The Alasdair Thompson Affair, NZ capitalism and ruling class ideology today

Posted: July 8, 2011 by Nick Scullin in Capitalist ideology, Community organising, Cultural studies, Women's rights & women's liberation

by Philip Ferguson

“Is Alasdair Thompson a dork or what in regards to his claim that menstruation affected woman’s productivity. Hasn’t he ever heard of Man Flu. Being a man flu survivor one would have to ask the question; maybe he should have been born 100 years ago then he would have got away with such comments.  I suggest he has less than a week in his present position before he starts looking for another job.” – Tom Babe, on Facebook

I have no idea who Tom Babe is, but his comment on Facebook showed he had a much better grasp of the Alasdair Thompson affair, and the likely fate of the CEO of the Employers and Manufacturers Association, than many on the left.  Much of the left here has the unfortunate and rather lazy habit of assuming that reactionary ideas which were dominant in the ruling class thirty-forty and more years ago are still dominant.  Thus the editorial of the only paper still published regularly by a left group claimed Thompson’s comments “really underlined the deeply reactionary essence of capitalism as it exists right now” and attempts by employers and the government to present themselves as “centrist” is merely “spin”.[1]

This misunderstands both the state of the capital accumulation process in New Zealand at present and the forms of ruling class ideology that arise from it.  Ruling class ideology in NZ in the twenty-first century (and, in fact, since the mid-1980s) has been predominantly socially liberal, not backwoods reactionary like Thompson.  Further, this change in ideology reflects developments in the operations of the economic system itself and is, in turn, reflected in governmental/state economic policy.

The hegemony of generally socially-liberal ideas in the ruling class, especially around race, gender and sexuality, is why Thompson wasn’t even allowed the dignity of falling on his sword and resigning.  Instead, he was sacked by the EMA for what they described as serious misconduct.[2]  And as employment lawyer Kathryn Beck noted, it’s unusual for such a high-profile case to end in a sacking rather than a resignation negotiated by lawyers.[3]

It should not be hard to work out why Thompson has so little support in the ruling class.  It’s certainly not because they’re intimidated by a mass outcry against Thompson among the oppressed and exploited.  A poll on TV1’s Close-Up  indicated nearly two-thirds of the 13,000 respondents were against the sacking and just over one-third in favour, although a TV1 internet poll indicated 54% in favour of the dismissal and 46% saying it was an over-reaction.  In any case, it clearly wasn’t as if the ruling class had to do something they didn’t want to in dispensing with an underling who had long since passed his best-by date.[4]

Thompson and his backwoods reactionary comments on women are loathsome but they are also thoroughly unrepresentative of ruling class thinking today.  During the era in which Robert Muldoon dominated New Zealand politics, they would have been quite common in ruling class circles and among the capitalist class’ managers and go-fors like Thompson.  But when was the last time anyone in the ruling class who actually represented any significant thinking within that class made the kind of statement made by Thompson on June 23?  Or the subsequent standover-like poses the ruddy-faced reactionary adopted, looking rather under the influence of alcohol, when being challenged later by a female television reporter?[5]

The ruling class today is not the same as the ruling class of the Muldoon era, the “RSA generation” of men who supported Keynesian economics and reactionary social views about the place of women (in the home), of homosexuals (in the closest or in mental institutions), Maori and Pacific Islanders (at the bottom of the social pile) and Asians (anywhere but not in New Zealand).  Today’s ruling class is the next generation – the offspring of the post-WW2 ruling class generation, with the addition of a layer of new rich.  The ruling class today are folks who were shaped by the 1960s; they were members of a generation which rebelled against the social conformity, exclusiveness and conservatism of New Zealand society.  Some of them were social rebels themselves but almost all of them were young people of the time affected by the more liberal wave that washed across New Zealand at that time.

When many of them subsequently adopted neo-liberal economics they maintained their liberal social views.  Indeed, one of the notable features of neo-liberalism in New Zealand was that it was, by-and-large, socially liberal.  It was quite different from the socially reactionary views of people like Thatcher in Britain and Reagan in the United States.  Indeed, the first political vehicle of neo-liberal economics in New Zealand, Bob Jones’ New Zealand Party, favoured New Zealand withdrawal from ANZUS and adoption of neutrality, supported women’s right to abortion and had a string of other socially-liberal policies.  It was established by Jones specifically to get rid of Muldoon and it succeeded by splitting the National vote and allowing Labour to win the 1984 election.  The incoming Labour government then pursued economic and social policies that were relatively close to those of Jones’ party.  In 1987, Jones, one of New Zealand’s richest people, openly favoured a Labour victory and a chunk of his supporters backed Labour.

While Jones is a bit of a maverick and loose cannon within the ruling class, he’s also always fancied himself as one of its few organic intellectuals.  Back in the 1960s, as a young business figure on the make, Jones donated to the anarcho-counterculturalist magazine Cock[6] and he maintained elements of social liberalism mixed in with elements of reactionary ideology as he made his way up the greasy pole of property investment.  The views for which he was the most public spokesperson in the early 1980s, after his break with Muldoon, reflected the much wider spread of liberal views within the ruling class.  These liberal views involved gender, sexuality and race relations, and came to the fore especially after 1984.

In relation to gender, long gone are the days when the ruling class didn’t want to have their daughters well-educated but just sought to marry them off to other men of the ruling class and a life of needlework, maintaining the house and servants, reproducing the next generation of the upper class and doing a bit of charity work.  Today’s ruling class, as social products of the 1960s, buy good educations for their daughters and they do not wish to see them deprived of access to jobs as doctors, lawyers, engineers, managers and top business positions.  Or get less pay than their male counterparts.  Many of them would have been just as horrified as their daughters, and as socialists and feminists, at Thompson’s comments.

Indeed, as soon as Thompson’s misogynistic remarks were known the head of the board of the EMA completely repudiated them.  Former National  Party prime minister Jenny Shipley, today something of a bigwig in the China trade and head of  the board of the China Construction Bank, chair of Genesis Power and the chair-designate of an organisation to promote women in management (Global Women), denounced Thompson and basically called for him to be fired.  Prominent National Party MP Hekia Perata, one of the faces of the ‘new’ National Party, came out with a similar position.  Air New Zealand head Rob Fyffe pulled Air New Zealand, one of the country’s largest companies, out of the EMA in part in protest against Thompson’s statements.  There has not been a single ruling class voice in agreement with Thompson.[7]  (With the sacking came another kick in the teeth for the dinosaur – Auckland Council Business Advisory Panel chairman Cameron Brewer said Thompson would not be returning to the panel.)

Jenny Shipley noted, right at the start of the Thompson affair, his kind of arguments were left behind 25 years ago.  She also pointed out in her speech to a Global Women meeting in Auckland that where senior management in firms is composed of both women and men, those firms will outperform the average.[8]  And she told a NZ Herald interviewer, “employers invest enormous amounts in their talented women in the labour market.  Why would we then, somehow or other, negate that value?”  Quite.

Moreover, the direction of ruling class policy, as developed within the state apparatus and government, is very different from the Muldoon era.  Muldoon, like many of the men (and women) of his generation of the NZ establishment, was not particularly keen on working women, especially in recessions.  During that era there was a real attempt to drive women, especially married women, back into the home.  Domesticity and a thoroughly-gendered division of labour was the order of the day.  Women who worked while they had small children were a particular target of attack.  Contrast this to today when, even in recession-ridden times, the state-government drive is to push and pull – and coerce – women, including even mothers with small children, out of the home and into the workforce.  If the ruling class believed women were less productive than men and their productivity was continually undermined by menstruation, they’d hardly be trying to push more and more women, even those with small children, into the workforce – especially in a recession.

So we are not talking here about capitalists being concerned the women of their class get equal pay and have access to top jobs.  The policy of getting as many women into the workforce as possible is directed at working class women as much as anybody.  Today it is simply not credible to argue that women are being used as a reserve army of labour, being pulled into and pushed out of the workforce depending on upturns and downturns in the capitalist economy.  The 2010 Social Report records, for instance, “the sex difference in the employment rate more than halved between 1986 and 2009, from 24 percentage points to 11 percentage points. This is the result of female employment rates falling less than those of males during the economic downturns of the past 25 years, and increasing more than those of males between 1992 and 2007.”[9]  So we are also dealing with a long-term trend.

This is not to say that at some stage in the future women might not be used in the more traditional reserve labour army way again, as they certainly were during both World War 2 and the middle and end of the postwar economic boom; but it is simply not the case today.

The push to get more and more women into the workforce, even during recession, is a development that requires a lot more examination and analysis.  But what can probably be said is that the exhaustion of contemporary capitalism and the unwillingness of capitalists, certainly in NZ, to expand productivity and output by a massive new round of investment in plant, machinery and technology, means they have to squeeze every possible bit of surplus-value they can out of every possible or potential worker.  Rather than a reserve army of labour, what we seem to be having is a growing sector of semi-employed or casualised workers.  These workers will never have equal incomes from pay precisely because they are casualised.

As was noted here in an earlier article (https://rdln.wordpress.com/2011/06/14/class-gender-the-1960s-and-made-in-dagenham/), research published by the Chartered Management Institute in 2010 suggested that, at the current rate of ‘progress’, British women will have to wait until 2067 for full equal pay!  There’s little reason to think New Zealand women will get real equal pay any sooner.  And, of course, while recessions may not result in women being deliberately driven out of the workforce and back into the home, as before, they do mean that pay stagnates, so the gap between men’s and women’s earnings also stagnates.  The market clearly cannot deliver equal pay.

Thus the dumping of Thompson for serious misconduct and the attacks on his ideas by important spokespeople for the real interests of the ruling class certainly don’t mean that the EMA or the state is going to, or can, bring about real equal pay.  What has happened over the past several decades is that non-market forms of discrimination have been largely abolished in New Zealand, but the ordinary operations of the free market have not ended inequality as the advocates of the free market claimed they would.  Now, more than ever, it’s clear that the problem is not male attitudes, even when those attitudes are as reactionary as Thompson’s, but the ordinary, normal day-to-day operations of the capitalist system of exploitation that will have to end in order for real gender equality to be possible.

In the meantime, the sacking of Thompson, while not mourned by any of us, will likely lead to his replacement by someone more sophisticated and liberal and competent than the ruddy-faced reactionary.  And the EMA having a more modern and sharper, and thus more effective, CEO is not good news for any workers – male or female.

In the next couple of weeks, Redline will be running several major feature pieces which will follow up some of the main ideas touched on in this article. 


[1] The Spark, July 2011.  The paper is published by the Workers Party.

[2] It should also be noted that this wasn’t a one-off.  Thompson has a record of boorish, sexist behaviour, including at least one incident involving both prime minister John Key and Council of Trade Unions head Helen Kelly.

[3] NZ Herald, July 7, 2011.

[4] Indeed, Thompson’s statement about periods and productivity was so bizarre that CTU leader and feminist Helen Kelly, who was on the programme with him, said she’d let him have a pass with the comments.  Later she commented drily that Thompson “did his best work as mayor of Thames”.  This fairly neatly summed him up.

[5] In the latter performance, Thompson reminded me of the drunken Muldoon one night in the hallway of parliament in 1984, announcing a very early election – much to the surprise of journalists and also of the National Party president standing next to him.  He lost the election and the country was blessed with the socially-liberal fourth Labour government which launched the biggest attack on the working class since the Depression era.

[6] One of the two key figures at Cock, Allister Taylor, was subsequently a prominent convert to neo-liberal economics.

[7] Has-been architect of the assault on the working class under the fourth Labour government Sir Roger Douglas defended him, but Douglas is so irrelevant he’s now even leaving parliament.

[8] See, for instance, http://www.nzherald.co.nz/nz/news/video.cfm?c_id=1&gal_objectid=10734219&gallery_id=119824; this clip should probably be compulsory viewing for the slow learners on the left who think that ruling class ideology in relation to women is the same now as it was during the Muldoon era  and before.

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Comments
  1. Asher says:

    “Thus the editorial of the only paper still published regularly by a left group”

    Just a pedantic point, but that’s not accurate. Solidarity is a regularly published paper, by the Aotearoa Workers Solidarity Movement, and you’ve ignored it. FWIW, I agree with the point you’re making in that paragraph, however, re: the lessening reactionism amongst the present day ruling class.

  2. Hi Asher, thanks for your comments. I do actually try to read Solidarity whenever I can and would recommend it to people too. I wasn’t being sectarian – it’s just that I would see it as a free broadsheet rather than an actual newspaper. As I say, nothing wroing with that – it serves its purpose and it’s good that there is a class-struggle anarchist, or anarcho-communist, publication out there.

    Cheers,
    Phil

  3. Asher says:

    Fair point Phil 🙂 I’m enjoying a lot of the content on RedLine thus far too.

  4. Asher says:

    Yep, the BR crew filmed it and its up on Youtube already – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=e2KSFkDCDns