Friday 20 November 2020

The Political Economy Of Pride And Prejudice.

For The Few, Not The Many: In the face of the widening gulf between the rich and the poor, successive New Zealand governments have opted for the same role that Jane Austen chose to play while her beloved England busied itself defeating Napoleon Bonaparte and the revolutionary egalitarian impulses he embodied. They have transformed a narrow and privileged layer of New Zealand society into the only part of New Zealand society that matters. 

JANE AUSTEN’s literary skills are so prodigious that they distract us from the political landscape in which her novels unfold. Historically-speaking, the England of Pride & Prejudice, of Elizabeth Bennett and Mr Darcy, was a brutal place. For all but the very narrow social layer in which Austen’s novels are uniformly set: the world of aristocratic, genteel and commercial families; life was an unrelenting struggle to keep oneself and one’s family out of the clutches of the cruel and oppressive English state.

This was, after all, the era of the press-gang, indentured labour, transportation to Australia, imprisonment for debt, and those semi-festive demonstrations of state power – public hangings. On the hills outside Austen’s charming rustic villages and stately homes, gibbet-cages (and their decaying contents) swayed in the wind. Grim reminders of the fate that awaited those who violated the sacred laws of private property.

Not that genteel families like the Bennetts were entirely exempt from the iron laws of inheritance and property. Mr Bennett’s landed estate, Longbourn, is entailed – that is to say it can only be inherited by his closest male relative. As the father of five daughters, this leaves his family acutely vulnerable to the whims of his cousin, the sycophantic clergyman, Mr Collins. The law of entail thus provides the motive force for Austen’s plot. Making it, unintentionally we must presume (although with Austen one can never be sure!) a treatise on the political-economy of marriage in Regency England.

It was only 27 years after the publication of Pride & Prejudice that New Zealand became a colony of the British Empire. Indeed, one of the prime movers behind its colonisation, Edward Gibbon Wakefield, bears a more than a passing resemblance to Austen’s charmingly wicked Mr Wickham! It was Wakefield’s intention to reproduce in New Zealand a more-or-less exact replica of that rigidly class-divided rural England so lovingly depicted in Austen’s novels. Unfortunately, for Wakefield and his ilk, this version of England, with its “rich man in his castle, poor man at his gate” was precisely what the Scots, Irish, Welsh and English settlers who arrived here were fleeing.

If the settler history of New Zealand has any coherent theme (apart from the methodical dispossession of the Maori) then it is surely the multi-generational effort to beat down the political, social, economic and cultural privileges of class. For more than a century-and-a-half, New Zealanders have struggled to make it possible for every responsible and industrious citizen to acquire his or her own version of “Longbourn” – a home to call their own.

Alas, that vision of a New Zealand unencumbered by a parasitic landlord class, where a young person can make their way in the world on their own merits, irrespective of what they stand to inherit from their parents, is fast dissolving. A vast and politically dangerous gulf is opening up between the very wealthiest New Zealanders and their multi-propertied enablers in the professional and managerial classes; and the rapidly expanding mass of precariously employed, under-employed, and exploited workers, before whom the mirage of home ownership shimmers ever more distantly.

In the face of this widening gulf between the rich and the poor, successive governments have opted for the same role that Austen chose to play while her beloved England busied itself defeating Napoleon Bonaparte and the revolutionary egalitarian impulses he embodied. They have transformed a narrow and privileged layer of New Zealand society into the only part of New Zealand society that matters. Like Austen, they have deleted this country’s beaten-down and exploited working-class from the narrative’s list of serious characters. If they appear at all it is incidentally. Like Austen’s ubiquitous but inconsequential servants, they are necessary, but undeserving, ultimately, of serious attention: politically, economically, socially or culturally.

It’s a situation that cannot last. Jane Austen was followed by Charles Dickens: Pride & Prejudice by Bleak House. Austen’s rustic England swiftly succumbed to capitalism’s “dark satanic mills” – and their socialist dismantlers.

A similar reckoning lies in store for us, 18,000 kilometres from Austen’s shires, should this present government persist in behaving like Mr Collins in the presence of Lady Catherine De Bourgh. If our prime-minister, channelling Austen, continues to insist that:

“It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a Labour Government in possession of a good majority, must be in want of the will to behave like one.”

This essay was originally published in The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 20 November 2020.


Philip said...

Chris - an interesting piece thank you. I have been pondering the need for wealth to be introduced to families in "working poverty" through providing access to a deposit. It seems that much of the population could service a mortgage if they could only find the deposit. Does anyone see any reason why the Government (or indeed a charity) could not provide a guarantee to enable the issuing of 0% deposit loans to first home buyers who are in employment and currently paying rent equivalent to a mortgage anyway? This is something that I believe could break the cycle of generational poverty. I suspect it would need to be coupled with some basic financial training as many of us were brought up not realizing the value of owning your own home and the personal satisfaction it can bring as well as the financial benefits. This would start to add assets to a family which would build over generations. Surely it is a better approach than Govt housing which does nothing to address the ability of a family to get ahead.

Jens Meder said...

Is it not an exaggeration to talk about "a narrow and privileged layer of New Zealand society that matters", when it is actually over 50% of us who are home owners and still matter as the "backbone" of the nation?

It is the excessive liberalism in that "everyone knows best how to spend his/her money" that allows people to choose a hand-to-mouth lifestyle without the austerity of becoming an owner of wealth from the situation of a 'have not", the natural state of every new born human of "have-not" parentage - and increasing the demand for permanent rental accommodation.

Therefore a healthily well ordered democratic society among all the other rules of law and order to keep it working well, should include beside its e.g. compulsory basic education rule also a basic universal personal (retirement) wealth ownership creative savings factor built into our taxation system.

We are on the right track through our NZ Super Fund - but KiwiSaving still needs to become inclusive to all.

Cheers - Jens.

greywarbler said...

The UK has already slipped back towards Jane Austen's time George Monbiot writes in The Guardian. The incredible, not ineptitude, but wilful neglect of duty that the UK demonstrated with the second Irish famine, may very well be repeated when Brexit snaps its jaws shut, locking Britain away in what may seem like a concentration camp for many. This is hardly an exaggeration when one reads the nasty lineup of statistics and assessments of unreadiness and insouciant announcements from the present UK government.

When the government was challenged on this issue in parliament last year, it claimed it was “not responsible for the supply of food and drink to the population in an emergency”. That is up to “the industry”. In other words, little has changed since the Irish famine of the 1840s and the Indian famines of the 1870s. It’s the same reckless, uncaring attitude that has helped kill 50,000 people in the pandemic.

Because we are leaving the single market and the customs union, the disruption is likely to be brutal, whether or not a deal is struck. If Brexit causes further economic rupture, the shops are half-empty and even the foodbanks can’t find enough supplies, there is a real prospect of chronic hunger. But search as you may, you will find no one in government who gives a damn. Nov.17/20

And further: - Will Hutton Nov.15/20

This UK Conservative government. It has revealed a deepening dereliction of modern responsible democracy lacking in honesty and probity since acting on a non-binding referendum with a cliff-hanging tiny majority vote for Brexit, oiled by admitted false statements about releasing large sums of EU money to their health system. (And Labour does not impress with its own white-anting of its elected leader, Jeremy Corbyn.)

We may need to send food parcels again to the UK as during WW2. The 'landed and nobility' and the avaricious nouveau riche are prepared to see 'collateral damage' in neoliberal-economics style of harder times than they have already imposed, and yet find they can live with. Those being damaged can't find any comfort in knowing that the Conservative government that manages to keep itself in power, has more important matters to attend to than the populace who are squeezed and sick and now facing a possible fast.

The ordinary people have tried to rise up but couldn't unseat the toffee- nosed and so continued under the reins of the aristocracy. Then on to the meritocracy like Margaret Thatcher, following in the old traditions and convincing all of her own worth and cleverness. But an interesting comment from a Gallipoli vet who became a Kiwi indicates a docility in the UK; a lack of our wild-west spirit:
Kiwi soldiers were sent to show new Brit arrivals, 'trench war tactics'.
"The difference [between our groups] was obvious...whereas our men were inclined to wait to be told what to do, these New Zealanders acted like young generals, planning this and that, showing no fear."
'The shattering of our youth' The Press, April 25 2019.

The game is afoot again methinks; are we going to lose everything that we had gained post Great Depression and WW2?

DS said...

“It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a Labour Government in possession of a good majority, must be in want of the will to behave like one.”

I truly love that one. Well done, Mr Trotter.

However, if one wanted to be a bit darker... could we not say that the twentieth century (and its concern for working people) is increasingly looking like an historical accident? It was the era when wealth and power came from industrial production, allowing an organised working class to impose itself. The twenty-first century is atomised service-provision... and wealth is once more manifested in historical normality, i.e. land-ownership. We're not progressing through a repeated nineteenth century, where we can hope that change is coming. We are regressing through a repeated nineteenth century, and goodness knows how far back we will actually go.

(One suspects that the Right would actually prefer the eighteenth century, minus the religion).

Nick J said...

Grey, well observed. I spent 6 weeks in lockdown in Liverpool early this year. Britain appears to me to be fundamentally broken, an economy and society in decline. The money is made in the City of London, soft imports of money from enterprises in ex colonial countries owned by the City. Shareholding and loans to companies offshore that destroy local enterprise. International banking and multinational corporation ownership.

This London economy desperately tried to avoid Brexit, probably because they have so much invested in Europe and not Britain. The place resembles Rust Belt USA where the castles of Wall St and Silicon Valley overlook the peasantry between them.

One factor alone drives revolution as opposed to revolt. Hunger. As we know Britain can't feed itself.

greywarbler said...

DS Those are my feelings and conclusions also. It seems we are on the downward path of a Bell curve. As for when we reached the top-tipping point, I wonder? Could it be pre WW1? I enjoy reading detective novels written in early 1900s. The point has been made about the loss of ways of life that people enjoyed before WW1 and WW2. I would want to see women have more agency than in those early days, but I think women's outcomes are now on their way down too.

Lately I have been reading the Cadfael series set in Egland and Wales, where the excellent author Ellis Peters draws on deep understanding of the period which could be medieval? There was lots of fighting and waste of life and disruption but is that different to what happens world-wide now. We do have better sanitation! She writes with a positive slant, but the setting of humans working with human skills, in a community that has reasonable rules and parameters (which at that time were not always the case, as now) would be the right one to aim for now I think. I consider that there will need to be large groups who set out themselves, with agreed ideals and practical systems, (I'm thinking of having guilds with members being respected for their skills), in line with sensible ideals, and form their own model.

If it doesn't happen as an 'intentional' plan and implementation, the role will be picked up, haphazardly as now, by devious others often with a religious cloak, who will establish dictatorships under the aegis of virtues that they personally do not believe in; thinking of groups that exist and have been publicised in NZ already. Also the gangs that can be good or bad but always groups to be reckoned with. Once they take over people's minds and their bank balances, and embed them into the group and they marry and have family it is very hard to get free again.

The ones with religious dogma such as Gloriavale, recently in the news, to the Irish Roman Catholic (though Protestant was first in 1765) control of young women with forced labour at the *Magdalene Laundry, there is loss of freedom to be a person, and actually, paradoxically, a soulless existence I think. I'm sure this happens to men also, it is just not as much publicised. *

Charles Pigden said...

One of your best Chris

greywarbler said...

Nick J
You referred to hunger and I remembered what I had read where that word stood out. W H Auden with 1 September 1939, the poem that we can never read enough times, understanding more each time.
From the conservative dark
Into the ethical life
The dense commuters come,
Repeating their morning vow;
"I will be true to the wife,
I'll concentrate more on my work,"
And helpless governors wake
To resume their compulsory game:
Who can release them now,
Who can reach the deaf,
Who can speak for the dumb?

All I have is a voice
To undo the folded lie,
The romantic lie in the brain
Of the sensual man-in-the-street
And the lie of Authority
Whose buildings grope the sky:
There is no such thing as the State
And no one exists alone;
Hunger allows no choice
To the citizen or the police;
We must love one another or die.

Tom Hunter said...

As I have pointed out to you before the real reason for this failre of Adern's government is that Left-WIngers in NZ long ago lost faith in their own beliefs. It did not become obvious until 1984 when the onslaught of ideas from the Rogernomics brigade simply overwhelmed even old-time, hardline and intelligent men like Ken Douglas.

They were shocked that anybody would question the status quo and when challenged found they had forgotten how to defend even the basic assumptions underpinning the institutions, let alone the details of their construction.

The young crowd now in power don't even have that history. As property-owning young tyros with their eyes on the dollar in their private lives - whatever they may say in their public political eyes - they're more Roger's children than Ken's.

sumsuch said...

The media suggests Ardern should concentrate on the middle, like Key, til she grows cross-eyed. She's inclined, I incline to. She knows how to respond but not how to lead. Surely that's one step of imagination. Reserved Scots could see no use in others who weren't giving them money, their descendants the Americans saw everyone was a possible source of money. Just one step (which, malheureusement, I still haven't been able to make).

John Hurley said...

Catherine Delahunty seems to imply that we shouldn't feel sorry for poor whites because:

"we were taught to be racist" ; "we Irish were at the bottom of the heap but there was always someone below us" ; "if there are problems in communities in the West you scapegoat"

last 2 mins here

My great grandfather from Shetland was partners in a mine at Ross with "eight Irish mates". As a sailor he had been part of a crew that had refused to board a leaky ship and were imprisoned in Ireland - "the Irish women pelted us with loaves". On the other hand Chinese were seen as not them and competition. My great grandfather used to say "if those Chinese invaded we could have guns but they could defeat us with frying pans". In other words they didn't want to be a minority in a Chinese dominated country. How would society have looked today if that had happened? On the other hand that's where we are headed already?

John Hurley said...

Bernard Hickey is casting a skeptical eye at the "investments" the government is mooting. I mean we can run coffee shops and live in nice houses too. Meanwhile a developer in Merivale is building to the pavement and another to the East of CBD is saying "they don't like change". Last time I read that was on Public Address.

sumsuch said...

Tom Hunter, something rotted out. Too much control, we wanted a release in 1984. I bought into it, listening enthusiastically to a Radio Pacific talkback host prior. Remember how Douglas kept on about evil interventionism and the medium-term when we'd get our lollipop. Anyway I knew by the next election they were friends of the rich and in the absence of choice I spoiled my vote.

Sure, there were the great prominenti who opposed them from the start, not least my Garden Centre unionist boss (in my mind) and our host here. And up to the late 90s the intelligent middle class were, very ineffectively, opposed to the 84 coup.

Then ... nope, not the medium-term, ridiculous entertainmental individualism and the pay-off for the new 'meritocratic' elite. All's well say the leaders and indeed it is ... for them.

sumsuch said...

I likes the fight in this new term. Housing and benefits. Here in Gisborne we're building and building and I'm thinking about letting my neighbours make our back alcove a bedroom.