the Naked Celt (nakedcelt) wrote,
the Naked Celt

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Election ranting, part two

Oh, shut up. A week does so count as "a couple of days" by the standards of this blog.

Right. New Zealand's general election.

I voted for the Greens, who have been steadily increasing their share of the electorate ever since they split off the Alliance—

—Ah, but I forgot. You guys aren't all New Zealanders, you don't know how voting works here or what the parties are.

New Zealand used to have a "First Past the Post" electoral system. You voted for your electorate's MP. Each MP belonged to a political party, but you had no say over the parties, only the MPs. When the votes were all counted, whichever party had got a majority of the MPs in became the Government.

As in the United States to this day, this meant that two parties dominated the scene: in our case, National on the right and Labour on the left. Occasionally a minor party might get a look-in; when I was a kid I remember people talking about something called Social Credit. But they never got more than a seat or two, I don't think. I still don't know what Social Credit was.

In the '70s and '80s, the so-called "left" and "right" got all twisted around. Robert Muldoon's statist National government was replaced in 1984 by David Lange's monetarist Labour government. I was six years old. I remember my mother saying she was going to vote Social Credit because she didn't like David Lange, but she wanted Labour to win.

The Fourth Labour Government is still an object of scorn among New Zealand's lefties. In 1990 the National Party came back, and turned out to be just like the Labour Party only more so. They gutted the welfare system and introduced the Employment Contracts Act, which knocked the teeth out of trade unions.

In particular, benefits for single parents were slashed. They say the first three years of life are the most critical to moral development. New Zealand is currently experiencing a wave of violent crime by people whose first three years of life occurred during the previous National government's tenure.

The '90s were the great era of party splitoffs in New Zealand politics. First Jim Anderton, an old Labour statist, split off with New Labour. Then some of the most monetarist people in the Labour Party split off in the other direction and became ACT (originally this stood for "Association of Consumers and Taxpayers", but I haven't heard that phrase since about 1999). Then Winston Peters split off National and formed the New Zealand First party, which, as its name implies, is mostly about keeping immigrants out. I can't remember which party Peter Dunne came from, but he ended up heading the United party.

The Greens also burst into New Zealand politics at this time; they and New Labour and a few others formed a coalition called the Alliance.

Not coincidentally, the 1990s was also the end of First Past the Post and the beginning of the Mixed Member Proportional system. Now you cast a party vote and an electorate vote. The person who gets the most electorate votes, still gets in to represent their electorate. But there are more seats in Parliament than there are electorates. Each party also has a list of its top 50 or so members. Parliament has 120 seats — generally — so if your party only gets one MP in an electorate seat, but gets 10% of the party vote, the top eleven people on the list (not counting the electorate MP, who's already in) make up the balance. The parties then do coalition deals until some grouping of them forms a stable majority, who then become the government.

This is complicated by the fact that if your party has no electorate MPs, it has to get more than 5% of the party vote or it's ignored when it comes time to allot list MP seats. But if it's under 5% and gets even one electorate seat, it gets its full complement of list MPs.

Oh, look, the rest you can look up in a history book or Wikipedia or something. The crucial bit, for me: the Greens left the Alliance in the late '90s or something, then after one term in Parliament Jim Anderton also split off with a party he calls the Progressives. Jim Anderton's electorate seat is safe until he retires from politics, but the Progressives are nothing without him. The Alliance fell off the map years ago.

New Zealand First is now out of Parliament; it got about 4.4% of the vote, but Winston Peters failed to hold Tauranga. For the first time in my life, Winston Peters is not an MP. I've met a few MPs in my time and most of them seemed to be decent people, out to do good for the country — the big disagreement being what exactly constitutes "good for the country". Not Winston. Winston is a giant popinjay. Well, I say "giant" — he comes about up to my shoulder, if that. He's shorter than Tom Cruise. Basically, he's a Little Angry Man. You know the type.

Since 1996, the first election I voted in, when he promised to get rid of National and then formed a coalition with them, I've been longing for this day. Trust him to get kicked out just when the Left needed him.

Not that I voted for him, then or ever. I voted Alliance in 1996, 1999 and (I think) 2002, but come 2005 they were down and out. The Greens were polling around the 5% mark and had no electorate MPs, so rather than have nobody at all in Parliament representing anything like my ideals, I voted Green; and the same again this time.

Only... in the intervening three years, I'm no longer so certain that the Greens are my second choice.

By invitation I spent election night this year at a party run by the International Socialists. The IS have always supported the Alliance at election time, but this year even they were saying "vote for Labour or the Greens". I've known the IS for a long time through my involvement in student activism. They tend to be angry, earnest, and (in groups) a little over-fond of the sound of their own voices, but hey, I'm hardly in a position to judge.

The point of disagreement...

A few weeks before the election there was a political debate organized by the local students' associations; I remember having, er, animated discussions both with the guy who'd turned up to represent the National Party, and with a guy from a minor group called the Workers' Party who'd turned up to support the Alliance.

With the National guy, Conway Powell, I did what I generally do with politicians, which is keep talking about what works or doesn't work and not letting him get into a spiel. He was a surprisingly pleasant and reasonable person; he agrees with protecting the environment, he said he didn't want to take away welfare support from beneficiaries, and his major concern is that New Zealand is becoming a low-wage economy. I felt like grabbing him by the shoulders and going "Why the hell are you in National?" But the socialist guy...

The socialist guy reckoned Gandhi achieved nothing. Well, I'd agree that Gandhi is not a hero to the lowest castes of Indian society, but achieved nothing...? Not long after touching on Gandhi, I brought up the abolition of slavery. Oh, that's irrelevant, he said, it didn't get rid of capitalism.

The end of slavery was irrelevant because it didn't get rid of capitalism.

That is not a point of view I can have a conversation with.

Look, I do agree with the socialists that workers' rights can only come from a workers' movement. It won't come from a magnanimous gesture by a patronizing ruling class. But a Marxist who dismisses bourgeois conscience entirely as a social force for good has forgotten which class Marx (and Engels, and Lenin) actually came from.

At the election night party the IS had all their publications and badges and things spread out on a table for people to buy as fundraisers. One was a badge reading just "NO WAR". And I heard the main organizer apologizing for this to a fellow socialist; it was a slogan, you couldn't fit a proper solution onto a tiny badge, but he'd seen a good one that said "No War Between Nations, No Peace Between Classes"...

I tactfully kept quiet again.

Socialists talk a lot about not responding to violent crime, or terrorism, or "rogue states", with escalation. It's a systemic problem, they say, look for the cause. And that's exactly what I would say too. But when you get right down to it orthodox Marxism doesn't address systems and social structures, it just shifts the blame — and the target of vengeance — from one group of people to another.

Marx saw that the bourgeois class of his day oppressed the working class. Capitalism, he said, is theft. The value of a product comes from the raw materials plus the labour. To make a profit, you have to pay less for the labour than the value it added to the product. That stolen value goes into the pockets of the capitalists.

So far I largely agree. Oh, good ideas, good designs, count towards the value of the product as well — but designers are labourers too. Come on, how many CEOs personally design the products their companies make? Really? And sure, having a large co-ordinated organization allows for economies of scale, which add more value; but then why not funnel that added value back into the organization, where it came from? Why should it go to CEOs and shareholders?

Oh, because they put up the money. Well, where did that money come from, if not from more capitalist theft?

So far no major disagreements; but here comes one. Capitalism, says Marx, is all about the owning class — a collective of people, comprising (in his day) big tycoons and company owners — stealing value from the working class. The distinction between the classes is the root cause of all the trouble; the structure of the corporation is just a tool the owning class use for their purposes.

That may well have been how it all started, and I certainly wouldn't deny the problems caused by large income gaps; but I do not, I cannot, agree that a managerial "class" is knowingly and willingly using the corporate structure to cling to power. I've met managers and employers too. They're not power-hungry bastards, and they certainly don't have what we lefties call "class consciousness". Sure, they'll look after their own interests, but they don't look after each other's interests. It is a fact, a fact which cannot be explained by orthodox Marxist analysis, but a fact nonetheless, that middle-class and higher people themselves are starting to take a critical look at the corporations. Cynically, I suppose you could say they're starting to realize that if they fuck up the environment they'll have nothing to spend their money on.

A quick note; some of you may not be from socialist backgrounds, so I should explain about now that the society socialists actually want looks nothing like Soviet Russia or Maoist China. Rather, it looks very like what the open-source people and the commons movement want — reduced (or no) government, no big executives, workers doing work in non-hierarchical networks of open project teams.

Open-source, and the commons movement? Those aren't things you associate with Marx and Lenin and Ché Guevara. They're white-collar people. I'd never have believed it, but some of those who come closest to articulating the original socialist ideal are actually libertarians.

At university, you see, all the libertarians you met — especially if you were a leftie like me — were Randites; people who don't like democracy because they think the majority are too dumb to be trusted with a vote, and who are they to impose their wishes on we the élite anyway? I was rude enough last year to assert, in an opinion piece for Gyro, that all libertarians were like that. Since then I have encountered a few non-Randite libertarians — people like Matt Ridley, David Brin, or Paul Graham — who don't like government because they think people are perfectly capable of sorting things out for themselves. Unlike Randites, I imagine I could have a constructive conversation with that kind of libertarian. I'm sure we'd still disagree on some points, like the place of the profit motive, but we could have a constructive conversation.

And I'm convinced that Marx's emphasis on class identity rather than mechanism is the root cause of the failure of socialism to deliver that world. Because the ruling class will always protect their own power as a class, there can be no alliances with individual businesspeople. The class distinction must be smashed first, before any benefits of the classless society can be realized. There can be no peaceful path from here to there. There must be a revolution, and it must be a violent, armed revolution.

Now Marx had the example of the French Revolution and the English Civil War in front of him. You'd think he could have looked very carefully at Napoleon and Oliver Cromwell. You'd think he could have realized: if you sweep away one system by violence, your new system will rule by violence.

That's how it works, you see. You don't storm the Bastille one day and settle down to enjoy the new utopia the next. There will be remnants of the old régime, and they will fight back, because they know they've got nowhere to go in your new system. So you've got to keep fighting. And then more will pop up, and you've got to fight them too. And more, and you've got to fight them. And there will never be a clear line dividing "remnants of the old régime" from "legitimate critics and dissenters". You end up wiping out all critics and dissenters, and what you have then is a dictatorship. Plain and simple.

(The American Revolution, and the various independence movements and anti-colonial wars of the twentieth century, were different for one simple reason: their ruling classes were based elsewhere. Beyond a certain point it was no longer worth their while keeping on fighting; they simply withdrew.)

But no. Apparently Marx really believed that eliminating existing class distinctions would be enough to prevent revolutions from becoming tyrannies, to prevent new class distinctions from arising. How could the working class oppress itself?

History's answer is: "Very easily."

The fact is, in any system, you'll have people with alternative ideas trying to do things a different way. Now, if your new system's only defence against capitalism is violence, that means it will always have to use violence whenever capitalist-like ideas arise. If any new system is to supersede capitalism and end up peaceful and free, it must push capitalism aside without the use of armed force.

That's why, these days, I'm finding myself swinging more green than red.

OK, that's enough for now. Don't know if I'll blog again before Christmas, but if I do, I think I'll spend a bit of time talking about my ideas of an alternative sociopolitical system and how we might get there.

Oh, and Gregor and I are back as Gyro editors again next year.

EDIT: Heh. Whoops. Forgot to say — the National Party are now New Zealand's government.
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