Tuesday, 28 February 2017

Labour's Future Has A Single Name.

Heir Apparent: If Andrew Little doesn’t respond to Jacinda Ardern’s emphatic by-election victory in Mt Albert by promoting her to deputy-leader, then he’s a fool. Voters only make prime ministers out of politicians who can see not only what needs to be done, but who also possess the guts to do it.
 
“JACINDA”, was the only name on Labour’s by-election billboards. Andrew Little will have noted that. When the electorate starts identifying politicians by their given name – “Rob”, “Winston”, “Helen” – it signals a significant up-tick in political familiarity. It’s easy to vote for a candidate who requires no second name. “Jacinda” has acquired a winning ring.
 
If Little doesn’t respond to Jacinda Ardern’s emphatic by-election victory in Mt Albert by promoting her to deputy-leader, then he’s a fool. Success merits promotion. Any failure on Little’s part to acknowledge Arden’s pulling-power in Auckland will only fuel suspicions that he lacks the fortitude to shake-up the delicate factional balance of Labour’s caucus.
 
Little simply cannot afford to let such suspicions grow: not inside Labour, and certainly not beyond it. Voters only make prime ministers out of politicians who can see not only what needs to be done, but who also possess the guts to do it. Little should tell Annette King (who first entered Parliament as the MP for Horowhenua in 1984) that she has sat there too long for any good she has been doing. Like Oliver Cromwell, he needs to tell her: “Depart, and let us have done with you. In the name of God – go!”
 
If I may be forgiven for quoting Cromwell a second time: removing King has become a matter of “cruel necessity”. Having embarked upon a radical re-shaping of Labour’s public image: reclaiming its former status as a “broad church” by bringing in the likes of Greg O’Connor and Willie Jackson; Little now needs to reassure Auckland’s young urban professionals (who’ve just voted for Jacinda in droves) that there is plenty of space on Labour’s pews for them.
 
Keeping King where she is for fear of reactivating the “Anyone But Cunliffe” brigade would not only flatter that waning faction’s significance, but also signal a serious loss of political momentum. Over recent weeks, Little has shown the country that he is willing to march right over and through his critics if that’s what it takes to get Labour ready for power. The thing is, once you begin that sort of forward march, you absolutely cannot afford to stop. Like the proverbial shark, you must keep swimming strongly – or drown.
 
Annette King has been in Parliament for all but three of the past 33 years. She was there through all the mayhem of the 1980s: a loyal foot-soldier in Roger Douglas’s all-conquering army. Throughout the 1990s and into the third millennium she served with distinction as a disciplined Labour staff officer. It’s a fine record, but King lacks the “optics” necessary for the 2017 campaign. Younger blood is needed at the top. A truly loyal servant of the party would see that – and make way.
 
Sacrifices will be necessary on Ardern’s part as well. First and foremost she must tear up the “Gracinda” (Grant Robertson + Jacinda Ardern) ticket upon which she ran against Little in 2014. The brutal truth she needs to face is that, in the eyes of the voters, at least, she has moved well beyond Robertson. His big moment arrived three years ago when he came agonisingly close to being elected Labour’s leader. He will not have forgotten, and neither should we, that he lost to Little by less than one percentage point.
 
Three years on, however, that losing margin may just as well have been 50 percentage points. Robertson’s star is fading. Indeed, amidst all the intense jockeying between Labour, the Greens and NZ First which is bound to follow a National defeat, he will struggle to retain his finance portfolio.
 
Ardern needs to move beyond the poignant television images of her and Robertson on the edge of tears, but applauding bravely, as Little’s victory is announced. The deputy-leader’s slot is hers for the taking now, and she should take it. Her star has a long way yet to rise.
 
In making Ardern his No. 2, Little would not only be making a statement about Labour’s future, he would also be moving decisively beyond Labour’s past. Sometimes, party leaders are required to anticipate their own, inevitable, demise by providing the public with a clear line of succession. Like a medieval king, they need to proclaim their dynasty’s strength by holding up a political heir for the people’s approbation.
 
Helen Clark did Labour an enormous disservice by failing to prepare the public for the day of her political death. The result has been a Game of Thrones-style bloodbath as rival contenders hacked and hewed their way towards pre-eminence across Labour’s seven kingdoms. Win or lose in September, Little owes Labour a better future than another three years of civil war. He may not look much like Jon Snow, and “Jacinda” may not look at all like Daenerys Targaryen, but after Saturday’s victory, she comes with dragons.
 
This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 28 February 2017.

Friday, 24 February 2017

Rebels And Other Strangers.

Together Alone: Albert Camus summed-up his existentialist masterpiece L’Étranger in a single sentence. “In our society any man who does not weep at his mother’s funeral runs the risk of being sentenced to death.” Helpfully, he added: “I only meant that the hero of my book is condemned because he does not play the game.”

THE FRENCH NOVELIST, Albert Camus, summed-up his existentialist masterpiece L’Étranger in a single sentence. “In our society any man who does not weep at his mother’s funeral runs the risk of being sentenced to death.” Helpfully, he added: “I only meant that the hero of my book is condemned because he does not play the game.”
 
Refusing to “play the game” is a pretty good description of a rebel. Camus’ hero, Meursault, is a rebel without a cause. Or, to be fair, he’s a man whose only cause is to live life on his own terms. Depending on how far you believe society’s claims extend, this makes Meursault either an existential hero, or a sociopath. Certainly, it is his lack of empathy that costs him his life.
 
Of more concern to me than the Meursaults of this world are the rebels with a cause. Far from wishing society would leave them the hell alone, these rebels are passionately committed to changing it. Generally speaking, however, society has as little time for these mavericks as it does for those who attempt to refuse its claims. To be any kind of rebel, therefore, is to find oneself an outsider: feared and resented by those for whom the rules of society are no more burdensome than the rules of respiration.
 
These rebels-with-a-cause respond to their outsider status in different ways.
 
For many, society’s indifference – or outright hostility – towards their attempts to improve the lives of its members breeds a compensatory sense of superiority – bordering on contempt.
 
“What is the matter with these people?”, they complain. “Why can’t they see that we’re just trying to make things better for them?”
 
The self-evident benefits of their proposed reforms convinces them that all those individuals and groups obstructing their efforts are, at best, ignorant, or, at worst, wicked.
 
Either way, they stand disqualified from playing any part in the processes of reform. That such high-handed and anti-democratic elitism might reduce, rather than enhance, the prospects of their proposed reforms winning majority acceptance is dismissed as unimportant. Majority acceptance is not a necessary precondition for effective social reform: not when you have the power of the state at your back.
 
Such is their faith in the efficacy of their reforms that the ingrained opposition of existing generations of citizens is not regarded as important. Once the reforms come into effect, social attitudes and behaviours will begin to change. Future generations will be born into a “new normal”, and the complaints of their parents and grandparents will give rise to much rolling of eyes and shaking of heads.
 
The pain of estrangement experienced by these rebels’ is overcome by re-making society in their own image. In Camus’ terms: by making it illegal to cry at your mother’s funeral.
 
The other kind of rebel-with-a-cause responds very differently to the pain of being an outsider. Far from wanting to impose their reform agenda on the sceptical masses, these rebels are forever searching for the arguments with which to convince their fellow citizens that their reforms are worthy of adoption.
 
Because it’s only when the society they perceive as injured or diseased is ready to embrace the means of its own recovery that these rebels will be able to do what they have been longing to do their whole lives – shrug-off their outsider status and once again breathe in society’s air without choking on it. In Camus’ terms: by persuading people that, at their mother’s funeral, shedding tears is not the only acceptable way of displaying grief.
 
In the end it boils down to the question of how rebels-with-a-cause perceive society.
 
Is it nothing more than a lump of human clay to be kneaded and pummelled and moulded and scraped into an acceptable shape – whether it likes it or not? And if so, what does that tell us about the self-perception of the sculptors – or should we call them the Übermensch?
 
Or, should society be thought of as the place where everyone comes together, and no one gets left behind? What the Swedes call the folkshemmet – the people’s home. Located in this context our rebel/outsider becomes someone temporarily estranged from their family. Society ceases to be a collection of human resources waiting to be engineered, but of mothers and fathers, brothers and sisters, longing to be reconciled.
 
Revolution means coming home.
 
This essay was originally published in The Waikato Times, The Taranaki Daily News, The Timaru Herald, The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 24 February 2017.

Thursday, 23 February 2017

Labour's Not Burning Crosses - It's Gathering Votes.

Double Act: Andrew Little and Willie Jackson have signalled that, as far as the Maori Party is concerned, the political gloves are off. If Jackson’s comments encourage other Maori to speak out in similarly blunt terms about the true agenda of the Maori Party and the Iwi Leadership Group, then the electoral dividend for Labour is likely to be substantial.
 
WHAT I HEARD from Willie Jackson and Sandra Lee this morning (22/2/17) didn’t sound at all like “cross burning”. What I heard on RNZ’s “Morning Report” was a discussion about Maori need and the most effective ways to address it. I also heard some pretty frank criticism of the Maori elite and its principal political mouthpiece.
 
Neither Lee nor Jackson were willing to repudiate Andrew Little’s blunt refusal to accept the Maori Party’s political credentials. What they did repudiate was the selective historical memory of Tariana Turia and her ilk.
 
If Jackson’s recruitment encourages other Maori to speak out in similarly blunt terms about the true agenda of the Maori Party and the Iwi Leadership Group, then the electoral dividend for Labour will be substantial.
 
Because no amount of social-liberal outrage can obscure the fact that the Maori Party long ago abandoned the cause of working-class Maori in favour of a neo-tribal capitalist system which is busy swelling the ranks of a new Maori professional and managerial class.
 
Not that such outrage isn’t extremely helpful. Without it, the crucial role which the Maori Party plays in blurring the edges of the National Party’s continuing assault upon the brown working-class might come into sharper focus.
 
By interposing themselves between National’s neoliberal economic policies and the people they purport to represent, the Maori Party not only protects its political patron from the consequences of its own social aggression; but it also furnishes its voters with “proof” of “their” party’s relevance and effectiveness.
 
The message is as simple as it is cynical: “Just imagine how bad things would be if we weren’t here to keep all those crazy conservative Pakehas from running wild!”
 
The Ratana Church’s Depression-era alliance with Labour was likely born out of a similar rationale. The big difference, of course, was that Tahupōtiki Wiremu Rātana joined forces with the Pakeha poor to end their common marginalisation at the hands of a ruling class made vicious by social fear and political rage. He knew that the ruling elites of both peoples could only be controlled by “the survivors” of colonialism and capitalism, brown and white, working together.
 
The Maori Party, by contrast, almost immediately shed its mass base in favour of a cross-cultural class alliance between the Maori and Pakeha elites. While the National Party’s accelerated Treaty settlement process helpfully expanded the Maori middle-class, the Maori Party maintained a deafening silence as neoliberal economic and social policies wreaked havoc upon its own people. It was a Devil’s bargain: in return for abandoning the constituency which had given the Maori Party birth, the National Party was growing it a new one.
 
It was this shameless collaborationism that drove Hone Harawira out of the Maori Party and into the cross-cultural alliance of Maori and Pakeha socialists that used to be Mana. Harawira wagered that his tactical association with Kim Dotcom’s Internet Party would provide Mana with a parliamentary beach-head larger than Te Tai Tokerau and sufficient List MPs to make a difference. He lost.
 
The kindest thing that might be said about Harawira’s latest gambit is that it is motivated solely by his determination to get Mana back into Parliament. The less kindly among us, however, might wonder aloud, as Sandra Lee did this morning, about the political efficacy of an agreement which debars Mana from standing in any Maori seat but Te Tai Tokerau, and which prohibits criticism of both the Maori Party’s record and its policies. Hone Harawira owes his followers a clearer explanation.
 
Social-liberal criticism (backing-up that of Turia and Pita Sharples) will, of course, focus on Labour’s handling of the foreshore and seabed issue.
 
In the best of all possible worlds the Court of Appeal’s unexpected decision would have been welcomed with open arms by a Labour Party determined to build upon and strengthen the Maori renaissance. Conveniently forgotten by Labour’s Maori and Pakeha critics, however, is the hostile political reception given to Helen Clark’s attempt to do just that.
 
The National Party had attacked Labour’s “Closing the Gaps” policy relentlessly – not hesitating to wake up the sleeping dogs of Pakeha racism if that was what it took to reclaim the Treasury Benches.
 
Already spooked by the “Winter of Discontent” of 2000 (when New Zealand’s leading capitalists threatened the new Labour-led government with a full-scale investment strike if Clark and her Finance Minister, Michael Cullen, refused to rein-in the radical expectations of their Alliance coalition partner) the Labour prime minister took another step back and hastily abandoned the term, if not the substance of, “Closing the Gaps”. She was in  no mood to let the National Party hang the Court of Appeal’s judgement around her neck and sink Labour’s chances of winning the 2005 election.
 
That Labour’s Foreshore & Seabed Act (2004) was in practical terms indistinguishable from the Marine & Coastal Area (Takutai Moana) Act (2011) which Tariana Turia accepted without protest from her National Party allies seven years later, speaks volumes about the lengths to which Clark, Cullen and Labour’s Maori caucus were prepared to go to protect Maori interests – even as they were being pilloried as the reincarnation of the nineteenth century’s most hateful colonialists.
 
Those who have spent the last 48 hours condemning Andrew Little for his attack on the Maori Party would undoubtedly benefit from watching the movie All The Way. Covering Lyndon Johnson’s first year as President of the USA (1963-1964) it is a riveting portrayal of just how difficult it is to challenge the racist expectations of an overwhelmingly white electorate – let alone overcome them.
 
To remind passionate seekers-after-change that politics is “the art of the possible” is to repeat a cliché they have heard many times before. Repetition does not, however, make it any the less true. To win power, Andrew Little needs the Maori working-class to remain loyal to Labour. That will not happen if the Maori Party is allowed to paint every expression of Pakeha political criticism as “racist”, and to dismiss every left-wing Maori critic as an “Uncle Tom”.
 
As Lyndon Johnson put it to his tender-hearted liberal running-mate, Hubert Humphrey: “Principles? Principles! Dammit! This isn’t about principles – it’s about votes!”
 
This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Thursday, 23 February 2017.

Deep State. Big Trouble.

Dark Days: The unmistakeable, if unacknowledged, shifting of pieces on the American political chessboard: strategic leaking of intercepted electronic communications; mass media revelations of politically compromising information; all points to the intervention of the same Deep State that brought down Richard Nixon.
 
THE NUMBER OF REFERENCES to “The Deep State” has shot up since Donald Trump became President of the United States. A term previously confined to academic discussions of Turkish politics is beginning to appear in mainstream news stories all over the world.
 
Driving the “Deep State” reference spike to ever-higher levels has been the obvious collusion of US intelligence agencies and key media outlets in the ouster of Michael Flynn, President Trump’s National Security Adviser.
 
So, what is The Deep State? And do New Zealanders have any reason to worry that their own state may not be as shallow as it appears?
 
Turkey is still the best place to start this discussion.
 
The secular republic created by General Mustapha Kemal out of the wreckage of the Ottoman Empire in the years immediately following World War I was very much a top-down affair.
 
Kemal and his army had saved the Turkish heartland from dismemberment at the hands of the victorious allies. For that historic achievement Kemal was not only given the name “Ataturk” – father of the nation – but the army which made it possible was accorded a privileged status in the Turkish state – and its politics.
 
Without the army, Kemal’s modernisation and secularisation of Turkish society could not have succeeded. In the 1920s the Turks were an overwhelmingly rural, poorly-educated and deeply religious people. Had Kemal’s social reforms (the emancipation of women, for example) been put to free and fair vote they would, almost certainly, have been defeated. Accordingly, Kemal’s constitution expressly forbade the politicisation of Islam.
 
Below the surface of the Turkish state’s everyday interactions with its people Kemal and his successors created a deeper structure of permanent state interests and actors. Any political threat to the Ataturkian settlement would be answered by its principal defenders: the armed forces, the secret police, and the ordinary police leadership. This was what Turkish political scientists dubbed “Derin Devlet” – The Deep State.
 
Following World War II, the Turkish Republic (which had remained neutral until the final months of the war) acquiesced in the United States’ diplomatic and military policy of “containing” the Soviet Union and joined the Nato alliance.
 
As a key player in the Cold War, the Turkish Deep State was now obliged to extend its grounds for political intervention to include not only politicised Islam, but any too-aggressive pursuit of socialism. It also stepped up its suppression of Turkey’s minority Kurdish population’s quest for self-determination.
 
Clearly, Turkey is not alone in possessing a deep state apparatus. No modern state considers it prudent to leave its people defenceless against either invasion from without or subversion from within. The more important question, however, is whether or not the core institutions of the state: the armed services, the secret services, police, judiciary and senior civil servants believe there to be certain political aims and objectives so contrary to the constitutive ethos of the state that they must be suppressed – at any cost.
 
There is ample evidence from New Zealand’s brief history that this country possesses a deep state of considerable assertiveness. Any perceived threat to the dominant position of New Zealand’s settler population; its capitalist economic system; or to its status as a member-in-good-standing of the Anglo-Saxon “club”; has been met with decisive and often bloody intervention. From the trumped-up excuses for Governor Grey’s assault on the Maori King Movement in 1863, to the political destabilisation campaign which preceded the 1975 General Election, the machinations of New Zealand’s Deep State are hard to miss.
 
The unmistakeable, if unacknowledged, shifting of pieces on the American political chessboard: strategic leaking of intercepted electronic communications; mass media revelations of politically compromising information; all points to the intervention of the same Deep State that brought down Richard Nixon.
 
President Trump should not be surprised. In the eyes of the American Deep State he is guilty of President Nixon’s “crime” of attempting to supplant its own apparatus. President Trump’s key advisor, Steve Bannon, has made no secret of his intention to engage in a Lenin-like “smashing” of the core institutions of the American state – or, at least, to purging their leadership. This cannot and will not be countenanced.
 
Equally, forbidden is what the American Deep State has deemed an unacceptably dangerous attempt to alter the United States’ geopolitical posture vis-à-vis the Russian Federation. In the National Security Agency and the CIA (if not in the FBI) there is clearly a powerful faction which regards the Trump Administration as having been irretrievably compromised by the government of Russian President Vladimir Putin.
 
This is a very big deal. The present situation in Turkey shows what happens when a populist president believes himself to be in the cross-hairs of the Deep State. The Ataturkian legacy is being smashed to pieces by Turkey’s Islamist President, Tayyip Erdogan.
 
Will America’s democratic legacy be next?
 
This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 21 February 2017.

Wednesday, 22 February 2017

Little’s “Broad Church” Widens Labour’s Appeal.

Pondering The Counterfactual: How many more percentage points might Labour have advanced in the latest One News Colmar Brunton poll had “discontented party activists” not spent the week prior to its execution demonstrating rank disunity and ideological extremism?
 
ONE SWALLOW does not make a summer, any more than a two-percentage-point lift in the latest One News Colmar-Brunton poll amounts to a massive political vindication. What Labour’s marginal rise in popularity does signal, however, is some very unhelpful news for some very unhelpful people.
 
Why do I say that? Because the furore over Willie Jackson’s return to the Labour Party can now be put in its more immediate context.
 
Before exploring that context, however, a word or two about polling.
 
Both of the major political parties have their own “internal” pollsters (David Farrar and Curia Research in the case of National, Stephen Mills and UMR for Labour) and both know when their researchers are in the field. Indeed, they often time their public policy pronouncements to coincide with such polling.
 
For very similar reasons most senior political operatives and public relations mavens also like to know when media-commissioned agencies like Colmar Brunton are on the job and when their results will be published.
 
In a society as small as New Zealand, acquiring such intelligence is relatively straightforward. Most of the people who believe they need to know, know someone who really does know when a poll is about to get underway.
 
The fieldwork for the Colmar Brunton poll that was broadcast on One News on Sunday, 19 February, was conducted between 11 and 15 February 2017.
 
This is significant, because in the week prior to the survey the Labour leader, Andrew Little, found himself under vicious attack from persons (including Poto Williams, the Labour MP for Christchurch North) opposed to Labour’s strategic recruitment of the broadcaster, community organiser, and former Alliance MP, Willie Jackson.
 
That Williams consulted a Christchurch public relations firm, Inform PR, to shape her criticism of Little, and to assist her in distributing the resulting statement to selected political journalists, prior to posting it on her Facebook page, struck many observers as odd. Now that we know Colmar Brunton was scheduled to be in the field by the end of the week, William’s behaviour appears much less so.
 
The same applies to the letter of protest posted on Facebook by members of Labour’s youth wing – Young Labour. Like William’s media statement, this document attracted considerable media attention throughout the week, especially after two former Labour MPs, Maryan Street and Marian Hobbs, added their signatures to the document.
 
Throughout the week Little was required to endure the less-than-friendly attentions of the parliamentary press gallery, as well as a succession of highly critical opinion pieces questioning his political judgement and challenging his commitment to Labour’s quest for gender parity.
 
By the end of the week, the proprietor of the POLITIK blog, Richard Harman, was reporting that:
 
“The events last week [5-11 February] seem to be connected to what has been what one senior party source described as a ‘parallel universe’ of discontented party activists who have been active on the left-wing blog ‘The Standard’ and who also organised to promote candidates for office within the party.”
 
It is, therefore, very tempting to see, with the benefit of hindsight, the timing of the criticism of Little’s recruitment of Jackson as something more than coincidental. If Harman’s “discontented party activists” had prior knowledge of when the Colmar Brunton survey would be in the field, it is not difficult to fathom why they might be tempted to seize upon the opportunity to put a spanner in the Leader’s works.
 
Clearly, there are many in Labour’s ranks who do not like the idea of the party once again becoming a “broad church”. How better to prove the unwisdom of Little’s policy than to orchestrate a week-long outpouring of protest against the Jackson recruitment, culminating in a falling-off in support for Labour – and Little – as measured in the oh-so-conveniently scheduled Colmar Brunton survey?
 
Except, of course, the campaign failed to achieve its objective. Far from registering a falling-off of support for Labour, the poll revealed a small, but very welcome, rise in support. At last, Labour was back in the 30s – an important morale-boost for both the caucus and the wider party. The recruitment of Jackson and the selection of the former Police Association President, Greg O’Connor, had produced precisely the effect which Little and his team had be working for.
 
The question that cannot be avoided, however, is as straightforward as it is disconcerting: How many more percentage points might Labour have advanced in the Colmar Brunton poll had “discontented party activists” not spent the week prior to its execution demonstrating rank disunity and ideological extremism?
 
This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Monday, 20 February 2017.

Tuesday, 21 February 2017

The Wrong Sisterhood: Forgotten Lessons of the 1984 Women’s Forums.

The Progressive Sisterhood: In 1984 Labour's women MPs launched a round of consultative assemblies - Women's Forums - to identify the priorities of their proposed Ministry of Women's Affairs (now the Ministry for Women). Unfortunately, this well-meaning exercise in participatory democracy very nearly ended in disaster. Progressive feminist reforms turned out to be much more easily engineered from above than below.
 
IT WAS ONE of the Fourth Labour Government’s more progressive initiatives, and its most productive outcome, the Ministry of Women’s Affairs, endures to this day. It was, however, an initiative that also ended up spinning out of control in ways that its instigators neither anticipated nor appreciated. Indeed, so aggrieved were Labour’s feminists at the outcome of their well-meaning experiment in “participatory democracy” that its most important political lessons remain unacknowledged and, for the most part, forgotten.
 
The election of the David Lange-led Labour Government in July 1984 provided the first opportunity for Second Wave Feminism to show what it could do with the full resources of the state at its back. Labour’s women MPs: Anne Hercus, Margaret Shields, Helen Clark, Fran Wilde, Anne Fraser, Annette King, Margaret Austin and Judy Keall, along with the party’s president, Margaret Wilson, were determined to make rapid progress for women after nearly a decade of government by, of and for Rob Muldoon’s “ordinary blokes”.
 
Pushing them forward was the Labour Women’s Council – a body which had grown rapidly, both in size and influence, since the late 1970s. The consciousness-raising effects of the violent misogyny experienced by women during the 1981 Springbok Tour further strengthened the feminist impulse within Labour’s ranks.
 
Significantly, these new recruits (many of them from women’s groups active on the nation’s campuses) brought with them the non-hierarchical, loosely-structured and “facilitative” political praxis of feminism’s second wave. Born out of the New Left’s embrace of “participatory democracy” in the 1960s, this welcoming political style was founded on the optimistic assumption that, subject only to their consciousness of patriarchal oppression being raised by their feminist sisters, all women were natural allies.
 
That this assumption was far too optimistic had been demonstrated decisively in the United States by the failure of the Equal Rights Amendment in 1982. What had, at first, looked like a slam-dunk victory for second wave American feminism had been stopped in its tracks, and then turned around, by the aggressive counter-attack of conservative women led by constitutional lawyer and right-wing activist, Phyllis Schlafly.
 
The sheer scale of the conservative backlash against American feminism should have been taken as a warning by Labour’s feminist MPs. It wasn’t. The Women’s Council simply refused to believe that New Zealand was prey to anything like the reactionary forces that plagued the United States.
 
In the context of the burgeoning strength of the feminist, anti-apartheid, Maori Sovereignty and anti-nuclear movements, the notion that New Zealand women might prove susceptible to Schlafly’s conservative arguments seemed preposterous. David Lange’s easy victory over Muldoon likewise appeared to confirm that the country was moving left – not right.
 
Buoyed by these convictions, the new Labour government, guided by its women MPs, was persuaded to set in motion a series of “Women’s Forums”. Open to all citizens, these consultative assemblies were intended to set the priorities for and structure the agenda of the new Ministry of Women’s Affairs foreshadowed in Labour’s 1984 Manifesto.
 
The first forums appeared to bear out the most optimistic assumptions of the Labour Women’s Council. Representatives from women’s NGOs like the YWCA and the National Council of Women, backed by women trade union delegates, eagerly advanced the stalled reform agenda of New Zealand feminism. A radical edge to the ongoing discussion and debate was contributed by the activism of Maori and lesbian women.
 
And then things began to go very seriously wrong.
 
In the words of gay and lesbian rights campaigner, Alison Laurie:
 
“Now, the election of the fourth Labour Government in 1984, which is when Fran Wilde comes to Parliament, brought about the establishment of the Ministry of Women’s Affairs. And prior to setting up this new ministry, the government had held women’s forums throughout the country which lesbians attended, and many women were alarmed by the presence of busloads of Christian fundamentalist women who carried Bibles and copies of the National Anthem, and who voted against abortion, lesbian rights and also against ratifying the United Nations Convention on the elimination of the discrimination against women.”
 
On one issue, however, radical feminists and fundamentalist Christians found themselves in perfect sororal agreement: pornography. They both wanted it banned.
 
It wasn’t enough. Participatory democracy, far from demonstrating that all women were sisters under the skin, had proved the opposite. Outside the funky enclaves of progressive inner-city activism; beyond the purview well-educated, Broadsheet-reading career women; there lay a vast hinterland of deeply-entrenched and easily-activated prejudice. Nor were these unsuspected masses of conservative women restricted to the rural and provincial bastions of the National Party. Feminists were just as few-and-far-between in the suburbs. Certainly, there appeared to be many more churches in these localities than consciousness-raising circles.
 
Shocked to the core, and fearful that if the forums were allowed to continue the progressive feminist agenda might end up being rejected by, of all people, conservative women, the Labour government hastily shut them down. Yes, progressive women had found themselves surrounded by a noisy and single-minded sisterhood. Unfortunately, it was the wrong sisterhood.
 
Between 1984 and 1990 the progressive feminist agenda was advanced. The Ministry of Women’s Affairs became a useful and productive reality. LGBTQI New Zealanders were liberated from their legislative shackles. Pay Equity (briefly) became a reality. But never again were the preferences of ordinary New Zealand women so openly and democratically solicited.
 
Sisterhood is, indeed, powerful – but only when your sisters can be relied upon to vote the right way.
 
This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Sunday, 19 February 2017.

Friday, 17 February 2017

Capitalism's Saviours: The Professional-Managerial Class.

"Hi! We're from the Professional-Managerial Class, and we're here to help!" The PMC downgraded the common experiences of economic exploitation which had formerly bound the Left together, supplanting them with exploitation narratives grounded in the experiences of race, gender and sexuality. Capitalism doesn’t oppress humanity, went the PMC’s argument, racism, sexism and homophobia do.
 
BARBARA AND JOHN EHRENREICH spotted the looming disaster on the Left nearly 40 years ago. This was an impressive achievement given the temper of the times. For right-wingers, the 1970s were a decade of dread. They feared that the Left was on the cusp of an irreversible victory. They would have been delighted to learn that their ideological foes faced disaster, but they would have struggled to identify the vector of their demise.
 
But the Ehrenreichs knew what it was. They had even given it a name: “The Professional-Managerial Class.” (PMC)
 
In the rather leaden Marxian prose then in vogue, the Ehrenreichs defined the PMC as “consisting of salaried mental workers who do not own the means of production and whose major function in the social division of labour may be described broadly as the reproduction of capitalist culture and capitalist class relations.”
 
In slightly less daunting language: the role of the PMC was to explain and justify the workings of capitalism to everyone who was not a capitalist, a professional, or a manager.
 
Who were they talking about? Well, in addition to the more obvious groups “hidden within the processes of production” i.e. “middle-level administrators and managers, engineers and other technical workers”, the Ehrenreichs controversially nominated “workers who are directly concerned with social control or with the production and propagation of ideology”. These they identified as “teachers, social workers, psychologists, entertainers, writers of advertising copy and TV scripts”.
 
Now, if you’re thinking: “Hey, that sounds like a description of the membership of the Labour Party and/or The Greens!” Well then, take a bow, because you have grasped the essence of the Ehrenreichs’ troublesome prophecy.
 
The PMC was already on the rise politically when the Ehrenreichs’ seminal paper was published in 1979. Its impact was clearly visible in the Democratic Party where a new generation of liberal politicians were ruthlessly marginalising the defenders of Roosevelt’s New Deal in preparation for the Carter Administration’s turn towards the “monetarist” ideas of the right-wing economist Milton Friedman.
 
The “turn” in the United Kingdom had come even earlier, in 1976, when the Labour prime minister of the time, Jim Callaghan, told his stony-faced party conference:
 
“We used to think that you could spend your way out of a recession, and increase employ­ment by cutting taxes and boosting Government spending. I tell you in all candour that that option no longer exists, and that in so far as it ever did exist, it only worked on each occasion since the war by injecting a bigger dose of infla­tion into the economy, followed by a higher level of unemployment as the next step.”
 
If Callaghan’s pronouncement prompts the thought: “But that sounds just like the sort of thing David Lange and Roger Douglas used to say!” Then, once again, take a bow.
 
The institutions that Callaghan’s and Carter’s little helpers were most concerned to rein-in were the trade unions. Organised labour represented a dangerously independent repository of economic, political, social, and, most crucially, class power. While they persisted there was always the worrying potential for explanations and justifications unfavourable to the “reproduction of capitalist culture and capitalist class relations.”
 
By the 1970s, trade unions in Scandinavia and the United Kingdom had even begun to construct practical alternatives to the capitalist way of doing things. The arguments of class solidarity and collective action were acquiring an unprecedented degree of persuasiveness.
 
The policies of Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan eventually put paid to the union threat. But the iron fist of neoliberalism urgently needed covering with a velvet glove.
 
The PMC was there to take on the task. They downgraded the common experiences of economic exploitation which had formerly bound the Left together, supplanting them with exploitation narratives grounded in the experiences of race, gender and sexuality. Capitalism doesn’t oppress humanity, went the PMC’s argument, racism, sexism and homophobia do. Eliminating these evils requires education, training and a willingness to embrace cultural diversity. A task far beyond the capacity of the working-class Left.
 
The Ehrenreichs knew how this would end. With the politics of identity and the politics of class in conflict – and left-wing unity shattered. The PMC and the working-class could have confronted the capitalists over who should own and control collectively created wealth. Instead, they confronted each other over the barricades of knowledge, skills and culture.
 
This essay was originally published in The Waikato Times, The Taranaki Daily News, The Timaru Herald, The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 17 February 2017.