Labour parties

Ben Courtice benj at connexus.net.au
Thu Sep 19 23:56:25 MDT 2002


Phil wrote:
> When the LP here revived, as the Muldoon years wore on (Muldoon being the National Party prime minister 1975-84), it was not workers who
flocked in - but the liberal middle class who were horrified by Muldoon's social conservatism.  These middle class elements provided the social base
in the LP for 'Rogernomics', the neo-liberal economic policy pursued by Labour from 1984 until its decimation in the 1990 elections.

> The trade union bureaucracy became superfluous and socially/politically irrelevant, and so in the 1980s the alliance between the trade union
bureaucracy and the old 'caring' middle class, as the basis of the LP, was replaced by an alliance of the liberal-yuppie middle class and the actual
ruling class as the basis of Labour.  To the extent that the trade union bureaucracy has any role in the LP today, it is based on the fact that these
union bureaucrats who are connected to the LP come from the same law and commerce faculties as the LP politicians.

Actually that sounds a lot like what is happening to the ALP right now. Except hopefully the liberal middle class will be equally horrified by both Labor
and Liberal; they aren't very far apart. The Accord in the 1980s cemented the union bureaucrats into Labor to some extent I think. That's why it's
proving a little hard for Labor to now chuck out the unions. The accord was a disaster for the working class, but it was great for people who wanted to
make a career to parliament via the unions. Or even just advance their career at work in tripartite union/boss/government negotiations, etc. This is
going on my own experience of the rank-and-file type ALP activists and supporters I've met and (unfortunately) worked with.

I'm not trying to apply this sort of characterisation to the NZLP about which I know little.

> Then again, perhaps we need to clarify who exactly we are talking about when we say 'middle class' and well-off workers.  For instance, when you
say 'well-off workers' you include in brackets people like professionals.  I'd tend to say these are middle class rather than working class, although
there is an ongoing prcoess of proletarianisation of course...

Well, I think there's a substantial grey area. Particularly the "proletarianisation" process makes it a bit difficult to say in some instances. A doctor in
a public hospital? A computer programmer (which I'm studying to be...) etc...

> I would say that in terms of composition, the NZ LP is middle class (liberal middle class) and that it represents and administers the interests of
capital.

> I think the transformation from a burgeois workers party into a liberal-bourgeois party is quite significant.

I consider the union bureaucracy to be middle class, or petit-bourgeois. Yes the changes in the Labour Parties of the various countries are significant
but I'm not convinced that their fundamental nature has changed. But maybe that's not a really important argument.

> I would also argue that this transformation also suggests that there is very little material basis and political space for any serious social-democratic
project these days.  The virtual annihilation of the Alliance party in NZ is further evidence.  I would suggest this is highly significant historically.

In terms of the practical result for traditional "social-democratic" politics having no space, I agree. And I think that this is a good thing too.

> I'm actually kind of dubious about the notion of a modern labour aristocracy.  In NZ, it would be quite hard to identify such a layer, even 20 years
ago. If you did it on the basis of income you'd have ended up arguing that meat workers were part of the labour aristocracy, and yet they were largely
Maori and Pacific Islanders.  There are very few workers around these days in NZ whose conditions of life give them the privileges that Marx and
Engels noted among the labour aristocracy in Britain in the late Victorian era.  The modern factory system has also done away with most of the old
craft skills which typified that layer.

Lenin considered that with Britain's loss of her colonial monopoly, the superprofits of imperialism had been spread more evenly across the imperialist
nations, and so now a "bourgeois labour party" was inevitable in all countries. This observation corrected Engels' prediction that as Britain's monopoly
was challenged, the class struggle would re-emerge as the labour aristocracy shrunk. Certainly the class struggle did re-emerge but the labour
aristocracy did not completely disappear. It just shrank. I think that it's still a relevant concept today in Australia, in general. You are right that it
would be difficult to identify the exact modern day equivalent. Universal education has made careers much more accessible, so the idea of a
hereditary labour aristocracy based on specific crafts is obviously inaccurate. But, for example, in Australia during the ALP government I would locate
a certain section of the government bureaucracy/public service as being part of the labour aristocracy. Before Steve Painter left the DSP he wrote a
(very good IMO) pamphlet called "Two-tier society: the politics of capitalist decline in Australia". It analysed the growing gap between low-wage,
oppressed sections of workers, and those with more secure jobs and higher wages. Maybe I could put it online, it's an interesting read.

More on the labour aristocracy later perhaps... time to hit the streets and sell some copies of Green Left Weekly.
Ben Courtice


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