So, I want to talk a little bit about a brief spat that’s flaring up amongst us leftist bloggers and its broader political implications. I’ll need some background for this though, so bear with me. It’s an especially tricky one because it relates to worldviews, feelings, and political orientations. (by which I mean, whether your politics are about social effects or economic effects)
Essentially the global left has for some time has been divided into two camps. You can think of these as the Old Left and New Left, or Progressives and “Fauxgressives”, or whatever you like. I’m going to call them the social left and the economic left to avoid making implicit value judgements. The struggle between these two groups goes on constantly, with radical being thrown around both as a badge of pride and as a scare tactic. In some places one faction wins- for instance, there has yet to be an social-left Democrat in the White House. But the disunited Left is a reality we’ve long acknowledged to different degrees.
The social left, including myself, view the left as a collection of disparate voices who come together not necessarily by what we have intrinsically in common, but rather because of the commonality of the challenges we face. These social liberals still think of the progressive movement as collective action, but the emphasis is on collaboration and understanding of our differences rather than submission to the collective identity. We view ourselves to some degree as pragmatists, attempting to aid the progressive cause in the long-term by trying to address individual problems in the present rather than rely on class warfare to solve our problems so that we don’t fracture before we finish our work.
In contrast collectivists believe that our problems are all the same, and related to a more fundamental class identity. They view themselves as the radicals addressing the real problem (class injustice) directly. There’s a tendency to view the individualists as splitters who give ammunition to conservatives and the right, and the collectivists, not entirely without reason, howl in frustration when the smaller factions of the left do something they view as damaging the collective cause. The mantra of the collectivist could be said to be “keep on marching, we’ll get there!”
Wheras the individualists view the collectivists as centrist bullies only concerned with unemployment and free trade, trying to undermine the causes of social liberals. Youth, race, sexuality, feminism, and identity politics in general are core issues, and the understanding is that the left has legitimacy only as the collective summation of our individual votes, each of which demands that their own unique problems be addressed in addition to the generic struggle. The mantra of the individualist, on the same note, would be “don’t leave us behind!”
The problem is this: To me, my vote is mine. I will spend it on the issues that are most urgent to me right now, and if somebody wants to change my mind, they need to convince me they will do a better job of addressing the issues I care about. My philosophy on democracy is that each Party, each candidate, is a product, and because I can only buy one, I want the one that will bring progress about the fastest while still bringing stable progress, and not making the right retaliate worse. To a collectivist, my vote is viewed as being rightfully theirs, because they know what to do best, and it’s all about keeping the government benches in the right hands, and I feel like I’m being told my allegiance is “wrong” every time I hear the vanguard of Labour and New Labour criticise MMP parties for being open to working with the Right now and then when we can convince them they have some crumbs to spare. (And conveniently ignoring the fact that the individualists get crumbs from the collectivists, too.)
The Right is very good at selling itself, because the concept of image is natural to the political elite they attract as candidates. The collectivists have a disdain for selling themselves, and want to focus on fighting the Right, pulling them down. The issue is that this is opposition tactics and only good for getting the government benches. While the government benches are nice, we live in a genuinely democratic society, and as hard as you try, public opinion always shifts eventually. Individualists see a bidding war as a viable strategy not only to negotiate greater gains from the
The individualists demand that our representatives sell- not themselves- but the policy gains they can achieve for various groups of the left. (Whether a given individualist cares about one, some, or all of these groups depends on which one you pick, so we’re a fussy crowd to deal to.) We do not respond to calls to collective action until they touch “our” issues, and we guard the support of our favoured candidates and causes jealously, and lash out when they’re criticised for trying to make progressive gains.
The fundamental it comes down to is that we in the left are not united around class. Sure, class CAN explain many of our problems, but that’s part of a wider trend- that our uniting factor is not who we are of ourselves, but rather the fact that we all know what can happen when people are mistreated and oppressed. If the left is to stay united, as the collectivists imply they want, then we need to find some basis upon which we can agree not to join in the oppression and mistreatment we feel at the hands of the right. So far we have not done well at that, and while the last Labour Government made a lot of progress, the collectivists tend to feel it involved too much splitting
I think all parts of the Left want a Left government in 2011, especially after seeing what a joke National trying to be centrist has been. But the Greens and the Māori Party won’t be giving up on finding policy concessions to eke out of National in the mean time, to present a strong case that they need to be a fundamental backbone to any sea change we try for in 2011. And I think it’s wrong to say that’s somehow bad politics. We’re carving out our own way and seeking to rise the social tide, rather than the economic one- because we are used to having to convince the bigger sibling to take on those causes we have the best chance of getting agreement to, and there is little in the way of economic common ground with National. When we have a chance to work with Labour we will probably take it. But until then- my party, my vote- are both my choice.