Against Centrism.

The iron law of oligarchy states that the first duty of the organization is to preserve itself. This means that agents will go against the interests of principals for tactical and strategic reasons. For class-based parties the two main sources of rank and file betrayal are vanguardism and centrism. Vanguardism refers to the centralization of decision-making authority within a party elite, which sees organizational democracy in instrumental terms rather than as a social good.  The elite agenda is, foremost, about self-preservation justified in ideological terms.

Centrism refers to the tendency of class-based parties to move to the ideological centre in pursuit of wider mass appeal. This often means turning on what were once considered foundational principles of such parties, particularly adherence to a class line. The 20th century saw the emergence of a number of these type of party, New Zealand Labour being one of them. Once that “centrist” ideological space was captured electorally by the likes of NZ Labour (the permutations of the centrist shift by Socialist and Social Democratic parties are many), other parties emerged to fill the void and stand on principle. Few of them have survived, and those that do have married indigenous and environmental planks to an amorphous anti-capitalist platform.

One such party is the Green Party of New Zealand. It emerged as a party dedicated in principle to advancing the causes described above. It championed the environment as well as indigenous rights within it, and worked hard to provide an anti-imperialist, pacifist, human rights focused and anti-corporate counter-narrative to the market-oriented discourse of Labour and the collective Right. The composition of the Green Party caucus through its first decade in parliament showed a clear class consciousness. For many Left voters the Greens provided a tactical option under MMP, since a five percent party vote coupled with electorate votes for Labour candidates helped keep Labour ideologically “honest” when in government. Or so the Greens thought.

In practice the Green experience with the 5th Labour government was less than ideal, and in fact was marked by an increasing distance between the two erstwhile Left partners. Yet, as it replenished its ranks of MPs the Green Party began to emulate Labour and other Left-based “centrist” parties: it moved away from a strong class-based orientation and towards a more moderate stance on all original three ideological pillars. It saw an increased party vote in 2008, although it is unclear if the added support came from disgruntled Labour voters or genuine voter preference for a “reasonable” Left alternative to Labour’s increasingly corporate orientation. Whatever the cause, by 2011 the Greens have stripped out the Red in their ideological watermelon. There are no longer a working class-oriented party, and in fact have shifted to one that seeks the support of middle class voters who are not so much opposed to the status quo as they are seeking NIMBY relief within it.

The Greens are predicted to get 10 percent of the party vote in the 2011 election, with some estimates rising to 12-15 percent. The surge in support clearly has roots in voter disgust with National and Labour, but also is believed to be coming from moderate Left voters who feel more comfortable with Green occupying the ideological “space” formerly held by Labour. By moderating its policies and compromising on its foundational principles, the Greens have gone mainstream. The billboard vandalism scandal may be a perverse indication of that (with grassroots activists going outside the caucus mandate to make their point).

For voters who saw the Green party as the honest Left alternative, this is unfortunate. The Green march to the centre leaves those who believe in the essence of class conflict in capitalism (and its cousin, class compromise) devoid of electoral alternatives. Specifically, there is no longer a competitive Left option that challenges the fundamental logics of the contemporary New Zealand socio-economic system. Instead, there are only accommodationists of various centrist stripes, the Greens now being one of them. They may challenge along the margins of the dominant project, but they do not question the fundamentals. Despite the presence of Leftists and anti-imperialist/corporate rhetoric in the Mana Party, it appears to be more personality-driven and ideologically incoherent than a proper class-based party. That means that there is no genuine, politically viable alternative to the Left-centrist logic.

This type of political centripidalism is a natural aspect of  first past the post party systems, especially presidential ones. But MMP is supposed to give voice to parties of principle as well as catch-all parties, and is in fact considered to be a hedge against centralism. For both methodological individualists such as those on the libertarian Right as well as the collective good advocates on on the class-based Left, the move to centralism under MMP could well be a death knell (which ACT may prove in this election, and which the demise of the Alliance previewed in the last one).

In effect, what is good for the Green Party leadership and organization is not good for those at the grassroots who want a legitimate Left parliamentary alternative that is electorally viable and committed to questioning the status quo. In order for the Greens to have remained as such they would have had to eschew the temptation of centrism and accept their role as a minor party on the ideological margins that speaks truth to power rather than be a contender for power as given. That would have meant keeping to a more “militant,” or “activist” line that did not deviate from the foundational principles of the Party.  The iron law of oligarchy suggests that never was going to be the case (and perhaps membership preferences have changed so that it would not be so), and given that Labour sold out the rank and file a long time ago (its corporatist relationship with the CTU, EPMU and other trade unions notwithstanding, since these also subscribe to the iron law), that means that in this election there is no real choice for those on the Left who want to vote for a party that can substantively influence policy rather than provide a minor corrective or circus side show to the dominant political discourse.

That being said, I am sorely tempted to vote Mana in order to try and keep the Greens honest from the Leftish fringe!

PS: Left for another time is discussion of the fact that in the absence of institutional (party) avenues of voice and redress, ideological militants of all stripes gravitate to extra- or illegal means of doing so. In the measure that formerly principled parties go centrist or are not replaced by successful others, the ideological void they leave behind is often filled by those of less institutionalist persuasion.

30 thoughts on “Against Centrism.

  1. ” That being said, I am sorely tempted to vote Mana in order to try and keep the Greens honest from the Leftish fringe!”

    I actually thought seriously last night about my options for the election last night being part of the centre left demographic the greens are now pitching at. But the sticker campaign and the fact that it was as Lew points out below done so incompetently and I am sure with some knowledge of at least some of the MP’s reduces their appeal a lot. Labour have pissed me off to the point they will not get my vote, Mana isn’t an option so do I destroy my ballot in a plague on all your houses option or vote for NZ First as an even greater plague on all your houses option in the hope he can reach the 5%. Looking to Winston to stop asset sales I admit is desperation stuff.

  2. Yeah, I tend to agree: we’re not left with any clear option about what box to tick. Haven’t quite considered holding my nose and voting NZ1st yet- not sure I could live with it! But IHS makes a good point: if they get 5%, there’s a reasonable chance we get to keep our electricity- which, with peak oil and all, is so totally crucial to NZ’s future it’s almost worth swallowing dog-poo for.
    Still considering mana though. Would like Annette Sykes in parliament.

  3. As is often the case, Pablo, I think you’re wrong about the degree to which the Greens have changed. They have never been a strongly working-class oriented party and have always attracted minimal working-class support.

  4. Pablo, when were the Greens ever “working class”? I used to be a member, and everyone I’ve ever met in that party is as middle-class as I am, if not more so.

    (Which isn’t to say that they haven’t had the *interests* of working-class people at heart, they’ve just never successfully outreached to them. Indeed, one could argue that if a working class person joined the Green Party, they’d immediately stop being WC).

    Anyway, we don’t need constructive and consistent policy positions during the next 3 years of NACT government, we need people to disrupt and stir things up. On that basis I’m voting Mana.

  5. Hugh and Rich:

    Perhaps I am waxing nostalgic, but if we look back to the original cadre of Green MPs, to say nothing of others on their party list, we can see an overtly working class content in their policy positions. They may not all have working class backgrounds (i.e., they were not “organic”), but their socio-economic project was clearly rooted in it as well as in the plight of the lower middle classes. This raises issues of vanguardism, but the original Green MP selection process insured against that, or better said, mitigated it.

    With the emergence of Russell Norman as co-Leader, the original content of the Green platform was stripped of its working class focus as part of the move to a more polished, disciplined and centrally organized Party apparatus. The content of the other two legs of the Green ideological triad were diluted as well, which together gave centrist direction to the party reform project.

  6. Pablo, it’s true that the Greens used to talk about redistribution of wealth. The universal minimum wage policy is a great example of this. But the thing is, they still talk about it. Norman’s ascendancy hasn’t actually changed any of the Greens’ economic policies, which have remained basically constant since 1999.

    What has changed is the branding. Under Norman the Greens have talked a lot more about potentially dealing with conservatives and have used a lot of pro-market language (although personally I find ‘richer’ so meaningless as to not be as pro-market as some commentators do, he does talk more about the need for market orientation and business promotion). This leads us to presume that, in a hypothetical coalition agreement with National, the Greens would be prepared to jettison their economic policies in favour of some environmental policy wins.

    But Norman is only outright saying what was always the case, even back in the 1999-2002 heyday of the Green’s supposed leftism. No serious analyst could have concluded that the Greens, in some hypothetical coalition with Labour, wouldn’t have done basically the same thing in slating their entire economic policy portfolio in order to get some of their environmental policies implemented. So it’s not really a fundamental change in the policy positions of the Green Party, it’s a change in how the party wishes to appear.

    So ultimately, if people wish to vote for a party that will do something to transfer wealth to the poorest in society, the Greens are not a good choice.

    Rich: Interestingly the Green position vis-a-vis the working class neatly coincides with their stance on Maori – they have the most pro-indigenous policies of any party that isn’t Maori or Mana, and yet they get almost none of the Maori vote (although they have attracted some Maori members, these people come solely from the Maori middle class).

  7. I’d add that I was talking about the traditional “marxian” working class, which would be defined by:
    – working class (or at least non-affluent) parents
    – employed in manual or unskilled work or casual/unemployed
    – limited education

    That’s a shrinking group (maybe 30% of NZ) and a hard one to build a movement on.

    Much larger are the non-affluent “lower middle classes” that Pablo alludes to above – the people who are noticing that their lifestyle is much poorer (in many respects) than their parents. This is the group that radical movements would do well to target, and one that’s well represented in the Green parties support base.

  8. I’m no great Marx scholar but I’m pretty sure that he didn’t say you had to be a parent to be working class.

    But let’s presume you’re right, I’d say 30% is a bloody good base to build a movement from. I mean, nobody would say you can’t build a movement based on Maori support, it’s been demonstrably quite a successful strategy, and Maori are way less than 30% of the population.

  9. The early Greens were children of Values. Middle to upper-middle class trendies, infected enough by the cultural revolution to publicly eschew the Fatman, but not enough to upset mum. It’s just a phase, dad, they’ll come right.

    Marched in ’81 but ducked off just before the batons came out. Kept their head down and embroidered their overalls during union meetings. Lasted a week at the works, then back to uni. Grew a couple of plants and saved for a Rover. Collected nice things.

    Joined the Alliance with a peg on their nose and sat back. Accepted the New Labour refugees with a forced smile. Eventually got rid of them, hung on to a bit of their gear, but keep it in the background.

    Getting on good with mum and dad now. Avoided pain, so never maimed. Still the same, plain and lame. Nice clean kids gradually clearing out the bad influence, getting richer and respecting other peoples’ property.

  10. I think this is an important argument.

    The shift is really more a rebranding / refactoring of the Green focus away from their nominal support base — those demographics that Sue Bradford, Rod Donald &c had hoped to appeal to — and towards those demographics that actually do vote for the Greens, the environmentally-conscious middle-class whose strong sense of social justice doesn’t necessarily derive from direct experience of class alienation. This is largely a generational shift; though there are some exceptions (Metiria Turei, in particular, has spoken very eloquently of her own experience of growing up working-class, and how this informed her politics). While this shift hasn’t expressed itself strongly in policy terms, I agree that it will inevitably do so, and is already becoming evident in their political discourse and conduct, especially in the trend towards deradicalisation.

    My own view is that this isn’t really a bad thing. Yeah, I know: I’m a bad lefty. I’ve long lamented that the Greens have been undervalued in NZ politics, and a party that hasn’t achieved nearly as much as it might have due to perceptions that they’re too radical. And some of those perceptions have merit — I’ve never been able to vote for the Greens because of some of these fundamental beliefs, even though their formal policy offerings more closely match my views than other parties. I think some refactoring was wise and necessary after the 2008 elections, where despite a very strong term they remained only a small distance above electoral oblivion. I disagree that the new position is meaningfully “centrist”, although it’s still too early to get a definitive read on that.

    So, indeed, the institution’s first duty is self-preservation. I think they correctly identified that more radicalism wasn’t going to yield more support or better results, and opted for institutional, policy and political competence instead. I think this was the right call in terms of ensuring the survival of the movement, and I think if you look at the new echelon of Green candidates coming through there’s incredible quality there: Gareth Hughes has already proven himself; James Shaw and Holly Walker are also showing great potential. These people are the future, and the Greens are positioning themselves for it. But I would say that: I think ideological rectitude is a poor substitute for political or institutional competence and raw candidate quality.

    That said I think it’s both necessary and largely inevitable that another radical vehicle emerges. There is political demand for a party that more robustly challenges the “cosy consensus” of middle-class politics. While I have some doubts about Te Mana I think it is likely to be that vehicle. Hone should hold his seat and they have some serious ideological (as well as academic and intellectual) firepower in their upper ranks. Even one or two of Sykes, Kelsey, Minto and Bradford will help to keep the Greens honest, as Pablo puts it.


  11. “L” is the only commentator above to hit the nail on the head: Pablo was wrong from the start to suggest that the Greens were EVER a “class-based party”. What they were, of course was a RADICAL party (judged simply by how far off the Labour/National centrist mark their policies were). These days, of course, it is true that the Greens are just another crowd jostling for the middle ground. The Mana Movement, likewise, is not a “class-based party”, much as some of its Socialist “helpers” would like to take it over and make it so. However, there is no doubt that it is the ONLY “radical” party in town! GO MANA!!!

  12. Geoff, class-based is not the opposite of RADICAL (your emphasis).

    Lew, you say “My own view is that this isn’t really a bad thing.” It might not be a bad thing for the Greens and I agree that a position between, if not exactly equitably interposed between, Labour and National is probably a good fit for their voters, who while they like to think of themselves as free-thinkers are actually not that interested in challenging the status quo.

    But I think it’s important for democracy that there’s a viable party that offers economic policies that are to the left of Labour. I’ve always found Labour’s economic policies too hesitant for my liking but have had trouble voting for the Greens because they don’t really care about their economic policies – they will pull Labour or National to the ‘left’ on the environment or indigenous rights, but not on the minimum wage, taxation, welfare etc etc.

    I have high hopes for Mana but right now it’s just not in a place where I can vote for them. That may change – the involvement of Sue Bradford is a very positive sign, just as her departure from the Greens was a sign that they are downplaying their economic policies still further. Still, I agree that Mana is the most likely vehicle for economic leftism.

  13. Yes, vote Mana is all I can say to any lefties left. In the bowels of the internet my initial remarks about Mana will lurk-Alliance MkII. I quickly revised that opinion however and came to see Mana as a somewhat unique hybrid. Māori led, Māori focused but inclusive of all working class peoples, the antithesis of the identity based allegedly supra class politics of the Māori Party. Political DNA is rapidly being exchanged in Mana between diverse groups and individuals, particularly the young. Which has to be postitive in the neo liberal stripped political environment of individualism and non engagement of so many citizens.

    Geoff D is a bit of an anti communist when it comes down to it judging by his warnings on the Te Mana FB presence. My take is that the left marxist sects and individuals have generally been rather respectful and nurturing of the set up process for Te Mana Movement. Some of them dallied over engagement at all in fact. The last thing most doctrinaire types want is to seriously take on an unruly beast like Mana. Hone was politically raised in the time of the marxist SAL, SUP and CPNZ. He is familiar with those politics. Trips to Libya, Cuba, Nicaragua and the USSR were undertaken by various Māori activists in the late 70s to mid 80s.

    In the 80s there were two main schools on Te Tiriti. 1. The treaty is a fraud. 2. Honour the treaty. As lengthy and sometimes tiresome debates on this site confirm, TOW is not going away and Mana is the current means of advancing the cause. I feel I was gracious to Lew regarding the Māori Party/National arrangement when my initial predictions were proven correct-major stats were worse off after three years, symbolic gains notwithstanding.

    Todays radicals become tomorrows centrists? Watch this space. It will be highly amusing to see the Honourable Annette Sykes and John Minto I can tell you.

  14. Yes, TM, you and others have been gracious. Though I should note that the core of my argument was “Māori direction is for Māori to decide, and Māori will punish parties who sell them out”, which remains mostly true even if I was wrong in my assessment of the māori party’s strategy. And I did cop to that some time ago (last year, If I recall).

    I still think it’s wrong to talk of the Greens as “between Labour and National”, suggesting that they are to the right of Labour. I don’t think that holds up to scrutiny in terms of policy or political culture, in spite of their reframing. Yes, they have moved towards the centre but have not become so denuded of class consciousness as to be in the centre. On many topics they remain both more radical and more “left” than Labour — although with Labour under Goff perhaps that’s not saying much. Their response if Labour does yaw to the left post-election will be very telling, and if Labour does abandon its centrism to the Greens we are in for a fascinating few years.


  15. In keeping with the observation (made here by Pablo, elsewhere by Bryce Edwards and others) that the Greens have lost the red in their watermelon, may I now suggest an alternative metaphor: the cucumber. Dark green on the outside, pale green on the inside, flavourless, predominantly composed of water, and with almost no caloric value.

    Makes a nice garnish, but.


  16. While the cucumber metaphor is a very apt one I have to disagree with you, Lew, when you say the Greens have lost class consciousness. In my opinion they never really had it. The Greens have never talked about class in any meaningful way. They’re post-materialists.

  17. Hugh, as I said, I think you can only come to that conclusion if you selectively disregard Sue Bradford, Keith Locke, Metiria Turei …


  18. Hugh: in Marx’s day, the working class was clearly identifiable and constituted 80% or more of the population.

    (Also, I mean that people *whose parents* aren’t working class are unlikely to identify or be identifed as such).

  19. I wonder if there’s a difference between how policy wonks measure “centrism” compared to the rest of the population – while like Lew I don’t agree that the Greens are anywhere near occupying much of the policy space between Labour and National, I think they’re definitely edging towards it in the rhetoric space. Where the larger parties can define themselves in opposition to each other, the Greens, no matter where on the spectrum they lie policy-wise, must be seen to consider every policy from every other party on its merits alone, or risk being seen as just another Labour faction. The upshot is that someone who listens only to rhetoric might see them as “between” the two parties in other ways. I guess this is still a kind of centrism, but it’s not what I would normally use the term for.

  20. Just to be clear:

    If I read the post correctly, is it better to be in a small fringe party, offering criticism from outside, without ever having to take responsibility for policy development and implementation? And, the corollary, if you do become able to develop and implement policy, by dint of gaining sufficient popular support to win seats in Parliament, you become “a minor corrective or circus side show to the dominant political discourse”.

    And are those who are enmeshed in that “discourse” to be looked down upon by those on the fringes who, unsullied by any responsibility (or, often enough, popular support), may stand in judgement from their superior moral station – keeping the sell-outs honest, as it were?

    Just wanted to be clear if that’s the insight offered. If it is,one might think it a little arrogant, but I may simply have misunderstood.

  21. Robert Winter:

    My belief is that parties of principle can influence and even be responsible for policy while operating from the margins. Their ability to do so rests on the measure of their ideological convictions and the presence of multiple minor parties that reduce mainstream party votes to the point that coalition governments are worthy of that name. Unfortunately the logic of centrism defeats the purpose of MMP and trades off access to policy-making roles with a dilution or sell-out of core ideological principles.

    Or as Epsom Green Party candidate David Gay said today, “we used to be seriously radical but now we are radically serious.” Indeed.

  22. Lew, I’ve never seen any class rhetoric coming from Turei, but perhaps I’ve just missed it.

    Locke, while tarred by the right as a communist, was really just a middle class isolationist and moral idealist. His criticisms of US foreign policy were based on universal human rights. Not to say that’s -wrong- but it’s not a class-based critique.

    Bradford, yes, I’ll give you that, but she was the only one.

  23. Sounds to me like a model where the ‘diluted’ or ‘sell-outs’ do the hard yards of policy development and implementation (if they get into power)and minor parties ‘of principle’ sit on the margins trying to keep honest those doing those hard yards. I’ve been on both sides of that division. It leads to frustration on the one hand and arrogance on the other. It’s also probably unavoidable, but, as a division, it is one reason why the Left finds it so difficult to gain and sustain power, and attempt radical transformation.

  24. Hugh, are you having a laugh? Keith Locke’s activist upgringing and decade or two as a senior member of Socialist Action before Parliament doesn’t count?

    As for Turei, a recent and powerful expression of her class consciousness is here.


  25. Totally agree Lew, she’s a corker. As is Keith. Not so much Norm, but he’s getting there. I take back entirely my earlier smartarse comment, it was based on early greenies I knew (and hey, I’m old, and mate, they really were sad).

    On reflection, the Green Party is the future, provided they can grab an anchor. Labour’s the obvious, and I wish they’d both stop pussyfooting. Let’s not go near the poll effect again, but if nothing else, note the current oz ALP vs L-NP standard and imagine Nat vs L-G, and think of the psychological benefit.

    Environment’s the new black. Blackity black black black, in fact. Speaking from my own demographic (fey, rich, white), there’s boomers and accidental fatcats galore out here who are embarrassed as all get-out by the largesse that their neolib spawn have shovelled into their accounts without asking: accidental millionaires still eighteen years old in the egalitarian 1950s in their minds, one foot in the grave with kids and wives that are aliens.

    Their dads slaughtered, raped and then, worse, shat on Maori for long after; in turn they prolapsed their discs, repulsed their own wives, drained the swamps, wasted the bush, revolted their kids, and ended alone.

    Alone and loaded, thus estranged from their best, poorer mates and superiors. Brief licks of love at jubilees and funerals, but lost and feckless; sickened at slippery suits, tory by religion: dying and desperate, now flocking in droves to the birds and trees that were their first love. Restoring relics, rueing the past, one eye on the financial markets and the other glinting at naive Green maidens.

    Poppa’s hard-earned lesson to the mokos, kaitiakitanga, future fear and applied christianity’s enduring truth: it’s a powerful, unstoppable brew, future PM Whenuakura Lew. Practise your public speaking in the car and join your local Green branch.

  26. Lew, I’m referring to Keith’s time in the Green Party. While there he focused almost entirely on his role as Foreign Affairs spokesperson. He may have had a generally leftist orientation prior, I’m just talking about him as a Green MP, not as a person. Seems like a silly distinction I know but we are arguing about the characterisation of the Green Party so I think any individual is only really relevant as part of the Green Party. People change, and entering a political party often causes that. I’m sure Keith regards himself as true to his socialist roots but for me, I don’t see it.

    As for Turei, fair enough. What she’s offering there isn’t the hard-edged class-based rhetoric I’d like to see – her going on about her father being a fantastic bloke does play a bit into the “virtuous poor” thing – but it is stronger than I see from most Green MPs.

  27. “Environment’s the new black. Blackity black black black, in fact.”

    2006 called, they want their prediction back.

  28. “The early Greens were children of Values. Middle to upper-middle class trendies, infected enough by the cultural revolution to publicly eschew the Fatman, but not enough to upset mum. It’s just a phase, dad, they’ll come right.

    Marched in ’81 but ducked off just before the batons came out. Kept their head down and embroidered their overalls during union meetings. Lasted a week at the works, then back to uni. Grew a couple of plants and saved for a Rover. Collected nice things.”

    Anyone familar with Bob Jones’ literature during that period will recognise this description instantly.

    I think that Chris Trotter offer a more historically grounded analysis of the Greens as an issues based insurgent party than yours Pablo but he’s been around the traps for a little longer than you.

    Being familar with those who vote for the party I can categorically state that none of them are working class. Rather they seem to attract technocratic university educated public sector employees.

  29. It is a bit disappointing that the thread got fixated on whether the Greens ever had a class line, as opposed to the more important practical and theoretical point that centrism is inimical to the spirit and practice of MMP. That said, it is interesting to see the range of opinion regarding the Greens, then and now.

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