Archive for ‘An inclusive society’ Category

The Blues go Black.

datePosted on 15:04, July 19th, 2010 by Pablo

The announcement that National will undertake labour legislation reform has revealed the dark side beneath its happy face veneer. Riding high in the polls and 14 months before having to call an election, the Key-led government has dropped its populist pretense and unveiled its anti-worker credentials with the thrust of its proposed reforms. It also violates a 2008 campaign promise not to substantially revise the Employment Relations Act (ERA). In fact, the reforms are a return to the old Employment Contracts Act (ECA), one of the most draconian, overtly authoritarian pieces of labour legislation seen in the modern liberal democratic world. Rather than address all of the proposals, to include making dismissals easier, narrowing the scope of personal grievance claims and extending the 90 day probationary period to all industries, I would like to focus here on just one: the proposal that unions must secure the permission of an employer before accessing a work site. 

Due to the asymmetric power relationship between employers and workers, collective action is the best way for the latter to secure rights and protections within the productive process. Collective action requires organisation, and the ability to organise is contingent on the ability of prospective agents to access workers in an effort to persuade them to act collectively in defense of their common interests. Access does not mean compulsory membership or even recruitment success. It just means that prospective collective agents have the ability  to approach workers at their work places in an effort to organise them collectively.

Under International Labour Organisation Convention 87 on freedoms of association, such access is defined as an absolute democratic right for both workers and agents. In fact, it is a cornerstone of most democratic labour legislation that employers not have the right to interfere with the right of workers to organise, including organisation efforts by collective agents such as unions. Thus National’s proposal that unions must secure employer consent before approaching employees on a work site, and that such consent must not be withheld “unreasonably” (with the definition of reasonable left purposefully vague), is a direct violation of one of the most cherished international labour standards.

There is a historical precedent for this move, and that is where National’s real darkness shows. The 1991 ECA entered into law by the Bolger government had exactly such provisions. In 1993 the ILO upheld a complaint that the ECA violated convention 87 on rights of association as well as convention 98 on freedom to bargain collectively. The Bolger government ignored it and it was not until 1999, after the 5th Labour government came into office, that the more egregious anti-worker sections of the ECA were eliminated in the revamped ERA.

National’s black side runs even deeper. The ECA explicitly borrowed many of its provisions directly from the 1979 Chilean Plan Laboral. The Plan Laboral was the Pinochet dictatorship’s labour code, and was championed by its then Labour Minister Jose “Pepe” Pinera, the father of the current Chilean president. Under the pretense of promoting “labour market flexibilisation,” the Plan Laboral was an outright assault on the Chilean union movement, using both structural as well as politically-focused clauses to atomise the Chilean working class and forever break union influence on economic decision-making. To a large extent, and even with subsequent reforms by successive post-Pinochet democratic governments, it largely succeeded in doing so.

Pepe Pinera, somewhat unsurprisingly, was a friend of Roger Douglas and made regular Business Round Table visits to NZ in the 1980s and 1990s before his death. Ruth Richardson, the main instigator behind the ECA, was also an admirer of Pinera. These two individuals, with their direct and immediate past dictatorial connections and coalition relationship with National, are believed to be the prime movers behind this attempt to return to the ECA as the framework in which the social relations of production are determined. In other words, National is proposing changes to the labour relations system that have their origins in the Pinochet dictatorship, and which were suggested by people with direct links to that dictatorship. Beyond the violations of ILO convention 87, that alone should give reason for concern.

Hence, while some of the other proposed reforms can be the topic of honest debate keeping in mind where the balance between efficiency and fairness in production should be located, the attempt to curtail union access to workplaces is an overt assault on working class collective rights. This proposed clause is not about getting unions to ring employers up in order to make an appointment to see employees. This is about shutting them out.

It remains to be seen if this time around the CTU and other mainstream unions will offer more than token resistance to these proposals (as was the case when the 90 day probation period was introduced). It also remains to be seen if the NZ working classes will do anything other than bow meekly to the powers that be. But if ever there was a moment to rise up against the resurgent union-busting, anti-worker tide, that time has come. Remember: the reforms embodied in the ERA where at best minor adjustments meant to “humanise” the ECA. But the thrust of NZ labour law under the ERA was by no means a bold step towards worker’s control of production, and in fact retained much of the pro-business biases of its predecessor. Thus the current labour reform proposals are very much about putting the boot into the working class, and the union movement in particular.

It may take defection from mainstream, Labour-affiliated union ranks to more independent and militant unions for any effective resistance to happen, but whatever the case, if the worker’s movement stands silent on this one, then further rollbacks of worker’s rights can be expected the longer National is in power. For workers, those will be dark days indeed.

From the Department of Random Ideas

datePosted on 12:22, June 22nd, 2010 by Lew

How about Shane Taurima for Sean Plunket’s replacement on Morning Report?

A radically different style from Plunket, but he does have good interviewing chops, very extensive experience and strong credentials, especially in hard political news. His interviews with party leaders before the election were exceptional and demonstrated that he can’t be pigeonholed as a “brown issues” journalist. To my knowledge he has been scrupulously neutral with regard to politics, throughout both the present and previous governments. He is fluent in te reo, and has — dare I say — a deeper understanding of Māori issues than any other journalist who would be considered for the role. He would bring a marked change of style and perspective to the programme.

I am on record stating a preference for Radio NZ to elevate someone from within their existing journalistic ranks rather than head-hunting a star, but we sure could use some more Māori faces and voices in the mainstream broadcast news. There are a few: Julian Wilcox, Eru Rerekura, Willie Jackson, John Tamihere, Jenny-May Coffin and others all do good work, but at the fringes — on low-rating or niche channels, constricted bulletins and difficult timeslots, or in sports or talkback rather than proper news. There are a number of senior reporting and editorial/production staff — such as Duncan Garner, and Carol Hirschfeld’s departure from Campbell Live in particular is sorely missed — but all in all Mike McRoberts is the only Māori anchor of a mainstream news programme, and most people don’t think of him as such (which is in many ways a testament to his success).

Shane has just quit his job at Marae due to the impending format shift, and his role with TVNZ is apparently in doubt. John Bishara of Te Māngai Pāho says he must be “going to something better”, so I suppose one question is whether Morning Report is “something better”.

L

Cannibalising society for the money proxy

datePosted on 10:20, May 19th, 2010 by Lew

This talk of not being jealous about tax cuts, and the unstated supposition that the rich are just better reminded me about a couple of posts I wrote a year or so ago about the “money proxy”: the idea of wealth as an easy quantifier for a person’s value. I’ve rehashed the argument here because I think it’s particularly apposite given the forthcoming budget. Paraphrasing myself:

Money is both the means by which we judge a person’s worth (in the human sense) and the resource needed to enjoy the comfort and dignity to which human beings are entitled by simple virtue of their being human beings. Because the same thing is used as both a means and an end, there is inevitable conflict: by denying people access to sufficient food, healthcare, accomodation, etc. on the grounds that they cannot afford to buy it for themselves, a society tacitly says: you are not worth it because you do not have enough money.

Previously, I had argued that while there’s considerable shared ground between National and Labour (both want economic growth, believe in the state’s role in providing some public services, etc.) the predominant difference between the two in economic terms is in the reflexive positions to which they repair when hard choices need to be made. National believes in supporting ambition, Labour in mitigating harm:

The former sees achievement as the highest goal, and failure as a necessary collateral effect of attempted achievement. They grade a society by its upper bound, by how much success its leading members achieve. In this regard, the ideology emphasises ambition, celebrating that qualities as the most beneficial to society while disregarding the worst consequences of its failure – destitution, disease, starvation, etc. The caricature of an ambitionist, if I may coin the term, sees the world as humanity’s oyster, and humanity in positive terms – as potentially successful and satisfied and healthy and secure, and considers that anyone who does not achieve these things has simply not tried hard enough, or for long enough, or lacks the innate characteristics needed to achieve those things and is therefore not entitled to them. Entitlement accrues to a person on the grounds of their success. In symbolic terms, the way to appeal to these people is in terms of opportunity, advantage, individuality, and the idea of just desserts for effort rendered.
On the other hand, the caricatured mitigationist (to coin the opposite term) grades society on its lower bound, by the extent to which the least successful members of the society are allowed to suffer by the more successful. They see the world as a dangerous, inhospitable place in which the default state is abject meanness, and humanity in negative terms of limiting those inhospitable forces, keeping out the cold and the hunger and the disease, while anything else is a bonus. Entitlement accrues to a person on the grounds of their humanity alone. The way to appeal to these people symbolically is in terms of compassion, brotherhood, sacrifice, cooperative achievement and that principle that none should suffer needlessly.

Emphasis added to identify the key symbolic points of the rhetoric around this budget, and highlight the fact that things are playing out exactly as you would expect. These battle lines were drawn long ago, and for all National’s “compassionate conservative” rebranding, there’s really nothing new in their focus here. They faced a clear choice between ambition and harm-mitigation, and chose according to their political identity. They simply don’t have a problem with the money proxy: it’s a measure as good as any other, and a nice clean “objective” one, because it’s determined by a market.

But I do. Following the first excerpt, I wrote:

This, to me, is not acceptable. If we cannot divorce the value of a person’s dignity, comfort and wellbeing from the monetary cost of sustaining it, what’s the purpose of society?

It’s bad in principle that people are treated (to a greater or lesser extent) as non-people by virtue of their material circumstances. And furthermore, I think it’s a bad decision in plain pragmatic utilitarian terms to attempt to swim against the economic tide and support ambition at the cost of significant harm:

Push comes to shove at times like this, when things are tight. When many people are deprived them, the human necessities of health, comfort and dignity can more readily be achieved by an idea of the common good than by the burning desire of ambition. […] In good times it’s easy to emphasise the greater good because a reasonable minimum standard can be expected to exist or be trivially provided for the few who need it. None need suffer except by a relative standard. In hard times, however, when raw success is less achievable, mitigating harm at the temporary expense of ambition becomes more valuable by its easy achievement.

So what we have with the budget, judging by the pre-release hype, is simply a return to form for the National party, and it should be countered by a return to form by the Labour party as well. National are retreating from the middle ground which won them the election and repairing to their reflexive, reptilian-brain adherence to the money proxy as an iron law of society. Labour must reclaim this ground; not that it ever really ceded it, rather permitting an occupation which is now beginning to withdraw.

The underlying calculation is a tradeoff of societal harm against economic growth. Another way of putting it, in more resonant terms, is: how much of society are we prepared to cannibalise, and for what gains, accruing to whom? This is the question around which Labour should orient its response. The words “many” and “few” will fit neatly into it.

L

Heartless commuters

datePosted on 13:33, March 5th, 2010 by Lew


Image used without permission (but with thanks!), by David Fawcett.

Earlier in the week, while having lunch with Pablo and his partner (and a good time it was, too), I mentioned that I’d been meaning to blog about the shambolic state of Wellington’s rail network.

Without straying too far into Poneke’s territory, I catch the train frequently, and rarely does a week go by without some sort of unexplained service failure, mysteriously absent or egregiously late train — sometimes but not always replaced by a bus, or a random stop in the middle of nowhere for half an hour or so. I’ve spent a lot of time — weeks at a stretch — on trains, mostly in Asia where they’re cheap and reasonably comfortable, range in speed from 50 to 350 kilometres per hour and are often simply the most efficient means of getting around.

Let’s just say that almost none of these things hold true in New Zealand. And out of respect for the look of incredulity those two Aucklanders gave me when I mentioned the Wellington network, I won’t complain too much about it, but instead draw your attention to this incredible blog about the travails of taking twins on the Auckland trains. Now, I don’t care much for mummy-blogging, but this is serious in a country which considers itself to civilised and populated by friendly and open people:

So on Thursday night it was with resignation that I saw that most of the seats in the wheelchair section were taken. True to form, most of the passengers carefully ignored us, though if they had just squeezed up a bit there would have been room to lift a seat up and park the twins. Instead I put the pushchair in the doorway (carefully working out which door on the express train would not be used until my stop in Papakura) and sat on the floor. I’d been on the go for 11 hours already, and Finn was awake and fussy. I sat him on my knee and talked to him to keep him happy and quiet. I’m well aware that other people don’t want to listen to grumpy babies on their way home, so I work damn hard to keep them entertained.
The passenger operator for our carriage, an older Indian man, had been up and down the aisle without comment several times. Shortly before Manurewa, three-quarters of the way home, Finn got hungry. I started breastfeeding him, this being what you do with hungry babies. Suddenly the passenger operator freaked out. He finally asked the passengers to move, since we could not sit there! We had to move! It was for security reasons! We had to move now!
I asked him to wait two seconds, as I knew Finn was nearly finished. The PO pulled the pushchair with Vieve asleep in it away from me and the door, then left it in the middle of the aisle without the brake on, leaving me to try to detach Finn hurriedly and discreetly, stand up on a moving train with a baby on my hip, stop the pushchair rolling away with my foot, lift up a seat and secure it, and park the pushchair.
I was angry, but at least I had a seat, and the bubs were out of the way. And then the PO CLICKED HIS FINGERS IN MY FACE, stormed past and slammed the carriage door.
Apparently he went to get the train manager, as next thing I had another large angry man in my face. Who told me I wasn’t entitled to be on the train with my children.
When I challenged him on that, he backtracked to say that I was endangering my children by taking them on the train when there wasn’t room, and he would never take HIS kids on the train like that. (Presumably, if I’m allowed out of the kitchen, I should hang around in town until 8pm when the trains are emptier?)

One thing about trains everywhere I’ve used them — even in China, which is among the rudest countries in the world — is that people tend to look after the frail and elderly, and women with babies,as a matter of some sort of civic responsibility. This is true to an extent on the Wellington buses and trains, so Auckland public transport users, what the hell is your problem? Is this the neoliberal atomisation about which people have been ruminating of late, or what?

L

A walking, talking, living advertisement

datePosted on 14:50, March 1st, 2010 by Lew

… for why civilised societies which hope to remain civilised don’t lock violent children up with hardened criminals in the hope that they’ll magically reform into model citizens.

I’m talking about Bailey Junior Kurariki, whose latest offences, according to criminologist John Pratt, are a sign he has become institutionalised. Of course, his victim’s mother doesn’t think so, and neither do the usual reactionaries. The other lot aren’t all that much better. But perhaps that’s to be expected: when the only tool your populist justice positioning allows you to wield is a hammer, even a screwed-up 12 year-old kid looks like a nail to be smacked down as hard as possible.

L

Life mimicking art: ask and tell

datePosted on 12:21, February 3rd, 2010 by Lew

Following President Obama’s undertaking in the State of the Union address, Admiral Michael Mullen (Chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff) and Robert Gates (US Secretary of Defense) have recommended an end to the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy preventing homosexuals from openly serving in the US military, in testimony to the Senate Armed Forces Committee. While the arguments are not quite the same, the general position and line of rhetoric (“the troops will get over it”) was memorably presented a decade ago in The West Wing:

All that having been said, it’s neither the Chairman nor the Secretary nor the President’s call. It’s for Congress to decide, and at present the bill is thirtyish votes shy of passing. But if it is done, this will be a genie of sorts; once out of the bottle, no force will put it back in. If the armed forces are even faintly representative of wider society, there will be thousands — tens of thousands, even — of demonstrably capable, patriotic, decorated soldiers, including perhaps some in the very highest ranks of the service who, while perhaps not having a coming-out parade, will nevertheless feel gradually more free to leave the closet. A future administration will court political and military ruin if it embarks on a witchhunt to purge them all from the nation’s ranks, particularly given the extensive nature of the USA’s current military deployments.

Update: Thanks to Hugh and Pablo (in comments) for correcting me on whose “call” it is.

L

Bhadge

datePosted on 23:12, December 19th, 2009 by Lew

I’ve been very busy again this past week, and so the list of things I want to write about copiously exceeds my ability to write about them. My promised post about internecine disputes is in very early draft form but I’ll try and get it finished soon. I still have a post planned looking at the wider implications of the foreshore and seabed review, but I think that’ll have to wait until after I’ve painted the roof.

yep_im_a_redneck_button-p145980559379977550q37f_400I also wanted to write a lot about the final outcome of the h debate, but find that my views have already been pretty well encapsulated by Andrew Geddis and Idiot/Savant. You should also read Scott Hamilton’s latest on the wider topic of Pākehā separatism.

Given that the decision declares both ‘Wanganui’ and ‘Whanganui’ correct, but mandates crown usage of ‘Whanganui’, there’s as clear an implicit statement as can be that the latter is more correct than the former. This has been clearly understood by TVNZ and Radio NZ, who have adopted the latter usage as a matter of editorial policy. They are owned by the crown, after all, and both just happen to be in direct competition with Laws and his media employer. Permitting both spellings but making this declaration as to primacy was a move as shrewd as it was elegant by Maurice Williamson — similarly to John Key’s decision to permit the flying of a Māori flag if only Māori could agree on one. Michael Laws, Tariana Turia and Ken Mair have all claimed victory, so everyone with an actual stake is nominally happy. The Standardistas and the KBR are furious, which is a pretty good sign. It obviates the strongest symbolic position occupied by Laws, the idea that Wellington is coercing Wanganui into doing its PC bidding. Wellington need not — the rest of the country will do that, because the use of the no-h word will be an identity marker, a statement, like a badge; not quite “Yep, I’m a redneck” but something approaching it. The thing is that Laws and his rump of greying die-hards do not simply face a disorganised and discredited bunch of radical natives; they find themselves standing against the inexorable tide of civil society and its evolution, a youthful and browning population for whom biculturalism is the norm and separatism stopped being cool a generation ago (if it ever was).

Who knew that all Michael Laws wanted for his cause was an emasculating partial endorsement and a prolonged death sentence? He could have saved everyone (and his own reputation) a great deal of trouble by making this plain at the beginning. In other circumstances, I would be angry about everyone having been taken for a ride — but as it stands, I’m mostly just quietly pleased that civil society’s tendency toward self-correction will be left to do its thing.

L

A simmering pot soon to boil?

datePosted on 17:08, December 19th, 2009 by Pablo

>>This post has been updated<<.

Is it me or is there a lot of simmering anger percolating in NZ? A church puts an “edgy” advert on a billboard in order to promote thought on the meaning of Christmas and it gets attacked  and vandalized four times while bible-bashers and fundies go ballistic in the blogosphere defending the attackers and condemning the perceived insult. The government allows a (not “the”) Maori flag to fly alongside the conventional national (post-colonial) standard, and people go bat crazy over the”affront.” Words and phrases like “traitor” and “real patriot” get thrown about, and even otherwise civilized commentators set to ranting in invective-laden terms. Meanwhile news reports speak of increased violence throughout the land, many times within families and whanau , but not exclusively among the poor and disadvantaged. Contrary to NZ’s supposed reputation, tales of corruption high and low are now almost daily occurrences (be it nepotistic or corporate). Were one to just read the press, racial and ethnic conflict is the norm (understanding that press coverage does not lead but responds to public perception). Drink driving blitzes nab dozens of people on the piss (in spite of blanket coverage caution messages and a host of cheap or free driver services), parties degenerate into riots for trifling reasons, bullies continue to thrive, acts of senseless stupidity of various sorts are carried out on the streets and roads by quick to rage groups and individuals, and the “me-first, the hell with the rest” attitude permeates social discourse and interaction–all during what is supposed to be the season of peace.

What is up with that? New Zealand may have problems, but it it is a country with no real enemies, a benign climate, spectacular scenery and ample natural resources, an egalitarian social culture, and a traditionally  “can-do” attitude and spirit of volunteerism. It has no existential threats, a history of (pretty) good ethnic relations, a preference for tolerance, compassion and understanding, and, perhaps until recently, a record of good governance and political transparency. All of these traits are considered to be the exact requirements for peace and social stability, and in fact are considered to be the best insurance against social disharmony and anger. 

And yet, NZ is exhibiting signs of a polarised society stretched at the seams. This is more than annoyance at “dole bludgers,” ” troughers” and assorted easy to scapegoat miscreants and “others.” It does not seem to be entirely related to unemployment rates, arguments about climate change, or concerns about immigration. It is more than being fed up about political correctness or neoliberalism (although both may contribute to the syndrome). Instead, this appears to be an increasingly generalised symptom of a pervasive malaise deep at the core of Kiwi society. In fact, I may be alarmist but I see this as a society inching towards the end of its civilized rope. I have my own opinion as to what caused the decline (and have previously posted on it), but this recent spate of visceral anger, even if cloaked in virtuous or self-righteous terms, speaks to something darker in the NZ psyche.

So I ask again: am I crazy or is there something seriously wrong at the core of NZ society, and if so, where does it come from?

Oh, and BTW–Happy Holidays!

A Note on Progressive Praxis in Aotearoa

datePosted on 18:15, December 12th, 2009 by Pablo

The recent debates engaged here and elsewhere on the “proper” course to be taken by NZ Left/progressive politics has given me pause to think about the larger issue of Left/progressive praxis in a country such as this. I am on record as defending the class line-first approach, whereas Lew has quite eloquently expressed the primacy of identity politics (and, it should be noted, I am not as hostile to Lew’s line of thought as some of his other critics). But I do not think that the debate covered the entirety of the subject of Left/progressive praxis, and in fact may have detracted from it.  Thus what follows is a sketch of my view of how Left/progressive praxis needs to be pursued in Aotearoa.

First, let’s set the stage. NZ is dominated by market-driven ideologies. In its social, cultural, political and economic expression, capitalism is the primary and undisputed organising principle. Counter-ideological resistance can be found in all of these domains, but the supremacy of capitalism as a social construct is clear. Even so, when compared with the 1990s, this supremacy is not as unshakable. The global financial crisis, corporate greed, predatory lending, financial market manipulation and fraud, increasing income disparities, assorted mendacious acts of venality and corruption have all contributed to a decline in the ideological legitimacy of market-driven logics, including those espoused by its political representatives. That provides a window of opportunity for Left/progressives, even if their traditional sources of strength in the union movement are no longer capable of exercising decisive leadership of a counter-hegemonic sort. Hence the need for a different type of praxis.

The Left/progressive cause needs to be organized into two branches: a political branch and a social movement branch. In turn, each branch needs to be divided into militant and moderate wings. The political branch would encompass Left/progressive political parties such as the Greens and the Alliance as well as fringe parties willing to cooperate in a common venture such as the Communists, Socialist Workers and the like. Because Labour is no longer a genuine Left Party, its inclusion is problematic, but it is possible that its leftist cadres could be invited to participate. The idea is to form a genuine Left/progressive political coalition that serves as a political pressure group on the mainstream parties while offering real counter-hegemonic alternatives to voters in selected districts. One can envision a Left coalition banner running slates in targeted districts with strong subaltern/subordinate group demographics. The idea is to present a Left/progressive alternative to the status quo that, at a minimum, pressures Labour out of its complacency and conformity with the pro-market status quo. At a maximum it will siphon disaffected voters away from Labour and into a genuine Left/progressive political alternative. This may be hard to do, but it is not impossible if properly conceived and executed.

In parallel, the social movement branch should encompass the now somewhat disparate assortment of environmental, union, animal welfare, indigenous rights, GBLT rights and other advocacy groups under the banner of common cause and reciprocal solidarity. The unifying pledge would be that of mutual support and advocacy. It goes without saying that the political and social movement branches will have areas of overlap in the guise of individuals with feet in each camp, but their strategic goals will be different, as will be their tactics. But each would support the other: the social movement branch would endorse and actively Left/progressive candidates and policy platforms; the Left/progressive political branch would support the social movement causes. This mutual commitment would be the basis for formal ties between and within each branch. 

That brings up the moderate-militant wings. Each branch needs to have  both moderate and militant cadres if they are to be effective in pursuing a common agenda. The moderate wings are those that appear “reasonable” to bourgeois society, and who engage their politics within the institutional confines of the bourgeois state. The militant wings, on the other hand, are committed to direct action that transgresses established institutional boundaries and mores. Since this involves transgressing against criminal as civil law (even if non-violent civil disobedience such as the Plowshares action against the Echelon listening post in Blenheim), the use of small group/cell tactics rooted in autonomous decentralized acts and operational secrecy are paramount for survival and success.  The need for militancy is simple: it is a hedge against co-optation. Political and social militants keep their moderate brethren honest, which in turn allows the moderate wings to exploit the political space opened by militant direct action to pursue an incremental gains agenda in both spheres.

For this type of praxis to work, the key issues are those of organization and contingent compromise. Endongeonously, all interested parties in each branch will have to be capable of organizational unity, which means that principle/agent issues need to resolved in pursuit of coherent collective action, presumably in ways that forestall the emergence of the iron law of oligarchy that permits vanguardist tendencies to predominate. There are enough grassroots leaders and dedicated organisers already operating in the NZ milieu. The question is whether they can put aside their personal positions and parochial concerns in the interest of broader gains. That means that exogenously, these actors will need to find common ground for a unified platform that allows for reciprocal solidarity without the all-to-common ideological and tactical hair-splitting that is the bane of Left/progressive politics. The compromise between the political and social movement branches is contingent on their mutual support, but is designed to prevent co-optation of one by the other (such as what has traditionally tended to occur). If that can be achieved, then strategic unity between the political and social movement branches is possible, with strategic unity and tactical autonomy being the operational mantra for both moderate and militant wings.

On the face of things, all of this may sound quite simplistic and naive. After all it is only a sketch, and far be it for me, a non-citizen pontificating from my perch in authoritarian Asia, to tell Kiwi Left/progressives how to conduct their affairs. It may, in fact, be impossible to achieve given the disparate interests and personalities that would come into play, to say nothing of the resistance to such a project by the political status quo, Labour in particular. But the failures of Left/progressive praxis in NZ can be attributed just as much to its ideological and organizational disunity as it can be to the ideological supremacy and better organization of the Right. Moreover, Labour is in a position where it can no longer ignore groups that it has traditionally taken for granted, to include more militant union cadres who are fed up with being treated as corporate lapdogs and political eunuchs. Thus the time is ripe for a re-evaluation of Left/progressive strategy and action, particularly since the NACTIONAL agenda is now being fully exposed in all of its profit-driven, privatization-obsessed glory. Perhaps then, it is a time for a series of Left/Progressive summits in which all interested parties can attempt to forge a common strategy of action. It may take time to hash out such a platform, but the political rewards of such an effort could be significant. After all, la union hace la fuerza: with unity comes strength.

‘Blue collars, red necks’: triply flawed

datePosted on 14:27, December 4th, 2009 by Lew
To those who stick up for their identity, socialism sticks up two fingers!

To those who stick up for their identity, socialism sticks up two fingers!

In the coming years, core tenets of socialist and indigenist faith will be tested. Labour, with its recently-adopted ‘blue collars, red necks’ strategy, has struck out along a path which requires a large slice of its core constituency — Māori — to search their political souls and choose between the renewed Marxist orthodoxy which privileges class above all else; and the progressive social movements developed over the past three or four decades which have produced a society tolerant enough to permit their unprecedented cultural renaissance.

The strategy indicated by Phil Goff’s speech appears to be substantially based on the simple calculus, most forthrightly argued by Chris Trotter, that ‘social liberals’ are fewer in number than ‘social conservatives’ among the proletariat, and therefore an appeal to ‘social conservatism’ will deliver more votes than the equivalent appeal to ‘social liberalism’. This is couched as a return to the old values of the democratic socialist movement — class struggle, and anything else is a distraction. But because the new political strategy is founded upon an attack on Māori, it requires that working class solidarity wins out over indigenous solidarity and the desire for tino rangatiratanga in a head-to-head battle. Māori must choose to identify as proletarians first and tangata whenua second. Similarly, the māori party’s alignment with National and subsequent intransigence on issues such as the Emissions Trading Scheme asks Māori to privilege their indigeneity over material concerns.

An article of faith of both socialist and indigenist movements is that their referent of political identity trumps others: that all proletarians are proletarians first, and that all indigenous people are indigenous people above all else. In the coming years, unless Labour loses its bottle and recants, we will see a rare comparison as to which is genuinely the stronger. Much of the debate which has raged over this issue, and I concede some of my own contributions in this, has been people stating what they hope will occur as if it surely will. For this reason the test itself is a valuable thing, because it provides an actual observable data point upon which the argument can turn.

A spontaneous interlude: I write this on the train into Wellington, in a carriage full of squirming, shouting, eight and nine year-olds on a school trip to the city. In a (rare) moment of relative calm, a few bars of song carried from the next carriage, and the tune was taken up enthusiastically by the — mostly Pākehā — kids in my carriage.

Tūtira mai ngā iwi (aue!)
Tātou, tātou e.
(In English:
Line up together, people
All of us, all of us.)

Read into this what you wish; one of life’s little rorschach tests.**

Clearly, I don’t believe Māori will abandon the hard-won fruits of their renaissance for a socialist pragma which lumps them and their needs in with everyone else of a certain social class, which in the long term would erase the distinction between tangata whenua and tangata Tiriti. This distinction will fade with time, but that time is not yet come. For this reason I believe the strategy is folly at a practical level. Add to which, the appeal to more conservative social values was always going to be strong among Māori and Pasifika voters, so the left and right hands (as it were) of the socialist conservative resurgence seem unaware of what the other is doing: with the left hand, it beckons them closer, and with the right it pushes them away.

My main objection to the ‘blue collars, red necks’ strategy is not practical — although that would be a sufficient cause for opposing it. The main reason is because of principle, and this question turns on an assessment of the left in politics. Trotter and other old-school socialists (and presumably Pagani and Goff and the current leadership of the Labour party) believe that the left has been hijacked over the past generation by non-materialist concerns and has lost its way as a consequence. I believe that the wider social concern with non-material matters has saved socialism from its own dogma.

Largely discredited as an economic system and its legacy irretrievably tarnished by the catastrophic failure of practically every implementation, socialist-aligned parties on the left have been forced to diversify from a strict focus on what’s in the pockets of the proletariat to what’s in their heads — what they care about and who they are, their identity beyond being ‘the proletariat’. In doing so these movements have embraced liberalism, social equality movements, and environmentalism, and the resulting blend, termed ‘progressivism’ has become part of the political orthodoxy, such that the political right must now pay at least some mind to these considerations if it is to remain viable. This broadening, and the progressive movement’s redefinition of what is right by its general and gradual rejection of racism, sexism, sexual and religious discrimination, among others, has been hugely beneficial to society. For reasons of principle, it should not be discarded out of cynical political expedience.

Furthermore, maintenance of the social liberal programme has strategic, pragmatic value. It has enabled left political movements to broaden their support base and engage with groups often marginalised from politics, breaking the previously zero-sum rules. The modern Labour party has built its political church upon this rock of progressive inclusion, broadening its support base by forming strategic alliances with Rātana from the time of the First Labour Government and less formally with the Kīngitanga and other Māori groups, to which the party owes a great deal of its political success. The progressive programme has broadened to include other groups historically marginalised by the conservative establishment. For Labour to shun its progressive history and return to some idealised socialist pragma of old by burning a century of goodwill in order to make cheap electoral gains by emulating their political opponents is the same transgression many on the economic left have repeatedly levelled against the māori party, and with some justification: selling out one’s principles for the sake of political expedience is a betrayal, and betrayals do not go unpunished. In this case, the betrayal is against the young, who will rapidly overtake the old socialist guard as the party’s future; and Māori, who will rapidly overtake the old Pākehā majority in this country’s future. The socialists might applaud, but Labour represents more than just the socialists, and it must continue to do so if it is to remain relevant.

So, for my analysis, the ‘blue collars, red necks’ strategy fails at the tactical level, because it asks Māori to choose their economic identity over their cultural identity; it fails at the level of principle, because it represents a resort to regressive politics, a movement away from what is ‘right’ to what is expedient; and it fails at the level of strategy, because by turning its back on progressivism the party publicly abandons its constituents, and particularly those who represent the future of NZ’s politics, who have grown up with the Labour party as a progressive movement. It is triply flawed, and the only silver lining from the whole sorry affair is that (again, if Goff and Pagani hold their nerve) we will see the dogmatic adherence to class tested and, hopefully once and for all, bested.

L

* Of course, Goff claims it is no such thing. But Trotter sees that it is and is thrilled, and John Pagani’s endorsement of Trotter’s analysis reveals rather more about the strategic direction than a politician’s public assurance.

** I see this as an expression of how normalised Māori-ness is among young people, and as much as can be said from the actions of nine-year-olds, an indicator of NZ’s political future.

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