Class, identity, solidarity and dissent

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:

The problem with any identity-based political movement is it pre-supposes that the common identity of its members surpasses their conflicting class interests.

It’s true, although I would have phrased it as follows:

The problem with any class-based political movement is it pre-supposes that the common class of its members surpasses their conflicting identity interests.

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 hÄ«koi 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.


12 thoughts on “Class, identity, solidarity and dissent

  1. A simple statement of either political pluralism (lots of traditions can be “right” and, presumably either have to fight things out or get on with each other)or another version of post-modern relativism (lots/all traditions are right, abd we must accept that, for, by their existence, they are valid)?

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  3. Not really a fan of hikoi. Sit ins would be far more effective.

    It’s harder to mobilise the elders for a hikoi but sit them in a few foyers of some ministry buldings singing and chanting and it’d be a cruel and callous lawman who’d manhandle an elder for a political cause on the say so of the powers that be.

    That way you’d get way more mileage from our elders and better media coverage :)

  4. Where did the standard demand total public solidarity with AE? I don’t recall that.

  5. cb, “The Standard” didn’t — but there was a huge volume of writing by individual authors and commenters (which I should have distinguished in my post, since I meant to include the whole community) which was highly critical of anyone refusing to back AE in spite of whatever misgivings they might have had about the union’s actions or mandate.

    Robert, perhaps you could elaborate a bit on your comment — I’m not quite sure how to respond to it other than to say “well, yes and no”.


  6. In a theoretical sense an individual’s relationship to, or place within the capitalist superstructure is primary in the sense of “what are you, and whose political interests do you represent”. However in the real world which a dialectical/historical materialist philosophy is formulated to deal with, individuals and groups may have complex identifying characteristics and allegiances. Those other than elite rich list style white male hetero capitalists, and comprador capitalists (just a few hundreds in NZ) all experience exploitation, oppression and unequal power relationships in varying degree.

    Top level bureaucrats, managers, self employed, small business operators, freelancers, and contractors are not capitalists in my view though they may aspire to “be one” and support National, Act or Green (blue Greens). Bus drivers can be aspirational capitalists too, but are highly unlikely to become one.

    Any Marxist worthy of the name should automatically offer genuine solidarity and active support to all other oppressed individuals and groups locally and internationally. It is not about class always trumping identity, but working out a useful relationship between the two. Most politically aware or active people first get involved through an experience often of a brutal personal nature related to their identity or lack of power. A blast of pepper spray and a racist epithet, being refused a flat, unfair treatment at work. Systemic unfairness and inequality enforced by the state. The key question for those that are able to resist is who is the main enemy? Who are my allies?

    You mention Marxist critics. What is the definition of a Marxist. To be a Marxist/Leninist you really need to be part of a functioning group, network or party, not just have a Marxist world view. This is important because vociferous opponents of the Maori Party at the Standard blog are 99% likely to be social democrats not commos, enagaged in the Parliamentary form of politics, which is a numbers game in many respects. There are also several hundred ex and non party aligned NZ Marxists with a reasonable analysis that are generally not too abrasive in their polemic.

    The several public Marxist parties in New Zealand have surprisingly mild rhetoric regarding the Maori party, generally regarding it as another ‘capitalist party’ (WPNZ). These folks are busy enough with their own work and blog sites to bother participating on the likes of Bowalley, Kiwipolitico or Standard.

    Now re the MP. Hone would take up smoking rather than publicly admit to any leftism. But I maintain his early experiences and training linger on. Time will tell.

    You have made it clear Lew where you stand, a democrat. But the thing is, you don’t get to vote Warner Bros off the island in our economic system.

  7. TM,

    I can’t agree with your distinction as to “real” Marxists here; and I’m simply referring to those whose arguments stem from obviously Marxist roots. Perhaps it is true that some don’t “deserve” the title, being simply fools or those who just repeat whatever received wisdom takes their fancy, but at the same time there are a fair number whose critiques are sharp, informed and considered. They could be “practicing” Marxists (by your definition), for all I know, and a few certainly are. Being unable to tell it’s futile to try to draw a True Scotsman distinction, so I don’t.

    Any Marxist worthy of the name should automatically offer genuine solidarity and active support to all other oppressed individuals and groups locally and internationally. It is not about class always trumping identity, but working out a useful relationship between the two.

    Aside from the absolutes in this statement (as we’ve seen, I don’t stand for anything “automatic”) I agree, and this is why I see a lot of value in the general Marxian view of power relations (despite not really being a Marxist, in philosophy or in practice). This is why, in my view, Marxists should be supporting the tino rangatiratanga movement, feminist movements and those of other power minorities.

    But all too often they don’t. And sometimes they do the opposite, thundering about false consciousness and broken solidarity whenever a brown or female face dares to show itself without making cringing obeisance to the greater good of the (predominantly white, male) workers’ collective.


  8. Hi Lew, your flavour of political philosophy seems to be an acrobatic “anything goes” one. I have offered several explanatory comments from a pleasantly dogmatic left activist viewpoint to tempt a reasonable discourse, but your ‘Paris’-like “whatever” response does not address my substantial points.

  9. TM, you’ve made this criticism of me before, and my response now is the same as it was then: your interpretation of my philosophy is incorrect, but I don’t much care since I have no real need for the approval of “dogmatic left activists”, pleasant or otherwise.

    Gods know I’ve spent enough time explaining it that doing so again won’t make a blind bit of difference.


  10. re : Hikoi and Maori protest

    Whina Cooper marching along a dusty road, stick in one hand, mokopuna in the other, hanky on her head with chiselled moko on her smiling face, makes for lasting images that stick in the publics consciousness and raises awareness for the cause across the board.

    Another Hone led hikoi, protesting the foreshore, where angry looking people get bussed in to walk across the harbour bridge with tino flags flying has been done to death, and no one wants to see that fake photo op shit anymore. The bro needs to up his game yet again.

    For more effective protests to take hold and be acted upon it might pay to revisit the ‘sit in’ at gov’t ministries. The old ‘we shall not be moved’ philosophy where the elders do the protesting and the youngers care for them as they do.

    A show of true depth and caring, with Hone in subservience mode would add another dimension to his character.

  11. I’m not convinced of the Maori Party’s conventional mandate to do many of the things they’ve done.
    Also, on the question of mandate Lew, what about Turia’s contention that she makes decisions, rangatira-style, with a higher authority?

  12. TBD, can you elaborate on the distinction between a “conventional” mandate and some other sort of one?

    In strict terms, since the māori parties were elected by the voters in their electorates, they have a mandate to do as they damned well please. That’s what I’d term a “conventional” mandate; the sort of thing Chris Carter is presently exercising, and which waka-jumpers in previous parliaments have stood on. But when I talk of mandates, I mean something a bit deeper and softer — informed assent (or at least qualified tolerance) by the constituency to a given course of action or exercise of authority. I agree that the māori party’s mandate to undertake some of their policies is rather questionable, and I suspect that’s what you mean. Strength in representative democratic politics (particularly in the fairly direct sort of democracy which the māori operates, where MPs are held regularly and directly responsible for their actions by hui of their constituents) comes from working within that softer mandate. This isn’t strict, since Burke’s view of the importance of deliberative judgement rather than blind representation and enslavement to public opinion is, I think, pretty generally agreed within our political culture. And electorates are generally prepared to give considerable leeway to MPs they believe are working for them in good faith, even if the letter of the electorate’s wishes is not being fulfilled. The point is that having to fall back on the “technical” mandate of “I’ve been elected, so I can do what I like until the terms up” is critical weakenss, and almost invariably punished.

    Turia’s “rangatira” argument isn’t anything especially unusual, and actions taken in such a mode are still subject to the general “rules” of mandate. What I mean to say is that almost all MPs reserve this sort of right to act on their own conscience or judgement, per Burke, and that’s as it should be. And while in Pākehā political culture this is largely unstated, within kaupapa Māori political systems (on the marae, in the hapÅ« and runanga etc.), and certainly also within the māori party’s own political culture this is pretty clearly stated. Folk who are uncomfortable with the possible exercise of such authority would be wise not to vote for people likely to take and exercise it.

    My instinct is that Māori electors would be a great deal more tolerant of overreach on this basis than would Pākehā electors, all else being equal. So to an extent the māori party are probably on safer ground than many people think. That having been said, there are limits. New Zealand First’s “tight five” were unceremoniously chucked out in 1999, after all. Turia and other māori party MPs, despite delusions that they enjoy rangatira-like authority and immunity from consequence, may well find themselves relying to a greater or lesser extent on the “technical” mandate mentioned above, and be vulnerable because of it.


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