an Ardern government. Much egg had to be washed from the face.

Turnbull took to Twitter to congratulate the new plotting leader, claiming to look forward to “building on our two nations’ great partnership.”  At a Friday morning press conference, the questions pushed and prodded: How would Bishop cope with this enemy entity across the Tasman? The minister had crept rather gingerly into a more diplomatic shell.  The relationship between the countries was strong.

Much of this will pass, leaving its characteristic bitter residue.  The relationship between these two countries has tended to be a matter of sibling consternation and rhetorical friendship.  New Zealand tends to have been far more realistic than its enormous neighbour, keeping out of militarist games while focusing on being, at points, a good international citizen.

Both countries have also produced their fair share of misplaced, provincial smugness.  Former New Zealand prime minister, Robert Muldoon, famously claimed that his country’s “emigration to Australia raises the IQ in both countries.”

The same prime minister was livid at the unsportsmanlike approach taken by the Australian cricket team in a 1981 one-day international match that still haunts its participants.  After the Australian bowler, Trevor Chappell, was asked by captain and brother Greg to deliver the last delivery as an underarm, Muldoon deemed it “an act of cowardice appropriate to a team playing in yellow.”

A persistent theme, in fact, emerges: the leaders of New Zealand and Australia have often disliked each other. Muldoon had little time for his counterpart in Canberra, Malcolm Fraser.  Australia’s longest serving Labor prime minister, Bob Hawke, could barely stomach David Lange.

Lange, in turn, thought Hawke crude and cloyingly trapped by the language of masculinity. “His language was frequently obscene and he was steeped in the culture of mateship, which for me was never a good starting point.”

Even beyond the point of personalities, Lange’s explicit renunciation of the US nuclear deterrent threatened the ANZUS alliance and drove Hawke, an unabashed fan of the United States, to distraction.

Things become rather touchy with the rejection by the Lange government of a proposed visit by the USS Buchanan in February 1985.  US officials refused to answer queries put to them as to whether the warship had a nuclear capability. “Whatever the truth of its armaments,” asserted Lange, “its arrival in New Zealand would be seen as a surrender by the government.”  US Secretary of State George Schultz retaliated by suspending ANZUS links and security assurances.

An Ardern-Turnbull relationship, to that end, will conform to cosmetics, keep up appearances and utter the necessary platitudes international, and often fictional friendships, thrive on. The rest of the time will be spent diligently ignoring each other.

The Criminal Injustice System: Beyond Platitudes and Bleeding Hearts

Aotearoa (New Zealand) has a lot of serious problems. Neoliberal reforms have been imposed against the will of the people here and it is only our pride and our racially informed sense of kinship with imperial power that keeps us from recognising that we are a neocolony – a privileged neocolony perhaps, but a neocolony nonetheless.

Recent decades have been an affront to our sovereignty and our progressive and socialist history. We were the first country with a 40 hour working week, the first to allow women to vote, the second to have a comprehensive public health system, and the first welfare state. It cuts against the grain, therefore, that in 30 years we have gone from a country with no poverty or unemployment and near the worst income inequality in the OECD (7th worst in 2014). With relatively low wages and one of the highest costs of living in the world, neoliberalism is ripping apart our social fabric. We have a housing crisis that is worse than those hitting the US, UK, Australia and Canada, but it is even more of a shock because 30 years ago the idea of homelessness and of people begging in the streets was simply alien to us.

Make no mistake, neoliberalism has fucked this country, and I do blame the US and the UK along with those traitor scum politicians who serve the empire and not their own people. But in one key respect, neoliberalism was pushing against an open door. Neoliberalism seeks to shrink the social support offered by the state but it also seeks to grow the coercive powers of the state – the police and the prisons. The latter harmonises much more easily with traditional Aotearoan values. We are a punitive people. We are not ruled by fear of malefactors to the extent that the US seems to be, but we still have a strong attraction to “law-and-order”.

Our prison population has traditionally been high, but as incarceration rates have grown in other countries we have kept our place in the leading pack (excluding the US which is in a league of its own). We imprison people at nearly twice the rate of Canada; 45% higher than England and Wales and 30% higher than Australia.

The punitive culture in Aotearoa is partly the product of settler-colonial relations. The nature of colonialism is to obliterate autonomy. In Aotearoa the British achieved this in the same manner in which they did in India. First is the process of dividing the locals, using diplomatic trickery, and co-opting collaborators. The second is military conquest, which is only achievable because of native forces. The third is the realm of police, judges, truancy officers, land surveyors, bureaucrats, and lawyers. It is a telling part of our history that the reputed “last gasp” of the decades-long New Zealand Wars was when a column of 120 armed men was sent to arrest a leader, Hone Toia, who refused to pay a dog tax. The judge who imprisoned Hone Toia made it clear that he was demonstrating the reach and power of the government.

The story thereafter will be familiar to other settler colonial societies, Compulsory schooling became the mechanism for literally beating and torturing the language and culture from Māori children. There was a school-to-borstal pipeline, particularly for Māori boys. This was the beginning of a self-sustaining circle of institutional racism. The result is that even though Māori are only 15% of the total population, they make up more than 50% of the prison population. Even Al Jazeera has made a documentary about the “Locked-Up Warriors” of our country.

However, at the risk of weakening the sense of crisis (which is very real in absolute terms) I feel obliged to point out that in proportion to indigenous populations Aotearoa actually has a lower indigenous incarceration rate than Australia and Canada. Australian aboriginals are the most imprisoned people in the world, ahead of US African-Americans. None of this should detract from the significance of Māori imprisonment here, where indigenous people make up a much larger part of the total population.

The prison is clearly being used as an ongoing tool of colonial control, even if it is only the momentum of the past that keeps it so. Yet I would argue that treating this as a race issue alone will not help. The racism of the system shows that it is an unjust system, but getting rid of the race element will not fix the injustice. We have a massive social problem with Māori incarceration, but if we fix the racism inherent in the system will it really fix a system that is so open to racism? Where would that leave us with regards to class and poverty? In this day and age do we really think we can address a racial disparity if we don’t also address inequality?

Native Affairs

Māori TV is a gift to all Aotearoans because it is our only public service mandated TV broadcaster. They produce some very good television – albeit at the cheap end of the spectrum. Yet I was sceptical of the Native Affairs episode on “Locking Up Māori”. I had the strange feeling that they would acknowledge the role of racism and poverty but then circle back around to the normal mindless position of showing stories of individual prisoners finding redemption with the help of guitar-toting redeemers.

Well, colour me un-fucking-surprised.

Of course, there is something to be said for reminding people that structural and personal racism are real factors behind imprisonment rates. When Marama Fox recently dared to use the term “racism” as a cause of Māori incarceration in The Spinoff’s “Great Debate”, the audience guffawed in incredulity. Clearly some people out there need a bit of educating. Therefore it might seem like a good deed to highlight the structural racism and social drivers that lead to high rate among Māori, but viewers of Native Affairs are probably not the ones that need telling. If you are not familiar with Native Affairs, it is just what it sounds like – a current affairs programme dealing with issues relating to Māori. The name is an ironic reference to the Ministry of Native Affairs – an historic institution of racial paternalism, land theft, and ethnocide.

Marama Fox (Māori Party Co-Leader) was quite expressive in the “Great Debate”

Given their viewership, it is less significant that Native Affairs addressed structural issues, so neglected in the mainstream, than that they took that as a starting point for a narrative that herded people back into alignment with mainstream thinking – like a sheepdog ensuring our wayward brains don’t wander too far from safe pastures.

First they identified the empirically proven drivers of incarceration as being poverty and poor education. Crucially they assert, without the same evidential backing, that “in Aotearoa cultural disconnection is a third factor.” They may or may not be correct in this. As I will discuss later it is not whether the latter is true or not that is at issue, but rather the way in which adding the element of cultural alienation sets up a narrative centred on the individual offender. It is a path back to old habits of thinking; the modern equivalent of the 19th century Samaritan’s self-righteous efforts to save the souls of the benighted sinners who have fallen from the Godly path of lawfulness.

Soon after this introduction the programme also broaches the subject of structural racism in the justice system. Māori are more likely to be stopped by police. Under the same circumstances they are more likely to be charged. If convicted they receive harsher sentences and are more likely to be imprisoned. Cumulatively it is this layered racism that is probably the biggest factor in Māori imprisonment.

So if poverty, under-education, and racism among police and judiciary are the best known significant drivers of Māori imprisonment then a documentary should surely focus on changing social policy, ending structural and personal racism in education, reforming the police and judiciary. The prisoners (referred to constantly in the programme as “these people”) are not the real authors of their fate in this regard. Yet instead of having the intellect and the guts to embrace what the statistics tell us, the participants cleave to facile moralism – depicting the narratives of each prisoner as being driven by transgression and the consequences that follow from it.

The social science shows clearly that focusing on changing prisoners is stupid. It tells us unambiguously that we are not being honest about what acts do or do not deserve punishment and why we expect prisoners to embrace guilt, remorse, and the need to change themselves. People are married to the fictional reductionism of crime stories in books, TV, and cinema. Through constant sensationalism in the news people are made overly fearful of the capacity for violence among convicted criminals, feeling safer if they think that people are being locked away. This is a heuristic error that vastly exaggerates the ability of any prison system to enact what is called “specific incapacitation” by isolating the offenders from society. It also fails to account for the ability of the prison system to engender violence.

Native Affairs should have shown the efforts to reform those in authority, and highlighted where such efforts do not exist. The onus should have been on police, politicians, teachers and judges. We should have seen them struggling to overcome their racism and their moral and intellectual failings. Exemplars should have described their journey of overcoming their unthinking abuse. In the documentary we meet the victim of a cruel self-righteous and almost certainly racist judge. This judge ruined a young man’s life. He caused immense harm and pain. but where was that judge or one like him talking about their journey to redemption – complete with guilt and remorse for destroying futures, for ripping apart social bonds, and for wasting inordinate amounts of taxpayers money?

I am aware that our prejudices are deep. It is easy to see a tattoo-covered ill-spoken prisoner as a wrongdoer, but few people can envision the judge as being a dangerous and vicious parasite, profiting from suffering that they help perpetuate. Yet if you strip away our personal fears and our social prejudices; if you judge the judges on the fruits of their actions rather than their benevolent rhetoric and evinced good intentions, it is authorities such as these that need fixing, not our prison population. So, dear reader, I am going to walk you through some things. I am going to show you that incarceration and criminality are not strongly linked; and I am going to help you learn to fear and loathe the genteel. Regardless of the existence of individual dangerous prisoners, collectively those in prison are the victims of violent injustice, not the other way around.

Lipstick on a Pig

On the surface, The Opportunities Party has an admirably progressive criminal justice policy. They aim to reduce our prison population to half the projected number in 2027. There are two problems with this: arrogance and reductionism. The arrogance comes from presenting evidence already widely understood and proclaiming that other politicians are too stupid to get it. The reductionism is in reducing a complete socio-political problem to a single track of statistics without any sort of critical self-awareness. I don’t want to be unfair to TOP, who do link criminal justice to broader issues of poverty and inequality, but even that is a very narrow way of looking at much more profound questions of guilt and innocence; justice and injustice; transgression and obedience. The weakness of their position is easily demonstrated with a question: if it is so stupid and counterproductive to lock up 10,000 people, why do you want to keep 6000 people in prison?

TOP are trying to solve a “problem” without asking why it arose initially. Why are we so punitive? I have suggested that some of it comes from our colonial past, but it has a contemporary and historical scaffolding that exists independently of that. We blame our populist right-wing politicians fear-mongering at election time and emotive pressure groups like the Sensible Sentencing Trust; we blame talk-back radio and racist muddle-Nu Zillind, but it takes two to tango.

Our politics are not shaped by one side of a political divide, they are shaped by the way our political discourse divides issues into two vested camps and creates a static establishment orthodoxy that serves both.

While Hegel, followed by Marx and Engels, proposed that social forces create a dynamic “dialectic”, it is far more common in our time for “opposing” ideologies to become entwined in mutually sustaining inertia. Arrayed against the self-righteous sadists who demand that convicts must suffer are an equally facile bunch of liberal journalists, left-liberal politicians and NGO do-gooders who (by choice or by constraint) are mainly about looking as saintly as possible without really rocking the boat.

Our problems run much deeper than the attitudes of right-wing people. The rituals that surround our criminal justice system should be a clue that something is wrong. Rationality does not need to don special robes and use dead languages to give itself gravity. The system itself is not a measured and enlightened social institution, it is a quasi-religious instrument of authority. On close examination it maintains a strange irrational pretence of omniscience and still functions as if the court and the judges within it were touched with divine power.

Fixing our criminal justice system will require much more that a white-hatted technocrat Sheriff riding in on his high-horse to tell all us dumbshit yokels how to live our lives. The problem with people like Gareth Morgan is that their disdain for the intellects of others makes them incredibly naïve about social institutions. Just because a given institution purports to serve a given function that does not mean that that is it’s sole function, or main function, or even a real function. Some social institutions do the opposite of their pretended function. To put it another way, Gareth Morgan wants to put “evidence-based” lipstick on a pig that he is too stupid to smell.

Controlling and Punishing Social Inferiors

Our institutions have multiple historical roots but the tendency to echo the past (even when we can see clearly how inhumane and unjust the past was) has to be explained in contemporary terms. We are not so different than our cruel, stupid, superstitious and hypocritical forebears and much that we think of as the cast is actually still as much with us as it has ever been.

To begin with there is the religious and pseudo-religious moral impulse to view matters of criminality as an expression of sin – a form of moral transgression. This comes from the belief that the law is a moral framework and even when it fails to be so obedience to the law is a moral imperative in itself. This is an authoritarian viewpoint that is not actually morally sound. It is an irrational impulse and you do not have to delve too far into history to see that morality and obedience to the law are distinct and may be at complete odds with each other. By consensus we now recognise many laws from different places and times as immoral – for example, race and gender legislation that make chattels of racial groups, wives and daughters; apartheid laws; or the Third Reich’s racial laws.

Then there are the politicians, bureaucrats and social workers who see their jobs as being the imposition of their will on the behaviour of others. At base any attempt to change an individual or group of individuals is an attempt to control those persons through the exercise of one’s own will. This may be both a personal inclination that attracts people into positions of such power and a situational product of our institutions of power. Our society hands people in these situations hammers and instructs them to treat certain individuals as nails. For example, social workers may as a group lobby for social change, but their day-to-day hour-to-hour activity is to try and change individual people however futile that may ultimately be in the bigger picture. By contrast, some politicians have a clear pre-disposed inclination to enjoy exercising power over others. Bill English was recently asked what cause he would take to the streets to march for, and he responded that he would march for the right to govern us. This is just a small glimpse into the state of derangement that veteran senior politicians fall into. They do not see governance as the exercise of shaping institutions in order to allow the will of the people to rule, but rather see governance as creating and using institutions to control and “govern” the people. To them that is what governing is, and they see no contradiction between that and what they refer to as “democracy”.

These contemporary controlling impulses find rich and fertile soil to flourish in our inherited criminal justice system. Centuries of penal reform have changed the sharp brutality of sadistic 18th century barbarism, into the duller grinding inhumanity of today. The criminal justice system that we have today may be the most gleamingly polished turd in human history, but underneath it is still an inherited institution of class warfare (repurposed to serve also as an instrument of racial oppression).

When the historian George Rudé examined early 19th century English “criminal justice” system, he found an institution devoted to perpetuating the social order of class and ethnic division, not an institution of “justice”. This was occurring at a time that saw an increasing conflation of poverty and criminality. The enclosure of common land and the loss of small-holdings, along with agricultural reform and industrialisation, had seen a growth of poverty in England and a breakdown in the medieval “Poor Laws”. Not coincidentally, this era saw the creation of the first professional police force. Many of the lower classes were transported first to North America and then to Australia and there was not a great deal of distinction between committing a criminal act and being criminalised and punished due purely to indigence.

The end of the transportation era saw the rise of a three-part system of prisons, debtor’s prisons, and workhouses. The workhouses were cruel and exploitative. The clear, if irrational, ideological foundation was that the poor must be made to suffer if they were to receive sustenance. The moralism of the era demanded that they redeem themselves through suffering, tinged by Calvinist beliefs that poverty was a sign of sinfulness and God’s disfavour.

Trapped in the “Safety Net”

Social reformers worked to end this inhumanity, and seemingly they succeeded. Yet they did not succeed as well as they might have hoped. Decades after the abolition of workhouses George Orwell lived the “down and out” life in England and what he found was a new form of cruelty and a new way of trapping people in poverty. Those who sought shelter and nourishment were forced to prove that they were not merely lazy scroungers living the high life at the expense of their betters. Thus they were forced to remain imprisoned in locked cells for their shelter and then forced by law to walk many hours to get shelter for another night. Needless to say they could not work and could not have social or family connections. With no way of earning money their attire, and particularly footwear, was appallingly poor for those who had to spend each and every day walking and exposed to the elements:

One could not, in fact, invent a more futile routine than walking from prison to prison, spending perhaps eighteen hours a day in the cell and on the road. There must be at the least several tens of thousands of tramps in England. Each day they expend innumerable foot-pounds of energy – enough to plough thousands of acres, build miles of road, put up dozens of houses – in mere, useless walking. Each day they waste between them possibly ten years of time in staring at cell walls.

It was an expensive and self-defeating exercise. The sadism of it was less newsworthy (or Dickensworthy) than the workhouses, but was it really much better? Things may have improved now, but maybe not as much as people think. In many ways we are slipping back. Poverty and its effects are intensifying and incidents of people trapped in implacable cycles of futility and suffering are on the increase.

We have never gotten over the idea that those who need help can and should be controlled. We think it acceptable that unemployed beneficiaries should be drug tested (and sanctioned for failing) and an overzealous campaign against “contamination” has seen many people lose tenancy in social housing due to traces of methamphetamine being found. Effectively that means that the less fortunate in society have a greater degree of state control in their lives than the more fortunate.

Many people undoubtedly think that it is beneficial for the unfortunate to have the guiding hand of a benevolent state to guard them from their own self-destructive impulses. It is for their own good, after all. In reality that is as much of a self-righteous delusion as the Victorian missionary’s belief in reforming the sinner. There is an increasing recognition that the neoliberal state systematically produces homelessness and that forcing special conditions on recipients of housing or other welfare acts to reproduce the vicious circle enforced on tramps in Orwell’s time.

One response to the structural injustice created by neoliberalism is the movement known as Housing First. Even PM Bill English proudly claims credit for “Housing First” initiatives. Unfortunately English is about as capable of grasping the essence of Housing First as Vlad the Impaler would be capable of grasping Nonviolent Communication. In theory, though not as it is widely practised, Housing First is supposed to provide unconditional tenure. Yet under 3 terms of National Party government, with English as leader or deputy, the government’s own social housing agency has been going in the opposite direction.

Neoliberalism reproduces the trap enforced on Orwell and his down-and-out compatriots, but with a much greater masquerade of benevolence. It actively encourages the underlying cause of social ills through deregulation, austerity, erosion of worker conditions and the devaluation of labour in relation to capital. Neoliberalism helps poverty, precarity and socio-economic exclusion to flourish, encouraging the disease but making a show of treating the symptoms. The long walks and the cold cells of 1930s England are replaced by the equally futile system of grants and supplements, constantly exposing people to a capricious and arbitrary system where they must pointlessly engage in a bureaucratic struggle to gain the money and service required to live in a system that is designed to give minimal support. The basic “safety net” support is insufficient in itself and yet is still contingent on conditions and impositions that can be extremely difficult for destitute people to live up to.

On the Native Affairs programme they revealed that the Howard League works to get inmates their driver’s licenses. This is a crucial and worthy effort, but it is a piecemeal step. The need for a driver’s license is a symptom of poverty, social exclusion and racism in the education system. It is not the only barrier affecting inmates and if they have to keep reaching out for help over each thing the process itself becomes demoralising and debilitating.

We have begun to have real conversations about the reality facing those on benefits today, and with luck that will continue, but for the last 40 years the gravitational pull has been to become ever more and more aligned with the US. By withdrawing support from the most needy due to infringements of a pseudo-moral code of behaviour we risk following the US footsteps of creating a criminalised underclass, a “school-to-prison pipeline” and a racial caste system. In many aspects the US is already in a Dickensian state. For example, Eric Garner, who was killed by NYPD, was a career criminal who lived by breaking the law – he sold loose untaxed cigarettes and lived off the meagre profit margin. He wasn’t selling them at the time of his killing. He wasn’t even on his normal turf and was doing nothing wrong, but a cop recognised him from his own neighbourhood. Garner got angry at being harassed when minding his own business, and the police reacted with brutal and escalating violence that intensified when Garner was struggling for his life.

It feels as if we are not far away from the point where we too will tolerate the life and death of our own Eric Garner, seeing both the “criminal” and the poor person as somehow less human, not worthy of a right to a dignified life and ultimately not even worthy of a guaranteed right to life of any sort. In the NZ Herald Paul Little has recently asked how Dickensian we have become:

Under the so-called three strikes law, Raven Campbell, a prison inmate who pinched a guard on the buttocks – his third offence – was sentenced, as that law required him to be, to the maximum term of seven years jail.

Social housing agency Tamaki Housing issued an eviction notice to the five children of Mabel Pe just weeks after her death. They were given three weeks to vacate the home where they had lived for 10 years.

Housing New Zealand issued an eviction notice to a family of seven, including two blind children, after their grandmother died. [3 of the children also suffer PTSD after losing a mother to cancer and a father to suicide shortly thereafter.]

In the last quarter of 2016, the number of people applying to Work and Income for hardship grants to buy food was 112,000 – an increase of 14 per cent over the equivalent period in the previous year.

Wendy Shoebridge, who was discovered dead in her home the day after she was told she faced charges over benefit fraud, was later found not to have committed any fraud, according to evidence presented at the inquest into her death.

We are seeing the rise of conditions of ever greater social division, a restructure in the relations of capital to labour and a massive upward redistribution of wealth. The transformation is akin to that of the mid-19th century, described by Karl Polanyi as The Great Transformation, and the response of our welfare and criminal justice systems is the same. It is not to ameliorate the conditions of those who are suffering the most under the change, but to preserve the social order. In effect this usually means inflicting greater suffering, hence the rising prison populations and the growing precariousness of those on benefits. If we don’t face up to those facts, how can we hope to make things better with our evidence-based culturally-sensitive “progressive reforms”. Quite apart from the fact that much of the “reform” only seeks to get incarceration rates back to where they were decades ago we cannot hope to effect positive change if we do not face up to the in-built malevolence and injustice in the system.

Crime Rates and Imprisonment Rates are not the Same Thing

To return to Native Affairs: Almost immediately after having established that Māori are imprisoned at rates disproportionate to their offending, without skipping a beat the narrator of “Locking Up Māori” reverts to the mindless conflation of imprisonment and crime rates, almost as if the journalist is incapable of processing the meaning of what is coming out of her own mouth.

The disconnect between crime and punishment is something that we as a society are not dealing with at all. It is far greater than the disparity in offending rates and imprisonment rate between Māori and Pākehā because there is also a massive class dimension that reinforces the racial dimension. Everything about our notions of crime is freighted with class disparity.

To begin with there is a much larger problem of prejudicial enforcement than merely who gets stopped by police more when driving or walking. Whole sectors of society are virtually invisible to law enforcement when it comes to certain sorts of crime. Most notably, bourgeois and wealthy people can reliably get away with committing drug offences. Many politicians have used illegal drugs, but few of those oppose prohibition. They are not volunteering to be punished themselves, but they are happy for others to be punished for doing the same thing they were not punished for.

The system is incorrigibly unequal and unjust. Ironically, many prisoners are victims in childhood or adolescence of serious criminal offences against them. Many, as we now know, were abused while in state care. Repeated offences of sexual abuse and severe physical abuse against vulnerable children in one’s care are amongst the most serious crimes we can imagine, yet those who perpetrated such heinous offences are afforded effective impunity while the victims often end up imprisoned for far less grave crimes.

Our need to see certain infractors punished is shaped far more by our sense of social order and hierarchy than it is by legally defined criminality. Researcher Emily Baxter conducted research for a project she called “We Are All Criminals”. In interviews with people she draws out the crimes they have committed and maybe spared little thought for because they suffered no consequences. She then gets them to reflect on how their lives might have been different had they been apprehended and reflect on the role that class and race play in making the difference between what might have been a youthful adventure for them, but could be the start of a descent into social exclusion for others.

The fact is that we are all criminals. Only a miniscule number of people have not committed crimes that individually or cumulatively could bring about a custodial sentence. If you think you are one of the rare innocents, then you probably need to interrogate you memory more vigorously.

There are also crimes which are hard to detect and prosecute. Nobody disputes that rape is a very serious crime, but the great majority of rapists will never see the inside of a court, let alone a prison. We accept that reality because we cannot change it, yet it is hard to say how it can be just to imprison a minor thief or a cannabis user when rapists walk free far more often than not.

Further still there is the massive disparity in prosecution and even in the legal status of equivalent crimes that corresponds with differences in socio-economic status and power. The most obvious example at the moment is the disparity between those who commit tax evasion and those who commit benefit fraud. Tax evasion costs the government 33 times as much as benefit fraud, but the response is the inverse of what should be rational. Academic Lisa Marriott gives us these points:

  • We investigate a higher rate of welfare recipients than taxpayers. Around 5 percent of welfare recipients are investigated in an average year, compared to around 0.01 percent of taxpayers.

  • We have greater numbers of criminal prosecutions of welfare fraudsters than tax evaders. In a typical year, there are 600–900 prosecutions of welfare fraudsters and 60–80 prosecutions of tax evaders.

  • A higher proportion of prison sentences are given to welfare fraudsters, for a lower level of offending, compared to tax evaders. For an average level of offending of $76,000, 67 percent of welfare fraudsters received a prison sentence. For an average level of offending of $229,000, 18 percent of tax evaders received a prison sentence.

Marriott also compares two cases: “To summarise: welfare fraud of $3.4 million, where all was repaid (and more [$6.7 million was paid]), resulted in 10 years in prison — while white-collar crime of $4.3 million, where none was repaid, resulted in less than two years in prison.”

Another disparity is in the treatment of employers who steal from employees and vice versa. “Theft as a servant” is considered very serious because it is a breach of trust. Stealing from your employees, though, is a different story. I guess the logic is that because employees don’t have a choice to entrust their wages to their employer there is no breach of trust when the employer steals from them. Wage theft is commonplace in Aotearoa yet criminal penalties such as imprisonment, home detention or even community service are unknown. There is a push to impose criminal penalties such as prison on offenders, but not because we treat all other thieves in this manner, but because the offending is now reaching such a level of exploitation that it is linked with enslavement – yes, enslavement, another thing we could not have imagined happening here even ten years ago.

Stealing hundreds of thousands from people poorer than you, who have no choice but to trust you, and whose labour is the source of your own wealth isn’t even treated as criminal. That is how fucked and how biased the system is.

And then there are those who more or less get to decide for themselves what the law is and whether or not they are allowed to steal from others without penalty. Meteria Turei, co-leader of the Green Party, bravely admitted to having lied about having flatmates in order not to lose some of the benefit she received while she was a single mother studying law. This was to raise awareness of poverty and precarity. She was hounded by the media relentlessly and felt compelled to resign just a week and a half after Andrew Little’s resignation (another party leader resigned the next week, by the way, just to keep the journalists on their toes). People asked why Turei had to go for taking a small amount so that she could afford to raise a child, while our wealthy PM Bill English took much more by deception. A “fact-check” assured people that Turei was naughty, because she broke the law, while English did not. Simon Wilson then “sense-checked” the fact-checkers comparing the crimes of Metiria Turei with the perfectly legal acts of PM Bill English who claimed hundreds of thousands of dollars as a member of Parliament in order to cover the cost of living in a place he clearly did not live. Some of Wilson’s conclusions:

  1. Bill English must have known that he and his family did not live in Southland. But the system allowed him to pretend that they did, and he took advantage of that.

  2. He got away with it by arguing that his lawyers had told him it was OK.

  3. When he was found out, the system continued to protect him.

In fact, as Wilson further explains, the legality of the acts was not actually tested strongly: “He denied he had broken the law and the auditor general agreed. She appears to have been particularly persuaded by the fact he had relied on legal advice that his position was tenable.”

But wait, there’s more! Because ultimately the most criminally guilty people in the world don’t just go free, they are rewarded for their crimes. The worst criminal bankers on Wall St and in the City of London are not jailed, they are paid handsomely to retire, to stay on, or to work in government. Corporations can become a law unto themselves, causing thousands of deaths in Third World countries though pollution or using government forces to massacre  those who stand between them and profit. From the days of United Fruit in Guatemala, to Shell’s involvement in the slaughter of people in the Niger Delta. No criminal charges.

Nor are there charges for murders carried out by the CIA, let alone other crimes. The whole existence of the clandestine action arms of agencies such as the CIA is based on lawbreaking. One old pre-digital estimate suggested that the CIA was committing crimes at a rate of 80,000 per day, dwarfing any non-governmental organised crime outfit. With computerised surveillance there is a near unlimited potential for individual crimes to be happening at dizzying speed.

Then there are the mass murderers. Since the death of Stalin, those with the most blood on their hands have mostly been Western political leaders. Johnson, Nixon, Kissinger – even Ford and Carter – Brzezinski, Reagan, Thatcher, Bush(es), Clinton, Blair. It is estimated that 20 million have been killed due to US-led aggression since World War II, frequently with crucial UK participation. They also have high levels of involvement in other acts of mass-murder. They backed the slaughter of 1 million in Indonesia and the subsequent genocide in East Timor. They gave diplomatic cover to the genocide in East Pakistan (now Bangladesh). They trained and backed those carrying out the genocide in Guatemala. Third world dictators cannot even compare in terms of the number of dead they have caused. Yet Henry Kissinger, perhaps the biggest murderer of them all, is a fêted elder statesman, treated like a rock star guru by the political elite. These people are by any reasoned standard more despicable and fearful than the very worst of our prison population.

So, when you see the stats that show that social forces such as racism and poverty are the main causes of imprisonment, do not immediately think, yeah, but people need to be held accountable for their actions. The worst people in the world are not held accountable for their actions. Normal people are not held accountable in the way that those who fall foul of the criminal justice system are. It is a capricious system full of racial and class prejudice and rampant injustice

Argument from Consequences

As mentioned, the Native Affairs programme that fulfilled my low expectations of journalistic endeavour included “cultural disconnection” as an unproven third factor driving Māori incarceration. How much it is true that “cultural disconnection” causes imprisonment is definitely an interesting topic, but in the programme it becomes the central factor – the focus of the programme’s call to action. Without seeming to be aware of what they were doing, the makers of the programme use the topic of “cultural disconnection” to leave poverty and poor education as background factors in a narrative driven by notions of individual reform.

There is certainly something quite powerful in the question by one prisoner who asked why it took coming to prison for him to find out about his own identity. The colonial system literally stole the sense of self from many Māori and it is heartbreaking that it might take imprisonment for some of those to benefit from reconnecting. But now the viewers have been taken back into their comfort zone, the place where no one can see the forest because they are too busy looking at all the trees. Unlike those factors of class and race which allow for the actions of others to be a cause of imprisonment, “cultural disconnection” can only be interpreted as a cause of criminality in the prisoner themselves. The notion leads us back to the belief that it is still their criminal transgression that drives their fate and what we really need to do is to help them to stop being so angry and naughty.

It is as if the journalists are programmed by cliché. They will always find a way back into the comfort of tinkering reformism that maximises the sense of doing good but minimises any real clash with the status quo. In this case, cultural disconnection brings the focus right back to criminal acts by prisoners. It is actually a little bit ridiculous, because as wonderful as it may be for Māori inmates to connect with tikanga Māori, it is not why they are in prison and nor should they be penalised if they do not want to embrace Māoritanga. When you get right down to it, they are suggesting that you can fix a racist system by getting the victims of racism to change, not the racists. There is an obvious parallel here to those who think that the way to prevent rape is for the potential victims to alter their appearance and behaviour.

Yet people seem to find it impossible to let go of the notion that prisoners have personal responsibility for their fate. To be reformed they must go through the ritual of penitence and agree that it is they that must transform. It is true that, apart from those wrongly accused, they must have contributed at least one “wilful” criminal act to find themselves behind bars, but between the disparities in policing and sentencing we can see that in most ways the criminal act is not the greatest factor contributing to the imprisonment.

It is tempting at this point to separate violent from non-violent offenders. Then, in pragmatic terms, we could abolish drug prohibition and end custodial sentences for non-violent crime. That would lower prison populations and instantly curb the worst injustices coming out of the racial biases of the criminal justice system. But as much as I feel that drug prohibition is morally insupportable (and that too is a conversation that needs to be dealt with in full) I also think that blunting the worst excesses of an unjust system still leaves an unjust system.

The fact is that even in committing a criminal act an offender is acting as a product of circumstances beyond their control. People resist understanding this, but it is abundantly clear in the statistics. In violent offending, the unchosen circumstances of birth and upbringing are clear predictors. Growing up exposed to and especially victim to violence does not always mean that a person will become violent, but it is such a strong statistical association that it cannot be ignored. And there are other factors such as sensory deprivation in infancy, exposure to lead and other toxins, traumatic brain injury or other neurological conditions. The more we study the factors that influence behaviour the more we must admit that we are all products of circumstances that we do not control.

It is not just the social sciences that problematise our punitive understanding of criminality. While many philosophers still try to justify the existence of free will, neuroscientists are increasingly able to pinpoint the chemical processes of decision-making. If someone spikes you with a drug it will affect your decision-making. If someone controls the information you receive, it will affect your decision making. If you are abused as a child, it will affect your decision-making. Free will is a delusion. Even our current understanding of physics suggests that the universe is shaped by stochastic (individually random and unpredictable) subatomic events. Because these shape the real world and ultimately affect our lives it is impossible to reconcile the nature of the universe with free will.

Free will was an excusable explanation for a complex phenomenon in the same way that explaining lightning as bolts cast by a god was excusable before the process was properly understood. It makes sense that we would feel that free will exists even without proof, but it is a religious concept not a rational concept. Basing criminal justice decisions of the concept of free will ultimately makes no more sense than treating criminality as demonic possession. Yet the concept of free will underpins our notions of criminal culpability.

We cling on to a model of individual guilt and just punishment because it works so well with our emotions and social conventions. When bad things happen we want a sense of reciprocity and we also want to feel protected from those who might threaten us. On the more sinister side, we also have a tendency to persecute those who are perceived as alien, defective, diseased, or just a burden to our social collective. This is nothing to do with justice. On the contrary, it is one of the ways our evolution has sowed within us conflicts between compassion and brutality; xenophobia and solidarity; inclusion and exclusion.

Our sense of reciprocity, however, is perhaps the greatest impediment to a more enlightened approach because this innate tendency is bolstered and magnified by the narratives in which we constantly immerse our consciousnesses. I refer here to books, film, TV and so forth. In our stories transgressions seldom go unpunished, guilt is seldom in doubt to the reader or viewer, and there is almost always the implication that somehow the punishment ends the narrative arc, tying up the story with a nice little bow. However, this is not just true in fictional narratives, it is also the structure used almost exclusively in news reporting and documentary.

In reality neither safety nor reciprocity can be achieved through the criminal justice system and social exclusion is both undesirable and harmful. Despite this, they are powerful desires and the reason we cling to the idea of free-will is that without free-will we cannot have individual criminal culpability. Without that sense of culpability, we cannot package reciprocity, safety and social exclusion as a function of “justice”.

We cling to the idea of wilful individual responsibility when logic and evidence both tell us it is a delusion. We do not want to deal with the consequences of not having the ability to pronounce guilt because it would deprive us of our ability to see the criminal justice system as having inherently positive outcomes.

Ritual Sacrifice

There is something disturbing about the way we as a society created a sudden and new official Truth once a judge or jury has pronounced guilt. Suddenly doubt is officially banished, facts are certain.

There is a time between the verdict and the sentencing when the convict becomes a species of outlaw. Their penalty and path back to citizenship is undetermined and actions which are not crimes may affect their penalty as much, or more, than the actually criminal act(s). This outlaw status, by some mysterious rationale, becomes retroactive. Everyone has a right to deny charges against them without penalty, but once they are found guilty a magic time machine allows judges to reward “early guilty pleas” because the special powers they have make everything fair (and apparently there is no contradiction at all in discriminating in favour of those who admit guilt because it is not the same as discriminating against those who maintain their innocence).

It is just as problematic that once guilt is established there is an expectation that the convict must now align themselves with the official Truth and make a ritual obeisance before the court by admitting guilt and expressing remorse. This is not a rehabilitative process and it is not a parole hearing, this is part of the sentencing, so it is actually quite difficult to say, in terms of justice, why remorse at the time of sentencing is so important. The practical effect of coercing a show of remorse from a convict is that it forces that person, and often their supporters, to readjust their narrative and to reify the Truth established by the court.

One of the strangest parts of the ritual, from my perspective at least, is the breadth which judges give themselves in rendering judgments. At this point in the proceedings there can be no objections or arguments. It is pure soliloquy. It is quite normal for judges to tell those found guilty what their motives were, what they were thinking, and what they feel currently, as if the judge were some form of omniscient telepath.

As with everything here, I do not have to delve deep into the past to find exemplars. A case I find problematic is that of Gustav Sanft who killed his 2 year-old daughter. At sentencing just a few days ago as I write his wife pleaded: “I know people want to see Gustav punished for this accident, I see it everyday in him that he punishes himself. All I can ask is have mercy on Gustav. Our babies need their daddy at home, that is where he belongs.” The judge, however, decided that Sanft was not experiencing real remorse but rather “self-pity”. He sentenced him to 4 years and 4 months imprisonment.

The judge said: “Your denial you pulled the trigger is something you have latched onto, perhaps to help explain to yourself, and others, the terrible consequences of that morning.” This leaves us with two unpalatable options. One is that the judge, despite feeling at liberty to characterise the mental states of others, is so ignorant that he is unaware of the effect of adrenaline on short-term memory. If Sanft did pull the trigger there is no reason at all to expect that he would remember doing so. The other option is that the judge doesn’t actually care what Sanft believes. Either way, the emphasis on this detail is disturbing. The prosecution did not rely on his having pulled the trigger and the jury’s verdict does not confirm the fact.

If Sanft were more calculating and cold-blooded he might simply have told the judge what he thought the judge wanted to hear. Ultimately he cannot be considered more guilty of the original crime because he refuses to admit to something he may not even remember. I cannot say what sentence might have been given if Sanft had admitted the act, but the judge himself has made it seem that a very important factor in sentencing is submission to the judgment of the court. It is hard not to feel that what is required of Sanft is not completely different to an auto-da-fé – the public penance required and coerced from those condemned by the Inquisition which reinforced to onlookers the righteousness and honesty of the convictions and subsequent punishments.

Michel Foucault opens Disclipline et Punir with the horrifying theatrical spectacle of the public execution by torture of an attempted regicide. Foucault made the case that the theatrics of power did not disappear with penological reform, they just became more regular and less overtly objectionable. In that much, at least, he is correct. Much of this ritualised display is a show of power designed to maintain and reproduce the power that is exercised.

The Disconnect

We understand that the outcomes of our criminal justice system are measurably and demonstrably bad. The individual stories of those caught in the system, though most people are blissfully ignorant of them, can be extremely harrowing. People’s punishment may lead to much greater suffering than the crime they committed. In most cases the family of prisoners suffer despite not having committed a crime, and the cost to the taxpayer is excessive – stealing from the sort of spending that might be genuinely helpful to people.

We acknowledge these harms yet we seem to think that the basic system doesn’t need fixing. It has been more than 250 years since Cesare Beccaria wrote On Crimes and Punishments, and yet in many ways we have not yet lived up to his vision of a humane system in which punishments served rational utilitarian purposes. Perhaps it is an impossibility; punishment and humane rationality may not be not reconcilable.

We need to end the vestiges of noxious feudalism within our court system, but to do that we may have to go further. We need to end the fictions of guilt and innocence and the even more dangerous fiction that we can safely create an absolute Truth and justly act as if doubt does not persist. We need to move beyond our primitive senses of vengeance and reciprocity and recognise that punishment is never just.

We need to abolish prisons. It may be that some people must be specifically prevented from harming others, but in the vast majority of cases we know that imprisoning some people is not a way to prevent harm.

Even in a case of “preventive detention”, which aims at the specific incapacitation of those who are deemed an unavoidable danger to others, we have seen recently that the criminal justice system may enable crime instead of preventing it. In another NZ case that was in the headlines just days ago, a man who had been sentenced to preventive detention after having been convicted of raping (on separate occasions) a woman and a girl was found to have subsequently raped three cellmates. One was repeatedly raped for a week. Another was knocked unconscious and then raped. The man threatened to kill his victims and told them he had nothing to lose because he was a “lifer” due to his preventive detention sentence. In other words the attempt at incapacitation seems to have actually become a factor leading to the violence.

The double-bunking that facilitated these rapes was introduced under Minister Judith Collins who dismissed concerns over rape, then later made a prison rape joke (as did the PM of the time John Key). These details reveal that the most “law and order” minded people are ultimately, if unconsciously, concerned about social order, not justice. The very reason that they are so assured in their “tough on crime” stances is that they have a Manichean view of Us “good” people and Them “bad” people. Such people often commit crimes, quite serious ones, but they don’t consider themselves to be criminals. Criminals are the racial and class Other. The baddies from the cop shows.

Prisons are mechanisms of social control, one of the ways that the neoliberal state is keeping lower class people in their place as the system begins to fail them. You might think that if we get rid of prisons, change the court system, and if we stop singling out some as the officially Guilty, then we will have a sense of broad impunity that will lead to a lawless orgy. It is a challenge, true. Yet we are almost all criminals, and we accept as a matter of course that those who have committed the most heinous acts must continue to live among us. Some, particularly rapists, will never even have to talk to a policeman. Some may be acquitted because of reasonable doubt rather than innocence. Some will have been convicted, but apart from a very small number who die in prison, those people will still be part of society. Prisons can’t change that. They can and do make things worse in a number of ways.

The problems of the criminal justice system, and the politics and power behind the discourse of criminal justice, are absolutely pervasive. I can almost take exemplars from the headlines of any day on which I write on the issue, and indeed I did so. There is no cherry-picking here, this gross injustice is the daily reality of our society and it needs to change.

This has been my idiosyncratic argument for abolition; born of my frustration at the half-arsed bullshit that journalists keep spouting; born of my frustration at all the things never talked about, the assumptions and the complacency. I hope it adds new dimensions, but I should also point out to readers that there are far more developed views out there. Abolitionism has a very long history with many renowned proponents such as Emma Goldman, Nils Christie, Ruth Morris and Angela Davis. I urge readers to engage with the prison abolition movement, including People Against Prisons Aotearoa. The costs of not abolishing prisons are growing.

Memories of Futility: The Passchendaele Method of War

So fruitless in its results, so depressing in its direction was the 1917 offensive, that ‘Passchendaele’ has come to be synonym for military failure, a name black-bordered in the records of the British Army.

— Basil Liddell Hart, 1934

Rarely does one word trap an image with such nerve tingling fright and awe.  But as an image of slaughter, of men needlessly butchered, lives surrendered over absentee stone hearted generals with an understanding of war lost in the amnesia of small arms fire, spears and straw dress, one suffices.  Passchendaele became the code for blood needlessly spilt; for decisions that should have, in any other context, demanded the trial and execution of its initiators.

A century ago, wave upon wave of men were shredded, pulverised and drowned according to misplaced notions, killed by obsolete ideas in what was the Third Battle of Ypres.  The Americans had yet to arrive to make a difference in the conflict, while a bleeding Russia had been vanquished, facing revolution.  The French, preoccupied with mutinies, needed a fortifying distraction.

Britain and its imperial forces were intent on providing one, with Sir Field Marshal Sir Douglas Haig convinced that the German line would collapse with one last but all-comprehensive strategic thrust.

The battle had been preceded by what came to be considered the largest man-made explosion in pre-atomic times, featuring 19 tunnelled mines beneath German lines on Messines Ridge.  E.S. Turner goes so far as to claim that British prime minister Lloyd George, it had been rumoured, wanted to be woken up at 3 in the morning that June night.

The initial enthusiasm, as with so much in the Great War (1914-1918), was misplaced.  “I died in hell,” recalled war poet Siegfried Sassoon. “They call it Passchendaele.” As the blood drained in conditions so swampy as to render the trenches almost aquatic (many soldiers drowned in shell holes); as the ammunition and shells were expended, humanity’s great skill of killing for reasons of futility became apparent.

It was a futility that kept the awards machine busy. Lasting three months and a gain for the Allies of a mere five miles, the Victoria Cross, deemed the highest of Commonwealth military honours, was awarded 61 times.  Haig had lost a sixth of the British army.  As historians Robin Prior and Trevor Wilson note in Passchendaele: The Untold Story (1996) a psychological breakdown also took place during the battle, marked by desertion and drunkenness.

The accounts have been saturating the commemorations across several countries whose soldiers perished in the muddied industrial abattoir.  In Christchurch, New Zealand, an opening exhibition titled “The Belgians have not forgotten” shined a grim light upon a conflict which cost the combating sides over half-a-million casualties. For this sliver of a country, some 2800 troops were killed, wounded, or went missing within a matter of two hours.

New Zealand’s fraternal neighbour, Australia, is also busy on the commemoration circuit.  It had committed its fair, grotesque bounty of blood to the battle. By the time the battle ended on November 10, Australia’s five committed divisions had suffered 38,000 casualties, including 12,000 killed.

In London’s Trafalgar Square before the National Gallery, a mud soldier, the creation of Dutch artist Damian Van Der Velden, was erected, to be left in gradual dissolution before rain. The statue itself was compacted from the historically churned Passchendaele mud.

These exhibitions and ceremonial points all serve a similar purpose. For Dave Adamson of the Waimakariri Passchendaele Trust, it was the promotion of “peace and understanding”. But the peace and understanding such efforts have are less to the members of the public than those who would bag and hoodwink it. For them, war remains a good, even necessary thing.

Harry Patch, the supercentearian “last Tommy” who died at the venerable age of 111 in 2009, put the case flawlessly: “I felt then, as I feel now, that the politicians who took us to war should have been given the guns and told to settle the differences themselves, instead of organising nothing better than legalized mass murder.”

The end point of such futility is that humankind hugs the death god with all too much enthusiasm. Gone are the trench filled nightmares of industrial slaughter. Now, conflicts are undeclared, open-ended, described as forensic horrors marked by surgical strikes.

To live life, to be loved, and then, to be surrendered to an insidious Thanatic drive all too often willed on by others.  “We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,” goes John McCrae’s haunting words, “Loved and were loved and now we lie/in Flanders fields.”

Even more important are the words that follow: that the dead shall be, as it were, trapped in an interminable state of restless, mournful sleeplessness, a nocturnal nightmare should faith be broken with the sacrifice of the fallen: “We shall not sleep, though poppies grow/In Flanders field.”  If faith is there to be broken, is it not in the ties between humankind so much as its sanguinary leaders who keep insisting that slaughter and an inventory of dead are necessary for matters of state.

The Extradition Saga of Kim Dotcom

The hunger with which US officials pursue copyright or general intellectual property violations is insatiably manic. The degree of that hunger is expressed by the now suspended, and most likely defunct Trans-Pacific Partnership, an attempt to further globalise the policing of IP laws in favour of corporate and copyright control.

Then come the vigilantes and those singing different, discordant tunes suggesting another alternative. One such figure was Kim Dotcom, founder of Megaupload and on the US Department of Justice wanted list for some years, along with company co-founders Mathias Ortmann, Bram van der Kolk and Finn Batato.

His case is doing the torturous rounds in New Zealand, where the German-born defendant remains based, still seeing whether he can elude US authorities on the subject of inventive alleged violations.  It has become one of the largest criminal copyright cases in history, beginning after Dotcom’s dramatic arrest in 2012 at his New Zealand mansion at the hands of dozens of agents, both NZ and US, along with two helicopters.

The New Zealand court decided at the start of this week that the 2015 decision of the lower court favouring the extradition of Kim Dotcom and his co-defendants be upheld.  Justice Murray Gilbert of the High Court seemed rather tricky with his reasoning.  For one, he admitted “that online communication of copyright protected works to the public is not a criminal offence in New Zealand under s. 131 of the Copyright Act.”

Dotcom and his legal team would have felt rather thrilled with that. The prosecution plank had collapsed.  Case closed.  Except, of course, that it hadn’t.  Justice Gilbert proceeded to assume a mighty pulpit and preach despite the absence of a NZ copyright offence in this case.

Much of this lay in the prosecutorial effort to expand the range of offences, a tactic the Dotcom team termed “massaging”.  In widening the net, acts amounting to internet piracy were suggested, including racketeering, money laundering, to name but a few charges additional to the issue of copyright infringement.  Many coalesced around the issue of conspiracy, a favourite, catch-all provision US prosecutors have loved to employ.

The Crimes Act, in other words, had loomed into judicial consideration with its full force, its “general criminal law fraud provisions” doing their bit to undermine the case of the appellants, despite Dotcom’s assertion that this was purely a copyright matter.  Read along with s. 101B of the Extradition Act itself, the judge agreed “that the appellants are eligible for extradition on all counts for which their surrender is sought.”

That wilful infringement supposedly committed by Dotcom did something devastating to the copyright holder: deprive it “of something to which it may be entitled.”  (The amount alleged is staggering: $500 million worth.  Dotcom is alleged to have netted $175 million in criminal proceeds.)  It followed that the alleged conduct on count 2 constituted “the offence of conspiracy to defraud in terms of art II.16.”

Article II, paragraph 16 of the extradition treaty between the US and NZ outlines the grounds for extradition:

Obtaining property, money or valuable securities by false pretences or by conspiracy to defraud the public or any person by deceit or falsehood or other fraudulent means, whether such deceit or falsehood or any fraudulent means would or would not amount to a false pretense.

Digital activists have a brat element to them, an impetuousness that follows the crooked over the straight. They are often necessary boons excavating to find deficiencies in existing systems, rather than spotty criminals to be potted.

In Dotcom’s case, a cloud storage provider is being prosecuted, an aspect that has grave implications in the broader internet domain.  For one, it suggests a self-policing dimension to the operations of such an enterprise. Dotcom’s claims there, rather reasonably, are that policing the behaviour of 50 million daily users of a site is hardly credible, though efforts were made to detect copyright infringements. For all that, the US DOJ would still claim that there was a mere “veneer of legality” to such operations.

As Dotcom’s barrister, Ron Mansfield, said after Justice Gilbert had down his judgment, “The High Court has accepted that Parliament made a clear and deliberate decision not to criminalise this type of alleged conduct by internet service providers, making them not responsible for the acts of their users.”

Dotcom’s legal counsel, Ira Rothken, put it such last year: “The second you put a cloud storage site on the Internet, whether it’s Google or Megaupload, there’s going to be good users and bad users.  There’s going to be folks who are going to infringe, there are going to be folks who are saving wedding photos and using that for fair use.”

But the legal assessment of Dotcom’s case suggests that prosecuting authorities will be favoured, and that powerful corporate demands expressed through state intermediaries and lobbies, will continue to have their day. Any effort to battle this case out in a US setting is most likely, as Rothken asserts, going to take place on an “unfair playing ground“. Next stop: the NZ Court of Appeal.