Posts Tagged ‘cannibalism’

Cannibalising society for the money proxy

datePosted on 10:20, May 19th, 2010 by Lew

This talk of not being jealous about tax cuts, and the unstated supposition that the rich are just better reminded me about a couple of posts I wrote a year or so ago about the “money proxy”: the idea of wealth as an easy quantifier for a person’s value. I’ve rehashed the argument here because I think it’s particularly apposite given the forthcoming budget. Paraphrasing myself:

Money is both the means by which we judge a person’s worth (in the human sense) and the resource needed to enjoy the comfort and dignity to which human beings are entitled by simple virtue of their being human beings. Because the same thing is used as both a means and an end, there is inevitable conflict: by denying people access to sufficient food, healthcare, accomodation, etc. on the grounds that they cannot afford to buy it for themselves, a society tacitly says: you are not worth it because you do not have enough money.

Previously, I had argued that while there’s considerable shared ground between National and Labour (both want economic growth, believe in the state’s role in providing some public services, etc.) the predominant difference between the two in economic terms is in the reflexive positions to which they repair when hard choices need to be made. National believes in supporting ambition, Labour in mitigating harm:

The former sees achievement as the highest goal, and failure as a necessary collateral effect of attempted achievement. They grade a society by its upper bound, by how much success its leading members achieve. In this regard, the ideology emphasises ambition, celebrating that qualities as the most beneficial to society while disregarding the worst consequences of its failure – destitution, disease, starvation, etc. The caricature of an ambitionist, if I may coin the term, sees the world as humanity’s oyster, and humanity in positive terms – as potentially successful and satisfied and healthy and secure, and considers that anyone who does not achieve these things has simply not tried hard enough, or for long enough, or lacks the innate characteristics needed to achieve those things and is therefore not entitled to them. Entitlement accrues to a person on the grounds of their success. In symbolic terms, the way to appeal to these people is in terms of opportunity, advantage, individuality, and the idea of just desserts for effort rendered.
On the other hand, the caricatured mitigationist (to coin the opposite term) grades society on its lower bound, by the extent to which the least successful members of the society are allowed to suffer by the more successful. They see the world as a dangerous, inhospitable place in which the default state is abject meanness, and humanity in negative terms of limiting those inhospitable forces, keeping out the cold and the hunger and the disease, while anything else is a bonus. Entitlement accrues to a person on the grounds of their humanity alone. The way to appeal to these people symbolically is in terms of compassion, brotherhood, sacrifice, cooperative achievement and that principle that none should suffer needlessly.

Emphasis added to identify the key symbolic points of the rhetoric around this budget, and highlight the fact that things are playing out exactly as you would expect. These battle lines were drawn long ago, and for all National’s “compassionate conservative” rebranding, there’s really nothing new in their focus here. They faced a clear choice between ambition and harm-mitigation, and chose according to their political identity. They simply don’t have a problem with the money proxy: it’s a measure as good as any other, and a nice clean “objective” one, because it’s determined by a market.

But I do. Following the first excerpt, I wrote:

This, to me, is not acceptable. If we cannot divorce the value of a person’s dignity, comfort and wellbeing from the monetary cost of sustaining it, what’s the purpose of society?

It’s bad in principle that people are treated (to a greater or lesser extent) as non-people by virtue of their material circumstances. And furthermore, I think it’s a bad decision in plain pragmatic utilitarian terms to attempt to swim against the economic tide and support ambition at the cost of significant harm:

Push comes to shove at times like this, when things are tight. When many people are deprived them, the human necessities of health, comfort and dignity can more readily be achieved by an idea of the common good than by the burning desire of ambition. […] In good times it’s easy to emphasise the greater good because a reasonable minimum standard can be expected to exist or be trivially provided for the few who need it. None need suffer except by a relative standard. In hard times, however, when raw success is less achievable, mitigating harm at the temporary expense of ambition becomes more valuable by its easy achievement.

So what we have with the budget, judging by the pre-release hype, is simply a return to form for the National party, and it should be countered by a return to form by the Labour party as well. National are retreating from the middle ground which won them the election and repairing to their reflexive, reptilian-brain adherence to the money proxy as an iron law of society. Labour must reclaim this ground; not that it ever really ceded it, rather permitting an occupation which is now beginning to withdraw.

The underlying calculation is a tradeoff of societal harm against economic growth. Another way of putting it, in more resonant terms, is: how much of society are we prepared to cannibalise, and for what gains, accruing to whom? This is the question around which Labour should orient its response. The words “many” and “few” will fit neatly into it.


Insensitive … now wait for the “hypersensitive”

datePosted on 12:17, May 13th, 2010 by Lew

Commenter Alexandra at The Standard picked up on a report by Radio NZ that John Key joked about TÅ«hoe as cannibals:

“The good news is that I was having dinner with Ngati Porou as opposed to their neighbouring iwi, which is Tuhoe, in which case I would have been dinner,” [Key] said, “which wouldn’t have been quite so attractive.”

Now, a reference to cannibalism in any leader’s speech is bad enough, but joking about it in the context of the government’s betrayal of TÅ«hoe, and Key’s failed attempt to speak for the māori party regarding that betrayal would be absurd if it wasn’t so insulting. Not only that, but the reference to Ngāti Porou was all the worse, given the complex history of those two iwi, which was also in the news recently but of which Key appears to have no awareness.

Two main questions occur to me: first was this a calculated move to distance himself and the government from the sense he has “gone native”, or just an idiotic off-the-cuff remark? (Essentially: bad will, or just incompetence?) And second, what will it take to prevent the māori party from walking away? As Marty Mars says, this is a significant matter of the mana of TÅ«hoe, and the mana of Māori in general. It cannot just be left to lie: either the māori party walks away, or some sort of meaningful reparation — you might call it “mana enhancement” — must be offered by the government, not only to TÅ«hoe and the party, but to Māori in general. The māori party are in a tough spot; as I argued yesterday, Māori don’t have the luxury of just throwing their toys whenever they don’t get their way. But something has got to give.

Oh, and as per Pākehā Standard Operating Procedure on issues like this, wait for the Māori response to be declared hypersensitive.

Update: Same being asked by Lynn at The Standard.

Update (20:25) Much has become clear since I wrote the post. Some updated thoughts follow.

First, it’s clear that this wasn’t an inadvertent, casual comment — it was, if not a planned and sanctioned statement then clearly a calculated one intended, after apparently growing discord at the Lower North Island National party conference this weekend past, to win Key and the government back some of its reputation for driving a hard bargain with Māori, and for not being a PC pounamu-wearing hand-wringer. So the initial diagnosis is “bad will” rather than “incompetence”. This was a simple continuation of the negotiative process which Key chose to stall by unilaterally ruling out the return of Te Urewera National Park; Key providing an opening for TÅ«hoe to continue dialogue, or not.

Second, it’s pretty well-calculated. It would have been easy for TÅ«hoe (and others) to publicly overreact and confirm Pākehā New Zealand’s worst instincts about them. It would also have been easy for the māori party to walk away from the coalition deal, and I do think this is another factor in favour of that course of action. But they haven’t done so. Tamati Kruger’s response that the joke was “not funny, in poor taste and unbecoming of a prime minister” is pretty strongly-worded but shows its own sort of gallows-humour, indicating that Kruger (seasoned negotiator that he is) understands the game being played, and is prepared to continue playing it, given some caveats. Having today said that Key had lost his nerve Kruger has held his. He was magnanimous and humorous when speaking to John Tamihere and Willie Jackson about the topic on RadioLIVE this afternoon, but pretty clear that the deal is still to be closed, and it will now take some closing.

Third, Key has publicly insulted both TÅ«hoe and the māori party in the past week, and this does still need to be addressed. All parties seem to have chosen to address it around their respective negotiating tables, rather than in public, but behind closed doors these people will be furious at having been so treated, and for all that they’ve gained ground with the redneck street, that’s ground National will need to make up inside the wharenui. To put it in terms Key, as a former currency trader who worked a lot in Asia, would understand: the price of doing business just went up. And it went up quite a lot, because failure to accede to that increase means TÅ«hoe can now justifiably walk away from negotiations which are already almost two years underway, claiming that the negotiating team has no legitimacy, having been unilaterally overruled by their own prime minister, apparently just because he changed his minds. If they do that, expect every other current negotiation to go the same way. That’s an unacceptable political cost for Key before the next election, let alone the one after (by which all outstanding claims are supposed to be settled).

Fourth, a public sense is beginning to build of Key as the one who is endangering the relationship, after the opposite sense developed around Hone Harawira’s comments last year. If the coalition between National and the māori party fails, it will be seen as his failure to manage the relationship adequately, and that damages his own master narrative of being an efficient political manager and an all-round nice guy. As marty mars said in another comment on The Standard, the concessions granted to Māori by Key’s government are “barbed” — they can’t be revoked or withdrawn without sustaining substantial political damage, which means that if the māori party sees genuinely irreconcilable differences and an opportunity to dissolve the agreement without being seen as unreasonable, they are able to do so. But as Neil says in the comment thread below, and as I’ve been arguing to little avail for ages, the māori party’s best play vis-a-vis either major party is the threat to go with the other. Labour partisans and much of the wider left wish it were not so, but if Labour get a sense that they have a monopoly on the māori party’s attentions again, then further concessions will be rare and threadbare.

Fifth, the KBR response is just what you’d expect, complete with gratuitous references to the alleged taste of human flesh, and ginga jokes. Sigh.

Thanks for the discussion so far. Responses to other comments below.