John Key, the Prime Minister of New Zealand and former forex trader for Bank of America’s ‘wealth management’ company Merrill Lynch, is a remarkable politician.
His importance extends beyond the Antipodes: Key is chairman, for instance, of the International Democrat Union, an association of leading conservative parties from sixty countries, most likely because he presents a viable model for a Third Way conservatism (an identity-politics reboot of ‘compassionate conservatism’) that does not betray his class interests.
At a recent meeting with business leaders Key expounded his vision to transform the country into the ‘Switzerland of the Asia-Pacific’. Where Europe is beset by terrorism and refugees, America by the spectre of populism left and right, China by ecological catastrophe, and Australia by incompetence, New Zealand remains blissfully unafflicted. Key offers New Zealand as the last new world with echoes of Emma Lazarus: ‘Give me your tired plutocrats, your foreign capital yearning to breathe free and I will give you flexible labour markets, trust-fund anonymity, few investment restrictions and 0 per cent capital gains tax.’
Details of that private ‘Switzerland of the Asia-Pacific’ meeting might appear politically awkward for Key in light of the Panama Papers leaks, which followed two weeks later. While he has had to commiserate with David Cameron, Key will most likely escape political damage despite his own lawyer’s connection to this world of financial secrecy.
Indeed, Key’s remarkable run in office and historic popularity are not in spite of his class but because of it. He is credited for guiding New Zealand through the GFC as an insider and a neoliberal technocrat. Yet it is not a bloodless efficiency that has made New Zealand politically stable but Key’s function as an agent of desire, or, as he puts it, ‘aspiration’. Key has served as a model of the good life while transcending stagnant historical-political battle lines and offering a new nationalism of corporate spectacle and self-confidence.
There has been no shortage of opportunities to puncture this image, with breathtaking scandals revealing the ‘true nature’ of Key’s post-politics. Nevertheless, in the face of hypocrisy, cynical manipulation and character failings, the public have defied rational civic expectations either in their disinterest or in their rallying around Key. As enjoyment and desire become central to sustaining Key’s base, his popularity should force the left to question some of its rational humanist conceptions.
Consider the travails of Nicky Hager, New Zealand’s Sy Hersh, who has gained unprecedented insider access to the material inner-workings of the National party. His two great works on National, Dirty Politics and The Hollow Men, detail not only the mechanics but also the cynicism and obscenity that fuel the machine. The presidential John Key has secured his three successive terms through fastidious polling and a centrist cosmopolitan tack aimed at broadening the right’s electoral appeal. Behind this ‘feel-good’ factor was a smear machine implicating the PM’s office and reprehensible far-right media actors. The PM and the most toxic agents in our discourse (such as Cameron Slater) had made fools of us all, using state secrets to destroy political opponents. The story of Dirty Politics was a journalistic slam-dunk, widely covered in mainstream media as a matter of principle. Hager had managed to produce another stellar work of civic-minded journalism with his endearing trademark, if tragic, optimism.
Academics and the left assumed that while middle New Zealand might be averse to ideological battles they would recoil at this gap between image and substance. The opposite was true as the electorate vaulted Key back into office with only Dunedin North and Wellington Central resisting the blue tide of National. The public’s response to scrutinising Key was something along the lines of the internet meme ‘Leave Britney alone!’. In the aftermath of the 2014 election, Hager found his work imperilled by a punitive government and police force looking to prevent anything similar happening again.
Left accounts of Key’s historic levels of popularity invariably include a Chomskyan theory of a pliant corporate media. From the ousting of the great populist John Campbell at TV3 and the ubiquity of Tory lickspittle broadcasters such as Paul Henry and Mike Hosking, corporate media has come to resemble an endless advertorial for the Key government. There is no doubt that this government has mastered the art of poll-driven politics and making an end run around journalistic scrutiny through celebrity spectacle, morning-zoo radio and fishing shows. With the neoliberal debasement of civic virtue and a crisis of public broadcasting, the hollow man reigns.
As a symptom of post-movement politics, the left has been reduced to praying that political scandals will bring deliverance, be they Dirty Politics, the cronyism for personal vanity that was the SkyCity convention centre deal, the repeated bullying and sexual harassment of a waitress, the denial that ‘mass data collection’ is mass surveillance, the prison privatisation debacle, or the bribery in the comically grotesque Saudi sheep deal – to name but a few. In each instance the PM has emerged unscathed, leaving the tenacious Radio NZ journalist Guyon Espiner bewildered and the left embittered.
There is a lot we have failed to understand about Key and his reception in these last eight years. Our social-media ghetto allows us to believe that we have some privileged insights over the duped. We commit ourselves to either reversing the brainwashing or cursing the sheeple for their stupidity (see Martyn Bradbury’s ‘Sleepy Hobbits Get the Government They Deserve’). The high point of this condescension was surely the Internet Party’s ‘Moment of Truth’, where a confused left looked towards a self-interested tech capitalist and cyber-libertarian superman to deliver political manna from heaven, destroying the edifice of Key with a big reveal. Apart from obviously being no recipe for mass politics, this analysis elides a crucial fact – the public have seen John Key with the mask off and they are perfectly happy.
Neoliberal super-ego of enjoyment
Key is undoubtedly the product of marketing and a nouveau-riche politics ascendant at this historical conjuncture. But the truth of Key is not in some hidden content but precisely in this meticulously crafted image as the relaxed anti-politician who has parlayed financial success into political office. He is a model of the good life, holidaying in Hawaii and supporting his children’s eclectic passions, from art school to house music. He is bromantic with All Black hero Richie McCaw and Barack Obama, while also a mentor to our big-brother nations’ heads of state, David Cameron and Malcolm Turnbull. He is all of these things and he shares them with us as the ultimate act of neoliberal public service and sacrifice, as surely he could be making tens or maybe hundreds of millions of dollars in the private sector. Key’s story of ‘from statehouse to head of state’ is the New Zealand American Dream supplanting our social-democratic quarter-acre pavlova paradise. Key is a figure of dreams, telling us how to desire and giving us gratification through himself and his promise of an aspirational New Zealand, where the ability to dream is the reward in itself.
Here the left must abandon a liberal rationalist notion of the electorate and consider John Key as a figure of libidinal investment. With Key the public are both inter-passive – that is, they enjoy through his enjoyment – and experience him as what Jacques Lacan called the ‘big Other’. Through Key we have a proper order of desire and enjoyment around affluence, our sense of place in the world, self-confidence, corporate spectacle and the end of politics. For Aucklanders riding a decades-long property bubble, who constitute a conspicuously consuming middle class and the so-called aspirational classes, ‘making it’ is synonymous with Key. He is akin to Slavoj’s Žižek’s notion of the permissive Master in late capitalism who issues the ‘super-ego injunction to enjoy’. While Helen Clark and Labour were characterised by right-wing activism as the nanny-state super-ego of endless prohibitions, Key emerges as the agent of ‘yes you can!’. In this way he is the soul of neoliberal capitalism in New Zealand, allowing aspirants and a privileged few to enjoy, guilt free, while feeling progressive, cosmopolitan and #blessed.
Of course, behind every post-politics lies antagonism. Key’s technocratic competency belies an explosion of child poverty, a housing crisis and rising inequality. To Key, those portions of the radical left and the Labour party machine that still resist his optimism are beneath contempt as ‘rent-a-crowd thugs’ or in league with ‘rapists, child molesters and murderers’. These outbursts are not simply unvarnished moments revealing Key’s true nature; they are the truth of his aspirational politics. In being libidinally invested in Key’s politics of enjoyment, one has to both enjoy through him and strive for this enjoyment in our own lives. The super-ego injunction also perfectly describes the atomised alienation of white-collar workers who aspire to upward social mobility. We must enjoy our work, engage in lifelong learning and enjoy a full life in order to distinguish ourselves as desirable and entrepreneurial. When not alienated our enjoyment is always thwarted by a Lacanian desire that cannot be attained; or the object of desire is not quite as it should be. Some agent has conspired to impede our progress, what Key calls the ‘backwards’ and ‘negative’ elements of our society, like the left or the drug-addicted beneficiary. They are the blockage in realising our frictionless society; as such, they are not a political opponent but an ‘other’ worthy of contempt.
This then is how we can reconcile a public that is unfazed by the PM conversing with right-wing media gargoyles such as Cameron Slater and Rachel Glucina in a manner worthy of Nixon. The obscene outbursts against this other who stands in the way of our enjoyment, perhaps a Pike River activist and bereaved mother or that sexually harassed waitress with a ‘massive political agenda’, are not an accident; they are what Lacan calls jouissance. Jouissance is the dark side of enjoyment when we are stuck in a fetishistic politics that disavows contradiction and clings to a social ideal like Key’s post-politics. This is the base political energy that can explain a phenomenon like Donald Trump as an obscene agent that allows one to enjoy the denigration of women, minorities and China, while retaining a notion of American exceptionalism.
Key is obviously a different creature: he has no pretension to American alpha-maleness and is more akin to an adolescent deviance, evident in his ponytail pulling, confessions of peeing in the shower, rape jokes and volunteering information about his vasectomy to parliamentary reporters. These obscene outbursts are not incongruous with his neoliberal technocratic competency but what allow us to enjoy it.
Whither the left
The question for the left is how did John Key end history for a second time in New Zealand? Where right-wing populists and social-democratic insurgents have emerged in other OECD nations – Britain, Greece, France, Spain and the US (though not Australia) – New Zealand’s political situation is decidedly stable. One struggles to think of who could possibly serve as a Jeremy Corbyn, Bernie Sanders or Yanis Varoufakis figure in the New Zealand context. It is certainly true that New Zealand has been spared some of the worst of the GFC by virtue of China, and as ‘one of them’ Key assuages the skittish investor class that could so easily add our nation to the axis of PIGS. While the radical-left protest chant/pun ‘John Key is a banker!’ is meant as an indictment of class, Key has wielded his experience as a currency trader as an asset – a mark of technocratic competency. It is in this fundamental depoliticisation and zenith of neoliberalism – a banker as head of state – that Key is seemingly able to transcend the left and right, making him such a potent agent of desire and new nationalism.
In understanding the origins of Key’s post-politics and how he has confounded the left, it is necessary to return to our Thatcher/Reagan/Hawke moment. The dramatic transformation of the country under David Lange and Roger Douglas’ Labour government was a heady mix of identity struggles and brutal neoliberal reforms. Filmmaker Alister Barry compared the events to Pinochet’s Chile sans bloodshed, with identity battles used as a Trojan Horse for neoliberalism. This class reductionism may be necessary in a historical analysis but it elides the fact that the 80s really were a time of antagonism and social transformation. The new social movements against apartheid, nuclear weapons, gender and sexual discrimination, as well as the recognition of indigenous rights and culture by the state, were clearly not pseudo-struggles but New Zealand’s equivalent to 1968. Social tumult followed, with generational confrontation, victories for biculturalism, draconian welfare reform, deindustrialisation, labour struggles and the capitulation of the Council of Trade Unions.
For nearly twenty-five years this moment defined our politics. The Labour party of Helen Clark hoped to outrun a legacy of class treachery through a new Third Way social democracy, softening the blows dealt by Douglas and National’s Hayekian finance minister Ruth Richardson. The right, incarnated in Don Brash, pined for ANZUS, wished to revoke perceived Māori privilege and finish neoliberal shock therapy. In a manner exemplary of the Third Way, Labour’s victories were those of inclusion in the marketplace through education, tax credits for working families and the ambition to ‘close the gap’, in contrast to traditional social-democratic demands to end poverty or restore full employment. While in Clark’s words the neoliberal baby was not thrown out with the Douglas–Richardson bathwater, Labour were perceived as real reds by virtue of their weightedness in history and rhetorical appeals to the left. Where Labour continued to make gains for identity struggles and minority inclusion (civil unions, legalised prostitution and child welfare) this was experienced by the right as socialist feminists conspiring to ruin our lives and prevent us from disciplining our children.
It is worth remembering the red-baiting hysteria that accompanied Clark’s leadership and the perceived totalitarian implications of eco bulbs and showerheads. Perhaps the most humiliating moment for the Labour party after the election was new leader Phil Goff parroting this gendered narrative of the ‘nanny state’ while vowing to learn from their mistakes. Goff seemed to be confessing to all of the wild libidinal fantasies about the Labour party as a socialist coven. The apogee of this discourse was the ‘Helengrad’ meme, circulated widely by mainstream commentators, including the Herald’s business columnist Fran O’Sullivan, who referred to Helen Clark as a ‘political dominatrix’. If ever there was a demonstration of the libidinal logic of politics it was in the misogynistic attacks on Clark as an agent of political and sexual frustration, emasculating men as a result of some inner pathology. Here the right can justify Cameron Slater levels of obscene jouissance as Clark is seen as a perverted super-ego standing in the way of their enjoyment.
While Key undoubtedly rode much of this populist anger to victory over Clark in 2008, his legacy has been staked on erasing politics and transcending this history. Most left commentators have regarded Key’s failure to remember his position on the Springbok Tour as a gaffe or, worse, pandering to embittered reactionaries. The importance of this moment, rather, is the message that it’s ‘okay to forget’ or ignore politics, as we have a technocrat at the wheel who just wants us to enjoy.
New Zealand politics is peculiar for many reasons, not least the fact that the word ‘neoliberalism’ actually passes the lips of our politicians. The spectre of right-wing neoliberals and the return to the dark days has been used consistently by Labour. John Key has skilfully blunted this attack, not by any substantive political transformation, but by a poll-driven appropriation of the empty politics of the Third Way. To this end key figures of the right, Brash and Roger Douglas, were publicly sacrificed as ‘radicals’ and ‘too extreme’ for cabinet positions. That didn’t prevent National from going into coalition with the far-right ACT party and advancing charter schools, prison privatisation and state asset sales, but the gesture of ideological disavowal served to assuage good-conscience cosmopolitans.
Key has appropriated the Thomas Friedman maxim of today’s Third Way capitalism: ‘nobody has to be vile’. The Third Way is a perfect vehicle for neoliberal depoliticisation and it took a right-winger to acknowledge this fact, just as only Nixon could have gone to China. Key effectively turned the tables on Labour by signing the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, forming a coalition with the Māori Party and embracing indigenous self-determination and empowerment, cynically through the neoliberal vehicle of Whānau Ora. It was Labour that was in Key’s words ‘backwards’ and ‘negative’, just as they are now seen as the face of xenophobia in the debate around foreign investment in Auckland property. Key has also chalked up some impressive identity-politics victories such as same-sex marriage, while largely retaining popular Clark-government policies such as Working for Families and interest-free student loans.
From this depoliticisation and flight from history, Key allows citizens to dream and reimagine New Zealand as the ‘aspirational’ nation. He was not off base when he compared himself to Obama – with Key’s empty signifier ‘aspiration’ analogous to Obama’s ‘hope’ (and restoration of confidence after Bush). The efficacy of this empty signifier does not merely allow us to transcend the 80s but is a palliative to our nationalism of post-colonial unease. Historical anxieties and our national void have been replaced by enjoyment with the corporate spectacle of the Rugby World Cup, Hobbit movies and ‘100% Pure’.
After eight years the left remains solidly on the back foot, unable to articulate a competing aspirational politics or tarnish Key’s reputation. Key has shown incredible flexibility in either abandoning unpopular policies or raiding the Labour brains-trust for ideas. All of the frustrations and inconsistencies in the left’s own camp – Labour’s disunity, its betrayal of the working class and the Māori, the Greens’ enlightened bourgeois politics or the radical left’s alliance with a tech capitalist narcissist – all are overcome in a focus on Key. While certainly a result of ‘presidentialisation’, Key has become an irrational hate figure, panned by Internet Mana as a sycophantic bootlicker of the Americans and routinely portrayed as an SS officer in anarchist street art.
Reduced to politics by memes and gifs, the left were irrationally exuberant about the recent dildoing of cabinet minister Steven Joyce when he attended Waitangi on behalf of John Key. Here our political impotence (metaphor intended) is reduced to an acting-out of jouissance, which secures only smug irrelevance. Rather than causing the government embarrassment, this moment was embraced as a symbol of Key’s politics of enjoyment, with Joyce himself getting in on the fun of the ‘Dildo Baggins’ hashtag and inviting John Oliver to do his best with the material. Oliver subsequently enlisted the pompously Tory Sir Peter Jackson to wave and declare a flag bearing the image of Joyce being hit by the dildo as our new national symbol. One can hardly imagine a more apposite image of the libidinal truth of John Key’s aspirational post-politics. Here, an internationally acclaimed Kiwi director, who managed to rewrite labour laws for the promise of turning us into Middle Earth, engages in a ritual of self-deprecation and transgression. Key and Joyce have turned self-deprecation into a political art, soliciting the obscene Slateresque underbelly that provides endless enjoyment in the Left’s torment.
The left needs to discard some of the humanist assumptions that have shaped our understanding of Key – that is, that people just don’t know the real Key or that they have been masterfully manipulated. And yet, the libidinal logic of politics does not mean the left should attempt Fabian psycho-public management à la Cass Sunstein. And while George Lakoff’s work is not uninteresting here, the proper framing of language is not enough for the task at hand. Our problems are not discursive but ideological and the focus on Key is a way of overlooking the disunity and contradictions of the left. Key becomes an omnipotent, overdetermined enemy preventing us not only from ideological introspection but our ability to create a political culture of solidarity and enjoyment. A leftist politics must look past Key, addressing him with indifference, seeing him as simply the technocrat that he is.
For Key is not a uniquely obscene figure but the reality of neoliberal post-politics. It’s an era that denies antagonism and produces the obscene jouissance necessary for followers to believe in the end of history. Key’s end of history should be antagonistically opposed not in any overwrought sense of regaining sovereignty from America, or to re-win historical battles, but simply as a matter of justice. The task then becomes to define justice – as well as solidarity, enjoyment and our dreams, something that has eluded the left but is necessary work.