Stunningly Wrong-Headed: So blinded are the “left-wing” believers in free markets and free trade (like Trade Minister, David Parker) that even when they are staring directly at the wreckage of the lives and communities which these “unconscionable freedoms” (to borrow Marx’s telling phrase) have left in their wake, they cannot see it.
DAVID PARKER is among the more thoughtful members of Labour’s caucus. On his Politik website, the veteran political journalist, Richard Harman, describes him as someone with “an unerring ability to get up the noses of his many critics”, a talent I have long taken as proof positive of serious cogitation. But, as Harman goes on to say, Parker is also “a sober-suited Dunedin lawyer who was a close associate of the buccaneering entrepreneur, the late Howard Patterson”. He is, therefore, a man to whom it is reasonable to attribute a solid working knowledge of free-market capitalism, and profound ignorance of the tenets of democratic socialism.
Like so many of Labour’s neoliberal-capitalism’s-about-as-good-as-it-gets brigade, Parker is no fan of populism. Truth to tell, it frightens him. Fear is, however, an important step up from scorn – which has, for some time, been the default setting for all those “centre-left” politicians who still regard Bill Clinton and Tony Blair as “pretty straight-up guys”. The sort of people who actually believe that Hillary Clinton was defeated by the Russians, rather than weighed in the balance and found wanting by her fellow citizens.
One of the reasons why Hillary was found wanting was her notorious description of opponent Donald Trump’s supporters as a “basket of deplorables”. It is actually quite hard to think of a description more calculated to enrage those working-class voters from Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Michigan who had twice pulled the lever for Barack Obama, yet remained unconvinced that the First Lady who’d been such a strong supporter of her husband’s North America Free Trade Agreement was the sort of Democrat to put the interests of American workers ahead of American bosses. (Their doubts in this regard were, by the way, entirely justified!)
I sense that Parker struggles just as hard to see those who oppose “free trade” as anything other than deplorably ill-informed. Thinking about it, however, he has come to the conclusion that the populist push for protectionism is, in reality, a symptom of what he calls “middle-class insecurity”.
What has prompted these feelings of middle-class insecurity? Well, as Parker told last year’s Otago Foreign Policy School, the causes are “pretty easy” to identify:
“[E]normous rises in inequality, with so much wealth going to the one per cent, not just overseas, but also in New Zealand, which is exemplified by dropping homeownership rates and a sense amongst the public that trade agreements have been made for the benefit of multinationals rather than small businesses.”
Parker’s analysis is stunning in its wrong-headedness. In concentrating upon the feelings of the middle-class, it fails to identify the central core of populism’s attraction for the working-class voters who opted for Trump over Clinton and Boris Johnson over Jeremy Corbyn. Namely, their deep-seated loathing of precisely the sort of middle-class people who dismiss them as deplorable losers in the game of life they are so obviously winning.
So bitterly do working-class people resent the disdain in which the professional middle-class enablers of the One Percent’s excesses hold them, that they are willing to vote for a narcissistic billionaire, a tousle-haired toff, and all the other killer-clowns shrewd enough to recognize their pain – and not blame them for it.
That recognition is both the key to populism’s success and the explanation for the steady collapse of social-democratic and labour parties around the world. So blinded are the “left-wing” believers in free markets and free trade, that even when they are staring directly at the wreckage of the lives and communities which these “unconscionable freedoms” (to borrow Marx’s telling phrase) have left in their wake, the Parkers of this world cannot see it. Almost unbelievably, they’ve convinced themselves that its “middle-class insecurity” that’s jeopardising their political fortunes; utterly unaware that the real cause of their parties’ electoral disintegration is old-fashioned working-class rage.
It takes a special kind of political operative to grasp this reality: someone whose driving motivation is to tear the whole rotten edifice down and begin again; someone like Trump’s Steve Bannon or Johnson’s Dominic Cummings; Neos who haven’t swallowed the Blue Pill.
Fortunately – or unfortunately – that’s not David Parker. A thinker he may be, but his thoughts never seem to stray towards the unconventional. Rather than learning his politics at the feet of a capitalist buccaneer, he’d have done better to find himself an anarchist.
This essay was originally published in The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 24 January 2020.