221; Topic 23: The More Things Change, The More Things Are Acquiesced To The Prevailing Social Hegemony, Or Something

I suppose what can often be lost in my disjointed musings about ontology, nihilism, ideology, Platonism, and liberals, is what bearing, if any, that any of this stuff has on the day-to-day realities of governance in New Zealand. Politicians, especially of our four largest parties, usually scramble over themselves in an unseemly attempt to portray themselves as sensible, reasonable, moderate, and centrist.

You might question if politicians are even aware of the ontological commitments that their respective ideologies make of them. Surely that’s what they do in their spare time isn’t it? Wax lyrical about the metaphysical consequences of their politics? Regardless, explicit party philosophy, especially for the two parties of government in New Zealand, it’s probably safe to say, often ends up taking a back seat to the day-to-day realities of governance, especially when it has to navigate the horse-trading inherent in MMP.

It’s unusual these days to hear criticism of MMP from someone on the left (although – being too young to remember the MMP referendum – I hear that there weren’t too many in Labour at the time, especially Helen, too keen on it). I’ve previously offered critiques of MMP, namely in these two articles: ‘MMP?‘ and ‘Elections And (Or?) Democracy‘. These mostly made the points that MMP in fact sows, exaggerates, and prolongs false, or irrelevant social divisions, and, simply represents a capitulation to an ideology that seeks to extend the market, and its individualising, atomistic ideology to every corner of society. In fact, viewing the conversion to MMP in light of the liberalisations of the 1980s and and 1990s draws some interesting parallels.

The ’80s and ’90s were obviously defined by the embrace of laissez-faire liberalism, by both those parties which are usually of left and the of right (Note: I agree with the conclusions of this article, that sees liberalism as belonging neither on the left or right, with its genesis in opposition to the old right, and with both the modern left, and modern right arising in opposition to liberalism).  This meant an acceptance of its reductive view of society and human interaction. Rooted fundamentally in the idea of self-ownership, liberalism sees all relation to the world firstly through the lens of self-relation. In interacting with anything in the world, we are extending a part of our self-owned self to it, in effect, claiming ownership of it. Locke outlines this quite clearly in his Two Treatises Of Government, especially with his example of how he saw labour (as in working, not the party). According to Locke, when we labour, we in a sense ‘mix’ a part of ourselves with the external world, say by chopping a tree, or ploughing a field, and so the product of this interaction (in this case either firewood, or a farm) becomes ours. Crucially though, the liberal, either implicitly, or explicitly, accepts this philosophy of interaction in the context of human relationships too. In interacting with someone, we are extending a part of our self-owned self towards him or her, yet unlike in the case of ploughing the field, not just the ‘extender’ owns themselves, but the ‘extendee’ too (i.e. you, and the person with whom you interact). This has the outcome of reducing all human relation to no more than a property-rights relation. In order to validate the relation, both sides must consent, or give permission, to the exchange, and thus all of society becomes permissive – systems of exchanging permissions to use of the self. This is exactly what the market is, in fact, definitionally so; a place or situation where buyers and sellers exchange commodities. And, as to the liberal even the self is property, it is therefore commodified, and so, fair game for floating on the open market of human interaction.

So, to the liberal, marriage is just a contractual agreement to an exchange of property rights in the context of the ‘marriage’ market, not the personal union of two separate people into a single entity, the family. Education is just an exchange of a commodity; knowledge, between a teacher and a student on the ‘education’ market, not the means of the quest for human enlightenment and understanding. Politics is just an exchange between the government and the citizen, consent in return for benefits, on the ‘political market’, and not the collective human effort to realise the just society.

It’s therefore unsurprising that the transformation of New Zealand society in the 1980s, from one based on a socialist ontology of class that was the prevailing orthodoxy from the ’30s till ’80s, (Note: I’m not saying that New Zealand was a socialist country in those 50 years – it patently wasn’t, merely that the prevailing view about the shape of society in that time, accepted by the political class on both the left and the right, was a socialist, class-based one) to a liberal, free-market ontology, based on the individual, coincided with the acceptance of a view of politics as the ‘political market’. When politics is seen as simply another market amongst the many that compose society, then it becomes ripe-picking for the laissez-faireists intent on deregulating the market in all its forms.

In the ’80s and ’90s they deregulated the economic markets; the currency market, the import/export market, labour market, the housing market, and the ‘welfare market’. They also deregulated the social markets; the ‘romance market’ (divorce law, and Homosexual Law Reform), the entertainment market (censorship laws), the ‘birth market’ (abortion law), and finally the political market.

It is in this ideological context that MMP should be viewed, as a deregulation of the political market. Under FPP, barriers to entry were high. It was hard for rival firms to gain entry into the market. They needed to build a widely-recognised brand, specialise their production, differentiate their message, find their niche – protest party (Social Credit), the rich (New Zealand Party), the counter-culture (Values), and still they mightn’t have managed to get any return on their investment. MMP struck down those barriers, introduced more competition into the duopoly in the political market, and gave political consumers more specialised tools to spend their purchasing power (the party vote). And just as with liberalisation in all other markets, that have delivered outstanding, stable growth (no), more employment (no), the uplifting of thousands from poverty (no), we’ve gotten great results from political liberalisation, haven’t we? Higher voter turnout (no), higher rates of party membership (no), higher rates of political literacy (no).

And what sort of politics does this acceptance of a liberal political market entail? We get a politics that seems unconcerned with people (280,000 children in poverty, soaring rates of domestic violence, inequality, family breakdown, depression, atomisation, and suicide), but very concerned with power (politics of perception, permanent campaigning, scandal-mongering, spin doctors, etc.). Built-in into MMP is this liberal assumption of pluralism, that is that division is good. Since it allows for the representation of more parties, electoral competition becomes more fierce. Parties have to find ways to differentiate themselves, while still seeming moderate enough to remain attractive to an increasingly disinterested consumer. They do this by preying on identity divisions on society, or creating and prolonging these divisions. It delivers coalitions who have to placate unwieldy groups of voters who are pitted against each other in party rhetoric, and it seems those already disenfranchised are the ones who miss out.

The coalition governments thrown up by MMP have seemed uniquely unable to offer any radical solutions to any of society’s problems. What it has seemed very good at is offering policies pitched at the middle consumer. Middle-class welfare like Working for Families, confiscating the beaches when Marcus in Sumner gets worried he won’t be able to take wee Poppy and Noah to build sandcastles, and banning legal-high testing on those cute, cuddly puppies.

Sure, under FPP, radical changes were able to be rammed through with seemingly no moderation whatsoever – the Fourth Labour and National governments serve as evidence for that – but surely radical change of the wrong sort is endurable so that we have the chance for radical change of the right sort (first and third Labour Governments). What MMP allows is for the radical voices inside the camp of the big parties to break off and be marginalised. This leaves the big parties for the power-seeking pragmatists, while those that formerly provided the ideological heft to the big parties left outside the tent.

The coalitions that inevitably happen prove devastating for these radical parties, as they are never able to get through any more than the most tokenistic of their policies. This leaves their supporters disgusted with their party’s capitulation to a party that is not representing their interests, and either they splinter, or withdraw their support. We saw this most obviously in the Alliance which went from 10 MPs to none in one electoral cycle (only Jim Anderton and Mat Robson maintained representation under a party that was literally named after its leader). A similar thing has happened to the Māori Party, which, after propping up a National government that has done nothing but harm to the poor (and therefore a large portion of the Māori Party’s support base), lost both its radical, activist wing (following Hone to Mana), and is very possibly facing the prospect of electoral oblivion after this election. The same thing’s happened to NZ First, it splintered in ’98 and was almost wiped out in ’99 after propping up National, and it was wiped out in 2008 after supporting Labour, and, although it looks likely they’ll be able to stay in this year, the future after Winston looks pretty bleak. Act has suffered for not sticking to its ideological roots, and moving too far into National’s territory (it’s not been helped by the slow rightward drift of the political centre). While the Greens are yet to suffer from a similar move to the ‘mainstream’, it has, however, lost its radical Bradford-Tanczos-Locke wing. One has to wonder after Labour inevitably gets its act back together and steals back all the middle-class, urban liberals, how long the Greens will last without some serious, radical heft. One could perhaps compare the Greens’ current good fortune to United Future’s in the 2002 election, all due to refugees from an under performing major party (Labour in the Greens’ case, National in United Future’s).

Despite all this, I still am unwilling to entirely disendorse MMP. It seems obvious to me that MMP simply entrenches the prevailing liberal hegemony, producing government incapable of delivering radical change, that wipes out radical voices from politics, and silences openly ideological discourse, delivering an ideology of silence and style – which stands only to benefit the elites of society. FPP does seem to be more reflective of the real, material bifurcation in society (bourgeoisie and proletariat), and has the added benefit of localising political power, and ensuring that all politicians are directly accountable to voters of their own area. While MMP, and the accompanying privatisation of politics that it has brought with it, a superficial politics of power not people, the subsequent dive in political engagement, and the meek, weak governments it produces, that work within the liberal system, and so are precluded from overcoming it, will never be able to deliver a new, truly democratic society.

But still, I remain a member of a minor party, I’ll be casting a party vote, and I retain an affinity with MMP. Perhaps it is no more than that multi-party politics is undeniably more interesting to the political junky, or that the weakness and disappointment that coalition Governments deliver allow me something to moan about, or it might just be that the party I support only really has a good chance under MMP. If there were a referendum tomorrow, I’d vote for MMP. That leaves the only alternative to liberal, pluralistic division, as extra-parliamentary organisation, a disavowing of the attitude that sees society as synonymous with the state, and local, grassroots democracy that emphasises community, humanity, and solidarity.


221; Topic 21: This Is The Way The World Ends – The Hollow Men And The Politics Of Nothing

I recently re-watched a brilliant BBC doco, a sort of visual essay, by prominent British conservative (in both the small ‘c’ and big ‘C’ senses) philosopher Roger Scruton, called Why Beauty Matters (has Spanish subtitles for some reason). Scruton is well-known for his Old Right political philosophy, his advocacy of a truly conservative environmentalism, and as an eminent neo-classicist aesthetic philosopher.

I’d seen this BBC doco a few times before and I seem to appreciate it more with each viewing. While certainly I find it hard to thoroughly endorse many of Scruton’s political positions, him occupying a rather distant space on the political spectrum from me, his aesthetic philosophy, which he outlines in ‘Why Beauty Matters’, is something I can wholeheartedly agree with. I used to be rather concerned when, after hearing him speak and finding myself agreeing with him far too often, that this was unearthing some sort of previously unrealised latent rightist tendencies, or dormant rabid conservatism.

But it is in examining his aesthetic philosophy that I find a deep, and broad area of agreement with the unashamedly rightist and conservative Scruton; a fundamental ontology that transcends a rather superficial, consequential political metric that applies labels of Left and Right based solely on degrees of shared policy positions. It is an ontology shared by those on the left who are in tune with, and take seriously the moral commitments that one must necessarily accept to realise truly the goals of the left. And it is an ontology that was never abandoned by those unabashedly conservative thinkers, who, in their deep respect for philosophical tradition and the immutability of truth, never wavered in the face of the unstoppable march of reductive post-modern liberalism, wise to the nihilist conclusion of its utilitarian mission, as advocated by its acolytes on both the New Left and New Right.

It was in large part thanks to Scruton, with huge debts of gratitude to an English posse including some of his conservative forebears like Tolkien and C.S. Lewis, as well as those far less comfortably identified as being on the right, like the thinker John Milbank, and the intellectual giant, G.K. Chesterton, along with a greater understanding of Māoritanga’s collective communitarian worldview, that helped me get a handle on my innate discomfit with liberals, and brought me to the realisation that liberalism was incompatible with the left and its truly democratic aims.

So even though I share more than a few instances of agreement with the policy positions of those identified as social liberals, it comes from a radically different rationale, philosophical tradition, and a radically different acceptance of facts about reality, and as the liberal dream blindly stumbles closer to its absurd nihilist conclusion, those areas of shared agreement will doubtlessly wither and disappear. All this has brought me to the realisation that I can no longer accurately describe myself as a ‘moderate social liberal’, but fundamentally as an anti-liberal, and as belonging to, certainly the anti-Marxist left (with the Marxists’ materialism collapsing inescapably into the same nihilist abyss, although I admit to a continuing sentimental sympathy towards Marxism), and if not the Old Left, then the pre-modern left. This article/obituary to the leftist bard, Pete Seeger (absent his Stalinist apologism) describes a similar vision to my own [Pete Seeger’s Conservative Socialism], one that has seen the failures of a rigorously scientific socialism, leaving us no place to go but to its seemingly utopian roots.

The ontology laid out by Scruton in ‘Why Beauty Matters’ [that link again – it’s an hour or so, but it’s more than worth the effort] is one primarily platonic, one that sees the fundamental inherent value in beauty. Beauty that is a transcendent and non-natural property, that exists without time, and without space. Beauty that is a visitor to our world from another realm, that is exultant, that elevates us from the vicious inescapability of our causal world and allows us to commune with the unchanging, timeless bliss of eternity. And it is through art that this transcendent quality is physicalised. It is art that brings into communion the material nature of our world, in it’s mundanity and drudgery, and the celestial unreachability of beauty. Scruton wages war on those vandals, committed to what he calls ‘the cult of ugliness’ determined to destroy art, and thus prohibit our access to this inherent good; beauty. Those nihilist post-modernists, who in their materialism reject such a ‘childish’ concept as beauty (or who in asserting its subjectivity, indadvertedly commit themselves to such nihilism by rendering it meaningless in the light of such arbitrariness) and set out to mock it, miring us inescapably in the ugliness and cynicism of physical reality. For them the purpose is no longer transcendence, but originality attained through shock, who in their goal to say something, end up saying nothing at all.

Listen to the timeless otherworldliness of Di Stefano’s high C petering into a gentle pianissimo near the end of Gounod’s aria in Faust (listen from 4:50 if not the whole thing):

And compare this to the obscene profanity of Nicky Minaj’s ‘I Shitted On ‘Em’:

Or consider the unearthly despair in the eyes of Mary in Bouguereau’s Pieta, simultaneously resigned and accusatory (towards whom? God? The world? You?), and the ethereal softness of Corradini’s Puritas where he has managed to make gentle and subtle, that hardest and most brash of materials; stone. Compare this to the depravity of Serrano Andres’s Piss Christ, or the casual capitulation to the commodification of culture in  Stephanie Key’s work where the person is transformed to commercialised kitsch.

Scruton sees this intentional ugliness as a type of immorality, and truly it is. When we consider that platonic trinity of Truth, Beauty, and Goodness, where each of these individual transcendent properties are truly what define the ideal, where each of these qualities possesses the other and is affirmed and made valuable by the other, then of course what is ugly is immoral, as it is neither true, nor good. Of course post-modernist critics reject such a view as overly-innocent and naive. This idealistic ontology was a necessary casualty of the painful and troubled birth of the modern world, sent up in smoke in the chimneys of Auschwitz. The world has grown up and put away such childish things as Truth, Goodness, and Beauty, which have no place in today’s empiricist and materialist reality. Truth is not a transcendent quality communed with through the use of pure reason, but merely yet-to-be-disproved worldly hypotheses that have not yet fallen to the rigours of the scientific method. Goodness is none other than a stifling social norm, to be replaced by utilitarian policies that will produce most widely the psychological chemical reaction associated with ‘happiness’. Beauty is merely an evolutionarily-produced reaction that arouses sexual desire directed at those forms associated with reproductive fitness – good for the continuation of the species.

But it is this materialist ontology that is flawed, and acceptance of it is capitulation to those thoroughly modern and coldly scientific political ideologies of Nazism and Soviet Marxism, that leaves, despite the price of 100 million lives (80 million from World War II, and 20 million murdered in the USSR), the Nazis as the victors. For, if as the liberal does, we accept that same materialist ontology, and the nihilism it results in, then the political realisation of the scientific ideology, of which both Nazism and Soviet Marxism were manifestations, have won. And it is in the acceptance of this materialist reductionism that the liberal descends into a vicious spiral of fallacious equivocation.  Value is equated with use, meaning is equated with physical composition, him and he and, her and she, are equated with hir and zefreedom is equated with choice, progress is equated with time, morality with some sort of emotive empathy, humans with animals, love with lust, and all this ultimately ends in everything being equated with nothing. It is this ideology of nothing that results in a society where culture is commercialised, reduced to advertising, where ideas are reduced to some sort of Dawkinsite meme-theory, and even the apotheosised self of the liberal is undone, reduced to some sort of biological machine, enslaved to its programming.

And it was precisely this immoral, liberal reductionism that I was reminded of when I read Nicky Hager’s chapter in the Hollow Men [Nicky Hager, ‘Chapter 12: IWI/KIWI’ in The Hollow Men: A study in the politics of deception, 2006, 180-91] about the development of National’s political advertising for the 2005 election campaign, specifically the John Ansell Iwi/Kiwi billboards. Ansell used all the tricks of art’s ultimate corruption, marketing, to spread meaningless messages in the best tradition of meme theory. He talks, sure enough, not of using the beauty and truth of ideas to appeal to the minds of equal human subjects, but of using shock as a vehicle for originality (in the footsteps of the post-modern anti-artists), to spread messages, like memes, to the brains of voters whom he seems to regard as little more than just receptacles for his messaging.

” I truly believe you can win in 2005, but only if you package your policies in ways that shock the soft centre voters into reassessing their prejudices.” [p. 181, emphasis mine]

The chapter emphasises that these billboards represented very little in the way of policy, philosophy, or ideas, but were merely exercises in messaging, and dishonest ones at that. It was contrast advertising at its finest, machiavellian, and manipulative, and with almost no basis in reality. The chapter never speaks of Truth, but perception, it never speaks of appeals to reason, but of the way these advertisements were psychologically engineered, cleverly making use of distraction, shock, and ‘striking’ reductive simplicity, to “…bypass our intellects and get inside out heads…” [187]. All of this painted a picture that seemed to hold people in very little regard, typical of the liberal’s inability to relate to anyone or anything except through self-relation, and of a politics that was not about principle, or the realisation of a just society, but of power.

It would seem overly-dramatic to assert that these men surrounding Brash’s campaign, Ansell, Maurice Williamson, Steven Joyce, Gerry Brownlie, Brash himself were actively trying to realise a reductive, materialist nihilism of the sort that would destroy the transcendental human being, but surely in utilising the methods of such an ideology, they are committing themselves to its ontology.

And this is an ontology that is destructive and that no person who sees value in the ‘childish’ concepts of truth, goodness, and beauty, faith, hope, and charity, kindness, love, and justice, of a politics of people, and not power, can stand for. We must reject the methods of this ontology which see meaningful political discourse replaced with reductive, obfuscatory messaging and advertising. And we must reject the people who utilise these methods, for in revealing themselves as acolytes of the nihilist abyss, they have shown themselves to be devoid of those ‘childish’ virtues, and to be truly the hollow men.

“When I was ten, I read fairy tales in secret and would have been ashamed if I had been found doing so. Now that I am fifty, I read them openly. When I became a man I put away childish things, including the fear of childishness and the desire to be very grown up.”

C.S. Lewis

221; Topic 19: Political Campaigning In A Modern Liberal Democracy, And Other Absurdities

For a New Zealand blog that is ostensibly about politics, I’ve realised I’ve had remarkably little engagement with, A.) the real world of politics at all, and B.) with what many would consider to be the most important New Zealand political event of this year, the election. There’s been much too much incoherent moaning and and pseudo-philosophical ivory tower bloviations. So right, election, 20th of September 2014. I’ll be voting for the party of which I’m a member, Mana, regardless of whether or not some deal with the Internet Party is hammered out, about which I am very ambivalent. I’m registered to vote in Te Tai Hauāuru (Tariana’s electorate), and will likely vote for the yet to be named Mana candidate, although the seat will in all probability go to Adrian Rurawhe, the Labour candidate (Tariana’s stepping down in case you haven’t been paying attention).

Mana will win Te Tai Tokerau (especially now Kelvin Davis is back in parliament, the one upside to Shane stepping down). Waiariki will be a nasty campaign with lots of back-and-forth about Te Ururoa being National’s lapdog, and Mana capitulating to the interests of a shady German millionaire (billionaire?) Bond villain. I think it’s too close to call (between Te Ururoa and Annette), but even if Te Ururoa does manage to sneak home, he will not bring anyone else to Parliament with him. Tāmaki Makaurau (whether it’s Taurima or Wilcox), Hauraki-Waikato, Ikaroa-Rāwhiti, and Te Tai Tonga will all turn to Labour, or stay with Labour.

Labour’s missed a beat in Ohariu after National, instead of giving Dunne a free run there after Katrina Shanks stepped down, named a candidate to replace her (Brett Hudson). Labour should’ve stood a high-profile candidate in Ohariu, or flown Charles Chauvel back from the UN to stand, but have instead named a no-name candidate (Virginia Anderson), effectively gifting Dunne a seat which should have been eminently winnable.

Key will have a sit down with David Seymour in Epsom, who should prove more popular than Banks, and be able to ride out a co-ordinated campaign from Labour and the Greens to get their voters in Epsom to hold their noses and vote for Goldsmith. I don’t think a similar deal will be cut with Colin Craig, after Bennett ‘bagsed’ Upper Harbour (Rankin will stand for the Conservatives there), and Murray McCully did enough with the Shane Jones ‘poaching’ to prove he’s still useful and will be rewarded by being allowed to run a ‘two-ticks’ campaign in East Coast Bays. The Conservatives will not win an electorate seat, and will get close, but not pass the the threshold.

Labour will increase their vote from 2011, but will be stuck in the low-mid 30s, instead of potentially the high-30s that were reachable before Shane left. The main beneficiaries of his departure will be largely New Zealand First, and to a lesser extent National, and Mana.

National’s vote will take a hit after a tough term, as finally the weight of unpopular policies and scandals, especially the corruption and cronyism scandals, builds and creates a substantive narrative that the opposition can build on. They will leak some low, and lower-middle income votes to Labour, some of the older vote worried about their cosiness with rich Chinese businessmen to New Zealand First, some of their social conservative vote, dissatisfied with the passage of gay marriage to Colin Craig, and a very small amount of their neo-liberal vote to a newly ideologically pure ACT Party. They will poll likely in the low 40s, as opposed to the almost 48% of last election.

The Greens have probably about maximised their potential vote, with polls showing them in the low-mid teens typical of usual Green over-polling, and will probably slip back a very small amount to 10%, with some voters going home to Labour, and some of the digitised civil libertarians to the Internet Party.

Winston has done enough to secure a ticket back into Parliament, and will probably stay in the 6.5-7% territory that it reached last time. A strong performance from Winston this term, along with some disaffected Shane Jones voters, and a few of the aforementioned National voters worried about National’s relationship with rich Chinese, likely to prove sufficient to replace the Labour voters who strategically voted New Zealand First in 2011 to make sure Labour had another potential coalition partner, but in 2014 are ‘returning home’, and the loss of some more right-leaning New Zealand First voters to the Conservatives, to whom a more visible (compared to 2011) Colin Craig appeals.

Mana and the Internet Party will likely enter into a vote sharing agreement, and see a combined vote of 3.5-4%, with disaffected voters of the walking-dead Māori Party crossing over to Mana, and a more visible Dotcom-funded campaign managing to increase exposure to their message, plus whatever motley crew the Internet Party brings to the table, responsible for the increased vote.

Act will likely benefit ever so slightly from a return to its ideological roots, and will probably (just) secure enough of the vote to bring Jamie Whyte in off the back of Seymour winning Epsom.

Peter Dunne meanwhile will survive in Ohariu, but his party will be lucky to secure enough of the vote to prevent his seat from being an overhang.

The election will play out as follows:

National: 41%, 51 MPs, or 52 MPs if the Māori Party doesn’t win Waiariki (due to the vagaries of the Sainte-Lague Method)

Labour: 31.5%, 40 MPs

Greens: 10%, 13 MPs

New Zealand First: 6.5%, 8 MPs

Mana/Internet Party Alliance: 3.5%, 4 MPs

Conservative Party: 3.5%, 0 MPs

Act: 1.5%, 2 MPs

Māori Party: 1%, 1 or 0 MPs (depending on Waiariki)

United Future: 0.5%, 1 MP

That gives a Parliament of 120 (no over-hangs), and neither National, or Labour/Greens able to form a government without Winston, although crucially, any possible coalition (except National/Labour, or National/Greens – neither going to happen) will require at least three partners. Winston has sent absolutely no signals that could be interpreted as an intention to go with National, while joint policy announcements with Labour and the Greens can be interpreted as a warming of his relationship with the Greens (and so making co-operation with them in a Labour-led Government more likely), as can this snippet in an interview with Bryce Edwards (28:38-30:14) where he repeatedly says “I don’t hate the Greens”, and speaks positively of environmentalism (although in a rather back-handed way with regards to his new friends, the Greens). Another signal of a possible leaning towards Labour is Winston ruling-out working in any Government that included any ‘race-based’ parties, and proceeding to classify only the Māori Party, and not the Mana Movement as race-based, a classification that seems uncharacteristically charitable for Winston (I wouldn’t classify the Mana Movement as ‘race-based’ either, but it’s hard to deny that it includes a commitment to Tino Rangatiratanga that Winston has branded ‘separatism’ in the past). So while the commitment to raise the retirement age could prove to be a hurdle, I think after the 20th of September we’ll be looking at a Labour/Greens/New Zealand First government, with some sort of deal likely to be struck with the Mana and Internet Parties as well, although probably not a formal coalition.

The campaign will be tough. There will be lots of back and forth. National will focus on Key, its economic record, the return to surplus, continue its demonisation of beneficiaries, and revert to law and order when opposition talk of economic inequality requires a change of subject. Labour will run strongly the corruption and cronyism tack, and, as with the parties to its left, emphasise strongly the increasing inequality. The Greens will talk about deep sea drilling, rivers and the environment. Winston will talk about Asians and foreign ownership. Colin Craig will talk about referenda and smacking.  ACT about taxes and law and order, Dotcom about spying, Hone about the kids, Te Ururoa about how the Māori Party’s not done-for, and Peter Dunne about not much at all. There might be another scandal or two, Judith Collins might resign, the polls’ll jump around a bit, but it’ll all fold out with almost predetermined predictability, and I doubt significantly differently to what I’ve described above.

And this of course points to the absurd reality of political campaigning in the modern liberal democracy that arises from the utter incompatibility of liberalism and democracy, and the incoherency of liberalism as a political ideology. Every other political ideology has managed to grasp the nature of humanity’s fundamentally collective existence, the necessity of the other, of a shared commonality of experience, and the fundamental place of belonging to something greater, without which we would be unable to establish the relation to others that is necessary to provide the framework for which the transcendence needed to know ourselves is realised. It is only due to our relations to others that we are able rise out of the self to examine ourselves, to analyse ourselves, to know ourselves, and to actually realise the self in any meaningful way. Every other political ideology recognises this beautiful seemingly paradoxical relation that is at the heart of the ontology of man. That it is only in knowing others that we can know ourselves, and it is only turning outwards, away from the self, that the self is actualised. It is only in the collective of we, that I exists. For the socialist, that collective is class; for the communist that collective is the community; for the nationalist, it is the nation; the conservative, shared tradition and heritage; for the fascist, it is the state; for the Nazi, race; for the reactionary, our collective past; for the monarchist, it is, in a very real way, the family; for the internationalist, humanity; for the environmentalist, our shared place in the environment; for the anarchist it is our very reliance on others that collects us; and for the theocrat, it is our shared relation to God.

Of course, not all of these instantiations of the collective is are positive things. But just because the likes of Nazism and Fascism exploit and corrupt what is fundamental to humanity, it does not mean that the concept of the collective is a damaging one. It is liberalism alone that believes this, and in doing so, retards and corrupts the way we understand others and ourselves. While the monarchist might build monuments to the king, the Nazi to the master race, and the communist to the common man, it is the liberal alone that edifies the self, that places himself at the centre of the universe, and it is in this hubristic concept of the self that he is unable to recognise and relate truly to humanity.

Since the self is the starting point for the liberal, all relations to others are inherently narcissistic. He is unable to transcend, to access his humanity to understand humanity and his place in it, and so instead turns inwards, to the self, where the rational is reduced to the emotive, where the absolute is reduced to the arbitrary, and his reductionist self is made God. And it is here, in the liberal’s emotive relations, retarded by their conception in the liberal’s narcissistic self-relation, where the human is turned into human resources, where the child is only child if he is wanted, and foetus otherwise, where addicts are free agents on the open market, where the drug peddler is made entrepreneur, and the person is made consumer. It is this narcissist anti-culture that capitalises I the way God is capitalised, that interacts with the world with my and mine, and in doing so reduces everything to mercantile, transactionary, market-based property relations.

The power of the market to corrupt to absurdity is everywhere in the liberal society, it engulfs everything, infecting the way we talk, and think, and so the very way we conceive of others. The search for union with the other is reduced to the ‘meat market’, and in doing so the apotheosised self is reduced to property – when romantic union is found, we say of ourselves, that we are ‘off the market’, like a building. Ideas are turned into intellectual property, and if we are not convinced by an idea we don’t ‘buy’ it, or if we are, we say that, we , ourselves are sold on it. It is in the liberal ‘democracy’ where the physical act of creation is necessarily preceded by the prostitution of one’s labour power on the labour market, and becomes no more than an exchange of the self for the privilege to live in the context of a worker-boss relationship. It is in the liberal ‘democracy’ where the search for enlightenment becomes no more than an investment to signal value to a potential employer. It is in the liberal ‘democracy’ where works become occupations, not acts of goodness, or creation, or industry, but merely activities to while away the time until death. It is in the liberal ‘democracy’ where democracy becomes no more than firms competing on the political market and where “…there is no such thing as society.”

That is why the modern political campaign in a liberal democracy is so absurd. It is no longer a battle for hearts and minds for the betterment of our human brothers and sisters, but a month-long (really three year-long) advertising campaign where the political party firms sell us products on the open political market, and their payment is corporate money, and our power. The products they sell are “A Brighter Future“, “Trust“, and “A richer New Zealand“.  What these things mean of course is rather more vague, but they are compelling messages. But that’s what this is all about. It’s not West Wing politics, it’s The Thick Of It politics, where control of your messaging on the 24-hour news cycle is what guides governance. Not substance, not values. In the liberal ‘society’, democracy is privatised, politicians are the profiteers, ‘bottom lines’ have to be met, and it’s the marketing department which calls the shots. And while they sell us ideas, it’s also us that are the commodities they trade in. Human lives. The wellbeing of your family, your children, your community are what they’re dealing with in these campaigns, and whether they are parties selling you products, using professional marketing firms to widen their market; parties just about the sales, that use advertisers to obfuscate their agendas; or if they are the ultimate chameleon parties, using market research to successfully navigate the turmoils and fluctuations of the ever-changing market, liberal ‘democracy’ is just like the campaigns themselves. Exercises in branding. (For more on these three different models of parties operating in the privatised political market, see the Lees-Marshment theory of political marketing).

221, Topic 17: Elections And (Or?) Democracy

I know I have a strict policy of not starting pieces of writing with quotes, hence this sentence. Lenin once said that “Democracy is indispensable to socialism,” and “Socialism cannot be decreed from above. Its spirit rejects the mechanical bureaucratic approach; living, creative socialism is the product of the masses themselves.” He had some real jewels that Lenin, what a joker. This was of course the Lenin that started the gulags, the Red Terror, War Communism, instituted a one party state, and provided the basis for one of the most repressive and murderous regimes in history. Mussolini called democracy a beautiful theory,  even Hitler had some occasionally kind words for it, “Democracy in our eyes is a regime that is supported by the will of the people.” [My New Order, 554], ‘the people’ there, of course, referring to his beloved German volk. Mao called for a New Democracy, under the auspices of which the Great Leap Forward and The Cultural Revolution happened. Bush declared a literal war (you know, with guns, soldiers, and missiles) against terror (you know, the emotion) in the name of democracy. The U.S.A. has supported and armed some of the most oppressive regimes in the world on democracy’s behalf, while Al-Sisi and the army in Egypt have sentenced almost 700 people to death in an attempt to ‘save’ democracy, and Putin is poised to invade Europe to stop the ‘anti-democratic fascists’ in the Ukraine. So with this vague and amorphous word ‘democracy’ referring to everything from Soviet totalitarianism, Chinese state directed capitalism, Mussolini’s fascism, the will of the volk in the Third Reich, American imperialism, nations with hereditary heads of state, ultra-nationalist Putinism, and violent military-enforced ‘liberal’ secularism in the Middle East, how do we even know what democracy is, let alone whether or not its actually desirable?

If you were to ask your man (sorry, cismale, gendernormative fascist) on the street what democracy is, I’m sure you’d get a range of responses, the most basic of which would surely be ‘voting’. But we vote for all sorts of things, who our favourite potential popstar is, who our favourite contestant on a cooking show is, which snack is your favourite on Stuff. Surely this isn’t what the Anzacs fought and died for. Okay then, well it’s voting for your leaders. But the Chinese vote for their leaders, the North Koreans do as well, in fact they love Kim Jong Un. Okay, so then it’s choosing between a range of leaders with your vote, exercising a free choice. But the UK doesn’t let people choose its head of state, and in 1933, Germany chose the incontrovertibly democratic Hitler as their Head of Government. It becomes clear that democracy is more than just voting. The assumption of democracy in the West is of a liberal representative democracy, where the rights to freedom of speech, assembly, choice, a fair trial, to lobby your government, a free press, where all those things exist. It’s a wider state of affairs than simply voting. People talk of ‘democratic institutions’ (independence of the judiciary, press, constabulary, public service etc.). They talk of pluralism, where the rights of the many do not exclude the rights of the few, so it’s definitely not just popular assent. Consent is also key, that government only exists legitimately if it possesses the consent of the governed. That’s a nice picture of democracy. It seems to exclude the things we don’t want to acknowledge as democracies: the Third Reich, Soviet Russia, China, North Korea, American Idol, and affirm that lovely western countries, like the US, the UK, Australia, and New Zealand are preferable to nasty countries like Russia, China, and Cuba.

And then in terms of how democratic a country is, it’s just a matter of how closely it resembles these conditions, so A.) that these democratic institutions exist, B.) that these rights are not infringed upon, and then C.) what extent the structure of this democracy allows for consent of the governed to be given to the government, with more opportunity for consent-giving  being preferable. This is where methods of elections come in. Obviously that they are freely participated in, and fairly counted is a must. That government is only able to exist with the consent of the majority of the populace is another. So this entails a few things. Firstly that FPP elections which delivered parliamentary majorities to parties with only minority support (every election from 1954 to 1993), and to parties with less support than other parties (1978 and 1981), are less desirable than electoral systems which more accurately reflect how the electorate voted, like MMP. Secondly, that parliamentary majorities actually translate into majorities of actual the populace, i.e. that there is a wide enough franchise (so people are allowed to vote regardless of sex, race, criminal record, perhaps age?), and that they actually exercise their right to vote in almost universal numbers (compulsory voting?). It also entails that there are frequent and regular opportunities for people to give their consent, perhaps the possibility for recall elections (the removal of consent for individual parliamentarians), and binding referenda so that people have the opportunity to consent to or object to specific actions of the government. It also seems that a legislature in a representative democracy that is more representative of the populace is preferable to one that is less. So MMP, for example, which has produced MPs who are women, Māori, Asian, Islanders, disabled, and young in far greater quantities than FPP is preferable. So there we have it, keep MMP, remove the threshold, institute compulsory voting, recall elections, and binding referenda and we’ve got it, democracy. Great. Sorted. Right? Right?

Regardless of how much reality matches up with this narrative of democracy, we first have to ask how meaningful is this narrative as democracy? Is this actually a coherent or accurate picture of what democracy entails? Is this a desirable form of government? Democracy’s certainly more than just FPP, or MMP as we’ve already established. The word democracy, as we all know, is of Ancient Greek origin, derived from the words demos (the people) and kratia (rule). So it becomes eminently clear that any genuine concept of democracy must be a system that can philosophically account, in the first instance, for ‘the people’. This is when the very concept of liberal democracy descends into the absurdity of oblivion. Notice that  democracy is rule of the people. That’s the collective, and this is simply a concept that is precluded by any liberal account. At the centre of liberalism is not the ‘we’, it is the ‘me’. It is the individual, and a conception of the individual which is atomised and divisive, hence the pluralism that is so important to liberal conceptions of democracy. It posits that individuals are diametrically opposed and divided, and in doing so intensifies and prolongs any divisions, or perceived divisions. This is why ‘direct democracy’ referenda have just about universally been responsible for reactionary laws that have variously banned burqas, banned minarets, and supported the re-institution of hard labour for prisoners. In a system aimed towards the perpetuation of false divisions, rather than the realisation of commonality, unity, and coming to a collective class-consciousness, referenda will almost always serve as tools of racism, misogyny, bigotry, and demonisation of the powerless (unfortunately by the very people who are also powerless).

Certainly any concept of ‘the people’ must first rely on a concept of ‘the person’. But what the liberal fails to recognise is that the self only has meaning in the context of others. If there were no others, then there would not be anything distinct to which the ‘self’ referred. The self would simply refer to everything, and so consequently to nothing meaningful at all. It is only in relation with other persons, in the context of the collective, in recognition of unity and equal dignity, in turning outwards to the social, that the ‘self’ is realised. Hence any political system that is based on the person, must be based solely on the collective and not the individual, because recognition of the individual outside of the context of the collective simply recognises something that doesn’t exist. The individual of liberalism is not a recognition of the individual as it exists in reality, but the recognition of a representation of an individual that just doesn’t exist, just how its recognition of democracy is not recognition of an actual democracy, but representative of democracy (representative democracy). It resembles it, but isn’t it.

Democracy isn’t voting for someone to do it for you, democracy isn’t a private press, or some far removed judicial system, or a system of checks and balances. In fact, democracy isn’t at all. Democracy happens. It happens in co-operatives where workers own and control their workplaces. It happens in the family, in marriage, when two people find meaning only in the other’s existence, and become one (both in personal union, and in biological union). Democracy happens when communities, together, decide what is best for their welfare. Democracy happens when the homeless man is housed, when the hungry man is fed, when the dying man is cared for. Only in recognising the shared human dignity of all people, is the concept of the ‘person’ actualised, and is ‘the people rule’ in existence.