Wednesday 4 May 2011

History Makers?

Making history - but not just as he pleases: Hone Harawira launches his new Mana Party with the borrowed language of that other great rebel MP - John A Lee. Promising uplift to "the children of the poor", Mana - like the new, Don Brash-led Act - cannot avoid defining its political mission against the most important historical legacy of New Zealand's progressive egalitarian tradition - the welfare state.

“MEN MAKE THEIR OWN HISTORY,” wrote Karl Marx, “but they do not make it just as they please; they do not make it under circumstances chosen by themselves, but under circumstances directly encountered, given and transmitted from the past.”

This week two New Zealanders, Don Brash and Hone Harawira, offered dramatic proof of the first part of Marx’s typically contradictory formula.

By seizing the levers of electoral representation and yanking them hard (Don to the right, Hone to the left) both men have changed the direction of New Zealand politics. What was beginning to look like a done deal for Prime Minister John Key has suddenly become a much more complicated and uncertain electoral proposition.

That Dr Brash and Mr Harawira have made their own history cannot be denied. What we will now spend seven months discovering is whether or not they can make it do just as they please.

Because, as Marx warned his readers more than a century-and-a-half ago, human-beings do not operate in a vacuum. Today’s politician doesn’t construct the stage upon which he struts and frets – he inherits it. Or, to quote Marx’s macabre metaphor: “The tradition of all the dead generations weighs like a nightmare upon the brain of the living.”

And the tradition which weighs most heavily upon the brains of both Dr Brash and Mr Harawira? The “circumstances directly encountered, given and transmitted from the past” with which both men must grapple?

New Zealand’s welfare state.

For Dr Brash, the welfare state represents the Left’s most deadly thrust at the core principles of free-market capitalism. By promoting full-employment, state-subsidised housing, publicly provided education and health services – along with progressive taxation, compulsory union membership and a host of other policies designed to redistribute wealth from the rich to the poor – the welfare state undermined the authority of the boss and made workers much less afraid of being sacked.

That is why men of Dr Brash’s ideological ilk have been trying so hard, for the best part of twenty-five years, to dismantle the welfare state. They know that until the welfare state and its associated institutions have been eliminated, the “incentives” of free-market capitalism simply cannot work as they should.

For Mr Harawira the welfare state represents a very different (although related) historical inheritance.

The very rapid expansion of employment opportunities following World War II emptied the New Zealand countryside of young Maori workers. They took up their places on the production-lines of New Zealand’s import substitution industries, and hired out their brain and muscle to the builders of the country’s burgeoning infrastructure.

Housed by the state, educated by the state, and cared for by the state, the ties binding these new urban Maori to the traditional culture of their marae were weakened. New Zealand’s egalitarian ethos, widespread inter-marriage and the powerfully integrative influence of unions, churches and sporting clubs all served to strengthen the official post-war doctrine of assimilation – and made it work. The welfare state was rapidly transforming Maori into brown-skinned Pakeha.

This was the world in which Hone Harawira grew up – and he learned to hate it. Not the working-class traditions of solidarity and mutual assistance, but the smug assumption of official Pakeha culture that the crimes of New Zealand’s colonial past could be hidden away in history books; and that Maori language and culture would very soon be reduced to mere museum exhibits.

But the same decade that witnessed the so-called “Maori Renaissance” (in which Mr Harawira and his family wrote their own robust chapter) also witnessed the first great assault by Dr Brash and his cohorts upon the welfare state – the social-democratic institutions of which had nurtured and educated the very same young rebels who were now leading the charge for tino rangatiratanga.

From fully-employed and properly paid workers with homes and families, Maori found themselves suddenly drafted into what Marx called “the reserve army of labour”. Once proud communities have become ghettoes of poverty and dysfunction.

Mr Harawira has come to realise that Maori culture cannot be preserved, nor their lost lands recovered, in a socio-economic vacuum. That defending Maori and defending the welfare state are not two separate battles – but a single, bi-cultural, struggle.

These are the moments, wrote Marx: just when the revolutionaries seem on the point of creating something entirely new; that they “anxiously conjure up the spirits of the past to their service”.

And so we hear Mr Harawira, channelling the spirit of Labour’s long-dead rebel MP, John A. Lee, speak movingly about “the children of the poor”; presenting his new Mana Party to voters in the time-honoured disguise of New Zealand’s egalitarian past.

While Dr Brash, in the borrowed language of the assimilationist welfare state, calls for a society based on “one law for all”.

Making history? Yes. But not just as they please.

This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday 3 May 2011.


barry said...

It seems to me that the enemy of both of them is the welfare state.

Theyd best be careful - they might get what they wish for...........

Anonymous said...

Given the experience of other nations, it is highly improbable that looking to Marx for inspiration will deliver the outcomes that New Zealanders are seeking for themselves and their families.

It is also improbable that any good can come from a political party based upon historical grievances, especially given the progress that has been made in recent decades on claim settlements.

I would like to hear Mr Harawira's plan for healing and reconciliation. It seems to me however, that his 'reason for being' would disappear without his having a scab to keep picking away at.

It's easy to run a negative grievance business, anyone can do that.

Does Mr Harawira have what it takes to propose and build a constructive future for all New Zealanders?


Anonymous said...

This essay poses more questions than it answers. In particular, to the role of the welfare state, does it really create 'brown-skinned Pakeha'? Certainly, the urbanisation of rural Maori was a significant economic and social process, and the welfare policies became necessary to the process, but were not in place at the beginning: i.e. migrating Maori did not get the early State Houses in Auckland. Also, were the institutions of civil society really having an integrative effect, of course, Brash argues that the welfare policies actually create the social problems. It is obvious why Brash attcks the welfare state, but it's difficult to see why he allows himself to be perceived as attacking Maori, and using the term 'race' in relation to policymaking. Does he really need to rely on redneck votes?

Tiger Mountain said...

“Welfare state” in this instance is code for social democracy. It has generally been ‘left’ social democracy going back to Paddy Webb et al that has effected change previously. Paid parental leave, Kiwibank etc. during the Clark era were driven by the Alliance.

Marx wrote so much for so long that there is often enough a quote to fit most circumstances for the long distance columnist. While Mana appears to uncannily revisit the New Labour foundation, 20 years on things have indeed changed which is all that Marx’s historical materialism can predict. Todays living actors have to do the actual business. Will someone pay attention to detail and get Mana registered? Will Hone hold Te Tai Tokerau?

Hone has a good level of left wing understanding that he chose to bury decades ago in favour of Maori nationalism. A change to incorporating some elements of a class based approach is fine by me. Hone being no Jim Anderton, might even be successful.

Anonymous said...

With the way the job market is at present, there has to be a welfare state, or people would actually starve.

Any job is now very hard to get, and prospective employers are putting applicants through ridiculous hoops. How did it come to this? And for what, a meagre wage, mostly.

Most employers in NZ these days are part of the problem. Do the politicians care about that? No, the business get all the backing, these days.

Anonymous said...

He support removing GST and having a Hone Heke (robin hood)tax in its place, much more progressive than GST and the ETS...

Hone is more left that Phil Goff and Russel Norman on tax...

Dave Kennedy said...

Brash's "one law for all" mantra may sound good but doesn't withstand close scrutiny. So many single laws can discriminate against workers and favour employers, discriminate against Maori and favour more recent settlers, discriminate against the poor and favour the rich. Whose laws will Brash determine should dominate?There are lots of discriminatory laws that Hone could refer to to really put Brash in his place, there is a difference between good laws and bad laws and ones thats till push Maori into the margins.

Olwyn said...

Thank you Chris, for a brilliantly insightful piece of writing, which sheds light on a lot of things. That conformism in exchange for material security was applicable to the Pakeha working class as well, though for them it did not involve the loss of a language. But one can see how both the Maori Renaissance movement and the various liberation movements that sprang up in the seventies rested on the assumption that the economic battle had been won, just as it was about to be re-opened on the right.

The difficulty for the left in this scenario is that the levers of power are now out of their hands. The difficulty for the right is that they have little or nothing to offer to anyone who is not rich, and function rather like an abusive spouse who demands absolute conformity in exchange for his presence. Hence they continue to have problems in turning their dominance into an established status quo, even with the help of a compliant news media.

Loz said...

"'one law for all' mantra may sound good but doesn't withstand close scrutiny." - bsprout

Oh yes it does, although, I personally prefer Dr Martin Luther King Jr's version of "a nation where will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character."

Inversely, advocating an inherent inequality of humans due do the genetics of birth is an extremely dangerous and reactionary concept that generations have fought to overturn. The long campaign of the suffrage movement first had to overcome argument that one group of New Zealanders had a greater stake in the country because of their ties to the land. How ironic that on the anniversary of the first of the Freedom Bus Rides that such Freedom Ride undemocratic sentiments are again raised to justify and enshrine privilege based on race.

Bobby Moore said...

The advantage Hone Harawira has over Don Brash is that the circumstances transmitted from his past lead him to address the economic inequalities that abound in New Zealand. Economics is about the quality of life experienced by all the members of our society. Don Brash talks about economic theory. Hone Harawira talks about people.
The inequalities in New Zealand are now so large that one is left to wonder about the future stability of society. ANZAC Day laid bare the divisions within New Zealand. It was not a day of national unity as some would suggest. The crowds at ANZAC Day ceremonies were overwhelmingly pakeha with some Maori presence. They were well dressed and appeared prosperous. One suspects that majority attending the parades came from families resident in New Zealand before 1945. They are what I suspect Paul Henry referred to as ‘us’ when he made his comment about the governor general. Pasifika people were not prominent on ANZAC Day, neither were Asians nor people from the poorest suburbs.
Hone Harawira brings from his past ‘the working-class traditions of solidarity and mutual assistance’. These are traditions that are essential to the future well being of the nation. They are traditions that the ‘selfish bastards’ of the Labour Party seem to have forgotten. In view of the deafening silence form the Labour Party I am grateful that Hone Harawira’s loud voice is being used to raise public awareness of the unfair inequalities that exist within New Zealand.

Anonymous said...

Don Brash would be so much more convincing if he had been an opponent of the developing left polices of Dr Sutch in the late l950s and early l960s, but he wasn't. Like the US Neo Liberals, Brash is a case of total ideological conversion. Brash however like them remains a brutalist interventionist paternalist. A classic Act person, who in a way is not an aberation in kiwiland.
The real problem for Brash as it always was in 20 and 21C Argentina is that half the jobs in New Zealand are not real or productive and have no real economic rationale. Half the workforce could produce more, and be more satisfied and provide just as much consumer choice.For the large number of very limited and ugly humans NZs remains what they want and that is pretty much the real point of Legal Sociologist Jane Kelseys, 'Somebody Else's Country. And there are pretty ferocious forces and institutions that defend the rights of NZ's working class along with whole ratbags collection of old retreaded academics.
How to change it. Almost impossible. Ordinary people or normal people as the Maoris put it, desire no change.

Loz said...

I should have been wearing my glasses before I read over my last post... sorry for typos everyone.

Anonymous said...

Hone is advocating removing maori from poverty, not supporting the maori brown table etc, or the business round table.

I find it odd people talk about him supporting privilege and yet Brash... and Hide and Key... they are... what? Elite, old boys... well Look at Douglas, Banks and Brash... see something, old money and privilege. Don't talk about te Mana Party and privilege, because they are not our privileged class, they are seeking justice and self improvement, community improvement. A more socially and ecologically just and sane world.

Kia kaha to them and all who strive for a more fair and just Aotearoa.

Anonymous said...

Don't apologise Loz - the spectacle of someone who can almost spell invoking Dr King in support of Brash was priceless. Keep it up, God knows, we can all use a good laugh.

Loz said...

Anonymous @10:39, I appreciate your acceptance of what was a sincerely offered apology. Your witty retort incorrectly judged my comments as being in support of a person when, in fact, they supported age-old ideas of universal equality.

Invoking the words of Dr Martin Luther King in opposition to legislating inequality on the basis of hereditary or ethnic difference should not have been a bemusement. Only through finding unity can the dispossessed find strength. The rejection of “separate but equal” is not only moral but is a tactical requirement for achieving real and lasting betterment for the disinherited of this planet.

"Our loyalties must transcend our race, our tribe, our class, and our nation; and this means we must develop a world perspective."

"I refuse to accept the view that mankind is so tragically bound to the starless midnight of racism and war that the bright daybreak of peace and brotherhood can never become a reality"

King was consistent in rallying against the creation of ethnic barriers of difference. As then, the message is paramount, not as support for Don Brash but as an inalienable affirmation of universal equality and the rejection of privilege in all its forms.

Logo designer said...

I think what you wrote can also be applied to other disciplines as well. Nice work!