Peace activist Valerie Morse has been running Peace Action Wellington and Rebel Press for over ten years, and is the author of Against Freedom: The War on Terrorism in Everyday New Zealand Life. These are Valerie’s written answers to a set of questions for activists.
Did you grow up in a politicised family? How did the politics of your childhood home affect you?
I am a child of US-propaganda, of the Cold War and of Reaganomics. My parents were not political people in my childhood, although they became so much later in my life. Funnily enough, however, my father’s hatred of the police is something I definitely inherited. I remember so vividly how he used to call them “the village idiots.” I really appreciate the effect on me of his total loathing of illegitimate authority.
What politicised you? Did you have a penny drop moment, a gradual awakening, a teacher, a friend that sealed the deal?
I don’t think there was some magical moment of being politicised for me – it was a process of learning about injustice and feeling strongly that I wanted to do something about that injustice. Over the years, of course, my understandings about the causes of those injustices, and their ultimate resolution, have become more radical.
One thing that did influence me greatly was music. The music that I listened to growing up talked a lot about struggle, about poverty, about loss and alienation. Today, music really feds my desire to be part of the struggle; I listen to all genres of music as long as its got something to say, but I love music that can mix radical political messages with a beat you can dance to.
What are some of the actions you started taking when you first politicised?
One of my favourite memories is of being arrested at the Nevada Test Site in 1992. There was a huge gathering of anti-war and anti-nuclear activists who had been invited to converge on Western Shoshone land to oppose US nuclear testing. The night before the action a thousand people camped out under the stars in the desert across from the entrance to the site. In the morning, in large groups, people crossed over into the site. I crossed over with one of my friends and played hacky sack until these scary private police arrested us (the police were from a company called Wackenhut, now the Corrections Corporation of America). All the men and women were then put into these outdoor holding pens for the day; about 6pm we were loaded on buses and driven about an hour north and just dropped off in the desert.
It was my introduction to mass, grassroots actions and to the activism of First Nations people.
What did you do to become more daring, more vocal, more proactive?
The most important thing about being proactive and doing actions is working with people who you know have your back, that your respect and trust. Many of the actions I have done have been met with condemnation by the public at large, but I know that the people I am working with support that work. It is important to understand that radical change is going to make some people angry and offended; that’s good. If it doesn’t then it isn’t going to change anything.
What are the issues that you are, and have been, most committed to? How have you expressed that commitment – whether it’s been through taking more risk, sustaining projects over long periods of time, or putting up with extra flack?
I am fundamentally a peace activist, and that commitment to anti-war activities has deepened as my understanding of the complexity of the issue has grown. While I certainly aim for peace and use non-violence, I think peace in the absence of justice isn’t real peace – it’s pacification. I don’t reject violence on ideological grounds but on tactical ones; I believe in self-defence. Deep structural issues need to be addressed when we talk about war: colonisation, imperialism, patriarchy, white supremacy and the military-industrial complex.
After the start of the war in Iraq in 2003, public interest in the struggle against war fell off almost entirely. Partly that was because there was an ostensibly left-wing government waging the war, so those sectors of society who should have been loudly anti-war were much more subdued. Many of them really bought into the government spin of “peacekeeping.” A small group of us persevered, trying to raise the issue of New Zealand’s participation in the war in Afghanistan, in Iraq and other places. It feels great to have run a successful campaign this year on the weapons conference, but it is a struggle to keep people interested in what is going on out of sight when so many things here are so much more in your face: poverty, violence against women, ecosystem destruction, climate change etc.
Why that particular issue? What other fronts do you think we need to be fighting on?
To be honest, I think the big reason why I feel such an investment in the issue is because I grew up in the U.S., and I see the U.S. as the greatest threat to world peace and security. When you grow up indoctrinated in U.S. supremacy and American “exceptionalism” it is very hard to see what is obvious to the rest of the world: the U.S. is responsible for most of the violence and war going on now, and it conducts these wars for the benefit of elite power.
What are some mistakes you might have made?
Gosh, I have made a lot of mistakes. I am a ‘do-er’ – and as such, I don’t often reflect very deeply on my actions or behavior. I tend to run roughshod over other people, and fail to understand the effects of my actions. I tend to make assumptions about things, and don’t check to see that those assumptions are correct. I don’t always see that I hold power in a group, and can push my own agenda – and in the process disempower other people.
Doing political work in the world means making mistakes. It can be hard to recover from mistakes, but the knowledge that we all make mistakes in our organising can be helpful to remember. As long as you keep doing things, you keep learning.
In your mind, what are we resisting and trying to change, as activists today, essentially? Is it a power system, like patriarchy, is it policy, or is it something in our collective consciousness, like human greed?
Good question. I believe that there is a dialectical relationship between the material forces and the ideological forces in the world. So the ideological systems of entrenched power: capitalism, patriarchy, white supremacy etc. rely upon real material (capital, resources etc). And ideological ones reinforce those material forces: so the institutions of social and cultural reproduction (like schools, universities, media, etc) uphold and reinforce the current control of resources.
So changing everything requires not just that we think differently, but that the material conditions in the world are different, and how can material conditions change when power is so entrenched? And at the moment, I think the great challenge is figuring out how we are going to get there – and where ‘there’ actually is, post-capitalism. There is an absence of coherent, comprehensive ideas about how to move from capitalist exploitation to some other economic and political model, yet there is clear recognition from many quarters that an economic system that is reliant on endless growth on a finite planet is not working. There is part of me that fears that the only thing that is going to put the real brakes on capitalist exploitation is total ecological devastation: that’s definitely not the revolution that anyone wants.
How is it different from what was resisted previously, say last century?
Well, I don’t think that capitalism is static: it is a tremendously adaptable means of economic organisation. It is always seeking to maximise profit, and so we have seen a great many changes in work, but also in the relationships of people to their work. For example, while unions have been being systematically dismantled across the Western world since the early 1980s, work has been casualised and large scale manufacturing has moved to places with authoritarian regimes and/or no labour protections. So in the “minority world” (the first world) we have a process of accumulation by dispossession where the once prosperous middle class is losing ground, and in the majority world, we have mass exploitation, the breakdown of traditional social organisation and widespread human rights abuses.
From the 1970s onwards, the struggle around identity has been significant, but much of the analysis around this has been very liberal – it has sought some kind of “equality” under capitalism for marginalised populations. In my view, such analysis is not only wrong because it fails to understand the interrelationship between systems of oppression, but it has been harmful. The rise of “intersectional” analysis (what I would call an anarchist understanding of power) means that the struggles around identity and against capitalism have been linked – and now we have some real opportunities for transformation.
What are we fighting for?
We fight to stop injustice, to stop the horrors of modernity, to stop the exploitation of human and non-human resources.
I fight because I love the world and know that it can be better than it is.
What are some of the best campaigns and actions that you’ve seen in recent years?
I think that the Idle No More actions across Canada in opposition to the Tar Sands oil extraction were really inspiring and spoke to a lot of people who weren’t really active on those issues before.
I also think that the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement is a tremendous campaign that really gives voice to Palestinian civil society silenced for so many years. I think that BDS is a clearly a major threat to the established order; that and the internet are significantly contributing to the disruption of the hegemonic Israeli security narrative.
What have been some of the most heartening moments in your activism in recent years – whether actions, epiphanies – what’s sustained you?
My friends and comrades in the movement sustain me, and give me a sense of collective purpose. I also really enjoy the process of learning about collective struggle and resistance and seeing how the theory and practice mix. I must admit I also really enjoyed shutting down the GCSB director’s speech in mid-August 2015 – it felt like the world’s easiest victory. Sometimes, it just feels great to make it hard for repressive forces to operate, even if it isn’t a great big strategic action.
What books and music mobilise you?
I recently read Jeff Halper’s War Against the People: Israel, the Palestinians and Global Pacification that I really recommend. It makes a potent argument that the way Gaza looks today is what the majority world will look like in a few years: a giant open-air prison.
In terms of music, I love political hip-hop and anything to dance to!
When planning actions and campaigns, what do you grind your teeth over – what has frustrated you the most? What would you like to see done about it?
I think that nationalist campaigns are dangerous. I think that it is one thing to campaign in a way that appeals to people’s own self-interest – that’s fine. People are motivated to act in their own self-interest. But I think campaigning around national identity essentially reinforces that construct. I think nationalism and patriotism are dangerous even when deployed for ostensibly “good” causes. I would love to see more of that “intersectional” thought in terms of campaign approaches.
What are the historic campaigns, movements, leaders or direct actions that you look to for inspiration? (Which would you visit with a time machine to check out & why?)
There are a great many movements that I look to for inspiration: the workers movements at the turn of the last century (in the factories, mines and mills – unions like the IWW), to the struggle for black liberation (#blacklivesmatter) that is on-going today in the US (and elsewhere) with a trajectory that goes back hundreds of years, to the fights of the campesinos in Latin America against land expropriation, to the climate justice struggles today. Really there are just far too many to even contemplate!
What are your biggest hopes for 2016 – for you, for us as activists?
I would love to see a fuller, more explicit rejection of parliamentary politics, and an engagement by people out on the streets and in their communities. In my view, parliament is a dead end for us. It is a place that protects the interests of the elite power brokers, and it has nothing to do with ordinary people.
I would love to see the rapid growth of grassroots, just transitions from fossil fuel dependency and a real alternative sharing economy, with things like timebanks, community gardens and new forms of housing.