Black Riders, Dark Heroes: Roger Kerr, mouthpiece for the Neoliberal Nazgul of the Business Roundtable, deserves our admiration for his unceasing promotion of the capitalist narrative. Oh that the Left had such a fearsome ideological warrior.
WHAT CAN I SAY about Roger Kerr? Advised that the CEO of the Business Roundtable is the subject of The Nation’s investigative endeavours this Saturday (16 April) I’ve been wracking my brains (as one of The Nation’s panellists) for something intelligent to say, about the man.
Most Leftists wouldn’t bother. After Sir Roger Douglas, Roger Kerr is probably the most readily identifiable representative of the entire Rogernomics era. And his Business Roundtable, comprised of the CEOs of New Zealand’s leading businesses, plays the role of Tolkien’s Nazgul in The Lord of the Rings: the most potent instrument of an ancient evil men believed they had overcome but which has risen anew to plague this Middle Earth.
But even if Roger Kerr is regarded as a villain by the Left, he is – like most literary villains – a character who fascinates every bit as much as he repels.
When interviewed on television, and even more so in the flesh, his eyes are alive with what can only be described as merriment. On the occasions I have met him I could not help feeling that he had already anticipated every objection I could possibly muster to his line of argument and was quietly amused at their lack of force. Like a thoroughly prepped witness, he has a cogent and alarmingly persuasive response to any and every question his left-wing prosecutors might throw at him.
And it’s this imperviousness to cross-examination that sums up the real damage Roger Kerr and the Business Roundtable have done to political discourse in New Zealand. By treating the determination of national policy as a zero-sum game: a life-and-death struggle in which any neoliberal objective not won must be considered lost; Kerr and his big business backers have rendered open and intelligent debate impossible. Developing the military metaphor a little further, 21st Century political discourse resembles two armies firing bullets of a different calibre at each other. The enemy’s ammunition cannot be used in your weapons – and your own ammunition cannot be used in theirs.
The contrast between the neoliberal approach to managing the economy and society and the approach that prevailed from the end of World War II until the end of the 1970s could hardly be starker. The so-called “mixed economy” of the post-war era blended a great deal more than simply publicly- and privately-owned enterprises. By recognising that the workers’ and the bosses’ ideological narratives both contributed important insights to the processes of production, Keynesian economics encouraged a pluralism that drew all of the important “players” into the game.
For the thirty years between the end of World War II and the mid-1970s, the primary objective had not been to “win the game”, but to come up with solutions that were acceptable to as many of the players as possible. It was an approach which required a willingness to give as well as to take: which more or less mandated a search for consensus; and which gave great heed to empirical expertise.
The neoliberal paradigm, which Roger Kerr so effectively embodies, rejects the quest for consensus utterly and harnesses empiricism for purely instrumental ends. The utility of an argument lies not in how close it comes to reflecting the truth, but in how effective it is at undermining the arguments of those who threaten neoliberalism's objectives. For neoliberals, facts are like clubs – useful things for beating your opponents to death.
Nowhere is neoliberalism’s essential hostility to empiricism more overtly on display that in the so-called “debate” over climate change. Because accepting the empirical data of anthropogenic global warming would require neoliberalism to surrender a great many of its most cherished ideological assumptions about the ineluctable beneficence of capitalism, it has enlisted scores of compliant scientists to manufacture arguments sufficiently club-like to secure, if not outright victory, then at least a planet-endangering stalemate.
What should I say, then, about Roger Kerr? I guess I’d have to say that I admire him – but only in the way I admire the Wehrmacht or the Waffen-SS. When viewed as a ferociously well-organised, well-equipped and highly-motivated fighting force, Roger Kerr and the Business Roundtable – like the Wehrmacht and the Waffen-SS – evoke feelings of awe and fear. But asked to judge whether they constitute a contribution to, or a subtraction from, the sum total of human happiness, I'd have to say that the only good thing they have ever done is to expose the howling ideological void where a strong and competitive left-wing opposition should be.
A few days ago, in her magisterial summation of The Hobbit Dispute, Helen Kelly wrote persuasively about the extraordinary success of the neoliberal establishment in implanting a narrative highly beneficial to the interests of the employing class in the minds of the New Zealand population:
“Basically the story runs like this – and I am simplifying it. Work is a benefit, business is the benefactor and workers are merely the beneficiaries. Workers should be grateful for a job; a job is a privilege; employers should be lauded for the contribution they make to growing economic wealth.”
Kelly’s problem, as President of the CTU, and the problem facing the entire Left, is that they have yet to adjust to the fact that the employing class has walked away from the consensus-based politics of the Keynesian Era.
The Left’s current narrative is all about "co-operation" with the employers; bargaining in “good faith”; strengthening “social partnerships” and “building consensus”. What they have forgotten is that the historic compromise thrashed out between Capital and Labour in the aftermath of the Great Depression and the global war against fascism featured not only the old laissez-faire description of the master-servant relationship (which Kelly so accurately summarises above) but the classic Marxist description of the capitalist as the last in a long line of overlords who've unjustly appropriated the ‘surplus value’ created by working people’s labour.
This working-class narrative is summed-up neatly in the 1916 lyrics of Ralph Chaplin’s union anthem Solidarity Forever:
They have hoarded untold millions
That they never toiled to earn
But without our brain and muscle
Not a single wheel can turn
It’s a narrative that seizes the moral high ground for the worker and casts the employer as thief and parasite. The capitalists are a criminal class which is only able to preserve its expropriated wealth because it controls the police, courts, schools, news media, legislature and, when push finally comes to shove, the armed forces.
According to this story, the liberation of the working-class can only be achieved when the contradictory forces shaping and reshaping capitalist society finally resolve into a general, revolutionary crisis: when, in Marx’s ominously clanking sentences:
“Centralization of the means of production and socialization of labour at last reach a point where they become incompatible with their capitalist integument. Thus integument is burst asunder. The knell of capitalist private property sounds. The expropriators are expropriated.”
This is the narrative Helen Kelly and the Left generally have mislaid. The narrative which, right up until the 1980s, continued to haunt the capitalist imagination. The German poet, Heinrich Heine, writing in the 1840s described their nightmare like this:
“Communism is the secret name of the dread antagonist setting proletarian rule with all its consequences against the present bourgeois regime. It will be a frightful duel. How will it end? No one knows but gods and goddesses acquainted with the future. We know only this much: Communism, though little discussed now and loitering in hidden garrets on miserable straw pallets, is the dark hero destined for a great, if temporary, role in the modern tragedy …”
Roger Kerr – and all he represents – have persuaded themselves that the “Dark Hero’s” moment in the "modern tragedy" has come and gone. The task of Helen Kelly – and all who march on the Left – is to convince Roger and his friends that what they have so far witnessed is only the First Act.
This essay is exclusive to the Bowalley Road blogsite.