The Master Of Jack: New Zealand's original egalitarianism confronted all who stood athwart the path to a fuller life. The new egalitarianism argues that if Jack is only willing to get with programme he’ll soon realise that the fuller life is already here – to be enjoyed on Jack’s terms, and nobody else’s. John Key is both the chief spokesman and ultimate exemplar of this new egalitarian spirit. Is he our master? Yes. Does that mean he’s better than us? No way!
NEW ZEALANDERS’ WILLINGNESS to overlook the peculiarities of their Prime Minister is remarkable. This past year John Key’s lapses of taste and his penchant for populist vulgarities were exceeded only by his convenient lapses of memory and his obvious disdain for the niceties of political accountability. And yet, the Prime Minister and his National Party-led government remain extraordinarily popular. Clearly, close to half the New Zealand electorate is simply not bothered by Mr Key’s lapses of taste and memory; his crude populism; or even by his healthy disregard for the etiquette of democratic politics. In fact, they rather like it.
The egalitarian spirit for which New Zealanders are justly admired around the world would appear to have undergone a remarkable change. Where once the Kiwi claim was that “Jack's as good as his master”; egalitarianism’s contemporary iteration seems to be “Nobody’s better than Jack”.
The shift in tone is significant. In their original assertion that Kiwi Jack (and, of course, Kiwi Jill) was his or her master’s equal, New Zealanders were repudiating the strict social hierarchies of the Old World and signalling their refusal to allow either their individual or collective aspirations to be constrained by the considerations of class, gender, ethnicity or ethical conviction. It was egalitarianism of an expressly political kind: embedded in the nation’s institutions and reflected back to us via its intellectual and artistic traditions. Think Smith’s Dream or Good-bye Pork Pie.
Part and parcel of this political form of egalitarianism was an ingrained suspicion of and resistance to anyone who tried to boss Jack around. Politicians, businessmen, policemen, judges, headmasters, bureaucrats, foremen – the boss-class in general – all became targets for the scepticism and suspicion of our political egalitarianism’.
The goal was to be left alone to get on with the things that really mattered in life: family, friends, hobbies, sports and communing with a natural environment that had become the special and spectacular birthright of every Kiwi.
But the “rugged individualism” of the egalitarian New Zealander was very different from that of the egalitarian American. Up until the 1980s, this was because the former understood what the latter has never fully grasped: that individual freedom only emerges through collective endeavour. That’s why Kiwis used to be such avid “joiners” and “belongers”. Whether it was through membership of school committees, play-centres, political parties or trade unions: we did things together.
Breaking the dialectical connection between individualism and collectivism was one of the key objectives of the neoliberal counter-revolution that engulfed New Zealand in the 1980s and 90s. The egalitarian spirit was too deeply entrenched in our national character to be simply rooted out, so it was essential that the dangerously political message inherent in the notion that “Jack is as good as his master” be neutralised by redefining egalitarianism to mean something quite different.
If those on the receiving end of neoliberalism’s “restructuring” of New Zealand society could be made to believe that “Nobody’s better than Jack”, then the collective action which posed the most deadly threat to neoliberalism’s success would be rendered both impracticable and, ultimately, unnecessary.
Neoliberalism’s point of attack was the Kiwi aversion to being bossed around. If nobody’s better than Jack then nobody should be allowed to tell Jack what to do. If nobody’s better than Jack, then Jack’s ideas are a good as anybody else’s. If nobody’s better than Jack then everybody should be treated the same. Taxes should be flat. Bosses and workers should negotiate face-to-face, as equals.(No need for unions – or at least, not compulsory ones.) The media should broadcast programmes that Jack likes – not what that some pointy-headed intellectual thinks Jack should understand. And Jack’s ideas – being as good as anyone else’s – should not be sneered at or contradicted by “experts”. What do they know?
The old egalitarianism confronted all who stood athwart the path to a fuller life. It did not deny the power of philosophy or science or art: on the contrary, it demanded equal access to that power. The new egalitarianism argues that if Jack is only willing to get with programme he’ll soon realise that the fuller life is already here – to be enjoyed on Jack’s terms, and nobody else’s.
John Key is both the chief spokesman and ultimate exemplar of this new egalitarian spirit. Is he our master? Yes. Does that mean he’s better than us? No way!
This essay was originally published in The Waikato Times, The Taranaki Daily News, The Timaru Herald, The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 28 December 2012.
Thank You for this and what you do - Happy New Year good sir.
Hi Government's restoration of the titles 'Sir' and 'Dame', and the subsequent choice of recipients of those honours underlines your points rather well.
It is fanciful to imagine that collective action set individuals free from the rules of class, gender, ethnicity and opinion. New Zealand in its post-war hey-day was almost the most limited society imaginable. Women and Maori were supposed to know their place, and dissent and deviation from the norm were more likely to be persecuted than applauded. Egalitarianism went no further than the service of narrow economic interests. When its conventions were challenged (by diverse economic and social forces) in the 1970s and 1980s they melted overnight. Much as I’d like to know how we ended up with this muppet as prime minister, I wouldn’t look for the answer in a romanticised reading of the past.
Shonkey is certainly NOT my master!
Excellent article but also excellent counter point by anonymous at 1:15 pm 31 Dec. "Tall poppy" and all that implies. As an American Kiwi (that is someone from the U.S., been here two years and plan on staying for good as a contributing Kiwi) I love the relative freedom and spirit of Kiwis. On the other hand, I see how NZ is going down the globalist path that has fully captured the U.S., most of Europe and many other places. We all need to keep NZ independent (get us back to there) as a trading nation that looks after its own interests long term. I may be fantasizing (I hope not), it seems that politicians will still listen and actually change in NZ if a goodly number of us apply sufficient pressure - completely unlike the U.S. where virtually the politicians of the two major parties are captured pawns of others, completely ignoring the will of the people.
Since the Lange / Douglas era, Labour has stressed the requirement of providing "leadership to" instead of "representation of" wage and salary earning New Zealanders. This lauded concept of leadership always seems to mean enforcing policies that are not popular and have never been mandated.
I was living in Queensland when Anna Bligh's Labor government was completely destroyed by an angry constituency. There were two issues related to the spectacular failure of the party. The first was sale of state assets that was seen as a clear betrayal of trust and the second was a series of positions that demonstrated Labor's politicians were prepared to overrule public opinion with their own personal morality. This showed the government was not "of the people" or governed "by the people" but was something else that didn't consider itself bound by the will of the people at all. A sense of righteousness always pervades politicians who dismiss the majority beliefs of the electorate, be it over asset sales, black-budgets or anti-smacking crusades.
I can't help but wonder if populism, instead of being a scorned concept, is actually a necessity of a functioning & representative democracy?
On the whole, I agree with you.
But what seems to have happened in NZ over recent years is the mutual bolstering of our own long established but life-denying Tall Poppy syndrome and a new global cult of 'know-nothing' popularism.
I'm by no means sure that there's a causative link between the latter of these and neo-liberalism.
But there's certainly a connection between know-nothing and the short attention spans and craving for distraction that seem to characterise our online age.
Key was an ass this year, I was totally embarrassed by his pathetic so-called leadership.
He is there to rub shoulders with the mighty and to show off, and this year he did both in spades.
Those dead eyes of his, creepy!!
A wanna be celebrity, and quite shallow.
As long as Key is leader, I will never vote for National. Cringe! So full of himself, that's how I find him. Lacks being genuine and caring.
Chris, I wish you had an add to Facebook here.
I agree with Anonymous @ 1:15PM and can elaborate with examples of how flawed egalitarianism was in this country.
The White Australia policy is widely publicised while similar policies implemented here are not.
My father immigrated to New Zealand in the 50’s from Europe; it was extremely difficult, perhaps because he was from Eastern Europe?
When in search for a flat he would be turned down once the landlord noticed he was an immigrant. The advertisements would remain in the paper for some time after he was declined.
In his first job in this country he was paid half the amount other workers of equal position were paid.
When my parents brought their first house in a middle class neighbourhood in Wellington, many neighbours were hostile and created trouble. They disliked having a mixed couple in the neighbourhood as deduced from the racist abuse.
In many rural towns it was impossible for many Maori and immigrants to go to pubs or find accommodation at hotels.
My Mother could recall in the suburb of Eastbourne in Wellington, opposition by residents against a new bus driver servicing the route because he was Maori.
My father often bitterly remarks that throughout his workday he would be regularly referred to as “foreign bastard”. Also there was racism present in the union against immigrants.
My Mother can recall in the 40’s often seeing transients camping near where she lived.
I could go on but find this rather depressing.
What astounds me is the acceptance in this country by many of the usual ideals that supposedly typify this country, even though there’s much evidence to the contrary. It seems as if many are happy to believe what they’re told without any insight.
I suppose the climax of this is when many besotted with Key are prepared to believe outright lies.
I agree that there's a huge and dangerously delusional element of complacency and self-congratulation on the part of many of John Key's supporters.
But, as an immigrant myself, I'm also struck by the self-congratulatory parochialism of those who see mid-century New Zealand as providing some sort of exemplar for progressive values, from which the present allegedly represents a dismal falling away.
Anecdotage is, I accept, a poor basis for definitive judgements. But I'm struck, for example, by the number of my New Zealand born contemporaries who had simply appalling childhoods.
Many seem to been recurrently beaten by serially drunken fathers. Indeed, savage corporal punishment seems to have been the socially approved method of child rearing in those days.
One friend of mine tells a particulalrly revealing anecdote about beiing strenuously whipped by his dad, after being spotted playing soccer and not rugby. Apparently, this lapse implied both a lack of suitable reverence for the national game and the first dangerous steps down the primrose path to deviant sexual practices.
Women, meanwhile, seem to have been considered an inferior species. Time spent on their education was apparently thought to be time wasted. Even when I first arrived here in the 1980s, many men still regarded shaking hands with women as beneath them.
As to New Zealand's then claim to excellence in race relations, it wasn't until the 1990s that a parliamentary candidate who unambiguously identified herself as Maori secured election in an ordinary (i.e. not Maori) electorate!
In general, I would certainly agree that the western world was a better place prior to the rise of free market fundamentalism in the late 1970s.
Not only were most mid century western societies more humanely run than they are today. They also had better-functioning and more stable economies, without the busts, booms and yet more busts that have characterised global economics in more recent decades.
But a degree of caution is required before applying this general template holus bolus to New Zealand.
This was, in many ways, a less humane society than some others in the developed world at that time. In addition, New Zealand's apparent economic success was dependent on a captive market and indirect subsidisation by UK consumers. So progressive politics here came without the normal price tag.
In summary, we face a depleted present and the probability of an even more depleted future. But, although the past was another country, it wasn't in all respects a better one. Nor does it offer blanket solutions to our now very pressing problems.
So, may I suggest to both Left and Right that they drop the nationalistic whaffle and start confronting the future without illusions.
Winston Peters stood unsuccessfully in the Northern Maori seat in the 1975 Elections.
Winston Peters won the General seat of Hunua in 1978.
I used the phrase "unambiguously identified.....as Maori" deliberately.
I don't think the Young Winston was ever wholly unambiguous about his Maori identity. From what I recall, he had a large Pakeha fan base derived from his down-peddling of ethnicity.
But perhaps I've expressed the point badly.
I was curious as to why you had used the term "unambiguously identified" when you were making your chronological point. The fact that Peters stood in a Maori seat before opting for a General seat seemed to bear out his acknowledgement of Maori ancestry that should have satisfied your criterion.
"From what I recall, he had a large Pakeha fan base derived from his down-peddling of ethnicity."
Peters enjoys a fan base which has little to do with ethnicity.
He is always immaculately presented.
He has genuine charisma.
He is articulate.
He is amusing (and extremely good company, I am told).
After fractious debates he has a cheeky grin which counters the tensions of the moment.
He is very respectful of others, older people in particular.
He has a magnetism which women, particularly older women, love.
He is a crusader.
He is an achiever (from a family of achievers).
All of the above have nothing to do with ethnicity ( by which I understand you to mean Maori genes, of which he has less than 50%). Peters is perhaps the best example of a successful New Zealander who does not need to reference ethnicity in their everyday pursuits.
One of the things that Peters does down-peddle is the fact that he is a smoker. Have you ever seen a photograph of Peters smoking?
Peters has a catalogue of things which people do not care for, but I suspect that there are few that are not fundamentally to do with politics. As far as I am aware, none relate to the fact that he is of Maori ancestry.
And so, Bazza, the first time a Maori candidate won a general seat was in the late 1970s and not the early 1990s.
I don't think that substantially alters the point I was making.
I am not even sure that Peters was the first of Maori extraction to win a General Seat, just the most obvious.
Nor do I think that Maori Candidates winning General Seats is any great indication as to the state of race relations in NZ. Your assessment of Peters' appeal to a non-Maori electorate is valid however, just not, in my view, as a result of any down-playing of his Maori ethnicity.
One of the reasons that Maori are not commonly elected to General seats is that most Maori vote Labour, and are under some peer pressure to do so. Until recently Labour had always won the Maori Seats, almost exclusively with the Ratana Church as its cornerstone. While this state of affairs met the demographic arithmetic of the Maori population, it failed, and continues to fail, to recognise that many Maori are representative of far more than just those New Zealanders who share their Maori ancestry. (Sir) Peter Tapsell was one such individual (although an MP for a Maori seat), as is our current Governor-General Sir Jerry Mataparae.
Often, when women were not selected as party candidates for safe seats held by their party of choice, it was argued that it was because they were women. In reality, they were mostly not the best candidate in the field. That applies similarly to Maori, and those who have been selected to carry their party's banner in General Seats have been recognised as the best candidate in the field. Simon Bridges for National in Tauranga springs immediately to mind. I don't believe Bridges' election is any more an indicator of the state of NZ's race relations than that of Peters, but an indication that ability and suitability for task at hand have been recognised.
Willie Apiata V.C. is an outstanding example of courage and genuine humility, and like Sir Jerry, enjoys the respect and admiration of New Zealanders across the board. I just hope neither enters Party politics.
"Nor do I think that Maori Candidates winning General Seats is any great indication as to the state of race relations in NZ."
You may well be right. There are many other criteria that could be used. But, whichever criterion you opt for, I think you might end up concluding that the status of Maori during New Zealand's post war economic hay day was not always an enviable one, even if jobs were in readier supply then than they are now.
".....the status of Maori during New Zealand's post war economic hay day was not always an enviable one..."
Agreed. And still isn't.
There are positive examples of that changing, some of that change best exemplified by Ngai Tahu.
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