the Marxist challenge to capitalism on fundamentally economic grounds – a challenge that had energized all movements of the left for a century or more – crumbled into identity politics and moral causes, leaving the field clear for the forces of the right to carry on more or less untroubled by the scattered legions of the left (Welch, 2009: p.18).
Part of it all, according to Welch, was that ‘Far more energy and excitement went into moral issues like abortion and apartheid’ (Welch, 2009: p.61).
The late socialist political commentator Bruce Jesson also examined in great detail the influence of the social liberals on New Zealand politics and on the left in particular. Although they were leftwing in original orientation, the social liberals, Jesson pointed out, had some important differences with the more established leftwing currents in New Zealand:
Unlike the working-class movements of earlier eras, the protest movement was almost completely uninterested in economics. Protest politics was about foreign policy and moral issues, it was hostile to authority and to traditional moral codes, and its bias if anything was against the state. It was also a highly individualistic movement, concerned with individual rights, individual freedom and individual conscience.... And unlike earlier radical movements, the protest movement was liberal rather than socialist, a leftish liberalism but a liberalism nonetheless (Jesson, 1989: p.29).
The new left go into the Labour Party
These ‘new left’ ideas of identity politics and tripod theories soon transmitted into the Labour Party via the influx of young, middle class liberal-left individuals that essentially took over the empty shell that was the Labour Party in the 1970s. By the early 1980s this new educated liberal-left milieu clearly commanded the party machine, and a liberal uniformity developed around issues such as feminism, peace and anti-racism (Jesson, 1989: p.48). This political focus was in strong contrast to previous working class generations of Labour Party members, who having come from a militant union background tended to base their radicalism on economic issues (Jesson, 1989: p.28).
A liberal uniformity developed according to Jesson, with an emphasis ‘on such issues as feminism and peace – and biculturalism' (Jesson, 1989: p.48). The party’s political focus was evolving from a concern for traditional social democratic issues to that of the post-materialistic. As outlined elsewhere on this blog, party politics in New Zealand is increasingly configured not by materialist-economic-class issues (that is, by the traditional left-right cleavage), but by postmaterialist issues such as conflicts over immigration, sexual politics (prostitution legalization), foreign policy (intervention in wars, bans on nuclear ships), environmental issues (such as genetic modification and climate change).
For Jesson this change of focus was more than a just ‘a distraction from class issues’ – it was fundamentally self-sabotaging. By choosing not to take economics seriously, this produced a weakened left that would severely reduce its ability to make progress on, or defend, its political programme:
Intellectually, the Left was too soft to resist the New Right coup of 1984. It was obsessed by social issues and by foreign affairs, and couldn’t debate economic issues. In the early stages of Rogernomics, it tended to concede the big issues of economic policy in return for some concessions on foreign policy and social matters (Jesson, April 1997: p.113).
In this sense, Welch also says, ‘1968 lay the seed of 1984’ (Welch, 2009: p.19), by which he means that many of those in the new social movements of the 60s and beyond very easily morphed into economic rightwingers at a later stage. Here he’s talking about people like Helen Clark, and says that ‘Some of the driest disciples of Rogernomics were radical student lefties in their youth’ (Welch, 2009: p.24). In fact, there was – and still is – a very easy transition amongst social liberals of the left from social-liberalism into neo-liberalism. As Davidson has put it, in terms of the radical transformation of the Labour Party in the 1980s, ‘Social-liberalism, exposed to crisis and the desperate desire for power, became neoliberalism' (Davidson, 1989: p.352). This is the subject of the next blog post.