MY OLD FRIEND SIMON called it the Left’s “pink lemonade world”, and not in a kind way. He had very little patience for the naïve idealism of those who insisted they could change the world by offering it a better vision of itself. Some castigated Simon for what they saw as his cynicism. Not me. Simon wasn’t cynical (well, not very) he simply understood that change never came easily, or without pain. It wasn’t enough for leftists to conceive of a world without violence, oppression and exploitation – a pink lemonade world – they also had to produce a clear road-map to Utopia. No road-map, no credibility. It’s what made Simon such a good political journalist.
Watching A Message From 2040 on YouTube earlier in the week, I couldn’t help recalling Simon’s scorn for pink lemonade dreamers. The work of two of this country’s more outspoken political NGOs, Action Station and Just Speak, A Message From 2040 purports to demonstrate how New Zealand undertook an inspirational transition from the darkness of exploitation and oppression to the light of a Tiriti-centric Aotearoa – a country without prisons.
It’s as well A Message From 2040 is animated rather than live-action, because it would’ve been difficult to find flesh-and-blood actors capable of delivering the video’s messages with a straight face. The idea that the changes envisaged would be universally accepted as self-evidently beneficial is naïve in the extreme. It’s as if the bitter arguments about te Tiriti and co-governance offer no hint of the massive resistance such a revolutionary programme would inevitably inspire.
Which is not to say that the narrative device of explaining retrospectively how your Utopia came into existence is a bad one. Looking Backward: 2000 to 1887, written by Edward Bellamy and published in 1888, has the distinction of being one of the most influential political books ever written. Only the anti-slavery novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin sold more copies in its first year.
So compelling was Bellamy’s vision of a socialist United States that it boosted the growth of the socialist movement in America dramatically. And not just in America. When news that a consignment of Bellamy’s book would soon be arriving at Port Chalmers, hundreds of Dunedinites gathered on the wharf to snap-up a copy.
As the historian Dougal McNeill notes in his essay on speculative political fiction in New Zealand:
“There were at least three local editions, and enormous interest and sales. The Dunedin Evening Star ran a report from Braithwaite’s Book Arcade on 17 April 1890: ‘I have sold 5,000 copies of this marvellous socialistic book since I reviewed it in the Star about six months ago’; similar accounts appear in newspapers across the country.”
|When Socialism Was A Best-Seller: Edward Bellamy's phenomenally successful Looking Backward sold thousands of copies in New Zealand and around the world.|
A key factor in the success of Bellamy’s book was his detailed explanations of how the socialistic America of the future operated. (Detail is necessarily sparse in A Message From 2040 since the video is only six minutes long!) Bellamy also contrived to weave a great deal of speculative science into his fiction. Impressively, he predicted both the Internet and the debit-card. Not bad for someone writing in the late 1880s!
Even so, Bellamy was no Jack London (1876-1916). Absent from his fiction is London’s understanding that the fight for socialism will be cruel and bloody – as anyone who has read his novella The Iron Heel will attest!
And that’s the niggle, both in A Message From 2040 and in the document it complements so uncannily, He Puapua. All these good things, all this transformative constitutional, economic and cultural change, descends like the Ten Commandments from Yahweh’s mountaintop. Except, in both works, it isn’t God, but the Crown, delivering Aotearoa’s new moral order. What we’re looking at here is our old friend, Revolution From Above.
But revolutions are not made above us, and delivered to us wrapped in a bright red bow. They are made by us – or, at least by the citizens who prevail over those who don’t want a revolution at all.
The African-American abolitionist, Frederick Douglass, put it best when he said:
Those who profess to favour freedom, and yet depreciate agitation, are men who want crops without ploughing up the ground ….. [The] struggle may be moral; or it may be physical; or it may be both moral and physical; but it must be a struggle.
The pink lemonade comes later.
This essay was originally published in The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 5 May 2023.