As we’ve noted over and over again on this site, workers in New Zealand today are working longer hours for less pay and with fewer rights.
Some of our key articles on the material state of the working class in this country today have been listed on the site, here.
The next category we’re highlighting is how things got to this state. There’s a tendency on the wider left to blame National and ‘neo-liberalism’, but the tools of Marxism suggest a deeper analysis. The long boom that followed World War 2 produced, as such a boom must, a rise in the organic composition of capital – ie more and more capital expended on machinery, technology etc in relation to the capital expended on labour-power, the one commodity that creates new, expanded value. Thus the rate of profit was falling right at the time the boom looked strongest and ‘mainstream’ economists, sociologists, political scientists and various other pro-capitalist pundits were telling us that all the ‘old problems’ of capitalism had been solved, all the crooked bits had been ironed out.
Eventually the rate of profit fell to a point where the process of capital accumulation was severely disrupted and it became necessary to save the day for capitalism by attacking workers – cutting our pay to boost surplus-value, cutting public services as they are a drain on surplus-value, privatising state assets which had the potential to be profitable and commodifying to varying degrees other state assets (ie turning products and services that were once free or sold below cost into things produced by the state to be sold on the market to realise a profit, just like in the private sector). (For a more in-depth look at how capitalism does and doesn’t work, see here.)
The first sign in New Zealand of the end of the postwar boom was the nil wage order of 1968, but the shite didn’t really hit the fan until 1973-74. Labour rode to the rescue; the third Labour government began a systematic attack on workers’ pay and conditions and rights to organise. The National government of Robert Muldoon continued the process. However Muldoon’s government was primarily socially-reactionary and, despite a lot of verbal attacks on trade unions, he never really pursued a policy to smash union power.
That was undertaken by the socially-liberal fourth Labour government (1984-1990) and the first term of the similar National government (1990-93). This period (1984-93) was the heyday of neo-liberalism in New Zealand, not so much because of the power of neo-liberal ideas; rather the policy prescriptions of neo-liberalism matched what the capitalist class wanted and needed to do at the time. Neo-liberalism simply provided the ideological rationalisation.
During this period the working class and its primary organisations, the trade unions, took a huge pounding. Crucial to this pounding was the illusions in the working class and on the left in relation to the Labour Party. Instead of analysing the current state of capital accumulation in order to understand what the incoming fourth Labour government would do, most of the left simply assumed it would be an ‘ordinary’ social-democratic government. People were left totally unprepared.
What should have been a period of working class resistance and of the growth of the revolutionary left, was turned into a period of working class retreat and demoralisation and of fragmentation and confusion on the left.
The working class has never recovered from the massive hits it took in the 1984-1993 period. Strikes are rare and collective forms of organisation probably weaker than at any time in over a century. Class consciousness has ceased to play much part in people’s awareness of themselves and their position in society.
Perversely, much of the left has still not analysed that period to examine why they were so unprepared for the events of 1984-93 or to understand the nature of the Labour Party. The September 2014 elections indicated that illusions in Labour are rather more rife among the ostensibly Marxist groups than they are in the working class (more workers voted National than Labour). Much of what the wider left writes and says sounds like it was produced 20 years ago.
Below are pieces on Redline which have looked at the lack of working class resistance, let alone working class advance (and, before anyone gets too depressed, our next collection will look at positive examples of workers resistance around the world and some ideas about here):
And for some alternatives see: This is what workers’ resistance looks like