Sunday 8 May 2022

Who Will Fight For Democracy?

May The Force Be With Us: With New Zealanders under 40, nostalgia for a time when politics worked gains little purchase. Politics hasn’t swerved to any noticeable degree since the 1980s, becoming in the Twenty-First Century a battle between marketing strategies, not ideologies. Young New Zealanders critique political advertisements in the way their parents and grandparents once critiqued the content of the major parties’ election manifestoes.

THE TIMING couldn’t have been better – or worse – depending upon which side of the political divide you position yourself. First, Trevor Mallard allows letters to be sent out to Winston Peters, Matt King, and (reportedly) other former MPs, trespassing them from Parliament Grounds for two years. Then, just 24 hours after that story breaks, Hobson’s Pledge inserts a full-page ad’ in The Herald spoofing the Star Wars franchise and announcing an “Attack On The Votes”.

Putting to one side the double standards of The Herald: whose editorial team, in spite of ruling an ad’ from the group Speak Up For Women (featuring nothing more inflammatory than the dictionary definition of “woman”) too much for its readers to bear, was nevertheless prepared to wear whatever harm Hobson’s Pledge’s graphic intervention might inflict on the body politic; the ad’ does reflect the growing public unease at this government’s commitment (or, more correctly, lack of commitment) to core democratic principles.

At present, most of that unease is concentrated in the older age-groups of the population. These are the New Zealanders who came of age at a time when the two main political parties represented clear and distinct approaches to defining and securing the public good.

The votes cast by New Zealanders in those far-off days steered the nation leftwards or rightwards in ways that must seem quite odd to those accustomed to the unchanging neoliberal parameters of MMP. That the National Party won more frequently than Labour was disappointing but not disheartening to Labour’s supporters. They understood that when the electoral planets did finally come into alignment for their party, big changes would follow. Changes which, historically, National was more likely to come to terms with than overturn.

In short, older New Zealanders can still remember when politics worked. More to the point, they can remember when even those who placed themselves on the right of the political spectrum accepted that what Martin Luther King called “the great arc of history” was bending in the direction of justice. They, or their parents, had been brought to the very edge of the moral precipice over which right-wing extremism had attempted to drag humanity. People who still thought that way – even after Auschwitz – were kept at the outermost margins of political life. The vile content of the letters they sent to the nation’s editors never saw the light of day. Their fascistic ravings were routinely filed in the nearest rubbish bin.

With New Zealanders under 40, however, all this political nostalgia gains little purchase. Politics hasn’t swerved to any noticeable degree since the 1980s, becoming in the Twenty-First Century a battle between marketing strategies, not ideologies. Young New Zealanders critique political advertisements in the way their parents and grandparents once critiqued the major parties’ election manifestoes. The “look” and “tone” of a political leader counts for much more than any ideas they might have. What matters most is that the leader of “your” party doesn’t come off looking and sounding like a “dick”.

“Democracy” no longer enjoys the universal admiration it elicited from people all over the world when its stood over the broken bodies of fascism and militarism at the end of World War II. As Dame Anne Salmond reminded Newsroom’s readers just the other day, Article 1 of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights admits “no ifs, no buts, no exceptions” when it declares:

All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.

But, if these words carried the unchallengeable ring of truth for the parents and grandparents of today’s younger voters, those same younger voters are more likely to consider them an extremely dubious set of philosophical propositions. Where, for example, does the “spirit of brotherhood” leave the women of the world?

“Democracy” in the Twenty-First Century offers electorates almost nothing in the way of alternative economic policies. Economics is no longer deemed a suitable subject for the sort of robust political contestation that distinguished the political parties of the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries. In the Age of Neoliberalism, the economic principles by which a nation is governed have become fixed. Politicians do not challenge these principles, restricting themselves to debating which party is best equipped to implement them most effectively and efficiently.

For young people on the losing side of the economic – that is to say class – struggle, it makes absolutely no difference whether Labour or National is in power. Neither party would dream of stepping beyond the bounds of neoliberal orthodoxy. No matter which political formation occupies the Treasury Benches, housing does not become more affordable, poverty is not alleviated, unions remain peripheral, and Climate Change is not seriously addressed. As the Anarchist slogan puts it: “Why bother voting? – The politicians always win.”

The situation we face in 2022 bears comparison with the years following World War I. The much-vaunted concepts of democracy and progress had presided over a slaughter without historical parallel – and for what? The enlargement of the British and French empires? The elevation of American capital to global pre-eminence? The obscene wealth of wartime profiteers? Mass unemployment and homelessness for those who had survived the horrors of the trenches?

The stench of the old doctrines and the old values was worse that the stink of cordite and rotting comrades. Small wonder that veterans responded so enthusiastically to the demagogues of the far-Left and far-Right who denounced democracy as a busted flush.

As in the 1920s and 30s, the most radical political ideologies of the Twenty-First Century are dedicated to the nature of human identity and the possibility of human transformation. Ethnicity and nationality remain the central obsessions of the Far-Right, while the possibility of transformation continues to drive the Left. Where the Soviets dreamt of creating a wholly new kind of human-being – homo sovieticus – the modern identarian Left dream of the evolutionary leaps made possible by the elimination of oppression and privilege.

Dreams on this scale cannot be achieved by the tawdry compromises of democratic politics. The key objective of both the Far-Right and the Far-Left is to conquer the political apparatus and harness it to the all-important task of producing human transformation. The modern ideologue fears nothing more than the democratic mobilisation of ordinary citizens for the modest purposes of achieving all those ordinary things that make life safe and comfortable. Safety and comfort are Kryptonite to the radical political personality.

Guided more by intuition than ideology, Hobson’s Pledge “gets” the totalitarian implications of a political project driven not by what people actually want, but what they should want. Its choice of the Star Wars franchise to hang its publicity campaign on is a shrewd one. For what is George Lucas’s fantasy if not ancient mythology, with all its archetypal heroes and villains, tricked-out in the dazzling accoutrements of space-age technology?

If “Episode 1” of “The Democracy Wars” was the occupation of Parliament Grounds, and Trevor Mallard’s furious response to the mob menacing his marble halls; and “Episode 2” is Labour’s “Attack On The Votes”; then the third episode, due for release towards the end of 2023 can only be – “The People Strike Back”.

But, if Hobson’s Pledge and its allies are to defeat the curious blending of ethno-nationalism and transformative identarianism that constitutes Labour’s “Empire”, then its ageing leadership will first have to convince young New Zealanders that Democracy is worth fighting for.

This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of  Thursday, 5 May 2022.


Tom Hunter said...

“Democracy” no longer enjoys the universal admiration it elicited from people all over the world when its stood over the broken bodies of fascism and militarism at the end of World War II.

I'm afraid that it doesn't even enjoy the then-less-than-universal admiration from people all over the world when it stood over the broken body of the USSR and its slave states of Eastern Europe in 1991 - which triumph you must have accidentally overlooked.

Dean said...

From here in France and as an older Kiwi who left the country 25 years ago when you were a regular contributer to The Listener at the time, this essay rings true to what I see of NZ from over here. The recent French elections have also highlighted this increasing problem with the awful drift to the middle ground, to capture the "Mondeo Man" vote as Tony Blair described it as he pushed New Labour to the middle in the mid 90s. That growing feeling of hopelessness that nothing will change or improve no matter which of the traditional main stream parties you vote for has to be worrying, opening the door to all the demons we thought had been sidelined or despatched. The French electorate is much different to the Kiwi one- after all these people are professional complainers where as most other nations are mere dabblers in comparison therefore there are constant protests here by one faction or another. Maybe the big difference though is that here politics still matters in that France has not completely bent over for market forces and still believes that the State has the final say in citizens lives, this must sound quite quaint and out of touch to any Kiwi readers and when I first came to France in 1997, in the middle of the great sell off of NZ State Owned assets and de-regulation I thought the same but now as I read your essays/blogs I wonder how I and my family would fit back into such a NeoLiberal Free Market loving society? The real wonder of it all is that every time I return home, which is still what I call NZ,most Kiwis are still so damn nice even though they seem to get so little from their politicians and they rarely seem to complain - is it because they are very independent or is it because they rather naively believe that the rest of the world runs like NZ does?

Guerilla Surgeon said...

"Candidate for Michigan governor Ryan D. Kelley says those on the left want to “push this idea of democracy,” but that “in every instance” democracy ends up as communism."

Says it all really.

Odysseus said...

"All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights". This is a very apt quote Chris. The great thing about democracy based on universal and equal suffrage is that it explicitly recognizes the innate dignity of every person which is the cornerstone the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights. I am confident young people realize that, despite the siren-calls of Leftist or ethnic identitarianism and the distortions produced by current economic policies which are seriously out of whack. They now face an even greater threat, for not far beyond the horizon the forces of authoritarianism and totalitarianism are on the march again.

DS said...

I would hardly describe the New Zealand of the 1950s and 1960s as subject to robust economic discourse between the two major parties. A different consensus from today's, yes, but still a consensus.