Pragmatic Idealists: When it becomes clear to both our new prime minister and her finance minister that the price they are being asked to pay to keep the neoliberal guard-dogs away from their throats is too high for any discernible good that it is doing, then we must hope that they will dig deep into the collective experience of the New Zealand labour movement and find there not only the courage to speak socialist words, but also to rally the New Zealand people behind socialist deeds.
I FEEL SORRY for Dr Wayne Mapp. He has always struck me as one of those National Party types who want to do good in the world – but not in a left-wing way. The political paradox in which such politicians are trapped, however, is that it is only under the conditions of a significantly modified capitalism – conditions created by the Left – that their benevolent aspirations can be fulfilled. Rather than acknowledge this, however, they are forever trying to convince the electorate that the Left only ever succeeds when it moves to the Right.
This is the fundamental thesis of Mapp’s latest contribution to The Spinoff, “Jacinda Ardern Is No Radical, But The 21st-Century Face Of Blair’s Third Way”. His argument, essentially, is that:
“In the latter part of the second decade of the twenty-first century, 22 years since Blair first became prime minister, his spiritual successors, Justine (sic) Trudeau and Jacinda Ardern, seem to have wholly adopted Third Wayism. The basic tenets of the neo-liberal settlement are accepted, but the state employs its power and resources to assist those who the market does not fully provide for.”
Putting to one side his transgendering of Canada’s prime minister, Justin Trudeau, Mapp’s fundamental misunderstanding of what Tony Blair represents merely confirms his inability to understand the central realities of our recent political history.
The core mission of conservative politicians like Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan was to tear down the Left’s modifications of capitalism and reconfigure it as closely as possible to its original nineteenth century form as was politically feasible. Thatcher and Reagan loathed politicians who, like Mapp, were happy to operate within the parameters of the “kinder, gentler” capitalism that the labour and social-democratic parties had created in the 1930s, 40s and 50s. The New Right project was best summed-up by the American, Grover Norquist, who famously declared: “My goal is to cut government in half in twenty-five years, to get it down to the size where we can drown it in the bathtub.”
Mapp simply does not understand that what we now call “neoliberalism” was a last-ditch and, as things turned out, highly-successful attempt to rescue the western ruling-class from the consequences of what it perceived to be a collection of out-of-control social-democratic governments. What the citizens of those countries: most especially the citizens of the USA, the UK, Canada, Australia and New Zealand; have been living with for nearly 40 years are the consequences of their rulers’ ongoing counter-revolution.
In the course of that counter-revolution, the world has witnessed, inter alia: the collapse of actually existing socialism in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union; the dramatic expansion of the global proletariat; the general collapse of trade union power and influence; stagnating wages; the privatisation of publicly owned enterprises; an extreme concentration of media control and influence; the imposition of economic austerity; and the obscene enrichment of the owners and managers of the world’s largest corporations and financial institutions.
It is fascinating to read the way in which this counter-revolutionary world order is bowdlerised by Mapp into the innocuousness of: “an open economy with low tariffs, the private sector owning virtually all parts of the competitive economy, relatively modest tax rates so that the size of government is around one third of the total economy.”
The inevitable corollaries of Mapp’s ‘common-sense’ political-economy: rising inequality, precarious employment; poverty; homelessness; collapsing health services; a deteriorating environment; hardly rate a mention.
What Mapp does make clear, however, and with considerable accuracy, are the sort of policies which Jacinda Ardern and her finance minister, Grant Robertson, would find it extremely dangerous, politically, to adopt. Changing the neoliberal paradigm, he rightly says, would require a different approach:
“The government would not have signed up to the [Comprehensive and Progressive Trans-Pacific Partnership]. A fund would have been established for the renationalization of at least the electricity companies. The top tax rate would be at least 40% to reverse inequality. Some form of compulsory unionism would be restored, though perhaps the promised industry wide agreements are intended to be exactly that. An economy so deeply regulated that official permission would be required for even the simplest of business transactions.”
What Mapp, rather predictably, doesn’t say, is that the response to such a radical departure from the status-quo, from the upper-echelons of the civil service, the business community, the mainstream news media and, of course, by his own National Party, would be swift and devastating. Neither Ardern, nor Robertson, require any lessons in the effects of such a backlash. The example of the so-called “Winter of Discontent” of 2000 is there in front of them all the time – reminding them of just how little real power governments exercise in the neoliberal order. Neither of them have any wish to be drowned in Norquist’s bathtub!
The “Third Way-ism” that Mapp extols, and which he believes Ardern to be the twenty-first century exponent of, has always been, at best, a pragmatic recognition of the narrowness of the political and economic stage upon which progressive politicians are permitted to operate in the neoliberal era; and, at worst, an ideological manifestation of the “Stockholm Syndrome” in which fearful left-wing politicians start identifying with the terrorists who have taken them hostage.
On one thing, however, Mapp and I are in complete agreement. The creation of the Labour-NZF-Green government has, indeed, excited me and enlivened my hopes that, when it becomes clear to both our new prime minister and her finance minister that the price they are being asked to pay to keep the neoliberal guard-dogs away from their throats is too high for any discernible good that it is doing, then they will dig deep into the collective experience of the New Zealand labour movement and find there not only the courage to speak socialist words, but also to rally the New Zealand people behind socialist deeds.
Neither Tony Blair, nor Bill Clinton, ever believed that such a course of action could lead to anything except electoral catastrophe. And, in their time, the early-1990s, they may well have been correct. But, as Mapp is so keen to remind us, this is the twenty-first century, and the skies are thick with neoliberal chickens flapping home to roost. As both Bernie Sanders and Jeremy Corbyn have made clear, to call yourself a socialist in “the latter part of the second decade of the twenty-first century” is not the one-way ticket to political oblivion which Blair and Clinton assumed it to be. With the grim consequences of the neoliberal counter-revolution all around us, the imminent prospect of a peaceful, democratic-socialist, revolution no longer seems so bad.
This posting is exclusive to Bowalley Road.