Saturday, 2 September 2017

The Liberal Left versus Hobson's Pledge: Downward Spiral

The lobby group “Hobson’s Pledge” is a new addition to the landscape of Aotearoa New Zealand politics since late 2016. Headed by former National Party leader and Reserve Bank chairman Don Brash, its cornerstone principles are to oppose racial separatism, affirmative action, and other ethnic-based politics and policy, and support in its place structures that lead to a cohesive national identity, including rights for non-white immigrant peoples. Its recent statements opposing the Māori seats have reignited debate about Māori representation in Parliament. Winston Peters, leader of the rather ideologically eclectic and populist party New Zealand First, has also delivered a number of speeches calling for the Māori seats to be abolished. The liberal left has essentially monopolised criticism of this new lobby group, seizing on the fact that everyone in leadership positions in the trust is white. They also believe (and this is not necessarily wrong) its sole reason for existence is to covertly entrench what they call “white privilege” in New Zealand society. With those positions laid out, the liberal left’s endgame is to reassert their support for ethnic-based policy, including the Māori seats. There has hardly been any proper entry into this debate from the more socialist and Marxist Left despite the opportunity opened up by Hobson’s Pledge. My position, which I base on Marxist theory, is to oppose both the position of “Hobson’s Pledge” while noting sentiments that should be reformulated, and also opposing the liberal left’s inadequate answer to it.

A recent interview of Don Brash for Te Hiku crystallised the important issues both sides have with regard to this debate. The interviewer was Rukuwai Allen, who is also secretary for a Ngapuhi hapu. Unfortunately in this interview, it was clear that Allen was trying to skewer Brash to no avail; he answered most of her questions quite well. She also made some appalling implications in her questioning – for example that recent immigrants should not have the right to “decide the political destiny of this country” – a position more hardline than Brash’s own. She interrogated Brash on the concept of “Māori privilege”, and invited him to explain his position on Māori seats. Her argument for keeping the seats – and this is a problem for the liberal left’s position – was based on disparities between Māori and non-Māori. This is an argument shared by Marama Fox, leader of the Māori Party, a centrist political party that has many of its roles filled by members of the Iwi Chairs Forum. The argument goes: because Māori are more disadvantaged across the board than non-Māori, they require special representation. Brash replied that these electorates have existed for over a century and that they have done very little to address that disparity, which is no doubt true. He also remarked that because there are only seven Māori electorates, they are quite large geographically and it is difficult for Māori MPs to represent their areas. (It may also be argued that Māori currently make up just shy of one-fifth of the population, more than their proportion of the population, if we are following this disparity-focused line of argument). Finally, and this is quite an important argument, Brash claimed that Pacific Islanders on average have far less incomes than non-Pacific Islanders, but Pacific Islanders do not have special electorates. So on disparity, there is very little of consequence that supports the pro-Māori seat position. The reality of colonisation, which if expressed would have strengthened Allen’s argument somewhat, was in fact not mentioned (and I will come back to this point at the end).

Now, it is obvious that Brash, in this interview, is merely trying to keep up appearances. He is, as Allen says, a member of the “conservative establishment”. Unless this represents a significant change in his thinking and activity, he is trying to conceal his own attitude of separatism and dog-whistling he utilises in front of public audiences at events run or attended by Hobson’s Pledge. There is definitely a difference in the way Brash fronts a crowd of enthusiastic trust members and his more relaxed, compromise-making demeanour on Te Hiku’s radio programme. But it is important that we extract some positive things from what Brash (probably unreflexively) highlights here. He even admits in the interview the truth of what is meant by the concept of “Māori privilege”, which is in my view an appalling and deliberate misuse of language. So-called Māori privilege is not held by all Māori, Brash says. It is held by those who are members of the bureaucratic middle-class and the ruling class. Therefore, it is essentially a kind of privilege of being members of a certain class. Now, Brash is no stranger to this kind of class privilege. He is extraordinarily wealthy as well, a position he admits in the interview. But it is quite clear from these admissions that the road the debate is heading down is a badly paved one. This kind of class privilege is viewed by both participants as a necessary evil (Brash only really wants to “open investment opportunity” by eliminating certain Māori protections, for example), and what really matters is which ‘ethnicity’ has it best in society. It is a battle of mutually occurring emotions of ressentiment where Māori believe they deserve further recompense for colonisation and Pākehā believe these special protections have already been entrenched to the benefit of Māori society and to their detriment. On both sides, the ressentiment seem to exist independently of whatever goes on in reality.

My key argument is that racial ideology of any kind should not be allowed to be asserted in this way, by any self-defining group, as primary or foundational. Racial ideology is exclusive – you either belong to a particular category or you do not – and it is this principle of exclusivity or incommensurability that is in violation of the principles of any democratic ideal. In this respect ethnicity and democracy are fundamentally incompatible. I would argue the increase in affiliation to culturalism over the past two decades is largely a consequence of neoliberal destruction of the ‘public’ – when there is no discernible ‘public’ left that we can turn to, when everything is privatised, the false stabilities of ethnicity become refuges that shelter people (particularly the marginalised) from the seemingly frightening chaos. World-systems anthropologist Jonathan Friedman argues as much in his impressive books on globalisation.

There are a number of respects in which the position of Don Brash and I fundamentally differ. (1) Don Brash is supportive of capitalism, I am not. I am convinced that Brash, in fact, wants to simply strip away ‘iwi red tape’ to make it easier for capitalists to do business. Hobson’s Pledge, then, is promoting a kind of ‘democracy’ that in fact is based on class inequality, the most egregious and material barrier to political participation, influence, and self-determination. It is not democracy because capitalism is also incompatible with universalist democratic values, representing as it does a false universal – which is the impasse that not only Brash but also the liberal left seems to face. This is because the liberal left does not really oppose capitalism in any serious way and so they have over time ironically become the least committed to democratic principles. That position of ‘weak opposition’ is highlighted by the liberal left’s focus on ‘disparity’ which I have already mentioned. That focus, as shown in the interview, continually sidesteps the problematic of fundamental class divides in society and chooses instead to focus on cultural (whether ethnic, gendered or sexualised) disparities that are internal to class positions or that ossify class relations. (2) Instead of focusing on cultural ‘privileges’, and which ‘culture’ or ‘ethnicity’ is apparently more privileged, I focus on the way in which colonisation and capitalism has produced particular class reconfigurations that have changed over time. Although racialisation is a real and enduring process with negative consequences, and certain people are more likely to be negatively treated than others on the basis of this, its effects on New Zealand society have arguably decreased relative to the immovable dynamic of class conflict throughout the capitalist epoch. This can be seen in the relative stature of Pākehā to Māori in the immediate aftermath of colonialism when clear racial delineation could be seen in the labour market and thus in class position. Over time, although Māori have been less socially mobile, immiseration appears as if it is becoming more generalised regardless of ethnicity. The extent of racialisation also appears to be correlated with economic expansion and contraction as well as the degree of class polarisation. One particular class reconfiguration that has occurred in the last twenty or so years is the ascendancy of a particular Māori financial and political elite associated with the ‘new tribal structure’ (Roger Maaka calls it the ‘new tribe’, Elizabeth Rata the ‘neotribe’ that engages in a particular form of economic development called ‘neotribal capitalism’, and its existence was also acknowledged by Annette Sykes in her Bruce Jesson lecture).

However, instead of the liberal left opposing the entrenchment of this new Māori elite that exists at the expense of poor Māori – the lower classes of Māori – the liberal left either defends the existence of this elite, or in some extreme cases refuses to even recognise it as an elite. This extreme position found its way into the public spotlight through an article written by Carrie Stoddart-Smith (a Māori Party candidate who has previously published on “radical Kaupapa Māori politics” in The Interregnum, ed. Morgan Godfery) for liberal left online magazine The Spinoff. She argued that the very notion of a “Māori tribal elite” was “racist” and “erases the lived experiences of Māori in a colonised society”. This argument is not only incoherent but quite dangerous. For a start, the concept does not actually contribute to “erasing” anyone’s experience. That phrase is simply thrown in for polemical effect and is not justified in any way by Stoddart-Smith. In fact, the concept helps to elucidate the class conflicts experienced “within” Māori society and how this conflict may operate to reproduce relations of exploitation. But what makes it dangerous is that Stoddart-Smith is asking us to ignore the relatively wealthy and powerful position of this group because it creates opposition and antagonism where there should, according to her, be unity. She is essentially arguing that dissent on this basis is unacceptable in the tribal formation, confirming the incompatibility of tribal society with democracy. She is stipulating that elites who can justify their position on the basis of tradition or past grievances be treated differently from other elites, and asserting that, in her own words, class analysis “distorts how Māori view who they are”.

Where did the liberal left go wrong? How did it arrive at the position that tribal capitalism was progressive? It is mostly a middle-class phenomenon that has its roots in the ‘bicultural compromise’ established in the 1970s. As we know, although the Labour government elected in the 1980s committed itself to social liberalism as well as anti-racism, it abandoned class politics and even the politics of redistribution. Despite its socially progressive stances, Labour shifted unceremoniously to the extreme-right (see Bruce Jesson, Fragments of Labour). Part of the Labour Party’s capitalist anti-racism was ensuring that there was some diversity among capitalist and state elites. It is here in New Zealand’s political history where the term ‘political left’ begins to empty itself of any real meaning.  

Groups of Māori with some influence have been able to redeploy colonial stereotypes of the ‘vanishing race’ in their favour. Traditional society is reimagined in only positive terms (Elizabeth Rata calls it a “romanticised Arcadia”) and Māori people are understood as universally rural, deeply spiritual, connected to the land and organised by pre-modern arrangements of kinship. Not only can this be done for sympathy, it can also be done as a way of unifying Māori regardless of class position or their distance from the kinds of cultural maxim elevated as resembling the ‘good life’. As the postmodern Left became more influential, cynicism began to take hold in institutions such as schools. Objectivity was seen as oppressive, overly calculative and totalitarian. Today, objectivity is viewed by a not-insignificant group as part of the project of colonisation. Instead, academics and politicians turned to relativism. Children quickly – and implicitly – learn about relativism at schools and universities. Everyone has different perspectives, beliefs and ‘narratives’ that must be respected no matter how right – or wrong – they are. The Foucauldian view of history – supported by Māori intellectual activists such as Linda Tuhiwai Smith in Decolonising Methodologies – also took hold which allowed that discipline to be conceptualised in such a manner. Historians were understood as constantly blinded by their own perspective, which precluded the possibility of any kind of objective historical study.

It seems all we know how to talk about on the Left these days is culture and disparity, with very little beyond lip service mentioned about social class. This has paralysed the Left, because it has destroyed its dissimilarity with liberal positions (who also use this language of disparity) and increased the difficulty of distinguishing itself from those positions of the political orthodoxy. Russell Jacoby, in The End of Utopia, claims as much:

Almost everywhere the left contracts, not simply politically but, perhaps more decisively, intellectually. To avoid contemplating the defeat and its implications, the left now largely speaks the language of liberalism – the idiom of pluralism and rights. At the same time, liberals, divested of a left wing, now suffer from waning determination and imagination… At best radicals and leftists envision a modified society with bigger pieces of pie for more customers. They turn utilitarian, liberal and celebratory… The left once rejected pluralism as superficial, now it worships it as profound. We are witnessing not simply the defeat of the left, but its conversion and perhaps inversion. (10-11, emphasis added)

Jacoby goes on to argue that liberalism has become incredibly banal and bereft of new ideas since the revolutionary and socialist quarters of the Left were virtually eradicated. I would argue that this eradication has also occurred in New Zealand politics, to the New Zealand Left, and the scale of that truth is only just becoming clear to the vast majority of proponents. It will take a lot of effort to regroup and rebuild. Reducing disparity, as I have argued elsewhere (see my piece “The Race/Class Debate and the Justice System”) naturalises the status quo. It does not challenge it despite popular opinion that it does. It merely evens out the outcomes within a given system. The liberal left, it seems, have yet to understand this fact. I find it sad that many Māori and Pacific Island leftists have become caught up in the discourse of cultural incommensurability that various elites deploy. This only lends itself to a kind of cultural nationalism that as I have already argued is incompatible with democracy. It is also true of the rhetoric of ‘decolonisation’ that is becoming increasingly common. There are very few people who exist in the world that can give me a definition of that term which does not disappoint me. Many others who use the term (once the language is decoded) do not actually propose any good or realistic changes. For some, decolonisation is a proxy term for cultural nationalism (bad), and for others it simply refers to a process of diversifying elites and those in middle-class professions; i.e. it is a strategic discourse used for ‘getting one over on white people’ although never recognised as such (also bad).

Hobson’s Pledge may or may not get much traction this election. It is quite difficult to ascertain its support, although no doubt most will come from the Right. But parties and commentators are far more focused on immigration than the issues Hobson’s Pledge is concerned with. There is unfortunate and abysmal racialising going on from Pākehā as well as Māori. The cultural nationalism and perspectivism relied on of many intellectuals today lends itself well to racialisation, even if it is implicit or unintended (as indeed Rukuwai Allen, the reporter who interviewed Don Brash, found herself repeating racist tropes on the basis that it was defensive of “Māori needs”). ‘Culture’ has meant different things to different people at different times, but the intellectual weight of the concept has by now been completely relieved. Its meaning today now approaches that of the dreaded ‘race’ – a meaning which the Left has itself adopted (see Kenan Malik, The Meaning of Race). Despite this, we could learn from the last few decades of rapid change in New Zealand society that the easily identifiable ‘bicultural nation’ is no longer viable and the reversal of colonisation in any meaningful way cannot really occur aside from forcible expulsion of all migrants. Colonisation is better understood as an irreversible fact of history with some very important reversible consequences. Those consequences are: the immiseration of many Māori and their alienation from society (i.e. poor health and increasing rates of suicide) and the racialised attitudes against poor Māori that serve as an added obstacle of disadvantage to that which all poor people face. The liberal left thinks its ideas are working in service of alleviating those consequences, but they are not. In fact if anything they are made worse by the direction of their rather misguided protestations. For real change in these respects requires a fundamental transformation of society from capitalist expansionism to a socialist democracy.