Friday 16 July 2010

The Arrogant Left

It's for your own good, Mr McMurphy: The ice-cold "charity" of Ken Kesey's Nurse Ratched brilliantly exemplifies the key political functions of the managerial-professional class: infantilising the working-class and marginalising their representatives on the traditional Left.

FOR SOMEONE WRITING from a left-wing perspective, Rob Salmond’s "Poll of Polls" makes dismal reading. Reinstated, after a lengthy hiatus, on the "Pundit" blogsite, Rob’s scientific homogenisation of the findings of the four major media polls (Colmar Brunton, Reid Research, Roy Morgan and DigiPoll) illustrates all-too-graphically just how vast the ideological gulf between Right and Left has become.

Something, or someone, must be responsible for this widening gap: something or someone so objectionable that the majority, rather than be counted among the Left’s supporters, is prepared to overlook the lengthening list of right-wing policy failures. That willingness to turn a blind eye is now so pronounced that just under two-thirds of those most recently questioned by Roy Morgan’s pollsters agreed that the country was "headed in the right direction".

This is an extraordinary figure. New Zealand is only slowly hauling itself out of a deep recession. Job insecurity is rife; mortgagee sales are rising; the cost of living keeps going up and up – and yet, all of these difficulties notwithstanding, 65 percent of Roy Morgan’s respondents think we’re on the right track.

What is it about the Left’s beliefs, behaviour and overall policy prescription that has driven it below the 40 percent line on Rob Salmond’s Poll of Polls graph? And what is Labour doing (or not doing) that keeps it trailing behind National by a morale-sapping 21.1 percentage points?

At the heart of all these questions, I believe, lies the problem of left-wing arrogance. It’s the problem that has kept me firmly on the outside of the Left’s inner-circles for the best part of forty years. Even as a teenager (when, supposedly, I was most susceptible to the allure of the Left’s grand, all-encompassing theories) I found the superior attitude of left-wingers intolerable.

Like Plato’s ring of invisibility, Marxist-Leninist ideology seemed to grant its adepts the power to sin with impunity. The rest of humanity were regarded as mere raw material – objects upon which they were free to work without ethical restraint. The crimes of their enemies were shrilly condemned, while those committed by their friends and allies were passed over in silence.

This superior attitude was by no means restricted to the multitude of communist sects. If anything, it was even more pronounced among the radical followers of the so-called New Social Movements: Anti-Racism, Environmentalism, Feminism, Gay Rights. Like the heroes of the 1969 cult-movie Easy Rider, these "new" leftists saw themselves as an enlightened but despised minority trying to do right in a world populated overwhelmingly by the ignorant and hostile.

Even today, this deep contempt for the majority remains clearly evident in the Left’s language. To question the ideology of Maori nationalism is to reveal oneself as a racist "redneck". Working-class communities attempting to defend their jobs from the demands of environmentalists are dismissed as "feral" or "white trash". The slightest challenge to the sacred precepts of Orthodox Feminism will provoke torrents of vitriolic abuse.

Traditional Labour politics was very different. The premise here was that a working-class party can only be the political vehicle for working-class needs and aspirations. Labour politicians, if they were worth a damn, saw themselves as nothing more than the frothy margins of the popular tide: markers of the masses’ reach. For these sort of leftists the will of the majority was sacred.

It was only when Labour ceased believing in the wisdom and decency of the majority that its hold on popular affection began to weaken. It broke altogether when, in the mid-1980s, the brute arrogance of Roger Douglas and his fellow neoliberals made common cause with the smug superiority of the managerial-professional New Leftists who had taken over the party.

Labour only rebuilt its relationship with voters by aligning itself with the vast anti-neoliberal majority of the 1990s. Once in power, however, the parliamentary party’s distaste for the values and beliefs of its own supporters grew more obvious with every passing year. By the end of its term Labour’s distaste had matured into open contempt.

In 2008 many Labour voters happily returned the complement.

Nearly two years on and Labour may talk about polices for "the many – not the few" but it’s the few, not the many, who are writing them.

The Left’s poll-results will only start improving when it stops trying to lead the people – and starts following them.

This essay was originally published in The Timaru Herald, The Taranaki Daily News, The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Evening Star of Friday, 16 July 2010. 


Anonymous said...

An insightful summary of Labour’s problems, which epitomises why for now I can no longer vote for them. One other way in which this new “liberal elite” Labour is damaging its own brand is its condescending patronising of the “rights” of the underclass to remain just that – a perennial underclass. Turning a blind eye to parasitism, or worse still, pretending it is okay or non-existent just alienates the more aspirational, traditional Labour voters like me even further. Labour used to be for workers not shirkers. A great article, but sadly no reference anywhere to the “kommissariat!”

Swimming said...

65 percent of Roy Morgan’s respondents think we’re on the right track.

Perhaps some of the 65% say we are on the right track, not be cause we are actually on the right track, but on a better track than the alternative - left wing arrogance, as you put it.

Rob Salmond said...


An interesting post. Your conclusion that Labour needs to lead public opinion less and follow it more seems to suggest you think it should bow down to the large majority who think NZ is currently (under the Nats) on the right track. Is this really your view? That seems fairly inconsistent with some of your other posts, which appear to argue that Labour needs to reconnect with its principled roots, regardless of their current popularity.

(Also, when I saw the title "The Arrogant Left," a picture of Nurse Ratched, and my name in the opening sentence, I feared this piece was going in a different direction entirely! I am very pleased those fears were misplaced.)

sagenz said...

Excellent post Chris. Would you accept that the aspirational worker who traditionally supported Labour sees the back story of Key as something for themselves to follow. They have a choice between a true rags to riches story vs the arrogant elite you describe and make an obvious choice. That must account for part of the high level of centre right support.

Anonymous said...

"Traditional Labour politics was very different. The premise here was that a working-class party can only be the political vehicle for working-class needs and aspirations."

Times have change yet some still refuse to change with them and in doing so become architects of their own failures.

jh said...

I think labour got the idea that you didn't have to relate to the masses, you could rely on media training and manipulate the masses.

Anonymous said...

The world isn't like how it was for previous generations.

Societies' old elites were a capitalist class who survived off the labouring of the workers.

The success of the left in increasing state spending in new areas spawned a new left wing elite social class who survives off taxes paid by workers and capitalists.

The blue collar worker, without a university education, lacks social status in their eyes. New ideas about race have seen having the right skin colour increasingly become a prerequisite for a person to be seen as part of the romanticised poor.

While the worker of yesterday had to toil to support a distant capitalist class, the worker of today more often works in a small business and like the owner must pay to support this new and increasingly distant social elite.

The worker, like the business owner, directly depends on productive enterprise to survive. State employees seldom make a connection between their country's economic fortunes and their personal fortunes because the only direct connection they have with wealth is from the political process of obtaining it from others.

While many of us may not agree with all National is doing, it is what they're not doing that will be making people think the country is on a relatively good course compared with the alternative. They're not aiming to expodentially increase government spending, they haven't rubbished the idea of preventing a credit rating downgrade, they're positive instead of negative, and most importantly they haven't adopted the spiteful mindset of previous governments.

Labour's problems run much deeper than low poll ratings. It needs to revisit its purpose, policy and structure at its deepest foundations. It has far too few members and is not seeing the right kinds of people join and enter parliament. It cannot afford to be insensitive or ignore New Zealand's real economic and social realities any more.

Anonymous said...

So let me get this straight - national is about to unleash its biggest attack on kiwi workers since the ECA and you're having a dig at the left about a blog post?

lol. lol lol lol.

Olwyn said...

@ sagenz: Quite a few of the aspirational kiwi working class now live in Australia, where the unions are still effective and a living wage is not yet a pipe dream. They are not here emulating John Key while crying over the electricity bill and paying through the nose to rent someone else's nest egg.

@ Chris: The last couple of popular uprisings in Auckland were a protest about Maori seats on the council, largely organised by Maori groups, and a protest against mining, largely organised by Green Peace. In comparison, a mere sprinkling of us (Darien Fenton among them) went out to support the Vision stream workers who were being put on private contracts.

There is a two-way thing going on here - worker confidence is needed if Labour is to follow rather than lead, and leadership is needed if that confidence is to occur.

Chris Trotter said...

Well, I'm certainly not laughing, Anonymous, in fact I'm quite depressed.

But, here's a question for you:

"Do you think the National Party would be willing to 'unleash its biggest attack on Kiwi workers since the ECA' if Labour and its trade union backers enjoyed the enthusiastic support of the vast majority of working people?"

It's precisely because National is 21.1 percentage points ahead of Labour that Key feels confident enough to spend a little of his political capital attacking the Right's traditional foes.

The Arrogant Left, having alienated so many of the people who used to make up Labour's electoral base, have opened the way to this attack.

In 1974, the arrest of Bill Andersen sparked a wave of spontaneous and wild-cat strikes all over Auckland. Ten thousand workers marched behind him to the courthouse.

In 1991, more than 100,000 workers across New Zealand marched and rallied against the ECA, only to see their call for a general strike ignored by the same managerial-professional types who now dominate the Labour Party.

How many will rally to the unions' cause in 2010? And who do you think is to blame?

Chris Trotter said...

To Rob Salmond:

If you dig down into the core values of the mostly male, upwardly-mobile working-class voters who say they now back National and tell the pollsters that the country is headed in the right direction, you discover that they still adhere to a great many of the beliefs and attitudes once associated with Labour - like a strong sense of fairness; the importance of sticking by your mates; offering a helping-hand to those who are in strife; making sure all kids have access to good health care and a decent education.

The problem is, when they look at the modern Labour Party and its leaders, those attitudes and beliefs appear to me honoured more in the breach than in in the execution.

Oh sure, some Labour MPs still pay lip-service to these ideals, but where are the men and women who embody them?

Where are the leaders who look like they do, and talk like they do, and who spend their free time doing the same things they do?

I guess what I'm saying is that there's a serious disconnect between the sort of people who make it into Parliament as Labour MPs and the Labour-voting electors who put them there - a disconnect that is nowhere near as evident on the National Party side of the House.

How to fix it? It's fiendishly difficult. The individuals responsible for recruiting and selecting Labour's leadership cadre are most unlikely to look outside their own managerial-professional social strata for candidates.

Essentially, there needs to be a revolution inside the Labour Party organisation. The Arrogant Left needs to be deposed and the party thrown open once again to ordinary working people.

Their policy ideas might not be as "progressive" as we middle-class university graduates would prefer (although we might just be surprised on that score) but they would, at the very least, have the virtue of reflecting the true values and aspirations of Labour's electoral base.

maxx8864 said...

The Labour party was started by the working man, for the working man, now the Labour elite treat the working man as an ATM to support women, minorities and beneficiaries. Instead of being exploited by capitalist masters they are now exploited by political masters. No wonder working men have deserted Labour in droves.

Anonymous said...

How many will rally to the unions' cause in 2010? And who do you think is to blame?

I think "lefties" who spend all their energy attacking the left for not being left enough while never lifting a finger against capital deserve a good share of the blame.

I think this is particularly true of those "lefties" who take a paycheck from the corporate media to do so.

Just as an aside, Chris, have you ever had the Business Round Table buy you lunch?

Chris Trotter said...

Lunch Anonymous? No ... not lunch.

Dinner - mos' def'. And I've lost count of the number of swanky cocktail parties.

But I suspect what you'd be most horrified by is the pre-paid Visa Plantinum Card presented to me by Sir Michael Fay at the annual meeting of the VRWC.

God I love that card!

Anonymous said...

Are you attending the Nat's conference, Chris, or like Whaleoil, are you banned as well? National sure believe in the freedom of the press, not!

ak said...

Dear oh dear. The big C - infighting. Thanks Stevie, shame on you Chris: even Pilate chose the handbasin over the Scribes' propaganda - and he had motive. Arrogance? Lange, et al, certainement. But Hels? You're joking.

Anonymous is right: the underdog is his own worst enemy.

(or perchance this post's proximity to criticism over the abortion issue is purely coincidental) Oui. Adroit

Harry said...

Anonymous, Chris will be attending the conference to show his solidarity by protesting the attacks on employment law shoulder to shoulder with the hundreds of other workers who have turned out.

I missed it because I don't live in Auckland. Chris, would you be able to give me and your other non-Auckland readers a first hand account of how it went?

Chris Trotter said...

Thanks, Harry.

I will be posting on the CTU demonstration later today (Sunday 18 July).

Oh, and just to let you know "Ak", the above newspaper column was written BEFORE Key's announcement.

Had I known what National was about to unleash, I certainly would have held over my critique of the Arrogant Left for another time.

Right now, and until Key and his ilk are driven from office, "unity" must be the watchword.

Xiao Banfa said...

Good to see you at the protest, Chris. I was the Andrew fellow who chatted to you about some of these same issues.

The left in the Labour party and Labour-aligned unions definately need to reconnect on basic bread and butter issues.

To the Worker:
You hate the fact that 'bludgers' are idling away on the dole?

Get behind a full employment policy backed by a public works program to create real jobs! National will never support that!

Even go as far as forcing long term beneficiaries into these full time jobs.

Tell them that simply kicking them off the benefit and onto the street will only create more social dislocation, homelessness and crime.

Tackle the 'lazy beneficiary' issue from the left (and in a positive way) and you will seize a chunk of worker 'redneck' votes of the Nats.

Simply leaving the situation as it is will mean those fomenting a right wing redneck backlash with seize the opportunity.

Adolf Fiinkensein said...

Somehow, I don't think your much vaunted 'majority' of young workers think Mr Key's 90 day deal is anything but good.

Without it they would not have jobs, jobs which get their toes on the employment experience ladder.

That's where you lefties have gone wrong. Mr Trotter is right. You've stopped listening to your workers. In this case you can bet the whole damned lot of them will vote National for the rest of their lives. You wanna hear their slogan?

'National, the party that gave me a start.'

Mr Key has got you buggered. He's stealing your votes out from right under your noses and all you've got to offer is the tired old bullshit of the nineteenth century.

Enjoy your forty days and forty nights, you've still got thirty nine of 'em to go.

Anonymous said...

How about the arroant right. In office five minutes, and already deaf to the public. Key is another PM in love with power, control and the camera. They're worse than Labour because they sold out the NZ farmers, as well as the workers. Fat mansions in Parnell - revolting.

Anonymous said...

Chris - many young right activists also show a degree of arrogance and a belief that an idelogically pure (right) approach will solve all problems. They know this because they have read a few books and maybe done an Economics paper or two. They then get jobs and a taste of the real world and that starts to knock off the sharper edges of ideological arrogance and bring about a more pragmatic view of the world - still different to yours, no doubt, but tempered with reality none the less.

Many of the Left elite seem to skip the real world/job thing - life time academics/politicians or the like. So they know the theory and therefore they must be right and you (the public) WILL appreciate it.

As an aside: a strong sense of fairness; the importance of sticking by your mates; offering a helping-hand to those who are in strife; making sure all kids have access to good health care and a decent education
I would say all of those values are fundamental to the National Party.

Carol said...

I have some difficulties with the notion of "arrogance" generally, and tend to use it sparingly. However, I do agree with Chris that the left does need to re-connect with the working classes who have been relatively negelected in recent years. And I think Chris may be on to something with this comment:

How to fix it? It's fiendishly difficult. The individuals responsible for recruiting and selecting Labour's leadership cadre are most unlikely to look outside their own managerial-professional social strata for candidates."

I have often heard people being described as arrogant when I've failed to see it. This has happened at times when I agree with the associated criticisms made of the allegedly "arrogant" people. It seems to me that, for people who disagree with them, strong convictions can be read as arrogance.

It did used to be that, many feminists from the left moved towards feminism because of the feeling that traditional left wing politics had marginalised women, and often with, what they saw as "arrogant" male attitudes coming from working class and/or left wing men.

I think that the shift towards "professional managerialism" amongst some on the left may, at least partly, be due to some of the pressures coming from powerful neoliberal forces: ie, it is hard to get media coverage and consequently elected, without some degree of collusion with neoliberalsm.

As I think I've said on Chris's blog before, I do disagree with many of his criticisms of the left's championing of "identity politics" causes. However, I have also been critical in other contexts of the way some identity and cultural politics, and postmodern theorists have moved away from class issues. I don't see it as either or, but my hope for the future would be an umbrella alliance of "working class" and "identiy politics".

I feel this is increasingly necessary in the face of cuurrent NACT attacks on workers rights. However, it is a difficult thing to do successfully.

I saw some successes in such an approach when I worked in London. There was a broad coalition of left wing groups, femninists, anti-racist and gay groups in the miners' struggle against Thatcher. In some ways that was a successful coalition. However, the movement itself wasn't successful, because of the way Thatcher mobilised middle & upper class (and media) power against the left.

Such a coalition does have its internal tensions. But, even though I don't agree with everything Chris says on this, I do think these tensions and criticisms need to be aired, negotiated and discussed with some degree of good will on all sides.

Olwyn said...

A Carol & Chris: one only has to look back over some of the posts in this debate to see how successfully the neo-cons have shaped the narrative. In fact both the left and the right have a town mouse/country mouse aspect. Ours are the educated liberal and the blue collar worker, theirs are the CEO or finance guy and the productive businessperson.

The media expresses the "town mouse" side of both - the liberal social view and the neo-con economic view. This approach inspires social liberals whose political engagement is limited to misidentify the blue collar worker as "the establishment" which he is very far from being. And it inspires the blue collar guy to identify the educated liberal, whose views are constantly being bleated out of the TV, as one of a privileged elite. Thus engaged, both are diverted from their mutual enemy.

In fact, if you are going to have state funded health, education,etc, you are going to have educated people employed by the state, and aligned to the left if they are sensible. And they need to take other workers claims seriously, since they are just as subject to the caprice of the right as a cleaner is. Instead of bickering amongst ourselves at the command of the corporate media, we should combine forces, and try to get their "country mouse" over to our side while we are at it, since productive enterprises don't fare too well in a neo-con environment either.

Robert Winter said...

It is far too complex and long (and also very trite) to say this properly in a simple post, but a key issue here is that the social structure, labour processes and political "triggers" that marked the "old" labour movement and politics have been fundamentally shifted. The metaphor for me is that my solid Labour grandparents in the UK were divided between one set (Labour Aristocracy, bowler hats at the Anglican Church on Sunday, Christian conservative Left) and the other (unskilled or semi-skilled, Chapel, teetotal and, dare I say it, cloth cap). That world no longer exists, nor does its NZ equivalent. But the exploitative relations of capitalism do, taking full advantage of the decay in the old solidarities and rationales, and happy about our inability to find new, sustainable effective ones. The social movement approach is one attempt to create such a framework, and has had some success in, for example, South Africa. COSATU is an effect of such politics and it is difficult to be too critical of that organisation (though, no doubt, Mr Minto would put me straight). It cannot, for me, be a question of "going back", for, like a decaying marriage, recuperation of that first flush of political passion and commitment is impossible. The search for a renewed political and economic tradition ill inevitably, for me, combine elements of the "old" and the new, something that, for example, Bruce Jesson understood very well.

jh said...

I see you had Nurse Ratchet on The Panel with Jim Moira yesterday afternoon Chris. He doesn't have much time for referenda (the people might get the wrong answers).

Iwi foreshore claims could clog courts for years - minister
We will get to the specifics here, inch by inch of coastline.

jh said...

I see nothings changed Chris?
Just for a jock you should re submit this one?

tranquil said...

You are *spot-on* Chris with the "left-wing arrogance" thing.

Time and again we are told that "only the left-wing cares about the poor".

That anyone with right-wing views is an "ice-hearted capitalist" or "Tory" (what a quaint phrase!)

That "welfare and dependency on the state (i.e. taxpayers) is good" and woe betide anyone who has another view.

One only needs to look at "The Standard" blog to see how low the Left has sunk. Any opposing views (now matter how supported by cold hard facts) are shouted down with vitriol and abuse.

The Left seems to have almost no ability at all to discuss things calmly and rationally without resorting to abuse.

I don't think the Left has the courage to truly face up to and confront its faults (and believe me, there are many).
That ensures that they will become less and less relevant in the years to come.

John Hurley said...


Ps notice the prompt?