Friday 27 November 2020

The Second Term (With Apologies To William Butler Yeats)

Yearning and yearning for a comforting liar
The people will not hear the truth, nor trust the truth-teller;
Stories fall apart, the centre is not real;
Mere dull geometry to gull a duller world.
Our poll-driven narrative is loosed, but everywhere
The target audience refuses to be wowed.
The best shun social-media, while the worst
Still tweet with manic imbecility.

Surely some course-correction is in hand?
Surely it’s time to take our Second Term in hand!
Our Second Term! Hardly are those words out
Than grainy video-clips, recorded in the Eighties,
Download to my device. Images of conferences past;
A shape with Jim Anderton’s body and Matt McCarten’s head;
A gaze blank and pitiless as Tova O’Brien’s
Is holding a media conference, while all around it
Reel journos of the indignant Fourth Estate.
The cellphone screen goes blank; but now I know
That declaring “They are Us”
And stamping out the coronavirus
Were just the first rough drafts of an historical drama
Still struggling with its author to be born.

Chris Trotter

This poetic parody was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Friday, 27 November 2020.

Spit & Polish: A National Party Story.

Consensus Politician: Following his victory in the 1960 general election, National’s second prime minister, Keith Holyoake, stretched himself out like a smug family cat over the sunny years of the early 1960s and purred.

THERE’S A STORY about the National Party that always struck me as important. It concerns National’s most successful leader, Keith Holyoake.

The year was 1938 and Holyoake was fighting to retain his Motueka seat. It was a particularly bitter campaign. After three years in office the Labour Party was seeking re-election on the strength of its impressive record of achievements and the promise of a radically expanded welfare state. National’s leader, Adam Hamilton, had described Labour’s legislation (due to come into force in April 1939) as “applied lunacy”. Labour’s Mickey Savage had responded by calling it “applied Christianity”. Everybody understood that an awful lot was at stake.

Even in the predominantly agricultural Motueka electorate, voters were keyed-up and anxious about the Election’s outcome.

Workers feared a return to the desperate conditions of the Great Depression’s worst years. The years when the main cities were convulsed by riots and unemployed men were sent to the hated “hunger camps” – where they toiled in remote locations to keep the Government’s meagre “dole” flowing to their families. So bitter was the social climate in those days, that a rumour claiming a right-wing MP had told the unemployed to “eat grass” was widely believed.

The idea of going back to those times inspired a dangerous mixture of panic and rage. When Holyoake turned up to an election meeting in Motueka he was greeted by an angry crowd of Labour supporters. Struggling to enter the hall he was showered with spittle.

Most people who are spat on generally emerge from the ordeal hating the spitters. It is to Holyoake’s eternal credit that he did not respond in this way. Instead, he pondered upon the intense fear and loathing that must have inspired it. He asked himself how bad things must have got; how much suffering people must have endured; to provoke such uncouth behaviour? Most importantly, he asked himself how the National Party could ever hope to be elected while people continued to believe that its members had once told desperate men and women to “eat grass”?

It took National many years to live down its association with the “Hungry 30s”. Indeed, it was not until National abandoned its plans to roll back Savage’s welfare state that the electorate was willing to vote it into office. Not that this concession signalled a softening of National’s intense hatred for the labour movement. Barely a year into its first three-year term, the National Government, led by Sid Holland (a former member of the proto-fascist New Zealand Legion) had plunged New Zealand into the “temporary tyranny” of the 1951 Emergency Regulations – promulgated to crush the staunchly left-wing Waterside Workers Union and its allies.

Through all this class conflict and Cold War paranoia, Holyoake held fast to his vision of a very different National Party. Conservative, yes, but not reactionary in the vicious tradition of Hamilton and Holland.

Recognising that a shift towards an accommodative conservatism was National’s only ticket to long-term survival, Holyoake’s caucus colleagues elected him to lead the party into the 1957 general election. National lost – but only very narrowly. By 1960 New Zealand was ready for Holyoake, and Holyoake was ready for New Zealand.

Thirteen years ago, I wrote: “Following his victory in the 1960 general election, National’s second prime minister, Keith Holyoake, stretched himself out like a smug family cat over the sunny years of the early 1960s and purred.”

Not that it was all plain sailing. There was a war to support (although not too strongly) in Vietnam, and a balance-of-payments crisis to be overcome. But, through it all “Kiwi Keith” remained the amusingly “plummy”, but always accessible, first minister of the “Half-Gallon, Quarter-Acre, Pavlova Paradise”.

Over the course of National’s twelve-years in office (yep, twelve!) the spat-upon man of 1938 oversaw New Zealand’s consolidation into a “property-owning democracy” of unparalleled prosperity and security.

As New Zealand’s most successful party, National is prone to forgetting how it became so, and what sort of leader is required to keep it so. For every Keith Holyoake, Jim Bolger and John Key, there’s a Sid Holland, Rob Muldoon and Jenny Shipley. For every leader who understands that a party calling itself “National” must govern “for every New Zealander”, there’s another drawn, irresistibly, to the sort of policies that make working-class voters want to spit on its candidates.

This essay was originally published in The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 27 November 2020.

Thursday 26 November 2020

A Caucus Of Velvet Gloves.

Uniformly Diverse: There is one very simple reason why this government, comprised overwhelmingly of members of the Professional-Managerial Class, will find it almost impossible to understand what the bottom half of New Zealand society needs: because it is supremely confident that it already does.

NEW ZEALAND now boasts one of the most diverse parliaments on the planet. In terms of gender, ethnicity and sexuality, the governing Labour Party’s caucus, in particular, bears testimony to the work of many progressive politicians, over many years, to transform “diversity” from a pious ideological aspiration into a flesh-and-blood political fact. Quite an achievement.

But, it is also an achievement fraught with danger. Because, as Bryce Edwards points out in his recent Guardian article, the Labour Party’s diversity does not extend to class. The fact is that New Zealand has a parliament – and a government – drawn overwhelmingly from the Professional-Managerial Class (PMC). The perils of this social monoculture should be obvious. It can only raise a formidable barrier to understanding – and hence addressing – the needs of those living in the bottom half of New Zealand society.

This is not simply a problem founded on ignorance: a case of Labour not knowing what it doesn’t know about life in the Otaras and Flaxmeres of New Zealand. It’s much worse than that.

The PMC is distinguished by the role it plays in mediating Capitalism’s relationship with its most injured victims. Without the PMC army of lawyers, probation officers, social workers, health professionals, academics, teachers, journalists and “communications specialists” to extinguish the fires ignited constantly by economic exploitation and social exclusion, the whole of capitalist society would soon be engulfed in flames.

The PMC is what you create when the price of relying exclusively upon police officers, judges, jailers and soldiers to keep the bottom half under control grows too high. It’s the velvet glove that Capitalism pulls on to hide and soften its iron fist. For this subterfuge to work, however, the PMC has to believe that it knows much better than Capitalism’s casualties what’s good for them. There is one very simple reason why a government comprised overwhelmingly of members of the PMC will find it almost impossible to understand what the bottom half of New Zealand society needs: because it is supremely confident that it already does.

Nowhere has this “we know best” attitude been on display more clearly than in Oranga Tamariki. A more compelling example of the PMC’s inability to comprehend the sheer scale of its failure is hard to imagine. The idea that the “lower orders” might actually have a better grasp of what is needed to keep their children safe is simply inconceivable to the bureaucrats set in authority over them. These people are the “problem” – so how could they possibly be included in the search for solutions?

One has only to watch Melanie Reid’s harrowing Newsroom video to see the PMC at work. The employees of Oranga Tamariki quite literally put themselves between the victim and the Police – not to protect the young Maori mother, but to do everything possible to ensure that the “uplifting” of her child is effected without recourse to actual force.

The PMC’s stock-in-trade is institutional violence. The injuries it inflicts may be no less severe, but they are certainly more easily hidden than those caused by physical violence. For Capitalism, internal bleeding is always preferable to blood on the streets.

Those Labour supporters feeling confused and distressed by the Government’s apparent deafness to the cries of need arising from the poorest and most exploited New Zealanders should understand that when it comes to Labour’s caucus that deafness is a feature, not a bug. Alert Labour MPs to overt displays of misogyny, white supremacy, anti-Islamic prejudice and/or homophobia, and watch them spring into action. These are injustices that Capitalism is only too happy to help progressive politicians eradicate. Socio-economic injustices, however, are a different matter.

Any serious attempt to eradicate these wrongs would constitute a direct challenge to the capitalist system as a whole, and since the PMC looks upon capitalism as the most effective and efficient system for allocating resources that humankind has so far developed, undermining its operation in any serious way would be considered irrational. While it is perfectly acceptable to help those “doing it hard” to respond to capitalism’s needs, expecting capitalism to respond to their needs (in any meaningful way) is politically unrealistic.

The Ministry of Social Development (the clue to its mission is in the name!) will organise job clubs and offer help with beneficiaries’ CVs, but it will not pay a benefit which ensures them a secure and dignified existence. What incentive would there be to kowtow to the boss if, secure in the knowledge that they could live easily on the unemployment benefit until a better opportunity came along, employees felt free to tell employers where to stick their lousy jobs? For capitalism to work, so must the rest of us, at wages and under conditions set by the bosses – not the workers. Employees who no longer fear the sack are capitalism’s worst nightmare.

The members of Labour’s parliamentary caucus – the largest ever – will undoubtedly bridle at the very suggestion that they belong to a class made up of capitalism’s little helpers. Many will, no doubt, wax eloquent about their working-class origins, or the years they spent on the DPB. Not the point. The effectiveness of the PMC is, in large measure, guaranteed by so many of its members’ historical proximity to poverty. Being able to say: “I know what you’re going through, I’ve been where you are.”, makes the PMC’s advice and solutions all the more credible. After all, if these important people got up and away from the shitty world in which the poor remain trapped, then maybe they can too.

This is, of course, capitalism’s oldest and most persuasive narrative: from rags to riches (or, at least, from a benefit to a six-figure salary). Except of course, the story is only ever about individual – not collective – emancipation. Capitalism can cope with people moving from rags to riches one at a time; but not all at once. Celebrating identities over which we have no control (ethnicity, gender, sexuality) poses no threat to the institutions that keep the capitalist system on its feet. Telling people that they have the collective power to build a new world, on new foundations, does.

I, for one, would be delighted to hear capitalism’s little helpers in the Labour caucus giving voice to such dangerous ideas. I am much more likely, however, to hear them bragging about their caucus being, at last, a true reflection of New Zealand society. And if, by that, they mean Labour’s team faithfully reflects the forces preventing New Zealand society from becoming a fairer and more compassionate society, then I can only agree.

This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Thursday, 26 November 2020.

Tuesday 24 November 2020

"Goodfellas": The Neoliberal National Party Shows Its Ugly Face.

Unaccountable? A reasonable National Party member might have anticipated that a president who led his party to the second-worst defeat in its history would feel obliged to fall upon his sword in recognition of the scale of his failure. Such a member would have been disappointed. Peter Goodfellow (above) was unanimously re-elected president by National's Board of Directors.

ABOUT THE ONLY thing the National Party has got going for it at the moment is the Labour Party. National’s AGM, held in Wellington over the weekend, achieved worse than nothing. It proved conclusively that the political structures created by the party’s post-2002 constitution are impervious to  membership pressure. It showed New Zealand how far the party’s talent pool has shrunk since John Key vacated the leadership in 2016. Worst of all, in the speech of National’s President, Peter Goodfellow, New Zealanders got to hear the vile neoliberal narrative in which the party has trapped itself. Were it not for the similarly delusional mindset evident in the leadership of the Labour Party, National could expect to remain out of power for at least the next 6-9 years.

When Judy Kirk and Steven Joyce set about re-writing the National Party constitution in the aftermath of the disastrous 2002 General Election – when National attracted just 20.9 percent of the Party Vote – the resulting document betrayed the extent to which the political imperatives of neoliberalism had superseded those which drove the party’s formation in 1936.

Back then, the urgent need was to create a mass political party to match the formidable strength of the Labour Party. The political historian, Barry Gustafson, quotes Tom Wilkes, one of the National Party’s most important ‘founding fathers’, describing Labour as “numerically and financially … the greatest political organisation that has ever existed in the history of [New Zealand].” In Gustafson’s own words: “National needed to match it with an effective but more democratic mass-based party, whose members would control candidate selection and play a major role in shaping policy.”

Even the right-wing parliamentarians and former army officers driving the merger of the United and Reform parties – predecessors of the National Party – understood that a mass organisation could not be built on anything other than a constitution which guaranteed a large measure of democratic participation and control to the rank-and-file membership.

Eighty years on, however, the neoliberal concept of “governance” elevated the concepts of professionalism and organisational efficiency well above those of the often chaotic and unpredictable outcomes associated with democracy. Accordingly, Kirk and Joyce did their best to transform National from a political party into a political corporation – complete with a Board-of-Directors. At the time, even Blind Freddy could see than the latter was bound to become self-selecting and self-perpetuating oligarchy.

It is interesting to speculate as to why the Electoral Commission approved the Kirk-Joyce constitution. The Electoral Act requires all registered political parties to have recognisably democratic rules. No genuine democrat could possibly mistake the National Party’s constitutional arrangements as the basis for anything other than oligarchy. Yes, there were provisions that permitted members to cast votes, but the core democratic principle: full accountability of those at the top to those at the bottom; was almost entirely absent. Clearly, the Commission is not prepared to call to account any political party that might one day be in a position to have it abolished! Alternatively, its members, like Kirk and Joyce, may also be of the view that “good governance” should always trump democratic accountability.

Certainly, there was no concession made to accountability by Peter Goodfellow. A reasonable National Party member might have anticipated that a president who led his party to the second-worst defeat in its history would feel obliged to fall upon his sword in recognition of the scale of his failure. Such a member would have been disappointed.

Under National’s old constitution, the membership might have responded to Goodfellow’s failure by voting him out of office. But, under the Kirk-Joyce constitution, that sort of root-and-branch change is no longer an option. Power flows down, not up, in the National Party of 2020. Presidential patronage takes precedence over presidential proficiency. No National Party members with parliamentary ambitions are going to put themselves off-side with the Board.

It is precisely this unwillingness to take risks – this enforced sycophancy – that explains why it has become so hard to attract persons of principle and courage to National’s ranks. When the only behaviour that counts is the sort of behaviour that wins the Board of Directors backing at candidate selection meetings, then it should come as no surprise that politicians of John Key’s calibre no longer seem to make it in the National Party. That Key was selected under the rules of the old National Party constitution – as were Bill English, Don Brash and Judith Collins – is surely no accident. Likewise, that Simon Bridges and Todd Muller were selected under its neoliberal replacement!

At the heart of the neoliberal mindset, now seemingly unchallengeable in the National Party, is the belief that capitalism and democracy are essentially incompatible. Democracy begets more democracy. “Certain inalienable rights” if honoured, have a way of discerning additional inalienable rights. If allowed to develop unchecked, democratic institutions will, eventually, arrive at the gates of private property and private profit and demand admittance. Hence the neoliberal obsession with “governance”: which is more truthfully rendered as “democracy on a tight leash”, or, even more truthfully, “decision-making that – at all costs – protects capitalism”.

Goodfellow’s speech to the AGM fairly reeked with this antagonism towards any political leader and/or political institution failing to protect the interests of capitalism. In National’s world, the rights of private property and private profit must always take precedence over every other consideration: even the health of the population; even in the face of a deadly virus and a global pandemic.

Jacinda Ardern’s clear and uncompromising decision to put the interests of her fellow citizens ahead of the interests of the individuals and corporations Goodfellow is so good at extracting donations from, earned her his own, and to a degree little short of repellent, his party’s, sneering contempt. Oh yes, he dressed it up in euphemistic language like “celebrity politics” and “temporary tyranny”, but what he meant was: “You broke the rules. You put people ahead of profits. You have identified both yourself and your party as unfit to manage a modern capitalist economy.”

The tragedy, of course, is that Ardern half-pie agrees with him. With Covid-19 stamped-out (for the meantime) and the need to act instinctively no longer in evidence, the Prime Minister has reverted to the political and moral default position of her generation: neoliberalism. Led by her head, Ardern’s path forward is practically indistinguishable from that which National would have followed had it, by some miracle, ended up commanding a majority of the seats in Parliament.

Led by her head, the Prime Minister, like her party, subscribes to the notion of “good governance”. Why else is she refusing to take the steps necessary to address New Zealand’s rapidly worsening housing crisis?

Presumably, because that would involve requiring monetary policy to serve the interests of the homeless – not property investors. Presumably, because that would require those at the top of our society being accountable to those at the bottom.

But, most of all, because it would require Jacinda to do what “Jacinda” does best: respond to a crisis by following the urgings of her heart.

This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Tuesday, 24 November 2020.

Saturday 21 November 2020

Meeting The Overwhelming Quantum Of Need: A Modest Proposal For Ending New Zealand’s Housing Crisis.

Deja Vu: Architectural drawing of the mass housing development planned for Auckland by the Ministry of Works in the mid-1940s. Had the First Labour Government not been defeated in 1949, virtually all of the housing and transport problems now besetting Auckland could have been avoided.

IT COULD BE DONE. This government could make a serious attempt to house the 20,000 people waiting for social housing before the next election. It would, however, require them to do something they have, so far, showed no willingness to do: think outside the neoliberal box – like socialists.

Part of the present problem – quite a large part – is the sheer logistical difficulty in gearing up New Zealand’s already over-extended construction industry to meet the overwhelming quantum of need. This isn’t 1936, there aren’t tens-of-thousands of carpenters, roofers, plumbers, electricians and other construction workers desperate for employment. That’s the challenge. Finding the human and other resources needed to house the homeless.

To make any impression on this problem it will be necessary to import workers from abroad. This was key to the successful Christchurch re-build, and it will likely be the key to solving the housing crisis. The question is: where are we to find the expertise and labour force required to accommodate 20,000+ people in less than three years?

There is only one place to go looking for this sort of assistance – the Peoples Republic of China. Few nations on earth have a construction workforce large enough to take on such a massive job, but China does. The Chinese have been building infrastructure all over Africa for more than 20 years. They are used to deploying hundreds – sometimes thousands – of workers to foreign lands and then bringing them home when these country-to-country joint ventures are completed. They have even more experience in constructing accommodation for the hundreds-of-thousands of Chinese citizens who every year abandon the rural interior of China for its burgeoning coastal cities. In the space of just a few years whole new cities have risen out of the ground.

This is what New Zealand’s government needs to do: enter into a joint-venture with the Chinese Government to construct massive, multi-storied, housing complexes in which all those New Zealanders in urgent need of warm, dry, affordable and secure accommodation can find it.

Interestingly enough, the designs for precisely this sort of mass accommodation, along with the social infrastructure necessary to ensure that it is translated into viable and vibrant communities, already exist. They were drawn up nearly three-quarters-of- a-century ago, by the Department of Housing Construction of the Ministry of Works. Had Labour won the 1949 general election, Auckland, in particular, would have been a very different city. Not so much a poor man’s version of Los Angeles, as a lucky man’s version of Copenhagen or Stockholm. (One more disaster to blame on the National Party!)

Of course every China-hating xenophobe and red-baiter will throw up their hands in horror at such an out-there suggestion. Their problem, however, is not being able to come up with any viable suggestions of their own. Where, for example, would they lay their hands on the skilled workforce necessary to erect ten, twenty, thirty housing complexes? As things now stand, New Zealand would be hard-pressed to erect the accommodation for the workers needed to build the accommodation!

The only way to get ahead of the ever-lengthening state house waiting-list is to build big and build fast. We simply don’t have time to recruit and train the people necessary to do the job ourselves. No sooner had we assembled a workforce large enough to tackle the problem, than we would be faced with assembling another, even bigger, one!

Maybe, if we could outbid the wage rates of Australia’s construction industry, or America’s, availing ourselves of China’s could be avoided. But, you know how it goes: a few extra billion here, and few extra billion there, and pretty soon you’re talking serious money! Besides, how keen would the government of either of those countries be to involve themselves in such an openly socialistic programme? Nowhere near as keen as the comrades in Beijing!

The other objection which is certain to be raised is that why on earth would New Zealanders consent to living like the citizens of Singapore or Shanghai? How long would it take for these huge, rapidly-constructed apartment buildings to turn into high-rise slums?

The answer to that question would be ours to frame. There are ways to ensure that even large, high-rise apartment complexes are embedded in the sort of social and economic matrices that make the slide into slum status impossible. By building schools, medical facilities, shopping-centres, police stations and youth centres into the plans, the feelings of isolation and abandonment that have historically contributed to the development of slums can be avoided. Similarly, by ensuring that these apartments are situated in employment-, transport- and recreational-rich zones, the complex networks making for vibrant communities can be hard-wired into the project.

The proof of this concept can be found in the tragic history of “Red Vienna”. So successful was the post-World War I construction of worker housing in the Austrian capital, and so vibrant the socialist working-class culture it created, that the right-wing Austrian government ordered the Austrian Army to destroy the workers’ quarter of Vienna with shellfire in the bitter class conflicts of 1934. The enormous danger embodied in Vienna’s example of what the progressive imagination could produce, if given the chance, had to be eliminated – no matter at what human cost.

And this is the reason why this present government, barring a change of heart of truly Damascene proportions, will not dare to go down this path. Not only would such a truly transformational joint-venture between Wellington and Beijing produce something very close to panic in Washington and Canberra, but it would also cause near-fatal conniptions at Treasury and in just about every other neoliberal institution across the country.

Socialism doesn’t grow out of thin air: it emerges from an infrastructure in which collectivism – not individualism – has been encoded in our institutions’ standard operating procedures. The creation of carefully-planned, well-resourced, state-owned apartment complexes: the result of co-operation between the Labour Party Government of New Zealand and the Communist Party Government of China; marking the end of homelessness for 20,000 of the country’s poorest citizens; would not only be a red flag to the Right’s most vicious bulls, but also the best thing that happened to the New Zealand working-class in three-quarters-of-a-century.

At last, the Politics of Kindness could take on the indisputable solidity of bricks-and-mortar, and, at last, the Prime Minister’s promised “transformation” could begin.

This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Friday, 20 November 2020.

Friday 20 November 2020

The Political Economy Of Pride And Prejudice.

For The Few, Not The Many: In the face of the widening gulf between the rich and the poor, successive New Zealand governments have opted for the same role that Jane Austen chose to play while her beloved England busied itself defeating Napoleon Bonaparte and the revolutionary egalitarian impulses he embodied. They have transformed a narrow and privileged layer of New Zealand society into the only part of New Zealand society that matters. 

JANE AUSTEN’s literary skills are so prodigious that they distract us from the political landscape in which her novels unfold. Historically-speaking, the England of Pride & Prejudice, of Elizabeth Bennett and Mr Darcy, was a brutal place. For all but the very narrow social layer in which Austen’s novels are uniformly set: the world of aristocratic, genteel and commercial families; life was an unrelenting struggle to keep oneself and one’s family out of the clutches of the cruel and oppressive English state.

This was, after all, the era of the press-gang, indentured labour, transportation to Australia, imprisonment for debt, and those semi-festive demonstrations of state power – public hangings. On the hills outside Austen’s charming rustic villages and stately homes, gibbet-cages (and their decaying contents) swayed in the wind. Grim reminders of the fate that awaited those who violated the sacred laws of private property.

Not that genteel families like the Bennetts were entirely exempt from the iron laws of inheritance and property. Mr Bennett’s landed estate, Longbourn, is entailed – that is to say it can only be inherited by his closest male relative. As the father of five daughters, this leaves his family acutely vulnerable to the whims of his cousin, the sycophantic clergyman, Mr Collins. The law of entail thus provides the motive force for Austen’s plot. Making it, unintentionally we must presume (although with Austen one can never be sure!) a treatise on the political-economy of marriage in Regency England.

It was only 27 years after the publication of Pride & Prejudice that New Zealand became a colony of the British Empire. Indeed, one of the prime movers behind its colonisation, Edward Gibbon Wakefield, bears a more than a passing resemblance to Austen’s charmingly wicked Mr Wickham! It was Wakefield’s intention to reproduce in New Zealand a more-or-less exact replica of that rigidly class-divided rural England so lovingly depicted in Austen’s novels. Unfortunately, for Wakefield and his ilk, this version of England, with its “rich man in his castle, poor man at his gate” was precisely what the Scots, Irish, Welsh and English settlers who arrived here were fleeing.

If the settler history of New Zealand has any coherent theme (apart from the methodical dispossession of the Maori) then it is surely the multi-generational effort to beat down the political, social, economic and cultural privileges of class. For more than a century-and-a-half, New Zealanders have struggled to make it possible for every responsible and industrious citizen to acquire his or her own version of “Longbourn” – a home to call their own.

Alas, that vision of a New Zealand unencumbered by a parasitic landlord class, where a young person can make their way in the world on their own merits, irrespective of what they stand to inherit from their parents, is fast dissolving. A vast and politically dangerous gulf is opening up between the very wealthiest New Zealanders and their multi-propertied enablers in the professional and managerial classes; and the rapidly expanding mass of precariously employed, under-employed, and exploited workers, before whom the mirage of home ownership shimmers ever more distantly.

In the face of this widening gulf between the rich and the poor, successive governments have opted for the same role that Austen chose to play while her beloved England busied itself defeating Napoleon Bonaparte and the revolutionary egalitarian impulses he embodied. They have transformed a narrow and privileged layer of New Zealand society into the only part of New Zealand society that matters. Like Austen, they have deleted this country’s beaten-down and exploited working-class from the narrative’s list of serious characters. If they appear at all it is incidentally. Like Austen’s ubiquitous but inconsequential servants, they are necessary, but undeserving, ultimately, of serious attention: politically, economically, socially or culturally.

It’s a situation that cannot last. Jane Austen was followed by Charles Dickens: Pride & Prejudice by Bleak House. Austen’s rustic England swiftly succumbed to capitalism’s “dark satanic mills” – and their socialist dismantlers.

A similar reckoning lies in store for us, 18,000 kilometres from Austen’s shires, should this present government persist in behaving like Mr Collins in the presence of Lady Catherine De Bourgh. If our prime-minister, channelling Austen, continues to insist that:

“It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a Labour Government in possession of a good majority, must be in want of the will to behave like one.”

This essay was originally published in The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 20 November 2020.

Thursday 19 November 2020

The Hollow Persons (With Apologies To T.S. Eliot)


     Let’s do this
     Let’s keep moving


We are the hollow persons
Inflated with hot air
Hanging together
For fear of hanging separately. Cut!
Our empty promises, when
First we make them,
Are far from empty.
We are inflamed by the thrill
Of passionate sounds,
Like Boomers watching porn,
Mistaking the image for the deed.

Policy without intention, sincerity without truth,
Activity without consequence, politics without effect.

Those who have moved on
From office to retirement, that powerless state,
Understand us best – see us clearly – not as lost
Treacherous souls, but only
As the hollow persons
Inflated with hot air.


Eyes I dare not meet in studios
Or the Green Room
Thankfully do not appear:
There, all eyes blaze
Like television lights
There, lips curl cruelly,
And nostrils flare
In eager anticipation of
A broken political career.

I will not go again
To that dream factory
I’ll wear no more
The deliberate disguises of
Commentator, pundit, expert
In my field
Holding up a finger to discover
The prevailing political wind.

No more fulsome greetings
In the shallow money trench.


It is a wavering realm
Guided by autocues
Raising statues of flesh
To receive each morning
The offering of last night’s ratings
Restoring a twinkle to fading stars.
   It is not like this
Outside the make-up room
Abiding alone
In those hours when
The camera’s tenderness
Is removed
And all earpieces fall silent.


There are no eyes here
No prying eyes
In this valley of abandoned dreams
This valley of hollow victories
Strewn with the broken bones of promises

   In this place of suspended hope
We cling to one another
Avoid commitment
Try to swallow the crumbs of official praise.

Paralysed, unless,
From somewhere,
A choir of cast-off heroes,
Voices from history,
Sing solidarity songs
To gather-in our lost flock
Of empty persons.


This is the way we wash our hands
Wash our hands, wash our hands,
This is the way we wash our hands
Of everything left in the morning

  Between the Caucus
And the Treasury
Between the promise
And the press-release
Falls the shadow

               For this is the Empire of Neo-liberalism

  Between the Mosque Massacre
And KiwiBuild
Between the stamping out of Covid-19
And the ending of child poverty
Falls the shadow

               It’s only a three year term

  Between the Politics of Kindness
And the MSD counter
Between the promise of transformation
And maintaining business confidence
Between the loyal working-class
And the fickle middle-class
Falls the shadow

               For this is the Empire of Neo-Liberalism

For this is
Only a three year term

This is the way Jacinda ends
This is the way Jacinda ends
This is the way Jacinda ends
Not with a pang but a simper.

Chris Trotter

This poetic parody was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Thursday, 19 November 2020.

Tuesday 17 November 2020

If Only We Had A Minister Of Broadcasting Worthy Of The Title.

Worryingly Uninterested: Given Broadcasting Minister Kris Faafoi’s evident uninterest in the classic Reithian principles of public broadcasting – i.e. to educate, elevate and entertain the people – any review of his motivations for rolling-up TVNZ and RNZ into a single, state-owned broadcasting entity, leaves one fearing the worst.

MORE OR LESS OFFICIALLY, this government is committed to merging TVNZ and RNZ into a single, monolithic, publicly-owned broadcasting entity. The temptation to support this idea enthusiastically is strong. For a Minister of Broadcasting to even contemplate such a dramatic revision of the public broadcasting status-quo surely implies a deep understanding of how poorly the current entities are performing, while signalling a firm intention to offer TVNZ’s and RNZ’s audiences something better. You would, however, be well advised to curb your enthusiasm. The chances of this policy proving successful are so low they make KiwiBuild look like a safe bet.

Consider the policy’s provenance: the Office of the Minister of Broadcasting, Kris Faafoi. This is the man who, having been briefed on RNZ management’s proposal, endorsed by RNZ’s board, to effectively destroy RNZ Concert – in favour of a “Yoof” channel – failed to identify any significant problems with the idea. That failure, along with the public outcry and political embarrassment it occasioned, should have seen him stripped of the broadcasting portfolio. Unfortunately, so uninterested is the Labour Cabinet in public broadcasting – and the media in general – that Faafoi continues to hold the warrant.

Given the Minister’s evident uninterest in the classic Reithian principles of public broadcasting – i.e. to educate, elevate and entertain the people – any review of Faafoi’s motivations for rolling-up TVNZ and RNZ into a single, state-owned broadcasting entity, leaves one fearing the worst.

The first motivation that springs to mind is straightforward, old-fashioned, cost-cutting. Rather than fund RNZ properly (as Faafoi’s predecessor, Clare Curran, promised to do more than four years ago) the current minister might simply be seeking the approbation of the Finance Minister by freeing-up an extra $15 million for some eye-catching and vote-winning alternative. (Something to do with Rugby, perhaps?)

Another motivation could be a strong desire to get rid of the governance and management personnel who caused him such acute political embarrassment. Any merging of RNZ and TVNZ would, almost certainly, be to the disadvantage of the smaller and weaker radio network. Perhaps Faafoi is anticipating that the big television elephants will make short work of the tiny radio mice? As a former TVNZ journalist, he is likely to identify much more strongly with the populist instincts of his former employers, than he is with what remains of the public service ethos at RNZ. Killing two birds with a single stone always elicits hearty cheers from career politicians.

Then again, it might be some sort of confused, ham-fisted attempt by elements within the Ministry of Heritage and Culture (MHC) to stop the rot in both state broadcasters and drag them, kicking and screaming, into some semblance of awareness of their obligations to New Zealand’s democratic political system, and to the cultural needs of the citizens they are supposed to serve.

Unfortunately, that is the least likely explanation for the proposed merger. After multiple changes at the upper echelons of the MHC there is simply not the critical mass of tough and talented public servants needed to drive through such a visionary (not to mention ideologically suspect) project.

To be reasonably confident of this (or any) government pulling off a successful and progressive merger of TVNZ and RNZ, the public would need to have been properly prepared by means of a full-scale public inquiry into the strengths and weaknesses of both entities. Those leading the inquiry would need to be genuinely independent, as well as fully conversant with the way public broadcasters are funded, managed and protected in other Western countries. Most obviously, it would study the Australian Broadcasting Corporation and the BBC, but it would also review the public broadcasting arrangements in Western Europe and North America.

The problem with this “solution” is, of course, that only a government already cognisant of the vital role effective public broadcasters can play in lifting the cultural and political discourse of a nation could contemplate such an inquiry. And, as we have already established, this is not such a government.

If it was, and if it had a Minister of Broadcasting and Communications worthy of his title, then New Zealanders might expect to see, hear and/or read about a minister who was not afraid to raise issues pertinent to the quality of public broadcasting in New Zealand.

Such a minister might ask why the important role of political commentator on RNZ’s Nine to Noon show is apparently now restricted to public relations personnel and pollsters with strong ties to the two major political parties, rather than to individuals demonstrably at arm’s length from these institutions, such as university academics, trade unionists and independent journalists and commentators. This was, after all, the previous practice – why the change?

That same minister might also wonder aloud why so much commentary on economic matters is provided by economists employed by the major trading banks, rather than, once again, by qualified individuals without quite so much skin in the game?

Or, why so many of our leading state broadcasters are more interested in the sound of their own voices, than in the voices of the unfortunate people they invite on air to interrogate and interrupt?

Questions might be raised as to why so much of the prime-time schedule is devoted to reality TV shows? Why there is so little political satire commissioned and broadcast on state television? Why the rural and business sectors are so well-served by our public broadcasters, while the lives of industrial and service sector workers are considered unworthy of such regular and dedicated journalistic scrutiny? Why we have a programme called Country Calendar, but not one called Working Life? Why sport flourishes while the arts struggle to be heard?

A government purporting to be “progressive” would not only ask these questions, it would question why they needed to be asked. Its Cabinet would be filled with people for whom the life of the mind was more important than likes on Facebook and followers on Twitter. Such a government would be filled with politicians who are as interested in reading books as they are in balancing them.

Most of all, it would have a Broadcasting Minister who made it his, or her, business to gather together the brightest, the bravest and the most creative souls this country can offer, and then provide them with the resources needed to broadcast back to New Zealanders their own compelling, revelatory, uplifting and unique reflections.

That is the sort of public broadcasting policy New Zealand needs: exactly the sort of broadcasting policy it is not going to get.

This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Tuesday, 17 November 2020.

Friday 13 November 2020

Jacinda 2.0 is "Licenced To Govern" - But Not By, Or For, Us.

Government By Permission:  That phrase: “a licence to govern” brings into sharp focus so much which has been unclear to the tens-of-thousands of New Zealanders who voted Labour-Green in confident expectation of ushering-in a period of much-needed, but long-delayed, change. It explains why – in spite of her outstanding communication skills and empathy – Jacinda Ardern finds it impossible to follow the examples of Mickey Savage and Norman Kirk. 

WHAT HAS HAPPENED to Jacinda Ardern? What has become of the woman who promised to “transform” New Zealand through the “Politics of Kindness”? Where is the woman who forged a team of five million and coached it through the Covid-19 pandemic? Why is the woman who won 50.1 percent of the Party Vote refusing to respond to the needs of the poorest New Zealanders. What in the Blue Blazers is going on?

Contrast the present Labour Government’s refusal to give the poor a happy Christmas with this little vignette from Labour’s past.

“Shortly after his election as Labour Party leader in 1961, Arnold Nordmeyer was asked by the New Zealand Broadcasting Corporation to recall for its listeners ‘My Most Memorable Christmas’. He spoke movingly of the first Labour Government’s decision, in December 1935, to advance the equivalent of an extra week’s relief payment to all the unemployed as a “Christmas Bonus”. That single act of state generosity, he said, sent ripples of hope and goodwill through thousands of destitute families and hundreds of cash-strapped communities. By Christmas, its effects were evident across the whole of New Zealand.”

Alternatively, there’s the extraordinary interview conducted by David Frost with New Zealand’s newly-elected Prime Minister, Norman Kirk, early in 1973. About 3 minutes into the interview Kirk talks about the letter he received from a disabled woman, thanking him for the special Christmas payment he made to all social welfare beneficiaries in December of 1972, and telling him what the extra money had made possible. Here’s the link

Jacinda Ardern is rightly celebrated for her communication skills and for her demonstrations of empathy, but set her performances alongside Kirk’s in that interview and the huge gulf that separates the current Labour Government from its predecessor of 1972-75 is immediately apparent. Yes, the world has become a very different place, and the conduct of centre-left politics has changed dramatically. But human compassion and political authenticity are just as easy to spot in 2020 as they were in 1973. Something has been removed from our political leaders, something important. What is it? And who took it?

The answer – appropriately enough – lies in the turbulent history of the 1970s. At the heart of that history was Capitalism’s ruthless fightback against what its intellectual leaders regarded as the unwarranted, and increasingly uncontrollable, inflation of democratic expectations.

Capitalism’s problem, in a nutshell, was that too many people wanted – and were demanding – too much. Across the industrialised West, decade after decade of rising prosperity had freed ordinary people, especially young people, from the relentless pursuit of bread and butter. Having secured their freedom from raw material deprivation, people were seeking the freedom to become something more than an employee, more than a consumer. Working-class men; women of all classes; people of colour; gays and lesbians: all of these groups were demanding the right to be considered – and to become – fully human.

Nowhere is this phenomenon better described than in Ariel Dorfman’s seminal book on cultural imperialism – The Empire’s Old Clothes. In the first chapter of the book, Dorfman recalls being approached by a young woman from one of the shanty-towns that encircled Chile’s capital city, Santiago. Professor Dorfman, and some of his students, had come to help the shanty-dwellers repair the damage wrought by a recent flood.

“She came up to me and asked quite frankly if it was true that I thought people shouldn’t read photo-novels”, Dorfman writes – alluding to his crusade against the “industrial products of fiction.” Comics, soap operas, westerns, radio and TV sitcoms, love songs, films of violence: “you name it”, quipped Dorfman, “I had it under scrutiny.”

“So I stopped digging and answered her. It was true. I thought that photo-novels were a hazard to her health and her future.*

“She did not seem to feel any special need for purification. ‘Don’t do that to us, companerito,’ she said in a familiar, almost tender way. ‘Don’t take my dreams away from me.”

A few years later, about the same time David Frost was interviewing Norman Kirk, Dorfman was in the same shanty-town for the opening of a new community centre – one of the many thousands of collective initiatives funded by the socialist government of Salvador Allende – when he encountered the same woman:

“I didn’t recognize her at first, but she remembered me. She came up to me, just like that, and announced that I was right, that she didn’t read ‘trash’ anymore. Then she added a phrase which still haunts me. ‘Now, companero, we are dreaming reality.’”

For nearly 50 years now, this is the dream/nightmare that has driven the politics of the Capitalist West. How to prevent ordinary people from making their dreams real through collective action. Certainly, it is no accident that the “cure” for too many dreams began in Chile. After the USA had “made the economy scream”, and General Augusto Pinochet’s troops had gunned down Salvador Allende in his Presidential Palace, it was to Chile that the “Chicago Boys” – the followers of Milton Friedman – came to show the world how Capitalism could be kept safe from Democracy.

And the “lessons” from Chicago just kept coming. Across the Tasman, Labor Prime Minister Gough Whitlam’s government was deposed in a bloodless coup by his own Governor-General (and CIA asset) Sir John Kerr. Fortunately for ordinary New Zealanders, Norman Kirk’s untimely (and extremely convenient) demise in August 1974 obviated the need for such a dramatic intervention here. (Although the CIA did help out the National Party by facilitating the production of some killer campaign ads for the 1975 general election.) Then, of course, there was the plot to topple UK Labour Prime Minister Harold Wilson in 1976, and the final coup de grace against the very possibility of democratic socialism – the capital strike against the French socialist government of President Francois Mitterrand in 1981. If the Left ever wanted to govern again, then it would have to lower its sights – and its red flags.

Back in the 1980s, there was a story, probably apocryphal, about Mike Moore and the powerful Australian television series The Dismissal – which dramatized the sacking of Gough Whitlam’s Labor Government in 1975. According to the story, Moore was determined to remind his colleagues about the dangers that lay in wait for Labour governments.

What Moore wanted his colleagues to appreciate was the overwhelming power that could be brought to bear against a government that threatened the interests of the people who really mattered. How vital it was to keep business on your side. How much damage the news media could inflict upon a political leader it didn’t like. How dangerous senior public servants could be if their ministers refused to accept official advice. Most importantly, he wanted to remind them of the risks posed to labour governments by stubborn idealists: politicians who refused to be guided by principled pragmatism and common sense. So Moore sat all his caucus colleagues down and made them watch every one of The Dismissal’s six, hour-long, episodes.

Was Moore on to something? Had he drawn the correct lessons from the fall of so many democratic socialist politicians and governments? More importantly, had other centre-left politicians, in other countries, reached exactly the same conclusion? Is that why the world ended up with Bill Clinton, Tony Blair, Gerhard Schroeder, Francois Hollande, Helen Clark and Kevin Rudd? Or, turning the question around, is that why the campaigns of genuine leftists like Jeremy Corbyn and Bernie Sanders so consistently come to grief?

The beginnings of an answer may be found in the following passage, taken from a speech delivered to the prestigious Wellington Club on 3 November 2020 by the veteran political journalist, Colin James:

“With National weak, Jacinda Ardern has political space to push real reform. Will she? Can she? Will Grant Robertson? Can he?

“Grant Robertson has stuck to fiscal and monetary orthodoxy. Jacinda Ardern told me back in 2018 that earns Labour a ‘licence to govern’, that is, tolerance by business and other sceptics. That is a clue to their cautious mentality.”

A clue, says James. Surely it’s something a little more definitive than that? A key, perhaps? Yes, a key.

That phrase: “a licence to govern” brings into sharp focus so much which has been unclear to the tens-of-thousands of New Zealanders who voted Labour-Green in confident expectation of ushering-in a period of much-needed, but long-delayed, change. It explains why – in spite of her outstanding communication skills and empathy – Jacinda Ardern finds it impossible to follow the examples of Mickey Savage and Norman Kirk. Those leaders believed the only “licence” a party needed to govern was the one given to them by the voters in a general election. Forty-eight years on from the Labour landslide of 1972; forty-eight years after that young shanty-dweller proudly informed Ariel Dorfman that she and her comrades were “dreaming reality”; Jacinda Ardern knows better. To drive a capitalist economy, it is first necessary to obtain a licence – from the capitalists.

But, securing the “tolerance of business and other sceptics” is not an easy thing to do. There are so many self-denying ordinances one has to offer-up: no capital gains tax; no wealth tax; no return to universal union membership; no restoration of the unconstrained right to strike; nothing to empower or embolden that reserve army of labour we call beneficiaries; nothing that might upset the business community, dairy farmers, or the fishing industry; and certainly nothing to combat climate change which in any way threatens the capitalists’ sacred right to make a profit. Nothing, in short, that could possibly upset the status-quo.

The most frustrating aspect of Jacinda’s “licence to govern” proposition is that in both historical and practical political terms she is, almost certainly, correct.

It is important to remember that both Ardern and Robertson were working in the Beehive during Helen Clark’s first term as Prime Minister. They would have heard the stories about the grim “Winter of Discontent” that followed the creation of the Labour-Alliance coalition government in the early summer of 1999. How the New Zealand capitalist class threatened to “put away their cheque-books” if there was even the slightest hint that some of the Alliance’s left-wing policies were about to be enacted. How the Finance Minister, Michael Cullen, had to abase himself before the nation’s “business leaders” at the Auckland Club. How Helen Clark felt obliged to swear that Laila Harré’s employer-funded child-care would only be introduced “over my dead body”.

The old Marxists may rail against Ardern’s and Labour’s “incrementalism” but when challenged to come up with an alternative strategy for operating safely under neoliberal capitalism, the system which, for nearly fifty years, has decreed anything more ambitious than piecemeal and largely inconsequential legislation verboten, they generally mutter something about “revolutionary action” and head for the bar.

They’re right, of course. Neoliberal Capitalism, by declaring democratic socialism and social-democracy out-of-bounds in the 1970s and 80s has, wittingly or unwittingly, left revolution as the only viable option. Not only when it comes to once again making it possible for the wretched of the earth to “dream reality”; but also when it comes to rescuing the only planet we know of in the entire universe where ordinary people’s dreams of becoming truly free and fully human can be realised.

* It would be interesting to know what Ariel Dorfman (who is still alive) makes of the sort of communications hardware and software that has become ubiquitous in twenty-first century societies. So much more powerful and compelling than the photo-novels and comics of the 1960s and 70s, our PCs, lap-tops, tablets and cellphones have made the corporations who manufacture and control them masters of the planet. The “industrial production of fiction” which Dorfman complained of back then seems quaint when compared to the scale of contemporary cultural imperialism’s reach and power. That capitalism has placed a portal to its material and imaginative production in virtually every hand on the planet should give us pause. Perhaps, like the young shanty-dweller, we will only be able to start “dreaming reality” when we throw the masters’ “trash” away?

This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Friday, 13 November 2020.

A Very American Coup?

Deconstructing American Democracy: The joy manifested on American streets over the weekend, as the news of Joe Biden’s victory spread, may soon be transformed into incandescent rage. Worse, any mass protest action in support of President-Elect Biden will, almost certainly, be answered by the mobilisation of President Trump’s own supporters – many of whom will arrive on the streets heavily armed. Widespread civil disorder and loss of life is likely to follow.

IT IS MY earnest hope that by the time you read this column, its speculations have been refuted by the facts. If they have not, then we are on the threshold of a very dark period of American history.

Let us begin with an important historical precedent.

In the summer of 1974, the US Secretary of Defence, James Schlesinger, made it very clear to the Joint Chiefs of Staff of the American armed forces that any order from the Commander-in-Chief, President Richard Nixon, to deploy US troops on the streets of the nation’s capital should not be obeyed unless countersigned by himself.

Nixon’s Cabinet had become so alarmed by the behaviour of the President, that Schlesinger’s extraordinary intervention was understood to be both prudent and responsible.

Fast-forward 46 years to 2020. The President of the United States, Donald Trump, defeated in the General Election by his Democratic Party opponent, Joe Biden, is steadfastly refusing to acknowledge his loss. Worse, the President is claiming that the election has been stolen from him by means of wholesale electoral fraud. Accordingly, Republican Party lawyers have begun filing lawsuits in the crucial battleground state of Pennsylvania. Their purpose? To prevent the certification of voting tallies from traditionally “Democratic” counties.

It can only be assumed that the political effect of such a blatant attempt to thwart the will of the American electorate will be inflammatory. The joy manifested on American streets over the weekend, as the news of Biden’s victory spread, will, in an instant, be transformed into incandescent rage. Worse, mass protest action in support of President-Elect Biden will, almost certainly, be answered by the mobilisation of President Trump’s own supporters – many of whom will arrive on the streets heavily armed. Widespread civil disorder and loss of life is bound to follow.

If the President’s behaviour during the Black Lives Matter protests is any guide, Trump will seek to quell such widespread violence and disorder by ordering the US armed forces onto the nation’s streets.

Until Tuesday morning (NZ Time) the only institutional obstacle to such a course of action being followed was Trump’s Secretary of Defence, Mark Esper. Secretary Esper had reacted with dismay to the deployment of federal law enforcement personnel – including military police – to drive protesters from Lafayette Park so that the President could walk the few hundred metres separating the White House from St John’s Episcopal Church in safety. On Tuesday morning, however, the President removed that obstacle by sacking Secretary Esper and replacing him with the Director of the National Counter-Terrorism Centre, Christopher Miller.

By Tuesday afternoon, rumours were sweeping Washington that Esper’s dismissal was about to be followed by the sacking of FBI Director, Christopher Wray, and CIA Director, Gina Haspel.

At the time of writing, both of these key law enforcement and national security officials still held their jobs. If, however, they have been sacked and replaced by Trump loyalists, then, by the time you read these words, the President of the United States will have effectively decapitated what his most fanatical supporters – the followers of the mysterious “QAnon” – call the “Deep State”.

In the eyes of these deluded Americans, their President will have struck a blow for freedom and decency, and they will be looking forward eagerly to his next move: the arrest of senior members of the Democratic Party – including, no doubt, President-Elect Biden and Vice-President-Elect Kamala Harris. If this is what transpires, then the method in the madness of the QAnon conspiracy theory will, finally, be revealed.

To those watching in Moscow and Beijing, Paris and Berlin, Canberra and Wellington, however, the nature of the events unfolding in the United States will be understood very differently. Vladimir Putin, Xi Jinping, Emanuel Macron, Angela Merkel, Scott Morrison and Jacinda Ardern will know exactly what they are looking at: a steadily unfolding coup d’état – its every step retrospectively justified and validated by a lame-duck Republican President and a lame-duck Republican Senate.

If this is the way events have unfolded since Tuesday afternoon, then only one force in American society possesses the strength to defend the US Constitution and uphold American democracy: the armed forces of the United States.

This time, however, they will not be able to rely upon the Secretary of Defence to make the necessary intervention. This time they’ll have to do it themselves. 

This essay was originally published in The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 13 November 2020.

Tuesday 10 November 2020

Revolution Postponed.

Crisis Averted - Again: In a funny/sad sort of way it’s a pity that Joe Biden won. Once again, Americans will convince themselves that the system, the Constitution, has worked exactly as it should. Yes, that same Constitution did allow a man like Donald Trump to wield full executive power for four years. But, it also gave the American people the opportunity to correct their mistake – which they have just done. So, crisis averted. Time for everyone to stand back and stand down. Sleepy Joe and Kamala have got this. (Are you listening Bernie? Do you hear what we’re saying, AOC?)

THE THIRD AMERICAN REVOLUTION has been postponed, but it has not been cancelled. With the American news media (Fox News included!) calling the Presidential Election for Joe Biden, that part of America which still believes in American democracy is allowing itself “a brief period of rejoicing”.

The followers of Donald Trump, sullen and watchful, have yet to accept the judgement of those powerful social forces for whom the news media speaks. With every day that passes without a clear call-to-arms against the fast-consolidating Biden ascendancy, however, the Red Hats’ stomach for a full-scale uprising will diminish. In the words of Shakespeare’s Macbeth: “If it were done when ‘tis done, then ‘twere well it were done quickly”. For Trump, and Trumpism, delay means death.

That a crushing coup d’état was not unleashed the moment the trend toward a Biden victory became clear bears testimony to Trump’s signature lack of organisational talent. While indisputably the master of improvisational political theatre, the President has never demonstrated the slightest ability to stick to a script – let alone write one! The slow and careful accumulation of the human and material resources necessary to seize the American state has proved, thankfully, well beyond Trump’s capacity. Hence his personal tragedy’s rapid descent into farce – as illustrated to perfection in the Veep-like absurdity of the “Four Seasons” press conference!

Were Trump and his rapidly shrinking band of courtiers to issue orders to the United States Military, demanding the forcible impoundment of the ballots in Pennsylvania, Arizona and Georgia, it is now highly unlikely that they would be followed. Nor can Trump rely upon the Supreme Court to pull his electoral irons out of the fire. The nine justices may not see eye-to-eye on many things, but it’s a safe bet that any request to nullify the largest tally of presidential votes in American history would be met with a polite – and unanimous – refusal.

Possession, they say, is nine-tenths of the law; and right now Biden has what Trump most wants: public acceptance of the “facts on the ground”. Confirmation that he will be the next President of the United States.

Where does this leave the Third American Revolution? The answer, sadly, is stalled. What should have happened in the 1970s; what could have happened in 2009 as Capitalism threatened to expire in the death-grip of the Global Financial Crisis; looks certain to be put off again. Why? Because, once again, just as the American system seemed on the very brink of political catastrophe, it rescued itself.

Think about the last time a malignant, mentally-ill President was holed-up in the White House, asking himself if he dared to strike down American democracy. Richard Nixon, in 1974, was considered so unstable that his Secretary of Defence, James R. Schlesinger, distributed a secret memo to the commanders of the military bases around Washington DC, advising them not to respond to any Presidential order to deploy troops onto the streets of the capital unless it was counter-signed by himself. It turned out to be unnecessary. The US system, the US Constitution, ended up working in precisely the way it was supposed to work. The crisis was averted. The overwhelming majority of Americans stood back and stood down.

But, not all Americans. The effective deposition of a sitting President, by putting the rights contained in the First Amendment to the US constitution to effective use, was the last straw for the most reactionary elements of the American ruling-class. Democracy was out of control. The rapid post-war expansion of the “Middle Class” had raised expectations beyond the capitalist system’s capacity to satisfy them. Organised labour was out of control. Blacks, women, minorities of all descriptions, were demanding their place in the sun. The Third American Revolution: the revolution in which the republican institutions arising out of the First American Revolution (1776-1783) and the efforts of the Second American Revolution, usually referred to as the Civil War (1861-1865), to infuse those institutions with genuine liberty, equality and democracy will finally be vindicated and transformed in a radical re-imagining of American freedom – it simply had to be stopped.

In their essence, this is what the four decades since Watergate have been about: delaying the Third American Revolution. Using this insight as a key, it is relatively easy to unlock the recent history of the Republican Party. It’s increasingly strident efforts to drive back the gains of African-Americans in the 1960s; its cynical alliance with the open misogyny and homophobia of fundamentalist Christianity; its packing of the US judiciary with reactionary judges; its deliberate debasement of US political culture and discourse: all of it has been about putting off the evil day when the full revolutionary potential of American democracy manifests itself.

And the Democratic Party? It’s history, over the past four decades, has been all about convincing both itself, and the American people, that it is not the political vehicle for bringing the Third American Revolution into being – even though anyone who pays the slightest attention to the sort of Americans who are voting for the Democratic Party knows that it must be.

Which is why, in a funny/sad sort of way it’s a pity that Biden won. Once again, Americans will convince themselves that the system, the Constitution, has worked exactly as it should. Yes, that same Constitution did allow a man like Donald Trump to wield full executive power for four years. But, it also gave the American people the opportunity to correct their mistake – which they have just done. So, crisis averted. Time for everyone to stand back and stand down. Sleepy Joe and Kamala have got this. (Are you listening Bernie? Do you hear what we’re saying, AOC?)

Except that the most reactionary elements of the American ruling-class can no more afford to stand back and stand down in 2020 than they could in 1974. Forty years on, they have so much more to lose. In 1972, when Richard Nixon won his second term in a landslide of historic proportions, the top 1 percent of Americans controlled roughly 10 percent of their country’s wealth. After 40 years of more-or-less constant counter-revolutionary success that share has grown to nearly 30 percent!

Their shield and their sword, the Republican Party, is not about to help Biden “heal America’s soul”. On the contrary, it’s going to do everything it can to exacerbate the differences within the Democratic Party and, by doing so, break-up the fragile social unity created by Trump’s anarchic improv theatre.

Deep down, the forces of reaction will be glad to see him go. The Republican president they will need to keep the Third American Revolution at bay for another 40 years must be made of much sterner stuff.

This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Tuesday, 10 November 2020.

Friday 6 November 2020

Not Quite Enough "Passionate Intensity".

The Fire And The Fury: And so, they came out and voted for him – four million more of them (and counting) than turned out for Trump in 2016. Not quite enough, it would seem, to keep their Rough Beast in the White House. But close. Far too close.

PRESIDENT BIDEN. It has a reassuring ring. A democratic ring, too, given that more Americans have voted for Joe Biden than for any other presidential candidate in US history. That is hardly surprising, since the last time such a large percentage of eligible Americans turned out to vote the year was 1900 – twenty years before US women secured the franchise! And yet, in spite of all these hopeful portents, the world is not ready to cheer – not yet.

Because it is close. Very close. So much closer than, in theory, it should be. In theory, a big turnout equals a big Democratic Party victory. For decades, the political scientists have argued that if it is poor and marginalised Americans who are boosting the numbers voting, then, overwhelmingly, they will be voting for the party which, ever since the Great Depression of the 1930s, has presented itself as the friend of the ordinary American working man and woman.

That theory now lies in tatters. The huge surge in voting numbers has, in large measure, been a bi-partisan surge. Yes, the Democrats have turned out their vote, but so have the Republicans. The latter’s strategists learned the art of the “ground game” from, of all people, Barack Obama, whose campaign team pioneered new and highly effective methods of identifying and mobilising the Democratic vote. Even those pundits sympathetic to the Democratic Party have conceded the superiority of the Republicans’ ground game in key battleground states.

But it wasn’t just the party’s ground game that turned out the Republican vote, it was Trump himself. With the energy of a man half his age, the President criss-crossed the United States on Air Force One, sometimes speaking to as many as four rallies in a single day.

The veteran Republican strategist, Karl Rove, famously advised those wishing to understand American politics to watch the television news with the sound turned down. Anyone following his advice over the course of the final few days of the campaign would have seen Trump, pumped-up and punching the air in front of rapturous crowds. Biden, careful and Covid-wary, spoke to car-parks full of masked and socially-distanced voters. With the sound down you wouldn’t even have been able to hear the beeping of their horns.

Observing these very different events from afar, it is difficult not to be reminded of the following lines from W. B. Yeats’ famous poem, The Second Coming:

The Blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

It is also very difficult not to be reminded of the political magic of the UK Leave Campaign’s Dominic Cummings – the man who made Brexit happen. With help from the notorious Cambridge Analytica, Cummings was able to communicate directly with people who, for years, had given up on politics as a mug’s game. The sort of people who chuckled when someone joked: “Don’t vote – politicians always win.” The fatal mistake of the Remain Campaign was to assume that these non-voters would stay non-voters. Their chief pollster, one of the best in the UK, built that assumption into his data analysis. That’s why he got it so wrong. That’s why the Remainers never saw Dominic coming.

It is highly probable that the US pollsters made a very similar sort of error. Certainly, Michael Moore, the left-wing US film-maker, who famously called the election for Trump as early as June of 2016, has been warning anyone willing to listen that the pollsters were dramatically under-counting Trump’s supporters.

Moore knew this because he’d made it his business to go to the places where Trump supporters lived: to the trailer parks and the endless miles of soulless suburban tract-housing. He knew because he had sought out, as Paul Simon puts it in his song The Boxer: “the poorer quarters where the ragged people go, looking for the places only they would know.” He knew it because he’d heard it from their poor, white, barely-making-it, working-class mouths: “Trump is making us great again.”

And so, they came out and voted for him – four million more of them (and counting) than turned out for Trump in 2016. Not quite enough, it would seem, to keep their Rough Beast in the White House. But close. Far too close.

This essay was originally published in The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 6 November 2020.

Tuesday 3 November 2020

A Curate's Egg Cabinet: Much Of It Is Bad, But Some Parts Of It Are Excellent.

Captain's Calls: If Ardern is serious about wanting to govern for “all New Zealanders”, then this Cabinet doesn’t offer much in the way of help. Portfolios like Foreign Affairs and Justice are critical to explaining important changes in the level of security New Zealanders can expect to enjoy both at home and abroad. The people she has made responsible for these crucial communications are simply not up to it.

JACINDA ARDERN has constructed a Curate’s Egg* Cabinet: parts of it are excellent. Overall, however, this new Labour government is an unaccountably bad production. People who deserved and should have been given/retained key portfolios didn’t get them. Others, who should never have been allowed anywhere near such important jobs have been promoted well beyond their merits. (And, one suspects, their competencies!) Clearly, the Prime Minister has been more concerned to keep the peace within her vastly expanded caucus, than she has to match the right people with the right positions. This is not a good start – and only promises to get worse.

Ardern’s key prime-ministerial decision was to appoint Grant Robertson her Deputy. Could she have done anything else? Would Robertson and his closest allies have tolerated Kelvin Davis, as Deputy-Leader of the Labour Party, stepping into the No. 2 position formerly occupied by Winston Peters?

It is certainly difficult to imagine Ardern being willing to test her closest political ally’s patience in such a fashion. She would have needed no instruction in how lowly Davis’s colleagues rated him. Nor would she have been minded to make the case that they were mistaken in their assessment. Davis’s peculiar behaviour on Election Night more-or-less sealed his fate. After that, it was simply a matter of smoothing the pillow of a dying career.

Not that Willie Jackson, the Labour Maori Caucus’ consummate “fixer”, was slow to exploit the “optics” of a Pakeha replacing a Maori in the Deputy-PM slot. Ardern would have been told that any decision to ease Davis out, if it was not to cause an embarrassing ruckus at the worst possible time, would have to be sweetened with the sugar of multiple (let’s say five) seats for Maori at (or very near) the Cabinet Table.

Ardern understood the message perfectly. As Minister for Maori Development, Jackson will have far too much on his plate to contemplate “ruckuses” of any kind for quite a while. The same, one suspects, goes for the new holder of the Defence and Whanau Ora portfolios, Peeni Henare.

Horse-trading is an old and honourable political tradition – but there are limits. No amount of fluffing-up the elevation of Nanaia Mahuta to Minister of Foreign Affairs – “the first woman in our nation’s history appointed to hold the portfolio” – can disguise the sheer awfulness and irresponsibility of Ardern’s decision.

The job should have gone to David Parker: not only because he has earned it many times over, but also because, in the years between now and the next election, New Zealand is going to need a truly outstanding Foreign Minister. Regardless of who wins the 3 November presidential election, the conflict between the USA and China is going to ramp-up into something with the potential to inflict huge damage on this country and its economy. New Zealand needs a Foreign Minister of vision, courage, verbal felicity and real, on-the-ground, experience. Mahuta, sadly, has not distinguished herself as a person over-endowed with any of these qualities.

Another portfolio requiring a person of proven sensitivity and professional experience is Justice. That Andrew Little has been shunted aside from this portfolio to drive through Heather Simpson’s mad plans for the New Zealand health system, and replaced by the unremarkable and, frankly, under-qualified, Kris Faafoi, is, once again, a decision as irresponsible as it is awful.

Some very big and very thorny issues are raising their heads in Justice, not the least of which is a Human Rights Commission which clearly sees itself as being on a mission from God (or is it Allah?) to extirpate “Hate Speech” from Aotearoa’s green and pleasant land. Is Faafoi equal to the task of making – and selling – the arguments necessary to facilitate such a significant modification of New Zealanders’ current understanding of what the Bill of Rights Act’s guarantee of Freedom of Expression vouchsafes to them?

Nothing in his career to date suggests that he is capable of handling this portfolio successfully. Labour’s greatest Justice Minister and Attorney-General, Dr Martyn Findlay (1972-75) would have struggled to prevent the Free Speech/Hate Speech issue from inflicting serious damage on Ardern’s government, and whatever else Kris Faafoi may be, he ain’t no Martyn Findlay!

If Ardern is serious about wanting to govern for “all New Zealanders”, then this Cabinet doesn’t offer much in the way of help. Portfolios like Foreign Affairs and Justice are critical to explaining important changes in the level of security New Zealanders can expect to enjoy both at home and abroad. The people she has made responsible for these crucial communications are simply not up to it.

Why then has she done it? Does she believe that neither Mahuta nor Faafoi need to be up to the job because, when it comes to selling Government policy, nobody does it better than the Prime Minister herself? It is to be hoped not. “Change that sticks” requires more than rhetoric, it requires Ministers who not only know what they’re doing, but believe in it with all their hearts. Wellington isn’t Versailles, Prime Minister. L’Etat ce n’est pas toi – Jacinda!

If the state belongs to anybody in these dying days of the neoliberal paradigm, it belongs to Treasury. With the Finance portfolio still safely in his possession, and the crucial Infrastructure portfolio newly acquired, Grant Robertson has become the Lord of Paying-Out as well as the Lord of Gathering-In. It is to him, more than any other, that the task of “building back better” has been entrusted.

But, build back better according to whose blueprint? That is the question. Has Robertson got the chops to tell Treasury what it must do to fulfil Labour’s mission? Or, does he see his job as telling Ardern’s government what Treasury is prepared to let them spend?

New Zealanders used their votes to get rid of Winston Peters’ handbrake. Eliminating Treasury’s handbrake will require a Finance Minister with a clear plan for rebuilding the New Zealand economy, and the courage to fund it. Here’s hoping we have one.

What, then, are the good parts of this poor Curate’s egg?

Jan Tinetti has a good heart and a solid record of working alongside some of the poorest New Zealanders. With the Internal Affairs and Women’s portfolios she has been given a chance to prove whether she is, on her own, equal to pushing on past the gains of her immediate predecessors, NZ First’s Tracey Martin, and the Greens’ Julie Anne Genter.

The appointment of Ayesha Verrall to the portfolios of Food Safety and Seniors, as well as to the Associate Health Minister position, ranks as easily the most exciting of Ardern’s decisions. Verrall is a prodigiously talented health scientist and Labour is very lucky to have persuaded her to join the team. Talent like hers, however, tends to make enemies in politics. Having raised her up so quickly, it is now the Prime Ministers’ duty to watch her back.

Finally, there’s the elevation of Michael Wood to Minister of Workplace Relations and Safety. This, the old Labour portfolio, will provide the most important test of the Sixth Labour Government’s willingness to live up to it name.

The legislation to introduce Fair Pay Agreements is already drafted and, with a minimum of 74 centre-left votes available to send it flying through the House, it could be law in less than six months. There is little doubt that Woods would be happy to oblige the working-class New Zealanders who made him the Member of Parliament for Mt Roskill. The question is: will his Prime Minister; will his colleagues; allow him to serve Labour’s most loyal voters? Or, will Ardern’s alarming sensitivity to the prejudices of the former National Party voters who crowned her New Zealand’s Queen of Kindness and Stability, act as a handbrake on Wood’s Labour instincts?

And, will that be the story of the next three years?

* In 1895, the satirical periodical Punch published a cartoon in which a timid Anglican Curate, having being told by his overbearing Bishop that he’s been served a bad egg for his breakfast, replies bravely: “Oh no, My Lord, I assure you, parts of it are excellent.”

This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Tuesday, 3 November 2020.