Sunday, 23 September 2018

Has Neoliberalism Colonised Our Minds?

Welcome To Our World: The parallels between colonialism and the arrival of neoliberal ideology are striking. There was the same extraordinary confidence that the new order was, essentially, irresistible. That, putting it in the simplest terms, there was “no alternative”. With their old leaders and old institutions gone, the populations of the advanced western economies soon found themselves in the same powerless position as the victims of colonisation.

DR CHRIS HARRIS has been inspiring me for more than 20 years. He is one of those rare individuals who sees clearly the lines of force connecting individuals, classes, events and institutions in the present historical moment. His latest insight: that neoliberalism has replicated in the advanced economies of the West the same master/servant, foreign/indigenous power dynamic which once characterised colonial societies; is particularly exciting.

Colonisation presents a distinctive and consistent historical narrative. Foreigners in pursuit of specific economic objectives arrive in other people’s territory. The newcomers’ cultural confidence, supplemented by their superior firepower, quickly overawe the indigenous elites, who are easily persuaded to grant them privileged access to the resources they seek. In return, the local rulers are promised a share of the newcomers’ profits. Thus compromised, the ruling elites’ legitimacy is undermined and the newcomers move swiftly to fill the resulting power vacuum. The colonised population, if it is unlucky, then succumbs to the newcomers’ microbes and declines into demographic and economic irrelevance. Or, if they remain demographically significant, are forcefully reduced to economic and political impotence. Sullen enemies of the new order, they wait for their colonial overlords’ to make a mistake.

The parallels with the arrival of neoliberal ideology are striking. There was the same extraordinary confidence that the new economic doctrine was, essentially, irresistible. That, putting it in the simplest terms, there was “no alternative”. The intellectual and economic corruption of the existing elites similarly mirrors the colonial experience – as does their political collapse and replacement by the most ruthless exponents of the new, now dominant, ideology. With their old leaders and old institutions gone, the populations of the advanced western economies found themselves in the same powerless position as the victims of colonisation. Uncertain as to whether resistance or accommodation offered them the best hope of individual and familial security, they became involuntary participants in the complete transformation of their societies.

The question raised by Harris is whether what is happening in the advanced societies of the West: Brexit, Trump, the gathering momentum of populist leaders and parties in the formerly liberal nations of Germany, Denmark, Italy and Sweden; is in any way comparable to the anti-colonialist revolts that shaped so much of the twentieth century? Certainly, the near collapse of the globalised capitalist economy in 2008, and the mortal wound it inflicted on the credibility of neoliberalism, is analogous to the blows inflicted upon the power and prestige of the British and French Empires by the Japanese during World War II. The white imperialists, it seemed, could be beaten. Much of their power was bluff. Meaning: the moment colonial peoples found the courage to call their masters’ bluff, the days of empire were numbered.

Nowhere, argues Harris, can this analogy be drawn more sharply than in the United States. In the eyes of more and more Americans the “Establishment” has become the source of all their woes. People’s trust in the system is evaporating, and with it is disappearing what little legitimacy it still enjoys. Drawing on the writings of the radical writer, Umair Haque, Harris characterises the United States as  “a profoundly unstable imperial patchwork-quilt with a large population that does not enjoy full citizenship or personhood”. In his view, the United States is undergoing “an internal decolonisation revolution against a hated and distant elite that has made the locals into a helot underclass in the land of their birth.”

New Zealand is by no means exempt from the effects of this unravelling neoliberal hegemony. In this country, also, there is a large colonised population presided over by a distant and hated elite. We, too, have constructed an underclass whose full citizenship and personhood is routinely denied in overcrowded prisons; at the counter of the local WINZ office; and by “unconsciously biased” teachers, medics and cops.

That the sharpening of social tensions in New Zealand is happening at a much slower rate than in the United States or Europe is due, almost entirely, to the relative ease with which New Zealand passed through the Global Financial Crisis. Even so, by 2017 the National-led government’s increasingly obvious inability to treat all of New Zealand’s citizens as full persons left it with insufficient support to continue in office. Its replacement, the Labour-NZF-Green Government stands pledged to restore full citizenship and personhood to those Maori New Zealanders still suffering from the effects of the country’s original colonisation; as well as to the internally colonised victims of neoliberalism’s thirty-year rule.

The biggest problem faced by Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and her coalition partners is how to transition New Zealand from the cruelties of neoliberalism to a new economic and social order guided by the “politics of kindness”. It’s a problem accentuated by the absence of the “revolutionary carnivals” that have so often accompanied the throwing-off of colonial rule. Like the Brexit vote in the UK and the election of Trump in the USA, what happened last September and October in New Zealand represented the downtrodden voters’ confused reaction to the manifest failings of neoliberalism – not their confident endorsement of a coherent alternative.

The failure of the National Government’s opponents to develop a coherent alternative to neoliberalism is beginning to define their political and economic management. The victims of the old order still stagger under the burden of an essentially unmodified status-quo. The situation now prevailing is, therefore, akin to a hard-pressed colonial power granting its subjects the mere phantom of self-rule. The neoliberal colonisers, in their pith helmets and baggy shorts are still in charge, and the longer they remain so, the more ridiculous their phantom government will be made to look.

Revolutions are not made by half-measures.

This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Friday, 21 September 2018.

Friday, 21 September 2018

An Authoritarian Tumour In New Zealand's Democratic Brain.

Marching In Step: What so many of our politicians and pundits appear to expect from government, even when it is composed of two or more political parties, is strict military discipline at every level. The orders of the Prime Minister, like the orders of a generalissimo, must not be countermanded. Cabinet ministers assume the role of said generalissimo’s staff officers and the remaining backbench MPs become her troops.

SOMETHING IS GROWING in the New Zealand brain. An authoritarian tumour whose rapid expansion is triggering increasingly morbid symptoms in the body politic. Institutions and professions upon which New Zealanders traditionally relied for wisdom and good judgement have taken to displaying neither. Our national discourse has taken on a brutish quality: a coarseness and violence which discourages the participation of all but the most resilient of citizens.

Nowhere is the evidence of this authoritarian tumour more clearly on display than in the relentless disparagement of the coalition government led by Jacinda Ardern and Winston Peters. The lively reality of its tripartite character strikes an alarming number of pundits and politicians as evidence of a profound malfunctioning in the country’s political system. That the malfunction identified by these “experts” turns out to be democracy itself is even more alarming.

That there should be sharp disagreements between three quite different political parties and their respective leaders should surprise no one – especially when those parties have collectively assumed responsibility for governing the nation. As citizens, we are protected by the constitutional requirement that our governments must, at all times, command a majority in the House of Representatives. If, therefore, it is to go on governing, all disagreements within and between the component parts of that majority, no matter how sharp, must be resolved. If a resolution of differences cannot be achieved, then the responsibility must be returned to us – the voters.

How, then, to explain the near panic displayed by a phalanx of right-wing politicians and pundits whenever these entirely predictable disagreements between the coalition government’s members are aired in public? What is it that they expect from government, when evidence of debate – even open dissent – can throw them into such an agitated state?

There is only one credible answer to this question – and it is deeply troubling. What so many of our politicians and pundits expect from government, even when it is composed of two or more political parties, is strict military discipline at every level. The orders of the Prime Minister, like the orders of a generalissimo, must not be countermanded. Cabinet ministers assume the role of said generalissimo’s staff officers and the remaining backbench MPs become her troops.

But a political party is not an army. Whoever, outside of a revolution, heard of soldiers electing their generals! Why then do so many professional politics-watchers consider disagreement within a government’s ranks to be evidence of, at best, insubordination, or, at worst, mutiny? Why is the inevitable churn of political “Ins” and “Outs” invariably described as “a leadership coup” – as if changing leaders is an inherently bad thing to do?

Could it be that the reason the Right becomes so agitated at the sight of discussion and debate within the ranks of government is that it comports so uncomfortably with the way the people who elect governments are expected to live their daily lives? The complex hierarchies of the workplace, no less than those of the armed forces, owe nothing to democracy. Whoever, outside of a revolution, heard of workers electing their boss!

Could it be that the politicians and pundits of the Right are more likely than not to consider an undisciplined government to be guilty of letting the side down? After all, if ordinary citizens see their prime minister shrug-off the occasional disagreement between her and her deputy as simply democracy in action, then why can’t their bosses? If debate, even dissent, is treated by coalition party leaders as a healthy sign of political life – rather than a sacking offence – then why shouldn’t they have a say in how their workplace is run?

As corporate-style “governance” has acquired an ever-greater purchase over our lives; as all the countervailing powers within the workplace – viz: trade unions – have shrunk in influence; the huge discrepancy between the democratic freedom and equality that is supposed to characterise our political selves, and the exploitation and servitude which increasingly characterises our economic selves, acquires an decidedly subversive aspect.

The morbid authoritarian tumour which is taking over more and more of the New Zealand brain is in danger of extinguishing completely our national disinclination toward bending the knee to bullies, along with our much admired habit of thinking for ourselves. A government that’s willing to model both of these quintessentially Kiwi characteristics is to be commended – not condemned.

This essay was originally published in The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 21 September 2018.

No Substance To Her Stardust: Has Jacinda Lost The Magic?

The Magic Was Strong In This One: From the moment Jacinda Ardern became Labour's leader it was clear that she possessed something more than mere youth, vitality and confidence. She had the ability to present herself as a safe repository for people’s hopes and dreams. This, the Philosopher’s Stone of politics, allowed Jacinda to transmute the base metal of a Labour Party almost entirely bereft of ideas, into the pure gold of electoral appeal.

HOW DID IT HAPPEN? Where did she go? The Jacinda Ardern who rocked our world? Where did she lose her sparkle and her stardust? What, or who, took from her the qualities that had so decisively interposed themselves between the centre-left and almost certain defeat?

It used to be said of Jacinda Ardern that if the Labour Party had nothing to say, then she was, indisputably, the best person to say it. And now, assuming the media reports of last Sunday's (16/9/18) “All’s Well With The Coalition” exercise are accurate, that emphatically vague Jacinda is back. Poised, articulate, relaxed, witty: oh yes, she was all of those; but when her listeners attempted to recall the substance of her speech there was precious little for memory to work with. It was a tale told by a politician: full of smiles and good intentions; signifying … very little indeed.

Which leaves us to explain the political phenomenon that was “Jacindamania”. Because something happened that day back in August 2017, when Andrew Little stepped down and Jacinda Ardern stepped up. When she strode out to meet the assembled media and began speaking, dozens of jaws dropped open in wonder. It was a stunning performance, and when it was over there wasn’t a soul in the room who didn’t understand that the game had changed; changed utterly; and that an electoral phenomenon had been born.

And, perhaps, with the benefit of hindsight, that was enough. After the palpable disappointments of Phil Goff, David Shearer, David Cunliffe and Andrew Little; under whose care the Labour Party appeared to have lost the will to live; Jacinda strobed youth and vitality and a boundless confidence in her party’s ability to “do this”. As to the precise nature of “this”: no one on the centre-left considered it prudent to enquire too closely. It was enough that it wasn’t “that” – the sordid residue of nine years of National Party neglect. A narrow majority of New Zealanders had had enough of “that” – to the point where even an undefined “this” sounded pretty good.

But Jacinda possessed something else: something more than mere youth and vitality and confidence. She possessed that peculiar quality of presenting herself as a safe repository for people’s hopes and dreams. This, the Philosopher’s Stone of politics, allowed Jacinda to transmute the base metal of a Labour Party almost entirely bereft of ideas, into the pure gold of electoral appeal.

Thanks to Jacinda, Labour was able to bulk-up its Party Vote to the point where a three-party government became possible. The sheer elation of, if not victory, then, at least, of avoiding a catastrophic electoral humiliation, allowed Labour to conduct the negotiations with NZ First with a confidence that lasted just long enough to persuade Winston Peters that the promised “transformation” could be delivered. Jacinda had piled his plate high with policies fit for a queen-maker and bade him eat. It was an offer he could not refuse.

The great problem with magical feasts, of course, is that they are weightless and provide no sustenance. NZ First and the Greens may have believed they were being treated to the most splendid meal of their lives, but in the cold light of day, they were still hungry.

The brutal truth was that Labour’s leaders had no firm ideas about what they should do with the power that Jacinda’s electoral sorcery had placed in their hands. For the nine years National was in office they had been challenged repeatedly to identify the one or two policies they would wish to be remembered for. They couldn’t do it. Such energy as the Labour caucus possessed while in opposition was, for nearly a decade, devoted to the task of identifying an electable successor to Helen Clark.

In this bloody “Game of Thrones”, the question of what the victor should do when the power was finally placed in his or her hands was never adequately answered. The question of what he or she would not do, however, was very clearly answered. It was decided (with the Greens) that any future government of the centre-left would not stray too far from the fiscal parameters set by their National predecessors. Accompanying these “Budget Responsibility Rules” were a seemingly never-ending series of working-parties dedicated to coming-up with the policies Labour’s leaders lacked both the imagination and the courage to come up with themselves.

Leonard Cohen, in his poem “God Is Alive, Magic Is Afoot”, identifies the essential transience of transformative power:

Though laws were carved in marble
They could not shelter men
Though altars built in parliaments
They could not order men
Police arrested magic and magic went with them
For magic loves the hungry
But magic would not tarry
It moves from arm to arm
It would not stay with them
Magic is afoot
It cannot come to harm
It rests in an empty palm
It spawns in an empty mind
But magic is no instrument
Magic is the end

Use it or lose it, Cohen seems to be saying about the power to change this world we inhabit. Because, if you don’t, then somebody else will feel the weight of it on their palm; the strength of it in their arm; the fire of it in their mind. And the stardust that once was yours will lend substance to another’s determination to “do this”. Leaving you to “do that” in ways which the people who once marvelled at your magic will struggle to remember.

This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Tuesday, 18 September 2018.

Thursday, 20 September 2018

NZ First’s Radical Conservatism Must Triumph Before Labour-Greens’ Radical Progressivism Can Succeed.

Putting NZ First's Things First: The crucial political failure of Labour and the Greens is that they have yet to appreciate that without the realisation of the radical conservatives’ programme, the chances of a radically progressive programme succeeding are nil. Until the slums of neoliberalism have been cleared, a New Zealand fit to live in cannot be built.

LET’S GET ONE thing straight: this government is not a “pure MMP coalition”. On the contrary, it is a most impure political arrangement. A “pure” MMP coalition is one in which all of the component parties share, to a greater or lesser extent, a set of common philosophical convictions. The National-NZ First coalition government of 1996-97 was one such; likewise the Labour-Alliance minority coalition government of 1999-2002; which was, it is often forgotten, kept in office by a confidence-and-supply agreement with the Greens.

Jim Bolger and Winston Peters – the two principal players in the National-NZ First coalition government – had for many years sat in the same caucus. Both of them grew up in large, and far from affluent, rural families. Neither politician had much in the way of sympathy for trade unions. It was Jim Bolger who commissioned his long-time friend and ally, Bill Birch, to shepherd the Employment Contracts Bill through Parliament. And, it was Winston Peters who voted for that extraordinary piece of union-busting legislation without demur. Both men were staunch supporters of private enterprise.

Significantly, the Labour-Alliance coalition government was also led by two politicians who had sat together in the same party caucus. Helen Clark and Jim Anderton had been friends and comrades for many years until, as happened to so many friends and comrades in the Labour Party, they fell out over what came to be known as “Rogernomics”. By 1998, however, the civil war on the left of New Zealand electoral politics had been brought to a close. Labour and the Alliance were pledged to form a “loose” progressive coalition if the votes went their way in the 1999 election – which they did.

This current government, however, is a very different proposition from nearly all of the coalitions which preceded it. The votes of all three of its component parties: Labour, NZ First and the Greens; must be combined before any piece of government legislation can pass through the House of Representatives. Accordingly, the withdrawal of support by any one of this governing troika of parties can kill any bill.

To make the politics of this coalition government even more intractable, the NZ First Party is philosophically out-of-step with its allies. It has thrown in its lot with the parties of the left for one reason, and one reason only: because it allowed itself to be convinced that Labour’s and the Greens’ hostility to the neoliberal order was as unflinching as its own. In the nearly 12 months that have elapsed since the 2017 general election, however, NZ First and its leader have been given more and more cause to believe that Labour’s and the Greens’ opposition to neoliberalism is more rhetorical than real.

In the absence of genuine and decisive moves against the core elements of the economic and social order erected by Roger Douglas and Ruth Richardson, Winston Peters and his party have felt obliged to protect their electoral flanks by either vetoing or delaying the “progressive” legislation promoted by Labour and the Greens.

Peters’ “partners” have been aggrieved by these interventions. But, if Labour and the Greens really believed that NZ First: the law-and-order party; the anti-immigration party; was going to vote for the repeal of the “three-strikes” legislation, or a doubling of the refugee quota, absent the political cover provided by an uncompromising roll-back of neoliberalism; then they were dreaming. Likewise, with the key amendments to the Employment Relations Act. Without the covering fire of “Big Change”, the instinctively anti-union Peters has opted to keep his right-wing powder dry.

The leader of NZ First has no intention of emulating the behaviour of the Alliance leader, Jim Anderton. Once seated at the cabinet table, Anderton, felt obliged to follow Labour’s lead in all things: a strategy that saw the Alliance’s electoral support evaporate at an alarming rate. Peters has done his best to avoid being precipitately or unreasonably obstructive. He did, after all, swallow the dead rats of the resurrection of the TPP and the Labour-Green decision to call a halt to offshore oil and gas exploration. The problem, from NZ First’s perspective, is that the more compromises the party makes to its left-wing partners, the more it is expected to make. Peters is simply making it clear that there are limits to his co-operation. A warrior he may be – but he’s not a Social Justice Warrior!

Which brings us to the truly original aspect of the current coalition: the potential for at least one of its partners to go over to the Opposition, break up the coalition, and bring down the government – without the need for a new election. It would be a dangerous move, but what other option would NZ First – an essentially conservative political party – have if it found itself expected to vote for one piece of radical legislation after another? Coalitions are not suicide pacts.

What Labour and the Greens have apparently failed to grasp is that Peters is committed to facilitating not a radically progressive, but a radically conservative revolution. NZ First’s political programme is dedicated not to carrying our nation forward but to taking their country back. The New Zealand which Peters and his colleagues is seeking to restore is the New Zealand whose provinces thrived; whose families felt secure; whose culture was proudly British (with just a smidgen of Maoritanga thrown in for good measure) and whose future was something to be shaped by the hands of its own people – not the talons of a rapacious and globalised capitalism.

The crucial political failure of Labour and the Greens is that they have yet to appreciate that without the realisation of the radical conservatives’ programme, the chances of a radically progressive programme succeeding are nil. Until the slums of neoliberalism have been cleared, a New Zealand fit to live in cannot be built.

This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Friday, 14 September 2018.

Friday, 14 September 2018

A Different Kind Of Populism.

Consider The Counterfactual: What if, instead of Jim Anderton and the Alliance; someone and something very different had emerged from the wreckage of the New Zealand labour movement at the end of the 1980s? A left-wing populist leader: whose trade union background positioned him as the natural foe of the Business Roundtable and all its political hangers-on; but whose staunchly-held and deeply conservative views on social and environmental issues made him persona non grata on the progressive left.

NEW ZEALAND GOT POPULISM early. If you count Rob Muldoon as this country’s first no-holds-barred populist, then the start-date is 1974. If, as most people do, you date the rise of populism in New Zealand from the advent of the NZ First Party in 1993, then our populist-in-chief is Winston Peters – and he’s been kicking around for a quarter-century.

Compared to some of the nastier populist beasts prowling around western democracies these days, Winston scrubs-up pretty well. Oh sure, he’s been known to play the race card from time-to-time, and we wince at his “Two Wongs don’t make a white” “jokes”. But NZ First and its leader have given us no Charlottesvilles; his followers don’t wear uniforms or carry Tiki-Torches. Rob Muldoon was by far the more terrifying populist of the two. When Winston flashes us that 1,000 Watt grin of his, pretty much all is forgiven.

At heart, Winston is a National Party politician of the old school. He was raised under the gentle rule of Keith Holyoake, when the “historic compromise” between capital and labour: born of the Great Depression and World War II; was in full swing. Like Muldoon, Winston was fervent believer in the “property-owning democracy” that New Zealand had grown into as a result of that compromise.

No more than his pugnacious mentor, was Winston willing to surrender the New Zealand that Labour built, and National managed, to the tender mercies of the ideologues in Treasury and the Business Round Table. NZ First’s posture of resistance towards the policies of the so-called “free market” (policies to which both Labour and National insisted there was no alternative) proved to be a particularly durable political stance. Winston’s vision of what their country once was – and could be again – is shared by many thousands of New Zealanders.

Why then did Jim Anderton’s Alliance fail? It’s a question often asked by those who place themselves on the left of the political spectrum. After all, Anderton had also believed in the social-democratic New Zealand laid low by Roger Douglas and Ruth Richardson. What’s more, he and the Alliance had a much more fully-developed programme to restore it than NZ First had ever bothered to offer the electorate.

The Alliance’s problem – and, therefore, Jim’s problem – was that its most effective constituent parties, the NewLabour Party and the Greens, saw themselves as radically progressive political and social movements, and the Alliance itself as a vehicle for carrying New Zealand well beyond the timid compromises of the immediate post-war era. This was not what Jim wanted, but having placed himself at the head of the Labour Left, he had no choice but to follow along, muttering, behind his younger, much more radical, comrades.

The terrorist attack of 9/11 and the subsequent US assault on Al Qaida’s Afghan hosts – which Jim Anderton instinctively supported and which his anti-war baby-boom comrades just as instinctively opposed – was what brought the Alliance down. Jim and his Progressive Party limped along for another six years – and then it was over.

But, what if, instead of Jim Anderton; instead of the Alliance; someone and something very different had emerged from the wreckage of the New Zealand labour movement at the end of the 1980s? A left-wing populist leader: whose trade union background positioned him as the natural foe of the Business Roundtable and all its political hangers-on; but whose staunchly-held and deeply conservative views on social and environmental issues made him persona non grata on the progressive left. Someone with Mike Moore’s impeccable working-class credentials but lacking the enormous chip that Mike always carried on his shoulder. Someone who, unlike Moore, had refused to drink the neoliberal Kool-Aid, but who possessed every bit of Mike’s cut-through political wit – and then some.

Had a leader like that emerged to break the working-class out of the economically and socially liberal corral into which its largely middle-class parliamentary leadership had penned it, then the shape of twenty-first century politics in New Zealand could have been very different.

Under MMP, an economically radical but socially conservative “Justice Party”, led by the sort of leader described above, would have been able to clear the 5 percent threshold without difficulty. An advocate of state ownership and intervention; a supporter of both trade unionism and trade protectionism; strong on law and order; sceptical of welfare’s enduring utility; unconvinced by feminism, biculturalism and environmentalism; scornful of gay rights; and openly hostile towards multiculturalism and the multi-ethnic immigration it sanctioned; such a party would have separated Labour from a strategically significant chunk of its electoral base and turned NZ First into a National-supporting country party. Among white, working-class males it would have been huge.

Could such a party still emerge to challenge the socially-liberal Left? Not while the economy keeps ticking away. Not while Jacinda’s stardust continues to dazzle the voters. But, if History teaches us anything, it’s that the ingredients for disaster are never far from the reach of those who believe that crisis and opportunity go together like gasoline and open flames.

Cometh the hour, cometh the man with the comb-over.

This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Thursday, 13 September 2018.

The Theatre Of Cruelty.

A Spectacle Of Punishment: Clare Curran’s fate: public, prolonged and filled with intense emotional pain; was out of all proportion to her transgressions. As always in the Theatre of Cruelty, we were treated to the spectacle of hate without cause; punishment without mercy; and the unimpeded triumph of institutional sadism.

“HARDER! HARDER! I want to hear her scream!” The awful images and dialogue from that late-night arts documentary, broadcast forty years ago, were unforgettable in the worst way. One of those highbrow British television networks was examining the “Theatre of Cruelty”: an artistic movement born out of the surrealist revolution of the 1920s and 30s which was making something of a comeback in the work of the French playwright, Jean Genet. The scene seared on my memory was an out-take lasting only a few seconds: but those few seconds were enough.

The shock-factor intrinsic to the Theatre of Cruelty was intended to demolish the smug assumptions of its audiences by exposing the violence and sadism lying just below the surface of everyday life. The playwright’s purpose was to lay bare the cruelty embedded in the institutions that educate, employ, entertain and govern us. It certainly had that effect on me, a callow youth of 16 or 17. The sheer delight with which one of the characters urged on the torturer to new heights of depravity was profoundly affecting.

Why am I reliving all this? Because the recent treatment of Clare Curran brought it all back. The Theatre of Cruelty and contemporary politics have converged in a truly alarming fashion.

What distinguishes the Theatre of Cruelty from traditional theatre is its rejection of the classical precepts of dramatic art. Traditionally, plays are both a representation and an affirmation of the accepted moral order, in which those who seek to overthrow or evade its strictures are judged and punished. Or, more colloquially: drama is about reassuring us that the good guys always win. In the Theatre of Cruelty, however, not only do the good guys not win, but they are subjected to the most appalling torments by the bad guys – who are not judged or punished in any way at all.

The parallels with contemporary politics are, hopefully, clear. What start out as morality plays: demonstrations of what happens to politicians when they break the rules; very quickly degenerate into something quite different. The villains of these political morality plays, it soon transpires, are, like Shakespeare’s King Lear “more sinned against than sinning”. Their fates: public, prolonged and filled with intense emotional pain; are out of all proportion to their transgressions. As always in the Theatre of Cruelty, we are treated to the spectacle of hate without cause; punishment without mercy; and the unimpeded triumph of institutional sadism.

The surrealist pioneer of the Theatre of Cruelty, Antonin Artaud, envisaged an entirely new configuration of the theatrical experience. He wanted his audiences huddled in the middle of the auditorium with the players performing not in front of them but all around them. His direction also called for them to be bombarded by all manner of startling special effects – to the point where their senses were overloaded and they became disoriented.

A more vivid anticipation of the twenty-first century media experience is difficult to imagine. Artaud wanted his audiences to be at the mercy of his players; to dissolve the boundaries, both physical and psychological, which conventional theatres use to keep the audience safe from the action on stage. But, it is precisely the absence of boundaries – most particularly moral boundaries – that defines the experience of contemporary social media. The players are, as Artaud foresaw, all around us, and their viciousness is without restraint. We are transformed into witnesses of cruelties from which we cannot turn away.

The damage caused by this extraordinary environment is difficult to assess. That a few seconds exposure to the Theatre of Cruelty’s horrors left such a deep scar on the imagination of my teenage self makes me wonder what the ubiquitous and almost casual cruelties of twenty-first century media are doing to the imaginations of today’s teenage viewers. What sort of moral order is being communicated in the very public crucifixions of politicians, sportspeople and every other variety of celebrity? And what do these endlessly repeated spectacles of punishment tell us about the tastes of the contemporary citizen?

Forty years ago, we looked back with a mixture of superiority and horror at the vast crowds which once gathered to watch public executions. Forty years later, in our panoptic on-line dystopia, Artaud’s intuitive apprehension that the virtues of civilisation are barely skin-deep can only be described as cruelly prophetic.

This essay was originally published in The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 14 September 2018.

Wednesday, 12 September 2018

“Nothing Without A Demand” The Need For A New Union Movement.

“If there is no struggle, there is no progress. Those who profess to favour freedom, and yet depreciate agitation, are men who want crops without ploughing up the ground. They want rain without thunder and lightning. They want the ocean without the awful roar of its many waters. This struggle may be a moral one; or it may be a physical one; or it may be both moral and physical; but it must be a struggle. Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.” - Frederick Douglass

FOR 27 YEARS wage workers in New Zealand have been forced to endure “labour market flexibility”. In the guise of, first, the Employment Contracts Act (1991) and then, the Employment Relations Act (2000) a workplace regime specifically designed to advantage employers has steadily whittled away workers’ collective economic security.

Their legal power to act as a class, by striking in solidarity with other workers engaged in industrial action, has been nullified by the legislative strategies of both the National and Labour parties. The consequent engorgement of employer power has fundamentally redrawn the contours of class relations in New Zealand. Until they are redrawn again – this time in the workers’ favour – New Zealand society will continue its long, slow slide into narcissism and cruelty.

So entrenched has the employers’ advantage in the workplace become that the Labour-NZF coalition government’s promised restoration of the core content of the Employment Relations Act: those rights steadily whittled away during nine years of National Party rule under John Key and Bill English; is being represented by the employers as an example of how “ideology rather than solid public policy [is] driving decisions”.

The bare-faced affrontery of this assertion is stunning. As if the Employment Contracts Act wasn’t the product of the most clear and uncompromising ideological calculation. The Act was widely regarded as a legislative marvel, celebrated by right-wingers around the world as the most effective means of taming the unions (short of deploying tanks and guns) which the promoters of “free markets” had yet devised.

Its successor, the Employment Relations Act was, if anything, even more ideological. Its Labour Party sponsors took care to give just enough – but no more – to the battered trade union bureaucracies. The changes contained in the Act permitted what remained of the New Zealand trade union movement to survive – but not thrive. What it most emphatically did not do was encourage the mass re-unionisation of the workforce, with all that implied about bringing ordinary working people back onto the country’s political stage.

Not that the surviving union bureaucracies would have been at all keen to see such a decisive shift in power relations. Prior to the Employment Contracts Act, the “electorates” of the major trade unions ran into the tens-of-thousands. To become a union secretary (the equivalent of a CEO) one had first to be elected by the rank-and-file membership. This could involve anything up to 35,000 union electors being eligible to cast a postal ballot. Today, union leaders are elected by a few dozen hand-picked conference delegates.

The annual conferences of the old Federation of Labour (1936-1989) which attracted hundreds of politicised working-class delegates have been replaced by the profoundly undemocratic Council of Trade Unions’ biennial get togethers. Gatherings that seldom attract more than fifty souls – most of them paid union officials.

It’s facts like these that make the National Party’s claim that the Labour-NZF Government’s reforms will “return us to 1970s-style adversarial union activity” so utterly nonsensical. The “Fair Pay Agreements” which, of all the proposed changes, come closest to resurrecting the bargaining structures of the 1970s, cannot be secured by industry-wide strike action. The employers have the Prime Minister’s word on that.

What’s more, the National Party’s Workplace Relations and Safety spokesperson, Scott Simpson, has stated bluntly that: “The Employment Relations Amendment Bill will go down as one of this Government’s biggest economic mistakes and a future National-led Government will repeal the provisions”.

The rights of working people will thus be traded back and forth like chips on the political poker table. Neither National nor Labour are really interested in hearing how workers themselves would prefer the modern workplace to be organised, or in learning about ways that the twenty-first century economy, with all its technological miracles, might be so regulated as to ensure that the benefits of robotics and artificial intelligence accrue to the benefit of the whole population – and not just to the shareholders of the transnational corporations who own the patents.

What will it take for that to happen? Well, it will take a lot more than simply voting for the Labour Party, the Greens or NZ First. [Who are already showing signs of backing away from Labour’s proposed reforms.]

The first step towards the construction of a new union movement is a commitment to learn from the past. Grasping the key historical fact that the trade unions were not the creation of the Labour Party; the Labour Party was the creation of the trade unions. That only a broad-based and independent workers’ movement can generate the necessary industrial and political heft to ensure that the interests of working people are not simply shunted aside by the bosses and their enablers.

Such movements have happened before in New Zealand history. Massive waves of unionisation, often followed by militant industrial struggle, during which the employing class was given good reason to fear the power of organised labour. In place of strife, the employers were moved to search for some way of living in peace with the trade unions: an arrangement that was capable of benefitting both parties to the employment relationship. Absent that fear; absent that independent organisation; neither of the major political parties will feel under the slightest obligation to address the interests of working-class New Zealanders. National will look after its own, and Labour will look after itself.

Frederick Douglass (1817-1895) the freed African-American slave and tireless toiler in the anti-slavery cause, wrote movingly of the unavoidable nature of struggle:

“If there is no struggle, there is no progress. Those who profess to favour freedom, and yet depreciate agitation, are men who want crops without ploughing up the ground. They want rain without thunder and lightning. They want the ocean without the awful roar of its many waters. This struggle may be a moral one; or it may be a physical one; or it may be both moral and physical; but it must be a struggle. Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.”

This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Tuesday, 11 September 2018.