Saturday 21 June 2014

Progressive Politics Is Not A Game: Chris Trotter Responds To Rob Salmond

The Prize: The Labour Party of Savage, Fraser and Nash, Nordmeyer, Kirk and Rowling did not need to master the dark arts of smearing their opponents. They did battle with the National Party on the sunlit field of policy.

“ALL THE WORLD’S A STAGE” says Shakespeare in As You Like It, “and all the men and women merely players”. Life as a play: as the mischievous scribblings of some amoral dramaturgical deity; is a metaphor as old as the theatre itself.
Closely related, and just as old, is the metaphor of life as a game. Taken as a whole, or broken up into its most vivid elements, the human experience is reduced to something as artificial and essentially meaningless as the turn of a card, the muscular efficiency of a horse or the physics of a rolling pair of dice.
What lies behind both of these metaphors is the desperate need of those who make use of them to empty their personal conduct of all moral agency. Actors do not write the lines they are obliged to read, nor do they control the way their scenes unfold. The shape of the plot is somebody else’s responsibility – not theirs. It’s much the same for game players. They didn’t make the rules, but having opted to play the game they’re obliged to follow them. “Love ‘em or hate ‘em,” say the players, “the rules are the rules.” Or, in the words of a recent blog posting: “The game is the game.”
The “game” referred to in that posting is the “game” of politics and its author, Rob Salmond, is commenting on the skill (or lack of it) displayed by the National Party in its attempted smearing of David Cunliffe.
“National certainly knew about it well before anyone else, and were gloating about it on online forums over the past weekend. I’m betting National also had a hand in cajoling reporters to ask very particular questions of Cunliffe just hours before the incriminating OIA would be released.
“And, to be blunt, there’s nothing really wrong with that.”
And right there – in Salmond’s bland sentence – lies the source of all Labour’s woe.
Implicit in Salmond’s exoneration of National is the notion that politics is a game in which deception, entrapment and public humiliation are all well within the rules. A game for players without scruple or regret. Players to be judged not according to any moral code, but simply according to how adroitly they wield the officially sanctioned weapons of the game.
Salmond admits as much when he upbraids National for bungling the job:
“If you are going to orchestrate a smear against your opponent, but hope to fade into the background while the smear unfolds, it really pays to have your cover-up stories straight.”
He then goes on to gloat about how much better Labour is at smearing its opponents:
“Did you ever hear about Labour’s role in forcing [redacted] of the [redacted] party to resign back in [redacted]? No, I bet you didn’t.”
Presumably Salmond expects his readers to offer up a professional chuckle at this little gem. In much the same way that a Mafia hit-man would acknowledge a fellow assassin’s description of how he dispatched his latest victim. After all, when “the game is the game” there’s simply no room for the squeamish. Indeed, Salmond and his fellow professionals have a name for those who feel nauseated by such behaviour. They call them ‘losers’.
The real loser, of course, is the noble calling of progressive politics. The sort of politics that Labour’s Mickey Savage, eighty years ago, was quite unembarrassed to describe as “applied Christianity”. Unembarrassed, because Savage wasn’t a “professional” politician in any sense that Salmond might recognise. Born into poverty, largely self-educated, quietly spoken and diminutive of stature, Savage did not conceive of politics as a “game”. For him it was the only means by which ordinary, decent working people could secure the prerequisites of an abundant life for themselves and their children.
The Labour Party of Savage, Fraser and Nash, Nordmeyer, Kirk and Rowling did not need to master the dark arts of smearing their opponents. They did battle with the National Party on the sunlit field of policy. The only thing their conservative opponents were “forced” to do was to tell the voters why Labour’s policies of social uplift and collective progress could not possibly be implemented. The basements and back alleys of deception and entrapment remained the natural environment of blackmailers and pimps: the immoral milieu into which such criminal elements have always faded.
But that all changed in the 1980s when Labour’s caucus embraced the politics of “professional” neoliberal governance and abandoned the New Zealand working-class to its fate. It was then that the practice of progressive democratic politics ceased to be the open-ended process of collective emancipation that it had been from the 30s to the 70s. With both Labour and National now irreversibly committed to upholding the rules of neoliberalism, politics ceased to be about turning progressive and emancipatory ideas into reality, and became instead a contest designed to identify which team of politicians was most adept at playing the neoliberal game.
And what else but the skills of deception, entrapment and public humiliation would such politicians seek to master? When “the game is the game” what can politics be apart from an unceasing effort to beset and belittle the men and women of the opposing teams? An endless conspiracy to make your opponents look like losers.
This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Friday, 20 June 2014.


Guerilla Surgeon said...

There seems to have developed all over the Western world, a breed of "professional" politicians, who are far removed from ordinary people if not business people, and who have developed an extreme sense of entitlement. I notice there was an article in the Guardian the other day explaining that most of the Labour candidate seem to be party functionaries of one sort or another, rather than actual working people. A sad shadow of what Labour used to be.

Jigsaw said...

That's exactly why the current Labour Party can't attract the 'working people' any more-what an earth do the candidates of today have in common with them? It always ruins an argument to raise the ghost of Mickey Savage again-the world is totally different and it smacks of total desperation. When I think of the Labour candidates of past years that I heard-many were hopeless speakers and pretty hopeless otherwise as well. I recall Bob McFarlane talking to a group of teenagers in 1960-we thought him a
relic of the past in those days-a man with few ideas.

TM said...

Exactly, politicians should be judged on what benefit they bring to the country, not at how good they are at skullduggery. People like Mr Salmond and Mr Slater should be reminded of this.

Chris Trotter said...

Jigsaw. Would you have National judged by its least prepossessing candidate? I think not.

Michael Joseph Savage remains as relevant today as he was 80 years ago when he led Labour to not only its greatest victory, but to the greatest election victory in New Zealand's history.

Labour's 55 percent of the 1938 popular vote has never been equalled.

It is, therefore, entirely appropriate to ask: How did he do it? What made New Zealanders respond to a political party's message so enthusiastically?

Answer those questions and you have the recipe for victory in 2014.

Guerilla Surgeon said...

In a hurry :-)

Brendan McNeill said...

“It is, therefore, entirely appropriate to ask: How did he do it? What made New Zealanders respond to a political party's message so enthusiastically?”

We were still experiencing ‘the great depression’ there was still the wide spread belief that socialism was a respectable, even a ‘Christian’ political solution.

It is almost impossible to understand the political climate and motivations of the time from this distance.

Either way, we know a good deal more about socialism now. While one can perhaps respect its idealism, its failure to fully account for the dynamics of human nature means it inevitably drifts towards totalitarianism, even down to regulating the smallest of human freedoms.

State mandated showerheads and light bulbs anyone?

A political party that in recent memory even considered such impositions doesn’t deserve any more than 20% support even if it had the most capable of candidates, and it clearly doesn’t.

When selecting candidates it is entirely in its nature to impose a gender quota based selection criteria where competency and experience come a distant second. That might be appropriate for governing the local knitting circle, but a first world economy?

No, Labour deserves to languish in the polls. They are a party determined to major on minors and most of the public grasp this.

Fix these issues and you may become electable again. But what chance of that do you think?

Davo Stevens said...

"Either way, we know a good deal more about socialism now. While one can perhaps respect its idealism, its failure to fully account for the dynamics of human nature means it inevitably drifts towards totalitarianism, even down to regulating the smallest of human freedoms."
And Capitalism is better Brendan? How? Trickle down that doesn't trickle down? Making the wealthy even more so at the expense of everyone else?

No, Socialism works by sharing the productivity of a country with everyone not just a select few. I have no problem paying taxes to assist others who are worse off than me. Or those who find themselves out of work or grossly underpaid for the work and costs that they incur just living.

I object strongly having my tax money going to line the pockets of business people because they are too stingy to pay their workers properly. If you can't pay them properly, don't employ them and do the bloody work yourself.

Guerilla Surgeon said...

I see Brendan is back on form :-). While socialism might not account for all aspects of human behaviour Brendan, capitalism gives in to its worst. I guarantee, you were one of those who kept writing to the paper years ago bitching that "the top 3 jobs in this country are all held by women." :-) Are you saying there was a quota for them? Were they in fact incompetent? I don't remember even Helen Clark's worst enemies saying she was incompetent. Many calumnies from those who resented a woman being in charge, but that certainly wasn't one of them :-).

Jigsaw said...

I wouldn't have political party judged by it's weakest candidate but this man (Bob McFarlane) was I think in the Labour cabinet and was certainly the speaker of the house. Labour did it in 1935 because of the circumstances of the day which haven't been repeated since. It's impossible to compare the depression of the 1930's and the way that it was handled in NZ with any circumstances since then and especially today. Michael Joseph Savage is a part of our history-not some sort of blueprint for the future. People responded to the Labour Party message in 1935 because the people standing for Labour were not all that different from themselves (and the opposition had run out of workable ideas) - David Cunnliffe is hardly that!

Victor said...


I would like to think you're correct but I'm far from sure.

We live in an age of rapidly changing computer technology, information overload, restricted attention spans and a media-encouraged cult of triviality, narcissism and celebrity worship.

In addition, our personal and family lives are increasingly atomised, whilst our erstwhile robust social fabric is virtually in tatters.

It's as different to the radio, newspaper and public meeting dominated world of 1935 as that world was to the political realm of, say, 1860.

CarbonGuilty said...

Chris I don’t follow your constant reference to what you call 'neo-liberalism'. Although I do not follow what it is, I suspect it’s irrelevant to Labour’s woes. Those have nothing to do with ideologies, policies or ‘the game of politics’. The fault lies with character. Labour currently lacks people of the needed character. Instead it has too many what to me seem imposters. Fakes. People no good for anything, especially your Party.
It started in the late '70s with Labour being infiltrated by university graduates who had pol science, history, psychology and other semi useless degrees, thinking they knew better than real working folk what is good for them. But these BA armed lot are really only semi educated people, and they lack any insight into the real needs and desires of ordinary folk. They were student unionists not real unionists. Clark a perfect example. Never would they take real jobs though, as from the start these people aim for high paid secure careers on the public tit. Security, for themselves is high on their agenda, not bravery or passion. Wellington is filthy with them. Of course they never live among or have anything to do with workers, people they just regard as Labour vote fodder. They only invest in houses, never in businesses employing workers. They understand neither the working class nor the business people who create jobs and wealth so they do neither sector any good if elected to office. Their only ambition is to keep their high paid jobs or elected position. When in power, of course they are just a sort of ‘National-lite’ because they are just time servers, not reformers. The last nine year Labour gov was exactly that. Nine years of prosperity and what did they do? Expand the class of people in Wellington like them. Fortunately Key & co have sacked a good 25% of those in the last few years.
National may be a bunch of narrow minded business types and hard nosed farmers but outside politics they are real people with real jobs, not the posers infesting your Labour Party. As a Tory I would rather be governed by unionists & revolutionaries than the semi-smart arses Cunliff and co typify.

Brendon Harre said...

Read these links carefully and you will see why policy, ideas, working peoples needs, socialism and the Labour government is as relevant today as it was 80 years ago.

Scouser said...

I do have a sense of irony that Cunliffe is now on the receiving end of the very personal vs policy approach you rail against, incessantly doled out by Labour. There's no denying that it's a feature of all in the political spectrum but it's been so over egged by Labour recently that there's almost a poetic justice of him falling foul of his own party's tactics.

No sensible person really thinks he did anything wrong (naive or dubious at worst) in the letter he wrote but similarly no sensible person believed that National are the devil worshipping, baby sacrificing, in the pockets of anyone with a $ of Chinese descent etc politicians Labour would have us believe.

I'm distressed how little of the policies of the political parties is known by every day people regardless of their background. Their political affiliation being a result of some vague amalgam of feelings around trust, right direction and other non specifics.

The further irony is that attack and personality politics turns off voters, the incessant complaining against absolutely everything the government does is seen almost as whining and nagging, the whole sermon from the mount approach of the Greens is just plain irritating to many and there are plenty who see National as smug with a trust us she'll be alright manner.

As you say, where are the policies in all this? Where is there any reasonable analysis from the media?

David 'hoist by his own petard' Cunliffe might yet benefit from this if Labour start playing the ball rather than the man but I suspect he's about to suffer death by a thousand cuts as Liu has something, not that it's clear what it is. He almost appears to be doing a dotcom to Banks re-run but on Labour.

Informed voting and choice is one the victims here and the one that matters.

Guerilla Surgeon said...

Still in a hurry.

Tiger Mountain said...

BowAlley Rd seems to attract the barely pre Alzheimer's set. I say that because of the glacial speed doddery comments, it is 2014 for goodness sake.

Salmond is another pudgy apologist. The torys have had most of their solid vote out for a long time (and it will not be 50% plus on election night!). The left has barely started. Barrack Obama despite his lacklustre results since was elected by getting out the vote and engaging the grassroots.

Do your bit if wanting to deny Key a third term. Support the NZCTU campaign.

Guerilla Surgeon said...

Just on a quick exquisite National party MPs' professions. It is as I couldn't be bothered doing a lot but what I got was from that top few percent – foreign exchange dealer, teacher farmer/policy analyst, lawyer, lawyer, accountant. Gosh they really are all hardheaded farmers aren't they? :-) In fact the head of our government had one of the most useless, parasitical jobs on gods earth.

Chris Trotter said...

All right, all right, Tiger Mountain, take a breath - compose yourself.

What's brought on all this crotchetiness?

"Pre Alzheimer's set"? For God's sake, man! My Mum died of Alzheimer's Disease and I can assure you that none of our commentators, left or right, are deserving of that tragic diagnosis.

Get cross, by all means, Tiger Mountain, but please, try not to get mean.

Anonymous said...

Yes! I pull my hair out when sideshows make headlines. Both main parties are wasting our time right now. I also agree that the current crop of Labour politicians are a shadow of the "good old days" of progressive politics. There must be a lot of people who are currently voting National who are currently pulling their hair out over Labour right now.

SDT said...

I was spraying the plentiful gorse on the actual geographical Bowalley Road but there's more prickles in the electronic Bowalley Road. ;-)

Tiger Mountain said...

Unreserved apology to you and your mum Chris, a good reminder to be more thoughtful.

Loz said...

The Spirit of a People

"There is more real music in the laughter of happy children than there is in all the great masterpieces of all the great musicians that ever lived.

There is more real beauty in the-smile of contented, happy womanhood than there is in all the lyrics that ever were penned by the poets, and there is more real strength in the security which honest men possess, than there is in all the philosophies that ever were handed down.

Such a thing as Patriotism may spring from events or may answer the appeal of the politicians, but the spirit of Homer, of whom we know not whether it was on a man or a whole nation that sang, the gift of Burns, the pride of our northern countrymen, the spirit of Shelley, of Milton, of Bunyan, and glorious Shakespeare himself; comes only from the love and brotherhood that makes the people's voice the Song of the Soul.

And unless that song is a song of Freedom, a song of Happiness, a song of Beauty, a song of Security— unless that song spring's from the higher urges of Life—there can be no security for the race anywhere."

— James Welsh, Scottish Labour M.P. 1929

This has always been the unifying message of the left. The message was heard in Roosevelt’s “four freedoms” speech in the 30’s where he described his platform as freedom of speech, freedom of worship, freedom from want and freedom from fear. It was Normal Kirk’s platform in the 1970’s that Labour was dedicated to a freedom from want that wasn’t part of the understanding of those the right. It’s a unifying declaration of rights of all people that is missing in today’s context & which is filled by the meaningless political game of word play and image-making within the political machines.

Guerilla Surgeon said...

Tiger Mountain, why should I care about denying Key a third term? What do I get instead of Key? More of the same it seems to me. I'm definitely going to vote, but I have absolutely no confidence that it will mean meaningful change. My father had Alzheimer's too, not overwhelmed by the reference.

CarbonGuilty said...

GS do you really understand so little of how the world has always worked that you think a currency dealer is not a real solid, valuable job as you imply? That very demanding role is right at the absolute heartbeat of what advances human well being in a sound, free, progressive society like ours surely is. It is a very old and absolutely essential profession: finding the true value of the means of exchange, every minute of every day.

I have worse news for you: car sales & real estate people, much as we may spit on them, play a key role in setting the true value of your material assets too.
Damn them, but we benefit from their slick trade.

And so your alternative to these dealers? It's a possibly dodgy but certainly ignorant politician setting these values by his or her prejudices & whims.

In this simple little truth is why socialism does not only not work, but heads in the direction of death camps.

Guerilla Surgeon said...

Carbon guilty, are you so naive that you believe currencies are floated? Currencies are manipulated by governments all over the world, and if that socialism the Americans are as guilty as anyone else.
A currency trader's job is to make his boss money by taking advantage of minute differences over time between currencies. That's parasitical.
Car dealers and real estate agents perform a useful function, by selling actual stuff :-). And let's face it, you can always sell your stuff yourself if you want to.

markus said...

Blimey !!! (as we elderly like to say).

It seems that on the one hand I'm part of the doddery "pre Alzheimer's set", who move at glacial speed (given that I occasionally comment here) and on t'other I apparently think I know better "than real working folk what is good for them" (because I've got a "semi useless" political science and history degree).

Might as well just give up now.

CarbonGuilty said...

GS I agree that governments and other powerful 'players' for want of a better word do try to manipulate the markets and it is not socialism, nor is it always wrong though. But they mostly fail, at least in the free countries. China of course rigs its currency fully so there is a socialist example for you, and one heading for big trouble I predict, when reality eventually prevails there.
The guys buying & selling to make money are a Key (sorry) part of the market, not parasitically but more symbiotically. If very skilled, they win more deals than lose, and yes, it is at our expense, but we benefit more than pay overall by having a closer to market rate for our money. So say it is NZ$1= US$0.87 today, with the banks and traders taking say 1c. Well the government might fix it instead at say 80c or 90c in NZ and so you get ripped off and pay the bank and dealers too.
So we pay the commission men, because they are worth it, not because we like or admire them. Money is no different to cars and houses in this regard.

Davo Stevens said...

Well put Surgeon. I agree with the proviso that not just Govt's manipulate currencies, people do as well.
Johnny Boy is a Currency Manipulator not a Trader. Who made a fortune manipulating the NZ$ back in the 90's. In doing so he and his slippery mates caused considerable pain to ordinary Kiwis.

I have met the man twice and both times I took an instant dislike to him. He's as phony as an empty tin can! Just has the gift of the gab and likes to ponce around for the photographers.

Guerilla Surgeon said...

Carbon guilty, some of the most capitalist countries in the world manipulate the currency. Hong Kong pretty much pegs its currency to the U.S. dollar, Singapore controls its currency to make sure its economy is competitive. In fact most of the so-called Asian Tigers have a 'managed float' to maintain competitiveness. I could probably find other examples but I can't be arsed. So the market rate for most currencies is simply bullshit. (I knew that economics paper would come in handy someday :-).)

Anonymous said...

There very is much something in the air.The hills too.

People sometimes laugh at your comments but it is the case that armed and dangerous leftists with intel, strategy divisions and apparently weapons connected to the animal right and green movements are present and ready for a rethink after thee election dependent on the outcome.

They're called pig hunters, lol