Tuesday, 19 February 2019

Just Like “Rogernomics”, A Capital Gains Tax Would Traumatize The New Zealand Economy.

Pushing CGT Uphill: The prospect of collecting a tax-free capital gain at the end of a life of hard work and deferred gratification is what keeps “Middle New Zealand” going. The farmer, the small businessperson, the professional couple who diligently paid off their mortgage and then leveraged the freehold into a second property: these are the people whose undying enmity will destroy any party foolish enough to enact a CGT.

LATER THIS WEEK, the recommendations of the Tax Working Group will become public. It is highly likely that a Capital Gains Tax (CGT) of some description will be near the top of the Working Group’s “To Do” list. How should Labour handle this extremely hot potato? The tax which all the experts tell us we have to have has much to recommend it theoretically, but, in the bluntest of practical political terms, it could very easily destroy this government.

The most important aspect of the CGT issue, and the one the Coalition Government should keep in mind at all times, is that the expectation of capital gain is now “baked in” to the economic expectations of a huge number of New Zealanders. One might even say that it is the beating heart of this country’s economic culture. The prospect of collecting a tax-free capital gain at the end of a life of hard work and deferred gratification is what keeps “Middle New Zealand” going. The farmer, the small businessperson, the professional couple who diligently paid off their mortgage and then leveraged the freehold into a second property: these are the people whose undying enmity will destroy any party foolish enough to enact a CGT.

Only those who conceive of our society as some sort of mechanism could possibly advocate a CGT. These are the people who believe that with a just few judicious adjustments to the social mechanism everyone’s lives will be immeasurably improved. Doubters will find themselves wondering what all the fuss was about when they see how brilliantly the technical changes are working. Opponents should be ignored. They just don’t get it.

Anyone who lived through the “technical adjustments” of the Rogernomics era knows that this line of argument is complete and utter bollocks. The “short-term pain for long-term gain” mantra that was advanced by the Fourth Labour Government (and amplified to ear-drum rupturing levels by the news media) was a lie.

Very few of New Zealand’s social indices have registered a clear improvement in the lives of New Zealanders as a result of the so-called “Rogernomics Revolution”. The wage-earner’s share of company surpluses has reduced in comparison to the shareholder’s. The number of New Zealanders owning their own homes has declined sharply. The dramatic surge in average life expectancy that distinguished the 30 years following World War II has plateaued.

The explanation for New Zealand society’s resolute refusal to be improved by the Fourth Labour Government’s neoliberal “reforms” is very simple. Society is not a mechanism, it is an organism. Ripping things out from, or cutting them off, a living system doesn’t improve it. All that happens is that the system is left wounded and bleeding. Given sufficient time, an organism may adapt to the loss of a limb, or an organ. Wounds do heal. But attempting to pass off the maimed subject of your surgery as a vast improvement over what existed before, is a fool’s errand. Trauma endures.

Has this government, dominated as it is by the Labour Party, learned anything from what happened between 1984 and 1999?

If it politely receives the Tax Working Group’s recommendations, only to consign them, quietly, to the archives, then we may be confident that Labour has absorbed the lessons of its recent history. If, however, Labour presses ahead: proclaiming, once again, the mighty improvements that are bound to follow the suggested adjustments to the mechanism; then we must anticipate the same disastrous consequences.

What farmer (who is not a corporation) will persist with the heartbreak and stress of extracting value from the land, if the tax-free reward awaiting him at the end of his stewardship is transformed into a crippling tax bill?

Will the small-business owner be content to pay herself less than the staff she employs; will she continue to pour her blood, sweat and tears into her enterprise; if a third of the capital gain she hopes to realise at the time of its eventual sale is payable to the IRD?

Will the professional couple with some capital to invest continue to put it into a rental property if a CGT is introduced? Will they go on putting-up with the often appalling behaviour of delinquent tenants? Will they continue to spend a small fortune keeping their properties warm and watertight? They might as well put all their savings into KiwiSaver.

Which is, of course, exactly what the economists want them to do. But will KiwiSaver rent out properties to students? Will it give young tradespeople somewhere decent to live while they amass the capital resources necessary to fulfill the Kiwi Dream of becoming one’s own boss?

Money flows around the social organism we call New Zealand in a unique way. We are not Germany, with its hugely facilitative regional banking structures and its comprehensive tenant protections. Nor are we the USA, with its vast domestic market and its middle-class households’ longstanding propensity to invest in stocks and shares. Ours is an economy driven by delayed gratification: by putting in the hard yards now, on the promise of tax-free capital gains later. Rip that expectation away from aspirational Kiwis, and the economic organism will suffer yet another massive trauma.

Those responsible for inflicting a Capital Gains Tax on New Zealand should not expect to be re-elected for a generation – at least.

This essay was posted simultaneously on The Daily Blog and Bowalley Road of Tuesday, 19 February 2019.

Sunday, 17 February 2019

Political Sadism, Or Moral Inertia? Explaining David Clark.

Whadaryah? It is hard to believe that Health Minister, David Clark, could have gratuitously refrained from speaking out against the latest decision of the Waikato DHB. So egregious has been the Board’s treatment of Dave Macpherson, Jane Stevens and their family, that the thought of Clark personally endorsing its conduct is repellent.

CLEARLY, DAVID CLARK never got the “Politics of Kindness” memo. In the face of the appalling behaviour of this country’s District Health Boards, the current Minister of Health’s deafening silence is proof of either political sadism or moral inertia. Neither option is acceptable in a government so loudly committed to the “well-being” of its citizens.

It is hard to believe that Clark could have gratuitously refrained from speaking out against the latest decision of the Waikato DHB. So egregious has been the Board’s treatment of Dave Macpherson, Jane Stevens and their family, that the thought of Clark personally endorsing its conduct is repellent.

That said, any decent Health Minister would have picked up the phone the moment he discovered what the DHB was trying to do, and instructed its CEO to cease and desist immediately. Dave and Jane, having been vindicated by the Coroner, deserved much better of the Waikato health bureaucracy than this reprehensible attempt to have the whole inquest re-staged. Not content with contributing to the death of Nicky Stevens, Dave and Jane’s deeply troubled son, the Board seems intent upon recommencing the slow torture of his parents.

So, if Clark isn’t a vicious political sadist, then what is he?

The answer, presumably, is that Clark is yet another of those all-too-familiar neoliberal heroes – the politician who has trained himself to see no evil, hear no evil, and speak only when advised that it is “appropriate” to do so. Like the hapless participants in Dr Stanley Milgram’s infamous experiment, Clark keeps dialling-up the pain. Never questioning the moral probity of those issuing the instructions. The Waikato DHB’s insurance company wants Dave and Jane put back on the rack? Well then, the Minister must not, under any circumstances, intervene.

It would be nice to think that Clark: an indisputably well-educated man; a member of the Labour Party; and – may God forgive him – a self-confessed Christian! might have demonstrated the moral courage of those participants in the Milgram Experiment who stood up to the men in the white coats. The ones who said “No.” Who flatly refused to participate in a process that, as far as they knew, was inflicting ever-more-dangerous electric shocks to the errant subjects screaming in an adjoining room.

Sadly, Clark’s refusal to address the bad behaviour of a single DHB, acting on its own, is more than matched by his failure to rein-in the Boards’ collective aggression towards their own staff.

There was a time when Labour Party ministers came from backgrounds where strike action, and the solidarity that makes striking possible, were the stuff of personal experience. A Health Minister with that sort of heritage would instantly recognise the DHBs’ negotiators’ current tactics vis-à-vis the Resident Doctors Association. He would see them for what they are: a deliberate attempt to run down the clock, so that the scab MECA (multi-employer collective agreement) negotiated by SToNZ will, on 1 March, become the only agreement available to junior doctors.

An “old school” Labour cabinet minister, one who’d held a union card, would have put a stop to such scabrous tactics. Clark’s behaviour, however, suggests that his most formative professional years were the ones he spent working for Treasury. Certainly, it’s the Treasury way to prioritise “fiscal responsibility” over anything as subjective as the young doctors’ commitment to offering the best possible care to their patients. Care that can only be compromised by being forced to work 12 days straight without a break.

Unfortunately, “fiscal responsibility” has been so fetishized by this government that Clark felt morally justified in telling the DHBs that they must operate strictly within the unrealistically tight budgets imposed on them by himself and Finance Minister Robertson. The Coalition’s “Budget Responsibility Rules” are not for breaking; which is clearly being interpreted by the DHBs’ negotiators to mean – the  junior doctors’ union is.

Is this the behaviour of a Minister of Health inspired by the “politics of kindness”? Are these budgetary constraints intended to foster the nation’s “well-being”? Not really. They are, however, entirely consistent with the neoliberal assumptions which continue to underpin the New Zealand Labour Party’s political behaviour.

The most important of these continues to be the assumption that only bad things can come from the “politicisation of economics”. Ministers must be directed by the numbers – and only the numbers. The human heart is a poor guide to rational administration. Patient care, and the care of patients, is to be defined by the data – nothing else.

David Clark does not appear to have a metric for moral force. The calculation of our health system’s ethical obligations seems beyond him. How, when all is said and done, does one measure a family’s sorrow, or calculate a young doctor’s dedication?

What is the market-price of kindness?

This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Friday, 15 February 2019.

Friday, 15 February 2019

Mixed Messages.

Incoming Calls: While Prime Minister Ardern is contemplating the ever-widening ramifications of the United States’ and the United Kingdom’s  reckless endangerment of so many of this country’s longstanding diplomatic, military and trade relationships, she might also consider asking herself how New Zealand’s refusal to distance itself from such naked assertions of ‘hard power’ is likely to impact on China – the nation which just happens to take 26 percent of our exports?

IF JACINDA can tear herself away from Reid Research’s latest poll, she might like to cast an eye over the UK Defence Secretary’s, Gavin Williamson’s, recent speech to the Royal United Services Institute. Dismissed by The Guardian’s Simon Jenkins as “the pompous rantings of a 1950s Tory on the make”, Williamson’s words recall the long dead era of British naval supremacy, as well, sadly, as the rapacious imperialistic appetites it excited.

His country’s imminent departure from the European Union, Williamson declared, should be seen as a heaven-sent opportunity to re-define the United Kingdom’s role as a global power: “Brexit has brought us to a great moment in our history. A moment when we must strengthen our global presence, enhance our lethality and increase our mass.”

Simon Jenkin’s insults notwithstanding, Williamson’s speech was more than a mere “rant”. He actually proposes to send the UK’s newest aircraft carrier, HMS Queen Elizabeth II, along with her squadron of F-35 fighter jets, into the Pacific. This dramatic projection of British “hard power” will, according to the Defence Secretary, serve notice on all those who “flout international law” that the “Anglosphere” is back in its old hunting-grounds – and means business.

Williamson’s reference to the flouters of international law is, of course, aimed directly at China. By the “Anglosphere” he presumably means the “White” British Empire of yesteryear: Canada, Australia and New Zealand – plus, of course, the USA. Quite what the Chinese, Indians, and all the other peoples of Asia (which Williamson, tellingly, refers to as the “Indo-Pacific region”) are supposed to make of this altogether outlandish resurgence of Anglo-Saxon imperialism is anybody guess, but it is unlikely to be positive.

The question Jacinda needs to ask herself, her Labour colleagues, and her Minister of Foreign Affairs, Winston Peters, especially, is: How should New Zealand respond to Williamson?

Is our Prime Minister really willing to allow this country to be associated with such an extraordinary display of racial and cultural chauvinism – and sabre-rattling? Should she not instead move immediately to distance herself from this latest example of Brexit-induced English lunacy?

And while she’s contemplating the ever-widening ramifications of the United States’ and the United Kingdom’s reckless endangerment of so many of this country’s longstanding diplomatic, military and trade relationships, she might also consider asking herself how New Zealand’s refusal to distance itself from such naked assertions of ‘hard power’ is likely to impact on China – the nation which just happens to take 26 percent of our exports?

It is to be hoped that our Prime Minister is sufficiently historically literate to recognise the scarcely believable levels of hypocrisy on display in Williamson’s grand rhetorical flourishes upbraiding those who flout international law. The UK is, after all, the nation whose warships forced the Chinese to open their ports to the East India Company’s opium.

When a British Secretary of Defence talks about enhancing the Royal Navy’s “lethality”, the chords of memory struck in the hearts of a billion Chinese evoke anger and sorrow in equal measure.

In relation to New Zealand, however, the reaction of the Chinese government is almost certain to be more sorrowful than angry. Since December 1972, New Zealand has enjoyed a special place in the hearts of the Chinese people.

Ours is not a powerful nation in conventional terms. Geographically and demographically, New Zealand is insignificant. Morally, however, we have loomed large in Chinese eyes. Proud and independent; determined to chart our own course, New Zealanders have, until quite recently, left behind them in Beijing a very favourable impression. The reward for that Kiwi honesty and fortitude was the 2008 China-New Zealand Free Trade Agreement – without which our experience of the Global Financial Crisis would have been considerably less tolerable.

Right now, however, Beijing is wondering where that Kiwi honesty and fortitude has gone. Thanks to our Foreign Minister’s embrace of the Anglo-Saxon “Pacific Reset”, the delicate vase that was the China-New Zealand relationship lies in pieces on the ground.

Turning around airliners and “rescheduling” important diplomatic encounters is only the beginning. The Chinese have 5,000 years’ experience in sending “messages”.

If Jacinda was to send a message of her own, however. If she was to call out the UK Defence Secretary’s speech for what it is: imperialistic, racist and absurd; then Beijing might conclude, with relief, that New Zealand has returned to its senses.

This essay was originally published in The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 15 February 2019.

Commentary Is Free – But Facts Are Sacred.

Toeing The Party Line: On the subject of Venezuela, at least, right-wing commentators seem content to pack as much “fake news” around their ideological prejudices as possible, confident that their position on the crisis, by conforming to the official position of the USA and its allies, is most unlikely to blow back upon them in any kind of “career-limiting” way.

POLITICAL COMMENTATORS tell us a great deal about themselves when they turn their gaze away from home, and towards events unfolding overseas. Domestic politics inevitably presents a rather muddied picture. There is so much happening: so many players – all with competing agendas – that achieving clarity is extremely difficult. With events overseas, however, there is much less in the way of clutter. The issues seem so clear, and the players so compelling, that the temptation to apply only the brightest primary colours to one’s analytical canvas is very hard to resist. Muted palettes are best reserved for the politics of one’s own homeland.

The commentary currently being offered up to New Zealand readers on the crisis playing-out in Venezuela strongly confirms these observations. And nowhere is the tendency to apply the brightest colours with the broadest brushstrokes more in evidence than in the commentaries of Liam Hehir.

Hehir is a conservative writer: vehemently and unrelentingly hostile to all things socialist. Hardly surprising, then, that Venezuela and its United Socialist Party government extract from him the most unequivocal political judgements.

As far as Hehir is concerned, the President of Venezuela, Nicolas Maduro, is a “dictator”, and the election which returned him to power was corruptly “rigged”. What a contrast with the self-proclaimed “Interim President” of Venezuela, Juan Guaido. Described by Hehir as “social-democratic”, this telegenic young man is said to have acted heroically and in complete accordance with his country’s constitution. Hehir is equally certain that the United States has played no dishonourable part in these events. Its only sin: placing itself at the side of the heroic Señor Guaido and the oppressed Venezuelan masses.

Unfortunately for Hehir, none of the above is true.

President Maduro was re-elected in an election certified by international observers as both free and fair. This is hardly surprising, since Venezuela has one of the most tamper-proof electoral systems in the world. That Maduro’s right-wing opponents, young Mr Guaido among them, opted to boycott the last presidential election in no way invalidates the process. Rather, it confirms the opposition parties’ profound political demoralisation, after seeing their candidates soundly defeated in every presidential election since 1999.

Nor is it even remotely true to say that Guaido acted in accordance with the Venezuelan constitution. Article 233, the constitutional provision cited by Hehir and the American government (from which Hehir appears to source all his information) was written to cover the situation in which the President Elect either resigns, is incapacitated, or dies prior to being sworn into office, and there is no formally acknowledged Vice-President available to take his/her place. These are the only circumstances in which the National Assembly is empowered to appoint an Interim President.

Given that Venezuela’s president was officially declared elected and formally sworn into office – along with his vice-president – on 10 January 2019, there is absolutely no legal justification for Guaido’s actions. This is confirmed by Alfred de Zayas, an American lawyer, writer, historian, expert in the field of human rights and international law and retired high-ranking United Nations official, who tweeted on 6 February: “Article 233 of the Venezuelan constitution is inapplicable and cannot be twisted into legitimizing Guaido’s self-proclamation as interim President. A coup is a coup.”

Nor is it even remotely true that Guaido is some sort of benign social-democrat poised to resurrect his country’s mixed, if currently broken, economy. The real Juan Guaido is a far-right activist who has engaged in violent protests against the Venezuelan Government for the past five years. The party he belongs to, Popular Will, scorns the democratic process – preferring direct and highly aggressive action in the streets. Notwithstanding (or, perhaps, because of) its insurrectionary praxis, Popular Will enjoys the fulsome support of the US national security apparatus. (That Popular Will was permitted  to affiliate itself to the “Socialist International”, of whose youth wing our very own Jacinda Ardern was once the president, speaks volumes about the authenticity of the SI’s allegiance to social-democracy – let alone socialism!)

All of this information (and much, much more) is readily available on the Internet. That Hehir has consistently declined to adequately test his bald right-wing assertions about Venezuela; that he relies, instead, on the propaganda pouring out of the United States government and its news media “assets”; tells us a great deal about his approach to political journalism.

On the subject of Venezuela, at least, he seems content to pack as much “fake news” around his ideological prejudices as possible, confident that his position on the crisis, by conforming to the official position of the USA and its allies, is most unlikely to blow back upon him in any kind of “career-limiting” way.

It is, of course, much more difficult to get away with this sort of “journalism” domestically. New Zealand is just too small for Hehir’s lurid misrepresentations of Venezuelan politics to be replicated in his commentaries on Kiwi current affairs.

A truly sobering question remains, however: If political conditions in this country ever deteriorated to the point where journalists were not only permitted, but encouraged, to pack fake news around their own and their publishers’ prejudices, would Liam Hehir’s commitment to telling the truth about what is happening in New Zealand be as strong as his commitment to telling the truth about what is happening in Venezuela?

This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Tuesday, 12 February 2019.

Monday, 11 February 2019

Harrowing Statistics: The Left’s Supposed To Shrink The Social Hell Of Joblessness – Not Expand It.

The Politics Of Kindness?  Such work as young workers are able to get tends to be indifferently rewarded and undertaken in conditions of considerable precariousness. Even those with impressive tertiary credentials struggle. Those without credentials find themselves consigned to social limbo. A  living purgatory, inhabited by persons of no economic value beyond that of holding down the wages of the working poor.

THE RISE in the unemployment rate, from 3.9 to 4.3 percent, may not sound like a lot – but it is. Not only because it represents a further 10,000 New Zealanders officially without work, but also because it’s the sort of news no genuine progressive government ever wants to hear. If progressive government is about anything, then it’s first and foremost about constantly expanding the number of citizens in good jobs with good pay. Any progressive government confronted with a steadily rising tide of joblessness should expect to drown.

Nor is it simply the raw percentage figure of 4.3 percent confronting the Coalition Government. Much more significant is the concomitant rise in the number of young people who are not in employment, education or training (NEETs). This number now stands at just under 100,000 15-24 year-olds, or 14 percent. A record quarterly rise.

The picture painted by these statistics is not a pretty one. It shows a country in which secure, well-remunerated employment is fast becoming (if it has not already become) the preserve of people over forty. Not only that, but a labour market which has effectively become “grandfathered”.

There is an ever-decreasing layer of the workforce which enjoys good money and good employment contracts – and will go on enjoying them until retirement. For the rest of the workforce, however, simply growing older and more experienced no longer guarantees better pay and conditions. That particular conveyor belt: the one which their predecessors in the workforce rode to a secure prosperity, has been dismantled.

Such work as these younger generations of workers are able to get tends to be indifferently rewarded and undertaken in conditions of considerable precariousness. Even those with impressive tertiary credentials struggle. Those without credentials – the NEETs mentioned above – find themselves consigned to social limbo. A place of living purgatory, inhabited by persons of no economic value beyond that of holding down the wages of the working poor. Those who have not become criminals, addicts or mentally unwell, float like ghosts through a society which has been taught not to see them – because they are not real.

There is absolutely no long-term future for a progressive government which allows this state of affairs to persist. The joyful and unanticipated resurrection of the Left and its ascension into government – which forms the core of Jacinda’s redemptive political narrative – has unmistakeable echoes of the “Harrowing of Hell”. This is the religious tradition that has Christ, in the period between his crucifixion and resurrection, “descending into Hell”. According to the tale, the Son of Man prevails against the Gates of Hell, overcomes its infernal defenders, frees the imprisoned souls, and leads them into the light.

Nothing less is expected of progressive governments. Those locked-up in the social hell of joblessness, mental illness, addiction and economic impotence are supposed to be the very first item on the Left’s “to-do” list. The infernal defenders of Capitalism are supposed to be confronted and defeated, and the imprisoned ones uplifted into the dignity of labour. Only then can the Left’s resurrection be considered genuine.

In the most prosaic political terms, it means that the number of people out of work; and most assuredly, the number of NEETs; must fall – and fall decisively – if the Left is to rise, and stay risen.

This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Friday, 8 February 2019.

Socialist Rhetoric No Substitute For Socialist Substance.

Wrong Sort Of Soldier: America has no real objections to military officers, like Hugo Chavez (above) meddling in politics. Indeed, if the history of the last 100 years teaches us anything it’s that the US rather prefers military to civilian rule in Latin America. What “El Norte” does insist upon, however, is that the military officers in question be staunch supporters of the United States and the capitalist status quo – in that order.

VENEZUELA is not a socialist state. Under its beleaguered president, Nicolas Maduro, the private sector controls a larger percentage of the Venezuelan economy than the British private sector managed under Margaret Thatcher. Venezuela’s principal income earner, Petroleos de Venezeula S.A. (PDVSA) is, like Norway’s Statoil, publicly owned. It was not, however, nationalised by Maduro, nor by his charismatic predecessor, Hugo Chavez. PDVSA was set up 43 years ago by the social-democratic administration of President Carlos Andres Perez. In 1976, Chavez was just 22 years old; a politically invisible army officer, only recently graduated from the Venezuelan military academy.

No less a genuine socialist than the late Fidel Castro, well aware of the consequences of attempting to establish socialism in the Western Hemisphere, is on record as warning his Venezuelan comrades against over-indulging in fiery left-wing rhetoric at the expense of achieving substantive improvements in the economic and social performance of the nation. Maduro and his United Socialist Party are now paying a very high price for their failure to heed Castro’s advice.

Life was easy for Chavez and Maduro when the price of oil was high. Massive transfer payments to Venezuela’s poorest citizens brought them immediate and impressive relief. The “Bolivarian Revolution”, as Chavez liked to call his redistributive efforts (after Simon Bolivar, the heroic liberator of South America from the Spanish Empire) seemed to be as successful as it was effortless.

Until, suddenly, the price of oil collapsed.

Only then did Maduro grasp just how big a mistake he and his United Socialists had made. Economies like Venezuela’s all-too-easily become the victims of their own good fortune. The massive export revenues derived from a valuable commodity like oil strengthen the national currency to the point where it becomes virtually impossible for local producers to compete with the cheap imports pouring into the country. All well and good while the currency remains strong. Not so great, however, when plummeting export prices undermine the currency’s value and send the prices of imports rocketing skyward.

It was Maduro’s attempt to fix the exchange rate of Venezuela’s currency that proved his undoing. His political enemies very rapidly learned how to game the President’s hastily improvised currency and price controls. Inflation, which had been set to rise sharply as the price of imports soared, was super-charged by the debilitating economic impacts of Venezuela’s burgeoning black markets.

And all of this, remember, was happening in a political climate characterised by uncompromising class conflict. Not, as the enemies of Maduro and his United Socialists would have you believe, a struggle inaugurated from below, but from above. Chavez’s democratic mobilisation of the urban poor against the entrenched political power of the Venezuelan elites earned him their instant, bitter, and undying hatred. From the moment he was sworn in as President, the wealthiest layers of Venezuelan society have done everything within their power to drive him and his Bolivarian “revolutionaries” from office.

In this enterprise they have been able to rely on the constant and massive support of the United States. America has no real objections to military officers, like Hugo Chavez, meddling in politics. Indeed, if the history of the last 100 years teaches us anything it’s that the US rather prefers military to civilian rule in Latin America. What “El Norte” does insist upon, however, is that the military officers in question be staunch supporters of the United States and the capitalist status quo – in that order. It took Soviet nukes to keep Cuba’s left-wing Comandantes, Fidel and Che, from falling victim to American imperialism. Whether Vladimir Putin’s Russian Federation can do the same for Maduro and his comrades remains to be seen.

Not that Maduro’s fate is likely to be decided by nukes. Back in the early 1970s, when the US was confronted with another democratically-elected socialist president, Chile’s Salvador Allende, the then US President, Richard Nixon’s, advisers told him to make the Chilean economy “scream”. It worked then, and it’s working now.

The demise of the Chavez/Maduro Bolivarian Revolution will be the consequence not of too much socialism, but too little. Combine a commodity-based capitalist economy with a left-wing government too inept to transform it from a vulnerable price-taker into a resilient price-maker, and the outcome is all-too-easy to predict.

Socialist rhetoric, without socialist substance, produces both the sweetest poetry – and the bitterest disappointment.

This essay was originally published in The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 8 February 2019.

Friday, 8 February 2019

The Incredible Lightness of Being Green.

Putting The Blue Into Green: The party’s male co-leader, James Shaw, openly touts for the support of “green” capitalists: as if the profits to be extracted from re-branding corporate greed as an “ecologically sustainable business ethos” will somehow render its actual production less dependent on environmental despoliation and unrelenting human exploitation.

IF IT’S PERMISSABLE to talk about “Red-Greens”, then why not about “Blue-Greens”? Surely an abiding concern for the natural environment is something which transcends narrow ideological considerations? And, if that’s true, doesn’t it make perfect sense for an environmental party to position itself squarely in the middle of the political spectrum – from whence it can reach out to both the Left and the Right?

Certainly, that’s what Vernon Tava believes, and the former Green MP, Kennedy Graham, agrees with him. In fact, Graham goes further, arguing that contemporary politics is driven by the followers of three great quests. The quest for freedom; the quest for equality; and the quest for sustainability. Graham strongly implies that the greatest of these three is sustainability. Without a sustainable environment, the quests for freedom and equality cannot succeed. This was the sort of thinking that prompted the late Rod Donald to declare: “The Greens are not of the Left. The Greens are not of the Right. The Greens are out in front.”

A great soundbite – but is it true?

It all depends what you mean by “out in front”. If it is intended to describe the vanguard role played by environmental activists in the 1970s and 80s, then the quip has some merit. Up until then “development” was the dominant – and largely uncontested – paradigm, embraced alike by the Capitalist West and the Communist Bloc. The power of science and technology was being unleashed against an intransigent natural world. “Progress” was the word used by both the Left and the Right to describe humankind’s heroic mission to bend Nature to its will. Felling forests, damming rivers and levelling mountains were all achievements to celebrate. Humankind was winning!

It took the Astronaut’s photograph of “Spaceship Earth” to jolt humanity into the realisation that this bright blue planet is all we have – a dazzling repository of life and beauty in an otherwise barren universe. Not an enemy to be subdued, but our one and only home. If there was a foe to be fought, then surely it was rampant industrialism and the insatiable consumerist societies it was spawning? Whether these societies were ruled by Capitalists, or Communists, hardly seemed to matter. The damage inflicted on the planet’s fragile ecosystems by both ideologies was equally catastrophic.

So, yes. Those who grasped the full social, economic and ecological consequences of the development paradigm were, indeed, “out in front” politically.

With the benefit of hindsight, however, it is possible to view the Cold War stand-off between the United States and the Soviet Union as a conflict driven less by ideology than straightforward geopolitical rivalry. The Russians’ state-capitalist system, at enormous cost, was able to maintain a rough military parity with its corporate-capitalist competitors, but was completely outclassed in virtually all other aspects of production. The Russians never mastered the problems of distribution, and, crucially, suffered from a crippling shortage of domestically generated investment capital. The wonder is not that the Soviet Union fell, but that it remained upright for so long!

With the collapse of “actually existing socialism” in Russia and Eastern Europe, and the Chinese Communist Party’s embrace of “socialism with Chinese characteristics” (a.k.a Capitalism!) the Greens’ boast that they were “out in front” lost its sting. The imperatives of corporate capitalism were now driving economic activity across the entire planet. Industrialisation and consumerism were being supercharged – and so was their impact on global ecosystems. Those who stood for the planet were now obliged to stand against a capitalist system whose corporate masters refused to acknowledge (and were, in fact, operating beyond) the moral and political claims of the traditional nation state.

But, as more and more of Earth’s burgeoning human population were swallowed up in the capitalist machine, the amount of CO2 spewing forth from its smokestacks and exhaust pipes was increasing exponentially – soaring towards an atmospheric concentration incompatible with the long-term survival of industrial civilisation. Capitalism was facing its final and fatal contradiction: a negation which only its own negation could negate.

The colour of this capitalist death-machine is, and always has been, blue. Calling yourself a “Blue-Green” is, therefore, oxymoronic. You can no more be a “Blue-Green” than you can be a non-violent boxer or a chaste debauchee. Nor is it defensible to describe yourself as a “Green-Green” – as if rescuing the biosphere can be accomplished without confronting directly the economic system responsible for its devastation. In this regard, the subjective sincerity or insincerity of Vernon Tava and Kennedy Graham is completely irrelevant. Objectively, they are serving the interests of the planet’s enemies – not its friends.

The capitalists’ oft-repeated accusation that they are facing “Red-Greens” is, however, entirely justified. If by “red” is meant a force dedicated to overturning the prevailing capitalist system and replacing it with one in which the three great goals of freedom, equality and sustainability will each become the indispensable guarantor of the other.

From their first appearance in the 1980s, Green parties around the world have presented themselves as both the exemplars and advocates of four foundational principles: Ecological Wisdom; Social Justice; Participatory Democracy; and Nonviolence. Each of these principles is antithetical to the founding principles of Capitalism: The Subjugation of Nature; Human Exploitation; Plutocracy; and Coercive Violence. The dilemma confronting Green supporters in New Zealand in 2019 is just how far the Green Party has drifted from the global Green Movement’s original values. There is a widespread and growing feeling that the Greens’ parliamentary representatives are no longer Capitalism’s enemies, but its enablers.

The party’s male co-leader, James Shaw, openly touts for the support of “green” capitalists: as if the profits to be extracted from re-branding corporate greed as an “ecologically sustainable business ethos” will somehow render its actual production less dependent on environmental despoliation and unrelenting human exploitation.

Only if Green voters are willing to subscribe to the fiction of “weightless” capitalist enterprises that leave no “carbon footprint”, can Shaw’s pitch be rendered credible. Except that, the cellphone in his pocket, the lap-top in his shoulder-bag, both argue against his proposition. If Shaw could only see the horrors attendant upon the extraction of the minerals that make them work; the super-exploitative megafactories in which they are assembled; then he would understand just how crushing the planetary burden off-loaded by his new-found “green” capitalist friends truly is.

As for the Greens’ female co-leader, Marama Davidson. Perhaps the best that can be said of her performance is that it has been distinguished by neither wisdom, nor justice. Nor even by a conspicuous quantum to democracy – participatory or otherwise. Most notably absent has been the founding Green principle of Nonviolence. On the contrary, Davidson’s “woke” faction of the party, caught up in the ever-tightening coils of identity politics, have unleashed a level of emotional violence upon those it deems ideological heretics that must surely make the party’s founders weep.

How different is today’s Green caucus from the “magnificent seven” Green MPs who entered the House of Representatives so triumphantly in 1999. The New Zealand establishment recognised those Greens for what they were: enemies of the status-quo and certainly not the sort of people this country’s capitalists (not even those in the Labour Party!) felt the least bit comfortable about doing business with. Red-Greens they were called: a label which MPs Sue Bradford and Keith Locke wore with pride. Today, to be branded a Red is simply embarrassing: proof only of outdated thinking.

Even so, the National Party leader, Simon Bridges’, enthusiasm for Vernon Tava’s “Blue-Green” initiative is misplaced. Such an obvious example of right-wing “astroturfing” would produce little of electoral value. Besides, all of the time, effort and resources required to draw off enough votes to tip the Greens out of Parliament would, ultimately, be politically counter-productive. New Zealand Capitalism is much better served by leaving the existing Green Party exactly where it is.

Sitting comfortably in the boardroom: sporting a pale-green silk tie and wearing a dark blue suit.

This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Friday, 1 February 2019.