IT’S NOT EASY BEING A SOCIALIST in the United States of America.
Long ago: back in the days when I was still impressionable enough to remember such things; I watched a documentary film about the “New Left” in America. “The trick, in this country,” remarked one of the young radicals interviewed, with an engagingly conspiratorial wink, “is coming up with suitable synonyms for Marxist terms.”
The young Marxist theorists who penned the first clear declaration of New Left principles – “The Port Huron Statement” – accordingly softened the scary Marxist notion of “the dictatorship of the proletariat” into the much less daunting concept of “participatory democracy”.
Seizing control of the means of production, distribution and exchange became the much more acceptable “struggle for economic democracy”, or, as the authors of the Port Huron Statement put it back in 1962: “the economy itself is of such social importance that its major resources and means of production should be open to democratic participation and subject to democratic social regulation”.
If attaching the most cherished word in the American political lexicon to left-wing political ideas secured them a hearing from ordinary American workers, then American socialists were only too happy to oblige.
I was reminded of this long ago search for non-inflammatory left-wing phraseology only a few days ago. The memory trigger was a newspaper article which claimed that Labour’s new leader, David Cunliffe, was a believer in “predistribution”.
How I laughed. Even before researching the term, it was clear to me that in “predistribution” I was dealing with a classic example of a suitable socialist synonym.
Coined by the Yale University economist Jacob Hacker in 2011, the term seeks to identify the income that flows into a worker’s hands from sources unconnected to the State. Unlike “redistribution”: the special subsidies, tax advantages and income transfers that flow to the victims of economic and social inequality from the general revenue; “predistribution” identifies the process of reducing entrenched inequalities by increasing the workers’ share of the private sector’s gross profits.
Now, how would a Labour leader do that?
Well, a New Zealand Labour leader would only have to look back over the course of this country’s history to find the answer.
The Liberal Government of John Balance “predistributed” workers’ incomes by handing over the determination of their wages to a special “arbitration” court made up of three arbitrators, representing workers, their employers, and the state.
The workers’ representative on the Arbitration Court was, of course, chosen by the New Zealand trade union movement. Indeed, without a strong trade union movement to exact an increased share of the private sector’s profits for its members, “predistribution” has little chance of long-term success.
The First Labour Government understood this very well, which is why within a year of winning power in 1935 it had legislated for universal union membership and facilitated the formation of New Zealand’s first effective trade union peak organisation, the Federation of Labour.
A Labour leader could, of course, try to “predistribute” without a large and effective trade union movement. This could be done by lifting the minimum wage to $15 per hour and/or legislating for the payment of a “living wage” to particularly poorly-paid categories of workers.
From the perspective of a Labour Government, however, it would make much more sense to facilitate the design of a brand new institutional framework for twenty-first century collective bargaining. Achieved by means of a comprehensive, bottom-up exercise in democratic consultation, these new institutions would become the primary instruments for “predistributing” the national income.
Only a trade union movement that had emerged from such an all-encompassing and demonstrably democratic process could legitimately claim the right to play such a vital role in the nation’s economic life. And only while it spoke in the indisputable accents of ordinary working New Zealanders could it hope to survive Labour’s periodic electoral rebuffs.
Assuming, of course, that such a massive exercise in “participatory democracy” hadn’t already removed the need for socialist synonyms altogether.
This essay was originally published in The Dominion Post, The Waikato Times, The Taranaki Daily News, The Timaru Herald, The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 27 September 2013.