Saturday 22 November 2008

Comrades, Quo Vadis?

He who would sup with the Devil must needs have a long spoon. – Old Proverb

IN the penultimate issue of the NZ Political Review, published in the spring of 2004, I published an article by Dr Elizabeth Rata entitled "Trading on the Treaty" in which she wrote prophetically of the way in which the Maori nationalist slogan tino rangatiratanga was being remorselessly co-opted by ethnic elites espousing the "neotraditionalist" ideology of "neotribal capitalism" and practising what she called "brokerage politics". (Unfortunately I cannot provide a link to the NZPR article, but this link should take you to a very similar piece of writing by Dr Rata from 2005.)

Summing up her case in the NZPR, Dr Rata wrote:

It is likely that governance will be promoted as a relationship between two complex political systems based upon an idealised politics that bypasses the material realities of how people actually work, live and interact …

… Neotribal capitalism, however, [operates] in the real world, a world where ownership and control over economic resources acquired through the Treaty settlements leads to real material advantages that enable some people to take up opportunities, to overcome limitations and to live without the real hardships of poverty, while others remain excluded.

The motivating force of the bicultural project which led to the Treaty settlements was to improve the material conditions of real people struggling to overcome marginalisation and the social and economic consequences of New Zealand’s colonial past.

The issue remains today what it was three decades ago. The specific socio-economic realities of affordable housing, educational opportunities of a standard enjoyed by the rest of society, and the chance to earn a reasonable livelihood, are the essence of politics in New Zealand society today, as [they are in] any society.

It is the political regulation of this reality that provides the opportunities for improved life chances or for permanent inequalities.

Regulation by brokerage politics leads away from the more just society promised by pluralist politics, and, in the New Zealand example, the society promised by biculturalism. By institutionalising the influence of the neotraditionalist ideology, it leads towards the permanent capture of economic resources and political power by a privileged ethnic elite.

It isn’t often that reality confirms a writer’s theoretical speculations quite so fulsomely, but the deal stitched together between the National Party and the Maori Party provides more than ample proof of Dr Rata’s thesis.

Nowhere was this better illustrated than at a gathering to which my old friend and comrade Matt McCarten was invited earlier this week.

According to Matt, it was a function that brought together the Business Roundtable and the Maori "Brown Table". Here, amidst the self-congratulation and barely concealed political triumphalism, Dr Rata’s worst fears were made flesh. The leaders of Maori businesses, Maori tribal authorities, and the providers of Maori welfare services shook hands with the leading players and ideological commissars of New Zealand capitalism. The unstated cause of the celebration was, of course, that the power-brokers of the new regime were men and women who accepted and embraced the tenets and institutions of the settler-capitalist state. The capitalists’ worst fear, that the "political regulation" of "improved life chances" for the majority of Maori would take place under the auspices of parties and individuals hostile to capitalist ideology, had – thanks to the Maori Party leadership’s decision to throw in their lot with National, ACT and United Future – been dispelled.

Quite what Matt was doing there I cannot say: perhaps he had been summoned to witness to the final defeat of one of the Left’s fondest political dreams.

There were other witnesses to that defeat.

A young comrade of mine told me of her feelings of utter dismay upon hearing the leader of the National Distribution Union, and former Alliance cabinet minister, Laila Harré, addressing a group of workers protesting the Farmers department stores owners’ risible pay offer. Laila urged these workers to throw their support behind the Maori Party, United Future (?!) and (almost as an afterthought) the Greens. Only by supporting these parties (especially the ones in league with National) she said, could they hope to see the Minimum Wage raised to $15.00 per hour.

Some hope!

There is an apocryphal tale, hailing from the early days of the Christian Church, in which St Peter, warned that the authorities propose to unleash yet another wave of persecution against his co-religionists, flees the city of Rome. Alone on the road, not far from the city walls, Peter encounters his master, Jesus. "Lord," asks Peter,"quo vadis?" (Whither goest thou?) And, Jesus answers him: "To Rome, to be crucified." Instantly, Peter realises that he must return to the city; understanding, at last, that the road to salvation leads towards pain and persecution – not away from it.

Hearing about the recent deeds of Matt and Laila, I feel like asking them the question Peter put to Jesus: "Comrades, quo vadis?"

"Where are you going?"

Four years ago, in my penultimate editorial for the NZPR, I wrote:

"My own view, after reading Dr Rata’s research, is that the Maori Party will become the new face of brokerage politics. Post-Orewa, the cosy back-room relationships between Maori power-brokers and the Crown have become less and less sustainable. Neotribal capitalism, in need of a new brokerage strategy, appears to have decided to test the viability of the electoral option. [Tariana] Turia’s flat refusal to rule out forming a parliamentary coalition with the National and ACT parties certainly points in that direction.

Whatever the Maori Party leadership’s ultimate intentions, by its very existence it has brought the New Zealand Left to a fork in the road. Some, out of historical guilt or a misplaced sense of solidarity, will take the path of the tangata whenua – hoping like mad that by doing so they can exert a progressive influence on the content of the Maori Party’s election manifesto. Others, all too aware of the fearsome historical consequences of ethnic chauvinism and religious obscurantism, will stick with the values of the European Enlightenment, and keep to the narrow path of old-fashioned social-democracy.

If I may paraphrase the early 20th Century German social-democrat, August Bebel’s, memorable judgement upon the anti-Semitic illusions of the European working-class:

Neotraditionalism is the socialism of fools.

There is, however, one bright aspect to all these dismal events. At least, I now know what to buy Matt and Laila for Christmas.

A pair of very, very, very long spoons.


Carol said...

Rata’s piece points to some interesting questions about current state of Maori-Pakeha politics. However, I’m not fully in agreement with all of her conclusions. As she indicates with respect to the very interesting points about pre-capitalist individualism in England, culture changes while some underlying cultural values continue. She claims that Maori culture has changed to accommodate capitalism, rendering land claims based in bio-cultural traditions untenable. However, not being very knowledgeable about Maori culture, I had thought the notion of community over individualism was still a central part of their culture. To me this seems to be a potential area of tension within the Maori Party and in their coalition with National.

Rata seems to echo Manuel Castells’ notion that reactive, locally-embedded tribalism is a major feature of the contemporary network society, and a reaction to insecurities generated by neoliberal globalisation. Like Castells, Rata sees such tribalism, including ethnic versions of it, as an inadequate vehicle for forging the kind of change that will bring more equality and social justice. Castells, though, points to the feminist and the environmental movements as the kind that will be able to forge positive change because they are not conservatively reactive and locally bound, but operate progressively across national borders.

Castells rejects ethnic politics as a way forward by focusing on the contemporary state of African American cultural identity. He argues that this identity has become fractured by class divisions, resulting in different African American cultural identifications for those at lower socio-economic levels (eg think rap and street culture) from the new middle-classes who look back to less threatening Black cultural forms of the past (eg think older forms of the blues). The support for Obama of all classes of African Americans seems to refute this argument. However, it has still to be seen whether Obama can fulfil the hopes of all classes and aspirations of people of colour.

Similarly, it seems to me that, while I don’t fully agree with Rata’s arguments, there is the possibility of Maori being more clearly split along class lines, with the potential fracturing of Maori Party support by the end of this political term. Once the MP founding issues are resolved (the Foreshore and Seabed, and the Orewa-inspired threat to Maori seats), what will be left to unite Maori politically? Is it possible for Maori to continue to share some underlying, long-term cultural values that exceed social class affiliation, while being fractured (largely along social class lines) by alignment to diverse political positions and parties?

Or are the underlying values, ones that transcend time, that will continue to forge a strong Maori Party position, which continues to cross or blur conventional European left-right distinctions?

Anonymous said...

Chris, Brilliant stuff.

You are a little hard on Laila, who was merely trying to figure out a voting strategy that would deliver the most for her membership, and got it wrong. Or did she? The test will come when National succumbs to its natural urges and ACT's goading, and tries to screw the low-paid workers. Then we will see (1) how much influence the Maori Party has, and (2) how much it cares. Should it come up short on either count, the results will be tangible.

Anonymous said...

Chris, I find it interesting that Hone Harawera of the Maori Party refered to John Key as a "smiling snake" and yet is part of a party that is offering its support to that particular "smiling snake".

National will never do good things for Maori because they are ideologically opposed to anything that benefits workers, evenly spreads the wealth, or protects the environment. These are the things that benefit all people including Maori.

I hope they are duely punished in 2011.

Anonymous said...

Ye don't dance with the Divil,
the Divil dances with you.

( an Irish proverb in return)