For me, summer holidays are an opportunity for a mental health reset. A chance to escape Auckland and get back to nature. That entails a media diet – I try to ration exposure to mainstream and social media – even though they’re one and the same. I get out of Facebook, and into real books, swap a video live stream for a real life freshwater stream.
This summer one of the books I read was ‘Our Inner Ape’ by primatologist Frans de Waal. De Waal researches animal behaviour, and a recent book was ‘Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are? He concludes we probably aren’t. Check out his Facebook page, for insight into the amazing wondrous diversity of the living world.
In ‘Our Inner Ape’, Frans de Waal looks at the behavioural similarities and differences between humans and our closest non-human relatives, chimpanzees and bonobos. They’re both equally closely genetically related to us, although chimpanzees are more famous; they starred in Planet of the Apes, whereas bonobos only featured once. They have different ways of negotiating and resolving social conflict. Chimpanzees are carnivorous and live in a patriarchal hierarchy. Often they resolve conflict through collusion, allegiances and violence.
Bonobos on the other hand, are matriarchal, peaceful, and mediate social intercourse, with sexual intercourse – they make love not war. Unstigmatised sexual contact is part of many social situations. In bonobo societies, mutual sexual stimulation is an important part of showing affection, improving bonds, and resolving societal issues.
De Waal says humans have the facets of both the chimpanzee and the bonobo, and that to sustain life in the long term we should try to adopt the peaceful way of the bonobo, more than the recourse to violence of the chimpanzee. De Waal also discusses the idea that despite our best intentions, we humans are more emotional, than rational and this drives a lot of our beliefs, responses and behaviours. Innate primal, primate, urges are the default.
After spending time in campgrounds of primal young travellers and holiday makers, I’d suggest there’s quite a bit of the bonobo running through adolescent brains. And the ongoing antics of Trump indicate a lot of chimpanzee, though that’s an offence to any ape.
But while I was on my media diet enjoying the fresh air, great sights and small towns of New Zealand, with thousands of other travellers, a couple of major media announcements got through. Both had me thinking about the ways of the (hu)man, the ways of bonobo and chimpanzee, and politics. But they both reflected deeper issues that should be of interest to any monkey with a higher brain. The events in question were the announcement of British Prince Harry’s engagement to American actress Meghan Markle, and the less anticipated announcement of the pregnancy of our new Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern.
Royal prerogatives represent all that’s wrong with the class system and unequal wealth in society – today and historically. The wealth of royalty are spoils of feudalism and capitalism, and contrary to the class interests of those masses of citizens who adore them. Instead the poorest and most oppressed seem to love the royalty the worst.
I saw a story about Prince Harry and sparkly Ms Markle on walkabout in Cardiff. Throngs of emotional women held outstretched hands toward her, bringing handmade gifts and flowers. People cried. One woman, when interviewed by the media, said it was an overwhelming experience, a lifetime highlight for her to meet Meghan, “She’s done so much!”. In another image, on another walkabout (?), commoners were pressed behind steel fence barricades, and a smartly dressed woman, someone of sufficiently high status to be allowed on the ‘royal’ side of the fence, was genuflecting, down on one knee in a full curtsey, kissing Meghan Markle’s hand. So far all I can see that Meghan Markle has ‘done’ is ‘tame wild Harry’ and acted in a tv series (which I haven’t actually seen), and yet has improved the standing of the royals in the hearts of those with least. But she’s got glossy hair and a nice smile, and she’s got her prince, so the royal subjects all rejoice. Unlike Kate Hawkesby who seems to have some bitchy competitive (chimpanzee) thing going on in her column about Meghan Markle, my concern is with royalty, the class system, inequality, and how shiny hair and a shiny smile can excite the support of the oppressed, to their very oppressor.
New Zealander’s reactions to Jacinda Ardern’s pregnancy took much of the same basic emotional response. What were once serious newspapers, exclaimed about the ‘delightful’ news and speculated on the ‘baby bump’. Expressions like this make me gag. Not because of the baby but because this sort of twittering comes straight from women’s magazine headlines, now common parlance.
To be fair though, wasn’t it a good story! It’s perfect for the women’s magazines. Such a well-crafted narrative: “We thought we couldn’t (conceive), and then we did!”. “Clarke will be a stay at home dad, while I’ll be Prime Minister and a mum”. Political commentators suggest Jacinda’s scored a coup. The Prime Minister’s pregnancy represents a compelling political advantage– all those wholesome photo opportunities. – A growing tummy, the radiant mother, the bonny baby, all the baby’s milestones caught on camera. The perfect modern family. The perfect political symbol – a celebrity couple, so clean cut. Such glossy hair. He with the nice square jaw, their nice white shirts, and their modest Point Chev home. Who cares about policy? There’s a baby on the way! It’s a miracle birth! Unheralded! Jacinda is Superwoman even! Courageous, against the odds, calling out all those who would dare challenge a woman’s right to have a baby, by actually having one.
But seriously, how heartening, genuinely, a new, loved and wanted baby is. How encouraging for Parliament as an institution to be reformed by women of the House, of child bearing age, actually bearing children.
Commentary suggests political and social life will be transformed because for only the second time in democratic history, a country’s leader is pregnant. Women and men will be newly liberated within domestic and employment relations, traditional power relations will be inverted. It’s an end to male domination and patriarchy. Jacinda has already said the Labour-led Government will be an empathetic one, and there’s nothing more representative of compassion and caring than the pregnant mother. Could we be seeing the emergence of our latent bonobo faculties expressed at highest political level – matriarchal, caring, empathetic, conciliatory instead of conflictual?
Rather than judging our Prime politician by her ability to get pregnant, 100 days in, it’s appropriate to judge her and the new Government on their achievements. By their works we shall know them and all that. The Party’s 17 point, 100 day plan, indeed, allows for a higher level of transparency and accountability of just how are things tracking, as will the proposed Budget performance measures. Performance on the 100 day action targets have been analysed by the media (and reflected in supportive polls) and generally scored highly. Labour set goals, and can already tick them off. First year’s fee free tertiary study, the Healthy Homes Guarantee for renters, the ban on foreign investors in existing houses, the resumption of NZ Superannuation Fund contributions, the Pike River Recovery agency, the Mental Health Inquiry, measures of child poverty in the Budget, a stop to the sell off of state houses, improved Working for Families, Paid Parental leave and the Winter Fuel payment – many of these agenda items take a step toward improving the lives of many people, even if just by partly undoing worse changes inflicted upon New Zealand by National. And even if they don’t address the cause of the problem which is an unjust and unequal system.
But the Labour Government has so far achieved what it said it was going to do – even if it was a commitment to do something later, or just a commitment to look into something, to set up an inquiry or to start a process to consider something.
In fact, the timeframes for actually delivering on those inquiries and plans takes us nicely up to the next election, or the next, or in the case of halving child poverty, three electoral cycles away, another decade, another generation.
Poverty, inequality and environmental damage are not just matters of budget, but of policy made along the way. It’s early days, but on more substantive matters of sovereignty, the environment, the division of private and public wealth, and workers’ rights, so far, not so good, in critical assessment.
Like a cartoon on Facebook says, Labour worked really hard to change the TPP, and fair enough, now it has a different name. But the rebranded CPTPP still creates fears in the minds and hearts of many. Labour are being accused of hypocrisy for campaigning against National’s TPP but supporting a secret, uncertain deal that in opposition they may well have continued to criticise. The Prime Minister suggested people aren’t very concerned about the CPTPP now that the US has withdrawn. I’d suggest there’s still anger and fear, and feelings of disappointment and betrayal.
The jury is out on the real weight of the labour relations changes from the new Government too. The resumption of mandatory meal breaks must be a relief to those exploited on factory floors, such as meat workers, but meanwhile they continue to fight for the right for secure and safe employment through the courts. The hire and fire rule has been changed so little as to make it meaningless. (Doesn’t apply to most businesses, and those it does apply to can still hire and fire, but have to provide a reason). Labour reckon they couldn’t tighten things up because it was a New Zealand First bottom line to retain the 90 day trial and fire period. That just shows that disappointingly, it wasn’t a bottom line of Labour.
We have a long, long way to go before we’re back where we were before National took office, let alone before Labour’s neo-liberal blitzkrieg on state and society from 1984. Measuring poverty even against Treasury’s changing goal posts counts for little, at a time when it has been revealed that 1% of the New Zealand population own 30% of the wealth, and 30% own only 1%. Business is clearly still setting the agenda even if Labour aren’t as bad as the Nats. Today, we have a party wearing a mask of kindness according to Sue Bradford, but sadly also, the Party is wearing the mask on behalf of exploiters and corporates, some of whom pay no tax in New Zealand despite record profits.
But in the meantime, it’s all being played very well. And the 17 policy goals are steps of progress it would be churlish to ignore. There’s good grace, humour and public displays of empathy from Jacinda, even if the rest of the team are comparatively wooden. The decision to have MPs handing out kai at Waitangi, is an inspired one. It creates an impression of humility in MPs, has good profile, public contact and exposure, and press. Soon we should expect Jacinda to hug beggars and bathe the feet of lepers. Being pregnant and having a baby will be the next best thing. Some in the media have already gushed that Jacinda’s is our ‘own royal baby’. There’s living-saint type beatification going on among devoted supporters.
Despite the Prime Minister’s pregnancy, this government represents a modified status quo and change will be incremental and conservative (note the debate and votes on medicinal marijuana), and in many instances Labour will be more aligned with National than the Greens. For better or for worse the Greens are shackled to that slow moving conservative wagon through their role in Government. But Jacinda would be naturally hoping to build trust for longer term reforms as well. Building on the current pace, trust and confidence, over a three-term cycle, there may be some better amelioration of the excesses of capital, the state of our planet and inequality, though not much really on a background of business as usual. Pregnant or not, Jacinda’s not superwoman, competent and as intuitive a politician as she is; she’s not incapacitated either. But she’s not a miracle worker that’s required to clean up this mess.
But politics is like the tribalism of primate societies. We have strong bonds to in-groups and oppose others. Labour loyalists (the royalists?) are in love. And they’re angry at critics. We’ve got the chimp and the bonobo going on. Some of it is irrational. Those upset about what they see as a betrayal over Labour’s support for the (CP)TPP, the fishing industry, extractive industries, the racing industry, are instead accused of being traitors. There’s an implication that we should never question the motives or practices of a centre-left government, now we finally have one. Even if it is more centre, than left.
The score card is mixed. The new Labour-led government is like Jacinda’s physical state – conceived in a honeymoon, with high expectations, with delivery pending.