Building Left Power: Role of Anonymity? A Topical Debate

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My first post for The Daily Blog back in March was a plea for more of us across the left to engage with each other on the big questions of our time, with thanks to all of you who contributed feedback.

At around the same time, a group calling itself Political Organisation Aotearoa – a ‘collective experiment in political thinking and organisation’ appeared in the local blogosphere.

I welcomed the new initiative and its 11 founding theses with genuine enthusiasm.

I figured any contribution towards deepening our thinking and debate with each other across different strands of the left is likely to be useful at a number of levels.

However, what quickly struck me about this new POA grouping was that there was no way from anywhere on their website or blog of identifying who the people are who make it up.

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This lead me to wonder about the whole question of anonymity and why these obviously thoughtful, hopeful types would go to all the trouble of establishing a collective aimed at ‘creating opportunities for debate, alliance formation, and the organisation of political interventions with others’ without giving any indication of who they were.

I found this so extraordinary that I offered to write a paper for POA, which they welcomed and subsequently published here.

I won’t go through it all here, as you can read my article at your leisure, if interested.

However, in summary, some of the key questions I raise include:

  • Is there a link between the desire for anonymity and a lack of self confidence and self belief among perhaps younger left wing activists and academics?
  • Does the PBRF culture and neoliberal agenda now so rampant within our universities make it even harder for post grad students and academics to speak out over their own names, given the potential threat to job prospects inside and outside the academy?
  • Is there a connection between the desire for anonymity and the ideological belief I’ve noticed in the past among some feminists, anarchists and socialists that invisible leadership or ‘no leadership’ is preferable to visible, accountable leaders and spokespeople?
  • Are those involved in POA perhaps taking an understandable aversion to the cult of personality now endemic in political leaders like John Key too far, in their denial of what I think is the essential truth of ‘the personal is political’?

I have to say that after a lifetime’s involvement in left politics in Aotearoa, I still believe that if we don’t know who each other are, it’s very hard to form the relationships so necessary to enhance and deepen both conversation and movement-building.

POA has since diligently and attentively responded to my article.  Richard Meros (a pseudonym) wrote this piece, and the collective itself offered this substantive rejoinder.

Some of their key points, highly summarised, include:

  • Pseudonymous speech and writing has a long and honourable history up to this day, with key thinkers often contributing to public discourse in this way.
  • Activist writers who can identify themselves openly are in a position of privilege; many people can’t do this particularly because of threats to current and future job security.
  • Anonymity avoids stereotyping based on prejudice and other negative factors.
  • Being anonymous breaks with media conventions such as the journalistic desire for identifiable spokespeople; at times the actions of such spokespeople contravene the kaupapa of the group(s) they purport to represent.
  • It’s fun being able to operate freely without anyone knowing who you are.

I realise this discussion may seem a bit rarified and irrelevant for some, but for those of us who are keen to engage with each other I think the opening up of this debate is an example of what more of us on the thoughtful left – of any stripe –  should be doing about a number of difficult but critical questions facing us today.

For me the most important question of all is ‘how do we better build a strong left counter hegemony grounded in class, feminist, Tiriti and ecological justice –  in the face of neoliberalism and capitalism rampant and the global climate, resource depletion and financial crises?’

While a debate on ‘anonymity’ may on the surface of it seem a trifle distant from that question, in fact at some levels I believe it also lies at its heart.

Questions of political self-confidence, how we cope with the reality of everyday threats to job security in a time of high unemployment,  the nature of leadership and how best we make transformational rather than reformational political change are all key discussions we need to keep fomenting.

So I welcome the discussion I’m currently having with the anonymous friends at POA, and hope others might take an interest too.

I look forward to any feedback you might have.

5 COMMENTS

  1. Anonymity has had a good workout at various blogsites such as Pundit and The Standard without definitive conclusions. I am all for security at certain levels of activist organizations given how search and surveillance legislation has tightened up and the states love for planting paid informers in the ranks of ‘protestors’.

    For anonymity:
    –protection for those that genuinely need it from employers, thugs and state forces
    –articles and statements are not pre–judged
    –consistently used psuedonymns build up a brand and track record that others can gain condidence from
    Against anonymity:
    –can assist state snooping, whole organizations or cells could be bogus
    –activism is based on human trust and solidarity which is harder to develop if everyone wears a balaclava at every meeting or demo

    Only became aware of POA recently and it seems a rather doctrinaire think tank of some sort, correct me if I am wrong. Socialist Worker has folded its tent, the “Workers Party” after several changes is now “Fightback!” –linked to by POA. Each time NZ left groups split (going back to the 50s) it dilutes down the leadership potential and collective action so anonymous or not is another group really needed at this time?

  2. Written communication is a beautiful thing – the chance to convey your message in a precise and uninterruptible way is so important that adding your identity to it in certain cases would definitely lower its overall quality &message (think of the authors name as if it were a paragraph that is discarded as irrelevant to the piece) – it is well known that particular highly respected trade papers publish their writers articles without bylines

  3. We certainly live in different times. Job scarcity is no doubt a major influence on this. They say when times are tough there is a real swing to conservatism. We are also facing the era of those raised in the times of Rogernomics. There is a book on this which I haven’t read yet,but would be worth a read. There is such a wide spectrum of thinking in younger generations from those raised in really privileged conservative families to those raised in kaupapa Maori immersion. No doubt this means we are in interesting times. My opinion is that the generations coming through may appear conservative or disinterested in political debate but once engaged are quick to switch on. The Internet also influences because of the ability to quickly access information. Would be interesting to hear what younger generation have to say about this.

  4. Thanks Sue for writing about this here, and to Alec, Anne and Maree. It’s great to see this debate reaching out beyond our own space.

    We should reply briefly to Alec. It’s worth stating that we come neither from a split nor a rebranding of any previously existing group – we’re a group of individuals, of diverse political experience, who have come together for the first time. It’s also worth noting that we’re linked to also by groups other than Fightback – White Fungus, Concerned Citizens and Beyond Resistance, that we’re aware of – which we hope already indicates a broad outreach rather than any narrow association with any single movement or set of ideas.

    We’re hoping not to come across as (or be) doctrinaire – any feedback on why we have seemed that way would be welcome.

    When setting up, we did wonder the same thing: why another Left group? One of our hopes is that genuinely new forms of political speech and action are possible. In trying to work them out, we are not wanting to replace or compete with existing groups, but to supplement and stimulate the existing scene.

    Anonymity, though we don’t want to raise it to the level of principle, can be part of that project: it forces readers to come to terms with a voice that is not immediately linked to a familiar speaker, necessarily coming from ‘outside’ the known set of political actors. We hope the resulting interventions are productive ones.

  5. This is a really interesting piece, thanks Sue, for bringing up this issue.

    I agree that it is worth discussing as something intimately connected to political change in general.

    I’m a student, tutor (at university), Green Party member and general lefty activist. I started a blog recently as a space to vent my frustrations (and develop my writing ability) and spent a long time thinking about pseudonyms. I decided to have one, mainly for the first two reasons you give above.

    As a student and tutor, I like to be able to criticise my lecturers and the university in general on my blog, without fear of repercussions. When I graduate, I am well aware of the low likelihood of getting an awesome lefty job, and want to keep my options open in this sense.

    At the same time, I think this reluctance to speak out openly (well, I do this too of course, but to a lesser extent) does allow the status quo to perpetuate, to a degree. I think you are right that movements grow through trust and building relationships with people, and we need to be visibly seen to be challenging existing structures in order to really be seen as a strong counter force.

    My question then, is how do we stand up and speak out in our own names, when we are faced not only with job insecurity but also with a repressive govt (eg new GCSB law), intent on destroying activism? It seems a bit of a catch 22, that we can’t speak out against the system, because of the system we are stuck in..!

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