WHERE IS REALITY HIDING amidst all these claims and counter-claims concerning the protest encampment in Parliament Grounds? In an excruciatingly post-modern political moment, reality seems to have gone AWOL, leaving behind only a noisy collection of competing narratives.
To make matters worse, the state itself, supposedly the supreme arbiter of what is and is not politically real, is refusing to do its job. Even though it is his sworn duty, the Commissioner of Police, Andrew Coster, has made it frighteningly clear to the public that he lacks both the will and the means to assert the state’s authority. The New Zealand Defence Force, meanwhile, holds itself aloof from the fray. Jacinda Ardern and Christopher Luxon, powerless to intervene, look on ineffectually. The crisis deepens.
Ask yourself: what does it mean when tow-truck drivers, asked to assist the Commissioner of Police, refuse? At what point during the last decade did citizens begin to tell themselves that they had no obligations to the society in which they live? That nobody had the right to tell them what to do – not even the Police? What business is it of theirs if the people of Wellington, their neighbours, need their help?
It has been reported that at least one towie openly declared his support for the protesters encamped on Parliament Grounds. Entirely understandable. The occupiers don’t accept that their government has the right to require their vaccination against Covid-19. Nor do they believe that they owe their fellow citizens even the slightest co-operation in the fight to limit the harm of the virus. That tow-truck driver recognised kindred spirits when he saw them. Andrew Coster and Wellingtonians could go fuck themselves.
Not all the towies were so bloody minded. According to media reports, some of them were just plain scared. They claimed to have been threatened with dire retribution if they allowed their trucks to be used by the Police. Considering those trucks carried the names and phone numbers of their owners, it’s not difficult to understand the impact of such threats. Were someone to burn down a towing company’s premises, torch its trucks, that would be multiple livelihoods lost and a business ruined. Who wouldn’t think twice?
Such tactics are, however, remarkably effective. I remember reading about Jimmy Hoffa and the Teamsters’ bitter battles with the trucking companies. The bosses could rely on local politicians, local judges, local editors and local cops to defend them against Hoffa’s strikers. The union was on a hiding-to-nothing, until Hoffa reached out to the Mafia. It only took a few dozen torched trucks for the bosses to get the message. The Teamsters won their improved contract. But the spoon Hoffa took to his dinner with the Devil wasn’t quite long enough. His beloved Teamsters’ Union now belonged to the Mob.
Now, you might think that people on the left of New Zealand politics would recognise the danger of holding up the occupation of Parliament Grounds as a praiseworthy assertion of working-class power. As if poverty and marginalisation, frustration and anger, ignorance and credulity are always and everywhere evidence of moral force and progressive intent.
Karl Marx himself recognised the acute political danger inherent in what he called the Lumpenproletariat. According to the Encyclopedia of Marxism, this social formation is composed of the “outcast, degenerated and submerged elements” of industrial society:
It includes beggars, prostitutes, gangsters, racketeers, swindlers, petty criminals, tramps, chronic unemployed or unemployables, persons who have been cast out by industry, and all sorts of declassed, degraded or degenerated elements. In times of prolonged crisis (depression), innumerable young people also, who cannot find an opportunity to enter into the social organism as producers, are pushed into this limbo of the outcast. Here demagogues and fascists of various stripes find some area of their mass base in time of struggle and social breakdown, when the ranks of the Lumpenproletariat are enormously swelled by ruined and declassed elements from all layers of a society in decay.
That our society is in decay can hardly be doubted. The events of the past ten days offer ample evidence of just how seriously that decay has weakened New Zealand society. A viable Left, recognising the weakness of the system, and its acute vulnerability to those who would enlist the aid of “gangsters, racketeers, swindlers, petty criminals” would have no hesitation in identifying the so-called “Freedom Convoy” as the reactionary, quasi-fascist, enterprise it has always been.
Alas, New Zealand no longer possesses a viable Left. Identity politics has schooled a whole generation to accept the self-definitions of “oppressed groups” at their face value. Drilling down into the actual character of such groups, and scrutinising their relationship to the ruling class, is not encouraged. Even among those leftists who still acknowledge the primacy of class politics there is a pronounced unwillingness to subject movements like the Freedom Convoy to any kind of rigorous class analysis.
For these leftists, it is enough that the occupiers of Parliament Grounds are, or were, members of the working-class. So desperate are these “revolutionaries” for the slightest hint of revolutionary consciousness that they are willing to overlook the absence of anything remotely resembling a concrete programme for the social and economic emancipation of the working class. The only programme in evidence among the occupiers is the one demanding the instant cessation of all measures aimed at minimising the hurt and suffering of Covid-19.
How self-proclaimed “socialists” could possibly mistake such a noxious potpourri of anti-social attitudes for anything remotely progressive is a mystery. Perhaps it is no more than the curious allure of the demi-monde, coupled with the magnetic eccentricities of the Bohemian temperament, that has led these desperate socialists to mistake reactionaries for revolutionaries. Clearly they have forgotten that Adolf Hitler himself was a Lumpenproletarian. A more “declassed, degraded and degenerated” specimen History has yet to supply!
It was the Italian socialist, Antonio Gramsci (1891-1937) who understood most completely the extraordinary fluidity of reality in periods of acute social stress and political disintegration. Moments in history when the hegemonic explanations of the ruling-class have lost, or are beginning to lose, their power to allay the fears and misgivings of subordinate classes. In such times – and we are living through them now – people are desperate for new and more persuasive narratives about the nature of reality.
Not all of those narratives are addressed to the best that is in human nature. Sorting out the lies of charlatans and demagogues from genuine revolutionary truths isn’t always easy – especially in this age of social-media algorithms. Leftists are often surprised to learn that Mussolini was a socialist before he became a fascist.
Gramsci put it best when he wrote: “The crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear.”
Or, more succinctly: “Now is the time of monsters.”
This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Thursday, 17 February 2022.