Wednesday 31 August 2022

Adapt Or Die: Why New Zealand Capitalism Will Let Co-Governance Win.

An Alliance Of Elites: The deep, deep cynicism of the Crown is almost admirable. To forestall a revolt from below – led by the Māori working-class – it first summoned into existence a neo-tribal capitalist Māori elite, and then joined hands with it to keep the poor in check.

GERMAN CAPITALISM adapted itself to Nazi rule with a minimum of fuss and bother. This is hardly surprising, since Adolf Hitler and his National Socialists were the capitalists’ best defence against the Communist Party of Germany – the political force which frightened Germany’s ruling-class the most. So long as the critical cultural and scientific infrastructure of Germany’s economic system remained intact, its capitalists neither criticised, nor resisted (to any significant degree) the Nazi regime’s monstrous crimes.

The question raised by German capitalism’s close collaboration with the Nazis nevertheless remains a troubling one. Was its amorality peculiar to the German people, or is a willingness to set aside moral considerations a feature baked into all capitalist systems – including our own?

In spite of their name, and especially after Hitler and the SS had purged its Stormtrooper militia of all those who took the socialist half of National Socialism seriously, the Nazi regime would prove to be a powerfully reinvigorating tonic for a capitalist system brought to its knees by the Great Depression. The full-scale rearmament of Germany, crucial to the Nazi project of securing “living space” in the east, reduced unemployment dramatically, lifted the living-standards of the ordinary German worker, and restored capitalist profitability – all with astonishing speed.

With the outbreak of war, especially its extension to the Soviet Union, and following Hitler’s declaration of war on the United States, German capitalism’s adaptation to the realities of global conflict involved it increasingly in activities of unprecedented human depravity. Not only were German capitalists forced to accept slave labour as indispensable to the maintenance of the Third Reich’s war production, but they were also required to involve themselves in determining the most efficient methods for keeping their slaves alive and working, and for how long.

Paradoxically, the necessity of boosting war production forced German capitalism to become vastly more efficient than it had been in the pre-war years. In Germany, as in the United States, the Soviet Union and Great Britain, mass production and the economies of scale rationalised industrial production in ways that would force the world’s most powerful states to shape the “peace” of the post-war world in conformity with the needs of what came to be known as “Military Keynesianism”.

Following Germany’s surrender in 1945, American capitalists were keen to “compare notes” with their German equivalents. All agreed that while the need to fill the depleted ranks of the Wehrmacht with more and more German workers made the use of first, women, and then slaves, unavoidable; forced labour in the context of complex industrial processes was grossly inefficient.

Not that these inefficiencies prevented the I.G. Farben industrial conglomerate from establishing a vast synthetic rubber production plant on the outskirts of the Auschwitz concentration camp. Now in the territory of the Polish Republic, the plant’s successor operation remains in production to this day – one of the largest such facilities in the European Union.

Capitalism, like the cockroach, is infinitely adaptable – and very hard to kill.

Which raises the question of how New Zealand capitalism (and foreign-owned capitalist enterprises operating in New Zealand) are likely to react to a fundamental cultural and political power-shift from Pakeha to Māori – as envisioned in the He Puapua Report of 2019. Would such a radical and racially-charged re-constitution of the New Zealand state prompt capitalist resistance, or would New Zealand’s capitalists, like their German counterparts of the 1930s, simply adapt themselves, and their businesses, to the requirements of the new regime?

The first point to acknowledge is that German capitalists, regardless of their personal feelings towards the Nazis, were, as a class, in broad sympathy with their objectives. Reassured by Hitler that the “socialist” part of national socialism should not be taken seriously, the leaders of German industry and finance poured money into the Nazi Party’s coffers, and endured the street violence and antisemitism of its brownshirts as an unfortunate political necessity. Not only did Nazism hold out the promise of rising profits, but it was also in sympathy, culturally and politically, with the most powerful elements of German society.

Can the same be said of the most powerful elements of New Zealand society? Broadly speaking, the answer is Yes.

The creation of neo-tribal capitalism, via the Treaty settlement process, beginning under the National Party in the early 1990s, was welcomed by New Zealand’s leading capitalists as infinitely preferable to the radical politicisation of a Māori working-class immiserated by Rogernomics and Ruthanasia. A Māori “renaissance”, guided by traditional iwi leaders working hand-in-glove with the Crown, was containable. An angry cultural “revolution”, fuelled by poverty, and sweeping up poor Pakeha in its wake, was not.

The Māori and Pakeha urban poor, united in pursuit of a bi-cultural and socialist Aotearoa has been the New Zealand capitalists worst nightmare ever since their own, neoliberal, revolution in the mid-1980s. Just as the Communist Party of Germany terrified the German ruling-class, a flax-roots alliance of the brown/white poor, is what New Zealand capitalism has always feared the most.

That is why neo-tribal capitalism and the He Puapua prescription are political manna from heaven for Pakeha capitalism. The deep cultural, social and political divisions which the co-governance project is bound to stir up is the perfect prophylactic against the horizontal unity engendered by a flax-roots rebellion of the poor (of all colours) against the rich (of all colours). The deep, deep cynicism of the Crown is almost admirable. To forestall a revolt from below – led by the Māori working-class – it first summoned into existence a neo-tribal capitalist Māori elite, and then joined hands with it to keep the poor in check.

As the machinery of repression is rolled into place in advance of this new, undemocratic – but te Tiriti affirming – Aotearoa, New Zealand capitalists will hold themselves aloof from all the violence directed against the “racist settler” resistance. They may wince at the shutdown of dissenting media, and shake their heads sadly as the “wrong sort” of parties are proscribed, and defiant democratic resisters are carted off to jail, but, like their German counterparts in 1933, they will not lift a finger to save “New Zealand”. Like the Weimar Republic before it, the good and the bad of the doomed “Settler State” will be swept into the dustbin of history.

Aotearoan capitalism, however, now a proudly bi-cultural affair, will survive – and prosper.

This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Tuesday, 30 August 2022.

Monday 29 August 2022

Mistrusting Democracy.

Trust Us  We Know What Were Doing: Why is this government so determined to shut-up, shut-down and shut-out the Right?

JAN TINETTI, Associate Minister of Education, is firmly of the view that those who subscribe to “an ideology of hate” have no place on a school board of trustees. So convinced is the Minister, that she is actively seeking administrative and/or legislative changes to prevent such persons from being nominated. Though doubtless undertaken with the best of intentions, Tinetti’s initiative is deeply troubling. In a democracy, the idea that the state is qualified to decide which ideologies are acceptable for candidates for public office to hold, and which are not, should be laughed off the political stage.

Prompting the Associate-Minister’s authoritarian musings, is the revelation that the convicted white supremacist, Philip Arp, the man sentenced to 21 months imprisonment for distributing terrorist Brenton Tarrant’s recording of the Christchurch Mosque Massacre, had been nominated for a seat on the Board of Trustees of Te Aratai College. Christchurch city councillor, Sarah Templeton, who has children at the school, angrily voiced her frustration that such individuals cannot be legally prevented from becoming trustees. Clearly, her objections have not fallen on deaf ears.

The problem with characters like Arp is that their behaviour is so prone to causing public outrage that  citizens find it all-too-easy for to switch-off their critical political faculties and remain silent when politicians call for Nazis to be declared ineligible for public office. After all, who wants to be seen sticking up for antisemitic fascists?

The answer, of course, is: we should all want to be seen resisting any attempt by the state to weed-out “undesirable” ideas, and the dubious individuals who hold them, before they get anywhere near a nomination form. As democrats, our firm position must always be that the only body qualified to decide who should, and should not, be elected to public office is the electorate itself. That is to say, You and I – the voters.

Do Tinetti and Templeton seriously believe that the parents of Te Aratai College’s ethnically and religiously diverse student body are in the slightest danger of electing Arp to the school’s Board of Trustees? If they do, then they are guilty of offering them the most outrageous insult. If they don’t, then what they are proposing will rob those same parent electors of the opportunity to condemn in the most emphatic fashion Arp’s vile beliefs and actions.

That Tinetti, a Cabinet Minister, seems unwilling to affirm that, in a working democracy, it is the citizen who possesses the power of decisive political agency, is worrying. It is not, however, an deficiency peculiar to herself. For some time now, both the Labour and Green parties have struggled to acknowledge in the electorate a collective wisdom more than equal to the task of distinguishing good from evil, right from wrong, democrats from fascists. Indeed, both parties show signs of believing the opposite to be true: that the electorate is neither wise enough, nor resilient enough, to recognise Nazi bullshit when they hear it.

Nowhere was this fundamental lack of faith in the fundamental decency and wisdom of the ordinary citizen more distressingly on display than in the days immediately following the Christchurch Mosque Shootings of March 2019. Completely ignoring the evidence of their own eyes, the Greens’ Marama Davidson and Golriz Ghahraman not-so-subtly insinuated that the entire “white” population of New Zealand was in some way complicit in Tarrant’s “lone wolf” terrorist outrage. That tens-of-thousands of New Zealanders – of all colours and creeds – were filling parks and stadiums to express their solidarity with New Zealand’s Muslim community failed to impress them.

Labour’s response was less insulting but, in a way, more troubling. In spite of delivering her internationally-acclaimed repudiation of Tarrant’s crime: “They are Us”; Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern clearly believed that neither “They” nor “Us” were strong enough to endure the harm, or resist the temptation, of “hate speech”. Seconded by the hilariously misnamed Human Rights Commission, the Labour-led Government set out to radically reduce in size democracy’s foundation-stone – the citizen’s right to free expression.

Sadly, Ardern was pushing on an open left-wing door. Once the most determined defenders of free speech, the New Zealand Left has, for more than a decade, been evincing less-and-less enthusiasm for the critical democratic insight that freedom of expression must never become a privilege, to be rationed amongst “our side’s” best friends, but remain a right, freely available even to our worst enemies.

The Covid-19 Pandemic made matters worse. When the fight is with a potentially fatal virus, individuals and groups communicating false information can endanger the health of millions. In these circumstances, the temptation is strong to rank the health of the democratic system well below that of the population as a whole. Or, even worse, to start seeing the key elements of democracy: freedom of expression; freedom of assembly; freedom of association; as the vectors of a dangerous political disease.

This is now the grave danger confronting New Zealand: a Labour Government which has convinced itself that people communicating lies can undermine the health and well-being of the entire population – rather than a tragic fraction of it. Traumatised by the occupation of Parliament Grounds (by people already traumatised by the Government’s imposition of vaccination mandates they had promised not to use) politicians and journalists, alike, have convinced themselves that the purveyors of “misinformation” and “disinformation” now constitute a direct threat to the security of the state.

Which takes us right back to Jan Tinetti and the “threat” of Nazis on school boards of trustees. The political class’s historical mistrust of democracy, long resisted by the Left, has now been embraced by what is left of it. No longer a “bottom up” party, Labour has grown increasingly fearful that its “progressive” policies are unacceptable to a majority of the electorate. Ardern’s government, and its supporters, are terrified that the Far Right will opportunistically seize upon this public unease and whip it into some sort of fascist majority. Hence their determination to shut them up, shut them down and shut them out.

Except, as the recent history of the United States makes clear, this determination to keep the “deplorables” as far away from power as possible, is actually the fastest and most effective way to bring on the destabilising lurch to the Right that the progressive Left most fears. Poorly educated though they may be, ordinary citizens are not stupid. They can tell when they’re not sufficiently trusted or respected to be given a decisive role in the government of their own country.

With distressing speed, New Zealand is dividing itself into two hostile, camps. The smaller counts within it the better part of the better educated, is positioned on the commanding heights of the state, and considers itself the brain and conscience of the nation. The larger camp, nothing like so clever, seethes with frustration and resentment, anxiety and rage. It fears that its world: the world it grew up in; the world it knows and trusts; is shifting on its foundations.

What remains to be seen is which outcome represents the greater catastrophe for New Zealand: that the policies of those occupying the heights should proceed unchecked; or that the depths should find a leader equal to the task of bringing them down?

This essay was originally posted on the website on Monday, 29 August 2022.

Saturday 27 August 2022

A Bridge Of Insufficient Strength.

Not Strong Enough: There is no short-cut from our colonial past to a bi-cultural future. Surely, following this flood-ravaged fortnight, the Prime Minister realises that, when the waters rise in fury, bridges get swept away.

A GREAT DEAL can be learned from the metaphors politicians choose to illustrate the challenges they are required to overcome. At the recent gathering of Māori and Pakeha leaders at the Māori King’s Turangawaewae marae, the Prime Minister, Jacinda Ardern, gave us the metaphor of te Tiriti o Waitangi as a bridge. Somehow, she suggested, New Zealanders must be brought safely across this fragile structure. Her job is to lead them.

Listening to the Prime Minister, I was reminded of the compelling final scene of the movie The Man Who Would Be King, in which Sean Connery strides bravely towards safety across a swaying rope bridge. Behind him, enraged tribesmen hack away furiously at the anchoring cables. Beneath him, a yawning chasm waits to swallow-up the foolhardy Scottish soldier.

Certainly, it is difficult to escape the notion that the Prime Minister perceives this present moment to be one of considerable historical danger.

Behind us lies the old society of colonial New Zealand. A society based upon assumptions of racial superiority. A society founded upon the dispossession of the Māori. A society riven by multiple inequities and injustices. Ahead of us lies Aotearoa – the new bi-cultural nation in which a “partnership of the races” will expunge the inequities and injustices of our racist past.

Across this perilous gap between yesterday and tomorrow, the Prime Minister has suspended the Treaty. She offers us her hand – and bids us cross.

The problem with Prime Minister Ardern’s metaphor is that far too few New Zealanders believe the Treaty is strong enough to carry them across the chasm. They fear the chaos into which their country will be plunged if the bridge proves unequal to the burden imposed upon it. They simply do not share the Māori people’s unwavering confidence in a document once referred to by a Chief Justice of New Zealand as “a simple nullity”.

Even those enthusiastic about a bi-cultural future for Aotearoa-New Zealand are beginning to express their doubts about the “official” interpretation of the Treaty as a “partnership between races”. Dame Anne Salmond, for example, writing for the Newsroom website, reminds us that race is “a colonial idea with an ugly history, associated with slavery, genocide and the dehumanisation of others, and utterly inimical to respecting [New Zealanders’] ‘tapu and mana’.”

Pakeha conservatives, on the other hand, listen to what they judge to be the exaggerated and essentially self-serving claims of Māori historians and lawyers who would have us believe that te Tiriti o Waitangi is Magna Carta and the United States Constitution all rolled into one unchallengeable fragment of Holy Writ. Their reading of New Zealand history and New Zealand law simply cannot be squared with what is fast becoming the “official” explanation of the Treaty.

For far too many New Zealanders the Prime Minister’s invitation to step onto her bridge to the future is an invitation to catastrophe.

Perhaps there would be a higher level of confidence in the Treaty’s strength if the Prime Minister was better able to explain its corollary – “co-governance”. So eloquent on other subjects, Jacinda Ardern becomes uncharacteristically tongue-tied when invited to “sell” the concept behind what her critics characterise as Labour’s racially-charged and electorally unmandated policies – most particularly Local Government Minister Nanaia Mahuta’s “Three Waters” project.

This inability to explain co-governance is not restricted to the Prime Minister. The attempt by her Māori Development Minister, Willie Jackson, to reassure New Zealanders that they have nothing to fear from this “new” variant of democracy has succeeded only in frightening the bejesus out of them. If this is what lies on the other side of the chasm bridged by the Treaty, then the Sixth Labour Government should not be surprised at the number of Kiwis declining to make the journey.

In the wise words of Dame Anne: “Rather than seeing the Treaty as a ‘bridge’ across a chasm of misunderstanding, in the spirit of ‘pernicious polarisation’, perhaps Te Tiriti can be visualised as a meeting place where different groups of New Zealanders come together in a spirit of tika/justice, pono/truth, and aroha to share ideas, resolve injustices and seek peace with one another.”

There is no short-cut from our colonial past to a bi-cultural future. Surely, following this flood-ravaged fortnight, the Prime Minister realises that, when the waters rise in fury, bridges get swept away.

This essay was originally published in The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 26 August 2022.

Friday 26 August 2022

Radical Remedies.

Pure Crap: In terms of what they wanted the public to believe, the advertising campaign signed off by the promoters of Three Waters could not have been more transparent. New Zealand’s rivers and streams were awash with poo. Councils had failed their electors. Fixing up the water would be eye-wateringly expensive. Radical remedies were the only answer.

THE ORIGINAL ADVERTISING CAMPAIGN for Nanaia Mahuta’s “Three Waters” project was surprisingly honest. Not in terms of the information it communicated to the public, which was, at best, misleading; and, at worst, shamefully propagandistic. In terms of what they wanted the public to believe, however, the promoters of Three Waters could not have been more transparent. New Zealand’s rivers and streams were awash with poo. Councils had failed their electors. Fixing up the water would be eye-wateringly expensive. Radical remedies were the only answer.

None of these frightening propositions were true.

New Zealand’s rivers and streams had come under increased pressure as the country’s dairy herd expanded rapidly in the first two decades of the Twenty-First Century. The solution to this problem, however, lay not with a radical restructuring of New Zealand’s drinking, waste and stormwater infrastructure, but in improving the livestock management of the nation’s diary-farmers. As is so often the case, New Zealand’s farmers rose to this challenge. Access to waterways was fenced-off and riparian planting helped to filter farm run-off.

Not that this has prevented the Government’s supporters from characterising New Zealand farms as open sewers. Seemingly, ten million cows are only able to relieve themselves in bodies of running water. What actually happens, of course, is that cows, like most mammals, defecate on what lies immediately beneath their rear ends. For the vast majority of this country’s 4.9 million cows (the size of the New Zealand dairy herd has never exceeded 6.5 million and is steadily decreasing) what lies beneath their haunches are good, old-fashioned, New Zealand paddocks, which actually benefit from the breaking down of cow-pats into top-soil. Dangerous nitrate run-off is as much an artificial fertiliser problem as it is a cow-pee problem.

None of these facts mattered. New Zealanders were supposed to believe that every time they quenched their thirst with a glass of water they were swallowing shit. Not only that, but the task of fixing their drinking water was now beyond the financial resources of their local council. Worse still, many local authorities’ century-old-plus sewage and stormwater infrastructure was failing and in urgent need of repairs and/or replacements they could not afford.

This “the country can’t afford it” catch-cry was critical to the shape of the Three Waters project. New Zealand’s neoliberal state ideology is violently allergic to the public-funding and ownership of critical infrastructure. Treasury’s preference is to have local government bear the costs of renewal – either by raising rates, or borrowing. Unfortunately, local government’s credit is fast running out.

Rather than have the New Zealand state stand in the market for the finance required to upgrade New Zealand’s drinking, waste and stormwater systems – which it could borrow at by far the most favourable interest rates – successive governments have been advised to create a new stand-alone entity, or entities, and have it/them borrow the needed money. To reassure the lenders that their returns are secure, those same advisers have made it crystal clear that said entities must be absolutely impervious to all forms of democratic interference. While it might be politically wise to reassure voters that their councils still “owned” their three waters infrastructure, under no circumstances could local authorities be permitted to control it.

It was precisely this separation of ownership from control (control being central to the whole concept of ownership) that caused the Auditor-General to present such a strong critique of the Three Waters project – as currently conceived.

But, ownership and control are not only concepts crucial to the value and utility of tangible assets – private as well as public – they are also crucial to Māori concept of tino rangatiratanga – Māori sovereignty. It is at the intersection of these two key concepts that the deepest and most difficult problems of Three Waters arise.

Iwi authorities have seized upon the credit-rating agencies’ insistence that the proposed Three Waters entities be sealed-off from democratic interference, to fashion a governance structure favourable to themselves, from which the Pakeha majority is excluded, and which enables Iwi to release revenue streams that the (for once powerless) Pakeha state cannot dam. A bold plan, but one which Iwi could not reasonably have expected their Pakeha compatriots to simply wave on through.

Indeed, it is difficult to conceive of any group other than the present collection of political actors who would have taken such risks to see the Three Waters project implemented. Labour has the largest Māori caucus in its history, ably co-led by Nanaia Mahuta and Willie Jackson. Labour itself commands an absolute majority in the House of Representatives and, like their Green ally, its leaders are ideologically committed to the judicially contrived and academically elaborated concepts of “partnership” and “co-governance”. Without the staunchness of the Māori caucus, and the “wokeness” of Labour and Green MPs, Three Waters would never have got off the ground.

There are those on the Left who argue that this fortuitous aggregation of Māori activists and their progressive Labour allies is the direct result of Helen Clark’s legislative rejection of the Court of Appeal’s Foreshore & Seabed judgement back in 2004. The three dominant players in the Sixth Labour Government: Jacinda Ardern, Grant Robertson and Chris Hipkins; are depicted as shocked and unwilling accomplices in the Clark Government’s unconscionable theft of the Foreshore & Seabed. Eighteen years later, at the summit of the Pakeha state, these three are determined to have no repeat of the racist travesty they were forced to live through in 2004. This time, Labour will not let the Māori lose.

Stirring stuff! But if the so-called “Sharma Drama” has taught us anything, it is that the political culture of the post-Rogernomics Labour Party simply does not produce politicians of such mettlesome quality. For those who were following politics closely back in 2004, Tariana Turia’s resignation from the Labour Party appeared to inspire the same cold fury as Gaurav Sharma’s “treachery”. Loyalty trumps all other considerations in Labour: has done since the party split apart with such destructive acrimony in 1989. Had Ardern, Robertson and Hipkins felt the shame of 2004 as keenly as some on the Left suggest, they would have resigned alongside Turia and, like the fast disintegrating Alliance, done all they could to help her get the Māori Party up and running.

Equally untrue is the proposition that Labour’s inadvertent creation of the Māori Party kept it out of office for nine years. At no time did Māori Party MPs constitute the difference between a National and a Labour government. Between 2008 and 2014 Labour’s parliamentary numbers were so low that had all the Māori Party MPs defected to the Opposition, the National Government would have continued to govern with the support of Act.

The durability of the Three Waters Project is not the product of Labour heroism, but of 18 years of Crown-Iwi collaboration and compromise. Eighteen years of hard academic yakka in the fields of law, medicine, sociology, anthropology and history. Eighteen years of positive discrimination in the public service, the news media and the arts.

In sum, Three Waters is the culmination of a grand intellectual pincer movement. On the one hand, an immeasurably stronger alliance of Iwi-controlled institutions; on the other, a state no longer capable of dismissing Māori leaders as “haters and wreckers” – or, apparently, saying “No.” Squeezed between these two, is the Pakeha nation.

That was the core message embedded in the initial Three Waters advertising campaign. Māori New Zealand was telling Pakeha New Zealand:

“You can’t stop this.”

This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Thursday, 25 August 2022.

Monday 22 August 2022

Politics Barren Of Principle.

Meet The New Boss: We are living in a political culture unmoored to anything more edifying than the petty priorities of personal ambition.

LABOUR’S VICTORY over Dr Gaurav Sharma will be complete, final, and soon. In roughly twenty-four hours (23/8/22) he will be expelled from Labour’s caucus and relocated to the farthest-back of the back-benches. His expulsion from the Labour Party proper will follow just as soon as the members of its ruling council can be gathered together on Zoom.

While some pundits are speculating that the waka-jumping legislation might be used to eject Sharma altogether from the House of Representatives, the Labour leadership seems to have already decided there is no need to go that far. Sharma’s crusade has, to date, been on behalf of himself. He is seeking a redress of wrongs, real or imagined, about which most voters simply do not care. Jacinda and her colleagues will be quite content to leave Dr Sharma pissing into the wind.

Which is a pity. Because the political culture of the New Zealand parliamentary complex could do with a radical shake-up. Not only on account of the bullying behaviour which pervades both Labour and National, but because it is a political culture unmoored to anything more edifying than the petty priorities of personal ambition. The picture presented to the public is of a politics almost entirely barren of principle. Accordingly, voter cynicism, not to say disgust, grows ever stronger – to the detriment of our entire democratic system.

But not, it must be said, to the detriment of the over-arching ideological infrastructure of neoliberalism. In both major parties there is a common horror of unorthodox economic ideas, which manifests itself in the rigorous suppression of anything resembling the promotion of an alternative economic regime.

One would have to return to the late-1980s and early-1990s to encounter a genuine clash of economic ideas within either Labour or National. That these factional struggles preceded the splits that gave rise to the NewLabour Party (later the Alliance) and NZ First is, of course, the chief explanation for the determination in both major parties to enforce an all-encompassing economic orthodoxy at every organisational level.

This horror of disagreement and debate is, however, born of something more than mere “voters don’t vote for disunity” pragmatism. In the Labour Party, particularly, there is a deeply entrenched conviction that the promotion of policies unsanctioned by the leadership should never be taken at face value. The assumption is always that alternative ideas are nothing but a front for those angling to provide alternative leadership. The proposition that economic policy can hardly avoid engendering strong principled objections is rejected out-of-hand. Advocacy of unsanctioned economic policies is condemned as an attempt to cast caucus colleagues in an unfavourable moral light – i.e. an ego-driven assault on the integrity of the “team”.

Nowhere was this attitude towards dissent more obviously on display than during the period when David Cunliffe was leader of the Labour Party (2013-14). The personal animus directed towards Cunliffe was so intense that it fundamentally undermined his attempt to steer Labour to victory via a more leftward course. Rejecting neoliberal economic theory was presented by Cunliffe’s caucus rivals as tantamount to rejecting common-sense – something only an excessively ambitious and/or slightly unhinged person would do. Cunliffe’s fate became a cautionary tale. Factions based on principle, rather than personality, were bound to founder.

Cunliffe’s election as leader by Labour’s rank-and-file, followed by the wafer-thin defeat of the current Labour leadership faction by Andrew Little, may also explain the Ardern Labour Government’s apparent disdain for one-person-one-vote democracy. If the faction of common sense could be defeated by ill-informed and/or ill-intentioned party members, then, clearly, there was something wrong with the whole democratic idea. Far better to leave the matter of choosing a party leader to the people who know the potential candidates best. In other words: personality must always be allowed to trump principle.

The National Party’s woes in the fraught business of selecting candidates may also be traced back to the decisive victory of neoliberalism over paternalistic conservatism in the run-up to the 1990 general election. As with Labour, the assumption at both the summit of the National caucus and the National Party organisation soon became that only oddballs and trouble-makers questioned the moral and practical efficacy of neoliberal economic policies.

Steven Joyce’s corporatisation of the National Party in the aftermath of its worst ever electoral defeat in 2002 effectively disconnected all the levers of democratic accountability that mattered. The qualifications for entry into National’s caucus were narrowed to evidence of unwavering support for the economic status-quo, coupled with an impressive CV – ideally in the fields of commerce and law. The not altogether welcome outcomes of National’s recruitment processes serve as a warning of what can happen when adherence to principle becomes a matter of conformity, not character.

The only matters in which a measure of disagreement within caucuses was deemed acceptable were those that did not impinge directly on economic policy. If the public’s growing suspicion that the major parties had become ideologically interchangeable were to be allayed, some dramatic public demonstrations of political diversity were needed.

Marriage Equality, Euthanasia, Legalising Cannabis, Decriminalising Abortion. On these “conscience issues”, the full glory of principled political behaviour could be put on display. With the Whips removed, the public could glimpse, if only for a moment, what a legislature freed from the dead hand of ideological orthodoxy might look like.

Such visions had to be momentary, however, for the very simple reason that allowing factions to form within parties, or, worse still, encouraging genuine ideological differences to develop between parties, would only result in such factions being replicated in the general population. And a general population engaged in genuine debate between factions and/or parties capable of making a real difference to the direction of economic and social policy would place the whole, over-arching ideological infrastructure of neoliberalism in the gravest peril.

Also imperilled would be the profoundly elitist and democratically deficient culture of “governance” and administration that has grown up to keep the neoliberal state apparatus ticking-over. Popular engagement in the running of public institutions terrifies the professionals and managers who have, over the course of the past four decades, come to see themselves as the sole repositories of competence outside the private sector.

Genuine discussion and debate are not encouraged in a public sector now entirely beholden to the cult of expertise. Increasingly, at the levels of both local and central government, the people’s elected representatives find themselves being gently “nudged” in directions deemed “appropriate” by the experts. Genuine discussion and debate, by making it plain to ordinary folk that there is more than just one way of looking at an issue, strikes at the very heart of these “experts’” unmandated authority.

Said ordinary folk can only hope that the sudden rise in “expert” commentary on the perils of misinformation and disinformation is not the first sign that the neoliberal nomenklatura is preparing to strike back against the risible political pretensions of the “deplorables”.

Dr Sharma’s alleged “mad”/”bad” behaviour has made him dangerous to know. One can only imagine what might have happened if he had rebelled in the name of something more critical to the wellbeing of New Zealanders than his personal reputation.

This essay was originally posted on the website on Monday, 22 August 2022.

Saturday 20 August 2022

Speaking Up.

Speaking Out: Advertisement for the Knigi publishing house, from the portrait of Lili Brik, by Alexandre Rodtchenko, 1924

THERE’S A STORY I HEARD about Nikita Khrushchev and his famous speech to the Twentieth Party Congress in February 1956. This was the speech in which he denounced Stalin’s crimes against the Communist Party of the Soviet Union and its long-suffering peoples. At the conclusion of the speech, and after the obligatory standing ovation, one of the delegates shouted out: “Why didn’t you say all that when Stalin was alive!” “Who said that?” Khrushchev shouted back. A deathly silence fell over the congress. Khrushchev waited a full minute before smiling grimly and saying: “That’s why.”

I recalled that story when I read the Editorial in today’s (18/8/22) NZ Herald. Alluding to the Labour Caucus’ decision to suspend Dr Gaurav Sharma, the leader-writer opined:

“The unanimity of the decision to suspend Sharma is significant too, as the Labour Caucus is a broad church of 65 MPs. None it seems, felt he merited another chance.”

It is difficult to conceive of a statement more revealing of the political ignorance in which so many of those who presume to pass judgement on our nation’s politics are steeped. What Labour MP in their right mind would have dared to vote against the Leader’s clear preference to eject Sharma from Caucus?

Had a Cabinet Minister done so, it would have been interpreted as a direct thrust against the Prime Minister. Backbenchers, having witnessed the emotional violence visited upon Sharma over the preceding days, would have raised a hand only if, like the Member for Hamilton West, they were desperate to escape the parliamentary snake-pit.

It might not be political ignorance, however, which prompts such fatuous commentary. It might be the news media’s shameful complicity in the Labour Party’s nasty habit of disciplining and punishing anyone who dares draw voters’ attention to the naked realities of power. It is nothing short of astonishing that the newspaper which published Sharma’s original op-ed critique was prepared, just a few days later, to assert that the very same dissident-crushing strategies he had complained of, and which had been on full display from the moment it appeared, were no more than could reasonably have been expected.

None of us should be surprised at this “suck-up, punch-down” New Zealand character trait, it has been with us for most of our history. But, even though we know how New Zealanders in authority are going to react to even the slightest challenge, it still comes as a bitter disappointment to discover just how few friends dissidents have in this country.

The sneer and the put-down are everywhere. The same day as the NZ Herald opted to suggest that Sharma more-or-less had it coming, RNZ’s afternoon host, Jesse Mulligan, spent 10 minutes talking to Dr Grant Morris of Victoria University of Wellington about the history of “rogue” MPs in New Zealand. Though both participants in this discussion agreed that the expression “rogue” wasn’t very accurate, that did not prevent them from using the pejorative term throughout the broadcast segment.

Both men agreed that the common thread running through the stories of MPs who had spoken out against the leadership and/or the policies of their party was less about principle than it was about ego. In justification of this thesis, Morris advanced the example of Herbert (Bert) Kyle, the National Party Member for Riccarton. In 1942, Kyle had a falling out with the National leader, Sid Holland, resigned from the party (before he was expelled) and left Parliament altogether in 1943.

Because it has so much in common with Sharma’s complaints about Labour in 2022, Kyle’s reason for leaving bears repeating: “The National Party organization has built up a watertight compartment that makes one become a ‘yes man’ with expulsion as an alternative.”

What Morris neglected to say in his remarks about this little-known rebel, is that his charges against Holland were, almost certainly, true. The National Party’s second leader brought New Zealand as close as it has yet come to having a fascist in charge of a major party. Holland had been a prominent member of the New Zealand Legion – a proto-fascist organisation that grew to an impressive size in the aftermath of the unemployment riots of 1932. It was Holland who drafted the viciously authoritarian “Emergency Regulations” which effectively extinguished democracy in New Zealand for the duration of the 1951 Waterfront Dispute.

Far from being a egoist, the mild-mannered veterinarian-turned-politician, Bert Kyle, was a man of principle who recognised a dangerous bully when he saw one, and was unwilling to become a “yes-man” to a politician whose personal political ideology bore a disturbing resemblance to that of the Nazi warlord New Zealanders were then fighting and dying to defeat.

Close study of these so-called “rogue” MPs reveals that in a clear majority of cases it is a clutch of very similar concerns about the leadership, policies and administration of their respective parties that lies at the heart of their rebellions. As Jim Anderton (whose example of “roguishness” Morris omitted entirely) liked to say: “I didn’t leave the Labour Party, the Labour Party left me.”

Jacinda Ardern is fortunate that her own rebel MP is more aggrieved about his party’s handling of employment issues than he is about its policies. A left-wing politician worthy of the name, with a mind to rebel against the ideological positioning of Labour under its present leadership, could inflict enormous damage upon the Ardern Government.

Not that expressing concern at the behaviour Sharma calls “bullying” is in any way trivial. In a caucus where there is a disturbingly large number of MPs who subscribe to the political tactic of “NO Debate!”; and are eager to see “Hate Speech” legislation (which could see citizens sent to jail for three years for expressing unpopular opinions) passed at the earliest opportunity; and will brook no dissenting from Labour’s radical interpretation of te Tiriti o Waitangi; the ability to bully and intimidate doubters would seem to be a necessary part of the modern Labour politician’s skill-set.

Not that the organs of “official” opinion are at all interested in lending their support to those foolish enough, or brave enough, to speak out on such matters. Dissidents will be paid just enough attention to validate the claims of the Powers-That-Be that we live in a free society. What these “out-speakers” will never be given, however, are the resources needed to explain why we don’t.

This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Friday, 19 August 2022.

Shoving Democracy Around.

I Move That The Speaker Be No Longer Heard: A great many things have to go wrong in a society before naked extremism assembles sufficient support to win public office. People have to feel that they’re not being listened to: that their wishes are being over-ridden. Treat citizens this way and they’re likely to shove your “elite” (per)version of democracy somewhere uncomfortable. 

A WHITE SUPREMACIST, jailed for distributing the banned video record of the Christchurch Mosque shootings, is standing for public office. The office in question: Trustee of Te Aratai College; is hardly the most exalted in the land, but the apprehension of parents with children at the school is easily imagined.

Had Te Aratai received only enough nominations to fill the number of vacancies on the Board of Trustees, the school would undoubtedly have faced some challenges. Fortunately, that didn’t happen. An election will be held, in the course of which the parents of Te Aratai’s students will, presumably, vote for candidates holding less objectionable views than the avowed White Supremacist.

That’s the way democracy works: those subscribing to deeply unpopular beliefs find it extremely difficult to attract a winning number of votes.

A storm in a tea-cup, then? It would be nice to think so, but this story raises some very thorny issues – not all of them easy to resolve.

Let’s return to our hypothetical situation in which the number of nominations exactly equals the number of vacancies. In this case our White Supremacist would have been declared elected, and the parents of Te Aratai College would be stuck with their controversial new Trustee for the next three years. Not a situation to be relished by anyone – except, perhaps, other White Supremacists.

Christchurch City councillor for Heathcote, Sarah Templeton, who has children at Te Aratai, didn’t even want to accept the White Supremacist’s nomination.

“The school has worked really hard to check whether he’s eligible and it is a grey area, and that needs to change” Templeton told RNZ. “Any member of staff or even parent helpers ... all need to have police vetting, and that’s not the same for board of trustees’ members, even though in high schools’ cases, boards of trustees have student reps on them.”

Except, with all due respect to Councillor Templeton, there’s nothing even remotely grey about this area of our democracy. White Supremacy, no matter how distasteful, is not a crime. Those who subscribe to such beliefs remain citizens and, as such, have every right to submit themselves to the judgement of their neighbours.

To have a candidate ruled ineligible for public office on account of his/her beliefs would inflict far greater harm upon our democratic system than the beliefs themselves. Because where would those doing the “vetting” draw the line? How long would it be before the list included not just Nazis and White Supremacists, but all manner of unpopular belief systems deemed “deplorable” by the Powers-That-Be?

All very fine and principled, but we are still left with our hypothetical Board of Trustees and its White Supremacist member. What are they supposed to do? Just let him do his worst?

Of course not! All they need to do is bone-up on a little book called Robert’s Rules of Order. Old-fashioned and high-minded though it may be (it was written by Henry Robert, a US Army officer, in 1876) the book contains within its pages all the many and varied ways to “assist an assembly to accomplish the work for which it was designed”.

Those versed in Robert’s Rules will have little difficulty in protecting their institution from those who would disturb, disrupt, distract, or in some other way prevent its governing body from operating responsibly.

With our White Supremacist waxing eloquent in support of his loathsome beliefs, a fellow Trustee could simply move “That the speaker be no longer heard.” If the motion was carried and the White Supremacist persisted, the Chair could order the Trustee to leave the meeting. If he refused, the Chair could simply adjourn the meeting – pending the Trustee’s forcible removal.

Democracy is not without its own tried and tested means of self-defence.

And if more White Supremacists start getting elected? What then?

Well, then it is time to take stock of where your country is heading – and why.

A great many things have to go wrong in a society before such naked extremism assembles sufficient support to win public office. People have to feel that they’re not being listened to: that their wishes are being over-ridden. Treat citizens this way and they’re likely to shove your “elite” (per)version of democracy somewhere uncomfortable.

In the words of the “American Rasputin”, Steve Bannon:

“We’re gonna give you a democracy suppository!”

This essay was originally published in The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 19 August 2022.

The Oppressors’ Trifecta: Race, Gender, and Class.

Tatou, Tatou - All Together: According to the promoters of the Tripod Theory, subsuming all other emancipatory struggles into the one great struggle between capitalists and proletarians was a mistake. Exploitation wasn’t purely a question of economics, it was a vast, multi-faceted collection of struggles in which racism and sexism featured hugely. Far more could be achieved, they argued, by recognising the co-equal status of race, gender and class in the “triple oppression” of humanity.

THE SEVENTIES had come to an end with Western Leftism in a thoroughly confused state.

Actually Existing Socialism still held sway over most of the Eurasian continent. Admittedly, the Chinese variant bore less and less resemblance to the original Soviet model, which had rounded off the Seventies by invading Afghanistan. It was, however, extremely hard to like either of the Communist behemoths. Of the French revolutionary credo: Liberty, Equality, Fraternity; the actually existing socialists had mastered only equality. Although Cuba and the recently liberated Portuguese colonies of Angola and Mozambique were making slow but steady progress towards fraternity.

For Western Leftists, Actually Existing Socialism’s evident failure to promote liberty proved to be a deal-breaker. After all, what had the Sixties and Seventies been about – if not freedom? The anarchist firebrand, Emma Goldman, had written to Lenin in 1917: “If you make a revolution, and there’s no dancing, then I’m not coming.” The New Left felt exactly the same about freedom. When Actually Existing Socialism finally embraced liberty, wild horses wouldn’t be able to keep the Western Left away, until then …

But, if class-based revolutionary politics found itself becalmed, the so-called “New Social Movements” movements arising out of the struggle for Black civil rights in the USA and South Africa, feminism’s second wave, and the energetic pursuit of gay and lesbian liberation, had storm-force winds in their sails. As the Eighties dawned, it was almost impossible to engage in left-wing politics without acknowledging these new emancipatory movements, or avoid incorporating their radical insights into the Left’s revolutionary praxis.

Predictably, the New Social Movement’s hardest sell was to that part of the Left which still clung to the ideas of Karl Marx. It wasn’t that the Marxists were incapable of recognising the oppression of Blacks, women and gays, merely that they regarded the struggle of these subordinate groups as mere skirmishes within the overarching and all-important battle between Capital and Labour. Class consciousness was the “Open Sesame!” to the free and abundant world that socialism would make possible. Since exploitation was indivisible, the struggle against it had to be the same. Unity – not Identity – was the watchword.

The fighters for racial, sexual and gender equality were having none of it. They would not be subsumed in the “world historical struggle” whose ideological generals all seemed to be straight, white, and male. If the personal was political, then these unconscious beneficiaries of white supremacy and patriarchy had some serious shit to work through.

Enter the Tripod Theory. According to its promoters, subsuming all other emancipatory struggles into the one great struggle between capitalists and proletarians was a mistake. Exploitation wasn’t purely a question of economics, it was a vast, multi-faceted collection of struggles in which racism and sexism featured hugely. Far more could be achieved, they argued, by recognising the co-equal status of race, gender and class in the “triple oppression” of humanity.

Each of these buttresses of oppression depended on and was upheld by the other two. Patriarchy provided capitalism with an already elaborate framework of sexually-charged power and control, while white supremacy had made possible the vast accumulation of slave-generated wealth that set the capitalist system in motion. Race and gender thus raised profound cultural issues that could never be accommodated comfortably in the narrow economism of class politics.

The Tripod Theory gave rise to another metaphor, one in which the Left, by embracing the concept of the “three oppressions”, constructs a fighting platform upon which Blacks, women, workers and gays can fight white supremacy, patriarchy, homophobia and capitalism side by side – each group aiding the other. Race, gender and class thus become the three legs of the Left’s footstool, distributing the revolutionary load equally.

In an attempt to draw the separate struggles of the traditional socialist Left and the New Social Movements into a useful theoretical and political dialogue, Rob Stevens, a progressive academic based at the University of Canterbury, bravely launched the journal Race Gender Class in 1985. It ran for 14 issues and ceased publication in 1995.

Glancing through the issue released in 1991 it very soon becomes clear that if Stevens and his editorial collective had hoped the ideologies related to race, gender and class might, by virtue of being brought together on the pages of a single periodical, somehow give rise to a new and powerful revolutionary praxis, then they must have been disappointed. Not even the tender ministrations of Bill Birch, Ruth Richardson and Jenny Shipley: which had, in that bitter year, 1991, dramatically raised the Misery Index for unionised workers, solo mums and the whole beneficiary underclass (in which Māori and Pasifika figured so disproportionately) could generate the intersectional fightback anticipated by the Tripod Theory.

And just in case any unreconstructed class warriors out there feel moved to lay the blame for this failure at the feet of the race and gender contingents of the broader emancipatory movement, it is worth recalling that it was the Council of Trade Unions which refused to call the general strike that would, undoubtedly, have brought together workers, women, people of colour, and gays on the one platform where real and durable alliances are formed – the barricades.

What the 1991 issue does make clear, however, is the dramatic progress made by those who elected to march under the colours of race and gender. It’s not just the familiar names of Jane Kelsey, Moana Jackson and Vincent O’Malley that catch the eye, but also that the issues they wrote about have such a contemporary feel. Thirty years ago, discussions about the implications of the Treaty “partnership” were confined to a tiny minority of senior public servants, academics and activists (pretty much the readership of journals like Race Gender Class). Thirty years later, the issues debated by the ideologues of race and gender in 1991 constitute the political agenda of the 2020s.

But, if the Politics of Identity have thrived over the course of the past three decades, the Politics of Class have dwindled and faded. Which is not to say that the vast gulf separating the human-beings who keep the capitalist system running, and those who pocket the profits, has not widened since the days of the tragically optimistic Tripod Theory. Nor that the rate of global exploitation has eased in any way. Merely that 1991 was also the year that the Soviet Union fell to pieces.

Turns out that the only thing keeping Western Leftism remotely credible was Actually Existing Socialism. With the reality of class-based politics removed – along with the Berlin Wall – the Politics of Identity, now on two legs, race and gender, was free to run away and join the capitalist circus. What these identarians have yet to appreciate, however, is that Capitalism remains the ringmaster. Thirty years on, all that the politics of race and gender have become is the entertainment.

This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Thursday, 18 August 2022.

Monday 15 August 2022

Too Many Angels And Devils.


He’s got the fire and the fury
At his command
Well, you don’t have to worry
If you hold on to Jesus’ hand
We’ll all be safe from Satan
When the thunder rolls
We just gotta keep the devil
Way down in the hole

─ Tom Waits, “Way Down In The Hole”

WHAT’S NOT TO LIKE about Stuff Circuit’s Fire and Fury? It’s a well-made documentary of the sort New Zealand television used to make, but now only produces intermittently. It seeks answers to the questions many New Zealanders have been asking themselves since Parliament Grounds went up in flames on 2 March 2022. The driving force behind Fire and Fury, the highly-experienced journalist, Paula Penfold, has delivered on her promise to go behind the events of that day and name the names of those who were, at least in part, responsible for the disturbing scenes that marked the end of the weeks-long anti-vaccination protest.

Why, then, has the documentary left me feeling vaguely uneasy? And, before you object – “It’s meant to! – my uneasiness has nothing to do with the unsavoury cast of proto-fascist conspiracy theorists and “influencers” whose faces and words feature so prominently throughout the documentary. Sure, these people are loathsome, and their comments teeter alarmingly on the brink of outright criminality, but that is entirely unsurprising. From the get-go, the tone, sound-track, and crepuscular palette of the production cues the viewer for the darkness of its subject-matter.

Borrowing their title from Tom Waits’ Way Down In The Hole suggests that the makers of Fire and Fury see their subjects as being down there with the Devil. Perhaps that’s it? Perhaps it was my unconscious conflation of “Jesus’ hand” with the hands of the documentary’s producers, that gave me the uneasy feeling that I was being led to someone else’s holier-than-thou explanation for the rolling political thunder of our times.

Bluntly, Fire and Fury relies much too heavily on the “expert” commentary of Kate Hannah, a principal investigator and director of The Disinformation Project, a state-funded research exercise run out of Te Pūnaha Matatini at the University of Auckland. In an interview with Dale Husband on the Māori radio station, Waatea, Hannah revealed that The Disinformation Project had been set up in February 2020, immediately prior to the outbreak of the Covid-19 Pandemic, to counter the anti-government, anti-scientific, and anti-medicine narratives that the authorities were clearly anticipating.

What is it that disturbs me about The Disinformation Project? Surely, having people monitor the misinformation and disinformation being spread deliberately during a major medical emergency is an entirely sensible government initiative? Any undermining of the collective effort to protect the population from the effects of a potentially deadly virus is prima facie evidence of evil intent. Many would say that identifying and neutralising such anti-social elements is an important state responsibility.

True enough, but why bury such a unit deep in the dense undergrowth of academia? And why appoint as its director a woman whose Masters thesis was on Nineteenth Century American literary culture, rather than a qualified medical administrator? If such a unit was needed, then why not set it up within the Ministry of Health, and make it answerable to the then Director-General of Health, Ashley Bloomfield?

The problem is, the moment you start asking questions like this you immediately run the risk of being branded a conspiracy theorist. And that just circles the whole argument back to its starting-point: the dark narrative of evil intent which lies at the heart of Fire and Fury.

The question, never satisfactorily answered, which lies at the heart of the heart of Fire and Fury is – Why? What is it that prompts individuals to create false political, economic and cultural narratives in the first place? More importantly, what is it that makes otherwise perfectly sensible and caring people follow these fantasists down their rabbit holes?

Well, what led Alice down the rabbit hole in Lewis Carrol’s famous children’s story? Wasn’t it the sight of a waist-coated white rabbit consulting a pocket-watch and muttering “I’m late!”? Who wouldn’t want to get to the bottom of a sight as peculiar as that!

Many people find themselves caught up in events over which they exercise no control, and which they do not understand. Since, in small matters, they find it easy to identify cause and effect, they assume (wrongly) that big events can be equally easily explained.

This is by no means an unreasonable assumption, given the propensity of governments to explain large events in the most simplistic terms. Those who remain unconvinced by these official versions, all too often discover their scepticism is entirely justified. Nothing encourages the growth of conspiracy theories faster that citizens discovering that their own governments have conspired to deceive them.

In Fire and Fury, Kate Hannah explains the concept of what she calls “necessary” or “protective” violence. Once a group of citizens convinces themselves that their government, motivated by pure evil, is “coming after their kids”, then there is nothing they will not contemplate to keep their loved ones, and their homeland, safe.

Step this argument back a few paces, and it is possible to grasp how individuals of an authoritarian and/or paranoid temperament, having learned that their government has deliberately lied to them, decide that striking back with lies of their own is not only justified – but also the only effective way to balance the scales.

Like the evil wizard in the tale of Aladdin, the conspiracy theorists come offering “new lamps [lies] for old”. And, like all good liars, they mix in a hefty portion of the truth in with their falsehoods. “Why is it,” they ask, “that you will never encounter people with information contradicting the government’s claims in the mainstream news media?” While most people will respond by pointing out the idiocy of spreading false information during a pandemic, a not inconsiderable minority will accept the conspiracy theorists’ explanation that the news media are nothing more than the paid mouthpieces of a government unwilling to tell its citizens the truth.

It is a great pity that Paula Penfold and her team did not spend more time talking to the fiery and furious individuals around whose behaviour the documentary was constructed. A pity, too, that they did not explore in greater depth the popular conviction that the Public Interest Journalism Fund – which paid for Fire and Fury – is proof of the conspiracy theorists’ contention that the mainstream news media has, indeed, been bought and paid for.

Yes, there is an argument to be made that it is better to allow these “influencers” to condemn themselves out of their own mouths, than it is to interview them one-on-one. Equally, there is an argument for doing both: broadcasting their views – and also asking them to explain why they continually engage in such dangerous speech. Watching Fire and Fury, it is easy to apprehend its makers’ fear of “the mob”. The hostility directed towards journalists who were “just doing their job” by militant anti-vaxxers certainly was frighteningly intense.

And yet, these people are New Zealanders, too. And perhaps that is what, in the end, made me feel so uneasy about the Fire and Fury documentary. Watching it, the viewer cannot help being struck by the vast epistemological gulf separating its subjects from its makers.

Listening to Hannah and the other, equally disdainful “experts” consulted by Penfold and her team, the viewers could be forgiven for thinking that they was listening to a team of anthropologists describing the cultural practices of a particularly belligerent tribe of indigenes. Certainly, the inclusion of Rebecca Kitteridge, Director of the SIS, among that commentary team does not bode well for the future safety of this truculent tribe.

Fire and Fury didn’t quite call them “deplorables” – but it came close.

This essay was originally posted on the website on Monday, 15 August 2022.

Friday 12 August 2022

Parting Shots.

On The Way Out: Gaurav Sharma has clearly had enough of Parliament and is more than ready to return to his life as a medical professional. What he has been willing to do on the way out, however, is draw aside the curtain, if only for a moment, and let the electors of New Zealand see how their representatives are treated. For this, those same electors owe him a vote of thanks. 

GAURAV SHARMA has clearly had enough of parliamentary life. Equally clearly, he is not suited to it. Nevertheless, he has made an extremely useful contribution to the bullying debate.

His op-ed piece for the NZ Herald confirms what all political journalists should know: that Parliament is Ground Zero for institutionalised bullying. It would, however, be naïve to expect members of the Press Gallery to augment Sharma’s observations with their own. The Press Gallery is no less enmeshed in the system of punishments and rewards that pervades every corner of the parliamentary complex than the MPs themselves.

What emerges from the Gallery and the Labour Party itself over the next few days promises to be a master-class in the art of dismissing, diminishing and disparaging an individual who has had the temerity to breach the iron law of omerta which governs the practice of party politics.

Like Fight Club, the first rule of party politics is not to talk about party politics.

It is to be hoped that Sharma is a resilient person, because the amount of emotional violence heading his way will likely be personally devastating.

That hope may be a vain one, however, since Sharma appears to have entered Parliament without the necessary acculturation to the vicious political environment of the New Zealand Labour Party.

Purely from the perspective of an outsider, Sharma’s selection appears to have been a pro-forma affair. Very few Labour strategists would have anticipated success in the Hamilton seats – which, prior to 2020, had been in National’s column for four elections in a row. Sharma would likely have seen himself as nothing more than a booster of Labour’s Party Vote. A not unreasonable view, given his Number 63 position on Labour’s Party List. Just as it did for most Hamiltonians, Sharma’s victory in Hamilton West would have come as a mighty shock.

Nothing like as big a shock, however, as the political culture of the Labour Caucus. Those Labour politicians who spent years fighting their way into Parliament would have had an enormous advantage over a political naïf like Sharma. They would know what to expect. Whose way to keep out of. Whose prospects to block. And, whose hunting party to join when the Leader’s minions identified a member of caucus to be taken down a peg or two. All of them would have mastered the courtier’s art of sucking-up and punching-down. Putting it bluntly, a disturbingly high proportion of Sharma’s colleagues would be – as he has now charged – bullies.

Those who weren’t bullies would’ve been doormats. Selected as candidates for their placidity and biddability, they are the sort of people who can be relied upon to back their party right or wrong, and to support whoever occupies the top leadership roles with an equally undiscerning fervour. The traditional term for these types is “hack”. Sharma likely found these Labour lambs even more disturbing than Labour’s wolves.

Judging from his op-ed piece, Sharma may even have been labouring under the misapprehension that he was in Parliament to represent the electors of Hamilton West. He may even have thought that they were the people to whom he was ultimately answerable. Wrong! Wrong! Wrong! That is merely his constitutional role.

His actual role is to shut up and do as the Whips command. Make a speech on a subject he knows nothing about. Sit on a Select Committee and vote exactly as the Labour Chair indicates – no matter how wrong or stupid. Most importantly, say nothing, write nothing, and do nothing that attracts unwanted attention.

The poor man would soon have discovered that this “sit still and shut up” rule applied with equal force in caucus. If he was ever incautious enough to stand up in front of his colleagues and express views contrary to those of the Front Bench, then he would very soon have appreciated why those tasked with the responsibility for keeping the Back Bench under control are called “Whips”.

Think about it for a moment. Labour has a caucus of 65 MPs. Most of them, like Sharma himself, highly qualified professionals. How, then, is it possible that all but two of these intelligent and (presumably) principled men and women (the exceptions being Louisa Wall and, now, Sharma) have never even once spoken out of turn or (God forbid!) expressed a viewpoint on any major – or even minor – issue that was not in 100 percent conformity with the official party line? What does it take to inspire and maintain that sort of collective discipline? The answer, tragically, is fear. Fear of being written-off as a troublemaker; and fear of the emotional violence inevitably inflicted upon those who, at least initially, refuse to be bullied, by those who long ago abandoned all resistance.

The good little bunnies of the Labour caucus will, of course, object that party politics cannot function without party discipline. They will remind their critics that politics has always been “the art of the possible”, and that nothing will ever get done if a government is mired in endless internal debates.

These objections will be backed-up energetically by the Press Gallery as basic common-sense. How could they not, when the members of the Press Gallery are just as much victims of the “Stockholm Syndrome” as the MPs they cover. Gallery journalists are expected by their editors to hunt as a pack – not on their own. They are also prone to being bullied by the darker variety of ministerial minion, who will threaten them with a denial of access to the key newsmakers if they step too far out of line.

How many of the current crop of Labour MPs and Gallery journalists are aware of the fact that the First Labour Government’s caucus was a hotbed of dissent and disputation, and not above over-ruling the demands of Cabinet Ministers? Strangely, given the dictates of “common sense”, that First Labour Government still managed to keep its promises to the electors – and transform a nation. Which is not to say that the 1930s party was lacking in bullies, merely that, back then, there was no shortage of Labour MPs willing to stand up to them.

Sharma, sadly, is not doing that. He has clearly had enough of Parliament and is more than ready to return to his life as a medical professional. What he has been willing to do, however, is draw aside the curtain, if only for a moment, and let the electors of New Zealand see how their representatives are treated. Those same electors owe him a vote of thanks: not only for the glimpse of the bullying culture that pervades their Parliament, but also for the demonstration that is bound to follow of how that same, sick, system responds to its critics.

Undoubtedly, there will be Labour supporters reading these words with mounting disbelief – and fury. It is fitting, then, to close with a vivid illustration of Labour’s long-standing culture of bullying.

At the Labour Conference of 2002, a tiny handful of mostly younger delegates attempted to protest the Labour-led Government’s decision to sent troops to Afghanistan. As Helen Clark began speaking, one young man rose to his feet and attempted to make his opposition known. As he did so, a number of party heavyweights (fortuitously seated next to him) also rose to their feet. The dissenter was grabbed – none too gently – and physically dragged from the auditorium. Two young women, positioned closer to the stage, who attempted to unfurl an anti-war banner, received very similar treatment.

When Willie Jackson boasts that Labour has a different definition of democracy – he’s not kidding.

This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Friday, 12 August 2022.

The Flashman Factor.

The Empire Within Which Bullying Never Ceased: The bitter truth about Great Britain’s “public” schools (and their many imitators in the Empire’s far-flung dominions) is that they were consciously designed to produce a very particular kind of imperial administrator. These men needed to be courageous, but not compassionate; clever, but not too clever; up for anything their superiors deemed necessary, and indifferent to others’ pain and suffering. 

TOM BROWN’S SCHOOL DAYS defined a whole generation of “Muscular Christian” English gentlemen. The author of this immensely popular Victorian novel, Thomas Hughes, set out to redefine the values deemed essential to ruling the greatest empire the world had ever known. He had no time whatsoever for effeteness, and even less for arid intellectuality. What Great Britain and its sprawling empire needed were strong and practical souls – leavened by a sound education. What it had absolutely no need for, Hughes insisted, were bullies.

Tom Brown’s School Days provided the model for all the many “school novels” that succeeded it – the most recent of which, J.K. Rowlings’ Harry Potter series – owe a great deal to the original. The all-wise figure of Professor Dumbledore, for example, bears an uncanny resemblance to Dr Thomas Arnold, the real-life headmaster of Rugby School from 1828-1841 who “plays himself” in Hughes’ partly autobiographical novel.

In many respects, Tom Brown’s School Days represented a girding of British ruling-class loins for the great tasks that lay ahead, as British imperialism got its second wind in the Nineteenth Century’s second half. Certainly, the novel’s hero possesses an impressive tally of the virtues required for the daunting mission of imposing “civilisation”. He’s physically fit, amiable, courageous, and up for any challenge. As the novel unfolds, however, it becomes clear that these muscular qualities are not of themselves sufficient. Minds need training as well as bodies, and courage must always be tempered by compassion.

Lest their be any confusion, however, Hughes introduces the unforgettable figure of Flashman, Rugby’s biggest and most brutal bully. It is Flashman who supplies the novel’s most memorable scene, in which a defiant Tom is held in front of a roaring fire by Flashman’s accomplices. Although Tom is ultimately rescued from Flashman’s torture, it is the bully’s viciousness that remains with the reader.

As George MacDonald Fraser, author of the best-selling Flashman novels, realised, it would be the anti-hero’s amorality, not Tom’s Christian piety, that titillated readers in the much darker Twentieth Century.

Hughes’ civilising mission, though indisputably admirable, was always doomed to fail. A thousand Dr Arnold’s could not overcome the brutal fact that imperialism is a brutal business. Seizing and holding other peoples’ lands is an undertaking for which the Flashmans’ of this world are much more suited temperamentally than the Tom Browns.

The bitter truth is that Great Britain’s “public” schools (and their many imitators in the Empire’s far-flung dominions) were consciously designed to produce a very particular kind of imperial administrator. These men needed to be courageous, but not compassionate; clever, but not too clever; up for anything their superiors deemed necessary, and indifferent to others’ pain and suffering. Most importantly, these imperialists needed to enjoy wielding power and subjecting weaker peoples to their will.

In other words, producing bullies was what Eton, Harrow, Rugby, and all the other public schools, were all about.

Why else would public schoolboys be expected to read Caesar’s Conquest of Gaul in the original Latin? (Hint: It wasn’t because he demonstrated Muscular Christianity!) The other great lesson these privately educated gentlemen were required to learn, apart from the practicalities of genocide, is that what a ruling class tells the world it is doing, and what it actually does, are two very different things. Hypocrisy is, always, the indispensable aspect of effective governance. Take note of what I say, not what I do (or have done in the past) is the necessary expectation of those who wield power over others.

These, the instincts and habits of domination are much too important to learn on the job. That is why the pliable young saplings that enter our elite schools must be bent, twisted and violently pruned until they are ready to be released upon the world. It’s why the people responsible for running these schools turn a blind eye to the brutalities by their star pupils, and protect them when they go too far. After all, isn’t life just one long game of rough-and-tumble? And isn’t it better to win at that game than to lose?

The Powers-That-Be may say they want a world filled with the likes of Dr Arnold and Tom Brown. What they really want, however, is a world filled with the likes of Flashman.

Bullying isn’t a bug in the private education system – it’s a feature.

This essay was originally published in The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 12 August 2022.

Wednesday 10 August 2022

The Way We Used To Want It – And, Maybe, Still Do.

Representing Pakeha Racism: The important thing to remember about Rob Muldoon, and the racist policies with which his name is associated, is that he drew his power from the hundreds-of-thousands of anxious, angry, and yes – racist – Pakeha who voted for him, and that his most effective campaign slogan was:
“New Zealand the way 
YOU want it.”

GREEN MP TEANAU TUIONO hopes to introduce a Private Members Bill repealing the Citizenship [Western Samoa] Act 1982. The Act, introduced by the National Government of Rob Muldoon, and supported by the Labour Leader of the Opposition, Bill Rowling, prevented Samoans born between 1924 and 1949 from exercising the rights of New Zealand citizenship.

Had the legislation not been passed, the decision of the Privy Council (then New Zealand’s highest court) affirming the New Zealand citizenship of all Samoans born when New Zealand exercised a League of Nations “Mandate” (later becoming a United Nations “trusteeship”) over Samoa, would have stood, and tens-of-thousands of Samoans would have enjoyed free entry to New Zealand.

Yet to be drawn out of the Private Members Bill “lottery”, Tuiono’s proposed legislation would presumably restore the citizenship rights of Samoans born between 1924 and 1949. Obviously, this would encompass a much smaller group of people than was the case in 1982. Samoans born in 1949 would today be 73 years old – coincidentally the average life expectancy of a Samoan citizen.

In much the same way as the formal New Zealand Government apology for the notorious “Dawn Raids” of 1974-76, Tuiono’s PMB would stand as a marker of both condemnation and regret for the racist policies inflicted upon Pasifika by the New Zealand state.

Given that any legislation would, after 40 years, be almost entirely symbolic – i.e. only a handful of Samoans would be in a position to take advantage of their restored New Zealand citizenship – the Greens stand to lose very little by their endorsement of Tuiono’s gesture. Slightly more challenging for the Greens’ would be the following counterfactual.

Let us suppose that Tuiono’s bill passes, and citizenship is restored to Samoans born between 1924 and 1949. Then, let us further suppose that a new legal case is mounted, and that the New Zealand Supreme Court ultimately determines that the Samoan descendants of the New Zealand citizens born between 1924 and 1949 are also New Zealand citizens. Suddenly the number of people affected by Tuiono’s legislation jumps from hardly any, to a just about all of Samoa’s population of roughly 200,000.

In these circumstances, the Greens would be faced with the same political dilemma as Labour’s Bill Rowling in 1982. Should they uphold the law and welcome 200,000 new citizens to Aotearoa-New Zealand, or, should they bow to the deafening racist clamour for closing the country’s borders to what would be, in effect, an entire Pacific nation?

Back in 1982, Rowling chose the second option. He calculated that Labour would sustain much less damage, electorally, by throwing in its lot with National, passing the legislation quashing the Privy Council’s judgement with all possible speed, and simply living with the loud moral objections of their Pasifika supporters and the increasingly vociferous anti-racist movements of the time.

As well as, it must be said, the loud objections of Labour’s own youth wing, whose president, Sean Fleigner, released a statement bitterly critical of his own party’s capitulation to the undisguised racism of Pakeha New Zealand. For this gutsy demonstration of moral fortitude, Sean and his fellow Dunedin radicals received a “visit” from the party’s dynamic young president, Jim Anderton, who, no doubt acting on Rowling’s instructions, warned them against any further gestures of public defiance which, in addition to being unsupported by all but a handful of party members, and therefore doomed to fail – were bloody embarrassing to the Leader.

Some young New Zealanders will be appalled at Labour’s open collaboration with the Rob Muldoon depicted in the 2021 television series about the Polynesian Panthers. The very same Rob Muldoon who set New Zealander against New Zealander by refusing to ban Apartheid-era South Africa’s Springbok Rugby team from touring New Zealand in July-August 1981. But, what appears outrageous with the benefit of 40 years hindsight, was almost always perceived very differently by the people living at the time.

The Privy Council’s bombshell decision had been handed down in September 1982 – barely twelve months after the civil strife that so shocked and dismayed New Zealanders the previous year. In a manner oddly foreshadowing contemporary New Zealanders’ determination to avoid any further lockdowns and just “live with” Covid-19, the Kiwis of 40 years ago wanted no more unpleasantness about racism, and were keen to put all the violent passions of 1981 behind them. Very few voters would have thanked Bill Rowling and Labour for dying in a ditch over the Citizenship [Western Samoa] Bill – and expecting them to do the same.

Labour’s concern for what was in the minds of its (overwhelmingly Pakeha) supporters was no less influential in March 1974 when Norman Kirk set in motion the policies that would culminate in Muldoon’s draconian Dawn Raids of 1976.

Kirk and his government were acutely aware of how deeply unpopular his decision to ban the scheduled 1973 tour of the Springboks was among Labour voters. While the Commonwealth Games held in Christchurch in January-February 1974 had given his government an enormous boost (which wouldn’t have been the case if the Springboks’ tour had gone ahead) Kirk was anxious to reaffirm Labour’s attachment to his country’s longstanding “White New Zealand” immigration policy. With the economy faltering, and mass unemployment threatening, sending the “Islanders” home appealed to his government as the least electorally damaging option.

Difficult though it may be to accept, such openly racist policy-making enjoyed solid bi-partisan support. Following Kirk’s death in August 1974, the anti-Pasifika feeling only intensified. Indeed, between September 1974 and November 1975, when Muldoon’s National Party decisively defeated the Labour Government, New Zealand shifted sharply to the right. Over the ensuing months, the New Zealand electorate expected – and was treated to – some of the most retrograde and vicious policy-making in New Zealand’s political history. The Dawn Raids were just one aspect of White New Zealand’s backlash.

Watching The Panthers television series, one could be forgiven for thinking that the Polynesian Panthers played a critical role in the Dawn Raids drama. The truth is they were never more than a minor irritant to the authorities. In spite of their name, they experienced nothing like the level of repression visited upon the Black Panther Party of the United States – most of whose leaders were either murdered by the Police and the FBI, or incarcerated for lengthy periods.

The Panthers’ obsessive focus on Muldoon unhelpfully obscures the fact that most New Zealanders were more than happy to limit Pasifika immigration. Politically, the Dawn Raids offered the public dramatic proof that the Government was “doing something”. Having demonstrated the requisite “hard line”, Muldoon quietly wound the theatrics down. By 1977 it was all over.

Herein lies the virtue of putting the Greens to the test of an historical counterfactual: to see whether they fully appreciate just how deeply racism remains embedded in the Pakeha population. Socially liberal New Zealanders have either forgotten, or been given the wrong information, about their country’s recent past. Much has changed since the mid-1970s and early 1980s – but an awful lot has remained the same.

It’s easy to say “sorry” when your apology can be made without political cost, and in the absence of a political leader capable of harnessing the popular resentments and prejudices it might inflame. 

The important thing to remember about Rob Muldoon, and the racist policies with which his name is associated, is that he drew his power from the hundreds-of-thousands of anxious, angry, and yes – racist – Pakeha who voted for him, and that his most effective campaign slogan was: “New Zealand the way YOU want it.”

White and Right.

This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Tuesday, 9 August 2022.