Thursday 14 June 2018

What’s Wrong With The Progressive Movement’s Bloody Ships?

Something's Gone Wrong: The thing that’s gone wrong with the progressive movement's bloody ships is that we’ve allowed ourselves to be persuaded that protest’s only value is as a means of expressing our purely personal discontent with the status quo. This is, of course, bullshit. The purpose of protest is to apply pressure in order to achieve change. To force the wielders of effective political power into making a favourable response.

ABOUT THE TIME the second of Britain’s battle cruisers exploded, Vice-Admiral Beatty famously remarked: “There seems to be something wrong with our bloody ships today.” Trying to make sense of the political passivity of New Zealanders in the twenty-first century, I am often minded of Beatty’s words at the Battle of Jutland. Throughout the vicious class warfare of the past 35 years there does, indeed, seem to be something “wrong” with the progressive movement’s bloody ships!

God knows, it’s not as if there’s been a shortage of issues for people to mobilise against! Low wages; unaffordable housing; the appalling treatment of beneficiaries and state house tenants; the collapse of our mental health service; neoliberalism’s subjugation of the universities: the list is a long one.

The roll-call of resistance is, however, depressingly short. After 1991, protest activity on the streets fell away quite sharply. Campus-based protests against rising tuition fees flared in the early 1990s only to fade away almost completely by the turn of the century.

Environmental causes could still draw middle-class New Zealanders onto the streets in large numbers, however. The biggest of these protests: the anti-GE marches and the 50,000-strong Auckland protest against mining in national parks; were even able to persuade the government of the day to take action.

The most calamitous decline in popular resistance, however, occurred in the New Zealand working-class. Strike action, the most reliable measure of the willingness of working people to stand up and defend their interests, fell away almost completely. Prior to the passage of the Employment Contracts Act in 1991, the number of strikes recorded in a single year plummeted from dozens to single figures. So punitive was the new industrial relations law that neither the unions’ paid officials, nor their members, were willing to test it.

That had not been the case in the period between the introduction of the Employment Contracts Bill in 1990 and the legislation being signed into law in May 1991. In April 1991 an estimated 100,000 workers marched against the Bill and mass rallies attended by thousands of rank-and-file unionists voted in favour of a general strike to “Kill the Bill”.

The blank refusal of the leaders of the largest unions to countenance a general strike struck the labour movement a mortal blow from which it has never recovered. Since 1991 the Council of Trade Unions and its affiliates have never been able to muster more than 5,000 unionists in one place. Workers had been ready to fight in 1991 but their so-called “leaders” had not.

The 2012 Ports of Auckland dispute, led by the late Helen Kelly, offered a glimpse of what working people might achieve if given half a chance – and courageous leadership. So, too, did Matt McCarten’s “Unite” union of low-paid security guards and fast-food workers. Sadly, these proved to be the exceptions – not the rule.

Then there were the great “one-offs”: protests that surged and exploded into genuine demonstrations of “people power” only to be sucked into the swamp of parliamentary politics and drowned.

The first of these was the hugely impressive 2004 hikoi against the controversial Foreshore and Seabed legislation. After setting forth from the Far North, the hikoi grew in strength until it arrived in the capital numbering somewhere between 15,000 and 25,000 protesters. The Maori Party was born out of this impressive mobilisation of New Zealand’s indigenous people. Sadly, the huge hopes invested in the party ended up producing only the most meagre of political dividends.

The second big one-off protest was the February 2016 demonstration against the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement. It wasn’t just the number of protesters (somewhere between 30,000 and 50,000) but their palpable anger and energy that startled the political class. Alas, as happened with the hikoi, the anti-TPPA movement allowed itself to be skilfully finessed by the parliamentary opposition. The Labour Party, in particular, encouraged the protesters to believe that, once elected, it would keep New Zealand out of the TPPA’s trans-national corporate clutches.

The energy and anger of February 2016 soon dissipated and could not be reactivated when, 20 months later, the new Labour-NZF-Government proudly attached its signature to something called the “Comprehensive and Progressive Trans-Pacific Partnership”.

At the Battle of Jutland, the thing that was wrong with Beatty’s “bloody ships” was that the necessary precautions against enemy shells penetrating the battle cruisers’ magazines had not been taken. In effect, it was Beatty’s negligent approach to safety that sank his ships.

What, then, has gone wrong with New Zealand’s progressive ships?

In the simplest possible terms, the link between protest and political action has been broken.

For most of the post-war period, widespread protest activity almost always brought forth an answering political response. People marched and petitioned to “Save Manapouri!” – and Manapouri was saved. Thousands protested New Zealand’s involvement in the Vietnam War – and NZ troops were withdrawn. For 56 days in 1981 the country was convulsed by the Springbok Tour – NZ’s sporting contact with Apartheid South Africa ceased. Most importantly, workers went on strike to improve their pay and conditions – and their pay and conditions were improved. Direct action worked.

It was one of the core objectives of the neoliberal counter-revolution that this relationship between popular agitation and the democratic political process be destroyed. Most especially in matters relating to the economy. The idea that ordinary people might influence the way in which wealth was created and distributed had to be discouraged.

The thing that’s gone wrong with our bloody ships is that we’ve allowed ourselves to be persuaded that protest’s only value is as a means of expressing our purely personal discontent with the status quo. This is, of course, bullshit. The purpose of protest is to apply pressure in order to achieve change. To force the wielders of effective political power into making a favourable response.

If those with the power refuse to respond to our protests, then the correct reaction is not to give up and go quiet. It is to protest louder and harder and longer until the powers-that-be give up – and give in.

This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Thursday, 14 June 2018.


Guerilla Surgeon said...

What's wrong? Well it's been the biggest and most successful effort of social engineering since the 1930s. A constant barrage of comment from talking heads and the media about how there is no alternative. And unfortunately there has been no competing narratives from Labour. And now, people have become used to operating without unions and have forgotten the advantages of belonging to them. And you know what? No one in politics is going to do a damn thing about it. Because they have all drunk the neoliberal Kool-Aid. (Before some pedant leaps in – yes I know it was Flavor–aid.)

Anonymous said...

Mr Trotter omits 2010.

Remember 2010? The odious Helen Kelly conspired with a foreign political organisation to destroy the multi-billion dollar NZ film industry.

Film industry workers took to the streets to protect their jobs from Trade Unions and on Mayday, their day, decent New Zealand joined them.

Tens of thousands of Kiwis marched in every major city and the Unionists ran. Decent Kiwis literally ran the Union scum off our streets, on their day.

Polly. said...

Chris, the bloody ships are contaminated with rats.
Look at the rats in the E tu union Bill Newson and Ross Henderson who both supported Labour, in Labours out of the blue decision to curtail Taranaki's oil explorations in the future.
This decision was NOT a Labour policy at the election.
But still supported by these Union clowns.
Fawning and disgraceful sell outs.

Nick J said...

Twice Jellicoe had Hippers fleet under his guns at Jutland and twice Hipper did an about turn to escape being called to account. Caution against torpedo attack stopped Jellicoe from all out pursuit and the destruction of his enemy. Sounds very much like the Left, fear of possible defeat.

Jellicoe of course was under orders not to risk the fleet, he merely had to prevent his enemy from controlling the sea. One suspects that the orders from HO to the Labour leadership was stay afloat, fight again later. So we got Helen who again ruled the waves without ever threatening the destruction of her enemies. The torpedoes of neo liberalism run straight and true.

peteswriteplace said...

Then neoliberalism has been successful.

Kat said...

Fast Food didn't have a stranglehold in those halcyon days of protest.

Jens Meder said...

Perhaps our modern labor leaders who replaced the Marxist die-hards of 70 years ago with their win-win convictions -

that massive strikes can only win more benefits and/or cripple and bankrupt private capitalism -

have come to realize, that the profitability of widespread private capitalism is a more democratic, humane and reliable economic and social welfare generator than non-competitive state monopoly capitalism ?

thesorrowandthepity said...

Why people don't want to follow or listen to the left anymore?! Mmm..why....
Simply put the left believes it has the moral high ground on all issues so doesn't need to debate any issues, only dictate. If you disagree with them on any single point you're instantly branded a bigot.
Example in point the NUS & it's attempts not so long ago to bar Germaine Greer from UK campuses under the term "no platforming."
The lunacy over people being able to pick their own gender, which can appartently be from a whole array of terms, non binary, intersex, gender fluid, etc deranged etc.
That those that miss pronoun someone have committed a hate crime, & that people who state that biologically there's only two genders are treated like they should be burnt at the stake...... honestly the left has gone down a hole chasing a white rabbit & come out in a realm where if they're not too busy executing their former leaders (revolutions always do that in the end), they're chasing their tails with identity politics, white privilege guilt.... or hypocritically railing against the inequalities in society whilst at the same time picking up a six figure salary on academic tenure.
The "progressive" left needs to own the mess it's got itself into; why no one wants to join that train ride to loonvile?!... probably because the bridge has been washed out & the ticket collector's cut the breaks

Polly. said...

I apologise for posting names on my previous blog to this subject.

Guerilla Surgeon said...

"Remember 2010? The odious Helen Kelly conspired with a foreign political organisation to destroy the multi-billion dollar NZ film industry."

And in return, the middle class is united in order to deny some people the right to union representation. The rest of us learned about the influence of Time Warner on the New Zealand government, which even after the whole thing had blown over was still kissing its backside.
Of course we later learned that there was pretty much no chance of the filming being transferred elsewhere anyway.

Patricia said...

There isn’t a Left any more thesorrowandthepity. And sometimes I don’t think there is a democracy any where in the World. All there is is the manufacturing of acceptance and and passivity. The people’s memory apparently is three months so until hard times comes again whether that be economic or War we will continue to experience capitalism’s dog eat dog attitude.

greywarbler said...

It's good that people take notice of what is happening around them.
It's bad when they make immediate judgments about the actions and events in a knee-jerk way that reflects their own prejudices and the stream of thought directed at them from home, neighbourhood, school and pub.
Personal thought after some research which goes to opposing positions to those like one's own, and looks at effects after application, and tries to understand reasons for those results is necessary.

It seems that sorrow...needs to look at his/her own diatribe, and analyse it. It appears in its raw state, unfinished, merely noting inadequacies, and failures with little thought to the why.

Also Anonymous and the film industry and union debacle. Now that is a contentious and interesting subject and deserves more than a hate-filled rant, and besmirching Helen Kelly's name and her involvement.

Nick J said...

Twas Scheers fleet, Hipper was in bad

Nick J said...

Jan have you ever wondered why the Employers Federation and similar employers organisations act collectively in negotiating Labour rates? That them doing so is not "bad".

Why is it then that Unions as worker collectives bargaining Labour rates are "bad"?

Nick J said...

Anon 15.31, your comments confirm what I know lurks out there, stupidity and bigotry. Feel free to demonstrate it more, keeps us awake to your sort and ready to fight for our position. Clever fellow, well done.