The piece below first appeared as the editorial in revolution #6 (May-June) 1998. The trends it pointed to were very strong at the time and, sadly, remain very strong.
by Philip Ferguson
The left was once synonymous with freedom. This was particularly so during the ‘radical’ 1960s. Freedom from the moral restraints of the austere and conservative 1950s, freedom for sexual experimentation, for viewing pictures and reading books that had been banned, and freedom for oppressed peoples in the Third World and in the advanced capitalist countries like New Zealand were exclusively the preserve of the left.
A great deal has changed since then! Much of the ‘60s generation has grown up, gained a ‘stake in society’ and become the new, liberal prudes and social controllers, as fearful of freedom as they once were enthusiastic about it. These days it is difficult to think of any activity which is not subject to concern or regulation by some middle-class snob or do-gooder. From anti-smoking campaigns to attempts to censor the internet to moral purity feminism, the grown-up flower children of the ‘60s would now prefer not to let a hundred flowers bloom.
There are, however, two ‘freedoms’ that are not included in their desire to control and constrain. One is the freedom of the middle class liberal social controllers to decide how the rest of us should behave; the other is the freedom of capital to exploit labour. In fact, liberal social practices have matured in leaps and bounds alongside the removal of constraints on capital’s freedom to exploit labour.
This is no accident. The economic reforms of the past 15 years, which have decimated working class communities and wiped out large chunks of manufacturing, have had a broader disintegrative effect on society. Yet capital cannot operate effectively if society itself falls apart. Indeed, as the March 1998 report of Integrated Economic Services noted, the free market profit system cannot, through its own spontaneous operations, create the conditions necessary for its own maintenance (see also the ‘restatement’ section in revolution no.4).
New ways to hold things together have to be found, and the liberal middle class has stepped into the breach to provide the means for this to be done. In New Zealand the liberal middle class probably plays more of a role in administering the capitalist state than anywhere else in the world. So through their social control policies, we have been saddled with more of the fears and insecurities of this class than people in most other countries.
Much of the New Zealand left, whose idea of ‘Marxism’ doesn’t transcend crude economism of a left-labourist variety, pays very little attention to these trends. They are seen as a diversion from imaginary mass economic fightbacks against the National-led government. But for genuine Marxists these trends are of crucial importance. They both reflect the general decay of capitalist society and provide means through which the ruling class, utilising their management personnel in the liberal middle class, can hold things together. And they are trends which are likely to intensify and saddle us with an ever-greater army of social workers, counsellors, cops and other busy-bodies and repressive personnel functioning in the guise of ‘concerned’ people.
Another reason why the NZ left has been incapable of relating to these dangerous trends and opposing them is that the vast bulk of the left sees the capitalist state as the agency of social change. Even at its most militant, this left never goes beyond demanding that socialism be implemented by the Labour Party – the ruling class’s mid-week team. Those with any interest in freedom have been faced with the choice of an interventionist left or a libertarian right. To the extent that there has been any revival of libertarian right-wing politics it has not been due to the ideas of intellectual giants like Lindsey Perigo or Richard Prebble or Roger Douglas. The blame lies squarely with the crappy politics of the moronic elements of the left.
Yet statist ideas are the opposite of what Marxism is all about. Marx and Engels’ entire political lives were centrally concerned with the question of freedom. They started out as young freedom-loving students, in rebellion against the norms and conventions of the old order in Europe. As youthful rebels they were aware, unlike many of today’s ‘Marxist’ wannabes, that individual experience and identity does not a successful rebellion make. They began to work out a scientific understanding of society as a whole in order to see how freedom might be brought about. They identified the obstacles to freedom in a social, economic and political system whose very existence is predicated on unfreedom for the vast majority of people.
Marx did not spend years and years slogging away on what became the Grundrisse, Theories of Surplus-Value and Capital because he was a boring old fart who loved to pore over economic data, factory reports and bourgeois political economy. It was the desire for freedom that led Marx and Engels to their study of capitalist social relations and the capitalist mode of production. It was work that was necessary in order to discover how freedom could be achieved.
Today it is necessary to reclaim the mantle of freedom and progress. This is certainly a fight against the right. But before accounts can be settled with them, it is necessary to challenge what has so far passed for left-wing thinking in this country. So, to a large extent, this is a battle against the liberal left – against their moral panics, against their political correctness, against their low standards and low horizons, against their statist politics, and against their enthusiasm for social control.
If you want to be free, the struggle starts here.
 I’m a non-smoker. I was not referring here to providing information to people to allow them to make informed choices about smoking, but to a particular kind of moralistic campaign to kind of guilt-trip or browbeat people out of smoking. The pendulum had swung from the days when, as a young radical, I had to sit in horrible smoke-filled rooms because smokers didn’t consider non-smokers like me to the opposite extreme where smokers now had no rights at all.