Saturday 16 April 2011

Mislaid Narratives

Black Riders, Dark Heroes: Roger Kerr, mouthpiece for the Neoliberal Nazgul of the Business Roundtable, deserves our admiration for his unceasing promotion of the capitalist narrative. Oh that the Left had such a fearsome ideological warrior.

WHAT CAN I SAY about Roger Kerr? Advised that the CEO of the Business Roundtable is the subject of The Nation’s investigative endeavours this Saturday (16 April) I’ve been wracking my brains (as one of The Nation’s panellists) for something intelligent to say, about the man.

Most Leftists wouldn’t bother. After Sir Roger Douglas, Roger Kerr is probably the most readily identifiable representative of the entire Rogernomics era. And his Business Roundtable, comprised of the CEOs of New Zealand’s leading businesses, plays the role of Tolkien’s Nazgul in The Lord of the Rings: the most potent instrument of an ancient evil men believed they had overcome but which has risen anew to plague this Middle Earth.

But even if Roger Kerr is regarded as a villain by the Left, he is – like most literary villains – a character who fascinates every bit as much as he repels.

When interviewed on television, and even more so in the flesh, his eyes are alive with what can only be described as merriment. On the occasions I have met him I could not help feeling that he had already anticipated every objection I could possibly muster to his line of argument and was quietly amused at their lack of force. Like a thoroughly prepped witness, he has a cogent and alarmingly persuasive response to any and every question his left-wing prosecutors might throw at him.

And it’s this imperviousness to cross-examination that sums up the real damage Roger Kerr and the Business Roundtable have done to political discourse in New Zealand. By treating the determination of national policy as a zero-sum game: a life-and-death struggle in which any neoliberal objective not won must be considered lost; Kerr and his big business backers have rendered open and intelligent debate impossible. Developing the military metaphor a little further, 21st Century political discourse resembles two armies firing bullets of a different calibre at each other. The enemy’s ammunition cannot be used in your weapons – and your own ammunition cannot be used in theirs.

The contrast between the neoliberal approach to managing the economy and society and the approach that prevailed from the end of World War II until the end of the 1970s could hardly be starker. The so-called “mixed economy” of the post-war era blended a great deal more than simply publicly- and privately-owned enterprises. By recognising that the workers’ and the bosses’ ideological narratives both contributed important insights to the processes of production, Keynesian economics encouraged a pluralism that drew all of the important “players” into the game.

For the thirty years between the end of World War II and the mid-1970s, the primary objective had not been to “win the game”, but to come up with solutions that were acceptable to as many of the players as possible. It was an approach which required a willingness to give as well as to take: which more or less mandated a search for consensus; and which gave great heed to empirical expertise.

The neoliberal paradigm, which Roger Kerr so effectively embodies, rejects the quest for consensus utterly and harnesses empiricism for purely instrumental ends. The utility of an argument lies not in how close it comes to reflecting the truth, but in how effective it is at undermining the arguments of those who threaten neoliberalism's objectives. For neoliberals, facts are like clubs – useful things for beating your opponents to death.

Nowhere is neoliberalism’s essential hostility to empiricism more overtly on display that in the so-called “debate” over climate change. Because accepting the empirical data of anthropogenic global warming would require neoliberalism to surrender a great many of its most cherished ideological assumptions about the ineluctable beneficence of capitalism, it has enlisted scores of compliant scientists to manufacture arguments sufficiently club-like to secure, if not outright victory, then at least a planet-endangering stalemate.

What should I say, then, about Roger Kerr? I guess I’d have to say that I admire him – but only in the way I admire the Wehrmacht or the Waffen-SS. When viewed as a ferociously well-organised, well-equipped and highly-motivated fighting force, Roger Kerr and the Business Roundtable – like the Wehrmacht and the Waffen-SS – evoke feelings of awe and fear. But asked to judge whether they constitute a contribution to, or a subtraction from, the sum total of human happiness, I'd have to say that the only good thing they have ever done is to expose the howling ideological void where a strong and competitive left-wing opposition should be.

A few days ago, in her magisterial summation of The Hobbit Dispute, Helen Kelly wrote persuasively about the extraordinary success of the neoliberal establishment in implanting a narrative highly beneficial to the interests of the employing class in the minds of the New Zealand population:

“Basically the story runs like this – and I am simplifying it. Work is a benefit, business is the benefactor and workers are merely the beneficiaries. Workers should be grateful for a job; a job is a privilege; employers should be lauded for the contribution they make to growing economic wealth.”

Kelly’s problem, as President of the CTU, and the problem facing the entire Left, is that they have yet to adjust to the fact that the employing class has walked away from the consensus-based politics of the Keynesian Era.

The Left’s current narrative is all about "co-operation" with the employers; bargaining in “good faith”; strengthening “social partnerships” and “building consensus”. What they have forgotten is that the historic compromise thrashed out between Capital and Labour in the aftermath of the Great Depression and the global war against fascism featured not only the old laissez-faire description of the master-servant relationship (which Kelly so accurately summarises above) but the classic Marxist description of the capitalist as the last in a long line of overlords who've unjustly appropriated the ‘surplus value’ created by working people’s labour.

This working-class narrative is summed-up neatly in the 1916 lyrics of Ralph Chaplin’s union anthem Solidarity Forever:

They have hoarded untold millions
That they never toiled to earn
But without our brain and muscle
Not a single wheel can turn

It’s a narrative that seizes the moral high ground for the worker and casts the employer as thief and parasite. The capitalists are a criminal class which is only able to preserve its expropriated wealth because it controls the police, courts, schools, news media, legislature and, when push finally comes to shove, the armed forces.

According to this story, the liberation of the working-class can only be achieved when the contradictory forces shaping and reshaping capitalist society finally resolve into a general, revolutionary crisis: when, in Marx’s ominously clanking sentences:

“Centralization of the means of production and socialization of labour at last reach a point where they become incompatible with their capitalist integument. Thus integument is burst asunder. The knell of capitalist private property sounds. The expropriators are expropriated.”

This is the narrative Helen Kelly and the Left generally have mislaid. The narrative which, right up until the 1980s, continued to haunt the capitalist imagination. The German poet, Heinrich Heine, writing in the 1840s described their nightmare like this:

“Communism is the secret name of the dread antagonist setting proletarian rule with all its consequences against the present bourgeois regime. It will be a frightful duel. How will it end? No one knows but gods and goddesses acquainted with the future. We know only this much: Communism, though little discussed now and loitering in hidden garrets on miserable straw pallets, is the dark hero destined for a great, if temporary, role in the modern tragedy …”

Roger Kerr – and all he represents – have persuaded themselves that the “Dark Hero’s” moment in the "modern tragedy" has come and gone. The task of Helen Kelly – and all who march on the Left – is to convince Roger and his friends that what they have so far witnessed is only the First Act.

This essay is exclusive to the Bowalley Road blogsite.


Anonymous said...

It is unfortunate that the only elements of the left that have maintained the - "narrative that seizes the moral high ground for the worker and casts the employer as thief and parasite" - are the 'radical' minority left parties.
I am constantly disappointed in the Labour party's unwillingness to propose polices that acknowledge the facts behind this narrative.
They are so depressingly middle class.

Anonymous said...

The left has Sue Bradford and Matt McCarten, If you set yourself the task of articulating an ecosocialist vision for Aotearoa, for the rebirth of labour in the age of ecologicial and economic crisis, I am sure you could do it.

Viva ecosocialism, and the death of neoliberalism. Hooton writes of the death of Act here: National has to answer to the crisis of our times, just more of the same: tax cuts for the rich, endless economic growth on a finite planet, and more inequality and ecological decline.

A vision for healthy communities, strong local economies and a world leadering green manufacturing sector, could see New Zealand become a leader in these times of peak oil and climate change, rather than 19th century dinosaur.. chasing Gerry Brownlee's fools gold. English wants low wages, Brownlee wants low/no environmental protection of investment in clean energy, and Key wants to sell everything we own.

A counter vision is needed. A new vision and real leadership.

Anonymous said...

The real crisis of this earth is not climate change but capitalism. It is something neoliberalism has no answer too. The challenge of the left is to have a green left answer to capitalism, peak oil and resource depletion. A climate and environmental justice approach to build a low carbon economy that is socially just. National is unable to break itself from neoliberal dogma.

It is time for the green left to arise.

Anonymous said...


If Kerr has a good response to "every objection I could possibly muster to his line of argument", then perhaps you should do the decent thing and become a neoliberal.

Of course he doesn't. Like the rest of NZ's "neoliberal establishment" Kerr is a religious fanatic, not an intellectual. At root, neoliberalism relies on the idea that, if everyone acts according to their own interests, then everyone will be better off, since everyone will be more likely to get what they want than if someone else acted on their behalf. As you will no doubt have heard many people ask: "Why should the government make people pay for things when they could just pay for the things they wanted themselves?"

New Zealand's left wing commentators are united in their seeming inability to counter this argument, even though it is child's play to refute, since it simply isn't true that free self interested action will in all cases secure what people want. In many cases we have to be compelled to do things that are in the end in our own interests to do, but which we would not do if left to ourselves.

So why do the neoliberals keep winning the argument? The reason is that both left and right in our society consider it taboo to suggest that individuals ought to be forced to do things by others for their own good. Both have adopted the hyper individualism of the 1960s, which is the governing moral conception of our society.

All that left wing critics have left are moral arguments, and the same hyper individualism renders these next to useless, since each individual is supposed to be the determiner of their own values.

When the left get around to attempting to persuade the public that freedom and individualism are in many respects bad things which are destructive of human welfare, then they'll be on the road to doing something effective. Until that time, they are nothing more than a bunch of waffling hippies.

Anonymous said...

Kerr for one doesn't believe in Peak oil, he is also a climate denier. I suggest you sharpen up your argument skills Chris, or better yet -

I suggest there be a follow up to the uni debate that was held, and a new one of green Capitalism vs Eco Socialism be held. Where dinosaurs like Kerr can be really challenged.

Anonymous said...

"The left has Sue Bradford and Matt McCarten"

Correction, the left has only Sue Bradford.

Victor said...


Spot on!

Anonymous said...

An interesting essay (“Didn’t they notice?”) in the current London Review of Books considers how the Left mislaid its narratives. Focussing to begin with on the phenomenon of tax havens,

David Runciman writes “Since 1974, the share of national income of the top 0.1 per cent of Americans has grown from 2.7 to 12.3 per cent of the total, a truly mind-boggling level of redistribution from the have-nots to the haves.”

Runciman asks: “What happened to the representatives of all those people who don’t have lots of money to move around, who can’t relocate even if they wanted to, and who have an interest in a fair, open and broadly progressive tax system? Didn’t they notice what was going on?

He suggests that “Politics is responsible for this... It happened because law-makers and public officials allowed it to happen, not because international markets, or globalisation, or differentials in education or life-chances made it inevitable. It was a choice, driven by the pressure of lobbyists and other organisations to create an environment much more hospitable to the needs of the very rich. It was even so a particular kind of politics and a particular kind of choice. It wasn’t a conspiracy, because it happened in the open. But nor was it an explicit political movement, characterised by rallies, speeches and electoral triumphs. It relied in large part on ... a process of drift: ‘systematic, prolonged failures of government to respond to the shifting realities of a dynamic economy’.”

“The best hope is that eventually the public might wake up to what is going on and join in. But that will take time. ... ‘Political reformers will need to mobilise for the long haul.’”

For Runciman’s full essay see

Mark Wilson said...

Chris, great argument but there is a better one on its way.
What do the left do when the hated capitalists and entrepreneurs no longer need the left's labour?
Machines are replacing labour at an increasing rate. Look at the advance in military and related technology. And who needs to grow food when you can manipulate molecules to manufacture it from any material?
The lefts only choice will be to kill us all and my money is on the thinkers on the right will anticipate that.
How do you stop the creation of a meritocracy then?
The left are doomed - sorry about that.

Anonymous said...

A really interesting essay, though not in regard to Kerr himself. Why take him seriously in regard to debate when he isn't actually prepared to concede anything, i.e. he literally thinks that there is no politics in imposing his solutions for policymaking. This is a nonsense, unless this is taken to the logical conclusion, that being that democracy is also inefficient and should be ignored. He probably thinks that only blokes with property should be able to vote, if it is necessary at all.

The corporate media should never have given him the open platform that they have, but Kerr is really only representing the 'money power', or whatever you want to call it. At best he was a technocrat who was able to work his way around organisations like Treasury and help to create networks with other large players. Focussing on economic theories/ideologies I don't think is very useful in regard to Kerr, other than to point out he is a zealot, in comparison to the power of large organisations with PR budgets. Remember how easy it was for him to facilitate the 'brain drain' discourse, and how the 'mainstream' media just bought into it. Kerr simply isn't compelling enough as a speaker to sway anyone outside the media landscape to his arguments, nor did he need to.

So in ideological terms the Left were never on the same playing field as the right wing technocrats, and the media never had any reason to take them seriously given the lack of power of their organisation; or simply the lack of any organised opposition. Given how easy it was for Goff an co. to be co-opted in the 1980s, and side with the corporate elites, it is still necessary to start all over again. Helen Kelly might be a good leader in other circumstances, but her predecessors presided over the decimation of organised labour without putting up a fight. There are small battles taking place all time, most recently about oil drilling by a Brazilian multinational, but the labour movement has proved too compliant to mobilise radical action and a range of activists.

Anonymous said...

Roger Kerr like Graham Scott was fundamentally a mathematical economist and narrow efficiency expert.An extremist, massively hostile to public transport dedicated to closing down the state and civilisation. He and his part mates Deborah Coddington and Simon Carr seemed to think the highest level of self reliance and allowable pleasure and cooperation is achieved by the average Hawkes Bay cow cockie.Essentially they believe New Zealand society should be reduced to level of Kansas or Iowa and only private interests and wifes of rich men are allowed to be sophisticated and to vote. Comparing Roger to the SS and its precedesors is an insult to the SS and their Jagger predecessors. Getting rid of Karl Liebenect and Rosa Luxemborg in l919 may have been the greatest contribution made to western social democracy in the 20C. Heydrich and Katelbrunner's number one priority was to eliminate the key supporters of German and western European communism. There massive success in this venture may have made post war democracy possible in Germany, Holland, France and Austria.The post war German model and even its legal system is fundamentally a continuation of the Nazi model and law rather than that of Weimar.

Robert Winter said...

I think that you give him too much intellectual credit - it's his armour and his weakness as a person. His is an arrogance of certainty, a Jesuitical quality of faith that would, presumably go to the fire in support of his truth. His day was in the 1980s and 1990s. I watch with interest as people try to renovate his career. In his own terms, he failed in in his first mission - there were too many cups of tea and Helen Clarks to obstruct his message. He is yesterday's man. More worrying would be a modern version who had contemporary leverage, but, tellingly, that person has not emerged. I think he's best left to retiremnet and pastures in which he can fulminate to his heart's content.

Pilgrim. said...

That photo caption is a little gem.
A minor writing award is on its way.