Monday, February 6, 2012

Something Old

Not everything worth reading is hot off the press. In this section, Nicholas Reid recommends "something old" that is still well worth reading. "Something old" can mean anything from a venerable and antique classic to a good book first published five or more years ago.

“NO LEFT TURN – The Distortion of New Zealand’s History by Greed, Bigotry and Right-Wing Politics” by Chris Trotter (first published 2007)

Being sent for review a primer on New Zealand’s economy stimulated me to at last get off my shelf Chris Trotter’s No Left Turn. It is very much a political take on the way New Zealand’s economy has been conducted.

Published five years ago, No Left Turn was bought by me at a sale a year ago. Until last week it remained one of the things I was going to “get around to” reading. I’ve now got around to it, and very stimulating and enjoyable I found it too.

Chris Trotter is well-known as a centre-left commentator and journalist, and his 367-page survey of New Zealand history is an excellent example of polemical mythology. I have to be very careful about the words I use here. A few years ago, another author got very angry with me and wrote a letter to the press when I referred in a review to some elements of his history book as “mythology”. He assumed that I was accusing him of telling a pack of lies. In fact, I meant no such thing. I certainly don’t mean any such thing in referring to Chris Trotter’s No Left Turn as mythology.

By “mythology”, I mean the way an historian or other such commentator selects and arranges facts and material in order to support a particular world-view. In and of itself, history is a flux of forces and events without interpretation. As soon as interpretation is imposed, a mythology is created, simply by fitting some forces and events into that interpretation while ignoring others. A mythology also involves the set of assumptions an author makes.

Sorry to be so long-winded about it, but I do want to nail this one down clearly. Trotter has a very strong set of opinions and in No Left Turn a selection of historical facts is used to support them. This is signalled clearly by his subtitle “The Distortion of New Zealand’s History by Greed, Bigotry and Right-Wing Politics”. After seeing that on the cover, you don’t really expect to read a supposedly “impartial” work of history, do you? And you certainly don’t expect No Left Turn to be right-wing. This is a work of intentional partisanship. The fact that I agree with many of the things Trotter says does not prevent me from recognising this as polemical mythology. The fact that I am (or try to be) an historian means that I sometimes notice where Trotter omits awkward things, or stretches his point, even when I am generally agreeing with him.

Trotter’s mythology is straightforward and is declared early on. As he discusses Edward Gibbon Wakefield’s “wicked dream” of colonising New Zealand in a way that would have replicated the worst of the English class-system, Trotter notes that Wakefield bequeathed “a legacy of private capitalist speculation underwritten by public resources and state power – the same poisonous nexus of rapacious businessmen and ambitious politicians that was to plague New Zealand for the next 166 years.”

The battle-lines are clearly drawn. Humble Britons come to New Zealand seeking a better life. Nasty Britons come seeking to make money by exploiting others. On the one side are idealistic ordinary New Zealanders, who want to build a good, just and egalitarian society. On the other are speculators, capitalists and sinister right-wing intriguers, thwarting such idealism at every turn.

The idealistic New Zealanders gradually become socialists in self-defence and are the best of, successively, the Liberal and Labour parties, trade unions and such centre-left groups as have existed outside them. The right-wing plotters are behind successively the Reform and National and ACT parties, the mass of whose members aren’t always aware of their real controllers’ machinations. They control Treasury. They do secret deals with nefarious overseas business interests, but without consulting New Zealanders’ elected parliamentary representatives.

So New Zealand history is an ongoing battle between those who want welfare, food, housing, education, health and employment for all; and those whose self-interest and greed lead them to find excuses to withhold these things. It is a Left-versus-Right, goodies-versus-baddies, Manichaean view of New Zealand history.

Trotter’s dramatic journalistic technique is to select vivid moments of New Zealand class conflict to open each chapter, and then to work back from each to explain how New Zealand reached this parlous state. We have chapters beginning with evil land-grabbers running guns to those renegade Maori tribes who could help them take over Maori land; Fred Evans getting murdered in the Waihi miners’ strike of 1912; soldiers dying for Empire and commercial profit at Gallipoli; Scrim’s broadcasts getting jammed in the Depression, and so on.

On very many issues I find myself nodding in vigorous agreement with Trotter. He’s absolutely right to note how often self-interest and commercial profiteering have hidden behind high rhetoric about the freedom of business and the British tradition. He does find real examples of special interests perverting the democratic will. He has a special distaste for sharpers like the early 20th century publicist Albert Ernest Davy, who knew how to build up and knock down political parties in support of his own dividends.

Yet some of Trotter’s roll-call of villains is surprising. Take it as read that he detests the Farmers’ Union of the Massey years or the Business Round Table. It’s only to be expected that he describes Sid Holland’s National Party government in the 1950s as “the crudest, most ignorant and bigoted collection of far-right reactionaries by which New Zealand ever had the misfortune to be governed.” But he is particularly harsh on those who, as he sees it, ruined the chances of the Left by over-stating their case, and refusing to make the necessary compromises with business that would have ensured the welfare state’s permanence.

Thus he comes down very hard on John A. Lee for inventing the fiction of his own real socialism being thwarted by the first Labour government of Savage, Fraser and Nash. Instead (says Trotter) Savage, Fraser and Nash were doing the hard work of finding ways to finance the welfare state without putting capital to flight; while Lee was simply stirring up demagogic, and often xenophobic, sentiment. Trotter comes close to calling Lee a Hitler-in-waiting. Even more surprising, while Trotter inevitably presents an heroic proletarian version of the events of 1951, he sees Jock Barnes and his cronies as failing to understand the grand unionist strategy of Fintan Patrick Walsh. 1951, according to Trotter, may have been heroic but it merely gave the National government a big propaganda stick with which to beat unions. The odd offhand remark here and there also shows that Trotter has no time for Communists and the real Hard Left. [In this connection, I am amused to find one hard-core Marxist website accusing Trotter of the heresy of “reformism.”]

While recognising and accepting that this is a polemic which uses the techniques of a polemic, I do have some criticisms of No Left Turn.

I think, very occasionally, Trotter falls into the language of conspiracy theory to explain why noble left-wing parties didn’t behave the way he thinks they should have. He devotes one lyrical chapter to describing how wonderful gridlocked Auckland could have been if only National governments had accepted the rational socialist town-planning that was on offer at the end of the Second World War . But this, like all counter-factual history, is really fantasy and begs a whole lot of questions.

It is interesting that, after Trotter gives an angry account of how Maori land was expropriated in the nineteenth century, he allows Maori to become invisible for most of the book. They re-emerge only when Trotter gets to discuss the renewed force given to the Treaty of Waitangi at the end of the twentieth century. Maybe this allows Trotter to avoid facing the awkward fact that many otherwise noble working-class Pakeha were not on the side of Maori interests. I also find some of Trotter’s own rhetoric a little over-the-top. He presents New Zealanders in the 1950s as drugged by the materialism of suburbia and therefore not taking up the great struggle on behalf of an increased welfare state. But isn’t this just a way of saying that people tend to be content when times are prosperous?

It is very clear that it becomes less easy for Trotter to maintain his Manichaean view the nearer he gets to his own time, when he recounts in detail what happened in New Zealand politics between the 1980s and 2007. The further past often looks much more clear-cut than it was, and Trotter’s eyewitness accounts of manoeuvrings in the Lange and Clark governments should have reminded him of this. Often the democratic and parliamentary Left wasn’t undermined by Right-wing intrigue. It was doing a very good job of shooting itself in the foot.

I could add many more criticisms, but I think this will do because, in an odd sort of way, I find myself agreeing with Trotter’s viewpoint. There’s a lot of generous anger here. Trotter is really annoyed at those, from Wakefield to Monetarists and the New Right, who have worked against the common good.

Fair enough.

As I said at the beginning, I really enjoyed reading this book. There is much with which academic historians would disagree, many generalizations built out of too little evidence, and some speculation given as fact. But its heart is in the right place and we would be impoverished if we didn’t sometimes have books written by people doing their block.

I only wonder if, five years later and under the impact of the present National government, Trotter wouldn’t want to revise his conclusion. All political commentary is perishable and time-specific, even when it tries to taker the long view as No Left Turn does.

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