Keiran Kelly- Little Expectations

This is a guest post from Kieran Kelly. 
It does not matter what lies in his heart. It does not matter that he is severely uncharismatic. It does not even matter that he looks eerily like the animated plasticine character Wallace (I keep half-expecting him to reveal his latest contraption for solving the housing crisis by means a repurposed church organ, suction tubes, and a rotating wheel with boot-tipped spokes that repeatedly kick Nick Smith up the bottom). The only thing that matters with Andrew Little, or any politician, is who benefits from their substantive acts and words. It does not matter what interests Andrew Little wishes to serve, it matters only what interests he does serve. Like many “progressives” in history he has allowed himself to fall within a disciplinary framework that limits him in such a way that he serves the interests of the powerful few far more effectively than he serves the interests of the many.

I know that many people will believe that now is the time to fall in line and to stop the endless sectarian self-destruction that plagues the left, but it just ain’t so. Now is the time to have high expectations and to demand substantive politics, because if 2016 taught us anything it is that business as usual from those who call themselves “centre-left” is tantamount to handing victory on a platter to an increasingly extreme right-wing. To bring a change in government the Labour Party and its leader will have to defy and bypass the media and pundits and offer the voters a genuine alternative to National. Little has been conditioned to fear only attacks from the right and until he also fears reaction from the left he will sleepwalk this country into another term for the National Party.

As I will detail later, Andrew Little adopts positions which show that his energy and focus is shaped predominantly by a defensive obeisance to right-wing and elite concerns, whereas he has developed a hostility to principled and informed exponents of the interests of the masses and the stances they take. These are very common political dynamics. They are part of a range of factors that have been acting over some decades to cause a narrowing of ideology and the death of true choice in the multi-party regimes such as ours.

As it currently stands, our political system offers choices so narrow as to be more akin to a one-party state. Indeed, it is difficult to claim that competing parties have much of a democratising effect when that does not seem to facilitate expressions of the general will of the people. They say that in China you cannot change the government but you can change the policies, but in Western “democracies” you can change the government but cannot change the policies. The massive democratic deficit revealed by government opposition to their electorates over issues of economics and international relations show clearly that we have no real democracy. This is part of a political dynamic that, like any such dynamic, becomes powerful because it reproduces itself. It reproduces itself because it empowers political actors who reciprocate by empowering the dynamic. Naturally this is shaped by self-interest and racially-informed class dynamics, but it is not purely materialistic; there is also a psychological component at work here that functions alongside realist or materialist concerns.

The political dynamic is a medium or milieu in which politicians act. As in so many areas of life if you want to understand what shapes the politics you have to realise that they shape themselves. First and foremost they are what they are, and they exist independently of political theory and ideology. What we can say for sure is the this political dynamic is an interface between the generalisations of theory (wherein actors are impelled by raison d’état, class interest, political ideology or personal self-interest) and the realities of individual human beings who are full of irrationality and contradiction.

I will return to
the psychology of the individual with respect to Andrew Little, but first I want to remind people that political dynamics do change over time. In our recent past a key foundation, possibly an essential component, of the decades long political dynamic that has effectively gutted our electoral politics of substantive democratic choice, has been the politics of the “lesser evil”. The lesser evilism in our politics ensures that the political dynamic always shifts to the right by setting up a system that can only move in one direction. It began due to the peculiarity that right-wing politics can afford to alienate the majority because they can combine an appeal to the most energised and loyal mass component with an appeal to the wealthiest and most powerful elite interests. The combination allows them to be politically and electorally successful while being widely and deeply loathed by ordinary people. (This is why the hatred of people like Robert Muldoon or Margaret Thatcher has more substance and endurance than the hatred directed at less right-wing politicians.) That opens room for parties like Labour to court the interests of capital, align with the US, and in other ways have a generally right-wing platform. By offering rhetorical, tokenistic or ambiguous left-wing promises, parties like Labour can count on the fact their supporters will mostly never vote for their principal rivals. To put it another way, voters alienated by Labour’s right-wing neoliberalism are not going to vote for National anyway so on the surface there is less to lose by erring on the rightward side than the loss of support that would come from going too far left. The idea of lesser evilism is that the leading right party, in our case National, will never offer a better deal to the working class and poor whom can therefore safely be taken for granted by the likes of Labour.

Lesser evilism has never been a particularly practical electoral strategy because it tends to drive people who would like a real left-wing major party to stay at home on election day. However, it has sufficed in this country to keep Labour as our second biggest party when they have offered very little by way of an alternative in the last 2 elections. Recent changes in public perception, however, mean that lesser evilism is no longer viable. It has always been based on the pragmatic calculation that the electorate will not punish practitioners. The election of Donald J. Trump, however, shows that this is no longer the case. Instead of having supporters merely bleed away into the ranks of non-voters, the entire Democratic Party practice of taking people for granted backfired so badly that they lost to a man who was one of the least electable candidates in the history of US presidential politics.

Where the Democrats went most drastically wrong was in telling people that their lives were great. They would cite figures that were extremely flattering of the performance of the Obama administration and, with evident earnestness, ask why anyone would throw all of this away. The problem was that few people have seen great material gains in their life during the Obama years, some have lost ground and many more have seen a slow erosion of wealth and security. It must be pretty galling in those circumstances to have an interminably long parade of very wealthy people telling you that you need to be grateful and vote for more of the same and if you don’t want to it is because you are a racist stupid scumbag.

You might think that that has nothing to do with Aotearoa’s Labour Party because they have not been in power and they are not going to tell the electorate that they have had it great in the last 8 years. However, people are not so stupid that they think that Andrew Little necessarily means anything when he condemns the National government. His criticisms are inevitable because that is his job. Moreover, there is a clear pattern to Labour condemnations of National that will rightly fuel cynicism. If you search the web, restricting to NZ sites, with the terms “Labour condemns” or “Greens condemn” you will find quite a strong pattern of contrast. The Greens tend to make condemnatory statements about what they see as infraction of values that are clearly central to their party’s political ideology: generally relating to the environment, peace, poverty, racism or gender. In contrast. Labour Party condemnations are almost all condemnations of mismanagement. Where they do condemn on matters of principle it is almost always those sorts of free hits, such as Little’s condemnation of English’s “weak” response to Trump’s travel restrictions, that leave Labour committed to absolutely nothing and needing to provide no alternatives.

If knee-jerk condemnation of National’s performance in government by Labour is inevitable, then it means nothing. It is mere noise. The noise may excite Labour followers and it may be therapeutic and fun for Little et al. to vent and strut, but it isn’t going to attract anyone else to the fold. It does not matter how chest-thumping and self-righteous they become; if Labour politicians remain morally timid and if they keep hedging, the electorate will see it as weakness, and they will be correct in that judgement.

Labour is pursuing a “broad church” strategy, but I would argue that this is just the latest iteration of Labour’s tendency towards spineless expediency. There is clearly a long tradition of antagonism to having solid principles which dates back to the unconvincing and shallow rejection of market fundamentalism during the Clark years. At that time Labour emphasised a rejection of “being ideological”. This was intellectually dishonest in that they dodged having to fully atone for Rogernomics and allowed them to make piecemeal populist reforms while leaving the neoliberal regime intact (and with it the inevitability of increasing inequality and social injustice). Framing the imposition of a neoliberal regime as merely some sort of ideological dysfunction is also a wilfully one-dimensional and cowardly stance. The neoliberal project was not created by wide-eyed fanatic geeks in the NZ Treasury, it is a coherent movement with a very easily apprehended functionality – it serves to concentrate wealth and power. In the Clark years, however, anyone who made such an observation would have been silenced, excluded and or marginalised by Labour as being “ideological” as if they were somehow the exact mirror image of the Friedmanite zealots who caused the problem in the first place.

Sadly, not much has changed. Andrew Little shows every sign of being married to the “horseshoe theory” which would place Labour as the “centre-left” aside the “centre-right” while “extremists” of the right and left are considered to be roughly the same thing. In this worldview antifascists and fascists are the same thing and Donald Trump and Jeremy Corbyn are just two slightly different flavours of rabble-rouser. This is a view that is hostile to radicalism not just in the pejorative sense, but in the sense of anything that delves beneath the surface. This a view of the world which assumes that all that is acceptable and safe is found within an elite consensus, the nature of which I will return to later.

We can tell a great deal about how Little defines a “broad church” approach by looking at whom he fears, whom he panders to, whom he takes for granted, and whom he scorns. Look at his manner, for example, in this clip (around the 2:15 mark) where he brusquely rejects even entertaining the notion of pulling out of the “5 eyes” intelligence sharing programme. His Key-esque monosyllabic “neh” (not even a “nup”) is in response to the following things: 1) the reporter linking the relationship with President Trump’s open embrace of torture; 2) the Green Party co-leader (the supposed partner of Labour) standing right there reiterating that they have a policy of leaving the “5 eyes”; 3) the Snowden revelations that show that at US behest we are spying on our neighbours, our friends and our trading partners but which fail to show any evidence that Aotearoa benefits from this relationship in any way that would be considered reasonable and significant to ordinary people. Little says “neh” to all of that because he doesn’t give a fuck about what antiwar people think, nor anti-imperialist people. In fact he doesn’t really care whether he alienates people who simply don’t blindly accept that the intelligence relationship is desirable, notwithstanding that all that we know (including a great deal of material that was intended to be secret) tells us that our co-operation with the US is not desirable nor morally supportable. Nor does he care if he seems to be insulting the Greens by being so dismissive, in fact it is clearly an established Labour tactic to demonstrate a lack of respect and concern over their MOU partners. (Some clever strategist has apparently told them that they should demonstrate at every opportunity that they will not be beholden to the Greens, trying to suggest to “muddle New Zilland” that Labour deigns to accept support from its sidekick but without reciprocity – evidently they have forgotten that the demographic of “people who like arrogant wankers” is a foregone bloc vote for National).

Other examples of the positioning of Andrew Little are his rejection of Jeremy Corbyn’s politics and his enthusiastic support for Hillary Clinton. As Phillip Ure puts it Andrew Little “is a neoliberal-incrementalist/anti-populist – who seems to spend an inordinate amount of time soothing the ruffled brows of the elites/business-leaders – reassuring them that a government led by him will make fuck all difference to them..and their exploiting ways” [sic]. I am certain that Little and Labour rationalise these moves as tactical matters, but in truth they are not. A similar approach has failed Labour spectacularly in the last 2 elections. The supposed shift leftward under US-educated neoliberal multi-millionaire Cunliffe was about as convincing as me writing “L” in biro on my right hand and insisting to everyone that I have two left hands. Not that I am denying that Labour had some policies that would have benefited the poor, but they campaigned as welfare liberals, promising isolated measures rather than an actual change of direction. Not only would that mean a repeat of the last Labour government who only offered palliative care for the morbidity of neoliberalism, but it put them on exactly the same ideological and moral plane as National who have dined out of giving beneficiaries a few extra scraps.

It is true that the media are liable to laud National as great humanitarians for giving what amounts to a pittance to beneficiaries, yet Labour would risk been denigrated as dangerously sentimental infants for doing the same thing, but that is what Labour has to deal with. The media discourse is stacked against them, and trying to play by those rules is guaranteed to see them lose while in the meantime they will find themselves constantly pushed to the right. They have no real choice but to side-step the media and its conventional “wisdom” altogether, but there is little sign of this happening soon.

Little was very cagey about Corbyn for some time, which shows you again that he fears flak above all. He may tell himself that holding the “centre” is the key to winning elections, but that is a line pushed in the media here and in other countries by Crosby-Textor and those other demonic beings, like Michelle Boag, who come from more petty planes of Hell. The “centre” they describe is not a centre at all, it is a right-wing reactionary regime that has been concentrating wealth and power in ever fewer hands for between up to 50 years, depending on the country. Of course this right-wing regime has accommodated itself to liberalism and progressive “identity politics”, but that does not make it truly left-wing as a whole any more than rejecting “identity politics” makes you a true friend of the working class (cf. Donald Trump).

The fact is that Little gets a great deal of feedback from the a cluster of elite and establishment voices and there is a very clear consensuswhen it comes to certain truisms of neoliberal ideology. Market forces can never be defied, but you are allowed to give charity to their victims and spend huge amounts locking up those made unruly by anomie. This is absolutely true in all circumstances because defying the market will simply make everything worse and even people who lose everything are actually better off than they would be if government intervened. Of course, market forces can and should be defied if they threaten the interests of the wealthy, but that is different because the health of the stock market is the health of the nation and rich people are “job creators”, and the private school industry is very vulnerable but utterly necessary if we are to have new generations of enlightened politicians to govern us.

Little is shaped by flak because he must respond to it on a daily basis, but the voices of the masses are distant and contradictory. He is not answerable to ordinary people in any immediate manner. At the same time Little is effectively embedded in a political establishment that is inherently right-wing. I take the term “embedding” from the US practice with reporters in Iraq, but the same practice was used by the US military in Viet Nam with political officials instead of journalists. All institutions will seek to “embed” anyone that they allow to observe them and it works in a two-fold manner. The first thing that happens is that the observer is induced to see things from the institutional perspective. The second thing is that they must accept and frame things in accord with the superior knowledge claim by those in the institution. It is a foolproof situational recipe that can have a cult-like effect on a subject’s perception. The US officials who flew as sceptics to Viet Nam only to come back as wide-eyed converts to the noble US military effort were said to have been on “magical mystery tours”. The conversion of those who enter the political establishment may not be as striking as a “magical mystery tour”, but it makes for the same partisanship and defensive hostility againstthose who question things from the outside. People who critique the insupportable compromises that make day-to-day life political life bearable, such as refusing to condemn and take meaningful diplomatic steps in response to US war crimes (including numerous acts of aggression), are rationalised as lacking the privileged insider knowledge and their supposed ignorance and insubordination causes anger if they demand what may seem impossible to the embedded. Thus people who have knowledge that goes beyond acceptable bounds are condemned as extremists because they fail to have the conventional and approved areas of ignorance.

The flak I referred to above is an elite disciplinary tool which has little to do with genuine public opinion. For example, Little eschews Corbyn because he fears being attacked as part of the “loony left” in a the belief that only deranged people still believe that there is an alternative to capitalism that is not far worse. Yet tellingly “loony left” is a phrase coined by Thatcher, who very successfully shaped the elite consensus to exclude genuine leftism but became the most widely loathed PM in recent UK history and was voted worst PM of the last 100 years by UK historical writers in 2016.

The conventional wisdom that is shaped by elite flak is self-referential, often creating self-fulfilling media prophecies. Most notably, candidates that reject pro-corporate orthodoxy are called “unelectable” by the mass media because those same mass media will ensure that they are unelectable. That is the way it used to work, at least, but it is not necessarily true any more. Jeremy Corbyn’s career is very instructive; his polling looks bad, but he energises people. The media keep throwing as much manure as they can at him in what has been an absolutely startling campaign, but they are clearly at the limits of their capacity for flinging crap and all they have done is sow a general disdain amongst the less engaged parts of the electorate. They have burnt up an enormous amount of capital, both figurative and literal. The Guardian in particular has often enraged its own readers at a time when no news outlet can afford to lose customers. It may well be that they have succeeded in ensuring that he will never lead Labour in an election campaign, but what would have happened if he had become the opposition leader a year before the next scheduled election, instead of 5?

The lesson of Clinton’s electoral failure, of Bernie Sanders insurgent popularity, and of Corbyn weathering the media’s character assassination (more like a massacre of just one person), is that the media are not all powerful, just incredibly intrusive and deafening. If 2016 showed us anything it is that people are fed up to the back teeth of the ring-fenced elite political culture that responds to hunger for bread by having big debates over whether red, blue or green cake is more delicious. Remember Marie Antoinette when you contemplate the grotesque suffering caused by housing shortages (such as a tetraplegic having to live in a van with her husband and 4 year-old for 6 weeks until Housing NZ gave them one of the properties they keep in reserve for cases of really acute publicity); and remember Marie Antionette when you contemplate that our response as a society has in part been to erect a $1.5 million dollar sculpture of a state house, partly paid for by the profits made by a big real estate firm. What next? A drive to donate costume jewellery to the homeless to raise their spirits? State-funded astrological services to help people find their destined place in life? Perhaps John Key could offer to let any homeless Aotearoan pitch a tent on his lawn the next time they happen to be in Hawai’i.

2016 showed clearly that the elite political discourse of the “centre-left” has become out of touch. Politics in general have become rigid and unresponsive. Governments fail in everything except in exploiting their own failings to further consolidate inequality and neoliberal privilege. By a strange coincidence every crisis in which governments throughout the Western world are simultaneously failing (housing, education andhealth; with optional side-orders of corruption, infrastructure degradation, communal/political violence and more) seems to move us further along the road of greater concentrations of wealth and power along with degradations of democracy and national sovereignty.

Political elites of all parties in Aotearoa have a similar worldview in which the more wealthy, the more well-educated and the more powerful you are the more “liberal” you are and therefore the more progressive you are. When polling data clearly show over and over again that the general public tends to be socialistic when it comes to issues of taxation, education and health this does not disturb the elite sense that the hoi polloiare reactionaries because those issues are considered non-starters. They are outside of the bounds of accepted political reality, therefore they do not really exist.

It is very clear at this point that Labour will not touch fundamental issues, but will campaign as superior managers of our orthodox neoliberal slide into dystopia. The reason people want fundamental change is not a fear of crisis, it is not an expectation of sudden deprivation, it is the clear direction that we are travelling in. Political parties are blind to this because it does not have a place in acceptable political concepts and timeframes. They cannot talk about it, therefore they cannot ask about it, therefore they cannot sense it in polling. The electorate, however, sees a world of ever more numerous beggars and ever more prominent billionaires. They see a 40-year period of ever greater police and surveillance powers, more prisons, and ever greater social disparities. We now have gated communities; a private hospital system; decreasing home-ownership; decreasing unionisation and lower job security; and inflation that has been hitting the poor twice as hard as the rich for decades. Insecurity is spreading. That is why there is a growing sense of desperation. People no longer believe that they have realistic electoral options so they vote for things like Brexit or Trump just to try and stir things up. The boiling frogs are desperately trying to jump out of the pot and they will risk incineration over the certainty and the degradation of voluntary passivity and complicity in being made into soup.

Some people claim that Bernie Sanders would not have beaten Trump because he would have been vulnerable to negative campaigning by the GOP. By that logic, however, Clinton is actually President right now, because she ran one of the most expensive electoral campaigns in the history of humanity. Her campaign was more expensive and more negative than Trump could have managed and she had almost every conceivable celebrity telling people how awful Trump is. That didn’t matter though. The vast majority of people already knew that Trump was awful what they lacked was any sort of alternative that they could stomach voting for.

The DNC in the US failed because they told people that their lives were already great and promised more of the same (but maybe not quite as good because Clinton is no Obama). Aotearoa’s Labour are clearly heading in a similar way. Instead of engaging with the real needs of a forlorn public that hungers for substance, they are pandering instead to the social conservatism that they assume is rampant among the beer-swilling troglodytes that vote in this country. I can put it no better than Gordon Campbell who wrote: “Arguably, by bringing the likes of Greg O’Connor and Willie Jackson on board, Labour is choosing to ‘broaden its electoral chances’ by pandering to the oldest, whitest and angriest part of the electorate. That’s hardly change you can believe in. It looks more like doubling down on the problem, and laying down further problems in future.”

We have a long electoral campaign ahead of us. Naturally everyone feels obliged to say that this is great for democracy, but we only need to look at the insanely lengthy proceedings in the US to see that quantity and quality of public political debate are two very different things. A long campaign favours backroom shenanigans, spin, flak, and the endless repetition of phrases that are robustly reusable precisely because they sound good but mean absolutely nothing. Labour will try its pusillanimous best to distinguish itself as little as possible from National. Their battle cry will be “Down with ‘aspirational’ National, Labour wants ‘a fair shot at the Kiwi dream’”! (It seems only fitting that this Lilliputianapproach should be headed by someone called Little.)

People do not want more of the same. Many people in the US saw Trump as a less corrupt candidate than Clinton, but I do not think that political elites understand what this means at all. The public was not necessarily concerned about the corruption of using public office to make money, as in Clinton’s speaking fees or her brother’s Haitian gold concessions, they also see corruption in the way politics is done. The DNC’s behaviour was considered corrupt by ordinary people because of its culture of horse-trading, but this is so normal to politicians that they can’t grasp that from the outside it looks pretty foul. No one could look at Trump and say that he is incapable of corrupt practices, but he was not stained head-to-foot in the Washington DC ordure that other politicians drip from every surface while often proclaiming that the stench is just a scent of roses. The same sort of odour clings to the way Labour is doing everything it does at the moment. It all seems calculated and inauthentic, and if anything will win National a fourth term that is it.

Comments welcome below. 

Leftwin seeks to host a discussion on building a new left politics in Aotearoa/New Zealand.
Be part of that discussion.

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