Saturday 30 September 2023

Losing The Left.

Descending Into The Dark: The ideological cadres currently controlling both Labour and the Greens are forcing “justice”, “participation” and “democracy” to make way for what is “appropriate” and “responsible”. But, where does that leave the people who, for most of their adult lives, have voted for left-wing parties, precisely to advance the causes of “justice”, “participation” and “democracy”?

IN THE CURRENT MIX of electoral alternatives, there is no longer a credible left-wing party. Not when “a credible left-wing party” is defined as: a class-oriented, mass-based, democratically-structured political organisation; dedicated to promoting ideas sharply critical of laissez-faire capitalism; and committed to advancing democratic, egalitarian and emancipatory ideals across the whole of society.

While some may argue that New Zealanders have not had a genuine left-wing party to vote for since the Labour Party abandoned its goal of “socialising the means of production, distribution and exchange” in 1951, it is more common to date the loss of a recognisably left-wing electoral alternative to Labour’s embrace of the “free market” in 1984.

Jim Anderton’s NewLabour Party and, later, his considerably less radical Alliance, attempted to make good that loss, and enjoyed some remarkable, if limited, successes. By 2002, however, the Alliance had broken apart, leaving only the Green Party of Aotearoa to carry forward the left-wing banner.

Problematically, the Greens, like their Values Party predecessor, are a post-scarcity political movement, driven less by class than by environmental and cultural concerns. As the party has come to embrace what is often abbreviated to “identity politics”, its earlier anti-capitalist impulses have been overwhelmed by the party’s increasingly strident discourses on ethnicity and gender.

The Greens move away from the system-challenging principles upon which the international Green movement was founded: Ecological Wisdom. Social Justice. Participatory Democracy. Nonviolence; is instructive. Displaying a disconcerting facility for Orwellian rewording, the Green Party of Aotearoa now lists its own core principles as: Ecological Wisdom. Social Responsibility. Appropriate Decision Making. Non-Violence.

The deletion of the words “justice”, “participatory” and “democracy”, amply confirms the Greens’ ideological trajectory: moving away from the emancipatory principles traditionally associated with the Left, and towards the uneasy marriage of technocratic “governance” and post-modern subjectivism so neatly personified in the party’s current co-leadership of James Shaw and Marama Davidson.

A very similar trajectory is discernible in the post-Rogernomics Labour Party. By embracing neo-liberalism, the party decisively abandoned its anti-capitalist ideology, rendering its use of the Left’s political vocabulary increasingly problematic. A semblance of radicalism and social transformation could, however, be maintained by moving deeper and deeper into the ideological territory of identity politics. In many respects, the alienating impact of this transition on its traditional followers was offset by the synergies it offered with Labour’s most “obvious” MMP coalition partner – the Greens.

Like Caesar Augustus’ Rome, today’s Labour Party presents to the world only the empty shell of its former self. Labour has held onto its revolutionary red. It continues to convene conferences at which (we are told) party policy is democratically debated and determined. And, just as the Emperor’s legions marched under standards emblazoned with the acronym of the defunct Roman Republic – SPQR [Senatus Populusque Romanus – the Senate and People of Rome] – Labour’s constitution still proudly references the “principles of democratic-socialism”.

It’s all a sham, of course. A carefully controlled exercise in deception. Once a political party embraces identity politics, traditional democratic mechanisms have a nasty habit of atrophying. Allowing conference delegates to determine the party’s direction in open plenary sessions would risk the wholesale repudiation of ethnic and gender discrimination as the prime movers of social injustice, and the re-elevation of class. Appointed policy committees are much less prone to cause such ontological difficulties.

Which is not to say that class plays no role in the contemporary Labour Party, merely that the class which now controls the party is the class responsible for managing the real-world social and inter-personal conflicts generated by class, ethnicity and gender. Labour has no more need for the trade union “sergeants” who managed the class warfare of yesteryear; the apparatchiks it needs today are the identity, diversity and equity commissars who manage the twenty-first century’s culture wars.

To gain a flavour of the post-democratic Labour/Green operational style, one has only to watch the video recording of the parliamentary select committee hearings into the legislation empowering citizens to change the gender assigned to them at birth, and recorded on their birth certificates, more-or-less at will.

Held during the Covid-19 Pandemic, the hearing took place on Zoom. Those speaking to submissions opposing the legislation were subjected to vicious cross-examination by Labour and Green committee members. The notion that citizens appearing before a parliamentary committee have a right to be heard respectfully clearly no longer applies to those who step outside the ideological boundaries of transgenderism. Clearly, in Labour’s and the Greens’ moral universe, TERFs have no rights.

When a shocked Nicola Willis rose in the House of Representatives to record her own, and the National Party’s, dismay at the treatment meted out to gender critical submitters by Labour and Green MPs, Labour’s Deborah Russell proudly owned-up to her behaviour and, to the applause of her colleagues, promised the same to all such ideological apostates appearing before her.

These are the drums that Labour marches to in the 2020s. They are the drums of the Professional-Managerial Class – and that class does not march to a democratic beat. Like the Greens, Professional-Managerial Labour is wedded to “appropriate” decision-making: that is to say – decisions made by itself.

But, if the ideological cadres currently controlling both Labour and the Greens are forcing “justice”, “participation” and “democracy” to make way for what is “appropriate” and “responsible”, where does that leave the people who, for most of their adult lives, have voted for left-wing parties, precisely to advance the causes of “justice”, “participation” and “democracy”? What is to be done when these concepts, like the institutions of the fallen Roman Republic, are emptied of their original purpose and replaced by the iron strictures of a new ideological imperium?

When asked by journalists why he was leaving the Labour Party, Jim Anderton’s reply was always: “I never left Labour, Labour left me.” But, did Anderton ever fully appreciate the crucial role he himself had played in allowing Labour to drift away from its working-class roots?

Because, it was Anderton’s determination – as President of the Labour Party between 1979 and 1984 – to select what he described as “first-class, highly-qualified, parliamentary candidates” that kick-started the separation. Engineers, university lecturers, lawyers, successful public servants: such were the people Anderton caused to be selected in preference to the unqualified working-class trade unionists of yesteryear. Paradoxically, it would be Anderton’s protégés who, by embracing “Rogernomics”, finally drove him to abandon Labour in 1989. The Professional-Managerial Class’s takeover of Labour would have been a lot harder, and taken much longer, had it not been for Jim Anderton’s determination to conduct it safely within the party’s walls!

Political scientists would shrug at this tale of class transition and ideological supersession. With some justification they would argue that the trend towards the professionalisation of political parties and trade unions was well underway by the turn of the nineteenth century. It was, after all, Vilfredo Pareto, (1848—1923), who characterised democracy as a political system for securing “the orderly circulation of elites”. That being the case, the best the voter can hope for is to choose the least evil collection of elitists.

Except, to acknowledge this as the only viable solution to the problem of political homogenisation requires the voter to deny even the possibility of securing social justice and social progress through collective action from below. And that proposition is flatly contradicted by the history of the last 250 years – a period which saw ordinary men and women aspire to and claim life improvements of unprecedented scope and scale. Indeed, it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that halting the forward march of this “social” democracy is exactly what the elites mobilised all their resources to achieve. Humanity’s present predicament is the result.

Breaking free of this predicament will require, above all other things, unity. But unity is achievable only if people are free to debate how, and upon what basis, it is best secured. That cannot happen where the principles of liberty, equality and solidarity are despised, or where the citizens’ freedom of expression is constrained. In other words, it cannot happen in political parties where ethnic and gender identity trumps the common heritage of humankind, and where saying as much is condemned as hate speech.

As happens in today’s Labour and Green parties.

This essay was originally posted on The Democracy Project website on Thursday, 28 September 2023.


Archduke Piccolo said...

The obliteration of the Left has left many of us with no one to vote for - though with a surfeit of options to vote against. But such is the paucity of real choice, a real preference, one is left with what I call the 'null vote'. You save your energy and stay home come polling day.

Don't you believe that voting for no one is not voting at all. It IS a vote: a vote of no confidence in any of the candidates or political parties on 'offer' - I mean, who 'present themselves'. And I WILL NOT accept that by so doing I have no right to complain. I have every right to complain. I bloody will, too.

Gradually poisoning an already turbid well over last 50 years nigh on, we are pounded in the -- sorry -- assailed by 'identity politics' - the stupidest politics of all. I've already been saying for years: identity politics is a luxury we can no longer afford.

Ion A. Dowman

DS said...

To raise an even more heretical point: "Concern" over who is or who is not a woman has utterly no relevance to a genuinely class-based Left. Debates between Transgender and TERF* types is as esoteric an issue as the Council of Chalcedon, so far as the day to day lives of most people is concerned.

*Trans-exclusionary Reactionary Feminist might be a more appropriate label, given the right-wing interest in the issue.

Anonymous said...

Good riddance to a motley collection of academic has beens.

Guerilla Surgeon said...

" The notion that citizens appearing before a parliamentary committee have a right to be heard respectfully clearly no longer applies to those who step outside the ideological boundaries of transgenderism. "

Oh come on – citizens appearing before parliamentary committees have never been treated respectfully by those who disagree with what the citizens are saying. And it's not just Labour, Winston Peters was a master at this. He is slowing down I guess, but probably still is.

Perhaps we should be asking ourselves why people turn to identity politics, rather than simply condemning it out of hand. A bit of introspection might go well here. People haven't turned to identity politics for trivial reasons, they turn to it because conventional – perhaps even class-based if you want to call it that – politics doesn't give them any chance of achieving their aspirations. Perhaps it will be better if you work constructively to try to find a way for conventional or class-based politics to encompass these aspirations, then people wouldn't need identity politics, because they would stand a chance of achieving their goals without resorting to it.

One particular example I mentioned before is Maori language and culture. Conventional politics allowed them to be belittled while thinking that raising the general standard of living would be enough, and that we could all be Pakeha together. That pretty much came to a halt with neoliberalism and the hollowing out of reasonably high paid skilled in semiskilled jobs.

Similarly, as I mentioned before conventional politics actually hindered to some extent the emancipation of women, and black civil rights in the US.

And while people condemn Maori identity politics – the same people seem to ignore the identity politics of the extreme right. Perhaps you don't regard racism as identity politics? They seem to me to be just as antidemocratic as you claim Maori are, actually more so.

Seems to me identity politics is simply used as a label for people who want their culture, history or differences to be respected. Not helped by the manufactured fear and outrage of the right-wing media, but I would have hoped that you at least Chris would have been immune to this.

Dirk said...

Marvelously written Chris. It encapsulates the feeling of dread I have felt for some time now. I have voted left most of my life, but the 1984 election marked the beginning of the end for class-based politics, or at least the end of the road for the class of people that included the nomenclature 'working' in its political, social and economic descriptors. But old habits die hard, and I continued to vote for a party that, comparatively, I viewed as being the lesser of several evils. But at least they were the champions of free expression, right? - lol! Now those perceived differences I once sought to justify my support have become rather too difficult to discern. I can't vote for the right, find centrism, or what passes as the center, too disheartening to consider, which leaves me sitting at home on election day. I'm sure Labour couldn't give a fat rats arse about the vote of a traditional party supporter like me but maybe that's part of their problem right now.

David George said...

Thank you Chris.
It's not that hard to see why "there is no longer a credible left-wing party". Perhaps the disenchantment with socialism generally has something to do with it's manifold failings when put into practice. Who wants less prosperity and freedom? Perhaps, therefore, the desperate resort to the politics of group identity is understandable - if unforgivable.

In any case what sort of fool, (or fraud?), woefully ignorant of human history, would convince themselves that their marginally productive dicking around in an air-conditioned office for a few hours a day in return for the prosperity and abundance they receive is some form of exploitation or oppression. Or perhaps they have themselves a direct (or via their superannuation funds) financial interest in our major companies. The "robber barons" are us?

Perhaps it's time we realised that the solution to the current nihilistic, narcissistic, neo-tribal shit-show won't be found in the political realm.

Lawrence said...

Very sadly, correct.

Geoff said...

"Breaking free of this predicament will require, above all things, unity"
With all due respect Chris, I think 'honesty', and the 'IQ' to understand that the path you are following is seriously awry( at many levels) are the real prerequisites to unity.
I am afraid Deborah Russell, all of today's Labour Party, and the Greens are so deficient in both, they won't understand where you're coming from !😒

chris prudence said...

I've been reading richard prebble's book I've been thinking.I picked it up at the local church fair for two dollars.Its only 113 pages long.In it he says leaders need courage and that david lange should not have displayed this attribute and had his famous cuppa.He remarks that workers wanted to get rid of penal rates and their allowances.Basically its self righteous bullshit designed as an apology of sorts for fucking things up so badly when as he states in his own words "I became the biggest businessman in the country".In charge of privatising twenty state owned enterprises.The post office that became telecom and the most efficient railways in the world as he describes tranzrail.It's delusional but my stockpile of other books I bought at the garage sale are longer so he's first off the block.

Gary Peters said...

A similar fate befell the Australian Labor Party just a bit earlier as described by Kim Beazley Senior

"When I joined the Labor Party, it contained the cream of the working class. But as I look about me now, all I see are the dregs of the middle class.”

Glenn Webster said...

I wonder if there are enough Old Labour members, of, in my case,ex-members, to re-vitalise the Labout Party and return to the movement's original principles.
If anyone would like to discuss this please feel free to contact me.

MCA said...

This country is going down the toilet.

Phil Saxby said...

Re unity: there seems to be a consensus between the Old Left and the far Right (ACT, NZ Democracy, NZ Loyal, etc) that "the country is going down the toilet".

Alongside, we have a broad consensus among the remaining parties (Labour, National, NZ First) in favour of keeping our social democracy- this consensus was established in the 1930s. It has been evolving ever since, but never in the direction of State socialism.

We are (almost) all social democrats now. Only the Greens and Te Pati Maori dare to hint openly that a social and economic revolution may be necessary in future.

Phil Saxby said...

Further to the above, State socialism was replaced by capitalism in China 🇨🇳 about 40 years ago, and in Russia about 30 years ago. Only North Korea, Eritrea and Cuba remain... that Era is over.