Why Does Class Matter? Contemplating Left praxis in a po-mo age.

My posts on the demise of the political Left in NZ have elicited a fair bit of debate, which is good. However, there are two main areas of misunderstanding in the debate that need to be corrected. The first is that that by repeating my oft-stated claim here and elsewhere that socio-economic class, and particularly the working classes, need to be the central focus of Left praxis, I am ignoring the productive and cultural changes of the post-industrial, post-modern era. The second is that I dismiss the entire Left as ineffectual losers.

Let me address the latter first. When I write about the “political” Left I am speaking strictly about those parts of the Left that directly involve themselves in politics, either institutionalized or not. In this category I do not include the cultural or activist Left that engage in direct action in non-political realms such as poverty alleviation, human rights protection, diversity promotion, etc. These type of Left indirectly address political questions and therefore have political import but are not immediately involved with or primarily focused on political matters (say, by acting as parties or running campaigns, among many other things). Some of their members may be, but the Left agencies involved are, first and foremost, non-political in nature.

In a way, these non-political Left entities act much like non-Left charities: they provide direct assistance to the disadvantaged or vulnerable, have clear political content in what they do, but are not political agencies per se.

Thus I recognize the good works of the non-political Left and even see them as providing potential foundation stones for effective Left political activism. But as things currently stand the interface between the non-political and political Left is largely skewed towards diluting the socialist content and neutering the working class orientation inherent in many forms of grassroots Left activism. And where the interface is direct (say, Socialist Aotearoa), the message is too vulgar and the agents too shrill to make their points effectively.

This may sound harsh but that is the reality. The larger point is that I am not dismissing the entire Left as “dead” or moribund. I am confining my diagnosis to the contemporary political Left, narrowly defined, and it is not defeatist to point out what I would have thought was glaringly obvious.

With regard to the second accusation, this has been the subject of much debate here at KP. Lew and Anita have both eloquently written on identity as a primary focus. I accept their arguments but also think that class matters when it comes to a Left praxis. To that end, let me reprise a statement I made in response to a comment made by reader Chris Waugh on the previous post.

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 or orientation 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? Or will their class determine their relationship in the first instance?

Perhaps gender solidarity will prevail, 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.

So there you have it. Not all of the Left is ineffectual but the political Left certainly is. A working class orientation is necessary and central to any Left praxis but not sufficient to encompass the myriad of non-class progressive causes that make up the post-industrial Left. Resolving these issues and reconciling the dilemmas inherent in them are what must be done for the Left to regain a significant place in the NZ political arena.

19 thoughts on “Why Does Class Matter? Contemplating Left praxis in a po-mo age.

  1. Praxis=Theory (reflection) plus action.

    One has to have a strategy before action can take place successfully, and strategy is a coherent set of principles outlining achievable long and short term objectives using viable tactics and methods based on well grounded theory revised in light of reflection on past action.

    Theory without action is navel gazing. Action without theory is mindless venting or posturing. Strategy is what binds them both in effective praxis. That is what seems to be missing in the NZ political Left.

  2. I think to understand why the politics of gender, race and sexuality are necessarily promoted as defining the impetus on which the Left should found its program we need to consider the effort corporate propagandists devote to defining what society should think about and how they see those subjects. From the corporate perspective ‘gay money’, ‘Maori money’ or ‘woman money’ is indistinguishable from ‘straight-white-male money’; profit extracted from sexually, racially or gender-specific marginalised groups is no different than profit extracted from anyone else. As a consequence the politics of racial, sexual and gender equality is acceptable from a corporate point of view.

    This is, of course, perfectly excellent. Discriminating against someone based on their sexual preferences, gender or race is wrong. The problem of accepting the corporate paradigm without question is its inherent bias against the marginalised majority – the working class. There has necessarily been a conscious and concerted effort to expunge class identity from public awareness, ‘working-class’ has become an un-word in the corporate vocabulary. The only time the elite allow use of the term ‘working class’ is when describing the history of some corporate functionary who is promoting the interests of big business – there is no shortage of stories gushing over the working class roots of the likes of John Key, Paula Bennett or , the latest to draw attention to her under-privileged past, Hekia Parata. What is not acceptable is using the term ‘working class’ in conjunction with words like Maori, women or homosexuals, these are all regarded as monolithic entities whom tend to be represented in the media by spokespeople who conform to corporate sensibilities.

    The modern class structure being promoted through the mainstream begins with the beneficiary then jumps to the middle-class, which is pretty much anyone who isn’t on a benefit. This achieves the goals of marginalising those on benefits while attempting to portray the working class as a group that has a shared identity with the coordinator class – cleaners are lower-middle class, John Key is upper-middle class. Anyone on a benefit is ‘one of them’ and not ‘one of us’.

    I haven’t analysed any media to see if the term ‘working class’ has been disappeared in the manner I have suggested, but I imagine if anyone were to scrutinise most aspects of the media over the last thirty years or so they would find the use of the term has diminished dramatically.

  3. Yoza:

    Thanks for the thoughtful comment. I would add that the promotion of individualism, multiculturalism and other non-class forms of identity serves as a very effective divide and conquer or atomizing mechanism that helps perpetuate the subordination (in democracies; in capitalist dictatorships the word is “subjugation”) of all forms of wage labor to the market driven dictates of capital, foreign and domestic. That is why working class consciousness, broadly defined, is needed as the hub binding the other non-class identifications in a common progressive project (and praxis).

    One other thing. It would be good to focus on the “working poor:” those that work one or two (often casual or part time) jobs at close to the minimum wage who may or may not receive limited welfare benefits.They all too often get overlooked in the mainstream discussion and are the people in most need of effective collective action of their behalf (and honest agents to represent them).

  4. Half the problem with the Left/Right definition of politics and class is that it implies and portrays some sort of idealized and level playing field in politics or class. Its a bit to cut and dried to really demonstrate where a group or individuals lie in modern society.

    Perhaps better terms (and I am just making these examples up, feel free to come up with your own,) could be Supporting Business interest, Non Supportive and Neutral/Apathetic. At least then the position of the individual or group would be easier to understand.

    Your final point in the original post which started all this, referring to the Change Labour made in 1984 pretty much answers any real questions about how dead the political Left in NZ are. Dead and buried!

    The other non-political left types probably dont need (or may not even want)to be labelled in the left/right vein anyway, why not just say socially conscious or something, again more descriptive.

    The left/Right paradigm has always been problematic and may not even be relevant any more, its not always been around and if the left is dead in NZ then leave it be, Labour may rediscover some form of original core motivation but again simply re-labelling it Left is just rebranding what could be communicated much more eloquently and effectively. My guess is that Labor will never get back what it has lost and such a fate may be for national too when a suitable party that represents the interests of certain constituents better comes along (like ACT for example, or maybe not ACT for example, ok not the best example).

    Further, is the Right so monolithic and united as it seems or is portrayed. I suppose if the actual size of people that vote National who are also business owners was added up they wouldn’t not be so much of a percentage in the actual number of people who vote National. People have long memories, longer than they are given credit for and Labour and NZFirst have that taint about them because they claimed to represent one group/s and then did the opposite when the time came to actually stand up and be counted. And yes I voted NZFirst in 96.

    The point I am getting to in this semi-rant of mine is that if the Left/right debate is the best means to portray our political system, given that in the struggle between Business and Worker (or whatever you call it) is currently being dominated by Business, then the reason the Left is dead is clear, as you have pointed out, lack of heart, lack of theory, lack of action and just beaten down and having lost the struggle (and also having committed suicide in the afore mentioned 84 failure).

    The conditions way back when which helped created the political structure we have today, saw the struggle between Business and worker different than we have now (and its not the time or the place to get into that here) and the advantage to the non-Business class is long gone. Trying to make the average person in NZ care about any party along ideological or class lines makes no sense. I think that’s ascribing a lot more clear headed and informed political/social rationality to a voting public which is mostly caught in media manipulation, fear mongering and hand-outs of $$$ in one form or another from those trying to gain power for their own interest and also with enough memory to remember a party who helped to gut the socialist sate back in 1984.

    And in that struggle, the party that represents the rational/self-interest, in an age of rational/self-interest, is going to win (National), helped of course by labours actions in 84 and hindered to some extent by MMP.

    Am I advocating individual maximization and sheer core self interest in this, NO I am not but in a society with more than two potential points of reference/grouping having a binary/linear model doesn’t seem to help. That’s trying to ascribe people to the either/or camp and in NZ MMP has opened up the political landscape to a lot more than just either/or.

    Which also makes it clear that such a right left monolithic spectrum set of labels doesn’t even really reflect the situation in NZ. Are the greens really on the Left? Really? When the left/right dichotomy was first created, I don’t think environmental interests were being taken into account. Would the greens really be on the left if they could find another group or ally to work with (apols to Dr Norman for making him sound so Machiavellian).

    Also are people joining the internet party that much of a bunch of sell-outs as is being portrayed? Again perhaps that party does a better job of serving its constituents, who in an information age, may be less aligned by right/left political/class (or at least the old class distinctions) distinctions and more identifying with a party with a technological bent. Again was the original right/left distinction ever created to represent such a group or ideal?

    The political Left in NZ is dead, but then so is the Right. They have no more ability to inspire or lead than the left does (National parroting the BRT line or whoever else is feeding them their economic cue cards). The new landscape, under MMP, and in a globalised age is less left /right than something new and not so defined. I don’t have names for them but its clear that this is new territory in politics in NZ today.

    The OP in dissecting the death of the left was entirely correct in doing so but is (I think) wrong in their hope that the Left can come back. Necromancy is not a political skill that’s seen in the beehive much these days.

    Better we get on with creating the new political organs for the body politic than trying to revive the old. And in that respect what rises new from the Ashes of the Left may in fact be better suited for the politics of the 21st century in NZ than National which is holding on and holding out like the big blue (soon to be extinct) dinosaur it is.

    My only caveat to all this is that if Labour suddenly found some gumption and decided to just go with it they could probably win back a lot of ground in the coming years. Obama won big on “Hope/Change” and then squandered most of it by not following through (read making changes rather than trying to make friends).

    Labour/Cunliffe could in time and with some guts be the party/leader that taps into the same semi simmering discontent in NZ that mars so much in politics here, but it would require a commitment that’s lacking in most politicians and as you point out a plan. And that is the bitter trademark in NZ politics today, an absolute lack of a plan, its blow with the wind and short term point scoring (ala the share market) rather than longer term strategic plans.

    The Left is dead and Right is dying. Time for some better labels.

  5. Excellent post.

    What does the lesbian, Samoan cleaner on the minimum wage have in common with the lesbian, Samoan lawyer on a six figure salary aside from their gender, sexuality and ethnicity?

    When it comes to the crunch, class is what matters.

  6. “Class” is an elusive word. When Marx and Weber wrote about it the social/cultural/economic milieu was very different today.

    There are “class” structures in most societies (human or otherwise).

    Whether the powerless should be bullied by the powerful is at the heart of democracy.

    Hawaiian wall street traders are not appropriate persons to set ethical standards for us kiwis.

    “workers ” may well have had a resonance in the industrial era of mines and factories within national boundaries.

    I doubt class means anything to anyone these days.

    Perhaps the 5% and 95% do?

  7. Thans Daniel, John and peterlepaysan for those excellent comments. Much food for thought in them.

    Again, I think that the concept of working class to be expanded to include all wage labor, be it white collar, casual, part time, youth, service etc. Perhaps more importantly, a “rebranding” of the term “working classes” might help refocus the thrust of class consciousness that is so important for Left praxis. Thus we could use the terms “productive classes” or “producers of wealth” versus “parasitic” or “exploitative” classes or “appropriators of wealth.”

    Also, as has been mentioned in the comparative labor relations literature, workers can be defined as consumers of services as well as producers of wealth. That allows for the incorporation of citizen rights and expectations into any Left project above and beyond the relations in and of production.

  8. Probably good to be clear.

    I think class exists in the various stratas that a society may have but that in terms of identifying a class the title “working class” may be a difficult one as its so very very broad and also somewhat conotation laden from previous eras..

    The Middle class in NZ is being squeezed given the forces being put to work on the middle section of society but short of some reference point in a semi socioeconomic discussion or as an indicator of origin even middle class is nt used much in NZ.

    I like the 5% – 95% label to some extent as it very clearly sets the lines but again beyond that its vauge.

    The “consumer” title also works to some extent, we all may be part of the consumer class but even here we need some degree of internal stratification.

    The average Kiwi marks their socio economic territory through things like regional identification, trade vrs non trade, sports, ethnicity etc.

    The Lesbian Samoan Cleaner point may have been in jest to some degree but it has a point in that in NZ that would be a viable lable, obviously no one that is used to introduced ones self or background, “Hi I am a …” etc.

    Under our K1W1 tag we all like to bear those distinctions of class do crop up (sporting/cultural/regional etc).

    I remember how common the idea in NZ was that it was a “classless society founded by those seeking to escape the class distinction of the old world” and in some ways thats why we have the non class classes that we do now.

  9. Paul Mason argues ‘To anticipate where today’s revolts may lead, we need to avoid two mistakes. The first would be to ignore the classic dynamics of revolution – to imagine that the material antagonism between the democratic business class and the workers can remain suppressed forever. The second mistake would be to think there is nothing new, seeing only the parallels with what came before and ignoring…changes in personal identity. knowledge and behaviour’ in ‘Why It’s Still Kicking Off Everywhrre (2013).

    He’s saying that the personal and the cultural character of today’s uprisings are central and that makes it harder to distinguish the economic causes and political effects. Where they are uprisings in support of democratic change that makes the ‘democratic’ aspect complex – most recently we’ve seen that in Thailand and the Ukraine but a couple of years ago it was across North Africa.

    In 1848, and in 2012-13, once the workers started to fight for social justice the business class and radical journalists who had led the fight for democracy turned against them, seeking to use dictatorial forms of repression to put them down. Let’s see what happens in Kiev and Bangkok.

    So when it came to the crunch, class mattered.

  10. Are Kiev and Bangkok examples of popular revolt? The Thai ‘uprising’ seems to be the consequence of the traditional established elite being unable to maintain political domination through the ballot box and the protesters in the Ukraine appear to be an ethnically right-wing nationalist group opposed to those of Russian descent controling the parliament there.

    In both instances the ‘protesters’ give the impression they want an autocratic regime sympathetic to their agenda.

  11. There are far more groups and interests involved in both Thailand and the Ukraine than those you identify Yoza.

    Whilst some of the protesters are bent on autocracy others are on the streets for different reasons. I think this is what Mason is saying – the nature of the uprisings are multi-faceted. See Mason’s talk at the Global Uprisings Conference in Amsterdam

    He explains it far better than I can.

  12. There are far more groups and interests involved in both Thailand and the Ukraine than those you identify Yoza.

    Whilst some of the protesters are bent on autocracy others are on the streets for different reasons. I think this is what Mason is saying – the nature of the uprisings are multi-faceted. See Mason’s talk at the Global Uprisings Conference in Amsterdam

    He explains it far better than I can.

  13. @Yoza: Simon Grigg has two good articles on the Bangkok situation here: http://tinyurl.com/n9tv7w9 and here: http://tinyurl.com/py9e9sm. He adds a lot more context than you’ll see in the mainstream media. It certainly seems to be a class thing.

    As for Ukraine, I’m certainly no expert, but from what I’m reading (mostly what comes up in Al Jazeera and a few other media) it seems to be a combination of a nasty hangover from Stalin’s redrafting of the borders of the USSR’s constituent republics – Russia gifted the Crimea to Ukraine, yeah right. The Ferghana Valley is another good example of this. Also, Russia trying to maintain its imperial prestige and the Ukrainian nationalist reaction to that. Internally ethnic Russians traditionally loyal to Moscow vs ethnic Ukrainians trying to expand their long-hoped for independence. It’s also a little reminiscent of the contest in Russian Imperial days between pro-Westernisers (Peter the Great being the most famous – note how he gave his new capital the decidedly Germanic name Sankt Peterburg (St Petersburg in English, natch)) and Slavophiles who preferred to carve out an identity separate from Europe (the name of the capital had to be changed to the more Slavic Petrograd (meaning Peter’s City – more or less the same meaning as St Petersburg) with the outbreak of World War 1.

    Naturally, take all of that with a hefty grain of salt. It’s been a Really Long Time since I studied Russian language, literature, film or history. Anybody who actually knows the area will be able to pick more than a few holes in the above.

  14. I take Daniel’s contribution as a starting point for my intervention in this important and useful debate started by Pablo.

    Daniel notes the idea of classlesness that has imbued the New Zealand collective consciousness. This has been based on British, un-Marxist notions of class where class membership is defined by pre-capitalist, feudal, class relationships.

    It didn’t take long for capitalist class relationships to develop in New Zealand, due to a necessity, noted by Marx himself in relation to early colonial-capitalist New Zealand and its need for “free labour”.

    Working class settlers from Britain might have thought they were escaping the English class system, but they weren’t escaping capitalist relations of production and the associated class structure.

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  16. As someone who believes in the existence of economic inequality, the continued salience of class as a political constituency and analytical category, I think one way out of the impasse might be to take a look at how supposed “superstructural” identity politics really plays out. For example, what about the fact that denying abortion rights means that working-class and impoverished women die? What about the marginality and social exclusion that face Maori and Pacific Island transgender community members, leaving many with no choice but street sex work? What about the increased threat of surveillance and security-based technologies to police dissent against neoliberalism?

  17. Thanks Craig Y, for those very useful illustrations of how identity and other superstructural issues can be grounded in class consciousness.

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