DEMOCRACY WILL ALWAYS BE HATED by the rich and powerful. This is a truth that should never be, but all-too-often is, forgotten. If the kratos (power) really does reside in the demos (people) then it cannot reside in the clubs and boardrooms of the corporate elites. The stronger the people become, the more determined the elites will grow to destroy the institutions through which popular power is expressed. Much has been made recently (not least by the Democracy Project) of the political influence of lobbyists and think-tanks, as if this was somehow a new and disturbing development. It is not. All that the growing power and influence of lobbyists and think-tanks reveals is the growing weakness of our democratic institutions.
Rather than devoting their energies to building up the strength of those institutions – by aggressively re-democratising the Labour Party and the trade union movement, both of which have long-since ceased to evince the slightest democratic energy – more and more leftists are avoiding the implications of their crushing political defeat by jumping down the rabbit hole of Mihingarangi Forbes’ Atlas Network conspiracy theory.
According to Forbes’ narrative, New Zealand’s political life is increasingly falling under the influence of unseen bad actors. These dark forces are unfairly resourced with all the talents and resources needed to shape and steer decisions critical to New Zealand’s future without the public’s knowledge.
If this all sounds like the plot of a Dan Brown novel, it’s because both Forbes and the author of The Da Vinci Code both deal in fiction. Forbes’ dark forces are, in fact, openly acknowledged and registered pressure groups, like the Taxpayers’ Union, which operate in the broad light of day and are constantly seeking to engage with the public via electronic newsletters, public meetings, and the media. Real conspirators do not behave like this. Prior to flying hijacked planes into the Twin Towers, Al Qaeda did not issue a press release!
What Forbes is attempting to paint as sinister and illegitimate is actually a very real tribute to the power of grass-roots organising. What makes the Taxpayers’ Union so effective is what made Halt All Racist Tours (HART) so effective: a popular cause; generous donors; dedicated leadership; powerful propaganda; and a bloody huge mailing-list. It is ironic that the organising model which the Left now attempts to pass-off as diabolical, is what made the left-wing pressure groups of the past so politically effective.
Perhaps the most dramatic example of the New Zealand Right borrowing the tactics of the New Zealand Left is the New Zealand National Party. National’s founders were determined that their fledgling organisation should grow into a mass party – as large, if not larger, than the New Zealand Labour Party. How else could they hope to defeat it?
Just like Labour, National gave itself a branch structure which penetrated deeply into ideologically sympathetic communities. Membership fees were kept within the reach of the ordinary voter, and the members themselves were constitutionally empowered to choose parliamentary candidates and participate in the formation of National Party policy. The “divisional” structure of the party guaranteed a large measure of regional autonomy from the party’s central office.
In short, until Stephen Joyce transformed it into a self-perpetuating oligarchy in 2003, National was a thoroughly democratic organisation. Had it not been, the party would not have been able to dominate New Zealand’s post-war politics so emphatically. At its peak in the mid-1970s, National’s membership topped a quarter-of-a-million.
What Forbes and her fellow conspiracy-theorists fail to grasp about democratic success, is that the exercise of real political power by working-class people (as evidenced by Labour’s dramatic economic and social transformations of the 1930s and 40s) does not just alarm the corporate elites.
When confronted by a confident and increasingly insubordinate working-class, broad swathes of the middle-class grow fearful that their superior social status is about to be eroded. To resist the rise of the working-class, two strategic options present themselves. The first is to effect a middle-class alignment with the ruling elites. The second is for the middle-class, using its credentialled expertise, to overwhelm the organisations of the working-class, turning lions into lambs and effectively giving the bosses two parties to play with.
The New Zealand middle-class has chosen both options. It’s commercial and industrial half backs the corporate elites in National, while its professional and managerial half makes sure Labour remains the neoliberal party it helped it to become in the 1980s and 90s. Middle-class idealists may have migrated to the Alliance and the Greens, but their more “progressive” policies have not yet contributed, in any meaningful way, to the re-empowering of the working-class.
Historically, “progressivism” represented the educated American middle-class’s answer to the brutally democratic working-class solutions developed by immigrant communities living in the United States’ largest cities during the Nineteenth Century. Dubbed “machine politics” by middle-class reformers affronted by its ruthless majoritarianism and unabashed clientism (which the reformers called corruption) progressivism successfully tamed the unruly beast that was American democracy, and made sure that working-class Americans kept their red crayoning safely inside the lines.
But, just because the kratos has been relocated in the hands of the more respectable sort of demos doesn’t mean that the corporate elites were willing to leave the political stage to those who clearly saw themselves as stepping nimbly between the Scylla of an angry working-class, and the Charybdis of Robber Baron Capitalism. Progressivism (a.k.a social-democracy) needs working-class votes if it is to wield political power, so, at least some of its measures must be to the obvious advantage of the whole population.
Not acceptable. As the capitalist elites discovered in the 1970s, even the middle-class version of democracy has a nasty habit of eventually encroaching on those parts of the system which capitalism has ruled off-limits. Give people of colour, or women, or the environment, enforceable rights and the next thing you know the cheeky so-and-sos will be wanting to use them.
What to do? Easy. Raise several well-equipped ideological divisions and throw them into the battle of ideas. From the early-1970s on, lobbying firms and think-tanks have grown like Topsy all across the capitalist world. Had the progressive middle-class not drawn its teeth and clipped its claws, an angry working-class might have risen to meet the Robber Baron’s challenge as it did in the 1890s, the 1930s and the 1970s. But, without the kratos of the unruly majority of the demos behind them, the paternalist strategies of the progressives were easily countered.
When the corporate elites discovered how intensely the working-class hated the educated middle-class that had shut them out of power, they must have known they couldn’t lose.
And, that’s the problem with democracy, isn’t it? It’s indivisible. Deny it to some, and you end up allowing its enemies to deny it to all.
This essay was originally posted on The Democracy Project of Monday, 19 February 2024.