Friday, 17 April 2015

A Prudent Restraint: The Fate Of Liberal Media In Conservative Societies.

Police Riot, Chicago, 28 August 1968: Leading members of the liberal media establishment telegrammed Chicago Mayor, Richard Daley, condemning the way his Police Department repeatedly singled out and deliberately beat newsmen, allegedly to "prevent reporting of an important confrontation between police and demonstrators which the American public as a whole has a right to know." The American public backed Dick Daley and his cops.

FOR THE LIBERAL US NEWS MEDIA,  28 August 1968 was “the day the music died”. That was the day Chicago’s finest unleashed what a later inquiry would describe as a “Police Riot”. In full view of the TV networks’ cameras, the Chicago Police Department fired canister after canister of tear gas, sprayed gallons of mace into people’s faces at point-blank range, and rained down torrents of billy-club blows on unarmed anti-war protesters, delegates to the Democratic Party’s National Convention, and – horror of horrors – working journalists. CBS News’s Dan Rather was roughed up as the cameras rolled, prompting his colleague, Walter Cronkite, to declare live, on nationwide television: “I think we’ve got a bunch of thugs here, Dan.”
 
It was shocking stuff, and the newspaper publishers, their editors, and the network bosses weren’t afraid to say so. Confident that they spoke for the overwhelming majority of decent, civic-minded American citizens, the owners of America’s largest and most liberal media institutions roundly rebuked the behaviour of the Chicago Police Department and their brutal boss, Mayor Richard Daley.
 
Imagine, then, the liberal establishment’s profound shock and dismay when the overwhelming majority of decent, civic-minded Americans backed Mayor Daley and his rioting policemen. In the fortnight following the riot, the Chicago Mayor’s Office received 74,000 letters supporting his response to the anti-war protests. Fewer than 8,000 were critical of the way the Mayor and his Police Department had handled the situation. The nation’s pollsters confirmed these correspondents’ sentiments. Political pundits would later say that Richard Nixon did not win the 1968 presidential election on 2 November; he won it on 28 August.
 
The American public’s response to the Chicago Police Riot had a noticeably chastening effect on the liberal US media. Writing just a week after the event, the widely syndicated US columnist and Pulitzer Prize winner, Joseph Kraft, drew attention to the deep class divisions that liberal journalism at once reflected and exacerbated:
 
“On the one hand there are highly educated upper-income whites sure of themselves and brimming with ideas for doing things differently. On the other hand, there is Middle America, the large majority of low income whites, traditional in their values and on the defensive against innovators.”
 
“In the circumstances,” Kraft concluded, “it seems to me that those of us in the media need to make a special effort to understand Middle America. Equally it seems wise to exercise a certain caution, a prudent restraint, in pressing a claim for a plenary indulgence to be in all places at all times the agent of the sovereign public.”
 
Thirteen years later, and 13,000 kilometres south-west of Chicago, the “sovereign public’s” view of the news media was strikingly similar. In 1981: The Tour, his history of the 1981 Springbok Tour, Geoff Chapple describes an encounter between a crowd of Hamilton rugby patrons denied their match with the South African team, and a 25-year-old Radio New Zealand reporter from Auckland:
 
“He was slung around with radio-telephone gear, and he was a target too. The rugby crowd shouted at him: ‘You caused all this to happen, you bastards!’”
 
If one listens carefully, amidst all the clamour of protest at the possible cancellation of TV3’s liberal news and current affairs programme, Campbell Live, there is an unmistakeable echo of the same outrage that gripped the champions of a free press in Chicago and Hamilton. It is also a pretty safe bet that most of it is coming from “highly educated upper-income whites sure of themselves and brimming with ideas for doing things differently”.
 
In his famous post-Chicago column, Kraft invoked the medieval Catholic Church’s concept of “plenary indulgence” (the wholesale forgiveness of sins) to convey some sense of the invincible moral confidence that afflicts so many liberal journalists. That the judgements flowing from such confidence might be construed (by those required to live in circumstances of considerably less moral clarity) as a species of reproof never enters their heads.
 
Also absent from their calculations is the uncomfortable fact that, in a robust secular democracy, truth and falsehood, right and wrong, are what the majority say they are. Nothing makes the majority madder than being preached at by those who came second.
 
If as many New Zealanders voted for Campbell Live with their remotes as currently watch Seven Sharp, its future would be assured.
 
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, 17 April 2015.

Thursday, 16 April 2015

Alright, Alright! Here's The Original!

 

THE INCOMPARABLE JOEL GREY (Emcee) sings "Willkommen" - the creepy/raunchy overture to Bob Fosse's magnificent 1972 movie, Cabaret. The sceptics who questioned whether Christopher Isherwood meets Broadway meets Hollywood couldn't possibly work needn't have worried. John Kander's score and Fred Ebb's libretto didn't just ensure that Fosse's movie was a smash hit, they also delivered a disturbing warning about what can happen when people attempt to "leave their troubles outside" by shutting the door on political reality and loosing themselves in a hedonistic, make-believe world where "even the orchestra is beautiful".

Video courtesy of YouTube

This posting is exclusive to the Bowalley Road blogsite.

Willkommen Im Cabaret: "Table Talk" At Ika Restaurant, Tuesday, 14 April 2015.

 
Welcome To Cabaret! Glücklich zu sehen, Je suis enchanté, Happy to see you, Bleibe, reste, stay.
 
RIDICULOUS I KNOW, but I just couldn’t help it. As I looked around Laila Harré’s Ika restaurant on Tuesday night, I kept thinking: Weimar Germany, 1932.
 
Perhaps it was the cause. In collaboration with the Coalition for Better Broadcasting, The Daily Blog, and her own (and husband Barry Gribben’s) latest venture, Harré had called together a panel discussion on the future of Campbell Live. Looking around the restaurant I momentarily entertained the gruesome thought that one well-placed bomb would wipe out the cream of the Auckland Left (plus Bill Ralston and Fran O’Sullivan!)
 
Not that it’s come to bombs – not yet. Not like the poor doomed Weimar Republic. Even so, there’s the same worrying feeling that the forces of the Right are openly manoeuvring; striking ever more provocative poses; showing less and less regard for appearances. To wit, the impending demise of Campbell Live.
 
The thing about a good puppet show is that you either can’t see, or are artfully distracted from noticing, the strings. It’s only when the strings themselves become more interesting than the puppets they’re attached to that the audience should start to worry.
 
And that time has come.
 
Which is why, as I sat there in Ika (formerly the Neapolitan eatery Sarracino, formerly the chapel of Tongue’s the undertakers!) watching present and former MPs, trade unionists and entrepreneurs, left-wing and right-wing journalists shake hands and exchange gossip, my gloomy thoughts led me to the Kit-Kat Club and Bob Fosse’s classic movie, Cabaret.
 
Up on the stage, playing the role made famous by Joel Grey was our Emcee, Wallace Chapman. And the floor-show, Ika’s Cabaret Band, if you will, were (from neoliberal right to post-modern left) Fran O’Sullivan, Bill Ralston, Simon Wilson and Phoebe Fletcher.

"I am your host!" - Wallace Chapman plays Emcee at Ika's "Table-Talk" about the future of Campbell Live.
Together, they discussed and dissected the decision to dangle the sword of Damocles above the marvellous Mr Campbell’s current-affairs half-hour. All good stuff, and the punters lapped it up. (Along with their whole gurnards and snappers, expertly seasoned, and laid out on a bed of the most fashionable vegetables.)
 
But outside in the dark, where the unseasonable weather was turning Mt Eden Road into an icy wind-tunnel, a very different New Zealand was settling in for a very different bill of fare. The languid musings of TVNZ’s Mike Hoskings, perhaps? Or TV3’s X-Factor? Maybe The Bachelor, or NCIS, or How To Get Away With Murder, or any of a host of other shows beamed into their living rooms by Sky TV’s bounteous satellite. Their thoughts and feelings so far from the worries of these left-wing luvvies that they might as well be living on another planet.
 
Hence the ominous analogy with the tragic Weimar Republic. In the nite-clubs of Berlin’s demi-monde the clever and artistic lamented what was happening in the streets outside. The running battles between Left and Right. The strategic re-positioning of big business as the economy tanked and politics turned sour. And, most of all, the looming presence of a man who seemed almost umbilically joined to all the little people living in all the little rooms where democracy was fast becoming a dirty word.
 
Willkommen, Bienvenue, Welcome. Im Cabaret, au Cabaret, to Cabaret!”
 
A version of this essay was first posted on The Daily Blog of Wednesday, 15 April 2015.

Tuesday, 14 April 2015

Have Iwi Leaders Crossed A Line On Water Rights?

Free Flowing No Longer? How has God’s rain become the “Iwi Leadership Group’s” private property? And how do the latter propose to finesse the Prime Minister's, John Key's, repeated and emphatic assertion that "nobody can own the water"?
 
WHAT IF THE TREATY SETTLEMENT PROCESS had begun in the 1960s, instead of the 1990s? What would New Zealand look like? Historical questions beginning with “What if?” are always fun, even when the factors working against history unfolding in any other way are insurmountable.
 
Supposing, for example, that the highly influential Hunn Report of 1961 had recommended the establishment of a Treaty of Waitangi Tribunal and the negotiation of multi-million pound “Treaty settlements” in recognition of the injustices suffered by Maori since 1840 – rather than the policy of “racial integration” that it did recommend. Would the National Party government of the day have taken it seriously? Absolutely not.
 
The government of National’s Keith Holyoake, like the government of Labour’s Walter Nash which preceded it, was deeply apprehensive of the social consequences of the rapid pace of Maori urbanisation. In 1931, thirty years before the Hunn Report was published, barely 15 percent of Maori lived in urban areas, by 1961, however, that percentage had soared to well over 50 percent. Just a quarter-of-a-century later, in 1986, close to 80 percent of Maori lived in New Zealand’s towns and cities. New Zealand’s politicians and bureaucrats (who were overwhelmingly Pakeha) were concerned that such breakneck social and cultural change might spark serious racial unrest.
 
The Hunn Report rejected both wholesale assimilation and forced segregation as solutions to the “problem” of rapid Maori urbanisation. His great hope was that through intermarriage, the strategic use of public housing and, most importantly, through the homogenising influence of public education, Maori would peacefully integrate with the dominant, Pakeha, society.
 
It’s important to remember that, in 1961, there were clear alternatives to the policy of racial integration already operating in the English-speaking world. In South Africa and the southern states of the USA segregation was mandatory and the very notion of “racial mixing” considered dangerously provocative. With the violent excesses of Jim Crow and Apartheid before them, liberal Pakeha hailed Jack Hunn’s recommendations as being both courageous and progressive.

Jack Hunn: Neither wholesale assimilation nor forced segregation, but peaceful racial integration, was Hunn's vision for the future of Maori-Pakeha relations.
 
Conservative Pakeha were by no means convinced. In 1961 there were still many New Zealand communities in which informal racial segregation remained the norm. Pukekohe infamously separated the races at the town’s barber shop, cinema and pub. Such citizens condemned the Hunn Report as a dangerously radical document. Their deeply entrenched racism would smoulder on in both provincial and metropolitan New Zealand, flaring into angry firestorms whenever racial issues achieved political salience – most particularly in 1981 and 2004.
 
So, even if the sort of radicalism that was later to produce the Waitangi Tribunal and the Treaty Settlement Process had been present in the minds of any interested party – Maori or Pakeha – back in 1961 (which is highly doubtful) it would have been rejected out-of-hand by just about everybody.
 
But what if New Zealand had been ready for such solutions in 1961? How would they have played out?
 
The short answer is: they would have played out social-democratically. The institutional expression of the politics of reconciliation and redress would have rebuffed the politics of hierarchy and commercialism in favour of participation and collectivism. It would have done so not only because that was the shape of the increasingly urbanised Maori society that was emerging, but also because, thirty years after the ravages of the Great Depression, and just 15 years since the end of World War II, that was the shape of New Zealand society as a whole.
 
The formation of such institutions would, therefore, have reinforced and strengthened the social-democratic temper of the times – with incalculable (but likely quite profound) effects on the development of the Labour Party, the trade union movement, local government and the broader New Zealand economy.
 
That the Tribunal (empowered to hear claims from 1840 onwards) and the Treaty Settlements Process were created between 1985-1995 meant that the institutions which emerged to implement these changes reflected a very different set of priorities. The 1980s and 90s were the period in which New Zealand’s social-democratic society was systematically taken apart. In its place arose the neoliberal society of today: a market-driven economic system in which the rich rule and the poor go under.
 
Successive neoliberal governments took care to ensure that the energy of the Maori Renaissance was channelled into elite-brokered, ostensibly Iwi-based, “neo-tribal capitalist” corporations: institutions functionally indistinguishable from the foreign- and Pakeha-owned corporations in whose interests New Zealand politics is now transacted. These neo-tribal capitalists have grown exceptionally skilled at masking the commercial imperatives that are their true raison d’être behind the rhetoric of reparation and redress.
 
How else could God’s rain have become the “Iwi Leadership Group’s” private property?
 
But, what if Jack Hunn’s philosophy of integration is as far as Pakeha New Zealanders are willing to go? What if there’s a line they will not see crossed? What if this is it?
 
This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 14 April 2015.

Monday, 13 April 2015

Rhetoric From An Empty Stage: Sir Michael Cullen Offers Labour Some Suitable Synonyms For Socialist Terms.

A Practical Utopian? Sir Michael Cullen advises Labour to recast its rhetorical appeal to voters in terms more acceptable to twenty-first century ears. The four watchwords he proposes for the 2017 election campaign are: Choice, Aspiration, Responsibility and National Pride. He is, however, eloquently silent on the question of how the New Zealand working class are to be re-admitted to the country's political stage.

THERE ARE FEW NEW ZEALANDERS better placed to speak knowledgeably about their country’s political future than Sir Michael Cullen. Finance Minister in Helen Clark’s ministry (1999-2008) he wrestled with New Zealand capitalism up-close and personal for nine years  and is generally acknowledged to have emerged from the experience, if not unbeaten, then, at the very least, unbowed. The surpluses amassed under his stewardship armoured the New Zealand economy against the raking fire of the Global Financial Crisis; a barrage which could easily have sunk as less well-protected vessel. John Key and Bill English owe Cullen a lot.

Retiring from the hurly-burly of parliamentary politics in April 2009 to take up the Chair of New Zealand Post Ltd, Cullen has maintained a discreet public silence on both the new National Government’s conduct of political and economic affairs, and, more importantly perhaps, on the internal turmoil debilitating the Labour Party he joined 40 years ago.
 
Which is not to suggest that Cullen lost interest in his party, merely that he was wise enough to restrict his interventions to below-the-radar discussions with trusted friends and allies. When it came to the long-running feud between the supporters of David Cunliffe and the “Anyone But Cunliffe” (ABC) faction of the Labour caucus, Cullen came down firmly on the side of Mr Cunliffe’s opponents. He was an early supporter of David Shearer and, in the latest leadership contest, of Grant Robertson.
 
Cullen’s endorsement of Grant Robertson was the former Finance Minister’s first public intervention in the politics of the Left for many years – and he paid dearly for it. Widely tipped to lead the committee charged with reviewing Labour’s disastrous performance in the 2014 general election (the worst in 92 years!) Cullen was very publicly snubbed by Labour’s NZ Council, who gave the job to the more overtly left-wing party elder, Bryan Gould.
 
That rather petty decision to exclude one of Labour’s most experienced and intelligent kaumatua has now been remedied by Cullen’s recent co-optation on to the review panel. Whether the decision to rehabilitate Cullen was made before or after his delivery of a speech entitled “Labour: whither or wither?” is unclear. What cannot be denied, however, is that this 5,000+ word analysis of where Labour finds itself in 2015, and where it needs to be by 2017, more than justifies his inclusion.
 
The mission Cullen proposes for Labour is nothing less than to instil in the New Zealand electorate what the American political philosopher, John Rawls, calls the “reasonable hope” of living in a “practical utopia”.
 
It is difficult to conceive of a phrase which better sums up the historical aspirations of the New Zealand Labour Party. In a country that has never had much time for grand ideological systems, the notion of a down-to-earth, do-it-yourself, No.8-wire utopia; a practical utopia designed to meet the reasonable hopes and dreams of ordinary Kiwis, is as near to a perfect recapitulation of Labour’s mission as it gets.
 
And the need to recapitulate Labour’s mission in a twenty-first century context; deploying words and concepts acceptable to a twenty-first century audience; is central to Cullen’s argument. He uses his own family history to demonstrate how, in the space of just a single century, the solidaristic working-class culture out of which both the British and New Zealand Labour Parties were born, has been broken up and dissolved – not least by the comprehensive social and economic reforms Labour struggled so hard to introduce.
 
As was famously said of those Labour governments, writes Cullen: “success in improving the lot of working people began to move many of them into the camp of those who at least believed, or could be persuaded, that they had more to lose than gain from further change. And, associated with that, the centre-right began a long process of capturing the language of politics – for example, by talking of a property-owning democracy.”
 
These are the voters Cullen urges Labour to woo and win in the run-up to 2017. “To form a strong, stable progressive government Labour still needs to aim to get around 40%  of the vote.” For those party comrades who argue that the gap between Labour’s 2014 result and Cullen’s target can be made up by mobilising the non-vote, Cullen has nothing but scorn:
 
“The missing 15% is not going to come primarily from non-voting socialist fundamentalists as some in recent time seemed to believe. We certainly need to motivate as much of the non-vote as we can to vote for us. But the bulk of the increase has got to come from recapturing votes from National, as they did from us in 2008.”
 
The Labour Party capable of reclaiming these lost sheep, Cullen argues, will have “a clear philosophy, an intelligent strategy, appealing and relevant policies, effective and coherent leadership, and, above all, better emotional connection with a majority of the population.”
 
To secure that connection, Cullen suggests “capturing the ownership of some emotionally resonant words and concepts which we have all too easily allowed our opponents to expropriate.” He lists these words and concepts as: Choice, Aspiration, Responsibility and National Pride.
 
These concepts, says Cullen, need to be “associated with and to suffuse our more traditional ones of fairness, equality, opportunity and (more recently) sustainability.”
 
Easier said than done, one might reasonably object. Because, on the face of it, the concepts Cullen is promoting all possess a distinctly conservative flavour.
 
It is all very well to argue, as Cullen does, that “Choice” can be re-translated to mean “a form of democratisation but only where it is available, as far as possible, to all.” But, for most voters under 40, the word will continue to mean “what I want”.
 
The concept of “Aspiration” faces similar difficulties. Can it really be redefined to mean “opportunity for all”? For most New Zealanders, aspiration is what John Key’s life-story embodies. It’s all about a little boy raised in a state house by his widowed mum, who went on to make $50 million and become New Zealand’s prime minister.
 
The concepts of “Responsibility” and “National Pride” are likely to prove even more resistant to redefinition. Cullen, himself, concedes that” “there is a tendency on the left to think that this is just a cover for beneficiary bashing or some other kind of judgemental approach to life.” Well, yes, there is, and with very good reason!
 
But Cullen indisputably has a point when he says: “At the very heart of social democracy surely lies the notion that we have responsibilities to each other. That is, that we are social beings who wish to pursue the common good – again the idea of a practical utopia. We reject the idea of atomised individuals perpetually striving to climb over each other, that what matters above all is where we end up within a hierarchical society (in essence, alas, a practical dystopia).”
 
Cullen is equally eloquent when it comes to the concept of “National Pride”: “In brief, we need to own a new national pride around our identity as a proudly diverse nation, around what we can do to create a better world, and around a focus on independent, morally-based action in a dangerous world that we cannot opt out of.”
 
When he speaks like this, Cullen recalls his younger self. As a history-lecturer at the University of Otago in the 1970s he thrilled his students with lectures on the English radical tradition; of a world turned upside down. Clearly, it is a tradition that Cullen is reluctant to disown.
 
“The notion of inherent equality allied with the common good stretches far back into the English radical tradition which, at least for some of us, is part of our heritage. As far back, indeed, as 1381 when John Ball posed the searching question “When Adam delf (i.e. dug) and Eve span, who was then the gentleman?” (A reproduction of the woodcut by the great Victorian socialist artist, Walter Crane, asking exactly that question, once held pride of place in Cullen’s university office.)
 
Or the Knight, for that matter?
 
But if the sort of world in which “what matters above all is where we end up within a hierarchical society” is one deplored by Cullen as dystopian, then why did he allow himself to be made a Knight Companion of the New Zealand Order of Merit? Being lectured to about the central tenets of social democracy by someone called “Sir Michael” is just a little disconcerting.
 
Equally unsettling is Cullen’s studious avoidance of the central role played by the trade unions in the development of both British and New Zealand social democracy. Only twice in his paper does Cullen make reference to trade unionism.
 
The first reference is to the New Zealand worker’s supposed lack of faith in unions – as evidenced by National’s decisive victory in the snap-election of 1951:
 
“Increasingly, sections of the working class began to see at least trade unions other than their own as inimical to their interests. The public reaction to the 1951 waterfront dispute typified that development.”
 
The second reference occurs as part of Cullen’s explanation for the Clark-led Labour Government’s failure to roll back the neo-liberal revolution:
 
“But the neo-liberal revolution was central to intensifying trends that were already clear. In terms of legislation, the most important and decisive was the Employment Contracts Act which decimated the trade union movement, at least in the private sector. And so profound was the success of the Act in completing a long term change in public sentiment that it was impossible to fully reverse its effects after 1999.” [My emphasis.]
 
Given that the destruction of organised labour has always been, and continues to be, the key objective of neoliberalism: the one great “reform”, out of which all other neoliberal “reforms” flow and endure; Cullen’s flawed historical observations, and his failure to address the future of organised labour in his recent lecture, are absolutely critical omissions.
 
What they confirm is that, in spite of his sage and often persuasive advice concerning Labour’s electoral rhetoric, Cullen, and the faction of the party he represents, is not yet ready to challenge the singular foundational achievement of the neoliberal era: the expulsion of the New Zealand working-class from the nation’s political stage.
 
This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Saturday 11 April 2015.

Friday, 10 April 2015

UKIP's Genteel Xenophobia.

Loudly Defending "Little England": Nigel Farage, leader of the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) is the product of Thatcherism's elimination of the threat of Labour's "socialism" and the trade unions' "communism". Their greatest fears allayed, the Little Englanders are now voicing their xenophobic antipathy to globalisation and its consequences.
 
IN LESS THAN A MONTH the people of the United Kingdom will have a new government. Depending on how the votes fall, one of the key figures in that new government could be Nigel Farage – leader of the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP).
 
Frequently interviewed outside a traditional English pub, pint of beer in hand, Mr Farage has spent a decade perfecting his populist political persona: that of the loud, but fearless, member of the local golf club who isn’t afraid to call a guest-worker a “bloody foreigner” – and political correctness be damned!
 
UKIP claims to speak for “Little England” – think Hobbiton with Range Rovers – a place where retired small businessmen and local branch managers keep their suburban hedges neatly trimmed, and their little squares of lawn as closely shaved as their own ruddy cheeks. Safe within the confines of the golf-club, or down at their local, these Little Englanders grouse and grumble about what they see as their country’s slow dissolution in the acidic cosmopolitanism of the despised European Union (EU) and the caustic demographic backwash of Britain’s long lost Empire.
 
The success with which Nigel Farage has given voice to this genteel suburban xenophobia has the British Conservative Party running scared.
 
Time was when Little England’s visceral fear of the “socialists” in the Labour Party, and the “communists” in the trade unions, was sufficient to keep them safely inside the Tory Party’s big tent. But thanks to Margaret Thatcher (the woman Little Englanders would canonise if they could) the great left-wing bogeymen of the 50s, 60s and (especially) the 1970s have been reduced to things of vinegar and brown paper. Ed Miliband undoubtedly possesses many talents, but the ability to frighten Tories isn’t one of them.
 
With the Left no longer strong enough to keep the Right united, the natural fissures within British conservatism have grown wider.
 
Little England and UKIP wishes their beleaguered country could look like Inspector Barnaby’s Midsomer (minus the lethal homicide rate). Theirs would be a land of picturesque cottages, thriving high-street shops and large Anglican congregations. A world in which everybody’s white, nobody’s red, and blue is still the colour you call true. UKIP and Little England have no time for the EU’s circle of stars; no time for the Euro; and no time for the tens-of-thousands of “bloody foreigners” pouring across the English Channel.
 
In their heart-of-hearts they must know that their Little England has never existed outside the pages of Agatha Christie’s whodunits. What made England – and Britain – “great” were her factories, her cities and her highly-skilled working-class. William Blake’s “green and pleasant” England is a place rooted in “ancient time” – one that is quite incompatible with the “dark Satanic Mills” that have made the Britain of modern times so prosperous and heroic.
 
For all its aristocratic heritage and old-Etonian chic, the modern British Conservative Party was built by Stanley Baldwin, a Big England iron-and-steel industrialist who understood that if British capitalism showed itself to be incapable of sustaining a prosperous and growing middle-class, then its much larger (and considerably less prosperous) working-class would, eventually, put an end to it.
 
Little England may have loved Margaret Thatcher for smashing Labour and the unions, but it never really grasped the fact that the Left was not broken for the sake of the posh and the toff. On the contrary, Mrs Thatcher broke the Left because she regarded it as an impediment to the modernisation of Britain’s economy. She didn’t want to turn England into Midsomer Worthy, she wanted to turn England into Canary Wharf. Thatcherism was about barrow-boys breaking into boardrooms. It was about the City of London sucking the wealth of Europe into a very big British bang. It was about refashioning the British Labour Party in Thatcherism’s own image.
 
Mr Farage can sup his traditional English pint, and excoriate David Cameron’s Tories for selling England’s inheritance for a mess of EU-approved pottage, but the truth of the matter is that a Conservative-UKIP coalition government; one at odds with Labour and the Scots, and out of the European Union altogether, would very quickly have the nation on life-support.
 
What UKIP has yet to grasp is that, given the goals they share, David Cameron and Ed Miliband would rather rule Britain together, than see it decline, out of Europe, on its own.
 
This essay was originally published by The Waikato Times, The Taranaki Daily News, The Timaru Herald, The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 10 April 2015.

Tuesday, 7 April 2015

Frightening Governments

The Habit Of Revolt: The moment the state ceases to fear the wrath of its own citizens, it will move with terrifying swiftness to reverse the equation. Until ordinary citizens once again learn the knack of frightening their governments, their governments will continue to frighten them.

SHOULD A GOVERNMENT be frightened of its people, or, should the people be frightened of their Government? If your answer to this question is that governments should, indeed, fear the wrath of those they govern, then you are a revolutionary. If you believe that it’s best to follow the rules and do as you’re told, then you are something else. In a world ruled, more-or-less fearlessly, by top-down governments, exactly what that may be is fast becoming the most worrying question of the twenty-first century.
 
There is some comfort to be drawn from the fact that rule by fearless governments is not yet universal. France, for example, has long been upbraided by free-market economists for not implementing the sort of disciplinary economic “reforms” with which the citizens of the English-speaking countries have long grown familiar. The reason why the French people enjoy such a generous welfare state; and why French workers are blessed with a 35-hour week; is, however, very simple. French governments are frightened of the French people. Any perceived threat to their rights, or to the benefits they have extracted from their rulers over decades and centuries, is met by the French people with action – on the streets.
 
Hardly surprising, perhaps, when one considers that the French national anthem, La Marseillaise, is forever calling upon the French people to take up arms against every blood-stained banner tyranny advances against them. Modern France, like the United States of America, was born out of revolution. Where the two great republics differ, historically, is over the desirability of repeating the exercise. For the French, revolution (or the plausible threat of it) has become a habit. For the Americans, once would appear to have been enough.
 
Which is not to suggest that the USA hasn’t had to deal with considerable and repeated eruptions from below. Writing in the latest issue of The Atlantic, American historian, Kim Phillips-Fein’s, article “Why Workers Won’t Unite” looks back at the great trade union battles of America’s past and asks: “Is there a new way to challenge the politics of inequality?”
 
Phillips-Fein’s explanation for the apparent passivity of contemporary American workers is that, unlike their immigrant ancestors, they have no experience of either the personal autonomy inherent in small-scale, artisanal production; or, of the essential (if impoverished) collectivism of the peasant communities from which so many late-nineteenth and early-twentieth century immigrants to the United States had fled. In her words:
 
“The new proletarians longed to restore the economic autonomy they had once taken for granted—and, not yet steeped in the culture of the marketplace, they believed this was possible. The factories, corporations, markets, and banks that they viewed as their oppressors were still so new that their endurance hardly seemed assured. Many workers imagined that sweeping transformations would continue. They felt that the horrific world they saw around them could not last, that they had the power to help usher in a more humane and egalitarian social order.”
 
One hundred years later, it is clear that Capitalism ain’t going anywhere. Equally obvious is the fact that the “more humane and egalitarian social order”, which the struggles of the grandparents and great-grandparents of today’s working-class Americans brought into existence, is rapidly disintegrating. Working peoples’ faith in “sweeping transformations” is, similarly, at an historically low ebb. When those at the bottom of the social pyramid cease to believe that change is possible, is it at all surprising that governments do everything within their power to further convince them that resistance is futile?
 
The New Zealand working class’s history of struggle and transformation, though nowhere near as bloody as the United States’, was much more successful. And yet, the New Zealand and US labour movements both find themselves representing less than 10 percent of the private sector workforce. Strikes in both countries are at an all-time low. The confidence in collective action that unleashes a strike, and the solidarity that keeps it going, being almost wholly absent from today’s workers.
 
For those young people in possession of marketable skills, the preferred method of self-advancement within twenty-first century capitalism is networking. The old adage – it’s not what you know, but who you know, that counts – has never been applied with more determination than today. That networking might represent a dramatic reversion to the self-advancement strategies of feudalism, is not a question that those who already find themselves enmeshed within an organisation where power flows, exclusively, from the weak to the strong, have either the energy or the inclination to consider.
 
For those without skills, King Richard II’s curt response to the defeated remnants of the 1381 Peasants Revolt: “Villeins [serfs] ye are, and villeins ye shall remain”, sounds cruelly appropriate.
 
It would seem that the habit of revolution, and the knack of frightening governments, are forgotten at the people’s peril.
 
This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 7 April 2015.