Monday, March 19, 2012

Finlands of the Mind

Kiwi Foo is a private gathering that takes place every year at Mahurangi College in Warkworth. It has no entry fee. The event is run on the model of the unconference, with a fluid agenda and topics for discussion selected by participants as they go along. Invitations are extended primarily to technology industry people and policy makers. 

Mauricio Freitas was there in 2008. He looked around and saw ‘technologists, developers, thinkers, writers, entrepreneurs’. David Farrar was first invited in 2009. He thought that the first great thing about it was that there were no stupid people there. Stephen Judd went this year and wrote this lovely post about Luddism and tools of conviviality.

Well-known invitees of past editions include Finance Minister Bill English, broadcaster Kim Hill, Labour Minister David Cunliffe and his colleague Judith Tizard, Australian entrepreneur Mike Cannon-Brookes, journalists Rod Oram and Bernard Hickey. Collectively, the organisers describe the type of the Kiwi Foo participant as ‘doing interesting work in fields such as neuroscience, Internet applications, psychology, open source programming, art, business, physics, politics, and all manner of interesting science and technology’.  So you get the idea: we’re talking about a crowd consisting mainly of prominent urban professionals – la crème of the technocracy – interacting with politicians and colleagues and generally mucking about for a couple of days. Nothing untoward there, or even particularly noteworthy if you don’t happen to move in those circles.

Possibly more surprising, however, at least to me, was the revelation in this post by Russell Brown that proceedings this year included a long session led by David Shearer with the object of discussing the ideas in his opening speech as Labour leader. In fact I confess that the first time I read the post, my brain possibly occupied by something else Russell wrote about the welfare section of the speech not being as bad as some of his gloomier friends had predicted (I flatter myself that I might be one of those glooms), it didn’t even register. It did a couple of days later, when he added further details in the comments, including this:
I actually have a picture of the room: David Shearer and David Farrar are sitting next to each other!
I don’t think I’ve ever seen an exclamation mark used more appropriately. But let’s pause to survey the scene for a moment.

Elevated to the leadership of Labour in early December by the right wing of the party, Mr Shearer spent the first three months in his new job dodging questions about major industrial disputes, cautioning against ‘politicising Christchurch’ and sending signals through the press that he was going to move the party closer to the centre (or, in standard English, ‘the right’), most notably on welfare. This generated quite some trepidation amongst the least neoliberal-friendly elements in the party and the political Left more generally, but growing questions about the new leader’s selective silence – for he somehow found the time to out-xenophobe the Tories on the subject of farm sales to the Chinese – were met with the reassurance that he was busy strategising and preparing his first speech, which wouldn’t disappoint. It turns out that there was obviously some truth to that, because here is in mid-February, two months into the process, soliciting ideas for his first major speech as Labour leader at a refreshingly non-partisan gathering of elite knowledge economy workers, sitting side by side with one of the country’s principal conservative political commentators as well as director of National Party pollster Curia.

I wasn’t in the room, so I don’t know what it is that they talked about. I know people who were, and I could ask them, but I'm not interested in the actual contents of the conversation ­– it's not where I'm going with this. Perhaps Shearer wanted to sound them out primarily on ICT issues, as his rival for the leadership, David Cunliffe, had done when he held that portfolio. However Kiwi Foo aims to offer more than just tech industry expertise. Tim O'Reilly, the co-creator of the original Foo Camp, describes the goal of his company as ‘changing the world by spreading the knowledge of innovators’. This is the intellectual milieu, and that is one of the keywords of Shearer’s speech: innovation. Now of course if you want innovation you lock yourself up in a room with forty of the best and brightest at Kiwi Foo. Those are your innovators. Whereas there would be no point in talking to, say, unionists, or the Alternative Welfare Working Group, because those people are awfully political, and besides what innovations could possibly come from them?

So this would be my question: as his public silence became a media story and the rumblings within his own party were mounting, whom, if anyone, did David Shearer listen to besides those forty people in Warkworth? And what ideas did he get, in Warkworth or elsewhere, other than that of being willing to listen to more ideas, wherever they come from, but only accept the best of them, and to question the comfortable assumptions we make, in order to be ready on Day One – it’s really written like that in the speech, with capitals – to forge a new New Zealand? For that was the only concrete commitment in the eventual breaking of that silence, the closest thing to a policy platform in his opening statement. David Shearer: he’s all ears. 

Let's do it again some time

To put it another way, the question is just whom is David Shearer prepared to listen to, therefore not so much an issue of where he has been – in this instance we have a confirmed sighting, at Kiwi Foo – but also where he hasn’t, the crowds he won't mix with, and what this rhetoric about listening means and the kind of politics that it produces.

For an initial assessment it seems reasonable to look at the first concrete manifestation of this strategy, that is to say the speech he finally gave last week, and here, even before being confronted with the actual content, one is compelled to note – as my esteemed colleague QoT and others have done – that it is a terrible piece of writing, and in ways that are themselves revealing. This particular non sequitur has stood out the most amongst bloggers, tweeters and such
A vision is a marvellous thing, but it's a bit like Excalibur. You have to know what you're doing with it.
But uncannily the next sentence is even worse, and mixes the metaphor for good measure:
It's overused, it's often misused, and for a politician, it can be one of those "kick me" signs that you tape to your back.
Who writes like this? Unless theirs is a clumsy, condescending attempt to appear folksy and plain spoken, like when they write of a future that is 'hugely doubtful' or invite the nation to 'bite the bullet' (but not 'the magic bullet', because we dont believe in those. Except wait, we just said that education was kind of like a magic bullet. Oh, nevermind!).

And then, besides the embarrassing fluff about a 'new New Zealand' that, as Shearer himself has to grace to admit, we've all heard before, there is the Finland thing. Really, what’s up with that? Did some brilliant mind at Kiwi Foo say ‘we should be more like Finland’? I doubt it, those are smart people. And besides Shearer didn’t even just say Finland in broad policy or economic terms, no, he explicitly compared himself to Esko Aho, the one term leader of a centre-right coalition who responded with austerity measures to the financial crisis that hit the country in the early Nineties, and was promptly voted out of office at the next election. That’s his model, that’s his inspiration. And here’s the part where I get genuinely impatient with some of my friends in Labour when they suggest that the speech didn’t signal a shift to the right. Of course it did. When Shearer says that the party will be ‘thrifty’, he means that it will prioritise balancing the budget over social spending or stimulating the economy. When he says that he will reassess the fiscal proposals that Labour took into the last election according to whether they fit within his vision of a future-oriented New Zealand, he’s ruling out any redistributive reform of the tax system on the grounds that it would lack a strategic focus on growth.

This blurry man could be your next Finance Minister
Then there is the section on welfare. It wasn’t so bad, right? Shearer said this:
We all have an instinctive sense in New Zealand that everyone deserves a go, and that everyone needs to pull their weight and contribute.

Labour believes that. It always has.

Don't let anyone tell you different.

We say two things:

Number one: our community must take care of the needy. They deserve a share of the pie.

And if people fall on hard times, we will help.

But equally importantly, number two: everyone who can help to make that pie needs to be involved, and fairly rewarded for doing it.

Now for a bit of comparison, when John Key gave this exact same speech, by which I mean his first as leader of the opposition, he said this:  
I have said before that I believe in the welfare state and that I will never turn my back on it.

We should be proud to be a country that looks after its most vulnerable citizens. We should be proud to be a country that supports people when they can't find work, are ill, or aren't able to work.

But we should be ashamed that others remain on a benefit for years even though work is available to them. That is no way forward for them and it is no way forward for New Zealand.

Have you spotted the difference yet? No? That’s because there isn’t any. Both want to reassure the voters that they are not extremists. Both blame need squarely on the needy, rather than on a economic system that renders some citizens unable to fully participate in society and that in fact even at the best of times demands that a reserve of unemployed people be maintained in order to keep wage inflation down. Both evoke the mythical figure of the bludger (‘those not meeting their side of the contract’ and who therefore need a ‘nudge’, says Shearer, the dog whistle firmly between his lips). But actually there is one significant difference: Key gave that speech at a relatively benign time for beneficiaries, whereas Shearer reprised it during the worst series of attacks on the welfare state since the time of Ruth Richardson, a circumstance that ought to have called for solidarity and forceful support from the leader of a party that insists, against all evidence to the contrary, to label itself progressive.

But the gutless opportunism isn’t the worst part. The worst part are the rationalisations, the endless string of ‘this is smart politics’ from the Labour supporters who are handier with a keyboard. Of course Labour knows that helping families on benefits is a priority, it’s just that the country won’t hear of it. And besides you should wait for the actual policies, why are you so impatient? As if the rhetoric of this moment didn’t matter; as if Shearer’s speech wasn’t defining, wasn’t political; as if it didn’t signal what’s to come (in which case it would be an even more inept speech than it already is, almost unaccountably so); or as if abandoning all opposition to the Tories’ new round of radical reforms didn’t give the game away, four months into the new election cycle. As if it didn’t set the stage for three years of even greater pain.

The reality, you see, is that people like the reforms. And to be fair there is some evidence for this, for instance in this poll from last year indicating that as many as one in four Labour and Green voter supported National’s policies in this area – this at a time when centre-left support was at a historical low, suggesting that the actual proportion come the hoped-for upswing might be even greater. But this fact is hardly neutral. It comes on the back of a quarter of a century of neoliberal consensus amongst the two main parties. It comes on the back of Labour having long since stopped to even talk about the structural causes of social injustice, let alone address them, and labelling ‘haters and wreckers’ those who do. This is what the abdication of leadership – both political and moral – will achieve over time.

And of course another effect of saying that people like the reforms is to conceal the politics and displace the blame. The people – those bastards! But not us. Because the ethos of Labour’s bourgeois support could best summed up with the motto ‘middle class liberals being kind to each other’. So you don’t want to suggest that their motivation might be anything less than pure, their love and concern for the poor anything less than total. Or that they might be looking after themselves, and at the expense of somebody else. They’ll get pissy at best, or at worst come up with more technocratic objections: extending Working for Families to beneficiaries is the wrong mechanism; cutting GST on fruit and vegetables would make the tax less simple to administer; making the first $5,000 tax free is a tax cut for the wealthy (yeah, that one’s also stupid). So let’s continue doing nothing instead. Or let’s give the poor education, so they can move into the middle class and then we can look out for them by continuing to look out for us, since we seem to be doing that pretty well.

But self-interested faux pragmatism alone doesn't quite explain why the leadership of the party and a substantial number of its supporters go along with measures against the less privileged that are petty and vindictive. It’s as if middle class liberals hadn’t yet forgiven the working class for Rogenormics, as if they hadn’t forgotten what they forced them do to save their own skin during the great crisis. Unmoor them from society, cast them off like that. It must have been horrible – and I don’t mean for the actual victims of the reforms, but for the self-image of the liberals, for their consuming need to see themselves as fundamentally decent and fair-minded folks.

This political neurosis, which is shared by a sector of the conservative public, produces strange monsters and bizarre dreams of escaping the island. Forget innovation: that is what Shearer’s Finland of the mind is all about. There is a darkness in New Zealand that we cannot process or deal with, so let’s close our eyes and pretend that we were somewhere else. For John Key it’s Australia in 2025. For David Shearer it’s Finland in 1991. For Phil Goff it was a mythical, edenic pre-Rogernomics New Zealand. These aren’t just refuges from the staggering lack of imagination of two generations of New Zealand politicians; they are also places to rewrite our personal histories and mend our sense of self. They are like retreats where we meet a range of interesting, well-connected people and discuss new ideas, except the ideas aren’t really new, or if they are it doesn’t matter because then we’ll turn around and say old, tried things about rights with responsibility, about fiscal restraint, about the need for bold leadership and investing in the nation’s future.

A politics that is about listening instead of saying and doing. An interminable, non-partisan, informal conversation, perfect for the age of social media. We can probably sell that.