LAST WEEK SAW the official launch of Economic and Social Research Aotearoa (ESRA) at Victoria University in Wellington. While the right has had its own 'think tanks' for decades - think the NZ Business Roundtable and the Maxim Institute - a similar body has been conspicuously absent on the left.
That's not to say that research and 'thinking' has not been going on, but its largely been the preserve of various issue- based groups and various individuals, some of whom have been attached to the universities or to left groups or parties - or both.
It has been activist and former Green MP Sue Bradford who has been the driving force bethind the formation of ESRA. She wrote her Phd thesis on the subject of think tanks, A Major Think Tank in Aotearoa -An Impossible Dream or a Call To Action?
The issues facing left wing politics in this country have next to nothing to do with the Labour Party. They haven't done so for decades. But, at the same time, it also has little to do with the small groups who spend a lot of time maintaining the correct 'party line' and jostling for some perceived position of 'leadership'. This is what Rosa Luxemburg once described as know-it-all "revolutionary hurrah spirit".
This has contributed to fragmentation and 'in-fighting' on the left, which has not been particularly helpful. But judging from comments in her thesis, Sue is of the opinion that we are finally moving beyond such squabbling.
But I think far more damaging has been a continued allegiance to the Labour Party. This misplaced loyalty has contributed significantly to an arid political landscape blighted by an impoverished culture of thought and action that has failed to provide a new impulse of thought and ideas. In short, it simply is not enough to say 'Vote Labour' or 'Build the Party'.
The fact is that a great many people have not only given up on the Labour Party but on the political process itself. Almost a million people didn't vote at the last election because they didn't much like what was on offer. They looked around for a new politics, for something other than 'politics as usual', and found nothing.
But already various unionists, activists and pundits are gearing up to campaign for Labour in 2017. As a personal aside, my own difficulties with some left wing and union groups in this country is not only with their continued support of the Labour Party but with their refusal to countenance any activity that might threaten Labour, often sowing confusion with their description of Labour as 'the lesser evil'.
So I am encouraged by the comments of Ben Rosamond,the convenor of the Political Organisation Inquiry Group at ESRA. He writes:
"As individuals and as groups, we shouldn’t work to the temporality of the election cycle but should be trying to build power quite outside of that framework. There doesn’t exist the infrastructure to sustain a large amount of activists working in such a space in Auckland at the moment, and this should be our primary concern. Rather than just critique Labour, we need to provide alternatives more than the disparate, disconnected and often somewhat mysterious campaigns, movements and small organisations that currently exist are capable of. We can’t expect people we think should be engaged in extra-parliamentary activist work to do so if we don’t provide accessible and inspiring avenues through which this can happen."
While Sue Bradford has conceived ESRA as a broad enough organisation to encompass and encourage all significant strands of left wing thought, it has still been criticised by people not considered to be on the right. Generally they are people who are antagonistic toward any independent left wing activity - of any description - in this country.
Chris Trotter is one such person. Despite being interviewed by Sue for her thesis, and making some useful comments, he has already attacked ESRA. He has rushed to judgment, describing the fledgling organisation as 'a lemon'. In an all too apparent attempt to steer his fellow Labour Party supporters away from ESRA, he counsels:
According to Trotter: "ESRA are hoping to harvest some hybrid vigour from these waning ideological strains". This is a bit rich coming from someone who has nothing more to offer than discredited right wing Labourism. While Trotter is happy to support Cameron 'Whaleoil' Slater's publication Incite by writing for it, he apparently can't extend such similar goodwill to ESRA .
Unlike similar think tanks overseas, some of which have major institutional links to political parties which fund them, ESRA has no such backing. It's disappointing, to say the least, that Trotter isn't interested in using his position in the mainstream media to put in 'a good word ' for ESRA.
What alarms Trotter is that a genuinely independent left wing culture of thought and action could be forged in New Zealand, one no longer beholden to his Labour Party.
I think the formation of ESRA is an encouraging development for the New Zealand left. I agree with Sue that 'a thoughtful left is a potent left' and that there is "a reservoir of experience and knowledge that has barely been tapped'.
Perhaps we could draw inspiration from the work of the Italian revolutionary socialist Antonio Gramsci. He saw 'organic' intellectuals - thinkers - as producing a working class culture of thought and action through education and the media. A culture of thought and action that would be critical of the status quo. Sue describes it in her thesis as "an effective left counter hegemony". ESRA could make a significant contribution to the development of such a hegemony.