The opportunity for politics: A reply to Ben Peterson

Source: The Daily Blog

Source: The Daily Blog

By Ian Anderson, Fightback Whanganui-a-Tara/Wellington.

I’d like to thank Ben Peterson for responding to Daphne Lawless’ recent article Against Conservative Leftism, published by Fightback, with his own piece. While we may disagree on some points, I am glad he has taken us up on this debate.

First I’d like to clear up a possible misconception about Daphne’s article. The article was planned before the TPPA rallies on the 4th of February, and was not intended mainly as a commentary on the TPPA campaign. On the day after the TPPA rallies, Fightback published a piece by NZNO President Grant Brookes, explaining the health impacts of the TPPA. We are opposed to the TPPA and have supported rallies across the country.

Daphne’s article on Conservative Leftism was published over a week after the February TPPA rallies. This article was originally proposed as part of Fightback’s magazine issue on neoliberalism, and takes a wider view than simply assessing the TPPA campaign. Daphne’s thesis is that those leftists who simply react against neoliberalism, without developing a positive program to transcend it, end up in a funk of ‘conservative leftism.’

However, as the TPPA campaign is currently the vehicle for much anti-neoliberal sentiment, I will focus on Ben’s argument concerning the February 4th mobilisation:

A Marxist understanding of politics has to have the participation of ordinary people at the center of its perspective. “Against Conservative Leftism” starts with the massive rally against the TPPA on the 4th of February, but rather than seeing it as a positive that 20,000 largely working class people shut down the city, the participation of regular people becomes a problem that must be overcome.

Ben contends that popular participation must be the centre, and the start of analysis. Socialist analysis could start from many useful places in responding to the TPPA: the neoliberal assault of the past thirty years, the history of international ‘free trade’ agreements, the history of colonisation in the Pacific, the class dynamics within and between nations, the role of NZ imperialism, or indeed the role of popular resistance.

Clearly popular participation must be central. My contention is that popular participation is necessary but insufficient for radical politics, or for any kind of politics. Many political projects encourage popular participation, for various ends – voter drives for liberal candidates, the mass rallies of fascism and Stalinism – even the neoliberal mass media age encourages a certain ‘wisdom of the crowd,’ with flash mobs and real-time twitter commentary paying testament to democracy, as inequality grows. Popular participation is only the beginning of the story. Politics must be primary.

The problems Daphne identified were not problems of popular participation, but problems of political leadership. After a thirty year period of working-class defeat, left organisers tend to take defensive, reactive positions – at best a militant negation of neoliberalism without a positive programme, at worst a form of nostalgia that panders to racist nationalism.

A section of the left has recently taken to defending the current flag, with its history of colonial violence. Whereas I consider the flag campaign a dangerous diversion, it’s certainly possible to mount a principled case against the TPPA. As Ben has argued in the past:

John Key is not the puppet of a shadowy new world order based in the US – he represents the very visible rich and powerful at home. This rich and powerful class is happy to sell out ordinary kiwis, if it means they can make more money overseas…

For the wealthy farmers in NZ, the prize in the TPPA would be the ability to undercut the dairy industry in North America, which could destroy many farming communities there. The NZ dairy mafia in Fonterra have no right to get rich at the expense of farming communities abroad (in the same way they don’t have the right to do it at the expense of the environment at home). These farming communities across the waves in the Americas can be friends and allies in fighting this trade deal – but only if TPPA opponents are focused on the TPPA as a whole and not caught behind the ‘national interests’.

Opponents of the TPPA will only be able to work together with these allies if we keep our focus on the trade deals for the rich. In each of the 12 nations involved in the TPPA negotiations there will be winners. It might be mining magnates from Australia, or manufacturers in South Korea. But in each country, working people will lose.

Many opposing the TPPA are exactly the forces who must be stitched together if we hope to achieve meaningful social justice; unionists, meat workers, nurses, teachers, students, precarious urban workers, and those dispossessed by structural underemployment. However, these forces must be united on a principled basis, preferably on a positive programme to transcend neoliberal capitalism, rather than a defence of the supportable parts of the status quo. As Ben implies, opposition to the TPPA unfortunately hides behind ‘national interests’, which is at best misleading (fostering illusions in local ownership) and at worst actively dangerous (fostering racism).

Unfortunately, as Ben well knows, a minority from ultra-nationalist group Right Wing Resistance attend and promote anti-TPPA rallies. This is the sort of group that blames Jews, homosexuals and Marxists for the degeneration of the white nation – the bizarre, ugly sharp edge of nationalism. A comment on Ben’s post about this topic in December 2015 offers a liberal take on fascist involvement:

Some members of the Right Wing Resistance may have been proud to support some of the anti-TPPA marches, but we have no way of censoring thousands of people’s personal ideologies that turn up to any of our marches. And frankly, the focus is anti-TPPA, not other agenda.

This is a very common response to neo-nazis in Aotearoa/NZ, and as I know Ben agrees, thoroughly inadequate. By including the ideological heirs of the Third Reich at an event, we de facto exclude Jewish people, queers, and other oppressed people. There is no way of including everyone; we seek rather to unite the oppressed, exploited and their allies; ultimately the majority of Aotearoa/NZ.

Banning fascists from left-wing events should not be controversial, and is not mutually exclusive with mass politics. Banning neo-nazis is an ordinary part of mass actions in Germany and other parts of Europe, for obvious historical reasons. The problem of broad movements tolerating fascists can no longer be reduced to the occasional ‘call-out’ or squabble at the fringes, by individuals deemed haters and wreckers. We need to institutionalise a principled anti-fascist policy. Marshalls at events, or safer spaces contacts, could ensure this is a collective responsibility rather than being left to individuals.

Previously, I have argued that fascism is marginal in Aotearoa/New Zealand: with this country relatively sheltered from the global financial crisis, no significant ruling-class support for fascist movements, and no discernible growth of the formal neo-nazi groups since their peak in 2004, it appeared to me that this problem was overstated by sections of the far left. However, while formal fascism is marginal, it is hard to deny that xenophobia is a more common reaction to the protracted crisis than left internationalism. And xenophobia is one of the central elements Daphne identified of Conservative Leftism.

This is a mainstream enough problem to merit commentary by chart topping NZ hip-hop artist David Dallas:

They buying everything that ain’t taxed
Blame it on the Chinese
Say it’s foreign buyers
But if a Brit buys up
You don’t bat an eyelid
Fuckin’ wilin’
Could be third-generation migrants
But we out here ticking up on last names
What’s next? Gonna check what shape their eyes is?
To tell the truth it probably wouldn’t be surprising
Seem to have an issue with what the country comprises
Xenophobes on the rise and
I don’t rate that shit

Whether or not fascism is a meaningful risk (that argument could quickly degenerate into semantics), zero tolerance for xenophobia must be a bottom line.

Those with actual swastikas and white power tattoos remain thankfully a minority. Many, including ourselves, will have ‘softer’, unexamined forms of racism and nationalism ingrained. As Ben underlines, radicals do not emerge fully formed. Daphne argues for engagement rather than abstention – if comrades will forgive another lengthy quote:

The late British Marxist Tony Cliff explained the ideas of “opportunism” and “sectarianism” like this.

Say you’re on a picket line, waiting for the cops to come. The worker next to you starts making racist comments about immigrants taking our jobs. The sectarian response is: you walk off the picket line, refusing to have solidarity with a racist. The opportunist response is: you pretend you don’t hear, you just change the subject. Whereas Cliff argued that the correct revolutionary response is: you argue with the racist ideas, firmly, telling the worker expressing them that immigrants are welcome and those ideas will bring down the movement. But, when the police comes, you link arms against them with everyone on the picket line.

In Aotearoa/New Zealand activist circles at the moment, my contention is that the organised Marxist left has increasingly taken an opportunist approach to conservative leftism. Even for those of us who do not agree with nationalism and xenophobia, back-to-the-land/anti-urban ideas, anti-science or conspiracy theory, there has not been enough effort to confront these ideas. Senior members of the MANA movement, for example, have refused to deal with anti-Semitic hatred posted on their Facebook pages, even when this was pointed out to them.

The logic is clear – of wanting to build a broad movement, of not wanting to be cut off from the movement. Conservative leftism is not a terrible disease, like fascism or even red-brown politics. It’s not something we have to separate ourselves from. But it is something we have to fight, intellectually and politically, within the movements.

Ben strongly implies that Daphne’s argument stems from a distrust of working people. On the contrary, Fightback trusts precisely that people can be won to a principled internationalist position, rather than assuming that we need to pander to the worst elements of “common sense” (in Gramsci’s sense of the term).

Although nationalism is central to this debate, conservative leftism does not consist solely of nationalism. Marxists also have to take a positive stand within the movement against anti-urbanist, back-to-the-land, conspiracy theory or anti-science ideas which are becoming popular in the movements. Conservative leftism is a kneejerk reaction to neoliberalism, falling on easy intellectual crutches, perpetuated when radicals pander rather than arguing for a clear alternative. In Daphne’s words, “We do not argue that conservative leftism is the same as “red-brown” politics. What we argue is that it offers no intellectual defence against it.”

I agree with Ben that tens of thousands of people shutting down Auckland City, in response to a neoliberal trade deal, is an opportunity. However, our political project cannot begin and end with this moment of opportunity. As Jodi Dean phrases it in her recent book Crowds and Party:

The crowd does not [inherently] have a politics. It is the opportunity for politics. 

If we do not sharpen our politics, both practically and theoretically, the opportunity will pass. Popular mobilisation is necessary but insufficient; intolerance of racism is necessary but insufficient; we must develop a clear internationalist programme, and organise on that basis. We must challenge eachother and ourselves. I celebrate the militancy of February 4th, and criticise because I think we can do so much better.

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