Friday, 31 October 2014

Ghost Dancing?

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.

14 comments:

John Buckley said...

It can be done. Scandinavian countries have done a much better job of adapting. And they have used Parker-like polices effectively. Inequality is up everywhere. Inflation adjusted wages decreasing for the bottom half (as they have been here and all Anglo nations) are not in the interest of anyone –whether working in an assembly line, coffee house or in an office. I don’t think that this analogy of a dying culture and race (from an estimated 4-7 million down to under a couple hundred thousand) is no more relevant than Marx’s 150 year old proclamations?

pat said...

while it is true the Scandinavians have done a better job, they didnt (to use Chris' analogy) clear the prairies for farming thereby decimating the buffalo...Scandinavia tempered its response and set up the economic equivalent of National Parks...something we, with our eyes on all that fine potential pasture in NZ failed to do in our rush to plough.
I would suggest the only buffalo we now possess may end up in a museum (or perhaps a zoo)
And it would appear, despite earlier remonstration that our views are so far apart after all Chris.

Tiger Mountain said...

What marxism does provide is a dialectical and historical materialist method of analysis. “Proceeding from the concrete” as Mao put it.

Waiting by the side of the road for the labour hire agency van or an email from a temp agency hardly imbues feelings of working class solidarity.

Yet the whole human endeavour still involves intellectual and physical labour applied to the planets resources.

The future may be a virtual working class where freelancers and contractors and casuals join an ongoing “union for life” similar to the way superannuation and healthcare follows people.

The alternative is to give in to capital and effectively become a nation of old style waterfront “seagulls” for all time. That is the holy grail of the ruling class–absolute labour flexibility aka willing slaves. The fast food industry has been organised (albeit via leftists rather than social democrats), so the “union for life” concept could be the future.

Victor said...

There are two separate questions to be answered.

The first is whether Social Democratic policies remain relevant to the running of the country. I have no doubt that the answer to this question is "yes"!

The second is whether these policies are dependent on a class conscious trade union movement with a major political party at its disposal. Of this, I'm less sure.

If the answer to the second question is indeed "Yes", then, as far as I can see, we're up the creek without a paddle, along with the citizens of most other advanced democracies, even though the Swedes may take a bit longer than others to join us there.

If the answer is "No", the task of rebranding, re-packaging and re-configuring brooks no delay. Nor does the search for domestic coalitions of the willing, to bring sanity back to how this and other nations are run.

Chris Trotter said...

Victor and Tiger Mountain have both offered thoughtful responses to this posting and I would welcome more.

In the meantime, I would only say that Marx's concept of a "class for itself" is entirely absent from the current scene.

Labour's response since the deindustrialisation of the 1980s has been to focus its attention on the communities of identity which exist independently of the processes of production.

The limitations of this strategy are now very clear (for a start identity recognition and affirmation can easily be adopted by one's electoral opponents).

What we are now observing in this second leadership contest are the limitations of political nostalgia. Labour's ghost dancing is a desperate attempt to reconstruct the cultural support base of social democracy in the absence of its material foundation - a large and confident working-class.

It is a doomed exercise. No "ghost shirts" (not even mint green ones!) can repel the bullets of economic, social and political reality.

Victor said...

One further thought, Chris, which might or might not be relevant.

The Socialist parties of the early twentieth century didn't always start out looking for Social Democracy.

More often than not, they found it on the way, as their hopes for a universal Socialist utopia withered in the face of reality and/or as economic crises and mass unemployment made it clear that "something" had to be done and that this something couldn't wait for the "lutte finale".

Moreover, they weren't the only ones hitting on this notion.

In the UK, for example, Keynes and Beveridge (two of the most significant intellectual fathers of the British Welfare State) were both upper middle class members of the Liberal Party. And there were quite a few Tories who tended to agree with them, including, perhaps most notably, the future Prime Minster, Harold Macmillan.

In the United States, it was the aristocratic liberal, Franklin Roosevelt, who ushered in the age of mass affluence, based on the humane and sensible regulation of a capitalist economy. Of course, "Organised Labor" was an important part of FDR's coalition. Even so, it wasn't the only part.

Moreover, in the US as in the UK, the reversion to center-right government in the 1950s didn't mean a return to dog-eat-dog, unrestricted capitalism. Eisenhower was both too canny and, by my reading, too decent an individual to think in such terms.

Indeed, back in the 1950s, when I was a nipper, there was a whole regiment of elderly guys in pinstripes who led essentially conservative parties that were committed to policies that we would now think of as exemplifying the extreme left.

Moreover, in continental Europe, such policies could also draw on a heritage of Christian Democratic thought and "big state" conservatism.

I don't know where my mental meander takes us. But, perhaps, just perhaps, the link between Social Democracy and mass labour movements isn't quite as critical as the Left has tended to believe.

Perhaps there are now new coalitions that need building, just as there were when FDR put his together in the midst of an even worse crisis than the one we've just been through.

Tiger Mountain said...

An honest thorough class analysis has been lacking for the NZ left. We need to know beyond census and Treasury figures what constitutes society these days. How many actual workers are there compared to business, farm and franchise owner/operators? What role might ‘false consciousness’ play etc.

WISSE–Workers Institute for Scientific Socialist Education attempted this in the 90s with some Waikato Uni people but it was not satisfactorily concluded.

It is known that self employment and SMEs are preponderant. Family and friends hide a lot too if the household Labour Force Survey is anything to go on. It consistently reports higher numbers of unemployed and discouraged than are in receipt of a WINZ benefit. Social Security having warped into a sadistic punishment machine.

Unfortunately even some union members I am aware of are into ‘renters’ and voting Nat. And the Nats themselves have scabbed various social democratic policies that they are reluctant to jettison such as WFF tax credits and paid parental leave. So to move forward we need to better understand where we are.

In the meantime join a union or political group even if you are self employed or retired, make links and participate.

pat said...

edit..."NOT so far..."

Guerilla Surgeon said...

Marx's ideas on class hewed strictly to the economic. Capital was essentially property. Classes these days, (and I think to be honest in the past) deserve a slightly more nuanced approach. Similar perhaps to Bourdieu. Who posited that capital can consist of money, cultural capital, social or even symbolic. In fact some of the greatest obstacles to social advancement if you want to call it that, are nothing to do with economics. But even historically, the Labour Party looked to the educated section of the working class often rather than the "lumpen proletariat". Unfortunately today these are the people who have been socially engineered by the TINA crowd. The lumpen proletariat if it still exists is now in the service sector, and very vulnerable. I suspect what we need is a long hard depression to inculcate a bit of class consciousness in all these people. On the other hand, there are people with plenty of cultural capital such as education, who have relatively little money. The Labour Party should be working on these as well. (Exactly how they do this I have no idea.) :-) They're a bit like that Buckett woman on television. They think they're middle-class and have some of the cultural capital to go with it, but the ruling class look down on them just as much. They need to be shown this.

peterpeasant said...

We have a lumpenproletariat lower class. Marx viewed his world as an industrialised ruling capitalist class and an exploited proletariat.

Nobody seems to have explored what might eventuate with a very large,generally, poor class of "self employed contractors" might do when faced with an immensely wealthy 5% of the society owning 99% of society's wealth.

There will be tears.

Asia here we come to join your welfare state.

Alan said...

And yet the difference between a tree and a house remains a primary transformatory investment of work and skills, as it always was.

Money has ceased to be just the necessary lubricant in the process, assuming a grotesque life of its own.

Power, which emeshes all of us every waking moment, has increasingly been appropriated by big money. That power has been used to fragment union solidarities and create competitive individual islands where once there was unity of purpose, and unemployment has been the spur.

In this process, the once growing dignity of the collegial worker is steadily being replaced by the fear and resentment of the individual slave.

And of course we've been there before.

Marx understood that societies were constructed on power systems... those that had it; those that didn't. I don't think he'd feel he'd have to revise much of his thinking.

After all, we seem hell bent on recreating the economic relationships he sought to address in his time!

Alan Rhodes

Davo Stevens said...

What Labour needs is something that will draw in the non-voters, those who felt that they had nothing to gain by voting.

People can be and are very patient as long as something happens to make their lives better in the short term. Not endless promises that don't eventuate in any meaningful way for them. They don't want a "Ghost Dance"! They want action.

Once the leadership issues are sorted then Labour needs to get out and find out what the problems are for those people. Not all of them will vote Labour but at least the issues would be and could be addressed.

pat said...


If you remove the bottom stratum from the equation as they effectively have been either by their vilification from without or their disengagement from within then what remains?
A simple examination identifies that in the past 30 years this grouping is almost exclusively of capitalists, though many would not describe themselves as such.
How many working NZers measure their wellbeing on their occupation after their ability to consume on the back of a property bubble?
The "class in itself" and the "class for itself" have become the same group (temporarily) and therein lies the problem.

Olwyn said...

Chris I think your analogy is apt but also limited. It is apt in showing how when you lose the ground that sustains you, you also lose the power to bargain, and with that the power to withhold consent. It is this loss that underpins Biblical and other ancient world accounts of slavery. In the same way, no industry equals no bargaining power for industrial workers, and thus very limited leverage with those who claim, and perhaps even hope, to represent them.

There seems to be a significant disanalogy though, in the fact that the killing of the buffalo was an attack on people who were outsiders to those doing the killing, while the removal of industry is internal to the society in which it happens.

Internal moves like this affect the given society at all levels. Take Wellington for example: there the public service underpins a host of other commercial activities. Remove the public service and there is no one to buy dresses, eat at restaurants, etc, etc. Industry occupied the same role on a wider scale, and it is doubtful whether inflated house prices, consumerism and so on can reliably sustain a middle class that has finally found a way to free itself of workers' demands. This is especially so at a time when the English-speaking world has run out of colonies to populate. The loss of industry with no robust replacement does not just deracinate the workers but in the long run, the rest as well. As a society, we might well end up looking like Native Americans who have killed our own buffalo and saved others the trouble.