Monday 30 April 2018

Melting Into Air.

The When And The How: Chris Trotter reads Marx in the Art Room of Heretaunga College, Upper Hutt, circa 1973.

IN A RADIO INTERVIEW, earlier this week, I was asked how I became interested in politics. The question threw me for a minute, and I’m afraid the answer I gave was more about when – rather than how – politics first grabbed me.

Truth to tell, it wasn’t really politics that grabbed me, but Bob Harvey. The young advertising executive’s astonishingly effective campaign ad for Norman Kirk’s Labour Party in the weeks leading up to the 1969 general election transfixed my 13-year-old self. That state-of-the-art split-screen montage of Kirk running up the steps of Parliament, while Labour’s chart-topping campaign song enjoined New Zealanders to “make things happen this year” left an indelible impression. Nearly fifty years later, I can still sing that song!

That was the “when”. The “how” was different.

The three years between the 1969 and 1972 general elections saw the flowering of the New Zealand counter-culture. There was something in the air – and it wasn’t just the smoke from cannabis reefers. The universities were where most of the action was, but even in the nation’s high schools, the whiff of revolution was unmistakable.

I say “whiff” – but that is just a metaphor. The real vector for revolutionary ideas was the printed word. My art teacher was enrolled part-time at university and would bring copies of the student newspaper back to the art room. There, her senior pupils would devour them from cover to cover.

It was the first time that I had ever encountered the possibility that there might me more ways of looking at the world than from the very limited perspectives of the daily press. Was the Vietnam War a noble struggle against communist aggression? Or, just the latest manifestation of western imperialism? Should politics be kept out of sport? If so, then why was the South African government politicising rugby? Was atmospheric nuclear testing safe? Or, were the French recklessly contaminating the pristine environment of the South Pacific?

When, in November 1972, the New Zealand electorate threw out the only government I’d ever known, and the incoming Labour Party took bold action on all of the issues debated in the student press, it really did feel to me like a revolution.

Perhaps that’s why, in the early months of 1973, I could be found on the mezzanine floor of the school library reading The Communist Manifesto by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels. Recalling that moment, I find myself amazed that a New Zealand secondary school library actually possessed a copy of The Communist Manifesto! Most of all, though, I recall the sense of the world suddenly being made intelligible.

Don’t get me wrong, reading Karl Marx – the 200th anniversary of whose birth, on 5 May 1818, is being celebrated across the world next weekend – didn’t make me want to rush out and join the Communist Party of New Zealand. What it did help me do, however, was understand capitalism. Not in the way a professional economist understands capitalism (which is hardly at all) but as a dynamic historical process that is constantly shaping and reshaping our world.

I may only have been a callow youth of 17, but I knew great writing when I pulled it off the shelves:

“Constant revolutionising of production, uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions, everlasting uncertainty and agitation distinguish the bourgeois epoch from all earlier ones. All fixed, fast-frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions are swept away, all new-formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify. All that is solid melts into air”.

“All that is solid melts into air”: nothing I have read about capitalism in the ensuing 45 years (and I’ve read a lot!) comes anywhere close to capturing the essence of the system’s power to disrupt and transform as that spine-tingling phrase. As we plunge, headlong, into the age of robotics, artificial intelligence and catastrophic job-loss, only a fool would argue that Marx and Engels called it wrong.

So, now you know the “when” and the “how” of my becoming both a student of, and a participant in, the art of politics. For nearly half-a-century, I have watched with a mixture of pity and awe as history has proved the authors of The Communist Manifesto correct.

So much that I believed solid has melted into air.

I’m still thinking about the “why”.

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 27 April 2018.


Jens Meder said...

Yes Chris, truth in the section quoted on what Karl Marx said about capitalism cannot be refuted.
But Marx did not recognize the whole truth, which is that that the economic function of saving and creating capital for reserves, trading and useful, i.e. - profitable - productivity started with the first laboriously polished stone axe, and is the major survival difference between humans and the animal kingdom.

Without "capitalism", which could also perhaps be called "surplusism" or "profitalism" (without adequate profitability or surpluses of energy reaped over the energy consumed reaping it - no life nor economy can grow nor survive) -

Without capital(ism) we cannot build even a modern home - which, or the use of which - is desired and needed by all average normal people.

If there is dissatisfaction with our current free market liberal/libertarian variety of mixed (Govt., individual, corporate or co-operative) capitalism, possible alternatives are Govt. or feudal/plutocratic monopoly capitalism, or mixed "peoples capitalism", which beside partial Govt. and corporate capitalism also systematically ensures full participation in capital creation and ownership by 100% of citizens, preferably from birth, eventually.

Guerilla Surgeon said...

One thing I remember from my studies of Marx, much of which I admit to having forgotten is that he understood the importance of propaganda. I'm not sure I want to be lapsing into Marxist jargon, but it seems to me that capitalist propaganda has simply won the battle, partly because the left is forgotten about its importance and we have lapsed into a false consciousness.
The story that has been put out relentlessly since 1984 is that there is no alternative to unregulated capitalism, so much so that even now the Labour Party is afraid to disturb this weird consensus. To the point where they are now – today apparently – introducing a new or maybe expanding an old but regressive tax. It would be nice if Labour had the guts to say "Hey, we are going to increase your income tax and get rid of GST because GST hits the poor. And we are going to use that money to make sure your social services run properly." But instead, they witter on about fiscal responsibility, and make the excuse that you can't do anything if you're not in power. True enough, but it's not a real test of ideologies, and they are just fiddling at the margins as usual.
I think what I resent most about all this is that the working class have been lied to consistently – sometimes in a benign sort of way like in the 1960s when you know – computers and robots were going to do all the heavy lifting and we would only be working a couple of hours a day – or even a couple of hours a week and making a decent salary at it. That's so far off the mark it's not even funny, but that was I guess futurism, and science fiction writers get that correct more often than futurists it seems to me.
But then we have the more malign lies put out by Roger Douglas. Accountability – transparency – high skill high wage economy – all those things which he might well have believed, but by now have been shown to be empty promises. And what do they do but doubled down as the Americans say. I must say it's got me to the point where I might abandon my usual tactic of splitting my vote between the Greens and Labour and give them both to the Greens. Sometimes in my darkest moments I decide it's not worth voting. And I think that's a legitimate philosophical option if you can't find anyone to vote for.
These are the politics of despair, and that's what a lot of New Zealanders have succumbed to. All I can say is – Where's my fucking flying car?

Jack Scrivano said...

MacHarman, the ad agency started by Bob Harvey, Ross Carpenter, and Rex McLeod, was a very collaborative outfit, and a good deal of the credit for the split-screen gem with Big Norm mounting the steps should probably go to Warwick Brock.

greywarbler said...

Jens Meder
You keep pumping out the same hot air. Your great practical value would be down at the pool or seaside pumping up the new inflatable boards that are the latest rage.

Your words should fall to silence when you actually view the results of capitalism unleashed and unbridled - leaky homes and suicidal elderly impoverished by their ass-et, poor decisions on flood and coastal planning, production of imported clothing, household goods and toys at 150% of actual need or want (advertising promotes the desire for 'the latest'), continuing consumption and large profits from the destruction of war requiring constant replacement, and this is the biggie.

Science and discovery are stimulated by capitalism but findings tend to be tested by military and defence forces first to see what can be utilised by this vast machine that will kill us to protect us from perceived enemies of a country's or bloc's interests. They are a 3-D example of force and motion in continuous play. Military forces can't stay still for long as they contain their own impulses to use the force and set in motion their weapons.

The capitalism that you worship, is useful for a while and then it gets out of control. Soylent Green will be our end if capitalism rules.

Nick J said...

Grey, nice answer to Jens. I read his thoughts then considered where he hasn't quite understood what he proposes.

I thought of Marx's relations to production ie if you owned capital and were using it to capture surplus from another's that exploitation or legitimate theft? That of course implies ownership and private property. Jens might wish to consider that private property rights are down to the agreement and acceptance of the community, they are not some sacred entity.

I don't know the answers, I'm no Marxist as much as I am no free market fundamentalist. I think maybe Jens like the rest of us sees things as they make sense to our personal's as was said "when a man's salary depends on holding to an opinion....."

Victor said...


Have you ever visited Marx's home town, Trier?

Apart from being a pleasant little place surrounded by the lush green hills of the Moselle valley, it was also once the capital of the western Roman Empire and boasts a gigantic Roman Gate (the Porta Nigra).

During the Middle Ages, the gate's otherwise starkly classical facade was augmented by all sorts of gothic bric-a-brac and statues. But, just before Marx's birth, this was all removed by the Bonapartist regime, in a bid to demonstrate its enlightenment classicist credentials.

And a few years later, all the bric-a-brac came back, at the behest of the victorious Prussian monarchy, which now ran the joint and was, along with the rest of Germany, in thrall to neo-medievalism as an outward symbol of counter-revolution and the rejection of classicist French models.

I've often wondered whether young Karl was influenced by these events. Did he grasp from them the thought that regimes, their propaganda and pretensions come and go but that the underlying motion of history is along a much longer and more significant arc?

Meanwhile, what would he have made of the stature unveiled in his honour in Trier this week, thanks to funding from the PRC?

greywarbler said...

Is that capitalist surplus from worker production like crop sharing. The worker wants a living, he/she works at the capitalists business, producing whatever. The capitalist sells the produce, and pays the worker the basic living and keeps for himself the profit after deduction of costs and tax.

Crop sharing may involve the worker doing the work and selling the produce, and then pays the landowner a fixed amount or varied percentage according to prior agreement. Would franchising fit that description?