This essay argues for a return to, and renewal of, Marxist political
economy approaches in development studies. In particular, it
argues that what has been called the field’s ‘impasse’ (Booth,
1985), that is, the supposed inadequacy of dependency theorists
to predict and hypothesise about development, is a
mischaracterisation of Marxist contributions to the discipline,
based on selective restriction. I instead refigure this ‘impasse’ as
a crisis of confidence in the discipline, following the analysis by
Arsel and Dasgupta (2015), which stems from what can only be
described as ‘self-sabotage’ – the undermining of its own object.
The ‘post-development’ and ‘anti-development’ positions
influenced by poststructuralism and prevalent today from the Left
are thus critiqued. Against those positions, development as a word
broadly signifying a goal to struggle for is reinserted into the
debate. Development studies is thus reoriented as a critique of
capitalist development, as well as a political project advancing
theoretically and empirically informed alternatives. In order to
reorient development studies back to political economy I draw on
three broadly Marxist theories and posit them as interacting in a
multi-scalar matrix: world-systems theory, regulation theory, and
an internationalist political conception of class struggle.
Development studies has recently undergone a turn in thinking
against its object, influenced by several antecedent ‘turns’ – the
linguistic turn, the cultural turn, the textual turn, etc. – that have
reverberated throughout the social sciences. These have largely
been initiated by ‘poststructuralist’ thinking (e.g. Derrida, 1976;
Foucault, 1979) and postcolonial theory (e.g. Said, 1978; Spivak,
1990; Bhabha, 1994), which itself draws on the thematic concerns
of poststructuralism. Crudely put, these concerns include an
insistence on the politics of ‘difference’, discourse (occasionally
implying a discursive-monist ontology), ‘textual’ interpretation
and critique, and the effects of discourse – ideas, meanings, and
representations – on reality. Key theorists in this ‘post-
development’ tradition include Arturo Escobar (1995), Gilbert Rist
(1997), Gustavo Esteva and Madhu Suri Prakash (1998). The
approach, like its antecedents, “does not come in one shape”
(Corbridge, 1998: 139) but bears significant commonalities across
it. What bridges the gaps between contributions is the rejection of
‘Development’ as a disabling Western discourse and the
valorisation of the ‘developing’ world, the Global South and the
local. Encouraged is what is called an ‘epistemological turn’ away
from modernity, globalisation and capitalism. The arguments rely
on what Sally Haslanger (2003) describes as the ‘debunking’
function of social constructionism, or what Karl Mannheim (1936)
similarly called ‘unmasking’. It is the by now familiar technique of
revealing the apparent hidden particularism or exclusion of a
category purporting to be universal, such as ‘human rights’ or
The linguistic, culturalist and textualist assumptions of post-
development have been ubiquitous in social science disciplines
since at least the 1980s. In development studies, the post-
development sequence appears to have germinated as a reaction
to ‘liberal’ or ‘mainstream’ capitalist development theories, as well
as Marxist theories, which are often erroneously packaged as one
‘Western’ discourse on development by proponents (Kiely, 1999).
Other intractable problems result from the post-development
approach. Despite poststructuralism’s formation around a
critique of essentialism, the post-development argument relies on
unhelpful essentialisms such as ‘the West and the Rest’
(Corbridge, 1998). Kiely (1999: 45) assesses the uncompromising
valorisation of the local against the ‘global’ and the ‘Western’ as a
form of “Pontius Pilate politics”. At worst, this rejection of anything
‘Western’ as a false universal leads to extreme relativism, which
appears to be acknowledged and even accepted. Esteva and
Prakash, for example, “explicitly reject all contemporary attempts
to globalize human rights” (1998: 138), an extraordinary claim
they preface with an acknowledgment that this might sound
relativist and unconcerned with human rights violations in non-
Western countries. Unfortunately for them, this is exactly what it
sounds like because it is the only possible corollary of their claim.
This relativism is taken further in the critique of science embarked
on by proponents (Pieterse, 2000). For Shiva (1991), science is an
expression akin to the Nietzschean will to power, concealing its
desire for mastery over nature. The anti-science militancy of post-
development ecology combined with an uncritical embrace of the
local or ‘alternative’ often leads to a form of ‘neo-traditionalism’ or
‘reactionary modernism’ (Pieterse, 1998; Nanda, 2003). This
relativism is avoidable but sadly prominent in the forms of
discourse analysis engaged, and despite sounding ‘radical’ have
politically unsavoury consequences.
But arguably the worst offence of post-development theory is its
nihilism about concrete suggestions of political alternatives. Kiely
(1999) notes the tendency of post-development theorists to reject
wholesale any alternative to development as being ‘captured’ by
the dominant development discourse (e.g. Nandy, 1989; Latouche,
1993). Escobar (1992: 417) is unequivocal on this point: post-
development thinkers are “not interested in Development
alternatives, but rather in alternatives to Development”.
Unfortunately Escobar is not forthcoming on what those
alternatives are, apart from vagaries about the discursive
reconstitution of subjects and an uncritical acceptance of ‘new
social movements’, which somehow are able to step outside of the
aforementioned political ‘capturing’. This open-ended position, in
part powered by idealism and nominalism, “effectively washes its
hands of politics” (Kiely, 1999: 46). Hence, in this turn to an
uncritical, neo-traditionalist valorisation of the local, development
studies implicitly resigns itself to the hegemony of capitalist
socioeconomic relations and rescinds its political project of
improving, on a large scale, the material conditions of the
‘periphery’. Ultimately, post-development theory has led to
development studies relinquishing a coherent grasp of its object,
which is required for the project to survive in any recognisable
Post-development theory is thus clearly inadequate, fulfilling
neither the aim of development studies to coherently theorise the
politics and geographies of uneven development nor the attempt
to build a political project concurrent with this knowledge. If the
claims of this approach are consistent and coherent (and I argue
they are not), then one must surely ask what such an approach is
doing in ‘development studies’ and, indeed, whether ‘development
studies’ should even exist. But, as Arsel and Dasgupta (2015: 650)
claim, this critique has “failed to bring an end to the ideas of
development and development studies”. Yet the ostensible
inefficacy of this critical sequence begs the question: why has it
survived for so long? The perception that discourse-oriented
approaches have successfully unseated Marxist theories of
political economy, because the latter are inferior, is clearly false.
Despite this, however, discourse-oriented approaches live on,
along with their attempts to destroy the very object they rely on
for any conceivable kind of political anti-capitalist project that
improves the material conditions of the world’s poorest. Instead of
choosing to inhabit “the last refuge of the noble savage” (Kiely,
1999), I argue for not a return to the dogmatic Marxist materialism
of old but a reformulated, analytically multi-scalar Marxism that
revitalises some already-entrenched approaches and incorporates
In order to return development studies to a grounded, materialist
political project from its idealist hiatus, an uneasy but possible
alliance is negotiated between three Marxist approaches to
political economy that can be developed at different scales. The
need for this is outlined by Arsel and Dasgupta (2015: 659):
"…[W]e see development studies productively embracing an
explicit political economy approach that focuses on the working
of capitalism on a global scale with its local variations. Since
capitalist accumulation almost always has disparate effects on
different sections of the society, most importantly according to
their role in the accumulation process, the class-oriented
Marxist framework is the preferred choice."
Suggested is a multi-scalar approach that can combine the
analysis of global capitalism with its attendant local variations.
The theories are, in order of generality: world-systems theory,
regulation theory, and a Marxist theory of class struggle. (One may
notice that the ‘dependency theory’ tradition non-Marxists spend
a lot of time critiquing does not feature.) Because the role of class
antagonism within the capital relation is emphasised, a Marxist
political project of class struggle is entailed. Although class
struggle is at the centre, it is the most ‘particular’ level of analysis.
The two classes at play are quite simply workers as objects of
surplus-extraction and the capitalists who, in competition with
each other (Marx, 1973: 421), appropriate that surplus. This
formation is situated against ‘post-Marxist’ (e.g. Laclau and
Mouffe, 1985) and ‘discourse’ formulations that attempt to refute
the centralisation of class struggle through what Wood (1986: 76)
calls the “randomization of history and politics” (see also
Anderson, 1983). Such a refutation is both possible and necessary
because without the objective of class abolition, a socialist project
is incoherent. If class abolition is rejected as an objective,
development studies as a political project drastically limits itself
to cross-class reformism within the capitalist economy. This is
why development needs to be recognised as capitalist
development. World-systems theory is used to describe the nature
of the modern capitalist world-system in the most general sense
as structured by centre-periphery relations. Regulation theory is
applied more rigorously to analyse the differences across ‘regimes
of accumulation’ and how these transform the centre-periphery
relations. We now turn to a discussion of the three levels of
Wallerstein (1974) identifies the ‘capitalist world-economy’ (as he
calls it) emerging out of the ‘medieval prelude’ or ‘world empire’
era and developing in the sixteenth century (see also Amin, 1991).
Characteristic of this world-economy is what he later calls an
“axial division of labor” (Wallerstein, 2011: xiii), between the
‘centre’ areas, the ‘semi-peripheries’ and the ‘peripheries’. The
‘centres’ and ‘peripheries’ are distinguished at a national level, and
prior to the era of expansion known as colonialism, Wallerstein
draws these distinctions only within the European continent. The
idea that capitalist relations of production would inevitably
expand and penetrate the ‘natural economies’ of not-yet-capitalist
areas was pre-empted by Rosa Luxemburg (1951; see also Mandel,
1975: 44-74). The core in Wallerstein’s programme is generally
understood as North America, most of Western Europe, Japan,
Australia and New Zealand; the semi-periphery as Mexico, Brazil,
Argentina, South Africa, Eastern Europe, Russia and India; and
the periphery as everywhere else. Peripheries, for Wallerstein,
generally have weak states. Semi-peripheries are “in between the
core and periphery on a series of dimensions, such as the
complexity of economic activities, strength of the state machinery,
cultural integrity, etc.” (Wallerstein, 1974: 349). The development
of the capitalist world-economy is characterised by the transfer of
surplus generated in the peripheries to the centre areas, but also
by the global class opposition, as Marx and Engels (2012) already
noted, between the bourgeois class and the workers from which it
appropriates. The capitalist state generates the conditions for
surplus-appropriation and capital accumulation by various
enterprises, which it then comes to administer and manage. The
state protects the property rights of the bourgeois class, socialises
losses and ensures stable monopolies (Wallerstein, 1974: 355).
Capitalism is thus founded on moments of ‘accumulation by
dispossession’, what Harvey (2005a) calls the “new imperialism”
and what Marx (2011) earlier called “primitive accumulation”. The
effects of this dispossession essentially prove that Lenin’s thesis
on imperialism – that colonialism would hinder the development
of the colonies rather than facilitate it – is indeed correct (Lenin,
1939). Levels of exploitation and surplus-appropriation occur with
centre areas exploiting peripheral areas, and class exploitation
occurring inside centre and periphery areas. Dispossession occurs
in a variety of modes, as Harvey (2006: 92-93) notes: mercantilist
powers, colonial powers, ‘native’ and ‘foreign’ states, multinational
companies, the mobilisation of surpluses produced by non-
capitalist social formations, and the emergence of ‘compradors’
(Poulantzas, 1976: 42) that morph into new capitalist elites.
Dispossession also occurs when factions of capitalist
administration cannibalise each other, such as in the
financialisation or the repossession by financial institutions of
agricultural or industrial property, and when crises occur where
capital is devalued and its surpluses destroyed. Global financial
and political institutions, such as the International Monetary
Fund and the World Bank, also dispossess the capital of
The world-systems approach can also be used to explain processes
of macro-scale class recomposition in the contemporary
globalising world-economy, and attendant changes in culture and
ethnic identification. Jonathan Friedman for example argues that
globalisation is a “discourse of hegemonic crisis” (Friedman and
Ekholm Friedman, 2013), based on a false narrative of
progressivism from stable, closed units of culture and society that
diversify and diffuse due to newfound monetisation,
technologisation, mobility, etc. (e.g. Appadurai, 1990). It is a
reaction to this globalisation discourse of cosmopolitanism that
powers nationalist and racist political movements and
organisations. Friedman (2000) links the growth of this discourse
to the de-hegemonisation of the West, decentralisation and
political fragmentation and identitarianism. Counteracting the
postmodern emphasis on ‘mobilities’ (Urry, 2007), Friedman
describes a new cultural process of ‘indigenization’ (650), which
he describes as “an identity of rootedness, of genealogy as it
relates to territory”. This form of nationalist and/or localist
identification has emerged not only in former colonised
peripheries but in some centre areas as well. What is important,
as well, is the globalisation of elites and the development of a
cosmopolitan elite identity that opposes an ‘indigenised’ mass
population seeking rootedness (Friedman and Ekholm Friedman,
2013: 251). Significantly, the development of both a ‘transnational
capitalist class’ (Sklair, 2001) that operates in spaces of capitalist
development, and ‘Third World elites’ (e.g. what Poulantzas calls
an ‘internal bourgeoisie’ – Poulantzas, 1976; Lipietz, 1987: 114-
118) who accumulate wealth and manage capital in the
peripheries, is characteristic of contemporary capitalism’s
globalised vertical polarisation of class relations.
From identifying the contextual layer of analysis in a Marxist
political economy approach in development studies as the modern
capitalist world-system, I turn now to the difficult intermediate
layer of analysis that is regulation theory. Regulation theory goes
beyond a perceived deadlock between centre and periphery in
world-systems theory (Lipietz, 1987: 2) to analyse changes in the
structure of capital accumulation occurring at international and
national levels, and sometimes smaller scales. Various schools of
regulation theory exist that differ in their scale of analysis –
national or international; and their theoretical complexity – either
solely theorising economic or both societal and economic
mechanisms (Jessop, 1990). The periodisation known as ‘Fordism’
is emphasised, particularly how Fordist periods of growth ended
in crisis and contraction and what this means for the future
development of the capitalist economy. Michel Aglietta (1979: 16)
defines regulation theory as “the study of the transformation of
social relations as it creates new forms that are both economic and
noneconomic, that are organized in structures and themselves
reproduce a determinant structure, the mode of production”.
These social relations of production are a fundamental unit of
analysis. As Marx (1999: n.p.) states, “In the social production of
their existence, men inevitably enter into definite relations, which
are independent of their will, namely relations of production”. The
mode of production is part of the Althusserian ‘social formation’,
which consists of economic, political and ideological practices
interrelated in complex ‘overdeterminations’ (Althusser and
The two concepts central to regulation theory are the ‘regime of
accumulation’ and the ‘mode of regulation’. The ‘regime of
accumulation’ is defined by Alain Lipietz (1987: 14) as the “long-
term stabilization of the allocation of social production between
consumption and accumulation”, while the mode of regulation is
the materialisation of that regime by way of rules, procedures,
norms and networks. Fordism was a tightly regulated regime of
accumulation that hit a bump on the road to full growth, namely
the crisis of overproduction, in the 1930s. This crisis was caused
by an unprecedented rise in productivity as a result of the
‘scientific management’ (Taylorism) of the Western industrial
labour force, which intensified the division of labour and micro-
managed labour-time in particular (36). Wage relations were
regulated in such a way to adjust mass consumption practices to
rises in productivity, which brought Fordism into a new successful
period of growth. The United States enjoyed a period of “implicit
hegemony” (39) as the victor of World War Two, unleashing its
capitalist project of development on the world “first culturally,
then financially with the Marshall and MacArthur plans, and
finally institutionally with the Bretton Woods agreements and the
establishment of GATT, the IMF, and the OECD” (40). This entered
a period of direct threat as the economy began to slow down in the
turn from the late 1960s to the early 1970s. Lipietz identifies the
“general downturn in rate of productivity growth” (42) as the cause
of the 1967 recession, which became a full-blown crisis of
profitability caused by the rise in the ‘organic composition of
capital’ (a Marxist term meaning the ratio of fixed capital to
variable capital). Third World nationalist movements and, more
significantly, the oil crisis of 1973, eroded American hegemony.
The extension of Fordism’s geographical base to the peripheries,
as Lipietz argues, has its roots in these crises of the centre.
The contemporary capitalist world-economy, as is true for the
world-economy at any other time, clearly features a range of
accumulation regimes that interact in global networks of surplus-
appropriation, distribution and trade. Lipietz (1982) identifies the
shift to a ‘peripheral Fordism’ in the developing countries that
reflects a number of changes, including but not exclusively the
growth of a new middle class and the autonomous development of
the state from the wealthy classes (see Note 1). Amidst this process a new
international division of labour is being established, one that
superimposes itself on the preceding division but inside the
periphery. The periphery, Lipietz argues, although never a unified
‘whole’, is being split into the highly technologized ‘newly
industrialising countries’ (NICs, see Note 2) that have emerged wealthier
from a particularly pronounced period of Taylorization, and those
countries that remain simply exporters of raw materials or have
little resources at all. Whilst the peripheral areas have diverged
from each other in this manner, the centre is undergoing a period
of dispersal as the United States is de-hegemonised and other
centre economies develop intensive accumulation (Aglietta, 1976),
specialise, and technologise. The introduction of new technology,
of course, may also contribute to the ‘deskilling’ of the labour force
It is by now a familiar argument that we have transitioned from a
‘Fordist-Keynesian’ economy to something called a ‘neoliberal’
economy, and this represents a specific shift in the regime of
accumulation, entailing a new mode of regulation.* Wadgymar
(1994: 297) identifies a “new international order” (which he names
as neoliberalism) caused by the lapse of ‘communism’, the
unification of Germany, the effective end to American hegemony
and a continual recession of its economy, and the ongoing
geopolitical crises in the Middle East, where “underdeveloped
countries” are the biggest losers. Peripheral states are regulated
and their economic autonomy sufficiently weakened by financial
relations of debt entered into as a consequence of the ‘structural
adjustment programmes’ of the IMF and the World Bank. Centre
states transfer their assets to private hands and significantly
diminish their own power through commercial deregulation.
Jessop (1993: 10) refers to this as the “hollowing out” of the nation
state. Harvey (2005b) provides an excellent historically informed
elucidation of neoliberalism as a class project, resulting in
significant upward redistribution of wealth to an entrepreneurial
class and the nouveaux riches and the proliferation of a global
financial industry with enormous speculative power over world
markets. The effects of neoliberalisation cannot be disputed. It has
been instrumental in the global-economic hegemonisation of
multinational corporations, the creation of new relations of
financial dependency between Western European economic
centres and the global periphery, and generalised increases in
forms of economic inequality the world over.
In a similar fashion, Peck and Tickell (1994: 319) argue
neoliberalism “represents the politics of the unresolved crisis”
which they call a “jungle law”, rather than an alternative to
Keynesianism that can be sustained. It is a “regulatory expression
of capitalism’s predatory, self-destructive dynamic” (320). Lipietz
(1992) agrees, arguing that the contradictions of Atlantic Fordism
– progressive labour alienation and the build-up of a profitability
crisis – are unsolved by neoliberalism. Instead, the economy is
now even more fragile, threatened by crisis and contraction with
a shortening wave period and increasing amplitude. Despite this,
the neoliberal counter-revolution has ideologically benefited from
a particularist politics advocated on the Left, which “emphasises
the inevitability of global competitive forces and the virtues of
locally-based coping strategies” (Peck and Tickell, 1994: 319).
Such a turn away from political economy and the imagination of
broad socialist alternatives, to a romanticisation of ‘local
communities’ at a scale where problems can only be internally
ameliorated, is indeed present in many Left responses to
neoliberalism. Unfortunately, this includes within development
studies, an area where it is perhaps most important to resist
making such a localist turn. Rather than representing a desirable
step forward, this turn is symbolic of intellectual atrophy and a
defeatist attitude. The localist politics that underpins the ‘post-
development’ ‘crisis of confidence’ in the discipline is thus
demonstrated to buttress neoliberalisation rather than challenge
The importance of these two hitherto discussed analytical levels –
world-systems theory and regulation theory – is, to use Roy
Bhaskar’s ontological phrasing, in their identification and
explanation of capitalist social relations and the ‘generative
mechanisms’ that underpin the actual and empirical levels of
reality (Bhaskar, 1979). As Bhaskar puts it:
"Transforming society towards socialism depends upon
knowledge of these underlying structures. The world cannot be
rationally changed unless it is adequately interpreted (Bhaskar,
Bhaskar claims that because social systems are “intrinsically open
and cannot be artificially closed”, the judgmental criteria for
choosing appropriate research programmes is based on
explanatory rather than predictive power. I identify Marxism,
then, as a generative research programme in this vein which may
be able to rescue development studies from its ‘crisis of
confidence’. This programme necessarily has an attendant politics
of class struggle. To quote Bhaskar (2011: 7) again:
"The task of socialists must be to work for the development and
release of our underdeveloped and repressed capacities and for
the transformation and dissolution of existing oppressive and
repressive tendencies. It must also be to struggle for the social
and natural (e.g. environmental) conditions for their fulfilment
Class struggle is elusive in that it must occur with a view to all
spatial scales: with the traditional Marxist internationalist outlook
yet necessarily accounting for the concrete circumstances of local
specificities: fights against local elites, struggle over territory
control, etc. This means that no particular scale of struggle is
precluded from analysis. Arsel and Dasgupta (2015: 661) state
that it is “precisely because the economic outcomes for some of
the most vulnerable sections of society are determined by forces
beyond national boundaries and therefore inherently uncertain,
that nation states continue to have a major role in providing
appropriate social security and facilitating rehabilitation and re-
employment”. What must happen for any radical change to occur,
however, is for class politics to “become the unifying force that
binds together all emancipatory struggles” (Wood, 1986: 199).
Without class struggle, as for example in de-Marxified ‘new social
movements’, capitalism will simply be able to reconsolidate and
incorporate any elements that resist it.
Thus, I take up the challenge that Arsel and Dasgupta (2015) set
for development studies: “to engage continuously with what
development should mean and how it should be attained”, and
refusing to remain “oblivious to the capitalist present” (662). For
development studies to survive in any serious way and make an
impact, it must return from the cul-de-sacs of poststructuralist
and discourse theories to a firm grounding in political economy. I
have used this essay to advance a basic framework of such a
research programme. Development studies must have a global
focus and pay attention to mechanisms operating at a variety of
spatial scales. Given development is politically contested, the
proposed programme has at its centre the Marxist politics of class
struggle. Only through such a project of social transformation
does socialism stand a chance of becoming the enlightened
common-sense of our age.
*I accept the term 'neoliberal' here with qualified hesitancy.
1. This migration of unskilled labour under Fordist regulation to the peripheries occurred
first in peripheral regions of the centre (e.g. certain regional areas of France) before
extending in the 1960s to what Lipietz calls the “immediate ‘outer’ periphery” (mostly
encompassing what Wallerstein calls the ‘semi-periphery): Portugal, Spain, Poland,
Romania, Mexico, and trade-liberalised parts of East Asia (Lipietz, 1987: 71, 206 n. 4.1).
2. Alain Lipietz suggests NICs be listed thus: Portugal, Spain, the former Yugoslav states, South
Korea, Singapore, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Brazil, Mexico, Greece, and several ‘state-capitalist’
countries in the Eastern Bloc. This list may more than anything show the datedness of
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Thursday, 14 December 2017
Thursday, 12 October 2017
Another election is finally over and counted, although it was perhaps closer than many would have liked. The ridiculousness of commentators readying their microphones before over 400,000 of the votes had even been counted was noted, however unexpected and completely within their character. Only one percent separates National and the Labour-Green bloc. The minor parties were generally crushed underfoot by Labour’s rising tide. But big questions still remain, even after the votes had finally been released by the Electoral Commission. What does this election actually mean for the Left? What would it mean to have a new Labour government, likely supported by the Greens and New Zealand First, in power? Alternatively, what would a fourth term for National mean? What does the lack of support for minor parties mean for the credibility of our electoral system, which was installed to produce diverse parliaments?
Some of these questions bear easier answers than others. On the electoral system, I have never understood the argument that modifications should be made when one does not get the result one wants. We do not live in a place where fascistic elements of politics threaten to enter the House of Representatives, which is odd because our electoral system is designed to reflect a place that indeed was. The destruction of small parties was wrought for no other reason than voters’ will. Quite simply, Labour was more appetising to an increasing number than, say, the Opportunities party or the Māori Party. The more indolent of mind have suggested regressing to the ridiculously unfair First Past the Post system. Yet others, such as Bryce Edwards, have raised sensible questions about the 5% entrance threshold, another German electoral influence. Perhaps this is an area that could be looked at. The Netherlands lower house of parliament, for example, has no threshold, and has thirteen parties occupying its 150 seats in the house. To put that into perspective, the Australian lower house, with the same number of seats, has just five parties and two independents, and only two parties (the Liberal-National coalition and Labor) have more than one seat. It simply does not compare. If such a logic were to be applied to our election results, TOP and the Māori Party would definitely receive seat apportionments, and it would be likely that the Legalise Cannabis Party at least scored one seat too on its notably resilient 0.3% performance.
Some comment has been made on the Labour Party’s result – including by me – and the disparity between their performance in Auckland as compared to the rest of the country. I had a little tiff with Branko Marcetic, whose writing I like a lot, on Twitter recently about the immigration issue and whether it hurt Labour in Auckland. With respect I think he is wrong about this. His claim that Labour did badly in Auckland rests on a number of factors which are laid out in his Spinoff piece. Now, in the hindsight provided by the special vote results being available, a number of them must be re-evaluated. Labour has now won the party in New Lynn and Te Atatu, came extraordinarily close in Mt Roskill and Auckland Central, and reached the blissful heights of 70% once again in Mangere, its most reliable stronghold. The other seats Marcetic lists are safe National seats, which I am sure did not escape him, but it really was something to see the results in East Coast Bays and Pakuranga held up as arguments to support the claim that Labour is finding it hard in Auckland. It does not elude Marcetic that Pacific Islanders vote overwhelmingly for Labour, but his claim that North East Asians failed to turn out for Labour is immediately contradicted in the next point – Labour seemed to do better in places with higher numbers of Asian immigrants.
Notwithstanding the fact that most of this amounted to augury, as the special votes had not yet been released, the argument is simply not very credible. It may, of course, nonetheless be true, but the likelihood, based on the direction of factors, suggests it isn’t. And we certainly know it is less true since the release of the special votes count. Although Marcetic sensibly qualifies his statements, I find it difficult to accept even the central premise – that voters who have migrated to this country would turn away from a party because of its immigration stance. As my partner, an Indian migrant, said to me – it’s a non sequitur to suggest that we care once we’re in! And he pointed me to the number of Hispanic voters in the United States who ticked the Trump box at their last election. This may sound unfair, but it’s not incorrect. In fact, I would argue that the central premise is merely an extension of the fallacious identity politics arguments Hillary Clinton relied on, to her detriment – that she would pick up the ‘woman vote’ and the ‘black vote’ because those particular demographics couldn’t possibly vote for her racist, misogynist opponent.
A particularly annoying facet of commentary – especially from international media – was the inevitable comparisons of Winston Peters with Donald Trump. I know that the election of Trump had the media collectively slapping their own backsides for not calling it, and that almost the entire world burst into tears on inauguration day, but these comparisons are lazy and, frankly, stupid. Trump is not a lever upon which things have to be compared. The Guardian pulled a similar stunt with the comparison of New Zealand First, Peters’ party, to right-wing populist European parties. Peters does engage in racist dogwhistling from time to time, but comes nowhere near the level of the Front National, UKIP or the Freedom Party of Austria on any objective scale of racist policy or vitriol, and his policies are much like those of Labour prior to 1980 – or perhaps more accurately, Muldoonite National. Despite all that, I don’t think anything could beat the racist and undignified comment from Gareth Morgan, that Winston Peters was an ‘Uncle Tom’. I would have almost clapped for the loud denunciations from left-liberals had some of them not already suggested something similar about Peters themselves. And yes, that includes those who said Peters had inculcated too much of the ‘Western mindset’.
This election was not so good for the minor parties. It would have been very interesting indeed had Andrew Little carried on as leader of Labour – my prediction was that Labour and New Zealand First would have been locked for a second-place photo finish; that was how badly Labour would have done. It may have been that Labour failed to surpass 20%, doing worse than (ironically) Bill English as National Party leader in 2002 against the undeniably popular Helen Clark. The Greens were also badly hurt by Labour’s recovery, even if much of it was self-inflicted. They begrudgingly received my party vote – it was in spite of how they treated Metiria Turei, as when she went off the list, this signalled to many that their party vote wouldn’t bring her back. She should be proud of her second-place finish in Te Tai Tonga, a Labour stronghold. It was also sad that Mojo Mathers, the nation’s first deaf MP, was shunted down the list away from a viable spot to be re-elected, for younger alternatives. Of those two, Chloe Swarbrick – a fantastic debater and interviewer – did well during the campaign. Golriz Ghahraman, frankly, has yet to prove herself as a newcomer. She was practically invisible in the campaign. It is nice that she is New Zealand’s first refugee MP, but she is no ordinary refugee; having studied at Oxford University and was formerly a lawyer for the United Nations. Her legal background, domestically, however, is formidable, having campaigned for the rights of children, disabled persons, and indeed refugees.
The two casualties of the election were United Future and the Māori Party. The exit of United Future brings an end of an era to small-party Christian politics, having finally been exiled from parliament. Those who know their party history well will recall that the name ‘United Future’ is a synthesis of the United party – a liberal centrist entity made up of Labour and National defectors – and the ‘Future NZ’ party, a Christian-based party made up of bits and pieces of Christian Heritage and other such outfits. United Future suffered a split between the more liberal Peter Dunne-aligned faction, and the Gordon Copeland-led conservative faction. Copeland left to form the Kiwi Party which was unsuccessful at getting into parliament. In 2011, the Kiwi Party joined Colin Craig’s Conservatives, which eventually – as we all know – was sunk by scandal after ridiculous scandal. Dunne, however, a former Labour MP, hung on, through Labour coalition governments and National coalition governments. He resigned when it eventuated that he would be unlikely to retake his seat of Ōhariu, based in western Wellington City. The new leader to take over was the admittedly handsome and intelligent Damian Light; a wonderful choice, I thought, but this had no effect, with the party receiving one-fifth of its 2014 votes. In all honesty Light should abandon ship and attempt to become a Labour MP or an electorate independent. I think he’d be quite good. He made some noise about ‘having a social conscience’ and how this put him at odds with National, and filled his campaign appearances with gestures to the Left. It’s quite obvious that he has broadly left-wing views. Without him there, effectively the lights have gone out on Christian politics, for better or worse. (Most of the Christian parties were filled to the brim with appalling opportunists, and for more on that, google Graham Capill.)
The other, more prominent casualty was that of the Māori Party, which came as a shock to almost everyone except me, it seems. I had predicted this before Winston Peters had said anything ominous about the matter, in any case. In my piece on the class divide in Māori politics, I said that the Māori Party had increasingly become the party of an emerging iwi elite, with many of its high-ranking officials being members of the Iwi Chairs Forum, and it now represents in the majority of the Māori electorate elite atrophy that will be thrown out. Of course, I attracted derision from self-assured feel-good liberal types who thought I was being disingenuous. I had more than enough evidence for this. The Māori Party, despite championing themselves during the election as having “whanau at the heart” and being an “independent Māori voice in parliament”, did their best to avoid any of the real problems that Māori were facing both nationally and regionally. They openly supported gentrification in Glen Innes and Point England, chastising Labour for not joining them in that support. They did absolutely nothing to lobby the NZTA or any other influence to seal the dangerous, toxic dust clouds whipped up by logging trucks driving on rural roads in inland Māori communities in the Far North. More Māori are in prison than ever before, under their watch! So when Marama Fox had the audacity to say that Māori had voted for a return to the “age of colonisation” by overwhelmingly supporting Labour over her party, her words rang hollow. In fact, I think she knows that her party has contributed little that is positive or meaningful for the majority of Māori people. I liked Fox when she first entered parliament; she was frank yet willing to support elements of the Left on various causes. I stopped liking her when her good qualities verged into twin evils: she became both embittered and entitled; and her unthinking conservatism seeped in along with her lack of willingness to devote even just a passing thought or insight to extremely important issues. Her most foolish and inept exhibition was when she told me at a university debate that her party did not care about tax evasion, because (according to her) Māori did not care about what was revealed in the Panama Papers leaks. Instead, she would rather focus on suicide prevention initiatives – having failed to make the elementary link that more tax dollars from multinationals would equal more money to spend on such social programmes.
It is the biggest betrayal that the liberal Left allowed this racket to carry on in such an undignified manner without even a hint of meaningful criticism, and it is pathetic that many (who I know would not have even voted for it) expressed sadness and lament upon realising it would not be back in. The liberal Left was virtually silent – perhaps with quiet embarrassment – when the Māori Party announced an immigration work sponsorship policy that can be described as nothing other than state-sponsored, state-encouraged slave labour. And yet, it is abundantly clear that this party should never have been supported by anyone calling themselves Left in the first place. The Māori Party was always at home with National because it suited what it ended up becoming: a revanchist class enemy that had nothing but petty resentment for Labour over the admittedly awful foreshore and seabed saga, and a clear direction to secure and place under private ownership key natural resources for a growing iwi corporation asset base. The people I feel truly sorry for is the activists, the party’s rank-and-file, most of whom I know were obviously committed to causes beyond this. If you’re not prepared to take my word for it on any of this, why don’t you ask Māori lawyer, activist, and – most tellingly – former Māori Party candidate herself on the Left faction, Annette Sykes, who said in 2010:
[The 1980s] saw the rise of a Māori elite within the process of litigating, negotiating and then implementing Treaty settlements, many of whom have become active sycophants of the broader neoliberal agenda which transfers a limited subset of publicly owned assets and resources into the private ownership of corporations to settle the injustices that have been inflicted upon hapu and iwi Māori. An aura has built up around those iwi leaders who, in tandem with the Māori Party, are now treated as the authorised voices of all Māori.
So ‘authorised’ in fact that commentators in the media, including the most obvious sycophantic cheerleaders, referred unironically to their loss as the farewell to parliament’s “independent Māori voice”, as if Labour’s (or for that matter National’s, the Greens’ or New Zealand First’s) Māori MP’s in fact did not have a voice of their own. New Zealand First even has a Māori leader, and the Greens formerly a Māori co-leader (and hopefully still will, as they would be stupid not to elect Marama Davidson as the next one). It is almost a parody that the new hopefuls to revive the Māori Party that I have seen touted around are Lance O’Sullivan and Carrie Stoddart-Smith. The former, a respected GP, made his feelings known when he claimed he would partially defund the health system if elected (clearly experience can sometimes be a virtue), while the latter spent more time denying the existence of a Māori elite and making odious, inexcusable comments that analysing Māori along class lines was racist and colonising, than she did in contributing anything positive to the Māori Party campaign. Frankly, Tariana Turia’s recent appalling interview should be a symbolic death rattle.
Now, on the subject of the Labour Party. Labour spent nine years criticising the government in opposition, some of which was very effective, but when the election campaign came along – especially after Jacinda Ardern was elected leader – they seemed to renounce doing anything about those points of criticism. Key issues are obviously National’s truly atrocious record on education, housing and healthcare – literally all three of them. Housing prices in Auckland have followed global trends in ‘primate’ urban agglomerations or ‘world cities’ – becoming drastically unaffordable, with Auckland now reportedly more so than any other city in the world. This is starting to have a spillover on house prices in the Far North, Tauranga and the Coromandel, all popular retirement destinations for Aucklanders; and Hamilton, now easily within the Auckland commuter belt. The problem, obviously, is the catch-22 of home-owning capitalism: as much as one would like prices to go down, home-owners depend on prices rising if they want a significant return on their investment. This is built into the structure of the housing market and is not going to disappear through piecemeal reform. This is why a broad coalition of the ruling elites, the landowning class and the aspirational middle-class and nouveaux riches militate against any reasonable reformist measures to bring house prices down. Labour will do virtually nothing. In education, National has effectively trashed the system at all levels with its charter school pet project a complete failure, and performance-based pay and league tables that have now caused a crisis of confidence in the national assessment systems and in the teaching profession. Teachers are quitting en masse in frustration at the government’s emphatic inability to do anything about it, and it is well known that the sector is in unprecedented crisis. Auckland has a massive problem with over half of all schools operating on a shortage of four or more teachers. Universities have undertaken massive job cuts and extreme programme contractions to prevent hauling in debt caused by regularised underfunding. What will Labour do about it? Likely zilch, short of stopping Nikki Kaye doing anything to make the problem worse.
Labour and the Greens have hamstrung themselves by committing to passionless ‘fiscal responsibility constraints’ designed to please Treasury and business elites, and probably little else. Jacinda Ardern’s party, if indeed it finds itself forming a coalition government in the eventuating days, will not eliminate child poverty or homelessness as claimed if it isn’t willing to make deep structural changes to organisations like Housing New Zealand and Work and Income; reversing their peripheralisation will take enormous amounts of effort, time and very likely money. However, the fiscal rules Labour signed up to mean that it will spend zero extra budgetary dollars on any initiatives to do anything about those problems, aside from complementary austerity cuts in other areas in order to do it. Labour will also not make any tax changes in its first term. Ardern was backed into a corner on any taxes that would have an effect, and her ‘tax working group’ idea – something she retained from Andrew Little’s monotonous time as leader – raised worrying alarms more than jingle bells, especially when she said Treasury officials would likely play a major role on it. Perhaps we all need to read Bruce Jesson’s Fragments of Labour book for the story on what happened the last time Labour let the ‘Treasury experts’ do the hard work on finance policy for them.
The politics around immigration has been particularly vile on all sides. The Left took a stance against it this time, with Labour and New Zealand First frankly transcending the boundaries on racism, inexcusably. The Mana Party, which to be honest was not a left-wing party in this election, or ever really since the leftists ditched it after the failure of Internet-Mana (now it’s merely a bizarre nationalist soapbox for Hone Harawira), was the worst offender. But on the other side, the alliance of starry-eyed liberals who had no patience for explanations of why immigration became a hot potato while busy militating against a non-existent and totally fictitious surge in white identity politics in Aotearoa, along with the opportunistic and hypocritical National (who had recently cut family reunification migrant numbers prior to the election) and the floundering Māori Party’s immigrant slave labour policy, was honestly equally execrable. Not a single commentator was able to give an appropriate class analysis of the situation. Winston Peters, despite his racism, is actually right when he says a high volume of easily exploitable immigrant labour will drive down domestic wages. He isn’t just saying that. This is clearly an inconvenient truth. But the emphasis on workers pales in comparison to the totally unnecessary and brain-dead identification of National with “Chinese interests”, most vocally heard when Jian Yang’s possible links to the Chinese Communist Party’s spy training programme were unearthed. National is the party of ruling elites regardless of what country they are from, and they are to be opposed by socialists in the very same way.
As David Harvey perceptively concluded more than ten years ago, the deep cuts and seismic shift of power from states to corporations that is often described as ‘neoliberalism’ has led social democracy into a corner. The difference in New Zealand, as in Australia, was that such an agenda was undertaken by the social democratic party itself. Many unionists and socialists who abandoned the Labour Party may yet have returned this time, but it is still a shadow of its former self, seemingly attracting more middle-class than working-class voters. It is a thoroughly unappealing party for much of its former core constituency. But one disconcerting coterie that has apparently flocked in to show its support for this ‘refreshed’ Labour Party are the pseudo-Trotskyist groups, Socialist Aotearoa and the International Socialist Organisation. The Socialist Equality Group’s statement on the election put it pithily and wonderfully succinctly, that SA and the ISO are simply “in lockstep with Labour and the unions.” That is, if Labour sways to the right, you should expect SA and the ISO to sway with them. The ISO formerly supported Mana in all its nationalist tirades and ironic concessions to Kim Dotcom. And the unions, as we know, have become nigh on useless and unreliable, and in the main should not be trusted to do anything positive for workers. The only strong unions left with any clout and actual sense exist in the dairy workers and education sectors.