Grant McDonagh

Recorded First November 2012

Byron: The first thing I'll ask is, how did you get involved in Occupy Christchurch?

Grant: It was actually a slightly complicated process in as much as I saw that it was happening and I heard about it and I sort of participated in a very minimal way. Within about a week of it starting I actually- there was a storm the first week or the second week or something, and I sort of wanted to contribute to I actually gathered together thirteen hoodies and carted them off and gave them to them and they just sort of said 'all right' people just took them as time went by.

And I was contributing what just, food that I had, surplus food I had in the garden, stuff like that. I supported it but there were like individuals involved at the start that I really didn't want to be involved with because of past experiences, but then by about the time it got to about a third of the way in, a lot of those people had dropped out for one reason or another, so I started attending general assemblies, just as time went by I got more and more involved, and about a third of the way before it ended, a bit of a skirmish on Facebook e-list and I just felt it wasn't possible to carry on, I was still interested but I could see it wasn't really fitting in with me, my world view and my politics from that point on. But there were high points, for me the real high point was the Open Air University I'd say.

Byron: So what was it that made you want to contribute at the start when you were bringing along hoodies and food for people, what was it that made you think you wanted to give something to that?

Grant: Well it was really the fact that I'd been a very very long standing participant in left-wing causes and politics, I was the editor of the first ever anarchist magazine, first in New Zealand, in 1975, and had been a long-time supporter of situationist politics, so in both cases anti-authoritarian forms of politics, and I've spend quite a few years working with, particularly anarchists in Christchurch. And I've done a number of jobs, that have sort of been, social work stroke left-wing kind of themed jobs, I was community arts worker for the WEA for a number of years, and I did an oral history project for Te Whare Roimata before I became a capitalist and opened my second hand book shop. Does that answer that?

Byron: So do you think you experienced it quite differently as someone who had all that background in left-wing politics compared to a lot of the people there, for them this was something totally new?

Grant: Oh absolutely, it might have meant in some sense that I had less to contribute, to, sort of you know, to Occupy as it initially happened, coming out of Adbusters, which I didn't even know that really until afterwards, you know I'd read some of the documents that were put onto the Occupy Wall Street website and stuff like that.

I guess I was coming from, like I say from a sort of anti-authoritarian, specifically these days post-Marxist point of view. I always, I think sort of point of difference between me and other, in inverted commas, 'anarchists' has been the fact that I've been much more interested in sort of, deep theory, reading Marx and actually reading bloody, even anarchist people actually reading Kropotkin and reading Bakunin back in the day, whereas most of those people tend to get the, very kinda over simplified comic strip versions of those things and think it’s good enough. There was actually a history of anarchism in New Zealand published about five years ago.

Byron: Oh Tony Boraman's?

Grant: Toby, and I interviewed him for one of my magazines at the time, well it wasn't an interview like a conversation, just an exchange, and he actually said, he said the thing with the current crop of anarchists in New Zealand, the whole philosophy can be summed up as "anarchy is true capitalism sucks" and that's supposedly enough, that's how deep it goes with them, but it’s never been like that with me, I was reading bloody Guy and DeBord and Marx and Lukacs and all these people when I was in my twenties you know, and I've never stopped, staying up with what I consider to be the cutting edge of radical theory, to the degree that I've even actually in the last week received things from London and catching up on those, and I'm now 230 pages into Grundrisse.

Byron: wow, impressive.

Grant: [Laughs] yes it’s ahh, not really kind of sort of taking it all in, it’s one of those things I'll have to re-read a couple of three times to figure it out, but it’s fascinating eh, absolutely fascinating I'm finding. Have you read that?

Byron: No, no I haven't, I've just read the first volume of Capital.

Grant: Well, in theory Grundrisse was the blueprint for Capital in some ways but it goes off in different directions and also the people that he's critiquing you know they're quite interesting too, like there was this character called Daramod who spends about forty fifty pages tearing to pieces, and he was actually a follower of Proudhon who was really the person who invented the term anarchism, so it’s kinda really a critique of, probably socialism as it was understood in 1820 to 1830, and the thing with Marx too is what's so fascinating, unlike with a lot of other people, is that he gives precise examples with facts and figures to back it up, it’s pretty good. There's even actually a chapter about New Zealand, about Edward Gibbon Wakefield in there somewhere, I've seen it in the index but I'll still got another hundred pages or so to get to that one.

Byron: I know he's mentioned in Capital as well, as the architect of these colonial societies in Australia and New Zealand.

Grant: So there's you know, to me there was well there's really, there's the objective revolution, what's going on out there in the world, and there's different ways of describing it, which sometimes come into conflict with each other, and I think a lot of the conflict is to do with the fact that people see it as, kinda of a set of ideas that have to be applicable to the world that's out there, as opposed to being a process, which, you know, it’s, that's really the strong thing that Marxism has over anarchism in a way, the process of dialectics is at the centre of it. Took a long time to figure out how to actually use that and understand that, it works, that's the difference [Laughs]

Byron: So did you find the sort of, the attitude at Occupy was similar to maybe the way Toby Boraman described today’s anarchists this "capitalism sucks" attitude?

Grant: About three of four different strands of stuff in Occupy eh, I mean there was, can I use names?

Byron: Yeah you can use names.

Grant: There was sort of the Seth mentality of course, which was conspiracy to the max, just totally incoherent dribble really.

Byron: Reptilian world leaders and so on.

Grant: Yeah shape shifters and all that, and as you said a lot of anti-Semitism tied in with it, which is disgusting. And then sort of, Popx' mentality, was, turned out, you know that's pretty superficial too really, because it was sort of, you know "CRAPitalism going down!" but really no substance to his ideas at all, he's got this bloody Rastafarian thing, and I can't really understand why he was even there really, if he thinks like the sort of Christianity- because Rastafarian is really a form of Christianity, but he was so cool anyways, you know just get along and don't talk about that stuff really with him.

The ones who were there at the start, most of them I didn't really ever get to talk to that much in any depth, but you know I probably kinda liked what I saw of most of them, people like Ash and Ryle in particular, I mean Ryle was like the secret bloody hero of the whole thing, for the first probably half it he was sort of like the pillar, the rock it was all based on, but as time went by, the Zeitgeist kinda guys and Zeitgeist mentality, I don't really know what happened with them, I know I was challenging them in a lot of ways. For one reason or another they kinda buggered off and went away which was no great loss.

Rik Tindal was somebody that I actually worked quite closely with, fifteen years or so ago, when I was community arts worker at the WEA, he kinda came in and basically jumped on it with all his sort of weird ideas and stuff. We did what we could, there's actually on the fridge an old poster from May Day 1991 or something. We actually had I think, we organised between the two of us five activities in one day, May Day '91. But his attitude I found to be- well, just and his personality, very authoritarian and very irrational, it kind would come up with, "we're gonna do this" and there was never any kind of basis for it apart from that he decided and wanted to do it. Quite early on there was something happen with him that was, I think it might have even been that very first march, he kind of, it went past some housing rights demonstration or something, and he kinda stopped people and joined in the crowd with this, and then he went to the organiser and said "I want to speak, and have speaking rights" and she refused, you know, it’s not your issue and he, just on, it must have been on Facebook or whatever list it was, might have been the Occupy Christchurch page, just went at her in quite a vicious way, and she just stood her ground and said you know, that's what you are you're just a bloody bully, that to me just really summed him up aye, but for whatever reason he was one of the people who kind of stopped, who wasn't there for that middle third, the time that I was involved, and I was quite pleased about that.

But yeah I never really got to know all of those people who were involved right at the very start, like Ash and that, I hardly knew at all, I did quite like when I saw of them, and I can't even remember some but I know there were another half dozen who were involved right at the start who kinda, basically went back to varsity when varsity started up, but then the last third was really the time where there was probably only, maybe a dozen people, like you and me, and Popx, and Jo or whatever, who were kinda keeping the GA's going, being involved in the GA's, and other things like the university thing, and the rest of people who were there tended to be the street people, homeless street people, and I never really got to know those people that well either, but I really didn't like the fact that people from the first group, you know the university based people, were kinda slagging off the street people at that stage, and that's really where I had the falling out with Joe, over that. Anyway this is getting into personalities here, what else did you wanted to know?

Byron: You mentioned that the highlight for you was the Open Air University, was that I guess because of your interest in radical theory and things, why was that a highlight?

Grant: Well, to me it was, it was really just about the only chance I've ever had really to kind of articulate you know, the ideas that I've been involved with, to a bunch of, eight or nine people or whatever it was who turned up to my talk, and be listened to, and actually be treated with respect to say those things. Because like the history of my involvement with the anarchists, trying to put ideas across to anarchists, has almost always been in written form, in my grubby little Zines over the years. But the response from then has generally been "oh no, to many long words, my head hurts" and that just gets kind of, frustrating after a while, but that bunch of people who came along, or who were there for that particular session, you know that was very, from my point of view, it was a very rewarding thing, I would have liked to have done it again, I had another talk ready to go, it was one on, well based on Moishe Postone's ideas on how racism is component, or feeds into capitalism as a form of valorisation, which had, like I say a talk, another hour session, but I just kinda got shuffled out of the way, or just lost in the whatever so I didn't get to do that, maybe at some point I will in the future.

I'd actually like to see a permanent bloody learning exchange sort of thing, I don't quite know how or if it’s ever going to happen, but I mean with sort of the abolition of night classes at pretty much every bloody school that you can think of, seems like an opening for a community based sort of movement, which is what the WEA was originally, back in the 30s and 40s, and between times in the so called 'good times' it became sort of, occupational therapy for retired people.

Byron: So you found a willingness among, at least some of the participants of Occupy to engage with those radical ideas, that theory?

Grant: Well to listen. I don't know how much understanding there was, I mean it’s pretty bloody esoteric stuff, the stuff that I'm into now- book I just got this week, from Robert Kirks, Robert Kirks is a writer, this is the first time this particular thing of his has ever been translated into English, this is like esoteric post-Marxist theory from really the 2000s and like, the ways it’s very slowly coming to be understood or just being exposed to English speaking people, there's just this very narrow little sort of margin for it to get though, there's probably, you know, in the entire world, there's probably only about 20 or 30 people who are involved in this. But it feels to me as if it’s a logical progression from what the situationists were saying and writing in the 60s. Also just this week, about two weeks ago, I published another of my other, my non-political, in theory non-political, zine, my poetry zine, poetry stroke creative writing zine, and I sent a copy of that to this guy Michel in London, and he gave me a severe telling off via email because apparently I need to leave all that stuff behind and concentrate on the politics, which had me fuming, feel like punching him.

My situation is that, I've had two strokes, one about ten years ago now, and I've actually had, as a result of the second stroke that I had I actually have a part of my brain about the size of a mandarin orange is just like a black hole in the middle of my head, so the fact that I can ever bloody get up and put my clothes on, live a normal life, to me is a pretty major achievement, let alone bloody publishing whatever is, thirty magazines in the last ten years, and it is kinda to me the best use of what's left of my life, to be producing to be thinking these things though, but whatever, he's in a completely situation, he's in London which is way different to Christchurch.

The thing is that there is this bloody huge radical change going on in the world, I think we can use as many different points of view as possible to understand what it is. I mean like, it looked as if bloody Occupy Wall Street in the states had been stomped out of existence, and now with [Hurricane] Sandy apparently there's huge numbers of people, hundreds and hundreds involved in sort of recovery work, basically just come out of the woodwork, and are doing better, considerably better and more work than the official agency FEMA in various places, Rockaway beach and so on. So you know, to me it wasn't quite the same in Christchurch because the anarchists in Christchurch are a very strange bunch. But there was a, I think in Wellington, which is like, sort of the centre of anarchism in New Zealand, there was sort of a, I think sort of had a slightly sort of aloof attitude to Occupy, now we know there were aspects of it which were homophobic and misogynistic but if they weren't prepared to engage, they seemed not to be interested in engaging, like the attitude seemed to be that they were a bunch of bloody drum playing morons, was the feeling that I got from them. The only direct participation I know of is Asher went and spoke about anti-Semitism at one point, his thing got published in various places, did it get published in your magazine?

Byron: It did yes.

Grant: But otherwise they seemed to sort of think well, we've got our analysis and we're just better than them, you know, I sort of thought in a way you know, they aren't all that, they aren't really that cool anyway, the anarchist movements been around in New Zealand for bloody thirty years or something now and there's still only maybe 250 of them in the whole country, and what have they achieved in that time? Despite tiny tiny little things that they've achieved in that time, certainly hasn't achieved anything near what we were hoping to achieve when we first did Anarchy magazine in '75.

I think a lot of these movements people just get into this little echo chamber will small numbers of their friends, they're constantly reinforcing it, they have the same in jokes and the same bloody jargon they just constantly reinforce all the time, and every time, every bloody publication I've put out has been trying to tell them; no, don't, stop talking about yourselves, stop talking between yourselves, there's a bloody world out there you need to engage with. And I think Occupy did quite well, in Christchurch anyway, engaging with the, you know the mainstream society, just by the fact that they were physically there, in that bloody space for 163 days, was it 163 or 164?

Byron: Something like that.

Grant: I actually had it down, I wrote it down at the time, as 165 because the very last two days, when they kind of weren't officially there, people were still coming and going from the camp and still doing things.

Byron: And we had an Open Air University I think the day after we were, officially left.

Grant: Yeah, and that was the one that Bronwyn Puller, was that her name?

Byron: Bronwyn Haywood.

Grant: Bronwyn Haywood, that's the one she spoke at eh, at the WEA. So that was day 165 yeah. I think we should claim 165 days just on that basis. But you know, apart from the specific circumstances and the specific people just, in principle, I mean it’s just bloody awesome the fact that for 165 days there were there in the Park just standing up to Bob Parker and talk back radio and redneck idiots driving past, just being there, you know. I mean the previous kind of, sort of record for people kinda standing up to the powers that be is of course 151 days in 1951, so it went two weeks longer than that, that's pretty cool.

In terms of radical content I suppose there wasn't quite as much, what's your feeling about it? I think it’s quite sad in a way, it seems to be almost as if it’s just vanished without a trace in Christchurch, in a lot of ways, well I guess it's back where it started from, I mean I've still got probably, eight or nine maybe, people that I've met though Occupy who are now my Facebook friends, and my latest Zine, the poetry one, is two people that I met through Occupy have contributed to that. Small steps I suppose. But it’s interesting, it’s been interesting to me kinda checking up on things that I kinda knew about anyway, for comparison, like I've got a book of documents on the Paris Commune, looking at sort of the mind-set of people who were involved in that, and there was this real chaotic and contradictory element to that as well, which is very much the same as Occupy, particularly when people like Gastra come in involved with in and his idea of sort of radical content, was to get screen printed t-shirts made up. And then 1951 of course sort of revolved around the wharf, the waterfront union, so there was a sort of syndicalist ideology at the heart of that. Whereas really there was, it was really about the Goldman Sachs, the banks and that side of things, which is why I guess the Zeitgeist things thought it was their baby too, to do with them as well. Of course the idea, the slogan, the 1% versus the 99% that's huge eh, that's an incredibly strong image, that's going to be with us forever I think. You know that's probably the biggest thing.

Byron: That's definitely the sort of meme that Occupy has imprinted on the popular consciousness now, the idea of the 1% and the 99%.

Grant: Well particularly when bloody Barack Obama is using some of the rhetoric, and you know the other side of, not apart from the you know the sort of formal political interest that I have in it too I was also involved 'cause another side of my background is the fact that I've kinda been involved in the hippy stroke love generation, and I've spent a number of years living in communes, being involved in that sort of green mentality, so I, you know the sustainability side, charging up bloody cell phone batteries with pedal power and solar power and all that sort of shit, that really appealed to me, and having their own little garden, even though it was just a bamboo framework having that geodesic dome thing, all of that stuff I thought was great, I really liked all that.

But you know I think we did probably as well as can be expected for that time, I gave as much as I could of myself and monetarily as well. That was a huge turn off for me, was in I bloody gave two hundred bucks, which was ripped off and wasted, and it was also followed up, actually three things happened in close succession, I gave that money and Rob ripped it off, then a few days later I actually went out a bought a Tino Rangatiratanga flag, donated that, got stuck up and then got ripped off the next time, by the bloody, supposedly it was Mongrel Mob, Black Power or one of those, and then the shit happened with Joe all in the space of about two weeks, after that I just had to stand back and say "no I can't" just don't have, you know the health resources or the mental resources to be able to cope with this, just this brutal knock backs one after the other, that's my lot basically. 'Cause that's really when it went off the rails, when bloody Gary ripped off that $400 eh, that was the big, 'cause it was not pressure from outside, it was suddenly someone who was inside the camp who basically betrayed it.

And then to me what Rob did was even worse, because he was the one who was saying "I'm the one who is going to be, you know "dependable and reliable" and "I'm gonna save it" and then he basically shat all over everybody there. That's how I felt it was, I've really got no respect for that guy eh. Would really hope never to see him again, can never be friends eh after that. But it was the people like Aaron and Dave, you know, what's his name 'Gary the Maori' those sort of guys, by that point they were still trying to make a go of it, you know and that's what I've really respected, they've been shat on but first sort of the ex-students or the student types who were involved at the start and they were bad mouthing them on that Facebook list, then bloody Rob comes in and rips off two hundred bucks that had been given to them, first Gary rips off $400 then Rob rips off $200. I think also which I didn't know much about then the sort of alcy [alcoholic], thing came in, and there was always the sort of dubious sort stuff, are they are aren't they, drinking and doing drugs.

So it was hard, but it was bloody real, that's real world stuff, I probably would have been able to cope probably would have been in there I've I'd been bloody 40 years younger, but you know when you've been fighting really, for your place in the world, as long as I have been and had been, it’s like I've had other things too I've had bloody hepatitis and had a wee cancer scare this year, you have to think about you know looking after yourself, particularly for someone who hasn't got a partner and who lives on their own.

But I, you know, I think I gave it my best shot, put as much energy is as I was able to at the time and that's the achievement, the 165 day thing. There's probably lots and lots of other things to be said about it, but I can't really think of them at the moment, what's you're next question?

Byron: Do you think that Occupy Christchurch changed anything? In the city or in the country?

Grant: Well oh the other contribution too, I did the newsletter. I think it helped leverage some issues a little bit and it also basically gave a little bit more, what do you call it, spinal fortitude, to like unions, some unions people like the Meat Workers, despite what that bloody woman says I think with the fracking issue the fact that they were there right from the start, they were making a contribution on that one as well. The fact that just whatever was going at the time we got involved in you know, jumped in, and yeah, I think it just basically gave some heart to the left, or the progressive or whatever you want to call it sort of side of things, the stuff that's been going on in Auckland for the last 6 months or so with the GI housing situation and that, the people who are backing that up were all Occupy people, or a lot of them were Occupy people. Although that being said I think it was quite interesting that the next big protest that happened after Occupy was the asset sales, and as opposed it being 20 or 30 people in the park suddenly it was a thousand people because you got the Labour party and the Greens and this that and the other thing kinda jumped in on that issue. I think, I don't really know why those people didn't get in behind Occupy at that time, I think it was probably like the rank and file sort of people were supporting, but not the decision makers you know, the presidents and the people at the top of the hierarchies, some of those people sorta borderline 1% people themselves really, certainly at the top of the Labour party among MPs.

But it’s, you know there was so much more that could have been done and could have worked though the vehicle of Occupy, I think sort of concentrating on the bankers and talking about it just being Goldman Sachs the vampire squid, which may have been true to a certain extent, well it actually is true. But a much wider critique and a much more current critique of neoliberalism would have helped a hell of a lot, because I don't think there was hardly any of that, you know. It was, if you sort of put a continuum of people who involved in Occupy from sort of 'aware' to 'unaware' I think the majority of people would have been at the "anarchy is true..." what was it, "anarchy is true capitalism sucks" sort of end of the spectrum, none of those people have done any reading or really thinking apart from just superficial stuff, if even that. They were influencing each other, I think at that time and that was a good thing, but I wasn't really there to know what was said and done at that first third of it, apart from just going every now and again.

In that middle third of it I went to one GA a week, you know every single week of that time, for that sort of, about two and a half months in the middle. But another thing I found frustrating too, in the GA's there'd be a decision made and there'd be a strong sense of direction, and then by the time the next GA happen it would have all been lost, because it would be a different group of people again, just with different attitudes and... I think there needed to be, you know working groups that were meeting between times, actually doing the things, actually doing the work, and there never really was that. All of that being said, it was much more interesting, much more entertaining than anything that had happened for years before to my knowledge, in Christchurch.

Yeah you know I mean there's sort of all phases I look back over the years; it will be one of the top ten or top 5. There was one group I was involved with around the time of the Dole cuts in 1991 called the Coalition Against Benefit Cuts, was an extraordinarily powerful little group even though it had this very narrow remit of being opposed to the dole cuts, there was about a dozen of us who met sort of once a fortnight for eighteen months, and we were doing actions all of that time, and it was like a sort of a, there was one person from PSA, another person from, you know all these different groups, and one person from the health sector and one person from transport and it was a true coalition in as much as everyone joined in and became quite understanding of each other’s strengths and weaknesses, and we just went full on, we were full on for that whole time, eighteen months.

And I think even though it was sort of the worst phase of the Shipley era, I think we actually just slowed, it was like a clog, you know a clog in the wheels of the machine, and it was really effective, and if that could have happened with thirty people as opposed to a dozen, and also with the fact of being in the park as well, that could have been so cool. 'Cause there was no, there was no you know, no point that the bloody goons came in with you know, truncheons and physically beat them up and took them away, unlike Auckland and Wellington, and Dunedin? I'm not sure about that?

Byron: I'm not sure about Dunedin.

Grant: And overseas it was, you know, viscous. But I see it as being like, one phase of the whole on-going thing, it’s one thing that you list along with the Indignardos in Spain and whatever movements in Greece and one that I've been following is Uncut, even now still following Uncut in the UK their politics and their sort of issues and stuff, each of them really makes its own contribution to the whole, we probably won't know what the whole is until we look back on it in maybe 20 or 30 years.

But there were some really cool people, like I'm still on pretty close terms with Karen for one, she's actually contributed to my zine, and who else, well I still feel I'm pretty close to, well not necessarily close but on good terms with you and Kelly, and even Popx if he'd forgive me for being an atheist, Popx I used to run into all the time when he was doing that unconditional love [mural] 'cause that was on the way to the supermarket for me, from here, on the way to Countdown.

Who else was there? you know, politically now I think I feel most closely aligned with guys my age, you know there's sort of two or three of those who go to demos, there's the John Kelcher who came to the fracking demonstration but I don't know if he went to anything else at Occupy, but he's the Green, or was the Green MP or MP candidate for Waimakariri but I know him from back in the day he was actually in a band called The Sneaky Feelings, you know the one of Dunedin Double Weave he came out and did a song called Husband House and when I was doing my zine for ten years, my music zine, gave him a few positive reviews so we'd kinda run into each other over the years, and there's another guy Ian Blenkinsop who on the one hand he thinks David Icke is pretty cool, but on the other hand he is an old friend, he was actually on my label when he was on my label, always been very into wire...

So I don't really know where it goes from here. For me it’s like anything that I do or that happens is a bonus, because I've lived a long and full and incredibly interesting and incredibly disreputable life, and I've enjoyed it all the way though eh, and something like Occupy, apart from sort of that brutal crap, was like the icing on the cake, it was a fun thing, I think it could have been more so and I know for a fact that the reason that Ryle sort of just stopped, just got worn down, was by Michael, you know he just got worn down by Michael's fucking "you know you gotta stop doing that, you gotta be you know should be out working all the time you know you're disgusting fucking parasites" you know that sort of mentality, I mean, which- that guy’s got a problem eh and life doesn't exist for people to be out scolding other people all the time, it’s gotta be fun.