Scenario 1 or Scenario 2?

Date of composition: August 2019

[ I originally wrote this to publish in a zine I was working on with a friend of mine, but the zine didn't end up happening, so I'm publishing it here instead ]


There are two competing models of political reality in New Zealand today, two different scenarios, as I have called them. Some believe the first scenario is the true reflection of how things are, some the second.

The idea of scenario 1, roughly, is this. The conditions of the 1980s and 1990s have carried over into the twenty-first century, and will continue for the foreseeable future, without any particular effort on our part. There are no wars to worry about, we are in peacetime. Our national sovereignty is not under threat, it's not even an issue and therefore doesn't need to be talked about. Our politicians are not particularly corrupt. Even if they were corrupt, our body politic is rock-solid, and we don't need to worry about things going too far in an authoritarian direction. There's a natural correction mechanism which will kick in independently of any action from us, and keep things on an even keel.

Scenario 2 is an entirely different conception of the present landscape. According to this view, the 21st century, the post-9/11 era, is completely different to the '90s. Cosy assumptions have to be cast aside. Technology is a game changer; globalisation, the real thing, not just the prelude like we had in the post-war era, is a game changer. We, New Zealand, are not insulated anymore. We're caught up in some hard geopolitics. There's NZ's membership in the Five Eyes network on the one hand, and there's China's program of increasing their influence in the Pacific region on the other. We are really not strong in terms of international politics. We're tiny, and we have no military to speak of.

The main jist of Scenario 2 is that the present period is chaotic, unpredictable, that all bets are off and we have to let go of cosy assumptions. Adaptation is the catchcry of the moment, not conservatism. If you accept these premises, you adhere to the Scenario 2 thesis. As for the specifics, they are open to debate. It is possible to accept the main thesis, while debating the particulars.

In terms of the specifics of the scenario we are currently facing, these are a few features that stand out to me.

Hybrid politics and hybrid warfare.

People have a habit in New Zealand of thinking about war in 20th century, Great War terms – as clearly defined conflicts between nation states. If war is going to happen, the notion goes, it will be officially declared, it will go out on the radio, there will be a draft, war bonds, the armies will fight it out within clearly delineated theatres, and then we will be ‘at war’. But today we're dealing with the war on terror, where the enemy doesn't even belong to one nation state and does not officially represent any state -- with hybrid warfare that takes place in urban environments with guerilla tactics, and where there's no clear line between the theatre of war and civilian space. At the same time, a lot of the business of war is subcontracted to private companies now, like Blackwater and Halliburton in Iraq, which also changes the game. People are slow to catch on to how much has changed. They think that because a World War hasn’t been declared on primetime television, with some anchor breaking in with ‘We interrupt this broadcast...’, because the air raid sirens are not sounding throughout major cities, that war isn’t happening, that we are in ‘peacetime’. They can’t imagine that at the same time as they’re watching “The Block” on TV3, or listening to the Morning Show on George FM, when people are going to netball games or walking their dogs, or when the major news story of the week is that Ed Sheeran is playing a concert in Dunedin, that we could be on the brink of a major, catastrophic global conflict involving nuclear weapons. Yet Gorbachev, who would know about these things, stated as much in 2016. Oh yeah, and there are these things called false flag attacks ... but that’s a topic that deserves a whole essay to itself.

Politics is also hybrid. China is a communist state, with centralised power, state management of industry, authoritarian control of the media and the speech, thought and behaviour of citizens. At the same time, it has capitalist characteristics, and engages in international trade. What we will see in the twenty-first century is more of these hybrid systems. In New Zealand, for example, we’ve slid quite a long way, since 2003, in an anti-liberal direction. With the GCSB Bill, the AML/CFT Act, increases in police brutality, decline in standards of news reporting (mainstream news publishers have become wings of government, propaganda outlets, basically), signing onto the TPPA, the crackdown on free speech, the Thomson and Clark/Southern Response debacle, growth of private prisons etc. Yet we're still officially a 'liberal democracy' because we still have 'liberal institutions' -- even though these are increasingly liberal in name only.

It reminds me of the philosophical paradox, Hobbes' ship of Theseus -- the question there was, if you take away one plank of the ship and replace it with a new one, and keep doing that until there's no pieces of the old ship left, is it still the same ship? If not, at which point did it become something else? By the same token, you could ask how many fascistic laws (undermining due process, attacking free speech, stripping us of our privacy, interfering with the press, breaking down the separation of the executive, legislative and judicial branches of government) can we let the Auckland elites introduce into our legal system before New Zealand is no longer truly a liberal democracy?

I suggest that this is the wrong framework for addressing our present situation. It's more to the point to observe that New Zealand is following global trends in becoming a hybrid system. We are more and more becoming a liberal democracy with totalitarian characteristics. On the current trajectory, we'll keep our liberal institutions, but they'll be a shell. They won't function in a 'liberal' way anymore, that is, in a way that reflects the interests of the people, rather the way they act will be modified so they support the new politics, which is oligarchic. But none of this will be officially admitted. The relatable people on The Project, The Edge FM and Newshub, will all tell us incessantly, explicitly and, more importantly, implicitly, that we are still in Scenario 1 ...

People are all too willing to go along with this, I've noticed. One reason is that they haven't caught on to the existence of hybrid politics and how central it is in the twenty-first century. They genuinely have a problem understanding how such a big shift could have happened, without a panel of political science professors convening in Sweden or something and officially reclassifying us from a 'liberal democracy' to something else. They don't understand that it's like Lehman Brothers in 2007. They still had a Standard and Poor's rating of 'excellent' right up until a month before the collapse, because they were hiding the real data. In reality, everything beneath the surface was rotten.

And then there's the general issue of inertia. People don’t have perfect information about the world around them and consequently rely on models. And people are always loath to switch from one model to another, they get locked into them -- in the same way that someone who has used a PC for fifteen years is going to be reluctant to switch to Mac. We’re comfortable with our assumptions, we don’t want to give them up. We’ve been working on the assumption for ages that New Zealand is a liberal democracy, and one of the more liberal countries in the world. It’s part of our brand and how the international community sees us. Perhaps this is also part of it – we advertise ourselves as being free and liberal to the world, for PR reasons, then end up believing our own bullshit. At any rate, we’ve been working with this model for a long time, and people aren’t going to switch over that quickly to an alternative conception of things. Even though, to use an analogy with scientific research, the evidence contradicting the default model is piling up now to the point where it has been invalidated.

The Scenario 1 model has been invalidated, but that doesn’t mean that people are ready to accept that Scenario 2 is real. It just feels like too much of a wrench. Believing that Scenario 1 still holds is appealing from an emotional point of view. So it is understandable that people still adhere to it, yet there are costs that come with ignoring reality. If your map is not showing you where that new fissure in the landscape has appeared, you might just inadvertently drive right into it.

A few more particular observations about NZ politics in the 21st century:

---> It's no longer about political parties, it's more about factions. The factions do not divide up along party lines.

---> As Nicky Hager has documented, there's a larger and larger role played by organisations external to the government: PR firms, mercenary strategists and advisors, donors, lobby groups and big business.

---> The demands of foreign governments, and of agents of foreign governments - in particular the U.S. and China - dictate party positions, party policy, and proposed legislation to a far greater extent than is suspected.

---> There is a far-right agenda, representatives of which have commandeered the traditionally centre-right National Party. The National Party is a completely different entity to the National Party in the twentieth century. It is a shell controlled by representatives of an agenda previously associated with ACT.

---> Finally, and in connection with point no.1. If you think that the Labour Party provides an alternative to the ultra-conservative agenda in national politics, think again. They're no more going to defend voters from the anti-liberal policies of National than the good cop is going to save you from the bad cop. When I said that factions in NZ politics matter more than political parties today, I was of course thinking of one faction in particular, which controls both the main parties, and that is the Auckland elites. (It seems so obvious when you say it out loud, yet the way people talk, you’d think this was very esoteric information.)


Why do people persist in believing in Scenario 1? Maybe it’s like what Marshall McLuhan said about how people react to new technologies, they always interpret it in terms of the past. When the first automobile came out, people called it the ‘horseless carriage’. People tend to view the present, as he said, through a ‘rearview mirror.’

The thing is, there is a positive vision revealed in peoples’ attachment to the Scenario 1 model. It may not show things as they are, but it shows things as they want them to be. In this way it reveals the truth about an ideal. The general population of New Zealand, at least in the South Island of New Zealand, does not want our tradition of liberal politics to be abandoned for an authoritarian model of government. They don’t want power to be overcentralised, they don’t want corporations to control our laws, they don’t want people to be arrested and imprisoned for doing nothing more than voicing an opinion, or engaging in citizen journalism. They don’t want fascism.

They’re so attached to this conception of things, to the idea of New Zealand as a liberal nation, with humanitarian values and the rule of law, that they can’t even accept that it is slipping away right before their eyes. They thus have the right idea, the right goal, but are being completely unrealistic about how they are going to get to the goal. They are asleep and their politics is a kind of sleepwalking.

To concentrate on the South Island for a moment, it is interesting to speculate whether and when the South Islanders will wake up to what is going on and raise a protest. Because of all the regions of New Zealand, the South Island stands to lose the most from the way things are going. The South Island culture, of peace, of respect for civil liberties and the rule of law, of valuing education, the whole ‘things move slower down here’ mentality, is slated for obsolescence. It can’t be allowed to continue because it’s a threat to Auckland supremacy. We can’t be allowed to go our own way. The Auckland elites know that if they keep squeezing us, we’re eventually going to buck, like we did in the 19th century, and they’re preparing for that ahead of time, by putting in place laws and institutions which make protest impossible. It really is that calculated and draconian.

Will the South Islanders wake up in time, or will it be too late? I’m reminded of something that William Pember Reeves said, I can’t remember where exactly, about New Zealanders, that they make a lot of mistakes but they have the capacity to surprise you by turning it around at the last minute. Maybe this is what we will see in the South in the next five or ten years. At any rate, for now it’s safe to say that we are in a tough situation politically. It’s Scenario 2, and, to paraphrase Philip K. Dick, just because you don’t believe in it doesn’t mean it’s going to go away.