Monday 4 May 2009

None so blind ...

The Wests of Outrageous Fortune - not a class for itself, but a disaggregated collection of individuals out for themselves.

STEVE Cowan has a problem. Somehow, as a revolutionary Marxist, he must preserve the illusion that the New Zealand working class is still a "class for itself". This requires him to depict Kiwi workers as both ideologically conscious: able to distinguish their friends from their enemies; and politically conscious: capable of formulating coherent strategic and tactical responses to the daily ebb and flow of domestic and international events.

He has no choice in the matter - not if he wants to go on insisting that the working class perceives no ideological, strategic or tactical advantages in backing the Labour Party over the National Party. And Steve does insist upon this, as his latest posting on "Against the Current" shows.

I take strong issue with the idea that the New Zealand working-class is any longer a "class for itself" in the classic Marxist sense. My reasoning is straightforward. A class for itself would have maintained an effective set of economic, social and political institutions tasked with both protecting and advancing its interests. These would include a trade union movement to which a clear majority of working people belonged; economic entities such as co-operatives, friendly societies and credit unions in every working-class community; and, most important of all, a political party based in, and aggressively representing the needs and aspirations of, working-class people.

But, on his blog, "Against the Current", Steve is constantly lamenting the fact that none of these institutions exist anymore. He rails against the NZ Council of Trade Unions and the EPMU for their failure to adequately protect and advance the interests of workers. He laments the fact that workers are being forced to pay the price of the latest capitalist crisis. And, again and again, he condemns the Labour Party for being just another cog in the neo-liberal machine.

How can Steve go on insisting that workers remain a class for themselves while constantly posting evidence to the contrary?

I’m buggered if I know.

My argument – fully expounded in my book No Left Turn – is that the New Zealand working-class used to be a "class for itself", but is one no longer. The dramatic economic and social changes of the past 30 years at first disoriented, then fragmented, and finally, almost entirely atomised New Zealand’s working-class communities. As a result, the institutions they created to defend themselves have been hollowed out and/or taken over by other, more powerful, socio-economic groups. The trade unions by white-collar professionals; the co-ops and friendly societies by larger and more competitive capitalist enterprises; and the Labour Party by social-liberal, middle-class careerists.

Steve should not be in the least surprised by these observations. You’d have to be deaf, dumb and blind to think that today’s Labour Party, in particular, bears the slightest resemblance to the political party of Harry Holland, Mickey Savage and Peter Fraser. Or that Helen Kelly, the President of the NZCTU, offers exactly the same kind of trade union leadership as her father, Pat Kelly.

From the perspective of the capitalist class, this 30-year exercise in disorientation, destruction and subordination has been extraordinarily successful, and the gains thereby acquired must be defended constantly. It accomplishes this, for the most part, by maintaining a ruthless cultural hegemony over working-class New Zealand. Crucial to its hegemonic project has been the relentless "dumbing-down" of those prime conveyor-belts of culture – the education system and the media.

For the past 30 years our schools and universities have been simultaneously steeped in neo-liberal orthodoxy and starved of critical pedagogy. The commodification of the educational experience has meant that, more than ever, heterodox thought is regarded as both politically dangerous and personally counter-productive.

The cultural devastation wreaked upon New Zealand’s media is best illustrated by comparing two local television dramas set in the working-class: Moynihan and Outrageous Fortune. The former was centred on the activities of a trade union secretary, played by Ian Mune, and pitted the hero’s moral and professional resources against those of his members, their employers, and the State. Outrageous Fortune features a West Auckland family, the Wests, who rely for their survival not upon the protective institutions of the working class, but upon the criminal ingenuity of the family’s individual members. Moynihan ran from 1976 to 1977. Outrageous Fortune is the most successful locally-produced drama of the early- 2000s. It is hard to imagine a better illustration of what 30 years of neo-liberal hegemony has done to the New Zealand working-class’s perceptions of itself.

Because, the most important thing to note about Outrageous Fortune is that the drama is outrageously popular – not least among the working-class New Zealanders who make up the bulk of its viewing audience. The bizarre mixture of sex, violence, criminality, anti-authority individualism and family solidarity that constitutes the West’s cultural milieu certainly does not noticably jarr with the experiences of the people who tune in to watch. Outrageous Fortune depicts not a "class for itself", but a socially disaggregated collection of individuals out for themselves.

Precisely the sort of working-class New Zealanders who deserted Helen Clark’s Labour Government for John Key’s National Party. In them, the traditions of solidarity and struggle which distinguished the culture of their parents and grandparents run very thin indeed. More obvious are the "aspirational" values of Key – the state-house boy made good. Money, status, power: these are what drive them.

Little that turned out to be any good has ever emerged from such folk. Here is Marx’s description of them - from The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte:

"Alongside decayed roués with doubtful means of subsistence and of doubtful origin, alongside ruined and adventurous offshoots of the bourgeoisie, were vagabonds, discharged soldiers, discharged jail-birds, escaped galley-slaves, swindlers, mountebanks, lazzaroni, pickpockets, tricksters, gamblers, maquereaux, brothel-keepers, porters, literati, organ-grinders, rag-pickers, knife-grinders, tinkers, beggars, in short the whole indefinite, disintegrated mass thrown hither and thither, which the French term la Bohème".

For all its many and glaring faults, the Labour Party does not yet rely for its electoral success upon the votes of such lumpenproletarians, but upon the support of those whose memories and values remain rooted in the balance of class forces which produced Moynihan – not Outrageous Fortune.

The values of the Wests will never produce a socialist revolution – but they are absolutely critical to the success of fascism.

If Steve Cowan doesn’t know this by now – he damn well should!


Fatal Paradox said...

Chris I agree completely that the working class as a "class for itself" does not exist in NZ at the moment, however I'm puzzled by your assertion that somehow the Labour Party remains "rooted in the balance of class forces which produced Moynihan - not Outrageous Fortune", unless by that you mean the Trade Union bureaucracy which surely is a social class unto itself.

Since the Trade Unions these days are essentially hollow institutions I'd hardly see TU support for Labour as proof of it being qualitatively superior to National.

I also suspect that while a sizable section of the atomised, lumpen-ised working class did vote National at the last election, an equally significant section simply did not vote at all!

Chris Trotter said...

No, no Fatal Paradox. What I said was that the SUPPORT which Labour still enjoys remains "rooted in the balance of class forces which produced Moynihan - not Outrageous Fortune".

This is the same mistake that Steve always makes - confusing Labour with its electoral base.

Those who vote for the Labour Party (like myself) do so largely because we know that it is the major party least likely to abandon the traditions and values that we hold most dear.

Labour politicians are all too aware of this - which is why they are so loathe to implement policies that will alienate their supporters.

In the parlous state of the New Zealand Left this is about the best we can hope for: not that Labour will somehow recover its original mojo, but that its fear of losing support will keep it moored to something more-or-less resembling a social-democratic programme.

Fatal Paradox said...

No I'm not confusing the NZLP with its voter base - as I see it trade union officials, urban professionals (i.e. teachers and academics) and the so-called "new social layers" ARE Labour's main (in fact only) natural support base these days. Most of these people will not be card-carrying Labour Party members (of which there are very few left anyway!), but still identify strongly with the party's socially and economically liberal agenda.

The only base Labour still has among workers is in the Polynesian community, but I would argue that this is based on identity politics rather than any class-based allegiance.

Of course, this doesn't mean that the working class has in any sense "broken" with Labour - rather they have been beaten, broken and demoralised by the neoliberal onslaught of the past 20 years to the point where they no longer participate in the political sphere except as atomised individuals.

I guess despite all this you could still make a case for voting Labour as the "lesser of the two evils", or for reasons of historical sentimentality, but that would seem to me as a socialist to be clutching at straws...

I would say the same about the Green Party as well, except of course that they were never even a working class party to begin with.

Chris Trotter said...

I haven't got the stats at my fingertips, Fatal Paradox, but I'd be very surprised if you can make urban professionals add up to 34 percent of the popular vote.

The same, I think, is true of Pasifika and Maori voters.

My guess is that about 20 of those 34 percentage points come from Pakeha working-class voters.

Labour's problem is that those working-class voters tend to be older, rather than younger, and that more and more their votes are being cast, as you suggest, for reasons of "historical sentimentality".

And I heartily agree, voting in that spirit is very definitely a matter of "clutching at straws".

Nick said...

Good to see some fierce debate from the left, I read your blog and those of Steve Cowan because they are not the mainstream neo liberal monocultural tripe served elsewhere.

What worries me more is that you are both representative of the lefts intellegentsia, and are arguing over possession of a corpse currently occupied by your opponents. Fiddling whilst Rome burns.

None so blind is a very apt headline. In case you had not noticed the environment is incompatible with economics as espoused by left or right, the climate is getting totalled, and we have entered into the long decline of easy energy and food as we know it. We are staring down the barrel as a society without our eyes open and on target. Meanwhile you two gents who are in a position to show a little more leadership are bickering over something terminal. Wake up.