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.
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.
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.