It’s Time For Some “Earnest Struggle”

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THE TRUE MEASURE of Neoliberalism’s victory is the extent to which the Left now expects someone else to make the revolution. I listened this morning while Janet McAllister, from Child Poverty Action Group, did her best to guilt-trip Jacinda Ardern into ending child poverty. Labour’s mandate is unequivocal, Janet reassured Morning Report’s listeners, everyone’s in favour, so “let’s do this”. The CPAG spokeswoman’s faith was little short of biblical: “Ask, and it shall be given you; seek, and ye shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you.” Oh, that political change were so simple!

Let’s pick apart Janet’s political pitch. CPAG’s analytical frame – “Child Poverty” – is, not to put too fine a point upon it, a con. A well-meaning con, to be sure, but a con none the less. Why? Because, as that wry old Communist, Don Franks, noted on Twitter just the other day: “Children are poor because they don’t work.” And, of course, he’s right. Society doesn’t impose poverty on children, it imposes poverty upon their parents. So, when the demand is made to end child poverty, those making it are actually demanding an end to poverty itself. A worthy goal, but also a problematic one, since the problem it addresses – economic and social inequality – encompasses the entire battleground between the Left and the Right.

Now, being lumped-in with the forces of the Radical Left is not something the good folk at CPAG are all that keen on. They are perfectly aware that if they made their pitch all about lifting wages and raising taxes, the flow of donations would dry up almost immediately. That’s why they frame their political narrative around child poverty. It’s about all those poor little children without warm, dry houses; without shoes; without school-lunches. Because who, out there in middle-class-land, is hard-hearted enough to refuse to help these poor wee mites? The answer, of course, is: the very same people who deny their parents a decent wage; whack up the rent on their freezing-cold hovels; and resist any attempt to make them pay their fair share of tax. (An astonishing number of whom have, over the past fortnight, cast their Party Vote proudly for “Jacinda” and the Labour Party!)

So, Janet, when you tell RNZ’s middle-class audience that everyone wants to end child poverty, you’re right – and you’re wrong. When confronted with the emotional shock of a deprived child, everyone (or just about everyone) wants to do something to help. But, when they discover what “doing something to help” is going to cost them, well, that’s when they stop being willing to cry: “Let’s do this!” In fact, that’s when they end up feeling just a wee bit manipulated; a wee bit conned; and a whole lot convinced that “ending child poverty” is just a polite way of saying: “Let’s do Socialism!”

I’m pretty sure Jacinda (aided, as always, by her trusty pollsters and focus-group moderators) worked this out some time ago. Which is why, in her case, ending child poverty has become less of an urgent priority and more of a work in progress. The Finance Minister, Grant Robertson, will also have been given the message (in his case by Treasury) that the Prime Ministers’ promises, if kept, would likely prove very expensive and tread on a great many very powerful toes. “Are you absolutely sure, Minister,” his advisers will purr, “that the PM really intends to be that … courageous?”

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There will be plenty of readers bristling about now, and demanding to know, from no one in particular, exactly what Trotter is suggesting. Is he saying that the Left should simply give up on poverty and inequality? No, he most emphatically is not. What he is proposing, is that the Left does what the Left used to do: organise!

If Jacinda were to switch on Morning Report and, instead of CPAG’s Janet McCallister cheekily borrowing her own election slogans, hear the RNZ newsreader describing the 20,000-strong anti-poverty march that had wound its way through the streets of South Auckland the night before, how do you think she would react? What would Grant Robertson’s response be when he heard a grab from the passionate speech delivered to the marchers by the Green Party’s Ricardo Menendez March, in which he reaffirmed his party’s commitment to a Universal Benefit of $400 per week? I strongly suspect they’d be texting each other within 30 seconds with the same message: “We’ve got to do something about this!”

Relying on top-down solutions to entrenched economic and societal problems is never a good idea. Liberal Americans may have celebrated when the US Supreme Court overturned Jim Crow legislation in the Deep South and guaranteed American women the right to terminate their pregnancies. Conservative Americans, however, were spared the trial they truly feared: that of having their prejudices challenged and defeated, democratically, in their state legislatures. Legal victories are very different from democratic victories. The former are won in courtrooms, the latter on the streets and in the polling-booths. American conservatives were not daunted by Supreme Court activism, they were educated by it. And the lesson they learned was simple: Stack the Court with your own activists.

Frederick Douglass (1818-1895) the former slave and leading abolitionist, understood the crucial role of organisation and action in the fight for freedom and equality. This is how he summed it up:

“Let me give you a word of the philosophy of reform. The whole history of the progress of human liberty shows that all concessions yet made to her august claims have been born of earnest struggle. The conflict has been exciting, agitating, all-absorbing, and for the time being, putting all other tumults to silence. It must do this or it does nothing. If there is no struggle there is no progress. Those who profess to favor freedom and yet deprecate agitation are men who want crops without plowing up the ground; they want rain without thunder and lightning. They want the ocean without the awful roar of its many waters.

This struggle may be a moral one, or it may be a physical one, and it may be both moral and physical, but it must be a struggle. Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will. Find out just what any people will quietly submit to and you have found out the exact measure of injustice and wrong which will be imposed upon them, and these will continue till they are resisted with either words or blows, or with both. The limits of tyrants are prescribed by the endurance of those whom they oppress.”

Douglass spoke those words in 1857, and in the intervening 163 years they have lost neither their power, nor their urgent wisdom. The New Zealand Left should commit his words to memory, and take his message to heart.

21 COMMENTS

  1. Let the record show that this victory over covid by the Prime Minister and her government began with the health workers, aged carers, and Drs and nurses who seeing what was happening overseas, organised and signed member petition demanding the government order the first Level 4 lockdown.

    Sunday, 22 March 2020
    Health workers want Alert Level 4 now

    At final count, the health workers collected over 65,000 of their colleagues names to this petition.
    Within hours of this massive 65,000 health workers signed petition landing on her desk, the Prime Minister Ardern, against the earlier advice given by Ashley Boomfield, ordered the lockdown.
    The rest is history.
    In responding to the health workers call and ignoring her advisors and other conservative voices and going out on a limb in the way she did speaks of personal courage.
    Often cited as the masterclass in leadership, Winston Churchill wrote,
    “The greatest of human qualities can be expressed in a single word: freedom; justice; duty; mercy; kindness; courage.
    Courage is the first of these qualities because it is the quality that guarantees all the others”
    Jacinda Ardern has this quality in spades.
    Listening to the people and having to courage to act on it, is the sign of a great leader.

    Responding to the health workers call to go to Level 4 Lockdown, is not the first time that the Prime Minister has responded to grassroots activism.
    She did it over deep sea oil drilling.
    On her way to a scheduled appointment to meet with the Indonesian ambassador the Prime Minister saw a protest by Greenpeace on the steps of parliament against deep sea oil drilling.
    She got out of her government limo and listened to their concerns, on the spot the Prime Minister announced a ban on issuing any new off shore oil drilling permits.
    This is how change happens. As well as pressure from below their needs to be leadership from above.

    But no political leader can go too far ahead of the movement without the risk of becoming isolated.
    If we want the Prime Minister and her government to take far reaching action on climate change or child poverty or inequality or housing, then it is up to us to build the grass roots movements to address these issues. It is this that will give the Prime Minister and the political class the political space to act on their best instincts.

    For example;
    It is telling that the Prime Minister compares climate change to our nuclear free policy.
    The nuclear free policy was not achieved without a movement from below that protested nuclear ship visits. It was this move that gave the politicians the political space to act.
    If we want the government to act on climate change or any other issue it is up to us to build a movement that demands such action.

  2. I suggest that the 90+% of Kiwis who didn’t vote for the Greens consider their decision well justified every time Ricardo Menendez March opens his mouth whining in his Mexican accent about how hard done by he is to now live in NZ

    • It took longer than anticipated for some racist clown to attack Ricardo just as other neanderthals forged a new online career attacking Golriz Ghahraman.

      • Tiger and Robbie – You – we – may need to differentiate between immigrants who vocalise about their own problems , or about others’s problems, which is a different story altogether. It’s not necessarily a racist issue.

    • If you voted for National/Act your vote is wasted. Absolute losers both of them. RobbieWgtn is of the old school, a relic in thought and part of a dying breed. The Greens or a similar group will prevail once you lot are gone. The true handbrake on NZ.

      • FYI I voted for Labour, as I’ve mostly always done for the last 47 years (2 exceptions, never voted for Act). So I guess I’m an old school Labour relic then & happy to remain a handbrake until commonsense prevails in the generations still growing up…

        • RobbieWgtn if you voted Labour then well done, I take it back. However the ‘commonsense’ of the older generations is still a worry. The worry is the next few generations coming through. Our country needs to control the Housing crisis and make serious inroads into Child Poverty, Climate change etc, which is vehemently denied by this so called ‘commonsense’. When do the young people get some priority? It seems the oldies are getting looked after as the propertied class usually do, and to hell with the rest.

          • ‘vehemently denied by commonsense” ???
            so climate change, childhood poverty & housing crisis etc – r all the fault of old people & common sense…… get off your smart device sonny
            a lack of common sense is a problem.

  3. Frederick Douglass has been quoted many a time over the decades. Don Franks not so much!–remember him as a great union battler though when NZ had a local car assembly industry that employed 16,000 in Wellington, South Auckland and even Thames, Nelson and Waitara.

    Anyway, now that the chaos of a National/ACT/conspiracist Govt has been overwhelmingly averted, it is indeed time for earnest struggle. We have three years to go for it, hopefully culminating in a 2023 General Election that hinges on burying neo liberalism and its institutions for good. The boomer replacement generations are predicted to finally outnumber their no student debt, home owning tormentors and landlords.

    All power to increased Climate Strikes, Iwi occupations and water rights actions, Fair Pay Agreements enforced, and unions with more class left leaderships than Labour tailists. Community organising and direct action–both confrontational and feel good inclusive–needs to happen to deal with homelessness and poverty by putting it right in the nation’s and Labour Caucus’ face.

  4. You summed all up our predicament in once sentence, Chris:

    ‘Relying on top-down solutions to entrenched economic and societal problems is never a good idea.’

    Now getting on with what I need to do.

  5. Chris How much did the poor old have to struggle and march in the 1970s to get National Super that solved elder poverty over night? Muldoon just did it. We do well for the old and poorly for the young. It is not just about wages- we have a fully formed redistributive policy for children called working for families. We can make choices that lift every child above the poverty line just as we did for the old– the policy solution is welfare reform and making WFF inclusive of the poorest which it currently is not and fully indexing to wages. Housing is important as well of course. Jacinda could just do it. Boils down to political choice.

    • Agree.

      Fear is the central theme of post-84 Labour. Sweet smooth CVs to power and fear of their own shadows afterward. Or unawareness difficulty beyond a bad party vote is involved ( see Ardern’s face when the announcement of Grant Robertson’s defeat as party leader was announced).

  6. Chris may very well call for the Left to organise, but the Left does have a very real talent for splitting apart into embittered factions.
    The Identitarian groups would have an argument about which group should lead the South Auckland march, based on an idea of the hierarchy of injustice, which would cause an even more bitter argument.

    • Ada – There is absolutely no hierarchy of injustice when it comes to child poverty. Every child counts. Suggestion that some children may be lower down the pecking order than others, must be rejected by everybody, and I think it would be.

      The telling thing about Chris’s thesis here, is that he is relying on the left, to galvanise the government into action on the issue of child poverty. Where are the voices calling to the right? I can’t hear them.

      All poverty is dehumanising. For children it cripples not just their healthy development, but many aspects of the whole of their future lives. The current state of affairs has been reached as a result of the socially destructive policies enacted by years of National misrule, and using it to whack the left on spurious grounds is about as low as you can go. Flinging around woolly terms like, ‘identitarian groups’ simply looks like a way of trying to discredit Sth Aucklanders, which is nuts when this is a nation wide issue anyway, and outside of Auckland there are people who do act upon social justice issues.

  7. It is going to be an interesting 3 years as Labour has so much power it can do what it wants but that is were the arguements will come in because everyone will want their desires fixed and the gulf between Labour and Greens will grow bigger.

    I am picking few will be satisfied and this platform will be full of comments about what is not happening .

  8. Compulsory Unionism,is the only Public transport that is going to climb the mountain of exploit that the fathers of CAPITALISM have profited, exploited, for the past Decades, trendy words like Neo and like, are the slogans that capitalism A.C.T. on, their stage of change, with as always profit their social wealth change, become like us selfish unrelenting secure and scathing of those lesser, are they those just jealous of our standing and wealth those that dare challenge us.

    • Agree big time. Workers Unions are the only vehicle we currently have to unite the people against the system.
      We need to engage in building them up so they can collectively protest and rally the masses. Bottom up action is looking more and more like the only way. It is a civil right to do so, but has been nutered by successive Goverments mainly National. I’m glad they’re out.

  9. Chris. In the 1970s the poor old did not have to march in the streets. We had Muldoon who eliminated old age poverty overnight with his National super policy. Jacinda has the mandate and just as elder poverty is a thing of the past so should child poverty be. Children are disproportionately under the poverty line and fixing their income support via Working for Families is an obvious tool at the government’s disposal. Raising core benefits will be needed too as children need the incomes of the adults that care for them to be adequate as well

  10. As usual from you commentators not on. word about our collapsing health system, which without which fixing child poverty, will be a waste of time. As their health and their parents healthcare sinks further and further, into the mud.

    • Some of us have commented upon and otherwise actioned issues re the under- funded health system ad infinitum. The ethos of neoliberalism as perhaps exemplified by English and co, is to run down the public health service to justify privatisation on the grounds that the privateers can do it better. There has already been a certain amount privitisation by stealth snuck in.

      It may well be that the current govt has to be pushed like hell to do better, but it may also be that as usual, the only people who matter are people like them, those with health insurance and private work schemes, and more voluntary initiatives are needed to pick up the slack before the whole system is flogged off in the name of efficiency. That’s how things work now. There are some pretty good medical professionals still articulating about this, and how much they are listened to is anybody ‘s guess.

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