Thursday, April 16, 2009

Mass politics without the masses?

...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.


  1. Tim, that post is interesting; among other things, I guess its a challenge of the point of my preoccupation over the last 37 years. I don't have the time to respond as fully as I'd like to, so I'll just make a couple of points that immediately come to mind.
    In one of the few concessions you make above to workingclass progress you write " 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%."
    That's because there is a high turnover in dead shit jobs, even during a recession. The effect of Unite's work has several facets. One of those is introducing young workers to unionism for the first time and, in most cases, giving them a positive experience of it. When they leave KFC for somewhere else they take that stuff with them. That's a huge plus for the workingclass as a whole. Its a very long haul doing such organising work, but not because the working class are inherently obtuse. The main problem is that over the last few decades, capitalism has considerably tightened up. Employers are more aggressively anti union, there are fewer legal rights for unions, there is more surveilance of workers on and off the job, there is more casualisation and more social dislocation. I think there is also a stronger current of class collaboration at the top of the union movement. In face of this darkness, the left is not sitting, nor alone. Even in its worst moments,it never has been. Since my first contact with communists, in the Wellington Committee on Vietnam, I've seen time and again their efforts provide a spine to social movements, without which they would often have collapsed. Along with that there have been all sorts of errors, including some bad ones. What excites me today is the real progress made in getting rid of Cold War era baggage and moved closer to an understanding of proletarian internationalism and revolutionary marxism. The job is very hard, but in my opinion the alternative is impossible.

  2. Hi Don,

    thanks for your comments.

    I completely take your point about the transient nature of the workforce in low-end service sector jobs being nothing new, but I guess the main point I was trying to make in my original post was that the real problem is the profound structural changes in the composition of the NZ working class over the past few decades. Where are all the large job sites with stable, permanent employment (such as the car plants, freezing works etc) - which made the development of class consciousness and solidarity (albeit usually of a reformist variety) possible - now?

    My experience of trade union organising in the retail sector is that unlike in the traditional large manufacturing job sites, rank and file activism and shop floor organisation is impossible to develop and sustain for any significant period without continuous external intervention from outside the workplace. This in turn requires an enormous expenditure of human resources which most unions simply cannot sustain and is in a sense quite an artificial or substitutionist mode of organisation.

    Historically the only occasions when spontaneous shopfloor organisation has been possible to sustain among groups of transient workers (eg shearers or hotel workers) that I can think of have coincided with big upheavals among the big proletarian battalions eg during the era of the miners' Red Federation here in NZ or overseas in the wake of the Minneapolis Teamsters strikes.

    But in NZ these major "proletarian battalions" are much diminished now both in terms of absolute numbers and in terms of a percentage of the overall workforce.

    So my question is, in what sense is it still meaningful in NZ today to talk of class consciousness as an organic entity having its own independent and autonomous existence?

  3. Tim I can certainly relate to your reference to the carplants, where I did my political apprenticeship.
    It was much easier to organise when 400 people were under the same roof.

    Now most of that's gone. Over the years I've bumped into former Ford workers from time to time. Most of them got jobs in smaller worksites. Most of them were keen to reminiss about the days gone by when we had a relatively good living and human dignity through mass organisation.

    I think class consciousness does exist today , on a smaller scale. The recent Auckland call centre workers win was an expression of that I think. In Wellington our support action for the call centre workers was made up entirely of various leftists. Substitutionist it could perhaps be argued. Still, Auckland felt that we had helped their cause.

    I do find it very hard slow going as a Unite organiser, and can now better appreciate the difficulty of trying to organise in a supermarket.
    Even so, we don't lose them all. The main thing is,I suppose, the system is so shitty that I still think it is the best use of my time to oppose it.

    all the best,


  4. GIdday Tim and Don,

    This is a good discussion.
    I think the main problem with the WP is its mischaracterisation of NZ society (of course the method behind that is the real problem).

    The WP position leads to fatalism. First it fails to see that NZs rapid economic deterioration will generate an anti-imperialist politics that has to be joined and won over to socialism.
    So it wipes out all nationalist struggles as reactionary when nationalism is the terrain where most radicalism will break through.

    The SWP did this to Latin America during WW2 to avoid the question of anti-imperialism and hence any questioning of its US hegemonic Trotskyism. The result was a complete lack of orientation to the nationalist left, and in Argentina, where Trotskyists failed to intersect the Peronists or worse joined them.

    The crisis today shows NZ is in the same position. Most the soft left is nationalist but not necessarily chauvinist. They see the crisis as imposed on them by US bankers not non-existent NZ bankers. If you can't address the reality of NZ's semi-colonial oppression, then of course you will not be taken seriously by workers, and you will end up demoralised blaming the working class for not existing as a revolutionary subject.

    Well the subjective aspect of the revolutionary proletariat is not something that emerges spontaneously, it has to come from a revolutionary vanguard. The vanguard does not shut up shop and wait for workers to get ready. It helps them to get ready.

    The other thing about recognising NZ as a semi-colony is that you stop fretting about NZ as a one country, and see it as part of an international global class struggle in which NZ marxists will play a bigger role outside than inside NZ.

    The revolution won't start in NZ it will roll over Aotearoa like a Tsunami. I would rather be at the epicentre than wait to be washed up on the wave when it reaches this country.

    Finally, as well as creating new conditions for class struggle in NZ, the global crisis opens up lots of semi-revolutionary situations which revolutionary Trotskyists have duty to interven in. If you were in France today you would be in the NPA fighting for a Transitional Program, no?