Uprising: Kathe Kollwitz's vivid 1899 etching captures the moment when a people decide that the evils besetting them are no longer sufferable. What would a New Zealand Government have to do to forfeit all moral and political legitimacy? What would it take to make New Zealanders revolt?
WHAT DOES A GOVERNMENT have to do before it forfeits all legitimacy in the eyes of its people? It’s a question many people have asked down the centuries. In the modern era, no person has set forth the conditions under which all government legitimacy may be considered lost more eloquently than Thomas Jefferson. Author of the American Declaration of Independence (1776) Jefferson set forth in the rolling cadences of the Eighteenth Century exactly why governments are created, and exactly when they may, justifiably, be destroyed:
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed. That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness. Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shewn, that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security.”
Were Jefferson, transported through time to Barack Obama’s America, to publicly assert “The Spirit of ‘76”, it is highly likely that he would find himself under investigation by the FBI, the Department of Homeland Security, or both. For openly proclaiming the right of the American people “to alter or to abolish” their system of government – should it become destructive to their “unalienable rights” – he would, almost certainly, find himself placed on what Edward Snowden calls the “cast-iron watch-list” of the National Security Agency. There he would be subjected to “a long train of abuses and usurpations” considerably more despotic than anything contemplated by the loyal servants of King George III.
We New Zealanders, though lacking entirely the revolutionary tradition of a United States or a France, are able to boast the longest, continuous exercise of fully democratic government on the planet. Governments elected by universal suffrage have ruled New Zealanders since 1893 – much longer than is the case in the United States, the United Kingdom, France or Germany.
This long, unbroken stretch of government with the consent of the governed has instilled in New Zealanders a possibly over-large measure of the “prudence” which Jefferson cites as the explanation for human-beings’ disposition to “suffer, while evils are sufferable”. Rather than secure our rights by abolishing the form of government to which we have become accustomed – and which has, up until the late-1980s, at least, served us extremely well – we have been willing to cut our political masters an awful lot of slack.
Not being natural ideologues, we struggle to make the connections between the neoliberal policies imposed upon this country by successive governments since 1984 (none of which have ever had the courage to seek an explicit electoral mandate for the entirety of the neoliberal programme they intended to pursue) and the appalling social consequences to which those policies have given rise.
Although the cause-and-effect relationship between cuts to mental health services and successful suicide attempts is indisputable, very few New Zealanders would consider it fair or appropriate to lay those deaths at the door of the responsible Cabinet Minister. Similarly, most Kiwis would feel uncomfortable about sheeting home the blame for child abuse and domestic violence to a government’s failure to pursue policies of full-employment and the provision of public housing. Many of us regard such ills as the unavoidable “collateral damage” of responsible public administration.
Where most New Zealanders would draw the line, I suspect, is at the suggestion that their government might be willing to sacrifice the life, or lives, of a New Zealand citizen, or citizens, in the pursuit of purely partisan political objectives.
The protection of its citizens, both at home and abroad, is the first and most fundamental duty of any government. To abrogate that duty, for whatever reason (other than to ward-off an imminent and deadly threat to the whole population) would not be accepted by the vast majority of New Zealanders.
Were it to be proved that the government had been willing to allow one or more of its citizens to be reduced to a mere pawn and then ruthlessly sacrificed in some partisan political chess game, that might just be enough to see Kiwi “prudence” thrust angrily aside.
Such a government would have forfeited all claim to moral and political legitimacy. Channelling the spirit of Thomas Jefferson, many thousands of New Zealanders might even conclude that, in the face of such insufferable evil, it was their right – and their duty – to throw off such a Government, and provide new guards for their future security.
This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Saturday, 21 February 2015.
The spirit of 1776 means something completely different in America these days. It's been appropriated by the paranoid wing of the Republican Party. It's characterised by people who are scared of their government, don't want to pay taxes, and who stockpile weapons.
Some also seem to have forgotten that they fought a war against tyranny – 1776 often seems to represent a return to tyranny – of the right. I must say I find it just a little confusing.
As far as New Zealand is an revolution is concerned – I can't see it. As I've said before there is a mean streak in this society that often blames people for their own misfortune, and characterises people who are down on their luck as bludgers. A lot of people approve of authoritarian measures to keep those people in line. Those people themselves often don't have the political awareness to realise what's going on, or perhaps have simply lost all hope.
If by failing to protect its people you mean sending them to foreign wars, many people don't get particularly worried about that either. It seems to be received wisdom and right-wing circles, and among much of the left, that we need to keep on America's good side. Not quite sure what you are driving at there anyway Chris.
Nothing. New Zealand in the twenty-first century is literally incapable of it: the mechanisms by which popular anger could be channelled into revolt (general strike, etc) no longer exist. We retain the capacity for a political coup d'etat, should the Government sufficiently offend the Deep State, but not popular revolution.
Well, listening to National radio today I discover I'm a member of something called the precariat. It's nice to have a name, but we are still not organised enough to have a revolution :-).
GS- Totally predictable...sadly.
You haven't quite got it yet Brendan have you. You really need to be a little less enigmatic :-). Did you even listen to the program?
Contemporary mass mobilisations tend to occur from necessity instead of loftier concepts of principle.
We are approaching the anniversaries of the 1932 riots. The events marked a major change in the attitudes of New Zealanders (which were always conservative) toward the status quo maintained by both major parties. An increasingly hard line taken by government against increasing unrest.
From the market crash of 1929 to 1932 per-capita export earnings in New Zealand dropped 60%. This corresponded with a rise from 2,500 at the start of 1930 on unemployment registers to 52,500 at the time of the riots. The government response to economic collapse was a typical crackdown on eligibility for support, punishment for strikes, stand-down periods for support to begin and a capped limit of 90 days Sustenance Allowance during a 12 month period - all funded by an additional level on employed salary and wage earners.
In Greece, Iceland and Spain, the closest approximation of revolt is due to a sharp deterioration in expectations of living standards with little reason to maintain hope for the future. I suspect that New Zealand now, as in the 1930's would be the same.
Don't forget about a third of us refuse to vote.
Although apologists for the system like to pretend it is because we are lazy or ill informed, in many cases it is because we do not cede the right to govern to any of the awful political parties on offer.
After all casting a vote is about giving up individual power for the common good. When politicians are no longer interested in the common good there is no useful purpose in participating in their shallow excuse for democracy.
I read an article by Brian Easton a liberal economist (one of my lecturers in a past life) who uses (as opposed to abuses) the term neoliberal - which he defined as aggressive liberalization policies which have no empirically tested bedrock to justify them - i.e ideology.
He was discussing the key government which he then went on to describe as cautious and pragmatic and (his words) emphatically not neoliberal.
Keep in mind Proffessor Easton is a heavyweight in NZ's economic scene.
Interestingly the next day I read and bowalley road article when the heavy weight champion of economic illiteracy Chris Trotter described the Key government as avowedly neoliberal. Trotter or Easton - Horse Manure or Caviar its really no choice.
One mans neoliberalism is anothers cautious conservative. We will have no revolution because we have since 1999 returned to the pre 80's tradition of gradualist change, steady as she goes conservatism.
Lets have a quick look at some economic history, during the tumultuous 70's NZ had rapidly rising unemployment, high inflation and stagnant growth.
During the Helen Clarks reign of neoliberal terror not only did we maintain solid economic growth and low inflation but unemployment fell to below 4% - an impossible trinity according to most economic literates.
With Key picking up where Clark left off we are seeing the same policies and same sterling results as we adjust to the worst imported crisis since the 1930's. Economic literates call this a miracle, most of the population are impressed, there will always be hysterical leftist isolates and misfits bawling from the sideline promising utopia, without evidence or in Chris's case without even the bones of a plan.
Keep it up Chris the world would be a tedious place without hysterical ranters blogging bollocks.
To "23 February 2015 at 08:04"
People dont vote for a variety of reasons and they are not uniform. I socialize with a pollster and he says the idea that there is a missing million is bunkum, there a plenty of people of all political persuasions who don't vote, as well as plenty of people with no particular interest in politics (particularly young people).
I would be willing to bet there a very few people who dont vote because the "Politicians are all Bad", I would say the dominant reason would be - Ive got better things to do with my time than cast a vote which at the margin will do nothing.
Very few on the NZ Left place much stock in the gentle musings of the venerable Brian Easton.
He has never been able to correctly identify the foes that laid low his career. The passage you cite being an excellent example of his confusion.
As to your main point. Let's conduct a little quiz.
Has John Key's National-led Government:
* Reduced taxes on the rich? YES.
* Privatised public assets? YES.
* Weakened the bargaining power of trade unions and boosted labour market flexibility? YES.
* Reduced public spending and introduced market-based mechanisms into the delivery of public services? YES.
* Reduced the regulatory oversight of corporate endeavour? YES.
* Increased the democratic deficit by further separating the effective exercise of economic power from the elected representatives of the people? YES.
Well, then, he presides over a neoliberal regime.
Try a little harder, Anonymous.
Personally, I've had enough of the continuing and unchecked behavior of this despicable poser New Zealand has as a prime minister.
Key and his government are simply untrustworthy.
They are all liars and manipulators of the truth and I don't trust anything they say or do.
Where's the nearest recruitment office...
What would it take to rouse New Zealanders to revolt?
Any government endorsed by the majority of NZs political pundits.
Easton's career has been laid low???? Just curious.
Brian Easton was one of the first victims of the Rogernomics purge of dissenting economists.
His subsequent work for groups like the deeply conservative Engineers Union (and, of course, his books) revealed a highly equivocal attitude to the Fourth Labour Government's reforms.
To an outsider, it always seemed as though Easton was a reluctant Lucifer begging to be readmitted into Heaven.
Ahhhh..... Thanks Chris. I do now vaguely remember him saying years ago that you couldn't get a job at Treasury an issue conformed to neoliberal ideals. Didn't realise HE'd applied though :-).
Chris by your definition, Holyoak and muldoon were "neoliberals" cutting taxes and showing little sympathy to unions. I think a more realistic reading is post the 1984 shock therapy (which I think included some untested and fairly radical even neoliberal policy) we have returned to the old gradualism of the past - with neither side rolling to hard left or right.
However the tectonic plates have moved on leaving crusty old paleo socialists like Chris screaming neoliberal at anyone who dosnt demand a return to the halcyon days of compulsary unionisation, import substitution policies and nationalisation of the cornerstones of the economy.
John key is a cautious conservative, so is Brian Easton, both believe in building on the status quo and eschew radicalism of the sort recommended by political madmen like Chris or Roger.
Im not sure moving from economic research at BERL to professorship at Vic Uni and publishing many fine books can be considered failure - you should show a little more respect to your intellectual superiors even if they dont agree with your angry and envious outspewings Mr Trotter.
What are you actually saying here?
Are you suggesting a deployment of Army trainers to Iraq is justification to overthrow the government by force. I presume not or otherwise you would be more specific.
And obviously being "neo-liberal" is hardly a sufficient excuse for armed revolution. After all by your measure virtually all western governments for the last thirty years should have been put against the wall.
Or is it that in our era virtually all elected governments have embarked on a gigantic con against the electorate; one so skillfully perpetrated that a significant percentage of them keep getting re-elected, in some cases four times as in the case of John Howard.
Muldoon tax cuts Anon?????........http://keithrankin.co.nz/Rankin_Muldoon-years_Hamilton-conference_2014.pdf
You might at least TRY to get your facts right, Anonymous!
Easton headed up the NZ Institute of Economic Research until 1986 - not BERL.
He has never been a professor of anything at Victoria University. (Although he has held fellowships at a number of Australasian universities.)
He is a well-known economist largely because for 27 years he published a column in The Listener.
Easton's specialist field is statistics, in which, it is generally agreed, he is one of NZ's leading experts.
Half-heartedly endorsing the dismal Third-Way-ism of Helen Clark and Michael Cullen is, however, about as far "left" as Easton has ever been prepared to go.
This blog is as important for its content as it is for laying bare the brutish psyche of those who feel so threatened by criticisms of what our economic system has come to represent. Almost without fail these outbursts become tirades of personal abuse peppered with gross historical inaccuracies. Exposing the brown-shirts of the blogosphere is a public service.
Those who may suggest there is a difference between a neo-liberal dismantling of democratic power during the 1980's and a pro-business "conservatism" of today seem to be suggesting that somewhere in-between was a vacuum where neoliberalism wasn't pro-business at all. It's a difficult position to argue. Neoliberalism began with the head of the Business Round Table being charged with molding the entire public service into structures he felt most pleasing. The ideology promised that the vast wealth would eventually trickle down to everyone else but instead the newly created rich have (surprisingly) continued to grow richer at the expense of everyone else.
For the current government to be "staying the course" doesn't make them any less fanatically neoliberal than the Rogernomes of NZ's most hated government.
"Or is it that in our era virtually all elected governments have embarked on a gigantic con against the electorate; one so skillfully perpetrated that a significant percentage of them keep getting re-elected, in some cases four times as in the case of John Howard."
Wayne – if you indeed be Wayne :-). I just like to give you the short answer – yes. But of course is not as simple as that. What has happened all over the Western world, is that business has gained far more influence in politics, and have loosened the rules whereby they can donate enough money to send a chance of buying elections. Now I don't think this applies quite so much in New Zealand, but in Britain and the States - definitely. After all, corporations are now people :-).
"Or is it that in our era virtually all elected governments have embarked on a gigantic con against the electorate; one so skillfully perpetrated that a significant percentage of them keep getting re-elected, in some cases four times as in the case of John Howard".
Wyane Mapp has finally figured out for himself, what is going on.
To many politicians, now, are useful idiots for those who really rule us. Those who fund them.
What would start a revolution here? When people have reached the point where they have nothing left to lose.
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