A week or so ago Chris Trotter accused me of having a problem.

The specific political problem he is accusing me of is that I have to work at maintaining the 'illusion' of the New Zealand working class as 'a class for itself'.

I kind of shrugged my shoulders at this. It's the kind of tired anti-socialist argument I have come to expect from someone living in the rubble of the discredited Labour Party.

Trotter says that, in my desperate attempt to maintain my working class 'illusions' I have to:

....depict Kiwi workers as both ideologically conscious: able to distinguish their friends from their enemies; and politically conscious: capable of formulating coherent strategic and tactical responses to the daily ebb and flow of domestic and international events.

Trotter himself thinks that class consciousness has declined to such a degree that the overwhelming majority of working class people have no consciousness of themselves as part of a class that has its own interests other than those of the ruling class.

In other words, while people like me might be interested in radical change, the New Zealand working class isn't.

So, we in the socialist left are simply deluded - as opposed to Chris who is eminently sensible in supporting the neoliberal Labour Party.

Of course Chris Trotter is coming close to dismissing the working class as an objective social class. How else can you explain his argument that the major economic and social upheavals of the past two decades have 'atomised' working class communities? Can you point me in the direction of an 'atomised' working class community, Chris? Careful now - you'll end up doing a 'Melissa Lee' if you don't watch out.

In the meantime though Chris has varied 'explanations' for the so-called 'passivity' of the New Zealand working class.

His big argument is that the working class is lost in some ideological fog - that is has been overwhelmed by neoliberal hegemony.

His evidence for this claim is New Zealand television! He writes:

The cultural devastation wreaked upon New Zealand’s media is best illustrated by comparing two local television dramas set in the working-class: Moynihan and Outrageous Fortune. The former was centred on the activities of a trade union secretary, played by Ian Mune, and pitted the hero’s moral and professional resources against those of his members, their employers, and the State. Outrageous Fortune features a West Auckland family, the Wests, who rely for their survival not upon the protective institutions of the working class, but upon the criminal ingenuity of the family’s individual members. Moynihan ran from 1976 to 1977. Outrageous Fortune is the most successful locally-produced drama of the early- 2000s. It is hard to imagine a better illustration of what 25 years of neo-liberal hegemony has done to the New Zealand working-class’s perceptions of itself.

Chris should get out more and I don't mean just a quick jaunt to the TV3 studios to swap polite conversation with the likes of David Farrar.

There are struggles happening right now. Here in my hometown I know that Lane Walker Rudkin workers have been meeting unofficially to discuss what is happening with their factory.

In Auckland on May 12 cleaning staff from Auckland's CBD are holding a rally to highlight their low pay and the lack of respect they recieve from employers.

As I have said before Trotter's arguments are indeed the counsel of despair. Despite his liking for quoting from various socialist texts, all Chris has to offer is a tired old political party that is actually scared of its social democratic past.

I suspect that if Chris Trotter had been a contemporary of Karl Marx he would of been penning articles attacking Marx's 'delusions' about the revolutionary potential of the working class.

What escapes Trotter is that the class struggle happens regardless. Workers will strike, picket, etc not because they believe in the class struggle or they have suddenly been convinced by the socialist argument, but because the unjust economic system forces them to.

In this respect, socialism is the spectre that continues to haunt capitalism.

Of course its unrealistic to expect workers to fight every time. In many situations, they will concede to the employer or the government despite knowing only too well that they are being screwed. They may think that no-one will support them if they fight. Their union leaders may tell them that there is no point fighting and subsequently sell them out.

But workers will fight - and often when we least expect it.

Workers' ideas are the product of two factors: the brainwashing they receive from birth by teachers, parents, religious and political leaders and the media; and more importantly, their own daily circumstances.

But when workers are driven to fight, they begin to see that they do have power. Important political lessons are learned.

But alongside this we need to begin the rebuilding of new working class political organisations and I think we are seeing the beginnings of such a rebuilding of working class politics in this country - one in which the discredited and politically bankrupt Labour Party has no role to play,

Sometimes its worth going back to the old man himself. What did Karl have to say?

Marx himself wrote that it wasn't just enough for the working class to exist.

He distinguished between a 'class in itself' and a 'class for itself' – between a class that merely exists, and a class that is a self-conscious political subject fighting for its own interests.

Marx saw in British Chartists and the French Revolution of 1848 the beginnings of workers’ political movements in which they became a class 'for itself”.

But he also stressed that this would be a long and uneven process in which there would be defeats as well as victories.

He saw the Paris Commune of 1871, where workers took power for a short time but were then crushed by the ruling class, as a source of important lessons.

It showed that workers in struggle would forge new forms of political power, directly under their own control and radically more democratic than anything imaginable under capitalism.

I suspect that if Chris Trotter had been a contemporary of Karl Marx he would of been penning articles attacking Marx's 'delusions' about the revolutionary potential of the working class.


  1. Not the "counsel of despair", Steve, but certainly the counsel of a political realist.

    Of course the working-class fights. The most pertinent question, however, is: "How does it fight?"

    You cite the case of LWR. But the fight there is purely defensive in nature, and without the slightest prospect of a mass solidarity campaign by the rest of the Christchurch working class, it is doomed to failure.

    And this is precisely my point.

    A "class for itself" would not allow the LWR workers to be driven from their jobs. Like the Chilean workers in the early 1970s, or even the New Zealand workers in the late 1930s, a confident and politically agressive working class would mobilise en masse in defence of its most vulnerable brothers and sisters.

    When you see that happening, Steve, give us a shout.

    Oh, and you're wrong, Steve, I would have looked forward eagerly for every journalistic dispatch from Karl Marx. Why? Because of his unmatched ability to describe the world as it actually is, without illusions, and to explain why it's that way - and how it can be changed.

    Marx would not have written hopefully about a working-class with less than 10 percent of its members working for private-sector employers enrolled in a trade union - much less one in which upwards of a third of its members voted for the National Party!

    Counter-hegemonic activity is what we need most urgently at this time, Steve, not forlorn vigils on ineffectual picket-lines, where cast adrift workers are hailed as heroes - even as they drown.

  2. What exactly does Trotter believe in?
    He describes himself as a 'political realist' but that seems to add up to just support for hopeless Labour. He just seems out of touch.

  3. And here's a not-so-academic take on it :
    I work as a cleaner. I come from a strong union family which always voted Labour but in recent years we have always voted Alliance or (dammit) Maori Party.
    I live next door to a woman who works in the laundry at a rest home and a guy who works in a factory. Down the road from me a guy who works at Air NZ ..for now

    Neither of these households gets a newspaper , they think Paul henry is the cats pyjamas, they are deeply racist and in my opinion clueless about the world around them.
    I know for a fact that both of these households voted National.One of them told me he was voting National "to see what happens , i'm bored with Labour ".
    They all bought into the Nanny State propaganda too btw.

    None of these people "fight" or rail against the ruling classes, they almost adore them, they fawn over Paul Henry, when LWR closes it's worthy only of a shoulder shrug.
    Their biggest worry is what size flat screen TV they're going to buy and whether there should be an"h" in Whanganui ( bloody maoris who do they think they are ?)
    The 'noble' working class is dumbed down and fully immersed in the age of stupid.
    Go down to Hornby mall one day, look around at the number of working class people, unemployed, and what are they doing ? Crowding into the $2 shop or briscoes or the warehouse, filling their trollies with more shit.

    These people have more respect for Paul Holmes than for Karl Marx and know more about Paris Hilton than about Kate Sheppard

    Shopping and celebrity is the new Opium.....


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