Friday 8 July 2011

Dr Edwards' Beguiling Diagnosis

But Somebody Rules: Dr Bryce Edwards argues that New Zealand has become an anti-ideological, anti-political nation, but what he doesn't tell us is why. His political sociology offers a reasonable description of our situation, but for a credible explanation we must interogate our history.

IT’S A BEGUILING DIAGNOSIS. According to Dr Bryce Edwards, we live in an “anti-political, anti-ideological age”. What’s more, this condition of near universal political scepticism, is one which New Zealand’s current prime minister, Mr John Key, “almost perfectly personifies”.

Dr Edwards, whose pithy commentaries on current affairs are regularly featured in the news media, is a lecturer in Political Studies at the University of Otago. His expert testimony on New Zealand’s political condition should not, therefore, be dismissed out-of-hand.

But, is Dr Edwards right? Has the very mention of “ideology” – a term which he claims “used to have positive connotations” – now become “almost abhorrent” to many New Zealanders?

TO BEGIN WITH, I must challenge Dr Edwards’ contention that the term “ideology” ever resonated positively in the minds of most New Zealanders.

It was following a visit to Australia and New Zealand in 1899 that the young French socialist, André Métin, coined his memorable description of Australasian politics as “socialism without doctrines”.

“Australasia”, he said, “has contributed little to social philosophy, but she has gone further than any other land along the road to social experimentation.”

Monsieur Métin’s observations strongly suggest that New Zealanders’ political pragmatism (not to mention their impatience with “social philosophy) is part of a cultural tradition extending back more than a century into our history.

The late Bruce Jesson explained this impatience with theory, and our general reluctance to think ideologically,  in terms of colonial New Zealand society’s essential artificiality:

“New Zealand was a state-created society in that the state did not emerge from some already-existing social order, some civil society, but instead created it. The state was responsible for creating the infrastructure of the country – a social infrastructure, as well as an economic infrastructure. And while this was unavoidable, it meant New Zealand was a society without texture. New Zealand might without exaggeration be thought of as a hollow society.”

To which I would add the chilling effect of the Cold War on such fragile ideological flowers as had, somehow, managed to find a way through the concrete, brick and Bakelite shell of the First Labour Government.

As Bill Pearson’s seminal 1952 essay, Fretful Sleepers, makes depressingly clear, it was a very brave Kiwi indeed who was prepared, in the oppressive political and cultural atmosphere which settled over New Zealand in the aftermath of the 1951 Waterfront Lockout, to own up to ideological tendencies of any sort.

It is to this ideologically inert society that Greg McGee’s hero addresses his last excoriating soliloquy in the 1981 stage-play Foreskin’s Lament:

“Whaddarya? Whaddarya! Whaddarya!!!”

New Zealanders lack of interest in all things ideological is, therefore, very far from being a recent, or a new, phenomenon.

HOW THEN, are we to explain Dr Edwards insistence that we are living in an “anti-political, anti-ideological age”?

Paradoxically, New Zealanders allergic reaction to what might be called “ideological politics” is actually a manifestation of that same doctrinally-uninflected socialism which Monsieur Métin observed 112 years ago.

It was the vicious, right-wing ideology driving Rogernomics and Ruthanasia, and the cynical devaluation of “politics” (as in people voting for “A” but getting “Z”) which accompanied it, that made the term so “abhorrent” to so many New Zealanders.

The Right then counter-attacked with increasingly shrill condemnations of what it called “political correctness gone mad”.

The result is a form of political discourse whose vituperative content is only exceeded by the volume of its expression.

Small wonder people shy away.

Nor should we be surprised that Mr Key’s easy-going personality, and his ability to channel the public’s weariness of “big ideas”, have made him one of this country’s most popular political leaders. Bruce Jesson’s “hollow society” has embraced Nicky Hager’s “hollow man”.

That’s why only practical actions will undo John Key: privatisation; attacking the vulnerable; gutting state housing.

Dr Edwards needs to remember, and National should never forget, that although New Zealanders have never been socialists of the head; we remain socialists of the heart.

This essay was originally published in The Dominion Post, The Timaru Herald, The Taranaki Daily News, The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 8 July 2011.


Tiger Mountain said...

Most peoples consciousness arises from their social conditions rather than the reverse. Which is why this country really needs more philosophers, public intellectuals and scientists, people who demonstrably see beyond the ‘now’.

Kiwis reside (in their imaginations at least) in so many niches, dreads, tatts, baldheads, hobbit lovers and ‘haters’. But still 75% of us exist on under 50k$ per annum and many on under 20k$ p.a.

Yesterdays ‘monolithic working class’ and jobs for life now a thousand lawn mowing rounds, precarious employment, contracting and increasing inequality not known when a Soviet professor opined to an old SUP mate of mine attending the Moscow party school that “New Zealand would be one of the last nations on earth to go socialist”. HIs reasons were the unresolved colonial history (national question in marx speak), excessive reliance on and subservience to then UK and US imperialism, and the pervading influence of social democracy (class collaboration) in the NZ Labour Party and unions when compulsory union membership and national awards ruled. Though a wide move to MECAs and subsequent parties as raised by the NZCTU looks quite attractive in todays conditions!

So sadly it appears that most kiwis are socialists neither of head nor heart. Middle class welfare such as working for families just puts off collective organising. The Man Alone psychology lives on here and it will indeed take practical action to change that. The Tauranga port transport unions pending action on the Chinese sourced rolling stock and the potential rise of Mana Movement being a couple of glimmers.

Anonymous said...

I sometimes wonder if people generally, even if actively engaged in politics, know what they mean by the term ideological. I also wonder if Dr Edwards does, especially as the history of the National Party would highlight many ideologues. It's often stated that Roger Kerr is an ideologue, but he claims that what he advocates is simply economic theory, as the one true path to prosperity. Last night he opined to Lindsay Perigo about how NZers did not really get it, and that attitudes had to change for 'reform' to be effective; though Kerr and co are all about simply imposing their reforms.

Back to ideology, for those aware of the work of the Birmingham University cultural studies school, I suggest reading Stuart Hall. His analysis of Thatcherism as an ideological project, based on moral views, is still worth considering in terms of right wing discourse.

Chris Trotter said...

I'm not sure, Tiger Mountain, whether those Soviet teachers at the Moscow party school are the most reliable of guides when it comes to determining the "true" character of socialism ;-)

What I am more sure of is that since 1984 New Zealanders have been subjected to an extraordinary and unrelenting torrent of neoliberal propaganda.

The degree to which all alternative economic ideas have been driven from what Jurgen Habermas calls "the public square" would, I suspect, have made those Moscow party school teachers turn green with envy.

In my view, a return to mass participation in political life (for which NZ was justly famous in the 50s and 60s) cannot happen until a dramatic expansion of the public's ownership and control of the means of communication allows for an equally dramatic expansion of the currently dangerously narrow range of NZ political discourse.

When New Zealanders once again understand that the promptings of their socialist hearts are not only socially desirable - but economically and politically possible - their "hate affair" with ideology and politics will come to an abrupt end.

Tiger Mountain said...

Sure, the soviets would be now viewed as the classic “plumber with leaky taps at home” example, just being honest with my reference. The CIA has a fair bit of content on www where they analyze other countries too.

Totally agree with your ‘neo liberal torrent’ comment.

Madison said...

Don't know that I wholly agree with the full idea of the socialist move but I would agree on the general idea that the NZ population is politically inactive. I try to do my part to stay educated on the issues, look into the parties and actually question politicians. All I hear in return from many co-workers and friends is a constant chorus of "why bother, we always get idiots in office anyway?"

Sad case to look at, but with the devolution into PR based speeches, photo ops and sound-bite policies I can easily see why people are frustrated. If the average kiwi can't be bothered to vote it'll end up like the US was years ago when I believe they had a president elected with a minority percentage of a vote count that wasn't much more than around 53% of the voting public. And that was damned stupid looking.

If only we have some serious contenders to bring real debate and engagement into politics it would be nice. And Hone doesn't count, he doesn't want engagement he wants followers.

Victor said...

Pragmatism, anti-intellectualism and an aversion to high-sounding theories are pronounced characteristics of all Anglophone societies, with the possible exception of Scotland.

New Zealand's recent colonial origins, traditional egalitarianism and intense practicality have strongly reinforced this trend.

But I think that our current state of ideological torpor has something rather more serious and worrying behind it.

In my experience, fewer and fewer New Zealanders now believe that a half-way decent society is possible here over the long term.

To an extent, this is a reaction to the crass political and economic experiments of the last 30 years. And it may also, in part, reflect the way that everything now seems to have a price on it, whilst so much of life, both here and overseas, has been drained of its human and humane content.

But New Zealand's mood also reflects the perceived realities of a country far distant from its markets, with no outstanding inherent economic advantages and which persistently sheds its best trained young people to higher paying environments; a country, moreover, which knows itself to have fallen behind many other nations in the very area of material prosperity in which it once believed it shone as an exemplar.

Perhaps I'm wrong but I detect a mixture of stoic fatalism and cynicism around the place these days.

Unless something changes, most of our young people are going to have a less easy time than their parents, whilst many of these same parents will retire with much less financial security than they would realistically have thought likely when they were starting out. Meanwhile, age differentials aside, the gap between rich and poor grows ever wider, with 'Third World' levels of impoverishment increasingly common in some communities.

The cheery self-congratulation of the plastic patriot, for so long a characteristic of New Zealand, now sounds a discordant note that palpably jars with most of our realities.

There's little point, however, decrying cynicism if you can't posit a better way forward. And so, I must agree with you, Chris, that a first, crucial step is the freeing of the public space from the carping rigidities of compulsory neo-liberalism.

Anonymous said...

One of the essential ingredients of a healthy democratic polity is an opposition. In the realm of economics there hasn't much meaningful party political opposition to neoliberalism in Aotearoa since 1984. Now, almost everyone under the age of 40 has no idea what social democracy means - and they understandably do not realise that the Labour Party is a pale and rather sad imitation of what social democratic politics used to be. (Aotearoa is, of course, far from alone in this.)

When a small country town such as Waipukurau loses 300 jobs, as happened a couple of weeks back, Government Ministers do not jump in to see what they can do, as they would in former times. Ministers do not comment at all. It is the impersonal force of the market that dictates such events, and there is nothing that can be done in the face of the implacable laws of neoliberal economics. Why would a government have anything to say?

You are right Chris, only practical mistakes by Key's government will provoke the electorate. But the biggest failure of all - on the economy, on the jobs that support us - has been made invisible by the neoliberal conjuring trick. Since the precepts of neoliberalism have become so widely accepted, integrated into the way many of us (including most journalists) understand what happens in the world, the domain of politics has little meaning.

And in terms of what affects us most in daily life - the state of the economy - the views of faceless technocrats at Standard and Poor's and at Moody's seem to be more significant to the media and "the markets" than the views of the Minister of Finance, the Minister of Labour or the Minister of Social Development.

Social democracy gave us to understand that we had some influence on the direction of our society and the our economy through the political process. We understood that it would be largely beneficial for most people most of the time (but we knew that nothing's perfect!). However, with the surrender and untimely death of social democracy, we are cast adrift; government seems unable to act to protect us - and, more significantly, entirely unwilling to try.

I wonder what sort of existential crisis this rejection generates among the vulnerable. If nothing else, it makes me think - Government gave up on us, now we are returning the favour.

Michael said...

New Zealand - the land of blokes and sheelas? Practical sorts, good natured. (interpretation: dead scared of showing our feelings about anything - that's usually when we end up looking stupid) Feelings? Oh yes. Real deep, right scary stuff. Our achilles heel. Want to look a fool? Just let your feelings get the better of you. This is a British thing, 'she'll be right' our affable version of the stiff upper lip. Except they have thousands of years of tradition and history, a safe deposit box in which to invest passions. Perhaps what Maori have missed most in our dessicated culture is belief? Back to the point - the ideology of Roger Douglas is not something that makes you look stupid, even if its wrong. Unsentimental, practical stuff (supposedly). Rebukes our compassionate weakness, those things that let us down, or show us up in the way we dread. Social conscience? Soppy stuff. Weak minded individuals. Harden up bro, the world's not like that. Charity's OK, but you can't run a country like that. Best place for our socialist heart is inside a tough ribcage, one built on hard economics, where it can't get hurt. What New Zealanders love about John Key is he never looks stupid, never gets carried away. Has feelings but they are under control, has a smile on his face mostly. No one wants to look like Phil, no matter what ideas he has. The young are different. Maybe they will listen to their hearts and their heads.

Anonymous said...

May I commend this to your attention, as one example of how the "neo-liberal conjuring trick" is kept in place?

Brendan McNeill said...

"although New Zealanders have never been socialists of the head; we remain socialists of the heart."

Chris, I suspect what you mean by this is that we are a compassionate people.

The problem with socialism however is that it confuses compassion with compulsion. Compassion results in a voluntary act of charity or mercy by an individual or a group of people. Socialism however requires coercive State intervention to bring about similar results.

The socialist, while proclaiming the brotherhood of man, refuses to trust the brotherhood to deliver actions of voluntary wealth redistribution.

The 'rich' must be be coerced into giving to the 'poor'.

Therefore, instead of uniting the community, socialism drives a wedge between rich and poor, it encourages the politics of envy, and has to maintain the narrative of 'class struggle' in order to justify its existence.

Furthermore, socialism is perversely parasitic. It depends upon the existence of a rich 'wealth creation class' in order to facilitate coercive wealth transfer. Yet is is this very class that it rages against.

Surely this is a bankrupt and divisive ideology?

Dave Brown said...

Don't agree with Edwards or Trotter. Both positions are empiricist/moralist not materialist. And usage of term ideology is superficial.

Fact is ideology means ideas that reflect material interests, and in the last analysis those are class interests and class struggle is the means by which ideology is imposed, otherwise its all trivia.

NZ has had plenty of class struggle and well developed ideology of class war eg Red Feds, 1951, but for long periods its been suppressed and submerged by the dominant ideology of nationalism and classlessness (and its obverse, individualism) the key lineaments of bourgeois ideology.

Another fact is that whatever 'kiwis' (chauvinistically) think, NZ's economic trajectory is pushing it inevitably into further crisis and decline and so into a healthy resurgence of open class war. The ruling class under Key and on his right flank, Brash, have announced their war plans; East ChCh is coming onto the radar as site for some skirmishes, Mana is being pushed by unemployed Northland youth in that direction where the fight will spill out of parliament.

So Edwards needs to wake up and smell the liquefaction, NZ is a semi-colony and since 1984 no longer insulated from the global economy. Its now a question of whether it becomes the Eastern Territory of Australia or Great South Islands of China. Its already Kiwiwood but that's just the circus. When the bread runs out the class struggle is on for real and the intellectuals pondering ideology will be left in the slipstream.