Monday, 16 October 2017

Dainties and Chains: Progressive MPs And The “Wellington Bubble”

To Rove Free, Or Bark In Another's Interest? Aesop's ancient fable concerning the House Dog and the Wolf offers a moral every bit as relevant to today's political realities as it was to those in Classical Greece. Once inside the "Wellington Bubble" is it only a matter of time before our progressive wolves become "great favourites" of the House?

EVEN IF WINSTON VEERS LEFT, the progressive New Zealand community still has a problem. Their new political representatives: the people upon whom so many progressive voters have pinned their hopes for meaningful change; will soon discover that the speed at which they, themselves, are being transformed is far outstripping any changes in the wider world. Indeed, it will not be long before their elevated status leads them to begin questioning the wisdom of the many economic and social changes they are expected to make.

Even the lowliest Labour or Green backbench MP, on a salary of at least $160,000, now finds themselves among the top 5 percent of income-earners. It will require considerable willpower on their part to resist the lifestyle choices made possible by such a generous income. An even greater effort will be needed to prevent the blandishments of their fellow movers-and-shakers (who will be drawn to them like bees to honey) from turning their heads. As fully-paid-up members of the New Zealand political class, they will be expected to play by its rules. The most important of these: “Insiders do not talk to Outsiders!”, is intended to render meaningful economic and social change all-but-impossible.

It will only take a few weeks for these MPs to pass over from the world inhabited by their friends and constituents, into the “Wellington Bubble”. Once inside, they will find it very difficult to leave. Only when they are inside the bubble will the true character of events be revealed to them – nothing of which may be communicated to those living outside. They will soon come to accept that the power to solve problems is only ever made available to those who understand the importance of working inside the bubble. Trying to effect change from the outside will only bring home to them how powerless outsiders truly are.

These lessons will force our newly-minted progressive MPs to make some hard choices among their friends and comrades. They will have to decide who has what it takes to become an Insider, and who will forever be counted among the outsiders.

Once inducted into the rules of “Insiderdom’, these people will become the MP’s most trusted advisers and helpers. Regardless of what office they hold (if any) within the wider party, these will be the ones who, working alongside the MP, are permitted to wield the real power. Perhaps their most important role is to supply outsiders with explanations and excuses for why so many of the party’s promises for real and meaningful change cannot – at this time – be fulfilled.

As a means of protecting the world of the Insiders, this current arrangement is vastly more sophisticated than those of the past. Summer warmth is always more likely to encourage a relaxation of vigilance than the icy blasts of winter.

When the Labour Party was in its infancy, back in the 1920s and 30s, the salary paid to ordinary MPs was derisory – less than the wage of a skilled tradesman. Traditionally, the role of legislator was deemed one for which only “gentlemen” were socially, professionally and financially equipped. The rough-hewn working-men and women who entered the hallowed halls of Parliament were, therefore, met by a veritable force-field of class prejudice and scorn. Labour was the party of Outsiders – and the Insiders weren’t the least bit shy about letting Labour’s MPs know it.

While this state of affairs undoubtedly gave the enemies of progressivism considerable satisfaction, it was, politically-speaking, dangerously counter-productive. In terms of their lifestyle, working-class Labour MPs remained largely indistinguishable from their constituents. The complex apparatus erected around present-day electorate MPs by Parliamentary Services, was non-existent. When people came to a Labour MP seeking assistance, they were met more often than not by their spouse, who acted as the MP’s unpaid electorate secretary. There are countless stories about Labour MPs – especially during the Great Depression – reaching into their own, near-empty, pockets to prevent their constituents from going hungry. These were gestures that bred a party loyalty strong enough to bridge generations of voters. As Outsiders living among outsiders, the fires of progressive fervour that distinguished Labour’s team of parliamentarians were never in any danger of going out. No bubbles of wealth and privilege surrounded them to shut out the cries of the angry poor who were Labour’s nation.

In the words of Aesop’s fable – The House Dog And The Wolf

THE MOON WAS SHINING very bright one night when a lean, half-starved wolf, whose ribs were almost sticking through his skin, chanced to meet a plump, well-fed house dog. After the first compliments had been passed between them, the wolf inquired:

“How is it cousin dog, that you look so sleek and contented? Try as I may I can barely find enough food to keep me from starvation.”

“Alas, cousin wolf,” said the house dog, “you lead too irregular a life. Why do you not work steadily as I do?”

“I would gladly work steadily if I could only get a place,” said the wolf.

“That’s easy,” replied the dog. “Come with me to my master’s house and help me keep the thieves away at night.”

“Gladly,” said the wolf, “for as I am living in the woods I am having a sorry time of it. There is nothing like having a roof over one’s head and a bellyful of victuals always at hand.”

“Follow me,” said the dog.

While they were trotting along together the wolf spied a mark on the dog’s neck. Out of curiosity he could not forbear asking what had caused it.

“Oh, that’s nothing much,” replied the dog. “perhaps my collar was a little tight, the collar to which my chain is fastened – ”

“Chain!” cried the wolf in surprise. “You don’t mean to tell me that you are not free to rove where you please?”

“Why, not exactly,” said the dog, somewhat shamefacedly. “You see, my master thinks I am a bit fierce, and ties me up in the daytime. But he lets me run free at night. It really is very convenient for everybody. I get plenty of sleep during the day so that I can watch better at night. I really am a great favourite at the house. The master feeds me off his own plate, and the servants are continually offering me handouts from the kitchen. But wait, where are you going?”

As the wolf started back towards the forest he said:

“Good night to you, my poor friend, you are welcome to your dainties – and your chains. As for me, I prefer lean freedom to fat slavery.”

This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Saturday, 14 October 2017.


peter petterson said...

Aesop was onto something there.Lean freedom is better than fat slavery.

Jens Meder said...

Well Chris - does that not mean, that those preferring "lean", undisciplined freedom should not really complain about poverty -

because normally, prosperity or "fat slavery" requires utmost vigilance and discipline to maintain adequate profitability and "affordability" in all one's actions so as one's hedonistic freedom desires do not end up in the poverty of a wild wolf -

meaning, that if one prefers the latter, one should not complain about poverty nor about the protective measures of the "fatties" (the Haves) to restrict freedom by the poor and "free wolves" to help themselves without "paying for it" ?

Ultimately, all living creatures are subject - or "slaves" - to the laws of physics which demand a profit in energy over the energy consumed for mere survival.

Kat said...

That dog sounds very much like Richard "mad dog" Prebble.

greywarbler said...

Fascinating exposure of- the Thorndon Bubble is it? I'm glad you didn't try and put us in the picture before. It certainly popped my balloon which was a bit deflated already.

Anonymous said...

I remember the days, before Rogernomics, when back bench MPs were paid much the same as middle to top ranking Public Servants, senior teachers and scientists in the Public Service. After Rogernomics, Departmental heads of Gvt departments became CEOs, Town Ckerks became CEO's and back bench MP's had their salaries determined by the Higher Salaries Commission. Now they all drink from the same trough aided by recruiting/consulting agencies that have a vested interest in paying high salaries for jobs that were previously done at a much lower level of renumeration relative to the staff that they are supposedly responsible for.

Guerilla Surgeon said...

Sorry, I should have said ... But I was too busy laughing. If you look at the figures, it doesn't show a great deal more growth under Labour at all.

greywarbler said...

So you are warning us that if we win we may just have won a battle in a war that is likely to be lost. And if so what? The Alice in Wonderland analogy comes to mind, with Alice trying to bring a rational mind to cope with the unusual comments she confronts.

Say you are Alice Chris, what would you make of Slavoj Zizek's latest musings:
The left takes escape into moralism, the excesses of political correctness and so on. And here is the problem: on the one hand we have these protests which don’t have a clear aim and on the other hand don’t we get clear signs all around, that capitalism, at least as we know it, is approaching an end?...

Look at biogenetics; our brains can be wired directly to our PCs. This will change the very definition of what a human being is. And here we have the very first sad consequence, as I always warned; the ideal country today is a country that is fully integrated into a global market but at the same time ideologically ethnocentric, focused on its own culture. Even Trump is doing this. That’s why Trump gets on well with dictators. China, India, Putin are playing this game. We are approaching a new world where a global market will coexist with a lack of universally accepted emancipatory rules. This is very sad, but to go back to your question: why communism? Because I think all the problems I enumerated are ultimately the problems of what Marx called ‘commons’.

This means some shared substance, which shouldn’t be privatised and left to the market. Ecology is the problem of our natural substance, to what extent we can manipulate it. Intellectual property is also a problem of commons, so is biogenetics. In this sense, as I put it once ironically, communism is not the solution but the name of the problem today. We will have to find the solution at that level: of how to deal with commons outside of market relations. ...

Though a good Marxist I am not altogether against capitalism, because it is the most dynamic system in the history of humanity. But I am totally opposed to relying on local indigenous traditions to fight global capitalism. No! We have to fight it on its own terms with a new universal global vision. My point is that we have to go through capitalism, but at the same time we have to move on, not because I am a utopian and want more, but it is clear that capitalism is approaching a crisis in the sense that the problems it encounters today from ecology and so on. Here I am a pessimist in the sense that capitalism will not be able to resolve them in its own terms.

You need theory to see where activism fails. Especially left wing political theory. Isn’t the whole story of the left in the last century one big history of catastrophic failures? Which is why I say the best Marxist books were usually analyses after the fact of why a revolution had to go wrong. Isn’t it sad that all we get are excellent analyses of why we lost? So why philosophy? Firstly because I don’t trust practice. Practice is blind without theory. We need theory today more than ever and by theory I don’t mean direct activist theory.

Do you think practice really follows out of theory?

I will be modest here: it’s doubtful if philosophers will provide a new political programme. But here I follow Deleuze who says that more important than to give the right answers is to ask the right questions. And here philosophy can be of some use. We are dealing with serious problems today. But what if we analyse the extent to which the very way we formulate these problems doesn’t resolve them, but reproduces the problems.
PS Book - Incontinence of the Void: Economico-Philosophical Spandrels by Slavoj Žižek will be published by MIT Press in Oct. 2017

Victor said...

I prefer fat freedom to both options.

Jens Meder said...

Since it is impossible for the current number of humans to survive in the hand-to-mouth style of freedom of the wild wolf and without the effort of capitalism - the creation (saving) of reserves at the expense of hand-to-mouth consumption potential - for security, profitable investment and trade -

and our current option extremes between mixed capitalist free market libertarianism leading to intensified socio-economic polarization into Haves and Have-Nots -

and Socialistic (totalitarian?) Govt. Monopoly Capitalism -

are both unacceptable to the more Centrist "Right/Left wing" majorities in most of the world(?) -

then should there not be at least an impartial discussion on the philosophical and practical "pros and cons" of the "people's capitalism" concept, defined by moving towards at least a minimally meaningful level of personal (retirement) capital ownership by all citizens eventually ?