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: chris trotter, diversity, lgbti, new left direction, precariat, working class
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.