Sunday, 29 March 2015

Sue Bradford's talk 'The Left in Aoteroa' – a few thoughts

I joined a group of around forty people last friday here in Dunedin to listen to Sue Bradford's talk “The Left in Aoteroa: Some Lessons from Syriza and Podemos”. It wasn't nearly as big a crowd as the one she attracted late last year when she talked about her thesis about a left wing think tank, but this probably had something to do with the timing of the lecture in the middle of the afternoon and a last minute venue change. There seems to be an appetite on the left for the sort of discussion which Sue is initiating, and I include myself wholeheartedly in this curiosity and desire for debate.

There's an interesting contrast between Sue-the-activist and Sue-the-academic. I respect and admire both of these Bradfords, but couldn't help myself reflecting on this in the discussion which followed the talk. Most of the people in the audience appeared to be either academics or students. There was a fairly significant percentage of grey hair, and the tone of the questions and debate was friendly and respectful. My earliest memories of Sue from the early nineties were of really loud, full on protests with lots of young black clad anarchists. Although I have a lot of respect personally for the radical and bolshie side of left activism, I think Sue has been unfairly tarnished by a media image which portrays a one-dimensional figure, megaphone in hand and full of constant outrage. The thoughtful, academic side of Sue Bradford is surely the same Sue, the passion is still there just in a different form.

The idea of taking “lessons” from other countries with radically different histories and political contexts is full of dangers, and Sue did a good job of highlighting some of these. She was keen to point out that she did not view either Syriza or Podemos as perfect models to copy, and that any future leftist movement in New Zealand would have to be informed by solid engagement with our own local specific histories. With all these necessary qualifications though, Sue is surely not alone in taking great interest and inspiration from recent events in Greece and Spain.

I've been following the Syriza story quite closely, whereas I don't know so much about Podemos. There was a really interesting comment by a Spanish student in the audience, who explained how Pablo Iglesias (the Podemos leader) would get himself on awful right-wing TV chat shows and win people over by his calmness and honesty. The idea here is that leftists should not waste their energy endlessly criticising the shortcomings and distortions of mainstream media, but rather engage intelligently and strategically with it to gain more power. Sue also quoted Iglesias' appeal to use the ideas and language of the people, rather than theorists: 'Understand the way people think, not the way you think'. Podemos has also been successful in connecting to large numbers of people through web platforms which have a 'horizontal' structure, allowing for grassroots input. Syriza and Podemos both have solid and genuine connections with grassroots people's movements, such as the 'indignados' of Spain and the anti-austerity movement in Greece.

For me, it's the final point which is the most significant: the power comes from the people's movements in Greece and Spain. I'm not sure that the horizontality, the clever web applications or media hijackings would succeed without a basis in popular movements. There's plenty of reasons why such a movement should exist in New Zealand, and some encouraging signs – such as the big crowds at the recent anti TPPA rallies. But the fact is that the dominant mood of the country is still resignation and apathy. Clever organising tactics and media savvy activists might help to catalyse such a movement though, so maybe there is some hope to be found here. I found myself thinking of the Internet Party here and the unfortunate influence of Kim Dotcom: cleverness maybe useful, but the integrity and trust has to be there too.

Sue also discussed the fact that many of the leading figures in Syriza and Podemos are academics. Alongside all the political activity there is a really serious and deep intellectual discussion going on. The terms of debate and the language being used is no longer the boring and lukewarm jargon of mainstream economic commentary, words like 'class' and 'capitalism' are starting to come back into vogue. I agree with Sue that this in itself is a really inspiring fact. Left wing movements are about much more than just ideas, but there is something crucially important about having this intellectual aspect. Marxism is arguably one of the most important intellectual tools the left has, with a rich and complex history of theory and debate. To abandon this tool massively reduces and restricts the scope and nature of any sort of leftist project.

I was reminded here of a discussion I read on Sue's blog a few years ago, where Sue was making some critical comments about the Green party and its rightward trajectory. There was a link to a very lengthy, highly engaging and intelligent Marxist analysis of climate change and capitalism. The author had an intricate and compelling argument that avoiding the catastrophic future effects of climate change necessarily involved abolishing capitalism itself. In the comments section below the blog all the usual and predicable responses were made – revolution is not on the agenda, we have to do what is realistic etc etc. Not a single person actually engaged with the argument itself. The language of class and capitalism was enough to turn people off. Pragmatism and 'realism' win the day in New Zealand left political discussion, we don't need to bother with academic Marxist arguments even if the end of the world is literally at stake.

The state of discussion is very different in Europe, and the recent events with Syriza taking power have generated some really interesting debates. The compromises which Syriza has been pressured into are obvious topics, but these discussions are framed by much deeper and nuanced theoretical questions about the nature of the state, Keynesian economic theory and the most recent global financial crisis. These aren't just academic exercises. Even if Syriza fails to live up to its promise – and given the stranglehold the troika still has on Greece, this is actually a very likely outcome – the debates will still be there to inform and guide activists on the ground. The better the substance and quality of these debates, the better chance the left will have in the future.

Here in New Zealand these kinds of vital leftist debates do exist, but as far as I can make out they exist in a really tiny marginal space. Blogs, academic journals and small socialist groups – high theory in small rooms, with sectarian divides still an obstacle. Sue observed in her talk that New Zealand does not have the same kind of 'deep' and living connection to an historical past suffused with left struggle, such as the struggle against fascism in Greece. This lack of general historical awareness and political consciousness shows up everywhere. For me the two most prominent and annoying examples are the widespread ignorance and racism regarding Maori issues, and the incredible lack of of historical awareness which leads so many thousands of New Zealanders to embrace the reactionary sentimentalism of Anzac day. So to engineer a bridge between these small rooms and the people is a mighty task.

Here's to Sue Bradford for her contribution to that bridge.

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