Friday, November 28, 2003

Everybody's a Socialist

It’s gotta be tough being a socialist in New Zealand these days.

The problem may not be so much about politics in the post-Rogernomics era, the prevailing cultural predilection for libertarian grumpiness, or the virtual invisibility of organised labour. No, the real problem is who you have to share the bed with. All sorts of people call all sorts of other people socialists. And the very few people who call themselves socialists don’t tend to be a very happy or progressive bunch of campers.

I’ve got a theory that politics in Aotearoa have been so traumatised by the Labour/National reforms of the 1980’s and 1990’s that the political spectrum itself has been distorted beyond recognition. Here’s how the theory works. A nominally social-democratic party that calls itself Labour brings in a series of right-wing, neo-liberal reforms. Shocked lefty voters abandon the party and National takes command, finishing what Labour started and going even further.

Cue economic stagnation, growth of poverty and crumbling public infrastructure.

So here’s how the process of trauma works itself out. People who used to identify themselves as democratic socialists are so ashamed of themselves that they cease to participate in the kind of social democratic politics that are fairly successful (in varying degrees) in most other western countries. And they stop calling their politics socialist.

Meanwhile right-wingers are so shocked by Labour’s adoption of all their pet projects, and so fearful of an ensuing loss of identity, that they take up the rhetorical device of naming Labour as socialist. It’s nonsense, of course. And it’s a tricky standpoint to maintain, given that in reality there is little significant difference between a National government or one headed by Labour.

That may change as a result of Brash.

So now we have a situation where nobody self-identifies as a socialist, but everybody calls anybody who has the faintest social conscience a socialist. Witness Media Cow ( yet another liberal commentator ) calling Russell Brown a “neo-socialist.” Now I like Brown’s stuff. I read it regularly. But even he is the first to deny that he has a socialist bone in his body. And he’s right. Liberal left might be a more appropriate term. Or just critical.

The problem is that there are no social-democratic politics in New Zealand. And that absence has created a crisis of definitions.