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The post on the death of the NZ political Left has elicited a fair bit of commentary. That is good, because my purpose in writing it as a polemic was to foster debate about the internal weakness of the NZ Left and possible solutions to that problem. I did not discuss all of the negative externalities that work against a revival of the Left, but many others have, both in the comments on the original post as well as in the commentary in places like The Standard. In fact, some of the discussion in the thread on the original post as well as the Standard thread has been very good.

Needless to say, the right wing blogosphere loved the post. Kiwiblog, Keeping Stock and Whaleoil jumped at the opportunity to put the boot in. I commented on the Kiwiblog thread, where I was accused of defining what the “real” and “fake” Left were and of being one of those people who denigrate anything that does not fit their narrow definition of what being “Left” means. One nice person on the Standard derided me for being a “defeatist” and engaging in “self-flagellation.” This kind soul also harked to the idealism and determination of Nelson Mandela and Martin Luther King to show that we should not give up the fight, perhaps forgetting that Mandela renounced socialism once he became president (supposedly to protect democracy) and MLK –never a Leftist, he–got shot for his troubles long before racial equality was achieved in the US. Anyway, it was all quite entertaining.

Now Chris Trotter has entered the fray with this exposition: http://thedailyblog.co.nz/2014/01/23/theres-plenty-left-chris-trotter-responds-to-paul-buchanans-critique-of-the-new-zealand-left/

I wrote a response but it was not published by the Daily Blog administrator. Since my comment on Chris’s rejoinder was submitted more than 15 hours ago and 29 other comments have appeared, I assume that it will not be published, so I shall re-print it here:

“Fair rejoinder, but a bit off the mark.

The point of my polemic was to stir debate about the internal weaknesses of the NZ Left that have neutered it as a political alternative to the capitalist socio-political project. Besides the abandonment of a broad working class focus and socialist principles by the institutionalized Left (the party-union nexus) in favour of more narrow po-mo concerns and piecemeal challenges to the market-driven project, there is the factionalization, in-fighting, oligarchical leadership and general political insignificance of the activist Left. This opens the door to opportunists and charlatans to claim ideological leadership within the Left as a vehicle for self-interested advancement.

I see the cultural Left as having significance, but as a political force nether it or much of the informed Left commentariat have much political sway. And when some of that commentariat quietly seek remunerated ties to political actors who are the antithesis of everything socialism stands for, well, that is unfortunate.

So no, I do not share your optimism, but I am far from defeatist by directly addressing what I see as the elephants in the NZ Left room. Self-criticism and self-assessment are good things to do in good times and bad, and in my view the current moment is bad for the NZ Left.

Some of the commentary on the original post address ways to recapture the moment.

I do like your use of Gramsci though. Shallow as it may be in the context of this rejoinder, it points to the necessity of waging an effective counter-hegemonic war of position within the system, using what is given as instruments of usurpation of the ideological status quo.”

I should note that in his post Chris waxes positive about the Labour Party, the Greens, Mana and the CTU. In doing so he helps make my original case: none of these organizations are “Left” in the sense of being socialist or even primarily worker-focused, whatever they may have been at their inception. They may use socialist rhetoric and act “progressive” when compared to National and its allies, and they may be a better choice for Left-leaning people when it comes to electoral preferences and collective representation, but the hard fact is that play the game by the rules as given, do not challenge the system as given and, to be honest, just chip away around the superstructural margins of the edifice that is NZ capitalism.

Although I believe that the NZ political left is comatose if not dead, this does not mean that it cannot be revived or resurrected. As I said to a commentator on my original post, Keynesian economics in liberal democracies led to a 60 year period of class compromise that replaced the politics of class conflict extant prior to 1930. The so-called neo-liberal project in NZ was trialled under authoritarian conditions in places like Chile (yes Chris, I do remember Pinochet in part because his economic policies were emulated by Roger Douglas and company and marked the turn towards feral market-driven policy that persists in NZ today despite your protestations). It if founded on a direct return to the politics of class conflict, this time initiated by the upper bourgeoisie operating from an advantaged global position against the organized working classes via regressive labor legislation and the privatization of state provided welfare, health and education programs.

Many say the neoliberal elite are hegemonic when doing so. I disagree, in part because unlike Chris (who threw some Antonio Gramsci quotes into his rejoinder) I have spent a lot of time studying Gramsci’s concept of “egemonia,” (hegemony, or ideological leadership by consent) specifically its difference with the concept of “dominio” (domination, or rule by submission or acquiescence). Giovanni Tiso wrote a comment of Chris’s post that captures just a part of why Chris went a bit to far with his misuse of the words of the person who coined the non-Leninist interpretation of that special concept amongst the po-mo Left. I mention this because the entire thrust of Chris’s rejoinder read more like an instance of intellectual one-upmanship rather than a reasoned counter-argument.

The fact is that the current ideological dominance of the market-focused elite is only hegemonic in the measure that the political Left allows it to be. In NZ fair-minded people obey but do not consent to the system as given. In my view internal problems in the Left prevent it from presenting a viable counter-argument, much less counter-hegemonic alternative to the contemporary status quo.

It may not be armed conflict but the NZ market project, be it subtle, buffered or stark, is a war against the working classes, one that is based on the atomization of said classes via the destruction of class-based unions and ideological diversions that promote narrow sectoral representation based upon collective assumptions about the primacy of individual self-interest over solidarity, and which privileges greed over empathy.

In comments on the original post I offer some limited suggestions about a new Left praxis in NZ. I  am sure that there are many other avenues to explore along those lines. The market-driven project (which is no longer “neoliberal” in the original sense of the term), was an obvious and transparent return to the politics of class conflict, with preferential terms dictated by the financial elite.

No matter how dominant this ideology is at this moment, it opens a window of opportunity for the NZ Left, if it knows how to take the advantage. Rather than a monolithic compendium of all that is impossible to those born wrong, it renders bare the inegalitarian and exploitative foundations of the current socio-economic order as well as the abjectly quisling nature of the political elite that support it.

One final thought. I do not object to Leftists trying to earn a living, even if that means working in capitalist institutions on capitalist terms. I have to do so.

I do not even mind Leftists who live off of trust funds or marry well. In fact, I do not object to Leftists taking up paid work for non-Left parties as part of a tactical alliance against a common enemy or as a way of learning about the enemy from within.

I believe that those on the Left, much more so than those on the Right, need to be upfront about these apparent contradictions. They need to understand that touching power is not the same as confronting, much less wielding it. That is why I object to concealment of financial relationships between capitalist economic and political entities and those who publicly proclaim themselves to be Lions of the Left and champions of the dispossessed and voiceless.

My bottom line? We all have contradictions in our lives. For those on the Left the contradictions of living in a capitalist society can be overwhelming at times. It is how we resolve our ideological contradictions that separates the honest from the hypocritical.

 

El Chavismo sin Chavez.

datePosted on 12:23, March 6th, 2013 by Pablo

I am sure that there will be plenty of eulogies, some fawning and some harsh, for Hugo Chavez. Since I spent a good part of my academic career writing about Latin American politics, to include the nature of national populists such as Chavez and a bit about his regime itself, I am well aware of his shortcomings and strengths. It is in the nature of national populism to be redistributive, mass mobilizational and increasingly authoritarian. As a left-wing variant, the Chavez regime was all of those things, and the fact that the US supported the 2002 coup against him only cemented the increasingly authoritarian direction of the regime. But his authoritarianism was mass rather than elite-based, and it was this mass support that carried him through three terms and four elections. He was no tin pot despot. His rule was a bit more complicated than that of, say, Robert Mugabe, who took a popular national independence movement and turned it into an armed clan-based kleptocracy.

The Achilles heel of national populism is the personalist nature of executive rule. Peron, Vargas, Cardenas and Chavez–all increasingly concentrated power in their own hands, thereby removing institutional checks and balances as well as clear lines of authority and succession. That could be the undoing of the Boliviarian experiment.

After the 2002 coup Chavez purged the military and civilian state bureaucracy of professionals and populated the upper ranks with acolytes. This decreased the efficiency and capabilities of state agencies, both armed and unarmed. He increasingly relied on Cubans for behind the scenes leadership of his internal security services, including his personal bodyguards. He played divide and conquer with his parliamentary counterparts at the same time that he re-jigged the constitution to increase the length of his presidential terms as well as the electoral prospects of his political party. He populated the judiciary with supporters and increasingly restricted freedoms of public expression and the press. He trained and armed supporter militias organized along the lines of the Cuban Auto-Defense Committees. Some of these have been accused of intimidating and assaulting members of the political opposition.

He used inclusionary state corporatist mechanisms of interest group administration that bestowed favor and patronage on supportive groups and excluded or punished non-supportive groups (which thereby polarized civil society organizations). This allowed for top-down direction of the thrust of state policy and funding directed at civil society, but it also gradually surpressed independent and autonomous expressions of grassroots interest.

All of this was justified on the grounds that he faced a disloyal opposition aided and abetted by hostile foreign powers, the US in particular. Although there is an element of paranoia in those claims, there is also a large grain of truth to them. The hard fact is that just the appearance of socialist inclinations on Chavez’s part sent the US into knee-jerk opposition, something that was particularly acute under the Bush 43 administration and was not undone once Obama was elected.

Chavez did much good for Venezuela, particularly in the fields of health, education, welfare and community organization. During his time in power infant mortality rates dropped and literacy rates increased dramatically. The percentage of Venezuelans living in poverty dropped from 50 percent to below 30 percent in ten years. Rural hospitals and schools were built where there previously were none. His regime kept the price of domestic petrol cheap (as it could as a major oil-producing and refining nation), which allowed the poorest segments of the population to weather rises in the price of imported commodities.

In spite of the claims of his detractors, he won four elections handily and relatively cleanly in the eyes of most international election observers. His tenure marks a major historical moment in Venezuelan life, and his legacy will be indelible on it. Whatever his authoritarian tendencies, he was no Pinochet or Somoza. Although his regime selectively repressed the opposition, it did not systematically torture or kill. Nor did it expropriate all private wealth, although it did seek to raises upper-income taxes, nationalize some strategic assets and prevent capital flight via financial controls. Needless to say, this earned him the emnity of Venezuelan elites and their foreign supporters.

He was a close ally of the Cuban regime, but given the common hostility of the US, that was born as much out of necessity than it was out of ideological affinity (truth be told, Raul Castro always thought of Chavez as a buffoon but Fidel was flattered by his attention and both were grateful for his cheap oil supplies. The Cubans worried that he would provoke a confrontation with the US that would suck them in and destabilize them).

He expanded Venezuela’s diplomatic, economic and military relations (towards China, Russia and Iran in particular, but also with other Latin American states) so as to counter-balance the traditional US-focused obsequiousness of his predecessors. He was the motor force behind the solidarity market Latin American trade bloc known as the Boliviarian Alliance for the Americas (ALBA), which among other things rejected IMF and World Bank financial prescriptions. He had  significant Latin American popular and governmental support, which was mirrored in international media coverage.

He is alleged to have cultivated relations with Hezbollah and the Iranian Revolutionary Guard.

He presided over the deterioration of Venezuela’s core infrastructure, to include its oil production facilities (in which foreign investment dried up in response to his nationalization policies), as well as a dramatic rise in violent crime (Caracas has one of the highest murder rates in the world). He did not stop corruption but merely shifted it in favor of those who wear red berets. Venezuelan consumption of Scotch whisky, already the highest in the world when he assumed power in 1999, increased steadily from then on. He was unable to curb the Venezuelan obsession with female plastic surgery and beauty queens. So not all is well in the Boliviarian Republic. I shall leave it for others to debate the trade-offs involved and the pros and cons of his regime.

On balance, in the Latin American scheme of things Hugo Chavez was a relatively moderate caudillo (strongman) with a staunch independent and redistributive streak and majority popular support until the end.

The real problem at the moment is that his movement has no natural leader to succeed him. Moreover, he was the ideological glue of the regime: it was his vision, his praxis, the drew the course of events. With him gone the ideological basis of the regime is subject to interpretation by contending personalities and factions within the Boliviarian movement. His designated Vice President, Nicolas Maduro, has no independent power base, much less broad support within the Party. He has a serious rival in Diosdado Cabello, a former Army colleague of Chavez’s who is the head of the National Assembly. Cabello has support within the military, whereas Maudro’s support comes from within the union movement and public bureaucracy. Yet neither is visibly stronger than the other, so the backroom maneuvering and in-fighting has begun in earnest (and in fact began when Chavez returned to Cuba for surgery last December).

To this can be added the opposition, which rallied around the figure of Henrique Caprilles Radonski in the October 2012 elections that saw Chavez elected for the fourth time. A presidential election is supposed to be held 30 days  after the public announcement of Chavez’s death (March 5). Riding a wave of grief, unity and solidarity, Maduro is the favorite to win that election if he is a candidate. It will be interesting to see if Maduro can maintain his grip on power before or after the elections in the absence of support for his mandate, however electorally affirmed. One thing is certain: Maduro is no Chavez, and everyone knows that.

Caprilles might not run in the immediate elections so as to delegitimize them and allow the Boliviarian in-fighting to proceed unimpeded and without a common political enemy to focus on. Whatever happens over the short-term, the bigger question is whether the Boliviarian experiment can outlive its creator. Can there be Chavismo without Chavez? Given the dynamics at play within and without the Boliviarian regime, the odds are not entirely favorable.

For the time being we will be treated to the grand spectacle of a Venezuelan state funeral, where the streets will be awash in red and the dignitaries will include a who’s who of US adversaries and critics, Hollywood leftists and very few heads of state from the developed capitalist world. As for Chavez–will his afterlife smell of sulphur or of something more pleasant?

Maori Socialism versus Maori Capitalism?

datePosted on 13:18, February 6th, 2013 by Pablo

Woe be it for me to venture into the minefield of Maori politics on Waitangi Day. Yet the ructions around “Escortgate” at Te Tii Marae got me to thinking that perhaps there is more to the story than arguments within Ngapuhi and the inevitable displays of division that seem to mark the yearly event. At risk of stating the obvious, it is not just about different forms of identity politics.

Instead, what may be on display is the fundamental conflict between what might be called maori socialism and maori capitalism. By that I mean maori identity superimposed on a class base. Maori socialism is a view that is working class and lumpenproletarian in perspective, while Maori capitalism is propertied and bourgeois in orientation. The Hareweras and the Mana Party are a good examples of the former while the Maori Party and entities such as the so-called “Brown Table,” to say nothing of numerous trusts and boards, constitute examples of the latter. The conflict between them is not so much rooted in personalities, iwi and hapu (although there is clearly a strong element of that), but in fundamental differences in economic perspective and the proper approach to the Pakeha-dominated socio-economic and political status quo.

To be clear, I am not referring in this instance to pure forms of socialist or capitalist thought. Communal and egalitarian beliefs are as strongly represented in maori economics and society as are ownership and hierarchy. In the realm of Maori politics it seems that hybrid approaches rooted in one or the other ideological perspective have come to dominate political discourse. But the broad division between “Left” and “Right” seem fairly distinct.

The “militant” (although it is not truly that), “socialist” (although it is also not really that) approach is to largely reject the Pakeha rules of the game as given while working on what generously can be called a war of position strategy: raising consciousness amongst subaltern groups within whom lower class maori constitute the core around which issues of praxis are addressed. In this strategy alliances with Pakeha leftists are feasible because the ideological line vis a vis the common class enemy is roughly the same.

The “moderate” (phrased nicely) capitalist approach is one of pragmatic accommodation and incremental gains within the elite system as given. Alliance with Pakeha elites is possible given the division of potential spoils available in a system constructed by and for elites, but which increasingly has the potential to be colour and ethnicity-blind. Here the strategy is also one of a war of position, but in this case from within rather than from without.

Needless to say, there is some blurring between the two (e.g. Mana plays within the institutional rules of the political system and the Maori Party is not averse to relying on extra-institutional means of getting their point across). There are also significant agent-principal problems on both sides.

Even so, it seems that the main source of conflict within maoridom is grounded in class orientation and its corresponding strategic approach as much if not more than anything else. Put vulgarly in leftist terms, it is a conflict between the staunch and the sell-outs. Put bluntly in capitalist terms, it is a conflict between losers and realists.

From a practical standpoint, the underlying class differences are more difficult to resolve than other aspects of maori identity. It is in the Pakeha elite interest to keep things so.

Given my ignorance of Maori politics I could be wrong. I defer to Lew, Anita and more informed readers in any event. My intent is not to stir.  Instead, this post is written as an inquiry rather than a statement. Your views on the issue are therefore welcome.

The Asiafication of New Zealand production.

datePosted on 16:04, November 13th, 2012 by Pablo

Reports that New Zealanders are working longer hours with more responsibilities and little if any overtime pay, are less unionized and more casualized (part time) than any time before in the country’s modern history suggests that not only has the national model of accumulation changed. It suggests that the labor market and labor process have fundamentally changed as well. The trend towards increased exploitation of human labor as an input commodity, added to an increasing lack of employer concern for the social costs imposed on workers by super-explotation and the long-term nurturing of employees as productive assets, is reminiscent of something that Marx wrote about a long time ago: the Asiatic mode of production.

I have written about the Asiatic mode of production before on this site, differentiating it from Oriental despotism and referring to my observations about Singapore when I lived there in recent years. The core of the model centers on an abundance of cheap and easily replaced human labor. This labor is used instead of machines or other labor saving devices because it costs less in terms of initial investment and long-term maintenance, although it is less efficient in terms of productive output generated by individual laborers. The labor market is dominated by employer “flexibility” in hiring and firing and setting wages, working terms and conditions. Workers are treated as expendable commodities, not as assets. In Singapore this was done via the importation of foreign labor from the sub-continent and Southeast Asia (not to be confused with the foreign “talent,” mostly Anglo-Saxon, that is imported to staff corporate upper management in the island state).

In New Zealand it is accomplished by maintaining unemployment rates at sufficiently high levels so as to have a labor surplus in semi-skilled and unskilled, middle to lower income, mostly youth and entry-level  positions. Creation of lower minimum wage sub-categories (such as the youth wage) and lowering wage requirements for casual or part time work reduces labor input costs. Dropping of social welfare benefits forces people into the job market out of necessity rather than choice, adding to the numbers of the unemployed seeking work. Loosening of the regulatory environment in which most workers work gives them less legal grounds for grievance across a range of issues, from workplace safety to wages.

The combination of factors allow for the easy replacement of semi-skilled and unskilled labor (and in some instances, skilled workers such as academics), which increases the employment uncertainty and precariousness of the work force. That makes employees malleable to employer demands for more wage restraint, more task assignments, more productive output per employee and hence more working hours with little extra pay or benefits. For employees in a labor market characterized by work scarcity, loose regulations and employment precariousness, increasingly onerous jobs are not easy to give up (tragically, Pike River comes to mind). On the other hand, for employers it is a take it or leave it proposition. If workers want better pay or conditions, they can look elsewhere.

The deliberate undermining of collective bargaining by successive National governments (which the Fifth Labour government did not fully restore) and the decreasing role of unions in the labor process plays into this scenario. Less means of collective defense in the face of of the labor market shifts described above leads to atomization of the work force into a mass of uncoordinated and stratified individual opportunity seekers. As the opportunistic ethos takes hold and replaces the collective solidarity ties of previous generations, it reinforces the Asiafication trend.

An important aspect of the trend is immigration demographics. Since New Zealand is labor poor it must import foreign workers in order to grow. The historical use of unskilled Pacifika labor in New Zealand is well known. But what is interesting in recent years is the turn to Asian sources for all types of labor, most of it semi-skilled and skilled. Regardless of specific provenance, Asian immigrants are much less familiar with Western labor market rights and responsibilities and in fact are eminently susceptible to the labor process conditions outlined in the Asiafication model. Moreover, where working class benefits have accrued in Asia, much of that has been done via strong collective action (such as in South Korea) and/or via paternalistic state policies (such as in Singapore). In New Zealand neither of those factors have obtained in recent decades.

The increasingly non-Western immigration demographic appears to be easing the consolidation of the Asiafication trend. New Asian immigrants, schooled in authoritarian modes of production at home, arrive in New Zealand eager to work, relatively ignorant of their rights and less inclined to complain about employment terms and working conditions. To these can be added immigrants from Central Asia and the Middle East, who also have come from mostly authoritarian and highly stratified societies where workers know their place in the social hierarchy and where the concept of collective and individual rights is narrowly construed.

This mass of new arrivals, to include the first generation born and raised in New Zealand, add highly motivated opportunity seekers into the labor market mix. Although some may be refused work because of racism or difficulty with language, the larger trend is to increase competition for the relatively scare available jobs and in doing so lower the overall wage bill. That leads to more income inequality between workers as producers of value and the managerial consumers of their commodified labor.

Another way of looking at the issue is in terms of consent. Over the years Western workers have seen their material threshold of consent, which is the general expectation of fair treatment in the workplace and fair remuneration for providing their labor services, institutionalized in labor law and labor market practices. It includes access to collective representation and bargaining and state enforcement of workplace health, safety and other basic standards for working conditions and pay. What the Asiafication process does is lower worker’s expectations of “fair” treatment in the labor process, which in turn lowers their overall material threshold of consent. Reinforced by institutional and structural shifts that are reproduced over time, this further subordinates the salaried classes to the logics of capital as defined by investors and asset owners.

Asiafication also shows workers their “proper” place. After years of contesting capitalist domination of the political and economic system via party competition reinforced by union collective action in an effort to level the socio-economic playing field, Asiafication helps restore the overt social hierarchies that underpin the capitalist class system and which were camouflaged by design in democratic welfare states.

For employers (as sellers of cheapened labor, value added products), the result of Asiafication is lower price outputs across the board (be it in services, manufacturing or primary good-derived exports). That makes them competitive in the global market of production, service and exchange.

The result for workers is a vicious circle in the social division of labor as well as in production: a labor market created by an economic and political decision-making elite who see modern variants of the Asiatic mode of production as the wave of the future and something to emulate (however hard that is to do under democratic conditions), coupled with an increasingly non-Western immigration demographic that is historically familiar with the “flexible” labor market dynamics inherent in that model and its contemporary applications and which does not necessarily see the Asiatic mode of production, including intense social stratification and opportunistic individualism, as a bad thing. Under such conditions the race to the bottom begins in earnest.

It should also be noted that the Asiafication of New Zealand production facilitates the increasingly Asian focus of New Zealand trade and investment strategy. The push to increase investment in and trade with Asian and other non-Western countries has its domestic complement in the alterations to local labor market conditions. Asian investors who otherwise might be put off by Western labor market standards and regulations can now see something more familiar in the New Zealand labor market, which is becoming more akin to what they are used to in their home countries. That eases the way for the inward flow of non-Western capital into New Zealand’s productive apparatus, something that contractually reinforces local commitment to the Asiaification model.

I am not a labor economist or sociologist, much less an expert on immigration. I am sure that there are exceptions to the trend. The knowledge economy may still be around and centers of productive excellence perhaps abound. It is clear that the welfare state labor market model is kaput. It is equally clear that there are significant variations in Asian and other non-Western labor market standards that argue against making gross generalizations. Even so, there is a discernible trend at play when it comes to New Zealand’s labor market, and that trend derives from or at least resembles modern variants of the labor market typology associated with the larger structural model known as the Asiatic mode of production.

It also seems to me that there is something amiss about a purported liberal democracy that so energetically pursues a model of accumulation that at its core is dependent on a highly exploitative labor process in which material short-term gains for employers is emphasized over the long-term employment security and welfare of workers. After all, the rewards of the former accrue to the few, even if there is some trickle down to the masses. But the long-term stability of democratic society depends on having relatively contented working and middle classes who invest in their jobs not only for immediate gain (or relief), but to help secure the next generation’s material well-being. If that is no longer feasible due to the conditions of production, then something will have to give.

Absent an authoritarian regression along the lines seen in certain Asian political economic models (which would have to include major changes in the basic socialization mechanisms of the citizenry, be they new immigrants or not), it seems to me that the Asiafication of New Zealand production will become untenable over the long-run. Long term disenchantment with economic exploitation turns opportunity seekers into the politically disillusioned, and it is the politically disillusioned who, however apathetic at first, eventually agitate the most for substantive change. Under competitive electoral conditions that means that the politically disillusioned become a potential support base for reform-mongerers and the parties that best represent them.

In summary, I believe that the current Asiafication of New Zealand production is a short-term, market elite-driven solution to a perceived problem of competitiveness that is not sustainable even with the changing national demographic based on non-Western immigration trends. I believe so because I do not think that the elites of New Zealand are prepared or inclined to engage in the authoritarian measures required to impose a new social division of labor consonant with modern variants of the Asiatic mode of production. Absent the will or the way to add Orientalism to the equation, there will be an inevitable political backlash to the Asiafication model that will see its undoing in favor of a labor market that is less exploitative and more attuned to long-term social gains rather than short term business profit.

It will be a good day when that happens. I just hope that it happens in my life time.

 

On “average”

datePosted on 20:44, May 25th, 2012 by Lew

The New Zealand Herald’s archetypal “average” Kiwi family, the Ray family of Sandringham East, has declared the 2012 Budget “sensible and unspectacular”, probably the strongest endorsement Bill English could have hoped for. But let’s look at what this article signifies.

First and most obviously, the article makes something of the fact that the average income in Sandringham East is nearly identical to the average income across Auckland as a whole — not quite $27,000 per annum* — but the Ray family income is about four times that, $105,000. If both adults were in paid work, their income level would be about twice the average. But the article says that Amanda Ray is a full-time stay-at-home mum, from which we can reasonably assume that Alistair Ray’s income is four times the median on its own. Income level: not “average”.

The figures given for income, and for the decile rating of the local school, date from “the last census”, which was held in 2006. Census data from 2011, had it been held, would probably not yet have been released anyway, so that’s not really a factor — but the data is six years out of date in any case. The principal of the local school says the area is “gentrifying” and the middle-of-the-road decile 5 status is likely to be revised upwards. Suburb: not “average”. [Edit to add: the school decile rating doesn't necessarily support this conclusion; see Graeme Edgeler's comment explaining deciles, below.]

Alistair Ray is an urban designer, and Amanda has a doctorate in cancer research. I’m not sure of the qualifications required to become an urban designer, but I think it’s safe to assume that it requires postgraduate study to honours — probably master’s — level. Education: not “average”.

Education is just one aspect of social capital more generally. The Rays immigrated relatively recently from the UK. Their language is our language; their qualifications and experience are accepted here without question; many of our social norms and customs, and our legal and political systems are very similar to those of the UK, having been largely derived from the institutions of the Old Country. This is hardly uncommon — roughly a third of immigrants to NZ come from the UK — but neither is it typical. Immigrants from Asia and the Pacific (combined) make up a higher proportion, and these groups do not enjoy the same degree of familiarity that British immigrants do. Social capital: not “average”.

None of this is any sort of criticism of the Ray family. I have no doubt that they are honest, hardworking, skilled and decent folk who are committed to this country, who make a valuable contribution to it, and are as entitled as anyone else to express opinions on its government. They are welcome here. The Herald chose to frame them as an “average” family, though, and by these metrics they are not an “average” family. I think it is fair to characterise the Rays as an “aspirational” family.

And that, I think, answers the implicit question of whose view the Herald’s coverage seeks to express, and whose interests yesterday’s budget serves. The elision of “average” and “aspirational” is, I think, the single most powerful shift in this country’s political discourse in the past five years — since John Key took the National party leadership. This piece of terminology (and its close cousin, “ambitious”) dominated the 2008 election campaign, and while it has tailed off more recently, the policy settings the government has chosen demonstrate that it is still a core theme of their ideological project. This government does not speak to, or for “average” New Zealanders — it speaks to, and for “aspirational” New Zealanders, and in this article the Herald does not really speak to, or for “average” New Zealanders — it speaks to, and for “aspirational” New Zealanders. Blurring ideas of “aspiration” almost interchangeably with ideas of “average” defines an “us” in which nearly everyone includes themselves, persuading “average” people that the government speaks for, and to them, even though the policy programme yields them no direct advantage whatsoever. At the same time, it permits the government and others to define anyone who fails to “aspire” hard enough, for whatever reason — a lack of education or financial or social capital, chronic illness or disability, or a history of abuse, mental illness or repression, poor choices or simply bad fortune — as an unperson. So defined, the state can with relative impunity dismantle the system of benefits, state assistance and remedial advantage that, in the final analysis, enables more of the population to become genuinely “aspirational”.

That bell probably can’t be un-rung. I think we are stuck with this elision, and this delusion that everyone can be above-average — it’s normal, and expected, and if you aren’t, you’re a failure. That’s a concerning prospect.

L

* I should at least give credit to Simon Collins for using the median, rather than the mean with regard to income — many, including the government, are not so scrupulous.

Accumulation versus Distribution.

datePosted on 17:42, March 9th, 2012 by Pablo

The bottom line of any political economy resolves around the question of accumulation versus distribution. Productive activity that generates surpluses (profits) can be accumulated by those who control the means of production (workers or capitalists), or can be distributed throughout the larger community in which production is located. In capitalist system decisions about accumulation and distribution are done by capitalists. Workers organizations fight or bargain for better distribution of profits. Capitalists would prefer to accumulate for their own consumption. Because production is essential for the material standards of everyone, in democracies capitalists and workers negotiate the proper ratio of profits saved to profits distributed. Once distribution has occurred (via wages, benefits and the like) the saved part of profit is re-invested or “taken” by capitalists (owners) for personal use. Both sides adopt minimax negotiating strategies by making maximum claims on the preferred ratio, then settling for a mutually acceptable minimum. By doing so neither wages or profit-taking rise too recklessly or out of proportion to productive gains or inflation, as that would lead to inefficiencies and potential social unrest.

Or so the system is supposed to work. Depending on relative political balances and the specific location of a given productive sector in the capitalist world cycle at any specific moment, workers or capitalists may have structural and political advantages to play in their favor. Workers will attempt to maximize distribution in the form of job security and wage and benefit gains; capitalists will attempt to maximize accumulation by rolling back worker’s redistributive gains.

For the last twenty-five years logics of accumulation and profit-taking have dominated macroeconomic thought. Workers have steadily seen their distributive gains eliminated. As the process has deepened capitalists have pushed not only to reduce the material aspects of the distributive process. Sensing a favorable economic and political environment in places like New Zealand, they are launching attacks on the rights to collectively organize in defense of distributive stakes or goals. Capitalists well understand that for people to have economic rights they must have political rights.  The right to organize collectively is a political right. Reduce that right and previously held economic rights are more easily curtailed or eliminated. The more the concept of economic rights based on distribution is pushed towards a minimalist definition (encapsulated in the saying “you are lucky to have a job”), the more workers will limit their distributive demands in the quest for basic subsistence. The more that they do so the more working class internal competition will further push down the overall wage bill and increase job insecurity. The process of “casualisation” is the result of that trend, with “labor flexibilisation” being the managerial jargon used to describe employment precariousness.

Today in New Zealand the scales are tipped in favor of accumulation over distribution. The political and economic elite (including many in the Labour Party leadership) overtly side with the logics of accumulation argued by capitalists. They accept the reasoning that in the current global economic moment distribution to workers is contrary to future growth. Thus they accept that not only worker’s distributive demands but their political rights must be curtailed in order for economic benefit to occur. Of course, that benefit accrues to capitalists rather than workers, and if the low rates of re-investment in many productive sectors is anything to go by, profit-taking out of accumulated surpluses have been very good for capitalists indeed.

None of this is particularly new or surprising, even if recent labor conflicts had led to commentary about an impending class war in New Zealand, among other places. What is happening today is just the logical conclusion of a process of market-driven accumulation that began in the 1980s and which is reaching deep into the foundations of modern political economies today. The purpose is to forever privilege accumulation over distribution, and to ensure the political conditions in which workers can no longer challenge that logic or have a say in fixing the “equilibrium” ratio of accumulation to distribution.

Such a system has long been noticed and understood by the materialist school of class conflict. It is called the Asiatic Mode of Production, which relies on super-exploitation of human labor for accumulation gains. Given that New Zealand’s original market ideologues borrowed some of their policy prescriptions from the Chicago School of monetarist economics (later conceptually distorted in the word neoliberalism) as widely applied by capitalist authoritarians in the 1970s and 1980s, it seems  that their heirs have borrowed from the Chinese or Singaporean models, which are also heavily reliant on authoritarian political and social controls. This shift in preferred macroeconomic models makes perfect sense when we consider the move, shared by both major parties, to focus NZ’s diplomatic and trade relations on Asia and the Middle East, where democratic “niceties” are in short supply and where capitalists are largely unencumbered by human rights, much less labor rights or worker’s substantive rights to a share of the benefits of production.

The modern Asiatic model is as ruthlessly efficient as its predecessors, but is also based on a downwards redefinition of the concepts of economic and political rights that is generally considered anathema to democratic values (which in the labor market are enshrined in International Labor Organization conventions, now under siege in NZ and elsewhere). It would seem that in this particular market-driven moment, authoritarian capitalist reasoning prevails, accumulation is the sine qua non of macroeconomic policy, and the notion of egalitarianism as the basis for stable social order reflected in a fair ratio of accumulation to distribution has been abandoned in favor of the all-mightly profit-taking “bottom line.”

That is the state of play in New Zealand today.

Impoverished

datePosted on 07:31, November 23rd, 2011 by Lew

The other day David Farrar got in a pre-emptive whinge about Bryan Bruce’s Inside New Zealand documentary on child poverty that aired last night on TV3 (you can watch it on demand if you missed it).

Maybe the outrage expressed by David and others of his ilk is somewhat justified. This is not a grey, respectful, nominally-neutral sort of a work; it’s an impassioned and at times ideological work of advocacy arguing that New Zealand society, and in particular its governments, ought to be ashamed at the circumstances many of our children live in, and a significant portion of that burden of shame can be directly linked to the policies of National governments. It airs four days before the general election. The Labour and Green parties bought lots of advertising during it.

So if David or anyone else wants to bring a BSA complaint against the broadcaster, or — as David implies by calling it a “free hour” for Labour — if he wants to complain to the Electoral Commission that the documentary should have included an authorisation statement as a campaign advertisement, then I think they should do so. Fair enough, if they can make something stick.

But consider the response: a documentary about child poverty, covering the appalling housing, health and nutritional outcomes borne by children in our society, and the immediate response is to launch a ideological defence of the National party and deride the work as nothing but partisan propaganda. But an interview Bruce gave to Glenn Williams (aka Wammo) yesterday, before the screening, contained the following exchange:

Wammo: “Politically, though, it’s tough, isn’t it, to remove that money from the ambulance at the bottom of the cliff and put it at the top.”
Bruce: “Politically?”
Wammo: “Yeah.”
Bruce: “This is not a political question, this is an ethical and a moral question. We all have to get together and figure out how we’re going to solve this, and what I’d like to see is a commitment from all the politicians that, after the election, whatever shade of colour they are, they sit down and talk about this and come up with a long-term plan for our children, just in the same way as we came up for the over-65s with our superannuation. The only problem is kids can’t vote.”

Yeah, it’s election week, and yeah, Labour are emphasising their poverty alleviation focus on the back of this documentary. But I haven’t heard a peep out of National about what they plan to do about the problems since it aired. Isn’t it more telling that National and its proxies immediately and reflexively go on the defensive, rather than acknowledging the problems of child poverty and renewing its commitment to resolving them? As Bruce makes clear to anyone who actually watches the film, the root cause is a bipartisan commitment to trickle-down neoliberalism over the past 30 years, and indeed, the illness and malnutrition that affects these children did not happen in the past three years; these were problems under the last Labour government as well.

But National are the government now, and their defensiveness, I think, signals that they know they bear some responsibility for child poverty. And yet they’re apparently not willing to do much about it, beyond the tired old saw of “a rising tide lifts all boats”, and announcements that they will further constrict the welfare state to force the parents of these sick children to seek jobs that aren’t there. (And yes; National bought time during the documentary as well: the “cracking down on benefit fraud” ad was a particularly cynical form of irony.)

They’d rather whinge about media bias and electioneering, casting themselves as victims, than concede the problem and tell us what they plan to do about the victims of their policies. That’s what I call impoverished.

L

Against Centrism.

datePosted on 09:51, November 16th, 2011 by Pablo

The iron law of oligarchy states that the first duty of the organization is to preserve itself. This means that agents will go against the interests of principals for tactical and strategic reasons. For class-based parties the two main sources of rank and file betrayal are vanguardism and centrism. Vanguardism refers to the centralization of decision-making authority within a party elite, which sees organizational democracy in instrumental terms rather than as a social good.  The elite agenda is, foremost, about self-preservation justified in ideological terms.

Centrism refers to the tendency of class-based parties to move to the ideological centre in pursuit of wider mass appeal. This often means turning on what were once considered foundational principles of such parties, particularly adherence to a class line. The 20th century saw the emergence of a number of these type of party, New Zealand Labour being one of them. Once that “centrist” ideological space was captured electorally by the likes of NZ Labour (the permutations of the centrist shift by Socialist and Social Democratic parties are many), other parties emerged to fill the void and stand on principle. Few of them have survived, and those that do have married indigenous and environmental planks to an amorphous anti-capitalist platform.

One such party is the Green Party of New Zealand. It emerged as a party dedicated in principle to advancing the causes described above. It championed the environment as well as indigenous rights within it, and worked hard to provide an anti-imperialist, pacifist, human rights focused and anti-corporate counter-narrative to the market-oriented discourse of Labour and the collective Right. The composition of the Green Party caucus through its first decade in parliament showed a clear class consciousness. For many Left voters the Greens provided a tactical option under MMP, since a five percent party vote coupled with electorate votes for Labour candidates helped keep Labour ideologically “honest” when in government. Or so the Greens thought.

In practice the Green experience with the 5th Labour government was less than ideal, and in fact was marked by an increasing distance between the two erstwhile Left partners. Yet, as it replenished its ranks of MPs the Green Party began to emulate Labour and other Left-based “centrist” parties: it moved away from a strong class-based orientation and towards a more moderate stance on all original three ideological pillars. It saw an increased party vote in 2008, although it is unclear if the added support came from disgruntled Labour voters or genuine voter preference for a “reasonable” Left alternative to Labour’s increasingly corporate orientation. Whatever the cause, by 2011 the Greens have stripped out the Red in their ideological watermelon. There are no longer a working class-oriented party, and in fact have shifted to one that seeks the support of middle class voters who are not so much opposed to the status quo as they are seeking NIMBY relief within it.

The Greens are predicted to get 10 percent of the party vote in the 2011 election, with some estimates rising to 12-15 percent. The surge in support clearly has roots in voter disgust with National and Labour, but also is believed to be coming from moderate Left voters who feel more comfortable with Green occupying the ideological “space” formerly held by Labour. By moderating its policies and compromising on its foundational principles, the Greens have gone mainstream. The billboard vandalism scandal may be a perverse indication of that (with grassroots activists going outside the caucus mandate to make their point).

For voters who saw the Green party as the honest Left alternative, this is unfortunate. The Green march to the centre leaves those who believe in the essence of class conflict in capitalism (and its cousin, class compromise) devoid of electoral alternatives. Specifically, there is no longer a competitive Left option that challenges the fundamental logics of the contemporary New Zealand socio-economic system. Instead, there are only accommodationists of various centrist stripes, the Greens now being one of them. They may challenge along the margins of the dominant project, but they do not question the fundamentals. Despite the presence of Leftists and anti-imperialist/corporate rhetoric in the Mana Party, it appears to be more personality-driven and ideologically incoherent than a proper class-based party. That means that there is no genuine, politically viable alternative to the Left-centrist logic.

This type of political centripidalism is a natural aspect of  first past the post party systems, especially presidential ones. But MMP is supposed to give voice to parties of principle as well as catch-all parties, and is in fact considered to be a hedge against centralism. For both methodological individualists such as those on the libertarian Right as well as the collective good advocates on on the class-based Left, the move to centralism under MMP could well be a death knell (which ACT may prove in this election, and which the demise of the Alliance previewed in the last one).

In effect, what is good for the Green Party leadership and organization is not good for those at the grassroots who want a legitimate Left parliamentary alternative that is electorally viable and committed to questioning the status quo. In order for the Greens to have remained as such they would have had to eschew the temptation of centrism and accept their role as a minor party on the ideological margins that speaks truth to power rather than be a contender for power as given. That would have meant keeping to a more “militant,” or “activist” line that did not deviate from the foundational principles of the Party.  The iron law of oligarchy suggests that never was going to be the case (and perhaps membership preferences have changed so that it would not be so), and given that Labour sold out the rank and file a long time ago (its corporatist relationship with the CTU, EPMU and other trade unions notwithstanding, since these also subscribe to the iron law), that means that in this election there is no real choice for those on the Left who want to vote for a party that can substantively influence policy rather than provide a minor corrective or circus side show to the dominant political discourse.

That being said, I am sorely tempted to vote Mana in order to try and keep the Greens honest from the Leftish fringe!

PS: Left for another time is discussion of the fact that in the absence of institutional (party) avenues of voice and redress, ideological militants of all stripes gravitate to extra- or illegal means of doing so. In the measure that formerly principled parties go centrist or are not replaced by successful others, the ideological void they leave behind is often filled by those of less institutionalist persuasion.

Rioting Poms.

datePosted on 11:57, August 9th, 2011 by Pablo

A short while ago we were treated to the spectacle of a Royal Westminster wedding, a royal tour of Canada and the US, then another lesser royal wedding. The UK and colonial media went crazy with 24/7 coverage of the fairy tale personae involved, and the image conveyed was of stability and continuity in British foundational politics.  All was well in the Realm.

In the months since the first royal celebration things have grown dimmer. There is the hacking scandal in which politicians and the police appear to be complicit in the illegal tapping of private information by media corporations (primarily but not exclusively Murdoch-owned assets). Added to this sign of elite criminal coziness, now there is a police shooting followed by wildcat riots that represent criminal opportunism rather than outrage about the death itself. The UK media are swamped with reporters, police spokespersons and politicians all chanting in unison about the “mindless thuggery” and criminality of the youth who are widening the scope of violence beyond Tottenham and London itself.

The official emphasis on criminality cannot hide a number of things that depict a reality that s a far cry from royal bliss. The youth involved, while criminally opportunistic in their looting and vandalism, are a mix of ethnicities, but all seeming of working class or unemployed status (On TV I actually saw some young Hassidic Jews amongst the rioters in Tottenham). Some may have participated in earlier demonstrations and rioting about restrictions on access to higher education and the cost of basic services. They appear to be coordinated–in yet another tweeter and smart phone fashion–enough to stay a step ahead of the thinly stretched British Police. The fire service is not attending to full alarm fires because of fears for their security and the Police cannot predict when the next smash, burn and grab will happen. The mob is ahead of the Man, and the mob is angry.

So far the British government has declined to send in the army even though suggestions have been made that they have very robust anti-riot capabilities in Northern Ireland. The language used to justify that non-action is precious: the government states that it does not deploy such hard assets on British soil. So the riot police in London chase rioters using shields, helmets, horses and batons while the British Army uses armoured personnel carriers, water cannon trucks and live ammunition to keep the peace in Belfast and beyond. Some Imperial habits are hard to break, even though the Empire is long gone and its post-colonial consequences have come home to roost in the capital itself.

The hard fact is that the criminality of the rioters is a political act whether or not those involved or the government and corporate media would like to admit it. At a time when the PM, Police Commissioner, Mayor of London, and assorted other leading officials were on vacation in places like Ibiza, Tuscany and Milos, the youth now on riotous display swelter in the housing estates where unemployment, racial separatism, ethnic conflict and everyday economic insecurity are rife. Like their counterparts in any number of less developed countries, they can see up close the material lifestyles and commodity consumption of the royals, celebrities, sportsmen and corporate elites, but do not have (and likely will never have) the means of access to them. Worse yet, they live in a world where the institutional framework is stacked against them, leading to the violent turn inwards when the opportunity presents itself. The Police response is to ask parents to lock up their children.

Be it Marx, Luxemburg, Lenin, Guevara, Marighella, Ayman al-Zawahari, or Muqtada al-Sadr, revolutionaries understand the potential of the criminal mass engaged in collective violence. Lumpenproletarians are the street vanguard who, however unconsciously, help to bring social contradictions to a head and expose the weakness of the elite response and the inherent fragility (sclerosis?) of the status quo as a whole. Where instigated or abetted by politically conscious cadres (and there is some evidence of this at play here), their actions are designed to accelerate the organic crisis of the State, in which economic, social and political cleavages overlap and congeal into compound fractures not resolvable by force, reform-mongering or after-the-fact piecemeal pacification. Given the ongoing repercussions of the 2008 recession and the increasingly global debt crisis, and no matter how they are disguised by ethnic and religious division, the structural foundations for a larger class war in the UK may be fixing in place.

This does not mean that the British government will not be able to quell the disturbances this time around. But what these riots may be is a dress rehearsal for more to come, perhaps in conjunction with the Olympics next year, where militant planners accelerate the pace, focus and intensity of mass collective violence at a time when the British elite are exposed to global scrutiny and their security resources are already working at full capacity. That raises the issue of whether the official approach to rioters will shift to the more lethal Northern Irish “solution” set, and whether those charged with adopting a more lethal approach will have the ideological conviction to respond in such a way to the actions of fellow citizens rather than foreigners (I note that it will be possible for the official narrative  to scapegoat “outsiders” drawn from minority ethnic communities that hold non-Western beliefs, but even that may fail to overcome foot soldier or beat police reluctance to turn their weapons on their own).

In any event, we should see the riots for what they really are: an expression of mass subordinate discontent and disaffection, the product of profound alienation, expressed through collective criminal violence operating in seemingly opportunistic and decentralised fashion in the face of official incompetence or lack of will. That, by most reasoning, is a good sign of a pre-revolutionary situation, one that has the potential to become more of an existential threat to the status quo should tactical guidance and coherent ideological justification be given to it. After all, if what we are experiencing is a crisis of capitalism in the liberal democratic world, then it was only a matter of time before superstructural conditions and precipitating events would combine into a violent rejection of the system as given in countries in which the societal contradictions were most apparent. Be it in Greece, in France, in Spain or now in the UK, should these contradictions continue to fester and combine, it will not be Tea Party-type clones that will lead the insurrectionary charge, nor will they be as polite.

 

PS: Before Red Dave and other ideologically militant readers opine that I am belatedly joining their ranks, let me state that I do not see this as the beginning of a global revolution or necessarily of one in the UK. It is a pre-revolutionary moment, which means that the UK government still has the ability to engage in divide-and-conquer, selective application of force and reform-mongering tactics (along the lines I mentioned with regard to the Arab uprisings in an earlier  post dedicated to them). There is a fair bit of ground to cover before the Arab Spring gives way to a Red European summer.

Frayed at the edges.

datePosted on 15:15, July 13th, 2011 by Pablo

Coming home after witnessing the Singaporean elections in May, it has been interesting to watch the preludes to New Zealand’s elections in November. In SG it was a matter of all against one, with the “all” in opposition being heavily constrained in what they could  do or say by the ruling party. Even so, opposition to the PAP gained parliamentary seats and an increased popular vote. Voter turnout was higher than in previous years, and the youth vote was an important factor in the outcome. There was a clear dividing line between pro-regime and opposition parties, with political identities drawn over issues of authoritarian efficiency versus increased accountability, material entitlements, transparency and representation. There was a focus to the electoral debate.

It seems that in New Zealand there is no such clear-cut divide along the political centre. Instead there exists a political spectrum that is frayed along the edges and which has an ideological void in the middle.  ACT is splintering, as did the Maori Party once Hone Harawira quit. The common denominator is that on both ends of the New Zealand electoral divide, where the most ideological elements of political society reside, there is a complete lack of unity, much less understanding of the need for a common class line. This plays into the hands of the mainstream parties. At the risk of over-simplification and claiming no particular expertise, let me sketch the broad contours.

The putsch against Rodney Hide was a triumph of the market ideologues over the social conservatives in the ACT party. The Garrett scandal, the odd views of some of its MPs and Hide’s increasingly populist rhetoric are seen as deviations from the neoliberal market ideology that is supposedly the core of the ACT belief system. When Hide became vulnerable over his use of taxpayer money (the perk-buster was found to be more of a perk-consumer), the market ideologues moved against him. Concerned about demographics, ACT has managed to secure a commitment to stand from an influential female ex pat blogger with a reputation for brutal honesty and corporate savvy. It also recruited a farmer.

Once the Don was installed as the new Leader, ACT showed another face–that of racial revanchist. Crossing the market ideologue/social conservative divide, there is some serious opposition within ACT to maori redistributive claims and the erosion of Pakeha prerogatives under the banner of political correctness. Rather than delve into the reasons for its opposition, ACT has chosen to publicly focus on individual maori that it describes as extremists who are holding the country financially hostage with their ongoing demands. Among these is Hone Harawira. This is not a view shared by all market ideologues in the party, so the “white cowards” have been called out by the revanchists. What is lost in the intra-party discussion about identity and cultural claims is the common class line that ostensibly binds ACT together–that of the trade-oriented corporate elite. Whatever they think in private, this elite is bound to be horrified by the presence of racial revanchists in the Party, which could reduce the amount of material and political support that they will pledge to it. Absent a coherent structural underpinning to its other ideological claims, ACT has little to offer even them.

The Maori Party has done likewise. It was never a progressive party, but instead is a socially conservative vehicle that represents the interests of the maori economic elite and important iwi (specifically, leadership hierarchies). Its major focus is on ownership within the legal structures as given, and on specific budgetary earmarks for maori given Crown obligations under the Treaty. This is a source of division with the likes of Harawira, who sees things from a working class, indigenous sovereignty perspective.

The Mana Party is a reflection of the latter view, to which have been added those of assorted communists, socialists, anarchists and maori rights activists who can be roughly divided between (mostly Pakeha) anti-imperialists and (mostly maori)  indigenous sovereignty supporters. There is considerable overlap between the two camps, although the issue of native ownership is a thorny subject for the marxists. Here too there is a lack of a consistent class line, or structural foundation, upon which to build the cultural and socio-political bases of the party. Some in Mana put indigenous rights above all other things; others put working class interests to the fore. Neither side has a realistic economic agenda given New Zealand’s structural realities.

There is also a cult of personality aspect to Mana that belies its progressive label. Rather than represent a Kiwi version of Malcolm X as some have suggested, Hone is more akin to the Reverend Al Sharpton. He is loud, he is proud, but he is not exactly a revolutionary threat to the system. Unlike X, who did not allow whites into his party and who preached on the merits of  voluntary self-segregation and the need for a separate black state within the US based upon economic independence, Hone accepts Pakeha support while fulminating against colonial injustices and their modern legacies. He acts as an agent provocateur rather than an agent for change. Given the views of the anti-capitalists in the Mana party whose priorities are more class-based than identity-driven, this does not make for ideological coherence between the base and the leader.

The Greens have moved away from their Left origins and settled into the role of responsible middle class party with a focus on sustainable development. Having mostly removed the red from the party watermelon, the second generation of Green party leaders have become the preferred channel of expression for environmentally aware voters with an interest in universal rights, egalitarianism, sovereignty and non-intervention (to include opposition to trade agreements without environmental and human rights provisions). This makes it a comfortable partner for Labour, a bridge between the Maori and Mana parties in areas of common concern, and an inoffensive adversary of National that can be worked with on specific issues. In spite of their attractiveness to the enlightened bougeousie, the Greens have no class line.

The absence of strong class orientations, be it Right or Left, along the fringe of NZ politics is  in part a deliberate result of the blurring of class lines and focus on economic individualism promoted over the least two decades by the two major parties. Both parties subscribe to market-driven logics, tempered by populist appeals around election time. Both represent the interests of corporate, rather than class actors–National defends the logic of the Round Table while Labour defends that of the union movement and domestic market capitalists. Neither represents the interests of a given class, but instead attempt to cross over voter preferences with catch-all appeals oriented towards the economic centre: the salaried middle classes. The latter are the swing voters who are less inclined to see themselves as a distinct interest group, are less ideological in their views, and who have not collectively organised to that effect. By  targeting this segment of the electorate the mainstream parties are able to give the interests of their supporting corporate class fractions much broader political appeal.

In New Zealand the electoral fringe holds less popular sway than before, and has less of an influence on mainstream politics. It will not matter in November’s electoral math, and some parties may well disappear. This is a pity because at a minimum the ideological fringe in an MMP system is useful as a means of keeping the centrist parties more honest when it comes to issues of class, race and public policy interest. Ideally, fringe parties provide the outer ideological markers that frame policy debate at any given moment. Absent a coherent ideology embedded in a class line amongst fringe parties, the parameters for policy debate narrow considerably. Given non-ideological competition between the major parties, this leads to unrepresentative distortions in the way in which policy reform is argued and made.

Admittedly, this is a very broad, subjective and impressionistic overview. Supporters of the parties in question will no doubt take exception to my views. Others will see my emphasis misplaced or that I am just plain wrong on specifics. I will happily stand corrected where necessary. What I have tried to do is not argue the details but note the larger trend. The lack of a class line in New Zealand’s political fringe is both a product and a reinforcement of the corporatisation of mainstream politics and popular culture, with policy debates stripped of structurally-based ideological content and confined to those areas in which corporate solutions are possible. Stripping ideological content from public policy debates diminishes the quality of democracy. In a society anchored in structural inequalities (however mystified by issues of identity and post-modernism), the absence of class-based ideological debate leaves the field of politics open to corporate elite domination, no matter how much “trickle down” policy proposals are offered during political campaigns. There is, in other words, no substantive class focus to political debate even during elections.

In November we will be reminded of that fact.

 

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