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Written By: - Date published: 12:09 pm, December 26th, 2008 - 11 comments
Categories: culture, economy, helen clark, history - Tags:

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.

11 comments on “Homegrown ”

  1. Steve Withers 1

    Great post! I suspect that any eventual identity will be a practical, pragmatic thing. Something useful and shared. I tend to think of Left and Right as misleading. In my mind they tend to boil down to “What can we do” vs “What can I do”. The emphasis of one or other being an expression of the positive and negative aspects of each as seen by each of us. Some play nicely with others and some don’t….and don’t know or why they should.

    Pragmatically, a community limits the risk error by individuals. Frustratingly, the community can be ignorant, complacent or simply obstructive. We constantly strive to balance these tendencies. The last government got it about right and the present government would be right too if the assumptions they wereoperating were sound. Unfortunately, they too often are not sound. The consequnce of that error gap will see them do the wrong things for all the Right reasons.

  2. Chris G 2

    I must applaud you IB on your recent posts. They have made for excellent reading. props to you.

  3. lprent 3

    Great post. Ok I’ve done the finishing off work and the family things. Now it is time to do something that I haven’t done for a few years, actually have a holiday! Don’t start the new job until the 5th. Leaves oodles of time….

  4. Rex Widerstrom 4

    Ahem… excellent post, but you’re crediting Clark with developing “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”? Does the name Lange ring any bells? Clark, at best, contined what he began.

    Personally I didn’t see much vision of a national identity from Clark beyond her personal interest in the arts and her feigned interest in contact sports – both of which are merely facets of an identity in any case.

  5. Interesting post.

    While Labour was in charge I felt good about New Zealand, it felt good to be a kiwi. There was a certain air about the place, things were stable, things were improving for people and there was a sense that we could tackle the great challenges ahead of us, climate change, the economic crisis and the eventual depletion of oil.

    Thats why it was incredibly gut wrenching to see National’s ‘New Zealand sucks’ campaign get so much traction. It was like “hang on!? ok things arent as good as they could be but f*ck New Zealand is still a great place”. National’s plan it seemed was to unravel that identity Labour had sought to create, it seemed in a way their plan was to make us feel like we should be ashamed, “we cant read”, “it sucks so much we’re all leaving”, “the hospitals are in the shit”, “if you dont vote in National it’ll get worse and worse” etc. etc.

    Now however I feel a great disconnect with New Zealand, as if now we’re all individuals grinding against each other to get a bigger and bigger share of the pie. Welcome in the individuals: “…I’ll smack MY kids…”, “…those beneficaries are spending MY taxes”, “…MY employees…”.

    Interesting though to hear Jim Boldger of all people saying that Government was more than tax cuts and the economy, but that it was also about Nation Building. Dont think we’ve seen any attempt from National to nation build, infact one of their first moves was to scrap buying New Zealand made. Sad.

  6. Bill 6

    I find the whole notion of a national identity disquieting. It suggests that other means of manufacturing an identity become subsumed; judged and subject to the nation state’s notion of what it means to be ‘a real Kiwi’.

    We know that the nation state is a construct born from violent oppression. And we know that the Left sought internationalism rather than nationalism. Leaving that aside for the moment we can see that within what we call NZ, there are numerous cultures giving a sense of identity to different people. There are also uncounted communities contributing to a sense of identity.

    Further leaving aside the question as to whether it really is desirable to gain a sense of identity from culture or community, we hit a problem. And that problem is that cultures and communities are subject to enormous stress by shallow corporate propaganda and forgetfulness brought on by the simple fact that they are seldom if ever reported or commented on through popular means of communication.

    So if we look at Maori culture for example, it is only recently that Matariki has gained any popular exposure and become a legitimate focus of celebration. Maori language is resurgent, but very nearly died. We might argue that the demise of Maori culture was an ‘unfortunate’ by product of colonialism but that in these more enlightened times…blah, blah, blah.

    But then, how would we explain the demise of working class culture? It has been more or less expunged from our conciousness. It seems as though shame, rather than pride, is to be attached to the term and too many people seek disassociation and term themselves as middle class or deny the existence of class altogether.

    Who knows of working class history? Who are our heroes, what are our stories? It is more or less gone, drowned beneath a wave of corporate culture that gave us heroes like batman and superman in place of Mother Jones and Joe Hill. The result is amnesia.

    For example, May Day means nothing to most in NZ and it was just a few years ago that Speights tried to lay claim to May Day as ‘Foundation Day’. That should have been unthinkable. But working class culture has atrophied to the extent that in response to the propaganda of corporate consumerism we seek to buy our way to some state of contentment rather than seeking our freedom.

    If we want identity, we must reclaim it and revitalise those things that give rise to our sense of self and place in the world. In much the same way as Maori have rekindled aspects of Maori culture, so it could and should be for anyone else left with the mere vestiges of their culture.

    A NZ identity could only hamper such efforts. These islands contain many voices and expressions of self. A national identity being formed from above and trickled down will be homogenising and that is, surely, anathema to anyone of the left?

  7. Chris 7

    Why do we have to have a centrally dictated identity? I personally hate this idea of a “NZ identity”. Go over the tasman on australia day, it’s disgusting. That you are advocating a form of marxist identity dictation and formation from the top I also find disgusting.

    National identity is something for the intellectuals to create, then abandon, then scorn, whilst the undeucated class eats it up (like aussie flags at the sydney big day out, remember that? I was there, if NZ was like that I would leave).

    I quite like NZ as it is (or was under Labour?), however the one thing I really hated was (and this especially pissed me off as a musician) the fostering of national identity by the stoic, white, middle-class bureaucrats from the concerned ministries and depts. (NZONAIR, NZMIC etc.). It was like suddenly because a kiwi band who sound like a shit version of a famous band got big then that can be automatically woven into the national identity tapestry and fuck it, lets make that the yardstick to measure shit by.

    And again, I still can’t believe you’re advocating a top-down national identity builiding exercise.

  8. Rob 8

    I think Cl ark destroyed many good values in what it is to be a Kiwi. All to push her Social Engineering plan for minority groups. I was thinking the other day what a shame Labour wasnt in to pick up the rubbish they have left behind in the last nine years. New Zealand was sick of being run by academics with no business vision or plans for the future thank god we have had change

  9. Anita 9


    I think Cl ark destroyed many good values in what it is to be a Kiwi.

    Care to give any examples?

    All to push her Social Engineering plan for minority groups.

    Care to give any examples?

  10. Rob 10

    Anita we were becoming so PC it was becoming intolerable .
    Isnt it great to see a young man run down and hold a Liquor stor robber in West

    Auckland today under the previous Minister of Police he probably would have been charged with assault.

    It will definitely be a lot tougher for the crims out there now. The Police have gone from the PC brigade to defenders of the public a position that they could not take under Labour as it was all about rites fro the criminals not for the Public.

    Anita to answer your question a smack on your childs backside with out being catergorised as a child beater.

    Anita to answer your questions

    No more money handed out for Lesbians to go over seas and study Lesbian hip hop tours.
    By the way have the pressed charges against Chris Caters staff member and the other labour party members who were stealing full bottles of wine from the Government end of year wind up dinner. Really shows what a bunch of thieves and despots New Zealand had in Government before the change. Have a great new year and enjoy the increasing freedom in this country

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