ISO re-evaluate: Key not a neo-liberal, ruling class has changed

Posted: October 16, 2014 by Admin in Capitalist ideology, Class Matters, Commodification, Economics, John Key, Labour Party NZ, New Zealand economy, New Zealand history, New Zealand politics
Key at the Big Day Out: the Nats are no longer the party of whisky-soaked, racist homophobes

Key at the Big Gay Out: the Nats are no longer the party of old, whisky-soaked, racist homophobes

by Philip Ferguson

Throughout the past six years, those of us involved in Redline (and, before that, in the Workers Party/Anti-Capitalist Alliance) have consistently noted that the Key-English government is not a neo-liberal regime.  They are not, and never intended to be, pursuing some ‘secret agenda’ of imposing a full-on ne0-liberal economic programme on New Zealand, finishing off the work of Douglas and Richardson, as much of the left claimed throughout that time.

Our insistence on an actual analysis of the policies of the government and situating those policies as responding to the actual needs of New Zealand capital didn’t make us especially popular.  Indeed, some folks on the left seemed positively annoyed that we wouldn’t join in their consensus on Key, no matter how daft their, essentially, emotional non-analysis was – and how weird it appeared to the person in the street.

The thumping victory of National in the September elections, a victory which was signaled well in advance in the polls where National was recording twice the support of Labour, has led to some reconsideration among some of the leftists who once demonised the Key-English government.  Among some a more sober and rational analysis has appeared.

The first to break ranks was Mike Treen, a far-left veteran – Mike was in the Socialist Action League for two decades or more – who became one of the key builders of Unite union and is currently the union’s national director.  Five days before the election, Mike stated very clearly that Key is not a neo-liberal, a move we welcomed (see here).

In the wake of the election, and indeed during the election, the International Socialist Organisation, to their credit, began an open debate on their role in Mana, the lash-up between Mana and the Internet Party and the issue of class independence.  While they didn’t open up a debate on their site, they did publish contributions to the debate from dissenting voices within their group and there were some very sharp exchanges on facebook between ISO members – as an aside, surely it would have been better not to debate the issue on facebook, but to have opened a moderated discussion on the ISO site which serious activists alone could have participated in?

Post-election ISO has clearly shifted it view on Key and also on the nature of who rules New Zealand today.  This second question is another point that has distinguished us from much of the ostensibly Marxist left.  Reading a lot of left analysis is like going back in time – much of it reads like stuff that was true 40 years ago, starting not to be true 30 years ago.  Namely, the social views of the NZ ruling elite.

For instance at Redline (and previously in the WP/ACA), we argued that the ruling class was no longer predominantly socially conservative, as had been the case during the Muldoon era and previously.  The people who make up the ruling class now are products of the growing social liberalism of the 1960s and later; they aren’t crusty old members of the ‘RSA Generation’.  Moreover, the process of capital accumulation has required some by no means insignificant changes to how society and the economy operate.  The ‘more market’ economy has tended to remove non-market forms of discrimination.  Additionally, new social movements of the left, in the context of the changed economic situation and the changing personnel of the ruling class, won important gains in terms of people’s formal rights and also helped change social views.

The left, we argued, needs an analysis of New Zealand society now, rather than rote-repeating analysis, formulae and slogans from the 1970s and 1980s, where they seemed stuck in time.

The second aspect of ISO’s post-election reflection that is encouraging is that they have also shifted on this issue.

Here are the relevant parts of their analysis, indicating their shift to a better understanding of both Key and the diversity (and pro-diversity politics) of the people who rule New Zealand in the twenty-first century:

“Over the last six years we have argued sometimes that Key’s support is ‘brittle’ or ‘hollow.’ These results show this to be wishful thinking rather than analysis – with each election National has maintained or increased its support. To win in 2008 it is true that National needed to position themselves ‘left’, working to shed the toxic legacy they kept from the 1990s. Tens of thousands of workers remember the Employment Contracts Act, Ruthenasia, the Mother of All Budgets. So Key brought National towards the centre, keeping popular Labour policies. What he has done from there is to redefine the ‘centre’ ground – National, over the last six years, has normalised its own position in society more generally. They have worked hard at promoting a socially liberal, ‘diverse’ image of themselves. And it is no lie: this isn’t a party of whisky-soaked old homophobes and racists. There are more right-wing Maori MPs than ever before; Key voted for equal marriage rights; the coalition with the Maori Party sought to draw more social layers in to this new ‘common sense.’

“Who National rules for are the rich, in all their diversity. And that has been one secret to their success. They are not attempting structural transformations of New Zealand capitalism, as Ruth Richardson attempted in the 1990s or Roger Douglas before her. Instead, they are ruling for New Zealand capitalists; trundling along without much in the way of strategy, avoiding full-frontal confrontations with the organised working class, making do with a mixture of cronyism, the lift of exports to China’s growing economy, rebuilds and dairy.  This gives Key the economic and political base to promote his sort of anti-politics. He campaigns as a dull, decent figure, a kind of competent, likeable and popular manager. That, by and large, has succeeded. During Victoria University’s O Week this year Key was mobbed by students … trying to get selfies with the Prime Minister.”

Apart from the first two sentences, which are about ISO’s past views, these two paragraphs could have come straight from a Redline article.  Moreover, ISO appears to have shifted from its original position – or perhaps simply the position of its national committee – in relation to the Mana Internet Party cross-class lash-up.  They now seem to be much more critical, along similar lines to us.

The ISO comrades and Mike Treen are, of course, well aware of how long we have argued for the view that Key is a fairly middle-of-the-road capitalist manager, that the New Zealand ruling class is very different today from fifty (or even thirty-forty) years ago and that Marxists don’t support cross-class lashups (and trainwrecks) like the InternetMana one.  It might have been nice, therefore, if they had’ve noted that we had pushed such analysis all along.  (Why is the left here so often rather mean-spirited about recognising other people being right about anything?  Come on folks, how about giving some credit where it’s due?)

Nevertheless, the rethinking in ISO is positive and welcome.

At the same time, we would encourage them to engage in some further rethinking – namely in relation to the Labour Party.  This capitalist outfit has for far too long bedeviled the left.  A socialism-from-below approach requires total opposition to and exposure of Labour as the B team of the ruling class – and, in emergency situations (1930s, 1980s), their A team.  A good start would be to not support anyone in the Labour leadership contest and to suggest to progressive workers in affiliated unions to not vote in the leadership contest but instead to fight to get their unions away from the whole wretched capitalist management team that Labour is all about.

Further reading:
ISO debates whether socialists should support the InternetMana Party
ISO continue to debate class politics and the InternetMana alliance
Labour’s leadership contest: illusions and confusions on the left

  1. Barrie says:

    Once again, you’ve hit the cliché on the head regarding the role of the Labour Party. The huge defeat for them should be viewed as a victory for the working class. It clears the deck and provides an opportunity to put the LP out of its misery once and for all. Its insane after the Labour Party’s decades long track record for unions and workers to keep giving them money, time and hope. Getting repeatedly kicked is one thing, but why would you donate $ to buy them new boots?!

  2. PhilF says:

    One of James Connolly’s famous sayings was “Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me.”

    It’s amazing how there is a section of unions, workers and leftists who just want to keep getting fooled and stomped on by Labour. By now, it must rate simply as a form of masochism.



  3. Jordan Adams says:

    Agree with Barrie. What conditions could be more promising for real radicalism than those presented with growing disillusionment with the inherently and historically anti-radical, anti-communist, Parliamentary left, who triennially announce the Wisdom of Possibilism, manoeuvre their institutional machines around dying electorates haunted by the spectre of something actually happening in New Zealand, mumble empty phrases about citizenship and community and multiculturalism, ‘the future’, that they wish to cannibalise and shit out in the form of the turd of exchange value.

    I agree with those who say that without a Parliamentary left the situation becomes more dangerous for everyone. We have to welcome this danger. There will always be some price (loss) to be paid for progress. The logic of primitive accumulation. We should teach ourselves what ‘sacrifice’ means, perhaps, like Brecht’s Jasager, not by becoming ‘sad militants’ in the train of a lost cause (Mana), but by creating something entirely new. A communist project in Aotearoa?

    It is appropriate to quote the German poet Friedrich Holderin, a comrade of Hegel’s, who said ‘where the danger is, there also grows the power.’

  4. O'Shay Muir says:

    Excellent article. The social liberalism of Key’s National is also an example of why the more critical left should be skeptical of those advocating identity politics as an alternative to revolutionary class struggle and parliamentary reformism.

    Less postmodernism/post-structuralism ( with the exception of Lacan). More German idealism/Marxism.

    Anyone of good understanding of Hegel and Marx will quickly realize that most postmodernist/post-structuralist philosophers are really intellectual midgets.

  5. Phil F says:

    Back about 1999 I wrote a paper with a title something like ‘New identities for old? a critique of the political economy of new identities’. The wanky title was because it was presented as part of a marxist panel at the conference of Australian and New Zealand political scientists that year. But I must dig it up because I think it has stood the test of time fairly well.

    It looked at how the old conservative, masculinist, heterosexual, predominantly pakeha NZ national stereotype identity had given way, from the 1980s on, to plural identities and why this was so. Part of it was the actual needs of capital; in the 1980s those needs were different from earlier rounds of accumulation and were now expressed through neo-liberal economic policies, part of which were the removal of non-market forms of discrimination. Part of it was the pressure of the new social movements and left, which helped create a more tolerant society (although I possibly didn’t give this aspect enough credit) and the other part was the political degeneration of the new social movements and their easy and comfortable incorporation into the existing order – easy and comfortable because plural identities fitted nicely with the requirements of capital at that time (still does).

    Anyway, I will dig out that old paper and we might get it up on the blog. I’m sure it will shock and horrify some people although, 15 years on, that shouldn’t be the case. The left should’ve caught up with how harmless identity politics are by now and how ‘respect for difference’ is an integral part of modern bourgeois ideology and a poor substitute for liberation.

    I remember one of the comments from someone in the audience was that I was “even more reactionary than Engels”, which I took to be a complement. The criticism came from a pseudo-radical feminist careerist, who was quite nicely put down by the socialist-feminist chairing the panel.