Zealandia Redux? What Winston Peters and his party now have to decide, is whether transforming their homeland into an economic, political and cultural colony of the People’s Republic of China was what they meant when they promised to put New Zealand first.
WHAT DOES NZ FIRST WANT? More than anything else, NZ First and its leader, Winston Peters, would like to reconstruct the New Zealand economy of the 1950s and 60s. These were years of extraordinary economic and social progress, during which more and more New Zealanders were lifted into relative affluence. The country’s infrastructure (especially its hydro-electric energy generation capacity) was similarly enhanced. NZ First’s desire to replicate this success is, therefore, commendable. But, is it possible? In a world so very different from the one that emerged from World War II, is it reasonable to suppose that the remedies of ‘Then’ are applicable – or even available – ‘Now’?
At the end of World War II the United States of America stood completely unchallenged: militarily, economically and culturally it was without peer. The American mainland remained untouched by the fascist enemy; its factories were geared to levels of production without parallel in human history; and the sophistication of its science, which had bequeathed to the world both cheap antibiotics and the atomic bomb, promised a future of unbounded promise – and unprecedented peril.
Accounting for half the world’s production and nearly two-thirds of its wealth, the United States nevertheless faced a problem. If the rest of humanity was not to slide into the most wretched poverty and, once again, fall prey to the purveyors of extreme political ideologies, then it would have to be given the wherewithal to lift itself up into prosperity. Except that, when the Americans spoke of humanity, they were not really thinking of the human-beings who lived in the Soviet Union, or civil-war-ravaged China, or in the vast continent of Africa. It was in the rehabilitation of the peoples of Europe, South America and Australasia that the USA was most interested.
New Zealand, also materially unscathed by the ravages of war, was ideally positioned to benefit from the Americans’ self-interested altruism. The United Kingdom constituted an insatiable market for this country’s agricultural products, and the United States made sure its enfeebled British ally received sufficient cash to go on buying (among other things) all the butter, cheese, lamb and wool New Zealand could send it. It was an arrangement which very quickly transformed New Zealand into one of the wealthiest nations on earth.
Sixty-five years on from the fat 1950s, however, the world is a very different place. Europe and Japan rebuilt themselves, and the USA’s effortless hegemony became harder and harder to sustain. In lifting its own people, and much of the rest of the world, out of poverty, American capitalism had facilitated the rise of powerful working-classes in all the major Western nation-states. They had created increasingly self-conscious and militant labour movements which, if not tamed, would soon be in a position to transition their societies out of capitalism and into a new, post-capitalist, form of economic and social organisation.
The world currently inhabited by New Zealanders reflects the self-defensive policies set in motion by the ruling classes of the leading capitalist nations in the mid-to-late 1970s – the period of Capitalism’s maximum danger. Perhaps the most important of these policies involved the integration of the populations of the Soviet Union and China into what was intended to become, as soon as they were brought safely under its influence, a truly global capitalist economy. Against such a massive expansion in the supply of cheap labour, the working-classes of the West stood no chance. The golden age of post-war social-democracy – the age which Winston Peters and NZ First would so like to re-create – was at an end.
Or was it? The Chinese Communist Party’s embrace of “Socialism – with Chinese characteristics” (a.k.a State Capitalism) following the death of Mao Zedong, not only assisted China’s integration into the global capitalist economy, but unleashed pent-up forces of commercial dynamism which, in the space of just 40 years, transformed China into an economic behemoth. It is now China which offers New Zealand an insatiable market for its agricultural products. Indeed, so constant is Chinese demand for New Zealand exports that the same level of state-sponsored economic and social uplift which characterised this country in the 1950s and 60s is, once again, becoming a possibility. But only under Chinese hegemony.
What Winston Peters and his party now have to decide, is whether transforming their homeland into an economic, political and cultural colony of the People’s Republic of China was what they meant when they promised to put New Zealand first.
This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Thursday, 19 October 2017.