Idle chatter.

Last year I wrote a series of posts outlining what in my view were the reasons the NZ Left was in major if not terminal decline. The posts began before and concluded after the 2014 election and can be found in chronological order here, here and here. There were plenty of people who disagreed with my take on things, with the most vocal detractor being that doyenne of the NZ Left, Chris Trotter. The second of my posts answered his original critique (link to his critique in the post) and he followed up some time later with another post in which he takes me to task for saying that the Left should not resort to Dirty Politics style tactics in order to prevail. He chided me for my idealism and noted that he dealt in pragmatics and pragmatism dictated that the Left should play dirty if it was to defeat the forces of darkness now reigning triumphant in this land.

Given that I have a fair bit of past practical experience with direct action politics, albeit not in NZ, I found the charge of idealism a bit odd. Given what he said previously about the Left’s continued viability and strength, even odder was Chris’s admission that Dirty Politics works and needs to be used by the Left if it is to succeed in the contemporary political arena. If the NZ Left were truly viable would it need to resort to playing dirty? I thought that was the province of pro-capitalist parties whose policies hurt the masses and have little popular appeal due to their elite focus.

Be that as it may, imagine then my surprise when I read this from the redoubtable Mr. Trotter. Therein Chris draws the parallel between the “clever and artistic” denizens of cabaret society in the Weimer Republic and what Dave Brown (in a comment on the post) pointedly calls the “chatterati” assembled to watch a panel discussion of media types–not all of them of the Left–gathered at a restaurant part owned by Laila Harre in order to to lament the demise of Campbell Live. Beyond noting that a well placed bomb would have eliminated the “cream” of Auckland’s chattering Left, he goes on to note the distance between them and the “very different New Zealand” that exists outside of Ms. Harre’s fine dining establishment and whose TV viewing preferences may not be akin to those sipping chardonnay’s inside. His tone is implicitly insulting of those he broke bread with as the media commentators opined about Mr. Campbell, other talking heads, themselves and the state of the NZ media landscape.

Now, I am not one to gleefully point out contradictions or reversals by others, such as that done by some Left commentators on the subject of the Urewera Raids. And I must confess that I am little more than a chatterer myself these days. But given the thrust of Chris’s latest post in light of what he has said before about the NZ Left, I have just one question to ask:

Is he still steering by the real?

Because if he is, then it appears that he has joined my side of the argument about the NZ Left and for that I salute him. Belated as it may be, it was time to wise up.

The issue now is how to move beyond the parlour talk of the chattering Left and into organizing a counter-hegemonic project grounded in effective praxis.  As I have said before that is a very big task and needs to be oriented around a discernible class line. The UNITE union is a small beacon of hope in this regard, but there is much more that needs to be done if anything remotely close to a Left resurgence is to translate into contestable politics. Labour and the Greens are too committed to centrist politics and working within the system as given to be anything other than reformists and passive revolutionaries. Real change can only come from the grassroots and rank and file, and those need to be cultivated via ideological appeals that feel immediate and achievable and which transcend the diversionary rubbish pushed by popular culture, corporate media and a government hell bent on dumbing down the quality of political and social discourse.

What is needed, in other words, is a legitimate war of position, however incremental it may have to be fought.

That is something the chattering Left simply cannot do.

10 thoughts on “Idle chatter.

  1. The Anglo left is still floundering; But you are guilty of an Anglo-centric view Pablo. I believe that in the Hispanic world – in the likes of Podemos and the Bolivarian/socialist left of South America – the left finally has started to develop a coherent and most importantly passionate counter narrative to the Anglosphere’s neo-liberal prescription. The future is the Pacific century, and that doesn’t mean English speaking whites setting the agenda anymore.

  2. Good point Sanctuary, although here I am only talking about the NZ Left.

    I would note that some of the “Pink” revolutions in Latin America are suffering from internal contradictions, corruption and managerial incompetence being two of the worst. The Maduro government is a stark case in point, and the Rousseff/PT government is also hamstrung by both vices (although these may be due as much to an inability to overcome deeply ingrained institutional practices as it is internal failures of the PT). The same is true for the Ortega/Sandinista government.

    Correa has moderated his policies away from the strong socialist themes of the first years of his administration. Evo Morales continues strong, although his policies are increasingly symbolic rather than substantive and he is starting to face the simmering of popular discontent. The Peronist government of Cristina Fernandez cannot be considered truly Left in nature, and the Bachellete government in Chile, while very successful and a model of propriety when compared to most Latin American governments, can hardly be considered revolutionary.

    Having lived in Uruguay and written about its politics in the past, I am very partial to the Frente Amplio governments and of course Jose Mujica is a legend (Tabare Vazquez is not too shabby either). But the reforms they have undertaken are more superstructural than structural, so they too fall into the good but reformist camp.

    One key to the varied fortunes of these Left governments seems to be the issue of “touching the essential.” So long as Left governments do not fundamentally challenge the rule of capital, they are allowed to reform-monger along the margins (which can be significant). But should they begin to challenge notions of property and the privileges that go with it, then both external forces and internal differences begin to undermine the counter-hegemonic project.

    Trouble in NZ is that not only does the chattering Left not dare to even question the “essential.” It also does not even press the margins of the market-focused hegemonic project, instead preferring to whinge and moan about rates, housing and the sorry state of public broadcasting and corporate media. It can and should do better than that, but as I mentioned in the post, that is not likely to happen.

    It will be left for the organic intellectual in the trenches–again, people such as those organising in UNITE–to push change from below by walking the walk rather than just talk.

  3. “…It will be left for the organic intellectual in the trenches–again, people such as those organising in UNITE–to push change from below by walking the walk rather than just talk…”

    I agree with you. Chris Trotter in a recent column said that a meeting at Ika restaurant “…Looking around the restaurant I momentarily entertained the gruesome thought that one well-placed bomb would wipe out the cream of the Auckland Left (plus Bill Ralston and Fran O’Sullivan!)…” To which I said that given the long litany of failure by the middle class left in NZ such a bomber might be doing us all a favour by clearing the stage for some new main actors.

    The main characteristic of the the (Pakeha) mainstream left in NZ since 1984 has been failure due to cowardice in the face of capitalism. As a group, they shit themselves whenever it looks like it might come to push, shove and bash. A half century of the welfare state turned the ideological warriors of the left into corpulent and complacent paper tigers and when called to defend their beliefs, the victor wasn’t neo-liberal capitalism so much as a decidedly middle class love of comfortable materialism and an excessive deference to the “rule of law”. Perhaps the supreme example is Michael Cullen, a “socialist” who took a knighthood as soon as it was offered, even though he served in the government that abolished them!

    What characterizes South Americans (and Maori) is a willingness to take it to the line and take on the riot police. Like the French, they are prepared to follow up words with actions and make life so difficult for the government they get their way, with or without an actual fight. When I was last Chile I was struck by a news report of a bunch of poor people up in the North who had been bypassed by the mining boom. So they built a small camp over a vital water pipeline and turned the water off, and basically dared to government to come and try and turn it back on. The key was no one doubted they were ready with Molotov cocktails and slingshots. they got their improved water supply.

    The Spanish left has an intellectual and ideological discussion that would be unthinkable in any Anglo-Saxon country, let alone in the atmosphere of stifling intellectualism Philistinism that exists in this country (can you imagine Andrew Little discussing Gramsci, popular radicalism and it’s application to Labour policy development in a primetime slot on TV here?). They are thinking out in public a new interpretation of the left – particularly around how popular radicalism can counter the rise of the popular right – and with it a new way to power for frankly radical governments of the left.

  4. Again Sanctuary, your observations are astute.

    When I first moved to NZ I was appalled by the lack of militancy of the NZ labour movement. I repeatedly mentioned this to students at the time and eventually found out that what NZ has is essentially a party dominant state corporatist system of labour administration in which the major unions trade militancy in exchange for influence within the Labour Party and some degree of reform mongering on the part of elites. You see where that has gotten them, which is why break away independent unions like UNITE are now the only legitimate vehicle for advancing the material interests of the working class (but not their political aspirations as of yet).

    As you have noted, this was and is in stark contrast to what I witnessed first hand growing up in Latin America and then writing about labour issues in the region, which was a strong militant current in pretty much every country, often associated with armed struggle and/or new social movements and often in competition with reformist or cooped unions linked to the state or sold-out political parties.

    I had to laugh at your comment about Andrew Little discussing Gramsci. That has the makings of a Tui ad. The only people who spout Gramscian quotes in NZ are academics and some trendy lefties such as those collected by IMP, although the latter must have missed the bit in the Prison Notebooks about not being seduced by the promise of a German millionaire’s revenge vanity project.

  5. Great article Pablo.

    I think for the left to succeed in NZ they will have to go for the centre. That is to say they should drop feminism, gay rights, ethnic rights and whatever and only talk about equality of rights for example (the one law for all mantra). But mostly the left should focus on presenting an alternative economic system that is near fully formed and has been thought through. The system should appeal to voters sense of fairness. Once there is an economic point of difference I think voters will be able to choose.

    The left should also not waste too much time trying to get the young and/or poor out to vote. The reason these groups don’t vote is either they don’t know what the parties stand for or they think they all stand for the same thing (which is basically true at the moment).

    The points of difference should be primarily economic and secondarily in foreign policy and maybe education and the justice system. Leave most of talking about the environment to the Greens and then do a deal with them later. The left should not spend any time on winning over minorities with special concessions, it should win everybody over with universal concessions that anyone could say are fair and equal to all. You can hide a lot of support for minorities and the poor in a well planned and thought out economic policy.

  6. A major obstacle to developing a class line based on a counter-hegemonic economic project is the atomizing effect of 30 years of market-driven ideology on social mores. The ethos of unchecked individualism, greed, profit, selfishness, money fixation, status obsession etc. has seeped deeply into the cultural fabric and has eroded the notions of horizontal solidarity that used to bring various social groups together for common cause.

    This is compounded by preference given to immigrants from cultures with low or non-existent levels of intersectional solidarity, which reinforces and compounds the centrifugal impact of market logics on all aspects of society.

    Thus, while I agree that any Left project must start with an economic focus, I also think that there has to be a cultural component that challenges the social primacy of market-influenced mores and norms.

  7. I think peoples sense of fairness is very deeply ingrained (and may even be genetically ingrained). Hunter-gather societies are absurdly fair.

    Yes there is currently a major ongoing project to get people to act more selfishly, but this has taken hold so well as might think. It is easy to be cynical, especially on the Left (you might be falling into the vary trap you, fairly in my books, accuse the “chatterati” of being in).

    Trying to tell people what their culture should be takes way too long. Appealing to peoples existing sense of fairness will work on most of the voting population of NZ and should be sufficient to create a stable majority in parliament to impose fairness on the remainder.

  8. I think that an anti-hegemonic movement in New Zealand could well stretch across the left/centre-right spectrum, since both Peters’ by-election win in Northland and the growth of Unite speak of people crying out for real rather than fake representation. I also think that the “chattering left”of whom you speak look to be facing a crunch-time of their own. The political/media left have for a long time been part of the NZ establishment. They remained conditionally so when the neo-liberal philosophy took hold. So they could still argue, with some credibility, that they were able to be of more use to the left from within the establishment than from outside. The threat to Campbell Live shows that this position has become a mite more untenable – that conditions have tightened to the point where membership of the establishment is beginning to require unequivocal adherence to the neo-liberal line. The claim that you can be of more use to the left from the inside can hardly hold water when not being of use to the left is one of the conditions you must meet in order to be on the inside.

  9. “…Thus, while I agree that any Left project must start with an economic focus, I also think that there has to be a cultural component that challenges the social primacy of market-influenced mores and norms…”

    The atomisation of society may have shattered the power of society to organise a resistance to neoliberalism, but it also opens up opportunities for leftist vanguardism as long the right targets are selected. An example might be an alliance against a capitalist project like oil exploration, which is latently anti-capitalist openly pro-environment and implicitly a challenge to neo-liberal hegemony in that the target is global oil corporations. it would allow a vanguard cadre to build a broad – cross social and cross cultural – alliance to score a victory.

    A pre-condition of the left vanguards of such popular radicalism would have to be a clear ideological idea of where it wants to go, because then informs it’s Machiavellian virtù. For example, resorting to populist race baiting would be a no-go but bashing supermarket cartels is fine. So the first step is to develop a popular agenda. The second – implied in “popular” part of the radicalism – is to find a leader who is prepared to talk the language of the common man and woman and show less deference to the organs of state power.

    My view is such a popular radical program, with the right leader, would be perfectly suited to modern social media if it used agile, issue specific front groups that offered no clear target to be crushed by an establishment friendly corporate media and the Police. It would allow the leftist vanguard to persue an agenda behind a front of numerous alliances woven around specific issues, and once in power provide them with a mandate to at least try and take on the banksters.

    The biggest flaw in my vision is the lack of such leftist vanguards. Just go and have a look at Public Address, where the debate about the electoral commission report qickly became a feeble tilting at windmills over allowing 10-12 year olds the vote. Gramsci’s book, Cuadernos desde la carcel asserts “…the conquest of cultural power, is previous to that of the political one, and that is achieved through the concerted action of the intellectuals called ‘ organic’, infiltrated in all the mediums of communication, expression and university…” Where in NZ are we to find those intellectual vanguards of the left?

  10. I think selecting targets as you say Sanctuary to focus the fight on will work, but that it will take between 25-50 years to be sufficiently successful. That is too long for me, already the left has lost the fight to prevent global warming.

    The best course is to leave those specific fights to those already fighting them and focus on a general economic and political solution. Most people don’t especially care about the issues that “those lefties” love to parrot on about.

    As for leaders I am extremely cynical about relying on one, especially charismatic leaders. I think the Greens have the right idea about how to do leadership.

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