Thursday, 19 March 2020

Why Leadership Matters – More Than Anything.

Our Good Fortune: Precisely because she has never been an ideologue (she calls herself a “pragmatic idealist”) Jacinda Ardern has a political nimbleness and spontaneity which, when infused with her exceptional emotional intelligence, produces spectacular demonstrations of leadership. Jacinda's empathic political personality contrasts sharply with the less-than-sunny ways of her principal opponent, Simon Bridges. 

I’M HALFWAY THROUGH Timothy Snyder’s Bloodlands – as grim a history book as I have ever felt obliged to read. The territory of the title denotes that vast swathe of Eastern Europe and Western Russia which felt the murderous effects of first Soviet and then German totalitarianism between 1933 and 1945. Reading Bloodlands, one consistent and inescapable truth emerges: the character of a nation’s leadership matters. It matters more than anything.

The diseased characters of Joseph Stalin and Adolf Hitler incubated death and destruction on a colossal scale – so colossal that it is hard to take in.

Over a period of three months, the Covid-19 Pandemic has claimed the lives of 8,000 human-beings. In the space of just a few days, in the Ponary Forest, not far from the Lithuanian capital of Vilnius, in July 1941, “Special Action Unit 9” of the German Police, assisted by Lithuanian “auxiliaries”, shot and buried 72,000 Jews. It is important to bear in mind that the mass murder at Ponary was just one of scores of similar incidents. Equally important is the fact that such mass killings were not the sole preserve of the Nazis. The quantum of blood spilled by Stalin’s NKVD similarly defies the imagination.

Could there have been a Stalin without the First World War? A Hitler without the Great Depression? Of course not. Human-beings may make history, but, as Karl Marx observed, “they do not make it just as they please”. All manner of influences combine to drive historical events: geography, economics, demographics; and yet, when these grand forces propel events towards a moment of crisis, the quality of political leadership assumes more and more importance. How the grand forces of history end up being personified matters. It matters more than anything.

In New Zealand, and across the planet, the Covid-19 Pandemic: exogenous, random, naturally occurring: has profoundly disrupted the global economy and is pushing the social and economic institutions of the world’s nation states to their breaking points. The ideological context in which so many of those institutions are framing their response to the pandemic is one of neoliberal capitalism. A large part of the difficulties currently being experienced by the world’s nation states, as they grapple with the Covid-19 virus, is due to neoliberalism’s implacable hostility to the collectivism and solidarity needed to protect their citizens from the pandemic.

How well, or badly, national leaders fare in dealing with Covid-19 will depend on how willing (or able) they are to step away from the neoliberal paradigm – and how quickly. It is almost certainly no accident that the nations which have dealt most effectively with the virus, China and South Korea, are both more indebted to the economic nationalist ideas of Friedrich List than the neoliberal theories of Ludwig von Mises and Friedrich Hayek. Where the nation takes precedence over the corporation, combatting pandemics seems to be easier. Certainly, the leaders of the two countries where neoliberalism first secured control of the state apparatus, the United Kingdom and the United States, both seem to be struggling.

New Zealand, too, is a nation state where neoliberalism has enjoyed a dream run. The ideology permeates just about every aspect of the country’s economic and social life. All the more remarkable, then, that New Zealand’s prime minister, Jacinda Ardern, has wrestled herself free of neoliberalism’s grip. Especially when one recalls that it was Ardern’s Labour Party that released the neoliberal virus into New Zealand’s bloodstream. Clearly, Ardern has developed the antibodies needed to step away from the ideology – but how?

The answer may lie in Ardern’s almost accidental accession to Labour’s leadership and, from there, to the prime-ministership. Both events owed more to the personal fears and demons of the two men who cleared the pathway to her success, Andrew Little and Winston Peters, than to any Machiavellian scheming on Ardern’s part. Little’s and Peters’ decisions introduced “the incredible lightness of being Jacinda” to places where she was able to make a tangible political difference. Precisely because she has never been an ideologue (she calls herself a “pragmatic idealist”) Ardern has a political nimbleness and spontaneity which, when infused with her exceptional emotional intelligence, produces spectacular demonstrations of leadership.

“Jacinda’s” empathic political personality contrasts sharply with the less-than-sunny ways of her principal political opponent – the National Party Leader of the Opposition, Simon Bridges. As a fan of the band AC/DC, Bridges will be well acquainted with the concept of “dirty deeds done dirt cheap”. It is one of the darker features of National Party culture that, in order to succeed, their aspiring leaders must consent to being “blooded”. Generally speaking, this requires them to implement policies with which, at a personal level, they may profoundly disagree. The psychic injury inflicted by this requirement to prove oneself “a good soldier” is easily imagined. And the real tragedy is that, having done it once, it gets easier and easier to do it again, and again, and again. The inevitable result is a coarsening of character and an increased susceptibility to harsh and ruthless arguments.

In the case of the National Party, these harsh and ruthless arguments almost always originate from the deep social wounds that were opened up in the course of constructing the global economy that the neoliberal ideology both explains and defends. Perhaps the best description of what the first two decades of neoliberalism wrought was provided by the American liberal philosopher, Richard Rorty. In his 1998 book, Achieving Our Country, he also accurately prophesied our present populist fevers:

“Members of labor unions, and unorganized unskilled workers, will sooner or later realize that their government is not even trying to prevent wages from sinking or to prevent jobs from being exported. Around the same time, they will realize that suburban white-collar workers — themselves desperately afraid of being downsized — are not going to let themselves be taxed to provide social benefits for anyone else.

“At that point, something will crack. The non-suburban electorate will decide that the system has failed and start looking for a strongman to vote for — someone willing to assure them that, once he is elected, the smug bureaucrats, tricky lawyers, overpaid bond salesmen, and postmodernist professors will no longer be calling the shots.”

Simon Bridges’ graceless response to the Ardern Government’s Covid-19 Pandemic Economic Response Package was a potent example of the way in which right-wing parties like National remind Rorty’s “suburban white-collar workers” that the best way to prevent themselves from being “taxed to provide social benefits for anyone else” is to put their votes behind those who will not countenance the notion that beneficiaries are citizens too.

Critics of Bridges’ harsh words – and there have been many – cannot fathom how any decent person could fail so abjectly to recognise the needs of their fellow New Zealanders. To these people, the best of us, I would say – more in sorrow than in anger – read Bloodlands. From its grim pages you will learn about political leaders who, over many years, were able to convince their followers that while some human-beings are indeed endowed with rights and are, therefore, worthy of the state’s protection; there are others, masquerading as human-beings, who are not. In the case of Stalin’s and Hitler’s followers, these convictions allowed them to slaughter “class enemies” and “sub-humans” by the thousand – by the million. Those with something to lose; those with something to gain; when set in motion by leaders willing to sanction and facilitate whatever measures are deemed necessary to advance their interests; will do anything, stop at nothing.

We are not an inherently benign species. For good, or ill, we are easily led. That’s why the character of a nation’s leadership matters. That’s why it matters more than anything.

This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Thursday, 19 March 2020.

18 comments:

Tanya Stebbing said...

She is hopeless. Dithered around and failed to react fast enough! Way way out of her depth, and NZ paying the social and economic price.Oh to have the expert and capable Nats in charge! Sigh!

Tanya

David Stone said...

I agree that Jacinta is melding into her role in a most admirable way. However I'm not so sure they are getting everything right in dealing with the coronavirus outbreak. You hear again and again that there are yet no locally contracted cases, but no one who has not had contact overseas with a known case; and is showing severe symptoms is allowed to have a test. None so blind as he who will not see.
Even a government minister, Tracy Martyn having sat next to a confirmed case for an hour in Australia is told to self isolate and no test is available. A builder with a business and employees coming back from Aus with symptoms cannot get a test. Why not? His own livelihood and that of his employees is at stake if he has the illness; the cost of his self isolating unnecessarily if he just has a cold to himself and his staff, compared to the cost of a test, which I'm sure he would be happy to pay for, is a ridiculous comparison. The Chinese got on top of the problem with remarkable speed and efficiency by testing testing testing, The WHO boss says "test test test " What is going on here? The implication is that they don't expect to contain it and it's better not to know.

D J S

Geoff Fischer said...

From March 14-16 the New Zealand government brought scores of potentially infected people into the country, by-passing the admittedly farcical "self-isolation" regime and distributng them throughout the populations of both main islands.
Was this leadership?
If there was a method in that apparent madness (Covid-19 has got off to a flying start before winter sets in) it is management rather than leadership. True leaders do not deceive their followers as to their intentions and strategies.
If people look to government for leadership in this time of crisis they will be bitterly disappointed. Communities and individuals must take care of themselves. They can expect nothing and will get nothing from government.

Slugger said...

If Bridges has any half-decent advisors they will be telling him that Churchill won the war but lost the peace.

Kat said...

"Ardern has a political nimbleness and spontaneity which, when infused with her exceptional emotional intelligence, produces spectacular demonstrations of leadership....."

Well written Chris, we are so fortunate to have her as our PM and leader. Looking at NZ's political personnel inventory I can't imagine who else would even come close.

Anonymous said...

@Tanya Stebbing " Generally speaking, this requires them to implement policies with which, at a personal level, they may profoundly disagree. The psychic injury inflicted by this requirement to prove oneself “a good soldier” is easily imagined. And the real tragedy is that, having done it once, it gets easier and easier to do it again, and again, and again. The inevitable result is a coarsening of character and an increased susceptibility to harsh and ruthless arguments. "

... because the cognitive dissonance of breaking your principles is like being "a little bit pregnant" - cross that rubicon & there's not going back, it's your soul that's being judged.

greywarbler said...

Geoff Fischer
For really efficient leadership look to Nazi Germany's standard. NZ has been hesitant, mainly because our government will be criticised whatever they do. And bigger wealthier countries have set a good example!! Huh.
Just lay off and make note of every positive thing that this government does instead of trying to injure it severely by a thousand cuts.

Unknown said...

Hail Jacinda!

SYLVIA BAGNALL said...

This was Simon Bridges’ opportunity to show some statesmanlike leadership
but I am afraid he blew it.

mrs x said...

This was Simon Bridges’ opportunity to show some statesmanlike leadership but he blew it.

Kimhuntauthor said...

Thank you for this piece. Chilling historical analogies. Ardern hasn't put a foot wrong and her humanity demonstrates that compassion and strong leadership are not mutually exclusive. Sadly, leaders like her are once-in-a-lifetime occurances...

Guerilla Surgeon said...

Funny, last night I heard an epidemiologist praise the government's reaction to the crisis, but it doesn't stop conservatives from coming in and – without evidence – accusing them of "dithering".

I'll just repeat the Isaac Asimov zinger.
"Anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way through our political and cultural life, nursed by the false notion that democracy means my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge."

Tom Hunter said...

... we are so fortunate to have her as our PM and leader.

And then Lefties wonder where the likes of Mao come from. For god's sake, even though I voted National in the last couple of elections I would never have expressed this sort of sick-making worship about John Key, although I saw people who did.

Meantime, there's this from Elle at Home Paddock, where she quotes a Facebook post from a recent arrival:

Hi All! We have arrived safely in Auckland and are now in a hotel waiting out our isolation period. I wanted to make everyone aware of what we experienced at the airport this morning.

There was no mention on the plane or information handed out explaining self isolation enforcement and what was involved.

No information was handed out at the airport arrivals. We were given a card where we had to give a contact address (not an isolation address) – no one asked us where we were staying or if we understood our obligations when isolating. No temperature checks.


Plus this:

A man in front of me in the queue was from the UK, I heard him tell immigration that he was here for 2 weeks. He then grabs a NZ tourism brochure on his way pass – something tells me he doesn’t plan to isolate!

The whole process is a joke!


Doesn't sound like leadership to me, even though I appreciate the lack of panic in NZ as we all quietly go about minimising contact with people while still getting work done.

Tom Hunter said...

Funny, last night I heard an epidemiologist praise the government's reaction to the crisis, but it doesn't stop conservatives from coming in and – without evidence – accusing them of "dithering"

Funny, I've recently read articles by several epidemiologists saying the Trump Administration's reaction to the crisis has been good so far in its actions - especially in cutting China-USA flights way back on January 29 - but it doesn't stop Democrats from coming in and – without evidence – accusing Trump of "dithering", not to mention all the usual: xenophobia, racism, stupidity, etc, etc.

I guess partisanship is everywhere.

Kat said...

"I would never have expressed this sort of sick-making worship about John Key........."

But just like Key you conveniently took what was written out of context for your own moronic ramblings.

Here it is again: "we are so fortunate to have her as our PM and leader. Looking at NZ's political personnel inventory I can't imagine who else would even come close......"

Jacinda Ardern is the best on offer at this time by a country mile and she is doing a sterling job. Get used to it.

Geoff Fischer said...

Kia ora Gray Warbler
I can understand why you don't want any criticism of the government.
But look at the facts. The government deliberately brought large numbers of Covid-19 carrying people into the country on March 14-16 and distributed them around the country so as to evade the self-isolation regime. They did this because they were following the lead of the UK which was in a very different situation to New Zealand and whose policy makers are in any case two sandwiches short of a picnic.
Yet people like you will continue to insist that Jacinda is a great leader and colonialism is not a problem for us.
On a more positive note I'm pleased to see that today colonial regime has implemented the exact measures we put in place in our rohe on Friday morning. If the New Zealand government continues to follow the lead of our people rather than the dictates of its colonial masters.
But I tell you Gray Warbler, if I live through this I will never again allow the colonial regime to set foot in our rohe. The brutal fact is that your regime is much too stupid and dangerous for us to tolerate it any further.

greywarbler said...

Tanya Stebbing Excellent satire. Reverse everything and so true in that context.

sumsuch said...

They were human, Geoff. It's a well known feature of humans. No one agrees with your conclusion.

But Maori have no obligation of loyalty to their conquerors. Not because they were conquered but because we've not come to terms with Maori, intensified by the freemarketeers in the last 36 years. That blitzkrieg war on the poorest 20 %.