Gordon Campbell on the cult of political boldness

8ee7ad0701c9ff2c1b414215316817caThe next recession is shaping up as the most predicted event since the Second Coming. While we have to take it on faith that it will arrive someday, it is hard to say when it will happen, or how great/how bad it will be if and when it ever does. This time last year we were being told it could arrive by late 2022 – then that got kicked out until early this year, and of late it has been postponed until mid 2023, by which time it may only be “ mild” or “shallow.” Or not.

No reputable economist is saying (yet) that the economy won’t dip into recession (to some extent, for a while) later this year. This will not be big news to the thousands of New Zealanders living in poverty, whose economic outlook is permanently in recession. But lo, since October, there have been signs in the world’s largest economy that inflation has peaked and is receding without an increase in unemployment. – which would pretty much fit the definition of the much desired ”soft landing” for the economy. Meaning: Inflation receding, but without mass job lay-offs.

Not that these fragile shoots of optimism are causing central bankers to pause in the raising of interest rates. Instead, at least two branches of the U.S. Federal Reserve and the CEO of J.P. Morgan have been talking of US interest rates hitting 5-6%, and staying up there for some time. That’s enough to make you wonder whether cutting jobs, rather than reducing inflation, is now an end in itself. (We’re going to keep on raising interest rates until we get major unemployment rises – because then we’ll know the recipe is working!!)

If so, that’s not merely a problem for the 50,000 to 70,000 New Zealanders (and their families) whose jobs are said to be risk. Reserve Bank governor Adrian Orr operates under a dual mandate that requires him to pursue monetary policies that promote price stability and full employment. What has he been doing lately to fulfil the second part of that mandate?

One thing seems certain. During this election year, any slowdown in growth and/or a recession – no matter how mild and no matter how global – will be held to be entirely the fault of central government in Wellington, and will be taken as a sign of its alleged incompetence.

After all… Over the holiday period , the Ardern administration was even accused by some of being responsible for airline baggage continuing to go astray. There’s a weird disconnect involved in this sort of thinking. Routinely, the centre right moans about regulations, red tape and excessive government meddling in our lives – hey, it’s the nanny state, intruding once again on entrepreneurial freedom and civil liberties. But the moment that anything goes wrong – no matter how trivial – the same people complain loud and long because central government has allegedly failed to intervene, fix the problem and – on this occasion – find their missing suitcases overnight.

Footnote: What do National MP Dr Shane Reti and US rap star Denzel Curry have in common? Not a lot, usually. But in the case of the missing airline bags, they’ve both blamed the wrong party for the problem. In this letter addressed to Auckland airport and Air New Zealand posted on social media, Reti treated baggage handling at least in part as an airport responsibility. In reality, that responsibility has always lain squarely and solely with the airlines that use the airport. (It’s like blaming the airport for the failings of the taxi drivers who use the airport ranks.)

Meanwhile across the Tasman,. Denzel Curry was telling his hundreds of thousands of Twitter followers that Qantas had lost his bags. “Find my bags Qantas, find my bags !” Curry tweeted, and urged his fans into action : “Everyone tweet at Qantas and tell them to find my bag ASAP.” Yet throughout his Australian tour, Curry had actually flown on Jetstar. Regardless, the thread unleashed a torrent of vitriol from passengers who really had travelled on Qantas and had their bags lost and mislaid. Have either Reti or Curry apologised? Not publicly, not so far.

Bold new visions etc

One related political trope is the repeated call for “bold” actions, for “leaders” with the “courage” to make the big changes required to rouse this country from its supposed slumber. Usually these calls are short on detail as to what the changes would involve, how they would work, what they would cost, who they would benefit etc. etc. But that’s because such details are held to be the province of small minds, and likely to end up as mere “tinkering” with problems rather than smashing right on through them with boldness, and lashings of virility. Visions tend to be short on specifics.

That aside, one consistent feature of this brand of political non-thinking is that it never involves even a smidgeon of personal pain. Self-sacrifice never plays any part in these bold new calls to the barricades. Traditionally, courage used to involve a readiness to endure personal pain for the benefit of others. These days by contrast, political courage tends to be defined as the willingness to inflict pain on other people. No gain without pain – so long as the gain is mine, and the pain is yours.

Heroes of boldness

This cult of boldness tends to throw up entrepreneurial heroes like Elon Musk, Steve Jobs, Peter Thiel etc. According to their admiring fans, these demi-gods blaze trails for lesser mortals to follow, thus rendering them exempt from criticism, oversight or regulatory constraint. As a result, the US columnist John Ganz has written about how we’re living in what he calls “the age of the petulant oligarch.” Along with that comes an ideology of “ bossism” – a belief that big people should not have to face, let alone resolve any of the misgivings felt by the little people.

As Ganz says, downbeat visions of the vast inequalities of wealth being wrought by technological change have been with us for decades. Social critics from J.K. Galbraith to William Gibson have written eloquently about tech dystopias that suppress individual freedom. The difference being, Ganz adds, those authors didn’t imagine “societies dominated by thin-skinned egomaniac plutocrats acting out their insecurities in public view.”

Musk’s foibles – and his mounting problems at Tesla – will play out throughout 2023, for better and worse. The undemocratic ideology that worships such people – and that revels in denigrating any restraints placed on their power – is more alarming. As Ganz says:

The ideology, stripped of all its mystifying decoration, is actually pretty simple and crude: it says “bosses on top.” ….the authority and power of certain people is the natural order, unquestionable, good. It is, to borrow a term from the history of apartheid, baasskap — boss-ism. “I no longer think that freedom and democracy are compatible,” Thiel once wrote, calling for a kind of “technocratic rejection of politics as such,” to quote the sociologist Dylan Riley.

If this neo-fascist vision of “freedom” was limited only to wealthy crackpots like Thiel it would be more containable. But that isn’t the case:

… There is a “mass” component of the politics as well: this ideal of freedom is shared by a mob that worships the power of the oligarchs and wants its own freedom to consist in the total licence to behave online without encountering moral sanction from the pestering wokes or to have personal consequences of any kind. Through the adoption of crackpot racial or IQ notions they can flatter themselves that they are part of the elect, minor shareholders in the oligarch’s baasskap.

The notion of becoming part of the elect by worshipping its hero figures forms a big part of the attraction to this ideology. It is a self -flattering, self-elevating process: they get it, they’re not like the normies, the hapless sheep who have drunk the Kool-Aid. Here’s what that dystopia ends up looking like, though. Some of its outlines may already be familiar:

…There’s rich donor oligarchy on top, in the middle there’s the think tanks, magazines, and podcasts that serve as kind of currency exchanges where the coin of mob grievance is turned into respectable notes, and the concerns of elite politics are translated into terms the mob can understand and use, and then there’s the public platforms where little armies of trolls are mustered for whatever task is required by their political masters.

In short, it’s a model of the kind of corporate society they wish to secure and reproduce on a larger scale: big bosses, middle-management, workers, all happily coordinated and cooperating. No unions, no pesky social movements, no restive professional managerial-classes with their moral pretensions, no federal bureaucracy meddling and gumming up the works with regulations.

Thankfully, we’re not quite there yet. But rest assured, the adherents of this vision of politics are working 24/7 to assure the public that central government has no positive role – or ability, or basic right – to try and resolve social problems or mitigate their impact. Unfortunately, this is creating a climate in which even allegedly centre-left government feel too intimidated to act, for fear of provoking a backlash from the social media mob.

That’s a prime reason why Labour so often seems to be governing from the back foot, even though it enjoys a historic mandate to govern, and an absolute majority in Parliament. It doesn’t bear thinking what a centre-right government endowed with such power would have done over the past two years.

Mask up like a luchador

Here’s Denzel Curry’s hit about the anxieties involved in making the transition from “sticking pennies in the jar, to offshore bank accounts.” Message: get it while you can :

Big talk, speedboat

Pray to God, I don’t get repo-ed

Didn’t go to college for a free throw

People getting killed through the peep hole

Have your money up before you go to war

Put the mask on like a luchador

My dawg didn’t make it to 21, so I got to make it past 24