“Appealing to an audience which no longer exists” – Daphne Lawless at the Left Forum in New York City

dbpb_e8xkaarny1Fightback‘s Daphne Lawless was invited to address (via Skype) a panel at the Left Forum in New York City, hosted by the Marxist-Humanist Initiative, on the subject of Has “The Left” Accomodated Trump (And Putin)? The MHI comrades recorded the whole panel and will publish the video later; here are Daphne’s speech notes.

Kia ora kotou katoa. My name is Daphne Lawless, I live under the volcano Ōwairaka in the city of Tāmaki Makarau, or Auckland, in the land of Aotearoa – New Zealand. I am the wife of Tricia, the mother of Francesca, and a member of the socialist media collective Fightback.

I would like to begin by thanking the Marxist-Humanist Initiative for inviting me to this panel, and making it possible to participate. I’d like to greet everyone else on this panel, everyone attenting at the Left Forum in New York City, and by acknowledging the indigenous peoples of that area, the Lenape and the Munsee.

Right. Formalities completed – let’s start making enemies. I say this because when I say the things I’m about to say in forums in the country where I live, it certainly doesn’t make me more popular!

New Zealand is fortunate among the Anglophone countries in that the reactionary mass movements which have led to Trump in the United States, Brexit in the UK, and a whole mess of racist and Islamophobic nonsense in Australia haven’t found purchase here – yet. In my experience, New Zealand tends to be 5 years behind world politics. Which means we’re due for our own similar phenomenon any year now.

However, New Zealand is a small country – 4.5 million inhabitants, just over half the population of New York City – and our politics are very influenced by what happens in the “imperialist metropolises” in Britain and the United States. Arguments made on the Left in those countries tend to be mechanically applied to local positions – as long as they are arguments which agree with what the locals wanted to do anyway.

So what I want to say is that we see the same processes in New Zealand that let to Trump in the United States.

  • Four decades of neoliberal attacks on working-class organization and living standards;

  • a hugely inflated gap not only between rich and poor, but between the professional middle class and a precarious service-worker class;

  • a growing “racialisation” of poverty, as the working class becomes more multinational and multi-ethnic, while white men continue to dominate the ruling class;

  • the stagnation of traditional class politics combined to the success of “identity politics” which have led, not only to more freedom for women, queers, the indigenous Māori people and previously oppressed groups, but certain job opportunities for those from those groups who have managed to make it into the professional middle-class.

As I say, we don’t have a reactionary mass movement here yet. But what we have in New Zealand – here as overseas – is a Left-wing activist subculture which has lived through 40 years of defeats, and of increasing isolation not only from its own roots in the labour unions and social movements. This has – in my analysis – led to a disorientation of the traditional Left, appealing to an audience which no longer exists, and increasingly talking to itself.

Fundamentally, my argument is that after 40 years of defeat at the hands of neoliberalism, the activst Left as a subculture have ended up believing that nothing could possibly be worse than neoliberalism. A wise-guy blogger a few years ago came up with “Cleek’s Law” of American politics – that “conservatism” is defined as “the opposite of whatever liberals want or do, updated daily”. As far as I can tell, on the activist left in the Anglophone world, all you need to do is substitute “neo-liberal” for “liberal” and that’s pretty accurate.

The obvious problem with this is that some social movements have made some successes under neoliberalism. To suggest that the neoliberal era (like capitalism itself, in Marx’s visions) has had a progressive side as well as a reactionary side causes most NZ leftists to stare at you as if you’ve grown an extra head. But as a queer woman, I can say for a start that 40 years ago, homosexuality (at least between men) was actually illegal in New Zealand. Now, we have same-sex marriage and (unlike in the US) it was no big deal.

Another main achievement of the social movements in New Zealand over the last 40 years is the growing visibility of the Māori people and their culture, and partial restoration of, or compensation for, lands and natural resources stolen from them by the British Empire and its successor, the New Zealand settler state, over most of the last two centuries.

I think part of the problem that a lot of the socialist Left have with such social victories in the neoliberal era is that they’d persuaded themselves that nothing could fundamentally change under capitalism. That you couldn’t have even partial victories for women’s or queer liberation or indigenous movements until the Revolution. So you get a twisted belief that such victories are “not real”, or even “counterproductive” on the basis that they alienate “the white male working class”.

And here is where you get the phenomenon of the Left, seeking to regain a constituency which has been taken over by liberal social movements led by the professional middle-class, actually appealing to reactionary sections of the population, who – while objectively exploited – had some relative privilege under old-style, social-democratic or nationalistic capitalism. I know that the argument that, for example, affirmative action is “bias against white male workers” was being pushed by some sections of the Marxist Left as far back as the 1970s. The small-group radical Left subculture has always had problems, I think, confusing color-blindness with anti-racism, gender-blindness with anti-sexism, and so on and so on.

But it is much more dangerous to hold such opinions in the current era. Let’s be blunt – in my country, and I believe in yours, the socialist Left lost even its basic roots in the workers’ movement and increasingly become a self-sustaining echo chamber of academics, writers, website and magazine publishers and other such “social capital entrepreneurs”, who have sometimes explicitly lost all the belief that their “interventions” can have real political effect. In fact, I got lectured by a local activist with whom I was debating about the Syrian revolution, that because “it’s so far away”, what this comrade said could have no practical effect, and therefore he should be free to say whatever he wanted, any slander, without regard to any basis in fact. This is degeneration. This, dare I say it, is moral depravity.

So we have a marginalised and increasingly self-marginizing Left activist subculture, drifting into complete irrelevance. And on the other hand – a resurgence of Fascist and right-wing populist organisation, under the names of “white nationalism”, “the alt-right”, or even just “populism”. I don’t have time to explain the story in detail if you haven’t noticed, but for 30 years the smarter cookies in this disgusting crew have been leading a “metapolitical” intervention into the areas of popular culture such as populated by alienated youth, to whitewash their genocidal ideology and find forms of imagery and words by which it can become tolerable again in the new era.

In the 1990s, I was part of several struggles to push these people out of Gothic and neo-pagan subculture. Twenty years later, this same scum have taken over the entire Internet subculture of anonymous imageboards, or “chans”, through a more cunning application of the same things they did back then.

So what I believe we have is an intellectual surrender and capitulation of much of the activist Left – in some places, a majority – to the success of right-wing populism. It’s a disgusting opportunism of the “if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em” variety, combined with a grudging appreciation of how the Trumps, the Farages, the Le Pens etc are “sticking it” to the hated liberals.

We’ve seen this before. In 1928-1935 we called it “Third Period Stalinism”. Although I think there’s something left out of traditional Left historiography of that fateful era where the Communist International abstained from the fight against Hitler, leading inevitably to the Second World War. It’s that it wasn’t just that the Stalinised German Communists thought that the Social Democrats and the bourgeois liberals were no worse than the National Socialists. It’s that there was a dirty secret, an essential programmatic agreement between the Reds and the Brownshirts over several things – as seen when the Nazis and KPD campaigned together to bring down the Prussian government in 1932.

I’ve written on this subject in several articles over the last few years, which are available at fightback.org.nz. The milder form of this phenomenon I named “conservative leftism” – a left which has given up on the ability to imagine a better future, and can only support a kind of nostalgic return to the certainties of 1960s-style social democracy in Europe, or – in the US – FDR’s New Deal or LBJ’s Great Society.

Two problems: it’s a dangerous move to compete with fascists in the nostalgia market. They’re much better at it. Secondly: to wind the clock back also means throwing the victories of the social movements in the neoliberal era under the bus. Under the guise of sneering at “IdPol”, they’re willing to say things like “no-one cares about trans rights in Michigan”. Ha ha, because there are no trans people in Detroit?

This is an appeal, not to the downtrodden and oppressed to seize the reins of their own future, but an appeal to the frustrations of the previously privileged who are losing their privilege. This is precisely the opposite of how socialist groups have traditionally tried to organise – by appealing to the vanguard of the struggle, the people who’re organising themselves already, they’re putting the masses into motion, they’re becoming a force to be reckoned with. Because to do that, you would have to look at the LGBT movements, organisations like Black Lives Matter, even the urban liberal-Greens who are winning struggles for sustainable energy, transit, housing, etc. And that’s because the dogmatic activist Left has nothing to say to such movements except to tell them at their victories are not real, “IdPol”, actually part of the neoliberal problem that needs sweeping away.

I call this tendency on the activist Left a “zombie plague”, in that it takes over the minds of previously sound comrades and turns them into the kind of people who can dehumanize and sneer at actually-existing struggles for basic democratic liberties, and cheer on right-wing nationalist authoritarian capitalists as they “do the job”, “the job” being, apparently, outraging liberal sensitivities. We are seeing the birth of an actual Red-Brown tendency – the final form of the monster – in which people who still consider themselves to be socialists call for unity with the right-wing populists (the Trumpists, the Brexiteers, Russian imperialism etc.) on the grounds of bringing down the filthy neoliberal elite. And then you see people using “globalist” as a snarl world, a dog whistle one step down from “international bankers”.

To paraphrase Haley Joel Osment in The Sixth Sense: “I see Red-Brown people, walking around. They don’t know they’re Red-Brown.” We need a recomposition of the activist Left which will once again reach out to the vanguards of struggle, rather than chase after a reactionary trend in the belief that if clever socialists take control, it won’t be reactionary any more. We need to organise the victims of Trumpism, not its supporters.

We don’t need Trump supporters. We don’t need to debate them. We don’t need to convert them, and we sure as hell don’t need to understand them. We need to focus on the millions of people who didn’t vote at all, and involve them. – @mtylermethadone on Twitter

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