Low horizons and the legacy of defeats

by Philip Ferguson

Perhaps the biggest problem facing those of us who understand the need for revolutionary social change in this country is the prevalence of low horizons.  However much many people may grumble about the way things are, very few are much interested in becoming actively involved in challenging the system whose effects they dislike and even bewail.  This state of affairs has existed for at least two decades.  The core organisations of workers, the trade unions, are smaller and weaker and the far left is politically essentially irrelevant and unable to affect, let alone effect, developments.

Sections of the working class have been worn down by defeats, continuous restructuring, longer hours and worse conditions

The system itself has suffered decades of decay and exists not on the basis of any great inherent strength or dynamism – indeed in the traditional heartlands of capitalism, it is increasingly prone to economic downturns, financial crises, stagnating industry and manufacturing and a ruling class without a mission, other than managing the malaise.

At Redline we have described this overall situation as a state of stasis (see here).

However well-intentioned their members may be, the tiny left groups continue much as before, as if nothing much has changed and no new political ground needs to be broken in terms of analysis.  They seem happy to carry on the same failed politics, albeit in ever-diminishing circles of (unreflective) activity.  This merely confirms their disconnect with reality and their irrelevance.  In contrast, we believe any serious Marxist project today has to explore why the left is in an even more decrepit state than the system itself and why the working class remains so unmoved to challenge the system which not only exploits them as always but now makes them work longer hours than in the 1950s and 1960s and/or uncertain hours, increasingly cuts into their family and leisure time and clearly (to us anyway) cannot be taken seriously as the best of all possible worlds.

In this article I want to concentrate on one aspect of an explanation of how and why things are as they are.  I don’t believe this is the only, or necessarily the primary, cause.  There are clearly other factors – for instance, as decrepit as it is, the system clearly still has some resources at its disposal to satisfy enough needs and desires of the mass of the population to keep them docile.  Moreover, the exploiting class has managed to maintain such a degree of ideological hegemony that even most of the left share chunks of bourgeois ideology – New Zealand nationalism and illusions in the capitalist state being perhaps the most outstanding examples.

Examining impact of defeats

The aspect I want to concentrate on in this particular article, however, is the impact of defeats of workers and radical social movements in the context of the end of the long economic boom after World War 2.  In doing so, I will also look at where the responsibility lays for the defeats.  Such an examination cannot lay out a path forward; only motion in the working class can open up the possibility for charting such a course.  But it can help us to understand the current impasse and what the experience of recent decades tells us about what not to do.

In examining what has happened and why, it is useful to go back to the end of the long postwar economic boom.  In the 1950s and 1960s, capitalism was booming in the West as never before.  In the 1960s, for instance, it was possible to work 40 hours for a standard of living that by the 1990s took 60-70 hours to sustain.  Signs of the end of the boom appeared in New Zealand in 1968, with the nil wage order of that year, but the boom was not clearly over until recession struck in 1973-4.  New Zealand capitalism has certainly had booms since then, but the booms have been much shorter and weaker and punctuated by regular recessions.  In fact by the early 1980s the economy was seizing up altogether, hit by what Marx described as “the single most important law of modern political economy”, the law of the tendency of the rate of profit to fall (for the course of New Zealand society from the 1970s, see here; for capitalism’s inherent tendency to economic crisis, see here).

In the context of economic stagnation, the system required a massive assault on workers’ jobs, pay and living standards and the fourth Labour government (1984-1990) set about this task in a far more ruthless and enthusiastic manner than the preceding National Party government of Robert Muldoon.  However, at the time, illusions in the Labour Party were widespread among the working class and much of the ostensibly revolutionary left, although the tools of Marxism should have meant the latter should have known better.   (For a Marxist analysis of Labour, see here.)


It’s much more confusing and demoralising to be attacked and betrayed by those you regard as your friends, and this is essentially what happened to much of the working class in the mid-late 1980s.  Labour was able to carry out attacks on workers that would have met stiff resistance if carried out by National.  Since, at that time, many unions were still affiliated to Labour and many union leaders put their loyalty to Labour ahead of their loyalty to workers, the union apparatuses and the top officials discouraged workers from fighting back.  A striking example of this was in the meat works where even relatively militant union leaders suddenly caved in to demands by the bosses and government in 1988, with the result that workers’ conditions in the works were decimated and thousands of jobs lost.

When Labour was in power, union leaders and Labour activists would urge workers not to take action in defence of jobs, rights and living standards least it create an awkward situation for the Labour government and open the way to the re-election of National.  When National was in power, the same people argued against workers taking action, claiming workers would be defeated and they should simply wait for Labour to get back in power, and even help the anti-worker Labourites at election time.  It was also argued that militant action by workers against National would embarrass Labour which needed to avoid being associated with militant workers in order to present itself in a respectable light so it would be electable again.

Again and again, the dominant leadership of the labour movement – the social democrats of various stripes – frustrated workers’ ability to fight back.

Far left confusion

While the far left argued for workers’ action in defence of jobs, pay and living standards, most of it – the Communist Party being the partial exception – maintained their own political illusions in Labour and kept calling on workers to vote for this party which was so clearly and utterly (and ruthlessly) dedicated to managing capitalism and doing whatever was necessary to keep workers exploited.

Lacking either a Marxist understanding of the economic crisis or the Labour Party, the ostensibly revolutionary left was unable to build a workers party to fight the system.  In particular, the decade from 1981 (the massive and increasingly militant anti-tour protests) to 1991 (the fight against the Employment Contracts Act) provided substantial opportunities for revolutionary growth but these were squandered as a result of the dumbed-down politics of these groups.  Nothing has been learned from this experience by most of the far left.  In ever-diminishing circles they repeat the same failed politics, accompanied by large doses of grandiose delusions and bloated rhetoric to keep themselves going, even though such an approach makes them look idiotic to most sane people.

The result of the assault by Labour, the failure of the union leaderships to put up much resistance and the inability of the far left to develop a numerically and politically serious alternative meant that the working class defeat was of the most demoralising sort – defeat without much of a serious fight.  So even a legacy of militant resistance was largely absent, with a few notable exceptions.

Frustration, demoralisation and low horizons

Frustrated and demoralised, the working class retreated.  The ideology of low horizons became stronger, pushed from above by Labour and its hacks atop the unions, by business interests, including much of the mainstream media, and also by what rather pathetically passes for an intelligentsia in this country.

The ideology of low horizons was accepted by workers because it largely coincided with their own experiences, in particular the fact that there seemed to be no way forward.  This process of disintegration of class consciousness through a series of defeats was itself related to and strengthened by ongoing economic restructuring.  Industries which had gathered workers together in large units such as the meat works, car plants, mines, the Tasman pulp and paper mill and other such factories were massively eroded by the restructuring.  Old working class communities built around these industries fragmented and declined, accompanied by social decay, increased alienation, crime and wider anti-social behaviour.  The cycle of diminishing horizons became even more pronounced.

New social movements

While the working class was largely broken as a force within society, the new social movements which had arisen in the early 1970s also decayed and declined.  In fact, these movements had ceased to challenge the system even earlier than the defeats suffered by the working class.  Most of them had been products of the post-WW2 economic boom and the expanded expectations of that era.  They pushed demands which were to a large extent winnable during that period, due to the dramatic expansion of capitalism.  However, because they never developed a serious analysis of capitalism as a structural obstacle to freedom and equality – opposition to capitalism within these movements was largely rhetorical – once the boom gave way to bust, the new social movements abandoned their goals and simply disintegrated.

Indeed, by the end of the 1970s, much of the new social movement layer had gone home, been incorporated in the system or degenerated in to identity politics.  Such identity politics were not a reflection of any meaningful radicalism, but arose on the basis of two processes.  One was the abandonment of the goal of liberation and the other was that identity politics reflected the way in which the ‘new right’ reforms broke up larger solidarities and created a bunch of separate little identity boxes.

Each little box created by the economic restructuring became a new (and usually small) ‘community’.  The smaller and more narrow the better in the eyes of the members as each little identity made them ‘special’.  Often these ‘communities’ were little more than niche markets for burgeoning identity-oriented entrepreneurs and niche constituencies for aspiring careerists in politics and the professions.

Over time, surrounded by the new (micro) identities, the one category whose name dare not be spoken – or certainly not put first – was precisely the one that had the power to transform society: class.

Retrieving class 

Since everything in society is underpinned by class, the banishing of class not only at the level of discourse but also at the level of actual self-activity meant that all manner of banalities could be discussed but not the fundamentals of our society.  Once class is ruled out, in theory and practice, any radical alternative to all exploitation and oppression is also ruled out.

And here we come to a crucial dilemma.  The most pressing tasks today revolve around creating a new class politics – new in the sense that it incorporates the lessons of the past 30-40 years, analyses reality as it is now and charts a way to raise horizons and move forward to challenge the system as a whole, not merely ‘bad banks’ or ‘financialisation’ or ‘neo-liberalism’.  But this new class politics cannot be developed in the absence of motion within the working class.  Tiny left groups, no matter how energetic their members and how grandiose their rhetoric, cannot substitute for lack of motion within the working class.

Today, capitalism is decrepit, social democracy has collapsed and the union bureaucracy is weaker than ever.  But the working class is more fragmented, less conscious and less active – most workers welcome a few activists doing things for them but hardly any workers see themselves as the instruments of their own emancipation.  So the clapped-out state of capitalism and the massive weakening of the traditional forces that mediated the conflict between the working class majority and the tiny exploiting class have little in the way of serious consequences for the system.  Thus the state of stasis.

This has led some on the left to simply go home and others on the left to lower their own horizons and dumb down their politics, thus peddling barely warmed-over versions of left-nationalist/left-social-democratic politics.

There are no quick-fix solutions to this problem.  At Redline, we are dedicated to using the tools of Marxism to patiently and thoroughly analyse this situation, be involved in anti-imperialist work and whatever class resistance does occur, all without illusions about present reality.  If you agree, you should come and join us.  For instance, at present we are talking to a number of class-struggle activists about a new nationwide discussion list which will focus on the problems of the current political cycle and the lack of motion within the working class and how anti-capitalists can respond to these problems.


  1. Thanks for this article Phil.

    Have you read much ultra-left or communisation theory? While there isn’t consensus on the class struggle today, what its adherents all seem to agree on is that the restructuring of capital (to deal with the class struggle of the late 60s and early 70s) has changed the nature of the working class significantly. Forgive the excessive quotes, but they explain better than I could:

    “With the advance of real subsumption, in the industrial form of the factory during the latter half of the 19th century, we see a new antagonism of the worker versus capitalism, which reaches its apogee in the Russian Revolution. In this new cycle of struggles central is the independent workers’ identity, and Theorie Communiste (TC) call this form of struggle ‘programmatism’. Here the forms of struggle actually become ‘internal’ to capitalism, as the relation becomes mediated through unions, social welfare, and other forms of Keynesian control. These ‘revolutions’ tend to reinforce capitalism, encouraging the passage from formal to real subsumption through ‘socialist accumulation’, and lead to the theology of labor and the oxymoron of the ‘workers’ state’. This ‘programmatism’ comes into crisis with the struggles of the 1960s and 1970s, when workers now abolish their identities and flee the factory. The extension of real subsumption over life, what Italian autonomists called the ‘social factory’, generalises struggles. In the capitalist counter-attack, however, we witness a second phase of real subsumption, a re-making of the world in the conformity to capital and the crisis of the identity of the ‘worker’. This re-making was, of course, central to the project of neoliberalism (http://libcom.org/library/fabric-struggles)”

    This text goes on to state:

    “Communization… regards the passage to the dominance of real subsumption as requiring and generating new forms of struggle and antagonism that entail the abandoning of the affirmation of the worker and ‘workers’ power’. Again, differences emerge at this point. Negri and the post-autonomists tend to argue for the emergence of the power of the ‘multitude’, which is always ready to burst through the capitalist integument and install communism. Tiqqun stress new ‘singularities’ or ‘forms-of-life’, which escape or flee or declare war on the forms and structures of real subsumption. TC argue for new self-abolishing relations of struggle as the contradictions sharpen and the ‘proletariat’ is no longer a viable identity in capitalism and so communism only really becomes possible now. Gilles Dauvé and Karl Nesic prefer to see communization as an immanent possibility of struggles across the history of capitalism, an invariant of the capitalist mode of production, while Endnotes accept the diagnosis of the crisis of programmatism, but reject the bluntness of the periodization of subsumption by TC and others.”

    In plain english, communisation argues that although capital social relations still exist, a working class identity or consciousness is no longer possible due to the current nature of capital; and that to use tactics of an early period (such as anarcho-synidcalist unions, workers’ parties etc, or ‘progammatism’ as they call it) are bound to fail.

    So where does that leave us in terms of class struggle today? Well, it informs us of the nature of capital and the proletariat in the present cycle of capitalist relations and the struggles against it; that the programs of the past (with their affirmation of labour and the liberation, rather than the abolition, of labour relations) contained the seeds of their counter-revolution and are no longer relevant; and that today’s struggle over revindicative struggles (what TC call struggles over immediate demands such as wages, conditions etc.), can become revolutionary:

    “whenever, in these struggles, it is its own existence as a class that the proletariat confronts. This confrontation takes place within revindicative struggles and is first and foremost only a means of waging these struggles further, but this means of waging them further implicitly contains a conflict with that which defines the proletariat. This is the whole originality of this new cycle of struggle. Revindicative struggles have today a characteristic that would have been inconceivable thirty years ago.”

    My own jury is still out on this, but it does make me think about your post and the nature of class consciousness or horizons. Again, another passage by TC on this:

    “To act as a class today means, on the one hand, to no longer have as a horizon anything other than capital and the categories of its reproduction, and on the other, for the same reason, to be in contradiction with one’s own reproduction as a class, to put it into question. These are two faces of the same action as a class. This conflict, this divergence9 in the action of the class (to reproduce itself as a class of this mode of production / to put itself into question) exists in the course of the majority of conflicts. To act as a class is the limit of the action of the proletariat as a class. This contradiction will be a practical question in need of resolution, a question much more difficult, risky and conflict laden than the limits of programmatism (http://endnotes.org.uk/articles/13)”


  2. Hi Jared, thanks for your comments. I thought the first quote is more apposite to stuff like the SOEs where so much of the left acted as if these are not capitalist companies, even though the state specifically set them up to be capitalist companies (it’s not as if the state was secretive about it!).

    With neo-liberalism and practially every capitalist economic theory since Keynes, I think the key is that they are all simply trying to manage the malaise. The neo-liberals might like to think they have a ‘big idea’, and the left only too often assists them in this, but I think it’s all just crisis management. The main reason neo-liberalism came to the fore was because when the postwar boom came to an end around 1973/74, ruling classes resorted to keynesian solutions and over the following decade found they didn’t work. The capitalists then had to do things like curtail the money supply, attack workers’ rights and living standards, drive down the price of labour-power, convert potentially profitable parts of the state sector into capital – either through privatisation or through commodifying them while keeping them in state ownership, cut public spending etc etc. That happened to gel with some of what folks like Hayek and also the Chicago School had been preaching, so those ideas were utilised.

    They removed what they saw as the obstacles to a new and bigger round of capital accumulation but no new period of dynamism resulted, so each of these ideas (monetarism, neo-liberalism etc) got abandoned. Now a much more openly pragmatic mix is pursued. This is especially noticeable in New Zealand.

    In terms of ‘revindicative struggles’ (why do such theorists insist on using gobbledegook instead of just saying daily struggles, or struggles over pay and conditions?), I’d be pretty dubious about the ability to develop revolutionary consciousness out of these today any more than in the past, because they are still tussles about the extent to which workers will continue to be exploited rather than about whether the exploitation itself will continue.

    Tony Greenstein’s article, btw, makes an interesting point about the division of the global working class and the breakdown of the old industries i nthe West which brought workers together and enabled the development of a certain level of consciousness. Tony Norfield’s article on the China price also raises the issue of the extent to which capitalism in the West can/will be challenged while workers’ standards of living here can be partly underwritten by cheap imported goods from parts of the world where workers are super-exploited. Revolutions in China and India would certainly make life a lot harder for the capitalists in the West.

    I have something else I’m working on at present. The first part deals with the centrality of class and the second part deals with the question of class consciousness. I should have it together by end of the week.


  3. For workers in the central North Island forestry villages (Minginui, Murapara, Kaingaroa, Ruatoki, Taneatua) hunting and fishing are not sport. They are an essential tool for survival in the face of the grinding exploitation of the forest owners. Forestry workers are paid as little as 7c per tree planted, meaning they have to reach the unrealistic target of planting 200 trees per hour in order to make the minimum wage, which is itself insufficient to provide an acceptable standard of living. Yet the forest owners, with the assistance of the New Zealand Police, are serving trespass notices on the residents of these communities which legally prohibit them from entering the forests to take food for their families. These workers are not criminals, and they are not outlaws – not yet. They are church going family men who are doing what they can to provide for their families in the callously contrived circumstances of capitalist colonialism. The forest owners would do well to recall what took place in their own homeland eight hundred years ago King John barred the peasantry from hunting deer on the royal estates.

    The forest owners complain about crime and drug use among the workforce. If they continue on their present track that may be the least of their problems. If they grind the faces of the poor, and then deny them the opportunity to provide for the sustenance of their families, they will provoke rebellion.

    • Geoff, thanks heaps for this. It’s monstrous that this is happening in a prosperous 21st century society.

      Btw, some of the first stuff that Marx wrote was about a sudden increase in ‘theft’ in some part of Germany. What it was was that forests which had been used by the peasants for firewood etc had just been converted into private property and so now peasants doing what they had done for hundreds of years was a criminal offence. Thus the ‘crime wave’.


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