Auckland at the crossroads

Cities are the only way to square the circle between humanity's demand for equality and a decent standard of living in a sustainable planet. The substitute for ever going intensified private or individual consumption is the public luxury of the city. – Mike Davis

If Auckland had a dress size it would be 4-10-20. As in, ranked 4th best city for quality of life; and 10th and 20th most liveable city according to the Economist and Monocle respectively. Not bad for that last, loveliest loneliest citadel in the antipodes.

If Len Brown and his centre-left council win the future with their Auckland Plan, a kaleidoscopic vision of Auckland in 2041 then the city of a thousand lovers will climb ever higher in those rankings.

From the preview the Herald’s element magazine, the vision expressed in the Auckland Plan is to be boldly co-operative, jarringly public, social and sustainable. More light rail, pedestrian boulevards, dockside pools, urban villages, green roofs on commercial buildings, a cycle and walking link on the harbour bridge, tree corridors linking parks, the exile of the car and a 40% decrease in greenhouse gas emissions on 1990 levels by 2041.

The language of Auckland Unleashed: The Auckland Plan discussion document appears to put people before profits. Better participation in early childhood education, affordable rents, safer communities are all vaguely promised. The influence of centre-leftists Mike Lee and Cathy Casey is clearly visible. The metropolitan conversation will continue on September 20 when the Plan is released to the public for consultation. The animating spirit of the new Auckland Council, to make New Zealand the ‘world’s most liveable city’ is progressive and populist. Whether you’re a forklift driver in Papatoetoe or a network engineer from Takapuna the city will be for you. The city will even reduce the carbon footprint and set a global example. Aspirational goals that may just enrich the partnership between city hall and the rest of us.

Mike Davis, urban geographer, historian and apocalyptic Marxist, has spent much of the last decade deciphering the social, environmental and economic flows that transform the urban. In an interview with some London anarchists he said, “In essence, the city is the economy of scale: it produces the most sufficient relationship between humans and nature. It produces a public or social wealth comprising not only a substitute for private consumption or private wealth, but is also the basis for needs that cannot exist or be fulfilled under capitalism.” If Len and his team can produce utopia anywhere, it will be in Auckland.

But a stubborn public transport advocate battling a right-wing government for adequate funding is a story Auckland has heard before. Dove “Robbie” Myer-Robinson in his day kept the vision of a sustainable city alive- dreaming of electric rail and bringing in hyper-modern sewage systems. Before him, in 1946, the Ministry of Works published plans for electric railways, large-scale public housing and interdependent commercial hubs through the Auckland region. But as Chris Trotter points out in No Left Turn,
 ‘As [Frankfurt school theorist Erich] Fromm had foreseen, what people had built inside their skulls inevitably came to shape what they built outside them. And what they constructed in New Zealand’s largest city was an urban environment geared to the satisfaction not of collective needs, but of individual wants. Creeping to work along gridlocked roads in their precious automobiles, Aucklanders bear unwitting testimony to the Right’s 60-year triumph over the plans of the Left. The dream of Auckland-as-it –might-have-been overwhelmed by the deformation Auckland-as-it-is inflicts every day upon the human spirit.’
The failure in the twentieth century to create a socialist paradise in Auckland is not reducible to the outmanoeuvring of the left in council or national politics. The question of control of the city is inseparable from the fundamental question of control of the means of production. As Mike Davis puts it; ‘There is absolutely no reformist government anywhere in the world that can deal with the serious and major issues of urban inequality, because it will not take on property values, land inflation etc. Until you start talking about confiscating the incriminating land value or socialising land or systems of limited equity in land, you cannot control the city, you cannot achieve any real equality in it.’

In 1984, with unemployment high, rioting broke out on Queen Street.

The fundamental struggle over the city is not between council and developer, between Town Hall and the Beehive but between two great classes struggling for power in the city of sails. The working class of Auckland and the ruling class daily wage a fierce battle that has existed since settlement. 1890, 1913, 1951, 1984, 1991 – all years when class war burst out of the workplace and into the community and the contours of power relations in the epoch to come decided in decisive and often violent battles. Low intensity warfare has taken place over control over Auckland’s resources for much of the last two decades. Ownership of the ports secured by radio talkback-led activism. Water rights defended with reconnection. Privatisation of state housing resisted through occupations. Bulk funding of schools sabotaged by wildcat strikes. Mining of Great Barrier Island derailed by mega-marches. Industrial disputes in Auckland are often confrontational, sometimes violent. This is the city where the builders union was bankrupted by a civil liberty case against an official calling a scab a scab. Where the drivers’ union secretary was jailed in Mt. Eden prison for heeding a call from the Waiheke ferry workers for solidarity action.

Class tension in volcano city never ceases. The rich and powerful will greatly resent the utopian aspirations of the Auckland Plan, especially that provision calling for more council housing. This is always the first mistake of reformists. To believe that they can gradually create an accomodation between social values and the capitalist economics. That they can ameliorate the worst elements of capitalism away without a struggle. As David Harvey sums up his latest book, The Enigma of Capital, “Capitalism will never fall on its own. It will have to be pushed. The accumulation of capital will never cease. It will have to be stopped. The capitalist class will never willingly surrender its power. It will have to be dispossessed.”

The utopian aspirations of the Auckland Plan, are built on the sinking sands of a city where the rich are getting richer and the poor are getting screwed. The city’s unemployment rate is 7.6%. Green MP Catherine Delahunty asked a forum of unionists how long it would be under a National Government before Oxfam ran campaigns in areas such as South Auckland and Northland asking donors to "adopt a child"? Auckland City Mission food parcel numbers have nearly doubled in the last three years. A city where TV reports children in South Auckland were arriving at school needing to have a nap in the sick bay because it was too cold to sleep at home. University researchers report that rheumatic fever is on the rise because of overcrowding and poor access to healthcare.

Secondly the Auckland Council fails to realise that turbo-capitalism and planet earth are mutually exclusive in three ways.
Number one, capitalism is based on constant expansion--whatever it's producing today has to be exceeded tomorrow. The inner logic of competition and profit-driven growth dictates that if any part of the world economy is not growing at 2 to 3 percent a year, what happens? Well, we are seeing it today.

The whole economy goes into a spiral of layoffs, unemployment and cuts to social services. So built into the way the system operates is this expansion, which means that energy use, waste streams and material inputs all have to keep increasing too.

Then the fact that it is based on profit means that they don't just make things that we might need. They make things based on what will make the most amount of money in the shortest amount of time. So that means we get all kinds of useless crap produced that we don't really need. But they convince us that we do need it--through huge and extremely wasteful advertising and marketing budgets.

I think the third thing is that the time horizons of decision-making under capitalism are inherently short term--because they need to compete against each other on a daily basis by lowering their costs, by paying their workers less, by disregarding the environment. It's impossible to have a long-term outlook, which is exactly the outlook that we need right now.

Who will then be able to enjoy the world’s most liveable city? Not the poor if current trends continue. Economic exile will claim thousands of Aucklanders as Australian award rates of pay draw off a significant chunk of our reserve army of labour. New Zealand in the long recession of the 1880s suffered much the same problem as ‘marvellous Melbourne’ boomed. In 1888 10,000 more people left New Zealand than arrived. Those who remain will continue on as before subsisting on wages whose value falls daily and a social welfare system that finds itself under sustained erosion from the National Party. The absence of the trade union movement or Labour Party as mobilising, fighting, crusading forces for the working poor marks this recession as qualitatively politically different from the depression of the 1930s. The working class must forge new vehicles of struggle against the system.

In many ways we have come back around to those dark days before 1890. The sounds of class war in Europe haunted our local ruling class. Energised by the 1889 London Dockers’ strike, seen as the “first move of the Revolution”, the most militant sections of New Zealand's growing labour movement formed the formidable Maritime Council as the doctrine of class conscious, militant ‘New Unionism’ took hold. Bert Roth estimates unionism spread from just 50 unions representing 3,000 workers in 1888 to more than 200 unions representing, unionists claimed, 63,000 workers in 1890. Although “undoubtedly an exaggeration”, the numbers of unionists undoubtedly rose astronomically. Correspondingly strikes began to break out across the country, as unionists sought first recognition, then improved wages and conditions, and finally job control and security. Undoubtedly the strike wave consolidated the gains of the early years of the labour movement, creating a social consensus that workers receive a living wage and not be required to work in unsafe or unhealthy working conditions.

Although the strike wave was crushed in the pivotal Maritime Strike of 1890, the working class had set a vague limit to the power of capital. When the Liberal-Labour Government took power in 1891 the unionists and socialists were able to usher in significant social and economic reforms for the working class. Mike Davis’s analysis of how working class struggle shapes the shape of capitalism to come is relevant here; “Each major cycle of class struggle, economic crisis, and social restructuring in American history has finally been resolved through epochal tests of strength between capital and labor. The results of these historical collisions have been new structural forms that regulated the objective conditions for accumulation in the next period as well as the subjective capacities for class organisation and consciousness.” The employers may in the end have crushed the strikers, but in so doing they lit a political fire that would never stop smouldering. In 1890 Auckland stood at the crossroads as working people demanded a decent standard of living. They were ruthlessly crushed. If we fail to remember that capitalists will not concede improvements in working class living standards at their own expense then we will naively believe that we can improve the lot of the majority of Aucklanders without cataclysmic, class conflict.

In 1890 capitalist power trumped rebellion without revolution.

The utopian vision of the Auckland Plan is captivating. It holds out the promise of Auckland as an ecological and social ark in a world beset by capitalist crisis and ecological meltdown. It is however an ephemeral vision. The future of Auckland if the systemic failures of turbo-capitalism (unemployment, low wages, private property, land speculation) are not addressed is a dystopian city divided into gated communities and destitute slums. We need a new fightback against the new rulers of the city. Confrontation, movement, solidarity against their system. The plunderers of Parnell, the rich of Remuera must be decisively defeated.
The city must be reclaimed, the means of production seized and the working class must take power. We need action, but it is not enough. We need a revolutionary organisation capable of widening and deepening the existing struggles, agitating amongst the working poor, reinforcing the confidence and initiative that working people discover in themselves when they begin to fightback.

The need to go beyond rebellion to revolution and the need for an organisation to engage in that conflict is clear. As Slavoj Zizek says of the anti-austerity rebellions sweeping Europe, ‘But even in Greece, the protest movement displays the limits of self-organisation: protesters sustain a space of egalitarian freedom with no central authority to regulate it, a public space where all are allotted the same amount of time to speak and so on. When the protesters started to debate what to do next, how to move beyond mere protest, the majority consensus was that what was needed was not a new party or a direct attempt to take state power, but a movement whose aim is to exert pressure on political parties. This is clearly not enough to impose a reorganisation of social life. To do that, one needs a strong body able to reach quick decisions and to implement them with all necessary harshness.’

In 1890 the Auckland ruling class decisively put down an uprising of the working class, some twenty-seven years before the Russian revolution. It was the first major class struggle in a city where class tension has never stopped simmering. At times the volcanic eruptions of class war may give way to periods of dormancy, but just as plates continue to collide, so will the two classes of the modern world. The inherent collision of capitalist and working class interests cannot be extinguished any more than the path of continental plates be rerouted. Now, one hundred and eleven years after the 1890 rebellion, the continued poverty and misery of the capitalist city, the supremacy of the capitalist class, the logic of capitalist growth, undermines all liberal civic visions for Auckland.

Auckland and its hinterland contains within it the natural and human wealth needed for a sustainable future and a decent standard of living, but this is not compatible with capitalism continuing. For Aucklanders, any vision of, and strategy to create a city without the current levels of poverty and pollution must also be revolutionary and anti-capitalist.

-Richard Overton

The Auckland Council's utopian aspirations cannot escape the totality of global capitalism.


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