The Labour Party’s ideological direction under leader David Cunliffe is currently being analysed by numerous leftwing commentators and activists – Chris Trotter being the most prominent. An ongoing debate is now occurring between Trotter who is optimistic and confident about the genuineness of Labour’s shift to the left, and people like John Moore who argue that Labour’s shift to the left is only minor and unlikely to result in significant leftwing reform. John Moore, first raised his critique of the Cunliffe-led Labour Party in his blog post The left's new love for Labour, which Trotter replied to with What’s Love Got To Do With It? Chris Trotter responds to John Moore’s critique of David Cunliffe. Now in a further guest blog post below, John Moore outlines the structural economic forces that will restrict a future Labour government from carrying out leftwing reforms. [Read more below]
Chris Trotter can be both Labour's best friend and at times one of the party's harshest critics. Certainly Chris can play the role of being a useful ally and propagandist for Labour. But of course Trotter is viewed apprehensively by Labour's leadership. This is because, unlike those who hold power in Labour, Chris is a genuine and passionate defender of social democracy. Therefore, without hesitation, he will quickly condemn those Labour and union leaders who act to betray what he believes 'the movement' should stand for. Yet despite Labour's history of both betrayals and reversals, Chris really wants to believe that the party does, or at least can, stand for the 'democratic socialist principals' still enshrined in its constitution.
And so now we have a Labour leader who, according to Chris, exhibits the best qualities of this 'democratic socialist' tradition. However, all the signs are that new party boss, David Cunliffe, just doesn't really believe in the 'hard left' politics he has been recently promoting. Certainly Cunliffe's rad-leftism should be questioned when in less than a week of being leader he had already distanced himself from his own 'radical' rhetoric. While Cunliffe was playing hard-left to the party's rank and file, many a leftist was genuinely excited by his call for a 'true red' future Labour government, and by his positive usage of the term ‘socialism’.
But the new Labour leader's elevation of the fiscally conservative David Parker to deputy-leader – a move clearly designed to placate business leaders – and his recent explicit rejection of the 'socialism' term, shows that Cunliffe is perhaps nothing more than a rather cynical political chameleon. So despite the new love shown by New Zealand's leading leftwing activists and bloggers towards Cunliffe and the Labour Party, the fact remains that Labour will remain fundamentally a pro-capitalist and anti-socialist party. That is, there will be little love returned by Labour's new parliamentary leaders to those leftists currently acting as cheerleaders for the party.
Social democracy and capitalism
Chris Trotter dismisses the Marxist argument that social democracy is heavily compromised by – and in the end also, defined by – working within the parameters of capitalism. So, more often than not, social democratic parties in power move rightwards as they take on the reins of managing a capitalist economy. This is because the state, which they aim to utilise for pushing through progressive reforms, has a specific capitalist nature. All institutions of the state, including the committees of central government, must act to foster conditions that allow for capitalism's survival and continued growth. Thus, severe functional constraints are placed on any political party, regardless of ideology, that has governmental power. These functional constraints have been explained by structuralists such as Amy Beth Bridges, who both built upon and critiqued the work of Nicos Poulantaz. Bridges explains some of the structural mechanisms that require the state to act as a capitalist state:
- The state necessarily serves the interests of the capitalist class, because the state's own fiscal functioning is immediately dependent on the economy.
- The state necessarily serves the interest of the capitalist class, because the state's legitimacy is dependent on the economy.
For a detailed explanation of Bridges' and other Marxists' theories of the state see Critical Theories of the State by Clyde W. Barrow.
But for Chris Trotter, the necessity of the state to serve the interest of the capitalist class, by promoting the best conditions for capitalist-centred growth, does not seem to be a problem. Writing against my own position on this in his blog post reply, Chris has made a case that sustained economic growth under capitalism generally leads to greater prosperity for working people:
In “The Left’s New Love For Labour”, John argues that any future centre-left government “would still have the primary role of managing New Zealand’s small capitalist economy in uncertain times, with the aim of providing the best conditions for economic growth in a business-friendly environment.”
I’m not quite sure whether John sees “providing the best conditions for economic growth” as a good thing or a bad thing. Personally, I look upon the new jobs and higher wages that generally accompany any sustained period of economic growth as a very good thing indeed – but, then, I’m a social-democrat.
Certainly new jobs and higher wages are excellent things. However the experience of economic growth as promoted by both 'centre-left' and 'centre-right' governments during the last few decades shows that, in fact, increases in economic output and productivity under a capitalist system do not always lead to more jobs and higher living conditions for workers. For an insightful discussion on this phenomenon see Productivity, inequality and poverty.
What if ...
Now let's presume for a moment that a Cunliffe-led government did push through with implementing leftwing reforms that aimed to dismantle the current neoliberal economic framework, and acted to drastically raise living standards of working people in New Zealand. In this case, would business leaders feel that the implementation of such leftwing policies is good thing for capitalists and workers alike? And would New Zealand's corporate elite put up with a government that is not only determined to push up wages and living conditions, but to also empower working people through such acts as implementing pro-union legislation? Well, let's go back to Chris for an answer. In a recent discussion with Bryce Edwards, now available on YouTube, Chris Trotter discussed the lessons he had learnt from the demise of a series of leftwing governments in the early 70s, especially that of the Salvador Allende led government in Chile:
[This] taught me that it was possible to mobilise the mass of a people. But it also taught me that there would be consequences and that you need to be aware of that. I don't shy away from the possibility of massive resistance from the right. In fact you need to anticipate that. But at the same token you don't want to be one of those people who think you can do radical thinks and nothing will happen.
Trotter, in his discussion with Bryce Edwards, admitted that the lesson many social democrats took from the defeat of Chile's leftwing government is that you shouldn't do too much. And he emphasised how both New Zealand and Australia were also part of this whole early 70s experience:
Right across the bottom of the world you had radical social democrat or democratic socialist governments. And by 1975 Allende (Chile's radical leftwing president) killed himself as the tanks were coming. Gough Whitlam had been deposed by the Governor General and Norman Kirk had died in office.
So, it is clear then that Chris is well aware of the dangers that face any leftwing government under a capitalist system. And Trotter's discussion on the Labour-Alliance government of 1999-2002 further strengthens this argument regarding rightwing/corporate resistance. With his discussion on the Labour-Alliance coalition, Trotter presented a classic case of corporate pressure, and structural limits, leading to a 'centre-left' government shifting to the right:
The Left-wing Alliance MP and Associate Labour Minister Laila Harre was proposing an employer-funded paid parental leave scheme, and New Zealand's bosses were not happy. It seemed to them that Helen Clark had a socialist tiger by the tail and its claws were threatening their bottom lines. The degree of employer disaffection could be read in the sudden and sustained fall in the value of the New Zealand dollar, which bottomed out at an alarming US$0.39. As the opinion polls turned against the Government, Dr Cullen warned that the Right's propensity for ''Armageddon economic analysis'' could become self-fulfilling. By late May 2000, the Government caved. At a series of meetings, Dr Cullen set about reassuring business leaders that the government was not composed of sharp-clawed socialists: ''We want to be a government that moves forward with business,'' he told a business audience, ''not one that watches indifferently from the sidelines''. For good measure, the prime minister declared that employer-funded paid parental leave would be enacted ''over my dead body''.
Chris makes it clear that the Clark-led governments ditching of its more leftwing policies was due to the pressures that the business class exerted on the coalition:
It was a U-turn executed under duress. In early June, at the funeral of Jock Barnes, the militant leader of the watersiders in 1951, Council of Trade Unions president Ross Wilson quietly informed me that, only days before, the prime minister had warned him the country was facing an ''investment strike''.
So, what is to be done then if the election of a 'democratic socialist' government, or even a mild centre-left reforming government, will be met with massive resistance from the right? How can the left counter such resistance? Chris, unfortunately, leaves this question unanswered.
The capitalist illusion
Slavoj Zizek, the radical philosopher, has argued that leftists need to reject the idea that change can now only be achieved within the parliamentary democratic, that is capitalist, framework. This is because power largely exists outside of the democratic framework:
We do not vote on who owns what, or about relations in the factory, and so on — such matters remain outside the sphere of the political, and it is illusory to expect that one will effectively change things by “extending” democracy into the economic sphere (by, say, reorganizing the banks to place them under popular control). Radical changes in this domain need to be made outside the sphere of legal “rights.” In “democratic” procedures (which, of course, can have a positive role to play), no matter how radical our anti-capitalism, solutions are sought solely through those democratic mechanisms which themselves form part of the apparatuses of the “bourgeois” state that guarantees the undisturbed reproduction of capital.
Zizek goes onto cite the communist philosopher Alain Badiou, who sees the need to transcend the limits of parliamentary democracy:
In this precise sense, Badiou was right to claim that today the name of the ultimate enemy is not capitalism, empire, exploitation, or anything similar, but [capitalist] democracy itself. It is the “democratic illusion,” the acceptance of [capitalist] democratic mechanisms as providing the only framework for all possible change, which prevents any radical transformation of capitalist relations.
In contrast to Zizek and Badiou, Chris Trotter argues that the labour/left movement should confine itself to the arena of legal rights and capitalist democracy. And for theoretical justification of his position Chris quotes from the German evolutionary socialist, Eduard Bernstein, who argued that, 'The movement is everything, the final goal is nothing.'
One blogger who has taken Chris to task for his Bernstein-type politics is Steven Cowan of Against the current blogsite. Cowan uses Polish revolutionary Rosa Luxemburg's stinging attacks on Bernstein to highlight the problems with Trotter's own modern day 'evolutionary socialist' politics:
Over a century ago Rosa Luxemburg ripped apart this sort of nonsense being promoted by the founder of the failed social democratic project, Eduard Bernstein. She wrote:
'...legal reform and revolution are not different methods of historical progress that can be picked out at pleasure from the counter of history, just as one chooses hot or cold sausages... He who pronounces himself in favour of the method of legal reforms in place of and opposed to the conquest of political power and social revolution does not really choose a more tranquil, surer and lower road to he same goal. He chooses a different goal. Instead of taking a stand for the establishment of a new social order, he takes a stand for surface modifications of the old order.
Trotter also likes to quote Eduard Bernstein's 'dictum' that “The movement is everything, the final goal is nothing.”
Once again Rosa Luxemburg had a withering response for this idiocy:
'Bernstein thus travels in a logical sequence from A to Z. He began by abandoning the final aim in favour of the movement. But as there can be no socialist movement without the socialist aim, he necessarily ends up by renouncing the movement itself.'
So what about Chris' continued support for Labour, a party that long ago gave up the goal of any radical change of society in the interests of working class people? Chris, like Bernstein, may favour the movement over the goal. But by supporting a Labour Party led by a politician who explicitly rejects the idea of socialism, and therefore of any radical social transformation, does not one act to renounce the movement itself?