Sunday, 30 August 2015

Poetry For Jeremy Corbyn!

PENDANT PUBLISHING in the UK has published a free e-book of 19 poems, edited by Russell Bennetts, entitled Poets For Corbyn which celebrates the political phenomenon of Jeremy Corbyn and all the hopes he carries for the birth – or rebirth – of an authentic British Labour Party. I have reproduced here the contribution of Michael Rosen, a fellow historian, because it so succinctly captures the vacuity of Corbyn’s opponent’s arguments. The rest of the poems are available at  Enjoy.
For Jeremy Corbyn

Michael Rosen

Fresh from:
proclaiming the virtues of the
1000 year dynasty, the British monarchy;
advising us of the special qualities of a
non-elected second chamber
with its origins in Norman rule;
celebrating an economic system
that was developed and finessed
with the use of child labour around 1810;
continuing to solve international disputes
with the 10,000 year old method of
killing those you disagree with;
they tell us that socialism is outdated.

This posting is exclusive to Bowalley Road.

Saturday, 29 August 2015

With A Little Help From His Friends: Who Is Andrew Little Listening To?

Say What? How ironic it would be if, just as Jeremy Corbyn is showing us how Labour politics can be made to work, Andrew Little threw in his lot with those who have, to date, only shown us how to make them fail.
WHO politicians turn to for advice tells the world a great deal about what sort of people they are. Do they go straight for the professionals? Or, do they rely on friends and family? Most importantly, do they seek guidance from people who simply reinforce their prejudices, or are they guided by those who are willing to openly challenge their deepest assumptions?
The Labour Party leader, Andrew Little, is a cautious man, and, by and large, he has opted to surround himself with cautious people. Professionally trained, himself, he expects a high degree of professionalism from his staff. As a lawyer, he has a natural  inclination towards following the rules of whatever game he is playing.
Persuading Little to take a risk is hard work – but not impossible. His decision to keep on David Cunliffe’s Chief-of-Staff, Matt McCarten, is a case in point. McCarten’s radical reputation would likely have proven too much for Little’s rivals, but his own background in the trade union movement made Little much less prone to an attack of the vapours. McCarten may talk like a revolutionary, but, as the leader of the Unite Union, he always knew when it was time to tie up the attack dogs and seal the deal.
Little was also aware of just how much he owed McCarten for his wafer-thin victory over Grant Robertson. It was, after all, McCarten who, like the Praetorian Guards of Imperial Rome, understood the supreme importance of timing in the “transition” from one Caesar to the next. It’s never enough, simply to know when the moment has come to strike down the Emperor who has failed, one must also know around whose shoulders to drape the blood-stained purple toga, and upon whose head to place the golden diadem. McCarten chose Little’s head – and Little knows it.
Little also knows that the best service McCarten can offer his leadership is to embrace fully his role as the Emperor’s Praetorian enforcer. This was, after all, the role at which he excelled when he was with the Alliance. In Jim Anderton’s fractious coalition, McCarten was the man who kept the noisy ones quiet, and the quiet ones under surveillance. Little has put McCarten’s head-kicking skills to work in the Labour Party where, by all accounts, he has picked up from where Helen Clark’s fearsome enforcer, Heather Simpson, left off seven years ago. Given the extraordinary lack of discipline in Labour’s ranks since 2008, one is tempted to observe: and not a moment too soon!
McCarten, however, will always be an ally of Little’s – not a mate. That title belongs to the man he has appointed his Political Director, Neale Jones. The two men both hail from the Engineering, Printing and Manufacturing Union (EPMU) where Jones served alongside Little, before haring off to the UK and contracting himself to a number of progressive and campaigning NGOs. If London can be said to have a “beltway”, Jones clearly knew his way around it.
And therein lies a potentially very large problem. Unlike McCarten, who brings with him the whiff of cordite and a kit-bag full of class-war stories, Jones is very much the political technocrat. In this respect, he is very like his boss: dogged, well-briefed, sensitive to the rules of the game, and thoroughly unimpressed by political passion. Hence Jones’ aversion to rushing Labour into anything. After the disasters of Goff, Shearer and Cunliffe, he believes Labour priorities should, for the moment, be strictly remedial. Not until the public’s lost love for Labour has been restored will Jones be happy to let the party, its leader, and its long-suffering rank-and-file, let fly with a little live ammunition.
How, then, to explain Labour’s curious foray into the treacherous territory of ethnicity and foreign investment? Who was it who thought singling-out Chinese investors in a city where Chinese residents make up nearly 10 percent of the population was a good idea?
The man responsible for manipulating the leaked Auckland housing statistics into something Labour’s housing spokesperson, Phil Twyford, could use was Rob Salmond. Anyone looking for proof of what can happen to a political party when it allows itself to be persuaded that politics is not an art – but a science – need look no further than the relationship between Labour and Salmond.
After a few years teaching at an American university, Salmond returned to New Zealand certain he could adapt the techniques he saw employed by the Obama Campaign to New Zealand conditions. This is the “science” of politics that sends out postcards detailing the voting habits of people’s neighbours, in an attempt to psychologically dispose them towards doing the same. Somehow, Salmond persuaded the Labour Party to unleash these sorts of highly manipulative tactics on the long-suffering New Zealand voter. Sadly, as we all know, his political “science” failed to fire, and Labour’s share of the popular vote declined to its lowest point since 1922.
Salmond has recently posted a couple of articles on the Public Address Blog in which he wields his ideological agnosticism like a club against anyone who dares to argue that political parties should “stand for something”. All that matters, according to Salmond, is winning over “the middle” – a political designation, apparently, determined not by geometry, but by opinion polling! How one accomplishes this feat, without sacrificing a political party’s ideological (and hence electoral) coherence, he does not elucidate.
Salmond’s overall influence within the Leader of the Opposition’s Office is difficult to judge, but Little should think hard before again taking him into Labour’s confidence. His insistence that there is a road to electoral victory that allows a political party to bypass the ideological commitments inseparable from political conviction; that elections can be won by some sort of tricky “scientific” fix; if accepted by Little and his team, can only place New Zealand Labour in the same sorry position as the British Labour Party under Ed Miliband.
How ironic it would be if, just as Jeremy Corbyn is showing us how Labour politics can be made to work, Little threw in his lot with those who have, to date, only shown us how to make them fail.
This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Saturday, 29 August 2015.

Friday, 28 August 2015

Of Capitalist Catastrophes And Collectivist Triumphs

Greed Meets Fear: A New York stockbroker attempts to keep pace with the vertiginous slide in the Dow Jones Index following China's "Black Monday" (24/8/15). Capitalism likes to paint itself as a force of nature, before which human-beings are individually and collectively powerless. Only when this economic fatalism is challenged by people's renewed confidence in the efficacy of collective action can capitalism's catastrophes be overcome.
ROUND AND ROUND AND ROUND it goes, and where it stops nobody knows! You might think that ordinary human-beings would have tired of Capitalism’s cyclical catastrophes by now. But our capacity to absorb these entirely man-made calamities appears to be no less impressive than our ability to cope with the genuine disasters nature sends our way. Indeed, Capitalism’s longevity is, almost certainly, attributable to its success in convincing us that it, too, is a force of Nature – something far beyond our feeble strength to influence for good or ill.
It was not always so. Eighty years ago, with the world in the clutches of another capitalist catastrophe, human-beings somewhere found the collective strength to denounce this “force of nature” falsehood. They decided that what humankind could ruin just by “letting things go” (laissez-faire) it could rebuild by replacing the “invisible hand” of the all-powerful capitalist market with their own.
The American President, Franklin Roosevelt, demonstrated the power of those all-too-visible hands in the massive public works of his “New Deal”. And the British Prime Minister, Clement Atlee, likewise demonstrated what focused political will could achieve when, in the midst of post-war austerity, the British people created their National Health Service.
Nor was New Zealand lacking in these triumphs of the people’s will. The First Labour Government’s Social Security Act of 1938 was New Zealand’s answer to the poverty and desperation of the Great Depression. Likewise its state housing programme: a massive construction effort funded by “Reserve Bank Credit”. (A capital source unrecognised by contemporary capitalist economists!)
So spectacular were the achievements of collective endeavour in the years before, during and after the Second World War, that capitalists everywhere felt obliged to pay them a grudging lip-service. This apparent conversion was, however, illusory. Whenever the parties of “private enterprise” managed to supplant the parties of collectivism, the latter’s policies were either subtly, or not so subtly, perverted. Projects designed to serve the interests of the many, always seemed to end up by disproportionately benefitting the few.
Visionary Blueprints: Ministry of Works plans for "The Auckland That Never Was".
The visionary blueprints for the development of post-war Auckland, drawn up in the mid-1940s by Ministry of Works planners, anticipated the goals of Auckland’s contemporary urban planners by 70 years. Tragically, the election of the First National Government, in 1949, put paid to this “Auckland that never was”, leaving Aucklanders with the sprawling, automobile-dependent conurbations that, today, they cannot afford to fix.
An even more comprehensive development plan, this time embracing the whole country, was brought together by William B. Sutch in the 1950s. One of New Zealand’s most creative (and controversial) public servants, Sutch recognised, very early, the urgent need for New Zealand to diversify its agricultural commodity-based economy. He argued for the sort of value-added products that distinguished the export-base of small economies like Switzerland and Denmark. This would require a much stronger national emphasis on skills acquisition and tertiary education. Only with a highly educated workforce could New Zealand produce the innovation necessary to broaden its economy. Sutch also argued for an economy that was much less import dependent. New Zealand, he said, must develop a much stronger industrial base.
In the Second Labour Government (1957-1960) led by Walter Nash, Sutch found a pair of eager listeners. The Finance Minister, Arnold Nordmeyer, and the Industry and Commerce Minister, Philip Holloway, were both convinced that Sutch’s ideas offered the only coherent path to a more prosperous, and less vulnerable, economic future for New Zealand. It is one of the great tragedies of this country’s history that the Second Labour Government did not last long enough for the change it contemplated to be undertaken and become entrenched.
As Sutch would later write: “The National Party could not have made this change because of their dependence for financial and political support on the farmers, importers, merchants and finance houses.” Plus ça change!
It’s been seven years since the Global Financial Crisis of 2008 provided yet another warning of New Zealand’s economic vulnerability. Was it heeded? There’s scant evidence of it. What cannot be missed, however, is seven years of enormous investment in dairying. The export of raw commodities remains this country’s stock-in-trade.
Today, as another capitalist catastrophe looms, is it not time to heed the collective spirit of ‘38 and ‘45 and ’57? Those years when “Yes we can!” was more than a presidential slogan.
This essay was originally published in The Waikato Times, The Taranaki Daily News, The Timaru Herald, The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 28 August 2015.

Thursday, 27 August 2015

Whaddarya? David Slack talks Rugby at the Ika Seafood Bar and Grill.

Whaddarya? David Slack epitomises the thinking, egalitarian, inclusive and creative half of New Zealand society that has always been so feared and despised by the hyper-masculine, woman-hating, anti-intellectual, Rugby-worshipping half. How we Kiwis have made one nation out of two such mutually hostile traditions was the subject of David's "Salon" spot at Ika Seafood Bar & Grill on Tuesday night.
ALL NEW ZEALANDERS must live with Rugby. There is no possibility of escaping, and absolutely no chance of ignoring it. Rugby, love it or hate it, has exerted, and continues to exert, a tremendous influence on the way New Zealand presents itself to the world. It has certainly left its mark on David Slack. In the “Salon” spotlight at the Ika Seafood Bar & Grill on Tuesday night (25/8/15) the professional speech-writer, author and broadcaster proved how impossible it is to discuss New Zealand’s brutal national game without, at the same time, discussing the nature of the society which supports it – and oneself.
Slack was born in Feilding, a small town in the Manawatu, that could easily have been the setting for Greg McGee’s extraordinary play about Rugby, Foreskin’s Lament. The sort of town about which these lines from the play could have been written:
“This is a team game, son, and the town is the team. It’s the town’s honour at stake when the team plays, god knows there’s not much else around here.”
The frankly fascist implications of the statement “the town is the team” need little elucidation. It was Mussolini, after all, who came up with the slogan: “All within the state, nothing outside the state, nothing against the state.”
Slack’s description of his Fielding contemporaries as “knuckle-dragging sons of the soil” speaks eloquently of a young boy made to feel like an “exile” from his own country. Growing up in Fielding, Slack’s subversively divergent personal priorities (he read books!) would elicit from his peers, over and over again, the single, brute interrogatory: “Whaddarya!”
“Whaddarya!” is, literally, the last word of Foreskin’s Lament. Its electrifying effect produced by McGee’s inspired inversion of the word’s usual purpose. Instead of drawing attention to the “other’s” difference – and so confirming his or her exclusion from the team/town/nation – the word was hurled back in the audience’s face. “Whaddarya!” was McGee’s defiant challenge to a country that was already, in 1980, gearing up to welcome the Springbok ambassadors of apartheid.
1981 – and all that. The Springbok Tour cannot be avoided in any honest discussion of New Zealand Rugby (unless, of course, you are the Prime Minister). It was as if both sides, Pro- and Anti-Tour, had contrived to line up and scream “Whaddarya!” at each other for 56 days of utterly uncharacteristic political passion. For Slack, and the tens-of-thousands of others who opposed the Tour, the issue was whether or not the more open and diverse country that New Zealand was becoming would prevail, or, be smothered to death in the fascistic headlock of all those “knuckle-dragging sons of the soil” who wouldn’t have hesitated to affirm the slogan: “All within Rugby, nothing outside Rugby, nothing against Rugby.”
After 1981, it seemed that the two halves of New Zealand could never be brought back together. Rugby became a litmus test. If you were a fan, then you were morally reprehensible: a “Rugby thug” who was also, no doubt, a racist, sexist, homophobe. In the new New Zealand that was rapidly taking shape there could be no place for such people.
But, of course, there was a place for them. As the hero of Foreskin’s Lament reproves the liberal feminist character, Moira, following one of her diatribes against the piggishness of New Zealand’s Rugby culture:
“This is the heart and bowels of this country, too strong and foul and vital for reduction to bouquets, or oils, or words. If you think they’re pigs, then you’d better look closer, and get used to the smell, because their smell is your smell.”
Remove Rugby from the New Zealand equation and we no longer add up.
Slack has written a delightful history of the childhood game of “Bullrush”. In it he celebrates the “teamlessness” of the game, and the way people remember it with smiles and laughter. This, he seems to be saying, is the true essence of the Kiwi character; the way we really are before the “town” turns us into emotionally-stunted sacrifices to the mud-splattered god, whose only gospel is “kick the shit out of everything that gets in the way of winning the game”.
But that just won’t do. And, in his gloriously meandering address, Slack more-or-less conceded as much. Yes, New Zealand is about the anarchic individualism of Bullrush, but it also about the fascism of the First Fifteen. We are, if I may borrow that most overused of Rugby phrases, a game of two halves. And at some point over the past 34 years, almost unnoticed, those two halves have become one again – at least when the All Blacks are playing.
This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Wednesday, 26 August 2015.

Tuesday, 25 August 2015

The Great Fear: Why Farmers Won’t Let The Health And Safety Reform Bill Pass.

Hard Going: All attempts to intrude regulations pertinent to the general welfare of all New Zealanders beyond the farm gate has invariably been met with ferocious political opposition. Whether it be the public’s “right to roam”, the doomed “Fart Tax”, the Emissions Trading Scheme, or, in just the last few weeks, the Health and Safety Reform Bill, the cry of New Zealand’s cockies has been – "They shall not pass!"
IT WAS GENOCIDE of a special kind. Relentless mass killing inspired not by ethnicity, or religion, but by the victims’ social and economic position. “The liquidation of the Kulaks as a class” was one of Joseph Stalin’s greatest crimes. Farmers around the world looked on in horror, and their instinctive hostility towards the collectivising tendencies of city-based socialists congealed into an implacable hatred.
As a political designation, “Kulak” is derived from the Polish word for “fist” – as in “tight fisted” – making it, from the very beginning, a term of abuse for those farmers who had worked harder and smarter than their neighbours, produced a surplus, sold it on the open market, purchased some basic agricultural machinery with the proceeds, hired a little help – and made a profit.
Even in Tsarist times (when Poland was a part of the Russian Empire) the Kulaks were objects of envy and suspicion. After the Bolshevik Revolution, however, to be classed (and the word is used here advisedly) as a Kulak all-too-often meant persecution, confiscation, and, with the advent of “the collectivisation of agriculture” in late 1920s and early 30s, arrest, deportation, enslavement in the gulags [Soviet forced labour camps] and death.
With the Revolution’s ruthless elimination of the old Russian aristocracy, the Kulaks – though only marginally better off than their neighbours – had found themselves elevated to the status of the new capitalist class in the countryside. The smarter Bolsheviks had wanted to harness the drive and entrepreneurial flair of the Kulaks to secure the volume of exportable agricultural surpluses required to make socialism affordable for the rest of the USSR’s population.
Stalin was having none of it. The great Soviet experiment could not be held hostage to the capitalistic proclivities of its peasant farmers – no matter how economically productive. Agriculture must be collectivised and industrialised. Peasants must become workers. “Now”, Stalin boasted in 1929, “we have the opportunity to carry out a resolute offensive against the kulaks, break their resistance, eliminate them as a class and replace their production with the production of kolkhozes [collective farms] and sovkhozes [state-owned farms].”

"Do Not Trust Him! This Czech poster, from the 1940s, depicts the Kulak as the most hardened enemy of Socialism.
Ancient history? Not a bit of it! The fate of farmers under conditions of “actually existing socialism” has stood as a cautionary tale to generation after generation of Kiwi cockies. The very idea of the state and its minions attempting to impose their will beyond the farm gate fills New Zealand farmers with a combination of fury and dread. Resistance, loud and implacable, has always been their first response.

Except, of course, when collective solutions were manifestly in the farmers’ interest – as was the case with the guaranteed prices and massive state subsidies that underpinned New Zealand agriculture from the 1930s to the 1980s. Like so many other Kiwi capitalists, farmers have never had a problem with socialising the costs and privatising the profits of their endeavours.
Well, hardly ever. When, in 1972, the National Government suggested the compulsory acquisition of the entire New Zealand wool clip, the parliamentary candidate for the Southland seat of Awarua, a farmer named Aubrey Begg, thundered that: “If this measure is allowed to proceed, we might as well paint a hammer and sickle on every barn door in New Zealand!” (And he was the Labour candidate!)
The farmers’ great fear of socialism is nowhere better displayed than in their unwavering refusal to recognise workers’ rights. Such recognition would only open the door to the trade unions – long resisted (think "Massey’s Cossacks") as both the harbingers and hand-maidens of every socialist burden ever imposed upon the long-suffering cockie.
One imagines the fate of the doomed kulaks looming large in the farmers’ fevered imaginations when, in 1936, the First Labour Government passed the Agricultural Workers Act. No doubt its provision of a minimum wage, four weeks paid holiday, and radically improved housing, for all farm workers, was regarded as proof positive that the Kiwi Kulaks’ one-way trip to the gulags was imminent!
Though the word “Kulak” may have faded from twenty-first century cockies’ vocabulary, their visceral fear of trade unionists and the socialist aspirations they embody, has not. Which is why any and every attempt to intrude regulations pertinent to the general welfare of all New Zealanders beyond the farm gate is invariably met with ferocious political opposition. Whether it be the public’s “right to roam”, the doomed “Fart Tax”, the Emissions Trading Scheme, or, in just the last few weeks, the Health and Safety Reform Bill, the cry of New Zealand’s cockies has been the same as the cry of the communist defenders of the Spanish Republic: ¡No pasarán! – They Shall Not Pass!
The rest of New Zealand must understand that allowing farm workers to manage their own health and safety would open the door for trade unionism – and socialism!
And what could possibly be more dangerous than that?!
This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 25 August 2015.

Carefully Constructed Lies: Moving In The Direction Of Neoliberalism

George Orwell Had Their Measure: In his dystopian masterpiece, Nineteen Eighty-Four, he presented characters who are actually very thankful for the ability to behave as though the lies their political leaders tell them are true. After all, people convinced they’re being lied to might start demanding the truth – and that could lead to all kinds of trouble.
HOW ANGRY “CENTRISTS” GET when they’re referred to in anything less than the most congratulatory terms. As if their appalling ignorance of, and disdain for, politics is something to be proud of. And yet, proud they are – very proud – of their refusal to shoulder even the most basic responsibilities of citizenship. Day after day, these people are fed statements by their political leaders which cannot, in any way, be reconciled with the facts – but which, their obvious falsity notwithstanding, they accept as true.
George Orwell had their measure. In his dystopian masterpiece, Nineteen Eighty-Four, he presented characters who are actually very thankful for the ability to behave as though the lies their political leaders tell them are true. After all, people convinced they’re being lied to might start demanding the truth – and that could lead to all kinds of trouble. Orwell even invented a name for this condition: doublethink.
To know and not to know, to be conscious of complete truthfulness while telling carefully constructed lies, to hold simultaneously two opinions which cancelled out, knowing them to be contradictory and believing in both of them, to use logic against logic, to repudiate morality while laying claim to it, to believe that democracy was impossible and that the Party was the guardian of democracy, to forget whatever it was necessary to forget, then to draw it back into memory again at the moment when it was needed, and then promptly to forget it again, and above all, to apply the same process to the process itself – that was the ultimate subtlety: consciously to induce unconsciousness, and then, once again, to become unconscious of the act of hypnosis you had just performed. Even to understand the word ‘doublethink’ involved the use of doublethink.
In short: “Doublethink means the power of holding two contradictory beliefs in one’s mind simultaneously, and accepting both of them.”
The all-pervasive ideological system which required the citizens of “Airstrip One” [Great Britain] to practice doublethink was “Ingsoc” [English Socialism]. Though no centrist would accept for a moment that New Zealand society is in any way comparable to Orwell’s dystopia, it is not at all difficult to see in the all-pervasive influence of neoliberalism a polity more than a little analogous to Big Brother’s totalitarian regime.
It is one of the most frightening features of totalitarian systems that their effectiveness relies less upon naked force than it does upon the ordinary person’s realisation that, in practical terms, going with the flow of the new system makes much more sense than attempting to stand against it. In Nazi Germany, this was called “moving in the direction of the Fuhrer”. Adolf Hitler’s beliefs being well known and understood, it was unnecessary for his ministers to issue precise instructions concerning the implementation of his new government’s policies. Bureaucrats and other authority figures simply acted as they believed the Fuhrer would wish them to act.
Is it not possible to see in the appalling treatment meted out to beneficiaries of all kinds by MSD and WINZ bureaucrats more than a little of this “moving in the direction of the Fuhrer” phenomenon? No detailed memos will have been sent out to MSD employees – indeed, it would’ve been most unwise to put such sentiments down in writing – but everyone in that bureaucracy knows exactly what is expected of them. Government ministers, editorial writers and talkback hosts have made it very clear what the appropriate demeanour towards their beneficiary “clients” should be. They all know how their bosses would wish them to act.
If any centrists are still reading this, their blood pressure will no doubt be rising rapidly. “I’m not like that! This isn’t Nazi Germany! You’re out of you mind!” The great problem, of course, for these outraged folk, is that between 1933 and 1938 Nazi Germany wasn’t like Nazi Germany. For most German citizens, and in the eyes of the rest of the world, Hitler was a hero, and his regime’s achievements – full-employment especially – the envy of all those nations still mired in economic depression.
No, we don’t have concentration camps filled with John Key’s opponents. But that is not, of itself, proof that our democracy survives unscathed. It might just as easily point to the extraordinary success of what is, indisputably, the most successful totalitarian ideology in human history. Neoliberalism is a brilliantly conceived edifice of lies which, in order to have a successful career, it is in the intelligent citizen’s interest to affirm as an unanswerable collection of self-evident truths.
If you can do this without demonstrating the slightest traces of amusement, stress or guilt, then there’s a better than even chance that you call yourself a centrist.
This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Monday, 24 August 2015.

Saturday, 22 August 2015

Swamp Things: The Political “Centre” Contains Only What The Left And The Right Put Into It.

The Machinery For Change: Startlingly captured in this image are the many components of political consciousness formation in the Twenty-First Century. The sensibilities of so-called "Centrist" voters are constructed out of a multitude of similarly mediated experiences. What should never be forgotten, however, are the very real events out of which popular perceptions are fashioned.

YOU KNOW THE LEFT’s on a roll, when Labour’s number-cruncher, Rob Salmond, comes out “In Defence of the Centre”. It’s all Jeremy Corbyn’s fault, of course. Even here, in the far antipodes, the excitement generated by his campaign for the leadership of the British Labour Party is palpable. It leaps out at us from the videos of packed halls and chanting crowds. And we know it’s real because, from his enemies, we get only scorn and hatred – and the unmistakeable stench of fear.

Along with all the same old arguments about elections being won in the centre. Which is, of course, true – but trivial. In a society where enthusiasms of any kind are regarded with deep suspicion, it is hardly surprising that people overwhelmingly characterise themselves as inhabitants of the centre ground – “Middle New Zealanders”.

That most self-identified “centrists” are no such thing never appears to bother the political scientists of this world. To the number-crunchers of electoral politics the only thing that matters is that there are a lot of them. So many, in fact, that it is more-or-less impossible to win elections without them. But let us be very clear about the priorities and preoccupations of this group. It is “centrist” only insofar as it occupies the swampland between the shores of rock-solid belief that loom to left and right.

Centrists’ “ideas” are a weird amalgam of television images, talkback arguments and newspaper headlines. Their morals are drawn from half-remembered parental reproofs; lines from songs, movies, TV dramas, novels and magazines – not forgetting pub-talk and the angry abuse of social media. Centrists communicate in the common parlance of popular culture: the inconsistent, self-contradictory and ever-changing patois of office, street, tavern and suburban lounge. Politically-speaking, the Centre is a rubbish skip: if there’s a message in there, then, for the most part, it’s a very confused one.

And if that sounds like the manifesto of your average political party, then you’re right on the money. The endless pursuit of the Centrist voter has reduced our politicians to the equivalent of those journalistic low-lifes who go scavenging through the garbage of the rich and famous. In much the same way, the carelessly discarded detritus of the men and women “in the middle” gets picked over by political rubbish men, cleaned up, and re-cycled into party policy.

The enormous appeal of men like Jeremy Corbyn is that their messages do not carry the oily patina of the centrist swamp. People respond to the message’s clarity, its simplicity, and the way each piece of its fits together to form a coherent picture of an alternative future. At first, not everybody sees the picture, but before too long word of its power and beauty spreads. There are images of it on television; arguments in its favour are heard on talkback; and it gets condensed into newspaper headlines. Parents recall catching a glimpse of the picture when they were young. There are songs about it – movies and TV dramas follow. It’s talked about in offices, streets, pubs and suburban lounges.

And the political rubbish men who go poking about in the skips of the Centre are suddenly confronted with evidence of some very different patterns of consumption. And the message it conveys is very clear.

The Centre has changed.

This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Saturday, 22 August 2015.

Friday, 21 August 2015

When The Nation’s Permanent Interests Override Its Impermanent Politicians

Pushback: Rob Muldoon's NZSIS Amendment Bill 1977 inspired huge protest demonstrations up and down the country. The Bill passed, but only at the price of massive and enduring public mistrust of the SIS itself. Were a left-wing government ever to give legislative expression to that mistrust, however, the true purposes of our national security apparatus would very quickly be revealed.
SUBMISSIONS TO the Independent Review of Intelligence and Security closed last Friday. No doubt the “Independent Reviewers”, Sir Michael Cullen and Dame Patsy Reddy, are already up to their elbows in the earnest recommendations of their fellow citizens. By March of next year we will learn what they have made of them.
In all probability, neither Sir Michael, nor Dame Patsy, will end up recommending much more than a little tweaking here and there to New Zealand’s national security apparatus. The terms of reference of their inquiry were extremely narrowly set – always an indication that nothing too dramatic is expected by the politicians who set the process in motion.
A few judicious redefinitions of the scope and powers of the Security Intelligence Service (SIS) and the Government Communications Security Bureau (GCSB) is the most we should anticipate. (Especially after the Prime Minister has strongly and publicly hinted that this is what his government is expecting!)
Indeed, any government attempting to make more than minor changes to either institution is asking for trouble. In 1977, the National Prime Minister, Robert Muldoon, ignited a firestorm of nationwide protests when he announced his intention to legislate a substantial increase in the powers of the SIS. The New Zealand Security Intelligence Service Amendment Bill, which dramatically expanded the Service’s capacity to intercept private communications, and forbade the public identification of its agents, was passed by Parliament, but only at the cost of a significant portion of the citizenry’s trust and goodwill.
That New Zealand’s so-called “intelligence community” is anxious to retain and build public trust and goodwill has been evident over the past fortnight in the substantive public relations campaign it has waged in advance of the Independent Review. SIS Director, Rebecca Kitteridge, knows how difficult her job will become if her fellow citizens are unwilling to concede the legitimacy of the SIS’s role.
But, if losing the trust and goodwill of New Zealand’s citizens is a bad thing, losing the trust and confidence of New Zealand’s allies would be much, much worse. This would, however, be the most likely outcome if the recommendations of those who made submissions to the Independent Review from the left were ever to be taken up and implemented by a future left-leaning government.
The submission from the Anti-Bases Campaign, for example (whose spokesperson is the redoubtable left-wing activist, Murray Horton) has recommended to Sir Michael and Dame Patsy that: “New Zealand immediately exits the Five Eyes regime.”
The reviewers will, of course, ignore this demand – if only because it falls outside the scope of their inquiry. But, what if a future Labour-Green Government was persuaded to withdraw from the UK-USA Agreement, to which New Zealand has been party for more than 60 years?
It is precisely in circumstances such as these that the true function of our national security apparatus would be demonstrated.
It was the United States Secretary of State, Henry Kissinger, who infamously remarked of the democratically elected socialist government of Chile: “I don’t see why we need to stand by and watch a country go communist due to the irresponsibility of its own people. The issues are much too important for the Chilean voters to be left to decide for themselves.” On 11 September 1973, that government was overthrown by the Chilean armed forces.
"The issues are much too important for the Chilean voters to be left to decide for themselves."
- US Secretary of State, Henry Kissinger, justifies the overthrow of Chile's socialist government.
On 10 November 1975, outraged that his government was under CIA surveillance, the Australian Labour Prime Minister, Gough Whitlam, let it be known that he would be closing down the joint CIA/National Security Agency’s satellite tracking station at Pine Gap near Alice Springs in the Northern Territory. The following day, Whitlam’s government was dismissed by Sir John Kerr, the Australian Governor-General. (The Pine Gap station was critical to the effectiveness of the “Five Eyes regime”.)
In the eyes of both the Chilean armed forces, and Australia’s national security apparatus, the permanent national interests of their respective states had been placed at serious risk by political figures who either did not understand, or were hostile to, those interests. In arriving at these conclusions, both institutions relied upon the intelligence and advice of their nation’s principal military and economic ally, the United States.
Although neither Sir Michael, nor Dame Patsy, will admit it, “national security” is all about identifying which permanent national interests are best kept beyond the reach of Democracy’s impermanent practitioners.
This essay was originally published in The Waikato Times, The Taranaki Daily News, The Timaru Herald, The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 21 August 2015.

Wednesday, 19 August 2015

Heart Of Gold: Why Mike Hosking Is A More Popular Broadcaster Than John Campbell.

All That Glitters: Hosking is not a megaphone for neoliberalism, he is its bright and shining mirror.
WHEN IT COMES TO RATINGS, Mike Hosking is a winner. He knows it, his employers know it, and, if they’re honest with themselves, the Daily Blog’s firebrands know it too. What he says to Newstalk-ZB’s listeners is, for the most part, well received. Which is why Newstalk-ZB’s breakfast show is the most popular product on commercial radio. Seven Sharp’s viewers, likewise, are insufficiently offended by Hosking’s opinions to change channels. And that’s all anyone has to do, FFS – if they don’t like or approve of Hosking’s shtick – change the bloody station or switch channels. Their forbearance, in the case of Seven Sharp, is what made the programme roughly twice as popular as Campbell Live.
Though it pains the Left to admit it, Campbell Live was a vehicle for values shared by fewer and fewer New Zealanders. Thirty years of neoliberal hegemony will do that to a country. The social-democratic culture in which Kiwis over 50 were raised, while very far from being dead, can be accessed now only through the indistinct portals of nostalgia. By contrast, the culture which succeeded it, whatever people choose to call it, is everywhere you look. Love it or hate it, this is the culture we are all required to move and function in: the culture that counts.
Mike Hosking is a perfect fit for this new, market-driven, culture. The social-democratic culture that permeated the old state broadcasting system was never one in which he felt comfortable. It was too sedate, too elevated, too wedded to the Reithian ethic, for a broadcaster of his voluble and quicksilver temperament. [Reithian: Named for John Reith, the first Director-General of the BBC, who held that the role of a public broadcaster was to “inform, educate and entertain” its listeners and viewers – C.T.]
The Hosking personality: self-confident, thrusting and ambitious; scornful of those who cannot reach conclusions quickly and definitively; and unshakeably wedded to the idea that if success is not recognised by, and reflected in, increased material wealth and higher social status, then it isn’t really success; was, however, supremely well-adapted to the new world ushered in by the changes of the fourth Labour Government.
Who could forget the Hosking interview with a Labour Cabinet Minister during which the hapless politician was incautious enough to ask the, by now extremely well-paid, broadcaster how much he earned. “More than you do!”, Hosking snapped back without missing a beat. Seldom has a Cabinet Minister looked so crestfallen. It was vintage Hosking. In the new era, ushered in by Rogernomics, human worth was measured by the quantum of an individual’s income. If he earned more than a Cabinet Minister, that could only mean that he was better than a Cabinet Minister – and Hosking wasn’t the least bit afraid of letting Cabinet Ministers know it.
The Left, of course, rejects Hosking’s world view as utterly repellent, and condemns it as antithetical to everything they believe in and want for the world. From their perspective, it is morally indefensible that such a person should be accorded the privilege of daily addressing hundreds-of-thousands of their fellow citizens. But the corruption they believe his unabashed worship of wealth and status is bound to work in the body politic was already dissolving “Old” New Zealand long before Hosking took possession of Sir Paul Holmes’s prime-time batons.
The sad fact is that Hosking is not the problem, merely its artfully tousled personification. His high ratings among 18-35 year-olds is explicable only if we accept that, in the eyes of those who have grown up under neoliberalism, being rich and famous is the indisputable desideratum of twenty-first century life. These youngsters have no wish to tear Hosking down, on the contrary, they want to be just like him. Wealth and fame have become the markers of a life well lived. By this reckoning, reiterated over and over again in Hosking’s speeches and columns: success is well-earned, by definition; and failure is merely Nature’s way of delivering her pink slip to those unfortunates on the wrong side of the Bell Curve.
If this is “right-wing bias”, then the whole era through which we are living must be adjudged in precisely the same terms. Hosking is not a megaphone for neoliberalism, he is its bright and shining mirror. And those who accuse him of being John Key’s “stooge” simply do not appreciate the chemistry at work between them. Mike Hosking might earn more than the average Cabinet Minister, but all his thrusting ambition has not come close to earning him a fortune of $55 million. To the Hoskings of this world (and there are many more of them than the Left would like to think) Key’s fortune is proof positive that the Prime Minister is a superior human-being.
Mike Hosking’s heart of gold: cold and glittering as any precious metal; goes out to the ubermensch born in a state house. When God and Mammon have become one and the same – where else would it go?
This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Wednesday, 19 August 2015.

Little Big Man: Who Is Dr Bryce Wilkinson - And Why Should We Care?

Bryce Who? Small and unprepossessing, smiling his grandfatherly smile, Dr Bryce Wilkinson would be passed, unrecognised, in the street by 999 out of 1,000 New Zealanders. And yet, unelected, and largely unknown outside the neoliberal elite, this little man has left a very big impression on our country.
DR BRYCE WILKINSON can make a reasonable claim to have written the book that launched neoliberalism in New Zealand. The name of that book was Economic Management, and although its official author was the New Zealand Treasury, most historians agree that the book’s guiding intellect was Dr Wilkinson’s.
Economic Management knitted together, into what amounted to a detailed manifesto, a raft of radical economic measures that had been worked out in “Economics II” – described by Te Ara, The Encyclopaedia of New Zealand, as: “a think tank in the Treasury in the late 1970s and early 1980s.”
Economics II was staffed by young economists who had studied at universities in the United States where the monetarist theories of Milton Friedman, and the ideas of neo-classical economics generally, were already well-entrenched. Along with Dr Wilkinson, Treasury’s “think tank” included Graeme Scott, Rod Deane and Roger Kerr – individuals who would go on to play pivotal roles in the execution and consolidation of the neoliberal order in New Zealand.
When the Labour Party was swept into office at the snap election of 1984, Economic Management was waiting for them.
“But, wait a minute!”, I hear you object, “Since when does Treasury supply New Zealand’s political parties with ready-made manifestoes? Didn’t Labour have a manifesto of its own in 1984?” Indeed it did – but not the sort of manifesto in which anyone could place much confidence.
Though the public were not told, Labour’s manifesto was a hastily-cobbled-together mish-mash of the policies advocated by Labour’s left-wing dominated Policy Council, and the ideas emanating from the faction in Labour’s caucus led by Roger Douglas and his fellow “reformers” Michael Bassett, Richard Prebble, Mike Moore and David Caygill.
So extreme were the ideas of Douglas’s faction, and so hostile to Labour’s traditions, that a new faction was summoned into existence to fight them. By May of 1984, this latter group was circulating a document posing a radical left-wing alternative to the right-wing measures being fed directly to Douglas and his followers by their special Treasury adviser, Doug Anthony.
Had the Prime Minister, Sir Robert Muldoon, fearing a loss of his parliamentary majority, not called an early election on the night of 14 June 1984, it is fascinating to speculate as to which of these two, diametrically opposed, factions would have triumphed. An election held at the usual time, in November 1984, would have given Labour four more months (and an annual conference) to decide its future direction. Denied that time, the contending factions were persuaded to let David Lange’s deputy, the former Law Professor, Geoffrey Palmer, compose a manifesto both sides could live with, but which, as a reliable guide to the party’s future conduct in government, was next to useless.
Labour’s Bastille Day victory ceded the political initiative to Douglas’s faction. That the country was said by the Reserve Bank and Treasury to be in the grip of a “financial crisis” contributed hugely to the Right’s ability to control the course of events. Precipitated by a policy paper outlining Douglas’s determination to devalue the NZ dollar by 20 percent (which somehow ended up in the hands of the news media), the “financial crisis”, and the new government’s decisive handling of it, brought the Left/Right policy debate to an abrupt (if only temporary) end. It would be Dr Wilkinson’s Economic Management which set the course for what would later be called “Rogernomics”.
Readers of Bowalley Road born after those heady days in 1984, and thus played no part in the great struggle for Labour’s heart and soul that raged from July 1984 until the ejection of Mike Moore from – and the elevation of Helen Clark to – the leadership of the Labour Party in 1993, have been supplied with this brief sketch of the role Dr Wilkinson has played in New Zealand’s recent history, so that they can put his statement on foreign investment and racism, released earlier today (17/8/15) into some kind of context.
Commenting on the KPMG report showing China to be only the second-largest foreign investor (after Canada) in New Zealand (excluding residential property) Dr Wilkinson is reported as saying that “the report tackled many New Zealanders’ fears that China was buying up land, farms and businesses.” Anxiety about China was producing a “silly defensiveness” he said, adding that “racist attitudes and red tape were making New Zealand one of the most restrictive regimes in the world”. According to Dr Wilkinson: “We should be much freer and more open to the rest of the world and that helps New Zealanders get a better price for their assets which means they can invest more in the rest of the world themselves.”
More free and open! Such is the prescription of the man who, along with his colleagues from Economics II, persuaded the fourth Labour government to transform New Zealand into the most “free” and “open” economy on Earth. The man who urged on the sale of public assets to “foreign investors”, who were then free to repatriate the billions of dollars of profits extracted from them to their new owners offshore. The man who now calls those attempting to keep what remains of New Zealand’s assets out of foreign hands “racist”, but whose policy of preparing state-owned entities for privatisation saw tens-of-thousands of Maori forestry workers, railway workers and construction workers thrown out of their state jobs – leading to the disintegration of whole communities and the fracturing of whanau.
Small and unprepossessing, smiling his grandfatherly smile in the group photos of the New Zealand Initiative (successor to the now defunct Business Roundtable, which for many years was run by another alumnus from Economics II, Roger Kerr) Dr Wilkinson would be passed, unrecognised, in the street by 999 out of 1,000 New Zealanders. And yet, unelected, and largely unknown outside the neoliberal elite, this little man has left a very big impression on our country.
I’ll leave it for you, the reader, to decide whether it has been for good or ill.
This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Monday, 17 August 2015.

Tuesday, 18 August 2015

TPPA? Walk Away!

More Than "The Usual Suspects", Mr Groser: Once a demonstration swells beyond “the usual left-wing suspects” to include the sort of ordinary Kiwis who turned out in their thousands on Saturday, 15 August 2015, a wise government will begin to ask itself some very serious questions about the wisdom of proceeding with the policy under attack. John Key's best political option, now, is to walk away from the TPPA.
ON SATURDAY, upwards of 30,000 New Zealanders protested against the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement (TPPA). From the tiny village of Kohukohu in the Hokianga, where 50 people marched, to Auckland, where Queen Street was filled from top to bottom with, at the very least 15,000 protesters, New Zealanders from all walks of life expressed their opposition to the proposed agreement.
When confronted with the protest numbers, Trade Minister, Tim Groser, who, only a fortnight ago, branded his opponents “breathless children”, was quick to reach for more insults. Many of those marching, he claimed, had been “misled” by the TPPA’s opponents: people he’d earlier dismissed as “politically irrelevant”.
Well, in the light of Saturday’s turnout around the country, that’s a judgement he may wish to reconsider.
Sustained protest activity in New Zealand, after peaking during the Springbok Tour demonstrations of 1981, has fallen away steadily over subsequent decades. Occasional spikes, such as the massive protests mounted against the Employment Contracts Bill in April 1991, or the 50,000-strong Auckland march against mining in New Zealand’s national parks on 1 May 2010, have not been able to disguise the seemingly inexorable demise of public protest as an effective political tactic.
One of the obvious reasons for abandoning the street as a venue for effective politics is that, over the course of the past 30 years, increasingly derisory turnouts have only tended to alert politicians to the weakness of the organisers’ causes. A memorable article (later turned into a poster) from the anti-Vietnam War era posed the question: “Suppose they gave a war – and nobody came?” The temptation for government politicians to paraphrase that question in relation to protest demonstrations must have been very great!
Not that many of the governments of the past 30 years have been at all responsive to political pressures from below. Indeed, making a virtue out of refusing to be swayed by public opinion is a distinguishing characteristic of neoliberal governments the world over. As the newly-elected, left-leaning Greek government was curtly informed by the technocratic masters of the Eurozone earlier this year: “Elections change nothing.” That the 99 Percent must be prevented from voting themselves a better life at the expense of the 1 Percent, is a neoliberal article of faith. Keeping ignorant electorates well away from complex, technical exercises – like the negotiation of free trade agreements – is, similarly, regarded as axiomatic.
Dismissing the anti-TPPA protests as “politically irrelevant” is, therefore, the most natural top-of-the-head reaction for a confirmed neoliberal politician like Mr Groser. Unfortunately, for him and his government, however, the anti-TPPA movement is growing, not dwindling. Moreover, thanks to the extraordinary communicative power of the Internet, generally, and of social media, in particular, protesters are not only extremely well-informed, but also supremely well-equipped to increase the circulation of anti-TPPA propaganda exponentially.
On 7 March, this year, The Press estimated 1,000 Christchurch protesters had turned out for the “It’s Our Future” coalition’s nationwide, anti-TPPA, day of action. Five months on, and the numbers have increased four-fold, with the Stuff website estimating Saturday’s turnout at 4,000 demonstrators. Since the first of the “It’s Our Future” days of action, held in November 2014, the overall number of people participating has surged from 10,000 to 30,000. Mr Groser and his colleagues need to understand that, for the first time in a long time, they are confronted with a street-based, nationwide, protest movement that is growing larger – not smaller. When 50 people turn out in Kohukohu (Population: 150) “politically irrelevant” is not the right call.
Once a demonstration swells beyond “the usual left-wing suspects” to include the sort of ordinary Kiwis who turned out in their thousands on Saturday, a wise government will begin to ask itself some very serious questions about the wisdom of proceeding with the policy under attack. That is exactly what the Prime Minister, John Key, and his Cabinet did following the huge anti-mining demonstration of May-day 2010. On that occasion, and to their credit, Mr Key and his government walked away from what was, clearly, an unacceptable policy. They would be very wise to do the same in relation to the Trans-Pacific Partnership.
If they refuse to be advised by the electorate on this issue: if, like good neoliberals, they reject the very idea of the people having a say on matters fundamental to their economic well-being; and, without letting New Zealanders to know what is in it, sign the TPPA – then  things will change.
Sign the TPPA, and the mood of rising frustration with the National-led Government – so evident on the streets over the weekend – will become one of outright fury. This will only intensify once the content of the TPPA becomes known, and people discover what sort of agreement their leaders have signed.
Not just a bad deal, Mr Groser, but your government’s death warrant.
This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 18 August 2015.

Monday, 17 August 2015

The Desolation Of Mordor: Tolkien’s Fictional Wasteland Has Nothing On Baotou, The Worst Place On Earth.

"The Gasping Pits And Poisonous Mounds Grew Hideously Clear." Toxic waste from the processing of rare earths pours into Lake Baotou in China's Inner Mongolia province. This is where 97 percent of the world's rare earths come from. Without them neither our smart phones nor our much vaunted "green technology" would work.
IT IS ONE of the most graphic passages in the whole of J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy. The description of the toxic desert on the outskirts of Mordor. Inspired by the polluted landscapes surrounding Britain’s great industrial cities in his youth, Tolkien employs the waste-dumps of Mordor as a metaphor for the diseased and poisoned nature of the Dark Lord’s character. Just as the ruined land is beyond all rehabilitation, so, too, is Sauron.
Here is Tolkien’s description of that terrible place:
“They had come to the desolation that lay before Mordor: the lasting monument to the dark labour of its slaves that should endure when all their purposes were made void; a land defiled, diseased beyond all healing – unless the Great Sea should enter it and wash it with oblivion. ‘I feel sick,’ said Sam. Frodo did not speak. 

For a while they stood there, like men on the edge of a sleep where nightmare lurks, holding it off, though they know they can only come to morning through shadows. The light broadened and hardened. The gasping pits and poisonous mounds grew hideously clear. The sun was up, walking among clouds and long flags of smoke, but even the sunlight was defiled. The hobbits had no welcome for that light; unfriendly it seemed, revealing them in their helplessness – little squeaking ghosts that wandered among the ash-heaps of the Dark Lord.”
Throughout the fantasy, Tolkien takes great care to reassure his readers that the “free peoples” of Middle Earth are at great pains to stand aloof from Mordor and all its works. If, however, someone were to attempt to describe the political economy of Middle Earth (at the end of the Third Age) it would have to begin with the declining empire of Gondor and its vassal states, Rohan and The Shire. A largely self-sufficient economic entity, such trade as Gondor still engaged in was principally with the Dwarf kingdom located in the Iron Hills, many hundreds of miles to the north. Tolkien hints that Gondor might also have engaged in limited commerce with the kingdoms of the “swertings” – the black-skinned peoples of the south – but only during the period when the Dark Lord was believed to be dead.
There can be no doubt, however, that Mordor constituted the economic powerhouse of Middle Earth. Like the ante-bellum South, Mordor boasted vast plantations in which thousands of slaves produced the food and other materials required for its sustenance. Any surplus was traded with the southern kingdoms which had, since Sauron’s return, fallen steadily under Mordor’s sway. Moreover, the Dark Lord’s military build-up, in preparation for his attack upon Gondor, would have required the production of weapons on an industrial scale. Mordor’s hunger for iron and other minerals must have been insatiable.
Deconstructing Tolkien’s great tale in this cold-eyed economic fashion is, of course, anathema to LOTR aficionados. The War of the Ring is supposed to be a battle between good and evil, not an economic struggle between a rapidly industrialising, slave-owning tyranny on the one hand, and an economically weak, largely agricultural, kingdom without a king, on the other. Looked at in this fashion, it becomes very clear, very quickly, that without the magical assistance rendered by Gandalf and the Elves, Gondor would have been a gonner.
Cold-eyed and economically determined is, however, very definitely the nature of the world in which we are required to live. A world sadly lacking in magical beings dedicated to the protection of fading empires and bucolic farming communities like the Shire. On Planet Earth, the rising power of a tyrannical industrial powerhouse is unlikely to be checked by anything remotely resembling wizards, elves or hobbits.
Where Tolkien’s fantasy and twenty-first century reality do intersect, however, is in the environmental degradation attendant upon our high-tech civilisation. The hideous pollution which Tolkien encountered in his youth has, like the factories and mines that created it, largely disappeared from England’s green and pleasant land. But this does not mean that Mordor-like desolation is also a thing of the past. Mordor has merely shifted its location: from the north of England and the midlands, to the seemingly limitless horizons of Inner Mongolia and the horrors of Baotou.
Baotou is the global centre of rare earth production: the place from which the minerals that make our post-modern, digitally-driven world possible. Only in China is such an industrial complex possible, because the inescapable environmental degradation attendant upon the extraction of Rare Earths would never be tolerated in the democratic nations of the West.
Read how a team of BBC journalists and photographers described their arrival at the man-made “lake” on the outskirts of Baotou. If Mordor is anywhere in this world, then surely, it is here:
“We reached the shore, and looked across the lake. I’d seen some photos before I left for Inner Mongolia, but nothing prepared me for the sight. It’s a truly alien environment, dystopian and horrifying. The thought that it is man-made depressed and terrified me, as did the realisation that this was the by-product not just of the consumer electronics in my pocket, but also green technologies like wind turbines and electric cars that we get so smugly excited about in the West. Unsure of quite how to react, I take photos and shoot video on my cerium polished iPhone.”
Baotou's Toxic Lake: "Nothing prepared me for the sight."
Tolkien’s great fantasy both reveals and conceals the true nature of the world human-beings inhabit. The Ring of Power – symbol of the ruthless instrumentalism through which humankind has subdued the planet – is wonderfully conceived, but its ability to instruct the reader is fatally weakened by Tolkien’s determination to make Good triumph over Evil.
The bitter truth, of course, is that all of us wear the Ring of Power, all the time. And all of us are irredeemably engaged in the moral self-destruction that use of the Ring inevitably entails. We New Zealanders may be “sleepy hobbits”, dozing blissfully in our beautiful little Shire at the world’s end, but that doesn’t stop us, when we’re awake, from using the wondrous consumer goods Baotou’s rare earths make possible. Our ease, and the bounteous lifestyle of which we are so proud (and of which the rest of the world is so envious) only exists because somewhere, far, far away, in the barren wilds of Inner Mongolia, giant pipes are continuously spewing their poisonous brew into a lake so ruined, hideous and deadly, that Sauron, himself, would blanche in horror.
This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Saturday, 16 August 2015.

Friday, 14 August 2015

Music Will Save The World: Jamestown Revival


SOMETIMES the names of American towns are just too perfect to be true. I mean “Magnolia, Texas”? Wouldn’t you just love to be able to tell people you were born in a town called “Magnolia”? Well the two founding members of Jamestown Revival (think, Jamestown, early North American settlement, and then think, Credence Clearwater …) both had the good fortune to be born in the very real Magnolia, Texas. (Population: 1,393)
Jonathan Clay and Zach Chance started writing and singing songs together at the age of 15. The harmonies they happened on in the course of their on-stage collaboration proved to be more rewarding than anything they’d dug out of solo performances – and so Jamestown Revival was born.
The duo’s songs are crafted out of the raw experiences of being young and Texan. Their musical ear has always been more attuned to what sounds right to them, rather than anything that might sell. Even so, it’s clear that their music fits pretty comfortably under the heading of Americana.
Listening to these guys brings back memories of youth hostels and folk clubs: places where young American tourists would lift a Gibson out of its case and just blow everyone away with their astounding musicianship and vocal power. They all seemed to come from places with names like “Magnolia, Texas” too!
Jonathan and Zach, self-released their highly acclaimed first album, Utah, in 2014, after which they were picked up by Republic Records. The duo are now based in California – hence the featured track  “California (Cast Iron Soul)” - full of bitter-sweet nostalgia for their old home town. The act's been expanded recently by the addition of Ed Benrock on drums and Nick Bearden on bass.
If you like the sound of Magnolia, Texas (by way of California) Jamestown Revival will be performing in Auckland in October as part of the Tuning Fork venue’s “Americana” festival.
Video courtesy of YouTube
This posting is exclusive to Bowalley Road.

Trading With The Enemy?

Ukraine Doesn't Even Come Close: Soviet troops roll over the Afghan border in late-December 1979. The presence of T-54 tanks on the streets of Kabul was not enough, however, to halt New Zealand's burgeoning trade relationship with the Soviet Union. So keen was the Muldoon Government to keep selling butter to the Reds that the relationship even survived  the SIS catching the Soviet Ambassador passing $10,000 to the Socialist Unity Party!
NEW ZEALANDERS like to make fun of their Security Intelligence Service. That an SIS agent’s abandoned briefcase was found to contain a cold meat pie and a hot copy of Penthouse magazine has provided endless fodder for the nation’s satirists. The service’s critics also like to reiterate its agents’ failure to secure a conviction for espionage against William B. Sutch – one of New Zealand’s most distinguished public servants. More latterly, we’ve been encouraged to shake our heads in wonderment at the sort of Cold War madness that could persuade the SIS to keep a file on the mild-mannered Keith Locke – from the age of ten!
Largely forgotten amongst all this guffawing and tut-tutting is the occasion when the SIS got it right. When all the weeks of surveillance and electronic eavesdropping actually paid off, and New Zealand’s spooks were able to parade the scalp, not of some lowly Eastern Bloc attaché, but of the Soviet ambassador himself.
The so-called “Sofinsky Affair” took place just before Christmas in 1979 and featured the Soviet Ambassador, Vesevelod Sofinksy, caught in the act of handing over $10,000 of “Moscow Gold” to a representative of the Socialist Unity Party. The latter, a Soviet-aligned communist organisation, though small in numbers, wielded considerable influence in the then powerful trade union movement. Sofinsky was the SIS’s biggest “gotcha” by far – a Christmas present wrapped up in the reddest of red ribbons.
And yet, the Prime Minister of the day, Rob Muldoon, was troubled. His most obvious course of action was to expel the ambassador for what everybody agreed was an egregious breach of diplomatic protocol. The problem was that, on Christmas Eve 1979, just days after the wildly successful Sofinsky “sting”, Soviet armoured divisions began rolling across the Afghan border.
Amidst the outraged protests of the Muslim states, and the teeth-grinding rage of the “Free World”, Prime Minister Muldoon was desperately worried that New Zealand’s expulsion of its Ambassador would be construed by the Soviet Government as an act of exaggerated Cold War fealty. How would the Soviets respond? What would happen to the burgeoning trade relationship between the two countries? What was a delinquent ambassador worth? Hopefully not that much!
Muldoon dispatched one of his most trusted advisers, Gerald Hensely, to consult New Zealand’s principal allies on the likely consequences. The [Jimmy] Carter Administration in Washington urged caution, but the British were confident that the most New Zealand had to fear by withdrawing Sofinsky’s diplomatic credentials was that the Soviets would do the same to New Zealand’s ambassador in Moscow.
And so it proved. The two states expelled each other’s ambassadors, but took no further action. The shipments of butter and mutton to Russian ports continued uninterrupted – as did the unloading of Russian-made Lada cars at the Auckland docks. Not even the Soviets’ reckless intervention in the internal politics of New Zealand, or the presence of T-54 Russian tanks on the streets of Kabul, was enough to keep the Dairy and Meat Boards’ exports out of the Russian market. Back in 1980, foreign trade was important to New Zealand’s prime minister.
Customer? Cartoonist, Malcolm Evans, exposes the hypocrisy of the Muldoon Government's anti-Soviet rhetoric.
Is it still? As dairy prices tumble, and the Aussie banks start sharpening their pencils, you might think that New Zealand’s current prime minister, John Key, would be doing everything within his power to move this country’s major exports over the border of any country willing to let them through. Russia is one such country. Her people are hungry for butter, cheese and milk powder, and their government is anxious to supply them. Who, or what, could possibly prevent New Zealand and Russia from taking advantage of this mutually beneficial situation?

The answer, apparently, is exactly the same combination of “allies” who, back in 1980, had no problems at all with New Zealand trading with the Soviet Union. Today, however, the Russian Federation is a “no-go area” for New Zealand exports. Russia could invade Afghanistan in 1979, and not be subjected to trade sanctions. But, in 2014, her defensive annexation of Crimea (which had, up until the mid-1950s, been an integral part of the Russian state) has prompted her Nato enemies to declare Russia’s markets off-limits.
Why isn’t our government challenging the EU’s/Nato’s/USA’s right to impose such trade barriers? Time, perhaps, for the SIS to place the American ambassador and the National Party under surveillance?
This essay was originally published in The Waikato Times, The Taranaki Daily News, The Timaru Herald, The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 14 August 2015.