Archive for ‘intellectuals’ Category
Posted on 15:53, August 8th, 2016 by E.A.
Apologies in advance to my friend Hardly for tacking off his rebuttal to my post last week but I have spent the last week fascinated with the idea of getting the government I deserve.
I would not be writing the following words if not for George Orwell.
As intellectual hero’s go, I have few, but Orwell (along with John Ralston Saul) is one of them. Also it would be no short statement to say that his influence on my political thinking has been very profound*.
I read 1984 at the tender age of 12 and it was the first clearly political thing I had ever read and after that there was no turning back. I sought out more of his books to read along with anything else that seemed to be similar. Today I am proud to say that I have the complete set of his works, as printed by Penguin, and not a year goes by that I don’t re-read one of his books or loose myself in his essays, letters or poems.
I sometimes also ruminate on some of the similarities of our lives as while I had many reasons to live and work in Asia as long as I did, one of them was knowing that Orwell had spent five years in Burma or that his naturally contrarian and polemic positions was as much a product of his circumstances as who he was (much the same as myself).
But what I really love about Orwell is the way you can see his mind at work in his writing, it’s not just his thoughts on the page but his thought processes, his arguments, making their way towards their inevitable conclusions and the often ugly truth which they reveal.
In his stream of consciousness writing (mostly his essays but also in Homage to Catalonia, Road to Wigan Pier, Burmese Days, Down and Out in London and Paris and even 1984 (for its description of the bureaucratic life in all its dull glory) I have found much in common with the Gonzo works of Hunter S Thompson (via the placing of the writer in the story themselves and making them a central part), another writer I greatly admire.
But if there is anything I have learnt from reading his works it’s to have your own thoughts and opinions, to not just accept whatever is placed in front of you and to not be afraid to say what is needed to be said.
A good example of this is his essay The Lion and the Unicorn, written while German bombs were still falling on London and the outcome of the war was still in doubt, it traces his argument for democratic socialism as the change required for England to win the war.
In it he pulls no punches in analyzing the reasons for the precarious state of pre-war England (the failure of the ruling class and capitalism to see the threat of a re-arming Germany), the strengths and weaknesses of Hitler’s Germany, criticism of the Left, the quirks of English nationalism and its intellectual character, the hypocrisy of empire mixed with the stated knowledge that while the British Empire was no saint any Nazi empire would be far worse.
He could have written just another polemic denouncing Nazism and supporting the government (buy more bonds!) as was common at the time but instead he attacked both sides as well as acknowledged their various strengths and weaknesses before finally offering a third solution entirely.
And it’s the clear understanding of the situation mixed with the unflinching analysis of what was needed that makes his argument so compelling, personal and so readable. Even now, in the age of drone warfare, no privacy and neo-liberal governments it’s easy to understand his hopes and fears about the situation (worries about Germany winning and the failures of capitalism and empire) and trace his logic throughout to the essays end which unlike so many other works from that period paints a clear and real picture by being so open to admit the failures of his own side and the strengths of the other.
But in the end it’s his critique of empire and capitalism and the fact that he saw them not as simple constructs but also vested with the character of their respective cultures that could give them various virtues and traits that makes his essay work. He was not seeking to defend them (as he was arguing for democratic socialism) but for the need to have a realistic view of the situation as it was then and to not be blinded by sheer ideology or dogma in the face of a mortal threat.
So how does my short hagiography of Orwell relate to the title of this post?
Simple, Orwell did not like twisting words to suit circumstances and his rules for writing were to use simple clear language to present the truth (no matter how upsetting) but with a rather gentlemanly escape clause to prevent it being presented barbarously (something which I can sometimes forget in my own poisonous screeds).
And the platitude that people get the governments they deserve is something I don’t agree with and I believe neither would Orwell.
But I am not going to be citing Orwell as my defense for the rest of this post, I will be making my own arguments and presenting them as I can.
Firstly such a saying is a platitude, it’s not a definitive or historical statement although it may work as a retroactive tool in examining the outcome of a term of government but as a warning, wisdom or sheer statement its powerless as well as having the cruel and bitter tone of a sore loser rather than offering any holistic wisdom (sorry Hardly, its not directed at you per se, it just came out that way :).
Also most people don’t know the difference between a platitude and a platypus and so believe these little crud nuggets as accepted fact without examining things any further (another side effect of living in the age of the media soundbite as expected wisdom).
But returning to the point, getting the governments we deserve: did the German people get what they deserved when they elected Hitler? Is New Zealand getting what it “deserves” in having elected John Key? Or what about Trump/Clinton, will the US be getting what its just deserts in electing either one of them?
The answer to all three is, No!
We can differentiate between saying that it’s clear that one system or candidate appears better than another or that retrospectively a choice was not the best but these are not the same as saying that a people, any people, deserved what their votes got them.
In saying that someone deserved something there is a moral judgement and while we can all have a morals, democratic politics is morally neutral.
Democratic states don’t exist or operate on morals (the people in them have morals); they operate on the rule of law and a series of underlying principles which if not allowed to exist will rapidly make a state anything but democratic. So if you happen to live in a state with morals underlining your government you’re living in a theocracy or some other nation where church and state reside in the same house (in essence God as absolute monarch and an oligarchy of priests running things on Gods behalf)**.
Now I won’t be going all POLS 101 here but I will briefly highlight some key points for readers just so things are clear about what is needed for a state to be democratic.
For a state to be democratic it must be brought to life through the will of the people; the peoples will must be expressed freely and fairly; there must be sufficient political participation to make a majority and ensure proper participation, fundamental rights must be respected, there must be trust in the government elected and the means to remove it if they lose that trust.
Readers may have noticed I did not specifically mention elections (also known as 30 minutes once every three years before going back to sleep) which while a great means of enacting many of the above principles not much if the choices of who to vote for are not really free, not everyone is voting or governments once elected can behave any way they want without censure or removal.
There are many nations around the world which call themselves a democracy but that does not make them so. Simply saying it’s the will of the people when the mechanisms of the election itself are flawed will not make those flaws go away. Does one vote every three years, for a limited pool of candidates really makes the outcome the “will of the people”? I don’t think so.
But I can see that you’re not all convinced and to help explain further, it is worth diving a little deeper into the ways people view their government and their relationship with it.
Without realizing it most people view their state (democratic or otherwise) through either one of two basic lenses.
You are either a Hobbesian in your views in that the state protects you against the ravages and depredation of others states and a brutish nature and that your social contract with it is binding regardless of what kind of government you get OR you are Lockean in nature and believe that democratic states only operate with the consent of the governed and that consent can be removed at any time, forcibly if need be.
Of course I am simplifying things quite a bit here (as I have a word limit) but this is the essence of the two positions. It’s also worth pointing out that I see benefits in both arguments but at the end of the day I come down on the side of John Locke rather than Thomas Hobbes.
If you believe that people get the governments they deserve then your most likely going to groove to what Hobbes had to say in Leviathan (and I do recommend reading it as once you get past the old time English his arguments are persuasive and readable) and it’s easy to understand how such a view, in the wake of the English Civil War (stability at any price rather than chaos), might make sense but since Hobbes believed in, and was arguing for only an absolute monarchy, you may wish to temper any ideas of who deserves what government they get with the idea of life in an absolute monarchy and you not being the absolute monarch.
If you believe that people should have a better government than the one they currently have then you will dig Locke and his Two Treatises of Government. It might just be your bag but be aware that just as Hobbes was writing in response to the chaos of civil war and to defend strong government Locke was writing to help justify removing government, by revolution if necessary! So if you like the government you have but a lot of other people do not then don’t expect them to agree with your political views or sit idly by.
Neither of these two positions, if taken to extreme, really work, but they provide the foundation of much of the ideas of the social contract and of what kind of government we expect to get.
And it’s the social contract that we turn to next because the next question is, can one vote (30 minutes every three years) be necessary and sufficient for a government to represent an entire country, electorate and all actions taken in its course.
The answer is no. Obviously the necessary works but the sufficient does not and this is where the other factors come into play.
For most of us, we get out once every three years and vote, have a big yawn and then we go back to sleep politically and forget what we were actually voting about until the next media frenzy three years later.
The idea that we voted and so the will of the people has been expressed is now good for the next electoral period is a pernicious idea and one that many in power would like us to believe. But where do we draw the line, democracy can either be direct (you have input in all decisions in government) or representative (you elect someone to represent you in government) and in the modern age who would have the time or the knowledge to participate let alone be informed as to what they were participating in?
So until we get the electronic democracy that was discussed last week we are stuck with electing people to represent us. But where is the balance between voting once every three years and then leaving the government free to do what it wants until the next election and having to give consent on each and every issue a government faces?
And this is where Orwell gets back into the argument with his articulation in The Lion and the Unicorn that the debate is not necessarily binary in position and that there may be a third option for us to consider; that of a flexible and realistic response to the situation rather than a punitive platitude in lieu of open debate or partisan politics.
And what would such a response be? What info would we give to the people of Germany, NZ and the US (the past, our present and future) in response to the question posed?
For Germany, the answer is retrospective, we can’t change time but looking back it’s easy to see where things were going but again like Locke and Hobbes the mood at the time was not as we live in now.
Germany (well 34% of them) welcomed Hitler in the wake of weak and failing government, the treaty of Versailles and things like the Great Depression. Hitler did not magically spring into being but was enacted through the democratic system and a genuine desire for change by people living in unhappy times. This does not excuse the actions taken by the brown-shirts in the street battles leading up to the election (or Hitlers own after) where political opponents were intimidated, beaten and later sent off to a concentration camp.
They hoped for something better but it took a world war and a smashed state to remove the consequence of that decision. Did they deserve that outcome based on one vote? No they did not. If anything Hitlers rise to power remains a warning about those who would seek to remove barriers to absolute power and the mechanisms of democracy. Of course there are some deep sociological questions about states in the thrall of a dictator and such but that’s for another post.
In New Zealand, as the housing hernia continues to grow and National continue to run a bargain basement government headed by a predatory merchant banker and his grubby cabal of sleazy criminals, are we getting the government we deserve, weather we voted for them (37% at the last election) or not?
No! We deserve better, we deserve a government that does not pander to just one section of the electorate at the expense of the other but neither should we simply be penalizing one section of the electorate for being worried about the market rupturing and being left with a house worth less than their mortgage when the crash comes. We deserve a government which represents us all and will get the hernia operation before we blow an O-ring in public. We deserve a government which is not selling out the populace and where ideas of eradicating poverty (better wages and fairer tax laws) and housing for all are not pie in the sky arguments.
Will the US deserve Trump as president, or Clinton as president simply to prevent Trump from being president? Is the outcome of either, if they turn out to be a bad president, able to be blamed on the electorate, the “people”, when only half of those eligible to vote, do vote; where the system locks out third parties and their differing viewpoints despite substantial support bases and both candidates are bastions of fear and loathing among many voters? Do those that vote, no matter what side, deserve what they are likely to get?
The answer again is, and chant it with me, no! Who knows what either of these two water heads will unleash on the US and the rest of the world as leader of it. Neither have the confidence of the people and neither represent a majority in a country where 50% of the populace does not vote and politics for politics sake is the order of the day. The US deserves a better president, one that generates hope and trust not fear and loathing.
The key to all of these situations is you, the voter. You don’t deserve a bad government no matter who you vote for because no one votes for a bad government. Your vote, when you cast it, is made with the best of intentions, no matter which party you support. Yes I might question your views, and yes your party might have a political pedigree of a man sized liver fluke (X-files reference!) but you did not cast that vote in the aim of seeing your country come out worse than before, you cast it in the hope of something better.
Does this absolve you from making questionable vote choices? No it does not. Caveat Emptor is the watch word at all times but that maxim cuts both ways and never forget that. Don’t just react like a pinball and careen around the partisan bumpers of political parties hoping to not go down the hole. Aim up the table for the high score and extra ball which keep you in the game just that little bit longer.
Also its not just enough to vote once a term and return to your slumbers.
If you live in a real democracy***, not one just in name but one that has all the things which make it real then fight to keep it that way.
If you live in one of those fake democracies, you know which ones I am talking about, then do more than just legitimate the status quo every three, four or five years by voting and then switching off. Be part of the political process in any way shape or form more than just voting (you could post on political blog for example) because if you do nothing but vote you will more than likely get something you won’t like no matter what you hoped/wished for when you voted.
You deserve better than the government you get.
*something which regular readers may have noticed given one small clue which I regularly give away.
** the current market state with obedience to the invisible hand of the market and economists deciding things is a lot closer to a theocracy than a democratic state.
***I would love to apply this argument to people not living in democracies but their situation is a lot harder to correct. Also you can decide if you live in a real democracy or not.
Posted on 14:06, May 11th, 2016 by E.A.
After previously examining the big four of NZ politics we now turn our eye to the first of the lesser denizens of the swamp called parliament and look at one species of creature soon to be extinct. Also apologies for the length, I swear I try and keep them short.
If there was a time when ACT was a genuine political party, those days are past. In the late 90s and early 2000s ACT could indeed claim to be a such a thing as it polled respectably and had yet to be tainted by the scandals, squabbling and power struggles which have now left it dead in the polls and relevant only because the Auckland electorate of Epsom has developed a rather strange fetish for it.
The fact that the party has visibly withered in the last decade is almost entirely down to its own deceitful actions and the fact that it’s championing of the neo-liberal agenda and as a mouthpiece for the ultra-rich and corporate entities has gone from distasteful to downright loathsome.
The question that always interested me was in trying to figure out if ACT really believed the gibberish it was spouting or if they were just happy being mouthpieces for one of the most vile ideologies of our time; that of a happy return to feudalism under corporate masters rather than blue bloods.
In the 90s the party happily spouted Business Roundtable platitudes while supporting the National government but it also could claim some degree of moral ground under “perk buster” Rodney Hide (who was later busted for abusing the very same system of parliamentary perks and privilege that he had hypocritically been railing against) and having some theoretical pedigree by claiming it was championing individual rights and freedoms.
Today it polls about as popular as a party of pedophiles and its theoretical and political base is worm ridden and compromised (in fact given it currently polls around the 1% mark I see no irony in recognizing the fact that it is has always represented the interests of the 1%). But between 1996 and 2002 it rode high in the polls as part of those heady days of early MMP with a respectable 7%.
The fact that that most of that 7% could be ascribed to the more right wing elements of the National party fleeing in the wake of Nationals dismal results in 1999 and 2002 may have escaped ACT’s attention but despite these high poll results it was never a part of the Labour Government under Helen Clark between 1999 and 2008 (I wonder why?).
But at its simplest ACT was built and commissioned as a vehicle for those who wanted to continue to advance the free market ideology of the 80s into the 90s and beyond.
If my previous analysis of the big four political parties had looked at the failures of each party under the headings of: the party itself (Labour); its individual members (National); personal political advancement (NZ First) and selling out its core values (the Greens: no they haven’t done this yet but that’s what my post about them was warning against) then my analysis of ACT is a combination of all of the above.
The grim state of the party is a warning to all others in the NZ political sandbox of what happens to those who abandon all morality for greed by peddling themselves to clearly self-serving ideologies that reject even the basic tenants of community and commons.
More technically ACT is clear evidence of what happens when a political party is clearly serving a vested interest and staffed with a rouges gallery of goons and goombahs in the best traditions of the SA.
Yes that’s right (no pun intended), ACT were to be the brown shirts of right-wing NZ revolution (an odious tradition continued today by bloggers like Cameron Slater over on the Whale Oil), a vanguard of the free market and like the SA are self-destructing in a queasy orgy of criminal and corrupt behavior (although no night of the long knives for ACT, yet).
It’s worth examining some of the histories of the specters that have made up the party to get a better picture of what exactly went wrong and why the party is no longer a viable entity.
First things first there was Rodger Douglas. In being a key figure in forming a political party the message was crystal clear of what ACT stood for. If you liked the regulatory and free market revolution that his reforms had created for NZ then this was the party for you. Most of the electorate was not a fan but a sizable minority (6%) did vote for the party in 1996 and in part that was on the perceived value of the firm economic policy that ACT seemed to be advocating and the supposed benefits it brought.
In 1996 Douglas was no longer in charge of the economy but with his disciple Ruth Richardson (a known member of the Mont Perlin Society: The John Birch society for accountants) still keeping the ovens going (under a continuation of Rogernomics now termed “Ruthanasia”) his reforms continued and helped to make 1990s NZ a grim and bleak place to live.
With Labour back in government in 1999 it was clear that ACT was not going to be getting a seat at the table and Douglas, never keen on Hides leadership stepped away from the party in 2004 as ACT languished in opposition for most of the decade.
Then in 2008 Douglas, along with Heather Roy, staged a failed coup attempt on Rodney Hide, who survived due to the timely intervention of John Key. Douglas started to fade after this time as several bills he tried to introduce into parliament failed in the house and in 2011 he called it quits.
His legacy as the architect of so much pain and misery is reflected in things like the growing wealth and inequality gaps, the scandal of poor and hungry children in NZ and a merchant banker (John Key) as PM.
Douglas is the reason why the argument that ACT sold its soul to sing for the devil is false. ACT (and Douglas) never had any soul to begin with; they were catamites from the start and an open vehicle for the free-market agenda that has been exploited by a grubby few to almost everyone’s disadvantage.
But Douglas is the just the first of many who would make the party look like the criminal rabble it was rapidly turning into and leave it as the soulless husk it is today.
Stalwart party members like John Banks (accused of submitting false electoral returns, shilling for Kim Dotcom and a dangerous level of religious zealotry among his numerous misdeeds); Donna Awatere Huata (tried, sentenced and jailed for fraud); David Garret (stealing the identity of a dead child in an attempt to get a false passport); Rodney Hide (caught abusing the very perks he had built his reputation on); Heather Roy and Ken Shirley (shilling for big pharma); Deborah Coddington (anti-Asian Immigration) and Hillary Calvert (who makes the list for her delightful quote “we care about people ahead of silly little chickens”) have been the storm troopers of right wing ideology and policy, who have helped turn ACT into the ship of fools that it is but also a refuge for misfits, rejects and political mercenaries of all stripes (Don Brash).
If it was just its cast of ugly criminal characters alone then ACT would be no worse than National with its similar scum pool of human misdemeanors but ACT also fails on the Policy front, ala Labour, but much much worse.
On casual perusal, ACT’s policy portfolio seems to have some merit with its claims of freedom and lower taxes for all but as with all policy the devil is in the details and with further reading, as well as knowing ACT’s pedigree and track record, it’s easy to locate the keywords and decipher their actual meaning.
ACT adheres to the political equivalent of creationism, that of small government; low taxes and private provision of public services (charter schools, Serco run prisons, asset sales and letting the kind and benevolent market take care of things).
ACT’s definition of “core functions” of government ignores the reality that is the highly complex society that we live in and imagines that market functions would be able to contain the anarchy that the market itself has been shown to create (booms, busts, bubbles, cartels, tax havens, corruption, nepotism, market manipulation, offshore trusts and growing wealth and inequality).
At its center ACT’s intellectual pedigree, albeit diluted and watered down, is no worse than the intellectual foundations on which other parties sit, but unlike National and Labour, which have simply let their policy bases fade away in favor of craven appeals to the policy melting pot of “the middle ground”, ACT’s is, and has always been, in the service of those who seek appealing theoretical foundations on which to base their dubious actions.
ACT’s foundations lie in Friedrich Hayek and the Mont Perlin society and more directly the NZ Business Roundtable (now dubbed the New Zealand Initiative). Hayek’s arguments against collectivization were an intense part of my undergrad study in political theory and his was, like many other thinkers, a clear and conscious reaction to the tumult of the first half of the 20th century by attempting to provide solutions to those times problems.
As a political theory this is fine (although I tended to favor the position taken by Polanyi) but its use as a smokescreen for actions by others with agendas which do not really align with the theory they are trumpeting is nothing more than intellectual window dressing for the traveling snake oil show that has been neo-liberalism and its use by global elites to dismantle any organisation or structure which hampers their pursuit of profit and power.
Reading through chunks of policy statements give the impression that ACT is obsessed with saving “the children”, really hates big government and that lower taxes are the answer to many issues but one also can find references to “ACTs advisers”; a distaste for beneficiaries, the treaty of Waitangi, the RMA; and a host of neo-liberal buzzwords like “signalling”, “choice” and “potential”.
The sum of all of this is that the parties’ policy prescriptions sound wonderfully empowering and harmless until you realize that these prescriptions have already been enacted around the world and we have been living in the “utopia” promised to us by the smooth talking acolytes of small government and less taxes.
I could go on forever here in pointing out the flaws in these overly elaborate theories which have never been, and never will, be honestly enacted but the point is clear. The message being preached has failed, it’s been tried and it failed, the desperate cries of “more of the same”, by ACT and National, to solve the problems previously created by “more of the same” now sound like doom cultists chanting.
But what about the current leadership, what about ACT’s philosopher-king David Seymour and his role as free-market mouthpiece?
At first Seymour seems to be a new face for the party but once you dig into his background his links to conservative think tanks, including one which helped shape Stephen Harper’s right wing paradise in Canada (before the inevitable backlash kicked in), it becomes clear and you figure out that someone (read what painfully passes for ACTs brain trust) has been seeking to emulate the safe, white, suit and tie, clean shaven, middle aged male look (ala Key, Cameron, Bush Jnr, Blair et al) but not quite managed to get the facial features right on the identikit robot they ordered from conservatives’R’us.
And with the ACT party webpage now resembling a personal blog (with what appear to be self-written press releases by Seymour about Seymour all over the main page) and his face repeatedly staring back at you with each new post I find myself wondering. His opinions, while few and far between in the press, have given no indication that he has deviated from the party line but perhaps, just perhaps, he realizes its a dead ship he is now captaining and has plans to try and steer it into a safe port for rest and refit.
The odds of that happening rest entirely on Epsom deciding to retain any party candidate as their representative in parliament. Personally If I was Labours campaign manager I would be marshaling forces to get Seymour and Act out of Epsom at all costs even (this could also apply to Peter Dunne in Ohariu) to the point of getting voters to vote National (something that happened in the last election anyway when tactical voting chopped ACTs lead to 6% over National).
Seymour has none of the appeal of Key, personality of Winston or moral integrity of the Greens. It’s almost like he has no soul (a double possibility given his intellectual and political backgrounds) and I will be watching Epsom 2017 with great interest as if ACT loose their seat then its dead and buried and all the grubby refuse that is the party will be swept away.
ACT, unlike Labour and National, does not have a historical background to fall back on when its actions in the present taint it; nor does it have the charisma and appeal of someone like Winston to work their mojo for the crowds; also it does not have any moral stance to support its positions and arguments (ala the Greens) and protect it from criticism.
ACT has been around just over 20 years and its life is almost over. Truly the flame that burnt as half as long was twice as dull.
The TPPA signing came and went, as did the nation-wide protests against it. I did not think that the government was going to be swayed from publicly commemorating what it considers to be the crown jewel of its trade-dominated foreign policy, but I had hoped that the numbers turning out to protest would add up to more than 100,000. At least that way the government could be put on notice that a sizeable portion of the electorate were unhappy about the surrender of sovereignty to corporate interests enshrined in the 6000 page text. Alas, the numbers assembled came nowhere close.
One interesting sidebar was the decision to stage a parallel protest at the Sky City complex rather than join with the larger protest march down Queen Street. The specific objective of the Sky City protest was ostensibly to use so-called non-violent direct action (NVDA) and other acts of civil disobedience to block the streets surrounding the gambling complex. In the build up to signing (and protest) day the leaders of the two rival demonstrations publicly debated and largely disagreed on the merits of each. The Queen Street march organisers were concerned that any pushing and shoving at Sky City would feed into the government’s narrative that the matter was a law and order issue (following reports that the police had conducted riot control refresher training and door knocked activists warning them about the consequences of unruly acts). The leaders of the Sky City blockade argued that peaceful marches were simply ineffectual and were ignored by policy-makers. As it turns out, both were right.
The Sky City protesters, some of whom showed up in helmets and assorted face coverings, were forcibly prevented by the Police from effectively shutting down access to and from the venue and surrounding areas. The activists responded by engaging in a series of rolling blockades of major intersections, including the Cook Street on-ramp leading to the Harbour Bridge and Northern Motorway. This continued well after the signing ceremony was over and while the Queen Street march was still in progress. That had the effect of causing gridlock in the Auckland CBD.
Coincidentally or not, there was a bus strike that day. Although Auckland Council allowed its employees to work from home, many other entities did not. That meant that people who normally used buses to get to work had to use alternative transportation, including cars. That added to the number of cars on Auckland inner city roads at the time of the rolling blockades. Needless to say, motorists were not happy with the seemingly random temporary road closures in and around the CBD.
That is why things got too clever. As a tactical response to the police thwarting of the initial action, the move to rolling blockades was ingenious. But that bit of tactical ingenuity superseded the strategic objective, which was to draw attention to the extent of TPPA opposition. In fact, it appeared that the Sky City activists were trying to outdo each other in their attempts to make a point, but in doing so lost sight of the original point they were trying to make. After all, blocking people from leaving the city after the signing ceremony was over was not going to win over hearts and minds when it comes to opposing the TPPA. Plus, it displayed a callous disregard for the motorists affected. What if someone was rushing to a hospital to be with their badly injured child or terminally ill parent? What about those who needed to get to work on time so as to not be docked pay? What about cabbies and delivery people who earn their livings from their vehicles? None of this seems to have factored into the blockader’s minds. Instead, they seemed intent on proving to each other how committed they were to causing disruption regardless of consequence to others.
I have seen this before in other places, most recently in Greece, where anarchists and Trotskyites (in particular but not exclusively) infiltrate peaceful protests and engage in acts of violence in order to provoke what are known as “police riots” (a situation where isolated assaults on individual police officers eventually causes them to collectively lash out indiscriminately at protesters). Fortunately, NZ does not have the type of violent activist whose interest is in causing a police riot. Unfortunately, it has activists who seemingly are more interested in establishing and maintaining their street credentials as “radicals” or “militants” than using protest and civil disobedience as an effective counter-hegemonic tool. So what ended up happening was that the Sky City protestors were portrayed by the corporate media and authorities as anti-social misfits with no regard for others while the Queen Street march was briefly acknowledged, then forgotten.
On a more positive note, Jane Kelsey has to be congratulated for almost single-handedly re-defnining the terms of the debate about TPPA and keeping it in the public eye. As someone who walks the walk as well as talk the talk, she was one of the leaders of the Queen Street march and has comported herself with grace and dignity in the face of vicious smears by government officials and right wing pundits lacking half the integrity she has. I disagree about the concerns she and others have raised about secrecy during the negotiations, in part because I know from my reading and practical experience while working for the US government that all diplomatic negotiations, especially those that are complex and multi-state in nature, are conducted privately and only revealed (if at all) to the public upon completion of negotiations (if and when they are).
For example, the NZ public did not get to see the terms of the Wellington and Washington Agreements restoring NZ as a first-tier security partner of the US until after they were signed, and even today most of their content has been ignored by the press and no protests have occurred over the fact that such sensitive binding security arrangements were decided without public consultation. More specifically with regards to the TPPA, no public consultations were held in any of the 12 signatory states, and in the non-democratic regimes governing some of those states the full details have still not been released. Even so, I do think that it was a good opposition ploy to harp about “secrecy” as it simply does not smell right to those not versed in inter-state negotiations. In any event, what Ms. Kelsey did was exactly what public intellectuals should be doing more often–informing and influencing public opinion for the common good rather than in pursuit of financial or political favour.
I would suggest that opponents of the TPPA focus their attention on the Maori Party and its MPs. The Green Party’s opposition to TPPA is principled, NZ First’s opposition is in line with its economic nationalism and the Labour Party’s opposition is clearly tactical and opportunistic (at least among some of its leaders). So the question is how to wrestle votes away from the government side of the aisle when it comes to ratification. Peter Dunne and David Seymour are not going to be swayed to change sides, but the Maori Party are in a bit of an electoral predicament if they chose to once again side with the economic neo-colonialists in the National government.
For all the sitting down in the middle of public roadways, it may turn out that old fashioned hardball politicking may be the key to successfully stymying ratification of the TPPA in its present form.
Now THAT would be clever.
Last year I wrote a series of posts outlining what in my view were the reasons the NZ Left was in major if not terminal decline. The posts began before and concluded after the 2014 election and can be found in chronological order here, here and here. There were plenty of people who disagreed with my take on things, with the most vocal detractor being that doyenne of the NZ Left, Chris Trotter. The second of my posts answered his original critique (link to his critique in the post) and he followed up some time later with another post in which he takes me to task for saying that the Left should not resort to Dirty Politics style tactics in order to prevail. He chided me for my idealism and noted that he dealt in pragmatics and pragmatism dictated that the Left should play dirty if it was to defeat the forces of darkness now reigning triumphant in this land.
Given that I have a fair bit of past practical experience with direct action politics, albeit not in NZ, I found the charge of idealism a bit odd. Given what he said previously about the Left’s continued viability and strength, even odder was Chris’s admission that Dirty Politics works and needs to be used by the Left if it is to succeed in the contemporary political arena. If the NZ Left were truly viable would it need to resort to playing dirty? I thought that was the province of pro-capitalist parties whose policies hurt the masses and have little popular appeal due to their elite focus.
Be that as it may, imagine then my surprise when I read this from the redoubtable Mr. Trotter. Therein Chris draws the parallel between the “clever and artistic” denizens of cabaret society in the Weimer Republic and what Dave Brown (in a comment on the post) pointedly calls the “chatterati” assembled to watch a panel discussion of media types–not all of them of the Left–gathered at a restaurant part owned by Laila Harre in order to to lament the demise of Campbell Live. Beyond noting that a well placed bomb would have eliminated the “cream” of Auckland’s chattering Left, he goes on to note the distance between them and the “very different New Zealand” that exists outside of Ms. Harre’s fine dining establishment and whose TV viewing preferences may not be akin to those sipping chardonnay’s inside. His tone is implicitly insulting of those he broke bread with as the media commentators opined about Mr. Campbell, other talking heads, themselves and the state of the NZ media landscape.
Now, I am not one to gleefully point out contradictions or reversals by others, such as that done by some Left commentators on the subject of the Urewera Raids. And I must confess that I am little more than a chatterer myself these days. But given the thrust of Chris’s latest post in light of what he has said before about the NZ Left, I have just one question to ask:
Is he still steering by the real?
Because if he is, then it appears that he has joined my side of the argument about the NZ Left and for that I salute him. Belated as it may be, it was time to wise up.
The issue now is how to move beyond the parlour talk of the chattering Left and into organizing a counter-hegemonic project grounded in effective praxis. As I have said before that is a very big task and needs to be oriented around a discernible class line. The UNITE union is a small beacon of hope in this regard, but there is much more that needs to be done if anything remotely close to a Left resurgence is to translate into contestable politics. Labour and the Greens are too committed to centrist politics and working within the system as given to be anything other than reformists and passive revolutionaries. Real change can only come from the grassroots and rank and file, and those need to be cultivated via ideological appeals that feel immediate and achievable and which transcend the diversionary rubbish pushed by popular culture, corporate media and a government hell bent on dumbing down the quality of political and social discourse.
What is needed, in other words, is a legitimate war of position, however incremental it may have to be fought.
That is something the chattering Left simply cannot do.
In the wake of Nicky Hager’s latest revelations, Chris Trotter has penned a cynical defense of dirty politics as being the norm. For Chris, when it comes to politics “(t)he options are not fair means or foul: they are foul means or fouler.”
Idiot Savant at No Right Turn categorically rejects this view. I agree with him and can only add that either Chris has lost his ideological bearings or has consciously decided to join the Dark Side.
The Standard reprinted the NRT post and I commented on it there. Here is what I wrote:
“The stability of democracy is based on mutual contingent consent, not only between capitalists and workers but between opposing political factions. Mutual contingent consent requires that all actors accept mutual second best outcomes (that is, no one gets their preferred outcome all of the time), something that is evident, for example, in compromises over wages and employment conditions at the bargaining table or in the lobbying of political parties over legislation. “Winning” is therefore temporary and tempered by the pursuit of self-limiting strategies in pursuit of the mutual second best. Otherwise the political game descends into zero-sum self-interested maximisation of collective opportunities. That is not democracy, even if there are those within the democratic system who adhere to such views.
This is why Chris is wrong. He mistakes the venal pursuits of a political few for the general substance of democracy as a political form. The pursuit of dirty politics represents a fundamental corrosion of democratic principle and practice. It reflects a fundamental contempt for the foundational tenets of this type of governance. That this contempt is channeled into underhanded tactics by some does not undermine the core values upon which democracy rests and in fact serves to underscore what democracy is not. That the resort to dirty politics in NZ has at its core a group of people with pathological tendencies and profoundly disagreeable personalities is further proof that their style of play is not politics as usual.
Chris may be a bit jaded by years of fighting the good fight in losing wars. He seems to given up all hope that politics can be played cleanly. But he and many others (including some on the Right) would not have fought, and continue to fight, if they did not think that there was a better way to do things in pursuit of a just society. Mr. Slater, Mr. Ede, Mr. Bhatnagar, Ms. Odgers, Judith Collins and John Key clearly do not, but that does not mean that democracy as a whole is reducible to their contemptible view of politics.”
Let us be crystal clear. There is no moral equivalence between what the Left does or may wish to do versus what the organised dirty tricks cell centred around Cameron Slater does. Moreover, what Slater and company do centrally underpins not just how National engages politics, but how ACT has done as well. In contrast, Left activist groups may sputter about “direct action,” hold demonstrations and on occasion undertake animal liberations or environmental defense by climbing into trees or blocking trains, but they do not systematically attempt to uncover dirty laundry in order to smear, blackmail or undermine opponents within and outside their partisan ranks. They do not take covert money in order to cut and paste ghost written attack columns supplied by others. They do not get favoured backdoor access to sensitive government documents based upon their partisan, when not ministerial, connections. Perhaps that is why they are less effectual than those on the Dark Side.
The institutional Left centred in the Labour Party may gossip about their rivals across the aisle and backstab each other in factional disputes, but even then there are limits to where they will go in the pursuit of “winning.” The Slater-led dirty tricksters have no such limits.
Whatever his motivations, Chris needs to reconsider his position. There still is room for the good fight to be fought fairly even if the opponent does not. Contrary to what John Key believes, that applies as much to politics as it does to sports.
Posted on 15:29, January 23rd, 2014 by Pablo
The post on the death of the NZ political Left has elicited a fair bit of commentary. That is good, because my purpose in writing it as a polemic was to foster debate about the internal weakness of the NZ Left and possible solutions to that problem. I did not discuss all of the negative externalities that work against a revival of the Left, but many others have, both in the comments on the original post as well as in the commentary in places like The Standard. In fact, some of the discussion in the thread on the original post as well as the Standard thread has been very good.
Needless to say, the right wing blogosphere loved the post. Kiwiblog, Keeping Stock and Whaleoil jumped at the opportunity to put the boot in. I commented on the Kiwiblog thread, where I was accused of defining what the “real” and “fake” Left were and of being one of those people who denigrate anything that does not fit their narrow definition of what being “Left” means. One nice person on the Standard derided me for being a “defeatist” and engaging in “self-flagellation.” This kind soul also harked to the idealism and determination of Nelson Mandela and Martin Luther King to show that we should not give up the fight, perhaps forgetting that Mandela renounced socialism once he became president (supposedly to protect democracy) and MLK –never a Leftist, he–got shot for his troubles long before racial equality was achieved in the US. Anyway, it was all quite entertaining.
Now Chris Trotter has entered the fray with this exposition: http://thedailyblog.co.nz/2014/01/23/theres-plenty-left-chris-trotter-responds-to-paul-buchanans-critique-of-the-new-zealand-left/
I wrote a response but it was not published by the Daily Blog administrator. Since my comment on Chris’s rejoinder was submitted more than 15 hours ago and 29 other comments have appeared, I assume that it will not be published, so I shall re-print it here:
“Fair rejoinder, but a bit off the mark.
The point of my polemic was to stir debate about the internal weaknesses of the NZ Left that have neutered it as a political alternative to the capitalist socio-political project. Besides the abandonment of a broad working class focus and socialist principles by the institutionalized Left (the party-union nexus) in favour of more narrow po-mo concerns and piecemeal challenges to the market-driven project, there is the factionalization, in-fighting, oligarchical leadership and general political insignificance of the activist Left. This opens the door to opportunists and charlatans to claim ideological leadership within the Left as a vehicle for self-interested advancement.
I see the cultural Left as having significance, but as a political force nether it or much of the informed Left commentariat have much political sway. And when some of that commentariat quietly seek remunerated ties to political actors who are the antithesis of everything socialism stands for, well, that is unfortunate.
So no, I do not share your optimism, but I am far from defeatist by directly addressing what I see as the elephants in the NZ Left room. Self-criticism and self-assessment are good things to do in good times and bad, and in my view the current moment is bad for the NZ Left.
Some of the commentary on the original post address ways to recapture the moment.
I do like your use of Gramsci though. Shallow as it may be in the context of this rejoinder, it points to the necessity of waging an effective counter-hegemonic war of position within the system, using what is given as instruments of usurpation of the ideological status quo.”
I should note that in his post Chris waxes positive about the Labour Party, the Greens, Mana and the CTU. In doing so he helps make my original case: none of these organizations are “Left” in the sense of being socialist or even primarily worker-focused, whatever they may have been at their inception. They may use socialist rhetoric and act “progressive” when compared to National and its allies, and they may be a better choice for Left-leaning people when it comes to electoral preferences and collective representation, but the hard fact is that play the game by the rules as given, do not challenge the system as given and, to be honest, just chip away around the superstructural margins of the edifice that is NZ capitalism.
Although I believe that the NZ political left is comatose if not dead, this does not mean that it cannot be revived or resurrected. As I said to a commentator on my original post, Keynesian economics in liberal democracies led to a 60 year period of class compromise that replaced the politics of class conflict extant prior to 1930. The so-called neo-liberal project in NZ was trialled under authoritarian conditions in places like Chile (yes Chris, I do remember Pinochet in part because his economic policies were emulated by Roger Douglas and company and marked the turn towards feral market-driven policy that persists in NZ today despite your protestations). It if founded on a direct return to the politics of class conflict, this time initiated by the upper bourgeoisie operating from an advantaged global position against the organized working classes via regressive labor legislation and the privatization of state provided welfare, health and education programs.
Many say the neoliberal elite are hegemonic when doing so. I disagree, in part because unlike Chris (who threw some Antonio Gramsci quotes into his rejoinder) I have spent a lot of time studying Gramsci’s concept of “egemonia,” (hegemony, or ideological leadership by consent) specifically its difference with the concept of “dominio” (domination, or rule by submission or acquiescence). Giovanni Tiso wrote a comment of Chris’s post that captures just a part of why Chris went a bit to far with his misuse of the words of the person who coined the non-Leninist interpretation of that special concept amongst the po-mo Left. I mention this because the entire thrust of Chris’s rejoinder read more like an instance of intellectual one-upmanship rather than a reasoned counter-argument.
The fact is that the current ideological dominance of the market-focused elite is only hegemonic in the measure that the political Left allows it to be. In NZ fair-minded people obey but do not consent to the system as given. In my view internal problems in the Left prevent it from presenting a viable counter-argument, much less counter-hegemonic alternative to the contemporary status quo.
It may not be armed conflict but the NZ market project, be it subtle, buffered or stark, is a war against the working classes, one that is based on the atomization of said classes via the destruction of class-based unions and ideological diversions that promote narrow sectoral representation based upon collective assumptions about the primacy of individual self-interest over solidarity, and which privileges greed over empathy.
In comments on the original post I offer some limited suggestions about a new Left praxis in NZ. I am sure that there are many other avenues to explore along those lines. The market-driven project (which is no longer “neoliberal” in the original sense of the term), was an obvious and transparent return to the politics of class conflict, with preferential terms dictated by the financial elite.
No matter how dominant this ideology is at this moment, it opens a window of opportunity for the NZ Left, if it knows how to take the advantage. Rather than a monolithic compendium of all that is impossible to those born wrong, it renders bare the inegalitarian and exploitative foundations of the current socio-economic order as well as the abjectly quisling nature of the political elite that support it.
One final thought. I do not object to Leftists trying to earn a living, even if that means working in capitalist institutions on capitalist terms. I have to do so.
I do not even mind Leftists who live off of trust funds or marry well. In fact, I do not object to Leftists taking up paid work for non-Left parties as part of a tactical alliance against a common enemy or as a way of learning about the enemy from within.
I believe that those on the Left, much more so than those on the Right, need to be upfront about these apparent contradictions. They need to understand that touching power is not the same as confronting, much less wielding it. That is why I object to concealment of financial relationships between capitalist economic and political entities and those who publicly proclaim themselves to be Lions of the Left and champions of the dispossessed and voiceless.
My bottom line? We all have contradictions in our lives. For those on the Left the contradictions of living in a capitalist society can be overwhelming at times. It is how we resolve our ideological contradictions that separates the honest from the hypocritical.
I am somewhat amused by the attacks on Martyn Bradbury over his consultant relationship with Mana while running a leftwing blog. From what I gather Bomber has been pretty upfront about his association with leftist organizations (without having to go into the particulars), and even if his advertorial work on behalf of a certain medical service provider was on the margins of ethical, he is certainly no different than many other pundits attempting to earn a crust.
The blogging right (and some journalists) seem to be going after Bomber for two reasons. One is that, for rightwing bloggers the Lusk/Slater revelations needed a diversion, or at least a modicum of balance. Bomber has made plenty of enemies on the right (and some on the left), so he is an easy target. That is particularly so for point number two: his consultancy fees for Mana are ultimately paid for by the NZ taxpayer. The right blogosphere has all but choked on that thought and some have suggested a conflict of interest on Bomber’s part.
I really do not see what is the big deal. Some rightwing bloggers undoubtably consult for public agencies and political parties. Some are every open about their arrangements, and some are not. So what? Various people are trotted out in the media to give their opinions as supposed experts about political issues. Some of these people have financial relationships with political entities and some of them blog. This may or may not be known to the produces and interviewers, and the talking heads may or may not reveal their associations. Again, so what? Can their views not be judged on the merits rather than on who they may be shilling for or what they write on blogs? And if they are selling a particular line in the media, is it not the job of the interviewers to call them on it?
Blogging can generate revenue for a fortunate few, but most blog for free. Many blog under their own names, but some, like us here, use pseudonyms (in our case pretty obvious ones). Sponsored blogging obviously toes an editorial line (less so in the case of ad-derived revenues, since ads are placed on blogs more due to a blog’s popularity than its content). Sponsor-free blogging provides a forum for expression unbeholden to client relationships or employer dictates. Even so, bloggers tend to understand the limits to what they can say in their posts. In the KP experience as a sponsor-free blog by design, members of the blogging collective have taken a hiatus or desisted from blogging about topics connected to their work when potential conflicts are discernible. It is simply prudent and common sense to do so.
Consulting is about offering informed advice and opinion for a fee. In my post-academic life I have found that many people seek advice or opinion, but few want to pay for it. Most seem to think that there is no research or work involved in developing the expertise required to give said advice. They think that their areas of interest are naturally those of the prospective advisor.They forget that it is they who are doing the asking for a service they are unable to provide for themselves.
Think of it this way: if you cannot do the electrical work when installing lighting in your home or business, you pay an electrician to do so. So why would you call a “terrorism expert” and ask him to give his views on a given terrorist event for free? Why would you ask a political risk advisor or strategic analyst to provide expert advice or opinion for free?
That is why fee-paying clients are highly valued by consultants, whether the latter blog or not. It also ensures that consultants who blog are keenly attuned to client requirements in and outside the service provision relationship that binds them together.
That advice given to a client may or may not be congruent with what a consultant cum blogger writes on a blog. The client may or may not know of the consultant’s blogging activities, but regardless the relationship is based on something other than the content of the blog. If the client decides that the content of the blog is not acceptable for some reason, the consultancy contract will not be renewed. Since consultancies operate on a retainer, hourly or service project fee basis, there is latitude in the contractual terms, which may or may not include prohibitions or editorial constraints on blogging content that is deemed inimical to the client’s reputation or goals.
People may disagree with Bomber’s views on political matters to the point of questioning his credibility, and many might wonder why anyone would pay for Bomber’s advice. His advice may be intuitive rather than “expert.” In my opinion, his views on politics have been wrong from time to time. So what?
The issue of credibility and paying for advice is between the client and Bomber, and in Mana’s case, the party seems content with the arrangement. There is no conflict of interest. There is no hidden agenda. That is the end of the story. As a private contractor Bomber does not have to reveal anything about his consulting relationships, much less on his blog or in his other media work. In this he is no different from Brian Edwards, Bill Ralston or others who give privileged (and private) advice to clients in parallel with their public writing and commentating. Again, this is no big deal.
In the end, this episode strikes me as a rightwing beat up that is designed to deflect attention away from National’s internal divisions by targeting a convenient leftwing object of contempt. In other words, it is all about politics rather than professional ethics. That seems natural, because if it were the other way around and the shoe was on the other foot, some of those leading the charge against Bomber would not have a leg to stand on.
In 2007 a certain university lecturer, fed up with the managerial push to admit sub-standard and unqualified foreign students in pursuit of revenue, with the resultant pressure placed on lecturers to pass these students regardless of their performance, wrote a rude email to one such student who had failed to deliver a essay on time and who used a tired excuse of family death to justify the late submission. Although it was later proven that no evidence of any death was offered to any university authority and that there were mitigating factors surrounding the intemperate email, the lecturer was sacked for serious misconduct after selected contents of the email exchange with the student were made public by some of her associates (in violation of university confidentiality policy regarding emails).
The dismissal was later found to be unjustified and some monetary reparations were made, but after 25 years of involvement in university teaching and research in several countries (a rarity in NZ), the lecturer never worked in NZ academia again in spite of several applications for NZ university jobs and a very strong record of teaching, research, fellowships and community outreach, especially when compared to NZ peers.
I recount this sorry tale because the real crime committed by this lecturer was to challenge prior to the fact, then jeopardize with his email the revenue streams provided to NZ universities by foreign students willing to pay full fees of 20K or more but who often had no qualifications in their chosen field of study or who could not speak or write comprehensible english (as was the case with the student in question). This began long before National became government, but is now said to be worse because of twenty percent cuts in public spending on tertiary education.
The quest for foreign fees is such that when the same ex-lecturer was suggested some time later as a potential member of a foreign area focused business board, government and education officials purportedly objected on the grounds that his presence could disrupt recently-signed educational agreements between NZ and several countries in that region (this, in spite of his never having had an issue with students from that region and having significant visibility in academic fields relevant to it).
Such is the obsession with using foreign students as revenue generators. The trouble is that obsession has led to a gross lowering of academic standards for admission, passing and graduation of foreign fees paying students. This has had unpleasant results.
Long before National became government, instances of plagarism and bogus excuses for failure to complete course requirements on the part of foreign students well versed in how to abuse staff pastoral care responsibilities was already a thorn in the side of many lecturers, particularly those concerned about the quality of degrees and the well-being of students who worked hard to meet requirements. Managerial pressure to allow sub-standard students to pass is reflected in performance reviews and promotion criteria. The steady erosion of academic union influence eased the way for imposition of managerial edicts focused on quantity rather than quality of incoming students and graduates, to which were added academic restructuring projects that eliminated departments and courses deemed irrelevant to business or incompatible with profit-making.
Given increased academic job uncertainties in such environments, lecturers feel compelled to toe the managerial line, particularly in light of that ex-lecturer’s well publicized experience. The overall impact has been to devalue the reputation of many NZ university departments and programs while opening up a pandora’s box of predictable as well as unintended consequences.
One manifestation of the downside of the push to put high fees-paying foreign bums in seats has gone commercial: institutionalized ghost writing and student identity impersonation on behalf of Chinese students enrolled in NZ tertiary institutions. Some good student stories follow on the subject.
This situation has been going on for over a decade and has been the subject of repeated internal and public complaints (for example, public disclosure about the lack of security vetting of Pakistani and Saudi students seeking degrees in chemistry, chemical engineering and physics, or the well-reported use of Chinese students by PRC intelligence). The government and higher education institutions have been repeatedly warned about the dodgy side of foreign student admissions but have done nothing prior to media publication of the details.
I am not surprised by this commercialized academic cheating because it fills a market niche, and that niche was created by those who thought that NZ higher education instruction was a tradable export commodity for non-English speakers regardless of their cultural context. But with market opening comes consumer expectations, and under the current NZ tertiary foreign education model the expectation from foreign student consumers is to receive a first world-style degree by buying third world practical and ethical standards.
Like in so many other policy areas, unprincipled opportunity-takers on both sides of the process have benefitted at the expense of the common good. After all, and revenue-generation aside, encouraging dishonesty in any endeavour is bound to be deleterious over the long term.
Posted on 13:11, May 12th, 2012 by Pablo
This may sound mean but having bank economists talk about global macro-and political economics on major NZ news outlets is like having pedophiles talking about childcare. Having them speak authoritatively on the “news” skews public perceptions of economic matters towards the preferred constructs of finance capital. Leaving aside the matter of finance capital’s interest in deregulation of capital flows and currency manipulation, using bank economists may be fine when discussing banking take-overs or interest rates in local markets. But there are many other economic interests at play that deserve mention when it comes to issues of political and macro economy and bank economists are ill-suited for a robust discussion of them. To the contrary, their “expert”opinions masquerading as informed commentary in the news media are often poisonous to the integrity of public debate on economic matters.
Is there not a single non-banker economist in NZ who could be used instead? Are all the Economics, Business and Management departments in local universities full of useless PBRF worshippers devoid of real world experience? Are there no economists in research centers, institutes or government agencies who could present a dispassionate and non-vested perspective on the state of global economic play? I find it hard to believe that is the case.
The labour dispute involving the University of Auckland and the Tertiary Education Union (TEU) is the culmination of more than a decade of escalating conflict between the university management and its employees that began during the tenure of former Vice Chancellor John Hood. If Hood, who was VC from 1998 to 2004, was a scalpel designed to eviscerate the union, then his successor Stuart McCutcheon is a sledgehammer focused on bludgeoning the staff into submission. The root of both VC’s hostility to the union lies in their adherence to the so-called “new management” theories that are popular in the private sector (Hood had no academic background prior to his appointment, while McCutcheon was a physiologist prior to being appointed Head of the Department of Animal Sciences at Massey University before holding higher administration positions at that university and later VC of Victoria University). Before arriving at Auckland both men cultivated reputations for being anti-union and ruthless when it came to staff cuts in pursuit of cost savings.
The application of “new management” techniques is nothing more than corporate-speak for imposing modern Taylorist practices on the academe (On Taylorism, see here). The idea is to turn all staff into regulated production units with as little independence and autonomy as possible, in a system where they discharge responsibilities allocated them by the non-academic central management (which has grown significantly at Auckland while the teaching staff has diminished), and in which their “output” is evaluated on spreadsheets and so-called performance based reviews (PBRFs) administered by the Tertiary Education Commission (TEC) rather than by disciplinary peer reviewers. In this scheme Deans, Associate Deans and department heads become “line managers” for the VC rather than as representatives of their faculties or departments, and staff are made to log in their hours, leave time and generally operate as if they were on an assembly line or phone bank service centre. The primary goal of academic Taylorism is to generate revenue by securing research funding, increasing full time (and increasingly foreign) student enrollments (EFTS) while maintaining or cutting staff levels (thereby increasing staff workloads), and making the university more “corporate-friendly” by encouraging business-related disciplines while eliminating those that are not. Under these schemes, the bottom line of the university is no longer to serve as critic and conscience of society and as a generator of creative talent and broad-based knowledge. It is to pursue the bottom line.
As a result, quality of education and scholarly contribution have now given way as the basis for individual and collective advancement and recognition to quantity of enrollments and research outputs regardless of merit. Be it in admitting unqualified foreign students, lowering academic standards to increase passing rates, publishing shallow edited volumes based upon academic crony conferences or listing magazine articles and media commentary as evidence of “research,” the university has forsaken its charter.
The problem is that the “new management” approach has no understanding of the intellectual enterprise or the nature of academic life. Ideas are not merely “outputs” and are not generated in a cubicle farm setting. New ideas and the resolution of complex problems can be generated on a bus, or during a long run on a beach, or over a cup of coffee while gazing out the window at some pretty greenery. Lectures are not merely a means of conveying power point presentations. Intellectual worth is not reducible to its profit-making potential, and intellectual life is more than being at the service of business or focused on technical disciplines with commodified economic worth. Some creative ventures or disciplines, say modern dance or the Classics, are important not because of their money-making capabilities but because they are expressions and reaffirmations of the human spirit in all of its manifestations. That is what universities are for, and that cannot be quantified on a time clock or spreadsheet.
Because of this, the University of Auckland management and its staff have been locked in a morale-sapping struggle over the future of the university. While Mr. Hood approached the union (then known as AUS) in an adversarial manner, he was at least fairly transparent about his intentions and appeared to understand that there were limits to the imposition of Taylorist practices on academic life. Mr. McCutcheon and his senior team, on the other hand, have adopted an overtly hostile scorched earth approach to the academic staff and union, a stance that has seen management engage in extremely dubious and highly unethical practices such as the falsification and destruction of documents, the intimidation, constructive and unjustified dismissal of staff, and the litigation rather than mediation of employment disputes using vast sums of taxpayer funding to pay corporate legal defense fees (from Simpson-Grierson) and PR representation. The Human Resources department and individuals such as John Morrow (Deputy Vice Chancellor (Academic), who was brought by McCutcheon with him from Victoria), are notorious for their bullying and stand-over tactics, using techniques that often times would amount to serious misconduct and border on criminal behaviour if done by anyone else (note that I am only referring here to a limited range of questionable practices and have not delved into issues regarding management relationship with foreign governments that supply students, senior staff travel expenditures and personal misconduct that goes unpunished).
The reason why the Auckland University management has adopted this approach is three-fold: first, because its intention is to destroy the union, pure and simple. Second, because under the current employment climate and labor legislation, it can do so with impunity. And third, because the tertiary sector union has allowed it to do so by adopting mistaken and now possibly terminal negotiating strategies in the past.
Under the leadership of Helen Kelly, the then AUS preferred to emphasise wage increases in the face of inflation rather than working conditions and academic integrity and autonomy. Year after year the sole focus of union negotiators was on wages, for which the union was willing to incrementally give away staff prerogatives when it came to teaching loads, recruitment and retention, and even the elimination of entire disciplines (such as Russian and Indonesian language instruction). The problem with this strategy was first, it elicited little sympathy from the wider public because as things stand people believe that academics are overpaid and under-worked relative to the “real” world (when I left the university my salary was over NZ$102,000 as a Senior Lecturer 5, so I can see how the public would think that). Secondly, because the union only represents thirty-odd percent of the academic staff (the overall percentage of organized university staff increased after 2009 with amalgamation of the AUS and the Association of Staff in Tertiary Education (ASTE), which covers university administrative staff, but still does not cover the majority of academic staff), the university management could undercut union negotiations by offering separate wage packages to unorganised staff on individual contracts, thereby forcing the union to eventually relent and accept the same deal as the unorganised staff in exchange for the university retaining the collective contract governing other aspects of the employment relationship not subject–yet–to managerial discretion. This process of stalled negotiations, threatened industrial action and on several occasions strikes themselves did not hinder management’s steady, yearly erosion of the basic terms of employment.
In fact, rather than trade wage restraint for a halt to managerial intrusions into workplace autonomy and research and teaching independence, the union stubbornly clung to the wage/inflation parity fixation. By the mid 2000s, every year it wound up settling for the wages unorganised staff had agreed to and slowly but steadily found itself subject to increased management control of basic working conditions regardless of the specifics of the academic discipline or the nature of research involved. As Taylor would have had it, academic synthesizing was in play.
Ms. Kelley’s mistake was that she sought to preserve the union’s agency by trading incremental wage gains for non-wage concessions when confronting an opponent that was most interested in destroying the union. This was evident in her approach to forced redundancies and constructive or unjustified dismissals, which was to seek monetary settlement rather than go to court even if this meant the end of the union member’s academic career. Since the university has money to burn for such things, this approach played neatly into its hands.
And so it happens that this year McCutcheon and his wrecking crew minions have made their boldest move. After gradually tightening leave requirements, increasing on-site hours and teaching and research (make) workloads, adding administrative chores (such as the endless paperwork associated with the PBRF and Annual Performance Reviews) loosening burden of proof standards in employment disputes and restricting opportunities for academic staff to work off-campus without penalty, the university has proposed to eliminate research and study leave and have disciplinary matters removed from from the collective contract (research leave is now guaranteed for one semester every three years subject to the submission of a viable research proposal estimating costs, itineraries etc., and disciplinary procedures–which have been repeatedly breached by the management anyway–are outlined in the collective contract) as well as remove a number of clauses in the contract governing the non-wage employment conditions of the staff (these include ongoing changes to promotion criteria and guidelines that make it easier for managers to deny or confirm promotions based on on non-standardised assessment measures). In exchange, the university has offered an increase in annual leave from four to five weeks for all staff along with a four percent pay increase. McCutcheon’s attitude is clear, as he has stated to the press that he believes that universities should not be encumbered by employment agreements that constrain management’s ability to dictate policy. Taylor would be proud.
Unlike Ms. Kelly, the new TEU president, Sandra Grey, is an academic who knows the inside of a classroom and the research requirements inherent in academic employment. Finally realizing the real stakes involved, the TEU has responded by asking Auckland members to refuse to engage in the annual PBRF exercises that help determine the amount of research funding that the university receives from the government. The PBRF, which is a glorious time and energy-consuming make-work exercise introduced the early 2000s as part of the new managerial approach to research funding, is considered to be the holy grail for the management bean counters in the Clock Tower and VC’s office, so naturally enough McCutcheon has shown his bully self by threatening that any reductions in PBRF funding caused by staff refusal to perform the exercise could result in dismissals (ignoring the fact that staff numbers are below those of the pre-PBRF days and that enrollments are up, which means that he would have to reduce course offerings and turn away students in the measure that he fires lecturers, or at a minimum replace them with less-qualified personnel). The union has responded with a PR and media campaign and promised more direct action if the VC’s proposal is not withdrawn. At the moment both sides are at an impasse. Truth be told, in the contemporary economic, political and social climate and given its member numbers as a percentage of the overall academic workforce, this is a very risky act of TEU brinkmanship.
It will be interesting to see what will happen if this confrontation continues. But one thing is sure: this is the TEU’s last stand in Auckland. If it loses this battle then it will be destroyed as a credible agent for the interests of the Auckland University staff. And once that domino has fallen, it will not be long before management in other NZ universities will follow suit and adopt the sledgehammer approach towards union branch-busting in the pursuit of academic Taylorism. At that point the notion of “the academe” will have ceased to exist in New Zealand.
PS: Less you think I am off track, check this out from someone who still works at Auckland University (hence the diplomatic and deferential tone).