Saturday, 13 October 2018

Donald Trump And The Art Of Populist Grotesque.

Empowered By His Contradictions: Trump is a populist demagogue, and like all such demagogues he is empowered by his contradictions. This very special kind of leader is required to dance not only with the people, but also with those individuals and institutions he has promised to protect the people from.


JANE KELSEY, in a recent post, identifies some of the more important challenges posed for the Left by Donald Trump. His peculiar mix of worker-friendly policies and corporate concessions. His willingness to advance protectionism – along with a host of other ideas long-declared “verboten” by neoliberal ideologues. His brazen rejection of globalism. His reaffirmation of the citizen’s indissoluble duty of loyalty to the nation state – and vice versa.

These contradictions are impossible to reconcile with either old-school socialism, or its “Third Way” bastard offspring. They are, however, entirely consistent with the logic of  populism. Trump is a populist demagogue, and like all such demagogues he is empowered by his contradictions. This very special kind of leader is required to dance not only with the people, but also with those individuals and institutions he has promised to protect the people from.

These populist politicians typically arise in circumstances of socio-political deadlock: reconciling in their own persons the irreconcilable differences of contending social forces – and classes. What these vast conglomerations of conflicting interests cannot achieve – having lost all opportunity for strategic and/or tactical manoeuvre – is achieved in the populist’s personality. A volatile mixture of ignorance and vanity which permits the demagogue to believe in, as Lewis Carrol so memorably put it, “five impossible things before breakfast” – and then tweet about them.

To rational men and women, the demagogic personality is a standing affront to the complex art of politics. What they fail to understand is that, under the conditions which give rise to populism, rationality has very little political utility. In the populist moment: which is itself the product of antagonistic social and political forces’ inability to compromise; it is irrationality that makes the “politically impossible” possible.

Because the average man or woman finds it relatively easy to hold two contradictory notions in their heads, believing in both, they are not in the least perturbed by a leader who is constantly demonstrating his ability to do the same. Indeed, they are likely to feel more comfortable living under such a leader than they are under someone who is constantly requiring them to choose one or the other.

This celebration of ignorance, along with the constant and wilful distortion of the truth, goes hand-in-hand with the demagogue’s acceptance and promotion of irreconcilable ideas. And, once again, he or she is rewarded for doing so by the endorsement of a significant minority of the electorate. Politicians who make voters aware of their intellectual shortcomings are seldom thanked for the experience. The demagogic ignoramus, on the other hand; the master of that new school of performance art “populist grotesque”; by demonstrating his or her solidarity with the average punter’s lack of knowledge, is rewarded with their undying loyalty and affection.

None of this should strike an old Marxist like Jane Kelsey as in any way surprising. In what is indisputably his greatest piece of political journalism, The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon, Karl Marx explains in riveting detail the way in which Napoleon’s nephew – a politician with more than a little in common with Donald Trump – set about seizing control of the French state:

“Historical tradition gave rise to the French peasants’ belief in the miracle that a man named Napoleon would bring all glory back to them. And there turned up an individual who claims to be that man because he bears the name Napoleon, in consequence of the Code Napoleon, which decrees: ‘inquiry into paternity is forbidden’ After a twenty-year vagabondage and a series of grotesque adventures the legend is consummated, and the man becomes Emperor of the French. The fixed idea of the nephew was realized because it coincided with the fixed idea of the most numerous class of the French people.”

Americans are not all that comfortable with historical tradition, but they are particularly admiring of the extremely wealthy and entertainers – both of whom they imbue with almost supernatural powers. In Donald Trump they were confronted with a wealthy entertainer who wanted to be President of the United States. In this “The Donald” went one better than “The Gipper”. Ronald Reagan was only a B-grade movie star, Trump is a billionaire. In his person the broken white American working-class glimpsed the possibility of recovery. Not simply because they judged his promise to run America the way he ran his business empire as unlikely to produce a worse result than the nightmare in which they were currently enmeshed, but because Trump held out the additional promise of telling their supposed “friends” in the Democratic Party, the despised liberal elites: “You’re fired!”

This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Friday, 12 October 2018.

Friday, 12 October 2018

The IPCC Report: All Of A Sudden - Nothing Happened.

Limited Vision: As a species, human-beings are superb at dealing with immediate dangers and short-to-medium term problems. Storing up food for the coming winter, setting aside enough grain for next year’s crops: thinking this way produced extraordinary human advancements. So many that, as a species, we never really saw the need, or acquired the knack, of thinking ten, twenty, a hundred years ahead.


ON TUESDAY MORNING the world should have awoken to financial chaos.* Stockmarkets around the planet should have been plummeting to levels not seen for a decade – or more.

For the markets to be in freefall, however, something truly shocking must have happened. Had the Saudi monarchy been overthrown? Had the President of the United States been assassinated?

The answer, of course, is: “No.” and “No.”

What had happened was that, on Monday afternoon, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) had released its latest emissions report.

This sombre document speaks bluntly about the huge response required from the whole of humanity if the emissions targets set at Paris in 2015 are to be met. Massive and disruptive economic and social challenges loom ahead for the global community. The future of the human species (not to mention the survival of the millions of other species with which humanity shares the earth) now depends on those challenges being confronted and met.

But, as everyone reading this knows perfectly well, the world’s stockmarkets did not go into freefall on Tuesday. There were some jitters over the deepening rift between the United States and China – but these weren’t serious. Certainly, nothing approaching the financial Gotterdammerung of 2008-09 had unfolded – anywhere.

And that should tell us something about the problem of Climate Change.

Clearly, the “Masters of the Universe” – those expert buyers and sellers of financial derivatives, pork-belly futures and Apple shares – weren’t worried. The men (and they mostly are men) who drive the world’s markets up and down – had placed not the slightest weight on the IPCC’s pronouncements. They weren’t in the least bit bothered that the world’s leading climate scientists were telling them that by the 2050s (and maybe sooner) capitalism, as they understood it, would cease to be a viable system.

It’s not as if these economic movers and shakers are all Climate Change Denialists (although some of them undoubtedly are) or that they don’t believe in science. They do. In fact, market traders have a great deal in common with the climate scientists. Both groups spend their time developing models about the way the world works, and then using them to anticipate and shape future events. The big difference between the two, however, is that market traders base their predictions on the behaviour of human-beings, and climate scientists on the behaviour of the earth’s atmosphere.

The market traders know to a near certainty that nobody – or at least nobody that matters – is going to do a damn thing about the IPCC report. World leaders certainly aren’t about to hurl their respective peoples into a maelstrom of economic and social pain. The producers of coal, oil and natural gas are not going to stop sending their product to market – not while upwards of 90 percent of the world economy still runs on it. Those with money and status will continue to fly around the world to admire the scenery and soak up the cultures of faraway lands – regardless of the damage inflicted by their enormous carbon footprints.

“The American way of life is non-negotiable”, warned the US Vice-President, Dick Cheney, in 2001. Seventeen years later, the rest of the world’s newly enriched citizens feel exactly the same way about the rising living standards to which they are rapidly becoming accustomed.

“But what about the rising seas!”, laments Greenpeace. “What about the extreme weather events? The floods? The forest fires? The hurricanes?”

To the world’s environmentalists, their fellow human-beings’ blank indifference to the looming catastrophe is both baffling and infuriating. As good ecologists, however, they should not be surprised.

As a species, human-beings are superb at dealing with immediate dangers and short-to-medium term problems. Storing up food for the coming winter, setting aside enough grain for next year’s crops: thinking this way produced extraordinary human advancements. So many that, as a species, we never really saw the need, or acquired the knack, of thinking ten, twenty, a hundred years ahead.

For the past ten-thousand years, humanity’s ability to master the planet’s creatures and plunder her natural resources has brought nothing but a longer and more bounteous life. In the desiccated remnants of that legacy, future generations will curse us for taking so long to identify our species’ suicidal trajectory, and wonder why we refused to get off it – until it was too late.

* In a wonderful example of Murphy's Law, two days after I filed this column the world's markets were in turmoil. Not, I hasten to add, in response to the IPCC's report, but still. - C.T.

This essay was originally published in The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 12 October 2018.

Thursday, 11 October 2018

A Change Of Plan.

“I’m over democracy”, she said quietly, her eyes fixed on the flames. “It’s failed. It will kill us all – if we let it.”

IT WAS LATE and the fire was dying. The wine bottle was definitely not half full. In the far corner a couple of vapers appeared to smoke. But up this end, nearest the fire, I was alone. Until she turned up.


I HAD MET HER a few months before. She’d arrived with a whole crowd of others. People from the university. Trade unionists. Journalists. Students. She didn’t look like any of them. Not much for talking. Or, at least, unwilling to break into the conversation of so many “brilliant” minds. When I asked her what she did, she tilted her head to one side, like a cat who had expected more.

“I paint.”

“You’re an artist?”

“A painter.”

“And what do you paint?”

“What I see.”


AND HERE SHE was again, bearing a dangerously full bottle of wine.

“Why don’t you build up that fire?”

“I wasn’t planning to be here much longer.” I waggled the nearly empty bottle in the firelight.

“Plans have a habit of changing”, she said, waggling hers.

I searched in the shadows for the management’s stack of firewood and returned with an armload of logs which I positioned carefully over the feathering embers.

My companion stared at the fireplace for a few minutes, watching the flames curl themselves hungrily around the dry timber. The shadows began to dance.

“I’m over democracy”, she said quietly, her eyes fixed on the flames. “It’s failed. It will kill us all – if we let it.”

“How’s that?”

“There are decisions that have to be made that won’t be made if majorities composed of selfish and ignorant people continue to dictate policy.”

“Such as?”

“Don’t you come over all Socratic with me, I’m not in the mood. You know full well what sort of decisions need to be made if the planet’s to survive. I read your stuff. You get it.”

“You’re talking about climate change.”

“Of course. But not just climate change. You and I both know that without a single global government, backed by sufficient armed force to quell any and all dissent, the human species, and most of the other species inhabiting this planet, are doomed. You also understand that such a government cannot possibly be democratic. Which is why I began this conversation by saying that I’m over democracy. Because, if it isn’t over, we are.”

I took a long sip of wine and set my glass down softly on the table.

“You realise that the only nation state with sufficient military power to overawe all the other nation-states on the planet is the United States of America. So, what you’re actually calling for is a Pax Americana.”

“Doesn’t have to be America. What if the Chinese wiped out the West with a deadly virus genetically-engineered to kill only kwailo – round eyes?”

“Leaving the planet to Asians and Africans?”

“Poetic justice – wouldn’t you say?”

“Maybe. But what happens when those Asians and Africans begin to assert their right to participate in this new planetary government? What do the masters of China’s new global empire do then?”

“What the Americans should have done at the end of World War II, when they alone possessed the atomic bomb. They simply inform the rest of the world that unless it submits entirely to their benign guidance, then their super-weapon will be deployed in a manner guaranteed to secure compliance. Chinese rule. Or, a virus genetically engineered just for you is released. That will be the choice.”

I stared into the bright conflagration filling the fireplace. The heat beat against both our faces. The wine was tepid on my tongue.

“You’re happy to have the Chinese in charge of the global conservation of wildlife?”

“Not entirely. No. But the USA had its chance to rule the planet; to become its enlightened global despot; and it let the moment pass. All the peoples it could have freed from hunger and superstition. All the corrupt feudal despots and obscurantist priests it could have deposed. All of the pent-up creative energy it could have released.

“A world of workers and teachers, artists and scientists. A world in which women were free and equal. A world in which skin colour was irrelevant.

“That was the only sort of world that could possibly have made the loss of 75 million human-beings in World War II meaningful. The only outcome that could have atoned for all that human smoke. But, was that the sort of world the Americans made? Like hell it was! All the Americans were interested in making was money!”

“So, you’d prefer to see the planet governed the way the Baathists governed Iraq? Free health care. Free and secular education – especially for women. Homes and jobs for everyone. But woe betide the brave soul who criticises the government. Or, even worse, Saddam!”

“Ah, yes, Iraq. Where everyone is so much better off for being able to stuff a piece of paper in a ballot-box. The free health care and education are gone. The housing projects are all burnt to the ground or blown to smithereens. Unemployment is rife. Women are second-class citizens. Gays are murdered. But, oh my goodness, who cares about the loss of all of those inconsequential things when you have been given the right to vote!”

She took an heroic gulp of wine and refilled both our glasses.

“To the death of democracy!”, she cried, raising her glass.

“Or, to more of it.”, I answered softly, raising my own glass reluctantly to hers.

We both drank deeply.

The blazing logs collapsed in on themselves with a shower of sparks. The stars shone fitfully through the woodsmoke billowing out of the squat concrete chimney. It reminded me of something, but I’m damned if I can remember what it was.

This short story was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Thursday, 11 October 2018.

Wednesday, 10 October 2018

Petrol Pump Politics.

Unaffordable?  Labour supporters should brace themselves for a National Party-driven social media campaign built around the slogan: “At $2.40 a litre, we can’t afford Jacinda.” Re-cycled though this catch-phrase may be, for Kiwis on low incomes paying far too much for gas it’s likely to have a catchy ring to it. (And anyone on the Labour team thinking about telling these folk to “go electric” should, perhaps, recall the effect on the breadless masses of the thoughtless suggestion that they should consider eating cake!)

“AT A DOLLAR a gallon we can’t afford Rowling.” Given his latest media release (8/10/18)  “Government Pricing Kiwis Out Of Their Cars”, someone’s obviously been schooling up young Simon Bridges on the way Rob Muldoon smashed Labour in 1975.

[Bill Rowling, for all you millennials out there, was the Labour Prime Minister of New Zealand from September 1974 until December 1975, and a gallon (4.5 litres) was the unit of measure at the petrol pump. So, yes, you’re right, the motorists of 1975 paid roughly a tenth of what we pay today to fill up our tanks! – C.T.]

But even back when petrol was only a dollar a gallon, Kiwi motorists were hurting. Ever since the Yom Kippur War of October 1973, during which Egypt and Syria came within an ace of destroying the State of Israel, the price of oil had soared. Saudi Arabia and the other Arab oil-exporters had imposed an embargo on the USA and its allies for resupplying the Israelis with arms and ammunition. The resulting price-hikes delivered a stunning blow to the Western economy. The so-called “Oil Shocks” of 1973-79 marked the end of the Great Post-War Boom. Almost overnight, New Zealanders – along with just about everyone else in the Western World – lost confidence in the future. Even worse, they began casting about for someone to blame.

Hence, the National Party’s propaganda blaming soaring oil prices on Bill Rowling. Of course, anybody who had been following current affairs over the previous two years knew perfectly well that National was peddling what today we would call “fake news”. But, those weren’t the people Muldoon was after. The voters he was seeking to enlist alongside National’s habitual supporters were the disoriented, frustrated and just flat-out angry working-class Kiwis who were struggling to work out what had all-of-a-sudden gone wrong with their world.

Like the former Democratic Party supporters backing Trump in 2016, these bewildered Labour voters found it increasingly difficult to identify with “their” party. Labour was supposed to stand for “the working man” and his values, but now, following the tragic death of that quintessential working-class battler, “Big Norm” Kirk in August 1974, the party was led by a training-college lecturer. What’s more, he and his colleagues were advancing policies which seemed to have more in common with the demands of the long-haired hippies and protesters in the streets than they did with the “ordinary Kiwi joker” and his concerns. Not the least of these being the soaring price of petrol.

Muldoon and his campaign advisers were only too aware of the culture war that was brewing in the Labour Party and they couldn’t wait to exploit it.

Over the course of the 1960s and 70s, Labour’s membership had dwindled. The party branches were peopled predominantly by people who may have been young and radical in the 1930s and 40s but who were now very settled in their ways – and views – which tended towards the socially conservative. Many Labour stalwarts were Roman Catholics, Baptists and Salvation Army members. They bitterly resented the small but active groups of liberals and radicals who had begun drifting into Labour from 1969 onwards. They were seen as middle-class carpet-baggers without the slightest idea of what it meant to be a working-class Kiwi.

These were the people for whom National’s election slogan, “New Zealand the way YOU want it”, was created. The people who had begun to feel neglected, misunderstood and even a little bit despised by the people at the top of the Labour Party – and their intellectual friends. Some of the more prominent of these had banded together in the group called “Citizens for Rowling”. In the ears of a great many Kiwis, that sounded a lot more like “Citizens Against Muldoon”.

It was a huge strategic error on the part of Labour’s hifalutin supporters. Instead of turning people against the pugnacious National leader, it drew them towards him. Just as liberal America’s hatred of Trump only served to entrench his support among aggrieved Americans without college degrees or six-figure salaries, Labour’s near-obsession with Rob Muldoon proved to be one of the key factors in the growth of “Rob’s Mob”. This was the peculiar assemblage of “ordinary blokes and blokesses” for whom Muldoon felt more like a Labour leader than the thoroughly decent but doggedly uninspiring Rowling.

Forty years on, Labour supporters should brace themselves for a National Party-driven social media campaign built around the slogan: “At $2.40 a litre, we can’t afford Jacinda.” Second-hand though it may be, it’s bound to acquire some measure of political purchase. How could it not when, for Kiwis on low incomes, $2.40 a litre for gas is just one more burden for them to bear. (And anyone on the Labour team thinking about telling these folk to “go electric” should, perhaps, recall the effect on the breadless masses of the thoughtless suggestion that they should consider eating cake!)

National’s big problem is that Simon Bridges is not Rob Muldoon. Bridges simply does not possess Muldoon’s ability to inspire both confidence and hope, fear and dread. Nor is Jacinda Ardern even remotely like Bill Rowling. The latter always came across as the person for whom the saying “nice guys finish last” was invented. And although stardust was intermittently available to politicians back in 1975, the historical record makes it very clear that nobody ever got so much as a speck of it to Bill.

About the only thing Bridges has got going for him is that, unlike the 1973-79 oil shocks, the steady rise in the price of petrol over the period 2018-2021 cannot be sheeted home to greedy Arab oil magnates. This time, a large measure of it is Labour’s own work.

This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Tuesday, 9 October 2018.

Saturday, 6 October 2018

The Political Amnesia Of Winston Peters’ Critics

More Sinned Against Than Sinning: Even today, the man they cast as the villain of the piece; the person held responsible for the collapse of the National-NZ First Coalition in 1998; is the man most wronged by the whole sordid event – Winston Peters.

THE MOST CURIOUS FEATURE of the near universal criticism of NZ First’s waka-jumping legislation is its political amnesia. It’s as if New Zealand has never experienced a government held in place by the deliberate perversion of the proportionality upon which the entire MMP electoral system rests. A government conceived in treachery and kept in office by Members of Parliament willing to nullify the Party Votes of the electors who put them there. A government whose blatant betrayal of the new electoral system was quietly elided from the media narrative. A government whose principal victim was cast in the role of prime perpetrator. The Government of Jenny Shipley.

To hear the likes of The Listener and the NZ Herald tell the story, NZ First’s Electoral Integrity Bill represented a deadly thrust at the heart of what it means to be a Member of Parliament. Rather than acknowledge the role of the individual conscience in parliamentary affairs, they argued, the legislation would turn New Zealand’s MPs into mindless automatons; unalterably programmed to toe the party line. The historical fact that New Zealand has been governed by highly disciplined political parties for the past 80 years is simply not acknowledged by the legislation’s critics.

What these curiously ahistorical critics appeared to have in mind vis-à-vis the “right” of parliamentarians to arbitrarily dissolve all moral and contractual obligations to the political party whose endorsement was crucial to their electoral success, is the romantic figure of a lonely and tormented MP torn between loyalty to party and duty to conscience. All of them appeared blissfully unaware that the actual turncoats of New Zealand’s recent political history had, with the honourable exceptions of Winston Peters, Jim Anderton and Tariana Turia, been sitting MPs who had failed to secure re-selection from their party; become embroiled in scandal, like the ill-starred son of Norman Kirk; or, were straightforward political traitors. Hardly shining beacons of ethical responsibility!

Of those exceptions, only Jim Anderton failed to do what the framers of the Electoral Integrity legislation urged any MP unable to accept their party’s policies to do – resign and secure a new mandate. Interestingly, Anderton’s refusal to seek a mandate from the electors of Sydenham, following his bitter repudiation of the Labour Party, was roundly condemned at the time. His famous quip: “I didn’t leave Labour, Labour left me” – so oft repeated by critics of the waka-jumping bill in 2018 – received scant acknowledgement and even less support from the right-wing pundits of 1989.

It is also interesting to note that when both Winston Peters and Tariana Turia resigned their seats and were triumphantly re-elected by their constituents, the news media responded with thinly disguised disdain. The refusal of the parties they had left to field candidates against them, far from being seen as a resounding vindication of their position, was used as a means of belittling both their courage and their success. The electors’ emphatic endorsement of Peters and Turia was given far less weight by the news media than the haughty condescension and vicious criticisms of the victors’ former colleagues.

Which brings us back to the government formed by Jenny Shipley in August 1998.

The crisis was triggered by the National Party’s decision, in contravention of the National-NZ First coalition agreement, to privatise its shareholding in Wellington Airport. When Peters responded by declaring the agreement void he discovered that no fewer than 8 of his 17 MPs had turned their coats and were proposing to remain part of Shipley’s new government.

The commitment of Tau Henare, Tuku Morgan, Rana Waitai, Jack Elder, Ann Batten, Tuariki Delamere, Deborah Morris and Peter McCardle to the voters who had sent them to Parliament, as well as to the party they had solemnly pledged to support, was forgotten. The 8 MPs of the far-right Act Party, which the deposed National Leader, Jim Bolger, had pledged to keep out of government were now crucial to the maintenance of Shipley’s majority – as was the bewildered ex-Alliance defector, Alamein Kopu. Shipley and her turncoat crew were guilty of a constitutional outrage: they had profoundly distorted the proportionality of the Parliament elected in 1996 and thus made possible a government which, had the choices of the electors been respected, could never have been formed.

That the Governor-General of the day, Sir Michael Hardie Boys, acquiesced in this distortion of the people’s will is only marginally less outrageous than the distortion itself. The proper course of action would have been to dissolve Parliament – thereby requiring Shipley and her supporters to secure a new mandate from the voters. Instead, New Zealanders were forced to wait another twelve months before passing judgement on Shipley’s “Turncoat Government”. Unsurprisingly, it was thrown out.

That the critics of NZ First’s waka-jumping legislation have forgotten these events is extremely telling. It betrays their profound diffidence towards the whole democratic process. Twenty years on, they are still unwilling to sheet the blame home where it belongs – with Jenny Shipley and her motley collection of chancers, zealots and defectors. Even today, the man they cast as the villain of the piece; the person held responsible for the collapse of the National-NZ First Coalition in 1998; is the man most wronged by the whole sordid event – Winston Peters.

Far from undermining our parliamentary democracy, the Electoral Integrity legislation, which NZ First insisted form a central part of this new coalition government’s programme, now stands as a solid protection against any repetition of the constitutional outrage of 1998. That blatant attack on MMP which Peters’ perennial critics either cannot, or will not, acknowledge.

This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Friday, 5 October 2018.

Friday, 5 October 2018

Revolutionary Principles, Reactionary Values.

The Revolutionary Trinity: The three constitutive principles upon which the French Republic was founded: Liberty. Equality. Fraternity. If ever a nation is entitled to boast about its core values: about the ideas deemed fundamental to its very existence; then that nation is France.

YOU WILL SEE them chiseled into the lintels of public buildings all over Paris. The three constitutive principles upon which the French Republic was founded: Liberty. Equality. Fraternity. If ever a nation is entitled to boast about its core values: about the ideas deemed fundamental to its very existence; then that nation is France.

Thomas Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence (which preceded the French Revolution by 13 years) and his ringing affirmation 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” undoubtedly proved inspirational. But, essentially, Jefferson was presenting an argument. Those three words: Liberty, Equality, Fraternity; pronounced in an absolute monarchy; were unequivocally revolutionary.

Which is why, nearly 230 years after the storming of the Bastille, there remains a part of France which angrily denounces the revolutionary trinity of 1789. Thousands still living in France today, remember the very different trinity pronounced by Marshall Petain in June 1940. Not Liberty, Equality, Fraternity, but Work, Family, Fatherland.

Petain’s Vichy regime was but the culmination of the reactionary tendencies which had harried and fought the legacy of the Revolution ever since the restoration of the Bourbon Dynasty in 1815. Urged on by the Catholic Church; complicated by the personal ambitions of the Bonaparte family; poisoned by a virulent antisemitism; reactionary France, the France that sent Captain Dreyfus to Devil’s Island on trumped-up charges; the France that made peace with the Nazis; the France that even today swells the vote of the Front Nationale; has never gone away.

In the light of this centuries old quarrel about the meaning and purpose of La Belle France, Europe’s most enlightened nation state, what were the delegates to the NZ First Party’s annual conference thinking by voting for a remit legally requiring immigrants to New Zealand to swear allegiance to their adoptive country’s “core values”?

Almost certainly, they were not thinking of embroidering their nation’s banner with the French trinity of revolutionary principles.

Not that there haven’t been times in New Zealand’s own history when Liberty, Equality and Fraternity constituted the terse programme of home-grown revolutionaries. The “Red Feds” – those militant trade unionists whose exploits enlivened the years immediately prior to World War I – were not above letting-rip with a lusty rendition of La Marseillaise as they marched to do battle with “Massey’s Cossacks”. (Armed farmers on horseback, enlisted by Prime Minister Bill Massey to crush the “Red Feds”.)

Therein lies the problem, of course. From the moment New Zealand became a British colony in 1840, the tension between those who came here to build a better life in a better country than class-riven Britain; and those who came here for the sole purpose of making money to enhance their reputation and status; has been palpable.

NZ First’s conundrum has always been to decide which of these two conflicting impulses it should endorse. Like their leader, they are torn between the allure of socio-economic elevation, and the stirring egalitarian verses of Dick Seddon’s and Mickey Savage’s Hallelujah Song.

Even those two men, the tutelary patriarchs of socialist New Zealand, might struggle to agree on the precise nature of New Zealand’s core values. Seddon favoured a white nation, untainted by either the brown or the yellow peril. Savage, by contrast, had imbibed the magic of Wiremu Ratana and knew that whatever New Zealand might eventually become, it would always be Maori first.

From the recorded comments of the remit’s promoters, it seems pretty clear that NZ First tends more toward Seddon than Savage. The core values they are seeking to defend are those of the “Better Britons” which the New Zealanders of the late-nineteenth century believed themselves to be.

Far from the universal principles of the French Revolution and the undying political legacy of the European Enlightenment; the core values which NZ First hopes to enshrine in law are grounded in exclusion. Their purpose is to impress upon Muslim immigrants the entirely unacceptable character of their religious and ethnic traditions, and to make it clear that the price of New Zealand citizenship is the attenuation, or outright abandonment, of those traditions.

The trinity worshipped by NZ First is not the unabashed revolutionary’s Liberty, Equality, Fraternity; but the half-arsed reactionary’s threefold tribute to the Kiwi Way. Authority. Orthodoxy. Conformity.

This essay was originally published in The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 5 October 2018.

Thursday, 4 October 2018

National's Little-Boy-Lost.

Who Are You? About a politician who cannot seem to make the simplest of moral judgements there will always be an air of inauthenticity and impersonation. Bridges has been described (unkindly, but not entirely inaccurately) as a young boy dressed-up in his father’s suit. The jacket’s cuffs extend well beyond his fingertips and the legs of the trousers puddle around his Dad’s too-big shoes. It’s an image that invites ridicule – not respect.

IT MAKES YOU WONDER what it takes to be enrolled at Oxford University and appointed a Crown Prosecutor at 25. Simon Bridges’ CV includes both of these accomplishments, and yet, after ten years in Parliament, five years in Cabinet, and eight months as Leader of the Opposition, what impresses is just how unimpressive he is. Even more puzzling, after the lacklustre quality of Bridges’ performance, is what his caucus colleagues saw in him. Because, clearly, the rest of the country has yet to spot it.

The most worrying aspect of Bridges’ political persona is a complete absence of anything resembling originality. He does precisely what you would expect a young ambitious politician to do – nothing more, nothing less.

Never was this more apparent than in the early months of his Cabinet career when he was assigned – and eagerly carried out – the task of legislating away the right of environmental protesters to place themselves in the path of oil exploration vessels. Political journalists praised Bridges for proving to his boss, John Key, and the other heavy-hitters of the National Government, that he was a “good soldier”: someone who could be relied upon to obey orders and get the job done with a minimum of fuss.

Those same political journalists would probably say that Bridges swift rise to the top of the National Party bears eloquent testimony to the importance of not rocking the boat. But, getting to the top of your party is not quite the same as being elected Prime Minister of your country. Phil Goff, David Shearer, David Cunliffe and Andrew Little all got to the top of their party. None of them, however, were able to secure the top job.

Though few New Zealanders are likely to devote much energy to thoroughly deconstructing Bridges’ political conduct, many have already decided that something important is missing. National’s pollsters have yet to detect a decisive upward swing in the public’s estimation of the Opposition Leader. He remains worryingly underwhelming. People comment on Bridges’ Brylcreemed hair and his appalling diction, but on very little else. There is a knee-jerk quality to his day-to-day political utterances which renders them predictable and forgettable in equal measure.

Bridges clearly has not spent a great deal of time studying the careers of successful National Party Leaders of the Opposition. Had he done so he would have realised the importance of establishing early a significant “point of difference” between himself and his colleagues. Rob Muldoon, for example, made a name for himself by opposing his own Prime Minister’s decision to proceed with the Second Labour Government’s (1957-1960) plans to build a cotton mill in Nelson. Though a callow back-bencher, Muldoon argued – successfully – that the cotton mill project took Labour’s “import substitution” policies too far. That the mill contract had already been signed proved to be no obstacle. The Holyoake Government, under pressure from Muldoon’s “Young Turks”, simply tore it up.

Imagine if Bridges, when asked to smooth the way for the oil prospectors, had refused to curb his fellow citizen’s political rights and resigned his portfolio. Immediately, he would have acquired the status of a principled maverick. A conservative politician who, nevertheless, could be relied upon to pay more than lip-service to New Zealand’s democratic traditions. Someone who was willing to stand up and be counted on civil liberties.

Just as Muldoon had very early on established his credentials as someone who could speak with authority about economic matters, Bridges could have put himself at the forefront of the debate about security versus freedom; surveillance versus privacy. Among the parliamentarians of his generation he would have stood out as a politician of real substance. A potential future leader: not only of his party, but also of the country.

Fortunately for Labour, this was not the Simon Bridges who made it to the top of National’s greasy pole. Even on issues which, for the leader of a liberal-conservative party like National, should require a minimum of serious cogitation, Bridges has slipped and slided all over the place. He came out very cautiously in favour of free speech for Lauren Southern and Stefan Molyneux, but refused to boycott Massey University when it refused to allow the former leader of his own party, Don Brash, to address the Massey Politics Club. He compounded this failure by backing his colleague, Michael Woodhouse’s, call to deny the US whistleblower, Chelsea Manning, entry to New Zealand.

About a politician who cannot seem to make the simplest of moral judgements there will always be an air of inauthenticity and impersonation. Bridges has been described (unkindly, but not entirely inaccurately) as a young boy dressed-up in his father’s suit. The jacket’s cuffs extend well beyond his fingertips and the legs of the trousers puddle around his Dad’s too-big shoes. It’s an image that invites ridicule – not respect.

It is Bridges’ lack of authenticity: the impression he gives of playing politics by-the-numbers and without conviction; that makes the electorate so unwilling to take him seriously. He can frown, scowl, pout and shout his defiance of the Coalition Government and all its leaders do is laugh. Much as a gathering of youngsters would laugh if one of their number attempted to impersonate the responsible adult in the room.

In the 2018 “Mood of the Boardroom” survey, published in today’s (3/10/18) NZ Herald, one of the business leaders interviewed remarked of Bridges’ performance as leader: “We are all waiting for a real punch to land. Bridges’ best day since Labour got in was the in-house haggle on the floor of Parliament when they were trying to sort votes for the Speaker on day one. He hasn’t got close to that high-water mark since.”

But even that incident (which indisputably impressed his caucus colleagues) reflects poorly on Bridges’ ability to distinguish strategy from tactics. Yes, he succeeded in bluffing Labour’s less-than-stellar Leader of the House, but in doing so he marked himself and his party as ruthless, opportunistic and untrustworthy.

It is an indication of just how low the moral bar of our public life has been set that Bridges’ behaviour was widely interpreted by political journalists as evidence of his fitness to lead. Not so. The failure of Simon Bridges, National’s Little-Boy-Lost, to fire the imagination of the New Zealand electorate merely demonstrates how comprehensively the moral sensibilities of ordinary voters exceed those of the men and women who claim to represent them.

This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Thursday, 4 October 2018.

Tuesday, 2 October 2018

The Devil's Imagination.

The Final Solution To The Climate Question? The ordinary citizen labours under the huge disadvantage of an inadequate imagination. Against those who are able to envisage the most appalling behaviour; conceive the most heinous crimes; the ordinary person stands defenceless. Small lies, told in little matters, are no match for the gross impudence of those who possess the Devil’s imagination.

THE ONLY TRULY outstanding insights the Nazis ever shared with the world were those pertaining to propaganda. The most memorable of these was Adolf Hitler’s explanation of “The Big Lie”.

“[I]n the big lie there is always a certain force of credibility; the broad masses of a nation are always more easily corrupted in the deeper strata of their emotional nature than consciously or voluntarily, and thus in the primitive simplicity of their minds they more readily fall victims to the big lie than the small lie, since they themselves often tell small lies in little matters, but would be ashamed to resort to large-scale falsehoods. It would never come into their heads to fabricate colossal untruths and they would not believe that others could have the impudence to distort the truth so infamously … the grossly impudent lie always leaves traces behind it, even after it has been nailed down.”

“It would never come into their heads”. The ordinary citizen labours under the huge disadvantage of an inadequate imagination. Against those who are able to envisage the most appalling behaviour; conceive the most heinous crimes; the ordinary person stands defenceless. Small lies, told in little matters, are no match for the gross impudence of those who possess the Devil’s imagination.

Consider the behaviour of the tobacco industry. It discovers that medical science has identified a causal link between cigarette smoking and lung cancer. Their product, if used as demonstrated in countless movies and television advertisements, has the capacity to kill the people who purchase it. What to do? The ordinary citizen would, naturally, expect the industry to either shut itself down voluntarily, or, be shut down by the regulatory authorities. After all, retailing a poison to unsuspecting customers is self-evidently immoral.

What the ordinary citizen failed to account for, however, was the Devil’s imagination. With billions of dollars at stake, the tobacco industry devised an extraordinarily effective defensive strategy. The evidence linking cigarette-smoking with lung cancer was, they insisted, contested. The science wasn’t settled. More research was necessary. To outlaw smoking – a perfectly legal personal habit – would be a gross over-reaction.

Decades later, the smoking of cigarettes is still perfectly legal. Governments have found the courage to warn smokers of the dangers, but nowhere has there been a government brave enough to ban tobacco-smoking outright.

So successful was the tobacco industry’s self-preservation strategy that the fossil fuel industries copied it. As the scientific community’s warnings about anthropogenic global warming grew in volume, the global suppliers of coal, oil and natural gas argued strenuously that the evidence was contested. The science wasn’t settled. More research was required.

The crisis confronting Big Coal, Big Oil and Big Natural Gas was, however, much more serious than the one which confronted Big Tobacco. Historically-speaking, capitalism and the burning of fossil fuels are joined at the hip. Curtail one and you curtail the other. Any effective strategy for dealing with global warming could not help but reduce the power and reach of the capitalist system. But, as Vice-President Dick Cheney so succinctly put it: “The American way of life [by which he meant the global capitalist system] is not negotiable.” It was, once again, time to summon up the Devil’s imagination.

Hence the Fossil Fuel Industry-inspired “Big Lies” that anthropogenic global warming is either a scientific “hoax” or a “left-wing plot” to bring down the capitalist system. Earth’s climate is always changing, they argue. Long before human-beings made their appearance, the planet was, by turns, boiling hot and freezing cold. If, and the word “if” is emphasised, the planet is going through another warming period, then 1) it’s not our fault; and 2) there’s nothing we can do about it except adapt the best way we can. After all, with just a tiny fraction of the technology they now possess, human-beings made it through the Ice Age!

Which is all very well, as far as it goes, but not even Big Coal, Big Oil and Big Natural Gas are stupid enough to believe their own propaganda. Indeed, their own scientists were among the first to realise the danger which industrialisation’s vastly increased emissions of carbon-dioxide posed to the planet. Their Big Lies have bought them some time – but that’s all.

Besides, the rest of the capitalist system’s major players aren’t as easily gulled as the broad masses who voted for Donald Trump. The Devil’s imagination will have to come up with something much more effective than simply “muddling through”.

And it would need to be a little more sophisticated than simply buying up land in New Zealand. The consequences of runaway climate change promise to go well beyond the capacity of the “One Percent” to manipulate and manage. From the multiple crises unleashed by global warming there is simply no way that the safety and survival of the global ruling-class can be assured – not on a planet overburdened with nine billion increasingly desperate human-beings. It might take them a while, but eventually enough of the living dead will make to the front gate of Peter Thiel’s bunker.

Unless, of course, 90 percent of those human-beings could be made to disappear. What would it take? Just one billionaire and one brilliant bio-chemist who believes with all his heart that the planet’s survival depends upon a sudden and decisive crash in the human population. The attraction, from the billionaire’s perspective, being that he gets to decide who will perish in the world-wide viral pandemic his mad scientist has cooked-up – and who will be given the vaccine.

If such a terrible final solution to the climate question has never come into your head, then it is only because, to your credit, you lack the Devil’s imagination.

This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Tuesday, 2 October 2018.

Sunday, 30 September 2018

Pulling Down The Shades (Satire)

Under Wraps: “Let me begin by thanking all of you for the sterling effort you have all contributed towards keeping this potentially difficult situation contained. The New Zealand Defence Force is forever in your debt.”

“SHALL WE MAKE A START?”, said the man from the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet, ostentatiously rearranging the pile of documents stacked in front of him and glancing up sharply at the five other participants seated around the polished Rimu table. The meeting-room windows overlooked the parliamentary complex below. A howling Wellington southerly sent raindrops clattering, bullet-like, against the glass.

“Colonel, perhaps you would like to begin?

The taut, middle-aged military man straightened his back and cleared his throat.

“Let me begin by thanking all of you for the sterling effort you have all contributed towards keeping this potentially difficult situation contained. The New Zealand Defence Force is forever in your debt.”

“Yes, I should say it bloody-well is!”, interrupted the young woman from Crown Law. “And you’re just damned lucky that the Operation Burnham Iinquiry heads, Sir Terence Arnold and Sir Geoffrey Palmer are both reasonable men. Because if they were inclined to be unreasonable, then this whole god-awful mess could easily have become a great deal messier!”

“Gwen! My dear young woman”, the Chairman intervened unctuously. “These proceedings will go a lot more smoothly – and quickly – if we all refrain from interjections. Colonel, you were saying.”

The soldier, who had been glowering at the lawyer, turned his eyes back to the prim little man at the head of the table.

“Thank you, Mr Chairman. As I was saying, the potential difficulties associated with the Operation Burnham Inquiry – most particularly the risks associated with the proceedings being conducted in public – have largely been resolved to the NZDF’s satisfaction. Practically the entire inquiry will now be conducted in secret with access to the most sensitive evidence restricted to those with only the highest security clearances. A very small and select group, Mr Chairman, which does not include Messrs Hager and Stephenson!

A ripple of laughter went around the table.

“Madame Director, is there anything you wish to add”, said the Chairman, nodding in the direction of the bespectacled Director of the Security Intelligence Service.

“There’s not a great deal to add to what the Colonel has already told us, Mr Chairman. Obviously those of us in the Service and our friends at the [Government Communications Security] Bureau were deeply disturbed at the prospect of an open and transparent public inquiry into Burnham. The reaction of the Americans would have been one of extreme dissatisfaction and, of course, our Australian cousins would have exerted every muscle to outdo them in the dissatisfaction stakes.”

Laughter once again rippled around the table.

“We can laugh now,” interjected the Director of the GCSB, “but there was serious talk about our being chucked out of the Five Eyes. Do you know that the Deputy-Director of the NSA even went so far as to suggest that it might be time to conduct a re-run of Operation Shut-Down.”

“Which is what, exactly?” Chipped-in Gwen from Crown Law.

“Which is the sequence of events that ensues should New Zealand either withdraw or get chucked out of the Five Eyes Agreement. Not to put to fine a point upon it, the Americans get to occupy the Bureau for as long as it takes them to secure and remove every single file we possess. When Operation Shut-Down is over, New Zealand’s intelligence capabilities will be roughly the same as Samoa’s.”

“And that is not something we at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade could contemplate with anything remotely resembling equanimity.” All eyes turned to the tall and tousled young man dressed in a superbly tailored blue suit, white cotton shirt and shimmering gold tie. “It has taken MFAT the best part of thirty years to restore our relationship with Washington. We are not about to sit back and see that effort reduced to ashes on account of half-a-dozen extinct Afghans.”

“Who were blown to pieces by our trigger-happy friends from the USA”, hissed Gwen, “in an revenge raid over which the NZDF exercised complete operational control. An operation which should never have been authorised and which, apart from killing six civilians – including a student teacher and a little girl – and injuring 15 others, did not manage to kill or capture even one of the Taliban insurgents believed to have been involved in the attack that killed Lieutenant Tim O’Donnell. An operation whose multiple fuck-ups the NZDF did everything in its power to cover-up.”

The Colonel was on his feet. “I will not hear the NZDF slandered in this fashion, Mr Chairman. I would ask you to exclude this person from the meeting!”

But Gwen would not be silenced. “Oh yes, I’m sure it would suit the NZDF for there to be no one in this room with even a semblance of understanding of the level of illegality associated with Operation Burnham. And not just Operation Burnham. The NZDF has been recklessly breaking the law for years in an attempt to keep its crimes in Afghanistan and Iraq under wraps. Handing captives over to the CIA’s spooks to be tortured and killed? Nobbling witnesses? Perjury? What would you say, Colonel? How many of these is the NZDF willing to put its hand up to? One? Two. All three? None?”

The Chairman was on his feet.

“It’s alright, Mr Chairman, I’m leaving. I’ve been lawyering long enough to know that the people in this room are guilty of participating in activity which, were this a trial and not an inquiry, would come perilously close to conspiring to pervert the course of justice. When I joined Crown Law, I thought I’d be holding the powerful to account. Instead, I find myself devising ways for keeping the misdeeds of the powerful shrouded in darkness – safe from the disinfectant of sunlight. This – you – are not what I swore an oath to uphold!”

Gwen snapped her ring-binder shut, stuffed it into her briefcase, and with a derisory snort, left the room.

“You’re surely not going to tell me that that young woman was given a security clearance?”, said the tousled young man from MFAT.

“The very highest”, replied the Chairman, ruefully shaking his head.

“Not for much longer”, sniffed the SIS Director, tapping the screen of her smart-phone. “Not for much longer.”

This short story was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Thursday, 27 September 2018.

Saturday, 29 September 2018

Operation Burnham Inquiry To Proceed Under Cover Of Darkness.

Hit & Miss: The Coalition Government should have done everything in its power – up to and including the passing of special enabling legislation – to ensure that the military was prevented from hiding behind the smoke-screen of “national security”. To preserve public confidence in the decency and honesty of the NZ Defence Force it is imperative that everything the military knows about Operation Burnham, the people of New Zealand should know also.

THAT MOST OF the Operation Burnham Inquiry will be closed to the public is deeply troubling but hardly surprising. From the moment of its announcement by Attorney General David Parker, the inquiry had about it an air of reluctance and limitation. As if the entire exercise was in some way illegitimate: the product of forces which had usurped the natural order of things and were being placated only because failing to do so would undoubtedly make matters worse. The heavily armed guardians of our society neither encourage nor welcome scrutiny. On the contrary, they expect the state to keep them safe from citizens’ prying eyes. From the outset, it was clear that the public (and its proxy, the news media) would be prevented from seeing and hearing anything it hadn’t already seen and heard about Operation Burnham.

It is worth asking why political parties so sharply critical of Operation Burnham when they were in Opposition have been so ready to accede to the demands of the New Zealand Defence Force (NZDF) now that they’re in government. The Inquiry is, after all, being held to ascertain the truth or falsehood of allegations levelled against the NZDF in the book “Hit & Run” by investigative journalists Nicky Hager and Jon Stephenson. Was the NZDF responsible for the deaths of six Afghan citizens – including a little girl – or wasn’t it? Did our Special Air Service hand over captured Afghan insurgents to the Afghan security forces to be tortured – or didn’t it?

Such questions put the decency and honesty of the New Zealand military squarely in the cross-hairs of public scrutiny. Surely, a government determined to have a decent and honest defence force would not only move heaven and earth to have these questions answered, but also to have them seen to be answered. To that end, the Government should have done everything in its power – up to and including the passing of special enabling legislation – to ensure that the military was prevented from hiding behind the smoke-screen of “national security”. To preserve public confidence in the decency and honesty of the NZDF it is imperative that everything the military knows about Operation Burnham, the people of New Zealand should know also.

Naturally, the NZDF’s defenders have objected that the idea of politicians sending civilian investigators to rifle through the military’s files is outrageous. How can our allies trust the NZDF with their secrets if at some future point they could be revealed for all the world to see? The problem with that question is the implied assumption that there are some secrets that the world has no right to see. Like the video recording handed over to Wikileaks by Private Bradley (now Chelsea) Manning showing innocent Iraqi civilians being gunned down by the crew of an American helicopter gunship. But why should evidence of a war-crime be hidden beneath the shrouds of national security? What sort of military hides proof of murder?

A decent and honest NZDF would not have the public doubt in any way its willingness to co-operate fully in an inquiry into whether or not it deliberately gunned down unarmed civilians? After all, a military that could collude in suppressing evidence of murder could collude in all manner of crimes. It could be guilty of commissioning perjury, or conspiring to pervert the course of justice. It could be guilty of crimes so numerous and so serious that its commanders can only tremble at the thought of civilian investigators applying the disinfectant of sunlight to the accumulated reek of its misdeeds.

Which is why the fact that most of the Operation Burnham Inquiry will be carried out in the dark is so concerning. What sort of inquiry grants the legal representatives of interested parties only “summaries” of the evidence presented? What sort of a judicial officer submits to a “security clearance” before being allowed to view that evidence? And, when did the doctrine of national security override the right of the people to see justice done?

Two thousand years ago the Roman poet Juvenal asked: “Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?” “Who will guard the guards themselves?” In relation to the Operation Burnham Inquiry the answer would appear to be: Not the Government. And, not the Inquiry heads; Sir Terence Arnold and Sir Geoffrey Palmer.

In New Zealand, the guardians have no guards.

This essay was originally published in The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 28 September 2018.

Friday, 28 September 2018

CTO-gate: Smoke Gets In Our Eyes.

To Good To Be True? Derek Handley, an old friend; someone of her generation; superbly qualified for a job that needs to be filled by someone sympathetic to her government’s aims and objectives; on his way back to settle permanently in New Zealand; gets in touch via her own party’s president. Why would Jacinda Ardern be suspicious? Where would the harm be in letting him have her private, private e-mail address?

THE BIG QUESTION is, can they pull it off? Can the National Party do to Jacinda Ardern what Labour tried, but failed, to do to John Key: destroy their opponents’ most powerful political asset? The slightly smaller question is: If this is National’s intention, then how deep does the conspiracy go?

In this morning’s edition (27/9/18) of Politik, Richard Harman reveals that, on Monday night, PR maven and former National Party president, Michelle Boag, contacted Politik and asked for its e-mail address. Within 24 hours, Harman reports, copies of Derek Handley’s e-mail messages and text conversations with Jacinda and her hapless minister, Clare Curran, had arrived in the website’s e-mailbox.

Put these facts together with Winston Peters statement, made in the House of Representatives, that Boag is working for Handley, and a number of troubling questions present themselves.

The first and the most obvious: Is it Handley’s intention to do political harm to his “friend” – Jacinda Ardern?

It certainly looks as though damaging the Prime Minister’s reputation is exactly what he’s trying to do. Why else would he release his electronic communications with Jacinda while she is in America? It is difficult to imagine he could be unaware of the effect his release of this information would have on what was shaping-up as a triumphal progress through the UN auditoria and television studios of New York.

That Handley might be angry with Jacinda is understandable. The position of Chief Technology Officer had been given to him – only to be snatched away without warning following the fall of Curran. It is entirely plausible that a person in his position would be feeling aggrieved and anxious to have people know the full story.

But why would Handley involve Boag in the process? Especially when he has his own PR adviser, Julie Landry, to handle the release of such material. Boag, in conformity with her long-standing policy, has refused to confirm or deny whether Handley is her client. It is, however, difficult – given her call to Politik – to form a more plausible conclusion.

And it’s here that the questions begin to go dark: especially for those with a conspiratorial turn of mind; because, immediately, the suspicion looms that the whole Handley-for-CTO exercise may have been an elaborate set-up.

Clare Curran was not, when all is said and done, the most robust minister in Jacinda Ardern’s Cabinet. If one was looking for a politician to weave a complicated plot around, Clare would be hard to go past.

What’s more, all those National Party MPs with cabinet experience are well aware of how useful it can be to have a private, back-channel means of communicating with friends and allies. Not every person who ministers meet, and not everything they need to talk to them about, is the sort of information they want all-and-sundry scrutinising in their official ministerial diaries. For people new to high office, the temptation to direct friends and allies past the official gatekeepers (and diary managers) is very strong. Entangling Curran in a web of unwise communications would not be all that difficult: indeed, with a bit of luck she would do it all by herself. National had only to ask the right questions and file the appropriate OIA requests.

And it’s right about here that the truly nagging doubt arises. Did our millennial Prime Minister; one of a generation for whom personal networking has become second-nature; someone who lives on and through her devices; fail to perceive the risks of continuing to work that way in an environment where every form of communication is recoverable – and may be used in evidence against her?

An old friend; someone of her generation; superbly qualified for a job that needs to be filled by someone sympathetic to her government’s aims and objectives; on his way back to settle permanently in New Zealand; gets in touch via her own party’s president. Why would she be suspicious? Where would the harm be in letting him have her private, private e-mail address?

Unless. Unless. Unless. No, the Nats just aren’t that clever – are they? Actually, some of them – Michelle Boag in particular – are extremely clever. Chess players from way back and as unforgiving as an executioner’s axe. More importantly, they have a target with only a fraction of the protection Key possessed. The “System” supplied the Prime Minister from Merrill Lynch with the sort of impenetrable political body armour the Prime Minister from the International Union of Socialist Youth can only dream about.

When Mike Williams flew across the Tasman in search of dirt on John Key, he could not be at all certain that, even if he found it, Key’s friends in the upper echelons of the mainstream news media would use it. Boag knows full well that National can rely upon a cabal of very senior political journalists and commentators to blow the smallest misstep by Jacinda Ardern into a full-blown decline-and-fall epic. She also knows that, contrary to Nietzsche’s claims, attacks which fail to kill politicians do not make them stronger – they make them weaker. The voters cannot see smoke without thinking of fire. Blow enough smoke in their eyes and they stop seeing clearly.

And that is all the National Opposition needs.

This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Friday, 28 September 2018.

Wednesday, 26 September 2018

Virginia Crawford's Duty To Offend.

Tough Love: It is impossible to listen to the Fraser High School Principal, Virginia Crawford’s, speech without hearing in every word and phrase her passionate understanding of just how important education is to freeing people from the social conditions – and expectations – that imprison them.

THE PRINCIPAL OF Hamilton’s Fraser High School, Virginia Crawford, has been roundly criticised for warning her students about the strong correlation between truancy and failure in the world beyond high school. The push-back against Crawford’s address culminated in a walkout by around 100 of Fraser’s senior students on Monday 24 September 2018. But, what if she was telling the truth?

Very few people have been willing to test Crawford’s claims empirically. To ascertain whether the behaviours she warned her students against: truancy, substance abuse, petty crime; are, indeed, common factors in the much more serious social indices of functional illiteracy, long-term unemployment, prolonged periods on social welfare, repeated incarceration, mental health problems, sexual assault, domestic violence and, most disturbingly in relation to young New Zealanders – suicide.

This is strange, since a great deal of work has already been undertaken in this area by those convinced of the efficacy of the National Party’s “social investment” initiative. The whole point of the social investment project was to identify the “warning signs” of individual and/or family dysfunction so that the authorities could intervene and, hopefully, forestall, that individual’s and/or family’s decline into irremediable social pathologies. Those warning signs were precisely the behaviours alluded to in Crawford’s address.

“Every student who walks out of the gate to truant is already a statistic of the worst kind, highly likely to go to prison, highly likely to commit domestic violence or be a victim of domestic violence, be illiterate, be a rape victim, be a suicide victim, be unemployed for the majority of their life, have a major health problem or problems, die at an early age, have an addiction - drugs, gambling, alcohol or smoking.

“The more you truant, the more likely you are to end up as one or most of those statistics. I don’t want you to be one of those statistics. Economic research confirms everything I am telling you. It’s been proven. Some young people at Fraser today are still proving that message to be true.”

One of the Principal’s sternest critics is Herald columnist, Deborah Hill Cone, whose argument is best summed-up in the old aphorism: ‘Give a dog a bad name and hang him.’ “Being told by an authority figure you are certain to become a grim statistic is more of a danger to young people than skipping class”, Hill Cone warned Crawford. “In some very pervasive, unconscious and dogged ways we become what we are expected to be.”

There is something quite touching about Hill Cone’s faith in the individual’s ability to rise above the awful impetus of social causation and statistical correlation. “And try to remember this,” she advises the students of Fraser High in her Monday column, “your principal, Virginia Crawford, has absolutely no idea what your life is going to be like. None of us do. And she has no right to tell your story.”

Many would argue, however, that Crawford not only has the right, she has the duty, to speak plainly and forthrightly about the awful statistics to which so many of the students attending Fraser High School are likely to contribute in the months and years ahead of them. Telling them, as Hill Cone would have her do, that: “It’s your soul, and your story to construct” is all very bracing and Kiplingesque, but it is highly debateable as to whether it will do as much good as telling them that buckling down and working hard at school is just about the only way out of the dead-end working-class suburbs which for so many of them constitute the boundaries of the known world.

A number of the parents of Fraser High School students have taken offence at Crawford’s comments and are threatening to withdraw their offspring from the school until such time as its errant principal is replaced. Like so many of us, they do not like to think too much about the uncanny ability of insurance underwriters to correlate specific behaviours with specific outcomes in the setting of their clients’ premiums. Rather than condemn Crawford for her predictions, might it not be more helpful for their children’s futures to ask themselves whether the behaviour they have been modelling in their own lives bears out or refutes the Principal’s fears?

Nothing did more to shatter the rigid boundaries separating New Zealand’s social classes than the First Labour Government’s ringing affirmation that every New Zealander “whatever his [or her] level of academic ability, whether he [or she] be rich or poor, whether he [or she] live in town or country, has a right, as a citizen, to a free education of the kind for which he [or she] is best fitted, and to the fullest extent of his [or her] powers.”

It is impossible to listen to Crawford’s speech without hearing in every word and phrase her passionate understanding of just how important education is to freeing people from the social conditions – and expectations – that imprison them. She knows that there is a vast, beautiful, exciting and intensely rewarding world beyond the borders of “Nawton or Dinsdale or Western Heights” – just as she knows that the students of Fraser High School who play truant on a regular and prolonged basis are, statistically-speaking, the ones least likely to ever get to see it.

This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Tuesday, 25 September 2018.

Sunday, 23 September 2018

Has Neoliberalism Colonised Our Minds?

Welcome To Our World: The parallels between colonialism and the arrival of neoliberal ideology are striking. There was the same extraordinary confidence that the new order was, essentially, irresistible. That, putting it in the simplest terms, there was “no alternative”. With their old leaders and old institutions gone, the populations of the advanced western economies soon found themselves in the same powerless position as the victims of colonisation.

DR CHRIS HARRIS has been inspiring me for more than 20 years. He is one of those rare individuals who sees clearly the lines of force connecting individuals, classes, events and institutions in the present historical moment. His latest insight: that neoliberalism has replicated in the advanced economies of the West the same master/servant, foreign/indigenous power dynamic which once characterised colonial societies; is particularly exciting.

Colonisation presents a distinctive and consistent historical narrative. Foreigners in pursuit of specific economic objectives arrive in other people’s territory. The newcomers’ cultural confidence, supplemented by their superior firepower, quickly overawe the indigenous elites, who are easily persuaded to grant them privileged access to the resources they seek. In return, the local rulers are promised a share of the newcomers’ profits. Thus compromised, the ruling elites’ legitimacy is undermined and the newcomers move swiftly to fill the resulting power vacuum. The colonised population, if it is unlucky, then succumbs to the newcomers’ microbes and declines into demographic and economic irrelevance. Or, if they remain demographically significant, are forcefully reduced to economic and political impotence. Sullen enemies of the new order, they wait for their colonial overlords’ to make a mistake.

The parallels with the arrival of neoliberal ideology are striking. There was the same extraordinary confidence that the new economic doctrine was, essentially, irresistible. That, putting it in the simplest terms, there was “no alternative”. The intellectual and economic corruption of the existing elites similarly mirrors the colonial experience – as does their political collapse and replacement by the most ruthless exponents of the new, now dominant, ideology. With their old leaders and old institutions gone, the populations of the advanced western economies found themselves in the same powerless position as the victims of colonisation. Uncertain as to whether resistance or accommodation offered them the best hope of individual and familial security, they became involuntary participants in the complete transformation of their societies.

The question raised by Harris is whether what is happening in the advanced societies of the West: Brexit, Trump, the gathering momentum of populist leaders and parties in the formerly liberal nations of Germany, Denmark, Italy and Sweden; is in any way comparable to the anti-colonialist revolts that shaped so much of the twentieth century? Certainly, the near collapse of the globalised capitalist economy in 2008, and the mortal wound it inflicted on the credibility of neoliberalism, is analogous to the blows inflicted upon the power and prestige of the British and French Empires by the Japanese during World War II. The white imperialists, it seemed, could be beaten. Much of their power was bluff. Meaning: the moment colonial peoples found the courage to call their masters’ bluff, the days of empire were numbered.

Nowhere, argues Harris, can this analogy be drawn more sharply than in the United States. In the eyes of more and more Americans the “Establishment” has become the source of all their woes. People’s trust in the system is evaporating, and with it is disappearing what little legitimacy it still enjoys. Drawing on the writings of the radical writer, Umair Haque, Harris characterises the United States as  “a profoundly unstable imperial patchwork-quilt with a large population that does not enjoy full citizenship or personhood”. In his view, the United States is undergoing “an internal decolonisation revolution against a hated and distant elite that has made the locals into a helot underclass in the land of their birth.”

New Zealand is by no means exempt from the effects of this unravelling neoliberal hegemony. In this country, also, there is a large colonised population presided over by a distant and hated elite. We, too, have constructed an underclass whose full citizenship and personhood is routinely denied in overcrowded prisons; at the counter of the local WINZ office; and by “unconsciously biased” teachers, medics and cops.

That the sharpening of social tensions in New Zealand is happening at a much slower rate than in the United States or Europe is due, almost entirely, to the relative ease with which New Zealand passed through the Global Financial Crisis. Even so, by 2017 the National-led government’s increasingly obvious inability to treat all of New Zealand’s citizens as full persons left it with insufficient support to continue in office. Its replacement, the Labour-NZF-Green Government stands pledged to restore full citizenship and personhood to those Maori New Zealanders still suffering from the effects of the country’s original colonisation; as well as to the internally colonised victims of neoliberalism’s thirty-year rule.

The biggest problem faced by Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and her coalition partners is how to transition New Zealand from the cruelties of neoliberalism to a new economic and social order guided by the “politics of kindness”. It’s a problem accentuated by the absence of the “revolutionary carnivals” that have so often accompanied the throwing-off of colonial rule. Like the Brexit vote in the UK and the election of Trump in the USA, what happened last September and October in New Zealand represented the downtrodden voters’ confused reaction to the manifest failings of neoliberalism – not their confident endorsement of a coherent alternative.

The failure of the National Government’s opponents to develop a coherent alternative to neoliberalism is beginning to define their political and economic management. The victims of the old order still stagger under the burden of an essentially unmodified status-quo. The situation now prevailing is, therefore, akin to a hard-pressed colonial power granting its subjects the mere phantom of self-rule. The neoliberal colonisers, in their pith helmets and baggy shorts are still in charge, and the longer they remain so, the more ridiculous their phantom government will be made to look.

Revolutions are not made by half-measures.

This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Friday, 21 September 2018.