Monday, 11 March 2013

Till I was angry, said I was pleased

Rob Gilchrist I never knew personally, or never any more than as a familiar face at protests, a figure at meetings, someone amongst the eccentric pattern of the Wellington left. I disliked him in passing, certainly, but that’s hardly significant given the number of people one ends up irritating or being irritated by in the course of a political campaign and, besides – given what I’ve learnt since about his foully misogynistic behaviour – this was the right enmity for quite the wrong reasons. A whole anarchist social-political sub-culture in Wellington in the early to mid 2000s cultivated an air of hostility and righteous snobbery. Being told one time too many by a group of identikit vegan anarchos dressed all in black that my political philosophy was conformist and authoritarian produced certain automatic responses, none all that helpful or edifying.

So the revelations, when they came, were both very surprising and unpleasantly affecting. The years-long betrayals of trust, the entrapment, the personal abuse, the carefully-organised poisonous interventions; this was state-funded wrecking on a significant scale, and damaged individuals’ lives as well as social movements.

People are right to be angry, and anger and outrage feel like essential starting points and registers; the supposedly hard-headed retort that things like this happen all the time, and that it’s to be expected that the state will spy on dissent is really little more than a capitulation to the ways of the world, a resignation parading as worldliness. I’m not ready just yet to check into Grand Hotel Abyss. But more systematic answers are harder to formulate.

Plenty of responses come to mind, naturally, almost all of them bad. Spy-baiting is the most natural, and the worst of all. This kind of undercover surveillance and provocation – a global trend, as Eveline Lubber’s new book from Pluto documents in worrying detail – succeeds as much in the atmosphere it creates as in the specific details it gleans. The movements Gilchrist floated within were, after all, legitimate and established parts of the democratic culture we’ve won, no much how much those in power may dislike this achieved legitimacy. The sense of suspicion, and of motives questioned, however, creates its own fears: a movement torn by ‘accidents and incidents, hints and allegations’ comes apart as we all start to undermine each other. Political action relies, in the social movements, on voluntary work, constructed solidarities, negotiated areas for trust. Suspicion destroys all of that. The outed spy, in some senses, achieves as much for the police as the active agent.

But ‘nothing can be sole or whole’…learning isn’t often pleasant. A now-known spy in Australia I worked with closely for a brief period, and he never aroused the slightest concerns for me. Charming, attentive, calm, I liked this agent, and realise now that some of the flattery involved in that kind of political exchange was what made me so open. We talked about family, friends, pasts, and all the usual beginnings of an intimacy. The discovery of his betrayal means I won’t ever be as open again.

Sometimes there’s a place between secrecy and openness, the space in which the old joke about the fact you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they’re not out to get you has real and practical uses. For the first months of the war in Iraq a number of protest organisers were routinely followed by police from demonstrations, and accompanied, at a few metres’ distance, through protests. Nothing much came of this, and it stopped after a while, but the intended intimidation was clear. The best way of coping was to recognise the attempt and, consciously, to remain in the public and democratic spaces the movement created – it ought to be a source of pride and satisfaction that you were on anti-war demonstrations in 2003 (as Tony Blair himself half-admitted recently), and anything that encourages an attitude of secretiveness and counter-surveillance works against the chances of that kind of feeling being shared and spread.

[SIS agents collected notes on the young Keith Locke attending public meetings.]

Spies are well-trained in what targets to aim for, and it’s here that the reasons for upset become more complicated. The COINTELPRO case in the United States makes for fascinating reading now; for decades the FBI infiltrated and disrupted the US Socialist Workers Party, fomenting splits, encouraging damaging behaviour, working to undermine the party. Their methods weren’t particularly complicated, but they recognised the weaknesses of the left perfectly. Agents would either start rumours about other members’ racist and sexist behaviour, or behave in racist and sexist ways themselves, and it was the Party members’ responses to this that then prompted further conflict. The FBI didn’t always create the conflict so much as foster and develop contradictions already existing, and hone in on the weaknesses and hypocrisies of personal politics. That all this was an assault on the most basic democratic rights to organise should go without saying. What might offer itself for current reflection, however, are the ways in which the assault targeted and intensified weaknesses. If the left organisational cultures we have created are hospitable to bullying and sexism there is bound to be wide spaces there for provocateurs to operate within.

Gilchrist worked in much the same manner, it seems, although with less subtlety and with a approach fitting his own status as a fantasist possessing rather poorer human qualities. The tragedy in the United States is on an altogether greater scale, too; Black Panthers died as a result of covert work within their ranks. Still, this is the kind of moral company Gilchrist finds himself amongst.

Informants and spies have been employed for as long as working people and the oppressed have organised to challenge the existing order, so it is possible to draw some themes and lessons from diverse experiences of betrayal. Victor Serge’s What Everyone Should Know About State Repression retains a queasy contemporary relevance. And openness, across everything I’ve read and seen, returns as a keyword. Growing up in Dunedin, this makes sense; down there, even on the coldest winter mornings, you need to open your windows. Mould grows in rooms that are not aired, and in people like Gilchrist we find a human equivalent of that process.

Openness, to me, means above all occupying the democratic spaces we’ve created; for all the many problems with the liberal discourse of rights, it remains true that if enough people believe and act as if a right is theirs they can make it a reality. Organisation, activity, demonstration, protests; no matter how much the police may want to make this dissent impossible, it persists. This sense of openness as a necessary condition for the possibility of action is why I see the wearing of masks – in a country like New Zealand, certainly – as at best pretension and at worst wrecking. Does anyone really believe, given what we know of police surveillance, that masks grant anonymity from the state forces? Of course not. What they do grant, dangerously, is anonymity from each other, and from the communities we work and protest within. That freedom from others removes the kind of face-to-face communication, and challenge, occasionally, out of which real solidarity can be built. Anonymity online functions in much the same way (although I’ve no time for chest-beating about ‘cowardice’, and do wish some commentators could learn the difference between pseudonymous and anonymous) – the longer we can attach names to arguments, and the longer we can keep dissent normal and public, the stronger we are. Campaigning in Wellington I often meet public servants who tell me they are not allowed to sign petitions, a clear nonsense. But this is a nonsense which comes from somewhere.

The hardest openness, though, is the most essential – a openness in the cultural and political sphere, and a corresponding generosity towards others’ views and stance. An example: George Fraser worked for the Police and SIS in the 1950s in Wellington, infiltrating the Communist Party and campaign groups around Wellington and the Hutt Valley. A fervent Christian, Fraser believed the Cold War mythology of the time and sincerely hoped to combat Communism. His experience of the Wellington Left was disillusioning in two ways. The first, most prosaically, was that he got bored; a life of meetings, paper sales, discussions, and more meetings made for dull reading for his SIS managers, so he started making things up. The wilder his stories, and the more sinister his scenarios, the happier his managers were to receive them. The reality, naturally, was rather plainer, but better for that:

In the days that followed, Dave Patterson gave instructions on picking up communist reading material at subsequent meetings, on making myself known to kerbside sellers of the People’s Voice – the official party newspaper – and on delving into the bookshelves of Modern Books Ltd in mid-city Manners Street, which was run by the Wellington Co-Operative Book Society, but where manager Ray Nunes (later to become the CP’s district secretary) held sway.

Although the Special Branch referred to the premises as the ‘Communist bookshop,’ I soon realised that such a label was an assumption only and had never been investigated. I found that Ray Nunes was the only person connected to the shop who had any Communist Party connections. It could more accurately have been called an alternative bookshop, as it imported books not only from communist countries but most countries of the world and on subjects that covered most religions and dogmas of the world. The shop belonged to the book society, which had about 3000 members until it folded in 1967.

Fraser’s real undoing – and here he reveals himself as rather better human material than Gilchrist – came after contact to openness of another kind. He was invited to share the house of Conrad Bollinger, a leftist in the English Department at Victoria and well-connected with Communist circles around Wellington. The strain tells, in Fraser’s memoirs, as he accepts Bollinger’s hospitality and sorts through his mail, enjoys nights on the town on Friday and then reports the proceedings to SIS on Monday. Drink plays a more and more central role. The silly puritanism of the Communist circles (they won’t let Fraser sing jazz, and drown him out with ‘Green Grow the Rushes O’) is deflated by Bollinger’s rather surer grasp of cultural life, and then diligently fed back to Special Branch minders.

It becomes an impossible situation. Fraser, concluding that the SIS were ‘not worth a cracker’ to New Zealand, sees his life begin to break apart. He leaves for the United States, promised various vague new lives by the security services. Upon arrival there is no one to meet him at the airport. He’s served his uses for power, and so now is just so much waste. The memoirs, unsure whether they’re aiming at comedy or bitter exposure, rattle in their prose, unsure and drifting much as their author must have been in the last decades of his life.

Gilchrist’s self-pitying confessions in recent stories have a similar quality. Deception hurts, obviously, and it can’t be easy being a moral wreck. He’s a symptom, and a not particularly interesting one, of a wider anti-democratic course, and of what goes on in a society like ours all the time. This is what they would like to see happen to dissent.

But it hasn’t happened, has it? We’re still here.


George Fraser’s memoir Seeing Red: Undercover in 1950s New Zealand was published by Dunmore in 1995.

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