Sociology on the Left in New Zealand: Currents and Contests in Recent and Future History

By Neilson, David | New Zealand Sociology, January 1, 2016 | Go to article overview

Sociology on the Left in New Zealand: Currents and Contests in Recent and Future History


Neilson, David, New Zealand Sociology


Introduction

Bourdieu (1991) represents the Left/Right distinction as a universal spatial imaginary. This 'political space', according to Bobbio (1996), comprises two hemispheres, each with gradations that move from moderate to radical positions, and usually a central space overlapping both hemispheres which is 'both Left and Right'. Within the geo-political frame of the advanced capitalist democracies, the enduring ideological differences which substantiate this Left/Right spatial imaginary are about capitalism, democracy and their relationship. The Right presents a celebratory view of market (capitalism) that is often conflated, or is at least seen as in a mutually complementary relation, with democracy. On the Left, capitalism and democracy are more clearly portrayed as counter forces. While capitalism generates social regression as inequality, insecurity and instability; democracy is the key source of the counter-movement against capitalism's social effects and the well-spring of social progress. In Aglietta's (1998) social democratic version of this position, the democratic-based regulation of capitalism can counteract its socially regressive consequences while at the same time positively harness its powerful technologies. In the Marxist variant, democracy and capitalism are more radically opposed to each other in that the democratic energies of the people are viewed as the force which will not just progressively regulate capitalism, but transform it into an alternative socialist mode of production directly driven by the 'democratic association of the producers'.

Different, shifting and persisting Left-Right distinctions in recent capitalist history and across different nation states skew - in line with the dominant mid-range project of capitalist development and its accompanying paradigm- the actuallyexisting centre of political space either to the Left or Right. Within the 'thinkable' terms of the prevailing mid-range project that occupies the actually existing centre, Left and Right positions come to appear as ideological variations or 'dialects'. Hackell (2013) specifically shows this process in her analysis of New Zealand's political landscape since 1984 by empirically demonstrating how the discourses of the two major political parties became dialects of the dominant and central new Right neoliberal project. Political discourses beyond the dominant project and its Left and Right dialects come to occupy the critical margins, largely outside what is 'thinkable' within the dominant paradigm (Bourdieu, 1991).

Sociology is a broad camp and includes schools of thought that are not on the Left, but the New Zealand Sociological academy is overwhelmingly on the Left. The Sociological critique of capitalist modernity tends to place it on the Left. Divisions on the Sociological Left in New Zealand loosely follow epistemological distinctions between the founding fathers in that those who have a Weberian academic disposition tend to have a social democratic outlook, while those that are grounded in the Marxist episteme tend to have a socialist outlook. However, especially in the present era, this distinction can become blurred.

Weberian and Marxist perspectives both have their own strengths but also their respective weaknesses and blind spots. A key strength of Marxist approaches is that they have a strong political economy based-explanation of changing social forms closely linked with Marx's account of the structure and trajectory of capitalism, but can be ideologically constrained by this account and its associated conceptual and prognostic parameters. Weberian work lacks a deep structural account of capitalism, and operates much more from a descriptively empirical and 'methodologically individualist' grounding (see Bhaskar, 1979). Although the Weberians' descriptive methodology undermines their ability to identify deeper capitalist structures; it can sometimes make them more open to evidence-based challenges to received theory. …

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