While it might sometimes appear that the Drinking Liberally political project has been hijacked in New Zealand by the Labour and Green parties for their own partisan purposes, it doesn’t have to be that way. In Dunedin we’re lucky enough to be starting our branch of the project (Tuesday 7pm, Velvet Underground), and hopefully we can be sure not to let its potential be siphoned off by politicians for their blatant permanent electioneering. If the project is to survive as a credible and useful project for the left, it needs to be protected from such partisan abuse and top down elitist speech making from MPs and party hacks. After all the Drinking Liberally project imported from the US is a potentially exciting development for politics in New Zealand – or at least for the small politerrati involved in activism, blogging, etc – as well as also for the search for new ways of ‘doing politics’. Yet there are a number of significant problems with the project – many relating to the highly contested definition of the term ‘liberal’. [Read more below]
The contested definition of ‘liberalism’
The term ‘liberal’ must be one of the most useless and confusing words currently in use in politics in New Zealand (and elsewhere). When it’s combined with other words it can convey a more precise meaning: neoliberal, socially liberal, classically liberal, economically liberal, etc. But by itself it is vague, sometimes contradictory, and leads to a confused understanding of politics.
The Drinking Liberally project is actually a North American one, which like so many other political ideologies, tactics, and slogans has been imported here willy nilly, without much concern for local conditions. The late Bruce Jesson would have had a field day with Drinking Liberally and it’s implicit cultural cringe and how it represents a modern New Zealand left that imports all its ideas and doctrines from abroad. And so the main problem is that the term liberal in the moniker Drinking Liberally has quite a different meaning to that of other Anglo-Saxon countries like New Zealand. Wikipedia nicely sums up the variety of ‘liberalisms’ in different parts of the world:
Today the word "liberalism" is used differently in different countries. (See Liberalism worldwide.) One of the greatest contrasts is between the usage in the United States and usage in the rest of the world, most sharply in Continental Europe. In the US, liberalism is usually understood to refer to modern liberalism, as contrasted with conservatism. American liberals endorse regulation for business, a limited social welfare state, and support broad racial, ethnic, sexual and religious tolerance, and thus more readily embrace Pluralism, and affirmative action. In Europe, on the other hand, liberalism is characterized by beliefs in free trade and limited government; it is not only contrasted with conservatism and Christian Democracy, but also with socialism and social democracy.
Likewise, the section on Liberalism in New Zealand points out the contested usage here:
So this raises questions about who Drinking Liberally is for. Are market liberals welcome? Are social liberals of the right welcome? Will politicians from Australia’s Liberal Party across the ditch be invited to address sessions? (Hopefully not). Although I do note that in the US, apparently, ‘Democrats, Republicans and Libertarians sometimes attend meetings’.
(I also note that there are some out there in the blogosphere who object to my use of the term neoliberalism – fair enough, and something I hope to address in a future post).
Conflating liberal with leftwing
Those on the left that conflate liberalism with leftism do both a great disservice to our understanding of politics, acting to mask important elements of New Zealand politics. It is no longer useful to refer to politics in New Zealand as only operating via the traditional left-right economic political spectrum. Although this materialist dimension is still the most important dimension in politics, alternative analytical spectrums are now required to complement the left-right one.
This alternative postmaterialist dimension is usually interpreted in terms of a simple liberal-conservative dimension, whereby the liberal side of the spectrum is associated with progress, modernity, libertarianism, and the conservative side is associated with order, tradition, and authoritarianism.
Unfortunately this spectrum is usually seen as being overlaid on the left-right scale so that ‘liberal’ is simplistically equated with ‘left’ and ‘conservative’ equated with ‘right’, and although it is true that there is often a strong correlation in politics that makes this appear warranted, there is nothing intrinsically related between the two dimensions, and there are plenty of examples that contradict it. For example, the Fourth Labour Government was considered to be rightwing on economic issues and socially liberal on postmaterialist issues. Generally the old Bob Jones New Zealand Party was similar. In terms of contemporary politicians, Jim Anderton is considered to be leftwing on economic issues but conservative on societal issues, while political commentator Matthew Hooton is considered rightwing on economic issues but often very liberal on societal issues.
Therefore it seems sensible to regard the two dimensions as separate, and for this reason some theorists present the liberal-conservative spectrum in a vertical form so that it can then be laid over top of the left-right scale, cross-cutting it to form an X-Y axis or a square. New Zealand political scientists such as Richard Mulgan (1997: p.248) and Vowles et al. (1995) take this approach. Such a system allows for a more adequate plotting of Western party systems like New Zealand’s.
A bottoms-up democracy?
Drinking Liberally is promoted on the basis of its non-hierarchical political nature. For example, the upcoming Dunedin event is promoted on the Green Party website with a nice line: ‘Come and raise a toast to some bottoms-up democracy!’ Yet this appears to contradict the existing nature of the Drinking Liberally elsewhere in New Zealand where it appears to be very top-down in practice.
Indeed, one significant way in which the New Zealand Drinking Liberally project has (unfortunately) differed from it’s American mothership is in the focus on providing a platform for politicians to speechify to the assembled fodder. In contrast, it’s interesting to note that in the US, although Drinking Liberally events are ‘now a regular stop on the campaign trail for aspiring politicians. They are forbidden to deliver speeches. Instead, they are handed a pitcher of beer and told to mingle’.
So clearly it doesn’t have to be such an elite process with ‘political celebrities’ to bring in the punters. I’d also note that Chris Trotter has essentially been running his own weekly ‘politics in the pub’ sessions for many years, and these don’t involve speeches from on high by politicians – but just good robust political debate over a beer or three. And his chosen location of Galbraith’s pub in Auckland is an excellent choice – especially due to the great ‘tasting trays’ of beer that they sell.
So far there’s also been somewhat of a certain political conformity about those chosen to speak at Drinking Liberal events, with those favoured being campaigning Labour and Green MPs. And some of these aren’t even particularly leftwing or liberal – Michael Cullen and Phil Goff come to mind. Occasionally the branches let some non-partisan academics or unionists speak, but these tend to be those that can be trusted not to rock the boat. Green MPs, for example, are tolerated or encouraged by Labour Party activists due to the fact that they have been so subservient to the Labour Party. Yes, the Green MPs will highlight some of their differences with Labour, but this is normally done in a way to avoid offence or any serious testing of the relationship.
Meanwhile leading public intellectuals and working class organizers like Matt McCarten are never invited it seems. That McCarten’s has never been formally invited is particularly telling. Although he represents the radical reorganizing of the union movement in New Zealand and writes a radical weekly newspaper column dealing with matters directly relevant to those in Drinking Liberally, his type of questioning, critical politics is probably unwelcome by those that see defending the Labour Party as a key element of the project. Likewise, I doubt that the critical views of John Minto are particularly welcome in Drinking Liberally circles.
Instead, speakers tend to be people like Phil Goff, Michael Cullen, Andrew Little, and Grant Robertson – hardly leftwing firebrands! At best, the invitees have included Laila Harre, Nicky Hager, and Brian Easton.
Interestingly, in the US, Drinking Liberally actually has very strong rules that are meant to stop branches being hijacked by political parties. Their website states in its rules about starting a branch:
This is not to say that in New Zealand there has in fact been any official hijack of the project. Although the idea was actually started by a Labour Party employee, David Talbot, he appears to have truly pluralist intentions for the branches. Talbot says:
I got the idea from spending time in the US last year, a friend of mine took me along to a meeting. I also got to see a lot of interesting ways of doing progressive politics - met people from moveon.org etc and was really energised by the exciting things they're doing quite outside traditional party politics.
Although the events appear to be primarily promoted on Labour and Green party websites and blogs, there is now a Facebook page for Drinking Liberally. But unsurprisingly, one of the three links of the page is to the Labour Party Standard blog.
New ways of ‘doing politics’
What is particularly interesting and encouraging about Drinking Liberally is that it represents one of many new innovative ways of ‘doing politics’. Clearly we need to find new vehicles, forums, and strategies for debating and promulgating political ideas, and the left needs to catch up with changes in society. At the moment there’s a lacunae of leftwing cultural networking in New Zealand. Yet, as one participant has pointed out, ‘no movement succeeds without a cultural level’.
It’s interesting that in the US, the Drinking Liberal venture is part of a multifaceted, grassroots progressive community-building movement:
The Huffingtonpost blog has also detailed the progressive nature of the project:
Some of us want to find different ways to interact with activists and the general public. Sometimes this will be in recreational and social activities and venues - such as pubs and cafes. We need to branch out of our 'traditional left' ways of operating. Public meetings in drafty halls are not the future of working class agitation.
Despite reservations about liberal terminology, the Drinking Liberally pun is actually quite a good one. There’s something libertarian or relaxed about it, and the idea of liberally imbibing alcohol does conflict somewhat nicely with some of the PC or dour socially liberal left that have become rather anti-alcohol consumption (or at least anti-‘excess’ consumption). Part of the reason that meetings in pubs and cafes is important, therefore, is because that in New Zealand in particular, the left is strongly associated with the killjoyism. Leftism and socialism is associated with banning everything, telling people want is bad for them, telling people not to have too much fun, and generally being uptight about personal behaviour, language and morals. There is also a wowser-ish strain of thought on the left that says that politics has to be separate from recreation and fun.
Part of the problem at the moment, however, is that in most New Zealand city centres there are fewer public bars. If the project is going to appeal to more than just the liberal elite it needs to be able to take place where the drinking is cheap. Normally – but not always – this means places where jugs of beer are served. In this regard the US Drinking Liberally mothership gives good advice:
Drinking liberally in Dunedin
Hopefully the Dunedin Drinking Liberally branch will not just be about campaigners ‘drinking to victory’ or the left drowning its sorrows about the change of government. It needs to be a truly pluralist project.
Hopefully the beer and politics will flow freely. As the more radical of those that drink liberally will say: The Revolution begins at Happy Hour! In the university city of Dunedin where an excessive drinking culture seems to exist more than in most places, Drinking Liberally might morph into Progressively Pissed. But that doesn't sound all that bad to this ‘lager libertarian’ and occasional ‘Champagne socialist’.
DUNEDIN DRINKING LIBERALLY
The Velvet Underground