Tuesday, 18 May 2010

Ten Years Ago This Week: "On The Back Of The Beast"

Monsters from the Id: In 2000 Global Capitalism's voracious animal spirits were already testing the regulatory boundaries. By 2008 the barriers had fallen and the Beast was loose.

WINZ, TVNZ, Airways, Terralink: the march of folly gathers momentum. Now, at last, the hard truths about governing in the ruins of New Zealand’s social-democratic culture are becoming clear to Labour and Alliance ministers: that all the moral signposts have rotted away beneath the garish signage of commercialisation; that the men in suits are beyond their control; that the media doesn’t care; that they are alone.

How have they responded? Michael Cullen talks of building bridges to the business community. Helen Clark reaches out to Maori. Jim Anderton courts favour in the provinces. Manic gestures – the autonomic responses of late-20th Century labourism – designed to mask a rising sense of panic in Government ranks.

It’s all gotten too big, too fast, too clever, too malevolent: the apparatus of the state totters precariously on the back of the global capitalist beast, and even those politicians who are its friends find it difficult to keep their seats. The idea that, somehow, the Beast might be controlled, guided – even tamed – is now exposed for the fantasy it always was.

The High Priests of the New World Order - the WTO, the IMF, the World Bank, the Fed - mutter their spells to the colossus, vainly attempting to convince their global congregation that it is moved by such imprecations. But the Beast heeds them not. Wreathed in a shimmering cloud of uncountable electronic conversations, it strides away towards a dark horizon.

Meanwhile the Order’s lesser acolytes - Don Brash, Gareth Morgan, Alex Sundakov - keep up the pretence of omniscience for the benefit of local believers. The Beast is angry, they intone. The Labour-Alliance Government’s attempts to rein it in – tax increases, the re-nationalisation of ACC, the Employment Relations Bill - have only succeeded in sharpening the focus of its panoptic gaze on this South Pacific backwater. The falling Kiwi Dollar, petrol price-hikes, rising interest rates: these are but the first manifestations of the Beast’s displeasure. Repent before it is too late! Beware the wrath of the Behemoth!

The talk-back hosts pick up the drum-beat. Day-in, day-out, the messages of futility and mismanagement are hammered home. Never mind that most of what passes for commentary from these dollar-stuffed ventriloquist dummies is a rancid mixture of deep-seated prejudice, unfounded rumour, and downright lies; the essence of all effective propaganda is repetition, repetition, repetition. The damage inflicted in the first six months of a left-wing government’s term may be slight, but by the thirty-sixth month the poison will be bubbling away nicely in the veins of the body politic.

How wistfully Helen Clark and Jim Anderton must look at the dismantled levers of the old machine. Ten years ago the state owned a nationwide radio network. In every New Zealand town, from Invercargill to Whangarei, there was a radio station with its own reporters and news editors, linked to a national news service. Fifteen years ago there was a state-owned television network, with a vibrant regional production arm, and a serious news and current affairs division. Back then there was at least the possibility of an alternative message being received by the electorate. Today the New Zealand media is owned by Independent News, News Corp, Australian Consolidated Press, and CanWest – all of them convinced that "there is no alternative". For its part, TVNZ appears to be out to get this government before it gets them.

It’s in the air, this awful presentiment of disaster, odourless, colourless and deadly - like Sarin Gas. Labour-Alliance know they rode to power on a tide of fear and exhaustion – not confidence and energy. All that’s been keeping them up is the polls - and the polls are falling.

This essay was originally published in The Dominion of Friday, 19 May 2000.


JJ said...

Nice piece of history there Chris. Interesting your writing seems to have lost some of its hyperbole and rhetoric over the years. I think that's a good thing. It's much less dense and more readable for it now.

Anonymous said...

"if i told you earthly things and you don't believe, how will you believe if i tell you heavenly things? No one has ascended into heaven, but he who 'descended' out of heaven, even the son of man" (John 3:6-14)

And yet the collectivism's flow so easily, don't they?

Chris Trotter said...

Err, that's a bit opaque - even for me - Anonymous.

Olwyn said...

Barbara Ehrenreich's "Bright-Sided" attacks the cult of positive thinking, and has a chapter on corporatised, positive-thinking religion. The final sentence of the chapter says "Positive theology ratifies and completes a world without beauty, transcendence or mercy." Now tyrants and tyrannical ideas are not known for their mercy, whatever else they may do, but corporatism, wherever it makes it presence felt, seems to stand out in its contempt for beauty; they seem only to favour function and excess. I cannot think of another dominant force with a similar disregard for beauty, though you may know of one. Stalinist Russia perhaps? I think they still loved the ballet, since they maintained dance schools.

Chris Trotter said...

Ancient Sparta, perhaps, Olwyn.

They were a relaxed, pleasure-loving people once, but they changed.

Their unfortunate neighbours were conquered and became their slaves - responsible for ammassing the surplus that allowed the Warrior Sparta and its peculiar constitution to survive.

All art, all literature, all memory of softness and pleasure were abjured - even the food they ate was deliberately made foul-tasting. Only hardness and duty were valued.

Every year the young men, in training to become warriors, were sent out to run down, hurt, rape and kill members of the subject people they called "healots". This ritualised brutalisation of the weak and defenceless was an important aspect of state policy.

The proof that all Spartan men were equal lay in the fact that they all had innocent blood on their hands.

John Lennon saw something similar in corporate capitalism:

"There's room at the top they are telling you still,
But first you must learn how to smile as you kill,
If you want to be like the folks on the hill,"

All the more reason to be a working-class hero ne c'est pas?

Olwyn said...

So perhaps the loss of beauty is collateral damage that results from elevating an instrumental activity (self-defence, transaction) into an absolute position.

Anonymous said...

Lennon sure predicted 'smile n wave' Key didn't he?

Sadly, I'm not sure Labour-Alliance of 2000 showed enough awareness of the untamable beast they were riding (and the MPs seemed happy to extend their own claws with those of the Beast to savage Afghans a year later...)

Even today, few on the left even discuss how to transition away from capitalism to a better society - they mostly engage with worthy but short-term battles against the bosses (eg Unite union $15 an hour, etc) and talk of the evils of capitalism, without proposing alternatives. Not many societies will jump into the void unless clear options for a capitalism-free NZ is proferred.

Lest I be called a hypocrite, I suggest a transitional move to a 3-prong tariff regime (to counter Roger Douglas' efforts to scrap them) - nil tariffs on everything.... except we tax imports for the environmental, human rights, and workers rights protections their source nations/industry sectors/companies have. Similar to our domestic ACC scheme of ratings.

For example, where a TV made in Oz would get a better rating on those 3 criteria than if made in China, so the TV gets a lower tariff, making it more competitvely priced. Start with assessment of national data, and let companies pay for their own firm to be assessed quicker if they think it will show a better record than their country overall (rewarding better practice with lower tax).

This would not kill capitalism but it would severely damage the boss' ability to lever-down pay & conditions, which gives breathing space for unions and activists to go further. And it would be very hard for the free trade nutters to argue against it on ideological grounds ;)

Mad Marxist