I suppose what can often be lost in my disjointed musings about ontology, nihilism, ideology, Platonism, and liberals, is what bearing, if any, that any of this stuff has on the day-to-day realities of governance in New Zealand. Politicians, especially of our four largest parties, usually scramble over themselves in an unseemly attempt to portray themselves as sensible, reasonable, moderate, and centrist.
You might question if politicians are even aware of the ontological commitments that their respective ideologies make of them. Surely that’s what they do in their spare time isn’t it? Wax lyrical about the metaphysical consequences of their politics? Regardless, explicit party philosophy, especially for the two parties of government in New Zealand, it’s probably safe to say, often ends up taking a back seat to the day-to-day realities of governance, especially when it has to navigate the horse-trading inherent in MMP.
It’s unusual these days to hear criticism of MMP from someone on the left (although – being too young to remember the MMP referendum – I hear that there weren’t too many in Labour at the time, especially Helen, too keen on it). I’ve previously offered critiques of MMP, namely in these two articles: ‘MMP?‘ and ‘Elections And (Or?) Democracy‘. These mostly made the points that MMP in fact sows, exaggerates, and prolongs false, or irrelevant social divisions, and, simply represents a capitulation to an ideology that seeks to extend the market, and its individualising, atomistic ideology to every corner of society. In fact, viewing the conversion to MMP in light of the liberalisations of the 1980s and and 1990s draws some interesting parallels.
The ’80s and ’90s were obviously defined by the embrace of laissez-faire liberalism, by both those parties which are usually of left and the of right (Note: I agree with the conclusions of this article, that sees liberalism as belonging neither on the left or right, with its genesis in opposition to the old right, and with both the modern left, and modern right arising in opposition to liberalism). This meant an acceptance of its reductive view of society and human interaction. Rooted fundamentally in the idea of self-ownership, liberalism sees all relation to the world firstly through the lens of self-relation. In interacting with anything in the world, we are extending a part of our self-owned self to it, in effect, claiming ownership of it. Locke outlines this quite clearly in his Two Treatises Of Government, especially with his example of how he saw labour (as in working, not the party). According to Locke, when we labour, we in a sense ‘mix’ a part of ourselves with the external world, say by chopping a tree, or ploughing a field, and so the product of this interaction (in this case either firewood, or a farm) becomes ours. Crucially though, the liberal, either implicitly, or explicitly, accepts this philosophy of interaction in the context of human relationships too. In interacting with someone, we are extending a part of our self-owned self towards him or her, yet unlike in the case of ploughing the field, not just the ‘extender’ owns themselves, but the ‘extendee’ too (i.e. you, and the person with whom you interact). This has the outcome of reducing all human relation to no more than a property-rights relation. In order to validate the relation, both sides must consent, or give permission, to the exchange, and thus all of society becomes permissive – systems of exchanging permissions to use of the self. This is exactly what the market is, in fact, definitionally so; a place or situation where buyers and sellers exchange commodities. And, as to the liberal even the self is property, it is therefore commodified, and so, fair game for floating on the open market of human interaction.
So, to the liberal, marriage is just a contractual agreement to an exchange of property rights in the context of the ‘marriage’ market, not the personal union of two separate people into a single entity, the family. Education is just an exchange of a commodity; knowledge, between a teacher and a student on the ‘education’ market, not the means of the quest for human enlightenment and understanding. Politics is just an exchange between the government and the citizen, consent in return for benefits, on the ‘political market’, and not the collective human effort to realise the just society.
It’s therefore unsurprising that the transformation of New Zealand society in the 1980s, from one based on a socialist ontology of class that was the prevailing orthodoxy from the ’30s till ’80s, (Note: I’m not saying that New Zealand was a socialist country in those 50 years – it patently wasn’t, merely that the prevailing view about the shape of society in that time, accepted by the political class on both the left and the right, was a socialist, class-based one) to a liberal, free-market ontology, based on the individual, coincided with the acceptance of a view of politics as the ‘political market’. When politics is seen as simply another market amongst the many that compose society, then it becomes ripe-picking for the laissez-faireists intent on deregulating the market in all its forms.
In the ’80s and ’90s they deregulated the economic markets; the currency market, the import/export market, labour market, the housing market, and the ‘welfare market’. They also deregulated the social markets; the ‘romance market’ (divorce law, and Homosexual Law Reform), the entertainment market (censorship laws), the ‘birth market’ (abortion law), and finally the political market.
It is in this ideological context that MMP should be viewed, as a deregulation of the political market. Under FPP, barriers to entry were high. It was hard for rival firms to gain entry into the market. They needed to build a widely-recognised brand, specialise their production, differentiate their message, find their niche – protest party (Social Credit), the rich (New Zealand Party), the counter-culture (Values), and still they mightn’t have managed to get any return on their investment. MMP struck down those barriers, introduced more competition into the duopoly in the political market, and gave political consumers more specialised tools to spend their purchasing power (the party vote). And just as with liberalisation in all other markets, that have delivered outstanding, stable growth (no), more employment (no), the uplifting of thousands from poverty (no), we’ve gotten great results from political liberalisation, haven’t we? Higher voter turnout (no), higher rates of party membership (no), higher rates of political literacy (no).
And what sort of politics does this acceptance of a liberal political market entail? We get a politics that seems unconcerned with people (280,000 children in poverty, soaring rates of domestic violence, inequality, family breakdown, depression, atomisation, and suicide), but very concerned with power (politics of perception, permanent campaigning, scandal-mongering, spin doctors, etc.). Built-in into MMP is this liberal assumption of pluralism, that is that division is good. Since it allows for the representation of more parties, electoral competition becomes more fierce. Parties have to find ways to differentiate themselves, while still seeming moderate enough to remain attractive to an increasingly disinterested consumer. They do this by preying on identity divisions on society, or creating and prolonging these divisions. It delivers coalitions who have to placate unwieldy groups of voters who are pitted against each other in party rhetoric, and it seems those already disenfranchised are the ones who miss out.
The coalition governments thrown up by MMP have seemed uniquely unable to offer any radical solutions to any of society’s problems. What it has seemed very good at is offering policies pitched at the middle consumer. Middle-class welfare like Working for Families, confiscating the beaches when Marcus in Sumner gets worried he won’t be able to take wee Poppy and Noah to build sandcastles, and banning legal-high testing on those cute, cuddly puppies.
Sure, under FPP, radical changes were able to be rammed through with seemingly no moderation whatsoever – the Fourth Labour and National governments serve as evidence for that – but surely radical change of the wrong sort is endurable so that we have the chance for radical change of the right sort (first and third Labour Governments). What MMP allows is for the radical voices inside the camp of the big parties to break off and be marginalised. This leaves the big parties for the power-seeking pragmatists, while those that formerly provided the ideological heft to the big parties left outside the tent.
The coalitions that inevitably happen prove devastating for these radical parties, as they are never able to get through any more than the most tokenistic of their policies. This leaves their supporters disgusted with their party’s capitulation to a party that is not representing their interests, and either they splinter, or withdraw their support. We saw this most obviously in the Alliance which went from 10 MPs to none in one electoral cycle (only Jim Anderton and Mat Robson maintained representation under a party that was literally named after its leader). A similar thing has happened to the Māori Party, which, after propping up a National government that has done nothing but harm to the poor (and therefore a large portion of the Māori Party’s support base), lost both its radical, activist wing (following Hone to Mana), and is very possibly facing the prospect of electoral oblivion after this election. The same thing’s happened to NZ First, it splintered in ’98 and was almost wiped out in ’99 after propping up National, and it was wiped out in 2008 after supporting Labour, and, although it looks likely they’ll be able to stay in this year, the future after Winston looks pretty bleak. Act has suffered for not sticking to its ideological roots, and moving too far into National’s territory (it’s not been helped by the slow rightward drift of the political centre). While the Greens are yet to suffer from a similar move to the ‘mainstream’, it has, however, lost its radical Bradford-Tanczos-Locke wing. One has to wonder after Labour inevitably gets its act back together and steals back all the middle-class, urban liberals, how long the Greens will last without some serious, radical heft. One could perhaps compare the Greens’ current good fortune to United Future’s in the 2002 election, all due to refugees from an under performing major party (Labour in the Greens’ case, National in United Future’s).
Despite all this, I still am unwilling to entirely disendorse MMP. It seems obvious to me that MMP simply entrenches the prevailing liberal hegemony, producing government incapable of delivering radical change, that wipes out radical voices from politics, and silences openly ideological discourse, delivering an ideology of silence and style – which stands only to benefit the elites of society. FPP does seem to be more reflective of the real, material bifurcation in society (bourgeoisie and proletariat), and has the added benefit of localising political power, and ensuring that all politicians are directly accountable to voters of their own area. While MMP, and the accompanying privatisation of politics that it has brought with it, a superficial politics of power not people, the subsequent dive in political engagement, and the meek, weak governments it produces, that work within the liberal system, and so are precluded from overcoming it, will never be able to deliver a new, truly democratic society.
But still, I remain a member of a minor party, I’ll be casting a party vote, and I retain an affinity with MMP. Perhaps it is no more than that multi-party politics is undeniably more interesting to the political junky, or that the weakness and disappointment that coalition Governments deliver allow me something to moan about, or it might just be that the party I support only really has a good chance under MMP. If there were a referendum tomorrow, I’d vote for MMP. That leaves the only alternative to liberal, pluralistic division, as extra-parliamentary organisation, a disavowing of the attitude that sees society as synonymous with the state, and local, grassroots democracy that emphasises community, humanity, and solidarity.