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.