The election success of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in the United States highlights a New Zealand politics that remains grimly socialist-free. We’re still waiting for New Zealand’s own democratic socialism because most of the New Zealand left continues to back the politically bankrupt Labour Party.
AS I WATCHED Alexandria Ocasio Cortez explain something of her democratic socialism to The Late Show host Stephen Colbert, I reflected - and not for the first time - about why we hear next to nothing about socialism in our national media. Why do we lack the politicians who are willing to front up on national television and talk about their socialist beliefs? Why is our so-called 'national debate' so narrow, limiting and sleep-inducing? Where are our Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez's? She is the kind of new and fresh socialist voice that we sorely lack and so sorely need.
Of course matters are not helped by the fact that not a single socialist sits in Parliament. At best, a handful will describe themselves as 'progressive' or 'left-leaning' or even 'centre-left'. But even these loose and evasive definitions are compromised because the politicians concerned are either members or supporters (as in the case of the Green MP's)of a centre right government that continues to pursue neoliberal economic policies.
In this bizzaro world Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, a routinely centrist politician, gets described as 'progressive' or, at least, the 'lesser evil'. Any conversation abut socialism has been skewed before it has even started.
But even in the New Zealand media socialism enjoys as much favour as bestiality or chartered accountancy. While that it is to be expected from the corporate media, the lame reply from so-called left wing pundits is to go ga ga over Jacinda Ardern. Meanwhile, Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez is talking about a socialised means of production and what it means for ordinary Americans.
While not wanting to exaggerate the state of play in the United States, the emergence of someone like Ocasio-Cortez comes at a time when there has been a revival of interest in socialism in the United States - especially among the young. The publisher and editor of Jacobin, Bhaskar Sunkara, wrote in 2016:
"In 2006, when I told people that I was a socialist, they looked at me like I was crazy. To be a socialist was to be on the margins of American political life, wedded to a lost cause that disappointed millions. It was the political equivalent of being a Milli Vanilli fan.
A lot has changed in a decade. The financial crisis made the hope of shared prosperity for all even more fleeting. Capitalism, it seemed, had little to offer for a new generation. After years of dormancy, social movements are once again visible and active. Whatever their respective shortcomings, movements such as Occupy Wall Street, Black Lives Matter and the student uprising in Wisconsin captured the imaginations of millions."
We have seen zero evidence of such a interest in a homegrown brand of socialism. That has much to do with a New Zealand left that has derailed socialist politics by fostering liberal illusions about the Labour Party and campaigning for it at every election.
Now that the left has a Labour-led government it has now gone back into hibernation. Read the pro-Labour websites and blogs and be bored. Very bored. (It's interesting to note that the revival of the American left has also seen the flowering of new and original left writing that embraces socialist politics.)
One of the lessons to be drawn from the American experience is that a socialism that demands greater democracy and has, at its heart, fundamental egalitarian values that are in opposition to the values of 'the market' will always have widespread appeal. The problem is no such vision of socialism is articulated within what is construed as the 'national conversation' in New Zealand. You will read about socialism on a blog like this and in a few other places but we exist on the margins of New Zealand political life. We are the political equivalents of Milli Vanilli. But as the American experience also tells us as well, things can change rapidly.
If you listen to someone like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez you will hear articulated a vision of democratic socialism that argues that a society lacking basic equality and fairness for every individual cannot be considered a democratic society in any meaningful sense. She lives in such a society in the United States and we live in such a society in New Zealand.
But while American folk have people like Ocasio-Cortez and Bernie Sanders speaking out on their behalf, we are expected to trot politely to the polling booths and vote for the Labour Party or one of its electoral allies - and nothing changes. That some one million New Zealanders have decided that they won't do the bidding of the political establishment is a step forward in political resistance but what we want now is a the revival of an independent New Zealand left that can articulate its own democratic socialism instead of playing pet poodle to the Labour Party.