Friday 31 December 2021

Riding 2022's Revolutionary Tiger.

Get Ready For A Wild Ride: 2022 will be dominated by two “C” words: “Covid” and “Co-Governance”. Both are certain to spawn variants of unpredictable virulence from the original strain. But, as happened with the Pandemic, the unfolding of the Co-Governance Debate is proceeding in ways determined by the decisions of Jacinda Ardern’s Government.

2022 WILL BE a revolutionary year. The deliberative processes begun in 2021 on how best to reconfigure the New Zealand state in conformity with the principles of te Tiriti o Waitangi and the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples will expand and intensify throughout 2022. New Zealanders will not be able to escape the consequences of their government’s decision to set these processes in motion. Nor will that Government be able to stop what it has begun. Over the course of the next twelve months we will discover how well the people of Aotearoa-New Zealand can ride the revolutionary tiger.

Personally, I would not have unleashed the deliberations attendant upon the revolutionary He Puapua Report in the midst of a global pandemic. Profound structural and constitutional changes are, surely, best left for calmer circumstances, when the population is less distracted and agitated. Then again, revolutions could hardly have happened if the times in which they occurred were calm and devoid of social tensions. In Karl Marx’s trenchant aphorism: “Men make history – but they do not make it just as they please.”

The authors of He Puapua would have been wise to think about Marx’s words before applying their eager fingers to their collective keyboard. As the hapless King Louis XVI (1754-1793) discovered to his cost, asking the people what they want their rulers to do for them is fraught with all kinds of dangers. As any historian who has poured over the ordinary people of France’s Cahiers de doléances (Lists of Complaints) knows full well, once freed from his bottle, the Genie of Change will not be persuaded to return until the world is changed indeed.

2022, therefore, looks set to be dominated by two “C” words: “Covid” and “Co-Governance”. Both are certain to spawn variants of unpredictable virulence from the original strain. But, as happened with the Pandemic, the unfolding of the Co-Governance Debate is proceeding in ways determined by the decisions of Jacinda Ardern’s Government.

For many months now a group of distinguished Māori leaders have been formulating a detailed response to the ideas and proposals contained in He Puapua. This response, as per the Government’s wishes, will be presented to Ministers first. Only after its official receipt will the rest of the New Zealand population be asked for its view of how to best give expression to the principles of te Tiriti. You can put a ring around the prediction that the Māori and Pakeha views of how New Zealand should be governed will not be the same.

It is possible (but by no means certain) that the Māori response will be characterised by both its intellectual coherence and unmistakeable unity of purpose. If the principal Pakeha response is anything but a hot mess of outrage and anger, however, it will be a major miracle. Some Pakeha (many of them academics, public servants and, regrettably, journalists) will attempt to avoid doing the intellectual and cultural mahi inherent in the fraught processes of constitutional change by simply adopting the Māori proposals in toto. Others will decry the whole exercise as an unwanted and electorally unmandated pretext for sowing cultural division and conflict. They will not shrink from calling it treason, and branding its promoters – Māori and Pakeha – as traitors.

The great problem with the Government’s almost careless decision to foist this debate upon the nation is that, already, in the minds of just about all its participants, existential issues are at stake. Nothing less than the life, or death, of everything they hold dear is seen to turn on its outcome. Men and women will stop at very little to emerge victorious from such a struggle. History makes it chillingly clear that, if the end is a people’s survival, then all means are permissible.

What, then, is to be done? Having tossed the dragon’s teeth of co-governance into earth already ploughed-up by the divisions of Covid-19, how can Jacinda’s Government pluck from this nettle, danger, this flower, constitutional safety?

My own answer, for what it’s worth, is to make it clear that co-governance is just one more means towards the historic end that has always united the overwhelming majority of New Zealanders: a fair go for everyone.

A “revolution” that delivers co-governance to self-selecting ethnic elites, accountable to neither Māori nor Pakeha, will not stand.

This essay was originally published in The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 31 December 2021.

Saturday 25 December 2021

Merry Christmas!

Joseph nurses the baby, Jesus, while Mary reads in bed. From a surprisingly progressive Fifteenth Century Book of Hours!

Wishing all the readers of Bowalley Road a very Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year.

Video courtesy of YouTube

This posting is exclusive to Bowalley Road.

Friday 24 December 2021

The Mothers: A Christmas Story.

When Anne saw me she rushed forward and embraced me: her face flushed; her eyes shining; and I knew. Before she even spoke the words I had longed to hear for thirty years, I knew.

IT DISTRESSES ME to admit, even now, that among my neighbours there were those who counselled me to kill them. Mary, they said, had dishonoured my family – a family of wealth and influence. She had dishonoured me, they said, an upright man, caring and generous to the poor. To let such a daughter live, they said, would be an affront to the favour God had shown me.


For my wife Anne, and for myself, there could be no greater proof of God’s favour than Mary, our daughter.

We had tried for so long, you see, so very long. The years went by, went by, and, yes, I did well. My business ventures flourished. But, none of it mattered. We were barren, you see, and so were our lives. The blessing and comfort of children, and grand-children, were denied us. Yes, I had gold and silver, and a fine house, and many servants. But the poorest of those servants had sons and daughters, and thus were richer by far than Anne and I.

I prayed – oh, how I prayed! I bargained with the Lord my God as if he were a wine merchant, or an owner of camels. If he would only relent and grant us the gift of a child, well, then he could name his price. I would do anything – everything – he asked of me. If only he would relent.

But he did not relent. The trees in our olive grove grew taller. The vine entwining our gate grew thicker, and Anne and I grew older. Too old, our neighbours whispered. The hope of children and grandchildren ceased to grow. It withered. And, eventually, it died.

It occurred to me that God might have been angered that I bargained with him like a common merchant. Had I grown too tall in my own eyes? Forgotten that man is no more than dust until God’s breath gives him life? I sat with Anne and shared these thoughts with her. In thirty years of marriage her counsel had never failed me.

“Do not chastise yourself so, my husband. I imagine God is used to bargains. But, if you would be at peace with Him, then why not go to Jerusalem, offer sacrifices, make amends?”

How I loved that woman! More then than ever. I covered her comfortingly familiar face with kisses and led her, smiling shyly, to our bedchamber.

Weeks passed, and I busied myself with the preparations for my journey to Jerusalem. All went well. The soldiers on the road were numerous, but well-disciplined. Pretty soon the great Temple of the Lord loomed above me. I purchased a single, snow-white dove. Made my amends with God.

As I stepped out onto the street a passing stranger paused and whispered at my ear: “The Golden Gate, she awaits you there.”

And so she did. When Anne saw me she rushed forward and embraced me: her face flushed; her eyes shining; and I knew. Before she even spoke the words I had longed to hear for thirty years, I knew.

And they bade me kill God’s gift. The fools!

For my daughter Mary did not lie – not even as a child. So, when she, too, became pregnant, and told me plainly that the child was not Joseph’s, the carpenter’s, I believed her. And when she told me of the stranger who, in a whisper, had told her who, and what, the baby in her womb truly was, then, once again, I knew. For when God whispers to us, we believe.

And now my son-in-law, Joseph, and his very pregnant wife, my beloved daughter, are ready to answer the Emperor’s summons to Bethlehem. I could have wished for a better season. Winter’s wind and rain make for difficult travelling. But Mary and her mother chide me for my constant fussing and worrying. Joseph, they remind me, is a strong man, equipped with a stout staff. The little donkey, upon whose back Mary and her precious burden are already seated, is mild-mannered and sure-footed.

Anne takes my hand in hers and squeezes it.

“Do you not remember, Joachim, those months when we rode out together? How we weathered the winter winds?”

How could I forget?

Mary smiles at her old parents.

“Be at peace” she whispers, “I am in the hand of God.”

This essay was originally published in The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 24 December 2021.

From A Smug Hermit Kingdom

Being locked-down here is hardly a hardship.

SURVEYING my hermit kingdom,
I feel entitled to a little smugness.
The flowers from the Silk Tree
Are floating like pink paratroopers
Into all the corners of the garden.
Clematis blooms, her spiked earrings
Drooping languidly above the mown lawn.
Being locked-down here is hardly a hardship.

Of course, the hermit bit is all wrong.
In this kingdom I have not been alone.
A wife, a daughter, a solipsistic cat
Have kept me company right through.
And when we got to the traffic lights,
There were old friends to greet,
And food to eat, and the thrust and parry
Of much-missed conversation, face-to-face.

One name, Jacinda, rose out of
All this agreeable contention.
But in my little kingdom, if not in others,
It was spoken kindly, with forbearance.
Occasionally, with just the tiniest edge of asperity.
Elsewhere, it is spat out in anger,
And anguish, and wild desperation.
Not every kingdom is as calm as mine.

So, maybe, we all deserve the taunt of smugness.
A small people, distracted by small causes,
While beyond our fortunate borders the Plague rages.
Perhaps, all things considered, we have earned the rebuke.
Still, there are worse things to be called.
Smug suggests pride in a job well done,
And the grim satisfaction of knowing that
There are much worse kingdoms to be locked-down in.

Chris Trotter
23 December 2021

This poem was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Friday, 24 December 2021.

Thursday 23 December 2021

Decisive Action.

2020 Was Just A Rehearsal:  From a purely strategic standpoint, Trump’s, and the new, post-November 2022, Republican dominated Congress’s, best move would be to take Biden and the Democrats completely by surprise. If the attention of Trump’s enemies is focused almost entirely on what he might do in 2024, then the obvious strategy is to move against them as soon as the new Congress convenes. Depose Biden, and install Trump as President, in January 2023.

THE FALL OF AMERICA would unleash hell: economically, diplomatically, militarily, culturally; the whole world would be rocked to its foundations. Like the fall of Rome, the nearest historical equivalent, the collapse of the United States would mark the end of an era.

The musings of a history buff? Not really. The odds of the American Republic collapsing into chaos and civil strife – even civil war – are already better than even.

In the latest issue of the Atlantic, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, Barton Gellman, puts it bluntly: “Against Biden or another Democratic nominee, Donald Trump may be capable of winning a fair election in 2024. He does not intend to take that chance.”

The Washington Post is no less pessimistic. It has just published an opinion piece by three retired Generals urging the military to begin preparing now for the “insurrection of 2024”. As befits senior military officers, their words are not minced:

[T]he Defence Department should war-game the next potential post-election insurrection or coup attempt to identify weak spots. It must then conduct a top-down debrief of its findings and begin putting in place safeguards to prevent breakdowns not just in the military, but also in any agency that works hand in hand with the military […..] The military and lawmakers have been gifted hindsight to prevent another insurrection from happening in 2024 – but they will succeed only if they take decisive action now.

These words should quell immediately any impulse to scoff at the idea that the United States could fall. The Generals’ opinion piece is not so much a straw, as a whole haystack, in the wind. The key question it provokes is daunting. Either, they are writing to warn Trump and his followers that the United States Armed Forces are prepared to stop them. Or, it is an act of desperation from military men who already sense that the armed forces can no longer be considered reliable defenders of the US Constitution.

Alarmingly, at least some of the Generals’ advice suggests that it may be the latter:

In addition, all military branches must undertake more intensive intelligence work at all installations. The goal should be to identify, isolate and remove all potential mutineers; guard against efforts by propagandists who use misinformation to subvert the chain of command; and understand how that and other misinformation spreads across the ranks after it is introduced by propagandists.

The picture painted here could not be clearer. If American democracy falls beneath the blows of Trump and his followers, then the American armed forces will not escape the breakdown of legitimate authority, nor the open recourse to violence, that will sweep across the rest of American society. The Army, itself, will split between Trumpists and Constitutionalists. Civil war will be inevitable.

The most astonishing feature of this looming threat to American society and its democratic institutions is how few members of the Constitutionalist political class can see it. From the President on down, there is not the slightest evidence that anything is being done to hasten the “decisive action” the Generals are demanding. The Democratic Party, in particular, is a rudderless hulk, riven by faction, and incapable of self-discipline. Trump and his followers, with scant regard for the Constitution or even the Rule of Law, are clearly preparing to re-write the political rules of engagement, and the Democrats just look at them, blinking helplessly in the headlights of the Republican Party’s onrushing Mack Truck.

One can only speculate what the Generals are saying to themselves – and any other Constitutionalists still willing to fight for the republic – behind closed doors. The strategic position can only be described as dire.

The mid-term elections are less than twelve months away and, right now, all the smart money says that the Republicans will re-capture both the House of Representatives and the Senate. The key question then, of course, is what will they do with the full powers of Congress at their disposal?

Some will no doubt be clamouring to impeach Joe Biden. But, unless the Republican Party emerges from the mid-term elections with two-thirds of the Senate under its control, Biden’s conviction on the Senate floor is most unlikely. Impeachment also runs the risk of finally concentrating the minds of the Democrats. As Trump, himself, demonstrated, an incumbent president has a lot of resources – military resources in particular – upon which he can call in extremis. In Biden’s case, those resources might even agree to come to the President’s rescue.

From a purely strategic standpoint, Trump’s and the Republican Congress’s best move would be to take Biden and the Democrats completely by surprise. If the attention of Trump’s enemies is focused almost entirely on what he might do in 2024, then the obvious strategy is to move against them as soon as the new Congress convenes. Depose Biden and install Trump as President in January 2023.

But, surely, there is no legal way President Biden can be deposed? If the Republicans lack the numbers to impeach him, then he cannot be removed from office until the General Election of 2024. Obviously, that is correct. But the Republicans may decide that the “legal way” is not their best option. If they can depose Biden quickly and cleanly, without warning, then they can, almost certainly, rely upon their mates in the Supreme Court to bestow an ex post facto blessing on Trump’s fait accompli. (They would no doubt plead that the maintenance of peace and national unity demanded nothing less of them!)

The Republican blitzkrieg would be swift and brutally effective. By a Joint Declaration of the House of Representatives and the Senate, the 2020 Presidential Election would be declared fraudulent and Joe Biden’s Electoral College victory voided. The Joint Resolution would, further, confirm that the Office of President of the United States had again been bestowed upon Donald Trump by a clear majority of the American people on 3 November 2020. This would be acknowledged by correcting the Electoral College vote, and by the Chief Justice administering the Oath of Office to the President-Elect. The proper constitutional order would, thereby, be restored.

Congress would then decree the immediate arrest of the “November 2020 Traitors”, leaving the House and the Senate devoid of Democrats. Trump loyalists in the armed forces would attempt to arrest all senior military officers deemed sympathetic to Biden and the Constitution. Public protest would be met by a declaration of martial law.

American democracy would thus be extinguished in less than a week – and all hell would break loose. The more numerous and much wealthier “Blue States” ( i.e. Democratic Party-controlled) would secede from the Union. A second American civil war would tear the United States apart. The savagery of the conflict would intensify. Ultimately, as Margaret Atwood anticipated in her novel, The Handmaid’s Tale, an uneasy truce would follow the use of tactical nuclear weapons by the armies of both sides.

With America in ruins, and the global economy in free-fall, ethno-nationalism and autarky would be the order of the day. To complete this grim apocalyptic picture, successive global pandemics and runaway climate change would bury what remained of humanity’s hopes. A new Dark Age would descend.

A grim prognosis. Which is why we must all hope that a great many more Americans than “three retired Generals” are, at this very moment, readying themselves for “decisive action”.

A version of this essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Thursday, 23 December 2021.

Tuesday 21 December 2021

Trusting The People: Chile Elects A Far-Left President.

Heartfelt Gratitude: Gabriel Boric’s decisive win, 55 percent to his far-Right opponent’s, Jose Antonio Kast’s, 44 percent, is a reflection of Chile’s two years of political turmoil. Two years of popular mobilisation culminating, first, in the radical Left winning control of the process to create a new Chilean constitution, and now, with the election of the young leader who was dismissed consistently by the mainstream Chilean news media as too radical for the job of President.

I WONDER IF JACINDA will befriend the new President of Chile, Gabriel Boric, with the same enthusiasm that she befriended Justin Trudeau? Boric comes to the presidency at the age of 35 – two years younger than Jacinda Ardern when she became New Zealand’s Prime Minister in 2017 – making him the youngest head-of-state in Chilean history.

The far-Left Boric won his political spurs ten years ago, in 2011, when he emerged as one of the student leaders of the bitter street-fight for more affordable and equitable education services for young Chileans. Boric’s unexpected victory over his far-Right opponent, Jose Antonio Kast, was celebrated by a crowd numbering in the hundreds of thousands in Chile’s capital, Santiago. Older Chileans, remembering the election of the Marxist, Salvador Allende, in 1970, didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. They had seen this movie before.

Boric’s decisive win, 55 percent to Kast’s 44 percent, is a reflection of Chile’s two years of political turmoil. Two years of popular mobilisation culminating, first, in the radical Left winning control of the process to create a new Chilean constitution, and now, with the election of the young leader who was dismissed consistently by the mainstream Chilean news media as too radical for the job of President.

Indeed, Boric was so radical that he drew forth as his principal political opponent an outspoken supporter of Augusto Pinochet, the brutal dictator responsible for the military coup against Allende’s Popular Unity government in 1973. Kast campaigned unapologetically on a hard-Right law-and-order platform and made promises to restore Chile’s traditional (i.e. conservative Catholic) values.

In the first round of voting Kast secured the largest fraction (but less than 50 percent) of the popular vote and, backed by the supporters of the other right-wing parties, was widely predicted to win the final, run-off, contest between himself and scarily radical Boric, the next-highest polling candidate.

Ironically, it was the very real prospect of a Pinochet clone taking control of Chile that mobilised the numbers necessary for Boric to win. Voter turnout surged, with 15 percent more people voting in the second round than the first. Critically, it was the votes of Chile’s youth that turned the tide in Boric’s favour. So radical had been the street-based protests of 2019-20 that there was little enthusiasm among the young for the business-as-usual politics of a presidential election. It was only when they realised that all the gains of the past two years could be wiped-out if they stayed at home that they rallied to the polling-booths in their thousands.

Young Chileans celebrate Boric’s election victory.
It will not all be plain sailing for Boric when he is sworn in as President, in March of 2022. The Chilean Congress remains in the hands of the same centre-Left and centre-Right moderates who have dominated Chilean politics for the past 30 years. Boric can count on a clear majority in neither the Chamber of Deputies nor the Senate, meaning that the fulfilment of his programme to construct a genuinely inclusive “social state” will require either superlative parliamentary skills, or, a willingness to keep the people mobilised – effectively daring the one percenters and their military protectors to do to Boric what they did to Allende.

So, at first blush, it seems most unlikely that Jacinda will be all that keen to be photographed giving Boric a comradely hug at his inauguration. She will be invited, of course, along with heads-of-state and prime ministers from all over the world, and from South America and the Pacific Basin in particular. But will the gal who got hitched at a billionaire’s New Zealand hideaway, and boasted Lorde as her wedding-singer, accept Boric’s invitation? Would Canberra and Washington approve of her being seen to cuddle-up to yet another left-wing Latin-American loose cannon? Once again, it seems most unlikely.

And yet, by March of next year, Jacinda will be facing some pretty daunting choices of her own. Maoridom’s judgement on the recommendations of the He Puapua Report will be out, and the broader debate on co-governance and fundamental constitutional change will be getting underway. If she and her colleagues follow the precedents set over the past four years, and step away from the big political challenges laid at their feet, then Labour’s chances of being re-elected for a third term are slim – at best. Will Jacinda be happy to rest on her Covid laurels? Or will her failure to keep any of Labour’s non-Covid promises overwhelm even those?

Wouldn’t she be wise to spend a little quality-time with President-elect Boric in the intervening months between his stunning victory and his formal inauguration – if only to quiz him about how an historic debate about the future direction of a nation, along with the constitutional reforms required to secure it, might best be organised?

He would likely tell her that once such a process is started, she will find it almost impossible to control – let alone stop. But, he will also likely tell her not to try. By giving ordinary people a real say over their future, her government will bind them to her in exactly the same way that her handling of the Covid crisis in 2020 bound her to “The Team of Five Million”. Trusting the people works, he would tell her. So when, inevitably, those with a vested interest in the status-quo launch their counterattack – don’t flinch. If the people see the future they have won for themselves threatened, they will rally to its – and their leader’s – defence.

That is, after all, his own story.

Besides, 2022 will likely be the year in which Queen Elizabeth II goes to join her fathers. If that happens in the midst of a vibrant constitutional debate in which thousands of young people – young Māori and Pasifika in particular – are engaged, then the chances are high that the inhabitants of these islands will witness the birth of the bi-cultural Republic of Aotearoa. Especially if the combined forces of neoliberal capitalism and the white supremacist Right attempt to strangle it at birth.

Assuming the people prevail, and the Aotearoan republic is born, then the chances must also be high that Chile’s President Boric will cross the Pacific to be present at the inauguration of its first President – his good friend and comrade, Jacinda Ardern.

This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Tuesday, 21 December 2021.

Monday 20 December 2021

The Longest Year.

The Anti-Vaxxers’ Barmy Army: The media-generated climate of aggressive scepticism, combined with the anti-vaxxers’ feverish exhibitions of anger and hate, contributed significantly to the febrile atmosphere enveloping New Zealand in 2021. The observation that the nation was fast becoming unrecognisable became a commonplace in conversations across the country. 

TWO-THIRDS of all New Zealanders, and three-quarters of all Aucklanders told pollsters that Covid-19 had influenced their Christmas holiday plans. It is difficult to think of a more moving recognition of New Zealand’s citizens’ love and respect for one another. Unquestionably, the Covid-19 Pandemic has brought out the very best in this country.

The greatest tragedy of 2021 is that this astonishing demonstration of collective empathy and public-spiritedness was often overshadowed by the behaviour of the most ignorant and selfish among us. That the worst in New Zealand was amplified and, to a worrying degree, encouraged by the news media must rank as the second greatest tragedy.

In journalism, context is everything. If the actions of individuals and groups are not set properly in the context that gave rise to them, then they are liable to serious misinterpretation. It says a great deal about the quality and the intentions of New Zealand journalists that context was conspicuous by its absence from so many of 2021’s stories.

To hear senior journalists, day after day, question small business owners in the tourism and hospitality sectors about the impact of the Covid regulations on their hopes, dreams and bank-balances, was worse than infuriating: it generated mistrust and suspicion. No intelligent person was unaware of the impact of the Pandemic on businesses large and small. No compassionate person could fail to feel genuine sympathy for the predicament of their owners. But to hear journalists present these folk’s situation as if it was the result of malign and/or maladroit Government actions, couldn’t help but raise serious questions about the media’s intentions.

Only rarely did journalists balance their reporting by offering their readers, listeners and viewers the more obvious counterfactual arguments. One almost never heard them asking business spokespeople if they were promoting the withdrawal of all anti-Covid protections at the border. In the endless media advocacy for a relaxation of the MIQ regime, it was, similarly, extremely rare to hear a journalist remind those complaining that, very early-on in the Pandemic, the Prime Minister had advised travellers that they ventured overseas at their own risk, and that a timely and trouble-free return to New Zealand could in no way be guaranteed by the Government.

That the lines of questioning followed by many leading journalists so often paralleled closely the attack-lines of the Opposition parties did not go unnoticed by their readers, listeners and viewers. Those same Opposition parties would, of course, be quick to reject such claims – pointing to the extremely supportive reporting of the Governing parties’ actions throughout the first year of the Pandemic. The possibility that such positivity was no more than an accurate reflection of New Zealand’s outstanding performance in combatting the Coronavirus never seemed to occur to them.

Clearly, given its conduct over the last 12 months, that possibility never occurred to the mainstream news media either. It seemed at times that, among the upper echelons of the principal media outlets, a consensus had been reached that journalists had been far too easy on the Government in 2020, and that a much tougher approach was required in 2021. Certainly, the simultaneous release, by major media outlets, of the former Prime Minister’s, John Key’s, “smug hermit kingdom” commentary, did little to allay citizens’ fears that the mainstream media was “out to get” Jacinda Ardern’s government.

As New Zealand underwent the inevitable transition from the strategy of Covid elimination to the strategy of mass vaccination, the news media’s newfound hostility towards the Government couldn’t help but augment and intensify the hostility and suspicion of those New Zealanders who, for a whole host of reasons, did not want to be vaccinated. While it is certainly not the case that journalists were “anti-vax”, the often quite truculent scepticism contained in their reporting reinforced the much deeper hostility and suspicion of the anti-vaxxers.

Not that mainstream journalism’s readiness to criticise the Government’s handling of the Pandemic in any way endeared them to the anti-vaccination movement. It remains an article of faith among anti-vaxxers that the Government and the news media are willing co-conspirators, hellbent on aiding the global assault, masterminded by perverted billionaires, on the rights and freedoms of ordinary people.

What can be said, however, is that the media-generated climate of aggressive scepticism, combined with the anti-vaxxers feverish exhibitions of anger and hate, contributed significantly to the febrile atmosphere enveloping New Zealand in 2021. The observation that the nation was fast becoming unrecognisable became a commonplace in conversations across the country. Those old enough to recall the bitter divisions of the Springbok Tour, declared the country’s mood to be much, much worse.

What made it all so much harder to fathom was that the media outlets they trusted to tell them the truth about the world seemed either unable or unwilling to acknowledge what every intelligent New Zealander knew: that their country was doing incredibly well.

The economy was among the best performing in the OECD. Unemployment was at record lows. The nation’s hospitals continued to function. Most importantly, the number of New Zealanders who had died from Covid-19 remained comfortably below one hundred.

In the Age of the Internet, all these facts were available to Kiwis at the touch of a keyboard. And yet, for Opposition politicians, businesses spokespeople, talkback hosts, newspaper columnists, editors and their teams of reporters, it was as though none of these extraordinary achievements were of any consequence.

Had all the country’s politicians and journalists lost their minds?

Sometimes, it almost seemed as though they had. It was as if a vital memorandum had been circulated, detailing a number of profoundly important changes. Specifically: the name of the country was being changed from ‘New Zealand’ to ‘Aotearoa’, and the country’s major cities were undergoing a similar transformation. In spite of the fact that they had all been built by and for the Pakeha settlers of Aotearoa-New Zealand: and named for their homelands, leaders and heroes; henceforth they would bear Māori names. Much more importantly, the nation’s constitutional arrangements were to be fundamentally revised in order to better reflect a democratically unmandated interpretation of te Tiriti o Waitangi.

When, and on whose authority, this memo and its unsettling contents was released, remains a mystery to the overwhelming majority of New Zealanders. The mystery only deepens when those same Kiwis discover that, in spite of the memo obviously being received by politicians, public servants, journalists and business leaders, the rest of the population were not included on the circulation list.

In spite of this glaring sin of democratic omission; the failings of the mainstream news media; and the increasingly toxic behaviour of the anti-vaxxers; the overwhelming majority of New Zealanders – as evidenced by the 90 percent+ of eligible citizens who ensured that they were double-jabbed – did not falter in their solidarity to one another, nor in their collective determination to defeat the Covid-19 virus and its variants.

These past twelve months have confirmed the fundamental decency, resilience, solidarity and compassion of the ordinary New Zealander. Which is why the 2021 prize for: The Most Significant Participant in National Affairs; belongs, unquestionably, to the sorely-tried, long-suffering, but ultimately unbeaten – and unbeatable – People of New Zealand.

An earlier version of this essay was originally posted on the website on Monday, 20 December 2021.

Friday 17 December 2021

Afternoon Briefing: Not A True Story.

On The Way Up: And it wasn’t even Kitteridge she was going to see. She didn’t mind Kitteridge. For a Boomer, Kitteridge was okay. No, she was probably going to be met by one of those relics from the Cold War era. God! How she hated all that ancient history. They might as well be talking about the Peloponnesian War!

LIVIA HATED THESE ASSIGNMENTS, she hadn’t joined the DPMC to sit at the feet of spooks. But, here she was, standing in the lift at the SIS headquarters on Pipitea Street, off to be brought up to speed on the 2021 National Security Intelligence Priorities – Whakaarotau Marumaru Aotearoa. And it wasn’t even Kitteridge she was going to see. She didn’t mind Kitteridge. For a Boomer, Kitteridge was okay. No, she was probably going to be met by one of those relics from the Cold War era. God! How she hated all that ancient history. They might as well be talking about the Peloponnesian War!

“Hi, you must be Livia. I’m Simon, come on in. Would you like some tea? I’ve just brewed some.”

Well now, this wasn’t a relic. Not at all. He couldn’t have been much older than herself. Lanky and dishevelled in an interesting sort of way, with a mop of brown hair that made him look like one of the Beatles. Livia gave him her best smile. This might not be so bad after all.

Nursing her mug of tea, and trying to ignore its jokey message: “NZSIS – the only government department that’s interested in citizens’ complaints.”; Livia waited for Simon to begin.

“Don’t worry if you haven’t read more than the Executive Summary, Livia, no one else has. We have to prepare one of these damn things every year, and to tell the truth anyone mad enough to actually plough through the whole text would notice that huge chunks of it are exactly the same as the year before’s. I take it you’re here because you drew the short straw and will be expected to brief the PM?”

“Something like that,” Livia replied – slightly taken aback by the young man’s flippant manner.

“Right, well, let’s get to it. Basically, we are alerting the Government to the same two basic national security threats that we always alert them to: threats from outside New Zealand; threats from inside New Zealand. Although we’re pretty careful not to be too specific – at least, not in the passages deemed fit for public release – the two biggest outside threats facing New Zealand, apart from the United States and Australia, are – surprise, surprise – China and Russia. And the biggest internal threat facing Aotearoa, apart from the Government’s own policies, of course, is ethno-nationalism. This comes in two basic flavours: Pakeha ethno-nationalism, and Māori ethno-nationalism. Right now we’re not quite sure which of those two poses the bigger threat.”

Livia hastily deposited her mug on the coffee table set between them, and started flicking madly through the report.

“It can’t possibly say that, surely?”

Simon laughed uproariously.

“No! God! No! Of course it doesn’t. It’s all dressed up in the usual impenetrable bureaucratese like ‘coercive statecraft of foreign actors against New Zealand’ and ‘manipulation of our information environment’. We’re committed to ‘understanding the trends and characteristics of the violent extremism strategic environment’.”

So, how do you get from all this incomprehensible verbiage to the outrageous comments you were making a few minutes ago? I don’t understand.”

“Well, Livia, there’s what we tell the world, and then there’s what we tell ourselves and, sometimes, the Government. This current PM is pretty smart. She gets it. You don’t need to sugar-coat the analysis too much when you’re dealing with Jacinda. I’m picking you’re not interested in the sugary version either.”

Livia gave him a long, level, look.

“No. I try to avoid sugary things, Simon.”

“Good. So this is where New Zealand really stands. Right now, neither Canberra nor Washington gives a rat’s arse that by joining them in their big push against China and Russia we are courting economic ruin. They just keep pushing and pushing, and we have no choice but to push, as gently as we can, alongside them. So, of course, Beijing and Moscow push back. Not all that hard – not at the moment anyway – but hard enough for us to know that they’re there, and that, if they chose, they could push a lot harder. So, that’s the external threat. Internally, the situation is the same as its been ever since the 1980s. Māori want their country back, and the New Zealand state is no longer strong enough to stop them. So, it placates them: pays the Danegeld to prevent matters spiralling out of control.”

“God, Simon, that’s so cynical!”

Really? … Huh … But, what else did you think the ‘Treaty Settlement Process’ was intended to achieve? The idea was always to build up a Māori middle-class as quickly as possible, entrust them with a palpable stake in the economy, and then work with them in a ‘Treaty Partnership’ to keep the country on an even keel. The problem, of course, is that when the New Zealand state aligns itself so unequivocally with Māori, it cannot avoid generating resentment, and eventually a dangerous push-back, from the Pakeha majority. As with the external threats, our internal threats have us caught between a rock and a hard place.”

“Bloody hell.”

“Yeah, it’s quite a balancing act. And we can’t rely upon the news media to suppress the Pakeha push-back for ever. The idea that the state is censoring out the ideas of the majority is, in itself, a goad to all manner of crazy Pakeha ethno-nationalists. Our agents are picking up an unmistakable drumbeat of resistance to this Government’s overtly bi-cultural policies – ‘co-governance’ in particular. Right-wing Pakeha males are radicalising – fast. Watching them is now a priority. How did we put it in the Report? Ah, yes, here it is. ‘The service is devoting considerable resources to the identification of likely sources of violent extremism threats and their potential terrorist methods, including radicalisation, facilitation, planning, financing and other forms of support.’ You look shocked, Livia.”

“Are you telling me that the PM is aware of all this – and agrees with it?”

Simon, put down his copy of the Report gently on the table.

“Pretty much. There’s a part of her that wants to do the bi-cultural thing anyway – simply because she believes it’s the right thing to do. Another part of her, the party leader part, knows she can’t afford to alienate her Māori caucus. But the best part of her, the stateswoman part, simply accepts that we are a dangerously exposed, economically dependent, former settler-state situated at the bottom of the world, and that we are rapidly running out of options. That’s the Jacinda who is willing to dance, as lightly and gracefully as she can, the oldest dance of all. The dance of keeping the peace. The dance of survival.”

“I had no idea, Simon, absolutely no idea.”

“Very few people do, Livia. Would I be breaking too many rules if I were to offer you a glass of decent Irish whiskey? You look as though you could use one.”

Livia smiled wanly at the young man seated before her. Through the window she could see towering rainclouds massing over the Rimutakas. She shuddered.

“Rules? Sounds like we’re breaking those up as we go along, Simon. Pour away.”

This short story was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Friday, 17 December 2021.

Progress, Or Restoration? Which Way For The Left?

God Given, Or Man Made? Historians might quibble that the “rights and freedoms” which a great many nineteenth century industrial workers (especially in the English-speaking world) believed their forefathers had enjoyed were more imaginary than real. But, for English socialists like William Morris and Oscar Wilde, the “Revolution” was, indeed, about a restoration of the social equilibrium and mutuality which many workers were convinced had characterised the pre-modern era.

YOU GOTTA LOVE the pseudonyms people come up with. “Pope Punctilious II”, for example, combines orthodoxy and accuracy, with just a hint of the nit-picker. Not a bad combination of talents to bring to the wild and woolly business of political analysis. The comment he appended to my recent Daily Blog post really set me thinking:

One beef with this article. Trotter claims the country’s current isn’t ‘progressive’, suggesting he’s still attached to a word which has become thoroughly disreputable. I wonder, do we need ‘progressive’ policies, or ‘restorative’ policies?

Progress or Restoration? That struck me as a particularly interesting question.

Does human progress actually have an end-point? Or, is it something that goes on forever? And, if it is continuous, then what will happen to us? If every aspect of the human experience is subject to improvement, then, surely, it is at least theoretically possible that the species will one day “progress” to a point where it becomes something else – something non-human? And is that really what most human-beings want?

A few years ago, I recall watching an animated propaganda film from the Soviet era. It anticipated the evolution of “Soviet Man” – a superhuman being capable of subduing all things to his will. Although it was clearly intended to be inspiring, the film struck me as horrific. Its Soviet makers defined super-humanity as the power to subordinate the whole material world (i.e. the planet) completely to Soviet Man’s progressive will. His monstrous machines consumed forests, straightened rivers, levelled mountains and drained seas. Nothing was impossible. The film ended with Soviet Man boarding the ultimate machine, an interstellar spacecraft. Off he went to spread his planet-consuming socialism across the universe.

Soviet Man reaches for the stars.
But, before all you conservative readers out there start shaking your heads knowingly and getting ready to tap out a comment identifying the above story as just one more example of the historical and moral bankruptcy of socialism, I would invite you to pause, and think.

How different, really, is the vision of those “progressive” Soviet animators from the vision of today’s charismatic billionaires? The Bransons, the Bezoses, the Musks: aware of this planet’s imminent descent into the doom-spiral predicted 50 years ago by the Club of Rome; haven’t they also succumbed to the fantasy of exporting their special brand of superhuman, hyper-capitalist, progressivism across the universe?

Is there a fatal flaw in progressivism?

As with most things, the answer lies in its beginnings. The post upon which Pope Punctilious II was commenting, identified the emerging social-liberal revolution as the ideological defence mechanism of the Professional-Managerial Class (PMC). Tellingly, the “discoverers” of the PMC, American academics Barbara and John Ehrenreich, linked its rise to the related and simultaneous rise of the so-called “Progressive” movement in the United States:

The generation entering managerial and professional roles between 1890 and 1920 consciously grasped the roles which they had to play. They understood that their own self-interest was bound up in reforming capitalism, and they articulated their understanding far more persistently and clearly than did the capitalist class itself. The role of the emerging PMC, as they saw it, was to mediate the basic class conflict of capitalist society and create a ‘rational’ reproducible social order […..] ‘Class harmony’ was the stated goal of many outstanding PMC spokespeople, and to many in the capitalist class as well, it was clear that ‘professionals’ could be more effective in the long run than Pinkertons [professional strike-breakers].

So, Progressivism – far from being a simple synonym for “socialism” – was actually a way of entrenching the principles, and modernising the practices, of capitalism.

In the professional opinion of PMC reformers, the raucous and rowdy conduct of American democracy, with its “machine politicians” and their disreputable knack for “delivering”, in the most unprofessional (not to say corrupt) fashion, the big city, mostly working-class, immigrant vote, needed to be reduced to something altogether more manageable. Democracy, the Progressives argued, was much too important to be left to the people.

The “primary” system of winnowing candidates; the recall of governors; the placing of “propositions” on the ballot-paper: all of these were Progressive initiatives aimed at breaking the power of party caucuses, and curbing the influence of the men who wheeled and dealed in smoke-filled rooms.

New Zealand’s own progressives, gathered in the Liberal Party, were no less dedicated to professionalising capitalism than their American counterparts. New Zealand’s arbitration-based system of industrial relations was intended to obviate the need for union militancy. The Liberals may have attracted working-class voters, but socialists they most emphatically were not!

If the PMC was busy making plans for the proletariat’s own good, what ideas were driving the workers themselves? Were they “progressives” too? Or, were they actually more inspired by the notion of restoring to ordinary working people the independence and autonomy which they fervently believed to be the birthright of all “freeborn” human-beings.

Historians might quibble that the “rights and freedoms” which a great many nineteenth century industrial workers (especially in the English-speaking world) believed their forefathers had enjoyed were more imaginary than real. But, for English socialists like William Morris and Oscar Wilde, the “Revolution” was, indeed, about a restoration of the social equilibrium and mutuality which many workers were convinced had characterised the pre-modern era. Morris’s focus on traditional craftsmanship, and his horror of the cheap, machine-produced, commodities pouring out of William Blake’s “dark satanic mills”, stands in sharp contrast to the “scientific socialism” of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels.

It is no accident that the vast working-class crowd which gathered outside Transport House (headquarters of the British Labour Party) to celebrate their historic electoral victory in 1945 did not sing The Internationale, or The Red Flag, but William Blake’s Jerusalem. And the words of Blake’s great poem do, indeed, have more about them of Pope Punctilious II’s “restorative” politics than anything today’s “progressive” politicians would own up to:

Bring me my bow of burning gold:
Bring me my arrows of desire:
Bring me my spear: O clouds unfold!
Bring me my chariot of fire.

I shall not cease from mental fight,
Nor shall my sword sleep in my hand
Till we have built Jerusalem
In England’s green and pleasant land.

This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Thursday, 16 December 2021.

Luxon’s Tough Assignment.

Your Mission, Mr Luxon: Christopher Luxon has yet to say or do the things necessary to shake loose sufficient support to make a Centre-Right government a believable proposition. Winning back that substantial chunk of Act support that represented little more than Centre-Right voters’ sheer exasperation with National’s seemingly incurable political ills is an important first step, but it does not take the party all that far.

FRANKLY, I thought the National Party would poll a lot higher under its new leader, Christopher Luxon. For the past week or so I have been shocking family and friends by predicting the first post-Luxon poll would put National/Act about 5 percentage points ahead of Labour/Green. To my surprise, however, David Farrar’s Curia Research has informed its client, the Taxpayers’ Union, that National/Act continues to trail Labour/Greens by 7 percentage points. Not the result that either National, or Act, was hoping for.

Sure, National has shot up by 6 percentage points to 33 percent. The problem, however, is that Act’s support has fallen by 5 percentage points. In other words, the elevation of Luxon has churned the Centre-Right vote, but it has not grown it. Well, not yet anyway.

That was not supposed to happen. The idea behind putting Luxon – as opposed to Simon Bridges – into the top job was simple: to lure back a substantial number of the 413,000 former National voters (mostly women) who defected to Labour in October 2020. Luxon, as a middle-aged, obviously successful, professional manager was intended to signal to all those other managers and professionals out there in “Punterland” that “National is back”. Back from where? Back from the bizarre electoral cul-de-sac into which its past three leaders had, either inadvertently or deliberately, driven it.

Farrar’s numbers make it brutally clear that, so far, this plan has failed. Luxon has yet to say or do the things necessary to shake loose sufficient support to make a Centre-Right government a believable proposition. Winning back that substantial chunk of Act support that represented little more than Centre-Right voters’ sheer exasperation with National’s seemingly incurable political ills is an important first step, but it does not take the party all that far.

In this respect, comparing Luxon’s first moves with the first moves of his mentor, Sir John Key, is instructive. Whether it be his speech to the Burnside Rugby Club, or his bold foray into McGeehan Close – situated in the heart of Helen Clark’s electorate – Key’s direction of travel was unmistakable. Alarmed National hardliners dubbed their new leader’s politics “Labour-Lite” – completely failing to grasp that this was exactly the message weary Labour supporters were supposed to take from his actions.

To all those New Zealanders alarmed by how close Don Brash came to winning the Treasury benches on the strength of his controversial Iwi/Kiwi campaign, Key was determined to present a very different political narrative.

Highlighting the years he spent growing up in a state house in working-class Christchurch. Deploring the growth of a Māori and Pasifika “underclass”. Visiting the state house tenants of McGeehan Close and inviting one of their daughters, Aroha, to join him at the 2007 Waitangi celebrations. All of these moves were calculated to persuade potential supporters that it was okay to vote National again. Sparking a devastating race war was well-and-truly off the agenda.

There has been little sign, so far, that Luxon understands that if he’s to narrow the yawning gender gap that has opened up between Labour and National, then he’s going to have to do something very similar. Indeed, the new National leader’s declaration that the voters he’s most keen to woo are farmers, businesspeople, and the middle-class, strongly suggests that he simply doesn’t get it.

Okay, farmers and businesspeople are definitely worth having, but there’s not the slightest doubt that National and Act already have them – and they are nowhere numerous enough to carry the nationwide Party Vote.

What’s more, Luxon’s statement shows scant understanding that the “middle-class” has for several decades now been bifurcated between what the French political-economist, Thomas Piketty, calls the “Brahmin Left’ and the “Merchant Right”. Once again, Act and National have got the Merchant Right wrapped up. And, as before, there just aren’t enough of them to guarantee an election win in 2023.

From somewhere, Luxon has to recruit his own variation on Key’s “Waitakere Man” and (more importantly) “Waitakere Woman”. The sort of voters who thought Key and the working-class, self-improving solo-mum, Paula Bennett, were their kind of Nat. Attracting the support of that kind of voter will not be made any easier by Labour’s caricature of Luxon as the sort of Bible-Basher who gets off on telling other people – especially women – what to do with their own bodies.

Tough Assignment.

This essay was originally published in The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 17 December 2021.

Wednesday 15 December 2021

There’s Something Happening Here – Again.

Time For Another Change: The social-liberal revolution in which New Zealand seems certain to be engulfed will be even more wrenching than the neoliberal revolution which spawned it, and which it so closely resembles. Its purpose is straightforward: to forestall the political mobilisation of neoliberal capitalism’s economic casualties by aggravating the racial, sexual, and gender issues dividing them.

ONE OF THE BENEFITS of getting older is that you get a feel for when something really bad is happening. The experiences of youth, especially those events leading to profound societal change, tend to be so vivid that those who live through them become acutely sensitised to any experience which feels even remotely similar. That is why I feel obliged to say that, from the events occurring all around us in 2021, I am picking up a truly terrifying feeling of déjà vu.

The last time I experienced the same ominous feeling that something bad was unfolding: something that would change the lives of thousands of New Zealanders forever, and for the worse; something that could not be stopped; it was the early 1980s.

Yes, that’s right, the early 1980s was the period in which the ideology of neoliberalism first began sinking its roots into New Zealand society. It wasn’t called “neoliberalism” then, it’s promoters preferring to identify its goal as the establishment of a “free market”. To achieve this goal “more-market policies” were required. Thinking back to the “New Left” movements of the 1960s and 70s, political journalists took to calling this radical movement towards “economic freedom” the “New Right”.

What made this new ideology so chilling was that its effects were already apparent in the two countries with which New Zealanders (and Australians) most closely identify: The United Kingdom and the United States. Margaret Thatcher had been elected in 1979 and Ronald Reagan in 1980. Free Market policies were, therefore, bound to make their way here. In Australasia, the dominant ideas of London and Washington are culturally irresistible.

As Editor of the University of Otago student newspaper Critic in 1981, I felt obliged to publish articles from students excited by the radical new economic theories percolating through the academic community. It was disconcerting for those of us positioned on the extreme-left of social-democracy. We, too, wanted a shake-up in the way New Zealand’s economy was run – but not like this.

With growing unease, I began to see the post-war Keynesian status-quo coming under fire from both the New Left and the New Right. What I could not see, however, was the New Left winning this intensifying ideological struggle. Not with the USA and the UK weighing-in on what looked like the New Right’s unabashed call for a return to the laissez-faire capitalism of the nineteenth century.

The most important aspect to grasp about the success of the neoliberal revolution in New Zealand is that the revolutionaries were located overwhelmingly in the senior ranks of the public service, academia, and the news media – most notably in the Reserve Bank, the Treasury, and the business press. In these locations, they were ideally placed to exert a steady (and ultimately decisive) influence over the two groups essential to translating neoliberal ideology into practical action “on the ground”: politicians and business leaders.

That the Labour Party ended up being the vector for neoliberalism was due, firstly, to the exhaustion of Keynesian economics as a source for policies that hadn’t already been tested to destruction; and, secondly, to the pig-headed refusal of the National Prime Minister, Rob Muldoon, to embrace the New Right policies of Thatcher and Reagan. Labour’s politicians were desperate for a policy template they could offer up as an alternative to Muldoonism, and were delighted to discover that the people whose help and support they would most need to make it happen – the Reserve Bank and Treasury – were keen as mustard to get the revolution started.

Hence the sense of déjà vu. All around me I perceive the same secretive re-positioning of pieces on the board that characterised the early 1980s. There’s the same apprehension that within the public service, academia and the news media, the key ideological transitions have already been made – at least where they count. Once again, the two essential adjuncts to translating a rapidly consolidating ideological orthodoxy into practical “reform” on the ground – a willing political party (or parties) and a facilitative business sector – are already in place.

All that’s been missing is the “trigger” event: the equivalent of the Snap Election called so foolishly by Rob Muldoon in June 1984. Then came the unprecedented tragedy of the 2019 Christchurch Mosque Massacre, closely followed by the arrival of the Covid-19 pandemic. If the next policy revolution is not already in motion, then the Sixth Labour Government is certainly getting ready to turn the key in the ignition. It would have been the purest folly to let these crises go to waste!

The social-liberal revolution in which New Zealand seems certain to be engulfed will be even more wrenching than the neoliberal revolution which spawned it, and which it so closely resembles. Its purpose is straightforward: to forestall the political mobilisation of neoliberal capitalism’s economic casualties by aggravating the racial, sexual, and gender issues dividing them.

Essentially, the social-liberal revolution has been unleashed to protect the socio-economic interests of the professional and managerial class (PMC) which administers neoliberal society. If neoliberalism was the ideological expression of a capitalist ruling-class under pressure, and its fundamental objective was to smash organised labour and break the power of the working-class, then social-liberalism is the necessary ideological adaptation of the PMC, whose role it is to keep the working-class smashed and broken.

Like neoliberalism, social-liberalism can only be imposed from the top down. This is because all historical precedent suggests that the strongest impulses of those on the receiving end of economic and social injustice is towards unity and solidarity. It requires constant, conscious effort on the part of the ruling-class and its enablers to break up that unity and unravel that solidarity. Hence the need to obscure the common interests of working-class Māori and Pakeha; working-class men and women; working-class cis and LGBT. The elevation of identity over class is the critical cultural project at the heart of the social-liberal revolution.

Many of those destined to play a role in the social-liberal revolution will recoil from this analysis. They do not see themselves as facilitating the continuing upward transfer of wealth from the poor to the One Percent. Quite the reverse. They would position themselves firmly on the Left. Subsuming the struggles against racism, sexism, and gender inequality to those of class, they would argue, is reactionary. If the Sixth Labour Government is prepared to legislate in favour of what the Right calls “Wokeism”, then that just confirms the genuine progressivism of Jacinda Ardern and her colleagues.

What I would invite these aggrieved social-liberals to do is engage in a little comparative historical research.

Compare the early mass struggles of Māori against the failure of Pakeha society to honour the Treaty of Waitangi (back in the 1970s and early-1980s the preferred slogan was “The Treaty Is A Fraud!”) with the wealthy, iwi-based corporations, and the powerful iwi leaders’ group, that have emerged from the Crown-controlled Treaty settlement process of the past 30 years.

Contrast the United Women’s Conventions of the 70s, the mass campaign to reform the abortion laws, and the trade union-led struggle for the Working Women’s Charter of the early-1980s, with the current neoliberal indicator of female equality – the number of women seated around the boardroom tables of New Zealand’s largest corporations.

Turn the same spotlight on the contemporary trade union movement. Compare the lively public debates of the 400+ private-sector working-class delegates who gathered in Wellington for the annual conferences of the Federation of Labour, with the tiny, behind-closed-doors, biennial leadership conclaves of the “middle-class” public sector unions” (PSA, PPTA, NZEI, NZNO) that dominate the Council of Trade Unions.

It has always been a sure-fire way of determining whether or not you are involved in something genuinely progressive, or are simply promoting the interests of a narrow elite: pose the classic revolutionary question. Who? Whom?

Progressive revolutionary change bubbles up from below as the consequence of ordinary people transforming the unity and solidarity they have developed while fighting injustice into mass political action. If the only people to actually benefit from your top-down legislative revolution are a small, privileged, and well-remunerated minority: an elite group already in possession of enormous wealth and power; then you can be absolutely sure of two things:

It ain’t progressive.

And …

It ain’t a revolution.

This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Wednesday, 15 December 2021.

Tuesday 14 December 2021

Democracy In Danger?

Hard Sell: The insurmountable problem facing President Joe Biden’s democratic capitalist missionaries, is that in order to fill the cups of the oppressed with freedom, they will first be required to empty their own pockets.

PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN has just wound up his virtual “Summit For Democracy” and, frankly, I’m none the wiser. The underlying premise of what looked suspiciously like and anti-Chinese, anti-Russian, propaganda exercise: that democracy is threatened by the advance of authoritarianism; was poorly defended by the American President and his supporters.

Our own Prime Minister (whose participation in Biden’s summit was, for a few encouraging moments, a matter of some doubt) certainly failed to advance a credible argument that democracy was under attack. Indeed, her most serious critique was reserved for the disinformation spread by the leading social media platforms. That all of these are based in the Land of the Free and the Home of the Brave, did little to dispel the intellectual confusion characterising the entire summit.

How much more helpful it would have been had Jacinda Ardern chosen to broaden the debate by comparing the present historical moment with that of the 1930s.

Ninety years ago, Democracy, as a political system, was unquestionably under unrelenting ideological attack. From the radical Left came the critique that the democratic system was nothing more than a smoke-screen designed by the ruling classes to hide the true power relationships of capitalist society – which were economic, not political. In the oft-quoted observation of the French writer, Anatole France: “The law, in its majestic equality, forbids the rich as well as the poor to sleep under bridges, to beg in the streets, and to steal bread.”

The Right lamented the weakening effect of democratic party politics on the expression of the national will. The unity of the people and the power of the state could only be undermined by Democracy’s relentless focus on the rights of the individual. The slogan of Benito Mussolini: “Everything in the State, nothing outside the State, nothing against the State.”; summed up the political objectives of the radical Right admirably.

Crucially, these anti-democratic ideas were not the preserve merely of party activists, academic authors, newspaper columnists, and radio personalities – the 1930s equivalent of today’s social media communicators. The assault upon Democracy was led by substantial nation-states.

The Soviet Union, through its mouthpiece the Communist International or “Comintern”, heaped nothing but scorn on Western “bourgeois democracy”. It was condemned for offering no credible response to the poverty and despair unleashed by the Great Depression. Against the dictatorship of Capital, the Comintern offered not democracy, but the dictatorship of the working-class. Its clinching argument: “There are no unemployed in Russia!”

Germany, under Adolf Hitler’s National Socialist German Workers Party – the Nazis – pretended not to feel the loss of the parliamentary democracy that had been swept away by the “National Revolution”. Gone was the vacillation, weakness and political gridlock of the hated Weimar Republic, and in its place stood the volksgemeinschaft – the national peoples community – which was credited with restoring order, unity and prosperity to the German nation.

How do Stalin’s Soviet Union and Hitler’s Germany compare, as anti-democratic proselytisers, with Vladimir Putin’s Russian Federation and Xi Jinping’s Peoples Republic of China – supposed leaders of the authoritarian crusade against which the “Summit For Democracy” set its face?

Frankly, today’s authoritarians aren’t a patch on their 1930s predecessors.

If the Russian Federation had genuinely turned it face against Democracy, deriding it as a failed experiment imposed upon the Russian people by the rapacious nations of the West, why would its leader devote so much time and energy to maintaining the pretence of leading a democratically-elected government? Would someone cast in the mould of Joseph Stalin really feel obliged to rig election after election in the manner of President Putin? Is it not more accurate to observe that the sins committed against democracy in Russia are, in fact, proof of its enduring hold upon the imagination of the long-suffering Russian people?

What about those 100,000+ troops massed along Russia’s border with Ukraine? How “democratic” is that? A better question might be: How would the Russian people react if their President did not do all within his power to keep the military forces of Nato as far from Russia’s borders as possible? If Russia and its allies had military forces ranged along both the Canadian and Mexican borders, and its navy was galivanting around the Gulf of Mexico, how bellicose do you suppose the American people would expect their president to be?

Just for the record: the last time so many foreign troops were massed along the Russian border was June 1941.

Even accepting that the Russian Federation is a deformed democratic state, the same, surely, cannot be said of the Peoples Republic of China? Is it not the case that President Xi Jinping has openly boasted the superiority of “Socialism with Chinese Characteristics” over the failing democracies of the West? Hasn’t he contrasted the extraordinary economic growth of China, and the dramatic improvement in Chinese living standards, with the grotesque inequality and moral disintegration of neoliberal capitalism? For those countries still struggling to join the rich nations’ club, President Xi’s characterisation of authoritarianism as the fast-track to prosperity, must be tempting.

Not least because so many of those aspiring nations are only too aware that the phenomenal growth experienced by China was set in motion by the enthusiasm of Western investors for a nation state that did everything within its power to crush “bourgeois democracy”. The fact that this prime destination for foreign (especially US) capital did not permit a multi-party system, free and fair elections, a free and outspoken news media, or, most importantly, an independent trade union movement, was precisely the reason why they were so keen to relocate their factories in Chinese territory.

China’s great sin isn’t that it maintains rigid control over the lives of its people; or that it represses the Uighurs of Jinjiang Province. (After all, the United States, the UK and Australia invaded, mangled and economically crippled Iraq in the same cause – i.e. combatting “Islamic terrorism”.) No, China’s great sin is that she refuses to allow contemporary Western capitalists to dictate her future in the same way as their nineteenth and twentieth century predecessors.

Viewed from this perspective, President Biden’s “Summit For Democracy” (to which, confusingly, the Philippines were invited, but Singapore was not) begins to look like those great evangelical gatherings of two hundred years ago, where one distressed clergyman after another rose to speak of the unfortunate millions of Africans and Asians dwelling in the darkness of religious error, their souls in peril, and urgently in need of the liberating word of God – followed, after a decent interval, by the not-so-liberating instruments of Mammon.

The great advantage of the Christian missionary movement was that the paradise it promised lay not in this world, but the next. The insurmountable problem facing Biden’s democratic capitalist missionaries, is that in order to fill the cups of the oppressed with freedom, they will first be required to empty their own pockets.

And where’s the profit in that?

Friday 10 December 2021

Marching To Class War.

We’re from the Employing Class, and we’re here to help”: What the bosses are saying, in effect, is: “We are having none of this. We will not participate in the creation of a minimum set of employment conditions across New Zealand’s industries. If you want Fair Pay Agreements, then you will have to impose them upon the employing class without its consent.” 

AROUND THIS TIME last week, I was thoroughly enjoying myself, writing a parody of “Onward Christian Soldiers” for Christopher Luxon. My take on the old hymn’s refrain had “Luxon’s soldiers” marching to “class war”. Some readers thought that was a somewhat inflammatory characterisation. Class war was soooo Twentieth Century, they insisted. Apparently, my paleo-socialist slip was showing.

Well, maybe not. Today (9/12/21) we learn that Business New Zealand has refused to partner with the State and the NZ Council of Trade Unions (CTU) in the roll-out of Labour’s long-awaited – and well-mandated – Fair Pay Agreements.

This decision can only be interpreted as a deliberate attempt by New Zealand’s employers to sabotage the tripartite structure of the FPA model. What the bosses are saying, in effect, is: “We are having none of this. We will not participate in the creation of a minimum set of employment conditions across New Zealand’s industries. If you want Fair Pay Agreements, then you will have to impose them upon the employing class without its consent.”

I don’t know about you, but that sure sounds like a declaration of class war to me.

How have “Luxon’s soldiers” responded to Business New Zealand’s decision. Well, Luxon’s Workplace Relations and Safety spokesperson, the dry-as-dust neoliberal, Paul Goldsmith, doesn’t really do “unbounded joy”, but, in a media statement released earlier today he certainly comes across as a Happy Chappy.

The Government should ditch its Fair Pay Agreement policy following Business New Zealand’s refusal to be the Government’s preferred partner,” crows Goldsmith. “The agreements would remove the flexibility and autonomy modern workplaces need to grow and flourish.

Oh boy, it’s been a while since we heard that kind of language. It takes me back thirty years to 1991, the year when the Employment Contracts Act came into force.

Goldsmith would have been 20 years old in 1991. For someone of his ideological inclinations, the ECA must have represented the capstone of the Neoliberal Revolution unleashed by Roger Douglas and Ruth Richardson. This crowning achievement, the one big “reform” that Labour dared not undertake, would have struck the young Goldsmith as absolutely sacrosanct. The effective destruction of the trade unionism across the private sector was the critical “reform” that made all the other “reforms” work. Confronted with a unified and confident working-class, Neoliberalism cannot succeed.

Hardly surprising, then, that Goldsmith’s statement included this little gem:

Business New Zealand’s withdrawal lays bare the fact that the national industry awards would have to be imposed by force – denying workers and businesses the right to sort out pay and conditions for themselves.

As if the ECA was not imposed. As if the Act did not, with one ruthless stroke of the legislator’s pen, wipe out rights which New Zealand workers had fought for and won, and which had remained entrenched in the country’s laws for close to a century. As if the people controlling the means of production, distribution and exchange; and those with nothing to sell but their labour – economic and social equals that they so obviously are! – were both clamouring for the right to arrive at mutually advantageous agreements without the pesky intervention of a trade union. As if the 500,000 New Zealanders who marched, rallied and struck against the ECA in March-April 1991 had only done so for a lark – because they had nothing better to do.

Flexible labour markets have been an essential element in New Zealand’s progress in the past 30 years, Goldsmith continued. They have enabled consistent economic growth and job creation, which is the only sustainable way to increase living standards in the long-term.

Umm, no, Paul, that’s not what flexible labour markets brought to New Zealand. The ECA was nothing more, nor less, than an open invitation for New Zealand employers to distil their profits from their workers’ sweat: making them work harder, and longer, for less.

In sophisticated capitalist countries, the state understands the value of an organised labour movement powerful enough to keep workers’ wages high. It is a necessary adjunct to the process of “creative destruction” that allows capitalism to rejuvenate itself. High wages encourage employers to replace workers with machines, or more efficient work practices, thereby lifting productivity – and profits – while building up an increasingly skilled workforce. Win–Win.

The ECA’s “flexible labour markets” – i.e. the destruction of the trade unions – excused the New Zealand capitalist class from doing business better and smarter. It condemned the New Zealand economy to appallingly low and seemingly unimprovable levels of productivity. That made us a low-wage country and sent our best and our brightest across the Tasman to Australia – where the equivalent of FPAs had kept wages high and boosted the productivity of Australian industry.

Though dry-as-dust Neoliberals like Goldsmith are too ideologically blinkered to see it, the ECA – far from being “an essential element in New Zealand’s progress in the past 30 years”, fundamentally weakened both its economy and its society. It drove our most talented citizens offshore, denying the taxpayers, who had contributed so much to the making of these highly-skilled workers, any hope of ever seeing a return on their investment.

There is, accordingly, considerable irony in Goldsmith’s claim that:

There should be a relentless focus on improving our productivity and lifting incomes.

If he was serious about either of those objectives, Goldsmith would be castigating Business New Zealand for undermining what is quite clearly the best hope of improving this country’s appalling productivity, while materially improving the wages of its workforce. Instead, “Luxon’s soldier” offers us this:

Unions now only represent 16 per cent of the private sector workforce – this is all about strengthening the role of unions.

He hasn’t even grasped the fact that union density in New Zealand’s private sector workforce long ago fell below 10 percent. In that brutal statistic is contained not only the tragic story of the National Party’s cold-blooded elimination of trade unionism as a mass movement wielding significant political power on behalf of the New Zealand working class; but also the shameful failure of the CTU to either fight for that class when they still possessed the power to bring the state to the negotiating table, or to do what was necessary to rebuild mass unionism when the political climate changed. (The reasons for the NZCTU’s failure must be left for a future posting.)

What Goldsmith needs no tutoring in, however, is the fundamental elements of class conflict – which achieved their clearest expression in the “flexible labour markets” made possible by the Employment Contracts Act:

Fair Pay Agreements will take us back to the failed policies of the past and should be scrapped, says Goldsmith.

With Business New Zealand drawing up their forces alongside the National Party and Act, it is pretty clear that the employers and their political lackeys have already declared the opening of class hostilities.

The real question now, of course, is whether Labour and the CTU have the guts to declare class war right back at them.

This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Friday, 10 December 2021.