Left's utopia must have room for aspiration

22:00, Nov 25 2010

Another Aotearoa Is Possible - that's the hopeful title of a conference getting under way in Mangere tomorrow morning.

This grand political hui - featuring some of New Zealand's leading leftists - was conceived with not one, but two agendas. Or, to employ the steely jargon of yesterday's revolutionaries: a Maximum Programme and a Minimum Programme.

For the Maximum Programme to prevail, radical Unite Union leader Matt McCarten had to attract 5 to 10 per cent support in last Saturday's Mana by-election. If he'd ended the evening with 1200 to 1500 votes, Te Wananga O Aotearoa's Mangere campus - the conference venue - would almost certainly have witnessed the birth of a "New Left Party".

Unfortunately for the conference organisers, Mr McCarten ended up attracting the support of just 3.6 per cent of Mana voters. This failure to surpass even the 5 per cent MMP threshold means that tomorrow's conference agenda will default to its Minimum Programme: "A day of dialogue with activists against injustice and inequality".

Apparently, "Another Aotearoa" is not possible - at least, not this weekend. Rather than the perennial struggle against injustice and inequality, surely this is the problem everyone attending tomorrow's conference should come to grips with: "Why isn't it possible?"

British historian Simon Schama argues that revolutions are born of two volatile and often conflicting emotional states: hope and desperation. What, then, are New Zealanders' hopes? And how desperate are they to fulfil them? That's what the "New Leftists" attending tomorrow's conference have to determine.

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There can be little dispute that many of the people living in electorates such as Mana are becoming increasingly desperate. Recently published statistics detailing the declining real incomes of Maori and Pasifika families make that shamefully clear. But, to give their desperation a radical political edge, someone or something must inspire them with hope.

If the low turnout of 55 per cent is any guide, hope's in pretty short supply among Mana's desperate poor. With so many of the Left's natural constituency unwilling to participate in the by-election, the best Labour's Kris Faafoi and Mr McCarten seemed capable of inspiring was either an apathetic shrug of the shoulders or a grudging trip to the polling booth.

This lack of enthusiasm on the part of the poor was in sharp contrast to the mood of the actually wealthy or "aspirational" supporters of National's Hekia Parata. Their generally hopeful disposition brought the Right's feisty Maori diva perilously close to relieving Labour of its ninth- safest seat.

The genius of capitalism lies in the way it combines the promise of personal transformation with "equal" access to the cultural, legal and financial mechanisms required to bring it about.

Of course, not everyone possesses the knowledge, the confidence, or the skill to make these mechanisms work for them. But most people do not attribute these deficiencies to weaknesses in the capitalist system - they attribute them to weaknesses in themselves.

SOCIAL democracy's appeal lay in its determination to make the capitalist's promise of equal access to the mechanisms of personal transformation real. Public health, public education, gainful employment: make these things universally available and the social barriers to individual achievement will disappear. After that, however, it's up to you.

The far Left has always rejected this "reactionary" proposition. And therein lies its problem. Presumably, the new Aotearoa will be a place from which injustice and inequality have been banished - an unquestionably desirable Minimum Programme. But this new, this "other", Aotearoa must offer the individual something more than just social security.

Our brave new world needs a Maximum Programme. Because, if the urge to enlarge the scope of individual achievement; "to strive, to seek, to find and not to yield" until one has tested the boundaries of human experience; "become all that you can be"; is also banished from the New Left Party's utopia, then I fear it will never clear even the lowest threshold of public acceptance.

"A man's reach should exceed his grasp," wrote poet Robert Browning, "or what's a heaven for?"

The Dominion Post