Posts Tagged ‘symbolic politics’
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.
Woe be it for me to venture into the minefield of Maori politics on Waitangi Day. Yet the ructions around “Escortgate” at Te Tii Marae got me to thinking that perhaps there is more to the story than arguments within Ngapuhi and the inevitable displays of division that seem to mark the yearly event. At risk of stating the obvious, it is not just about different forms of identity politics.
Instead, what may be on display is the fundamental conflict between what might be called maori socialism and maori capitalism. By that I mean maori identity superimposed on a class base. Maori socialism is a view that is working class and lumpenproletarian in perspective, while Maori capitalism is propertied and bourgeois in orientation. The Hareweras and the Mana Party are a good examples of the former while the Maori Party and entities such as the so-called “Brown Table,” to say nothing of numerous trusts and boards, constitute examples of the latter. The conflict between them is not so much rooted in personalities, iwi and hapu (although there is clearly a strong element of that), but in fundamental differences in economic perspective and the proper approach to the Pakeha-dominated socio-economic and political status quo.
To be clear, I am not referring in this instance to pure forms of socialist or capitalist thought. Communal and egalitarian beliefs are as strongly represented in maori economics and society as are ownership and hierarchy. In the realm of Maori politics it seems that hybrid approaches rooted in one or the other ideological perspective have come to dominate political discourse. But the broad division between “Left” and “Right” seem fairly distinct.
The “militant” (although it is not truly that), “socialist” (although it is also not really that) approach is to largely reject the Pakeha rules of the game as given while working on what generously can be called a war of position strategy: raising consciousness amongst subaltern groups within whom lower class maori constitute the core around which issues of praxis are addressed. In this strategy alliances with Pakeha leftists are feasible because the ideological line vis a vis the common class enemy is roughly the same.
The “moderate” (phrased nicely) capitalist approach is one of pragmatic accommodation and incremental gains within the elite system as given. Alliance with Pakeha elites is possible given the division of potential spoils available in a system constructed by and for elites, but which increasingly has the potential to be colour and ethnicity-blind. Here the strategy is also one of a war of position, but in this case from within rather than from without.
Needless to say, there is some blurring between the two (e.g. Mana plays within the institutional rules of the political system and the Maori Party is not averse to relying on extra-institutional means of getting their point across). There are also significant agent-principal problems on both sides.
Even so, it seems that the main source of conflict within maoridom is grounded in class orientation and its corresponding strategic approach as much if not more than anything else. Put vulgarly in leftist terms, it is a conflict between the staunch and the sell-outs. Put bluntly in capitalist terms, it is a conflict between losers and realists.
From a practical standpoint, the underlying class differences are more difficult to resolve than other aspects of maori identity. It is in the Pakeha elite interest to keep things so.
Given my ignorance of Maori politics I could be wrong. I defer to Lew, Anita and more informed readers in any event. My intent is not to stir. Instead, this post is written as an inquiry rather than a statement. Your views on the issue are therefore welcome.
The New Zealand Herald’s archetypal “average” Kiwi family, the Ray family of Sandringham East, has declared the 2012 Budget “sensible and unspectacular”, probably the strongest endorsement Bill English could have hoped for. But let’s look at what this article signifies.
First and most obviously, the article makes something of the fact that the average income in Sandringham East is nearly identical to the average income across Auckland as a whole — not quite $27,000 per annum* — but the Ray family income is about four times that, $105,000. If both adults were in paid work, their income level would be about twice the average. But the article says that Amanda Ray is a full-time stay-at-home mum, from which we can reasonably assume that Alistair Ray’s income is four times the median on its own. Income level: not “average”.
The figures given for income, and for the decile rating of the local school, date from “the last census”, which was held in 2006. Census data from 2011, had it been held, would probably not yet have been released anyway, so that’s not really a factor — but the data is six years out of date in any case. The principal of the local school says the area is “gentrifying” and the middle-of-the-road decile 5 status is likely to be revised upwards. Suburb: not “average”. [Edit to add: the school decile rating doesn't necessarily support this conclusion; see Graeme Edgeler's comment explaining deciles, below.]
Alistair Ray is an urban designer, and Amanda has a doctorate in cancer research. I’m not sure of the qualifications required to become an urban designer, but I think it’s safe to assume that it requires postgraduate study to honours — probably master’s — level. Education: not “average”.
Education is just one aspect of social capital more generally. The Rays immigrated relatively recently from the UK. Their language is our language; their qualifications and experience are accepted here without question; many of our social norms and customs, and our legal and political systems are very similar to those of the UK, having been largely derived from the institutions of the Old Country. This is hardly uncommon — roughly a third of immigrants to NZ come from the UK — but neither is it typical. Immigrants from Asia and the Pacific (combined) make up a higher proportion, and these groups do not enjoy the same degree of familiarity that British immigrants do. Social capital: not “average”.
None of this is any sort of criticism of the Ray family. I have no doubt that they are honest, hardworking, skilled and decent folk who are committed to this country, who make a valuable contribution to it, and are as entitled as anyone else to express opinions on its government. They are welcome here. The Herald chose to frame them as an “average” family, though, and by these metrics they are not an “average” family. I think it is fair to characterise the Rays as an “aspirational” family.
And that, I think, answers the implicit question of whose view the Herald’s coverage seeks to express, and whose interests yesterday’s budget serves. The elision of “average” and “aspirational” is, I think, the single most powerful shift in this country’s political discourse in the past five years — since John Key took the National party leadership. This piece of terminology (and its close cousin, “ambitious”) dominated the 2008 election campaign, and while it has tailed off more recently, the policy settings the government has chosen demonstrate that it is still a core theme of their ideological project. This government does not speak to, or for “average” New Zealanders — it speaks to, and for “aspirational” New Zealanders, and in this article the Herald does not really speak to, or for “average” New Zealanders — it speaks to, and for “aspirational” New Zealanders. Blurring ideas of “aspiration” almost interchangeably with ideas of “average” defines an “us” in which nearly everyone includes themselves, persuading “average” people that the government speaks for, and to them, even though the policy programme yields them no direct advantage whatsoever. At the same time, it permits the government and others to define anyone who fails to “aspire” hard enough, for whatever reason — a lack of education or financial or social capital, chronic illness or disability, or a history of abuse, mental illness or repression, poor choices or simply bad fortune — as an unperson. So defined, the state can with relative impunity dismantle the system of benefits, state assistance and remedial advantage that, in the final analysis, enables more of the population to become genuinely “aspirational”.
That bell probably can’t be un-rung. I think we are stuck with this elision, and this delusion that everyone can be above-average — it’s normal, and expected, and if you aren’t, you’re a failure. That’s a concerning prospect.
* I should at least give credit to Simon Collins for using the median, rather than the mean with regard to income — many, including the government, are not so scrupulous.
Posted on 21:25, May 10th, 2012 by Lew
Today the President of the United States of America came out (if that’s the right term) in support of gay marriage. Hours later, The leader of the New Zealand Labour party did likewise. The responses they got could hardly have been more different. Obama’s statement was greeted with a worldwide ripple of excitement; Shearer’s with a localised wave of criticism. Aside from the obvious difference in scale, we can make some sense of the difference in valence by looking at two main factors: the content of their respective messages in political context; and the media and moment in which they were made.
Substance and political context
Allowing for the differences in political context, Obama’s and Shearer’s statements were reasonably similar. Both expressed support for gay marriage in principle, with reservations about implementation. In Obama’s case, the reservations were constitutional. The President can’t unilaterally pass an act permitting gay marriage; it has to go through two federal houses and most aspects of marriage are still, ultimately, determined by the states. Obama’s statement was symbolic and aspirational. First of all, it was a means of defining who he is, politically — a rebuttal of suggestions that he is timid or not liberal enough, and a means of illustrating a sharp distinction between his administration and the caricatured culture-war conservatism of his Republican opponents. It was also an opportunity to reinvigorate the American political left. David Frum said it well:
(You should read Frum’s whole piece, it’s short and articulates clearly why this was a strategic coup.)
Shearer’s statement was, if anything, less equivocal than Obama’s; he merely said that he “would like to see the detail of any legislation before giving formal support”. In purely rational terms, that’s totally reasonable; nobody signs a blank political cheque. Much of the criticism has centred on the assumption that any such law would be introduced by Labour, so Shearer would not only get to see it but would get to vet it before declaring support. This isn’t really so; Labour are in opposition, and barring extreme exigencies they will be for at least 2.5 years to come. Given the Greens’ long-standing commitment to gay marriage and remarkable success in the member’s ballot, there’s a better-than-even chance that a hypothetical same-sex marriage bill drawn at random would be theirs.* There are plenty of potential pitfalls in such a bill, if badly drafted, and it is reasonable to hold reservations.
Other criticism of Shearer has centred on the argument that Obama’s political context is much more hostile to gay marriage, and his declaring in favour of it constitutes a genuine act of political bravery, while it’s a rather less contentious issue here. Also not entirely fair; of course, that difference in political context exists, but Obama is in power, and (largely due to Republican infighting) in political ascendancy, while Shearer is in opposition and in the doldrums. It is also very unlikely that any gay marriage bill would pass the current NZ Parliament, especially now that social-conservatives like NZ First are back in.
So on the merits, criticism of Shearer for appending this seemingly-innocuous qualifier seems a bit unfair. But there are two better explanations for hostility: first, he misread his medium; and more importantly, he misread the moment.
The medium and the moment
Obama made his statement in a medium and situation that afforded him considerable control over how his message would be transmitted and received, and that enabled him to articulate his position both from a personal perspective and politically. Good Morning America was a sympathetic venue; morning TV is warm and nonconfrontational, on the ABC network even more so than usual. It is not strictly time-controlled and interviewers generally do not play hardball. Its audience is more liberal, more female, and more inclined to respond favourably to expressions of personal warmth and reflection such as this one.
Shearer chose Twitter to make his announcement — the most constrained medium possible, one that permits no contextualisation, no emotional or personal connection. Given his performance to date as leader of the opposition, and the NZ Twitter left’s activist bias, it’s probably also one of the more hostile media open to him. It’s not talkback, but in some ways it’s worse: a lot of people who really want to like you, but are already frustrated and disappointed and are beginning to despair can be a harsher audience than your outright enemies. Twitter also means that you are expected to be spare and to the point, and to only include detail that is significant. By hedging, he signalled that his position was not firm or genuine. The medium is the message, so the inclusion of an obvious redundancy like “need to see the detail” when characters are so limited doesn’t look like understandable prudence, it looks like fuzzy-headed waffly-thinking at best, or political cowardice at worst. David Shearer mistook a platform for slick, aspirational one-liners as the venue for earnest political positioning.
And that leads to the most crucial point of all: Shearer misread the political moment. Obama’s declaration in personal, philosophical terms of his “evolution” from someone who did not support gay marriage to someone who does was a watershed moment, a genuinely epochal event: when the President of the United States of America supports your cause, all of a sudden it looks a lot more like happening. A loud shot was fired in the culture wars; it instantly became global news, and with the news came a wave of liberal euphoria. This was, as Russell Brown noted, the best possible moment to note Labour’s progressive history and rededicate to the goal of marriage equality, but it was not a time for wonkish quibbling about details, or careful delineation of party policy. The moment was one of joy, of celebration, of possibility — of hope and change — and any response had to be congruent with that. Shearer’s wasn’t. The contrast jarred, and made the other, lesser, deficiencies in the message and its presentation more evident.
Substance, context, medium and moment. You can’t really afford to be without any of these, but if you’re trying to catch a wave of public sentiment, you really have to get your moment right.
This is symptomatic of Labour’s ongoing failure to articulate its vision: a lack of mastery of the tools and techniques at their disposal. Shearer’s lack of authenticity and his inability to speak clearly and unequivocally from his own position, that I touched on in my last post on this topic, was depressingly evident in this episode, and it may be that he’s still being tightly managed. A more concerning possibility is that this is the real David Shearer: lacking in virtù, like his predecessor.
But despite everything, I think this was a good experience for Labour — hopefully it has demonstrated to them that sometimes being timid is worse than being silent. If “go hard or go home” is the only lesson they take from today, it will have been worth it.
* Hypothetical, because none are in the ballot at present, though I expect that to change soon. Idiot/Savant drafted one some years ago, and it would not be an hour’s work to get it in.
Judging from the media coverage of the Urewera 4 trial, including video and audio evidence given by the Crown to the press, the prosecutorial strategy is quite clear. It consists of three interwoven strands that together offer a narrative about politically-motivated armed criminal conspiracy. The first is to say that the activities depicted in the evidence were serious military-style (paramilitary) training. The second is to characterize the exercises as, in the words of the Crown Prosecutor, “training for…guerrilla warfare,” something that implies a target and an objective. The third is to claim that this training constituted a clear and present danger to the New Zealand public, or at least to the political elite who the defendants in the alleged conspiracy commonly oppose. Although the usual sub judice protocols are said to be in place, selective leaking of the video and audio tapes (whose legality is in dispute) helps the Crown backdrop its case, in a form of trial by media in which there is no right to rebuttal. The release of the audio and video evidence was done for prejudicial reasons, not because the Crown had to.
The problem for the Crown is that the video and audio evidence covertly collected by the Police suggest something less than dangerous proficiency on the part of Tame Iti and his activist comrades. There is no doubt that the camps had a paramilitary flavor to them. So do hunting camps, paintball competitions, male-bonding sessions and survivalist exercises. More tellingly, the video shows rank amateurism and indifferent commitment by the people involved. As an example, Omar Hamed, an original defendant who is not on trial, is seen in close up video coverage looking like an excited 12 year old with his first rabbit hunting.22 (which was the actual weapon he was holding) as he stares directly but obliviously at a surveillance camera a meter away (which suggests a lack of situational awareness given that the Police claim that Mr. Iti repeatedly warned his activist colleagues to beware of “eyes and ears” on their activities). His pea shooter may or may not have been loaded. Mr Iti’s concerns, as it turns out, were justified.
In the video some people march purposefully and some shuffle listlessly and mill about while others converse and apparently shoot at unspecified targets. Some give instructions. Some wear balaclavas. A car bonnet is used to prop up a shot. There is rudimentary martial arts training seen in the video, but it is farcical given the skills of the people involved (in a creepy sidebar with relevance to this aspect, it is suggested in some quarters that Mr. Hamed is more dangerous to activist Left women than he is to the status quo). Audio of cluster fire (cluster fire is the overlapping of multiple shots from several weapons in order to saturate a target area) does not identify who was doing it or what they were shooting at, and the presence of spent cartridges under a pock-marked tree tells little in light of the amount of hunting that occurs in the Ureweras.
Frankly, I would be more concerned if the videos showed the activists on a boar hunt, slitting the throats of piglets while yelling “death to imperialism!” The activities shown are far from that and much more about make believe. From what I have seen, the NZ public have little to worry about from this crowd.
As I have said before, it is not a good look for anti-war, Maori and environmental activists to be playing at commando. But it is not a crime to do so–many other people do–so the prosecution’s case is built on a grand exaggeration. It attempts to show a level of competence, organization and training focus to the paramilitary exercises that simply was not there. If anything, the video evidence is an embarrassment to those in them, whether or not they had a political motive for being at the camps. That is curious because neo-Nazi groups do the same type of “training” with a better (yet pathetic) level of competence and a definite, publicly stated political goal of preparing for racial conflict, yet somehow have avoided being the subject of a Ruatoki-style Police response and four year Crown prosecution.
The Crown exaggerates its case not only to secure convictions but also to smear and deter. Mentioning the phrase “guerrilla warfare” indirectly introduces the word terrorism into the juries’ minds. By overlapping the two concepts the prosecution smears a certain type of Left activism with the dreaded “T” word. Even those not on trial–we should remember that all charges were dropped against 13 defendants–are tainted by their association with that word even though no formal charges of terrorism have been laid against any of them. The purpose of raising the specter of guerrillas in our midst is clearly to smear the defendants, but also to deter others on the Left who might wish to add paramilitary skills to their activist inventory.
The Crown imputes coherent motive to the defendants when it speaks of guerrilla warfare. It claims that it has evidence of such. But even if a common motive was established (perhaps hatred of “Da Man”), the inference is that this motive was focused on preparing to use armed violence against specific targets in pursuit of a unified goal. That is a stretch, not only because of the varied causes that the original group of defendants espoused, but also because of the clearly different levels of enthusiasm and combat skills they exhibit, none of which come remotely close to credible guerrilla organization and tactics.
Thus, from what the press coverage has been so far, the Crown prosecution of the Urewera 4 is much ado about nothing. The process is the punishment, because after four plus years of uncertainty, expense and de facto restrictions on their movements (some of the original defendants have been refused entry to foreign countries, which means that their names are on an international security list very likely provided by the NZ authorities), those on trial today, their Urewera colleagues and others on the activist Left (since the neo-Nazi Right appears to be immune) will think twice about making like Warriors even if this trial results in acquittals (the most likely case for conviction will be firearms law violations). Regardless of the outcome of the trial, in that regard the Crown prosecutors and the Labour and National governments that have overseen them will have won. Engaging in procedural delays, legal manipulation of charges and prosecutorial exaggeration is a successful Crown strategy regardless of the formal outcome.
That is the most troubling aspect of the entire affair. By stretching the definition of what constitutes a serious threat of domestic guerrilla warfare in order to prosecute a well-known group of Left-leaning fantasists (who may or may not have had wanna-be militant ambitions), in what appears to be a specifically targeted vendetta, the Crown has played loose with the basic rules of democratic jurisprudence. In doing so fairness and justice in the legal system has been sacrificed at the alter of political opportunity, which is a far worse outcome than the individual fates of the accused.
There may be new and alarming revelations to come that would substantiate the Crown’s case against the Urewera 4. But from where I sit, using what is currently in the public domain, this appears to be a prosecution based on malice, not facts.
This morning David Shearer won the Labour leadership, as many expected and as I had hoped he would. More substantive analysis will follow, but I want to remark on two things. First, via Mike Smith at The Standard:
As a non-member I was not in attendance at that meeting, and I was not aware of this detail, but it should be clear to anyone who has read me over the last few years that this gives me great hope. One of my chief complaints about the Labour leadership and its activist community has been its boneheaded obsession with hard facts and rational policy detail. To the extent that Shearer can moderate that he has potential to breathe new life into the movement.
The second is Shearer’s first public action as leader: declaring that the ministerial forum on poverty announced as part of the māori party’s confidence and supply agreement should include leaders of other political parties. Video from interest.co.nz:
This is a good move for three reasons: first because it gives Labour an opportunity to be at the centre of a major policy initiative, rather than on the outside; second because it gives Shearer an opportunity to use his much-hyped skills in this field; and third because it should add some heft to a committee which otherwise would likely have been dominated by Bill English channelling advice from Treasury. It doesn’t take a terrible cynic to see that the committee was intended as a sop to Tariana — another symbolic bauble with nothing behind it. Shearer’s presence, and possibly that of other leaders, would make it a much more meaningful concern, which is probably why it won’t happen. But nevertheless, it sends a crucial signal: poverty is bigger than partisan politics. National would be foolish to ignore it.
The job’s not even started yet; there’s much to do and much ground to gain, the bones of which have been sketched out in two epochal posts by Jordan Carter, here and here. Other important questions, like whether David Cunliffe’s abilities will be adequately used, remain — but I am very encouraged by what I have seen.
I don’t know who’s set up wewantdavidcunliffe.co.nz to lobby for his leadership of the Labour party, but I’m pretty sure David Cunliffe won’t be thanking them, despite their obvious enthusiasm. Click the image below for a full size version.
All the information is broadly accurate (except for the idiotic scaremongering of “Don’t let the right-wing bloggers hijack your party’s Leadership election. Submit the form now!”). Cunliffe is a strong candidate with many good qualities. But I doubt many people will read that far because the site is offensive to the eye. The layout is horrible, and I know colour-blocking is meant to be in right now, but seriously — the dominant red is too much. Contrast with the text is poor, and the faux-script headings and such give the whole thing a 1990s Geocities-Angelfire feel that has no place in the 21st Century interwebs.
Worst of all is the banner — it tells us that grey, faceless bobble-headed people want David Cunliffe as leader. As a friend of mine, a graphic designer by training, said (after “MY EYEEEES”) — aren’t grey bobble-heads the New Zealand First brand?
The use of such symbolism is a slander on David Cunliffe that even a member of Team Shearer like me can’t support.
National’s initial Stop/Go TV ad is a pretty good one. Clean, to the point, not bogged down in detail but jampacked with symbolism:
Toby Manhire, writing on The Listener‘s excellent new website, has already done the analysis so I’ll quote him:
But hang on a moment. The symbolism of a lazy Labourite and a clean-cut Tory is laid on a bit thick — and the scruffy old Labour guy looks just a tiny bit “ethnic”, if you know what I mean. Moreover the whole Stop/Go metaphor is a bit trite — trite enough that it was the basis for a satirical diary piece by David Slack in December last year:
And If you think about how traffic control actually works, the metaphor has coherence problems. Last night, Anna Hodge tweeted the following observation, which in hindsight seems so obvious:
Um, quite. For some to go, others must stop (at least until we get reef-fish-inspired traffic management systems.)
Anna’s tweet generated a bunch of responses as the narrative of the ad began to unravel. Mine was that if you’re at the front of the queue, only the GO sign matters; others were about the size of your SUV, the increase in inequality between north- and south-bound traffic flows, and the fact that Stop and Go signs are the same sign, just viewed from different angles.
Aaron Hicks remarked that the STOP sign at road works means that there’s actually work going on, a point you’d have thought might be clear to a government undertaking such an aggressive roading policy. And did the green of the go sign hint at a National alliance with the Greens? But they’ve spent the last decade and a half telling us that the Greens’ green means stop so green is basically red, and now their own green (not even a Blue-green!) means go?
The more you think about it, the more tangled and incoherent the narrative gets. And yet for all its flaws the ad works. It relies on people not thinking too hard about it — upon audiences swallowing whole the top-level symbolic material Toby described, making what Stuart Hall called a hegemonic reading of the text. In Hall’s model the second audience position is a ‘negotiated’ reading — such as Toby’s analysis itself, which recognises the hegemonic aspects of the discourse but doesn’t necessarily accept them, and the third position is ‘contrary’; consciously reading against the text’s hegemonic meaning — what Anna did, as did those of us who responded to her observation.
A lesson from this is that reading a tightly-encoded text counter-hegemonically is hard work. Audiences are not sponges or “sheeple”; they will often take a negotiated position, but in general such a position doesn’t prevent the text from having some impact. This illustrates a point of strategy that my regular readers must be bored tears with by now: you can’t rebut a text like this head-on with wonkish facts and figures. Dry details about Labour’s record and plans on economic progress wouldn’t make a blind bit of difference to the effectiveness of this particular ad, for two reasons: first because the hegemonic material doesn’t lodge in the head, it lodges in the guts (it’s truthiness, not truth); and second because such a rebuttal implicitly accepts the framing of the original text, and that framing is half the payload. But subverting the paradigm, man, that’s where the action is.
I’m not suggesting a comprehensive strategy to counter the National party campaign could be composed around a response to one 15-second ad, but if a counter-strategy was to be composed, that’s how you’d do it. Don’t berate people for accepting the hegemonic position, or for negotiating: find ways to make them see it in a different light.
One of the more vexing problems in politics is to turn opposition to something into a virtue. Being anti-something is reactive and defensive rather than a path with which to move forward. It is the antithesis of a proactive, innovative posture where the power of a better future is conveyed in order to secure implicit agreement to the unspoken “Yes” latent in the electorate. The latter is a positive reaffirmation, often couched in crude nationalism or other symbols of consensus and collective identity. In contrast, the implicit or explicit “No” embedded in negative campaigns carries with it connotations of obstructionism, obstinacy and lack of vision.
The negative connotations of a “No” campaign suffer from a structural disadvantage when it comes to mass political psychology. All things being equal, it is harder to successfully engage in “No” campaigns rather than “Yes” campaigns, especially when the former is confronted by the latter in electoral competition. Negative campaigns can also be a sign of defeat. Although all political challengers must attack incumbents on their record, there are ways to do so in addition to simple rejection of the opponent’s policies. In practice, opposition parties that fail to cloak their campaigns in a positive and proactive message are often conceding the outcome and using the electoral process for party rejuvenation rather than truly competitive purposes.
Yet it is possible for negative campaigns to convey a positive message. An example of a successful negative campaign is the opposition to the 1989 referendum on the nature of the Chilean regime. After 16 years of market-oriented military-bureaucratic authoritarianism, General Pinochet sought to continue as a civilian president in a “guarded” democracy installed by “controlled” elections. He and his supporters formed a political party to that effect, relaxed restrictions on the political opposition, and held a referendum that proposed that voters say”Yes” to constitutional revisions that would guide the installation of the “guarded” democratic regime. Pinochet and his followers banked on their control of the media and relative economic successes to ensure that the “Yes” outcome would prevail. The language of the referendum spoke to this fact by asking voters to vote “Yes” or “No” on continuing the unfinished process of national reconstruction under a Pinochet presidency.
Opposition to the “guarded” democracy plan came from a diverse array of groups, who preferred a full transition to democracy and the removal of Pinochet from politics. It did not necessarily have the support of the majority when the referendum campaign began, and besides the advantages accrued to the Pinochet regime, it was hampered by tight campaign regulations, lack of access to publicity, restrictions on public gatherings and the fact that many of its leaders were in exile.
Even so, the Opposition campaigners phrased their negative message so that a “No” vote was a vote for democracy as well as a vote against authoritarianism. It played on the knowledge that most Chileans understood that whatever its successes, the Pinochet regime was an aberration rather than a model, and that the price for its success was not worth the benefits supposedly gained. This organic understanding of Chilean “good sense” in the face of elite-purveyed common sense shifted popular perceptions of the referendum, and the “No” vote won a commanding majority. Confronted by defeat, Pinochet was abandoned by his supporters and the stage set for a fuller transition to democratic rule (I say “fuller” because the terms of the foundational election and the character of the political system for the first post-authoritarian decade were fixed by post-referendum constitutional reforms made by the outgoing Pinochet regime under executive fiat, which were heavily weighed in favour of the elites who benefitted from the Pinochet regime and which was backed by a military commitment to defend them. It was not until the 2000s (and Pinochet’s death in 1999) that Chilean democracy was fully consolidated, and even then the structural and institutional changes wrought by the authoritarians and their successors skewed socio-economic and political power in favour of those who prospered under Pinochet).
Regardless of what happened later, the “No” campaign on the 1989 referendum succeeded in shifting the terms of the Chilean transition to democracy away from those preferred by the authoritarians and towards those of a long-repressed opposition. It is therefore a good example of turning a negative stance into a political positive.
The success of the 1989 Chilean “No” campaign might provide some insights for Labour as it enters the final phase of the 2011 election. Labour has staked its campaign on opposition to National’s economic policies, epitomized by the “No” on Assets Sales plank. A little more subtly, the proposal to raise the retirement age is an admission that not all is well in Aotearoa. In other words, it is an admission of a negative, which is also the case for the repeated references to job losses via immigration to Australia. Most importantly, although Labour has “positive” planks in its electoral platform, these appear to be overshadowed (at least to me) by the negative aspects of its campaign. For its part, National can play the role of positive campaigner, using the upbeat character of the Prime Minister, the hopeful nature of its policy message (however devoid of positive content that it may be) and incidentals such as the All Blacks WRC victory to cement its pro-active and affirmative image in the eyes of voters.
Given the late stage of the campaign, it might be worth considering how Labour might cast its “negative” planks in a positive light. The key is to use the implicit “No” as an affirmation of Kiwi (as opposed to class or ethnic) identity, be it in its quest for economic and political independence or in its reification of individualism as a national trait. Here differences can be drawn with National on issues such as security policy, where National has basically subordinated its military perspective to those of Australia and the US, or on foreign investment in an increasingly deregulated domestic economic context, where National would prefer to ease restrictions on foreign capital flows into the country regardless of their impact on strategic assets, local capital or the integrity of resident labour markets and environmental conditions. Saying “no” to such things is not being obstructionist or reactionary, it is about reaffirming who we are.
I have no expertise in political marketing, but it seems to me that if the 1989 Chilean opposition could turn a negative campaign into a positive statement given the severe restrictions and disadvantages under which it operated, then Labour might consider how to cast its campaign in a way such that its opposition to National’s policy proposals becomes a reaffirmation of Kiwi autonomy and independence. Other than that, it has little else to go on.*
* I am well aware that on economic fundamentals Labour and National are two sides of the same slice of bread, and that many National policies are mere continuations of those originally set by the 5th Labour government. My point here is to show that there is a way, however improbable, for Labour to rescue its election campaign.
Is the global “Occupy” movement a genuine grassroots mobilisation with revolutionary potential or is it bound to fizzle out, be coopted, voluntarily moderate its demands or splinter into myriad fringe groups without promoting substantive change in the socio-economic status quo?
Interested readers are invited to share their views.