Bowed but not Beaten: A Reply to Chris Trotter’s rejoinder to “Nothing Left.”

The post on the death of the NZ political Left has elicited a fair bit of commentary. That is good, because my purpose in writing it as a polemic was to foster debate about the internal weakness of the NZ Left and possible solutions to that problem. I did not discuss all of the negative externalities that work against a revival of the Left, but many others have, both in the comments on the original post as well as in the commentary in places like The Standard. In fact, some of the discussion in the thread on the original post as well as the Standard thread has been very good.

Needless to say, the right wing blogosphere loved the post. Kiwiblog, Keeping Stock and Whaleoil jumped at the opportunity to put the boot in. I commented on the Kiwiblog thread, where I was accused of defining what the “real” and “fake” Left were and of being one of those people who denigrate anything that does not fit their narrow definition of what being “Left” means. One nice person on the Standard derided me for being a “defeatist” and engaging in “self-flagellation.” This kind soul also harked to the idealism and determination of Nelson Mandela and Martin Luther King to show that we should not give up the fight, perhaps forgetting that Mandela renounced socialism once he became president (supposedly to protect democracy) and MLK –never a Leftist, he–got shot for his troubles long before racial equality was achieved in the US. Anyway, it was all quite entertaining.

Now Chris Trotter has entered the fray with this exposition:

I wrote a response but it was not published by the Daily Blog administrator. Since my comment on Chris’s rejoinder was submitted more than 15 hours ago and 29 other comments have appeared, I assume that it will not be published, so I shall re-print it here:

“Fair rejoinder, but a bit off the mark.

The point of my polemic was to stir debate about the internal weaknesses of the NZ Left that have neutered it as a political alternative to the capitalist socio-political project. Besides the abandonment of a broad working class focus and socialist principles by the institutionalized Left (the party-union nexus) in favour of more narrow po-mo concerns and piecemeal challenges to the market-driven project, there is the factionalization, in-fighting, oligarchical leadership and general political insignificance of the activist Left. This opens the door to opportunists and charlatans to claim ideological leadership within the Left as a vehicle for self-interested advancement.

I see the cultural Left as having significance, but as a political force nether it or much of the informed Left commentariat have much political sway. And when some of that commentariat quietly seek remunerated ties to political actors who are the antithesis of everything socialism stands for, well, that is unfortunate.

So no, I do not share your optimism, but I am far from defeatist by directly addressing what I see as the elephants in the NZ Left room. Self-criticism and self-assessment are good things to do in good times and bad, and in my view the current moment is bad for the NZ Left.

Some of the commentary on the original post address ways to recapture the moment.

I do like your use of Gramsci though. Shallow as it may be in the context of this rejoinder, it points to the necessity of waging an effective counter-hegemonic war of position within the system, using what is given as instruments of usurpation of the ideological status quo.”

I should note that in his post Chris waxes positive about the Labour Party, the Greens, Mana and the CTU. In doing so he helps make my original case: none of these organizations are “Left” in the sense of being socialist or even primarily worker-focused, whatever they may have been at their inception. They may use socialist rhetoric and act “progressive” when compared to National and its allies, and they may be a better choice for Left-leaning people when it comes to electoral preferences and collective representation, but the hard fact is that play the game by the rules as given, do not challenge the system as given and, to be honest, just chip away around the superstructural margins of the edifice that is NZ capitalism.

Although I believe that the NZ political left is comatose if not dead, this does not mean that it cannot be revived or resurrected. As I said to a commentator on my original post, Keynesian economics in liberal democracies led to a 60 year period of class compromise that replaced the politics of class conflict extant prior to 1930. The so-called neo-liberal project in NZ was trialled under authoritarian conditions in places like Chile (yes Chris, I do remember Pinochet in part because his economic policies were emulated by Roger Douglas and company and marked the turn towards feral market-driven policy that persists in NZ today despite your protestations). It if founded on a direct return to the politics of class conflict, this time initiated by the upper bourgeoisie operating from an advantaged global position against the organized working classes via regressive labor legislation and the privatization of state provided welfare, health and education programs.

Many say the neoliberal elite are hegemonic when doing so. I disagree, in part because unlike Chris (who threw some Antonio Gramsci quotes into his rejoinder) I have spent a lot of time studying Gramsci’s concept of “egemonia,” (hegemony, or ideological leadership by consent) specifically its difference with the concept of “dominio” (domination, or rule by submission or acquiescence). Giovanni Tiso wrote a comment of Chris’s post that captures just a part of why Chris went a bit to far with his misuse of the words of the person who coined the non-Leninist interpretation of that special concept amongst the po-mo Left. I mention this because the entire thrust of Chris’s rejoinder read more like an instance of intellectual one-upmanship rather than a reasoned counter-argument.

The fact is that the current ideological dominance of the market-focused elite is only hegemonic in the measure that the political Left allows it to be. In NZ fair-minded people obey but do not consent to the system as given. In my view internal problems in the Left prevent it from presenting a viable counter-argument, much less counter-hegemonic alternative to the contemporary status quo.

It may not be armed conflict but the NZ market project, be it subtle, buffered or stark, is a war against the working classes, one that is based on the atomization of said classes via the destruction of class-based unions and ideological diversions that promote narrow sectoral representation based upon collective assumptions about the primacy of individual self-interest over solidarity, and which privileges greed over empathy.

In comments on the original post I offer some limited suggestions about a new Left praxis in NZ. I  am sure that there are many other avenues to explore along those lines. The market-driven project (which is no longer “neoliberal” in the original sense of the term), was an obvious and transparent return to the politics of class conflict, with preferential terms dictated by the financial elite.

No matter how dominant this ideology is at this moment, it opens a window of opportunity for the NZ Left, if it knows how to take the advantage. Rather than a monolithic compendium of all that is impossible to those born wrong, it renders bare the inegalitarian and exploitative foundations of the current socio-economic order as well as the abjectly quisling nature of the political elite that support it.

One final thought. I do not object to Leftists trying to earn a living, even if that means working in capitalist institutions on capitalist terms. I have to do so.

I do not even mind Leftists who live off of trust funds or marry well. In fact, I do not object to Leftists taking up paid work for non-Left parties as part of a tactical alliance against a common enemy or as a way of learning about the enemy from within.

I believe that those on the Left, much more so than those on the Right, need to be upfront about these apparent contradictions. They need to understand that touching power is not the same as confronting, much less wielding it. That is why I object to concealment of financial relationships between capitalist economic and political entities and those who publicly proclaim themselves to be Lions of the Left and champions of the dispossessed and voiceless.

My bottom line? We all have contradictions in our lives. For those on the Left the contradictions of living in a capitalist society can be overwhelming at times. It is how we resolve our ideological contradictions that separates the honest from the hypocritical.


16 thoughts on “Bowed but not Beaten: A Reply to Chris Trotter’s rejoinder to “Nothing Left.”

  1. Pingback: The Pablo Trotter interchange - whither the left? - The Standard

  2. Do you realise Mana is crammed to the gunnels with Marxists? Ever been to a meeting, perhaps its different outside of auckland.

  3. Good then, I hope to see you there making a strong argument for real action around working class politics. I’ll be doing the same. I’m sure it will make the debate and subsequent action all the richer.

  4. David: I’ll reserve definitive judgement on Mana until it is able to broaden its appeal and reproduce leadership cadres beyond Hone.

  5. I wrote a response but it was not published by the Daily Blog administrator.

    Yes, they quite often fail to run critical comments. Much as I had a problem with how you used to respond to some people here (and the atmosphere is much improved, btw), at least you always let them say their bit. The Daily Blog’s apparent attitude that free speech is only for those they agree with is not only wrong in and of itself, it’s also bad for the causes they support. It stifles debate, and it provides ammunition for those who argue that socialism invariably leads to the secret police taking you away because you said the wrong thing about the ruling party.

  6. Pablo, I had to chuckle when I read this in Trotter’s (Chris is too common a name) post:

    “Buchanan, in Olympian fury, has rained down upon their miscreant heads a storm of condemnatory thunderbolts.”

    Was he perhaps looking in the mirror when he typed that?

    I don’t know enough about Mana yet, but I really struggle to see Labour or the Greens as being left-wing parties. I’ve even seen Green members/supporters online claiming that the Green Party is not left wing. Labour and Green outbursts of economic nationalism in recent years just add more confirmation – just how does one reconcile “workers of the world unite” with “(dirty) foreigners stealing our jobs” or “(dirty) foreigners (Chinese) buying up all our land”? Ok, granted, those buying up the land don’t tend to be working class, but to me that attitude just does not compute, especially when it comes laden with so much implicit xenophobia and racism.

    And considering right-wing libertarians and small government conservatives agree that there’s no place for the government in people’s bedrooms, I fail to see gay marriage as a victory for the progressive left.

    Likewise, Kim Dotcom’s popularity with the left right now seems more like a convergence of common interests than common beliefs – surely we all, whether libertarian, anarchist, socialist, conservative or whatever, stand to lose equally when there’s massive, unwarranted, unnecessary government surveillance and its inherent chilling of free speech? Well, all but the authoritarian right in power, of course.

  7. Paul, I am disappointed, but not surprised to hear the Daily Blog won’t publish your rebuttal of Trotter.

    It’s hardly surprising the left appears dead. It’s largely filled with those long resigned to the rule of capital, to partnership between the union and the employers – at the expense of the people they represent. As you correctly point out the far-left is a desert of regurgitated mechanical Leninism led by the odd, the egotistical, the malevolent and their student followers.

    There are rays of hope on the horizon. For example Andy Brown’s interesting piece dissecting Leninism is well worth reading

    as is Grant Morgan’s essay on capitalist collapse

    Brown’s piece proposes that the reason for the failure of the Russian revolution lies not in Russian “exceptional circumstances” but in the suppression of democracy integral to Lenin’s conception of how the revolution should be organised, expressed in his writings and actions before, during and after 1917. The Bolshevik notion that workers were incapable of running things immediately and their orders that workers should subjugate themselves to their managers handed power back to the same lackeys who ran things before the revolution and provided a material base for the growth of the ranks of the “specialists” who consolidated their power under Stalin.

    NZ politics is equally full of those with ‘a vision’ which we are all meant to plod along behind in the vague hope of a better future. Labour and the Greens have all pledged to be “responsible managers” of capital on behalf of the system. “Meet the new boss, same as the old boss”.

    Until the parties and players absorb these basic lessons of the need for continuous democracy and transparency we are left with a populace cowed by the example of unions that ‘don’t have your back’, in a hostile competitive marketplace heavily skewed against ordinary people and a future that promises more of the same.

    In the meantime capitalism faces irresolvable crises of profitability, the environment, resources, military hegemony and political legitimacy as Mr. Morgan details.

    We need structures that allow all of us to organise the means of our own survival. Lets talk about that.

  8. Chris: I had a good laugh at Chris’s prose as well. If you have not already, check out the Standard’s post on the supposed “Pablo-Trotter” debate published on Thursday night. The comment thread is interesting, although it also tends to confirm what I said about Left infighting. Some people mistakenly believe that because I believe that a Left praxis has to be rooted in class consciousness I “dismiss” or neglect superstructural issues like gender, ethnic identity, environmental concerns and sexual preference.

    I do not. However, I do not give these superstructural factors primacy in my thought because all of those forms of identification are non-universal, whereas insertion in a capitalist class system rooted in the exploitation of wage labor is a universal constant. Hence I see modern Left praxis as rooted in a working class consciousness, broadly defined to include all forms of non-managerial wage labor and all ethnicities, genders and preferences.

    Put it this way: consider a situation where there is a female hourly worker and a female CEO of a major firm. What identification comes first when they meet each other in the social division of labor? Will identifying as female be so strong that it will bridge the class gap between them?

    Perhaps it will, as could be the case with being gay, Indian, bisexual etc. But I am simply unsure that these identifications universally supersede the class element and therefore should replace it as a focus of Left praxis.

    Peter: I agree with you about the problem of vanguardism and its consequences, which is why I consider myself a neo-Gramscian (although he too has been accused of Leninist tendencies).

  9. Some people mistakenly believe that because I believe that a Left praxis has to be rooted in class consciousness I “dismiss” or neglect superstructural issues like gender, ethnic identity, environmental concerns and sexual preference.

    People who support Chris Trotter accuse you of that?? Ahahahahaha…

    @Chris W: If economic nationalism disqualifies someone from being left wing, you’d have to cut out the first Labour government, too. I get your point about ‘workers of the world’, though. I suppose it all comes down to exactly how ‘left wing’ is defined.

    Also, just because libertarians and small government conservatives believe in not discriminating against gay people, that doesn’t mean that that belief is right wing, just that there’s a lot of arguments in its favour.

  10. Trotter does like to censor and ban, and that’s not a good sign from a blog. Then of course the Standard does, and Bradbury, its just part of the lefts
    defence system.

  11. Having caught up with the Trotter post and the various threads I just have to ask myself why? Class warfare? Socialism? Those concepts are completely out of date in modern New Zealand. There are of course imperfections on left and right but New Zealand is a pretty damn good example of a free open market democracy. People can generally buy what they want when they want on the basis of rules they have a democratic voice in setting.
    Everyone knows, at the bottom of their subconscious that the choice to study hard at school, conform at work and in society will lead to material success. Everyone who wants an iphone can get an iphone. A man from Otara with few life choices but a strong physique like Jonah Lomu can become an NZ version of royalty. John Key is a fine example of someone who followed that path. The best that the Nothing Left can do is try to argue that he has no vision. Which is precisely one of the most attractive things about him to the non beltway public. They can see him as one of them made good and just concerned to make what we have better rather than be a revolutionary.
    Trying to argue for a system where an unelected socialist elite would control everything is just like arguing whether betamax was actually better than VHS. Utterly pointless and irrelevant.

    The Bradbury Dotcom sellout is just an utterly humorous icing on the cake in the demise of nothing left

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