In 1992, the American political scientist Francis
Fukuyama wrote a celebrated book with the extravagant title The End of History and the Last Man. In
it, he argued (I’m quoting from Wikipedia
here) that the triumph of Western liberalism marked the end point of mankind’s
The rationale was that the Soviet Union had
collapsed under the weight of its own tyranny and sclerotic inefficiency. The
decades-long Cold War that defined the post-war era was over and free-market
economics (Reaganomics in the US, Thatcherism in Britain, Rogernomics in New
Zealand and similar variants elsewhere, including Australia under Bob Hawke) had
prevailed throughout the democratic West.
It seemed at the time that the epochal struggle between
Marxism and capitalism had been emphatically resolved. There was a mood of smug
triumphalism (guilty, your Honour) among advocates of what came to be termed
Ha! We (and Fukuyama) could hardly have been more
wrong. The supposed “end of history” turned out to be merely a brief,
anesthetising lull. Far from the ideological contest between left and right
being decided once and for all, the contest broke out anew in an insidious and potentially
even more lethal form. No one saw this
coming; or perhaps I should say no one on the right side of politics.
It’s no exaggeration to say that Western
civilisation and Western democratic values are under attack as never before in
modern history. The breadth, intensity and viciousness of this attack is
Where it will lead is impossible to say. That will
largely depend on whether society recognises what’s at stake and has the will to
dig in and resist it.
At the moment, there’s little sign of that
happening. Tragically, the only world leader putting up any sort of fight, Donald
Trump, is a politician whose values are so bereft of any ethical coherence that
if anything, his stand gives the woke left an illusion of moral credibility.
As yet there seems to be no settled term for the amorphous
ideology driving this attack on Western capitalist values. It’s variously
described as cultural Marxism, neo-Marxism, post-modernism, identity politics
or, more colloquially, wokeism. It has
its ideological roots in Marxist theories about power structures and the
oppression of supposedly disadvantaged minorities – people of colour, women, LGTBQ
people, Muslims and immigrants, to name a few – by a privileged white elite. Its
adherents see society not as a cohesive body of people with mutual interests
but as an agglomeration of marginalised and victimised identity groups struggling
to break free of repressive norms.
Having realised decades ago that that the fight
between capitalism and classical Marxist economics was lost, the extreme left
opened a new front. They attacked liberal democracy’s soft underbelly: its
values, conventions, institutions and philosophical foundations.
Suddenly a whole range of bedrock values, from the
right to free speech to belief in fixed biological gender, was under savage attack.
The underlying purpose is to destabilise society and therefore render it amenable
to radical change.
Our supposedly shameful history and heritage also stand
condemned. If we can be persuaded to be ashamed of our past, how much
easier it becomes to persuade us that the society that grew out of it is deeply
I wrote in a column in 2018: [Neo-Marxism]
grows out of the assumption that Western
civilisation, and all that goes with it, is fundamentally rotten and therefore
must be dismantled and rebuilt from the ground up.
In the cockeyed illogic of the
neo-Marxists, we should feel guilt and shame at having inherited a civilisation
that has lifted untold millions of people out of poverty and introduced them to
You can see Marx’s influence in
neo-Marxism’s hostility to capitalism, its contempt for supposed bourgeois
values – the family, for instance – and its emphasis on class and division.
But neo-Marxism takes classical Marxist
analysis a whole lot further, examining every issue through the lenses not only
of class but also of race, gender, sexual identity and any other potential
point of difference that can be leveraged into a grievance.
It marches arm-in-arm with identity
politics, seeing society not as a cohesive whole, sharing common interests and
aspirations, but as a seething mass of oppressed minorities struggling for
liberation – hence the ever-increasing number of aggrieved groups clamouring
for special recognition. The result is polarisation and fragmentation.
Neo-Marxism also sets out to create a
sense of continuing economic and social crisis, using this as justification for
ever more intrusive state intervention and control. And it seeks to undermine
our most basic understanding of human nature and society. How we see and
interpret the world is dismissed by neo-Marxists as a social and political
construct, a product of our conditioning.
Nothing is fixed, not even the sex we
are born with, and nothing has any objective value. Every belief and every
value, no matter how soundly based in human experience and observation, is up
Paradoxically, while the neo-Marxists
assail some belief systems as oppressive – Christianity for example – they make
excuses for others, such as Islam, although it’s infinitely more controlling.
But don’t go looking for ideological consistency in neo-Marxism; you’d be
wasting your time.
Some woke ideas (most notably the belief that sexual identity is
a mere societal construct, “assigned at birth” as if by some conscious and arbitrary
human intervention) strike most New Zealanders as demonstrably barking mad, but
that hasn't stopped them being embraced by radical
zealots and championed by sympathetic polemicists in the news media.
The speed with which all this happened caught what
might loosely be termed the right off guard. The neo-Marxists have captured most
of our key institutions: universities, schools, the media, the health sector,
the churches, the public service, the arts and, to some extent, the courts. Even
sport has succumbed (hello, Israel Folau).
Resistance to the woke agenda has been strangely subdued,
enabling the activists to characterise those who openly oppose them as an
extreme right-wing fringe. Note, for example, how the New Zealand media routinely
stigmatises groups such as the New Conservatives as “far right” but never
attaches equivalent labels to parties on the far left such as the Greens, preferring
to treat them as mainstream. In doing so, the media have succeeded in creating the
convenient illusion that the political centre has shifted sharply to the left.
Not only that, but by relentlessly focusing on the grievances
of small, disaffected and highly vocal minority groups, the media present a
warped and distorted image of society. The playwright Arthur Miller famously
observed that a good newspaper is a nation talking to itself, a metaphor that
can be extended to all the media. But these days it’s a conversation dominated and
largely controlled by left-wing political and ideological elites, and one in
which the mainstream of the populace plays little part. The image of New
Zealand that’s frequently presented in the media – that of a country sharply divided
between a privileged white ruling class and a seething mass of the oppressed –
is a gross caricature of one of the world’s most tolerant, liberal democracies.
frequent reference to the "culture wars", but this is a misnomer. “War” implies
two opposing sides, but in fact the offensive from the left has encountered
little resistance – not because of any compelling force in its arguments (there
usually isn’t any), but because the people who should be leading the counter-charge
are cowering in their foxholes. Politicians who profess to adhere to conservative
values have been missing in action, intimidated into silence by the sheer
volume of white noise from the activist media. They apparently forget the old
management adage that what you accept, you approve.
Corporate institutions have capitulated even more cravenly,
scrambling to demonstrate their woke credentials by re-branding products to appease
ideologically driven complainants. (A notable example was the renaming of
Australia’s Coon cheese brand, a consumer favourite established in 1935 by
Edward William Coon.) Fear of boycotts
is usually the driver.
A key part of the woke left’s strategy is to deny that
any of this is happening, or at least that it’s part of any grand plan. On Wikipedia, the idea of cultural Marxism
is dismissed as a “far-right anti-Semitic conspiracy theory”. The Wikipedia entry goes on to characterise
it as an idea peddled by religious fundamentalists, white nationalists and
This is a variant of the line taken in the 1950s and '60s by New Zealand Marxists who scoffed at claims of communist influence by ridiculing
fears of “reds under the bed” (to which Catholic trade unionist Tony Neary, who
staunchly resisted communist infiltration of the union movement, riposted that
the Reds were sitting up in bed and having breakfast brought in).
As I wrote in that 2018 Dominion Post column: And how do the neo-Marxists respond when anyone resists their nihilistic
theories? Typically, opposition is howled down as hate speech or met with
sneering and ridicule. There’s no room in the neo-Marxist world for dissent or
freedom of expression.
The tragedy is that neo-Marxism is
triumphing because the institutions of liberal, democratic government are too
weak, too naïve, too complacent or too uncertain of the worth of their own
values to put up a fight.
Neo-Marxism has now extended its
influence far beyond universities, reaching deep into government, schools, the
media, the arts and even the churches. The result is a society that is losing
confidence in itself, which is precisely the neo-Marxists’ aim – because a
society that has lost confidence in itself is easier to intimidate and
I WRITE this, we are in the last days of an election
campaign. If the opinion polls are accurate, and I have no reason to doubt
them, Jacinda Ardern will be New Zealand’s prime minister for the next three
years. The only real uncertainty is whether Labour will govern alone or in
coalition with the Greens.
Either way, there will be nothing to stand in the
way of a re-energised neo-Marxist agenda. New Zealand First has served as a
restraint on the government since 2017 but the brakes will be off after
Saturday if, as the polls predict, the Peters party fails to win a seat.
(Disclosure: I held my nose and voted for Peters in the last election precisely
because I reasoned – rightly, as it turned out – that NZ First could curb the
ideological excesses of Labour and the Greens, but I can’t bring myself to vote
the same way again. No one has done more to bring politics into disrepute in my
lifetime than Peters, and even my fear of a left-wing juggernaut in government
isn’t enough to justify supporting him a second time. I’ll be voting ACT, though not
with whole-hearted enthusiasm.)
What might a Labour or Labour-Green government
deliver? We have already had a foretaste in the form of one of the world’s most
permissive abortion regimes and the proposal to legalise cannabis. Expect much
more under a re-invigorated and unrestrained Ardern government, starting with
laws to curb so-called “hate speech”. The putative justification – that the Human
Rights Act doesn’t protect people from attacks on the basis of their religion (for
which read Islam) – can be easily fixed by a simple amendment adding religion
to the existing protections against discrimination on the grounds of colour,
race, nationality and ethnicity. But don’t expect the government to stop there.
Using the Christchurch mosque massacres as a pretext (a false one, since the
absence of restrictive speech laws didn’t cause the shootings and the introduction
of tough new ones wouldn’t prevent a similar occurrence), the government is
likely to crack down on any speech regarded as offensive by members of supposedly
vulnerable minority groups. Egged on by provocateurs in the media, an Ardern government might decide not only to lower the threshold
at which speech is considered harmful, but to extend protection to other groups
demanding special treatment – for example, trans-gender people.
We hear a lot from such groups about the need to embrace
diversity, but the one diversity they don’t tolerate is diversity of opinion. Yet
free speech is the currency of liberal democracy. Once we accept curbs on our
right to engage in free and robust discussion of contentious issues (but stopping short of advocating active discrimination or incitements to violence,
which present law rightly prohibits anyway), we risk becoming what might be
called an illiberal democracy: one in which we may still be free to vote for
the politicians of our choice, but without our votes being informed by full and
open debate. Putin-style democracy, in other words.
But it’s not just transformational legislative change that advocates of
liberal democracy should worry about under a new leftist government. Even where
it doesn’t take the initiative itself by passing radical or oppressive new laws, a Labour or Labour-Greens
government will provide a political environment highly conducive to the advance
of the woke agenda. Expect more agitation for separate institutional
arrangements for Maori (including non-elected positions on councils), more unilateral
adoption of Maori place names (fine, but let’s do it by referendum), more condemnation
of supposed white privilege and white supremacy, more hysteria over so-called
cultural appropriation, more humiliating, Salem-style public denunciations (accompanied
by mandatory attendance at “cultural competency” courses) of people who refuse
to toe approved ideological lines, more pressure
on companies to pander to exaggerated minority sensitivities (and grovelling
apologies when they are perceived to have fallen short), more politicisation
of the police, more judicial activism by courts incorporating tikanga (Maori
custom) in common law, more virtue-signalling by academics and writers who proclaim themselves as socialists (and therefore unashamedly align themselves with a sorry history of tyranny, repression and economic ruin), more arrogant interference with people's freedoms by activist groups such as Extinction Rebellion, more social media bullying
of dissenters and more instances of “cancel culture”, where organisations are
intimidated into abandoning legitimate speaking engagements for fear of disruption.
All of this is happening already, of course, but it’s
likely to acquire far greater momentum with the encouragement, tacit or
otherwise, of a government that doesn’t have to worry about humouring a
socially conservative coalition partner.
The striking thing about the current election campaign
is that barely any of this has been mentioned. It’s only slightly melodramatic
to say there’s a battle going on for the heart and soul of the country, but
there has been little hint of this other than in New Conservatives campaign billboards
calling for free speech. National, the party that supposedly represents mainstream
conservative values and therefore should be manning the barricades against the
neo-Marxist takeover, is timidly tip-toeing around it and pretending not to see
it, possibly because it’s terrified of incurring media antagonism. Covid-19, the government response to it and
the likely economic consequences have so dominated people's attention that the woke
agenda has been allowed to proceed virtually unchallenged. New Zealand in three years’ time could feel
like a very different place, and not in a good way.