I spoke with archivist & author Jared Davidson on “History from Below” in Aotearoa (“New Zealand”) and what abolition & decolonialism has looked like in the country.
Read our conversation below!
Asia Art Tours: As a young man, how did schools encourage or discourage you asking questions about Settler Colonialism & State violence within Aotearoa? And is the “New Zealand” curriculum ‘structurally discouraging’ for students interested in these topics?
Jared Davidson: History was a subject I never studied at school, let alone things like anarchism or settler colonialism! I began to discover radical ideas and history through music, art and books that explained my working experience. Working at supermarkets, working night shifts on assembly lines, working in retail – it was bands like Rage Against the Machine and later hardcore punk that led me to theories that made sense of alienation, of exploitation.
Yet even if I had studied history at high school, things like the Russian Revolution or the American civil rights movement might be taught if you were lucky enough to get an interested teacher. And the way these struggles were taught took the state and capital for granted, relegating them to a safe past. The same can be said of colonisation – the illegitimacy of the settler state in Aotearoa was/is never questioned at school (at least that’s my experience – but I’m not alone).
It was only as I got involved in the anarchist movement that I started to think about the histories of these movements. And still I looked overseas for examples, rather than at home. I had no idea Aotearoa had a vibrant and militant anarcho-syndicalist tradition. It was a complete shock to learn that we had branches of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) here, that a revolutionary workers movement brought the country to its knees in 1913, that anarchists like Philip Josephs existed. It’s a telling example of how capitalism and class struggle was completely absent in my education, as were important histories like the New Zealand Wars.
We’re now on the cusp of major changes in the education system. For the first time, the teaching of Aotearoa history will be compulsory in schools. Which has prompted a whole range of questions. What history will be taught? Whose histories matter? What narratives will be silenced or sidelined? While I’m excited that kids might finally begin to learn about our history and gain tools that might influence the present – histories of colonisation that help make sense of place and positionality, especially as Pākehā – I’m not convinced that a state education system is anything but the reproduction of ways of being that normalise capitalist patriarchy and a world premised on wage labour.
And while there’s been a lot of talk about what will be studied, there is less talk about why. Knowing the past is one thing – putting that knowledge to work for liberatory ends is another. I’m interested in a different set of questions. What is this knowledge in service of? Who does it benefit? And how does it challenge capital accumulation and the settler nation-state?
Knowing the past is one thing – putting that knowledge to work for liberatory ends is another. I’m interested in a different set of questions. What is this knowledge in service of? Who does it benefit? And how does it challenge capital accumulation and the settler nation-state?
The Death of Von Tempsky at Te Ngutu o Te Manu, a portrayal of an incident in the New Zealand wars on 7 September 1868. PHOTO CREDIT: Wikipedia
Asia Art Tours: In Sewing Freedom: Philip Josephs, Transnationalism & Early New Zealand Anarchism you write:
“Anarchism was a transnational movement—built upon global economic integration and both formal and informal networks crossing national lines. When framed within geographical limits, anarchism in New Zealand certainly appears submerged in a sea of ‘pink’ socialism, even insignificant.
Yet a transnational lens allows New Zealand anarchists to be viewed as part of a wider, international movement, spurred on by transoceanic migration, doctrinal diffusion, financial flows, transmission of information and symbolic practices, and acts of solidarity. The role of New Zealand anarchism, both in the New Zealand labour movement and its own international movement, increases in scope when placed in such a context.”
Did you come to see Maori & Pasifika ideas both influence and clash with Anglo or European theories of Anarchy? And did these different tendencies cohere into a localized “Aotearoa Anarchism”, or one that remains transnational?
Jared Davidson: The period of anarchism I looked at in Sewing Freedom was the 1920s and earlier. At that time there was very little engagement by anarchists and the syndicalist movement with Māori struggles for land and life. Of course, there were individuals sympathetic to Māori, and the IWW even published articles in te reo Māori (the Māori language) in 1912/1913 that called on strike breakers to refuse being tools of the employing class. But I didn’t come across any serious attempts at solidarity between the Pākeha radical left and Māori movements for tino rangatiratanga (a Māori term for absolute sovereignty), treaty rights and the like. Even though Māori workers such as shearers were active in the early union movement, and even though anarchists like Philip Josephs distributed internationalist literature – including Chinese-language anarchist pamphlets.
I get the sense that it wasn’t until a later period that anarchists and the extra-parliamentary left more broadly began to take tino rangatiratanga and Te Tiriti o Waitangi (the Māori-language document that promised sovereignty and chiefly authority would remain with Māori) seriously, and with much difficulty. Māori struggle for self-determination was generally subsumed to the class struggle. Māori were expected to collapse their wants and needs into the universal (read: white male) workers movement. This happened amongst communists as much as other left-leaning groups and trade unions. Cybele Locke in her book Workers in the Margins documents the struggle of Māori and Pasifika workers to be heard across the movement post-WWII, including the unemployed workers movement.
Speaking for myself and my own experience, the anarchist movement of the 2000s that I was a part of was plagued by fraught and difficult debates about tino rangatiratanga and class struggle – including outright white supremacy. Western traditions of anarchism, especially its stance on religion, set us up for complete misunderstandings of tikanga (Māori law) and modes of life that were culturally-specific to Aotearoa. I include myself in this. I’m still learning what it means to be an anarchist and tangata Tiriti in Aotearoa.
But I take inspiration from local groups such as Kotare Research and Education for Social Change, Asians Supporting Tino Rangatiratanga, People Against Prisons Aotearoa and Matike Mai Aotearoa, as well as thinkers here and abroad in settler colonies that link the struggle against capitalist patriarchy to the struggle for indigenous self-determination – people like Kim McBreen, Moana Jackson, Tina Ngata, Emalani Case, J. Kēhaulani Kauanui, Adam Lewis, Glen Coulthard and others.
I didn’t come across any serious attempts at solidarity between the Pākeha radical left and Māori movements for tino rangatiratanga (a Māori term for absolute sovereignty), treaty rights and the like. . . Māori struggle for self-determination was generally subsumed to the class struggle. Māori were expected to collapse their wants and needs into the universal (read: white male) workers movement.
Te Tiriti o Waitangi / The Treaty of Waitangi is a group of nine documents between the British Crown, Māori iwi and hapū. Debates between Pākehā settlers & indigenous Māori on the document’s intentions still shape Aotearoa’s politics today. PHOTO CREDIT: Wikipedia.
Asia Art Tours: From researching figures like Phillip Josephs, and publications like the Maoriland Worker, what insights did you gain on the importance of archiving, and why so much of Aotearoa’s revolutionary history has become lost or untraceable?
Jared Davidson:It is a cliché to say that history is written by the victors, but it is true. While some revolutionaries were very good at maintaining and retaining archives, most groups and movement were deeply committed to change in their present – keeping stuff for the future wasn’t a priority. Couple that with the active suppression of radicalism by capital and the state, and it’s not hard to see why records of the anarchist and syndicalist tradition in Aotearoa survives in fragments, in police files, in whispers.
For example, my first book uncovered the local history of IWW singer and organiser Joe Hill, whose ashes were sent around the world after his murder by the state of Utah, including to Aotearoa. Censorship files in the government archive allowed me to piece together what happened to them and documented the state’s attack on the local IWW. This involved reading state files against the archival grain. As well as the importance of controlling and preserving our own stories of struggle, subverting the state’s recordkeeping can also be a way of recovering silenced pasts.
It is a cliché to say that history is written by the victors, but it is true. While some revolutionaries were very good at maintaining and retaining archives, most groups and movement were deeply committed to change in their present – keeping stuff for the future wasn’t a priority.
A cartoon by legendary IWW activist, singer & satirist Joe Hill. PHOTO CREDIT: CartooningCapitalism.
Asia Art Tours: You’ve also written extensively about prison labour. This quote comes from, The House John Doe Built: The Hidden History of Prison Labour in New Zealand:
Enclosure is the ongoing process of divorcing people from their relationship with the land, from the commons, and from independent means of sustaining life. Enclosing bodies between prison walls is the ultimate expression of that process.
Enclosure and the violence of forced labour permeates the streets we walk every day and the public spaces we take for granted. It is a violence inseparable from colonisation and the dispossession that makes prisons and prison labour in New Zealand possible. For prisons were a Pākehā institution brought to these shores from without. And the use of unfree prison labour was there from the beginning.
Could you explain why this history of prison labour is so essential to understanding “new zealand” ? How are prisons a uniquely (ruling class) pākehā philosophy?
Jared Davidson: I used to think that prison abolition was a sideline thing – a demand within a larger anarchist movement, sure, but not a key demand. It’s taken me a while to understand just how important the enclosure, policing and punishment of bodies is to the reproduction of capital and gendered divisions of labour. Unfree prison labour and the extra-economic violence of the state is not peripheral but core to capitalism.
Historically and into the recent past, prison labour not only targeted ‘idleness’ and conditioned people to accept their place within a world of waged labour, it also shaped the extra-human environments needed for capital accumulation and settler societies to flourish. Indeed, so much of Aotearoa’s colonial infrastructure was built upon the backs of prisoners, including highways, harbours and even our parliament buildings. New Zealand likes to position itself as egalitarianism and somehow exceptional, but prison labour shows how unfreedom was a major part of our past.
It’s this work and the relationship between colonisation, capital and the state that I’m exploring in my current book, Blood and Dirt: Prison Labour and the Making of New Zealand, which builds on that article I wrote for Overland. As I write elsewhere, capitalism has succeeded at portraying itself as natural. It has also normalised prisons. Because of this, the work of prisoners has been taken for granted in most big-picture accounts of New Zealand history and treated as unimportant.
Yet whether we view them as a geographic solution to colonisation or surplus population, a mobilising force or a disciplinary tool, it is clear prisons as social relations are crucial to the making and remaking of capitalism. And they are firmly rooted in the origins of agrarian capitalism and dispossession. The genealogy of capitalism and the genealogy of the prison in England are the same. Both were deeply concerned with the social danger posed by the labouring poor to the insecurity of private property – including women who transgressed gendered divisions of labour. As these same concerns arrived in Aotearoa and the wider Pacific from England, prisons fulfilled colonisation’s quest to bring unruly bodies and the land itself to order. They are still at work to this day.
Historically and into the recent past, prison labour not only targeted ‘idleness’ and conditioned people to accept their place within a world of waged labour, it also shaped the extra-human environments needed for capital accumulation and settler societies to flourish. Indeed, so much of Aotearoa’s colonial infrastructure was built upon the backs of prisoners, including highways, harbours and even our parliament buildings
Asia Art Tours: To end our discussion, how can international solidarity be built for Aotearoa’s abolitionist & decolonial politics? And does the “left” in Aotearoa need international support, recognition or collaboration in the first place?
Jared Davidson:To borrow the words of Adam Lewis, what does autonomy on stolen land look like? How do we as Pākehā fight in ways that doesn’t reinforce colonisation and the appropriation of indigenous land and lives? How do we bypass unhelpful binaries like class/identity, oppression/exploitation, activism/everyday life and turn difference into strength – without flattening our multiple lived realities under capital into a one-size-fits-all struggle? I think fellow anarchists and abolitionists across the world have a lot to offer each other, if we remain attuned to the specific local and cultural contexts in which we live.
Something that’s stuck with me over the years is the idea of ‘the circulation of struggles’. This builds on the idea that we can fight where we are, as diverse as we are, and still support, circulate and grow each other’s struggles. The point is to find strength across difference, and not despite of it. In many ways it draws from older anarchist ideas of federation, mutual aid and affinity groups. But it is useful because it collapses the age-old question of form and content. As Harry Cleaver suggests, rather than asking, “How can we build our organisation?” we might instead ask: “How can we link up with others so that our efforts are mutually reinforcing?” I think this is super important. And I think anarchism still offers us ways to approach such questions.
Something that’s stuck with me over the years is the idea of ‘the circulation of struggles’. This builds on the idea that we can fight where we are, as diverse as we are, and still support, circulate and grow each other’s struggles
For more on Jared Davidson and his work, please visit: jared-davidson.com/