Almost everywhere is seems that radical projects are bringing new life into the radical left. Across the world, protest movements have been reborn. Movements like Occupy and other union, community and environmental struggles have brought forth new energy. This has also come together into new political parties and organisations. While each new project faces its own challenges and opportunities and limitations, the diverse political experiments can make New Zealand seem uninspiring in contrast. Could we see a revolutionary shake up in sleepy New Zealand? If we did, what would it look like?
What a revolution looks like.
It’s important to think about what a revolutionary process might look like. Visions of barricades street fights with the police are not necessarily markers or a revolution. In its most basic sense, a revolution is driven by empowering people.
Conflict is a symptom of that empowerment and can be a sign of deep political changes, but conflict is not the goal in itself. The goal for radicals need to be create a new confidence in working communities that drives people to believe in the possibility of a fairer world. That belief will drive conflict against political and economic systems that stand in the way of a better tomorrow.
Individually we can all go and create that conflict tomorrow. Any activist can go and chain themselves to the door of a bank, or hold a sit in at a welfare office. But individual actions by themselves do not make a revolution, that actions of whole classes of people do. Around the world we see interesting cases of this new mass politics emerging.
The exciting times we live in.
It is impossible here to give a comprehensive overview of the all the world’s new experiments at radical politics. Every project grows out of unique experiences, and each political instrument reflects the many different political, cultural and economic pressures in which it is created. That being said, common threads can be seen, which we should reflect on.
In Latin America, a series of left governments came to power. In Venezuela and Bolivia these governments took a radical turn and began processes to rewrite those countries constitutions and give radical new instruments of power to working people. The new leadership came from different backgrounds, in Venezuela from dissident factions of the military, in Bolivia from Trade Unionists and indigenous movements. But in both cases, these forces emerged unexpectedly from outside the political mainstream, and with strong ties to social movements such as Bolivia’s water war or the Venezeulan Caracazo.
In Europe, new parties of the left have been spawned by the protest movements in response to the world economic crisis. Podemos in the Spanish state and Syriza in Greece most clearly articulated this radical departure from ‘normal’ politics. In both cases, strong anti-austerity movements were unable to find expression in the established political parties, and instead either formed a new party in the form of Podemos or flowed into an existing coalition of the radical left in Greece.
In the Anglosphere, these same pressures have found an expression in an unanticipated space- within the established parties of ‘the Left’. Long time political dissidents of Social Democracy have found themselves catapulted to prominence. In the USA, the unsuccessful campaign of Sen. Bernie Sanders galvanised post-occupy militants and gave a new platform to Socialist ideas. In the UK, the amazingly successful campaign of Jeremy Corbyn won the Labour party Leadership. The struggle didn’t end there, but now finds itself in a protracted that movement is now in a protracted war with its own party. In both cases, while the political struggle found itself in old parties, it was built on the back of thousands of new energized members, who found themselves at war with the very parties they sought to win control of.
These all have had very different political backstories, but understanding what these projects have in common is more important.
In all these countries (and most of the world), decades of neoliberalism had led to a widening of the gap between the rich and the poor. Within mainstream politics, a long established political system had brought power into a small elite. Starved of new organisations or ideas, an increasing large bubble of disenfranchised people began to fall outside of mainstream political discourse.
These increasingly significant numbers of disenfranchised and increasing neoliberal austerity attacks have spawned protest movements. These movements created the political schools which provided layers of activists with an experience in organising, and the confidence to look beyond what conventional politics said was possible. Finding no space to express their politics in the existing institutions, these layers provided the somewhat experienced organisers that can form the base of new political instruments.
In short, long term political and economic causes led to increasing discontent. Protests and movements create a layer of experienced activists. When a radical pole of attraction formed, the basis was there for it to grow, and grow rapidly.
Sleepy New Zealand?
Superficially, New Zealand may appear a long way from these dramatic political developments. John Key remains largely popular, and the official opposition is making no attempt to channel radical energies. But it would be a mistake to focus on the formal political mainstream when looking for radical opportunities- radical politics will come from elsewhere.
Signs for the left are actually surprisingly good. Polling shows that increasing numbers of Kiwis are concerned by economic and political issues that play into the political terrain of the left. When asked what the biggest issue facing the country, the most common answer by New Zealanders, the most common answer was Poverty/Inequality. Political news this year has been dominated by stories of homelessness and skyrocketing housing costs. However, political parties are unable to tap into this. Commitments to ‘the market’ will struggle to be a compelling answer to problems clearly caused by decades of neoliberal reform.
When there is a growing frustrated layer of people looking for a political alternative, at some point this will have to find an expression.
We may have already seen the potential energy that can be unleashed.
On February 4th the Trans Pacific Partnership was to be signed in Auckland. Over a dozen representatives from regional governments came to Skycity casino to sign the trade deal that was widely unpopular.Despite some real resistance in the movement a blockade was called, which tapped into a mass political energy. The mass protests on Feb 4 was well bigger than expectations with thousands filling Queen Street. More than marching, angry and determined crowds joined blockades across the city in defiance of police.
This shows that it was possible. When a focal point was created that was able to tap into the frustrations lurking beneath the surface, the power was huge. But, the focus wasn’t an ongoing organisation. It was a single event. That day came and went, and while that focus was soon lost, there is every reason to believe that the energy remains. Unfortunately, seeing the potential is easy- predicting how that potential could be expressed is much much more difficult.
It is unlikely (although not impossible) for this to come through the major political parties. For some, seeing Jeremy Corbyn in the UK Labour Party will ignite dreams of the same here. The turn to neoliberalism in the 80s forced much of the left out of the Labour Party. So unlike their UK counterpart, there is not an isolated collection of principled leftists in the backbenches. It may be possible for an MP to try and reinvent themselves as a principled alternative, but it is hard to see who do so with any authenticity.
The Greens have more ability to claim a radical reconnection. They have MPs with established activist credentials, and the most progressive platform in parliament. But their current political trajectory would make this difficult with a dramatic change of direction. Electing a former financial consultant as party leader makes it hard to see how the current party leadership could realistically present a radical critique of capitalism.
The desperate and/or delusional may see Winston Peter’s New Zealand First party as part of this equation. This would be unlikely. Given that more than a quarter of NZers are born overseas and another almost 15% are tangata whenua, NZF’s focus on immigrants and tackling ‘Māori privilege’ will probably exclude them from any chance of generating a new mass movement. If NZF does generate a groundswell, it’s more likely to come from strong sections of the ruling elite looking for a more populist message.
What is to be done
The reality is that these breaks will be hard to predict,and may come from somewhere unexpected. After all, who expected thousands of young socialists to be gleefully joining UK labour after the Blair years?
It would be easier world if it was as simple as learning a magic formula. If only a small group of activists could adopt a magical a set of simple slogans, or just get behind a clearly identifiable leader in waiting. Sadly, reality is much more complex. The project that will create this coalescence may be something new. It may be the resurgence of something existing. Or could be an unforseen development from the parties that exist in the mainstream. Only time and political struggle will show where this is.
So what can be done in the meantime?
Firstly- we should be optimistic. Around the world there are examples of mass struggle, so we should set our sights on the same here. Political debates are essential, but the focus should be on charting a road forward, and growing the movement, not hunting out heretics.
It would be a mistake to simply set out a radical platform ideas and wait for the world to live up to it. Nowhere in the world has a set of ideological developments changed the course of history in and of themselves, and it will not be any different now. It would be naive to think that ideas can be created now in a relative vacuum which will hold a new organisation to a correct line when a mass break occurs. In practice, the process of a new mass political organisation will bring in a mass of people, with a range of ideas. What ideas will sink and swim will be defined by how well they can shine light on the way forward. Ideological and theoretical debates are important, but are best articulated to a broad audience when shown through actual political struggle.
For the left as it exists, the challenge isn’t to have all the answers for how the world will play out, but to grow the strength and confidence of activists today. Building struggle in our unions and movements can create the layers of confident activists that makes this kind of organisational break possible. And for such a project to be possible, we need to build layers of people that first and foremost have the confidence and practical and political skills of organisation to push at the boundaries of what is possible in capitalist society.