There are obviously different types of inequality that pervade contemporary New Zealand society. Traditionally the political left – and those concerned with equality –have been most concerned with socio-economic inequality, but this changed in last few decades of the twentieth century. This third blog post on ‘Inequality in NZ’ explains how the left shifted its concern from issues of economic inequality to that of social inequality, or as one academic book title put it, ‘How We Learned to Love Identity and Ignore Inequality’ (Benn Michaels, 2007). The material in this blog post is taken from a draft paper that I delivered to a interdisciplinary Workshop on Inequality at the University of Otago in June entitled ‘Why Economic Inequality Matters’, and it also draws heavily on previous blog posts about ‘Identity politics vs class politics’. [Read more below]
Social movements were key agents of the return to the discourse of equality, newly configured. Developing from the civil rights movement in the United States, movements across the globe focused attention on racism, sexism, ageism, and discrimination in relation to disability and sexual orientation, complicating prior equality discourses that had focused primarily on class inequalities (Baker et al. 2004: 10). The demands of these egalitarian movements challenged not only elite policy discourse, but also academic conceptions of inequality. The old equality discourse, which had focused on the distribution of material goods, was increasingly cast by radical social movements as overly reductive, and by political elites as unrealistically utopian. The combined critiques of the ‘new left’ and the ‘new right’ ushered in the new politics of equality (Kantola and Squires, 2010).
The rise of the new social movements and identity politics
Increasingly the debates in New Zealand politics – especially relating to the left – feature concepts such as ‘identity politics’ and ‘social liberalism’. These terms are especially useful for understanding the history of Labour Party over the last thirty years, as well as for understanding the internal fights going on in the contemporary left. But just what is social liberalism and identity politics? Identity politics arose out of the rightwing of the new social movements that developed on the New Zealand left from the late 1960s. As liberation struggles developed around important issues relating to gender, sexuality and ethnicity, leftwing and class-based approaches to understanding and fighting for social equality were sidelined in favour of this more conservative approach.
The rise of the new social movements was a phenomenon throughout the west, whereby oppressed groups other than simply the working class became much more politically organised and visible. Typically, the new social movements involved gay liberation groups, the women’s movement and nationalist groups, and in New Zealand this included Maori cultural revivalist movements and Pacific peoples’ cultural and nationalist groups (Roper, 2005: pp.95-96). Leaders from a variety of groups and movements promoted the idea of identity based on gender, sexuality, culture and origins. This was often consciously contrasted with models of identity and political action based on class.
The advocates of identity politics proposed the ‘tripod theory’ of exploitation, according to which race, gender and class comprise the separate but equal pillars of human oppression. The tripod political ideology held that class should no longer be the primary concern of the left. Gender, race and class were to be given equal status in terms of analysing society and in terms of engagement in political action. Disillusioned Stalinists and Maoists, who were desperate to discard their unfashionable baggage, enthusiastically embraced this new approach.
Such tripod theories can be seen as a variant of post-modern approaches to struggle, with no form of oppression or identity afforded primacy. Instead a tolerant, non-critical approach was given to various avenues of struggle. These ‘new leftists’ therefore rejected the Marxist view of identifying racism, sexism and homophobia as subordinate (but highly effective) strategies of oppression, which complement and intensify the dominant relationship within capitalism – which is class exploitation. Those who resisted this new paradigm were branded ‘racists’ by the Maori activists and liberal pakeha who now dominated the left and set the framework for left politics (Trotter, 2002: p.6).
It has to be pointed out, however, that this tripod trend was partly a reaction to an equally negative economistic position on the left before then. For many years the left tried to pretend that gender, racial, and national oppression were either non-existent or unimportant. For these leftists – who were often situated in trade union activism – economic issues were all that mattered.
Read also, for example, how in the US there was this shift from one extreme to another:
The old Socialist leader Eugene Debs used to be criticized for being unwilling to interest himself in any social reform that didn't involve attacking economic inequality. The situation now is almost exactly the opposite; the left today obsessively interests itself in issues that have nothing to do with economic inequality.
Likewise in New Zealand, the left swung from one negative extreme to another – from ignoring the oppression of women and Maori, to then obsessing over these types of oppression, yet without locating them within a wider understanding of the economic social system. Class exploitation and the class division of society were systematically downplayed (Poata-Smith, 2004: pp.71-72).
The transformation of social liberalism into neo-liberalism
An examination of the history of left politics in New Zealand since the 1960s shows how liberal identity politics has actually aided the forces of the right in carrying out and maintaining the neoliberal project. This has occurred in various ways. At one level on the left there has simply been a shift since the late 1960s whereby a focus on economics and inequality has been jettisoned in favour of a concentration on identity politics. In terms of all forms of social change, electoral activity, and protest activism, the priority has thus been in pushing for social change on non-economic issues. This has meant a transformation from social liberalism into neoliberalism.
The focus of the left changed radically in the west – and New Zealand in particular – during the 1960s and 70s. As Dennis Welch has recently written in his biography of Helen Clark,
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, 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).
The neo-liberal/social-liberal tradeoff
One of the most perplexing questions in the history of the left in New Zealand has been: Why was it a Labour Party that implemented the radical anti-worker neoliberal reforms? What’s more, why did the ‘left’ of the party allow the programme of Rogernomics to be implemented? The answer is partly that the Labour ‘left’ was so surprisingly tolerant towards the economic programme of the government due to the political backgrounds of the now dominant social liberal element in the party organisation. Their experience within the new social movements had taught the ‘new left’ in the Labour Party to concern itself with identity politics rather than class politics.
The new milieu of socially-concerned liberals had essentially joined the Labour Party to oppose Muldoon. Therefore unlike the previous generation of Labour Party activists from a militant union background, the social liberals did not evaluate the reforms with the same class perspective as traditional working class members. As a result, the social liberals in the party mostly took an ambivalent line on Rogernomics.
Within the Labour Party in the 1980s there was effectively a truce made between the right of the party that was keen to implement neoliberalism and the left of the party, which was now mostly socially liberal in its focus. Obviously the social liberal element of the party had a lot to be pleased about during the first term of the Fourth Labour Government. The Lange Government banned nuclear warships from New Zealand’s harbours, established a Ministry of Women’s Affairs, ceased diplomatic relations with South Africa and introduced treaty legislation to deal with Maori land claims dating from as far back as 1840.
The advent of these social liberal reforms basically meant that ‘there were two great experiments – one economic and the other a social one associated with the "new politics" – going on simultaneously' (Castles, Gerritsen, and Vowles, 1996: p.214). The two ‘experiments’ were achieved by the work of the neoliberals and social liberals of the party respectively. In this respect, the neoliberals in the Labour caucus treated the social liberal reforms – which they were often personally opposed to – as a sort of acceptable ‘trade off’ for getting their own programme of economic reform accepted or at least tolerated by the social liberals of the parliamentary and party wings. As Jesson argues, a sort of division of labour operated where 'The Libertarians of the Right were allowed a free hand in economic policy, with the liberals of the Left being influential in social and foreign policy' (Jesson, 1989: p.72). Quite explicitly, ‘the Labour Party's socially concerned membership tolerated the free market reforms for the sake of the social and foreign policy’ (Jesson, 1989: p.72). Denis Welch has also commented on the power of this ‘distraction’ in his 2009 biography of Helen Clark:
those to the left of Douglas were in a fine old state of distraction anyway, being entranced by New Zealand’s move towards declaring itself nuclear-free. It really was a dream come true for liberal lefties of the Clarkian type, and more than made up for any right-wing deviance on economic policy’ (Welch, 2009: p.85).
Ex-Cabinet minister, and Labour neoliberal, Kerry Burke has also confirmed the Cabinet’s fusion of social liberalism with neoliberalism: ‘It was able to use… the widespread support for foreign policy issues, especially the nuclear-free issue, in a way that diverted people’s attention from some of the harder economic stuff that was going on’ (quoted in Welch, 2009: pp.105-106).
This tradeoff was not necessarily a formalised or organised process, but a natural reaction to the desire of two quite different party factions to implement their own agendas. As Oliver Riddell has argued, the trade-off was probably not a formal agreement, as ‘neither [faction] was cohesive and organised enough to do a deal with the other’ (Riddell, 12 Sep 1990). Indeed, Wilson disputes any notion of a conscious trade-off:
There has been speculation that the government traded its foreign policy off to the party in favour of its economic policy. Such a consideration may have influenced the actions of individual MPs, but the issue was not viewed in this way by me or the party (Wilson, 1989: p.67).
In fact it was the feminist – or women’s faction – within the party that provided the strongest example of social liberalism acquiescing to neoliberalism by consent. Jesson points out that those from the feminist movement showed little understanding of matters economic and were surprisingly weak in the opposition to economic restructuring despite its obvious negative effects on many women. This is partly explained, according to Jesson by the fact that: 'There was no concept of the marketplace in the notion of patriarchy; and feminists showed little interest in economics. And there was an ambivalent attitude to the state' (Jesson, 1989: p.28).
Tradeoffs and avoidance of the 1980s economic debates thus occurred very easily. As an example of this, Welch cites the Labour women’s caucus:
The Labour women’s caucus met for lunch every Thursday but the discussions kept clear of economic policy, precisely because, as Clark herself has said, there were sharp divisions over it. Rather, they talked about issues they could agree on and influence, like childcare and domestic violence (Welch, 2009: p.79).
There was subsequently a policy pay off in women’s issues during the Fourth Labour Government, with the establishment of Ministry of Women’s Affairs, and the introduction of the Pay Equity Act.
In a ‘bigger picture’ sense, the neo/social liberal tradeoff has come to embody post-1984 New Zealand politics right up until today. The 4th Labour Government and then subsequent governments eventually created a new consensus in New Zealand parliamentary politics which was both socially liberal and neoliberal:
the peace-and-love brigade’s eventual legacy was decent espresso coffee, a smidgen more gender equality, and a relaxed dress code. They won the cultural war – social liberalism and sexual permissiveness have swept the field since 1968 – and they had a great time making New Zealand nuclear-free, but they lost the economic war because, when it came down to it, it wasn’t a war they were actually all that interested in winning’ (Welch, 2009: p.63).
In many ways the liberals of the postmaterialist cleavage have won most of the arguments on postmaterialist issues, just as the rightwing have generally won the arguments on materialist issues – leading to a consensus that is economically rightwing and socially liberal.
This means that the new centre that developed in the 1990s could be said to involve a rightwing position on the economy (with the left parties having to accept the continuation of the modified neoliberal framework as established by Douglas and Richardson), and a liberal position being adopted on social issues (with the conservative parties like National, New Zealand First, Act and United Future having to accept the socially liberal framework established by Lange, Bolger and Clark).
Next post - Inequality in NZ:  The resurgence of issues of economic inequality