Dangerous times: a challenge to the left



I suspect we live in far more dangerous times than many of us on the left realise.

It’s easy to identify our immediate enemy, a government hell bent on pushing its programme of privatisation, pauperisation and grubby exploitation of our natural resources.

But who is there among the other political parties in Aotearoa in 2013 whom we might trust to help take us beyond Key’s privateer’s paradise and forward into a world which all of us can have a hand in making – and sharing?

Labour under Shearer shows few signs of throwing off its legacy of capitulation to a free trade, free enterprise, mow-down-beneficiaries-on-the-way-through agenda, despite its sterling work in some of the socially liberal zones.

The Green Party, while retaining many great policies from its radical heritage – for how long I’m not sure – is equally committed to a ‘traditionally mixed market approach’ as Russel Norman makes clear in a recent interview here on The Daily Blog.

Neither Labour nor the Greens offer alternatives that take us beyond either a return to Keynesian regulation as a prop for stressed local capital or a National-lite neoliberal agenda.

In Europe there’s talk now of ‘post-democracy’, the situation in which ordinary people, even in so called advanced democracies, exert less and less impact on political decision making.
As one recent writer says, ‘Politicians are constrained by the power of capital, and by tangled networks of relationships with business.’

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Effectively the social democratic parties are unable to separate themselves and their policies from the business elite in any meaningful manner. Voters throughout the developed world are beginning to recognise this.

The frustration of the dispossessed and the young with conventional social democratic parties boils over into support for parties like the Pirate Party in Germany and Beppe Grillo’s 5-Star Movement in Italy.
These movements are a tangled mix of confused people, policies and ideologies, with a huge faith in the internet and the politics of ‘process’ as a way of achieving democracy. However, perils lurk here too – for example, Grillo’s critics call him more despot than democrat, with undertones of Mussolini, and the Pirate Party is falling apart, in part because of the strains of unfettered, anarchic internet processes which allow for a culture of anonymous hatred and abuse to flourish.

At the same time Guy Standing, recently in New Zealand for the Living Wage Symposium, talks with acute insight about the growth of a new precariat class which is emerging alongside the failure of the social democratic experiment, made up of those facing a life of insecure and unstable employment, with little hope of building any meaningful career and stake in the future.

Standing warns that the precariat is a ‘dangerous’ class, in part because many of its members may easily turn to neofascism if new, forward looking left agendas and organisations aren’t built well, and quickly.
The politics of the Pirate Party and Beppe Grillo are the politics of this same dangerous class on which the establishment social democratic parties have turned their backs.

While we haven’t seen the emergence of such parties here in Aotearoa – yet – I see similar developments in places like the Occupy movement, where a doomed faith in process over ideology seemed to trump the hopeful attempts to build genuine solidarity and kaupapa; in the whole ‘neither left nor right but out in front’ mantra which holds sway among so many Green supporters; and, above all, in the massive non vote in the last election, a sure sign of how irrelevant political parties have become to so many.

The resort to the non vote, or the belief that process means more than what you’re fighting for or whose side you’re on, are threats to attempts to build the kind of genuine participatory democracy I believe so many of us on the socialist, anarchist, ecosocialist – and progressive social democratic – left are yearning for.

It is not too late for the Greens and Labour to develop a politics which is relevant for our people and our time.

The combination of left tangata whenua and tau iwi activists who make up the Mana Movement do offer an embryonic if incomplete voice to the angry dispossessed, but even Mana struggles to shrug off the deadweight of the social democratic heritage of the welfare state and Keynesian economics.

Whichever of these parties we may or may not support and whatever our activist priorities on the front line of various struggles, I reckon the time has come when we on the left in Aotearoa need to start seriously engaging with each other across old sectarian and other lines on some of the big questions.
For example – how might we really build an economic and political pathway that takes us beyond dependence on the institutions of local and transnational capital? Can we begin to tell another story about what a different kind of Aotearoa might look like, in a way that workers at the local PakNSave or the sole mum with five kids down at the Work and Income office might understand? What could real democracy look like if we put our hearts and minds to it? … and much much more.

I am delighted to see the ‘Another World is Possible’ essay competition currently being promoted by the Labour History Project. This is a wonderful example of the sort of thing we should be doing a lot more of – working to conceive, describe – and in the end work together for – a future we really want, instead of the second hand one most of our current political leaders seem to offer.


  1. The lack of coherence on the left is a big issue e.g the fact that Labour see that competing for votes with the Greens is as important than battling the govt, is an illustration. Labour in particular do not have a clear vision of where they stand, and, as you’ve highlighted, the Greens also are in danger of diluting their vision. Morgan’s blog also highlights this.

  2. This is a good analysis and well written I feel.
    These are pitfalls indeed, but I also want to note here that this article fails to consider the role of us with the environment – which is very usual for many left-leaning commentators. Without us getting in balance with the environment no amount of economic or social policy can be successful. This is where the Green party shines through. I think the greens are being pragmatists because there simply appears no other way than to engage with capitalism in order to get us better in balance with the environment, while looking after those who miss out. The other parties do not do this – Mana slightly, but all too vaguely in their policies and labour even less so. Without doing what the Greens are doing in their policy (with engaging with capitalism and businesses and economics) and thereby attracting more support from the mainstream the country will remain in the hands of neo-liberalists.

  3. “In Europe there’s talk now of ‘post-democracy’, the situation in which ordinary people, even in so called advanced democracies, exert less and less impact on political decision making.
    As one recent writer says, ‘Politicians are constrained by the power of capital, and by tangled networks of relationships with business.’

    This critique has been made for well over 20 years now. It’s hardly new but maybe it’s taken a crisis of the current scale to bring it into mainstream political consciousness.

  4. Sue, you hit the nail on it’s head! Congratulations for putting things in front of us as they really are! I share much of what you see and think. Yet damning social democracy for having failed is not quite fair, as the so-called “social democratic” parties have long abandoned what they once stood for, namely true “social democracy”, with guaranteed worker’s participation and representation in companies they work for.

    We have had a full-scale sell out of values, and sadly I have not only witnessed this with Labour, also the Greens are now rather “mellow” and full of “emotive” arguments rather than resolutely and robustly presenting the damning facts and thus oppose the policies by the NatACT gang running NZ head on.

    Trying to outsmart English and Key with economic arguments may seem to make sense, but in the end, if not resolute alternative plan, a firm agenda, and above all a robust position is taken, these approaches will turn everything political into “fluffy” “feel good” and semantic debates with wasted efforts.

    Mana has sadly been labeled the 2nd Maori Party, Hone’s Party and the likes, and even while the input you and others have offered there, it will never catch on with too many voters, as the media (mostly private, commercial, advertising revenue driven, drivel focused and having forgotten its original purpose) had dealt to it.

    It is serious time for some real serious thinking and action, to form a wide enough, totally new, fresh, well-organised, soundly programmed, fully democratic “Left Party” in NZ, that can appeal to all the disaffected left voters, as well as the growing number of disenfranchised non-voters.

    Advance NZ or True Labour or Party of Democratic Social Progress, whatever, those may be just some fitting names that may catch on more than brands like “Labour”, “Greens” or “Mana”.

  5. Thanks for this.

    “It is not too late for the Greens and Labour to develop a politics which is relevant for our people and our time.”

    Hmm, I think it is far too late for Labour. And more fundamentally we can’t rely on the idea of pushing pro-capitalist parties to the left.

    We have to build revolutionary socialist organisations, and at a wider level aim to build a broad coalition that can break the hold of the two-party system. I don’t think there’s a quick fix for that, aside from the “spontaneous” elements we can’t predict.

    • The two party mentality is stopping MMP from working as a proportional system.
      As long as the classroom smart alec can gather enough of a gang of followers together all the others can be ridiculed and demeaned.

  6. Anarchy it is, in all but “name”

    “You must leave now take what you need, you think will last
    But whatever you wish to keep, you better grab it fast
    Yonder stands your orphan with his gun
    Crying like a fire in the sun
    Strike another match, go start anew
    Aaaand, It’s all over now, Baby Blue.”

    “There’s a man goin’ round takin names…”

  7. Birds of a feather flock together….the political left are just another variance of property hounds lining up for the machinery of the modern poltical state.

    Some of the better intentioned ones ( this is very relative ) do not realise they help create the problem because they do not possess or realize the nature of the practical conceptions that gave rise to the nature of public service becoming formalised through Government in the first place.

    I have alot of faith that the workers at the local paknsave or solo mum’s with 5 children for instance, according to the blog, already have alot more ‘understanding’ about where the solutions do lie, & the future ones do not; than the cobbled together narratives of politicians and associated groupings could ever hope……… no matter how intense & rich the political machinery behind them might get in response.

    So correct, dangerous roads are ahead for the left.

  8. As a Green Party member, I haven’t seen the party diluting its vision. From a shallow, media presented perspective, it may appear to be going more to the middle, but I think visiting its website to check out its policies will show that they remain firmly embedded in protecting the environment and social justice.

    I don’t think the Green Party is proposing a new socio-economic paradigm, for sure. While such paradigm changes do occur, they are arguably reasonably rare and while driven by external forces, are also the result of a change of perception/awareness/heart of the majority of a population. At present the only shift in the consciousness of New Zealanders seems to be to the right.

    As New Zealand and the world come under increasing environmental/social/economic stress, society will react by splitting between those who move to the left and those who move to the right. I’m picking the Green Party will remain firmly on the left, as why would people like me continue to belong to it anyway.

  9. The Pirate Party in Germany is already on its way out and is unlikely to make it into parliament in this year’s general election, having fallen to around 2-3% in the polls. May have been a short-lived experiment.

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