Friday, 28 January 2022

Efeso? Yeah, Yeah!

Rebel With A Cause: Efeso Collins promises to be the sort of candidate who can generate genuine excitement among an electorate that usually dismisses local government elections as too boring to bother with. That said, you might think that Labour’s top brass would have fallen to their knees saying “Thank you God for sending us a candidate straight out of Central Casting!” But they’re didn’t. Why? 

WHAT IS LABOUR going to do about Efeso Collins? His decision to offer himself as a candidate in this year’s Auckland mayoral election places the party in a very difficult position. If Labour backs him, he risks dragging it in a direction it doesn’t want to go. If it sacks him, he just might win anyway.

Collins is a larger than life politician of considerable eloquence and unsettling (for Labour’s top brass) independence of mind. Even worse, he is a politician unafraid to take a principled stand – even at the cost of angering his senior colleagues. Born and raised in Otara, the youngest son of Samoan immigrants, Collins possesses that rare, but highly prized, quality of personal authenticity. For the Pasifika community, he’s the Man.

In other words, Collins promises to be the sort of candidate who can generate genuine excitement among an electorate that usually dismisses local government elections as too boring to bother with. That said, you might think that Labour’s top brass would have fallen to their knees saying “Thank you God for sending us a candidate straight out of Central Casting!” But they’re didn’t. Why? Because Collins makes them look like the stale, white-bread, don’t-rock-the-boat politicians that they truly are – and they hate him for it.

Foolishly, Labour’s top brass have allowed their animosity towards Collins to cloud their strategic political judgement. Without first securing a rock-solid guarantee from Collins that he was not going to run, they started briefing the Auckland news media about the man they had already fixed upon as Phil Goff’s replacement. (That Phil Goff had fixed upon the same man made it all too easy!)

North Shore councillor, Richard Hill, was presented as the man upon whom Labour’s hands had been laid. Technocratic, socially liberal, a disciple of the gospel of “governance”, and a bona fide policy wonk, Hill was shopped around to local government journalists as Labour’s heir presumptive to the mayoral chains.

And then Collins announced – on the woke website The Spinoff, no less. In a long interview with Spinoff editor, Toby Manhire, Collins laid out his pitch for “the second most powerful job in New Zealand”.

It was a damn good pitch, confirming just how adroit Collins has become at presenting himself as both a genuine reformer and a moral conservative – the perfect South Auckland combo, but also one likely to kindle genuine interest among a great many more Aucklanders than simply the city’s Pasifika population. Receiving the near instant endorsement of the caustic conservative commentator, Ben Thomas, was proof of Collins considerable cross-over appeal.

The Spinoff also did Collins the enormous favour of putting up a video produced by his South Auckland supporters for his first run at local office. This is the sort of thing that Labour’s pathologically cautious apparatchiks just can’t do. Jacinda can – which is why Labour is where it is today. Do what? Make her party look cool-as. What The Spinoff allowed its huge audience of young, politically engaged readers to see and hear was that, way before Jacinda mastered this style of communication, Efeso’s campaign workers had nailed it to the wall.

This is Labour’s problem. It has set its heart on a Hilary Clinton, who can’t win, and is now facing a Barack Obama, who can.

What to do?

The most obvious solution – which Collins admits to lobbying for hard over many months, to no avail – is an open process of democratic selection. A “primary”, if you will, like those used by the Americans to determine their parties’ choices.

Labour Party members, across the whole of Auckland City, would be asked to vote for their preferred candidate. Simple? Effective? You might think so. But, Labour’s top brass hate the whole idea of membership elections. (Mention the name of David Cunliffe and watch them turn pale!) The only election process they seem to favour is something along the lines of the College of Cardinals choosing a Pope. An entirely mysterious process, conducted behind locked doors, comprehensible only to God.

Besides, even if the Labour top brass could be persuaded to democratise the selection process, they’d still be faced with the problem that Collins would, almost certainly, win it. And if he did, he would likely prove even less amenable to the guidance of Labour’s top brass than he has as a humble councillor. Like his last-minute refusal to vote for Goff’s regional fuel tax, arguing convincingly that it would disproportionately impact his Pasifika and Māori constituents who depend on their old, gas-guzzling jalopies to get them to work on time.

Not the sort of argument that cut much ice with North Shore Councillor Richard Hill – who loyally supported Mayor Goff’s regressive policy.

So, what will Labour do? My best guess is they will put Hills up as an “independent” candidate and spend the whole campaign casting Collins in the role of “spoiler” and “splitter” of the “centre-left” vote. If that fails to produce the desired effect in the polls, then Labour’s little online helpers will remind voters that Collin’s opposed gay marriage and has personal moral objections to abortion. Thoroughly distancing themselves from such scurrilous tactics, Labour will, nevertheless, be privately delighted to see their allies in the news media amplify these attempts to cancel Collins’ campaign.

Will it work? Doubtful. Wokeness is an acquired socio-political taste – at best. Depending on how Collins responds to these attacks, his standing with the average, non-woke, voter might even be enhanced. A brown, working-class, family man, under attack by the worst elements of left-wing “cancel culture”. What’s not to like?

Then, of course, there’s the Right. Should its preferred mayoral candidate/s fail to fire, and the race between Collins and Hills come down to the wire, conservative Aucklanders might just decide to inflict a crushing blow upon Labour in Auckland by throwing their weight behind Collins – thereby ensuring his victory, as well as giving themselves a not insignificant role in the election of Auckland’s first Pasifika mayor.

Wildly optimistic? Maybe. But just read this extract from Collins interview with The Spinoff before writing-off the chances of the Right swinging in behind him:

“As far as reaching across the left-right aisle is concerned, Collins points to his working relationship with Desley Simpson, the National-aligned councillor for Ōrākei. “I made a deliberate choice to sit next to Desley. And that is based on the fact that I represent the poorest ward in the city, and she represents the wealthiest, and we can sit there while other discussions are going on and thrash things out,” he says. “And what that has done has allowed me to understand how people in her area see the world, the same way I can invite her to understand how our people in this part of Auckland see the world.” During last year’s Covid lockdown, that resulted in “one of those beautiful things”, he says, when “she turned up with trailer loads of goods, which had women’s sanitary products, food, furniture, and she brought it to the Māngere budgeting service – trailer loads of stuff … She rang me and said: “Look, I’ve got these people who said they’ve seen you on TV, they know you’re really keen to get some services and products out to your community. Let’s make the link.”

It’s stories like that which make Efeso Collins such a formidable mayoral candidate. Raised on Bible stories, he knows how to craft a memorable parable.

Labour’s problem, as an old mate of mine once observed of another ideologically rigid organisation, is that: “They’d rather keep control of the losing side than lose control of the winning side.” Well, faced with Efeso Collins, the chances of Labour keeping control of the Auckland mayoralty strike me as slim. I think they’ll lose it.

And, frankly, that will be no bad thing.

This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Friday, 28 January 2022.

Something In The Water.

Youll Look Better Without It: Authoritarian males admire men of power, enthusiastically replicating their controlling behaviours in their own lives. Big bosses beget little bosses, and bossiness becomes society’s standard operating principle. To be a right-winger is to both embrace and enforce the politics of control.

IS THERE SOMETHING in the water? Some dangerous mix of chemicals that’s turning so many Kiwi males toxically right-wing?

I remember my mother telling me that it was the iodine deficiency in New Zealand’s soil that made goitres such a problem a century ago. That problem was fixed by adding iodine to our table salt and daily bread. Tooth decay in our kids was similarly addressed by adding fluoride to the water supply.

Surely the manifold deficiencies of right-wing Kiwi blokes could be remedied by quietly introducing an equally efficacious additive? The rest of us would be so grateful if someone did.

What prompted me to climb aboard this contentious train of thought? Reading the public endorsement, by former All-Black, Zinzan Brooke, of fellow Kiwi, Dan Wootton’s attack on the Covid-19 policies of prime minister, Jacinda Ardern. “Cruel, Deluded, Doomed” was the headline grab from Britain’s Daily Mail, and it was all downhill from there.

Now, some might excuse Zinzan on the grounds that he’s been living in the UK for the past quarter-century and, as confirmed by Brexit and Boris, there’s definitely something dangerous lurking in the English water supply.

Others might simply point to the fact that Brooke’s a Rugby player and, therefore, highly likely to have knocked his brain about in what must surely be one of the most brutal games on the planet. (The Americans still shake their heads in disbelief at the absence of helmets and shoulder-pads.)

Unfortunately, the predictable misogyny and ill-informed opinionizing of Wootton’s contribution to The Daily Mail is not confined to the British Isles, or the game of Rugby. Exactly the same sentiments are expressed with monotonous regularity by right-wing blokes across New Zealand. What makes them do it?

A large part of the answer undoubtedly revolves around the issue of “control”. Right-wingers – especially right-wing males – seem utterly obsessed with the idea. It begins with the masculinist notion that maintaining control, both of oneself, and others, amidst the all the frightening chaos of human existence, is absolutely vital.

To lose control, or, even worse, to surrender to that chaos, is to embrace failure. “Real men” do not fail – they succeed. In the calculus of this particular expression of masculinity, failing is the equivalent of losing, and the one label no “real man” will ever accept is “loser”. Real men are not losers – real men are winners.

This obsession with winning: with not being a loser; is what distinguishes these men as right-wingers – authoritarians.

To control human societies requires strength, and the willingness to use force to preserve the hierarchies of wealth and power that keep all but the simplest human communities functional. Historically, complex civilisations have been dominated by men with the material and psychological resources needed to control other men, women, children, and nature itself.

Authoritarian males admire these men of power, enthusiastically replicating their controlling behaviours within their own lives. Big bosses beget little bosses, and bossiness becomes society’s standard operating principle. To be a right-winger is to both embrace and enforce the politics of control.

But, what happens when the hierarchies of wealth and power are disrupted? When the “natural order” is overturned? When forces beyond the control of those normally in control compel them to abandon business as usual? When the need to keep other human-beings safe and society functioning over-rules the interests and inclinations of bosses large and small?

What happens when the needs of those deemed inferior to the bosses: women, children, people of colour, the poor and the marginalised, are accorded equal status, or even elevated above, the needs of the people who usually call the shots?

Well, when that happens – as it has as a consequence of the global Covid-19 pandemic – right-wing males start behaving irrationally. Their loss of control frightens them, and they fixate on individuals and groups – like Jacinda Ardern and her Labour Party – who seem to embody the forces which have dislodged them from their privileged perches (both real and symbolic) in the pecking order. Nothing makes human-beings more hateful than the conviction that they are being robbed of their status – their control.

Hardly surprising, then, that so much of the vitriol directed at Jacinda Ardern is being spat out by high-status, authoritarian males.

What’s poisoning the water? Toxic levels of testosterone. Time, perhaps, for an efficacious injection of estrogen?

This essay was originally published in The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 28 January 2022.

Thursday, 27 January 2022

Accidentally Pandering To The Rich – On Purpose.

Glad You Liked It! In a nutshell, what Bernard Hickey’s Kaka podcast seems to be saying is that in an unabashedly capitalist nation, a government elected on the strength of middle-class (i.e. homeowners) votes, made sure that the massive transfers of cash required to keep the economy afloat in the midst of a global pandemic went to capitalists, and the people whose votes it really, really, really didn’t want to lose. Well, duh! Who would have thought it?

THERE’S NO DISPUTING the shock-value of the statistics assembled by Bernard Hickey in his latest Kaka podcast. What they show is that, in responding to the Covid-19 pandemic, the New Zealand Government transferred vastly more money to the business sector and homeowners than it did to beneficiaries and the working poor. Or, as he puts it: “The Labour Government, supported by the Greens, presided over policies that accidentally on purpose engineered the biggest transfer of wealth to asset owners from current and future renters in the history of New Zealand.”

Well … maybe. The problem with statistics is that they are generally presented without regard to context. To be honest, that’s probably a good thing. I don’t think it would be all that helpful (or ethical) for the Department of Statistics to encase its data in a carapace of tendentious ideology. In the 1950s American cop show, Dragnet, the hero’s signature line was: “Nothing but the facts.” That sounds about right to me.

So, let’s not argue about the facts. I’m sure a financial journalist of Mr Hickey’s experience has got the numbers right. What I’m much less certain of is whether his interpretation of the facts makes a great deal of sense.

In a nutshell, what Mr Hickey seems to be saying is that in an unabashedly capitalist nation, a government elected on the strength of middle-class (i.e. homeowners) votes, made sure that the massive transfers of cash required to keep the economy afloat in the midst of a global pandemic went to capitalists, and the people whose votes it really, really, really didn’t want to lose.

Well, duh! Who would have thought it?

And, with all due respect to Mr Hickey, it is nothing short of facile to evince horror and outrage that the perpetrators of this exercise in maintaining class (and, let’s be honest, racial) privilege were Labour and Green politicians. Labour gave away its historical role as the workers’ friend in 1984 – nearly 40 years ago. What’s more, since the introduction of “Rogernomics”, the Labour Party has occupied the Treasury Benches for a total of nearly 14 years. In all that time, it has made no serious attempt to dismantle the neoliberal regime it created. Expecting Jacinda Ardern to behave like Mickey Savage is just silly.

Especially when you consider the makeup of New Zealand’s House of Representatives. Labour, an unabashedly capitalist party, holds 65 seats. National, another unabashedly capitalist party, holds 35 seats. Act, a fanatically capitalist party, holds 10 seats. The Greens, supposedly not a capitalist party, but one which has, to date, done nothing to suggest that it is an anti-capitalist party, also holds 10 seats. Which leaves the Māori Party, an ethno-nationalist party which appears to be okay with capitalism – but only if it’s Māori capitalism – with just 2 seats.

The question I would put to Mr Hickey is: How would he have persuaded this House of Representatives, composed more-or-less entirely of MPs committed to the preservation of New Zealand’s capitalist system, to adopt policies which differed in any meaningful way from those actually implemented by the Labour Government of Jacinda Ardern? Not forgetting that for the first few months of the Covid-19 pandemic, the Prime Minister was dependent on the support of NZ First – a party convinced that capitalism could, and should, do better.

Presumably, Mr Hickey believes that New Zealand’s parliamentarians, alerted to the sheer bloody inequity of their Covid response, should have felt obliged to come up with something much kinder and fairer.

But why would they feel obliged to do that? Just recently I learned that in the United States the friends of capitalism (about 90 percent of the country!) not only believe in the doctrine of laissez-faire – French for letting the market rip – but that they also subscribe to what they call “lazy-fair”. Apparently, because so many of the underprivileged are lazy, it’s only fair that they’re poor. I know, I know, it’s an awful thing to say – although I’m sure it raises a good guffaw among the Country Club set. But, you know what? Although they would never repeat such an awful “joke” out loud, there are plenty of Kiwi MPs (some of them in the Labour Party) who subscribe wholeheartedly to the underlying philosophy of the “deserving” and “undeserving” poor.

Even worse, there are hundreds-of-thousands of ordinary Kiwi voters who subscribe to exactly the same philosophy – with bells on. The awful truth about New Zealand politics is that practically all of our political parties are just too scared to suggest anything like the massive transfer of wealth to the “current and future renters” whom Mr Hickey clearly believes the Government’s Covid response should have targeted.

The only way such a transfer could possibly have eventuated is in a political context dominated by the electoral success of a party aggressively representing the interests of the working poor and beneficiaries. Assuming such a party drew the bulk of its support from the 700,000 eligible voters who declined to participate in the last election, its impact on what politicians considered both possible and acceptable would be huge.

The problem, of course, is that every party which has tried to mobilise these voters has failed miserably. The Internet-Mana Party may have had a brilliant manifesto (so brilliant that I voted for it!) but its share of the 2014 Party Vote was a demoralising 1.42 percent.

In other words, if all the “current and future renters” had voted for Internet-Mana in 2014, its ideological and political influence would have made the Covid-19 response delivered by Labour over the past 21 months unthinkable.

And that’s what I mean by statistics shorn of context not amounting to very much. For the only people who counted – the people who voted – Jacinda Ardern’s and Grant Robertson’s Covid response was good enough to see them returned to office with 50 percent of the Party Vote. That Mr Hickey should be surprised that the values of politicians tend to reflect the values of their supporters is, itself, surprising.

If he wants a revolution, Mr Hickey will need to do more than excoriate Labour and the Greens on Substack – he’ll need to organise one.

This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Thursday, 27 January 2022.

Tuesday, 25 January 2022

Omicron and 6% Inflation – May The Saints Preserve Us!

Everything Is On The Up-And-Up: Right now, New Zealand is at the pre-crashing the economy stage of the battle against inflation. But, with annual inflation nudging 6 percent, a level New Zealand has not seen for more than a decade, the demands of the neoliberal economists for a series of quite sharp interest rate rises are becoming ever more strident. 

OMICRON HAS ARRIVED and, not unreasonably, its spread will monopolise the attention of our news media for weeks to come. But this latest variant of Covid-19 is very far from the only challenge facing New Zealanders. A highly disruptive economic phenomenon, not seen in this country for a whole generation, is making a disconcerting reappearance. An inflation rate significantly higher than the 1-2 percent per annum tolerated by the Reserve Bank since the late 1980s is threatening to further complicate an already fiendishly complex socio-economic equation.

The eradication of excessive inflation was the most important short-term objective of the neoliberal revolution. Squeezing constant price rises out of the system would be an achievement consumers were bound to notice. Indeed, the restoration of price stability would be presented – and largely accepted – as justification for the many other, often wrenching, upheavals of the reform period.

For the neoliberals, knocking inflation for six came with added benefits. At a stroke, the key justification for cost-of-living adjustments to wage rates would be removed. Back in the days when most wage-workers belonged to a trade union, rapid rises in the cost of goods and services was compensated for with corresponding rises in the cost of labour. This was the “wage-price spiral”, which most economists characterised as the fundamental explanation for inflation becoming economically “entrenched”. Their favourite metaphor was of a dog chasing its own tail.

It was absolutely crucial, they argued, not only to eliminate high inflation, but also to remove high “inflationary expectations” from the minds of wage- and salary-earners. So long as workers believed that prices were bound to rise over the period of their union-negotiated wage agreement, they would not only take care to secure an increase to cover the price rises that had already occurred, but also to secure an additional margin sufficient to cover future increases. Should the employers be prevailed upon to meet their employees’ wage demands, the standard response was to recover the additional wage costs by raising prices. Upwards and upwards inflation spiralled, to the general frustration of the whole population.

Particularly aggrieved were those on fixed incomes: pensions and benefits whose value, in almost every case, was progressively whittled away by excessive inflation rates. Even if adjusted to accommodate historic inflation, pensions and benefits were almost never adjusted to meet future increases in the cost of living. The inevitable loss of purchasing power meant that those on fixed incomes became poorer and poorer.

Not everybody living under high inflation was unhappy. People who borrowed heavily to purchase a house, for example, watched in glee as what had seemed a colossal mortgage continued to shrink, in a relative sense, until, after a few years of high inflation, it was reduced to a mere bagatelle. Thanks to the steady increases in their salaries, paying off the bank got easier and easier. What was not to like?

Plenty, if you were a coupon-clipping investor. If the rate of inflation exceeded the fixed rate of interest on a long-term investment, then your purchasing power was bound to suffer. The sum agreed for making your funds available to the borrower may have seemed generous when originally negotiated, but its value, in real terms, upon maturation could be much less so. Small wonder that the neoliberal economists’ recommended solution for excessive inflation – a sharp increase in the price of money – i.e. high interest rates – could always count on the vociferous support of the rentier class.

Jacking up interest rates, suddenly and substantially, certainly reduces inflation, but only at the deliberately incurred cost of crashing the economy.

Without easy access to credit, marginal businesses falter and fail. Workers are laid off in their thousands, and the consequent, often savage, reduction in overall purchasing power precipitates further waves of business failures and lay-offs. With demand for goods and services plummeting, any attempt to preserve a business’s income-stream by raising prices becomes commercially suicidal.

With unemployment rising steadily (along with the supply of labour) the ability of workers’ unions to extract pay rises from their bosses falls away to nothing. Increasingly, the individual worker’s purchasing power is maintained by his taking on of more and more debt. An indebted worker is a quiescent worker, so the wage-price spiral ceases as abruptly as the effectiveness of the unions which set it in motion. Such inflation as remains in the system now works against the income share of the workforce, who find themselves working longer and harder for what is, in real (i.e. inflation-adjusted) terms – less.

Right now, New Zealand is at the pre-crashing the economy stage of the battle against inflation. But, with annual inflation nudging 6 percent, a level New Zealand has not seen for more than a decade, the demands of the neoliberal economists for a series of quite sharp interest rate rises are becoming ever more strident. They are deeply concerned that the combination of supply-chain interruptions raising demand (and, hence, prices) and a serious labour shortage allowing workers to bid-up their wages, are embedding high inflationary expectations in the nation’s consciousness.

There is a great deal the neoliberal establishment will risk to eradicate those expectations – up to and including deliberately throwing the New Zealand economy into recession. As always, that will be very bad news for most of us, but quite encouraging news for some.

Any significant rise in interest rates will see thousands of mortgage holders default on their loans and lose their homes. The resulting surge in mortgagee sales, by expanding the supply of properties on the market, will precipitate a sharp fall in house prices across New Zealand.

While that is not an outcome likely to recommend itself to older home-owners accustomed to seeing the value of their property going up and up – not down and down – there will be many younger New Zealanders who are willing to admit, quietly and privately: “This anti-inflationary thing – it’s not so bad”.

This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Tuesday, 25 January 2022.

Monday, 24 January 2022

Omicron Has Come.

Once More, From The Top: When the tribe is imperilled, all eyes turn to the chief. So long as the tribe believes the chief is doing everything within her power to keep them safe, she will remain impervious to criticism.

IT’S FUNNY, the things you think of at significant historical moments. Listening to Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern confirm that the Omicron variant of Covid-19 is now abroad in the North and South Islands of New Zealand, I thought of Abraham Lincoln.

In his second Inaugural Address (1865) President Lincoln spoke about the outbreak, four years earlier, of the civil war which was then drawing to its bloody conclusion.

“All dreaded it, all sought to avert it.” Lincoln intoned. And yet, seemingly impervious to all human effort, “the war came.”

For the past few weeks Omicron has, similarly, cast its threatening shadow: a relentless enemy force whose advance can be observed, but not deflected. Mesmerising, and, for the immune-compromised – terrifying. No doubt the Government and its advisers, dreading its arrival, have been casting about them desperately for some practical means of averting it. And yet, Omicron has come.

Clearly, the Prime Minister and her team, their bright optimism at the Beehive podium notwithstanding, are expecting the worst. The three stages, or “scenarios” of resistance, outlined by Ardern and her Director-General of Health, Ashley Bloomfield, on Sunday, 23 January, anticipate a relentless rise in the number of cases well beyond New Zealanders’ experience of the pandemic to date.

A military person would recognise immediately the principle at work in the Government’s strategy: “defence-in-depth.” Sequences of resistance have been defined: positions from which, when defeat appears imminent, the defenders can pull back to new lines of defence. The hope being that, before any further resistance becomes impossible, the enemy’s attack will, itself, have ground to a halt. At this critical point, unable to advance any further, he will begin to fall back. Exhausted – if not defeated.

The problem with the defence-in-depth strategy is that it implicitly acknowledges the enemy’s superiority. Wearing him down is possible, but only at the cost of a truly daunting casualty rate. One of the most stunning examples of the defence-in-depth strategy – the 1943 Battle of Kursk – ground the German offensive to a halt, inflicting irreparable damage on the Wehrmacht. The cost was something close to a million Soviet lives. (German losses are estimated at approximately quarter-of-a-million.)

The challenge facing Ardern and Bloomfield is one born of their own extraordinary success at fighting the earlier variants of Covid-19. New Zealanders, in vivid contrast to the British and the Americans, have no experience of large numbers of their fellow citizens dying every day. To date, just 52 lives have been lost to Covid-19 since the Pandemic reached New Zealand’s shores in early 2020. In the worst case scenario envisaged by the Government’s modellers, that number could easily be exceeded on a daily basis.

How the country would respond to such a grim death-toll is difficult to predict. Undoubtedly there would be some – quite likely including many of the medical experts New Zealanders have come to rely on for guidance on Covid-19 – who would urge the Government to abandon its “Traffic Light” management system in favour of the considerably more draconian “Elimination” strategy of 2020-21.

Resisting such calls, especially in the face of terrifying case numbers and a rapidly rising death-toll, will be very difficult for the Labour Government. In such circumstances, the temptation to reach for tried and tested solutions is extremely hard to resist – as evidenced in Europe and the United States. If the Opposition parties are able to argue successfully that the human cost of flattening the exponential Omicron curve is wildly in excess of what ordinary Kiwis are willing to bear, then the Government’s present aversion to re-imposing lockdowns and regional travel restrictions is likely to be jettisoned without ceremony.

Such a victory for the Opposition would not, however, advance their cause by very much in political terms. The almost jaunty demeanour of the Prime Minister at yesterday’s media conference was doubtless a reaction to the central paradox of this pandemic. No matter how many mistakes a government might make in preparing for, and responding to, successive waves of Covid-19; and no matter how successfully such failures might be exploited by its political opponents; all is forgiven and forgotten the moment the crisis arrives.

When the tribe is imperilled, all eyes turn to the chief. So long as the tribe believes the chief is doing everything within her power to keep them safe, she will remain impervious to criticism. Indeed, her critics refusal to put the tribe first will likely elicit a lot more glowers than gratitude.

The bright halo of crisis leadership tends to produce a lingering after image on the retinas of the electorate. How else to explain the results of the latest poll conducted by Curia Research for the Taxpayers Union? With 41 percent support, Ardern’s Labour Party has more than held its ground against the challenge of National’s new leader, Christopher Luxon. If an election were held tomorrow, Labour, with the Greens in support, would be returned to office with three seats to spare.

The very slight up-tick in Labour’s support has taken place in spite of the fact that none of its key policy objectives are even close to being met. Indeed, on the housing and homelessness front, the situation shows almost no signs of substantive improvement. In addition to its failure to make a real dent in child poverty, Labour is also asking poor families to deal with a level of price inflation unseen for more than a decade. Against this backdrop, Labour’s numbers should be falling fast – not going up by 1.7 percent!

The Prime Minister’s attention will, however, have been focussed on a very different set of numbers. The astonishing drop in the number of community cases of the Delta variant of Covid-19 will doubtless have reassured Labour’s well-educated, middle-class voters that “Jacinda” is still deserving of their loyalty. It is in the eyes of these voters that the Prime Minister needs to keep her halo of crisis leadership brightly glowing.

As fear and grief rise in sync with Omicron’s terrifying spread, the Prime Minister will be careful to keep herself in front of the double-vaccinated and the boosted, whose children and grandchildren are baring their upper-arms to the vaccinators’ needles. [Al Jazeera has a clear and very useful video on the Omicron variant, here. - C.T.]

It is the catch in “Jacinda’s” throat they will hear as she announces the tragic daily tally of Covid fatalities. And it is “General Ardern” they will salute, as her Army of Five Million battles bravely from defence-line to defence-line to halt the Omicron onslaught.

And, because all Covid variants surge, and peak, and then, after a few months of mayhem, go into decline, the Prime Minister’s heroic after-image will remain imprinted upon the voters’ retinas long after they have entered, and left, the polling-booths in 2023.

This essay was originally posted on the website of Monday, 24 January 2022.

Friday, 21 January 2022

Too Much Intellectual Curiosity – Not Enough Fox News.

Bogeyman On Manoeuvres: Not only would a Russian invasion of Ukraine allow the Ardern Government to join “a largely Western chorus of condemnation” and announce (probably reluctantly) New Zealand’s own autonomous sanctions against the Russian Federation, but it would also vindicate the dominant “Bogeyman School” of New Zealand strategic studies.

WHAT WOULD YOU EXPECT from a course devoted to “Strategic Studies”? A reasonable expectation, surely, of a university course devoted to the study of global strategic issues, is that it would be ideologically neutral. After all, the struggle for global advantage: economically, militarily and diplomatically; is driven by a wide variety of international actors. Breaking down the conduct of nation states by passing it through a single ideological lens (of whatever manufacture) could hardly be described as good scholarship. It would risk turning out students who were singularly ill-equipped to identify and interpret the strategic issues at play on the international stage. That can hardly be the goal of a course called “Strategic Studies” – can it?

Which is not to say that powerful nations, the United States in particular, have not in the past actively rewarded, rather than discouraged, a lack of intellectual curiosity, professional competence, and fundamental human empathy. The administration of George W. Bush, for example, was famously suspicious of fluent speakers of Arabic. They feared that such people might “go native” – i.e. demonstrate too much understanding of the nation the United States was planning, in flagrant disregard of international law, to invade. The government of the United Kingdom similarly distinguished itself by requiring it advisors to provide spurious grounds for joining the US in its illegal invasion of Iraq.

If by “Strategic Studies” is meant the training of students to view international events from a single, thoroughly biased, perspective; and to dutifully supply their employers with material based on falsified data and outright lies; then intellectual curiosity, professional competence, and fundamental human empathy might, indeed, prove prejudicial to rapid advancement in their chosen career.

Having read his Newsroom posting entitled “Russian Aggression Exposes Gap In NZ’s Diplomatic Toolkit”, it is very difficult to avoid the suspicion that Professor Robert Ayson subscribes to something disappointingly close to the above definition of Strategic Studies. It will doubtless come as no surprise that the professor’s perspective on New Zealand’s foreign relations locates the United States of America squarely in the centre of the big picture.

Interestingly, the posting begins with what amounts to a huge sigh of relief that the dangerously heterodox Winston Peters is no longer this country’s Foreign Minister.

The good professor wastes no time in reassuring his readers that: “Labour ceased subcontracting foreign policy to New Zealand First after the 2020 election. Peters’ quest to advance free trade discussions with Russia and its Eurasian economic partners, which was written into the 2017 coalition agreement, is now history.”

The notion that New Zealand might derive considerable benefit from distributing its export eggs across several baskets clearly does not fall within Professor Ayson’s definition of strategic studies. Also excluded, presumably, is the idea that the Russian Federation is a strategic player meriting a level of analysis more rigorous than the shrieking of Fox News.

Clearly, the brand of Strategic Studies favoured at Victoria University relies heavily on setting forth the measures best calculated to disrupt and punish the activities of a frightening cast of international bogeymen, the biggest and baddest of which is, of course, Russia – as it has been, off-and-on, since the late-nineteenth century.

Judging by his enthusiasm for the concept, Professor Ayson appears convinced that the most helpful contribution New Zealand can make to discombobulating the Russian bogeyman is to join with the United States and its other sycophants – sorry, “allies” – in imposing “autonomous” (i.e. unauthorised by the United Nations Security Council) economic and diplomatic sanctions.

In other universities, strategic studies professors might encourage their students to calculate how close such unilaterally imposed sanctions come to actual acts of war. In these other universities, strategic studies professors might even invite their classes to consider the consequences of the economic sanctions imposed on Japan in 1940 – most particularly the “embargo” on oil and scrap-metal exports. To what extent were such strategic gestures intended to produce a strategic response? Did the USA’s “autonomous sanctions” make Pearl Harbour inevitable? Was that their purpose?

Certainly, as one reads the professor’s post, it is difficult to rid one’s mind of the image of him bouncing up and down with excitement at the prospect of a Russian invasion of Ukraine. Not only would an invasion allow the Ardern Government to join “a largely Western chorus of condemnation” and announce (probably reluctantly) New Zealand’s own autonomous sanctions against the Russian Federation, but it would also vindicate the “Bogeyman School” of strategic studies.

That the current Foreign Minister might be a less than fanatical convert to the Bogeyman School clearly concerns Professor Ayson: “Partway through 2021, Nanaia Mahuta – Labour’s replacement for Peters – publicly expressed concerns about Five Eyes auspices being used to criticise the human rights records of other governments (in this case China).”

As well she might! In the eyes of some strategic scholars (although probably not those at Vic) the “Five Eyes” penchant for throwing their weight around descends in a direct line from the egregious Anglophone imperialism that transformed millions of Chinese citizens into opium addicts – reaping super-profits for the same British drug cartel that seized Hong Kong.

Not anymore! Professor Ayson is certain that: “whatever remains of that sentiment is unlikely to stand in the way of New Zealand joining a Five Eyes statement condemning a Russian invasion. Such an act of military aggression by one sovereign state on another is a good fit with the group’s traditional intelligence and security agenda.”

Is Professor Ayson on record demanding an equivalent statement of condemnation when three of the Five Eyes powers engaged in an act of military aggression against the sovereign state of Iraq in 2003? Or, was he one of the depressing number of New Zealand strategists who appeared to regard the waging of aggressive war (for which politicians were executed at Nuremburg) as a “good fit” for this country’s “traditional intelligence and security agenda.” Fortunately for New Zealand’s excellent international reputation, our prime minister, Helen Clark, did not.

It is always possible, of course, that there is at least one student attending Professor Ayson’s classes with sufficient gumption to ask why the United States does not accord to President Vladimir Putin the same right to defend his nation’s sphere of influence as it claims for itself. For very nearly 200 years the “Monroe Doctrine” has warned-off from the entire Western Hemisphere any and all states with designs to project their power into it. So, that same plucky student might ask his professor why sauce for the American goose is not also sauce for the Russian gander? It would certainly be interesting to hear Professor Ayson’s view on the most likely response of the United States to Russian troops taking up positions alongside their Mexican allies along the Rio Grande.

One shudders to think of the grade an essay advancing these ideas and questions might receive from the head of Victoria University of Wellington’s School of Strategic Studies. One suspects, at the very least, a fusillade of academic criticism would rake its author’s position.

Too much intellectual curiosity – not enough Fox News.

This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Friday, 21 January 2022.

The Political Logic Of Martyrdom.

Consequences: The reason the world remembers the martyrdom of the third century Christian, Perpetua, and the abolitionist, John Brown, is, of course, the stakes. Both martyrs understood that the consequence of their actions, would be death. What greater stake can there be than one’s own life? The political logic of martyrdom – its extraordinary inspirational power – lies precisely in the implied value of what the martyrs give up their lives to secure.

PERPETUA’S END was nothing if not grisly. This young Roman mother, from a respectable family, had already been horribly gored by a bull and then struck on the head by a sword wielded by a young gladiator. It was not, however, a fatal blow. With blood pouring down her face, the preternaturally calm young Christian reached for the offending blade and guided it firmly to her throat. This time the gladiator’s thrust proved fatal, and Perpetua collapsed limply upon the sandy floor of the Carthage arena.

In normal circumstances, the delivery of the coup de grace was received by Roman audiences with enthusiastic applause. These were, after all, criminal executions. This time, however, the audience took in the pathetic tableau of the young mother’s crumpled and bloodstained body in shocked silence. If Perpetua was a criminal, then she was a very strange one.

Perpetua’s martyrdom in the Carthage arena, 203AD.
What distinguishes Perpetua’s martyrdom from so many others is that a great deal of the detail was provided by the young woman herself. Indeed, Perpetua’s journal, recording her thoughts and experiences in the days leading up to her death, is one of the very few documents written by a woman to have come down to us from the classical era. The gory details of her execution in the arena were, like her journal, the record of an eye witness. We even know the exact date of the day she died: 7 March 203AD.

It is worth exploring why that Roman audience was stunned into silence that March afternoon. A century earlier, they would not have been.

In the first century of the Common Era, the Roman world had very little respect for Christians. They were seen as oddballs and weirdos. Some, hearing they ate flesh and drank blood during their rituals, condemned them as cannibals. For the most part, their obdurate refusal to acknowledge the divinity of the Emperor was dismissed as straightforward treason. In short, first-century Romans would say they deserved everything they got.

A century later, however, and Roman confidence in the established religious and political order was waning. The essentially transactional nature of classical paganism struck many as increasingly empty and unfulfilling. What had seemed like madness and fanaticism in the steadfast refusal of the Christians to compromise their faith, now struck many of the more thoughtful Romans as admirable – even heroic.

It also made them curious. What could possibly be so important to these people that, rather than toss a few grains of incense at the Emperor’s statue, they were willing to die? What sort of God could inspire such unflinching devotion?

This is the powerful political logic of martyrdom: its unparalleled ability to make people ask important questions about fundamental issues. For Christian martyrs like Perpetua, the fundamental issue was their relationship with God. In her journal she describes how her parents pleaded with her to relent and do as the Roman governor commanded – if only for the sake of her new-born babe. Quietly, but firmly, she refused.

Political martyrs display exactly the same uncompromising behaviour. In the eyes of many of his contemporaries, the abolitionist, John Brown, was a murderous, Bible-quoting fanatic from the killing-fields of “Bloody Kansas”. But his botched attempt to foment a slave uprising in Virginia, for which he was tried, found guilty and executed, transformed him, more-or-less overnight, into the symbolic harbinger of a civil war to free the slaves.

“John Brown’s body lies a-mouldering in the grave”, the abolitionists sang, “But his soul goes marching on!” Not many years would pass before the tune of “John Brown’s Body” became Julia Ward Howe’s extraordinary “Battle Hymn of the Republic.”

The secret to the incredible surges of feeling inspired by the courage of Perpetua and the symbolic sacrifice of John Brown is, of course, the stakes. Both martyrs understood that the consequence of their decisions, of their actions, would be death. What greater stake can there be than one’s own life? The political logic of martyrdom – its extraordinary inspirational power – lies precisely in the implied value of what the martyrs give up their lives to secure.

Who would have heard of Perpetua if her parents had paid a fine and secured her release? Who would have heard of John Brown if he had been remanded in custody for ten days and then released on a good behaviour bond?

This essay was originally published in The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 21 January 2022.