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The politics of hysteria

Written By: - Date published: 11:44 am, December 27th, 2010 - 39 comments
Categories: democratic participation, making shit up, Politics, spin - Tags:

From Reading the Maps. Republished from the original with permission.

In the twenty-first century we are continually being urged to register and express our emotions. The days of the stiff upper lip and suffering in silence have well and truly gone, as unctuous TV talk show hosts and ‘self-help’ books scream at us to ‘grow emotionally’ by blubbering our deepest secrets and confessing our most recalcitrant feelings to our partners, to our friends, and to perfect strangers.

It might be argued that, for all their intellectual vapidity and relentless avarice, Oprah Winfrey and Marla Cilley are healthier guides to human behaviour than, say, Colonel Blimp or Billy Graham. But even if today’s fashion for silly self-expression beats the ethos of self-denial and emotional repression which was once promoted and enforced in Western societies, it can nevertheless be argued that our new obsession with our emotions, and our corresponding lack of interest in less subjective ways of experiencing the world, has had a serious impact on the quality of our political discourse.

Today, anyone who is interested in the peculiar, almost arcane practices of historical, sociological, and political analysis – interested in the gathering of data on societies and their different aspects, the discovery of faultlines and connections between classes and other interest groups, the understanding of the relations between the industrial and commercial ‘base’ of a society and the ideas and cultural practices which constitute its ‘superstructure’, and so on – has to swim into a strong and cold current. Today the media and mainstream political parties routinely take sociological concepts and categories which were moulded and refined by generations of scholarship and debate and redefine them in wholly subjective, frequently hysterical terms.

The tendency has become most extreme in the United States, where concepts as weighty as ‘fascism’, ‘socialism’ and ‘ruling class’ have been appropriated and impoverished in the harangues of politicians like Sarah Palin and broadcasters like Bill O’Reilly. The right of the Republican Party has had no hesitation in branding Barack Obama both a fascist and a socialist, and in describing the Democratic Party’s liberal fringe as the ‘ruling class’ of America.

Terms like ‘socialism’ and ‘fascism’ have become mere conduits for the expression of anger, the equivalent of the rows of bloated exclamation marks used in kids’ comic books or the tiny grumpy face emoticons which can be left beside an online sentence. For Palin’s followers in the Tea Party, Obama is a fascist and a socialist because he is a really bad leader, and because fascism and socialism are both, you know, really bad things.

In America and elsewhere, the left is often no less subjective than the right. The moronic attempts of Palin and other right-wingers to cast Obama as a latter-day Stalin or Hitler, or as a combination of the two, had a precedent in the ‘BUSHITLER’ signs and slogans deployed by some of the less rational members of the movement against the invasion of Iraq and other parts of Bush’s War of Terror.

A reader of this blog who was born in New Zealand but lives in the United States recently made some interesting comments about the incoherently subjective way that our own nascent ‘Tea Party’ movement uses political and sociological concepts. ‘M’ noted that:

I’ve found there to be an increase in what I can only call ‘right wing’ politics by the likes of Coastal Coalition and the New Zealand Centre for Political Research. I seem to hear a lot about the Maori ‘aristocracy’ lately. Perhaps this is a common term back home now, but it’s rather new to me…

The thing is, I find the term to be at odds with what little I know about aristocracy in general…I just don’t see the whole property and wealth accumulation thing being concentrated into the hands of a priviledged class of nobles who have the backing of some ruling monarch. From what I can tell, tribal society seems to be more of a collectivist redistribution model…

In short, I just don’t think that the ‘aristocracy’ label fits…

The Coastal Coalition and the innocent-sounding New Zealand Centre for Political Research represent that faction of New Zealand’s right which has never accepted either the Treaty of Waitangi and associated notions of biculturalism or liberal social reforms like the legalisation of abortion and the Human Rights Act. Muriel Newman, the boss of the kooky NZCPR, specialises in the same nostalgia for the emotional repression and official monoculturalism of the 1950s that Sarah Palin sells in the United States. Like Palin, though, Newman and her local supporters express their desire for a return to this idealised and austere past in rhetoric which belongs to the Age of Oprah. Concepts and categories are handled in an emotional rather than analytic way, and emotive soundbites are preferred to anything resembling linear argument.

M refers to the way that Newman and John Ansell, the Wellington advertising man who fronts the Coastal Coalition’s campaign against Maori rights to the seabed and foreshore, like to present themselves as the enemies of a ‘Maori aristocracy’ represented by the business arms of iwi like Kai Tahu and Ngati Porou. In a blog post he made back in August, Ansell warned that New Zealand would become a ‘tribal aristocracy like Tonga’ if iwi businesses were able to run commercial operations on the country’s coasts.

The notion of a ‘tribal aristocracy’ has no more intellectual content than the Tea Party’s definition of Obama as a ‘fascist socialist’. A ‘tribal aristocracy’ is a contradiction in terms: an aristocracy is formed in a feudal society, and to create a feudal society it is necessary to break the bonds of the tribe. In a tribal society, people are linked to one another by genealogy, and a subsistence economy characterised by some level of communal land ownership and shared labour is normal. Feudalism is based around the exploitation of a class of serfs by a landowning class which has become culturally and genealogically distant from them.

In his classic book The Evolution of the Polynesian Chiefdoms Patrick Vinton Kirch shows that pre-contact Polynesian societies could be organised in very different ways. Some, like Tonga and Hawaii, were very hierarchical, and could be considered post-tribal and at least proto-feudal, whilst a few, like Pukapuka and Rekohu, were extremely egalitarian, and had economies based on small-scale subsistence farming or on hunter gathering. Most Polynesian societies fell somewhere between these extremes.

Some Maori iwi were very egalitarian, especially those in the south of the South Island, whilst others, particularly those in the far north, were larger and more hierarchical. Kirch calculates, though, that the largest political unit in pre-contact Maori society only had 3-5,000 members. Maori had nothing to compare with the quasi-feudal systems which had evolved in Tonga and Hawaii. There was rank in Maori society, and there was also, on a relatively small scale, slavery, but there was no class of nobles exploiting serfs.

The King Movement created in the 1850s might seem like a good place to find avaricious aristocrats, but it was essentially an attempt to modernise Maori society from within, in response to the threat posed by land-hungry Pakeha. The economy which operated in the lands controlled by the King Movement combined production for export with communal land ownership and labour, and can thus be considered a sort of fusion of capitalism and a pre-contact subsistence mode of production. Kings Potatau and Tawhiao may have been the leaders of a de facto Maori state, but their political pre-eminence did not translate into economic domination of their subjects.

The business ventures which have been created by iwi in recent decades, often on the basis of cash and land given to them as part of Treaty settlements, cannot be understood with references to feudalism. They are, for better or worse, fledgling capitalist enterprises, relatively small players in a New Zealand economy dominated by foreign-based companies. Why can’t John Ansell recognise this rather obvious fact, rather than resort to such ungainly formulations as ‘tribal aristocracy’? The answer, of course, is that Ansell is in the habit of using concepts according to the emotional charge he receives from them, rather than according to their relation to reality. He is an admirer of capitalism, and he is disinclined to want to extend a concept with a positive emotional charge to organisations he clearly despises. Ansell would rather deploy the terms ‘tribal’ and ‘aristocracy’, which create negative emotional charges.

A recent discussion at the increasingly demented indymedia website showed Ansell’s dismal approach to political discussion has parallels on the left of twenty-first century New Zealand politics. After wandering into the rambling, often bizarre comments thread under an indymedia post about the Pike River tragedy, I got involved in a series of arguments about the nature of capitalism with several members of New Zealand’s activist community.

Sarah Watson, whose opinions have already been the subject of one post to this blog, had decided, in the wake of the death of twenty-nine miners at Pike River, that ‘capitalism IS mining’. This seemed to me, and still seems to me, a rather strange formulation. I find it hard to believe that the ancient Britons who built Stonehenge, the Tongans who mined the massive stones that became the langi of their old capital Mu’a, and the Maori who mined the coal reefs at Taupiri well before the arrival of Europeans were all capitalists. But none of these objections can matter for Sarah Watson, because her definition of capitalism is based not on history and sociology, but on her feelings. She was, like most New Zealanders, upset and angry about the Pike River disaster, and for her ‘capitalism’ is a sort of swear word she uses when she is upset and angry.

The tendency to equate anything bad with ‘capitalism’ and anything good with ‘anti-capitalism’ is one of the banes of the twenty-first century left, in New Zealand and elsewhere. Visitors to indymedia can sometimes observe Matt McCarten being characterised as an anti-capitalist, just because he does good things like occupying unused houses and speaking up for low-income workers. In reality, McCarten is, according to his own testimony, an old-fashioned left-wing social democrat, who favours regulating and managing capitalism to make it fairer. It ought to be possible to praise McCarten’s good deeds without misrepresenting his politics.

More conservative trade union leaders like Andrew Little are condemned at indymedia as ‘capitalists’ when they refuse to call for strikes, or decline to launch the sort of hard-hitting protest campaigns McCarten’s union has become associated with. I don’t know Little personally, but I’m fairly certain he doesn’t have a large share portfolio or own a factory or two. He’s a highly-paid bureaucrat with rather centrist political views, not a member of the Business Roundtable.

It seems to me that, whether they know it or not, some of the self-styled radicals at indymedia and similar sites share their intellectual method with Sarah Palin and Oprah Winfrey.

39 comments on “The politics of hysteria ”

  1. Colonial Viper 1

    There is a tendency to try and encapsulate complete ideas in a 4 second sound byte. Of course it is impossible, so all you get left with is tripe.

    Same with the focus on emotions. It takes the focus off the substantive issues at hand e.g. the societal and systemic circumstances which led to the current situation, the performance and judgement of the key players, on to the rubbish trivia of human experience, tears and hysteria.

    Psychologically an appeal to emotions turns down the brain’s reasoning faculties.

    The Pike River disaster was a classic. The media went for the bullshit “Oh how does it feel that your loved one is trapped” angle, the “brave CEO” angle etc. Taking the focus off “What is a coal mine, went wrong, how could it have happened and what are the probable scenarios for actually getting something done, and how”.

    The tendency to equate anything bad with ‘capitalism’

    Well, clearly not everything bad happening in the world is directly related to capitalism. Just most things.

    • Zorr 1.1

      The requirement to encapsulate thought in a sound bite has been brought to us, over the years, by an increasingly disaffected populace that feels misrepresented at the highest levels. It is a requirement these days to be able to yell at someone “VOTE FOR ME!” rather than to have a sane, rational discussion by saying “Vote for me because…” due to the fact that, as a whole, we are unwilling to engage with politicians due to the increasing distrust held of them.

      This results in, as described above, an intellectual void where words lose all meaning other than the emotional impact they carry. For all it is worth when it comes to getting elected we may as well just throw the English dictionary out the window and poll the populace on what words they react most strongly to (positively or negatively) and then just scream slogans from every rooftop. I would like to think that in this media shit storm of stupid that The Standard manages to stand tall against it.

      And in response to the final sentence of yours CV, capitalism is the dominant market ideology throughout the globe and therefore “most things” can be pinned on it. This, however, does not provide an answer but just continues the name-calling.

      • Colonial Viper 1.1.1

        This, however, does not provide an answer but just continues the name-calling.

        Hmmmm, yeah you found me out there 🙂

        I’ll put it this way then. There is a lot of surplus capital in the world. There are a lot of unemployed in the world. There are factories and facilities lying unused or under-utilised in this economic down turn.

        And there is a lot of unmet human need in the world.

        In this system of capitalism, those needs will continue to be unmet and those people will continue to suffer.

        It literally is the family of starving people begging in front of the shiny new fully stocked Mega SuperMarket.

        • Zorr

          Well, if only they had one of them thar shiny plastic thing-a-ma-jigs then they would be fine. It must be their own fault that them wot don’t have continue in the same vein. ^_^

          Those factories that sit unused or under-utilised I don’t actually consider an issue when it comes to the poverty factor. In my mind, poverty is not so much the condition of being below a certain income but also being in the position of being unable to provide for oneself and those in ones care. Industrialization has caused a large part of the malaise of poverty by segregating communities and separating the populace from the land that once sustained them. It may be a little late to turn back the clock on it but by keeping the focus on production and incomes it is possible to miss the fact that human beings can be sustained on very little and often just need to be given a little room in which to provide for themselves.

          Mostly we tend to agree it seems but it is the small points that make for the fun arguments… ^_^

  2. Rob 2

    I agree with you there is a great tendency to use words as swearwords that poorly describe opponents the one I most commonly see is the word Tory being used for right wing people who aren’t even remotely conservative.

    I disagree that there is no basis behind the term ‘Maori aristocracy’ however to describe groups like the Iwi leadership group, the kingitanga or the tops of some Iwi. While they do a good job bringing Maori issues to the frontlight they also today run on concepts of hierarchy that some feel did not exist in the same way for Maori of the past and they have become different people to their Iwi in several respects and some have a disproportionate amount of the Iwi’s wealth (not accounting for the fact the Iwi receives a larger proportion of the wealth than it should as Maori outside of Iwi get nothing and a great deal of Maori society has lost those connections. However this doesn’t reduce the size of what is perceived as taken from the collective and thus what is returned). Also while there is an element of the community input it is not wholly democratic as a large amount of Mana comes from a persons ancestors and thus can make leadership hereditary. I don’t think all Maori see the changes as merely a modernisation as you consider it. It was as you say already hierarchical for some Iwi prior to modern developments.

    I found the work of Annie Mikaere on the topic quite interesting.

  3. jcuknz 3

    Just on one point which makes much of the above argument suspect to me … aristocracy … it of course depends on what you mean by that word ….1]nobility 2] upper classes 3]government by best in birth or fortune.
    I think by two of those criteria it is reasonable to talk about a Maori aristocracy … further … which is inherently conservative which explains why the party has alined itself to the pakeha conservatives, while others find themselves in the other lot of conservatives … depends on what you mean by that word too.
    I thought that at the start I was going to be in agreement with the writer’s depreciation of the emotionalism so widespread but then they wander off, putting up a strawman based on their use of a word as they decide it should be used. Like I suspect many if not most people, I don’t pay a lot of attention to things Maori or know much about them, but I definitely have the feeling that there is a tribal aristocracy or grouping … a would-be ruling class. There … four words which I expect mean different things to different people.

  4. Scott 4

    Thanks for exemplifying the tendency I was criticising, jcuknz. You say that ‘you don’t pay a lot of attention’ to Maori, but at the same time want to throw the established meaning of an important term like ‘aristocracy’ out the window, just because you have a certain vague ‘feeling’. Wouldn’t be better to find out something about Maori, not to mention the concepts of ‘aristocracy’ and ‘feudalism’, before making such bold statements?

    Hi Rob,

    I agree with you about the shortcomings of some contemporary ‘iwicorps’, but I don’t see how concepts like ‘aristocracy’ and ‘feudalism’ make any sense in understanding these shortcomings. Maori society was never feudal, and never had an aristrocacy. The distortions we see in some contemporary iwicorps are a product of capitalism, not some pre-capitalist system. It’s true that tribal history and genealogy are sometimes mobilised by factions within the Maori capitalist class, but this is not fundamentally different from the way that family ties and royal titles are deployed in the internecine struggles of New Zealand’s Pakeha capitalist class. It would make no sense to speak of the Fletcher family as an ‘aristocracy’, and to try to associate feudalism with the way Fletcher Challenge operates; does it make any more sense to use those concepts in relation to Maori capitalism?

    Hi Viper,

    I’d argue that the difference is between ‘relating’ capitalism with the problems it creates, and ‘equating’ capitalism to those various problems. I agree that we have to do the latter, but I think problems result when we slip into doing the former. I think that most Kiwis, whatever their political persuasion, would probably respond to the question ‘what is capitalism?’ by naming one or more of the phenomena associated with capitalism. Someone on the left might say ‘capitalism is greed’ ; someone on the right might say ‘capitalism is about private property’; an environmentalist might say ‘capitalism is about industrialism and pollution’. None of these answers is entirely inaccurate, but each fetishises one aspects of a vast and complex mode of production which takes different forms in different societies.

    • Bored 4.1

      Scott, there seems to be a large line in semantics in you reply, having read Viper for a while I am pretty sure he knows where he/she stands on capitalism and is very aware of how others might interpret differently. Accuracy is as deceptive and subjective, I for one think Viper has a good grasp on capitalism in general if not specifically.

      With regard to your answer to Rob, you may be right that aristocracy and feudalism are not good terms, so from a Polynesian viewpoint what are? I as a European think in terms of my culture and a collective historic lingual perspective. To me the use of these terms makes perfect sense in a broad brush manner, further as such I dont understand the siloing of precapitalism and capitalism with regard to family and status in Moari society. These things in my experience have any number of permutations and cross overs, and they have historic resonance. You cannot silo today from the past.

    • Rob 4.2

      I see your points Scott but have an again somewhat lengthy response to it.

      I’m not entirely sure I don’t see modern capitalist classes as a new form of aristocracy. It is a mostly hereditary power exercised by a class of ruling elites with no democratic input, depending how you define it there are great parallels with aristocracy. The lack of feudalism doesn’t make something not an aristocracy and under New Zealand land law we still have a feudal system despite the fact we are a parliamentary democracy with only a figurehead monarch and no presence of real lords etc. Furthermore an aristocracy does not have to have been around a long time it can emerge in one generation so long as it will continue from them on if unabated. The fact that people largely equate aristocracy with the pre-strong-monarchy cultures of Britain and France does not mean that is the only times it has occured. It is also not clear that the Iwi collectively owned land doesn’t in some instances operate precisely the same way as a feudal estate did with the statutory bodies set up by the Crown to administer them with Maori acting as the lords. I am not saying aristocracy is the correct term or that it should be a reason to not deal fairly with Maori as groups like the coastal coalition advocate for but it should be a consideration in dealing with treaty settlements to ensure fair redistribution systems will be in place post-settlement and they do not merely establish new aristocracies.

      If a person were wanting to describe the fact that there are concerns of hierarchical structures developing amongst Maori which prioritise mana tangata and place all land under that elites control to determine its distribution to the rest of the people at their will what would you call it?
      (I do not know enough of Maori issues to say whether these issues are that severe but I know at least Maori who have concerns about it and we are only a few weeks now since the Maori king tried to dismiss an Iwi’s representative for disagreeing with him)

  5. swimmer 5

    Who needs words, you can just smile and wave! 🙂

  6. Scott 6

    ‘aristocracy and feudalism are not good terms, so from a Polynesian viewpoint what are?’

    I’d talk in terms of modes of prodction. Sorry to be lazy and not reply afresh – it’s the festive season and all that – but here’s how I explained my understanding of modes of production during the debate at Reading the Maps:

    ‘Following the understanding developed by Marx and used by many subsequent leftists, Marxist and non-Marxist alike, I’d argue that capitalism is a mode of production – one of many modes of production which exist in our world. A mode of production includes social relations, eg the way we organise ourselves to produce, and also the technology we use to produce. Virtually every society contains different modes of production, but in most places today the capitalist mode of production dominates the other modes.

    New Zealand is a very modern society, and is very much dominated by a capitalist mode of production, but we still have the remnants of what sociologists have called a peasant mode of production in areas like the Hokianga and the East Coast, where Maori still collectively own much land and communities make a partly-subsistence living off it. Even in our cities there are remnants of past modes of production. Feminists sometimes use the term domestic mode of production to describe the way work is organised within individual households.

    I’ve argued lately that in Tonga the capitalist mode of production is still quite weak, and the old feudal and peasant modes of production are still surprisingly strong (http://readingthemaps.blogspot.com/2010/11/instead-of-report-from-tonga.html). I think a post-capitalist mode of production might be emerging in Venezuela, where workers are running hundreds of factories and thousands of cooperatives are running with government support, but it is still quite weak and subordinate to the capitalist mode.’

    I think there were two mode of production in pre-contact Maori society: a lineage-based susbsistence mode and a hunter gatherer mode.

    The lineage-based subsistence mode existed mostly in the north of the country and saw quite sedentary communities linked by whakapapa producing to feed themselves and to create a small surplus which went to chiefs. These chiefs arguably made up a proto-class, but the surplus was too small to enable them to become too powerful and put too much distance between themselves and the rest of their iwi (in Tonga, where settlement had taken place much earlier, the soil was very rich, and there was much greater contact with other Polynesian societies, the situation was different, and a feudal or quasi-feudal elite did arise).

    The hunter gatherer mode was most clearly in evidence in Murihiku and on Rekohu. There were places where the two modes were mixed up – iwi might wander about and gather food and hunt, but also tend crops.

    There was a move by Maori to create new modes of production to deal with the challenge of Pakeha in the nineteenth century. The most important of these is the ‘Polynesian mode of production’, which existed in places like the Waikato Kingdom and Parihaka, and which should be something socialists study seriously and even treat as an inspiration. I’ve blogged about the Polynesian mode here:

    Less happily, there was undoubtedly a slave mode of production in existence in certain parts of the country – in the Chathams, for instance, after the Ngati Tama-Ngati Mutunga conquest – during the period of the Musket Wars. I argue, though, that this mode was actually created and sustained by settler capitalism:

    Today I think that the ghost of the Polynesian mode of production persists in certain iwi-run organisations, and in the way that much Maori land is organised. If we write off every form of pre-modern Maori society as somehow ‘aristocratic’, on the basis of a misunderstanding of that term and a softness for the propaganda of the likes of John Ansell, then we risk both alienating Maori and missing out on spotting the progressive potential of many Maori institutions. It’s notable that the only really successful radical left-wing movements of the twenty-first century have occurred in Venezuela and Bolivia, and that these movements have built themselves partly upon the unique experiences of their own nations. In my view the Polynesian mode of production can provide ideas for how an antipodean socialism could function:

    • Bored 6.1

      Im getting the picture, if I have a minor criticism it is of one thing (that doesnot detract from the rationale of your argument).

      The mode of (relation to) production argument seems to me to be bound up in materialist dialectic which is a very Eurocentric construct (especially if you regard socialism and capitalism as being materialist constructs and mirror images of the same thing). Do Maori think that way? I dont know.

  7. jcuknz 7

    From Scott’s comments at 4.26 I suspect that he started this thread under the Standard Banner?
    I cannot find a contribution above mine from him. I will limit myself to merely stating that in his intolerant comments he assumes too much about me. Obviously I made my point well.

    • Zorr 7.1

      ruling class/wealthy elites != aristocracy

      For there to be an aristocracy there needs to be a form of hereditary title that means that just by springing forth from some specific set of loins automatically makes you a better kind of person than others.

      From the 3 examples you listed in your previous post only 1 of them can actually be made to fit the definition of “aristocracy” and that is nobility. Scott’s point remains clear and salient and you remain as the proof.

      • Rob 7.1.1

        Not that I agree with Jc about the argument being a strawman but I’m afraid the Oxford dictionary disagrees with you. The hereditary element is only something typical of aristocracy today not required and was not part of its meaning when the word first originated in ancient greece. Monarchy != aristocracy.

    • lprent 7.2

      Scott is maps. I asked him for permission to reproduce his post, got it, and reproduced it for further comment here.

      The link back to his site and the original is at the top of this post.

  8. Maps 8

    I agree that dialectical or historical materialism can be used in a Eurocentric way. The classic example of this must be the belief, which we find in the earlier (but not the later) thought of Marx, and also in the work of many important social democratic thinkers, that every society inevitably moves through a certain number of stages based upon different modes of production, leading up to capitalism and, finally, socialism.

    This type of materialism makes the history of Europe the model for the future of the world, and assumes that the destruction of pre-capitalist modes of production, like the Polynesian mode of production, is progressive, even when it involves terrible destruction, because capitalism is supposedly superior to the earlier stages, and in any case is a necessary prerequisite for the achievement of socialism. I’ve had a number of arguments with Chris Trotter over the past year or so which turn on my opposition to his belief that the destruction of Maori modes of production by the Pakeha capitalist mode was both inevitable and historically progressive.

    But this type of Eurocentric thinking is alien to the later works of Marx, which hold up pre-capitalist societies like the Iroquois Federation and peasant Russia as models for socialist development, and it is alien to the way that Marxism is being used today in non-Western nations with radical left-wing governments like Venezuela and Bolivia. I think that the Eurocentric interpretations of socialism are being challenged, and that Marxism is, in a sense, ‘going native’. I’ve blogged about this process at:

    I think you might be suggesting that materialism can also be Eurocentric in the sense that it assumes humans are motivated above all by economic considerations, rather than by ideas and culture. I don’t think that materialism has to be reductive in this way, though – a mode of production includes ideas and artworks and religion just as much as agriculture and industry. The notion that culture is some sort of simple reflection of economic realities is nonsense, but so is the idea that culture somehow exists autonomously from economics, which is the notion that comes through in a lot of postmodernist thinking. There has to be some sort of balance between the two views, I think.

    Do Maori think in a dialectical/historical materialist way? Well, my mate Justin Taua does!

    I don’t think we should necessarily assume there’s always a chasm between European and Polynesian traditions. I’ve just been to a private university in Tonga which was founded by a man who made an extraordinary and successful attempt to fuse the intellectual traditions of ancient Greece and Polynesia:

  9. Bored 9

    I think you might be suggesting that materialism can also be Eurocentric in the sense that it assumes humans are motivated above all by economic considerations, rather than by ideas and culture. I don’t think that materialism has to be reductive in this way, though – a mode of production includes ideas and artworks and religion just as much as agriculture and industry. The notion that culture is some sort of simple reflection of economic realities is nonsense, but so is the idea that culture somehow exists autonomously from economics, which is the notion that comes through in a lot of postmodernist thinking. There has to be some sort of balance between the two views, I think.

    Good work Maps,that paragraph pretty much encapsulates the contradictions I struggle with when the rationalist / materialist viewpoint is given primacy.

  10. uke 10

    The argument here is a bit off-target IMO.

    It is pretty clear where Ansell & Newman stand. They are feeding off widespread public perceptions of some form of “Maori privilege”. It is pure pedantry to criticise their position on the basis of using “aristocracy” in a rhetorical way: Ansell and Newman are hardly operating in some kind of scholarly field. I strongly doubt the Maori Party, for example, would even bother presenting this kind of semantic argument in Parliament (or on a marae for that matter).

    It is true that problems can arise when scientific or technical terms enter public discourse and are used imprecisely and deceptively for rhetorical effect, to give the speaker an aura of authority; especially economic terms like “growth” and “development”. (Think apartheid = “separate development”.) But “aristocracy” has not been a strictly denotative word for a long, long time.

  11. Puddleglum 11

    I have to agree with uke on the ‘aristocracy’ term. It’s pretty clear how and why it’s being used – pretty much in the same way I might use the term ‘financial predator’ to describe some of the owners and directors of certain finance companies. Obviously, I wouldn’t be talking about the means by which they gain food by hunting and killing other animals. The use would be figurative, as is the use of the term ‘aristocracy’ to describe the Maori elite by some right wingers.

    It’s a bit like what my wife often says about today’s elite – the only difference between them and those of yore is that ours are often hidden and aren’t sitting up there on the top of the hill in the Manor house literally and highly visibly lording it over us all. They are cloaked in the fog of media and the ‘reasopnable’ view of events in a modern ‘democracy’.

    Personally, I tend to think simply in terms of ‘those with power’. Through the ages and in just about all non-hunter gatherer cultures those with power have adopted whatever titles, terms and rhetoric to suit the times and justify their status. In my terms they’re all the ‘aristos’, they’re all aristocrats.

    Also, I’m not sure that a full on attack on ’emotion’ and ’emotional language’ is very wise. I’ve often thought that one of the historical strengths of socialism, unionism and the like were the way they responded to the emotional import of capitalism’s effects on ordinary working people. ‘Solidarity’ is itself an intensely emotional word that pulses with some of the deepest human emotions (the need to belong (‘social affiliation’ as social psychologists call it), the need to cooperate with others to survive, etc.). To those who suffer there is immense emotional support to be gained from that term and that behaviour.

    Politics (certainly its motivation) is about fundamental moral stances and orientations. Because of that, I fully expect strong emotions and strong emotional language to characterise its discourses. One of the problems with many left wing thinkers is that they’ve bought into the deception that being ‘reasonable’ is a virtue in all circumstances. It is not, but those with power would like it to be seen as such because then they would have nothing to fear from the ‘great beast’ (i.e., ‘us’).

    They’ve also often bought into the notion that language is primarily about ‘meaning content’ when it’s actually an emanation of action (see Edwards and Potter’s book ‘Discursive Psychology’ for a much more appropriate view of language as performing ‘discursive work’ than ‘transmitting meanings’). Action is motivated and emotions are the signalling of that motivated action.

    For what it’s worth, the notion that reasoning is some sort of separate ‘faculty’ that can be disconnected from motivation and emotion has taken a beating from numerous threads of research and theory in psychology and associated disciplines (e.g., situated cognition and embodied cognition, discursive psychology, evolutionary psychology, neurodevelopment – and even in good old fashioned computational cognitive psychology). A recent article in Brain and Behavioral Sciences (it should be out by now) argues that reasoning developed via social argumentation (not as some logic-based faculty) and the authors assemble evidence of the affects of that on typical human reasoning.

    Humans, like all animals, are primarily motivational systems – it’s no coincidence that emotions evolved principally in mammals (hence the mid-brain regions have become very well developed) and humans, with the intricacies available from language use, have honed that repertoire in fascinating ways. Reasoning, it could be said quite validly, is simply the expression of emotions by other (highly social) means.

    I’ve noted in the past that it is often right wingers (e.g., Roger Kerr) who have decried ’emotional’ and ‘sentimental’ language and claimed that all they wanted was a ‘scientific’ analysis of issues. Recently, Gerry Brownlee repeatedly said that he wanted a rational discussion of mining in National Parks but there was a lot of emotional opposition to it. As ever, the powerful like to claim superiority – in this rhetoric via decrying ’emotional’ impulses and claiming the rational high ground.

    The left should know better. It should be more human.

    • Colonial Viper 11.1

      Hear hear.

      Time for a return to a politics with compassion, feeling, emotion, sympathy and solidarity. Reason and logic are here to serve our humanity, not the other way around.

      The cerebral Left is too disconnected from most peoples’ lives. That’s why the Right’s languaging and big picture concepts – decietful as they often are – have proven to be more powerful time and time again in swaying the public. They get marketing psychology and persuasion, we often have not. Our reliance on believing that everyone will see what is plain obvious sense in terms of the common good is more often than not a failure.

      Life is a qualitative, emotional lived-in experience, we should use the quantitative and reasoned as an element of that, not as the whole.

    • RedLogix 11.2

      Cripes…. puddlegum doesn’t post often, but when he does….

  12. nadis 12

    rather than aristocracy try “nepotistic kleptocracy”. I think it is hard to disagree that but for some worthy exceptions (ie Ngai Tahu, central north island) much of the settlement money has been captured for the benefit of a tribal elite (management fees, jobs for relatives, legal fees etc) rather than the needy rank and file.

    Have been involved in pitching for business from some of the tribal organisations, some of the dynamics at play are “interesting”. Have no problem with Maori asset holders building a network of Maori suppliers, but in many cases this is at the expense of the actual asset stakeholders who then miss out on any real benefit.

  13. PG 13

    Something evident on popular political blogs like this, is that emotion overrules reason, instead of emotively backing reason. It’s easy to perceive thought processes behind posts – “we lost the election! 🙁 and I don’t like who won, so I don’t like their leader, so I’ll see anything negative I can in him/her.” The same thing can be seen from either side, National/Labour and Key/Clark/Goff. It often comes across as childish.

    We should start with what’s most important – we have a great country.
    Then an aim – we can make it better.
    Then acknowledge some reality – sometimes my preferred leader/party won’t lead government.
    Then apply “compassion, feeling, emotion, sympathy and solidarity.”

    And remember that unreasonable emotion can be destructive. Making a government accountable is necessary, actively trying to weaken the government of the day and therefore weaken the country can be counter productive, sometimes destructive.

    Reason and emotion have to co-exist, complement each other. As do politicians and parties.

  14. Behind the emotions that the right use to grab loyalty to their capitalist system are material ‘needs’ that must be met to survive. For example the right of the Pike River 29 not to have their lives taken in the interests of profits. Anybody who did not feel extreme emotion at the squandering of these lives is leading a halflife.
    I dissagree with Scott’s point that capitalism does not produce ideas that are ‘reflections’ of its mode of production. Capitalist social relations determine how our material life is produced and we cannot separate our ‘ideal’ life from this.
    Under capitalism wage labour is separated from the means of production and is forced to produce value some of which is surplus to the value of labour power and is the basis for profits. Marx critique of Capital was to strip bare the material basis of these social relations and the production of ideas that are a necessary consequence. This applies equally to the false ideas that capitalism generates about itself. That we are isolated individuals, potentially equal buyers and sellers in the marketplace. This is true insofar as capitalism is only a market which it is not. This false market exchange conception is an inverted refection of capitalist social relations which Marxs explains in terms of the ‘fetishism of commodities.’ The Capital-Wage labour relation ‘alienates’ our labour value and reconstitutes it in a fetishised form as the value of the commodity and hence the individual is then reconstituted as an alienated bourgeois market subject who can only buy and sell value.
    The demonstrate the truth of Marx’s critique it is necessary to argue that Marx ideas and his critique of capitalist fetishism are direct reflections of capitalist social relations.
    The concept that there is a degree of autonomy between capitalist social relations and capitalist ideology is another reflection of capitalist social relations. This time of the degree to which a petty bourgeois intelligentisia exploits commodity fetishism to argue that since capitalism is mainly exchange relations, it is possible to mobilise ideas to reform capitalism, to equalise distribution, and guess who sells their ideas to advance these reforms – that same petty bourgeois intelligentsia.

  15. Maps 15

    Hi Viper,

    Of course there’s a place for emotion in politics. The chants and speeches at a demonstration, for instance, are rightly emotional. But there’s also a place for analysis – and analysis doesn’t always benefit from emotion. Theory in general, and clunky-sounding concepts like ‘mode of production’ in particular, may sound like a bit of a bore, but they enable us to step back from our immediate circumstances and survey the society we live in and the history which produced that society. Emotion gives a close-up view of the world; theory gives us a view from the air, and the latter is essential for map-making.

    Hi Dave,

    of course I don’t mean to say there isn’t a relationship between culture and the material relations which produce it – between base and superstructure, in Marx’s terms. What I deny is that the base determines superstructure automatically, and that ideas and other features of culture don’t therefore have any autonomy and agency. You agree with that proposition, too, surely, or you wouldn’t bother discussing ideas at places like this?

    • Colonial Viper 15.1

      Hey mate, agree with you. I would say however that in a democracy you need the support of the people in order to get important things done – and to stay in power long enough so they don’t immediately get undone. And (most) people vote with their feelings first (possibly rationalised after the fact), not their reasoning IMO

    • dave brown 15.2

      Scott, I think you can say anything you like about base and superstructure and still not mean anything. This is a hangover from Stalinist anti-dialectics or popularised versions of marxism. They reproduce the split between material and ideal. As I pointed out above there is no split.
      These concepts obscure rather than reveal what is important about capitalism. Ideas in capitalism have agency because they are determined by class interests even if this causal relationship is not immediately clear and has to be uncovered by scientific method.
      Class autonomy is an illusion, as I pointed out, ‘privileged’ by fetishism. The point of Marxist debate is to reveal how ideas reflect material interests and thus the need to eliminate the material basis of fetishism. The idea that ideas are autonomous and do not reflect class interests is in the class interest of the petty bourgeois intellectual who refuses to accept that Capital and Wage Labour are more important than his/her class interest i.e. to continue obfuscate class relations as individual relations and promote his/her own agency as reformer.

      • Maps 15.2.1

        ‘Scott, I think you can say anything you like about base and superstructure and still not mean anything.’

        Don’t tell it to me, mate, tell it to Marx! It’s his metaphor. Engels was fond of it too, if I remember rightly. And Trotsky’s theory of the Soviet Union under Stalin and of fascism as a special type of Bonapartism relies upon the partial autonomy of superstructure from base.

  16. Maps 16

    Puddlegum wrote:

    ‘I tend to think simply in terms of ‘those with power’. Through the ages and in just about all non-hunter gatherer cultures those with power have adopted whatever titles, terms and rhetoric to suit the times and justify their status. In my terms they’re all the ‘aristos’, they’re all aristocrats.’

    The trouble is that a category this all-embracing this doesn’t allow us to differentiate amongst the vast variety of societies which have existed in human history since the birth of agriculture. By your criteria ancient Egypt, the Tongan Empire, Chavez’s Venezuela, Nazi Germany, and New Zealand under the first Labour government were all ‘aristocratic’. What’s the point of a concept so loose? You might as well just say capitalism = bad stuff, as so many people at the indymedia site do. I think we need more precise definitions than that, hence the usefulness of the concept of mode of production, the drawing of differences between various mdoes of production, and the insight that different modes of production co-exist in many societies.

    A related point is that change often occurs when two explotiative, but differently exploitative, economic and social systems, or modes of production, collide with each other and generate contradictions. To simply observe that both clashing systems contain an elite which exists off surplus production generated by the masses doesn’t get us very far in explaining that change. Here’s an analogy: I’ve been studying nineteenth century Tonga society and I reckon there were two different modes of production at work there – a feudal mode run by nobles who made serfs work on their estates and a more traditional but still very hierarchical Polynesian peasant mode that saw kin-based groups working together on small plots of land for subsistence purposes. Under both these systems, men and women without a prestigious genealogy enjoyed a pretty marginal place. They either got told what to do by the feudal nobility on the big estates or else by the elders within the kin-based village. Either way, it wasn’t exactly a liberated life.

    But it would be impossible to understand the nineteenth century history of Tonga if we just chucked these two different modes together into one category because they were both exploitative of the ordinary Tongan. They still had many different features and clashed with each other, producing through their clashes the reforms that led to the creation of the modern Tongan state. Therefore they need to be distinguished from one another. In the same way, the modes of production of (say) Brezhnev’s Soviet Union and Reagan’s America need to be distinguished, because they were so different and so contradictory, even though both modes were in their different ways exploitative of workers, and not much fun to live under if you weren’t part of an elite.

  17. Scott, a metaphor is a metaphor. In Marx’s case we can read all he wrote to understand what he means by the metaphor. You use it to argue for ‘autonomy’ which implies that there are other sources of deteremination of the superstructure than the base. Base and Superstructure as used by Marx and Engels does not imply ‘autonomy’ but a dialectic in which base determines in the last instance. The trick is to show how this chain of determination works through all of its ‘many determinations’.

    You use the example of ‘Bonapartism’ to argue ‘autonomy’. But it is the opposite. To external apprearances Bonapartism seems to represent autonomy from class determination. That’s why Stalinism, Nazism is often lumped together as ‘fascism’, or ‘totalitarianism’. What Trotsky did was to show that this appearance is false. Stalinism is a form of regime where a layer of the working class, the bureaucracy, acts as the agent of imperialism, balancing between the two main classes.

    The Bonapartism that preceded fascism in Europe was based on the petty bourgeoisie and its ideology of national unity against class. But it is a mask for the bourgeois rule of terror mobilising the ruined middle classes against the rise of communism.

    Chavez-type Bonapartism was recognised and analysied by Trotsky as a form pf popular front regime balancing between imperialism and the Latin American working class, with the purpose of limiting the independence of the working class and disarming it in the face of imperialism. The long history of bloody suppression of workers by populist regimes in Latin America proves this.

    In the final analysis, ‘autonomy’ is no more than a petty bourgeois concept to promote a view that class is not the only or main determinant of politics and ideology, exactly the basis of the bourgeois ideology of commodity fetishism Marx critiqued in Capital.

  18. Maps 18

    To use that classic Althusserian formulation ‘the base determines in the last instance’ is to say that the superstructure has partial autonomy, though, isn’t it? This is obviously what Marx and Trotsky say when they write about Bonapartism in its various forms. Trotsky sharply distinguishes the superstructure and the base of the USSR, on one occasion saying that the superstructure makes the USSR under Stalin look like Nazi Germany. His point is that the base is different.

    I personally am not a huge fan of the whole concept of Bonapartism. I think that Marx for political reasons was reluctant to get too far into the sociology of France and the reactionaries there when he wrote the 18th Brumaire, and so he created the concept as a sort of lumpy, vague term. I think the concept of Bonapartism can easily be used as an excuse for not naming and discussing the actual social forces which support a regime or movement. It become a lazy, catch-all, derogatory phrase. Nor am I a huge fan of the base-superstructure distinction. Thompson made the good point that people forget too easily that it is a metaphor and begin to treat it as a static reality.

    But to a large extent this sort of discussion is fruitless. The point is to do research and create theories. Thompson did great research despite rejecting notions like the base-superstructure distinction and modes of production; some of Althusser’s followers did great research using those concepts in a very systematic way. And, getting back to the example I mentioned in the post, Patrick Vinton Kirch has done more to create a materialist history of the Pacific than any other person, despite the fact that he is a critic of Marx. I would be more interested in hearing your opinion about the claim I made about modes of production and proto-class distinctions in Maori society, Dave. Kwen Fee Lian made what I consider some quite good points against your claim that proto-class distinctions did not exist in pre-contact society in this article for the JPS:

    • dave brown 18.1

      The joke about Althusser was that the ‘last instance’ never came, so that indeterminism (or rather Althussers stalinist politics) replaced determinism. For me its not a time lapse concept but a chain of causation concept. Bonapartism doesnt allow the Bonapartist to spend some time actually being class neutral, rather is always ruling on behalf of the ruling class, yet is forced by pressure from below to make concessions to the working class but within limits set by imperialism. The ruling class calls on Bonapartists to contain working class politics in a patriotic national front. That’s why ‘in the last analysis’ Bonapartist regimes are counter-revolutionary and not revolutionary as you make out in Venezuela.
      I dont’ know what claims you are making about modes of production that wernt made 30-40 years ago by Marxist anthropologists. Kwen Lee Fan doesnt know what he is talking about which is a shame since by 1987 he had plenty of time to review the 1970s. But of course by 1987 the Stalinist states are on the point of collapse and Marxism is having funeral rites read by all and sundry…

  19. Maps 19

    Kwee Lee Fian does have a point, though, surely, when he criticises you for presenting chiefs and ordinary members of iwi as being indivisible, even in the 19th century? He points out that chiefs often manoeuvred behind the backs of iwi members by selling land, and that different factions within iwi contended. What is missing from your account of pre-contact and even early contact Maori society is any sense of social contradiction. Pre-contact Polynesian society is static and things can only change with outside intervention. The way that Tonga and Hawa’ii turned from subsistence to feudal societies without outside intervention is ignored. There’s no attempt to distinguish between different modes of production which might have existed in pre-contact Polynesia, and no attempt to consider whether class or proto-class formations might have existed. This seems to me like a hangover of the ‘primitive communism’ concept which Engels comes out with, and which Marxist anthropologists junked in the ’60s and ’70s as they acknowledged the complexity, inequality and fluidity of many of the societies Engels had considered ‘pre-contact’.
    I think all this stuff would be worth revisiting in the era of discussion about iwi capitalism and its meaning and lineage…

  20. sweet jesus dude, all things have changed,
    leave home now, and get real,
    the Asian is coming here, already here,
    look up your books on the share market
    political power has changed
    your socialist dream is over,
    new representation coming your way

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