Sunday 22 November 2015

What I Believe - A Social-Democrat's Credo


Challenged by the uncompromising content of my latest posting, “Capitalism Kills”, some readers of Bowalley Road have challenged me to state my own beliefs. Accordingly, I have hunted out part of a presentation I delivered to the Labour Party Summer School held near Thames in January 2007. For all those who have been asking me to spell out what I stand for – this is my answer.

I BELIEVE that human societies arise out of need. The need for food and shelter, the need for intimacy, the need for nurturing, and the need for protection – both from natural dangers and the aggression of our own species. To secure these needs human beings must work, individually or collectively, but always with the ultimate purpose of keeping strong those innumerable threads that bind our communities into a functioning wholeness.
The source of fulfilment of these human needs is the natural bounty of the planet on which our species dwells. Human beings are but one of the countless life-forms which inhabit the Earth’s surface and we share with them a fundamental dependency on the planet’s life-giving properties.
Alone among all the creatures of the Earth, humankind possesses the power to radically alter the fragile environment of its home. Such power bears with it an awesome responsibility. Our own future, and the future of all other living things, depends upon our willingness to accept that what is possible is not always desirable. To ensure its survival, the human species must recognise the limits of its power.
In New Zealand, two peoples co-exist in differing states of awareness of the essential collectivism and dependency of human communities. The indigenous people possess a clear and poignant vision of humanity’s place in these islands. But the colonising peoples would not rest until the ideas and institutions of their respective cultures had taken root in New Zealand. To the extent they succeeded, the conflicts and contradictions of their homelands were also transplanted here. Resolving these conflicts and contradictions, and discovering the best means of prospering together, is the historic task of the two peoples fated to share these islands – Maori and Pakeha.
As a social-democrat I am dedicated to furthering in all aspects of my country’s social, political and economic organisation the essential equality of human beings. Social-democracy defines equality in terms of the universality of human need. Old or young, male or female, Maori or Pakeha, we are all defined by the human and ecological relationships indispensable to our existence. None of us live but by the bounty of nature and the collective exertion of our fellow human beings.
That being so, we must reject all claims hostile to the reality of our interdependence. Individuals and groups who through inherited advantage or simple good fortune are endowed with disproportionate wealth and resources, enjoy their property on the sufferance of that vast majority whose daily labours make possible a functioning society. Only for as long as, in the judgement of the many, the accumulation of property by a fortunate few serves the interests of the community as a whole, will the private control of wealth be permitted to endure. Any attempt by a minority to transform this dispensation into a system of permanent and unchallengeable privilege cannot be deemed just.
As a social-democrat I look to the state, as the institutional expression of our interdependence, to secure for all citizens a healthy and abundant life. The provision of gainful employment, education, health, housing, and the guarantee of protection against the arbitrary curtailment of the citizens’ capacity, individually, to determine freely, within the constraints imposed by their interdependence, how best to pursue their own happiness, are rights due to all New Zealanders. Political institutions and the laws they create exist to secure these rights, drawing their authority from the freely given consent of all responsible citizens. Those charged with governing our country, hold in trust the resources – both natural and social – that are the common property of all our people.
Being a social-democrat, I cannot countenance the arbitrary dispersal of the New Zealand people’s resources, nor the slow fragmentation and dilution of their rights. Neither will I surrender the sovereignty of my nation to the interests of foreigners. Though the fundamental kinship of all human beings is indisputable, New Zealand’s destiny, finally, must be the enterprise of New Zealanders alone.
This essay was posted by The Daily Blog and Bowalley Road on Sunday, 22 November 2015.


David Stone said...

Hi Chris
Can't argue with any of that.
Cheers David J S

peteswriteplace said...

Good post Chris. But Maori are not an indigenous people; they are not a race. They are descendants of Eastern Polynesia immigrants. - most likely Rarotonga and the Society Islands and further east. They are our First People, though some even dispute that. There were most likely other polynesians here before them who died out or were assimilated with Maori.

I get sick of the constant and disparaging criticism of our pakeha ancestors being colonisers. The British were in many cases, but my Swedish forbears were just like the original Maori - immigrants.

Mark Hubbard said...

Of course I can argue with all of that, but, the bit that perplexes me, Chris, *with respect* is how that nationalism of the final para has superseded the 'Internationale' of world socialism - same with Labour: every protectionist policy to subsidise workers here is at the expense of overseas workers, surely, some with much worse conditions than Kiwis.

I'd be interested in your reasoning.

Chris Trotter said...

To: Mark Hubbard.

I'm struggling to follow the line of your argument here, Mark.

Let us take, for example, the sale of NZ farmland to representatives of US agribusiness.

As a social-democrat, I would oppose such a sale.

As a libertarian, presumably, you'd support it, on the basis (if what you say in your comment is what you truly mean) that the sale would, somehow, benefit foreign workers.

Can't see the linkage myself - perhaps you'd care to explain?

Guerilla Surgeon said...

Oh God. You don't have to be an internationalist in the old-fashioned sense to be a Social Democrat. And we should perhaps encourage other governments to look after their own people as well as the New Zealand government (should) look after theirs. What I would like to know Mark is since when have libertarians ever given a shit about the working conditions of ordinary people? Surely that's simply solved through free and open exchange of labour and money? Like buggery.:)

Wayne Mapp said...

This seems more of a socialist presription than social democrat, at least as I understand it.
I understand that social democrat philosophy essentially accept the market, but seeks to moderate it to ensure everyone has a fair chance in education, in health and in general well being and social participation. Obviously there is a wide gradation within that.
But your sentence starting "Only in the judgement of the many, the accumulation of property by the few…" speaks of a different conception. On this basis private property of any significance would be rather tenuously held and could be readily appropriated. Of course it does depend on the definition of the few. Presumably you don't mean the quite widely held wealth that is typical of New Zealand and many other western nations, but rather the extreme levels of wealth such as may be accumulated by billionaires.
But even that raises questions. Do you believe in say 90% to 100% tax levels on wealth and income beyond a certain level, presumably rather high levels.
It seems to me you would need top tax levels to be well above 50 or 60% at least for very high levels of income, say above $500,000. It would also require an annual wealth tax, since a capital gains tax levied on realization could not stop significant wealth accumulation.
You do have a qualifier, wealth can be kept if it "serves the interests of the community as a whole." What does this mean?Maybe highly innovative creators of wealth are OK (people like Sir Peter Jackson), but wealth gained from say ownership of a casino or brewery, perhaps not.
Anyway it does seem to me your prescription is more socialist than social democrat. After all social democrats are moderated by the fact they know that in a democracy the right gains power from time to time, so excessive measures tend not to survive. Most successful governments whether left or right want their major reforms to survive the inevitable change of government. An example being that the Employment Contracts Act of 1991 did not survive but in contrast the Employment Relations Act of 2000 has.

greywarbler said...

Mark Hubbard.
It would not be an aim of Labour to reduce the conditions of workers in each country until they match those of the worst off.

I think Chris made the point of no group being determined to unfairly favour itself, at the cost of other people, which would would apply to your argument. But workers in one country should be able to raise standards to a reasonable level without curtailing themselves until they could also advance all workers internationally.

I think there was a feeling in NZ that workers in some militant unions had achieved an advantaged position in NZ over the general public. That was behind the willingness of business to stick it to the workers as a whole and introduce all the neo lib oppression we have now. But that wasn't in a generous and caring spirit to help worse-off workers in another land and indeed all the vaunted advantages to poorer countries of free markets are not received by the workers but by their bosses, the workers having no choice but to exist of small wages, long hours, and I am sure few support services.

Sam V said...

Peter, you are right that we shouldn't continually beat ourselves up about history but equally we should understand what happened objectively so that we can have a considered opinion.
Colonisation was brutal, we can't change that but we can act to counteract the negative aspects of it's legacy rather than "soothing the pillow of a dying race" as NZ casually referred to genocide in the 1920's.
Mark your argument is a rehash of old ones.
The argument from the 1830's (according to Engels) goes like this "if the children aren't forced to work in the mill then they will remain in conditions unfavorable to their development". This is correct but that doesn't mean that it is acceptable.
Globalism is equally terrible, we are not doing people a favour in third world countries by forcing them to work in slave labour environments. There is no path upwards and onwards for them, there is no meritocracy.
If we are to have free trade agreements then they need to be with countries that accept minimum conditions for people who work and environmental standards.
Otherwise competitive advantage is just which of the largest corporations can dominate the most resources and shift jobs to the lowest wage economy.
Adam Smith would be appalled, he railed against this sort of thing.
Chris, you are far more advanced than the majority but your social democracy sounds to me more like Marxism. It's sad that I would call an argument from the 1850's advanced but progress has stalled here, don't worry though the latest iphone is out.
I don't think we should say what a future society should look like but I agree with much of your criticism.
My own political position is different, I think Michel Foucault put it best when he said “The real political task in a society such as ours is to criticize the workings of institutions that appear to be both neutral and independent, to criticize and attack them in such a manner that the political violence that has always exercised itself obscurely through them will be unmasked, so that one can fight against them.”
Only when people understand where we are will they be able to decide where we should go, I am not so supremely arrogant as to say where this may be.

Charles E said...

I'm quite surprised and impressed by your philosophy Chris. You are not who I thought you were!
Based on other things you have written, I thought you were a far left revolutionary. So I have to accept I was either wrong in my interpretations of you, or more often than I have picked, you were playing devil's advocate.
You sound in this post like a very moderate, conservative, fair minded democrat, just like me! I'm sure you don't have that impression of me so perhaps I should not play the devil so often either.

Mark Hubbard said...

Cheers for interacting Chris. No, you miss my point. As a libertarian, my viewpoint is borderless. Individual rights, and the sanctity of each individual life - national borders are meaningless. So many dreadful (and arbitrary) deaths have been enacted by justification of silly national borders. The Internationale is a construct I agree with socialism on.

Um. Oh look, wine.

pat said...

"Those charged with governing our country, hold in trust the resources – both natural and social – that are the common property of all our people."

now if that were the credo (followed) of politicians of any persuasion the vast majority of dispute would disappear overnight.

Bushbaptist said...

@ Peter Petterson; You're right in so far as the Maori are not a race but the Polynesians as a group are a sub-race. The male DNA traces back to the Anderman Islands and Bangladesh, the female DNA is from Sth Asia via Sumatra. The Polynesian core base was Samoa and they radiated out from there, south to NZ via New Caledonia and the Pacific Islands. They also travelled east to Hawaii and Tahiti, on to Easter Island and further to Sth. America.

How do we know this? Well, firstly the Kumera, and the island potato both came from Sth. America. As did the Polynesian hen which bears no relationship with the hens from Asia but does from the Americas. There is also DNA evidence amongst some people in Peru that is trace-able to Polynesian ancestry.

I could wax on lyrically but you get the picture -- we are all immigrants of one form or another. Even my ancestors the Gaels of Scotland and Ireland who immigrated from Denmark many eons ago we immigrants.

Good post Chris and it is about where I stand politically and economically.

Jack Scrivano said...

I have to agree with Mr Petterson. Research suggests that for many many years the sliver of land that we now know as New Zealand was uninhabited by humans. Maori may have been the first humans to arrive – but even that is open to argument. The Europeans who arrived in the later wave – Dutch, English, Irish, Scottish, German, Scandinavian, et al – are not without their rights. Did they make smart deals? Did they ‘trick’ the locals? Yes, probably. But that’s what happens. It happened in 1796; it happens in 2015; and it has happened all around the world. To claim special rights for having arrived here ‘first’ is just silly.

The Flying Tortoise said...

I like that. Thankyou for your well considered and presented declaration.
I wish other's often commenting here would have the guts to state what they stand for...

Guerilla Surgeon said...

"On this basis private property of any significance would be rather tenuously held and could be readily appropriated."

I bet the Maori wish they had somebody like you around Wayne, particularly after 1865. Stuff about "we are all migrants" – sorry it's specious bullshit that has been used to justify the confiscation of land off Maori for years. The English, the Scots, the French don't go around in their native country saying – "oh we're migrants really." Migrants are those dark looking people they try to keep out.

Chris Trotter said...

To: Wayne Mapp.

Socialism and social-democracy were once interchangeable terms, Wayne. Only the practice of the Communist regimes calling themselves "socialist" (as in the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics) made the relationship between the two designations problematic.

Cold war caution aside, however, the purpose of social-democracy has always been to develop a system in which capitalism is involved in an ever smaller fraction of economic and social life.

Where the Marxist-Leninists counselled the violent overthrow and smashing of the capitalist state, the social-democrats foresaw a time when the degree of public and co-operative ownership of the economy would see capitalist private enterprise restricted largely to the personal services sector - hairdressers, restaurateurs, etc, within which entrepreneurs would likely continue to operate for a very long period of time.

A peaceful and democratic transition from one system to the other, in other words, as opposed to a violent overthrow of the existing order and the institution of a totalitarian regime in order to protect the Revolution's "gains".

If you believe that our endings are to be found in our beginnings, you will understand why I prefer the former prescription to the latter.

As for your concerns about the sanctity of property, I would suggest we start by reproducing the entire sentence you have quoted, rather than an ungrammatical chunk.

The whole sentence reads: "Only for as long as, in the judgement of the many, the accumulation of property by a fortunate few serves the interests of the community as a whole, will the private control of wealth be permitted to endure."

I would suggest to you, Wayne, that this is not so very far from the current legal reality. The Public Works Act empowers the state to over-ride the property rights of individuals and businesses (albeit with the guarantee of compensation). Also, the legislation empowering the state to confiscate what it believes to be property acquired through criminal activity - even in circumstances where criminal activity has not be proven in a court of law!

What the sentence under scrutiny addresses is the mixed economy you allude to in your comment. While capitalist enterprises continue to provide goods and services from which the whole community benefits, the attendant profits will be permitted to remain under the enterprise's control.

Considerable portions of that profit would, however, be taken by the state in the form of tax, and by the workforce in the form of the higher wages negotiated by their trade unions. The environmental policies of the social-democratic government would also require the capitalist enterprise to address the vexed question of externalities - probably in the form of pollution and denial-of-public-use charges. So, there wouldn't be a great deal left for the enterprise to distribute to its shareholders by way of a dividend!

The other potential problem which the sentence addresses is best illustrated by the Koch brothers in the USA. Their attempt to translate their enormous wealth into direct political influence - to the measurable detriment of the "community as a whole" - is not only unjust but dangerous. The sentence is aimed directly at all such "malefactors of great wealth" (If I may quote Teddy Roosevelt.)

To posit an absolute right to private wealth, Wayne, is to cast your vote for plutocracy - not democracy.

Grant said...

@ Chris: When replying to Wayne Mapp you said: "As for your concerns about the sanctity of property, I would suggest we start by reproducing the entire sentence you have quoted, rather than an ungrammatical chunk."

It's this kind of thing which is the reason why I accuse Mapp of intellectual dishonesty. He's a lawyer, a law commissioner (gawd help us) and a trained academic. He knows better, but chooses the low road. (Spit)

Guerilla Surgeon said...

Internationalism is a lovely concept Mark, but at the moment impractical. I'd be less opposed to jobs going overseas to people on very low wages, it wasn't for the fact that on very low wages they can at least afford to buy stuff. On their wages I would starve.
Individual rights are lovely too, except for the power imbalance between me as an individual, and those I have to negotiate with when I sell my labour. As I understand it, libertarians don't believe that anyone should be able to take anything from anyone else by use of force. While there are more types of force available than armed people turning up at your doorstep and taking your hard earned tax money.
You also seem to think that people are able to negotiate freely with their employers – works for some – and I noticed that the people who tend to favour this other ones that works for. Others simply get handed their conditions and pay and told to take it or leave it. Under a system which, if you get your way guarantees no one the right to a basic living.
And the answer always seems to be – well go and get a job somewhere else. I've seen this so many times when people complain about working conditions, or some other problem with work. Penn Gillette might be able to go and get a job somewhere else, but most people simply can't. So you take what you are given – no negotiation needed :-).
I'm not sure that libertarians actually think these things through. The assumptions on which you base your ideas are utopian. But tell you what, give us an example of a place where it's worked? Apart from science fiction.

Anonymous said...

A very good ideal, does anyone of your commentators know what they are talking about?.

Richard McGrath said...

GS: "But tell you what, give us an example of a place where it's worked?"

The United States and Great Britain prior to 1914.

Guerilla Surgeon said...

"A very good ideal, does anyone of your commentators know what they are talking about?."
Absent the right-wing ones and those who make vague unintelligible statements and questions – yes.

Anonymous said...


Guerilla Surgeon said...

"The United States and Great Britain prior to 1914."

Oh. Sorry, I didn't realise you were quite so ignorant of history. You're not seriously suggesting this – well yes you are of course – but it's completely and utterly false. At least as far as the US is concerned, I know a bit less about Britain.
Your first assumption of course is that there is something called the free market. That of course runs into the Sorites paradox. But aside from that, all markets have restrictions. Its just that we sometimes don't notice them. So objectively there is no such thing. And isn't objectivism your thing?
Secondly, you don't seem to realise that America was a very protected and regulated economy at least until after World War II. Mostly due to the Republicans of course. But up until the 1880s the average tariff in the US was about 50%. And not a great deal less after.
Now Britain is a bit more complex obviously, but many of the gains made by British workers in the adoption of "free trade" where due to the fact that it was a low-wage economy. In France for instance free trade lowered workers wages. You might not mind this at all, but it does show that people don't necessarily benefit from free trade and unregulated markets.
Lastly of course – well I could go on but I won't – you don't seem to have any idea of what sort of society you want, or will be produced from "freeing up" markets. Maybe that's just me, maybe you think Rand's novels contain the necessary information, but you seem to have no problems at all with economic inequality. Or with poverty, (though I assume you think this won't exist?) Or unequal power relationships between workers and employers. Still perhaps you could clarify this for me.

Nick J said...

Fascinating commentary from all. Great column Chtris. Let's hope every Labour MP examines how they define their commitment to social democracy!

Nick J said...

Interesting comments from Richard McGrath and Mark Hubbard. Tell me gents do you think that in the course of business externalities such as pollution and social costs should be fully funded by the business? Do you regard extrrnalities as free? Or are unpaid externalities something tolerated as a shared cost rather than individual expropriation / theft from the commons?

Victor said...

A good item , Chris.

But I’m not sure I would agree that Social Democracy necessarily involves a shrinking of the private sector.

If the state is performing its enabling and regulatory role well, then both the private and public sectors should grow. It shouldn’t be a zero sum game, although the private sector may well decline as a proportion of the whole, which would not necessarily be a bad thing.

As a matter of interest, if, these days, you wanted to shrink New Zealand’s private sector, which parts of the economy would you take into public ownership? Farms above a certain size? The banking and insurance industries? The building and building supplies industries ? Road Transport? If none of the above, what?

Furthermore, although I agree with you that Socialism and Social Democracy once meant the same thing, their ways started to part around the middle of the last century and not just because of cold war sensitivities.

So what divided these two creeds? Certainly not any doubts over the importance of democracy or political liberty, which both found some of their firmest champions on the Left and Centre-Left?

The crucial issue was whether a mix of welfarism and Keyenesian economics was sufficient to improve peoples’ lives or whether ongoing nationalisation of the means of production and distribution was still an essential part of the project.

The cumulative weight of experience in the post-war decades suggested that further nationalisation was actually an inessential and counter-productive ingredient in the building of affluent societies (remember those?). Instead, what the West German SPD described as the “Social Market Economy” became an admired model.

Willi Brandt famously defined this as taking from the private sector all that it could deliver and from government all that the private sector could not deliver. And here’s the surprising thing; it worked!

The sooner we get back to it, the better!


If you thought Chris was some sort of leftwing extremist, you just haven’t been paying attention.

I acknowledge though that he seems to enjoy “scaring the horses” with giddy talk of socialism from time to time.

My suspicion is that he’s just being loyal to the iconography of his youth and won’t admit to the inherent and praiseworthy conservatism of social democracy(see earlier thread).

Guerilla Surgeon said...

I think what annoys me more than anything is the automatic assumption that business is much more efficient and innovative than government. Whereas in fact governments are very innovative on the whole, but they often don't have the luxury of efficiency, because they have to be effective. Still, a lot of those so-called entrepreneurs like Steve jobs basically depended on technology developed by government research agencies and later released to the private sector. It wasn't the private sector that developed things like radar either. Be very difficult to exist without that today :-).

Victor said...


"Whereas in fact governments are very innovative on the whole, but they often don't have the luxury of efficiency, because they have to be effective"

Very well put.

Guerilla Surgeon said...

Ta Victor. :-).