Friday 11 April 2014

Poster Boy

Mixed Message: The potency of this poster from the Toothfish agitprop collective lies in its symbolic confusion. At first glance it appears to be an example of Nazi Party propaganda from the 1930s, only upon closer inspection do we understand that the image is a comment about National and Neoliberalism - not Nazism. Ironically, the Nazis were fierce critics of laissez-faire capitalism, an historical detail that further complicates the image.

THE POWER OF ART and its uncanny ability to evade the censors of our conscious mind is never more obvious than when it gate-crashes party politics. Poster art, in particular, possesses a special potency. In 1981, the year of the infamous Springbok Tour, the number of households in which the “It’s pronounced Apart-Hate.” poster could be found, proudly displayed, was astounding. Hard on the anti-apartheid movement’s heels came Nuclear-Free New Zealand posters. These were, if possible, even more ubiquitous.
Since the mid-80s, however, there’s been a dearth of truly great political posters. The West’s wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, unlike the United States’ involvement in Vietnam, passed us by without leaving very much in the way of enduring cultural markers. Certainly, the first few years of the twenty-first century have produced nothing to match the powerful posters of the twentieth.
Neoliberalism, and its cultural corollary, post-modernism, have created too arid an environment for genuinely affective posters. The collective passions from which political art draws its energy have long-since collapsed into a desiccated individualism out of which almost nothing grows with sufficient strength to prick our consciences.
Until now.
For John Key, April is indeed the cruellest month, because the poster which began appearing on Wellington streets a few days ago cannot be easy for the son of a Jewish refugee from Nazi barbarity to bear.
At first glance it appears to be an example of Nazi Party propaganda from the 1930s. The dominant colours are the red, white and black of the swastika flag, and its human subject is decked out in the uniform of a Nazi stormtrooper. On closer inspection, however, we discover that the symbol in the centre of the circle is not a swastika but a dollar sign. The monetary symbol is repeated on the stormtrooper’s armband and a red dollar sign is pinned to his chest. The stormtrooper himself is, quite clearly, the National Party leader, John Key.
What impresses about this poster is its painterly qualities. Not for its creator the easy cut-and-paste of computer-generated graphic art. This is not a photo-shopped version of John Key but a striking portrait executed in gouache on a matte board. More than anything else, it is this painterliness that tricks our eyes into believing we are looking at something from the 1930s.
The work of an anonymous, environmentally-driven political collective calling itself “Toothfish”, the poster’s purpose is set forth on the outfit’s website:
“Let's be clear - the poster is talking about capitalism, control and the increasing privatization of government. The image suggests that the naked pursuit of money is akin to an extremist doctrine. One in which human lives and the environment are being sacrificed on the altar of expediency for the profit of our ruling elites.
“The poster is NOT saying John Key is a Nazi.”
This latter disclaimer strikes me as just a little disingenuous. The poster only works because our eye processes its message much faster than our mind is able to decode its content. And what our eye sees is John Key dressed as a Nazi.
In an unintended way, the artist’s resort to the iconography of Nazism is also a statement about the enormous difficulty in visually discussing the totalitarian nature of the neoliberal ideology.
The all-encompassing ambition of Neoliberalism marches under no banners, wears no symbols, swears fealty to no fuehrer, and needs no uniformed militia to enforce its will. Like Yahweh and Allah, the neoliberal deity forebears to be represented by anything other than words and numbers. Also like them, Neoliberalism is a jealous god who suffers no rivals. How does one represent in poster form an ideology that makes a desert – and calls it prosperity?
The poster’s final irony is that the Nazis, far from being its kindred spirits, would have fought Neoliberalism with as much vigour as the Toothfish collective. By this reading, John Key emerges not as the dollar sign’s political avatar, but in the uniform of one of its most aggressive historical opponents.
This essay was originally published in The Dominion Post, The Waikato Times, The Taranaki Daily News, The Timaru Herald, The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 11 April 2014.


Anonymous said...

Gauleiter Key is the provincial governor for New Zealand of the NeoLiberal fascist surveillance war state known as the U$.The marriage of Corporatism and Government is facism ( Benito Mussolini ).The U$ state has committed war crimes equivalent to the nazis e.g. the invasion of Iraq and the ruination of that ancient civilisation. Currently the useless eaters in the NeoLiberal empire are being reduced to serf status: 50 million on food stamps in the U$ and that benefit is being attacked. Other puppets of the Empire are attacking entitlememnt to a survival income for the unemployed as in the U$K. The desire of the peopel for publically held vtal assets is treated with utmost contempt with privatisation. Inequality is now extreme. The fascist Empire and its west europe puppets are plotting to castrate russian power in its own backyard in the Ukaine with a putsch that overthrew a democratically elected government.The Empire and gauleter Key do not believe in true democracy but merely its sham.

fambo said...

I don't know that a poster like this would really be effective. It just galvanises Key's supporters who will feel he is being unfairly targeted in a nasty way. I think for the sake of democracy one should maintain a certain amount of respect, if not for the personality, at least for the position.

Barry said...

Interesting. I could have sworn that in the circle behind Keys head was a swastika. It wasnt until I was half way thru the item where mention of dollar signs are that made me go back and check - and sure enough thats what it was - a dollar sign.

The mind plays tricks.......Maybe thats whats happening when I see pictures of Cunliffe - I see a picture of a Conniving lying guy who certainly doesn’t mean what he is saying. Its all in the image......

Jigsaw said...

A pretty nasty idea and hardly deserving of any comment - disgust is the immediate reaction
Like fambo I consider and indeed I hope that it will be counter productive.

Guerilla Surgeon said...

I'm sure Key would consider this offensive. And it might be. But it does show some passion – something sadly lacking in New Zealand politics these days. And I'd sooner have passion than cynicism. Probably just as well it was done by some small relatively unknown group rather than a major political party though :-).

Anonymous said...

It is not without irony, that Adolf Hitler and the Nazis learned about how to effectively communicate and get their messages across, from the US American advertising industry in the 1920s.

And it is not without irony, that the very same capitalist serving, US American advertising industry took note and learned themselves again, from what the Nazis did, by even improving the seductive, cunning and manipulating techniques to influence the human masses.

Both seemed to fit hand in glove, so to say, and we have the end result of these combined efforts of political and commercial propaganda experts "serve" us in these very days, with the endless commercial advertising inundation we get hammered with almost 24/7.

I am sure, that while John Key will have nothing in common with what the Nazis stood for in regards to political and ethnically focused ambitions. But he is one near perfect "fighter" and representative of the capitalist and commercial "attack and conquer brigades" that these days rule the world with an invisible iron fist.

No matter how much the left and others try to fight capitalist dominance and exploitation, they lack the financial and other means to successfully do so. And Key and this present government have shifted the "balance" yet more towards the right, so that any reversal looks increasingly impossible. The owners and controllers of capital, and that is especially the large multinational corporations, and the medium to large business lobby groups, have the ultimate power, and they use it in the media, in political "sponsoring" of parties and candidates, and for buying any skilled, potential, vocal leader of a valid, serious opposition.

Hence we make no progress, as the bulk of people rather follow and adapt, even if it is just for their own individual survival.

This portrait may appear distasteful for some, but it says a lot, a lot more than most will understand.

Richard Christie said...

I saw far worse depictions of Helen Clark, using fully accurate swastika symbols plastered over RWNJ websites throughout much of her time in office.

Sadly, it seems to come with the job.

Kat said...

Confronted by the truth can be overwhelming and life changing.

peterpeasant said...

A very clever piece of art work. Given the above comments a very successful one as well.

The Nats have always been keen on "strong leadership".

The mighty dollar is what Nats adore above all else.

Lorindorer and boot camps are staples in the Nat cosmology.

The parallel universe glimpsed in this poster is bound to make them uneasy, querulous and bitchy.

It also gives food for thought for those who do not question centralised power and the belief systems that underpin that power base.

Given Key's Wall St background this poster is brilliant.

Kat said...


Yes, but not when National are in govt.

Jesus Wept said...

Beautiful. Drag it to yr desktop, send it to your friends. The painting way trumps your response though Chris. You write something slightly overblown but usually pertinent and then almost every time undercut yourself and us at the end. It's not helping us mate.

Chris Trotter said...

I think when it comes to things "slightly overblown" Jesus Wept, portraying John Key as a storm-trooper is very far from pertinent and undercuts whatever credibility you may have wished to claim.

It is a great painting though.

Guerilla Surgeon said...

Richard is correct about the Helen Clark thing. But then the right have always been better propaganda, and more willing to use the distasteful. Remember the dancing Cossacks? And you've only got to look at some of the stuff that circulates in the United States about Obama. Sometimes deniable but often forwarded by supposedly respectable politicians. I guess that's the beauty of the Internet.

Guerilla Surgeon said...


TM said...

I find the image amusing and offensive. But I also view it like an extreme comment on a blog site - those people who sympathise think it's great, those who hold an opposite view think it's a heinous crime, and neutrals find it distasteful and a poor reflection on who authored it.

In a democracy like NZ, the centrist swaying voters have a big say in who is in power, and this poster will not have helped the left's cause.

It is the difference between cleverly complaining about the government and actually getting in power and making a difference.

Victor said...

The term Corporate State tends these days to be used lazily to describe diametrically opposed phenomena.

The Italian Fascist notion of a Corporate State was largely just ideological window dressing for the extemporised dictatorship that emerged after Mussolini's "March on Rome" (he actually arrived by train ....but who cares?)

To the very limited extent that this confused formulation had any real meaning, it was of a state in which "Corporations" in a traditional European sense(viz. industry, professional bodies, charitable institutions, youth organisations, state-sponsored workers organisations etc.)were brought together in a state -directed unity of purpose.

In theory, they were also meant to be represented in government, thus replacing the notion of the representation of sovereign individuals, as posited by liberalism in its various forms.

Ultimately, under Fascist Corporatism, the state told the corporations what to do. Moreover, the corporations were required to allow themselves to be taken over by the ethos of state-directed nationalism, authoritarianism and leader worship.

The Nazi concept of "Gleichshaltung" was not dissimilar but, of course, also involved a strongly pseudo-Darwinian racism.

Neo-liberalism, by contrast, has emerged in a world in which the term "Corporation" is used in its restricted American sense, viz. as a synonym for a large-scale business enterprise.

Instead of the nationalist, authoritarian state, it preaches a world without effective borders and in which society consists of nothing but atomised individuals, notionally sovereign but subject to the full (and often destructive) rigour of market forces.

Under neo-liberal corporatism, the corporates tell the state what to do. Moreover, the market ethos is expected to become dominant in every part of life, including the administration of the state.

Obviously, both of these contrasting sets of ideas can lead to catastrophe. And they do have a limited functional similarity in both shoring up the interests of the already powerful.

But very little is achieved by confounding them. And, certainly, nothing is achieved by likening John Key to the leader of a regime that destroyed part of his family and drove his mother into exile.

Crude insensitivity may be OK if its apposite. But if it isn't, it's just tasteless, unpleasant and a bit tacky. And I write as no fan of John Key.

jh said...

The poster is a back handed tribute to John Key: like using a nuclear weapon.

jh said...

The Toothfish collective, formerly The Pimply Youth League.

Guerilla Surgeon said...

You have me until the 2nd to last paragraph Victor. It's political satire, we give them fool's licence and quite rightly so. We just have to live with this because the alternative is worse.

Incidentally everyone, this is really interesting.

Guerilla Surgeon said...

"The Toothfish collective, formerly The Pimply Youth League."

As opposed to the young gnats? :-)

Anonymous said...

T once had to give a speech and toast to a large table of Russian businessmen. Knowing the slavic propensity towards self deprecating black humour I launched into a joke that included prison camp reference.

It bombed. Really bombed, it was like looking at Mt Rushmore, stone faces everywhere.

Later one of them got me aside and very kindly threw light on my ignorance. He told me everyone in Russia knew of someone in the camps that loss and grief was the same in any culture. I was ashamed.

Doing John Key up as Hitler is just as cheap a shot. I haven't seen his family tree, but I would bet there are some real gaps in the branches a couple of generations back.


Victor said...


"It's political satire, we give them fool's licence and quite rightly so. We just have to live with this because the alternative is worse."

I agree with you. Licensed fools are entitled to their foolishness. Similarly, I'm entitled to dislike the result.

I'm certainly not suggesting they should be prosecuted or subjected to censorship.

Trotsky said...

Chris, I spent 3 years doing an economics/econ history/maths degree, read widely - from post keynesian and neo austrian heterodoxy through to the orthodox new keynesian/newclassical orthodoxy and never once did I encounter the word neoliberal. Only since leaving uni and only from the lips of economically illiterate leftists who yern for the good old days and dont seem to have any reasonable ideas on how to get there. It cant be a committment to free trade as we had that with the gatt back in the good old days, it cant be balanced budgets as helen clarke ran them, it cant be a committment to low inflation as aside from the seventies we have never had inflation, our unemployment is the lowest in the world and is falling fast. Chris you use the word neoliberal with such regularity - can you please give me a quick summary on what it is and just why the current government (which looks to and economic literate as almost indistinguishable from the the one before) should qualify as being neoliberal.

Chris Trotter said...

Alastair, just Google the word for a host of perfectly adequate definitions. Then enter the word into Amazon's search engine and take note of the number of titles.

This Far Right insistence that the word Neoliberalism is only found on "the lips of economically illiterate leftists" is nothing more than the defensive response of an ideological clique whose fundamental philosophical tenets and political and economic objectives have been exhaustively analysed and thoroughly exposed.

Since 1984 both of NZ's major political parties' policies have conformed to the neoliberal paradigm - most aggressively under Roger Douglas and Ruth Richardson, more moderately under Michael Cullen and Bill English.

Neoliberalism's capture and domination of the key policy-making centres of the Western states in the late-70s and 80s was every bit as complete as Keynesianism's ideological hegemony between the late-30s and the mid-70s.

And, fear not, it will undoubtedly suffer the same fate as its defunct predecessor the moment the next big ideological shift occurs.

Victor said...


Thanks for directing my gaze to the Guardian piece on Piketty.

Victor said...

Alistair Young

It's probably no great surprise that the term neo-liberalism was absent from your courses on economics and economic history.

It's not an economic doctrine per se but a broader ideology or 'Weltanschauung' (internally coherent world view).

The economic dogmas in fashion over the last (say) 40 years have certainly contributed to the prevalence of this world view but are neither its sole cause nor codeterminous with it.

Perhaps you now need to take courses in intellectual, cultural and social history to round out your education.

BTW I've just finished reading David Priestland's "Merchant, Soldier, Sage". It might prove a good (and enjoyable) place to start.

Unknown said...

Hi Christ, Good to read critique of visual images anywhere and anytime. That said you mention the lack of memorable posters since the 1980's, but one springs to mind immediately, the. iRaq poster parody of the iPod were genius.

alex said...

Whoever made this poster is a good painter, but creatively and politically a complete hack. I say this as someone who has no love for Key - this poster does absolutely nothing worthwhile and is utterly lazy as a metaphor. The sooner the idiot who made it takes it down the better, in fact it would have been far better for his cause had it never been made at all.

Davo Stevens said...

For Victor; It was Hungary who started "Fascism" after WW I. Mussolini was a journalist in Budapest and he copied it and developed it into the Govt. of Italy. Hungary got rid of it in 1923.

Since the 1980's the Neo-cons have been steadily moving the western democracies to a one-party (Conservative) state situation. It is apparent in the US notably. There is very little difference between Bams and Geewee. Just the same as there is little difference between John Key and the previous Clark Govt. The differences are purely cosmetic. The Neo-cons are setting up what looks on the surface as two separate parties but are joined at the hip and the shoulder. Gives the population the illusion of "Choice"!

Guerilla Surgeon said...

Victor, you're welcome. If you thought that was interesting you might like this.

Anonymous said...

Could have been made slightly less offensive and therefore more effective by using blue instead of red.

Victor said...

Um er, Davo, I'm not sure why you think that Hungary had got rid of Fascism by 1923.

True, the Horthy regime was more conservative authoritarian than Fascist. But it was succeeded in 1944 by the Nazi-style Arrow Cross administration. And, of course, the neo-Fascist Jobbik party is currently riding high in the polls.

Similarly, I'm not sure what your evidence is for Mussolini having been in Hungary after World War One. I've read a number of biographies of him down the years and my impression has always been that he was fully occupied editing his newspaper and creating mayhem across Italy during those years. I doubt whether he'd have had much time for foreign travel.

The ideological tastes of some of the perpetrators of Hungary's White Terror after 1919, certainly had some similarities with Fascism.

But this would also have been true of the ideas of many other right wing militants across Europe, including, perhaps most notably, the German Freikorps, which subsequently proved a fertile recruiting ground for the Nazi SA.

And, by the way, Mussolini first formed his Fascist movement as far back as 1914, when he quit the Socialist party in order to advocate for Italy's participation in the war on the allied side.

The movement's ideology wasn't yet fully formed but it was already there in embryo.