Wednesday 10 July 2024

Harsh Truths.

The Way We Were: An indelible mark was left upon a whole generation of New Zealanders by the Great Depression and World War II; an impression that not only permitted men and women of all classes and races to perceive the need to work together for the common good, but also to know – thanks to the bonding experiences arising out of existential danger – that such co-operation was possible.

THERE ARE LESSONS to be learned from the Biden-Trump debate/debacle. Important lessons, which New Zealanders would be most unwise to ignore. The first and most important of these is the need to face some harsh truths.

The American people have been running from the truth for decades. Electing an actor to govern them in 1980 merely confirmed their allergy to reality. Now they are readying themselves to elect Donald Trump for the second time. And, having witnessed Joe Biden’s disastrous debate performance, who can blame them? That the American Republic will struggle to survive such a final and decisive refusal to correct the consequences of its own corruption is unlikely to dissuade the American people from embracing its liquidator.

New Zealanders should, however, resist the temptation to sneer at the USA’s self-inflicted wounds. A dispassionate survey of New Zealand’s present predicament reveals a nation whose First World status can no longer be considered secure, and lacking a political class of sufficient calibre to retain it.

At virtually every level of the New Zealand state, from the lowliest public servant to the Justices of the Supreme Court, there is an alarming absence of evidence that the nation’s predicament is understood. Distractions there are in great number, but a clear-headed grasp of what it takes to hold a country together is not in evidence among those responsible for New Zealand’s administration.

This lack of clarity also pervades the ranks of New Zealand’s elected representatives. These are, with only a handful of exceptions, inadequately educated, lacking in relevant experience, and unadventurous to the point of actual cowardice. New Zealand’s current crop of politicians are place-holders not nation-builders. Unable to rise above the crude calculation of partisan advantage, an understanding of the broader national interest and of the needs of citizens yet to be born is beyond their capabilities.

Accounting for these alarming deficiencies is not easy. No matter how precariously positioned, New Zealand remains a First World country. Its people are educated, and their health preserved, by public institutions that easily bear comparison with those of much larger and richer nations. That being the case, the administration and government of New Zealand should be more than equal to the challenges faced. Likewise, its entrepreneurs and business leaders should be equal to the task of maintaining a productive and profitable economy.

And yet, when it comes to maintaining and extending the nation’s infrastructure, New Zealand’s leaders – private as well as public – are failing dismally. The political unanimity required to recognise, plan, and pay for the projects required to preserve social cohesion, while enhancing economic competitiveness and growth, is no longer a feature of New Zealand’s national life.

An indelible mark was left upon a whole generation of New Zealanders by the Great Depression and World War II; an impression that not only permitted men and women of all classes and races to perceive the need to work together for the common good, but also to know – thanks to the bonding experiences arising out of existential danger – that such co-operation was possible.

Depression and war (but especially war) made brothers out of farmers and freezing-workers, professionals and tradespeople. Bullets and bombs were no respecters of who one’s ancestors were, or which particular sailing vessels they arrived in, but incoming ordnance did make clear who was keeping who alive. Such lessons are not easily forgotten.

But, neither are they easily learnt. In the absence of the near universal experiences of economic hardship, the threat of invasion, and the intense comradeship born of armed conflict, the influences of class, race and gender soon recover their power to separate and divide human-beings. Without the common memories born of working, fighting, and sacrificing together, it becomes easier and easier to believe that “some animals are more equal than others”. And the longer that heresy goes unreproved, the harder it becomes to see the point of building anything that benefits anybody beyond one’s own kind.

There was a time when New Zealand politics was a reflection of the efforts of its two largest political parties to both represent and advance the interests of their “own kind”. Labour stood for the working-class. National for farmers, businessmen and (most) professionals. Thanks in large part to the Cold War, however, both parties understood the importance of keeping political sectionalism on a short leash. The beliefs that held New Zealanders together were accorded much greater importance than political ideologies with the potential to tear them apart.

But those beliefs, absent the experiences which informed them, could not escape the challenges of a generation that had not known privation or war. The ideas that kept New Zealand society tight: white supremacy, male supremacy, heterosexual supremacy, capitalism and Christianity; were deemed oppressive and unjust by the most outspoken of the first generation of New Zealanders for whom tertiary education was something more than an elite privilege.

But if these young intellectuals were successful in loosening New Zealand’s tightly wound society, they had also made it easier for the separate strands of that society to be pulled apart. It would become increasingly practical for New Zealand’s now less-connected citizens to look after their own kind – at the expense of all the other kinds.

Inevitably, it was the wealthiest and most powerful New Zealanders who had most to gain, and gained most, from the post-war generations’ great loosening of New Zealand society. In just two generations the nation reverted to the class-ridden, race-divided, sexually-exploitative society it had been before the election of the First Labour Government in 1935. The country’s politics, likewise, reverted to a competitive struggle between the elite defenders of the nation’s farmers and importers, and the elite protectors of its professionals and industrialists.

The single most important difference between that earlier, elite-dominated, New Zealand society, and the elite-dominated society of today, was the arrival of a gate-crashing new elite comprised of Te Iwi Māori whose children had taken advantage of the expansion of tertiary education in the 1970s to carve out a niche for themselves in the new political power structure. Revisionist history notwithstanding, the key role of this new Māori elite was to distract the urban Māori working-class from its poverty and exploitation – mostly by aggressively promoting the twinned illusions of tino rangatiratanga and mana motuhake.

These elements of New Zealand’s story run parallel to those that gave us the political bankruptcy of the Biden-Trump debate. The USA underwent its own great loosening which, like New Zealand’s, unravelled the social solidarity responsible for uplifting so many ordinary Americans between 1945 and 1980.

It is a process from which the wealthiest Americans have benefited hugely – primarily by disconnecting themselves fiscally from the rest of America. With a much-reduced tax base, the USA, like New Zealand, is undergoing its own slow infrastructural collapse.

New Zealand’s tragedy may lack the compelling duo of Biden and Trump – each in their own way illustrating the moral exhaustion of the American political system – but that is no excuse for Kiwi complacency. Both countries need to face the harsh truths of national decline.

Because, in Bob Dylan’s words:

It’s not dark yet 
But it’s getting there.

This essay was originally posted on The Democracy Project substack on Monday, 1 July 2024.


Brendan McNeill said...

Alasdair Macintyre wrote in his book ‘After Virtue’ the following closing insights back in 1981.

“It is always dangerous to draw too precise parallels between one historical period and another; and among the most misleading of such parallels are those which have been drawn between our own age in Europe and North America and the epoch in which the Roman empire declined into the Dark Ages. Nonetheless certain parallels there are. A crucial turning point in that earlier history occurred when men and women of good will turned aside from the task of shoring up the Roman imperium and ceased to identify the continuation of civility and moral community with the maintenance of that imperium.

What they set themselves to achieve instead – often not recognizing fully what they were doing – was the construction of new forms of community within which the moral life could be sustained so that both morality and civility might survive the coming ages of barbarism and darkness. If my account of our moral condition is correct, we ought also to conclude that for some time now we too have reached that turning point. What matters at this stage is the construction of local forms of community within which civility and the intellectual and moral life can be sustained through the new dark ages which are already upon us. And if the tradition of the virtues was able to survive the horrors of the last dark ages, we are not entirely without grounds for hope. This time however the barbarians are not waiting beyond the frontiers; they have already been governing us for quite some time. And it is our lack of consciousness of this that constitutes part of our predicament. We are waiting not for a Godot, but for another—doubtless very different —St. Benedict”

Note. St. Benedict lived in the late fifth century and is considered the founder of the monastic movement that established Christian faith communities of across much of Europe and beyond to Britain. These communities preserved the Scriptures, provided hospitality and support for travellers and a place of learning, instruction and safety for their local communities.

David George said...

Thank you Brendan.
The rich and supportive subsidiary communities (familial, social and communal), the bulwarks against despair, disintegration and, ultimately, tyranny are being dismissed, discredited and subsumed.

"The modern world has increasingly understood identity as a duality between an idiosyncratic individual, and an ever-totalising collective. These two tendencies have grown simultaneously, on the one hand the worship of particularity—the exception, difference—and on the other, a growing bureaucratic state and global systems with an authoritarian bent, necessary to protect increasingly fragmented individuals from each other.

The result has been the slow but persistent erosion of intermediary identities: the family, communities, religious affiliations, clubs, and the nation—as the individual sees these intermediary identities as constraining his or her freedom. The growing collective sees these intermediary participations as impure visions of itself, competing with its own totalising identity. We are left with hopeless and lonely individuals facing an increasingly controlling and invasive state.

There is another vision of identity, reflected in many of the traditional societies of our world and its natural patterns. It is what we could call subsidiary identity. Subsidiary identity is understanding that as individuals, we are already a bringing into one of all the different thoughts, feelings, and psychological micro-personalities within us. It is our very capacity to join the multiple into one which becomes a mirror of how we are parts of higher, broader identities, within our family units, our communities, our cities, and our religious communion."

I do hope you have the chance to read the research paper that this quote introduces. It really explains a lot of what is going on, the underlying motivations and a hopeful solution.

new view said...

I can't argue with much of what you say Chris. There is a different type of population in NZ now. The boomers at least have some memory of their parents hardships post war. Luxuries were a rarity and most people took work where they could get it. Government jobs were good and politics was simple with first past the post. As Chris said you were for the working man or the business man. Now the lines are blurred because there aren't so many manual jobs (or people willing to do them) and the so called working class can do very well depending on what they do. Plumbers and Electricians come to mind. Most of us can see that the way we administrate the country isn't balanced, but like the Americans we seem to expect our leaders just to look good and say the right things and that's all we need to know to elect them. JA came to power here under such conditions. Looked good, a great orator, new what was out of balance in NZ but had no idea how to put things right. NZ then needed a change of government and they got it. If we can think back a little to before the election though, Luxons coalition may not have made it had Labour not self destructed. The same shallow descriptions of the possible National coalition by the media and many in the electorate could easily have put an end to the challenge. Some of the comments like, Luxon is a Christian (as if that was a problem). He looks odd with his egg head and has no experience as a politician (as if that was a bad thing). How could Winston Peters be involved as he's past his use by date. How could Act be in the Coalition, they're far too radical. So far the Coalition has proved the doomsayer's wrong. Regardless of whether this government succeeds or not, it was elected on what it said it was going to achieve. Looks didn't count but intellect did. Will he focus on infrastructure, I believe he will. Will he fix our social issues, probably not. Will he make enough progress to get re elected. A hard ask. If he can stay clear of the ideological and cultural claptrap he may have a chance. As for the US, will they stick with the demented devil they now know or the disingenuous devil they had before, who would know but the rest of the world does care.