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The New Zealand Project offers a bold, urgent, idealistic vision. I found it deeply depressing

Danyl Mclauchlan agrees with most of the ideas in an acclaimed and bestselling new book by Max Harris about New Zealand politics, yet the What Must Be Done tome leaves him feeling even gloomier about the immediate prospects for the progressive left.

Max Harris’s book The New Zealand Project is an urgent attempt to confront the monumental issues facing our country. It is a bold, unashamedly idealistic vision of what the future of New Zealand could, and should look like. It confronts our deepest problems – political, cultural, social and economic – and proposes radical solutions. It is a book about values: a book about change, and hope, and love, that dares to consider the impossible. I found it conventional and frustrating, and deeply, deeply depressing.

First let’s talk about what Harris claims he’s doing with this book. Then I’ll describe what he’s actually accomplished, and why I found the results so disappointing. Harris is a law and politics student who won a Rhodes scholarship; he clerked for Supreme Court Justice Sian Elias, and for Helen Clark at the United Nations. Then he won the All Souls Examination Fellowship at Oxford, a very prestigious postgraduate award, which funds seven years of research free of teaching and publication obligations. The New Zealand Project is a component of that research. He’s also been involved in activist and charity work, and his author photo makes him look like Paul Klee’s rendition of the Angel of History.

Max Harris and his new book

His aim is to challenge the current stasis of New Zealand politics. It’s too technocratic. There’s no boldness. No vision. There are no values. Instead politics and the country itself is mired in “neoliberalism”, “alienation” and “a deeper malaise” where politicians are too cautious and prone to “muddle through”. There has been little or no progress in meeting critical challenges like racism, climate change, inequality, sexism, or criminal justice reform. Politicians, intellectuals and academics have failed to engage and inform the public on these issues. Instead they’re engaged in petty squabbling and point-scoring.

Harris want to transcend this impasse by injecting values back into politics, and the values he suggests are “care, community and creativity”. The rest of the book is a well researched, well argued tour through various political issues – foreign policy, the tax system, constitutional law, the justice system, the labour market, Māori rights and Treaty issues, the education system, gender equality, health care, homelessness, welfare, climate change and environmentalism – seen through the prism of these three values, with the hope of bringing about the transformational change New Zealand needs.

Harris talks about problems and failures in all of these areas. Almost inevitably the culprit is neoliberalism. This is a contentious term in political debate; many on the right insist neoliberalism doesn’t exist, and never did. The radical left uses it as a synonym for capitalism (“We must smash the neoliberal paradigm and replace it with … something else!”). Less sophisticated commentators, like bloggers or opposition members of parliament, use it as a catch-all cry to denounce anything they don’t like.

Harris is more precise. His definition of the term is far too long to quote here but it captures the main points of the doctrine: faith in the efficacy of free markets and the inadequacy and malignancy of state intervention; belief in the power of deregulation and lower taxes to deliver economic growth; confidence in the ability of humans to act as rational agents responding judiciously to signals and prices; a political and economic system predicated on maximising freedom, but only for a very narrow definition of freedom – freedom to be free of business regulation and paying much tax.

He doesn’t talk about the origins of neoliberalism; it’s just a bane that swept much of the world in the 1980s and 90s. Nor does he talk about the decline in its intellectual respectability on the right, especially since the global financial crisis of 2008. As Financial Times columnist Martin Wolf – a champion of neoliberalism for much of his life – put it, once the ideology predicated on the supremacy of free markets led to the socialisation of the global financial sector, it was hard to take any of it seriously. Just as I was writing this review, Jim Bolger announced to RNZ that he felt neoliberalism had “failed”.

It still has its adherents, of course. Politics and economics, like science, advance funeral by funeral. And, interestingly, even though The New Zealand Project is a polemic against neoliberalism and calls for vast reforms to countermand it, the majority of the neoliberal reforms passed in the 80s and 90s go unmentioned and, presumably, untouched. They’re not neoliberal anymore. They’re just there.

Read an excerpt from Max Harris’s The New Zealand Project here.

Despite all this, for Harris neoliberalism is still the main problem in modern New Zealand, although colonialism, racism, sexism and other forms of discrimination are often aggravators or proximate causes. He proposes solutions for all these afflictions and these are sometimes – but not always – bold and radical, and outside the current parameters of what is widely seen to be politically possible. He does this, he often reminds the reader, because his project is to start conversations, to widen the scope of what is politically possible, and to challenge the current conventional wisdoms which are inadequate to the problems we face.

What could be wrong with that? On one level: nothing. I’m a Green party member, and I agree with most of what Harris talks about in this book. His agenda is broadly aligned with current policy and messaging. Labour party members and activists unhappy about their party’s centrism will also have much to like, as will admirers of the various left-wing academics, activists and writers Harris interviews: Jane Kelsey, Kim Workman, Moana Jackson, Susan St John, Nicky Hager.

And that’s the first big problem with The New Zealand Project. Instead of the game changing vision Harris seems to think he’s delivered, a vision to break the current deadlock and engage new voters, his book is actually a compilation of arguments and policy statements that have been advanced by the political parties, thinkers and activists listed above, for such a long time their ideas have become conventional wisdom on the progressive left. Instead of starting conversations, Harris summarises ongoing conversations that anyone who follows these issues will already be very familiar with, having encountered them in Listener articles, Radio New Zealand interviews, newspaper features, and at panels at literary festivals, and in the many previous books on these subjects produced by Harris’s publisher, Bridget Williams Books.

Most of these conversations are issues on which the progressive left has convinced itself, but no one else. What Harris is really calling for here is for academics and left-wing intellectuals to transform politics by talking about things that they’ve already been talking about, for years and sometimes decades, with little effect, and for everyone else to just embrace all of those values and agree with them about everything. It’s an argument against the broken status quo that perfectly replicates it.

Still, you might argue, isn’t there value what Harris is doing in talking about the big issues and articulating a package of solutions that go beyond the bounds of the politically possible? I used to think so. Now I’m less sure.

I mentioned literary festival panels: they’re one of the venues where New Zealand’s most worthy thinkers converge to robustly exchange mostly identical views. There’s always a moment at the end of these panels where everyone agrees on What Must Be Done to solve climate change, or racism, or inequality, or whatever, and the audience always nods and murmurs in appreciative agreement. It feels good, at the time, to be part of a movement of decent clear-thinking people who agree on how to set the world to right. It’s only after you’ve been to a number of such things over the years that you start to see that none of the things “everyone” agreed we must do never actually get done; that mostly the situations discussed are getting worse.

If you pay more attention to politics, and read online commentary, or go to political conferences, or progressive hui, and listen to more brilliant left-wing intellectuals agree on What Must Be Done, it gradually becomes apparent that the progressive left has the answer to every problem in politics, except for the problem of how to actually persuade voters to listen to them, and thus affect meaningful political change. Which is a shame, because without that all the other grand ideas are pretty futile. All the talk about What Must Be Done starts to feel less like activism and more like a form of fantasy roleplaying, only instead of pretending to be dragon-slayers, or vampires, progressive intellectuals pretend to be people who are relevant to contemporary politics.

Harris’s book is three hundred pages of What Must Be Done. I just opened it to a page at random, and on it Harris is talking about “the politics of listening”, which calls for “a sea-change in politician’s attentiveness” and demands their “heightened sensitivity to the problems that might lie behind what is said” (the whole book reads like this). How does Harris think anyone can accomplish this, or any of the other many hundreds of monumental changes he wants to make to New Zealand’s culture, economy, politics, society and the seemingly intractable nature of its politicians and voters?

Civics education is his preferred solution. It comes up in almost every chapter. Schools should teach children to think what Harris wants them to think: that would solve an awful lot of problems. He’s hardly the first left-wing intellectual to hit upon this, but if you want to redesign the education system to produce a more compliant populace you have to first acquire political power.

Harris has two linked suggestions on how to do this. The first is a reframing of the political debate in terms of the values he talks about – care, community, creativity. The second is a notion he refers to as “the politics of love”, an idea he’s explored before in another Bridget Williams’ book The Interregnum. The politics of love calls for us – politicians, you, me, everyone – to embrace the politics of love by putting love at the centre of politics. The idea is exactly as insubstantial as it sounds: “love” is a floating signifier, it means whatever anyone wants it to mean, and I shall pass over this idea with a quote from Oscar Wilde: that you’d have to have a heart of stone not to laugh.

But what about reframing politics via the values of care, community and creativity? Won’t politics with those values beat politics without any values every time? Let’s think about this. Harris’s main complaint about New Zealand politics is that it is dominated by neoliberal ideology. In his chapter on social infrastructure he talks about the homeless, and how we need to help them. And I agree. But when Harris challenges his own argument, as he frequently does, he writes about “hearing people on talkback radio” who say that the homeless are there because they’ve made bad choices, so we shouldn’t help them. Harris reminds the reader that one of his cornerstone values is caring, and that politics should be about those values so we should agree with his policy solutions (housing the homeless and “an end to public and political indifference to homelessness”).

But neoliberalism is more sophisticated than angry blokes on talkback radio, and Harris should realise this because he’s written an entire book denouncing it. What a neoliberal economist or politician would say to his argument is: “Yes! We need values! Caring and community must be at the heart of politics and economics. That’s why we need to understand that people respond to incentives, and make choices based on perceived consequences. If you minimise the individual cost of making bad choices by mitigating the consequences and transferring the cost of those choices to the community, more people will make bad choices, and the cost to the community will be much, much greater. By trying to help them you’ll make many more lives worse, because you’ve encouraged more people to make bad choices, and you’ve made the lives of everyone else in the community much worse as well because they’re meeting those higher costs. To truly honour those values of community and care we need to do the opposite of what Harris wants to do.”

That argument can’t be hand waved away with an appeal to values. Now everyone has values and everyone agrees on them and the debate is about the correct policies to support those values. This needs to be litigated, and the neoliberals – or their conservative or populists heirs – will respond with their own arguments and data, which many intelligent and reasonable people will find genuinely more convincing that those of the progressive left. Now we’re in a world in which the left does not occupy the moral high ground because only they have values and everyone else is an idiot or a monster; we’re in a much more contested, morally ambiguous world – the world of actually existing politics with its technocracy and compromises and “muddling through”.

Won’t left-wing parties and ideas be more credible and successful if our political debates were framed by the values of care, community and creativity, even if they are contested? Well, maybe! Harris has nothing to tell us of these values’ empirical power to persuade. Which is odd, because it isn’t hard or expensive to conduct qualitative research on this sort of thing, and it is almost the only original component of this work, which Harris produced during his tenure at one of the most prestigious research fellowships in the world. Maybe they’ll have the kind of transformational effect he reckons they will. My suspicion is that they won’t. To explain why, I need to talk about political framing.

Back in 2004 the US cognitive linguist George Lakoff published a book – cited by Harris in his opening chapter, and obviously a key influence on his entire project – called Don’t Think of an Elephant: Know Your Values and Frame the Debate. What left-wing political parties needed to do, Lakoff argued, was change the terms and metaphors used in the public sphere when people discussed politics, to promote left-wing values. So when the right talks about a “free market”, the left is supposed to counter this by arguing for “broader prosperity”; “smaller government” is countered with “effective government”, and so on.

This stuff was very popular in the US until it became more and more apparent that it didn’t work as promised. Or, rather – like a lot of findings in psychology – that it sometimes worked when tested on classes of undergraduate psychology students but often failed replication tests and didn’t work at all in the much more challenging and litigated environment of real-world political communications.

Framing is still a thing among New Zealand’s left-wing political class because one of Lakoff’s disciples, Anat Shenker-Osorio came out here a few years ago and ran workshops at the left-wing parties, unions and other progressive organisations, teaching them to say that the economy is “a broken machine that needs to be fixed”, and leaving behind countless heated arguments over which framing to use on press releases and media statements in her wake.

As a result there’s still an optimistic faith in those circles that the left’s problems aren’t institutional, or intellectual, or cultural, or social, but rather something that can be solved by finding just the right combination of clever words and metaphors to deploy against its foes. Which is what Harris is suggesting with his values based messaging. But I am a framing sceptic. As environmental reporter David Roberts put it recently, when discussing yet another study discrediting framing, this one in regards to climate change messaging:

Human beings are not freestanding reasoning machines. They are situated in the world, inheritors of particular socioeconomic conditions, worldviews, dispositions, and interpretive filters. They come complete with a strong set of overlapping, mutually reinforcing frames.

To a great extent, those preexisting social and psychological commitments — which are outside the scope of any conceivable climate communication campaign — are going to determine how people assess a specific phenomenon like climate change.

Bernauer and McGrath put it this way: “[A] large amount of research shows that climate policy preferences are strongly shaped by factors that cannot be affected or offset through climate change communication per se (for example, political ideology, income, gender, general social norms, weather or climatic conditions, economic conditions of the respective country).”

A lifetime of baggage carries a lot of weight and momentum. Comparatively, a single exposure to a bit of framing is nothing, like blowing on the sails of a giant ship.

To sum up, the frames that reach people and actually make a difference are a) resonant with their existing dispositions and affiliations, b) delivered by a trusted source, and c) repeated often enough to penetrate the pervasive information buzz.

That’s a heavy lift, to say the least. Changing the way global warming is framed in the popular imagination would require an enormous, well-funded, well-coordinated campaign, and there’s no guarantee it would work, even if the climate community could pull it off.

Harris’s answer to these various critiques, I think, would be that everyone, right and left, should just accept his values and framing and conduct all political debate on his terms using his definitions, or at least change the education system so that subsequent generations are compelled to do so. After all, isn’t politics with values – his values – superior to the visionless technocracy, caution and compromised “muddling through” of New Zealand politics?

This brings me to my final problem with Harris’s project. Technocracy, compromise and moderation are political values. They might not seem like desirable values to brilliant, visionary intellectuals who want to conduct monumental reforms and transform almost everything about contemporary New Zealand. But they’re hard-coded into the MMP electoral system and seem to be highly prized by the voters, who have elected 18 years of cautious, moderate technocratic governments in a row, presumably because they don’t want people like Harris implementing the kind of radical change he’s advocating.

Politics is technocratic because modern societies are complex: many things could be better, but almost everything could be much, much worse, and all the high-minded values in the world are worthless if you can’t keep the lights on. It is compromised because pluralism – the challenge of different groups in society holding different and conflicting but reasonable and valid views – is the central problem in politics, and cannot be fixed by re-educating everyone. Political reform should be cautious, because outcomes are uncertain and overconfidence bias is real, especially among groups of intelligent experts who reinforce each other’s assumptions – a dynamic that often leads to catastrophic failure despite the best of intentions.

Maybe the current system’s inability to address the housing bubble, inequality and environmental issues means we’re hitting the limits of a political system based on caution and compromise, and that will eventually provoke a wider crisis similar to the near economic collapse of the early 1980s, which led to the neoliberal reforms. It’s a fairly common fantasy – especially on the radical left – that there will be a crisis followed by a left-wing rebirth. I think it’s dangerous to assume that the left would be the beneficiaries of any kind of crisis or collapse. We’re probably stuck with the current system, and trying to make change within it.

I often thought of Gareth Morgan while reading The New Zealand Project. The Morgan Foundation gets quoted in it a few times: they’ve spent years promoting conversations about many of the things Harris wants us to start conversations about. Now Morgan’s launched The Opportunities Party to try and foreground issues of tax, equity and environmentalism during election year. It’s not going well. Morgan was last seen on Twitter abusing his critics in a feeble imitation of Donald Trump to try and manufacture the publicity his bold and progressive policy platform has failed to deliver.

Talking about What Must Be Done is easy. Politics is hard. Meaningful progressive political change is really hard. Weber called it “The strong and slow boring of hard boards”; right now it feels like the kind of boring you do when the drill battery is dying. I think there’s some value in the book Harris has written. It is a summation of the last few decades of progressive debate. Labour and the Greens can give it to their activists so that they’ll know what to think about everything. Harris’s agenda contains enough reform to keep at least the next five left-wing governments busy. Now that we have it all set down in one place, maybe the left can stop talking about What Must To Be Done and start thinking about How To Actually Do It. I wish someone young and gifted and brilliant with world enough and time could go figure that out. That’d be a smart thing to do.

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You can buy The New Zealand Project at Unity Books, sponsor of the Spinoff Review of Books