A NZ Identity Crisis?

Some time ago a veteran journalist interviewed me about “foundational myths” and why the US and NZ were different in that regard (by “veteran” I mean a journalist who does research on stories and has some background in the fields pertinent to them, which are then used to write in-depth reports). Although I am not an expert on foundational myths, he had seen something that I had written back then and, having just returned from a trip to the US, his interest in the subject was piqued so he decided to give me a call. We did a compare/contrast exercise that he wrote up for a conservative news outlet.

I was reminded of that exercise by recent events involving ACT Party challenges to the Treaty and the Waitangi Tribunal settlement process. It occurred to me that not only does the Treaty (te Tiriti) serve as a foundational charter for NZ, it is also from whence NZ’s foundational myth comes from. This is not a criticism, just a personal observation, and there clearly is much more to a foundational myth than a grounding in a political contract between indigenous peoples and colonialists. I believe that foundational myths, especially those that are subject to different interpretations, are important for national unification and self-identity because the very differences in “reads” offer a broader canvas upon which to paint a picture of a nation’s collective identity. These myths do not have to be completely true or factually based–after all, they are myths–but are justified and considered worthwhile because they serve the larger purpose of speaking to a polity’s common aspirations, collective history and shared ideals.

As a child I was socialised in contexts that included the foundational myths of Argentina and the US. Both were originally crafted by dominant groups that among other things justified the status quo that they benefitted from, and to which over time other groups were assimilated in whole or in part (if at all). Both myths were symbolised in national anthems replete with words of heroism and sacrifice. Both glorified the constitutions to which pledges of allegiance were sworn (yes, even as kids!). Both myths were perpetrated by dominant groups whose positions of power were born out of conquest. The myths became a type of indelible water mark on my psyche even though, as I grew older, I came to see them for what they were: ideological devices designed to promote a unification narrative rather than objectively present actual historical events (for example, in both Argentina and the US. the “conquest of the West” is celebrated as part of their respective foundational myths even though the treatment of indigenous peoples in both was often barbaric and therefore whitewashed in most instances until very recently).

New Zealand has a different historical trajectory because the Treaty is a different type of foundational charter that is closer to a pure social contract between very distinct groups rather than a compact between relatively homogenous elites. Hence the Treaty creates the basis for a different type of foundational myth, one that is arguably closer to the historical truth than those of Argentina and the US. For one thing, it is not born of conquest. Consequently it is different in that it is not one coherent story imposed by dominant group interpretation, but instead includes several (often competing or opposing) takes on a common starting point (including events leading up to it) and its subsequent legacy. Over time the myth behind the Treaty has slowly seeped into the popular as well as the political collective conscience, creating a cultural amalgam that is considered the essence of what it is to be “kiwi,” be it Pakeha or Maori, Pacifika or Asian in genealogy. This has happened over generations of ethnic engagement and intermixing and is a process that is far from complete. Of course people retain their ancestral identities, some more so than others, but the inexorable march of time forges an intergenerational progression towards a common yet flexible identity in which the foundational myth embodied in the Treaty is seen as the “grand unifier” of a heterogenous assortment of distinct ethnographic groups who share a specifically common Antipodian history. The myth is malleable and subject to interpretation by various parties, but its core unifying properties are very much like those of other countries.

It is that unity that David Seymour’s racist attacks on the Treaty are aimed at. Foreign influenced and funded by well-monied rightwing outlets with international reach, Seymour’s is a type of white supremacist revanchism designed to roll back social gains made by traditionally subordinate groups under the guise of promoting “individualism” and freedom of choice. But what it really is, is an attempt to reassert white capitalist cultural, economic, political and social supremacy on everyone else, and to do that it must destroy NZ’s foundational myth by attacking and dismantling the Treaty using the argument that rather than a cooptation device designed to secure intergenerational social peace, it has created a race-based hierarchy in which Maori are granted privileges unavailable to everyone else. It is an odious project at its core, odious because it is hateful in intent and therefore hate-worthy as an approach to social issues.

Seymour is aided in his project by political opportunists in National and NZ First who cater to what used to be the fringes of NZ society–anti-vaccination groups, conspiracy theorists and, most central of all, racists. He is abetted by a clickbait-focused media that, unlike the veteran that interviewed me, ignores or chooses not to explore the deeper background behind the ACT Party manoeuvres, including its funding and logistical ties to various rightwing astroturf organisations. Between them, what should be a subject of alarm–a frontal assault on the foundational charter and the myths that have been ideologically constructed upon it–have become mainstreamed as merely critical reappraisals of rights and responsibilities emanating from the Treaty and the tribunal settlement process.

That is disingenuous in the extreme. The Waitangi Tribunal settlement process is of itself a critical appraisal of rights and responsibilities conferred by the Treaty as well as the modes of redress for past injustices committed. And as mentioned, it is a cooptation mechanism designed to secure and reproduce social peace along lines promoted by the NZ foundational myth.

In his repugnant actions, Seymour and his acolytes are not only attacking the foundational charter and the foundational myth that is its ideological superstructure. They are questioning what it is to be a New Zealander. For them, the preferred Kiwi identity is white capitalist supremacist, rugby-playing and agrarian in its foundations (this, despite taking money from non-European business interests). Others may opt for social democratic indigenous reassertion and still others may prefer the cultural amalgam that I mentioned earlier. As it turns out, this questioning of Kiwi identity may be a good thing because, if a referendum is held and the proposal to review the Treaty is resoundingly rejected, it could serve to marginalise the likes of Seymour and his band of racist pimply-faced incels (even if they have some political cover via ACT’s party vote and its female representatives, and are provided platforms and money by influential patrons). ACT’s heart is dark, and that darkness needs to be exposed.

So perhaps there is some good in undergoing the exercise of questioning what constitutes a “NZ identity” or what it means to be a “kiwi.” On the other hand, if the assault on te Tiriti continues it could fracture the consensus on NZ’s foundational charter and its surrounding foundational myth and thereby open the door to a crisis of identity when it comes to defining what it means to be a child of the land of the long white cloud.

That would not be good, and yet that is what is exactly what Seymour and company are pushing for. Or as Hillary Clinton said when referring to the MAGA Morons, he and his crew are truly deplorable.

The New Zealand Junta.

Some readers will remember that I spent 25 years in academia researching, writing and teaching about authoritarianism, among other things, and that I was a foreign policy practitioner in/for the US government for a decade, a fair bit of which was dealing with authoritarian regimes and working to promote liberalisation within and eventual democratization from them. Readers also will recall that I have written here about “constitutional coups,” which unlike military coups do not involve the threat of or acts of violence to remove a sitting government. Instead, legal mechanisms and institutional procedures are used to achieve the same end–the removal of a duly elected government, from office most often but not always before its constitutionally-defined term is completed.

It may seem like a stretch, but New Zealand has had a constitutional coup of sorts. In October an election was held in which the major rightwing party (National) did not reveal its true policy intentions, preferring to instead focus on the usual canards of lower taxes, high crimes rates and too many regulations and bureaucratic red tape on property owners. They were assisted by a compliant corporate media interested in generating clickbait material rather than dealing deeper into party policy platforms, and who supported the “change for change sake” attitude of the NZ public by focusing on personal scandals within the (then) Labour-led government ranks. It mattered little that, in public at least, the major rightwing party had virtually nothing to offer. What mattered was that it win, be it in coalition or outright. As it turns out, it needed coalition partners in order to do so.

The more extreme rightwing parties, ACT and NZ First, were a bit more honest in their campaigns about their reactionary intent, but the corporate media chose to ignore the extent of their connections to extremist groups and foreign donors/patrons such as anti-vaccination conspiracy theorists and Atlas Institute seed-funded astroturf groups such as the overlapping Free Speech Coalition/Taxpayer’s Union that contributed to their campaigns. Nor did the political press seriously look into the worrisome backgrounds of candidates in these parties, instead preferring to focus on the leaders and their immediate subordinates.

What that made for was the instrumental use of the October election by the NZ rightwing in order to gain enough votes to cobble together an authoritarian-minded government coalition that would impose regressive policy prescriptions without full public scrutiny or consultation. It did not matter that the two extremist parties received less than 15 percent of the popular vote, or that National received just 38 percent. What mattered was the win, which was the instrument by which the coalition could impose its political will on the +45 percent that did not vote for them.

Sure enough, the new government has gone about imposing policy reforms that basically amount to dismantling much of the social legislation enacted over the last decade, including that of previous right-leaning governments. Smokefree legislation, diesel and petrol taxes, EV purchase rebates, commitment to rail and cycleway building projects (some already underway), rationalisation of water provision services via three-tier regional management–these and many more forward-thinking policies were repealed, and more backtracks (such as eliminating excise taxes on cigarettes) are on the way. It also proposes to implement wholesale redundancies in the public sector, especially in agencies that are focused on Pacifika and other minority group service provision. More existentially in terms of New Zealand/Aotearoa’s self-identity as a nation, the elected authoritarians are proposing to review and repeal sections of NZ’s foundational charter, the Treaty of Waitangi/Te Tiriti, because they supposedly give “too many” rights to Maori, thereby effectively disenfranchising the non-Maori (mostly Pakeha) majority (or so they say).

However, as political scientist Kate Nicholls pointed out to me, the assault on Te Tiriti has the potential to be an own goal of epic scale. The Waitangi Tribunal was instituted to peacefully settle disputes emerging from different interpretations of the Treaty’s clauses. it was created in 1975 in the wake of numerous protests in the late 1960s and early 1970s stemming from disputes about interpretation of rights and responsibilities conferred by the Treaty, especially about land ownership and access rights, some of which, to quote the Waiting Tribunal History page, took place “outside the law.”

That is the crux of the matter. The Tribunal calls itself a “standing commission of inquiry” but in fact is a means to peacefully settle disputes about the Treaty that could otherwise turn violent or be subject to direct action by aggrieved and often competing interests. Seen less charitably, the Tribunal is way to buy off or divide-and-conquer Maori, or at least Maori elites, so as to give them a slice of the NZ economic resource pie, stop extra-judicial protests (since the Tribunal is in effect a court with legally-binding authority) and thereby achieve social peace. In other words, the Tribunal is a co-optive device, not an instrument of revolution, reform or comprehensive redress. It is designed to preserve a (Pakeha dominated ) social status quo, not undermine it.

The direct attack on Te Tiriti, be it by putting a review of the Treaty to a referendum or by some other means (say, by legal challenges to Tribunal authority and decisions), has already occasioned Maori-led backlash, something that promises to intensify the more the elected authoritarians push their racially-motivated project. That could well mean that rather than the peaceful and legally binding settlement process overseen by the Tribunal, we could see things settled in the streets via direct action. Given how fundamental the Treaty is to NZ self-identity, at that point it is an open question whether the repressive apparatuses of the State–the police, the courts, the intelligence services, even the military–will side with the elected authoritarians. Stay tuned.

Another thing about the new government is its utter disdain for the public. Polls only mattered in the election campaign but now are ignored. Fighting crime was a priority before the election, then it was not. It did not reveal its full coalition agenda during the campaign and did not consult with other parties or the public in the implementation of its first 100 day plan of action. Instead, the coalition has rewarded its donors and supporters in (among others) the fossil fuel and tobacco industries even though their repeal policies are unpopular and in some instances detrimental to public health, environmental and other social outcomes. This is truly a government for and by the few, even if it was able to claim an electoral victory as its legitimating mantle.

For this reason I prefer not to call them something silly like the “coalition of chaos.” They are that, to be sure, because to put it kindly the talent pool in the coalition parties runs very thin while the egos of their leaders and lieutenants run very deep. This could eventually lead to their collapse and downfall, but for the moment what strikes me is their despotic dispositions. In other words, it is their way or the highway, minus the resort to repression that we see in military dictatorships.

For this reason I choose to refer to the National-ACT-NZ First triumvirate as New Zealand’s junta. In the broadest and original sense, junta refers to a military or political group ruling the country after it has been taken over. Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines it as “a council or committee for political or governmental purposes.” What is important is that it does not always have to have a military component and it does not always involve a violent accession to power and usurpation of previous authority. A junta, as it turns out, can be installed constitutionally, peacefully and via normal political institutions and procedures.

It is the way how these mechanisms of political succession are manipulated that determines whether a constitutional coup has occurred. If that indeed has been the case, and I believe that in NZ it has, then the recently installed coalition government is in fact a junta. This NZ junta is comprised of the three authoritarian party leaders followed by their fawning acolytes and lesser supplicants, cheered on by rightwing media and corporate and ideological interest groups as well as revanchist voters reacting to what they see as challenges to their privileges by an assortment of “woke” and uppity usurpers. But at its core, the junta represents a coordinating committee of elite capitalist and ethnographic chauvanist (f not supremacist) interests, not the public at large.

To reprise: given the circumstances surrounding it, the October election in NZ was a type of “soft” or constitutional coup in which an authoritarian coalition gained a majority of votes without revealing its full policy agenda. It is now implementing that policy agenda by rewarding its allies and ignoring the public good. That approach–working solely for the benefit of allied groups while claiming that it is doing so in the public interest–is precisely how juntas govern.

Perhaps we should start addressing Mr. Luxon. Mr. Peters and Mr. Seymour each as “mi Comandante” or “mi Jefe” because 1) those Spanish phrases for “my Commander” or “my Boss” seem more suited to their personalities and politics than the term “Honourable;” and 2) they nicely fit with their junta-style approach to governing. In any event, the proper approach when greeting the junta members is to bend at the waist and make sure that one’s nose is pointed squarely at their footwear. Also, following established authoritarian protocol, Luxon can be called the Comandante Supremo or Jefe Supremo because he is supposedly the first amongst equals in the NZ junta, but that will likely increase the intrigue, scheming, plotting and knife sharpening within the coup coalition. If so, things could get pretty chaotic, indeed.

From somewhere in Hades, Pinochet and countless other authoritarians must be having a good chuckle at NZ’s expense.

Bully Pulpits and the Politics of Nastiness.

Teddy Roosevelt coined the phrase “bully pulpit” to describe the US presidency given the position that the country occupied in world affairs. He saw it as a tremendous platform for promoting political, diplomatic, social and economic interests and agendas. Over time the phrase has been broadened to include a wider range of positions of authority and institutional platforms from which to amplify and project views and projects on a range of public and private policy issues. This can include people and agencies involved in popular culture as well as politics and business affairs, sometimes in overlapped fashion (think Elon Musk).

In years past I discounted the weight of the US presidential bully pulpit. I saw it as being more relevant to US domestic politics than foreign policy and international affairs. As a child of Latin America I did not see its influence on my daily life nor on the behaviour of local politicians even if the US was the elephant in the room when it came to Latin American politics in general and economic and security affairs in particular. Even after moving to NZ as an adult, the bully pulpit of the US presidency was to my mind more of a historical anachronism or abstract than a reality of contemporary diplomatic relations or social exchange. For all the US talk about being a “leader of the free world,” “shining house on the hill,” “world’s greatest democracy” and all that other blather, I never got the impression that a US president could use the office to project his particular vision or brand onto the international, multicultural stage. That includes charismatic presidents like Barak Obama and Ronald Reagan (as much as I hated that guy).

To be sure, the US has interests that it projects onto the world stage, but the notion that a US president could use his office to promote a global vision beyond the usual rhetoric of freedom and democracy seemed far-fetched because if nothing else, most of those type of platitudes fell on cynical if not deaf ears. For me, the bully pulpit was just a domestic soapbox.

This notwithstanding, the US has always been a bastion of cultural as well political imperialism, exporting its culture and social mores world-wide along with its economic interests, be it from Coca Cola and KFC to rap, death metal and jazz music. The synergies of economic, political and cultural imperialism are well known so nothing else need be said here other than that I used to teach about this phenomenon, noting how local societies incorporate, adopt and adapt cultural artefacts in their own style according to their native mores and narratives, often with a dominant group versus subordinate group (often ethnic minority) twist added to the mix (e.g., people of colour in the developing world have adopted rap while European descendents have adopted pop-rock, among other things). One only need think of NZ’s hip hop scene to see the process at work.

Now, I see bully pulpit and cultural imperialism being combined in a most pernicious way as manifested in the person of Donald Trump. Trump embodies what I call the politics of nastiness, and he has used the US presidency as a bully pulpit to project his vulgar full spectrum neo-fascist bigotry world-wide. At first I thought of Trump as someone who tore the scab off of racism, xenophobia and crude low brow money-grubbing in the US. But after four years of his presidency and the sequels to it, I realise that his long moment in public life has served as an invitation to and license for others around the world to follow his approach to political and social discourse. The core of this approach is to appeal to the lowest common denominator in the basest of terms, seeking to appeal to the darkest of instincts and deepest ignorance extant in a given political community. This is the politics of nastiness, and the nasty has reached NZ.

It is well known that National has been for some time looking to US rightwing spin doctors for campaign guidance and narratives (crime! waste! taxes!), but now Winston First and ACT’s David Seymour have decided to go full US conspiracy theory (Winston: globalists! mandates!) and pseudo-libertarian racist (David: free speech! bureaucrats! Treaty separatists!). The tone of politics in NZ has gotten cruder (see: Chris Bishop, Judith Collins) and more personal (e.g. treatment of Kiri Allen). The corporate media has clearly decided to go full Murdoch in approach (with a few exceptions duly noted) by stirring partisan and racial division and polemics, focusing on personal foibles and conflicts rather than platforms/proposals and going for “gotcha” moments rather than offering dispassion analyses of the policy platforms of the respective parties.

This is Trump politics 101, and it is nasty.

NZ is not alone in this. From Bolsonaro in Brazil, to Dutarte in the Philippines, to Orban In Hungary, to Milei in Argentina to Modi in India, rightwing populists have adopted nasty politics as the core weapon in their political quiver, demonising competitors and personalising attacks on their opponents in order to get them to capitulate rather than concede and to be destroyed rather than defeated. Besides their embrace of nasty politics, what binds them together and to Trump is that they all profess to be defending “traditional” values and social structures against the supposed (and imaginary) threats posed by “progressivism,” “woke” politics and the growing presence of long suppressed (and oppressed) groups in their respective societies.

In NZ it is not only mainstream politicians who have seen the opportunity of emulating Trump. The Wellington protest riots saw a number of Trump, MAGA and Confederacy references amongst the agitators. The likes of Sue Grey, Liz Gunn, Brian Tamaki and Leighton Baker openly spout conspiracist lunacy and self-serving opportunist populist tropes. The overall effect is that the scab has truly been ripped off and the extremist infection has now spread throughout NZ’s political culture. There is a violent element in it that NZ security authorities continue to be reluctant to fully address, and it is the tail that wags the rightwing minor party dogs, if not National itself.

In summary: Trump is a cultural imperialist phenomenon that has used the US presidential bully pulpit to export his style of nasty politics world-wide. For all their talk about centrism, it is evident that the right side of NZ’s political spectrum has been heavily influenced by the Trump effect. Voters need to be cognisant of that not only when deciding who to elect, but when considering the prospects of how the potential “coalition of chaos” (ACT, National, NZ First) will approach governing once installed. Mutatis mutandis, the model for that approach could well be Trump.

Things could get nasty.

Something on the Politics of Social Engineering

Over the years here at KP I have episodically written about the impact of ideology on social order and the debates that revolve on what constitutes the “proper” way in which to organise society. In that light I have mentioned the subject of social engineering, that is, social reform projects initiated by both Right and Left-leaning governments that use public policy to influence social behaviour in pursuit of specific collective outcomes. Here I shall return to the subject, with particular reference to how it has an impact on the upcoming NZ general election.

Some readers may recall my writing about the social engineering aspects of the neoliberal projects of the 1980s-2000s in NZ and elsewhere. To recap, the practical success of neoliberalism as an ideological construct went something like this: neoliberalism started out as a Chicago School approach to macroeconomics that was premised on the belief that finance capital was the leading edge of capitalism and could therefore guide societies towards the most efficient material outcomes. Known as “monetarism” as advocated by Milton Friedman and his acolytes, it was given practical application in the authoritarian laboratory known as Pinochet’s Chile and, in less draconian fashion, NZ under the likes of Roger Douglas and Ruth Richardson. (as some will recall, Douglas and Richardson even copied some of Pinochet’s labour laws as part of their NZ reforms).

The operating premise behind the turn to monetarism was that the Keynesian welfare state had exhausted its natural limits and outlived its usefulness, leading to parasitic rent-seeking behaviours on the part of interest groups tied to bloated public bureaucracies represented by corrupt unions that also were more interested in feeding at the public trough rather than pursing the common good. In order to break the grip of this perverse alliance of leeches, a dramatic structural reform project needed to be undertaken in which the State sector was reduced in size, public good provision was privatised, union power was constrained and people were forced to look to the private sector for their immediate and long term needs (and perhaps the wants of a fortunate few).

Note that this was purely a structural project, that is, a macroeconomic effort to reshape national economies in ways that would promote efficiency and reduce waste. Rather than State managers in places like Central Banks, Ministries of Finance or Economy, investment led by international finance capital would determine those areas in the national economy into which resources were directed using neo-Ricardian principles of comparative and competitive advantage. Codified in the so-called “Washington Consensus” adopted by the World Bank and International Monetary Fund, it had severe dislocating effects on the populations in which it was applied, something that required authoritarian imposition in places like the Southern Cone of Latin America but also serious reductions in collective rights in democracies like NZ, the UK and the US.

It turns out that in order to create the “laboratory” in which neoliberal prescriptions could work as theorised by the Chicago Boys, the human subjects needed to be denied their rights via repression (state terror in the case of the Southern Cone experiments) or drastic reductions in their collective rights in the marketplace (in places like NZ). Legally speaking, both in terms of what workers/employees could address as well as with regard to their modes of representation, the overall impact of neoliberalism was a diminution of wage earner’s ability to defend their interests in the labour market (albeit without the repression in NZ that was deemed necessary in less complacent societies like Chile).

The broader idea was to use structural reform projects to break the welfare statist mould and replace it with a stripped down and leaner State focused on core areas such as defense and security while the private sector assumed de facto control of macroeconomic policy via the appointment of its representatives to State economic oversight, management and regulatory agencies. Having done so, behavioural changes in society would inevitably follow because the state-centric mindsets of the welfare state era would give way to more market-influenced approaches by both individuals and groups. What those changes in concrete terms might be mattered less so long as they conformed to market-driven logics.

In this view monetarist structural reforms would lead to market-dominated social logics. Everyone would become a self-interested maximiser of opportunities within the rational limits of their individual choices given the market conditions in which they operate, with the overall aggregate of choices leading to market clearance at a societal level. Reproduced over time and across generations, market-oriented public perceptions of the “proper” society would become self-fulfilling. Those who accepted the premise would succeed in life and those who refused to accept or could not cope with the individualistic focus and atomising impact of a more market-driven social order would be left behind in its wake. Eventually the societal market would clear based on the sum total of the interactions between people acting as homo economicus in the first instance, to which then could be added the ascriptive (non-material) aspects of human endeavour.

This market-oriented project has certainly succeeded in NZ, even if not by original design. The architects of the early structural reforms were focused on institutions and public policy involved in economic matters, not specifically on social behaviour. But as the influence of those reforms seeped deeper into society, accompanying cultural reforms began to be proposed. To the structural reforms of the first phase of the neoliberal project were attached superstructural addenda that helped cement its ideological grip on public perceptions and behaviour. Remember that ideology is a social construction, that is, an idea about how things should and should not be. Ideologies exist in concrete material conditions with their own historical circumstances and legacies as well as their immediate contexts. In that light, ideology specifies the relationship between the imaginary and the real and the preferred path between them (which among other things raises the notion of the perfectibility of humankind). Neoliberals have an ideological bias in favour of the individual rights and freedoms; Leftists have a bias in favour of collective responsibilities and the public good.

Neoliberals are morally agnostic when it comes to social behaviour in market societies, limiting their preferences to broader freedoms of choice for individuals in such circumstances. Leftists have a normative preference for collectively beneficial social dynamics in which individual rights and responsibilities are equitably balanced with the common good.

In that light, at the superstructural level neoliberalism is an ideology that purports to demonstrate the proper way in which human societies should be organised and how people should interact within them using unfettered property and individual rights as cornerstones of the social contract. There can be no doubt that when compared to the early 1980s pre-neoliberal period, NZ society today is largely governed by market-driven principles and market-oriented institutions. And as a result, NZ social behaviour has changed.

Rather than discussing neoliberalism and market-oriented social engineering any further, let me simply point out that it started out as a conscious structural reform project that morphed into a a way of looking at the world. That in turn led to changes in society as the impact of the structural reforms took hold and deepened over the years. Market-oriented social engineering was a product and consequence of the structural reforms rather than something that was specifically envisioned from the onset. In a sense, the social engineering aspect of neoliberalism, insofar as producing behavioural changes in society, came as a bottom-up, spontaneous response to structural reform rather than as a top-down, deliberately thought-out project that extended beyond issues of political economy.

Think of it this way. Once the nature of the game is altered (say, from cricket to basketball), so too the rules of the game change, followed by changes in who plays and the way they play the new game. It may even determine who is more likely to win. But even then, the way in which the new game is played by those favored and disfavored by the new rules may be unanticipated by those who changed it in the first place. That is the essence of the social engineering consequences of the shift from welfare statism to neoliberalism in places like NZ. They were not preordained or foretold. They just happened as a “natural” consequence or response to the market-oriented structural changes undertaken. Neoliberals are comfortable with that alone, figuring that things like the balance between comfort and security will be sorted out by the interplay of social market forces.

That is where Left social engineering projects differ, and often fail. Unlike the neoliberal approach, which focused on structural (macroeconomic) reform that eventually bubbled up through the layers of the social division of labour in civil society to become new social norms and modes of behaviour, Left social engineering projects are consciously top-down in nature. Unlike market-driven social engineering projects, which focus on the downsizing reform of State institutions and regulations in order to free up policy decision-making space and freedom of manoeuver for private interests, here the primary focus is on changing collective and individual behaviour using the regulatory State as the agent of reform.

Left-leaning social engineering is what economists call “nudging” projects, but on steroids. In this context “nudging” are efforts to make discrete policy adjustments that encourage changes in social behavior, for example, by painting hopscotch, tic-tac-toe or even rainbow arcs on staircases in transportation hubs in order to encourage healthy stair climbing rather than indolent escalator riding. However, the thrust of Left social engineering projects is large rather than small, macro rather than micro, overt rather than discrete. It is “nudging” on a grand scale, or if one were to view such projects negatively, “shoving” the body politic in a particular behavioural direction.

Leftist social engineering involves “think big” projects like the recent “Zero Road Toll” land transportation campaigns or the move to replace automobile lanes with cycle and bus lanes in urban centres (where Left-governed councils use funding from the Labour-led government to make changes to local roading systems that discourage the use of cars and encourage substitute modes like bicycles, buses and trains). They focus on inducing big behavioural changes such as the lowering of smoking rates via high taxation of cigarettes or the switch to electric cars via increased taxation on diesel and petrol cars levied in tandem with rebates on new electric car purchases. The focus is on changing behaviours, not underlying structures, in a reverse of the neoliberal approach.

What these top-down Left social engineering projects do not do is alter the macroeconomic system as given, nor fully account for the microeconomic and unanticipated non-economic behavioural responses to their initiatives. The premise is that if policy-makers use State powers to constrain or frame certain types of human activity or behaviour via taxation, regulation, re-organisation and persuasion, then they will elicit specific types of responses. Rather than morally agnostic when it comes to outcomes, they are normatively-driven (aka biased) towards producing preferred collective outcomes. For example, if you narrow city streets by installing bike and busways and prohibit surface parking without increasing off-street parking spaces, the assumption is that people will abandon their cars and seek alternative modes of transportation whether they live in urban centres or commute to them. Vehicle congestion will be lowered, airborne particulate and street wastewater pollution will fall and people will get healthier by walking more and cycling.

The problem is that this does not account for the universe of car usage, to include the need to transport children and household supplies, the limited availability of disabled transportation access or presence of health issues that make cycling or access public transport difficult, the need for private vehicles for work, lack of transportation alternatives in satellite communities connected to urban employment centres, etc.

In other words, no major structural reforms are adopted, and no hedge is made against unanticipated responses to the implementation of grandiose projects. Market-led capitalism remains untouched as the core of the national economy, with modifications in tax policy nibbling around the margin of the macroeconomic model and broader behavioural changes in society encouraged–some would say imposed–by State fiat. This is the reverse of the neoliberal project, which focused on immediate structural changes and consequences and did not indulge in offering preferences when it came to longer-term social behaviours.

The results for the Left (such as it is in NZ) are often disappointing: With insufficient police resources to enforce road safety policies that are designed to reduce the road death and injury toll, the toll remains static in spite of millions spent on advertising campaigns. In places like West Auckland, ambitious traffic reduction schemes are implemented in places originally designed to attract rather than discourage car usage (e.g. around the Henderson mall and adjacent shopping areas), thereby resulting in gridlock, anger, protests, large-scale violations of the new traffic guidelines and eventual abandonment of the project altogether in the face of community resistance to the change and at a cost of millions of wasted taxpayer dollars.

The same can be said about recent approaches to water provision. The Three Waters project is designed to rationalise water rights, quality and supply by centralising managerial authority in a reduced number of districts while providing better voice for indigenous partners. However, rather than be welcome as an improvement in public good provision, what it received by way of response was both a racist backlash against improved Maori representation as stakeholders and pushback from those who see the removal of decentralised decision-making (however incompetent or inefficient it may be) as an erosion of democratic rights to self-governance when it comes to local water management.

The top-down approach to social engineering is based on one of two logics: that people will respond as required given what they have been legislatively told is in their best collective interest; or people will willingly comply with what they perceive as beneficial for the common good. The catch is that with atomising, individualistic neoliberal perspectives and logics deeply embedded throughout society in NZ, the former will be resisted or ignored and the latter will be met with non-compliance. Given the ideological influence of “legacy” market-oriented social perspectives in contemporary NZ, their impact on general acceptance of 6th Labour government social engineering projects has been deleterious to say the least.

This was seen in the reaction by NZ anti-vaccination, anti-masking and anti-mandate campaigns to the government’s pandemic mitigation efforts, where world-leading prevention, containment and mitigation strategies developed by public health professionals and epidemiologists faced concerted resistance from the business community, conspiracy theorists, rightwing political opportunists, media figures and assorted tinfoil hat “cookers” that culminated in the Parliamentary protests and riot of 2022, and which continue to percolate and be mainstreamed today. In that case a declared national emergency demanded a rapid social engineering response in the face of an immediate existential threat, and yet even then it was repeatedly challenged as an authoritarian over-reach and infringement on basic freedoms. If ever there was concrete proof that the neoliberal ideological championing of the primacy of individual choice was firmly embedded in NZ society, it was in this type of response to what was otherwise a clear case of the State acting on behalf of and defending the collective interest (specifically, public health and welfare) against a common threat.

The point of this rumination is to help understand why the current government may lose the October election. Although it objectively has had more successes than failures during very trying times, it is the combination of market-dominated macroeconomic logics, deeply rooted neoliberal social perspectives and resentment against “top-down” approaches to social engineering that has swayed public opinion against it. That, more than unearthed scandals, media “gotcha” moments or the policies of the parties themselves, seems to be the root cause behind the apparent electorate desire to replace the current government with a Right coalition in which the racist, extremist tail will wag the vacuous “moderate” dog.

That is of concern not only because it threatens to undo some of the good work of the 6th Labour government, but mostly because not all Right social engineering projects are of the bottom-up variety to begin with and all of them require a turn to some form of authoritarianism in their initial stages (as the turn to neoliberalism in NZ in the 80s demonstrates). With ACT being the ideological/dog-whistling tail on the National dog, the turn rightwards will be top-down and harsh.

Hara Kiri.

I do not usually write about NZ domestic politics, much less the personal dramas of those involved in them. But here I will make an exception because I am unhappy about recent events.

To be clear, the downward mental health spiral that ended Kiri Allan’s political career has produced some good commentary on the pressures in NZ politics and the toll that they take on politician’s mental health and family life. It was just a few years ago that Todd Muller had to step down from the National Party Leadership due to the stresses of the job, and to the credit of most he was allowed to do so in some measure of peace and dignity. 

However, while there has been empathetic commentary about former minister Kiri Allan, the sad fact is that many in the National-Act coalition—particularly their two leaders– and a swathe of media acolytes have used the personal tragedy to attack Ms. Allan and the government that she served in what can only be seen as venal, nasty political opportunism coupled with media complicity. Like a pack of baying hyenas with a scent for blood, they have continued to hector the former minister in stand-ups and interviews, write irrelevant stories about people who lived in the area of an accident that was the last act in a prolonged process of psychological deterioration, talked with the owner of the parked vehicle that was involved in the accident (who was not present when it happened) and to cap it off, demanded and received permission from the Speaker of the House to engage in an emergency debate on Ms. Allan’s resignation and her mental “well-being” that quickly proved to be nothing more than an excuse to launch spurious attacks on the government. Shame on the Speaker for caving to the demands of the frothing Opposition mob, shame on the ACT Party Alfred E Newman look-alike who used someone’s personal tragedy for opportunistic political gain and shame on the unethical shills who pass as conservative media for cheerleading the whole thing and for continuing the ad hominem persecution well after Ms. Allan departed her portfolios.

Psychologically damaged by a dark combination of personal and professional pressures and therefore fragile in spite of her outwards appearance, Ms. Allan committed an act of political suicide last week. Like Mr. Muller, she should be allowed to find her peace.

Moreover, when one looks at the media treatment of this story and others involving Wahine Maori in politics, one cannot but suspect that there is some misogynistic racism behind the slant in the coverage to say nothing of the crude hypocrisy of not focusing balanced attention on the less than salubrious behaviours of some in the NACT coalition (who tend to be Pakeha and generally male). The “people living in glass houses throwing stones” adage would seem appropriate here, but the Opposition leadership and NZ corporate media seem keen to keep the focus on those being pelted rather than those doing the throwing.

Anyway, in the days after the news broke and seeing how it was covered and commented upon, I wrote a few Social Media posts reflecting on the affair. Here they are in annotated form.

“Voters may want to consider the responses of some Opposition politicians and Rightwing media figures to the personal tragedy of a Government Minister in order to assess their character and fitness for governing. Some might be found wanting (both as politicians and as commentators) if empathy and restraint are required.

Some have claimed that empathy caused the “mess.” Sorry, wrong. The former minister was a competent cabinet member and not an “empathy” hire (whatever that is, but presumably in reference to her Maori ethnicity). Political leadership is measured in various ways and seen on various dimensions, and empathy encompasses both.

Others claim that this is just an attempt to “deflect” from the former minister’s responsibility in causing a non-injury accident. There is no deflection. The drink driving/resisting arrest (which are more likely “failure to accompany”) charges will be handled by the courts under penalty of law. She will face justice and be held responsible for her actions. That is a personal matter, and should not be cause for politically opportunistic attacks. I should also note the the drink driving charge was on the lowest range of the scale so she will at worst receive a fine and possible disqualification from driving. Likewise, the resisting arrest/failure to accompany charge appears to be a case of lack of cooperation rather than physical resistance, so that too will unlikely result in a jail term. It is by no means a trivial matter, but in the scheme of things Ms. Allan’s alleged offending is not going to bring about Armageddon.

Still others claim that this shows Labour government incompetence because Ms. Allan was allowed to return to her job after a previous mental health breakdown. To which I responded: Please stay on topic. This is about a personal mental health problem that destroyed a political career, not about competence (which has never been disputed in this particular case). Other recent ministerial resignations are fair partisan game given the circumstances of their exit, but this one is not.”

It also must be understood that it is hard to ascertain when a person can return to work after a mental health crisis and what might trigger another one. That is at best a matter to be discussed between the person involved and their psychological counselors, not by medically unqualified political party leaders (who should reply on expert advice as well as personal assurances when making calls about reinstatement). Everything indicates that professional criteria, not political expediency, was the main determinant of Ms. Allan’s return to work.

Nearly a week after the accident, today’s news story is that police dogs were used to track Ms. Allan after the crash and she was found 500 meters away from the scene. So the dogs did their job and it is certainly not a good look to have left the scene. But what relevance does this have to politics? Why is it still a major news story? Ms. Allan was in crisis and made bad decisions on that night. The matter is now between Ms. Allan and the justice system, and the evidentiary how’s and why’s of the accident will be presented in court. So what is the point in salaciously belaboring and speculating about the circumstances? She has resigned and will not run for re-election in October, in a district where she is widely respected and admired. Politically speaking, the story has run its course so everything at this point is a partisan beat-up (and bullying).

Meanwhile, the human offal that passes for the National and ACT Party leaders continue to lie and dog-whistle using US-style politics of racial and class division as a wedge on the electorate while capitalizing on personal failures in the government ranks to score cheap political points rather than concentrate on delivering realistic and collectively beneficial policy alternatives oriented toward pursuing the common good. Truth be told, the NACTs have nothing other than the tired old “hard on crime, lower taxes, cut public spending and roll back regulations while privatizing public services” rubbish that has proven detrimental to the welfare of most people in contemporary market democracies. Vague and discredited trickle down economic policies do not work and are no substitute for creative approaches to the collective interest. Since the NACTs have nothing on that score, they just whine, lie and engage in personal attacks as per the Dirty Politics playbook.

Whatever the failures of the current government and some of its ministers, one thing appears certain at this point: having a NACT coalition in power will be a disaster for most of us even while it benefits a very distinct few and the corporate media uncritically applauds—some would say encourages–their self-serving nation-busting antics. Now is the time to open our eyes and see what choice is before us in October: the politics of cruelty, division and avarice, or the politics of moderation and continuity. If the choice turns out in favour of the latter, even as a “lesser evil” option, it offers a basis to repudiate nastiness, greed and sectarianism as well as foreign ideological influences in NZ. If the choice is for the former, it means that a majority chooses to embrace the darker side of our national psyche.

That will be a collective tragedy, not a personal one.

Media Link: “A View from Afar” on “democratic backsliding.”

In this week’s “A View from Afar” podcast Selwyn Manning and I discuss the concept of “democratic backsliding” and why it is a troublesome development world wide. To do so we disaggregate the political, institutional and societal manifestations of backsliding in a democracy as well as the reasons for it. You can find the show here.

Unfinished Projects.

When I left academia in 2011 I was forced to stop two book projects that were in the works. Without institutional support and resourcing it is impossible to conduct in-depth academic research that requires field trips to foreign countries and access to university libraries. The move to private consulting was a necessary but painful part of my transition out of academia, and when I sit in my home office I stare at boxes of documents, transcribed interviews and the other detritus of those works-in-progress. The ideas that motivated their collection are still in my head.

The first book was to be titled “Security Politics in Peripheral Democracies: Chile, New Zealand and Portugal.” In it I sought to explain the differences in the security policies and perspectives of three democracies that literally exist on the periphery of the regions in which they are located–Chile on the Southwest corner of the Western Hemisphere, Portugal on the Southwest corner of Europe and NZ on the Southwest corner of the Pacific. All were/are peripheral to the major security decisions of the last three decades even if they were subject to them and participants in some of the military and intelligence operations that happened because of them. Two of these countries are post-authoritarian democracies (Chile and Portugal) while NZ is a post-colonial democracy. They vary in their social liberalism, political organization and in the influence of past legacies, especially in the field of civil-military relations. Portugal is a member of NATO and the EU, Chile is a member of MERCOSUR and Rio Treaty Alliance; NZ is a non-nuclear non-NATO partner and member of numerous trade blocs.

Chile and Portugal have strategic perspectives with strong maritime orientations. NZ, despite it being an archipelago far removed from any significant land mass, retains an Army-centric military even if it regularly speaks of the maritime threat environment (but has few resources to defend against maritime threats). In terms of intelligence gathering priorities, Chile and Portugal maintain a largely domestic-focused internal protection orientation (even if Chile monitors its neighbors as a matter of course), while NZ has mainly had a more foreign-focused orientation due to its membership in the 5 Eyes signals intelligence network (that may be changing as a result of recent domestic security concerns).

One interesting finding of my research was that after 9/11 Chile and Portugal did not re-direct significant resources toward Islamicist terrorist threats. Officials in both countries told me that they had no problems with Islamicists for a variety of reasons, Chile’s being the limited presence of Muslims in the Southern Cone (and hence limited grounds for localized grievances) and limited interaction with Muslim-dominant states, while Portugal cited good relations with the Muslim world in general and the local Muslim community in particular (many of whom are part of the Portuguese post-colonial diaspora). As it turns out, neither country suffered Islamicist attacks in the decades following 9/11.

Conversely, and in spite of its physical distance from the conflicts involving Islamicists in other parts of the world, during the 18 years that followed the attack on the World Trade Center and Pentagon, NZ intelligence shifted its threat detection and assessment almost entirely towards locating and neutralizing domestic jihadists while actively supporting the anti-Islamicist crusade in Afghanistan, Iraq and elsewhere. This, despite there being no record of an ideologically-motivated terrorism attack committed by a Muslim in NZ before or after 9/11. As time went on there was a shift towards monitoring wanna-be jihadists heading to the ISIS killing fields in the Middle East, then the return of those who survived and so-called “jihadi brides” to Aotearoa. This anti-Islamicist perspective could well be due more to obligations to or influence by the larger 5 Eyes partners more than the actual threat posed by Islamicists to NZ and its interests.

Then came March 15, 2019 and the domestic focus of the NZ intelligence community reactively shifted to the threat of rightwing/white supremacist extremism along with ongoing counter-intelligence operations directed at hostile States attempting to gain a foothold in NZ (especially the PRC).

These are just a few of the general characteristics of the sample, which is based on a “most-similar” selection criteria where commonalities amongst independent variables are used to group them in order to look for differences at the intervening and dependent variable levels (“most-different” qualitative methodologies do the reverse, using differences to form a sample while looking for commonalities of outcomes. In a way the difference in methodological approach is akin to deductive versus inductive reasoning).

I did field research in Chile and Portugal, where I conducted interviews with active and former military and intelligence officials and retrieved official documents from archives and ministerial libraries. The NZ part of the research was to be the last, but alas I ran into some strife at Auckland University and was forced to abandon what I thought would be the easiest part of the research. As it is, I completed about 15,000 words of a conceptual and methodological introduction and had begun to shop the book prospectus to potential publishers when the axe fell. I may or may not revive and update the project for publication but the same obstacles remain: limited institutional and personal resources to conduct field research properly.

I am aware of country specialists who write about the foreign and security policies of each of the mentioned countries, but none who draw comparative conclusions. To my mind, that is a gap in knowledge that remains to be filled.

In the background during this time and ongoing in my mind since the 1980s has been the desire to write a more theoretical book about consent. Much is now made of the issue of consent in the context of inter-personal (especially sexual) relations and individual-institutional interactions (e.g. the issue of “informed consent” to medical procedures, background checks, school activities, politics searches and the like). The entire social media landscape is about terms and conditions that individuals agree to that basically state that consumers/clients consent to the retrieval and use of their personal data by the immediate platforms and third parties who purchase meta-data and more specific types of data depending on circumstance. Consent has become a bit of a buzzword in recent years but not for the reasons I am particularly interested in.

The subject of consent in personal interactions with people, authorities and corporations is well known and has been the subject of much public discussion by politicians, civil libertarians and security advocates, especially after 9/11 and the emergence of new media technologies that have broken down the previous separation between ‘public” and “private” media as well as the international versus domestic/global versus local division of influence, threats and authority (that is, things are now “intermestic” and “glocal” in nature rather than bifurcated in terms of scope).

My interest in the notion of consent, however, is not about that. It began several decades ago when writing a book about post-authoritarian labor-state relations in Argentina, Brazil and Uruguay. I leaned heavily on the notion of mass contingent consent in the construction and maintenance of democracy, something very much overlooked in recent discussions of liberal democratic decay and “back-sliding.”

That notion of democracy resting on contingent mass consent institutionalized under conditions of electoral uncertainty became a centerpiece of my thought as I worked to dis-aggregate and then re-aggregate the economic, political and social strands of mass contingent consent to popularly elected but time-bounded governments. I found out that democracy rests on institutional, societal and economic pillars, all of which have at their core the concept of mutual contingent consent. After all, consent is not give once, forever, and is not given on just one field of play. In fact, democratic consent is iterative and multifaceted, which in turn spills over or trickles down into other aspects of life in a democratic society such as sexual relations and parental authority over minors as well as notions of economic and social safety nets. Toleration, solidarity, respect for difference, economic fair play–these and many other notions about what constitutes the essence of a democratic society have the concept of contingent consent at their core.

Contingent consent usually must be mutual because it involves two or more parties engaged in a social relationship entering into an agreement on the terms of that relationship. There is such a thing as tacit consent, where the agreement is implied rather than explicit. But even then there is a choice involved. This raises and important aspect of consent: it is not acquiescence. Acquiescence is submission to the imposed will or demands of a stronger, higher or threatening authority, power or individual. It is given reluctantly absent other options. Consent, on the other hand, is given freely, willingly, and actively. It is born of a desire to engage rather than submit to an imposed circumstance or condition. Acquiescence is what authoritarians demand and depend on. Contingent consent is a foundational stone of democracy.

In other words, democracy is not just about free and open elections held at regular intervals. That is a necessary but insufficient condition for democracy to obtain as a regime type, political culture and form of social organization. What makes democracies substantive rather than just procedural (i.e. it is grounded in institutional, societal and economic behaviors and mores rather than just regular elections), is the reproduction of mass contingent consent over time. That is very much a dynamic enterprise that must respond to changing material, ideological, technological and social conditions if it is to survive as an egalitarian form of rule. Otherwise it risks slipping into authoritarianism of one type or another, as unfortunately has been seen in recent years even in very mature advanced liberal democracies as well as relatively immature democracies (the US and Brazil, for example).

My original idea was to link the macro- meso- and micro- aspects of mutual contingent consent in a book length conceptual exegesis. I believed then and believe now that the reinforcement of democratic norms and mores based on mutual contingent consent at the macro (political-institutional) levels filters down into the fabric of society and promotes meso- and micro-cosmic reproductions of mutual contingent consent in all aspects of social life, be it in business relations, churches, sports clubs and particularly amongst individuals (for example, workers consent to certain work requirements in exchange for acceptable wages and health and safety standards). In turn, the reproduction of democratic behaviour at the micro- and peso-levels reinforces the macro aspects of democratic contingent consent, making it a reproducible institutional feature as well as a social practice.

I fully understand that such a view must grapple with the inherent anti-democratic, if not outright authoritarian aspects of capitalism, racism, sexism and other types of bigotry and prejudice (including avarice). That was to be a full chapter or more in the work once I got to it. My guiding principle for envisioning a better democratic future was that even if incremental and slow, the mutually reinforcement of democratic values based on contingent consent would have a generational impact that led to more equitable if not egalitarian societies represented by political elites who shared those values as being intrinsically worthy rather than expedient or opportune for their immediate material and political fortunes.

In the end I managed to write a 7500 word introduction to this book project. It has laid dormant ever since but, just like the peripheral democracy project, it remains in my mind as a reminder of better days when I could think freely and pursue intellectual projects unencumbered by the financial concerns that now shape much of what I do (including the need to be “relevant” in the media news cycle). That was the value of academia to me, as a place where I drew a comfortable salary and which offered institutional support that allowed me to pursue my intellectual interests along with the more mundane duties of teaching and administration required by the job. From my understanding of tertiary affairs today, given the advent of Taylorist education sector management styles, that luxury no longer applies for most academics.

Over the years I have written a number of KP posts that address various aspects of democratic consent, so long-term readers will remember some of them. They are archived for those with an interest in the subject who have not read them. I know that I can always go back to this project because in the end the notion of consent is certainly not going away anytime soon unless religious and secular authoritarians manage to dominate public discourse and popular narratives about “proper” social values and mores, including what constitutes consent and when/where it should be applied in the social realm. More immediately, the issue of consent has been politicised and trivialised by entities and agencies when it comes to female behaviour, male sexual predation, student’s rights, parents rights, “sovereign” citizens and a host of other social interactions. Sadly, the need for consent as a foundation of democratic social interaction appears to have been distorted or lost in recent years even if it may have been a significant consideration before.

That is the crux of the matter: contingent consent at any level is the fundamental basis for all forms of democratic exchange. Just as they saying “love uncertainty and you will love elections” was a clarion cry in the (re-)construction of democracy in the 1980s and 1990s in Latin America, so too must we remember that respect for mutual contingent consent as an intrinsic good must be the basis for all social interaction in a truly democratic society.

The question now is how to regain a basis for mutual contingent consent and the trust that is required in order to achieve it in an environment increasingly marked by dis- and misinformation purveyed by ideological extremists and facilitated by media outlets and political agents with no understanding of or concern for its importance in practical terms. Therein lies the rub.

In any event, the two book projects sit in boxes and on hard and flash drives, waiting for the moment when they are re-opened and revised. That day may never come but the fact that I am writing here about them is like the thought of re-connecting with a couple of long-lost friends from a better time and a happier place. They may be gone but are certainly not forgotten and with luck, perhaps we will meet again.

The zero-sum logic of rightwing culture wars.

Many years ago a sister-in-law of mine and I were debating about gay marriage. I have no issue with it but she did. When I asked her what the problem was, she said something to the effect that “giving gays the right to marry diminishes the sanctity of my (straight) marriage.” I found that logic to be very odd. Why would gay folk marrying in any way take away from or diminish straight marriage? If anything it would reinforce the normative preeminence of marriage as an institution over common law partnerships of any orientation, and would give additional legal protection to both the couple and any children that they raise (especially when it comes to travel and foreign residence because some States, among other things, require people to be married for spousal benefits, work permits and child visas. Singapore and several Latin American countries have such requirements).

Over the years my sister-in-law mellowed on gay rights because of exposure to gay people in her wider family, at work and amongst friends. Good on her. But the flaw in her earlier logic has stuck with me and been reemphasised in my mind by the current wave of cultural wars unleashed, Russian invasion-style (and with Russia’s actual involvement) by Western right-wingers. The premise remains the same: granting rights to gays, transgendered, intersexuals, historically oppressed communities, linguistic and religious minorities, schoolchildren (when it comes to what they can read and see in class), etc. comes at the direct expense of someone else, particularly straight white religious adults. Universalizing human rights is seen as usurping the rights of parents, business owners, religious authorities, and in fact, the “natural” patriarchical, racial, sexual and other social hierarchies of previous eras. The “natural” order is seen to be under existential threat and hence all-out war must be waged against those who, consciously or not, adopt Gramsci’s concept of a “war of position” in order to infiltrate “traditional” social, economic and political institutions with subversive intent.

Which makes me remember that foot-binding was once part of the “natural” order in China, and beating of wives and children permissible in Latin America, the Middle East, Africa and Asia–to say nothing of much of the Anglo-Saxon world. Bullying very much remains a cultural trait in Aotearoa. Not all tradition is worth preserving.

Much is written about the role of fear in rightwing perspectives. Fear of the “other” specifically. But fear needs to be analytically disaggregated as a concept and social construct. That is to say, fear has its own logic, sometimes rational and sometimes not. What is feared is less important than why it is feared. What fear is rests on two things: uncertainty and a particular perspective on how costs and benefits are distributed. This involves basic notions of loss and gain, particularly who gains and who losses in any social interaction. It is perversely transactional in nature. For example, cuddling an alligator may make him friendly, Or not. How one weighs the balance of odds in that interaction is what determines whether they fear the ‘gator or not. On the other hand, those who go to war know that death is a very likely fate. They know that, they internalize that (because of military socialization), and they get on with the job.

Civil society does (or at least should) not operate that way. It is about the limits of communal tolerance, not the requirements of war. This makes the cultural war references all the more disingenuous and destructive because, quite frankly, one (granting rights to previously marginalized groups) is not like the other.

The type of analytic logic where one rejects the extension of rights to others is known as “zero-sum:” one actor’s gain comes in inverse proportion to another actor’s loss. Expansion of rights for some is seen as a loss of rights for others. Coexistence is impossible under those circumstances because one group wins directly at the expense of another. This is the root perspective underlying prejudice among those who are not stupid (with the idiots more susceptible to the mean-spirited manipulation of non-stupid bigots and authoritarians).

Continuing the game-theoretic angle, the reality is that rather than zero-sum, the likely outcome of the culture wars is either (on the positive side), even–sum (both sides neither win or lose), positive-sum (both sides win) or (on the negative side) negative-sum (both sides lose). Either the bigots abandon the zero sum logic and the rights franchise is expanded to marginal communities without discernable loss of rights to historically dominant groups, with potential benefits accruing to binary and non-binary people resulting from the exchange, or both sides lose as the culture wars deepen, become more divisive, leading to broad scale violence and social rupture as all sides begin to see the conflict as existential. To be sure, I would prefer to see even-sum or positive-sum outcomes prevail but truth be told, many of the transphobes and their rightwing fellow travelers and enablers already see the “struggle” as existential–or an opportunity to stir up contrived controversy.

The last point is worth noting. Some of the arguments against the extension of rights to marginalized groups and individuals indicate that those making them know that they are specious. Claiming that drag queens and transgender people (transsexuals and Democrats!) are pedophiles and “groomers” betrays a moral and ethical dishonesty or gross ignorance. Claiming that transgender people using female bathrooms are a sexual assault threat to biological females (aka females at birth) is grotesque given the gender orientation and self-identity of the non-binary individuals. It may be true that heterosexual male sexual predators have sometimes dressed as women in order to gain access to female-only facilities with evil intent, but the instances of this have been extremely rare and, even rarer yet, are the instances of transgender women using their non-binary status to commit sexual assaults on heterosexual women. Plus, the root problem of such exceptionally rare assaults are different. A heterosexual male posing as a female in order to commit sexual assaults on biological females in female-only spaces is not the same problem as transgender females assaulting other females. The motivations–a question of the mind rather than simply driven by biology–are different even if violence and coercion are the method. As any specialist on transgender violence will explain, the more common issue is one of violence against rather than perpetrated by transgender folk.

Then there is this. Given the percentage of people world wide who are genuinely transgender, the odds of them constituting a significant number of sexual predators anywhere is mathematically low even if all of them were of evil disposition. Which is clearly not the case. When and where transgender initiated violence occurs is a product of personal and social circumstance given the specific context in which a person is situated. Again, the confluence of circumstances that lead to a transgender person lurking in bathrooms or grooming children is exceptional and the arguments that they are common occurrences is risible.

Pablo and his first son in Rio de Janeiro during Carnaval, 1987. The poodle is a dude.

I am no expert on the subject, but believing that gender difference is defined purely by genitalia is reductio ad absurdem logic at its worse given the presence of non-gender type conforming (third sex) people throughout history. In fact, several non-Western cultures, including those in India and Polynesia, accept the existence of non-binary people and see them as a separate category rather than as either male or female. Their social roles are not those of males or females, and the culture accepts them for who they are. The history of these human beings has been largely non-violent. The trouble is that in Western societies issues of gender/sex have traditionally been treated as either/or rather than a socially acceptable inflection point on the continuum of human difference. The opprobrium historically assigned to transgender people in the West can therefore be seen as part of a larger pathology grounded in conservative Christian repression when it comes to sexuality and “proper” gender/sexual roles. That is weird. To put it vulgarly by paraphrasing the Tool song title, a “hooker with a penis” may be just that regardless of gender identification (thanks Maynard).

It seems to me that although transphobia is the prejudice d’jour, it follows a long history of bigotry that is marked by the zero-sum approach to social relations. It is simply an extension of earlier and repeated attempts to limit the rights of designated “others” who are seen, hypocritically or out of ignorance, as a threat to the “normal” way of life and social order.That this zero-sum perspective is shared and megaphoned by conservative churches, politicians, lobbying groups and media whose network connections cross international borders makes for a more dangerous and troubling future for those who believe in and have a preference for democracy, human rights and the benefits of egalitarian societies.

Then there is the issue of “wokeness.” In 25 years in academia and the subsequent years doing consulting, I have never once been bothered or infringed upon by “woke” anything. I say this even after having lost an academic job after false accusations of being racist by a foreign (female) student and her coterie of “progressive” supporters annoyed by my stance on some controversial international issues (like the Palestinian-Israeli conflict). Even after that, “wokeness” is simply not an impediment to me leading my life. Personal anecdote aside, I think I know the reason for this. I assume that being “woke” means being attentive to the needs and concerns of others, especially the traditionally oppressed, exploited, subordinated and marginalised. I assume that it means paying attention to one’s words and deeds so as to not cause psychological, emotional or physical harm to others. It means calling out and confronting dog whistling, gaslighting and overt racists, xenophobes, bullies and bigots. If I am correct about what it means to be “woke” then I have no reason to be concerned and instead can be counted in as a “woke” snowflake. And if it means pointing out the analytic flaws in the zero-sum logics of bigots (should the bigots try to be analytic rather than emotive in their reasoning), then I am waaaay woke. Shoot, I just might be a closet gay dude who has not consciously realised it yet! My wife sure is gonna be surprised when she finds out.

Also, if any side is behaving as (anti) woke snowflakes, it is the Right. If they watch their mouths and refrain from bleating hateful rhetoric, no one will “cancel” them. Instead, all they do is complain and whine about socialist/communist/liberal/progressive wokeness and cancel culture and the attack on (insert traditional values and “freedom” shibolleths here). They see everything as an assault on their social superiority, entitlements and privilege That includes the extension of rights to those they traditionally dominated. They are the ultimate “Karens.”

More on point, this is not about cancel culture and stifling free speech. People are merely denouncing hate-mongering and calling out arbitrary privileges assigned by class, race, birthplace or gender. Some of it may boisterous but much of it is justified and non-violent. More broadly, if one cannot understand that individual and collective rights come with responsibilities and that rights end when they infringe, deny or impede on those of others, then one is anything but democratic in social orientation, an ignoramus, or both. In fact, many of those pushing back at the extension of rights to previously excluded groups are outright authoritarian and socially hierarchical in perspective, be they racists, transphobes or Islamicists. Put it this way, if you believe that human society is akin to lobster society where the male with the largest claw gets the best feeding and mating grounds, then you need to go back to high school biology 101 and stop with the cross-species analogies. This is not about alpha and betas, predators and prey, hunters and gatherers and the “natural” social hierarchies. It is about fairness, equality and social justice.

The good news, if any, is that more and more of them are now out in the open, so they can be confronted more readily across many platforms and venues. The bad news is that they also have broad support, including from the institutions mentioned above.

In the end one either wants to see people treated equally so long as they obey basic and broadly shared social mores and principles, or you do not. As far as I can tell Drag Queens reading children’s stories in school and libraries is in line with the first view. Inciting and enabling hatred towards and threatening violence towards marginalized people is not.

This is not “just” about conforming to the gender identity and social roles that genitalia assigns us at birth. It is about much more. It is about who we are as human communities.

When it rains it pours…and pours.

I know, that is a pretty corny title but given the circumstances here in the Auckland region, I just had to say it. The more oblique reference embedded in the phrase is that beyond the rain and wind, there is the matter of the leadership failures exhibited by Auckland Mayor Wayne Brown and his senior management team when confronted by the crisis brought by the cyclonic water bomb that dropped on the upper North Island. Their response to the natural disaster has been a cluster f**k of epic proportions, particularly on the communications side of things where his high profile and highly paid National-linked advisors disappeared as soon as the excrement hit the fan once it became apparent that for the first 12 hours or so after the rain began the mayor was AWOL (and in fact is reported to have been playing tennis on a dry court while water levels rose precipitously in South and West Auckland and slips and flash-flooding were already closing roads throughout the region).

To be clear, Wayne Brown was elected to cut rates and prioritize public services and amenities to the salubrious Eastern and Northern suburbs where the well-heeled and light-skinned live securely and in comfort (even if, to paraphrase Pink Floyd, they are living lives of quiet desperation as well). He was installed to serve the interests of a specific demographic rather than the city and its surroundings as a whole, and is therefore not interested in helping (mostly) brown-skinned opposition voters living in flood plains and gullies. For him, the once-in-a-lifetime storm has been more of a nuisance that interferes with his social schedule than a moment to rise above his own ego and partisan biases in service of the commonweal.

I should note that for all the commentary about “leadership” and why business types like Brown and National Party Leader Chris Luxon may not be good fits for public office leadership, relatively little is made of the fact that political leadership in liberal democracies has many more external as well as internal horizontal checks, balances and veto points imposed on decision-making when compared to the hierarchical ordering and competitive environment of business firms. Competence in businesses is measured in the first instance by profitability and return on investment under given market conditions, whereas competence in liberal democratic politics is about managing public sector responsiveness and delivery of services to the polity under given political conditions. In the case of Mr. Brown, his business acumen appears to have been exaggerated for electoral purposes and his understanding of the responsibilities of public office holders in a democracy appears to be negligible.

I will leave it for others to dissect the remaining political entrails of this corpse of a mayor but suffice it to say that a politician who cannot even fake empathy and compassion for those in his electorate who have been negatively impacted by the storm (including many who have lost everything, and in four cases, their lives), and who victim-blames those worst affected and finger-points at his subordinates when it comes to assigning responsibility for response delays and “mistakes” while arguing with media in front of cameras during press stand-ups, is not fit to be a parking warden much less mayor of NZ’s largest city.

I went on the infamous social media platform to briefly summarize my take on things. Here are my comments:

“Times of crisis render transparent leadership qualities and flaws. Covid did this on a world scale, with Trump and Johnson baring their ineptness (and ignorance) for all to see while Ardern, Hipkins and Bloomfield (demonstrated) what a competent leadership team looks like. Now Auckland is confronted by an unprecedented natural disaster and the Peter Principle is being demonstrated at the highest local government level. Shame because this could have been prevented had voters understood what their votes were really getting in terms of “leadership.” OTOH, the doddering mayor’s media stand-ups have been unwitting comedic gold. Perhaps this is why what should have been dealt with as a First World problem becomes a Third World reality.

Put shortly: The crucible of crisis is the pressure test of leadership. Under it some hold, some crack. The Auckland weather bomb is such a crucible. The test results are clear.”

On the darkness behind the PM’s departure.

Over the weekend I was interviewed by a media outlet about the threats that Jacinda Ardern and her family have received while she has been PM and what can be expected now that she has resigned. I noted that the level of threat she has been exposed to is unprecedented in NZ history, something that is due not as much as to the content of her policies (especially but not exclusively the pandemic mitigation measures and 3 Waters initiative), but to the social media megaphoning of (often foreign imported) conspiracy theories and anti-government sentiment that used her policies as an excuse to engage in extremely misogynistic and violent verbal attacks and physical threats against her. The 2022 Parliamentary Protests represented the NZ January 6 moment in terms of crystallising the focused hatred of the assortment of seditionists assembled in one place (including Nazi imagery superimposed on the PMs face and nooses hung with placards calling for her and other politician’s executions), but their threats will not go away just because she has left office.

The original story got picked up by other outlets that include overseas media platforms. The response has been mixed. Although commentary has often sided with my view that the hatred directed at Ms. Ardern is unprecedented in NZ, a large number of pundits have proved my point by repeating the threats as well as justifications for them (“she reaps what she sowed,” “she deserves it,” “the penalty for treason is death,” “she created a two tier society,” “what is good for the goose is good for the gander,” “she is a Satanist globalist freemason Big Pharma puppet intent on destroying the Kiwi way of life” and so much more along such lines. The authors of these nuggets of brilliance walk amongst us.

I decided to throw together a couple of tweets on the business account to note two points of interest. They are “If Jacinda Ardern’s resignation sparks a national discussion about gendered abuse and violence in Aotearoa in general and against females/women in positions of authority in particular (political as well as elsewhere), then it will have been a fitting parting gesture on her part. But that will not be the end of it for her.” (I added the term “women” here because some po-mo people objected to the term “female” in the original post).

And (on the issue of the threat environment she must confront): “One measure of the threat landscape that Jacinda Ardern has had to traverse is the personal security detail she and her family will need after she leaves public life. Our reckon is that it will be significant, at least over the short term.” That brought a number of responses, some of which questioned how things got to this point and whether I was exaggerating what could be just foreign threats or blowhard ranting here at home. My response:

“When threat assessing, there are perpetrators, accomplices, enablers, subjects and objects. NZ is full of media (social and corporate) accomplices and enablers when it comes to subjecting Ardern to violent intimidation by a dangerous local fringe (the object). The danger is here.” To elaborate: threat assessment is about establishing a hierarchy of actors and their potential for action, then determining what action they are likely to take and how realistic and imminent is the possibility/probability of their turning words into action. In the case of Jacinta Ardern, I do not believe that the threats to her and her family will go away just because she has stepped down. And given that the Police have eight active investigations into individuals who have made such threats and because I believe that they are just the tip of a threat pyramid that is real and imminent, I continue to stand by these statements.

I could go on to elaborate on what I said in the original interview and follow ups but the story is now viral and can be better accessed by search for the coverage itself.

Suffice to say, this not a good moment for the former PM but also for the country as a political society, and that has nothing to do with her policies or behaviour in office but all to do with those who began and those who then facilitated the mainstreaming of extremist discourse into corporate media narratives and coverage of her government’s policies. Between social media networked nastiness and corporate media megaphoning and legitimating of previously fringe views untethered to reality, the moment is, to paraphrase Gramsci,” delicate and dangerous.”

In this election year more than any other time, especially because of the delicacy of the moment, that is a syndrome that must be remembered and confronted.