Thursday 31 March 2022

A Bridgerton Too Far.

Historical Fantasy: It is surely no accident that Bridgerton’s executive producer is Shonda Rhimes, the guiding intelligence behind that other big Netflix hit Inventing Anna. Rhimes just “gets” the millennial zeitgeist. History is what you make up – what you can make people believe. How? By presenting an historically blank generation with “realities” they want to believe in.

BRIDGERTON has proved to be one of Netflix’s most popular productions. Its peculiar combination of history, the lifestyles of the rich and the famous, and identity politics, has captured a substantial chunk of younger Netflix viewers.

How much these younger viewers actually know about the society, economy and politics of Regency England is uncertain – although “not much” would be a pretty safe bet. Nor can we be certain about how much their understanding of the period has been distorted by Bridgerton – but, on this question, “a whole lot” would probably be the correct answer.

So, what is wrong with Bridgerton? Why are these questions about history and its distortion so important?

Bluntly, the problem with Bridgerton is that it presents Regency England (1811-1820) as a nation in which racial diversity is evident everywhere. All the way from the poorest layers of society to the upper reaches of the English aristocracy, persons of African and Indian heritage are an integral part of their respective communities. Sadly, this presentation of England’s past is not only false, it is also dangerous.

If there really had been Black duchesses in Regency England, then our present-day reality would be entirely different. In fact, the creative and political impulses behind Bridgerton , if absorbed uncritically, must render any useful understanding of contemporary racism an impossibility.

When confronted with these criticisms, the creator of Bridgerton , Chris Van Dusen, responded that the drama “is a reimagined world, we’re not a history lesson, it’s not a documentary. What we’re really doing with the show is marrying history and fantasy in what I think is a very exciting way. One approach that we took to that is our approach to race”.

In spite of Van Dusen’s denials, Bridgerton’s narrative appears to be based on the assumption that “colour-blind casting” – the assigning of dramatic roles without reference to the actors’ skin colour – produces an entirely positive set of progressive outcomes.

Colour-blind casting means that the discriminatory impact of elevating historical accuracy above equal opportunity is overcome. Henceforth, every role is open to every performer. This requires the audience to “look through” an actor’s skin colour and concentrate instead on the quality of their performance. Ideally, the jarring effect of assigning culturally significant “white” roles to people of colour also requires the audience to confront and examine their own racist assumptions and expectations.

If an actor of Indian heritage is cast as Charles Dickens’ David Copperfield, or a black actress is given the role of Queen Anne Boleyn, and you’re outraged, then what does that say about you? The answer, of course, is that your outrage represents an unmistakable manifestation of deep-seated racism. Colour-blind casting isn’t the problem – you are.

Except that anyone with even the most tenuous grasp of their historical heritage knows full well that no one from the Indian sub-continent could possibly have had the luck of Dickens’ David Copperfield. England in 1840 just wasn’t that sort of place. They’d also know that there was absolutely no way a king of England – even one as willful as Henry VIII – would have been permitted to marry a “Moor”. To cast Black actors in these roles is a gross distortion of the past. A distortion undertaken in the misguided hope of ameliorating the racism of the present.

To understand the racism embedded in contemporary European societies and their colonial offshoots it is necessary to understand the historical conditions out of which the sickness arose. That understanding would be greatly assisted if the source of the extraordinary wealth on display in Bridgerton : the grand estates and magnificent mansions; the glittering jewels and ball-gowns; the legions of servants; the great crowds of hangers-on; was accurately depicted as the fruits of the extraordinary profits of the sugar islands of the West Indies and the hundreds-of-thousands of slaves that were shipped across the Atlantic Ocean to work in the (very white) aristocrats’ obscenely lucrative plantations.

The Prince Regent (after whom the Regency period is named) was, of course, the son of the King George III. It was his father who “lost” the thirteen rebellious colonies that became the United States of America. How helpful it would be, therefore, to produce a Netflix drama series whose leading characters hailed from both the slave-owning cotton producers of the American south and the cotton-mill-owners of the English north. How easy it would be then to expose how the chattel slavery that made America also made English capitalism. How Uncle Tom’s slave-cabin and England’s dark satanic mills were always bound together by unbreakable sinews of tortured human flesh.

Ah, but would such a truthful depiction of the past rate? Do the sort of people who watch Netflix really want to be shown the ways in which the horrors of the past drove sharp shards of misery deep into the West’s cultural soul. A truthful Bridgerton would explain the European people’s desperate need to erase the past. Episode by episode, it would depict the inevitable psychological projection of their worst impulses on to their victims: the relentless construction of the racial “other”.

But that would be a Bridgerton too far. And besides, who the hell would watch it?

It is surely no accident that Bridgerton ’s executive producer is Shonda Rhimes, the guiding intelligence behind that other big Netflix hit Inventing Anna. Rhimes just “gets” the millennial zeitgeist. History is what you make up – what you can make people believe. How? As easily as the real Anna Sorokin created the fabulous “Anna Divey”; or, by conjuring up the fantasy of a racially diverse Regency. You present an historically blank generation with “realities” they want to believe in.

An impossibly cool German heiress.

A world without racism.

This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Thursday, 31 March 2022.

Tuesday 29 March 2022

Double Standards: What’s Evil In Ukraine Is Apparently Good For The Solomon Islands.

Hypocrisy In Arms: The “international rules-based order” has encouraged the rest of the world to declare economic war on the Russian Federation in retaliation for its illegal invasion of Ukraine. Only time will tell whether that very same order will demand the imposition of equally swingeing sanctions on Australia and New Zealand should they decide to intervene in the Solomon Islands.

THERE HAS TO BE something wrong with us. It’s the only explanation that makes sense. Some sickness of mind and spirit that blinds us to our own extraordinary diplomatic hypocrisy. The hypocrisy on display in relation to the Solomon Islands’ proposed security agreement with the Chinese is, however, beyond astounding. Indeed, with the attention of the world focused so intently on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the reaction of our own government, and those of New Zealand’s friends and allies, is scarcely believable.

What is it, after all, that the entire Western World is denouncing in Ukraine? Is it not the idea, expounded by the Russians, that Ukraine is located within the Russian Federation’s sphere of influence, and that its oft-expressed desire to join Nato constitutes a clear and present threat to Russia’s national security?

Have not the Russians repeatedly denounced the extension of Nato’s military reach to the very borders of their Federation? Do they not present this as conclusive evidence of the West’s predatory designs upon the national territory and resources of the Russian state?

And has not the West rejected Russia’s claims? Most particularly, has it not rejected the notion that it is any longer acceptable to speak about nations having “spheres of influence”? Is the West’s vehement condemnation of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine not based upon the principle that nation states have an inalienable right to determine their own destinies?

The governments of all the Western powers, including our own, are doing everything within their power, short of actually joining the conflict, to support Ukraine, and to punish the Russian Federation for violating the territorial integrity and national sovereignty of an independent nation state and United Nations member by an act of military aggression.

The Australian Government has been loud in its condemnation of Russia – as has its news media – and yet, just a few days ago, the following opinions were given wide coverage by the Rupert Murdoch-owned under the headline: “Australia ‘must ready Solomon Islands invasion’ to stop China security deal”

According to David Llewellyn-Smith, publisher of MacroBusiness and former owner of The Diplomat, a journal dedicated to Asia-Pacific affairs, the coming into full effect of the proposed security pact between the Solomon Islands and the Peoples Republic of China would mean “the effective end of [Australia’s] sovereignty and democracy”.

“There is no way that Australia can allow this deal to proceed” wrote Llewellyn-Smith. “If it must, the nation should invade and capture Guadalcanal such that we engineer regime change in Honiara. There are other soft power levers to pull first and we should pull them forcefully. But we should also immediately begin amassing an amphibious invasion force to add pressure.”

If it was put to Llewellyn-Smith that his own reasoning is identical to that of Vladimir Putin, he would, almost certainly, reject the comparison. And yet, he is proposing to engineer regime change in the Solomon Island’s capital, Honiara, by invading and capturing Guadalcanal – the island in which the city is situated. The difference between Llewellyn-Smith’s proposal and Putin’s attempts to engineer regime change by invading Ukraine and capturing its capital city, Kyiv, is extremely difficult to discern.

And, just in case, we feel tempted to dismiss these sentiments as the rantings of yet another bellicose Australian pundit, with which that increasingly belligerent country seems infested, New Zealand’s very own Professor Anne-Marie Brady has told RNZ’s “Mid-Day Report” host, Māni Dunlop, that: “the draft agreement to station military forces on Solomon Islands could see the South Pacific cut off and encircled by Chinese forces.” 

Brady’s interview reveals just how deeply the instincts of Western imperialism are embedded in New Zealand’s foreign affairs community. According to the University of Canterbury professor, the Solomon Islands represent a “failed state”, riddled with corruption and Chinese influence-peddling, problems with which, in spite of 14 years of Australian and New Zealand military occupation in the guise of the Regional Assistance Mission to Solomon Islands (RAMSI) its political class is still plagued. Accordingly, it can only benefit from stepped-up “assistance” from its Australian and New Zealand “friends”.

Like a good Kiwi, Brady shies away from Llewellyn-Smith’s call for a return to the gunboat diplomacy of the Nineteenth century. But, quite how the deal with China can be stopped short of resorting to the use of force and/or rampant Anzac influence-peddling and corruption, the professor does not say.

What makes Brady’s intervention even more interesting is her connections with a research-project-cum-think-tank known as SSANSE - “Small States and the New Security Environment”. As The Daily Blog noted back in May 2020, SSANES was/is based in Iceland and was/is at least partially funded by Nato. Brady’s assessment of New Zealand’s strategic predicament back in 2020 was nothing if not dramatic:

The global environment has not been so challenging for New Zealand since 1942 when British forces in Singapore, who were New Zealand’s shield, fell to the advance of the Japanese. New Zealand must now face up to the national security risk of the Covid-19 outbreak. The current situation poses a risk not only to New Zealand, but collectively, for our Pacific, Five Eyes and NATO partners, as well as like-minded states who uphold the international rules-based order.

That “international rules-based order” is, presumably, the same order which has encouraged the rest of the world to declare economic war on the Russian Federation in retaliation for its illegal invasion of Ukraine. Only time will tell whether that order will demand the imposition of equally swingeing sanctions on Australia and New Zealand should they “invade and capture Guadalcanal” in order to secure “regime change in Honiara.” Since neither Canberra nor Wellington would dare contemplate such an action without the endorsement of “our Pacific, Five Eyes and NATO partners”, it is reasonably safe to conclude that it would not.

It might be wise, however, for the likes of Llewellyn-Smith and Brady to ask themselves whether China might not be playing an extremely clever game here. Thinking about it, what better demonstration of Western hypocrisy could there be than a frankly imperialist and racist re-imposition of Five Eyes control in Honiara to protect the English-speaking people’s “sphere of influence” in the Pacific?

How much easier could the West make it for China to convince all those nations on the receiving end of the “international rules-based order” that its rules are meant for “thee” but not for “me”? That while it is an unconscionable violation of international law to invade the territory of people whose skins are white; it is no more than an act of friendship to invade and capture the islands of people whose skins are brown.

This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Tuesday 29 March 2022.

Monday 28 March 2022

A Bloody Hard Act To Follow.

From Here To There: In 2017 the Grey Lynn Ardern declared airily, “Let’s do this!” If, in 2023, the Morrinsville Ardern can snarl, “I’ve bloody done it!”, then she’ll lead her Labour Government to a third term.

POLITICAL PROVACATEUR, Matthew Hooton, predicts that we should expect to see “less Grey Lynn and more Morrinsville” from Jacinda Ardern. He may have been referring to the Prime Minister’s earthy vocabulary, with its “bloody” this and “bloody” that, but his characterisation also offers an apt description of the political territory traversed by Ardern since the heady days of her “Let’s do this!” campaign of 2017.

With the benefit of hindsight, it is easy to recognise the almost reckless quality of Labour’s 2017 election campaign as the product of a party that did not expect to win. The gap to make up after David Cunliffe’s 2014 debacle, when Labour’s Party Vote declined to a woeful 25 percent, was generally assumed to be too wide. With a Party Vote of 37 percent, Labour seemed happy enough to have lifted its vote by 12 percentage points. Ardern had done well, but her demeanour on election night gave no hint that she believed herself to have done any more than avert yet another electoral catastrophe.

Certainly, the pundits’ verdict on the night was that, with 44 percent of the Party Vote, Bill English would remain New Zealand’s prime minister. Much as he might squirm at the prospect, Winston Peters’ final decision as to which of the two main parties NZ First backed would be dictated, as it always had been before, by which of them received the most Party Votes.

But it wasn’t. This time Peters chose to sit down and dine on a dish of cold vengeance, and Ardern found herself, at the age of thirty-seven, the stunned steward of New Zealand’s fortunes. That she was woefully unprepared for that role was hidden from the electorate by the new prime minister’s superb communication skills. Ardern accomplished the transition from the person who could always be relied upon to charm Labour’s rank-and-file, to the prime minister who could charm not only her own people, but the rest of the world to boot, with astonishing aplomb.

That words – no matter how well chosen – were not, in the end, enough to produce concrete policy victories became clear to all in the grotesque failure of KiwiBuild. It would not be the last instance of massive over-promising, followed by equally massive under-delivery. Indeed, all those years working alongside Helen Clark and Heather Simpson had not driven home to Ardern the deep political wisdom of Clark’s “under-promise and over-deliver” formula for electoral success.

The explanation for this failure is almost certainly generational. As a Baby-Boomer, Clark belonged to a generation that not only understood how much a properly equipped state could accomplish, but also knew, as someone who had lived through the angst and anguish of Rogernomics, exactly how much equipment the state had lost. Yes, there were still many levers left to pull, but hardly any of them were attached to anything that actually worked. If it was work you wanted, the place to get it done – after 1984 – was the market.

Ardern’s other generational problem was the extent to which “communication” and “performance” had melded together. Government announcements about government action had become so important that the very fact an announcement was about to be made itself became the excuse for an announcement. It was as though Ardern and her colleagues believed that the announcement of a set of measures, and their accomplishment, were one and the same. To say it was to do it. Which was fine, providing “it” was something the market wanted to “do”.

The ”Grey Lynn” Ardern understood the genuine desire of her generation to do something about climate change, poverty, racism, sexism and cycle-lanes. But, she also understood how good they felt “liking” a Facebook post of “hearting” a tweet, and how effortlessly signing an online petition had come to replace trudging down the main street with a placard. Politics had become performative – a play. It existed to deliver a message – but not much of anything else. Surely, everybody understood that what they were looking at wasn’t real?

When it comes to delivering messages, however, the Grey Lynn Ardern had few equals. Her “They are Us” on the day of the Christchurch Mosque Massacre, followed by her hug in a hijab, brought the whole world to tears – and cheers. Covid-19 provided an opportunity for more of the same. In the face of a global pandemic, the delivery of calm and inspiring leadership proved to be a vaccine every bit as effective as Pfizer’s – maybe more so!

Ardern’s signature message of kindness, and her powerfully solidaristic “Team of Five Million”, combined with her intuitive decision to “go hard, go early” with the “science” (rather than the business community) carried her forward to an historic electoral victory.

But, if 2017-20 was the Lord Mayor’s Coach, then 2020-23 shows every sign of being the shit-cart. In spite of announcements, and announcements about announcements, the relentless machinery of free-market capitalism grinds on. Every crisis has its cost, and the cost of New Zealand’s Covid-19 pandemic has been, and will continue to be, huge. Political dramas cannot go on forever, and all too often the audience steps out of the theatre into driving wind, freezing rain – and Omicron. When you’re wet, cold, ill-housed and infected, and the cost-of-living keeps spiralling upwards out of control, then messages – no matter how inspiring – tend to be forgotten.

The Morrinsville Ardern is emerging because our Prime Minister has realised just how bloody naïve the Grey Lynn Ardern always was. Like Helen Clark, who grew up in the same part of the country, the Morrinsville Ardern has learned the hard way just how little the contemporary New Zealand state is capable of delivering. She knows what it’s like to pull on a lever and feel it rattle loose in her hand. She knows, too, that a Labour prime minister can only say “No” to the business community for so long. She has learned that carrots are all very well, but every now and then it’s necessary to put a bit of stick about. And if the stick’s victims turn up on your front lawn? Well then, you give them a little bit more!

Morrinsville Ardern is what you get when reality drives an iron spike into the gentle soul of Grey Lynn’s “Jacinda”. Will Kiwi voters take to Morrinsville Ardern? Hard to say. As a people we’re notorious for letting ourselves fall in love with performers – generally on the sports field. We are even willing to allow them a few mistakes – providing the culprits demonstrate they’ve got what it takes to pull themselves together and lift their performance. Even the disappearance of the grace and flair that first attracted us to them is forgivable, just so long as the ruthless and ugly efficiency with which they’ve been replaced continues to deliver the wins.

In 2017 the Grey Lynn Ardern declared airily, “Let’s do this!” If, in 2023, Morrinsville Ardern can snarl, “I’ve bloody done it!”, then she’ll lead her Labour Government to a third term.

This essay was originally posted on the website on Monday, 28 March 2022.

Friday 25 March 2022

Unsubscribing From Freedom.

Conscience And Critic Be Damned! It has become increasingly clear to the Free Speech Union, along with many other advocates of freedom of expression, that the place where academic freedom is most at risk is, paradoxically, academia itself.

ACADEMIC FREEDOM is one of those “public goods” that most people seldom question. Even in New Zealand, a country not especially hospitable to intellectuals of any sort, academics are seldom identified as persons in need of official restraint. New Zealanders prefer to joke about the otherworldliness and impracticality of academic research – especially in the social sciences and liberal arts. That is to say, they used to joke about it. Over the last few years academics have given ordinary New Zealanders small cause for laughter.

Indeed, it has become increasingly clear to the Free Speech Union, along with many other advocates of freedom of expression, that the place where academic freedom is most at risk is, paradoxically, academia itself.

The banning of Don Brash from the Palmerston North campus of Massey University – by no lesser person than the Vice-Chancellor herself – was one of the most dramatic early examples. There have been many others. Not the least of these was the initial failure of the University of Auckland to defend the seven members of its own academic staff who dared to declare, on the pages of The NZ Listener, that Mātaurānga Māori was not Science.

While paying lip-service to the principle of academic freedom, New Zealand’s university authorities have begun to hedge it around with all manner of restrictions. The pursuit of research subjects and/or the articulation of ideas capable of inflicting “harm” on other staff and students has become decidedly “career-limiting”.

To discover exactly how pervasive this revisionist approach to academic freedom has become, and to identify how many academics still uphold freedom of expression, the Free Speech Union commissioned Curia Research to survey a representative cross section of the New Zealand academic community. That survey is ongoing, but one of the responses received was so startling that the FSU posted it on its website.

This is what it said:

Tēnā koe,

Please remove me from your e-mail list.

Freedom is an archaic feudal principal
(sic) employed by colonial capitalism to advance the upward mobility of the few and maintain the status quo, and I do not subscribe to it.

It is important to bear in mind that the person who wrote this is a member of the academic staff of a New Zealand university. Someone bound by the terms of their employment to uphold the highest standards of scholarship. Someone who is almost certainly lecturing to and/or tutoring young New Zealanders. Someone who, by their own admission, does not subscribe to the principle of freedom.


Let us begin by unpacking the anonymous respondent’s declaration.

The first observation to make is that the his/her understanding of both European and New Zealand history is entirely untethered from reality. To begin with, feudalism was not based upon the idea of freedom, but of reciprocity.

In the fiercely hierarchical societies of the medieval period even those at the summit of the social pyramid owed a duty of care and protection to those whose status was inferior to their own. Those at the bottom, far from being free, were legally tied to their lord’s land. Male dependents of the lord were also expected to fight for him when required to do so.

What the serfs (as these dependents were called) received in return was access to the sustenance that the lord’s land provided, as well as military and legal protection against those seeking to harm them. In certain rare circumstances a serf might be released from his obligations, thereby becoming a “freed” man. With nobody now obligated to care for him, however, such a person faced a difficult future. Unless he was especially gifted, a freed man would hasten to “bind” himself to another lord or master.

Clearly, feudalism and freedom are not concepts one usually finds grouped together – quite the reverse in fact. What about “colonial capitalism”? Is it legitimate to associate the capitalist economic system with feudalism and freedom?

Not really.

Historically speaking, capitalism is the economic system that dissolved feudalism, along with the aristocratic political system it sustained. Rather than a society founded upon hierarchy and mutual obligation, capitalism gave rise to a society based upon the freedom of the individual to enter into contracts with other individuals – for money. If you were inventive, clever, or just plain lucky, these contracts could make you rich. If you had nothing to offer but your unskilled labour, then the contracts entered into generally offered little more than the barest subsistence.

In the context of New Zealand’s colonisation, however, a persistent shortage of skilled – and unskilled – labour offered working-class colonists a considerably better existence than the one they were escaping on the immigrant ships. At least initially, it wasn’t freedom that underpinned the growth of the colony, but the prospect of a more prosperous and open-ended life – which emigration to New Zealand promised.

New Zealanders’ interest in political freedom grew out of the failure of the colony’s rulers to ensure that opportunity and prosperity remained a realistic prospect for the ordinary colonist. A large part of that failure was attributable to the difficulty encountered by the colonial authorities in acquiring sufficient land from the Māori to keep the New Zealand enterprise going.

It was precisely the freedom to contract, or not to contract, with the Crown in respect to the sale of land – a freedom guaranteed by the Treaty of Waitangi – and exercised vigorously (to the consternation and rising fury of the settler government) by the Kingitanga and its allies, that caused the British Crown to make war upon the Māori.

If anyone was defending freedom in 1860s New Zealand it was the tangata whenua.

In making war upon the Māori, the colonial capitalists and their servants in the colonial legislature were not defending the status quo, they were tearing it – and the Treaty of Waitangi – to pieces. Their legal justification for seizing Māori land had nothing to do with the laws of capitalist enterprise, but to archaic English laws pertaining to rebellion against the Crown. Feudal laws.

What’s more, the seizure of Māori land did not advance the upward mobility of wealthy capitalists alone. Thousands of Pakeha colonists benefitted from the parcelling-out of the territories seized, mostly in the form of leased small-holdings – later translated into freehold farms. It was the Pakeha many who prospered, and the Māori few who were dispossessed.

It is hard to see how this great wrong can ever be righted in an Aotearoa-New Zealand where freedom has no subscribers among the tangata whenua. Harder still to see such a rectification being accomplished where the research and intellectual labour needed to convince a majority of New Zealanders that change is necessary is not rigorously monitored, or the fierce debates it sparks given the freest rein. Academic freedom must amount to more than protecting ignorance and sanctioning disinformation.

The simple truth of the matter is that freedom is always and everywhere indivisible. Suppress it in our universities and its suppression elsewhere will soon follow. Those who do not subscribe to freedom have no place in our halls of learning – or anywhere else enlightened human values are cherished.

This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Friday, 25 March 2022.

Breaking The Climate Change Consensus

Disruptive Influencer: “New Zealand is not in a position of having to resort to desperate measures to meet its climate change obligations. This country can make reasonable or best efforts to lower net emissions with existing policies and be certain of success.” - Matt Burgess, The Pretence of Necessity

WITH THE ATTENTION of the world fixed upon Ukraine’s unceasing torment, it’s hard to imagine anything worse. But, worse things there are. The global Covid-19 pandemic still rages across the planet. Massive economic instability threatens. And behind them all, relentless and unstoppable, advances the existential challenge of climate change.

Only this past week, scientists in Antarctica recorded a temperature of 4.9C at a time of year when temperatures usually fall below zero. To say they were shocked would be to seriously understate their reaction. Such a reading should be impossible. It contradicts every assumption about how the polar environment is supposed to behave. The scientists described the anomaly as an “historic event”. A paradigm breaker.

If ever there was an historical moment for traditional antagonists to set aside their differences and make common cause against a common enemy, then this is it. Climate change is a planet-wide phenomenon, and its effects can only be ameliorated by an unprecedented level of international co-operation and coordinated action.

Measures hitherto ruled out-of-bounds by the guardians of economic orthodoxy will be required. State intervention on a scale unseen since the Second World War will be required. A willingness on the part of politicians, business-leaders, economists, and the ordinary man and woman in the street to think the unthinkable will be required.

Perhaps the only positive aspect of the Covid-19 Pandemic is that it has given the world some urgently needed practice in breaking the political, economic and social rules.

The inescapable role of the state in protecting the health and welfare of the whole population has been reaffirmed. Central banks have been willing to do themselves what, for the best part of a century, they have permitted only the private banks to do – create new money out of thin air. Historical memories are being stirred. Hopes of transformation are being re-kindled. For the first time in nearly four decades, political possibilities are expanding – not shrinking.

That there are forces at work in our nation determined to stuff this Genie of Hope back in his bottle should not surprise us. The global responses to Covid-19 – both successful (like our own) and woeful (like the United Kingdom’s) – have put the high priests of economic orthodoxy on their guard. They witnessed how, if only for a few months, medical science was able to over-rule the demands of private enterprise, and it terrified them.

Emboldened by their evident success at reasserting the right of business to prosper, over the right of citizens to be protected from a potentially fatal virus, these same high priests are primed to repeat the exercise against the state’s efforts to combat climate change.

Since outright Climate Change denial is no longer a viable strategy, their new plan is to exploit the public’s deep yearning for a return to normality by reassuring them that the measures already taken to combat Climate Change are more than sufficient to meet the Government’s targets, and that no further, inevitably more disruptive, measures are necessary.

Back in the days of Rogernomics these high priests of neoliberal orthodoxy worshiped in the temple of the Business Roundtable. Their new place of worship is called the New Zealand Initiative.

On Tuesday, 22 March, the New Zealand Initiative released a research paper entitled “The Pretence of Necessity”. Authored by Matt Burgess, the Initiative’s Senior Economist, the paper declares:

New Zealand is not in a position of having to resort to desperate measures to meet its climate change obligations. This country can make reasonable or best efforts to lower net emissions with existing policies and be certain of success.

Burgess’s is a bold intervention. His conclusions fly in the face of the painstakingly assembled consensus on the need to supplement New Zealand’s Emissions Trading Scheme with a number of more direct measures for combatting Climate Change. Labour and National are agreed on this. Even Federated Farmers accepts that more is needed.

But not the high priests. Under no circumstances can the politicians, farmers and business leaders be permitted to endorse the massive expansion of state power necessary to halt anthropogenic global warming. Wedges must be driven between the key players. The drift towards consensus must be halted. Old animosities must be re-awakened.

How fortunate, then, that the National Party has just announced the appointment of a new economic advisor.

His name?

Matt Burgess.

This essay was originally published in The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 25 March 2022.

Thursday 24 March 2022

Keeping Things Simple.

Cut Through: A complex world is incompatible with a simple world. Explanation is incompatible with acceptance. Contrariwise, the ability to distinguish the majority view of reality from reality itself is arguably the most vital adaptation of human evolution, it’s what drives our species forward.

TO EXPLAIN IS NOT TO JUSTIFY. How astonishing, that in 2022 so few people appear to grasp this simple truth. It’s as if expending the mental energy required to understand what is happening in the world will, in some mysterious way, rob us of the capacity to make judgements about it.

And, therein, lies the problem: judging the world is now much more important than understanding it. Complexity has become the enemy of clarity – especially moral clarity. “Keep it simple, stupid” has become the motto of the modern politician: proof of just how dangerous complexity is now perceived to be. Such fetishization of simplicity certainly explains that other great political motto: “Explaining is losing.”

If the world really was a simple place, then the demonisation of those who attempt to explain it would not be necessary. It has always been a problem for those exercising authority over us that the longer we live in the world the more obvious it becomes that it is very far from being a simple place. The more ordinary people begin to appreciate the world’s complexity, however, the harder the job of ruling them becomes. While philosophers may argue that to know all is to forgive all, most rulers take a very different view. In their experience, the more people learn about the reasons behind the rules, the angrier they become.

Perhaps that is why it was generally considered wise, by the rulers, to bolster the authority of the state with the authority of organised religion. Nothing beats organised religion for whittling down the awesome complexity of the world to a few hard, fast, and – most importantly – simple rules. Moses made do with just ten!

Enslave people to the simple “truths” of their faith, and any need for them to come to terms with the complexity of human existence is averted. Omniscience is restricted to God. Only He is able to comprehend the entirety of His universe. Men and women need only know that the Lord moves in mysterious ways his wonders to perform. Keep his commandments and all will be well. (Oh, and it’s probably a good idea to keep the commandments of your earthly rulers as well!)

A partnership made in heaven, you might say. Or else, that heaven is the partnership’s most successful invention. Works either way.

The problem with organised religion and its simple truths is that the human imagination, combined with human species’ insatiable curiosity, are forever throwing up individuals who refuse to believe in the comforting fictions of their secular and religious rulers. They can, of course, be suppressed. (Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition!) But the irritating thing about these seekers after knowledge is that they all-too-frequently come up with ideas and techniques that are simply too useful to ignore. Organised religion takes a hit. Living gets more complicated – and so does the whole business of governing an increasingly complicated population.

The answer to this new problem turned out to be relatively simple. Replace the voice of the priest in the pulpit with the voice of the teacher at the front of the class. Replace the wonder of God’s creation with the “nothingbutism” of science. Human-beings are “nothing but” the product of millions of years of evolution. Morality is what works. Evil is what works in ways that make no evolutionary sense. Bad equals broken. Good equals the absence of damage – and difference. The best thing to be is the same as everybody else. Uncomplicated.

The Internet makes simplicity easy. Thanks to social media, the voice of the teacher at the front of the class can be retired in favour of the voices on the individual’s Twitter feed, Facebook Page, Instagram or Tik-Tok. Sophisticated algorithms ensure that practically all of these voices are saying exactly the same thing – keeping the conversation as simple as possible. Never has it been easier for people to know what they think. Never have people had less cause to be tolerant of those who think for themselves.

Attempting to explain to others why they may be mistaken in their thinking is fast becoming a dangerous exercise. For many people, being wrong is an outright impossibility. How could it be otherwise when everyone they know is telling them they’re right?

Introducing the concept of complexity: the idea that in any given situation there are a host of competing factors at work; is interpreted by an increasing number of twenty-first century humans as a criticism of both themselves and their friends. Moreover, since they and their friends are always right, the person “explaining” can only be trying to justify being wrong. And pretending to be right when you’re not right, doesn’t just make you wrong, it makes you bad.

A complex world is incompatible with a simple world. Explanation is incompatible with acceptance. 

Contrariwise, the ability to distinguish the majority view of reality from reality itself is arguably the most vital adaptation of human evolution, it’s what drives our species forward.

Unfortunately, it can also get you killed.

This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Thursday, 24 March 2022.

Tuesday 22 March 2022

Democracy's A Drag.

What’s That You Got There? For an increasing number of people, both here in New Zealand and around the world, Democracy is the problem – not the solution. It gets in the way. It’s fake. It slows everything down. Or, it just takes too much effort.

LET’S FACE IT, Democracy’s a drag – in every sense of the word. The beatnik sense: It’s drag, man. Meaning a state of affairs characterised by boredom and frustration, where something or someone stands between you and your desires. Then there’s the “drag” of play-acting, imposture and pretending to be something you’re not: He appeared in drag. Not forgetting the scientific definition of “drag”: something that retards or impedes motion, action, or advancement. And, finally, “drag” in its most common usage: to cause to move with slowness or difficulty. There’s more, of course, but you see where this is going.

For an increasing number of people, both here in New Zealand and around the world, Democracy is the problem – not the solution. It gets in the way. It’s fake. It slows everything down. Or, it just takes too much effort.

Out on the edge of our political culture – the place where the people who were evicted from Parliament Grounds usually park their camper-vans – Democracy is often dismissed as a chore and a bore.

That’s because representative democracy involves a lot of work. Founding a party. Drawing up a constitution. Working out what it is that you stand for. Collecting the names and addresses of more than 500 eligible voters who have also paid the party’s membership fee (receipts required). All of these things must be done before you can be registered by the Electoral Commission as a political party. And, of course, you’ve got to be a registered political party before you can field electorate candidates and/or lodge a Party List.

What a load of bullshit! How is people’s freedom protected by forcing them to jump through all these bureaucratic hoops? Obviously, it just a way of dampening the ardour and deflecting the energy of free individuals.

You don’t have to be Albert Einstein to see that the moment your movement agrees to adhere to the Electoral Commission’s rules and regulations, the whole sick business of politics becomes inescapable. Factions form. Factional leaders appear. Factional strife erupts. The most ruthless and thick-skinned bastards in your movement end up running the show. You’re fucked before you’ve even begun to raise money and trudge the streets in search of votes. Which is exactly what the Powers That Be intended all along.

Democracy? It’s a drag, man.

Then there are the people who for whom Democracy is a Drag Queen.

The costuming is fantastic: Freedom! Justice! The make-up is perfect. Have you ever seen anyone who looks more honest, caring, or kind? But that’s all it is, folks – lipstick and a wig. Fake News. Forget the frocks, the face-powder, the accessories. Lady Liberty is really Captain Capitalism. And all those love songs to the people she belts out? Lip-syncs the lot of them. Captain Capitalism can’t sing a note.

Neoliberals also characterise Democracy as a drag. Not drag as in boring. Not drag as in fake. But drag as in something which slows everything down. Most particularly, as something which slows down or – even worse – actively impedes the operations of the free market.

That’s why Neoliberals do everything within their power to make “government of the people, by the people, for the people” a practical impossibility. Strip the people’s representatives of their power to interfere in the workings of free enterprise. Privatise everything owned by the people. Starve the state of the funds it needs to look after its citizens properly by cutting taxes – and then by cutting them some more. De-regulate everything you can persuade the voters is an impediment to their happiness – especially the overweening power of the trade unions! Make a bonfire of rules and regulations. In the immortal words of Mark Zuckerberg: “Move fast and break things.”

Don’t let Democracy become a drag on your freedom.

And then there’s the rest of us. The ordinary, decent, conscientious participants in the electoral process, for whom Democracy has come to feel like a huge and heavy collection of failures and broken promises that we are compelled to drag behind us.

Every general election it’s the same. The political parties lay out their wares before us in the political marketplace. We lay down our money and we make our choice. If we’re lucky our party wins. If it loses, we shrug and say “there’s always next time”. The problem, though, is that, win or lose, nothing ever seems to get better. No matter which party occupies the Treasury Benches, the business of living just gets harder and harder.

There was a time – or so the history books tell us – when the promises of politicians meant something. Every three years the parties would issue manifestos stuffed with policies which, if they won the election, they would implement. The parties themselves were large organisations, with thousands of members, and political mechanisms for translating their wishes into policies, and policy into law. It wasn’t a perfect system, but it worked well enough to keep people believing that Democracy was something to be cherished.

Exactly when it all started to go wrong is difficult to pinpoint – although there are many who identify the election of 1984 as the beginning of Democracy’s decline in New Zealand. They point to the fact that what Labour put in its manifesto bore absolutely no resemblance to the policy revolution unleashed upon the country by David Lange and his Finance Minister, Roger Douglas. New Zealanders were told that there was no alternative to the Labour Government’s “reforms” – which must have been true, because in 1987 Labour didn’t both to publish a manifesto at all.

Others say that the rot really set in in 1990. Tired of Labour’s reforms, nearly half the country turned to the National Party’s Jim Bolger who was promising to restore the “decent society” that Labour had destroyed. Except that, even before all the votes had been counted, National began to break its promises. Instead of the decent society, New Zealand got the “Mother of All Budgets”. More of the same – only worse. Much worse.

Democracy no longer seemed to work, but the people could neither repair it nor improve it. They tried. New Zealanders abandoned their First-Past-the-Post for a Mixed Member Proportional electoral system. But, if anything, that only made matters worse. The decisiveness of governments elected under FPP, the power to keep their promises, was swapped out for government by coalitions, which, as everybody knows, can only ever be as honest as their most deceitful members.

Promises no longer mattered, because no party was ever in a position to keep them, or, at least, not all of them.

Until the election of 2020, when, in recognition of its superb handling of the Covid-19 Pandemic, Jacinda Ardern’s Labour Government won an absolute majority of the seats. Now, at last, her party’s promises could be kept.

But they weren’t. Labour politicians and the governmental system they served appeared to have forgotten how.

And so we poor Kiwis keep trudging forward, harnessed like plough horses to this dead weight at our backs. This rotting corpse of Democracy that we are forced to drag behind us. It’s a sad story, but the saddest part of all is how easy it would be for the right person, using the right words, to persuade us to cut the traces connecting us to our democratic burden – and simply let it go.

This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Tuesday, 22 March 2022.

Monday 21 March 2022

Holding National Together.

Tough Crowd: Too few to win, too many to die: it is looking more and more as if the National Party’s conservative falcons can no longer hear the falconer.

I DON’T BLAME SIMON BRIDGES for quitting. Seeing the people who toppled him from National’s throne positioning themselves alongside the man now sitting on it didn’t leave much room for doubt. Time to go.

But if Bridges is now free to pursue new opportunities and spend more time with his young family, the National Party itself cannot feel so sanguine. Putting aside the fact that Bridges was one of the very few members of National’s front bench with senior cabinet experience, he was also the leader of the party’s conservative faction.

While Bridges held the Finance Spokesperson’s role, National’s conservatives could tell themselves they possessed a powerful friend at the court of King Christopher. It’s hard to engage in serious political planning without the money-spinner in attendance. The conservatives may have been down, but they weren’t out.

Well, they’re out now.

Clearly, Bridges had been coming out of National’s inner circle feeling less and less like a man who was being taken seriously. Yes, he was there at Luxon’s side, but the person whose ideas were really influencing National’s new leader was the same person who had steered John Key towards victory in the run-up to the 2008 General Election – Nicola Willis. Put that together with Luxon being Key’s protégé, and it’s not hard to see why Bridges might feel he’d become more Ludo token than chess piece.

And now Willis is both the Deputy-Leader of the National Party and its Finance Spokesperson. At No. 3 we find another fierce liberal, Chris Bishop. Notwithstanding his conservative Christian beliefs, Luxon should, henceforth, be seen as a liberal leader. National is coming for Auckland, and Auckland cannot be won by a scary social-conservative.

It’s the strategy Willis sold Key when she was his “Special Adviser” back in 2008, and it is the strategy she is selling Luxon now. It’s a good strategy. New Zealanders are not extremists. They actually like messing around with Mr In-Between.

Which just leaves the conservatives.

For a long time now, National’s biggest political problem has been the uneven speed at which New Zealand’s population has embraced the social changes of the past forty years. There are parts of New Zealand – the inner suburbs of Auckland and Wellington, for example – where social-liberalism is so deeply entrenched that an openly conservative candidate standing for either major party would have little chance of winning an electorate seat. In provincial and rural New Zealand, however, the “wokeism” of the latte-drinkers of Wellington and Auckland Central is despised.

It’s a circle which National is finding it increasingly difficult to square.

The scale of National’s problem is dramatically demonstrated by dividing the post-war period into roughly equal halves. The first half is distinguished by the enormous difficulties Labour experienced in winning elections. Between 1949, the year the First Labour Government fell, and 1984: a period of three-and-a-half decades; Labour held office for just six years.

The median New Zealand voter of that era tended to be materially comfortable and determinedly risk-averse. The country’s social values were conservative and not subject to serious challenge. Yes, there was a “Youth Revolt”, but it made little impression electorally. Older New Zealanders were unimpressed.

That first half was also the era of the Cold War. A time when even Labour’s “democratic socialists” struggled to shake off the suspicion that they were far too close to “communists” for the country’s comfort. (Is that why, after 1984, so many Labour MPs happily jettisoned democratic socialism for “Rogernomics”?)

Certainly, things changed radically for the National Party after 1984. Gone were the days when National could reasonably describe itself as “the natural party of government”. In the 38 years between 1984 and 2022, Labour has held office for twenty years, and the National Party for eighteen.

This roughly equal alternation is illustrative of just how dramatically New Zealand has been changed by the events of the latter half of the post-war period. The stolid, conservative New Zealand, with its widely shared values (and prejudices) has not disappeared entirely, but it is now too small – especially in the context of the MMP electoral system – to serve as the foundation of a successful mainstream party.

Following its disastrous 2002 defeat, National’s solution to this problem was to persuade its hardcore conservatives to hold their noses and stick with the only party capable of holding the line against the increasingly radical social policies of the Labour Party and the Greens. Critical to this task was the below-the-radar support of the conservative Christian churches and the Maxim Institute. They shepherded their flocks into National’s sale-yards: helpfully dissuading them from diluting the right-wing vote by wasting conservative support on parties unlikely to crest the 5 percent MMP threshold.

It is even possible that the quid-pro-quo for this unheralded support was a quiet undertaking to select conservative Christian candidates for safe National seats, thereby baking-in the Christian Right’s political agenda where it mattered most – National’s parliamentary caucus.

As solutions go, this one was obviously short-term. Too many conservative Christians in National’s caucus, especially Christians determined to give legislative effect to their beliefs, and the party would become unelectable. But not before it had torn itself to pieces internally.

Throw into this dangerous god-spell the global impact of Brexit and Trump – both made possible by the even more dangerous sorcery of the Internet and its social-media wizards. The resulting global surge towards right-wing populism called into serious question the despised centre’s ability to hold. For good measure, Mother Nature then conjured-up a global pandemic. Once that happened, it was just a matter of sitting back and waiting for things to fall apart – all over Parliament Grounds.

Last week a group of rural-provincial blokes – looking for all the world as if they’d just stepped off the set of Fear The Living Dead – took to social media with a heartfelt appeal for their fellow blokes to stand up and fight back (presumably electorally) against the horrors of “Jabcinda” and her tyrannical government. At the same time, the anarchist editor of The Daily Blog, Martyn Bradbury, venturing boldly into the wilder realms of speculation, was inviting his readers to ponder the consequences of a Winston Peters-Judith Collins-led NZ First. One can only imagine how Act would react to that!

Too few to win, too many to die: it is looking more and more as if the National Party’s conservative falcons can no longer hear the falconer.

Nicola Willis’s plan for containing National’s Christian conservatives worked like a charm for John Key in 2008, but can she and Christopher Luxon truly control the rough right-wing beasts that are already slouching towards the 2023 election to be born?

This essay was originally posted on the website of Monday, 21 March 2022.

Friday 18 March 2022

From Emancipation To Denunciation: The Sad Descent of the Contemporary Left.

Going Down: The priorities of the Contemporary Left aren’t just depressing, they’re scary. Ordinary folk begin to ask themselves: if the urge to condemn and punish is all the now drives the Left, then how far is it willing to go to shut down and/or shut up the bad guys? Not many people are happy with the idea of living in a society where citizens have to weigh carefully every word and action, or fall victim to a regime in which punishment is the first resort, and forgiveness the swiftest path to ruin.

HOW TO PROMOTE a radical left-wing agenda when so few people today can even imagine such a thing? The emancipatory impulse that guided so many of the left-wing programmes of the past has almost entirely faded away. In its place we find a denunciatory political culture. Far too many contemporary leftists are driven by the desire to condemn and punish. Where once the Left’s purpose was to create a better world, its chief preoccupation today appears to be making it a less evil one.

A more realistic goal, some might say. Except that, as a goal, reducing evil rests upon the dismal presupposition that malignancy is humanity’s resting state. Striving to reduce the severity of the planet’s daily torments is not at all the same as believing it is possible to overcome them. Directing one’s efforts towards making humanity’s prison more bearable, differs fundamentally from a project dedicated to reducing that prison to rubble and setting its prisoners free.

As the Second Wave of Feminism swept across the Western World in the early 1970s, its adherents spoke with tongues of fire about the end of patriarchy and the emergence of not only a new kind of woman, but also of a new kind of man. They argued persuasively that the bloody re-ordering of male hierarchies – which men liked to call “revolutions” – were not revolutions at all. The only revolution worthy of the name, they argued, would be the one that brought the full emancipation of women. Only when the 10,000 year-old patriarchal system of sexual and gender repression was no more, could real human history begin.

Fifty years on, so many of those fiery tongues have been stilled. As The Platform’s Ani O’Brien wrote on 8 March, International Women’s’ Day:

In New Zealand - and perhaps elsewhere - International Women’s Day has become a farcical parade of corporate pink-washing overlaid by a nepotistic circle-jerk of privileged and influential liberal (mostly white) women giving each other awards at champagne breakfasts […..] And the issues they focus on? Usually not particularly high on the priority list for your average Kiwi woman – certainly not for those who are under-privileged.

On matters of race the picture is equally depressing.

Sticking with our earlier prison metaphor, the attention of the Contemporary Left seems fixated upon the ideas and actions of the prison guards, and how important it is to make them understand the enormously harmful impact of their prejudices and practices upon the well-being of the prisoners. If the purpose of “re-educating” these oppressors was to persuade them to make common cause with the oppressed, then its inherent negativity might be overlooked. Unfortunately, that is not its goal. The ambitions of the Contemporary Left do not extend beyond ensuring that the guards and the prisoners administer the prison together – “partners” in penology.

When it comes to issues of class, the picture is even bleaker.

In tragic contrast to the leftists of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the Contemporary Left seem mortally afraid of offending the boss. The very notion that “the history of all hitherto existing societies is the history of class struggle” strikes them as decidedly career-limiting. Located firmly in the Professional and Managerial Class, whose task it is to administer capitalism smoothly, with a minimum of fuss, on behalf of the people who own it, the Contemporary Left has taught itself to look at the working-class and see … nothing.

Without the determination to emancipate, the Left has no ability to inspire. Lacking the stimulus of their common advancement, the political inertness of “the people” is only to be overcome by outrage. By exposing the wickedness and brutality of those who wield power over them, individuals can be roused to anger. Rather than the emancipatory programmes spawned by the Old Left’s creative political imaginings, the Contemporary Left offers the marginalised and oppressed only the sterile alternatives of condemnation and punishment.

The “Me Too” movement replaces the New Woman and the New Man. “Black Lives Matter” replaces Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream!”

The problem with constantly parading wickedness and brutality before people’s gaze is that pretty soon they begin to think that’s all there is. Intuitively, they arrive at the dismal conclusion that the condemners and the punishers are not only fighting a never-ending battle, but a losing one. For every Harvey Weinstein and Jeffrey Epstein who falls, countless other abusers will go unpunished. For every racist cop that gets put away, a thousand more contrive to hide their racism more carefully.

Not only are these conclusions depressing, they’re scary. Ordinary folk begin to ask themselves: if the urge to condemn and punish is all the now drives the Left, then how far is it willing to go to shut down and/or shut up the bad guys? Not many people are happy with the idea of living in a society where citizens have to weigh carefully every word and action, or fall victim to a regime in which punishment is the first resort, and forgiveness the swiftest path to ruin.

Abandon the Left’s quest for emancipation in favour of the politics of denunciation, and what is left to the ordinary citizen but material aspiration? If building a better world is no longer on the Left’s agenda; and this one is dominated by forces against which the Left fights and fights but cannot overcome; then surely the only sensible course of action is for individuals and families to get and keep as much as they can while the getting and keeping is good?

For the past thirty-five years this is the only consistent message the New Zealand electorate has been sent. Certainly, it is the message which the National Party never tires of sending to voters. The Old Labour Left (think Mickey Savage and Norman Kirk) was condemned for wanting to upset the settled order of things – a prospect which the comfortably situated can always be relied upon to abhor. The New Labour Left (think Helen Clark and Jacinda Ardern) National condemns for its puritanical obsession with punishing the sins that make comfort possible. (The Greens are even worse!)

Since the Old Labour Left died with the Alliance twenty years ago, and the current incarnation of the Greens regards its policies as ideologically suspect relics of a bygone age, the New Labour Left has very little incentive to develop a manifesto in which the impulse to confront and overcome the evils of the status quo is blended with a determination to emancipate its victims. Evil can only be vanquished by the creation of a world in which it cannot thrive.

But, persuading voters this is true is no easy task. It requires a political party that never stops making the case for radical change. Sadly, no such party exists in the New Zealand of today. Offer voters a radical left-wing agenda in 2022 and its content will most likely inspire not enthusiasm, but a mixture of doubt and scorn.

As in this comment from a former National Party Cabinet Minister:

Is it really credible that Labour will become akin to a Corbynite party, since that is effectively what is being suggested. If they did, and that was clearly signalled before the election, I reckon you could pretty much guarantee Labour a few years in the political wilderness to contemplate the consequences of such a decision.

There is simply no appetite in New Zealand for a radical socialist change. It is no accident that the biggest selling vehicles are double-cab utes capable of pulling the 6 meter fishing boat [which is, in] fact, owned by the PM’s partner along with the beach house in Tairua. The epitome of the kiwi dream.

Just about every single policy dreamed up by such a fanciful radical coalition would be diametrically opposed to people being able to fulfil such a dream.

The party that actually trumpet the opportunity to fulfil such a dream are much more likely to electorally succeed.

The tragedy of these times is that Jacinda Ardern’s Labour Party would almost certainly agree. And the even bigger tragedy – so would 98 percent of the voters.

This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Friday, 18 March 2022.

The Second Cold War.

A Hot Start To The Second Cold War: This new world-historical conflict may have started out as a fight for democracy and freedom, but it is unlikely to remain one for long. The comfortable states of Europe may be content to defend their affluence to the last Ukrainian, but Ukraine may not. This Second Cold War will not be a repeat of the First.

THE WORLD is now in the grip of a second cold war. Like the first, this second cold war will not be short. And, as New Zealanders and the rest of the planet’s peoples are discovering, this war will not be cheap – in either blood or treasure.

Let us begin with that commodity which, even more than petrochemicals, has the power to break the world – bread.

Between them, the Russian Federation and Ukraine produce roughly a third of the world’s wheat and half of its Sunflower Oil. Much of Africa and most of the Middle-East depend upon the flour and cooking-oil produced by the two nations currently tearing apart the breadbasket of Europe. Without flour and oil, hundreds-of-thousands, swelling to millions, of blameless families will soon be experiencing the pangs of hunger.

The last time this happened in the Middle East (largely as a consequence of a poor Russian harvest and the effects of a long and devastating drought) the streets of the afflicted nations were soon filled with angry protesters demanding not only bread, but political change.

The so-called “Arab Spring” proved to be as fruitless as it was convulsive. Those states which were not hurriedly returned to the status-quo-ante, like Egypt, were, like Syria and Libya, reduced to rubble and anarchy – courtesy of the United States, the United Kingdom, France and (in Syria) the Russian Federation.

A second Arab Spring may not turn out to be as easily managed as the first. Eleven years ago, relations between Russia and the West were sufficiently settled to permit a high degree of Western intervention in the upheavals. Obviously, that will not be the case today. The Second Cold War will more-or-less require the Russian Federation to do all it can to disrupt Arab states beholden to the West – like Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia. Indeed, it is highly likely that the Russians will turn their wheat into a potent instrument of subversion.

None of these considerations applied at the outbreak of the First Cold War. The continental United States, untouched by the hand of war, its bank vaults bulging with the world’s gold, was in a position to feed a global human population approximately one quarter the size of today’s. The bountiful harvest of America’s Great Plains was more than enough to feed the world’s hungry, which it did, to the dramatic augmentation of American “soft power” wherever “US Aid” cargoes were unloaded.

As the Second Cold War unfolds, however, the USA’s effortless domination of 1945’s world population of 2 billion is unlikely to be repeated. Feeding the 8 billion human-beings of the 2020s will be a much taller order. In the years that lie ahead, food will be much too valuable to simply give away. Indeed, it will have become one of the most powerful weapons in the economic war that has already broken out between Russia and the West.

The other huge difference between the Second Cold War and the First is, of course, that in 1945 China was a devastated country, smashed to pieces by Japanese imperialism, and wracked by civil war. In 2022, China bestrides the world: not only an economic colossus, but also a military power it would be most unwise for the West to provoke too seriously.

The severing of all ties between Russia and the West, a decision which marks the end of the Age of Globalisation (and the neoliberal economic and political systems it sustained) can only result in the evolution of a gigantic Eurasian economic and military entity dominating the geopolitical pivot points of the entire planet.

Protected on their flanks by the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, the United States and its Western Hemisphere “allies” will have the option of splendid isolation.

Not so Europe, above which the Eurasian super-entity will tower like an angry Goliath. The never-ending civil war in Ukraine, prosecuted by ultra-nationalist guerrillas trained and equipped by the illiberal states of Eastern Europe will, like all such wars, engender unintended political consequences.

This new world-historical conflict may have started out as a fight for democracy and freedom, but it is unlikely to remain one for long. The comfortable states of Europe may be content to defend their affluence to the last Ukrainian, but Ukraine may not.

This Second Cold War will not be a repeat of the First.

This essay was originally published in The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 18 March 2022.

Tuesday 15 March 2022

A Fork In The Road: Which Way Should Labour Go?

Time To Choose: The changes that can no longer be deferred – on global warming, social equity, constitutional transformation and international relations – are so fundamental, so comprehensive and so disruptive as to be completely unassimilable by the current neoliberal order. Whether they like it or not, Labour’s leaders will have to become radicals and revolutionaries – or fade into history.

THE LATEST 1NEWS/KANTAR POLL raises a host of intriguing possibilities. Though the mainstream media’s reporting of the poll’s results has concentrated on National/Act overtaking Labour/Green, there has been considerably less attention paid to the potentially pivotal role of Te Pāti Māori in deciding the 2023 General Election. If the Labour hierarchy isn’t yet contemplating a sit-down with the Greens and Te Pāti Māori on strategy and tactics, then it should do so immediately. A radical electoral coalition is in the offing – if Labour has the wit and the courage to forge it.

The first thing for the Labour leadership to grasp is that the changes that can no longer be deferred – on global warming, social equity, constitutional transformation and international relations – are so fundamental, so comprehensive and so disruptive as to be completely unassimilable by the current neoliberal order. Whether they like it or not, Labour’s leaders will have to become radicals and revolutionaries – or fade into history.

The other option: standing in the way of the massive changes that loom ahead; will only hasten the moral and intellectual decay of the Labour Party. By positioning itself alongside National and Act, Labour would be abandoning the quest for transformational change to the Greens and Te Pāti Māori.

More seriously, Labour would be setting itself upon a course that could only end in the sort of Grand Coalitions that destroyed the German Social-Democratic Party as a force for progressive change.

Refusing to accept the need for radical changes might delay transformation, but conservative political resistance cannot prevent it from happening. The priority for any genuine party of the Left is to ensure that necessary change takes place in a context that expands the realm of human freedom – rather than constricting it.

Hence the urgent need for Labour to sit down with the Greens and Te Pāti Māori and sort out who does what in the formulation, presentation and implementation of a truly transformational programme.

Crucial to this process will be the identification of new sources of information and advice. A new societal agenda will require a new delivery mechanism: a creative and constantly changing constellation of “action groups” modelled on the astonishingly effective ad-hoc response to the urgent challenges of Māori vaccination against Covid-19.

Rather than policy-making being held within the narrow confines of the neoliberal mandarinate, Labour, the Greens and Te Pati Māori need to seek out the ideas and methodologies of individuals and groups hitherto regarded as operating beyond the realm of “realistic” policy formation. People and institutions able to begin immediately – utilising expertise and energies undreamt of by the official organs of the state.

A government committed to saying “yes” before it says “no”, would direct its fiscal support to transformational initiatives that have already demonstrated their ability to expand organically from one area of need to another, increasing in complexity and effectiveness as they grow. Change could thus emerge like crops in the fields – from the ground up.

Rather than congratulate itself for expanding the size of the state bureaucracy, a transformational Labour/Green/ Te Pāti Māori government would measure its success by the number of public servants it liberated from the crushing surveillance and soul-destroying discipline of the neoliberal administrative apparatus. Instead of sucking-up and taming organisational talent, the government’s goal would be to let it fall like windborne seeds into the fertile chaos of the revolution welling-up from below. As the wiser sort of trade union leader used to say: “Keep your experts on tap – not on top.”

If the recent protest encampment on Parliament Grounds had anything positive to offer the rest of New Zealand, then it was, surely, the example of people held together by a common cause, and how they managed themselves in ways that owed nothing to state or local officialdom. The way the protest community’s needs were supplied by those with the skills and resources required to meet them was genuinely inspiring. Motivated by a worthier cause: fighting global warming; delivering social and economic equity; exploring new ways of organising our politics; what could ordinary people not achieve?

Fanciful? Utopian? Not at all. Though the electorate has been given precious little evidence of its presence, there is in the 65 Labour Members of Parliament a concentration of idealism and talent which, in alliance with their colleagues in the Greens and Te Pāti Māori, is more than capable of unleashing a veritable flood of progressive change. The only thing stopping them is their collective unwillingness to believe that such an outcome is possible. Debilitating them – spiritually as well as politically – is the cancerous neoliberal lie that “there is no alternative” to the inhuman mechanism in which they have allowed themselves to become enmeshed.

There is no better example of this tragedy than Jacinda Ardern herself. When there is no rule-book: when History’s lightning-bolts bring horror and havoc out of clear blue sky; Jacinda has revealed her political instincts to be infallible. Her ability to find the right words: “They are Us”, “Team of Five Million”, speaks to an extraordinary level of emotional intelligence and empathy. But, on an ordinary day, with the rule-book open upon her desk, Jacinda’s performance is woeful. This superb free-spirit daily snaps the cuffs of “the way things are done” around her wrists and allows herself to be escorted quietly to the neoliberal jail.

Surely, by now, the Prime Minister understands that it is the lightning-bolt that inscribes the pages of history? That the rule-book she and her colleagues rely upon is merely the imperfect codification of all the inspired political improvisations of the past. Where was Mickey Savage’s rule-book? Where was Roger Douglas’s? They didn’t have one. All they had was the conviction that things could not go on as they were. That, for better, or for worse, changes had to be made.

Like them, Jacinda and her colleagues have come to a fork in the road. Whether their choice leads onwards to a brighter future, or down into the dark, will depend entirely upon how many people are invited to help them make it. Roger Douglas relied upon the secretive neoliberal priesthood of Treasury. Mickey Savage upon the wisest and most generous spirits New Zealand had to offer – beginning with the extraordinary people contained in his own caucus.

“By their fruits shall ye know them”, says the Good Book.

Having based her government’s decisions on the Rule Book, can Jacinda honestly say that she’s satisfied with Labour’s harvest?

The only way to win anything worth having in politics is by trusting the people. In alliance with the Greens and Te Pāti Māori, Labour needs to give New Zealanders something worth voting for.

Then watch the polls change.

This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Tuesday, 15 March 2022.

Monday 14 March 2022

Of American Geese And Russian Ganders.

Moral And Diplomatic Failure: Shouldn’t journalists from small nations like New Zealand be reminding the international community of its obligation to not only demand full accountability from those nations that commit crimes against humanity, but also from those that cause them?

SATURDAY NIGHT’S BULLETIN of 1 News featured a very peculiar, and disturbing, item. Put together by journalist Thomas Mead, the item noted with alarm the fact that some New Zealanders were backing Vladimir Putin and Russia against Volodymyr Zelenskyy and Ukraine.

Those involved were described by Mead as “conspiracy theorists”, a term he appeared to be using as a synonym for “evil crazies”. This highly tendentious characterisation was not in the least challenged or repudiated by the two academics Mead consulted. Neither the political scientist, Steve Hoadley, nor the University of Auckland’s “Misinformation Project” spokesperson, Snajama Hattotuwa, challenged Mead’s assumptions about Putin’s supporters.

Were New Zealand at war with the Russian Federation, then this degree of overt media propagandising might, just, be excusable. When the youth of one’s country are locked in an existential struggle with its enemies, balance and nuance tend to fall by the wayside. A war being fought on the other side of the world, however, surely requires plenty of both. Demonising one’s fellow citizens for the “sin” of refusing to view a faraway war through the lens of their own government serves neither journalism nor democracy.

Then again, since the New Zealand Parliament has, unanimously, rushed through all the stages of a bill enabling the New Zealand state, independently of the United Nations Security Council, to impose sanctions on Russian businesses and individuals, perhaps New Zealand really is at war with the Russian Federation.

While the imposition of economic sanctions on another country and its citizens falls well short of ordering one’s armed forces into battle against them, it is difficult to characterise the measure as anything other than a declaration of economic warfare.

An effective sanctions regime, by wreaking havoc on the targeted nation’s economy is intended to inflict non-physical harm on its citizens. It is, unquestionably, an act of coercion. A lesser act of coercion, at least in the short term, than firing artillery shells and dropping bombs, but an act of coercion nonetheless.

This is why the imposition of sanctions, a remedy institutionalised by the League of Nations in the years immediately following World War I, was presented as the most effective international response to aggression – short of all-out war. It amounted to a declaration of economic hostilities upon the aggressor state by the whole world. As such, it made it difficult for the aggressor state to retaliate effectively. It also constituted an unanswerable international moral rebuke of the offending nation’s actions.

Re-adopted by the United Nations following the Second World War, the sanctions option was placed in the hands of the UN Security Council. Providing the five permanent members of the Security Council (USA, Russia, UK, France and China) were in agreement, the world would be empowered to squeeze the economy of an aggressor state until the pips squeaked.

There was, however, an inherent weakness in this arrangement. Since only the world’s most powerful states were ever likely to thumb their noses as the United Nation’s Charter, and since those states could veto any intervention by the UN Security Council, then the application of sanctions as a means of coercing delinquent states into demonstrating an acceptable standard of international conduct became something of a dead letter.

New Zealand has long been a critic of the veto power of the five permanent members of the UN Security Council – depicting it as a fundamental obstacle to the enforcement of the provisions of the UN Charter. A little reflection, however, makes it perfectly clear why the veto power has always been critical to the maintenance of international peace and stability.

What possible reason for retaining their membership of the United Nations would the great powers have if it was possible for a majority of the five permanent members to “gang-up” on the rest? It is the veto that keeps the planet’s most dangerous nations seated around the multilateral table. If the UN Security Council had possessed the power to impose sanctions on the Bush Administration for its unlawful invasion of Iraq, would the USA still be a member of the UN? Of course not.

The problem which now confronts the world is that the preponderant economic and military power of the United States has persuaded its leaders to evade the limitations associated with the veto by imposing swingeing economic sanctions upon its enemies without Security Council authorisation. It masks this dangerous unilateralism by pressuring those states under its sway (which includes most of the world’s nations) into joining its sanctions regimes. Any reluctance on the part of US “allies” to participate in these brazen acts of economic coercion is overcome by threatening to extend the sanctions to any entity deemed guilty of ignoring them.

In a more rational world, the very fact one of the five nuclear-armed permanent members is contemplating exercising its veto would be enough to convince the other four that a full-scale diplomatic effort is required to identify the most fruitful options for easing the tension. Tragically, the most malign legacy of the Cold War, which froze international relations for forty years, is the way in which its “Free World” allies have opted to remain passengers on the United States’ war chariot, and how many of its erstwhile Warsaw Pact enemies have sought its protection from their former Russian suzerain.

That Russia would eventually demand to know why sauce for the American goose was not also sauce for the Russian gander was inevitable. If the Americans could determine that a nation thousands of miles from its shores, which had made no aggressive move in its direction, could nevertheless be invaded by a coalition led by two of the five permanent members of the Security Council – ostensibly to defend themselves – then Moscow was surely entitled to do the same to a nation located on its western border which had voiced its determination to throw in its lot with Russia’s Nato “enemies”.

That the answer: because two wrongs do not make a right; and that it is no more acceptable for Russian missiles to kill Ukrainian children than it was for American missiles to kill Iraqi children; should have been obvious to Vladimir Putin, is, unfortunately, no help at all. Because the chancelleries of the world looked the other way when the USA tore up the UN Charter in 2003, their powers of moral persuasion in 2022 are not as forceful as they should be.

Rather than replicating the McCarthyism of the Cold War, shouldn’t journalists from small nations like New Zealand be reminding the international community of its obligation to not only demand full accountability from those nations that commit crimes against humanity, but also from those that cause them?

This essay is exclusive to Bowalley Road.

Friday 11 March 2022

2023: The One To Lose.

Drive Towards The Dawn: Labour should present the voters with a bold and radical vision of their country’s future. A future founded on a political economy of equity and justice. Labour and the Greens will lose, naturally. But, with the economy tanking, and the international situation going from bad to worse, the 2023 General Election looks more-and-more like the election the parties of the future need to lose.

BRYCE EDWARDS, in this morning’s (10/3/22) edition of his excellent NZ Politics Daily, writes:

“There is still a chance that the Government will back down on Three Waters. If opinion polls continue to narrow between the left and right blocs, then Jacinda Ardern will start to look at what areas of the Government reform programme are eroding public confidence. Three Waters, or at least the co-governance model, is likely to be identified as a roadblock to re-election in 2023.”

But, a back-down on Three Waters could only eventuate following a direct and successful attack upon the largest and most powerful faction in the Labour Caucus – the Māori Caucus. Given the political beliefs of most of Labour’s non-Māori caucus members, however, is such an attack even conceivable? It would represent not only a rejection of the orthodox interpretation of te Tiriti o Waitangi, along with the co-governance model it is said to mandate, but also the wholesale repudiation of the only political principles the current generation of Labour MPs take seriously.

Now the cynics might chuckle and point to the number of sitting MPs who stand to lose their seats if Labour’s fast-falling level of electoral support is not arrested. Having just entered Parliament, are these politicians really prepared to be swept out of it on the highly contentious proposition that co-governance really is the wave of the future?

Isn’t it more likely that these MPs will suddenly discover that co-governance formed no part of Labour’s 2020 Election Manifesto? Or, that co-governance is full of constitutional fish-hooks that the likes of Nanaia Mahuta and Willie Jackson have not been entirely up-front about? Some may even decide to read He Puapua from start to finish, and end up wondering how the Labour Cabinet could just wave it through.

On the other hand, nobody has ever gone broke betting on the propensity of white liberals to fold like tents when subjected to an uncompromising assault by people of colour. Are Labour’s current crop of luvvies really tough enough to face down the bitter accusations of racism and colonialist betrayal which would undoubtedly be hurled at them by the Māori Caucus’s staunchest spokespeople?

Is Jacinda?

And are the Non-Māori majority of the Labour Caucus really willing to call the Māori Caucus’s bluff if it threatens to refuse the Whip? Could the Labour leadership be sure of holding on to at least three or four of Willie Jackson’s team in the event of a walkout? (Always assuming that the Greens do not walk away from their agreement with the Labour Government in solidarity with its Māori members.)

It is very hard to see how scrapping co-governance and provoking a walkout of Labour’s Māori caucus could happen without provoking a snap election. With the Greens and the Māori Party tearing into Labour’s left-flank, it is even harder to see any other outcome apart from a resounding National/Act victory. Which would, of course, mean the scrapping of Three Waters and co-governance.

Better, perhaps, to go down with the Tino Rangatiratanga flag flying? Paradoxically, going to the country on a platform of constitutional and cultural transformation – and getting thrashed – could well be the best way of keeping Labour and the Greens in the long-term political game.

Because, one thing is for certain: the genie of co-governance is well and truly out of its bottle and it is doubtful whether the New Zealand state any longer possesses either the strength or the will to stuff it back in. Were a right-wing government foolish enough to try, the resulting convulsions in the body politic would make the recent dyspepsia manifested in Parliament Grounds look like a delegation of Plunket mums.

This time the wretched refuse of the colonial capitalist economy would not attract the scorn of middle-class Pakeha social-liberals. This time they would be pitching their tents right alongside them. This time the New Zealand ensign flying alongside the Tino Rangatiratanga flag would not be at all confusing. This time it would be: “One flag for tauiwi; one flag for tangata whenua; and te Tiriti over all.” This time Labour and the Greens would not be scorning the occupation. This time they’d be taking the demands of the protesters directly to the floor of the House of Representatives. This time they would not be speaking for the state. This time they would be speaking for the future.

There was a time – not so very long ago – when Bryce Edwards’ speculation about Labour stepping away from Three Waters and co-governance would have represented nothing more nor less than the conventional wisdom. But, times have changed. Aotearoa-New Zealand faces unprecedented challenges, and it is becoming clearer with every passing year that our current constitutional arrangements are unlikely to prove equal to the task of meeting them.

As Bryce himself notes:

“The alternative is that the Government gets out and actually sells the reforms to the public. This is what has been sorely lacking (beyond the infamous [Three Waters] propaganda ad campaign). But that will require more than disparaging co-governance critics whose arguments are resonating widely with the public.”

Indeed it will. And, if Labour has retained even a shred of historical consciousness, it will go the electorate with more than just Three Waters on the bill-of-sale. It should present the voters with a bold and radical vision of their country’s future. A future founded on a political economy of equity and justice. A future in which everyone can win, and where losing isn’t predetermined by the colour of your skin. Labour and the Greens will lose, naturally. But, with the economy tanking, and the international situation going from bad to worse, the 2023 General Election looks more-and-more like the election the parties of the future need to lose.

The vital objective should be to win the votes of the young. The challenges that loom will be theirs to meet and overcome. Above all, Labour should not allow itself to be spooked by a solidification of frightened conservatism among the over-60s. Let the dead bury their dead.

The trick, in these circumstances, is to make sure that you leave office with a bang – not a whimper. With great things still left to do. In the immortal words of Scarlet O’Hara in Gone With The Wind: “Tomorrow is another day.”

Let the Right inherit the whirlwind that’s coming.

This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Friday, 11 March 2022.