The New Zealand political left is in an extremely interesting position – buoyed by an increase in radicalism, but without a clear path forward. Divisions and differences over the place of class politics and identity politics are a key dynamic in the current movements. In this guest blog post, Johnny Moore elaborates on this issue and attempts to navigate how such problems can be resolved.
An extra-parliamentary left is on the rise in Aotearoa New Zealand – influenced by new social movements internationally and a reemerged interest in feminism, Marxism and other emancipatory theoretical frameworks including intersectionality. This extra-parliamentary left represents a diverse range of social and political trends and is very much in a state of ideological flux. Underlying tensions exist within this new left, especially over questions to do with class versus identity politics, universalism versus particularism, and materialist versus post-materialist concerns.
This guest blog discusses the underlying tension of “class versus identity” concerns within this new left, and asks what should be the focus for progressive movements in this country. Also, the question of whether the divide between identity and class politics can be bridged is examined. That is, how can the reality of “difference” be politicized in a way that is not divisive for the left? And can a universal class perspective be a framework for a new emancipatory and radical egalitarian politics for all subjugated peoples?
A new radical left
While mainstream politics continues to turn most people off, as seen in record low voter turnouts, new social movements in this country are offering an exciting and dynamic alternative for the dissatisfied and pissed off. For example, most trade union activity has been in a moribund state, yet new unions such as Unite and First Union have popularized militant working class resistance to low pay and shitty jobs. And with Maori who are dissatisfied with corporate iwi and the pro-Establishment Maori Party, the Mana Movement has offered a left alternative. And even at the universities we have seen the reemergence of anti-establishment politics, reflected with the new left journal Counterfutures and publishing of a selection of essays by activists and intellectuals - The Interregnum. Also a new leftwing think tank has been formed – ESRA (Economic and Social Research Aotearoa). All exciting stuff!
This reemergence of progressive social movements in Aotearoa New Zealand is marked by underlying ideological divisions and differences. What, therefore, should be the priorities and focus of the extra-parliamentary left in this country? Rather than just excepting “orthodox” leftwing frameworks and ideas, difficult questions need to be asked in regards to what should define radical left politics here. For example, should the left continue to focus on cultural and identity issues – such as prioritizing issues to do with race/ethnicity, gender and sexuality? And does the emergence of a new kaupapa Maori politics offer a way for the left to reorganize and refocus? Or is good old class struggle politics where it should be at? Such questions should not be skirted around out of fear of offending and causing divisions. Without a clear sense of what we stand for, and a nutting out of theoretical issues, the left will continue to be disorientated and unable to affect real systemic change. Or as the Lacanian philosopher Slovoj Zizek emphasises, before we can change things we need to think in new ways:
the first task today is precisely not to succumb to the temptation to act, to intervene directly and change things (which then inevitably ends in a cul-de-sac of debilitating impossibility: “What can we do against global capital?”), but to question the hegemonic ideological co-ordinates… If, today, we follow a direct call to act, this act will not be performed in an empty space – it will be an act within the hegemonic ideological coordinates… frenetic, humanitarian, Politically Correct, etc., activity fits the formula of “Let’s go on changing something all the time so that, globally, things will remain the same!”.
Class politics versus identity politics
Underlying the ideological tensions within the new social movements in New Zealand are questions over what should be the focus of the left – class and materialist politics versus identity and post-materialist concerns? Of course materialist and post-materialist politics are not necessary mutually exclusive. That is, activists can focus on both materialist campaigns, such as raising the minimum wage, as well on post-materialist concerns, such as LGBTI rights. However, identity politics as an ideology offers a very different approach, and theoretical framework, to a materialist approach. That is, in regards to question of exploitation and oppression, an identity politics framework offers a different analysis to a materialist framework.
The ideas of the postmaterialism – whether in the form of identity politics, multiculturalism or intersectionality – have dominated discourse amongst the left for over two decades now. These ideologies have presented powerful challenges to traditional class-centred analysis. So, why does the materialist radical left critique the postmaterialist ideologies, including that of identity politics? Firstly, the materialist radical left does not criticize identity politics because it takes up the causes of a range of marginalized groups in society other than the working class. Instead, the primary materialist critique of identity politics is that it presents a moderate, or even conservative, approach to questions of oppression and inequality.
These contemporary postmaterialist ideas – including identity politics, multiculturalism and intersectionality – can be understood as representing the most moderate ideas that came out of the new social movements in the 1960s and 70s. That these liberal ideas became dominant, and acted to suppress more radical ideas coming from leftwing feminists, tino rangatiratanga activists, socialists and LGBTI activists, showed that the left was effectively defeated and marginalised in the wider new social movements, and also within the wider workers’ movement.
The new social movements of the 1970s, which centred on questions of gender, race/ethnicity and sexuality, initially had both a radical leftwing and a conservative pro-capitalist wing. For example, amongst Maori and Pasifika movements in the 1970s there were those who saw capitalism as a central cause of their oppression and those who believed ‘liberation’ could easily be achieved within the confines of capitalism. In the end the conservative element in the new social movements won out. The ideology of this relatively conservative, or liberal reforming, element in the new social movements was identity politics. So, although it can be argued that liberal identity politics is conservative in relation to a Marxist analysis, this does not amount to a rejection or downgrading of struggles based around gender, sexuality, ‘race’, etc. In fact, struggles against gay oppression or women’s oppression, when situated within an anti-capitalist framework, can indeed be very radical and present a serious challenge to the capitalist system.
Identity politics and the state
The fact that the ideas of identity politics have been so easily co-opted by capitalist states, indicates their underlying moderate nature. The political consensus in New Zealand that has existed since 1984 till now has been built around a post-Keynesian economic framework, coupled with a “liberal” social agenda. Since the defeat of the conservative Muldoon government in 1984, the New Zealand state has espoused an ideology that represents a synthesis of economic neoliberalism and social liberalism. Academics such as Jane Kelsey have argued that these two strands of policy frameworks represent a contradiction. Kelsey and others have come to this conclusion because they correctly identify neoliberalism as rightwing but incorrectly represent social liberalism as leftwing. Yet social liberals, whose ideas now form a core part of the official state ideology, are at least implicitly pro-capitalist, champion the development of ‘middle’ and corporate classes amongst ‘minority groups, and steer well clear of questions of economic redistribution and class. Therefore, to label modern social liberalism ‘leftwing’ is highly problematic.
The state in New Zealand, and in most other western nations, can be understood as both socially liberal and economically rightwing. So, in deconstructing the dominant state ideology in New Zealand, it becomes clear that identity politics forms a core part of the dominant framework of ideas. So, how did the state in New Zealand go from being socially conservative to being socially liberal, at the same time that economic policies were shifted far to the right? To use some ideas of Antonio Gramsci, what effectively occurred with the state’s embracement of liberal ideas was a ‘passive revolution’. A passive revolution is pushed forward where there exists a crisis of legitimacy directly or indirectly threatening the existing system. Essentially a restructuring of state institutions is required as well as the diffusion of new ideologies. So, the concept of ‘passive revolution’ best describes the Fourth Labour Government’s construction of new ideologies and transforming of state institutions to build a socially liberal capitalist state.
Social liberalism – whether in the form of identity politics, multiculturalism or intersectionality - acts as an obscurant ideology, masking the real antagonistic nature of capitalist society. However, the social liberal consensus has recently faced a serious challenge. History has returned with a vengeance, in the form of intractable wars in the Middle East and Afghanistan and the derailing of neoliberal orthodoxy with the global economic crisis, and the rise of a new radical left. In light of this ‘return of history’, Slovoj Žižek argues that we need to question the dominant liberal paradigm and to make an epistemological break from post-ideological, post-political frameworks. As Žižek has argued:
the moment one seriously questions the existing liberal consensus, one is accused of abandoning scientific objectivity for outdated ideological positions…However, there is a point on which we cannot concede: today, actual freedom of thought means the freedom to question the predominant, liberal-democratic, "post ideological" consensus-or it means nothing (Žižek, 2001).
For Žižek, social liberalism fails to correctly conceptualise problems, such as racism or sexism. He says that by perceiving social oppression as problems of tolerance, and by replacing calls for radical change with an advocacy of muticulturalism, this not only obscures the nature of such oppressions, but in fact acts to allow for their continuation.
The postmaterialist left has focused almost exclusively on cultural and identity concerns, over the traditional left focus on emancipatory and egalitarian politics. This culturalisation of politics amounts to, according to Žižek, a ‘moralistic depoliticization’. This politically correct moralism amounts to a “fake gesture of disavowed politics, the assuming of a ‘moral’, depoliticized position in order to make a stronger political case”. Žižek sees this as leading to a situation that where, “in order for one’s voice to gain authority, one has to legitimize oneself as being some kind of (potential or actual) victim of power.” The cause of this moralistic depolticisation can be seen as resulting from, “the retreat of the Marxist historico-political project (Žižek: 2007, p149).”
Important for Žižek is how this post-ideological, post-political framework has had a debilitating effect on the left:
In this situation, disappointed leftists, who are convinced that radical change of the existing liberal-democratic capitalist system is no longer possible, but who are unable to renounce their passionate attachment to global change, invest their excess of political energy in an abstract and excessively moralizing stance Žižek: 2007, p149).
Therefore, the first step to begin an authentic struggle against racism, sexism, homophobia, and oppression generally is to question this liberal multiculturalist basic ideological operation, and so to begin again asking the right questions.
Beyond splintered identitarian politics
The lefts focus on divisions – such as divisions based on race/ethnicity, sexuality or gender – have acted to divide progressive social movements from each other. Guardian writer Owen Jones recently argued that the left’s focus on gender, race and sexuality have allowed “the right to exploit differences and turn them into divisions”. He argues that the left needs to refocus on class:
The left desperately needs to refocus on class. From the 1980s onwards – as the Labour movement was crushed, old industries smashed and the cold war ended – class took the back seat. Gender, race and sexuality seemed more salient and relevant. In truth, it should never have been either/or: how can you understand gender without class and vice versa given, say, the disproportionate concentration of women in low-paid and insecure work? But this era left many working-class people feeling that not only did the left no longer care about them – worse, that these issues had become sticks to beat them with. Many felt insulted and written off as a bigoted, backward, knuckle-dragging mob, only happy when launching an expletive-ridden diatribe about a minority.
For the left to advance and to make any strides to engage with the majority of “the 99%” we must move beyond a politics that fetishizes difference and has resulted in a splintered left of identitarian movements. A common set of goals, of ideas and of a universal concept of class – to use the language of occupy of the 99% versus the 1% - needs to be reinvigorated. This is not to ignore differences and divides, but to combine a rigorous analysis of difference with a unifying concept of class.