A few thoughts on the politics of stasis*

by Daphna Whitmore

One of the aims of the Redline contributors is to make sense of New Zealand politics. This means that as well as looking at the dramatic periods of class struggle, such as the Waterfront dispute of 1951, we try to understand the long periods marked by low levels of struggle, the long years of inactivity.

Twenty years ago, workers were getting ready for a showdown. Tens of thousands joined demonstrations against the Employment Contract Bill. This attack by the National government came after two terms of a Labour government that had sold state assets off and dismantled or downsized industries which were centres of worker militancy (freezing works, mines, waterfront, seafarers, car plants, railways). There was an expectation that union leaders would call for strikes.

But the call didn’t come. CTU Secretary Ken Douglas and others in the leadership refused to lead a struggle, and so the Bill became law. Overnight many union rights were wiped out and collective bargaining was undermined.

This was not just a defeat following capitalist class attack, it was a betrayal from within the workers’ movement. The sellout/betrayal of 1991 coincided with the unravelling of the USSR and the loss of a visible alternative to capitalism.

In all the first world countries workers’ struggles waned.In New Zealand, rather than fight back against the privatisations, lower wages, casualisation and job losses, people adjusted their expectations lower, or hopped across the ditch to a better life in Australia. Thousands of people now emigrate to Australia every month rather than stay and fight for better wages here.

New Zealand has a large middle class whose sheer weight puts a brake on struggle, a stark contrast to third world countries where the middle class is small and the masses are much more militant. Here among the poor there is little experience with collective action.

Grim as things are on the lower rungs of the working class, there are now educational opportunities that didn’t exist a generation or two ago, such as the option of getting a student loan and going to university. These individual opportunities act as an alternative to organising collectively for change by enabling some people to get better-paying jobs, or at least giving hope that they’ll climb a career ladder.

Today, even with low wages, rising GST, and increasingly unaffordable housing, resistance has been very muted and the National government enjoys high levels of public support.

There is an old habit among much of the left to issue bold slogans in the hope that they will summon up a mobilisation of the masses. It hasn’t worked before and it won’t work now.

*Stability, lack of momentum.


  1. “There is an old habit among much of the left of issuing bold slogans in the hope that they will summon up a mobilisation of the masses. It hasn’t worked before and it won’t work now.”

    What is the solution, in the author’s opinion?

  2. The point of the post is to begin a discussion about what a possible solution might be. There are no easy answers to what has been a long downturn in working class struggle in New Zealand and elsewhere. The first part of the process of coming up with a solution is to analyse what has happened in the past and draw some possible conclusions from that. This is what we are trying to do with Redline.

    It would be interesting to know what you think Josh.

    • One of the big problems of the far left in this country is that it doesn’t like things to be complex at all. It likes nice simple stuff with nice simple slogans. Thus most of the left doesn’t recognise that there is a very serious problem in NZ, what Daphna’s piece calls a state of stasis.

      Because it can’t face up to this, the left organises as if nothing much has changed and talks up every small protest. A diet of crude anti-Toryism sustains this approach, rather than a real examination of the accumulation process and how capitalist policy is *generally* the result of that, not the result of this or that individual extreme economic right politician or backwoods spokesperson.

      Pretty much alone on the left, with the possible exception of some more serious of the class-struggle anarchists, we know that this response to real problems is woefully inadequate and, ultimately, unsustainable. The left just goes round in ever-diminishing circles, lowering their own horizons and dumbing down their politics in order to “connect” with whatever they think is moving at any point in time. The pressures to do this are immense, but it’s a dead-end, a recipe for exhaustion and demoralisation.

      What the alternative is, no-one actually knows at present. But at least at RedLine, we’ve identified the problems, including the problem of the left in this country just trying to carry on business as usual as if this was Greece or the potential for it being Greece is just a few hurrahs away.


  3. Josh, I’d say that just telling it like it is, is the best approach. Making grandiose statements like, ‘the revolution has begun’ or exaggerating numbers at protests achieves nothing. People need to know that right now very little struggle is occurring and that can be a starting point for building up struggle. I’d like to hear your thoughts on this too, Josh.

    I’m not saying we shouldn’t celebrate victories when they occur, however small they may be, but we should be realistic in describing them and in assessing their meaningfulness in terms of class consciousness etc.

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