Saturday, 2 January 2010

A short response

I've been meaning to write a bit about Phil Goff's 'nationhood' and the response on the left (as usual most of what people are saying is infuriating me). Bryce over at liberation is writing a very long series of posts, and I disagree with most of his premises and conclusions, so I was planning to respond to that, when he finished it.

I don't know when he's going to finish it, but there are parts of the latest section that I want to respond to while the series is still going. I am particularly interested in the latest section where he argues that during the fourth labour government a socially liberal concensus was built alongside the neo-liberal concensus. More than that he's arguing that this happened because there was a trade off where people.

I think this is problematic on many levels. For example, he argues there was a feminist trade-off he lists the Ministry of Women's Affairs and Pay Equity as what the feminists gained. But these gains were paltry compared to what feminists were demanding. Even those who supported the Ministry of Women's Affairs were disillusioned within a short time of it being set up.* Pay Equity legislation wasn't introduced until everyone knew it was too late to do any good.** The repeal of the appalling 1977 abortion laws didn't even get off the ground (and still hasn't - despite there being a supposed social liberal concensus).

Edwards really isn't clear on who he sees as making this trade-off. If he is talking entirely about those in positions of power within the labour party, which he appears to be in the feminist section, then he may be right, I don't know a lot about that. However, if he is trying to describe the response of the movements that had grown up over the 1970s, then his analysis is very very limited, and does not acknowledge the resistance to the fourth labour government's economic policies. That opposition may not have been effective, but it existed.

But my point in this post is even simpler. Edwards quotes Bruce Jesson:
They couldn't affect economic policy, but they could gain a trade-off – the anti-nuclear position for economics, in many cases. In the case of the unions, the trade-off was compulsory unionism.

I haven't done enough study of the New Zealand left in the 1980s to provide detail information about how the many strands of orgnaised opposition that had been present in the Muldoon day responded. However, here Edwards demonstrates the limited usefulness of his own argument. Whether trade-offs were made, whether people pushed where they thought they were most likely to win, whether people fought on more than one front, winning some battles, but losing the big ones - 'identity politics' or 'social liberalism' is not a useful explanatory framework, particular if set as an alternative to class politics. Unions took exactly the same trade-offs that Bryce Edwards was talking about (actually from what I've heard they were far, far worse, because they were more powerful within the labour party, and hte trade-off process was more explicit).

The New Zealand left was ineffectual in responding to the fourth labour government that is a fact. But to lay blame on that ineffectualness at the feet of 'identity politics' is only possible if you are selective with your evidence. Bryce Edwards talks about the feminist trade-off within the party, but ignores the feminist organising against the reforms. But more importantly, he ignores the role of the labour movement in propping up and supporting the fourth labour government. As I said in my response to John Minto" "It wasn't the lack of class analysis which stopped people fighting back, it was a really bad class analysis."

I will try to respond to the arguments Bryce Edwards makes more fully at some point.

* I can't give you the exact time line sorry - although I can visualise the article in broadsheet.

** Although the importance of pay equity to feminists does undermine another part of Bryce's argument - that what he calls identity politics comes at the expense of a focus on economic inequality.


john said...

Maia, you question whether a socially liberal consensus has in fact been built alongside a rightwing economic consensus, and you also argue against this coming through some form of a ‘trade-off’. Yet, the political consensus that has existed since 1984 till now has very much been built around a post-Keynesian economic framework, coupled with a ‘liberal’ social agenda. So, since the defeat of the conservative Muldoon government in 1984, the New Zealand state has espoused an ideology that represents a synthesis of economic neo-liberalism and social liberalism.

So, how did the ideas of modern social liberalism develop? The contemporary ideas of social liberalism - identity politics, multiculturalism and a promotion of ‘tolerance’ - can be understood as representing the most rightwing or moderate ideas that came out of the new social movements in the 1960s and 70s. That these liberal ideas became dominant, and acted to suppress more radical ideas coming from leftwing feminists, nationalists, socialists and LGBT activists, showed that the left was effectively defeated and marginalised in the wider new social movements, and also within the wider workers movement.

Maia, you raise a crucial question of why was the left so ineffectual in responding to the right wing attacks of the fourth Labour government? I do think that part of the problem was indeed the left’s embracement of ‘identity politics’. The left’s shift away from concerns of class and economics led to it being unable to put up an ideological fight against the neoliberals within the Labour Party, and against new-right economic think-tanks. Basically, the left had plenty of good arguments against allowing nuclear ships in New Zealand, and arguments for equality for gays and women, but was almost devoid of any economic analysis in terms of the deficiencies of Keynesianism and critiques against the new-rights panacea of neoliberal restructuring.

I do agree with you Maia that a ‘bad class’ analysis’ is not much of a substitute for liberalism. Yes much of the left, especially amongst Maoists, Stalinists and old time social democrats, were crap when it came to question of gender, ‘race’ and sexuality. I think the inability of the traditional left to deal with such questions actually allowed the rightwing social liberals to win out in the new social movements and to eventually become dominant within the Labour moment. But, I would argue that there was a radical leftwing alternative to both the old economist left and to the new social liberals. This radical left alternative is, I would argue, a nuance Marxist analysis. Such an analysis dismisses both ideological frameworks of leftwing economism and social liberalism, and offers a radical materialist account of, and solutions to, the myriad of social divisions and oppressions that exist under capitalism. So, for example, a nuanced as opposed to a crude Marxist analysis argues that divisions based on gender, ethnicity and sexuality have their own material bases in capitalist society distinct from class, but exist within and are maintained by the overriding class nature of present day society. And it is because of the overriding class nature of the capitalist system, that Marxists privilege class analysis. Also, because of the centrality of class to capitalism, I would argue that workers are the potential agents to fight against all forms of oppressions. Because class exploitation is central to the maintenance and reproduction of the capitalist economic system, workers collectively hold a unique position to radically transform society. Also, because all workers are exploited they are objectively placed in an oppositional position to capitalism. It is for this reason that Marxists privilege class in the struggle against all exploitation and oppressions, and in the struggle for the liberation of all human beings.

Maia said...

John - The problem is that I disagree with many of your basic terms. What do you mean by 'social liberalism'? What do you mean by 'identity politics?'? Even guessing at your definition I really don't understand how banning nuclear ships fits in with either of these terms any more than it fits in with economic left-wing analysis.

You appear to be saying that the left could have being more effectual if it had good arguments. I don't know if you're right about the ability to put up a good argument, and I think it's naieve to think that good analysis automatically wins, or make syou more effective (remember truly effective resistance to neo-liberalism is slim - what is remarkable about NZ is not that we didn't win, but whether we tried less than in other places). But even if it were true - I don't think there's a limit to the number of issues that the left can have the ability fight ideologically on (assuming a critical mass). The fact that there were good arguments around nuclear ships and homosexual law reform doesn't preclude having good arguments around economic issues.

I think the heart of the matter is that hte New Zealand ruling class was smarter, and luckier than overseas ruling classes. I think that implementing these ideas by a labour government dulled the resistance.