Whither the class line?

datePosted on 10:58, November 20th, 2014 by Pablo

In 1995 I published a book that explored the interaction between the state, organised labor and capital in the transitions to democracy in Argentina, Brazil, and Uruguay. The book was theoretically rooted in neo-or post-Gramscian thought as well as the vast literature on collective action and the politics of the case studies. In it I explained how democratic transitions were facilitated by class compromises between labour and capital brokered by the state, which acted as an institutional mediator/arbitrator in resolving conflicts between the two sides of the labour process. I noted the importance of neo-corporatist, tripartite concentrative vehicles for the achievement of a durable class compromise in which current wage restraint was traded for increased productivity in pursuit of future wage gains under restrained rates of profit-taking, all within state-enforced workplace, health, safety and retirement frameworks negotiated between the principles. That way the relations in and of production were peaceably maintained.

One of the things I discovered is that labour or working class-based parties were served best when they had union representation in the leadership. That is because, unlike career politicians, union leaders were closest to the rank and file when it came to issues pertinent to those relations in and of production. As a result, they translated the needs of the rank and file into political imperatives that determined working class political praxis under democratic (read non-revolutionary) conditions.

In contrast,Left politicians tended to be drawn from the intelligentsia and were prone to compromise on matters of principle in pursuit of strategic or tactical gain. Many did not have working class backgrounds, and some spent their entire careers, if not adult lives, currying favour in the pursuit of office and the power that comes with it. More than a few have never held a job outside of the political sphere, which led them to hold an insular view of how working class politics should be conducted. As a result, they were often disinclined to put the material or political interests of the working classes first, preferring instead to pursue incremental gains around the margins of the social division of labour within the system as given.

For those reasons, I found that working class interests were best represented when the union movement dominated the working class party, not the other way around.

But there was a caveat to this discovery: unionists only served as legitimate and honest agents of working class interests if they adhered to a class line. In other words, they had to be genuine Marxists or socialists who put the working class interest first when it came to the pursuit of politics in competition with the political agents of capital. “Class line” was broadly interpreted to include all wage labour–blue and white collar, temporary and permanent, unionised or not. That made them honest interlocutors of the people they represented (the ultimate producers of wealth), since otherwise they would be conceding the primacy of capital and business interests (the appropriators of surplus) in the first instance.

Since the system is already stacked in favour of capital in liberal democracies, it was imperative that the agents of the working class in post-auhoritarian contexts wholeheartedly and honestly embraced ideologies that a minimum rejected the unquestioning acceptance of market directives as a given, much less the idea that capitalism as a social construct was the best means by which societal resources were organised and distributed. The post-transitional moment was an opportune time to press the critique of capitalism, as the authoritarian experiments had demonstrated quite vividly the connection between political oppression and economic exploitation. It was a moment in time (the mid to late 1980s) when unions could impose working class preferences on the political parties that purported to represent the rank and file, and where working class parties could genuinely speak truth to power.

As it turns out, the record in the Southern Cone was mixed. Where there was a Marxist-dominated national labour confederation that dominated Left political representation (Uruguay), the political Left prospered and the working class benefitted the most. In fact, after two decades of failed pro-business government by the centre-right Colorado Party, the union-backed Frente Amplio coalition has now ruled for over a decade with great success and Uruguay remains Latin America’s strongest democracy.

On the other hand, where the union movement was controlled by sold-out opportunists and co-opted bureaucrats (Argentina), who in turn dominated the majority Left political party (the Peronists), corruption and concession were the norm and the working classes benefited the least. In fact, in a twist on the New Zealand story, it was a corrupt, sold-out and union-backed Peronist president, Carlos Menem, who used the coercively-imposed market driven economic reforms of the military dictatorship as the basis for the neoliberal agenda he implemented, by executive decree, in Argentina in accordance with the so-called “Washington Consensus.”

In Brazil the union movement was divided at the time of the transition between a Marxist-dominated militant confederation (the CUT), led by Luis Inganicio da Silva or “Lula”as he was better known,  and a cooped confederation (the CGT) that had emerged during the military dictatorship and which was favoured by business elites as the employee agent of choice. The CUT dominated the politics of the Workers Party (PT), whereas the CGT was subordinated to the logics of the political leadership of the right-center PMDB.

As things turned out, although the PMDB won control of the national government in the first two post-authoritarian elections, and the subsequent governments of social democrat Fernando Henrique Cardoso began a number of social welfare projects designed to reduce income inequality and enforce basic human rights, working class interests did not fully proposer until the PT under Lula’s leadership was elected in 2002 (the PT just won re-election for the fourth consecutive time under the presidency of Lula’s successor Dilma Rouseff).  In the PT Marxist unionists have dominant positions. In the PMDB and Cardoso’s PSDB, the sold-out unionists did not.

That brings me to the the election of Andrew Little as Labour Party Leader. Leaving aside the different context of contemporary New Zealand relative to the subject of my book and the question as to whether the union movement truly dominates the Labour Party, consider his union credentials. His background is with the EPMU, arguably the most conservative and sold-out union federation in the country. In fact, he has no record of “militancy” to speak of, and certainly is not a Marxist. Instead, his record is that of a co-opted union bureaucrat who likes to work with the Man rather than against Him. The fact that business leaders–the same people who work incessantly to strip workers of collective and individual rights under the  guise of employment “flexibilization”– find him “reasonable” and “thoughtful” attests not only to his powers of persuasion but also to the extent of his co-optation.

But maybe that was just what he had to do in order to achieve his true calling and show his true self as a politician. So what about his credentials as a politician? If winning elections is a measure to go by, Mr. Little is not much of one, having never won an election outside his unions. Nor has his tenure as a list MP in parliament been a highlight reel of championing working class causes and promoting their interests. As others have said, he smacks of grey.

Which brings me to the bottom line. Does he have a class line?

5 Responses to “Whither the class line?”

  1. Jamal on November 23rd, 2014 at 21:49

    Little wasn’t President of the CTU. Also, if you think the EPMU that Little created is the same beast as the old Engineers Union you haven’t been paying attention.

  2. Pablo on November 24th, 2014 at 05:57

    Thanks Jamal.

    I corrected that error. However, I do not think for a second that the EPMU is anything other than your standard business union rather than a progressive force for change.

  3. Tiger Mountain on November 27th, 2014 at 12:54

    The holy grail for many of the social democratic persuasion remains somehow getting NZ comprador capitalists, SMEs, and aspirational types to behave reasonably. Reformism not revolution.

    So in those terms Little does not have a “class line”. But in some barely remembered way, by ideological osmosis from all those union meetings perhaps, he has been shaped by events and this particular time if his performance in parliament so far is anything to go by. And the recent extending to Labour Party members rather than caucus exclusively, a say in party affairs.

    Can he keep it up on workers rights, the increasingly authoritarian state and other matters besides nailing the PM is the question.

  4. paulscott on February 19th, 2015 at 10:06

    We wILL win

  5. Philip Ferguson on March 28th, 2015 at 13:51

    As Pablo notes, Little’s career atop the EPMU indicates, as does what employers say about him, that he is no fighter for workers. It should also be remembered that he and the top EPMU brass endorsed the set-up at Pike River – while the National government’s performance was appalling, Little’s was abysmal and Labour had been in power for 9 years not long before the disaster and yet there was nothing resembling the level of due diligence in terms of mine safety inspectors needed.

    29 human beings paid with their lives for National and Labour policy in relation to the mining industry.

    On Pike River, see the collection of articles at: https://rdln.wordpress.com/2014/12/22/the-murders-at-pike-river/

    In relation to Little, the unions and Labour, the relationship between the LP and unions has long been that the links merely provide a conduit for the Labour leadership to spread the need for workers to lower their expectations and not rock the boat. On the nature of the Labour Party, see: https://rdln.wordpress.com/2011/12/02/the-truth-about-labour-a-bosses-party/
    That’s quite a long piece (about 40-plus pages, as it was a booklet); for a much briefer piece on Labour and the unions, see: https://rdln.wordpress.com/2011/09/12/workers-unions-and-labour-unravelling-the-myths/

    Phil

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