Tuesday, 4 August 2015

“What Has It Got In Its Pocketses?” Can Labour Ever Abandon Neoliberalism?

"It Is Mine, I Tell You. My Own. My Precious.": Like Bilbo Baggins, Labour understands that neoliberalism’s ring of power is perilous, and will forever be bending it towards the purposes of its dark transnational masters. And yet, though challenged again and again by the party’s left-wing to let it go, neoliberalism never quite makes it out of Labour’s pocketses.
 
HOW DOES A PARTY abandon neoliberalism? Even if the New Zealand Labour Party wanted to repudiate the ideology that has caused it so much grief – could it?
 
Think about the scene in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings where Gandalf asks Bilbo Baggins if he’s passed on Sauron’s perilous ring to his nephew, Frodo. Bilbo is quite sure that he has – only to discover that it is still in his pocket. Parting with the Ring of Power is a great deal harder than Bilbo ever imagined. The same appears to be true of neoliberalism.
 
In 2013, for example, at the infamous annual conference Labour held at Ellerslie, there was an attempt made to repudiate the neoliberal legacy of Rogernomics. The party’s Draft Platform: a statement of Labour’s core principles and policies; actually contained a section condemning Labour’s fatal embrace of neoliberalism in the 1980s. By 2014, however, not the slightest trace of the anonymous author’s condemnatory prose could be found in the Party Platform. Somehow, the Ring had found its way back into Labour’s pocket.
 
I have spoken to Labour Party members about the fate of the Draft Policy Platform’s rejectionist section. Who re-wrote it? On whose instructions? Is there any official record of the original language – important for historians, if for no one else? No one has yet been able to satisfactorily answer any of these questions. It’s as if the 2013 attempt to repudiate neoliberalism never happened. (If any reader of The Daily Blog can shed more light on this murky business please do so!)
 
The furore over Jeremy Corbyn’s stunning sprint into first place in the race to replace Ed Miliband as leader of the British Labour Party is another indication of just how difficult jettisoning neoliberalism is going to be. The reaction of the British Establishment has veered wildly between loud guffaws and anguished squeaks. Politicians and journalists cannot make up their minds whether Corbyn’s success constitutes a joke or a threat. Not that it matters. If he wins, the MP for Islington North should prepare himself for the most unrelenting campaign of vilification and ridicule in British history. The members of the British Labour Party, like the people of Greece, are about to learn the hard way that “elections don’t change anything”.
 
As the veteran British political journalist, Andrew Rawnsley, put it in a recent Guardian article:
 
“The big truth that is being exposed by this battle is that Labour is really two parties and they can no longer stand each other’s company. The social democrats despair that those to the left always pull Labour into suicidally unelectable positions from which it takes years to recover before the party sees power again. The socialists rage that the pragmatists make so many compromises in the pursuit of power that it ends up not being worth it. Really, they’d be happier if they could go their separate ways. Then the electorate could choose between an offer from the centre-left and one from further left.”
 
Except that those who despair of the Left’s “suicidal” positions are very far from being “social democrats”. The people Rawnsley dignifies with the title “pragmatists” are actually the defenders of the neoliberal settlement. Their absolute determination to prevent the “socialists” from taking over the Labour Party reveals just how formidable the obstacles to genuine social-democratic change have grown.
 
Not even New Zealand’s adoption of MMP was sufficient to thwart the purposes of neoliberalism. The Alliance, NZ First and the Greens certainly offered New Zealanders a choice “between an offer from the centre-left and one from further left.” While Labour remains the dominant force on the left, however, the parties representing the “further left” face precisely the same conundrum currently taxing New Zealand’s TPPA negotiators. Yes, they can refuse to compromise and remain on the outside looking in. But, if they do, then other parties will, eventually, secure the concessions that would otherwise have gone to them. You gotta be in to win!
 
It’s a conundrum Andrew Little is finding it increasingly difficult to resolve. His caucus retains a good many hangovers from the Rogernomics Era who will be counselling caution on the TPPA. The country, meanwhile, grows increasingly apprehensive about an agreement negotiated in secret, and over whose content they have little or no say. What Labour needs to do is take a position. Either, reaffirm its support for free trade and get in behind the official negotiating team. Or, repudiate TPPA as neither a free nor fair trade agreement. One or the other, please Andrew. Because announcing “bottom lines”, when your party will play no role in sealing the deal, really does sound a bit fatuous.
 
Like Bilbo, Labour understands that neoliberalism’s ring of power is perilous, and will forever be bending it towards the purposes of its dark transnational masters. And yet, though challenged again and again by the party’s left-wing to let it go, neoliberalism never quite makes it out of Labour’s pocketses.
 
This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Monday, 3 July 2015.

28 comments:

peter petterson said...

Can they? Is it too late? Or should they start again with a new party?

Anonymous said...

Labour is still in the mess that it was in the last election, your article points out why that is so, the latest mishap of copying words from a Economist article show the depth of Labour. Andrew little shows no leadership when he argues about the National anthem. I despair at their front bench feebleness. I despair at their Gotcha politics. USELESS.

Davo Stevens said...

Firstly Chris, Labour is not "Left", it's centrist. It hasn't been "Left" since 1984. Helen moved it back from "Rightish" to the centre.

The Alliance has gone and the Greens are more main stream now (read Centrist too). Can Andy change it? I doubt it unless he cleans out all the old Guard in the Caucus. He had the opportunity when he got the top job but didn't do it then, so why would he do it now?

We are now coming to the end of the second generation since little Rogie did the deed and it is becoming ingrained in the mindset of those in power. It will take a monumental effort to change it back.

Tiger Mountain said...

“Don’t leave the path…” alright enough LOTR, but really the answer to the neo liberal question is a) highly unlikely or b) No

the level of organisational capacity in some LECs I am personally aware of is very low, no particular fault of the aging members, but more a reflection of the decline in popular participation in party politics which is a direct consequence of neo liberal policies effect on social well being and individual psychology

the Clark government would have been the ideal time to have this out properly and abandon Sir Roger’s legacy

Donal Curtin said...

Thanks for the post, interesting. I think, though, there's another reason why the Labour Party won't unwind 'neoliberalism': there's nothing to wind back to. It would be akin to unwinding modern engineering or modern physics or modern business studies: one of the points about 'neoliberalism' is that it included genuine advances in economic practice. Who wants (for example) a government monopoly running the telecoms sector? The central bank both a political lackey and singularly ineffective at controlling inflation? Which is also why parties of the left in other countries are in the same boat - it's not just NZ Labour with its legacy of Rogernomics that is facing these issues, and it's why (for example) New Labour went the way it did for more markets/choice in education/health. The real issue is where should you go from here, not how can you go back. You can't.
BTW I've apostrophised 'neoliberalism' because I don't think it's a helpful (or even meaningful) term. But that's for another day

greywarbler said...

Really good analogy Chris. Describes the situation exactly.

Guerilla Surgeon said...

Neoliberalism I must admit is a fairly hazy concept. Certainly lacking in a proper definition. But having said that, one of the reasons for this I think, is that neoliberals themselves hate the word. Not sure why. But it certainly is in its purest form, a return to the classical economics of the 19th century, leavened by some loopy/juvenile/romantic ideas from Ayn Rand. It has become the new economic orthodoxy, due to a huge effort in social engineering, but then economics is hardly an exact science. And as I have said before the basic formulae, and psychological preconceptions upon which it is based are very, very out of date. So I can't see how it can be compared to modern engineering, or modern physics. Modern business well yes because modern business is full of pseudoscience anyway.
But everywhere neoliberalism's been tried it has failed. I guess it depends on how you define success, but if you look at say Russia, South Africa, Chile, and Argentina – inequality has grown, unemployment has grown, and the economies have suffered several fairly severe shocks. Argentina and Russia have both defaulted on debts for instance. Worldwide there has been increased economic instability, which some capitalists love, because they can take advantage of it and make a lot of money, but which fucks up normal people like thee and me. They have sometimes been budget surpluses, but usually these of come from selling state assets. Housing has deteriorated and so has the provision of health services. The unregulated banks have engaged in reckless speculation, caused a number of financial crises, and been fucking bailed out.
So Donal, I can't see why huge chunks of it can't be wound back. What I can see is that the rich now have a huge stake in making sure it doesn't get wound back, and far too much say in various governments all over the world. Particularly the US. Personally I regard neoliberalism is a bit of a fairy-tale along the lines of anarchism or so-called pure communism. So I'm calling bullshit here.

Guerilla Surgeon said...

Oh God, I know it's off topic but please forgive me Chris, I have just this minute found in the junk mail a pamphlet from Colin Craig about "dirty politics". And I think I live about 400 miles from his electorate. So it is truly possible to have more money than sense :-). That picture of him on the front – scary!

Guerilla Surgeon said...

http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2015/aug/03/jeremy-corbyn-new-labour-centre-left
interesting opinion piece in the Guardian.

Anonymous said...

WE all want to put our shoulders to the wheel to help Labour, the problem is that nearly all the Labour MPs are riding on the cart, these people are not neo-liberals nor neo-anything, they are simply a group of men and woman who are troughing off the name "Labour Party". I understand Andrew Little is trying to attract funds and get his MPs in behind him but the resistance he is facing is starting to tell on him, he is on a short fuse because of the resistance and treachery. If I could pin point one reason why this is so it would be because the voting procedure for the election of a Leader is detested amongst 100% of MPs. There are other reasons of course but the election issue needs to be changed and Andrew Little needs to say to the Party that he wants it changed. Labour then will unite and the excellent article you have written will disappear into history.

markus said...

"The reaction of the British Establishment (to Jeremy Corbyn's poll lead) has veered wildly between loud guffaws and anguished squeaks. Politicians and journalists cannot make up their minds whether Corbyn's success constitutes a joke or a threat."

Yep. I've just returned from a couple of months in the UK and the reaction of establishment commentators (mainly journos and former politicians) was as deeply irritating as it was eminently predictable.

There are, for instance, a number of late evening current affairs shows (BBC, ITV, SKY) where commentators discuss the next morning's newspaper headline stories. The UK Labour leadership contest has figured regularly and again and again elite-journalists and former Cabinet Ministers (Labour and Tory alike) have contemptuously dismissed Corbyn and his numerous supporters within Labour's activist and membership ranks.

They're essentially acting as gatekeepers, enforcing narrowly-defined parameters on political discourse, setting the boundaries for what is and isn't acceptable to the Neo-Liberal Establishment. All acting like the most cynical, insincere bought-and-paid-for shills. It's hard not to have utter contempt for the pricks.

Anonymous said...


Jeremy Corbyn (JC to his supporters) is not the messiah.

http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2015/aug/04/jeremy-corbyn-gamble-labour-future-yvette-cooper-best-chance

Your praise for him stands in stark contrast to your piece here last week on the impotence of purity.

He is attracting supporters to british labour from people who genuinely believe that the shipyards, coal mines and state run car manufactures can be reopened as-was from the 70s again, but this time, twitter means that they will succeed..

it is a cry from people who want a second chance to defeat thatcher, most of who are too young to even remember her.

it is not an ideological commitment to an evil hidden agenda that makes politicians prefer to win marginal seats over remaining in opposition with large majorities.

Anonymous said...

We live in a world of the neoliberal consensus. Aforementioned consensus is starting to strain, and really should have collapsed during the Global Financial Crisis, but it's there.

Labour, apart from 1916-1933 and 1984-1990, has never been a truly radical party. It has been a party of fudging pre-existing ideas in a leftwards direction, or at the very most trying to reach a social compact that appeases everyone (Savage, Fraser, and Nash were not radicals, certainly not compared to the 1890s Liberals). Labour these days is arguably no different from what it was in the 1960s: it's just trying to fudge a different consensus.

Trying to get Labour to reject neoliberalism is asking it to break out of the consensus. Which is asking it to take on a radical role it has rarely adopted, and thus explains its hesitancy at doing so. People confuse this with "before and after 1984" - no, Labour resumed its traditional role in the 1990s.

Mr Tank said...

Cheers Donal - I agree that it's the new narrative that is missing. I've had that in my back pocketses for a few years now, took a life time to work out, really must get around to writing it up. Not much focus tho, what with the minimum wage, 50 hour working weeks (or no work at all) and the crap diet. Not to mention no room for a desk in the room I rent. Shame really, cos it's fucking obvious the new narrative ain't coming from my middle class comrades. Hmmm maybe I could crowd fund..."left wing wannabe Messiah needs a fucking break - send money for a new path to the future." Yeah right, as usual I'd just get accused of bludging or of stealing, unworthy cove that I am... yep just another day in fucking paradise. Thank's Chris for cheering me up with a LOTR reference (and yeah if you knew my story you would understand why that last bit is totally sarcastic). Neo-liberalism - smeagolism bah!

Anonymous said...

BTW I've apostrophised 'neoliberalism' because I don't think it's a helpful (or even meaningful) term.

Oh but it is. The notion that goods and services ought to be provided via private enterprise and unregulated market mechanisms, that capital ought to be free-flowing, that governmental intervention (whether at the economic level via investment and regulation, or at the social level via the welfare system) is ineffective or ouright counterproductive... that is Victorian economic liberalism. It contrasts with both paternalistic conservatism (which has always seen a need for a strong interventionist state) and egalitarian socialism (which regards capital with deep suspicion and seeks to tame or confiscate it).

Neoliberalism is the post-1970s attempt to reintroduce Victorian liberalism into mainstream politics. It should not be confused with technological advances which would have happened anyway.

David Stone said...

Hi Chris
There was a bit of an irony about the MMP conversion in that the movement was aided by the reaction to Rogernomics and the feeling was that an MMP govt would not have been able to pull off the ambush of the country that the programme represented given that the electorate had not a clue what was going to happen , and would never have voted for it if they had.
The irony is that the change to MMP did to some extent make that kind of hijack more difficult , but as Rogernomics is now in place, MMP just serves to make it more difficult to change back. It was the right move at the wrong time.
I think it's worth reflecting that the political leaders and their economic / financial advisers who have orchestrated the neoliberal experiment, now completely dominate the political landscape. These people now in control have nailed their professional reputations to the mast of the good ship "Neoliberal" A coffin ship, and they will go down with her. Its no use looking to current politicians and "mainstream" economists to change the settlement. We need new politicians without the baggage, or at least old ones that haven't been listened to for the last 30yrs We should read Jane Kelsey's new book.
Cheers David J S

Gerrit said...

It would be interesting to know what this Non-NeoLiberal society would look like. So far all we hear is NeoLiberal stinks, and yes it does, but what is the alternative on offer?

What policies will a Non-NeoLiberal political party espouse? How will these policies be "packaged" and "sold" to convince the voter to vote for the Non-NeoLiberal party?

As David Stone says, under MMP a major change away from NeoLiberal will be difficult to achieve.

Unless one is able to bring an overwhelming pro Non-NeoLiberal message of societal well-being, it will fall at the first hurdle, the hurdle being getting elected to enable implementation.

If we look at the miserable attempt by Labour and the Greens to re-nationalise New Zealand electricity generation and distribution, you see the problems in getting the voter to agree to a societal change that is not "sold" to the voter properly.

Never mind getting the rabble that is the New Zealand Labour party to get anything right as show by the the feeble attempt to "package" and "sell" their capital gains tax at the last election.

pat said...

interesting that the discussion take the line that it has, with the inevitable reversion to left/right positioning...the reality is that neolib (for the purposes of the debate) direction will be abandoned, and not just by Labour (or its future incarnation) but by all political groupings as it simply is unable to continue in the finite world in which we live....the real question is when and how will it be replaced? Those that espouse a nostalgic model of nationalisation and economic/social policy of generations past will find themselves as irrelevant as the current apologists.
What is needed, and will occur, is a new way of organising society ...a new model that we havnt seen yet, but whether by inspiration or catastrophe it will arrive. Rather than harking back to a past irretrievable we need to forge a future thats sustainable in every way...if Labour (or anyone) can develop and implement that vision they will receive the required support to evolve society....if they cant, they are history, but they wont be alone.

Nick J said...

I have some sympathy with Donal Curtin above) who states there is nothing to wind back to.
I diverge with him on his tacit acceptance that private beats public ownership and his preference for decisions made for us by the private sector rather than through publicly elected representatives.
Where I see this debate is in two key questions;
* do we wish to restore democratic participation to a model that balances the public commons against private interest?
* can the prior model meet the needs of a future festooned with the detritus of our past (climate change, peak oil etc)?

Guerilla Surgeon said...

Gerritt – unfortunately I don't think you're joking. A non-neoliberal economy would look very much like most economies did from 1945 to the late 70s and early 80s. Which despite all the stupid jokes about monopolies, railway wagons, and waiting lists to get a phone, worked reasonably well. Obviously it wouldn't be exactly the same because technology has moved on, we have ways of making monopolies more efficient, computers to keep track of railway wagons, and very cheap telephones which don't need phone lines. But even so, it shows a distinct lack of imagination on your part. This sort of economy actually deliver the goods for ordinary people.

Davo Stevens said...

An interesting concept that is often ignored by those of a Neo-Liberal persuasion is history. As some-one much wiser than I once said; "Ignore the plight of the poor at your peril." As more and more people become poor there gets to be a real risk of a revolution. Read your history books, they are filled with revolutions, many of which were very bloody indeed! Avoiding those caused by religion, most were because the poor had had enough of the excesses of the rich. We are not at that stage yet but as time progresses, we get closer to that.

I am one of those voters that Chris sometimes criticises namely; I am a floating voter! There have been times in the past where I have voted for National and times when I have voted Labour. I do this because I look at which will do the best job in the circumstances at the time. And I have voted in every Election since I was old enough to vote. Even a simple country boy like me could see what was likely to happen after Little Rogie and Ruthie too (they should have got married because Boy they made a lovely couple!). I could see that more people would have to work longer and longer hours and watch their incomes slide backwards. All that I predicted has happened. Wages have stagnated or gone backwards and there is little dignity in much of the work those people do.

Remember people, those who toil away cleaning up after us play a very important part in our economy and society. Without them we would soon be buried in our own rubbish! The next time you have your Lattes think of the folks who wash those cups and plates and wipe off the mess we leave on the table, working on a minimum wage. It's past time that we start supporting them and giving them the dignity they deserve. There is no dignity in having to go to the Welfare to get a top-up because we are just too damned mean to pay them properly!

Gerrit said...

G.S.

If that is the Non-NeoLiberal policy then why does the Labour party (or any other party) not espouse those views and gain political office on the back of those policies?

And no am not joking when I ask what the policies would be. For in the days between 1945 and 1980 we had protected industries and tariff restrictions (remember in those days you could only buy a new car with overseas funds?).

So I guess ALL the trade will be restricted, and ALL the trade agreements cancelled to protect the New Zealand economy?

You see GS there is no way back to the 1945 to 1980 era unless you impose those restrictions again that enabled TV assembly in Waihi, car assembly in Porirue, Otahuhu and Panmure, etc,.

Having started my working life in the New Zealand Railways Department as an engineering cadet, I soon realised that the department was mainly protected from competition (thinking of reimposing the 150 km truck restriction?) to give returned serviceman a job. Not begrudging that, just the world has moved on.

Just think if we had not moved on there would be no cheap Japanese imported cars and we would still be driving locally assembled Morris 1100's, Marina's or even a Trakka 9remember those god awful creations with a gearbox shift pattern completely mirrored from all other cars?) .

See that is why I asked for a Non-NeoLiberal policy SUITABLE for today's society. I dont think the voters will return a government that has restricted policies regarding trucking distances and car imports.

One thing a Non-NeoLiberal government could vote for is the separation of the railways Commercial arm from the Way and Works branch. The Non-NeoLiberal would strengthen the Way and Works branch to open up the steel road to meaningful users wishing to run their own trai-nsets. That way we would see a Mainfreight train for example (with a corresponding reduction of long haul trucking) or even a Naked Bus owned railcar to run on the steel road between places like Auckland-Tauranga, Auckland-Opua (If the railways Way and Works branch rebuilt from Kawakawa northwards) or Auckland-Wellington. Plus Picton to Dunedin and points further south.

So no am not joking when asking for Non-NeoLiberal policies FOR THIS DAY AND AGE.

By the way there is only one T on the end of my name.

Nick J said...

Like your rail ideas Davo. I reckon with a combo of road user charges that properly reflect the infrastructure costs and damage from trucks PLUS the inevitable increase in fuel price that could be a winner.

Guerilla Surgeon said...

Gerrit – sorry about the name – blame AutoCorrect. Of course it wouldn't be exactly the same as New Zealand in the 1970s. I've already told you that. What I would suggest is that we encourage and subsidise emergent industries which can compete on a world scale. That we go back to providing public services by the government rather than by the private sector. That we impose duties on countries that don't have fair labour practices. And that we invest heavily in infrastructure, public housing, and more importantly training. We need a highly educated workforce and much more efficient businesses. We should also invest heavily in management training, because New Zealand managers are crap. :-) That's all I've got time for at the moment I may be back.

Davo Stevens said...

I agree GS. We can't go back to the way things were in the 1970's, not completely anyway.

Subsequent Govts. here have no faith in Kiwi ingenuity yet we have developed and invented many things that have taken the world by storm. I think back to the Hamilton Water Jet, F&P Smart Drive, the Hydra high volume, high pressure pump now used by all Fire Services the world over. All these and many other things were invented and developed here in good ole EnZed. We developed the technique of extracting high quality Iron from Ilmenite sand, something that had been elusive for many years. We can do this again, we just need a Govt. with the insight and faith to allow it to happen again. We don't have to be a workshop to the rest of the world with sweatshop wages.

There are some things that are best run by the Govt. Electricity is one, as an essential service it should not be in private hands. Remember Max Bradford saying that now our power would be cheaper? Well Maxy it didn't happen as we all know.

Right wingers all state that Private Enterprise can do it better but they need to remember that a private business exists for one purpose only; to make money for it's owners, its not a social service. If the service is not "Profitable" then the service is dropped and people miss out. Business doesn't look at the long term damage that is done to society by the loss of that service nor do they care. It's the bottom price that is important.


Guerilla Surgeon said...

The problem is Davo – like CEOs – politicians always have the out that "it would have been much worse without me/if I hadn't done so and so. There's just no arguing with that. But I think one area we could make a fair bit of money is software. There is no tyranny of distance with software. Unless you happen to use Microsoft.

Davo Stevens said...

No argument from me there GS. The Knowledge Economy is one way we can compete but it's only one. Further it doesn't create a lot of jobs. One only has to take a peek at Ian Watson's programme to see that. The name of it escapes right now and I can't be arsed going to look for it. That's the one where we can see the line that the boats are at in the America's Cup races and track the ball in a cricket game and other such games. It's multi-million dollar earner but only employs 12 people!

We need to be aware that we should not get into the position that we are in with dairy -- too many eggs in one basket. Diversification is the key!

Manufacturing in it's various forms absorb most of the un-employed, not the high IT stuff. It is reknown for not employing many people.

My concern is those who leave school with no qualifications and there are many and for many reasons. If they can't get a job straight away they go on the Dole and again if they stay on the dole at that age, for a year or two, they finish going through life living on the Dole. Get them into a factory making widgets for a while and instill in them good work ethics. Remember the saying attributed to Henry Ford, "A man wants a job not charity."

Guerilla Surgeon said...

You're not wrong about dairy that's for sure. It was amuses me how right wing people explain that they are financially literate :-). Well one of the first things I ever learned in economics, was the "law of supply and demand." Christ you learn that in school let alone at university. So the prices for dairy are high, and everyone rushes into dairy. Forgetting that the more you produce the more the prices go down. And also forgetting that capitalism is subject to wild swings of demand. But they rush into dairy anyway. And now they're moaning. Seems to me that they are less literate than they think.