Frayed at the edges.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In November we will be reminded of that fact.


10 thoughts on “Frayed at the edges.

  1. Kia ora pablo,

    I think you have been a little bit tough on your analysis of Mana. The party is weeks old and after all they have not put out their list, have just won a by-election and registered as a political party, and have only put out one policy on the Treaty of Waitangi, as far as i am aware. Still fair enough, the challenges you highlight between the apparent factions and ideologies will indeed be interesting to watch unfold. I think they can be met and turned into advantages.

    The analogy of Hone with malcolm x is a bomber creation I think, that I don’t like personally – in fact I don’t know why we need to have some other figure to help contextualise where Hone sits and who he is – he is Hone. I believe the party is bigger than Hone although Hone is an inspirational leader and rightly holds the mana – he is not building a cult of personality around him IMO and the attraction of Sykes and Minto would support that assertion – I can’t imagine two more unlikely people to subsume to a personality cult – they just won’t or wouldn’t.

    The ‘assorted communists, socalists, anarchists and maori rights activists’ have supported Mana because the kaupapa is attractive and as you have nicely noted – those groups are made up of many ethnicities – that seems to me evidence of a Mana ‘class approach’ and that isn’t in conflict with tino rangatiratanga for me. I am excited that the Mana Party can, at this early stage, bind these issues of equality together – it bodes well for the future of the Party.

  2. Thanks Marty. My post is just a rumination, and I hope that you are right and we will Mana a coherent ideological platform that reconciles its component parts. I think the political system as a whole needs it to do so in order to avoid corporate elite dominance and partisan stagnation.

  3. until the 1960s, National was the party of–first and foremost–farmers, followed by small business, big business and some middle-class salaried workers. Labour was blue-collar workers and unions (including the large blue and white collar public sector), Maori and some private-secor salaried workers. 1984-90 changed all that, and MMP has really put paid to the old demarkation lines. similar to you, Pablo, my reading is that both parties have become completely co-opted by the neoliberal project, and are only distinguished by small biases toward either big business or collective savings. a good illustration would be to compare the situation in 1972 versus 2011. Jack Marshall and Rob Muldoon versus John Key and Bill English. Followed by Norm Kirk and Hugh Watt versus Phil Goff and Annette King. OMG!!!! anyway, the teevee and “news” (sic) papers keep most of the population docile with half of them waiting for the Lotto draw and the other half watching their investment property portfolios. elections are a shabby fairground sideshow, unfortunately.

  4. I think your analysis is pretty fair overall, Pablo, although like marty mars I though you were perhaps a bit tough on Mana. And I found the anti-imperialist tag a bit quaint – aren’t we all anti-imperialist these days? And are there any communists left, really?

    I do think the Greens, with the ditching of the red brigade, are sitting pretty to benefit as the developing effects of climate change become too obvious to ignore and the “enlightened bougeousie” gain critical mass.

    At least, I hope so, because, as regards climate change mitigation, neither of our two main parties have the political courage Gillard and Labor/Greens is demonstrating right now across the ditch.

  5. I have to disagree with your third paragraph about the ACT party putsch. It seems that this wasn’t a victory of a “market ideologue” faction within ACT itself, but rather an external takeover of ACT engineered by Stephen Joyce and his preferred bag men to try and prop ACT up and provide National with a viable MMP coalition partner after the election.

    Mana and the Maori party look set on doing a Bele and Lokai on each other. ACT will vanish – the brand is so toxic I can’t see them winning Epsom no matter who the candidate is.

  6. Pablo misses the class polarisation that is going on. Whatever the personal and internal divisions on the far left and right, global crisis is actually setting the agenda.

    There is no split between dry economics and social conservatives in ACT after Brash. Brash in 2004 showed that he was both. The Brash coup is about forcing unity and organisation onto a dysfunctional ACT to pull the NACT bloc (it is a bloc despite appearances) together to counter the emergence of a far left pole that can pull Labour to the left.

    Why? Well it obvious that the NACT economic agenda requires massive attacks on workers. The weakness of capital in NZ explains the increasing foreign domination by Australia, US and now China. The NACTs are mere agents for this penetration via the complete deregulation of capital and labour markets.

    This will inevitably revive working class resistance. Labour reflects that pressure weakly but has made some small shifts to the left to claim majority support for its economic management of capitalism. The Maori Party play for the iwi leaders to be indigenous agents for foreign capital took it far right and caused the split and formation of Mana, which despite its leaders baggage, is being forced be the class polarisation to fight on a united class line.

    Now the NACTs cannot defeat Labour on CGT which is a no brainer or privatisation which has been exposed, so to regain power to push its finance capital agenda, it has to disguise its dry economics in a cocktail of reactionary, and I would say proto-fascist, attacks on various components of the working class, Maori radicals, the underclass, women as inferior, youth as immature, boat people as terrorists etc to divide and disorganise that class.

    The centre of petty bourgeois and aspirant workers is not so much vacant as torn by class polarisation pulling in two directions. Usually in times of economic and social crisis whoever wins the petty bourgeois will win the class war. NZ has plenty of historic instances.

    On economics alone, the left would win easily as workers are under attack and the petty bourgeois are being badly squeezed. Its only in the domain of domination of cultural politics that the right can win the swinging middle. Key did it last time with smile and wave attacks on political correctness, but he has pretty much blown his stocks here.

    This time it will take a much more deliberate attempt deflect economics and mobilise the angry petty bourgeois and elements of the working class by blaming the tradition enemies of capital in the working class, the militant (Mana), the unruly (women and youth), the morally defective (underclass), the alien mob (boat people).

    Brash signalled in 2004 that he was the one to provide the ideological rational for this proto-fascist politics. One Law, One Nation, One People. This interprets the Treaty as a founding document for capitalist universality and therefore all those enemies of modernity who who must be excluded. So despite the apparent disarray of ACT and Mana, it is not the subjective elements of personalities and factions that in times of crisis set the agenda but the objective class struggle that to a large extent takes place behind our backs.

    We are now in a period of open class struggle such as NZ has experienced before of crisis in the period before WW1 and the 1930s, and the immediate post WW2 period. Today, like in each of these former times of upheaval the forces that propelled the classes into action in NZ are largely external.

  7. Dave, class isn’t a good fit for New Zealand. My pet theory is the great engine of conflict in this country is largely between one group that is global, colonial and extractive in it’s world view and the mass of people who have made this country their home and regard the terms and conditions of living here as their primary focus. One only has to see the contrast in the globalised, outward looking anglosphere focus of TVNZ – mouthpiece of the former – and the local, popular and slightly hokey patriotism of Maori TV to see an illustration of my point. How this great cleaving is presented is often clothed in the ideological flavour of the time (a socialist narrative when it was Massey’s Cossacks vs. Miners or the 1951 waterfront strike, a liberal town vs. reactionary country identity politics fight in 1981) but fundamentally the conflict is actually between two different narratives of what it means to live in this country – something Bruce Jesson instinctively understood. Also, I would suggest the ebb and flow of this great undercurrent of conflict is quite predictable in it’s occurance based on analysis of the past. 1913, 1951, 1981 – the simmering confrontation explodes into violence about every thirty years (discounting WWII). If I were the Ken Ring of historical prediction, I would guess we are soon due another violent round in this fight.

  8. I like your analysis, and it deserves more comment than I’ll give right now.

    I’ll just say that the drying up of minor parties is indeed harmful thing insomuch as it constrains policy debates. However, out of major parties during the 1970s and 80s came very significant breaks from what was seen to be a strong and unified policy consensus with small windows for disagreement. Time will tell whether this happens again, and yes, MMP was supposed to provide for smaller parties across a wider spectrum of positions. We’ll see what comes, but for the moment we have what we have.

  9. Thanks all for the insightful comments and corrections. I think that Dave is being a wee bit optimistic in his assessment of the state of pre-revolutionary consciousness among the proletariat, although I much enjoyed his dissection.

    For those who may not have seen it, there is an interesting discussion going on over at Reading the Maps that parallels some of the commentary here.

    I should clarify that when I wrote of “corporate interests” in the post I was not referring to business elites. Instead I am using the notion of “corporatism” in its broad sense, whereby interest groups ideologically colonise the state apparatus responsible for administering their interests as a form of rent-seeking clientalism. Here it also refers to the appropriation of the policy debate by such corporate interests, only some of which are private firms or unions. Privileging these corporate interests over class interests occurs best when class conflict has been erased from the political lexicon, which is why I lament the absence of a class line on the NZ political fringe.

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