Capitalist modernisation and the NZ left

Jenny Shipley: most of the ‘left’ echoes her views on stuff like the Treaty of Waitangi and its constitutional position. while pretending ‘the Treaty’ is a progressive document for the oppressed

by Philip Ferguson

“The colonisation period is part of our history, but it’s not something that we should be chuffed about.” – ‘Dame’ Jenny Shipley, former National Party prime minister, on Radio New Zealand, Sunday, December 13.

On this blog and previously in revolution magazine and The Spark newspaper, we have argued for almost two decades that the NZ ruling class has been undertaking a modernisation project.  I’m not a huge base-superstructure fan but, to sum it up in those terms, which can be useful short-hand, they have been bringing the superstructure in line with the base.  Meanwhile most of the left have been trailing along behind.  And by left, I mean the most general sense of that term – ie people who see themselves as left (predominantly the liberal-left); however, even sections of the ostensibly anti-capitalist or revolutionary left have trailed along behind too.  As we’ve argued before, only too often the left is more the left of bourgeois politics and bourgeois economics than an ideologically-independent left which seeks an anti-capitalist transformation of society.

Absolutely central to the ruling class – and by this term I mean the capitalists and their key managers, both in business and throughout the state apparatus (eg, the key politicians and the heads of government departments from education to WINZ to the judicial system, cops and military) – has been the race relations industry.  And central to the race relations industry is the Treaty of Waitangi.  And here, it is not only the liberal left who share a common ideology with the ruling class, but much of the far left as well.  They are all committed to ‘Te Tiriti’; this is so hegemonic ideologically that very few on the left ever wonder how they’ve ended up sharing the attitude of the dominant elements of the ruling class on the Treaty of Waitangi, where once Maori and pakeha radicals alike denounced the Treaty as a fraud.  Now they just want to help the ruling class operate the fraud more thoroughly and effectively.

Before dealing with why the ruling class is engaged in this project and why most of the left trails along behind, I want to make a few comments about the Jenny Shipley interview on RNZ on Sunday.  Shipley is an interesting figure because not only is she part of the ruling class, she also excels in combining right-wing economics with liberal (indeed what once wuld have been considered very progressive) views on a range of social questions.  She is, for instance, a strong supporter of gay rights and was the first prime minister to attend the Auckland Gay Pride festival (back in the 1990s); she is staunchly supportive of the Treaty and biculturalism, while also advocating for multiculturalism; she is keenly in favour of gender equality.  These are all positions on social questions she largely shares with most of the left, although she in no way regards herself as on the left – quite the contrary.  This should tell us how harmless these things are all in terms of the interests of the capitalist economic system.

Moreover, like most of the ruling class, although she shares the left’s liberal views on most questions, she doesn’t share the anti-Chinese racism of so much of the left.  For instance, when she was asked on the RNZ show – Wallace Chapman’s – about the Chinese buying up land in Northland, where she now lives, she said immediately, “That’s xenophobia”.  No, it’s not, Chapman retorted weakly.  But, of course, it is xenophobia.  It’s the one area on which the normally politically-correct left left reveals its deep racism.  Shipley had little trouble dealing with Chapman on this issue, pointing out that Germans had brought more farms and land where she lives than the Chinese but the only land  purchases that had attracted public attention and disapproval were Chinese ones.

The other side of Shipley’s politics is that she is utterly committed to anti-working class positions.  Capitalist economics come before workers’ rights and living standards.  The working class is just this faceless, nameless mass who make up one of the instruments of production and need to be treated and controlled as such.  They are the one group with whom she feels no empathy at all.  For instance, when Chapman tried to talk about inequality and mentioned the social welfare cuts which she had overseen as social welfare minister in the early 1990s, she said mentioned that she hadn’t had an easy life herself – that her father died when she was 18 and her mother was left with four children, several younger than Shipley.  What Chapman didn’t ask her was how her mother would have survived if the government of that time had’ve cut widows’ benefit in the way she did as social welfare minister.  She was in a fatherless family at the height of the golden age of the postwar boom and welfare state.

Shipley, rather like Michael Barnett of the Auckland Chamber of Commerce, is a useful weathervane of where the main body of the ruling class is at, although Barnett is a little less reactionary than Shipley on the exploitation of the working class.  Barnett spoke out against zero-hours contracts for instance.  He has a very keen sense of the importance of class peace as much as possible.

Capitalist modernisation

Now to move on to the modernisation project.  Again, Shipley easily bested Wallace Chapman on this.  He couldn’t get beyond arguments that the flag referendum is a waste of money, that it’s been messily-handled, that it should have been delayed in order to be part of a constitutional discussion.  Shipley, with some justification, said this was all nonsense.  There are only three countries in the Commonwealth that have the Union Jack in their flags and the others changed without necessarily having constitutional discussions at the same time.  Moreover, she said, any constitutional changes would require protracted discussion and consultation because of the position of the Treaty and Maori.  In fact, here she showed she was far more politically-correct than the usually ultra-pc Chapman.  The problem with the existing flag she said was that it represented our past, including parts of it that we really shouldn’t be chuffed about, while we need is a new flag that represents where we are now and where we’re going.  Indeed, she was absolutely explicit that she didn’t want her grandkids growing up under the Union Jack – in fact, it was Shipley who, back in her brief prime ministership, who had first talked about changing the flag.  She stressed how much she supports inclusion and that the new flag – she favours the fern option that has a partly blue background but is happy with the black background option that won in the referendum – must reflect New Zealand society today and its inclusiveness of all the peoples living here now.

Next to her ‘big picture’ philosophical arguments about the flag, Chapman’s comments about the cost of the referendum process and whether it had been organised poorly simply seemed petty whining.  Although he seemed quite surprised at how she wasn’t in the slightest bit defensive about his criticisms, he really shouldn’t have been.  She is part of the actual ruling class and she is articulating a ‘big picture’ ruling class project, a project that is important to the ruling class and against which Chapman has no arguments because he, in  common with other leftish liberal types, has no understanding of this process – even though it’s been going on for several decades and folks like him support individual parts of this process and see them as being progressive (which they’re not in any fundamental sense).

What is this project?

We’ve actually looked at various parts of it a lot between our previous print publications and this blog.  In fact, I’d say that examining it has been one of the very most important things we’ve done and is enough, alone, to justify our existence.

The recent article on diversity examined one particular aspect – or group of aspects.  This is that NZ has become a much more diverse society in recent decades in terms of the peoples who call this country ‘home’, in terms of the kinds of families that people live in and the kinds of living (and loving) arrangements they make.  The capitalist market tries spontaneously to relate to this and produces and markets new types of goods to new sections of consumers.  But capitalism can’t survive by market operations alone.  It requires social stability and that requires inclusion.  Not of everyone, for sure, but of as many as possible.  So institutions and ideologies have to change to match the new, much more diverse nature of the population.

The reactionary role of ‘culture’

Another aspect is that the freeing up of the market created massive job losses for workers, while many of those remaining in work find themselves having to work harder, longer and faster for less.  What do you throw people whose material conditions have worsened but who you don’t want being entirely alienated and rioting in the streets.  Especially if they’re brown-skinned and follow what alienated, brown-skinned young people are doing in the United States, like rioting in the streets?  And what you throw them can’t cost a lot of money, because that rather detracts from the economic gains you (as the capitalists) have made from intensified exploitation.  Old ruling classes used to turn on bread and circuses; the NZ ruling class today does something similar but more effective – it turns on culture, most especially Maori culture.  So people who once would have taken pride in having a well-paid job in the big industries of the postwar boom period and kin getting newer and better cars every few years, moving up in the housing market, buying new household consumer items like TVs, fridges, washing machines, record-players and so on, are now encouraged to take pride in simply ‘being Maori’ at a cultural level.  Pre-conquest Maori society is gone forever and it is unlikely that a Maori from 1515 would recognise a Maori of 2015 as being of the same culture as them – Maori and pakeha today are far more alike than any of us are like our Maori or pakeha ancestors of 500 years ago.

Culture provides a cheap alternative to providing good jobs and ever-improving wages, which were real, material advances during the postwar boom.  It is also a particularly effective way of exercising social control, all the more effective because it doesn’t seem external; it is presented as coming naturally from within and so the subordination to authority involved is presented as, and indeed actually appears as, simply being “true to one’s culture”, “discovering my roots”, and so on.  (Of course, since culture is contested and ever-changing, there is no such thing as ‘culture’ in the way the dominant – and domineering – cultural essentialists so dogmatically insist.)

Another useful thing about culture is that it can be easily commodified.  Moreover, in an era of rampant consumerism of mere things – often plastic-like, instantly disposable things – many people are searching for more authentic cultural products.  Indigenous cultural products appear to sections of consumers as inherently authentic and can be very profitably produced and marketed, especially to the middle class and the wealthy.  So indigenous culture becomes commodified, its commodification being more acceptable because it is often done by the indigenous themselves.  Since capital and class have been erased – or, to put it in other terms, are the new ‘other’ – indigeneity itself becomes inherently positive and so the process of commodification is seen as acceptable if it is in the hands of the indigenous producers of the culture.  Indigeneity trumps commodification.

Moreover, this is good news not only for an emerging class of ‘indigenous’ entrepreneurs but for capital as a whole.  It attracts large numbers of tourists to New Zealand, for instance, and these spend their money buying a wide range of commodities, as material things, services and experiences.  But is especially good news for capital because it expands the capitalist class and its hold over society as a whole.  For the first 140-150 years of the existence of New Zealand, as a capitalist nation-state, the ruling class was almost entirely pakeha.  Even the middle class was almost exclusively pakeha.  Maori were almost entirely working class and small family farmers.  Since they were also discriminated against and oppressed as Maori, the intersection of class and ethnic oppression made Maori a potential threat to the system.  Because of the combined nature of their exploitation and oppression, Maori tended to be more rebellious than their white counterparts, have less respect for authority and certainly much less of a material stake in capitalist New Zealand.  Once Maori became urban and proletarianised through core/essential industries, they made up a militant section of the working class.  In areas like the meat plants and lorry driving, a big chunk of the workforce and the union delegates and militants, were Maori.  Class-struggle and anti-capitalist politics were therefore attractive to Maori, on top of which the old collectivities of Maori society seemed more akin to a socialist future than the capitalist present.

How different things are now, however.  Whereas once to be in the vanguard of Maoridom was to be a socialist of some sort and the free future of Maori was envisaged as being beyond capitalism, now Maori advancement is seen overwhelmingly as linked to capitalism and the market, in particular through Maori entrepreneurship and Maori business.  The (white) ruling class, far from objecting to this process, has been a crucial factor in facilitating it precisely because it makes the entire society capitalist in terms of economics and bourgeois in terms of consciousness.

Socio-economic reality and bourgeois ideology

The unleashing of market forces over the past 30 years, beginning with the market reforms of the 1980s Labour government, has had as its necessary and logical concomitant, the removal of non-market forms of discrimination.  As Marx and Engels noted way back in 1848 in the Communist Manifesto, capitalism sweeps away things that once seemed set in stone, “all that is solid melts into air”.  Once upon a time, laws against homosexuality and abortion, limitations on women’s rights to all kinds of jobs, the confinement of the Maori population to working class jobs, and so on, seemed bound up with capitalism and inseparable from it, almost the same as apartheid in South Africa and capitalism seemed inseparable.  But while apartheid was necessary to the early rounds of capital formation and accumulation in South Africa but became obsolete (and dangerous) to capital accumulation later on, so those earlier forms of discrimination and inequality became outmoded by subsequent rounds of capital accumulation and the needs of capital in the late 20th and early 21st centuries.

For instance, during the postwar boom a working class and certainly a middle class family could survive on one person’s wage, typically that of the husband/father.  Today, even for many middle class families that is no longer the case.  Women working beyond marriage is not simply a personal desire or choice, but an economic necessity.  And because capital can’t pay a wage-earner a big enough wage to keep a family, it is very much in favour of married women working and the dominant earlier ideology that a woman’s place, especially if she has young children – is in the home has been replaced by a new capitalist ideology that women’s place is in the jobs market and whereas stay-at-home mums were seen in that old ideology as good and working mothers as socially irresponsible, the reverse is now the case.

The clapped-out state of modern capitalism means that every last ounce of surplus-labour has to be squeezed out of the working class: more workers need to be working, and the hours worked need to be longer, harder and faster.  This, after all, is the source of surplus-value, the basis of capitalist profit.  As the reality of capitalism has changed, the ideology has changed.

Much more than a flag

One of the key realities of modern New Zealand is that this is not a British nation or the offshoot of the British nation.  Britain is not ‘home’, which is what even workers of my grandparents’ generation (and they were third generation New Zealanders at the time) called it.  New Zealand is an Asian-Pacific nation and that is where the economic interests of the NZ capitalist class overwhelmingly reside.  Countries that are part of the Pacific – China, Australia and the US – are our biggest trading and investing partners.  Other important markets are in Asia or Asia-Pacific countries.  Many young Many young New Zealanders still base themselves in Britain for their OEs (for our international readers, part of the rites of passage of young NZers, usually in their early 20s, is the Overseas Experience of two or so years) but a large and growing number now go to New York or Tokyo or Shanghai etc rather than using London as their base.  Britain has long since ceased to be the automatic first port-of-call.  Britain now is a quaint old centre, that we have archaic connections with and maybe some distant relations, it’s handy that they speak English, and London is still a bit cool, but that’s about it. Big cities in Asia and the US are more attractive to NZ young, upwardly mobile professionals – and just as easy to get to and to get into, since British immigration rules changed in relation to people coming from the old ‘white colonies’ like Australia and New Zealand.

One of the most archaic symbols – and one that is simply no longer necessary – is the flag.  So that’s the first symbol that the ruling class are prepared to discard.  Like most liberals, especially in this cuntry, the ruling class are cautious people.  They are not going to rush into dramatic constitutional changes.  More likely it will be slow and piecemeal.  And we can be sure there will be lots of talk about ‘inclusion’ and ‘democracy’ – so the flag-changing process is being done through referenda.   Since so much of the rest of the population consists of people who, if anything, are even more cautious than the ruling class, it may well be that they vote to retain the flag and the capitalist modernisation process will be slowed down.  It may be, too, that workers unable to influence anything else will vote out of a kind of misdirected spite to retain the butcher’s apron (as many on the receiving end of the British flag call it) and existing flag.  But my point is that there is a ruling class modernisation project, however cautious and slow it is in some aspects.

At some point in time, other archaic aspects of the old Britain-New Zealand relationship will be challenged by the ruling class.  After all, how weird is it for a modern, young, vibrant, capitalist  Asia-Pacific country to have a British feudal-like hereditary monarch as its formal head of state?  Or to have British honours?  There seem to be some different, and contradictory, views on these among the ruling class modernisers.  For instance, Key, the architect of the flag referenda, also says he’s a monarchist and the ‘young royals’ seem popular in NZ ruling class circles and the wider public.

Moreover, as Shipley pointed out in her RNZ interview, changing the constitutional set-up is bound up with the relationship of Maori with the ‘Crown’ and the Waitangi Treaty.  While, for all practical intents and purposes, the ‘Crown’ these days simply means the NZ state, even Maori radicals often argue a particularly conservative position on this, rather than taking a republican stance.

However long it takes them, at some point in the future the NZ ruling class will opt to cut the most archaic ties with Britain and the British monarchy.  It’s important that the serious left understands the ruling class’ modernisation project now and gets ahead of it.

We need to understand that NZ in 2015 and beyond is significantly different from what this country was still in the Muldoon era.

We need to understand that the social-liberal project of the establishment is not about liberation but about effectively managing and embracing ‘difference’ and that the celebration of ‘difference’ is very useful to the ruling class while modernising, and therefore making more effective, the shackles on the rest of society.

We need to understand that identity politics is in part the ideological reflection of changes wrought by capitalism and in part the result of the collapse of the old ‘new social movements’ about gender, ‘race’ and sexuality.

We need to work out much more effectively which battles need to be fought and which don’t, because the ruling class has no interest in maintaining some of the shackles, certainly not in their old forms.

And we need to work out how to, for once, get ahead of the ruling class rather than, as usual, responding to things they do.

For example, before they get round to moving on a republic, which would be a capitalist republic, perhaps we should be advocating for a workers’ republic.

Further reading:

‘Respect for diversity’: modern NZ capitalism’s necessary ideology 

Class, class consciousness and left political practice



  1. Excellent article. This is classic Marcusian analysis, a thinker with a rich body of work on the cultural and technological ‘stabilisers’ of modern industrial capitalism.

  2. It’s funny you should say that.

    I’ve never been into Marcuse and never bothered to read him because of the Marxist attacks on him. But then I read Bill Ayers’ first book and was intrigued by the concept of ‘repressive tolerance’, about which I want to write something at some stage. So this made me a bit more interested in Marcuse.

    Plus no-one with a functioning brain in the predominantly Anglo-Saxon/English speaking parts of the imperialist world can ignore the lack of motion of the working class. We need to be able to explain it, otherwise we are simply engaging in Marxism as a form of religion.

    I think the analysis of the stationary character of the NZ working class – and I think the working class is more stationary in NZ than anywhere else in the world – is only just beginning. Some of us have observed it and discussed it amongst ourselves, but in terms of public discussion on the anti-capitalist left there is not much stuff.

    I want to delve a bit more into Marcuse, but I also have a problem with his analysis. He was writing at the height of the postwar economic boom about material/economic factors that ‘bought off’ the working class. Today, the boom is long gone and isn’t about to return. Workers are working harder, faster and longer for relatively less – there must be an explanation for why they are so unwilling to fight in these deteriorating conditions and Marcuse (and others) are relevant to this, but it can’t be explained in exactly the same way as they described workers in the imperialist centres being bought off in the 60s. I don’t see much buying off today when I look around at the devastation of old working class communities and industrial sectors of employment, for instance.

    Maybe you would like to think about writing something for the blog, laying out your views about the relevance of Marcuse today. One blog reader already wrote an interesting article starting to engage with Marcuse. See:


  3. I think it’s interesting that this article has attracted far more discussion on an Irish email list than here. The political left in Ireland is not only massively bigger than NZ, but large chunks of it (the republican left) is far more radical. Here are just two of the comments on this piece and the one on ‘respect for diversity’ by such activists.

    Although I disagree with his comment about the fiat monetary system – the centre/cause of the problems is within the production system upon which the monetary system arises – one of the leaders of the 1916 Societies, one of the largest left-republican currents, makes some interesting comments:

    “Longer working hours etc is the inexorable outworking of the fiat monetary system and the constant pumping of ‘new’ money into the economy by the banking class, which in turn impacts on prices. Higher prices mean less affordability leading to longer hours and so on, with the chief beneficiary being the banking class and its subsidiaries. This is something we rarely hear those who class themselves ‘leftists’ make mention of, it seems to completely evade their analysis despite the same being the story of modern economics and the shifts in its paradigm, which you touch on in the first article.

    “By channeling ‘left resistance’ into an equality agenda based around respect for diversity – which crucially is all to take place within the existing state structure – the state intends that the energies of its opponents be deflected away from the core issue and the state itself be normalised through its modernisation, with its opponents themselves actually achieving this end for them. You cannot understand modern imperialism without analysing the relationship between modern money mechanics and state power.

    “This is the true intersection of power and where it lies and yet we wish to take uncompromising positions on abortion and other divisive social issues. If we are going to be uncompromising about anything then let it be on the need for the existing capitalist system, with the dynamics it produces to replicate its interests, themselves deeply reactionary and at the expense of ordinary people, to be exposed and a new economic system put in its place where capital is brought under the sovereign and democratic control of the people on a permanent basis.”

    Another comrade responded:
    “Sean is spot on, over here much of the left abandoned class politics and for the last three decades have become bogged down in what can be loosely described as extra parliamentary activities around CND, race, gay rights, ‘women’s issues. and various degrees of international solidarity. (the further from the UK the easier it was to support 😉

    “What has occurred since then is much of the UK left became heavily bogged down in these campaigns, some of which proved to be a diversion which took us away from our main support base the working classes. It also allowed the ruling class to dominate economic strategy to such an extent that neo liberalism became for many the common sense of the age. Thankfully that is now being challenged. . .

    “There is nothing wrong with supporting the aforementioned campaigns, but to place them at the fore of struggle has proven disastrous for the left in my view. We have mainly acted as an independent collection of protest groups not a unified organisation which aims for societal change.”

    I responded to another comrade who warned about the danger of throwing out the baby with the bathwater of identity politics:

    “I think you’re conflating identity politics and oppression. Issues of the denial of rights to various sections of the population continues and these must be taken up by any truly transformative political project; there is a big difference between that and identity politics, which is based on ignoring or downgrading class.

    “I think the reality is that in recent decades gaps within the wealthy and chunks of the middle class have narrowed – for instance, I think it’s increasingly void to talk of a ‘glass ceiling’; the ruling class today *want* more women executives, more gay executives, more ethnically diverse executives and so on. The connection between oppression and class exploitation today overlaps much more. Working class women remain oppressed, but middle class women have advanced hugely.

    “In Ireland the great winners of the conflict in the north – from the late 60s to the late 90s.early 00s, have been the Catholic/nationalist middle class. Whereas once they could only advance to a certain point, now the sky’s the limit. A Catholic can be top judge, top cop, CEO of any company, top civil servant, whatever. But the Catholic/nationalist working class are still screwed. Indeed, I’d say the biggest losers over the same period have been the Prod workers, as the industries in which their privileges were concentrated (shipbuilding, engineering) are largely gone.

    “Unfortunately, instead of understanding their involvement in the Unionist cross-class alliance ultimately negated their class interests and they should throw in their lot with the nationalist working class, they have largely just got more embittered.

    “At the end of the day, you see, the only relationship which is *essential* to capital is the wage-labour/capital relationship. Everything else is not only negotiable (after all, the wage-labour/capital relationship is partially negotiable) but also up for abolition. The capitalists were able to abolish slavery because they found more dynamic means of exploitation and they can do away with discrimination based purely on gender, sexuality etc too. As long as the class relations remain.”

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