Saturday, 31 January 2015

Can Democracy Save The Greeks?

Ode To Joy! Syriza supporters cheer as their party's victory is announced, But will the people of Greece be able to successfully reoccupy the democratic institutions emptied out by the twin evils of neoliberalism and austerity?
GREECE, the birthplace of democracy, is now the test of whether democratic governments still possess the power to effect meaningful change. If it passes the test, then the election of the left-wing Syriza Party, on 26 January 2015, will mark the beginning of the end of the 30-year neoliberal experiment. But, if it fails, then the growing perception that democracy has become an empty shell, incapable of delivering anything more than more of the same, will harden – not only in Greece, but across the whole world.
There are those who suggest that, when it comes to democracy, the neoliberal doctrines of the political class have acted like a neutron bomb. For those unfamiliar with the term, the neutron bomb was one of the Cold War’s most abhorrent creations. It’s great “selling point” was that its detonation, while killing human-beings by the million, would leave key infrastructure intact. Ready and waiting, following a suitable interval, for occupation and use by the “victors”.
According to the neutron bomb metaphor, neoliberalism has eliminated the vital human elements of our democratic system. The mass participation in political life for which New Zealand was justly famous (roughly a tenth of our adult population once belonged to a political party and the numbers voting frequently exceeded 90 percent of registered electors) has dwindled dramatically, reducing our democratic institutions to empty, echoing shells. The awful uniformity, both in terms of the political choices on offer, and the politicians offering them, is thus explained.
The Syriza Party’s stunning victory in the Greek general election is significant precisely because it has allowed the Greek people to re-occupy their country’s democratic infrastructure. The resulting surge of hope that has swept through the Greek population – evident in the highly emotional responses of ordinary Greek citizens interviewed on the streets of Athens by the world’s bemused media – is at once the new Prime Minister’s, Alexis Tsipras’, greatest asset and the source of his greatest vulnerability.
The neoliberal financiers of the European Union are adamant that the Greek people will not be released from the debt obligations imposed upon them by the profligate borrowings of corrupt politicians more than a decade ago. The devastating austerity programme overseen by the so-called “Troika” (the European Central Bank, the European Commission and the International Monetary Fund) which has seen unemployment soar to 1 in 4 of the workforce, and the incomes of those lucky enough to still have a job slashed by as much as 40 percent, must, according to Greece’s unyielding European creditors, remain in force.
The neoliberal elites’ assumption has always been that by forcing savage reductions in the size and scope of Greece’s public sector, the confidence of her private sector would soar, investment would surge, and before you could say “Long live the Eurozone!”, the Greek economy would have grown its way back to prosperity.
In the real world, however, events have unfolded very differently. Health cuts left the chronically ill without medicine. Wage cuts led to mortgage defaults and homeless families. Confidence collapsed. Investment dried up. Emigration soared. And when the desperate victims of austerity protested, their political representatives, pledged to defend the almighty Euro, called out the Riot Police.
When the Greeks voted-out the politicians responsible, they discovered to their horror that the replacements were just as committed to implementing the Troika’s austerity programme as their predecessors. When tested, political parties nominally of the Left turned out to be practically indistinguishable from their supposed ideological rivals on the Right. In the end, politicians from the traditional parties felt obliged to join forces against what they saw as the unrealistic and unreasonable demands of the electors. Isolated and vilified as traitors, the Greek political class would have struggled to detect the irony in Berthold Brecht’s famous suggestion that it might be easier for the Government “To dissolve the people and elect another.”
Greece’s electors have now delivered their emphatic reply to the brutal economic absolutism of successive neoliberal governments. The halls of the democratic Greek Republic, for long the exclusive preserve of neoliberal technocrats and their local political collaborators, are now ringing with the excited voices of the Greek People.
And the peoples of the European Union, themselves no strangers to the brutalities of austerity, are listening. If Syriza is to succeed, it is to this audience that it must appeal.
This essay was originally published in The Waikato Times, The Taranaki Daily News, The Timaru Herald, The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 30 January 2015.

Friday, 30 January 2015

Repositioning Rightwards: The Political Consequences Of Russel Norman's Departure

Victim Of Labour's Failure: Had they but known it, Russel Norman was Labour's best hope for an uncomplicated left-wing coalition partner. Norman promised the doubters in his party a seat at the table - if Labour could but win the election. Labour's failure rendered Norman's political project untenable. His decision to stand down as co-leader means that the party's long-delayed move to the right can now begin.
RUSSEL NORMAN’S DECISION to step down as the Greens co-leader reflects the party’s longstanding determination to reposition itself rightward. For eight years Norman’s personal energy and political discipline succeeded in turning aside the pleas of a clear majority of the Greens’ membership to break the party out of its left-wing ghetto. Only by exploiting to the full the party’s consensus-based decision-making processes was he able to keep it anchored firmly on the left of New Zealand politics.
For eight years Norman strove to fashion a Green Party manifesto that was not only compatible with the Labour Party’s policy platform but would, to a remarkable degree, serve as its inspiration. His astonishing and largely successful mission to master the challenges of contemporary economics; an effort which allowed him to participate in policy debates with an authority sadly lacking in his predecessors, and to drag Labour along in his wake, is probably the most impressive achievement of his leadership.
It was this ability to render the Greens’ left-wing policies economically intelligible that allowed Norman to spike the guns of the Greens’ very sizeable “moderate” (for want of a better description) faction. The latter had demonstrated its power by installing Metiria Turei as co-leader – rather than the overtly left-wing Sue Bradford – following Jeanette Fitzsimons’ retirement in 2008. Had the rules made it possible, this same faction would have radically repositioned the Greens as an ideologically agnostic environmentalist party of the political centre; one capable of forming a coalition with either of the main political parties.
Norman was only able to appease these moderate Greens by holding out to them the promise of real power as members of a Labour-Green coalition government. Following the party’s record level of electoral support in 2011, and the narrowness of National’s victory, Norman's vision, at least initially, looked like a realistic prospect. What Norman could not have anticipated was the Labour Party’s self-indulgent descent into fratricidal factional conflict. Three Labour leaders in as many years destroyed any chance of a Labour-Green coalition. It also fatally compromised Norman’s political position.
The intrusion of Kim Dotcom and the Internet-Mana alliance only made things worse.
The coup de grace that finally extinguished the Green Left’s survival chances was the Labour Party’s very public spurning of the Greens’ (i.e. Norman’s) invitation to campaign together. Labour clearly regarded the Greens as mad, bad and dangerous to know, a judgement reinforced in the last few weeks of the election campaign when it became increasingly obvious to Green Party members that David Cunliffe was much more disposed to forming a coalition with NZ First’s Winston Peters than Norman and the Greens.
The final, ignominious defeat of the Left on 20 September 2014 undoubtedly caused cries of “We told you so!” to reverberate through the Green Party organisation. Combined with the slight, but unexpected, decline in the Greens’ Party Vote (the polls suggested, and the Green leadership were anticipating, an outcome of 14 percent-plus) the Labour Party’s abysmal performance, not to mention its unreconstructed hostility, when the chips were down, towards all things Green, rendered Norman’s position untenable. It sealed his fate.
It is highly unlikely that Labour fully grasps what a friend they have lost in Norman, nor how very uncomfortable their relationship with the Greens is about to become.
If Labour is lucky, the Greens’ transition from Left to Centre will be gradual. The supporters of Kevin Hague, widely tipped to be Norman’s successor, will be arguing that his accession offers the best chance of taking the party from its present position of political irrelevancy to that of permanent kingmaker in good order.
For those who favour a much more decisive break with the traditional Green “brand”, by electing co-leaders who can make a plausible case for representing a Green Party which has moved on from its radical left-wing past, James Shaw is the obvious choice. One has only to look at the official video of his maiden parliamentary speech to realise that this is a very different sort of Green to Russel Norman – and Kevin Hague.
Much depends on whether the moderates want to play softball or hardball. If they opt for the latter, then expect to see a full-scale challenge mounted for the Green Party leadership. That would not only entail the nomination of Shaw, but also of the fearsomely capable and articulate Julie-Anne Genter.
A Shaw-Genter ticket would constitute a re-branding exercise with a vengeance. Telegenic, articulate, non-threatening and business-friendly, Shaw and Genter would signal in a way no other pairing could hope to replicate that the Greens are ready to take their place at the Cabinet Table – regardless of who holds the lease.
Under Rod Donald and Jeanette Fitzsimons, Russel Norman and Metiria Turei, the Greens belonged to the Left. Under its next set of co-leaders, especially if their names are Shaw and Genter, the Greens will belong to whoever offers them the best deal.
So long, Russel – you’ll be missed.
This essay was posted simultaneously on The Daily Blog and Bowalley Road blogsites on Friday, 30 January 2015.

Wednesday, 28 January 2015

“Jobs. Jobs. Jobs.” Reflecting On Labour Priorities: Past and Present.

"Above All We Stand For Jobs": Andrew Little's State of the Nation speech, delivered today to an Auckland audience of small business owners and entrepreneurs is a reiteration of traditional Labour's core priority - Full Employment.
HOW STRANGE IT SEEMS, looking back at the Labour Party of 1987. A Labour government had just been re-elected – something that hadn’t happened since 1946. So, you could be forgiven for thinking that any party conference held in the wake of such an historic victory would sound a decidedly celebratory tone. In 1987, however, you’d be wrong.
The Labour Conference held in Auckland’s Kingsgate Centre in November 1987 was one of the most bitter in the party’s history. Roger Douglas and his fellow “Rogernomes” arrived at the conference expecting to be greeted like heroes. Instead, they were hissed and booed. By 1987 a majority of Labour activists struggled to see their MPs as members of the same movement. A significant minority felt like passengers on a hi-jacked airliner. They were convinced that the plane’s cockpit was full of free-market terrorists.
I remember the event vividly. Not only was it the conference where I was elected to Labour’s ruling council, but it was also the gathering to which I gave what many delegates later assured me was my best (and most quoted) speech.
I followed the much-loved Labour stalwart Ida Gaskin from New Plymouth. Ida’s exploits in the labour movement stretched all the way back to 1937 when she’d farewelled her sweetheart as he set sail to fight fascism in the Spanish Civil War. She’d concluded her speech to the special conference session on social policy by quoting the famous Maori proverb: “What is the most important thing? He tangata, he tangata, he tangata. It is people, it is people, it is people.”
This, according to my notes, is what I said next to the 800 delegates:
“This is a debate about social policy. It is a curious thing to set aside time for at a Labour Party conference. What is our party about – if not social policy?
“When I cast my mind back to my own childhood, I recall images of a state that cared for its people. I grew up in a small village in North Otago. Each morning a state-funded bus would pick me up at the farm gate and carry me to school. What do I remember of that school? State-provided school milk, yes, and school journals. Do you remember your school journals? Filled with stories by New Zealanders about New Zealanders. I learned to be proud of my country, proud of my village – with its tiny post office and its community hall. The future beckoned me forward then, and I was eager to follow.
“What is the vision we present to the children of today? What are the images that they will recall when they reach adulthood?
“Will they recall images of a caring state? Or will they conjure up visions of heartless cities and mirror-glass towers; a jungle where only the strong survive and the weak are trampled on?
“We must decide what sort of world we wish our children to inherit. We must build a future that beckons – not a future that threatens.
“Delegates, the caring world of my childhood was made possible by a single commitment. A social and economic policy that underpinned everything else I have described to you today. That policy was Full Employment.
“Ida Gaskin was right to quote the Maori proverb: ‘What is the most important thing? People.  People.  People.’
“And what do those people need delegates?  Jobs.  Jobs.  Jobs.”
It is deeply depressing to read those words after the passage of nearly 30 years. I read the description of the future I warned my fellow party members against, and I think of the world in which my daughter has been raised, and I am reminded – and profoundly ashamed – of the scale of my own, and the Left’s, failure.
We may have booed and hissed Roger Douglas and his colleagues, and voted his worst enemies on to the NZ Council of the party, but, 30 years later, it is Douglas and the neoliberal Right that are laughing last and loudest.
And the priorities suggested to Labour back in 1987 remain to be fulfilled. A future that beckons, not a future that threatens, can only be constructed upon the bedrock of full employment.
So, I hope you will forgive me for revealing that I felt a shiver of recognition run up my spine when I read the following words in Andrew Little’s State of the Nation speech – delivered today to an Auckland audience of small business owners and entrepreneurs:
“Labour’s vision is that New Zealand will once again have the lowest unemployment in the developed world.
“When people have jobs, they have dignity, they have self-respect, and their families have the best future.”
I also found myself nodding emphatically at these sentences:
“The social inequality we suffer today, built up over the last 30 years or so, must be the driving force for the change we need to make.
“It’s a vicious circle. More inequality, slower growth, more inequality.”
To make sure that his audience was left in no doubt as to his priorities, Andrew concluded his State of the Nation address with these words:
“Labour stands for a better way. We stand for a wealthier, fairer New Zealand. We stand for real solutions to the big challenges that lie ahead. We stand for the future. And above all, We stand for jobs.”
Okay, so it lacks the rhetorical extravagance of my 1987 speech but, frankly, I don’t care. Andrew Little may lack the oratorical skills of Norman Kirk but his political instincts are no less sound and his economic vision no less radical. The welfare state was founded on the understanding that it could only be funded by a nation at work. And that a nation at work was, in itself, the very best guarantee of its citizens’ welfare. Everything else that Labour members and voters believe in: public health and education; state housing; fairness in the workplace; are, ultimately, only deliverable out of the fiscal resources generated by full employment.
In other words, Andrew Little gets it.
What is the most important thing? People. People. People.
And what do those people need?
Jobs. Jobs. Jobs.
This essay was posted simultaneously on The Daily Blog and Bowalley Road blogsites on Wednesday, 28 January 2015.

Getting Behind The Rage

Let Anger Be Your Guide: The fatal error of NZ First - this country's pre-eminent populist party - was to forget the most basic rule of populist politics: get behind the rage. It is popular anger that leads populist parties to political success. Which is why it is so important to always allow the enraged and the embittered to clear the path to victory.

IT’S EASY TO POKE FUN at NZ First. There’s something irredeemably amateur about the party; something rough-hewn and unrefined; that offends the professional sensibilities of New Zealand’s rather snooty political class. Except for Winston, of course, whose indisputable political skills, being more-or-less on constant public display, cannot be so easily dismissed. That said, it is not unknown for people to detect, in the air around Mr Peters’ trademark coiffure, the unmistakeable whiff of snake-oil.
That the political class (professional politicians, journalists, broadcasters, public relations specialists, pollsters, parliamentary staffers, columnists and commentators of every hue, plus those occasional academic specialists brave enough to raise their heads above the parapets of the universities’ ivory towers) take such offence at NZ First is, however, very reassuring.
Any political party so unashamedly driven by populist impulses as NZ First should be very afraid of the caressing fingers of official approbation. Just as everyone’s favourite teenage rebel, the Fonz, would cringe to hear himself praised by the local high-school principal, Winston Peters flinches away from excessive media acclaim. Populism takes aim at the high and mighty: the big man who crushes the little guy; the “effete snobs” who sneer at ordinary people’s tastes; the politically correct mavens who condemn their prejudices. No populist leader wants to win praise from the targets of his marksmanship!
Except for Winston, of course! NZ First's decision to "opt for National" in 1996 nearly destroyed the party and its leader. (Image by Frank Macskasy)

Except for Winston, of course. Or, at least, that younger Winston who, after keeping the New Zealand public waiting for nine interminable weeks in 1996, came within an inch of destroying both himself and his party by throwing in his lot with the National Party. (The very same National Party that he and his populist comrades had spent the previous three years attacking.) His supporters could not have been more surprised or disgusted. It was as if Robin Hood, having brought the Sheriff of Nottingham to his knees, proudly announced to his cheering followers that he was accepting Prince John’s invitation to become their local tax-collector.
Mr Peters near-fatal error in 1996 was to forget the most basic rule of populist politics: get behind the rage. It is popular anger that leads populist parties to political success. Which is why it is so important to always allow the enraged and the embittered to clear the path to victory. The moment the populist finds such folk blocking his way (NZ First’s practically instantaneous fate in 1996) then he knows his party’s on the wrong track. The successful populist politician’s response will always echo that of Alexandre Ledru-Rollin, one of the leaders of the February Revolution of 1848 in France: “There go the people. I must follow them, for I am their leader.”
To carry off this leading-by-following trick, the populist politician requires both a vigilant eye and an unusually sensitive ear. In present-day New Zealand, for example, only a blind, deaf and extremely dumb populist would assume that to stay behind the rage he has only to hurl abuse at John Key’s government. All he would demonstrate by such tactics is how thoroughly he has missed the fact that John Key is, himself, an extremely accomplished populist leader. What’s more, John Key, unlike Alexandre Ledru-Rollin, has no need to go running after the crowds. Thanks to his pollster, David Farrar, and focus-group supremo, Mark Textor, the Prime Minister knows exactly where the people are going. That’s why he’s so often to be found parked there, waiting for them to arrive.
Which is not to say that the electorate is without rage, merely that, unlike the unfortunate Judith Collins in 2014, John Key has yet to become its target. If popular rage is to find any focus at all in 2015 it is likely to be the fact that, when it comes to the big issues of affordable housing, rising inequality, child poverty and environmental degradation, the political class is offering New Zealanders so little in the way of believable solutions.
It is precisely in exploiting this rising level of popular frustration with the political “professionals” and economic “experts” that the much-derided ordinariness and amateurism of NZ First could come into its own. John Key’s government, unlike the government of that other great National Party populist, Rob Muldoon, finds it difficult to deliver very much to the “ordinary bloke”. Mr Key’s Cabinet’s slavish adherence to neoliberal ideology has meant that economic and social policies that could have really assisted the “average Kiwi” are consistently ruled out of contention. It is in National’s self-denial that NZ First may find its opportunity to grow the rage.
Promises of big changes, based on the common-sense solutions of ordinary, rough-hewn and unrefined New Zealanders, could very easily become the new currency of electoral success. Economic radicalism, fuelled by popular rage, but restrained by the average Kiwi’s social conservatism, is something NZ First could very easily get behind.
This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 27 January 2015.

Monday, 26 January 2015

Greece Chooses Hope

The tears and the heartache will follow soon enough, but for now let us celebrate with Greece the wild carnival of hope that is democracy.
Video courtesy of YouTube
This posting is exclusive to the Bowalley Road blogsite.

Saturday, 24 January 2015

To Lunchtime And Beyond! Why There’s No More Loyal Servant Of The Anglo-Saxon Empire Than The New Zealand National Party.

Put Your Heart In It: The National Party’s visceral attachment to the English-speaking brotherhood has found a more than worthy champion in the present Prime Minister.
THERE IS A REASSURING CONSISTENCY about the prejudices of the National Party. No matter how thick the spin-doctors and PR specialists apply the lacquer of moderation to the institution’s exterior, the reactionary timber beneath just keeps rotting away.
Nowhere is the utterly unreconstructed nature of National’s political mission more apparent than in the fraught arena of war and peace. The antiquated diplomatic responses these crucial foreign policy issues excite in what passes for the National Party’s intelligentsia are especially disconcerting.
The first real hint we got of just how atavistic those instincts might be came with Dr Don Brash’s infamous “gone by lunchtime” quip to a group of US officials back in January 2004. Clearly, the National Party has only ever paid lip-service to New Zealand’s anti-nuclear stance. Yes, it had embraced a Nuclear-Free New Zealand as far back as 1990, but, clearly, the party’s “conversion” to foreign policy independence had, in all respects, been both cynical and cosmetic.
Dr Brash’s promise that the policy would be abandoned “by lunchtime, probably” in the event of a National Party victory in 2005, showed that National’s MPs were only willing to wear the “No Nukes!” T-Shirt because that was part of what it took to regain power. The moment they got their feet under the Cabinet Table, however, and well before the next scheduled meal break, all such left-wing fripperies would be headed straight for the incinerator.
In marked contrast to Dr Brash’s unabashed impatience, the present National Prime Minister has displayed admirable forbearance in the matter of New Zealand’s anti-nuclear stance. Six years after he was swept into office, John Key has yet to initiate anything resembling a serious review (let alone repeal) of New Zealand anti-nuclear legislation.
Is this because Mr Key is a convert to anti-nuclearism? Has the Prime minister embraced the independent spirit of Norman Kirk’s foreign policy and learned, finally, “the trick of standing upright here”? Well, no. His refusal to get all het up about nuclear weapons and nuclear power is because he understands that the big issues of the 1980s are not the big issues of the 20-teens.

Nuclear-Free New Zealand: Yesterday's issue?
Like any good blitzkrieg general, Mr Key has simply directed his armoured columns around this potentially dangerous obstacle. He knows that if he pushes past it far enough the anti-nuclear policy will begin to look like the diplomatic relic of some long dead foreign-policy consensus. When that eventually occurs, there will only be a handful of people who will notice, and even fewer who will care that, following some distant future lunchtime, the policy has gone.
And when it does, be in no doubt, unreconstructed National Party stalwarts will all be displaying wolfish grins of satisfaction. Those forced to live through the anti-nuclear policy’s creation, will be able to mentally tick-off yet another faded remnant of the Left’s policy legacy.
Just how eagerly the Right is anticipating that moment was revealed earlier this week (20/1/15) when the NZ Herald published an article by the National MP for Manawatu from 1978 to 1987, Michael Cox. Entitled Clark’s Sad Legacy In ’84 Affair Shrinks UN Hopes, the think-piece positively revels in the presumed unwillingness of the USA and the UK to sanction Helen Clark becoming the next UN Secretary-General.
While careful to acknowledge Ms Clark’s undoubted strengths and her eminent eligibility for the United Nations’ top job, Mr Cox informs his readers that this is where “her positives” stop. Because two of “the most powerful members of the Security Council, the United States and Britain, will not have forgotten that she led the charge that weakened Western resistance to the USSR during the Anzus debacle in 1984.”
It is difficult to imagine a sentence more weighted-down with National Party ignorance and prejudice than this little gem.
Yes, both the US State Department and the Pentagon were pissed-off with New Zealand for breaking ranks in 1984, but they weren’t that pissed-off. By 1984 it was already clear to the Americans that the Soviet Union had no plans to impede seriously the advance of the new, global, market-driven economic order. They were also well aware that when it came to offering examples for the world to follow, New Zealand’s sterling efforts in radical, top-down, market liberalisation were easily outshining (where it mattered) her quaint, bottom-up, ban on all things nuclear.
To make his case against Ms Clark, Mr Cox draws heavily on the historical research of Gerald Hensley, Head of the Prime Minister’s Department under David Lange. In his book Friendly Fire, Mr Hensley suggests that it was well understood by the Americans that Ms Clark “accepted Roger Douglas’s right-wing financial policies [because] there had been a trade-off by which those on the Left, led by her, gained the mandate for the anti-nuclear ship policy in return for going along with his economic reform”.
If this is true (and as someone who was very active in the Labour Party Left during the 1980s, I’m not sure that it is) then both the Americans and the British will actually be more – not less – likely to back Ms Clark’s bid for the Secretary-General’s job. There is no better qualification for such a position than a proven track-record of making, and sticking-to, such Faustian political pacts.
Mr Cox does not see this. Like Mr Hensley, his sensibilities are those of the backwoods conservative raised on the uncompromising slogans of anti-communism, and whose loyalty to the global interests of the English-speaking peoples is absolute and unquestioning. In the eyes of such people, Ms Clark remains an oath-breaker and quasi-traitor, whose disloyalty will never be forgotten, and certainly not forgiven, by the five “fingers” of the Anglo-Saxon fist.
Viewed from this perspective, Ms Clark’s 2003 refusal to let New Zealand’s armed forces join in the illegal invasion of Iraq can only have heaped more hot diplomatic coals upon the heads of her country’s erstwhile allies – further compounding her earlier, anti-nuclear, treachery.
For the Brits and the Yanks, however, it will be Ms Clark’s diplomatic behaviour in the aftermath of the Iraq War that really counts when they vote for the next UN Secretary-General. Quite how Messrs Cox and Hensley reconcile their blue-stockinged quasi-traitor with the New Zealand Prime Minister whom the US Secretary of State, Colin Powell, described as his “very, very, very good friend” is anybody’s guess.
What cannot be doubted, however, is that the National Party’s visceral attachment to the English-speaking brotherhood has found a more than worthy champion in the present Prime Minister. Witness his extraordinary comment that New Zealand’s sending troops to train the Iraqi armed forces for war against Islamic State, should be seen, simply, as “the price” we must pay for membership of the Anglo-Saxon “club”.
Making particular reference to the “Five Eyes” intelligence-sharing agreement, to which New Zealand is a signatory, the Prime Minister stated that it was important that his country was regarded as a reliable member of the club. Because, “we do know that, when it comes to the United States and Canada and Australia and Great Britain and others, that we can rely on them.”
And clearly, our “very, very, very good friends” (the 1984 anti-nuclear “affair” notwithstanding) can still rely on us. Or, at least, on those of us who continue to vote, unwaveringly, for the New Zealand National Party.
A version of this essay was posted on The Daily Blog of Friday, 23 January 2015.

Friday, 23 January 2015

New Zealand Doesn't Need A "Developers' Charter".

The Never-Ending Suburban Dream: Dr Nick Smith's purported determination to make housing more affordable by "reforming" the Resource Management Act has been widely derided as little more than a National Party recommitment to the urban development model of the 1950s and 60s. In short, to quote Peter Dunne, "a developers' charter".

THE LAWYERS and the environmental lobbyists are already gnawing at Dr Nick Smith’s proposed changes to the Resource Management Act (RMA). Forewarned by the National-led Government’s first, abortive, foray into environmental law reform back in 2013, a forearmed Opposition has this week re-joined the battle with renewed energy.
The United Future leader, Peter Dunne, has warned against turning the RMA into a “Developers’ Charter” – a potent political riff upon which his parliamentary colleagues have been only-too-happy to extemporise.
Has the Prime Minister, rubbing shoulders with 1 percent of 1 percent of the 1 Percent at Davos, given equal heed to the venerable Member for Ohariu? Given that few politicians’ appreciation of middle-class New Zealanders’ tics and tells is stronger than Mr Dunne’s, if John Key isn’t paying attention to him, then he should – and soon.
Not that, in the brutal numbers game that determines whether a piece of legislation succeeds or fails, Mr Key needs the endorsement of Mr Dunne. The parliamentary arithmetic of environmental law reform requires no complicated figuring. The Act Party’s grace-and-favour MP for Epsom, David Seymour, has already signalled (well in advance of any actual shouts of “Division called for!”) that he will be supplying Dr Smith with the single vote necessary (in addition to National’s 60 votes) to ensure the passage of the Government’s environmental reforms.
Which is, when you think about it, extraordinary. With sixty MPs, National’s current parliamentary caucus is, by historical standards, a large one. It is also slavishly obedient.
Outside of the armed forces and large private corporations, it is remarkable to find a group of sixty strong-willed individuals who can be relied upon absolutely to do exactly as they are told. Especially remarkable when doing exactly what they’re told could very easily cause the seats that a number of them hold to change hands.
Readers of a certain age will recall National Party MPs like Mike Minogue and Marilyn Waring, Simon Upton and Ruth Richardson, who were willing, in the absence of any acceptable compromise, to cast their votes against their own Government’s policies.
It has been a very long time indeed since a National Party politician “crossed the floor” in any kind of procedurally meaningful context. For many years now absolute caucus discipline has not only been assumed – it has prevailed.
Such robotic compliance is not good for the health of National’s caucus; the wider National Party organisation; nor, ultimately, for that of parliamentary democracy itself. Voters need to believe that there are at least some MPs whose definitive allegiance is to values and principles more enduring than the arguments of their Party Whip. On matters crucial to both the social and the natural environments, the practice of representative democracy should rise above the crude calculations of purely partisan arithmetic. It should be about reason and science; about being persuaded by the evidence and securing the greatest good for the greatest number.
Replacing New Zealand’s much admired RMA with a “Developers’ Charter” would be about none of those things. On the contrary, it would be about using the legislative process to advance the interests of a section of New Zealand society which has, for more than sixty years, grown extremely wealthy (and dangerously influential) by convincing the National Party to continue following a model of sprawling urban development, based on the single-story detached dwelling and the private automobile. As a template for sustainable urban growth, it was already out-of-date when the First National Government adopted it in 1949.
Economically-speaking, the model only works by transferring vast public subsidies into the bank accounts of the private land speculators, property developers, builders and roading contractors who are its indefatigable champions.
Unfortunately, the greed of this corrupt system’s beneficiaries has led them, like all racketeers, to jack up their prices to unaffordable levels. The consequential crises, both social and environmental, are dominating the headlines.
The solution to the problem of unaffordable housing is not to gut the RMA, as the urban-sprawl lobby would have us all believe, but to make it fit for the purpose of managing the introduction of a more rational, sustainable and affordable model of urban development. Since this model will, inevitably, require massive investment from the public, it must also be answerable to the public.
Peter Dunne understands this – even if Dr Smith and Mr Key do not.
This essay was originally published in The Waikato Times, The Taranaki Daily News, The Timaru Herald, The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 23 January 2015.

Thursday, 22 January 2015

Why Jamie Whyte's 11-Year-Old Daughter Is A Better Philosopher Than Her Dad

Philosopher King-Hit: Jamie Whyte used the behaviour of his 11-year-old daughter to explain the motivations of the Jihadi assassins who massacred the staff of Charlie Hebdo. Upon examination, however, Whyte's daughter's grasp of basic ethics turns out to be a lot stronger than her dad's!
IN YESTERDAY’S HERALD (20/1/15) the former leader of the Act Party, Jamie Whyte, offered the behaviour of his 11-year-old daughter as a useful guide to the thinking of the Jihadis responsible for the Charlie Hebdo massacre.
Wow! That’s not a context into which I would want to plunge my daughter, but then, I’m not a Cambridge-educated philosopher.
Jamie’s daughter’s deadly act of extremism, as elaborated by her father, was (by Jihadi standards) pretty mild. “She took the cigarettes of one of our dinner guests and threw them into our back hedge.”
Gosh! That’s pretty bloody hard to equate with the bloodbath at the offices of Charlie Hebdo, but, okay, let’s follow Jamie’s argument all the way to its conclusion.
En route to that conclusion, thankfully, Jamie does pause to observe, generously:
“Of course, my daughter and her moral tutors do not want to slaughter smokers or satirists. They are not as angry or bleak or deranged as the Parisian killers and the others who have committed ideologically motivated atrocities.”
Whew! That was good to hear! Even if, as I was reading Jamie’s exculpatory aside, the word “but” was already taking shape in my mind. And, just as I feared, there it was, right at the beginning of the next paragraph:
“But they have the same basic urge – to compel, to dominate. And they seek justification for it in the supposed vices of their victims.”
Well, yes, that’s right Jamie, they do. Just as the members of the Act Party offer up their unwillingness to be subjected to the vices of others (taxation, regulation, collectivism) as justification for their attempts to impose their own frankly bizarre social, economic and political beliefs upon the rest of us. Indeed, when it comes to compelling and dominating, the Act Party is pretty hard to beat. (How else to explain David Seymour’s willingness to exercise what is, in effect, Act’s casting parliamentary vote on the strength of just 16,689 Party Votes!)
Except, of course, I would delete such sententious words as “compel”, “dominate”, “vices” and “victims” from Jamie’s description of his daughter’s motivation. That’s because his daughter’s behaviour is entirely consistent with the highest moral conduct.
Not even Jamie, I trust, would argue that it is the right of every individual to inflict actual physical harm upon individuals who are inflicting no actual physical harm upon him. Indeed, I would expect him to argue that human-beings, both individually and collectively, have the right (even, some would argue, the duty) to prevent the unjustified infliction of actual physical harm upon other people.
Certainly, by throwing her father’s dinner guest’s cigarettes in the hedge, Jamie’s daughter was doing exactly that. Having learned from her teachers that the passive inhalation of tobacco smoke is every bit as dangerous as its deliberate inhalation, she was well aware that there was no “safe” way the guest’s cigarettes could be consumed. Though she was only 11, she also appears to have shrewdly calculated that the other people present were quite capable of endangering her own and her loved ones’ health out of a misguided respect for the norms of social etiquette. Her unilateral decision to steal the cigarettes and ditch them in the hedge was, thus, no more worthy of her father’s condemnation than another person’s decision to deprive a drunken guest of his or her car keys.
The actual or potential threat to the rights of other human-beings always trumps the right of an individual to indulge in behaviour that puts those rights in jeopardy.
Not that Jamie gets this – no siree Bob! After a perfectly reasonable critique of American drug laws, the father of the person he describes as his “sanctimonious, bullying daughter” goes on to state that:
“Decisions Western governments do not leave to you and the adults you freely deal with include: how much money you work for, what you wear on your head when cycling, the quality of your house, what you eat, the race of the people you employ, the ways you kill yourself.”
Decoded, this sentence tells us that Jamie is opposed to the minimum wage, basic health and safety regulations, anti-discrimination laws, and the State’s not unreasonable refusal to countenance you dynamiting yourself in a crowded street as a means of committing suicide.
It also tells us that Jamie’s “philosophy” is blissfully unaware of the fact that the consequences of one’s individual actions radiate out through society in ways that are  all-too-frequently extremely damaging to other individuals and groups.
What he obviously believes to be the entirely harmless act of agreeing to work for a pittance, if repeated often enough by other like-minded individuals, will depress the incomes of people who have entered into no such voluntary agreement to work for less than they are worth.
Likewise, Jamie sees nothing wrong in allowing individuals to refuse to follow sensible safety precautions – thereby imposing the costs of any accidental injuries upon the rest of us.
And is he fazed by the billion-dollar consequences of the leaky homes scandal? Not one bit!
The former Act leader is able to articulate such absurdities because, like so many others on the Right, he really does believe that Margaret Thatcher was correct when she announced that “there is no such thing as society”.
And that’s a perfectly understandable position to take if it’s one’s intention to empower a tiny minority at the expense of the overwhelming majority of one’s fellow citizens. Indeed, taking any other position must, in the end, open the right-winger to social, economic and political claims that he or she is personally loathe to acknowledge. The fact that such untrammelled individualism is philosophical twaddle is neither here nor there. As Humpty-Dumpty informs Alice in Through The Looking Glass: “The question is, which is to be master – that’s all.”
Questions of political mastery aside, it would be wrong to end these observations without acknowledging that, in spite of his absurd philosophy, Jamie has clearly succeeded in raising an intelligent, daring and, ethically-speaking, disarmingly mature daughter. To whom I can only say: “Good on ya luv! A ‘little thuggery’ in defence of other people’s rights is no vice.”
This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Wednesday, 22 January 2015.

Wednesday, 21 January 2015

Twilight Of The West?

Germany Wins And Europe Is Free: As the Nazi regime reeled before Stalin's armies, the focus of its propaganda shifted from glorifying German arms and aims, to one of providing Europe's last desperate defence against the bestial threat from the East. Worrying echoes of this propaganda theme can now be detected on the streets of Dresden and, increasingly, across the entire Western World.

IN THE FINAL desperate months of the Second World War, Nazi propaganda underwent a subtle but significant shift of emphasis. In the glory days of victory, when Europe lay at Hitler’s feet, it was Germany’s triumph that was celebrated. But, as Stalin’s divisions rolled inexorably across the Great European plain, and all prospect of a Nazi victory retreated before them, the war was re-presented as a titanic clash of cultures in which a bestial Bolshevism sought to obliterate 3,000 years of European civilisation and extinguish forever the light of the West.
The threat from the East is as old as Europe’s memory of Attila and his marauding Huns. That is to say, a strategic nightmare extending all the way back to the dying days of the Roman Empire. Nor was it an empty threat. In the Thirteenth Century the all-conquering armies of the Mongol Khan stood poised to make their final push to the English Channel. Only the untimely death of the Khan in faraway Mongolia spared Europe from the fate that overwhelmed the civilisation of the Han Chinese.
The other great threat from the East arrived in the form of the armies of Islam. The first onslaught came via Europe’s soft underbelly in the Eighth Century. Spain fell, and the armies of the Prophet were only finally halted at Poitiers in Central France in 732AD. The second onslaught, led by the Ottoman Turks, hit its stride in the Fifteenth Century, snuffing out the Byzantine Empire, swallowing Greece and the Balkans and striking deep into Eastern Europe. It was only decisively checked at the gates of Vienna in 1683.
Existential threats to the survival of Christendom cannot, therefore, be dismissed as mere fever dreams of the racist European Right. From the Fifth to the Seventeenth Century the survival of Christian Europe was, to quote the Duke of Wellington’s pithy description of the Battle of Waterloo: “A damned near run thing!”
Precisely because they were real, these threats have become deeply embedded in Europe’s collective memory and are, thus, available to propagandists of every hue. Though the Nazis were defeated, their imagery of a defiant West holding the line against the Godless Communist threat from the East, slotted seamlessly into the propaganda of the Cold War.
Old memes, it seems, die hard. Just over a week ago, in the German city of Dresden, more than 18,000 people participated in a demonstration organised by a political organisation calling itself “Pegida” – which stands for Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamization of the West. Demonstrators wore black armbands in memory of the 12 people slain at the offices of the French satirical newspaper, Charlie Hebdo.
Pegida is an odd political phenomenon. Its tactics and slogans borrow heavily from the mass protest movements that contributed to the fall of Communism 1989. This has not, however, prevented Germany’s Chancellor (and fellow former East German) Angela Merkel, from accusing Pegida’s followers of having “hate in their hearts”.
Certainly the opinion of the German Left is that Pegida is a manifestation of the extreme “Neo-Nazi” Right. Counter-demonstrations attacking Pegida’s “Islamophobia” have attracted tens of thousands in Berlin, Cologne and other large German cities.
Many Germans are worried that their country’s erstwhile deeply-ingrained anti-Semitism, of which the Nazis took such deadly advantage in the Twentieth Century, has mutated into an equally irrational, but no less vicious, hatred of Muslims in the Twenty-First. After all, it’s not as if the modern-day equivalent of Suleiman the Magnificent is encamped in the outer suburbs of Dresden. Or that the self-aggrandizing “Islamic State” (barely the size of a single province of the mighty Ottoman Empire) constitutes an existential threat to European civilisation. Even thirty-five years from now, in 2050, the best demographic projections put Germany’s Muslims at just 7 percent of the German population.
What, then, is Pegida so frightened of?
Perhaps it’s the realisation that the rest of the world is crowding in on Europe. That European civilisation no longer commands the power and prestige of a century ago, when its empires bestrode the planet like armoured colossi.
As refugees from Africa and the Middle East clamour to be admitted to the member countries of the European Union, perhaps its peoples hear faint echoes of the Barbarian hordes clamouring to be admitted to the grandeur that was Rome.
Perhaps Europeans have been seized, like the Nazis in 1945, with the terrifying realisation that the world, upon whose resources they have all grown so fat, is very, very large; and that Europe, her 3,000 years of civilisation notwithstanding, is actually rather small.
Perhaps, like the Jews before them, Europe’s Muslim population has become an alarming reminder that history does not stand still, and neither do the peoples who make it. For five centuries Europe has been pushing against the world. Now the world is pushing back.
This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 20 January 2015.

Tuesday, 20 January 2015

Liberty, Equality, Fraternity: Some Thoughts On The Political Trinity

And The Greatest Of These Is Liberty: As Eugene Delacroix (he's the one holding the musket) graphically illustrated in his famous 1830 painting Liberty Leading The People, the prime mover of all great revolutionary struggles is humanity's determination to be free.

IF IT HAS DONE NOTHING ELSE, the Charlie Hebdo tragedy has reacquainted us with the goals of the first great revolution of the modern era. Over the past painful fortnight the French people and their political representatives have repeatedly invoked the three founding principles of the French Republic: Liberty, Equality, Fraternity. There is no disputing the revolutionary potential of these principles. Individually and collectively, Liberty, Equality and Fraternity define the modern democratic project. Since 1789, every major revolutionary episode has drawn inspiration from at least one of them.
It is no accident that the French revolutionary credo is presented as a trinity. Hostile though the French revolutionaries undoubtedly were to the claims of organised religion, they also understood that the French state occupied a special place in the heart of the Catholic Church. This was because the Catholic Church had for centuries occupied a special place in the hearts of the French people. If Church and State were to be separated, as the Enlightenment values of the revolutionaries dictated, then the sacred trio of Father, Son and Holy Spirit would have to be replaced with an equally compelling trinity.
The correspondences between the Christian and the revolutionary trinity are interesting.
If it is true that “in the beginning” was God the Father, “the maker of Heaven and Earth”, then it is also true that Liberty – Freedom – lies at the very heart, and is the prime mover, of all truly revolutionary movements. Without freedom, all the other revolutionary goals are soon compromised. Indeed, it is precisely the restriction of freedom that allows inequality to flourish and renders human solidarity impractical.
But, if Liberty is the first demand of the revolutionary, that is only because the injustices of inequality are so many and so urgent that they cry out for the freedom necessary to address them. Equality thus plays the role of Jesus in the Christian trinity. Theologically speaking, although God precedes Jesus, Jesus is also God – or at least that much of Him as can be rendered intelligible to human-beings. Philosophically speaking, Equality cannot exist without Liberty, and yet it is also the state-of-being for which Liberty is constantly sacrificing itself.
Hence the need for Fraternity – the revolutionaries’ answer to the Christians’ Holy Spirit. Without the solidarity and empathy so crucial to fraternity’s historical expression, Liberty and Equality can very easily become empty, potentially contradictory – even deadly – political objectives.
The French Revolution itself bears witness to the consequences of abandoning Liberty in the name of Equality. Robespierre’s “Reign of Terror” was intended to coerce the French people into virtue. A surfeit of Liberty, according to Robespierre, had placed the egalitarian fatherland in mortal danger. Accordingly, the newly ratified Rights of Man and of the Citizen were suspended, pending the final destruction of the ancien regime and its aristocratic supporters. Fraternity, not surprisingly, was the first to feel the embrace of Madame Guillotine.
The destruction of Fraternity is, therefore, incontrovertible evidence that the revolution is in the process of being, or already has been, betrayed. Just as the concept of Holy Spirit acts as a sort of miraculous glue – binding together God, Jesus and the faithful in an ineffably mysterious unity – so, too, does the principle of Fraternity serve to keep the people’s eyes on the revolutionary prize. One has only to be reminded of Stalin’s order to “eliminate the Kulaks as a class”, or recall Pol Pot’s genocidal determination to empty Cambodia of every human-being who was not a peasant or a party worker, to understand what happens when solidarity and basic human empathy are branded “counter-revolutionary” sentiments.
Madame Roland, the French revolutionary leader whose moderation earned her the enmity of Robespierre's Jacobins, and whose own faction, the Girondins, were duly purged as soon as the Jacobins gained political ascendancy, is best remembered for her words addressed to the statue of Liberty in the Place de la Revolution as she awaited execution: “Oh Liberty! What crimes are committed in thy name!”

Madame Roland: "Oh Liberty! What crimes are committed in thy name!"
But Madame Roland was wrong. It is not Liberty that inspires political extremism, but a perilous ambition to reduce all the dazzling diversity of the human family to a dull and ominously silent uniformity. As if Equality was a purely mathematical concept meaning sameness, instead of a political ideal describing the social condition of human-beings who are free to create rich and productive lives for themselves and their families while protected from chance and adversity by the collective love and support of their fellow citizens.
A Left that does not proclaim Liberty as its primary objective; a Socialism that is not of its essence emancipatory and libertarian; a Labour Party not proudly committed to helping their fellow citizens’ pursue happiness; none of these has a future – and, frankly, does not deserve one.
In a Christian’s life, St Paul told the Corinthians, only three things truly matter: Faith, Hope and Love – and the greatest of these is Love. When it comes to political salvation, however, the only three things that truly matter are Liberty, Equality and Fraternity – and the greatest of these is Liberty. We must never forget, however, that Liberty, like God, comes as part of a package deal.
Being free on your own is the best definition of Hell I can think of.
This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Monday, 19 January 2015.

Friday, 16 January 2015

Tolerance In Arms

Asserting The Right: To say 'I am!' When all around you are saying 'You are not!', is the true definition of power. As Thomas Mann so rightly said: "Tolerance becomes a crime when applied to evil."

IT HAS BEEN a hell-week for Tolerance. Tragic events in France and unspeakable atrocities in Nigeria have tested her followers’ fidelity to the limit. The temptation to condemn; to lash out in righteous anger; has been overwhelming.
“What kind of people”, we ask, “can justify gunning down a roomful of grandfatherly journalists and cartoonists? Or strap a bomb to the body of a ten year old girl and send her into the middle of a crowded marketplace?”
In responding to such questions others demand to know what kind of people could crowd grandfathers and ten-year-old girls into “showers” and drop deadly poisonous pellets of Zyklon-B on their heads?
Such responses are intended to remind us that cruelty and violence are not the sole preserve of Al Qaida, Islamic State or Boko Haram jihadists. That, within living memory, highly-educated Europeans set a bench-mark for cruelty and violence that has yet to be exceeded.
They should also remind us that fighting for and defending Tolerance is no job for pacifists.
Our fathers and grandfathers did not hesitate to condemn or lash out in righteous anger against the Nazi regime. On the contrary, they made war upon it until little was left of its German birthplace except bloody piles of rubble. At Nuremburg, in the name of Humanity itself, they put Nazism on trial and hanged its guilty leaders by their necks until they were dead.
There are some (thankfully a small minority) who compare the Islamic religion in toto with Nazism and demand from the nations of the West the same uncompromising determination to rid the world of a malign influence that was displayed between 1939 and 1945.
Fortunately, Tolerance’s grip upon the vast majority of Westerners is still strong enough to reject such annihilationist solutions. Simple common-sense tells us that the murderous jihadists whose crimes have dominated the headlines for the past ten days have as much to do with Islam as the cross-burning members of the Ku Klux Klan had to do with Christianity.
Every bit as much. Because isn’t it true that even though only a handful of white southerners actually wore the Klan’s hoods and robes, its terrorist exploits (most of which, right up until the late 1960s, went unpunished) could only take place in a social environment that made both the moral condemnation and/or legal conviction of the perpetrators unthinkable?
Those southern towns were as full of churches as the cities of the Middle East are filled with mosques. The hard truth remains that the Klan was only defeated as a powerful terrorist force when the people among whom it operated were no longer willing to justify its crimes or shield its members from the claims of justice. When those churches finally stopped turning a blind eye to terrorism, and their congregations finally stopped turning up to lynchings.
Tolerance is a militant goddess – never to be confused with acquiescence or clever apologetics. To end the reign of the Ku Klux Klan required not only the courage and sacrifice of Dr Martin Luther King’s non-violent civil rights campaigners; not only the steadfast support of defiant African-American communities; not only the solidarity and assistance of progressive Americans from all over the USA; but also the relentless interventions of the Department of Justice and the covert operations of the FBI.
Tolerance rejects the racist suggestion that the Islamic peoples are incapable of responding to the moral challenge of terrorism in the same manner as White Christians in the South eventually responded to it.
Tolerance charges us to not only familiarise ourselves with the fundamental tenets of Islam, but also to challenge openly the ways in which the message of the Prophet has been distorted and defiled by the murderous blasphemers and heretics who dare to march beneath his banner.
Tolerance knows that it is only when the body of the faithful rises in revolt against the Kings and Ayatollahs, the Presidents and Generals, whose personal and profane interests are served by the dissemination of a creed that knows nothing of submission or penitence or charity, that the true voice of the Prophet will once again ring out clearly across the lands of the faithful.
But, most of all, Tolerance knows that her great enemy, Intolerance, only ever triumphs when ordinary, decent people confuse doing the right thing with doing nothing.
This essay was originally published in The Waikato Times, The Taranaki Daily News, The Timaru Herald, The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 16 January 2015.

Tuesday, 13 January 2015

Je Suis Charlie

Fraternité: Of the three great founding principles of the secular French state, it was the third, fraternité, that united France in the aftermath of the Charlie Hebdo massacre. Fraternité: that healing warmth, born of human fellowship and empathy, without which the two other animating principles of the democratic republic – liberté and égalité – remain empty and impotent.
THE THIRTY THOUSAND PARISIANS who braved the mid-winter cold in the Place de La République last Wednesday declared they were “not afraid”. I didn’t believe them. Horror, fear, and anger clamped hard around my heart as I absorbed the news of the deadly attack on the offices of the French satirical newspaper, Charlie Hebdo, and the equally deadly sieges that followed. Had the French people not been gripped by very similar emotions, they would not have been human.
Especially unnerving was the Parisian demonstrators’ silence. Clustering protectively around the towering statue of Marianne, personification of the French Republic, they gave no audible expression to their feelings. Instead there was an intense stillness. People lit candles. Some carried hand-lettered signs. Many read, simply: “Je suis Charlie.”
I am Charlie.
Of the three great founding principles of the secular French state, it was the third, fraternité, that bound this vast crowd together: that healing warmth, born of human fellowship and empathy, without which the two other animating principles of the democratic republic – liberté and égalité – remain empty and impotent.
It was the violation of fraternité that took France’s breath away. The coolly proficient murderers who gunned down two gendarmes, a janitor, and the core of Charlie Hebdo’s editorial team, spoke in accentless French. It was this chilling fact that punctured the nation’s heart. That these young men, nursed at Marianne’s breast, felt not the slightest tremor of brotherly feeling as they gunned down twelve of their fellow citizens.
The killers’ pure and utterly merciless manifestation of religious outrage was as shocking as it was, perversely, awe-inspiring. Their absolute certainty about doing God’s work freed them from every social obligation and legal restriction. In a world made luminous by the eternal and unchallengeable injunctions of the divine, they’d turned themselves into holy instruments: as impervious to remonstration and remorse as the cutting edge of the Prophet’s sword, or the 7.62mm rounds of their AK47 assault rifles.
If there is a design fault in the human animal then, surely, this is it. Humanity’s ability to conjure itself into the dissociative fugue state of religious and/or ideological rapture. A state in which all awareness of personal responsibility falls away and we are driven to the most extreme acts by the conviction that, in hastening the arrival of the heavenly – or earthly – paradise, we are doing good.
To bring the whole of humankind into the body of the faithful. To advance social justice through the dictatorship of reason and virtue, Aryan genetics, or the proletariat. To establish the sovereign individual within a perfectly free and unfettered market economy.
In the name of perfecting humanity, everything is permissible.
The West is delusional if it believes itself immune to this deadly condition. We may congratulate ourselves that the Crusades and the Spanish Inquisition lie safely in our past and that, as heirs of the European Enlightenment, we have moved beyond the reach of religious extremism. But this is to overlook Robespierre’s Reign of Terror, Stalin’s gulags and Hitler’s death camps. Or, if these seem too far away, the IMF’s structural adjustment programmes and George Bush’s “Enhanced Interrogation Techniques”.
Charlie Hebdo itself falls squarely into the long European tradition of exposing the rank hypocrisy of those who set themselves up as the inerrant judges of human frailty. From Chaucer to Boccaccio, Voltaire to Swift, the failure of individuals and institutions in authority to live up to their own moral precepts has inspired artistic works of satirical genius.
The French, in particular, have an historical aversion to “clericalism” – i.e. the unwarranted interference of religious institutions in education and politics. Indeed, “anti-clerical” French republicans have been doing battle with the French religious authorities since at least the Eighteenth Century. The French Left is, accordingly, forever on its guard against any threat – be it Christian, Judaic or Muslim – to the cherished principles of the French Revolution’s secular republic.
France is also the home of the expression “épater la bourgeoisie” (shock the middle classes). Alarming and/or outraging the fatuous and far-too-comfortable beneficiaries of the political status quo has been a favourite sport of iconoclastic and revolutionary French artists and writers since the mid-Nineteenth Century. In this, too, Charlie Hebdo is as French as frogs-legs.
A curiously symmetrical symbolic relationship thus embraces both the holy warriors who gunned down the staff of Charlie Hebdo, and the latter’s militant secularist mission. On either side of this tragedy stand fervent believers in, and unflinching defenders of, compelling religious and political traditions.
Perhaps the great mass of Parisians in the Place de la République remained silent in conscious acknowledgement of the deadly consequences that follow when we make ourselves captive to the battle-cries of uncompromising conviction. A charge upon which both the slayers and the slain, fused now forever in death, must – tragically – stand convicted.
This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 13 January 2015.

Friday, 9 January 2015

2015 - 2017: A Struggle For Time And Power.

Holding On versus Climbing Up: Securing a fourth term for National will require every bit of John key's indisputable political skill. Andrew Little will need all that skill and more to propel his Labour Party into office. Between 2015 and 2017 political life will be defined by this complementary struggle for Time and Power.

JOHN KEY owes a lot to Helen Clark. Indeed, it is now a commonplace among political analysts that a large measure of the present Prime Minister’s success is attributable to the careful study he made of his predecessor. Few would deny that it was time well spent. The politician wise enough to be taught is generally only bested by the politician who determines to keep on learning.
Helen Clark was an incrementalist politician: making haste slowly in the manner of the Roman general Fabius Maximus. Mr Key is also a Fabian. Not in the sense of being a member of the British Labour Party’s celebrated think-tank, but in the manner of a political leader who, by keeping his changes small enough for the electorate to swallow, reduces greatly the risk of them being violently regurgitated.
A lot of little changes, eventually, add up to quite a few very big changes. The keyword being “eventually”. Apart from political power itself, the element most crucial to the success of a Fabian strategy is time.
The political struggle of the next three years will, therefore, be for Power and Time.
Mr Key knows that if he succumbs to the temptation to ram the big changes demanded by National’s increasingly restive right-wing down the electorate’s gullet, then not only do they risk being regurgitated, but he and his party will also find themselves out of time and out of power. Somehow, Mr Key must persuade his more ideologically-driven colleagues to remain patient. (In the warm glow of the latest poll results, it’s difficult to see the latter formulating a radically different strategy with any hope of success!)
The Leader of the Opposition’s, Andrew Little’s, first priority over the next three years is Power – i.e. winning the 2017 General Election. To succeed he will have to study carefully not only what his National opponent has done right between 2006 (the year John Key became Leader of the Opposition) and the present, but also what his own Labour Party has done wrong.
At the core of this course of study lies a cluster of brutal facts about the twenty-first century New Zealand electorate that every aspiring prime minister must grasp.
The first fact to grasp is that, at present, the ideology of neoliberalism faces no serious challengers. The neoliberal view of the world, a world of sovereign, self-interested individuals and free markets, is the majority view of the New Zealand electorate.
The second brutal fact (closely related to the first) is that the neoliberal world-view cannot be contested successfully from any position other than that of full state power. In other words: to end neoliberal ascendancy in New Zealand a centre-left political party must first become the Government. It cannot be done from Opposition.
The third brutal fact is that twenty-first century elections in New Zealand are not won by policies based on reason, but by the timely apprehension and effective exploitation of a public mood for change. This will be driven almost entirely by the voters’ emotions.
The final brutal fact about the electorate is how little stock it places in the opinions of scientists, artists, journalists or, indeed, the life of the mind generally. With the notable exceptions of books, magazines and television programmes about sport, property, cooking and celebrity culture, it reads and watches very little of substance and displays a distressing lack of introspection or curiosity concerning the wider world. It is in love with twenty-first century technological civilisation and rejects utterly the idea that it might be unsustainable. On the plus side, the New Zealand electorate is confident, generous, rates itself highly and will not be preached to or patronised by anybody (especially politicians!) who reckon they’re better than everyone else.
Nobody in New Zealand politics has a firmer grasp of these salient facts about the Kiwi voter than John Key. By the same token, no Labour or Green MP possesses the slightest chance of becoming Prime Minister until they’re ready to place Mr Key’s political insights at the heart of their 2017 election strategy.
For those on the left of New Zealand politics it means shutting-up and letting Andrew Little and his team play for power in the only way that holds out the prospect of victory.
And after victory? All in good time, Fabius Maximus, all in good time.
This essay was originally published in The Waikato Times, The Taranaki Daily News, The Timaru Herald, The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 9 January 2015.