A Note on Progressive Praxis in Aotearoa

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

7 thoughts on “A Note on Progressive Praxis in Aotearoa

  1. Lew

    Pablo, a much-needed post.

    I broadly agree with your sketch although, in general, I think the major thrust of activity should be toward reforming the Labour party as the core of the moderate political wing of the movement. How possible that may be is a very open question.

    Lew has quite eloquently expressed the primacy of identity politics

    Nitpick: I have expressed the primacy of self-determination, or in more ordinary terms, choice: people not being subjected to undue social pressure to identify in ways which suit a certain group.

    Although I frequently argue in favour of indigenous people identifying as such, ultimately I don’t have a dog in their fight, and I’m happy for them to identify in other ways if that’s their wish. I simply don’t think choice of identity should be coerced, and I think political movements which claim a liberal base must respect peoples’ identity choices (even when they don’t entirely suit).

    Left movements tend to be self-serving in this regard, where they could be collaborative if a base of mutual trust were established. Left movements should, rather than attempting by various means to coerce identification, find and develop structural ways to organise themselves around people’s identity choices and loyalties, for two purposes: first, to educate them (by non-coercive means) as to the costs and benefits of different political loyalties and actions, in the knowledge that defections (if any) will tend to be endogenous, lowering the ‘stakes’, as it were, to the internal jockeying for position of different factions within the wider movement (rather than putting the movement itself at a disadvantage to an external competing movement); and second, to take advantage of the fact that, while many of the specifics differ, there is a commonality between many leftist groups, and once the ‘unified ground’ has been well established with all stakeholders understanding their roles in it, how they’re required to compromise and how they may reasonably stand alone, can be put to good political use. Labour’s current imperious insistence upon complete agreement from other left parties leaves a very great deal to be desired, both in terms of their own electoral fortunes and for the wider movement.


  2. Hugh

    Lew, is anybody really trying to coerce people in this respect? If your view of coercion is Goff’s speech, and it seems that it is since this is where most of your views concerning the validity of identity politics have been most firmly expressed recently, I think perhaps ‘coercion’ is not quite the right word to use.

  3. Lew

    Hugh, I accept I’m using the term loosely, but the wider technique of labelling those who refuse to cleave to a given position as ‘race traitors’ or ‘class traitors’ or whatever is coercive. I don’t think Goff’s speech was strictly coercive (it wasn’t explicit enough), but I think the implied policy thrust behind it was, and certainly the hue and cry taken up by the commentariat. As a continuation of the post-Orewa policy direction, the emphasis is on punishing Māori for refusing to pay Labour their electoral ‘due’. This was done predominantly at the rhetorical level (‘haters and wreckers’; ‘separatists’; ‘kupapa’; ‘we’re all indigenous’ a la Mallard), but also at the political level (last cab off the rank).


  4. Hugh

    Lew, perhaps what’s missing from your formulation is an example of what criticism of policies initiated or suggested by Maori groups or individuals by a Pakeha politician should look like. You’ve repeatedly denied that you want to rule out all such criticism, but all prominent examples have come in for various levels of accusations of ‘coercion’ from you. Is our debate regarding ethnicity and identity so enervated that you can’t find a single example of appropriate, let alone ideal, speech?

    Because it seems to me that you make quite a lot of logical leaps to get Goff-esque discourse to a point where you consider it coercion. You don’t seem prepared to make equivalent logical leaps when analysing the discourse of, say, a Harawira or a Sharples.

  5. Ag

    I’d like to see what the program of this “left” movement would be. For me, the problem with the current left is that it doesn’t really have any ideas. Marxism, for all it’s faults, was at least a reasonably coherent set of ideas.

    Like Walter Sobchek said, “at least it’s an ethos”.

    The left have nothing coherent to offer except a dislike of extreme forms of capitalism. Worse, the left often adopts radically individualist positions that are self-defeating.

    Capitalism has had its worst couple of years that I can remember, and yet nobody on the left has come up with any coherent explanation or alternative. Labour are a joke and have basically been infiltrated by capitalists.

  6. Patrick

    … GBLT rights …

    Great post Pablo – always enjoy them.

    Minor correction – there are no such things as GLBT rights. There’s equal human rights for GLBT, but no such thing as a right that belongs exclusively to GLBT people.

    It would be better to say ‘equal human rights for GLBT’. A mouthful granted, but a far more accurate picture.

  7. Pablo Post author

    Ag: The Left/progressive lack of a coherent agenda for change was on my mind when I wrote, and is why I think that some type of gathering of the minds would be a good move. Then again, decentralised, highly individualistic activities give small groups maximum autonomy and allow them to avoid being subsumed under a larger ideological or programatic umbrella. However, this means they pose no real alternative to the status quo.

    Patrick: Thanks, that is what I was trying to say.

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