Nothing Left

Judging from recent events, the New Zealand Left is spent as a political force.

Some Left media types jumped at the opportunity to work for Kim Dotcom’s Internet Party (which is clearly based on the Pirate Party model, originally from Sweden but now with an international dimension that is anything but working class based). Material and personal motivations rather than ideological affinity apparently pushed these people to violate rudimentary conflict of interest and ethical standards.

That is symptomatic of the fact that the political (as opposed to cultural) Left is well and truly dead in New Zealand. The association (supplication?) of these “progressives” with a cowboy capitalist who has zero Marxist inclinations is a travesty if not treason to any working class cause. In one case the class betrayal had a specific dollar amount and a proposed political candidacy attached to it.

That some on the Left would countenance Dotcom as a tactical ally (in that his party is supposed to siphon young urban professional votes away from National) demonstrates how bereft of ideas, agenda and praxis they have become.

But what about the rest? Surely the foibles of a few cannot condemn the many to political oblivion? With apologies for any offense caused, let us not mince words and cut to the chase.

There is no viable Left in NZ politics. The Labour Party gave up any pretense of being grounded in socialist principles decades ago when it embraced market-driven economics, and the CTU-led union movement are the embodiment of Robert Michel’s notion of the “iron law of oligarchy:” the purpose of the organization is to serve itself, and if that means playing the role of “responsible” corporate toadies, then so be it. The one true Left union, UNITE, has some decent socialists in it and working class interests at heart, but it is also  fronted by several unsavory characters with Trotskyite and Stalinist inclinations (among other unpleasant traits), so its appeal is limited.

The Greens have stripped out the Red in their watermelon ranks in order to become a Blue-Green alternative with a lunatic fringe that can work equally comfortably with the two big parties (by ignoring that fringe). The Maori Party is basically single issue in that it only focuses on things it perceives to matter to Maori and was never progressive or working class oriented in any event. Winston First is a personality cult wrapped in nationalist populist rhetoric and Mana is a personality cult posing as an indigenous socialist movement. The Alliance is dead. Social Credit is no more.

What passes for an armed Left is no more than a bunch of bumbling fantasists who make Kyle Chapman look like a strategic genius.

There are plenty of armchair leftists in academia and the commentariat (I shall include myself among them). Some of them are very good at offering trenchant critiques of the system as given, but they have no political consequence. Likewise for the scads of po-mo hipsters, dandies and PC twitterati who denounce oppression by clicking “Like” on Facebook pages but who have no sense of what is involved in the commodity chain that brings them their mochachino low fat skim milk lattes. There are plenty of bullhorn activists, some of them righteous and others not so much, who like to burn flags and march about denouncing the global zionist-imperialist conspiracy. But they have zero political weight and are more a nuisance than a threat to the status quo.

The most earnest and legitimate political Leftists are rank and file union and interest group activists, but their energy and commitment is all too often stymied and diluted by leaders more interested in themselves and their positions than the “cause.” Put differently, many of the Left political elite prefer to maintain their positions in the status quo rather than heed the demands of their grassroots to push for fundamental change. Their concerns are about the distribution of power and resources–their own and that of the organizations they front–within the system as given, not about changing the system.

The chattering Left is as divided as the political Left, in part because they overlap: feminists accuse others Leftists of being patriarchical, GLBT activists accuse other Leftists of being heterosexist, Anarchists see other Leftists as sell-outs or authoritarians (and all of these complainants have a point). In general the Left argues more amongst itself than it does with the Right. Not surprisingly, the political Left is fractured, with activists all too often splintered into narrowly focused groups that do not share either strategic or tactical concerns with other Left movements. Worse yet, much political Left rhetoric is simply devoid of grounding in reality, be it from 9/11 conspiracy types to those who think that the Rothchild Trilateralists control everything.

More fundamentally, although many on the Left can offer informed and uninformed critiques of capitalism and the current status quo in NZ, none have been able to provide a coherent, much less publicly supported agenda for change.  That is its fatal flaw: the political Left in NZ are seen more as naysayers and whingers than proactive and reasonable “doers.”

These are, of course, generalizations that are bound to twist the knickers of some of those just mentioned. I use them to make the point that the NZ political Left is increasingly the province of self-interested opportunists and vainglorious charlatans, some with sociopathic tendencies and others divorced from the practicalities involved in confronting a capitalist-dominated political system that has overwhelming popular support.

It would be useful then, for those of us who pontificate on such matters, to take stock of what it means to be a sincere and viable political Leftist in a country where the very mention of such a term elicits derision or disinterest on the part of the majority of those who should find socialism, or at least social democracy, to be the natural political choice.

For a start, it might be wise to put distance on the delusional sociopaths and self-interested opportunists and charlatans that give the political Left its bad name. Having done that, the legitimate Left can begin to craft an agenda for change that is more than just the piecemeal undoing of the market-oriented policies in place since 1985.

Ot it could simply admit defeat.

19 thoughts on “Nothing Left

  1. So let’s accept your contention that the political left is dead. That the elite and the establishment political parties are champions of the neo-liberal order. Let’s also accept your contention, made elsewhere, that they NZ establishment is self-serving, secretive, out-of-touch and colonial in it’s mindset. What, then, is left that might discredit the NZ establishment, to undermine it with revelations and shake the current order to it’s foundations? Consider what success for Dotcom might mean. Reversing the surveillance laws, leaving the Five Eyes alliance and disbanding the GCSB would be the most significant blow our colonialist political establishment has ever suffered. If Dotcom can damage the the NZ establishment like that then by all means park reversing neo-liberalism for another three years. The Dotcom sprat might be destabilising enough to allow the opportunity for the left to catch a mackerel.

  2. The aims and objectives of Marxist Revolution are outdated and not relevant today. Socialism is about creating a new society based on a vision of freedom and democracy. The problem with the 21st Century (extreme)Left (is this where you are?)is the inability to see that both the Labour movement and Communism are redundant forces that have failed to dismantle and socialise the state. The only alternative for the Left is to reform the system from within rather than trying to get rid of it. This means compromising its extreme views if it ever wishes to gain power.
    That is where the intelligent Left is today, even if you fail to recognise it.

  3. So Graham, what you are proposing is to fight an effective counter-hegemonic war of position (I assume that you know the difference between this and a war of maneuver). Who, exactly, among the “intelligent Left’ is doing that?

  4. Well said Paul, a trenchant and utterly spot on appraisal of where things are at. Maggie is dead, but TINA is alive and kicking.

  5. Ha Ha Valerie, that is a good one. The white surrender flag has replaced the red flags of yore, at least when it comes to real politics (as opposed to symbolic politics).

  6. So Pablo which class do you put yourself in?

    From my point of view there are plenty of on the ground activists trying to improve things and struggling to counter both the right with their concentration of power and the intelligencia left who keep saying that it is all too hard and because individuals falter the movement is doomed.

    Your generalisations do twist the knickers. Mainly because you fail to understand the importance of community and you see things with 1970s spectacles on.

  7. I don’t think it matters what ” ist ” people associate themselves with – monarchist, capitalist, communist, socialist, marxist etc they are nothing more than forms of social control. All are affected by wealth, power and influence.

    So I put it to you that ** both ** the political left and right in NZ are dead. They are now both one in the same. Neither side of the political spectrum has any vision

  8. mickey/Greg:

    Re-read the post. I mention grassroots activists and include myself in one of the inconsequential categorizations. Plus, you are wrong on two counts: I do understand community (hence my concern with agent/principal issues) and I gave up the 1970s spectacles a long time ago.

    Edward: The modern Left is not reducible to an “ism,” but it sure could use some overarching unifying principles (or meta-narrative if you prefer) that are grounded in the practicalities of the moment rather than dogma or doctrine.

  9. I’m curious about what you think a viable left movement would look like. You’ve mentioned a number of things that it can’t be (Trotskyist, Stalinist, overly preoccupied with identity politics, overly pragmatic, personality-based, environment-focussed), but I don’t have much sense of what you think should be happening, other than perhaps that it should be based in some way on Marxist theory.

    I broadly agree with your critique of the left, although personally I think that the armed left being ‘no more than a bunch of bumbling fantasists’ is a very good thing, for the left and society in general. But it would be good if you had some suggestions as to what people should be doing and how.

  10. If post colonial Māori have not yet utilised the stinger or carbomb we shall obviously be waiting a bit longer for the other 99%ers to get effectively politically organised. Terrorist acts can be both a frustrated substitute for lack of mass political struggle and a pre emptive pointy end of the spear tactic.

    Your rather defeatist piece Pablo illustrates again the discord between the objective societal requirements for a strong left push and the substantially subjective reasons it does not happen. Hey boxing day sales man! aren’t the unions dead?

    There are glimmers, taking politics to where the people are, doh, the beach in summer, like GreenPeace did with the no drill day. The small left sects still keep the marxist flame flickering like sleeper agents and they will be needed one day soon enough as we move closer to the futurist scenario of movie “Elysium”.

  11. TM:

    I was focusing on issues internal to the NZ Left and not the host of negative externalities working against it.

    To rephrase something Draco T Bastard said at the Standard (in a thread on Open Mike on Jan.21, 2014): in order to overcome addiction, addicts need to first acknowledge their weaknesses. That is not being defeatist, and as I said later in that particular thread, “we have met the enemy and s/he is us.” My post is about acknowledging the obvious in order to overcome self-inflicted wounds. Resorting to terrorism is not a viable way of overcoming them and in fact will result in terminal defeat.

    helenalex: That is why I agree that it is a good thing that the so-called armed Left (such as it is) are inept. This is not the moment for armed struggle, nor will there be anytime soon.

    However, without elaborating too much in answer to your question about how I would approach the “What is to be done” conundrum, let me point out the following:

    For nearly 60 years the capitalist democratic world operated under variants of the Keynesian consensus. That in turn fostered the replacement of politics of class conflict with the politics of class compromise, which is why the ensemble held for so long.

    The advent of neoliberal economics, first trialled in authoritarian settings, replaced class compromise with class conflict in liberal democracies. It was not an armed conflict, but it was and is a war nevertheless. This new class conflict was initiated by the upper bourgeoisie in order to strip away working class political and economic power in an effort to “race to the bottom” with regards to input costs in a globalized market.

    The first course of action was to attack union power in order to atomize the working classes. This was done via the enactment of regressive labour laws under the banner of labour market “flexibilization.” Having done that, political elites could then move on to thing such as trade liberalization (such as under TPP), self-offs of state assets, privatization of welfare and health markets etc.

    That strategy was accepted and endorsed by both National and the NZ Labour Party and has been very evident and effective in NZ as a result.

    Thus the first thing to be done is to return to a working class focus. This does not have to mean a strict return to traditional bread and butter issues such as wages and working (OSH) conditions, but to so-called post-modern concerns like work/life balance, workplace autonomy, flexi-time, worker ownership stake in firms etc. To these can be married other progressive causes such as mori sovereignty, environmental protection, extension of basic human rights etc.–but always with working class political and economic interests in mind.

    In order to do so the NZ Left has to create its own version of the United Front (I am thinking in a neo-Maoist way here, which means distinguishing between strategic and tactical allies), and given its current institutional make-up and leadership structures, that will be a very tall task to achieve.

    There is much more to the solution set but that is a starter.

  12. In that case the first step is creating some degree of class consciousness. The issues you talk about probably affect a large majority of the workforce, but relatively few people in NZ would consider themselves ‘working class’. According to the 2006 census, people in traditional working class jobs (labourers, machinery operators and drivers, and technicians and trade workers) collectively made up 29% of the working population. That’s a fairly substantial chunk, but not enough to change society, particularly since some of them will never support socialism no matter what (particularly tradies, who in many cases are actually small businessmen). So the first step is convincing desk jockeys, shop assistants etc that capitalism is dicking them over. Occupy had a decent crack at this but then their solution was to camp in public parks, so people ended up ignoring them.

  13. helenalex:

    Your points are very well taken. A key to a revival of the Left is to expand the notion of “working classes” to include white collar, service, part time and other casual labor, including all forms of unorganized wage labor, in order to instill that notion of class consciousness you mention. That might include a re-identification so as to refer to these groups as “productive classes” in order to avoid the prejudice associated with the terms “blue collar” and “working classes.”

    There are many examples of forward thinking labor movements that have responded well to the impositions of early 21st century capitalism. A cross-national comparative perspective might illuminate some of the possibilities that may heretofore be unknown to the parochial NZ Left.

  14. For an analysis of how capitalism is changing and how and why it’s still kicking off ‘everywhere’ (except NZ…) see Paul Mason.

    Start with this 18 minute clip from his address to Futurefest in Shoreditch last year

    and then this clip from the Global Uprisings Conference in Amsterdam

    And the 90 minutes of the best TV you’ll see all year

    Or you could just read his stuff – start with his books. Essentially he’s saying what this blogpost is saying.

    I tried to summarise Mason last year at the anti ERA changes rally in Christchurch. See

  15. Ah Pablo, I wish I had seen this before to comment on it. It is a superb analysis, lacking only a view on the reason why.

    My view is that it is simply a triumph for moderation. NZ has a decent democracy with limited corruption. It is quite egalitarian and people respect most of those who have earned their wealth.
    There is no reason for class warfare. Anyone who has travelled and seen real slums will realise that GI and Otara are nothing of the sort. NZ politicians are simply posturing over scraps in comparison to the battle between the likes of Thatchet and Scargill
    In fact the world would be a wonderful place if it looked a lot more like NZ politically.

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