Posts Tagged ‘Marxism’
Recently commenter Tiger Mountain raised the parallel between solidarity with Actor’s Equity regarding The Hobbit and support for the māori party given their coalition with National and sponsorship of some bad legislation. I explained how they’re not equivalent, but leaving aside the main difference of mandate (which the māori party has and AE doesn’t) the wider issue of critical solidarity is an important one, and one which has been raised several times recently. In the wake of The Hobbit fiasco matters of class, identity and solidarity are high in everyone’s minds, and I think in spite of our many differences, we can agree that’s a good thing.
Another contribution to the wider debate is by Eddie at The Standard. For once I find myself agreeing with Eddie’s opening sentence about the māori party, which is:
It’s true, although I would have phrased it as follows:
I wrote at length about this dynamic tension at a time when it looked like Labour was going to force Māori to choose between their class identity and their identity as tangata whenua — and how foolish forcing such a choice would be. (It’s still not clear whether Labour has abandoned it, but it at least seems obvious that they don’t have a full-blooded commitment to the blue collars, red necks strategy. But that’s by the way.)
What tends to follow from statements like that one is a series of value judgements about which set of interests ought to take precedence. This can be valuable, but is often tiresome, particularly when those making the pronouncements are “fighting a corner” for only one half of the equation (usually, it must be said, the “class” corner). But Eddie has mostly (not entirely) resisted the urge to do so and focused on the internal dispute within the māori party, and in particular the rather dictatorial stance taken by Tariana Turia regarding opposition to the new Marine & Coastal Area (hereafter MCA) Bill. That’s an important debate and examination of it is valuable, but what’s not really valuable is Eddie’s attempt to frame Turia’s stance as a matter of māori identity v class identity. It’s not. It’s a matter of the tension between moderate and radical factions within the movement; part of the internal debate within Māoridom.
Class is an element of this internal debate, but it is not the only element, and I would argue it is not even the predominant element. I think it’s clear that the conciliatory, collaborative, third-way sort of approach to tino rangatiratanga taken by Turia and Sharples under the guidance of Whatarangi Winiata (and whose work seems likely to be continued by new president Pem Bird is the predominant force. I also think the main reason for the left’s glee at the ascendance of the more radical faction is largely due to the fact that there’s a National government at present (and recall how different things were when the boot was on the other foot from 2005-2008). Those leading the radical charge against the MCA bill — notably Hone Harawira, Annette Sykes and Moana Jackson (whose primer on the bill is required reading) are not Marxists or class advocates so much as they are staunch advocates for tino rangatiratanga, who oppose the bill not so much for reasons based on class, but for reasons based on kaupapa Māori notions of justice. The perspectives of all three are informed by these sorts of traditionally-leftist analyses, but those analyses are certainly not at the fore in this dispute (as they have been in some past disputes). In fact, the strongest (you could say “least refined”) Marxist critiques of the bill advocate for wholesale nationalisation of the F&S, unapologetically trampling on residual property rights held by tangata whenua in favour of collective ownership.
For Eddie’s caricature of the dispute as “identity” v “class” to hold strictly, Turia, Sharples, Flavell and Katene would need to occupy the “authentic” kaupapa Māori position, the legitimate claim of acting in the pure interests of mana motuhake and tino rangatiratanga; while Harawira, Sykes and Jackson (among others) would need to be largely denuded of this “identity” baggage, and be more or less pure class warriors. Neither is true; Harawira, Sykes and Jackson’s critique of the bill isn’t a Marxist critique; they’re arguing that the bill doesn’t serve the imperative of tino rangatiratanga and is therefore not an authentic kaupapa Māori position; an assertion that Sharples has tacitly accepted with his response that the Maori Party must accept compromise. (This is true, of course; I agree with Sharples and Turia as far as that goes. I just disagree that this bill is the issue upon which to compromise so heavily. Because of that, I come down on the side of Harawira, Sykes and Jackson.)
The other misguided thing is how Eddie frames Turia’s insistence that Harawira and others adhere to the party line as some sort of manifestation of Māori over class identity within the party — the quelling of dissent and insistence on loyalty to the leadership elite’s position as a “Māori” way of doing things, opposed to a “Left” way of doing things. This is absurd. The “left” does not automatically stand in defence of dissent or the public airing of heterodox views, much though Eddie (and I) might wish that it should. As I already mentioned, this is shown by Labour’s response to Turia in 2004 and the māori party’s first full term, suspicious at best and hostile at worst. The AE dispute is also an excellent illustration. In that case, the prevailing, “authentic” left position (including that taken by many writers at The Standard, though not — as far as I can recall — by Eddie) was to insist on total public solidarity with the union. In other words, precisely what Turia is insisting upon. I disagreed with this position in AE’s case, and I disagree with it in the māori party’s case. Dissent of this sort (or the imperative of its suppression) is not some innate part of “the left”, nor is it absence a characteristic of “identity politics”. It can exist or not in movements of either type, depending on the merits and specifics. It’s my view that such dissent is the beating heart of a movement, and it is peril to quash it. It is a shame that Turia seems to be making the same error as Helen Clark made regarding this issue in 2004.
But despite these objections, ultimately I agree with Eddie about one other thing: the dispute is really interesting, and the emergence of radical critiques and challenges within the movement is exciting and important. The māori party has a mandate to agree to the MCA act as drafted; after all, according to Edmund Burke’s famous saying, representatives owe their constituents not only their efforts but their judgement on what is just and right and possible. They’re not elected to always take the easy route of political martyrdom, and because of this they may find themselves staring down their constituents. Sometimes they may win. But nowhere are representatives guaranteed that those constituents must not try to stare back. If those who oppose the bill can raise a hīkoi in support of their cause, then let them do so, and more strength to their waewae. And let members of the “left” movements, if their enmity to the bill is genuine, rather than a reflexive attack on a National-led government and the māori party orthodoxy which supports it, march alongside them in solidarity. That will be some sort of justice.
I’m getting used to being vilified by the orthodox Marxist left, such as in the latest round of debate with Chris Trotter and some of his commenters, and to an extent in the response by Scott Hamilton. I don’t mind all that much, but it’s rather aimless. The critique that I’m not orthodox enough, not a proper red; that my sense class consciousness is atrophied — it all misses the point somewhat. I’m not a socialist; never have been. I’m a liberal social democrat, with strong emphasis on the “democrat”.
I’m a trade unionist because of this commitment to democracy. Unions, properly run, are strongly democratic — and their democracy enhances the more usual parliamentary and representative forms which govern our society. The question in the AE case, the matter over which I disagree with Chris and Scott and the orthodox Marxists is: from what does a trade union derive its moral authority? From the democratic mandate granted it by the workers it represents and the extent to which its actions serve their interests, or from its ideological rectitude and adherence to Marxist doctrine? I’d argue that both are necessary; the movement’s activities must be informed by a class analysis, but fundamentally the union exists to enact the wishes of its membership. The job of union organisers and so on is to educate and motivate that membership to commit to class struggle. The argument Chris and Scott are making, as if it’s an irreducible truth of trade unionism, is that the ideological rectitude on its own is enough. The quality or value of a union’s actions must not be assessed or tested against their workers’ stated needs, they say; if whatever a self-declared union and its handful of activist representatives decides to do passes the Marxist sniff-test, then anyone who fails to fall into lockstep behind it is a scab, and mandate be damned. (I’m not sure they even believe this, really; I think there would be some things even the most die-hard socialists would balk at — which would mean we’re simply disagreeing over the merits of AE’s case, which I think is a much more useful argument to have. I posed a hypothetical question to this effect on Bowalley Road this morning, but have received no responses at the time of writing this.)
But falling automatically into lockstep behind a union’s actions without consideration of whether they’re any good, or whether they serve their industry’s stated needs is bad for society, and it’s dangerous for the unions.
In our liberal democratic society, the right for workers to join a trade union and bargain collectively derives from the democratic nature of union movements; the fact that they enact workers’ wishes. This is the basis of the strong and very legitimate democratic Marxist critique of corporatism; that businesses in a democratic society ought to be democratic. It is also one of the chief arguments deployed in unions’ defence, and it is a very good one in a social and political context where the idea of democracy occupies such a powerful symbolic position. Unions do not enjoy any legitimacy by virtue of their ideological rectitude; in fact, their commitment to Marxist ideological doctrine is a considerable disadvantage in terms of their survival. Because of this, the trade union which relinquishes its commitment to democracy also risks relinquishing its claim to legitimacy, and if trade unions as a whole start to cut corners on democracy, then the movement as a whole risks granting anti-union governments a pretext to weaken and outlaw unions on the basis that they don’t actually represent workers’ interests. This is quite apart from the points I made in my last post on this topic, to the effect that non-democratic institutions tend to make bad decisions because they lack robust internal processes for developing and enacting their agendas.
So my overarching problem with Actor’s Equity acting without a mandate is that they risk the legitimacy of the trade union movement at large. (I initially predicted, in comments at the Dim Post, that the fallout would be contained by the wider movement — how wrong I was.) I try never to give my allies a pass for incompetence. Doing so breeds more incompetence. I didn’t give Labour a pass for the Foreshore & Seabed Act and I’m not giving a pass to the māori party as they look to be supporting a similarly expropriative replacement bill. So there’s no way I’m going to overlook the real and serious damage caused to the trade union movement and the cause of workers’ rights by this upstart union who took excessive action without a mandate. They’ve done real and genuine harm to the trade union movement and they’ve made industrial relations — which should have been a Labour’s trump suit — an easy source of tricks for the government. And this at the very time the union movement was beginning to gather strength again! There was an anti-union protest on Labour Day — how much worse do things have to get? Sure, blame the Tory government, or the ‘right-wing media’ or the falsely-conscious running-dogs; and to an extent this is justified. The government must bear sole responsibility for the legislation they’re passing, for instance; the details of that bill cannot be blamed on AE. But AE provided them the cover to pass it without much controversy; and indeed, none of these agencies enjoyed the political and symbolic freedom to unleash the sort of anti-worker tirades they have in recent weeks until AE’s egregious overreach — all with the full blessing of Trotter and Hamilton, almost everyone writing and commenting at The Standard and all those orthodox Marxists who claim to be champions of the worker. With enemies like these, Key and his government — and their ideological fellow-travelers — have no need of friends.
Just before the end of the university term last year, Peter McCaffrey and ACT On Campus gave the Victoria University of Wellington Student Association an object lesson in how democracy works. They successfully passed a resolution that VUWSA make a select committee submission in support of Roger Douglas’ Education (Freedom of Association) Amendment Bill (making student association voluntary) despite various machinations employed by the VUWSA members and officeholders there. These events were well documented in text by Jenna Raeburn and in video with a ridiculously triumphal soundtrack (irony noted by felix).
The fundamental problem of non-democratic (and poor-quality democratic) political systems is that they shelter those in power from the consequences of their actions. Authoritarianism (and authoritarian communism in particular) is deleterious not so much due to the economic failings of the system (such as the economic calculation problem) as due to the fact that in such systems there exists no mechanism to force, require or even encourage the leadership to act in its peoples’ interest. I’ve written a lot about the power transfer problem of orthodox Marxist pragma, and this is an aspect of it. When the leadership is invested with the monopoly power and authority to suppress a counter-revolution, how do you ever get them to relinquish it?
The effect of impunity is similarly evident in other fields; particularly in commerce, where the customary opposition of the terms “freedom” and “regulation” are little more than straw soldiers in a propaganda battle. Peter Drahos and John Braithwaite have written at length about the extent to which so-called free trade mechanisms such as TRIPS are instruments of international coercion more than they are of international trade, and how almost the entire intellectual property system of the modern world has been so thoroughly captured by existing rightsholders that it now functions as a form of privatised regulation by asserting near-impassable barriers to entry into the information marketplace. This suppresses competition, promotes the establishment and maintenance of cartels between existing participants, and all this breeds impunity, where participants have no (or few) reasons to develop their products and services to suit their users’ needs, and so they develop them to suit their own needs. The results are everywhere; for instance, in the fact that people are compelled to purchase Microsoft software with most new computers although they might hate and despise it, or simply not need it; or in the fact that those same users, having reluctantly purchased Windows since there are no easily-accessible alternatives (those having been shut out of the market years ago by patent thickets, bundling, cross-licensing, and so on) are then locked into using proprietary media formats, players, content distribution and communication systems with (in some cases well-known) surveillance functions and which are designed to restrict a users’ rights to their own hardware, content and communication, so that the system — and users’ participation in it — works in the provider’s interest, rather than the interests of its users.
That example is just one with which I’m familiar. Much more socially and economically important examples exist; particularly around medical development and crop research. But the point is that this whole system, billed as being about “freedom”, does not mean freedom for users so much as rightholders’ freedom from the need to cater to their users without fear of someone else eating their lunch.
Returning to student body politics. When a student union compels fees from its students, and when students who disagree with the union’s agenda are unable to withdraw their support, what incentive is there for the union to represent the interests of the student body? The political consequence of that system is a student body politic so complacent due to impunity in charge of millions of dollars a year in revenue that it literally cannot organise a SRC vote to save itself.
I am no great supporter of VSM; I view the threadbare rhetoric of “freedom” employed by Douglas, McCaffrey and so on with a jaundiced eye. I don’t believe people should simply be able to “opt out” of their society if they don’t like it, and I accept that the loss of revenue which will result from the (almost certain) passage of Douglas’ bill will place much of the genuinely good work student unions do in jeopardy. But the integrity of political systems is more important than discrete policy outcomes, and to be perfectly frank VUWSA, for its rank incompetence and duplicity in the face of legitimate challenge, deserves to be humiliated in this way.
I hope that the lesson about how democracy works will be well understood — that is: unless people make it work, it doesn’t. CSM as currently implemented promotes apathy and idiocy in student body politics, to a greater extent than it would exist in any case. That is bad for student body politics, and it’s bad for students. It depresses the quality of candidates and policy, and reduces the system to a comic farce which many students are justifiably ashamed of (if they care about it at all). Much better, for me, would be the the genuine politicisation of student politics, with groups organising and campaigning on their positions, winning a mandate and executing it, as in national and local body politics. If ACT on Campus want to campaign on “letting you keep more of your money”, let them do so, and good luck to them. (Of course, they have been, and it hasn’t been working out for them, so the parent party has resorted to regulation in the name of freedom. Plus ça change.)
So in my view the current threats to compulsory student unionism is largely the fault of the student unionists and their sense of entitlement to membership dues without the need to prove the value of their work to those who pay for it. The Douglas bill, while it will likely prove deleterious to the good work student unions do, may have a silver lining in that it will enforce greater discipline and competence upon student politicians, and require them to prove to their constituents that the work they do is actually valuable in order to win a mandate. If the work they do is genuinely valuable, as they say it is, such a mandate should be winnable. May they go forth and win it.
Postscript: Go and submit!
Update: This post was a response to an attack on me by Chris Trotter. Since it was published, Chris has graciously apologised for writing it, and for the general bad blood between us. He has deleted the post from Bowalley Road, and I give him my hearty thanks for the reconsideration.
I have also been culpable in this rather nasty exchange, which stretches back almost a year. For that part in it I, too, must apologise. While I retain strenuous objections to Chris’ political positions (as I’m sure he does to mine) these needn’t have become personalised, and are better discussed calmly as befits reasonable adults. While they may yet prove intractable, it should be possible for people in a free society to hold irreconcilable differences and yet remain civil. Much heat, and too little light, has emerged from this meeting of political minds, but I think there is potential for future engagement between Chris and I based on some sort of goodwill and tolerance rather than upon vituperation and political posturing, and I will do what I can to cultivate it.
While Chris has deleted his post, I do not believe in tampering with the historical record in that way. While I might regret things I’ve said, I won’t pretend I didn’t say them. And so the content of my response remains below the fold. It should be read with the subsequent context and this apology (and pledge to more constructive engagement in the future) very firmly in mind. In fact, the most worthwhile thing by far to emerge from the dispute is an unexpectedly useful discussion led by commenter “Ag” on the nature of class consciousness and electorate rationality: I commend that discussion, rather than the post from which it emerged, to the KP readership.
In the coming years, core tenets of socialist and indigenist faith will be tested. Labour, with its recently-adopted ‘blue collars, red necks’ strategy, has struck out along a path which requires a large slice of its core constituency — Māori — to search their political souls and choose between the renewed Marxist orthodoxy which privileges class above all else; and the progressive social movements developed over the past three or four decades which have produced a society tolerant enough to permit their unprecedented cultural renaissance.
The strategy indicated by Phil Goff’s speech appears to be substantially based on the simple calculus, most forthrightly argued by Chris Trotter, that ‘social liberals’ are fewer in number than ‘social conservatives’ among the proletariat, and therefore an appeal to ‘social conservatism’ will deliver more votes than the equivalent appeal to ‘social liberalism’. This is couched as a return to the old values of the democratic socialist movement — class struggle, and anything else is a distraction. But because the new political strategy is founded upon an attack on Māori, it requires that working class solidarity wins out over indigenous solidarity and the desire for tino rangatiratanga in a head-to-head battle. Māori must choose to identify as proletarians first and tangata whenua second. Similarly, the māori party’s alignment with National and subsequent intransigence on issues such as the Emissions Trading Scheme asks Māori to privilege their indigeneity over material concerns.
An article of faith of both socialist and indigenist movements is that their referent of political identity trumps others: that all proletarians are proletarians first, and that all indigenous people are indigenous people above all else. In the coming years, unless Labour loses its bottle and recants, we will see a rare comparison as to which is genuinely the stronger. Much of the debate which has raged over this issue, and I concede some of my own contributions in this, has been people stating what they hope will occur as if it surely will. For this reason the test itself is a valuable thing, because it provides an actual observable data point upon which the argument can turn.
A spontaneous interlude: I write this on the train into Wellington, in a carriage full of squirming, shouting, eight and nine year-olds on a school trip to the city. In a (rare) moment of relative calm, a few bars of song carried from the next carriage, and the tune was taken up enthusiastically by the — mostly Pākehā — kids in my carriage.
Read into this what you wish; one of life’s little rorschach tests.**
Clearly, I don’t believe Māori will abandon the hard-won fruits of their renaissance for a socialist pragma which lumps them and their needs in with everyone else of a certain social class, which in the long term would erase the distinction between tangata whenua and tangata Tiriti. This distinction will fade with time, but that time is not yet come. For this reason I believe the strategy is folly at a practical level. Add to which, the appeal to more conservative social values was always going to be strong among Māori and Pasifika voters, so the left and right hands (as it were) of the socialist conservative resurgence seem unaware of what the other is doing: with the left hand, it beckons them closer, and with the right it pushes them away.
My main objection to the ‘blue collars, red necks’ strategy is not practical — although that would be a sufficient cause for opposing it. The main reason is because of principle, and this question turns on an assessment of the left in politics. Trotter and other old-school socialists (and presumably Pagani and Goff and the current leadership of the Labour party) believe that the left has been hijacked over the past generation by non-materialist concerns and has lost its way as a consequence. I believe that the wider social concern with non-material matters has saved socialism from its own dogma.
Largely discredited as an economic system and its legacy irretrievably tarnished by the catastrophic failure of practically every implementation, socialist-aligned parties on the left have been forced to diversify from a strict focus on what’s in the pockets of the proletariat to what’s in their heads — what they care about and who they are, their identity beyond being ‘the proletariat’. In doing so these movements have embraced liberalism, social equality movements, and environmentalism, and the resulting blend, termed ‘progressivism’ has become part of the political orthodoxy, such that the political right must now pay at least some mind to these considerations if it is to remain viable. This broadening, and the progressive movement’s redefinition of what is right by its general and gradual rejection of racism, sexism, sexual and religious discrimination, among others, has been hugely beneficial to society. For reasons of principle, it should not be discarded out of cynical political expedience.
Furthermore, maintenance of the social liberal programme has strategic, pragmatic value. It has enabled left political movements to broaden their support base and engage with groups often marginalised from politics, breaking the previously zero-sum rules. The modern Labour party has built its political church upon this rock of progressive inclusion, broadening its support base by forming strategic alliances with Rātana from the time of the First Labour Government and less formally with the Kīngitanga and other Māori groups, to which the party owes a great deal of its political success. The progressive programme has broadened to include other groups historically marginalised by the conservative establishment. For Labour to shun its progressive history and return to some idealised socialist pragma of old by burning a century of goodwill in order to make cheap electoral gains by emulating their political opponents is the same transgression many on the economic left have repeatedly levelled against the māori party, and with some justification: selling out one’s principles for the sake of political expedience is a betrayal, and betrayals do not go unpunished. In this case, the betrayal is against the young, who will rapidly overtake the old socialist guard as the party’s future; and Māori, who will rapidly overtake the old Pākehā majority in this country’s future. The socialists might applaud, but Labour represents more than just the socialists, and it must continue to do so if it is to remain relevant.
So, for my analysis, the ‘blue collars, red necks’ strategy fails at the tactical level, because it asks Māori to choose their economic identity over their cultural identity; it fails at the level of principle, because it represents a resort to regressive politics, a movement away from what is ‘right’ to what is expedient; and it fails at the level of strategy, because by turning its back on progressivism the party publicly abandons its constituents, and particularly those who represent the future of NZ’s politics, who have grown up with the Labour party as a progressive movement. It is triply flawed, and the only silver lining from the whole sorry affair is that (again, if Goff and Pagani hold their nerve) we will see the dogmatic adherence to class tested and, hopefully once and for all, bested.
* Of course, Goff claims it is no such thing. But Trotter sees that it is and is thrilled, and John Pagani’s endorsement of Trotter’s analysis reveals rather more about the strategic direction than a politician’s public assurance.
** I see this as an expression of how normalised Māori-ness is among young people, and as much as can be said from the actions of nine-year-olds, an indicator of NZ’s political future.
A lot of self-described liberals or libertarians are arguing that the extent of peoples’ membership in society should be determined by their economic contribution to it, and a few, ignorant of reality, are even arguing that their membership in society is determined by their economic contribution.
People like Peter Cresswell, who asks “What gives bludgers a right to privacy?” The answer, of course, is that they have the same rights as anyone else. Peter, citing an imaginary selection of rights which apparently does not include any right to privacy, argues that the beneficiaries’ rights impinge upon his, and theirs should give way. Beneficiaries, to him, are uncitizens.
People like Cactus Kate, who reverses the rallying cry of the American Revolution to read “no representation without taxation” under the delusion that its meaning persists unchanged. She argues that franchise should be restricted to those over the age of 25, except where they earn $60,000 per annum or more. With reference to the current case, she restates the common refrain that “the taxpayer is paying for their lifestyle therefore should have knowledge when the beneficiary is whinging about benefits paid to them”, which essentially translates to “beneficiaries don’t have rights to privacy”, per PC. Beneficiaries, and those under 25, and the poor, are uncitizens to Kate.
People like David Farrar, who makes the same argument that, because the information concerns welfare, the people in question have reduced rights to privacy; but realising the paucity of that stance, goes on to rationalise it with ever-decreasing logical circles. I needn’t even specify the depths to which the KBR have sunk on this issue; so much for David’s moderation policy.
People like Bill Ralston, who argues that when one screws with the media bull, one gets the horns, and when one reveals any details to the media about one’s case, it’s open slather. For Bill, it’s not beneficiaries who are uncitizens – it’s ‘people who speak to the media’ who have reduced rights. I wonder if he realises the chilling effect of this could do him out of a job.
People like jcuknz in the comments here who, to be fair, is only repeating what he’s read elsewhere.
People like the callers to Paul Holmes’ and Michael Laws’ talkback shows this morning, who think their right to know trumps another’s right to have their personal information remain private.
People like Matthew Hooton who, like Ralston, thinks that by going to the media the women in question waived their rights to privacy but, paradoxically, who also thinks that people going to the media with personal information should sign a privacy waiver to prevent disputes such as this. Hooton also has the gall to refer to the information control methods of Soviet Russia in criticising their actions – not, mind you, the government’s punitive use of personal information for political purposes, which bears a much stronger resemblance to the authoritarian methods of the Soviets.
Far from being liberal, or libertarian, these arguments belong to oligarchs. Far from the liberal creed of holding the rights of all people to be self-evident, these explicitly call for rights to be attached to wealth or some other form of privilege. They believe that people who are dependent on the state ought to be at the mercy of the state. It is perhaps no surprise that it is these people whose rhetoric and iconography is littered with terms and images like “slave of the state” – for that is what they imagine being otherwise than independently wealthy should be. These are people who would restrict participation in democracy to economic status – who pays the piper calls the tune, and who pays tax may vote, presumably in corresponding measure.
These people are just as bad and foolish as the doctrinaire Marxists who argue that nothing matters other than what is strictly material. Their argument is the one which holds that, if a group of people share a meal, it’s not relevant where they eat, what they eat, what they drink with it, who chooses, what they talk about during dinner, what concessions are made for the purpose of sharing – the only things which matter to them is who pays for the meal and how much it costs.
That is a bare and miserly sort of humanity. Other things matter. A person’s a person, no matter how small.