Thursday 15 July 2021

Nothing Left – Or Right – To Say.

Or, Better Still, Start It! When did philosophical literacy cease to be a core competence of political leadership? Past New Zealand political leaders managed to explain themselves and their parties with reasonable fluency, why not the present crop?

THE NATIONAL PARTY’s “Demand the Debate” campaign speaks volumes about the Right’s ideological weakness. A more coherent and courageous conservative party would not have demanded a debate, it would, instead, have encouraged one by taking a clear, well-argued position on the issues under scrutiny. The obvious conclusion to be drawn from this failure is that, at present, National is unable to formulate a clear position. One suspects, moreover, that even if it was capable of doing so behind the Caucus Room door, it lacks the confidence to argue it in public.

Not everyone involved in politics needs to be a philosopher, but when the ideological temperature has risen to its current level, a party’s leader must be able to hold their own in any debate about the “whys” of politics. It is easy to accuse Judith Collins of not being equal to this most basic of political responsibilities. But, by any honest assessment, neither is the Prime Minister. Yes, Jacinda Ardern possesses formidable “communication skills”, but that is not quite the same thing as being able to present a coherent defence of one’s policies. Her inability to explain her government’s proposed “Hate Speech” legislation is only the most recent example of this rather significant failing.

When did philosophical literacy cease to be a core competence of political leadership? Past New Zealand political leaders managed to explain themselves and their parties with reasonable fluency, why not the present crop?

A clever post-modernist scholar would, at this point, wax eloquent about the collapse of the metanarratives that underpinned the politics of the twentieth century. Not just the Marxist metanarrative but, at least two decades before the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union, the dramatic attenuation of the practical Christian compassion which, for at least two centuries, had blunted the teeth and claws of free-market capitalism. An even cleverer social historian might point to the subversive consequences of the 1960s “counter-culture”, which elevated personal choice above political conviction and turned “you do your thing and I’ll do mine” into the guiding wisdom of an entire generation.

Into this rather barren philosophical landscape rolled the Tiger Tanks of the Neoliberal Wehrmacht. With everybody else’s philosophy reduced to rubble, the Neolibs were able to establish an ideological monopoly of unprecedented durability. Nobody expressed the new reality better than Francis Fukuyama, the US State-Department savant who penned the in/famous 1989 essay entitled “The End of History”. According to Fukuyama, the great battles of ideas that had driven history forward for 2,000 years were over. Liberal-democratic, free-market capitalism had won. It’s ideas weren’t just the ideas of the ruling-class, they were the ideas of every intelligent, well-educated person. Henceforth the only philosophical catechism a political leader needed to master was: “Leave everything to the free play of market forces.” Anything more complicated than that was bound to set their country on the road to serfdom.

But history didn’t end. If anything, the free play of market forces only speeded it up. In their haste to implement the supposedly last great ideology, the Neolibs cast aside the critical post-war stabilisers of a prosperous working-class and a civic-minded middle-class. In the resulting “there is no such thing as society” moral wasteland that resulted, just about everybody became a survivalist of some sort. Investing emotionally in a political ideology, even thinking philosophically, was a mug’s game.

With nothing left to do, political parties became the equivalent of hood ornaments. The voters cared only about how political leaders looked; the social caché they conferred; how they made them feel. Nobody gave two hoots about what they thought!

John Key and Jacinda Ardern provide outstanding examples of this new kind of political leadership. Very early on in their careers, they grasped the key lesson of Neoliberal politics: that leaders didn’t need to be effective as much as they needed to be affective. Providing you engaged the electorate’s emotions in a powerful way – “I feel your pain” – what you actually achieved didn’t really matter. The working proposition was, after all, that “the government that governs least, is the government that governs best”. Politicians weren’t supposed to do much more than smile and wave – and take selfies with their adoring fans.

Meanwhile, behind all this front-of-house flim-flam, the problems of capitalism (which had never gone away) continued to accumulate. The rich got obscenely richer, while more and more previously comfortable citizens became decidedly uncomfortable. Infrastructure, the crucial skeleton of a modern industrial society, was simply left to rot and decay. Not just roads and bridges, but schools, hospitals and universities. If there was demand, there would be supply. Adam Smith’s “Invisible Hand” would build all the houses people needed. If there were no houses for the poor, then clearly that was because the poor preferred to sleep under bridges and in cars. Supply and demand, mate, supply and demand. Stands to reason!

In the end, of course, simply mouthing Neoliberal slogans wasn’t going to cut it. The neoliberal economists could insist all they liked that their discipline was about responding to people’s choices, but they were wrong. Economics, in the end, is about meeting people’s needs. Socialists have always known this, and so too, in their own quiet way, have conservatives. The socialists have positioned themselves across the tracks of history and demanded “Justice!” The conservatives (according to William F. Buckley) have stood athwart history and cried “Stop!” The important thing to remember is that Neoliberalism cannot afford to surrender an inch to either of them.

Judith Collins is demanding a debate because, from somewhere in the back of her mind, a tiny voice is reminding her that if injustice isn’t stopped by politicians constitutionally, then it will be stopped by the people unconstitutionally. Somehow, people must be persuaded to once again put their faith in the political process. Reality engenders ideas that need to be given a voice. If only she could remember how to evaluate and express those ideas. If only she could remember the words. Because then she would not need to demand the debate – she would have one.

This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Thursday, 15 July 2021.


DS said...

Oswald Spengler predicted a century ago that mass ideological movements would give way to factions following charismatic individual leaders.

John Hurley said...

The conservatives (according to William F. Buckley) have stood athwart history and cried “Stop!” The important thing to remember is that Neoliberalism cannot afford to surrender an inch to either of them.
I like that line. It was John Key who gave a lot of political influence to Ngai tahu so that we see a Pro vice Chancellor (or assistant) of Lincoln University tell us that "this place [Victoria Square] teemed with Ngai tahu" and so began the Maori Camelot that placed them at the heart of Otautahi/Christchurch. Despite the census of 1971 telling us Maori were <2% of the population and lack of archeological evidence they have their identity over any new buildings and the right to "gift" names.

Where is the debate there. It certainly isn't coming from (a whole list of) young journalists?

Brendan McNeill said...

Tthe idea that our Prime Minister or any senior member of the National party might hold their own in a philosophical debate has become laughable, and sadly this has been the case for more than a decade.

The idea that they understand the reasons for the social dislocation that has resulted from the loss of a meaningful meta-narrative that bound us together as New Zealanders is again, sadly missing. They may ‘feel’ the dislocation, but cannot articulate its causes, or any potential solution.

However they are not alone in this. Think Boris Johnson or President Biden, the leaders of disintegrating super powers; Britain post WWII and the USA starting at least from the beginning of this century, and escalating. You wouldn’t look to either of these men for anything other than political bromides.

We are in an epoch characterised by the rapid transition from what remains of the virtues and institutions inspired by Christendom and into - what exactly? Most likely some form of soft totalitarianism aded and abetted by big tech and the surveillance state. I note for example that France is legislating to prevent anyone who has not been vaccinated against Covid-19 from entering public shopping malls, cafe’s, pubs etc, with the only exception being supermarkets so that the refuseniks can purchase food, at least for now. No doubt other countries are watching with a view to following their example.

Given this environment, you would have thought the National Party could have clearly differentiated themselves by standing for individual freedom, and declaring there would be no vaccine passports, or second class citizens on their watch. Maybe they have already and I simply didn’t notice.

Jens Meder said...

So it is clear that in order for life to survive, there are some basic universal needs to be met in order for survival to happen, and we humans expect there to be justice between us humans in meeting those needs.

Well, the reality set by nature is, that for the basic need for food and shelter we have to work for it and reap enough profit to be able to carry on working and supplying the basic needs for our children until they are able to work profitably enough for their own adequate nourishment and a SURPLUS for more ambitious activities beyond basic survival.

So the basic priority need without which even survival is endangered, is the need of profit, and please let me know, if that is not so.

Yes, free market liberalism is not the "end of economic history' because it inevitably leads to intensified socio-economic polarization into haves and have-nots, through the freedom of seductive salesmanship urging more consumption even on credit, which of course leads to a primitive, property-less hand-to-mouth way of survival - unless the borrower still remains committed to save some of his'her income at a higher rate that any newly acquired debt.

There is no need to prohibit seductive salesmanship - but for the sake of justice in keeping up with our needs and personal and national ambitions, there is a need to systematically enroll 100% of us in wealth reserves ownership creation.

It only requires a little more elaboration of what has been started with the NZ Super Fund and Kiwi Saver, and for National it should not be difficult to become competitive in this, because was it not supposed to believe in the "Property Owning Democracy" for all?

Glenn Webster said...

It seems that you are seeing the very bad place we are going to Chris.

Trev1 said...

Debate has been suppressed by a venal and morally corrupt media. If Collins asks questions about He Puapua she is accused of "playing the race card". "Demand the Debate" is a call to New Zealanders, who have never been much interested in political philosophy, to take stock of the dizzyingly rapid decline of their country. Perhaps tomorrow's Howl of Protest by farmers will be the turning point? Aotearoa's Gilets Jaunes may have finally arrived.

The Barron said...

The danger with the National Party being vacuous on policy and principles is what will fill the vacuum. We may look back on the good old days when the self-serving opportunists failed to register with the public. Lurking in the cesspool there will be soul-sellers of the populist right that can take advantage of our imbalanced electoral funding laws and make an impact at the cost of the country.

Michael Johnston said...

There is one party leader who seems well and truly engaged in debate in an articulate, coherent and principled fashion. That leader is David Seymour and his fortrightness seems to be serving him and his party very well.