Inequities mean revolution may not be so far-fetched

Gerry Brownlee missed his calling, writes Richard Swainson.
GEORGE HEARD/FAIRFAX NZ

Gerry Brownlee missed his calling, writes Richard Swainson.

OPINION: I've been watching a lot of Russian propaganda on YouTube this week, most of it hailing from the 1920s.

The period was famously one of experiment and triumph for Soviet directors, whose compositions, preference for stylised lighting and acting and carefully considered editing techniques were all informed by Marxist theory.

With few exceptions the films' characterisations are crude. Workers adhere closely to the proletariat ideal. Authority figures — the bosses, army officers or otherwise affluent members of the bourgeois — tend toward physical extremes. Senior capitalists have the dimension of our new Minister of Foreign Affairs.

Gerry Brownlee missed his calling.

However aesthetically astounding these films are, the various revolutions they celebrate seem naive or even quaint by today's standards.

It's not just that the dramatics take a back seat to spectacle or that the political agenda is so clearly prescribed ahead of time. The fact that the Soviet system turned out to be every bit as flawed and oppressive as that of the Tsar tends to undermine all the optimistic fervour.

By the end of the 1930s, Stalin's narrow tastes had put an end to formal experimentation and attempts to make more timely propaganda often came unstuck given a rapidly changing international environment.  

Sergei Eisenstein's decidedly anti-German Alexander Nevsky, for example, had to be quickly shelved when Stalin agreed to terms with Hitler to carve up Poland.

Dusted off after the Nazis invaded, Nevsky was likely still playing somewhere when Stalin agreed to terms with Churchill to carve up Poland again.

A century after the twin Russian upheavals that saw that country extract itself from World War I and embrace communism, revolution as a social and political practice has lost its lustre.

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Vladimir Putin isn't too keen to encourage comparisons with his namesake Lenin lest the very idea of resistance and armed struggle take root amongst today's proletariats.  

Yet in Russia, as in New Zealand, the circumstances which inform mass dissatisfaction and class struggle are freshly relevant.  

There are extremes of wealth and poverty and large sections of the population talk past one another, unable to comprehend the perspective of folk whose material situation is so different from their own that they might as well live in another country or even on another planet. 

The yawning gap between haves and have nots so looms as an issue in this year's election that against all ideological expectation the National Party has actually done something about it.  

The $2 billion that has been magically found to increase the wages of those who have been toiling for a pittance as rest home employees has been spun in a number of different ways.  

It is a victory for a woman, Kristine Bartlett, the individual who initiated a law case against her employers, effectively charging them with exploitation.  

It is a victory for women, per se, the gender disproportionately employed in roles where their perceived maternal inclinations have been taken advantage of.

It is a victory for workers and their union E tu, an organisation with an uncanny phonetic similarity to the purported last words of Julius Caesar. Should Bill English have made the announcement back in March, on or about the Ides? Did he come to bury the National Party, or just to praise it?

Whether Brutus or Marc Antony, there is little doubt that this settlement is something of a sop when placed in the wider context of economic inequality.  

The highest paid ten per cent of New Zealanders now earn nine times more than the lowest paid ten per cent. The evil that Roger Douglas, Ruth Richardson and all their neo-liberal acolytes have visited upon the country lives after them. Any good is interred with their metaphoric bones.

It is not just the girth of Gerry Brownlee that invites comparisons to the archetypal "fat cat" capitalists. However simplistic the old Soviet films are it is becoming easier and easier to see an oligarchical class of wealth and privilege in New Zealand.  

As one learned commentator pointed out, it is not uncommon for rest home executives to earn 21 times what their long-suffering employees do.  

The Chief Executive of the Treasury earns $640,000, around $590,000 more than a median waged taxpayer.

I wonder at the ability of anyone on that kind of money to understand the economic realities of folk who might as well be Russian serfs in their eyes.

It's a real shame that revolution is off the agenda but with these kind of inequities it might be legitimate to ask: for how long?

 - Stuff

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