Friday 29 April 2022

Armies Of The Dead.

Not Forgotten, Or Forgiven: At this moment our television screens are filled with stories featuring Ukrainians and Russians. Over the course of the past century, both of these peoples have endured almost unbelievable levels of pain, rage and guilt. The statue pictured above, entitled The Bitter Memory of Childhood is part of the national memorial to the Ukrainian Famine in Kyiv.

WHERE DOES PAIN, rage and guilt go? At the level of the individual human-being, psychologists are confident that they go to the construction of a personality which reflects and all-too-often reproduces these searing experiences.

As the British poet W.H. Auden wrote on the eve of war in September 1939:

I and the public know
What all schoolchildren learn,
Those to whom evil is done
Do evil in return.

The truth of this bleak observation is borne out in virtually every programme screened on the Crime & Investigation channel of Sky Television. In the back-story behind the most terrible crimes there are almost always harrowing tales of childhood trauma and abuse. As the branch is bent, so grows the tree. Serial killers are not born, they are made.

But what about whole collectivities of human-beings? What about the peoples and nations that have experienced pain, rage and guilt? Where does it go?

At this moment our television screens are filled with stories featuring Ukrainians and Russians. Over the course of the past century, both of these peoples have endured almost unbelievable levels of pain, rage and guilt. It stretches credulity well beyond its breaking-point to suggest that what happened between the outbreak of the First World War and the end of the Second did not leave its mark on both Russia and Ukraine.

The deliberate creation of famine in Ukraine by the Soviet government of Russia is estimated to have led directly to the deaths of between 3 and 7 million people – most of them peasant farmers.

The details of this political crime, almost too awful to read, have been compiled by historian Timothy Snyder in his book Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin.

Those fortunate enough to live in Ukraine’s towns and cities did not die in anything like the same numbers. But their survival came at a price. They were forbidden by the Communist Party commissars from feeding the skeletal creatures that appeared like wraith’s in their streets and squares. They died where they fell, were loaded on to trucks, and buried under cover of darkness in mass graves.

What does that do to people? Where do the emotions stirred up by such behaviour go?

A partial answer to that question came in 1941 when the Wehrmacht rolled across the Soviet border into Ukraine. Hundreds-of-thousands of Ukrainian nationalists collaborated with the German invaders. It was the local knowledge of these Ukrainians which allowed the German Einsatzgruppen to round up and kill their communist neighbours.

Seeking retribution from those they held responsible for the needless deaths of family and friends is, at least, comprehensible. But the ferocity with which Ukrainians fell upon their Jewish compatriots is beyond rational explanation. Only recently has grainy film footage of these 1941 pogroms come to light. It is the stuff of nightmares. The Holocaust had many helpers.

Russians and Ukrainians are not, of course, alone in perpetrating the most heinous of crimes against their neighbours. Like so many others guilty of similar atrocities, however, the perpetrators were required to bury the terrible memories that came with them. Years of silence. Decades of nightmares. Lifetimes of unacknowledged trauma. How can their effects not have bled into the social tissue of the nations involved? A moral gangrene that spread and spreads.

Not only that, but among the many thousands of historical killers were some who actually enjoyed the killing. Deriving pleasure from causing pain and suffering is not information most human-beings are all that eager to share – at least not explicitly. The intergenerational consequences of such psychopathology’s indirect communication can only be guessed at. How have the children of these monsters been spending their emotional inheritance?

For most Westerners, the war unfolding in Ukraine makes no sense. Russians and Ukrainians look the same, speak the same languages, have lived lives that were, until very recently, culturally indistinguishable. Why are they fighting?

The chilling answer is that both sides are commanded by ghosts. It is the unquiet dead, the unpunished crimes, the gagged memories of countless perpetrators and their victims that drive these armies forward. Impulses barely understood, inherited from parents and grandparents who could neither speak about nor forget the horrors they had witnessed or performed.

Two nations to whom great evil has been done are being driven, by dead hands, to do evil in return.

This essay was originally published in The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 29 April 2022.

No Good Options. Will Co-Governance Break Our Democracy?

A Dangerous Moment: Given the intense preparation which has gone into raising Māori expectations of co-governance, it would now be extremely dangerous for any political party to bring its institutional evolution to a halt. That said, the lack of any serious preparation of the non-Māori population for the revolutionary implications of setting New Zealand’s democratic political system aside in favour of “parity” between the Treaty “partners”, has already set in motion the growth of potentially massive electoral resistance to the co-governance project.

THERE ARE MOMENTS IN HISTORY when all the options available to political leaders are bad. The British Prime Minister, Neville Chamberlain, faced such a moment in the late-1930s. New Zealand’s current political leadership is facing an equally fraught range of options. Already, there is no course of action available to either Jacinda Ardern or Christopher Luxon that does not, ultimately, end in tears.

How did we arrive at such a dangerous moment?

For the beginnings of an answer we must look to the Bicultural Project developed by the New Zealand Left in the 1980s. In its essence, this project was an attempt to retain the coherence of the New Zealand working-class by building a much greater level of cultural understanding between Pakeha and Māori workers, thereby ensuring that any improvements in living standards and political influence would benefit both ethnicities equally. In its first iteration, at least, the Bicultural Project was about class and culture. A rising economic tide, born of working-class unity, would lift all boats – and waka.

Māori nationalists were having none of it. From their perspective, the original Bicultural Project was just another Pakeha ruse for remaining in charge of the evolution of the New Zealand state. From the very beginning, nationalist writers – most notably Donna Awatere – were at pains to make it clear that the acquisition of Tino Rangatiratanga, Māori Sovereignty, would be achieved in spite of, not by the grace and favour of, the “White Left”. Māori nationalists of aristocratic lineage evinced only scorn for the trade unions and the left-wing parties. Their goal was always admirably clear. They wanted their country back. All of it. Now.

Perhaps, if Rogernomics had never happened, some sort of compromise might have been reached. We’ll never know. The Neoliberal Revolution smashed the unity of the New Zealand working-class into a thousand pieces. As always in this country’s history, massive economic change hit Māori communities the hardest. Meanwhile, what was left of the traditional Pakeha working-class was demobilised and disarmed by the Employment Contracts Act. Within a few years the White Left had ceased to exist.

Biculturalism 2.0, however, neither needed nor wanted any sort of Left. Māori nationalists found Neoliberalism’s take on the Bicultural Project much more encouraging than the Marxists’ version. Lord Cooke of Thorndon’s 1987 “partnership” formulation of the Treaty relationship dovetailed neatly with the neo-tribal capitalism mandated by the Crown/Iwi-based Treaty Settlement Process. The resulting quasi-autonomous ethnic corporations, working hand-in-glove with the Executive Branch of the New Zealand state, were now on course to produce an entirely new set of constitutional possibilities.

The relentless promotion of the so-called “Partnership Model” within those institutions directly controlled by, and/or beholden to, the State, combined with a young Māori elite, educated by the Iwi corporates, and strategically located by sympathetic public servants at the myriad power-points of the state apparatus, transformed the human resources of the Crown into a powerful ideological force. In alliance with the free-floating Iwi corporations, the New Zealand state and its appendages – especially the major political parties, the mainstream news media and the universities – were now ready to proceed to the next phase: Biculturalism 3.0 – also known as “Co-Governance”.

Given the intense preparation which has gone into raising Māori expectations of co-governance, it would now be extremely dangerous for any political party to bring its institutional evolution to a halt. That said, the lack of any serious preparation of the non-Māori population for the revolutionary implications of setting New Zealand’s democratic political system aside in favour of “parity” between the Treaty “partners”, has already set in motion the growth of potentially massive electoral resistance to the co-governance project.

On the Pakeha Right the expectation is that the National and Act parties will, between them, bring the “anti-democratic” innovations of “Māori radicals” to a shuddering halt. The vehicle for this moratorium is the Act Party’s “bottom-line” referendum on co-governance, the result of which the Right (almost certainly correctly) regards as a forgone conclusion. Should National indicate in any way its reluctance to adhere to Act’s bottom-line, then its grip on the right-leaning electorate will be weakened profoundly – boosting Act’s support and quite possibly bringing the NZ First Party back into Parliament.

On the Centre-Left, by contrast, there is a growing level of apprehension that its steadily declining level of support – as registered in the opinion polls – will require not only the seats of Labour and the Greens, but also those of Te Pāti Māori, if “progressives” are to retain possession of the Treasury Benches. With support for Te Pāti Māori rising (at the Greens’ expense) neither Labour nor the Greens will be able to signal any retreat from their commitment to the co-governance project.

Even within Te Pāti Māori, fears will be growing that the support it is attracting in the polls may not end up being reflected in the polling-booths. Younger voters are notoriously difficult to mobilise, especially when compared to older voters (who can be relied upon to cast their votes with an almost religious devotion). To get these younger voters “off the couch”, Te Pāti Māori will need to present the coming election as an existential threat to the future of tangata whenua in Aotearoa. Co-governance will thus be elevated to a non-negotiable component of the nation’s future.

Labour and the Greens will find themselves being dragged further and further to the left in order to keep this nascent Red-Green-Brown coalition together. To distract their still dubious working-class Pakeha supporters from the co-governance question, Labour may lay before them reforms aimed squarely at dismantling the neoliberal economic order in favour of “real Labour policies”. With the Greens and Te Pāti Māori shouting “Me too!”, it will be the turn of National and Act to paint the forthcoming election as not only an existential threat to democracy, but also to the socio-economic status quo.

Clearly, not everybody’s expectations can be fulfilled in a democratic election. Historically, the voters on either side of the political divide have understood and accepted this state of affairs. There is always next time.

The risk New Zealand runs in 2023 is that the policy promises of the contending parties will be come to be seen by their respective supporters as critical to the survival of the nation. On the Right, the introduction of co-governance will be equated with the death of democracy. On the Left, a racist referendum endorsing the elimination of co-governance will be construed as an all-out assault on the Treaty of Waitangi and the indigenous people it was intended to protect.

In such circumstances, the uncompromising partisans on both sides begin to believe that if they concede defeat there will be no “next time”. At that point the cry goes out for a “continuation of politics by other means”. Bullets replace ballots, and peace ceases to be an option – for anybody.

This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Friday, 22 April 2022.

Friday 22 April 2022

Controlling The Past.

“The past is never dead. It’s not even past. All of us labor in webs spun long before we were born, webs of heredity and environment, of desire and consequence, of history and eternity.” - William Faulkner

IT WAS NEARLY SIX YEARS AGO that I defended New Zealanders’ historical ignorance as a not altogether bad thing. In a column entitled “Let Sleeping Ghosts Lie”, I wrote:

There is a reason why so many of the signposts to old battle sites are weathered and overgrown; why lichen has been allowed to obliterate the names of those who fell. Sleeping ghosts, like sleeping dogs, should never be needlessly awakened.

Unsurprisingly, New Zealand history teachers were outraged. How can New Zealand’s peoples be reconciled, and past injustices put right, if its young people are kept in ignorance of their country’s past?

It was a battle-cry that carried the reformers to victory. Under the Labour-led government of Jacinda Ardern, the positive noises made by Bill English’s National-led government were translated into hard-and-fast policy. From 2023, New Zealand history will be a compulsory feature of the school curriculum for Years 1-10.

A cause for celebration? Well, that depends upon your point of view. History is as much about the present as it is about the past. What we choose to remember, to bring forward into the consciousness of people living today, is a profoundly political act, with frequently explosive political consequences.

Just how fraught with danger the emerging new curriculum promises to be was brought home to the viewers of an item broadcast on Monday night’s edition of One News.

A Māori mother was distressed because her son’s class had been asked to give a Yes or No answer to the question: ‘Should land be returned to Māori?’ She expressed her displeasure at what she described as the closed nature of the question and its lack of context.

There will be many New Zealanders, however, in whose judgement the question posed is entirely fair and reasonable. Any accurate account of the history of Māori-Pakeha relations since the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi cannot fail to conclude that, as one history teacher interviewed for the news item declared:

“Their [Māori] ancestors were evicted, essentially, from their lands, which [were] taken from them”.

If justice and reconciliation is the goal of the new compulsory curriculum, then the question of who owns New Zealand can hardly be avoided.

The problem, of course, is that if the correct answer to the offending teacher’s question is: “Yes, the lands that were unjustly (illegally) taken from Māori should be restored to them”; then, immediately, a whole host of subsidiary questions arise. Supplying honest answers to these questions will likely prove beyond the resources of New Zealand’s teachers.

Herein lies the danger. Once the scale of injustice is exposed, how should students – Māori and Pakeha – respond? Being young, their answers are likely to echo the words of the New Zealand poet, James K. Baxter:

Anger is bread/To the poor, their guns more accurate than justice

Knowing New Zealand bureaucracy’s horror of passion and plain speaking, it seems a given that teachers will not only be expected to make sure that such sentiments are discouraged, but that they are also suppressed.

We are thus presented with a policy paradox. Our government is insisting that young New Zealanders be taught their country’s history: but not in a way that allows them to both perceive the truths of the past, and act upon them in the present. If you think this contradiction is bound to tie our history teachers up in all manner of pedagogical and cultural knots, then I think you’re right!

One more thing arises out of Monday’s One News item – and it bothers me.

How is the Ministry of Education proposing to deal with the cultural reality that most of the teachers, and most of the students, involved in the new history curriculum will be non-Māori? If Te Ao Māori drives the responses of tangata whenua, then is it not equally true that the cultural life-worlds of non-Māori will determine their responses? How, then, are we to avoid the new history curriculum generating in the here-and-now exactly the same conflicts that beset the past?

If the answer to that question involves a huge amount of prescriptive effort, centred around what teachers and students can think and say, then serious politico-cultural conflict is inevitable.

In Nineteen Eighty-Four George Orwell wrote: “He who controls the past controls the future. He who controls the present controls the past.”

Fasten your seat-belts.

This essay was originally published in The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 22 April 2022.

Passing Down The Power: Exploring The Revolutionary Potential Of Subsidiarity And Participatory Democracy.

Making Ourselves Heard: Is participatory democracy really that important? Yes, it is, because without returning effective political power to the people, there is no possibility of also returning their resources. No one involved in the management of local government will have failed to notice the fake subsidiarity of neoliberalism: making the victims of central government parsimony responsible for administering their own deprivation. 

’ Lakeside State Park holiday resort, just a few miles out of Port Huron, Michigan. That was where, on 15 June 1962, the concept of “participatory democracy” was born. Sharing its birthday was the movement that would become known as the “New Left’, along with the organisation that would give shape and purpose to the youth revolt of the 1960s and 70s – Students for a Democratic Society (SDS).

But, what has “The Port Huron Statement” and the notion of participatory democracy got to do with New Zealand politics in 2022?

The answer to that question is inextricably bound up with another question: At what level should decisions that impact directly upon the daily lives of citizens, and the communities in which they live, be made? How we answer that question is of immense importance, because the happiness of citizens and communities is all-too-often a reflection of their proximity to such decision-making; and of how responsive the decision-makers are to their wishes and concerns.

In October 1964, the Berkeley Free Speech Movement had a slogan, inspired by the instructions printed on the plethora of forms which the University of California at Berkeley required its students to complete. It read: “Please do not fold, spindle or mutilate – I am a human-being.”

Those words capture brilliantly the deep sense of youthful alienation to which the SDS was already giving voice. Everywhere institutions were getting bigger, more complicated, less intelligible and, increasingly, unaccountable. The student activists of the SDS saw it all around them in the ever-expanding universities of the post-war era. These vast “knowledge factories”, dedicated to furnishing corporate America with the highly-skilled and well-adjusted managers and professionals it demanded, left their youthful raw material feeling used and abused.

And it wasn’t just the universities that were folding, spindling and mutilating. The bureaucracies of the private sector: General Motors; General Electric, Dow Chemicals, IBM; were, if anything, larger (and certainly less responsive) than those of the public sector. Even more troubling, Abraham Lincoln’s “government of the people, by the people, for the people” also showed signs of succumbing to the sins of bigness. The opaque political machines of the Democratic and Republican parties had turned folding, spindling and mutilating into an art form.

What did it say about American democracy, that Jack Kennedy, the best and the brightest presidential candidate in nearly 30 years, had to be elected by the votes of dead Democrats – courtesy of organised crime? Or that the very same Mafia “outfits” controlled so many of America’s trade unions? Not the SDS’s sponsors in the United Auto Workers maybe, but most definitely Jimmy Hoffa’s Teamsters!

Big Business, Big Government, Big Unions, Big Universities – Big Gangsters! – there had to be a better way! Because, as the Free Speech Movement’s leader, Mario Savio, so eloquently put it:

There comes a time when the operation of the machine becomes so odious, makes you so sick at heart, that you can’t take part, you can’t even passively take part, and you’ve got to put your bodies upon the gears and upon the wheels, upon all the apparatus, and you’ve got to make it stop. And you’ve got to indicate to the people who run it, the people who own it, that unless you’re free the machine will be prevented from working at all.

Stirring rhetoric! But if Savio believed the sentiments he was expressing were new, then he was wrong. Outrage at “the operations of the machine” is not a new thing, it goes back a long way. And the sort of people and institutions who have given voice to that outrage might surprise you.

It was in 1931 that Pope Pius XI issued the papal encyclical entitled Quadragesimo Anno in which the principle of subsidiarity was for the first time clearly enunciated by the Catholic Church:

Pope Pius XI
Just as it is gravely wrong to take from individuals what they can accomplish by their own initiative and industry and give it to the community, so also it is an injustice and at the same time a grave evil and disturbance of right order to assign to a greater and higher association what lesser and subordinate organizations can do. For every social activity ought of its very nature to furnish help to the members of the body social, and never destroy and absorb them.

It is important to locate these words in their historical context. Only then can the motivation of the Church – itself a large, rigid, and highly intricate hierarchy, with a global bureaucracy to match – be rendered intelligible.

The targets of Pius’s encyclical were, on the one hand, the unchecked rapaciousness of laissez-faire capitalism ,and the amoral individualism which it had spawned; and, on the other, the totalitarian ambitions of Italian Fascism, German National Socialism and Soviet Communism, which sought to drag all free-standing and self-regulating entities into the inescapable and smothering embrace of an ideologically-driven state.

Pius argued that not only was the “body social” made healthier by governmental diversity, but so too was the social soul. Bad things happen wherever the duties of church and state are merged. Because, as the novelist Robert Harris so rightly observes: “If those with morals lack power, then those with power will lack morals.”

Historians are divided over how resolutely the Catholic Church defended the principle of subsidiarity – especially under the pontificate of Pius XI’s, Secretary of State, Cardinal Pacelli, who succeeded him as Pope Pius XII in March 1939. Branded “Hitler’s Pope” by his detractors, Pius XII nevertheless knew a thing or two about navigating acutely vulnerable vessels through pirate-infested waters. That two of the three pirate kings of the 1930s were dead by the time Pius XII brought all his little ships safely home is often forgotten by his critics. Also forgotten is the critical role played by the pontiff so often described as Pius XII’s spiritual successor, Pope John-Paul II, in bringing down the Soviet Union – the last of the pirate kingdoms.

Certainly, it was under the watchful eye of Pius XII that the principle of subsidiarity became the foundation stone of Christian Democracy throughout Western Europe. And it wasn’t just the Catholic countries that embraced the new doctrine. The German Christian Democrats would become that country’s natural party of government. In the protestant Netherlands it also sent down deep roots. Yes, it helped that the Federal Republic of Germany’s first Chancellor, Conrad Adenauer, was a much-admired anti-Nazi. But, after Hitler, and in the grim shadow of Stalinism, Christian Democracy was able to hold out the promise of moderation and respect. People had seen what bigness could do: the principle of subsidiarity acknowledged the beauty and resilience of small things.

Villages, towns, cities, regions: in each of these places stood institutions tested and refined by the passage of centuries; modes of governance which recognised the special needs and preferences of their communities; bodies which interposed themselves between the peremptory claims of the national, and the long-established rights and cherished privileges of the local. The gauleiters and commissars had swept all these away with totalitarian contempt, but the Christian Democratic parties organised and celebrated their return. No wonder people voted for them!

“Ah, but that is Europe!”, I hear you say. “Europe isn’t merely old, it is ancient. History there isn’t measured in decades, but in centuries and millennia. Obviously, subsidiarity works well alongside traditions as old as these. But, can it work in New Zealand? Ours is a nation which came into existence less than two centuries ago? What traditions do we have to rival those of Italian city-states, French villages and German market towns? Also, Europe is full of people: 500 million in the EU alone! In a nation whose population has just passed 5 million, how far down can power be passed before it ceases to be able to pay for itself?”

For nearly four decades now this country’s political and economic leaders have studiously avoided the question of how government – national and local – is expected to pay for itself. That’s because, in 1984, they convinced themselves that the responsibilities of government should be contracted out to the “Free Market”. Taxes could be cut, public enterprises privatised, and the burden of regulation lightened to the point where it could scarcely be felt at all, and everything would be fine, because the Free Market knew best and the Free Market would provide.

Except, of course, the Free Market isn’t really interested in keeping the water drinkable, the streets lit, the rubbish carried away, and the power on, or in providing any of the other services that absolutely must be provided if people are to remain healthy and their communities habitable. That is to say, the private sector will not provide any of these services without first receiving an ironclad guarantee that they can be provided at a profit.

And what can Local Government say: except “Yes, Sir”?

And what can Local Government do: except impose more user-charges and strike ever-higher rates?

And what alternative does Local Government have when the rate-payers cry “Enough! No more!”: except to let their communities’ crucial infrastructure rot, and put off until tomorrow all the things that are crying out so urgently to be done today?

And what does Local Government know: if not that the day must come when the pipes burst, and the water becomes contaminated, and people get sick, and some die, and the country’s mayors, councillors and managers are all lined up by the news media to take the blame and wear the shame?

It’s madness – utter madness – and it’s getting harder and harder to conceal the fact.

More importantly, it’s wrong. There is something dark and malignant behind the reality that our country no longer seems to work. Something every bit as dark and malignant as Hitler and Stalin: and just as totalitarian.

Pope Pius XI knew what it was. Remember the words of his Quadragesimo Anno? He called it “a grave evil and disturbance of right order”. It flows from that other source of the Church’s growing alarm in 1931. The forces powering the rise of Mussolini and Hitler and Stalin. Untrammelled capitalist greed, and the ruthless pursuit of individual wealth and power without heed for the consequences. Not for the rest of humanity. Not for the world they inhabit.

Do not fold, spindle or mutilate – I am a human-being.

Because the abandonment of the principle of subsidiarity (even in its birthplace, Europe) and the universal enthronement of the most successful totalitarian ideology in human history, Neoliberalism, is very surely, but not at all slowly, destroying the biosphere – and with it the future of human civilisation.

And to whom, as the planet swelters and pandemics sweep the globe, will people turn for aid and comfort in the years that lie ahead? To the failed politicians in a distant capital city? To the same political class whose reckless inaction precipitated the very crisis in which they now find themselves engulfed? To the powerless servants of science, whose fate, like Cassandra’s, was to see the future clearly, but not be believed? No, they will not. They will turn to their local councils: to the politicians and bureaucrats who serve their regions, districts, cities and towns.

That word “serve” is used advisedly. It’s an old-fashioned word and an old-fashioned concept, but in spite of it falling out of favour, both linguistically and politically, service of one sort or another is inescapable. How does Bob Dylan put it?

You may be a preacher with your spiritual pride
You may be a city councilman taking bribes on the side
You may be workin’ in a barbershop, you may know how to cut hair
You may be somebody’s mistress, may be somebody’s heir

But you’re gonna have to serve somebody, yes
You're gonna have to serve somebody
Well, it may be the devil or it may be the Lord
But you’re gonna have to serve somebody

The temptation is always to serve the already powerful: the people with the money; the One Percent – for want of a better term. But, it’s a temptation that should be resisted. It is never a good idea to be found standing too close to those who end up wearing the blame. No matter how much sense it may have made in the past to range oneself alongside those who scorn the very idea of popular participation, and who consider democracy to be an extremely inefficient form of government; it makes sense no longer.

Powering-up is what got us into this mess. Creating bigger and bigger local government organisations – Three Waters anyone! – sealing them off ever more hermetically from public scrutiny; making them less and less accountable to the individuals and communities they were intended to serve; none of it has made these local services any more efficient or effective – quite the opposite, in fact.

By assigning to “a greater and higher association what lesser and subordinate organizations can do” the energy and creativity of the “body social” has indeed been absorbed and destroyed – just as Pope Pius XI predicted. Only by powering-down; only by adopting the principle of subsidiarity; can the sort of institutions that make the practice of participatory democracy feasible be brought into existence.

Is participatory democracy really that important? Yes, it is, because without returning effective political power to the people, there is no possibility of also returning their resources. No one involved in the management of local government will have failed to notice the way in which central government has mastered the art of passing its responsibilities downwards – while withholding the resources needed to carry them out. Such is the fake subsidiarity of Neoliberalism: making the victims of central government parsimony responsible for administering their own deprivation. Like inviting someone to open a bank and then refusing to supply them with cash.

Does subsidiarity have revolutionary implications? Yes, of course it does. It will, however, be a revolution made on behalf of the particular, not the general. Yes, it will entail a radical re-ordering of our institutions, but not in the name of grand and universal objectives. This will be a revolution favouring the little and the local. The sort of change delivered by careful and patient husbandry, rather than by levelling bulldozers and snarling chainsaws. A revolution that has no interest in cutting things (or people) down, only in letting them grow.

It is to New Zealand’s local authority politicians, bureaucrats and engineers that we must look for leadership in this revolution because, in truth, who else is there? Only they have the expertise and the experience to keep the water drinkable, the streets lit, the rubbish carried away, and the power on. Only they understand the importance of maintaining the services that absolutely must be maintained if people are to remain healthy and their communities habitable … when the pandemics rage and the skies change colour.

It was Tip O’Neil, Speaker of the US House of Representatives, who popularised the observation “all politics is local”. Now, he was the sort of old-style Democratic Party machine politician that the SDS wanted to get rid of. What those young student activists failed to grasp, however, is that the only thing worse that a full pork barrel is an empty one. And that the only way to keep the pork coming is to never let the politicians wheeling and dealing in the far away capital city forget where their votes come from.

In the end, subsidiarity is about decisions that are hand-crafted – not mass-produced. It’s about governing in a way that keeps neighbours talking to one another, not shouting at one another. It’s about individuals passing some things up, so that other things can be passed down to their families and communities. Most of all, it’s about designing government machinery that does not fold, spindle or mutilate the human-beings it is supposed to serve – and which every citizen can learn to operate.

This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of 21 April 2022.

Monday 18 April 2022

Out Of The Picture: What If Roy Morgan’s Calling It Right?

Exit Stage Right: If the next round of opinion polls reveal a level of Labour support beginning with a “2”, what would happen then?

WHAT DOES THE LATEST Roy Morgan poll tell us about the future of the Sixth Labour Government? Technically speaking, it tells us nothing. All it describes, statistically, is the balance of electoral forces in New Zealand at the time the poll was taken. If a general election was actually scheduled for tomorrow, then the numbers would be instructive. Since that event is, in reality, roughly eighteen months away, all Roy Morgan’s data is good for is providing fodder for political speculation.

Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

What is indisputable about the series of Roy Morgan polls undertaken since the 2020 General Election is that they record a steady decline in support for the Jacinda Ardern-led Labour Government. Labour’s current level of support, as measured by Roy Morgan, stands at 32 percent. That is not a comfortable number for either the Prime Minister, or her party. Indeed if the trend-line of which it now forms a part continues its relentless downward trajectory, then support for Labour will begin to haunt the very same territory that caused Ardern’s predecessor, Andrew Little, to step aside in favour of his deputy back in 2017.

It is important, at this point, to rehearse the extraordinary difference the elevation of Jacinda Ardern made to Labour’s fortunes. Just three years before the 2017 general election, Labour had recorded its worst election result since 1922. The hapless David Cunliffe had led Labour to a Party Vote of just 25.13 percent in 2014 – 11.76 percentage points below Ardern’s Party Vote of 36.89 percent. “Jacinda” restored Labour’s credentials as a viable rival for the Treasury Benches. Necessary, because people had started to wonder.

But, Ardern’s unlooked-for elevation to the role of Prime Minister, courtesy of Winston Peters and NZ First, and her stunning success at raising the expectations of an electorate which had almost forgotten what optimism felt like, distracted political commentators from the brutal fact that since the first MMP election in 1996, Labour had never managed to attract more than 41.26 percent of the Party Vote. Indeed, if Labour’s Party Vote between 1996 and 2017 is averaged out, the result is a modest 34 percent. Too low to secure the reins of government – without a lot of help.

And right now Labour is two percentage points below even that inadequate number. Not so good. But, if the next round of opinion polls reveal a level of Labour support beginning with a “2”, what would happen then?

Between now and election day 2023, the answer is, almost certainly: nothing. Ardern, loyal Labour soldier that she is, will stay at her post and do everything within her power to turn the situation around. Such is the residual strength of her political magic – especially the spell woven out of the miraculous and unprecedented 50.01 percent “Covid Victory” she won for Labour in 2020 – that none of her colleagues will take the bet that the party’s endangered irons cannot, somehow, be pulled out of the fire.

If her magic does run out, however, a number of Ardern’s Cabinet colleagues will quietly begin to interrogate their reflections on the possibility of replacing the incumbent.

Critical to the depletion of Ardern’s political capital will be the steady deterioration of the New Zealand economy. This is practically unavoidable given the perfect offshore economic storm of Covid-generated inflationary pressures, ongoing supply-chain disruptions, and a shooting-war in Europe.

Not that the New Zealand public will generously accept that the cost-of-living crisis they are living through is a global creation. Those are simply not the thoughts that run through the minds of supermarket shoppers when they pick up a head of Broccoli priced at $4.00, that only weeks before had been selling for $2.00. Voters live behind their country’s borders, not beyond them. Lack of electoral charity begins at home.

That Ardern’s Deputy-Prime Minister, Grant Robertson, is also her Finance Minister, means that a 2023 Labour election defeat will not only be sheeted home to the incumbent Prime Minister, but also to the person in charge of the nation’s finances. In this regard, Robertson is damned if he does and damned if he doesn’t. To bring the cost-of-living under control, the Finance Minister must allow the Reserve Bank to raise the price of money. High interest rates, however, can only lead to “the recession we have to have”. Not a prospect Covid-hit businesses and their employees are likely to welcome with open arms.

If the Sixth Labour Government goes down to defeat in 2023, then it must be assumed that any lingering thoughts about just one more Robertson run at the leadership will go down with it. Soufflés don’t rise a third time – not from the Dustbin of History.

Of this government’s leadership quartet of Ardern, Robertson, Chris Hipkins and Megan Woods: one, or both, of the duo left politically breathing in 2023 might be expected to have a crack at the top job.

At this point in the putative Game of Thrones, the smart money would have to be on “Chippy” Hipkins. Not only for his boyish likeability, but also for the fact that he is the last of the trio of “Clarkist” political advisers who have played such a crucial role in Labour’s fortunes between 2008 and the present. Certainly, he could anticipate the behind-the-scenes support of both Ardern and Robertson in any race for the leadership.

Because, of course, there will, almost certainly, be a race. If Labour’s caucus, defeated and depleted as it would be in the wake of a brutal election defeat, imposes a leader on the party rank-and-file it would set in motion precisely the same political machinery that spluttered into life following Caucus’s choice of David Shearer over the membership’s clear preference for David Cunliffe back in 2011. If the person imposed also just happened to be one of the leading lights of the “Anyone But Cunliffe” faction (i.e. Hipkins or Woods) matters would rapidly go from bad to worse.

And, for those who think that holding grudges for ten years is a little excessive, then just remember the bitterness of Louisa Wall’s valedictory. As a former Cunliffe supporter, she had no chance of a Cabinet seat. Purged from the ranks, she can join Charles Chauvel and Sue Moroney at the Chestnut Tree Café*. Memories in the Labour Party tend to be long-lived – and dangerous.

The singular failure of the Sixth Labour Government to achieve any of its self-selected goals (apart from getting New Zealanders through the first few months of the Covid-19 pandemic) can only sharpen the perception, both in and out of Labour, that the New Zealand “Left” is in need of a damn good shake-up.

And if that takes the form of seeking out a leader with a track record of indisputably Labour policy initiatives – like Fair Pay Agreements – then the eyes of the party membership may end up turning to Michael Wood. Earnest and sincere, Wood may yet turn out to be the best fit for Labour’s electoral future. Personally, a social-conservative, but politically an economic radical, Wood could offer Labour members and voters an ideological package containing pretty much the opposite of the neo- and social-liberalism served up to them by the leadership that failed.

Pure speculation, of course, but Labour’s done stranger things.

* The Chestnut Tree Café features in George Orwell’s dystopian novel Nineteen Eighty-Four as the place where INGSOC party members who had fallen foul of Big Brother eked out the rest of their (usually dramatically shortened) lives.

This essay was originally posted on the website of Monday, 18 April 2022.

Sunday 17 April 2022

The Third Man.

The Road To Emmaus: That same day two of them were going to a village called Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem. They were talking with each other about everything that had happened. And as they talked and deliberated, Jesus Himself came up and walked along with them. But their eyes were kept from recognizing Him. Luke 24:13-16 (Painting by Chris Antenucci)

“DO YOU REMEMBER that man passing us?” Benjamin shielded his eyes against the bright sunlight, gazing intently at the three figures well ahead of them on the road.”

“Surely you mean men, brother? Those two have been ahead of us ever since we left Jerusalem.”

“No, no. Not them. I’m talking about the third man. You must see him, Isaac, the man in the middle? I don’t remember him overtaking us, but he must have. Didn’t you see him pass by?”

“Nobody has passed me all day, Benjamin. The road has been unusually quiet. No one behind us, and just those two up ahead. Although, now that I look, I see what you mean. There are definitely three of them, now. That is strange.”

“Jerusalem is awash with strange happenings these days. This last week in particular. Did you hear what happened at the Temple?”

“Who hasn’t, Benjamin? It was that Galilean preacher. They say he lost his temper completely. Threw over the tables of the money changers. When I first heard about it I wondered whether he might be one of us – a Zealot. From what people were saying he was angry enough.”

“One of us? No, no. The Galilean wasn’t a Zealot. Somebody tested him with a question about Rome’s latest tax. Do you know what he said?”

“I do, as a matter of fact. Ezra told me. He was standing right beside him. The Galilean said: ‘Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and unto God the things that are God’s.’”

“What was that supposed to mean, anyway? Render unto Caesar? No Zealot would say that. No true Jew counsels surrender to the Romans!”

“I’m not sure that he was counselling surrender, brother. There is something else in his answer, something that speaks between the words.”

“These vagabond preachers are all the same, Isaac. They speak in riddles. Words that can be taken to mean anything you want them to mean. Sometimes I think Israel consists of nothing but words. Would that we had as many swords – and men brave enough to use them!”

“Well, you cannot quibble with the Galilean’s courage, Benjamin. Crucifixion is a horrible death, and he bore it bravely.”

“You were there? You saw him die?”

“I was, and I did, brother. If our struggle for Israel requires us to suffer the same rebel’s death, then I hope we bear it as stoically.”

“Did he say anything before he died?”

“He did – and it amazed me. As they nailed him to their bitter tree and hauled him up against the sky, he said: ‘Forgive them Father, for they know not what they do.’”

“Forgive them! Truly? That makes no sense. Why? And who did he mean by Father?”

“His followers whispered that he was the Son of God, Benjamin. Yes, God. Not a title the Romans were willing to accept – or the High Priest. Although the Galilean himself was, reportedly, content to be known as the Son of Man.”

“He sounds mad, Isaac. Just another preacher who has spent too long under the desert sun.”

“Speaking of the sun, Benjamin. The one we have been travelling under is about to set. Shall we follow the example of the trio up ahead and purchase some supper and a bed for the night? The inn at Emmaus is comfortable I hear, and travellers speak highly of its bread and wine.”

“I did not think the third man was going to join his companions. He seemed determined to continue his journey, but they prevailed upon him.”

“A wise choice, it will be night soon.”

Seated at one end of the long table that filled the dining room, the two brothers broke the still warm loaf of bread that had been placed before them, washing down each mouthful with the dark red contents of the wine-jug.

Benjamin leaned forward and whispered to Isaac.

“There is something going on at the end of the table, brother, between those three. See how they stare at the face of he who joined them on the road? Though how he got past us unseen I’ll never know.”

“It is passing strange, brother, but stranger still is the certainty that grows in me that I have seen the third man somewhere before.”

“Where, brother? Where did you see him?”

“Upon Golgotha.”

This short story was published in the Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star at Easter 2022.

Friday 15 April 2022

Where Is The Peace Movement?

Casus Belli: The bodies in the street, the terrible revelations of rape and torture: these only make matters worse. Our instinctive response, when confronted with such images is not to calmly contemplate the best means of extricating all concerned from the horrors of war, but to punish those responsible for such atrocities.

WHY HAS THE RUSSO-UKRAINIAN WAR not generated a global movement for, at the very least, an immediate cessation of hostilities? The aggressor, Russia, possesses nuclear weapons, and has issued thinly-veiled threats that it is prepared to use them if any other power attempts to interfere in its “military operation” in Ukraine. The slightest miscalculation, therefore, could trigger an all-out nuclear exchange – and the end of civilisation as we know it. In such precarious circumstances, mobilising global support for a peaceful resolution to the conflict seems like a good idea. So, why isn’t it happening? Where is the peace movement?

Before attempting an answer to that question, it is worth casting our minds back to the first quarter of 2003. The United States and the United Kingdom were engaged in obvious preparations for a full-scale military invasion of Iraq. All over the world people were gathering in huge demonstrations to oppose the US/UK plans. Over a million protesters flooded the streets of the UK’s largest cities in what was, almost certainly, the largest political protest in the nation’s history. Vast crowds similarly thronged the streets of American cities. In France, Italy and Germany it was the same. Time magazine described the global peace movement as the other great power on the planet.

All to no avail. Like the Russian Federation, the United States was not about to be dissuaded from doing what it believed it had to do. That it would go to war without the sanction of the UN Security Council, and on the basis of intelligence claims that most independent experts dismissed as spurious, was not about to slow the administration of George W Bush down. Peace movement or no peace movement, the invasion would go ahead as planned.

The demonstrable futility of the international protest movement against the Iraq War offers a pretty solid explanation for the absence of a global pacifist response to the Russo-Ukrainian War. Among those coming of age in the first quarter of the Twenty-First Century, it may simply be understood that if a major power is resolved to attack another country, no amount of chanting and placard-waving will stop it. Didn’t the UK Prime Minister Tony Blair’s spin-doctors respond to media taunts that there were a million citizens on out on the streets, by referencing the tens-of-millions who weren’t?

The other obvious lesson to be drawn from the global protests against the US/UK invasion of Iraq is that they would never have happened (or, at least, not on anything like the same scale) had their organisers not been living in democracies. If the Russian Federation showed the same respect for fundamental human rights as the United States, it is possible that a million or more Russians would have turned out to protest the invasion of Ukraine. What the world actually witnessed on the streets of Moscow and St Petersburg was the brutal suppression of every attempt at protest by the thuggish Russian police.

It is these images of suppression and violence that bring us to the heart of the matter. People around the world rose up against the prospect of the invasion of Iraq in part because they believed that the two nations responsible, the USA and the UK, were still, in some hallowed and undefiled place, receptive to the moral case for peace. All the evidence may have pointed in the opposite direction, but, in their heart-of-hearts, the historical friends and allies of the United States and the United Kingdom wanted to – needed to – believe that they were better than the murderous bullies Bush and Blair had turned them into.

Very few people believe that some hallowed and undefiled place exists in the dark monstrosity that is the Russian state. There are no democratic orchards in Russia. The fruits of freedom and justice do not grow there. The conditions are too harsh. Even when the tree of liberty is smuggled in and persuaded to bloom, which is seldom, the flowers fade for lack of warmth. Russia is a hard, cold country, and difficult to love, even if you’ve a mind to. But no people on earth knows more about suffering – and how to share it.

And we are suffering, but not in a way that does Russia any good. Our suffering is vicarious, inspired by the pain and heroism of the Ukrainian people. How else are the people of the West supposed to feel when they are presented with the image of a Ukrainian father, now a soldier, fighting back tears as his wife and son are borne away from him on a westbound train to safety, clutching in his hands his little boy’s toy ambulance – all that is left to him? Are we supposed to be filled with an urge to make peace? Or, are we already part of the war?

The bodies in the street, the terrible revelations of rape and torture: these only make matters worse. Our instinctive response, when confronted with such images is not to calmly contemplate the best means of extricating all concerned from the horrors of war, but to punish those responsible for such atrocities. Perhaps that’s what they’re intended to do. Perhaps, as the Russians insist, they are fake news. But while such images are all the world is seeing, there will be no global peace movement.

And if there is worse to come: if the wounded Russian Bear tears the Ukraine to pieces; and if the world is bombarded with ever more tragic and terrifying images of Ukraine in extremis; then it will not be a global peace movement that emerges, but a global war movement. Channeling the wild bellicosity of the masses celebrating the outbreak of the First World War, the people of the West, heedless of the nuclear danger, will cry: “Do your worst, Russia – and we will do ours!”

This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Friday, 15 April 2022.

Thursday 14 April 2022

Trusting Ourselves To Do The Right Thing.

Democracy 1.0  Athenian democracy was mostly a reaction to bad government, not an experiment in good government. The freemen of the army and navy who defended the independence of the city-state, reacting against the misrule of tyrants (strong men) and oligarchs (rich men) came up with the last ditch idea of entrusting the government of the city to themselves.

IN THE END, the question comes down to this: can human-beings be trusted to do the right thing? If you think they can, then you are a democrat and, probably, a socialist. If people can be trusted, what possible objection could you have to not trusting them? All of them. All of the time. With everything.

The problem with trusting all of the people, all of the time: that is to say, with democratic socialism; is that most of us don’t trust them. Not all of the people. Not all of the time. Most of us work on the principle that there are some people who cannot, and should not, be trusted.

Some people are simply too stupid to be trusted. Others are too venal – too greedy. Still more are dishonest and manipulative. And, finally, a certain irreducible percentage of any given population are just too damned evil to be trusted – with anything.

But, once you admit that only some of the people can, or should, be trusted, then your journey away from democracy and socialism has already begun. The moment our common humanity ceases to be a sufficient qualification for determining society’s course, then it becomes necessary to establish some other criterion for participating in the decision-making process.

Immediately, this presents us with a new problem. Who gets to set the criteria for participation? Should it be the wisest? The richest? The strongest? The most cunning? It’s a question that has perplexed the thinkers of every age, from Plato to Peter Thiel.

History’s answer is unequivocal: decision-making in practically every society there has ever been settles eventually upon the shoulders of the richest and the strongest. (Although the most cunning usually contrive to also have a say in the running of things!)

What about Ancient Athens? The world’s first democracy? Well, for a start, Ancient Athens was a far cry from a system of government that trusted all of the people, all of the time. If you were a woman, or a slave, your participation in decision-making was expressly forbidden. The same applied to “foreigners”, no matter how long they had lived in the city. Only free Athenian males could vote or hold office.

What’s more, Athenian democracy was mostly a reaction to bad government, not an experiment in good government. The freemen of the army and navy who defended the independence of the city-state, reacting against the misrule of tyrants (strong men) and oligarchs (rich men) came up with the last ditch idea of entrusting the government of the city to themselves.

What the freemen of Athens never overcame, however, were the political effects of the unequal distribution of talent and guile. Some men were good talkers. Others were superb schemers. Democracies throughout history have proved to be extremely vulnerable to such individuals.

The other great paradox of democracy is that it tends to be undermined by its own success. Democratic Athens became extremely wealthy and could not resist the temptation to use its riches to overpower its weaker and poorer neighbours.

Unfortunately, the building of empires renders democracy increasingly fragile. Those made wealthy by imperialism – always a minority – all-too-often use their ill-gotten riches to corrupt the democratic process. The resulting progression toward oligarchy and plutocracy can only then be stopped by the intervention of a demagogue who, if successful, soon assumes the role of tyrant.

Rich men, or strong men. It is not an appealing choice.

But, surely, these ancient precedents do not apply to us? In the Twenty-First Century just about every member-state of the United Nations boasts universal suffrage. Democracy, of a sort, has become the norm. All of the people: regardless of their race, colour, sex or creed; get to decide. Maybe not all the time, but certainly every few years – at the ballot box. So, aren’t we all democrats now?

Democrats, maybe. But certainly not socialists. The most important thing to note about the governing arrangements of the last 200 years is the way in which political power has been separated from economic power. In a nutshell, more and more people have been given a say over less and less.

The truth of this observation becomes obvious the moment the ordinary citizen gives a moment’s thought to how much power they get to wield every day in the place they spend most of their waking hours – the workplace. The contemporary capitalist enterprise (think Amazon) is not in the least bit democratic. Subtract the hours spent travelling to and from the workplace, and the hours spent sleeping, and most of the lives of most human-beings are lived in a world where tyranny is the norm.

Nothing is more fiercely resisted in the capitalist enterprise than workers attempting to democratise the employment relationship. (Once again, think Amazon.) The greatest political struggles of the past 200 years have been sparked by the attempts of working men and women to wrest some measure of control over their economic circumstances from the capitalists whose enterprises have come to dominate more and more of their lives.

Social-democracy cannot be countenanced by capitalism, precisely because it seeks to merge politics and economics into a single argument and a single movement. In order to fight social-democracy effectively, capitalist intellectuals, after many false starts and diversions, arrived at the startling conclusion that no human-beings can ever be trusted to do the right thing. That people are, indeed, too stupid, too venal, too greedy, too dishonest, too manipulative, and, ultimately, too damned evil, to be entrusted with decision-making power over anything.

The truly innovative aspect of this radically anti-democratic and anti-socialist doctrine is that the capitalist intellectuals include themselves among the human-beings who can’t be trusted. They do this because they are convinced that a mechanism exists, vastly superior to the human brain, which can be relied upon to produce optimal outcomes in every conceivable set of circumstances.

Into this mechanism are fed the billions of choices made by human-beings everyday over every aspect of their lives. From the cut and style of a suit, to the creaminess of an ice-cream, to the speed and efficiency of a motor vehicle: the market mechanism is wiser than any individual, more efficient than any government, and confers upon each participant in its processes the freedom that comes from relinquishing all responsibility for the lives of others. According to this doctrine, the dollar bills spent by ordinary citizens are a more effective determinant of the public good than any number of triennial ballot papers.

The only politics which these radical capitalists (whom some call Neoliberals) are prepared to tolerate, is the politics dedicated to protecting and extending the market mechanism. Theirs is a politics devoted to identifying the designs of the social-democrats, and devising the most effective means of defeating them. It is a politics dedicated to instilling in the ordinary person a level of faith in the market mechanism that is practically religious. A politics which paints every attempt to force the market to generate specified outcomes as the work of totalitarian socialists: arrogant politicians and bureaucrats, whose necessarily limited information cannot produce anything other than economic catastrophe and the extinction of personal liberty.

Their so far winning wager has been that those who decline to trust their fellow human-beings to do the right thing will, in very short order, cease to trust themselves.

This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Thursday, 14 April 2022.

Tuesday 12 April 2022

Eighty-One Thousand Votes.

Going Down: The question to be answered, then, is a simple one. If the controversial changes to the Green Party’s co-leadership rules proceed, how many formerly Green voters is the party likely to lose? If the answer is greater than 81,000, and Chloe Swarbrick fails to hold Auckland Central, then the Greens will cease to be a party represented in Parliament.

IF THE GREENS proceed with the constitutional changes mooted by political commentator Matthew Hooton, then their electoral future is bleak. The public has learned to live with the Greens’ male and female co-leaders, especially after the rule was adopted by Te Pāti Māori. Doing away with the male co-leader position, however, and replacing it with a co-leadership position open to “any gender” – Hooton’s prediction – will likely strike a great many Green Party supporters as both self-indulgently radical and blatantly unfair.

If Hooton’s second prediction, that the Green constitution will be further amended to require at least one of the party’s co-leaders to be Māori, also proves accurate, then the loyalty of Green voters will be tested even more strenuously.

The reasons for this are fairly straightforward.

The Greens are engaged in electoral politics: being so, they are bound by the rules of the New Zealand electoral system. The most relevant of these for any party promoting radical policies is that they must attract more than 5 percent of the Party Votes cast (or win an electorate seat) to gain a seat or seats in the House of Representatives. Crossing that 5 percent threshold in 2020 meant attracting somewhere in the vicinity of 145,000 votes. With 226,757 votes (7.8 percent) the Greens easily made it into Parliament.

The question to be answered, then, is a simple one. If the mooted constitutional changes proceed, how many formerly Green voters is the party likely to lose? If the answer is greater than 81,000, and Chloe Swarbrick fails to hold Auckland Central, then the Greens will cease to be a party represented in Parliament.

Eighty-one thousand votes may sound like a lot, but consider the fate of the Alliance – a coalition of radical parties of which the Greens were once part. Between the 1999 and 2002 general elections, 133,971 of the Alliance’s party voters took their support elsewhere. Its share of the Party Vote fell from 7.7 percent to 1.3 percent, and it ceased to be a parliamentary party.

Such is the fate of political parties which, for one reason or another, forfeit the trust, confidence and respect of their supporters. The transition from hero to zero can be brutally quick.

All too often the risk of alienating a critical number of party supporters is seriously underestimated by party members. The latter are dangerously prone to believing that their electoral support base is, in all practical respects, indistinguishable from themselves.

Except, this is almost never the case – especially for those parties capable of cresting the 5 percent threshold. Support is won on the strength of a great many considerations – and sometimes for the party’s position on just a single issue. Voters are not required to be either rational or consistent, and an alarming number of them are neither. Party members are almost always more ideologically consistent than party supporters.

All of these factors are acutely relevant to the Green Party.

A large chunk of its support (perhaps most of it) is based upon the perceived urgency of state action to combat Climate Change. Other voters’ will back the Greens for the party’s original commitment to social justice (long since attenuated to “social responsibility”). Some will back the Greens on account of their pacifism and because the party is committed to an ethical foreign policy. Many more will vote Green simply because they are in favour of decriminalising cannabis.

The number attracted to the Greens because they have altered their constitution to reflect their opposition to binary, heteronormative gender relations is likely to be considerably smaller than any of the groups of voters mentioned above. Outside of a very small fraction of the highly-educated professional middle-class, and a similarly modest percentage of their offspring studying at university, such matters display something pretty close to zero political salience.

Certain to display much greater salience with progressive voters will be the obvious disdain evinced by a large number of Green Party members for the political performance of their male co-leader, James Shaw, along with their equally obvious determination to remove him from his position.

While a great many Green voters are dissatisfied with the current government’s performance on Climate Change, this does not necessarily mean that they are dissatisfied with Shaw’s handling of the Climate Change portfolio. Most will realise that the Greens exercise very little influence over the behaviour of the Jacinda Ardern-led Labour Government, and more than a few will applaud Shaw for having parlayed the very weak hand he was dealt to such good effect and with such political skill.

The idea that he is being eased out of his male co-leader’s role by means of a transparent piece of constitutional revision may not sit well with these voters. By them the manoeuvre may be judged both cowardly and dishonest. Many will feel unable to go on supporting a party that is prepared to countenance such shabby political tactics.

Other Green supporters will attempt to match up the proposed constitutional changes with the four core tenets of the global Green movement: Ecological Wisdom, Social Justice, Grassroots Democracy, and Non-Violence. They will struggle to see very much in the way of wisdom, justice, or democracy in any of these proposals. But, they will not miss the venomous emotional violence inherent in the execution of a political manoeuvre that protects the jobs and careers of some politicians while ruthlessly sacrificing those of others. These supporters, too, may feel unable to go on voting for a party capable of deploying such toxic levels of passive aggression.

Finally, there is the crucial question of political perception. What do these mooted constitutional changes make the Green Party look like?

Do they make the Greens look like a political organisation welcoming to all New Zealanders?

Do they make the Greens look like a group of politicians capable of prioritising the environmental, economic and social outcomes that New Zealand and the planet so desperately need?

Do they make the Greens look the way they used to look, back in the days of Rod Donald, Jeanette Fitzsimons, Sue Bradford, Keith Locke, Sue Kedgley and Nandor Tanczos: like a group of people who both like and support one another in the promotion of causes no rational voter can fail to acknowledge?

Or, do they make the Greens look like a political party that would rather be politically correct than politically successful?

A party on course to lose a great deal more than 81,000 votes.

This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Tuesday, 12 April 2022.

Monday 11 April 2022

Debating Debating.

For The Sake Of Argument: Blandness is not the stuff of which exciting political contests are made. If neither Labour nor National are willing to challenge the neoliberal status-quo, then they will have to find something else to fight about.

WHERE IS NATIONAL in the co-governance debate? It is tempting to respond “missing in action”, but that would be misleading. When she was in charge, the party’s former leader, Judith Collins, made her antipathy to the whole concept of co-governance abundantly clear.

As so often happens in New Zealand politics, leadership change in one of our major parties is assumed to render all its former statements and positions “inoperative”. As if the caucus and party organisation have had an encounter with the Men in Black, whose handy gizmos have wiped their memories clean of every policy they ever endorsed – or rejected.

It’s an approach which speaks tellingly to the general reticence of both the “mainstream” parties to any longer engage in serious debate on substantive issues.

This unwillingness to facilitate debate contrasts sharply with the expectations of the politicians and journalists of the past. Right up until the 1980s, it was accepted that the National and Labour parties stood for an easily distinguished set of political beliefs which were, to a greater or lesser extent, in conflict with one another. That these beliefs represented the broad economic interests of New Zealand’s contending social classes was similarly accepted. Debate and democracy were, accordingly, regarded as inseparable.

The neoliberal revolution of the 1980s and 90s put an end to these understandings. After 1984, it became increasingly clear that National and Labour, far from representing antagonistic class interests, had become the joint promoters, and defenders, of the new status-quo. That there were no viable alternatives to the free market and free trade policies guiding the fortunes of the planet was an article of political faith on both sides of the House.

Unsurprisingly, the process of convincing the members of both major parties to accept this new political paradigm was not without its trials and tribulations. Both parties suffered splits and defections. Labour gave birth to “NewLabour”, and then the Alliance, under Jim Anderton. National to NZ First, under Winston Peters. When the dust settled, however, it was clear that the days of lively internal political debate were over. To suggest otherwise was extremely career-limiting.

It was not in the interests of either major party to expose the sameness of each other’s core policies. Expecting the leading politicians of National and Labour to go head-to-head over policies they all supported was patently unrealistic. Disagreement between the parties was, therefore, confined largely to questions of competence.

Who was better at “managing” the economy – National or Labour? By which the nation’s political journalists generally meant: Who is better at following the advice given to them by the Treasury, the banks, and the business community? Or, sub-texturally: Who is better placed to fend off the demands of the poor?

Blandness is not, however, the stuff of which exciting political contests are made. If neither Labour nor National could campaign on a platform that threatened the neoliberal status-quo, then they would have to find something else to fight about. With issues relating to class inequality and exploitation off the table, the emancipatory agenda of “The Left” was reduced to matters of identity. Race, gender and sexuality, and the injustices pertaining thereto, offered huge scope for fundamental political differentiation vis-a-vis the socially conservative. Enter the ‘Culture Wars”.

Few Labour MPs have been more staunch in their prosecution of the identity agenda than Louisa Wall. How then to explain her party’s decision to drive her from the safe Labour seat of Manurewa and, after a decent interval, from Parliament itself? What was it that prompted Labour’s leader, Jacinda Ardern, to tell Wall (the successful champion of the Marriage Equality Bill) that she would never be a member of her Cabinet? Is it possible for a Labour MP to be too woke?

Wall’s own answer to this question makes it clear that it was not being too woke that got her into trouble with the Labour hierarchy, but being insufficiently wedded to the neoliberal economic order. It was Wall’s decision to throw her support behind the only-very-slightly-heretical David Cunliffe – rather than Ardern’s great ally, the not-heretical-at-all Grant Robertson, that sealed her fate. (That the leadership race between Cunliffe and Robertson took place nearly nine years ago, not only indicates how seriously the neoliberal order is defended within the Labour Party, but also just how ruthless “kind” Jacinda, and her friends, can be.)

The Left’s problem, of course, is that the Right can end the Culture Wars any time it chooses, simply by embracing a large measure of its identity-politics agenda. One has only to recall National MP Maurice Williamson’s speech describing the “big gay rainbow” shimmering over his Pakuranga electorate on the morning of the day he voted for Wall’s Marriage Equality Bill in 2013. Or, John Key’s visits to the Big Gay Out throughout his prime-ministership, to grasp just how easily the liberal Right can outmanoeuvre the liberal Left.

Is this the explanation for National’s determination not to take a clear – let alone a socially conservative – position on the question of co-governance?* Are National Leader Christopher Luxon’s key advisors determined to avoid the party being identified with what Labour, given half-a-chance, will brand the Racist Right? Does it explain why they seem content to allow Act Leader David Seymour to carry the Right’s colours into this particular engagement of the Culture Wars?

Possibly. Or, National could simply be hedging its bets. Waiting to see how large the right-wing “trash vote” is shaping up to be in 2023, before committing itself wholeheartedly to opposing co-governance. The latest Roy Morgan poll puts National-Act well ahead of Labour-Green, but it also shows a rising number of votes going to parties further to the right than either National or Act. If that far-right vote continues to grow – not least because National will not come out clearly against co-governance and the Treaty “partnership” – then an increasing chunk of the overall right-wing vote may end up being dissipated across parties that cannot clear the 5 percent MMP threshold – and wasted.

Labour’s problem is not one of co-governance being too radical for “Middle New Zealand” to swallow. Its strategists understand that there is a growing impatience, intensified by Māori and Pasifika experience of the Covid-19 pandemic, with “business as usual” and the status-quo. Labour’s pollsters reassure them that there is a willingness among the young to embrace policies that are new and radical. Labour also knows that it absolutely cannot afford to lose the Māori vote. Its problem is not the policy, but how to sell the policy.

It has been so long since Labour embraced genuinely radical policies; so long since it sent out the likes of David Lange, Roger Douglas and Richard Prebble to win hearts and change minds about the future direction of the country; so long since it felt confident enough to debate its opponents in the clear light of day, with the cameras rolling; that it no longer has the confidence to take on its opponents.

When Willie Jackson announced that he had Covid and wouldn’t be able to debate co-governance with David Seymour on TVNZ’s Q+A, many in Labour’s upper echelons breathed a huge sigh of relief. But, Labour will not beat National by joining it under a cone of silence. Parties do not win elections by keeping quiet. They win them by making noise.

* Luxon has vowed to dismantle the proposed Maori Health Authority, but it is far from clear whether this is on the grounds of National’s in-principle opposition to co-governance, or because it represents a new, expensive, and unnecessary bureaucracy.

This essay was originally posted on the website on Monday, 11 April 2022.

Friday 8 April 2022

America’s To Lose: But the Outcome Of The “Great Game” Remains Unclear.

Disputed Territory: By 1991 it looked as though America’s geopoliticians had won the Great Game. The Soviet Union had collapsed, Eastern Europe was theirs for the taking, and the People’s Republic of China had allowed itself to be transformed into a giant American factory. No wonder a US State Department analyst, Francis Fukuyama, had jubilantly penned a paper entitled “The End of History”.

THE GREAT GEOPOLITICAL CHALLENGE confronting the United States is that the Americas are separated from Eurasia by two broad oceans. Since the end of the Second World War, from which it emerged as the undisputed global hegemon, this geopolitical challenge has required the American government to transform Western Europe into a military, economic and cultural appendage of the United States.

Had the United States failed to effect this transformation, its own economy would have faltered, and capitalism, as a global system, could very easily have collapsed. Making the nations of Western Europe part and parcel of the American economy – principally as borrowers of American dollars and consumers of American exports – was crucial to preserving the American people’s economic prosperity and, hence, the USA’s political stability.

Had the USA not launched the “Marshall Plan” for European recovery, and intervened aggressively in the domestic politics of France and Italy, it is practically certain that the formidable Communist Parties of those two countries would have come to power, bringing the whole of Europe under the tutelage of the Soviet Union.

And Great Britain?

The United States had taken a majority shareholding in Great Britain Ltd during the darkest days of 1940. In return for the US President, Franklin D. Roosevelt, keeping his country in the war, Winston Churchill, was forced to set in motion the dissolution of the British Empire.

It is likely Churchill consoled himself for this capitulation to necessity with fairy tales about a “special relationship” between the USA and Great Britain. No doubt he truly believed that in the unfolding history of the English-speaking peoples, Britain would be seen to have played the role of Ancient Greece to America’s Ancient Rome: peacefully blending its old empire into something new and altogether larger and more powerful.

The Americans would not have disagreed with the last bit, but they were never foolish enough to believe in the rest. Since becoming the world’s banker during the First World War, US capitalism had been aching to get its hands on the protected markets and resources of the geographically vast British Empire. The only thing the Americans were willing to share with the British was the English language.

As the Brits found out to their cost during the Suez Crisis of 1956, the sun had well and truly set on the British Empire. It had become an expensive joke. The British lion was stuffed.

Which still left the USA facing the problem of Eurasia. The Soviet Union and China might be broken and destitute after years of oppression and war, but beneath the graves and the rubble lay resources that could make them rich enough to one day compete with the United States for the rest of the world’s allegiance.

The geopolitical planners in Washington understood that American hegemony could only be sustained by making damn sure that neither Russia nor China ever arrived at that strategically critical position. What they were in the process of doing to the British Empire, they were determined, eventually, to do to the Russians and the Chinese: break them into pieces and transfer their markets and resources into the safekeeping of Uncle Sam.

By 1991 it looked as though America’s geopoliticians had done it. The Soviet Union had collapsed, Eastern Europe was theirs for the taking, and the People’s Republic of China had allowed itself to be transformed into a giant American factory. No wonder a US State Department analyst, Francis Fukuyama, had jubilantly penned a paper entitled “The End of History”.

But, the clever boys and girls in the State Department, and their moronic friends in the military and the CIA, had not factored in the extraordinary historical resilience of the Russians and the Chinese. Henry Ford had told his fellow Americans that “history is bunk” – and they had believed him. Drunk on the heady brew of their “unipolar world”, US geopoliticians had called their global victory too soon. Eventually, after twenty years of getting its ass kicked in the Middle East, the United States had to confront the inconvenient truth that Eurasia wasn’t beaten yet – not by a long shot.

Inevitably, Russia and China had produced leaders in possession of the requisite political steel to exploit the Americans’ mistaken assumption that they could command the rest of the world to dance – and it would dance. Only when it was too late did Washington understand that Moscow and Beijing has music of their own, and dance-steps with which America was entirely unfamiliar. In the global edition of Dancing With The Stars, Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping made Bush, Obama, Trump and Biden look like flat-footed rubes.

Snapping out of their premature imperial bender, the Americans did their best to re-energise the Drang nach Osten (Drive to the East) that had been set in motion by the Soviet Union’s collapse. The United States’ geopolitical catspaw, Nato, had been expanded all the way to the borders of the Russian Federation. Washington and its surrogates were stirring up trouble in China’s western border province of Xinjiang. Bait the Bear and Poke the Dragon had become the only games in town.

But these were no sand-blasted Middle-eastern dictators they were facing. Russia and China were nuclear powers. Getting rid of Putin and Xi would require something the Americans have never been over-endowed with – guile.

Regardless, they laid a trap for Putin, baited it with Ukraine, and waited. If Russia took the bait, the United States and Nato would unleash, as one pundit put it: “an economic and cultural Barbarossa”. And if Xi was foolish enough to come to Putin’s aid, then they were quite willing to declare full-scale economic war on the People’s Republic as well. A geopolitical twofer!

Except, the imposition of crippling sanctions cuts both ways. The USA is pinning all its hopes of finally subduing Eurasia on both Russia and China succumbing to the impact of the West’s economic warfare before it blows back into Europe, Africa, the Middle East, South Asia and, ultimately, and perhaps a lot faster than Washington anticipates, into America itself.

The Russian Federation has released a map of the world showing all those nations who have declared themselves “Enemies of Russia” by joining the economic blockade. The most striking thing about the map is that it identifies not only Putin’s (and potentially Xi’s) enemies, but also those parts of the world inhabited by white people.

If Eurasia survives the sanctions; and if, in the process, it creates a new economic order from which the great American hegemon and its hangers-on are excluded; then it will not be the USA that wins the Great Game, it will be Russia and China, the masters of Eurasia.

Because, as the inventor of geopolitics, Sir Halford Mackinder (1861-1947) wrote more than a century ago:

Who rules East Europe commands the Heartland; [Russia] Who rules the Heartland commands the World Island; [Eurasia plus Africa] Who rules the World Island commands the World.

This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Friday, 8 April 2022.