Sunday 30 March 2008

Survey of the Political Terrain

Commentary on RAM going nationwide by Eduard Bernstein Any general about to commit his forces must acquire an accurate picture of the ground over which he intends to fight. With elements of the Socialist Worker organisation readying themselves to conduct a nationwide election campaign, it’s important that all the obstacles to its political success be clearly identified. Foremost among these, at least from my perspective, is the rising level of popular dissatisfaction with all kinds of collectivism. After eight relatively prosperous years, New Zealanders appear increasingly anxious to protect, consolidate and, if possible, increase their store of personal wealth. This anxiety may take the form of an obsessive concern about the market value of their family home, or worries about the amount of tax being deducted from their pay packet, but what it adds up to is a growing impatience with all manner of social claims upon the individual citizen’s moral and material reserves. It’s this "I’m all right Jack, keep your hands off of my stack" mood that largely explains the success of John Key and the National Party in the public opinion polls. Key’s personal narrative: the boy who rose from a Christchurch state house to own a flash house in Parnell; matches perfectly the public's mood, and validates their hopes and aspirations for material gain. He is telling the voters: "to become rich is no crime" and promises to apply his personal talent for amassing wealth to the nation as a whole. This is, of course, extremely bad news for the Left. To succeed electorally, left-wing parties require a population which feels that it is being assailed by powerful forces over which individuals and families cannot hope to exert any decisive influence, and that only by joining together with others and acting collectively: in NGOs, trade unions, political parties, and, ultimately, through the agencies of the State itself; will those hostile forces be brought under popular control. The very worst situation the Left can face is one in which the individual feels that all of the entities mentioned above – NGOs, trade unions, political parties, agencies of the State – are conspiring to deny him the success that would, undoubtedly, be his – if only he was given a chance. When the predominant societal drives are to amass personal wealth and elevate one’s social status, the "Rich" are looked upon not as enemies – but as role models. This is true even among the poor – which in the New Zealand context means Maori, Pacific Islanders and recent immigrants without professional or trade qualifications. Acquiring money has always been the primary objective of the poor, and the means employed to get it is of significantly less importance than the fact of its possession. Lacking qualifications, the jobs offered to the poor are almost always highly exploitative and badly paid. Where trade unions are strong, this situation encourages organisation and resistance. But where unions are weak, or non-existent, it simply encourages the individual to view money-making as a necessarily brutal and unforgiving activity. Increasingly, earning a paltry income by legal means comes to be regarded as a mug's game. Unfortunately for all those Leftists who define criminals as essentially social victims and, therefore, potential recruits for the cause of Socialism, crime is a highly individualistic and fundamentally selfish activity. Even admission to collective criminal organisations – gangs – is determined by the individual criminal’s skill, daring and/or ruthlessness. Tender-hearted, weak and ineffectual persons need not apply. This is because the sole purpose of an organised criminal gang is to maximise the opportunities for making money. And the proceeds of criminal activity – far from being shared out equitably – are distributed according to strict hierarchical protocols. It is these profoundly individualistic and reactionary aspects of the criminal sub-culture which has, historically, made gangsters the natural allies of the Right – not the Left. All of which argues strongly against the launch of yet another Pakeha-led, left-wing political party – especially one whose primarily objective is the nationwide mobilisation of the ethnic poor. Such an organisation could not hope to compete for the Maori Vote against the already well-established Maori Party. And, against the deeply entrenched political and religious Pacific Island networks of the Labour Party, a new party would similarly struggle to gain a foothold. Reaching agreed left-wing positions on the social, economic, cultural and, most crucially, religious issues in New Zealand’s polyglot immigrant communities poses political challenges of almost insuperable complexity. There is a world of difference between attracting voter support in the loose political framework of local government elections, and winning electoral recognition at the national level. Partisan allegiances are much stronger in the context of parliamentary elections, and it is much more difficult to win acceptance as a viable political option. While it is certainly true that occasions arise in which a new political party is able to gain immediate political traction: one recalls Bob Jones’s New Zealand Party, Jim Anderton’s NewLabour Party and Winston Peters’ New Zealand First; the most common fate of newly formed political parties is electoral annihilation. And even when considering the above examples of successful party formation, two important caveats should be offered. The first is that in each of the three cases cited, the principal political actor was a nationally known figure with considerable financial resources (either private or public) at his disposal. The second is that the NZ Party, NewLabour and NZ First were all what might be called creatures of the zeitgeist: parties conjured out of long-standing and deep-seated public dissatisfaction with the dominant political ideas and institutions of the day. In 2008, when the zeitgeist is all about protecting what one has got from the clutches of an "unrepresentative" minority of "politically correct" collectivists, such a party is most unlikely to emerge from the Left. The other obvious impediment to taking the Residents Action Movement to the national level is its woeful lack of experience. A limited amount of expertise in the conduct of election campaigns has clearly been acquired by a small core of RAM activists since the group entered electoral politics in 2004. However, compared to the organisational horsepower of the established parties, RAM’s political machine is dangerously under-powered – even in its Auckland base. Outside of Auckland, even this rudimentary machinery is lacking. Unlike both NewLabour and NZ First, most of whose members were drawn from the Labour and National parties respectively, RAM lacks a nationwide cadre of experienced election organisers. And, unlike the NZ Party, it does not have a millionaire founder to hire the professional expertise it lacks – not unless Grant Morgan has secretly won Lotto! Any attempt by RAM to break into the national political scene will, therefore, almost certainly end in failure. Thousands of person hours, and tens-of-thousands of dollars, will be expended for what, when all the votes have been counted, is likely to be a tally well short of one percent of the Party Vote. Not only will this outcome prove profoundly demoralising for those candidates/activists who participated in the election campaign, but it will also constitute a significant opportunity cost for the Left as a whole – and for the Far Left in particular. The history of New Zealand elections is studded with examples of Far-Left groups who put their policies to the democratic test and were aggressively rebuffed by the electorate. The consequences of these repeated rejections have been very damaging in at least two important respects. First: the derisory election results powerfully reinforced the entrenched Centre-Left belief that Far-Left parties have no genuine constituency of any size among the New Zealand population. Centre-Leftists were, therefore, further encouraged to write-off "revolutionary" political aspirants as Quixotic – at best, or dangerous nutcases – at worst. Second: among the revolutionaries themselves, poor election results powerfully reinforced the argument that the "masses" were suffering from "false consciousness". They – the "Genuine Left" – had seen the issues all-too-clearly, but, up against the lies of the news media, the schools and universities, and the "treacherous mis-leaders of the working-class" the "truth" was unable gain a hearing. This self-pitying attitude only served to widen the distance between the Far- and Centre-Left, and the electorate as a whole. What then is to be done? Apart from re-reading Lenin’s formidable primer – written for a party which was also languishing on the wrong side of the zeitgeist – I would strongly recommend The Integration of Theory and Practice: A Program for the New Traditionalist Movement, a 12-page paper written by the conservative activist and Christian fundamentalist, Eric Heubeck, in 2001. (Just type "Eric Heubeck" into Google.) This is a masterly (if somewhat chilling) essay on the politics of influence and ideological mobilisation. The techniques Heubeck advocates are mostly borrowed from Lenin and Gramsci, and IMHO it is high time the Left borrowed them back.

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