Symposium on The Way Forward, 3: The miseries of political life

imagesWe’ve asked several readers to contribute their thoughts on the way forward for the left after the 2014 elections.  The people we invited cover a range of viewpoints from class-struggle anarchist to independent Marxist and include at least one person involved in the Mana Movement. 

Rather than invite ‘high profile’ left individuals, who already have plenty of platform space elsewhere, we’ve invited people who have been battling away as much as they can in their own ways across a number of campaigns and groups.  We gave them complete leeway in terms of what they wrote, and which question/s they wanted to take up. 

This is the third contribution in the series; Olly is a member of Aotearoa Workers Solidarity Movement (AWSM) and has contributed pieces to Redline in the past.

by Olly Hill

“Modern capitalism’s spectacularisation of reification allots everyone a specific role within the general passivity.” Situationist International

For anyone who has spent time amongst the various tendencies of the far-left, from anarchist to social democrat and everything in between, it will probably seem the norm that many of the more committed activists turn their political ideals into some kind of full-time paid work. Such work could involve working within the trade unions, pursuing a university thesis on some progressive topic or other, working full time for a community group, climbing the ranks of a political party and so on. In some cases the pursuit of such movement jobs flows naturally from one’s personal or collective political positions; socialist groups send their more ‘alpha’ members into trade union work as part of a project of capturing these institutions and assuming a leadership role amongst the workers. Other times such roles clearly contradict the political principles of those pursuing them, in this case it is often necessary for a moment reckoning to occur, at which point one’s ideological perspective must play catch up with a shifting terrain of daily activity and social relationships. Formerly implacable enemies of the State reassess bourgeois political life and find it is ‘not so bad after all’.

It is my opinion that often times it is those who are most ideologically committed to the total destruction of modern society who are the most likely to wind up playing a role in this society’s reproduction. As 21st century capitalism continues to decompose proletarian social life, turning us all more and more into ‘self-employed contractors’ and the like, it remains the case that the vast majority of the dispossessed class manages to feed and clothe itself without performing heavily ideological roles within the capitalist division of labour. And they’re not even ‘radicals’! Why do so many people seem to pass through the ranks of the far-left milieu before going on to become partisans of ‘green capitalism’, ‘people politics’ and other such ruling class bullshit?

This piece is intended as a starting point for what should be a collective project; an investigation into the mechanisms of recuperation which tend towards sucking ‘revolutionaries’ into heavily ideological roles within the capitalist division of labour, and which therefore endow the revolutionary milieu as a whole with a material interest in the preservation of that division of labour. Where possible we should consider initiatives which may counter this alarming trend.

Cop by day, commie by night!

At the end of 2011 a scandal erupted in the European revolutionary scene when a small Greek group known as the TPTG released information revealing the involvement of John Drury, founding member of the ultra-left communist journal Aufheben, in the development of crowd control policy on behalf of the British police. Having used his involvement in protest groups as the basis for a PHD thesis on crowd psychology (thanks in no small part to the trust he gained from participants which allowed him to conduct many candid interviews) Drury proceeded to develop theories of crowd behaviour which saw him become increasingly embroiled in those sections of the academic world which collaborate with the repressive institutions of the State. Not only did Drury publish research which could be accessed and used by the police, he even went one step further down the rabbit hole by publishing articles in police journals and speaking at police conferences![1]

What was disturbing about the entire event was the extent to which many self-declared anarchists and other anti-state communists, including other members of Aufheben, rallied around Drury and defended his ‘right’ to pursue such a career. Although this author has no hard research to verify such an assumption, one must suspect that the tendency amongst British anarchists to defend a scumbag police collaborator like Drury emerges from a shared interest in defending such middle class, professionalized methods of self-reproduction.

“I was an anarchist once; you’ll grow out of it…”

The following is based on anecdotal experience of the radical scene in Aotearoa and does not claim to be true in all times and all places. It should also be read as a ruthless critique of myself as well as everything else that exists.

The overwhelming tendency amongst far left activists is to enter the milieu in one’s late teens to early twenties, often whilst studying at university. The student revolutionary goes on to write essays and conduct research around their own pet subjects, they organise around our ‘right to free education’ and generally defend the progressive role of the university within class society. Having run along this particular treadmill myself, it is my own experience that in no cases do radical students mount a serious critique of the university and the way it separates learning from everyday life – thinking from doing. Indeed it is generally the case that even the most radical students will enthusiastically reproduce the disciplinary and hierarchical role of the educational institutions both through political struggle, by defending their proper role as ‘conscience of society’ or whatever and also through the division of labour within the revolutionary milieu.

Eventually the radical student might proceed further up the academic hierarchy or otherwise they finish university and now finds themself ‘betwixt and inbetween’, as the sociological jargon would put it; unsure about how to proceed within a society which has clearly churned them through an educational factory for the sake of assuming a job based around mental labour, a job which to varying degrees will involve participating in the management of this society’s social contradictions. In any case a precedent has been established within the walls of the university where one realises their revolutionary politics through their role within the division of labour, rather than through an attack on that division of labour.

From the material position of the student radical emerges an incredibly partial critique of capitalist society, one which often seeks to preserve the institutions of this society while democratizing or improving them in some way, and which fetishizes consciousness over the spontaneous creativity of the dispossessed class. Whereas an attack on the totality of capitalist social relations, an attack which at the present moment of profound social decomposition is sorely needed, would necessarily involve a conscious desire to overturn the separation between mental and manual labour.

This, the student radical, simply will not do. Not outside of a moment where the possibilities for one’s self-reproduction are intimately tied to the collective liberation of all humanity, a revolutionary moment. Until then the student radical continues to think revolutionary thoughts and participate in whatever campaign sparks their interest and perhaps try to sell their particular brand of ideology to the workers or whoever else, without rooting their attack on capitalist society in their own everyday lives.

Eventually the allure of assuming a comfortable niche within the modern division of labour becomes all too much. In some cases the student radical abandons their revolutionary pretensions and ‘grows up’, as they would put it. One day they might even tell their rebellious teens that they too were anarchists once. In other cases those who hold out the longest, organise the most campaigns, speak at rallies, write press releases etc. realise that plenty of outfits will pay a pretty penny for the skills one gains as an activist. Their political perspective remains ‘progressive’ while more nakedly and unashamedly defending their professional interests.

Far from attaining a greater degree of pragmatic realism, as one’s interests align more and more with the preservation of this society the greater is one’s tendency toward self-delusion and spectacular mystification. After meeting with a colleague to put the finishing touches on their latest crowd control research, John Drury grabs a pint with the comrades and discusses the revolutionary potential of the Tahrir Square occupation.

Where to from here?

There exists within the far left a wide array of opinions concerning the possibility of contributing toward a revolutionary counter-power from within the institutions of modern society; from academia to the media to the trade unions. Although all of these professional roles do tend to fall under the umbrella term of ‘mental labour’ it is not my intention to ignore the differing social functions these institutions play and the possibility of independent activity within them. Nevertheless it is often the case that it becomes incredibly difficult to disentangle a serious analysis of these institutions from the interests of those who work for them. We do all need to feed ourselves and there are times where we may be able to initiate some sort of positive project in the process. Indeed it is clearly the case that it is possible to engage in work as a paid union organiser, for example, and at the same time stick to some basic political principals (although not always).

What we should not rely on is the inevitability of ‘anarchists’ or whoever else behaving in a principled way simply due to their political orientation. Therefore, as a first step toward combating the trends discussed above, comrades involved in full-time work as an activist should be prepared to openly discuss the contradictions of that work and to be held to account should they begin to cross a clear line. Indeed, a discussion around where the line lies needs to be had as a basic starting point. They should also be prepared to abandon that work should its pressures become too problematic.

Those involved with the academic institutions need to make an effort to attack the university rather than defend and preserve it through reform, regardless of how progressive they may consider such reforms to be. This would mean agitating against exams and other disciplinary institutions, exposing reactionaries like Drury and denouncing the totality of capitalist relations rather than simply complaining about the shifting allocation of middle class privilege. This is not impossible; it was in fact a basic ingredient in the revolutionary rebellions which shook France in May 1968 and Italy during various periods, particularly during the Movement of ’77.

Our revolutionary perspective needs to be rooted in a critique of capitalism which emerges from the poverty of our everyday experiences. For some that is easier than others; in my former job as a chef the brutality and stupidity of capitalism was apparent everywhere and I had no investment in any of it. Other times this is more difficult, in fact it becomes more difficult as one moves up the job hierarchy from manual labourer to mental labourer. This should be cause enough for radicals to seriously consider avoiding mental or ‘middle class’ jobs. However for those that do pursue this line of work it is of paramount importance that they are prepared to speak openly about it to their comrades and take the piss out of their workplace ideology amongst their workmates.

The tendency amongst radical students to ‘go back to the factories’ is often laughed at by today’s left. In part this is because going into working class communities as some conquering hero is indeed incredibly patronising and delusional. However it also often justifies the tendency amongst radicals to move in totally the opposite direction. Or, where a radical wishes to participate in the class struggle, they often do so through the framework of the trade unions. The problem to be addressed is not whether or not one can do ‘good things’ within this line of work, it is the degree to we start to reproduce a particular kind of hierarchical relation once this becomes the dominant tendency. The idea of ‘going back to industry’, or at least pursuing a job because one finds it politically interesting, should be seriously discussed and considered. I myself pursued this strategy to a certain degree when I spent a few years working in kitchens. It was tough work, and definitely not for everyone, however there is much of value to be learnt from wading through the shit with other proletarians as an equal.

Those who make a comfortable career out of the structures which have been thrown up by many decades of failed class struggle should be denounced as the parasites that they are.

We also need to make a realistic evaluation of the role we have to play during non-revolutionary periods and also during revolutionary periods. Revolution will emerge from the spontaneous, creative activity of the dispossessed, exploited and oppressed strata of society. We are not prophets or scientists, we are simply honest and open-minded participants in the struggle to discover new ways forward.

The separation between thinkers and doers needs to be consciously addressed and attacked. Although we will never overcome this relation until we have overthrown capitalism it should still be established as standard practice within our groups and movements as well as an integral part of our revolutionary vision.

Fire to all the schools and all the prisons!

Down with specialists!

Humanity won’t be free until the last sociologist is hanging by the guts of the last anthropologist!

See also:
Symposium Contribution 1, The Mana Movement and the left
Symposium Contribution 2, What is to be done about the radical left in New Zealand


  1. Interesting piece. Not sure if I can really agree with this reductionism + separation of ‘mental’ and ‘manual’ labour when it comes to who are the true working class. It’d be marginal to argue in the early 20th century but seems extremely flimsy now? Perhaps I have misinterpreted.

    • Cause when I think about it as historical developments, often the working class starts doing more ‘mental labour’ when Capital requires it, no? Which is why literacy is now pretty much required to be in the workforce? And then later we had more of an opening up of Universities to the working class (not entirely, but definitely a softening in terms of excluding the working class outright from these institutions)

  2. I agree that the working class do a lot of the ‘mental labour’ now. I also agree that the universities have opened up to the working class and that this is not tokenistic – it’s actually based on the needs of capital.

    However, Thomas, you need to apply this same undersatanding to issues of gender and ‘race’. You keep asserting that the opening up in relation to gender and race is tokenistic. No, it’s not. It’s *very similar* to opening up higher education opportunities to people from working class backgrounds – it’s actually part of the necessary stuff that capital does now. It’s interesting how you see this clearly in relation to class, but don’t see it in relation to gender and ‘race’. it’s like you don’t have an emotional stake in not seeing it in relation to class, but you do have some kind of stake in not seeing it in relation to gender and ‘race’.

    When I was an undergrad back in the mid-1970s, I was one of about 5% of students who came from a manual working class background. My mother was a housewife and my father was a rubber mill worker and we lived in Hampshire St, Wainoni. I was the only person from my year at Aranui High who went to university. Brown faces on campus were extremely rare. There were a lot of female students but not many in subjects like engineering.

    University was a weird place to me. For instance, I’d never come across National Party supporters in my life until I went to university. I’d heard about such people, but never seen any in the flesh.

    It was also a place I didn’t take to; I got my BA and shut the door and went off and did mainly factory and labouring jobs and some kitchen work, like Olly, and went to live in England and then Ireland. When I returned to campus in 1994 it was quite different. Far more common to come across not only people from working class backgrounds but also *actual workers*, people who had been made redundant – often more than once – and decided in their late 30s or early 40s to go to university. One of my classes in Bridging Programmes, of about 25 students, I had seven middle-aged working class women. They did really well, coming 1st, 2nd, 3rd, 4th, 5th, 6th and 7th in class. (Main reason was that they knew why they were at university and even though they’d all left school at 15, they came from a generation that got taught how to read and write; they knew what sentences and paragraphs were.)

    Also, lots more brown faces. And large numbers of female engineering students, although they don’t make as much noise as their male counterparts. Way more women doing sciences and other ‘traditionally male’ subjects.

    Lots more international students.

    There has been a very significant change – partly due to the proletarianisation of mental labour and partly due to the ‘new right’ reforms getting rid of non-market mechanisms of discrimination. Both these processes are very real. Capital now wants the ‘best brains’ not the white, male brains regardless of how thick some of them are.

    Everything is up for negotiation, except the continuing exploitation of the working class, manual and mental labour alike.

    However, to me, Olly’s article wasn’t denying the proletarianisation of mental labour – I think him and the AWSM comrades and the wider world of class-struggle anarchists, anarcho-communists and so on are all highly aware of this process and have produced a lot of good stuff about it. What I took from his article was much more that he was talking about the incorporation of the middle-to-upper end of the people who do mental labour. I agree very strongly with him on this. For instance, I never cease to be amazed at how implicated a lot of academics are in the system, and liberal/progressive academics are among the very worst.

    As Andrew Kliman pointed out a year or two back, universities are extremely barren, indeed hostile, territory in terms of doing serious marxism.


    • Phil I don’t claim that changes with race and gender are tokenistic. Obviously huge strides have been made. But just because shit was worse when you were growing up doesn’t mean that it is entirely negotiable now. Structural racism and sexism still exist. And this gets reflected economically? Like it surprises me a hell of a lot that you are merely looking at changes in your life time from a personal experience of those around you kind of view? That stuff can be valuable, but so can actually listening to PoC and studying statistics around this stuff?

      Not even gonna get into a discussion about the problems of prescriptivism when it comes to language/writing – couldn’t tell if you were applauding it or just acknowledging it’s relevance in an academic setting.

      • What I do think is tokenistic is the incorporation of some sanitized elements of Maori Culture into mainstream society. If tokenistic is the wrong word here, then it’s obviously clear (and this point is made by Maori often) that often it’s only the most acceptable, sanitized, and easily incorporated elements of Te Ao Maori that are included.

        But that’s pretty standard practice of colonial states

      • Thomas, I’m not sure how you can say: “Like it surprises me a hell of a lot that you are merely looking at changes in your life time from a personal experience of those around you kind of view?”

        I study the stats all the time! I follow and analyse the trends. That’s where my understanding of what’s negotiable comes from. I merely *illustrated* it in the comment above with some personal experience stuff.

        There’s lots of stuff on Redline about these trends.

        But, even in the case of the comment you are responding to, most of what I was talking about wasn’t ‘personal experience of those around you kind of stuff’ anyway. It was the observations of someone who has been a keen *social observer* for over 40 years.

        I thought this was pretty clear.

        I also find it an odd comment from a Fightback member – I’m assuming you’re still with them – because so much of that group’s ‘politics’ are based on individual members’ personal/ised experiences, feelings and emotions and so on.

        They’re unique on the far left in NZ in that sense.


      • All I’m saying is that the idea that ‘everything is negotiable’ is a bit of an overstatement. Racism and sexism are still rife, are reflected in statistics, and just because the extreme overt legislated racism isn’t in place doesnt mean that racism isnt reproduced and helpful for the ruling class. I’d think someone who was a keen social observer would consider the more subtle aspects of the exercise of power to be more important to keep an eye on.. rather than say that racism is negotiable just because it’s better than it was?

        Think I’ll bow out from commenting on here for a while. Some of these articles are useful, and even though I’m not a fightback member any more I find your square quotes around ‘politics’ to be the most fucking smug thing I’ve seen in quite a while. Wish you all luck, perhaps consider reevaluating whether reproducing the so-called “rigorous” debate style (also known as polemic jerkiness) is as much of a virtue as you seem to think it is

      • Capitalist appropriation of culture is always tokenistic though Thomas that’s not just unique to colonial states. MIA gets rich churning out Asian-Brit culture and throwing in some revolutionary iconography, most hip hop is actually consumed by white people and a few gurus have travelled the world selling us the spiritual virtues of Yoga… That’s the spectacle, everything that appears meaningful ultimately turns out to be about as interesting as an infomercial. Ultimately any revival of Maori culture within capitalism is going to serve the purpose of profit and social control i.e. tokenistic tourist bullshit as well as establishing new hierarchical relations within Maori communities. The education system is useful for the latter purpose because it can filter out the natural leaders from within (working class) Maori communities and bring them into the fold of electoral politics, academia, public policy and so on. Of course generally on the priviso that the old traditions of mutual aid which are still very strong get downplayed or abandoned.

        I suspect, and hope, that a revolutionary movement would turn the approach of the capitalists completely on their head and allow the traditions of mutual aid and solidarity to flourish.

  3. Thanks to Redline for hosting this article.

    Of course the reality is we can’t really separate any kind of human activity completely into ‘mental’ and ‘manual’ categories… even in kitchens I would have to think very hard about how I organised myself throughout the day so as to meet the demands which were imposed on me. I’m sure this is also true of many other manual jobs, in fact its one of the contradictions of capitalism that the ruling class are faced with the political necessity to divide workers while at the same time being heavily dependent upon the ability of workers to cooperate and organise the work process intelligently.

    I use a bunch of different terms to distinguish between ‘mental’ and ‘manual’ work and I’ll admit I don’t do so with great deal of rigor so that probably doesn’t help to clarify things. For the purposes of what is being discussed in the article though what I mean by ‘mental’ labour is a job where one was some degree of *ideological* investment in the job and feel that in some way they can *realise their revolutionary perspective through their position in the division of labour.* From my own experience this is the primary type of work that many leftists wind up in because it is a very convenient way of making a living from the political views/connections/etc. as well as the skills one gains through organising campaigns etc.

    This is why these days we now often hear of ‘radical academics’, ‘radical psychiatrists’, ‘radical social worker’, ‘radical journalist’ etc. when really any commie with a basic critique of capitalist society should be well aware that all of these professions have sprung up in order to manage the contradictions of capitalist society. You would never hear of a radical bricklayer because the idea that one can lay bricks in a radical way is clearly absurd…

    For a long time now the far left has tried to keep the university open to working class kids who want to further their education. Part of the effect of this modernizing and rationalizing of the whole education system has probably been to encourage some of the brightest minds amongst the working class to climb the social hierarchy and put their abilities to the service of capitalism. Like Phil said it is easy to pat ourselves and our forebearers on the back for such progressive reforms however this ignores the fact that such reforms can often be extremely useful for capitalists, particularly reactionary ones who are too stupid to realise that their individual and collective interests sometimes require them to cast away outmoded and irrational forms of oppression.

    • I’m still a bit confused though. Yes the idea of calling any position ‘radical’ is a bit odd. But we all acknowledge that there is no such thing as a form of lifestylism that can somehow remove someone from being part of reproducing the capitalist system, right?

      But yes okay I think the distinction you’ve made here helps a bit with regards to ideological investment

      • I don’t find the term lifestylism particularly useful in this instance, we’re not talking about people who denounce the sheeple for not dumpster diving. There are however decisions we make throughout our lives which result from a variety of needs and considerations, and amongst people on the far left this can often involve pursuing work which is quite politically loaded either because they think it is a good thing to do or out of self interest, or more often a combination of the two. Many of these people seem to eventually drift into roles which are blatantly compromising (john drury being a rather extreme example).

        The point of the article was to begin an investigation into how the left itself has become institutionalised within the ‘super structure’ of capitalist society and how this might begin to affect our perspective as well as our ability to seriously contribute to a revolutionary rupture.

        At the moment it seems that th function of our paid work is not politically relevant so long as one doesn’t become a cop or something. It simply seems insane to me that amongst a scene which will often denounce people for the most minor transgression, the problem of where we fit within th division of labour is not really seen as something requiring collective investigation and discussion. Our current individualistic approach really allows people to drift over to the other side with far too much ease.

        If we want to influence the class struggle in some way then that’s good, but instead of sending people into a union position why not try get a group together to enter a workplace em Massey? This kind of thing never seriously gets raised for consideration because a lot of leftists seem to be more interested in using working class institutions for the own careers paths rather than contributing to a counter power in a create and open minded way.

      • Also there’s reproducing capitalism and there’s reproducing capitalism, if you follow my drift. I reproduce capitalism every morning when I drag my arse into work and don’t lynch my boss. Then there are all the ideologies and institutions which have developed in order to deal with the concrete problem of putting bodies in front of machines, from the petty manager to politician to sociologist all these people must grapple with the problem of making the rest of us behave in ways which is fundamentally alien to our own needs. These is what I mean by ‘ideology’ and ‘managing the contradictions of capitalist society.’

      • Ah I think I grapple with this a bit more now. Thanks for the clarity.

        On top of what you’ve said I’d also think that the left tries to mould activists into a particular skill set, basically what is called being a ‘militant’. But I think post ’68 there have been some really good developments within anarchism which criticise the idea of being ‘a militant’ and how it can actually be extremely alienating. This is probably heightened to a more extreme degree when it’s bureaucratised into Union jobs..

        I definitely have some trepidation about that kind of employment.. and basically any employment that can supposedly be classed as being ‘radical’ just by virtue of doing your job.

      • Thomas wrote: “All I’m saying is that the idea that ‘everything is negotiable’ is a bit of an overstatement. Racism and sexism are still rife, are reflected in statistics, and just because the extreme overt legislated racism isn’t in place doesnt mean that racism isnt reproduced and helpful for the ruling class. I’d think someone who was a keen social observer would consider the more subtle aspects of the exercise of power to be more important to keep an eye on.. rather than say that racism is negotiable just because it’s better than it was?”

        Thomas, I said above that inter-personal instances of racism are still quite common. An example: a few years ago a friend of mine changed her haircut and – she’s Maori and brown – the changed haircut actually made her look east Asian. She said the amount of racial comments she got on the street was quite amazing – people saying “the airport’s that way” and pointing towards Harewood. It was more that kind of racism than threatening behaviour, but it was very common. Nick and his wife have experienced a fair bit too.

        But the dominant ideology of the ruling class is against that. They want Asian money and they want Asian people with money – it’s just poor Asians they don’t want. The immigration controls, in relation to Asians, are now more class-based whereas they used to be more race-based. (I’m not saying there isn’t racism still involved: a poor Asian is still likely to be subject to more immigration hassle than a poor white entering the country.)

        Thomas also wrote: ” I find your square quotes around ‘politics’ to be the most fucking smug thing I’ve seen in quite a while.” Come off it. Thomas, you’re a middle class college kid; you’ve never been anywhere or done anything. But when you turned up here, you came on like the most smug, self-righteous, self-opinionated, arrogant person I’d come across in about 30 years. Over time, your tone changed. But every now and then, you still revert.

        I half-wish I could make a time-machine and take you back 40 years – you would barely recognise the country. Capitalism has been remade here, the working class has been remade and the ruling class has been remade. As Marx and Engels noted, “Everything that is solid. melts into air” as capitalism continually remakes itself. The old racism has very, very little power.

        Moreover, some of your interpretations are very superficial. For instance, your claim: “rather than say that racism is negotiable just because it’s better than it was?”

        But “better than it was” is not the basis of my claim about negotiability. The claim is based upon the needs of capital accumulation. The changes in official ideology flow from that. I’ve made this point over and over, so it’s not something that is easy to miss!

        Moreover, I would never be so silly as to say racism is dead; it remains useful against migrant workers, although the reason the ruling class discriminates against them is, as I pointed out earlier in this post, not so much race and racism as it was, but class/money (or lack thereof).

        The discrimination by the state, for instance around immigration, is then ideologically produced in the minds of the mass of people as a ‘race thing’ because they don’t yet have the consciousness that the working class is a global class and that poor people trying to come here from Asia, the Middle East, Africa etc are their class sisters and brothers.

        Lastly, swearing at me doesn’t help your claim that it is *us* who are engaged in “polemical jerkiness”. I regard Fightback as the least political of the left groups; at some point I might write something on this but, as you can appreciate, it’s hardly a priority!


    • Phil, you can think of me as arrogant and smug and all that but you have literally nothing to base your bullshit about class location around other than going to university – something that we I believe? Sorry for being young and not having adequate leftist credentials to harp on about. And I hardly think its fair to call the vanity project of one hyperactivist man in Auckland ‘more political’ than Fightback, so you can dislike the group all you want but keep a bit of perspective

      • It’s not your age that is a problem; it’s your attitude. Because you haven’t experienced much or done much, you might just listen up a bit more. (Although, as I said, you were far worse when you first popped up on Redline.)

        I don’t agree with Joe Carolan’s politics, but it’s odd that after you claim my putting quote marks around ‘politics’ when referring to Fightback is “the most fucking smug thing (you’ve) seen in ages” you then refer to Socialist Aotearoa as “the vanity project of one hyperactivist man in Auckland”.

        You seem to think that you can speak to and about longtime activists in any way you like, but if someone so much as points out your lack of experience, you get all hurt and slighted by it.

        You said you were bowing out from commenting here for a while. Perhaps a good idea. Before you return – I suspect you will be back – you might think about your own style of writing and polemic when speaking to/at different types of people with long and various experiences in the movement.

        I’ll also give you some unsolicited advice, relevant to a lot of the discussion here. One of the mistakes my generation made in our time was that we vastly underestimated capitalism’s flexibility. Its ability to incorporate, negotiate and renegotiate is really quite impressive. We thought lots of stuff around anti-racism and anti-sexism was a huge challenge to the system. It wasn’t. It was relatively easy for capitalism to swallow it, just spitting out the bits it didn’t like the taste of. And spit-out bits don’t and can’t represent a threat to the system.

        The only thing the system ultimately needs is the exploitation of labour-power by capital to remain in place. It greatly helps to have social peace / political stability and that’s helped by being inclusive, whereas it used to be helped by being exclusive.

        Promoting *class solidarity* and *class consciousness* (in the full sense of the term, not a wages and conditions sense) is the way forward. Think, read and then think some more about that.

        And now I’ll retire to my horlicks and 60s rock.


  4. I should add that my purpose in writing this wasn’t to moralistically condemn anyone working for a union or in the university or whatever. The problem though is that right now our whole approach to this is very individualistic, there is no real collective discussion about it which is also very much in keeping with middle class – upper class values toward work and money. We should endeavor to assess the relation of the far left to modern capitalist society and that means taking a serious look at where we fit within the division of labour.

  5. I worked in a university for about 11 years. I was always clear that I wasn’t a radical academic; it was just a place where I earned a crust as far as I was concerned and eventually I had enough of the place and moved on.

    It had some added advantages like easier access to accumulated knowledge via the internet, the library, interloans and so on. And you got to engage with a lot of young minds, although I have to say not many of them at all impressed me as having any interest in critically reflecting on the social order except where it put an obstacle in the way of doing exactly as they pleased.

    I was also always on a general staff contract, so lacked the pay and conditions of academics. We had no ‘sabbatical’ year, we were paid purely to teach, we had no paid time for research. At the same time we were one of the (few) parts of the university that actually created surplus-value rather than being a cost to the overall social surplus-value.

    I never had much in the way of positive experiences with ‘radical academics’. I generally found them quite careerist, not really prepared to stand up for much, often they were like spoiled children in their inflated view of themselves and also in their self-reverentialness and self-centred view of the world. Often they were incredibly petty and super-competitive, including with each other. And they certainly didn’t like mature students who knew more about marxism than them. These things were peculiarly true of male radical academics, and I think that has something to do with always being serviced: by their mums, their wives, their secretaries and never really being in the real world of work, other than maybe the odd holiday job as they worked their way through their degrees.

    None of them were *in practice* much interested in putting their skills to the service of the working class. They also tended to share the typical middle class and upper class prejudice that they were academics entirely by their own efforts. They were often blissfully unaware of how their position in life was *predicated* upon the continuing exploitation of the working class in two ways. One is that the entire infrastructure of the university is created/built by workers – not just workers here but workers all over the world, including workers slaving away in places like tin mines in the third world (where do our smart academics think the raw materials for the component parts of computers come from, for instance). The other is that the working class creates the surplus-value that makes the university possible because some of this surplus-value ends up being siphoned off by the state to subsidise the very existence of universities.

    Olly makes another important point: “Part of the effect of this modernizing and rationalizing of the whole education system has probably been to encourage some of the brightest minds amongst the working class to climb the social hierarchy and put their abilities to the service of capitalism.”

    This was why in the Anti-Capitalist Alliance/Workers Party we didn’t simply support free tertiary education. The far left is very confused about this. They act as if free tertiary education is just the same as free primary or secondary education or free health care. But it’s not. Every worker and every member of a working class family goes to primary school and high school and uses health care. They do not, however, go to university. So the demand for free tertiary education, taken alone, is a demand for the working class to pay for the higher (and most expensive) education of the middle and upper classes. Not through tax, but through surplus-value extraction. (A lot of the left, lacking rigorous marxism, are obsessed with tax, which is, while a real thing, also a mystification of what is really going on.)

    Even where working class kids get to university – and more and more do – are they going to put the skills they develop there to the service of the working class as a class? The vast bulk of the time, no. They just join the upwardly socially mobile element of society, with barely a look down at who they’ve left behind.

    Although university students often think they’re hard done by, the reality is that they only pay about a quarter of what it costs to have them at university. The rest, plus the very existence of the university, is paid out of the exploitation of the working class. I made sure that every single class I taught at university was made ware of this, although I don’t think it sunk in much. I tried to do it in a pedagogical way, rather than a moralistic or ‘playing the proletarian’ card type of way, which I can’t stand and which is usually counter-productive.

    So our view in relation to university students wanting free education was, “OK, you want the working class to fund about 75% of your tertiary education. So what are you prepared to give back to the working class?” “No satisfactory answer? Then fuck off, and stop trying to take advantage of the working class while pretending you’re radical!”

    Meanwhile a lot of the ostensibly marxist left went around encouraging middle class self-regard and greed.

    I’m still amazed by the way a chunk of students who want what they want think such desire is radical. A lot of the time they’re complicit in the absolutely dominant liberal ideology and in demanding more social control. All the while expecting the working class to fund their education while being blissfully unaware of this, because they live in a bubble world.

    To my mind the best students in Christchurch were the ones who, much to my (pleasant) surprise, rolled up their sleeves and went out into working class areas like the eastern suburbs and dug out heavy, dirty, stinking sludge during the earthquakes. Funnily enough, the student who kick-started that was a Young Nat.


    • Interestingly Phil the students who started that (not sure about political affiliation) were actually a group of women. Sam Johnson taking all the credit would be a nice wee example of misogynistic credit taking I’d say. Though that is not widely known beyond people who were involved.

      Everyone is aware how states accumulate funds in order to pay for stuff like tertiary education. But were we not literally JUST talking about the proletarianization of mental labour? That huge swathes of working class jobs are indeed occupied by people with degrees now? Separation of ‘true working class’ like this is pretty ridiculous in the 21st century in my opinion.

      • Thomas, you wrote: “Everyone is aware how states accumulate funds in order to pay for stuff like tertiary education.”

        No, they’re not. Hardly anyone is. All people know is that the government spends money from taxes.

        So you get someone like Rod Carr stating that universities are funded by middle-class taxpayers. And Carr is smarter than the average student who has *no comprehension whatsoever* of workers creating new, expanded value and that – not “tax” – being the source of how tertiary education is financed.

        I’ve taught hundreds upon hundreds of students – in fact somewhere between 1500 and 2000 in the past 11 years – and *not one* has ever known how most of their education is funded, beyond “government spending” and “tax”.

        The people that Olly was writing about, as I understood his article, were *not* mainly proletarianised mental labour, but mental labour that is *yet* to be proletarianised and some of which will never be proletarianised.

        Sometimes lefties are so anxious to be part of the proletariat that they exaggerate what the proletariat is, as if it’s 90% of the population (which dave bedggod used to claim). Actually, in a country like New Zealand, there is a substantial middle class and, while sections of it get proletarianised, new middle class sections are continuously being created.

        Moreover, understanding gradations, or segmentation, in the working class is crucial to working out policies that can unite workers. Workers can’t be united by ignoring divisions between manual and mental labour, what are more proletarianised sectors and what are more petty-bourgeoisified sectors, than they can be united by ignoring divisions along national, ethnic, gender etc lines.


  6. Interesting article. Overall the point that I got from it, was that all of us contribute to the reproduction of capitalist social relations. This is includes leisure as well. The problem becomes when some people, think that their engagement to this contribution is somehow radical or they become involved in the states monopolization of violence.

    The ideological reproduction of individualism is also apparent within low paid service sector jobs. Since these are mostly small businesses, all the staff get know each other and the boss gets to know the staff. These personal relationships, end up with workers sympathising with the owner. This sympathy mostly results in workers, not seeing their exploitation and even giving up their own rights, such as not having breaks when it gets busy. This can also lead to narking on other workers, who aren’t going to give up their rights. Alongside this, we have competition between workers to get more hours.

    This is just hospitality. It gets a lot worse once we enter the world of call centres, tele-marketing and door to door sales. These jobs are highly contradictory. Since they have a high turn over rate, they are very easy to get employed in. This is mostly a result of them being performance or commissioned based. WINZ is known to direct people to these jobs to get them off the benefit quickly. This results in a good portion of those employed previously being beneficiaries or low income workers. Once hired, they’re mostly still earning next to nothing, but they’re given the promise that through their effort they can climb up the social ladder. Most don’t make it, but the one’s that do, especially if they come from a low income background, become emotionally attached to the system, since they had to hustle their way to the top.

  7. Olly noted, “all the ideologies and institutions which have developed in order to deal with the concrete problem of putting bodies in front of machines, from the petty manager to politician to sociologist all these people must grapple with the problem of making the rest of us behave in ways which is fundamentally alien to our own needs. These is what I mean by ‘ideology’ and ‘managing the contradictions of capitalist society.’”

    There is a fantastic dissection of how sociology worked in this light, done by Martin Nicolaus in 1968:

    In more recent years, a lot of po-mo and post-structuralism has served a similar apologetic function (while also turning up a few useful insights).

    Nicolaus noted how sociology wasn’t interested in workers or black Americans until they became a ‘problem’, then suddenly there were all these jobs for liberals and leftists analysing class and race relations in order to facilitate the smoothing out of the problems and making social peace again.

    A couple of good books from that era worth reading: Robin Blackburn (ed), ‘Ideology in Social Science’ and Trevor Pateman (ed), ‘Counter-course’.

    It’s interesting how often academics get involved in really awful stuff. A mate of mine in England who teaches at uni recently had a very sharp argument with a friend who taught at another university and who considers himself a Marxist and yet was giving lectures to the British military!!! Some prominent progressives like Chomsky and Marcuse also had some odd ideas about academics and their position of a weird kind of intellectual detachment. In reality, the only thing academics are detached from is the working class, whose exploitation makes their position as acade mics possible; they sure aren’t detached from capitalist ideology and the workings of the system.


    • Sociologists and anthropologists are also playing a bigger role in the private sector these days. Mostly in the areas of marketing. I use to do tele-marketing, for An online business directory that also specialises in social media marketing. They hired sociologists to work in their social media department. Other people in the marketing and advertising industry, have told me that the large firms, now prefer people from the social sciences over those with marketing degrees. It’s mostly as a result of an over-saturation of people with marketing degrees and because such people (business students), tend not to have the critical skills needed to deal with a consumer population that is more blasé than ever, highly informed about their consumer options and less rigid in their values and lifestyle choices.

    • They have some good articles for sure and have been a relatively consistent journal by the standards of the ultra-left (which are low lets face it). But once you know about JD’s professional life its pretty hard to read anything they’ve written without taking into account how that might effect their perspective. Their anti-roads article for instance was actually the basis for his PhD research which he used to begin developing his social psychological i.e. crowd control theories.

      As I said JD may have literally spent time collaborating with cops and cop advisers and then gone on to write a marxist article or something all in the same day. You can’t just switch that life off and put your radical hat on…

      • I think the idea that one read the facts of aufhebengate (JD etc) backward into everything they’ve written (theories, ‘sociology’), see it in every article as a particular concrete realisation of some abstract category, e.g. of “ultraleftism”, connecting discrete analyses, statements and views, is intellectually lazy. But every one is looking for a trump card. I get it though, how bizarre for serious left wing communists to have a moment of opportunism, when that is so often the provenance of right wing communists, social democrats, Fightback, Mana, and so on. At any rate, this is less like opportunism, and more like collaborationism at the level of careerism. In the absence of any communist movement or whatever though, and given the fact that these protesters will never change the world, although I condemn them, I don’t find it that satisfying or clarifying of any question – ultraleftism or whatever – to do so. There’s no trump card here for neo-Bolsheviks against left wing communists.

        I lean here on a methdological principle of sorts, which is perhaps less methodological than it is properly philosophical, if not entirely metaphysical, not that Marxism is as anti-metaphysical and positivist as more ‘scientifically’ inclined comrades would claim, to the extent of putting themselves in bed with the circle of Vienna… I follow the principle that facts (aufhebengate for example) alone do not refute theories (e.g. as in Aufheben’s articles), but that facts operate at a sub-theoretical level. Only after being incorporated into other theories are they able to even interact with theories at a semiotic level. Kicking a stone, pace deep ecologists, may expand one’s sense of being, but it doesn’t refute anything. But I’m not accusing you of banal empiricism—I just feel it is opportune to bring some methodological reflection into this little digression, because people don’t talk enough about it.

      • At any rate I should apologise for this slightly off-topic digression. I’ll respond to the article later when I have read it more closely. I just had a glance the other day. It sounded like, if I can approximate this to a left wing slogan, that you are making the claim that the left is the left wing – of capital, i.e. it often is fulfilling the tasks of capital where it appears to itself to be ‘anti’-capitalist. Perhaps that can be the basis for discussion on the left. I find it a more useful discussion to be having, since it necessarily requires close scrutiny of capitalist ideology and reflection on the practice of ideologie critique.

      • Although that is wrapped up with the primary question of how marxists should define, analyse, discuss—(and, I suppose, in consequence, organise against)—capitalism as both our spiritual horizon and social totality today.

  8. Twas indeed an interesting article; I am reluctant to comment on the entire comments debate that followed. With regard to Aufheben specifically, it is most defeintely their posture neatly arse-popped by fence posts that led to their refusal to ‘condemn’ John Drury (sorry for using speech marks if some consider that wanky but I use them for reasons). Half in academia and half ‘anti-capitalist’. All the author and susbsequent posters raised about how this lands you in a position likely to recuperate yourself constantly, is true about Aufheben – some of their articles are interesting, yes, (the muslim/Labour/Stop the War article mentioned above, I found actually useful for some stuff i am working on about my own experiences). But as the same person noted, nobody writes much that doesn’t in some way reflect their own class/caste/strata background, or sometimes the ones they want to be in/are moving towards.

    Some of us who go that far back in the UK remember Johnny from twenty years back, finding that his habit of handing out questionaires on anti-Criminal Justice Bill demos/riots raised our eyebrow hackles… He has been sliding into dodgy territory for decades, but the academia problem is a deeper mire that is often sidelined in the debates about him.

    Not mentioned that much above is the part that friendship plays in the anarcho/ultraleft scene, and i guess the left generally (wouldn’t know so much about all that, sur). Political loyalties, in terms of who you worked with at import5ant points, developed your ideas with, got nicked with, etc, going back 30 or more years can often be stronger than theoretical or practical urgent questions – especially as people drift back from what is sometimes considered ‘the front line’ of activism, but may remain sympathetic, in touch with things… Many people of my generation are scattered in terms of what they do now politically, but the friendship ties developed in the 1980s and 90s are still very powerful. In some ways its no bad thing that people can keep strong links, even when political alliances might be looser – I have a healthy suspicion of the demand for immediate rigidly coherent ideological breaks with people over every small divergence of ideas. Where this becomes problematic is when people will stick by their mates regardless and either explain away something plain dodgy, or refuse to believe they could do it. Sexual assault within our scenes is an obvious example, but John Drury’s work and its relevance to the organs of state repression, followed by his actual attendance at police-friendly lectures, has also thrown up some cracking copo-caust denial. But also – mates of mates and people you’ve worked with and people they’ve worked with – we don’t all agree on Johnny, and there’s been ructions and splits over it, though it’s not always easy to break with everyone who won’t stop speaking to him, or not without throwing some babies out with the (slightly dirty) bathwater.

    Reading some of the posts above i feel it’s possible some people might jump in and denounce me for using such bourgeois liberal terminology as ‘friendship’; I don’t really care. Love and trust are at the heart of what I do and are the bedrock of class struggle to me. But I also wonder if the speculation about the relations between mental workers and manual workers expose some of the same old elitist thinking about us in the left/ultra-left/anarchism usw… It’s many years since I thought that these scenes necessarily had a positive role to play in any prospective cataclysmic change in social relations, if any such thing is even going to happen, and are largely dominated by the classes that already dominate t’rest of bleedin’ world. I have spent many years as part of some of them/still hang about looking shifty on the fringe sometimes, and try to do some stuff/write usefully now and again while loving my family friends and others and working at my (non-academic, manual but vaguely socially useful) job. Come when my daughter grows up maybe I’ll have more time to get back involved in more direct things… But I would be reluctant to engage on day to day stuff with the left in most of its forms, partly because it is dominated by the sort of self-serving elitism, alot of it a bit unconscious and continually evolving or being recuperated.

    Apologies if this post is a bit incoherent – I am not a regular poster on forums etc.

    • A large part of this, about the ultra left in particular, hardly applies to the concrete conditions of the left’s self-(dis)organisation in New Zealand, where there are not even really major “scenes” at all outside a few trot orgs. Cultural/ideological wasteland. This blog alone probably constitutes 1/5 of the NZ wordpress marxist left.

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