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Monday, 29 February 2016

New Counterfutures website

Counterfutures has a new website, where the journal can be purchased and where content will, over time, be made available:

Wednesday, 29 April 2015

Counterfutures, Left Thought and Practice Aotearoa

Counterfutures, a new journal hoping to unite contributions from across the activist and academic Left, is issuing its first call for papers. The theme of the first issue will be 'Connections'. For more information, see:

Saturday, 11 October 2014

Checking the comfort of Key - POA's fourth election response

John Key stands to go down in local lore for a creative coup rivalling Margaret Thatcher’s invention of New Labour. How so? The sign of her success, Thatcher had suggested, had not been the popularisation of the privatisation for which she became most famous but, rather, for the occasioning of a political opposition that came to parrot her words. She shifted the way in which ideas worked such that even those in imagined ideological opposition echoed the kernel of her thought. In this same cast of craftsmanship lies John Key’s greatest achievement: shifting how words work Downunder. Indigenous ideas no longer now require the stamp of science, religion, mythology or metaphysics in order to claim certainty. They need now simply trigger a semblance of sensuality to which all and sundry might subscribe without shame or submission: that ideas sit in a state of comfort. To this end, the morally questionable practice of sharing intelligence with the masters of the drones was made legitimate with the simple declaration by Key that he was ‘comfortable’ that innocent women and children were being inadvertently killed in the drone-strikes. The horror marked by the scenario signals the strength now exercised by the word ‘comfort’, in lifting the unthinkable to the unremarkable.

Paradoxically the on-going success of this twist, in the work of ideas, will feed upon the current attempts on the parliamentary Left to recover the object whose absence cost them the election. To reframe the point, the current struggles to identify ‘the thing’ upon which new strategic directions should now be forged will leave unscathed the kernel of Key’s leadership. To this end, the current scraps within the parliamentary Left over leadership, values, connection, centrism, leftism, policy, and so on miss the point. Politics under Team Key no longer pivots upon them. A terrain of images flattened by video-politics now replaces the landscape once variegated by ideological contest. Contestable policies meld popular opposition seamlessly with political popularity.

Attempts to anticipate other forms of transformative thought must reckon seriously with the work which ‘comfort’ now performs in the industry of ideas under video-politics. It must traverse the thin form given to the concept constructed by Key. Instead, it must conjure the strange condition which is within comfort more than comfort itself; of that which renders comfortability strange in the moment of comfort’s cosseting. The challenge for radical politics thereby becomes to find ways by which to capitalise upon the contradictions within that figure in the revaluing of that which is held in common.

By way of an initial gesture in this direction is Grant Roberston’s pedestrian proposition that Labour needs to demonstrate to the citizenry how its policies connect with the daily lives of people. What’s more, he adds by way of an explanatory note, the demonstration needs to occur daily and not merely during the run up to elections. If electors are not consistently convinced as to the practical value of Labour’s policies by the time of the next election, the Party has no show of being centre-ring.

The valuable kernel in Roberston’s proposition lies with its focus on the everyday: policies for the everyday; everyday demonstration. In so doing, it needs also to engage the work which comfort is now playing in the texturing of truth. A particular aspect of how that figure of comfort operates under Team Key provides a clue as to the directions in which its enlargement might go, insofar as the word’s persistent use by Key to clinch his arguments has, ironically, robbed it of its substance. It is enough now to simply recite the word. A circumscribed capacity for problem solving has, however, thereby been hard-wired into the word: it implies that no-one needs to get up close and personal with issues. Instead, the act of reciting the mantra of ‘comfortability’ does that work of personal engagement. This has its limits.

The implications of this come thick and fast when situations arise that cannot be so easily contained, as with the repeated dislocation that Key displayed in the days following Dirty Politics. Not once did we hear Key attempt to dispatch his enemies by saying that he was comfortable with the situation. Rather, he sought to discredit the authorship. That only worked, however, until it became evident that Dirty Politics was not all conspiratorial conjecture. At that point, Key’s preferred strategy showed itself unable to produce anything like a meaningful engagement with the issues as they were emerging. It only allowed knee-jerk tactical responses such as generating the demotion of Collins and, subsequently, the evisceration of Eade. Notwithstanding the consequential and resounding success of Team Key at the poles, it is evident that the kind of video-politics leadership characterised by Team Key remains vulnerable to those situations where Key becomes unconsciously uncomfortable – unable to face what cannot be acknowledged – and without anything other than ad hoc, emotionally brittle, responses. It is with the space opened by this shortfall that radical politics needs to become acquainted.

The challenge for any political collective which wishes to occupy the void of video-politics lies with enlarging the vectors of its decision-making. They need to display comfort both in the moments of collaborative decision-making which are periodically achieved and in the internal struggles which flare around their blind-spots (such as confronted National around its reliance upon ‘dirty politics’). This stands to produce an alternative ground upon which policy is developed: upon groups’ abilities to build from what they can’t face about themselves. Under this impetus, policies can only but find themselves infused with the dense flows of shared life which otherwise stream beyond the ideological gaze of the policy-makers. No short-cut exists for the development of a collective subject of this kind. Any attempt to incant a mantra of ‘comfort’, or any such phrase to undertake the work, will simply overleap the labour in which that group needs to enlist in order to become that legion.

How does this sit with the present leadership struggles which currently rive the Labour caucus (and other groups to follow)? A leadership which seeks to dominate the field of politics will wither because the form capable of giving ideas new tractive force always runs oblique to the matter of who gets to speak last.

Friday, 10 October 2014

Business as usual - POA's third election response

Let’s imagine someone who had just arrived in New Zealand in the final week of the election campaign. And let’s imagine them looking for a quick explanation for why John Key looked destined to increase his power in parliament, despite recent revelations that his political friends include a blogger whose idea of political deliberation involves telling “[s]ome green taliban bitch….to fuck off” (Slater cited in Dirty Politics, p. 159). Instead of encouraging our imagined visitor to absorb the wisdom of the election-night pundits, perhaps we might best illuminate the political and cultural context by directing them to the lead news story on the two main television networks less than 48 hours after the election result.
For that was the news that All Black, Aardon Cruden, had slept in and missed an early morning plane to Argentina, after spending the previous night drinking, and apparently having fun, in an Auckland bar. TVNZ led with the exclusive camera footage of the “shamed” Cruden entering a car outside his Hamilton home a few hours earlier, the gravity of the story appropriately captured by the two news anchors. And one then read out the mandatory statement of contrition from Cruden himself, “devastated” that he “had dropped his own high personal standards”.
How might the Cruden story work as an allegory on the condition of our media and public culture? Well, much the same as National’s victory represented a political reinstatement of “business as usual”, the decision of the main television networks to lead with the Cruden story symbolized its media equivalent – the reinstatement of a public culture where narrating stories about individuals and what they do wrong are the default idioms of mainstream journalism. It is a culture that upholds a particular kind of moral and political order: individuals are “held to account” for actions that can be attributed directly to the individual. And it is a culture deeply embedded in the logics of a commercialized media ecology, which privilege the sensational and scandalous over the imaginative and exploratory.
The 2014 election was, as we know, a product of this mediatized public culture. At its best, it enabled some journalists to interrogate John Key’s role in the political machinations documented in Nicky Hager’s Dirty Politics. But, in the main, it ensured that Hager’s desire to ask a more probing set of questions about the structural condition of our public culture was always likely to become entangled in, and obscured by, the kind of politics that his book lamented. 
And that much was already evident less than 4 or 5 hours after the launch of the book. Some journalists and pundits immediately concluded there was little to see here, because of the absence of a direct “hit” against Key. Others seemed more interested in holding Hager to account, primed by Key’s dismissal of him as a “left-wing conspiracy theorist”. Judith Collins’ resignation signalled the enactment of this moral order on its own terms, even if the ritualistic contrition was supplanted by Collins’ anticipation of her future vindication. Yet, rather than intensifying journalistic and public scrutiny of the cultural issues documented in Dirty Politics, the effect of her resignation was largely cathartic, the high-profile scalp enabling narrative closure within the normal tempo of fourth estate journalism.  
The story of Aaron Cruden’s “boozy night” out in Auckland may seem like a long way from the world of dirty politics. Yet, read in one way, its status as a lead news story points to the basic cultural template that has enabled people like Cameron Slater to thrive as quasi-journalistic figures – a culture of personalities, scandal, hammed-outrage and cheap morality. Slater is no cultural outlier. Rather, he is a hyper-aggressive manifestation of a media culture of “sensationalized watchdogism”, where political journalism is performed as a labour of scoring “hits” and “taking people out”, of honing and commodifying media personas that can see through all the bullshit.

No doubt we sometimes need journalists to see through the bullshit and, when directed against the right targets, we could have done with more of that attitude at different times during the election campaign. Yet, as a generalized disposition, it becomes a form of cultural pathology, deadening any utopian sense of the political. We will need to go well beyond the limits of a fourth estate model of journalism if we want to radically rethink our political condition.  

Thursday, 9 October 2014

Against the symbolic election - the second of POA's election responses

What words can be found to describe the election result? For many of those who position themselves to the left of National, it seems to have taken on the character of disaster: the occasion for depression, soul-searching and blame. Such reactions are not surprising. Political hopes tend to be structured around elections, rising and falling with their seasonal cycle and breaking out in the excitement of the event itself.

No-one can deny that the election is an event with outcomes. The current result will be bad for beneficiaries and for the working poor; and it is, of course, sad to have lost Hone Harawira and the possibility of Annette Sykes to parliament. As such, the election should be seen as another battle lost. It is, however, one battle among a whole host of battles fought in workplaces, courtrooms, newsrooms and blogs, hospitals and half-way houses, universities, schools, streets and private homes. Seen as one battle among many, we might choose to participate in it, much as we might participate in any other site of struggle. But, the symbolic act that unifies our political hopes, the event that presents itself as a crossroads between disaster and salvation - this is the election that we should refuse to take part in.

Refusing the symbolic election means insisting that there was no disaster on 20 September. To be sure, there was a setback - but it remains unclear how hopeful the alternative would have looked. The Left, if we can call it that, collectively offered little but a vote against National - a list of social and economic catastrophes to be avoided but nothing by way of vision. The symbolic election meant, for the Left, a politics dominated by fear of disaster. As POA (among others) has already argued in the environmental case, the best response to this is to point out something that should be obvious: the disaster happened a long time ago. It happened under National, and under Labour, since 1984; it happened under Muldoon; it happened, if you really want to go into it, domestically but also internationally throughout the twentieth century as well as the nineteenth; it took the form of industrial capitalism, labour and environmental exploitation, imperialism, settler colonialism and genocide. If there are some things that we don’t want to be ruined, then fight for them by all means - but never forget that we already live among ruins.

Refusing the symbolic election means refusing the hurt bewilderment over the popularity of National. We must, first and foremost, be sympathetic to those people - not, of course, the fat cats whose support for National is a means of support for their own profit margins, but the provincial and suburban population who turn out in far larger numbers. We should understand what National represents for them; and we should understand, perhaps more importantly, what turns them off about the Left’s shrill and righteous scoldings. What progressive impulses lurk behind the conservative desire for security and normality?

It also means refusing to blame non-voters - around the same, large number of people who voted National. Having been given no encouragement, reason or opportunity for political engagement throughout most of people’s daily lives, why and how should they be expected to take part at election time? Why would voting seem like politics? Why would we expect people to invent opinions, make ‘informed choices’ between distant and irrelevant parties? Non-voters are not stupid - they are more than aware that the players in the election do not speak to them, and that engaging in it would mean performing in a political charade. Many of us know this feeling when asked to vote for, say, for DHB members - why chose who, from a range of people we don’t know, will sit in an invisible boardroom? 

Party memberships have declined hugely in the past decades, as has the parties’ responsiveness to the particular policy wishes of their constituents (what became of all those National voters who opposed asset sales?). Parties, once institutions (hierarchical and exclusive of minorities, to be sure) that encouraged large memberships and mass involvement, are now machines for collecting the endorsement of a population external to them, as much on the grounds of cultural sentiment as policy. Under these circumstances, a vote is almost as much an abstention from politics as a non-vote. Voters have their own apathy - especially the large proportion who cast the same party vote, time after time. 

Wednesday, 8 October 2014

POA responds to the General Election

After a quiet year for POA, some of us have convened to respond to the results of the General Election. We will be publishing blog posts, each written by a different POA participant, daily for the next few days.

One initial way to respond to the election is to reflect on what is offered by our traditions – something that seems preferable to us than immediately confronting the apparently dismaying lack of political content and meaning evident across the debates and various prominent figures in play in the General Election.

A first ancestor to hand is perhaps Guy Debord and his notion of society as spectacle, capturing, as this notion does, the immensely passive, image-dominated, and frozen, commodified qualities of contemporary social life. Debordian-style thinking around electoral contests today is probably now enveloped in the notion of our entry into a “post-democratic condition” – party convergence, citizen withdrawal, video-politics, the emptying out of programmes, and so on.

A more upbeat situationist reading, though, might gesture optimistically to the significance of the large number of non-voting – irreverent or contemptuous – citizens, seeing this segment as the most interesting and promising “party”.

We have a bunch of ancestors who, meanwhile, brutally register the failings of the democratic idea – the fiction of individual sovereignty underpinning the democratic principle, the simple-minded assumption that they majority are correct, the vastly more important extra-electoral role of militant minorities, and so on.

In certain ways resisting and rubbing against this strand of thought are currents that want to re-pose democracy as popular sovereignty, as unmediated participation in all that affects our lives – these folk looking to new self-organizing forms that have sought to embody this truer democracy (directly democratic workers’ councils, for instance).

Finally, we have a dilemma, played out most interestingly in Italy nearly 100 years ago, one side of which points to the absolute irrelevance of the various modalities of the state, because the whole spectrum, from social democracy to dictatorship, embody simply forms of “the dictatorship of capital”. That is, whoever is in power, profit, growth, competition rule the social world. The other wing in this debate says, effectively, who wouldn’t rather be exploited and dominated like a Swede rather than a Haitian?, that the particular composition of ruling forces is of consequence, analytically and politically, in order to make a proper assessment of results and prospects for something new, morally and politically.

It’s to the wisdom and strength of these ancestors and the collision of their ideas that we should look in seeking to respond to the question “what matters?” in relation to September 20, 2014.

Friday, 28 March 2014

On Personality Politics

As the country makes its way through another election year, the myriad ills besetting what passes for democracy become particularly evident. In a previous post we explored some of the problems associated with political opinion polls, and we have also devoted a longer conversation to some of these issues in our ‘Keyword Series.’ Today’s post is concerned with the issue of ‘personality politics.’

Personality politics means that politicians, and particularly party leaders, are assessed on the strength of their personality, individual qualities, even appearance—rather than the policies of the party they represent. 

Since the late 18th Century, following the American and French Revolutions, neither the ability to command a large army or the ‘divine right to rule’ have solely sufficed to justify rule by an individual. Power has moved (rhetorically at least) to ‘the people’ as a whole. Modern representative democracy, as it trended toward universal suffrage in the early 20th Century, required political parties to convince a majority of people to support them.

Strong leaders inevitably emerged within this system. Their personal charisma and moral standards may have been important, but of most importance was the political programme they proposed for the betterment of the people. Even when democracy has broken down in the modern era, fascist leaders like Hitler and Mussolini still had to secure support from the general population in order to advance the aims of their party (the technique for doing so being the creation of a mythical reified racist notion of ‘the people’ as nation).

One of the greatest achievements of public relations consultants within our era has been to empty political discussion of content and to promote personality politics in its place. ‘The people’ no longer exists as a group to be won over by political argument, rather they must be persuaded to identify with a potential leader’s personality. This person must appeal to us as a prime example of the way we like to see ourselves and to be seen. We must like the politician, not necessarily admire or agree with her/him.

John Key fits the mould. This affable Kiwi ‘everyman’ so soothed the population with his benign presence that many (most) forgot to read through the finer points of National’s proposed policies—when those policies were actioned after the last election many must have been surprised at what they had voted for, as evidenced in the results of 2013’s citizen’s initiated referendum in which nearly 70% percent of respondents voted against the partial privatisation of state owned enterprises (a referendum National ignored, stating this had been a key policy plank announced before the last election). 

Personality politics is of course largely devoid of substance. Politicians live or die on the strength of their media presence which may or may not be a reflection of the real person. John Key has become a ‘brand’—bland and vacuous. He would prefer us not to focus on his policies or his vision, or the harsh economic realities we face. All that stuff can fade into the background as his reassuring smiling face fills the frame.

The politics of personality can be difficult for political groups to manage. What if the most affable personality of your group falls into scandal? The whole party falls, even if the policies it proposes are in the interests of the people. 

 What happens when the charismatic leaders of parties like New Zealand First and United Future expire? There are rumours of a back-room alliance between the two, with party funds being diverted into anti-aging medical research laboratories.

What if the most principled, intelligent, hard-working members of your group are dowdy and present badly in the media, while the most charismatic are shallow, selfishly ambitious and lack commitment to a vision? Most groups will strike a Faustian pact with PR and proceed with the latter.

A strong democracy relies on us, with the support of an intelligent and inquiring media, to look beyond the politician’s polished and falsified image, and to engage in analysis and in-depth debate about politics and policies. An even stronger and healthier democracy would seek to do away with the narrow concept of political leadership we are currently subjected to, and would instead seek maximal ongoing engagement of the people in their own governance.