The SAS and CEOs – what’s all the fuss about?

There’s certainly a fuss.

The Defence Minister Wayne Mapp ordered an immediate inquiry. The Editor of the Nelson Mail wasn’t impressed. What is the fuss about?

Perhaps it’s over the idea that the military need to run a ‘corporate cake stall’ to look after its members in their retirement? Perhaps its the fact that the commercialisation of taxpayer funded skills and expertise is happening without taxpayers receiving any of the commercialisation profits? Or, is it the idea that, just perhaps, the military might have tasks rather more closely tied to defending our nation’s interests than corporate team-building?

I’m not sure what the fuss is about but I’m pretty clear on what it should be about.

What ingredients do we have? Corporate elite; military elite; the opportunity for the two to mix out of the media spotlight (if only some loose lips hadn’t ‘leaked’ it to the media); identification of common attributes and a ‘pursuit of excellence’; a ‘we’re all members of the elite together’ kind of attitude … ring any bells? No? Let me ring them a bit louder then.

“It is the common fate of the indolent to see their rights become a prey to the active. The condition upon which God hath given liberty to man is eternal vigilance; which condition if he break, servitude is at once the consequence of his crime and the punishment of his guilt.”

John Philpot Curran: Speech Upon the Right of Election, 1790. (Speeches, Dublin, 1808). Emphasis added.

David Farrar posted a letter to investors from Direct Capital (the outfit that organised the ‘corporate day’ in which Senior SAS members entertained and informed around 70 CEOs and the like) and offered the obsevation, in a relaxed, almost indolent, manner, “I really don’t see what all the fuss has been about.”

For someone who often reveals an ability to divine worrying trends in any action by unions, the Labour Party and anyone to the left of Ghengis Khan in relation to any issue you care to name, Farrar’s lack of curiosity or analytic nouse over this particular issue is striking.

Always ready to lend a helping hand to those unable to see to the heart of an issue, I guess I’m obliged to help him out.

Here’s a point for starters:

The SAS, or military in general, is not – or should not become – aligned (slot that word into your memory) with any particular grouping in a society. In a supposed liberal democracy, it should be entirely subordinate to and aligned only with democratically elected – and accountable – governments. Neutrality of a standing army is paramount – its acceptance in modern, liberal democracies depends upon it.

Apparently, this is why we should be shocked at legions of military dictators from Idi Amin to Frank Bainimarama. Links – especially personal ones – between the military, on the one hand, and politicians, businesspeople and members of the judiciary, on the other, are to be avoided at all costs. This is such a sensitive constitutional area that even the appearance of some connection is playing with fire.

But, really, ‘what’s all the fuss about?’ It was just a ‘team-building’ exercise, wasn’t it? Well, yes, but what kind of ‘team’ was being built?

It is a well-researched social psychological phenomenon that familiarity and fraternisation result in an alignment of interests. We all experience it – that preference for the ‘in-group’ over others (e.g., a specific ‘out-group’). Once we identify with a group we favour its members in any number of ways.

Tajfel and Turner’s Social Identity Theory (or here for a more concise account) is long established in social psychology and delves into the dynamics of how in-groups form and how increased cohesiveness and coherence is formed within them. Who we identify with, and the groups we identify with, have deep effects on our behaviours.

The basic idea is simple and powerful: Minimal structural features are required for people to form an ‘in-group’ in which interpersonal contact over-rides other role categories.

The problem with having members of the corporate elite – in the letter from Direct Capital, self-styled as “high performance teams” – engage interpersonally with members of a military elite is that an in-group forms that should never form: Between individuals in a particular – and very small – group within society and individuals in an exclusive military group.

One of the most disturbing aspects of Direct Capital‘s letter to investors is the obvious lack of awareness its writer had about the propriety of these relationships between the military and sectors within civil and commercial society. Bogglingly, the writer actually highlighted just how compatible and even ‘chummy’, these two ‘elite’ groups were together during that day. Reading the letter you got the distinct impression that they got on like a house on fire – or like brothers in arms.

Whoever wrote this letter did not realise that this ‘chumminess’ between business leaders and an elite military squad is the very aspect of the event that should most concern anyone with half a sense of propriety about contact between the military and particular powerful sectors within modern, liberal democracies.

At the very least, couldn’t they see how it would look?

This kind of ‘corporate day’ does not strengthen relationships between the SAS and ‘the community’ as innocently (naively?) claimed. What it does is begin the process of creating an interpersonal bond between a tiny percentage of New Zealand’s population – the most powerful of New Zealand’s corporate executives – who have very particular interests, and senior individuals in an elite corps within the army. There are even hints that the contacts SAS members made on this day might be useful in future, non-military careers (see quotation below).

Here’s the ‘big picture’ that this issue highlights …

The alignment between state power – represented most directly in its military capacity – and the corporate elite is the foundation of Mussolini’s famous definition of fascism:

Fascism should more appropriately be called Corporatism because it is a merger of state and corporate power.

It’s pretty obvious that in a gloriously naive manner, this is exactly what Direct Capital hope – and expect – to achieve! They note that:

We had 70 representatives of some of New Zealand’s leading private companies in attendance – a group that the SAS rightly identified as sharing a number of attributes consistent with the SAS’s own pursuit of excellence.

And that;

A very common perspective from our attendees was how applicable unit members’ leadership and personal skills were to business and what excellent business leaders the members would make in the future.

It gets worse. The feeling, apparently, was mutual. the New Zealand Herald reported that:

The SAS said in a statement it had “aligned itself with top-performing New Zealand organisations to share leadership skills with high-calibre and high-performing New Zealanders who strive for excellence”

You read correctly – the SAS had ‘aligned itself with top-performing organisations‘! Extract that word tucked away in your memory – ‘aligned’.

What is the SAS doing thinking it can ‘align’ itself with organisations in New Zealand? Why not the CTU? The Socialist Workers Party? Greenpeace? What is going on when the SAS think this is appropriate?

It gets much worse. One participant mentioned that the SAS wanted people who attended to be ‘circumspect’ about what they said to the media (or anyone?) about the day. He also outlined why ‘special access’ had been given to this group of executives:

King Salmon chief executive Grant Rosewarne told the Star-Times he had a “fantastic time” but had been told to stay quiet on the details.

“The SAS stressed for us to be circumspect about what goes out to the media. They said they didn’t want to create an environment where people thought they could have a relationship with the SAS,” said Rosewarne, who flew from Nelson for the conference.

He said Direct Capital and its affiliates were given access, “which never really happens”, because the army considered the businesspeople key players in export markets.

“This is something the SAS did for Direct Capital because they are important to the economy in trying to lift exports, but they said they didn’t want it to come back on them with any negativity.”

Did you read that carefully? The SAS wanted this event to be clandestine. ‘Circumspection’ was to be to the fore because of how it might look (indeed!). Supposedly, the SAS didn’t want people to think “they could have a relationship with the SAS” – then why have a nice and cosy cocktail event with ‘top CEOs’? Ever been to those? They’re universally recognised as good for – guess what – networking. They’re good, in other words, for relationship building – yet the SAS don’t want ‘people’ to think they can have a relationship with them. Or is it only other, non-CEO, ‘people’ that the SAS want to discourage?

And, why was this fraternisation happening? Because “the army considered the businesspeople key players in export markets”. That’s right – the army considered these business people were key players in export markets. What on earth are the army putting thought into who is and who isn’t a ‘key player’ in export markets? Is this what the top brass are paid to think about??

And, what is the SAS doing helping Direct Capital “in trying to lift exports”? The SAS are operated by MFAT now?

I think progressives have long known that most wars are fought to protect the interests of the wealthy, but this is ridiculous. The SAS now sees itself as in the business of business.

It gets much, much worse:

Rosewarne said the day ended with a cocktail party where Apiata [The most recent VC winner] made a surprise appearance. The businessman talked to the war hero, and said he was highly impressed

‘He’ was highly impressed? Rosewarne or Apiata? Given what else we know about this mutual love-in, it’s hard to tell.

You really couldn’t make this up.

All of this is stunningly concerning in one principal respect: What it says about the mindset in the army, the SAS and amongst the corporate elite. Gob smackingly, these groups see themselves as one. The same values, their mutual ‘respect’, each ‘impressed’ by the other, each doing what it can to help out the other.

Fascism is an overused word. But it is also a state that creeps up on the unwary. It is the innocent naturalness of this convergence of interests that is deeply disturbing. Thank God it has created at least a minor fuss.

When Farrar is too relaxed to see what this fuss is about we know that political antennae – at least on the right – have become well and truly bent. If you’re looking to find guardianship of freedom and liberty look elsewhere – the right are asleep at their (blog)post.

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