Tuesday, 31 January 2017

Endless Cycles.

Mouth Of The Mob: At the end of the Ancient Greek historian, Polybius', anacyclotic cycle of political decline, a demagogue, more skilled than any of his predecessors, attracts sufficient support from the state’s angriest and most fearful citizens to overturn the institutions of democracy and govern without them.
IT’S UNNERVING to discover that today’s headlines are best explained by a man who died in 118 BC. Perhaps it’s the extreme unpredictability of global events – especially the Trump Presidency – that makes this possible. So many people are disorientated and dismayed by their discovery that the news no longer fits into the explanatory frameworks they have relied upon to make sense of political and economic behaviour.
This is where Polybius comes in.
Polybius was an historian who looked for patterns in the chaotic spectacle of human affairs. He was interested especially in the way people governed themselves. There were, he said, three “benign” forms of  government: Monarchy – rule by the one; Aristocracy – rule by the few; and Democracy – rule by the many. Unfortunately, these three benign forms were dogged by their malignant shadows: Tyranny – misrule by the one; Oligarchy – misrule by the few; and Ochlocracy – misrule by the mob.
Surveying the history of his own era (Polybius was writing at the time when the Greek world was fast giving way to the upstart Roman Republic) he identified a pattern of political stimulus and response which gave rise to a recurring sequence, or cycle, in human affairs. Polybius called this cycle “anacyclosis”.
In the simplest terms, anacyclosis evolves as follows: monarchy declines into tyranny; aristocracy degenerates into oligarchy; democracy disintegrates into mob rule.
Polybius, like so many of the ancient writers, was a fatalist. The historical cycle he describes is explained as the unavoidable consequence of human-beings inability to resist the tendency of power to corrupt all those who wield it. Over time, he argues, regimes instituted with the objective of making life better for everyone, inevitably succumb to the temptation to unfairly advantage the one, the few, or the many – at the expense of everybody else.
Converted into a straightforward historical narrative, anacyclosis goes something like this.
A mighty warrior and his army leads his people to independence, whereupon his family, and the families of his key supporters, are entrusted with the task of ruling the new state. For a while all goes well, but as the powers of kingship descend through the generations, the mighty warrior’s successors abandon all pretence of ruling for the public good and begin to wield their inherited authority capriciously, corruptly and, ultimately, violently.
Convinced that their persons and property are no longer safe, the wealthiest and most militarily accomplished families unite to depose the tyrant and assume the responsibility of providing just and effective government themselves. As the years pass, however, the opportunities for enrichment, which control of the state offers, prove irresistible. Increasingly, the mass of the people are forced to offer up more and more of what little they have to satisfy the greed of their masters.
Exhausted and outraged at being sucked dry by these parasitic oligarchs, the people rise up in revolt and establish a system of popular government. It does not take long, however, for bitter disputes over how the wealth of the (now democratic) society should be distributed to tear the new state apart.
The wealthy fear for their property. The poor demand a share of it. In short order, both parties become the prey of political demagogues skilled at whipping up the basest emotions of the people in order to secure partisan advantage. The democratic institutions of the state are paralysed by intractable factionalism and deliberately incited rancour and recrimination. Debate degenerates into disorder and violence. Civil war beckons.
At which point a demagogue, more skilled than any of his predecessors, attracts sufficient support from the state’s angriest and most fearful citizens to overturn the institutions of democracy and govern without them. Backed by his fanatical followers, and with sufficient armed force at his disposal to overcome all resistance, the demagogue arrogates to himself the powers of a king.
And so Polybius’s cycle begins all over again – albeit at a lower (and ever-declining) level of morality.
Only last week, the radical American writer, John Michael Greer – who has a strong scholarly interest in the writings of Polybius – was blogging about the relevance of anacyclosis to contemporary American politics.
The United States, he writes, is now in the “crisis phase” of the cycle:
“[W]hen power has become so gridlocked among competing power centres that it becomes impossible for the system to break out of even the most hopelessly counterproductive policies. That ends, according to Polybius, when a charismatic demagogue gets into power, overturns the existing political order, and sets in motion a general free-for-all in which old alliances shatter and improbable new ones take shape. Does that sound familiar? In a week when union leaders emerged beaming from a meeting with the new president, while Democrats are still stoutly defending the integrity of the CIA, it should.”
At which point of Polybius’ cycle would you locate New Zealand?
This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 31 January 2017.

Friday, 27 January 2017

Political Paradoxes.

The “Pollution Paradox”: According to Guardian columnist George Monbiot: “The more polluting a company is, the more money it must spend on politics to ensure it is not regulated out of existence. Campaign finance therefore comes to be dominated by dirty companies, ensuring that they wield the greatest influence, crowding out their cleaner rivals.”
POLITICS IS FULL OF PARADOXES. Electoral success in a democracy often goes to the political party most effective at suppressing dissent within its ranks. Outstanding individuals, persuaded by their friends to take up politics, finally make it into Parliament – but only after purging themselves of all the virtues that made their friends want to send them there in the first place. A left-wing government committed to policies of disarmament and peace, ends up encouraging the precise opposite. Or, as the paradoxical Romans put it: Si vis pacem, para bellum – If you want peace, prepare for war.

The “Pollution Paradox” offers yet another example of how the pursuit of virtue can end up rallying vice. According to its author, Guardian columnist George Monbiot: “The more polluting a company is, the more money it must spend on politics to ensure it is not regulated out of existence. Campaign finance therefore comes to be dominated by dirty companies, ensuring that they wield the greatest influence, crowding out their cleaner rivals.”
Donald Trump’s putative Cabinet: containing the former CEO of Exxon-Mobil and at least two notorious climate change deniers, is held up by Monbiot as proof of the Pollution Paradox’s validity.
Many New Zealanders will recognize the Pollution Paradox at work in their own environment. With Greenpeace and the Greens campaigning for cleaner streams, rivers and lakes, Federated Farmers and the dairy industry work tirelessly to strengthen the ties that bind the National Party and its politicians to the agricultural sector’s special interests.
Anyone who doubts that this behind-the-scenes manipulation is firmly embedded in New Zealand’s policy formation processes should track down a DVD copy of Alister Barry’s deeply troubling documentary, Hot Air: Climate Change Politics in New Zealand. The decades-long lobbying effort devoted to preventing any kind of effective political response to anthropogenic global warming is as eye-opening as it is disturbing.
The political dynamic at work in Monbiot’s paradox is present in many more issues than pollution. Indeed, the covert funding of political parties and movements considered likely to eliminate perceived threats to entrenched business interests and/or the power and influence of dominant social groups, runs like a golden underground river beneath many of the defining events of the modern era.
The most telling historical example of the practice is unquestionably the funding of Adolf Hitler’s National Socialist German Workers Party. The name of Hitler’s party is written out here in full because it shows how indifferent his wealthy backers were to the ideological content of the Nazi phenomenon. All they wanted was a battering-ram against the individual and social rights enshrined in the constitution of the ill-starred Weimar Republic. So long as Hitler promised to destroy the economic and political institutions of the German working-class and preserve the social ascendancy of the “owning classes”, his paymasters paid little attention to the contradictions embodied in the Nazi Party’s identity.
The celebrated British historian, A.J.P. Taylor, exposes the fatal flaw in the owning classes assumption that once bought, Hitler would stay bought, with the following, telling, analogy:
“They soon found that they were in the position of a factory owner who employs a gang of roughs to break up a strike: he deplores the violence, is sorry for his work-people who are being beaten up, and intensely dislikes the bad manners of the gangster leader he has called in. All the same, he pays the price and discovers, soon enough, that if he does not pay the price (later, even if he does) he will be shot in the back. The gangster chief sits in the managing director’s office, smokes his cigars, finally takes over the concern himself. Such was the experience of the owning classes in Germany after 1933.”
It is possible that some people – maybe quite a lot of people – will find a great many contemporary echoes in Professor Taylor’s description of Germany in the 1930s.
It is certainly Monbiot’s contention that the Trump phenomenon, far from being “an insurgency, challenging entrenched power” is actually about “holding back the tide of change” for as long as possible.
The reckless short-sightedness of Hitler’s backers unleashed World War II. The Chancellor they appointed to save their nation, left it in ruins. In another political paradox, the man elected to “Make America Great Again”, may prove to be the ruin of the whole world.
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, 27 January 2017.

Thursday, 26 January 2017

Only A Matter Of Time: American Fascism Awaits Its Marching Orders.

Trump's Angry Acolytes: That the vector of American fascism would be a cross-class alliance of marginalised white workers and anxious suburban conservatives has been obvious since 1968, when hundreds of working-class “Hard-Hats” marched off their New York construction sites to beat up young anti-war protesters – and “the great silent majority” of small town and suburban USA cheered them on.
LAST FRIDAY, on the Seattle campus of the University of Washington, a Trump supporter shot a Trump opponent. The (non-fatal) shooting took place during a violent protest against the presence of Milo Yiannopoulos – the tech editor of Breitbart News. Violence erupted after Yiannopoulos’s opponents formed a picket-line and physically obstructed the Alt-Right commentator’s followers from entering the auditorium where he was speaking.

In a nation where “the right to bear arms” is constitutionally protected, it can only be a matter of time before such clashes escalate into a ferocious firefight – and fatalities.

What happens then is all-too-easy to predict. President Trump will denounce his political opponents as enemies of free speech and democracy. Federal, state and local law enforcement agencies will crack down hard on anti-Trump agitation. More ominously, the President’s most vociferous supporters will militarise themselves into special protection squads. Presented to the American public as “self-defence” organisations, the actual purpose of these goon squads will be to intimidate and/or terrorise progressive individuals and groups into silence.

Thus will President Trump pay homage to his mentor Vladimir Putin – whose use of “patriotic” organisations (often comprising a hard core of former soldiers and secret policemen) to shut down his political opponents is well documented. The appearance on American streets of an aggressive political militia will be the strongest proof yet that the United States has fallen under the sway of a fascist regime.

The arrival of these political thugs will force Trump’s opponents to make a choice. Either: fall quietly into line with the new realities of American political life. Or: put your own personal safety (not-to-mention the safety of your friends and family) at risk by continuing to speak out against the policies of the Trump Administration.

This choice will likely be an urgent one for members of the journalistic profession. If the Putin comparison holds true, it will not be long before at least one reporter, columnist or blogger pays the ultimate price for exposing the sins of Trump and his supporters.

If fearless journalism leads directly to murder, as is currently the case in the Russian Federation, America’s editors will feel torn between the duty-of-care they owe to their employees, and their democratic duty to defend freedom of expression. Their decision-making will, almost certainly, be simplified by their publishers, America’s huge media corporations, making it clear that the shareholders’ dividends (and the CEO’s bonuses!) are not to be jeopardised by Quixotic editors sanctioning crusades to rescue the First Amendment.

With the consequences of opposition clearly evident to the by-now-thoroughly-cowed news media, Trump’s people will invite the Fox News Network to assume the role played by the state-owned broadcasters of the Russian Federation. Fox will receive the Administration-approved editorial line on matters political and cultural, and all the other mainstream media organisations will be expected to follow its lead.

The quiescence of the American working-class during any such period of political co-ordination will likely be secured by the Trump Administration’s skilful co-optation of the American trade unions. Already, Trump has received praise from the leader of the US trade union movement, AFL-CIO President, Richard Trumka, for nixing the Trans-Pacific Partnership.

Trumka hailed the President’s actions as “just the first in a series of necessary policy changes required to build a fair and just global economy.”

Further union backing is to be anticipated as Trump ramps up his “American jobs for American workers” infrastructure programme. Few union leaders – and especially not the leaders of the steelworkers, auto and construction unions – will be willing to kill Trump’s golden, job-creating goose by standing in solidarity with the environmentalist and Native American opponents of the controversial Keystone XL and Dakota Access oil pipelines – both of which were restarted today (25/1/17) by Executive Order.

Hard-Hat Riot - New York 1968
That the vector of American fascism would be a cross-class alliance of marginalised white workers and anxious suburban conservatives has been obvious ever since 1968, when hundreds of working-class “Hard-Hats” marched off their New York construction sites to beat up young anti-war protesters – and “the great silent majority” of small town and suburban America cheered them on. Nixon eulogised these voters. Reagan primed them. Trump has set them in motion.
This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Thursday, 26 January 2017.

Wednesday, 25 January 2017

Trumpism's Shock-Waves Will Reach New Zealand.

Been There, Very Nearly Did That: Imagining how different this country would be if Don Brash had won the 2005 General Election makes the task of understanding how disruptive Trump’s presidency is likely to be for the United States a lot easier.
AS NEW ZEALAND RETURNS to work and the tempo of the year quickens; so too does the pace of politics. The inauguration of President Donald Trump has certainly given the domestic politics of the United States a mighty shove between the shoulders. And because the USA still dominates the world, the knock-on effects of Trumpism unbound will reverberate around the globe.
Even here, in far-flung New Zealand, policies and attitudes which have for long been considered beyond the pale of civilised discourse will coming rushing back at us out of the darkness. Old arguments, from both sides of the Left/Right divide, will be dusted off and thrust back into the political arena.
Rather than a sedate walk to the ballot-box in November, we may find ourselves shoving our way into the polling booth through surging crowds and angry cat-calls.
Too much? We must hope so. But it behoves us to remember the historical transformations made possible by those in authority suddenly signalling a relaxation of taboos and/or a reconsideration of what is and isn’t politically acceptable.
When the former Reserve Bank Governor, and Leader of the National Party-led Opposition, Dr Don Brash, delivered his in/famous “Orewa Speech” on 27 January 2004, for example, ideas and expressions which had hitherto been condemned as “racist” were instantly rendered acceptable to a very large number of New Zealanders.
The political impact of Brash’s speech was registered with dramatic emphasis in the next Colmar Brunton opinion poll. National had improved its position by a staggering 17 percentage points. Overnight, the National Party which had been humiliated in the 2002 general election had got its electoral mojo back.
Brash led National to the brink of electoral victory in 2005 on a radically right-wing political programme. This included, inter alia, downgrading the Treaty of Waitangi and abolishing the Maori seats, along with significant tax cuts funded by a dramatic reduction in public spending. Had the Helen Clark-led Labour Party not edged past National in the final hours of the 2005 campaign, New Zealand would now be a very different country.
Imagining how different this country would be if Brash had won should make the task of understanding how disruptive Trump’s presidency is likely to be for the United States a lot easier. (Allowing, of course, for the fact that Don Brash is a judicious, well-educated, and highly-experienced public servant, and, at the personal level, a generous and tolerant human-being – and Donald Trump is not.)
Cast your mind back to the venomous quality of public debate in the run-up to the 2005 election. Recall the scandalous rumours that circulated about the Prime Minister’s marriage and private life. The level of misogyny in New Zealand society was astonishing. And there was nothing “casual” about the racism on display in the National Party’s “Iwi/Kiwi” billboards.
National’s narrow loss did nothing to still these voices. If anything, they grew in intensity. Those Kiwis who recoiled in horror at the viciousness of Trump’s attacks on Hillary Clinton, have clearly forgotten the appalling acidity of the vitriol hurled at Helen Clark.
The person who put an end to this Trumpism-before-Trump was, of course, John Key. Though National’s dirty politics continued under the radar of mainstream political scrutiny, Key’s overthrow of Brash in November 2006 signalled a major strategic shift. The most dramatic demonstration of Key’s “pivot” towards the “moderate centre” came in 2008 when he very publicly joined forces with Helen Clark to ensure the passage of Sue Bradford’s controversial anti-smacking legislation.
This was like Trump announcing that he was cutting all ties with Steve Bannon, Breitbart News and the Alt-Right, in order to lead the international fight against climate change!
Key’s deliberate policy of ideological decompression allowed New Zealand to pass through the potentially highly-divisive aftermath of the Global Financial Crisis without serious political disorder. Indeed, Key’s embrace of the policy package dubbed “Labour-lite”, coupled with his relaxed style of governance, allowed him to extend National’s political honeymoon indefinitely.
No such decompression is about to occur in the United States. On the contrary, the needle on the political pressure-gauge is already entering the red zone. Trump’s inaugural address signalled his intention to double-down on the populist manifesto that carried him to the White House. His Cabinet, and the triumphalist Republican congress, cannot wait to give it regulatory and legislative effect.
With America’s leader urging them on, the global disciples of the Far-Right will spring from the political shadows in vast numbers. The demoralised opponents of abortion will be re-energised by the imminent reversal of Roe vs Wade. Cyberspace will be littered with the virtual corpses of out-numbered and out-gunned “social justice warriors”. Accusations of racism will no longer make racists feel ashamed – they will be worn as badges of honour.
Can’t happen here? Oh yes, it can. It very nearly did.
This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 24 January 2017.

Monday, 23 January 2017

Mastering Trumpian Arithmetic: Why, In The New Political Order, 2+2=5.

The Calculation Of Tyranny: "If Trump’s White House is willing to lie about something as obviously, unquestionably fake as [their estimates of Trump's Inauguration Day crowd] just imagine what else they'll lie about. In particular, things that the public cannot possibly verify the truth of. It's gonna get real bad." - The Washington Post
ONE OF THE MOST CHILLING ASPECTS of Donald Trump’s political style is its sheer, amoral audacity. Like all the truly great political manipulators, Trump understands that whether or not something is true is a question best left to the philosophers. What matters in politics is what people believe to be true. And, when it comes to persuading people to choose unreality over reality; “alternative facts” to the facts themselves; Trump is a virtuoso.

There are two great literary illustrations (at least) of the Trump Administrations brutal ontology. The first is to be found in the exchange between Alice and Humpty Dumpty in Lewis Carroll’s Through The Looking Glass:

“I don’t know what you mean by ‘glory,’ Alice said.
Humpty Dumpty smiled contemptuously. “Of course you don’t — till I tell you. I meant ‘there’s a nice knock-down argument for you!’”
“But ‘glory’ doesn’t mean ‘a nice knock-down argument’,’ Alice objected.
“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.”
“The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.”
“The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master — that’s all.”
The other illustration is contained in George Orwell’s dystopian novel Nineteen Eighty-Four:
“In the end the Party would announce that two and two made five*, and you would have to believe it. It was inevitable that they should make that claim sooner or later: the logic of their position demanded it. Not merely the validity of experience, but the very existence of external reality, was tacitly denied by their philosophy. The heresy of heresies was common sense. And what was terrifying was not that they would kill you for thinking otherwise, but that they might be right. For, after all, how do we know that two and two make four? Or that the force of gravity works? Or that the past is unchangeable? If both the past and the external world exist only in the mind, and if the mind itself is controllable – what then?”
So, when the White House spokesperson, Sean Spicer, flatly declares the equivalent of 2+2=5 by asserting that Trump’s inauguration attracted more spectator’s than Barack Obama’s; and when Trump adviser, Kellyanne Conway, justifies Spicer’s behaviour by referencing his use of “alternative facts”; how should we respond?
The temptation is to question the sanity of Trump and his team. “Just look at the photographs!” you shout in exasperation. “Are you people completely nuts! Do you think we’re all blind!” But, of course, these are the wrong questions. Because Trump and his team, just like everybody else, can see that Obama’s crowd was way bigger than theirs. Yes, their actions may resemble the behaviour of a terrible two-year-old, but appearances can be deceptive. There is method to Trump’s madness.

The Washington Post has reproduced a memorandum, supposedly penned by a former White House official, which sets forth with chilling clarity what the Trump Administration hopes to achieve with its 2+2=5 strategy.
Apart from immediately lowering the expectations of the White House Press Corps (because after Spicer’s opening salvo relations can only improve, right?) the author of the memorandum further argues that the Administration may also be seeking to widen the gap between the one-third of the American electorate who are Trump’s supporters, and the remaining two-thirds who are not:
"By being told something that is obviously wrong – that there is no evidence for and all evidence against, that anybody with eyes can see is wrong – they are forced to pick whether they are going to believe Trump or their lying eyes. The gamble here – likely to pay off – is that they will believe Trump. This means that they will regard media outlets that report the truth as ‘fake news’ (because otherwise they’d be forced to confront their cognitive dissonance.)"
The Washington Post’s anonymous author then puts forward another, even more disturbing, explanation for the Trump team’s dysfunctional relationship with the truth. By convincing a large chunk of the American population that truth and falsehood are fundamentally unknowable, the Administration hopes to induce them to disengage from politics altogether.
“A third of the population will say ‘clearly the White House is lying,’ a third will say ‘if Trump says it, it must be true’ and the remaining third will say ‘gosh, I guess this is unknowable.’ The idea isn’t to convince these people of untrue things, it’s to fatigue them, so that they will stay out of the political process entirely, regarding the truth as just too difficult to determine.”
The memorandum’s chilling conclusion: “This is laying the groundwork for the months ahead. If Trump’s White House is willing to lie about something as obviously, unquestionably fake as this, just imagine what else they’ll lie about. In particular, things that the public cannot possibly verify the truth of. It’s gonna get real bad.”
Fighting this strategy will require the US news media to demonstrate a measure of tenacity and courage not seen by the American public since the darkest days of the Nixon Administration.
Such demonstrations are never easy. As Orwell noted of the Nazi regime in 1943:
“Nazi theory [ … ] specifically denies that such a thing as ‘the truth’ exists. [ ... ] The implied objective of this line of thought is a nightmare world in which the Leader, or some ruling clique, controls not only the future but the past. If the Leader says of such and such an event, ‘It never happened’ – well, it never happened. If he says that two and two are five – well, two and two are five. This prospect frightens me much more than bombs.”
But almost certainly not as much as the man currently in command of the United States’ nuclear codes frightens us.
* It is possible that Orwell was inspired to use the 2+2=5 metaphor after seeing a Communist Party poster exhorting Soviet workers to complete Stalin’s Five Year Plan in just four years.
This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Monday, 23 January 2017.

Inspirational Radicalism.

Labour's Broad Church In Action: The social-radical, Dr Martyn Finlay, campaigns alongside the social-conservative, Norman Kirk. A political party must be able to reassure young voters that the ideas, hopes and aspirations of their generation are well represented within the parliamentary system. Without that reassurance, a party risks turning itself into a generational redoubt where the achievements of the past are celebrated constantly, but where the anticipated achievements of the future are either dismissed or deferred indefinitely.
THE STORY may be apocryphal, but it has stayed with me for more than 40 years. The liberal Labour lawyer and MP, Dr Martyn Finlay, responding to the fearsome reputation of the recently opened maximum security prison at Paremoremo, is said to have observed that no prison should be escape-proof – lest it crush men’s souls.
Even by today’s standards, Finlay’s views come across as radically progressive. Back in the early 1970s, a time when the Labour Party was still beholden to its many conservative supporters, statements of such uncompromising radicalism were astonishing. Unsurprisingly, Finlay’s equally radical views on abortion, homosexuality and euthanasia made him a controversial and polarising Member of Parliament. His boss, Norman Kirk, was not a fan.
For a great many members of the “Vietnam Generation” (as political journalist Colin James dubbed the youthful rebels of the 1960s and 70s) Finlay’s social radicalism was inspirational. His ability to infuse the political process with urgent ethical purpose acted as an ideological and generational bridge between the children of the Great Depression and the Second World War, and the obstreperous beneficiaries of post-war affluence and optimism. In the language of that long-ago time: Finlay linked the Old Left with the New.
It was a vital exercise in political chemistry. A political party must be able to reassure young voters that the ideas, hopes and aspirations of their generation are well represented within the parliamentary system. It must also instil confidence that their agenda for change has every chance of achieving legislative expression – and sooner, rather than later. Without that reassurance and confidence, a party risks turning itself into a generational redoubt. An isolated ideological fortress, in which the achievements of the past are celebrated constantly; but where the anticipated achievements of the future are either dismissed or deferred indefinitely.
This was the party that Labour had become by the late 1940s, when the heroes of 1935 told the party’s younger and more radical members that they should cease their agitating because “everything is done”. It wasn’t until the much more intelligent and open-minded Arnold Nordmeyer finally succeeded the deeply conservative Walter Nash, and was joined in Labour’s caucus by Norman Kirk, Bob Tizard, Bill Rowling, Phil Amos and Martyn Finlay himself, that Labour’s forward march was resumed with vigour.
Looking at the endless stream of media releases emanating from today’s Labour Opposition, it is impossible to identify a figure even remotely comparable to Finlay. In 2017, there is simply no way that Labour’s media minders would allow an MP to declare, in the name of human dignity, that no prison should be designed to eliminate the possibility of escape.
The very idea that such an audacious and jarring pronouncement might provoke the electorate into thinking about the crushing realities of prison life; or challenge them to decide whether rehabilitation is even possible for a prisoner from whom all hope has departed; would be dismissed as politically suicidal.
When David Cunliffe, moved by the devastating evidence of domestic abuse, delivered his Finlay-like apology to the 2014 Women’s Refuge symposium: ‘‘Can I begin by saying I’m sorry – I don’t often say it – I’m sorry for being a man, right now. Because family and sexual violence is perpetrated overwhelmingly by men against women and children”; the news media (and his colleagues) tore him to shreds.
But, if Labour is unwilling to tolerate a twenty-first version of Martyn Finlay, then how can it hope to construct the bridge to the future it so desperately needs? Norman Kirk may not have welcomed Finlay’s radical outpourings, but he endured them. Andrew Little is nowhere near as flexible. While Canada’s Justin Trudeau prepares to legalise cannabis, the leader of New Zealand’s Labour Party delivers ponderous homilies about its danger to young people.
While tomorrow’s voters grow increasingly desperate to hear a Labour MP willing to proclaim, without equivocation, the need to break definitively from the failed neoliberal experiments of the past, the party clings ever more tightly to the social liberalism by which it chose to define itself thirty years ago. With the bloody injuries of class everywhere on display, Labour stubbornly refuses to select a candidate capable of describing them.
If Labour wishes to avoid becoming a moribund relic, then it must learn, again, how to infuse New Zealand politics with Martyn Finlay’s radical moral purpose.
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, 20 January 2017.

Saturday, 21 January 2017

All Changed, Changed Utterly: Thoughts On The Day Of Donald Trump's Inauguration.

President Trump: Nothing will ever be the same again.
All changed, changed utterly:
A terrible beauty is born.
Easter 1916 – W. B. Yeats
HAD YOU BEEN LIVING in Germany on 27 January 1933 the chances are good that you would have considered Adolf Hitler a busted flush. Two months earlier, in the last nationwide elections, his Nazi Party had suffered a small but highly significant loss of support. The newspapers were filled with confident predictions that the National Socialists had peaked. The trade unions even dared to entertain a small measure of optimism about the future. It was known that the present Chancellor, General Kurt von Schleicher, was drawing up a comprehensive plan to put Germany back to work. Things were looking up.
The following day, however, General Schleicher was forced to tender his resignation. Unending backstairs intrigue had finally succeeded in persuading the German President, Paul von Hindenburg, to get rid of the inveterate military schemer once and for all and replace him with Adolf Hitler. The right-wing aristocrats, soldiers, politicians and businessmen advising Hindenburg were firmly convinced that Hitler could be “controlled”. The Nazi Party and its charismatic leader would be the pawns of German reaction – not its master.
Negotiations between Hitler and the President’s advisers continued for a further 24 hours. The following day, 30 January 1933, Hindenburg announced that he was appointing Adolf Hitler Chancellor of Germany.
Nothing would ever be the same again.
In Washington today, 20 January 2017, Donald Trump was sworn in as the 45th President of the United States. The route by which he has arrived at the White House is very different from that which led Hitler to the Chancellery, but with the investiture of executive power in Trump’s person, the American Republic, like the hapless Weimar Republic before it, will be changed, changed utterly.
As his angry inaugural address makes clear, Trump intends to remake America in ways no other president has dared to contemplate. He feels empowered to do this because his election represents not a vote of collective confidence in the American system, but an act of collective repudiation. Not by all Americans. Not even by a majority of Americans. But by enough of those who consider themselves to be “real” Americans, and who possess the means to determine the course of events. These Americans, like the “true” Germans of 1933, have become convinced that they can no longer rely upon the American political system to protect their interests – and so, that system must be changed, changed utterly.
The forms of American democracy will remain – at least for a while – but its substance will be steadily emptied out. With all three branches of the US government: the Executive, the Legislature, and (very soon) the Judiciary under Republican Party control, the “checks and balances” in which America’s founding fathers placed so much faith will be rendered inoperative. Exactly what is meant by “We the People of the United States” will become the subject of drastic revision.
The progressive expansion of American citizenship: the historical journey that began in the depths of the American Civil War with the Emancipation Proclamation, and which ended with President Barack Obama bathing the White House in all the colours of the rainbow, will be halted. Worse – it will be thrown into reverse.
In Nazi Germany the process began with The Law for the Protection of German Blood and Honour and The Reich Citizenship Law – both passed at a special session of the Reichstag convened during the 1935 Nazi Party Rally in the city of Nuremburg. It was through these so-called “Nuremburg Laws” that German Jews found themselves definitively excluded from what it meant to be German.
That is how it begins: with exclusions; deportations; preventive detentions; the construction of walls.
But that is not how it ends.
This essay was posted on The Daily Blog and Bowalley Road on Saturday, 21 January 2017.

Friday, 20 January 2017

In To Win: The Greens' Decision To Run Against Labour In Mt Albert

Sororal Seminar - Or Fight To The Death? After Michael Wood’s runaway victory in Mt Roskill, anything other than a straightforward walkover in Mt Albert will be very bad news for Labour. Were Labour to lose, the party would be crucified in the news media and Andrew Little would come under renewed pressure to step aside. Labour’s caucus and the party membership would be beside themselves with fury at the Greens for costing them not only the Mt Albert seat, but in all probability the general election as well.
KEITH LOCKE has mounted a robust defence of the Greens’ decision to field a candidate in the Mt Albert by-election. His argument divides neatly into three parts. His first contention is that, by standing, Julie Anne Genter will be able to demonstrate practically the merits of the Labour-Green Memorandum of Understanding (MoU). His second is that a rogue result in Mt Albert would not significantly alter the relationship between Labour and the Greens. And his third contention is that The Daily Blog Editor’s misgivings concerning Mt Albert arise out of a profound misunderstanding of the way the Green Party works.
But what if all three of Keith’s contentions are wrong?
Keith is by no means alone in arguing that the by-election constitutes a welcome opportunity to display the merits of the MoU. He sums up the case succinctly in just two sentences:
“The MOU was between ‘two separate parties’, able to run their own campaigns, but who would ‘articulate [their] differences in a respectful and collegial manner’. This was in a context where ‘many of our policies are compatible’ and the two parties would be ‘working cooperatively’ to achieve a ‘progressive alternative government’.”
In the best of all possible worlds this would be true. In a political environment driven more and more by sensationalism, conflict and “fake news”, however, how realistic is the hope that what takes place on the hustings in Mt Albert will be represented in the news media as “respectful and collegial”?
Is it not far more likely that “respectful and collegial” will be dismissed by news editors as “boring”, and that reporters will be told to expose and highlight the differences between the Labour and Green candidates? Are Keith and his party comrades really unable to imagine just how quickly an impression of conflict can be manufactured by political journalists under orders to make the contest more exciting?
Generals talk about the “fog of war” rendering the best-laid plans of the best military brains inoperative after just a few seconds of actual fighting. Political campaigning is no different. Jacinda Ardern and Julie Anne Genter may go into the contest determined to remain “respectful and collegial”, but the chances of them emerging from the smoke and fire of electoral combat unblackened and unburned are, sadly, remote.
This inability to control the evolution of battle leads us to Keith’s second contention: that a rogue result in Mt Albert would leave the Labour-Green relationship undamaged. This delusion is easily dispelled. Let’s consider just two possible scenarios.
The first involves the National Party letting it be known that if its supporters are interested in inflicting the maximum damage on Labour, then they should hold their noses and vote for Julie Anne Genter.
As a strategy for inflicting maximum political disruption this has much to commend it. After all, the National Party won the Party Vote in Mt Albert at the last general election with 14,359 votes. Combine these with the Greens’ 8,005 votes and David Shearer’s Electorate Vote tally of 20,970 begins to look a lot less unassailable. Given the prospect of inflicting a serious wound on Labour, how realistic is it to expect National voters to simply sit this by-election out?
And what about TOP – The Opportunities Party? The Daily Blog Editor, Martyn Bradbury, is quite right to raise the possibility of TOP’s founder, Gareth Morgan, seizing the Mt Albert by-election as a heaven-sent opportunity to field-test the voter appeal of his party’s core policies.
Morgan’s aggressive style would blow the Ardern-Genter sororal seminar that Labour and Green strategists are attempting to organise clean out of the water. “Respectful and collegial” fall well short as accurate descriptions of TOP’s top-dog. Worse still, Morgan possesses the financial and communications heft to ensure TOP’s policy aggression becomes the defining element of the entire by-election campaign.
Either one of these scenarios is capable of producing a rogue result. Assuming the normal by-election turnout of around 40 percent, Genter could defeat Ardern with as few as 7,500 votes. In a spirited three-way contest, Morgan could take the seat with just 5,000 votes.
Keith argues that Martyn “does a disservice to Labour in portraying the party as vindictive if it didn’t do well in a democratic contest. All the evidence so far is that Labour figures, from Andrew Little down, are relaxed about the Greens running in Mt Albert.”
If Keith truly believes this, then Keith doesn’t know the Labour Party at all.
After Michael Wood’s runaway victory in Mt Roskill, anything other than a straightforward walkover in Mt Albert will be very bad news for Labour. Were Labour to lose, the party would be crucified in the news media and Andrew Little would come under renewed pressure to step aside. Labour’s caucus and the party membership would be beside themselves with fury at the Greens for costing them not only the Mt Albert seat, but in all probability the general election as well.
Keith’s ignorance of the Labour Party’s true feelings towards the Greens raises doubts about the accuracy of his third contention that: “The decision to run a Green candidate was made through the party’s normal democratic processes, with members like myself advocating for it. To portray it as the brainchild of some staffer in Wellington, as Martyn does, shows a lack of understanding of the internal workings of the Green Party.”
Or, does it?
The Greens make a fetish of their ultra-democratic credentials, but appearances can be deceptive. As is the case with all political parties, the Greens are actually governed by a self-selecting and self-replicating oligarchy. The party’s rules make it extremely difficult to over-rule this oligarchy. Partly this is due to the Greens’ consensus-based decision-making process – a system which allows a handful of hidden manipulators to thwart the will of the majority. The oligarchy’s ability to weed-out candidates whose green credentials are deemed to be inadequate before formal selection is also important.
About the only time a genuine majority of the Green Party membership gets to call the shots is when they are asked to choose a new co-leader. The last occasion for such a demonstration was when the party was required to replace Russel Norman. The congenial and highly-qualified Kevin Hague was expected to be elected Male Co-Leader, but to the audible surprise of many of the voting delegates present, the post went to James Shaw.
The election of Shaw spoke volumes about the direction in which a majority of the Greens would like their party to go. Keith ends his post by detailing the lack of support for the politically ecumenical Vernon Tava. What he neglected to say, however, was that by opting decisively for Shaw, the membership had no need of Tava.
Labour’s strategists should have had little difficulty in decoding the message delivered by the Green Party membership when it chose Shaw over Hague. Decoding the message wrapped up in Genter’s candidacy is equally straightforward. “Respectful and collegial” though the Greens’ pursuit of power may be, power is what they seek.
They are in the electoral game to win. With Labour, if possible. Without them, if necessary.
This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Thursday, 19 January 2017.

Wednesday, 18 January 2017

Is "Social Investment" Bill English's "Think Big"?

Think Big Data: In many ways Muldoon’s Think Big and Bill English’s Social Investment policies are alike. Both feature ideas more associated with the left than the right, and both, if sensibly implemented, could be of immense benefit to New Zealand. Unfortunately for Muldoon and, almost certainly, for English, the essentially left-wing character of the programmes they are advocating makes it practically impossible for the National Party to implement them in a sensible fashion.
“SOCIAL INVESTMENT”, as promoted by Prime Minister, Bill English, is one of those policies that can make or break political parties. “Social Security”, for example, was the policy principally responsible for lifting the Labour Party’s share of the popular vote from 46.1 percent in 1935 to 55.8 percent in 1938. The “Cradle to Grave” welfare state it established kept Labour in office until 1949 and remained the foundation of New Zealand social policy for the next 50 years.
By contrast, National’s “Think Big” economic development programme of the late-1970s and early-1980s, very rapidly turned into an albatross around the neck of Rob Muldoon’s government. By the mid-1980s, the very expression, “Think Big”, had become political shorthand for the unwisdom of large-scale state intervention.
It was in the context of Muldoon’s increasingly costly and strike-plagued Think Big projects that the Leader of the Labour Opposition, David Lange, delivered his devastating put-down: “You can’t run a country like a Polish shipyard!”
With the benefit of hindsight, however, Muldoon’s alleged political folly looks more and more like economic and environmental prescience. Conceived as a means of escaping New Zealand’s dependence on foreign oil (which had skyrocketed in price during the 1970s) and of substituting domestically produced agricultural and industrial inputs (such as electricity, fertiliser and steel) to improve New Zealand’s precarious balance of payments, Think Big bore a startling resemblance to the industrial development programme pitched to Walter Nash’s Labour Party in the late-1950s by the left-wing New Zealand economist, W.B. Sutch.
The electrification of the North Island main trunk railway line, for example, was one of Muldoon’s Think Big projects. Had it been completed we would not now be witnessing the environmentally retrograde replacement of KiwiRail’s fleet of electric locomotives with carbon-dioxide-belching diesels. Indeed, a mischievous commentator might predict that if the Greens ever come up with a comprehensive industrial development programme, it will look more than a little like Think Big!
In many ways Muldoon’s Think Big and Bill English’s Social Investment policies are alike. Both feature ideas more associated with the left than the right, and both, if sensibly implemented, could be of immense benefit to New Zealand. Unfortunately for Muldoon and, almost certainly, for English, the essentially left-wing character of the programmes they are advocating makes it practically impossible for the National Party to implement them in a sensible fashion.
One of the reasons Think Big became such a gift to National’s opponents was the Economic Development Minister, Bill Birch’s, unwillingness to assign the job of building the energy and industrial projects solely to the New Zealand State. Rather than expand the public sector’s capacity, Birch entered into a succession of largely secret contract negotiations with an assortment of multinational construction firms. Not only did this substantially increase the projects’ costs, but it supplied the Government’s opponents with a smorgasbord of extremely tasty political meals.
English’s Social Investment policy will very likely suffer the same fate as Think Big.
On its face, the idea of using the government’s dramatically improved capacity to gather and cross-match critical data streams from the Social Development, Vulnerable Children, Justice, Corrections, Health and Education ministries, in order to improve the targeting of public services to those individuals and families most in need, is a good one. If additional resources and assistance can be channelled to these vulnerable citizens before they become the state’s permanent, eye-wateringly expensive and essentially intractable “clients”, then Bill English’s claim that Social Investment, introduced now, will save the taxpayers billions of dollars, later, is entirely justified.
English’s problem is that the implementation of Social Investment policies will require a substantial increase in spending on the people National most loves to hate: the poor, the brown, and the “welfare-dependent” working-class. The only way English will be able to “sell” his Social Investment policy to the National caucus, therefore, is by showering resources on the tiny number of people fingered by the State’s data-crunching algorithms, while simultaneously reducing assistance to all the other beneficiaries on its books.
English’s problem is Labour’s problem, too. Ever since David Shearer waxed eloquent about his (apparently apocryphal) “beneficiary on the roof”, it’s been clear that most Labour MPs are extremely wary of identifying their party too closely with the despised “underclass”. So, rather than embracing the principles of Social Investment, Andrew Little and his colleagues, like the Lange-led Labour Party, will focus public attention on the inevitable stuff-ups associated with the application of the prime minister’s pet project.
Social Investment: a policy offering potentially huge improvements in the delivery and effectiveness of social services; will thus go the way of Think Big. A good idea undermined by the ideological hostility of those responsible for its implementation and politically demonised by a Labour Opposition much more interested in breaking the right than in making its policies work.
This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 17 January 2017.

Tuesday, 17 January 2017

Don't Riot For A Better Society - Vote For One!

More Effective Than A Molotov Cocktail: Elderly New Zealanders have used their votes to keep NZ Superannuation safe from the neoliberals who would destroy it. Rather than castigating them for preserving this last great remnant of universal welfare provision, young New Zealanders should learn from their example.
IT WAS THE LARGEST STUDENT DEMONSTRATION Dunedin had ever seen. Close to 10,000 students had marched the length of George Street and half of Princes Street to completely fill the Exchange. I was just one of many speakers on that overcast day in the winter of 1989. Most of these chose to declare their opposition to the fourth Labour Government’s imposition of student fees in as few words as possible – but not me.
Speaking on behalf of the NewLabour Party, I felt obliged to spell out the realities of tertiary education funding. I told them that they could have free education or low taxes – but they could not have both. If the wealthy refused to pay higher taxes, then students would have to pay higher fees. If the middle class (i.e. their family) was serious about keeping young people (i.e. themselves) out of debt, then they would have to vote for a party that was willing to restore a genuinely progressive taxation system.
They booed.
My party comrades were less than impressed. But, the experience taught me something even more important than “never try to reason with a crowd”, I learned that Rogernomics had unlocked something ugly and selfish in older and younger middle class New Zealanders alike. In the minds of those 10,000 students – the people we would come to know as “Generation X” – a free tertiary education was simply their entitlement. The notion that, by accepting this entitlement, they had enmeshed themselves in a complex system of reciprocal rights and obligations made them very angry indeed.
For the fifty years that followed the Great Depression and World War II the idea that older New Zealanders could somehow be absolved of their responsibilities toward younger New Zealanders, and vice versa, would have been regarded as absurd. People simply accepted that living through periods of paying taxes to support others, as well as periods when the taxes of others would support them, was what made a fair and decent society possible. Society benefited enormously from a well-educated and culturally enlivened citizenry. It also benefited enormously by making sure that every older citizen could live in security and dignity.
Through a process of trial and error, spanning many decades, New Zealand discovered that the best way to preserve the security and dignity of its older citizens was to pay them what amounted to a universal basic income. Regardless of gender, ethnicity, sexuality or social class, every New Zealander over the age of 65 is guaranteed a modest income from the state. NZ Superannuation has played a huge role in reducing the incidence of poverty among elderly New Zealanders. Its universality makes it both cost effective and sustainable. Providing the progressivity of this country’s tax system is restored, it is also entirely affordable.
Not surprisingly, those already in receipt of, or about to receive, NZ Superannuation are determined to preserve it. Politicians have been taught, over successive elections, that messing around (or even threatening to mess around) with “Super” is a sure-fire way to lose, or be kept out of, office. Elderly New Zealanders have used their votes to great effect in this regard. Rather than castigating them for doing so, young New Zealanders should learn from their example.
Because it’s simply not the case that older New Zealanders have devised something special for their own benefit at the expense of younger, more deserving, Kiwis. On the contrary, NZ Superannuation is the sole surviving significant remnant of the universal social welfare system that successive New Zealand governments have been attempting to destroy ever since Roger Douglas kicked off the neoliberal “revolution” in 1984. The only reason “Super” has survived is because , election after election, hundreds-of-thousands of its supporters have made their way to the ballot-box and voted to keep it.
Rather than urging young people to riot against the cost of the NZ Superannuation system (and thereby achieve the neoliberals’ objectives for them) those in search of a more just society should be spelling out to their contemporaries the clearest political lesson of the past 30 years: that if you want a fair and decent society, then don’t boo those who advocate for a system of reciprocal rights and obligations – vote for them.
This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Monday, 16 January 2017.

Saturday, 14 January 2017

From Langley, With Love.

Inside The Magic Circle: Making America great has never, ever, been the President's job.
NEVER BEFORE have the puppet-masters’ strings been more exposed. Clearly, something very close to a full-scale civil war is raging across the dark institutions of the American Deep State.
In the days immediately preceding the 8 November presidential election we witnessed the critical intervention of the New York Office of the FBI. Faced with the near certainty of “strategic leaking” by his own agents should he refuse, the hapless FBI Director, James Comey, agreed to inform Congress (and the world) that the Bureau was re-opening the investigation into the Clinton E-mail Scandal.
At the time it seemed reasonable to speculate that the FBI’s New York Office was a hot-bed of Trump supporters gone “rogue”. But, as Glenn Greenwald’s recent posting on The Intercept makes clear, the true motivation for the New York Office’s political intercession was very probably the CIA’s own political interventions on behalf of the Clinton campaign.
The FBI’s disdain for the CIA’s legally questionable (to say the least!) rules of engagement is well known in US national security circles. In the lurid light of the strategically leaked “Russian Dossier”, the re-ignition of the Clinton E-Mail Scandal is beginning to look more and more like a pre-emptive FBI strike.
That such a politically compromising document – unsourced and unverified – has been injected into the bloodstream of the American body politic just eight days before Trump’s inauguration as the 45th President of the United States is as unprecedented as it is alarming. As Greenwald rightly states: “The threat of being ruled by unaccountable and unelected entities is self-evident and grave. That’s especially true when the entity behind which so many [Trump opponents] are rallying is one with a long and deliberate history of lying, propaganda, war crimes, torture, and the worst atrocities imaginable.”
Just how this overt effort to undermine the duly-elected President-Elect of the USA plays out will depend largely on how most Americans view the role and conduct of the CIA. On the one hand, there is what might be called the “Jason Bourne” view of the agency, and, on the other, the view inspired by the television series “Homeland”.
The Jason Bourne CIA is presented as a murderous law unto itself. Unrestrained and unaccountable, this version of the Agency would not hesitate to cobble together a damning dossier and use it to weaken, perhaps fatally, the administration of a president deemed (by itself) to be a person inimical to the USA’s long-term strategic interests.
The Homeland CIA offers a much more nuanced view of America’s national intelligence agency. Above all else, the Agency’s operatives are portrayed as patriots. Their contradictory obligations: to remain loyal to the US Constitution; and to take whatever steps are necessary to protect America’s interests; repeatedly reduce characters like Carrie Mathison, Peter Quinn and Saul Berenson to guilt-ridden wrecks.
Of the two views, the Homeland CIA is by far the more dangerous. By painting over the blood-red crimes of the Agency with reassuring coats of ambivalent grey, the series’ writers encourage the view that although it is often necessary to uphold the Constitution by subverting it, and to preserve America’s international reputation by tarnishing it, the agents responsible never, ever, stop loving the United States.
One could almost say that the Jason Bourne CIA is how American liberals view the Agency when the evil Republicans are in power; while the Homeland version provides them with the excuses they need when the CIA’s misdeeds are authorised by a Democrat. So, if the Russian Dossier really is a CIA concoction, then, as far as Trump’s liberal opponents are concerned, it’s from Langley, with love.
Greenwald rails against this anything-to-rid-America-of-Trump  double standard: “There are solutions to Trump. They involve reasoned strategizing and patient focus on issues people actually care about. Whatever those solutions are, venerating the intelligence community, begging for its intervention, and equating their dark and dirty assertions as Truth are most certainly not among them. Doing that cannot possibly achieve any good, and is already doing much harm.”
Greenwald’s sterling defence of the US Constitution, notwithstanding, the situation in Washington may already have moved beyond the power of the most conscientious journalist to remedy. Regardless of Trump’s ultimate fate, the men he has nominated to defend US interests are quietly reassuring their Senate interlocutors that the continuity of America’s military, foreign relations and national security policy is not about to be upended by 3:00am tweets from the White House.
The unchanging priorities of the American Deep State crowd around Trump like ancestral ghosts: hemming him in; whispering in his ear; by turn inflaming and freezing his untutored political heart. His supporters should not be surprised. Though they may not know it, making America great has never, ever, been the President’s job.
This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Friday, 13 January 2017.

Friday, 13 January 2017

Status Quo In No Danger From The "Left".

True Colours? The transgressive, system-challenging Green Party that marched into Parliament in 1999 has gone. In its place we find a slick, professionalised operation that has stood down the uncompromising passions of Rod Donald in favour of the sleek corporate reassurances of James Shaw.
IT’S THE LIES we allow ourselves to believe that cause the most harm. If the year just past has taught us anything at all, then surely it has taught us that. Never has the ability to separate objective facts from unabashed appeals to our emotions been more important. The alternative is to embrace “post-truth” (the Oxford English Dictionary’s 2016 international word of the year) as the norm – and that way lies madness.

This ability to separate truth from falsehood is much more important to those on the left of politics than it is to those on the right. Preserving and strengthening the status quo has always been the right’s prime objective. And since recognising things as they are is a lot easier than imagining things that could be, the right’s political road is the easier to travel.

The left’s considerably more daunting challenge is persuading people to embrace change. This requires creativity, organisation and raw political courage on a scale the right is only rarely called upon to provide. The first priority for left-wing voters, therefore, is to correctly distinguish political parties committed to defending the status quo from parties committed to its demise.
Accordingly, the critical question for left-wing voters in 2017 is a simple one: “Are Labour and the Greens parties of change, or parties of the status quo?”
The answer, sadly, is that both parties are committed to very few policies that involve more than marginal changes to the status quo. And even these minimal reforms are best characterised as policies designed to repair and strengthen New Zealand’s existing economic and social institutions – not replace them.
The Housing Crisis, for example, is resolvable only by a massive shift of resources in the residential construction sector from private to public. The scale of state intervention required to meet the needs of those currently denied access to safe and affordable accommodation would, however, have far-reaching effects on the wealth and status of middle-class New Zealanders. A private construction sector starved of resources would produce swift and serious knock-on effects for speculators, developers, landlords and, ultimately, home-owners.
Given the level of both the Labour Party’s and the Greens’ electoral dependence on important groups within the middle class (salaried professionals, small and medium-sized enterprises) and acknowledging the enormous difficulties associated with mobilising the marginalised communities most likely to benefit from a state-led solution to the housing crisis, the modest (and wholly inadequate) housing policies of both “left-wing” parties make perfect sense.
This same, class-based, reticence is evident across the whole of Labour and Green policy-making. In the case of the former, it is observable in the party’s labour relations policies. The reconstitution of working-class power by restoring universal union membership is simply off the agenda. Similarly, the tax increases required to substantially increase the level of government support for working families, beneficiaries and tertiary students forms no part of Labour’s fiscal policy.
Such policy initiatives as have been announced, the Future of Work exercise particularly, present an “adapt or perish” approach to the demands of twenty-first century capitalism. John Harris, writing in The Guardian, illustrates the cultural gap between contemporary Labour’s professionalised politicians and its increasingly marginalised core voters with the following, chilling, quotation from Tony Blair adviser, Charles Leadbeater:
“Strong communities can be pockets of intolerance and prejudice […] Settled, stable communities are the enemies of innovation, talent, creativity, diversity and experimentation. They are often hostile to outsiders, dissenters, young upstarts and immigrants. Community can too quickly become a rallying cry for nostalgia; that kind of community is the enemy of knowledge creation, which is the wellspring of economic growth.”
How long will it be before the Greens in New Zealand begin nodding their heads in agreement with such paeans to entrepreneurship and innovation?
Not long. Because the transgressive, system-challenging Green Party that marched into Parliament in 1999 has gone. In its place we find a slick, professionalised operation that has stood down the uncompromising passions of Rod Donald in favour of the sleek corporate reassurances of James Shaw. Worried about the looming apocalypse of runaway climate change? Then worry no more. The Greens will ride to our rescue with the mother of all technical fixes!
The status quo is under no threat in 2017 – not with New Zealand’s three largest political parties committed to its continuing renovation and repair.
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, 13 January 2017.