Dirty PoliticsHow attack politics is poisoning New Zealand’s political environment by Nicky Hagerdirtypolitics

Reviewed by Daphna Whitmore

For over a week Nicky Hager’s book Dirty Politics has been in the news. With its promise of a tell-all about the links between the political right and their bloggers revealed in hacked emails, the first print run was sold out in a day.

At just over 100 pages Hager’s book is an easy, though not pleasant, read. Delving into the thoughts and motives of blogger Cameron Slater, and others around him who specialise in attack style political campaigning, is a putrid business.

Most of Dirty Politics confirms what we already knew from reading Slater’s Whale Oil blog. His style of politics is vicious and crude. What Hager adds to the picture is Slater as a PR agent for hire. The abuse that Slater hurled on waterside workers in the Auckland Port dispute in 2011 makes sense in the context of him being a hired gun. Slater’s eclectic range of blog topics points to money driving the views whether it’s anti-wharfie, or anti-tobacco control, or supporting sugary drinks being sold in schools. Hager reveals emails linking Slater with tobacco and food corporations. After weeks of pro-Israel blogging and cheering the invasion of Gaza Slater was in Tel Aviv on a trip funded by the Israeli government when Dirty Politics hit the bookstands.

David Farrar of Kiwiblog, the more presentable face of the political right, has a chapter dedicated to him. The image of the honest-broker political commentator from the right is dented by the close business and political relationship Farrar has with the National Party.

None of this is particularly startling in a world where commerce is king. However Hager rightly criticises the mainstream media for failing to distinguish the PR bloggers for hire from genuine political opinion blogs.

What can also be seen is Key’s desire to be popular. He constantly gauges the public mood.  As Hager notes, “John Key told a private ACT Party meeting in April 2014 that National was ‘addicted to polling’ and polled every week”. Key and the majority of the National caucus want to hold on to the political centre.

If anything, the Slater emails show he is linked to a fringe faction in National. For Judith Collins her association with Slater is likely to have ruined any chance of being a contender to succeed Key as leader. Slater’s mate Simon Lusk features in the book as a strategist who has had success getting several candidates selected for safe National seats using dirty tactics, with the aim of shifting the party to the right. On the policy front, however, Lusk has had little success. Hard-right neo-liberalism has been abandoned by the Nats for over two decades in favour of a more moderate path where state spending has been maintained. The National Party 2014 election campaign launch today in the working class heartland of South Auckland is more than symbolic. The party is committed to broaden its reach and challenge Labour in its last stronghold of Pacific Island workers.

What we don’t get in Hager’s book is a picture of how National, Labour and the other parliamentary parties are in the business of running the sytem. To be fair, Hager doesn’t claim to address that, he puts the case that the attack politics are polluting the democratic process.

But if the ‘democratic process’ is viewed as a charade, where all the parliamentary parties are committed to running the same system, then we can look beyond the dirt. The main players running capitalism in New Zealand are less crude than Slater and far more powerful.

  1. oshay says:

    Being a right-wing commentator seems like a guaranteed way to gain fame in NZ. Maybe WINZ should start encouraging beneficiaries to become right-wing bloggers and TV presenters, because it seems like we can’t get enough of them here.

  2. PhilF says:

    Yes, it’s a bit of a crowded market, although a nice little earner for those who have, or can make, the ‘right’ connections.

    Hager’s book is interesting on several levels but, like Daphna says, it doesn’t tell us anything much about how the ruling class rules. They don’t rule by using Cameron Slater as an attack dog, and Slater, as ‘connected’ as he thinks of himself, isn’t part of the ruling class nor is he attached to the serious money. In fact, I’d say one of the reasons why he behaves in the way he does is frustration at not being part of the ruling class. ‘Look at me, look at me!’ he seems to be yelling, to get their attention, blissfully unaware that the ruling class prefer far more sophisticated methods of advancing their class interests – and far more sophisticated people to do their management work (people like National and Labour governments, top civil servants and so on).

    The same hole existed in Nicky’s ‘The Hollow Men’ book. Even if it were the case that a small particularly economically right-wing cabal got to make Don Brash leader of the National Party, look what happened. Firstly, at the same time that Brash was giving the notorious Orewa speech he was assuring the Wananga that they would be safe. And Brash was quickly dumped, followed by the very middle-of-the-road John Key who has expanded free doctors’ visits, maintained 65 as the retirement age, is advancing state grants to first home-buyers, going after a core of Labour’s working class support, and so on, while chunks of the left make themselves look flakey by pretending he has some hard-core neo-liberal agenda.

    What we need is the kind of analysis of the ruling class that Bruce Jesson produced in the early 1970s and an analysis of the current state of capital accumulation in NZ, thus allowing us to grasp the kinds of policies capital *needs* right now, not what may be in the heads of various right-wing cranks.

    A very useful contribution by Nicky would be an examination of who the ruling class are in Aotearoa in the 21st century.

    We’ve tried to do part of this work, pointing out that the ruling class in this country is predominantly socially-liberal – indeed even someone like Slater is socially liberal on stuff like gay marriage – and that the neo-liberal economic reform programme had to be dumped because *in practice* it was failing to deliver any dynamic new round of capital accumulation. Public-private partnerships, a kind of halfway house between Keynesian and neo-liberal programmes, became the order of the day, state spending has remained high (indeed, even at the height of neo-liberal reform, state spending reamined very substantial), government intervention has been used to save companies rather than let them go to the wall, the retirement age has been maintained (although when Labour get back in, they will raise it).

    The rather fragile state of capital accumulation in New Zealand needs full-on neo-liberalism like it needs the plague.


  3. oshay says:

    I witnessed the two sides of the same coin that is National and Labour a few weeks ago during a policy debate on tertiary education on campus. While Internet-Mana and the Greens were promising the moon both National and Labour were counter-arguing that free tertiary education is unrealistic (under capitalism of cause). The only difference between the two was that Labour was slightly more generous.

    • Daphna says:

      Yes, National and Labour have lots in common. Often the transition from one party in government to the other is almost seamless. For instance, when in opposition National criticised Labour for introducing Working for Families. Once in government it kept the policy because it is a nice indirect subsidy to employers. A National-Labour coalition would be entirely logical except they are competing for the same turf and have to keep up the fiction of being alternative options in a democratic system.

    • PhilF says:

      One of the key functions of Labour is to lower expectations. This is why the classic Trotskyist view that it’s good to get Labour into power, as workers’ expectations are heightened, then Labour doesn’t deliver and workers rebel. This was used, for instance, by Tony Cliff in justifying the British SWP calling for a vote for Blair’s Labour Party in the 1997 election in Britain.

      At the time I was involved in a small Christchurch-based new magazine called *revolution* and we pointed out that there would be no working class revolt against the Blair regime because a key part of Blair’s purpose was *lowering* workers’ expectations. And we were proven right.

      It was thus very disappointing to see an article on the ISO site some months back callibng on workers in Labour-affiliated unions to vote for Cunliffe for Labour leader on the basis that Cunliffe was raising workers’ expectaions and taking Labour to the left. Although some folks didn’t like our critique of this position, I think we’ve been proven right. Cunliffe has attacked migrant workers and fairly consistently pulled back on Labour promises, lowering workers’ horizons and being very much apart of the consensus that there is no alternative to the current economic policies, other than a small amount of tinkering. National is more ‘generous’ on some things – pensions, for instance – Labour is more ‘generous’ on some things (student loans. for instance).

      It’s tweedle dum and tweedle dee.

      There have to be *some* differences because no crowd is going to go to the circus and pay to see two identical clown acts. But the acts are both *fundamentally* the same and it’s the same circus (bourgeois politics) with the same ringmaster (capital).


  4. Jordan Adams says:

    I think communists today have to become vocal anti-democrats in our principles.

    We are already in practice.

    We oppose, quite consistently, the legitimacy of every bourgeois government elected in a every different democratic state.

    I don’t really think of a communist society as a ‘democratic’ society either. I think of it as a post-political society organised around collective needs, i.e. a social as opposed to a political form of human society. Once you take away the political and the demotic, as well as the state i.e. that which exercises power, kratos (-cracy), how can there be “democracy”? The dictatorship of the proletariat we suppose to be the condition of possibility of a material force that abolishes capitalism and democracy (and so the proletariat itself).

    Foucault said once that marxists have not developed an “art of government”. But I think this is to confuse us with the social democrats.

    • oshay says:

      Follows of Foucault and Post-modernists in general like to talk about power, but when oppressed and exploited people’s actual start to challenge real power in the only language that power knows, violence (not this discourse bullshit) their true liberal/social democrat colours come out and they try to discourage it in the name of dialogue and compromise.

      • PhilF says:

        These folks also like to make out that power is everywhere. But the logical consequence of that is that it must also be nowhere – ie have no centre. So a project based on the idea that power is held by an indentifiable ruling class is therefore written off. Which is very convenient for people who aspire to careers as academics, government advisers, and so on, rather than lives as revolutionaries.


    • PhilF says:

      Another way of looking at it Jordan is that we for *real* democracy, something which both transcends and negates bourgeois democracy because, as you say, classes themselves will be abolished.

      A society organised around production for need can only work, however, if everyone is participating. Otherwise there is no mechanism to compensate for the abolition of the market. In other words, in a capitalist economy the market is the mechanism through which goods and services are produced and labour-time is allocated. It doesn’t do an especially good job of it, but it does do it.

      The problem in the old Soviet block was that the lack of workers democracy – including workers’ control and management of all the means of producing goods and services – meant that effective planning and carrying out of production was impossible. Instead, you had a command economy that eventually became even less efficient than regular capitalism and ground to a halt. The elite in command of the command economy responded by bringing back the market and turning themselves, their families and mates into regular capitalist plutocrats.

      The alternative to both the old Soviet-style command economy and capitalism is workers’ power, workers drawing up a plan for production and carrying it out. The capitalists would be expropriated as capitalists, but as individual members of society they would still have political rights. But their ideas – “let’s go back to capitalism” – would make about as much sense as people in a modern capitalist economy / bourgeois society advocating a return to chattel slavery.


  5. Jordan Adams says:

    I think the soviet problem — it’s bureaucratic oligarchy or absolutism, some in the marxian tradition share a the preference for the concept ‘totalitarianism’ with liberals — was in a certain sense a lack of ‘democracy’ in a marxian sense i.e. dictatorship of the proletariat. But today I think the argument for “real” democracy, in a rarefied marxian usage, sounds all too much like the arguments for “radical” democracy, “participatory” democracy. I don’t know why we occupy this conceptual terrain at all.

    In the strict marxist sense of democracy, it needed only a dictatorship of the proletariat, which is in abstract terms essentially the capture, occupation and manipulation of political power by the workers, and that I suppose is a democracy “in and for” workers. Worker Power is quite apt.

    The democratic concept and model, borrowed from antiquity by the bourgeois revolutionaries of the 18c, I think is not necessarily precise enough for the period of rule by workers, socialism, before communism is obtained.

    Democracy in antiquity was a constant class struggle between those free citizens with property and those without, with slavery as an independent variable strategically employed by the former against the latter, not unlike outsourcing today.

    • PhilF says:

      I think slavery was quite unlike outsourcing today. Slavery was much more integral to those societies; they couldn’t have existed without it, whereas outsourcing, while becoming more and more common, is still not where the key production takes place.

      You say that there is a consensus among economic historians of the period that free labour was the predominant form of production in antiquity, but I’m somewhat suspicious of those claims. Don’t you mean the consensus is among *bourgeois* economic historians of antiquity and didn’t that consensus arrive rather conveniently around the 1980s, the period of new-right economic reforms and wasn’t it really quite an ideological consensus? It ‘coincided’ with the attack on the concept of class and class exploitation.

      I think it is, at the very least, debateable.

      And I disagree entirely with the notion that slavery was “an independent variable”, albeit one used by property owners against their fellow citizens who lacked property. In fact, it was impossible in antiquity to have a load of people released from manual labour and to constitute a ruling class, without having slavery. The *slave owners* were the ruling class. It was an integral part of those societies *even if* the bourgeois economic historians turned out to be right about what form of production was foremost (and I don’t think they are right). Indeed, how would you have a slave-owning ruling class in a society in which slavery was simply “an independent variable”?

      Another reason that I am thoroughly suspicious of the ‘consensus’ among *bourgeois* economic historians of antiquity is that class society is based on *class exploitation*. Are they seriously arguing that the class societies of antiquity were not *based on, rooted in* class exploitation? Well, no doubt they are, because they also reject the idea that capitalist society is based on the exploitation of workers as a class by capitalists as a class. But why would any Marxist buy into their ‘consensus’?

      Basically, they reject exploitation as a dominant reality in class societies of any kind. Slavery becomes peripheral to the societies of antiquity that had slavery, just like ‘exploitation’ becomes peripheral to capitalism in their view – it becomes a term that just describes particularly appalling work conditions.

      Anyway, all this is taking things far from the discussion of Nicky Hager’s book and its merits and weaknesses.


      • Jordan Adams says:

        I wouldn’t really think of Geoffrey Ernest Maurice de Ste. Croix as a bourgeois historian. He considered himself, at least, to be an historical materialist.

        The closest to the 80s in ancient economics — I don’t know who you’re referring to specifically — that I can think of who has informed my views on this question is Ellen Meiksins Wood. But contra any claims about neoliberal contamination or post-marxism, she was harshly critical of the post-marxist turn for abandoning class, i.e. she won the Isaac Deutscher memorial prize for her ‘The Retreat from Class: A New ‘True’ Socialism’.

        Slavery is similar to outsourcing in my view because it is a tool used by the ruling class to threaten the working class, to reduce their power, to tame the beast.

        Re the claim that the dominant mode of production in antiquity was not slavery, i.e. the asiatic mode of production: to argue that slavery was the dominant mode of production even though only the minority of production was done by slavery seems on the face of it a rather counterintuitive claim.

        I think the British Trotskyist Perry Anderson argues this is the case because ‘slavery’ constituted the dominant mode of exploitation. But Anderson’s work is derivative of other ancient historians — bourgeois and historical materialist — and I don’t really understand the claim. If the dominant mode of production were slavery/asiatic, why was it only a minority?

        Take the logic of applying that to early modern Europe when the capitalist mode of production was being introduced and still constituted only the minority beside the feudal mode of production. It would seem, to apply the same logic in a later case, one could say the dominant mode of production was capitalist.

        The major marxist historians of antiquity e.g. Sainte-Croix, and, well, Weberian-marxisant, e.g. Finley, agree that the majority of labour was done by freehold peasants. The majority of people in work were ‘free’ in the sense of not-slaves. I don’t think this aspect is debated *at all* and I don’t know how it expresses neoliberal ideology. There is a tendency among some ancient economists to see the capitalist mode of production as having always existed right back to the time of Ur. That seems to me to be the prevailing neoliberal view in ancient economics.

        ‘it was impossible in antiquity to have a load of people released from manual labour and to constitute a ruling class, without having slavery.’

        I don’t know if that is necessarily the case. A ruling class doesn’t need slavery as much as surplus product which can be got from peasant labour as well.

  6. Jordan Adams says:

    A complete tangent from Nicky’s book but the point I made above about ancient class struggle is far from common knowledge.

    n.b. The majority of citizens or subjects in antiquity were a sort of freehold peasantry and they did most of the economic work. There is pretty much consensus on this among ancient economic historians. But some maintain the ancient world was a ‘slave society’ for sophisticated reasons about the dominant mode of exploitation (Perry Anderson and Sainte-Croix make this argument), however slavery in the sense of chattel slavery or traditional slavery was not the dominant mode of production, i.e. the ‘oriental mode of production’ as Marx refers to slave production in his notebooks.

    Slave production was generally not as efficient as peasant labour. Most of the production was agricultural. In order for slaves to work fields land would have to be confiscated from peasants. However peasants made up the majority of armies and military power was very labour-intensive as the technology of killing was quite crude in comparison with today. So there was always an inherent structural limit on how much land could be enclosed for this sort of work and it only became possible e.g. with large military expansion as in the Hellenistic and Roman periods.

    • PhilF says:

      I think you’re confusing two things here, Jordan. Namely, who were more numerous with who produced the social surplus. Even if a majority of the population were “a sort of freehold peasantry” that doesn’t mean that slavery wasn’t the dominant mode of production. You would have to ask questions like: Who produced the social surplus that allowed a ruling class to exist? How was this social surplus extracted and put into the hands of the ruling class?

      Clearly, it could not have been produced by a *freehold peasantry*. They would just hold onto what they produced and consume it directly and sell any surplus, keeping whatever (form of) payment they received. A surplus wouldn’t be able to be expropriated from them by a ruling class because the ruling class neither owned nor hired them as producers.


      • Jordan Adams says:

        ‘I think you’re confusing two things here, Jordan. Namely, who were more numerous with who produced the social surplus.’

        Ah. I may be doing that.

      • Jordan Adams says:

        A final note, something I just recollected from my reading on this topic, is that the majority of slavery in antiquity was employed in unproductive sphere of domestic labour. With the majority of production (that produces surplus) being a pre-serf type of peasant labour. Ultimately nearly all of wealth was produced by land with only a minority from craft and trade. With the growth of large estates, where slave and free peasant mixed, feudal relations started to bud.

        The barbarian invasions into the Roman empire (and Christianity too no doubt), de Ste-Croix speculates, were fueled in part by a peasantry who were sucked dry by the vampire-like ruling class of ancient Rome.

        After antiquity my knowledge is rather hazy. I think feudalism in part put formal obligations on the Lord much as today’s democracy puts ‘obligations’ on the ruling class, representing, I suppose, a ‘higher development’ in theory, although the peasants were now both landless and tied to the land like chattel, and certainly slavery continued to exist and would be revived (and perfected) in modern times.

  7. Jordan Adams says:

    Asiatic mode of production*

  8. PhilF says:

    Marxists still use the term ‘democracy’ because workers are denied much democracy in capitalist society. Moreover, the greatest democracy possible is needed for workers to be able to thrash out the way forward, for ideas to be tested and so on. And the greatest democracy is needed for workers to debate how to manage and carry out production in a post-capitalist society.

    The term dictatorship of the proletariat has been rather discredited by association with the dictatorship of priveleged elites. So I prefer to use terms like workers power, workers democracy, workers control over production and so on.

    Anyone who goes to workers and says that they want to abolish democracy is likely to get short shrift, precisely because workers are the people who suffer most from the lack of democracy in bourgeois democracies. No doubt you’d then explain that you don’t want to take rights off workers, and go into an explanation about what ‘the dictatorship of the proletariat’ means, but why create the initial confusion anyway? Why not just start from identifying what freedoms workers are denied under capitalism and that a socialist revolution would open up the road to workers having complete democracy and explain what that means.

    Btw, I don’t think there is any such thing as “the democratic concept and model”. Democracy is historically specific; it means entirely different things in different kinds of societies. For instance, in classical Greece it meant democracy for a relatively small minority – males who were citizens. But that political ‘democracy’ was built upon a system in which slavery was the key form of production. Under feudalism, I don’t think there was much of the word at all, although there were certainly strong concepts of rights of the people and responsibilities of the various layers of rulers to the people. In capitalist society, the terms democracy came to the fore again, as the emerging bourgeoisie needed to delegitimise the aristocracy and monarchy and mobilise a chunk of the masses for their overthrow. Then those without democratic rights in the new bourgeois ‘democracies’ had to fight for democracy to be extended to them.

    Now we’re fighting for a different kind of democracy – workers power and the abolition of class. Once class is abolished the whole class nature of democracy comes to an end. But people will have the right to freely debate, decisions will still be made and so on. We could think up a whole new word for that and not use the term ‘democracy’ any more at all when talking about that future society. But I don’t see any need to abandon the word ‘democracy’, just give it an entirely different content, one historically specific to the new form of society. (Indeed, given that classes would be abolished so there would be no working class, the term ‘people’s democracy’ might be the most accurate description of the political form of such a society, although that term is somewhat tarnished by association with the east European monstrosities of the postwar era.)


    • Thomas R says:

      Kia Ora Phil

      I think what Jordan might be drawing on to some extent is explored in Bordiga’s ideas.. “The Democratic Principle” and other works? My feeling with democracy as a contested term and one worth trying to reclaim or ‘master and own’ I suppose is that it can’t just be a fight for being the ‘more democratic’ over the bourgeois liberal notions of what constitutes democracy. In this regard I’ve got to disagree, Jordan, that participatory democracy isn’t worth advocating – it’s a more true democracy because it’s a democracy of the people… but rather than some kind of Occupy fever dream of infinite assemblies, it seems to be based on people who are actually affected by decisions, making those decisions democratically.

      Where I would agree that it’s probably a waste of time is to confront liberals with an argument that communists are the ‘true democrats’ (this argument would make more sense in the USA but you get the point). This is about as worthwhile as left anarchists who talk about the legacy of classical liberalism, trying to contest that tradition with people like Jamie Whyte ha. For all my disagreements with Chomsky, I believe he uses the ‘classical liberal’ designation for his politics some time… as does the leader of the ACT party. I don’t think it’s enough to say ‘well obviously Chomsky is more correct’ cause even if that is so (with regards to having a claim on the term ‘classical liberalism’) it’s a bit of a dead end ‘fight’ to have. The same seems to be the case with the ‘no, WE are the democratic people!’.

      ^ I’m not actually sold on this argument, I’m not sure I agree with Bordiga. It seems awfully doctrinaire to declare that communists should either stop talking about democracy on the one hand, or only ever talk about democracy and not talk about it’s massive limits and context on the other.

      Anyway, tangential to this article for sure.

      I’d agree that the Hager book is lacking in some respects. But I suppose it does no harm to some people to come across this stuff and find themselves shift a bit in their politics. To the extent that general class consciousness is extremely low, even fairly straightforward ‘the right wing are deplorable people’ arguments may have their place. Not as something communists need to be doing of course, but probably has helped shift some people’s views a little.

      • Jordan Adams says:

        ‘In this regard I’ve got to disagree, Jordan, that participatory democracy isn’t worth advocating – it’s a more true democracy because it’s a democracy of the people… but rather than some kind of Occupy fever dream of infinite assemblies, it seems to be based on people who are actually affected by decisions, making those decisions democratically.’

        But I think this view is pure ideology (the neutralisation of the mechanisms of ideology in the process of democratic decision making) in the sense that for those to make the decisions well(to some end, e.g. aufheben, communism), they would have to be in direct relation to their own interests. I think the concept of participatory democracy relies on a very weak (or absolutely no) theory of ideology.

        The only way that participatory democracy could avoid this problem in my view seems to be if there is no criterion of a good decision other than it being made by those it will affect, i.e. the end is the means itself, in a kind of circular, consequence-blind, procedural fetishism. Whatever that is I don’t think it’s an historical materialist or marxist view. I think it fetishises procedure. I have no idea how that is compatible with communism as I understand it, where a post-political (and so post-democratic) society is achieved.

        In an actual participatory democracy, the more ‘participatory’ it becomes (that is, in a proletarian which is necessarily exclusive, e.g. of the bourgeoisie, class traitors, enemies of the revolution, informants and so on, the list would go on) the more workers actually take control of the process of collective organisation, the less it will look like either ancient or modern democracy. Why we continue to call the dictatorship of the proletariat seems to be a sort of tribute to Marx’s centauric description of the dictatorship of the proletariat as a proletarian democracy. But this idolatry of Marx on this point is not marxist. ‘Democracy’ implies further the inner distinction of forces, of tribes, ‘demes’, into the proletariat, whereas the proletariat itself is a constant movement toward nothingness.

      • Thomas R says:

        Lol I’m just gonna call bullshit that anyone who advocates participatory democracy doesn’t also have some kind of ideas around ideology and how to get around that hurdle as well. It seems absurd to me that you want to eject democracy as an idea in it’s totality from communism for whatever reason, and then are very dismissive of partial ideas which have a specific function. Participatory democracy on it’s own does not critique ideology – yes that is obvious.

        “this idolatry of Marx on this point is not marxist.” Is this serious, or an elaborate trolling comment? This new approach of “not Marxist” “not Marxist” seems like one you’d have mocked thoroughly a month ago. Is it tongue in cheek?

      • Jordan Adams says:

        My point was not sociological. Whether proponents of participatory democracy make use of various theories of ideology is irrelevant. The old left and the new left had some theory of ideology. The failure of both the old and new left is a proof that they had not ‘put the glasses on’.

        The concept of participatory democracy is theoretically inadequate to marxist theory of ideology. I think this is a theoretical point.

        The fact that it par-dem is practically inadequate in dealing with ideology I think can be generally inferred from marxian criticism of the failures of Occupy, Porto Alegre and the anti-globalisation movement.

        Communist decision making at critical historical conjunctures can’t be beholden to the will of the majority. We have to see the present through the lens of critical historical materialist theory.

        Re ‘Not Marxist’. Yes. I have criticised orthodoxy mongering of the ‘not marxist’ variety, i.e. the anti-revisionism common among some older maoists. But the point I am making against democracy is obviously not generally held to be ‘orthodox’, and that I think is the critical difference here.

      • Thomas R says:

        I disagree that it’s much different just because you’re wielding it against the majority of leftists. The “not Marxist” accusation isn’t ridiculous because of who is saying it.

        I’d like a practical example of what you mean by being non-democratic, though. Because I’m having trouble imagining what that actually looks like. If it’s merely verbalism, a way of talking about things, and has no basis in anything we’re doing.. then I wonder if it’s valuable.

  9. Jordan Adams says:

    “The term dictatorship of the proletariat has been rather discredited by association with the dictatorship of priveleged elites. So I prefer to use terms like workers power, workers democracy, workers control over production and so on.”

    I understand that many things have been made tasteless and unattractive by historical association. But the adoption of ‘democracy’ in preference of, for example, ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’. does not seem more wholesome for being able to be confused with ‘democracy’ as it exists in modern capitalist states. It seems only a flirtation with bourgeois ideology.

    And isn’t this logic here that of a perverse populism i.e. pandering to the post-soviet democratic consensus, which is the logic underlying the pragmatic-opportunism of all social democracy?

    • Thomas R says:

      just use Jodi Dean’s “sovereignty of the people”?

    • PhilF says:

      I’m not suggesting use of the word democracy by itself, I’m suggesting that a socialist revolution is necessary to get rid of capitalism and that, after the socialist revolution, workers’ democracy and workers power will prevail. No flirtation with populism or bourgeois ideology in there.

      Marxists use certain terms – say, surplus-value – which are alien to everyday language because we have no choice. There isn’t a better way of expressing the idea. But we don’t use words or expressions simply for the sake of being different or appearing extreme.

      Marxism isn’t a priestly craft. Good Marxist propaganda gets across ideas, including complex ones, in language that is comprehensible to any worker questioning some aspect/s of the existing order. It’s important not to make the opposite mistake to populism and concessions to bourgeois ideology – namely, writing jargon that is incomprehensible to workers. That can be left to the post-modernists, who need translating into plain English.

      Really good Marxist writing is clear. It takes a long time to do. I’ve often seen eager young students get into Marxism and think that they have to write in jargon-ridden ways in order to avoid dumbing down and so on. It takes a while to work out that this is just the inverse of dumbing down. In both cases, workers aren’t getting clear Marxist ideas.

      With Redline, we try to present Marxist analysis in clear, straightforward terms. Some people might not like the *ideas* but they’re not left confused about what the hell we’re even talking about because it’s written in convoluted form.

      Lastly, in relation to terms like workers’ power, workers’ control, workers’ rule and workers’ democracy – the key thing is the idea. The idea doesn’t *necessarily* need to be expressed in the exact same word form as 100 years ago. Language and language meanings change. It is the content of the idea that is key, the integrity of the idea. Compromising on that is where populism and the pressure of bourgeois ideology come in.


  10. Jordan Adams says:

    The deletion of ‘democracy’ from the marxist lexicon need not trouble anyone. Fears that this would set a precedent for a reign of postmodern ‘incomprehensible jargon’ seem to me pathological and idiotic. Nor, and this is the essential pro-democratic point you are making, — which one might ironically criticise for being made in too roundabout a fashion — should we accept the blackmail of clarity without further examination.

    Even if something is obscure it is more valuable if it is true than what is clear but is false. This is a a priori true. Marxism, certainly in its more recherche corners, is not without its store of obscure truths, at least on first looking into it.

    The problem with obscurantism is that it obscures the truth. But there’s a kind of ‘clarity’ which does the same. There’s no word for this in English that I can think of. But there ought to be. Perhaps the word luxism will do.

    Furthermore I find your argument above indulges in a rather disingenuous and sophisticated caricature. We hear some things about a tendency of apprentice marxists. And these are supposed to relate to the argument against democracy. The inference here is that the apprentice in his youth and inexperience has not yet learnt to follow the proper course of reason, like the wise old guildmaster. This sort of anecdotal story-telling is a not really ‘reasoning’ at all. It’s fabulous bullshit.

    Furthermore, I don’t see any contradiction between my point and the principles of clarity. I would add to that the principle of precision too.

    The scenaro, another fabulous set-piece, in which one ‘goes to the workers’, like some OT prophet, and delivers them an anti-democratic diatribe, is as absurd as the reverse, a pro-democratic diatribe.

    To recapitulate my point (more clearly): Democracy is the name which (clearly and precisely) express neither the social form of communism nor the strategic means by which it will be obtained. I have offered some provisional reasons for this above which have not been directly criticised.

    Language has changed. Agreed. Perhaps some marxists have not noticed it. People are increasingly disillusioned with democracy, both by its internal corruption, the sort of life and society ‘democracies’ deliver, and by democratic imperialism. I do not understand the strong attachment to it at all.

    Today I think the word ‘democracy’ elicits no emotional response. It is the main ideological organiser of capitalist consensus. It doesn’t evoke, as it did for 18c revolutionaries who were ignorant of antiquity, the grandeur of Periclean Athens. It evokes nothing. It is the current state of affairs.

    When you “go to the workers”, like an OT prophet, and tell them about a “different”, higher, more workerised democracy, if you do not hear the laughter of workers, you should. And they ought to shoot you.

    There is no reason for historical materialists to assert that the revolutionary space between now and communism needs to be filled with ‘democracy’.

    • Thomas R says:

      Interesting points Jordan, and I’m sure this will be another typical tool to shut down ideas, but I wonder how we apply this to practice? What does an organisation look like that doesn’t make decisions via democracy? What I’ve always found hard to reconcile when talking to you about politics is a radical autonomist streak with a favouring of the Party form, which makes me think of a Party which requires no unity in theory or in action… so effectively just a Party in name alone? Sorry if this is inaccurate as we haven’t launched into this stuff in a wee while.

      I’d agree that the scenario of ‘going to the workers’ with certain ideas is a bit absurd. But you do cross paths with non communists, and those people sometimes asks what we’re in favour of. Also, when working in any activist milieu politics do come up so it’s not actually that absurd that having politics on hand which can be discussed (a diatribe might be a bit much lol) isn’t a totally foreign concept. I agree with some other points you make, but some of the conclusions seem like only a possible position for the anti-activist left.. or a kind of hermetic left.

      Also, I’d just flat out reject the idea that democracy elicits no emotional response. Usually the conflation of our current with democracy elicits a response of disgust and incredulity. People KNOW it’s bullshit. Exhibit A being – the entire Occupy movement. Sure, it had limitations, but if that isn’t an example of people sick of false democracy but arguing for actual democratic societies (in whatever form.. from the most naive liberal to the most unhinged RCP member) then I’m not sure what is.

      • Jordan Adams says:

        First I should probably clarify my position. As far as activists go, Fightback, ISO etc., they should be denounced in a signed letter by all communists for their class collaborationism, their organisations/’activism’ proscribed, their ranks sent to Stuart Island for re-education.

        Second, I have no organisational program for a vanguard party. I am not against the party-form. I suppose my ‘autonomism’ is de facto in that I see no promising forthcoming model to attach the left to, barring social democratic opportunism.

        Third, I don’t know what you mean by ‘typical tool to shut down ideas.’ I am in no position to shut down ideas. And Fightback’s petit bourgeois philistinism does all the work there anyway.

        Fourth, yes. You can point to millions dewey-eyed to kiss the feet of their democratic leaders. But these emotions are mass manufactured bourgeois schmaltz. People are afraid of feeling what they really feel.

      • Thomas R says:

        Your misanthropy is showing, it’s not becoming. I’ll bow out now – while I may disagree with Phil on a lot of things I at least feel that Redline argue in good faith most of the time.

      • Jordan Adams says:

        The proclamation of one’s ‘good faith’ is the ultimate perfidy and arrogance.

      • Thomas R says:

        Zizekian cosplay seems more absurd tho

  11. Jordan Adams says:

    The real ‘cosplayers’ are the people that think they are not ‘cosplaying’.

  12. oshay says:

    In regards to questions of democracy I recommend people look into Zizek’s critique of Laclau and Mouffe’s ‘Hegemony and Socialist Strategy’. The two correctly argue that democracy is a contested idea and as a result of it one can only approach it from a certain ideological viewpoint (liberal democracy vs socialist democracy etc). But they go wrong when they propose that a new concept of radical democracy can be used to unite various movements opposed to Capitalism. Why do they go wrong in their idea of a unifying ideology? Because they argue that their concept of radical democracy can replace the essentialist position of class struggle held by traditional Marxism. Zizek’s response is simply that while these various movements driven by identity politics might seem as they are a challenge to Capitalism (for now), Capitalism’s flexibility will find ways to incorporate them. The only thing that Capitalism can’t reconcile is the antagonism between Capital and Labour. All attempts to ignore this truth be they Post-whatever are only strengthening the ideological power of Capitalism.

  13. PhilF says:

    I wrote: “it was impossible in antiquity to have a load of people released from manual labour and to constitute a ruling class, without having slavery.”

    Jordan replied: “I don’t know if that is necessarily the case. A ruling class doesn’t need slavery as much as surplus product which can be got from peasant labour as well.”

    But I had also pointed out: “Clearly, it could not have been produced by a *freehold peasantry*. They would just hold onto what they produced and consume it directly and sell any surplus, keeping whatever (form of) payment they received. A surplus wouldn’t be able to be expropriated from them by a ruling class because the ruling class neither owned nor hired them as producers.”

    Anyone can produce a surplus product, but to have it expropriated from the producers and into the hands of a ruling class, specific social relations have to be formed between the producers and expropriators, namely relations of exploitation.

    Thus in feudal society there were specific social relations between peasants and their lords; the peasants were compelled to work on the land of their overlords part of the year (as well as pay taxes).

    The aristocracies of the Roman and Hellenestic worlds did not have established relations of exploitation with the free peasants. They could not compel the free peasants to perform unpaid labour for them or to directly appropriate part of what they produced. They could only do this with slaves.

    Btw, I don’t disagree with Woods’ view that the existence of free labour was a critical factor in the rise of conceptions of democracy, although this applied primarily to *a period* primarily of *Athenian history* rather than to the Hellenistic world per se, an entity which existed much longer and with a great deal of diversity.

    My point about the 1980s was that a great deal of re-writing of history (and politics and economics) got done then, under the pressure of the power of the ‘Second Cold War’ and ‘New Right’ economics and it shows. (Woods was one of the academics who, to her credit, resisted the pressures.)