Thursday, 21 January 2016

Not By "Bread And Butter" Alone: Making The Case For A More Inclusive Left.

Emancipation and Solidarity: Powerfully illustrated in the 2014 movie Pride, the emancipatory impulse has the power to transform and enliven the labour movement. An authentic human identity is only available to those who insist on being something more than the means to someone else’s end. Who we are now, and what we may yet become: both conditions drive us forward. In this respect, “progressive politics” and “identity politics” are one and the same.
 
STEPHANIE RODGERS IS RIGHT. It is impossible to build a mass movement for progressive change by ignoring or rejecting, “issues faced by the majority of people in society.” In fact, a movement in which demands for action on these issues are not thrust forward constantly is, almost certainly, not a progressive movement at all.
 
The longing for emancipation, like lightning, cannot be caught in a bottle. It is as wild and dangerous as it is beautiful and brilliant – and it will not be gainsaid. Nor should it be, because the quest for social progress is about nothing if it is not about creating a world in which an ever-increasing number of people are free to live happy, rewarding and fulfilling lives.
 
The past successes of the Left owe almost everything to honouring the emancipatory impulse, and its failures are almost all attributable to the fear generated by emancipation’s disruptive effects. Where this fear takes hold, it typically manifests itself in attempts to narrow the movement’s objectives; manage its members’ expectations; and strictly control their conduct.
 
Nowhere is this narrowing, managing and controlling strategy more in evidence than in the trade union movement. Even in “the glory days of compulsory unionism” it was, more often than not, the standard operating procedure of organised labour.
 
It’s years ago now, back when I was a young union official, but I can still remember the extraordinary speech delivered by a regular rank-and-file delegate to his union’s annual wage negotiations. He passionately condemned year-upon-year of compromise and surrender by the union’s leadership, and ended by thumping his clenched fist on the bargaining table, and shouting: “I say we FIGHT!” The impact of his words on the other rank-and-filers was electric, and the union’s paid officials all looked to me, a fellow bureaucrat, to break the delegate’s spell, lower the members’ expectations, and generally calm the whole discussion down. When I said simply, “I have nothing to add to _____’s contribution”, my colleagues were aghast. The vote was to strike, and the strike was won, but I was never again invited to join the inner-sanctum of official union negotiators.
 
It was only when the unions were prevailed upon to widen the scope of their concerns that their enormous progressive potential was revealed. Not only did Sonja Davies’ championing of the Working Women’s Charter open up the whole issue of the role and status of women in the trade union movement, but it also forced male trade unionists to think about how women were treated in society generally.
 
In a movement peopled by “hard men” and “militants” this was a challenging proposition. Was the bloke so quick with his fists on the picket line equally pugilistic on the home front? What did it mean that his wife was more frightened of him than any scab? And why, when the bosses’ advocates told such awful sexist jokes in the hotel bar after a deal had been signed, did so many of the union delegates join in the laughter? When the debate was about working-class sexism and homophobia, that old union standard “Which Side Are You On?” took on a new and unsettling meaning.
 
Through the 1980s and into the early 1990s the debates raged. More and more women began taking the lead in union affairs; more and more issues were making their way onto the agendas of union conferences. Over six years, the Fourth Labour Government’s Trade Union Education Authority trained thousands of union delegates. For decades the labour movement had limited its purview to “bread and butter issues” – no more. Workers needed little encouragement to begin thinking of their movement as something much more than simply a provider of “bread and butter”.
 
Just how ready they were to assert that wider view of workers’ – and human – rights was demonstrated at the end of 1990 when National’s Bill Birch introduced the Employment Contracts Bill. In a curious way, the ECB’s objectives weren’t that far removed from those of the old-style unionists: to narrow, manage and control. (All the legislation did was cut out the union middle men!) The Council of Trade Union’s affiliated members were having none of it. In the first four months of the following year scores of thousands of them marched and met and voted and declared: “I say we FIGHT!”
 
Would that their officials had learned as much about democracy and emancipation as they had! A union friend of mine once observed of the Moscow-aligned communists in the Socialist Unity Party: “They’d rather keep control of the losing side, than lose control of the winning side.” Never was that more true than in April 1991! Ignoring the wishes of their rank-and-file members, the leaders of the largest CTU affiliates voted down (by a narrow majority) the motion to call a General Strike against the ECB.
 
Narrowing, managing, controlling: isn’t that the story of the last thirty years? And isn’t the need for a movement driven by the emancipatory principle greater now than it has ever been? We have seen our lives narrowed, managed and controlled to the point where even the idea of rebellion now seems implausible, impossible, absurd. But an authentic human identity is only available to those who insist on being something more than the means to someone else’s end. Who we are now, and what we may yet become: both conditions drive us forward. In this respect, “progressive politics” and “identity politics” are one and the same.
 
If, in our “left-wing movement”, it’s become a sin to struggle for anything more than just “bread and butter”, then I, for one, range myself proudly on the side of the sinners.
 
“I say we FIGHT!”
 
This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Wednesday, 20 January 2016.

19 comments:

Tiger Mountain said...

yes Chris a class struggle based approach always demands we FIGHT, for reforms and for socialism which is different from the parties you typically write about like Labour that are founded on the ideology of “reformism”, taking parliamentary office from time to time but leaving the bourgeois capitalist system largely unmolested

also, please back up the bus on your take on SUP and 1991, it was a split party, Auckland branches led by GH Andersen were pro a national strike over the Employment Contracts Bill and Wellington branches led by Ken Douglas was against, this was the beginning of the end of the Socialist Unity Party* and a number of years of a weakened NZCTU and the formation of TUF

at the 1991 CTU special affiliates meeting in Wellington Douglas got the PSA and Engineers Union tops on side and narrowly defeated the rest of the unions, but it was technical democracy at best as members of the PSA and Engineers Unions were out in numbers on the streets of Auckland and were sold out by their officials, now trotskyites and others would say stuff the officials take action independently, and small numbers of workers did, but the moment had passed and New Zealand workers bar the small militant unions were unused to not being led

a tragedy of course was that Bill Birch, Nat ECA architect, admitted years later that they had been prepared to make changes and indeed expected a strong reaction from the CTU and union members!

the fallout from Douglas cowardice haunts the movement still, but at least under Helen Kelly the CTU did get some things right like organising communities over various issues, moving on from the ‘members only’ approach

* though some would say it was doomed as a “revisionist party” from its formation in 1966 after the international Sino Soviet split, certainly when Mr Douglas again, had recommended in 1988 that comrades support the ANZAC frigate build its days were numbered

Anonymous said...

The working class in New Zealand isn’t just a row of white dudes in cloth caps any more. It’s Pasifika women cleaning office buildings on the graveyard shift and Maori men and women in the meatworks and young people on zero-hour contracts at fast-food restaurants.

and it is people competing for a house with foreigners; people competing with foreigners for jobs; people whose national identity is deliberately undermined because progressives believe in a borderless world. Stephanie Rodgers has not a snowballs chance in hell of uniting the working class.

jh said...

"The past successes of the Left owe almost everything to honouring the emancipatory impulse, and its failures are almost all attributable to the fear generated by emancipation’s disruptive effects"
....
you can't prove that. Blood is thicker than water and othering is in the blood (hard won experience).
The Australian labor movement eventually succeeded in adopting a White Australia Policy that was an official ALP stance until 1971, when the policy was attacked by academics from Immigration Reform Group and the white-collar Australian Confederation of Trade Unions.
http://www.counter-currents.com/2014/09/kerry-boltons-babel-inc/

peter petterson said...

Sorry Chris I don't recall much direct action against the ECA - I have always said(since) the trade union movement laid down and died. Larger unions were more interested in poaching members from smaller struggling unions. After having had my job with South Pacific Tyres sold under my feet because of the provisions of the ECA, I worked for a short period with the Stores Union. I must have been successful in retaining some of our members because a threat to physically assault me was passed on to me by a paid official. It was one of the largest unions at the time, and being much younger than I am now, I would have enjoyed them trying. Unity is, as always, the most important thing for success.

Guerilla Surgeon said...

An interesting article. I remember several union meetings where the rank and file were determined to fight and their representatives weren't. Or rather were essentially forced to by democratic votes. It was interesting because inevitably government sources claimed that the rank and file will being led by the noses by their radical leaders. If only they'd been at the meetings. Mind you, I suspect that they knew full well what was going on in the meetings, given that at least if you members were favourable to the National party if not members of it. So I guess it was simply cynical bloviating on their part.
The fear generated by the emancipation of various previously subordinate groups is very real. Not as obvious as it is in the US, but still there. In the US of course there is the religious right which manages to project itself as a victim of discrimination while actively trying to discriminate against others, and impose their religious rules on everyone else. Thank God we are more secular society than them.
JH – nice to see you managing to turn everything back to immigration again. Perhaps you could contribute a little more on the actual immigration post? You are sadly missed there. As to the "proof" – this isn't physics or mathematics. When we looking at society you can't actually "prove" anything much. But Chris has put forward an opinion, which you are free to criticise using evidence. Which you have done. And I must say I look forward to Chris's response, because your criticism is reasonably telling IMO. Similarly the unions in the USA were instrumental in restricting access to reasonable well paid jobs to white males only for years. This regressive attitude I feel is one possible reason why unions have been sidestepped reasonably easily since 1984.
Incidentally, you can catch lightning in a bottle :).
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=D7aD2s8Wvb0
The DVD is better, but even this poor substitute shows those who can.

Anonymous said...

Chris , you may say 'fight', but no one else who matters does,

In all the largest unions including state service unions, the leading lights are more interested in their property portfolio's and their large salaries / pensions than fighting about anything.

They offer lip service in lieu.

Jh said...

Guerilla Surgeon
Unions have only gained better coditions by keeping other people out.
While the economic reforms of the 1980s saw an end to compulsory unionism it also saw Labour Party Progressives ( Canada, UK, Australia, NZ) engage their fantasy of a borderless world (ethnicless society). I have my doubts that those perceived to have caused the problem will be able to lead a workforce.
White Australia was status quo Australia versus "population replacement "

Anonymous said...

Interesting post. Supports the view that unions were/are undemocratic old boys clubs.
Is it any wonder they've withered since compulsory unionism ended?
Personally, I think (one of) the problems with the Left and unions is they see the world through a distorting lense of 19th century ideas of class.
Which allows for academics and the like to have fun with jargon, but is no use to anyone else.
'Humans are exploitative' is all you really need to know.
Just ask the union bosses!

Guerilla Surgeon said...

Personally, I think (one of) the problems with the right and capitalists is that they see the world through a distorting lens of 18th-century economics. Which has been shown to understand nothing about psychology or mathematics :-).
As to unions, yes they were to some extent old boys clubs, but the membership often overruled the leaders, which makes them more damned democratic the most political parties today.

Anonymous said...

GS You're probably right about the 18th C economics, at least partially. 'The dismal science' and all that.

Nick J said...

There is an interesting commentary on the Donald Trump phenomenon on the latest Archdruidreport (John Michael Greer). It throws a whole new idea at the class analysis of our society. To paraphrase we have:
* those whose income comes from investments
* those whose incomes come from salaries
* those whose incomes come from hourly rates / wages
* those whose income is from benefits.

In effect Greer suggests that the old nomenclature of "working class" is redundant to some degree and that the real class warfare is over a diminishing cake between salaried and wage earners. The political class have strongly aligned with the salaried classes who have retained their share, at the expense of the non unionised wage earners. The salaried classes align with your "extreme centre" Chris.

How does it work? The salaried classes want to keep up material consumption of cheap goods etc, they don't mind jobs and production being "off-shored". The newly unemployed "retrain" with "student loans", then get no jobs anyway. Those who train them, those who administer the loans, those who create policy...they are salaried people. Its "fuck you Jsck, wheres my new IPhone?"

Labour and National...all salaried, what do they really care?

Oh, where is Trump (or Winston)? He is the guy who has worked out that nobody really represents the ideas and prejudices of the waged class, same way the great populists of 1930s Europe worked out how to get mass support. In a nutshell Labour are unlikely to appeal to this class, Winston might. "Salaried" Labour will need to implode before it will align, and todays Unions are well and truly in the "salaried" camp. We live in interesting times.

Guerilla Surgeon said...

There are some frightening figures coming out of the US at the moment, including a very tiny number of people who have more than $1000 in savings. That in a country where you can bankrupt yourself being ill. There is no denying that what the US used to call the middle-class, that is pretty much everyone with a job in the old days has largely disappeared. Michael Moore of course chronicled this in his film about the closing of the General Motors plant in Flint Michigan, a place now subject to lead poisoning because of a policy of austerity. (Yes the market will eventually solve this no doubt.)/Sarc.
It may well be, that the presidential contest will be between Sanders and Trump. Sanders being ahead of Clinton in a number of states at the moment. (I know – too early to say.) This will be extremely interesting, as even if Sanders gets in, unless working class American start voting in their own interests he'll be buggered by Congress. And if it's Trump versus Clinton – well that's even more interesting, as many Republicans would probably vote Clinton rather than Trump, because she is more beholden to big business funnily enough that he is. It will be even more interesting to see who the unions are backing. By no means a bloc. Also Black people and Hispanics. Going to be much more interesting than our (puff puff) boring little elections as Professor Chumpman once said. I hope at least someone is old enough and Auckland enough to get that reference :-).

Anonymous said...

Nick j
I have long argued that political parties in NZ have only had polemic between each other on the 'middle and right' of our society.
The poor and their champions the 'left' are not in a political party, they are on the sidelines, forgotten and ignored.
Sometimes, the "pretender left" establishment darlings talk and plead their poverty and their children.
Union are well established in the salaried class.
So much relies on Jeremy Corbyn and Bernie Sanders for a better future in the world, both are being scabbed on by all political parties in NZ.

David Stone said...

Hi Chris
Recognising the comment of Nick J I think care should be taken to identify the enemy one is to fight. Who is the fight with?
If it's the typical NZ employer he or she is a small business person struggling to keep their business afloat, and in the struggle probably taking home less in the end than their employees . If it's a large employer and not Fontara, it is probably a multinational who will promptly move their employment offshore if any pressure is applied.
But even multinationals if they are performing services, and producing goods needed by society ,are struggling to make ends meet. We are all trapped in a balloon of debt that draws off everything but survival to the parasitic financial sector, and it's "Killing The Host". (google)

Jack Scrivano said...

There is a lot of truth in what David Stone says. The days when ‘beating up employers’ just might produce a positive result are largely behind us. Beat up the little guys (and the vast majority of NZ employers are little guys) and they’ll go out of business. Beat up the big guys, and they’ll go offshore. As a friend of mine used to say: In New Zealand, unions need to fight for the employers, not against them.

jh said...

Nick J said...
Oh, where is Trump (or Winston)? He is the guy who has worked out that nobody really represents the ideas and prejudices of the waged class, same way the great populists of 1930s Europe worked out how to get mass support. In a nutshell Labour are unlikely to appeal to this class, Winston might
...
with regard to are Chinese (shorthand for large wealthy foreign group) buying Auckland property Professor Lumley (Stat's Chat) called such an inquiry "distasteful". Relatives in the US were very kind to their Mexican gardeners (and got dirt cheap work) but they weren't competing for gardening jobs.
In tourism the master is the person who buys the brochured package. When cmpanies can't get a driver they lobby for foreigners (Chinese Korean, Filipino) so there is no upward squeeze effect. Tourism is NZ's largest employer and every job makes us poorer GDP/wage rate but does that worry the engineer or architect?

jh said...

It is impossible to build a mass movement for progressive change by ignoring or rejecting, “issues faced by the majority of people in society.” 
....
EG Ethnic Chinese over representation in the Auckland housing market. Stephanie Rodgers wanted to suppress that. In The Standard she asked - "why was this brought up now? Why now!?".

manfred said...

I roughly agree with the so-called 'identity politics' line, but the problem is it's so damned unpopular with a crucial part of the working class electorate. They see it as being lectured in an ever more sophisticated kind of pristine political correctness by the upper middle class educated cosmopolitan types.

Just read a lot of the stuff on facebook and on liberal blogs, you can be forgiven for thinking that the LGBT and feminist stuff comes across as very obsessive and complicated - that's no way to win an electorate over. Concentrating on economic issues is more important, as those issues affect everyone regardless of status as a minority.

A lot of the gains by the LGBT rights movement and the feminist movement have already been won. Much more work needs to be done on racism, however - but that is a more intractable prejudice.

If it is true that there has been word from the Labour leadership to the members to downplay the sort of identity politics stuff, then I think it that is a wise call. It may be the only chance to preserve a lot of the gains for minority rights and prevent a backlash.

jh said...

The Standard claims it is The Voice of The Labour Movement

This passage could easily describe the Standard (and the Labour Party):

"There’s a further barrier, though, and that’s the response of the salary class across the board—left, right, middle, you name it—to any attempt by the wage class to bring up the issues that matter to it. On the rare occasions when this happens in the public sphere, the spokespeople of the wage class get shouted down with a double helping of the sneering mockery I discussed toward the beginning of this post. The same thing happens on a different scale on those occasions when the same thing happens in private. If you doubt this—and you probably do, if you belong to the salary class—try this experiment: get a bunch of your salary class friends together in some casual context and get them talking about ordinary American working guys. What you’ll hear will range from crude caricatures and one-dimensional stereotypes right on up to bona fide hate speech. People in the wage class are aware of this; they’ve heard it all; they’ve been called stupid, ignorant, etc., ad nauseam for failing to agree with whatever bit of self-serving dogma some representative of the salary class tried to push on them.

And that, dear reader, is where Donald Trump comes in."
http://thearchdruidreport.blogspot.co.nz/2016/01/donald-trump-and-politics-of-resentment.html

As someone pointed out NZ First lacks "infrastructure" and what use was someone like Brendan Horan sitting on his bum in parliament? The waged classes most need and; most lack resources (infrastructure - academics, bloggers, supportive journalists/media).

as a footnote rising house prices and rental properties put so many people in the investment class (just don't try to cash up all at once)