Rosa Luxemburg : Socialism or barbarism.
The New Zealand left will never capture the popular imagination until it stops being a timid defender of the status quo.

IT WAS ONE OF THE towering giants of the socialist tradition, Rosa Luxemburg, who put the stark choice before us: socialism or barbarism. Although she raised the slogan in the shadow of the First World War, it has become ever more relevant in the century since her death.

In an age when social democracy has surrendered to the dictates of the market, the choice presses down on us ever more heavily. Yet most liberals, like Linus and his security blanket in Peanuts, still cling to the comforting illusion of a 'managed capitalism' or even a 'green capitalism'. They continue to cling to the belief, despite all the evidence to the contrary, that they can mitigate the worst excesses of capitalism. While it might convince them personally that they really are on the right side of history, they are increasingly and dangerously delusional.

But Rosa Luxemburg, never one to pull her punches, is uncompromising. In the long run, she explains, capitalism can only lead to the collapse of organised society and the dawning of a new Dark Age. She writes: “We stand today…before the awful proposition: either the triumph of imperialism and the destruction of all culture, and, as in ancient Rome, depopulation, desolation, degeneration, a vast cemetery; or, the victory of socialism.” (The Junius Pamphlet) .

While many in the 'First World' might find it difficult to identify with Rosa Luxemburg's depiction of late capitalism, they should perhaps reflect on the fact that every hour of every day, 180 children die of hunger and 1200 die of preventable diseases. And the breakdown of agricultural systems as a result of increased exposure to drought, rising temperatures, and more erratic rainfall, will lead up to 600 million more people facing malnutrition in the future. (And now we are told that limiting human-induced global warming to less than two degrees is now just 'aspirational' and we can expect environmental conditions to continue to worsen.) 

But even in the developed world there has been an accelerated increase in poverty and inequality as western governments, one by one, have imposed austerity policies. In New Zealand homelessness is now commonplace but we have a Finance Minister who insists that further social spending would be detrimental to the economic direction of his government.

In 2006 the Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez said in a speech:

“The choice before humanity is socialism or barbarism. … When Rosa Luxemburg made this statement, she was speaking of a relatively distant future. But now the situation of the world is so bad that the threat to the human race is not in the future, but now.”

The machine,driven by the motor of profit, is inexorably destroying the planet and the efforts by liberals to tinker with the machine will do next to nothing to halt its path of destruction. The writer and activist Naomi Klein echoes the words of Rosa Luxemburg: “If the only problem with capitalism was this slight temperature increase, we would really be cooked. But the fact is that there are lots of problems with this system, and on top of all of those problems, it is destabilising our planet’s life support system.”

But when the left has everything to play for, when it has a world to win, why is it that it is the anti-establishment right that has stolen the initiative and seemingly outflanked the left? While we can point to some progressive advances - Podemos in Spain, Left Bloc in Portugal and the rise of a newly invigorated American left for example - it is also largely true that it has been the anti-establishment right that has been able to capitalise on an increasingly angry and disenchanted working class.

Naomi Klein: Capitalism is destabilising our planet's life support system.
It is the anti-establishment right that has appeared the most radical - even when its agenda isn't - while the left is seen as the timid defender of the status quo. When the anti-establishment right declares that everything must change, the response of the left is to defend 'politics as usual'. There is something seriously wrong when an old left feels uncomfortable even mentioning someone like Lenin while a prominent member of the 'alt right', Steve Bannon,  can proudly boast in 2017 that he is a 'Leninist':

“Lenin wanted to destroy the state and that’s my goal too. I want to bring everything crashing down and destroy all of today’s establishment.”

Quite simply, as John Moore has observed: "One of the reasons that the anti-establishment right is trumping the left - pun intended - is that the left doesn't say cool stuff like this anymore." 

In New Zealand any chance of developing a truly emancipatory progressive politics has been stifled by an old left that hankers for the 'golden age' of post-war keynesianism and continues to defend the right wing Labour Party. When the call is for real change, Labour-linked 'left wing activists' busy themselves over opinion polls worrying about what configuration of parties will allow Labour to stay in power.

Even now, after three decades of neoliberalism, we are confronted by an old left that claims that the routinely centrist Jacinda Ardern represents the sum total of progressive politics or at least a brand of progressive politics we can confidently support.

While there are some that argue neoliberalism has depoliticised New Zealand society, the truth is that folk are not going to get excited about a 'left wing' politics that insists that the Labour Party's brand of neoliberalism is slightly better than the National Party's brand of neoliberalism. And people have voted with their feet - nearly a million New Zealanders no longer vote. They aren't 'apolitical' or 'disinterested' or 'cynical' - they have simply arrived at the correct conclusion that no political party represents their interests. That an old left can blithely ignore this suggests a 'top down' view of politics that disregards what is happening at the grassroots level.

The answer is simple but seemingly difficult for much of the New Zealand left to comprehend -the left must get radical again. If it doesn't it will continued to be dismissed as continuing to defend a discredited status quo and a coalition government of right wing technocrats. Capitalism, which social democracy sought to soften and humanise, not only no longer works it threatens,as Rosa Luxemburg warned, to take us all down. The answer is not to tweak the neoliberal model but to overthrow it altogether. In New Zealand we're never going to to do that while an old left continues to make excuses for the Labour Party. Unless we reach that point, delayed for over three decades, the left will never be able to capture the popular imagination. 


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