Tuesday, July 15, 2014

The politics of 'we must change the government'

It’s the time in the election cycle when the left unites behind whoever’s in charge in the name of either kicking the Tories out of office or preventing them from forming the next government. This year there’s no realistic prospect of the Greens being kept out of a centre-left coalition, so the lesser evil looks less grim than usual, but it’s still dispiriting to be reminded that criticism is to be curtailed in the name of a dubious common good. Thus for instance, having voiced my frustration at the fortunes of Labour and the quality of its leadership, I was met with this rejoinder from a First Union executive:
terrific so low paid workers have to suffer another 3 years because you have the pip
Some interesting assumptions about my personal circumstances there, and a remarkable narrowing of the Left’s constituency, but also the implication that it is incumbent upon left-leaning people to shut up and toe the line (as if my loose lips could sink any ships!). Unless of course – the conversation continued – one were only ‘professing to care’. This emotive, moralistic approach to politics (the people, they will suffer) is what inspires much of the rhetoric concerning the steadily growing number of non-voters – who are assumed to be disinterested and apathetic as opposed to feeling unrepresented – but also the reduction of poverty to the poverty of children: the only kind, it seems, that is worthy of consideration and outrage.

It is that suffering, and the greater evil of Tory rule, that demands we settle for the lesser evil of the other, more humane parties of business. Yet, when faced with it, I don’t fully reject this logic. I’m a Marxist, which in the current climate is one of the most futile and impractical things a person can be – almost as much as an intellectual. I do indeed have a strong case of the pip. And whatever aversion I feel towards our current government is balanced by the conviction that Labour and the Greens (and as of now quite possibly Mana, too), are in fact more committed to capitalism and invested in it than National, convinced as they appear to be that it holds the key to a sustainable future and our very survival as a species. To me, it’s not a matter of lesser but of different evils. But I also get that concerning people’s so-called everyday lives, including my own, National is – to flip the adage – like Labour, only worse. That it will never raise benefits. That it will only reduce workers’ bargaining rights and entitlements further. That it will continue to critically weaken our environmental protections and democratic institutions. That it will be reluctant to accept social change and in all things be more racist, more sexist, more homophobic. All these may be matters of degree, large or small, but the weaker the working class is, the worse the conditions in which it lives, the more small differences become a matter of outright survival, until social justice grows in the imagination to become a sneering, grey concept, and not something that can be concretely aspired to and worked towards.

I am, in other words, not insensitive to the call that ‘we must change the government’, even as I recognise how it acts to forestall criticism and create the myth – evidenced most strongly in New Zealand by the terms of the widespread nostalgia for the Clark government and the person of Helen Clark as leader – that winning elections and keeping National out is the perpetual engine of progress itself, never to be critically evaluated or questioned.

But I still insist to know what it means. I would like to hear people’s reasons, to try to grasp which ones lead by implication to the blind alley of reforms that never even aspire to incrementalism, and which ones might point to a deeper engagement with the categories of the political. If only as a stratagem to combat the crushing dullness of this election campaign, I figured that asking the question might be of some use, so last week I posed it to my twitter timeline and compiled the answers in a raw sequence, which you can read here.

It’s a very partial survey, naturally, even relatively to the skewed politics of my followers. But you can always learn something from a list of grievances. Which are the things that, as we reject them, define the society we want?

The single reason that featured most strongly was Christchurch, often without the need for further qualifiers. This was interesting to me, partly because the absence of a counter-factual centre-left response, and partly because the reconstruction of a city is a project that draws upon the social and political imagination like no other, and that demands a commitment to democracy like no other. We should want to have done that very differently.

Then came education, taking money out of rape prevention and support, roads, roads, roads, the Search and Surveillance Bill, welfare reform, this quip by the Prime Minister, a catalogue of some of the most ghoulish Tory personalities, as well as acknowledgments of the slippery nature of the question (Lew Stoddart: ‘it’s banality-of-evil margin-calls all the way down’) and of its greater urgency if one were to turn it to toward Messrs Abbott or Cameron. Most people who responded genuinely engaged with the assignment, instead of dismissing it as too obvious or using it as an opportunity to sloganeer. The result was an interesting little catalogue, a document of this moment in our national politics. Or a baseline for future three-yearly surveys.

I don’t make claims to any great clarity. Let’s be honest: wanting to kick the Tories out of government is one of the noblest of human feelings, and saying that it isn’t nearly enough, the most banal of statements. In the end we're still left to face those different evils.