Thursday, 27 August 2009

Not too much fun

Vote "Yes" to say "No": This pro-Prohibition poster from early 20th Century Australia recalls the strongly puritanical streak running through social-democratic parties for most of the past 150 years. But while ordinary people continue to define the Left as being about "banning things", its chances of regaining power will remain negligible.

IS it too much to hope that the resounding victory of the "Noes" in last week’s "Anti-anti-smacking" referendum has taught the Labour Party a lesson? Or will the utterly predictable victory of "Middle New Zealand" merely intensify the political paralysis already gripping Her Majesty’s Opposition?

Labour’s sense of alienation from the political mainstream is now so acute that even when one of their number comes up with a comment guaranteed to elicit a collective nod of approval – as Trevor Mallard did last week, with his observation that if the deadly exorcists of Wainuiomata had been Pakeha they’d have been jailed – it’s couched in terms so limited, and ringed with so many caveats, that any political efficacy is swiftly dissipated.

Someone should tell Mallard (and his caucus colleagues) that if you’re going to dog-whistle, it’s important to do so with a clearly thought-out purpose.

For a start, it is long past time that Labour came to a firm decision on the Maori Party. Friend or Enemy? Which is it to be? If it’s the former, then Mallard’s remarks were politically counterproductive. If it’s the latter, they didn’t go anything like far enough.

A series of troubling incidents – from the seizure and unauthorised burial of a deceased Cantabrian, to the unlawful occupation of a Kaikohe warehouse, the disruption of the High Court trial of Phillip Field, and the blocking of a public highway in the Bay of Plenty – have raised a number of quite disturbing questions about the willingness of our police force and judiciary to uphold the rule of law, and enforce individual property rights, where Maori misconduct is involved.

What prevented Labour from initiating a serious public discussion about the constitutional implications of these events? Why not demand to know exactly how long the relevant authorities plan to appease Maori nationalist challenges to the legitimacy of the New Zealand State – before they cry "Enough!"?

A co-ordinated attack along these lines would’ve left the Government facing a lose/lose situation. Decline to respond (or, worse still, defend the authorities’ policy of appeasement) and National alienates its conservative Pakeha base. Confront the Maori nationalist challenge head-on, and the Government’s cosy relationship with the Maori Party is threatened.

The answer, of course, is that Labour is ideologically incapable of abandoning the liberal bicultural dream of the 1970s, and lives in constant fear of being branded "racist". Most of its MPs lack anything resembling Helen Clark’s ability to ruthlessly calculate the political costs and benefits of embracing the cause of tino rangatiratanga. Indeed, most of the Labour caucus remains deeply embarrassed by their former leader’s infamous "haters and wreckers" description of the huge hikoi against the Foreshore & Seabed Bill – and that she was willing to greet "Shrek" the Merino wether on the parliamentary forecourt, but not the hikoi leaders.

It’s why Labour is now so openly contrite about its handling of the Foreshore & Seabed issue altogether – to the point of signalling its willingness to vote for the legislation’s repeal. The idea that it might place itself in the vanguard of the inevitable Pakeha backlash, or leverage off the issue to set the agenda for the ill-defined, but potentially explosive deliberations of the "Constitutional Panel" foreshadowed in the Maori Party’s support agreement with National, seems to be beyond their collective imagination.

Instead, they vacillate between openly attacking the Maori Party, and trying to placate it. Like Barack Obama, they believe it is possible to arrive at a principled consensus with their sworn enemies, and are genuinely surprised to discover themselves despised by all sides for their political naiveté. Which is why, when Mallard directed a rare and potentially quite effective overture to Labour’s wayward constituency, his leader and caucus colleagues simply could not forebear from drowning him out with a cacophony of equivocations.

Why do they do it? What prevents Labour from "thinking the unthinkable" in the manner of the bureaucrats and politicians who unleashed the neoliberal counter-revolution of the 1980s and 90s?

In "The State is Back", an article published in Foreign Control Watchdog, the former British Labour politician, Bryan Gould, hazards an explanation: "A government supposedly of the Left that feels unable to challenge market outcomes can have nothing to say – however it is dressed up, whatever cosmetics are applied – to those who look to it for social justice and a more integrated society."

Rather than accept Gould’s bleak, and essentially Marxist prognosis: that only by first addressing people’s material needs can you hope to transform their social nature: Labour’s politicians, over the nine years they held office, followed precisely the opposite course. They insisted that by passing legislation requiring people to change their social attitudes and behaviours, their material circumstances could also be altered.

Instead of attempting to re-engineer the economy directly – which only made big business cross – why not attempt to re-engineer the individual? By requiring people to be less racist, less sexist and less homophobic, by making it illegal for parents to smack their kids, and by forcing consumers to use natural resources more sustainably, you’ll end up creating a very different kind of citizen, who will, in turn, demand a very different kind of economy.

The problem with this "Change the Person – Change the System" strategy was that instead of making big business cross, it made ordinary people furious. And since there are many more ordinary people than there are big businesses, and all of these ordinary (and now furious) people have a vote, the only things Labour’s strategy ended up creating were the preconditions for electoral catastrophe.

As Otago University-based political scientist, Bryce Edwards, recently told a Dunedin left-wing audience:

"I talk to students … to find out what they know about the Left and what they associate with Left politics. Most don’t have any idea what it means. But those who do … [say] it means the following: social liberalism, gender politics, Maori radicalism, regulating personal behaviour, anti-progress, anti-technology, anti-science, high taxes and high government expenditure, and bans on things."

In many ways, therefore, "smacking" was the last thing Friday’s emphatic referendum result was about. Fuelling the backlash was not only "Middle New Zealand’s" fury at being "re-engineered" but – at a deeper level – their desire for an alternative government that stands for something more inspiring than, in Edward’s words: "telling people not to have too much fun".

This essay was originally published in The Independent of Thursday, 27 August 2009.


Olwyn said...

I sometimes think you underestimate the real achievements of the last labour government: to being with, when you are in governement you cannot take on battles that you have no hope of winning, and you cannot redistribute wealth that has fled your shores. Helen Clarke's government did work hard to seriously reduce unemployment, and I think that the long term plan was probably to diversify trading partners and at the same time turn us into a saving nation so that we would have a choice as to the kinds of social policies to pursue. I also wonder if anyone really thinks that you can change the infrastructure by changing the superstructure - it is more likely that scraps of seventies style liberalism are more readily actionable than economic change.

Chris Trotter said...

But that's my point (and Bryan Gould's) precisely, Olwyn. If you are unwilling to openly challenge market outcomes, you really have nothing to say to those who look to you for social justice.

Helen Clark's caution in regard to challenging the fundamentals of the neoliberal regime she inherited from Jenny Shipley could not be compensated for by radical forays into social engineering.

In fact, it was the latter that made her unpopular. When Labour and the Alliance were pursuing openly social-democratic obejectives between 1999 and 2002, the combined "Left" vote seldom sank below 50 percent.

Olwyn said...

I too have my doubts about the ersatz radicalism of the Liberal view, which is wheeled out regularly to evoke disaproval of practically every nation that does not cheerfully succumb to Global capitalism - "Look at how they oppress women" is a far more catchy cry than "they won't let us seize their water supply and sell it back to them, etc." At the same time, as Galbraith has pointed out, history plays a bigger part than political philosophy in what it is possible for a government to do. It is true that the Labour/Alliance coalition enjoyed widespread support, but this was partly because everyone had had a gutful of National, and at least partly because of Labour's caution - once a large portion of the community is dependent on international capital for their employment etc, it is very difficult to challenge the status quo without having a viable alternative up your sleeve. And my point is, Labour seemed to me to be engaged in attempting to build a viable alternative. It is possible that they moved too slowly in this direction, this is a question I am not economically educated enough to answer. That said, I do take your point, that when it proves impossible to make real economic gains for the workers without potentially wrecking an economy (thus losing the intended gains anyway), it must be very tempting to promote urban liberal sentiments in lieu - rather like the woman who joins the school committee, quickly realises that she cannot change the system, so proceeds to lobby fiercely for a change of uniform. Nonetheless, gains are gains, even if they are more modest than one would have hoped for. Labour's gains in employment may not have amounted to a robust form of justice for all, but they were not nothing either.

Chris Trotter said...

I find it impossible to argue otherwise, Olwyn. It's a vast problem, and the Left simply isn't grappling with it.

Anonymous said...


Forgive the Clintonian triangulation, but I think the Clark-Cullen government's core strategy was neither 'neo-liberal' nor social democratic, in the sense that that term would have been understood when you and I were young.

It was actually old fashioned (pre-Thatcher) conservatism; an attempt to bind up the wounds of a society ravaged by 15 years of radical,doctrinaire market-liberalism.

At the same time, it was broadly neo-Keynesian, seeking to save in the good times, with a view to spending us out of any tight spots that might subsequently come our way. Like all good conservatives, Michael Cullen lived in constant expectation of bad news and believed in preparing for it. He can be forgiven for not anticipating quite how bad the news was going to be, globally.

For most of their time in office unemployment was low, inflation at a tolerable level, real wages for most people edging slowly upwards and severe discontent consequently restricted to the least affluent 10%, who were probably the only group whose living standards fell. There was also a sense of a restored social fabric, after the shocks of the 80s and 90s. A Macmillan or a Holyoake would have wholly approved.

Clark/Cullen had, of course, the benefits of a benign economic cycle. It was not they who created the conditions of success. But there were governments elsewhere which nevertheless managed to screw-up.

And, for eight of the nine years, Cullen managed to keep expenditure down, despite the National Party's totally irresponsible calls for lower taxes funded by overseas borrowing. That's what makes the current , largely succesful , attempts to sully Labour's reputation for sound economic management, so distateful and bizarre.

Of course, this essentially conservative government wasn't going to provide a social or economic transformation. In a sense, we'd had enough of those between 1984 and 1999. My own hope was that Clark/Cullen would provide a necessary respite before the country could be placed on a more firmly social democratic trajectory. But I had no great expectation of this happening, once Anderton's influence started to wane in 2002.

The essential conservatism of this government was disguised by an extreme and doctrinaire "social liberalism", much of which was directed to matters of very little significance.

Which of us , apart from the working girls themselves and their regulars , really cares a fig about legalised prostitution?

And who amongst us would be truly disadvantaged if heterosexual couples weren't allowed to pretend that their marriages weren't marriages at all but nice trendy, PC civil unions?

Yet it was a surfeit of social liberalism , along with a poor choice of partners and the machinations of the neo-liberal media hierarchy that destroyed the Labour-led conservative government and ushered in a new wave of neo-liberal iconoclasm.

It will probably last for another nine years. We will just have to hope that there's something to rescue at the end of it and that there are conservatives as canny , hard working and stoically courageous as Clark and Cullen to bind up our wounds again.

And so, Chris, my challenge to you is to triangulate in turn, and persuade me that there could actually be a social democratic alternative to both Clark/Cullen-style conservatism and neo-liberal capitalist radicalism.