Monday 30 November 2009

The Liberal Left: Who Are They?

1981 and all that - left-wing and liberal New Zealand's finest hour: It was only after the Springboks had departed that the full force of the Maori nationalist ideology was unleashed upon an exhausted and morally disoriented progressive movement. The resulting fissures dangerously weakened the New Zealand Left - just as the neoliberal Right was about to launch its own ideological assault on the country.

IT BEGAN in the early-80s. Left-wing and liberal New Zealand had just lived through their finest hour – the massive protests against the 1981 Springbok Tour.

But the Left’s feelings of exaltation at having stood and borne witness against the most evil expression of racist ideology since the Third Reich were mixed with an overwhelming sense of exhaustion – and not a little anguish.

Because Muldoon had ended up having the last laugh. By allowing the Springboks to tour, he had bought his National Government an extension of life it did not deserve. Progressive, urban New Zealand’s alienation from the values of rural and provincial New Zealand was palpable.

There was a nagging feeling, too, among some middle-class members of the progressive movement, that the Marxist’s "proletarians" had let them down. Geoff Chapple in his book The Tour captures the contradiction nicely: "‘What is this? A rising of the workers?’ yelled a passer-by on his way to the game. ‘You’d better hope not fella, [Tim] Shadbolt yelled back. ‘Because most of the workers are down at the park!’"

And then there were the Maori. On one side stood the conservative elements of Maoridom who had welcomed the Springboks onto their marae. On the other, stood the fledgling Maori nationalist movement.

The nationalists had played an important role in the anti-tour protests (especially in Auckland) but now the Tour was over they were determined to force the "White Left" to confront the racist character of their own country’s colonial past.

The tragedy of those divisive years was that Maori had a huge potential constituency among liberal and left-wing New Zealanders. The deep-seated racism and sexism of post-war New Zealand society, which the Tour exposed, had shocked the anti-racist movement and it was eager to join with Maori in challenging and changing the status quo.

Indeed, with the benefit of hindsight, it is very clear that the young people who marched against the Tour did just that. By getting active in their unions and the Labour Party they helped to transform New Zealand.

But the change they wrought was largely in spite of the contribution made by Maori Nationalism – not because of it.

As anyone who read Donna Awatere’s book Maori Sovereignty soon discovered, neither the "White Left", nor any other Pakeha, were deemed fit to be entrusted with the task of rolling back the racist colonial state. Their only role was to provide Maori with the physical and political resources they required to reclaim the lands, forests and fisheries guaranteed to them by the Treaty of Waitangi.

Ruthlessly exploiting the feelings of moral disorientation and guilt they’d become so adept at arousing in well-meaning Pakeha, the nationalists aggressively confronted the liberal Christian churches, progressive unionists, feminists, pacifists and NGOs committed to social change – especially the hapless Corso. The tino rangatiratanga trope proved extraordinarily successful at disrupting, dividing and seriously weakening the "White Left" which, as the dominant ideological force for change in New Zealand society, was the nationalists’ chief competitor and rival. Anyone brave enough to oppose the nationalists’ agenda risked ostracism, isolation, abuse and, on more than one occasion – physical violence. (And in far too many cases the surname of the Maori nationalist enforcers was Harawira.)

These tactics swiftly precipitated a painful ideological split that rent the entire progressive movement.

The alternatives were bleak.

You either surrendered the ideological initiative to the undemocratic, racially exclusive and (apparently) supernaturally-ordained Maori nationalist movement, and began preaching the gospel of tino rangatiratanga to every Pakeha institution willing to offer you a pulpit.

Or, you remained faithful to the Enlightenment values of Western culture. You continued to aver that the civil, political and cultural rights owed to Maori were in no way different from those owed to any other human-being. You continued to insist that we are all descendants of a single African Eve; that our blood flows red whoever cuts us; and that we are all the playthings of historical forces too vast for blame, too permanent for guilt.

But, most of all, the traditional Left continued to argue that, as human individuals, we are defined not by those things over which we have no control, like our gender or our ethnicity, but by the purposes to which we put the things we do control: our intellects, our creativity, and our innate capacity for empathy, self-sacrifice and solidarity.

Fortunately, that’s most of us on the Left – white or otherwise. Nevertheless, the influence of the Pakeha promoters of tino rangatiratanga should not be underestimated. Many of them undertook the "long march through the institutions" and made their way into positions of authority in schools, universities, government departments, unions and political parties.

Teachers, tutors and lecturers supportive of Maori nationalism could award their students poor grades for articulating the "wrong" opinions on the Treaty. In the civil service, unions, NGOs and the voluntary sector, nationalist fellow-travellers had the ability to promote ideological allies and hold back foes. In political parties they insisted on policies and forged alliances which the electorate neither supported nor understood.

But their influence came at a cost. It fostered the same sort of political dissimulation that plagued the Soviet satellite nations. People in those countries learned very early which answers satisfied their party overlords – and dutifully supplied them. In private, however, among trusted friends, their responses were very different.

The "Liberal Left" – as I have called our own, home-grown tino rangatiratanga commissars – undoubtedly believed that the Maori nationalist ideology, along with the other identity-based faiths that tended to run in harness with it, were widely accepted by the population. But, as last night’s One News/Colmar-Brunton survey indicated, it ain’t necessarily so. Barely 10 percent of Pakeha questioned in that poll were willing to say that Hone Harawira’s remarks weren’t racist.

A large part of the explanation for the unprecedented popularity of John Key’s government lies in the sense of liberation New Zealanders felt at the political defeat of a government which many believed to be guilty of ideological bullying. People feel freer to express their true opinions in 2009 than they did in 2008, and the numerically small band (5,000 is probably a gross over-estimate) of race/gender/sexuality commissars have been reduced to denouncing their fellow citizens’ ideological backsliding from the margins of political power.

Unfortunately for Phil Goff, the number of people openly challenging this chorus of complaint is insufficiently large to convince alienated Labour supporters that in ideological terms anything very much has really changed. Unless and until Labour is able to demonstrate that, as a political party, it is no longer in thrall to the Liberal Left, its progress in rebuilding trust and support among its traditional progressive constituency will remain painfully slow.


GZ said...

Dude, Tino Rangatiratanga isn't a threat to the working class. You don't know what you're talking about. You're full of shit.

RedLogix said...

I've long admired your work Chris and this is on song.

In a previous phase of my life,I had a period of non-political, non-confrontational access to the people inside the tino rangatiratanga movement. I'm not willing to betray some of the implicit confidences place in me, except to say that in the end I severed my connection to these people because I realised their intentions.

The Maori and European model of the world both contain things of value that should be retained, and things that must eventually be set aside. The things of value can be mutually understood and recognised, but it solely the charge of each race to see the log in their own eye, and to pluck it out.

Robert Winter said...

"our own, home-grown tino rangatiratanga commissars": it's a good phrase. I've posted a somewhat critical response elsewhere, but I'd add one thing: in my experience,elements of the Left were cowed or debilitated by what struck me as liberal guilt in the '80s, but that response dissipated significantly in the '90s. I sense that the dissipation reflected two drivers: people became tired of unremitting self-abasement for pakeha history; and the performance of the Maori elite as they took control of settlements and immediately seemed to reproduce many of the excesses of the capitalist economy.

Chris Trotter said...

George, I've posted your comment for illustrative purposes - to show how unwilling the nationalist movement is to engage in rational debate, and how quick to resort to crude abuse (you and Hone should get on fine!)

But I won't allow it again. Either learn to debate these issues with a measure of restraint - or go to somewhere with lower standards - like Kiwiblog.

Danyl said...

Barely 10 percent of Pakeha questioned in that poll were willing to say that Hone Harawira’s remarks weren’t racist . . . People feel freer to express their true opinions in 2009 than they did in 2008, and the numerically small band (5,000 is probably a gross over-estimate) of race/gender/sexuality commissars . . .

Awesome. You're like the Lysenko of New Zealand electoral politics.

Chris Trotter said...

Well, Danyl, that sounds good, but let's just examine your claim.

Lysenko promoted a scientifically indefensible theory of genetics which flourished in the Soviet Union under the political protection of Joseph Stalin. To contradict "Lysenkoism" was to invite the same fate as the millions of others who dared to challenge Stalinist orthodoxy.

Hmmm, so far that sounds like the very phenomenon I am attacking - not defending - in this posting.

The Maori nationalist ideology, along with other identity-based ideologies, casts other human beings as villians for "crimes" they cannot help committing: being European; being male; being straight. Their's is the mirror-image of the reactionary Right's deep-seated prejudice against blacks, women and gays.

It seems to me that this, thoroughly unscientific, manner of thought has a lot more in common with Lysenko than my critique of the Maori nationalist cause which is based on its own texts and its own historical record.

Perhaps a better comparison might be with the little boy in Hans Christian Andersen's fable who pointed out that the Emperor was wearing no clothes?

Chris Trotter said...

Oh dear, oh dear, oh dear - and here was I thinking that all those "liberal" lawyers, doctors, architects, etc (with their strings of rental properties and crippling private school fees) switched their votes to National (having first been reassured that all of Labour's reforms would be protected) on the strength of "that nice Mr Key's" pledge to lower their taxes.

Silly me.

Oh, and BTW, it's called the "dim" post for a reason.

Danyl said...

Oh dear, oh dear, oh dear - and here was I thinking that all those "liberal" lawyers, doctors, architects, etc (with their strings of rental properties and crippling private school fees) switched their votes to National (having first been reassured that all of Labour's reforms would be protected) on the strength of "that nice Mr Key's" pledge to lower their taxes.

I know you 'think' that - but back in far distant reality the only traditional Labour demographic that didn't collapse and go to National last year were voters in urban, liberal electorates like Christchurch, Mt Albert, Wellington Central, ie all those liberal doctors, architects etc.

You've estimated that this demographic numbers less than 5000 people (I hope you used some kind of lubricant while sourcing this statistic); but in the 2008 election Clark's dying liberal regime recieved ~800,000 votes. The 10% of pakeha voters you cited who don't think Hone Harawira's remark is racist amount to roughly 200,000 people. Add to that the number of people with liberal sensibilities who are astute enough to realise that calling someone a white motherfucker is, actually, quite racist and you're probably over the half a million mark for the liberal left. They're not enough to swing an election on their own, but Labour can never, ever get elected without them (and your estimate is out by several orders of magnitude).

BTW, it's called the "dim" post for a reason.

Wow, it's like matching wits with Voltaire. Got any more?

Tiger Mountain said...

The 1980s, yesterday once more. Broadsheet ‘feminist’ magazine breathlessly running Donna’s maori sovereignty articles. A tense daylong standoff at Auckland Trade Union Centre as predominantly Maori Drivers Union delegates evicted Ripeka Evans and associates from the union funded Maori and PI Resource Centre, members of which had stormed an Auckland Trades Council meeting kicking in doors and glass. President Bill Andersen at the time to his credit did not tender a “hypersensitive” response as Lew at “Kiwi Pontifico” holds Labours Goff did recently in his address.

Fueling this tumult was early identity politics. My political grounding said that while ethnicity might be the first contact for an individual with oppression and the state forces, that racism would ultimately be defeated by uniting all who could be united in joint supportive action for as long as it took.

The “liberal left” played an honourable role in educating about the Treaty and NZ racism, but ultimately lack of a class compass provides ugly spectacles such as the likes of Donna Awatere joining ACT and her thuggish husband physically attacking Sue Bradford for Chrissake! This history does not mean Phil Goff has to rark it up unnecessarily but it is okay to call things by their correct names. The Maori party in it’s current strategic line is substantially a tory support group.

“What’s so funny about peace, love and understanding?” Without the “liberal left”, there would not be the modern consideration for minorities or even MMP parliament.
But, the downside of diversity being ‘celebrated’ is that more universal values have been submerged. People can retreat into identity enclaves and ‘choose’ or cherry pick which other issues they will engage on e.g. environment but not CAFCA etc. rather than the venerable “an injury to one…” approach. This is where in todays parlance, a disconnect, in potential class unity occurs.

Another feature of ‘liberalism’ is about what people perceive themselves to be, rather than what they are, egged on since the 80s by the culture of consumerism, individualism and fractured organisation. 91% of New Zealanders apparently have an income of $70,000 or less per annum and around 40% $24,000 or less, so who is kidding who with their gadgets and maxed out cards? Kiwis are predominantly working class and self employed, they just won’t admit it. Public servants, managers, salespeople, admin–all workers. Contracted ‘creatives’ and consultants in nerdy glasses, IT owned by the bank–still workers. People see themselves as competing individuals which has helped lead to low levels of political participation, which leaves forums and processes available to those interested. It is hardly fair to castigate the “liberals” for being enthusiastic and turning up. A lot of rank and file members exited Labour Party affairs after the Rogernomics debacle, to the extent that a New Labour party was formed. I am not suggesting an own goal Chris as some time has passed. But a vacuum certainly existed that “left liberals” were happy to fill.

As for 3rd term Labour, they certainly made strategic & tactical blunders, in the end alienating some of the poorest and most vulnerable as well as the BBQ pit denizens. Labour could have gone for it and instituted something along the lines of Keith Rankins universal basic income proposal and made a lot of noise about it, but given the EFA, Section 59 and Winston distractions it probably would not have helped.

The “liberal left” (NZCTU inclusive) also pretty much accepted Working for Families which was inequitable for the poorest and beneficiary families. It took the small NZ marxist left to point out the obvious. That WFF essentially took the heat off employers who union members should really have been organising to gain wage increases from. So a classic political dilemma for the NZ social democrats.

Anonymous said...


Your last few blogs are dominated by a series of false assumptions.

The first is that liberal left always = fellow traveller (useful idiot) for Tino Rangitiritanga

The second is that a Labour Party shorn of its concern for liberal issues necessarilly = a Labour Party that cares about workers and the poor

A third might be that there is still a sizeable group of Pakeha who identify themselves as 'working class' as opposed to being just plain 'not(yet)rich'. I appreciate they might be suffering from 'false consciousness' but them's the breaks .

A fourth mistake is to ignore the electorally most significant aspect of Labour's fight with the Maori Party, namely control of the Maori seats.

Labour can't hope to win these back if it seems to be dumping on Maori in general. Even if Goff is not doing that (and the suspicion remains that he is), even non-nationalist Maori will think twice about supporting Labour.

Maori know, from long experience, when they're being picked-on and scape-goated . And , in my experience, working class Maori resent it just as much as the Iwi fat cats.

Having said which, your description of the quasi-totalitarian thought control processes at work on behalf of Maori nationalism in the 80s and 90s certainly rings true.


Chris Trotter said...

Read the posting again, Danyl. I'm not equating the Liberal left with the Labour Vote. (But, hey, straw men are so much fun. I understand.)

What I am doing, however, is pinning the Liberal Left label to that small cadre of highly motivated ideologues who, beginning in the 1980s, have aggressively defended and advanced (when they could) the Maori nationalist, and every other kind of born-with-a-cause, movement/s.

I'm pretty sure I'm being generous when I estimate the size of this ideological faction at 5,000 persons. It's probably much smaller.

And certainly, my "Liberal Left" is not intended to describe the hundreds of thousands of citizens who, like myself, believe in the Treaty settlement process, and who wish that more New Zealanders knew the history of their colonial past.

I can see that a better, more precise, term is required to describe the vocal commissars of Maori nationalism and identity politics.

I'll work on it.

RedLogix said...

Danyl, you fail to distinguish between voters, party members and activists. Of the three groups, the latter pretty much sets the agenda, while being by far the smallest numerically.

The prime political issue in our age is the question of inequality. Not only does it cut across every race, culture and identity group, but almost every other social ill falls out from it. Dealing with equality on a broad even-handed basis innately resolves the lumpen mass of social issues that otherwise appear intractable. Once that goal is achieved or progressed, then solutions for special cases become more obvious and tolerable.

The Liberal Left as Chris describes it has made the fatal error of trying to invert the process, by demanding justice and equality on a qualified basis for special interest groupings... leaving being the largest mass of ordinary folk alternately bewildered and resentful.

Anonymous said...


I came across many such commissars when working on the government payroll in Wellington. But I never for a moment thought of them as either 'liberal' or 'left'. They were just conformists, careerists and, as you say, commissars. The only thing left-wing about them was that they reminded me of the DDR.

And non-abject apologies for mispelling Tino Rangatiratanga. I'm a Pom and can't always help it.

By the way, it's not important but us Pom immigrants used to get particularly rough treatment from the commissars, who often failed to detect our descent from African Eve.

I just don't think the behaviour of these sad little souls is any reason to give up on the combination of liberal principles and social democratic (or socialist) policies that should mark a party of the left.


aj said...


Thank you for, in the last two paragraphs, highlighting exactly where I come from.

Stephen said...

I'm not equating the Liberal left with the Labour Vote. (But, hey, straw men are so much fun. I understand.)

What I am doing, however, is pinning the Liberal Left label to that small cadre of highly motivated ideologues ...

And it's a distracting label, Chris. I consider myself more-or-less a person of the left on economic matters, and 'liberal' in views on morality. So 'Liberal left' sounds like it is describing me, but apparently you have a fairly narrow group in mind when you use the phrase.

Also, I agree with Victor when he says: "I just don't think the behaviour [of what you call Liberal Left] is any reason to give up on the combination of liberal principles and social democratic (or socialist) policies that should mark a party of the left."

Chris Trotter said...

Neither do I, Stephen - and I'm not.

And you're right, the term "Liberal Left" is too confusing.

If you can think of a better name for the group I'm describing in this posting - please feel free to get back to me.

Olwyn said...

An excellent comment here from Tiger Mountain. While I think Chris has predominantly been referring to a small group of people in a position to drive policy, and Tiger Mountain is looking at the bigger picture, they are closely related. Liberalism does not scare the economic horses, and on the face of things, coincides more comfortably with "what people perceive themselves to be, rather than what they are." However, if they are fed a solid diet of liberal values while their real concerns remain in the "too hard" basket, they naturally enough get fed up. At the same time, politicians almost need to intuit this, since the class between middleclass and underclass has been removed from public discourse. Not wishing to count as underclass, many kiwis "rattle their knives and forks so the neighbours think they are eating' and identify themselves as liberal rather than socialist.

Anonymous said...

Hmmmmm.... A better name for the "liberal left"?

How about PALS (Public Address Liberals)?

Chris Trotter said...

PALs - I love it! LOL

Anonymous said...

Chris, what do you mean by Sexuality Commissars? I'm Gay and am hugely appreciative that we live in a more tolerant and open society today than in the past. Do you acknowledge the work done by Gay activists and the importance of making sure Homophobia is not tolerated ?

Chris Trotter said...

Of course, Anonymous. I was one of the many thousands who campaigned for Fran Wilde's Homosexual Law Reform Bill back in the 1980s.

There is, however, a distinction to be drawn between those who actively campaign for equality and tolerance, and those who demand that "Queer Culture" be accorded the same status and acceptance as "Straight Culture".

The former allows people to do what they do. The latter insists upon their right to do it in the street and frighten the horses.

What difference is there, really, between those who demand that homophobia "not be tolerated" and those who demand the same of homosexuality?

Citizens can (and should) insist upon their civil rights being respected and upheld, but they cannot require everybody to like and/or approve of what they do.

Those who insist, in the face of all evidence to the contrary, that it is possible to mandate not only tolerance but also approval are the people I call the Sexuality Commissars.

Anonymous said...

Chris, don't you think there is a link between the two though? If there wasn't a strong push from the so called "Commissars" in the first place do you think Law Reform and Civil Unions would have come about?

Anonymous said...

What do you mean by "do it in the streets"?

Do What Chris?

Chris Trotter said...

Sorry, Anonymous, it was an oblique reference to the famous quip of King Edward VII, who said: "I don't much care what my subjects do, so long as they don't do it in the street and frighten the horses."

And yes, it is often the most extreme advocates of reform that push politicians the hardest. The trick lies in being able to recognise the difference between what is achievable and what is not.