It is not what Eleanor Catton said about the government, but how we respond to what she said.

Sean Plunket’s intemperate attack on Eleanor Catton is a reminder of just how superficial is tolerance of dissent in New Zealand. I leave others to defend the exact interchange – Danyl McLauchlan was as I normally expect of him. Aside from the squall I am interested in how revealing it is about intellectual life in this country – which was, ultimately – what Catton was speaking about.

Yet while it is one thing to say we do not value public intellectuals (unless they spout the conventional wisdom) it is unusual to see so clearly how they are dealt with. Don’t expect Catton to appear on any program Plunket is involved in. With few exceptions she will not be invited to elaborate her views elsewhere in the media and in the long run will be avoided if at all possible. That Plunket is a senior and generally respected journalist (or he was until this outbreak), illustrates just how thin is the public tolerance that the media generally presents of itself. McLauchlan reminds us that universities are meant to be bastions of free speech, but so are they.

I have been struggling with these issues while  writing a history of New Zealand. It is normal in such texts to duck our intellectual life (a few paragraphs about our writers and artists aside). Yet at the heart of our history has been the shallowness of the role of public intellectuals. Had there been more of them and they had been more respected, it is unlikely that the extremism and mistakes of Rogernomics would have occurred to the same degree. It is an old problem. One hundred years ago André Siegfried, New Zealand’s de Tocqueville, wrote:

“[New Zealanders] outlook, not too carefully reasoned, and no doubtful scornful of scientific thought, makes them incapable of self distrust. Like almost all men of action they have a contempt for theories: yet they are often captured by the first theory that turns up, if it is demonstrated to them with an appearance of logic sufficient to impose upon them. In most cases they do not seem to see difficulties, and they propose simple solutions for the most complex problems with astonishing audacity.”

I am also struggling with the meaning of ‘neoliberal’ and its relationship to the current government. Catton said

“At the moment, New Zealand, like Australia and Canada, (is dominated by) these neoliberal, profit-obsessed, very shallow, very money-hungry politicians who do not care about culture. They care about short-term gains. They would destroy the planet in order to be able to have the life they want. I feel very angry with my government.”

I don’t think we have a ‘neoliberal’ government. Recall the short shift Key gave to Don Brash (who is definitely a neoliberal). In fact this government is, as Catton’s subsequent adjectives say, a business-oriented one. Business took on a neoliberal stance in the Rogernomic unwinding of the economic regime which Muldoon represented. But they don’t any longer. Rather they actively use the government to pursue their interests. The Sky City deal was not neoliberal.

Catton is also wrong when she says the government does not care about culture. They have a different definition from hers. They care very greatly about rugby in particular and sport in general. [Deleted; see Andrew Geddis comment and my apology below.] 

Catton is right that the government’s focus is on short term gains, and while ‘they would destroy the planet’ may be an exaggeration, I think it more likely that they give such a low priority to sustainability, that they will do so by neglect. So we should reflect on what Catton said.

It would be great – if out of character – if we do so in a temperate considered way that public intellectual life should; refraining from the ad hominem approach, playing the ball not the man (to use a rugby image). As Voltaire almost said:’I may not agree with what you have to say, Eleanor, but I'll defend to the death your right to say it.’

Comments (17)

by Andrew Geddis on January 29, 2015
Andrew Geddis

But as far as ‘high’ culture is concerend, Key did not cover himself in glory when he commented on ‘The Luminaries’. There may well be better New Zealand novels than it, but his nomination ‘The Lord of the Rings’ is certainly not.

Just so we're clear, that didn't actually happen outside of Ben Uffendell's imagination.

by Brian Easton on January 29, 2015
Brian Easton

My apologies Andrew and all, it came to me indirectly from Civilian and appeared to be a serious news item. Brian. 

by Lee Churchman on January 29, 2015
Lee Churchman

It's a double-edged sword, really. New Zealanders' antipathy towards big ideas also translates into a hostility towards religion in public life, which I find to be one of the more pleasant aspects of living in New Zealand.

It's not an intellectual society, but for much the same reasons it is a very tolerant one by world standards. 

by Katharine Moody on January 29, 2015
Katharine Moody

Surely neoliberal best describes Key's governing/ 

by Katharine Moody on January 29, 2015
Katharine Moody

Ooops, typing too fast.

Surely neoliberal best describes Key's governing/governance approach .. if not neoliberal - then what model would you apply, Brian? 

by Katharine Moody on January 29, 2015
Katharine Moody

Also, not sure what you mean by this statement: The Sky City deal was not neoliberal. The operative word being "deal" (and I would add, behind a closed doors). To me it was a neoliberal government practicing "crony capitalism" - linked to the "class project", a trait of neoliberalism, as described by David Harvey.

by Simon Connell on January 30, 2015
Simon Connell

On the meaning of neoliberal - wikipedia has a pretty good account of various uses of the term.

If 'neoliberal' refers to a "radical and laissez-faire capitalist set of ideas" then the SkyCity deal isn't neoliberal because it's inconsistent with a night watcher government that leaves things up to the market and doesn't interfere in business. I believe this is the sense in which Brian was using the term.

If it's a pejorative term generally used to refer to capitalist-y politics and the behaviour of right-leaning pro-business governments, then SkyCity is neoliberal because 'crony capitalism' is exactly the sort of thing those sort of governments get up to these days. I believe this is the sense in which you and Catton were using the term.

by Katharine Moody on January 30, 2015
Katharine Moody

Simon, yes, and as David Harvey observes;

My interpretation is that it [neoliberalism] is a class project, now masked by a lot of rhetoric about individual freedom, liberty, personal responsibility, privatisation and the free market. That rhetoric was a means towards the restoration and consolidation of class power, and that neoliberal project has been fairly successful.

To me it is what it is - and I just don't understand why many economists (and particularly those associated with the very 'think tanks' that spawned it) attempt to distance themselves and their utterings from the label - given the big question is how do we move on from it.

by Lee Churchman on January 30, 2015
Lee Churchman

Well, proponents of neoliberalism see it as an economic and political philosophy, whereas opponents tend to see it as merely instrumental to a political project.

David Graeber has a fun paper on the latter.

by Brian Easton on January 30, 2015
Brian Easton

Humpty-Dumpty famously said you can use words anyway you wish. He could have gone on to say the cost may be imprecision of thought and failure to communicate. ‘Neoliberal’ is often used in this way – a rhetorical expression for any economic regime that someone on the left disagrees with. Thus one can equate ‘neoliberalism’ with ‘crony capitalism’, which would make Putin’s Russia neo-liberal.

Simon Connell uses a definition I am comfortable with.

About a decade ago the business community began saying to me, perhaps earlier to others, that rogernomics/neoliberalism was something of the past and they had moved on. But to where?

They would talk about ‘NZ Inc’ which involves a close association between business and the state. I have yet to write up the chapter of the history, but my tentative thinking is to call it ‘business capitalism’ (it is certainly not 'finance capitalism' – our finance sector is not big enough).

My current thinking is that in many ways it is a continuation of Muldoonism. I do not say this pejoratively (and I've never seen anyone say Muldoon was a neoliberal).

Muldoon ruled New Zealand when the economy faced extreme adjustment difficulties from the structural collapse of the wool price in 1966. But if you look behind this, and his personality, you see similarities with the way the current government operates. If that is correct – this is a tentative hypothesis – then we can trace the economic style back to National’s traditions – embodied in the Holyoake years and earlier. The big difference is that New-National has much less input from farmers than its earlier versions.

As for why economists have to be precise with the terms they use, I’d have thought that was pretty obvious, Kathleen. If they are saying they are not ‘neoliberal’ they must mean it, distinguishing themselves from the term as Cowell and conventional analysis use it.

by Lee Churchman on January 30, 2015
Lee Churchman

Well, perhaps it's easier to see it as a reactionary doctrine, defined in terms of what it is against. For my part, I've always seen it as a means of devaluing the role of knowledge in society – as a kind of right wing postmodernism.

by barry on January 30, 2015

While I mostly agree with EC's comments I think it is all too easy to go on about NZ's lack of culture and tall poppy syndrome.  I don't think that it is any worse here than anywhere else.  Mostly people complaining about the TPS are people who are more famous in their own minds than they really are in public, and object to being treated as mere mortals.

It may be hypocritical to want to claim EC's achievements for NZ but then belittle her, but as we all know "hypocrite" is synonymous with "human" and the same thing happens to people every where else in the world.

As for saying that NZ's government is not "Neoliberal" that may be true, but then it is behaving the same as every other government in the world with neoliberal underpinnings;  Liberal rhetoric and crony-capitalist behaviour.  That is probably where the "neo-" comes in to distinguish them form real liberals who wouldn't have even dreamed about such a deal as the Sky City arrangement.

by Ross on February 01, 2015

<em>My current thinking is that in many ways it is a continuation of Muldoonism.</em>

On on what basis? Let's face it, it is difficult to imagine this government freezing wages and prices. This government wants to remove trade barriers, not create them a la Muldoon. Would Muldoon have sold off State homes? I am not sure....

by Brian Easton on February 01, 2015
Brian Easton

What I am trying to distinguish, Ross, is the difference between style and policies. Were Muldoon PM today he would not be imposing a price freeze; were Key PM in the difficult circumstances of 1982 he would have contemplated a price freeze. (National’s first freeze was imposed by Jack Marshall – it was short.)

What interests me is that the similarities in their political management, especially their closeness to the Auckland business community and also similarities between their followers (although we have no shorthand for Key’s equivalent of ‘Robs Mob’).

by Anne on February 01, 2015

"What interests me is that the similarities in their political management, especially their closeness to the Auckland business community and also similarities between their followers (although we have no shorthand for Key’s equivalent of ‘Robs Mob’)."

Key is on record as saying that he regards Muldoon as his mentor. That is to say: he has studied Muldoon's operational style and has adapted it for his own use today.

I believe I've recalled correctly when I say that the 'person whose name is not mentioned on this site' s father was a senior member of Robs Mob during the 70s and early 80s.


by Phil Meup on February 02, 2015
Phil Meup

Heh...shallow indeed.

Maybe relying on articles from the Civilian also reveals something about the quality of punditry......or is it ok when it suits the narrative?? 

by gregfullmoon on February 03, 2015

Intellectual life is shallow where it displays a lack of ability and desire to challenge the established order.

Currently the potential of an independent culture is under attack by the global elites through the multilateral free trade agenda which would impose Trans Pacific Partnership upon us with out recourse to any public debate.

We have a few outliers who dare the wrath of gatekeepers however most including the journalistic class are content with their paypackets from their masters and sponsors.

Gareth Morgan's suggestion that the removal of Russel Norman allowed the Greens to concentrate on the environment and drop economic reform - is a moronic contribution to intellectual comprehension - an economy without a material underpinning is ultimately a dying and arid existence.

Also I've just finished reading Bill Sutch's 'the quest for security in New Zealand 1840 - 1966'. He describes the pastoralist and finance mentality that underpinned the National Party's support against the broader church, and desire for independence that characterised the Labour Party in aspiration if not always in practice. No changes there and in fact the disparity in shares of national wealth have since widened considerably.

Our intellectual Bill Sutch had it worked out that development of skills in the domestic workforce through industrial development and manufacturing led to higher paid jobs and allowed government to balance the national accounts. This way internal demand is balanced with greater participation in the private economic life of the nation.

Sutch was a proponent of providing the maximum in educational opportunities to foster the fullest participation in the society and underpinning economy. He promoted the Arts suggesting these aided idea formation and created richness in our culture.

China, India and developing nations faces the same dilemma in respect to the development and aspirations of her people.

We are still to throw off the colonial mantle and move to economic independence based on policies that support Aotearoa New Zealand's general public interest in a sustainable and egalitarian state, as suggested in the holistic intellectual offering 'the spirit level'.

Any tendency of Government and Business to operate in collusion moves it in its tendency toward fascism. If we are having an intellectual chat we might as well call a digging implement by it correct term a 'spade'.

The 'Ace' idea behind the spade is on full display throughout our Globe. The politics is greed and the philosophic underpinning is pragmatic self interest guided by ruthless competition on the surface and oligarchy and plutocracy on the inside. Their guiding principle 'What can we get away with?'

This article from medialens highlights the difficulty in getting knowledge into the public realm. Who is the global hegemon and who has caused more wars this milennium? It couldn't be our Anglo American alliance could it?

Where is the intellectual discourse on this ethical nightmare? Hidden by the sponsor?

Death by moral turpitude? From Wikipedia - The concept of "moral turpitude" might escape precise definition, but it has been described as an "act of baseness, vileness, or depravity in the private and social duties which a man owes to his fellowmen, or to society in general, contrary to the accepted and customary rule of right and duty between man and man.

The other component of this is pay-walling of intellectual developments. If one is outside institutional learning and has limited monies, one has limited access to the development of ideas in their formative stages.

Of course the upside of this denial - is freedom to find ones own way through the world;

 Best with the project for depth.

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