When I published a post critical of Nicky Hager’s book, Dirty Politics – How attack politics is poisoning New Zealand’s political environment last week, it prompted an exchange on Twitter between myself and two of my friends, which I reproduce here in full (with their permission).
The participants were Dougal McNeill (DM), a leader of the International Socialist Organisation in Wellington, Giovanni Tiso (GT), a blogger and writer for the journal Overland, also from Wellington, and myself (JR). For the benefit of readers unfamiliar with New Zealand political events and identities I have added a few explanatory notes in square parentheses, and have formatted Giovanni’s comments in bold and my own in italics to make it easier to follow.
DM: Thoughtful, sober comment on the NZ election from @JamesRobbNZ:
GT: Completely disagree with second half. The programme of media reform outlined in Hager’s afterword is fundamental…
DM: Digesting, pondering etc. Don’t agree with everything in James’. But am searching for measured responses to Saturday. [i.e. the election result – JR]
GT: …And as important for working class politics as for liberal politics. Methods of Slater and co. are union-busting.
GT: … Calling Hager reactionary is not a measured response, quite frankly.
JR: Not saying Hager is a reactionary, only that ‘cleaning up bourgeois democracy’ is a reactionary idea…
JR: …and a reactionary lie when put in the form of a promise, as it was by [Labour Party leader David] Cunliffe
GT: I don’t get your criticism of the hacked emails though. The working class *needed* this stuff to come out.
JR: … and also that publishing stolen emails is a reactionary method, i.e. one that confuses and disorients.
JR: We already knew that [right-wing blogger Cameron] Slater was a deeply anti-social individual, and was a close friend of [former Justice Minister Judith] Collins. The sordid details…
JR: …added very little. And at same time, led opponents of spying down into the world of spying – down to their level.
GT: I knew. You knew. But the sordid details are not what the book is about. There are major stories there, including…
GT: …how hits were ordered on unions and individuals on behalf of the state and capitalist power. It’s an important book…
GT: … and frankly I have no trouble sharing with middle-class liberals a desire to dismantle that machine.
DM: agree with Giovanni on this point. PoA chapter documents plenty ‘we’ didn’t know. Emails given to Hager; not sought.
JR: I share with middle-class pacifists a hatred of imperialist war. But when they miseducate about causes and solutions…
DM: But I agree with James about the book’s ending on bourgeois democracy. V important book with (I think) a weak conclusion
JR: … of war, suddenly I have very little in common with pacifists. Just an analogy.
GT: Yes and no. Hager may be an idealist about our bourgeois democracy (as is his prerogative), but the last chapter…
GT: …identifies critical issues with media & state structures that is in the interest of the working class to address.
DM: yes & no again. Important conversation constrained by 140 character form. In our interest to address. But to what end?
JR: Agree with Dougal. Yet again it comes down to this: what you’re against is far less important than what you are for.
GT: it’s an end in itself to protect ourselves from abuses of state power. Won’t mitigate regular state power, of course
JR: Absolutely. But my point is that publishing stolen emails weakens our ability to protect ourselves from such abuses…
JR: …by engaging in something similar, and thereby conceding the moral high ground.
GT: Sorry, this is absolute nonsense.
GT: You’re appealing to an ideal of purity that would paralyse our ability to show how power operates.
GT: Also, since when do we care about “the moral high ground”?
JR: “Labour does the same” was Key’s chief defence, and it worked. Moral high ground is vital.
GT: But Labour didn’t! What are you on about?
JR: Labour has a long record of scandal-mongering using leaks, and had no qualms about chiming in with Hager campaign.
GT: “scandal mongering using leaks”? The example in your post was very weak. Got anything better?
GT: Because frankly the National Party machine works on a completely different level.
JR: No doubt. Their links to spying apparatus, cops etc are much stronger. Stoop to their level and they’ll always win.
GT: Exposing them and stooping down to their level are two very, very different things.
DM: Hager discusses that difference in the book’s opening. What private material he kept out, & why. I was convinced.
JR: Not so different if you’re using stolen private correspondence. That’s the problem.
GT: Your saying it doesn’t make it true. Hager made a very strong case for the breach, which you haven’t addressed.
JR: That opening chapter was the wrong-est part of the whole book. It awakened the conspiracy-theorist in us all.
JR: His case was the truth of the allegations + ‘public interest’. I don’t dispute their veracity. My blog and these tweets…
JR: …constitute my argument against the ‘public interest’ line: 1.It drags us down to their level. 2. All we need to know is…
JR: …already in the public arena. I think we’ve reached the end of this discussion, for now.
It was, as Dougal commented, an important conversation constrained by the 140-character format of Twitter.
I think there was little disagreement among the three participants that Hager’s book paints a vivid picture of the rottenness at the heart of the institutions of capitalist rule. Behind the facade of a democratically-elected parliament and an independent news media lies the reality of a ruling party conspiring to subvert the democratic institutions at every turn, actively aided in this effort by the capitalist news media.
Hager identifies a clique centred around the Prime Minister’s senior advisor, Jason Ede, and political campaign consultant Simon Lusk as the core of these conspirators, who hacked Labour Party computers for confidential information about their supporters and dug the dirt on others who got in their way. The Justice Minister Judith Collins was deeply and directly involved in their activities. A network of right-wing bloggers led by Cameron Slater played a key role in feeding the material to the news media. (For a short summary of the main ideas in Hager’s book click here. For a description and critique of Slater’s relationship to journalists click here.) The revelations in the book eventually forced Collins’s resignation from Cabinet, and later Jason Ede’s resignation.
Was this ‘an important book’ – as both Giovanni and Dougal claim? I don’t think so. To be sure, any honest reader who had faith in the parliamentary processes would have had their confidence shaken. But that alone gets us nowhere. The book does little to advance the class consciousness and fighting capacity of the working class; on the contrary, it deepens illusions in capitalist society and fosters conspiracy theories.
The illusions are perhaps best seen in the book’s afterword, where Hager proposes some solutions to correct “problems and weaknesses in the political environment” that made the abuses possible.
Hager’s proposals include “a dramatic increase in long-term public funding and statutory independence for non-commercial television, radio, and (perhaps eventually) print news media.” Identifying the private funding of political parties by business interests and millionaires as a problem, he proposes that “Large political donations (more than the average person could give) should not be allowed and should be replaced by public funding to protect the integrity of the electoral system… Governments should also provide secure funding for a range of independent research and policy institutes, providing a reservoir of thinkers, writers, and researchers to develop policy and be available to comment on important public interest issues.”
Not one part of this mishmash of reforms takes the working class one inch forward along the path to political power. For the most part, these reforms represent either sentimental nostalgia for the past (publicly-funded non-commercial television), or a pipe dream of heavily state-funded and state-enforced ‘fairness’ in capitalist society. The last thing workers need is a ‘reservoir of thinkers, writers, and researchers’ to do their thinking for them.
Electoral reforms passed in the name of curbing big-business funding of political parties, or improving the ‘transparency’ of donations, have always been used chiefly as a tool for state interference in the affairs of working class organisations. Those on the left who cheered the prosecution of John Banks under such laws may well live to regret it, when in the future these laws are used to hound and harass working class parties and groups – when the cops demand lists of donors to working class political campaigns, opening up their supporters to harassment and discriminatory firings and evictions. (Meanwhile, the capitalists have a thousand ways of getting around such laws and give money to whomever they want, whether it is by crude subterfuges such as Banks used, or $10,000-a-ticket dinners, or whatever).
Nor is it accurate to dismiss the afterword as merely a weak conclusion to a sound argument, as Dougal suggests at one point. The central content of the book is based on the very same assumptions: that bourgeois democracy normally works well, but is being ‘poisoned’ by this clique of conspirators, and by exposing their dirty tricks to public view a healthy democracy can be restored.
The problem with conspiracy theories is not that conspiracies to subvert democratic institutions don’t exist.
Capitalist democracy is the class dictatorship of a tiny minority masquerading as the will of the majority. In order to maintain the illusion of majority rule, the capitalist class must constantly bring to bear the influence of their wealth and economic power, as well as their control of the unelected institutions of their rule such as the judiciary, police and spy agencies, academic institutions, and the civil service bureaucracy. Most of this ‘exercising of influence’ is done informally and out of the public view, and often it is illegal – in a word, conspiratorial. They zealously pursue individuals like Edward Snowden and Bradley Manning who lift the lid on these conspiratorial and illegal activities in order to maintain that secrecy. Capitalist control of the mass media plays a crucial part in this (and it makes little difference whether they are owned and controlled by private capitalist concerns, as with the print media, or by the capitalist state, as is partly the case with broadcast media.)
The problem is that such exposés of conspiracies tell us very little. They show us only that the capitalist rulers are ruthless, completely without ethical standards, and prepared to break their own laws, in their drive to maintain their grip on power. While there will be many people reading Hager’s book who are shocked to see just how vile these people they can be, I doubt that there are many who are surprised to learn that the rulers are ruthless and unethical.
The great appeal of Hager’s book was not that it advanced anyone’s understanding of the nature of capitalist class rule. Its appeal to the many who read it was the hope that by publicly exposing the dirty tricks in this way, the government of John Key could be taken down. The book succeeded in forcing Collins to resign, so why not the whole government?
This hope proved to be illusory: in the election the National Party increased its share of the vote. Understanding the reason for that can be a starting-point for understanding of the disorienting effect of conspiracy theories, whether the conspiracies themselves are real or imaginary. Hager, for his part, maintains that the election result is further proof of the results of the dirty tricks, a conclusion that leads him deeper into the conspiracist world.
The real secrets of capitalist rule are less titillating and much better hidden than the crude smear campaigns of Cameron Slater, even though the clues are largely out in public view and, for the most part, legal.
The real secret lies in how the forms of exploitation embodied in the ordinary workings of the capitalist market and wages system act to reproduce capitalist social relations. These are secrets that can not be uncovered by hacking into someone’s private correspondence, but only through joining union and political struggles for change, and through the collective thinking that accompanies such class struggles.
By focusing attention on the conspiracies of Slater et al, Hager’s book has obstructed rather than advanced the uncovering of these deeper secrets. No small part of the reason for this is the fact that it is based on stolen private correspondence.
Hager’s justification for using the stolen emails is that the overwhelming public interest in knowing about these nefarious activities outweighed Slater’s and the others’ right to privacy. “Everyone has the right to keep their communications private,” Hager writes, “and there must be a very high public interest to justify publishing them. In this case, I believe most readers will agree that the materials raise very serious matters of political accountability, relating directly to the prime minister and other senior government ministers.”
But this is essentially the same justification used by the right-wing bloggers in arguing, for example, that there was an overwhelming public interest in knowing the details of Auckland mayor Len Brown’s sexual affair, in case “ratepayers’ money” had been spent on hiring hotel rooms.
This argument draws opponents of government spying and violations of privacy down to the same level as the people they are exposing (a fact not altered in the least by Hager’s claim that there was other private material that he decided not to publish.) It makes the political defence of working class organisations against spying, hacking, and other forms of government interference more difficult, by laying us open to the charge that ‘you do it too, given the chance.’ By getting drawn into this world, we concede the moral high ground.
Since when do we care about the moral high ground? Giovanni asks. Let me answer, first of all, that we should not care one iota for hypocritical bourgeois morality, whatever shreds of it still remain. But that does not mean we should be indifferent to questions of morality altogether. Like Rasputin at the court of Czar Nicholas, it is the moral character of Cameron Slater that is of interest here, and which provides a clear measure of the fitness of the bourgeois regime to rule.
In 1938-39 Russian revolutionary leader Leon Trotsky wrote Their Morals and Ours, his classic defence of the revolutionary morality of the Bolsheviks, and its companion piece Moralists and Sycophants Against Marxism.
Their Morals and Ours was an answer to critics who castigated the Bolsheviks’ methods and means – such as their use of hostages during the civil war – as immoral. The Bolsheviks, the critics charged, were guided by the principle attributed to the Jesuits, “the end justifies the means,” and this was the source of their downfall. Trotsky’s response is worth quoting at length, because it describes the condition of bourgeois morality in a period of deep crisis, following a fairly extended period of capitalist stability – a situation not unlike the present.
“Whoever does not care to return to Moses, Christ or Mohammed,” Trotsky writes, “whoever is not satisfied with eclectic hodgepodges must acknowledge that morality is a product of social development; that there is nothing invariable about it; that it serves social interests; that these interests are contradictory; that morality more than any other form of ideology has a class character…
“The ruling class forces its ends upon society and habituates it into considering all those means which contradict its ends as immoral. That is the chief function of official morality….”
“During the epoch of capitalistic upsurge especially in the last few decades before the World War … the prosperity of the civilized nations, partially, too, that of the toiling masses increased. Democracy appeared solid. Workers’ organizations grew. At the same time reformist tendencies deepened. The relations between the classes softened, at least outwardly. Thus certain elementary moral precepts in social relations were established along with the norms of democracy and the habits of class collaboration. The impression was created of an ever more free, more just, and more humane society. …
“Instead, however, war broke out with a train of convulsions, crises, catastrophes, epidemics, and bestiality. The economic life of mankind landed in an impasse. The class antagonisms became sharp and naked. The safety valves of democracy began to explode one after the other. The elementary moral precepts seemed even more fragile than the democratic institutions and reformist illusions. Mendacity, slander, bribery, venality, coercion, murder grew to unprecedented dimensions. To a stunned simpleton all these vexations seem a temporary result of war. Actually they are manifestations of imperialist decline. The decay of capitalism denotes the decay of contemporary society with its right and its morals…
“A means can be justified only by its end. But the end in its turn needs to be justified. From the Marxist point of view, which expresses the historical interests of the proletariat, the end is justified if it leads to increasing the power of man over nature and to the abolition of the power of man over man…”
“Just the same, the moralist continues to insist, does it mean that in the class struggle against capitalists all means are permissible: lying, frame-up, betrayal, murder, and so on?
“Permissible and obligatory are those and only those means, we answer, which unite the revolutionary proletariat, fill their hearts with irreconcilable hostility to oppression, teach them contempt for official morality and its democratic echoers, imbue them with consciousness of their own historic mission, raise their courage and spirit of self-sacrifice in the struggle.
“Precisely from this it flows that not all means are permissible. When we say that the end justifies the means, then for us the conclusion follows that the great revolutionary end spurns those base means and ways which set one part of the working class against other parts, or attempt to make the masses happy without their participation; or lower the faith of the masses in themselves and their organization, replacing it by worship for the ‘leaders.’”
Or, one could add, worship for “reservoirs of thinkers, writers, and researchers.” Trotsky summarises the test of revolutionary morality in Moralists and Sycophants Against Marxism:
“Only that which prepares the complete and final overthrow of imperialist bestiality is moral, and nothing else.”
Both Hager’s end, his liberal-nostalgic vision of the restoration of a healthy capitalist democracy, and the means he employs to advance this end, fail this test.