What is a Right-wing protest, anyway? On the New Zealand Freedom Convoy protests
Platypus Review 146 | May 2022
ON DAY TWENTY-THREE of the New Zealand Freedom Convoy protests, a movement which set up tents around the country in February in response to vaccine mandates, the nation’s largest riot in forty years broke out. Columns of shielded police had assembled at dawn to surprise the campers who occupied the lawns of Parliament in Wellington, New Zealand’s capital. Fights broke out, individual protesters threw their bodies at police, other protesters held them back, police used pepper spray, protesters doused their eyes in milk to cool the sting, some threw punches, men covered their faces with scarves and lifted paving stones from the ground to throw at police, police deployed water cannons from behind riot shields, tents caught ablaze, and a playground turned black in the fire.
At a press conference, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern’s voice trembled as she spoke of the ten children who remained at the protest’s end. She blamed the parents, even though it was she who had permitted the violent crackdown. Without a hint of irony in her voice, nor acknowledgment of police violence that had earlier included a naked protester being dragged by her hair, Ardern told the press, “My hope is that [the protesters] put down their weapons long enough for the police to arrest them.”
What about the Left? Morgan Godfery, a self-described Marxist and trade unionist on the Millennial Left, wrote an op-ed for The Guardian that celebrated the suppression of protesters by the police, entitled “New Zealand police are right to remove ‘freedom’ protesters who have cohered around violence.” Godfery has written about the police before, but from the other side. Like many members of New Zealand’s Millennial Left, he took part in New Zealand’s Trans-Pacific Partnership protests, which saw police violence inflicted on Leftist demonstrators. The police also assembled to remove Auckland’s Occupy encampment, a movement that lasted three times longer than the Wellington Freedom Convoy. In light of these memories, it would be consistent of Godfery and others on the Millennial Left to criticize the police (as Godfery has done in a political manifesto that in 2020 said “ACAB baby” and “Oink oink oink let’s fry the pigs until they are crispy” ). But when Ardern called in the cops, where was the compassionate Left to denounce police violence? Where was the cautious, analytical Left to address the fact that 30 percent of New Zealanders supported the protest? Or the fact that close to half of the protesters voted for Labour or the Greens in 2020? There were only moralizing opinions like Godfery’s.
Godfery offered a voice that was indistinguishable among the liberal media because he, like the rest of New Zealand’s Left, was offering little better than “look, see!” moments. Media like RNZ, the New Zealand Herald, and (most punishing of all) The Spinoff produced the headlines just as quickly as Leftists parroted them: protesters flung faeces at police officers (a charge they disputed), “acid” was sprayed at police officers (argued by protesters to be pepper spray accidentally discharged by other police), a man attempted to drive into police (before being removed from the vehicle and arrested), protesters threw bricks at police (who protected themselves with riot shields and fired back with sponge bullets), and two sex offenders were reported to be lurking in the throng (while children were about. Children!).
Picking low-hanging fruit is a convenient way to refuse to explore an opponent’s reasoning. How? It’s simple: just call them dumb. When the press uncovered a picture of five women wearing tinfoil hats in an attempt to shield their minds from “harmful” electromagnetic fields, it was as though the media cried, “See? They are that dumb! We are smart. Buy our paper!” And the Left responded, “Yes! Buy their paper!” A second tactic is to discredit your opponent. Call them dangerous. Highest on the list of protest evildoing was that some protesters threatened to hang journalists. (The word “execute” — a favorite of Godfery’s — was used often in the press.) Of course, there can be little doubt as to whether some protesters made such claims or harassed journalists, but whether they were serious or merely naughty is entirely a matter of speculation. But the Left was happy to speculate, given the presence of various self-styled white nationalist groups who joined the protests (whom a sober critic could only characterize as hopeless romantics, since 30 percent of the protesters were Māori).
Making a denunciation can be easier than shooting a bullet through a tissue. All one needs to do is place danger and harm at the fore of one’s narrative, and then any rationale can be justified. For example:
- These protests contain a lamentable proportion of disaffected Māori (and they harbor white supremacists).
- These protesters are a minority of impotent fools (and they pose a serious threat to public order).
- These protesters are misguided “victims” of false information (and they should bear ultimate responsibility for their dangerous views).
- These protesters are laughable “clowns” (and they are masterful ringleaders).
- These protesters are incoherent (and they are all in agreement).
- These protests have no objectives (and yet we know they are up to something sinister).
Just as your textbook racist might say, “all immigrants are lazy (and they’re coming to take our jobs!),” the Left in New Zealand did a better job at exposing the contradictory nature of conspiracy theory than the protesters themselves. The way this logic paralleled the liberal media’s response to the January 6, 2021 Capitol breach in the U.S. cannot be understated; an opinion piece for RNZ was titled “Yesterday was New Zealand’s January 6. What happens now?.” It recalled a similar controversy across the Tasman, where recent anti-mandate riots outside the CFMEU offices in Melbourne were almost immediately spun as an aberrant expression of far-Right infiltrators. What differed in New Zealand was that rather than blaming the protest on parasitic outside agitators, the Left blamed everything on an infected core. Thus, the prognosis was a foregone conclusion. We couldn’t merely do a biopsy on the tumor — we had to amputate. The Council of Trade Unions and the Public Service Association turned their backs on mandated workers by formally denouncing the Wellington occupation. E tū Union, which is affiliated with the Labour Party, called upon the protesters to go home), saying “the protest has gone on too long and it’s ugly.” In doing so, these unions revealed their true allegiances, with PSA secretary Kerry Davies even going so far as to put her name in print alongside leaders of local government and members of the business community.
It was all too easy for the unions to abandon their rank-and-file. By invoking an assault on civil society, one can rhyme a protest with “not-actually-working-class.” But if we are to think critically about the Freedom Convoy, we must ask: what do we call a person who has no financial security when they are mandated out of a job, if not working class? Or do we cede to naïve identitarianism, which claims that “working class” is a category of lived experience, not the result of the contradiction between capital and labor? At the very least, if the extent of the protesters’ deprivation is up for debate, we could do worse than follow Wilhelm Reich’s claim that the very presence of conspiracy theories (“mysticism,” in his words) offers an easy way to spot a crisis. Whereas Godfery writes, “The government was in no position to meet [protesters’] demands because they were endless and, frankly, psychotic,” Reich counters, “Trying to laugh off mysticism as 'obfuscation' or 'psychosis,' without explaining it, does not produce any measures against mysticism.”
It is in the willingness to conflate a symptom with the cause that “progressives” take on the form of what they call a conservative. They fail to recognize that it was the crisis of belief in the bourgeois state, not COVID-19, that pushed these protests into motion. Because of the protesters’ estrangement from healthcare, they protested vaccines. Because of their estrangement from the legal system, they protested mandates. Because of their estrangement from the commons, they protested the media. Does this not say more about the crisis of the bourgeois state than it says about individuals? To sweep this all under the rug as a crypto-Trumpian assault on truth, as the Prime Minister did, should read as ideological.
Further, by obsessing over the content of conspiracy theories, not the form, we risk losing sight of their commonality, and thus their significance in the context of capitalist society. Were the protesters not wrong to distrust their government and the media? In mind of these bottom-barrel preconditions, a true Left would see any protest as a net positive, but instead, all we have is a Left that has further contributed to the obfuscation of what the protests actually were. The state as we know it advances with every Left act of mere opinion. Take the way the Left makes a rhyme out of skepticism of mandates and those who are anti-vax. Skepticism of the media, likewise, rhymes with misinformation. Skepticism of civil society, social democracy, and identity politics rhymes with the far Right. Cui bono: who benefits?
In his Guardian op-ed, Godfery cites Lacan’s definition of jouissance as “not purely and simply the satisfaction of a need but the satisfaction of a drive.” I agree with Godfery. That is a fine definition of jouissance. But if Godfery had learned anything from Lacan, he would also understand Lacan’s critique of the “non-duped err”: that he who claims access to unmediated truth is the one who errs most. In this way, it is Godfery, as a representative of the Left, who is just as fated to repetition compulsion as the protesters. The Left wants a new master and it will get one. Thus, it is only logical that Godfery’s closing words echoed Ardern’s condescension towards the protesters: “The people on parliament’s step are the tiniest minority.” Okay, okay. Were they Right-wing, though? |P
 See “Police officers filmed dragging naked protester by her hair on Parliament grounds,” NZ Herald, February 9, 2022, available online at <https://www.nzherald.co.nz/nz/police-officers-filmed-dragging-naked-protester-by-her-hair-on-parliament-grounds/WIUX2YWMET3BUYZ57IK6I5NPOA/>.
 Morgan Godfrey, “New Zealand police are right to remove ‘freedom’ protesters who have cohered around violence,” The Guardian, February 10, 2022, available online at <https://www.theguardian.com/world/commentisfree/2022/feb/10/new-zealand-police-are-right-to-remove-freedom-protesters-who-have-cohered-around-violence>.
 See “Anti-TPP protest turns violent in Auckland,” RNZ, December 8, 2012, available online at <https://www.rnz.co.nz/news/national/122954/anti-tpp-protest-turns-violent-in-auckland>.
 Hana Pera Aoake and Morgan Godfery, “Manafesto,” Running Dog 2 (July 2020), available online at <https://rundog.art/crowdtherevolution/manafesto-after-miriama-aoake>.
 See Luke Malpass, “Parliament protest: New poll shows 30 per cent of Kiwis support anti-mandate protest,” Stuff, February 18, 2022, available online at <https://www.stuff.co.nz/national/politics/127808790/parliament-protest-new-poll-shows-30-per-cent-of-kiwis-support-antimandate-protest>.
 See Curia Market Research Ltd, “Parliamentary Protest Poll Results February 2022,” The Platform, February 21, 2022, available online at <https://theplatform.kiwi/opinions/parliamentary-protest-poll-results-february-2022>.
 See Colin Peacock, “Parliament protest: Making sense of extreme scenes of and unsavoury stories,” RNZ, February 27, 2022, available online at <https://www.rnz.co.nz/national/programmes/mediawatch/audio/2018832065/parliament-protest-making-sense-of-extreme-scenes-and-unsavoury-stories>.
 See Gianina Schwanecke, “Test results ‘inconclusive’ for spray reportedly used on police at protest,” Stuff, March 15, 2022, available online at <https://www.stuff.co.nz/national/128063501/test-results-inconclusive-for-spray-reportedly-used-on-police-at-protest>.
 See “Cops force way into car to make arrest at Parliament protest,” 1News, February 21, 2022, available online at <https://www.1news.co.nz/2022/02/21/cops-force-way-into-car-to-make-arrest-at-parliament-protest/>.
 See “Bricks thrown, sponge bullets fired in Wellington unrest,” Otago Daily Times, March 2, 2022, available online at <https://www.odt.co.nz/star-news/star-national/bricks-thrown-sponge-bullets-fired-wellington-unrest>.
 See George Block, “Two ‘high-risk’ sex offenders on extended monitoring have been among Wellington protesters,” Stuff, February 24, 2022, available online at <https://www.stuff.co.nz/national/crime/300524991/two-highrisk-sex-offenders-on-extended-monitoring-have-been-among-wellington-protesters>.
 Curia Market Research Ltd, “Parliamentary Protest Poll Results February 2022.”
 Nik Dirga, “Yesterday was New Zealand’s January 6. What happens now?,” RNZ, March 4, 2022, available online at <https://www.rnz.co.nz/news/on-the-inside/462681/yesterday-was-new-zealand-s-january-6-what-happens-now>.
 Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union.
 See Eden Gillespie, “Experts say the far-right and anti-vaxxers are infiltrating industry protests,” SBS News, September 21, 2021, available online at <https://www.sbs.com.au/news/the-feed/article/experts-say-the-far-right-and-anti-vaxxers-are-infiltrating-industry-protests/dzaphq42g>.
 See “Council of Trade Unions Calls For End To Anti-mandate Protest,” Scoop, February 18, 2022, available online at <https://www.scoop.co.nz/stories/PO2202/S00160/council-of-trade-unions-calls-for-end-to-anti-mandate-protest.htm>.
 See “E tū and PSA members at parliament want protesters gone,” PSA, February 23, 2022, available online at <https://www.psa.org.nz/our-voice/e-tu-and-psa-members-at-parliament-want-protestors-gone/>.
 E tū’s Twitter account (@EtuUnion), February 22, 2022, available at <https://twitter.com/EtuUnion/status/1496316959771615235>.
 See “Who’s who of Wellington leaders tell protesters to end illegal activities ‘immediately,’” RNZ, February 18, 2022, available online at <https://www.rnz.co.nz/news/national/461797/who-s-who-of-wellington-leaders-tell-protesters-to-end-illegal-activities-immediately>.
 Godfrey, “New Zealand police are right.”
 Wilhelm Reich, “Ideology as Material Power,” in The Mass Psychology of Fascism, trans. Theodore P. Wolfe, M. D. (New York: Orgone Institute Press, 1946), 19.
 Godfrey, “New Zealand police are right.”