Monday, 21 December 2020

Understanding The State We’re In.

Not A Bug, But A Feature: The complex componentry of civilisation, if it is to function effectively, requires a single locus of ultimate authority – along with the human and material resources necessary to enforce its will. What’s more, the state’s coercive powers cannot be shared: everywhere and always, the state must maintain a monopoly on the use of force. In the end, the state and violence are inseparable.

THE INITIAL REVELATIONS of the Royal Commission of Inquiry into Abuse in Care are deeply troubling. For conservative leftists like myself they raise a host of unsettling questions – most particularly about whether the creation of a caring and empowering state is, or has ever been, a realistic objective.

Socialists like to believe that the state will take on the qualities, and take up the causes, of the class that controls it. A workers’ state, therefore, would naturally prioritise those issues neglected or made worse by the bosses’ state. Its institutions would never fall prey to the dark impulses of capitalists driven by selfishness and the desire for power over others. Children in the care of a socialist state would have nothing to fear.

Leaving aside the obvious rejoinders about Romanian orphanages and Soviet mental hospitals, the sunny optimism of socialist state-builders is predicated on an uncomplicated belief in “nurture” over “nature”. Human-beings are held to be infinitely malleable by the social structures in which they are enmeshed. Such innate drives as they do possess are natural, wholesome, and not the least bit problematic. Subject capitalist social structures to socialist change, and their human occupiers will also be changed – but only in a good way!

What else could socialists believe when their lives were dedicated entirely to restructuring, or even overthrowing, the capitalist state? The idea that “human nature” might be something more than a capitalist invention: something more than a fable fabricated to normalise the capitalist “virtues” of greed, selfishness and domination; would inevitably raise doubts about the feasibility of the entire socialist project. If the predatory, cruel and exploitative impulses within the human animal are as deeply ingrained as its capacity for nurturing, empathy and co-operation, then immediately the question arises: Will institutional change be enough?

The answers provided by history are not in the least reassuring. Institutions tend towards hierarchy, and hierarchy rewards certain kinds of behaviours while punishing others. Manipulation and deceit are especially effective means of advancing oneself up the institutional ladder. When augmented by narcissism and a general lack of empathy these self-propelling power-tools work even better. Institutions are far better suited to sociopaths than socialists. Certainly, the bloody history of revolutionary regimes makes that a difficult proposition to refute.

Even when launched with the best of intentions, programmes of radical transformation, and the new institutional structures needed to give them effect, are prone to generating truly ghastly – albeit unintended – outcomes. Consider the massive post-war migration of Maori from rural to urban New Zealand. Almost all of the mostly social-democratic policy-makers of the time conceived of this radical demographic shift as a very good thing. Instead of remaining a culturally isolated and economically marginalised people, Maori would be integrated into “modern” New Zealand society.

The social planners knew that such a dramatic social and economic upheaval was bound to cause problems for Maori families. The shift from rural to urban would inevitably be a wrench – especially for the young. Not all Maori parents, it was assumed, would prove equal to the task of managing the transition. To pick up the broken pieces of these new communities and stick them back together again, the Pakeha authorities began to construct a network of “children’s homes”, “special schools” and “mental hospitals” – places where those who were not “fitting-in” could have the rough edges sanded-off them.

Coercion, albeit well-intentioned, lay at the heart of these institutions. Force is not, however, conducive to the sort of positive outcomes socialists are so keen to produce. Violence, even when deemed necessary and unavoidable, tends to be kept hidden for fear of generating public outrage. Sadly, the moment an institution embraces secrecy and refuses to be held accountable for its “unattractive” behaviour, it begins to draw to it those whose predatory, cruel and exploitative impulses flourish under such conditions.

In this way, the institutional willingness to “be cruel to be kind” (in order to facilitate larger and loftier social goals) combines with the sadistic impulses of individuals to create a perfect institutional shit-storm. The resulting criminality makes secrecy even more imperative. It does not take long, however, for sociopaths and psychopaths to find out that in these irredeemably compromised institutions they can do their worst without fear of serious repercussions.

From these corrupted institutions, other, nominally healthy, state institutions cannot help becoming seriously infected. As the crimes pile up, so, too, do the questions: Who was responsible? Why weren’t they stopped? Who decided to cover it up? Somebody must have told someone – why weren’t they believed? What should we do?

Well, that one’s easy. What do bureaucrats always do when danger threatens? They cover their arses. Or, more precisely, Crown Law covers their arses for them.

The role played by Crown Law in this tragic story of good intentions gone wrong, crimes committed, and cover-ups executed, is, arguably, its most disturbing aspect. In defence of the New Zealand state and its errant institutions Crown lawyers behaved abominably. Victims of state abuse, who had come to the courts seeking justice, and some form of compensation for their appalling treatment at the hands of public servants charged with their care, were deliberately, ruthlessly and repeatedly re-traumatised by Crown Law. Briefed to protect the reputation and interests of the state, the Crown’s legal teams showed the plaintiffs no mercy. The unethical nature of these lawyers’ conduct was not considered relevant. Abuse victims were seen, simply, as threats to be neutralised. And they were.

What kind of state requires such service from its servants? And, what kind of state servant supplies it? An even more disturbing question, from the socialist’s point of view: “Is any other kind of state possible?”

The answer to that last question may very well be “No.” The complex componentry of civilisation, if it is to function effectively, requires a single locus of ultimate authority – along with the human and material resources necessary to enforce its will. What’s more, the state’s coercive powers cannot be shared: everywhere and always, the state must maintain a monopoly on the use of force. In the end, the state and violence are inseparable.

Immortal, irresistible and violent: is it any wonder that the state attract servants with “a very particular set of skills”? Not least, the skill that can keep the violence inherent in all state institutions hidden from public view. A skill which extends, necessarily, to protecting the perpetrators of state violence.

When those involved in meting out violence on behalf of the state are soldiers, police officers and prison guards, most citizens are willing to turn a blind eye. This is less true when the state servants involved are administrators, doctors, nurses, orderlies, teachers, foster-parents and priests. The public expects more of such people. What the state knows, however, is that, given power over others – especially children and young people drawn from the poorest and most powerless sections of society – a certain irreducible percentage of those to whom its authority is entrusted are bound to abuse it.

What matters – especially to the socialist – is the precise size of that percentage. If it’s one in a thousand, then a benign state remains a viable proposition. But, what if its one in a hundred? What is it’s one in ten? What if, as Professor Stanley Milgram’s grim experiment appeared to confirm more than 50 years ago, fewer than one in ten of us will refuse to inflict pain when instructed to do so by a person in authority?

In the Royal Commission of Inquiry into Abuse in Care’s interim report, released on Wednesday, 16 December 2020, the astounding figure of a quarter-of-a-million New Zealanders are estimated to have experienced abuse at the hands of their institutional carers between 1950 and 1999. That’s 5,000 persons per year, across a country which, for most of that time, had between two and four million inhabitants. When Air New Zealand Flight 901 crashed into Mt Erebus in 1979, killing all 257 people on board, it is said that just about every New Zealander had some connection with at least one of the victims. Imagine, then, how many people must have been aware that something very bad was going on in New Zealand’s state and private institutions dedicated to juvenile care.

What socialists need to ask themselves is this: “If that many people suffered, and so many people knew they were suffering, then why wasn’t it stopped?” If the best answer they can get turns out to be: “Because, in the end, citizens do not shape the state. In the end, the state shapes its citizens.” Then, perhaps, it is time, even for conservative leftists, to give anarchism a try.

This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Friday, 18 December 2020.


greywarbler said...

I've been thinking of some parts of 1 September 1939 that are so aligned with our mindset - poor W H Auden, his face creased with the weight of the heavy thoughts pulling at his cheeks, his mouth turned down. To be the receptacle of such ideas and feel obliged to receive and pass them on in understandable language must be a burden.

I sit in one of the dives
On Fifty-second Street
Uncertain and afraid
As the clever hopes expire
Of a low dishonest decade:
Waves of anger and fear
Circulate over the bright
And darkened lands of the earth,
Obsessing our private lives;
The unmentionable odour of death
Offends the September night....

Exiled Thucydides knew
All that a speech can say
About Democracy,
And what dictators do,
The elderly rubbish they talk
To an apathetic grave;
Analysed all in his book,
The enlightenment driven away,
The habit-forming pain,
Mismanagement and grief:
We must suffer them all again....

Faces along the bar
Cling to their average day:
The lights must never go out,
The music must always play,
All the conventions conspire
To make this fort assume
The furniture of home;
Lest we should see where we are,
Lost in a haunted wood,
Children afraid of the night
Who have never been happy or good...
All I have is a voice
To undo the folded lie,
The romantic lie in the brain
Of the sensual man-in-the-street
And the lie of Authority
Whose buildings grope the sky:
There is no such thing as the State
And no one exists alone;
Hunger allows no choice
To the citizen or the police;
We must love one another or die.

Defenceless under the night
Our world in stupor lies;
Yet, dotted everywhere,
Ironic points of light
Flash out wherever the Just
Exchange their messages:
May I, composed like them
Of Eros and of dust,
Beleaguered by the same
Negation and despair,
Show an affirming flame.

I think there is a nobility in trying, and supporting others attempting to make good, not following everything done before, not relying on conservative procedures which were not sufficient to prevent current problems. There must be new ways found by a minority, who must beware of the tendency to cleave to those speaking with certainty and wishing for either power to the people - diffused and confused, or power to the leaders - all-knowing, wise and not good at compromise, but inclined to dictate and diminish.

This second way keeps cropping up in religion, and also may show as patriarchy or female puritanism - seeking for certainty in consensus, both too narrow to enable a modern, evidence based society that yet has understanding of the need for the invisible, the mind that runs best on affection and respect for others to the level that they are able to return it.

greywarbler said...

As with everything that involves society and measuring it, new revelations have been made; that Milligram's experiments on pain infliction were corrupted by game-playing by the irresponsible. It has been said that acting was involved affecting the reliability of the results. I don't know how true this is, but it fits in with general human behaviour that is observed often.

Geoff Fischer said...

Certain coercive and violent practices were socially sanctioned in the discipline of children throughout most of the twentieth century.
For example corporal punishment was allowed in the family, in schools, in foster care and and in the institutions of state.
Practices which are permitted in the biological family, however, are more subject to abuse in non-familial contexts for the simple and obvious reason that there are no bonds of blood and love to constrain the actions of the child's keeper.
So in principle we should be wary of allowing the state to stand in loco parentis, at any stage of the child's life from pre-school through to university.
Having said that, there is a political aspect to child abuse, and the degree and extent of abuse is conditioned by the prevailing social values. Over the past two centuries progressive writers of fiction from Charles Dickens to New Zealand's John A Lee have used their craft to draw attention to the problem, almost certainly with some effect, even though institutional child abuse persists to this day.
There is one obvious conclusion to be drawn from our experiences of the past two hundred years, and that is if you allow the capitalist economic system to degrade and destroy the institution of the family, and then try to create institutions of state to pick up the pieces left over from that destruction, the social outcomes will range from unsatisfactory to simply horrific.
That same truth applies as much to the former Soviet Union and the regimes of eastern Europe as it does to New Zealand in the era of colonialism and neo-liberalism.
So there is a way forward, but it depends on those of both the left and the right taking a long hard look at the kind of society they have created in their enthusiasm for economic ideologies which do violence to natural social relationships and institutions.

JanM said...

"The public expects more of such people. What the state knows, however, is that, given power over others – especially children and young people drawn from the poorest and most powerless sections of society – a certain irreducible percentage of those to whom its authority is entrusted are bound to abuse it" As many will tell you in the public service sectors, such people will not only abuse those within it's care, but any other staff members who seek to do the right thing and try to stand up for the people in their care. This has happened to me more than once within the Early Childhood teaching sector - it is not uncommon.

Anonymous said...

They are adding together everything from the most hideous crimes to getting the strap and even name calling under the weasel word "abuse" to come up with some pretty dubious figures, as far as I can tell.

Barry said...

Chris - your comments could be applied to any programme that involves human behaviour that any government might consider. The State care programmes really were for what the socialists in the Government considered 'misfits' - people who didnt or wouldnt fit into the social structure that the government administrators thought to be right. The trouble was - they werent going to fit into any structure at all - no matter whose idea it was.

The same out turn will be true of the current social welfare programmes such as the various benefit structures. These started in the 1960s, have only increased since then and have failed to solve any problems. Sooner or later the same opprobrium will be thrown at them as is currently being distributed to the State care history.

But - wait - theres more! We have a government who thinks that we need protection form 'Hate Speech' - whatever that is. And we need to be able to be gender Fluid if we want to - or even change gender. Universities provide 'Safe Spaces' - and we know how they will end up - just like the safe space that State Care was supposed to be. Need I go on.
Like the history of State Care these various Government programmes will also be infested with the narcissists and psychopaths that would have been comfortable in the
State care structure.

Sooner or later I hope it will dawn on 'socialists' that there is nothing more satisfactory than societies structure that got humanity to where it is today - and that is the nuclear family. Yes it has faults and aint perfect - but it was a hellve a lot better than any State run system - which has proven never to work well for any society.

All State run programmmes have not only served to break up the traditional family - but have failed almost universally.

greywarbler said...

Barry you yourself are a misfit. In amongst people who are among the privileged to have education, access to a computer, and somewhere inside to sit and use it, and still have concern for the humanity we live in. You seem to regard society as bits of human resource to be ordered in serried ranks by whatever means is practical for those in power. This thinking can lead to some grim outcomes for those who they regard as misfits!

The nuclear family you talk about is affected by the type of society that brought nuclear warheads to reality, then use. It is not an unmitigated blessing except to people who want to be in charge of everything, with themselves at the top, wielding soft or hard coercion. In this machine-technological age this thinking is becoming more frequent, and the machines are built to align with the most linear of it, so increasing the system hugely.

Brendan McNeill said...


A couple of quotes from your article address the heart of the matter:

“the sunny optimism of socialist state-builders is predicated on an uncomplicated belief in “nurture” over “nature”. Human-beings are held to be infinitely malleable by the social structures in which they are enmeshed. “

“If the predatory, cruel and exploitative impulses within the human animal are as deeply ingrained as its capacity for nurturing, empathy and co-operation, then immediately the question arises: Will institutional change be enough?”

To quote Russian political dissident Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn:

“The line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either – but right through every human heart.”

Solzhenistsyn’s understanding came not just through those brutal years he spent in the Soviet gulags, but also from his understanding of the Bible. He witnessed the daily reality of original sin; the fallen nature of the human condition, not just from the guards and those in authority, but also from his fellow prisoners, those with whom he might have expected empathy and solidarity. He eventually grew to understand that redemption was not to be found in the enactment of any political ideology, socialist, communist, capitalist, or theocratic, nor through the bonding of shared adversity. It is found only through personal repentance and daily dependence upon the risen Christ.

This is why conservatives, those who (used to) understand the human condition in this light, appreciate that there is no perfect public policy. That every well intentioned attempt to ‘do good’ by government comes with unintended and negative consequences, usually for those it was designed to help. Therefore, politicians should focus primarily on ‘doing no harm’, rather than seeking to usher in the Kingdom of God by ideological means, The Right Honourable Michael Joseph Savage notwithstanding.

The ‘caring’ State is no more the answer to the problem of family dysfunction, than the ever expanding surveillance State is to the problem of national security. The State cannot prevent the abuse of children it outsources to ‘others’, any more than it can prevent a lone gunman from engaging in mass slaughter.

However, it’s easier to pretend that there are political answers to all of life’s problems, especially when we have politicians who are only too keen to increase the reach of the State to demonstrate their compassion.

greywarbler said...

I may have hit on the missing ingredient to tday's society - guilt. Does no-one feel guilty that they support our country to being one that refuses to supply the necesssities of a developed world life to a large number, yet lauds itself as being up in the world's achievement levels? Where the big money to be made by the self-satisfied is in cornering the market in a necessity of life, housing. Where inflation is carefully structured so that any rise in basic incomes is limited to CPI and depression-level inflation while housing goes through the roof! As the bloggers say in their rude, uncouth ways WTF.

I am fond of detective fiction which when added to my studies in Social Policy and sociology, gives an invented slice of life to read about. As anybody might do anything, it is good practice for picturing people's motives, as well as appreciating a good story teller. In this Linda Barnes book the lead character confesses that as a Jewish-Catholic child, she grew up with parents who agreed on one thing and that was 'the vital importance of guilt'. To feel guilt one must have some duty and higher behaviour to aspire to. So that is what NZ needs, and then feel the guilt when individually we don't try to retain as well as improve the standards we have here. It's not a Happiness Index that will enable us to pull our socks up and be kind to each other; I think we need a Soul Index which can be quantified and qualified, ie did you do anything good that a person wanted and enjoyed today. And it could be as a paid worker or free - the positively received action would be the criteria.

sumsuch said...

Well, you've placed your ideas out there. Rather than some surface polemic.

Makes me cry, our abuse of the needy. In the hey day of the caring state. If we address our world class negative statistics we address ourselves.

sumsuch said...

You've quelled my comments, which may well be your Summer Holidays. But you can see my support of your views in several of your blogs latterly. You talk to the particular audience and you don't want to hear someone say that? Completely understandable. But this communicable age?

I see now you're a journalist above all. And what else would pay for you, other than ... the democratic internet of this time! Much more apt actually. The Yank Left vlogs are always selling their wares as much as talking agin the plutocracy, while 'bilging' about 'Corporate Democrats'. Which is tracing their views to the money they get.

I'm as poor as Christ but I'm willing to send you a hundie.

Chris Trotter said...

To: Sumsuch

I have, indeed, been moderating your comments quite strictly of late.

My advice for the New Year: keep it civil and make a point - not a nuisance of yourself.

sumsuch said...

Sorry, Kat.

Truth matters to me as much as it matters to the people. It's our fierce bodyguards. I have a very small inheritance coming so I don't have to think about looking after myself too much.

You haven't convinced me: 'civil, make a point, not a nuisance'. You sound like someone who isn't keen on reason. While that is the Left's raison d'etre. I think mostly I annoy you and aren't powerful enough to need seriously addressing with realities.

You can't include me in the great cause? Which needs everyone available. Rather than activists at head-office?

I think you should speak your absolute truth, mate. Nothing else is good enough in a social-democratic journalist. Sure, the parties might play around but not you.