Recently, Whaleoil posted General Marshall’s 1947 speech to Harvard University that outlined the full post-World War 2 reconstruction of Europe.
The plan became known as the Marshall Plan, often referred to nowadays as a highpoint of command-and-control politics in which the results were largely successful.
Are we missing something in New Zealand, even before the 2017 general election really gets going? In some sections of the voting public there is still a desire for a grand plan and an ambitious state with a strong narrative about where a nation should be going.
What if, for example, politicians of resolute idealism like Sanders or Melenchon or Corbyn could rise with a similar facility for bringing it all together in a plan, grasp the political mood like the reins of a horse, and harness that capacity for good? If they could do that, could they not then reorganize whole states as Marshall, Attlee, and Fraser did seven decades ago?
It is now a common mode on both the left and the right to turn to nostalgia for commanding leaders who form great plans with precise emotional grasp to respond to complex crises and thus achieve otherwise inconceivable policy goals. “Make America Great Again” is political poetry that would have worked well for Republican and Democrat alike:
But there is no crisis so compelling to our public that such a plan or such a leader is warranted. The facts and the framing keep shifting. Depending on where you read about it, you will discover that the Gini coefficient has been steadily rising across the developed world, because of – what? Robots? Trade with China? Ruthanasian deregulation? Sheer financial depravity? Mass and uncontrolled immigration? It might be all of the above, but one cannot know for sure: the question remains open. Same for housing: too many causes and conditions, not enough answers, and the question remains open.
But then Donald Trump says that explanation is much more simple: It’s NAFTA, and China. “We’re living through the biggest job theft in the history of the world, folks,” he says. We can fix it easily. In terms of conviction and coherence, it’s getting close to General Marshall himself.
The axial point to convince New Zealand that we should change governments is not to offer a grand plan, but to frame the right question. Trump tapped into real human need better than the other candidate did. His base was not an army of gullible slouches and racists on sofas with guns, smartphones and a brief vocabulary. He rose from a large, disenfranchised chunk of society that was promised meaning through social mobility, got little of it, and after a generation of stagnating wages still has no clear answer to the question: why, after so many years of work, am I still suffering?
Our political leaders, particularly the lefty ones, don’t need a grand plan for New Zealand. If there is anything the last six political terms has taught us, our governments are capable of managing through multiple crises without pre-announcing anything too coherent. Indeed within living memory it’s the grand plans that have done the most damage.
You also don’t get a really bold plan in a democracy without a really strong leader. By strong, I mean Lee Kuan Yew strong. I mean Erdogan strong. Chavez strong. The full expression of civil rights tends to be curtailed fast, and even with that considerable sacrifice the results are unstable. Lee Kuan Yew may well have tamed the real estate market, and who there misses chewing gum really? But Erdogan is well on the way to shifting away from any kind of functioning democracy and into another civil war. Chavez presided over the largest oil boom in history, and yet left behind a hungry, ailing, economically ruined society. Their magic as leaders is that many still idolize them as saviours.
We don’t need to take that risk here.
There’s no crisis such our population demands a new Marshall Plan or anything like it. Granted, there’s an opposite occurring in a kind of drifting, soporific, incoherent mumbling way.There are also meaty problems for government to solve. But there is no crisis worth reaching for massive plans, super-strong states, super-strong politicians, or other dynamics that require destabilizing our core.
We have instead only precisely what we need, guided by MMP: a chunk of policy wonk (Labour), a little idealism (Greens), and a sprinkling of steady-as-she-goes conservatism (New Zealand First). We have seen the risks of “Make (X Nation) Great Again”, for left and right.
What is needed in 2017 is the right question to ask.