Ghost Dancing circa 1890: With the buffalo effectively exterminated, the material basis for the Native American cultures of the Great Plains was destroyed. The Ghost Dance, it was believed, would reconstitute the basis for an independent indigenous existence. Has the removal of the material basis for a self-conscious industrial working-class similarly undermined the social base and cultural integrity of the New Zealand labour movement? Are the four contenders for the Labour Party leadership simply Ghost Dancing?
OF THE FOUR CONTENDERS for the leadership of the Labour Party, it is David Parker who pursues most consistently the “traditional” Labour member’s support. “Labour was formed by working people, for working people”, is one of Mr Parker’s favourite riffs. And lest any member of the party should doubt his commitment to Labour’s “core values”, he chose Labour Day as the time and the Savage Memorial as the place to launch his Auckland campaign.
But how much sense does it make to pursue the votes of Labour’s traditionalists when so little of the world that made them (and the Labour Party for that matter) still remains? Is it even possible to be a party of the New Zealand proletariat when the New Zealand proletariat (or, at least, the New Zealand proletariat as it was configured from 1935-1985) no longer exists?
Which is not to say that, globally-speaking, the industrial working-class, with all its vast potential for upsetting the applecart of industrial civilisation, has ceased to exist. Far from it. What should be said, however, is that if you’re looking for a mass of exploited toilers recognisable to Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, then you’ve a much better chance of finding them in China than you have in the post-industrial societies of the West.
Over the past 40 years, western capitalists have solved the problem of having large and self-assertive working-classes in their own backyard by ruthlessly shipping their employees’ jobs overseas to places where unions, civil rights and most other democratic practices are conspicuous by their absence. If you want to see the equivalent of Henry Ford’s vast River Rouge car assembly plant nowadays, you’ll have to visit Shenzhen.
Think of the political economy of globalisation in terms of the fate of the American buffalo.
Before the great waves of European settlers washed over the American prairie, it was the preserve of Native American tribes and unimaginably large herds of buffalo. So long as the buffalo endured, settlers would not only have to contend with the indigenous peoples the great beasts supported, but they’d also find it impossible to transform the prairie into profitable farmland.
Obviously, both had to go. In the space of just 45 years the buffalo herds (the largest of which sometimes stretched from horizon to horizon) were reduced from more than 30 million to just a few hundred. And with the destruction of the buffalo the indigenous cultures of the prairies found themselves robbed of the very substance of their being. After a brief but doomed burst of resistance they were reduced to objects of anthropological curiosity and Hollywood fantasy.
The social-democratic welfare-states that grew up in the West in the 1930s and which reached their peak effectiveness in the early 1970s had the same relationship with factory-based production as the indigenous tribes of the prairie had with the buffalo. It was the factory-based process of mass production that underpinned the full-employment upon which the welfare state depended. Also dependent on the jobs of secondary industry were the trade unions – out of whose economic and political influence the social-democratic and labour parties of the West had emerged. Take away those jobs and in remarkably quick succession the unions, their parties and the welfare state itself would crumble and die.
Rust Belt Ruin: The continuing export of Western factory jobs has undermined the unions, their parties and the welfare state itself.
The mass slaughter of the buffalo came to an end in the mid-1880s submerging the tribes in existential despair. Five years later, however, the Bureau of Indian Affairs began to receive reports of a strange religious phenomenon sweeping the reservations – the “Ghost Dance”.
A Paiute shaman, Wovoka, prophesised that if the tribes danced the Ghost Dance, then the living and the dead would be reunited, the world re-made anew, and all its peoples could live in peace. Among the Lakota nation, however, the new religion took on a more millennial character. The dance would bring back the buffalo, said the Lakota chief, Kicking Bear, and by wearing “Ghost Shirts” warrior-dancers would be rendered impervious to bullets. On 29 December 1890, at Wounded Knee in South Dakota, this belief was put to the test – with tragic results.
Could David Parker be Labour’s Wovoka? Is his invocation of a political movement created “by working people, for working people” as tragic, in its way, as the Native Americans’ longing for the buffalos’ return? Could we be witnessing Labour’s Ghost Dance?
This essay was originally published by The Waikato Times, The Taranaki Daily News, The Timaru Herald, The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 31 October 2014.