Catherine Liu's new book attacks a liberal class that has set itself up as as cultural and moral arbiters and that prioritises identity politics while ignoring the deepening economic plight of the working class.

IN A RECENT COLUMN commentator Chris Trotter makes the observation that, almost without any real debate, race and racism have becoming the defining issues of New Zealand mainstream politics. As part of his argument he points to the research project Whatakita which he concludes 'reports a racism so pervasive that it is difficult to avoid the conclusion  that the maintenance of racial inequality is basic to the preservation of Pakeha identity.' In other columns Trotter has written about how the pervasive influence of identity politics has helped to define a progressive politics where class may not speak its name.

Such views are likely to see Trotter dismissed by his political opponents as a 'class reductionist' - as opposed to being a 'race reductionist'. However he doesn't help his own case by appearing to champion a class-based politics but, at the same time, still continuing to pour his familiar scorn on socialist politics. If not identity politics, then what? His continued support for Labour starkly highlights that he, and others like him, have little to offer in the way of a political alternative. Such is the political bankruptcy of liberalism and social democratic politics.

A far more expansive and enlightening argument comes from American academic Catherine Liu. Professor in Visual Studies and Film and Media Studies at the University of California, her new book Virtue Hoarders : The Case Against the Professional Managerial Class  has been causing waves in left wing circles overseas and is making Liu something of a cause celebre within the American left.

Those waves have yet to lap on New Zealand shores but any attention this book receives may well just come from blogs like this. Mainstream media organisations like Stuff or RNZ  may well be 'sensitive' to the views of someone like Catherine Liu to the point they'd rather just ignore them. Her book is, after all, a sharp critique of the agenda that organisations like Stuff and RNZ are aggressively promoting.

Virtue Hoarders is a condemnation of the positioning of the elite liberal class as cultural and moral vanguards, who prioritise identity politics while ignoring the deepening economic plight of the working class.

Liu says that it is the views of the professional managerial  class (PMC) that dominate 'political organisations, publishing, media, private foundations, thinks tanks, and the university'. This, she says, is a class 'convinced of its own unassailable position as comprising the most advanced people the earth as ever seen that assumes that it has the ..ability to do ordinary things in extraordinary, fundamentally superior and more virtuous ways'.  

The insistence of PMC elites to assume they have a right to tell the rest of us how to live has resulted in an evitable backlash against 'wokeness'. Liu's contention is that, at the heart of the PMC, lies a secret contempt for ordinary people. She also suggests that it has only been the right that have heard the rage of ordinary people but have weaponised that feeling for reactionary purposes.

Somewhere in the 1970s Barbara and John Ehrenreich first coined the term 'professional- managerial class' to define a class whose purpose was not only the reproduction of capitalist  culture and capitalist class relations but could also act as a bulwark in defence of working class interests. In effect the PMC stood as the great moderating influence that helped to maintain political stability.

Liu says that this might once have been the case, but no longer. She says that the PMC may appear to behave as a progressive force but it uses the language of social justice to mystify class relations. She says that the PMC is fighting a class war, not against capitalism or capitalists, but against the working class: 'As a class the PMC loves to talk about bias rather than inequality, racism rather than capitalism, visibility rather than explanation.'

Indeed the PMC has always managed to come up with an explanation for our economic problems that ensures blame never falls on capitalism itself. It leads to situation where capitalist politicians like Willie Jackson and  Marama Davidson, both anti-socialist, claim that it is racism not our economic system that is preventing the majority of Maori from making economic progress. It leads to a situation where a media organisation like Stuff apologises for its historic coverage of Maori issues and concerns but continues to leave unexamined and, indeed, celebrates an economic system that continues to act against the interests of working class Maori. It leads to a situation where media organisations like TVNZ and RNZ window dress their news reports with te reo, but continue to do next to nothing to challenge a capitalist status quo that continues to disadvantage working class Maori and the working class as a whole.   

Liu freely concedes that she is a member of the PMC and is writing for a readership of that class. But she says the book is intended as 'a guide to PMC values' in order that they can be liquidated. She says that as long as members of her class continue to accept their class identity they will continue to be reduced to a 'false consciousness' and will continue to be defenders of neoliberalism and capitalism while offering a fake progressive politics which is 'shameless about hoarding all forms of secularised virtue: whenever it addresses a political and economic crisis produced by capitalism itself, the PMC reworks political struggles for policy change and redistribution into individual passion plays, focusing its efforts on individual acts of 'giving back' or reified forms of self-transformation'.  Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern's many appeals for 'kindness' can be inserted around about here.

We now live in a political environment where the PMC prefers to fight culture wars against the working class while currying favour with the capitalist class. Liu writes that if 'Marx theorised that class struggle was the engine of historical change and the political agent of it the proletariat, the newest incarnation of the PMC tries to make history by undermining working class power and ignoring working class interests'.

Liberalism is a dead end and Catherine Liu says that her goal is 'a return to socialist politics and policies' It is time, she says, for a working class politics that, among other things, can bring down an identity politics that 'has become just another vehicle for PMC virtue signalling.'  Bring it on.


  1. What divides us, Steve, is what to do when a general election is looming. Most NZers are going to vote, and most of those voters are going to opt for one of the two main parties. If we can agree that these are facts, then the question cannot be escaped: which of the two main parties is likely to benefit the poorest and most marginalised NZers the most? It is extremely difficult to construct an argument that voting for National, rather than Labour, will better serve the interests of working people.

    It is, of course, possible to simply abandon the arena muttering "a plague on both your houses", but that only makes you feel better. It does not change the binary nature of the political equation which most NZers remain determined to solve.

    It is also possible to found a new political party dedicated to genuine economic and social change. But, and I say this from bitter personal experience, that is not an easy thing to do. As first the NLP, then the Alliance, and now the Greens came to appreciate, the gravitational pull of the binary star National-Labour is practically impossible to resist. Inevitably, the smaller parties are dragged into an orbital trajectory around it.

    Historically speaking, this static situation is resolved by means of exogenous catastrophe: a war, a major economic recession, even a pandemic. The settled political system becomes fundamentally deranged, traditional loyalties evaporate, and new options emerge.

    The Petrograd branch of the Russian Social-Democratic Labour Party (Bolshevik) boasted a membership in the hundreds prior to February 1917. By October 1917 it numbered in the tens-of-thousands.

    These are the circumstances in which it makes sense to talk about making a "real" change. Absent these conditions, however, growling about the paucity of "genuine" choices is little more than frustrated lefties letting off steam.

    Sadly, revolutions are not steam driven!

  2. Most NZers are going too vote? If recent history is any indication, then some 700,000 people won't vote. Not everyone is interested in solving the 'binary nature of the political equation' as you suggest.

    Nothing you say is new. It is simply the restating of 'lesser evilism': given the limited choices on offer in a two-party 'binary' system, the Left should work to elect the least-damaging of the two options. Of course this is implicitly presented as the 'alternative' to breaking with Labour and building a new party.

    The problem with 'lesser evilism' - one of the problems - is that is subordinates all political activity to the election cycle. So it doesn't matter how vehemently Labour is opposed between elections that criticism is fundamentally compromised by
    support for Labour in an election year. Your work is testament to that Chris.

    Lesser evilism is empty nonsense. It is better not to view the electoral competition between Labour and National not as a 'choice' between a greater and lesser evil but a choice between two differing threats to working class interests. The over 700,000 folk who no longer vote have worked that one out. This is something more than just 'frustrated lefties letting off steam'.

    The Labour 'left', instead of being a rallying point for change, simply looks like an arch defender of the status quo. All 'lesser evilism' does is encourage a downwards spiral where such crucial issues as deepening inequality and an inadequate response to climate change are deemed subordinate to the electoral interests of Labour.

    All 'lesser evilism' has done is to push NZ mainstream politics further to the right. The only beneficiary has been the ruling class. Of the two evils, we should choose neither. Without breaking from the 'logic' of lesser evilism, we will not be able to build the alternative that has been desperately needed for years. But given that it wasn't so long ago Chris that you were praising Labour's conservatism, perhaps your just happy with the status quo. Prove me wrong.

  3. I would suggest a much closer study of that 700,000 "Did Not Vote" category, Steven. Everything I've read suggests that all but a handful of non-participating voters are conscious abstainers.

    Were they the conscientious citizens you describe, why, rather than take themselves out of the game, have they not constituted themselves as a viable new political force. A party harnessing 700,000 new voters would command close to 20 percent of the expanded Party Vote. A game-changing percentage, I'm sure you'll agree.

    Sadly, the historical record convicts the Did Not Vote category of being both uninterested and unorganisable.

    Neoliberal Capitalism is certainly at the root of their anomie, but then Capitalism - neoliberal or otherwise - is at the root of most contemporary evils.

  4. This isn't true either and comes close to arrogantly dismissing a chunk of the electorate as mindless 'sleepy hobbits' - as your fellow Labour supporter Martyn Bradbury has described non voters.

    For example a 2019 study by Dr Sylvia Nissen of Lincoln University suggests that young people are disenchanted rather than disengaged with mainstream politics.

    Observed Dr Nissen : 'It's not so much cynicism and walking away from politics, but rather I call it desires for a different types of politics."

    In other words - they are frustrated with the lack of meaningful choice provided by our 'representative democracy'. This is the status quo you continue to defend.

    An as Dr Nissen also commented, politics isn't just about voting:'actually most things we do in our lives are political.'

  5. "Disengaged", "disenchanted" - Dr Nissen can throw all the words she likes at the behaviour of the young people who opt out of the political system they are living in. The question, however, remains: "If you're not going to vote, then what are you going to do?"

    March down the street waving banners? Well, that might help - if it persuades the people who do vote to support parties offering the changes you're demanding. But that just brings us round again to the question of how change happens.

    The French Left break things and set things on fire, and those tactics certainly produce results in terms of government action. New Zealand's young people do not, however, appear to be comfortable with that sort of behaviour.

    Then there's the terrorist option. But, generally speaking, that just makes everything ten times worse.

    Your problem, Steven, is that revolutionary change does not come through inaction. So, praising abstention is just another way of reinforcing the status quo.

    Revolutions are made of sterner stuff!


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