Friday 26 November 2010

Is Another Aotearoa Possible?

The Utopian Viewpoint: The dream of building a new and much improved society is as old as Plato. The perennial problem with such utopian schemes, however, is that what promises to be a collective dream all-too-easily translates into an individual nightmare. New Harmony by F. Bate 1838 (This carefully planned industrial community was proposed by the utopian British Capitalist, Robert Owen.)

"ANOTHER AOTEAROA Is Possible" – that’s the hopeful title of a conference getting underway in Mangere tomorrow morning. This grand political hui – featuring some of New Zealand’s leading leftists – was conceived with not one, but two agendas. Or, to employ the steely jargon of yesterday’s revolutionaries: a Maximum Programme and a Minimum Programme.

For the Maximum Programme to prevail, the radical Unite Union leader, Matt McCarten, had to attract 5 to 10 percent support in last Saturday’s Mana by-election. If he’d ended the evening with 1,200 to 1,500 votes, Te Wananga O Aotearoa’s Mangere campus – the conference venue – would almost certainly have witnessed the birth of a "New Left Party".

Unfortunately for the Conference organisers, Mr McCarten ended up attracting the support of just 3.6 percent of Mana voters. This failure to surpass even the 5 percent MMP threshold means that tomorrow’s conference agenda will default to its Minimum Programme: "a day of dialogue with activists against injustice and inequality".

Apparently, "Another Aotearoa" is not possible – at least, not this weekend. Rather than the perennial struggle against injustice and inequality, surely this is the problem everyone attending tomorrow’s conference should come to grips with:

"Why isn’t it possible?"

The British historian, Simon Schama, argues that revolutions are born of two volatile and often conflicting emotional states: Hope and Desperation. What, then, are New Zealanders’ hopes? And how desperate are they to fulfil them? That’s what the "New Leftists" attending tomorrow’s conference have to determine.

There can be little dispute that many of the people living in electorates like Mana are becoming increasingly desperate. Recently released statistics detailing the declining real incomes of Maori and Pasifika families make that shamefully clear. But, to give their desperation a radical political edge, someone or something must inspire them with hope.

If the low turnout of 55 percent is any guide, hope’s in pretty short supply among Mana’s desperate poor. With so many of the Left’s natural constituency unwilling to even participate in the by-election, the best Labour’s Kris Fa’afoi and Unite’s Matt McCarten seemed capable of inspiring was either an apathetic shrug of the shoulders or a grudging trip to the polling booth.

This lack of enthusiasm on the part of the poor was in sharp contrast to the mood of the actually wealthy or "aspirational" supporters of National’s Hekia Parata. Their generally hopeful disposition brought the Right’s feisty Maori diva perilously close to relieving Labour of it’s ninth safest seat.

The genius of Capitalism lies in the way it combines the promise of personal transformation with "equal" access to the cultural, legal and financial mechanisms required to bring it about. Of course, not everyone possesses the knowledge, the confidence, or the skill to make these mechanisms work for them. But most people do not attribute these deficiencies to weaknesses in the capitalist system – they attribute them to weaknesses in themselves.

Social-democracy’s appeal lay in its determination to make the capitalist’s promise of equal access to the mechanism’s of personal transformation real. Public health, public education, gainful employment: make these things universally available and the social barriers to individual achievement will disappear.

After that, however, it’s up to you.

The Far Left has always rejected this "reactionary" proposition. And therein lies its problem.

Presumably, the new Aotearoa will be a place from which injustice and inequality have been banished – an unquestionably desirable Minimum Programme. But this new, this "other" Aotearoa must offer the individual something more than just social security. Our brave new world needs a Maximum Programme.

Because, if the urge to enlarge the scope of individual achievement; "to strive, to seek, to find and not to yield" until one has tested the boundaries of human experience, "become all that you can be", is also banished from the New Left Party’s utopia, then I fear it will never clear even the lowest threshold of public acceptance.

"A man’s reach should exceed his grasp," wrote the poet Robert Browning, "or what’s a heaven for?"

This essay was originally published in The Dominion Post, The Timaru Herald, The Taranaki Daily News, The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Evening Star of Friday, 26 November 2010.


Madison said...

Very stunning piece and excellent analysis. I've always thought the biggest problem with the current electoral systems in the countries where I've lived has been voter apathy. The system CAN work if people are willing to fully participate and use the power they've been given. I don't agree with everything you, Matt or Don Franks might be working towards but am fully convinced that if we had a full campaign with 100% voter turnout there would be a lot more socialist politicians wielding power than we have now and the major parties would have to recognize them and make deals with them.

Unknown said...

"Rather than the perennial struggle against injustice and inequality, surely this is the problem everyone attending tomorrow’s conference should come to grips with:

"Why isn’t it possible?"

Equality of outcomes in a world populated by humans of differing ability and aspirations, can only be achieved to the measure that we are prepared to forgo our freedom.

If we in New Zealand are to be reduced to the 'lowest common denominator' by some socialist government's utopian redistributive program, then our best and brightest will continue to migrate to Australia, and we who remain will be a collection of the old, the infirm, and the insane.

Historically, the Marxist solution has been to build walls to prevent the joyful citizens from escaping to join the ranks of the 'oppressed capitalists' in other countries.

It's hard to imagine that Marxist ideology still holds sway in the minds of those who enjoy the blessings of what remains of the free world.

It would be interesting to know how many of the conference attendees are funded totally or in part by the long suffering tax payer.

Anonymous said...

The Far Left has always rejected this "reactionary" proposition.

Oops. Sorry, must have missed this. When did this happen again?


markus said...

(1) Mind you, if Matt stood in Mana at next year's General Election (with its higher turnout), he could expect (based on his By-Election performance) to receive about 1200 votes. Though that's still, of course, less than the all-important 5% target.

(2) In terms of (i) low turnout suggesting "the Left's natural constituency is unwilling to even participate in the By-Election" and that there is a "lack of enthusiasm on the part of the poor". And (ii) In stark contrast, Parata's wealthy supporters turned out in great numbers:

Turnout was actually pretty impressive in Labour's two great lower-income Eastern Porirua strongholds (where most of the Pasifika community resides) - Cannons Creek (80% of 2008 turnout) and Waitangirua (77%). And there were even swings to Labour there (at least in comparison with the 2008 Party-Vote):


Cannons Creek

Labour...83........86...........+ 3
National..6.........7...........+ 1
Green.....3.........2...........- 1
Other.....9.........5...........- 4


Labour...80.........85..........+ 5
National..9..........7..........- 2
Green.....2..........2.......... =
Other.....9..........6..........- 3

Indeed, turnout in these two dyed-in-the-wool Labour suburbs was even higher (at least as a proportion of 2008 turnout) than that in National's affluent, upwardly-mobile northern suburbs (75%).

Where Labour did suffer a little from low turnout was in some of its secondary strongholds (particularly the West: 61% of 2008) and in the highly-marginal South (northern Tawa and Linden: 62%). Low turnout wasn't always bad for Labour, though. A lot of people stayed at home in Ascot Park (61% of 2008) and Porirua East (60%) and yet look what happened:


Ascot Park

Labour...63......71...........+ 8
National.21......21........... =
Green.....4.......4........... =
Other....12.......4...........- 8

Porirua East

Labour...68......75...........+ 7
National.15......16...........+ 1
Green.....5.......4...........- 1
Other....12.......5...........- 7

markus said...

Quote: Parata came "perilously close to relieving Labour of its 9th safest seat" and (from your 'Getting the Message' post), " almost beggars belief that the By-Election campaign ended with a 14% swing towards the governing party."

The 14% figure's wrong. It originated, I think, with the Herald's Audrey Young and Adam Bennett - both of whom, unfortunately, seem to have allowed right-wing blogger, David Farrar, to do much of their thinking for them. (Indeed, not only them. In the run-up to the By-Election, the DomPost's Tracy Watkins happily devoted almost half of one of her analyses to uncritical regurgitation of the National spin-meister's thoughts).

Fa'afoi's vote was 6.6 percentage points lower than Winnie Laban's Candidate-Vote, Parata's was 6.7 points higher than her own Candidate-Vote in 2008. Rounding up, that's a 7% swing (in the conventional sense).

Further, I'd argue that this By-Election wasn't quite the shock-disaster for Labour that most MSM journalists would have us believe. That's because Labour's 2008 Party-Vote majority (2500 over National) is the true benchmark by which to judge these results, not Winnie Laban's 6100 Candidate-Vote majority.

Laban's Candidate-Vote was a personal one - a "Winnie Laban" rather than "Labour" majority.
4500 of her 6100 majority came from non-Labour people (1100 National voters, 1800 Greens and 1600 minor-party voters). These non-Labour people could happily vote for her because, of course, they had the luxury of a second vote (having already done their duty and cast their all-important Party-Vote for their preferred party - the party representing their core political allegiance, National, the Greens and so on).

Arguably, a one-vote By-Election involves entirely different dynamics. All things being equal, you'd naturally expect most of these 4500 non-Labour Winnie-voters to return to the candidates representing their respective parties (the one they cast their Party-Vote for in 2008).

The point is: in a one-vote By-Election, these voters can't separate their core political allegiance (as expressed in their 2008 Party-Vote) from their 'personality' preference (Candidate-Vote) in the way that they can in a two-vote General Election. So they're confronted with a choice. And I think it's reasonable to assume that most are going to reaffirm their primary political allegiance - most of the 1800 Greens, for instance, who Party-Voted Green / Candidate-Voted Winnie choosing to remain with their primary party (thus voting Green candidate Logie).

It was almost inevitable, then, that the majority Fa'afoi was supposed to inherit from Laban was going to be slashed. Yet by constantly insisting that this 6100 personal majority is a "Labour" one, by treating it as the benchmark for comparison, and by continually telling us that Mana is one of "the great Labour strongholds" because of Winnie's majority, these leading political journalists are essentially inferring that these Greens, Nats and minor-party supporters are, in fact, really "Labour" voters swinging to the Nats in droves.

So, the 2008 Party-Vote Labour majority (2500) should be regarded as the baseline, not only because Winnie's majority was a personal one (and so we can't assume that newbie Fa'afoi would be as personally popular), but also because of the two-vote/one-vote dynamics. Taking into account the By-Election turnout, we're talking, then, about 1700 as the majority you'd expect Fa'afoi to get - the baseline by which to judge his performance.

Hmmm said...

In the case of the 1935 Labour government - perhaps the closest thing NZ has had to a "revolution" - the aspirational factor was not individualistic. It was all about national unity. Everyone all in it together. The aspiration was for a society that included everybody and was fair. I think this still appeals to NZers. Perhaps the Left could revisit this territory? (Although Right often uses "unity"-rhetoric, too, there is an underlying dissonance with their individualist values.)

However, I'm not sure the Left could be unified about unity. Too many special interest groups. Sometimes it seems Maori and Pakeha, for example, are basically at war still.

Anonymous said...

We either become a land of hope and aspiration, or we push on as we have been towards resignation and despair. Its no good to grit our teeth and just get through. Life is far too short and this is too good and too well resourced a country to have any excuses. We can't eliminate evil by banning it or classify the population into mutually opposed groupthinks. Some years ago I listened with some shock to what one of the most charitable clergymen had to say [referring to my West Coast where he laboured physically as well as spiritually] "Anyone with any brains left the Coast. What remains has become the breeding stock. People have no aspirations beyond getting by." Well I've never hit a man of the cloth and I didn't start there. But, on reflection he was right. The lowest common denominator is the easiest one. Extrapolate that out to New Zealand. If we are in a net migration loss it's because people prefer hope over no-hope.
Seven generations of my family have been born in NZ. Five of those have worn uniform. My heart is here and like most of the population I'm paying to live here. It's not the "boss's fault" I'm self-employed and employ others when I can. I get requests for under the table payment so I don't upset their WFF payments. They are denied without a second thought given-- I want an employee. I don't want to adopt anyone and give them an allowance.
Unless we break out of our mold of low expectation and low achievement we are royally buggered. Class ideology will get us done with no vaseline. Bureaucracy has to be cut to the bone. Half the workforce is employed placing difficulties in front of the other half.

I long for a New Zealand that is cut loose to be all it can be. At the moment we're the breeding stock for no hope.


Anonymous said...

Hey Chris, Hope and Desperation may well be two volatile and often conflicting emotional states, but they do not co-exist.

Hope always has a future (until acceptance of death).
Desperation ONLY has a past (for that unfortunate individual until death actually occurs).

What Matt McC and perhaps yourself are looking for is the collective mental state where a group or indeed the "Mass" can be persuaded that the two for the moment can be tasted, as and bitter and sweet, in the one mouthfull.

This is a taste that is difficult to describe to the many, but easy for the individual to reject on a sunny day.
KFC's work just as well and if skillfully timed the taste may last for just 3 years. (for some).


mark wilson said...

A great article and a great analysis from Brendon.

Victor said...


I think you're right. We have no shortage of aspiring individuals. What we've lost is our ability to aspire to things as a society (and quite simple, obvious things at that).


I think you are under-praising twentieth century Social Democracy by describing it as, essentially, just a more effective means of pursuing possessive individualism.

Social Democracy didn't just provide better health, housing, education etc as a means of helping the aspirational to succeed.

It provided these things because these are good things for everyone, including the non-aspirational, the non-gifted and those (probably the majority of us) whose gifts or aspirations aren't entirely tied up with personal material advancement.

By providing these societal goods, Social Democracy created a more equal, stable, just, secure and harmonious society, in which we were free to aspire to all kinds of personal goals, both material and otherwise.

That's a considerable amount to achieve and as much as politics alone can ever be expected to produce. The sooner we get back to that blessed minimum the better.

But forget about maximalist programmes. Don't look to politics for new Jerusalems. Don't look to it for bliss. Don't view it as a path to a higher consciousness or a new more authentic state of being. Those who seek such chimeras through political action, tend to end up with blood on their hands and chaos as their heritage.

Adolf Fiinkensein said...

I take it the country about which you all are blathering is New Zealand?

markus said...

(1) Incidently, what do the vote figures for Cannons Creek, Waitangirua, Ascot Park and Porirua East (which I laid out above) tell us about media predictions of unprecedented Pasifika swings to National in the run-up to the Mana By-Election ?

The vast majority of Mana's Pasifika community reside in these four Eastern suburbs. Looks to me as if this "wholesale swing" proved about as elusive as the one the National Party (via the media) said would occur in Pasifika South Auckland at the 2008 General Election.

Will the MSM ever learn ? I doubt it. Expect similar Shock-Horror claims next year.


(2) I've set-out some comprehensive suburb-by-suburb stats comparing 08 Mana Party-Vote with the 2010 By-Election vote in comments on Red Alert ('Reflections on Mana', 22 November) using my other name "swordfish". See also my following comments there on the accuracy or otherwise of David Farrar's analysis.

I get the strong impression that a recent John Armstrong article ('Key Machine Pushing into Labour Country', Herald, November 29) is almost entirely grounded in my Red Alert figures. A little embarrassing given that I don't entirely agree with his resulting analysis.