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The disconnected: the future of the left?

Written By: - Date published: 12:30 pm, April 18th, 2013 - 42 comments
Categories: class, class war, climate change, community democracy, democratic participation, feminism, greens, labour, Left, socialism, sustainability, Unions, welfare - Tags: , , , , ,

Many of us have long been arguing that there is a need for a new left direction:  one in which “left wing” parties, like Labour and the Greens, turn away from soft neoliberalism, and re-connect with those on low incomes who have become disenfranchised by the biggest parties scrambling after the middle class vote. This needs to be a truly new direction, not the faux new direction promised at the end of last year.

The left needs to work for a fair society, and one that works for the weakest members of society, regardless of gender, sexuality, marital status, culture or “race”.  Furthermore the left needs to create policies that respond to the challenges that are being recognised in the 21st century: climate change, resource scarcity, increasing population, changes to the employment and work structure, and the increasing importance of a real social security system. For me the future direction cannot be a return to a heteronormative, male dominated left.

This week Chris Trotter has also written (yet another) significant post on the issue; ‘From Backstage to Centre stage: Making the Working Class Matter’.  He begins by setting the context, and giving urgency to the need for a revitalised trade union movement:

ONE DAY SOON, the National Party’s hatred of the poor is going to exceed the bounds of political acceptability. On that day, the long, slow, rightward swing of the electoral pendulum, which began with Don Brash’s toppling of Bill English in October 2003, will stop and reverse direction. Whether the leftward swing lasts for ten years or just two will depend on how far towards the centre of our political and cultural stages the next, Labour-Green, government is prepared to let working-class New Zealanders advance.

The first big test will be whether or not the new government’s is willing to revivify the trade union movement.

Trotter locates the destruction of the trade unions as being at the heart of the “entire neoliberal project“.  Trotter rightly argues for the need to work towards a Labour-Green government that shifts the language from a focus on “choice” to a focus on “need“; of a shift from:

… containment and supervision, punishment and control, …[to] wealth redistribution and the re-prioritisation of resource allocation.

Trotter’s central focus is on the “working class“, even though he recognises the need to re-focus on the changed 21st century context and its new insecurities.  He says:

The most obvious change would be the complete marginalisation of those social forces with an interest in demonising and/or infantilising working-class people. The framing of issues relating to working people’s lives would cease to reflect the fears, fantasies, prejudices and interests of their middle-class managers and upper-class employers, and would, instead, begin portraying working-people as the heroically practical managers of living conditions defined by employment insecurity and material scarcity.

Others are now using a new term, the “precariat” to describe the new conditions experienced by the most insecure of low income people.  In 2011, Guy Standing argued in The Guardian,

For the first time, the mainstream left in Britain and Europe has no progressive agenda. It has forgotten a basic principle. Every progressive movement has been built on the anger, needs and aspirations of the emerging major class. Today that is the precariat.

Standing goes on to define the unique characteristics of the precariat; a class in the making, which, by it’s very circumstances of vulnerability and constant change, has no obvious basis for achieving solidarity, other than their shared vulnerability:

 It consists not just of everybody in insecure jobs – though many are temps, part-timers, in call centres or in outsourced arrangements. The precariat consists of those who feel their lives and identities are made up of disjointed bits, in which they cannot construct a desirable narrative or build a career, combining forms of work and labour, play and leisure in a sustainable way.

Because of flexible labour markets, the precariat cannot draw on a social memory, a feeling of belonging to a community of pride, status, ethics and solidarity. Everything is fleeting.

Standing ends by a call for a reworking of progressive origins, through a,

… reinvention of the progressive trinity of equality, liberty and fraternity. A politics of paradise will be built on respect for principles of economic security and all forms of work and leisure, rather than the dour labourism of industrial society. The precariat understands that, and politicians on the left should listen.

This looks promising.  However, “equality” and “liberty” have always pulled in different directions: “equality” towards solidarity and “liberty” towards individualism.  And the concept of “fraternity” arose out of a very patriarchal society.

A new direction, founded on principles of “need”, social justice, and inclusiveness, should not jettison the needs of women, LGBTI people, diverse cultures, the working poor, and especially not the precariat.  A new left direction should focus on collective organisation at work and in the community. Can unions still provide the heart for the left in the 21st century?.

A new direction needs to be forged, but it requires close attention to diverse 21st century elements, some of which seem to be in conflict.

h/t BLip, for raising an important issue, even though we have disagreed.

42 comments on “The disconnected: the future of the left?”

  1. Raymond a Francis 1

    Talk is cheap, we need action

    • karol 1.1

      Action based on lack of a clear direction can be counter-productive. The tendency is to carry on doing similar things that were done before.

      • Colonial Viper 1.1.1

        That might be true if strong left wing solutions have not already been fully described and thrashed out. At this stage, getting stuck in and enacting change is what is required. Not calling for more multi-coloured papers

  2. prism 2

    I’ve just been reading a British paper on the Reform of government. I took a copy of a piece that has the effrontery to make opinionated statements about the positives of reform without any allowance for the reality likely to ensue.. The piece contains promises that are empty, just based on wishful thinking. not facts.

    This approach has got to stop if we are to have a left government that operates with fairness as well as efficiency and is responsive to the people and their needs for a societal framework that allows an enjoyable life with a work-life balance.

    This is the statement and I have accentuated questionable words:

    In fact, reform will be positive for the public sector workforce. The current model traps public sector workers in low productivity employment. Reforming the front line will increase productivity and allow sustainable higher wages in the long term.

  3. Bill 3

    If industrialism (features dictated by either a market or state) holds center stage, then unions could possibly be a heart of a left movement. But. Given that climate change and market/state industrialism just won’t mix, I have to suggest that unions will go down with the ship of industrialism. And that’s no bad thing as their trajectory based on institutional memory would have us trapped in the role of ‘worker’. And that is not something that we need. In fact, it’s the last thing we need.

    Meanwhile, the numbers who will count as being a part of the precariat are set to swell as Capitalism moves to shrink over-all market participation, whilst similtaneously seeking to retain the dominance of the market in human affairs. The question then becomes one of whether we, the precariat in the making, are going to seek to hang on after some fashion or other or whether we will strike out in a new direction that dismisses market and/or state dominance of our economic affairs.

    I’m not holding my breath. We’re sunk deep in ideas of worth that are attached to market activities. So in the face of the clear and present danger of climate change, we will, like the monkey that has it’s fist clenched around bait that was placed through a hole in an anchored coconut shell, be incapable of intelligent action; of letting the goodies go in order to extract our hand and possibly escape the danger that is closing on us. In the monkey’s case, hunters and their clubs, in ours, climate change.

    • ghostrider888 3.1

      I like your realism Bill;
      two ideas karol, well three actually;
      1, you are a better writer / composer than Chris Trotter any day of the week; he runs, hot and cold imo, and how he expects to reach the “worker” through his classicist obscurities ;)…?

      2, atomization, to further that meme some commentor provided, is well under way.

      3, NEED is an excellent construct of focus; been saying for a while, choice and all that jazz, just aint cutting the mustard in a world of challenged resources; personally, as the RWNJ allude to frequently, this proliferation of “issues” likely keeps the elite / upper middle classes rubbing their sticky-bun hands with glee. ching-ching.(spare us the Chinaman idiom Chris).

    • karol 3.2

      I do think there needs to be a shift away form the heart of the left being in the workplace, but not totally. Trade unions have well established ways of organising and operating. I think that can be used as the basis for future directions, but also coupled with community-based democracy.

      We also already have a system (of sorts) for localised democracy in Local councils. Of course, at the moment the NAct government is trying to undermine them and take control.

      We need a reworks the local system of elected councils, resulting in a stronger engagement with the local precariat. For this to happen, the funding arrangement via rates needs to be looked at. At the moment, even though renters indirectly pay rates, the rate-payers are seen to trump the precariat and others on low incomes.

      So – I suggest co-ordination between local councils and trade unions in reforming themselves.

      • Malcolm 3.2.1

        The precariat is still part of the working class though. It isn’t a new class, it has the same relation to the means of production as the rest of the class with more stable working conditions. The working class has been made and remade (composed and recomposed) through several cycles of capital accumulation since the 19th century. Precariousness is being imposed more and more on the working class in the West after the successful neoliberal assault on organised labour over the last 40 years. This assault was necessary because capitalism was stagnating, profit rates were dropping off. The capitalist class had to dismantle the class compromise of rising real wages/social wage for rising productivity in the workplace deal which entailed organised labour’s surrender of control over the direct labour process.

        The union movement has proved itself incapable of fighting back against this attack being more or less integrated into the capitalist state, thoroughly wedded to the decaying remnants of postwar social democratic parties and an untenable productivist outlook (as Bill says we desperately need to exit from the present production-for-production’s-sake kind of society but to do this requires revolutionary change. We can’t do this just by rejecting a label. The capitalist class won’t relinquish power just because we stop thinking of ourselves as ‘workers’!). New forms of working class struggle must be found to recompose the working class and successfully challenge capital. The union form must be superceded but it is impossible to prescribe how this will be done. The struggle precedes it’s formalisation/theorisation.

      • Richard D 3.2.2

        Relying on Unions to play any important part in what you advocate limits the chances of success. Unions have developed a single focus culture of the only good there is is whats best for there members, far to closer a paralell to the capitalists self is more deserved than others. New direction needs new focus and structures on equal footings, Unions will only drag through old attitudes and actions which for a time worked for the benefit of the few, to selfish and antagonist to take forwards as a foundation block for a more equal society. I think Chris Trotter and those that concur need to reflect further on Unions, of course they may just want them for the early cannon fodder in the revolution, if so fair enough not to outline that point.

    • Ennui 3.3

      Good work Bill, somebodies awake to the changing paradigm. Soon left and right will meld into one desperate search for context: real need will be everywhere.

  4. King Kong 4

    Its the $64,000 question. How do you show the losers that you are just like them?

  5. Sosoo 5

    A new direction, founded on principles of “need”, social justice, and inclusiveness, should not jettison the needs of women, LGBTI people, diverse cultures, the working poor, and especially not the precariat.

    Then we’re doomed. A new left movement doesn’t need to jettison these, but it does need to put identity politics on the back burner and economics to the fore. Identity politics is not a form of opposition to rampant capitalism. If anything, it reinforces it (the reasons for this are obvious, but I don’t have the time to go into them here). If you don’t believe me, look at how many National MPs were prepared to vote for gay marriage. If you want to really empower people, do something about poverty and inequality. Poor gay people get ignored because they’re poor, not because they’re gay.

    What Trotter and the rest of the New Zealand left lack is a coherent defence of the welfare state in economic terms. It’s really not that hard to do. By insisting on arguing from the mushier terrain of ethics, the left has ceded the theoretical high ground to the right when it comes to economics. Part of this is that many left activists still hold fallacious and half baked economic views (and there are an awful lot of such people posting on this blog).

    We have the welfare state because market failure is endemic. In fact it’s far more endemic than people customarily think. Making people aware of this is a good start.

    • karol 5.1

      Actually, in a system based on need, different groups of people will have different needs; economic and social. For instance, the old male dominated labour movement had to be pushed over a long period to recognise that some women workers have specific needs (e.g. paid parental leave). And in the emerging precariat, many single mothers are struggling.

      It’s “neoliberalism” that has undermined gender and sexual politics by using the dismissive, market-based term “identity politics.

      sosoo: Poor gay people get ignored because they’re poor, not because they’re gay

      Actually some LGBTI people become poor because they are discriminated against. This is especially true of young people who are disowned by their families because of their sexuality or gender identity.

      Also people with disabilities or long term injuries have specific needs, as do the very young and the very elderly.

      Economics is not just a matter of money, but of the relationship of finance with with society and community arrangements. T’is a capitalist (and “neoliberal”) thing to focus on economics separated from society and communities.

      • Colonial Viper 5.1.1

        I have a basic litmus test. If you are not confronting banksters, fund managers, property magnates, big business owners and corporate CEOs head on…you’re doing it wrong.

        This is why Labour can get all the social/gender liberalising legislation through that it wants. Because it does nothing to affect the interests of the the capitalists.

        My personal experience of this was a run in with wealthy gay couple. Who were pricks. And who made it very clear to me that they thought Labour stood for losers and money sucking bludgers and that the business sense of John Key and Bill English was the only sensible way forward for NZ.

        Actually some LGBTI people become poor because they are discriminated against. This is especially true of young people who are disowned by their families because of their sexuality or gender identity.

        This is, on the whole, not a legislative problem, and young people are disowned by their families for a large number of reasons but we don’t try and pretend that changing laws is a critical solution for that.

        • karol

          Well one couple isn’t the best indicator of the needs of a section of the population.

          I have no time for the likes of Collins praising Thatcher as a feminist icon, either. But there is still a significant need for paid parental leave, particularly for mothers, and for some men.

          The suicide statistics show young LGBTI people are particularly vulnerable. The provisions required to counter such needs may or may not require law changes. Changes to community support and available counselling services, changes to the education curriculum, etc.

          And, as far as women go, the whole abortion situation needs sorting out.

          And other demographic groups have particular needs: the young, the elderly, the disabled, the injured, immigrants…. and especially if they are also on low incomes.

          If the focus is on need, and collective initiatives, at work (unions), in the community, etc could be part of identifying needs and how they can be provided for.

    • ghostrider888 5.2

      makes Excellent reading. ssshh though, get ya fingers burnt disparaging identities around here. Yes, it is market-domestic consumption-economics that is killing the workers and the poor; ironically, an author over at TDB labelled Bridges a “chardonnay socialist” in disguise (alright if the drop is under $10).

      • karol 5.2.1

        Heh – ssshh though, get ya fingers burnt disparaging identities around here.

        But it also works the other way – mention of gender and sexual politics results in some highly critical comments. Ditto for the politics of ‘race’ and/or ethnicity.

        • ghostrider888

          well, thank the Good Lord that we do not all think like k_p. (beginning to wonder if they are some sort of bot-app.

        • Colonial Viper

          as long as the progressive changes you want don’t challange existing capitalist interests and institutions, you will be allowed to push through the changes you desire.

          • karol

            There are plenty of changes required in response to the needs of, for instance, women, Maori, the young precariat (including many young LGBTI people with particular needs), various ethnic groups, single mothers. Most of these are needs that the current government is either ignoring or increasing; women’s refuges are being starved of funds, the needs of young Maori and Pasifika are not being fully met in the education or training systems; the abortion laws need reforming; women do a lot of the lower paid, insecure work…. and more

            Some of the needs, for instance for the likes of LGBTI youth, do not need specific changes targeting them. They do need some sensitive consideration within the changes required for larger sections of the community.

            • Colonial Viper

              karol, those are all important priorities. And you’re only ever going to be able to get a small fraction of the resources needed for them, if existing capital interests and institutions are not challenged.

              One alternative is to not challenge them, and spend the monies on those social priorities anyway, funding it from ever increasing deficits while waiting endlessly for growth to come back.

              • karol

                CV: And you’re only ever going to be able to get a small fraction of the resources needed for them, if existing capital interests and institutions are not challenged.

                Yes, indeed. And I will always push for the latter. But challenging existing capital interests and institutions solely, does not ensure any of those social priorities will be tackled. It requires an approach that includes both.

  6. Draco T Bastard 6

    However, “equality” and “liberty” have always pulled in different directions:

    I disagree. Equality and solidarity actually allows people to be more individual and have more liberty because they’re supported within the community. It’s the breaking of community through Individualism that parties such as Act and National propagate that leads to a lack of individuality and liberty as everyone is forced to be what the minority at the top want them to be.

    • karol 6.1

      Well, I think that the US put more emphasis on the liberty and individualism, while European countries tended to focus more on the égalité & fraternité. The push for more individualism through the 1980s and 90s came from the US, with Britain trying to follow more of a US model, and to influence other European countries in that direction too.

      The trick is to devise a system that ensures liberty within a supportive community over the long term.

      • Colonial Viper 6.1.1

        Nah I’d stop using the word “liberty” as it’s a bullshit American conceptualisation, of what I don’t know, with no historical or current relevance in NZ.

        BTW the neoliberal concept of “free choice” deliberately leveraged traditional US values of “liberty” for the neolibs own ends.

  7. BLiP 7

    Nice one, karol. Wise words are wise.

  8. pollywog 8

    The precariat isnt a class, its a generation.

    And they will revolt against classism.

    The trick for the left is to mobilise them to vote by engaging them on line.

  9. Zeroque 9

    Thought I’d share with you a few thoughts re where the TU movement is right now, whether it’s still relevant and whether it should be somehow bolstered by government. Apart from the public sector (teachers, nurses public servants, etc) trade union membership is almost non-existent. Unions are in a precarious state in the private sector and I fear for their survival even in the short term, yet remarkably they seem to continue to advocate above their numbers.

    Unions don’t have a monopoly on the role of advocating for working people but it seems to me that they are the most effective and enduring organisations to do this task. I cannot think of other groups that consistently and reliably focus on the issues faced by people working for salaries and wages. Certainly none of the current political parties get remotely close.

    It seems to me that there’s more poverty and social inequity present than there was 20 years ago and I think that part of the reason for this is because trade union influence in wage and condition setting was, essentially, legislated away. Unions have a role in ensuring that as many people as possible are in work, work that pays a decent wage and is satisfying and that is useful to society and that allows sufficient time away from work to participate in family and social activities as opposed to simply providing labour to enrich the owners of capital.

    I think if we want a more equal society then we should have governments that allow workers to freely collectivise and don’t discourage collective bargaining. It looks like this government is going to have another go at workers soon with changes to the Employment Relations Act which will make collectively bargaining, amongst other things, difficult for workers.

    I find it hard to identify any current NZ political party genuinely and overtly placing the need for strong workers organisations in front of the NZ public. I felt that last time labour were Govt as well. .

    My message to the parties is that they alone are not trusted nor expected to provide a brighter future for workers and that workers themselves will want the choice to do this through collectivising.

    • Bill 9.1

      Unions have a role in ensuring that as many people as possible are in work [jobs]…

      This is true…they do. And that’s why unions are a part of the problem. What they should be ensuring is that people can disengage from jobs, stop contributng to a disastrous rise of carbon and have an opportunity to realise a fuller, non-market/industrial human potential. Not going to happen though….as you say, they have their role. And, unfortunately, it’s a detrimental one.

  10. Augustus 10

    And the concept of “fraternity” arose out of a very patriarchal society.

    Fraternite does not imply that sisters should not be considered, although I guess its literal translation could make you suspect that. IMO it means to have a stake in your fellow humans’ well being and gives you an obligation to act accordingly. It’s as vital as liberte and egalite and a link between them.

    Solidarity is a form of fraternite, but doesn’t go as far. Don’t let an archaic term put you off an ideal.

    • karol 10.1

      Thanks, Augustus. I’m not put off that wider ideal at all.

      There was a term on English-speaking left – “brotherhood”. Such terms are also reminders that the left began as something pretty male-dominated. It took a long struggle for women to find a significant presence on the left. And with a more inclusive movement (culturally as well as gender wise), came some shifts in perspective, arising from more diverse life experiences.

      The left of the future needs to be sensitive to that.

  11. RedLogix 11

    And especially good to see karol reference Chris Trotter so strongly. For many years he was rather unfashionable around The Standard.

    Now Chris is not a paragon. He’s got his foibles and blind-spots like we all do, but I’ve always admired the clarity of his voice, the steadfastness of his moral compass … and the fact that he can write the arse of anyone else on the left in this country even on a bad day.

  12. geoff 12

    Form a party based around The Standard. It’s the most inclusive and most analytical left forum in NZ. Some of the ideas that get thrown around here are far better than many of the ‘Labour’ policies and would resonate much more strongly with the largely destitute NZ population.
    Labour’s problem is that its caucus can’t develop real left policy because that would upset their Chardonnay socialist sensibilities (and probably their rental property portfolios, their stock-market portfolios and their family trusts)

    • Draco T Bastard 12.1

      Labour’s problem is that its caucus can’t develop real left policy because that would upset their Chardonnay socialist sensibilities (and probably their rental property portfolios, their stock-market portfolios and their family trusts)


      People have a difficult time dropping flawed ideology even after it’s been conclusively proved wrong.

      • geoff 12.1.1

        People have a difficult time dropping flawed ideology even after it’s been conclusively proved wrong.

        And when they are benefiting from it.

  13. karol 13

    And it’s worth watching last night’s Citizen A, with Julie Fairey and Maramar Davidson, to see some of the ways gender and sexual politics fit into left wing politics.

  14. RedBat 14

    Or, to rewrite Trotter…

    “A few elections ago, Labours hatred of the rich exceeded the bounds of political acceptability…

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