Friday, 10 June 2011

John Key's pro slavery rebellion

I'll warrant John Key is not an assiduous reader of Karl Marx.

For all that, he seems to have an instinctive grasp of the wrong end of the Marxist stick. That is to say, he's a anti-Marxist, not in the sense he's opposed to Marx, but that he accepts the Marist model - perhaps unconsciously - but from the capitalist side of the Labour-Capital binary opposition. Even if he hasn't delved into the depths of Capital, Mr Key may be familiar with the opening lines of the Manifesto of the Communist Party:
The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles.

Freeman and slave, patrician and plebeian, lord and serf, guild-master and journeyman, in a word, oppressor and oppressed, stood in constant opposition to one another, carried on an uninterrupted, now hidden, now open fight, a fight that each time ended, either in a revolutionary reconstitution of society at large, or in the common ruin of the contending classes. (1)
Mr Key would immediately recognize that this is perfectly true; and that he is representative of the first party in each opposition - the freeman, the patrician, the lord and the guildmaster. In a word, the oppressors.

His latest pronouncements, on National's plans to further reduce the power of trade unions, are a typical part of the 'hidden fight' to reconstitute society not as the workers might want it, but as Mr Key and his ilk would rather have it (2).

In Capital, Marx describes how capitalist society is characterised by "a potracted and more or less concealed civil war between the capitalist class and the working class," which takes place in "the arena of modern industry" (3). Elsewhere, Marx referred to efforts to overturn the Acts as "a pro-slavery rebellion in miniature" (4).

Mr Key understands chipping away at worker's rights and trade union powers is very much for their own good. Like the factory owners Marx described, who claimed their workers sought to work long hours because they needed the money to relieve their debt and hardship. I almost expect him to crack his guileless, weak smile, and tell us, with an almost comically straight face, that all these advances in favour of the working man will hurt him more than it hurts us. I'll bet it does, John. I can see that pain etched in your face.

Marx, in 1867, was writing about the campaigns either for or against a limit to the working day of the English working class; a succession of Factory Acts had limited the hours worked by women and children. Mr Key is probably doesn't want to see children working 15 hour days, but he does want the work force to be more "flexible," in the hope of encouraging growth and jobs (5). He does want to see the inconvenient, hard won rights of workers diminished, and workers put firmly in their place, subordinate to capital. His finance minister thinks this would be an advantage to us (6). Well, to him, and his people, perhaps.

And, of course, John Key would love to see wages drop (7).

Is this Victorian attitude towards labour really the sort of person we want leading New Zealand in the 21st century?
1 - "Manifesto of the Communist Party," by Karl Marx and Fredrick Engels. Published in 1848. From the 1888 translation by Samuel Moore and Engels. The quoted passage occurs at the very start of the very first chapter, 'Bourgeois and Proletarians.' IT is reproduced on (
2 - "Labour law changes a campaign plank, says Key," by Claire Trevett. Published in The New Zealand Herald, 9th of June, 2011. (
3 - "Capital, volume 1," by Karl Marx, originally published in 1868. The quotation occurs in Chapter 10.7, "The Working Day: The Struggle for the Normal Working-Day. Reaction of the English Factory Acts on Other Countries." This quotation is from my copy of Capital, translated by Ben Fowkes. reproduces a slighly different wording (
4 - ibid. Marx used the term "pro-slavery rebellion" to describe the American Civil War, and was fond of using it to characterise moves against social reform.
5 - Trevett, op cit.
6 - "Bill English: NZ's low wages an 'advantage'," unattributed article. Published by RadioLIVE / 3 News, 11th of April, 2011. (
7 - "Key “would love to see wages drop”," unattributed press release. Published by The New Zealand government, 19th of February, 2008. (

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