Are we to be reduced to believing in miracles? – A reflection on the outcome of the New Zealand general election

When the rich and powerful are celebrating their electoral success and workers are tasting defeat, the last thing that is needed is another smug commentator to step forward with their after-the-fact analysis, saying that it was all inevitable. Workers will face such defeats often enough in future, and deal with such commentators, as mass struggles unfold over the years to come.

But that is not the situation workers in New Zealand wake up to today. The ruling class has no reason to be gleeful. Nor does the working class have any reason to feel disappointment, because this was an election in which there was never any chance that we could win anything.

Jacinda Ardern, Labour Party leader. Photo: Maarten Holl, Stuff

First, consider the dilemmas facing the ruling class as they try to cobble together a stable government out of this election. They could try a coalition government led by the Labour Party, a coalition of three parties – Labour, Green and New Zealand First – with a majority of one. Authoritative voices in ruling class circles have already signalled that they could get along quite happily with a Labour Party government. But two of those parties (Greens and NZF) have been quite open in their utter contempt for each other. That would be a lame duck government if ever I’ve seen one. Labour leader Jacinda Ardern is no fool: she has already shown a distinct lack of enthusiasm for this option.

Or, New Zealand First could go into coalition with National Party, joining National’s fourth term in office in conditions of long-term depression, amid deepening crisis over housing, environment, and health (discussion of which dominated the election campaign, with any real answers to these problems notably lacking from all the bourgeois parties). Whatever the temptations of power, that prospect must look like the kiss of death to NZF, which lives by populist demagogy, and has already seen its vote drop significantly.

Either way, New Zealand First dictates the terms, a party with 7.5% of the vote, that was completely sidelined during the election campaign.

Any other coalition seems even less likely, and even less attractive to the ruling class, which seeks stability above all. That is their problem – the ground underneath their feet is quietly shaking. It’s still a long way from greatly upsetting them, but those tremors are only going to increase.

National Party leader Bill English

For the National Party to have won 46% of the vote after three consecutive terms in office is nonetheless quite an achievement for them, and anyone who is serious about politics needs to reflect on the significance of that. The National Party retains a strong base of support that extends far beyond the ruling class itself, into the professional middle layers and petty-bourgeoisie in the cities and the exploited producers on the land. (Jacinda Ardern’s statement that there is no urban-rural political divide reflects wishful thinking at best, and would better be described as a disingenuous lie.

Tractorcade of 400 tractors heading to farmers rally on 19 September. Photo: John Cowpland, Stuff

The urban-rural divide, with the toilers of town and country supporting their exploiters in both sectors,  remains a cornerstone of capitalist rule, and this election proved that fact very clearly once again, with two reactionary mobilisations of farmers and farm workers during the election campaign.) These middle layers are doing quite well right now, and are not about to abandon their party yet.

Class collaboration in the countryside: Hundreds of “horticulturalists, irrigators, their families, the people they employed, iwi and politicians” rally against a proposed Water Conservation Order on the Ngaruroro River 19 September. Photo: John Cowpland, Stuff

But National winning 46% of the total votes cast means many beyond the middle layers also voted for them. Large numbers of workers must have voted National too.

That could only happen because there was no voice for the working class in this election. There was not even any party with any meaningful connection with the labour movement. All of the parliamentary parties stand for the maintenance of capitalist rule, with or without minor tinkering. With the exception of the Communist League candidates in a handful of electorates, for a worker to vote for any candidate in this election would be to vote against their own class interests.

The many pressures, subtle and not-so-subtle, that are brought to bear on people to actively participate in the voting (the idea that not voting is lazy, or irresponsible, or a slap in the face of the suffragettes and others who fought for the franchise, if you don’t vote you lose the right to criticise, etc etc) all reinforce this ritual obligation for workers to vote against their own class interests.

Faced with that fact, the act of voting – for workers – gets reduced to passive hoping. Hoping for change, in the absence of the one condition that can really bring about change: mass mobilisations of the working class and its allies, especially those which bring to bear the great economic power of the workers: strikes and other union actions. Hoping for change, when all the available evidence indicates the exact opposite, is not a political but a religious act, a longing for a miracle.

Karl Kautsky 1854-1938

Karl Kautsky’s book The Foundations of Christianity is much more than a book about Christianity. It is a study of a society in the process of decomposition and decay – the late Roman empire – a society which, in Kautsky’s words, “got their treasures by plunder, not by work, in the intellectual realm as well as the material.” He traces the origins of the Christian ideology to those conditions of social decay. Kautsky notes in particular the phenomena of insecurity and individualism, servility, credulity, and untruthfulness as the outstanding characteristics of the epoch.

It is a book that often comes back to me as the world’s last modern capitalist empire crumbles to dust – the parallels are so striking. A brief extract (find the full text here):

Credulity too was a child of the new conditions.

It has always been vital to man to observe nature exactly, not to deceive himself about any of its phenomena and clearly to conceive causes and effects. That is the basis of his whole existence; and when he fails to do so, it is only too easy for him to perish.

All his action has its basis in the knowledge that definite causes evoke definite effects, that the stone with which he hits a bird kills it, that the flesh of this bird satisfies his hunger, that two sticks rubbed together produce fire, that fire warms, but consumes wood, etc.

Man judges the impersonal phenomena of nature after the pattern of his own actions. He sees in them too the effects of the acts of individuals endowed with superhuman powers, deities. Their first role is not that of miracle-workers, but as those who cause the ordinary natural course of events, the blowing of the wind, the waves of the sea, the destructive power of lightning, as well as many of men’s notions, wise or foolish. The gods are known to make blind those they would destroy. The operation of such processes remains the chief function of the gods in naive natural religion.

The charm of this religion lies in its naturalness, in its keen observation of things and men, the qualities that still make the Homeric poems today a matchless work of art.

This keen observation and inquiry into natural philosophy and into the causes of events was refined, as we have seen, as cities arose. The urban observers were now able to discover impersonal events in nature, so simple and yet so rigorously regular that they could easily be recognized as necessary, beyond the realm of the capriciousness that is bound up with the notion of personal deities. Above all it was the motions of the heavenly bodies that gave rise to the concept of regularity and necessity. Natural science begins with astronomy. Then these concepts are extended to all of nature; men begin to look for necessary, regular connections everywhere. The regularly recurring experience is the basis of this activity.

The picture changes when, for the reasons mentioned, interest in scientific study of nature wanes and is replaced by ethical interest. The human spirit is now no longer concerned with such simple motions as the paths of the stars, which he could take as his starting point; he deals exclusively with himself, with the phenomenon which is most complicated, most variable, most elusive, which most resists scientific study. …

At the same time life in the large city robs the inhabitants, who are now the intellectual leaders, of contact with nature, and the need and possibility of observing and understanding nature. The notion of what is natural and what is possible becomes weaker for them; they lose their measuring-rod for the absurdity of the impossible and unnatural or supernatural.

The more helpless the individual feels, the more desperately he gropes for solid support in some personality standing out beyond the ordinary; the more desperate the conditions and the greater the need for miracles, the more he will be inclined to lay miracles to the account of that personality, whom he regards as his rescuer and saviour: in fact, he will demand miracles as the touchstone which proves that the saviour is genuine.   …

This credulity increased as society deteriorated; the scientific spirit faded and was replaced by moral preaching. With credulity, the thirst for miracles grew as well. A sensation ceases to operate when it is too often repeated. Stronger and stronger means must be used to make an impression. This we saw in the first chapter, where we examined the gospel treatment of wakings from the dead; they are simpler in the older gospels than in the later ones… The need for miracles and the credulity took on ever larger dimensions, until finally in the fourth and fifth centuries, the ages of the greatest decay, the monks worked wonders compared to which Jesus’ miracles as related by the gospels seem insignificant.   …

This is not an attractive picture that we have to paint here. Decadence in every nook and corner, economic, political and hence also scientific and moral decay. The old Romans and Greeks regarded virtue as being the full, harmonious development of manliness in the best sense of the words. Virtus and arete denote courage and steadfastness, but also manly pride, willingness to make sacrifices, and selfless devotion to the community. But the lower society sank in slavery, the more slavishness became the highest virtue, out of which and by means of which grew all those estimable qualities we have seen emerging: withdrawal from the community into oneself, cowardice and lack of self-confidence, longing for salvation by an emperor or a god, not by one’s own strength or the strength of one’s class; self-abasement toward those above, priestly arrogance toward those below; lassitude and tedium, and at the same time a passion for sensations and marvels; exaggeration and ecstasy along with flattery, lying and forgery. That is the picture the Imperial age presents us with and the picture whose features are reflected in Christianity, the product of that time.

And this is where the relentless dragging-down of the capitalist crisis brings us today: to a state of helplessness and a longing for miracles.

But that is where the parallels with ancient Rome come to an end. Unlike the slaves and plebeians of the declining Roman empire, the modern proletariat has the means to overthrow the decrepit capitalist order and build a new society based on human solidarity. Unlike the early Christians, whose only solace was their faith, the modern proletariat will live to see its kingdom on earth. The craving for miraculous deliverance arises not from the objective hopelessness of our class’s condition, as was the case with the Roman slaves, but with something much more fleeting and insignificant: the paralysis and abjection of the existing organisations of the labour movement. Entangled in capitalist profitability and tied to the capitalist state by the thousand threads of class collaboration, the unions of the workers, our most important means of self-defence, have been rendered impotent. That, and only that, is what generates the feeling of helplessness that so many feel today.

It doesn’t need to be that way. Fighting, class-struggle unions were built in this country over a hundred years ago, and will be forged again in future. The struggle to rebuild fighting unions and a popular movement in the streets, and a revolutionary leadership party capable of leading them, is the only one that matters. It begins where hoping for miracles ends. When we look at the election from the point of view of the conditions under which this fight can be advanced, we can only conclude that this outcome – a weakened coalition of our class enemies in one form or another, a coalition of capitalist parties at war with each other – this is about as favourable as working people could hope for.

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