On Luxon’s Muscovite Specter Speech Purportedly Haunting The Nation

Like various recent National Party leaders before him, Christopher Luxon appears to have a bit of difficulty Reading The Room.

It’s a remark of general application, however in this specific case the room in question is “a modest Moscow flat”.

Confused? So’s he. Why? Because The Numbers Don’t Add Up.

Luxon found himself in that modest Moscow flat at some point after he joined Unilever, and was touring the world meeting “management” of that company as he slowly edged his way up the soapy pole. It’s possible that I (and David Cormack, whom I note beat me to the idea for this piece) am in error about this, but I somehow don’t think that Luxon was in Moscow during the era of anything which might feasibly be termed “Socialism”.

Most likely, considering he joined the company in 1993 and spent the first few years based in Wellington (where, to be sure, he may have wandered down Cuba Street and felt a bit lost in both time and space), he probably ventured over to Moscow when he was based out of London from 2000-2003.

Now if that’s the case, then I can certainly agree that he likely encountered quite the swathe of “misery” in that town – however, with somewhere between ten and thirteen years since the fall of the USSR, and up to a decade since the associated dismantling of the Soviet economic system … is it really fair to say that the “misery” in question was “created” by “socialism”?

I’m not so sure. I suppose it comes down to how much you blame the Soviet system for existing – and therefore providing the opportunity for undoing said system in a really, really damaging way. Which, perhaps not uncoincidentally, also saw a fairly massive-scale transfer of wealth from the state to a very small number of private citizens – whilst for ordinary Russians life got significantly worse. A bit of an interesting thing given Luxon’s major theme in yesterday’s speech was the apparent ‘necessity’ of several billion dollars of tax cuts which will only benefit the wealthy (that is – the top 3% of income earners), and which we can fairly assume to be accompanied by constraints in state support and spending.

In the five years from 1989 to 1994, average Russian life expectancy went backwards by nearly five years – that is to say, Russians died, on average, five years earlier under that phase of the Market’s unfurling as compared to under the previous Soviet system. Life expectancy wouldn’t recover to pre-1990 levels in Russia until 2011 – almost a full generation after the Market began to be rolled out in earnest. This compares rather unfavourably, it must be said, with the situation of the USSR from, say, 1950 to 1965 – where life expectancy relatively shot up from just over 50 through to just under 68 … and, I suppose, comparing either of those numbers to the average pre Soviet Union, which appears to have never made it past the early 30s.

We often do not quite adequately appreciate that for all its (numerous) faults, the USSR did manage to take an expanse of what would barely be Third World conditions today, and not only put a man in space less than 40 years later but also manage to make meaningful improvements in quality of life for its citizenry as well. We often fall into something of a trap of choosing to measure Soviet (and Russian) achievements in these spheres relative to a yardstick derived from the (theoretically) most materially abundant society on the planet – America; rather than appreciating just what kind of a ‘dirt floor’ the USSR built itself up from. In fact, not just a ‘dirt floor’ – but a floor on fire, when the immense devastation of the Second World War is taken into consideration.

The point is, by the late 1990s, it had become abundantly clear that the Market had not brought the fabled prosperity promised by the modern Western economics textbook. For many it was quite the opposite. Shortly before Luxon likely arrived in Moscow, for instance, unemployment was in double-digit figures – around 13% in 1999. Going back a bit further, we’ll just quote this paper from the British Medical Journal verbatim:

“The report Transition 1999 stated that suicide rates have climbed steeply too, by 60% in Russia, 80% in Lithuania, and 95% in Latvia since 1989.

But behind the self destructive behaviour, the authors say, are economic factors, including rising poverty rates, unemployment, financial insecurity, and corruption. Whereas only 4% of the population of the region had incomes equivalent to $4 (£2.50) a day or less in 1988, that figure had climbed to 32% by 1994. In addition, the transition to a market economy has been accompanied by lower living standards (including poorer diets), a deterioration in social services, and major cutbacks in health spending.

“What we are arguing,” said Omar Noman, an economist for the development fund and one of the report’s contributors, “is that the transition to market economies [in the region] is the biggest … killer we have seen in the 20th century, if you take out famines and wars. The sudden shock and what it did to the system … has effectively meant that five million [Russian men’s] lives have been lost in the 1990s.” Using Britain and Japan with their ratio of 96 men to every 100 women as the base population, the report’s authors have calculated that there are now some 9.6 million “missing men” in the former communist bloc. “The typical patterns are that a man loses his job and develops a drinking problem,” said Mr Noman. “The women then leave and the men die, first emotionally and then physically.”

So that’s what Luxon was in amidst when he “[remembers] sitting in a modest Moscow flat with a couple in their late 40s on a dark and snowy afternoon.”

Sure sounds like “actually created misery” – although other than the weather (it’s probably a bit hard to be cheery on a “dark and snowy afternoon”), there seems a curious lack of any mention for any then-contemporary causations for the malaise Luxon observed there at the time. Probably because it wouldn’t fit his narrative today.

What’s that narrative? A proverbial red flag. That Labour, having steered us remarkably well (if not, it must be said, always perfectly – they are human, as are we) through a global pandemic (which we are still traversing) through the judicious use of the powers of state effectively unprecedented in peace-time … are somehow “Socialists”. In fact, more than that … Soviet Socialists. Via inferency, aligned to “Moscow” – which, given events of this past week and a half, is a toponym which carries quite some additional ‘dark’ (and perhaps ‘snowy’) connotations to it.

Perhaps he wants to pick up from his previous big speech (curiously enough, also on the ‘state of the nation’) – the one in which he set out his belief that we ought to “sympathise with some of the issues being raised by protesters on Parliament’s grounds without being framed as condoning illegal behaviour or siding with anti-science conspiracy theorists.” I’m sure he could borrow a “Cindy Stalin” hammer-and-sickle adorned placard from some of his friends-of-friends from the fringier bits of Groundswell if he gets sick of trying to do the subtle thing with his rhetoric.

In any case, Luxon ought be careful about basing his ‘reckons’ for Middle New Zealand off one conversation in a Moscow flat. Polling has fairly consistently shown that a majority of Russians … actually think the Soviet system being dismantled was a bad thing. This isn’t some heavily manipulated and unreliable propaganda survey, either – other than the Levada annual polling on the question, you’ve also got the well-regarded Pew Research Center findings. In fact, especially according to the latter, the number of Russians who view the transition to the market system as being a good thing has been steadily declining year upon year – hitting about 38% in 2019 per Pew. Of additional interest is another pattern in the figures – it’s the people who actually grew up and lived under the Soviet system that are chiefly driving the numbers there. The young generation who had no experience of the Soviet system are the ones that are most likely to say they think the new market economy was a good move – as they’ve never known anything else.

But we are not here to make the case for (or, for that matter, against) the Soviet Union. It was a faraway country, with a culture and a system that bore little resemblance to anything we might find here in New Zealand – even the famed ‘Dancing Cossacks’ of a previous National election campaign are simply a two dimensional caricature. Much like Luxon’s rhetoric here, and no doubt pertaining to a great many things.

The point is a simple one. If Luxon wants to audition for the role of Prime Minister of New Zealand, he’d do a better job if the concerns he sought to represent were those of regular New Zealanders. Not 40something Muscovites some twenty-ish years ago who, as it turns out, may not have been all that representative of ordinary Russians even then.

There is a certain segment of the New Zealand body-politic – the armpit of democracy, we may perhaps call them, after the sounds they seem to make for jocularity-value upon talkback radio for puerile self-amusement purposes – who probably do, either genuinely or reasonably enthusiastically facetiously, believe that New Zealand ‘runs the risk’ of becoming some sort of “Communist” state. Or that there’s some meaningful coterminity to be evinced between Putin rolling armoured vehicles into Ukraine and the NZ Police deploying riot shields and a fire-hose against a protest featuring a literal dumpster fire last week.

Some of those were the sort of people so unduly concerned about “Communism” here in New Zealand and a creeping surveillance state with Orwellian characteristics, that they immediately chose to go and set themselves up a commune, in public view and with extensive round-the-clock live-streaming of their every move whilst attempting to redefine reality to fit on an hourly if not minute-by-minute basis. Often whilst boldly declaring their vigorous intent to defend our democracy … by ‘temporarily’ overthrowing it and potentially holding some very Soviet-Stalinist seeming Show-Trials into the bargain.

Luxon was quite rightly pilloried not all that long ago for attempting to wade into that particular ‘debate’ and designating ‘Well Both Sides Have A Point’ as an attempted ‘wedge politics’ against not only our Government, but also the broad majority of the people of New Zealand heartily unimpressed with that sad opposition-for-opposition’s-sake spectacle recently occuring in Wellington (I mean the protest-camp here, not the National Party for a change).

He’s probably – or, rather, his focus-groupers – identified a bit of a seam of disgruntlement out there in the electorate, one which is currently extant effectively as a few embers, but which his handlers hope could be blown upon to get it to grow and inflame into a more American-style political combustion with enough effort and spurious soundbitery. Something somewhat availed, for rhetorical-symbological purposes by the fact that the past week and a half’s developments in geopolitics appear to have put us squarely back in the 80s in various regards.

Expect, over the next year and a half, Luxon to continue to needle along exactly these lines in various subtle (or not-so-subtle) hues.

How effective will it be?

Well, that’s over to you.

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