WITH THE UNITED STATES seemingly on the brink of becoming “Gilead”, the obvious question is: Could it happen here? The glib answer is: “Of course not! New Zealand is not America.” But that simply will not do. People said the same when Ronald Reagan’s New Right “revolution” swept across the United States. And yet, within a single decade, virtually all the institutions New Zealanders believed to be deeply entrenched features of their society and politics had been swept away – replaced by new ones stamped “Made in the USA”.
A better question, therefore, might be: “What made it happen there?” How was the nation that finally afforded African-Americans the rights promised to them in the Fourteenth Amendment to the US Constitution recaptured by the unabashed promoters of White Supremacy? How was the Equal Rights Amendment defeated? How could the same country that gave the world Jack Kennedy and Barack Obama, produce Richard Nixon and Donald Trump?
Part of the explanation lies in a single word: “Sputnik”. The Soviet Union’s launching into space of the world’s first satellite profoundly shocked the American Government. The generals realised immediately that the rockets that could boost Sputnik into space could also boost nuclear warheads. The rapid advance of Soviet science had made the USA acutely vulnerable. Not only that, it had made America look intellectually weak: a country prey to the absurd fallacies of fundamentalist Christianity, and deeply suspicious of “cleverness” in all its forms.
Thanks to Sputnik, the national security of the United States now required a profound change in America’s cultural style. Science had to be advanced to the forefront of American life – and quickly. Congress would have to fund it, and the anti-intellectual elements, most especially the fundamentalist Christian churches, would have to keep their mouths firmly shut – on pain of been labelled “Un-American”. Overnight, scientists and engineers became the go-to-guys for all matters relating to America’s future.
The problem for red-in-tooth-and-claw American capitalism was that something happens to societies where Science becomes the final arbiter of national policy. Before the forces of conservatism know it, traditional values and prejudices are being asked to justify themselves with tangible evidence. What cannot be rationally defended begins to fall by the cultural and political waysides. Religious faith begins to look antiquated and, in its worst expressions, socially harmful. The educational curriculum soon comes to reflect the new scientific orthodoxy. Bigotry finds itself, to use today’s terminology, de-platformed.
But bigotry is crucial to the health of capitalism. Bigotry obscures the social and economic truths that would otherwise free people from the beliefs that keep them stupid and angry. Bigotry allows ethnic, sexual, and religious communities to be pitted against one another, making working-class unity and solidarity impossible. Bigotry encourages people to mistrust science and fear intellectuals – on the not altogether incorrect grounds that science and socialism are joined at the hip. As the progressives of our own time say: “Science has a left-wing bias.”
Where science reigns, so, too, does social-democracy. Having seen what bigotry produced, the nations of Western Europe – Scandinavia in particular – opted enthusiastically for social and economic policies that sought to provide the greatest amount of “good” things – universal healthcare, free education, affordable and secure accommodation, a rational electoral system – to the greatest number. President Lyndon Johnson’s “Great Society” programmes of the middle-1960s, building upon President Franklin Roosevelt’s “New Deal” programmes of the 1930s, strongly suggested that, with science in the saddle, the USA was headed, irreversibly, in the same direction.
America’s most ruthless and aggressive capitalists were having none of it. To head-off the possibility of a science-driven, social-democratic United States (in which the power of capitalism would inevitably begin to wane) they adopted a dual strategy of resistance.
First of all, they made it possible for capitalism to advance its own “science” against the “left-wing” (i.e. genuine) science that was inflicting so much damage upon their cause. By endowing university departments and setting up their own think-tanks and research journals, the capitalist string-pullers were soon equipped to take the fight to the scientific enemy.
American capitalism’s second line of attack was to do everything possible to encourage irrationality and anti-scientific prejudice – most particularly among working-class Americans. By funding and encouraging the revival of fundamentalist Christianity it was able to unleash the so-called “culture wars”. Religious faith was pitted against scientific knowledge. Creationism confronted Darwin’s Theory of Evolution in school boards across the United States. Before long scientists began to be regarded as the evil agents of Satan.
Kicking-off in the 1970s, American capitalism’s fightback against science had, by the second decade of the Twenty-First Century, forced uncorrupted scientists onto the defensive. From the deadly effects of tobacco and sugar, to the looming catastrophe of Global Warming, the capitalists’ “scientists” had denied and delayed effective remedial action to devastating effect. On the irrational front, things were going equally well. By the year 2020 more than half of all Americans preferred the Bible’s creation story to Darwin’s.
Indeed, so successful was American capitalism’s crusade against science that when the Covid-19 pandemic struck, roughly half of the American population declined to follow the scientific advice of the Centre for Disease Control. The Coronavirus has now killed more Americans than all the wars they have fought in their far-from-peaceful history.
What does this depressing historical narrative have to tell New Zealanders. The most obvious lesson is, surely, that we are no less the victims of the bogus “science” of American capitalism’s propaganda machine than the people of the USA themselves. In the decade between the fall of the Third Labour Government and the election of the Fourth, the neoliberal ideology was injected slowly – and largely invisibly – into the bloodstream of the New Zealand establishment.
What proved more difficult to replicate here was the resurrection of irrationalism, bigotry and religious extremism that had proved so crucial to the rescue of American capitalism. New Zealand Christianity, at least as a mass phenomenon, crashed in the early 1970s (thanks largely to our free, secular, and science-driven public education system) and in spite of the best efforts of the evangelical churches, it has failed to rise again.
But, where the miracle-workers of right-wing Kiwi Christianity have failed, the miracle-workers of Silicon Valley have succeeded beyond their wildest dreams. In this country, the rise and rise of social-media has opened the door to all kinds of irrational beliefs and conspiracy theories – greatly facilitating the undermining of scientific authority – especially medical science. This attack on science has been greatly assisted by the Covid-19 Pandemic which has acted as the vector for the rapid spread of American-sourced social pathologies across the New Zealand population.
The consequences of this other pandemic are likely to be severe. We have already witnessed the response of New Zealand capitalism to a government willing to be guided by “the science”. We have also noted the capitalists’ near complete success in reasserting the priorities of commerce over public welfare.
In the cultural context, however, the single-minded campaigning of the business community is largely absent. What New Zealand faces instead is a potentially devastating collision of irrationalities. The quasi-religious certainties of the so-called “woke” – especially those relating to race and gender – are already crashing head-on into right-wing groups angered and frightened by the radical transformation of New Zealand which the Woke propose. What threatens is a perfect storm of competing bigotries: ideological antagonists united only in their determination to shout down and shut out the voices of reason.
The imminent overturning of Roe versus Wade by the US Supreme Court is certain to raise echoes here that are no less evocative of the dystopia envisioned by Margaret Atwood in The Handmaid’s Tale.
Gilead can happen here.