Saturday 23 October 2010

The Disintegrating Consensus

Bringing Down the Neoliberal Temple?: In moving his party sharply to the left, Phil Goff has placed Labour outside what the political commentator, Colin James, once described as the "fragile consensus of the elites" responsible for upholding neoliberalism in New Zealand. By doing so, Goff has immediately made himself and the broader labour movement, Public Enemy No. 1.

"A ROAD TO STALIN EXPERIENCE." That’s how the Prime Minister described the Leader of the Opposition’s dramatic re-conversion to Labour’s old-time political religion.

It’s a good line – and it won’t be the last. In the months ahead many more such jibes – and worse – will be aimed at Phil Goff.


For the Labour leader to have the slightest chance of winning next year’s election he needs to know that every possible piece of right-wing artillery is aimed in his direction.

For there to be a genuine fight for New Zealand’s future there must be two sides.

Mr Goff has chosen the side of economic sovereignty. The side committed to, in the words of his Finance Spokesperson, David Cunliffe: "owning our own future".

Mr Key has been left holding on for dear life to the rapidly disintegrating and comprehensively discredited "Neoliberal Consensus".

In the baleful light of the continuing, and in many countries worsening, global financial crisis, the Prime Minister and his Act and United Future allies are now saddled with the unenviable task of explaining to the rest of us why we should continue to put our faith in the operations of the "free market".

Why doing nothing is better than doing something.

The bi-partisan approach to economic management is over. From now on it will be up to National to explain why New Zealand’s hard-pressed clothing manufacturers are not being given the contract to supply this country’s 3,400 Correction Officers with new uniforms?

Why, with thousands of New Zealanders out of work, the Corrections Minister, Judith Collins, won’t be the least bothered if her Department’s lucrative contract goes offshore – along with any successful foreign bidder’s profits?

Many, many years ago the political commentator, Colin James, described how this country’s ongoing commitment to neoliberal economic orthodoxy was dependent on "a fragile consensus of the elites". Easily the most crucial of those elites were the upper echelons of the two main political parties.

So long as Labour and National were prepared to defend the central pillars of the new economic order established by Roger Douglas and Ruth Richardson, all was well. The other members of the consensus: the public service elite, the news media elite, the trade union elite, the corporate elite; all had their parts to play, but the political elites were crucial.

Prime-Ministerial quips about "Road to Stalin Experiences" notwithstanding, I do not yet get the sense that the defenders of the Neoliberal Consensus understand just how significant an ideological and political shift took place at last weekend’s Labour Party Conference.

The 25,000 members of the Labour Party, backed by the 300,000 union members affiliated to the CTU – by far the largest political force in the country – have turned their backs on "the fragile consensus". Rather than shoring it up, Labour and the CTU are now enjoining their members and supporters to dismantle it.

This represents a sea-change in New Zealand politics.

But Mr Goff and CTU President, Helen Kelly, need to be on their guard. By walking away from the Neoliberal Consensus they have dramatically increased its fragility. Not since the early 1990s, when populist movements led by Jim Anderton and Winston Peters momentarily threatened its complete destruction, has the Neoliberal order felt so threatened. And as Helen Clark and Michael Cullen discovered to their cost in the Winter of 2000, when the elites feel themselves being backed into a corner, they can become extremely vicious.

In 2000, Ms Clark and Dr Cullen responded to the discontent of the business elites by staging a fighting retreat from the more radical policy initiatives of their Alliance coalition partner. While willing to soften the sharper edges of the Neoliberal Consensus, neither politician was willing to seriously challenge its essentials.

That is no longer the case.

Of course, by moving out of the consensus Mr Goff and Labour have instantly united the remaining elites against them. The public service chiefs, the media bosses, the business community, the parties of the Right: all now have but one enemy.

Leaving the Labour Party and the CTU with but one strategy: to take their message of economic sovereignty directly to the electors.

Mr Goff needs to rediscover the thrill of the mass political meeting and the whistle-stop tour.

The Left needs to get out on the road. Not to Stalin – but to the people.

This essay was originally published in The Timaru Herald, The Taranaki Daily News, The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Evening Star of Friday, 22 October 2010.


Anonymous said...

Labour also needs to get some Americans out here, to relate their experiences with their health system and (lack of) ACC system. Food for thought for those who wish to dismantle our health and ACC system.

jh said...

From Real estate blurb Christchurch Press:
Once Redcliffs was an unprepossessing fishing village, distinguished by a collection of modest fishermen's cottages. Most have now dissapeared, replaced by more luxurious residences, and property values have escalated.

“It's a standing joke that we're being taken over by the Americans and British, who have taken advantage of the stronger property markets in their own countires and favourable exchange rates”

“I know an English couple who have summer here and go back to England in the winter”

“What other parts of the city have such nice walks?.....

"Analyst Owen McShane quoted a 1960s report, on the relationship between house construction and employment, that concluded that every 1000 houses would generate a total of 40,000 contracts and jobs over 15 to 20 years. (3) He showed that reducing the residential construction rate from 26,000 a year to a no more than 16,000 a year, and probably much fewer, is cutting 400,000 contracts and jobs over 15 to 20 years. Is this the legacy that the Key-led government wants to leave?

Where does immigration fit into the Key government’s grand scheme? Net migration went from minus 6760 in 2001 to plus 34,580 in 2002, and up to plus 42,090 in 2003, the beginning of the boom. Since more people require more dwellings, the residential property sector keeps a close eye on net migration. Whether the Clark-Cullen government deliberately allowed the influx to pump up the economy or whether it was an administrative cock-up has never been discussed. There are quality migrants around the world who would give anything to be able to live in New Zealand. By world standards, New Zealand is thinly populated. Would it not be worthwhile to investigate a managed increase in immigration?"

Fatal Paradox said...

Chris, I am genuinely intrigued as to how you can spin Goff's new strategy of economic nationalism as "left wing". Other commentators I can understand making this elementary mistake, but as someone well-versed in the socialist classics I have no doubt that you are aware of what the likes of Marx, Engels and Kautsky had to say on such matters. Preferential support for Kiwi capitalists as opposed to their foreign brethren is not and has never been a socialist policy. On the contrary, it is virtually indistinguishible from the ideology of those well-known leftists and champions of the workers' cause Mssrs. Winston Peters and Rob Muldoon.

As such, I won't be rushing to rejoin the Labour Party any time soon!

Anonymous said...

Labour needs Eco Socialism. Labour may be questioning neoliberalism.. but what is the ETS? Free market Neoliberal climate policy... tax payer subsides for big polluters.

Does labour have it in them to really move beyond neoliberalism..?

Don Franks said...

Here we go again. The first time I recall was 1972, when Big Norm was going to save us.

Today, not for the first time, Labour party leaders make a few pro worker and poplulist noises when safely out of office, and some punters excitedly wet themselves.

The devil is in the hear and now and right in our face detail.

Will comrade Goff stand up to Sir Peter Plutocrat and insist on entertainers rights to negotiate decent pay and conditions.

Ha ha.

The Labour party supports capitalism, and that, in modern political terms is the serious dividing line.

At the end of the day all the other speculation is glorified yuppie diner table conversation, and Chris, you've been around, read the books, seen the movie through four or five times and know that as well as I do.

Anonymous said...

"Mr Key has been left holding on for dear life to the rapidly disintegrating and comprehensively discredited "Neoliberal Consensus".

I know, rhetorically, that such glib phrases roll of the tongue quite easily and maybe accepted, prima facie, without deeper analysis but have you been following the news from Europe lately.

And as far as Goff's policy of economic sovereignty goes it doesn't look good when the CTU at the behest of an Australian union inadvertently scuppers 2500 jobs.

Chris Trotter said...

Give us an alternative, Don. One that hasn't been tried and failed.

Capitalism with socialist characteristics (if I may reverse the Chinese Communist party's description of their system) is what Labour (when it's not in thrall to Rogernomics) has always done.

Most New Zealanders feel pretty comfortable with that mix.

When you can show me they want something more radical, believe me - I'll be all ears.

Victor said...

There's no wonder that New Zealanders feel comfortable with 'Capitalism with Socialist Characteristics'. It's the only system that has ever worked anywhere over the long term.

In the 30 years after World War Two, it gave just about every advanced, industrialised country outside of the Warsaw Pact, an unprecedented degree of prosperity, security and even equality. Why should anyone want anything different?

The sooner we get back there, the better.

Capitalism is great at creating wealth but pretty useless at everything else. That's why it needs regulation and counter-cyclical management.

As an internationalist, I have reservations about the revival of the nation state implicit in the 'modified capitalism' project. But, for the moment, I can't see an alternative to a degree of national dirigisme.

Richard said...

Well may you say that Goff needs to discover the thrill of a political meeting, unfortunately though the attendees will not get much if any of a thrill as Goff is far removed from any form of socialism- see his record as a minister and he has said there is no way but the market way. He cannot sell this, the conversion on the road to Dargaville is a bridge too far.
Labour need another batter to led off here.