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Future Lefts – 'Why the Right are just so Rotten'

1st August 2004

Future Lefts
"Why the Right are just so Rotten"


In this Edition:
Editorial: What Next?
Article: Political Correctness or Economic Dogma – Which Has Done More to Damage our Social Fabric?
Article: Leo Strauss and the New Right
Article: Uncivility: The Maxim Institute, David Green and Hijacking Civil Society
Website: "Hey, these guys don't look as bad"


Editorial – What Next?

Most governments in this country don't really do much after five years. In post-war New Zealand we had a succession of National governments that took the idea to heart so much that they practically did nothing from day one, and a couple of Labour administrations that may well have done exciting things but for the fact that, well, the pesky voters preferred the do-nothing Tories. We then had Muldoon's three term innings, in which (and this is largely ignored), he did start out doing some interesting and productive things, which had he the nerve to continue with, may have given the Rogernomes less justification for their blitzkrieg of reform in the mid 1980s. He didn't have the nerve however, and after a single term reverted to conservative, reactionary type. The Fourth Labour government did too much in its first four years and then self destructed, while Jim Bolger's National administration ran out of real ideological puff after the tight 1993 election.

In the last Future Lefts it was argued that the May budget clearly spelled out the social democratic principles of this government, and set the stage for active and progressive policies in the coming years. Naturally then, we need to be thinking about the kind of policies that we would expect an incrementalist social democratic party to be pursuing given significant fiscal headroom and a clear willingness to expand the role of the state. This is where it begins to become a little difficult, for most of the measures that immediately spring to mind have to some extent already been implemented: universally accessible primary health care, income related rents, reduced barriers to participation in tertiary education, improved family assistance, an active approach to job creation, apprenticeships, paid parental leave, better minimum working entitlements, the list goes on.

While you can of course contend that things in any of these areas should be going a bit faster, or that base funding levels need a boost, the point is that these substantive policies have already been implemented over the first five years of government. They were by and large, policies developed through the 1990s, and put to the electorate in the 1999 election. They're in place now, which is good, but it begs the question; what are the substantive, concrete policies that will take this Labour government through a third term and beyond?

A useful place to begin may be to look at the movement of key social indicators as established by the Ministry of Social Development ( http://socialreport.msd.govt.nz/2003/index.shtml). As unbelievable as it may sound, the incoming government in 1999 had access to none of the information contained in these reports. In their utter bone headed unwillingness to be confronted with the fruits of their neo- liberal policies, National effectively removed the capacity of government agencies to collect and analyse data on the social well- being of the nation. It has taken several years of hard graft simply to re-establish the capacity of MSD to produce the quantitative and qualitative information contained in these reports.

The good news is that positive trends are emerging in most areas – key figures for disadvantaged groups are improving, the poor are no longer actually getting poorer, and youth suicide is down. One area that emerges as a clear one for improvement is housing. In terms of overall household expenditure going into paying for housing, rates of overcrowding, and ownership, it is cleat that existing policies are not yet delivering the kinds of concrete improvements that people expect from a Labour government. For the middle classes there is a growing angst about the affordability of ownership, while for lower income families the concern is more basic – having somewhere that is clean, safe, and not so expensive as to necessitate the sacrifice of other basic needs. And that really is the point about housing, it's one of those core needs that simply cannot be ignored. If Labour gets housing right, we not only improve the lot of ordinary people at the most basic level, but we ensure significant political dividends.

In the first instance, no bones ought to be made about the fact that high rates of home ownership are desirable. Not for the snobbish and inward looking reasons espoused by Thatcherite fans of a "property owning democracy", but because the security and certainty of a family home gives people the base from which they can truly participate in, and contribute to society. How does a child develop friends and networks, settle in at school, and begin to develop a sense of community if s/he has to up and move every six months because of a changing rental market? They can't, and that's why we should look at concrete steps to make home ownership easier. A Kiwibank pilot launched last year which assists low-income people who would otherwise have difficulty putting together a deposit for a first home is by all accounts operating very successfully. If expanded to provide the opportunity of home ownership to families across the country, we could very well have a hallmark policy for a third term of government that makes a real difference for many people.

Any thoughts from readers as to what kind of policies we should be looking to from a third term Labour government are welcome. In the meantime, the fight against the reactionary forces of the right continues unabated. We have several excellent articles this week which look closely at those who attack progressive measures such as the Civil Union Bill. Tony Milne examines "political correctness" and its fatuous usage by the right, while Craig Young has articles covering the mystical origins of the New Right, and the Business Roundtable's conception of Civil Society.




Political Correctness or Economic Dogma – Which Has Done More to Damage our Social Fabric?

By Tony Milne

Over recent weeks we've heard a lot about "political correctness" and `Pink Think'. No doubt we'll hear a lot more in the heat of the campaign to give same-sex and different-sex couples a new right to get legal recognition for their relationships now that the Civil Union Bill has passed it's First Reading 66 votes to 50. This article overviews the claim that the social fabric of New Zealand is being torn apart by "political correctness" and makes a comparison with the economic dogma of the 80s and 90s.

The conservative reaction to the Civil Union Bill and Relationships (Statutory References) Bill has been swift. The Bills will remove legal discrimination based on marital or family status and give same- sex and different-sex couples the ability to register their relationships in law. Before either Bill was tabled in Parliament, the Catholic Bishops wrote to all MPs claiming that "creating relationships equivalent to marriage, or parallel alternatives to marriage…diminishes the distinctiveness and significance of marriage". In an attempt to shore up its conservative constituency United Future (even though Peter Dunne looks increasingly uncomfortable with his own party's position) has used taxpayers' money to fund full page ads in the Sunday Star Times and other papers, encouraging people to join with them in opposing "This think pink SILLINESS". The Maxim Institute has published articles whipping up their fundamentalist friends into a frenzy.

At the heart of the conservative argument is the belief that "political correctness" recognises and gives benefits to minorities at the expense of the majority. That giving same-sex couples the right to recognise their relationship devalues marriage and will lead to greater deterioration of our social fabric - that the state shouldn't give specific recognition to gay people or their relationships, or anyone outside of mum, dad, and two kids. The Maxim Institute and United Future would have us believe that homosexual law reform and legalising abortion have caused many of our social ills. Is it true that giving same-sex and different-sex couples a new right to recognise their relationships in will law erode the social fabric?

British MP Angela Eagle in her booklet A Deeper Democracy: challenging market fundamentalism argues that "social cohesion was in fact destroyed by the pursuit of an economic dogma that tore the social fabric apart". She goes on to argue that "market fundamentalism weakens those institutions in society that ensures social order". New Zealand governments in the 1980s began the dismantling of the welfare state. Mistrust in government grew out of broken promises, with parties breaking with their traditional support base and ideology and forcing through policy changes. This approach was continued in the 1990s with the deregulation of the labour market, harsh benefit cuts, and soaring unemployment. Inequalities were exacerbated and households impoverished, putting pressure on many families. Crime increased until the mid 90s. Divorce increased. Suicide increased. Many of the major public institutions that ensure social order were sold off or deregulated.

Organisations like the Maxim Institute and United Future attempt to place the blame for social ills on socially liberal legislation, missing the point that such legislation reflects rather than causes social change. They are simultaneously ignoring and continuing to support an economic agenda that exacerbates inequalities and destroys society's institutions, generating the very problems they say they are concerned about. The Maxim Institute and United Future's solution to ensure social order is to keep society's institutions exclusive: the church, the family, and marriage should only be for certain groups. The rich should be taxed less at the expense of the poor and low-income families. Business should prosper at the expense of workers holidays. Wages and benefits should be kept low. Their position is reminiscent of the sort of prejudice and hysteria the emanated from conservative whites in the US a few decades ago, who warned of dire consequences if white kids were forced to attend the same schools as blacks. What conservatives call "political correctness" is in reality the recognition that in an inclusive democracy, actions and words that inflame social tensions and undermine the right for people to be treated equally shouldn't be tolerated.

Last month I watched a movie called "Latter Days" about a Mormon boy who falls in love with another guy. He is excommunicated from his church and his family rejects him. Consequently he attempts to commit suicide, and his parents put him through a "re-education" school where he undergoes aversion therapy such as electric shock on his genitals, and ice baths. His church and family reject him, not the other way around. Just like Maxim and United Future, his church and family couldn't understand that the solution to the problems of a society where institutions such as marriage and the church are getting weaker isn't to deny other people access to them; it is to open them up to all.

Giving same-sex and different-sex couples the opportunity to recognise their relationships and enter into stability-building institutions isn't going to lead to a breakdown of the family and society. The right-wing economic dogma of tax cuts for the rich, dismantling of worker protections and holidays, removing minimum wages, benefit cuts, and selling state assets will take us back to the social disruption of the 1990s, and tear the social fabric by destroying the institutions that make us strong. Making institutions exclusive and protecting discriminatory social policy so that the few benefit at the expense of the many is a recipe for social disaster.

Labour in government has begun the process of improving social inclusion and rebuilding public institutions. The Civil Union Bill and Relationships (Statutory References) Bill is part of that process. The minimum wage has substantially increased (although it needs to rise further); the Employment Relations Act has helped to restore the balance in favour of workers; four weeks leave will give workers more time to spend with their families; paid parental leave means that more working mothers can stay at home and breastfeed their children in the first 14 months of their children's lives. Same-sex couples have been given more rights and legal recognition through the Property Relationships Act, and ACC changes. Labour's Working for Families package will make huge inroads into undoing the social injustice of the 1990s. The result of Labour's changes is the lowest unemployment in almost 20 years, lower suicide rates, and kids being lifted out of poverty.

So what message do I have for Maxim and United Future? The strength of New Zealand's democracy must be measured by how it treats minority groups and individuals within them. Ordinary Kiwis know that the Civil Union Bill isn't about some radical agenda to destroy families and marriage; it is about building the institutions that make us strong. It is about giving same-sex and different-sex couples the opportunity to form and protect stable loving families. If our primary goal is creating a strong social fabric, we need to make sure everyone is included, everyone is given the opportunity to reach their potential, and discrimination is frowned upon. Discrimination is frowned upon, not because doing so is somehow "politically correct", but because we have more chance of succeeding as families, communities, and as a nation if we take care of each other, listen, are respectful, and play the ball and not the person.

Giving everyone a fair go means everyone – not just a few, not just people like you. To be successful as a nation we need hard workers and creative thinkers. But most of all we need every member of our society to feel included in the wider vision of our nation. That means building strong public institutions. That means taking greater steps to ensure that the wealth and power of the nation is shared by the many and not the few. That means ignoring the empty rhetoric of "political correctness" and "pink think". That means passing the Civil Union Bill and Relationships (Statutory References) Bill.


Leo Strauss and the New Right

By Craig Young

Peerless alternative radio host Russ Brown recently drew my attention to the integral role that a certain deceased German Jewish refugee played in the formulation of policies for the Bush administration and its political counterpart, possibly including our own National Party.

Leo Strauss (1899-1973) was a political philosopher who analysed the work of Plato, Aristotle, Alfarabi, Maimonides, Averrroes, Machiavelli, Hobbes and Locke. Following Machiavelli, he argued that duplicity and lies should be seen as a tactical expedient for politicians. "Truth" was reserved only for an elite, and might prove too dangerous for the masses to accept.

Strauss was a pessimist about liberal democracy, given his experiences in Weimar Germany before he emigrated to the United States. From that experience, he argued that liberal democracy would give way to either anarchy or one or another form of totalitarianism.

In the United States, conservative intellectuals liked what they heard. They noted Strauss' comments about manipulation of fundamentalist Christians as a stopgap reactionary constituency to arrest alleged rootlessness, alienation and disintegration, although Strauss was an agnostic himself. However, he mistrusted liberal scepticism and criticism of religious worldviews, while single authoritative religious truths could provide handy antidotes for the allegedly destructive impact of social liberalism.

Strauss was a cynic. He argued that conservative Machiavelleans should use fundamentalist Christians as an electoral constituency, but conservative elites themselves should adopt other forms of conduct altogether. However, the elite needed fundamentalist religion to provide mythology for the masses. Implicitly, Strauss accepted that Karl Marx was right about conservative religion as an opiate of the masses, but looked favourably upon the effects of the aforementioned addiction if it meant conservative social cohesion.

Or does it? What about the role of Serbian Orthodoxy in the Yugoslav civil wars of the nineties, or US anti-abortion terrorism during the same period, or the Taliban's sectarian violence in Afghanistan, or any one of a number of contemporary examples of the role of destructive fundamentalist religious ideologies?

Moreover, it has obviously led to adoption of ends-oriented covert political strategies amongst some fundamentalist Christian political activists, such as fundamentalist Republican strategist Ralph Reed in the early nineties. Reed encouraged fundamentalist duplicity and stealth activism, and our own late and unlamented Christian Coalition of the mid-nineties was one consequence in New Zealand politics. Surely this degrades trust in religious institutions?

In Strauss' worldview, there is ample attention paid to the role of populism as a tool for political mobilisation as well. Like fundamentalist religion, conservative populism mobilises large numbers of people around certain reactionary myths, against defined groups of 'outsiders.' According to Shadia Drury, Strauss was playing with fire as a consequence of his Weimar period and political perceptions - he admired the work of Carl Schmitt and Heidegger, who were both Nazi dupes and ideologues.

Reactionary populism or fundamentalist religion prevented 'anarchy' through identification and exclusion of 'outsider' groups. Although manipulative conservative elites don't really believe these myths, they serve the purpose of mobilising credulous masses in support of their political agendas. However, Strauss was on dangerous ground here - surely Jews fulfilled that role in Nazi Germany, with hideous consequences for his own ethnic and faith community?

It gets worse. One of Strauss' disciples, Willmoore Kendall, made appreciate remarks about the Confederacy and African-American slavery. Moreover, the ends justify the means used for these conservative Machiavelleans.

Too bad if curtailment of Maori Treaty rights and responsibilities means escalation of social conflict, because Maori are an identifiable group for their manipulative scapegoating, and blind populist dupes to the rest of the New Right agenda, like privatisation of social welfare under any prospective Brash administration.

However, Winston Peters has found that more than one form of populist racist scapegoating works for other constituencies, and thus, he targets Asian immigrants as an identifiable scapegoat for elderly pakeha status anxiety and nostalgia about homogenous, small and safe communities. Brash and Peters' conflicting conservative populist visions appear to demonstrate the contradictions inherent in this political strategy.

In each case, though, the outcome is the same. Straussian conservative political strategists want curtailment of citizenship and diminished democratic participation, and erode social cohesion. Too bad if you happen to belong to one of the excluded groups, or if you happen to be a prospective victim of violent crime attributable to previous forms of conservative social and economic exclusion.

Their populist dupes can be manipulated to insure closure of political participation and legitimise various forms of censorship in the interests of elite concealment of the truth. One is reminded of current disclosures about the Bush administration and the non- existence of Iraqi weapons of mass destruction.

In the case of some forms of gender and sexual politics, though, these forms of social exclusion are failing to operate, and taboos collapse if they lack any rational reasons or motivations for continued adherence, as with the Maxim Institute's adherence to marriage as the fount of all social cohesion and virtue. Shadia Drury makes the useful point that "dictatorships of virtue" are at the cost of freedom, even if they do provide consolation through rituals, rote adherence to unquestioned sexual ethics and gender roles, and other curtailments of greater democratic participation.

As happened with Sir Robert Muldoon's brand of manipulative populism in the seventies and eighties, populism has a limited shelf-life. It promotes mythology and mendacity, against democratic accountability, participation and evidence-based rational debate. It relies on personality politics, ephemeral charisma, image manipulation and style, against substantive content within political debate.

Drury notes that women don't fall for this manipulative conservative Machiavellean worldview, and current gender-based opinion poll differences suggest that Brash is turning off female voters, who want restoration of an ethic of care and social inter- dependency, not more social exclusion, as occurred in the eighties and nineties. It is no wonder that Brash wants to abolish the Ministry of Womens Affairs, or that Muriel Newman is a fanatical proponent of male backlash politics related to domestic violence.

Strauss denies women's intellectual equality, morality of conduct, or economic and social independence. Citizenship and public participation is limited to males within his worldview.

Straussian populism is against rational and deliberative debate based on critical inquiry and evidence-based politics. It manipulates religion and mass social participation in the interests of exclusion, degrades authentic religious adherence through use of its fundamentalist elements for cynical purposes of regime maintenance, and acknowledges that it is based on deception in the interests of social exclusion.

Look at Brash's Treaty-bashing. Look at Howard's refugee and asylum seeker policies. Look at Peters' diatribes against Asian immigrants. Look at Bush and his attacks on same-sex marriage, or deception involved within the Iraq War. Is Leo Strauss the sinister genius of 'modern' conservative populist politics across most of the modern West? And is it a Faustian bargain? Remember, Faust was incinerated at the end of Marlowe's version.

Recommended Reading:

Shadia Drury: Political Ideas of Leo Strauss: London: Macmillan: 1988.

Shadia Drury: Leo Strauss and the American Right: New York: St Martins Press: 1994.

Robert Devigne: Recasting Conservatism: Oakeshott, Strauss and the Response to Postmodernism: New Haven: Yale University Press: 1994.

Carl Schmitt: Political Romanticism: Cambridge, Massachuesetts: MIT Press: 1986.

Joseph Bendersky: Carl Schmitt: Theorist for the Reich: Princeton: Princeton University Press: 1983.

Willmoore Kendall: Conservative Affirmation in America: Chicago: Gateway: 1985.

Hiram Caton: "Explaining the Nazis: Leo Strauss Today" Quadrant (October 1986): 61-65


Uncivility: The Maxim Institute, David Green and Hijacking Civil Society

By Craig Young

When I read that the Business Roundtable's David Green was touting 'civil society' as a counterpart to the social democratic welfare state, I was initially confused. Before that point, I'd read the usual left hand route on that particular concept.

What is civil society? According to Adam Ferguson (1767), who originated the concept, civil society refers to a set of social institutions not under state control that promote 'organic' social cohesion. Some of us might have problems with that concept- does "organic" imply the existence of "natural" social order, and does that imply inequalities in social conservative drag?

In any case, other philosophers had differences of opinion with Ferguson's versions. G.W.Hegel and Antonio Gramsci questioned whether civil society was 'organic,' or whether it actually consisted of conflicting institutions and social constituencies, whether class-based or otherwise. At the moment, the contemporary centre-left views civil society as a mixture of both formulations - civil society is conducive to active and responsible citizenship and democratic participation, and it consists of a range of social institutions that lead to more open societies, greater democratic participation, and expanded social inclusion. For that reason, modern social democrats attempt to incorporate as many organised social constituencies as possible within the context of representative parliamentary democracy and accountable public sector institutions, as well as redistribution of income where it is appropriate.

What about the centre-right version of civil society? They appear to be at odds with subsequent developments in the debate over civil society. They would accept that civil society is a set of social institutions and associations for the betterment of their members, but the Maxim Institute, David Green and the Business Roundtable appear to believe in responsible citizenship, not active citizenship. In their version, civil society is limited to 'organic' social institutions and promotion of social order, instead of a range of social institutions and constituencies in fluctuating antagonism, accomodation and incorporation for promotion of greater democratic participation, social stakeholding and active citizenship.

Furthermore, civil society is ring-fenced off from the state and denied any role in active citizenship and greater state institutional accountability and representation. That is, apart from 'organic' institutions like churches, heterosexual nuclear families, private schools and allied social institutions built on various forms of social exclusion. Oh, there is one exception: citizens initiated referenda, because wealthy social conservative interests can run manipulative populist political campaigns to exclude particular social groups from promotion of their citizenship rights.

The centre-left should not let the centre-right sabotage and bowdlerise the concept of civil society, which has a heritage of social inclusion and pluralism that the Maxim Institute, Business Roundtable and other social conservatives never acknowledge. Given the above summary of centre-left views about civil society, it is easy to see why.


Website of the Week

Say it again after me everyone: "They're better than the Republicans".



Future Lefts 2004 (c)

The views expressed above are solely those of the authors and do not represent the official policy of Young Labour or the NZLP. Not even close.

That should cover it.

Contributions for the next edition or correspondence should be sent to the editor:

Michael Wood - michael@semrits.co.nz

© Scoop Media

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