In Defence Of Conservative Leftism

By   /   December 18, 2016  /   31 Comments

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“CONSERVATIVE LEFTISTS” espousing “conservative leftism” have become a thing. The term is applied (neither generously nor kindly) to those ageing members of the broader New Zealand Left whose understanding of progressive ideals was forged in the 1960s and 70s. Generally speaking, conservative leftists are depicted as political has-beens whose only continuing contribution to the progressive cause involves standing in its way.

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“CONSERVATIVE LEFTISTS” espousing “conservative leftism” have become a thing. The term is applied (neither generously nor kindly) to those ageing members of the broader New Zealand Left whose understanding of progressive ideals was forged in the 1960s and 70s. Generally speaking, conservative leftists are depicted as political has-beens whose only continuing contribution to the progressive cause involves standing in its way.

Conservative leftists (among whom I proudly count myself) naturally dispute this extremely negative characterisation of their contribution. They would argue that, in the present political environment, speaking up for the Left’s core principles and the protection of the constitutional framework that makes such expression possible, is the progressive movement’s No. 1 priority.

Balancing individual rights against collective need has always been the Left’s most daunting challenge. Err too far in advancing the former and we end up like the New Zealand Labour Party (NZLP) in the 1980s. Advance too energetically the claims of the latter and we rehearse all the worst aspects of Soviet-style socialism and the Bolivarian populism of present-day Venezuela.

The political system which makes possible the simultaneous advancement of both individual rights and collective needs is representative democracy. Which is why the NZLP, in its post-war search for a term to distinguish its own political philosophy from the totalitarian Marxist-Leninist doctrines of the Soviets, hit upon the term “Democratic Socialism” (the promotion of which still constitutes one of Labour’s key objectives). That political parties are required to seek a popular mandate for their policies – and then have that mandate reaffirmed – militates against the sort of revolutionary extremism that, for nearly a century, has led so many people to associate socialism with regimentation and repression.

Conservative leftism’s unwavering commitment to democracy (and to all the patient political persuasion that goes with it) not only earns it the scorn of the revolutionary left, but also the enmity of the neoliberal right. This mutual loathing has, on occasion, given rise to some pretty unholy political alliances. Confronted with the unwillingness of the Pakeha majority to elect Maori to public office, for example, radical leftists have cheered on the Executive’s use of special appointments to by-pass the electoral process altogether.

This “my enemy’s enemy is my friend” approach to politics is deeply offensive to conservative leftists. If the history of the last forty years has taught us anything, it is that Neoliberalism is fundamentally incompatible with democracy. The “governance” we hear so much about from neoliberal bureaucrats is a very different beast from the “government of the people, by the people, for the people” that defines representative democracy. Neoliberals understand as well as conservative leftists the power of the democratic process to enforce an equitable balance between the demands of the market and the needs of the population – and they will go to almost any lengths to undermine it. Just ask the people of Canterbury.

Allowing the ruling class to pull off an end-run around democracy may work to the short-term advantage of the radical left on a limited number of highly contentious issues – like affirmative action – but in the long run such tactics can only weaken the institutions that make it possible for ordinary people to challenge their rulers. Conservative leftists would further argue that by offering no serious opposition to the radical left’s anti-racist, anti-sexist, anti-homophobic and pro-immigration agenda, neoliberalism has shown the politics of identity to be entirely compatible with extreme individualism and unfettered market freedom.

It should go without saying, but in the febrile atmosphere of contemporary leftism I suppose it must be said, that the conservative left in no way resiles from its long and proud history of battling racism, sexism and homophobia. The dismantling of all legislative barriers to the full and equal participation of all citizens in the life of their communities is fundamental to the Left’s emancipatory narrative. Where conservative leftists part company with their more radical comrades, however, is over the degree to which the coercive powers of the state should be deployed to curb the expression of personal prejudice. State sanctions against hate speech may silence hateful expression, but they do not extinguish hatred itself. Hate is patient and depressingly resilient. Just ask Donald Trump.

The conservative left’s wariness of asking the state to fight the progressive movement’s battles for it also extends into the foreign policy arena. Some of the most vituperative critics of conservative leftists are to be found among those radical left-wing “humanitarian interventionists” who, on the vexed issue of the Syrian Civil War, have argued themselves onto the side of western imperialism. They rail against the alleged hypocrisy of leftists who criticised the US invasion of Iraq, but have maintained an immoral silence over Russia’s support for the government of Bashar al-Assad.

Conservative leftism’s response is simple. Wars are such appalling things that the best foreign policy course is almost always to avoid getting into them. If war rages on nonetheless, then the next best course of action is to bring the fighting to an end. If this can be done by negotiation, then negotiate. If negotiation fails, then the next next best way to stop a war is to win it. This is exactly what Bashar al-Assad and his Russian and Iranian allies are doing.

It is a regrettable but undeniable fact that those who cry: “Let justice be done though the heavens fall!” are seldom to be found living in the rubble. It is equally true that over the course of the last three, unnecessarily bloody, decades, western imperialism’s “humanitarian interventions” have created a great deal of rubble.

The conservative left’s unwavering purpose is to preserve progressivism as a movement with mass appeal. That means articulating and adapting the Left’s 250-year-old narrative about freedom, equality and solidarity to a post-modern age in which there is little patience for the grand narratives of the past. If Frederic Jameson is right, and post-modernism is indeed the “cultural logic of late capitalism”, then the system’s impatience with metanarratives is unsurprising. Stories are powerful things. Big stories show us how to live, and how to die. Even bigger stories teach us what is worth living – and dying – for.

For the very good reason that it has freed and fed more people than any other grand narrative in human history, we conservative leftists will continue to guard closely the story of the Left.

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31 Comments

  1. Blake says:

    First your discredit ” Conservative Leftists ” then you praise them.
    More mind fuc _____ jibber jabber really saying not much.

    Why not expose the real culprits instead of leading us down a lengthy wordy path to nowhere ? I usually learn not much from your – stating the obvious ; self aggrandizing comments. Sorry to be so blunt but that’s how I feel and I am sure there are others who agree.

    • I agree completely with your comments.

      The problem Chris has is that he can’t ever concede that he is wrong, that of course is simply a human fault.

      As Frank Macskasy stated, “Conservative leftistist”… hmmm, the problem with labels is one is never certain if it fits well.

      What is often forgotten is that labels are often created to justify intellectual failure and to boost one’s ego.

      I think that’s the self made trap that Chris Trotter steps into [willingly] each time he attempts to define political matters.

      This self made confusion leads to invention about history, of course times change and we keep re-inventing the wheel. We simply never seem to learn that a new generation views the past from their present perspective.

  2. phillip ure says:

    one of my problems with ‘the conservative left’ is their blindness to animal-rights/welfare..and the environmental outcomes from that blindness..

    perhaps best illustrated by green party/greenpeace bbq’s…

    and closer to source..the planned daily blog christmas party..where the revellers will be able to glance over to the glassy/dead eyes of the fish laid out for their delectation/consumption..

    ..and with nary a thought of those imperatives/environmental outcomes..

  3. “Conservative leftistist”… hmmm, the problem with labels is one is never certain if it fits well.

    The Syrian civil-war is a prime case. It began as a popular up-rising against a dictator who had no qualms about using the full violent force of his military to quell peaceful demonstrations.

    So where do opposition groups go from there? Acquiesce to Syrian state power? Flee? Fight back through armed resistance?

    What did the people of Cuba do?

    • Nick says:

      Sometimes we can only take an existential approach to issues. Our pret-a-porter ideology will only take us so far.

      In Syria, the route should surely be to what leads to the least harm. Those who survive will live to see and contribute to a better Syria one day. Those who don’t won’t.

      “Conservative Leftists,” as Chris provocatively styles them, often have one thing in common: experience. It is often a generational grouping.

      Years of trial and error, of observing as many-fold paths to Nirvana end in humiliating pratfalls and disappointment, of trying to discern what works in both the short term and long, can lead to conclusions that the angry, but impatient, would naturally reject.

      One conclusion is that social or political change must ultimately be by consensus. This does not mean that legislation must always follow public opinion. The introduction of same-sex marriage was a case in point where the parliamentary vote was ahead of public opinion. The abolition of the death penalty was another. My point, though is that these changes will be lasting, because public opinion came to support those cause, not in spite of the fact that they didn’t.

      Any cause that does not, at some level, recognize the restraint of the electorate, is risking not only losing the battle but potentially jeopardizing the war.

      Anyone who has spent some decades in the politics of the Left will know that schism is the perpetual bedfellow of the reformer. Those who are relative neophytes may not. And will doom themselves to learn the lesson the hard way.

      Well said, Chris. I wonder who have ears to hear.

  4. Stuart Munro says:

    It is not always clear which of the broad spectrum of political opinions is responsible for the slender shreds of actual progress. Certainly each of the larger factions is always swift to claim any possible credit.

    Similarly, democracy is an easy claim to make – even Kim Jong Il claimed it, calling his country the DPRK. To harness democracy as an empowering progressive principle however, is something quite different. It requires that the borrowed authority of the electorate is not abused. Local examples like the gratuitous theft of state assets have not been democratic, and thus their legitimacy is a matter of form rather than of fact. A ‘conservative leftism’ that accepts the substitution of form for fact is not a leftism at all.

  5. Andrew says:

    To make complete sense of your post Chris, I would like some clearer definitions of the various terms you employed. However here are my initial thoughts:

    Conservatism is just a philosophy of avoiding radical change. This is generally a great idea because history is full of radical changes that went bad. Better to have incremental change, whilst carrying the voters with you and testing the outcome rather than leaping into the unknown.

    How is our current state not democratic? The fact that the voters don’t chose your particular flavour of politics doesn’t mean its not a democracy.

    The terms left and right have lost much of their meaning. The current national party government is, based on policy alone, to the left of Savage.

    So where is the Right? See any blackshirts marching down the street? Me neither.

    In fact we all want pretty much the same thing – a prosperous, happy, successful and sustainable New Zealand. All we’re arguing about are the details of policies to deliver that.

    • The terms left and right have lost much of their meaning. The current national party government is, based on policy alone, to the left of Savage.

      That inane comment says more about your own far-right inclinations, Andrew, than the current Left/Right divide in this country. It’s also pretty damn stupid.

      Savage built state homes.

      National is flogging them off.

      Let us know if you can’t see the difference I’ve pointed out.

      So where is the Right? See any blackshirts marching down the street? Me neither.

      So, because you can’t see something, then it doesn’t exist, Andrew?! That’s a fairly shallow way of looking at things. Be careful about jamming a screw-driver into a live power-socket. You may not see electricity but… (Feel free to put it to the test if you don’t see the point I’m alluding to.)

      • Andrew says:

        Yes National is flogging off state houses. That’s one policy point.

        But did Savage give the dole to women? Give welfare to unmarried mothers? Marry homosexuals?

        As for my far right inclinations, although I’m sure I’d look simply fabulous in a Hugo Boss outfit of the 1930’s I’m very much a pragmatist, preferring to pick & chose policies that actually work.

        • Stuart Munro says:

          You miss the point as usual Andrew:

          The Gnats are flogging off state houses and landcorp farms, corruptly to their disgusting accomplices, in the middle of a housing crisis, to raise money to meet the revenue shortfall caused by the comprehensive failure of their insane far-right economic policies.

          An honest government would simply resign.

          • Gosman says:

            In case you missed it the government’s budget is back in balance and ahead of when Treasury predicted in the 2008 PREFU

        • WILD KATIPO says:

          This comment from NICK seems to counter what you are saying, Andrew.

          And does it quite nicely.

          ‘When it comes to kids going without, or sick people not getting care or rivers getting polluted or massive inequality, these are part of a national disgrace. No philosophical laissez-faire can be justified when the view is up close.’

    • Alex says:

      Hi Andrew, I enjoyed your comment. I think you’ve probably mischaracterised the basis of conservatism though. To me it’s more about valuing tradition, knowledge, lessons and hard fought gains of the past than simply a default avoidance of radical change.
      Also I don’t think Chris is not saying we are living in an undemocratic place. Rather, that reformers of the left could stray into totalitarianism at the expense of democracy when they think their cause is for the greater good. ‘Conservative leftists’ may prefer to keep hold of the hard fought personal freedoms from previous reforms including freedom from coersion by the state.

      • Rather, that reformers of the left could stray into totalitarianism at the expense of democracy when they think their cause is for the greater good. ‘

        I believe history shows that “straying into totalitarianism at the expense of democracy” is something both Left and Right has done. Religion as well.

        The human capacity to engage in excessive behaviour based on ideology or religion cuts across the political spectrum and throughout nearly all religions. (Only the Quakers haven’t committed atrocities or hate crimes – that I’m aware of.)

    • garibaldi says:

      Can’t agree with you Andrew.
      Our current economic model does not aim for a”prosperous, happy, successful and sustainable New Zealand”. It does for the top 0.1% but the rest are fucked. Also your definition of sustainable would only encompass the rort that’s going on now to maintain the status quo for the rich.

  6. Nick says:

    Building State houses and selling them off; making sure people can participate in society or making them sleep in cars; educating prisoners in jails so they can break the cycle and making them break rocks, they are all different points in the same continuum. So they must essentially be the same thing, right?

    Hitler and Mother Teresa share 99.9% of their DNA, so…

    Sharing some approximate generalized goal, only works at the most distant setting of the telescope.

    The Left believe that to achieve better outcomes for all, some positive efforts must be made to achieve that; the Right believes that the goals can be achieved by minimalist settings and that “the market will provide”.

    The right believes that even if the goals are not achieved, minimalist intervention is a good on it’s own, because some people will be fine. Even the majority. The Left believe that even if you fail to achieve your goals, the attempt is always worth while and half a loaf is better than no loaf at all.

    But these are long-view ideas. When it comes to kids going without, or sick people not getting care or rivers getting polluted or massive inequality, these are part of a national disgrace. No philosophical laissez-faire can be justified when the view is up close.

    And it is infinitely preferable to have a government that believes in planning your intervention, than one that conducts ad-hoc squeeky wheel interventions.

    Where the rubber hits the road there is no place for the complacent hands-off conservative.

  7. Muttonbird says:

    I’m happy the day has come when Chris Trotter has finally slapped a descriptive and binding label upon himself.

    Now to ask what policy does Chris Trotter, the conservative leftist, disagree with the current leadership of the Labour party so much so that he would undermine that leadership on his paid radio appearances.

    • adam says:

      You mean apart from the labour party not being opposed to neo-liberalism?

      Seesh Muttonbird your blind-spots are showing again.

    • In Vino says:

      You missed the point. We conservative leftists have an unwavering commitment to democracy, etc. Your dumb Labour Party (now by name only) mouths ideals, but all too often fails to put real leftist policy into the manifesto. Criticism is needed and justified – in no way is it ‘undermining’.

  8. WILD KATIPO says:

    { ” Balancing individual rights against collective need has always been the Left’s most daunting challenge. Err too far in advancing the former and we end up like the New Zealand Labour Party (NZLP) in the 1980s. Advance too energetically the claims of the latter and we rehearse all the worst aspects of Soviet-style socialism and the Bolivarian populism of present-day Venezuela.

    The political system which makes possible the simultaneous advancement of both individual rights and collective needs is representative democracy. Which is why the NZLP, in its post-war search for a term to distinguish its own political philosophy from the totalitarian Marxist-Leninist doctrines of the Soviets, hit upon the term “Democratic Socialism” (the promotion of which still constitutes one of Labour’s key objectives).

    If the history of the last forty years has taught us anything, it is that Neoliberalism is fundamentally incompatible with democracy. The “governance” we hear so much about from neoliberal bureaucrats is a very different beast from the “government of the people, by the people, for the people” that defines representative democracy. ” }

    ………………………………………………………………………………………..

    To me, these 3 portions stood out and form the crux of many arguments with those far right wing neo liberals who choose to lurk among blog sites such as the TDB.

    Time and again their recourse is always that contained in paragraphs 1 and 2.

    And then go on to play upon peoples inability to adequately explain the differences between totalitarianism and social democracy , – lumping socialism ( esp NZ style ) in with Communism ( even though tacitly ignoring communism’s counterpart , – fascism ) .

    The Nazi party was made illegal in many country’s around the world following WW2, for good reasons. Aside from the brutal and blatant physical evidence and its end results … it was also because of its more extremist ideology it advanced.

    Does an extremist ideology always have to necessarily cause death or direct and visible physical harm to be deemed a negative and malevolent ideology?

    I think not.

    There have been many hundreds of thousands of New Zealanders who have suffered because of Neo liberalism. Let alone overseas. And while a few gained from it- thousands more were displaced.

    So should some of the core planks of neo liberalism be deemed illegal because of its destructive tearing down of legislation’s ,institutions and methodology’s of a once very prosperous ( per capita ) nation like New Zealand once was?

    I would recommend it.

    If only to prevent extremist ideology’s from gaining a destructive foothold that threatens the democratic principle and the prosperity of the commons at large , who are,… in actual fact ,… the real government of the country. Those that sit as elected representatives are merely the executors of a government that sits squarely in ,- and is vested entirely in , the commons itself.

    The interesting thing is the point that was made ,… that there was virtually no opposition by the neo liberal to the activist lefts ‘identity politics’. The fact of the matter there was no need to oppose it. It could and did become integrated into popular appeal and used as a weapon against the Left itself without threatening the core agenda of neo liberalism at all.

    ” Give the masses their bread and circuses , for to us it is irrelevant ”.

    What does threaten the neo liberal agenda , however , is ‘ class ‘ … or ‘traditional’ politics of the left. Things such as wages , conditions, award rates, tariffs, unionism , and a regulatory ‘ Big ‘ governance not afraid of taking back control of such pivotal institutions as Treasury.

    The exact opposite of neo liberal ideology.

    These are things that the neo liberal ideology cannot assimilate simply because these are its very nemesis.

  9. CLEANGREEN says:

    ANDREW is way off here, as he asks “But did Savage give the dole to women? Give welfare to unmarried mothers? Marry homosexuals?”

    In Savage’s time we didn’t have this type of society as it was often the male that was the breadwinner then.

    ALSO AT THAT TIME WOMEN STAYED AT HOME AND WE DIDNT HAVE OPEN HOMO-SEXUALITY THEN, (AT LEAST PUBLICALLLY EXPRESSED) AND LASTLY WE HAD VERY FEW “SOLO MUMS SO WE LIVED IN A VERY DIFFERENT TIME ANDREW AS YOU SHOW YOU ARE VERY YOUNG AND NOT IN YOUR 7O AS i AM WHO LIVED THROUGH THAT TIME.

    • Indeed, CG.

      I also suspect that if we looked up historical records, National’s predecessors, the United/Reform Coalition would have opposed all of Mickey Savage’s social reforms.

      Andrew’s silly attempt to paint the Nats as socially progressive is risable.

  10. countryboy says:

    Brilliant post @ Chris Trotter. Beautifully written, as always.
    I must admit… there were words you used that I had to look up. What a fabulous range to your vocab’ you must have. I’m very envious.

    I listened to a fellow on the radio the other day and you and he would concur completely. I can’t remember his name of course, and I’d be worried if I could because there’d clearly be something up with that.

    Terminal lucidity springs to mind! Just my luck. A clear head seconds before I see my first dog again.
    The weird phenomenon of Terminal Lucidity( http://boingboing.net/2014/12/04/the-weird-phenomenon-of-termin.html )

    He went on to illustrate a simple truth. Capitalism is like a cancer. It must grow or die. And in that process, growth is exponential thus will always strive to become a monopoly. From the most humble roadside store to the most formidable corporation, they all compete for the most money and will, ultimately, destroy everything in their path to get the most.
    Socialism is unworkable because we are human thus frail, devious, mad, greedy, happy ( so who cares right? ) and downright confused so “I’m going to eat an ice cream because that makes me feel good and bugger the world. “

    Democracy enables us to elect a select few politicians, who swear to act responsibly and without prejudice on behalf of both sides of the equation.
    Of course, they sway and become corrupted by the $-powerful corporations and, in some cases, become afraid of being shot dead beside their car as they head home of an evening.
    Real trouble starts when normal people like me take our eyes off the game. That’s why the greatest troubles come from the longest periods of peace.
    When we stop maintaining and nurturing our democratic mechanism the naturally lazy socialists and the naturally greedy capitalists play with matches while mum and dad are at the movies. Mum and Dad come home with a head full of romance and see the house is embers while us kids blame each other.
    That’s why, dear @ Chris Trotter, I advocate compulsory voting.
    By law, we must be enrolled on the … well, electoral roll but we’re not compelled, by law, to vote? But why? Or, romantically ; Mais pourquoi’ ?
    I think I can tell you why. It’s because it gives the Kiwi Corporate Criminal a back door key. And I believe it ties in with ….. I’m not going there because you’ll think I’m nuts.
    Moving on;
    They can manipulate, coerce , mentally fiddle with, lie via the media, warp intellectually by use of logical fallacies, cheat, steal and in some dire cases, murder in their quest for monopolistic supremacy.
    If we don’t have to vote ? Then the corporate Beast can make sure that, that works in the favour of the merchants to gain an $-advantage.

    • garibaldi says:

      Compulsory voting sounds like a great idea, but it is pointless getting ignorant , unthinking, uneducated, disinterested slobs to vote. These people just turn elections to wiifm ie you might just as well just have a lolly scramble.

  11. Andrea says:

    Somewhere along the line those who purport to be conservative/national in politics cut loose from noblesse oblige – “privilege entails responsibility”.

    Time was when the ‘upper classes’ would actively plant trees or build for future generations – even if only their own.

    The current horde hoards, sees no reason to create a better future.

    Chris says, “unwavering commitment to democracy (and to all the patient political persuasion that goes with it)” followed by, “government of the people, by the people, for the people” that defines representative democracy.

    We don’t have it. The systems and structures are not there. The nearest we have is the process of a hui – patient persuasion.

    Those who speak there practice for years for that privilege. Honor and humility go with it, and those people are known.

    Compare that with our watered down, pathetic mockery.

    We do not have ‘democracy’. The whole concept is treated as some sort of triennial sport that we may or may not contribute to and then return to Real Life.

    Having a tendency to progress, change, expansion of opportunity (currently labelled as ‘left’) instead of preferring the status quo does not require of anyone that they ‘support the Labour Party’. Or they’re ‘Trots’ or ‘Marxists’.

    If by ‘conservatist’ Chris means he is holding the ‘old’ vision, despite the billows of toxic smog currently trying to smother what was good, useful, and an enduring vision, then good on him.

    The tribes that are so vociferous – the ‘loyal followers’ – including the diehards and their honour killing mentality – have their place. They hold the gains until something better comes along. Unfortunately, they’re often the token religionists – more show than action. Their place is not with the people who generate change or hold the vision.

    From that stance of conservatism Chris has every right to explore, speak, contradict himself, and change his mind if he so chooses. Just like everyone else.

    So, progressives with a left tendency, how about striving for unity in diversity instead of the routine ‘beat and ostracise until they conform or quit’ rubbish that we’ve watched with disgust for too many years? Walk the talk all the way into 2017. Unity. Despite diversity.



Authorised by Martyn Bradbury, The Editor, TheDailyBlog, 5 Victoria St East/Queen St, CBD, Auckland, New Zealand.