The promise of ‘transformation’ is all the more compelling when invoking the legacy of Michael Joseph Savage. But to wrap the idea of transformation in nostalgia is to avoid the real decisions it would demand.
Pointing out hypocrisy and broken promises is a noble goal, and few broken promises rank as highly as Labour’s 2017 promise to be “transformative.” According to her critics, rather than being the transformational leader she promised to be, Jacinda Ardern is timid, or a manager, a conservative, or transitional. Little wonder that the government has in recent weeks made an effort to ditch the transformational brand.
The subjective nature of the goal was one of its supposed strengths – “transformation” is a word people can project their own desires onto – and yet somehow almost everyone agreed on Labour’s failure.
As the first lockdown was announced, the government sought to revive its already struggling transformational brand. But instead of making promises about the future, they reached for comparisons with the first Labour government of Michael Joseph Savage of 1935-40. Ardern, Grant Robertson, and Winston Peters all grasped the moment to resurrect Savage’s “ghost”, as political commentator Richard Harman put it.
Despite this branding, the much-lauded Covid relief package spent less on increased healthcare capacity than it did on propping up Air New Zealand, and its stimulus component largely followed “trickle-down” logic, only benefiting workers via their employers’ subsidies and massive tax cuts. Still, many employers – somewhat predictably – didn’t “act in the spirit” of the subsidy scheme, with major employers like Fletcher Building laying off thousands of workers while pocketing their wage subsidies.
Only the current government could pull off a scheme with such a massive disconnect between branding hype and actual outcomes. But for some reason the message stuck, thanks in no small part to the new historical spin.
At this point it’s worth asking why we keep falling for “transformational” branding. In particular, why do we find the message all the more compelling when it evokes the history of New Zealand’s social democracy and the legacy of Savage?
To understand that, it’s worth asking why it is that ideas and people from the past keep on coming back to haunt us, shaping and distorting our vision of the future. It’s a story of the dead being used to take advantage of the living, and as such, it’s a story that deserves its own sort of spooky terminology.
The term “hauntology” was coined by Jacques Derrida and popularised by the late cultural critic Mark Fisher, who used it to talk about everything from electronic dance music to politics.
Culture, he said, is no longer capable of delivering anything “futuristic”, because the future has slowly been cancelled. The kinds of sounds, sights and ideas we associate with the future have stagnated since the dawn of more financialised, investor-driven forms of capitalism (neoliberalism). One electronic bleep bloop, or science fiction novel, sounds just as “futuristic” now as it did decades ago, because it no longer represents the future itself, just a set of aesthetics. The aesthetic of “the future” has been the same for so long that it’s shaped more by nostalgia than by the unknown. This reproduction of retro-futures is why even people born in the 90s can experience a profound nostalgia for the decades before their birth.
Over time, our yearning for what the “future” once signified made it hard to remember what the past was like. Slowly it eliminated our ability to think about the future altogether.
Instead sounds, sights and ideas get stuck in a sort of limbo, not entirely of the past, but not of the future either. We’re haunted by the lost futures they represent.
A very similar thing has happened in New Zealand’s progressive politics.
Our idea of what a “transformed” New Zealand would look like has been more or less the same for nearly a century. It would look like a massive social housing campaign, an expanded social safety net, higher taxes for the uber-wealthy, and nationalisation of key industries. More importantly than any specific, actionable policy though, “transformation” has come to mean recapturing the general feeling of optimism we think people experienced when New Zealand was a true social democracy. Interestingly, this nostalgia for social democracy is often stronger among people born after its end, and we struggle to imagine a progressive future that isn’t marked by the policies of a century ago.
This isn’t to say that any of those policies were bad – far from it – but rather we should also remember that appeals to “transformation” of this kind are more about eliciting a nostalgic response than anything else.
We’re haunted by the promise of a transformative, social-democratic government because it represents a lost future, something that neither belongs to the past, because we don’t remember it correctly, nor to the present, because it’s impossible to reclaim.
Trying to reclaim a lost future
Michael Joseph Savage and Norman Kirk are the perfect representatives of this lost future. Their lives were cut short in office, and so we will never really know what they might have achieved. Savage in particular took on larger than life proportions, his body entombed in an enormous mausoleum, a rock-hewn, eternal national memory.
As such, the ghost of Savage, whether he is resurrected by the Labour Party faithful or by those to its left, isn’t a being that belongs to the past. But he doesn’t belong to the present either. He is stuck in a space between times.
New Zealand progressivism is similarly stuck in time. We can’t go forward, because it’s difficult to imagine “real” futures. We also can’t go back to the past, because the enormous returns on investment that allowed for Savage’s particular brand of social welfare don’t exist any more.
Savage’s vision was funded by a lucrative refrigerated goods trade, colonialism in the Pacific, and the belief that Māori didn’t need to be included in social spending because they could “live off the land”. None of this makes much sense to people in a modern Aotearoa.
Nonetheless, it’s this vision that defines what a “progressive” looks like in New Zealand. But this progressivism-as-reclaimed-past is a bit … well … conservative. With a small “c” of course.
Contrary to the more conspiratorial view of why “progressive” governments consistently fail to deliver, I don’t think it’s because Labour is consciously in bed with millionaires (although “cash for access” lobbying schemes may stretch that belief thin). Instead, many of the people who are ultimately responsible for sustaining our neoliberal present don’t actually believe in neoliberalism, they’re self-described progressives seeking a return to the pre-Rogernomics period.
What confronts them are the limitations of a backwards-facing progressivism. There is no simple button labelled “return to 1974” hidden in some backroom in the Beehive. Would-be social democrats instead find a governmental system which is increasingly ossified and resistant to change. The levers inside the political machine seem stuck on their current setting, and no one could possibly dislodge them without potentially breaking the fragile contraption.
From that point on, the best progressives in government can do is “transformative” branding. After all, branding is much less risky than actual reforms.
The problem seems to be that “transformation” without breaking anything is impossible. Real transformation is forward-looking, and most of all, incredibly risky.
Bringing the future back into transformation
What has been missing from all the talk of a “transformative” politics is the fact that transformation often requires demolishing the previous system. Take for example our last truly transformative government: that of David Lange.
Lange and his finance minister Roger Douglas transformed New Zealand. But they didn’t begin by building something, they started by gutting social spending and stimulus programmes, selling off state assets at a steal, and allowing all sorts of economic hitmen to go about their dirty business. Industry shrank rapidly, rural towns withered, and forms of financial capitalism which profit off of economic decay – like private equity groups and hedge funds – were empowered more than ever before.
They did so knowing that if you absolutely wreck all of the institutions and classes supporting a political system, there can be no return to that system. They knew that any anti-neoliberals of the future would be stymied by the power blocs they had created, and would appear outmoded in the face of rapid social change. Economic progressivism has been on the backfoot ever since, trying to resurrect – rather than invent – policies which often lack the economic and institutional base that would have once enabled them.
Transformation, then, is more often than not defined by the things we lose. In this case New Zealand lost its independence from finance capital, and any standard of living not enabled by external debt.
With that in mind, what would we lose if a government was, once again, truly transformative? Perhaps we would choose to wreck profitability for the sake of ensuring people are safe and well supported at work. We might lose revenue streams in the Pacific as unjust trade deals with our neighbours are overturned. We might lose real-estate values, investors’ expectations be damned. We might lose out on international contracts for our refusal to collaborate on interventionism in the Middle East and Asia. Of course this would require a type of economy robust enough to shrug off lost profits, and therefore cope with risk.
Like the neoliberal revolution, it would mean losing things permanently, irreversibly. After all, is it really transformation if it can be reversed in three years’ time?
We might realise that all those losses were concentrated among very few people, and were ultimately worth it for a society that is truly different, and is no longer stuck in an endless loop of half-remembering lost futures.
But a “progressivism” which seeks to return to ghostly pasts will never do that. It is terrified of losing anything, not only because it’s trapped in a conservative mindset, but because even the social democracy of the past was terrified of losing its grip on the status quo.
Classical social democracy was a movement born of the belief that providing welfare and stimulating consumer spending would prevent economic crises born of a decline in profitability, saving capitalism from regular crashes and making transformation unnecessary. Indeed the most successful social-democratic experiments were conducted entirely to prevent anticapitalist parties from emerging. Instead, most social democracies saw temporary success and improved conditions, but only made profitability decline more than ever before.
As historian Malcolm McKinnon wrote in an excellent article last year, Savage’s government was very much the same. It was run by men who were utterly horrified at the prospect of societal transformation, and its achievements have been heavily mythologised.
The memory of historical social democracy continues to haunt us, because we are convinced it was a brief, beautiful attempt at kindness on a societal scale, rather than just a different form of economic cynicism, a necessary measure to protect the rich from transformation.
This yearning for a government to save us is a tragedy of wasted words and efforts. In recent years the state has rarely been the source of the “transformation” many people seem to need. Instead it has been external pressures placed upon the government by people across Aotearoa. One of the most striking features of the Ihumātao campaign was that it made people think about a decolonial future, a real future. Similarly, direct action against weapons companies showed people a way towards a disarmed Aotearoa by shutting down weapons expos. These were just a few times I heard people talk about the future in a truly different way, but I’m sure there are more every day.
Our enthusiasm for transformation is a good thing – we’ve just been hoping that the dead would rise and lead us there, when really, we have to walk there ourselves.