Friday, 25 September 2020

True Believers In A False God.

Down The Rabbit Hole: "Social psychologists have found that when fearful people contemplate potential misfortunes, they tend to feel helpless and pessimistic, but when angry people contemplate the same, they feel a sense of optimism and control. And one simple way to transmute fear into anger is to perceive an evil agent behind whatever development is causing you uncertainty and disquiet." - Eric Levitz.

WHEN ADOLF HITLER committed suicide on 30 April 1945, thousands of Germans followed his example. The most famous copy-cats were Joseph Goebbels and his wife, Magda. Not only did they take their own lives, but also those of their six children. The idea of surviving the Fuhrer, being held accountable for everything he, and they, had done, seeing National Socialism overthrown and accepting the inevitable ruin of everything they had hoped for and fought for, was simply too overwhelming for many fanatical Nazis to contemplate.

Good riddance! Well, yes, that’s one response. But just consider the following excerpt from US writer, Eric Levitz’s “QAnon Is Madness: But Believing It Can Be Rational” article posted on The Intelligencer website of 23/9/20:

“Speaking with voters in Wisconsin this month, Time reporter Charlotte Alter heard conspiracy theories from about 20 percent of her interview subjects. Many of these Wisconsinites were not familiar with QAnon but subscribed to its basic tenets. Tina Arthur, a small-business owner, told Alter that she was not a follower of QAnon but did believe that the Democrats were in league with a cabal of blood-drinking child rapists and that ‘if Biden wins, the world is over, basically … I would probably take my children and sit in the garage and turn my car on, and it would be over.’”

What the hell is going on, when a businesswoman from the Mid-Western United States is willing to wipe out her entire family rather than face the prospect of living under a Democratic President? Because, when all is said and done, “Sleepy Joe” Biden is a very far cry from Joseph Stalin, and even the most strident antifa protester is nowhere near as dangerous as the vengeance-seeking soldiers of the Red Army. How did as many as 20 percent of Americans end up tumbling down this dangerously hallucinatory rabbit-hole?

According to Levitz, conspiracy theories have much more to offer confused and frightened citizens than may, at first glance, be apparent:

“The tendency toward conspiracism is deeply rooted in the human psyche. It manifests across time and geography and is likely a product of evolutionary pressures. On an emotional level, human beings tend to find the idea of being threatened by forces beyond their comprehension or control much more upsetting than being threatened by an intelligible enemy. Social psychologists have found that when fearful people contemplate potential misfortunes, they tend to feel helpless and pessimistic, but when angry people contemplate the same, they feel a sense of optimism and control. And one simple way to transmute fear into anger is to perceive an evil agent behind whatever development is causing you uncertainty and disquiet.”

With this in mind, we begin to appreciate the powerful psychological insight behind the New Zealand Government’s “Unite Against Covid-19!” campaign. By personifying the virus, transforming it into an “evil agent” which New Zealanders could defeat collectively, the Government and the Ministry of Health headed-off the sort of QAnon craziness that has turned so many fearful Americans into gibbering paranoiacs.

The other key factor in this country’s success in preventing the widespread uptake of insane conspiracy theories was the regular 1:00pm briefings from Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and Director-General of Health, Dr Ashley Bloomfield. Fear grows exponentially in the absence of timely and reliable information. New Zealand was, therefore, especially fortunate in having the “Jacinda and Ashley Show”. These two particularly gifted and credible communicators were able to deliver on an almost daily basis the answers and reassurance their frightened fellow citizens were so eager to receive. Such anger as was generated out of public fear tended to be directed against those who refused to “unite against the virus”. Not only did this popular enforcement of the Covid-19 Lockdown impede the disease’s spread, but it also served as a useful safety-valve for the tensions occasioned by the extraordinary limitations of individual freedom which the fight against the pandemic necessitated.

The comparison with the United States could hardly be more stark. Rather than the consistent and uplifting communications of Jacinda Ardern, the Americans were exposed to the constantly changing, often contradictory, messages of President Donald Trump. Also a formidable communicator, Trump deployed his talent in ways that fed, rather than calmed, his people’s fears, and fuelled their anger with hyper-politicised bulletins of unprecedented malignancy.

It would be wrong, however, to suggest that New Zealanders have been unanimous in their acceptance of the measures adopted to “stamp out” the virus. Although upwards of three-quarters of the population have registered either their “support” or “strong-support” for the Government’s handling of the Covid-19 crisis, that still leaves a quarter of the population unconvinced.

Some of these were the sort of hyper-individualists so often found in the upper reaches of societies dominated by the ideology of neoliberalism. Such people (most of them men) find the idea of standing in solidarity with the “sheeple” abhorrent. Equally unappealing, from the perspective of these “One Percenters”, is the unhelpful example set by the all-too-obvious success of collective intervention. Well-positioned to communicate their opposition, these Covid sceptics have been unceasing in their efforts to undermine the Government’s solidaristic appeals to “The Team of Five Million”.

The other pool of scepticism and resistance is fed by the fear and ignorance of New Zealand’s least educated and most marginalised citizens. With little cause to trust a state which bitter experience has taught them to regard as an alien and hostile entity, these folk remained largely untouched by the Government’s campaign against Covid-19. In terms of social-psychology, they are precisely the people who feel “threatened by forces beyond their comprehension or control”. Looking for “an intelligible enemy” to blame for their shitty world becoming even shittier, they have every reason to believe, and insufficient intellectual resources to refute, the conspiracy theories fed to them by the algorithms of social media and the political predators who so adroitly exploit them.

Once inside the rabbit holes of the conspiracists; once supplied with the identity of the “evil agents” against whom their now inflamed emotions can be directed; once filled with the optimism and sense of control that makes being angry in the company of like minds so much more bearable than being alone and frightened; once the hallucinations have become more compelling than reality; what then is the incentive to stop seeing things that aren’t there? Better by far to expand the rabbit hole until in encompasses the whole world.

And if reality reasserts itself: either in the form of the Fuhrer’s death and the Red Army’s victory; or in the person of President Biden and a Democratic Party-controlled Congress; then what is the point of going on? Better to grab the kids, administer the poison, and avoid shouldering the unbearable heaviness of being exposed as a true believer in a false god.


This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Friday, 25 September 2020.

Majority Rule Requires Majorities That Are Real.

Fifty Percent Plus One: New Zealand’s genuine-majority-delivering two-party system endured for five elections only (1938, 1943, 1946, 1949, 1951) a period of just 16 years. Very few New Zealanders alive today can boast of participating in an election which delivered a true majority to either Labour or National. Someone who contributed to National’s 54 percent share of the popular vote in 1951 will enter a polling-booth on 17 October 2020 aged 90+ years-of-age.

THE PROSPECT of the Jacinda Ardern-led Labour Party cresting 50 percent of the Party Vote has generated some odd responses. Perhaps the oddest of these is the suggestion that Labour’s popularity in some way discredits MMP. If we are going to go back to electing majority governments, runs the argument, then why do we need proportional representation?

To which the only reply is: “To make sure that majority governments enjoy real majority support.”

The last time a New Zealand government could lay claim to the support of more than 50 percent of electors was 1951. The snap-election of that year, called to bestow ex post facto justification on the Government’s handling of the bitter Waterfront Lockout, marked the high-water mark of the National Party’s electoral support. Three years later, the arrival of the Social Credit Political League as a fully-fledged contender for parliamentary representation, put an end to New Zealand’s remarkably pure two-party system.

Social Credit claimed a remarkable 11.2 percent of the popular vote in 1954. That result, had it been achieved under the MMP system, would have netted the Social Creditors an impressive 13-15 seats. Under the profoundly undemocratic First-Past-The-Post electoral system, however, the 122,573 New Zealanders who voted Social Credit remained unrepresented.

The 1954 general election is also highly instructive about the inherent unfairness of the FPP system. The two major parties finished the electoral race neck-and-neck. National took 44.3 percent of the popular vote, and Labour, just 1,602 ballots shy of National’s total, took 44.1. Now, in any fair system, the two major parties would have ended the election night with an equal number of seats – give or take. What actually happened was that National celebrated a comfortable victory – ten seats ahead of Labour.

And 1954 was far from being the worst example of FPP’s extraordinary power to distort the popular will. Twenty seven years later, in 1981, Social Credit won a gob-smacking 20.7 percent of the votes cast. This time, at least, it emerged from the fray with two seats. (MMP would have allocated Social Credit 24-26 seats!) It gets worse, however, because in spite of the fact that the Labour Party won 39 percent of the popular vote – 4,122 votes more than the National Party – the pugnacious National Prime Minister, Rob Muldoon, was returned to office with a narrow two-seat majority. In other words, with just 38.77 percent of the votes, National nevertheless ended the night with 51.09 percent of the seats in Parliament.

Pretty easy to see, then, just how far away from “majority rule” the FPP electoral system takes a country in which there are more than two effective political parties. New Zealand’s genuine-majority-delivering two-party system endured for five elections only (1938, 1943, 1946, 1949, 1951) a period of just 16 years. Very few New Zealanders alive today can boast of participating in an election which delivered a true majority to either Labour or National. Someone who contributed to National’s 54 percent share of the popular vote in 1951 will enter a polling-booth on 17 October 2020 aged 90+ years-of-age.

Even allowing for its capacity to ensure that the party holding the majority of parliamentary seats won them fair-and-square by securing a majority of the votes cast, the two-party system is very far from being without fault. Squeezing all the many interests and passions of a dynamic modern society into just two political parties is a recipe for what might best be called “structural disappointment”. The ruthless consensus enforcement required in what are perforce “broad church” parties inevitably leaves sizeable minorities feeling outmanoeuvred and aggrieved – with the dire results all-too-clearly on display in the Republican and Democratic parties of the United States. By making space for genuine political diversity, proportional systems encourage a much more vibrant – and representative – form of parliamentary democracy.

That two of New Zealand’s minor parliamentary parties, NZ First and the Greens, may end up being squeezed out of Parliament in the forthcoming election in no way discredits MMP. It merely signals that the conduct of these parties has been sufficiently unedifying to cause the electorate to shift its support elsewhere. Similarly, if the Labour Party have conducted themselves with sufficient grit and grace to claim the support of 50 percent-plus of their fellow citizens, then it fully deserves the chance to give us exactly what we voted for.


This essay was originally published in The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 25 September 2020.

Thursday, 24 September 2020

Going High, Going Low: An Assessment Of The First Leaders' Debate.

Uncrushed: Jacinda Ardern knew exactly what was expected of her in the first Leaders' Debate. Labour’s dominant position, three weeks out from the general election, is constructed out of the admiration and gratitude of hundreds of thousands of New Zealanders who, more often than not, vote National.  Nothing she said or did in the debate could be allowed to undermine her hard-won reputation for calmness, confidence and empathy. Nor did it.

THE PEOPLE who awarded the first Leaders Debate to Judith Collins are the people we learned to loathe during Lockdown. They’ve learned nothing from the public’s negative reaction to arrogance and aggression in the Time of Covid. Poor Simon Bridges paid the ultimate political price for lapses much less damaging than Judith Collins’ on Tuesday Night. But, fear not, Collins, too, will pay a price for her arrogance and aggression.

Jacinda Ardern, on the other hand, knew exactly what was expected of her in this encounter. Labour’s dominant position, three weeks out from the general election, is constructed out of the admiration and gratitude of hundreds of thousands of New Zealanders who, more often than not, vote National. Her calm demeanour at the helm, as she steered her country through the early stages of the global Covid-19 pandemic, was complemented by her ability to project an almost joyful confidence in the steadfastness and solidarity of her fellow New Zealanders. Nothing she said or did in Tuesday’s debate could be allowed to undermine that precious combination of calm and confidence. Nor did it.

Astonishingly, most political journalists and commentators still don’t get this. Like the snarling pack of newshounds who earned the instant (and likely permanent) dislike of those New Zealanders who tuned-in to the 1:00pm media briefings during Lockdown, these others regard arrogance and aggression as indispensable tools of the journalistic trade. People who are offended by their use are, in their professional opinion, na├»ve. They simply don’t understand how the news business works.

In the electronic media especially, broadcasters are expected to deliver performances overbrimming with confidence and energy. Like their colleagues in the print media, they have been trained to communicate with an audience whose average reading age is said to be twelve. But, as George Orwell makes clear in Nineteen Eighty-Four, the ruthless simplification of language leads swiftly and inevitably to the equally ruthless simplification of thought – the Holy Grail of totalitarian regimes everywhere. Simplicity in communication is a virtue, but sadly, the contemporary news media is increasingly prone to confuse simplicity with simple-mindedness.

So it was that while most New Zealanders responded positively to their Prime Minister’s clear command of the complex issues with which her government has had to grapple, the academics who train and educate the young people who emerge from our universities as professional “communicators” saw only someone who spoke to her fellow citizens as if they were seated around the cabinet table. Quelle horreur! In a democracy – a system of government which confers key decision-making powers upon the people themselves – a prime minister addressed her fellow citizens as, of all things, decision-makers!

How much more effective, according to these academics, were the tactics of the Leader of the Opposition who barked and snapped at her opponent like a demented terrier and addressed the watching voters as if they were intermediate school-children. With her arched eyebrows and curled lips; snorts and guffaws; puerile interjections and belligerent playground taunts; Judith Collins was held up as the possessor of all the theatrical and rhetorical gifts required of a modern (or should that be post-modern?) political leader. For declining to get down in the gutter with Collins; and for refusing to treat politics as a blood-sport; the loser of the first Leaders Debate was declared, by these erudite instructors of tomorrow’s journalists, to be the Prime Minister.

Most of the journalists in the Parliamentary Press Gallery concurred. Jacinda Ardern, they opined, lacked energy. Why was she so passive? Where were the zingers to match her magnificent put-down of Mike Hosking earlier in the day? Why didn’t this “superb communicator” not bark and snap at her opponent as expected? The clear consensus among the political scribes was that when the Prime Minister next went head-to-head with Judith Collins, she would have to lift her game.

Even among Jacinda’s supporters on the Left there were pockets of disappointment. Why didn’t she crush the crusher? Why didn’t she, figuratively, slash off the Tory champion’s head and hold it aloft, Game of Thrones-style, for her followers to revile? Why, when Collins offensively implied that people on the minimum wage were so much less consequential than school-teachers and small business owners, did she not condemn her appalling class prejudice? Why didn’t she call New Zealand’s dirty dairy farmers – dirty dairy farmers? Why all the boring centrism? Dammit Jacinda, you’re the leader of the Labour Party – would it kill you to act like it!

Yes, quite probably, it would. No matter how hard they might wish it were otherwise. And no matter how obdurately some leftists insist that the voters are only waiting for the word “To overturn the cities and the rivers/And split the house like a rotten totara log” [James K. Baxter] New Zealanders have never been insurrectionists. We are socialist renovators – not revolutionaries. Middle-class New Zealanders, the people Jacinda has to thank for being at 48 percent in the Colmar Brunton poll (and not 25 percent, like the hapless David Cunliffe) need to be persuaded to back Labour in a programme of non-terrifying change.

That’s why one of the most effective political statements of the whole evening came in response to John Campbell’s challenge to the Prime Minister over the Capital Gains Tax. “At some point, John,” Jacinda explained, acknowledging Labour’s three failed attempts to sell a CGT to the electorate, “you have to accept that voters don’t agree with you.” From those few, and yes, simple words, former National voters would have drawn reassurance that their ballots may be safely cast for Labour in 2020. They are not in the market for a “crusher”, but for a leader to construct the sort of “new normal” in which they and their families can feel comfortable and secure.

By presenting herself as that sort of political leader: calm, considered, compassionate and constructive; Jacinda Ardern held her middle-class supporters in place – and won the debate.


This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Thursday, 24 September 2020.

Tuesday, 22 September 2020

The Looming Fight.

Social Distancing Be Damned - It's Jacinda! Shortly after ascending to Labour’s leadership, Jacinda described herself as a “pragmatic idealist”. It was an inspired oxymoron – packing into just two words the essence of the social-democrat’s dilemma. It was good to know that she knew what lay ahead of her. That as undisputed leader of the centre-left, she would herself become the battlefield upon which these contradictory impulses: her idealism and her pragmatism; would engage one another.
 
THERE’S A FIGHT LOOMING. No, not with National – they’ll be licking their wounds for years. Not with Act, either. Their numbers will gradually decline as National’s slowly recover. And the looming fight certainly won’t be with the Greens. They have some very serious soul-searching to do out there in the political wilderness where the voters are poised to send them. Like all prophets, they will be required to wrestle with the Devil in lonely places, defeat him, or never be heard from again. No, the fight that’s looming will be where it always is when the future of New Zealand is being decided – in the Labour Party.

Now some on the Left may be anticipating a renewal of the fight that was brought to an abrupt end by David Cunliffe’s catastrophic performance in the general election of 2014. The election (by the slimmest of margins) of Andrew Little to Labour’s leadership was a vote, by what remained of Labour’s left, for what David Lange called “a cuppa” – a pause in the ongoing hostilities during which the wounded could be attended to and the dead decently buried. It was a long truce, during which nothing much happened either ideologically or practically. Under Little, a grey fog descended upon Labour. A poll-depressing pall which was only lifted by the sudden rise of Jacinda’s glorious sun.

If, as seems increasingly likely, that same brilliant Jacinda leads Labour to an absolute electoral victory on 17 October, all thought of some sort of factional renaissance should be dismissed out of hand. For the foreseeable future, what Jacinda wants, Jacinda is likely to get. Which means that the fight, at least initially, will be for the Prime Minister’s ear. Ground-breaking policies will be proposed. Bright futures sketched-out confidently on paper serviettes. Historic opportunities grandly explained. Only then will the real fight finally begin – the fight between Jacinda’s heart and Jacinda’s mind.

Shortly after ascending to Labour’s leadership, Jacinda described herself as a “pragmatic idealist”. It was an inspired oxymoron – packing into just two words the essence of the social-democrat’s dilemma. It was good to know that she knew what lay ahead of her. That as undisputed leader of the centre-left, she would herself become the battlefield upon which these contradictory impulses: her idealism and her pragmatism; would engage one another.

The coalition with NZ First and her understanding with the Greens spared the prime Minister the worst of it. For the past three years jacinda has been able to make out a plausible case for her idealism having little choice but to reach a series of pragmatic accommodations with “Mr Peters” innate conservatism. It was a good line, because it allowed her followers to believe that Jacinda’s idealism remained unbeaten and unbowed. That, given a chance, her bright blade would flash in the sunlight and the forces of inertia and indifference would be laid low beneath its righteous fury. Jacinda’s pragmatism, it seemed, was all about making sure that, when the moment came, her idealism would be ready.

Barring something truly awful intervening between now and election day, it would seem that this long awaited and keenly anticipated moment will soon be upon us. Jacinda’s pragmatism, if it is not to be twisted into a cynical and demoralising opportunism, will then be required to meet the extraordinary challenge of setting the unencumbered Labour government’s idealistic pace. How “unrelentingly positive” can Jacinda and her colleagues afford to be – and how kind?

Much will turn on how Jacinda perceives “idealism”. Does she equate it with the phenomenon that some call “wokeness”? Is it a simple matter of scratching every itch inflamed by the Twitterati’s ideological eczema? Will an unencumbered Labour Government put all TERFs to flight? Legislate for tino rangatiratanga? Ban all forms of hate speech? Destroy the dairy industry? Squeeze the rich until the pips squeak? Or, is Jacinda’s idealism something more organic? Something rooted in the idea of community? In the mutual obligations of citizenship?

We must hope it is the latter. Because if it is the former, then the next three years will be very fraught and full of political danger. “Wokeness” has about as much support in the New Zealand electorate as the Green Party – which is to say, bugger-all. Not that the woke understand that. As actual or wannabe members of the “progressive” wing of the political class, they are anxious to impose their own, tortuous, ideology upon what they regard as the deplorable prejudices of their unenlightened fellow citizens. If Jacinda’s idealism turns out to be woke idealism, then the people will flee from her in droves – and bitter disappointment.

But I do not believe that the looming fight will be a struggle between a woke Jacinda and the rest of us. I believe it will be a fight between Jacinda’s vision of a government that continues to foster the solidarity and sacrifice manifested in the battle against Covid-19, and those who want to put an end to it. Her idealism, so far, has been about bringing New Zealanders together. Is it too much to hope that an unencumbered Labour government, led by Jacinda, will be one which builds on New Zealanders’ new appreciation of the role an active and protective state can play in securing the common welfare of all its citizens?

Everything in Jacinda’s political career to date points to her almost instinctive understanding of how important it is (to quote Jim Anderton’s famous injunction) “to build your footpaths where the people walk”. Her political pragmatism has always recognised the futility of trying to force people to be good. Her political idealism is founded on her conviction that people find goodness in themselves, or not at all. “They are us”, she declared on 15 March 2019, and a whole nation showed the world what she meant. “Unite against Covid-19”, she urged, and New Zealand did just that. “Be kind”, she implored, and 50 percent-plus of us are willing to go on giving it a try.


This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Tuesday, 22 September 2020

Friday, 18 September 2020

Uncomfortable Choices.

Dangerous Times: This will be the choice confronting those coming of age in the 2020s. Embrace Neoliberalism’s belief in racial and sexual equality; adopt its secular and scientific world view; and cultivate the technocratic, multicultural, global outlook required of those who keep the machinery of hyper-capitalism humming. Or, throw your support behind the defenders of the national people’s community; agitate for an end to free-trade and globalisation; and use any means necessary (including violence) to uphold the social, sexual and racial hierarchies of your ancestors. That is to say – become a fascist.

THE GREAT MORAL CHOICE of the 1930s was between communism and fascism. The so-called “Great Powers” which had not yet succumbed to fascism: Britain, France and the USA; did not strike those in search of a better world as its most likely midwives. The first two still presided over vast empires in which wealth and liberty were allocated strictly according to skin pigmentation. At home, Uncle Sam followed a very similar distribution scheme, even if, internationally, he presented himself as the enemy of European imperialism. When push came to shove, however, and most especially if that shove came from below, the liberal democracies proved to be neither liberal nor democratic. The Soviet Union, or at least the version of it presented in the newsreels, seemed to be reaching for something higher. A future dedicated to something more uplifting than the doctrine of white supremacy and the global looting it underwrote.

The great moral choice of the twenty-first century is no longer between fascism and communism. The history of “actually existing socialism” – a devastating human tragedy made all the more unbearable by the sheer scale of its multiple and murderous betrayals – utterly discredited the Soviet blueprint. Tragically, fascism has fared a great deal better than its historical rival. Adolf Hitler may have failed – a betrayal of sorts – but his belief in the superiority and right-to-rule of the Aryan peoples never wavered. His ghost, and the spectre of his ideology, have proved alarmingly easy to raise. Which leaves neoliberalism as the only “actually existing” contender to fascism redux. Neither a happy, nor a particularly comfortable, choice. But, as the neoliberals are so fond of asking: “What’s the alternative?”

It is the ongoing inability of the Left to answer this question that makes the present era so hard to bear. Since actually existing socialism blipped-off history’s screen in 1991, capitalism has had nothing to restrain its worst “animal spirits”. The social ruin produced by so much unconstrained greed has, entirely predictably, provided an ideal breeding-ground for fascist ideas.

The smashing of the West’s trade unions in the 1980s, and the contemporaneous ideological subversion of the social-democratic political parties they had created, left a yawning chasm between the casualties and the beneficiaries of the new, neoliberal, world order. Stripped of effective economic and political defences, the western working-class was left to wither and rot as the factories that had sustained it for nearly two centuries were shut down and their jobs shipped off to China, Indonesia, Mexico and Brazil.

The upshot? Millions of desperate white men, gripped by a toxic nostalgia for the days when being Caucasian and male “still meant something”, found themselves transformed into a tempting political prize. But although the parties of the racist right were successful in persuading members of the decaying working-class to give them their votes; those same voters were singularly unsuccessful in persuading the all-conquering neoliberals to bring back their secure, well-paying jobs. This resentful remnant would become, indeed, the “grapes of wrath”; a bitter vintage just waiting for the trampling feet of opportunistic populist politicians.

Which presented the hyper-capitalist, hyper-globalised economy with a really big problem. For the One Percent who clip its ticket, and the narrow social layer of managers and professionals who make it run, it is absolutely vital that their delicate economic mechanism be kept as far away from stupid people as possible. The extreme sophistication and complexity of the science and technology that make hyper-capitalism work are violently allergic to ignorance. The woeful responses of populist regimes to the global Covid-19 pandemic have made this agonisingly clear – in both human and economic terms.

Hyper-capitalism and its neoliberal defenders cannot, therefore, allow a repeat of the fatal alliance between the fascist brutes who seized control of the German state in 1933, and the highly-sophisticated civil servants, managers and professionals who, in spite of Nazi brutality, kept the German economy and German society functioning until the bitter end. Neoliberalism’s hyper-capitalist china-shop, and the clumsy ignorance of fascist bulls, are a dangerous combination – as Trump’s America proves.

Neoliberalism’s dilemma is how to keep fascism at bay without raising the spectre of communism. Or, more bluntly, how to combat right-wing populism without resurrecting the politics of class conflict? The solution which presented itself most persuasively to neoliberal ideologues was “identity politics”. By shifting the focus of left-wing attention away from the injuries of class: inflicted by capitalism; and directing it instead towards the injuries of race, gender and sexuality: inflicted by whites, men and straights; identity politics made the broad political unity needed for a successful struggle against the capitalist system much more difficult to attain.

Better still, by branding whites, men and straights as the “structural” enemies of justice and equality, identity politics set its followers on a collision course with the very same white working-class males the far-right were seeking to recruit. Neoliberalism, which has always been supportive of racial and sexual equality (both of which enlarge the capitalist marketplace) seized the opportunity presented by this bitter cultural clash to inoculate the next generation of professionals and managers against the fascist distempers unleashed by their unenlightened brethren. Hyper-capitalism is now ready to embrace the “woke” – and heaven help any employee who declines to polish her corporate employer’s public image by challenging, even privately (via Facebook, Instagram or Twitter) the new orthodoxy.

Increasingly, this will be the choice confronting those coming of age in the 2020s. Embrace Neoliberalism’s belief in racial and sexual equality; adopt its secular and scientific world view; and cultivate the technocratic, multicultural, global outlook required of those who keep the machinery of hyper-capitalism humming. Or, throw your support behind the defenders of the national people’s community; agitate for an end to free-trade and globalisation; and use any means necessary (including violence) to uphold the social, sexual and racial hierarchies of your ancestors. That is to say – become a fascist.

Neither of these options has anything to offer the poor. Neither of them will restrain the rich. Neither will do anything like enough, or anything at all, to combat climate change. Neoliberalism believes itself to be rational. Fascism claims to reflect the natural order. But the followers of both ideologies remain content to be carried on the backs of human-beings whose rights and aspirations they do not consider worthy of serious regard. It was to these people that the socialists used to speak.

“Workers of the world, unite!”, cried Karl Marx. “You have nothing to lose but your chains. You have a world to win!”

If only he and his socialist successors had given a little more thought to how they should win the capitalists’ world – and what to do with it when they did.

This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Friday, 18 September 2020.

Getting Tough.

Not Mucking Around: With upwards of 800 dead from the virus’s resurgence in the Australian state of Victoria, leniency is not on Premier Daniel Andrews’ agenda. The Victorian Police are cracking down hard on the protesters the Australian press has labelled "Covidiots".

IMAGES OF POLICE, some in riot gear, others on horseback, charging into Victorian protesters have shocked a lot of Kiwis. We all realise that the second wave of Covid-19 has hit the Australian state of Victoria hard. So, when it comes to people deliberately flouting the rules of lockdown, we are not surprised that the patience of both the state government, and the overwhelming majority of its citizens, has run out. With upwards of 800 dead from the virus’s resurgence, leniency is not on Premier Daniel Andrews’ agenda.

How relieved our own Prime Minister, Jacinda Ardern, must be that she has not had to face anything like the death toll of her Labour counterpart across the Tasman. And, how thankful, that she and Police Commissioner, Andy Coster, have been excused the grim duty of cracking-down hard on illegal protests. At least until very recently, the New Zealand authorities have been able to secure public compliance exclusively through the power of moral suasion. Resort to force has, so far, been deemed unnecessary.

For how much longer, however, can this happy situation endure? After the mass rally which took place in Auckland’s Aotea Square on Saturday, 12 September, the Prime Minister, Director-General of Health and Police Commissioner must all be wondering.

Organised primarily by Advance New Zealand (Jami-Lee Ross) and the Public Party of New Zealand (Billy Te Kahika) the rally attracted somewhere between 1,500 and 5,000 protesters. In flouting the rules severely limiting the size of public gatherings under Level 2, their purpose was to demonstrate to the country their unwillingness to accept that the Covid-19 virus constitutes a threat of sufficient seriousness to justify either restricting personal liberty, or damaging the economy. These impositions, they insist, confirm the reality of a global conspiracy against our rights and freedoms. Evil elites are intent on enslaving us, they say. A tyrannical world government is planned. And, may God forgive them, leading New Zealand politicians are part of the plot.

The extraordinary danger posed by gatherings of such prodigious size, involving persons holding such extraordinary views, hardly requires spelling-out. The Saturday rally had the potential to act as a super-spreader of Covid-19. It may yet turn out to have been a catastrophe in the making.

What to do? Demanding Police action against political parties active in the current election campaign is a big ask. Especially so, given the official blind eye turned to the breaking of Level 2 rules by Black Lives Matter protesters across the country in early June.

The size of the ask grows even bigger when we consider whether provoking some form of Police intervention may not be part of Advance NZ’s and the Public Party’s election strategy. If your party’s claim is that the New Zealand Government has become tyrannical, then what better way of proving it than encouraging the ugly scenes unfolding in Victoria to be repeated in the parks and streets of New Zealand?

Commissioner Coster will also be wondering whether any such hard-line Police response can be assured of unflinching government support. After all, the historical precedents are not encouraging.

Confronted with a group of radicals and revolutionaries undergoing secret weapons training in Tuhoe country back in 2007, the New Zealand Police organised a raid on the tiny Bay of Plenty settlement of Ruatoki. The imagery of heavily-armed police officers, many of them kitted-out like soldiers, rounding-up women and children, generated a ferocious public backlash. In the weeks and months that followed the public relations disaster of the Ruatoki Raid, the Police found themselves politically and legally abandoned.

The purpose of the raid: apprehending potential guerrillas and terrorists; was forgotten. Assailed by the radical Left, Helen Clark’s government quietly distanced itself from the controversy. Many young journalists were content to relay the Left’s version of events uncritically. The Courts threw out key elements of the Prosecution’s case. The accused found themselves transformed into persecuted heroes, while the Police were portrayed as neo-colonial racists. The career of Howard Broad, the Police Commissioner of the time, and a strong advocate for integrating Treaty of Waitangi principles into New Zealand policing, was blighted by Ruatoki.

Commissioner Coster will not want to share his predecessor’s fate. If his officers are asked to enforce the rules keeping New Zealanders safe, then their Government must undertake to do no less for them.

This essay was originally published in The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 18 September 2020.

Tuesday, 15 September 2020

The Left's Lost Allies.

Rebels In A Wrong Cause: The truly frightening thing about Jami-Lee Ross’s and Billy Te Kahika’s success in persuading thousands of New Zealanders that Covid-19 is just another trick, just another way of stealing away their power, is realising just how many of them once marched at the Left’s side. Before recoiling in horror at where so many of their fellow citizens have ended up, and what they have found there, perhaps “progressive” New Zealanders should ask themselves how, and why, their former allies became so lost.

 

LET’S BE HONEST, last Saturday’s Advance NZ rally in Aotea Square was bloody impressive. If the Left had turned out a crowd that large they would have claimed at least 5,000 participants. Now, the last time I remember seeing that sort of number in the Square was when the CTU summoned its affiliates in support of a concerted national push for higher wages. It was a very well organised affair, with workers bussed-in from all over Auckland. By contrast, Jami-Lee Ross and Billy Te Kahika turned out 5,000+ of their people on the strength of not much more than a summons via Facebook and Instagram. It is now vitally important for the Left to understand what it is looking at: a large and potentially dangerous mass movement of the Right.

Such a thing has not been seen in New Zealand for a very long time. Perhaps the closest historical parallel is “Rob’s Mob”. This, too, was a populist phenomenon, whipped-up on the basis of lies and misinformation by an accomplished political demagogue. The huge difference, of course, is that “Rob’s Mob” was under the firm control and direction of the National Party and its leader, Robert Muldoon. It was a movement created out of whole cloth to challenge the Labour Party’s confident assumption that it remained the party of the people.

With the able assistance of the privately-owned news media – especially the right-wing tabloid “Truth” – conservative working-class voters were encouraged to look upon “Rob” Muldoon as their champion against the pointy-headed intellectuals and communists who were accused of taking-over the Labour Party. The result was a neat anticipation, in reverse, of what has happened with Jacinda. A substantial chunk of working-class voters were drawn across the political divide and into the camp of their traditional enemy. National mustered these defectors with the skill of a heading-dog. The crowds turning-out to Muldoon’s rallies numbered in the thousands. New Zealand had its own Trump when the man himself was still working for his dad!

What we’re looking at in the case of Jami-Lee Ross and Billy Te Kahika, however, is something quite distinct, ideologically and organisationally, from Rob’s Mob. Advance NZ and the Public Party are not under the control of any coherent political group. They are being mobilised by Te Kahika only in the sense that he is drawing together the loose threads of far-Right conspiracism – most them traceable back to Alt-Right social media platforms in the United States – and weaving them into a more-or-less coherent narrative of resistance to Jacinda Ardern’s government.

Once again, the historical parallels are uncanny. In 1974-75, the National Party was offered assistance (at whose instigation remains unclear) from Hanna Barbera – a studio dedicated to producing animated cartoon series for American television. The resulting animated sequences, cleverly embedded in National’s television advertising, burst upon the 1975 election campaign like a thunderclap. Their impact, especially the infamous “Dancing Cossacks” sequence, was devastating. Labour had nothing even remotely comparable with which to answer National’s devastating attack.

Forty-five years later, skilfully constructed media messages are, once again, making a forceful impression on the consciousness of groups who, historically, have identified strongly with the Labour Party. Sourced from the United States, these messages are not, like Hanna Barbera’s cartoons, the product of a shadowy collaboration between the National Party and American “friends” with a mutual interest in ridding New Zealand of a radical social-democratic government. Indeed, it is precisely against such “Deep State” machinations that the political messages of 2020 are directed.

The authors and repeaters of these conspiracy theories have no more interest in restoring the conventional Right to power than keeping the conventional Left in office. Their purpose is to disrupt the status-quo fundamentally: to bring the whole rotten edifice of elite power crashing down upon the heads of its corrupt political mis-leaders. Their loyalty is only to the Disrupter-in-Chief in the White House. But if, by helping Trump, they can also assist his New Zealand imitators and disciples, then where’s the harm?

Overlaying all these hymns of fear and loathing is, of course, the global Covid-19 Pandemic. Without the Pandemic, the febrile environment in which conspiracy theories can take root and thrive would – at least in New Zealand’s case – be lacking.

Interestingly, the formation of “Rob’s Mob”, and the populist campaign (National’s slogan in 1975 was “New Zealand the way YOU want it.”) which they did so much to propel forward, was enormously assisted by the fear and uncertainty created by the 1973 Oil Crisis. Massive increases in the price of crude oil had destabilised the hitherto booming economies of the Western powers. Ordinary people sensed that the whole post-war era of security and prosperity was coming to an end. Muldoon played upon these anxieties “like a piano”.

Now, many on the left will argue that Advance NZ’s 5,000 protesters pale into insignificance when compared to the 30,000 people who turned out against the TPPA, or the 50,000 who protested against the global lack of progress against Climate Change. This is true. Also true, however, is that a large number of the Maori who took part in the TPPA protest, seeing the free-trade agreement as yet another attempt to steal away of their power, were also at Saturday’s protest. Likewise, many of those who joined the climate change protests out of frustration at the lack of action from a prime minister who had promised to make the issue her generation’s “nuclear-free moment”. After so many broken promises – so many betrayals – it takes surprisingly little to convince people that the powers-that-be cannot be trusted. That all politicians lie.

The truly frightening thing about Jami-Lee Ross’s and Billy Te Kahika’s success in persuading thousands of New Zealanders that Covid-19 is just another trick, just another way of stealing away their power, is realising just how many of them once marched at the Left’s side. Before recoiling in horror at where so many of their fellow citizens have ended up, and what they have found there, perhaps “progressive” New Zealanders should ask themselves how, and why, their former allies became so lost.

This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Tuesday, 15 September 2020.