MORGAN GODFERY makes an excellent point in his recent Daily Blog posting on Simon Lusk (“What the Left can learn from Lusk”). While admiring Lusk’s willingness to “think big”, Godfery also adds a cautionary footnote: “I think much of Lusk’s strategy won’t work. He’s trying to bring movement conservatism to New Zealand and I doubt that that will gel with New Zealand’s political culture. He’s thinking big picture, but when you examine how his strategies would work in practice it seems flimsy (at best).”
Godfrey’s shrewd observation highlights a major flaw in Lusk’s vision – one which I missed in my own analysis of this latest push from National’s far-right. (See my Daily Blog posting “What Rough Beast?”)
I’d simply assumed that Lusk and his ilk were inheritors of Rob Muldoon’s populist mantle, and that their strategy involved sucking-up disgruntled and/or alienated white working-class males.
Vulgar Marxist theorizing, notwithstanding, this is neither as bizarre nor as difficult as it may sound. As Gauleiter of “Red Berlin” in the early 1930s, Joseph Goebbels found to his amazement that many of his most militant stormtroopers had, just months before, been equally militant members of “Rot Front” (Red Front) – the Communist Party militia. A sense of belonging and the promise of action recruited many more disgruntled, alienated and unemployed young men than did either party’s turgid ideological offerings.
Godfrey’s insight lies precisely in identifying the absence of this sort of “movement” sensibility from Lusk’s strategy papers. If the “fiscal conservatives’” ultimate objective is a radically down-sized government; and their principal opponents the defenders of “big government”; then what kind of “movement” is available to them?
Goebbels was able to recruit former communists to the ranks of the Nazi Party because the latter’s enemies were often the same as the former’s: a delinquent and uncaring capitalism; a decadent ruling-class; reactionary religiosity. When the Berlin tram-workers went on strike in 1932, Goebbels’ stormtroopers joined them – and the Communists! – on the picket-lines.
None of these tactics are available to Lusk and his followers who, it is now clear, owe as much to Ludwig von Mises and Ayn Rand as they do to Rob Muldoon.
It was only in the dying months of his prime-ministership that Muldoon finally bowed to National’s traditional anti-unionism and allowed Jim Bolger to make union membership voluntary. He understood, as Bolger did not, that the Right’s winning margins, from 1951 to 1981, owed a huge debt to those “working-class Tories” whose support for National did not extend to its anti-union prejudices.
The failure of Lusk and his followers to transform the Ports of Auckland industrial stand-off into a “movement-building” event should have alerted them to how little traction such direct attacks on the defence organisations of the working class actually end up delivering to the New Zealand Right. Lusk clearly failed to register that the only “movement-building” the Right’s attacks on the POAL workers had generated was on the Left. Similarly, once Richard Taylor’s noisy and Hobbit-dependent workforce was removed from the 2010 equation, the actual level of popular support for breaking Actors’ Equity was minimal.
The sad fact (at least from a left-wing perspective) is that trade unionism is now a busted bogeyman. The middle classes can be mobilized around an anti-union agenda (old-timers will recall the infamous “Kiwis Care!” demonstration, ostensibly organised by Tania Harris, in 1981) but such mobilisations tend to follow equally spectacular demonstrations of union strength. CTU President, Helen Kelly’s, success in rallying support behind the Maritime Union was built, at least partially, on her understanding that, with the right sort of PR, the middle classes could be persuaded to see the workers as underdogs to be defended!
But, if the tried and tested bogeymen of the Cold War era: communists, trade union militants, student radicals; are no longer available to the New Zealand Right, there remains one force in New Zealand society with an enormous and (temporarily?) untapped potential for “movement-building”: racism.
Like the United States: New Zealand’s poorest citizens; the most exploited members of its working class; and a disproportionate number of its welfare beneficiaries; tend to have brown faces. The issues of race, class and welfare are thus combined in an extremely volatile political mixture. The explosive potential of this mixture was demonstrated at Orewa in January 2004 where Don Brash was able to boost National’s poll rating by an unprecedented 17 percentage points with a single speech targeting Maori “privilege”.
John Key’s outreach to Maori since 2008 has persuaded many voters that Brash’s race-based appeal is now passé in National’s ranks. What they fail to understand is that the racism that nearly won National the 2005 General Election has simply been displaced and diverted into the Government’s campaign for “welfare reform”.
If the general reaction to Al Nisbert’s cartoons is any guide, there’s a huge number of Kiwis out there who see Maori, Pasifika, the unemployed, solo mums, and “dole-bludgers” generally, as interchangeable components in a single, vast, social-welfare machine. A self-perpetuating, dependency-creating piece of social-engineering, designed by bleeding-heart liberals, and fuelled by the hard-earned dollars of hard-working, self-reliant (i.e. white) Kiwis.
It is here, in the racialised debate over welfare, that Lusk and his followers will find it easiest to replicate the “movement conservatism” that has transformed the Republican Right into such a potent electoral force. What the issues of big government, selfish unions, abortion, gay rights and marriage equality continue to deliver to conservatives in the United States, the historically fraught and dangerously polarizing issue of Maori-Pakeha relations could so easily impart to a similarly ruthless and well-funded “fiscally-conservative” movement in New Zealand.
If this is the path that Lusk and his supporters ultimately decide to follow, then my intuition that, in them, we are dealing with some variant of Muldoonist populism may not be so very wide of the mark. When the electoral chips were down, Muldoon realised that the racism so fundamental to this country’s understanding of itself could readily be summoned to the rescue of the Right. Not just Orewa, but the Springbok Tour of 1981, bears witness to the truth of his insight.
America’s “movement conservatism” may not be present in New Zealand for Lusk to tap into, but that does not preclude him from building his own.