Thursday 6 October 2011

The Angel Of History

A Storm Called Progress: Paul Klee's Angelus Novus. The Angel of History is blown backwards into the future by the gales of historical change. Labour's critics challenge it to confront directly the accumulation of its past decisions - and their consequences. How else can the Labour Party, and the people who vote Labour, hope to change them?

ROBERT WINTER is a fan of Jerome K. Jerome, a fact which immediately distinguishes him as a man of taste and discernment. His blog Idle Thoughts of an Idle Fellow offers some of the pithiest political commentary to be found anywhere in the New Zealand blogosphere. Most of the time I agree with Robert, and he with me. Over recent weeks, however, we have not agreed. And since my every attempt to leave  a comment on his own blog has failed (Blogger has never really recovered from its meltdown of a few months ago) I am responding to his critiques here, on Bowalley Road.

ONE OF THE most common criticisms of Labour’s left-wing critics is that they are mired in the past. According to the party’s (dwindling) number of supporters and defenders, the watches of those who criticise Labour have all stopped. Some at 19:84, some at 19:91, others at 20:02. These critics are both fixed in and fixated by words and deeds that long ago passed into history. This, says Labour, is as destructive as it is unhelpful. The eyes of the Left, according to Labour and its followers, should be fixed upon the future: let the dead bury their dead.

At the same time (and somewhat paradoxically) Labour’s defenders also use history as a means of discrediting its left-wing opponents alternative narratives and policy-options.

“As I've suggested before,” writes Robert, “the world of social democracy a la 1935 is no more. We no longer have the same labour force, the same unions, the same systems and organisation of production, the same social mores, the same communities, or the same ability to operate within the protection of a nation-state. Above all, and this is underestimated as a factor by most, the hopes attached to alternative systems have, for now, been dashed - the Bolshevik model, from the Soviet Union to Cuba, has failed and we are now seeking new alternatives. That takes time. We may not like this, but it is a reality. Meanwhile, Capitalism, driven by its own imperatives, has moved on politically and economically, particularly on two fronts - the global impact and power of finance capital and the organisation of global production in value chains.”

This is the standard Blairite explanation – adopted by Labour and social-democratic parties from Australasia to Scandinavia. It is not, however, an analysis: it’s a description – and an excuse. It’s the right-wing social-democrats’ way of saying: “Capitalism’s become too big to tackle. All we can hope to do is smooth-off some of its sharper edges. There really is no alternative to the free market.”

But, as the former British Labour MP, Bryan Gould, explained more than two years ago:

“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.”

If social-democracy is not about challenging market outcomes (and the social inequality and injustice they generate) then what is it about? Sure, the shape and power of capitalism changes: but, so what? Capitalism was once about coal and steam-engines and machine looms. Then it was about oil, and electricity and the internal combustion engine. Its records were once produced by Bob Cratchits with pens. Then it was flappers with typewriters. As far back as 1848, Karl Marx and Fred Engels recognised capitalism as the most dynamic force on the planet.

Their celebrated description of capitalism: “Constant revolutionizing of production, uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions, everlasting uncertainty, and agitation distinguish the bourgeois epoch from all earlier ones. All fixed, fast frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions, are swept away, all new-formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify. All that is solid melts into air”; could have been written yesterday.

Stubbornly refusing to “melt into air”, however, are the relationships peculiar to capitalism. These are as solid as they ever were. And it is this, the edifice of domination, subordination and exploitation which holds capitalist society in place, that social-democracy seeks to challenge, shrink, modify and, ultimately, dismantle.

That’s what the First, Second and Third Labour Governments did here. Even the Fourth challenged, shrank, modified and dismantled, although not for any progressive purpose. But the Fifth (leaving aside the brief period it was goaded forward by its genuinely social-democratic coalition partner, the Alliance) was largely content to leave the capitalist edifice unchallenged. From the labour market to broadcasting, welfare to global warming, the ‘reforms” of the Clark-led government were tentative, half-hearted and almost totally ineffectual.

Of course we can’t go back to 1935 – or 1972. But we can decide to follow the same social-democratic principles, and pursue the same objectives, as Mickey Savage and Norman Kirk. We can declare that any society which denies ordinary working people a meaningful role in shaping their collective future is not a democratic society. We can also say that any party which refuses to respond to working-class exclusion by “putting people first and money second” is not – and never can be – a Labour Party.

In 1940, on the run from the Nazis, the German-Jewish philosopher and social critic, Walter Benjamin, recalled the impact of a work of art by Paul Klee:

"A Klee painting named ‘Angelus Novus’ shows an angel looking as though he is about to move away from something he is fixedly contemplating. His eyes are staring, his mouth is open, his wings are spread. This is how one pictures the angel of history. His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing in from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such violence that the angel can no longer close them. This storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress."

We are driven forward only by what lies behind us. 

This post is exclusive to the Bowalley Road blogsite.


Anonymous said...

I was speaking to a seventy year old woman the other day, and she said she was voting Labour because her parents voted Labour?
I did not know what to say?
But my in my mind i was thinking, "well that's a naive thing to do"?

Brendan McNeill said...

I have tended to stay out of the internal 'what happened to Labour' debates on this blog, because I think Chris, you have clearly articulated what's happened to them in your postings over recent months. In short, they have become abstracted from those they used to represent, and have become consumed by 'identity' politics, which in turn has resulted in their deserved irrelevance.

However as someone who believes that the market economy, although imperfect, has generated more wealth and opportunity for more people than any other system devised by mankind, I am amazed when I see you write:

"...the edifice of domination, subordination and exploitation which holds capitalist society in place, that social-democracy seeks to challenge, shrink, modify and, ultimately, dismantle."

This phrasing just sounds like 'dogma' to me, with no real basis in recent workplace reality. In New Zealand, where are these domineering, exploitative capitalist employers? Do you personally know of any?

Yes, in times past they probably existed in their droves, unions served their place, and conditions have improved for the better.

However, I doubt that there is 1% of employers in New Zealand who operate, or think along the lines you have described. I personally know a good many employers, and cannot think of one that fits your stereotype.

Straw men are easy to fight, but their defeat provides a hollow victory.

History has moved on, and there is little point in fighting yesterdays battles all over again.

This is perhaps why today, many of the working poor support John Key. They understand that it is better to be in work and to be aspirational, than to "shrink, modify and, ultimately, dismantle" a system that provides for them economically today, and the very real opportunity for economic advancement tomorrow.

Nick said...

@merlene...I find it hard to vote for Labour because of the reasons Chris states BUT I will: the other alternative is too hard to bear. My disgust for the loathsome principles that the Right holds dear is life long, its visceral. My family are not so united on this, but they know a bad thing when they see it. I understand the 70 year old well. Naive? Informed by experience perhaps.

Anonymous said...

In fairness to the last Labour Govt there is some continuity with the past in terms of public finance. Dr Cullen did prioritise the retirement of public debt, which was mostly held by foreigners; and he did try to construct a national savings scheme, albeit based on generous incentives. I also recall him use all his rhetorical force to oppose the 1991 Benefit cuts, but he chose not to address poverty directly as finance minister; Clark said there was not enough money, when there obviously was.

The fact remains that the only long term Labour Government was built on a broad constituency that was affected by the Depression, and that explicitly wanted to avoid the effects of long-term unemployment. The truth is that there is not enough social solidarity, for want of a better term, to enforce the measures that could achieve and maintain anything like full employment. While Labour are beholden to the Reserve Bank Act, and defer to Treasury's unchallenged practices, there is no hope for real change. Notice this week that the Audit Office seem to explicitly state that Treasury had not acted in the best interests of the state, and implicitly that it acted in the interests of the financiers. Key then denied that the report said any such thing, and that was the end of it. Nice try on that Labour, and all the other statistic-based questions that have got brushed off by National.

Anonymous said...

So, Chris, tell me, who are the "working class" now?

Loz said...

This morning Julia Gillard was on the radio dismissing calls from Australian Unions to axe free trade agreements where Australian jobs would be threatened. As in New Zealand, The Labor leader admonished that the unions didn't realise the opportunities presented by free trade due as a result of extra consumers who would want to buy Australian products... the same justification advanced by Phil Goff.

Labor's leadership fundamentally believes that a deregulated economy, free from restraints on business, produces prosperity. In that mind-set, the very concept of asserting collective power over "free" business becomes detrimental and the philosophical basis for the labour movement (and parties) to exist disappears.

Labour doesn't show any wavering in support for free trade (and by association) its free market ideology. Maryan Street, Phil Goff, Raymond Hue, Annette King and David Parker and are all on record supporting Free Trade Agreements while Damien O'Connor likened attempts to derail free trade as "national treachery".

Maybe, as the world moves full circle, it’s fitting for the clearest criticism of the present to come from the past.

" criticise the Labour Party for some of its sins; but to my mind their worst sin is creating a god, naming it free trade, and then worshipping it."

Hawera & Normanby Star, 22 November 1924

Sanctuary said...

Voting tribally - that is, realying on your parent's and your communities judgment - is no more stupid (and probably a lot wiser) than voting for John Key "because he is nice man".

Chris Trotter said...

To: Anonymous@8:25

Start with this:

and if you need more education, try visiting a Housie evening - or your local RSA.

Anonymous @ 8:25 said...

I remember reading that piece when you first posted it and thinking how spot-on you were.

Most of the people at the RSAs and Housie are usually elderly workers who are sociologically (and self-consciously) working-class in a way that younger "workers" mostly aren't. The is a huge gap between those people and subsequent generations.

In my campaigning for the Left and in daily life I have met lots of people who would fit into the categories you identify in that piece who see themselves as middle-class and aspire to be upper middle-class. It seems to me what matters is how people see themselves and their aspirations, rather than what they are.

Very few blue-collar people I know (and I know many) actually identify as working-class. Beneficiaries are about the only group of people I can tell who are likely to have any kind of class awareness at all, but large numbers of them will vote for John Key because he is "cool".

Anonymous @ 8:25 said...

@Brendan. Richmond Fellowship, IHC, significant numbers of resthomes.

Bullying is commonplace in just about every workplace any of my family have ever worked in, and often in the form of a manager.

Constructive dismissal of employees who don't submit to the desires of management is routine. I know of a Harcourts where this happened in the last month.

I know of numerous cases of farmers treating their employees illegally, but most of them never get taken to court.

In Canterbury the CDHB is restructuring its mental health services despite the fact that many of its employees have suffered badly the the earthquakes, and so is the City Council, and the workers have no way to stop it - they have to take it.

I know of a garage owner that wouldn't let his workers go home after the Feb 22 earthquake and made them get back under cars.

I have dealt with several students who have been treated appallingly by the retailers they worked for, including being denied hours illegally and having them changed illegally and without notice. Rebel Sport being one guilty party.

The list is a long as a piece of string...

Brendan McNeill said...

@Anonymous October 6, 2011 11:50

I accept that what you say is true. It appears that you have first hand experience working in these environments.

If I can make a couple of observations. One is that some of your concerns relate to the behavior of management. I'm sure you will agree that poor management practice is not unique to Capitalist or market economies. No doubt work place bullying exists in Socialist and Marxist economies.

The second is the effects on staff of 'restructuring'. Again, restructuring is not unique to Capitalist or market economies.

Finally, you quote two instances of illegal behavior on the part of employers. Really this proves my point. Their behavior is illegal, and therefore not sanctioned or approved by the Capitalist market economy of the 21st century. The employees in question have an opportunity for redress before the law that protects their rights.

I have not found anything in your post that causes me to revise my belief that market economies provide the most wealth for the most people of any economic and structural system devised by mankind throughout human history.

Anonymous October 6, 2011 11:50 said...

@Brendan. You don't seem to be aware at how the power is stacked against workers even when the law is nominally on their side. Low-wage workers don't have the skills, the time or resources to be able to defend themselves from abusive employers without strong unions.

With high levels of unemployment and low levels of unionisation there is always a scab waiting in the wings to take your job if your boss decides to make things hard for you. There's not much point in $10K compensation when you need another $25K to pay the mortgage, either.

Markets distribute consumer goods very well, that is true. Free market capitalism that is restrained by democracy is far better than any other method of distributing wealth because the market and the state place constraints on one another. However, what we have today is not a market constrained by democracy, only democracy at the mercy of finance capital.

So, when the finance sector causes a global recession workers lose their jobs and the poor are denied the help they need, while banks are bailed out to the tune of trillions of dollars.

In capitalism unrestrained by democracy, it is always the poor, working or not, that bear the brunt of economic calamity.

KjT said...

Capitalism has been so successful, the socialists have to bail it out, on average every 13 years.