Friday, 22 August 2014

Steering By The Real: Chris Trotter Responds To Paul Buchanan.

Uncharacteristically Idealistic: Normally a cool-headed realist (as befits an expert in international relations) Dr Paul Buchanan has taken issue with Chris Trotter's "cynical" Bowalley Road posting Dirty Politics - Is There Any Other Kind? by offering a passionately idealistic defence of democratic politics.

WHEN ACADEMICS take to blogging the rest of us best be careful. And when they offer comment on the subject of dirty politics we should all pay attention. I will always remember my history lecturer, Dr Michael Cullen’s, confident dismissal of the challenge of representing the working-class Dunedin electorate of St Kilda after the 1981 General Election. Having secured selection, he told his admiring followers in Labour Youth that Parliament would be a welcome respite from the most vicious and dirty political environment of them all – the university common room.
Dr Paul Buchanan has more reason than most to endorse Dr Cullen’s comments, which is why I was surprised to see him describe what I regarded as an admirably realistic assessment of democratic politics as evidence that I had either lost my ideological bearings or had “consciously decided to join the Dark Side”.
In Why Throw In The Towel? – A Brief Response To Trotter’s Cynicism I am thus dismissed by Dr Buchanan as either bewildered or a blackguard, and my offending essay Dirty Politics – Is There Any Other Kind? is deemed “a cynical defence of dirty politics as being the norm”.
Unfortunately, Dr Buchanan’s critique does not engage with my essay’s essentially historical-realist argument. He does, however, rehearse (in suitably dense academic prose) my inverted Clausewitzian characterisation of politics as “the continuation of war by other means”. Democratic politics, in particular, argues Dr Buchanan, must be “self-limiting” lest the “political game descends into a zero-sum self-interested maximisation of collective opportunities.”
The above sentence is not, however, how I would formulate the alternative to the self-limiting behaviour so crucial to democracy’s success. The historical record suggests that, in the real world, the “self-interested maximisation of collective opportunities” is the democratic norm, and that, historically, the descent from that norm is characterised by the decision of key political actors to abandon self-limitation in favour of popular or state violence. “Foul means or fouler” was how I put it: revolution or repression.
Bluntly speaking, Dr Buchanan’s uncharacteristically idealistic aspirations for democracy (in his discussions of international relations he has always struck me as a pretty staunch realist) cannot survive the taste-test of history. And it is this ahistorical idealism which largely explains his disinclination to engage with any of the many historical examples included in my essay – not even the all-American examples advanced by his compatriot Professor Kathleen Hall Jamieson.
Whether it be the dirty political deal that abandoned Southern Blacks to their fate in 1876; or Joseph P. Kennedy’s dirty deal with the Chicago mob to secure the crucial electoral votes of Illinois for his son in the desperately close presidential election of 1960; or the low-down and dirty theft of the 2000 presidential election by the Bush clique and their Supreme Court allies; the historical proofs for the universality of dirty politics are legion.
Nor can Dr Buchanan escape this reality by shovelling all the blame for dirty politics onto the “elites”. The shenanigans I have observed in union elections do not bear repeating, and even in the idealistic Green Party the ruthlessly ambitious have been known to reach for the contents of the self-composting toilet.
Democracy has always danced upon the back of the monstrous interests composing the capitalist state. It does so, with the lightest of feet, because it knows that while the monsters beneath prefer to govern by consent, they are perfectly willing to resort to force. To preserve at least the illusion of consent, the political writers of the 1920s, were quick to reassure the powerful that, properly managed by astute politicians, a responsible media and the new (dark) arts of advertising and public relations, the millions of newly enfranchised voters would pose no serious threat to the status quo. For the likes of Edward Bernays and Walter Lippman, democracy without deception and distraction was a non-starter.
These are not pleasant truths, but those who locate themselves on the Left would be most unwise to ignore or dismiss them. Navigating by the starry eyes of the idealistic all-too-often lands left-wingers on the rocks. I prefer to steer by the real.
But there is dirty politics that works, and dirty politics that doesn’t. The manufacturing of popular consent increases in effectiveness in inverse proportion to the voters’ proximity to the factories where it is made. What Nicky Hager has exposed in his book is the failure of the National Party leadership to recognise in Cameron Slater and his comrades a political cadre too protean, too volatile, and much too much in love with the smell of napalm in the morning to be allowed anywhere near the Prime Minister’s Office. What Nicky describes is Watergate writ small: a scandal precipitated by a general failure, at the highest levels, to understand that the essence of successful democratic politics is illusion; and the only thing you must never do is allow the mask to slip.
This essay was simultaneously posted on the Bowalley Road and The Daily Blog blogsites on Friday, 22 August 2014.


Charles W Etherington said...

Yes well written Mr Trotter and I agree mostly yet I think the Proff is worried that this dirty politics by both sides can undermine our liberal democracy in the publi's eye to a greater degree than actually warranted when we look at the detail.
This is in part due to the hysteria of the mainstream media which feed like jackels on anything slightly smelly, worrying it to death. They also undermine themselves this way.
You too at times and to a lesser extent me by writing on your blog play a small part in this I guess.
Rob Hosking, who I fear you will dismiss since he writes in the NBR covers this very well today. He refers to Key as having become Whale Oil-Lite, sort of sour and cynical when he should have remained detached from that side of the political art. It is well put.
But he condemns the orchestrated smear campaign Hager and his source have unleashed too, pointing out Hager is a Marxist who never misses and chance to try and undermine our political system which he would like to destroy.
He puts his finger on reason I detest Hager. Hager, as Rob Hoskin says, regards his opposition as unhuman and that is despicable. Slater may be inhuman at times but that is a lesser defect. Key should never get near any of this though so he has tainted his reputation. Pity but half the country still like him.

Chris Trotter said...

Oh, Charles. Why do you swallow this nonsense?

Nicky Hager was a Values Party supporter. He's never been a Marxist.

Falling for red-baiting is so 20th century.

Guerilla Surgeon said...

Never trust anyone who refers to the "mainstream media." :-) Never trust a prime minister who wants a seem to be above politics :-). Never trust anyone who refers to Nikki Hager as a Marxist :-). Most of the right wouldn't know a Marxist if one bit them on the bum.

sam v said...

Your historical realism is irrefutable Chris.
However am I reading that you support the ideas of Lippman, that the public needs to be deluded - to me this is indefensible and undemocratic.

RedLogix said...

Unlike Paul I don't think you have lost your way Chris. There is merit in the realist argument - up to a point.

Because politics as a substitute for war is essentially an idealistic enterprise.It argues that humans are capable of rising above brute force and horror. It argues that there is an angelic side to human nature and we can nurture it and we can move in the direction towards it - even if we repeatedly fail to arrive.

Because while some politics will always be grubby - there is no reason to to say that ALL politics is dirty.

Chris Trotter said...

Sam, please do not labour under the misapprehension that I endorse the ideas of Lippman - I don't.

I mention him and Bernays only because they literally wrote the books on how to maintain the illusion of a functioning democracy while emptying it of all its emancipatory potential.

I guess that, in the end, I'm a revolutionary: searching for a way to construct a society in which the ideals of democracy can at last be fulfilled.

All I'm saying is that it ain't gonna happen under capitalism.

Charles W Etherington said...

So other than not placing Hager in the correct revolutionary box, the rest of what I say makes sense? That Hager cannot see his political opponent's as having any merit at all, indeed, that they are vermin, literally. So he is trying to undermine our electoral system without putting a party up for election?

He is a friend of your so I accept your statement. You are the Marxist and he is what? A liberal democrat who believes a vibrant, dual fractioned competitive democracy is the best system for the people of NZ?

For your part can you elaborate a little on if you think we could have a democratic Marxist revolutionary society? Presumably one without thought police and re-education camps? Oh and a completely free media? And sustainable prosperity for everyone?

Charles W Etherington said...

Ok I've just read The CHCH Press and a couple of good commentators and I am prepared to admit I am partially wrong.
As much as I hate to say it, and despite his utter utter bias, Hager has done us a favour disclosing the dirty stuff and rank behaviour the Nats got tangled in.
I still maintain that they have a better claim to govern for the next term. They are still the lesser of two evils.
It's up to Labour and co to establish a better case for government, and a more stable one. I maintain they cannot. They are not ready and with the Greens they have a party where almost every policy displays even more cognitive dissonance than I do!

Anonymous said...

Any student of politics will know that the inversion of Clauswitz's aphorism has tradition.

The gentleman's agreement to silence around the latest emails release (which implicated media et al), shows it is now dawning on the beltway how far out the heads could potentially roll if the system is disrupted. What we are seeing is state-party centrally-distributed consumer politics being out-manoeuvred by a more skilled and idealistic/anarchic operative.

Whether the current (and clearly corrupt) government remain in power following the elction, the leaks will be a cancer on trust and cooperation within the National party.

Chris is correct insofar as the situation is a broad and illuminating sociological study in elite control and factionalism. It remains to be seen if the sheer violence of truth in the leaks - i.e. its showing up the thin veneer of modern western democracy and its channels within the establishment - will seed a new politics or whether it will be business as usual, only with less trust and more brute force.

Any conservative must hope that the police and the judiciary now demonstrate that modern New Zealand is a state that can be nominally and performatively salvaged from the visible cronyism and corruption of a broken system.

Meanwhile, it's quite entertaining to see government support for post-modern philosophy. Waiting for the PM to say, a la The Thick of It, 'I think it was Derrida who said there is no such thing as an empirical fact.'

sam v said...

Thanks Chris, I agree with you for sure - you are making your contribution towards that genuine democracy if people only care to investigate.
Charles Etherington I would borrow Murray Bookchin's phrase and castigate Marxism as 'hot news' in 1848. His ideas were propaganda and relied upon an oversimplified view of history, we should pick out the best bits like free public education and contempt for the worst excesses of capitalism in his time - which were terrible.
Marx's anarchist contemporaries like Mikhail Baikunin correctly critiqued his ideas as risking totalitarianism, and were proven right with the rise of the chinese and russian totalitarian states. Again their ideas were imperfect, particularly in framing the discussion as a conflict they did us a grave disservice.
In NZ I don't think the cow cockies were very far politically from the Wellington wharfies in 1914 who were locked out for having a union meeting then brutally beaten by Massey's cossacks.
The result of the misinformation you and most people have absorbed is that there is some kind of left-right fundamental conflict and this clouds your view of every issue.
To me left and right is meaningless..
All I would say is that a fully informed public without media manipulation would allow for a true democracy where a rational discussion about the best form of government could occur, informed by the best ideas from history. Marxism and Capitalism should both be historical footnotes.
Ironically your reference to thought police is from 1984 by George Orwell who fought in the spanish civil war for the anarcho-syndicalists and I would say his experiences there influenced him deeply and compelled his later writings. If you read some of them you would be able to answer your own questions, I believe he referred to himself as a democratic socialist.
Incidentally the name-calling way you use Marxist is fairly puerile.

Charles W Etherington said...

Thanks for the lecture Sam, I knew most of that as have read it elsewhere, perhaps like you?
Name calling? Interesting when you more eloquently dish Marxism. That amounts to the same thing. Indeed in your case you are saying someone is sooo out of date if they are still Marxist. Doubt our host would agree. Isn't it the new cool these days?

Chris Trotter said...

At last, Charles! Something we agree on!

Sam's dismissal of Marxism echoes hundreds I have read over the years. And yet, as even the Financial Times and The Economist have been forced to concede, the cantankerous old German still has much to teach us.

As a perceptive graffitist daubed on the Berlin Wall 40 years ago: "Stalinism is not socialism. Capitalism is not freedom."

Sam V said...

I didn't mean to dismiss Marxism as I consider it very close to correct, only that we should always question and continue to evolve.
My theory is that when Marx spoke of the inevitability of revolution he was wishing it into being - this is the propaganda aspect. I am not sure about his analysis of history as marching to communism, again maybe this is what he wanted rather than what he thought.
I think Bakunin would be saying that he told us so wrt Russia/China but also agree Stalinism is nothing like what Marx envisaged.
There is no longer a huge proletariat recently moved from the farm to the factory. People have evolved to suit their environment - now there is a managerial aristocracy, and people are comfortable so that they don't see the need for change. A large number of people wasting time to support the power structure, lawyers - bankers - insurance have been brought into the fold. Most of them still hate being wage slaves but consider it inevitable, and the carrot of being an overseer is appealing to them.
I haven't read so much and am certainly open to changing my opinion, I am sure my political difference from Chris is wafer thin.
The argument between Anarchist and Marxist is long, bitter and it seems to me somewhat pointless. If you are truly understanding Charles then that puts you into a tiny fraction of the population, I wish there was a way to make it part of the mainstream discussion - where it should be.
I think I need to be reading less and protesting more :)

Guerilla Surgeon said...

Interesting take on political honesty – as were on the topic.