Tuesday, May 21

The political theology of Winston Peters

It’s highly unlikely that Winston Peters has read the conservative German political theorist Carl Schmitt, yet, in a very New Zealand no.8 wire do-it-yourself fashion, over his political career Peters has come to be the leading New Zealand exponent of political theology. It’s even more improbable that Peters has heard of the apocalyptic Jewish thinker Jacob Taubes, let alone read the letters between Taubes and Schmitt on political theology, yet again Peters embodies, in the New Zealand political landscape, the expression much of what they discuss. This is why it is the notions of sovereign, katechon, and the friend-enemy as they arise in the letters to Schmitt by Taubes that can provide both a means of critique and a way to rethink Peters and what he represents in New Zealand politics.

To do this, we need to go back to Weimar Germany in the 1920s, a time of turmoil and fragmentation.  Count Harry Kessler, aesthete, diplomat, and diarist left an intriguing record of  the issues facing Germany in the early 20th century, a record of a time of both revolution and counter-revolution as expressed in his observation of the artist George Groz: “He is reactionary and revolutionary in one, a symbol of the times.” 

I want to raise the possibility that Peters and New Zealand First are, a century later, a contemporary symbol of the times, both revolutionary and reactionary in one.  Why go back to Weimar to rethink New Zealand politics? Well, as the editors of the incredibly substantial Weimar Republic Source Book noted, “a laboratory for modernity, the Weimar period offered a panoply of political, economic, social and cultural models… The result was a frantic kaleidoscopic shuffling of the fragments of a nascent modernity and the remnants of a persistent past”.

This is why Weimar is still central, a century on; for to be modern is still to live in the wake of Weimar. To approach this from another angle, as Andrew Turner raised in his discussion of Schmitt and Weimar in Telos (2011), we need to remember “one of the hidden sources feeding the Schmitt problem – the question of responsibility for the demise of the Weimar republic”. If we think of what we can term ‘the Peters problem’, at its root is ‘the question of responsibility for the demise of pre-1984 New Zealand’.

New Zealand has always tended to shy away from thinking too deeply on political theory. We have preferred and been governed by what, from the late-1970s onwards, the NBR was terming ad-hoc responses. This paucity of applied thinking and planning is what enabled the blitzkrieg of neoliberalism to succeed; there was nothing to be put in its way in a coherent and applied fashion. For neoliberalism and the associated ‘withering of the state’ was in fact one of the few times when a strong belief was applied to New Zealand politics and society. In this, it was similar to the ‘applied Christianity’ laid out in the manifesto of the first Labour government that in turn provided the basis for the welfare state. As an aside, there is an argument to be made that it was the sudden secularization of New Zealand in the 1970s and 1980s that exposed the increasingly foundationless welfare state to the new belief of neoliberalism.

Of course, since 1987, we have experienced ad-hoc neoliberalism from both Labour and National-led governments. This, in tandem with his creation of New Zealand First in 1993 and the introduction of MMP in  1996, has enabled Peters’ particular brand of local populist political theology.

In the discussions of Carl Schmitt and Jacob Taubes, there are three central categories: the sovereign, the katechon, and the friend-enemy.  In Schmitt’s political theology, the sovereign is the one who makes the exception; while from Taubes comes the notion of the katechon, the restrainer of the chaos termed anti-Christ and of the apocalypse that follows. The third category is that of ‘friend-enemy’ as the basis of political discussion and engagement. To understand these concepts, we must also read any discussion of Peters and NZ First through what has almost become the Schmittean cliché from Political Theology (1922) that “all significant concepts of the modern theory of the state are secularized theological concepts”.

Peters has built his political career on his ad-hoc political theology.

Firstly, he has persistently and successfully situated himself as the sovereign of New Zealand politics, the one who makes the decision that is the exception. That is, the leader of the small party who decides the government is the real sovereign of MMP. It is chaos that demands, for Schmitt, the necessity of the sovereign decision; and so it is the chaos of liberalism, the chaos of liberal modernity that claims to be democratic but is really only chaotic, that requires the necessity of the sovereign decision. This means, for Schmitt and for Peters, that the role of the sovereign is ultimately the one who, in the face of chaos, makes the decisive decision, the decision of the exception, the decision to keep order.

Secondly, the sovereign decision means Peters also presents himself as the katechon: the restrainer of that viewed as anti-Christ; that is, the restrainer of the people, beliefs, policies, and events viewed as chaotic and impure. Peters’ consistent warnings of a socio-economic, cultural, and national apocalypse that only he and his party can restrain is a central element of his political theology.

Thirdly, Peters operates on the political theology framework of ‘friend-enemy’. Carl Schmitt stated: “The enemy is our own question given form.” That is, the enemy is who or what we can see ourselves in – and is yet a stranger to us. This is an existential position and decision.  We could describe it as the difference between those who are part of what Peters views as his community and those who he believes are opposed to it. This is why, central to Peter’s politics, there are friends and there are enemies.   

Peters’ occupation of a centralist, populist nationalism means those to both the left and the right of him are always potentially either friends or enemies, depending on the sovereign decision to be made. This is because in political theology the friend-enemy is never a set nor static distinction, the friend can become the enemy and the enemy the friend depending on the context and the sovereign decision. 

Yet there is a nuance. There is a true friend who is the member of your community and there is the ally who is outside your community but not, in this decision, an enemy.  Values are shared with friends, whereas power is shared with the ally. The enemy is whatever or whoever is the threat to sovereignty and so, as sovereign, Peters is the one who consistently decides, in New Zealand politics who is friend, who is ally and who is enemy.

While in traditional theology the enemy is to be destroyed, in modern political theology the enemy is a non-theological and legal enemy: the opposed but not to be destroyed. For to aim to destroy that or who is ‘the one’ who defines you is in the end to destroy oneself or at least to lose one’s self-identity. Peters therefore needs the enemy, an enemy who could be an ally, for then he can enact his sovereign decision – against the new enemy.

For 30 years, since his winning the Tauranga by-election for New Zealand First, Peters has carved out a fascinating type of ad-hoc, anti-neoliberal, antipodean populist political theology.  But is it a particular weakness of New Zealand’s MMP system that he is consistently the sovereign?

Author