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.