Thursday, July 16, 2015

Is Labour turning blue?

The New Zealand internet is full of debate about Labour Party housing spokesman Phil Twyford's claim that Chinese investors are responsible for the speculative bubble that makes houses so hard to buy in Auckland. Many people, on the right as well as the left, have accused Twyford of racism; others have insisted he is making a serious and unprejudiced argument. 

I wonder whether Phil Twyford's campaign against Chinese investors might be part of a wider strategy that New Zealand's Labour Party has imported from Britain. 

In the eight months since he won the leadership of Labour Andrew Little has worked to move the party towards a rapprochement with socially conservative Kiwis. He has distanced himself from the socially liberal Greens, and has refused to endorse liberal causes like euthanasia, flag change and gender therapy.

During the Northland by-election Little made a coalition with New Zealand First, and watched Winston Peters overturn an enormous National Party majority. Peters won because he and Little were able to convince the relatively poor and socially conservative Pakeha voters of Northland that National was out of touch with their worldview and unaware of their needs. Peters and Little portrayed National's leaders as a clique of privileged, effete urbanites, who were more interested in profiting from Auckland's property boom than building roads and bridges in the regions. When John Key proved unable to hammer a nail into a billboard during the Northland campaign he amplified these charges.

Like Peters' and Little's rhetoric on the campaign trail in Northland, Phil Twyford's warnings about the takeover of Auckland by Chinese seem aimed at socially conservative Kiwis unhappy at the cultural as well as economic changes of recent decades. As Chris Trotter observes, few New Zealanders have understood until recently that the globalisation of their economy would inevitably lead to the globalisation of their population. A free trade deal with China has been followed by a flow of Chinese investment and immigrants. Most New Zealanders are unhappy with the housing bubble that Chinese investment has created. Sadly, many of them are also dismayed by the changing ethnicity of their neighbours. 
Historically, New Zealand's Labour Party has often been ready to adopt ideas and strategies developed overseas. The first Labour Prime Minister of New Zealand, Michael Joseph Savage, was born across the Tasman, and learned his politics in the small towns of New South Wales and Victoria. The radical free market reforms that the fourth Labour government gave New Zealand in the 1980s were sourced from the University of Chicago. A decade later, Helen Clark turned to Tony Blair and his notion of a 'Third Way' between social democracy and neo-liberalism when she wanted to remake the New Zealand Labour Party and prepare for a new term in office.

Like Little's by-election rhetoric, Twyford's warnings about Chinese investors seem borrowed from the playbook of an influential section of Britain's Labour Party. For years now, this circle of politicians and intellectuals has been promoting the notion that the left can win power by courting conservative working class voters alienated from the right by the economic and also cultural side effects of globalisation. They call their faction Blue Labour.

Blue Labour believes that decades of free market capitalism have disoriented and demoralised the British working class. The stable jobs, monolithic state institutions, and ethnically and cultural homogenous communities that supposedly characterised Britain in the decades after World War Two have been replaced by a fragmented state, which outsources many of its services, and a chaotic economy, in which the job security of the old era is hard to obtain. Meanwhile, new immigrants have altered the appearance and culture of many communities.

Britain's Tory leaders have traditionally posed as the defenders of their nation's borders and the champions of its traditional culture, but Blue Labour thinks they are more interested in importing cheap labour than protecting British sovereignty, and are more comfortable hobnobbing with Saudi investors in the City of London than drinking warm beer in an English pub. To fill the political space left by the Tories, though, Labour must repudiate both the enthusiasm for capitalist globalisation that dominated the Blair years and the opposition to nationalism that has been a staple of the party's socialist left. 

It would be wrong to say that Blue Labour captured Ed Miliband, but the faction's influence could certainly be seen on the former leader's speeches and policies. When Miliband used the slogan 'One Nation Labour' and invoked the nineteenth century Tory patriot Disraeli he was trying to occupy ground David Cameron had supposedly vacated. When Miliband made new curbs on immigration one of his election campaign pledges Blue Labour cheered. 
Although Blue Labour talks about reaching out in a very accessible way to ordinary voters, it bases its strategy on some quite sophisticated, and indeed esoteric, ideas.

Blue Labour is influenced by Toni Negri and Michael Hardt's idea that twenty-first century capitalism is outgrowing the nation state, and rendering traditional forms of government redundant. In their briefly famous book Empire Hardt and Negri argued for the bypassing old forms of government based on the nation state, and the creation of new, international structures. Blue Labour leaders like MP John Cruddas and academic-turned-peer Maurice Glasman, though, see the structures of the nation state as safeguards against a runaway capitalism. 

Blue Labour also borrows ideas from Telos, a journal that began in the 1970s by promoting a sort of Marxism, but has become, over the last couple of decades, a supporter of various forms of nationalism and regionalism. For many of the writers who publish in Telos and attend the journal's conferences, outfits like Italy's Northern League are bulwarks against a capitalist system and a set of supranational institutions that threaten to dissolve borders and submerge cultural differences. In the era of globalisation, parochialism is supposedly as subversive as socialism once was. 

A third source for Blue Labour thinkers is the left-wing versions of British nationalism developed by the likes of Henry Hyndman and George Orwell. In his little book The Lion and the Unicorn, which he wrote in the midst of the Battle of Britain and subtitled Socialism and the English Genius, Orwell compared his homeland to a family where the wrong members had all the money and power. The British ruling class was like a senile and extravagant patriarch that needed to be disciplined by its more sensible working class relatives. Orwell is remembered for his satires of Stalin's Soviet Union, but he also hated the capitalism of America, and feared that its crass and alien culture would overwhelm his beloved Britain. 

Orwell's left-wing nationalism found some surprising echoes in the decades after World War Two. When Queen Elizabeth II was crowned in 1953, for example, the Communist Party of Great Britain applauded, because it considered the coronation a show of British independence in the face of American-led global capitalism. 
Nostalgia for an order lost to the chaos of global capitalism has long been a part of left-wing discourse. In the ninteenth century William Morris deplored the destruction of Britain's countryside and craft industries by mills and railways; in the 1930s Walter Benjamin described socialist revolution as 'an emergency brake' that could save humanity from the destructive 'progress' of capitalism. Even Karl Marx, who as a young man celebrated the way that capitalism could make 'all that is solid melt into air', ended his career lamenting the destruction of the peasant communities of Russia at the hands of property speculators and industrialists. 

But where Marx and Morris and Benjamin advocated revitalising old institutions and practices and making them into components of a new, improved society, the Blue Labourites seem to take an uncritical and sentimental view of traditional parts of their society. The faction seems to support anything that socially conservative working class Britons favour, and to oppose whatever those Britons oppose. Maurice Glasman's statements of unqualified opposition to immigration and paeans to 'traditional religion' would fit easily into The Sun or the Daily Mail

Footnote: I discovered Blue Labour a couple of years ago, when Stuart White wrote an article called 'The Dignity of Dissent: EP Thompson and One Nation Labour' for the online journal Open Dissent. King was responding to the Sheffield political scientist Michael Kenny, who had suggested that the slogan 'One Nation Labour' might have pleased Britain's greatest twentieth century historian. King argued that Thompson would not have liked the intolerance that is implicit in the words 'One Nation': a sign of democratic health. But the rhetorical momentum of One Nation seems to carry us away from this, evoking unity as the ideal. Does dissent get in the way of the desired unity? Is it, therefore, fundamentally undesirable? How does One Nation Labour discriminate between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ kinds of division and disagreement? How can the necessary discriminations be conveyed within the confines of the One Nation concept?

I'm pleased that Stuart White cited my book about EP Thompson in support of his argument, because I think that the case he makes is both eloquent and correct. 

[Posted by Scott Hamilton]


Anonymous Anonymous said...

chris trotter doesn't like maori how come he supports white/nz nationalism?

12:53 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Background on Telos and its odd editor:

1:19 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The story for Piccone, and for Telos, begins with the crisis of Marxism. While many of us assume Marxist thought collapsed only recently – in 1989 – the real problems for Marxist dialectics date from the beginning of the twentieth century when what’s known as the Bernstein debate cast light on the Marxist approach to European imperialism. It was a complex issue involving dialectics and objectivity versus authentic subjectivity. In any case, it was the beginning of an identity crisis for Marxists that only got worse through the twentieth century. Ostensibly, Marxist thought, following in the footsteps of Hegel, was supposed to be concerned with restoring authentic subjectivity to the modern individual who had been objectified through the liberal, capitalist, bourgeois state. Now for some, such as Hegel, the state itself was intended as the political expression of man satisfied in his subjectivity. Marx did not entirely agree with this approach, but it was never clear from his thought exactly how the alienation of man from the contents of his life would be overcome. Various proposals were put forward since Marx’s day, some meeting with the approval of men like Lenin or Stalin, others always coming into question. Piccone is one of those who harboured lingering questions.

While this can get a bit technical, the political result of this debate played itself out in the Soviet Union and in its various successor regimes; in China, Vietnam, Cambodia, Cuba, etc. Each time Marxist communism was realized in a concrete nation it tended to have the nasty effect of destroying the nation, wrecking its economy and subjecting its citizens to abject degradation and death. One could say that all the elements of civil society were subsumed in and eviscerated by its representative, the state. Such a track record is a bit problematic given that Marx’s thought was built on the notion that subjectivity should be freed from objective oppression.

But what was the source of such objective oppression? Here we come across the classical Marxist answer, but it is not only Marx’s answer, it is the very story of modernity itself. One of the best places to read this story, in what may have been Marx’s outstanding philosophic work, is On the Jewish Question. This pithy and insightful work was an analysis of the modern liberal state, especially its European version. It is a reflection on the manner by which the liberal individual, carrier of rights and instantiation of the sovereign will, departs the state of nature, enters civil society, establishes the state as its representative agent, and then lives happily ever after. Or not. The “or not” an idea first expressed by Rousseau, made the point that the liberal solution turned citizens into producers, creating a pattern of alienation that would ultimately seek to homogenize all differences, replacing homo politicus with the less noble but presumably evermore stable homo economicus.

1:21 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

...all that appears to happen is the further homogenization of society as academic proposals become bureaucratic doctrine.

This dynamic, whereby the deficiencies of modern liberal individualism are supposedly overcome by state intervention and bureaucratic organization, far from reasserting social connectedness, turn the individual into a simple client of the state, classified and organized according to identity. Difference and diversity are celebrated, but with the intention of rendering any substantial distinctions irrelevant. This problem, the homogenization and assimilation of all distinct social elements to a statist dependence via programs aimed at promoting equality and inclusiveness would eventually become a key concern for both Piccone and Telos, key concerns which demonstrate the common thread between Piccone and similar concerns voiced by conservatives, especially in the American context.

On a host of issues, Piccone questioned the dominant liberal line. As noted, his views on affirmative action, race and gender issues were highly critical of the bureaucratic approach taken by liberals in the United States. As with many issues, he tended to view government programs to increase access for disenfranchised elements of society through the lens of emancipatory phenomenological Marxism. In this light, Piccone saw such programs as attempts to create “artificial negativity.” In other words, and contrary to an aspect of Hegelian and Marxist dialectics, the United States, through emancipation, progressivism and the New Deal, had actually co-opted and assimilated those groups who would otherwise have acted as a negative, i.e. as the oppositional force that would trigger the machinery of the Hegelian or Marxist dialectic. As such, there was no effective negativity in the United States. Of course, we have to understand how the dialectic works in Hegel and Marx. It is not purely oppositional, because negativity itself is necessary to the continued health of the whole apparatus. Without the opposition of negativity, the entire social structure stagnates and dies. A society must continue to produce its internal opposition in order to thrive (the fact that the Soviet Union collapsed without any new synthesis to take its place is itself a huge problem for this Marxist conception of progress).

Lacking such negativity, the US set about creating it artificially. This is where affirmative action comes in, along with judicial activism. Piccone notes that two main court cases, Brown v. Board of Education and Roe v. Wade, had the effect of solidifying a constituency for race and gender activism. But what were the results of this clientelism? In terms of race, it tended to create a small African-American middle class, while turning most African-Americans into effective state wards living in slum neighbourhoods. Similarly, in terms of gender, a small upper-middle class group of women came to dominate the feminist movement through its various incarnations, especially its second and third waves so dominant now in the academy. A not uncommon result was the impoverishment of numerous women, especially divorced lower-class mothers left struggling with children and the stress of making a living.

1:22 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Today, the prospects for federalist populism remain unclear, but Piccone did point to movements such as the northern Italian Lombard League as an example of a regional group seeking to take control of local matters through a populist political initiative. In this case, it was regional political self-determination seeking to counter the failures of a national government, which brings us to a final theme in Piccone’s thought. Piccone showed great interest in the future, or future demise, of the nation-state. Given the contours of his thought, it is not surprising that he maintained a studied distaste for the nation with its objectifying bureaucracy and its moralistic social activism. At the same time, the last page of this collection suggests an uncertainty regarding the benefits to be derived from the decline of the nation. Speaking of the European Union, he notes that the EU may develop into a forum for federal populism, but the signs were unsure. In fact, Piccone comments that the EU could easily turn into nothing more than an expansive bureaucratic welfare state that has little interest in the grassroots concerns of its citizens. Given the EU’s penchant for demonizing every populist movement on the continent, Piccone’s fears appear to be justified. The most obvious expression of this can be seen in the manner in which the EU bullies national voting constituencies, either by insisting on numerous votes until the EU gets the result it wants, at which point voting ceases in perpetuity, or by cynically reworking the failed EU constitution (defeated by voters in the Netherlands and France) into the Lisbon Treaty and allowing no one to vote on it, save the Irish who then rejected it. But no matter, the bureaucratic elite of Europe will push ahead.

The irony in Europe is that Europeans generally prefer something along the lines of Piccone’s federal populism. They’ve come to appreciate the open borders and economic flexibility that increases daily in Europe, but they do not wish to give up control of social and foreign policy to Brussels or a centralized judiciary. As such, a rift grows daily between the brow-beaten citizenry of the European nations and their unresponsive political class. But this point might suggest that, in today’s Europe, it is precisely the nation, betrayed by the political class, that is the last rallying point for those who would defend political life against the encroachments of homogenization, academic and judicial elites, and bureaucratic functionalism. And this, I would argue, is due in part to the fact that the nation is not simply in the service of emancipation as conceived by Hegel or Marx, but also allows for the “putting in common” that Aristotle saw in the Greek cities. On this point, I would certainly diverge from Piccone, but on many points, this erudite author, master of phenomenology and Marxism, constant critic of liberal banality and its apologists, was a source of penetrating clarity in a sea of muddled academic and social verbosity.

1:24 pm  
Anonymous Kumara Republic said...

Sometimes I wonder if the Aussie Labor Party also counts. Then again, NZ thankfully doesn't have its equivalent to the Nauru Detention Centre yet.

1:55 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks for this, Scott. Very interesting.

In a NZ context "Blue Labour" evokes an obvious Godwin, so they'll probably want to avoid that. On the wider issue, if this is a long-term strategy rather than short-term tactic, Labour will have to keep feeding the red meat to voters. Next time there's a "PC" issue (gender or Treaty related, for example), Little will have to prove his Blokeyness. And so on, until the election.

The Orewa comparison has been made, but it's flawed because National's internal audience was already conservative. Labour's external audience might be, but within the party? Winning passive votes while losing active members is a risky strategy indeed.


2:45 pm  
Anonymous Lionel Terry said...

Chris hits back at the self-hating liberals who want to surrender to Chinese imperialism:

3:31 pm  
Anonymous Andrew said...

Good article, intriguing (and depressing) proposition. Re: your footnote about EP Thompson though, the article you link to is by Stuart White, not Stuart King. You might want to amend that bit of the text above...

4:43 pm  
Anonymous Scott Hamilton said...

Thanks for that correction Andrew! It's years since I ventured into the realms of British intra-left discourse!

I suppose that the rise of Jeremy Corbyn in the current Labour leadership race might help to offset some of the gloom that Blue Labour inspires?

4:59 pm  
Blogger Richard said...

Globalisation is maybe a fact (whatever that stupid slogan means), but it doesn't mean we need to allow overseas buyers to speculate in housing assets. The majority of Chinese are quite poor and I think it was Hamish pointed out that land is either impossible to buy or very expensive in China. Where I live the local real estate chap (from Indo-China or some other area of Asia himself) boasts of selling for $1,280,000 a house in Ferndale road, to his Chinese clients. My own daughter found that at auction after auction (house auctions should be banned in Auckland at least) Chinese or Asian buyers mostly won. My friend sold his house and a Chinese investor bought it. There is no need for Kiwis to be pushed aside. Especially young kiwis, from getting a house. This long rambling stuff avoids the issue that housing is expensive, rates are going up exorbitantly due to your mate the corrupt fornicator Mayor Brown and company, and I will have to pay more for not much. I have all kinds of neighbours, of all kinds of ethnicity: no problem there. But in any nation the Government needs to look after those already established. We re talking mostly of foreign investors. These need to be kept out. I think anyone buying in Auckland needs to be vetted and auctions stopped. And rates should never be connected necessarily to house values, but to income. This and rents. Rents have been overlooked also.

Labour also needs to limit immigration of from all places and start a house building program so young working class, 'blue collar' and professional working class kiwis can get houses for their families.

10:16 pm  
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