Morgan Godfery’s collection of new progressive thinking is weighed down by a lot of old left ideas, writes Ben Thomas, from the other side of the political divide.
The tagline of BWB Texts is “short books on big subjects by great New Zealand writers”, although a more appropriate description of its latest anthology, The Interregnum: Rethinking New Zealand, may be “old left ideas presented by young people”.
That’s not entirely fair given the breadth of topics covered by its 10 contributors, including editor Morgan Godfery, probably New Zealand’s brightest hope in left wing commentary and political thinking of any generation at the moment.
The idea is that in an era of spiraling inequality, climate change and foreign pizza delivery robots stealing our jobs, the political, economic and social reforms of the ’80s and ’90s have outlived their usefulness. TPP protests, Occupy Wall Street, and probably the Save John Campbell Facebook page all show the “fraying of the neoliberal consensus”.
But when these“voices of a new generation” stick most closely to the book’s central conceit, of reimagining politics in the 21st Century what we get is lots of Gramsci, Marx and Foucault. These aren’t your parents’ politics, the new guard snarl – but they may be your grandparents’.
So Andrew Dean (author of BWB’s Ruth, Roger and Me) says attacks on Booker Prize winner Eleanor Catton following her description of New Zealand as run by “neoliberal, profit-obsessed, very shallow, [and] very money-hungry politicians” was part of a wider trend in “recent political history” to clamp down on dissenting voices.
Well, the Prime Minister’s comments about Catton – that she should stay out of politics – were embarrassing. Even Sean “hua” Plunkett later admitted he’d gone too far and was wrong to discourage anyone, even a postmodern novelist, from political debate.
But philistinism and anti-intellectualism are regrettable strains of New Zealand public life that pre-date the fourth Labour government and Ruthenasia much the same way an ancient kauri forest pre-dates Steven Joyce’s Business Growth Agenda. It’s not just older, they’re fundamentally different things.
Dean gives the first clue that “neoliberalism” some time ago stopped meaning a specific set of economic and social spending reforms in the ’80s and ’90s, and started to mean anything the left didn’t like.
When all you have is a hammer and sickle, as the saying goes, everything looks like a nail (or an agrarian peasantry ripe for revolution). Blaming all the ills of society – even the Prime Minister not reading books – on a discrete series of political decisions in the ’80s is only the flipside of thinking that all our greatest problems and petty annoyances could be solved by the right government action.
The left’s belief that society is perfectible, if only we could get the institutional settings right, explains a lot: how New Zealand Labour can spend years on internal reviews and introspective tinkering with its leadership selection rules; why left wing Twitter eats its young over minor provocations, and also why Roger Douglas – the neoliberal mad scientist against whose reforms the writers of this volume rail – could only have come from the left.
Godfery and his contributors can be very good when describing the “morbid symptoms” of modern New Zealand that need to be addressed. Yet what they diagnose as a crisis of our political consensus and institutions seems to be more about the current crisis of the organised political left.
However disappointing it is for those of us who proffer our opinions in public, people are usually more interested in what we know than in what we think. So, the most successful chapters are those that tell us about something new, or personal experience, and deviate from the brief.
Former Green Party Member of Parliament Holly Walker’s chapter confronts the grinding banality of Parliamentary life for a backbench MP, “often required to speak on Bills I knew nothing about”. As a topic it lacks ideological grandeur, but as a lifestyle it produces dozens of existential crises on a reliable three-yearly cycle, and drives talented and well-meaning people out of politics, or at least into Courtenay Place bars more often than is probably healthy.
As someone who hasn’t been on the dole in around a decade and a half, I learned something from Chloe King’s chapter on precarious work: the jobseeker support application is now 48 pages long. I was interested enough in this to check, and it’s an indictment on the accessibility of benefits given the disproportionate number of applicants with poor literacy and who lack the middle-class’s skill at navigating bureaucracy.
Carrie Stoddart-Smith’s chapter on kaupapa Māori explicitly resists the left’s aggravating tendency to see Māori political and social aspirations as a mere adjunct to the broader progressive movement, and to the state itself. She also raises questions about the way that the Crown should engage with Māori, which continues to evolve from the days of the New Zealand Māori Council to the current influence of the Iwi Leaders’ Group.
The Interregnum wraps up with the big picture again: Max Harris’s ongoing work, “The Politics of Love”. Harris wants the left to adopt a “principle of love” as its guiding value. What does this actually mean? Harris says policies based on the principle of love may include “a more humane approach to prisoners, a willingness to accept a greater number of refugees, and a less mean spirited attitude towards those receiving welfare benefits”.
Of course as the different ways in which people express tough love, maternal love or free love show, policies based on the principle of love may include anything short of mass killings.
Harris wisely moves on from these matters fairly swiftly, since his project is really an attempt to sketch a more effective rhetorical underpinning for the left to connect with voters, rather than an attempt to change that programme.
This isn’t meaningless. The left’s contortions to escape the “nanny state” straitjacket can see its fractured limbs splayed at odd angles and pointing accusingly at people with “Chinese sounding names” and non-resident curry chefs. It’s petty and mean, and any advice to offer a more positive vision is sound.
Yet whether “love” is the best basis on which to connect to the public – in a country where the battle for the political centre is basically a fight to own the term “a fair go” – is questionable. It’s hard to imagine any contemporary New Zealand politician talking impassionedly about the “politics of love”, unless it’s David Cunliffe, in which case it’s not hard to imagine the result.
It all seems another failure to acknowledge that there is a New Zealand – and a New Zealandness – that exists independently of academic arguments about neoliberalism. Two recent successful examples of “people power” were the campaigns to crowdfund a beach for the Department of Conservation and to outlaw zero hour contracts and, although very different things, both appealed to the public through values that are already recognisable in New Zealand society.
That kind of lesson in incrementalism is dull for young firebrands, but it explains why this book is more satisfying when it is illuminating the society we have than when the contributors are plunging with a torch into darkness.
Subscribe to The Bulletin to get all the day’s key news stories in five minutes – delivered every weekday at 7.30am.