Written By: - Date published: 1:17 pm, July 24th, 2018 - 78 comments
Categories: capitalism, class war, Deep stuff, Economy, greens, labour, Left, liberalism, national, nz first, political parties, Politics, social democracy - Tags: capitalism, liberalism, Social Democracy
Throw out the name of a political party, and almost subconsciously, anyone with an interest in politics will immediately brand the party as either “left wing” or “right wing”. That would be fine if any given point on capitalism’s political spectrum was a point on a singular continuum. So, for example, if the entire political spectrum was simply shades of liberalism, then it could be useful enough to refer to a “right” and a “left”. And if the entire political spectrum was simply shades of social democracy, then again, a simple dichotomous labeling system of “left” and “right” would allow people to orientate where any political party stood in relation to any other. But politics within a capitalist context are comprised from a mix of two entwined but contending strands of political thought/theory, and one or the other tends to dominate at different points in time in such a way as to alter politics at a fairly fundamental level.
Up until the 70’s, and across the western world, the policies generally pursued by political parties were regarded as being social democratic in nature. In that setting, to refer to “left wing” was to point to a party that was more statist in nature than “right wing” parties. In short, “left wing” parties wanted to push social democracy further along statist lines while “right wing” parties wanted to hold back that trajectory.
Since the 1970s and the resurgence of liberal priorities (often enough referred to as “neo-liberalism”), the direction of travel for parliamentary politics has been towards greater market freedoms – the precise opposite direction of travel than that taken by social democracy. And the traditional labeling from the social democratic period of capitalist politics doesn’t transcribe to that change in environment very well – if at all.
Whereas it was Tory or National Parties that were conservative and seeking to dampen or hold back the push towards greater levels of statism during the period of social democracy, it is now the Labour Parties (for the most part) that play the conservative role of merely resisting or slowing the liberal or market orientated direction of travel that politics have taken (ie – since ‘84 in New Zealand and since the 70s elsewhere).
And that change in the respective positioning of political parties occasioned by the shift in the political ground from social democratic to liberal, can’t be adequately described or captured by reference to “right wing” and “left wing”.
To illustrate, using only the terms “left” and “right”, where would you say NZ First today sits in relation to the NZ Labour Party of 1973 – and/or 1984 – and/or 2018?
And where would the NZ Labour Party of those years sit in relation, each to the other?
Or where does the NZ Labour of 2018 sit in relation to Muldoon’s National Party of 1982?
Which of these things are more to “the left”, and which are more to “the right”? It’s not so easy to maintain a coherent picture of NZ’s political landscape through time using only designations of “left” and “right”. And that’s before throwing the likes of The Green Party into the mix.
I’d argue that we can only begin to make sense of political positions like those above, when we acknowledge that two entwined strands of politics (social democratic and liberal) always constitute politics under capitalism, and when we acknowledge the resulting change in what “conservative” means, depending on which one is more evident,
“Yesterday’s” NZ Labour Party (ie- pre 1984) was social democratic and pushing change in a statist direction. Today’s NZ Labour Party is liberal and merely resisting the trajectory of liberalism – ie, it’s conservative.
If NZ Labour had a social democratic platform (for example, like UK Labour with Corbyn as leader), then maybe using the term “left” could make sense insofar as the party had the belief that a socialist end point could be arrived at via the social democratic policies and settings that it was looking to pursue in spite of liberalism dominating the political environment. But that belief (that socialism can be arrived at by social democracy), contentious as it was, isn’t one that NZ Labour harbours. The NZ Labour Party has become – maybe irredeemably – conservatively liberal, as arguably evinced with its penchant for free trade deals, fiscal responsibility, private partnerships and an “independent” reserve bank. (As an aside – well, it’s not really an aside, it’s why I’ve used the term “irredeemably” above – how’s that demand for the properly empowered democratic participation of Labour Party members coming along…?)
If the idea of “left” is to have any currency or meaning at all in NZ mainstream or parliamentary political thought, then that “great leap backwards” to liberal policies and liberal macro economic settings that took place in ‘84 must be walked back and a social democratic or statist path taken in its stead.
Obviously, that’s not something that will just happen because people want it to happen, as a quick glance at the multiple resistances to Jeremy Corbyn and UK Labour’s attempt to return to social democratic roots shows. And the mere enactment of social democratic agendas definitely isn’t a panacea for the troubles NZ faces as a society, or for the problems facing humanity at the global or planetary level. But it is a damned sight better for a lot of people at the level of personal circumstance than anything liberalism can offer, and it encapsulates more potential hope for prospects at that planetary level than can ever be wrung from liberalism.
We need huge, perhaps unprecedented levels of change across multiple facets of our lives to happen very fast. Leaving the starting blocks would be a start in us ‘getting up to speed’. But before that, recognising the starting blocks, and positioning ourselves within them might be useful too. Lazily saying that something is “left” on the grounds that we’ve always said that thing is “left”, and then going home to put our feet up because “it’s all getting taken care of”… well, it isn’t getting us into position, is it?