Friday, 27 September 2013

"Predistribution": A Suitable Socialist Synonym?

No Need For Synonyms in 1894! This Socialist "Christmas Card", by Walter Crane, hails from a time when "the cause of labour" could be openly and proudly proclaimed. For most of the twentieth century, however, left-wing activists (especially in the USA) were required to devise "suitable synonyms for Marxist terms". Even today, those advocating the cause of Labour are forced to reach for synonyms like "predistribution" to prevent the Right's horses from taking fright.
 
IT’S NOT EASY BEING A SOCIALIST in the United States of America.
 
Long ago: back in the days when I was still impressionable enough to remember such things; I watched a documentary film about the “New Left” in America. “The trick, in this country,” remarked one of the young radicals interviewed, with an engagingly conspiratorial wink, “is coming up with suitable synonyms for Marxist terms.”
 
The young Marxist theorists who penned the first clear declaration of New Left principles – “The Port Huron Statement” – accordingly softened the scary Marxist notion of “the dictatorship of the proletariat” into the much less daunting concept of “participatory democracy”.
 
Seizing control of the means of production, distribution and exchange became the much more acceptable “struggle for economic democracy”, or, as the authors of the Port Huron Statement put it back in 1962: “the economy itself is of such social importance that its major resources and means of production should be open to democratic participation and subject to democratic social regulation”.
 
If attaching the most cherished word in the American political lexicon to left-wing political ideas secured them a hearing from ordinary American workers, then American socialists were only too happy to oblige.
 
I was reminded of this long ago search for non-inflammatory left-wing phraseology only a few days ago. The memory trigger was a newspaper article which claimed that Labour’s new leader, David Cunliffe, was a believer in “predistribution”.
 
How I laughed. Even before researching the term, it was clear to me that in “predistribution” I was dealing with a classic example of a suitable socialist synonym.
 
Coined by the Yale University economist Jacob Hacker in 2011, the term seeks to identify the income that flows into a worker’s hands from sources unconnected to the State. Unlike “redistribution”: the special subsidies, tax advantages and income transfers that flow to the victims of economic and social inequality from the general revenue; “predistribution” identifies the process of reducing entrenched inequalities by increasing the workers’ share of the private sector’s gross profits.
 
Now, how would a Labour leader do that?
 
Well, a New Zealand Labour leader would only have to look back over the course of this country’s history to find the answer.
 
The Liberal Government of John Balance “predistributed” workers’ incomes by handing over the determination of their wages to a special “arbitration” court made up of three arbitrators, representing workers, their employers, and the state.
 
The workers’ representative on the Arbitration Court was, of course, chosen by the New Zealand trade union movement. Indeed, without a strong trade union movement to exact an increased share of the private sector’s profits for its members, “predistribution” has little chance of long-term success.
 
The First Labour Government understood this very well, which is why within a year of winning power in 1935 it had legislated for universal union membership and facilitated the formation of New Zealand’s first effective trade union peak organisation, the Federation of Labour.
 
A Labour leader could, of course, try to “predistribute” without a large and effective trade union movement. This could be done by lifting the minimum wage to $15 per hour and/or legislating for the payment of a “living wage” to particularly poorly-paid categories of workers.
 
From the perspective of a Labour Government, however, it would make much more sense to facilitate the design of a brand new institutional framework for twenty-first century collective bargaining.  Achieved by means of a comprehensive, bottom-up exercise in democratic consultation, these new institutions would become the primary instruments for “predistributing” the national income.
 
Only a trade union movement that had emerged from such an all-encompassing and demonstrably democratic process could legitimately claim the right to play such a vital role in the nation’s economic life. And only while it spoke in the indisputable accents of ordinary working New Zealanders could it hope to survive Labour’s periodic electoral rebuffs.
 
Assuming, of course, that such a massive exercise in “participatory democracy” hadn’t already removed the need for socialist synonyms altogether.
 
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, 27 September 2013.

Tuesday, 24 September 2013

Moving The Centre

Centre Of Attention: In Stanley Kubrick's science-fiction masterpiece, 2001: A Space Odyssey, the mysterious black monoliths serve as catalysts for change. Political scientists attribute similar transformational powers to the political centre. In reality, the political centre is a malleable and constantly shifting phenomenon; its allegiances determined by the exogenous political pressures exerted from either side.
THE CENTRE FILLS the politician’s sky like the monoliths in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. In much the same way as his mysterious black stele are credited with being the prime motivators of human enlightenment and progress, the political centre is deemed to be the fount of all moderation and wisdom. Without it’s decisive intervention, say the pundits, electoral victory is impossible.
 
In reality, the political centre is the most malleable of all electoral clay: capable of being shaped and moulded into practically any shape its sculptors can conceive.
 
The voters who congregate at the extremes of the political spectrum have needs and interests that are clear, permanent and compelling. But the needs and interests of those in the centre are tied inextricably to those of the rich and the poor, and are, consequently, nothing like so constant. Accordingly, those who mass in the centre tend to oscillate wildly between the two extremes: their manic swings to left and right corresponding to the strength of the latter’s economic appeal.
 
Consider the role of the manager. Forty years ago the number of people in managerial positions was relatively small. Then along came the neoliberal revolution and the number of managers in the economy exploded.
 
As New Zealand society was restructured along “free market” lines, those workers lucky enough to keep their jobs were expected to work longer and harder for less. All those new managers were hired to make sure that they did.
 
Like the commissars of Stalin’s Soviet Union, the new managers’ prime mission was to protect and defend the revolution. In fact, their livelihoods depended on its survival.
 
Now, which way do you suppose that new managerial strata voted? For the neoliberal revolution’s friends – or its enemies?
 
The same political dynamic is at work among those who contract for services formerly supplied by the state.
 
By drastically reducing the size of the civil service and contracting out a great many of the services formerly provided in-house, the neoliberals did not, in fact, save a great deal of taxpayers’ money. On the contrary, one American study revealed that the cost of services provided by private contractors was, on average, a third higher than the cost of those same services when supplied by a public provider.
 
But, saving money was never the true objective of those responsible for contracting out public services. Neoliberalism’s purpose was to destroy the ethos of public service altogether and replace it with the ethos of individual enrichment by way of profit-taking.
 
A state that is able to provide its citizens with services that are efficient and cost-effective is a state those same citizens might learn to value and support. Even worse, it might come to be seen as a system worth extending into areas of the economy still dominated by the quest for private gain.
 
The whole point of neoliberalism was – and is – to prevent that from happening.
 
Like the new breed of managers, thousands of new contractors found their own futures and the future of the neoliberal revolution inextricably intertwined.
 
They, too, know on which side their ballot papers are buttered.
 
Now consider what might happen to the people in the centre if the neoliberal revolution was overthrown.
 
Imagine a political party which promised to reduce expenditure on taxpayer funded services by 33 percent – by taking the provision of those services back in-house.
 
Imagine a government which, instead of following economic policies that led to the sacking of thousands of low-paid workers, encouraged the creation of a new kind of workplace. One in which the skills and creativity of the whole workforce was brought to the task of lifting productivity. Such workplaces would have little further need for managers of the neoliberal variety.
 
Managers’ socially useful skills would not, however, go to waste if a reforming government invited them to become an integral part of the social entrepreneurialism it was pledged to unleash.
 
All across New Zealand (and in Christchurch particularly) there is a huge amount of work to be done repairing damaged lives and damaged communities.
 
In her valedictory speech to Parliament, Lianne Dalziel talked about building a “resilient society”. That is a construction job to which the skills of these former managers could readily be applied. Deploying taxpayer resources to foster not dependence but resilience is a public enterprise to which most New Zealanders will gladly contribute.
 
The political centre currently cleaves to the right because the neoliberal order, so ruthlessly imposed over the last 30 years, makes it worth their while to do so.
 
All that is required to shift their allegiance is the effective presentation of a social and economic manifesto that makes it worth their while to do something else.
 
Kubrick’s monoliths were significant not for what they made us do, but for the possibilities they allowed us to see.
 
This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 24 September 2013.

Friday, 20 September 2013

A Red Wedding?

An Important Reconnection: The Labour Party rank-and-file have elected themselves a leader determined to reacquaint the Party not only with the broader labour movement, but also with the progressive yearnings of a battered New Zealand electorate.

IT WAS ONE of the most shocking episodes in television history. Those who had not read George R.R. Martin’s Game of Thrones watched with rising horror as a large percentage of the television series’ most sympathetic characters were brutally butchered before their disbelieving eyes. Not for nothing was House Frey’s massacre of Robb and Catelyn Stark, Robb’s pregnant wife, and 3,500 of House Stark’s loyal bannermen dubbed “The Red Wedding”.
 
Nor was Martin forced to rely solely upon his (excessively?) bloodthirsty imagination when writing this memorable scene. History furnishes many grim precedents for the all-encompassing massacre of political rivals.
 
Nearly 1,600 years ago the Anglo-Saxon chieftains Hengist and Horsa invited Vortigen and his Romano-British supporters to a great feast to celebrate the pact of peace which their two warring armies had just concluded. But, unbeknown to their guests, the Saxons had concealed daggers in the soles of their boots, and at the cry “nima der sexa!” – “bring out the knives” – Hengist’s and Horsa’s men fell upon their 300 weaponless guests and slew them.
 
This terrible betrayal of the ancient laws of hospitality was remembered as “The Night of the Long Knives” – a name which, 1,500 years later, was joined to the equally bloody purge of Adolf Hitler’s political rivals on the night of 30 June 1934.
 
Inevitably, there will be some who reach for the “Red Wedding” or “Night of the Long Knives” metaphors to describe the (readily predictable) demotion of a handful of the newly-elected Labour Leader, David Cunliffe’s, bitterest caucus opponents.
 
In the five days since his decisive first-ballot win on Sunday, four of Mr Cunliffe’s most formidable adversaries: Trevor Mallard, Chris Hipkins, Darien Fenton, and his principal rival for the leadership, Grant Robertson, have lost their jobs.
 
Not so many casualties really – and none of them the least bit surprising. Into each change of leadership a little blood must fall.
 
The real Red Wedding occasioned by Mr Cunliffe’s triumph has been the restatement of the marriage vows binding Labour’s parliamentary contingent to the wider party organisation. The two had been growing apart for years – to the point where following last year’s annual conference a divorce seemed imminent. What rescued the partnership? The party’s rule changes.
 
In the past, the newly-elected MP’s primary political focus had been the relationship he or she enjoyed (or endured) with his or her caucus colleagues. These were, after all, the people who could push an ambitious MP up the greasy poll of politics – or keep him down. But now, thanks to the new rules, Labour MPs not only need to remain on good terms with their caucus colleagues, but they also need to further the policy objectives of the party’s rank-and-file and address the needs of its affiliated trade union members.
 
This reaffirmation of the bonds between the party and its MPs may yet prompt a larger and much more important reconnection.
 
For most of its history New Zealand has been defined by the achievements of two great progressive political parties: the Liberals and Labour. The century-long quest for security and equality which they began so enthralled the New Zealand electorate that not even the Liberals’ or Labour’s political opponents dared to step outside, or challenge, the overarching social consensus they had fashioned.
 
Certainly, only Labour enjoyed the popular trust and confidence required to establish a regime whose steady elaboration would not only shatter that consensus but open up a vast gulf between the labour movement and New Zealanders’ progressive instincts.
 
What’s more, the fourth Labour Government’s embrace of neoliberal economics freed the Right of New Zealand politics from the constraints of a consensus which had drawn its teeth and blunted its claws.
 
One of the principal enablers of Labour’s treachery was the parliamentary caucus’s essential autonomy from the party and, by extension, the people the party was founded to represent. With no need to heed the will of the party, the personally and politically ambitious were able to go on exploiting Labour’s key institutional weakness.
 
Not any more. The Labour Party’s recent constitutional reforms allow the rank-and-file membership to put a collar on caucus-centred ambition. And now they’ve elected themselves a leader determined to reacquaint the Party not only with the broader labour movement, but also with the progressive yearnings of a battered New Zealand electorate.
 
A very “red” wedding indeed.
 
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, 20 September 2013.

Wednesday, 18 September 2013

Letting The Bad Do Good In Syria

Russia Eclipses America: Sergey Lavrov, the Russian Foreign Minister, seized the initiative over Syria by turning a throwaway comment from the American Secretary of State, John Kerry, into a plan to forestall an American strike against the Assad regime and open the way for peace negotiations.
 
ONE OF THE GREAT QUESTIONS in life is: why do bad things happen to good people? A few days ago the TV news carried a story of an frail Syrian grandfather who had lost his entire family in a bombing raid. The news crew found him sitting outside the ruins of his village.
 
“They are all gone, and I am left behind”, he lamented. “Why did God spare me and not them?”
 
An equally perplexing question, in the light of even more recent developments in the Syrian civil war, is: can good things come from bad people?
 
The Russian Federation, presided over by the autocratic Vladimir Putin, is a dark and menacing state in which persistent critics find themselves imprisoned on trumped-up charges, and effective critics are found murdered in the street.
 
And yet, this vast kleptocracy, with its protective screen of political praetorians, is currently the only permanent member of the United Nations Security Council in possession of a viable plan for preventing a military escalation in Syria. It is even possible that Russia’s plan to collect and destroy President Bashar al Assad’s chemical weapons stockpile could end up establishing the conditions for a negotiated peace.
 
The Russian plan – to which Syria swiftly assented – set the diplomatic machinery in motion at top speed. It also fell like a life-belt over the flailing hands of President Barack Obama, facing imminent defeat and humiliation at the hands of his own legislators.
 
The plan itself was inspired by a throwaway suggestion, elicited by a British journalist’s question addressed to the US Secretary of State, John Kerry, and dismissed by him as impossible in almost the same breath.
 
Asked what Assad could do to avert a military strike, Kerry responded that he could “turn over every single bit of his chemical weapons to the international community in the next week. Turn it over. All of it. Without delay, and allow a full and total accounting before that, but he isn't about to do it and it can’t be done.”
 
The Russian Foreign Minister, Sergey Lavrov, thought differently. With his Syrian counterpart fortuitously in the Russian capital, negotiations were instantaneous and intense. It did not take long for both men to agree that Kerry’s throwaway suggestion offered the framework for a consensus resolution on Syria which all five veto-weilding members of the UN Security Council could sign.
 
Cynical? Opportunistic? Yes, Lavrov’s move was all of those. And yet, without the Russians’ determination to pick up and run with Kerry’s suggestion, the Syrian situation would have remained intractable and the likelihood of an American attack would have grown.
 
Lavrov’s diplomatic flexibility, his capacity to seize upon Kerry’s words and fashion a new and workable alternative to a punishing American attack, owes a great deal to the authoritarian character of the Russian state.
 
The pluralistic nature of American politics; the rigid separation of powers enforced by the US Constitution; the multiple and effective opportunities for democratic engagement available to American citizens: all these contribute to the slow pace US diplomacy.
 
Sergey Lavrov, unlike John Kerry, has only to convince one man before proceeding. The same is true of Syria’s foreign minister. Kerry’s master, however, has many hoops to jump through before shouting: “Go!” Autocracies may be cruel and rapacious, but they can also be extremely efficient.
 
And therein lies history’s terrible irony. The United States of America, the world’s richest and most powerful state, also claims the role of the world’s sole moral arbiter. The American people are encouraged to view their great republic as “the indispensable nation”. To the Americans, and the Americans alone, belongs the responsibility of dividing the world’s nations into the good, the bad and the ugly. When America goes to war it is “to make the world safe for democracy” (Woodrow Wilson) or in defence of “the free world” (Harry Truman).
 
And yet, wherever the beneficent and liberating figure of Uncle Sam has set down his giant combat boots – Vietnam, Iraq – all that he has wrought is greater destruction and more misery. Even America’s “good war”, World War II, was marred by its atomic conclusion.
 
And, of course, the war against the Nazis was won not by that great democrat, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, but by the murderous Joseph Stalin. Evil overcame evil on the killing fields of Russia and Eastern Europe: Good had a supporting role – at best.
 
Winston Churchill grasped this irony: of evil doing good in spite of itself; as only an aristocratic conservative could. “If Hitler invaded Hell,” he quipped to one of his colleagues, “I would at least make a favourable reference to the Devil in the House of Commons.”
 
So, let’s wish Mr Lavrov and his master every success. If the Devil is determined to bring peace to Syria, why would God stand in his way?
 
This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 17 September 2013.

Monday, 16 September 2013

The World Turned Upside Down - Billy Bragg



SO FEW REMEMBER that the English, too, went through a revolution.

In this great number, Billy Bragg recalls the revolutionary group known as "The Diggers"  - read more about them here.

"You poor take courage, you rich take care"
 
The Digger's cause was but a logical progression from the ideas of the radically democratic "Levellers".

Their case was made with most force during the so-called "Putney Debates" - where the men of Cromwell's New Model Army debated the shape of England's new government and the rights of the people upon whose backs it would ultimately rest.

Responding to Oliver Cromwell's and Henry Ireton's argument that only those with a "fixed permanent interest" in the country - i.e. only property owners - should have the right to govern it, Colonel Thomas Rainsborough replied with what is generally held to be the first shot in the long battle for universal suffrage and equal civil rights:

For really I think that the poorest hee that is in England hath a life to live, as the greatest hee; and therefore truly, Sr, I think itt clear, that every Man that is to live under a Government ought first by his own Consent to put himself under that Government; and I do think that the poorest man in England is not at all bound in a strict sense to that Government that he hath not had a voice to put Himself under.

As revolutionary a statement now as it was then - especially when the people take seriously the proposition that they "hath a life to live".

This posting is exclusive to the Bowalley Road blogsite.

Sunday, 15 September 2013

Cunliffe Wins Labour Leadership

Winner, by a knock-out blow in the First Round, David Cunliffe! (Photo: Greg Presland)
 
A GREAT DAY for David Cunliffe, the Labour Party and the New Zealand working-class.

Whoso beset him round
With dismal stories,
Do but themselves confound;
His strength the more is.
No lion can him affright,
He'll with a giant fight,
But he will have the right
To be a pilgrim.
 
John Bunyan 1684

Now, let's get rid of this National-led Government!

This posting is exclusive to the Bowalley Road blogsite.

Friday, 13 September 2013

House Rules?

The Unacceptable Face Of Labour? The right-wing members of Labour’s Caucus who have set their faces against a turn to the left will not be swayed by the wishes of the party’s rank-and-file, or the votes of its trade union affiliates. They will vote with only one intent: to prevent David Cunliffe becoming Labour’s leader.
 
IF IT’S ANYONE BUT CUNLIFFE what will happen to the Labour Party? It’s a question many Labour members will be asking themselves as the hours between wondering and knowing dwindle.
 
What began with a dizzying head-rush of hope and enthusiasm is ending in doubt and worry.
 
At the heart of the membership’s concern is the likely behaviour of the Labour caucus. Many will be wondering why, when the new rules were being drafted, so much influence (40 percent) was reposed in Labour’s parliamentary delegation. Especially when the British Labour Party gives its MPs only one third of the say in who becomes leader.
 
As the contest has progressed, the simple mathematics of the voting system has driven home the alarming fact that each MP, in their own right, wields a vote worth 1.2 percent. Just 34 individuals, out of a party membership of around 8,000 ordinary members, will account for 40 percent of the outcome.
 
In the first flush of their democratic revolution, the rank-and-file of the Labour Party rather naively anticipated “their” MPs being guided by a mixture of the party’s will and the sentiment of the much larger group of New Zealanders who, while not holding membership cards, nevertheless vote for the Labour Party in election after election.
 
These are, after all, the people who put the Labour MPs where they are. Why wouldn’t Labour’s caucus pay heed to their wishes?
 
It’s a very good question. But, then, another very good question was: “Why didn’t the Labour caucus heed the wishes of the party membership in 2011? Why were they willing to squander 20 precious months on a man who, while possessing many impressive qualities, was demonstrably unsuited to the role of Labour leader?
 
The answer, of course, is because, for a variety of reasons, a majority of the Labour caucus was unwilling to see David Cunliffe assume the leadership of the Labour Party.
 
Mr Cunliffe’s enemies have gone to extraordinary lengths to persuade the news media that their adamant opposition is grounded in the man’s personal shortcomings. This is not the case. The vicious attacks launched against Mr Cunliffe by his ostensible “colleagues” are driven by the oldest of political motives.
 
These include the narrow political interests of those who have identified Mr Cunliffe as either a threat to their present position within the Labour caucus, or as a barrier to their further personal advancement. Indeed, the more obvious it becomes that Mr Cunliffe really is the choice of the party rank-and-file, and of Labour voters generally, the bigger threat and barrier he looms.
 
There is also a broader apprehension among Mr Cunliffe’s enemies that he (and the party organisation) will require the Opposition to adopt a more unequivocally social-democratic ideological stance. But, such a position has already been condemned by Mr Cunliffe’s critics as “na├»ve and stupid”. This is because a surprisingly large number of Labour’s Caucus no longer believe in social democracy (let alone the “democratic socialism” enshrined in their party’s constitution). To them, Labour is simply the party which replaces National. They want no part of a labour movement that sees itself as a direct and progressive challenge to the ambitions of the Right.
 
The right-wing members of Labour’s Caucus who think this way will not be swayed by the wishes of the party’s rank-and-file, or the votes of its trade union affiliates. They will vote with only one intent: to prevent David Cunliffe becoming Labour’s leader.
 
And, if enough of them think like this – they’ll succeed.
 
Should that be the outcome, the scale of disappointment and disillusionment within the Labour Party’s ranks will be unprecedented. Many will do their best to accept another Cunliffe defeat with a brave and loyal face. Others will simply turn away in disgust. A few will defect to the Greens – or even Mana.
 
But, for most, it will be taken as proof that participating in politics is no different from participating in casino gambling: the House always wins.
 
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, 13 September 2013.

Thursday, 12 September 2013

Rupert Murdoch's Revealling Tweet

Mission Accomplished: The Australian electorate may have believed they were getting rid of a dysfunctional Labor government, but media mogul Rupert Murdoch knows better. What the Australian election was really about was purging the welfare rolls and getting rid of thousands of public servants.
 
WITHIN MINUTES of Tony Abbott’s crushing election victory being confirmed, the Australian-born media mogul, Rupert Murdoch, tweeted. “Aust election public sick of public sector workers and phony welfare scroungers sucking life out of economy.”
 
Is that really what the Australian election was all about? Did it really have nothing to do with the Australian people’s impatience with a Labor Government seemingly more interested in publicly disembowelling itself than governing wisely? Had Australian voters really forgiven Julia Gillard for reneging on her promise not to introduce a carbon tax? Did Australia’s perennial xenophobia really play no part in the outcome? Was Tony Abbott’s succinct injunction to “stop the boats” really without effect?
 
Former Labor prime minister, Bob Hawke, early on confided to his Sky News audience that: “I really believe this was an election that was lost by the government rather than one that was won by Tony Abbott.” As the grim tally of lost seats mounted, Labor politicians, both successful and unsuccessful, told reporters a very similar story. On the hustings, the message from constituents had been remarkably consistent: if voting for the Liberals was the only way to bring Labor to its senses, then, however reluctantly, that is what they were prepared to do.
 
What, then, are we to make of Mr Murdoch’s tweet? Why did the billionaire owner of nearly two-thirds of the Australian news media characterise Australian public servants and beneficiaries as metaphorical vampires sucking the life out of the Australian economy?
 
The idea that someone as wealthy and powerful as Rupert Murdoch might be driven by the same petty prejudices as the whinging cobber propping up the bar at the nearest RSL is unnerving. Much more reassuring is the notion that someone with Mr Murdoch’s resources is morally obliged to take a more detached and informed position on the challenges facing Australia.
 
Perhaps he knew something we didn’t.
 
Which is, of course, highly likely. The Murdoch Press, long the implacable foe of both Kevin Rudd’s and Julia Gillard’s Labor governments, undoubtedly expended considerable sums on opinion polling and focus groups. Under the right moderator, these latter can deliver information inaccessible to all but the old-fashioned party canvasser: the sort of unvarnished, uninhibited and spontaneously delivered expression of opinion that all-too-often eludes the professional opinion pollster.
 
Deep-seated antipathy to the poor and public servants almost certainly emerged from the research undertaken on Mr Murdoch’s behalf. And there is a good chance that these powerfully negative attitudes were present at both the top and the bottom of Australian society.
 
The working poor, and beneficiaries struggling to escape their situation, have no reason to love either the people they perceive to be “bludging” off their meagre incomes, or the public servants who exercise so much power over their own and their families’ daily lives. For these Australians the emotional connection between personal experience and political response is direct and visceral. Associating it with the name of a political party is a highly effective political tactic.
 
In the case of the wealthy, the hostility towards “public sector workers and phony welfare scroungers” arises out of a more complex series of calculations.
 
The “phoney welfare scroungers” are proxies for the much larger number of economically stressed Australians who might, with the right political inspiration, be persuaded to back an aggressive redistribution of wealth across Australian society. Forestalling such a move requires the wealthiest Australians to convince a majority of their fellow citizens that the poor and disadvantaged are responsible for their own misfortunes. They are lazy and live only for the moment and cannot, therefore, lay legitimate claim to the resources of their more diligent and self-disciplined neighbours.
 
That these “scroungers” are, nevertheless, allowed to gobble up so much of the Australian federal budget, the wealthy argue, is attributable to a “culture of entitlement” fostered by a parasitic class of intellectuals and activists located, overwhelmingly, in the public sector. What’s more, this “new class” of middle-class professionals and managers has become a law unto itself, funded by and lording it over the “productive sector” of Australian society. (A category which embraces not only the captains of Australian industry, but also the “battlers” of the hard-pressed Australian working-class.)
 
Following in the footsteps of the hard-line Republican Governors of American states like Wisconsin and Michigan, and David Cameron’s coalition government in the UK, Mr Murdoch’s tweet signals his expectation that Mr Abbott’s newly-elected government will safeguard the interests of people like himself by attacking the entitlement culture from both ends
 
First, by dramatically down-sizing the public sector. Second, by forcing beneficiaries off the welfare rolls.
 
The massive fiscal savings resulting from such a policy mean that the redistribution of wealth that would otherwise be required can be avoided.
 
In that triumphant tweet, Mr Murdoch let slip his real reasons for backing Mr Abbott.
 
This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 10 September 2013.

Friday, 6 September 2013

Labour's Spring Of Hope

A Changed Trajectory: The days of MPs lobbying only their colleagues for the votes needed to become Labour's leader are over. Now they must face Labour's wider membership and convince them that they have the right - or should that be the "left" - stuff to lead the party. (Photo: John Miller)
 
SOCRATES, THEY SAY, was condemned to death for “corrupting the minds of the youth of Athens”. The fate of Ancient Greece’s most famous philosopher stands as a warning to all teachers: think very carefully about the ideas you instil in the next generation. Socrates paid a high price for the selfish and cynical political leaders his former students grew into.
 
Do the teachers of Labour’s three leadership contenders deserve the fate of Socrates? Have they instilled in David Cunliffe, Grant Robertson and Shane Jones the sort of cynicism and sophistry that distinguished Socrates’ most infamous student, the silver-tongued but treacherous Alcibiades?
 
Not if their speeches are any guide. All three of Labour’s leadership contenders have courted their party’s membership with reaffirmations of its founding principles and promises to advance its policies significantly to the left of their current settings. (Although, Mr Jones’ campaign promises have been somewhat less comprehensive and emphatic than his rivals’.)
 
The cause of this sudden resurgence in left-wing rhetoric is undoubtedly Labour’s new system for electing its leader.
 
For the whole of the party’s history, right up until November 2012, the normal institutional trajectory of Labour’s MPs has taken them further and further away from the party membership. The party activist became a parliamentarian. The back-bench MP won promotion to the front-bench (or Cabinet). The “rising star”, backed by his or her caucus colleagues, became the party leader and then, if he or she was any good, Prime Minister.
 
Only at the very beginning of their careers were Labour politicians dependent on the support of the party’s rank-and-file. Once in Parliament the focus of their attentions shifted irreversibly to their caucus colleagues – and the wider electorate.
 
Satisfying this latter group often came at the expense of the rank-and-file’s fondest aspirations. Opinion polling and focus groups easily trumped the outpourings of Labour’s Policy Council – to the point where the parliamentary party largely gave up trying to lead public opinion and began, instead, to follow its every contradictory twist and turn.
 
Except, of course, in the case of the Fourth Labour Government. In implementing “Rogernomics”, Labour MPs committed themselves to neoliberal polices that were favoured by neither the Labour Party nor the wider electorate. When the party rank-and-file objected, the Rogernomes proudly proclaimed that they would rather be voted out of office than abandon their government’s economic course.
 
Those who could not accept this split from Labour to form the NewLabour Party and, eventually, the Alliance. The members who remained were obliged to cede more and more control over the party’s overall policy direction to the Leader’s Office and caucus. It rankled, but for the 15 years Helen Clark led the Labour Party there was very little the rank-and-file could do about it.
 
Following Clark’s departure, however, the pressure for a wholesale democratisation of the party grew steadily, until, at Labour’s 2012 annual conference, it became irresistible.
 
The changes to Labour’s rules have exactly reversed the institutional trajectory of its parliamentarians. To have any prospect of capturing the party leadership, the most ambitious members of caucus are now required to secure the support of not only their fellow MPs, but of the broader party membership. In practical terms, this requires them to demonstrate an ability to lead, and not simply follow, public opinion.
 
To lead, organise and mobilise public opinion is precisely the reason why political parties were formed in the first place. The organisation’s whole purpose is to persuade voters that their interests are best served by supporting its mix of policies.
 
In 2013, after nearly 40 years of marginalisation, Labour’s members are, once again, exercising real influence over their country's political future. The significance of the rule-change is best gauged by the fact that had it been in place in 1984 Rogernomics couldn’t have happened.
 
Or, maybe not.
 
The conventional wisdom of political scientists is that Messrs Cunliffe, Robertson and Jones are currently engaged in a purely rhetorical exercise. That the moment Labour’s new leader is installed, he and his caucus colleagues will immediately exchange the campaign trail’s radical leftism for a mealy-mouthed and unadventurous centrism. And that, should Labour win the election, it will be as much a government of big business, by big business, for big business, as National.
 
The Death Of Socrates: Ancient Greece's greatest philosopher was condemned by the people of Athens for denigrating their democratic institutions and inculcating sophistry and cynicism among the city's future leaders. Even today, there are political scientists who warn their students that Labour's democratised system should not be taken seriously. That the eventual winner, having campaigned from the left, will instantly manoeuvre to the centre and then govern from the right. Where's that hemlock!
 
Socrates was required to swallow poison for inculcating such cynicism in Athens’ future leaders. The corruption of hope being the only truly unforgiveable political crime.
 
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, 6 September 2013.

Tuesday, 3 September 2013

Prince of Darkness?

Dangerous Man: Prince Bandar bin Sultan, former Saudi Ambassador to the United States, now Chief of the Saudi Intelligence Agency and prime diplomatic mover in the battle to topple Bashar al Assad, now stands accused of being behind the chemical warfare attacks against Syrian civilians on 21 August 2013.
 
HE IS ARGUABLY one of the most dangerous men on the planet. He has counselled presidents and kings, militants and terrorists, and the almost unlimited resources at his disposal means that his words are all-too-readily translated into deeds. The regime he serves stands high among the world’s most reactionary and corrupt. He is Prince Bandar bin Sultan, the Director-General of the Saudi Intelligence Agency.
 
In early-August, the Prince met with President Vladimir Putin on the outskirts of Moscow where he allegedly attempted to broker an increased-oil-price for acquiescence-over-Syria deal with the Russian President.
 
According to Ambrose Evans-Pritchard, writing in The Telegraph, the Saudi intelligence chief offered Putin a “mix of inducements and threats” to end the impasse over Syria.
 
Among the latter was the following chilling statement: “I can give you a guarantee to protect the Winter Olympics next year. The Chechen groups that threaten the security of the games are controlled by us.”
 
No Mafia boss could have spelled out more clearly the consequences of not accepting the Prince’s “guarantee”. In the crude language of the criminal underworld, the Russians were being told: “Give us a free hand in Syria or Sochi 2014 will be bloodier than Munich 1972.”
 
Prince Bandar may have underestimated President Putin (a former intelligence director himself) whose ice-cold ruthlessness has been demonstrated on many occasions since becoming Russia’s leader in 2000. Within hours of his supposedly secret discussions with Putin, the Prince’s threats and inducements were in the hands of the state-controlled Russian media. Attempts to blackmail Russia are seldom successful.
 
That was in early August. Two weeks later, on 21-22 August, the world woke up to the news that hundreds, perhaps thousands, of Syrian civilians living in the rebel-controlled Ghouta suburb of the Syrian capital, Damascus, had been attacked with what appeared to be chemical weapons, specifically, the deadly nerve agent Sarin. The author of the attack was said to be Bashar al Assad, the Syrian President.
 
The prohibitive “red line” announced by US President Barack Obama more than a year earlier, had been crossed.
 
But was President Assad really so foolish as to order the use of a weapons system which he knew would bring the United States and (most of) its allies into the battle against his government?
 
Transmissions originally intercepted by the Israeli security agency, Mossad, and released by the US military as “proof” of the Syrian government’s complicity in the chemical attack are actually capable of multiple interpretations.
 
What the recording contains are the panicked responses of senior Syrian officers desperate to clarify what has happened. Have chemical weapons been used? On whose authority? To what effect?
 
The intercept, far from providing conclusive evidence of Syrian Government involvement, suggests exactly the opposite. What the Israelis overheard sounds much more like the terrified response of a government whose worst nightmare has just become a reality.
 
Even the American intelligence officer responding to Foreign Policy magazine admitted: “We don’t know exactly why it happened. We just know it was pretty fucking stupid.”
 
And now the world is learning that what happened in Damascus on 21 August may not have originated in President Assad’s bunker, but hundreds of kilometres away, in Saudi Arabia.
 
On the Mint Press News website, a legitimate US media outlet based in Minnesota, freelance journalists Dale Gavlak and Yahya Ababneh have posted a story alleging that: “[F]rom numerous interviews with doctors, Ghouta residents, rebel fighters and their families, a different picture emerges. Many believe that certain rebels received chemical weapons via the Saudi intelligence chief, Prince Bandar bin Sultan, and were responsible for carrying out the deadly gas attack.”
 
If true, this report casts the events of the past fortnight in an entirely different light. Gavlak’s story (and we are dealing here with a reputable journalist whose work has been published by the Associated Press, the BBC, PBS and Salon.com) offers us an explanation that makes a great deal more sense than the USA’s or the Saudi-dominated Arab League’s version of events.
 
After all, who had the most to gain by the introduction of chemical weapons to the Syrian conflict? Certainly not the beleaguered Syrian government. The Saudis, on the other hand, have long been the implacable foes of the secular Baathist political movements that once held sway in Iraq and Syria.
 
Almost before the ashes of the twin towers had cooled, it was the Saudis who were urging President George W. Bush to direct the righteous wrath of the American people not only against the hapless Afghans, but upon Saudi Arabia’s most hated enemy, Iraq. The American journalist, Bob Woodward, has even asserted that the decision to invade Iraq was communicated to the Saudi Ambassador to the US before President Bush’s own Secretary of State, Colin Powell.
 
The name of that Saudi Ambassador? Prince Bandar bin Sultan.
 
This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 3 September 2013.