Saturday, 28 March 2020

How Do You Feel? What Do You Think?

Fortune's Children: Under extraordinary pressure, the leader of the Government and the leader of the Opposition will each show us what they are made of. Have they been blessed with intelligence, grace, wit, poise, toughness, empathy and humour – and in what measure? More importantly, to what extent have they been infused with that sacred fire the Ancient Greeks called charisma? Which of New Zealand’s prime ministerial contenders, the incumbent or the challenger, shows the most signs of Fortune’s favour?

NEW ZEALAND POLITICS under the Lockdown will be played out in two locations. The Beehive: where Jacinda Ardern and her key ministers and advisers will oversee the national effort to eradicate the Covid-19 virus. Parliament Buildings: where the Epidemic Response Committee, chaired by Simon Bridges, will hold the Prime Minister, her government, and the country’s leading public servants to account. Live broadcasts of government announcements and committee deliberations look set to provide New Zealanders with some of the most dramatic political performances of the Covid-19 drama. While the Lockdown lasts, these exchanges will constitute the beating heart of our democracy.

It didn’t have to be like this. Another Prime Minister, another Government, would have dared the Opposition to withhold its support from a State of Emergency declaration and put it before the House of Representatives regardless – relying on its majority to carry the day. The Government’s political surrogates would have denounced viciously any Opposition party foolish enough to abstain or, worse still, vote “No.” In a crisis as serious as New Zealand’s Covid-19 epidemic, any suggestion of non-co-operation couldn’t help but marginalise – even demonise – an obstinate Opposition. A more Machiavellian Prime Minister would have found it impossible to resist the temptation to manoeuvre his or her principal adversaries out of electoral contention, or, failing that, out of the public eye (which amounts to the same thing) in this way.

But not this Prime Minister. Understanding that any marginalisation of her opponents; any diminishing of accountability; would remove the incentive to carry out her duties openly and effectively, Jacinda deliberately subjected herself to Bridges’ scrutiny.

Secrecy not only encourages incompetence and failure, but it also allows them to remain hidden. It is a powerful testament to the Prime Minister’s personal determination to bring the New Zealand people safely through this crisis that she has refused the protection which secrecy and exclusion provide. The better Bridges does – and is seen to do – the more Jacinda will have to lift her game.

The onus now falls upon her colleagues and her officials to look after the PM by not stuffing things up!

It is only fair to acknowledge, however, that there is an element of benign Machiavellianism in giving Simon Bridges the starring role in the Epidemic Response Committee drama. If he does his job responsibly and well, then Jacinda’s performance will improve.

Win.

But, if he performs irresponsibly and badly: if he cannot resist the siren song of reckless negativity; if he simply cannot live with the thought that a consistent display of moderation and competence on his part will only enhance Jacinda’s prime-ministerial performance; then he will be drawn to the Dark Side of the political Force – and the whole country will be watching.

Win-Win.

Which can only mean that we, the voters, are winners too. Because even in the midst of this unprecedented  public health emergency, and the economic crisis it has spawned, the logic of representative democracy continues to play itself out. Under extraordinary pressure, the leader of the Government and the leader of the Opposition will each show us what they are made of. Have they been blessed with intelligence, grace, wit, poise, toughness, empathy and humour – and in what measure? More importantly, to what extent have they been infused with that sacred fire the Ancient Greeks called charisma? Which of New Zealand’s prime ministerial contenders, the incumbent or the challenger, shows the most signs of Fortune’s favour?

The answer is located not only in the minds of New Zealand’s voters, but in their guts. As always, in the rough and tumble of democracy, political outcomes owe at least as much to how we feel, as to what we think.

So, one day into Lockdown, how are you feeling? What do you think?

This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Friday, 27 March 2020.

Friday, 27 March 2020

A Compelling Recollection.

Broad, Sunlit Uplands: How those words fired my young imagination! Or, perhaps, it is more accurate to say: how those words fused, in my young mind, with the image printed on every packet of Fielder’s Cornflour. Always fascinated by history, especially modern history, I cannot hear Churchill’s wonderfully evocative words, even at more than half-a-century’s distance, without Edmond’s image of morning sunlight, golden fields, and a plentiful harvest gathered in a time of peace, rising unbidden from my store of childhood memories.

IT’S CURIOUS, isn’t it, how words and images fuse into a single compelling recollection? As I look up from my keyboard, my eye alights upon the decades-old packaging art of “Fielder’s Cornflour” – now, alas, replaced by a more up-to-date expression of the graphic designer’s skill.

The original packaging features a brightly rising sun, its broad rays dappling the rolling hillsides in a golden glow, while below a farmer leads a team of draughthorses across his wheatfield. I remember my Mother giving me the name of the peculiar standing bundles of harvested wheat: “Those are ‘stooks’.”

Even then, in the early 1960s, the Edmonds company’s graphic art had an old-fashioned feel. When my Father’s North Otago wheat-fields were ready to be harvested, I looked forward eagerly to the arrival of a gigantic (to my eyes) combine harvester. The days of draughthorses and stooks were long gone.

So much for the image. What of the words?

My Father was 15 years-old, and my Mother was twelve, when World War II broke out in 1939. Old enough to take a deep personal interest in the great events that were now shaping their young lives. Twenty years later, married, with a growing family, both would recall those years with a mixture of pride, sadness and exhilaration. My Mother would entertain us at the piano with “In The Mood” – Glenn Miller’s wartime hit. On Anzac Day, both of them would sing Vera Lynn’s haunting anthems: “The White Cliffs of Dover”; “A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square”; “We’ll Meet Again”. And Dad would quote Churchill.

Churchill was still alive in the early 1960s, but failing fast. In the hearts and minds of my parents’ generation, however, he would always be the indomitable “Winnie”, whose stirring wartime speeches – masterpieces of English rhetoric – gave heart to Britain and its empire in the dark days of 1940, when Western Civilisation found itself staring into “the abyss of a new Dark Age made more sinister, and perhaps more protracted, by the lights of perverted science.”

Dad could quote huge chunks of Churchill’s “Finest Hour” speech. Not just its immortal last sentence: “Let us therefore brace ourselves to our duties, and so bear ourselves that if the British Empire and its Commonwealth last for a thousand years, men will still say, ‘This was their finest hour’”, but also many of the sentences that preceded it. It was one of these: the sentence that promised the millions of people whose future then seemed so dark; that they would overcome their enemy; that Europe would be freed from Hitler’s tyranny so that “the life of the world may move forward into broad, sunlit uplands”.

How those words fired my young imagination! Or, perhaps, it is more accurate to say: how those words fused, in my young mind, with the image printed on every packet of Fielder’s Cornflour. Always fascinated by history, especially modern history, I cannot hear Churchill’s wonderfully evocative words, even at more than half-a-century’s distance, without Edmond’s image of morning sunlight, golden fields, and a plentiful harvest gathered in a time of peace, rising unbidden from my store of childhood memories.

“Broad, sunlit uplands”, it was a phrase that resonated not only with me, twenty years after the event, but with the people – most especially with the people – who lived and fought and died in the awful shadow of Hitler’s evil. They were determined that the dreadful experiences of the decades that followed the First World War would not be repeated in the decades that followed the Second. This time all the death and destruction, all the suffering and heartbreak and sacrifice, had to produce something better, something fairer, something that would, indeed, allow the world to move forward into “broad, sunlit uplands”.

It is my hope, as New Zealand once again finds itself in a dark place, beset by the threat of loss and ruin, that we can make our way, as before, into broad, sunlit uplands and a new morning. I am also confident that young New Zealanders, now walking through the Valley of the Shadow of Death, will, like their forebears, emerge from it not unscathed but unbeaten. And that, twenty years from now, they’ll be singing the songs of the Great Pandemic to their own children, and explaining to them proudly why this was their finest hour.

This essay was originally published in The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 27 March 2020.

Thursday, 26 March 2020

It's Time For Disaster Socialism.

Transformers: The disaster of the Great Depression was transformed into a new and fairer society by the democratic socialism of the First Labour Government. The disaster of the Covid-19 Pandemic offers a similar transformative possibility to the Labour-NZ First-Green Government. Seize the time, Jacinda! You will never have a better opportunity to be strong, to be kind, and to break the chains of neoliberalism for those who have waited so long and endured so much.

“NEVER LET A CRISIS go to waste.” That was the key take-out from Naomi Klein’s 2007 book, The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism. Remember the stories? Who could forget the one about the way the American Right took advantage of Hurricane Katrina? How it looked upon the tragedy of New Orleans’ flooded public schools, and saw only a heaven-sent opportunity to privatise the city’s education system.

I know Jacinda wants us all to “Unite Against Covid-19”, but I also know that out there the One Percent are working feverishly to protect, defend and if possible extend their gains of the past 35 years. The neoliberal elites survived the Global Financial Crisis of 2008-09, and they are absolutely determined to survive the Global Pandemic of 2020. That cannot be allowed to happen. The Left must drive the stake so deep into Neoliberalism’s black heart that, this time, it does not get up. What’s needed now is “Disaster Socialism”.

Last December, contemplating the rout of Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party, I observed:

A democratic-socialist leader possessed of a sophisticated strategic sense would understand that election manifestos are best restricted to promoting policies that the electorate actually wants – not policies his (or her) comrades believe the electorate should want. Let the drift of events – economically and socially – propel the party in directions which the capitalists may not like, but which they no longer feel able to redirect. Most importantly, identify the one reform most likely to undermine the institutions upon which their opponents’ rely most heavily for protection. Implement it early, fast, and without compromise.

In the context of the current crisis, the “drift of events” is pushing the Coalition Government inexorably towards introducing some form of Universal Basic Income (UBI). Finance Minister Grant Robertson has (very wisely) refused to rule out such a measure. Indeed, it is difficult to see how preventing a precipitous descent into mass poverty and significant social dislocation can be avoided without some form of UBI.

If Jacinda and her colleagues wish to avoid New Zealand spiralling down into the sort of mass civil unrest that characterised 1932 – the darkest year of the Great Depression – when angry crowds of desperate unemployed smashed-up Auckland’s Queens Street and fought running battles with the Police, then constructing some form of income floor for the population to stand on is pretty much unavoidable.

The beauty of the rising clamour for a UBI is that it is not actually coming from the Government. Rather, it is bubbling-up (as all great social reforms should) from below, as thoughtful people look ahead and see the black hole into which New Zealand’s economy will disappear if some form of income guarantee is not introduced – and quickly.

(Which is not to say that Robertson will not be finding it difficult to suppress a wry chuckle. Remembering the derisive reception the UBI option received when it emerged from Labour’s 2016 “Future of Work” discussions, he will no doubt be thinking “what goes around, comes around”!)

Even more beautiful than the genuinely popular nature of the demand for a UBI, is the fact that the voices of the capitalists themselves – especially the smaller ones – are joining in the clamour for change. They know that the thing they have to fear the most is (as Franklin Roosevelt rightly observed in March 1933) “fear itself”.

When people lose all confidence in their ability to escape the economic calamity assailing them, their whole mind and body are attuned to only one thing – survival. Their own and their family’s future fades to black. “Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof.” In times like these the most important thing a government can do is give people hope. And, in the midst of an economic catastrophe: hope = money. If the people have no hope – no money – they cannot and will not spend. Every capitalist with a brain knows this. They know that impoverished consumers must put at risk the entire capitalist system. That’s why they, too, however reluctantly, are coming to the conclusion that the introduction of some sort of UBI is inevitable.

Ironically, this leaves Neoliberal Capitalism’s official spokesperson, Simon Bridges, off-side with a growing number of capitalists. His objection to the introduction of a UBI is that once introduced it will instantly become a permanent fixture of the twenty-first century welfare state. Abolishing it will be politically impossible. He’s right, of course. A UBI, like Mickey Savage’s “social security”, is one of those reforms which the Right must, at almost any cost, prevent, because once it’s in, it’s in for good. National’s wartime leader, Sid Holland, came to this realisation only slowly. He had to be beaten three times at the ballot box before he was ready to reassure the electorate that Social Security would be safe under National. Clearly, Bridges knows enough of his own party’s history to grasp the importance of heading a UBI off at the pass.

And, when I use the expression “at almost any cost”, I’m not exaggerating. So appalled was the New Zealand Right at the prospect of Social Security coming into force that, on 2 February 1939, one of their number poured petrol over the timbers of the half-constructed Social Security Building in Aitken Street, not far from Parliament Buildings, and set them alight. The resulting blaze lit up Wellington’s night sky and reduced the construction site to ashes. Not that Mickey Savage and the people who had just re-elected the Labour Government were deflected by the arson in Aitken Street. The Government, private builders and the construction unions, working together, took only weeks to construct a new Social Security headquarters. It was opened by the Prime Minister on 27 March – just five days from the coming into force of the Social Security Act on 1 April 1939.

Mickey Savage opens the Social Security Building on 27 March 1939.

Similar determination is now required of Jacinda and her government. The present crisis demands a bold measure to both reassure and economically support an anxious nation. She has the power to meet the people’s need – and she must use it. If calling the reform UBI is a problem, then for God’s sake call it something else! But get it in place, Jacinda. Let Bridges and all the other neoliberal ideologues howl. After all, how much attention did they pay to the howls of protest that greeted Rogernomics and Ruthanasia? What goes around, comes around.

And when the Covid-19 Pandemic passes and we all emerge into the sunlight, the emergency measures will need to be given permanent legislative form. To accommodate this reform many other things will have change – not least our taxation system. A UBI will require the One Percent to pay their fair share. Something they haven’t done since the early 1980s. Employers will also face changes. No longer in fear of “the sack”, their employees will demand a fairer distribution of the surplus they create: more for the workers, less for the shareholders. The UBI will thus unleash a torrent of innovation and creativity – helping as nothing else can the rehabilitation of New Zealand’s stricken economy.

The disaster of the Great Depression was transformed into a new and fairer society by the democratic socialism of the First Labour Government. The disaster of the Covid-19 Pandemic offers a similar transformative possibility to the Labour-NZ First-Green Government. Seize the time, Jacinda! You will never have a better opportunity to be strong, to be kind, and to break the chains of neoliberalism for those who have waited so long and endured so much.

Let’s do this! Now!

This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Thursday, 26 March 2020.

Friday, 20 March 2020

The Only Way Through This Crisis Is Together.

Together: In leading New Zealand through the Covid-19 Pandemic, the Prime Minister could do a lot worse than allow herself to be guided by the spirit of collective sacrifice and co-operation that animated the New Zealanders of 80 years ago. Most Kiwis alive today have had no opportunity to prove their mettle in the way their parents and grandparents did during the global struggle against fascism. In the weeks and months to come, Jacinda’s Government must do everything it can to ensure that we are given our chance.

THE COALITION GOVERNMENT’S greatest political challenge over the next 6-12 months will be keeping up morale. If it fails to hold the nation together, then it will be swept out of office on a tsunami of fear, anger and recrimination.

Only a very small number of New Zealanders can draw upon historical experience to help them through the unfolding Covid-19 crisis. Assuming people’s coherent memories kick in from around the age of 7, to recall the onset of the Great Depression in 1929 you would need to have been born in 1922 – making you 98! To have clear memories of the outbreak of the World War II, in September 1939, you would need to be 88. Most of us have never experienced anything like the present crisis. If our morale is not to crumble in the face of mass illness, a rising death toll, and something pretty close to economic collapse, then the Government will have to box very clever indeed.

It is, therefore, to be hoped that Jacinda and her colleagues, in addition to being briefed by scientists, physicians and senior civil-servants, call upon the services of New Zealand’s historians – especially those with knowledge of “The Home Front” during World War II. The Government needs to know how this country kept up its morale during six long years of war. Especially important to understand, is how we coped with the first three years of the war – when nearly all the news was bad. What prevented us from falling to pieces when the Germans and the Japanese were winning on just about every front?

Critical to the maintenance of public morale was the near complete control exercised by the wartime government over information and the means of communicating it. The daily newspapers, radio broadcasts, cinema newsreels – even private letters – were strictly censored. The Government’s key objective was to ensure that every citizen received the same information about the war.

While no government can prevent people spreading rumours and speculation, the state does have the power to punish those responsible. During World War II, persons found guilty of spreading “alarm and despondency” faced harsh penalties. To be convicted of attempting to undermine the government and/or the war effort, or, even worse, give “aid and comfort to the enemy” – i.e. commit treason – could mean execution.

There can be little doubt that had the Internet existed in 1940, one of the first things the Labour Party leader and wartime prime minister, Peter Fraser, would have done is bring it under strict state control. Inevitably, Jacinda Ardern will have been briefed by the Security Intelligence Service (SIS) and the Government Communications Security Bureau (GCSB) on the practicalities of controlling the Internet, should the situation deteriorate to the point where such action becomes necessary. If that sounds fanciful, just consider the fact that in 2019, governments around the world shut down the Internet on nearly 200 occasions. Given the Internet’s crucial economic role, the NZ Government would be loath to take such a drastic step. But, if fake news was inciting major unrest: rioting in the streets; a run on the banks; or massive and prolonged panic buying; Jacinda and her colleagues would be left with little choice.

Controlling the crisis “narrative”, however, is just the start. Keeping up public morale is best achieved by encouraging all citizens to “do their bit” for victory. In the present circumstances, “doing our bit” might involve joining neighbourhood units dedicated to assisting the elderly and those in “self-isolation” with food and medicine deliveries. Such groups could also serve as the Government’s “eyes and ears”: reporting possible new cases of infection and enforcing the quarantine. “Doing our bit” might also involve working in the “instant factories” set up to manufacture protective masks and clothing, and construct additional ICU facilities. This sort of state-directed production is already underway in the United Kingdom and the United States. If New Zealanders could lead the world in medical equipment innovation; protective gear, and electrical appliance design, then this manufacturing proposition shouldn’t be beyond our powers!

During World War II, the NZ Government gave itself more-or-less unlimited powers to intervene in and control every aspect of the market. Obviously, this included the labour force. Just about anyone could be “manpowered” (sorry, but this was the 1940s!) anywhere. In 2020, with the supply of immigrant farm labour shut off, keeping up agricultural and horticultural production (our principal source of overseas funds now that tourism and education have been taken out of the export mix) may require those without work to accept being “person-powered” to the nation’s orchards and dairy farms.

When World War II came to an end in 1945 the sense of collective achievement was huge. Clearly, the suffering and dangers endured by New Zealand’s soldiers, sailors and airmen in direct conflict with the enemy could not be shared by everyone, but just about everyone contributed something to the war effort. The women who worked in factories, offices and on the land; the kids who collected waste paper and scrap metal; the grandparents who tended “Victory Gardens” and knitted socks for the “boys overseas”. There had been shortages, rationing, deep fear and agonising loss, but New Zealanders had come through their national ordeal, together, and they were enormously proud of their resilience. Moreover, most of them were equally proud of the government that had guided them through – re-electing Fraser’s Labour Party in 1946.

In leading New Zealand through the Covid-19 Pandemic, Jacinda could do a lot worse than allow herself to be guided by the spirit of collective sacrifice and co-operation that animated the New Zealanders of 80 years ago. Most Kiwis alive today have had no opportunity to prove their mettle in the way their parents and grandparents did during the global struggle against fascism. In the weeks and months to come, Jacinda’s Government must do everything it can to ensure that we are given our chance.

A top-down, government-knows-best approach will not secure the public “buy-in” crucial to keeping the people of this country together. If the response to the Covid-19 Pandemic is not crafted and delivered by all of us, working together, for all of us, then the many hardships and wrenching tragedies that lie ahead will not bind our communities more closely together, they will tear them apart. Good leaders do not attempt to carry their people, they allow themselves to be carried by them.

We can be strong, we can be kind, and we will be okay, Jacinda. Count on it.

This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Friday, 20 March 2020.

Nobody Left Behind.

Solidarity Forever: All over the world, the arrival of the Covid-19 virus has exposed the fragility of the walls we erect around ourselves and our loved ones. It has shattered our illusions of autonomy and revealed to us how utterly dependent we all are on other human-beings. Finally, we see the state for what it truly is: the institutional expression of our interdependence; the place where everybody comes together – and nobody gets left behind.

ALL THOSE who criticised Finance Minister Grant Robertson for refusing to break his Budget Responsibility Rules owe him an apology. Steadfastly, for more than three years, Robertson has reiterated his conviction that maintaining surpluses; keeping Government debt levels low; and tightly managing public expenditure; was the only responsible course for an economy as vulnerable as New Zealand’s. His argument: the we needed to keep plenty of economic headroom in anticipation of that proverbial “rainy day”; has been vindicated. Just take a look out the window – it’s bucketing down!

Not that the Finance Minister is sticking to his Budget Responsibility Rules now. The emergency economic package announced on Tuesday afternoon makes it very clear that the Coalition Government will spend whatever it takes to keep the New Zealand economy afloat.

The $12.1 billion of emergency spending announced by the Finance Minister represents 4 percent of New Zealand’s GDP. This is a massive commitment. Proportionately, it is more than twice the size of the Australian Government’s response. Robertson told journalists that his package was inspired by the expansionary policies of the First Labour Government. Certainly, his decision to increase benefits by $25 per week and double the Winter Energy Subsidy for all welfare recipients and the elderly conforms absolutely to the generous spirit of Mickey Savage’s Labour Party.

Though politicians are notorious for not learning the lessons of history, on what, and more importantly, what not to do in response to a sudden economic shock, Robertson and his colleagues have proved themselves more than willing to take instruction.

In the wake of the 1929 Wall Street Crash, the advice tended to President Herbert Hoover by his Secretary of the Treasury, Andrew W. Mellon, was as brutal as it was blunt: “Liquidate labor, liquidate stocks, liquidate the farmers, liquidate real estate.” In other words, allow the ruthless surgeons of finance to exact the pounds of flesh now owed them by millions of  stricken Americans. Mellon and his fellow laissez-faire capitalists were convinced that encouraging the survival of the fittest, by sending the weak to the wall, was the President’s only rational course of action. The ideology of Social Darwinism, to which all the world’s ruling elites subscribed, demanded nothing less.

Mellon’s advice, as we now know, was wrong in every respect. It transformed a savage sharemarket correction, which was recoverable, into a devastating global depression that lasted more than a decade.

In fairness, the cause of the current economic shock cannot be attributed to Mellon’s neoliberal successors. The unfolding Covid-19 Pandemic is one of those exogenous events (like the asteroid strike that wiped out the dinosaurs) that defy all but the most inspired soothsayers. The species jump that precipitated this crisis cannot be laid at the door of any particular ruling elite.

Where human agency does come into view, however, is in the way responsible authorities’ respond to Mother Nature’s random interventions. For more than three decades, the promoters of the “free market” have been telling us that the state is an impediment to human welfare and prosperity; that “sovereign individuals” are far better placed to promote their personal welfare than politicians and bureaucrats. Well, they are not so vocal now. Just as there are no atheists in foxholes, there are precious few rugged individualists in pandemics. Indeed, it is nothing short of miraculous how rapidly the spread of a deadly infectious disease has reinvigorated sovereign individuals’ faith in collectivism!

All over the world, the arrival of the Covid-19 virus has exposed the fragility of the walls we erect around ourselves and our loved ones. It has shattered our illusions of autonomy and revealed to us how utterly dependent we all are on other human-beings to keep us fed, and watered, and well. For a great many of us that revelation has been both devastating and liberating. Finally, we can see the state for what it truly is: the institutional expression of our interdependence; the place where everybody comes together – and nobody gets left behind.

As the Federal Government intervened decisively in the financial crisis of 2008-09 to rescue the commanding heights of American capitalism, the cover of Newsweek summed up the new zeitgeist. Watching Grant Robertson unfurl our collective umbrella against the Covid-19 Pandemic’s rainy day, I couldn’t help recalling the words emblazoned on Newsweek’s front page:

“We are all socialists now.”

This essay was originally published in The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 20 March 2020.

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.

Tuesday, 17 March 2020

The Grim Tutorial Of The 1918-19 Influenza Pandemic.

Forgotten Precedent: If you look hard, it is possible to locate memorials to the victims of the 1918-19 Influenza Pandemic. For the most part, however, the horrors of those dreadful months were simply rolled-up with all the other bloody horrors of the war. In popular memory, these two, equally traumatic, global experiences merged into a single tragic narrative which was now – praise be to God! – over. Best not to dwell. Best not to ask too many questions. Best not to learn too many lessons.

WHY WERE SO FEW lessons learned from the deadly Influenza Pandemic of 1918-19? The current best estimate of the death toll from “Spanish Flu” (which actually originated in the United States) is 50-60 million – many times the number of people killed in the First World War. With the global population estimated at 1.8 billion in 1918, the Spanish Flu killed 3.0 percent of all the human-beings on earth. In the face of such stunning mortality, national governments might have been expected to pledge themselves to doing all within their power to prevent a recurrence. Why is it that in every city, town and village of New Zealand memorials abound to the 18,000 men who fell during the four years of the First World War, while only a handful recall the 9,000 victims who perished in just six terrifying weeks at the peak of the 1918-19 pandemic?

The answer lies in the extraordinary degree of censorship imposed upon their citizens by all the governments engaged in the First World War. In order to “maintain morale” on “the home front” it was considered vital to shield the families and friends of the men in the trenches from the realities of industrialised warfare. Great Britain’s wartime Prime Minister, David Lloyd-George, famously told a journalist friend: “If the people really knew [the truth] the war would be stopped tomorrow. But of course they don’t know and can’t know.”

That they were required to post casualty lists numbering in the tens-of-thousands was bad enough. Belligerent governments (including our own) were absolutely determined to keep the soldiers’ loved ones in blissful ignorance of the way their sons, brothers and husbands had died – and of how little was gained by their sacrifice.

As the death-toll mounted and the horrors of the war multiplied, political and military leaders found themselves holding a tiger by the tail. They had kept so much hidden, from so many, for so few tangible gains, that they had no option but to keep hiding the truth from their respective peoples. To make their job easier they cultivated an atmosphere of extreme intolerance for any behaviour or expression capable of being construed as dissent or disloyalty. Those found guilty of opposing the war (future New Zealand prime ministers among them) were imprisoned. Kiwi conscientious objectors – most famously Archibald Baxter – suffered the infamous tortures of “Field Punishment No. 1”.

It was into this fraught environment that an avian variety of influenza crossed the species barrier into pigs, and then into humans, on a Kansas farm early in 1918. “Patient Zero” was an infected farm boy who carried the virus with him to military training camp, from whence it travelled with infected troops to the battlefields of France and Belgium. In a terrifyingly short period of time it had been carried back into the home countries of the infected soldiers. The death toll rose relentlessly and exponentially: the virus killed hundreds, then thousands, then millions.

And the authorities deliberately muted their official response. In Britain and its empire especially, which was staring down the barrel of a German victory in the early months of 1918, the political and military leaders were desperate to keep any suggestion that, back home, their loved ones were falling like ninepins from their fighting men. With revolution raging in Russia, Allied politicians were in no mood to allow the Bolshevik “virus” to spread.

In frightening anticipation of the policy of the current British government, the pandemic was simply allowed to “let rip” among Britain’s helpless and unprotected population. Perhaps the most tragic moment came on Armistice Day, the 11 November 1918, when hundreds of thousands of citizens were permitted to gather in the streets, hugging and kissing, to celebrate the war’s end. It is difficult to imagine a more effective way of hastening the virus’s spread!

Obviously, local measures were taken to keep people safe, but with censorship still in place, the pandemic had burned itself out before its worldwide impact was generally comprehended. Everyone the virus could get had been gotten, there was no one left to infect.

Tragically, the appalling decisions of New Zealand politicians and military administrators, both at home and in our newly acquired colony of “German Samoa”, allowed the virus to come ashore and do its deadly work. The ship returning William Massey, New Zealand’s prime minister, from Europe had reported the infection on board but was, astonishingly, allowed to dock. No one, seemingly, had the courage to order the PM placed under quarantine. The New Zealand military officer “in charge” of Samoa, was similarly informed that there was sickness aboard an arriving vessel. He, too, permitted its passengers to disembark. The virus swept across western Samoa, killing upwards of a quarter of the territory’s native population.

If you look hard, it is possible to locate the burial sites of the 1918-19 Influenza Pandemic’s victims. Row upon row of tiny gravestones, or, verdant swards of cemetery lawn marking mass graves. Very occasionally, there is a larger memorial. The reality, however, is that the horrors of the pandemic were simply rolled-up with all the other bloody horrors of the war. People were encouraged to merge these two, equally dreadful, global experiences into a single tragic narrative which was now – praise be to God! – over. Best not to dwell. Best not to ask too many questions. Best not to learn too many lessons.

And yet, some lessons were learned. In 1920 the Health Organisation of the League of Nations was formed, building upon the rather haphazard pre-war efforts to co-ordinate the international fight against deadly diseases. In 1948, following a second, even more appalling global conflict, the now defunct League’s Health Organisation morphed into the World Health Organisation (WHO) of the newly former United Nations. It is no accident that one of the core principles of the WHO is the early, accurate and comprehensive communication of “outbreak” data across the planet.

Political and military reluctance to rapidly and truthfully acknowledge, and then take steps to combat, outbreaks of highly infectious and deadly disease, as happened at the end of the First World War, is every bit as dangerous to public health as the deadliest virus. Such is the grim tutorial from the Influenza Pandemic of 1918-19. It is to be hoped that the governments of the United Kingdom, the United States – and New Zealand – are paying close attention.

This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Tuesday, 17 March 2020.