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A real alternative

Written By: - Date published: 5:15 pm, December 24th, 2008 - 21 comments
Categories: economy, labour - Tags:

One of Bruce Jesson’s constant bugbears during the New Right revolution of the 80’s and 90’s was that the Left allowed itself to be positioned as conservative. That we were simply fighting for the status quo rather than providing a proper progressive alternative to the imported market ideology that was being foist upon us.

He blames a variety of factors for this including the anti-intellectualism prevalent in New Zealand society, the rise of a global economy focused on finance rather than production and the lack of a New Zealand identity or sense of nationalism from which to argue against the ceding of our sovereignty to multi-national capital.

Although Bruce never lived to see the fifth Labour government in action I suspect he would have pointed to this conservatism as having sowed the seed for their loss in 2008. Helen, Michael and many of the other senior MPs in our last government, including Phil Goff, cut their political teeth in the 80’s and 90’s and in many ways their brand of leftism was in exactly the conservative mode Bruce criticised.

For all of the raving and ranting of the right the last government was not socialist but rather tended to tinker around the edges. They introduced a fourth tax bracket but failed to deal with the pure monetarism that has strangled New Zealand’s productive sector; they revoked the worst parts of the Employment Contracts Act but left the market-orientated focus on enterprise agreements in place; they presided over record unemployment but failed to meaningfully increase benefits for those who could not gain employment; they buckled to the lunatic fringe on law and order.

One of the things they did not do was produce a clear progressive vision. One can deduce something approaching such a thing by reading between the lines of their flagship policies (and occasionally hear traces of it in private conversation with senior MPs) but there was never an explicit expression of grand political vision.

Of course it is easy to forget the state of the nation at the time this government started. There was a real sense of desperation and a real desire for stability from an electorate that had been battered from a decade and a half of reforms. Those reforms that had cost New Zealand its assets, its wealth and its economic sovereignty and left many New Zealanders wary of the language of change. At the time the phrase “no more restructuring” was a mantra Labour had to repeat again and again to sooth an electorate that had been repeatedly betrayed by governments enacting “big idea” policies they had never mentioned on the campaign trail and, ironically*, by NZ First’s decision to support a third National term.

But Labour got stuck in that softly, softly mode for too long. It just worked for them in 2005 with the “don’t put it all at risk” message but by 2008 people were too far from the 90’s to comprehend the need to conserve what they have. I recall sitting in on a focus group in 2007 in which the majority of the group had no idea how long Labour had been in government for, they finally made the collective decision that it must have been ten years at least. When asked about high unemployment and hard right reforms they were of the opinion that these things “wouldn’t happen here”.

That complacency may be challenged by the recession but I suspect that we are going to be spared the worst of it due to our low public debt levels. If anything the recession should be used as an opportunity to campaign on and socialise ideas that are truly progressive alternatives. The Left will be back in government, perhaps as soon as 2011, and as such should be prepared to provide some real alternatives. If it were up to me I’d start with the reserve bank act but that’s grist for another post.

Of course Labour were not all bad, they were in fact very good in many ways. I think that history will remember Clark as the first PM to ever foster a sense of nationalism and of New Zealand identity. That may seem minor now but it has acted as a vaccine for the cultural cringe that allowed the New Right’s reforms to roll over public opinon in the 80’s and 90’s (just look at the public outcry over the possibility National would sell KiwiBank). In that respect Clark has been a master of the long-game.

*I say ironically because in many ways Winston’s betrayal in ’96 dwarfs the seedy business that finished him off this time.

21 comments on “A real alternative ”

  1. I’m not sure I agree the previous government failed to articulate their vision.

    I have read many of the speeches they released and I have to say they did have a defined and articulated set of values that they were applying to policy with an expectation they would would translate into a better reality for all.

    But I do recall realizing that what I was reading was not conveyed through the media to the ears of voters.

    Any voter wanting to know what the last government was about would have had to go and read those speeches for themselves. Virtually all of the media was censoring this content – either deliberately or very much in the habit of passing over / ignoring the ‘political’ content…..like values and visions.

    The problem we all have now that did not exist to the same extent 50 years ago is that most people – the vast majority – have become “low information voters” (LIVs) thanks to the paucity of information conveyed o them by most media…..*especially* TV.

  2. Bill 2

    Why is it desirable for a government to have vision when we are excluded from government? What’s the point? Might as well be a paraplegic concerned about the vision of the local rugby team. Actually, in that example there is probably more scope for meaningful involvement than there is for us in representative political systems. Vision, if it is to mean anything, has to be about our vision…

    Here’s a long bit of quoted text, cause I’m lazy and I’d probably struggle to be as succinct.

    “Having good representatives isn’t enough. In fact, if you think about it, how on earth can individuals honestly represent the interests of such large bodies of people and their vast views? Moreover, how involved are we really? We vote, choosing candidate A or B. We have our views expressed via polls. We side with MSNBC over FOX News. Let’s face it, representative government isn’t all its cracked up to be.

    Arendt complains that in a representative government the masses and even individuals have nothing more than moods, not reasoned opinions, because they are not true participants in public life. “In this system the opinions of the people are indeed unascertainable for the simple reason that they are non-existent. Opinions are formed in a process of open discussion and public debate, and where no opportunity for the forming of opinions exists, there may be moods—moods of the masses and moods of individuals, the later no less fickle and unreliable than the former—but no opinion.”[1][6] In a parliamentary government, writes Arendt, the role of the party has been to supply the government with enough support to justify its “right” to act on behalf of the governed. In this way, voting is merely the formal allocation of the individual’s right to act to the government.[1][7]

    Full text here http://towardfreedom.com/home/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=1467&Itemid=0

  3. IrishBill 3

    Steve, that vision has been a conservative one and one articulated in terms of pragmatism.

    Bill, you might well argue that. Unfortunately we are bound by a representative democracy. It’s not going away overnight. That does not mean governance must be left entirely to the government. You’ll note I have used the term Left rather than Labour in my post. That’s because I believe the Left needs to articulate and push for its own alternatives. A large part of the success of the fourth Labour government’s hijack was that there was no clear Left option.

  4. Ag 4

    It’s all very well to complain about new right ideology being foisted on people, but in the end they have voted for it, and tend to vote reflexively against governments that want to increase tax to fund expansions in public spending.

    Many so-called left wingers ought to look long and hard at their support for countercultural hyper-individualism, since that is one of the main drivers of market fundamentalist politics and competitive consumerism (witness the vast sums people spend on organic vegetables). This has probably damaged the left more than any other social change in the last 50 years.

    The other problem is that almost all prominent left wingers look and sound like Guardian columnists. They are for the most part university educated white people who have very little in common with most people they are supposed to be sticking up for, and a thinly disguised contempt for some of their values (feminism faces much the same problem). Ordinary people who are finding it hard to make ends meet, or are having problems at work do not want to hear endlessly about gay rights. It doesn’t matter whether they are correct or not, they just don’t want to hear about it.

    The political left is a mirror image of the political right. It’s an upper middle class talking shop that spends too much time demonizing such menaces to society as smokers and hoons, and not enough time on making sure people are getting by. If you want a political party that represents the majority of New Zealanders, you better give them a reason to participate more than a single vote of confidence every 3 years. In this, Bill’s post is spot on.

    The left also needs to take a long hard look at representative democracy. In the forms in which we’ve had it, it isn’t all that it’s cracked up to be and is demonstrating itself utterly incapable of responding to the climate crisis. It used to be better than it is now because there used to be many institutions that existed between the individual and government where political participation and discussion was more or less mandatory (even people who voted against their union’s position benefited from its existence). Unions served this function for working people, and everyone knows that is why the right was hell bent on destroying them. Supporting new forms of mandatory citizens political participation by stealth would be a good move.

  5. RedLogix 5

    This endless torrent of words can either separate us, or bring us closer together.

    Which purpose are we going to serve?

    For if we remain divided, we will be justly swept away.

    Be kind.


    “There’s a new wave that is breaking, in the wake of a passing ship,
    Every nations gonna be shaken, put it together, don’t let it slip”

  6. DeeDub 6

    AG: That’s the best thing I’ve read on here in a LONG time. Kudos, my friend.

  7. Bill 7


    “Bill, you might well argue that.” Uh-huh.

    “Unfortunately we are bound by a representative democracy.”

    The question is are we bound to or have we bound ourselves to. If the latter, then all we need do is unbind ourselves.

    “It’s not going away overnight.”

    Okay. Was still here this morning, so you might be right. Or then again. Take the case of God. When you realise there is no God, the action arising from that is instantaneous and complete. There is no middle ground, no process of becoming.

    “That does not mean governance must be left entirely to the government.”

    What’s the alternative if governance isn’t to be practised by government? Of course government is responsible for governance! The question is about the shape and nature of government…do I have a meaningful role in the governance of my life; in the governance of other’s actions that impinge or impact on me? If not, I’m not free.


    If unions used to offer a space where opinions could be formulated, what happened? I don’t think the ‘Right’ were responsible for that space closing down. I’d punt that the unions developed a culture of ‘correct thinking’ that ultimately alienated a majority of workers. Put baldly, if you were a part of the Authoritarian Left, you were ‘in’, if not you were castigated. Eventually, the only response was the proverbial long finger…disengagement. Nowadays with the unions exhibiting a very liberal democratic bent, the barrier to participation is very much maintained.

  8. rave 8

    Looking at the collapsing finance system surviving only by being bailed out by the tax dollars created by workers I would say the real alternative we need to survive is a socialist revolution. Anything less than this is just propping up a corpse or what is more distasteful necrophilia.

    We could do worse than start with the Proudhonian solution which is to nationalise the banks and use money chits to represent labour value. He thought this would get completely rid of bankers and financiers. However as Marx (Karl i.e.) pointed out how would you take money away from the capitalists without doing away with their system of exploitation? After all they control the state and the army.

    The fact is that money in our system either acts as capital and is invested in productive activity to create value, or it ceases to have value. It may take a long time for this monetary value to evaporate, it may in fact behave like a hallucinogen on the way down, but exhaust its value, it does.

    Isnt it a wonderful world when the economic system terminal and yet we blindly agree to a full body transplant. When 28,000 children die each day lacking the basics of life?
    When the $10 and climbing trillion that we are paying the rich to stay rich, could solve all our earthly cares for generations and rescue the ecological collapse?

    Such is the power of TINA that even the ‘real alternatives’ posed here are no more than a bypass operations when what we need are gravediggers.

    How’s that for “articulating a vision going forward”.

    Have a revolutionary new year!

  9. IrishBill 9

    Bill, there is more to governance than central government. As AG points out there are spaces for industrial democracy just to start with. There’s also space at a local body and community level as well as from outside the tent. Any progressive vision should involve organising democratically in whatever space is available and using that annexing of space to extend and normalise the Left vision. It’s about creating an Left alternative in a rhizomic manner and thus taking control from the bottom up because the state won’t suddenly whither of its own accord.n It takes organising, education and pressure. But before you can do this you need a real Left alternative to work toward.

  10. RedLogix 10

    I’m kinda weary of blog chatter that goes nowhere, but this is a much more thoughtful, useful thread with some great contributions, each one from a vital perspective.

    AG has rightly identified that educated liberals tend to spend far too much time in their heads. I know I do, and I have to conciously go work in the garden, or give a few weekends to Habitat for Humanity, or just do something simple and friendly for an elderly neighbour to keep grounded.

    Because people are happiest when they are helping each other in connected groups. While the intention of State funded assistance is good, it creates a social vacuum in several ways. On one level it depersonalises the ‘hand up’; the act of caring for one’s fellow citizens is reduced to a cash transaction, administered by a faceless, rule driven bureacracy. And into the vacuum of social connectedness, creeps the cult of hyper-individualism, the notion that there is no such thing as society, and that collectively we represent nothing more than a market of materialistic consumers, fodder for the capitalists.

    By reducing the vision of the Left solely to a question of taxes, benefits and issues of economic import…. we have subltly allowed ourselves to be coopted by the power of money. While money is of course an essential part of modern life, by itself it is an unsatisfying diet. Like a plant fed nothing but nitrogen, we have individually grown fast and fat, but we are also weak and prone to sudden collapse, because we have forgotten how to behave properly in sustaining collectives. The great delusion of the prosperous middle class is that we have substituted material comfort and security, for character, identity and connectedness with those around us.

    This atomisation isolates us from the people around us. We find ourselves by quiet degrees untrusting, suspicious, fearful of strangers, people who in fact we may have lived next door to for years. We find less and less time to participate in clubs, churches, unions, and associations, because over and over we find the experience tainted by aggravating individualists whose egos run rampant over the interests of the group. And a generation ago women played the role of a social glue, with their innate gifts for conversation, organisation and socialability, while the modern economy subverts that energy for purely economic purposes we are belatedly discovering that we are the poorer for it.

    The Left has spent many decades fighting battles on the borders (womens’ and gay rights for instance), winning fine, worthwhile victories, but meanwhile back at home life was neglected, hollowed out and the mass of people easily misled with the same duplicitous methods the men in sharp suits perfected while selling knicknacks and snake oil. The Labour Party has made it’s way back to Bag End only to find others in residence.

    While it is true that humans are social animals; ironically enough we need to be educated and inspired to do it well. By themselves people do not naturally grasp the difference between things like revenge and justice, lust and love, greed and aspiration. A generation ago the churches filled this role (however imperfectly); today our youth are largely abandoned to garner what moral values they will from reality tv shows, computer games and a media that exists only to sell advertising.

    Yet if we turn our heads in the opposite direction, the light is found pouring in through the pinholes and gaps. People everywhere yearn, often without awareness, for something better and express it in many alternative avenues. Politically the Green Party is the primary conduit for this rebirth and nothing I am saying here would be at all new for most members of this party. (If nothing else any sane alternative vision for the Left in this country must surely include the building of a much wider, firmer bridge between the Labour and Green parties.)

    For the forces of decay and rebirth are both simultaneously at work. For every dark sign that seems ominous and threatening, an optimist can equally perceive a hopeful one, and this modern world there are if we choose to look, very many of them. And herein lies the core of my vision.

    We do not need to invent anything. Millions of people have already had the ideas, done all the work. We do not need to intellectualise and engage in point more scoring pissing debating contests… everything needed already exists in scattered embryonic forms.The human body consists of uncountable billions of cells, specialised into a myriad types, each one of which serves a specific, vital role. Each one is a marvel of evolution, yet only when they all serve a common, higher purpose does the body breath, move and have life.

    It is this vision of life we are trying to talk about. We’ve gotten so used to not talking about these things that we find the methods and language strained and gauche. When I say I love you all, you think I’m being a fool. Well that is the price I’m happy to pay, because the purpose of love is to attract and bind together diverse and disparate things that would otherwise remain isolated. OK so this is just another one of billions of blog comments, but right now it is my voice in the world, and I’m not apologising for it. So if I say that I love you all often enough, you just might get used to it and stop snickering long enough to feel the possibility of it.

    And then you might all surprise yourselves. Besides it’s Christmas Day. Now go off and enjoy the last of the Nats turkey because there might not be any next year.

  11. Ag 11

    “Because people are happiest when they are helping each other in connected groups. While the intention of State funded assistance is good, it creates a social vacuum in several ways.”

    Excellent point, and I’d be willing to say that liberalism is the heart of the problem. The more or less Rawlsian consensus in the political centre defines the ideal society as one that would be agreed to by individuals exercising pure self interest in an initial condition of equality. And so, that is more or less what our society looks like: a society agreed to by purely self interested individuals. But the only human beings who are really like that are sociopaths, so it’s no surprise that our society is in many ways inhuman.

    I tend to believe that the hard lesson of the failures of liberalism is that poor old Aristotle was more or less right (although his faults are many), and that human societies have to be organized in accordance with our social animality, and in accordance with a view (which can exhibit significant plasticity) of a common human good. Of course at one extreme this can result in a tyrannical society, but it doesn’t have to, and in order to avoid it we don’t have to completely abandon it as the libertarians try to. Even if we disagree about the good life for human beings, the fact that discussion about would be a part of a robust public dialogue would be a great improvement over the nothingness of current public discourse about human welfare.

    Anyway, that’s my ten cents. Feel free to have a go at it.

  12. ak 12

    Because people are happiest when they are helping each other in connected groups.

    Right on, Red: the defining left/right-dividing truism, demonstrated by all human behaviour – from we tragics in this very forum to the more salubrious coalescences which occur in every corner of the globe, every day, and even more poignantly and familially (forgive the neologism), this very day.

    No person is an island: and nor do they wish to be. The adolescent “Wild West/rugged individual” fantasy that spawned the simplistic “rational self-interest/invisible hand” fallacy so embraced by the Right, is but a fading anachronism in a maturing globe. The invisible hand has induced continuous shallow orgasms – but left gaping holes desperate to be filled: rave’s 28000 babies dying daily is but one. And our largest rugged individuals are now begging for the dole.

    The essential question, of course – and the story of all time – is the motive, intention, and interaction of our “connected groups”. Both Adolf and Churchill inspired glorious examples of community spirit, but the result was less than utopian: and even Kiwiblog and National achieve a tenuous (albeit grotesque) “camaraderie” of the misanthropic.

    So “What happened to the unions?” asks Bill. And well we might all ask: being so obviously and naturally a highly-developed social animal, why do we still act like animals?

    Demarcation disputes Bill. Infighting. Divide and conquer. Competition. End of story.

    Still developing, all of us: greed, selfishness, chauvinism, racism, sexism, antiPCism, anger, hatred, lust, envy, gluttony, egoism, philatelism – the whole 7777 deadly sins (ok not philatelism) still seethe like a deadly atavistic snake-pit just below the epidermis – ready to be scratched and exploited by the latest despot/political leader given the slightest chink of opportunity or fall in circulation.

    But not for long: cast your eyes over the past few centuries and we’re moving on oh so exponentially. Look back even a wee bit, and it seems all our Christmases are coming at once: everyone (even ACT) agrees that it’s definitely not ok anymore: a tory government has just expanded the dole and hooked up with the Maori Party: and just you try, Rodney: we disabled gay black whale-women aint taking a single step backwards.

    And you’re right about love, Red, we do snicker at the mere vocalisation – because words can never do it real justice. That indefinable white-hot incandescence – the indisputable epitome of human aspiration and the emotive, blissful manifestation of true selflessness that we all ache for from birth – is only diminished by the glib “love ya babe”.

    2000 years of popularity tells us that our essential destiny is manifest in the passionate actions that succoured the suffering, fed the masses, and cast the moneylenders from the temple.

    March, write, speak, sing, make movies: work with passion for something bigger and achieve bliss.

    Long way to go yet, but it’s His birthday, and I reckon He’s smiling.

  13. rave 13

    IB kicked this off by talking about Bruce Jesson as offering a framework to diagnose our ills. I think that Bruce was onto a lot of what is talked about here. The failure of NZ to break its ties to Britain was the basis of a NZ racist conservatism that permeated the right and left. That’s why he put a lot of hope into the revival of Maori protest in the 1970s as the NZs only genuine fighting nationalism.

    However Bruce’s view that finance capital was separated from productive capital led to a inadequate analysis of the failure to decolonise and the recolonisation that followed. True, unlike a lot, he did not see Labour’s shift to the right as an ‘aberration’. Labour had always served the interests of ‘The City’ to maintain trade and a good credit rating, within a relationship of protected dependency. But now the limits of scale of the local market had been reached and the government whose mandate is always capital not its voters, had to open the economy to direct investment, increasingly, US, Japanese and Australian. Labour emerged as a cosmopolitan, Blairite, social democracy to manage the new open economy in the globalizing world.

    At this point I think Bruce’s framework defaulted into a utopian vision. On two levels. First, always a weakness, was the ideal of nationalism as the basis of economic and political independence. Second that such independence could liberate the needs of NZs from exploitation and oppression.

    I think a lot of the commentators on this blog operate within these assumptions.

    First, the idea that Nationalism can be the basis of economic and political independence. National identity is not the basis of independence except for the bourgeoisie. Nationalism was the means by which the bourgeoisie came to power and created the ‘imaginary’ identity that served to subordinate the working and middle classes to its rule. Even the most radical nationalism resulting from oppression cannot become a path to liberation unless it the oppressed classes throw out the national bourgeoisie and fight for a socialist outcome. Otherwise it becomes a reactionary nationalism as has happened many times in the decolonisation process.

    Second, human potential cannot be found in national identity. National, economic independence is a utopia that serves to mask a deeper loss of self and human potential. By the way, nor can a sort of cosmopolitan, additive, nationalism beyond nations substitute for pure nationalism, since it never escapes the nationalism of borders.

    The real basis of human potential is the elimination of the bourgeois individual, from which potential (power) is drained by the alienation (or estrangment) of labour, self and social solidarity. The bourgeois individual is valued only as an owner of private property, who as a citizen with a vote, represents the interest of such property. Under capitalism our labour power (source of most power) is stolen and sold back to us as commodity votes, prayers, all forms of consumption as if they are the true source of value.

    Since the only human potential exists in the non-alienated self, the real alternative to bourgeois politics, economics, nationalism etc., can only lie in transcending the alienated self. Bright future, change, visionary, Nationalism cannot substitute for such a liberation from alienation since it is bound to it chapter and verse. That’s why in an early post I said that the only real alternative is socialism.

  14. IrishBill 14

    National identity isn’t the end in itself but simply provides the space in which a suitable (in my opinion socialist) politics can develop. Until we are able as a nation to recognise and acknowledge our cultural and economic identity we cannot hope to formulate a politics that advances us.

  15. Paul Williams 15

    Redlogix, can you please get in touch with me on siesta@internode.on.net or is there someway I can contact you?

  16. Ag 16

    He blames a variety of factors for this including the anti-intellectualism prevalent in New Zealand society

    That is not a uniquely New Zealand phenomenon, but something that permeates the Anglosphere, and for good reason. To put it bluntly, English speaking intellectuals haven’t been. Someone once said to me that the horror of English speaking intellectuals would be to discover that something might have to change because of something they had said. In general, the English speaking world has been pretty poor when it comes to applying the intellect to politics in a deep fashion.

    Our intellectual tradition is deeply conservative and deeply connected to the English class system. Given that many people, my parents included, saw New Zealand as a means of escaping the British class system, it is no surprise that people here distrust the dishwater conservatism of intellectuals and its connection to what they were trying to escape.

    There are of course a bunch of other reasons, but that’s two I often think of. That said, things have changed in the last 30 years or so, especially in Australia.

  17. George.com 17

    AG wrote:
    “Many so-called left wingers ought to look long and hard at their support for countercultural hyper-individualism, since that is one of the main drivers of market fundamentalist politics and competitive consumerism (witness the vast sums people spend on organic vegetables). This has probably damaged the left more than any other social change in the last 50 years.”

    This to me means the difference between left liberalism and the various constructions of socialism. One with a focus on the individual, the other more collective. Whether the predominant focus on left liberalism paved the way for neo-liberalism, helped usher its arrival or is merely coincidental is a big question and one I haven’t yet made up my mind about. I do argue however that the distinction betwewn the two can be opaque.

    Clearly, to those on the left there are differences. One might be outcome focused (affirmative action) whereas the other is process focused (equal treatment under law). One is about overcoming structural barriers (prejudice) whereas the other assumes equality exists in the market. The differences can also be packaged through frames. My right to have my sexual preferences recognised under law (nanny state) versus my right as a tax payer to ensure taxes are well used (profligate big government wasting money).

    Crosby-Textoring aside however, it seems to me that it must be difficult for the left to create an alternate explaination if we are fighting on the same turf. Neo-liberal globalised capital has woven a compelling hegemonic discourse of the individualised consumer culture. It can be hard to critique the fetish of individualism, and talk about “us”, when also focusing on “me and my rights”. In civic society where is the line of differentiation drawn?

    A example can be seen with the recent election. The voter is increasingly no longer a person with agency, they are treated as a political consumer. The various parties line up to hawk their wares and we choose the brand which best suits us. To this end, I think Labour is no different from National. Those are the rules of the game Labour increasingly played by. How much they helped create the rules is a question for another day maybe. However, you only last so long in a political consumer society before a new brand comes along.

    I have the feeling that the left needs to go back to the hard work of community organising. Some have never stopped doing that. I think maybe the Labour Party, as an example of one group on the left, did. Someone asked me recently, when was the last time you saw a Labour Party banner at a political rally or a protest or a civil rights march? Might be one place to start. Creating a compelling collective story is a big ask, obviously won’t happen overnight. One start may be to link the individual to the collective. Things are good for you because they are good for all of us. “Your education is important because it is important for the country”. “Your health and well being is as important to the community as it is to you”. etc etc. Maybe, maybe not.

  18. RedLogix 18

    Someone once said to me that the horror of English speaking intellectuals would be to discover that something might have to change because of something they had said.

    Which may well be one reason why Keynes has been an enduring figure; he did get involved in politics at the highest possible level, and things did change as a result. But in general you are right, we prefer our intellectuals to be safely ghettoised off into an underpaid academia where they can be safely ignored.

    For instance, likely not one person in 10 living in Masterton knows that a Nobel Prize winner, Professor Alan McDiarmid, grew up there; probably not 1 in a 1000 knows what Alan got the prize FOR. (Conductive organic polymers.) It seems every testosterone poisoned male under the age of 20 can modify his wheels and pull off endless donuts; yet I would be stunned if but one of them knew so much as a single verse of poetry. How did we get like this?

    Largely the academics have been complicit, veiling their work in dense language, being unwilling to explain what they are doing to a wider audience, and most notably reluctant to engage in public debate. There are of course notable exceptions, but where for instance are our equivalents to say Paul Krugman who runs his own very active blog? How often do our NZ intellectuals, genuinely qualified and knowledgeable actually enter a political blog and engage with us hoi polloi on our level? Not so often methinks.

    In return the workers and tradesmen, while shut out from academia have always been more than a little cowed by it, and cover for this weakness with a bluff and hearty contempt for all “impractical, egg-head wankers”. (The Soviets by contrast ran an excellent education system, everyone can recite screeds of Pushkin at a minimum, and most treat the sciences and arts with a fine seriousness.) And while New Zealand was primarily a pioneer nation, this pragmatic response served us well enough; there were farms to be cleared, ditches to be dug, roads cut and houses built.

    Yet this anti-intellectualism alone is not the heart of the matter; it is a symptom, not a root cause.

    Of course at one extreme this can result in a tyrannical society, but it doesn’t have to, and in order to avoid it we don’t have to completely abandon it as the libertarians try to.

    I grew up in the “Man Alone” generation. We were fed a simplisitic misrepresentation of the “bloke striking out on his own against all odds and suceeding” as eulogy to the notion of self-made independence, while the actual socialist, post-WW2 context of Mulgan’s work was made little mention off. Ironically Mulgan’s protagonist is while isolated, alienated is in reality tyrannised by everything. Even bad weather threatens his life; it is in effect a cautionary tale about isolation, not a celebration of it. It took me a rather long time in life to realise this.

    In the last 150 years our world has become technically complex and tightly coupled society. We have become, whether it suits our political outlook or not, more dependent on each other than ever before, more vulnerable to the demands of the collective, less able to say no to demands made upon us than ever before. Libertarianism (although I wholly reject it) can be understood as a not unnatural reaction against this deep underlying trend.

    Yet if the pace and direction of this techo-intensity driven civilisation continues, then inevitably any one or more of distopic futures that fuel to plots of science fiction horrors could be out lot. Vernor Vinge got it in a nice understated line “Unbiquitous law enforcement is one of civilisation’s better known terminal end-points” in Fire Upon the Deep. More here:


    (It could be argued that the failure of Soviet tyranny was simply because they didn’t have good enough computers… something the CCP certainly does not want for.)

    And just a week ago I had breakfast with a Scottish computational biologist visiting this country. I gathered from his very simplified explanation to me, that the work he is involved with will likely result in the ability to do DNA analysis in near-realtime. Have a think about the consequences of that without a shiver.

    It does not take too much imagination to realise that in the long run, an excess of civilisation is as much an evil, as it’s lack. But as with most of these apparent contradictions, the answer is not either or, but both. Dr Cullen expressed it in these something like terms a few months back, that a healthy society was sought to balance the needs for both security and opportunity for it’s individual members.

    Too much security is one form of tyranny, too much opportunity leads to gross concentrations of wealth. Yet arguably right now the modern world is delivering us the worst of both options, so maybe it is not a zero sum game after all. And others would argue that a condition of insecurity is the prerequisite motivation to seize opportunity. How to break this log jam? How to have both security AND opportunity?

    And so, that is more or less what our society looks like: a society agreed to by purely self interested individuals.

    What is ‘self-interested’? What is truly in our best interests? For most of history the answer has been “my interest”. And given that wealth was always both scarce limited, my gain was always at your loss. The techno-intensity of the modern world potentially yields unlimited productivity, and thus unlimited wealth. Yet if every individual continues to maximise their own self-interest, we simply will run into another limit, the finite resources and common goods of the planet. The surge of prosperity in the last few hundred years, as we have transitioned through the Industrial, the Electronic and now Genetic Ages has appeared unbounded, yet progress has looked more like a series of stairs with each new technology reaching a maturity plateau. It is wrong to think that human ingenuity will always deliver us from the consequences of human stupidity. (The latter was after all was one of two things Einstein thought truly infinite.)

    As long as we use the modes and language of scarcity, conflict and war the answer to security and opportunity is stifled, yet if we could become comfortable with the language of love and service to each other, the solution is obvious; that the individual and the society they live in are mutually interdependent. Ultimately the purpose of society is to serve the interests of the individual, and the purpose of every individual is to participate in advancing civilisation. Mutatis mutandis, you cannot sustain the discard of one, without ultimately loosing the other.

    This is where like John Mulgan, I want to make the leap away from purely intellectual values to another realm. Mulgan’s destination was sadly a mysterious one. My vision is this: How can we do law if we cannot name the parts of justice? How can we do economics if we do not understand the sanctified uses for wealth? How would you go about naming the soul of something in Parliament?

    How would for instance, our Parliament so inspire us, that the prosperous among us would quietly vie with each other to pay the most tax, to render the greatest service?

  19. Joshua 19

    Wow RedLogix, you’re a bloody genius mate.

  20. Ag 20

    This to me means the difference between left liberalism and the various constructions of socialism. One with a focus on the individual, the other more collective.

    I wouldn’t put it that way myself. I tend to see it as alternative views of the individual human person.

    One, originating in Christianity and its doctrine of individual salvation based on individual moral choices (a secularized version of which is on display in Kant’s moral philosophy), holds that human beings are like molecules in an inert gas, that collide with each other without undergoing any change each having its own independent good that is freely decided upon. It’s the “Robinson Crusoe” view of the person.

    The other is the Aristotelian view in which human beings are social animals, and there is simply no such thing as an individual human person or individual human good that exists independently of a community setting. Hence, we aren’t free to decide our own goods in some limited sense they are already decided by the kind of beings we are.

    Evolutionary psychology is providing more and more evidence that the second view is correct. Liberalism requires the former (especially with its unstated commitment to some form of metaphysical freedom).

    One day people will wake up and realize that freedom, as we currently think of it, sucks.

  21. randal 21

    this is a country of little minds, little people, little agendas and creepy personalities… anybody decent leaves and the rest has to be made up from imports
    the rest of the time we afre bombarded by the lardasses from the crap radio stations
    who are of the opinion that having an orotund voice also gives the them the gift of infallible opinions
    yeah right
    the left is smug and self satisfied and has not yet woken up to the fact that while it still remains the guardian of working peoples rights that it has to ditch all the crap leftover from the leninist/stalinist/trotskyite adventure
    time for a new synthesis but all the apparatchiks are full of facts and light on ideas!
    get off ya bums!

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