- Jeremy Agar
“‘When I use a word’, Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, ‘it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less’. ‘The question is’, said Alice, ‘whether you can make words mean so many different things’”.
Two economists: two books with the word “capitalism” in their titles. Robert Reich, an academic, has been a key Clintonian, Secretary for Labor in Bill’s 1992-2000 Administration and an advocate for Hillary in this last US election campaign. Paul Mason, who says he’s a Marxist, is an economics editor for a UK television channel. They’ve both previously published influential books and articles. And the theme of both their books is that the capitalist system, as practised in America and Britain, is awful.
So it’s unanimous then? We need a revolution. Not really. The thought of Hillary Clinton mounting the barricades is not easy to picture and in saying that he wants only to “save” capitalism, Reich takes it for granted that there is no better way of organising society, never even mentioning an alternative, if only to dismiss it as impractical – the usual gambit. Reich isn’t being evasive. To him capitalism is as obvious and as permanent an expression of the USA as the White House.
You might think that Mason is a very different proposition, being happy to expound at length Marxist theories that have long been dismissed by polite society. His contempt for current policy is total. Yet, while saying we need to go beyond capitalism, he is not thinking in terms of old Karl and his mates who used to live in Russia and China, and he’s not about to relitigate those 20th Century debates about socialism and Communism. More surprising perhaps is his assurance that a “post-capitalist” dispensation can co-exist within existing capitalism. It’s an intriguingly nuanced take; based mainly on the observation that neo-liberalism is so entrenched that it can’t be swept away as decadent states were in Russia in 1917 or in China in 1949.
Paradoxically perhaps, the more direct assault on current malfeasance comes from Reich. That’s because his focus is on policy specifics, facts and figures, whereas Mason is more theoretical.
Reich exposes the ludicrously awful degree of inequality in his country. In the post-war period, the roughly 30 years after 1945 when the economy was both expanding and becoming more equitable, the average chief executive officer (CEO) took home 20 times as much as the average worker and the top 1% of the richest took 9% of all wealth. That’s plenty. Now the average CEO takes “substantially over” 200 times more than the average Joe and the top 1% take more than 20% of all. It’s gross and indefensible and unchallenged.
It Gets Worse
Walmart is a US discount retail chain where workers average $US11 per hour. Reich says that the six heirs to the founding Sam Walton have inherited more wealth than the bottom 42% of Americans.
Some stats from 2013: In the low wage economy, with average household earnings down 8% since 2007, over half of the 46 million receiving food parcels had jobs, Wall Street bankers took $US26.7 billion in bonuses, and the top 25 hedge fund managers averaged $US1 billion each in take home money. Reich reports that there is a general view in his circle that this latter excess can be seen as bribes to stop them from secretly stealing that much.
In no possible system of ethics or policy can such gargantuan injustices - or the acceptance of the ideology that breeds them - be justified, so you’d think that (New Zealand governments and councils excepted) no-one would try to.
With capitalist plunder being at once hegemonic and despised, the societal conventions on which democracy depends erode. Reich writes:
“The threat to capitalism is no longer Communism or fascism but a steady undermining of the trust modern societies need for growth and stability. When most people stop believing they and their children have a fair chance to make it, the tacit social contract societies rely on for voluntary cooperation begins to unravel. In its place comes subversion – petty theft, cheating, fraud, kickbacks, and corruption. Economic resources shift from production to protection”.
“People who believe the game is rigged are easy prey for political demagogues with fast tongues and dumb ideas”. Yes, he’s thinking of Donald Trump’s mob, and in the months since those words were penned, it got worse. They hooted and hollered when The Donald told them that the system is “rigged” (no more talk of that once Trump won the election. Ed.).
System Rigged To Help Trumpery
The system’s rigged all right, but it’s rigged to help Trumpery. Reich looks at how the rules governing intellectual property, patents and copyright are drafted to help the very rich get even richer. The tax system is hugely rigged. It emerged in the campaign that Trump himself had paid no income tax for 20 years. And throughout all the endless campaigning neither he nor Clinton raised the topic of the most obvious fix by which both the big parties squeeze out any real challenge from a Bernie Sanders - campaign finance.
Trump’s lot celebrate neo-liberalism’s degraded morality – the mindset of the riggers – by voting for their oppressor. Reich notes that the dupes blame themselves for their misfortunes, because as Trump’s trademark insult – and John Key’s - insists, they’re all “losers”. The rigging one per centers “must be extraordinarily clever, daring and superior”. Reich’s insider assessment could be a quote from Trump. But with all the political class in their thrall, for billionaires with a staff of accountants and tax lawyers it would not be hard to avoid paying tax, even if Trump’s chief propagandist, the former Mayor of New York, thought it makes his man a “genius”.
Sometimes the corruption and fraud is too overt and the riggers are fined, but even then they rarely suffer. Reich discusses the time when the Bank of America had to pay over $16 billion in fines - and the stock soared, the amount being chicken feed to them. Then there’s Halliburton, the corporation which provided the Reagan Administration with its main man. In 2013 Halliburton was fined $US200, 000 for destroying evidence of an oil spill - on revenues of $US29.4 billion.
So, Mr Trump, yes, the system’s rigged in favour of a Hillary Clinton and a Donald Trump. And yes, Mr Trump, there’s little difference between Clinton and Barack Obama. In 2008 Obama got $US16.6 million in campaign contributions from Wall Street, while his Republican opponent, John McCain, got $US9.3 million. However, Trump’s alternative is to make the ripoff worse by further “deregulation” and yet lower taxes on the very rich.
Reich gives us a useful demystification of the all too familiar language used to make us roll over and play dead. “The market”, in whose chapel we are enjoined to worship, doesn’t exist as a discrete force. There is no abstract entity demanding our subservience. “The market” doesn’t determine life. All that talk is bogus. The way in which economic relations occur is the result of very conscious and very self-interested rules.
Neither has “deregulation” occurred. On the contrary, regulations have been enacted to ease the way for big money. For potential rivals to the power of money – governments and councils – the rules (to restrict them) are tighter than ever.
Why? Well, from 2000 to 2014 corporate profits in the US went from $US529 billion to $US1.6 trillion, while $US750 billion was transferred from labour in the form of wages to capital. That’s why.
Another lying word is “worth”, suggesting value. Trump is said to be “worth” his billions and the hedge fund manager’s bribe makes him “worth” one billion dollars a year, and the Walmart clerk is “worth” $US11 an hour. No, that’s what the system has been rigged and regulated to produce, largely through regulating an attack on unions, facilitating their weaker bargaining power. Since 1979 American productivity has increased 65%; the average wage is up 8%.
An even more telling measure, indicating the increased rate of inequality (but not cited in either of these accounts) comes from Joseph Stiglitz. In the decade up to 2011, when he wrote, the incomes of working class men (Trump’s base) fell 12%.
“The market” does not like the idea of a minimum wage, arguing that it can’t afford one. “The market” says decent pay will knock out struggling small businesses. But the most dishonest argument of the neo-liberals is that decent pay is not possible because it can’t compete with cheap labour overseas. Reich shatters this folklore. The lowest paid work is in jobs that can’t be sent overseas and in personal and direct services that can’t be automated. Low pay is not a product of economic forces. It’s the result of political power held by the rich.
And then there’s the most familiar of all the misnomers: “free trade”. The manipulations of the Trans Pacific Partnership Agreement (TPPA) and its fellows are more properly seen as a new and tight set of rules (otherwise known as regulations) in favour of giant corporations.
Reich cites an alarming statistic. Between 1990 and 2008 the average life expectancy of a white woman in America without a high school graduation has decreased by five years. That’s like Russia in the years of the oligarchs, as clear an explanation as you’ll find as to why people fall for the lies of a Trump.
The Trump campaign was usually said to be at variance with Republican values but in fact it was modelled on them. Trump’s early surrogate, Newt Gingrich, when he was Speaker of the House, had tried out the tactic of being entirely negative and abusive. Within the Republican elites it’s an explicit policy to try to disgust people. The idea is to dissuade potentially Democratic supporters from voting by encouraging the notion that the process is not worth bothering with. So a trivialised electorate with attention deficit disorder won’t read Reich. Economics? Boring… As he says “moneyed interests would prefer the bottom 90% continue to preoccupy themselves with tendentious battles over … issues such as same-sex marriage, abortion, guns, race and religion than find common economic cause”.
During his time with Bill Clinton Reich was well known for his thesis that the future of work would increasingly be dominated by “symbolic analysts”, professionals skilled in the deployment of computer technologies. This of course has been abundantly confirmed. Along with the withering away of manufacturing jobs, exported to Mexico and China, this changing nature of work has hollowed out the median – the essence of the current pathologies. The proportion of workers in the service economy is increasing, but as service sector jobs tend to be either highly paid or poorly paid the trend to inequality (which needs none of the political help it’s getting) is further increased.
America and other rich countries can no longer expect mass production by the many for the many, so because future economies will not generate enough meaningful work to go around, Reich thinks there should be a guaranteed income for all, which he would set at half the median wage. The economy has become a place where it’s “unlimited production by a handful for consumption by whoever can afford it”, and that’s unhealthy.
The guaranteed income is becoming all the talk in policy circles. In NZ it’s associated with Roger Douglas (who picked it up from his guru, Friedrich von Hayek*, a founding father of neo-liberalism) so it’s been suspect. Yet Mason endorses the idea, noting, like Reich, that it would serve as “an antidote to the low-paid service jobs that demean the worker and probably don’t need to exist”. *Friedrich von Hayek (1899-1992), a reactionary economist who opposed the Welfare State and championed market forces. Ed.
“The terrain of capitalism has changed: it is global, fragmentary, geared to small-scale choices, temporary work and multiple skill-sets. Consumption has become a form of self-expression”. This is where the precariat* struggle, a world of temporary and uncertain jobs and fragile individualism. Mason wants to flip this into a virtue. We don’t need a society based on ever more stuff, and if the economy doesn’t generate work, he says, it’s because it doesn’t need to. For him “the ultimate aim is to reduce to a minimum the hours it takes to produce what humanity needs”. We can get past capitalism and its reliance on money, thinking instead of “social wages”. *Precariat = precarious proletariat. Ed.
Mason discusses some notions which are old hat to economists, but perhaps not to most of us. One such is the idea that economies go through cycles which are, to some extent anyway, predictable, though how much so is the subject of debate. He also discusses the related topic of economic stages, which aren’t the same thing. Starting with the Industrial Revolution, the age of factories, steam and canals (from around 1750 in Britain) he identifies three further stages, each powered by new technologies, before he arrives at our era, with its network technology and information goods (the age of the symbolic analysts). He dates its start to the late 1990s.
“But It Has Stalled”
This is where Mason gets to his point, to outline why we can move to a “post-capitalist” society. Following Marx, and our daily observations, he says that, to cut costs, capital is always driving down wages. When it can’t, the State gives incentives to innovations so that labour can be displaced for less costly machines. This is a permanent and necessary feature of capitalist economies.
From this Mason concludes that “neo-liberalism’s guiding principle is not free markets, nor fiscal discipline, nor privatisation and off-shoring – not even globalisation. All these things were by-products or weapons of its main endeavour: to remove organised labour from the equation”.
The evidence that this is the case is thick on the ground. As universally noted, the present stage of what some dub late capitalism was ushered in by Thatcher in the UK, from 1979; by Reagan in the US, from 1981, and through Rogernomics in NZ, from 1984. In both Britain and America the first sharp battle was to break the power of organised labour. Reagan arrested striking air traffic controllers; Thatcher forced a strike in the coal mines, for which she deployed all the State’s resources to defeat.
“With the unions sidelined, the transformation of work could begin in earnest, creating the atomised and precarious workforce of today”. The victory of the late wave capitalists was not as they thought “a new kind of capitalism”. It is “rather the extension of the fourth long wave (with its post-war technologies in the period of growth and increased wealth) on the basis of stagnant wage growth and atomisation. Instead of being forced to innovate their way out of the crisis using technology, as during the late stage of all three previous cycles, the 1% simply imposed penury and atomisation on the working class”.
Mason returns always to what’s called the labour theory of value, itself the subject of centuries of debate, the basic idea being that prices are related to the amount of labour expended to produce goods. In the computer age “useful stuff that can be made with tiny amounts of human labour is probably going to end up being free, shared and commonly owned”.
The biggest profit in world history was turned in by Apple a year or so back. Yet for outfits like Apple and Amazon to maintain profits, for “info-capitalism to work, corporate power would have to stop the price of information goods falling, by using monopoly pricing…Every interaction would need to be mined for value”. Capitalists would have to create new markets beyond production, in services, and someone would have to find work for the millions whose jobs had been automated (and who didn’t have the money to keep buying stuff). Info-capitalism, in Mason’s dystopian conclusion, would have to turn what we now do for free into paid work. He gives the example of what he calls “affection work”.
Practically All Human Relations Would Have To Be Monetised
Mason puts his punchline into italics: “An economy based on information, with its tendency to zero-cost products and weak property rights; cannot be a capitalist economy”.
It’s a big idea all right, intriguing but perhaps not entirely convincing. In the meantime, he tells us, the world’s most profitable company, Apple, and the government of China, running the world’s second largest economy, have, with straight faces, forced a contract on their workers in which they have to pledge not to commit suicide because of stress.
The habit of what’s called “scientific management” can be dated to FW Taylor’s organisation of an American factory. In 1898 Taylor wrote that increased profitability “involved laying off many of the most intelligent, hardest working, and most trustworthy girls merely because they did not possess the quality of quick perception followed by quick action”. It came to be called Taylorism. A century later, Apple can do it more efficiently. The permanent tendency is for labour to be deskilled and desensitised.
Mason sees the essential difference between the old order and the emerging society as being between hierarchy and network, a familiar distinction amid the world of the wired. The appeal of this contrast lies beyond its reference to electronic communications. Hierarchy is readily associated with the familiar bogies of the industrial age: its sexism, racism and boring old men in blue suits. How much of Mason’s critique is the economic determinism he’s espousing and how much is wishful thinking from a cool intellectual?
Mason, a subtle thinker, avoids the blanket assertions of those, like the neo-liberal Francis Fukuyama, who claim that the cycles have stilled, that neo-liberal democracy marks the final stage of history. That is wishful thinking. The world retains “village, religious and ethnic” identifications and societies are “networked with multiple identities”.
Always, he says, change is generated by a “complex interplay between technology, social struggle, ideas and external shocks”. Wisely he does not elaborate in detail or his book, already teeming with ideas, would be too rushed to convince. But consider a phenomenon like ISIS, who simultaneously hold the most rigidly “hierarchical” pre-modern social beliefs and deploy utterly contemporary “networked” technology. The intervening centuries of bourgeois and proletarian civilisation that informs the West have passed them by.
Mason wants us – and always there’s the thought that he can be referring only to the rich, liberal part of the world – to have democratic social control over aggregated information. Has he shown it’s possible or likely or is he too thinking wishfully? Readers will have a variety of responses but they should all be engaged.
Throughout, Mason has postulated that market forces should not be suppressed completely, but at the end he rushes off topic to declare one exception. Energy should be brought under State control as the only way to stop climate change. Some might cavil at the logical inconsistency. They shouldn’t. Some things are more important than theoretical patience.
Why Save Capitalism?
Reich’s conclusion shows no such passion. In truth it’s disappointing. After all his damning critique you might think that Reich could have changed his mind. “Saving” capitalism? Why? On this evidence, what’s to like about it? The answer is that Reich never once uses the term “neo-liberalism”, so he never considers that the economic system he’s looking at is something other than the free and open nirvana of popular myth-making. It’s as if Dad can still support the family on a labourer’s wage while Mum stays at home watching “Bewitched”. He’s not open to the possibility that the system now is different from earlier capitalism not just in degree, but in kind.
Even so, he could have provided some stiffer medicine, alternatives that ameliorated the damage without threatening the system itself. Beyond a guaranteed minimum income, about all we’re offered though is a tiny fiddling with the rate at which CEOs should be taxed. The structures, the rationales for their huge pay he doesn’t discuss. He’s prepared only to recommend varying their tax payable by 1 or 2%. And that’s it. After all his cataloguing of greed and corruption Reich would do nothing to effect real change. It’s all very Clintonian.
For Mason “ditching neo-liberalism is the easy part”. To see just what “post-capitalism” might look like might be harder. If Walmart’s still open for business and the Trump Towers are still standing, we might have to drop the “post” part.
HOW DID WE GET INTO THIS MESS?
Although it doesn’t present itself as such, this lively outpouring of anger and contempt is a collection of newspaper columns. George Monbiot is a regular in the UK’s Guardian, whom he thanks at the end for employing him. Otherwise, he muses, he might be unemployable. He’s probably right. Certainly none of the usual suspects, devoted as they are to spin and trivia, would touch him. Monbiot is relentless in his pricking of the bubbles of power and its presumptions.
He’s always upfront in urging his readers to join in (For a look at the media in NZ, see the review below of “Complacent Nation”). At the core of Monbiot is the natural environment and the need to reverse climate change and the loss of habitat:
“The inescapable failure of a society based upon growth and its destruction of the Earth’s living systems are the overwhelming facts of our existence. As a result they are mentioned almost nowhere. They are the 21st Century’s great taboo, the subjects guaranteed to alienate your friends and neighbours. We live as if trapped inside a Sunday supplement: obsessed with fame, fashion, recipes and home improvements. Anything but the topic that demands our attention”.
How did we get into this mess? Why is that we totter on the verge of rendering our home uninhabitable? Monbiot often returns to eviscerating the denialists, the billionaires who say everything’s OK. They do so, as ravaging the planet is how they got rich. Monbiot’s rage is directed not just at them, whose motives are transparent, but at their lackeys, the politicians and corporations, dressed up in a little brief authority, who bend to their will.
After you’ve read Monbiot for a while, you won’t doubt that he’s right. His research and his eloquence are compelling. Regular readers will recognise the distinctive tone that puts biodiversity as a first principle, as with:
“It was neither Communism nor capitalism that made possible the progress and the pathologies (total war, the unprecedented concentration of global wealth, planetary destruction) of the modern age. It was coal, followed by oil and gas”.
An Inevitable Corruption
These impulses combine into an inevitable corruption. A typical example – one of dozens of suchlike scandals that Monbiot has documented over the years - was when prospectors in Ecuador located oil under a national park, a park which contained flora and fauna of global significance. The Government wanted to do a deal. If other governments gave it half the value of the oil they would leave some of it in the ground in part of the park. They asked for $US3.6 billion; they got $US13 million.
Monbiot calls this “blackmail”. Others of course would prefer to employ more “measured” and less honest words. In New Zealand, where our social and economic conditions are more benign, and the pressures to betray our heritage are usually less urgent, we are used to compromise. Here we do it to ourselves. In Hawkes Bay or Canterbury rivers are threatened for the sake of some more farming. In Westland it’s proposed to dam a wild river to generate power for a few thousand houses.
Monbiot argues against conventional policies based on sums and “mitigation”: “I would hate to see the protection of wildlife reduced to a calculation about greenhouse gases. For me there are powerful intrinsic reasons for defending the natural world because it is wonderful”.
The natural world could be respected for its own sake. Conventional wisdom sees this as naïve, simplistic, even “Greenie”, but Monbiot argues that leaving the natural world alone is more than a sentimental gesture. We often don’t know how changing the balance of Nature will turn out. Given our history of introducing pests, you’d think this way of thinking would be axiomatic in NZ.
Monbiot has been an advocate of “rewilding”, of allowing land to revert to its natural state. After all the impatience: optimism. In Europe, at least, and other advanced countries it will be possible to regain wilderness as less land is needed for farming (or available for housing in the east of Christchurch)
Distaste For Neo-Liberalism
An associated theme is Monbiot’s distaste for neo-liberalism, the ideology of the pillagers. He can’t understand why governments are driven to surrender their interests to foreign corporations when there’s no need for it.
Discussing Europe’s Trans Atlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP), a relative of the Trans Pacific Partnership Agreement (TPPA), he quotes a tribunal judge:
“It never ceases to amaze me that sovereign states have agreed to investment arbitration at all… Three private individuals are entrusted with the power to review, without any restriction or appeal procedure, all actions of the Government, all decisions of the courts, and all laws and regulations emanating from Parliament”.
A Canadian government official describes his experience with the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), the forerunner treaty in North America:
“I’ve seen the letters from the New York and (Washington) DC law firms coming up to the Canadian government on virtually every new environmental regulation and proposition in the last five years. They involved dry cleaning chemicals, pharmaceuticals, pesticides, patent law. Virtually all of the new initiatives were targeted and most of them never saw the light of day”.
It’s always said that reason and emotion are opposite, as if impassioned people like Monbiot can’t also be accurate and insightful.
This folklore has it that when the puppets of power use soothing and evasive terminology they’re somehow exhibiting statesmanlike judgement. The truth is the contrary. Monbiot is furious because he sees what’s happening, why we’re in a mess, and how we need now to clean up our act. Power’s preferred tendency, to adopt a default position somewhere in the middle of the road, might satisfy the lazy and the uninformed, but if it denies reality it isn’t rational.
A final note. With so much of what’s discussed in these pages relevant to NZ, it’s interesting that one of Monbiot’s big hates is for sheep.
THE 5th EYE
The 5th Eye. How about that? Wow. We’ve made it to the big boys’ club; we’re in the team with the cool guys. That’s the John Key take on New Zealand’s role as a satellite of the American Empire but it’s not how the Waihopai Three see matters. They think the Five Eyes are there to kill people and killing people is wrong.
The Domebusters, you’ll remember, deflated, in 2008, one of the big white balls that house the spying satellite dishes in a pleasant valley near Blenheim. A priest (Father Peter Murnane), Sam Land, a “subsistence farmer” (as the media always put it), and a teacher (Adrian Leason) based their activism on a movement within Catholicism. Project Ploughshares is inspired by a Biblical passage:
“God shall judge between the nations, and shall decide for many peoples; and they shall beat their swords into ploughshares, and spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation; neither shall they learn war any more".
It’s not a bad ambition, but the notion that violence and war is a bad idea is proof to the people who hold power around the world that pacifist ideals are naïve and doomed to irrelevance. As a rule of thumb we can say that the world’s governments, typically in the hands of petty men with fragile egos, do not uphold the wishes of their citizens, who aren’t as bad as their leaders. To camouflage moral vacuity, especially if they’re intellectually weak, they need to hide behind a bogus complexity. The clear and simple motivation of the Waihopai Three bewilders officialdom just as their clear and simple language threatens them.
The State would have been challenged to offer a convincing rebuttal of the Domebusters and it could not allow its agents to be cross examined in a court as that would allow the public to know what was going on under the balls. So it put forward no witnesses, thus allowing the “subsistence farmer”, the priest and the teacher to dominate proceedings - which were often amusing. The raid wasn’t slick.
The trio rented a truck, which they had to abandon when it got stuck along a farm track in a paddock next door to the domes. So the “subsistence farmer” took off into the night on a bike to work on Plan B for getting to the balls. He returned bleeding, having crashed into a wire fence. Meanwhile the teacher, given a mysterious object from which to keep in touch with his mates, heard nothing. Why hadn’t he responded? He was unaware that he had been sent a text. “What’s a text?”
“Otherworldly” Defeated The Secret World
Yet, when three otherworldly men with an almost Biblical sense of the modern world met the 21st Century of global technological supremacy; the otherworldly won. In this comedy of errors, it’s a suitably ironic thought that had the domes been attacked by real terrorists from foreign lands – the ones it was perhaps spying on – they would almost certainly have been destroyed.
These antics frame a detailed analysis of the several important issues by patriotic New Zealanders who have long seen what’s going on under the balls (these, by the way, are there so that we can’t see in which direction the satellite dishes are pointed and thereby know who’s being scrutinised.) Nicky Hager wrote the book on Waihopai (“Secret Power: New Zealand’s Role In The International Spy Network”, 1996. Reviewed by Murray Horton in Peace Researcher 10, September 1996, https://www.scribd.com/document/33726186/Peace-Researcher-Vol2-Issue10-Sept-1996. Ed.).
His research has been invaluable, revealing that when the trio said that Waihopai was part of the US “war on terror”, something always denied by the State, they were right. Our governments have consistently lied to us over decades, as have their surrogates in the media who parrot the falsehoods, never on the basis of caring a toss as to the truth. Despite persistent and nasty attacks from Prime Ministers on down, Hager’s findings have never been refuted.
Another talking head I first took to be a film star but it turned out to be a certain Murray Horton from Anti-Bases Campaign (ABC), who has been visiting Waihopai for years with his fellow peaceniks. These excursions have been the only readily accessible way the people of NZ have come to know of the very existence of the balls. ABC, like Hager, has explained the links between what the so-called intelligence service is doing in Marlborough and how the country’s foreign and “defence” policies are devised.
Liars: From Lange To Key
Back when the 1984-90 Labour government was forced by peace activists to form its nuclear-free stance and the Prime Minister, David Lange, was revelling in his role as the plucky dove of peace, Lange felt able to declare that Waihopai operated only by and for New Zealand and its interests. This was always deemed unlikely by those who paid attention to the despised activists and everyone now has the ability to see for themselves that the assertion was totally untrue. The lying has never stopped. When it’s not directly false, the language from the State has been obfuscation and equivocation and evasion. To expect an honest and open discussion of NZ’s sovereign interests from either of the two larger parties in Parliament is a form of denialism.
When you consider that the other Four Eyes scrutinising the planet belong to the US, the UK, Canada and Australia it would be easy to assume that the club is, as promised, a matey outfit, the four being probably the other countries with which NZ has most in common. We literally speak the same language. But that’s not why the Five Eyes quintet is often referred to as the “Anglo-Saxon” countries. The latter term is to do with economics. The Anglo-Saxons are the world’s neo-liberal purists, the world’s main cheerleaders for the ruinous plundering of the late capitalist epoch.
To say this is by no means to criticise the film, which is dense enough with information as it is. More importantly, any directly CAFCAesque analysis of Waihopai would have smudged the clarity of the Domebusters’ vision. Their motivations were simple and morally direct. These days we hear about “post-truth” politics, a new acceptance that while our politicians and strategists have always and routinely lied, the new aspect is that the opinion leaders and commentariat who mediate between the world’s governments and the world’s people expect them to. They don’t mind at all. Post-truth society welcomes the lies, preferring to “spin” them as “perceptions” or as the expression of a necessary realpolitik. Moral and intellectual honesty is despised and ridiculed. It’s not Anglo-Saxon.
That said, we might consider the Anglo-Saxons’ claim that their interest is in sharing information so they can deter terrorism. Why then does the club include reasonably benign places like Canada and New Zealand but not other clubbable countries like France and Belgium, where terrorist atrocities have actually occurred? Why, of all the world’s around 200 countries, almost all of which are less secure than the club members, are just these five chosen?
Why do they spy on people like Angela Merkel? Is she a terror suspect? Why spy on the President of Mexico? Is he? Why are they spying on pretty well every government? And on individuals? We all know that it’s because of the needs of big money and its government partners, but as long as the questions cannot be answered honestly the slippery words of politicians from David Lange through to John Key cannot be true.
The good news is that the “subsistence farmer”, the teacher and the priest were found not guilty at the 2010 Wellington trial because the jury, the people, accepted their defence that they acted to prevent a wrong. The verdict was as surprising as it was welcome, a validation of the jury system, the means by which the law, often an ass, can be reconciled with justice. The Government didn’t appeal. That would have again risked the people of New Zealand being informed about what’s being done in their name.
For the most up to date reporting of the historic Domebusters’ case, see “Three Cheers For The Domebusters Who Kicked Waihopai In The Ball!, by Murray Horton, Peace Researcher 47, August 2014, http://www.converge.org.nz/abc/pr/47/pr47-001.html. Anti-Bases Campaign and CAFCA have actively supported this film project from the outset. Not only is Murray Horton one of those interviewed in it, both ABC and CAFCA put money into it and helped to publicise its various cinema screenings.
Details of “The 5th Eye” can be found at www.cutcutcut.com Ed.
Gavin Ellis, an experienced journalist, has long tried to get us to pay attention to the constant whittling away of our freedoms and rights, and he’s getting impatient. We just don’t seem to care. State intrusion, he worries, is “accepted with not so much as a whimper” of public disquiet. He thinks one reason is that we haven’t been assaulted front on; we’re being wounded by a thousand little cuts, and we adjust. Ellis wants to remind us of what he says we’re losing and why it matters.
In making policy, as a former US Secretary of Defense noted, four things have to be borne in mind: there are known knowns, unknown knowns, known unknowns and unknown unknowns. These latter are what matter. When we don’t know what’s around the corner and we’re not in the habit of planning for the future, danger lurks.
The first obvious factor is one that Ellis himself has done much to draw to our attention. Traditional news outlets are becoming less significant as our attention is diverted anywhere and everywhere, away from newspapers, where the number of journalists halved between 2006 and 2013 and the standard of accuracy is declining. New Zealand has never had the money and population to support much investigative journalism but these days there’s almost none of it. Overseas owners with hard Right leanings have no incentive to provide it.
It’s of course the same with the other traditional sources of public information: radio (not considered in this account, but, beyond Radio NZ, what is there to consider?) and television. When TV3 canned Campbell Live, the one small programme that did offer a window on our country, John Key, always cynical, always playing to his yahoo base, commented that the programme wasn’t “entertaining”. Citizens are said to demand only reality TV, cooking shows and celebrity gossip.
Few people have both the interest and the means to keep up with events, let alone in any way that goes beyond the transitory and the anecdotal.
More Worrying Trends
There are, though, more worrying trends in that they’re more subtle and more deeply entrenched in the political culture. The State bureaucracy has become politically conditioned. The civil service long enjoyed a deserved reputation for efficiency and impartiality, and if you take at face value the tortuous jargon and outwardly bland expression of managers you might suppose this was still the case. Ellis argues convincingly that behind the surface governments and their bureaucracies are bent on denying access to the public.
We often get to hear about how governments have a “no surprises” policy. This is OK surely. It means that they’re going to keep their word and act in a way that’s consistent with known objectives. Not really, says Ellis, it’s about not surprising or endangering Ministers. “These assessments are of political risk: would release of the requested information reflect badly on the Government, cause the Minister embarrassment, or provide unhelpful information to the Opposition?” Citizens can expect a plenty of surprises policy, whether it’s the central Government conniving with the Trans Pacific Partnership Agreement or a city council wanting to sell assets.
CAFCA and the Official Information Act (OIA) have a long relationship, in which the willingness of the managers to provide information has not been entirely spontaneous and prompt. There’s also a Local Government Official Information and Meeting Act (LGOIMA), devised to ensure local politicians are kept on a tight leash by the bureaucrats.
Amazingly there are apparently 56 “grounds” for refusing to provide information. Ellis mentions “privacy”, “commercial sensitivity” and “advice to Ministers”, which we might have heard of, but there are 53 more reasons. That being so: it’s not hard to envisage how senior bureaucrats, with nothing better to do all day, can manage “a skilfully manipulated system of obstruction, obfuscation and obscurity”.
Asked to comment, ministries offer an “opinion”. Ellis suggests that these “opinions” are not likely to allow deviation, conformity to power being the one certain principle that is never forgotten. It used to be that civil servants had tenure. In the age of contracted employees, the boss will always be right.
Two recent instances when the State felt itself to be under unseemly democratic assault are mentioned. Jane Kelsey, in her tireless search for what’s going on with our “free traders”, was charged several thousand dollars for wasting the time of staffers. And during the “fundamentally unlawful” Police search of Nicky Hager’s home after he embarrassed pro-Government propagandists, agents of the State intruded not just on Hager’s privacy but also on his daughter’s. How confident can we be as a society that civility will remain if a real crisis breaks out?
Ellis offers a clear discussion about the ethics of privacy. An upside of our sleepy public culture might be that at least we don’t have the crudities of, for example, the UK tabloid press – though Truth used to be offensive. Ellis distinguishes between what’s fair game for the media and what should be off limits.
Complacency Is Concerning
So far, our national habit of complacency has at least allowed the country to keep gliding on. Political scandals of the type to regularly break out in other countries are rare here to the point almost of being unknown. Conventional opinion would probably agree that the last time the nation was on edge because of social issues was way back in 1981 with the Springbok tour, and none of the related issues that played out then are likely to recur in a foreseeable future.
Rather than being reassuring, this is concerning. Think of the US in recent months when their national election saw disengaged and confused voters in their millions resorting to wild conspiracy and paranoia. There’s no reason to think that, given a change in the weather, something similar can’t happen here.