'Incomprehensible', or anti-semitic?
Without going over old ground, I wanted to discuss the comments which a caller named 'Peter' made on Radio Live last Tuesday, because I think these comments reflect a long-running discourse of New Zealand's extreme right. Here's an excerpt from Peter's call to Radio Live:
A lot of people just don't realise what happens - Adolf Hitler, before he went mad, he actually created credit to fund the projects in Germany just like the Labour Party created credit to build state housing in New Zealand. So it was also about money. He obviously went mad, and lost it. But before he went to war, and did stupid things, he would have gone down as a great leader...'
Peter went on to contrast Michael Cullen's policies as Finance Minister with those of his 1930s heroes. Karyn Hay has defended her failure to criticise Peter's opinions, saying that:
Peter is obsessed with the '1949 State Housing Act'. I do not believe a word Peter says. Let me re-phrase that. I do not understand what it is that Peter is calling for, as most of the time I find his arguments incomprehensible.
But Peter's arguments are not at all incomprehensible, if the person listening to them understands something of the history of fascist politics. Peter is not some lone eccentric, expressing hopelessly idiosyncratic opinions - he is regurgitating talking points which have been made for many decades by the New Zealand far right.
Peter presents Hitler as a 'social crediter' - that is, as a follower or fellow-traveller of Clifford Douglas, the Scottish engineer and amateur economist who believed that the Great Depression and similar cataclysms were the result of the gap between the amount of wealth generated in a capitalist society and the amount of money circulating in that society. Douglas argued that governments should print and distribute a special sort of money - a 'social credit' - to cover this shortfall, and thereby reduce the destructive power of 'Jewish bankers'.
Peter wrongly believes that Hitler's public works programmes, Labour's state housing scheme, and Harry Truman's State Housing Act were funded by the printing of 'social credit'. In fact, Hitler and Truman had no need to print money to acquire the funds their programmes needed, and Michael Joseph Savage's Labour government chose to fund its increases in spending by borrowing heavily from British banks. John A Lee, the Minister for Housing in Savage's government, advocated a mild form of Social Credit to fund some spending, but he was unable to win the support of more than half a dozen Labour MPs for the measure.
Clifford Douglas drew huge crowds when he visited New Zealand after World War Two, and in 1953 his followers founded the Social Credit Political League, which was for decades this country's largest third party. A few years earlier Australian Douglasites founded the League of Rights, which emphasised the anti-semitic aspects of Social Credit ideology. The League of Rights eventually established a strong branch in New Zealand, and made a number of determined and partly-successful attempts to infiltrate the much larger Social Credit Political League. Although it conducted a number of purges of the extreme right-wingers, Social Credit never succeeded in shaking off accusations of anti-semitism.
In his book Social Credit, Inside and Out, which was published in 1981, the year the party took a fifth of the votes in a general election, ex-member Michael Sheppard described the anti-semitism of many followers of Clifford Douglas. Sheppard discussed the popularity in the party of None Dare Call it Conspiracy, a publication of the American John Birch Society which was distributed in huge numbers in New Zealand by groups like the League of Rights and Zenith Applied Philosophy:
This book...is the by-now-familiar story of a power-mad group of millionaire bankers who are set on controlling the world, some of whom (not all of them, mind) happen to be Jewish...In a fantasy world of hidden conspiracists anything appears to be possible.
At Social Credit's 1979 conference, Sheppard stood up to say that he was 'proud to be Jewish and proud to be a member of Social Credit.' His statement was met by 'total silence'.
Sociologist Paul Spoonley discusses the politics of the League of Rights and similar groups in his 1987 book The Politics of Nostalgia: racism and the extreme right in New Zealand. As well as meticulously documenting the activities of the far right, Spoonley uses a class analysis to uncover the roots which groups like the League have in New Zealand society.
Spoonley characterises the League's ideas as a type of petty bourgeois radicalism. A typical League member feared the power of both left-leaning governments, strong trade unions, and big business. The struggling farmers and small businessman who embraced Douglasite ideas were often crippled by sky-high interest payments on their mortgages, as well as overdue tax payments and demands for wage increases from their employees.
Conspiracy theories about global finance - theories which draw on classical anti-Semitism - are popular with the radical petty bourgeois right, because they connect international finance to the spectres of big government and socialism, albeit in a nutty way. None Dare Call It Conspiracy fitted the needs of the Douglasites perfectly, because it laid the blame for the Russian Revolution, World War Two, the welfare state, and the United Nations at the door of a cabal of international financiers.
The figure of Adolf Hitler presents anti-semitic Douglasites like Peter with a dilemma. A marginal, heterodox ideology like Social Credit is greatly bolstered if its adherants can find a historical example of its success, and both Hitler's anti-semitism and his combination of anti-communism and statist economic policies make him appear attractive to many Douglasites. On the other hand, popular revulsion at the Holocaust and Hitler's other dark deeds means that open support for Nazism is not politically viable in New Zealand.
Peter's attempt to differentiate the 'good' Hitler of the 1930s from the 'bad' Hitler of the war years is a typical rhetorical manoeuvre of the extreme right. In 1994, when the League of Rights was trying to organise an Australasian lecture tour for him, neo-Nazi pseudo-historian David Irving gave a much-publicised interview on New Zealand's National Radio. When he was asked whether he admired Hitler, Irving replied using a formulation Karyn Hay might recognise:
That's a difficult question...I think that Hitler was up until the end of the 1930s a very admirable man...there is no question that if Adolf Hitler died in a car accident in 1939 there would be statues of him up all around Germany...
The New Zealand League of Rights dissolved itself last year, but elements of Douglasite anti-semitism live on in Democrats for Social Credit, the rump of the old Social Credit party, and in the Nationalist Alliance, a collection of fascist groups in Christchurch and Wellington. Both organisations are contesting this year's general election. Neither deserves to be able to make its case in public without criticism.