HOW TO PROMOTE a radical left-wing agenda when so few people today can even imagine such a thing? The emancipatory impulse that guided so many of the left-wing programmes of the past has almost entirely faded away. In its place we find a denunciatory political culture. Far too many contemporary leftists are driven by the desire to condemn and punish. Where once the Left’s purpose was to create a better world, its chief preoccupation today appears to be making it a less evil one.
A more realistic goal, some might say. Except that, as a goal, reducing evil rests upon the dismal presupposition that malignancy is humanity’s resting state. Striving to reduce the severity of the planet’s daily torments is not at all the same as believing it is possible to overcome them. Directing one’s efforts towards making humanity’s prison more bearable, differs fundamentally from a project dedicated to reducing that prison to rubble and setting its prisoners free.
As the Second Wave of Feminism swept across the Western World in the early 1970s, its adherents spoke with tongues of fire about the end of patriarchy and the emergence of not only a new kind of woman, but also of a new kind of man. They argued persuasively that the bloody re-ordering of male hierarchies – which men liked to call “revolutions” – were not revolutions at all. The only revolution worthy of the name, they argued, would be the one that brought the full emancipation of women. Only when the 10,000 year-old patriarchal system of sexual and gender repression was no more, could real human history begin.
Fifty years on, so many of those fiery tongues have been stilled. As The Platform’s Ani O’Brien wrote on 8 March, International Women’s’ Day:
In New Zealand - and perhaps elsewhere - International Women’s Day has become a farcical parade of corporate pink-washing overlaid by a nepotistic circle-jerk of privileged and influential liberal (mostly white) women giving each other awards at champagne breakfasts […..] And the issues they focus on? Usually not particularly high on the priority list for your average Kiwi woman – certainly not for those who are under-privileged.
On matters of race the picture is equally depressing.
Sticking with our earlier prison metaphor, the attention of the Contemporary Left seems fixated upon the ideas and actions of the prison guards, and how important it is to make them understand the enormously harmful impact of their prejudices and practices upon the well-being of the prisoners. If the purpose of “re-educating” these oppressors was to persuade them to make common cause with the oppressed, then its inherent negativity might be overlooked. Unfortunately, that is not its goal. The ambitions of the Contemporary Left do not extend beyond ensuring that the guards and the prisoners administer the prison together – “partners” in penology.
When it comes to issues of class, the picture is even bleaker.
In tragic contrast to the leftists of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the Contemporary Left seem mortally afraid of offending the boss. The very notion that “the history of all hitherto existing societies is the history of class struggle” strikes them as decidedly career-limiting. Located firmly in the Professional and Managerial Class, whose task it is to administer capitalism smoothly, with a minimum of fuss, on behalf of the people who own it, the Contemporary Left has taught itself to look at the working-class and see … nothing.
Without the determination to emancipate, the Left has no ability to inspire. Lacking the stimulus of their common advancement, the political inertness of “the people” is only to be overcome by outrage. By exposing the wickedness and brutality of those who wield power over them, individuals can be roused to anger. Rather than the emancipatory programmes spawned by the Old Left’s creative political imaginings, the Contemporary Left offers the marginalised and oppressed only the sterile alternatives of condemnation and punishment.
The “Me Too” movement replaces the New Woman and the New Man. “Black Lives Matter” replaces Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream!”
The problem with constantly parading wickedness and brutality before people’s gaze is that pretty soon they begin to think that’s all there is. Intuitively, they arrive at the dismal conclusion that the condemners and the punishers are not only fighting a never-ending battle, but a losing one. For every Harvey Weinstein and Jeffrey Epstein who falls, countless other abusers will go unpunished. For every racist cop that gets put away, a thousand more contrive to hide their racism more carefully.
Not only are these conclusions depressing, they’re scary. Ordinary folk begin to ask themselves: if the urge to condemn and punish is all the now drives the Left, then how far is it willing to go to shut down and/or shut up the bad guys? Not many people are happy with the idea of living in a society where citizens have to weigh carefully every word and action, or fall victim to a regime in which punishment is the first resort, and forgiveness the swiftest path to ruin.
Abandon the Left’s quest for emancipation in favour of the politics of denunciation, and what is left to the ordinary citizen but material aspiration? If building a better world is no longer on the Left’s agenda; and this one is dominated by forces against which the Left fights and fights but cannot overcome; then surely the only sensible course of action is for individuals and families to get and keep as much as they can while the getting and keeping is good?
For the past thirty-five years this is the only consistent message the New Zealand electorate has been sent. Certainly, it is the message which the National Party never tires of sending to voters. The Old Labour Left (think Mickey Savage and Norman Kirk) was condemned for wanting to upset the settled order of things – a prospect which the comfortably situated can always be relied upon to abhor. The New Labour Left (think Helen Clark and Jacinda Ardern) National condemns for its puritanical obsession with punishing the sins that make comfort possible. (The Greens are even worse!)
Since the Old Labour Left died with the Alliance twenty years ago, and the current incarnation of the Greens regards its policies as ideologically suspect relics of a bygone age, the New Labour Left has very little incentive to develop a manifesto in which the impulse to confront and overcome the evils of the status quo is blended with a determination to emancipate its victims. Evil can only be vanquished by the creation of a world in which it cannot thrive.
But, persuading voters this is true is no easy task. It requires a political party that never stops making the case for radical change. Sadly, no such party exists in the New Zealand of today. Offer voters a radical left-wing agenda in 2022 and its content will most likely inspire not enthusiasm, but a mixture of doubt and scorn.
As in this comment from a former National Party Cabinet Minister:
Is it really credible that Labour will become akin to a Corbynite party, since that is effectively what is being suggested. If they did, and that was clearly signalled before the election, I reckon you could pretty much guarantee Labour a few years in the political wilderness to contemplate the consequences of such a decision.
There is simply no appetite in New Zealand for a radical socialist change. It is no accident that the biggest selling vehicles are double-cab utes capable of pulling the 6 meter fishing boat [which is, in] fact, owned by the PM’s partner along with the beach house in Tairua. The epitome of the kiwi dream.
Just about every single policy dreamed up by such a fanciful radical coalition would be diametrically opposed to people being able to fulfil such a dream.
The party that actually trumpet the opportunity to fulfil such a dream are much more likely to electorally succeed.
The tragedy of these times is that Jacinda Ardern’s Labour Party would almost certainly agree. And the even bigger tragedy – so would 98 percent of the voters.
This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Friday, 18 March 2022.