Friday 26 March 2021

Why We (Don't) Fight.

The Grand Narrative Of Progressivism: Touchstone of post-war progressivism was the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted by the United Nations’ General Assembly in December 1948. Though the nations of the Soviet bloc (along with Saudi Arabia and South Africa) abstained from voting to ratify the Declaration, they did not, significantly, vote against it. In the baleful afterglow of the terrible events of the Second World War, no country dared set its face against the principles of human equality and human rights for which so many millions had given their lives. 

LIKE THE CELEBRATED DOG that didn’t bark, the New Zealand Left is proving itself a poor protector of the exploited. A housing crisis on the present scale, occurring fifty years ago, would have generated massive resistance. The trade unions would have been on their hind legs. The churches would have been on their hind legs. The students’ associations would have been on their hind legs. The Maori Council would have been on its hind legs. Consumer groups would have been on their hind legs. Hell – even the Labour Party would have been on its hind legs! Of those groups, only the mainstream churches (the Salvation Army in particular) continue to fight the good fight. What has happened to “progressive” New Zealand? Why don’t we fight?

The most obvious answer is that, fifty years ago, progressive New Zealand agreed about a great deal more than it does today. And what it disagreed about was not permitted to get in the way of putting wrongs to right. Liberal Christians were most unlikely to have much in common with the ideological precepts of the Moscow-aligned communists of the Socialist Unity Party, but that didn’t prevent them from fighting the good fight alongside them in the struggle against the Vietnam War, apartheid in South Africa, and atmospheric nuclear testing. With hindsight, it is easy to see that it was progressive New Zealand’s willingness to agree to disagree over issues peripheral to the specific issues in play that made the creation of mass protest movements possible.

What was it, then, that progressive New Zealand agreed about? In its essence, the moral consensus within which Liberal Christians and Moscow-aligned communists were able to make common cause found its most eloquent expression in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted by the United Nations’ General Assembly in December 1948. Though the nations of the Soviet bloc (along with Saudi Arabia and South Africa) abstained from voting to ratify the Declaration, they did not, significantly, vote against it. In the baleful afterglow of the terrible events of the Second World War, no country dared set its face against the principles of human equality and human rights for which so many millions had given their lives.

Seven years after the adoption of the Declaration, the Museum of Modern Art in New York organised a ground-breaking photographic exhibition, later turned into a book, entitled The Family of Man. This astounding collection of images, and the quotations accompanying them, made clear the fundamental kinship of all human-beings. In his prologue to the 1955 exhibition, the poet Carl Sandburg wrote:

To the question, “What will the story be of the Family of Man across the near or far future?” some would reply, “For the answers read if you can the strange and baffling eyes of youth.”

        There is only one man in the world
        and his name is All Men.
        There is only one woman in the world
        and her name is All Women.
        There is only one child in the world
        and the child’s name is All Children.

In the face of napalm-engulfed Vietnamese villages, the racist-inspired massacre at Sharpeville and the deadly radioactive fallout of atmospheric nuclear testing, these were the ideals which progressive New Zealanders did everything within their power to advance and defend.

By the early 1980s, however, the broad progressive unity of the immediate post-war period was dissolving rapidly. The principal solvent came in the form of the “new social movements” – most particularly the movements born out of the struggle for racial and sexual equality. If “mankind” was a single family of equals, then certain members of that family – most obviously, white, male, heterosexuals – were clearly more equal than others. Increasingly, human emancipation came to be seen as a zero-sum game. If oppressed identities (blacks, females, gays) were to win their rights, then those responsible for their oppression (whites, males, heterosexuals) were going to have to give up some of (most of?) their privileges.

Was it just one of those remarkable historical coincidences that “identity politics” and “neoliberalism” advanced together on the global political stage? It is certainly the case that the advance of one almost always hastened the advance of the other. The crushing of the post-war Keynesian economic order and the destruction of the institutional infrastructure it had spawned – most particularly the suppression of organised labour – cleared the field for the advance of identity politics. For the best part of four decades, identity politics has occupied the ideological space cleared by neoliberal capitalism’s undermining of the progressive “grand narrative” which inspired the Universal Declaration of Human Rights possible, and turned The Family of Man into an international best-seller.

Never to be re-issued. At least, that’s how it appeared when neoliberal capitalism’s global system faltered and nearly fell in the Global Financial Crisis of 2008-09. The Occupy Wall Street protests, which the GFC spawned, soon morphed into the worldwide Occupy movement. By creating the revolutionary dichotomy of the “One Percent” versus the “Ninety-Nine Percent”, Occupy opened up the possibility of building an international mass movement for radical change.

As events unfolded, it soon became clear that what was possible, and what was actually unfolding on the ground, were at serious odds with one another. The fractious tribes of identity politics simply could not agree to disagree. In practice, their “big idea” – intersectionality – turned out to be one enormous intersection at which ideological traffic, arriving from every direction, snarled and snarled itself into gridlocked ineffectuality. Idealistic kids, inspired by the 1/99% meme, and eager to join the revolution, were confronted with a paralysing Discordia. Not only did it seem that they were being asked to give up their “privilege/s”, but also their sanity. They left the Occupy encampments as disgusted as they were disillusioned. The forces of neoliberal order swatted away what was left like so many buzzing flies.

In the aftermath of the Occupy debacle, many have been moved to pose one of those diabolical questions that we should probably never ask – let alone answer: “If the powers-that-be had set out to create an ideological system designed to render the progressive mass movements of the past utterly unrepeatable; while ensuring that any attempt to confront neoliberal capitalism with a Corbynesque “For the Many, Not the Few” electoral agenda, is instantly paralysed by bitter and protracted factional strife; could they ever have come up with a political poison as effective as identity politics?”

If the progressive dog refuses any longer to bark – even at a moral crisis as profound as the housing poverty which is tearing the New Zealand working-class apart – it is only because so many identities have been telling him for so long to keep his privileged mouth shut.

This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Friday, 26 March 2021.


AB said...

It was clear years ago that we had hit some sort of rock bottom when there was much discussion in the business press about "getting more women on Boards". There was no discussion of whose interests Boards serve and whose they don't, or having employees elect Boards, etc. We were being told to care about the gender composition of elites - when the real problem wasn't women's unequal share of unaccountable private power, it was unaccountable private power itself.
To be able to fight we have to resist this evaporation of the whole notion of economic justice, while at the same time we have to acknowledge two things:
- that inequality and poverty have an age, gender, racial and disability gradient - they tend to be exaggerated in some groups
- that some of the most important 'progressive' gains have come from learning to imagine the lives of people quite unlike ourselves, and from standing in solidarity with them when they face discrimination

Jack Scrivano said...

Your final paragraph sums it up perfectly for me.

greywarbler said...

A medical professional was recently heard to speak critically of NZrs acquiescence with the rundown of hospital services and funding - If it was the USA people would be protesting but NZrs put up with it like sheep.

Barry said...

I was looking at a story about Galileo the other day. He was put under house arrest by the Church for daring to say that the earth revolved around the sun rather than the sun orbiting around the earth – which the powers that be said was true.
I thought that not much had changed since then. Today we have a thing called “Being cancelled” – for saying things that are mostly true but out of current favour.

That lead me to consider the state of things today. The first political movement I recall is that of Womens Lib. I couldn’t help but think that this movement is eating itself. It was closely associated with what is now the LGB….. group and the consequences are that anyone can call themselves a female (now legal in some countries – self identify ones gender) and womens sport and women only places are all to be invaded by people who self identify as female . Its irrelevant that they have a penis. I feel that all these such groups will slowly attack themselves.
The world is now full of Politically inspired groups – many at each others throat. There is no social cohesion anymore. There are so many of these groups that its difficult to keep up.
I am 72 and own either directly myself, or via a trust, several rental properties. The recent brouhaha about home ownership gets no attention or sympathy from me. I purchased my first house using 4 mortgages (A first, a second, a lawyers loan and a family loan. Banks didn’t lend money for home ownership in those days). I didn’t spend money on a daily coffee or two, nor overseas (or even local )trips and holidays. I virtually rebuilt the first junk heap that I purchased.
I am described as an old white pale male by many in todays society. They think Im just a parasite. But I don’t care what they think. They wont sacrifice their morning coffee or their overseas holiday for a deposit on a first house. No they want a new house with multiple bathrooms and auto this and that and perhaps even a smart house.
But they will never get it – they haven’t got the character or the patience to even start out with less than the best. And they want all this their way – the way of their political tribe.
But I will use my resources – which I worked hard for and took a few risks on the way through – to help educate my grandchildren. They will be able to – almost – go to any school they want and will be able to go through university with building up a loan. And they will be made well aware that they have got the opportunity that most will not have.
An old white pale male – my arse – it’s the best sort of person that there is.

sumsuch said...

You make a good case. I have contempt for the anti-nuclear movement for instance which advanced as social democracy retreated. They gave us everything but the fair go of the people's rule.

Oh boy, how the 30s Labour Movement would have torn to shreds the ramparts of unfair housing.

But in the modern media it is difficult to ignore the bullshit prejudices all around. The unifying way is to thrust forward the great people's causes. Maybe Ardern and Robertson will learn despite their Blairite silliness till now. Describing climate change as our anti-nuclear moment was stingingly blind, like so many of their slogans.

Tony Richards - freedom advocate. said...

Thank you Chris, profound and so relevant.

Mike Grimshaw said...

This is the point that Nancy Fraser made in her very important essay in Dissent a few years back critiquing what she termed "progressive neoliberalism". It is also linked to the replacement of the idea of society with claims of community. In this, progressive collectivism gets replaced by sectarian interests. In this the echo chambers of internet silos and analytics continue to divide. What we need perhaps is a notion of a social covenant to replace the failed social contract.

Odysseus said...

One of your most perceptive columns. Identity politics were created from the rib of neoliberalism and together they have marched hand-in-hand for 40 years overwhelming the old fashioned progressivism of Christianity and Fabianism. Today they underpin the woke fascist corporatism that has become the zeitgeist of the 2020s. As for the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights, it is now being plucked apart by the Harpies of Intersectionality. Although its key provisions including freedom of expression are incorporated into New Zealand law through the Bill of Rights Act 1990, the government is even now preparing legislation will vitiate its liberal and fair-minded guarantees.

David George said...

It's been clear for most of this century that the housing price and supply situation was out of balance with affordable demand. There are serious social consequences. What has caused it and why hasn't it been tackled effectively?

We've had, since the GFC, the lowest interest rates in the 5,000 year recorded history of the idea of money. Cheap money driving purchasing ability and therefore prices.

We've had a loose immigration policy driving lower wages and higher house/rental prices.

We've got restrictive land use policies and broke councils unwilling or unable to upgrade and extend infrastructure.

We've introduced the licenced building practitioner regime reducing reactivity and competition.

We've an overly restricted system for approval of imported building materials with a cosy monopoly/duopoly in several areas on the supply side as a consequence.

All of things could have been relatively easy to ameliorate, given the political will, without the potential for some seriously adverse unintended consequences inherent in the latest effort. Attribution of the problem to, and the ugly kulakisation of, the Kiwi landlord is misplaced; they are simply reacting to a situation not of their making and that should never have been allowed to develop in the first place.

cooldude69 said...

I don't see identity politics as being a central problem with OWS, you need to provide some evidence for this claim.

"Not only did it seem that they were being asked to give up their “privilege/s”, but also their sanity. They left the Occupy encampments as disgusted as they were disillusioned."

This quote makes no sense to me, the core message as you know, was that the people in the movement were underprivileged, even well-educated people who had crippling student debt had no

Who left on these grounds? Name some people and give quotes.

Although not many recognize it, OWS introduced class politics to a lot of people that were previously unexposed to it and changed their whole world view. It certainly had a long-term effect on public consciousness.

DS said...

I was looking at a story about Galileo the other day. He was put under house arrest by the Church for daring to say that the earth revolved around the sun rather than the sun orbiting around the earth – which the powers that be said was true.

Off-topic, but this pop-history interpretation of Galileo really needs to die. Galileo was pushing the Copernican model... which involved circular orbits, and as such had inferior predictions to the old Ptolemaic model (elliptical orbits would not come until Kepler). The Church (which really only cared about calculating the correct dates of Easter) told Galileo that he could teach the flawed Copernican model as a hypothetical. Galileo responded by not only teaching Copernicus as fact, but also wrote a pamphlet on the subject where he literally called the Pope an idiot.

In short, Galileo was a dogmatic arsehole, who has been falsely turned into a secular martyr for science.

sumsuch said...

Commenting on my previous comment,'stingingly blind' about reality, not political sales of course. Why the Rogernomes still run Labour, all about selling in the immediate, never reality, where a party not just of professional activists would find its heart.

Nick J said...

Cooldude, I have some sympathy with your argument, however the failure of OWS appears to me a result of it falling into an era of identity politics and being seen as another identity group.

I went down to the Wellington occupy a few times, it really seemed incoherent in its demands, but very coherent in its attribution of blame to priveleged white males. Somehow all older white males fitted into the One Percent. No wonder they didnt provide active support, its hard to agree but be told that you too are the enemy.

A parallel is BLM which has decreed the same enemy, expanded to all whites. It demands that whites "take the knee" and show guilt. This is a form of sadistic retributive thinking. To believe that you can advance your cause by application of massed masochism is indicative of a flawed concept.

Chris mentions intersectionality. It demands all identities work together against the common enemy. Yet if you are an identity according to critical theory everyone outside your chosen identity is a potential or real oppressor. And you are supposed to stand in unity against thd biggest baddest oppressor.. straight white men. Who might just be your brother, father, friend, workmate. Theres one hell of a lot of incoherence here. What ever happened to "live and let live" and joining together en masse to force commonly agreed change?

Tom Hunter said...

In the first nine months of 2020 the wealth of Bezos (Amazon), Zuckerberg (Facebook) and the Alphabet/Google founders, increased by tens of billions of US dollars. Bezos went from $US 120 billion to over $200 billion.

Because of lockdowns and myriad other social restrictions, a government response to Covid-19 that forced people indoors and online for everything from doing their work to ordering their groceries (and everything else).

And who got destroyed by this? Little people who owned small businesses. The numbers of such that have gone down in the USA over the last year is astounding, and those that are left are barely hanging on.

All this caused me to simply laugh when I read your missive several weeks ago, When It Comes to Covid, the “Little People” Cast a Big Shadow., in which you did the usual casting of good and evil between the neo-liberal business people who you claim wanted open borders and business-as-usual and the "little people" who wanted to be safe.

Let's stipulate that your assertion might have been true for New Zealand, since we have no Google or Amazon of our own(Trade Me perhaps?). But I'm suspicious of such a claim given that neo-liberals you target here are the same people as Bezos and company, and those people have profited from lockdowns more than anything else in their profitable history of big business.

As one commentator noted, the ideal world of Bezos, Zuckerberg and Dorsey is a person who does nothing but sit at home attending to Facebook and Twitter while ordering all their stuff from Amazon.

Perhaps online "fighting" is useless, despite the endorphin kicks. Perhaps this is why there's no real fight left in the Left for these issues.