Friday, 4 December 2020

The Last Thing Working-Class New Zealanders Need Is “Stability And Certainty”.

Make Some Noise! The problem with keeping conditions stable and certain for the middle-class is that it more-or-less obliges the Government to refrain from implementing policies likely to produce significant improvements in the condition of the working-class. Most especially, it obliges Jacinda Ardern and her colleagues to do next-to-nothing for the poorest and most vulnerable members of the working-class. Improving their lives would simply be too costly. It would require precisely the sort of new taxes and tax increases that Labour has already ruled out of contention.

THERE IS SOMETHING quite seriously out-of-kilter with the universe when I find myself agreeing with Richard Prebble. Commenting in this morning’s (2/12/20) NZ Herald, Prebs states with unnerving accuracy: “Labour won the election but we elected a conservative government. Gone from the government programme announced in the speech from the throne is any promise of ‘transformational change’. Instead we have the false promise of every Tory, ‘stability and certainty’.

Many conservatives will disagree with Prebble’s analysis. In their eyes, Jacinda Ardern is still “a pretty communist”, and her party a collection of fire-breathing “Cultural Marxists” hell-bent on transforming New Zealand into the Venezuela of the South Pacific. [No, I’m not really sure what a “Cultural Marxist” is either – but the term is very big right now in right-wing circles!] The conservatives’ confusion is understandable, however, given how common it has become for radical ideas about culture and identity to be conflated with the ideology of the “Left” in general.

Prebble is not so easily distracted. He won his political spurs in the days when leftism was mostly about the economic, social and political consequences of being born into a particular social class. The Labour Party he grew up in took as its starting point the condition of the New Zealand working-class and how it could be improved. The point of Prebble’s admirably acidic column is that this “Labour” government has begun its second term from a very different starting-point: namely, the condition of the New Zealand middle-class and how it can be protected. Hence, its very public commitment to “stability and certainty”.

The problem, of course, is that keeping conditions stable and certain for the middle-class more-or-less obliges the Government to refrain from implementing policies likely to produce significant improvements in the condition of the working-class. Most especially, it obliges Jacinda Ardern and her colleagues to do next-to-nothing for the poorest and most vulnerable members of the working-class. Improving their lives would simply be too costly. It would require precisely the sort of new taxes and tax increases that Labour has already ruled out of contention.

Not that Prebble is the least bit interested in tax rises. His big worry is New Zealand’s woefully low levels of productivity. Like any good Rogernome, he sees the solution to this country’s poor productivity in terms of upping the rate of exploitation: i.e. making the nation’s employees work harder and longer for less. He’s all about further deregulating an already comprehensively de-regulated labour market. Yes, he would start by undoing Labour’s minimal improvements to paid leave and minimum wages, but it wouldn’t stop there.

The funny thing about Prebble and his ilk is that the solution to our low rate of productivity has always been staring them in the face. The fastest way to lift productivity is to force employers to substitute innovative technology for the absurdly cheap and indifferently-skilled human labour that has, since the 1990s, been permitted to take its place. By dramatically lifting wages and improving working conditions, a reforming government would require inefficient businesses to either find a way to work smarter or close down. The inevitable rise in unemployment would be met with a massive state programme of upskilling and employment creation.

Not that this government would dream of implementing such a solution. Not only would it outrage the small-business sector, but it would unnerve the professional and managerial classes. Those who work for salaries are extraordinarily sensitive to what we old trade unionists used to call “the relativities”. Put simply, any appreciable rise in the income of the “lower orders” unmatched by a corresponding upward movement in the income of their “betters” will be construed as a direct attack on their social prestige and position – which, of course, it is. Maintaining the yawning gap in the life experiences of wage workers and salaried professionals is one of those unspoken and unbreakable laws of capitalist society that “reformers” ignore at their peril. Fortunately for the class that dominates Labour’s caucus, Jacinda doesn’t do peril!

But, if the Sixth Labour Government is unwilling to follow either Prebble’s path, or the path of uplifting the working-class, then how can it hope to escape the latter’s anger and disillusionment when they realise that in spite of all her “kind” words, Jacinda is not going to help them? Tragically, my gut instinct tells me that she and her colleagues are going to try and distract them.

For quite a long time now it has been clear to those who make it their business to keep an eye on such things that most of this country’s blue collars are to be found around brown necks. So many of this country’s most poorly paid jobs are being done by Maori, Pasifika and immigrant workers. They make up the bulk of the “working poor” and they are represented disproportionately in the ranks of beneficiaries.

These are the people who struggle to pay the rent, or, far too often, struggle to find a landlord to pay rent to. Theirs are the schools that are failing. Theirs the hospitals that are underfunded. It is their mothers, daughters, sisters and wives who are abused for wearing the hijab. It is their fathers, sons, brothers and husbands who are pulled over by the cops. Most of all, they are the New Zealanders for whom the daily injuries of race are experienced much more directly and painfully than the injuries of class.

What could be easier than to portray racism as the root cause of their misery? Especially when it is so much cheaper, politically, to persuade people that their problems arise out of the personal failings and prejudices of their fellow citizens, rather than from the structures of economic exploitation and social subordination in which they are trapped. As an explanatory tool, race has the added advantage of being something we cannot do anything about. Those who are born poor, on the other hand, are not bound by their genetic inheritance to remain so. To make race the problem is to choose a war that can never be truly won. Healing the injuries of class, however, is something human-beings have done before – and can do again. What’s more, the great thing about combatting the injustices of class is the way it renders racial differences increasingly unimportant.

When an injury to one is treated as an injury to all, the only colour people tend to see is red. It’s a colour that has bugger-all to do with “stability and certainty”, but it used to have a whole lot to do with Labour. Even Richard Prebble knows that.


This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Thursday, 3 December 2020.

Looking For "The Drummer".

Drumming-Up Support For The Nationalist Right: They’ll know “The Drummer” when they see him. He’ll be raffish, but not dishevelled. He’ll be articulate, but not slick. He’ll tell the most outrageous lies, which they will want to believe. But, most important of all, he’ll tell the most outrageous truths, which nobody else has the courage to speak. He’ll say the things that everybody on the Right (and even some disillusioned comrades on the Left) are thinking – and they’ll love him for it.
 

IN THE FIRST, fraught years of the Weimar Republic, its enemies spoke longingly of “The Drummer” who would re-awaken Germany. By the early 1920s, a small group of ultra-nationalists were convinced “The Drummer” had been found – in Munich. The name of this decorated front-line soldier and self-proclaimed artist, with an extraordinary gift for rousing political oratory? Adolf Hitler.

With the demise of Winston Peters and his NZ First Party, the New Zealand Right is in the market for a replacement “Drummer”. To say that the political merchandise currently on offer is shoddy would be an understatement. The manifestoes of the New Conservatives, Advance New Zealand, The Public Party and Heartland New Zealand are too cramped, and their leaders too lacking in talent, to serve as any sort of replacement for Peters and NZ First. For the time being, therefore, right-wing anger and resentment will seek to find expression in the National Party and Act – vessels too old and weak for wine as new and strong as theirs.

That said, it is difficult to see a radical right-wing party built from scratch achieving very much very soon. For a start, who would lead it? It is equally difficult to see the next Winston Peters in the latest intake of MPs. If there is a truly dangerous man or woman among them, then these qualities have been kept exceptionally well hidden.

David Seymour has performed admirably, it is true, but for a good part of the last term he was essentially pushing on an open door. National was too divided, too conflicted, to offer a credible alternative to Jacinda Ardern’s kindly populism. This allowed Seymour to move Act into the unoccupied political space. Holding that space, however, should National ever recover its mojo, will be a much harder task. Historically, Act’s success tends to be inversely proportional to National’s and, hence, a reflection of the Right’s overall weakness.

Could National’s leader, Judith Collins, morph into the long-awaited Drummer in the way her predecessor, Rob Muldoon, did between August 1974 and November 1975? The answer is: No.

There just isn’t enough of Judith Collins: intellectually, culturally or performatively; to become New Zealand’s next Drummer. She possesses neither Muldoon’s ear, nor his stomach. Muldoon “heard” the anxieties and resentments of “ordinary” New Zealanders more clearly than anyone except Norman Kirk – the man who had the good grace to die just weeks after Muldoon became National’s leader. More significantly, “Piggy” Muldoon had ample stomach for the political brutality required to transform the electorate’s anxiety and fear into votes. It helped, of course, that he was an intellectually formidable politician who despised “intellectuals”. That always plays well with “ordinary blokes”.

If the Drummer is not to be found in Act or National, then the Right will have to go looking for him elsewhere. (That the Drummer might be female is, of course, possible, but given the nature of right-wing Kiwi culture, unlikely.)

The monied men of the Right will not find him among the ranks of the ideologically compliant. The Drummer cares nothing for the “rules” of neoliberalism. For him, economics is a means to an end – nothing more. Having carefully studied the fortunes of the populist parties of Hungary and Poland, he’s convinced that nationalism only succeeds electorally when mixed with good sized dollops of socialism. This, he tells his friends, was where Trump got it so wrong. You can’t promise to rescue the working class from the clutches of the liberal elites, and then pump billions of dollars into the already bulging pockets of the One Percent!

So, where should they look for their twenty-first century Drummer? Will he be found, like Hitler, regaling the patrons of a crowded beer-hall with all manner of outlandish conspiracy theories? Unlikely. The place to find New Zealand’s next Drummer, Winston’s replacement, is by frequenting the one place Peters never felt comfortable – Online.

They’ll know him when they see him. He’ll be raffish, but not dishevelled. He’ll be articulate, but not slick. He’ll tell the most outrageous lies, which they will want to believe. But, most important of all, he’ll tell the most outrageous truths, which nobody else has the courage to speak. He’ll say the things that everybody on the Right (and even some disillusioned comrades on the Left) are thinking – and they’ll love him for it.


This essay was originally published in The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 4 December 2020.

Wednesday, 2 December 2020

To Apologise For Your Country's History, Is To Admit That You Don't Understand it.

Retrospective Moralising: Ideas that have, generation after generation, been ingrained in the minds of children by their parents, taught in school textbooks, and articulated forcefully by teachers, preachers, politicians and journalists of every stripe, are extremely hard to kill. All the more so when the identity of those to whom they have been transmitted is bound up inextricably with the pride and self-confidence they communicate, and the power they purport to guarantee.

THE DECISION BY STUFF to publish an all-purpose mea culpa for its racism towards Maori will be regretted. That regret will be fuelled in part by future generations’ acute embarrassment at the simplistic anachronisms which constitute the apologists’ central “argument”. Mostly, however, it will be fuelled by the effects of the highly racialised backlash it is bound to provoke. It is clear that a certain privileged layer of New Zealand society has learned nothing from the recent political convulsions besetting both the United Kingdom and the United States. Spit upon the most cherished beliefs and achievements of your “deplorables” and – eventually – they will spit back.

Let us deal with the anachronisms first. The word itself simply means: “a chronological inconsistency in some arrangement, especially a juxtaposition of persons, events, objects, language terms and customs from different time periods.” To judge the actions of historical actors by the prevailing moral precepts of the present is not only philosophically impermissible, but it also betrays the writer’s fundamental ignorance of the history he is purporting to condemn.

The founders of The Press, The Dominion, The Evening Post, The Taranaki Herald and The Waikato Times; the editors they appointed; and the journalists they hired; were all children of their times. They were living in a colony of the British Empire and in their writing they evinced the beliefs and values of what historians have dubbed “The Age of Imperialism”.

The conquest of other peoples’ lands, and the ruthless dismantling of cultures that inevitably followed, was justified by the imperialists’ unshakeable conviction that the steady advance of Western Civilisation across the planet lay at the very heart of human “progress”. The corollary to this belief in Western superiority was the notion that any resistance on the part of those the imperialist poet par excellence, Rudyard Kipling, called “lesser breeds without the law” was an unacceptable impediment to progress and must, at all costs, be crushed.

Which is not to say that these imperialist beliefs were accepted uncritically by everyone. There were contemporaries of the men who founded New Zealand’s colonial press who, while undoubtedly accepting the racial hierarchies proclaimed by the science of the day, nevertheless recognised the theft of other people’s property when they saw it – and weren’t afraid to say so.

If the white races were so self-evidently superior to the rest of humanity, these critics argued, then surely they were honour-bound to uphold the core civilisational values of which they were so inordinately proud? Promises, freely given, must be kept. Rights universally shared must be universally acknowledged. Equality, once proclaimed, cannot be rescinded. It was people of this temperament – a tiny minority of the settler population – who felt moved to write to those same colonial newspapers condemning with considerable force the destruction of Parihaka and the detention without trial of the settlement’s leaders.

It is also a fact that the colonial newspapers printed their letters. Proof, one might think, that the Pakeha New Zealanders of 140 years ago were not all the slavering racist monsters portrayed by Stuff’s current crop of anachronistic moralisers.

Which is not to say that, right up until the childhoods of people still alive today, those racial hierarchies weren’t upheld as scientific truths. Not even the unqualified evil of the Holocaust and the eugenicist murder of innocents by Nazi doctors in the 1930s and 40s, was enough to shake the white supremacist prejudices of the British, French, Dutch and Portuguese imperialists who attempted to pick up where they left off before the outbreak of the Second World War in 1939.

It took the breaking of the imperialists’ grip in India, Africa, Indo-China and Indonesia – by Indians, Africans, Indo-Chinese and Indonesians – bolstered by the scholarship of post-Holocaust anthropologists, historians and political philosophers, to upend finally the racial hierarchies that had justified white supremacy for upwards of four centuries. That, and the fight for civil rights in the belly of the American beast that quickened radically the debate over the place of race in the development of the United States – and the whole of the “Western World”.

It was not an easy fight. Ideas that have, generation after generation, been ingrained in the minds of children by their parents, taught in school textbooks, and articulated forcefully by teachers, preachers, politicians and journalists of every stripe, are extremely hard to kill. All the more so when the identity of those to whom they have been transmitted is bound up inextricably with the pride and self-confidence they communicate, and the power they purport to guarantee. The simple idea that “The West is the Best” is not contradicted – or apologised for – without unleashing resentments and hatreds of punishing force.

Reading the various essays published in the Stuff newspapers, it becomes clear very quickly that the writers possess not the slightest insight or empathy for the settler society they condemn; nor understanding of the 150 years of “racist” journalism they apologise for. What, one is moved to wonder, do they see when they look upon the works of their ancestors? The roads and the railways? The public buildings? The farms and factories? The family histories of struggle, disappointment and ultimate success? The sacrifice of tens-of-thousands of young men in wars whose casualty-lists reduce the New Zealand Wars to a skirmish.

A few years ago, I recall describing to an academic friend from Turkey the “battle” of Rangiaowhia, and explaining the discrepancy between the accounts of Pakeha and Maori historians as to the number killed. Was it twelve or seventeen? “Thousand?”, my companion asked, confused. “No, no,” I replied, embarrassed, “just twelve or seventeen.” She shook her head in quiet disbelief.

To apologise for one’s history is to invite those wronged by it to seek either restitution or retribution – or, maybe, both. The problem is, that what was taken by a combination of force and trickery is unlikely to be reclaimed by anything else. The children of the settlers who built “New Zealand” on the body of “Aotearoa”, understand in that special place known to all human-beings who love their homeland, that the apologies being offered by these radical journalists (who clearly despise everything “New Zealand” stands for) are a warning of deep and tragic upheavals to come.

Some of these Pakeha will reluctantly abandon their country. Some will retreat deeper into what is still its racist heartland. And some will struggle to preserve the nation they have grown up in. A nation whose true history is one of Maori and Pakeha finding more and more to be proud of in the way each ethnicity has adapted to the presence of the other. In the course of that history many apologies have been earned, and some have been given, but not, until recently, for being caught up in historical forces too vast for blame, and too permanent for guilt.


This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Tuesday, 1 December 2020.

Friday, 27 November 2020

The Second Term (With Apologies To William Butler Yeats)


Yearning and yearning for a comforting liar
The people will not hear the truth, nor trust the truth-teller;
Stories fall apart, the centre is not real;
Mere dull geometry to gull a duller world.
Our poll-driven narrative is loosed, but everywhere
The target audience refuses to be wowed.
The best shun social-media, while the worst
Still tweet with manic imbecility.

Surely some course-correction is in hand?
Surely it’s time to take our Second Term in hand!
Our Second Term! Hardly are those words out
Than grainy video-clips, recorded in the Eighties,
Download to my device. Images of conferences past;
A shape with Jim Anderton’s body and Matt McCarten’s head;
A gaze blank and pitiless as Tova O’Brien’s
Is holding a media conference, while all around it
Reel journos of the indignant Fourth Estate.
The cellphone screen goes blank; but now I know
That declaring “They are Us”
And stamping out the coronavirus
Were just the first rough drafts of an historical drama
Still struggling with its author to be born.

Chris Trotter
2020


This poetic parody was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Friday, 27 November 2020.

Spit & Polish: A National Party Story.

Consensus Politician: Following his victory in the 1960 general election, National’s second prime minister, Keith Holyoake, stretched himself out like a smug family cat over the sunny years of the early 1960s and purred.

THERE’S A STORY about the National Party that always struck me as important. It concerns National’s most successful leader, Keith Holyoake.

The year was 1938 and Holyoake was fighting to retain his Motueka seat. It was a particularly bitter campaign. After three years in office the Labour Party was seeking re-election on the strength of its impressive record of achievements and the promise of a radically expanded welfare state. National’s leader, Adam Hamilton, had described Labour’s legislation (due to come into force in April 1939) as “applied lunacy”. Labour’s Mickey Savage had responded by calling it “applied Christianity”. Everybody understood that an awful lot was at stake.

Even in the predominantly agricultural Motueka electorate, voters were keyed-up and anxious about the Election’s outcome.

Workers feared a return to the desperate conditions of the Great Depression’s worst years. The years when the main cities were convulsed by riots and unemployed men were sent to the hated “hunger camps” – where they toiled in remote locations to keep the Government’s meagre “dole” flowing to their families. So bitter was the social climate in those days, that a rumour claiming a right-wing MP had told the unemployed to “eat grass” was widely believed.

The idea of going back to those times inspired a dangerous mixture of panic and rage. When Holyoake turned up to an election meeting in Motueka he was greeted by an angry crowd of Labour supporters. Struggling to enter the hall he was showered with spittle.

Most people who are spat on generally emerge from the ordeal hating the spitters. It is to Holyoake’s eternal credit that he did not respond in this way. Instead, he pondered upon the intense fear and loathing that must have inspired it. He asked himself how bad things must have got; how much suffering people must have endured; to provoke such uncouth behaviour? Most importantly, he asked himself how the National Party could ever hope to be elected while people continued to believe that its members had once told desperate men and women to “eat grass”?

It took National many years to live down its association with the “Hungry 30s”. Indeed, it was not until National abandoned its plans to roll back Savage’s welfare state that the electorate was willing to vote it into office. Not that this concession signalled a softening of National’s intense hatred for the labour movement. Barely a year into its first three-year term, the National Government, led by Sid Holland (a former member of the proto-fascist New Zealand Legion) had plunged New Zealand into the “temporary tyranny” of the 1951 Emergency Regulations – promulgated to crush the staunchly left-wing Waterside Workers Union and its allies.

Through all this class conflict and Cold War paranoia, Holyoake held fast to his vision of a very different National Party. Conservative, yes, but not reactionary in the vicious tradition of Hamilton and Holland.

Recognising that a shift towards an accommodative conservatism was National’s only ticket to long-term survival, Holyoake’s caucus colleagues elected him to lead the party into the 1957 general election. National lost – but only very narrowly. By 1960 New Zealand was ready for Holyoake, and Holyoake was ready for New Zealand.

Thirteen years ago, I wrote: “Following his victory in the 1960 general election, National’s second prime minister, Keith Holyoake, stretched himself out like a smug family cat over the sunny years of the early 1960s and purred.”

Not that it was all plain sailing. There was a war to support (although not too strongly) in Vietnam, and a balance-of-payments crisis to be overcome. But, through it all “Kiwi Keith” remained the amusingly “plummy”, but always accessible, first minister of the “Half-Gallon, Quarter-Acre, Pavlova Paradise”.

Over the course of National’s twelve-years in office (yep, twelve!) the spat-upon man of 1938 oversaw New Zealand’s consolidation into a “property-owning democracy” of unparalleled prosperity and security.

As New Zealand’s most successful party, National is prone to forgetting how it became so, and what sort of leader is required to keep it so. For every Keith Holyoake, Jim Bolger and John Key, there’s a Sid Holland, Rob Muldoon and Jenny Shipley. For every leader who understands that a party calling itself “National” must govern “for every New Zealander”, there’s another drawn, irresistibly, to the sort of policies that make working-class voters want to spit on its candidates.


This essay was originally published in The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 27 November 2020.

Thursday, 26 November 2020

A Caucus Of Velvet Gloves.

Uniformly Diverse: There is one very simple reason why this government, comprised overwhelmingly of members of the Professional-Managerial Class, will find it almost impossible to understand what the bottom half of New Zealand society needs: because it is supremely confident that it already does.

NEW ZEALAND now boasts one of the most diverse parliaments on the planet. In terms of gender, ethnicity and sexuality, the governing Labour Party’s caucus, in particular, bears testimony to the work of many progressive politicians, over many years, to transform “diversity” from a pious ideological aspiration into a flesh-and-blood political fact. Quite an achievement.

But, it is also an achievement fraught with danger. Because, as Bryce Edwards points out in his recent Guardian article, the Labour Party’s diversity does not extend to class. The fact is that New Zealand has a parliament – and a government – drawn overwhelmingly from the Professional-Managerial Class (PMC). The perils of this social monoculture should be obvious. It can only raise a formidable barrier to understanding – and hence addressing – the needs of those living in the bottom half of New Zealand society.

This is not simply a problem founded on ignorance: a case of Labour not knowing what it doesn’t know about life in the Otaras and Flaxmeres of New Zealand. It’s much worse than that.

The PMC is distinguished by the role it plays in mediating Capitalism’s relationship with its most injured victims. Without the PMC army of lawyers, probation officers, social workers, health professionals, academics, teachers, journalists and “communications specialists” to extinguish the fires ignited constantly by economic exploitation and social exclusion, the whole of capitalist society would soon be engulfed in flames.

The PMC is what you create when the price of relying exclusively upon police officers, judges, jailers and soldiers to keep the bottom half under control grows too high. It’s the velvet glove that Capitalism pulls on to hide and soften its iron fist. For this subterfuge to work, however, the PMC has to believe that it knows much better than Capitalism’s casualties what’s good for them. There is one very simple reason why a government comprised overwhelmingly of members of the PMC will find it almost impossible to understand what the bottom half of New Zealand society needs: because it is supremely confident that it already does.

Nowhere has this “we know best” attitude been on display more clearly than in Oranga Tamariki. A more compelling example of the PMC’s inability to comprehend the sheer scale of its failure is hard to imagine. The idea that the “lower orders” might actually have a better grasp of what is needed to keep their children safe is simply inconceivable to the bureaucrats set in authority over them. These people are the “problem” – so how could they possibly be included in the search for solutions?

One has only to watch Melanie Reid’s harrowing Newsroom video to see the PMC at work. The employees of Oranga Tamariki quite literally put themselves between the victim and the Police – not to protect the young Maori mother, but to do everything possible to ensure that the “uplifting” of her child is effected without recourse to actual force.

The PMC’s stock-in-trade is institutional violence. The injuries it inflicts may be no less severe, but they are certainly more easily hidden than those caused by physical violence. For Capitalism, internal bleeding is always preferable to blood on the streets.

Those Labour supporters feeling confused and distressed by the Government’s apparent deafness to the cries of need arising from the poorest and most exploited New Zealanders should understand that when it comes to Labour’s caucus that deafness is a feature, not a bug. Alert Labour MPs to overt displays of misogyny, white supremacy, anti-Islamic prejudice and/or homophobia, and watch them spring into action. These are injustices that Capitalism is only too happy to help progressive politicians eradicate. Socio-economic injustices, however, are a different matter.

Any serious attempt to eradicate these wrongs would constitute a direct challenge to the capitalist system as a whole, and since the PMC looks upon capitalism as the most effective and efficient system for allocating resources that humankind has so far developed, undermining its operation in any serious way would be considered irrational. While it is perfectly acceptable to help those “doing it hard” to respond to capitalism’s needs, expecting capitalism to respond to their needs (in any meaningful way) is politically unrealistic.

The Ministry of Social Development (the clue to its mission is in the name!) will organise job clubs and offer help with beneficiaries’ CVs, but it will not pay a benefit which ensures them a secure and dignified existence. What incentive would there be to kowtow to the boss if, secure in the knowledge that they could live easily on the unemployment benefit until a better opportunity came along, employees felt free to tell employers where to stick their lousy jobs? For capitalism to work, so must the rest of us, at wages and under conditions set by the bosses – not the workers. Employees who no longer fear the sack are capitalism’s worst nightmare.

The members of Labour’s parliamentary caucus – the largest ever – will undoubtedly bridle at the very suggestion that they belong to a class made up of capitalism’s little helpers. Many will, no doubt, wax eloquent about their working-class origins, or the years they spent on the DPB. Not the point. The effectiveness of the PMC is, in large measure, guaranteed by so many of its members’ historical proximity to poverty. Being able to say: “I know what you’re going through, I’ve been where you are.”, makes the PMC’s advice and solutions all the more credible. After all, if these important people got up and away from the shitty world in which the poor remain trapped, then maybe they can too.

This is, of course, capitalism’s oldest and most persuasive narrative: from rags to riches (or, at least, from a benefit to a six-figure salary). Except of course, the story is only ever about individual – not collective – emancipation. Capitalism can cope with people moving from rags to riches one at a time; but not all at once. Celebrating identities over which we have no control (ethnicity, gender, sexuality) poses no threat to the institutions that keep the capitalist system on its feet. Telling people that they have the collective power to build a new world, on new foundations, does.

I, for one, would be delighted to hear capitalism’s little helpers in the Labour caucus giving voice to such dangerous ideas. I am much more likely, however, to hear them bragging about their caucus being, at last, a true reflection of New Zealand society. And if, by that, they mean Labour’s team faithfully reflects the forces preventing New Zealand society from becoming a fairer and more compassionate society, then I can only agree.


This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Thursday, 26 November 2020.

Tuesday, 24 November 2020

"Goodfellas": The Neoliberal National Party Shows Its Ugly Face.

Unaccountable? A reasonable National Party member might have anticipated that a president who led his party to the second-worst defeat in its history would feel obliged to fall upon his sword in recognition of the scale of his failure. Such a member would have been disappointed. Peter Goodfellow (above) was unanimously re-elected president by National's Board of Directors.

ABOUT THE ONLY thing the National Party has got going for it at the moment is the Labour Party. National’s AGM, held in Wellington over the weekend, achieved worse than nothing. It proved conclusively that the political structures created by the party’s post-2002 constitution are impervious to  membership pressure. It showed New Zealand how far the party’s talent pool has shrunk since John Key vacated the leadership in 2016. Worst of all, in the speech of National’s President, Peter Goodfellow, New Zealanders got to hear the vile neoliberal narrative in which the party has trapped itself. Were it not for the similarly delusional mindset evident in the leadership of the Labour Party, National could expect to remain out of power for at least the next 6-9 years.

When Judy Kirk and Steven Joyce set about re-writing the National Party constitution in the aftermath of the disastrous 2002 General Election – when National attracted just 20.9 percent of the Party Vote – the resulting document betrayed the extent to which the political imperatives of neoliberalism had superseded those which drove the party’s formation in 1936.

Back then, the urgent need was to create a mass political party to match the formidable strength of the Labour Party. The political historian, Barry Gustafson, quotes Tom Wilkes, one of the National Party’s most important ‘founding fathers’, describing Labour as “numerically and financially … the greatest political organisation that has ever existed in the history of [New Zealand].” In Gustafson’s own words: “National needed to match it with an effective but more democratic mass-based party, whose members would control candidate selection and play a major role in shaping policy.”

Even the right-wing parliamentarians and former army officers driving the merger of the United and Reform parties – predecessors of the National Party – understood that a mass organisation could not be built on anything other than a constitution which guaranteed a large measure of democratic participation and control to the rank-and-file membership.

Eighty years on, however, the neoliberal concept of “governance” elevated the concepts of professionalism and organisational efficiency well above those of the often chaotic and unpredictable outcomes associated with democracy. Accordingly, Kirk and Joyce did their best to transform National from a political party into a political corporation – complete with a Board-of-Directors. At the time, even Blind Freddy could see than the latter was bound to become self-selecting and self-perpetuating oligarchy.

It is interesting to speculate as to why the Electoral Commission approved the Kirk-Joyce constitution. The Electoral Act requires all registered political parties to have recognisably democratic rules. No genuine democrat could possibly mistake the National Party’s constitutional arrangements as the basis for anything other than oligarchy. Yes, there were provisions that permitted members to cast votes, but the core democratic principle: full accountability of those at the top to those at the bottom; was almost entirely absent. Clearly, the Commission is not prepared to call to account any political party that might one day be in a position to have it abolished! Alternatively, its members, like Kirk and Joyce, may also be of the view that “good governance” should always trump democratic accountability.

Certainly, there was no concession made to accountability by Peter Goodfellow. A reasonable National Party member might have anticipated that a president who led his party to the second-worst defeat in its history would feel obliged to fall upon his sword in recognition of the scale of his failure. Such a member would have been disappointed.

Under National’s old constitution, the membership might have responded to Goodfellow’s failure by voting him out of office. But, under the Kirk-Joyce constitution, that sort of root-and-branch change is no longer an option. Power flows down, not up, in the National Party of 2020. Presidential patronage takes precedence over presidential proficiency. No National Party members with parliamentary ambitions are going to put themselves off-side with the Board.

It is precisely this unwillingness to take risks – this enforced sycophancy – that explains why it has become so hard to attract persons of principle and courage to National’s ranks. When the only behaviour that counts is the sort of behaviour that wins the Board of Directors backing at candidate selection meetings, then it should come as no surprise that politicians of John Key’s calibre no longer seem to make it in the National Party. That Key was selected under the rules of the old National Party constitution – as were Bill English, Don Brash and Judith Collins – is surely no accident. Likewise, that Simon Bridges and Todd Muller were selected under its neoliberal replacement!

At the heart of the neoliberal mindset, now seemingly unchallengeable in the National Party, is the belief that capitalism and democracy are essentially incompatible. Democracy begets more democracy. “Certain inalienable rights” if honoured, have a way of discerning additional inalienable rights. If allowed to develop unchecked, democratic institutions will, eventually, arrive at the gates of private property and private profit and demand admittance. Hence the neoliberal obsession with “governance”: which is more truthfully rendered as “democracy on a tight leash”, or, even more truthfully, “decision-making that – at all costs – protects capitalism”.

Goodfellow’s speech to the AGM fairly reeked with this antagonism towards any political leader and/or political institution failing to protect the interests of capitalism. In National’s world, the rights of private property and private profit must always take precedence over every other consideration: even the health of the population; even in the face of a deadly virus and a global pandemic.

Jacinda Ardern’s clear and uncompromising decision to put the interests of her fellow citizens ahead of the interests of the individuals and corporations Goodfellow is so good at extracting donations from, earned her his own, and to a degree little short of repellent, his party’s, sneering contempt. Oh yes, he dressed it up in euphemistic language like “celebrity politics” and “temporary tyranny”, but what he meant was: “You broke the rules. You put people ahead of profits. You have identified both yourself and your party as unfit to manage a modern capitalist economy.”

The tragedy, of course, is that Ardern half-pie agrees with him. With Covid-19 stamped-out (for the meantime) and the need to act instinctively no longer in evidence, the Prime Minister has reverted to the political and moral default position of her generation: neoliberalism. Led by her head, Ardern’s path forward is practically indistinguishable from that which National would have followed had it, by some miracle, ended up commanding a majority of the seats in Parliament.

Led by her head, the Prime Minister, like her party, subscribes to the notion of “good governance”. Why else is she refusing to take the steps necessary to address New Zealand’s rapidly worsening housing crisis?

Presumably, because that would involve requiring monetary policy to serve the interests of the homeless – not property investors. Presumably, because that would require those at the top of our society being accountable to those at the bottom.

But, most of all, because it would require Jacinda to do what “Jacinda” does best: respond to a crisis by following the urgings of her heart.


This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Tuesday, 24 November 2020.