Church, State and the weight of capitalism.

Arguments by religious folk that they are being discriminated against under the Level 2 pandemic restrictions in NZ, which limit church services to ten people or less when schools, restaurants, malls and other service outlets are allowed to host many more people under voluntary self-distancing protocols, got me to think about whether people understand the rationale behind the government approach as well as the role of religion in society and particularly in a liberal democracy such as NZ. I wrote a tweet outlining my general view and it elicited some contrary responses from people who are either religious and/or dislike the current government. I will not dwell on their responses but I will below string together in fuller scope my side of the discussion.

I began with the first tweet:

“Liberal democracies are secular regimes where church and state are separate and the state treats all religions neutrally and equally while having superordinate authority over material (as opposed to spiritual) issues, including public health. Churches need to respect that.” That began a back and forth with the contrary minded readers, which elicited the following responses from me:

“Stage (sic) 2 is based on opening up commerce, with some social restrictions still in place. Education is critical for commerce in several ways. Services are critical to economic well-being. Religion is a social construct based on belief that is not economically essential. Big diff.

In medicine, the environment, engineering, economics, threat assessment, even political forecasting, among so many other material things, science must and will trump belief. With CV-19 science must prevail over belief. There is nothing “illiberal” about the govt response.”

The last sentence came in response to a commentator’s remark that NZ is an illiberal democracy because of the restriction on religious gatherings, among other things. The author went on to speak of a difference in values between the government and people like him when it comes to family and society. I replied:

“A secular democratic regime can, should and most often does value families and society, and its social policies demonstrate this. The level 2 re-opening is business driven because NZ is a capitalist country, and everyone’s welfare depends on capitalist survival, not churches.

So long as the economic imperatives of a capitalist society remain a paramount concern of govt, then commercial concerns will supersede (much variegated) spiritual ones. Hence the pro-business incrementalism of the govt approach. They respond to structural necessity, not values.”

And that is the bottom line. NZ is a capitalist society. It is a capitalist society because the means of production are mostly in private hands and subject to market-oriented logics, because the relations in and of production reproduce the material hierarchy on which the economic system rests, because it is inserted in a global capitalist system of production, consumption and exchange, and because the social division of labour that emerges out of it reinforces the hierarchical relations between the ultimate producers of wealth and the owners of productive assets in NZ and elsewhere. Most of all, NZ is a capitalist society because the welfare of everyone directly or indirectly depends on the welfare and investment of capitalists–if they do not prosper, no one does.

Regular readers know the I am not a fan of laissez fare capitalism or the various market-driven experiments of the last forty years. Nor am I entirely pleased with how the current government defers to capitalist logics rather than fully embrace the entire policy spectrum involved in well-being budgeting. I am just saying: when it comes to the economic motor of NZ society, it is what it is.

NZ has just faced and continues to be threatened by a deadly global pandemic. The initial government response was a public health campaign marshalled on scientific grounds that was mitigated by an unprecedented economic relief package designed to help people weather the financial storm caused by the disruption of economic activity. Capitalists and workers were included in the relief measures. This response was vetted by a pandemic emergency response committee chaired by the Leader of the Opposition and communicated in daily press conferences by the Prime Minister and Director General of Health, along with other officials. That is far from being the makings of a totalitarian police state that a fair few believe it to be.

Once the lockdown/quarantine phase of the restrictions was lifted (after six weeks), the government announced that its level 3 and 2 approaches were designed to get businesses back to work. This employed a type of pragmatic incrementalism where restrictions on commercial activity were slowly lifted in piecemeal, sectorial and graduated fashion over what is now going on 3 weeks. The government explicitly stated that this was not a social opening and that pre-pandemic social activities that do not have a commercial orientation were very consciously excluded from the stage 3 and 2 re-opening measures.

That is why churches are not allowed to resume pre-pandemic activities, indulging religious services, in the measure that they did before March 23. Note that they can still host church services and other activities but that they must adhere to the “fewer than 10” rule when doing so. No one has restricted their freedom of worship. Only group size when worshipping has been limited, and that is because churches are not considered to be businesses.

If churches want to claim that they are a type of commercial enterprise, then they have reason to feel discriminated against and by all means should air their grievances along those lines. But that might open questions about their tax-free status, real estate holdings, tithing practices and other non-spiritual aspects of their mission. So it is unlikely that we will hear this argument aired in public or as a defence of a church’s right to host large gatherings for religious purposes.

In any case, the “blame” for not including churches in the Level 3 and 2 re-openings is not the fault of government values when it comes to family and society. If anything, blame comes simply from the fact that NZ is a capitalist nation and the bottom line is, well, the bottom line. Spirituality is fine but it does not pay the bills, unless of course it is of the “prosperity doctrine” persuasion where the Lord commands that we should enrich ourselves before all others.

Speaking of which: why the heck was that charlatan fraudster Brian Tamaki and his Destiny Church minions allowed to defy the level 2 restrictions without punitive sanction? Were the police worried about a confrontation with a large crowd? Even if that was the case, if the letter of the public health order cannot be enforced even with enabling legislation conferring extraordinary enforcement powers on the police, what is the point of having them? Or are exceptions to the rule made for bully-boy bigoted loudmouth xenophobic lumpenproletarians posing as preachers?

We might call that a type of reverse discrimination.

27 thoughts on “Church, State and the weight of capitalism.

  1. It’s quite the blow to the idea that man was created in gods image when science comes along and says humans evolved from great apes. Instead of confronting people like Brian Tamaki with the truth I guess we have to let these fragile egos down gently.

  2. NZ was a capitalist society under Key but under Jacinda, god bless her, capitalism is no longer the only game in town…

  3. You missed the point. No matter the ideological orientation of a particular government, in any society with capitalist relations in and of production, the structural imperatives of capitalism serve as the baseline parameters for the formulation and implementation of all social policy. These might be mitigated, softened, constrained, harnessed, complemented, supported or accentuated by government action, but it is the system of private appropriation of surplus value that dictates what governments can and cannot do, including whether or not they cater to the whims of religious sects when it comes to coming out of a pandemic lockdown that caused economic stress to workers and capitalists alike (albeit in different measure). And, to put it nicely, capitalism remains the only game in town under the Labour led government. It may have a less market-driven orientation, but I do not think that one can seriously claim that there now is an alternative to capitalism currently in place.

  4. Your last paragraph, Pablo, is something I have been mulling over for the last several weeks, especially during Level 4 lockdown and then level 3. And specialy this: “Or are exceptions to the rule made for bully-boy bigoted loudmouth xenophobic lumpenproletarians posing as preachers?”. We have a privately owned dwelling quite close to where I live where the lockdown rules were flouted openly, possibly due to illegal activity taking place at the property, with many and varied vehicles (and rather expensive ones) which would come and go for short periods of time, to be replaced by more people calling at the property in other expensive vehicles. I understand, from a neighbour’s voiced concern, that there had been complaints made to the authorities about the comings and goings but nothing was apparently done, and the status quo persisted up until level 2. The owners are not the sort you’d want to cross and are possibly not nice people. They ride Harleys, mostly, and the owner is a middle-aged white male, possibly a member of a bikie gang. I am sure the police are not afraid of these people but the activities and comings and goings were allowed to continue. So it has made me wonder if there is enough swagger and bluster, are the police too afraid to confront these lawbreakers? or are there other reasons behind the inaction? We also have Mongrel Mob down the end of our street, and lots of unusual comings and goings happened all through lockdown, including a very large bus brought into the property which I think may have transported other gang members to hunker down there – although I did read that the police were working with gangs during the lockdown, so that may have happened in that case. With regard to church congregation’s limits, it makes good sense to limit the contact with lots of others, as there’s been plenty of information – especially recently – that talking and singing especially, propels droplets for quite a distance. A great way to spread the disease indeed.

  5. Di:

    In short, given their resources, the police are either intimidated by or cannot be bothered enforcing the rules that deal with organised law breaking. That applies equally to gangs as well as private school social gatherings.

  6. IT seems the rule of law has broken down irretrievably in New Zealand. Of course this is not news – the police have been too intimidated to prosecutre obvious crimes for years now. Remember when they refused to prosecute Chinese intelligence operatives assaulting New Zealand citizens on New Zealand soil!

    Jacinda has articulated an alternative to capitaism – a governance that prioritises people, the environment, idngenous rights and indigenous culture over crude profit.

  7. Pablo, do you think it’s possible to deconsecrate the essence of colonisation from capitalism?

  8. I agree, Pablo. That is exactly what it looks like. Interesting that there was a mongrel Mob drug bust in the Hawkes Bay just a few days ago so there are resources available to some branches of the police when required. I’m hopeful a new unit proposed for Canterbury will be doing similar things down here soon, as gang activity has escalated very noticeably in the last 18 months or so and it could get very nasty.

  9. Sam:

    I am unclear about what you mean by “deconsecrate” but I must note that early colonialism was pre-capitalist in nature. Capitalism gave serious economic force to colonialism (recall Lenin’s tract, “Imperialism: The Highest Stage of Capitalism”), to the point that the first wave of so-called globalisation of production was very much a product of the industrial revolution. Now that we are in a post-industrial phase of capitalism, the ties to non-economic aspects of European colonialism have been diluted and/or shared with pre-colonial and post-colonial identities in former colonies, etc. The struggle for indigenous rights, reparations and the like continues, but it occurs within a geopolitical and cultural landscape that is far removed from the colonial ties of yore.

  10. Okay then Pablo I’ll ask you in this way yknow that New Zealand is unique and that we aren’t just a derivative society, that we come from other places but we no longer belong to another place and my question is do you think anyone of us has what it takes to be the Head of State of the rest of us?

  11. Well, I am more of a Republican-minded person when it comes to such things. I would therefore prefer it that the PM was the Head of State.

  12. Yknow I do think that would be a really good idea Yknow put some real structural change into the show and why not un screw ourselves while we are rewriting the constitution act because of technology and the sorts of things people complain about in the NZDF and SIS and WINZ and maybe rightwingers can attach their Christmas wish list Yknow tax cuts and all that.

  13. Di:

    It is interesting that you speak of an upsurge in gang activity in the last 18 months, just a bit beyond the time since the March 15 attacks. I presume that you are referring to white gangs, or are you noting that traditionally “brown” gangs are now surging? Interestingly, there is a line of thought floating around that the Police have informants in white supremacist gangs because these are involved in the meth trade and other criminal activity. That line of thought posits that the police may have been aware of the Christchurch shooter through their informants but chose not to go after him preventatively because they did not want to blow their informant’s covers. I have no knowledge either way of the veracity of this view and have no independent way of verifying it one way or the other, but I wonder if the upsurge in gang activity is in some way a post-massacre phenomenon that has its roots in how Police have behaved before and since then when it comes to gangs of all persuasions.

  14. Just to give a counterpoint I am also in Canterbury and have not seen any evidence, either anecdotal or statistical, of an upsurge in gang activity.

  15. I’d never heard that theory before, Pablo. It’s interesting, and possible, I guess, but I’d hope it is not the truth that the police knew of the mosque shooter beforehand. However I have noticed there has been more gang activity from Maori gangs in our area – especially as we have Mongrel Mob just down the road from where I live, and there was a drive by shooting a few months ago into a vehicle parked on the roadside outside their building. And a couple of suburbs over a vehicle was smashed into a barber’s shop of a known associate of a rival gang (then later the premises set alight via Molotov cocktail – you can verify this just by doing a search on the Stuff website). It is known that it was due to a gang war because of a new gang moving into the area. I have been wondering if some of the people visiting the house closer to me might be some of the 501s sent back from OZ. The younger men I have seen (who arrive in very expensive vehicles) are very well dressed in their particular style, lots of bling and tattoos, and very fit looking. The older men look like men who might belong, or to have belonged, to white bikie gangs. Not really people anyone would want to get on the wrong side of. Personally I believe the upsurge in gang activity throughout the country, not just here in Christchurch, relates to the deportation of the 501s from Australia – many of whom were prominent figures in bikie gangs in Australia and that this is causing a turf war.

  16. Thanks Di:

    That is all news to me. The line I have heard more than once is that in Christchurch white gangs are a major link between Asian suppliers and other gangs that retail meth.The cops may have decided to overlook the racist/supremacist aspect in favour of gaining intelligence on the meth and other criminal networks. Who knows. Perhaps the Royal Commission’s report will shed light on that (I doubt it) because now that the murderer has pleaded guilty we will never hear anything in court about what the cops did and did not know about him in the months preceding the attacks.

  17. Thank you for your perspectives, Pablo – you may be right about police choosing to turn a blind eye to certain activities to gain intelligence on meth (and other drugs) manufacture and importations. I have no proof, but from what I have observed on my almost-daily walks in the area, that the Mongrel Mob premises (a former warehouse, but which now has residential zoning) is possibly being used for storage of certain goods – what they are I could not say – but it is certainly roomy enough to have multiple uses. The house near me also has a large sleep-out/garage and I can imagine it would be very suitable for similar purposes. There are children living at the house, and I have never smelt anything that suggests drug manufacture, but I suspect it is a distribution point for whatever the activities are taking place there. I have seen police vehicles cruise slowly past the Mob premises, and a large police armed offender’s vehicle cruise down the road past it during the level 4 lockdown. They stopped further down the road, then carried on to wherever they were going. I think an eye is being kept on the Mob building, but have never seen or heard of any evidence of police looking into the house near me. Of the people coming and going to that particular house, none that I have seen are Asian, but that is not to say they do not have those contacts and meet or communicate in another way. And the fact that the mosque shooter pleaded guilty is intruiging indeed. I wonder what prompted the change of plea?

  18. Thanks Di.

    A guilty plea might have involved the killer trading information about his networks, associates and other things in exchange for a reduced sentence. Not that he would be getting out of jail any time soon, especially since he plead guilty to 51 counts of murder, but his rationale could be that if he gets reduced years per count he might actually make parole before he is 60. That would be a travesty, IMO, but stranger things have happened. The major beneficiaries of the guilty plea, however, are the security services since now we may never know why they dropped the ball on him.

  19. I think the mistake is thinking the police knew what they where doing I mean can any of us say that what the police does on a daily is deliberate, planned or executed well?

  20. Yes, Pablo, I think you are probably right about the reasons the mosque shooter pleaded guilty. I’d wondered if it was because he found he was not able to handle the prospect of a very long term solitary confinement and not being able to communicate with like-minded people. Perhaps on the basis of that he was able to make a deal that suited all parties’ purposes. The absolute silver lining of that is for the Muslim community in not having to endure a trial.

    In the meantime,on a much brighter note, I’m looking forward to Kurt Elling’s final Cocktail Hour at 10am tomorrow morning.

  21. Phil:

    In short: No.

    But you are being disingeneous because the crowd being surveilled were at minimum unregistered foreign agents and at worst traitors. You may want to reconsider your loyalty to the Drumpf crowd because they represent the antithesis of what you ostensibly believe in. Either way, in November they will get their comeuppance.

  22. We are fortunate that the zeitgeist reflects a largely supportive attitude towards the pandemic methodology adopted by the government. The noisy few on the right are given far more airtime than they deserve including Tamaki(in service to the conservative agenda) I dont blame him for trying to get his cut, he is to established religion as Trump is to the GOP, he voices their basest desires. The question remains, why is he permitted to violate lockdown rules? In reality we have a low risk of transmission but if Covid was widespread his congregation would be among the most vulnerable.

  23. I am a freespeech absolutis. Even if I don’t like you I’ll still defend your right to say it. By now the lies are so obvious that If you’re still willing and eager to get sucked into this make believe world then it’s your choice.

  24. @Sam: Is your comment a reply to anybody else’s comment or did you just decide that the comments section of this post would be a good place to share your opinions re: free speech

  25. last time we spoke, Gorkem, you confused me saying that “90% of start ups fail, ” and took that to mean that I “believed that investing in start ups is good for profits.” And your still trying to take my comments out of context. I’m sorry Gorkem, but you are not making any sense. I usually give people the benefit of the doubt Yknow and have a normal conversation but in this case I’m sorry to say, Gorkem, I can not help you any longer. Have a nice life.

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