Wednesday, September 13, 2017

The neoliberalism question: notes on the Ardern/Espiner interview

Six weeks ago I wrote in Overland that politics had made a sudden comeback in New Zealand, following Metiria Turei’s revelations of her struggles as a young mother on the DPB and Labour’s dramatic decision to replace its grey, centrist leader with his far more energetic and inspiring deputy. That article is looking pretty stupid right now. Or maybe there really was a window – an opportunity to shift the ground of the political debate in a progressive direction – and it was shut down all too quickly. Either way, it hardly seems to matter now. Normalcy has been restored, and the wall in which that window briefly appeared looks perfectly smooth, as if it had never been breached.

I share some of the frustrations that Joe Nunweek has expressed in a brilliant piece for the Pantograph Punch concerning the 9th Floor series of interviews conducted by Guyon Espiner with five of the country’s surviving prime ministers. Nunweek focuses in, rightly, on the uniform lack of regret offered by those eminent statespeople as they oversaw a period of rising inequality and deep social trauma.
The leaders in The 9th Floor set us a terrible example, a series of excuses and tendentious rationalisations belying their demeanour of plainspoken and secure intellect. Above all, it’s profoundly alienating to experience regret, to try and suppress it or process it every day to ones’ harm or development, only to see those at the top celebrate its lack as a strength.
It’s a shame that John Key wasn’t included in the series (I’m told he turned the opportunity down) as it would have been intriguing to hear a much more recent prime minister give a summation of his time in office. However, Espiner has taken to asking current political leaders a question that came out of the Jim Bolger interview – namely, whether or not neoliberalism has been good for the country. And the effect of asking that single, simple question has been to take the interviews outside of the political present – which is predicated on a myriad daily acts of wilful amnesia – and into something approximating history.

Yesterday, it was Jacinda Ardern’s turn to take the pledge, and she didn’t hesitate for a moment. ‘Yes,’ she said. Neoliberalism has failed. This may be what the majority of her supporters wanted to hear her say, but it also turned every other answer she gave in the course of the half-hour interview into a test of that premise. This in turn underscored that it is one thing to look at Labour’s policies going into this election as a series of discrete (and largely desirable) interventions into various areas of New Zealand’s life; quite another to view them in aggregate as an expression of an overarching political project. Which – since the leader is so adamant that neoliberalism has failed the country – ought to be a project of anti-neoliberal reform.

The term ‘neoliberal’ is often said to be excessively vague, but its value in this context was in fact to give specificity to Espiner’s line of questioning. Most obviously: would Ardern consider revisiting the Reserve Bank Act, the Public Finance Act or any of the other legislative instruments that have allowed the last four governments to put neoliberal reforms into practice?

The answer – need I say it – was no. And in the process of the fairly gentle interrogation that followed, the much-vaunted boldness of the Ardern project evaporated. She thinks that climate change is the ‘nuclear-free’ issue of our time, but wouldn’t commit to divesting from coal or even ceasing to issue new licenses for deep-sea oil exploration. She wants to end child poverty, but wouldn’t resile from her predecessor's foolish commitment to contain spending to 30% of GDP and keep guaranteeing operating surpluses – one of the main causes of the staggering, crippling rise of our household debt – nor does she think that the government needs to seek more revenue through taxation. She is even open to getting the TPP back on track, subject to conditions that she would not reveal in order not to show her hand in the upcoming negotiations.

In other words: Ardern gave every indication that under her leadership, and with a much diminished contribution from the Greens, Labour remains committed to the continuation of the fundamental policies of the last 30 years. Call it the interlude we get to have every nine years or so in-between Tory governments. We’ll see the back of some truly dreadful ministers, associate ministers and undersecretaries. Some people’s living conditions will improve, or at least stop deteriorating – which of course is not insignificant. It never is. But the desire for deep and lasting change that the enthusiasm surrounding Ardern both evokes and demands will likely remain unfulfilled. Nothing illustrates this prospect better than the literal papering over of last month’s empty, self-defeating slogan – ‘a fresh approach’ – with an even emptier one – ‘Let’s do this.’ This what?

All this is related to how stupid the article I wrote six weeks ago looks. For there really was a window. An opportunity. Instead of playing her part in the political assassination of Metiria Turei, Ardern could have used her new position and her extraordinary popularity to stand by her side. Together, she and Turei could have broken the siege that has prevented beneficiaries – which is to say, a significant portion of the working class – from leading a dignified life and participating in society. Such a decision would have carried its own risks, naturally. But then this is what defines political courage, and it’s nothing if not courage that we desperately need.

Wednesday, September 6, 2017

Inferno VIII: The one who weeps

Io dico, continuando…
I say, continuing…

A strange beginning. Or a re-beginning, according to some, after a long hiatus. The legend goes that a relative of Dante found the papers on which the poet had written the first seven cantos around the year 1301, before his exile, and had them delivered to him via another poet, Dino Frescobaldi, in the northern Tuscan region known as the Lunigiana, some years after he was chased away from Florence. Whereupon Dante supposedly decided to resume writing the Divine Comedy, and signalled it by means of that gerund, continuando. It’s a theory whose origins date back to Giovanni Boccaccio himself, one of the very first scholars of Dante, and while it’s almost certainly incorrect, it is salutary to remember that people have spent seven hundred years reading far too much into that single word. Approaching the poem as we did not as ordinary readers (whatever that means), but as students, we were also required to pay abnormal levels of attention to famous or famously ambiguous lines. Our need to make sense of the Comedy bore a direct relationship with our ability to progress in our studies.

Eugène Delacroix, Dante's boat (1822)

There is very little progress in this canto. It is mired. We are stuck – and that’s perhaps the true sense of continuando – in the fifth circle, looking at the next level of the adventure, but unable to find the actual entrance. We are still in the Styx, a shallow marsh thick with the semi-submerged bodies of the wrathful, whose pastime is tearing each other apart. Beyond the marsh but clearly visible is a walled city, and beyond the walls, is fire. Beacons are lit. First one, then another. They signal to the infernal army the presence of a living man.

To hasten their travel through the muddy waters, Dante and Virgil board the small boat of Phlegyas, a figure of classical mythology whose job in Hell is rather unclear. His boat is not a ferry, and doesn’t carry any souls. It’s not likely that he would serve as referee among the Styx-dwellers, either, since the place is kept in a self-regulating, perpetual state of chaos and violence. He seems to be just there, then, part of the décor: another vestigial demon from Virgil’s pre-Christian underworld, stripped of his powers and reduced to meaninglessness just like the old gods. Like some of the other extras encountered in previous cantos, Phlegyas barks at Dante at first, but is soon rebuked and silenced by Virgil.

Dante steps on the boat, whose prow dips: for unlike the others, he is a thing of flesh. Yet the souls aren’t exactly immaterial, either. Soon we encounter one that tries to grab him. At first Dante doesn’t recognise him. ‘Who are you, who are so disfigured?’ ‘Vedi che son un che piango.’ I am one who weeps. But this appeal doesn’t trigger one of the pilgrim’s usual displays of pity. He lashes out at him instead.

Con piangere e con lutto,
spirito maladetto, ti rimani;
ch’i’ ti conosco, ancor sie lordo tutto.

May you keep weeping and wailing, cursed soul, for I have recognised you, although you’re covered in mud.

The obligatory Doré

The passage that follows is surprising. The soul lunges at Dante, and is pushed back by Virgil, who proceeds to praise his charge for the disdain that he has shown. The pair hug and kiss, as if in joyful celebration of this sudden bout of hatred. As for Dante, he has only one wish: to see the spirit who approached the boat attuffare in questa broda, get dunked into the broth: a prelude to violent attack by the other souls. His wish is immediately granted. ‘Everyone attack Filippo Argenti!’, cry the marsh-dwellers, and even he, Argenti himself, spirito bizzarro – extravagant spirit – joins into the frenzy and starts gnawing at his own flesh.

We don’t know much about this Filippo Argenti, other than the fact that he belonged to a Florentine family that Dante had reasons to detest. Many and most likely apocryphal stories have cropped up over the centuries to justify the personal, intimate nature of this hatred, including the allegation that Argenti once slapped Dante in the face in front of other citizens: a public humiliation that may go some way towards explaining the wish that he should suffer in front of Dante’s own eyes, as if his eternal damnation wasn’t enough. But even if the stories were true, it would be an unconvincing explanation. The craven spite, ultimately, reflects badly on Dante. And maybe that’s the point: mired, unsure, made anxious by those fires that announced his proximity to the walled city, the not-yet-redeemed poet shows his weakness. We don’t know for sure if he is better than the deceased who have been condemned to rest in this place. He may yet come back, some day, minus his cloak of flesh, no longer able to weigh down the prow of Phlegyas’ boat. He is not yet saved.

To underscore the point, the travellers reach the red-hot iron walls of the city of Dis, only to find the way blocked by an army of demons raining from the sky. The demons demand to speak to Virgil, alone, and send Dante walking back to the shore of the Styx. Don’t leave me, let’s turn back, he pleads to his guide. The parlay is short, but must seem like an eternity to the suddenly dejected poet, who only minutes earlier had disdainfully wished pain on another. Finally, the doors of the city close on Virgil’s face and he turns back, downcast, le ciglia rase d’ogni baldanza – his forehead shorn of all its boldness. Thus the canto ends, with both the hero and his guide in an apparent state of crisis – as if God’s own plan could fail.

Previously: Inferno I, II, III, IV, V, VI, VII.