Summary: The New Zealand elections as a gain and as a limitation for the left — Editors.
[…] the Struggle for freedom did not end with the elections. They have just begun.
-Raya Dunayevskaya in Africa Today, 1962
One of the major problems which the global mainstream left has continuously faced has been its fetishized desire to replicate the past through the actions of certain individuals. Be it Stalin or Castro or Trotsky or Mao, the mainstream left has been infested with the politics of ‘icon-ism’. However, at the same time, it does not propose to do the same for the actual people who perform the revolution, whose individual subjectivity does not hold any revolutionary potential for them. The statement from Karl Marx in his Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844, “The individual is the social being. His (Their) manifestations of life – even if they may not appear in the direct form of communal manifestations of life carried out in association with others – are therefore an expression and confirmation of social life”, has been, unfortunately, pushed away from the domain of leftist politics in favour of ideas which advocate the dissolution of the individual subjectivity in totality.
The global mainstream left, as has been the case since the dissolution of the Marxist IWMA, desperately needed a hero, it has been needing one since quite a long time now. The primary candidates for the same, Jeremy Corbyn in Britain, has been side-lined within the Labour Party in the UK, and the ‘political revolution’ of Bernie Sanders has been now appropriated by the mainstream political system in the US. The image of Alexandra Ocasio Cortez (aka AOC) within the global left seems to be a positive one but not a heroic one per se. While all this has been going on in the northern hemisphere, the south has been particularly active. The small island nation of Aotearoa New Zealand (ANZ) has recently seen an election which has potentially exhibited a shift towards the left in the country with unprecedented numbers for the Labour party headed by Jacinda Kate Laurell Ardern (JA), one-time president of the International Union of Socialist Youth (IYSS) [a coalition of youth wings of various parties basing themselves on the policies of the Second Internationale].
But unfortunately, the global mainstream left does not consider her a heroine, the reason being their simple refusal of the Labour party in toto of being even a relatively progressive party. Again, it demonstrates a classic case of subverting the actual human within the structure. The New Zealand Labour Party in the 2020 elections secured an unprecedented vote share of 51%, and Jacinda Ardern’s role in it is tremendous. In fact, to compare this electoral victory of the Labour party, one has to go back as far as to 1938 when Labour first came to power in the country. This author does not hold any qualms about the fact that any Labour party cannot be inherently revolutionary, but then again, the term revolutionary itself has to be analysed with regards to the society in which it is desired to be applied. The New Zealand Labour Party (NZL) has in recent history, always been a social democratic party that has treaded the line of Blairism and the Third Way propagated by Tony Blair and Anthony Giddens, which is based on a kind of ‘social-ism’ rather than socialism.
The voter turnout in the 2020 elections was 82.5%, which was the highest in the last two decades (7 elections). This turnout was also a result of the increasing numbers of the votes from the young people and the Māori populace of the country. The New Zealand Labour Party (NZL) ran a campaign which promised affirmative action and ‘big things’, both for the working class and the middle classes along with the Indigenous populace. One of the major highlights of its 2020 campaign was the branding of Ardern as a saviour of Aotearoa, both economically and socio-culturally. Especially post the terrible tragedy which took place on the 15th March of 2019 in Christchurch, when a far-right gunman conducted two attacks on the Muslim populace during their traditional Friday prayers. These attacks by the single gunman began at the Al Noor Mosque of Riccarton and was followed by another one at Linwood Islamic Centre. These two attacks, one of which was livestreamed on social media, resulted in the deaths of 51 people while injuring 40 others. JA quickly stepped in, but the uniqueness of her approach was that it was not articulated as a political one or a ‘revolutionary’ one but rather as a humanist one- one human being supporting a fellow human being struck by tragedy. Most importantly, Ardern spoke to the victims in the language of the victims, as opposed to the ‘radical’ left, which continued to speak only of philosophical abstractions, which made little sense to the victims. JA’s image to the victims, was not constructed as a PM but rather as a friend, who was eager to listen to them, and not talk solely about Islamophobia.
This was one of the early initiators of the ‘Jacindamania’ in which posts of her useful and humanist interventions into the Christchurch tragedy grabbed the attention of the entire globe. For a small time, the world witnessed explicitly Islamic organisations praising a centre-left party for its efforts. Amidst all of this global fervour, perhaps, it was one of the few times, when the global left was in fact, looking at the victory of the Labour party in a small nation, with appreciative eyes. It is true that in New Zealand, poverty is still at an alarmingly high level for the Indigenous population. Remnants of the colonial management and takeover of the Māori society are still quite evident by the percentages which come up regarding education, poverty and health care accessibility. But it cannot be denied that the humanist outlook and branding of Ardern have helped in constructing the image of JA not as an iron lady but rather as a ‘human-being’ first and politician later.
The NZL victory was based firmly upon the policies which NZL had brought forward during the pandemic induced lockdowns in the country. The cult of JA’s personality created within the media as, not as a mother figure, but rather as a friendly neighbour, tremendously helped NZL to make that connection to the youth. In many ways, this was similar to how Helen Clark rose to prominence in the 90s in the country. This branding of JA secured her position as a symbol of hope among the citizens, something which the left has failed to do since a very long time. The radical left in ANZ, formed chiefly by a multiplicity of various organisations at a smaller scale include the International Socialist Organisation (ISO ANZ), Socialist Aotearoa and a couple of other ‘blogs’ like Fightback. The new Communist party of Aotearoa (NCPA) formed recently is still a minor player within the left-wing politics of the island nation.
The problem with the dominant ‘left’ within ANZ is that it continuously speaks a language (politically) which does not have an audience in ANZ. At least, not to the extent that it thinks it has. While NZL speaks of socio-economic conditions and pragmatic solutions which appeal to the citizens, the radical left mostly speaks of solutions which seem to be far away from the actually existing situation and aspirations of the individuals within the society. One of the primary causes of the same being their complete dissociation from the lives of individuals who make up the society itself. It is in this field that NZL makes its mark in the election- the individual contact which JA had had with the citizens, the attention which she gave to the individual human subjectivity of the voter.
The major takeaway from the elections is the gender diversity of the MPs which this election has brought forth. The ANZ parliament with 10% of its MPs being non-heterosexual, is now the most gender diversified parliament in the world with its Auckland Central seat being won by a gay candidate from the Greens, Chlöe Swarbrick (CS), who is only 26 years in age. Another major takeaway is the overall result of the Greens and the Māori party. For the first time, the country has a MP who has Tā Moko (traditional Māori tattoo on the face) on his entire face, Rawiri Waititi (RW). While it has to be acknowledged that the victory for the Māori party in this election is historic, it also has to be noted that, ironically, the left’s relationship with the Māori party and the Indigenous populace of the country continuously seems to be on the decline. NZL, to the current author, retains certain core social democratic values more than the British Labour party, such as working for settling conflicts, piecemeal improvements in labour laws, increasing the number of holidays, among others. At the same time, since they are social democrats and more so social democrats working as a Labour Party, it is not proper to expect radical change from the NZL at a structural level. But, with all these going in favour of the left, the current election has definitely witnessed a shift towards the left. It is also true that it is a moment of hope for the global progressive left movement. But, along with that, what the election also means is that one needs to critically look at the way political institutions and system are organised. The problem with orthodox Stalinism or Trotskyism starts with the fact that both of these currents remain inept to address the concerns of the individuals who actually vote for the parties.
The MMP system in ANZ (one vote for the party and one for the individual), which was brought into place in the mid-90s to ensure coalition governments has come a full circle now with an absolute majority being granted to NZL for the first time since the MMP was put in place. To trace out the last time a single party got such an absolute majority in the ANZ parliament one has to go back to 1990 (the country then still ran elections on the first past the post basis), when the National Party received 67 out of the 97 electorate seats in the parliament. The problem with any political system, which insists upon the existence of a party to be a prerequisite for an electoral victory, is that it fundamentally does away with the agency of the individual. It overlooks the fact that it is at the end of the day, the individual who votes, celebrates and mourns the party. So, while it is a great achievement for the left as a whole in ANZ to celebrate the electoral victory of Ardern, it is also a point of deep reflection. The reflection has to run along the lines of how the left theorises the society in Aotearoa New Zealand itself. It also questions the relevance of Trotskyism, the dominant variety of left-wing politics in the country, which though on paper, argues for the entire world, but has little participation within the student movement and the women’s movement in the country. In other words, the elections have shown that being detached from the individuals who form the society, no left-wing politics can make a mark.
JA and the NZL’s victory are a victory of the people, this basic fact cannot be denied. In fact, the entire 2020 elections with significant victories of the Greens and the Māori parties, are all victories of the people, especially the youth of the country. The election also exhibited that it is no longer necessary to be donning a military coat or an army cap to make a leftward shift in the society- smiles and a humanist approach to societal problems can also do the job. In other words, being a humanist today can actually make one more probable of becoming the primary choice of the people. Giving attention to human subjectivity no longer seems to be the escapist route which the traditional orthodox left terms it to be, but rather, it seems to be the only way in which contradictions related to gender and the Indigenous populace within any country can be resolved. It is, at the end, the connection to individuals in the society which can take left wing and progressive politics forward.
The ANZ elections are definitely a shift to the left but there is only so much that the centre left can do. It is true that the NZL’s stands on certain issues have been debatable but one also needs to take cognisance that it is functioning within a global capitalist order so isolating it as a ‘paper left’ does not help progressive politics but only hampers the progressive forces because the only encouragement this type of statement provides is to forces, who have very little audience, both publicly and academically within ANZ (and whose contributions are seriously doubtable). This is revisionism, but it is the practical thing to do in the state in which the world is in – the symbols of hope need to be protected while still being critical of them, and JA is one of them.
Regarding the Greens and the Māori Party, they are a combination of capitalists, liberals, socialists and far-lefts. So, the approach on the left has to be more nuanced rather than generalised, which again directs one back to the fundamental question- the importance of individual and human subjectivity in objective revolutionary conditions. MMP can function better only if it boosts individual subjectivity in a manner which encourages common people like union organisers, activists, etc to contest elections on their own without the support of their parties. This individual subjectivity can be the force towards the transition from a ‘left-ward shift’ to a proper left-wing shift within the society of ANZ. But till then, the centre left has to be protected and a continuous deliberation has to be held with them, which has to again, give importance to individuals within the centre left. The policies coming from people like JA, CS and RW, and their politics have to be analysed in a manner which locates them within a dynamic relationship with the party they represent. The principal task for the left thus is to take adequate cognisance of these processes within the society which have now become explicit. With Jacindamania’s victory in the ANZ elections, the implications for the left are clear and well defined- Marxist-Humanism is the path forward.