Internationalism and leftwing politics are often presumed to go together. So, here in New Zealand much has been made of progressive support given to international causes, including the struggle against apartheid in South Africa and opposition to nuclear weapon testing in French-controlled areas of the Pacific region. However, unfortunately when it comes to issues of economics and immigration, the New Zealand left has a rather sordid history of championing populist nationalism, xenophobia and often thinly veiled racism. In this guest blog, John Moore argues that leftwing opposition to the Chinese bid for the Crafar farms highlights how progressives in this country continue to frame their politics within a conservative economic-nationalist framework. Despite the protestations of leftists opposing the Shanghai Pengxin bid, the fact is that their nationalist rhetoric has nothing to do with progressive politics and everything to do with crude foreigner bashing. [Read more below]
A ‘proud’ history of xenophobia
The current voicing of anti-Chinese sentiment fits in with a long history of anti-foreigner and especially anti-Chinese bigotry in New Zealand. Despite this country being founded as a settler colony by immigrants, xenophobic sentiments became rampant here. Of course this bigotry was rarely directed at European immigration and white foreigner control of the economy, but instead was directed predominantly at non-white settlers. Sadly, such sentiments were also widely present within the nascent workers movement. For example during the early part of the twentieth century the Federation of Labour, through its paper the Maoriland Worker, railed against Chinese immigration. Also, as outlined on the Redline blog, the newly born Labour Party expressed similar bigoted sentiments and even went as far as openly showing common cause with rightwing racist organisations:
They not only campaigned for more stringent laws to restrict the entry of Chinese workers and for a firmer White New Zealand policy, the Labour leaders were prepared to make common cause with far-right white nationalists. For instance, Major-General Sir Andrew Russell, the founding leader of the NZ National Defence League and the man who had led ‘Massey’s Cossacks’ against the workers in 1913, was, a mere seven years later, a special guest and speaker at the LP’s national conference.
Many from New Zealand’s contemporary left would acknowledge this history of racism and bigotry, but would argue that progressives in this country have now embraced diversity and tolerance over bigotry and xenophobia. However, such leftists' continued adversity to immigration and support for little New Zealand nationalism points to continuity with the left’s racist past.
Nationalism and the contemporary New Zealand left
Except for some radical leftists, New Zealand’s contemporary progressives have continued to frame their politics within a nationalist framework. This was exemplified with the Clark-led Labour government, which consciously formulated a new and modern form of nationalist ideology. This neo-nationalism did differ in form from the crude racist ‘white is best’ policies of this country’s past. So, this new nationalist framework incorporated social-liberal concerns around multiculturalism, tolerenece and diversity, but at the same time maintained traditional nationalist sentiments around New Zealand’s ‘uniqueness’ and ‘exceptionalism’ and its supposedly ‘proud’ role in international military conflicts. Therefore, a synthesis of old and new forms of nationalism was formulated. This neo-nationalist ideology could on the one hand project a liberal and open form of patriotism, yet still allowed for more subtle forms of xenophobia and little New Zealand arrogance.
Labour’s careful construction of a new nationalist synthesis amounted to the formation of a post-conservative form of patriotism that most of the left could now feel comfortable with. Whereas the New Left of the 60s and 70s often rejected any form of nationalism, many contemporary leftists now feel comfortable with this new form of ‘Kiwi’ identity. However, the problem with the acceptance of this form of ‘progressive’ patriotism is that it inevitably allows for forms of bigotry, racism and xenophobia to be accepted as legitimate when they are framed within this ‘liberal’ nationalist framework. Therefore, the recent left-wing opposition to the Crafar farm sales can be seen as being a kneejerk reaction of a left that has been schooled in this new form of ‘liberal’ chauvinism.
‘Liberal’ nationalism and xenophobia
Lefties who are currently opposing the Chinese bid for the Crafar farms have deliberately tried to frame their attacks within a ‘liberal’ nationalist framework. So we have seen supporters of the Labour Party, as well as Mana Party leaders including Annette Sykes, Green MPs, and leftist commentators including Martyn Bradbury, all attempted to present their anti-Chinese sentiments as coming from a concern for democratic control of ‘our’ resources. Added to this is a whipping up of a paranoid fear that ‘we’ will become tenants in ‘our own country’.
One of the most hysterical critics of the Shanghai Pengxin bid has been media political commentator Martyn 'Bomber' Bradbury. As with a number of other leftwing advocates, Bradbury is feeding into paranoid fears the sale will result in New Zealanders losing a chunk of ‘their sovereignty’ to an evil Asian dictatorship:
We are allowing a country that arrests artists, bloggers and Christians for worshipping Easter to have more power over our economy, having concerns about a totalitarian nation owning our productive land isn't racism, it's legitimate.
The true racist subtext of the lefts opposition to this Chinese bid becomes clear when one thinks about how little opposition has been shown in the past to ‘white’ foreign penetration into the New Zealand economy. For example, Australian investment in this country is particularly prominent, yet the reality of Ozzie investment here barely ever gets a mention by local leftists. Added to this, the more subdued reactions to Hollywood director James Cameron’s plans to buy land here points to the anti-Asian sentiments that are behind much of the opposition to the Shanghai Pengxin bid. In an attempt to brush over such a glearing contradiction of opposing the Chinese bid, but not raising opposition to Cameron’s plans, writers at the pro-Labour blog The Standard have got themselves into all sorts of contortions. According to The Standard, Cameron is a good honest guy who merely wants to contribute to ‘our’ economy, whereas the Chinese are by definition devious due to being part of an evil empire:
That’s nothing [James Cameron’s plans to buy New Zealand farm land] like a corporate linked to a foreign government snapping up our land and making us tenants on it – one’s immigration, the others loss of economic sovereignty.
Supporting our own 1%?
A rather peculiar result of these attacks on the Chinese bid for the Crafar farms is what must be presumed to be the New Zealand lefts’ new found love for their own local capitalists. That is, leftwing attacks on the Chinese corporation Shanghai Pengxin coupled with the absence of any substantial critique of the rival bidder, New Zealand born merchant banker Michael Fay, amounts to supporting ‘our’ local 1% over foreign capitalists. But, as the Waikato Times has pointed out, Michael Fay makes for a strange type of hero for opponents of the Chinese bid:
Multimillionaire Sir Michael Fay and David Richwhite became targets of public wrath for their role in a series of transactions between 1986 and 1993. They enriched themselves then from wheeling and dealing involving major state-owned business, the Bank of New Zealand, Telecom New Zealand and New Zealand Rail.
Fay's role in the controversial sales has been forgotten. He has become something of a hero, rather, for trying to buy the Crafar farms and championing the notion that productive land should not be sold to foreigners.
The question the left should be asking itself is: How is ownership by local capitalists in anyway preferable to foreign capitalist ownership? Does New Zealand’s corporate elite have some special genetic or cultural trait that makes them more socially responsible and caring owners and mangers of local resources? The reality of course is that all capitalist aim to maximize profits and enrich themselves through the labour of their workforce. And all major business players, whether local or foreign, aim to push for an economic and political environment that’s is conductive to them making maximum profits. Any leftist who claims the contrary just has to remind themselves of New Zealand’s own 1% support over the last few decades for privatisation and corporatistion of state assets, for user pays in education and health, their attacks on unions, and their opposition to raising the minimum wage. Clearly our local capitalists act no differently than economic elites anywhere in the world. Therefore, attacking foreign bids within a nationalist framework acts purely to support local capitalist of the likes of Michael Fay, who will cynically exploit nationalist sentiments to secure and foster their own corporate interests.
The myth of ‘progressive’ kiwi nationalism
Nothing good can come from the promotion of any form of nationalism in New Zealand. A study of our history shows that New Zealand’s foundation as a white settler state has helped to fostered racist and xenophobic views towards non-white migration into this country. Although this country’s new form of liberal nationalism has ostensibly made a break form this dark past, this form of neo-nationalism contains within it the seeds for new forms of racism, jingoism and anti-foreigner sentiments. So the present opposition to Chinese ownership in ‘our’ country finds acceptance amongst much of the left because it is very much framed within this new patriotic ideology. Although the likes of the Labour Party, Mana leaders and Martyn Bradbury may claim they are concerned for the ‘ordinary’ working New Zealander, they are in reality aligning themselves with a section of New Zealand’s 1% who currently feel threatened by Chinese corporate investment in this region. Ultimately, supporting anti-foreigner feeling, especially when almost exclusively targeting Asian as opposed to white foreigners, can never be progressive. New Zealand’s left has always been at its best when it has rejected nationalist sentiment, solidaritised with oppressed people internationally, and rejected the idea that they should make common cause with local capitalists because we are somehow ‘all New Zealanders’. The thinly veiled bigotry of recent leftwing opposition to foreign ownership highlights how the idea of a ‘progressive Kiwi nationalism’ is a myth.
The internationalist left
Both in New Zealand and globally, the best of the leftwing tradition has always rejected small-minded nationalism, xenophobia and racism. In fact, leftists of an internationalist tradition have always favoured globalization and getting rid of national borders and barriers to migration. Progressive advocates of globalization of course do not defend a handful of rich imperialist countries, including New Zealand, dominating the world’s economy, but instead advocate an integrated and radically egalitarian world economy where production is based on social need and not on private profit.
Internationalism as a leftwing concept was first popularized with the formation of the International Workingmen's Association, or First International, in 1864. Amongst its leaders was Karl Marx, who well over two hundred years ago recognised capitalism as a global system that transcended borders. He, along with many other socialist and anarchist leaders of the First International, argued strongly for an international response to the global system of capitalism. These leftwing leaders argued for working people to unite across national borders, to reject any idea of national unity with their own rulers, and to unite as a global class with shared interests. In the language of today’s occupy movement, Marx and others were therefore advocating for the global ‘99%’ to unite against the global ‘1%’: 'The proletarians have nothing to lose but their chains. They have a word to win. Working Men of All Countries, Unite!'
Leftwing advocacy for internationalism is not some moral declaration for global unity, but comes from a practical need for international unity in the struggle for progressive change as well as the struggle against rightwing and corporate attacks. So, here in New Zealand the Maritime Union of New Zealand (MUNZ) is exemplifying the best traditions of working class internationalism in the Ports of Auckland dispute. As part of their strategy to defeat the attacks on their working conditions, MUNZ members have sought support form the The International Transport Workers' Federation (ITF). The ITF is an international collective of unions, which MUNZ is a part of. In a show of such international solidarity, the ITF has threatened the Ports of Auckland with a show of international solidarity:
if workers are forced to abandon their existing agreements, the ITF will declare the Ports of Auckland a 'port of convenience', which means it will receive special attention politically and industrially. (ITF) will request our affiliates around the world, particularly in the Dockers and Seafarers Sections, to take immediate lawful action.
Organisations like the ITF show the practical benefits of working class and leftwing internationalism. Capitalism globalization continues to change our lives year by year. Retreating into the archaic politics of nationalism and xenophobia in response to this globalization is ineffective and ultimately reactionary. Internationalism, as shown in the Ports of Auckland dispute as well as with the global occupy movement, offers a way to empower and strengthen the ‘99%’ everywhere. So, to update Karl Marx: The 99% of all countries unite!