MUST READ: Why Leadership Matters – More Than Anything.

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I’M HALFWAY THROUGH Timothy Snyder’s Bloodlands – as grim a history book as I have ever felt obliged to read. The territory of the title denotes that vast swathe of Eastern Europe and Western Russia which felt the murderous effects of first Soviet and then German totalitarianism between 1933 and 1945. Reading Bloodlands, one consistent and inescapable truth emerges: the character of a nation’s leadership matters. It matters more than anything.

The diseased characters of Joseph Stalin and Adolf Hitler incubated death and destruction on a colossal scale – so colossal that it is hard to take in.

Over a period of three months, the Covid-19 Pandemic has claimed the lives of 8,000 human-beings. In the space of just a few days, in the Ponary Forest, not far from the Lithuanian capital of Vilnius, in July 1941, “Special Action Unit 9” of the German Police, assisted by Lithuanian “auxiliaries”, shot and buried 72,000 Jews. It is important to bear in mind that the mass murder at Ponary was just one of scores of similar incidents. Equally important is the fact that such mass killings were not the sole preserve of the Nazis. The quantum of blood spilled by Stalin’s NKVD similarly defies the imagination.

Could there have been a Stalin without the First World War? A Hitler without the Great Depression? Of course not. Human-beings may make history, but, as Karl Marx observed, “they do not make it just as they please”. All manner of influences combine to drive historical events: geography, economics, demographics; and yet, when these grand forces propel events towards a moment of crisis, the quality of political leadership assumes more and more importance. How the grand forces of history end up being personified matters. It matters more than anything.

In New Zealand, and across the planet, the Covid-19 Pandemic: exogenous, random, naturally occurring: has profoundly disrupted the global economy and is pushing the social and economic institutions of the world’s nation states to their breaking points. The ideological context in which so many of those institutions are framing their response to the pandemic is one of neoliberal capitalism. A large part of the difficulties currently being experienced by the world’s nation states, as they grapple with the Covid-19 virus, is due to neoliberalism’s implacable hostility to the collectivism and solidarity needed to protect their citizens from the pandemic.

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How well, or badly, national leaders fare in dealing with Covid-19 will depend on how willing (or able) they are to step away from the neoliberal paradigm – and how quickly. It is almost certainly no accident that the nations which have dealt most effectively with the virus, China and South Korea, are both more indebted to the economic nationalist ideas of Friedrich List than the neoliberal theories of Ludwig von Mises and Friedrich Hayek. Where the nation takes precedence over the corporation, combatting pandemics seems to be easier. Certainly, the leaders of the two countries where neoliberalism first secured control of the state apparatus, the United Kingdom and the United States, both seem to be struggling.

New Zealand, too, is a nation state where neoliberalism has enjoyed a dream run. The ideology permeates just about every aspect of the country’s economic and social life. All the more remarkable, then, that New Zealand’s prime minister, Jacinda Ardern, has wrestled herself free of neoliberalism’s grip. Especially when one recalls that it was Ardern’s Labour Party that released the neoliberal virus into New Zealand’s bloodstream. Clearly, Ardern has developed the antibodies needed to step away from the ideology – but how?

The answer may lie in Ardern’s almost accidental accession to Labour’s leadership and, from there, to the prime-ministership. Both events owed more to the personal fears and demons of the two men who cleared the pathway to her success, Andrew Little and Winston Peters, than to any Machiavellian scheming on Ardern’s part. Little’s and Peters’ decisions introduced “the incredible lightness of being Jacinda” to places where she was able to make a tangible political difference. Precisely because she has never been an ideologue (she calls herself a “pragmatic idealist”) Ardern has a political nimbleness and spontaneity which, when infused with her exceptional emotional intelligence, produces spectacular demonstrations of leadership.

“Jacinda’s” empathic political persona contrasts sharply with the less-than-sunny ways of her principal political opponent – the National Party Leader of the Opposition, Simon Bridges. As a fan of the band AC/DC, Bridges will be well acquainted with the concept of “dirty deeds done dirt cheap”. It is one of the darker features of National Party culture that, in order to succeed, their aspiring leaders must consent to being “blooded”. Generally speaking, this requires them to implement policies with which, at a personal level, they may profoundly disagree. The psychic injury inflicted by this requirement to prove oneself “a good soldier” is easily imagined. And the real tragedy is that, having done it once, it gets easier and easier to do it again, and again, and again. The inevitable result is a coarsening of character and an increased susceptibility to harsh and ruthless arguments.

In the case of the National Party, these harsh and ruthless arguments almost always originate from the deep social wounds that were opened up in the course of constructing the global economy that the neoliberal ideology both explains and defends. Perhaps the best description of what the first two decades of neoliberalism wrought was provided by the American liberal philosopher, Richard Rorty. In his 1998 book,Achieving Our Country, he also accurately prophesied our present populist fevers:

“Members of labor unions, and unorganized unskilled workers, will sooner or later realize that their government is not even trying to prevent wages from sinking or to prevent jobs from being exported. Around the same time, they will realize that suburban white-collar workers — themselves desperately afraid of being downsized — are not going to let themselves be taxed to provide social benefits for anyone else.

“At that point, something will crack. The non-suburban electorate will decide that the system has failed and start looking for a strongman to vote for — someone willing to assure them that, once he is elected, the smug bureaucrats, tricky lawyers, overpaid bond salesmen, and postmodernist professors will no longer be calling the shots.”

Simon Bridges’ graceless response to the Ardern Government’s Covid-19 Pandemic Economic Response Package was a potent example of the way in which right-wing parties like National remind Rorty’s “suburban white-collar workers” that the best way to prevent themselves from being “taxed to provide social benefits for anyone else” is to put their votes behind those who will not countenance the notion that beneficiaries are citizens too.

Critics of Bridges’ harsh words – and there have been many – cannot fathom how any decent person could fail so abjectly to recognise the needs of their fellow New Zealanders. To these people, the best of us, I would say – more in sorrow than in anger – read Bloodlands. From its grim pages you will learn about political leaders who, over many years, were able to convince their followers that while some human-beings are indeed endowed with rights and are, therefore, worthy of the state’s protection; there are others, masquerading as human-beings, who are not. In the case of Stalin’s and Hitler’s followers, these convictions allowed them to slaughter “class enemies” and “sub-humans” by the thousand – by the million. Those with something to lose; those with something to gain; when set in motion by leaders willing to sanction and facilitate whatever measures are deemed necessary to advance their interests; will do anything, stop at nothing.

We are not an inherently benign species. For good, or ill, we are easily led. That’s why the character of a nation’s leadership matters. That’s why it matters more than anything.

31 COMMENTS

  1. Sad to say, this description
    “ The non-suburban electorate will decide that the system has failed and start looking for a strongman to vote for — someone willing to assure them that, once he is elected, the smug bureaucrats, tricky lawyers, overpaid bond salesmen, and postmodernist professors will no longer be calling the shots”
    fits NZFirst’s leader. Who rejected National, chose Labour as a better partner and made Ardern our Prime Minister.

    • New Zealand doesn’t Political strongmen because we deny military leadership with the same zeal as intelligence makes us uncomfortable. As long as China has nukes, which sharply limits what other countries can do. Some noises will be made, mostly by the U.S. (and maybe Japan to score a few PR points), but as long as Junta!China doesn’t try anything crazy (i.e., worse than Bush), the rest of the world will play ball and deal with it as best as they can. The greatest problem will be likely economic panic ensuing from drastic political redevelopment (that’s the best discretion I could come up with about the limits of neoliberal ability to respond to crises).

      With the Chinese Communist Party being in charge and for so long as its members march in lockstep with it, any rebellion against the Junta will likely end in a bloodbath. Bad PR for the Junta, but as long as it has nukes no external actors will risk helping any resistance movements. It would be courting WWIII.


  2. Excellent piece Chris.

    I hope we don’t see misogynistic exports from the vile and recently shut down Trade Me message board using this platform for yet more divisive attacks on Ardern and her leadership. They have been relentless with their 24/7 undermining, misrepresenting, abusive ridiculing from the very moment Ardern became a threat to the National Party and their goals that previously divided our country.

    Ardern has zero leadership skills.
    Ardern is a part time PM.
    Ardern needs to return to the takeaway she worked at as a teenage girl as that’s all she’s suitable for.
    Ardern is lipstick on a pig.
    Ardern is the worst PM we’ve ever had.
    Ardern is clueless.
    Ardern doesn’t actually care about people, it’s all just a vote attracting gimmick.
    Ardern had a baby out of wedlock.
    Ardern has a horse face.
    Ardern deserves only equine references.
    Ardern is a flake.
    Ardern is fairy dust.
    Ardern has no substance.
    Ardern is not very smart.
    Ardern is only interested in a future UN position.
    Ardern is destroying NZ.

    etc etc etc etc etc etc etc etc.

    Anyone who has the audacity to disagree with any or all of the above is an “Ardern Sycophant”.

    It’s abundantly clear to all those with a brain bigger than a sultana and not drowning in bitter resentment
    and bias, that Ardern is exactly the leader than NZ and all it’s people need at this time.

    It’s also just as clear that Simon Bridges and his divisive “team” are the very last thing NZ needs at any time ever again but especially, now.

    If ever we need an inclusive NZ, it’s now.

    • I agree with you Jacindafan.

      Those disgusting comments are most likely been made by the same dirt bag commenters that use kiwi Blog on a daily basis, and they are out in force this morning.

      David Farrar has certainly gathered a lot of meatheads around him to do the dirty work, which they relish.

      I for one, and I know a lot of others that are damned pleased we have a leader of Jacinda’s quality at this point of time.

  3. Leadership is reorganising the boat and finding lifejackets taking up space have the staff get rid of them.

    Leadership is overtly treating staff with disdain and contempt and having them at each others throats. And leadership is when you’re overboard wondering why there aren’t enough lifejackets for everyone and having problems understanding why people can’t work together to save others and themselves. However, enough about the presidential model, back to New Zealand.

    The concept of ’emotional intelligence’ is beyond the ken of many. An empathic political persona has been a cause to attack Jacinda Ardern rather than a quality to be valued. When not the just the understanding of empathy but the sense of it, the feeling of it doesn’t exist, their importance to leadership as it is perceived by the public is of what value? Can those things be itemised as assets on the financials? Not important then.

    The simple humanity of Jacinda Ardern hugging a needing person in Christchurch being turned into a cause for scorn showed the pretty pass we have come to. What was leadership gold to some was dross (and gross) to others.

    Maybe those who poured venom on Ardern for hugging people and wearing a hijab are those who want the archetypal leader, bold, strong, decisive. That’s what they recognise as leadership. They’d love Stalin or Kim Jong-un.

    • You say the right stuff Peter. But JA won’t be judged for her empathy if the death count mounts. She will be judged on whether she moved on this quickly enough. Not fair I know but that’s how it will be. Has she moved quick enough considering our location that many countries would die for and most probably will. Time will tell and history will judge Peter. Has she made the right calls. Forget the fucking hugs.

      • You’ve seen it out there over a couple of years – the sort of stuff that Jacindafan said.

        There are those who have Ardern only going to places with kids because those are the only people she can deal with. And only doing ‘photo ops’ including hugs. And always being overseas.

        By many she won’t be judged on what she actually ‘does,’ the quality of decisions made while she’s PM. She has already been judged by aspects I just said.

        The ‘right call?’ Once again she will never make the right call to some. Those going loopy about borders being closed too late would have gone loopier if the borders had been closed in late January. Would it have been more effective to have closed the country down then? Yes, in terms of the virus arriving her. Would people have tolerated that? No.

        • Correct Peter and people would have stated she went the early crow.They would’ve said she cost the country billions. They, the uneducated, the right wing nutjobs.

      • So how many died under Key during the earthquakes? was HE judged New View? Forget the business round table and markets! At present Ardern sits at zero!!!!

  4. She is still my preferred PM and now more than ever we need her to lead us through this. ffs can you imagine anxiety levels if the dufus gets in? fuck no, not in Sept not ever. He is not PM material even if this crisis was not happening he still wouldn’t be up to it the statesman ship that NZers deserve.

  5. Yeah , good article, Chris.

    I remember as a 9 or 10 year old watching ‘World at War’,… and being disgusted especially with the ‘holocaust’ edition. It was then that the realization of the depravity’s of human beings became evident. That was buried as time went by , though reinforced through the years by various things I read , until curiously , another depravity became evident after 1984,- that being the willingness of so many in my own country to accept , then find, ways to adapt to the neo liberal paradigm . Not only that , – but to use it to their advantage.

    And once discovering ways to use that advantage over others, to embrace the ideology fully. If you’ve been a working person most of your adult life, you will have been appalled how low wages have plummeted, – and worse , – the extent to which it has been embedded and accepted in political circles and the greater public’s thinking. That large swathes of the citizenry have been marginalized , blamed , chastised and looked down upon as unworthy simply because of the type of work they are performing. And this also includes those on benefits as well.

    Well , as you have highlighted, leadership style DOES matter. Simply because, if you wish to have a society that is safe, functioning and protective of its populace, it naturally follows you need leaders that have those values too. On the whole Adern is the leader we need for these times. Her govt has shown itself adaptable to the prevalent conditions, overruling ideology and ‘sacred cows’ to do the right thing.

    The contrast to that , sitting on the opposition benches , display the very thing this country does not want or need at this time.

    We are fortunate to have Adern and her govt at the helm for now and the foreseeable future , and by that I mean this term and past the next election.

  6. Here we go! First mistake!!

    Countrywide lockdown speculation dismissed by Prime Minister

    NZs pandemic plan is based on: 6 phase strategy:
    1 Plan For It (planning and preparedness) – Yup.
    2 Keep It Out (border management) – Kinda. HalfArse approach.
    3 Stamp It Out (cluster control) – Not there yet!
    4 Manage It (pandemic management) – Kinda
    5 Manage It: Post-Peak – Not there yet.
    6 Recover From It (recovery). NTY.

    Score out of 10 so far4.5

    • And then, a Bailout!
      Did the NZ government just rig the share price of AirNZ shares with a $900m stock buy back? A shareholders subsidy to sustain the price so that shareholders can cash up their shares!

  7. I guess that Jacinda and Grant have essentially cemented the re-election of a Labour-led government in September, and there is sweet fa that Simon can do anything about it.

  8. “Jacinda Ardern, has wrestled herself free of neoliberalism’s grip”

    Really? Evidence please. Jacinda’s a great front-person for the band. But who’s going to write the songs?

  9. Leadership, yes, Jacinda does better than many others and deserves respect for it, she seems to thrive when disaster strikes.

    As for the Coronavirus and worldwide emergency measures, rest assured, it is now far too late for the new virus to be beaten. That war has been lost, as it is now all over the globe, in poor countries in Africa, in South East Asia and so forth, where health systems will not cope, and where people will resist the strict guidelines that they would have to follow.

    Even in Spain, Italy and Brazil now, is there resitance to the harsh containment measures.

    People will not behave as the perfection loving health bureaucrats and academics wish them to behave.

    So prepare for the worst. NZ Inc may only achieve to have the disease kept out of its borders. For the future though, travel to various countries will be a nono, prohibitive, and immigration will have to screen every person more thoroughly, force them to go through 14 day quarantine before arrival and also after that.

    We face the worst economic crisis for ever, as it will be worse than what hit the world in the 1920s and 1930s, with the US expected to hit 20 percent unemployment at least.

    You cannot enforce the rules now in force, and have government replace all the lost productivity by paying compensation and so, governments will go almost bankrupt, they will start with Italy, already a near basket case, being one nation going bust and beyond affordability to rescue, setting off a domino effect.

    NZ Inc will not be protected from global fallout, we depend too much on exports and imports, we will go bust soon, no money left for the government to spend, and future generations will be in debt for ages, as the burden will be immense.

    You cannot just close down a country for six or more months, that is the least it will take, and expect the economy to survive this.

    The GREATEST ECONOMIC COLLAPSE OF ALL TIMES has just begun, but most do not realise it yet. Get ready for absolutely essential basic survival tactics and strategies, the fittest will survive, there will be millions going to the dogs.

    • Gov doesn’t need to borrow money it can manufacture it out of thin air with will to do so. Much ‘money’ already only exists as zeros and ones in a computer. UBi is the solution. Economy won’t crash as long as their is mney in peoples hands. Also gov can institute sterner measures if necessary ie a freeze on rent/lease payments, rent control/rent-to-income ratios. Requisitioning, rationing etc. I think we are a bit more sophisticated this time around. There will be crunch but not necessarily collapse.

  10. “…..Timothy Snyder’s Bloodlands – as grim a history book as I have ever felt obliged to read.”

    I remarked to a family member that you had been reading Snyder; said family member’s response: “Has anyone actually read that book? It’s the most contemptible drivel ever to come out of Yale.”

    With which I can only agree. I wonder that anyone could read this book, and fail to recognise it for a soft Nazi apologetic. And it’s absolutely of a piece with Washington Establishment anti-Russian propaganda.

    Daniel Lazare agrees: https://www.jacobinmag.com/2014/09/timothy-snyders-lies/

    If you would present a treatise on the importance of leadership in guiding a society in the right direction, you could do worse than focus on Vladimir Putin. He has turned out to be a formidable ruler; not for nothing has he been re-elected so many times by Russian citizens. He makes western politicians – especially the various US presidents who’ve occupied the White House since he first came to power – look like the muppets they are.

    • So you deride Nazi apologia yet praise Putin, a fascist in all but name? Ridiculous. Voting rigged, Chair-hopping (President to PM to President, imprisonment, assassination & constitutional coup are what have kept Putin in power.

  11. “The heart is deceitful above all things,
    And desperately wicked;
    Who can know it?
    Good article by Chris although the words above from about 2600 years ago show that the problem is not a new thing.

  12. “The moment a leader allows himself to become the primary reality people worry about, rather than primary reality being the primary reality, you have a recipe for mediocrity or worse.” (Jim Collins, Good to Great)

    Primary Reality is: More and More People Struggling for Their Daily Survival.
    Primary Reality is: Increasing Exploitation of Resources and Destruction of the Environment.
    Primary Reality is: Unfolding Effects of Climatic Change on Humankind.

    Primary Reality is the NIWA carbon count:
    https://niwa.co.nz/climate/research-projects/carbon-watch-nz

  13. Gov doesn’t need to borrow money it can manufacture it out of thin air with will to do so. Much ‘money’ already only exists as zeros and ones in a computer. UBi is the solution. Economy won’t crash as long as their is money in peoples hands. Also gov can institute sterner measures if necessary ie a freeze on rent/lease payments, rent control/rent-to-income ratios. Requisitioning, rationing, interest free loans etc. I think we are a bit more sophisticated this time around. There will be crunch but not necessarily collapse.

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