ACCORDING TO BARBARA WALTER author of How Civil Wars Start: And How To Stop Them, the most common reaction to the outbreak of serious civil strife is surprise.
One minute the ordinary citizen is pausing amidst the familiar rush of daily chores to try and make sense of an alarming headline, and the next minute there’s the sound of machine-gun fire in the streets. Because most people simply cannot imagine the collapse of the political system they have believed and trusted in all their lives, they almost never see it coming, and are profoundly surprised when it arrives.
Professor Walter’s research warns that the nations most at risk of politically inspired violence are not those where democratic institutions and, much more importantly, democratic values, are strong. Nor yet those states where the grip of authoritarianism remains unflinching. The danger comes when tyrannical regimes begin to loosen their grip, or, when democracies start to question the merits of freedom. It is in these “anocracies” (systems of power in transition) that the likelihood of civil strife is at its highest.
Having pursued her research in a host of nations afflicted by murderous civil strife, Professor Walter has learned something else: that the very worst civil wars are those driven by the politics of ethnic and religious identity. The other fatal driver of division is what she calls “downgrading”:
“People may tolerate years of poverty, unemployment and discrimination. They may accept shoddy schools, poor hospitals and neglected infrastructure. But there is one thing they will not tolerate: losing status in a place they believe is theirs. In the 21st century, the most dangerous factions are once-dominant groups facing decline.”
Her use of the word “faction” in the above quotation is significant. Part of the relentless progression towards civil war is the rise of factions within the population. The seriousness of this semantic shift: from the more familiar use of the word to describe antagonistic groups operating within a single organisation (usually a political party) to embrace whole sections of society; cannot be overstated.
The most dangerous manifestation of this growth of organised social-antagonisms is the rise of a “super-faction”. This is characterised by a critical mass of the population being enrolled in a single movement – usually guided by a single leader. The growth of a super-faction is a portent of imminent socio-political disaster.
By now, readers should be anxiously joining the dots between Professor Walter’s research into civil wars and the developing political situation within New Zealand. Certainly, the necessary ingredients for serious strife are all here: the drift towards anocracy; the stoking of ethnic antagonisms; and the perceived downgrading of once-dominant groups. The question now, is whether or not New Zealand has (or is fast acquiring) factions.
Some New Zealanders might argue that the last five years have witnessed the emergence of what might colloquially be described as the “Woke Faction”. Encompassing liberal-left politicians, the Judiciary, upper-echelons of the public service, most of academia, and powerful elements within “progressive” businesses and the news media, the Woke Faction is united primarily by its intention to make New Zealand – Aotearoa – confirm more strictly to te Tiriti o Waitangi. It intends to achieve this goal by actualising the idea of a “partnership” between Māori and Pakeha, and embedding the practice of co-governance in all state institutions.
In terms of institutional power and the influence it wields, the Woke Faction is fast approaching the status of a super-faction. While the conduct of free and fair elections remains a part of New Zealand political life, however, the potential for creating a super-faction immeasurably larger than the Woke Faction remains considerable. It would be composed of that part of the population (overwhelmingly Pakeha) who firmly believe that they are already in, or very soon will be, the process of downgrading.
Should the ultimate harbinger of national doom, that figure nominated by Professor Walter as the “Ethnic Entrepreneur”, appear upon the scene, the rents in the social fabric of New Zealand may become too wide to be stitched back together.
New Zealanders are far from unfamiliar with Ethnic Entrepreneurs: Winston Peters and Don Brash both fit Professor Walter’s description. Neither of them, however, created a super-faction powerful enough, or sufficiently driven, to unlock the Gates of Hell.
We should not be surprised, however, if/when someone arrives with the key.
This essay was originally published in The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 15 July 2022.