More on the autopsy of NZ social democracy

Jurriaan Bendien J.Bendien at
Fri Sep 27 08:45:50 MDT 2002

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I think Paul Harris's argument is shoddy - on that basis even the US
Democratic Party is social-democratic. Phil's reply is a good one. The
ideas of the dead generations weigh like nightmares on the brains of
the living. The NZ Left continued to support the Labour Party through
the years of Rogernomics and after, like the rope supports the hanging
man, sometimes indeed with odes to Lenin and Marx. Now it looks to me
like they not only twisted their spine, but broken their neck.

Lenin once talked about how revolutionaries are after their death
turned into harmless icons, which you put in a niche in the wall as an
object of quiet reverence - they don't talk back anymore. The
proposition that the NZ Labour Party, originally founded by
workingclass rebels in a remote past, is still social democratic
today, belongs strictly to the realm of religious delirium.

Harris writes:

"The material basis for it comprises budget surpluses; the political
space for it is demonstrated by the fact that so many people voted for
it and that Labour remains a coalition which has support from unions,
feminists, Maori, significant sections of the superannuitants, and
poor people. And, yes, some of the more progressive capitalists".

So now a party is social democratic just because "progressive
capitalists", feminists and poor superannuitants support it !!! This
is just ludicrous, an ideological perversion, an inability to form a
coherent political ideology. It is meaningless to say that there are
Maori who support the Labour Party, because the political inclinations
of Maori these days are not at all homogenous, but very diverse.

It would be possible to argue a party remained social democratic even
although its support base had changed, because of the objective
programme the party continues to pursue. But what is there
specifically "social democratic"about the objective programme of the
NZ Labour Party pursues in office ? Is it because they are "nice
people" with their heart in the right place, even although they
operate in a neo-liberal, deregulated, porno economy, where the
maximum inflation rate is fixed by legislation at 2 percent or so ?

The thing that interests me though is the reference to budget
surpluses. I would be interested to know if there are in fact any
budget surpluses for the NZ Government, and if there are (which I
doubt is the case if you look at the totality of government finance)
how exactly they arise and what they are used for. The central
argument of "Rogernomics" under the Fourth Labour Government was that
state assets would be sold off to repay state debts, but as far as I
am aware state debts continue to persist (and may even have increased;
although I haven't seen the latest figures) - although a "budget
surplus" was manufactured under the Fourth Labour Government using new
accounting techniques, lateron state debt shot up again all the same).

If you screw workers and beneficiaries by cutting their incomes,
putting them out of jobs, and selling off state assets, you may of
course generate some extra cash in the account, but this is not a
material basis of a social democracy. It is a material basis for a
self-serving political elite and its hangers-on, who have some spare
cash to pay consultants to come up with some ideas about how to keep
the society together.

Social democracy, as I said before, was about state regulation to
protect the population from the worst evils and excesses of
capitalism, and income redistribution to promote social equality and
balanced economic development. I invite anybody to prove that this is
occurring in NZ today - beyond the tiniest amount of tinkering to
prove to gullible people that Labourites are "nice people" with their
heart in the right place. The fact is that it isn't occurring beyond a
minimal "social safety net", the provision of a rundown state
education system and a rundown state health system, the main reason
being that there isn't even any legal system in place to permit it or
resources to do it with.

A qualitative change has occurred in political and economic life in
NZ, all social classes have been shaken up, and it has been so
devastating in its implications that today many among the NZ elite
actually doubt the viability of NZ as an independent nation, they
figure it would be better to join with Australia ! After all, NZ
finance is practically run from Australian head offices these days, so
why not admit that the NZ central government is reduced to a local
government role and go the whole hog.

What determines the policy of the NZ government today is "investor
confidence", pure and simple. Any significant state intervention to
redress social inequalities or shield the economy from the
vicissitudes of world trade, reduces investor confidence and causes
capital flight, that is why they don't do it.

It is of course possible that social democratic reformism in the
classic sense could be revived in New Zealand, but it would take a new
organisation to do it, with a new ideology, plus an upsurge of workers
militancy. It would remain a protest party, until it had such massive
support that it could aspire to be the government. But even this isn't
happening beyond the some very small attempts by some intellectuals
and trade unionists, precisely because even the most elementary
progressive social reforms are difficult to win. The real name of the
political game in NZ today is banale populism, that is all there is to

But even supposing - stretching the imagination - that you would get
at some future date a social democratic government in New Zealand
again with a project for national salvation, like in the 1930s. What
would it look like, and what could they do ? The New Zealand economy
is more integrated in the world economy than its was ever before, and
more dependent on foreign investment than before, a virtual playground
of the multinationals. Any would-be social democratic government
worthy of the name would immediately provoke massive capital flight,
and would be forced to revolutionary methods, large-scale
nationalisations and so on. And if that is the case, why bother with
social democratic ideology anymore ? That is really the essence of
Phil's position.

If you are a socialists in New Zealand, you might as well say you are
a socialist and declare yourself for the uncompromising defence of
workers and the poor.  If not, the only other thing you can be is
either a groovy populist club of nice people with some feminists, some
maoris, some poor people and superannuitants needing some heartfelt
sympathy, or else a loony.


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