Still think it is all about postmodern identity?

Long term readers may recall something I wrote a few years ago about the issue of Left praxis and the need for a class line above all other strategic perspectives. That post was done in part because of the prevalence of identity politics and other post-modern forms of association within the NZ Left (such as certain “polyamorous” factions present in local progressive circles). This focus on non-class based forms of identification has been eloquently defended at some length by my colleague Lew here at KP, so there is merit in it, at least in some instances.

However, I believe that a major contributing factor to the decline of the Left as an ideological force and political alternative to currently dominant market-supportive ideologies and parties is the turn away from a class line, be it by the 3rd Way Labourites that NZ Labour emulates or the NZ Green Party with its election campaign emphasis on youthful (primarily female Pakeha) candidates over policy substance (which has completed the turn away from “watermelon” politics where class was at the core of its environmental philosophy and grassroots demographic and towards a business-friendly largely urban metrosexual orientation). The fact that many on the Left welcomed the victory of Emmanuel Macron, an investment banker, over Marine Le Pen, a neo-fascist, in France and failed to understand Donald Trump’s populist appeal to white American working class and lumpenproletarians (a sin I was guilty of) demonstrates the intellectual and practical vacuum at the core of what passes for modern progressive politics in some parts of the world, Aetoroa in particular.

It puzzles me that even in the face of Bernie Sanders’ remarkable primary campaign in the 2016 US presidential election and UK Labour’s rise under Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership in the UK snap elections of a fortnight ago, that many in the US, UK and NZ Left still cling to the (false consciousness) notion that centrist policies and identity politics are the way to play the game. The truth is that centrist politics have bottomed out under the polarising conditions produced by Alt-Right provocations and disinformation and the futility of the Left trying to successfully play a “soft” version of the market-oriented election game. The corporate and media Right have been quicker to realise this and seized the opportunity to deepen neoliberal era policies of economic deregulation and public sector cost-cutting by adding to it the politics of cultural conflict, immigration control and other methods by which the underlying bases of class conflict are downplayed in order to harvest the political fruits of cross-class uncertainty and fear.

The effect of three decades of market-driven ideological socialisation and post 9/11 politics of fear has been to prompt vulnerable sectors of liberal democratic societies to revert to primal and centrifugal forms of identification–race, religion, ethnicity, culture, nationality–all of which divert attention from the commonality of wage labour class subservience and its increased precariousness under the rule of a predatory type of post-industrial capitalism. Clearly non-class forms of identification need to be factored into any  discussion of praxis in a given socio-economic and political context, but adding non-class identification into the mix as the main focus of progressive struggles only serves to further dilute the solidarity bonds created by the one commonality workers have in the social division of labour of contemporary advanced capitalism.

And yet, in the face of this much of the Left appears to be suffering a form of post-modern paralysis where it is unwilling or unable to recognise that the advances made on superstructural issues like gender and LBGTI rights have their genesis in (but are not reducible to) the class driven struggles of the industrial and post-industrial eras, many of which persist to this day.

With that in mind, rather than prattle on as an old white male former academic, I defer to a genuine organic intellectual of the Left. The context is the aftermath to the Grenfell Tower fire in London:

19 thoughts on “Still think it is all about postmodern identity?

  1. ” The truth is that centrist politics have bottomed out under the polarising conditions produced by Alt-Right provocations and disinformation and the futility of the Left trying to successfully play a “soft” version of the market-oriented election game.”

    Hell yes. Blairism has run into diminishing returns in US & UK, but it still persists somewhat in NZ, probably because it’s yet to have its bubble burst proper.

  2. It is interesting to note the steady decline of voter turnout at general election times since the rogernomics years.
    The so labelled “centrist” pollies are not addressing issues that effect people on “struggle street”.
    Left and right in politics has become meaningless. They are perjoratives or badges of honour. Sigh.

    During the 80’s the lab party abandonrd its strong traditional base, who have since stayed away from voting.

    Under mmp there has been no serious attempt (apart from the the alliance) to equalise wealth and opportunity streams.

    The “greed is good” mantra rules. The only electorate that matters is sharehoders.

    Political parties care very much about the share oolding class.

    I doubt many shareholders voted for Corbyn or Sanders.

    When “class” began to be badied about shareholders were not seen as a group playing a significant role.

    Some of the share holder class must have some social conscience. Maybe not. Share holders belong in the capitalist class. No, I have shares (1000 in a power company) that does not make me a capitalist. It makes me a confused mug. I part owned the company as a taxpayer then had to buy into it.

    The logic of neo liberalism never ceases to amze me It is the iteration of a text I studied at university in stage 1 economics in the very early ’60’s. It is a fanciful construct.

    For some completely unknown reason I keep hearing strains of the French national anthem.

  3. “…his focus on non-class based forms of identification has been eloquently defended at some length by my colleague Lew..”

    Who, along with all the managerialist liberals, has been proven wrong. They have been proven to be nothing but bourgeois social liberals using identity politics to fashionably épater la bourgeoisie.

    Labour here, of course, still believes in framing it’s language and policy in terms of some sort of an objective truth and the sanctity of inviolable facts – because it cannot imagine the truth and facts as coming from anything other than a neoliberal locus, and it intellectually cannot conceive that the “facts” and “truths” of neoliberalism are just the opinions and choices of a certain class.

    Labour has probably had it. Self removed from it’s ideological source and socially isolated from the mainstream of the general population. It exists in a bubble, intellectually marooned in 1990s and it recruits from too narrow a base, giving it a caucus full of political incompetents and gutless careerists.

    The most frustrating thing about Labour is it has nothing to lose by adopting Corbynism. It is becalmed at a feeble 28% or so of the vote. It is perceived as a second rate, unfashionable National party tribute act. The media treat it with barely concealed contempt and business largely ignore it. It is diminished and finished across huge swaths of provincial NZ. But it is still deluded enough to think it is an equal with the chosen party of capitalism. It desperately needs a radical edge, but when you have a caucus full of timid middle class losers, where can it come from?

  4. The “glass-ceiling left”, preoccupied with redistribution among, not from, elites

  5. Fukuyama wrote a short piece in Foreign Affairs 2012 91(1): The Future of History that caught my eye ….

    “But the deeper reason a broad-based populist left has failed to materialize is an intellectual one. It has been several decades since anyone on the left has been able to articulate, first, a coherent analysis of what happens to the structure of advanced societies as they undergo economic change and, second, a realistic agenda that has any hope of protecting a middle-class society.

    The main trends in left-wing thought in the last two generations have been, frankly, disastrous as either conceptual frameworks or tools for mobilization. Marxism died many years ago, and the few old believers still around are ready for nursing homes. The academic left replaced it with postmodernism, multiculturalism, feminism, critical theory, and a host of other fragmented intellectual trends that are more cultural than economic in focus. Postmodernism begins with a denial of the possibility of any master narrative of history or society, undercutting its own authority as a voice for the majority of citizens who feel betrayed by their elites. Multiculturalism validates the victimhood of virtually every out-group. It is impossible to generate a mass progressive movement on the basis of such a motley coalition: most of the working- and lower-middle-class citizens victimized by the system are culturally conservative and would be embarrassed to be seen in the presence of allies like this.

    Whatever the theoretical justifications underlying the left’s agenda, its biggest problem is a lack of credibility.”

    He goes on to say that the social democracy focus of the left is economically unsustainable given the increased dependency ratios in most Western advanced economies. He does not offer a tangible economic alternative that I recall but his critique of the left struck me as straight on. He did not observe, as Paul did, that the alt-right has usurped the rhetorical device of victim hood from the left. Bernie Sanders very wisely avoided using that approach in his candidacy.

  6. This short piece shows insight and political courage of a kind which has been pretty well absent from the discourse of the New Zealand left since the death of Bruce Jesson. Unfortunately when Bruce challenged the left back in the nineteen seventies he was largely ignored, sometimes vilified (as far as it was possible to vilify such a man of such unpretentious, magnanimous and humble disposition), eulogised in the days of his terminal illness and death, but never really understood. If his humility had allowed it Bruce, like Albert Einstein, might have avowed that the number of people who truly understood his ideas could be counted on the fingers of one hand.

    I bring up Bruce because he was working at the beginning of a political process which is now reaching its end, namely the evolution of the dominant liberal narrative on race, gender, sexual orientation, economics and, most fundamentally, equality. The many way stations and landmarks along the route include the Springbok tour, Bastion Point, Labour’s ACC scheme (still in place) and superannuation legislation (repealed by Rob Muldoon but returning in a different guise as Kiwisaver), the Muldoon government, Rogernomics, Jenny Shipley and Helen Clark. Muldoon was the first “right wing” leader to pull a vocal and significant section of working class support away from Labour at a time when Labour was currying and winning favour with the more affluent sections of the middle class. This switch of working class loyalties from the left to right is all too glibly put down to the racist, homophobic and misogynistic characteristics of blue collar workers. The truth is that at a most visceral level the working class did not buy into the peculiar nature of the left’s narrative on equality in either its social or economic manifestations. At the same gut level they felt little love for women like Hilary Clinton, Teresa May or even Helen Clark, but it is a mistake to write off that instinctive antipathy as misogyny, or to dismiss their unease over global migrations of labour and capital as racist, or to categorize their attitudes to state sponsorship of gay causes as simple homophobia. In a tacit or inarticulate and often confused way the working classes are rejecting the liberal narrative on equality (now subscribed to by both the left and the preponderance of the centre right). They are right to do so, and what is needed now is a conscioius intellectual critique of the liberal narrative which explains what the working class of all developed western nations feel in their bones, why less than half of them bother to vote for anyone, and.why only a negligible proportion are actively involved in politics.

    So if Pablo is willing to take up Bruce Jesson’s mantle, then all power to his pen. But it will be a lonely road for him, and he can expect to receive little comfort or understanding from comrades on the left.

  7. Carlos:

    I am not a fan of Fukuyama but that it is a very good quote. And you are right about the Right appropriation of Left narratives in order to advance their cause. From white victimhood to the Deep State and 9/11 inside job and Trilateral Commission/globalist conspiracies, the Right has replaced the ideological discourse of the Washington Consensus and Protestant Ethos with what used to be confined to the tin foil hat factions of the postmodern Left. One glance at Failed News and you see how pervasive it has become. The problem is that the Left has, as Fukuyama notes, never produced a viable counter-hegemonic response to the neoliberal/market-driven societal narrative that has been the dominant ideological paradigm for the last 30 years. Until it does, and so long as it continues to put post-modern identity politics rather than a class line at the forefront of its agenda, it will never present a genuine alternative to the status quo.


    That is a good dissection of the plight of what (as you well know) Chris Trotter called in NZ the “Waitakere Man” (or woman) and which I would argue is the alienated condition of most of the remnants of the industrial working classes of the 20th century (take Trump, UKIP or LePen supporters as representative examples). The need to frame an ideological appeal that can win them back from the Right is imperative, and to do so I would argue that a class line approach is critical to success.

    As for filling Jesson’s shoes. Heck, I barely qualify to get into one of his memorial lectures these days. Plus, Chris has already tried that. :-0

  8. “…The problem is that the Left has, as Fukuyama notes, never produced a viable counter-hegemonic response to the neoliberal/market-driven societal narrative that has been the dominant ideological paradigm for the last 30 years…”

    I feel the left is slowly reconstructing a narrative. In fact, I wrote a long post on this to no one. Would you like me to re-edit it and send to you Pablo as a potential guest post?

  9. “I feel the left is slowly reconstructing a narrative. In fact, I wrote a long post on this to no one. Would you like me to re-edit it and send to you Pablo as a potential guest post?”

    The Future of Work is a big part of one such narrative. It looks like it’s heavily influenced by the Scandinavian and German models, as an alternative to the prevailing Anglo-Saxon model of capitalism turned rent-seeking.

  10. Sanctuary:

    That sounds like an interesting proposition. Just send it to and if possible please cc lew@kiwipolitico so he is on board.


    That is a good start. I also think that local workers need to tie their struggles to those of other workers in the global system of production. Rather than a “race to the bottom” it is time to turn the tables and push for a rising tide on all working class boats.

  11. “The need to frame an ideological appeal that can win them back from the Right is imperative, and to do so I would argue that a class line approach is critical to success”.
    Analysis in terms of economic and social class can be highly revealing and would be very helpful in our current circumstances. However political programmes which make a crude appeal to class interests are generally ineffective (witness the fate of western Communist parties) and positively dangerous to the future prospects for a free and decent society if they do succeed.

  12. Geoff:

    I believe that you overstate the dangers to a free society of class-based parties, and do not think drawing a parallel with western Communist parties during the Cold War is a valid comparison in the current context.

    Instead, I think that the class line approach can be very usefully used by social democratic and democratic socialist parties in which not only are non-class forms of identification incorporated into the party platform but where the very notion of “class” includes the location and role of people in production as well as their role as consumers on the demand-side of capitalist economics. That broadens the notion of “class” within the social division of labour but retains the centrality of wage labour within it, something that however capitalists and their governments may wish to disguise or divert from it via any number of distractions remains the central point of difference between working classes and capitalists.

  13. Totalitarian government is a potential end result of any political movement which sets out to further the interests of any particular class or racial group at the expense of others. It may not be a quantifiable risk, but it is a risk for all that, and all I have done is draw attention to the possibility of such an outcome.
    More generally, parties or individuals which pursue class interests evolve in one of two ways. Either they will move on from pursuing class interest to promotion of the common interest, or they will degenerate into parties which promote individual self-interest above either class interest or the common interest.
    During the course of the twentieth century both social democratic and Marxist governing parties of the left moved to embrace neo-liberal capitalism, ostensibly in the common social interest, transcending narrow class interests, but arguably (and often explicitly) determining that economic policy should be predicated on the self-interest of individuals – including themselves.
    I struggle to find any instances in which a political party with policies geared towards the class interest of wage workers either stayed true to that principle or went on to genuinely commit itself to the common interest of all sectors of society, though I am always willing to allow the possibility of exceptions to the rule of history.
    The two basic tenets of neo-liberal capitalism are “freedom” and “equality”, and both left and right parties broadly subscribe to these concepts as articulated in neo-liberal ideology. The working class do not, however, because they feel in their bones that these concepts are at best suspect if not deeply flawed. They therefore throw their support behind the “neo-fascist” or right wing populist causes of the kind Pablo has listed. The left has only itself to blame. It has either failed or betrayed the working class (choose for yourself whether it should be labelled a failure or a betrayal) both politically and ideologically and there are no signs that it is about to change its ways any time soon.

  14. very well put Pablo, you are one of the few to delve into these types of matters

    there are many categories of the division of labour now, but the basic relation of workers whether contractors, temps, ‘gig’ based, precarious, working poor, managerial, middle class, entrepreneurs etc. to the owners–the capitalists and finance capitalists remains

    as we head into a minimised paid work era on the back of AI, that might be the fork in the road change that will finally see class struggle centre stage again (Dystopia or Socialism?), for potentially millions of alienated workless to still be under the thumb of capitalists, paid some form of UBI allowance so they can still consume their masters services and products is untenable
    –the AI situation really is an opportunity to advance human kind with necessary scientific and cultural work but not with capitalist relations of production it won’t be!

    but as always the uneven development of human societies and individuals will be the joker in the pack, this 2017 general election will likely be the last gasp for the Old NZ Labour approach

    a new generation will have to look up Gramsci etc. Us older NZ marxists, when numerically quite strong, dropped the ball in the 70s early 80s via sectarian behaviour to each other (SAL, SUP, CPNZ, WCL etc.) and some say it goes back to the Sino/Soviet split of the CPNZ, and others the attitude to reforms as opposed to “reformism”–social democracy as a class collaborationist ideology and to the balance of local and international work

  15. Geoff:

    Let’s be clear. Not all progressive class based parties sell out or go authoritarian. The Frente Amplio movement in Uruguay– which has its core in the union movement and groups under its umbrella several Marxist parties but which has also embraced a host of progressive social policy issues and non-working class based groups–has governed uninterrupted in Uruguay for nearly two decades. It has never sold out its principles, brought into its fold numerous middle class and other wage earning sectors and negotiates with Uruguayan capitalists from a position of strength as a result of its political success. I would urge NZ leftists to pay attention to the Uruguayan example. There are other such movements in places like Spain, Greece and Portugal who neither bow to neoliberalism nor accept the inevitability of the need to turn Leninist (as in democratic centralist vanguard) in order to get things done progressively and correctly.


    Nice one. The issue is to re-define the notion of “class” so that it remains rooted in the relations of production but encompasses the consumption, communications and the work/life balance interests of the wage-earning classes, including part time, temporary, piecemeal, home-based, and “putting-out” workers.

    That requires that unions, as collective agents, both expand their appeal as well as deepen their focus on defending worker’s interests in production beyond wages (such as in workers participation in workplace decision-making, occupational health and safety, labor market standards, promotion schedules, even R&D investment and worker participation in management, etc.).

    The “broad and deep” strategy should be a foundation of union strategy and a centre piece of class-based political action.

  16. “Not all progressive class based parties sell out or go authoritarian” and I would not dispute that if for no other reason than that I do not know the history of all “class based” political parties in the world. But leaving aside the Marxist regimes of Russia, China, Eastern Europe and South East Asia (where I can see no exceptions to the rule), do you not feel a need to understand why the New Zealand Labour Party, the British Labour Party and many other western European social democratic parties have either been in the vanguard of neo-liberal economic reforms or have quietly acquiesced?
    Perhaps you could expand on the factors which you believe may have allowed the Uruguayan government to follow a different path.

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