At the end of my post a couple of days ago I touched on the notion of a new Zealand identity and a Left nationalism.
Since then I’ve been thinking about the value of the last government’s moves to foster national identity and their remarkable success in doing so and concluded that this is quite probably their most lasting and significant contribution to New Zealand’s political landscape.
Not that long ago there was no such thing as a national identity, I don’t have to go back more than a few decades to recall a time when the vast majority of my fellow New Zealanders would describe their identity in terms of their British heritage. Although the phrase “mother country” wasn’t used with the frequency some would suggest the concept was firmly embedded in the national psyche.
Of course this loyalty was somewhat one-sided and I recall the horror a particularly upper-middle class acquaintance of mine who upon returning to the home country was dismayed to find he was treated as a quaint colonial rather than the “proper Englishman” he considered himself to be. Britain’s signing to the EEC produced a similar shock writ large.
This little Britain mentality left scant intellectual space for any sense of a distinct political identity (either Left or Right) to develop. And why should it? Up until we were abandoned by our main market (a move that should not have engendered anything like the surprise and shock it did) we were well provided for. We had a stable class system, albeit one that dared not speak its name, and a productive sector that provided wealth and employment to the majority of New Zealanders, we were well housed and had access to good education. In short we were content and shallow.
A lot was (and still is) made by the neo-liberal right of how suffocating this culture was and in many ways it certainly was. There was little “choice” and our horizons were somewhat limited. When I was growing up the future was a stable and slightly dull prospect which consisted of getting your secondary education and then going into an apprenticeship or taking your degree and then settling into the one job you would eventually retire from. As many readers will recall this was a very white and very male-orientated future.
That had to change. There is little doubt that despite the efforts of Muldoon this culture was unsustainable. There are a lot of criticisms leveled at Muldoon but to be fair to him he had a hard situation to deal with. To me his failures all rest upon one critical flaw: his inability to deal with change. He was conservative in the very basic sense that he constantly struggled to keep things the same and in doing so he stifled any chance of a homegrown political and economic alternative.
A significant facet of this conservatism was the suppressing of cultural dissent. Anything that threatened Muldoon’s little Britain was dealt with through the force of the state. Bastian point and the tour are the two most indelible examples of this.
The problem this caused for the Left was that the challenge Muldoon laid down was met with local and imported ideologies of identity politics. Now before liberal readers accuse me of being an unreconstructed Marxist I will clearly state that identity politics has played a great role in relieving New Zealand of many shocking prejudices that have had real material effects on many many people. But the focus on identity politics came at the cost of a homegrown political/economic Left alternative. And it did so because of a lack of cohesive national identity and because the Left’s answer to the economy of little Britain was to import the politics and economic ideas of the British Left. A position that became as absurdly irrelevant as Muldoon’s vision and that did so in step with it.
As I stated in my last post on this the result was a Left that was totally unprepared for the neo-liberal reforms of the fourth Labour government. Even more so because they provided social liberalism in the same gasp and thus satisfied a lot of the Left’s identity politics issues while simultaneously undermining the Left economically.
The effect of the 16 long years of neo-liberal reform was a ceding of our economic sovereignty and the gutting of our productive sector. We allowed assets to be sold, our dollar to be made vulnerable and our economy to be left to the whims of international finance.
We allowed this in part because we had no concept of a New Zealand identity. There was no significant attachment to the concept of our position as an independent nation or as a people with our own way of doing things. When such ideas were brought up the speaker would be lambasted as a dinosaur, a Muldoonist, a believer in “fortress New Zealand” (despite the fact that nobody else in the world has willingly subscribed to these extreme politics as completely). And a lot of the Left were quelled by this because we had no thorough political and economic alternative because none had been grown here.
That’s not to say the right had managed to create one but what they did have was a fully informed set of ideas they had imported wholesale from foreign right-wing think-tanks.
Without a strong idea of a distinct New Zealand way we didn’t have a chance. I still recall with disgust watching the cheap and fawning marketing of New Zealand to the world and to its own populace as a great place to invest because of deregulated markets, weak labour laws and salable asset base. In their ambition to be seen as part of the big swinging dicks of international finance the right painted us as a part of the international market place, as a part of Asia, as a part of the “Pacific Rim of Fire”, as a part of anything we could hang our coat on but never as an independent nation with it’s own core values and unique way of doing things.
That’s a stark contrast to the last decade which has seen us grow a pride in ourselves though promotion of our clean green image, through the funding and fostering of local culture and through things like buy Kiwi made, KiwiBank and the hard work of Helen Clark on the international stage.
A lot of people thought Clark picked up the Arts and Culture portfolio as a hobby when she became Prime Minister but what she was really doing was profoundly political. Thanks to her we’ve seen a new nationalism and sense of who we are and with it a sense that we can develop our own big ideas and determine our own economic and political future. And that will make it very hard for the right to continue its project.
What the Left needs to do is use the space the last government has created to start growing its own strong intellectual alternatives to the market philosophies the Right is already starting to edge back into our political discourse.