Back Home 5 News 5 Turning all the switches in the same direction: it’s not as easy as it looks

Turning all the switches in the same direction: it’s not as easy as it looks

17 May 2024

| Author: Chris Trotter

It’s a very German word, created by butting two words together. “Schaltung”, referring to electronic circuitry; and “gleich”, denoting sameness, combine to create “gleichschaltung”. In electrical engineering, gleichschaltung is what you get when all switches have been put on the same circuit. Flick the master switch and all the subsidiary switches are activated simultaneously.

It was Franz Gürtner, Germany’s Minister of Justice from 1932-1941, who is generally acknowledged as the man who gave gleichschaltung the political-judicial meaning by which it has become notorious. In the Third Reich, gleichschaltung described the process of putting all the political, administrative and cultural switches on the same National Socialist circuit. When the FuhrerSwitch was tripped, so were all the others.

Like everything else inextricably linked to Adolf Hitler’s Nazi regime, the concept of gleichschaltung – usually translated as “coordination” by English-speaking historians – has ceased to be used in polite society.

The political problem it was intended to resolve, however, remains very much a live issue. How can a radical reforming government – or, for that matter, a profoundly reactionary one – be certain that its policies will be/are being implemented without first ensuring all the switches of the state, and of civil society, will respond to its own ideological master-switch?


Coherent integration 

It would be surprising if such a thought had not already crossed the minds of Christopher Luxon, David Seymour and Winston Peters. Though elected by the people and electorally mandated to implement as many of their respective parties’ policies as they could integrate coherently into a workable coalition agreement, the National-Act-NZ First coalition finds itself obstructed at every turn by an uncooperative bureaucracy, a headstrong judiciary, an energetically hostile academia and an openly rebellious news media. It may have won control of the master switch, but it has yet to effectively coordinate the others.

That this has not been a major problem for past governments is explained by the fact that between 1984 and 1994, New Zealand was subjected to a process of gleichschaltung every bit as comprehensive as Germany’s.

Initiated by David Lange’s Labour government and largely completed by Jim Bolger’s National government, the deconstruction of social-democratic New Zealand and the erection of its neoliberal successor was a feat of extraordinary political co-ordination. Those who refused to align their switches with the circuitry of the new neoliberal order soon found themselves in career freefall.

By the mid-1990s, the number of institutions refusing to align themselves with the energy flow was pitifully small.


No alternative

One of the more blatant examples of Kiwi gleichschaltung was the approved list of economic commentators drawn up by the management of Radio New Zealand.

Gone from the list were the academic economists of yesteryear – the tenured professors whose salaries were not dependent on their not understanding what was going on.

New on the list were the bank economists and think-tank “experts”, men and women who weren’t so much commentators as commissars – mouthpieces for the new order, who proved the accuracy of the neoliberal slogan, “There Is No Alternative”, by steadfastly refusing to offer any.

Denied the brute force available to the Nazis, New Zealand’s ideological co-ordinators may have taken a little longer than their 1930s’ counterparts but they were no less successful.

In part this was due to the eagerness with which so many people in authority embraced the new economic paradigm. As in Germany, New Zealand had undergone a lengthy period of ideological preparation prior to the bureaucratic coup d’état that kicked off Rogernomics. Lange himself summarised the case for change when he declared: “You can’t run a country like a Polish shipyard!” What this produces was well described by Hitler’s biographer, Ian Kershaw. Ambitious bureaucrats in the Nazi regime did not need to be told what to do in detail by their superiors. Hitler had made clear his regime’s priorities and this encouraged his institutional followers to personally accelerate the pace of change on their own recognisance.

They called this “moving in the direction of the Fuhrer”. Without it, the Nazification of Germany would have been much more difficult and taken a lot longer.


Mounting anger

How, then, to explain the political phenomenon currently afflicting the coalition: bureaucrats, jurists, academics and journalists moving in the opposite direction to the nation’s leaders?

On matters relating to te Tiriti, gender identity and civil and political rights, it is very clear that within those institutions responsible for the ideological buttressing of state policy, there is a profound reluctance to provide the moral cover which all governments – regardless of their colour – require.

It is almost as if there has been a second Kiwi exercise in gleichschaltung. Not, in this case, the coordination of those state institutions required to carry out a fundamental reorganisation of New Zealand’s economy, but a packing together of the moral and cultural beliefs required by those whose job it is to deal with the deeply entrenched consequences of the neoliberal revolution.

The damage done by neoliberal policies has both elicited and inspired an ideological response from the professionals and managers whose job it is to deal with the real-world effects of precarious employment, poor housing, failing education and health systems, crime and, most importantly, the growing alienation and anger of the young Māori and Pasifika.

What has emerged over the past decade has been an in-house, state-sector, gleichschaltung designed to provide social workers, nurses, corrections officers, teachers, journalists, lawyers, academics, administrators, judges and legislators with a moral schema that acknowledges their clients’ oppression while absolving themselves of all responsibility for causing it.

This woke gleichschaltung, while offering solace to the professionals and managers uplifted by its exculpatory ideology, has proved much less successful at persuading the rest of the population. Indeed, the electorate’s association of its most extreme components – He Puapua, Three Waters – with Labour, the Greens and Te Pāti Māori was one of the most powerful drivers of their electoral defeat. The voters wanted rid of it and National, Act and NZ First promised to roll it all back with a little gleichschaltunging of their own.


No blueprint

But, it is not as easy as it looks. After nine years of Muldoonism, Lange and his Finance Minister were pushing on an open door. What’s more, in 1984, in the topmost reaches of the state bureaucracy, there were people who had quite literally written a book detailing all the changes that Muldoon’s successors would be required to make – and in what order.

No such document and no such clutch of professional advisers are available to Christopher Luxon, David Seymour and Winston Peters. No one has written them a detailed guide to “coordinating” the civil service, the news media and the universities. There is no Franz Gürtner in the Justice Ministry ready and willing to purge the judiciary and the law faculties; no one with a list of individuals qualified to replace the woke board members of uncooperative state entities.

Luxon and his Cabinet give every appearance of being painfully ignorant of what a government promising a radical reorientation of society is required to do. Sacking 3,000 public servants is of no use whatsoever if they’re not the public servants responsible for turning all the switches in the wrong direction.

It’s a mess, but a mess from which New Zealanders should probably take some pride. No matter how angry Kiwis have become over the past six years, their alienation from the system has yet to be manifested on the nation’s streets by columns of young men in brown shirts and jackboots. At neither the summit nor the base of New Zealand society would there appear to be a willingness to turn all the switches of power in the same direction.

If there is any solace to be taken from the mess the present government is making of its mandate, then surely it is the fact that the overwhelming majority of Kiwis can neither spell, nor define, gleichschaltung. Long may their ignorance endure. Efficient tyranny is always the most difficult to dislodge. ■


Chris Trotter is a political writer and commentator with more than 30 years’ experience and the author of the Bowalley Rd blog

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