|Paul Mason: Farewell to the working class?|
While the socialist inspired policies of Bernie Sanders have seen tens of thousands of Americans flock to his cause, the Labour Party in New Zealand is going down a different road altogether...
IT IS YET ANOTHER indication of how far right the Labour Party has travelled in the past three decades that it remains suspicious and, at times, hostile to the policies that are being expressed by a democratic socialist like Bernie Sanders. Even his political success has left the low polling Labour Party unmoved.
While some of Labour's remaining supporters have felt moved to write approvingly of Sanders on Labour-friendly blogs like The Standard and The Daily Blog, that approval hasn't translated into any change in political direction by the Labour leadership.
The same antipathy toward policies that explicitly reject neoliberalism was also expressed when Jeremy Corbyn was elected the leader of the British Labour Party. In an interview with TVNZ's Corin Dann, deputy leader Grant Robertson was asked whether Corbyn's victory would have any influence on the New Zealand Labour Party. Would Corbyn's sweeping victory persuade New Zealand Labour to shift to the left?
Grant Robertson was quick to pour cold water on any such prospects, suggesting that Corbyn's left wing policies would not work in New Zealand. "You can’t really compare two countries like that with quite different sets of circumstances." he claimed.
This was a nonsensical argument but it confirmed that, regardless of what was happening in the UK, Labour's market-first, right wing agenda remained firmly in place. And it has remained firmly in place even while Bernie Sanders has talked to large and growing crowds about what democratic socialism means to him.
That kind of conversation has zero chance of occurring between the conservative Andrew Little and the New Zealand electorate. If Little thought that the mild Keynesian-inspired policies of the Alliance were 'extremist', he must think that Bernie Sanders is a raving revolutionary.
Labour's big initiative, which it hopes will attract a level of electoral support it hasn't seen for some years, is its Future of Work conference which will be held 23-24 March. Largely the initiative of co-leader Grant Robertson, it will promote the theme that neoliberalism has fundamentally changed the world economy and the nature of work itself. Labour will argue it has the 'progressive policies' to lead the country into the so-called 'Fourth Industrial Revolution'.
While arguing that the left wing policies of Jeremy Corbyn would not work in New Zealand because of 'quite different sets of circumstances', Robertson hasn't been so hostile to some other ideas and policies from the UK. They are, apparently, quite appropriate to our 'set of circumstances'.
At the Labour Party conference in November last year Robertson quoted, and not for the first time, British journalist and broadcaster Paul Mason:
"Paul Mason, the economics editor of the Guardian newspaper, has written a book called the End of Capitalism, which foreshadows a future of work that redefines the economic order that has governed our lives. With technology breaking down barriers to old forms of employment, and the power enabled by access to information and data, there is the opportunity for working people to take more control of their lives- to develop a new system that is defined by a shared prosperity."
The book Robertson is actually referring to is Post Capitalism: A Guide to Our Future, published last year. Mason is also not the economics editor of the Guardian. He's the former economics editor of Channel 4 News.
Drawing inspiration from Mason, Robertson went on to say that Labour needs
"... to be at the forefront of ensuring the new economy develops with our values at heart. New models of business are sprouting up everywhere that use technology to break down barriers. This represents the so-called peer-to-peer capitalism or the sharing economy. We have to make that technology available and support the creation of those businesses."
While Grant Robertson will want us to believe that his Future of Work conference positions Labour at the forefront of progressive and cutting edge policies for the new future, the reality is that Labour's vision of the future is tired and cliched. There's nothing new in what is being discussed.
Nearly fifty years ago Alvin Toffler and his book Future Shock was the talk of the town. Both the liberal and conservative sections of the chattering class embraced Toffler's vision of a post -capitalist world. Toffler envisioned a world where cyborgs increasingly occupied jobs previously done by people, as the world moved beyond industrialisation to one based on technology and information.
"Many countries today have begun the transition from an industrial wealth system and civilization to a knowledge-based system - without appreciating that a new wealth system is impossible without a corresponding new way of life."
"The illiterate of the 21st Century will not be those who cannot read or write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn and relearn."
Does any of this sound familiar? It should do, because a variation on 'Future Shock' is now being played out as the 'Fourth Industrial Revolution'. In fact Robertson quoted Toffler's warning in his speech to the Labour Party conference - but never explained why we are supposedly just beginning the transition from an industrial to information based economy now, when it supposedly began half a century ago.
Toffler's ideas, which drew on the work of the 1960s sociologist Daniel Bell who argued the world was heading to a post industrial utopia, also influenced the short-lived 'New Times' movement which emerged out of the Communist Party of Great Britain in the 1980s. Again it was argued we were witnessing a significant break with all that had gone before as society became 'post Fordist'. 'New Times' became the theoretical justification for dropping any anti-capitalist agenda and contributed significantly to the rise of 'Blairism' in the Labour Party. The remaining Blairites within Labour continue to oppose Jeremy Corbyn's policies today.
It is disappointing that Paul Mason, who forged his politics within classical Marxism, should now abandon working class politics - because that is what he does. He writes that our 'brave new world' means “technology has created a new route out, which the remnants of the old left…have either to embrace or die”.
In fact the 'Fourth Industrial revolution' is no revolution at all because it involves, says Mason, "a gradual, iterative and modular project. Its aim should be to expand those technologies, business models and behaviours that dissolve market forces, eradicate the need for work and progress the world economy towards abundance”.
Mason talks vaguely about a new 'info capitalism' where the working class is no longer the harbinger of change. While Marx wrote that the working class was the gravedigger of capitalism, Mason claims that 'info capitalism has created a new agent of change in history: the educated and connected human being". The elitism of such a view is obvious and recalls Daniel Bell's vision of an 'enlightened' middle class guiding society to the 'post capitalist' future.
So, with the working class conveniently sidelined from history, class struggle becomes an anachronism. We don't actually need to confront and overcome the rule of capital. We can easily see how Mason's accommodating view of capitalism and his rejection of working class politics would be attractive to a market friendly politician like Grant Robertson and his colleagues in the Labour Party. They are apparently far more palatable than the socialist inspired and winning policies of a Bernie Sanders or Jeremy Corbyn, policies that have seen thousands of people flock to the meetings of Sanders and revived Labour's fortunes in Britain.