Wednesday, 31 December 2008

Debating Social Democracy

No self-respecting human individual, of any class, responds well to the notion that he or she is like one of those faceless workers surging jerkily across the screen in a black-and-white newsreel from the 1920s; just another soulless cog in Marx’s irresistible historical juggernaut.

THERE is a huge difference between believing in something and making it happen.

So often, on the Left, we tie ourselves up in knots arguing about the principles and programmes we should believe in, and expend far too little effort turning those principles and programmes into real-world achievements.

Karl Marx, as usual, put it best when he wrote: "Philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point is to change it."

In the debate sparked by my Dominion Post "From the Left’ column of 12 December (see here, here, here, here, and here) my opponents have concentrated on what they consider to be the most important errors in my contention that the Labour Party is, as Quentin Findlay so succinctly puts it: "the only game in town".

Labour, they argue, no longer subscribes to the social-democratic ideology (or, at least, not in the way any "genuine" social-democrat would define the term). That being the case, they contend, Labour will never introduce the sort of legislative and/or regulatory initiatives required to eliminate social and economic injustice.

From both a strategic and a tactical perspective, insists the non-Labour Left, it is imperative to constitute an independent electoral force to Labour’s left – from which position the social-democrats can be "persuaded" to embrace a more radical policy agenda. The model they point to for historical vindication of this strategy is the Alliance.

It is important to take a few moments here to review the historical explanation for this idea that the prospects for a socialist transformation of capitalist society can be enhanced by multiplying the political instruments required for its accomplishment. A strategy which, on the face of it, appears to contradict the first rule of effective politics: in unity there is strength.

It originated, of course, in the triumph of nationalism over socialist internationalism occasioned by the outbreak of the First World War. Since the turn of the 19th Century, socialists parties around the world had pledged themselves to peace. Should an imperialist war break out, the proper response of the socialists in every country was to call a general strike. Rather than make imperialist war on their brothers, the working class was supposed to declare class war on their bosses.

That’s not what happened, of course. Confronted with what they saw as the unprovoked aggression of their neighbours, overwhelming majorities in all the working class parties of the belligerent powers voted in favour of supplying their respective governments with the necessary funds for waging war. Patriotism easily trumped the much vaunted, though seldom demonstrated, solidarity of the 2nd Socialist International.

Even so, the outbreak of socialist revolutions, in Russia, in February of 1917, and Germany, in November 1918, encouraged the minority of socialists who had voted against the war to break decisively from those majorities which still aligned themselves with the nation’s cause and supported its core institutions. The triumphant Russian Bolsheviks formalised this split in the world socialist movement by announcing the formation of a Third "Communist" International – the Comintern.

Thus was the international working-class divided into two, mutually antagonistic factions: the social-democratic "reformists" versus the "revolutionary" communists. By restricting membership of the Comintern to Moscow-approved Communist parties, and by employing state-of-the-art propaganda techniques, the Bolshevik’s highly centralised mode of organisation and revolutionary dogma soon came to dominate, if not the international proletariat, then at least the international intelligentsia.

It represented a crippling (and, in the case of inter-war Germany, a deadly) bifurcation of proletarian effort which was to last as long as "actually existing socialism" itself. Indeed, with the Sino-Soviet split of the early-1960s and the rise of the "New Left" a few years later, one could almost say the international socialist movement was spoiled by choice!

In the context of our original theme of political efficacy, to which we now return, the bifurcation of the socialist movement has had an equally pernicious effect. Constrained by its adherence to democratic principles, the reformers of the labour and social-democratic parties could not point to practical achievements on the scale of the totalitarian Soviet Union. In the midst of the Great Depression, the oft-repeated cry "There’s no unemployment in Russia!" carried a lot of weight. Not as much, however, as the social-democrats’ counter-cry "And no freedom either!"

"Nationalise everything, and shoot the buggers who complain" (as one New Zealand playwright wittily summarised Stalinism) may have got things done – but only at the cost of extinguishing those indispensable solidaristic and emancipatory impulses from which socialism draws its moral authority and political momentum.

As Rosa Luxemburg put it in her famous essay on the Russian Revolution: "Without universal elections, an unlimited freedom of the press and of assembly, and free contest of ideas, the life in every public institution dies down, turns into a pseudo-life in which the bureaucracy remains the only active element… a dictatorship indeed, but not the dictatorship of the proletariat but rather the dictatorship of a handful of politicians."

It is one of the besetting sins of the revolutionary Left that they massively and consistently under-rate the opprobrium in which working people hold socialism and communism (by which they almost always mean Stalinism and/or Maoism). No self-respecting human individual, of any class, responds well to the notion that he or she is like one of those faceless workers surging jerkily across the screen in a black-and-white newsreel from the 1920s; just another soulless cog in Marx’s irresistible historical juggernaut. Like everybody else, working people resent being taken for granted and told what to do. They like to be asked.

They also prefer to be led in directions they actually want to travel – a truth turned into a memorable political aphorism by Jim Anderton, when, many years ago, he advised a group of impatient young firebrands in Labour Youth to: "Build your footpaths where the people walk."

As democratic socialists, we should be striving to achieve "emotional congruence" with working people. Our political messages should map, as closely as possible, the way people are feeling about the problems and challenges that beset them. In my experience, there is only one sure way to do this, and that is through much informal discussion and a great many formal debates. And the only places this can be done effectively is in what remains of the mass organisations of the New Zealand working class: the trade unions and the Labour Party.

Don’t misunderstand me, developing emotional congruence is not the same as mastering the dark arts of political populism. The populist politician works with the feelings he, or others, have already found or implanted in their audiences, shaping people to a template only partly of their own devising. The populist plays upon, validates and exploits his audience’s anxieties, he does not attempt to investigate, challenge or inform them.

The most important strategic task those who seek to rehabilitate and revivify socialism in New Zealand could undertake in 2009 would be the task of massively expanding the opportunities for discussion and debate within the trade union movement and the Labour Party. The failure of both these institutions in 2008 reflected their woeful inability to ensure that there was an emotional congruence between the ideas, practices and policies of their respective leaders, and the hopes, fears and aspirations of their respective members and supporters.

Expanding that space will not be easy, and it will meet with resistance – probably from the very moment it is attempted. But there is a very good reason for that. What happens in the unions and the Labour Party matters.

Oliver Woods describes with some feeling the harsh treatment which was meted out to him and his comrades at the Princes Street Branch of the Labour Party – comparing it to the treachery of my own Castle Street Branch in the 1980s. All true, Oliver, but predictable as well, because some of the most influential Labour Party politicians of the past forty years have come out of those branches. You should never be surprised by the ferocity with which the designated gate-keepers guard the entrances to genuine political power. Learning how to get past them is an indispensable part of the process of becoming politically effective.

Steve Cowan, by way of contrast, regards this process as one in which people like myself are required to place themselves in an insoluble contradiction. On the one hand we want to be effective progressives, but, on the other, we want to be supporters of the Labour Party. You can be one or the other, says Steve, but you can’t be both. From my perspective, however, the most debilitating contradiction afflicting the contemporary New Zealand Left is the one which sees activists desperately trying to become politically effective while, simultaneously, refusing to make the ideological and moral compromises political effectiveness inevitably entails. To paraphrase Steve, you can do one, or you can do the other, but you can’t do both.

This lack of political realism is even more evident in the Workers’ Party’s commentary. Don Franks seems to believe that Labour’s failure to correct all the evils and injustices of 21st Century capitalism is driven by a combination of old-fashioned political treachery and unforgivable moral cowardice.

If the capitalist system were a static and non-responsive entity such a charge might carry conviction, but, as every sensible socialist understands, capitalism is one of humanity’s most dynamic, adaptive and ruthlessly responsive creations.

To satisfy Don, Labour would have to have launched a full-scale assault upon the neo-liberal edifice erected by Roger Douglas and Ruth Richardson in the late-1980s and early-1990s. But such a strategy, as he well knows, would have been tantamount to sounding the revolutionary tocsin - and at a moment in their history when all that New Zealanders wanted from their government was a respite from sudden and wrenching social and economic change.

Those parts of the capitalist system materially unaffected by a political party's temporary command of a parliamentary majority – the Armed Forces, the Police, the Judiciary, the Civil Service, employer organisations and the news media – would have made short work of such a foolhardy challenge.

Ultimately, all Don and the Workers’ Party seem able to offer the Left is the counsel of perfection – both for political parties and individuals. Don’s quite unnecessarily disparaging and inaccurate comments in regard to myself offer the best proof I can think of why artists should never attempt to become politicians. Don Franks the singer-songwriter, whose lyrics sparkle with wit and insight, delivers much more in the way of political wisdom to the Left than Don Franks the dour and unforgiving Maoist of the blogosphere and letters-to-the-editor columns.

The picture which emerges at the conclusion of this very interesting debate is at once depressing and encouraging. Depressing, because so much intellect and energy is being wasted on left-wing political projects that will, in the end, be extremely lucky to leave the slightest mark upon New Zealand history. Encouraging, because so much political talent still exists in this country. Directed towards achievable ends, that talent could make a real and lasting difference.

If, instead of by turns praising and lambasting one another in the splendid isolation of the blogosphere, or at conferences attended by nobody apart from the usual suspects, the revolutionary "philosophers" of the Left were willing, for just three years, to put to one side their fiery principles, and devote the many and considerable skills they undoubtedly possess to developing a much higher degree of emotional congruence between the leadership and the rank-and-file of the New Zealand labour movement, they might be surprised at how much of the world they could change.

As a wise old social-democratic parliamentarian from Switzerland told me at the Otago Foreign Policy School in May of this year:

"The democracy is in the discussion."

Wednesday, 24 December 2008

The Calculus of Kingship

The flight into Egypt.

THE sky darkens – again.

Can God be so displeased with the works of Herod the Great? Has he not rebuilt the Temple? Does its splendour not put even Solomon’s work to shame?

And has he not brought peace to Judea? Why should peace count for so little? Judea is small in the eyes of Rome, but Rome looms large in the eyes of Judea’s king. What the Roman Senate can make, the Roman Senate can break.

These stiff-necked Jews! Why can they not accept that their fate is to be ruled by others? Would it hurt them so much to acknowledge Caesar’s divinity? What harm could it do?

A stiff-necked people – and a stiff-necked God. So jealous – so easily offended.

He who, for the second time, darkens the face of the Moon.

It all began with those three Parthian wizards. Yes, it was they who began it. As if I didn’t have enough trouble on my hands, they came before the throne – my throne, mark you – seeking to know where they might find the Christ: "For we have seen his star in the east, and are come to worship him."

The Christ! The "anointed one"!

They had the temerity to ask me – Herod the Great, King of the Jews by order of the Senate and People of Rome – where they should seek for the "King of the Jews".

It crossed my mind to have them executed on the spot. But the Parthians rule a mighty empire, and are not to be offended needlessly. So I hid my anger, and put on the countenance of a devout and benevolent ruler – bidding the Temple priests and guardians of the Law to give the Magi answer.

"In Bethlehem of Judea," they replied, "for so it is written by the prophet: ‘And thou Bethlehem, in the land of Juda, art not the least among the princes of Juda: for out of thee shall come a Governor, that shall rule my people Israel.’"

Rule my people? What unutterable folly! As if Rome would permit anyone it had not chosen to rule over its own client kingdom. I pity the man unfortunate enough to be proclaimed King by these credulous fools. The Romans would have him nailed to a cross before you could say "Hosanna!"

But, once again, I hid my wrath and drew the Parthians aside. "Follow your star to Bethlehem," I said, "search diligently for the young child: and when you have found him, bring me word again, that I may come and worship him also."

They assured me they would do so. Fool! For wizards they were, and they read my thoughts as easily as if they were written on parchment. They knew that the real King of the Jews would never suffer such a prodigy to live.

Some rough peasant’s child, born under a wayward star? That’s just the sort of event that encourages the most dangerous political dreamers, and sends every village rabbi scurrying for scriptural confirmation that, at last, the Messiah has come among his people.

So I did what I had to do – what any ruler worthy of the name would have done. When the Parthians failed to return, and the first mad rumours of stables and angels reached my ears, I sent my men-at-arms to Bethlehem … and they did what had to be done.

It was less than three-dozen little boys. The Captain of the Guard put the tally at thirty-three. Not such a crime – not really. Not when you consider how many little boys would have ended up being run through by Roman swords if this "holy child" had been allowed to reach manhood.

Thirty-three little boys to save thirty-three thousand. Such is the calculus of kingship.

If you would rule men, then you must first learn to kill children.

And live with nightmares.

Oh yes, I see them in my dreams. Hear their screams. See the faces of their stricken mothers.

All save one. She recedes from me, south into the desert. Beneath a blazing star, she lifts up her living son – and his face is shining.

Historical Note: In 4BC – the year traditionally associated with the birth of Jesus Christ – Herod the Great of Judea mysteriously fell victim to the excruciating medical condition known as Fournier’s gangrene. He died in a matter of hours.
This short story was first published in The Dominion Post of 21st December 2007.
May I wish all the visitors to Bowalley Road a very Merry Christmas.

Sunday, 21 December 2008

Left of Labour, or Bereft of Sense?

Oliver Woods

THE extraordinary success of the Alliance in the 1990s was both a blessing and curse for the New Zealand Left. A blessing, because, by its very existence, the Alliance forced the Labour Party to purge itself of the most dangerous elements of the neo-liberal clique which had seized control of the Parliamentary Labour Party in the 1980s (after which it was able to pressure Helen Clark and her colleagues to return to a more recognizably social-democratic policy course). A curse, because the Alliance’s undoubted (although limited) achievements have convinced individuals and organisations to the left of the Labour Party that the creation of a viable left-wing electoral option to Labour is a viable political project.

A good example of this flawed thinking is contained in this posting by Oliver Woods, the Residents’ Action Movement (RAM) candidate for the seat of Auckland Central in the last election. Joining the debate initiated here by Bryce Edwards, a left-wing political studies lecturer at the University of Otago, and taking strong issue with my response ("You Say You Want A Revolution?" – see below) Oliver writes:

There seems to be a major underlying problem in the post he made. Namely, he has conveniently forgotten his own political background. He omits that he was part of the current of people that quit Labour during the late 1980's because of the party's swing to the extreme libertarian right. He quit Labour because it was no longer a party that helped the working class. Chris was a staunch NewLabour and Alliance Party supporter, remaining true to New Zealand's social democratic tradition.
In a depressingly crude argument, he attacks the Workers Party based on how many votes they received and uses Labour's high votes to illustrate that it is the "true" Workers Party. This is the crass argument of a bully, not Chris' usual intelligent analysis and commentary.
Even more bizarrely for Chris' normally very coherent work, his argument is fundamentally illogical. He manipulates the Alliance into his pro-Labour story. He argues the Alliance's influence on Labour as an argument to prove that Labour is really left wing. Yet he argues that without the Alliance in coalition, Labour would not have followed a pro-worker, left program.
Which leaves me bemused. How can he simultaneously argue that Labour isn't really for the workers, yet really it is?

Well, the first thing to acknowledge is that Oliver is quite correct in identifying the lacunae in my earlier posting. I was wrong to assume so much willing compression of the historical and political narrative concerning Labour and the Alliance on the part of my readers.

Let me remedy that now by making explicit what I mistakenly believed was implicit in the posting: i.e. that the Alliance (and the NLP before it) were born out of, and were, in fact, all about – the Labour Party. What they represented was not a departure from the social-democratic project in New Zealand, but a reaffirmation of its centrality to the nation’s political life.

As I wrote in 2001 (in Ray Miller’s New Zealand Government & Politics):

"With only 8 percent of the 1999 popular vote, the Alliance has made its future utility to Labour highly questionable. If the organisation’s historical task was to act as a transitional vehicle – from the aberration of the 1984-90 Labour Party, to the much more recognisable social democratic force that Helen Clark has fashioned – then surely that task has been accomplished? Its constituent membership notwithstanding, the Alliance’s future may now lie in a more-or-less amicable reabsorption by Labour – the party it devoted so much energy to destroying, and then saved."

There is nothing illogical, therefore, in citing the Alliance as evidence of the futility of attempting to establish an electoral organisation, anchored in the New Zealand working-class, with a programme well to the left of Labour’s. On the contrary, the ultimate fate of the Alliance demonstrates quite conclusively the very real constraints that will inevitably be brought to bear on all those radical social-democrats (not to mention revolutionary socialists) who attempt to extend the boundaries of political praxis beyond what the majority of their own party comrades, their party’s leadership, their coalition partner’s leadership, the capitalist ruling class, and public opinion generally, are willing to tolerate.

The Alliance split over the US invasion of Afghanistan – an issue singularly ill-suited to the purposes of those who wished to boost the Alliance’s dwindling electoral fortunes. And to those who say: "Oh, if it hadn’t been Afghanistan, it would have been something else.", I would only reply: "Well, I wish it had been something else!"

Splitting the Alliance over making the restoration of free tertiary education a non-negotiable element of the 2002 Labour-Alliance coalition agreement, for example, would, at the very least, have offered the prospect of bringing a significant number of the public in behind the radical faction’s demands – thereby applying maximum political pressure to Anderton and Clark.

Dying in a ditch for the Taleban never did strike me as the radical Left’s best way of convincing the Alliance’s 200,000 voters that it was anything other than a collection of self-indulgent, terrorist-appeasing, twits.

I fear Oliver will again accuse me of adopting a bullying tone, but really, what does the radical Left expect? Its blunt refusal to face political realities is not something it is in any left-leaning individual’s interest to ignore. Take Oliver’s own "party" – RAM – as a case in point. Earlier in the year a critic of RAM’s decision to contest the 2008 General Election wrote:

Any attempt by RAM to break into the national political scene will, therefore, almost certainly end in failure. Thousands of person hours, and tens-of-thousands of dollars, will be expended for what, when all the votes have been counted, is likely to be a tally well short of one percent of the Party Vote. Not only will this outcome prove profoundly demoralising for those candidates/activists who participated in the election campaign, but it will also constitute a significant opportunity cost for the Left as a whole – and for the Far Left in particular.

The history of New Zealand elections is studded with examples of Far-Left groups who put their policies to the democratic test and were aggressively rebuffed by the electorate. The consequences of these repeated rejections have been very damaging in at least two important respects.

First: the derisory election results powerfully reinforced the entrenched Centre-Left belief that Far-Left parties have no genuine constituency of any size among the New Zealand population. Centre-Leftists were, therefore, further encouraged to write-off ‘revolutionary’ political aspirants as Quixotic – at best, or dangerous nutcases – at worst.

Second: among the revolutionaries themselves, poor election results powerfully reinforced the argument that the ‘masses’ were suffering from ‘false consciousness’. They – the ‘Genuine Left’ – had seen the issues all-too-clearly, but, up against the lies of the news media, the schools and universities, and the ‘treacherous mis-leaders of the working-class’ the ‘truth’ was unable gain a hearing. This self-pitying attitude only served to widen the distance between the Far- and Centre-Left, and the electorate as a whole.

Sadly, these predictions have all been borne out – practically to the letter. Oliver, in spite of the investment of hundreds of hours, and the expenditure of huge amounts of emotional energy (and, I suspect, a not inconsiderable amount of his own cash) attracted just 132 votes, a figure which, to his credit, was eight times higher than the number of Party Votes cast for RAM in Auckland Central. (Indeed, across the country, RAM managed the extraordinary feat of actually attracting fewer Party Votes (435) than the 500 members required to register it as a political party!)

Oliver, a young comrade of enormous political potential, would be far better engaged in the vital process of building up the growing strength of the progressive forces within the Labour Party. Joining with new MPs like Grant Robertson, Clare Curran and Phil Twyford to develop practical solutions to crucial issues like child poverty, the strengthening of the trade unions, the introduction of a universal student allowance, and the revitalisation of our public broadcasting services.

Men and women of Oliver’s intelligence, erudition and commitment are rare enough in New Zealand politics, without pissing their energies into the wind by cynically involving them in attempts to establish electoral options for the working-class to the left of Labour – a project as bereft of sense as it is lacking in even the remotest possibility of success.

Thursday, 18 December 2008

You Say You Want A Revolution?

Lenin instructs the masses, as Trotsky looks on. Revolution was far too important to be left to ordinary working people.

IT is always a pleasure to respond to the critical writing of left-wing comrades – even when it is my own newspaper columns that are being critiqued!

Bryce Edwards, here, has taken me to task for a series of satirical jibes which I directed at the far-Left in my Dominion Post "From the Left’ column published on Friday 12 December 2008.

What appears to have upset Bryce most about the column was its underlying assumption that in New Zealand the revolutionary Left enjoys (if that is the right word) a reputation for being a motley collection of political Jeremiahs, who delight in the misery of the working class and positively welcome hard economic times on the grounds that such adverse conditions can only "heighten the contradictions" inherent in all capitalist societies and, hence, hasten their demise.

Bryce also takes exception to the other big assumption in my column: that the NZ Labour Party has always enjoyed, and will continue to enjoy, much greater success than the revolutionary Left in attracting mass working-class support - especially during periods of economic hardship.

Like many revolutionary socialists, Bryce regularly condemns the Labour Party for being a "right-wing" and "anti-worker" party.

On the face of it, this is a rather absurd charge. As I pointed out in my column, the Labour Party attracted 796,880 Party Votes in the recent election - most of them from working-class voters. (By way of comparison, the far-Left Workers' Party received just 932 Party Votes.) What Bryce's characterisation of the Labour Party as right-wing and anti-worker implies, therefore, is that the working-class is either blind (or has been blinded) to its own self-interest; or has itself become a hot-bed of right-wing and anti-worker beliefs.

Now, I don’t know for sure, but I'm assuming that Bryce, like most of those who adhere to the revolutionary socialist tradition, still subscribes to the principles of Marxism-Leninism. If so, his rather condescending attitude toward the working-class is perfectly consistent with the revolutionary model he espouses. As Lenin so arrogantly expressed it in What Is To Be Done?:

"The history of all countries shows that the working class exclusively by its own effort is able to develop only trade-union consciousness."

In other words, revolution is much too important to be left to ordinary working people! Far better to leave it to, oh, I don’t know – university lecturers – perhaps?

Sometimes, however, ordinary working people see the world a great deal more clearly than revolutionary academics. Ordinary working people just might, for example, regard advice from Rosa Luxemburg and Leon Trotsky as something to be taken with a very large grain of salt.

After all, if Rosa was such a visionary, how come in January 1919 she allowed a troop of demobbed soldiers, now serving in the notorious Garde-Kavallerie-Schützendivision Freikorps, to abduct her off a Berlin street, club her senseless, fire a bullet into her brain, and throw her lifeless body into the Landwehr Canal? And if Leon Trotsky was such a socialist seer, how was Stalin’s special assassin, Ramon Mercader, able to disaggregate his skull with an ice-pick in Mexico City in 1940?

I ask these brutal questions with a serious purpose. Because it is almost always posterity which invests individuals with the extraordinary qualities for which they are remembered. Luxemburg and Trotsky were both immensely talented revolutionary politicians, but just as prone to getting caught up in the day-to-day exigencies of their craft as the rest of us – and equally blind to their ultimate fates.

It is as foolish to abstract from their political context the political writings and observations of Luxemburg and Trotsky, as it is to quote at random from the commentary of a left-wing political columnist like myself.

Luxemburg was wrong about the revolutionary potential of the German working-class, and she paid for that misjudgement with her life. What she correctly identified, however, were the elitist and ultimately tyrannical tendencies within the Leninist revolutionary model – and for that she is justly remembered.

Trotsky, too, was wrong in his assessment of capitalism’s strengths and weaknesses. Far from being a brief respite, the economic recovery noted in his 1921 pamphlet marked the beginning of a capitalist boom lasting almost a decade. What’s more, when boom turned to bust, it was not the socialists who benefited, but the fascists.

What today’s revolutionaries always seem to overlook, when quoting Luxemburg and Trotsky, is the signal fact that their respective assassinations were not the work of the Right, but of their fellow socialists (Noske in the case of Luxemburg, Stalin in the case of Trotsky). They died because they refused to accept that the revolutions in which they’d played such an important role had reached the limits of what was politically and economically feasible.

And it is this, the recognition of what is – and what is not – politically and economically feasible, that distinguishes the political movements capable of attracting 796,880 votes, from those capable of attracting just 932.

As I recall, Bryce was, for a period, a member of Jim Anderton’s NewLabour Party (and worked for a while in the Alliance's parliamentary office). For more than a decade these organisations represented the most successful parliamentary assertion of democratic socialism in the Western world. That the Alliance, in 1999, secured four Cabinet seats in what was internationally regarded as the most left-wing Labour government in the world, was a huge achievement.

Indeed, such was the pull of its political gravity that the Alliance carried Helen Clark’s government several degrees further to the left than, left to itself, it would ever have felt comfortable travelling.

Would the renationalisation of ACC, the restoration of income related state-house rentals, the repeal of the Employment Contracts Act, the creation of a state-owned bank, and the introduction of paid parental leave and four weeks annual leave have occurred without the Alliance? Certainly not as quickly, and possibly not at all.

Were these reforms of benefit to working people? Absolutely.

Would a right-wing, anti-worker government (such as the one we have now) have introduced such measures? Never.

As it was, in threatening a full-scale investment strike, New Zealand’s capitalist ruling class, in "The Winter of Discontent" of 2000, signalled how very close to the limits of what was politically and economically feasible the Labour-Alliance coalition had come. When, in 2002, the Alliance Left indicated that it intended to test those limits further , Clark and Anderton (like Noske and Stalin before them) ruthlessly organised its destruction.

And when Labour, itself, took the revolutionary step of illegally appropriating sufficient public funds to mobilise its working-class base against the threat of a Don Brash-led National Government in 2005, the New Zealand ruling class made it very clear that the limits of its tolerance had been exceeded.

What followed Labour’s 2005 election victory: the "Establishment’s" three-year campaign of non-stop political aggression against the entire parliamentary Left and its NZ First allies; stands as an object lesson in what happens to social-democratic governments which mobilise their core working-class vote without a coherent plan for keeping it mobilised.

For Bryce should make no mistake, it is the latter variety of social-democratic governance that I have always stood for – and fought for. But, to pull off that sort of governance you have to box clever – very clever.

In my book, No Left Turn, I used a classical myth to illustrate the method adopted by the First Labour Government for slaying the capitalist monster:

"The conduct of Savage, Nash and Fraser calls to mind the legend of Perseus and Medusa. Befriended by Athena, the goddess of wisdom, and Hermes, the keeper of secrets, Perseus is provided with the weapons necessary to slay Medusa. But the gods also warn the hero that when the critical moment arrives for him to put an end to tyranny by striking off the monster’s head, he must be guided only by Medusa’s bright reflection mirrored in the metal of Athena’s shield. It was fatal to confront the Gorgon face-to-face: any man who gazed directly upon the true horror of her countenance was instantly turned to stone.

"Like Perseus, the first Labour government’s heroic achievements were secured by its wise refusal to confront its enemy directly. Capitalism in New Zealand was mastered not by staring it down, but by addressing its many institutional reflections: the private control of credit creation; the private provision of health and housing; the master-servant relationship in the workplace; the disciplinary effects of mass unemployment; and the class-based allocation of educational and cultural resources. By concentrating their reforming zeal on these institutional representations of capitalist power, Savage, Nash and Fraser avoided the massive social resistance which would inevitably have attended the wholesale expropriation of private property."

New Zealand politics, since the end of the long post-war boom in the mid-1970s, has been about little else apart from the New Zealand ruling-class’s single-minded determination to tear down the institutional walls in which social-democracy had immured it. The ferocity of that effort, and the limited nature of its success, reveals the deadly efficacy of Savage’s strategy.

It is also highly significant that in order to breach those walls, it was first necessary to subvert the Labour Party. No other political movement in New Zealand could have done it.

And no other movement in New Zealand will ever rebuild those walls. Only the labour movement – political and industrial – possesses the historical and cultural power to lead the counter-attack against the Right’s counter-revolution.

Ultimately, it is the wisdom and courage of ordinary working people – not academic Marxist-Leninists, or even erratic newspaper columnists – that will re-imprison the capitalist beast.

And the party they turn to for that purpose will be Labour – the real workers’ party.

Monday, 15 December 2008

Spy vs Spy

Following Nicky Hager's revelations in The Sunday Star-Times of police infiltration of domestic protest organisations, and acknowledging the two very interesting responses to his article from Liberation and Against the Current, I re-publish here my "Making A Contribution", article, published in The Independent of 14 February 2001. It occasioned some bitter left-wing reaction at the time, which, to my mind at least, betrayed an extraordinary degree of naivete on the part of the Left in New Zealand.

If your intention is to overthrow the existing order, you should not be surprised – nor outraged – when it takes steps to protect itself.

NEW ZEALAND’s Security Intelligence Service guards its secrets well. Only rarely is the public permitted even a glimpse of its internal workings. Outside of the Beehive’s Ninth Floor, the intentions and operations of the Service remain a mystery. Inquiries from journalists are politely turned away, and inquisitive MPs are referred to Parliament’s Intelligence and Security Committee, a carefully chosen clutch of senior politicians, chaired by the Prime Minister, and legally prevented from commenting on any matter "relating directly to the activities" of the Service. This is probably as it should be. A security service unable to guard its secrets would hardly be worthy of the name.

Sometimes, however, things go badly wrong, and matters relating directly to the activities of the Service are thrust, blinking, into the bright light of day. The most notorious breach of SIS secrecy occurred on July 13th 1996, when David Small, a lecturer in Education at the University of Canterbury, surprised at least two SIS agents in the process of burgling the home of anti-free-trade activist Aziz Choudry.

As far as most New Zealanders were concerned, the story of the Choudry break-in was relatively straight-forward. Concerned that Choudry and his fellow dissidents might be planning to disrupt the ministerial meeting of APEC, then taking place in Christchurch, the SIS detailed an unspecified number of its agents to mount what is known in the trade as a "black bag" operation. They were to gain entry to Choudry’s home and search for anything indicating intended or real acts of "espionage, sabotage, terrorism, and subversion". This dramatic infringement of Choudry’s rights could have been justified by the SIS on the grounds that it was "making a contribution to New Zealand’s international well-being and economic well-being" – a new set of responsibilities which came into force on July 1st 1996 - less than a fortnight prior to the black-bag operation in Choudry’s home.

The consequences of this botched operation were considerable. Having failed to have their complaints against the SIS upheld by the Inspector-General of Intelligence and Security, and unable to persuade the conservative National-NZ First Government to mount a public inquiry, Choudry and Small enlisted the support of top Auckland barrister, Rodney Harrison, who agreed to sue the SIS on Choudry’s behalf for trespass and unreasonable search. Rather surprisingly, they won, and in 1999 Choudry was awarded an unspecified – but rumoured to be large – sum in compensation.

What did not emerge from the trial was anything resembling an official explanation of the break-in. The Prime Minister, Mrs Shipley, declared she was ready to go all the way to the Privy Council to protect the "national security" content of SIS records. Mrs Shipley’s government was also required to pass legislation protecting the SIS’s ability to mount black bag operations in pursuit if its national security obligations.

What Mrs Shipley could not prevent, however, was the then Leader of the Opposition, Helen Clark, blabbing out the real reason for the SIS’s surveillance of Choudry to North & South political journalist, David McLaughlin.

"They burgled his house, yes, but not because of him", Clark told McLaughlin. "He had visitors who were of interest and when you’ve got people coming to New Zealand on visitor’s visas who have got links with groups who could have an interest, someone will make inquiries."
And who was Aziz Choudry’s visitor? All we were told at the time was that his name was Alejandro Villamar, and that he was a member of RMALC – Mexican Action Network on Free Trade.

It is important to note at this point that Choudry, Small, and their entire GATT-Watchdog network, had made no locatable public reference to Villamar prior to the 1999 North & South revelations. In a media release dated 20th October 1997 they declared that the 1996 break-in "confirms concerns that critics of the government’s free-market policies are now fair game for the SIS." Choudry was quoted as saying that the SIS’s action "puts the lie to assurances contained within the legislation and reiterated by the Prime Minister that remaining within the law is a guarantee of freedom from SIS operations and that the SIS would not be used against legitimate political dissenters."

So why no reference to the presence of Villamar? Surely the fact that a foreign national was staying with Choudry at the time of the break-in was relevant to the case? It beggars the imagination to suggest that neither Choudry nor Small were capable of putting 2 and 2 together to make 4. A Mexican activist against free-trade turns up in Christchurch at the same time as a meeting of APEC is taking place, bunks down with a prominent member of the New Zealand anti-free-trade movement, and – bingo! – the house is broken into by the SIS. What’s going on here? Is it possible that Alejandro Villamar is something more than a "legitimate political dissenter"?

Well he is certainly more than "Dr Alejandro Villamar, the Mexican academic" referred to by David Small in an article for N.Z. Political Review back in April of 1999. Research by this writer has identified Dr Villamar as the Director of Research for Natural Resources and Fisheries for the Foreign Trade Committee of the PRD – Partido de la Revolución Democrática – Mexico’s main opposition party. One of Dr Villamar’s key tasks is the tracking of foreign investment in Mexico’s forestry sector.

Dr Villamar is also associated with ACERCA – Action for Community and Ecology in the Rainforests of Central America. In an article for the World Rainforest Movement Bulletin dated August 1998 he states: "The increased activities of the maquiladora industry [production facilities established along the US-Mexican border to take advantage of the 1994 North American Free Trade Agreement] have resulted in an enormous need for packaging paper used in shipping industrial goods for export. Mexico currently imports this packaging from the US and Canada. In response to pressure from the maquiladora industry, the Mexican government is now paving the way for the large-scale pulpwood plantations in order to provide industry with raw material to produce cheap pulp and paper."

According to a July 17th 1999 article from ACERCA, published on the Corporate Watch website: "Huge foreign-owned paper companies have acquired large tracts of land in southern Mexico for the purpose of growing eucalyptus and palm trees which have been genetically altered to yield pulpwood with short growing times. Evidence suggests that much (or most) of this fibre will end up as packing materials for products assembled in the maquiladoras and then shipped out of the country."

The same article identifies two of those companies as International Paper and Fletcher Challenge Forests. In a joint venture with the Westavco Corporation and Monsanto, IP – the owners of the New Zealand company Carter Holt Harvey – and FCF were said to be in the process of establishing a forestry biotechnology company to produce and market genetically engineered tree seedlings. According to the article, this new company would be based in Chiapas, a province in the Mexican south-west, and home to the "Zapatistas" - one of the most sophisticated indigenous rights movements on Earth.

It is not known if Dr Villamar has any direct links with the Zapatistas, but, according to an article by Tracey Eaton of the Dallas Morning Post dated August 27th 1999, he is no stranger to radical peasant activism. According to Eaton, a Mr Alejandro Villamar is the principle defender of a jailed peasant activist named Rodolfo Montiel.

Montiel, whose case has been taken up by Amnesty International and the Sierra Club, was jailed on weapons and other charges in May of 1999 after organising farmers against logging operations near their village. Authorities in Guerrero State, where Montiel was active, have accused the 45 year-old farmer of being a member of the EPR – the Popular Revolutionary Army. His allies deny this, accusing the authorities of torturing Montiel in custody and attempting to frame him as a drug dealer and insurrectionist. "Rodolfo is definitely not a member of the EPR," says Villamar, who had been working with Montiel’s organisation since February 1999, "that’s just a pretext".

It is scarcely surprising that New Zealand’s Security Intelligence Service should be interested in such a colourful character as Dr Alejandro Villamar. After all, the July 13th 1996 break-in to Choudry’s house took place only two-and-a-half years after the Zapatista uprising in Chiapas. Led by their mysterious "Sub-Commandante Marcos", the Mayan Indian rebels staged their armed insurrection on January 1st 1994 to coincide with the coming into force of NAFTA. RMALC – of which Villamar is a key member – was in sympathy with the Zapatista rebellion, endorsing its aims – if not its methods.

With the CEO of International Paper – already a significant player in the New Zealand economy through its investment in Carter Holt Harvey – engaged in important negotiations with the Mexican Government throughout 1995-96, and with one of this country’s largest corporations, Fletcher Challenge, gearing itself up to make long-term investments in the Mexican pulpwood industry, it is arguable, at the very least, that Dr Alejandro Villamar was a suitable subject for surveillance.

Finding out what this radical Mexican was doing in New Zealand, and discovering exactly what information he was exchanging with one of this country’s most vociferous opponents of free-trade, might even qualify as "making a contribution to New Zealand’s international and economic well-being".

Friday, 12 December 2008

Unleash Hell!

The Fury of the Goths by Paul Ivanowitz

I’VE always considered the first ten minutes of the movie Gladiator to be some of the finest work Ridley Scott has ever produced.

The brutal engagement between the formidably armed Roman legions and the wildly undisciplined but unquestionably brave Gothic tribesmen is a fantastic piece of cinematography.

Russell Crowe’s "Maximus", the Roman commander, issues the grim order: "On my signal, unleash Hell." His well-trained centurions do not disappoint.

"On my signal, unleash Hell."

Scott’s design of the battle, I’ve always thought, owes a tremendous amount to a 19th Century painting entitled The Fury of the Goths, executed by the now long-forgotten Austrian artist, Paul Ivanowitz.

I’ve been an admirer of Ivanowitz’s masterpiece ever since, as a little boy, I encountered a reproduction of the painting in an illustrated encyclopaedia. As soon as I laid eyes on the opening sequence of Gladiator, I just knew I’d seen Scott’s battle scene somewhere before.

Of course a pan-German nationalist like Ivanowitz was not about to celebrate some unrecorded victory by Marcus Aurelius’ legions over a rogue Gothic tribe. No, The Fury of the Goths celebrates the much earlier defeat of the Roman General, Varus, by the proto-nationalist German war-leader, Arminius, in the Teutoburg Forest.

Ambushed as his line was strung out along the narrow forest trail, Varus and his approximately 20,000-strong army was utterly annihilated. A small expeditionary force, sent in by Caesar Augustus a few years later to learn the fate of "Varus’ lost legions" discovered a battlefield literally covered with the whitening bones of their butchered comrades. The terrified legionaries buried them where they had fallen, and fled.

At Teutoburg it was the "Goths" who unleashed Hell.

All of which will, I hope, serve to preface the following critique of the NZ Council of Trade Unions’ (CTU) lamentable failure to anticipate and respond forcefully to the new National Government’s first assault upon the rights of New Zealand workers – the so-called "Fire At Will" Bill.

It is several months now since I had dinner with the President of the CTU, Helen Kelly, but I clearly remember practically begging her to have the trade union movement in readiness for the National Party’s inevitable sneak-attack, and to – please, please, please – learn from and avoid the critical strategic error committed by Ken Douglas and Angela Foulkes in the first few months of the fourth National Government.

It was the CTU leadership’s failure to answer the Bolger Government’s introduction of the Employment Contracts Bill with massive industrial resistance by the organised working-class, that saw the level of union density in the private sector workforce fall from close to 60 percent, to around 10 percent. Their point-blank refusal to sanction and lead a General Strike destroyed, practically overnight, New Zealand workers’ faith in the trade union movement. It was a defeat from which the Left, in general, and the working-class, in particular, never really recovered.

Nine years later, and just as the New Zealand working class was lifting itself up off its knees, the CTU has, once again, failed to meet the Tory challenge. In spite of the fact that they knew the 90-Day Bill was a key element in the National Party’s manifesto, and in spite of the fact that the introduction of the Bill, under urgency, was an obvious tactic for Key’s Government to adopt, the trade unions were caught napping.

A CTU that had learned the lessons of history would have planned for just such a contingency. It would have prepared a campaign as comprehensive as Maximus’s punitive expedition against the unfortunate Goths. Most importantly, they would have let Key know that, should he attempt to begin again where Bill Birch left off, they were ready to give the signal to: "Unleash Hell".

But what did the trade union leaders actually do in the 30-day period between National’s victory and the introduction of the 90-Day Bill? They spent their time billing and cooing with the newly elected government, and debating whether or not the Maori Party should be considered a progressive force.

Instead of being ready to pour their affiliated members into the streets, and to rally the tens of thousands of potential members targeted by the legislation to the CTU’s banner, the best they were able to organise was a pathetic (and constitutionally suspect) petition to the Governor-General – urging him not to sign the Bill into law.

With courage and imagination, this past week could have been National’s Teutoburg Forest. Instead, it has turned out to be yet another victory for right-wing ruthlessness.

In 1991, more than 100,000 unionists marched and rallied against the ECB. That this vast mobilisation of working-class anger was never translated into a General Strike was a true tragedy.

In 2008, it was a few hundred e-mails to the Governor-General.

As Marx said: "the second time as farce".

Thursday, 4 December 2008

Oh Canada!

TRY this little thought experiment for me. Imagine that somewhere out there in the big wide world there’s a country a whole lot like ours. It’s ruled by the same Queen, most of its people speak the our language, it’s democratic traditions are of roughly the same vintage, and, along with New Zealand, it has recently come through a general election.


Now imagine that this country is in the grip of a constitutional crisis. Imagine that the government of the day, having lost the confidence of the legislature, is seeking to have Parliament prorogued by the Governor-General in order to avoid a Confidence Motion it knows it’s bound to lose. Imagine, too, that the Governor-General has hurried back from an overseas trip to be present in the capital as the crisis unfolds. Imagine the governing party of that country launching radio attack ads against its parliamentary rivals; calling upon its supporters to flood the Governor-General’s office with letters and e-mails; and even proposing a mass pro-Government demonstration outside her official residence. Imagine the country’s trade union leaders responding by calling protest rallies of their own to condemn the Government’s "unconstitutional" intentions.


Now answer me this question: "Don’t you think these events warrant a reasonable amount of space in our newspapers? And a reasonable amount of time on our radio and television news broadcasts?"

After all, we are talking about Canada.

I first learned of the crisis engulfing Canadian Prime Minister, Stephen Harper’s Conservative Party Government here, at the World Socialist Web Site. But, for a more balanced view of the unfolding crisis, I would also recommend this link to the Globe & Mail – Canada’s leading daily newspaper.

Stephen Harper, along with the UK Conservative leader, David Cameron, and our very own, newly-elected National Party Prime Minister, John Key, belongs to the "new" generation of English-speaking conservative leaders. Young, telegenic, and studiously non-threatening, this group already controls two out of the four old "White" Commonwealth countries – Canada and New Zealand – and Cameron seems poised to make it three out of four the moment UK Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, gives him the opportunity. (Cynics might say that if you count Australia’s small "c" conservative Labor Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd, it will soon be four out of four!)

What’s interesting about Harper’s reaction to the coming together of his parliamentary enemies, and his potential ouster from power, is its extraordinary and reckless aggression. For the Canadian voter it has been a real shock to see the hitherto mild-mannered, non-threatening Harper suddenly transformed into someone hell-bent on clinging to power at almost any cost – up to and including undermining the constitutional integrity of the Queen’s representative.

It makes me wonder what sort of John Key might have emerged in the days following our own General Election if the numbers had turned out even slightly more favourably for Labour and NZ First. If a Labour, Progressive, Green and NZ First combination had ended up controlling three or four more seats than National, ACT and the Maori Party, what would his reaction have been?

I pose this question because there is an unnerving similarity in the constitutional misrepresentation that went on here in New Zealand over the issue of whether the party winning the largest number of seats had a "moral mandate" to govern, and Harper’s insistence that there is something constitutionally suspect about the Liberal, NDP and Le Bloc Quebecois decision to support a No-Confidence Motion against his government in the Canadian House of Commons.

In both cases, the Right has wilfully misconstrued the essence of the Westminster System prevailing in both countries: that general elections are held to elect parliaments – not governments.

A government is what is formed when a political party, or group of parties, enjoys the "confidence" (i.e. the support of more than half the members) of the legislature. In neither Canada nor New Zealand do the electors choose a prime minister, they choose a member of Parliament and/or a political party to represent their locality and/or themselves. It is these representatives who ultimately decide who the PM will be.

Fortunately, the NZ electorate, by voting in a decisive fashion, was able to avoid the potential constitutional confrontation inherent in the "moral mandate" position. The Canadians have not been so fortunate.

It is frankly scandalous that the New Zealand public has not been permitted to learn about the situation in Canada. The dilemma in which the relatively new and inexperienced Governor General, Michaelle Jean, has been placed is one which could easily be replicated in New Zealand. What is unfolding in Ottawa should be the subject of lively debate among all those New Zealanders with a interest in both understanding and defending their country’s democratic traditions.

The almost total media blackout on this story reflects the entrenched notion in practically all our newsrooms that the English-speaking nations of the world constitute the bench-mark of political normality and stability, and that it is, therefore, quite impossible for them to experience anything as abnormal and destabilising as a constitutional crisis. Our news editors simply ignore (or are ignorant of) the many historical precedents – from the dismissal of Lang and Whitlam in Australia, to the judicial theft of the 2000 US presidential election.

Apparently, constitutional crises only happen in hot countries – like Thailand – and are newsworthy only to the extent that they seriously inconvenience the travelling public.

Worried Canadians on the snow-covered streets of Ottawa might beg to differ.

UPDATE: Dateline Friday, 5th December 2008.

The Canadian Governor-General, Michaelle Jean, yesterday (our time) acceeded to Prime Minister, Stephen Harper's, request that Canada's Parliament be prorogued until January 26th 2009. This link will take you to the Globe & Mail's coverage of the unfolding crisis.

Monday, 1 December 2008

Chambers of Secrets

SECRETS are important things in communities where change, apart from the slow roll of the seasons, arrives only reluctantly, if at all. In New Zealand’s little towns and rural hamlets, back in the days of station-masters and telephone party-lines, the urge to elaborate an alternative identity, whose details were not the common knowledge of all and sundry, was very strong.

There had to be something more to you than the man the neighbours saw mowing his front lawn every Saturday morning; or, seated on a tartan rug in the brisk winter air every Saturday afternoon, sipping sweet tea from a thermos flask and watching the local footy team cover itself with mud, if not glory, on the poplar-lined playing fields down by the river. Most of all, you needed to be something more than just the polite little fellow serving behind the counter of the general store, the butcher shop, the drapers.

In the frenetic environment of our modern world, it is difficult to conceive just how constrained the lives of our grandparents and great-grandparents really were. Travelling more than about twenty-five miles from one’s front door was a major undertaking in an age where private motor vehicles were rare and folk still got about on horseback or by bicycle.

People travelled slowly in those days: slow enough to both see everything that was going on, and to be seen by everybody doing it. Imagine, then, how exciting the thought of doing something that could not be seen; saying something that could not be heard; must have been to the upright and prosperous men of town and village. The prospect of leaving behind, if only for a few hours, the hum-drum world of wives and children, customers and clients, employees and tenants – and becoming something entirely different – must have had an enormous appeal.

I say "must" because the evidence of this need for a secret, more potent, more intense existence may be found in just about every settlement of any size in New Zealand. In some places they were built right there on the main street; in others at one remove from the daily commerce of the town, but everywhere they presented to the outside world a blank and uncompromising façade of secrecy. New Zealand’s Masonic Lodges were places where only the initiate gained admittance: secret temples, where dark oaths were spoken and ancient rituals enacted; places where the local grocer, butcher and draper was transformed into something new, and luminous, and powerful.

Transplanted from the bleak landscape of Scotland and Northern Ireland, to the equally desolate wilds of the West Coast and Southland (see illustrations) New Zealand Freemasonry retained a great many of its original prejudices and much of its historical purpose.

Vigorously anti-clerical, and theologically sceptical – as befitted its origins in the secret societies of the Enlightenment – Freemasonry placed less faith in an all-knowing God, than it did in the esoteric knowledge of its supposedly ancient brotherhood. Like the perennial Gnostic heresy, Freemasonry believes the mind of Man, properly prepared, is more than equal to the task of comprehending the mind and purpose of its maker.

This was a heady brew to pour into the brains of the good burghers of Hokitika and Clinton, but clearly of sufficient potency to persuade them to finance the sturdy little structures in which their brotherhood could meet without fear of prying eyes and flapping ears. For what, in the end, is more conducive to solidarity and mutual assistance than a shared secret, or secrets? Especially when the secrets shared are said to be drawn from the hidden wisdom of the ancients and sufficient to lift you high above the level of the common herd?

In many ways Freemasonry made New Zealand’s little towns. These numerous bands of Masonic brothers, who solemnly greeted each other every week down at the local lodge, could hardly avoid becoming an economic, social and political oligarchy, effortlessly presiding over their community’s commercial expansion and setting the tone of its cultural life. Deeds and projects which Adam Smith’s invisible hand might never have touched were very often the manifestations of the local Masonic brotherhood’s enlightened spirits.

They could also, sadly, be the moving force behind the very worst kind of reactionary social behaviour. It doesn’t take much for a small and secret group to move from light to darkness. Believing themselves to be the sole repository of local wisdom, and the only protectors of local prosperity, the Masonic brothers of how many small towns lent their power to causes that were as disreputable as they were self-serving? How fared the local unionist, clergyman, doctor or teacher of radical, or even liberal, views when the bigoted brothers of the local lodge turned their faces against them?

And how was justice served when the local magistrate, the local prosecutor, and the local policeman all greeted each other with the secret handshake? How many innocent people have been imprisoned, how many wife beaters and child abusers have gone free, thanks to the secret solidarity of the local Masonic brotherhood?

So, the next time you’re driving through one of our provincial towns, or rural villages, and you see a building of singular aspect, standing at a distance from the workaday world, pause, take a closer look, and ponder what role the men who gathered inside its walls may have played in the history of the place where you are standing. Imagine what arcane thoughts went through the minds of seemingly ordinary men as they plied their daily trades. Consider what deeds – dark or luminous – may have been set in motion behind the set-square and dividers that crown the secret door.

Friday, 28 November 2008

Kondratiev Comes Full-Cycle

TO hear the business reporters tell it, this "credit crunch", while serious, is not beyond the wit of the world’s economists to fix. With just a few billion – or trillion – more dollars, the financial markets will begin to free-up, and then, quite quickly, life will return to normal.

Our own Treasury officials confidently predict that New Zealand’s current recession will be shallow and short.

By 2010 – 2011 at the latest – we should all be out of the woods.

Let’s hope so.

Personally, I’m not quite so optimistic.

Why? Because earlier today I was reading about an economist who discovered the secret to predicting the economic future. And I’m not referring here to the immediate future – what’s going to happen to the stockmarket next week, or next month. No. I’m referencing a guy who was able to accurately predict what the global economy would look like ten, fifty, even a hundred years into the future.

His name was Nikolai Kondratiev.

In a saner, less bloodthirsty 20th Century, Kondratiev would have been celebrated as one of the Soviet Union’s greatest economists, and hailed throughout the world as the scholar who first discerned the long waves of economic expansion and contraction that periodicize the history of capitalism.

In the 20th century that actually happened, Kondratiev enjoyed only a few years of productive endeavour before falling victim to the political pathologies of Stalinism, dying in 1938, at the age of just 46, in front of an NKVD firing-squad.

His immediate offence was being too closely associated with the "New Economic Policy" (NEP) – an essentially social-democratic response to the abject failure of Lenin’s "war communism", which had brought the Soviet economy to its knees. Kondratiev believed that the development of heavy industry in the Soviet Union should only be attempted after the successful modernisation of its agriculture. Only when all Russians had enough to eat, and only upon the base of a thriving light industrial sector, producing agricultural equipment and consumer goods, should the growth of heavy industries be encouraged. Such thinking was anathema to Stalin and his henchmen, and Kondratiev was driven from his post as head of the Institute of Conjuncture and hauled off to the gulag.

His real crime, however, was to call into question the whole notion that economies could be made to perform according to the conscious interventions of human planners.

In his studies of capitalism he had discerned patterns of development that contradicted the linear notions of economic growth then favoured by his Soviet colleagues. Rather than progressing in a straight line, the evolution of the global capitalist economy appeared to describe a regular wave pattern, with a cycle of approximately fifty years.

For a detailed description of Kondratiev’s theories, follow the links here and here. Suffice to say that he and his followers, which included the great Czech-American economist Joseph Schumpeter, broke down the development of the global capitalist economy into five distinct waves of development.

The first wave, beginning in the late 18th Century was generated by the invention of the steam engine and the growth of factory-spun textiles.

The second wave commenced in the 1830s with the worldwide expansion of steam-powered transportation – especially railways.

The third wave got underway in the 1880s, driven by the growth of the steel, electricity, chemical and heavy-engineering industries.

The fourth wave witnessed the rise of the petrochemical, automobile manufacturing, and other mass production industries, which gathered momentum in the years immediately prior to World War I.

The fifth wave (our present) began in the 1970s with the revolution in telecommunications and information technology – giving birth to the age of the personal computer, cellphones, and the Internet.

Kondratiev’s waves have four distinct phases: Improvement – when the new inventions revolutionise the way people work and live. Prosperity – when the new technology has had time to bed-in and the wealth it is generating flows in all directions. Recession – when innovation slows and growth begins to falter. Depression – when wealth generation ceases and the economy collapses.

Kondratiev’s seminal work, The Major Economic Cycles, was published in 1925 – at the height of the Roaring Twenties – but working from his basic premises he was able to predict the Great Depression a full five years before it happened.

And Kondratiev’s foresight didn’t end with his prediction of the Slump. By plotting his fifty-year cycles along an axis divided into years, his disciples were confident of another steep slide into recession and depression in the late-1970s and 80s, and yet another big crash, timed for, yes, you guessed it, the start of the second decade of the 21st Century.

Historically, the contractionary phase of the Kondratiev Cycle tends to last not just for one or two years, but for anything from ten to fifteen years.

Kondratiev’s theory would suggest that times are about to get a whole lot worse before they get better.

Hence my pessimism.

Wednesday, 26 November 2008

Adios Agenda

AND the beat goes on. One by one the last vestiges of intelligent, democratically-engaged public broadcasting are driven off the air.

The latest casualty, Richard Harman’s excellent current affairs programme, Agenda, was the last long-format political interview show on New Zealand television. Even more importantly, it was the last current affairs show dedicated to the democratic objective of holding our political leaders to account, and to exploring in depth the major issues confronting the electorate.

Harman’s company Front Page Limited, which produced Agenda, also acted as a training-ground where young journalists could learn the essence of current affairs broadcasting from one of its acknowledged masters.

It was David Lange who memorably quipped that to carry any idea in the New Zealand of the 1980s you first had to carry the "Three Dicks" – Richard Harman (TVNZ’s political editor) Richard Griffin (Radio NZ’s political editor) and Richard Long (editor of The Dominion).

These were men who revelled in unravelling the intricacies of our daily politics, and who understood that the political journalist plays a role in the democratic process which is absolutely essential to the preservation of an informed and engaged citizenry.

TVNZ is reported as saying it wants to take the production of Agenda’s ultimate replacement in-house. We can only imagine what this might mean.

My money is on a half-hour format, once-over-lightly, personality- (rather than policy-) focused programme, with an emphasis on the "human aspects" of our political life, and where the mood is light-hearted, "ironic", and aimed (like everything else produced at TVNZ) at entertaining 20-30 year-olds.

It means that Agenda’s replacement will end up being Generation X’s revenge upon the ageing Baby-Boom generation. Where the Harmans and the Griffins and the Longs strove to reflect the importance of political decisions to the daily lives of their fellow New Zealanders, their more youthful successors will paint a picture of New Zealand politics that entertainingly confirms all the worst prejudices of a cynical and increasingly dumbed-down electorate. Where Agenda sought to engage, expose and explain, its Gen-X-produced replacement will seek to decode, deflate and deconstruct.

From the modernist imperative, which sought to subject the world to the critical analysis of a teleologically-driven everyman, we will be required to endure the ironic detachment and ideological disengagement of post-modern political dilettantism.

Old New Zealanders will at least have a memory of what real current affairs journalism looks and sounds like (think Brian Edwards, Ian Fraser, Lindsay Perigo, Kim Hill). In a very few years New New Zealanders won’t even be able to explain the concept.

Because, when all is said and done, you don’t know what you don’t know – and that’s obviously the way TVNZ intends to keep it.

Monday, 24 November 2008

Mulholland's Answer Answered

I HAVE to confess to being a little disappointed by the response to my column (‘Them & Us’, Sunday Star-Times, 16/11/08) attacking the Maori Party’s decision to throw in its lot with John Key and the National Party.

By branding the Maori Party kupapa (collaborators) I’d hoped to draw some of the leading Maori nationalist theorists and writers into the debate. It was not to be. As usual, those who manufacture the ideological ammunition used by Tariana Turia, Pita Sharples and Hone Harawira – thinkers like Moana Jackson, Eddie Durie and Maria Bargh – prefer to operate quietly behind the walls of the academy, popping-up only occasionally to cast the odd, oracular, contribution into the public sphere.

Instead, I had to make do with someone called Malcolm Mulholland, from the Maori Studies Department of Massey University.

Mr Mulholland alleges that my column "provoked such a reaction among Maori communities, some believed it would be best to write this column to set the record straight."

A worthy objective, but unfortunately, not one Mr Mulholland was capable of achieving.

Let us begin with the uncomfortable historical reality of the kupapa Maori themselves: the undeniable fact that some hapu and iwi opted to ally themselves with the Pakeha colonialists, and against other Maori. This behaviour not only signals a considerably more complex political equation at work in mid-19th Century New Zealand than a simple reading of our history might suggest; but it also undermines the romantic Maori nationalist scenario of a beleaguered – but united – people heroically resisting the onward rush of British imperialism.

That the term kupapa retains its capacity to inflict pain is precisely because it touches upon matters that threaten to expose the most sensitive political realities of the Maori/Pakeha relationship.

I touch upon the nature of this deeply ambivalent relationship in the second chapter of my book No Left Turn:

The coming of the Pakeha had opened the way to a new world of undreamed of opportunity and abundance. For the bold and the intelligent, immersion in the ways of the newcomers promised a new life in which the traditional considerations of lineage and rank counted for very little. Imagination and effort brought rewards that were far beyond the generosity of chiefs – or the maledictions of wizards – to constrain. All that was required to escape the nexus of aristocratic politics and priestly magic was Pakeha gold. Money was the solvent that dissolved the age-old ties linking family, clan and tribe: money the tool with which the individual could carve himself a new identity. And the fastest way to acquire money, and all the transformations it wrought, was to sell land.

A deep and abiding cleavage was opening up in Maori society between those who believed that it was possible to have the best of both worlds – and those who did not. The modernisers believed the traditional collectivism of the tribe could be preserved – even as Pakeha religion, science and technology freed its members from the social and economic constraints of a culture grounded in scarcity. For the traditionalists, however, the best of both worlds was an unachievable mirage. When it came to tikanga Pakeha, Maori did not have the luxury of picking and choosing. The British were a proud people, who equated the technological inferiority of Maori as proof of their inadequacy in every other aspect of human achievement. As far as the British settlers were concerned, "natives" had only two choices: become like them, or be swallowed by them. They did not believe in two worlds: Maori would either acknowledge the superiority of European civilisation, or it would sweep them away.

Mr Mulholland was either unable, or unwilling, to engage in the deeper issues underpinning Maori development in the post-colonial era, preferring instead to concentrate on the party political manoeuvrings of the last four years. But, even here, his analysis is, to put it kindly, feeble.

The Labour Government’s passage of the Foreshore & Seabed Act was accomplished with maximum dispatch for one very simple reason: to forestall the growing Pakeha backlash against not simply one iwi’s victory in the Court of Appeal, but against the whole Maori renaissance. What on earth does Mr Mulholland think lay behind the unprecedented 17 percentage point jump in National Party support that followed Don Brash’s Orewa Speech?

The sleeping dogs of Pakeha racism, having been kicked into snarling wakefulness by the Court of Appeal decision and National, had to be lulled back to sleep. That was Labour’s paramount concern, and, steadfastly supported by all but one of its Maori MPs, that is what it achieved.

Has Mr Mulholland ever given a moment’s thought to the counterfactual? That Labour backed the Court of Appeal decision, and stood shoulder-to-shoulder with iwi who asserted their customary rights? What does he think would have happened? Does he not believe that National’s "Iwi/Kiwi" Pakeha nationalist dichotomy would’ve swept it to an historic election victory? Does he not understand that such a government, elected with a frankly racist mandate, would have moved decisively to remove all the remaining constraints upon National’s assimilationist project: the Waitangi Tribunal; the Maori Seats; Maori broadcasting; all the institutions of Maori education in te reo; the Treaty of Waitangi itself?

Mr Mulholland’s superficial nationalism, uninformed by even the smallest amount of structural analysis, is simply not equal to the task of grasping the crucial significance of Tahupotiki Wiremu Ratana’s key prophetic insight. That only by linking the fortunes of the dispossessed of both the Maori and Pakeha communities, and joining them in an unbreakable political alliance, could the quest for equity and equality, common to both peoples, be achieved. Only an alliance based upon class could ever amass the political force required to negate the colossal racial advantage enjoyed by the inheritors of Britain’s imperial victory.

It was that alliance, with all its faults, disappointments and betrayals, which kept the promise of the Treaty of Waitangi alive. And only that alliance – or something like it – can hope to secure the Treaty’s ultimate fulfilment.

Tariana Turia and her colleagues will soon discover what all the hapu and iwi who turned kupapa discovered: that fighting on the Pakeha’s terms, and for the Pakeha’s objectives, only ever brings the briefest of respites.

Because, when all is said and done, once you have helped the men of power destroy all the centres of resistance to their rule, who shall you summon to defend the paltry rewards your collaboration has won?

Now that the new colonialists have mastered "divide" – can "conquer" be far behind?

Saturday, 22 November 2008

Comrades, Quo Vadis?

He who would sup with the Devil must needs have a long spoon. – Old Proverb

IN the penultimate issue of the NZ Political Review, published in the spring of 2004, I published an article by Dr Elizabeth Rata entitled "Trading on the Treaty" in which she wrote prophetically of the way in which the Maori nationalist slogan tino rangatiratanga was being remorselessly co-opted by ethnic elites espousing the "neotraditionalist" ideology of "neotribal capitalism" and practising what she called "brokerage politics". (Unfortunately I cannot provide a link to the NZPR article, but this link should take you to a very similar piece of writing by Dr Rata from 2005.)

Summing up her case in the NZPR, Dr Rata wrote:

It is likely that governance will be promoted as a relationship between two complex political systems based upon an idealised politics that bypasses the material realities of how people actually work, live and interact …

… Neotribal capitalism, however, [operates] in the real world, a world where ownership and control over economic resources acquired through the Treaty settlements leads to real material advantages that enable some people to take up opportunities, to overcome limitations and to live without the real hardships of poverty, while others remain excluded.

The motivating force of the bicultural project which led to the Treaty settlements was to improve the material conditions of real people struggling to overcome marginalisation and the social and economic consequences of New Zealand’s colonial past.

The issue remains today what it was three decades ago. The specific socio-economic realities of affordable housing, educational opportunities of a standard enjoyed by the rest of society, and the chance to earn a reasonable livelihood, are the essence of politics in New Zealand society today, as [they are in] any society.

It is the political regulation of this reality that provides the opportunities for improved life chances or for permanent inequalities.

Regulation by brokerage politics leads away from the more just society promised by pluralist politics, and, in the New Zealand example, the society promised by biculturalism. By institutionalising the influence of the neotraditionalist ideology, it leads towards the permanent capture of economic resources and political power by a privileged ethnic elite.

It isn’t often that reality confirms a writer’s theoretical speculations quite so fulsomely, but the deal stitched together between the National Party and the Maori Party provides more than ample proof of Dr Rata’s thesis.

Nowhere was this better illustrated than at a gathering to which my old friend and comrade Matt McCarten was invited earlier this week.

According to Matt, it was a function that brought together the Business Roundtable and the Maori "Brown Table". Here, amidst the self-congratulation and barely concealed political triumphalism, Dr Rata’s worst fears were made flesh. The leaders of Maori businesses, Maori tribal authorities, and the providers of Maori welfare services shook hands with the leading players and ideological commissars of New Zealand capitalism. The unstated cause of the celebration was, of course, that the power-brokers of the new regime were men and women who accepted and embraced the tenets and institutions of the settler-capitalist state. The capitalists’ worst fear, that the "political regulation" of "improved life chances" for the majority of Maori would take place under the auspices of parties and individuals hostile to capitalist ideology, had – thanks to the Maori Party leadership’s decision to throw in their lot with National, ACT and United Future – been dispelled.

Quite what Matt was doing there I cannot say: perhaps he had been summoned to witness to the final defeat of one of the Left’s fondest political dreams.

There were other witnesses to that defeat.

A young comrade of mine told me of her feelings of utter dismay upon hearing the leader of the National Distribution Union, and former Alliance cabinet minister, Laila Harré, addressing a group of workers protesting the Farmers department stores owners’ risible pay offer. Laila urged these workers to throw their support behind the Maori Party, United Future (?!) and (almost as an afterthought) the Greens. Only by supporting these parties (especially the ones in league with National) she said, could they hope to see the Minimum Wage raised to $15.00 per hour.

Some hope!

There is an apocryphal tale, hailing from the early days of the Christian Church, in which St Peter, warned that the authorities propose to unleash yet another wave of persecution against his co-religionists, flees the city of Rome. Alone on the road, not far from the city walls, Peter encounters his master, Jesus. "Lord," asks Peter,"quo vadis?" (Whither goest thou?) And, Jesus answers him: "To Rome, to be crucified." Instantly, Peter realises that he must return to the city; understanding, at last, that the road to salvation leads towards pain and persecution – not away from it.

Hearing about the recent deeds of Matt and Laila, I feel like asking them the question Peter put to Jesus: "Comrades, quo vadis?"

"Where are you going?"

Four years ago, in my penultimate editorial for the NZPR, I wrote:

"My own view, after reading Dr Rata’s research, is that the Maori Party will become the new face of brokerage politics. Post-Orewa, the cosy back-room relationships between Maori power-brokers and the Crown have become less and less sustainable. Neotribal capitalism, in need of a new brokerage strategy, appears to have decided to test the viability of the electoral option. [Tariana] Turia’s flat refusal to rule out forming a parliamentary coalition with the National and ACT parties certainly points in that direction.

Whatever the Maori Party leadership’s ultimate intentions, by its very existence it has brought the New Zealand Left to a fork in the road. Some, out of historical guilt or a misplaced sense of solidarity, will take the path of the tangata whenua – hoping like mad that by doing so they can exert a progressive influence on the content of the Maori Party’s election manifesto. Others, all too aware of the fearsome historical consequences of ethnic chauvinism and religious obscurantism, will stick with the values of the European Enlightenment, and keep to the narrow path of old-fashioned social-democracy.

If I may paraphrase the early 20th Century German social-democrat, August Bebel’s, memorable judgement upon the anti-Semitic illusions of the European working-class:

Neotraditionalism is the socialism of fools.

There is, however, one bright aspect to all these dismal events. At least, I now know what to buy Matt and Laila for Christmas.

A pair of very, very, very long spoons.

Friday, 21 November 2008

Phil Goff's Manly Mission

Originally published in The Independent of 20 November 2008

Phil Goff’s part in Labour’s redemption song must be to offer the angry and frustrated blokes who voted Helen Clark’s government out of office an alternative vision of what it means to be a man in the 21st Century.

THE effortless transition from Helen Clark to Phil Goff makes you wonder why it took so long.

As far back as January, Goff’s supporters were testing the waters for a possible leadership challenge. As far as I know, I was the only journalist to raise the prospect seriously.

No one else believed a change of leadership from Clark to Goff would make the slightest difference to Labour’s chances of re-election.

With the benefit of hindsight, we can see that their lofty dismissal of a Goff-led Labour Party was mistaken.

For a very large number of New Zealand voters, the only major point of difference between Key’s National Opposition and Clark’s Labour Government boiled down to the fact that Key wasn’t Clark. Apart from this rather obvious distinction, the electorate found it increasingly difficult to separate the two major parties.

Which suggests that Labour came to grief on the same jagged reefs of anguished masculinity which sank the campaigns of Jimmy Carter, Walter Mondale and Michael Dukakis in the United States.

The "Angry White Males" who ushered in the conservative revolution in America in the 1980s, and to whom Key owes his party’s success on 8 November 2008, interpret practically any manifestation of social-liberalism, and especially the successful enactment of social-liberal legislation, as a direct attack upon their beleaguered manhood.

In the United States it was the "judge-made law" which led to the desegregation of public education, and affirmed a woman’s right to choose an abortion, along with the passage of the Civil Rights Act and the introduction of affirmative action programmes in higher education and employment, that gave rise to the "Reagan Democrats".

In New Zealand the issues were different.

The decriminalisation of prostitution dramatically reversed the power polarities in the sex-for-money nexus. The introduction of Civil Unions for gay couples was construed by many heterosexual men (and women) as a grotesque parody of the traditional, religiously sanctified, marriage ceremony. And the repeal of s59 of the Crimes Act struck at the very heart of the social-conservative’s understanding of how fathers and mothers should discipline and punish their children.

Labour’s social-liberal workplace reforms: paid parental leave, 4-weeks annual leave, strict protection against unfair and illegal dismissal, the notion of "work-life balance"; were similarly seen as undermining the small proprietor’s ability to manage his own business according to his own best judgement – his "right" to be a boss.

The frustration and anger of this fraction of the male electorate, growing steadily since 2002, had, by the beginning of 2007, metastasised into a single, malignant tumour of rancorous hatred towards both the government and the person of Helen Clark.

The NZ Herald’s political cartoonists, Emmerson and Brody, captured this malevolent misogyny to perfection, their caricatures of Clark becoming increasing hideous and deformed with every passing week.

How easy it would have been to short-circuit this dangerous political wiring by simply replacing Clark with Goff. For thousands of angry and disaffected Labour "men" – voters who shared John Tamihere’s aversion to left-wing, lesbian, "front-bums" – Clark’s removal would have represented, to paraphrase Barack Obama, "the change they needed".

Denied that change, they turned to the only electable bloke on offer – John Key.

That Goff didn’t push for an early transition from sheila to bloke, and that the Labour caucus would almost certainly not have backed him had he tried, is, however, a testimony to the moral wisdom of both.

Replacing Goff with Clark might have worked, but it would also have been the wrong thing to do.
Because appeasing evil is never the right thing to do. And make no mistake, by the beginning of 2008 the anti-Clark movement had become a very evil thing indeed.

Besides, Labour had already tried appeasement in 2004: responding to Don Brash’s extraordinary Orewa speech with a wholesale retreat on the tangata whenua front.

And what did it bring them? The Maori Party, and no viable post-2005-election options except a continuing lurch to the Right with Peter Dunne and Winston Peters.

Those two factors, alone, wreaked havoc upon Labour’s political integrity. Further retreat, in the face of the ugly mob that was baying for Clark’s blood may well have secured Labour a fourth term – but at the price of the party’s political soul.

As things have turned out, it is the Clark-hating male electorate – and not the Labour caucus – which must now bear the burden of its political choices and, hopefully, try for a shot at redemption by voting for the Goff-led Labour Party in 2011.

Labour’s part in this redemption song must be to offer these angry and frustrated men an alternative vision of what it means to be a man in the 21st Century.

And that, in an world increasingly hostile to the core values of manhood, will be no easy task.
It is, nevertheless, a task which Labour must undertake. Because the way out of dead-end, dumbed-down, muscled-up antipodean machismo, is also the way forward for New Zealand as a whole.

We must learn to celebrate intelligence and creativity.

We need to cultivate the non-conformist and the unorthodox.

We should prize critical thinking and the courage to say "No, you’re wrong."

We have to confront the root causes of male anger and frustration – and stop rewarding their cultural symptoms.

The essence of masculinity is the instinct to protect – an impulse inextricably bound up with the heroic qualities of defiance and self-sacrifice. To protect and to serve are the defining qualities of all our most enduring cultural icons – from King Arthur to Winston Churchill; Te Whiti O Rongomai to Mickey Savage; Ed Hillary to Peter Blake. The aggression and violence we so easily and so often equate with masculinity can only ever be justified in defence of the weak and the vulnerable. It must never be used against them.

If the Goff-led Labour Party can embody these, the genuine attributes of masculinity, then it will become more than competitive in 2011.

Because, in the end, the values of the National and Act parties are the doomed values of Arthur Miller’s stricken fantasist, Willy Loman – the self-deluding hero of Death of a Salesman, who sacrifices his manhood and, eventually, his sanity to the dog-eat-dog ethics of the marketplace, and then wonders why his most cherished dreams continue to elude him.

It is in the demonstration of generosity, courage and compassion that men become their true selves.

Solidarity makes heroes of us all.