LIKE THE CELEBRATED DOG that didn’t bark, the New Zealand Left is proving itself a poor protector of the exploited. A housing crisis on the present scale, occurring fifty years ago, would have generated massive resistance. The trade unions would have been on their hind legs. The churches would have been on their hind legs. The students’ associations would have been on their hind legs. The Maori Council would have been on its hind legs. Consumer groups would have been on their hind legs. Hell – even the Labour Party would have been on its hind legs! Of those groups, only the mainstream churches (the Salvation Army in particular) continue to fight the good fight. What has happened to “progressive” New Zealand? Why don’t we fight?
The most obvious answer is that, fifty years ago, progressive New Zealand agreed about a great deal more than it does today. And what it disagreed about was not permitted to get in the way of putting wrongs to right. Liberal Christians were most unlikely to have much in common with the ideological precepts of the Moscow-aligned communists of the Socialist Unity Party, but that didn’t prevent them from fighting the good fight alongside them in the struggle against the Vietnam War, apartheid in South Africa, and atmospheric nuclear testing. With hindsight, it is easy to see that it was progressive New Zealand’s willingness to agree to disagree over issues peripheral to the specific issues in play that made the creation of mass protest movements possible.
What was it, then, that progressive New Zealand agreed about? In its essence, the moral consensus within which Liberal Christians and Moscow-aligned communists were able to make common cause found its most eloquent expression in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted by the United Nations’ General Assembly in December 1948. Though the nations of the Soviet bloc (along with Saudi Arabia and South Africa) abstained from voting to ratify the Declaration, they did not, significantly, vote against it. In the baleful afterglow of the terrible events of the Second World War, no country dared set its face against the principles of human equality and human rights for which so many millions had given their lives.
Seven years after the adoption of the Declaration, the Museum of Modern Art in New York organised a ground-breaking photographic exhibition, later turned into a book, entitled The Family of Man. This astounding collection of images, and the quotations accompanying them, made clear the fundamental kinship of all human-beings. In his prologue to the 1955 exhibition, the poet Carl Sandburg wrote:
To the question, “What will the story be of the Family of Man across the near or far future?” some would reply, “For the answers read if you can the strange and baffling eyes of youth.”
There is only one man in the world
and his name is All Men.
There is only one woman in the world
and her name is All Women.
There is only one child in the world
and the child’s name is All Children.
In the face of napalm-engulfed Vietnamese villages, the racist-inspired massacre at Sharpeville and the deadly radioactive fallout of atmospheric nuclear testing, these were the ideals which progressive New Zealanders did everything within their power to advance and defend.
By the early 1980s, however, the broad progressive unity of the immediate post-war period was dissolving rapidly. The principal solvent came in the form of the “new social movements” – most particularly the movements born out of the struggle for racial and sexual equality. If “mankind” was a single family of equals, then certain members of that family – most obviously, white, male, heterosexuals – were clearly more equal than others. Increasingly, human emancipation came to be seen as a zero-sum game. If oppressed identities (blacks, females, gays) were to win their rights, then those responsible for their oppression (whites, males, heterosexuals) were going to have to give up some of (most of?) their privileges.
Was it just one of those remarkable historical coincidences that “identity politics” and “neoliberalism” advanced together on the global political stage? It is certainly the case that the advance of one almost always hastened the advance of the other. The crushing of the post-war Keynesian economic order and the destruction of the institutional infrastructure it had spawned – most particularly the suppression of organised labour – cleared the field for the advance of identity politics. For the best part of four decades, identity politics has occupied the ideological space cleared by neoliberal capitalism’s undermining of the progressive “grand narrative” which inspired the Universal Declaration of Human Rights possible, and turned The Family of Man into an international best-seller.
Never to be re-issued. At least, that’s how it appeared when neoliberal capitalism’s global system faltered and nearly fell in the Global Financial Crisis of 2008-09. The Occupy Wall Street protests, which the GFC spawned, soon morphed into the worldwide Occupy movement. By creating the revolutionary dichotomy of the “One Percent” versus the “Ninety-Nine Percent”, Occupy opened up the possibility of building an international mass movement for radical change.
As events unfolded, it soon became clear that what was possible, and what was actually unfolding on the ground, were at serious odds with one another. The fractious tribes of identity politics simply could not agree to disagree. In practice, their “big idea” – intersectionality – turned out to be one enormous intersection at which ideological traffic, arriving from every direction, snarled and snarled itself into gridlocked ineffectuality. Idealistic kids, inspired by the 1/99% meme, and eager to join the revolution, were confronted with a paralysing Discordia. Not only did it seem that they were being asked to give up their “privilege/s”, but also their sanity. They left the Occupy encampments as disgusted as they were disillusioned. The forces of neoliberal order swatted away what was left like so many buzzing flies.
In the aftermath of the Occupy debacle, many have been moved to pose one of those diabolical questions that we should probably never ask – let alone answer: “If the powers-that-be had set out to create an ideological system designed to render the progressive mass movements of the past utterly unrepeatable; while ensuring that any attempt to confront neoliberal capitalism with a Corbynesque “For the Many, Not the Few” electoral agenda, is instantly paralysed by bitter and protracted factional strife; could they ever have come up with a political poison as effective as identity politics?”
If the progressive dog refuses any longer to bark – even at a moral crisis as profound as the housing poverty which is tearing the New Zealand working-class apart – it is only because so many identities have been telling him for so long to keep his privileged mouth shut.
This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Friday, 26 March 2021.