But Somebody Rules: Dr Bryce Edwards argues that New Zealand has become an anti-ideological, anti-political nation, but what he doesn't tell us is why. His political sociology offers a reasonable description of our situation, but for a credible explanation we must interogate our history.
IT’S A BEGUILING DIAGNOSIS. According to Dr Bryce Edwards, we live in an “anti-political, anti-ideological age”. What’s more, this condition of near universal political scepticism, is one which New Zealand’s current prime minister, Mr John Key, “almost perfectly personifies”.
Dr Edwards, whose pithy commentaries on current affairs are regularly featured in the news media, is a lecturer in Political Studies at the University of Otago. His expert testimony on New Zealand’s political condition should not, therefore, be dismissed out-of-hand.
But, is Dr Edwards right? Has the very mention of “ideology” – a term which he claims “used to have positive connotations” – now become “almost abhorrent” to many New Zealanders?
TO BEGIN WITH, I must challenge Dr Edwards’ contention that the term “ideology” ever resonated positively in the minds of most New Zealanders.
It was following a visit to Australia and New Zealand in 1899 that the young French socialist, André Métin, coined his memorable description of Australasian politics as “socialism without doctrines”.
“Australasia”, he said, “has contributed little to social philosophy, but she has gone further than any other land along the road to social experimentation.”
Monsieur Métin’s observations strongly suggest that New Zealanders’ political pragmatism (not to mention their impatience with “social philosophy) is part of a cultural tradition extending back more than a century into our history.
The late Bruce Jesson explained this impatience with theory, and our general reluctance to think ideologically, in terms of colonial New Zealand society’s essential artificiality:
“New Zealand was a state-created society in that the state did not emerge from some already-existing social order, some civil society, but instead created it. The state was responsible for creating the infrastructure of the country – a social infrastructure, as well as an economic infrastructure. And while this was unavoidable, it meant New Zealand was a society without texture. New Zealand might without exaggeration be thought of as a hollow society.”
To which I would add the chilling effect of the Cold War on such fragile ideological flowers as had, somehow, managed to find a way through the concrete, brick and Bakelite shell of the First Labour Government.
As Bill Pearson’s seminal 1952 essay, Fretful Sleepers, makes depressingly clear, it was a very brave Kiwi indeed who was prepared, in the oppressive political and cultural atmosphere which settled over New Zealand in the aftermath of the 1951 Waterfront Lockout, to own up to ideological tendencies of any sort.
It is to this ideologically inert society that Greg McGee’s hero addresses his last excoriating soliloquy in the 1981 stage-play Foreskin’s Lament:
“Whaddarya? Whaddarya! Whaddarya!!!”
New Zealanders lack of interest in all things ideological is, therefore, very far from being a recent, or a new, phenomenon.
HOW THEN, are we to explain Dr Edwards insistence that we are living in an “anti-political, anti-ideological age”?
Paradoxically, New Zealanders allergic reaction to what might be called “ideological politics” is actually a manifestation of that same doctrinally-uninflected socialism which Monsieur Métin observed 112 years ago.
It was the vicious, right-wing ideology driving Rogernomics and Ruthanasia, and the cynical devaluation of “politics” (as in people voting for “A” but getting “Z”) which accompanied it, that made the term so “abhorrent” to so many New Zealanders.
The Right then counter-attacked with increasingly shrill condemnations of what it called “political correctness gone mad”.
The result is a form of political discourse whose vituperative content is only exceeded by the volume of its expression.
Small wonder people shy away.
Nor should we be surprised that Mr Key’s easy-going personality, and his ability to channel the public’s weariness of “big ideas”, have made him one of this country’s most popular political leaders. Bruce Jesson’s “hollow society” has embraced Nicky Hager’s “hollow man”.
That’s why only practical actions will undo John Key: privatisation; attacking the vulnerable; gutting state housing.
Dr Edwards needs to remember, and National should never forget, that although New Zealanders have never been socialists of the head; we remain socialists of the heart.
This essay was originally published in The Dominion Post, The Timaru Herald, The Taranaki Daily News, The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 8 July 2011.