Friday 19 July 2024

Trump’s Adopted Son.

Waiting In The Wings: For truly, if Trump is America’s un-assassinated Caesar, then J.D. Vance is America’s Octavian, the Republic’s youthful undertaker – and its first Emperor.

DONALD TRUMP’S SELECTION of James D. Vance as his running-mate bodes ill for the American republic. A fervent supporter of Viktor Orban, the “illiberal” prime minister of Hungary, Vance’s respect for the United States Constitution should be considered pro-forma – at best.

A vocal critic of Trump when the reality TV-show maestro’s wholesale derangement of the American party system first became apparent in 2016, Vance has since reconciled himself, to the point of sycophancy, with Trump’s more-or-less complete takeover of the Republican Party.

Trump, himself, gleefully acknowledged his former critic’s transformation by informing his followers that “J.D. is kissing my ass he wants my support so bad”. Vance’s osculatory efforts proved sufficiently energetic, however, to secure him Trump’s endorsement in the race to become the Republican Party’s candidate for Ohio’s second Senate seat in 2022. At the age of just 38, he had joined the highest ranks of the American political system.

Which, given Vance’s humble origins, was extraordinary. He’d been raised in Appalachia, that mountainous region of the United States whose exploited and poverty-stricken inhabitants are still called “hillbillies”. The victim of violent and dysfunctional parenting, Vance (then called Bowman) was mostly raised by his hillbilly grandparents.

As is so often the case with individuals reared in such dangerous environments, Vance developed an acute sensitivity to who possessed the power to hurt him, and who might be persuaded to do him good. It was the rawest sort of political education, but it has undoubtedly served him well.

Highly intelligent and good with words, Vance finally extricated himself from the poverty, drug addiction and suicidal despair of rural Ohio by joining the United States Marine Corps. Impressed by his writing talents, his superiors sent him to Iraq as a military journalist, and then helped him earn a Batchelor’s degree in Political Science. After that it was Yale Law and a job with the libertarian tech-lord Peter Thiel.

Impressive enough, as CVs go, but what lifted Vance far above the merely self-improving was his best-selling memoir “Hillbilly Elegy”. Vance’s timing could not have been better. His book appeared at precisely the moment America’s elites were attempting to make sense of Donald Trump’s defeat of Hilary Clinton.

“Hillbilly Elegy” turned Vance into the “deplorable whisperer”. Someone who was able to translate the angst and the anger of White working-class America in ways that enlightened – but did not threaten – ruling-class America. In the process, Vance successfully persuaded a great many extremely powerful people to do him an extraordinary amount of good.

Vance had once referred to Trump as “America’s Hitler”. But, as the now Republican Vice-Presidential nominee has spent the last eighteen months demonstrating, that disturbing characterisation should be interpreted as a description – not a condemnation.

If, as now seems certain, Trump wins the presidency in November, then Vance will find himself just a heartbeat away from becoming something even more alarming than America’s Hitler. Because, as the rest of the world needs to get its head around, urgently, the Republican candidate for Vice-President stands much further to the right than his master. Yes, Vance, like Trump, is an economic nationalist and a right-wing populist, but he also draws his inspiration from the aforesaid Orban, as well as, crucially, from the planet’s most powerful authoritarian president, Vladimir Putin.

Putin’s unwavering purpose is to protect Mother Russia from what he sees as the degenerate culture of the West. Vance and his ilk are equally determined to purge American society of the rampant degeneracy to which, in their minds, it has already succumbed.

Ronald Reagan described the USA as “a shining city upon a hill”. For the American far-right, however, the only shining city capable of inspiring today’s corrupted world is Moscow. If Trump becomes President, and Vance’s diplomatic advice is heeded, then the Ukrainian nation is doomed.

Students of Imperial Rome should have little difficulty in recognising the forces at play in this ruthless political drama. The ambitious aristocrat who executes an end-run around his political rivals by playing upon the fears and resentments of the impoverished masses. The demagogue’s enemies who bend every sinew to securing his downfall. The hero’s precautionary adoption of a brilliant but cynical young politician as his successor.

For truly, if Trump is America’s un-assassinated Caesar, then J.D. Vance is America’s Octavian, the Republic’s youthful undertaker – and its first Emperor.

This essay was originally published in The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 19 July 2024.

Thursday 18 July 2024

Gut Reactions.

Trump Writes His Own Story: Would the “mainstream” media even try to reflect the horrified reaction of the MAGA crowd to the pop-pop-pop of the would-be assassin’s rifle, and Trump going down? Could it even grasp the sheer elation of the rally-goers seeing their champion rise up and punch the air, still alive, and still telling them to fight-fight-fight!

AS ANGRY TRUMP SUPPORTERS filed out of the Butler showgrounds, many paused to hurl abuse at the media pack. As they vented their anger upon the assembled “mainstream” journalists, I couldn’t help recalling the behaviour of an even angrier crowd as it filed out of Hamilton’s Rugby Park on Saturday, 25 July 1981.

Tens-of-thousands of Waikato Rugby fans had turned out to watch their team take on the Springboks. When the actions of anti-tour protesters caused the game to be called off they were furious. The abuse they hurled at the broadcasting box, along with unopened cans of beer, reflected their instinctive grasp of the media’s power to shape political perceptions. The Rugby fans knew in their gut that what had just happened would be reported to the advantage of the anti-tour activists, and to the disparagement of New Zealanders like themselves – hence their fury.

When he learned, through friends and media reports, of the violence that had swept through Hamilton following the cancellation of the Waikato-Springboks match, the eminent, Austrian-born, left-wing economist, Wolfgang Rosenberg, who lectured at the University of Canterbury, observed that it reminded him of Kristallnacht (generally translated as “night of broken glass”) when, on 9-10 November 1938, Hitler’s Nazi regime attacked Germany’s Jews, burned their synagogues, and smashed the windows of their businesses.

News of Rosenberg’s dramatic comparison swept through the ranks of the anti-tour movement, further lifting its morale, and conferring a powerful historical dignity upon what had been a frightening and painful (albeit non-fatal) political experience. Rosenberg’s comparison did something else. Wittingly or unwittingly, this refugee from 1930s Austria had compared pro-tour New Zealanders to the Nazis who perpetrated Kristallnacht. A struggle against the importation of South African racism had been upgraded to a struggle against fascism.

Liberal journalists found it almost impossible to resist this significant redefinition of the moral issues at stake in the already deeply divisive Springbok Tour. The principal inspirers of the anti-tour movement were no longer the stubborn Ces Blazey, Chairman of the New Zealand Rugby Football Union, and his chief political enabler, Prime Minister Rob Muldoon. Now they were fighting the good fight against the fearsome shadow of Hitlerism itself. Those who supported the Tour ceased to be simply misguided, and became, instead, the representatives of a much darker system of belief.

In taking on this Manichean aspect, the most significant factor in the Police decision to call off the Waikato-Springbok game faded rapidly from public consciousness. Commissioner of Police, Bob Walton, had been made aware that a stolen light-aircraft, piloted by an anti-tour activist, was en route to Rugby Park, and that if the game was not called off, the plane would be flown into the main stand – killing and injuring hundreds of human-beings.

This was a terrorist threat, pure and simple, and Walton could not be sure that the pilot was bluffing. The likelihood that the man at the aircraft’s controls would actually carry out his threat may have been low, but it wasn’t zero. And if the Police Commissioner made the wrong call he would be guilty of failing to prevent an unprecedented national calamity. Not surprisingly, Walton ordered the game’s cancellation and the evacuation of the stadium.

It is worth pausing and reflecting upon this extraordinary incident. In the years after 1981, the pilot of the aircraft became something of a folk hero. He had presented the Police with a bluff which they could not possibly call. The game was abandoned, the plane landed safely, and nobody in the stands was hurt – win/win. But, paying the blackmailer does not render extortion any the less reprehensible. Walton capitulated because there were hundreds of helpless men, women, and children being threatened with death, and he was not morally entitled to gamble with their lives.

Since 1981, the anti-tour movement has sought refuge in the age-old argument that the end justifies the means. But when the means encompasses turning human lives into bargaining chips there can be no justification. It doesn’t matter that the pilot, an RNZAF veteran, would never have carried out his threat. Walton didn’t know that, and the man flying the plane wasn’t about to tell him. He needed the Police Commissioner to be terrified of what he might do, and he used that terror to secure his political objective. That is the definition of terrorism.

The crowd filing out of Rugby Park did not know about the stolen plane, but they knew that what was happening was being transmitted all around the world. The rest of the planet would not see terrorism in the game’s cancellation – only the heroism of the protesters and the murderous rage of the crowd in the stands. Nelson Mandela, himself, would later describe the effect of the Waikato cancellation as “like the sun coming out”.

“Hamilton” is still presented as a great moral victory – the greatest of the ’81 Tour. But, on the day, the embittered Rugby fans knew in their gut that the people and the technology in the broadcasting box were absolutely central to the anti-apartheid movement’s victory – and to their own defeat. That’s why, in lieu of anything more effective, they hurled their beer-cans skyward.

As Trump’s supporters made their way out of the Butler showgrounds, and past the media box, they, like those Hamiltonians of 43 years ago, would have understood that the story that all but a handful of the journalists present at the event, and their networks, would tell would never be their story. It would not capture the horror of the pop-pop-pop of the would-be assassin’s rifle, and Trump going down. Nor would it reflect the sheer elation of seeing their champion rise up and punch the air, still alive, and still telling them to fight-fight-fight!

Oh sure, there is always social media – and Fox News – but what “X”, TikTok and Instagram deliver, and what Fox broadcasts, will never carry the same weight as the media messages directed at college-educated Americans. Just as the wholesome movies made in the Evangelical Christian studios are never as good as the movies made in Hollywood, the Right’s media content will never be accepted as anything more compelling than “misinformation”.

Even when the people in the MAGA caps make a deliberate personal choice to abandon the “lying media” and its “fake news”, a still, small voice continues to insist that the alt-reality they’ve just embraced will always be dismissed by the people with the good jobs and the big houses as “deplorable”.

The high-and-mighty said it to these “deplorables’” ancestors in the Middle Ages, and they’re still saying it today:

“Losers ye are, and losers ye shall remain.”

This essay was originally posted on The Democracy Project substack on Monday, 15 July 2024.

Dodging Bullets.

Fight! Fight! Fight! Had the assassin’s bullet found its mark and killed Donald Trump, America’s descent into widespread and murderous violence – possibly spiralling-down into civil war – would have been immediate and quite possibly irreparable. The American Republic, upon whose survival liberty and democracy continue to depend, is certainly not out of danger, not yet. But, in Butler, Pennsylvania, on Saturday, 13 July 2024, the USA also dodged a bullet.

HE’S UNSTOPPABLE NOW. The photographic images transmitted across the planet mere minutes after the attempted assassination of Donald Trump in Butler, Pennsylvania, USA, are already icons. The former President, blood on his face, raises his clenched fist above his head in a gesture of fierce defiance, as the stars-and-stripes billows theatrically behind him. Together, these elements constitute a tableau that leaves absolutely no room for doubt. Donald Trump will be the next President of the United States.

In a nation that still believes in a God that blesses America, the message taken from this deadly incident is easily intuited. Had the path of the assassin’s bullet deviated by even an inch, the Republican candidate’s head would have exploded, live, on national television. Instead, the bullet nicked his ear. Another rally-goer was not so fortunate, fatally struck by the shooter who had so very nearly killed the former President, and who, just seconds later, was shot to death by Secret Service snipers. Half of America will now be firmly convinced that the Almighty’s plans for Donald J. Trump are beyond the power of mere mortals to alter.

In the hours and days following the attempted assassination, the merest of these mortals will be the incumbent President of the United States, Joe Biden. Impressively fired-up before a hugely responsive rally of Democratic supporters in Detroit, Michigan, just 24 hours before the shooting, Biden had called Trump a “loser”. But losers do not dodge bullets. Losers do not create instant and iconic campaign posters a minute after being shot. Losers do not have the presence of mind to gesture defiantly to the crowd even as their Secret Service detail is bundling them into an armoured people-carrier. No, Donald Trump may be the person who was fired-at on 13 July 2024, but it was Joe Biden who got fired.

This shocking event has made the Democratic Party’s dilemma even more acute. The contrast between the two candidates, already skewed dangerously in Trump’s favour, is now untenable. Biden looks old. He has the tentative shuffle of the frail elderly. Deprived of his teleprompter, the look of incipient panic in his eyes is painful to observe. Overwhelmingly, politically engaged “progressive” Americans have come to the same conclusion: “We love you, Joe, but it’s time to go.” Now, they have no choice.

In the years following the American Civil War, the triumphant Republican Party won election after election by waving “the bloody flag” that flew over that unparallelled American tragedy. Over the next four months, the Republicans have only to re-play “the bloody footage” of 13 July.

At the time of writing, the full identity of the shooter and his political affiliations – if any – remain unknown. But, if the profiles of previous presidential assassins are anything to go by, then he is likely to be an embittered individual, in the play of whose life Fate has repeatedly refused to assign him a meaningful role. By killing the President, the assassin seeks to become the hero of a new and deadly drama of his own devising.

Abraham Lincoln’s assassin, the actor John Wilkes Booth, unable to win genuine renown on the battlefield, fighting for his beloved Confederacy, and, perhaps, sensing that the hated leader of the Union had already won admittance to the company of the immortals, sought vengeance, and a darkly kindred immortality, by shooting Lincoln dead with a Derringer in Ford’s theatre.

Lee Harvey Oswald was a left-wing extremist who, like so many American leftists, found his fellow citizens’ indifference to the political causes that moved him so reprehensible that he determined to punish them by taking the life of the young President so much of the nation admired and loved. Marksmanship was one of Oswald’s few personal accomplishments, and unlike Trump’s would-be assassin, he didn’t miss.

There will be many Americans who received the news of Trump’s attempted assassination without surprise. For many years now the polarisation of American society has been growing increasingly perilous. Inevitably, if enough people at the margins of political discourse become convinced that there is nothing to be gained by communicating conventionally with opponents they have come to regard as irredeemably evil, then the prospect of communicating with one’s enemies “by other means” acquires an ever-greater salience.

This is what makes the identity of the sniper seen scrabbling up the roof of the building overlooking Trump’s enclosure at the Butler agricultural showgrounds so potentially explosive. If the man shot dead by Secret Service counter-snipers turns out to be an “Antifa” (anti-fascist) extremist with an online history of violent anti-Trump rhetoric, then the baying of the Right’s attack-dogs will be deafening. Fox News will declare the entire American Left guilty by association.

In response, the Democratic Party will likely tack aggressively to starboard, leaving its “progressive” wing alone and unprotected. One-time darling of the Democratic Socialists of America, New York congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio Cortez, might find her re-election chances in free-fall. It is unlikely that political aspirants proudly asserting their radical left-wing credentials would continue to attract the same level of enthusiastic journalistic support.

But, if the assassin turns out to be a right-wing extremist, then it’s the conspiracy theorists of the Left who will go hog-wild. (What even the extreme Right would have to gain by eliminating conservative America’s most effective champion since Ronald Reagan is not exactly clear – but then, if extremists acted rationally they wouldn’t be extremists, would they?)

Certainly, it is easy to picture the nuttier sort of leftist arguing that the shooter was a fanatical anti-abortionist who believed that Trump had “gone soft” on the rights of the unborn child. Handed a rifle with defective sights by the conspirators, and told that he would be permitted to flee the scene by “God’s people”, who would then spirit him out of the country, the “patsy” assassin, having missed his target, would instantly be shot to pieces by the Secret Service. The political consequences would be pure gold for these MAGA conspirators. Trump, bloodied but unbowed, would roll on implacably to a landslide victory.

The only aspect of the assassination attempt at Butler, Pennsylvania, that lends even the tiniest skerrick of credibility to this sort of wild speculation is the undeniable fact that somebody, hauling an AR-15 automatic rifle, was able to get on the roof of a building offering a clear shot at the former President of the United States without being confronted by a heavily-armed and body-armoured “Hawkeye” from the USSS’s tactical squad. It is Close Protection 101 that all potential “sniper’s perches” must be reconnoitred, located, and neutralised. The assassin, clearly visible to multiple witnesses on the ground, should never have made it as far as the building, let alone onto the roof. The deadly attack at Butler must, therefore, constitute the most egregious failure of the US Secret Service since Dallas.

Whatever the true story turns out to be regarding the attempt on Donald Trump’s life, its most crucial element is that it was just that, an attempt. Had the assassin’s bullet found its mark and killed the “deplorables’” champion, America’s descent into widespread and murderous violence – possibly spiralling-down into civil war – would have been immediate and quite possibly irreparable. The American Republic, upon whose survival liberty and democracy continue to depend, is certainly not out of danger, not yet. But, in Butler, Pennsylvania, on Saturday, 13 July 2024, the USA also dodged a bullet.

This essay was originally posted on the website on Monday, 15 July 2024.

Wednesday 17 July 2024

The Enemies Of Sunshine And Space.

Our Houses? The Urban Density debate is a horrible combination of intergenerational avarice and envy, fuelled by the grim certainty that none of the generations coming up after them will ever have it as good as the Boomers. To say that this situation rankles among those born after 1965 is to massively understate their distress. As far as those fated to grow up in the Twenty-First Century are concerned, it is NOT “OK Boomer” – not okay at all.

IT’S A POLITICAL MYSTERY, this alliance between the Left and well-connected property developers. The Right’s covert dealings with commercial greed-heads has for long been a disreputable feature of its brand. The Left, to its credit, still has to work at corruption. Doing the wrong thing doesn’t come naturally … yet. So, what is it that the Left is telling itself as it lines up behind National’s Chris Bishop? What good thing do they believe themselves to be doing?

When this question is put to them, there’s a certain kind of leftist that will reassure you that increasing urban density is the fastest and most effective way of getting homeless people housed. Constructing high-rise apartments along key public transport corridors will provide affordable accommodation to young workers and students – liberating them for the cold, damp, poorly-ventilated and inadequately maintained properties currently providing landlords with a handsome return on their investment.

With a considerably steelier glint in their eye, these same leftists will tell you that the only people steadfastly refusing to see the wisdom of Bishop’s policy are the selfish Baby-Boomers who long ago purchased what were then cheap and nasty old villas, “did them up”, and watched their value skyrocket to dizzying heights.

Some of these Boomers (many of them card-carrying leftists) sold at the top of the market, pocketing huge and tax-free capital gains, which they then invested in a one, two, many rental properties, becoming fully paid-up members of the landlord class. These “investors” aren’t all that keen on urban density. Flooding the rental market with affordable rental accommodation, a policy which could hardly fail to exert an unhelpful downward pressure on their rents, is not what they were expecting.

These are the sort of Boomers who ask themselves the question made famous by the lead characters in the 1980s classic movie “The Big Chill”: “How did revolutionaries like us get to be so rich?”

Then there are the Boomers who’ve spent their lives immersed in the lyrics of Graham Nash’s “Our House”, with its “two cats in the yard”, open fires, and flower arrangements. These Boomers’ do indeed dwell in, “a very, very, very fine house” and they’re not about to let it be caught in the shadow of a six-storey apartment block lacking even one stained-glass window – let alone a decorative finial.

The feelings these Boomers have for property developers (and their little helpers in local government) bear close resemblance to the feelings they once had for supporters of the 1981 Springbok Tour and members of the Society for the Protection of the Unborn Child. As far as they’re concerned, the urban density brigade aren’t leftists, they’re vandals. “Progressives” may deride such people as “Nimby” (Not In My Backyard) naysayers, but in their own eyes they’re heroic defenders of “precious local heritage”.

It’s a horrible combination of intergenerational avarice and envy, fuelled by the grim certainty that none of the generations coming up after them will ever have it as good as the Boomers. To say that this situation rankles among those born after 1965 is to massively understate their distress. As far as those fated to grow up in the Twenty-First Century are concerned, it is NOT “OK Boomer” – not okay at all.

The Devil himself could hardly have devised a scenario more likely to mobilise all seven of the deadly sins. Nor was there any shortage of property investors and developers willing to audition for the roles of Lucifer’s demonic minions. With so much envy and resentment to play upon, all those interested in making outrageous profits had to do was whisper “New Urbanism” in the ears of ambitious Gen-X lobbyists, who would, in turn, pass the concept on to ambitious Millennial politicians who’d never met a Boomer city father whose retreating back did not look better than his aggressive front. “Go to Europe,” they would say, “look at what’s happening there. Ask all these selfish Boomer Nimbys how many Frenchmen and women, how many Germans, live in detached bungalows!”

Wrong question. Frenchmen and women, Germans, and a plethora of other nationalities, live in apartments because only aristocrats, tycoons, and football players get to live in stand-alone dwellings surrounded by lawns and trees. When your population is numbered in the tens-of-millions, it’s difficult to organise your citizens’ accommodation in any other way. But ask those same apartment-dwelling Europeans, Americans and Asians if they would like to live in a stand-alone dwelling surrounded by lawns and trees, and you will elicit a very different response.

If the population of the British Isles was just 5 million, how many of its citizens would prefer to go “up”, as opposed to “out”? Even when the British population numbered in excess of 40 million, those on the left of politics were far more interested in spreading ordinary people out than they were in stacking them up. Indeed, it is strange that the disciples of New Urbanism speak so infrequently about the spacious planned communities of yesteryear. Genuine leftists would be talking a lot less about empowering developers to increase urban density, and a lot more about central and local government designing and building green cities and new towns.

Instead we are invited to accept and grow accustomed to this unholy alliance between right-wing greed-heads and left-wing Boomer-haters. Chris Bishop can make a bonfire of building codes and regulations, and rather than condemn his neoliberal recklessness, Labour and Green politicians turn up with additional jerry-cans of gasoline. Architects and construction firms warn that the Housing Minister’s policies will produce nothing but slums, crime and mental illness. The Left has nothing to say.

It really is remarkable. Housing New Zealand, after six years of fits and starts, finally hits its stride and builds thousands of new state houses annually. What happens? The new Coalition Government commissions a dodgy dossier damning Housing New Zealand, and uses it to justify an abrupt shutting-off of affordable housing supply – just as it was surging. In its place Bishop issues a slumlords’ charter. To the windfall tax-cuts his government has already delivered to the landlord class (which includes two-thirds of New Zealand’s parliamentarians) he now adds every conceivable incentive for the greedy and the tasteless to do their worst.

Bishop has staked his career on collapsing the price of houses and opening the way for the younger generation to reclaim the dream of home ownership. One can only imagine the response of the Reserve Bank of New Zealand and the big Aussie mortgage-holders if this promise is fulfilled. The international credit-rating agencies have already warned the Coalition Government that a collapse in house prices would set the entire New Zealand economy on fire. What will those who insist that Bishop is onto a winning strategy say then?

How painful it must be for genuine socialists to witness the political heirs of the left-wing politicians who designed, funded and built thousands of very, very, very fine houses, having so little to say about the deliberate re-creation of the oppressive “urban density” from which so many of poor New Zealanders, with their government’s assistance, broke free in the 1930s and 40s. How sad that so many on the Left, which used to be about sunshine and space, are throwing in their lot with those who see no profit in either commodity.

This essay was originally posted on The Democracy Project substack on Monday, 8 July 2024.

Britain's Devastating Electoral Slip.

Slip-Sliding Away: Labour may now enjoy a dominant position in Britain’s political landscape, but only by virtue of not being swallowed by it.

THE BRITISH LABOUR PARTY’S “landslide victory” is nothing of the sort. As most people understand the term, a landslide election victory is one in which the incumbent government, or its challenger, by the sheer force of its political appeal, sweeps its opponents from the field. Like the victims of a real landslide, the victims of an electoral landslide are buried by the decisive mass and unstoppable momentum of the voters’ mandate.

This is NOT what happened in the United Kingdom on 4 July 2024.

A much better way of describing what happened to the Conservative Government of Rishi Sunak is to utilise that very Kiwi word “slip”. The ground upon which the Tories had erected their political dominance simply slipped away from under them. Undermined by years of economic austerity and ideological polarisation, and jolted by politically irrecoverable corruption and incompetence. One minute the Conservatives were there, and the next minute they were gone, leaving Labour perched precariously on the slip’s edge. Labour may now enjoy a dominant position in Britain’s political landscape, but only by virtue of not being swallowed by it.

The raw numbers say it all. In 2019, the British Labour Party experienced its worst electoral defeat since 1935, attracting just 32.1 percent of the popular vote. At around sunrise on Friday 5 July 2024, when all the votes had been counted, the British Labour Party’s share of the popular vote had risen to 33.7 percent. But, thanks to the extraordinary unfairness of the UK’s First-Past-the-Post (FPP) electoral system, Labour’s one third of the vote had left it in possession of two thirds of the seats in the House of Commons.

Sir Keir Starmer is not the UK’s new Prime Minister because he won a landslide victory, but because the Conservative Party, quite simply, collapsed.

A Labour victory by default does not, however, satisfy the British Establishment’s requirement that UK governments be presented as positive expressions of the voters’ will – rather than a by-product of their bitter disillusionment and disgust. Uniformly, the British media have employed the landslide metaphor to legitimate Labour’s huge parliamentary majority. The British people have been told that they have handed their new government a decisive mandate, and that it is now their duty to let Starmer and his colleagues get on with the job.

Exactly what that job is is difficult to express with any clarity. It is important to bear in mind that the now governing party is not the Labour Party of Clement Attlee, or Harold Wilson, or even the “New Labour Party” of Tony Blair. What the British people have elected, wittingly or unwittingly, is “Changed Labour” – a political party which, according to its leader, is “unburdened by doctrine”. In the light of Starmer’s extraordinary admission, the only job which the Prime Minister and his new “Cabinet of all the talents” will be temperamentally equipped to get on with is the preservation of the status quo – which is a godawful mess.

As he sets out to clean up the mess that is contemporary Britain, Starmer has made it very clear to whatever remains of Labour’s beleaguered socialist factions, and even to the lack-lustre social-democrats of Blair’s New Labour, that he intends to be guided by the principle of “country before party”. This determination to lead a government that is at once non-ideological and unaccountable has raised no discernible hackles. Indeed, when openly enunciated by Starmer on Election Night these sentiments drew loud cheers from his audience of Labour activists. The acclamation of Starmer’s youthful supporters would appear to confirm the party’s full and final surrender to the political logic of technocracy. “Changed Labour” is an understatement.

But can a government of technocratic professionals possibly hope to win the support of the two-thirds of British voters who cast their ballots for other parties? Starmer may be reasonably confident of the Liberal Democrats’ backing in the years to come, ditto the Greens’. Not that he will need it. Not when his majority is greater than the seat tally of the Lib-Dems and Greens combined. It would be advantageous, however, if Starmer could point to a clear “progressive” majority across the UK, one that was broadly supportive of his government’s direction of travel. Fortunately, the combined vote share of the three progressive parties comes to 52 percent – a narrow majority, but a majority nonetheless.

Ranged against Starmer and his allies will be the 38 percent of voters who cast their ballots for the Conservatives (23.7 percent) and the UK Reform Party (14.3 percent). Of the two, it is Reform, Brexiteer Nigel Farage’s latest political vehicle, that constitutes the gravest threat to Starmer and his “changed” Labour Party. In spite of their leader’s claims, not all of Labour’s 411 MPs are unburdened by doctrine. Indeed, a great many of them hold rigidly ideological positions on immigration, gender, race, and the Israel-Gaza War. Farage and his colleagues (all four of them) will highlight the perceived extremism of Labour’s “identity politics” to drive a wedge into those same working-class constituencies that fell to the blandishments of Boris Johnson in 2019. Constituencies in which Reform polled impressively in 2024.

Farage has made no secret of his intention to “come after” Labour voters. He is confident that Starmer’s commitment to unscrambling a chaotic status quo, without upsetting the City of London and/or the Bank of England, can only result in the dangerous disillusionment of those many millions of Britons hopeful of being governed better, and with more compassion, by Labour than they were by the Tories. Though he doesn’t look like a fan of The Who, Farage’s message to the British working-class will be: “Meet the new boss, same as the old boss.”

And what of the biggest losers, the Tories? Down an astonishing 251 seats, reduced to a diehard rump of 121 MPs, and having lost nearly all their best and brightest leaders (and Liz Truss) in the “slip”. Where does the world’s most successful political party go now? And who will lead it there?

Looking back through the long career of the Conservative Party, it is clear that its remarkable ability to navigate the turbulent seas of British history is attributable largely to a clutch of colourful and proudly unorthodox navigators. Robert Peel, who broke his party to feed his people. Benjamin Disraeli, who, in forging “one nation” Toryism, bequeathed his party an enormously successful electoral formula. Stanley Baldwin, the successful industrialist whose death duties did for a feckless aristocracy more effectively than any cloth-cap socialist’s general strike. Winston Churchill, the narcissistic, grandiloquent turncoat who saved his country from fascism. Margaret Thatcher, who dared to unleash the atavism that lies in Toryism’s dark heart.

That person may not yet be seated in the House of Commons. But if and when the latest saviour of Conservatism finally takes their seat on the Opposition benches, they will be recognizable principally by how fully they embody the sentiments of G.K. Chesterton’s remarkable poem “The Secret People”:

We hear men speaking for us of new laws strong and sweet,
Yet is there no man speaketh as we speak in the street.
It may be we shall rise the last as Frenchmen rose the first,
Our wrath come after Russia’s wrath and our wrath be the worst.
It may be we are meant to mark with our riot and our rest
God’s scorn for all men governing. It may be beer is best.
But we are the people of England; and we have not spoken yet.
Smile at us, pay us, pass us. But do not quite forget.

This essay was originally posted on the website on Monday, 8 July 2024.

Tuesday 16 July 2024

Closer Than You Think: Ageing Boomers, Laurie & Les, Talk Politics.

Redefining Our Terms: “When an angry majority is demanding change, defending the status-quo is an extremist position.”

“WHAT’S THIS?”, asked Laurie, eyeing suspiciously the two glasses of red wine deposited in front of him.

“A nice drop of red. I thought you’d be keen to celebrate the French Far-Right’s victory with the appropriate tipple. And with Labour poised to reclaim Number Ten, after 14 long years of Tory rule, I thought red was the appropriate colour.”

“What? This is French?” Laurie sniffed the wine and swirled it around his glass with professional aplomb.”

“Well, no, not exactly. I asked Hannah behind the bar if the pub ran to a good Bordeaux, and she gave me one of her you-cannot-be-that-stupid stares.

“Does this place look like it runs to a good Bordeaux, Les? Or does it look like the sort of place that will offer you a nice Central Otago Pinot Noir and expect you to like it?”

Laurie took a tentative sip. “Not too bad. Not too bad at all. Thanks, Les.”

Laurie lifted his glass. “Here’s to Marine Le Pen and her toy-boy. And confusion to Emmanuel Macron’s centrists and the not-as-popular-as-the-National-Rally Left.”

Les saluted his friend with his own glass. “And here’s to Sir Keir Starmer – may he surprise us all!”

“That’s not very likely though, is it Les? Not when Starmer stands further to the right than Tony Blair.”

“I know, I know. The man makes a concrete block look animated. But that is what it takes these days to wring an endorsement out of Rupert Murdoch’s Sunday Times. Britons simply refuse to elect Labour leaders who promise anything more radical than a warmed-over status quo. And, even then, the Tories need to have well-and-truly outstayed their welcome. Tony Blair may have led Labour to a landslide victory in 1997, but it had been an excruciating 18 years between drinks.”

“Do you think Starmer’s winning margin will outstrip even Blair’s 1997 majority?”

“It might, yeah. But, in practical terms, it hardly matters. Rishi Sunak is doing his best to spook the voters with talk of a Labour ‘super-majority’ – as if the British Parliament operates according to the same rules as the Indian Parliament, where two-thirds of the legislators can change the Constitution.”

“But the UK doesn’t have a written constitution.”

“Congratulations, Laurie! You know more about the British political system than the present British Prime Minister!”

“I’ll tell you something else I know. It’s well past time that all you smug lefties stopped labelling parties like the National Rally and the Alternative For Germany ‘Far Right’.”

“Awh, come on, mate. What else are they?”

“Well, the National Rally is the most popular political party in France, and the AfD is the second most popular party in Germany.

“So, if you’re going to use the metaphor of a spectrum, then anything you call “far” has to be located at its extremes, and it has to be small.

“When Marine Le Pen’s father – who was, unquestionably, an extremist – was the leader of the National Front, back in the 1970s and 80s, he attracted barely 1 percent of the presidential vote. Clearly, the French people agreed that the Front belonged on the fringes of their politics.

“But, that is no longer true – is it? Otherwise, 34 percent of French voters would not have marked their ballots for the National Rally. A political movement that attracts over a third of the electorate is not ‘far’ anything. It is proof that the ideological and electoral preferences of the population have undergone a decisive shift.

“For goodness sake, in Germany the AfD is currently attracting more support than the governing Social-Democrats. Those we used to locate at the extremes are advancing steadily towards the centre-ground. They’re not far away from the majority’s comfort-zone anymore. In fact, they’re a lot closer to it than you lefties think.”

“Jeez, Laurie. Hitler’s Nazi’s topped-out in 1932 with 37 percent of the popular vote. Are you seriously trying to convince me that Nazism wasn’t a movement of the Far Right?”

“What I’m telling you, Les, is that when the political environment changes to the point where a party that once attracted less than 5 percent voter support is now gathering-up more than a third of the electorate, then the time has come for a major redefinition of political terms.

“When an angry majority is demanding change, defending the status-quo is an extremist position.”

This short story was originally published in The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 5 July 2024.

Wednesday 10 July 2024

Harsh Truths.

The Way We Were: An indelible mark was left upon a whole generation of New Zealanders by the Great Depression and World War II; an impression that not only permitted men and women of all classes and races to perceive the need to work together for the common good, but also to know – thanks to the bonding experiences arising out of existential danger – that such co-operation was possible.

THERE ARE LESSONS to be learned from the Biden-Trump debate/debacle. Important lessons, which New Zealanders would be most unwise to ignore. The first and most important of these is the need to face some harsh truths.

The American people have been running from the truth for decades. Electing an actor to govern them in 1980 merely confirmed their allergy to reality. Now they are readying themselves to elect Donald Trump for the second time. And, having witnessed Joe Biden’s disastrous debate performance, who can blame them? That the American Republic will struggle to survive such a final and decisive refusal to correct the consequences of its own corruption is unlikely to dissuade the American people from embracing its liquidator.

New Zealanders should, however, resist the temptation to sneer at the USA’s self-inflicted wounds. A dispassionate survey of New Zealand’s present predicament reveals a nation whose First World status can no longer be considered secure, and lacking a political class of sufficient calibre to retain it.

At virtually every level of the New Zealand state, from the lowliest public servant to the Justices of the Supreme Court, there is an alarming absence of evidence that the nation’s predicament is understood. Distractions there are in great number, but a clear-headed grasp of what it takes to hold a country together is not in evidence among those responsible for New Zealand’s administration.

This lack of clarity also pervades the ranks of New Zealand’s elected representatives. These are, with only a handful of exceptions, inadequately educated, lacking in relevant experience, and unadventurous to the point of actual cowardice. New Zealand’s current crop of politicians are place-holders not nation-builders. Unable to rise above the crude calculation of partisan advantage, an understanding of the broader national interest and of the needs of citizens yet to be born is beyond their capabilities.

Accounting for these alarming deficiencies is not easy. No matter how precariously positioned, New Zealand remains a First World country. Its people are educated, and their health preserved, by public institutions that easily bear comparison with those of much larger and richer nations. That being the case, the administration and government of New Zealand should be more than equal to the challenges faced. Likewise, its entrepreneurs and business leaders should be equal to the task of maintaining a productive and profitable economy.

And yet, when it comes to maintaining and extending the nation’s infrastructure, New Zealand’s leaders – private as well as public – are failing dismally. The political unanimity required to recognise, plan, and pay for the projects required to preserve social cohesion, while enhancing economic competitiveness and growth, is no longer a feature of New Zealand’s national life.

An indelible mark was left upon a whole generation of New Zealanders by the Great Depression and World War II; an impression that not only permitted men and women of all classes and races to perceive the need to work together for the common good, but also to know – thanks to the bonding experiences arising out of existential danger – that such co-operation was possible.

Depression and war (but especially war) made brothers out of farmers and freezing-workers, professionals and tradespeople. Bullets and bombs were no respecters of who one’s ancestors were, or which particular sailing vessels they arrived in, but incoming ordnance did make clear who was keeping who alive. Such lessons are not easily forgotten.

But, neither are they easily learnt. In the absence of the near universal experiences of economic hardship, the threat of invasion, and the intense comradeship born of armed conflict, the influences of class, race and gender soon recover their power to separate and divide human-beings. Without the common memories born of working, fighting, and sacrificing together, it becomes easier and easier to believe that “some animals are more equal than others”. And the longer that heresy goes unreproved, the harder it becomes to see the point of building anything that benefits anybody beyond one’s own kind.

There was a time when New Zealand politics was a reflection of the efforts of its two largest political parties to both represent and advance the interests of their “own kind”. Labour stood for the working-class. National for farmers, businessmen and (most) professionals. Thanks in large part to the Cold War, however, both parties understood the importance of keeping political sectionalism on a short leash. The beliefs that held New Zealanders together were accorded much greater importance than political ideologies with the potential to tear them apart.

But those beliefs, absent the experiences which informed them, could not escape the challenges of a generation that had not known privation or war. The ideas that kept New Zealand society tight: white supremacy, male supremacy, heterosexual supremacy, capitalism and Christianity; were deemed oppressive and unjust by the most outspoken of the first generation of New Zealanders for whom tertiary education was something more than an elite privilege.

But if these young intellectuals were successful in loosening New Zealand’s tightly wound society, they had also made it easier for the separate strands of that society to be pulled apart. It would become increasingly practical for New Zealand’s now less-connected citizens to look after their own kind – at the expense of all the other kinds.

Inevitably, it was the wealthiest and most powerful New Zealanders who had most to gain, and gained most, from the post-war generations’ great loosening of New Zealand society. In just two generations the nation reverted to the class-ridden, race-divided, sexually-exploitative society it had been before the election of the First Labour Government in 1935. The country’s politics, likewise, reverted to a competitive struggle between the elite defenders of the nation’s farmers and importers, and the elite protectors of its professionals and industrialists.

The single most important difference between that earlier, elite-dominated, New Zealand society, and the elite-dominated society of today, was the arrival of a gate-crashing new elite comprised of Te Iwi Māori whose children had taken advantage of the expansion of tertiary education in the 1970s to carve out a niche for themselves in the new political power structure. Revisionist history notwithstanding, the key role of this new Māori elite was to distract the urban Māori working-class from its poverty and exploitation – mostly by aggressively promoting the twinned illusions of tino rangatiratanga and mana motuhake.

These elements of New Zealand’s story run parallel to those that gave us the political bankruptcy of the Biden-Trump debate. The USA underwent its own great loosening which, like New Zealand’s, unravelled the social solidarity responsible for uplifting so many ordinary Americans between 1945 and 1980.

It is a process from which the wealthiest Americans have benefited hugely – primarily by disconnecting themselves fiscally from the rest of America. With a much-reduced tax base, the USA, like New Zealand, is undergoing its own slow infrastructural collapse.

New Zealand’s tragedy may lack the compelling duo of Biden and Trump – each in their own way illustrating the moral exhaustion of the American political system – but that is no excuse for Kiwi complacency. Both countries need to face the harsh truths of national decline.

Because, in Bob Dylan’s words:

It’s not dark yet 
But it’s getting there.

This essay was originally posted on The Democracy Project substack on Monday, 1 July 2024.

Tuesday 9 July 2024

The President They Have Got.

“This cannot be real life!” Confronted with the choice of recommitting themselves to the myth of Joe Biden, or believing the evidence of their own eyes, those Americans not already committed to Donald Trump will reach out instinctively for the President they wish they had – blind to the President they have got.

HOWARD DEAN knows what it’s like to be at the sharp end of an adverse public reaction. He was doing surprisingly well in the 2004 Democratic Party presidential primaries until his infamous “Dean scream” caused voters to turn away abruptly. As he watched the debate between Joe Biden and Donald Trump unfold on 27 June 2024, most Americans old enough to recall Dean’s downfall would have assumed that the former Vermont Governor new exactly what he was looking at – an unprecedented political train-wreck.

Interviewed by CNN barely 48 hours after the event, however, Dean was curiously unperturbed. Indeed, he affected a lofty disdain for the whole event. Give it ten days, he admonished his interviewer, reminding her that the attention-span of the American voter was very short. Contemptuous of both his panicking Democratic Party colleagues, and a click-hungry news media, Dean was at pains to tell the American people that there was nothing to see here. So, please folks, just move along. Joe’s fine.

Dean’s arrogant lack of concern epitomises the deep-seated dysfunction at the summit of the Democratic Party. Because, in spite of his spectacular crash-and-burn exit from the 2004 presidential race, Dean would spend the next 20 years steadily climbing his party’s greasy pole – to the point where he must now be counted among what MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow calls the “muckety-mucks” of America’s political elite.

Dean’s CNN interview revealed the corruption of that elite almost as unequivocally as the debate revealed Biden’s infirmity. Dean made it very clear that the Democratic Party leadership’s response to the demonstrable weakness of their candidate will be, simply, to invite the American people to disbelieve the evidence of their own eyes.

The Biden-Trump debate did a lot more, however, than showcase the unacceptability of both candidates. On display, albeit in different costuming, was the fear and contempt of the American people that permeates the American Constitution. In spite of the first three words of that august document, its content is devoted to ensuring that the decisions of ordinary American voters cannot be translated into unmediated political action. More bluntly: the framers of the Constitution saw no good reason why the popular will should prevail over the interests of wealthy and well-educated Americans like themselves.

If Joe Biden had the slightest respect for the working-class Americans who have supported the Democratic Party consistently since Franklin Roosevelt’s “New Deal” of the 1930s; if he was genuinely concerned about the upholding the equality of Black and Hispanic Americans; if he truly cared about the reproductive freedom of American women; then, having defeated Trump in 2020, he would have cleared the way for the younger, more vigorous, men and women of his party, by announcing early that he would not be seeking a second term.

If Donald Trump was not convinced that a good half of the American people were, at one and the same moment, as thick as bricks, and as malleable as clay, then he would not dare to affront their morals, and lie to their faces, with such breathtaking consistency.

Some historians argue that successful demagogues love their audiences, caressing and delighting them like a lover. Others, however, insist that the successful demagogue, like the successful con-man, has nothing but contempt for his “marks”. In the estimation of these “friends of the people”, anyone stupid and/or greedy enough to be taken in by the grifter’s pitch, deserves to be – and will be – grifted good and hard.

The leaders of the Democratic and Republican parties, were they genuine democrats, would long ago have modernised the American Constitution. It is scandalous that the Electoral College made it even as far as the Twentieth Century. The President of the United States should be directly elected by the American people. The idea that a candidate can win the popular vote, but not the presidency, is a democratic outrage. That it has persisted well into the Twenty-First Century confirms that the ruling elites’ contempt for “We the People” remains every bit as strong as it was in the Eighteenth.

The Supreme Court of the United States offers additional proof of how little faith the dominant factions of both parties are prepared to repose in the judgement of the people. That nine men and women, appointed for life, have the power to strike down any and every legislative initiative deemed inimical to the elite interests responsible for their appointment, cannot be deemed acceptable by any democracy worthy of the name. Unelected judges should never be empowered to strike down the laws of elected legislators. Constitutional principles are far too important to be left to the judiciary.

The endurance of these and many other anti-democratic features of the US Constitution raises the possibility that Howard Dean’s arrogant response to the Biden-Trump debate, while outrageous, may not, in fact, be ill-judged. If the Constitution’s glaring affronts to democratic principles have yet to engender a nationwide movement for its revision, then perhaps Dean’s faith in the public’s willingness to disbelieve the evidence of their own eyes is not as cynical as it appears.

For more than 200 years the American people have been encouraged to look upon their republic as “a shining city set upon a hill” – the exemplar from which all the other peoples of the world can draw inspiration. America’s Founding Fathers, far from being the landed gentlemen, slave-owners, soldiers, merchants, and lawyers which history confirms them to have been; men inspired by high ideals, but also heavily constrained by the exigencies of practical politics; are instead presented to posterity as intellectual and moral titans. They have become the USA’s tutelary deities: impervious to error; incapable of sin.

The horrors perpetrated by these heroes and their successors may be acknowledged, albeit reluctantly, by educated Americans, but only if presented to them as unconnected aberrations. All attempts to present such crimes as a feature, not a bug, of the USA’s historical evolution are fiercely resisted. Columbia, America’s symbolic colossus, her liberating lamp held high, strides resolutely to meet America’s future. Only the most impious attempt to direct the world’s attention to the blood, bones and gore besmearing the soles of the gigantic goddess’s feet.

Truly, it is easier to believe in the comforting myth than the disturbing reality. What Americans saw on 27 June was their President, a frail old man, alone on stage, unsupported by notes and advisers, made suddenly aware that he could not gather together enough of his wits to contradict the greatest charlatan ever to occupy the White House.

“This cannot be real life!”, protested The Daily Show’s John Stewart, his voice overloading with incredulous anger and grief. “It can’t! Fuck! This is America!”

It was by far the best comment of an overwhelming night. America was staring, horror-struck, at its very own picture of Dorian Grey.

By the morning after the morning after, however, America had turned away. “Joe” was back, socking it to ‘em in North Caolina. Teleprompter firmly in place, supplying the President with the words, facts and ideas that had been so evidently AWOL 48 hours earlier. God knows who’s actually running America: Biden’s speechwriters? Democratic Party muckety-mucks? The First Lady?

Howard Dean’s great insight, shared with CNN, is that while God may know who’s running the show, America doesn’t want to. Confronted with the choice of recommitting themselves to the myth of Joe Biden, or believing the evidence of their own eyes, those Americans not already committed to Donald Trump will reach out instinctively for the President they wish they had – blind to the President they have got.

This essay was originally posted on the website on Monday, 1 July 2024.

Has Progressivism Peaked?

Let’s Go Crazy! AOC (Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez) rarks-up the voters of New York’s 16th Congressional District.

HAVE WE MOVED past peak progressivism? Across the planet, there are signs that the surge of support for left-wing causes and personalities, exemplified by the election of the democratic socialist Alexandria Ocasio Cortez (AOC) to the US House of Representatives in 2018, is fast losing momentum.

In the recent elections for the European Parliament, for example, the Green contingent shrunk from just under 60 MEPs to just over 40 – a drop of nearly 25 percent. Green economics would appear to be an acquired taste.

Then, less than 48 hours ago (25/6/24) there came another straw in the wind. Jamaal Bowman, a member of the so-called “Squad” of left-wing legislators who followed AOC into the House, was trounced in his Democratic Party’s primary election for New York’s 16th Congressional District, by George Latimer, a moderate backed by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC). Bowman had been an outspoken supporter of the Palestinian cause. Keffiyehs, it would seem, cost votes.

It gets worse. As the United Kingdom counts down the days to its General Election on 4 July, electors are confronted by a Conservative Party straining to hold its position on the centre ground against powerful forces (led by Brexiteer Nigel Farage’s Reform Party) urging its supporters to move further right; while the Labour Party, with a 20-point lead in the polls, has spent the last five years emptying its ranks of the left-wingers who delivered Labour’s leadership to Jeremy Corbyn in 2015.

Now, it is always possible that Labour’s leader, Sir Keir Starmer, may prove to be another Clement Atlee – the Leader of the Opposition Winston Churchill described as “a modest little man, with much to be modest about” – and gobsmack the world by unleashing a second socialist transformation of the United Kingdom, but that is not an outcome upon which even a British MP would place a bet!

Not that the centrist political space is anything like as comfortable as it used to be. In France, where the centrism of President Emmanuel Macron has held sway since the implosion of the French Left in 2017, there is now a good chance that the right-wing populist “National Rally” of Marine Le Pen and Jordan Bardella will soon command at least a plurality (and maybe even a majority) of seats in the French National Assembly.

By calling a snap parliamentary election, Macron hopes to see moderate and radical France unite to repudiate the National Rally’s spectacular gains in the elections for the European Parliament. But, France shows little sign of wanting to be reasonable. Not this time. “Marianne” is in one of her moods.

The most compelling visual example of the progressive Left’s fatal failure to fire, however, is the extraordinary rally organised in support of Jamaal Bowman’s doomed candidacy by AOC herself. Bouncing around the stage like a cheerleader on speed, as if she could roll back the influence of Latimer’s $25 million spend on television and social media attack ads through sheer physical exertion, Cortez, in her radical manqué phase, became the unwitting poster-girl of a political movement floating on an ebbing tide.

As is so often the case, New Zealand anticipated the world’s direction of travel by several months – if not years. Jacinda Ardern became our very own AOC a whole year before the abbreviation was coined. And, if one is looking for surges, no party anywhere in the democratic world has yet delivered a progressive result as decisive as Labour’s 2020 election win. (Always assuming one can call the Covid-19 pandemic “progressive”.)

But, well ahead of their peers once again, New Zealanders have learned the dispiriting difference between what political progressives are winningly quick to promise, and what they are then unwilling and/or unable to deliver. New Zealanders have also learned how little stock progressives place in even the plainest evidence that the policies they have managed to deliver are both unwanted and unpopular.

The triumph of Brexit and Trump in 2016 was all the evidence progressives, worldwide, needed that the masses could not be trusted to make the right decisions. Left to themselves, the progressives reasoned, ordinary voters will likely opt for policies and politicians that are racist, sexist, transphobic, destructive of the environment, and generally hostile to everything the progressive movement stands for.

What progressives could not work out, however, was what to do and where to go with this depressing estimation of their fellow citizens. Trying to impose unwanted and unpopular policies on a majority of the population, in a democracy, can mean only one thing: your party is going to lose. Attempting to do so by stealth, subterfuge and misrepresentation, no matter how tempting, merely guarantees that your party loss will be even more painful.

But if progressives have left the voters infuriated, and determined to be rid of them, then the formula for getting rid of deficient progressive policies, without being landed with a whole set of even more deficient conservative policies by the right-wing parties elected to replace the offending lefties, remains elusive.

It would, of course, be extraordinarily beneficial for Labour and the Greens to devote their energies to discovering a formula of this sort. Certainly, it would hasten their return to the Treasury Benches. Sadly, convinced of their rectitude, progressive politicians and activists would condemn such a quest as a betrayal. And it is this unwillingness to abandon their ideological positions (an unwillingness shared by their equally uncompromising opponents on the right) that explains the electorate’s falling out of love with progressive politics.

It is also the explanation for the evident global appeal of populist parties of both the left and the right. They have embraced the idea that hardline, ideologically-driven progressives and conservatives consistently refuse to accept. That democracy means giving the people what they want; or, at least, what a skilled populist politician is able to convince a majority of the people is what they think they want.

This is, of course, a trick that only a politician who is willing to listen to the people can pull off. But, as luck would have it, that is exactly the sort of politician most of the people are looking for.

This essay was originally posted on The Democracy Project substack on Friday, 28 June 2024.

Sunday 30 June 2024

The Buggers Who Complain.

Problem Solved? When all other options are exhausted, the firing squad remains. As Joseph Stalin is said to have declared: Eliminate the person, eliminate the problem.

THE BEST GUESS I can offer as to the author of the line is William Brandt. He wrote scripts for the 1990s New Zealand television crime series “Duggan”, starring John Bach as an introverted police inspector brooding morosely over the Marlborough Sounds. What was the line? As I recall, it was put in the mouth of an ageing communist, who had reduced his entire ideology to one brutal sentence: “Nationalise everything – and shoot the buggers who complain!”

As an honest summation of the Soviet Union under Joseph Stalin, that line (whoever wrote it) is pretty hard to beat. Indeed, anyone who seriously proposes socialism as a solution to the world’s woes is being disingenuous if they suggest that the Red Dawn, should it ever arrive, will be the product of anything other than crushing centralised control and many, many, executions.

The problem is that it is difficult to present a society in which the local hairdressing salon has 150 chairs, and where critics of the government regularly disappear, as the sort of country in which anybody with a yearning to breathe free, or wear a striking hair style, would ever want to live.

If you’re a socialist living in a liberal democracy, the problem is compounded ten-fold. In those circumstances, the socialist paradise that must be painted has to strike one’s audience as appreciably better than the capitalist economy they currently inhabit. How is the orthodox comrade supposed to answer when asked: “Why would we trade games-consoles and Gucci fashion accessories for the guns and gulags of totalitarian communism?”

Not honestly, for a start. Or, at least, not when you’re addressing anyone who isn’t already so far ground down by the cruelties of capitalism that “guns and gulags” present themselves as intriguing possibilities.

For everyone else, the party line is simple. Guns and gulags are the inevitable outcome of revolutions that take place in under-developed peasant societies where freedom and prosperity have, for centuries, been the stuff of dreams. Socialist revolutions in advanced capitalist societies could only be expected in the most evolved democratic states. What need would the “democratic socialists” growing up in such states have of guns and gulags? Who needs the grim instrumentation of coercion when one’s society is already blessed with a modern and “progressive” education system?

Ah, “Education” – the answer to every problem. Whenever I queried my left-wing comrades about the fate of “the buggers who complain”, a steely glint would, for the briefest of moments, enter their eyes (as if they were picturing the people’s firing-squads in action) only to be followed, just as quickly, by an expression of kindly warmth.

“What would people have to complain about in a society where, thanks to an education system dedicated to undermining the hegemony of all oppressive structures, social justice can flow down like streams from the mountains?”

Such faith in the power of pedagogy! How proudly these comrades would describe their future Commonwealth of Unanimity, in which all accept the truths of socialism, and where teaching is the most revered profession.

And those issues which have always divided humanity: the limits of freedom; the morality of coercion; the inviolability of the individual human conscience; the sanctity of human life; the claims of the divine. How would our kindly socialist teachers prevent these profound questions from tearing their treasured Commonwealth of Unanimity apart?

Not an original question. And their answers were also lacking in novelty. Any failings in the process of eliminating the systems of oppression would have to be rectified by re-education.

And that is where the socialists’ castle in the air begins to disintegrate. Because that word, “re-education”, so often paired with “camp”, cannot help but draw a veil of darkening clouds across the future’s bright sky.

Ask the Uighurs of Xinjiang about the perils of “rectification through re-education”. Ask them about the high-rise complexes in which the tens-of-thousands giving incorrect answers to socialist questions are required to submit themselves to the pedagogy of raw political power. Day after day, week after week, until the lessons are mastered, and the rectified Uighur students are released into the warm embrace of the Peoples Republic’s agreed answers.

And the ones who refuse to submit to this nationalisation of their conscience? The buggers who keep complaining?

We all know the answer to that question.

They are shot.

This essay was originally published in The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 21 June 2024.

Monday 24 June 2024

The Left’s Joyous Cherub: Keith Locke, 1944 - 2024.

The Struggle Continues: Keith Locke belonged to a generation that still believed in a world that could be, through struggle, relieved of its chains. That struggle constituted the core of a life lived with purpose, courage and determination. 

MANY NEW ZEALANDERS would, no doubt, have been surprised to discover that Keith Locke was 80 years old. There was always something of the cherub about the man which generally prompted guesses well south of his actual age. That youthfulness could also be applied to his ideals, which never soured with the passing of the years. Certainly, he reached the age of 80 without losing either his heart or his head. Indeed, there was a joyous naiveté about the man who finally succumbed to the twin ravages of Parkinson’s and Cancer on Friday, 21 June 2024.

Locke was what the Americans, rather unkindly, call a “red diaper baby”. The son of confirmed socialists Jack and Elsie Locke. That being the case, Locke had only two “historical” choices: to follow in his parent’s ideological footsteps, or execute an about-face and become a fierce champion of capitalism. It no doubt came as an immense relief to Jack and Elsie that their son not only kept the left-wing faith, but became (along with his sister Maire Leadbeater) one of its leading New Zealand missionaries.

It is telling, however, that when he returned from tertiary study in Canada to take up a lectureship in sociology at Victoria University in 1970, Locke declined to devote himself to either of the orthodox communist parties then operating in New Zealand.

When Moscow and Beijing parted ideological company in the “Sino-Soviet Split” of 1962, New Zealand and Albania were the only communist parties which sided with Mao Zedong and the Communist Party of China. After much internal wrangling, Moscow’s loyalists finally broke away to form the Socialist Unity Party in 1966.

Given that the SUP had all the flair and pep of a Soviet stamp-collectors congress, and the CPNZ’s ultra-leftism made Mao’s Red Guards look like Labour Youth, Locke’s decision to throw in his lot with the Trotskyites of the Socialist Action League (SAL) is entirely understandable.

Leon Trotsky, alongside Lenin himself, was indisputably the most able of the Bolshevik revolutionaries. His upper-class background, however, proved problematic. In a party increasingly composed of hard-bitten working-class battlers, Trotsky’s ostentatious love of “bourgeois” culture raised more than a few comrades’ hackles. Anyone who read French novels during meetings of the Central Committee was asking for trouble – which duly followed him into exile, and caught up with him in Mexico City where, in 1940, he met his death at the hands of an ice-pick-wielding Soviet assassin.

Was there ever any historical figure better suited to attracting the allegiance of middle-class rebels than this cinematic combination of dazzling intellectual, ruthless revolutionary, and sensitive reader of French literature? As the crimes of Stalinism became increasingly obvious, the global appeal of Trotsky – the man who should have succeeded Lenin – grew and grew. Although most of them will be quite unaware of the fact, whenever any politician consigns their political adversaries to “the dustbin of history” they are quoting Trotsky.

Trotskyism certainly found a loyal follower in Locke who, as editor of its newspaper Socialist Action, soon became one of the SAL’s key figures. It was in this role that Locke was to provide future opponents with statements that were, to say the least, embarrassing.

His too-early celebration of the Khmer Rouge’s takeover of Cambodia was to strike him again and again, like an avenging ideological boomerang, throughout his years as a Green Party Member of Parliament. While it is true that he didn’t know about Pol Pot’s killing fields when he wrote his celebratory articles – he should have guessed.

Locke’s naiveté was again in evidence following the Iranian Revolution of 1979, which Locke hailed as a victory for the Iranian working-class and its communist cadres. History would render a very different judgement – as would the Ayatollah Khomeini and his legions of deeply conservative Shite Muslim “revolutionary guards”, who never saw a crane that could not be improved by hanging an Iranian leftist from its hook.

Locke’s sojourn in the SAL proved personally costly in other ways. Like so many of his comrades, Locke allowed himself to be buried alive in the bowels of industrial capitalism. This “turn” to the New Zealand working-class involved men and women with impressive academic credentials – Locke had an MA from the University of Alberta and and was working toward a PhD in Sociology at Toronto when he returned to become a lecturer at Victoria – taking the jobs of honest workers in the car plants and freezing works of the nation.

Perhaps this “turn” was inspired by the sneering contempt in which the “bourgeois intellectual Trots” were held by their Maoist and Muscovite competitors. Nowhere is this scorn better captured than in “Socialist Action”, an excoriating parody of Peter Cape’s satirical ditty “Taumarunui – On the Main Trunk Line”. The Maoist bard was merciless:

They run the revolution
From the student union hall.
We’re down here on the picket-line
And we don’t see them at all.
They bring around a pamphlet
Maybe once or twice a year,
Saying ‘Forget about your wage demands,
You’re better off being queer.’

What is clear is that Locke, after 15 years in the SAL, many of them devoted to assembling cars and disassembling sheep, was ready for something else. He threw himself into international causes and became the proprietor of One World Books in Auckland’s Karangahape Road. But, if he remained hopeful of revolution breaking out overseas, Locke had finally reconciled himself to the fact that the only leftists who were going anywhere politically in New Zealand were those prepared to follow the “parliamentary road”.

Locke joined Jim Anderton’s NewLabour Party in 1989 and was quickly elected to the roles of foreign affairs and defence spokesperson. He could not, however, overcome Anderton’s ingrained suspicion of any NLP member further to the left than he was. Some up-and-comers Anderton had to endure – like Laila Harre and Locke’s old SAL comrade, Matt Robson – but at Locke, himself, the Alliance leader drew the line. Anderton was not prepared to ease him into Parliament. At Number 24 on the 1996 Alliance Party List there was little chance of that.

Locke’s chance came when the Greens decided to part company with Anderton’s Alliance in 1997. Alongside the former Maoist, Sue Bradford, the former Trot, Locke, secured himself one of the top seven slots on the Green Party List. If the party crossed the magic 5 percent MMP threshold, then this former lecturer, editor, car-assembler, freezing-worker, and bookseller would do what the spooks who had contributed so generously to his bulging SIS file believed to be impossible – enter the New Zealand House of Representatives.

Locke would serve four terms as a Green MP, acquitting himself impressively as the Party’s foreign affairs spokesperson. Few New Zealanders outside the circles of the more-than-rhetorical Left have any real appreciation of how steeped its members are in the great causes of their time. To a degree that would put most Labour, National, Act and NZ First MPs to shame, Locke was able to discourse knowledgably on every one of the many international issues for which he was expected to articulate the Greens’ position.

Locke departed Parliament in 2011, the same year as Phil Goff, whom he’d first encountered as a young left-wing firebrand back in the early 1970s. In sharp contrast to Goff, Locke kept the socialist faith right through, but, that said, both men almost certainly left Parliament at the right time. Because neither of them were truly ready for the changes that were, even in 2011, transforming the New Zealand Left – including Labour and the Greens. Locke was a good communist, and a passable eco-socialist, but he was not “woke”. His retirement was shrewdly calculated.

The contemporary New Zealand Left is many things, but “joyous” isn’t one of them. Locke belonged to a generation that still believed in a world that could be, through struggle, relieved of its chains. That struggle constituted the core of a life lived with purpose, courage and determination. At times, Keith Locke could be naïve, but he was never cruel. Even as the afflictions that claimed him wore down his body, he remained a gentle left-wing cherub. Aware of the darkness in the human soul, but always walking hopefully towards the light.

This essay/obituary was originally posted on the website on Monday, 24 June 2024.

Sunday 23 June 2024

The Realm Of The Possible.

The People’s House: What would it be like to live in a country where a single sermon could prick the conscience of the comfortable? Where a journalist could rouse a whole city to action? Where the government could be made to respond to the people’s concerns? Where real change was possible? And we could make it.

IN A YEAR of important elections, some already held, some yet to come, one common factor has become very clear. The ideological shift that rescued mainstream political parties from the seemingly endless crises of the 1970s has, in the intervening decades, become a serious electoral liability.

Neoliberalism may have provided the political mainstream with the circuit-breaker it was looking for in the 1970s and 80s, and its success in burying the social-democratic orthodoxy of the post-war era may have provided mainstream politicians with a field cleared of credible opponents, but the problems its adoption was supposed to solve have not disappeared. Indeed, many have grown.

Certainly, forty years on from the Snap Election of 1984 and the neoliberal revolution it ushered in, New Zealand’s mainstream parties stand in urgent need of a new circuit-breaker. If a tsunami of radical populism is not to roll over the centre ground, then a new set of answers is required to the key questions of democratic politics: “What is possible – and what is not?”

Since the late-1980s, for example, nationalisation, or even significant public ownership of key infrastructure and services, has been rejected outright as politically impossible, or been characterised with some asperity as the least effective alternative to untrammelled private ownership. At virtually every level of government, and regardless of the manifest severity of key infrastructural failures, both legislators and administrators continue to shy away from the most obvious and financially rational solutions.

Since the state is far ahead of all other borrowers in terms of how much it can borrow and at what cost, it makes obvious sense for it to take over New Zealand’s “three waters” and carry out the necessary upgrading and extension projects that long ago exceeded the ability of local authorities to finance. Cost recovery could be negotiated with the local government sector over a period of sufficient length to render it fiscally bearable. Easy-peasy?

Apparently not. That the option of straightforward nationalisation was never considered seriously by either Labour or National bears testimony to the remarkable persistence of the neoliberal vision. Even in the United Kingdom, where the privatisation of water is an accomplished fact, the abject failure of the experiment – as attested to by the open sewers that were England’s rivers and streams – has been insufficient to make nationalisation the preferred option of anybody except the voting public.

Restoring the organised working-class as one of the great “estates” of the realm has similarly been dismissed as impossible by the neoliberal clerisy. Their reticence on this subject is understandable, since it was the growing power of the trade unions in the advanced capitalist states of the 1960s and 70s – especially their real or potential influence over the major parties of the Centre-Left – that made the identification and introduction of an ideological circuit-breaker so urgent.

New Zealand’s destruction of organised labour in the early 1990s was of a thoroughness unequalled in the democratic West. Over a period of 30 years, union density declined from just under half the workforce to less than 10 percent. Take out the unions representing teachers, nurses, salaried medical specialists and public servants, and the percentage of private-sector workers enrolled in trade unions shrinks away to something not much better than nothing.

Except that, as is so often the case with the neoliberal “reforms” of the past 40 years, the cure for the apprehended “socialist” disease has proved to be worse than the complaint. The elimination of union power removed one of the most powerful drivers of productivity. By making it possible for employers to keep wages low, investment in more efficient plant and machinery, and the uplifting of employee skill levels, could be more-or-less permanently deferred.

The consequences of making it possible for businesses to ‘live’ with low productivity are clearly illustrated in the widening gulf between wage levels in New Zealand and Australia. That this differential (upwards of 30 percent) acts as a powerful magnet for what skilled workers New Zealand has left, not only strips the country of the people best placed to lift its productivity, but also entrenches its status as a low-skill, low-wage economy. The downward spiral becomes self-reinforcing.

The stripping-out of New Zealand’s manufacturing base, justified by the neoliberals’ unbreakable attachment to the Eighteenth Century economic doctrine of “comparative advantage”, may have offset the effects of declining real wages by lowering the price of manufactured goods, but it also robbed the New Zealand working-class of the pride and dignity that attaches to those who make real things in the real world. Emptying container-loads of manufactured imports is a poor substitute for the satisfaction derived from participating in their creation.

Allowing your best and brightest workers to seek a better life elsewhere, while allowing the self-esteem and skill levels of those who remain to fall in unison, is a recipe for socio-economic polarisation. It encourages those positioned higher on the socio-economic ladder to look down on those below them – a disdain which is all too easily translated into self-reproach and self-loathing by those so regarded. Just because the comfortably positioned in the social hierarchy do not have to endure the hidden injuries of class does not make them any less real.

New Zealand was once a society in which the exploitation of citizens was deemed unacceptable. The most dramatic illustration of this determination to be a nation in which few were rich and none were poor may be found in the story of Dunedin’s “sweated” tailoresses – women and girls paid starvation wages for sewing garments all day and late into the night.

An 1888 sermon, “The Sin of Cheapness”, penned and delivered by local clergymen, the Rev. Rutherford Waddell, inspired a local journalist to take up the tailoresses’ cause in The Otago Daily Times. At a public meeting the following year middle-class and working-class activists, acting together, decided to form the Tailoresses Union. In 1890, the New Zealand Government felt sufficiently pressured to set up a Royal Commission of Inquiry into “sweated labour”. Legislation followed.

Harriet Morrison of the newly formed Tailoresses Union attacks the monstrous practice of sweated labour in this New Zealand Observer cartoon of 1892.

A Christian preacher, a crusading journalist, a conscience-stricken middle-class, an energised working-class, New Zealand’s first union for women, a Royal Commission, legislative reform, socio-economic change. In 1888, all these factors contributed to defining the realm of the possible in New Zealand.

It was precisely to reduce the constantly expanding scope of what was considered possible, and to address the radical implications of such expansion for the social and economic future of the nation, that persuaded so many powerfully placed New Zealanders to unleash the neoliberal revolution of 1984-1993.

Few would argue that they did not succeed in lowering Kiwis’ expectations of what their society, their government, and they, themselves, were capable of achieving. This shrugging-off of what were depicted as excessively onerous collective responsibilities made it much easier to believe that individual success had been made correspondingly easier, and that individual failure, while regrettable, was no longer society’s business.

But, forty years on, are we really better off for living in a political environment where so little is considered achievable? What would it be like to live in a country where a single sermon could prick the conscience of the comfortable? Where a journalist could rouse a whole city to action? Where the government could be made to respond to the people’s concerns. Where real change was possible?

And we could make it.

This essay was originally posted on the website on Monday, 17 June 2024.