Fortuna and the politics of big change

Jon explores the 'four torrents' of New Zealand's political history, concluding that in this year's campaign the big ideas that could represent our next big change period are being subsumed by small ones.

“The Time, so misordered, does crowd and crush us to this monstrous form”

Shakespeare, Henry IV

In Washington DC’s National Gallery sits an exquisite representation of Fortuna, the contingency of history. It was created by an unnamed sculptor from the school of Rodin and depicts Lady Fortuna holding aloft a cornucopia. A Roman Goddess, Fortuna has long been associated with fate or luck, and for both good and ill.

Niccolo Machiavelli made one of the most (in)famous descriptions of her in The Princelikening Fortuna to remorseless torrents. When they were wild and angry they swept all before them. Machiavelli wrote "every one flees before them and yields to their fury without the least power to resist". The Florentine thought it heroic, and sometimes successful, for his Italian princes to pit their personal skills against the vicissitudes of Fortuna.

Unfortunately Machiavelli’s advice suggested Lady Fortuna be taken roughly, which has won him few friends over the long haul. But his essential point about Fortuna remains a universal one. History consists of constant change and while it is sensible to accept her as she comes, sometimes it is even more prudent to attempt to resist her powerful rhythms.

In our age we can understand Fortuna as a destructive configuration of political, economic, or social forces that have rapidly built up and then been unleashed. The credit crunch, mountainous debt, and the resulting economic crisis, alongside intractable conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, provide a dramatic example of Fortuna’s debris confronting the next U.S. president.

David Lange, with his finely honed sensibilities, understood Fortuna well when reflecting on his own ascent to power during the drama days of July 1984. Lange talked about the "atmospherics of the gods", which dictated either "stability or heroic leadership; a symbol of contentment and incremental progress, or a symbol of resistance to the forces of evil", as Neale McMillan wrote in Top of the Greasy Pole. Lange’s lot chose resistance, which quickly morphed into revolution.

In New Zealand the unleashing of Machiavelli’s torrents has happened four times since responsible government began in the 1850s. Julius Vogel’s ‘grand go-ahead policy’ during the 1870s was the first. After the costly New Zealand Wars, combined with wheat and wool slumps, and rising unemployment, the colony’s finances were in a parlous state. Vogel’s response, large scale borrowing from the U.K., created our country’s essential rail and telecommunications infrastructure.

He also facilitated a wave of mega-immigration. What followed was a decade of economic prosperity and the crucial shift to centralizing our politics under a strong unitary state, a mere formality once the provinces were abolished in 1876.

Our second big change period followed the Long Depression of the 1880s. The Liberals of Ballance and Seddon cemented the role of state as the most influential actor in shaping New Zealand’s future direction. The Liberals, through democratic, land and labour reforms, as well as welfare innovation, shifted the balance from private to public endeavour, addressed some of the key drivers of inequality and tilted them further in the direction of equality.

After the desperate depression of the late 1920s and early ‘30s the pre-conditions for transformative politics were again met. Michael Savage, and then later Peter Fraser, rose to their challenge. The erection of the comprehensive welfare state, the introduction of state housing, and progressive education and industrial reforms, all came to embody what Richard Mulgan, one of our greatest living political scientists, called the active and fair state. They also set the course of political debate for the next 50 years.

Then we had 1984-92, our last big change period. Freedom was reforged, albeit with high costs for Kiwis less adaptable to the demands of the new de-regulated economy. What was also unique about 1984 was that economic crisis coincided with a generational shift.

At the point when the structural milieu was at its most vulnerable, and the old order had fallen into utter disrepute, along came a government who were open to different ideas and new approaches.

With this recent history in mind, the intersection between sharply deteriorating economic conditions and a generational movement that is beginning to take shape brings a certain poignancy to our looming election, one that would otherwise be lacking in any élan vital.

Yet I also think John Key is right when he says that the New Zealand economy is well placed to survive and thrive into this century. We currently have real economic uncertainty and well-grounded fears about the global and local economy. But we have cause for optimism too, after this storm has passed. The information revolution has eroded the tyranny of distance and rising demand from the fast-growing Asian middle classes looks positive over the coming decades.

In New Zealand’s short history, therefore, prolonged periods of consolidation have been interrupted by four "big change" periods, a phrase coined by Colin James to describe what I have called torrents or Fortuna. (He explores this idea in his excellent 1986 treatment, The Quiet Revolution). I forget not, also, that before our four torrents came the compact between the British Crown and tangata whenua. Maori copped the vicissitudes of Fortuna before the rest of us.

But the nascent foundation of our modern New Zealand state also possessed within its creation a democratic seed that found fertile soil here.

Accordingly, one of my hypotheses for this year’s election is that it represents the beginning of the end-game of this Rogernomics era. Perhaps, also, our next big change moment will not be economic but rather a second democratic one.

If we are bold and expansive it could include a republic, a formal written constitution, and a reframing of the treaty and its centrality into an instrument which symbolises and celebrates a national renewal and our full independence.

But we won’t get there unless we start to talk about how we get there, and there seems no mood yet among our political elites to lead such a discussion. Alas, the urgent debate of this campaign, it seems, is reduced to matters of tax.