Reprinted with permission from the Political Scientist.
Apparently, McDonald’s hamburgers are the result of the best technology that food and taste engineers can provide.
All ingredients and processing events are managed to within an inch – maybe less – of their lives. The consumable item is the culmination of precision engineering in pursuit of that ever so elusive optimal appetitive experience – the one that feels so good just before and then, again, just after the first mouthful gets bathed in saliva. Best of all, the taste experience then sits, psychologically, at the tip of your expectant tongue the next time you feel hungry.
Or, alternatively, there’s the perfect scriptwriting and dramatic engineering that goes into the blob-out ‘box set’ – ideal for that ‘Saturday night in’. Cosy, reassuring with just enough stimulation to absorb you like a paper towel soaking up the week’s spills from your mind and heart.
But then there’s that moment when the burger is finished, and the box-set is finally watched through its seemingly endless episodes.
It’s then that you have a moment sitting, feeling a little empty and with one short phrase waiting to be thought – ‘Is that all there is?’
That’s the feeling now, at the end of the Key years. An interesting feature of the post-announcement commentaries on John Key’s resignation is the odd question of his legacy.
I say ‘odd’ because, after 8 years as Prime Minister you’d think there’d be half a dozen or so achievements that could at least be gussied up and then hauled out for the obligatory redux of his time in office. But no-one seems to have much of a list – and certainly not a generally acknowledged one.
Vagueness abounds as journalists and commentators clutch at the puny straws on offer – or simply clutch at the wind. As during his time as Prime Minister so too at his parting, John Key is the ultimate screen upon which we project ourselves and our concerns.
On the political right Key has been criticised as a ‘do nothing’ PM – or ‘nothing that Helen Clark wouldn’t have done’; as ‘wasting political capital’, ‘visionless’ and a range of other terms of frustration rather than endearment.
Centrists have, unsurprisingly, praised him for his ‘centrism’ and ‘pragmatism’ – code words, it seems, for doing nothing that has caused the commentator much emotional surprise or moral disquietude (government as a pair of comfy, old slippers).
To the left has been the emphasis on a catalogue of ‘incremental decrements’ in statistics on, and experiences of, inequality, homelessness, housing affordability, environmental quality and safeguards, sinking real funding of social services and health, etc.. All the crises that, in classic John Key elusiveness, were never quite ‘crises’ – or not ones his government was ever responsible for.
But, again, the overall pattern is striking.
There’s this sense that we’ve just been roughly shaken out of some kind of lotus-eating slumber; out of a vague, foggy, even drugged era in New Zealand politics. While the world collided and erupted all around us – the GFC, climate disasters, the financial crisis in Greece, yet more Middle East wars, Gaza bombardments and political dramas and upheavals – we ambled along oblivious, led by our amiable Shrugger-in-Chief John Key.
During this time, this eight years, my own sense has been of a long slow draining of energy; like being sucked empty by getting too close to a vacuum. If the Helen Clark premiership ran out of vision sometime leading into its third term, the John Key premiership had the advantage of never having any vision, any definable content or direction, to begin with; how then could it ever ‘run out’ of nothing?
Perhaps the only person able to pull the plug on these odd years was Key himself.
It has been said by Helen Clark’s critics on the right that she and Michael Cullen ‘wasted the Golden Years’, the years of surpluses and fortuitous commodity prices.
In many ways John Key and his government have wasted the years of crisis and upheaval. Those years were potential moments for acknowledging and then vigorously addressing deep-rooted ills – social, cultural, economic and environmental. It was a chance – perhaps our last chance – to have headed towards a truly ‘brighter future’ that was more than soporific election pap.
Now the world – in its much more brutalist 2016 garb – has hammered down our door. We are now going to have to wipe the sleep out of our eyes and look into the harsh light of reality.
I titled a previous post ‘Into the Dark’. I was referring to the then continuing United States Presidential election. But New Zealand had already stepped into a darkened room at least eight years ago – to hide, to pretend that the world would go away if we just joked, shrugged and let out the inner harmless ‘okey dokey’ prankster.
John Key, in the end, played true to the world that created him and which provided the soil in which he could thrive. Coming of age in the 1980s, Key took to the emerging trader mentality like a duck to water. Of those who have seen it, who can forget the retrospectively fortuitous insight of that 1987 Close Up episode that starred a young John Key as the young and ever so strategically elusive dealer?
Here was a man on a solo mission to outsmart the world at its own game.
As it turns out, the world was actually playing a much bigger game than Key imagined so all his premiership ended up doing was marking time as the world – and its major issues – moved on.
John Key has no doubt won at the game he was playing. He became Prime Minister, stayed Prime Minister and departed from the role of Prime Minister all on his own timetable.
Sadly, that’s not a game whose outcome any of us should be particularly interested in. It has turned out to be far too personal a game of individual ambition and achievement.
Our collective ‘game’ – the only important political game in town – is the extent to which we are able to respond effectively to the coming years and decades.
Over the next year, especially, New Zealanders should rouse themselves, look around at the world through honest eyes and summon the courage to begin a job that needed urgent attention eight years ago and should, in reality, have been begun twenty or more years ago.
These challenges are economic – but not in the usual sense of that term (they concern not just the ‘Future of Work’ but the entire mode by which we meet our collective material needs).
These challenges are environmental – but not just in the sense that we need to treat the natural world better to continue to gain its ‘services’. They concern not only conservation but the entire way in which we structure our embeddedness in that natural world).
But, fundamentally, the main challenges we face are social. How we have organised our world – a privatised, individualised world of fragmented and fleeting social bonds that serves the interests of fewer and fewer people – has brought us to the brink of some of the most catastrophic ‘unintended consequences’ that humans have ever known.
One way or another that social organisation will be overturned – but not necessarily for the better.
Over the past eight years, probably more, we have allowed ourselves the indulgence of thinking that all is well. So long as we were being led by someone with a reassuringly relaxed and self-confident manner the challenges of the world could seem less urgent, less significant than they really were.
Just as we turn to fast food, DVD box-sets and the ready bursts of social media-induced dopamine so too we turned to John Key. He came engineered – by himself and others – to provide the optimal electoral experience for we citizen-consumers.
For eight years we blobbed out as we ‘consumed’ him.
Now we pay the price.
And paying it begins with the same question that follows all consumer experiences – ‘Is that all there is?’