From the vaults: Political correctness and social control (1995)


The following article first appeared in issue #6 of revolution magazine, May-June 1998.  Although nearly 20 years old, the article – which is actually based on talks given between 1995-97 – unfortunately remains highly relevant.

by Philip Ferguson

Over the last few years the term ‘political correctness’ has started to enter the vocabulary here.  Originating with a layer of liberals and leftists in the United States, politically correct practices and outlooks have gained a hold among elements of the professional classes in New Zealand.  The Anna Penn case in 1993, in which a trainee nurse was expelled from the nursing course at Christchurch Polytech for allegedly being “culturally unsafe”, and several cases in other nursing schools and social work courses, have garnered widespread media coverage.

In many ways, political correctness is stronger in New Zealand than anywhere else in the world.  It has become an important industry, with lucrative financial rewards, for a host of touchy-feely middle class liberals.  We have a range of counsellors now operating in most spheres of human problems, along with various consultancy agencies and individuals doing very nicely for themselves advising establishment institutions on how to be “culturally sensitive” to the people upon whose oppression these institutions depend.

In a real sense, political correctness in New Zealand has become the new moralism, softly – and sometimes not so softly – policing people’s behaviour on behalf of capitalism.

PC’s take-off in New Zealand

The rise of political correctness in New Zealand is a reflection of the growing social crisis and trends towards political disintegration.

As British-based Marxist Frank Furedi has noted, when society gets into trouble it starts to moralise.  But old-fashioned moralism  is not sufficient for the job of cohering NZ society today.  This is not the society of the 1950s and early 1960s, when conservative moralism was strong and had a powerful material base.  We are now living in a society of ongoing economic slump, social decay and the breakdown of traditional morality bound up with the old nuclear family.

Attempts at “back-to-basics” moral campaigns have come unstuck in New Zealand, Britain and other countries.  In Britain, the regular scandals of Tory MPs, usually hingeing around their sexual pecadillos, have been the most obvious manifestation of the decline of authority and then incapacity of those at the top to impress their supposed morality on the rest of the populace.  In New Zealand, prime minister Jim Bolger, as bumbling as ever, decided to launch his moral campaign at the same time Prince Charles came to visit in 1994; given the state of the prince’s personal affairs and the ‘royal family’ scandals in general, the campaign had to be dropped immediately.

While traditional morality is no longer adequate for dealing with the social problems and disintegrative trends of today, moralism per se remains an important weapon in the system’s arsenal for maintaining social cohesion.  Partly alongside traditional moralism, but perhaps more in place of it, has come the new variety of moralism and social control: political correctness.  Indeed, it is hard to think of an area of social life in New Zealand today which is not in some way shaped, or at least interfered with, by political correctness.

Middle class and political correctness

In the context of economic slump, the end of the Cold War and the decay of traditional politics, the middle class has developed a strong sense of insecurity.  Society is seen as getting out of control.  The place of the middle class, for so long assured, is itself now seen as under threat in this period of social decay and insecurity.

Like traditional conservatives, middle class liberals are obsessed with social stability and fear of threats to their privileged positions in society.  Political correctness is the ideological reflection of these middle class fears and their desires to return a sense of order and hierarchy to society.  Like other moralists, the politically correct are in the business of regulating the behaviour of others, particularly those seen as less educated and more disruptive of order and good taste.

Because the politically correct professionals accept the framework of capitalism, they take it upon themselves to draw up rules governing people’s behaviour and speech within the current society.  They encourage the state to enforce these rules and increasingly intrude into people’s lives.  Indeed, the politically correct professionals are often actually situated within some section of the capitalist state apparatus in society.

The state is happy to meet demands for greater regulation and social control.  After all, with the problems presently faced by the capitalist system, the ruling class itself is forced to become more authoritarian and exercise greater social control.  The PC professionals in this sense provide a ‘liberal’ justification for greater powers for the state and the various institutions through which socialisation occurs, from kindergartens to schools and universities.

Thanks in no small part to the activities of middle class liberals, it is now considered perfectly normal for politicians, cops, judges, social workers and various other officials of the capitalist state to poke their noses into every area of people’s lives and attempt to regulate every aspect of individuals’ behaviour.  The old feminist motto that “the personal is political” – to which Marxists might say “yes and no” – has been turned into the empowerment of the state at the expense of the rest of us.  Indeed, while the PC industry is fond of using words like ‘empowerment’, the only people being empowered are the people running the state; the state has more power than at any time in NZ history to intrude into the lives of citizens, especially working class, Maori and Pacific Island citizens.

The proposed Code of Social Responsibility and the new ads from Income Support, calling on people to become informers for the state, are the latest example of this trend.[i]

PC, gender and sex

Whenever the middle class has been wracked by insecurity, this sooner or later is expressed, in part, in the field of sex.  In Victorian times, the middle class became hugely concerned about the supposedly immoral sex lives of the working class, who were seen as ill-educated, dissolute and potentially rebellious rabble.  The middle class seriously set about ‘moralising’ the working class.  This was done through both the agency of the state and various bodies of organised superstition such as the Salvation Army and Methodist and Presbyterian churches undertaking mission work in the proletariat.

Today such missionising includes politically correct codes of conduct in relation to sexual activity and relations between the sexes and various other codes to regulate the language and behaviour of the lower orders.

The activities of groups such as students associations, which set up ‘safety campaigns’ on campus – about the safest place in the whole country – need to be seen in this light and, on a broader level, as reflections of the fears and insecurities of the white middle class in a period in which their position in society is no longer assured.  Critical American feminist Katie Roiphe has noted, for instance, that fears about safety on US campuses have coincided with the changed social composition of universities.  Once totally white and middle class campuses have seen a small but rising roll of black and working class youth.  Safety concerns, she points out, are “part race prejudice and class prejudice”.

Roiphe, Rene Denfeld and some other critical feminists have also noted the way in which relations between the sexes have become a major field for PC intervention.  Right-on rules of conduct have gone so far that at one elite college in the US, sex cannot take place between males and females unless the male has got written permission at each stage of the proceedings.  In fact, sexual conduct codes are now common on campuses across America.  As Roiphe, Denfeld and others note, there is nothing at all progressive or liberating about this.  In fact, they argue, the reactionary implication of such codes is that men always want sex and women never do.  Under the guise of ‘protection’, women are being pushed back into the 1950s and early 1960s stereotypes as sheltered, fragile creatures in a dangerous world of male lust, the very stereotypes which the women’s liberation movement challenged and attempted to shatter.

Cultural invention and social control

In New Zealand, a particular emphasis of PC is in the sphere of race relations, perhaps the main area where white middle class liberals most fear social instability arising.  Here, under the rubric of ‘celebrating’ Maori culture, we have a series of cultural inventions essentially bound up with social control.  Indeed, one of the main functions of the bicultural industry is to police Maori youth who are at the bottom of NZ capitalist society.

PC professionals, for instance, operate a multitude of courses encouraging Maori youth to search out their whakapapa.  Such activities are specifically designed to keep Maori youth off the streets and in line, and therefore in no position to become a destabilising force within the society that is responsible for their oppression.

Alongside pakeha touchy-feely types, a small Maori middle class beholden to – and, in fact, sponsored by – the capitalist state is employed to divert the attention of Maori youth into harmless ‘cultural’ preoccupations and away from the problems of poverty, unemployment, lack of education, state repression and general social deprivation which blight the lives of much of the Maori population.

Since PC is part of the system and actually acts as a well-paid form of ideological cover-up for capitalism, the PC professionals are particularly disturbed about challenges to their activities.  Thus anyone who dares question what PC is about is charged with being ‘right wing’ or ‘racist’ or against the ‘empowerment’ of the ‘dispossessed’.  This, it is usually assumed, will be enough to intimidate anyone out of a radical critique and exposure of the function of political correctness.

The authoritarian and censorial side of political correctness has already intimidated those student nurses who have come after Anna Penn and thousands of young people in other courses in the educational system and related training fields.  Many young people are now afraid to have strong opinions about anything, least they offend someone.  A generation of youth are being trained in obedience and passivity and being scared out of thinking critically for themselves.


One of the mechanisms for the diversion of attention from the real problems of society is the focus on language, as if words in and of themselves ‘oppress’ people.  PC professionals are obsessed with language.  For middle class liberals injustice is not a product of real, material relations in society, but stems from ideas in people’s heads, ideas which are then translated into words.

In this view, racism and sexism are not seen as products of the way society is organised, and thus no fundamental social change is needed to bring about inequality; instead they are seen as the result of attitudes by individual pakeha, men, heterosexuals, etc.  If only people were nice to each other and used nice words, everything would be OK.  As a student union poster at Canterbury puts it, for example, “Homophobia hurts”.  This inane approach is more likely to encourage than discourage anti-gay bigots.

In reality, this is politics as social etiquette.  Like the snobs concerned with the positioning of cutlery and other table manners, PC professionals want people to mind their Ps and Qs and never mind the real causes of racial and sexual inequality.  (Interestingly, class inequality never seems to crop up.  The working class is generally seen as the source of all the most backward views in society and beyond PC redemption, a fact for which many workers might be grateful.)

While the politically correct social controllers police people’s thoughts and language, the material conditions of exploitation and oppression continue.  These conditions also ensure the reproduction of backward ideas in relation to all the oppressed sections of society.

PC and state power

In New Zealand, where liberals administer so much of the state apparatus, the nature of the state is particularly obscured.  Even much of the left tends to see the state as the agency of social change without even inquiring critically into just whose state it is and which class interests it represents.

Liberals and many on the left tend to talk about the ‘state’ as if it just is, in some amorphous, transhistorical way, and as if it can be utilised by anyone.  What is avoided is the specificity of the state in capitalist society.  It is not any old state: it is the capitalist state.  It is the key institution acting as guarantor of the overall interests of the capitalists as a class.  It guarantees the conditions necessary for capital accumulation to take place, including regulation of the workforce, the role of women in society, and stability across society as a whole.  It is not and never can be an institution for human liberation.  Indeed, pretty much the first insight needed by anyone serious about fighting for their emancipation is that the state is the key institution of capitalist society which they will have to confront in order to be free.

The path to human liberation is the path of conscious and collective self-emancipation by the working class and other oppressed sections of society.  As part of organising for our liberation, we need to clear the way of all obstacles.  Among the biggest obstacles at present are the professional moralists and middle-class do-gooders and social controllers who have, through the mechanisms of political correctness, empowered themselves and the capitalist state at our expense.

[i] The Code of Social Responsibility was the ‘big idea’ of the Shipley government after Jenny Shipley replaced Jim Bolger as prime minister.

See also: Race relations and social control

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