Sunday, 19 October 2014

How to get to the next era of history in one piece

A good friend of mine posted some interesting thoughts (bolded) on my Facebook page, which I felt compelled to reply to here given that it covers a range of my philosophical concerns - and hey, new blog needs content!

How to get to the next era of history in one piece:
• Economic growth needs to be replaced with economic conservation.
I'd say supplemented rather than replaced, given that humans are unlikely to stop breeding or wanting more stuff; I don't think sustainable growth is necessarily an oxymoron. Agree with the sentiment though, yup.

• Technological progress needs to be rebalanced by tradition. 
Whose tradition? I agree that we need to bring our moral (and thus our political) progress into line with our technological progress, as we're still stuck in regressive modes of thinking, but I'm not sure that embracing "tradition" is a solution to that; rather, I'd suggest a complete revaluing of values along welfarist lines.

• Rationality needs to replaced with Post-Rationality. 
I have some idea of what you mean by this from our past conversations, but I'd argue that the things you identify as "post-rational" fit pretty comfortably under a post-positivist rationalist umbrella.

• Reductionism needs to be rebalanced with Process and Network science. 
I don't think the pejorative connotations of "reductionism" that are often implied in these discussions have much resemblance to the way the term's actually used in the sciences or associated epistemology - I agree though that breaking things down into component parts shouldn't obscure our view of the bigger picture, and sometimes it does. That doesn't negate its value as a methodological principle - if you want to explain a physical system, the more you can break things down into components, the better your empirical understanding of that system's going to be.

• Hard scepticism needs to be replaced with Pragmatic magical thinking. 
Hard scepticism is a pretty small niche though; it's hardly a dominant philosophy in our society. There's plenty of magical thinking out there already, though much of it's not very pragmatic. It requires a certain degree of self-awareness to be able to balance things in one's mind the way folks like you can, and while I think that's a valuable thing to encourage I'm not sure I'd agree "lack of ability to engage in pragmatic magical thinking" outweighs "lack of basic reasoning skills" as a problem in modern societies.

• Laws and rights need to be rebalanced with faith-based values. 
Not sure if you're trolling with this one, haha. The obvious trouble with involving faith in lawmaking is that modern multicultural societies feature a wide range of diverse religious and moral views, and if you want to be able to convince anybody of another tradition that, say, "marriage should be between a man and a woman" (obviously that's not your position!), you're going to have to appeal to common values to make that sensical to them - "here's the empirical evidence that it degrades the family unit" is going to be a far more compelling line of argument to pursue than "it says so in my magic book". 'course, in the real world, conservative religious groups can't produce any such empirical evidence, so they quite rightly get ignored by most everyone else.

101 Ways to Secure the Plutocracy: #1

From Wikileaks, via Michael Geist.

Glad to see that New Zealand's putting up a fight on the patent issue, but sorry to see us so complacent on everything else - enforcement is our next most contentious category, and we're still behind almost everyone else on that. This will include the provisions leaked in earlier drafts (assuming they're still in the current version, which they may not be) for international corporate tribunals with the ability to penalise nations for domestic laws which adversely affect their profits. I hope that little dark pink square represents at least some reluctance on the part of the National government to sign our sovereignty away, but I wouldn't count on it.

Saturday, 4 October 2014

Special votes are in!

Apologies for the lack of updates, have been rather snowed under with study.

Significant leftwards swing in the special votes, which has seen National lose one seat and the Greens pick up one. National no longer has a majority, and will need to rely on its support partners to pass legislation. In practical terms it's unlikely to make a huge difference to the way they govern, but it's great to see that the Greens have managed to make gains in Parliament after all.

Wednesday, 1 October 2014

Lies, damned lies, and statistics.

Ok, so there's been a whole lotta graphs floating around on the blogosphere recently purporting to show how absolutely disastrous the trend has been for the left and how totally unprecedented and awful things are for Labour.

Given that we live in an MMP environment, I thought'd be interesting to see the trend for left vs. right overall, rather than looking solely at the major parties.

It's interesting comparing this to the other charts, and it paints a somewhat less depressing picture for the left*. The downward trend for the left pretty much begins in the 1980s, which I don't find particularly surprising. Also interesting to note the huge advantage of the left bloc from the 1950s through to the early 1990s, despite National's dominance in government over this time. Yay for MMP, basically!

*I've taken "left" to include Labour, Democrats/Social Credit, Values, Greens, NewLabour, Alliance, Progressive, and Mana/IM. "Right" includes National, NZ Party, ACT, and Conservative. "Centre" parties, which are left out of this graph for simplicity, but includes NZ First, United Future, and Māori. Parties which have failed to poll > 1% for at least two successive elections have been consigned to the "other" category, and also left out.

Monday, 29 September 2014

To the right, and downwards

The above image from Kiwiblog reinforces, I think, what I was saying yesterday in my previous post. Over this time, Labour (and the global left in general) has progressively moved away from its working class, democratic socialist roots by attempting, unsuccessfully, to outflank the right on its own turf. The reasons for this are complex and multifaceted, but much of it has to do with the right's superior ability to promote its narrative as a result of its stronger ties with the corporate sector, and the financial and media might that comes with that. The unstated motto of the establishment left has become: "if you can't beat 'em, join 'em".

Frankly, I don't know how best to address that, but I suspect the answer lies in taking greater advantage of alternative forms of communication. The left can do a lot more to leverage social media and engage with grassroots activists on the ground (rather than joining with the right in uncritically denouncing them as radicals). I doubt, though, that it's possible for the left to truly re-establish itself as an active force for meaningful, positive change without concerted, organised efforts from outside the bounds of the parliamentary system; there's simply no incentive right now for those on the inside to rock the boat. Why risk your career in the short-term for something as intangible as long-term cultural change? Even those entering politics (and there are more than a few) who truly understand structural inequality and care deeply about addressing it will find their concerns swiftly sidelined by their party's more immediate electoral agenda - even though, as we can see, that short-termism actually compromises the party's long-term viability.

EDIT: Interesting to note, though, that National's trend is similar [link] - though not as steep.

Sunday, 28 September 2014

"Reclaiming the centre" - a toxic narrative

Maharey blames Labour's recent electoral woes on having drifted too far to the left.

All I can say to that is NO, NO, a thousand times NO. It worries me to see this narrative getting so much traction, because this stuff is really important.

In 2008 New Zealand had seen nine years of Labour government, one which had overseen New Zealand's highest growth rate since WW2 and had been highly popular throughout most of its tenure. They were defeated after their third term by a National party with a wafer-thin policy platform, who had campaigned on public distrust in the government after a series of minor scandals, and effectively branded themselves as "Diet Labour", promising to keep in place the socially progressive policies implemented by the Clark government (despite their ideological opposition to them).

The Clark government had shifted the political centre in NZ significantly towards the left during their tenure, partially reversing the rightwards trend seen over the 80s-90s. National's need to move their brand towards the centre to win in 2008 is proof of this, and signalled, to me, a significant victory for the left in winning over hearts and minds, if not elections. While there were certainly some lessons to be learned PR-wise (It's about trust? Seriously?!), taking into account the rarity of four-term governments in NZ, it seemed to me we'd done rather well.

Yet the party at large immediately went into panic mode. Why didn't NZ love us anymore? What had we done wrong? The answer trickled down through the party hierarchy (being pushed, I suspect, by certain factional interests) - Labour had moved too far to the left. We cared too much about social justice issues, we were too focused on minorities, and not enough on middle NZ. To be electable, it was said, we had to move back towards the centre.

I suppose the appeal of such an explanation to the membership was that it presented us with a clear problem which could be easily corrected going forwards, and was more satisfying in that sense than the idea that swing voters tend to shift their allegiance every few years, we ran a pretty dysfunctional campaign and middle NZ was hyped up on the "time for change" rhetoric after an historic US election. We were swimming against the tide in 2008, and we'd forgotten how to swim.

That overwhelming propensity for self-flagellation by the Labour party and the failure to learn the real lessons of the campaign was a large factor in my decision to leave. So it's saddening to see, six years on, that very little has changed.

Here's the rub: modern elections, for better or worse, are not won or lost on policy. It matters, certainly - radicalism will be punished by the media and by voters - but the kind of moderate centre-left platform advocated under Cunliffe's leadership is well inside acceptable political norms. The criticisms I have been hearing of Labour over the past few years - both in the media and among my acquaintances - are not about policy, but about negativity, inconsistent messaging, an incoherent platform, internal dysfunctionality and apparent incompetence. Now I do think that the party lifted its game dramatically during the campaign, but those few weeks couldn't undo the negative impression the last six years have left in voters' minds.

Reclaiming middle NZ is, indeed, essential for victory in 2017. Doing so means presenting a credible image of a competent government-in-waiting. It means stable leadership and consistent messaging. It means articulating a clear egalitarian vision for NZ's future which resonates with voters, and a sound, coherent policy platform which works towards that end. Most importantly, it means doing *all of these things* for long enough to solidify voters' trust, which has been undermined by years of in-fighting and directionlessness.

Labour can continue on the path that it has, swinging wildly about the political spectrum and playing musical chairs with the leadership, but it won't make an iota of difference in the polls unless they get the PR basics right. In my opinion, capitulating rightwards is both totally unnecessary and totally counterproductive if the left actually wants to shift the broader narrative away from the neoliberal dogma that been force fed to voters since the 80s, which is essential if we want any "social democratic project" to succeed in the long-term.