Friday 31 July 2015

The Impotence Of Purity

"Certainly, The Impotent Are Pure": Gough Whitlam struggled to make the left of his party understand that purity at the expense of power is a poor bargain. “It is true that some parties can exist only as pressure groups ..... Neither our traditions nor our purpose permit us to adopt this role for ourselves. We are in the business to serve and preserve democracy. Parliamentary democracy.”
GOUGH WHITLAM’S LEGACY to Australian Labor is huge, so it’s easy to assume that he was always its hero. Nothing could be further from the truth. Such a doctrinaire beast was the Australian Labor Party in the 1950s and 60s that the “modernising” Whitlam was widely and deeply distrusted. Nowhere was this more evident than in Victorian Labour Party (VLP). Victorian Labour saw itself as the Keeper of the Flame of “true” socialism. Whitlam, a silver-tongued Sydney lawyer, born of privilege and power, was not the sort of person these “true believers” warmed to.
Whitlam, however, had a very clear idea about where Labor needed to go if it was ever to bring the seemingly interminable reign of the Liberal-Country Party Coalition to an end. The VLP, he knew, was a vital station on the federal party’s path to power. The Keepers of the Flame would have to be politically confronted – and ideologically defeated. In June, 1967, Whitlam finally bearded Victoria’s socialist lions in their den.
Speaking to the VLP’s annual conference, Whitlam laid it on the line – as only he could. Addressing directly Labor’s abysmal electoral record at both the state and federal level, he spoke the words that everyone knew to be true, but which no one dared to utter:
“We construct a philosophy of failure, which finds in defeat a form of justification and a proof of the purity of our principles. Certainly, the impotent are pure. This party was not conceived in failure, brought forth by failure or consecrated to failure. Let us have none of this nonsense that defeat is in some way more moral than victory.” [My emphasis.]
Nor was he afraid to name Labor’s two great enemies on the Left: the Moscow-aligned Communist Party of Australia; and that bastard child of Catholic reaction, the Democratic Labor Party (DLP).
“It is true that some parties can exist only as pressure groups. The Communists support this view because they do not want to win Parliamentary representation or power; the DLP supports it because it cannot win Parliamentary representation or power. Neither our traditions nor our purpose permit us to adopt this role for ourselves. We are in the business to serve and preserve democracy. Parliamentary democracy.”
It was this key insight that made Whitlam such an extraordinary change agent. He grasped what the Keepers of the Flame had either forgotten, or never quite understood in the first place. That before it could be about socialism, Labor had to be about democracy. Why? Because socialism only happens when people start taking democracy seriously.
The events of the past three weeks have made it clear just how urgently the New Zealand Labour Party is in need of a good Whitlam-style dressing down. Members of Labour’s Caucus have been stunned and hurt by the viciousness of their own party’s Keepers of the Flame. That Phil Twyford’s campaign to highlight the role played by offshore Chinese property investors in Auckland’s housing bubble could be likened to the activities of the Ku Klux Klan was beyond outrageous.
New Statesman columnist, Helen Lewis, calls it “values signalling”. Heedless of the personal and political damage inflicted by their social media interventions, the Values Signallers are only interested in letting their “friends” and “followers” know just how emphatically they are on the side of “the right and the good”. Not for them the hard slog of increasing their political party’s electoral support – always a desperately frustrating process, fraught with difficult personal compromises and dubious moral elisions. To operate in this world requires a level of maturity which most Values Signallers simply do not possess. For them, proclaiming one’s principled purity to the world is much more satisfying than helping one’s party win the next election. That such strident and unhelpful posturing might indefinitely delay the day when their principles are backed by the power of a parliamentary majority is not an idea they are much given to considering.
In the end, Whitlam’s observations about impotence and purity go to the heart of a much more profound political and philosophical debate. The invitation to sacrifice one’s personal political purity in favour of collective political potency is always a hard one to accept. And yet, if it is not, then the conditions permitting the enlargement of social, as well as individual, morality cannot be realised.
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, 31 July 2015.


Olwyn said...

Whitlam was fronting up to a form of defeatism. In comparison, after six years of buggerising their members and voters around, NZ Labour is faced with the loss of their trust. I am confident that Andrew Little is the man to turn things around, but we are not quite there yet. When you have grown accustomed to vicious back-stabbing,malicious leaking, politicians purporting to talk to the voters while transparently reassuring "the markets" over their heads, and so on, it is easy to see how some people might have interpreted Twyford's move as a populist dog-whistle. Rather than giving these people a stern talking to, it is better that Little continue with what he is already doing, which is calmly rebuilding trust, and which needs consistency over time if it is to prove effective.

Guerilla Surgeon said...

Anyone who went to university in the 60's and 70's would remember the vicious faction fighting that characterised the extreme left. There seems to be a psychological need for some people to know that they are the purest of the pure politically.
On the other hand, anyone who lived through the 80's surely can't help but feel betrayed by Labour's Blairites – well not even Blairites actually Labour's extreme right nutjobs. I door knocked for Mike Moore years ago. Now I just think fuck him, and all his idiot friends. All I want, is politicians that make promises and then live up to them. That will at least give me some idea of who to vote for. I'd probably vote Green if they weren't so anti-science. The disgraceful fact that they've been kept out of governments of the left and of the right however means that I can't judge what they do if they managed to gain some sort of political power. Is it any wonder people say a plague on all their houses? Dammit, want to say more but need to go out :-).

Anonymous said...

Having a few basic values and sticking to them is not purity. Modern Labour is in no danger of suffering from an excess of political purity. In fact their problem is the opposite. They are a threat to democracy because of the refusal of them and the other political parties in parliament to confront the power of the minority who make the real decisions and are driving up inequality and environmental destruction. Pretending that racism is some sort of brave stand against political purity and gives Labour credibility is not going to save a party dying because of its blind belief in neo liberalism and lack of the courage to do what is really required to win some credibility - stand up to the ruling class, even just a little bit.

greywarbler said...

Yes GS go out and breathe in some pure CO2 or whatever, being Green I don't know the right letters for our everyday air! H2O no that's not right.

Chris I really like the piece you have quoted for applying to NZ Labour, particularly at 2014 election, when prior to that they were talking of upping the age of the old age pension. The only thing they should do is call it that and cut out this genteel superannuation, that allows the middle class to feel that they are not really like those awful bennies living off the state and not doing anything useful! Disgraceful. Bah.

Gough spoke well when he said this. We construct a philosophy of failure, which finds in defeat a form of justification and a proof of the purity of our principles. Certainly, the impotent are pure.

I hereby announce a new expression to describe and follow for progressive lefties who want to achieve better things in a practical way, The Pragmatic Idealist. You heard it here first.

adam said...

Purity, bloody nora. I thought you believed in Liberté, Equalité, Fraternité Chris? So now it's purity when some say, why the hell are you framing the debate in a xenophobic whistle blowing manor. I'll let Imani Coppola put the rest of my argument, in 2.15 minute punk song.

Unknown said...

Ha Guerilla, in a previous blogging life on a blog far far away peopled by ideologues of such purity I fell foul of the crime of impurity. Being of the Left was insufficient quality, my failure to adhere to the precepts of fem 101, social justice warrior 102, LGB rights 301saw me struck down. Fight for my right of freedom of expression, fight for my right to hold a different opinion, man did I scrap. I offered a truce, offered ground but fekk it they came forth like zombies. The analogy fits ideologues, zombies are a form of unreality. The overwhelming feeling I got was that the Left was buggered whilst this form of ideological purity spoke too loudly. My lesson was that I knew where these idiots resided and so left these halfwits too it. I am still of the Left, something that is collective; cant say my adversaries were anything broadly collective, they restricted that to their ideology and tribe. Gough was right.

Guerilla Surgeon said...

Don't know if you're being ironic greywarbler – Poe's law I guess. But in case not – two things.
1. Possum peppering.
2. Homeopathy.

Guerilla Surgeon said...

Sorry, smelled something burning – just saved the potatoes. :-) What I wanted to say was I would like a political party that had the balls to say something like, "what is the science say on this policy?" Rather than "I want to do this, find me some science/pseudoscience that supports it." Because that's the way policy seems to operate these days. I'm excluding economic policy from this because neoliberal economics is not a science, it's an art. The art of bullshit :-).

Guerilla Surgeon said...

Well Nick, if you're against equality, whether it be for women or gay people, and if you're against social justice, then you're probably not of the left. Maybe you were deluding yourself.

greywarbler said...

@GS Thanks for Poe's law reference. I learn, I learn, I'm from Waikikamukou! And I can make a psychological and pragmatic case for using homeopathy, which I have put forward earlier somewhere. Possum peppering I imagine relates to 1020, which is disliked as much for killing useful working dogs as for the fact that there is always some die-catch of endangered species.

So Greens have lots of good points, Labour is trying, sometimes very trying, and Notional want to repeat the 19th century glory days when much money was made in Britain and NZ from selling scenic land in NZ still in the hands of the indigenous people. Back to my vision of shaping policy by 'pragmatic idealism'.

greywarbler said...

For goodness sake in the name of purity of the wide number of left principles, don't start on populist rights issues and who is truly left, in present day politics. Let us leave that to the other blogs as referred to by NickJ.

There are bigger, growing, enduring problems; GE, self-organising robots, militarisation of police, surveillance of citizens by elected representatives, soil depletion, the use of war as a profit centre and to encourage patriotism and national cohesion, climate change effect on all living things, no self-sufficiency in NZ of food and basic needs, depletion of clean healthy water, and practices that divert public water and use it for personal profit, and to withhold it from those who can't pay.

Let's try to discuss deliberately impoverishing conditions under an accepted, unfair economic dictate that inequality results in more efficiency and abolishes lazy ways of the past etc. So leave the rights skirmishes to the usual suspects will you.

Guerilla Surgeon said...

Sorry greywarbler, there is absolutely no case for homeopathy. Pragmatic or otherwise. Just in case you are referring to placebo – the placebo effect makes you feel better, it doesn't actually make you better. And possum peppering actually refers to from memory, burning and grinding up possum testicles and scattering them on the ground to keep out the possums. That poor old possum Jeanette Fitzsimons couldn't seem to change her mind after the evidence was in. She swore that the scientific testing would result in vindication for the whole stupid process, and then decided that whatever scientific investigation they had it wasn't good enough. That's enough to put me off voting Green much of the time. Not this specific example, but the general attitude towards science.

Unknown said...

I wasn't against Guerilla, in fact if the idiots had cared to listen I was for. Always have been since before these issues became mainline. Where I objected was being told how to think without deviation, and being told how much more important were these views to any other. Your response indicates to mine much the same unthinking intolerance that tears the Left asunder. Is this our habit, our modus operandi?

Unknown said...

I've always thought homeopathy dubious, having said that aspirin and willows comes to mind. No single entity has a monoply on truth.

Guerilla Surgeon said...

Nick – I was making some broad assumptions. There are certain broad agreements among people of the left, without which you can't be a member pretty much. This leaves a lot of room for disagreement.
Homeopathy is not dubious. It doesn't work. And I guess depending on how you define truth, no one has a monopoly. But science has a monopoly on science. :-) At the moment, and for the foreseeable future, it's the best way to figure out how the world works. Would you rather boil up some willow bark for a headache? Or take a measured dose of a reasonably pure product? Or I suppose you could bleed yourself. Or there's the coffee enemas, which I believe have come back into fashion.
I just wish our politicians felt this way about science. It would still leave plenty of room for political decisions, but banish the feeling that they were perhaps picking policies out of thin air.

jh said...

I was reading reaction to your Bogan post on Public Address. There was a lot of bemusement and (I've got a) Phd cropped up often. I would still like to know what James Dann (Multicultural Aotearoa) would have said at the zoning meeting in the Brake Street hall:

jh, 10 months ago

James could have come and said something at the rezoning meeting in Ilam a few months back. He might have added his voice to the Councils man who said “well, we have immigration and you have to have population increase (to increase the wealth). So it suppose it is one of the imperatives of government”.
He could have chipped in with the benefits of multiculturalism.

Report Reply

Stephen Judd, in reply to jh, 10 months ago

>He could have chipped in with the benefits of multiculturalism.

Oh get bent ya racist twat.

There were (on the one hand) angry and concerned people and (on the other) chaps who bounced in. In the angry and concerned camp someone yelled "that's a load of rubbish all this immigration is just for property developers.."

The pure would throw the ordinary people under the bus?

Another example of purity on David Hoods post: House Prices and "Magic Money".

What bemuses me is that people seem weirdly resistant to that idea. I honestly don’t see anything surprising in the idea that offshore money would want to buy housing in New Zealand.

The pure suffer from xenophobiaphobia?

jh said...

This pragmatic approach is a little like inviting the "pure" to treat the Labour party as a Trojan Horse?

Davo Stevens said...

Frankly I don't give a monkey's toss about homeopathy, I don't believe in it but as long as it's not forced on me, I don't care. People can do whatever their tiny hearts desire as long as it doesn't involve me. Whether it is effective or not is immaterial.

Guerilla Surgeon said...

How the hell do we get onto homeopathy? Anyway you should care Davo, because when some poor arse uses homeopathy instead of a proper medicine and it doesn't work and they have to get taken to hospital for emergency treatment, it not only comes out of your taxes but some other poor bugger is bumped down the list for treatment. Luckily most people only use it for minor things like colds.

Unknown said...

Salucylin is found in willow bark. Its been known as a headache curative since Roman times. We know it as aspirin. Scientific method proved and explained what was known to work as what we would now refer to as homeopathy. I dont dismiss but I do like to see the science and the proof.

I reckon belief in scientific method has its limits when it is applied to social scenarios like economics and politics. Its why I dont do pseudo scientific dogma like Marx or Freidman. Probably why I get offside with a goodly chunk of the Left.

Guerilla Surgeon said...

"Salucylin is found in willow bark. Its been known as a headache curative since Roman times. We know it as aspirin." I know. Salicin probably killed Beethoven.

"Scientific method proved and explained what was known to work as what we would now refer to as homeopathy." What on earth does that mean?

Davo Stevens said...

Aspirin is willow bark soaked in Vinegar (Acetylsalicylic acid) and has been known as a pain reliever (Analgesic) since time immemorial. There is a rhyme that shows natural cures:
Where there's pain to cause us woe,
There the healing herbs do grow.

Why did the ancient Picts cover themselves in Woad? Not just to look fierce but also because woad is astyptic (stops bleeding).

@GS; Yep, I know what you're saying but I have better things to do with my time than to try and convince others that something doesn't work. Hell, it's easy to see when one considers the tripe the right wingers post here.

Chris Trotter said...

To: Guerilla Surgeon and Davo:


It's not as if there aren't plenty of other things to talk about.

Change. The. Subject.

Unknown said...

It means science explained the "why" of what was already known. Science tends to be really good at the why it doesnt work too, which is why I prefer it.

Guerilla Surgeon said...

Okay, enough about homoeopathy – what about acupuncture :-)?

Davo Stevens said...

My humble apologies Chris, we deviated away from the core of the conversation.

What about Acupuncture GS!? ;)

jh said...

I'm reading The Fates of Nations - A Biological Theory of History Paul Colinivaux

Ecology's first social law may be written: "all poverty is caused by the continued growth of population".

David Cameron got chastised for referring to migrants as a swarm: "they are human beings". But if we can't attribute biological behavior to humans we can't deal with humanities problems.

jh said...

So much for the Triumph of The City - Glaeser (and promoted by professor Spoonley)

"Alarmingly, everything everyone one thinks they know about urbanization and cities is mistaken, absolutely and entirely. Contrary to the heavily promoted narrative, people arenot cheerfully and enthusiastically moving to cities. Most of the world’s population have been forced to, or left with no other alternative but to attempt to make a life in a city."

As a plonker I always smelt a rat with that one?

FiFi50 said...

Whitlam along with our Norman Kirk were destroyed by the bastard americans, sadly they killed our Norman Kirk. Why, because they wouldn't play americas game. This is just a taste of what's at the link below... Whitlam and Kirk

Gough Whitlam and Norman Kirk begin a series of moves absolutely against the Mafia Trilateralists. Whitlam refuses to waive restrictions on overseas borrowings to finance Alwest Aluminium Consortium of Rupert Murdoch, BHP and R.J. Reynolds. Whitlam had also ended Vietnam War support, blocked uranium mining and wanted more control over US secret spy bases - e.g. Pine Gap.

Kirk had introduced a new, tough Anti-Monopoly Bill and had tried to redistribute income from big companies to the labour force through price regulation and a wages policy.

Kirk had also rejected plans to build a second aluminium smelter near Dunedin and was preparing the Petroleum Amendment Bill to give more control over New Zealand oil resources.

If you don't believe that then listens to this man speaking..

FiFi50 said...

September, 1974:

According to CIA sources, Kirk was killed by the Trilateralists using Sodium Morphate. Rowling’s first act as NZ Prime Minister was to withdraw Kirk’s Anti-Monopoly Bill and the Petroleum Amendment Bill.

Later, Rowling was to be rewarded with ambassadorship to Washington. Incidentally, the Shah of Iran was murdered the same way as Kirk on his arrival in the US.