The quiet privileges

Like any good leftie, I spend a lot of time reflecting on all the ways that I’m privileged.

I am male, therefore I get the ‘patriarchal dividend’ (benefits that come to men, unsought). I am white. If you don’t think whiteness is a huge leg-up in life, then Louis CK thinks ‘you are an asshole‘. I seem straight, so people don’t make my life difficult in a range of shitty ways. But if I tell my fellow lefties I’m bisexual/pansexual, I get awesome leftie points. No downside. Yusssssss.

I am slim and able-bodied. My job pays well. I don’t follow a religion that people hate and fear. I was lucky to be born in a developed country that is relatively well-governed (Labour and National governments aside).

That’s usually where the privilege checking ends, or at least trails off. But of course privilege doesn’t end there. If we are committed to looking at how we are structurally advantaged, we need to look at the quieter privileges, the ones we rarely discuss. Privilege is a fascinating and infuriatingly complex thing, so for the purposes of simplicity I’m mostly referring to one or more of the following:

  • financial privilege (greater access to/possession of income or wealth)
  • political privilege (greater access to/possession of political power)
  • cultural privilege (greater access to/possession of social value or status)

So here are five quiet privileges that I benefit from:

Literacy and fluency
The highest levels of financial, political and (somewhat) cultural power are almost exclusively reserved for those who speak and read their dominant national language. In New Zealand, this is English. People disadvantaged by this include non-native English speakers, disabled people, and less-educated people. Lack of literacy and fluency maps closely with class; poorer people are less likely to be highly fluent and literate. Many people on the Left love big words, but we should remember that jargon is an exercise in privilege. And so is being a ‘grammar nazi’.

Our society and economy value knowledge gained in universities over other sources (like work and culture). The heads of major companies and political parties are overwhelmingly educated people. Educated people are more likely to get higher paying jobs, and healthier jobs. Educated people rarely have to lift heavy things into their 60s just to get by.

This is a land of many cultures, but some are privileged more than others. Being fluent in western/pākehā culture grants you easier access to jobs, relationships, and support networks. Our institutions (especially university) are very culturally western. Socially and financially speaking, western culture is overwhelmingly dominant. And despite the odd mihimihi and pōwhiri our political institutions are still very western.

We western lefties can be pretty vocal about the outrages in other cultures. A lot of leftists want to deny that we have a culture (especially a white culture) because acknowledging one exists allows bigots to celebrate it. If you think we don’t have a culture, you probably haven’t lived outside of it. Culture shapes us immensely. When we deny that our values are often highly culturally specific, we universalise them and colonise others. There is a pākehā culture, and it dominates all others in New Zealand.

In our society, post-adolescent adults and middle-aged people are financially and politically privileged. Young adults and the elderly are routinely discriminated against for perceived lack of ability. Teens and young adults are relatively culturally privileged. In contrast, the very young and the very old are amongst our most vulnerable people. But I don’t often hear the Left talk about discrimination against the elderly. Older people are not very ‘intersectional’, which may be why so few lefties cared when Labour suggested raising the retirement age. It was odd to see so many lefties suddenly become fiscally conservative.

As Salient columnist Penny Gault recently observed, it’s an extrovert’s world. It’s harder to achieve financial and political success if you find interacting with strangers oppressive. Financially, extroverts’ perceived confidence is mistaken for ability and helps them gain better positions and better pay. Politically, the theatre of national level politics is built for the outspoken. Doing lots of public speaking is not ideal for introverts. Similarly, cultural success is easier to gain if you are comfortable with the attention of a lot of people. And it’s not like introverts are just left to their introversion. Instead, introversion is often taken as rudeness, haughtiness, cowardice, and lack of self-esteem.

I’m not saying that we on the Left need to go to war with these privileges in the same way we fight sexism, racism, and homophobia. At least not now. But if we want a more equal society (and not be total hypocrites), we should know our privileges before we shout at others about theirs.

That wasn’t a comprehensive list, by any means. Please feel free to comment on any privileges that you think are important to check, or hit me up on twitter at @aaronincognito.


The long march through the consultations

Increasingly, figures from the Left are looking outside political parties to bring about political change. This is unsurprising when we look at the state of our parties: one was destroyed (MANA), one is deeply structurally damaged (Labour), and the other can’t achieve much with Labour (Greens). But hey, political parties were always an imperfect means to progressive ends.

The next election is years away, so it’s time to turn our attention to governance processes and civil society action. Here, we can bring about good change (or at least block bad change).

The Government is pretty much always consulting or seeking submissions on something, including a lot of issues that concern the Left.

Compared to the hurly-burly of the hustings and the theatre of the House, the actual machinery of government is pretty boring. Cabinet papers, Select Committees, and consultation periods are not very sexy, but they are important. Political power hides in a thicket of arcane processes, but if we are willing to cut a path then we march through the institutions.

If you think dry policy documents don’t matter, then take a look at the Treasury briefings for the incoming government in the Rogernomics era. Immense power hid behind tepid phrases like “Greater flexibility may mean that the real wage for some groups in the labour market will fall“. Roger Douglas might have been a believer, but he was nothing without those papers from Treasury.

The Fourth Labour government, with Phil Goff at the head of the table. NEVER FORGET.

The Fourth Labour government, with Phil Goff at the head of the table. NEVER FORGET.

The bureaucracy has always had a lot of power. In a sense, elections are fought for control of the public service and their boring papers. The executive can’t do much without the skills, networks, and knowledge of the bureaucracy.

Let me repeat, bureaucracy is boring. But don’t let that stop you from weighing in. Select Committees will open soon, and there are currently a few consultations of interest to leftists, especially greens:
1- Standards New Zealand, an autonomous crown entity, is consulting on ‘a standard for gender and sexual diversity in employment‘ until 17 November.
2- Wellington City Council is consulting on its natural resources plan until 30 November.
3- The Productivity Commission is consulting on provision of social services until 18 November.
4- Land Information New Zealand is consulting on changing place names in New Zealand until 17 November. From what it looks like, they are shifting to more accurate te reo place names, which will likely draw submissions from cranky racists.

The Left needs to be active outside party politics. Partly because Labour (and maybe the whole electoral left) is in trouble on a deep structural level. But also because there’s opportunity for us to bring about good change.

We on the Left have immense energy and good social media mobilisation. National has a majority, but they still need to consult and take submissions at Select Committees. Let’s make sure our voices are heard wherever we can.

Plain English is radical

Despite all the ups and downs of the past few months, there has been one constant in left wing politics: jargon. Regardless of whether Nicky Hager, Judith Collins, or Eminem led the news, the Left was ready to respond with a slew of long and fancy words. Left wing politics talks a lot about inclusion, but often it does so with some very exclusive words. I am guilty of this too.

Nothing says ‘you are not welcome in this discussion’ like jargon. If we are truly concerned with growing the Left, we need to welcome those who look leftwards instead of making them feel stupid. If we are serious about inclusive politics, then we need to make sure we don’t exclude less-advantaged people. Jargon excludes people who struggle with English and, generally speaking, people with less education.

I get that politics and identity can be complex, and that sometimes a rare word is the best word. I understand the temptation. You learn some big words at university or on a blog, they make things easier to discuss, all the people you know can define kyriarchy. But, really, some of us on the Left just love to sound clever. As renowned leftist madman Slavoj Žižek warned us, “don’t fall in love with yourselves.”

Now I know what you’re thinking: you need a heuristic to instrumentalise this methodology. Here’s my rule of thumb: unless you are fairly sure that the people listening/reading can understand you, you probably aren’t including them. And if the word is associated with post-structuralism then definitely try to avoid it. This is especially important on twitter.

I know those are some pretty average guidelines. I don’t want to set standards for the entire Left –that’s not the point. The point is that we should strive to include people. Of course, we also need to not tear them to pieces, but that’s another blog.

Practice plain English.

If the ivory tower can’t go to the people, the people should go to the ivory tower

Some of the Left’s best ideas are coming out of universities. But there is a massive disconnect between the people in the street and the people in the ivory towers. This gap can be bridged. Those of us who have left the towers can bridge the gap by explaining ideas from the tower in plain English. Unfortunately, bringing people to the towers is much more difficult.

Taking the ivory tower to the people
The ivory towers of academia are one of a few bastions of powerful left-wing thought. But the Left hasn’t had much luck taking ideas from the tower to the people. As we saw earlier in the year, apologising for male privilege didn’t win many votes for David Cunliffe.

The disconnect between universities and the wider public is a serious problem. The Left is growing strong in the universities, largely thanks to analytical tools from feminist, post-colonial and queer theory. In other words; identity politics. The only problem is that many of these ideas are not widely understood by those outside the ‘ivory bubble’. And they need to be understood, because they matter.

These ideas are cheapened if we reserve them for educated people. We need to include the less educated and the less fluent if we want our ideas to succeed. This requires using plain English and discussing them with good faith. Would you understand hegemony, intersectionality, or discourse if you hadn’t gone to uni? Probably not. Remember that facct when you’re dealing with someone who is working class or a non-native English speaker.

We all need to get a LOT better at engaging with the Left’s natural allies, especially those who aren’t educated. We can do this by cutting back on the indignation and high jargon, and by getting better at explaining. Because explaining is the first step to understanding. And once that starts happening, we stop fighting in arguments, and start winning agreements. Building broad agreement is how we will win the war. Because the Left’s ideas are excellent ideas.

Taking the people to the ivory tower
Taking the ivory tower to the people is challenging (mostly because we prefer to rage at bigots than convert them). So perhaps the wider public should go to the ivory tower, instead? In other words, perhaps the Left should look to greatly enhance the number of people attending university. How, you say? More scholarships are great, but ultimately we should be working towards the abolition of tertiary education fees. Free university for all.

“Madness! It would cost a fortune! It’s simply not realistic”, you say.

Zero tuition fees is very realistic. Germany now has free tertiary education in all of its states. As do Brasil, Spain, France, Italy, and much of  Scandinavia. It’s not an issue of funding, it’s an issue of funding priorities. Do we value one of the best paths out of poverty? Then we should fight for the government to fund it.

Free tertiary education would grant poor and working class people access to the vehicle of upward mobility. It would also pour a diverse wave of people through an institution steeped in left-wing thought, albeit largely culturally white, middle class, and privileging those fluent in English. But campus activism (and the Left in general) would benefit greatly from having a lot more people who aren’t middle class, white, native English speakers.

So let’s take the towers to the people, and the people to the towers. Let’s speak clearly and openly with those different to us. Let’s fight for more scholarships, lower fees, and ultimately free tertiary education.

Post mortems take time

I will have a lot to say about Labour’s result, but it will take a long time to say it (I blame having a job). Luckily, the healing process will take a long time. Or at least it SHOULD, if it is reasonable, considered, and honest. Hopefully it’s not a knee-jerk change of leader followed by more squabbling.

In the meantime, listen to David Shearer and ignore stories about ‘Shearer refuses to rule out leadership bid’. The man knows how to build consensus and reconciliation in post-conflict settings. Resolving Labour’s problems will take time. Changing leaders without addressing Labour’s structural problems won’t resolve anything.

If you’re interested, I’ve written extensively about Labour’s problems earlier this year. The events are dated, but I think the analysis is solid (although the tone is too harsh). In rough order of relevance: The Left needs the division of Labour, Progressives vs workers 1, Progressives vs workers 2, Labour’s Tea Party, Young Labour needs to move on, and Only Robertson can go to the centre. Apologies for the verbose writing, I had just finished postgrad study.

Basically, I think the far left of Labour should go join the Greens. There is a place for strong progressive politics, but it’s not in Labour. Labour needs to turn blue votes into red.

I repeat, listen to David Shearer.

Screenshot 2014-09-21 23.51.11

Red leaves falling, Green buds flowering

Russel Norman’s recent comments on One News have set off debate on social media about the Greens replacing Labour as the main party of the Left. Barring something miraculous, Labour will have another election loss and another messy leadership primary, where candidates are likely to lurch left to win over members, then flip flop back to the centre afterwards. Labour’s competitive primaries incentivise hardened factions and disunity. In contrast, the Greens have a well-established internal democracy that strives for, and delivers, consensus.

Screenshot 2014-09-12 02.37.32

Labour have had three leaders in three years and, unless they can turn this campaign around, will likely have a fourth before Christmas. Labour’s reputation is so damaged that they couldn’t even get a poll bump from Dirty Politics. The polls suggest that people have made up their mind about the party. This is particularly the case for men, more than 4 out of 5 of whom recently said that they would not vote Labour.

However, Labour’s failings are the Greens’ gains. Labour’s long running shambles contrasts sharply with the Greens’ unity, healthy internal democracy, and campaigning prowess. These strengths set the party up as the believable alternative to Labour, and in doing so they start the process of reducing Labour to a medium sized centrist party.

Only Whaleoil could be against a cute kid by a river.

Only Whaleoil could be against a cute kid by a river.

But aren’t the Greens too far left to get over 20%? Well, so far they have managed to reach out to the centre without giving away their core values or alienating their base. While the Greens are an unapologetically progressive environmentalist party, they know that it’s best to promote valence issues when communicating with the general public. Everyone in New Zealand loves the beach, and the Greens know how to channel that basic love into political support.

In contrast, Labour seems to have an identity crisis over identity politics. Are they a progressive party, or a party of the poor, or a party of the aspirational middle class? They simply haven’t decided. When the progressive wing pushes for things like gender quotas, or the leader apologises for being a man, it’s red meat for the activists, but cold sick for more socially conservative workers and poor.

But regardless of what Labour claim to stand for, you can always rely on the party to sell out. The last two Labour governments gave us Rogernomics (thanks Phil Goff), and the Foreshore and Seabed legislation. Since then, they have worked hard for genuine progressive issues that better the lives of minorities, but are of little concern to Mr and Ms Smith on Struggle Street. It would be better for the Left if the Greens represent the views and values of urban liberals, and Labour represented the views of workers and the poor.

This means that if you are genuine progressive, you should support an unapologetically progressive party, a party that will have greater say in the formation of the next Left government. Over the next few blogs I’m going to investigate the Red/Green tension, and how some ideas around Green overpowering Red. Not destroying it, necessarily, rather making it an equal or smaller partner.

In the next blog I’ll discuss electoral seats and outline why Labour and Green supporters should vote for James Shaw instead of Grant Robertson in Wellington Central.

Both are Left, but only one is right

Both are Left, but only one is right

What Left parties now stand for

The politics of immigration has taken a bizarre turn in recent months, with Left parties calling for restrictions, limitations and even outright bans on certain acts by foreigners. Immigrants, especially Chinese immigrants, are being increasingly blamed for rising house prices and interest rates.

The Winston-isation of the Left has got me thinking. What do Left parties actually stand for? Here’s my completely serious and not-at-all-joking take on the party names:

Get Rid of Emigres, Except Nice Socialists
Gladly Removing Excess Expatriates, Nevermind Solidarity

Likes Asians Being Overseas. Unsure on Refugees
Let’s Advance Bans & Open the Undercurrent of Racism

Migrant Asians Not Accepted
Marxists Against New Arrivals

National Appreciates This Influx Of New Asian Lenders
National Always Tells Investors Options for Notifying & Advising Legislators

Force Immigrants to Reside in Small Towns
Fuck Immigrants & Refugees. Scotch Time!