Friday, 16 April 2010

Dismissing Democracy

Grim Precedent: In this 1933 Punch cartoon, Adolf Hitler is carried to power on the shoulders of President Paul von Hindenburg (Left) and Chancellor Franz von Papen (Right). By dismissing Prussia's social-democratic state government in July 1932, Papen struck a fatal blow against the beleaguered Weimar Republic. Couldn't happen here? Think again.

DIE STRASSE FREI, dem braunen batallionen! Die strasse frei dem Sturmabteilungsmann! Clear the streets for the brown battalions! Clear the streets for the Stormtroopers!

The brutal lyrics of the National Socialist anthem, the Horst Wessel Leid, echoed off the walls of the tenements, warehouses and deserted factories of "Red Altona".

Perched on the rooftops of Hamburg’s most staunchly left-wing working-class suburb, communist sharpshooters took aim at the front ranks of the vast, 6,000-strong column of brown-shirted marchers.

It was Sunday, July 17th 1932 and the National Socialist German Workers Party was making good on its promise to march into the German Communist Party’s electoral heartland. Lying on the western outskirts of the city, along the banks of the River Elbe, Altona fell under the jurisdiction of the German State of Prussia.

Its residents, most of them connected in some way to the docks of the great port city, had vowed to keep the Nazis out. The waterside unions, the Communist Party and its paramilitary organisation the Rotfront (Red Front), and even the moderate Social-Democratic Party, poured their supporters onto the streets in an attempt to create a human stop-bank against the brown tide flowing through Hamburg and towards their poverty-stricken neighborhood.

Between them stood the Prussian Police – as divided in their way as the rest of Germany. Their officers, like the Nazis, despised the democratic Weimar Republic; but the ordinary cops on the beat identified more closely with the working-class neighbourhoods they’d sworn to protect.

No one knew who fired first (both the Stormtroopers and the Red Front were armed) but once the bullets started flying all hell broke loose. By nightfall two Stormtroopers and 16 residents of Altona lay dead and the city’s hospitals were overflowing with hundreds of wounded. The morning papers called it Altonaer Blutsonntag – Altona’s Bloody Sunday.

The civil strife in Altona was exactly what Germany’s right-wing Chancellor, Franz Von Papen, had been waiting for.

Prussia, the largest and most populous state in Germany’s federal republic was under the control of the left-wing social-democrats. Recent elections had weakened the Left’s grip on the state (and its 90,000-strong police force) nevertheless, it still constituted the single biggest obstacle to Papen’s plan to replace Germany’s democratic system with an authoritarian regime dominated by the nationalist Right. So long as Prussia and its blue-coated Schupos stood firm for the beleaguered Weimar Republic, it had a chance.

Papen went to see the aged German President, Paul von Hindenburg. The German Federal Government, he declared, had lost all confidence in the Prussian State Government. For the safety of the German people, he advised, the ineffectual Prussian Administration must be sacked and replaced with a government-appointed commissioner.

The President, using his emergency powers under Article 48 of the Weimar Constitution, dutifully signed a decree dismissing Prussia’s social-democratic ministers. Martial Law was declared and Prussia’s police were placed under federal command.

It was a blow from which the Weimar Republic never recovered. Six months later President Hindenburg appointed Adolf Hitler Chancellor.

Couldn’t happen here? It already had.

Throughout the "Angry Autumn" of 1932, massive civil disorder had convulsed New Zealand’s major cities. The right-wing coalition government of the day responded with the Public Safety Conservation Act – a draconian piece of legislation which essentially empowered the New Zealand Governor-General to suspend democratic government until such time as the Prime Minister advised him to restore it.

Fearful that the passions aroused by the Dunedin, Auckland and Wellington riots would spill-over into the General Election scheduled for 1934, the right-wing government of George Forbes and Gordon Coates arbitrarily extended the life of the 24th Parliament by 12 months.

Nineteen years later, the Coalition’s successor, the National Government of Sid Holland, used Emergency Regulations issued under the Public Safety Conservation Act to crush the Waterside Workers Union. Basic civil liberties such as freedom of the press and freedom of association were suspended throughout New Zealand for 151 days.

Couldn’t happen again?

On Tuesday, 30 March 2010 the Canterbury Regional Council was dismissed by John Key’s National-led Government and replaced by a commissioner. The council elections scheduled for October 2010 were cancelled.

"Across the board," declared Dr Nick Smith, "there has been a collapse of confidence in Environment Canterbury that has brought about the necessity of this government intervention."

Franz von Papen could not have put it better.

This essay was first published in The Dominion Post, The Timaru Herald, The Taranaki Daily News, The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Evening Star of Friday, 16 April 2010.


Anonymous said...

Hi Chris,

A well written article, but the final conclusion might be over egging the pudding somewhat. Comparing the sacking of a regional council to the overthrow of the Weimar Republic might make good copy but it is a little on the emotive side.

Besides, didn't your political friends dismiss at least one elected health board, elected school boards etc and install statutory management?

There must be larger issues causing you sleepless nights surely. :-)

Kind regards

Chris Trotter said...

Well, Brendan, the slow descent into the nightmare that befell Germany between 1933 and 1945 also began with small steps.

It was, after all, the moderate Centre Party Chancellor, Bruning, who, with the noblest of intentions, first persuaded Hindenburg to use Article 48. But, as he quickly discovered, once you start dispensing with democratic norms it's very difficult to stop.

As more and more information leaks out about the motivation and organisation behind the Canterbury Coup, the worse it looks. There is something very murky at work down South.

Yes, Labour dismissed the odd dysfunctional Hospital Board and District Council (usually at the institution's own request) but it did so according to the relevant statutes - not by means of special legislation rushed through Parliament under urgency.

And it most certainly did NOT cancel scheduled elections, or vest temporary commissioners with quasi-judicial powers.

The move against ECan really is on a par with the Forbes-Coates postponement of the 1934 General Election - an outrageous traducing of fundamental democratic principles.

victor said...


I was about to yell 'Godwin' but your point about Bruning was well made.

Even had Hitler not been the beneficiary, the use of Article 48 meant that Weimar Germany had crossed a sort of Rubicon and some form of authoritarian regime was more or less inevitable.

Mac said...

I agree with Brendan. Someone said (wish I could cite precisely) that to raise an arguement "Ad Hitlerem" automatically invalidated the premise of that argument. Unless, that is, you are talking about massive state-sponsored genocide, in which case the parallel may be just. In the same vein, the recent cartoon of Rodney Hide with with a little black moustache. Really. That "artist" needs to study a little history.

Chris, if not already (and I rather imagine you may have), take the opportunity of a visit to Auschwitz. Preferably at an off-peak time, when you can be practically alone as you wander through that rather large complex, and take in the enormity of the place. I doubt you will see much parallel to the braided rivers or upcountry lakes of Canterbury, or to the lives of those who tramp, fly-fish, or farm there.

Chris Trotter said...

Victor, the "Godwin" call really is an illegitmate and infantile "tradition" on the Internet. To rule out of popular discourse any reference to one of the most extraordinary and instructive episodes in human history is as ridiculous as it is dangerous.

Calls of "Godwin" serve only the Right - whose sympathy, seventy years ago, for the ideas and actions of Adolf Hitler is something they are more than a little desperate to forget.

Chris Trotter said...

Mac: See above.

Adolf Fiinkensein said...

Mr Trotter, not even the Weimar Republic could take ten years to issue a resource consent.

Victor said...

Actually, "Godwin" seems to be a term as much used by the Left as the Right on the blogs I read.

Neo-Conservatives are often and rightly taken to task for Godwinism, particularly in discussions on the Middle East.

Right now a monumental Godwinism is being used to try to sell an Israeli preemptive strike on Iran, just as similar Godwinisms were used to justify America's wars in Vietnam and Iraq.

In the end, however, over-ready comparisons with Hitler merely serve to trivialise the evils of Nazism by making its crimes appear commonplace, when they were anything but that.

If Hitler was only in the same league as Sid Holland or Nick Smith, why did millions of my father's generation have to lose their lives defeating him?

However, as I suggested earlier, your point about Bruning was well made. Ostensibly small dents in democratic governance can have a cumulative effect and can gradually transform a liberal democracy into an authoritarian state.

I would agree with you that New Zealand may be poised to head down such an authoritarian path under our current government. But I think that Berlusconi's Italy is more an exemplar of where we're heading than Hitler's Germany.

Chris Trotter said...

Surely, Victor, it's only our tiny size, and our geostrategic irrelevance that has protected us from the sharp edges of right-wing politics?

If we were closer to the heart of things, I strongly suspect our country's skin would cary a great many more scars - and our graveyards a great many more victims.

The Hitlerian regime, precisely because it lacked the grand guignol trappings of Italian politics, has more to tell us than the posturings of Mussolini and Berlusconi combined.

Anonymous said...

Beaudy boy, inner bull as always. And copacetic on this tory godwit wank - as sickeningly puerile, desperate and inane as the "National SOCIALIST" attempt to disown the most blatantly obvious manifestation of their hideously pessimistic ideological parentage and history.
Consider and contrast Glen Beck and the Herald's bizarre Helen/Lenin propaganda: Tea Partiers and Obama is the Antichrist.
All grace, son; bless and protect you, Chris, for facing filth with the truth.

Anonymous said...

Chris makes the very valid point that most dysfunctional school boards and councils requested a commissioner be appointed to replace them, under both Labour and National. This is what makes National & ACTs sacking of democracy so bad - that they have done so against the wishes of most of the bodies they are junking, and against the vast majority of public submissions (on what little we were able to submit on, as the hazy Bills kept morphing).

Communism was overt oppression, capitalism is covert oppression - it's covert nature is what makes capitalism so dangerous. It sneaks up under the guise of 'efficiency' and 'rapid RMA consents', then before we know it, we are fuming at our unaccountable 'supermayor' and 'supercouncillors' imposing their motorways and user pays charges on us.

Oh, and A Finkenstein - it was Simon Uption and his Bolger & Richardson National government that imposed the flawed RMA on us, and gave you the years of delay. It should be a political system run by councillors, not 'independent' commisioners (usually failed/retired councillors), and almost all consent applications should be publically heard. That would speed things up, as the public are not slow to say what should be permitted, and what not.

Mad Marxist

Sara said...

I enjoyed your article, Chris.

I wouldn't mind seeing the left in general stand back a bit from Nazism. I have wondered if it is partly this fear of the slippery slope down to Nazism that leaves the left holding onto some pretty untenable positions and actually plays into the hands of the right.

Take nationalism for example. It seems to have become a perjorative term in the opinion of many of the left. Hang around any fervent young left wingers for a while and you get the feeling that the underlying thinking is that any step towards nationalism is the road to Nazism.

And not happy with the Chinese owning much of New Zealand? You must be xenophobic then. Again-many of the left cannot argue against the buying/colonising of New Zealand by other races/countries because the word xenophobe seems to conjure up visions of racism and the slippery slope to death camps and Nazism.

All of this suits the right very well. There is no opposition to the selling of New Zealand.

Given that Labour won't make any moves to protect ordinary New Zealanders from acquisitive countries (for it seems the fear of the end results of nationalism, xenophobia and isolationism) I highly doubt the future of our country will be much like Nazi Germany. More like Ireland of a century or so ago when the land was owned by Britain and the masses had nothing.

Victor said...


I really think you're wrong.

It wasn't just Germany's size and power that made Nazism such a threat. It was the insane racist and genocidal ideology combined with Hitler's risk-all gambler's instinct, his contempt for international legality and his aspirations to global dominance.

Not even Stalinism bore comparison with that sort of threat which is why, rightly, the
Anglophone West ultimately made common cause with the USSR against the Nazis.

All authoritarian regimes, be they of left, right or center, are unpleasant and most are downright nasty. The larger the country, the greater the opportunities for brutality and the more hearts with scars on them. However, size is not the only differential.

I cited Berlusconi's Italy as an example of the same drift away from Democracy that we're experiencing at the moment, because of the crucial role of the media in soft-selling incremental change in the direction of authoritarianism. I could equally have chosen Putin's Russia. But Putin,however unsavoury,is neither Hitler nor Stalin.

Returning to your Weimar parallel. It's true that Germany's power elites sought to undermine the frail plant of Democracy, thought that Hitler could be useful to them and helped massage him into power. It's also true that the slide to authoritarianism quickened decisively with Bruning's use of emergency powers, if not earlier.

That's a description of some of the key factors that propelled the Nazis into office. But it's not a description of either Nazism itself or the ultimate character of the regime.

If Bruning, von Papen or von Schleicher had been able to deliver the goods instead of Hitler, then the Reichswehr, the industrialists, the press barons and von Hindenburg's court would all have been delighted.

What would have happened then? Counter-factual history is a dangerous game. But I suspect that life would have become much harder for Germany's working class, whilst free speech and free politics would have been severely circumscribed.

But no Auschwitz, no Belsen, no Rotterdam, no Coventry, no Stalingrad, no Kursk, no Cassino, no Lidice, no Dresden and so on.

In human terms that makes quite a difference, viz. approximately 30 million deaths and a ruined continent.

.....more to come

Victor said...


That's the principle reason why I dislike over-ready comparisons with the Third Reich. It's a rhetorical indulgence that actually generates more heat than light and callously fails to take the human dimension into account.

But I also worry about the tendency of over-ready comparisons to slide into trivialisation. There's no shortage of people across the globe who would like us to think the Third Reich was less than exceptionally awful.They normally have an agenda. It's called Holocaust Denial.

And, paradoxically (and, no doubt, unintentionally), the Neo-con and Likkudnik warhawks make a similar claim about the normality of Nazism, each time they use the label against their Islamist or Arab nationalist foes.

I prefer to give no comfort to any of these tendencies, which is why I prefer to keep Hitler comparisons to a minimum and why, from time to time, I reserve the right to yell 'Godwin'.

Nick said...

Chris, good use of history despite the cries of horror from the usual suspects. Their automatic jump towards the authoritarianism of the extreme left or right blinds their ability to percieve that what is happening in NZ is corporatism, the taking away of democratic institutions in favour of unelected interest groups. We wont need to see Key with Storm Troopers, the shadowy silent assassins of NZ corporate scene are far more scary.

Victor said...

No Nick

No-one's blinded to corporatism or its dangers. If all Hitler had been was a corporatist and an anti-democrat, there wouldn't have been a mountain of skulls. Get some perspective.

Chris Trotter said...

Actually, Victor, the size of Skull Mountain may not have varied by very much regardless of whether it was Adolf Hitler, or Kurt von Schleicher, who ended up ruling Germany in the 1930s.

If you read "The Wages of Destruction", by Adam Tooze, it becomes clear that 1930s Germany had only two options in terms of foreign, military and economic policy. It either became an adjunct to American Capitalism, or it made a headlong dash to acquire the 100 million additional consumers required to become a viable competitor to the USA.

The Nationalist Right (including the Nazis) were unwilling to see Germany become a subalten power, and so a war to acquire that larger market was inevitable.

Hitler's war racked up at least 12 million deaths attributable to Nazi racism. But a Schleicher war, armed with the weapons of "Jewish Science" - i.e. atomic weapons - could quite easily have equalled or exceeded the hecatombs of Auschwitz and Treblinka.

The true irony is that the Weimar politicians, who throughout the 1920s followed the highly successful policy of aligning Germany with the USA, were the ones who triumphed in the end.

Victor said...


Economic determinism can only take you so far.

Just because something is 'bound to happen' doesn't mean it will happen.

The army leadership had no interest in war over the Sudetenland and were riven with doubt over the prospect.

True to Prussian traditions, the army was interested in war with Poland but not with Russia.

But, even if you posit a 'Schleicher's War', you are turning traditional German militarism into something which bucks the rules of normal statecraft as much as Nazism did. So it remains a difficult case to generalise from.

Victor said...


If you were to insist on taking an economic determinist standpoint, you could say that twentieth century Germany's inclusion in a US dominated global capitalist order was inevitable.

The Nazis and assorted other autarchists battled against this inevitability, slaughtering millions in the process and destroying their country and continent.

However, I don't believe anything in human affairs is inevitable. Even if I did, I would not think this a useful or humane way of summing up the human catastrophe of Nazism.

Getting back to the original subject of this thread, I think you run the risk of discrediting the case for vigilance in the face of a corporatist takeover, by use of what to many people will appear to be a very extreme and emotionally-charged parallel.

That's a matter of concern as the case for vigilance certainly needs making and you are one of our most lucid exponents of that case.

Anonymous said...

"But I think that Berlusconi's Italy is more an exemplar of where we're heading than Hitler's Germany."

Actually, I think Pinochet's Chile is more of a fit with New Zealand. A nice mixture of social conservatism, neo-liberal economics and authoritarianism.

New Zealanders would readily accept the latter if the former two were enshrined.


Chris Trotter said...

Well, Victor, it's as simple as this.

My "responsible" critique of the dismissal of ECan (see below under the heading "You're Fired!") rated just 3 comments from Bowalley Road's readers.

This present posting is already at 20 comments.

I rest my case.

Victor said...


If you judge the impact of what you write by the number of critical comments you provoke then "You're Fired" might have been a failure.

However, that may not be the best way of judging impact. I read that posting, agreed with it and had nothing further to add.

I think I rest my case

Chris Trotter said...

Not the least instructive aspect of Nazism, Victor, was its masterly grasp of the art of propaganda. Both Hitler and Goebbels understood that it is only by imbuing one's message with a potent emotional charge, and then endlessly repeating it, that mass opinion can be shifted and held.

And, before you lunge towards me with ethical reproaches, let me say that Hitler's teachers in the art of propaganda - frankly acknowledged in "Mein Kampf" - were the British propagandists of the First World War.

The cerebral and academically disciplined Germans, opined the imprisoned putschist, were utterly outclassed by the morally unhinged, but fearsomely effective, Anglo-Saxons.

Nazism, you see, is very far from being the monstrous eruption of the Teutonic collective unconscious that we like to portray it as. On the contrary, it represents (and from more than just one perspective) the very apogee of capitalist culture.

You'll look long and hard, Victor, and you will look in vain for the stone upon which it is written that History has to have a happy ending.

Victor said...


I certainly don't think History has to have a happy ending. That's just another, and particularly banal, form of determinism. It's also patently not the case.

I can't for the life of me understand why you think I believe anything so absurd.

Nor do I think that Nazism is the product of some malign uniquely Teutonic gene or meme.

To the extent that its cultural roots are important, they lie deep inside a common European history.

The savagery of the regime also reflected and liberated deep psychological flaws that are common to all or most humans.

And, of course, the way that Hitler gained power reflected the perceived interests of the German ruling elites at a time when they were challenged by working class militancy and, as you rightly reminded me, the inherent limitations of the German economy.

But I do see Nazism as a more sui generis phenomenon than do you and as at the extreme of human evil. Perhaps I'm influenced in this by my own family background.

I certainly don't see Nazism as the apogee of Capitalist culture nor do I think it can simply be seen as capitalism working its way out. There were other forces and factors at work and, over the last 70 years, it has taken many many lifetimes of study to try to nail them all down.

I'm also aware of the dangers of using the Nazi comparison too lightly and of its ability to totally frustrate meaningful conversation, as over the Middle East.

However, I'm interested in your reference to Goebbels. As it happens I was thinking about our cyber-clash whilst out walking today and decided that the Goebbels approach to Propaganda was the element of Nazism that was most relevant to the sort of comparison you are making.

As the little man is reputed to have said:"Always tell a big lie!"

I suppose I would say that all lying by those in power is bad, that neo-liberal corporatists seem to have a strong penchant for lying and that the techniques of lying they use are not unconnected to the institutional lying of the advertising industry, which, I would agree with you, is one of the sinews of capitalism.

We are in an advanced stage of the manufacturing of consent.

But, I would add, that not all lying by corporatists leads in the same ghastly direction , although it remains true that it hardly ever leads in a good direction.

Of course, those in power also used to lie under Soviet-style "Really Existing Socialism". But hardly anyone believed them.

Enough already! Have a good week.

RedLogix said...


A fantastic thread. I've truly enjoyed (in a morbid fashion) the interplay of ideas here. I tend to agree, WW2 was the great event of the last 100 years, and shutting down all reference to it with mindless calls of "Godwinning" is a dangerous trend. All historical analogies can be misused as they can be equally instructive.

After all history does not so much repeat, as move in great spirals. Patterns of human behaviour play out over and again, albeit in differing contexts... so that while hsitory is rich in lessons to be learnt, I guess we still need the wisdom to know which ones are going to be applicable in our own lives.

Chris Trotter said...

You, too, Victor. And thank you for all of your thoughtful contributions to this thread.

Luke Hassall said...

Godwin be damned I'm always up for a good Nazi comparison.

Being these days an emigre, living in Philadelphia and not having much direct contact with politics in NZ, I do wonder about one thing. The crucial line that divided the reactionary conservatives and business oligarchs of 1930s Germany from Hitler was the latter's majoritarian populism. The traditional right in Germany made a bet that they could control Hitler and use him for their own ends, they bet wrong and more than a few of them ended up with bullets to the head.

Who in New Zealand though is likely to play the part of the Nazis themselves. Since Muldoon I generally feel the rabid right has been kept on a strong leash.

Your post is however a very poignant reminder that radical murderous ideologues rarely win power by the vote. Contrary to popular belief the NSDAP never won a majority in a fair election, over 60% of german voters opposed them even in 1932, likewise Mussolini never did well at all in italian elections and his march to rome could have been crushed by the army if they'd wanted to. Rather such horrid men come to power because of the machinations of arrogant oligarchs, themselves resistant to democracy for their own reasons and foolish enough to believe they can control the populists.

Chris Trotter said...

I quite agree, Luke.

Your take on the Nazis is pretty much my own.

My intuition regarding the current state of New Zealand politics is that the anti-democratic politics of the National-led Government (in which I include Key's deal with the neo-traditionalist tribal capitalists represented by Tariana Turia's Maori Party, along with Tim Groser's free-trade fanaticism) will ultimately engender the populist majoritarian response to which it will succumb.

It will, therefore, be Labour which is left with the task of corralling the populists. Will it succeed? I'm not sure. Labour and the populists may end up being one and the same.

In the meantime, however, National's poll ratings remain as stratospheric as ever. Reluctant though I am to admit it, the majoritarian populists of early-21st Century NZ may be the neoliberals themselves!

mike said...

Come on, Nazi-ism wasn't all down to skilful propaganda and political puppetry. Hitler and Mussolini did not get to power without extensive support from the petty bourgeoisie and dare I say it, the "working class". Fascism appealed, partly at least, because it promised a better standard of living and a way out of inflation/debt/war reparations. This is not so far from the line National and money interests are selling the Canterbury coup (more water access = more dairy farming = better economy/more jobs blah blah blah).

A follow-on question I take from this article is: how much are NZers willing to betray to keep dreaming their "aspirational" dreams?

Quite a lot, it would seem.

I put this down to a far more insidious "propoganda" than Goebbels ever dreamt up: the way our reality is now utterly defined by economy-think and economy-speak. We can hardly think outside the "money models" of society, nation, community and individual well-being.

Nick said...

I made a commnent and went away, great debate from Victor and Chris. The basis was that Victor had asked me to get some perspective on the difference between Hitler and todays corporatists. From my perspective whether Hitler, Mussolini, Franco et al were corporatist or not is to miss the point. All were supported by and could not have come to power without the forces of capital corporatism. I find these beasts are still alive and doing very well globally long after the demise of the afore mentioned gangsters. My point is that corporatists are more scary than rabid racist gangsters precisely because as the track record demonstrates they will nail their flag to whoever will best assist their maintenance of and furtherance of their interests.

What this means in practice is that the attendant crimes of a Hitler are aided and abbetted by corporate capital interests. It is a position bereft of morality. So to get a perspective, yes this psychotic movement and its adherents scare me far more than a mere gangster.

Victor said...

Nick, you make a fair point.

Ultimately, it's a subjective matter whether you are more scared by the gangsters or by the grey men who seek to profit from their crimes.

In my case, background and life experience make me infinitely more scared of the gangsters.

Also, the results of having gangsters running the joint tend to be far worse all round than when the grey men use some other filter or methodology.

I'd also add that not all gangsters have grey men in the wings. Even when they don't, I still find them scary.

Luke is quite right that they never come to power by the simple unalloyed workings of constitutional democracy. Certainly, I can't think of an example where they did.

But I can think of Fascists who succeeded for a time without the support of big money. Juan Peron, on whose career I am no expert, comes to mind.

And, dammit Luke, you make me feel like a party poop for objecting to Hitler analogies.

As RedLogix reminds us, how you use an analogy may be more pertinent than the analogy you use.

So no more 'Godwin', at least for now.

Chris Trotter said...

"Gangsters", in one form or another, are a crucial element in every apparatus of state control.

There are times when the State, in order to defend the interests of its principal beneficiaries, needs to step outside the rule of law altogether. At such times the existence of an organised criminal fraternity can be of immense assistance.

With no formal or traceable ties to state agencies, criminals can intimidate or eliminate the State's enemies and/or undertake activities in which - officially - it can have no part.

Just think of the Mafia in the US, or the Yakuza in Japan, and their manifold linkages with political parties, unions and state institutions.

In the absence of adequately organised criminals, the State has no option but to assemble its own - usually in the form of the less reputable and presentable elements of its security forces (think Nixon's G. Gordon Liddy!)

The UK, in particular, seems to have followed this path (just recall that wonderful TV series "Callan") in which working-class "hard men" are recruited first into the army and then into MI5 and MI6.

In the situations faced by Italian and German capital in the 1920s and 30s, however, the abrogation of legality required was on a scale well beyond the clandestine application of force. To defeat the threat posed to the State by a confident and aggressive working-class, the gangsters had to be brought out into the open.

Once the State embraces this expedient it can no longer expect to operate in isloation from the forces it has mobilised in its own defence. It becomes a criminal state, wherein the principles of rational administration are increasingly forced to give way to naked intimidation, overt corruption and deadly violence.

Like the Young Lady from Riga, the gray men cannot get off the tiger they have mounted.

In the words of the famous limmerick:

They returned from the ride
With the Lady inside
And a smile on the face of the tiger.

Victor said...


I think you've hit the nail on the head re: much of the rest of this thread, with the concept of the 'criminal state'.

Olwyn said...

Hannah Arendt on Eichmann(Eichmann in Jerusalem): "Eichmann was not Iago and not Macbeth, and nothing would have been further from his mind than to determine with Richard III "to prove a villain." Except for an extraordinary diligence in looking out for his personal advancement, he had no motives at all."

Chris Trotter said...

I have never found Eichmann's "banality" in the least bit surprising. In order to carry out such monstrous crimes one would need not only a complete lack of empathy, but absolutely no imagination. A bland, undemonstrative and bureaucratic temperament would - to my way of thinking - be the absolute pre-requisite for successfully implementing the "Final Solution".

Olwyn said...

My point in posting Arendt's remark was to point out how dangerous these seemingly bland characteristics can be, and the danger of valorising "practicality," and "getting things done" as if these instrumental properties were good in themselves, without reference to other values, what we are being practical about or what is getting done.

Chris Trotter said...

Ah, my mistake, Olwyn. You are, of course, quite correct. I remember David Lange's quote about the Treasury: "Like rust - they never sleep."