Posts Tagged ‘identity politics’
Posted on 16:41, January 27th, 2014 by Pablo
My posts on the demise of the political Left in NZ have elicited a fair bit of debate, which is good. However, there are two main areas of misunderstanding in the debate that need to be corrected. The first is that that by repeating my oft-stated claim here and elsewhere that socio-economic class, and particularly the working classes, need to be the central focus of Left praxis, I am ignoring the productive and cultural changes of the post-industrial, post-modern era. The second is that I dismiss the entire Left as ineffectual losers.
Let me address the latter first. When I write about the “political” Left I am speaking strictly about those parts of the Left that directly involve themselves in politics, either institutionalized or not. In this category I do not include the cultural or activist Left that engage in direct action in non-political realms such as poverty alleviation, human rights protection, diversity promotion, etc. These type of Left indirectly address political questions and therefore have political import but are not immediately involved with or primarily focused on political matters (say, by acting as parties or running campaigns, among many other things). Some of their members may be, but the Left agencies involved are, first and foremost, non-political in nature.
In a way, these non-political Left entities act much like non-Left charities: they provide direct assistance to the disadvantaged or vulnerable, have clear political content in what they do, but are not political agencies per se.
Thus I recognize the good works of the non-political Left and even see them as providing potential foundation stones for effective Left political activism. But as things currently stand the interface between the non-political and political Left is largely skewed towards diluting the socialist content and neutering the working class orientation inherent in many forms of grassroots Left activism. And where the interface is direct (say, Socialist Aotearoa), the message is too vulgar and the agents too shrill to make their points effectively.
This may sound harsh but that is the reality. The larger point is that I am not dismissing the entire Left as “dead” or moribund. I am confining my diagnosis to the contemporary political Left, narrowly defined, and it is not defeatist to point out what I would have thought was glaringly obvious.
With regard to the second accusation, this has been the subject of much debate here at KP. Lew and Anita have both eloquently written on identity as a primary focus. I accept their arguments but also think that class matters when it comes to a Left praxis. To that end, let me reprise a statement I made in response to a comment made by reader Chris Waugh on the previous post.
Some people mistakenly believe that because I believe that a Left praxis has to be rooted in class consciousness I “dismiss” or neglect superstructural issues like gender, ethnic identity, environmental concerns and sexual preference.
I do not. However, I do not give these superstructural factors primacy in my thought because all of those forms of identification or orientation are non-universal, whereas insertion in a capitalist class system rooted in the exploitation of wage labor is a universal constant. Hence I see modern Left praxis as rooted in a working class consciousness, broadly defined to include all forms of non-managerial wage labor and all ethnicities, genders and preferences.
Put it this way: consider a situation where there is a female hourly worker and a female CEO of a major firm. What identification comes first when they meet each other in the social division of labor? Will identifying as female be so strong that it will bridge the class gap between them? Or will their class determine their relationship in the first instance?
Perhaps gender solidarity will prevail, as could be the case with being gay, Indian, bisexual etc. But I am simply unsure that these identifications universally supersede the class element and therefore should replace it as a focus of Left praxis.
So there you have it. Not all of the Left is ineffectual but the political Left certainly is. A working class orientation is necessary and central to any Left praxis but not sufficient to encompass the myriad of non-class progressive causes that make up the post-industrial Left. Resolving these issues and reconciling the dilemmas inherent in them are what must be done for the Left to regain a significant place in the NZ political arena.
As much as anybody I enjoy sports and competition, so much so that I enjoy watching top level competition in sports that I am unfamiliar with. I have therefore enjoyed watching the America’s Cup racing, not so much because of the nationality of the teams but because of the boat design, speed, tactics and seamanship involved. In fact, I am poorly placed to get worked up on patriotic grounds because as readers of my earlier post on liminality may remember, I have allegiances to several countries and divided loyalties as a result. Moreover, I believe patriotism to be the last (and best) refuge of political scoundrels so I endeavour to resist its emotional pull wherever I happen to be living.
In this America’s Cup series I am cheering for Team New Zealand because I know that it means a lot to New Zealand and very little to the US. Other than rugby, Kiwis tend to adopt a “David versus Goliath” approach to international team sports. They are not alone in this small country syndrome, as I have pointed out previously with regard to Uruguay and team sports other than soccer. But in New Zealand that syndrome extends beyond sports, including into the international political and economic arenas.
With regard to the America’s Cup, here in NZ there is live blow by blow coverage of every meter of every race, whereas in the US it is not being covered live anywhere except on boutique cable boating channels. Here it is front page news in every newspaper and news broadcast. In the US it barely rates a header in the sports section of big city newspapers, including that of the race venue San Francisco. Heck, in Texas high school football (the helmeted version) gets more coverage on a weekend than the America’s Cup has had in a year!
In the US most people do not give a darn that Larry Ellison indulges a billionaire fancy with a crew that includes only one American. Here people want to name their first born sons after Dean Barker. They also want that turncoat, traitorous preferably ex-kiwi Russell Coutts strung from the lanyard because he dared to work for the competition. In other words, Kiwis are heavily invested in the outcome whereas in the US they are not.
Or are Kiwis that heavily invested? From what I gather from video coverage of people watching the race live on television on the Auckland waterfront, there is hardly a brown face in the mix. The same goes for those Kiwis who have traveled to the America’s Cup Village in San Francisco. Pure pakeha pulsation throughout.
So where are the non-Pakeha kiwis when it comes to this race? Are they just not into sailing? If so, why not? Why is something that is so heavily promoted by the media and advertisers as a nationalistic rallying point having so little impact on non-Pakeha communities?
I ask because the New Zealand taxpayers have put $38 million into Team Emirates for this race series (both Labour and National support the expenditure). So whether or not they are emotionally invested in the racing, Kiwis are financially invested in it. The public expenditure was justified on grounds that the economic benefits to NZ of a future Cup defense in the event of a win would justify the investment (since winners get to name the venue for the next race). The narrow investment now is said to bring greater and broader future returns.
Besides the fact that no public consultation preceded the allocation of taxpayer money to Team Emirates, the issue of benefits is thorny. Even if Auckland benefits from hosting a future defense of the Cup (and that would mostly go temporarily to hoteliers, restaurants, bars and other service sector providers), what about the rest of the country? Other than Auckland based niche industries like boat-building and sail-making and a few high-end tourist locations and ventures, is it true that the country as a whole will benefit from the tax revenues generated by increased economic activity in Auckland? Do we really expect to believe that places like Ruatoki and Twizel will see direct benefit from an America’s Cup defense in Auckland?
It should be noted that Team Oracle USA received no public funds for its Cup defense, and that the redevelopment of the Embarcadero in San Francisco was a majority private venture that has not yielded the economic dividends to the city that were originally tabled by way of justification for holding the race there. So the “future benefits” argument is contentious at best, especially if drawn over the long-term. Yet spending public money on the challenge is seen as in the long-term NZ national interest.
Put another way, why is it that NZ taxpayers coughed up money for a yacht race campaign that not all New Zealanders care about and which relatively few New Zealanders will benefit from in the form of future uncertain economic returns in the event of a successful challenge this year? Since hosting the Cup defense will undoubtably include allocations of more taxpayer dollars to infrastructure and venue development, is this an appropriate use of public money? Given that the food in schools program receives just $10 million a year, could it not be argued that government priorities are a bit out of whack when it comes to long-term investment in the nation’s future?
Leftist conspiracy types will claim that the government subsidy for a small appeal elitist sport is designed to benefit its rich and upper middle class business supporters, nothing more. I would hope not, but then again I come back to the question of who in New Zealand is truly supporting the Cup challenge. Is the America’s Cup for the few or for the many? In the US it is for the few by the few, but here in NZ the issue appears a bit more complicated.
Anyway, I could be entirely wrong in my read and certainly do not have a good handle on the extent of support for the America’s Cup outside of what I have seen and heard in the media. Readers are welcome to ponder and comment on the issue.
Better to do that than to get started on the subject of host venue race time limits being enforced in low wind conditions on a day when a overwhelming match-winning victory by the challengers was in sight!
(Or: How the activist left learned to stop worrying and love identity politics.)
Here and elsewhere I spend much time railing against the notion that “identity” is somehow distinct from “politics”, or that “identity politics” is anathema to the idealised “real politics” of class and ideology. I don’t accept that those with politicised identities — in our context most often women, Māori and LGBTI people — ought to fall in behind the straight white able-bodied men of The Cause on the understanding that The Cause will lend its support to their subordinate issues when the time is right. Moreover, I don’t accept that a person’s politics can meaningfully be divorced from their identity. Identity is politics. I am far from alone in these views.
Recently it has come to my attention that many of those who claim to oppose “identity politics” are pretty happy with it too, given the right circumstances. The contest between Grant Robertson, Shane Jones and David Cunliffe provides a good example.
Right out of the gate the contest was framed in terms of identity — Grant Robertson’s sexual identity. “Is New Zealand Ready For A Gay Prime Minister?”, the headlines asked, proceeding then to draw dubious links between unscientific vox-pops and the reckons of sundry pundits, all of whom were terribly keen to assure us that they, personally, were ready, even if the country isn’t yet. But while Robertson’s identity is what it is, his campaign is not an identity politics campaign in any meaningful way. In this it differs sharply from the campaigns of the other two contenders.
But Jones’ Māoritanga isn’t the only identity pitch: he has made overt masculinity a part of his brand. When he came clean about charging pornographic movies to Parliamentary Services, his explanation was “I’m a red-blooded male”. He recently doubled down on this in relation to Labour’s proposed gender-equality measures, saying New Zealanders didn’t want “geldings” running the country, and that “it was blue-collar, tradie, blokey voters we were missing”. His value proposition for the Labour leadership is that he can expand the party’s electoral base into the archetypally-masculine realm of the “smoko room” where such voters are said to dwell. It seems likely that this strategy will alienate a good number of female voters into the bargain.
Cunliffe’s claim is his identity as a guy who greets his supporters in a dozen different languages and whose announcement of a candidacy is greeted with a waiata, wearing a lei like it ain’t no thing. He is a mutual-second-best candidate for a bunch of different identity groupings — he’s male, but he has strong caucus support from Labour women, including his previous running-mate Nanaia Mahuta and marriage equality champion Louisa Wall. He’s straight, but he’s not homophobic or chauvinistic about it. He’s Pākehā, but his multicultural bona fides are clear, and he has strong support from Māori and Pasifika caucus members. He studied at Harvard, but he’s the working-class son of an Anglican minister. He’s comparatively young — Generation X — but not so young as to be seen as a whipper-snapper by the Baby Boomers. Homo Sapiens Aotearoan is David Cunliffe’s identity; a modern native of the biggest Pacific city in the world.
And yet last night’s story by Brooke Sabin basically wrote Grant Robertson’s candidacy off on the basis of a series of ad-hoc buttonholes with workers at a union rally who apparently didn’t like that he was gay. Sabin reported that only two of the 40 people spoken to would support Robertson, and in the studio introduction to the piece anchor Hilary Barry inflated this to:
There are a swag of problems here: most obviously that repeatedly and urgently raising the issue (“not that there’s anything wrong with that”) sets the agenda. Further, the footage suggests that the only thing these vox pops were given to go on when assessing Grant Robertson’s fitness to be Prime Minister was that he was gay — so it was the only thing on the agenda. Worse yet; one respondent, when prompted to choose between Jones and Cunliffe, asked “Shane Jones … is he a gay too?” suggesting that not only was she not very well placed to make an informed assessment of the comparative merits of each candidate, but that asking her to do so anyway, taking her word as an indication of general union sentiment and then playing her naïve answer on national TV bordered on exploitation. (At least part of my assessment is shared by Neale Jones from the EPMU, who was there, and said on Twitter, “Sabin went around repeatedly badgering workers about whether they had a problem with Grant’s sexuality. Got story he wanted.”)
The Identity Agenda
So that’s ironic. But the deeper irony of this is that David Cunliffe is the darling of many of the people on the activist left who have railed most fiercely against “identity politics” all these years. (Check the list of endorsements here). There’s no policy to speak of in this contest — Cunliffe’s campaign is identity politics through and through, and yet the activist left loves him for it. I don’t think it’s unfair to observe that they love him, and they love it, because now it feels like their identity being prioritised in politics, as if it hasn’t ever been before. All that evil old “identity politics” they railed against before — the problem wasn’t that it was identity politics, but that it wasn’t their identity politics.
But I’m glad they love it. It works, after all. We have a strong sense of who David Cunliffe is, where he comes from and what motivates him, and that helps us understand, and more importantly to believe, his strategic vision and the policy platform he articulates. I think he genuinely does speak to a wider audience of potential Labour supporters than any recent leader, and that can only be a good thing for the party and the polity as a whole. If he wins, and I think he will, I hope it will go some distance to demonstrating that identity and ideology aren’t zero-sum; they’re complementary. Maybe once that realisation sinks in we’ll be really ready for a gay Prime Minister, or a Māori one.
Last night the New Zealand parliament voted 77-44 on the third reading of the Marriage (Definition of Marriage) Amendment Bill, passing it into law. The strategy I wrote about after the first reading has been spectacularly successful, and marriage equality will be a reality as soon as the bill receives the royal assent.
There were many powerful speeches last night. Louisa Wall discussed the spectrum of cultural traditions around sexual and gender diversity, and called a huge roll of supporters from almost every corner of the political compass.
Maurice Williamson lampooned the supposed “gay onslaught”, celebrated the “big gay rainbow” that had appeared in his electorate this morning as a sign, and hilariously used his training in physics to calculate the amount of time a person of his mass and humidity would burn for in the fires of Hell. “I will last for just on 2.1 seconds — it’s hardly eternity, what do you think?”
Tau Henare gave his old party leader Winston Peters a lesson in political history, why referenda aren’t the answer to everything, and why exactly he is no longer a member of the New Zealand First party.
Mojo Mathers spoke of the pride she felt when her daughter attended the school formal with her girlfriend. And following the vote, in scenes that have been viewed all around the world, the House stood and broke into song.
There were others. But for me the heaviest work of the night was done by Kevin Hague, who got to the very heart of enmity to this bill, and to this cause in general. I’ve quoted him at length, emphasis mine:
Kevin Hague’s measured words and calm delivery obscure a stark and clear-sighted analysis: This is war. The enemy does not regard us as human, and they never will, so we must defeat them utterly. When it comes to GLBTI people, adherents to this creed of brimstone will be satisfied with nothing less than extermination and erasure: they are an existential threat. Although it is often couched in such terms, beneath the veneer theirs is not a rational objection founded in philosophy or pragmatism, in science or honest assessment of tradition; it is simply fear and hatred that burns like the fires they preach. This is not confined to the religious sphere — variants of the brimstone creed exist within secular society, and across a broad ideological spectrum, but they share extremism in common. Much of the discourse around marriage equality, and much of the discourse around related matters, rests on ignoring, minimising or mocking those who stand up for the brimstone creed, but the brilliance of Kevin’s analysis is that he meets them — and it — kanohi ki te kanohi, staring it in the face and recognising it for what it is.
But marriage equality won because it isn’t just an issue for GLBTI people. Ghettoising it as a “gay issue”, (as feminism for generations has been ghettoised as a “women’s issue” and racial equality has been ghettoised as a “black” or a “brown issue”) was a delaying strategy that worked for a time. But no longer. Marriage equality passed because a bill introduced by a gay Māori woman was supported not only by gay Māori women, but by men and women, young and old, homosexuals and heterosexuals and bisexuals, liberals and conservatives, socialists and libertarians, atheists and agnostics and Christians and Muslims, Māori, Pākehā, Pasifika, Chinese and Indians.
All of us who believe in a just society, and an equal society, who believe in a place where ancient prejudices, cultural inertia or the maintenance of privilege cannot justify erasure must fight these battles too. The brimstone creed isn’t just an existential threat to “teh gays” — it is an existential threat to a free and decent society, and we will not have won until we defeat them utterly. There are many more battles like this, and with the clear vision and fierce determination of people like Louisa Wall and Kevin Hague, I am strangely optimistic about fighting them.
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.
I have never quite understood the argument that gay sex is “unnatural.” Unless one believes that the only natural sex is that which reproduces the species, then how one chooses to express sexuality is as natural as differences in hair or skin color. If we admit that sex can be a means of expressing love, affection and physical pleasure rather than purely a reproductive act, then how one goes about doing that is as natural as variations in climate or on a theme. It does not matter if sexual preference is by “choice” or genetics or some combination thereof. Once the reproductive imperative is removed as the sole reason for having sex, then how one chooses to partake is almost limitless (I say “almost” because I adhere to convention that sex should be between consenting adults, or in the case of teenagers, between those of similar age, and that no coercion or exploitation can be involved).
I introduce the subject of gay marriage this way because I simply fail to understand why it is an issue. When I hear opponents argue against it I am reminded of the old Argentine saying about Catholic clergy opposed to divorce: if they do not like divorce they should not marry. Or the more recent retort: if one does not like gay marriage then one should not marry a gay.
One thing is clear. The reproductive imperative does not apply to the legal recognition of straight marriages. Many heterosexual couples are childless by choice or circumstance. Some fulfill their parental instinct via adoption or with the help of surrogates, but others do not. In all cases they are legally free to marry.
Having thought about it a bit in light of recent arguments arising out a parliamentary bid to legalize gay marriage, it strikes me that the debate can be seen in simple game theoretic fashion.
Those opposed to gay marriage see the outcome if it is legalized in zero or negative sum terms. Awarding the right to marry to homosexuals will directly and negatively impact on heterosexual marriage. The belief is that awarding gays the right to marry comes at the immediate expense of heterosexual marriages, and that something will be directly lost or detracted from the latter if the former is permitted. Worst yet, the situation could become collectively negative sum if gays are allowed to marry: both gays and straights will suffer losses as a result (this is usually seen in the “children need hetero parents” argument, but extends to the costs of awarding full rights to married gay couples when it comes to family-oriented taxation, insurance and health benefits). The bottom line is that awarding equal marriage rights to gays (as a sexual minority) will impose costs or losses on the sexual majority, and therefore should not allowed under the lesser evil principle because collectively it is a lose-lose proposition.
Those in favor of gay marriage see the issue in even or positive sum terms. They see gay marriage as taking nothing from nor adding to hetero marriage, or in the most optimistic view, enhancing the value of marriage as an institution by extending the franchise to those of same-sex persuasion who wish to monogamously commit to each other in the eyes of the state (I will leave aside issues about non-monogomous unions and plural marriages in order to make the first-order point). In this view gay marriage should be encouraged as it deepens the familial bases of social stability and is therefore a greater good for society as a whole. It is a win-win solution.
Whatever other issues are put forth pro and con, it seems to me that this is the real crux of the issue. The rantings of bigots and extremists are not addressed here simply because they do not matter. I include in this God-botherers and other repressed and closeted people who act out of irrational psychological fear. Nor do I care to indulge the arguments of some extremists who think anything goes and there should be no prohibitions on sexual contact (say, the Man-Boy Love Association crowd). Here I am simply trying to distill the rational arguments in favor and against.
For me the issue is certainly even sum and probably positive sum. If we accept that one major source of social decay is the decline of the “traditional” family defined by heterosexual marriage, then it seems to me that one good response is to encourage the rise of “non-traditional” families as a complement. After all, “traditional” gender roles have been altered over the years (I would say for the better) without killing off the majority notion of marriage and family as the pillars of society, so I do not see how non-traditional marriage and families will be any more harmful to social stability than allowing women the vote or non-whites to have equal civil rights.
With regard to marriage specifically, there are already precedents for taking what was non-traditional or even taboo and making it commonplace. For example, marriages of mixed race or inter-faith couples, or those with intellectual or physical disabilities, once were viewed as suspect or dangerous (often on reproductive grounds), and in some cases legally proscribed. Today they are additional and welcome threads that rather than harm have added to the vibrancy of the matrimonial fabric of complex societies.
Anyway, this may be obvious to KP readers given their ideological dispositions. The point I am trying to make is that marriage is not a pie with a finite number of slices, where giving one slice to gays will mean that there is not enough left for straights. To the contrary, marriage should be seen as an expanding pie in with we can all share regardless of sexual preference because we commonly appreciate the order and stability it helps bring to our individual and collective lives. I reckon that is a very traditional way of thinking.
That is about all I can figure after reading this about Louis Crimp, Act’s largest individual donor in the 2011 election. The line about Invercargill is priceless but there are several other gems as well. Mr. Crimp appears to be getting PR advice from Kyle Chapman or Jim Beam, so why keep up the pretense any more and not just announce the merger of the two white rights movements? Better yet, once John Banks gets the inevitable boot from parliament, perhaps the AKKKT Party can dip into some of that NF talent pool for a replacement.
AKKKT–a political cough in the larger scheme of things, but a full throated sputum of the NZ Right.
Posted on 21:25, May 10th, 2012 by Lew
Today the President of the United States of America came out (if that’s the right term) in support of gay marriage. Hours later, The leader of the New Zealand Labour party did likewise. The responses they got could hardly have been more different. Obama’s statement was greeted with a worldwide ripple of excitement; Shearer’s with a localised wave of criticism. Aside from the obvious difference in scale, we can make some sense of the difference in valence by looking at two main factors: the content of their respective messages in political context; and the media and moment in which they were made.
Substance and political context
Allowing for the differences in political context, Obama’s and Shearer’s statements were reasonably similar. Both expressed support for gay marriage in principle, with reservations about implementation. In Obama’s case, the reservations were constitutional. The President can’t unilaterally pass an act permitting gay marriage; it has to go through two federal houses and most aspects of marriage are still, ultimately, determined by the states. Obama’s statement was symbolic and aspirational. First of all, it was a means of defining who he is, politically — a rebuttal of suggestions that he is timid or not liberal enough, and a means of illustrating a sharp distinction between his administration and the caricatured culture-war conservatism of his Republican opponents. It was also an opportunity to reinvigorate the American political left. David Frum said it well:
(You should read Frum’s whole piece, it’s short and articulates clearly why this was a strategic coup.)
Shearer’s statement was, if anything, less equivocal than Obama’s; he merely said that he “would like to see the detail of any legislation before giving formal support”. In purely rational terms, that’s totally reasonable; nobody signs a blank political cheque. Much of the criticism has centred on the assumption that any such law would be introduced by Labour, so Shearer would not only get to see it but would get to vet it before declaring support. This isn’t really so; Labour are in opposition, and barring extreme exigencies they will be for at least 2.5 years to come. Given the Greens’ long-standing commitment to gay marriage and remarkable success in the member’s ballot, there’s a better-than-even chance that a hypothetical same-sex marriage bill drawn at random would be theirs.* There are plenty of potential pitfalls in such a bill, if badly drafted, and it is reasonable to hold reservations.
Other criticism of Shearer has centred on the argument that Obama’s political context is much more hostile to gay marriage, and his declaring in favour of it constitutes a genuine act of political bravery, while it’s a rather less contentious issue here. Also not entirely fair; of course, that difference in political context exists, but Obama is in power, and (largely due to Republican infighting) in political ascendancy, while Shearer is in opposition and in the doldrums. It is also very unlikely that any gay marriage bill would pass the current NZ Parliament, especially now that social-conservatives like NZ First are back in.
So on the merits, criticism of Shearer for appending this seemingly-innocuous qualifier seems a bit unfair. But there are two better explanations for hostility: first, he misread his medium; and more importantly, he misread the moment.
The medium and the moment
Obama made his statement in a medium and situation that afforded him considerable control over how his message would be transmitted and received, and that enabled him to articulate his position both from a personal perspective and politically. Good Morning America was a sympathetic venue; morning TV is warm and nonconfrontational, on the ABC network even more so than usual. It is not strictly time-controlled and interviewers generally do not play hardball. Its audience is more liberal, more female, and more inclined to respond favourably to expressions of personal warmth and reflection such as this one.
Shearer chose Twitter to make his announcement — the most constrained medium possible, one that permits no contextualisation, no emotional or personal connection. Given his performance to date as leader of the opposition, and the NZ Twitter left’s activist bias, it’s probably also one of the more hostile media open to him. It’s not talkback, but in some ways it’s worse: a lot of people who really want to like you, but are already frustrated and disappointed and are beginning to despair can be a harsher audience than your outright enemies. Twitter also means that you are expected to be spare and to the point, and to only include detail that is significant. By hedging, he signalled that his position was not firm or genuine. The medium is the message, so the inclusion of an obvious redundancy like “need to see the detail” when characters are so limited doesn’t look like understandable prudence, it looks like fuzzy-headed waffly-thinking at best, or political cowardice at worst. David Shearer mistook a platform for slick, aspirational one-liners as the venue for earnest political positioning.
And that leads to the most crucial point of all: Shearer misread the political moment. Obama’s declaration in personal, philosophical terms of his “evolution” from someone who did not support gay marriage to someone who does was a watershed moment, a genuinely epochal event: when the President of the United States of America supports your cause, all of a sudden it looks a lot more like happening. A loud shot was fired in the culture wars; it instantly became global news, and with the news came a wave of liberal euphoria. This was, as Russell Brown noted, the best possible moment to note Labour’s progressive history and rededicate to the goal of marriage equality, but it was not a time for wonkish quibbling about details, or careful delineation of party policy. The moment was one of joy, of celebration, of possibility — of hope and change — and any response had to be congruent with that. Shearer’s wasn’t. The contrast jarred, and made the other, lesser, deficiencies in the message and its presentation more evident.
Substance, context, medium and moment. You can’t really afford to be without any of these, but if you’re trying to catch a wave of public sentiment, you really have to get your moment right.
This is symptomatic of Labour’s ongoing failure to articulate its vision: a lack of mastery of the tools and techniques at their disposal. Shearer’s lack of authenticity and his inability to speak clearly and unequivocally from his own position, that I touched on in my last post on this topic, was depressingly evident in this episode, and it may be that he’s still being tightly managed. A more concerning possibility is that this is the real David Shearer: lacking in virtù, like his predecessor.
But despite everything, I think this was a good experience for Labour — hopefully it has demonstrated to them that sometimes being timid is worse than being silent. If “go hard or go home” is the only lesson they take from today, it will have been worth it.
* Hypothetical, because none are in the ballot at present, though I expect that to change soon. Idiot/Savant drafted one some years ago, and it would not be an hour’s work to get it in.
As I watched various labour conflicts over the past few months, then took in accounts of greed-mongering of various types (the wheel-clamping rort being the latest), I set to wondering if things have turned mean in NZ. I tend to think so, and believe a lot of it has to do with National’s presence in government as well as the increasing stratification of NZ society–something National’s policies tend to exacerbate. Some of this collusion is obvious, such as changes to labour laws that strip worker’s of collective rights while enhancing employer prerogatives when hiring and firing (under the banner of so-called “flexibility”). Some is less so, such as in the “look the other way” approach to the conditions that led to the Pike River and Rena disasters and the hands-off government reaction to them. But the trend towards meanness began well before National returned to government in 2008 even if it has gotten worse under it.
It strikes me that the syllogism involved goes something like this: increased employment precariousness born of economic recession in climates of market austerity premised on cost-cutting in both the public and private sectors leads to increased anxiety, then desperation amongst the salaried classes as their life opportunities narrow. In the measure that collective means of defense and redress are also pared down and stripped of legal cover, agency takes precedence over principal to the point that individual rank and file interests are sacrificed in favor of continued union bureaucratic presence (however diminished) in those economic sectors that remain at least partially organized. In the measure that workers realize that their agents have adopted the “iron law of oligarchy” where bureaucratic self-interest and survival becomes the primary objective to which rank and file interests must be subordinated, notions of collective solidarity are abandoned in favor of individual self-interest. Since this is the dominant ethos at play in unorganized sectors of the economy and amongst the managerial and financial elites, the move to survivalist alienation becomes endemic (and indeed pandemic, if we include the fact that immigrants are socialized into the culture of meanness, thereby propagating the “disease” beyond its original culture). The original agents of transmission, in any case, would appear to be the market ideologues who have metastasized into the managerial elites of the present day.
When survivalist alienation becomes endemic, cultural, ethnic, religious and other forms of ascriptive categorization are used to justify the “me first” approach to social intercourse. Until then people may just be bitter. But this is the point when things turn mean.
I could be wrong and this has always been the case in NZ. My impressions are formed since 1997, so perhaps what existed before was indeed a land of milk and honey. But it seems to me, beyond the inter-generational inevitability of the trend towards hyper-individualism there lay a number of accelerants that have made things worse in the last ten years.
Although the golden age of imperialism is long past, the early 21st century has seen a resurgence or perhaps a new form of imperialism in the guise of US-led expeditionary wars to “bring democracy” to rogue or failed states. Besides the wars of occupation waged in Iraq and Afghanistan, the not so covert intervention in Libya and ongoing US military activities in places like Somalia, the Sudan, Colombia, the Philippines and Nigeria suggests that far from being an outmoded concept, the notion of neo-imperialist supremacy is alive and well.
A lesser known aspect of imperialism is the role of servitor imperialists. Servitor imperialist were the colonial troops that deployed and fought for their imperial master. The Scots, Welsh, Australians and New Zealanders all played the servitor role for the British Empire, fighting and dying in places like Gallipoli where none of their core national interests were at risk. Unlike mercenaries, these servitor troops fought out of loyalty to the Crown rather than for money. Today the Gurkhas continue to do the same.
Other former great powers such as the French, Spanish and Portuguese also drew troops from their colonies as they attempted to hold on to their global possessions, albeit with mixed success.
In the 20th century the great wars can be seen as existential threats to the way of life of the servitor former colonies and colonial possessions. The Korean conflict and Vietnam war were less so, but the argument was made the global communism was an existential threat to Western capitalist societies and their allies in the developing world. So the servitor troops stumped up in them as well.
Today, it seems that the role of Imperial hegemon is played by the US, but the twist is that its servitor forces are drawn from allied militaries with UN backing and retain relative command autonomy in the field. Australia and New Zealand again are playing their historic role in fighting in conflicts which, if one removes the idea that the conflicts are about eliminating global terrorism, have little to do with their core national interests (and truth be told, while terrorism is a nasty tactic in an unconventional warfare strategy, it poses no existential threat to any but the most fragile of states, so using the threat of global terrorism as an excuse to join foreign conflicts is a bit of a stretch). Here too, the deployment of servitor imperialist troops is done out of allegiance rather than money: Australia and New Zealand perceive that there is an alliance obligation to help the US in its military adventures, one that may or may not be rewarded not so much in kind (as neither OZ and NZ face physical threats to their territorial integrity) but in other areas of bilateral endeavor such as trade or diplomatic negotiations more central to the servitor’s concerns such as climate change or arms control.
In this era the term “imperialism” is fraught. But just because it has become a dirty word in some circles does not mean that it does not exist, or that the practice of playing servitor imperialists to other great powers is not ongoing. What has changed is the guise in which servitor imperialism occurs, with less Imperial ordering and more multinational cover given to the actions of less powerful countries who send troops to fight in the conflicts instigated by their Great Power allies. It as if there is a cultural disposition in some former colonies to want to serve the Master even if there is no longer a colonial leash tying them together.
Thus, for purposes of definition (there is a good body of scholarly literature on the subject), servitor imperialism is a situation where the natives and descendants of subjugated or colonized nations and sub-national political communities pledge fealty and serve in the wars of their Imperial masters even though no core interest of their homeland is at stake or in jeopardy. In the modern servitor neo-imperialist version, former colonies or subjugated nations send their citizens to fight in wars of the new Imperial hegemon when no core interest is at stake. The difference between this syndrome and a proper military alliance is that in the latter there is a common recognized existential threat that militarily binds countries together, whereas the servitor imperialist approach sees benefit in joining non-essential foreign conflicts instigated and prosecuted by neo-imperialist powers for reasons of their own and without regard to the core interests of the servitors. The syndrome is rooted in a cultural disposition to “serve” the master, whether it be old or new. Leninists might say that is playing the role of useful fool in international security affairs, but whatever the case the syndrome appears alive and well in some parts of the world.
I reflect on this because I have noticed a lot of pro-British chicken hawk rhetoric in rightwing NZ blogs about the current tensions with Argentina over the Malvinas/Falklands islands. For those unaware of the issue, in April we will reach the 30th anniversary of the 6 week war between the UK and Argentina over the islands. Although most Argentines have no interest in renewing hostilities and the Argentine military has made no moves to suggest a desire to retake the islands by force, right-wing Nationalists within Argentina have stepped up their bellicose rhetoric. Even thought the Argentine Right fringe is small, it has influence in some political circles, including with the governing Peronist Party. That has forced the government of Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner and some provincial authorities (since Argentina is a federal republic) to attempt to placate that part of the electorate with public and diplomatic complaints about the ongoing UK military presence in the archipelago (since the UK controls the South Georgia islands, also re-taken in the 1982 war). For its part the UK media has jumped on tits own Nationalist bandwagon, seeing such things as the Crown Prince’s search and rescue deployment to the Falklands as a reaffirmation of the glory days of Pax Britannica.
Truth be told, although Argentina was ceded the Malvinas after its independence from Spain in 1810 (as Spain had control of them until then), the British presence extends back to the 1830s when the few Argentine whalers and sealers resident on the islands were forced off and the territory proclaimed British. British settlers have had a continuous presence since then and their descendants (now into their eighth generation) consider themselves British subjects. Since possession is 9/10th of the law and the “kelpers” as they are called consider themselves to be part of the UK, it is extremely unlikely that the islands will ever be returned to Argentina.
Argentines know this and except for the Right fringe, accept the verdict of history. In fact, the reason for Argentina’s continued diplomatic protestations about the Malvinas/Falklands is that there are vast oil and natural gas deposits in the seabed around the islands, as well as the fisheries in adjacent waters. Now that technology allows for the exploitation of these resources, Argentines want part of that action. Extending Argentine territorial claims out to the islands (600 nautical miles off shore) allows the Federal Government to negotiate the commercial aspects of these potentially lucrative resource deposits, and for that to occur Argentina needs diplomatic backing for its claims. Needless to say, the UK has no intention of allowing that to happen.
Thus, while the kelpers are clearly disposed to play the role of servitor imperialists for the UK, it is a bit odd to read all the bluster and anti-Argentine rantings coming out of certain NZ rightwing circles. It is as if they retain their servitor attitudes long after the Empire has faded, something that, with a slight change in orientation, the National government appears to hold as well.