THE TRUE MEASURE of Neoliberalism’s victory is the extent to which the Left now expects someone else to make the revolution. I listened this morning while Janet McAllister, from Child Poverty Action Group, did her best to guilt-trip Jacinda Ardern into ending child poverty. Labour’s mandate is unequivocal, Janet reassured Morning Report’s listeners, everyone’s in favour, so “let’s do this”. The CPAG spokeswoman’s faith was little short of biblical: “Ask, and it shall be given you; seek, and ye shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you.” Oh, that political change were so simple!
Let’s pick apart Janet’s political pitch. CPAG’s analytical frame – “Child Poverty” – is, not to put to fine a point upon it, a con. A well-meaning con, to be sure, but a con none the less. Why? Because, as that wry old Communist, Don Franks, noted on Twitter just the other day: “Children are poor because they don’t work.” And, of course, he’s right. Society doesn’t impose poverty on children, it imposes poverty upon their parents. So, when the demand is made to end child poverty, those making it are actually demanding an end to poverty itself. A worthy goal, but also a problematic one, since the problem it addresses – economic and social inequality – encompasses the entire battleground between the Left and the Right.
Now, being lumped-in with the forces of the Radical Left is not something the good folk at CPAG are all that keen on. They are perfectly aware that if they made their pitch all about lifting wages and raising taxes, the flow of donations would dry up almost immediately. That’s why they frame their political narrative around child poverty. It’s about all those poor little children without warm, dry houses; without shoes; without school-lunches. Because who, out there in middle-class-land, is hard-hearted enough to refuse to help these poor wee mites? The answer, of course, is: the very same people who deny their parents a decent wage; whack up the rent on their freezing-cold hovels; and resist any attempt to make them pay their fair share of tax. (An astonishing number of whom have, over the past fortnight, cast their Party Vote proudly for “Jacinda” and the Labour Party!)
So, Janet, when you tell RNZ’s middle-class audience that everyone wants to end child poverty, you’re right – and you’re wrong. When confronted with the emotional shock of a deprived child, everyone (or just about everyone) wants to do something to help. But, when they discover what “doing something to help” is going to cost them, well, that’s when they stop being willing to cry: “Let’s do this!” In fact, that’s when they end up feeling just a wee bit manipulated; a wee bit conned; and a whole lot convinced that “ending child poverty” is just a polite way of saying: “Let’s do Socialism!”
I’m pretty sure Jacinda (aided, as always, by her trusty pollsters and focus-group moderators) worked this out some time ago. Which is why, in her case, ending child poverty has become less of an urgent priority and more of a work in progress. The Finance Minister, Grant Robertson, will also have been given the message (in his case by Treasury) that the Prime Ministers’ promises, if kept, would likely prove very expensive and tread on a great many very powerful toes. “Are you absolutely sure, Minister,” his advisers will purr, “that the PM really intends to be that … courageous?”
There will be plenty of readers bristling about now, and demanding to know, from no one in particular, exactly what Trotter is suggesting. Is he saying that the Left should simply give up on poverty and inequality? No, he most emphatically is not. What he is proposing, is that the Left does what the Left used to do: organise!
If Jacinda were to switch on Morning Report and, instead of CPAG’s Janet McCallister cheekily borrowing her own election slogans, hear the RNZ newsreader describing the 20,000-strong anti-poverty march that had wound its way through the streets of South Auckland the night before, how do you think she would react? What would Grant Robertson’s response be when he heard a grab from the passionate speech delivered to the marchers by the Green Party’s Ricardo Menendez March, in which he reaffirmed his party’s commitment to a Universal Benefit of $400 per week? I strongly suspect they’d be texting each other within 30 seconds with the same message: “We’ve got to do something about this!”
Relying on top-down solutions to entrenched economic and societal problems is never a good idea. Liberal Americans may have celebrated when the US Supreme Court overturned Jim Crow legislation in the Deep South and guaranteed American women the right to terminate their pregnancies. Conservative Americans, however, were spared the trial they truly feared: that of having their prejudices challenged and defeated, democratically, in their state legislatures. Legal victories are very different from democratic victories. The former are won in courtrooms, the latter on the streets and in the polling-booths. American conservatives were not daunted by Supreme Court activism, they were educated by it. And the lesson they learned was simple: Stack the Court with your own activists.
Frederick Douglass (1818-1895) the former slave and leading abolitionist, understood the crucial role of organisation and action in the fight for freedom and equality. This is how he summed it up:
Let me give you a word of the philosophy of reform. The whole history of the progress of human liberty shows that all concessions yet made to her august claims have been born of earnest struggle. The conflict has been exciting, agitating, all-absorbing, and for the time being, putting all other tumults to silence. It must do this or it does nothing. If there is no struggle there is no progress. Those who profess to favor freedom and yet deprecate agitation are men who want crops without plowing up the ground; they want rain without thunder and lightning. They want the ocean without the awful roar of its many waters.
This struggle may be a moral one, or it may be a physical one, and it may be both moral and physical, but it must be a struggle. Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will. Find out just what any people will quietly submit to and you have found out the exact measure of injustice and wrong which will be imposed upon them, and these will continue till they are resisted with either words or blows, or with both. The limits of tyrants are prescribed by the endurance of those whom they oppress.
Douglass spoke those words in 1857, and in the intervening 163 years they have lost neither their power, nor their urgent wisdom. The New Zealand Left should commit his words to memory, and take his message to heart.
This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Thursday, 22 October 2020.