By Chris Trotter*
The cyclist was a middle-aged white male whose Lycra riding-gear struggled to contain his bulging biceps and tree-trunk thighs. The kids were in their teens and early-twenties, dressed for summer, and much more interested in exercising their First Amendment rights than their muscles. It was too much for the cyclist. The “Black Lives Matter” posters they were pasting-up “triggered” (in the political vocabulary of the bill-stickers) a dark and ugly incident.
And, of course, it was all recorded on one of the youngsters’ cellphones. The cyclist’s assault of the young women. His destruction of their posters. The final attack on the young man. CNN broadcast the whole violent sequence to the nation. Viewers heard the loud objections of the youngsters: their demands to know WTF he thought he was doing; the young women’s screams; the outrage of the young man. The cyclist’s final rush at his only male opponent. The sound of fists striking flesh and bone. The young man’s cellphone tumbling into the weeds. And through it all, the cyclist said nothing. All the world heard was the inchoate grunting of his rage.
Only in America? Oh no, not at all. Displayed on that video is the political dynamic by which not only the US Presidential Election of 3 November, but also our own General Election of 19 September, will be decided. Neither of the contending forces are new. On the contrary, they are as old as civilisation itself. The questions it raises are, similarly, perennial. How is the dominant political order to be maintained? How are the critical hierarchies of social control to be protected? How is the manageability of women, the young, and the marginalised “other”, to be preserved? The nasty incident recorded on the cycle-track strongly suggests that the old solutions: physical intimidation and violence; may no longer be enough.
If this sounds altogether too hifalutin, then answer this question: Why did the National Party swap Todd Muller for Simon Bridges? Though no one in National is ever likely to be so candid, or so blunt: Bridges had to go because he simply could not project the measure of masculine authority so crucial to the success of a conservative leader. Fairly, or unfairly, Bridges could not shake the impression of a boy sent to do a man’s job. Like a boy, he blurted embarrassments and failed to strike the right tone. Too much bluster, not enough lustre. So long, Simon!
Unconvinced? Then answer another, closely related, question. Why didn’t those liberal-conservatives so determined to be rid of Bridges, and so anxious to make National competitive with Labour, choose a woman to lead them? After all, it’s not as if they didn’t have at least three strong contenders for the job. All of them, Nikki Kaye, Amy Adams and Judith Collins are now ranked in the top four of National’s caucus. Nevertheless, the Number One slot still belongs to a man.
Who, it must be said, is not performing any better – at least not in terms of National’s Party Vote – than his predecessor. Why is that?
To answer that question we need to return to the muscle-bound cyclist who did not speak. Symbolically, he perfectly embodies the central contradiction of the dominant neoliberal ideology. It still reigns supreme in terms of the way things are done, but it is unable to offer any kind of credible explanation for its followers’ repeated failure to deliver. When confronted with loud and persistent demands to justify their policies, those at the top of the social pyramid have little or nothing to say to those at the bottom that is even remotely reassuring.
Recognising this failure, neoliberals have reached instinctively for the authoritarian weaponry that has lain, like so many buried rifles, at the heart of neoliberal ideology ever since its spectacular migration from the periphery to the heart of Western political discourse in the 1970s. It is no coincidence that the “crisis of democracy” identified by those at the summit of the post-war world corresponded with the dramatic and noisy arrival on the political stage, from the mid-1960s to the mid-1970s, of social groups hitherto kept off it: workers, women, people of colour, sexual non-conformists and the young. At its simplest, Neoliberalism required a “hardening-up” of Western society. In its estimation, the latter had become too generous; too tolerant; too inclusive. Or, to put it another way: too feminine.
Inducting the best and the brightest of these noisy interlopers into the ranks of those whose job it was to present the “reforms” of neoliberalism as decisively conducive to both individual empowerment and social justice provided only a temporary respite. The clamour of those cut and damaged by capitalism’s increasingly sharp edges did not cease.
Breaking up the incipient alliance of neoliberalism’s victims, by digging up the rifles of red-baiting, racism, sexism, homophobia and extreme nationalism, eventually became the only reliable means of defending the status-quo. The problem with this “solution” was that it necessitated an alarming escalation in the violence and coarseness of political life. An escalation that was bound to generate an equal and opposite reaction from those against whom it was directed.
That the New Zealand National Party has struggled to stay afloat in these powerful political currents is undeniable. It was among the first to reach for the weapons of right-wing populism by making Rob Muldoon its leader in the mid-1970s. So powerful was Muldoon’s political grip, however, that the deregulation and privatisation deemed essential to remedying the excesses of the post-war social-democratic state had to be left to the Labour Party
The problem, of course, was that every attempt to further harden New Zealand society elevated the level of electoral risk. Don Brash may have been persuaded to unearth Muldoon’s rifles, but he could not make enough of them shoot. Recognising this, John Key, like Helen Clark, made a valiant effort to square the circle of individualism and inclusion. But even his superlative political skills could not conceal the task’s evident impossibility forever.
Enter Jacinda Ardern: emotionally “transformational”; intellectually conventional. Unlooked for events: the Christchurch Massacre; the Covid-19 Pandemic; have called forth from New Zealand’s prime minister reserves of empathy that have made it almost impossible for voters to see her as anything other than the mortal foe of hard-faced and sharp-edged neoliberal capitalism. Simon Bridges seized upon this popular perception as an excuse to dig up National’s populist rifles. Aghast at the prospect of their party leader dragging them down into the coarseness and aggression of Trump, his more liberal colleagues intervened. But toppling Bridges has brought National no closer to finding the words capable of toppling “Jacinda”.
Like the conservative American cyclist confronted with the demands of a new generation for economic and social justice, National has been reduced to angry incoherence. What arguments can it offer that will slow Labour’s momentum?
The only person more eager than Muller to find an answer to that question is, almost certainly, Ardern herself. It is no easy task to ride the tiger of empathy. Even harder, perhaps, is working out how to get off its back.
*Chris Trotter has been writing and commenting professionally about New Zealand politics for more than 30 years. His work may be found at http://bowalleyroad.blogspot.com. He writes a fortnightly column for interest.co.nz.