In 1989 the Berlin Wall collapsed. Instead of this ushering in a period of vigorous growth for the left, the energies of the visible left in Western Europe and elsewhere dissipated. Not for the left to celebrate with people who had newly freed themselves from the chains of state oppression. Not for the left to help forge a leftist reality that rejected both market and state forms of authoritarianism. No. See, it transpired that many on the left were apologists for the tyrannies of Eastern Europe. And so their memberships and organisational efficacy collapsed in concert with the collapsing of the East’s political dictatorships and command economies.
In line with the collapse of the extra-parliamentary left, the representative left in Social Democracies reacted to the apparent crisis of ideology by jettisoing all leftist pretensions. And so, just as a financial crisis had allowed the Labour Party in New Zealand to be hi-jacked and used to inflict Rogernomics, the more widespread crisis of leftist ideologies in the late 80’s was the trigger for the adoption and development of so-called ‘third way’ policies and a general unleashing of neo-liberal reforms.
With the wholesale abandoning of the left by the left, and subsequent aggressive attempts to discredit all aspects of leftist thought, avenues for genuine leftist aspirations were choked. Of course, the sentiments that had led to the development of much leftist thought in the first place didn’t just go away. But there was no articulation for those sentiments.
And 20 odd years on, we are being told that “British people are more Thatcherite than when Margaret Thatcher was in power. Thus claims a Guardian headline in reaction to the ‘British Social Attitudes Survey’ that’s published by the National Centre for Social Research. (The raw data can be downloaded from here.)
A casual observer might conclude that this represents a natural ( if unfortunate) evolution in attitudes, and that British people are all ‘rationally optimising economic units’ now, who don’t believe in society and who, further more, embrace ‘individualism’. And insofar as it is reasonable to assume that British attitudes aren’t too far removed from NZ attitudes, that same observer might conclude that the NZ public has grown up and progressed to the point that we too embrace the wisdoms of neo-liberalism.
But something very obvious is not mentioned in the news pieces written off the back of the survey. There is no consideration given to the impact of 20 odd years of incessant and unchallenged propaganda claiming that There Is No Alternative to neo-liberalism. It has taken an enormous propaganda effort to impact on attitudes. But that impact is by no means total. And certainly not deep rooted. Even after 20 odd years, there remain revealing contradictions in the attitudes people hold.
According to the survey, only 27% (58% in 1991) of people think that benefit levels are too low. And this is in spite of benefit cuts over recent years. And only 36% (51% in 1989) of people think the government should implement measures to distribute wealth more evenly.
But sitting alongside these figures there are other, contradictory ones. These contradictory figures pertain to matters that any neo-liberal propaganda model has to be more or less silent on. The model can’t really spin an acceptable line to rationalise a minority of people getting ever higher incomes in relation to the majority. And the model can’t spin an acceptable line on the working poor.
So, in these areas of silence – these gaps in the propaganda – we find that 78% of people think that poor/rich income gaps are too wide and that 54% of people support increasing the minimum wage. That’s worth spelling out. 54% of people support a government initiative to redistribute wealth through increasing the minimum wage when only 36% of people think that a government should redistribute wealth!
Here’s how the Guardian presented it.
In 1991, well over half (58%) thought the government should spend more money on benefits: this has halved to only a quarter (27%) by 2009
• The public also has concerns about redistributing income from the better off to the less well off; only one third (36%) think the state should do this, down from a half (51%) in 1989
• But 78% think the gap between those with high and a low income is too large, up from 73% in 2004. More than half (54%) now support an increase in the minimum wage.
This apparent disconnect in our attitudes is where the opportunities for the left reside. If the left articulates alternative visions stemming from these fundamental and persistent attitudes, then the left will find fertile ground to grow support for genuine left programmes. The neo-liberal propaganda model has no re-joiner to a political articulation of our natural predispositions. None.
To clarify what I’m saying here, consider the impact of targeted propaganda in relation to attitudes towards war. Most people are against war. But opinions and attitudes can be shaped to support specific wars or deem certain war efforts acceptable. It’s a wood and trees scenario. If you are maintaining an anti-war stance in the face of war propaganda, you place the specific propaganda effort in the wider moral or historical context of war.
But on neo-liberalism, it seems that much of the the left has mistaken the narrowly defined and manufactured attitudes on specific isues (such as those highlighted in the survey) for the whole picture. And as such, much of the left renders itself impotent. Arguably, the current parliamentary left is ‘too gone on it’ to see the wood for the trees. And as a result it competes to be tougher on criminals in lieu of debating and tackling the underlying causes of crime. Or it favours employers over genuinely struggling beneficiaries who propaganda demonises (e.g. working for families abandoned the children of the unemployed and essentially created an employer subsidy and a downward pressure on wage levels). And ultimately, the parliamentary left unwittingly aids and abets the parliamentary ‘right’ in marginalising and silencing the natural support base of the left and any natural opposition to neo-liberalism.
I’m being kind here. I’m assuming for the sake of argument that the parliamentary left has forgone it’s enchantment with neo-liberalism.
If that is so, then the time has passed for those on the parliamentary left to get their heads around the limited and misleading reality of focus groups and surveys. They merely reflect back the shallow efficacy of propaganda on specific issues.
But we operate from a different space than the one created by survey responses. Our every day actions and behaviours are determined by far deeper and more persistent undercurrents of decency and morality. And those undercurrents not only often contradict, but will outlive any fashionable attitudes that are shaped by any propaganda effort. It’s time to see the big picture and inject a little context into politics. The basic sentiments and moral imperatives that we hold in common, and that have previously provided the building blocks for leftist thoughts and ideologies, haven’t gone away. Thankfully, the previous flawed articulations of our shared moral imperatives and sympathies that the left pushed and that stupidly and covertly endorsed state oppression have been silenced. But 20 odd years is a long enough pause to reflect on previous shortcomings. Time to once more articulate visions that resonate with commonly held core sentiments. Such undertakings would cripple the ongoing efforts of neo-liberal propaganda and reverse its gains of the past few decades.
For the parliamentary left, at the very least, it’s time to jump away from the amoral, astro-turf territories that have been laid down by the neo-liberals. Nobody lives there.