Joe Nunweek chats to Max Harris about his ambitious new book and political possibility in Aotearoa
“What would you do if you came this close to death and were then offered seven years of funding to do anything you wanted?” It’s the question ex-Wellingtonian and Oxford transplant Max Harris asks himself at the beginning of his first book, only to face mirth aplenty when he avows his intention to write about New Zealand politics. With good reason, on the face of it - from the outside, it's an impossibly ersatz subject. And from the inside, the notion of saying that there's something fundamentally out-of-sorts with the country and prescribing solutions risks a backlash that's equal parts genuine scepticism and flailing comment-section fury.
The result ends up welcoming the former and doesn't seem to justify the latter. The New Zealand Project is part autobiographical, part interview-series, part history, part imaginative exercise. It’s a threading of the needle that works in Harris's previous preoccupations – the societal evil of mass incarceration, the notion of a politics of love – and a book that has to manage the tension of laying out his vision for his homeland while also ceding space to those visions that have come before and after him.
I appreciated it a lot, and chafed a little at write-ups that, in so many words, seemed to paint Harris as some sort of measured careerist, writing earnestly and expansively but not offering concrete answers. It's reasonable to say that in a time when most commentary I read is either slathered in irony or fury or both, the book's tone is like a crash diet that yields neither. If it's fair in the throes of withdrawal to sometimes compare its style to the sort of quick, ghost-written books aspiring politicians peddle their manifestos in (scrupulously civil and accessible, never offputting), it's not fair to do that with the substance, much less the author.
Because the book's most solid recommendations - on a meaningful form of UBI, increased taxation, on constitutional change that would be nothing less than a ceding of entrenched Pākehā power - aren't some centrist re-arranging of the furniture, and because Max – in person! – is earnest and is measured. He's polite but always plain-spoken about the trends in Aotearoa New Zealand’s political sphere that upset him; in conversation, he qualifies himself where he worries someone else might be more qualified. Readers may dispute The New Zealand Project's various action plans, but they're no Trojan Horse on their author's part for something else - what they read is what they get.
There’s a bit I disagree with in here, I warned him when I set up the interview. I’d be disappointed if you didn’t!, came the chirpy reply. Taken as he intends - a starting point, rather than a go-to-whoa, some assembly required instruction manual for improving Aotearoa - The New Zealand Project is immensely valuable, worth both implementing and arguing with.
From our respective overseas boltholes - him in the UK, me in Australia - we took our chances with Skype and talked it over for a hour plus drop-outs.
Joe Nunweek: Did you have the kernels of this germinating when you first headed over to the UK?
Max Harris: No, not really. I definitely didn’t have a plan to write anything back then – I guess I started The Aotearoa Project [Harris’s unadorned Wordpress blog] maybe a year into being at Oxford, and I remember at that point beginning to think I’d quite like to write more about New Zealand, partly as a way to stay connected. But even then it wasn’t a book in mind. There were a few different things like Andrew Dean here writing a book [Ruth, Roger and Me – also published through BWB] and getting this fellowship and a few other things which brought the book together.
JN: I know that Andrew’s book is a more personal journey – in some ways, more personal than yours in that it hews quite closely to his autobiographical experience. But it covers quite a bit of the same ground in its process of enquiry. It’s asking “where are we, and how did we get here?”
MH: Yeah. For sure. And Andrew and I had a lot of conversations in the first couple of years we were both here. I’ve definitely been influenced by his thinking and we’ve both been influenced by Jane Kelsey’s thinking. And we both read pretty similar books in that same stream – Wendy Brown’s Undoing The Demos: Neoliberalism’s Stealth Revolution, in particular. And with other New Zealanders here I remember having similar conversations about how we’re still making sense of the impact of the eighties on our lives today. I remember one other Kiwi over here saying they felt like we don’t really have the full story to tell about the eighties yet.
JN: I actually heard a good point recently, which was that the late eighties and early nineties are really ill-served in some ways. They’re with us to the point that they’re hard to teach, in say, high school history or social studies – because it’s difficult not to take a stand one way on the other on what the social and economic changes meant and I think the thought of doing so gives some people the jitters. And then you go on to uni, and it’s a question of luck about whether you happen to learn about the substance of those changes and their controversy. And it’s also too early for the internet, so there’s not a readily accessible, day-to-day, evolving source on what was happening.
MH: I think that’s really true. And there is a sense that the Muldoon era, maybe because of how unusual a figure he was, also seems like a completely different time, whereas – probably because of the impact that the late eighties and early nineties reforms had on us, that all seems more of a piece with where we are now, more continuous.
JN: A lot of the book, like Dean’s, focuses on the big shifts in Aotearoa New Zealand from 1984 onwards. One of the corollaries of talking about that shift, and I’m guilty of drifting into this passively, with entirely borrowed nostalgia – is that implication that it was all posies beforehand. I’m conscious your introduction leans quite heavily on recurring images of loss and recovery: “New Zealand has lost its way”; “the purpose of politics has been lost”; “rediscovering New Zealand’s lost direction”. I wonder if there was a reference point for where it was ever found in the first place. Things weren’t perfect socially or economically or culturally. There was self-interest guiding political decision-making before 1984, back to the nation’s origins.
MH: I agree, and I don’t think nostalgia should play a part in any kind of reinvigorating vision for the future of politics. Where I say we need to reassert a values-based politics or re-discover the purpose of politics, I’m trying to nod more to the fact that people have talked about these things before at different points. Not in one singular moment that embodies the purpose of politics, and I agree that there’s a lot of different moments in the past that were problematic. The book is not about harking back to a past perfect state.
But it is about drawing at times on the past’s ideas. In the last chapter, I think I say something about a ground rule of ‘no nostalgia’, but I also say we need to rediscover the best of our past and try and use that to address new challenges. Drawing on the first laws of Aotearoa, tikanga Māori, drawing on policy ideas that never got given an airing because they were outside the Overton Window, drawing on concepts like love that might be mentioned but never given a substantive chance.
Whether something’s new turns on what audience you’re talking about. The audience that I’m interested in aren’t really deeply enmeshed in politics and literary festivals and all of that.
JN: This question is not meant to be a trick or anything, but – who did you write the book for when you began it, and who were you writing for by the end?
MH: This maybe sounds selfish or self-indulgent but I really wanted to write a book that I’d want to read, at least at the start. I felt like there wasn’t a book connecting up these different areas of politics and policy and trying to provide a coherent narrative that was also solutions-oriented and future-facing. Though those terms are probably the wrong words.
Then, I guess after thinking about it more I got a sense from talking to people that there was perhaps a desire for a book that could provide some hope for people with progressive values. The people in my head at that point were people around me who had had some experience in campaigns and activism and political experience in New Zealand. Then as I was writing it further I think the audience I wanted to write for broadened further, to the point that by the end – I think everyone does this – I wanted the audience to be as broad as possible. I wanted people who aren’t engaged with politics to be drawn to it in some way, people who are in policy and kind of stuck in the mire of technocratic detail to be interested in it. That group of people who are disengaged came to the fore a bit and came to matter to me as I went further.
JN: I think one of the criticisms that came through in Danyl McLauchlan’s Spinoff piece was that a lot of it was old hat to him, and I can see that there are a group of people for whom it would be. There are people who are very high-information participants in Aotearoa New Zealand and international politics. They read blogs, they go to lit festivals, etcetera. I do question how large a percentage of the adult voting population of the country that really is.
MH: I think I agree with that. [Morgan Foundation researcher] Jess Berentson-Shaw said something on Twitter to a similar effect – that it might not have been new to Danyl McLauchlan, but to a few people she’d been talking to, it was. Whether something’s new turns on what audience you’re talking about. The audience that I’m interested in aren’t really deeply enmeshed in politics and literary festivals and all of that.
JN: It’s an interesting point, though – the newness or novelty is something I’m not particularly fussed about personally, but I guess we’re talking about the question of the bubble vs. moving beyond the bubble that’s the basis that the book succeeds or falls on. If it compiles what a select group of people already know and only reaches them, it’s not as useful as if it moves past that.
MH: For sure – and even though I just said that about new audiences and even though, like you, it’s less whether it’s new and more whether it’s necessary, I still would stand behind the fact that some of it’s new, and I think it lands in a new context. So where some of these ideas have been discussed in some form before interact with that context is I think different from the past.
And then, it’s clear that in the sphere of electoral politics – which isn’t all the book is about – a lot of the ideas in the book haven’t been discussed very much. I don’t think there is a serious conversation about decolonisation even though Maori and others have been having it for a long time. I don’t think when it comes to decarceration, alternatives to imprisonment have been talked about enough. Even in the campaigning sphere, as I said in my response on The Spinoff, there are some ideas which while not totally new are unorthodox even to seasoned voices and ears.
JN: One of the things that’s really eye-opening about the book is the extent to which it shows that you’ve built on the thinking of people (including public servants) going some way back – that there has been a willingness to propose these ideas 30 years, 40 years ago – even further. It shows there’s a tradition of that independent thought even if that hasn’t translated in practice to a society that we can consistently feel proud of, or that we can even say is of an acceptable standard.
MH: Exactly. If you look at Clarence Beeby and the education system, or John Robson in justice, or Moana Jackson’s He Whaipaanga Hou in the eighties, that’s the tradition of independent thinking that might have been given lip service and then cast aside, particularly in Jackson’s case, because it was seen as too radical at the time. I guess what I’m saying is – are we secure enough and brave enough to have a debate about these ideas? It gets back to the question of the newness of all of this – the answers to some of our problems don’t have to be completely new. We should be willing to draw on those good ideas that weren’t properly considered.
I think there are some good reasons for constitutional change and I would be pretty sad if when it came to talking more concretely about it, we were just talking about copying-and-pasting template constitutions from elsewhere without much imagination.
JN: I’d like to move on to the chapter about colonialism, particularly your conversation with Moana Jackson about the Constitutional Review and the potential he and you see for a redistribution of public power toward Māori. Where is the government’s Constitutional Panel at now? I have the sense it’s all gone a little quiet.
MH: It depends where you’re looking, I suppose. I think the government-led constitutional review panel has gone very quiet, and essentially none of the recommendations were formally taken up. But if you look at the parallel stream of work that Moana Jackson and Margaret Mutu did with Matike Mai Aotearoa, those conversations are ongoing. When I met with Moana, he said that at the iwi level people are trying to take forward those bigger-picture questions about what a democracy should look like. Do we need parliaments? How many branches of government do we need to have? So I think that line of the conversation is still pretty vital in both senses of the word, and it’s maybe yet to fully be embraced by a more mainstream group. I guess part of my thinking by putting that material in the book is I think there should be a broader conversation about some of those issues, though I think it’s important that it’s a conversation led by Māori.
But as I say in the book, I think there are some good reasons for constitutional change and I would be pretty sad if when it came to talking more concretely about it, we were just talking about copying-and-pasting template constitutions from elsewhere without much imagination. And the work in Moana Jackson and Margaret Mutu’s report, which comes from lots of voices, that genuinely excites me and I think it could genuinely excite people who aren’t constitutional geeks like I am. It’s really asking those questions about whether we’ve got government right and it’s flinging open the window of constitutional conversations in a way that Pākehā-led conversations haven’t done.
JN: The report’s indicative models really break the mould – for example, the idea that you could do parallel and intersecting modes of government – one that recalls the Westminster system insofar as it has a legislature of elected representatives and an independent civil service and one that follows iwi and hapu models, with a relational sphere in between – it’s outside conventional political imagination, and it’s also outside what current parliamentary political parties – I’m excluding the Maori Party here – have conjured up.
MH: Exactly - a lot of people would say constitutional change isn’t being talked about because it’s dry and legalistic, but I actually think it’s possible that these issues aren’t being tabled because parties aren’t brave enough to lead on these more imaginative topics. I don’t think it’s just a question of these matters being dry. A lot of people, including those in political parties, could benefit from reading that report and Moana Jackson’s other work.
The Foreshore and Seabed Act, and the fact that some people still defend a version of it, to me it shows how far we’ve got to go. I think that was the worst piece of legislation, to my mind, of the last 25 years.
JN: I guess there is that lingering majoritarian effect. You make the point early in the chapter that there hasn’t been linear improvement in terms of material progress in Māori-government relations over time, but nor has there been steady decline. It’s a trajectory involving a few admirable things being done and a lot of not-so-admirable things being done the rest of the time. The Fifth Labour government seems to show that in sharp relief with the passage of the Foreshore and Seabed Act. It’s the most striking example of how a failure of nerve and conscience leads to this total panic. Even ‘progressive’ government is capable of these reactionary off-the-cuff decisions with wide-reaching effects.
MH: I think there is this myth even amongst people who might call themselves progressive that things are getting better. People refer to education when they’re talking about the position of Māori in New Zealand and I guess the point I wanted to make in that chapter is that the myth doesn’t have very strong basis. Māori imprisonment has been at the high levels we see now (over 50% of the prison population) since the eighties. That’s a long time for that extremely high figure to persist, and it’s just one example.
As for the Foreshore and Seabed Act, and the fact that some people still defend a version of it, to me it shows how far we’ve got to go. I think that was the worst piece of legislation, to my mind, of the last 25 years. And there’s still more broadly, beyond electoral politics, a failure from Pākehā to have real conversations about owning our history.
When I was back I tried to have these conversations informally with people, and a lot them would say they were familiar with Māoritanga and te reo Māori, but so many of them raised this barrier of not wanting to get ‘mired in guilt’. Guilt was this word that kept coming up as a conversation-stopper. And the length that people are willing to go to when probed with questions about land return, of going beyond Tribunal settlements to a more expansive reckoning with colonization – that was pretty striking for me.
Maybe this is partly from talking to a few other people in the UK and elsewhere about decolonization processes.
JN: I’m curious – among global activism circles is there a particular impression of how Aotearoa New Zealand has handled its colonial legacy? We’re very triumphalist about it – I find in small-l liberal Melbourne, Australia, for example, there’s a perception that they were the awful genocidal killers but that we’re some paradise that honoured a special pact between settlers and indigenous people and everything’s great. I think that’s very successful external PR.
MH: Speaking from the UK experience, and maybe some experience in the States, I’d say a lot of people don’t really know about the New Zealand experience – but those that do tend to pedal this myth that we have the best race relations in the world. Lots of people have done well to question that myth – most recently, Jackson in an article for E-Tangata was implying the parallels between what’s been coming to light about state care and some of the Stolen Generation experiences in Australia. New Zealand law, for all its moments of progressive development in indigenous rights is also behind Canadian law on some of these issues – not to say that Canada handles things better overall. So people either don’t know, or think we’ve done indigenous rights as well or better than anywhere else. And I don’t think that’s right.
JN: I guess one thing I’m aware of – and you mention this in terms of looking beyond treaty settlements in the book and just now – the two major parties seem to regard finalising all Treaty/Waitangi Tribunal claims and settlements as this significant milestone achievement by 2020, or 2025. I worry a little that after the eventual final date of settlement, when there’s still big disparities in health and education and justice outcomes all other things remaining the same, there’ll be a backlash. People may perceive that a historical debt has been “satisfied” and will not understand that what needs to be discussed and done goes beyond what is essentially a minimal level of reparation.
MH: I think there’s an argument from principle and values about reckoning with the past and ensuring fuller redress, but there’s also an argument from self-interest from a Pākehā perspective that would say there are just going to be more problems if the settlement process is rushed and if other reckoning with historical injustices is rushed. I mean, it’s interesting, right that the Takutai Moana legislation that has followed the Foreshore and Seabed Act also had this time limit on it. So this mindset of prioritising closure over a more patient approach to justice can radiate out to other areas.
I think I might have mentioned this in my interview with E-Tangata but in the 1940s there was this Treaty settlement legislation with Taranaki and other iwi. I remember stumbling on this and seeing in this legislation that it claimed to be full and final. I remember thinking, is this how people in 20 or 30 years time are going to look back on the settlement legislation and processes of the 90s and 2000s? This futile attempt to close a book on injustices that led to further injustices festering.
JN: You then move on in that chapter to defining who Pākehā are, and acknowledging that migrants are a fluid and changing group with diverse outcomes. It seems like immigration is a hot-button topic in this year’s election – but the book evades some of those thorny questions which all parties are responding to around migration and what it should look like. There are questions about the future treatment foreign investment and speculators receive, our refugee commitment, and “skilled migrants” generally. I was wondering if you had a sense of how these conversations sit within the scope of the book.
MH: I hope I didn’t come across as too evasive on that. I didn’t spend a huge amount of time talking about immigration – but I tried to lay my cards on the table by saying that I really think there are good arguments to default in favour of relatively open immigration and avoiding exclusionary or xenophobic policy. And I talk in Chapter 2 about the rise of the national frame and the surge of xenophobia elsewhere in the world, and how there’s a risk of that getting amplified in New Zealand.
I’ve been pretty sad to see the level of comment about the threat of immigrants in New Zealand and I’m not convinced by the evidence that suggests that immigrants are responsible for the social problems that are being discussed. To take one example of a political party peddling this, Gareth Morgan’s Opportunities Party has come out and said it’s evidence-based, and committed to bringing evidence back into policy. And yet if you look at its immigration policy, which hasn’t gotten as much coverage as its policies on basic income or constitutional reform, they’re keen to cut numbers without referring to clear evidence as to why.
As you say, I think there’s a legitimate question about hot commercial money coming into NZ. I think there’s also a legitimate question about domestic sources of short-term speculation too. But the issue isn’t being dealt with in that careful way.
The other thing I say about immigration in Chapter 3, which is on foreign policy, which I would have liked to have written more about, is on climate change displacement, where I think New Zealand could do a lot more. A few days ago the World Bank – you know, that paragon of radical politics - put out an idea about Australia and New Zealand allowing open migration from the Pacific, partly as a way to deal with climate change. I haven’t looked at that in detail but that‘s sort of in the spirit of some of what I say in Chapter 3.
Pacific countries have contributed so much to New Zealand and now Kiribati and Tuvalu are bearing the brunt of rising sea levels and other climate change impacts, New Zealand isn’t being very vocal internationally or domestically, and I think we could do a lot more there. So that’s in relation to Pacific migration.
Lastly, I do really think there’s a problem with anti-Asian sentiment and xenophobia in New Zealand. Even the word Asia is massively broad, as I say in the book. But there are very few politicians standing up against that and I think that’s really concerning.
It’s revealing of how little we talk about what the state should do and the role of the state in the economy and social policy that very few people have suggested that rather than cutting the levels of immigration, we should invest in infrastructure that might be overburdened at the moment.
JN: Even with the acknowledgement of relatively open borders, you’ll still need to be doing some form of triage or prioritisation. I tend to aim where I think you’re going, in thinking that our first and primary obligations are the regional community we've already benefitted from that are presently of high-need but not necessarily of high-financial status - or even necessarily of “high-skill”, the way that NZ's migration policies currently define that term..
MH: I think there are definitely strong arguments for looking to the region first. One other thing to say more broadly is that I suppose if there’s a perception, including social infrastructure is overburdened by people using it and that some of the people using it are from outside New Zealand, there are two possible responses. I think this line was developed by economic historian Kevin O’Rourke, who’s written on immigration elsewhere. One is that you cut immigration. The other is that you properly resource that infrastructure.
And that’s the question – are you willing to have a conversation about the right levels of resourcing for education, for example? Obviously that’s not an unlimited pot of resources that you have to play with and this gets to another theme in the book. It’s revealing of how little we talk about what the state should do and the role of the state in the economy and social policy that very few people have suggested that rather than cutting the levels of immigration, we should invest in infrastructure that might be overburdened at the moment.
JN: It seems like the political parties who I would have expected to focus on better social infrastructure first have abdicated their opportunity in the limited airtime and column inches they get each day to press it home. They’ve focused on the immigration question instead. I find it disheartening because it’s not very nuanced. Even when they’re trying to get to the nub of a worthwhile idea or discussion, I think they’re either being incredibly stupid or they’re taking the public to be incredibly stupid. I don’t see how it can be the former.
MH: Yeah. Like you, I don’t think the politicians are stupid. I think they could be speaking up to the public more and giving them more credit. There’s more I could say on social policy, but the debate on the role of government and social policy could be much more developed in New Zealand.
This term ‘social investment’ that’s come to dominate these discussions is, I think, not particularly well understood – I don’t think the alternatives to it, as a result of that, are very clearly understood. I think we should be talking a bit more about what we want the government to do, what the government is good at, and what role there is, if any, for community and other providers.
JN: You’ve only got so much space in a book, but what seemed a little glossed over in your discussion of insecure work is automation. Do you have a sense of where this fits into your other remarks on insecure workers and how they should be protected and treated?
MH: It’s a fair question. I definitely read around automation. One book that’s influenced my thinking is Inventing The Future by Alex Williams and Nick Srnicek. They talk a lot about automation as a reason for basic income.
But I guess in the end I have read a fair amount around this and I haven’t read anything that’s really compelling in saying that the level of automation now is significantly different from levels of automation in the past. So I’m just a bit cautious about the hype about automation. In particular, I haven’t seen much in New Zealand about automation’s impact. We’ve always had the development of machines changing the nature of the workforce. I’m not saying we should be complacent about it or take it as benevolent, but if it’s really going to shift policy debate we’d need it to be clear we’re facing a unique level of automation of the workforce, and I’m not sure we’re there.
Power plays an important role in my worldview, and in how I would move from values to particular policy conclusions. Who has power, who doesn't, and who historically has power should all inform where love is channeled, I think.
JN: That's the same chapter that returns to the construction of a 'politics of love', a notion you've developed in previous writing [incl. BWB's anthology The Interregnum: Rethinking New Zealand].At an instinctual level, I really like the idea. I feel that love for people and a desire to see them do well in their lives is what's driven me in a lot of my own life decisions. There can also be a fury at injustice which is borne out of love that can be a pretty powerful motivator. That said, I also wish there was a better version of me that could brook things I fundamentally disagree with without being cruel and unkind myself.
However, at another instinctual level, I question its applicability, and its vulnerability. There's a grotesque potential for 'love' to be used as a justification for anything. Even if we engage with something like 'compassionate conservatism' on good faith, something like Malcolm Turnbull's recent insistence that a plan to drug-test welfare applicants was 'based on love' is absolutely foul and disingenuous to me. I wonder how you protect the concept from that - otherwise it becomes almost Orwellian.
If you do circumscribe what the politics of love can be - if we decide that some actions cannot be said to be borne of love, even if it's professed (thinking of love of one's country/nationalism and its alarming legacy, in particular) where do we go from there? Some practices of the politics of love - open borders, internationalism - are anathema to others. What does the politics of love do when it faces what can only be called its mirror image (rather than its opposite)?
MH: I'm with you in that I hope love has driven a lot of my decisions, and that love has prompted fury at injustice. Love isn't inconsistent, in my view, with struggle and antagonism and anger.
As for whether love can be used to justify anything, I can see where you're coming from - it's potentially an elastic concept and that might seem dangerous. But I think it's too strong to say that love can be used to justify anything. We might think that 'freedom' or 'dignity' can be used to justify almost anything. The way we avoid this, though, is through developing a sharp definition of the concept in question - and I accept that my definition is a working one, and needs more work.
We also need to have the argument out about what love requires. I don't think drug testing beneficiaries, to use Turnbull's example, evinces love - a deep warmth directed towards all. This is partly because power plays an important role in my worldview, and in how I would move from values (such as care, community, creativity or love) to particular policy conclusions. Who has power, who doesn't, and who historically has power should all inform where love is channeled, I think. And that is part of why a politics of love could never justify the drug testing of beneficiaries on my view of love.
So yes, I'm circumscribing what love means to try to make it less malleable. To use a political theory distinction, there's a concept of love - and then there'll also be different conceptions of love: different specific iterations that people put forward. Where do we go from there?
We have to try to argue for why our own version of love is preferable - and that will help to develop the definition.'Equality' has been invoked and misused - say, by Don Brash in trying to oppose Māori-specific politicies. We don't give up on equality when that happens. We try to argue for why a fuller, more nuanced vision of equality would take us in a different direction from Brash: an equality that incorporates acknowledgment of history, and which is more substantive.
To take another example: I'm sure those arguing for tough on crime policies have invoked 'justice'. Our response to that has to be to offer a different definition of justice - to reject the idea that justice means revenge - rather than giving up on justice as an ideal.
The last thing I'll say, which I tried to say when we spoke, is that we need new and unorthodox thinking in our time. We've got some evidence of narcissism creep in NZ society as a whole - and certainly we know that politics, reinforced by celebrity culture and technology, has sanctioned self-interested behaviour. We need a politics of other people again, a politics that involves looking outside of ourselves. That's not just a platitude, I hope. It's a real call for action at a time when some of the most vulnerable in our society - including people in prison, people in welfare, people without a house - are really struggling, and when the narratives that are lying around invariably demonise these people. We need an end to that demonisation and we need to motivate people to stand alongside those people in fighting for something better. We can't let the struggles faced by these people become some kind of new normal. A politics of love is an effort at that kind of spark to action.
JN: You develop a rubric early on in the book that informs how you approach the rest of the topics – the notion that our civil and political community should approach its decision-making on the basis of core values of care, community and creativity. The book, for the most part, essentially eschews the kind of left theory that, when your very early work on the book began, had been perceived to have lost a lot of currency. In the interim, though, we’ve seen Bernie Sanders and Jeremy Corbyn popularise democratic socialism. We’ve got Momentum and DSA, effective organisations explicitly rooted in the left but also appealing to similar values to the ones you express. Was there a reason why you largely avoided those labels?
MH: I believe we’re not really clear anymore about what does divide left and right, though I think those terms are important. So part of my reason for trying to dig more deeply into values is also to try and get us thinking about what values should distinguish right from left. Second thing I’d say is that I genuinely think that parties both on the left and on the right in NZ could take politics to a place more guided by care, community and creativity and in the end, I want a politics that realizes those values. I’ll be happy if some kind of policies I believe in and support are realized by parties I might not naturally be aligned to.
I guess the last thing to say on that is that I do talk in the final chapter of the book about social democracy and why social democracy isn’t the model we necessarily should aspire to realise anymore and we could go further than social democracy. So I hope I’m not completely evading those terms.
JN: I’m also aware that care, community and creativity…you don’t have to have gone and done politics undergrad to know what those concepts mean. You don’t need to have gone to university.
MH: Exactly. That was part of my reason for choosing those values, trying to find values that all people could connect with. I think that might be a more promising way to bring more people into politics rather than having a long rant about what the Left or Right need to do.
JN: As you say, there’s plenty of that and it tends to be guided by the political parties or their proxies.
MH: And that’s not to say there’s nothing in Bernie Sanders or Jeremy Corbyn’s stories that is relevant to the book. I think I might have said something like this in another context, but what’s interesting about the rise of both of them is less the individuals and more the surge of public support behind them, the wave that they were riding on. I think what that shows is that people really wanted something different and something that was moving beyond narcissistic politics, looking outside of ourselves. We can say a bunch of things about how the Bernie campaign ended up and how Jeremy Corbyn’s seems to be faring, but I think there is a desire for something different – in New Zealand too.
The Pantograph Punch publishes urgent and vital cultural commentary by the most exciting new voices in Aotearoa.
The Pantograph Punch publishes urgent and vital cultural commentary by the most exciting new voices in Aotearoa.