Friday, 12 November 2010

As If You Were Free

The "right time" is right now: Matt McCarten's campaign for the working-class parliamentary seat of Mana is a timely reminder that the fight for justice preceeds us, envelops us, and will go on long after us. And though, as Marx observed, working people are everywhere in chains, the most important revolutionary lesson is learning to act "as if you were free".

WHEN MATT McCARTEN told me he was thinking of putting his name forward for the Mana by-election, I shuddered inwardly.

"For God’s sake, Matt," I wanted to say, "what about your health?"

I didn’t, of course. I just waited for Matt to make his case and, as always, he produced a host of compelling reasons for proceeding with his plan.

By choosing Kris Faafoi, a journalist with no discernible links to either the Labour Party or the wider progressive movement – until he became Phil Goff’s press secretary – Labour’s leadership have made it very clear that, as far as the Mana electorate is concerned, it’s going to be business as usual.

Even though, as Matt pointed out to me in the most forceful terms, "business as usual" in the streets of Porirua means poverty, unemployment, homelessness, crime and despair.

The political analyst in me pursed his lips and shook his head.

"With the Labour Party moving steadily to the Left," he intoned disapprovingly, "this is precisely the wrong time to challenge Goff’s hand-picked candidate in an important by-election in one of the party’s safest seats."

Then I caught the gleam in Matt’s eye, and I told my inner political analyst to go stick his objections where the sun don’t shine.

Because if being on the Left means waiting for the "right time" to fight for your principles, then, as the hero of Howard Spring’s wonderful political novel, Fame Is The Spur, discovered, when the fight comes to you, the bright sword of principle can no longer be drawn. Through all those years, while you were waiting for the "right time", the sword’s blade was rusting fast to the scabbard.

Matt McCarten has never been that sort of leftist. His sword never rests long enough in its scabbard to gather a speck of rust. And the trade union he built from scratch – Unite! – has never waited for the "right time" to do anything.

The way Matt set about organising the supposedly "unorganisable" workers of the service sector always reminded me of General Woundwort, the fearless rabbit leader in Watership Down. No matter how formidable the enemy, he always attacked. Watching Unite’s young, low-paid workers take on MacDonald’s, Sky City Casino, and Restaurant Brands, you could almost hear General Woundwort’s rallying cry rising-up from the picket lines: "Come on lads, dogs aren’t dangerous!"

And now Matt’s out there in the Spring sunshine, standing on the street-corners of Mana with his crew, talking to state house tenants about homelessness; to low-paid workers about a minimum wage of $15.00 per hour; to unemployed workers about creating jobs.

And there’s work to be done. Matt’s canvassers have already discovered several empty state houses, while just a few streets away a young family, crowded into a friend’s garage, waits for Housing New Zealand to find them somewhere to live. The empty properties are already being vandalised and the copper piping is long gone.

"What do we need?", asks Unite organiser, Joe Carolan: "We’ve got carpenters, we’ve got plumbers, we’ve got electricians. We can fix this place up. We’ve got people in need. A young family in need … Are you telling me that the only thing we need is to wait for a bureaucrat for another year or two years? We should move people in now."

That’s the way the Labour Party used to talk – back in the days when it still remembered how to fight.

I asked Matt if he’d heard of Slavoj Zizek – the Slovenian socialist currently setting a principled cat among the fat, pragmatic pigeons of the European Left.

"I’m busy, Chris", he chuckled, "of course I haven’t."

"Well, Matt", I replied, "Zizek is challenging Europe’s social-democrats to stop looking over their shoulder at the European Central Bank; to govern ‘as if they were free’.

"Maybe that’s what you should ask the Mana electors, Matt. To stop looking over their shoulder at Labour.

"Could be your slogan.

"Vote – as if you were free."

This essay was originally published in The Dominion Post, The Timaru Herald, The Taranaki Daily News, The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Evening Star of Friday, 12 November 2010.


Olwyn said...

A great post Chris. It leaves me asking myself, what does the term "responsible stewardship of the NZ economy" actually mean under the present conditions? What it cannot realistically mean is business as usual with a few concessions thrown to the masses. And it raises a further question, what have we become as a society when practical concern for social justice, except in parentheses, and in a highly nuanced form, inspires outrage? Good on you Matt for bringing this out in the open.

Anonymous said...

A couple of Jaffa fly by nights are in town two days, pulled a stunt to help another jaffa get elected and in five minutes it all over. Labour candidate deftly turns it into sympathy for the arresting porkers. Sacrificial goat family no better off. Jaffas all fly out back home next week. 'Scuse me if I don't join the weepy bring back Mickey Savage brigade.

Anonymous said...

"Even though, as Matt pointed out to me in the most forceful terms, "business as usual" in the streets of Porirua means poverty, unemployment, homelessness, crime and despair."

I heard Matt call shareholders bludgers.

Presumably it would have been more virtuous for an ordinary worker like me to regularily go off to "Aus" and piss my money up against the wall.

Matt would also need to explain his support for Maori sovereignty over the foreshore and seabed.

Anonymous said...

for another perspective: Zizek in Manhattan: an intellectual charlatan masquerading as “left”
By Bill Van Auken and Adam Haig, 12 November 2010
The Slovenian academic Slavoj Zizek spoke in New York Monday, wandering frenetically between complacent observations about austerity in Europe, warnings of ecological catastrophes and digressions into sado-pornographic facets of popular culture.

more on World Socialist website

Unknown said...

Chris I really like and respect Matt but the following comment eptomises for me why this is so wrong ...

"With the Labour Party moving steadily to the Left," he intoned disapprovingly, "this is precisely the wrong time to challenge Goff’s hand-picked candidate in an important by-election in one of the party’s safest seats."

Labour is moving to the left and it has the respect of the activists that I have not seen since before 1984, apart from the time that David Lange made us nuclear free.

McCarten standing will only increase the chances of one thing happening, National winning a safe Labour seat at a time that Labour is returning to its roots.

How can this be a good thing?

BTW all the best to Matt and Joe Carolyn who are good socialists ...

Victor said...

I'm obviously excessively cynical.

When I heard of Matt McCarten's candidature, I immediately concluded that it was a put-up job designed to split the left-of-centre vote.

Thanks to the above comments I now know better. At least I think I do.

Olwyn said...

My initial reaction was similar to yours, mickeysavage, but I have come to think that what Matt is doing is pushing left wing concerns back into the political limelight, and challenging Labour to live up to the promise of the Labour conference and the fairness at work rallies. This, in the long term, may prove worth the bi-election risk he is taking for the left.

Anonymous said...

My first reaction too Mickey, but dunno.....

Hels, UK Lab, Kevvy, and Oby got kicked in the groin for kowtowing to caution, and now Clegg is about to be garotted. There's a trend and a vibe: that globally and locally, the Fat Cats have screwed us. Even NACT looks worried. A touch of Mana-enhancement for the Left would be their worst Chrissy prezzo.

Matt's always had good antennae and his recent brush with mortality might just have sharpened them further. Punters can, and will instantly, add Lab + Unite: a stellar Matt for Mana turn might just kickstart that long-awaited resuscitation of your namesake's principles and heritage. Heaven help us - we might even start to act as if we were free. China and european students are on their feet...deja vu?


RedLogix said...

Thanks Chris, that's clarified it for me. And beautifully written too.

Freedom though... a fairly terrifying prospect no?

markus said...

Chris, for you - and anyone else interested - I've set-out some statistical analysis of the 2008 Mana Party-Vote in a series of comments on 'The Standard' blog: (1) ('Mana Campaign Heating Up', October 26) and (2) ('New Left Party', November 7), employing my (one) other nom-de-plume "swordfish" on both threads.

(1) 'Mana Campaign Heating Up' (October 26):
Various journalists have suggested the entire seat is both poverty-striken and staunchly-Labour. To provide a more nuanced view of things, one of my comments divides Mana into 5 broad "sub-regions" (clusters of geographically-contiguous and, for the most part, economically and politically similar suburbs).

To highlight geographical strengths and weaknesses of the two major parties, I give the Party-Vote % split for (i) each of these 5 sub-regions and (ii) each suburb within each sub-region (21 suburbs in all).

In other comment-boxes on the same thread, I highlight Green and NZ First strongholds and include some brief analysis of the minor-party vote. (There were more than 1000 NZ First - and almost 2000 minor-party - voters in 2008 in Mana. The majority of both appear to have favoured Laban over Parata in the Candidate-Vote. Should be a fascinating tussle, then, between Matt and Kris for this vote on Saturday. I can see the possibility of Matt making quite strong inroads, here).

(2) 'New Left Party' (November 7):
About a quarter of the way down the comment thread, I've created tables displaying the 1999 and 2002 Alliance Party-Vote (both % and raw number) for each suburb in Mana. Aim: To get a better handle on where the traditional Alliance support-bases are in the seat (and therefore the reservoirs of support Matt may well be tapping into come Election day).

This analysis suggests, I think, that a considerable section of current Green supporters in Mana are former (1999 post-Green split) Alliance voters (accepting, of course, that a decade has passed and the electoral population's not exactly the same). Compare, for example, the Party-Vote in Paekakariki (Mana's Green stronghold). 2008: 28% Green / 1999: 13% Alliance, 13% Green (= 26%). It'll be very interesting, then, to see how far Matt can collapse the Green vote in the seat.

Actually, I've also been thinking that, if he continues to run such a dynamic campaign, he might also start to make inroads into the 'soft' non-vote (those who vote at General Elections but don't bother at Local and By-Elections). I'd estimate there would be at least 8000 of these 'soft' non-voters in Mana, about 5000 of them non-Nacts. Even if he managed to mobilise just, say, 20% of this 5000, that's another 1000 votes on top of the numbers he's already managed to win-over.

Tribeless said...

For someone to mix Marx and the concept of freedom in the same breath, let alone an article, is certainly deluded, Chris, and bordering on obscene. Is there any individual in history with a bigger body count to his ideas when put in practice?

Redlogix post above far better puts the Left's position on freedom, and that is exactly why for freedom lovers, the Left are a 'terrifying prospect', indeed, even more so than the conservative right.

Victor said...


I think you're confusing Dr Marx with some of those Russian chaps.

Anonymous said...

Yes, those aberrant Russians. Poor souls went wrong somewhere and strayed from the wonderful tenets of Marx, which are now perfectly displayed 'where'?


Chris Trotter said...

To: Mick.

Neither I, nor, I suspect, the readers of Bowalley Road, have either the time or the inclination to argue these points with you, Mick.

This is a left-wing blog-site, if the ideology is not to your taste - may I suggest Kiwiblog?

Victor said...

Don't be such a party poop, Chris. We can handle Mick without 'administrative measures'!

Mick, I'm not any sort of Marxist and I don't want to start a lengthy exchange with advocates of various Marxian heresies.

However, it's as clear as crystal that Marx never envisaged the most economically backward of the great powers (with its notorious traditions of tyranny and massacre) becoming the self-styled centre of the international socialist movement.

Rather, he saw Socialism as emerging (primarily if not exclusively)out of the mature capitalist societies of his day, and, in particular, the United Kingdom, Germany and the United States, in all of which, he believed, the working class would soon be the overwhelming majority of citizens.

In the UK and US, Marx suggested, revolution might occur through essentially peaceful and constitutional means, although he was a bit non-committal on this point.

Was Marx a Pacifist?: No.

Were most of the opponents of revolution Pacifists?: No

Did he regard violence as an inevitable part of the revolutionary process?: Probably not

Did he advocate the slaughter of many thousands in the name of Socialism?: No

Now ask the last two questions about Lenin, Stalin, Trotsky or just about any of their more prominent followers. In each case, you'll come up with the resounding answers: Yes and Yes.

Anonymous said...

Chris, thank you for the advice on taste. It is contrary to your usual style to admonish rather than answer. All blogs can display the accoustic qualities of an echo chamber but unless there is a descent into ad hominen ranting, there should be room to confront the embarrassments to any ideology.
Living and working in a communist country cauterized my socialist youth. A dead end that offered the faithful little but struggle. I'm curious [still] to find out if there is a country of left wing / socialist governance that you can hold as exemplar.

To Victor: Thank you for having the time and the inclination to argue these points.



Victor said...


I spent much of the 1970s working in Central Europe and paid frequent visits to Warsaw Pact countries. So I do understand where you're coming from. It's simply that I blame Lenin, Stalin and Brezhnev rather than Marx for the mind-numbing mess these countries were in.

We don't know what the results of a Marxist revolution would have been because there's never been one (i.e there's never been a revolution carried out by an educated working class majority in an advanced industrial society).

Personally, I don't think there ever will be such a revolution. Marx was a brilliant analyst of how Capitalism had grown out of Feudalism and understood the economic sinews of our world far better than any of his intellectual predecessors and most of his successors.

But, to my mind, there's no reason to think that, just because one form of society replaced another, so a third sort will replace the second by an analogous route. That's turning 'hats into ideas', precisely the crime of which Marx accused his fellow Germans.

Meanwhile, Democratic Socialists (some of them Marxists) and Social Democrats had, by the mid twentieth century, half-tamed Capitalism and turned it into a much less savage and homicidal beast. However, in the last 30 years it's got out of its cage again and is ravaging the planet.

Olwyn said...

Well said Victor. Simone Weil, thinking along the same lines as you, pointed out that the French Revolution was not exactly the overthrow of Aristocracy, but rather underlined the fact that they had already been overthrown. By that stage the bourgeoisie were already running things, and the revolution affirmed their control.

Victor said...


The opening stages of the French Revolution can be quite confusing. 'Liberal' Aristos, whose feudal privileges had been eroded by Bourbon centralism and who feared the impact of royal taxation on their hitherto privileged estates, finding temporary common cause with the Bourgeoisie, who sought no taxation without representation, the fruits of office and a career open to talent. Meanwhile, the (essentially non-proletarian) Sans Culottes are rioting in the streets and sacking chateaux, perhaps because of hatreds engendered by the last ditch stand of the Aristos to drag every available louis d'or out of long dormant feudal dues. But don't get me going on my obsession......

Scott said...

'It's crystal clear that...Marx saw Socialism as emerging (primarily if not exclusively)out of the mature capitalist societies of his day, and, in particular, the United Kingdom, Germany and the United States'

I don't think this is quite as clear as you say Victor. Marx moved during the course of his life from an almost religious faith in the inevitability of capitalism breeding revolution in the Western countries where it had first emerged, and a concommitant belief in the desirability of colonising non-Western countries with capitalism, to a partial disillusionment with the Western working class and a recognition that pre- and semi-capitalist political and economic forms, like the Russian peasant commune and the Iroquois Federation, could become seedbeds for socialism.

The change in Marx's perspective was caused partly by the failure of the Paris Commune to turn into a wider revolution and partly by Marx's massive readings about pre- and semi-capitalist societies, and particularly about Russia. We can see the change reflected in late texts like the preface to the 1882 Russian edition of The Communist Manifesto, where Marx argues that Russia could proceed directly from its largely pre-capitalist state to socialism, if it used the Russian peasant commune as a basis for development and if it was supported by socialist revolutions in the West. Both Trotsky's theory of permanent revolution and the Narodnik/Social Revolutionary belief in the possibility of an agrarian socialism can claim some precedent in Marx's 1882 text. Marx's late letter to Vera Zasulich, which is preserved in a number of drafts, also makes clear his belief that capitalist development is not necessarily a prerequisite for socialism. It is no coincidence that both Kark Kautsky and Stalin blocked the publication of the Zasulich texts, and tried to downplay Marx's turn away from Eurocentric and stagist conceptions of history and politics.

The classic work on the transition in Marx's thought is Teodor Shanin's book Late Marx and the Russian Road. I've blogged about the movement to publish and publicise Marx's late work here:

Olwyn said...

@ Victor: I do not know the details of the French Revolution nearly as well as you clearly do, but I think Weil's point in saying what she said was that successful revolutions do not bring about a change of power, but rather affirm a change of power that has already, if quietly, taken place. The reasoning behind it is that if you didn't already have the power your attempted revolution would not be successful. For these reasons she thought that the idea that the oppressed workers would suddenly rise up and seize the levers of power was a mistaken one. She did believe in and fight for social justice, but thought that confidence that a socialist revolution was just around the corner was misplaced.

Victor said...


Many thanks for your comment and blog link, which have suggested some interesting further reading.

I certainly agree with you that the later Marx allowed for the possibility of socialist revolutions developing in certain countries (and particularly Russia) without a previous maturing of capitalism.

I actually had Marx's letter to Vera Zasulich in mind when I added the modifying phrase "primarily if not exclusively" to my original comment about his concentration on advanced capitalist economies as seed-beds of Socialism.

However, my understanding has always been that, from the Communist Manifesto onwards, Marx always saw the bypassing of capitalism developments as taking place within an overall framework of capitalism's global maturation, with developed nations remaining at the epicentre. I'll be interested to read further and discover if I've been mistaken.

And, yes, Marx wasn't always a Marxist, let alone a determinist.


Yes, I realised, on re-reading your post, that you were making that significant point, with which I largely agree.

Don Franks said...

The last two evenings television programes have made one thing abundantly clear, TV 3 are gunning for Matt McCarten.

The other night there is a TV3 beat up about food prices. Cut to some poor bastard in Porirua who "knows the price of everything in his fridge". And is struggling to fill the thing each week. Cut to the National and Labour candidates. Ask them quickly how much does bread and milk cost? Labour guy fluffs around a bit, National lady knows.
So far, so polite. Now cut to Matt.
He's not in a neutral situation like the others, he's having a meal in a cafe. Zoom in on the union bosses meal. How much does bread cost? A bit rattled, Matt says he doesn't eat bread. Close up on the piece of toast under his bacon and eggs. Tv3 rub it in.
Demanding to know if a candidates knows the price of stuff is an old bourgeois election debating trick which TV3 have revived. It actually proves very little.
Of course the real question is, how can workers be better able to pay for bread and milk - with a minimum of $15 an hour of course. That's what should have been thrown back at TV 3 and only one candidate could have said so. Easy for me to say that now. When I was a Wellington central WP candidate I used to always think of such brilliant comebacks half an hour later.

I felt that clip was a TV 3 setup and my suspicions were confirmed tonight after the second one.

This time the great TV 3 campaign is exposing Carpet Baggers. Candidates who lie outside the electorate. In various ways, they're all carpet baggers. What's featured is some angry guy giving Matt stick about that in the mall. "You don't live here!" " The other night on TV you didn't know what bread cost!" What the guy is really angry about I don't know, but Matt not living in the area or knowing the price of a grocery item is unlikely to be the root cause of the fellow's unhappiness. Matt took the sustained attack with dignity - and it was sustained, the TV3 clip repeated, to rub it in again. The other two carpet baggers just had another nice innocuous matey encounter.

As someone with criticisms of Matt's campaign I would like to make two observations.

The top candidate in the election actively helping pay workers pay their food bills is Matt.

The top candidate for calculated cowardly attacks on that candidate and therebye on workers rights is TV 3.