Friday, 18 April 2014

Barabbas - An Easter Story

"All I know is that he died and I live. Maybe it’s what lies at the heart of that day."
“YOU’RE A HARD MAN TO FIND!”, exclaimed the sharp-featured young fellow, setting a jug of wine upon the table. “I’ve had no end of trouble tracking you down! Some said you were dead, others that you had been sold into slavery. But I said ‘No, the people who each played a part in Our Teacher’s last hours upon this earth must surely enjoy the Lord’s protection’, and here you are, safe and sound, in Alexandria!”
“Safe and sound, you say? Can a Jew ever be truly so? Still, there are many of us here, safe among the Greeks – if not the Romans. So, tell me, boy, what has brought you all the way from Judea – no, don’t look so surprised, your Greek is good, but I’d recognise that accent anywhere – what do you want with this old grey head?
“I want the memories inside it, Yeshua Bar Abbas. You were there the day he died. While they still live, I am recording the testimony of all who witnessed the events of that day.”
“The day who died, boy? I have seen many men die – and I have to warn you, I do not remember very much about any of them.”
“You will remember this man, Yeshua Bar Abbas. Even though it happened thirty years ago. He was called Yeshua, too. A Galilean. From Nazareth. A teacher and a healer who preached the coming of the Kingdom. He was put to death by Pontius Pilate. You were involved in some way.”
“Yeshua of Nazareth? Oh, yes, I remember him.”
“You met him? You knew Our Teacher? Tell me what happened.”
“The truth is, I don’t know. We were both being held in Pilate’s prison. I’d already been condemned as a rebel – was scheduled to be crucified in a few hours. I do remember that I was feeling pretty sorry for myself – pretty low. Then they brought him in. The guards laughed when they heard his name, insisted on introducing me to my namesake. They told me I should bow, because this fellow was the King of the Jews.”
“Did he speak to you?”
“He smiled. Shook his head. Spoke softly. ‘I am no king’, he said. We talked for a long time. He seemed to know a lot about me. About my attacks on the Roman columns protecting the tax collectors. About the plot to cut down the Emperor’s standard above the Temple. I asked him if he was one of us – one of the Zealots. He shrugged his shoulders. Told me that there would always be Caesars of one sort or another. The trick, he said, is to recognise what can safely be surrendered to earthly authority, and what cannot. Doing what you’re told, he said, is much less important than doing what is right. I remember snorting with derision at this meek little man and wondering what on earth he was doing among the real revolutionaries.”
“What happened then?”
“A Centurion came and took him up to meet Pilate. He wasn’t gone long. Then a message came down from the Governor to release the man called Yeshua. I wasn’t surprised – at least, not until someone hauled me up and struck-off my chains. The guard had changed, you see. I was the only Yeshua they recognised. I couldn’t believe my luck! But then I recalled the Galilean’s words about rendering unto Caesar what was Caesar’s and unto God what was God’s. I hesitated, was about to speak, but he was standing right in front of me, telling me with his eyes to remain silent. He leaned forward and whispered: “Go in peace, Barabbas. Some things belong both to Caesar and to God.”
“What? You’re telling me Our Teacher’s death was a mistake!”
“No. I don’t think it was a mistake. I don’t think that anything about Yeshua was mistaken. There was something unfolding in that prison, something beyond my understanding. All I know is that he died and I live. Maybe it’s what lies at the heart of that day. What’s your name, son?
But the young fellow was already gathering up his tablets and stylus. He looked angry.
“My name is Marcus, and I’m sorry I found you Yeshua Bar Abbas. The story you’ve told me cannot possibly be true. I pray the Lord sends me a better one.”
This posting is one of a series of representations of the Christian story carried on the Bowalley Road blogsite every Easter and Christmas.

Tuesday, 15 April 2014

A Matter of Time: Reflections Of A Waning Republican

Time Lords: The historical transition of the Monarchy: from that which rules, to those who reign, was a remarkable constitutional innovation. Neither a true monarchy, nor yet a full republic, Britain’s constitutional monarchy offered its subjects something unique. "[A] constitution made by what is ten thousand times better than choice, it is made by the peculiar circumstances, occasions, tempers, dispositions, and moral, civil, and social habitudes of the people, which disclose themselves only in a long space of time.”
I’M A REPUBLICAN. At least, I used to be. Now, I’m not so sure. And, yes, this reassessment is, indeed, the result of the just completed visit of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge and Prince George.
So, what has changed? What’s become of that young university debater who, way back in 1981, when the royalist team called for “Three cheers for Her Majesty, the Queen!” leapt to his feet and called for “Three cheers for Oliver Cromwell!”?
The answer, I’m afraid, is “Time”.
Two years on from that fiery debate in the Otago University Union, the Prince and Princess of Wales were seated on the lawn at Old Government House and their little son, William, was hot in pursuit of a Buzzy Bee.
And now, impossibly, that little boy has a little boy of his own. Through all the happy and farcical, inspiring and tragic events that have shaped both his life and my own over the  intervening 30 years, a connection – something more than mere sentiment – has grown. It was not there in my republican youth, but it has sprouted as my youth faded: watered by the storms of experience; growing stronger with each circuit of the sun.
And now, impossibly, that little boy has a little boy of his own.
I understand now what I could only smile at in my youth – my late mother’s undying affection for the Queen. I realise now that she, too, had memories to measure her own life by. Of a serious little girl staring warily at the newsreel cameras in the last years of peace before the outbreak of the Second World War. Of that little girl, grown now into a young woman, on the arm of her new husband. Of that same young woman, now a mother, proudly displaying her first-born son to the world.
That connection again: through war and marriage and motherhood; always there, always growing and subtly binding this super-family – half German, half Scot – to that vast commonwealth of families who, growing older, had learned to recognise the signposts of their own maturity in the unfolding history of this strange and exalted reflection of themselves.
The Royal Family - a strange and exalted reflection of our own.
Time has also taught me to recognise the true identity of the forces I railed against in my youth. In opposing monarchy I was, in fact, opposing the exercise of unelected and unaccountable authority: the arbitrary and violent intervention of state power into the lives of the powerless and the innocent.
But if that is the measure, then the government of Oliver Cromwell does not merit even one cheer. He and his “plain, russet-coated troopers” were nothing less than Christian mujahedeen. England during the Interregnum became a ruthless military theocracy. Cromwell’s New Model Army, for a brief moment the crucible of democratic debate, would emerge, finally, as the Taliban in breastplates.
And was the Monarchy really so politically unaccountable? When the Cromwellian regime collapsed, and the Stuart dynasty was restored in 1660, the executed King Charles I’s son landed at Dover. And all the way to London, a distance of 75 miles, the road was lined with his cheering subjects. Had it been put to a vote, Charles II would have been elected in a landslide.
What Cromwell did do, however, was prove that monarchs could not rule, indefinitely, without the people’s consent. This radical notion was reconfirmed in the Glorious Revolution of 1688. Henceforth kings and queens would reign – but they would not rule. Our monarchs thus ceased to be creatures of politics and became creatures of time. For what else is a “reign” but the temporal measure of the monarch’s tenure on the throne?
This historical transition of the Monarchy: from that which rules, to those who reign, was a remarkable constitutional innovation. Neither a true monarchy, nor yet a full republic, Britain’s constitutional monarchy offered its subjects something unique. In the words of the man who understood the innovation best, Edmund Burke:
“[I]t is a constitution made by what is ten thousand times better than choice, it is made by the peculiar circumstances, occasions, tempers, dispositions, and moral, civil, and social habitudes of the people, which disclose themselves only in a long space of time.”
And this, of course, is the great distinction, between a royal family and an individual head-of-state elected for a short term of office. A family embodies a relationship with time that is quite distinct from that of the individual. The hereditary principle itself is meaningless without the reality of those who have come before – and those who will come after.
And that is what we see when William and Kate and George step off the plane. Not just themselves, but all who have come before them, and all who shall succeed them. It is an image embodying not just the Royal Family, but our own.
And that is something we shall never be able to elect.
This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 15 April 2014.

Friday, 11 April 2014

Poster Boy

Mixed Message: The potency of this poster from the Toothfish agitprop collective lies in its symbolic confusion. At first glance it appears to be an example of Nazi Party propaganda from the 1930s, only upon closer inspection do we understand that the image is a comment about National and Neoliberalism - not Nazism. Ironically, the Nazis were fierce critics of laissez-faire capitalism, an historical detail that further complicates the image.

THE POWER OF ART and its uncanny ability to evade the censors of our conscious mind is never more obvious than when it gate-crashes party politics. Poster art, in particular, possesses a special potency. In 1981, the year of the infamous Springbok Tour, the number of households in which the “It’s pronounced Apart-Hate.” poster could be found, proudly displayed, was astounding. Hard on the anti-apartheid movement’s heels came Nuclear-Free New Zealand posters. These were, if possible, even more ubiquitous.
Since the mid-80s, however, there’s been a dearth of truly great political posters. The West’s wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, unlike the United States’ involvement in Vietnam, passed us by without leaving very much in the way of enduring cultural markers. Certainly, the first few years of the twenty-first century have produced nothing to match the powerful posters of the twentieth.
Neoliberalism, and its cultural corollary, post-modernism, have created too arid an environment for genuinely affective posters. The collective passions from which political art draws its energy have long-since collapsed into a desiccated individualism out of which almost nothing grows with sufficient strength to prick our consciences.
Until now.
For John Key, April is indeed the cruellest month, because the poster which began appearing on Wellington streets a few days ago cannot be easy for the son of a Jewish refugee from Nazi barbarity to bear.
At first glance it appears to be an example of Nazi Party propaganda from the 1930s. The dominant colours are the red, white and black of the swastika flag, and its human subject is decked out in the uniform of a Nazi stormtrooper. On closer inspection, however, we discover that the symbol in the centre of the circle is not a swastika but a dollar sign. The monetary symbol is repeated on the stormtrooper’s armband and a red dollar sign is pinned to his chest. The stormtrooper himself is, quite clearly, the National Party leader, John Key.
What impresses about this poster is its painterly qualities. Not for its creator the easy cut-and-paste of computer-generated graphic art. This is not a photo-shopped version of John Key but a striking portrait executed in gouache on a matte board. More than anything else, it is this painterliness that tricks our eyes into believing we are looking at something from the 1930s.
The work of an anonymous, environmentally-driven political collective calling itself “Toothfish”, the poster’s purpose is set forth on the outfit’s website:
“Let's be clear - the poster is talking about capitalism, control and the increasing privatization of government. The image suggests that the naked pursuit of money is akin to an extremist doctrine. One in which human lives and the environment are being sacrificed on the altar of expediency for the profit of our ruling elites.
“The poster is NOT saying John Key is a Nazi.”
This latter disclaimer strikes me as just a little disingenuous. The poster only works because our eye processes its message much faster than our mind is able to decode its content. And what our eye sees is John Key dressed as a Nazi.
In an unintended way, the artist’s resort to the iconography of Nazism is also a statement about the enormous difficulty in visually discussing the totalitarian nature of the neoliberal ideology.
The all-encompassing ambition of Neoliberalism marches under no banners, wears no symbols, swears fealty to no fuehrer, and needs no uniformed militia to enforce its will. Like Yahweh and Allah, the neoliberal deity forebears to be represented by anything other than words and numbers. Also like them, Neoliberalism is a jealous god who suffers no rivals. How does one represent in poster form an ideology that makes a desert – and calls it prosperity?
The poster’s final irony is that the Nazis, far from being its kindred spirits, would have fought Neoliberalism with as much vigour as the Toothfish collective. By this reading, John Key emerges not as the dollar sign’s political avatar, but in the uniform of one of its most aggressive historical opponents.
This essay was originally published in The Dominion Post, The Waikato Times, The Taranaki Daily News, The Timaru Herald, The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 11 April 2014.

Tuesday, 8 April 2014

Noises-Off Democracy's Stage

Noises Off: The pretty play of democracy is being slowly but unmistakably overwhelmed by an altogether darker script whose authors - hitherto operating behind the scenes - are increasingly moving their undemocratic action front-of-stage.
THE PRETTY PLAY OF DEMOCRACY goes on as usual. The familiar characters make their entrances and exits, delivering their lines with more or less conviction, and the plot, with one or two obligatory surprises, unfolds in the time-honoured way. Occasionally, the writers experience a moment of sheer collective inspiration and the audience thrills to the antics of a wholly original character – this season’s undoubted hit being the inspired and ebullient Kim Dotcom.
Lately, though, the audience has been distracted by loud noises off-stage. This is most unusual – and not a little alarming. Because, say what you like about the script, the production itself has always been first rate. The actors, costumes, props, backdrops, lighting and sound-effects have (so far) never failed to enthral. Which is hardly surprising. With the plot being so familiar, all the other components of a credible theatrical performance are required to maintain the audience’s willing suspension of disbelief.
But the volume and frequency of all these off-stage interruptions is making the suspension of disbelief increasingly difficult. The strong impression of persons moving about; snatches of disconcerting dialogue; strange silhouettes, and the unmistakeable sound of scenery being dragged into position has many in the audience convinced that, behind the scenes, another play is in progress – one they cannot see.
This rival play, unfolding simultaneously (albeit invisibly) behind the traditional performance is not in the least bit pretty. Indeed, its themes and characters offer a stark contrast to those we see on-stage.
The official production celebrates democracy and its characters recall the great politicians of the past. Crucially, the climax of the official play never varies: the sovereign people declare their preferences and the democratic process is the winner on the night.
The unofficial play has no place for such political candy-floss and self-delusion. When its leading characters talk about democracy they do so with a curled lip and a raised eyebrow – as if only the intellectually bereft and ideologically deluded could possibly take such an absurd notion seriously. The themes of the unofficial play are all about power and greed and individual self-assertion. The only role played by the people is that of a gigantic ATM. They are presented as an unfailing and inexhaustible spigot of public wealth for private gain: sovereign only in their ill-directed generosity and incorrigible gullibility.
In the unofficial play, a sinister combination of politician-bureaucrats and businessmen-farmers have already met and divvied-up the nation between them. All are in agreement that their  respective futures depend on controlling the use of and access to New Zealand’s water. Slowly and methodically, they are re-writing the nation’s laws to exclude all but their hand-picked allies from the decision-making processes relating to this crucial resource. Slowly, but very deliberately, they are shielding their decision-makers from public and media scrutiny. Where resistance has been encountered they have not hesitated to act – indeed, they have already replaced an entire, democratically-elected regulatory body with appointed commissioners.
Where resistance has been encountered they have not hesitated to act: The National Government introduces Canterbury Regional Council's unelected commissioners.
In the official play, nothing is more crucial to the survival of individual liberty and the health of democracy than the sanctity of private property and the rule of law. In the unofficial play, however, the leading characters laugh uproariously at these twinned principles. If someone’s private property stands in the way of one of the many privately-owned, profit-driven irrigation schemes they have planned for the New Zealand countryside, then they simply invoke the provisions of the Public Works Act and relieve the owners of their titles.
To loud objections that the Public Works Act was never meant to be the handmaiden of private investors, the anti-heroes of the unofficial drama do their best to assume the appearance of sage and disinterested legislators. “Yes,” they say, “it is tragic that a handful of homes and farms must be drowned, but it is also necessary to the long-term economic welfare of the country as a whole. We must act in the national interest.”
It is precisely this sort of dialogue, breaking through the reassuring lines of the official political play that is making more and more members of the audience uneasy – even restive. Through questioning eyes they have begun to notice how threadbare the official production is looking. What has become of the play’s familiar props? Have those costumes faded? Why do the actors seem to be just going through the motions? What’s happened to the lighting – and the sound? Why can we hear more and more of the other play – and why is the dialogue so frightening?
The pretty political play of democracy may be a familiar one, but it has never been made weaker by reiteration. Yes, it’s imperfect, even naïve, but unless it is performed – and  believed – then the dark shadow-players who have always acted behind the scenes will grow in power and confidence.
The noises off-stage will become the play itself.
This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 8 April 2014.

Friday, 4 April 2014

Old Battles - Fought Unequivocally

Let's Do The Time Warp Again! Labour has been accused of "re-fighting too many old battles", but history suggests that it is precisely this willingness to stoutly defend traditional political values that explains the phenomenal success of politicians like Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan. It is equivocation that turns voters off - not conviction. So, come on Labour: "It's just a jump to the Left!" 
IN A RECENT COLUMN the veteran political correspondent, John Armstrong, accuses the Labour Party of “fighting too many old battles”. The perennial socialist causes, for which Labour’s politicians should still feel duty-bound to draw their swords, declares Armstrong, “have long been lost or are no longer relevant to most voter’s daily existence”.
By way of example, Armstrong draws attention to Labour finance spokesperson, David Parker’s, snappish criticism of Treasury’s “Investment Statement”.
This latter document, released nearly a fortnight ago, was responsible for raising considerably more than Parker’s eyebrows by suggesting that public ownership of health and education services, “should not be seen as the default setting”.
Labour’s finance spokesperson was having none of it and came out swinging. The Department, he said was “out of touch” with New Zealanders and accused it of promoting privately-owned “McSchools” and “McHospitals” instead of publicly-owned (and, therefore, accountable) education and health facilities.
“I can be completely clear”, thundered Parker, “Labour rejects that philosophy. Public ownership of public schools and public hospitals is essential to provide opportunity and protection for all New Zealanders. This is what people pay their taxes for.”
Borrowing a line from his predecessor in the finance role, Dr Michael Cullen, he characterised the Treasury’s highly contentious statement as yet another example of its unnerving predilection for unleashing random “ideological burps”.
Parker concluded his media release by challenging the Prime Minister and Finance Minister to combat Treasury’s rebarbative ideological offerings with the same antacid remedy as Dr Cullen.
That neither John key nor Bill English accepted Parker’s challenge, Armstrong argued, is attributable to the National Party’s belief that Labour is trapped in an “ideological time-warp”. The clear implication being that when it comes to the traditional Left/Right squabbles over Private versus Public ownership – the average voter no longer cares.
Armstrong’s concluding paragraph is bleak:
“National argues that if Labour could not prompt a voter backlash against the partial floats of the remaining state-owned electricity generators, it will struggle to stop the growing trend for private provision worldwide. The genie is well and truly out of the bottle. Labour has little hope of stuffing it back in.”
That the Right struggled very successfully to stop the growing trend toward public provision worldwide, and found it surprisingly simple to stuff the socialist genie responsible back in his bottle, seems to have escaped Armstrong.
And if he were to recall that, in New Zealand, the whole privatisation process was initiated by Labour, then the public’s unwillingness to be convinced by their re-conversion to the virtues of public ownership might look less like indifference and more like once-bitten-twice-shy caution. And who can blame them – given Labour’s repeated refusal to commit unequivocally to the repurchase of the privatised shareholdings?
Parker’s stout defence of public health and education speaks eloquently of Labour’s determination not to be caught equivocating on the last remaining bastions of collectivism in New Zealand society. Were the Right to be successful in privatising our schools and hospitals (and finally taming the education- and health-sector unions) there would be little left for Labour to defend.
The key strategic question Labour has yet to answer, however, is: when will it finally make the transition from defence to offence?
When the Right finally realised (in the mid-1970s) that the last great bastions of private enterprise – those the British Labour firebrand, Tony Benn, described as the “commanding heights of the economy” – were about to come under full-scale assault by the forces of the Left, its more far-sighted and aggressive advocates realised that defensive tactics were losing them the battle. Tory hardliners like Sir Keith Joseph, Airey Neave and Margaret Thatcher didn’t bleat on about it being too late to stuff the socialist genie back in its bottle – they made stuffing the socialists their No. 1 priority.
The greatest enemy any ideology – Left or Right – will ever face is not indifference but equivocation. The achievements of the Liberal Government of 1890-1912 and of successive Labour Governments up to 1984 were not laid low for want of voters willing to defend them, but by politicians unwilling to re-state – unequivocally – the reasons why socialists must never for a moment cease “re-fighting old battles”.
Margaret Thatcher always referred to her country as “Great” Britain, because reclaiming Britain’s greatness was her whole manifesto.
What will Mr Cunliffe ride forth to battle to re-claim?
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, 4 April 2014.

Tuesday, 1 April 2014

Protest Futile In The Absence Of Consensus Politics

Who's Listening? Protests remain effective only while the political and economic consensus that governments should respond to their citizens' grievances persists. New Zealand's neoliberal revolution of the 1980s and 90s overturned that consensus. All that protests do now is convince neoliberal politicians that their policies are producing the intended effects.

RELIABLE ESTIMATES of the size of the weekend protests against the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement (TPPA) put the number of participants at a modest 2,500. Martyn Bradbury, colourful editor of The Daily Blog, speaking to more than 1,000 “It’s Our Future” protesters in Auckland, said:
“I think that it really shows that economic sovereignty issues are actually quite central to New Zealanders’ concept about who they are and how they see themselves and losing that kind of sovereignty is a major concern — it’s no longer just a fringe issue.”
Bradbury later described the nationwide protest effort as “an incredible turnout for the esoteric intricacies of free trade deals”.
Placed alongside the great protests of the past, a nationwide turnout of 2,500 in defence of New Zealand’s “economic sovereignty” is indeed “incredible” – but perhaps not in the way Martyn meant!
But even if the “It’s Our Future” protests against the TPPA had reached the 50,000 benchmark figure established by Greenpeace’s highly effective protest against mining in national parks, it is highly debatable whether it would have been sufficient to make this government reconsider it iron-clad commitment to free trade.
The presence of large numbers of protesters on the streets no longer seems to give governments pause. Evidence of widespread public dissent long ago ceased to be politically decisive because policy-makers are no longer driven by the need to preserve a broad political consensus. Opposition is generally anticipated by today’s politicians, and provided it does not come from those economic and social actors deemed critical to their re-election, it is also generally ignored.
One has only to think of the hundreds-of-thousands of “indignacios” (indignant ones) who poured onto the streets of Spain during the worst months of the Global Financial Crisis. Or, recall the grim street-battles between police and protesters outside the Greek parliament in Athens as that impoverished country’s legislators voted to accept the European Union’s rescue package – along with the vicious austerity measures that constituted its political price.
What was it, then, that made the maintenance of a broad political consensus so important in the past and why is that no longer the case?
In the three decades following World War II – a period sometimes referred to as “The Age of Consensus” – the maintenance of social peace and prosperity remained the No. 1 political objective of both the centre-left and the centre-right. The “historic compromise” between capital and labour (big business and the trade unions) which had given birth to the Welfare State required both sides to restrain their radical extremes and cleave to the middle way. With memories of the Great Depression and the War still fresh in the minds of most citizens, any other course of action would have been most unwise.
Throughout this period, any manifestation of widespread social and/or political dissent was, accordingly, regarded as a direct threat to the prevailing bipartisan consensus. Prime-ministers and Leaders of the Opposition, alike, responded quickly (and often favourably) to the protesters’ demands.
The socially levelling effects of consensus politics could not, however, endure beyond the point where they began to undermine the power and persuasiveness of capitalism itself. The extraordinary success of Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan is largely explained by their willingness to challenge the core elements of the Age of Consensus by attacking the unions, abandoning progressive taxation and reducing the responsiveness of the state. The neoliberal revolution which Thatcher and Reagan unleashed was thus predicated on the assumption that if the minority who mattered in capitalist society were to go on mattering, then the majority was going to have to learn to be disappointed.
Hence the dwindling impact and effectiveness of protest. Far from spurring Governments to reconsider their policies, mass protests actually provided them with evidence that the contested policies were correct. The 300,000 workers who protested against the National Government’s Employment Contracts Bill during the first fortnight of April 1991, far from constituting proof of the Bill’s inequity, merely confirmed for the Right the urgent necessity of its passage.
But if protest no longer works how are we to explain Greenpeace’s success? Or, for that matter – Ukraine’s?
In the former case it was not Greenpeace’s mobilisation efforts alone that made the difference. Tens of thousands of National Party members and voters had directly communicated their outrage to National’s MPs through letters, e-mails and phone-calls. These were the government’s core supporters in rebellion. They counted.
The protesters who overthrew the Ukrainian Government possessed an advantage that all the protesters described above lacked: the covert support of the armed forces. They knew that violence against the police would not be answered by violence from the army. What happened in Kiev’s Independence Square wasn’t a protest – it was a coup d’état by crowd.
Strip the state of its armed protection and mass protest rapidly escalates into full-scale revolt.
This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 1 April 2014.

Friday, 28 March 2014

People Like Me

People Like Me: In the English-speaking world the Welfare State was born out of two vast historic events, the Great Depression and World War II. The sense of social solidarity engendered by these all-embracing experiences extended the definition of "community" to include everyone who had lived through them - right up to the British Royal Family.
IS IT POSSIBLE to renew our social contract without a sense of community?
Heather McGhee, who heads up the Washington Office of the UK-based research and advocacy group, Demos, calls it “the great question of our time”.
According to the 33-year-old graduate of Yale and the Berkeley Law School, this is because “if you look at all this hostility and anxiety around public solutions, at its root is the anxiety about who the public is. And I think that’s happened because of the real explosion in diversity.”
McGhee is not alone in identifying diversity as one of the most potent solvents of the social contract that underpins our Welfare State. But, as a young African-American, she has a better appreciation than most of how all those “hostilities and anxieties” play out in a non-academic context.
Because no matter how earnestly we are encouraged (by people like Ms McGhee) to think otherwise, the ordinary person’s understanding of “community” is generally reducible to just three words: “people like me”.
In the English-speaking countries the welfare state was born out of two world-shattering events: Economic Depression and Total War. In both situations it proved virtually impossible for ordinary citizens to remain unaffected by the great happenings in which they found themselves entangled, and these common experiences fostered powerful feelings of social solidarity. Everyone could see they were “all in this together” and relying upon one another to make it through to the “broad sunlit uplands” promised by Winston Churchill in the finest hour of that darkest of years – 1940.
So pervasive was the impact of the Great Depression that the experiences of poverty and marginalisation began to lose much of their social stigma. Working-class and middle-class citizens alike were winnowed by the near collapse of the capitalist order, and even those whose material well-being remained unaffected – like the Prince of Wales – could see that “something must be done”.
And later, when the bombs were falling, that sense of solidarity only grew stronger. In spite of pleas to remove themselves to safety in Canada, the Royal Family refused to leave the capital. When Buckingham Palace was hit during the Blitz, Queen Elizabeth told the press: “Now, at least, I can look the East End in the eye.”
On the battlefields, where men of every rank and station quite literally rubbed shoulders, the essential equality of all human-beings was daily demonstrated. The roughest working-class battler could prove himself a bloody hero and the bloodlines of a thousand years produce nothing more than a craven coward. Nobility came not from class or money but from character. In war, only deeds mattered.
This, then, was the historical forge in which the welfare state was fashioned. When people used the word ‘community’; when they thought of people like themselves; the picture included everyone from the King and Queen to the local “night-soil” collector. Everyone who had been through the fire together – and come out the other side.
To live for longer than that single generation, however, the social contract that had been fashioned in “blood, toil, tears and sweat” would need to be sent to the forge again. A new generation would need to feel the hammer blows of history.
Some did.
On union picket-lines. Registering voters in the Deep South. Opposing the obscenity of war. Demanding entry for all those who were not “like me”. Envisioning a more diverse and democratic definition of ‘community’.
A More Diverse Definition of Community: America answers Amerika. The Pentagon, 21 October 1967.
Too few.
The moment the social contract was deemed to include people with darker skins and different gods; the moment people’s taxes were doled out to those whose behaviour flouted the values and conventions of the ‘community’; that was when the solidarities born of depression and war began to fade and wither. The mental picture of who was – and was not – “people like me” narrowed radically. Class and money regained their lost prestige and all the old stigmas attached to poverty and marginalisation returned.
A social contract is never for “people like them”.
This essay was originally published in The Dominion Post, The Waikato Times, The Taranaki Daily News, The Timaru Herald, The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 28 March 2014.