...And freely men confess that this world's spent, When in the planets and the firmament They seek so many new; they see that this Is crumbled out again to his atomies. 'Tis all in pieces, all coherence gone, All just supply, and all relation...
First of all, a short disclaimer - what follows is as much a self-criticism as it is a criticism directed against the praxis of friends and comrades still active in the arena of NZ left politics. For the past 11 years, beginning as a naive 17 year-old Labour Party activist before rapidly moving on to the extra-parliamentary socialist left, I have been a partisan of what you might call "working class politics".
During the same time I have also been a trade union delegate/activist (6 years) and been involved in 2 socialist election campaigns.
However I have now reached the conclusion that - in New Zealand at least - the construction of a working class political movement is at the present time a futile endeavour.
Simply because the working class as a collective conscious subject at the moment does not exist.
This is easily shown by the official government statistics, which reveal the number of workers belonging to trade unions and taking part in industrial action have since the mid-late 1990s remained at all-time historic lows. Even more damning is the fact that in the 2006 NZ Census over 35% of respondents identified as either "managers" or "professionals".
At a more fundamental level though (and despite the current financial crisis), the social conditions which could possibly lead to the emergence of class consciousness are largely absent from this country. Indeed, as a result of the decline in employment in NZ manufacturing and industry since the 1980s most workers are now employed either in white-collar service jobs or as semi-casual or transient employees in areas like retail, cleaning and hospitality. While the white-collar workers such as teachers and public servants are made to feel as though they are part of the bourgeoisie through the rhetoric of "partnership" and managerialism, the workers in supermarkets, hotels etc by virtue of their transient status are for the most part too atomised and too lacking in social weight to achieve any kind of collective consciousness. And I say this as someone who has had extensive experience of trying to unionise workers in the supermarket industry!
While a small number of unions such as Unite in Auckland through their heroic voluntaristic efforts succeed in unionising some of these workers, even their organisers will tell you that the membership turn-over in a 12 month period is nearly 100%.
Then of course there are the lumpen-proletariat - a growing portion of NZ society cast out on the economic scrapheap by the neo-liberal reforms of the past two decades, whose only "identity" such as it is derives from their membership of gang, boy-racer or perhaps the fundamentalist church fraternities.
So what does all of this mean for the political organisations of the left?
Essentially it means that for the most part when conducting protests, election campaigns, paper sales etc these groups - whether they be social democrats, anarchists or marxists - are talking to nobody but themselves. The working class does not exist either as an active subject or as a political audience.
Some left groups are so far away from understanding this that they talk as though "mass anger" and "grassroots rebellion" are imminent, only just lurking below the surface of the apathetic multitude.
Other groups are more realistic and correctly assess the nature of the period in which they are operating as one of political downturn, yet still they do not draw the logical conclusions that flow from this. They continue to maintain the apparatus of a political party/movement/organisation with a paid-up membership, publications, leading bodies etc and to believe that their interventions into other hollowed out "mass" organisations such as student or trade unions (in reality nothing more than paper tigers) actually have some significance.
Even worse, because they have not internalised the reality that trying to conduct "mass politics" without the masses is a futile exercise, they continue to act as though disputes over political program or their various little "interventions" are actually matters of life-and-death importance.
They have not yet understood that trying to maintain the project of working class political representation - in a period where the working class has been comprehensively defeated and atomised - through substitutionist and voluntarist methods is actually positively harmful and dangerous.
It can lead only to the fragmentation and demoralisation of the left, which instead of devoting its time to ideological debate and renewal instead wastes itself arguing over which organisation's program more authentically represents the interests of the working class, a class which is not in any case currently capable of being represented.
No wonder then that ranks of the NZ left are so thin - and so lacking in people of youth and talent as well as (in many ways the most essential ingredient!) personability!
Surely comrades it is time to draw a line through this whole ridiculous farrago, dissolve the Potemkin Villages of the left and put our time and energies into developing serious socialist political debate and analysis (and not just the received truths of 20th century gurus!) among the small number of radicalised individuals who we can hope to reach at the present time.
At the moment though it seems as though we are only running the film of Spain in the 1920s and 30s in reverse - there it was the circle of Republican progressive intellectuals who could not adequately make the transition from the age of ensayistas and tertulias to the age of mass politics and so fell victim to Franco.
Now in the 21st century that the curtain has fallen on the mass political party as a viable option the left is still refusing to exit that stage however and remains alone, sitting in the darkness.