Friday, January 28, 2011

Unfinished monkey business

If I haven't posted to this blog since Monday it's because I've been making a nuisance of myself over at Kiwipolitico, where a fascinating debate on the relationship (or, sometimes, non-relationship) between intellectuals and politics has been fizzing away all week.

After asking readers of Kiwipolitico to name some of New Zealand's (relatively) young left-wing thinkers, Pablo has turned his attention to the other side of the political divide, and enquired tentatively as to the identities of New Zealand 'non-geriatric right-wing thinkers'.

My contributions to the debate at Kiwipolitico have been typed in indecent haste, in breaks from more important tasks like reading The Island of Doctor Moreau in our shady backyard and trying forlornly to begin a grant application. I've reproduced some of my comments here, in tidied-up form, in case they promote further discussion, or even some interesting vituperation from readers with simian-themed names.

Where are our intellectuals?

Many of the commenters at Kiwipolitico have lamented the absence of a strong intellectual tradition on either the left or the right side of New Zealand politics. A commenter with the unfortunate name of Monkey Boy has been particularly damning, complaining that the term 'New Zealand left thinker' is a 'three-tier oxymoron'.

But ideas don't fall from the sky, and it's unfair to discuss New Zealand intellectual life without making a few allowances for the concrete circumstances created by our history and sociology. There are good reasons why this country has never been a hotbed of very sophisticated thought on either the left or the right of the political spectrum.

Most of the world’s radical intelligentsias have arisen in unevenly developed societies struggling to modernise. In nineteenth century France and Russia the ruling classes needed to train a layer of intellectuals to oversee industrialisation and the construction of the sort of modern state, with an efficient bureaucracy and a universal education system, that would drag peasant populations into a capitalist future. Intellectuals in these countries were acutely conscious of their separation from other strata of the population, and of the special role assigned to them. Inevitably, a lot of them ‘went rogue’, refused the places reserved for them in a new-fangled bureaucracy, and took upon themselves the role of critics and consciences of their societies. The intellectual, with his or her place outside the established social order, had both the ability and the responsibility to remake that order. The novels of Tolstoy and Zola and the political programmes of the Bolsheviks and the Narodniks are the product of an acute, sometimes paternalistic sense of social responsibility.

The same pattern was seen later in the Third World, as young intellectuals taken from their colonial or semi-colonial homelands to the universities of the great colonial powers rebelled against the ideology of their trainers. Most of the leaders of the African and Asian anti-colonial struggles were radicalised in Europe.

Great conservative intellectuals have generally been produced in societies haunted by the spectres of social instability and radical change. Durkheim arose in response to Marx, and in response to the revolutionary upheavals Marx celebrated; Heidegger at first developed his thought as part of a movement of self-renewal within the Catholic church, a movement which saw conservative-minded priests and philosophers looking for new, more credible ways of justifying traditions which were under threat.

As the first country to industrialise and modernise, Britain never needed a specialised intelligentsia of the French or Russian sort, and it has never faced the spectre of class war in the way that many European nations have. The British did, however, soak up a lot of exiles from parts of Europe that suffered upheaval in the twentieth century. Perry Anderson has pointed out that most of Britain’s leading twentieth century intellectuals – Namier, Wittgenstein, Popper, Lakatos – were conservative ‘white emigres’ fleeing the chaos in their own countries.

Like Britain, New Zealand has an advanced capitalist economy and has had a history of relative social stability; unlike Britain, we have never been home to many intellectual refugees from the turmoil of the twentieth century (we did, of course, get a few: Popper, for example, arrived and stayed for a while during World War Two, and Peter Munz arrived a few years later and stayed forever). Is it entirely surprising that our society hasn’t produced large dynamic intellectual movements of either a radical or a conservative bent?

Monkeys and Marxism

Monkey Boy and a chap with the more sensible name of Barry interrupted the discussion at Kiwipolitico with extended denunciations of 'Marxism' and 'socialism', and made me think about the strange paradox which besets right-wing uses of those words in the New Zealand blogosphere. If someone had some sort of search engine which could trawl New Zealand blogs for mentions of the words ‘Marxism’ and ‘socialism’, then I’m sure the results would show that these words made their appearances, far more often than not, in the discussion fora of right-wing sites like Kiwiblog.

I’ve looked at a few of the long, winding, vituperative ‘General Discussion’ threads at Kiwiblog, and marvelled at how obsessed the commenters there are with ‘Marxism’.

For all their references to Marxism, though, the folks at Kiwiblog and similar sites never seem once to cite, let alone discuss, a text by Marx, or a Marxist concept. For them, Marxism and socialism seem to have become vague swear words, to be aimed at anyone who advocates a more intricately tiered tax system, or a raise in the minimum wage, or an independent foreign policy, or some general belief in ‘equality’, whatever that means. (Over at Kiwipolitico, Barry was very keen to refute the allegedly Marxist idea that humans are naturally nice people who naturally desire absolute equality. Barry several times asserted that such a doctrine has nothing to do with how 'humans tick'. Here’s a hint, Barry: if you’re looking for a theory of a ‘basic human nature’ in Marx, you’re looking in the wrong place. Marx and Marxists are not interested in arguing that humans are ‘basically’ good or evil or intrinsically fond of equality or inequality. Marx explicitly denies there is such a thing as human nature: for him, the idea is an abomination, a hangover from the days before Darwin destroyed the notion that creatures had static, ahistorical ‘essences’ given to them by some creator.)

There’s never any mention, from obsessively anti-Marxist right-wingers like Barry, of the basics of Marx’s intellectual system – his materialist view of history and of historical change, his dialectical method of analysis, his concept of modes of production, his use of the base-superstructure metaphor to try to capture the relationship between the different parts of society, his theories of the tendency for the rate of profit to fall and the tendency towards crises of overproduction, and so on. I don’t expect right-wingers necessarily to agree that Marx’s intellectual creations are useful for the analysis of society and history, but I do think that if they are going to spend so much energy deploring Marxism then they might want to find out a little bit about what Marxism actually is.

It’s easy to get the impression, reading some of the more paranoid comments at sites like Kiwiblog, that Marxists control large parts of New Zealand society, especially the trade unions, the state sector of the economy, and the education system. The reality, of course, is that Marxist ideas have no hold at all on the mainstream of our society. They are upheld by only a tiny number of people, and sometimes the way they are upheld is uselessly dogmatic. The influence Marxism did enjoy thirty years ago in the trade unions is only a memory now.

The only people in New Zealand who at present do seem to have a discernable attraction to Marxist ideas are postgraduate students in the social sciences and humanities. A noticeable minority of students in this area seem to become enthusiastic about Marx’s method and his concepts as they undertake their research.

If the paranoiacs at Kiwiblog are to be believed, these young people are attracted to Marx because they’ve been brainwashed by their teachers, and because they want to ‘fit in’ to a Marxist public sector. In reality, of course, an interest in Marx is usually an encumbrance, rather than a benefit, for any postgraduate researcher. Marxism is not fashionable amongst Heads of Departments, and Marxist concepts are not likely to smiled upon by job interviewers in the public sector.

A sophisticated interest in Marx does not even give students much credibility with New Zealand’s miniscule Marxist political groups: many of these groups are decades or more out of touch with the research produced by Marxist scholars, and all are more interested in selling badly-produced papers and organising poorly-attended meetings than in exploring the finer points of research and theory.

The reason why postgraduate research students continue to be drawn towards Marxist ideas has nothing to do self-interest, or even, in many cases, with political belief. They are drawn towards Marxist ideas because those ideas, despite their incomplete and sometimes contradictory nature, offer exciting ways of understanding society and history. For all its flaws, and in spite of its continual need of refinement and revision, Marxism as a mode of analysis is vastly superior to anything offered by postmodernism, with its theoretical fuzz and inability to see the big picture and long duree, or classical liberalism, with its futile focus on a non-existent rational individual consumer as the unit of analysis, or the halfway house of Keynesian/social democratic/Third Way thinking about society, with its politically-motivated evasions and equivocations. Marxism is such a powerful way of analysing society and history that it has been coopted and abused by people with belief-systems Marx himself would have abhorred. We all know about the way that Stalinists captured and distorted Marx’s ideas, turning them into a closed, rigid, inhuman system, but what is less known is that the more thoughtful parts of the right have been pillaging Marxist ideas for many decades.

Marxist ideas were used in a distorted form by hawkish intellectuals like Christopher Hitchens and Norm Geras, journalists like Nick Cohen and David Aaronovitz and even by the British government minister John Denham to justify the invasion of Iraq. Seizing on Marx’s ill-advised early enthusiasm for the invasion of nations like China and India by capitalist Britain, and ignoring his later belief that capitalism was not a progressive and inevitable stage in the development of human societies, the pro-war ‘left’ threw its lot in with the American neoconservatives around George Bush.

In the late nineties and early noughties, when Western economies were surging and politicians and business analysts were proclaiming the end of the boom-bust cycle, influential economists like Meghnad Desai emulated the method of Hitchens et al by reaching for Marx’s early enthusiasm for capitalism and globalisation, stripping this enthusiasm of its nuance, and claiming that Marx would have accepted the invincibility and righteousness of capitalism at the beginning of the twenty-first century. (As the venerable Eric Hobsbawm noted in a recent interview, the pendulum is now swinging the other way: with the global economy in trouble, scholars and commentators are turning their attention to parts of Marx's oeuvre which discuss capitalism's chaotic nature, and its tendency to produce sudden crises).

I won’t hold my breath, but the day that the right-wingers of the New Zealand blogosphere actually make the effort to find out what Marx thought will be a great step in their intellectual evolution. It will also make their arguments a lot more interesting.

Making a silk purse out of a sow's arse

I've been bemused by the way that, asked to name a few outstanding Kiwi right-wing intellectuals in a pre-geriatric condition, many commenters at Kiwipolitico have recited a list of media commentators and National Party activists. Several commenters named David Farrar, the genial proprietor of the madhouse which is Kiwiblog and a strategist and pollster for the Nats, as a right-wing intellectual.

David Farrar might be a clever chap who works hard for his chosen political team, but to call him an intellectual is surely a little like calling Dan Brown a great novelist. How many of the people who have been nominated as right-wing intellectuals at Kiwipolitico have undertaken and published research, or coined a theoretical concept?

It was amusing to see the way that Cathy Odgers, a corporate lawyer based in Hong Kong and the author of a tediously splenetic blog, popped up at Kiwipolitico to complain about being included in a list of right-wing intellectuals. It’s fair to say that Odgers was unimpressed by the discussion at Kiwipolitico:

Oh for heaven’s sake what a wank fest. Everyone on the right is too busy working in the private sector……I know a foreign concept to the left who have all day to sit and masturbate over academia. Being named on a list of right wing intellectuals is an insult to the very definition of what the right is about. To me those sorts are the ones who have failed.

Odgers’ words speak volumes about the anti-intellectualism and philistinism of the contemporary New Zealand right. Let’s not try to make a silk purse out a sow’s arse.

It’s interesting to look across the Tasman at the gaggle of right-wing intellectuals who publish the journal Quadrant, and to contrast their work to the productions of the likes of David Farrar and Cathy Odgers. I have no sympathy at all for the conclusions of the work of Quadrant writers like Keith Windschuttle, but at least that work is based upon original research, rather than the latest party press release, and filled with arguments, however tendentious, rather than with sound bites and slogans.

The Australian Spectator is another publication which combines some intellectual weight with right-wing politics, and there is the odd ‘independent’ right-wing intellectual – the outstanding example is Robert Manne, who resigned from his position as Quadrant’s editor over the magazine’s soft line on the Helen Demidenko hoax and later wrote a superb book about Demidenko’s trivialisation of the Holocaust – also at work across the Tasman. The contrast with New Zealand is clear.

Dennis Dutton: a Kiwi neocon?

If we’d been asked to nominate contemporary right-wing Kiwi intellectuals, rather than folks who are alive and aged under sixty, then I’d have thought that Dennis Dutton, CK Stead and Leigh Davis would have been worth mentions. The recently-deceased Dutton, who had some connections with the Quadrant crowd, was probably the closest thing New Zealand had to a neoconservative. He had the peculiar mixture of fervent universalism and fervent imperialism which was such a feature of neoconservatism. Like Hitchens, Wolfowitz and the rest, Dutton thought that all humans were equal, and that all deserved to live in the good society, which was a US-style free market bourgeois democracy. In order to hasten the final triumph of capitalism and the happy ‘end of history’ that Francis Fukuyama had proclaimed, the neo-cons believed that warfare against ‘backward’ regimes and cultures was necessary. ‘Swamps’ like the Middle East needed to be ‘drained’.

The opinion pieces Dutton produced in favour of Kiwi involvement in the great wars to liberate Afghanistan and Iraq were extraordinarily crass, but they were consistent with his well-publicised activities as the founder of the Skeptics Society, as well as his broadsides against the supposed backwardness of Maori culture. Dutton saw himself as a crusader for the Enlightenment.

When the crusade turned to custard in the Middle East, Dutton withdrew from overt political propaganda and produced a strange but – commercially, at least – hugely successful book which argued that art was fundamentally the same in every human society, and had arisen in the first place because it helped early humans adapt to and survive in their environments.

Dutton’s book put him on the US talk show circle, where he rubbed shoulders with faded celebrities like John Cleese and relentlessly plugged himself, but it bemused art critics and curators, because it seemed to be hopelessly speculative and to have no real relevance to the ways in which people actually view and use art in individual human societies. I think it can be argued that Dutton’s book was actually a weird attempt to restate the universalism and rationalism which was such a feature of his thinking, and which drove him to support Bush’s wars. He wanted to show that art was rational, and that it was rooted in universal human traits, like a desire to adapt to and master the environment. In a sense Dutton’s book took the argument about universalism and economic utilitarianism from the twenty-first century, where it was manifestly collapsing, and relocated it in the distant past.

I think Dutton is over-rated as a thinker, but that he is nevertheless in a different league from David Farrar and the other hacks being named as right-wing intellectuals at Kiwipolitico.

Miles Fairburn and conservatism

If we wanted to talk about studiously apolitical scholars who produce work which might be used to support many right-wing positions, then I think the Canterbury University historian Miles Fairburn would deserve discussion.

Fairburn doesn’t have the media profile of a Michael King or a James Belich, but his reputation inside academia is vast, both in New Zealand and abroad. His early, polemical work The Ideal Society and Its Enemies examined Pakeha New Zealand in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and argued that it was one of the most individualistic societies ever to exist anywhere on the earth. Pakeha Kiwis were, Fairburn argues, determined to establish their own self-sufficient livelihoods and lives in the country they had conquered, even if the price of their desire was poverty and loneliness. Fairburn's book challenged generations of arguments by Fabian and liberal historians and commentators by showing that, historically, Pakeha were not a cosy little group determined to build a just society free of the iniquities of the mother country. Nearly out of Heart and Hope, Fairburn’s monumental microhistorical study of the diary of a fin de siecle agricultural labourer in the Wairarapa, showed how stubbornly some of the poorest New Zealand workers refused to rebel against capitalism, even as the system drove them to homelessness and the edge of starvation. Thanks to Fairburn’s example, many historians now look for signs of individualism and conservatism, rather collectivism and radicalism, in New Zealand history.

It is by no means clear, though, that Fairburn's work necessarily offers support to a right-wing political agenda. There is, after all, a difference between stating a fact and celebrating that fact. If the left in New Zealand were more tooled-up theoretically and less insular then it would seize on Fairburn’s work and mine it for insights which could be incorporated into a new account of our nineteenth and early twentieth century history. But doing this would mean abandoning cosy old myths about a collectivist, anti-elitist colonial culture.

The proper place of obsession

Over at her Letters from Wetville blog, Sandra has responded to the discussions at Reading the Maps and at Kiwipolitico by posing a question:

How any of us define 'political' and 'intellectual' are in themselves powerful tools. Are those definitions up for discussion, or are we to content ourselves with bickering about versions of pure leftism (as if) and the naughtiness of the proletariat who are watching tele and eating chips instead of remodelling society into a collective utopia?

Sandra was reacting to Jack Ross’s comment box claim that blogs are often not taken seriously because they are perceived as ‘subjective and trivial’. I don’t think that Jack was complaining about ‘subjective and trivial’ material appearing on blogs, but instead arguing about the widespread perception that this sort of material is valueless.

It seems to me that Sandra, like Jack, is querying the dichotomy which is often presumed to exist between, on the one hand, personal inclination or obsession and, on the other hand, notions of what is intellectually or politically 'right' or 'important'. I agree with her that it is wrong to accept such a dichotomy.

JG Ballard said that the best advice he could give anyone, in any field, was to follow their obsessions. Don De Lillo seemed, to me at least, to echo this point when he argued that writers don't write for the good of society, but because they feel compelled to write. Writing is, De Lillo suggested, tied up with the desire to sustain an identity.

I think that if we try to think or write about what we consider is 'objectively' important, rather than following our deeper impulses, then we are in danger of producing dull, sanctimonious work. It is work which flows from our obsessions which tends to be, in the long run, both aesthetically and politically valuable. We don't value Wells for his dully instructive later political works, but for The War of the Worlds and The Island of Doctor Moreau, books which tell us much about the dark sides of capitalism and imperialism even as they excite us with their imaginative daring . We esteem Gulliver's Travels as a work of fantasy, not a petty-minded satire of obscure figures from a bygone era. Intellectuals and writers should never be constrained, then, by worries about what is ‘esoteric’ and what is ‘accessible’, and by what might be politically useful or useless.

Footnote: since we've been talking about the power or otherwise of blogging, and of the internet in general, it's worth noting the move this evening by Hosni Mubarak to take the whole of Egypt offline. The dictator's decision, which is apparently unprecedented anywhere in the world, seems to be a response to the use of the internet to organise the protests which are threatening to bring down his regime. Long live the Egyptian revolution!


Blogger Mad Bush Farm said...

Thanks for this Scott I found this very interesting reading. It brought to mind a documentary by Michael Moore shown recently on Sky Movies called 'Capitalism:A love story' It was an indepth look at how capitalism has affected the lives of ordinary Americans. It made for horrific revelations. During the documentary it seems that Moore was advocating socialism however the closed sentences in his narration did not in fact promote socialism as it appeared to be he stated "It's not capitalism or socialism the people of America want it's Democracy." I'd recommend it to everyone to watch.
Certainly a shocking eye opener.

Great post stimulating reading and as ever it's opened my mind up just a bit more. Have a good one

PS thanks for your comment on my post about the Kaipara Dairy Factory

6:35 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Who is Ian Brown? What a freaky looking dude!

6:43 pm  
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8:06 pm  
Blogger Richard said...

"We esteem Gulliver's Travels as a work of fantasy, not a petty-minded satire of obscure figures from a bygone era."

Maps this inexcusable. An inexplicable misunderstanding of that book. Swift's great work, one of the greatest literary works, is in no way petty minded. Re-read it and study it. It is shows a deep understanding of human society - it is greater than anything by Joyce or Karl Marx or any other writer... if Swift is petty or "bygone" all of Marx's works are drivel and absolutely palaeolithic. Wells would I am afraid only weigh in as a footnote to a footnote.

11:31 pm  
Blogger maps said...

I just thought it was more significant as a fantasy rather than as a satire of particular personages from Swift's time, Richard, but I'm sure you know the text better than me. And yes, I'd agree, we wouldn't read large parts of Marx's writings for pure literary pleasure!

On a different subject: I was meaning to ask you and Jack if you'd like to put the interview you did with the great man on this blog, since it doesn't seem to have turned up in a literary journal. What do you think? I haven't actually seen the interview but have been told it's excellent.

11:44 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I know you moderated your tone in this post, but on kiwipolitico you describe Fairburn as "in all likelihood the greatest historian this country has produced."

JGA Pocock, though no spring chicken, is without a shadow of a doubt the greatest historian New Zealand has ever produced.

9:54 am  
Blogger maps said...

Good to hear from you Liz. I have a plan to get into that old factory before it's demolished! This long weekend might actually be an opportune time...

Anon: I guess I was thinking about folks who were working here in NZ on NZ history. And I must confess I haven't read Pocock. I realise that talk about a 'greatest historian' is partly subjective, and there are many Kiwi historians whose work I admire. I like Judith Bonney for her ability to bring oral and written history into contact, I enjoy Anne Salmond's narrative skill, and I appreciate Michael King's talent for popularising without (usually) dumbing down.

But I have long thought that Fairburn's work has a sophistication and intensity which sets it apart. Books like Nearly Out of Heart and Hope are written simultaneously on three levels - they are historical, in the sense that they relate events from the past, but they are also historiographical, in that they are relentlessly willing to take on the interpretations of other historians, and they are theoretical, in the sense that they argue about general principles relating to research in history. Many Kiwi historians save a couple of pages at the end of their books for historiography, and shy away from theory: not so Fairburn.

I suspect that some of the intensity of Fairburn's thought comes from his mentor Peter Munz, one of the relatively few intellectual emigres we got from European upheaval during the twentieth century, and a man who took ideas more seriously than most Kiwi scholars of his generation. What do you think of Fairburn? Do you think I'm overselling him?

1:08 pm  
Anonymous George D said...

There's a lot here to think about, and I might come back and engage with it soon.

My own thesis, so far unengaged with by others, is that asking who is the wrong question. It is more important to be asking why there are few, and under what conditions is it possible to engage intellectually with others productively and openly. The lack of venues is such a problem. I know that a number of journals have been mentioned here, and pushing their content forward might be a partial solution.

For the most part though, the people I know have the sensation that speaking in New Zealand is shouting into the wind.

3:59 pm  
Blogger Mad Bush Farm said...

Might as well get that opportunity Scott. I'm not sure when it's going to be bowled over but it makes for a fascinating reminder of what the old factory was like. Somewhere my sister has photos of it when it was under Martech Industries. Hope you're able to get there and explore a bit.

4:36 pm  
Blogger Marty Mars said...

Kia ora maps,

Sorry to threadjack - lucky your not pablo :) Regarding your footnote - it appears as if the Egyptian revolution is on. This blog has helped me realise the value of Marx but i know nothing of the ins and outs of the various 'groups', nevertheless this breathless article is great. I'm sure you will post on developments - can't wait.

woods the author concludes the article with

"The argument “it cannot happen here” is without any scientific or rational basis. The same thing was said of Tunisia only a couple of months ago, when that country was considered to be the most stable in North Africa. And the same argument was repeated in relation to Egypt even after Ben Ali was overthrown. Just a few weeks were sufficient to expose the hollowness of those words. Such is the speed of events in our epoch. Sooner or later the same question will be posed in every country in Europe, in Japan, in Canada, in the United States.

Revolutionary developments are on the order of the day. The process will advance at a greater or lesser speed according to local conditions. But no country can consider itself immune from the general process. The events in Tunisia and Egypt show us our own future as in a mirror."

Could it happen here?

I'd imagine if a similar country to us underwent their revolutionary process that that could be a catalyst for many countries to 'go' too.

Any pointing to previous posts or worthwhile websites and blogs greatly appreciated.

7:45 pm  
Blogger Sandra - too heavy to stand on a soapbox, but undeterred said...

"Many Kiwi historians save a couple of pages at the end of their books for historiography, and shy away from theory: not so Fairburn."

Specific examples please Maps! On the theory front you may have a point, but it is a pretty outrageous and untrue assertion regarding historiography.

All of your examples are North Island-based. Although Fairburn is at Canterbury now, he wrote both The Ideal Society and it's Enemies and Nearly Out of Heart and Hope in Wellington.

The nature of Pakeha settlement differs markedly between the North and South Islands and it is no accident that Olssen's Caversham project and Richardson's work on Coal, Class and Community come out of South Island lives and South Island universities.

and this:
"But doing this would mean abandoning cosy old myths about a collectivist, anti-elitist colonial culture."

Oh really? Much as I hate to be tiresome and point to historical research which focuses on women, merely half the population as they are, but I don't think there has been evidence of a collectivist anti-elitist colonial culture in the work of Charlotte Macdonald or Margaret Tennant, thinking of just two historians whose work I admired. Jim McAloon's book No Idle Rich looks at the wealthy in Canterbury and Otago and I'm guessing from your comments that you are not familiar with his work.

I'm not nearly as up to date on recent publications as I would like to be and hope that others who are will comment also.

Just as you observe the structural conditions for the lack of radical intelligentsia in New Zealand, so too are the topics for historical investigation shaped by our circumstances. I remember being a bit in love with my source material when I looked at women and the liquor industry on the Otago goldfields - these were invisible lives and I was making them visible, almost reconstructing them like a patchwork doll. I suspect I'm not the only one to feel that way in a country notable for its newness and unchartedness. It is quite different to working in English history and having to think rather radically to find a new angle on material looked at by so many before.

So I query the privileging of theoretical approaches to history over other forms of the discipline which is implicit in your praise of Miles Fairburn. He is definitely very clever and his Ideal Society changed the nature of 19C NZ historiography, but partly because so many of us then had to painstakingly go through the many many ways in which he was wrong.

9:31 pm  
Blogger maps said...

Hi Marty,

I look at the archives of the Marxmail e mail list (, where people tend to drop a lot of links, to get an idea of what various far left groups are saying on breaking international issues. I don't by any means agree with everything that turns up on Marxmail, of course, and my problem with Alan Woods and his group is that they have what I consider a catastrophist view of the contemporary world, and are constantly predicting the downfall of capitalism and a wave of revolutions. They do nevertheless produce some interesting stuff, especially about some of the more obscure (to me, anyway) parts of the world. Have you been to the Angry Arab blog at

Hi Sandra,

you're probably quite right about my imperviousness to regional variation in New Zealand, and to South Island exceptionalism, although I have read some of the stuff you mention, as well as Martyn's book The Forgotten Workers on South Island rural labour in the nineteenth century. As I said, I accept that arguments about 'who's the greatest of them all' are inevitably fairly subjective.

Peter Munz wrote an interesting review (I can't remember where he published it: in the New Zealand Review of Books?) of a book of essays which was intended as a critical response to Fairburn's revisionist view of nineteenth and early twentieth century society. Munz complained that all the authors of the essays were doing was finding exceptions to the generalisations Fairburn made in his book: he said that this was largely a waste of time, because any ambitious theory, or research programme, is inevitably going to have all sorts of holes, especially early on in its existence.

Munz, who was a student of Karl Popper (and Ludwig Wittgenstein!) way back in the day, felt that Fairburn's critics had a crude understanding of how Popper's theory of falsification works. He accused them of thinking that one piece of contradictory evidence falsifies a theory, when in reality a theory is a complex thing which is constantly being patched up and improved in response to criticism. Falsification is thus usually something that happens only over a long period of time.

Munz said that instead of pointing to a particular community or event and saying 'hey look, this doesn't fit with Fairburn's talk about individualism and isolation' the man's critics should have tried to construct their own alternative general theory of Pakeha New Zealand history.

I haven't myself read the book Munz was reviewing, but I have talked to a few lefties about Fairburn's theory, and they have generally tried to argue against that theory using the sort of crude form of falsification which Munz discusses. They're content to cite one counter-example and then discount Fairburn. A classic example is the militant labour movement which existed in New Zealand just before World War One. They cite the Waihi Strike and the General Strike and the rhetoric of solidarity and class struggle which undeniably enthused many Kiwi workers during that period, but for sentimental and political reasons they never consider whether this militant period in our labour history was anomalous, and thus doesn't really refute Fairburn's deliberately general theory.

I probably expressed myself wrongly when I said that Fairburn is theoretical and many other Kiwi scholars are not. I should have said that he is more consciously theoretical than many of our scholars. He makes his theoretical assumptions explicit and argues in favour of them. I don't think any scholar can escape from theory, although of course a scholar can be unconscious of the theory or theories he or she employs.

Do you have a pick for our greatest historian/s?

10:23 pm  
Blogger maps said...

It occurs to me that Kendrick Smithyman would probably have strongly agreed with Sandra's argument that regional differences make Fairburn's claims about nineteenth century Kiwi history problematic:

10:32 pm  
Blogger Richard said...

Sandra (et al) - are you really trying to say that the South Island is a legitimate part of New Zealand? And why are you and Maps using long words like Regionalism etc?

I know that Jack Ross (bless him (he is after all a North Islander)) was or is keen on such long complex terms as "New Historicism" etc but 'regionalism' etc and 'provincialism' just leaves me baffled...we Aucklanders are better but we are also a bit stupider... (I know this statement might seem to be at odds...but well...)

I think you SIrs are not showing us Aucklanders enough respect. We should invade is my view...

12:11 am  
Anonymous herb said...

heh...taylor the maoist shows his true colours...taylor liked the little red book...

10:12 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm not sure that your dismissal of Dutton's last book is fair or prudent. It is by no means a book for academic philosophers (an audience Dutton had no problem writing for when he wanted to) but it is a good piece of high end popular aesthetics and sets out its project (which is somewhat of an emerging line of inquiry) quite well.

I've seen a number of people dismiss it without any real attempt at argument, other than facile claims that real artists don't recognise what they do in it (as if mediaeval people having sex needed to know the evolutionary causes of sexual behaviour in order to do it well). Dutton's political leanings are irrelevant to the case he makes, which should be treated on its own merits.

It's also worth nothing that Dutton lectured in philosophy, a discipline, the practitioners of which (whatever their political persuasion) have little time for the substandard level of argument and subservient idolisation of theorists that goes on in areas of the humanities and social sciences with less argumentative rigour.

10:59 pm  
Blogger Richard said...

Maps - yes, the the review and the interview should get an airing.

Strange my mix of fondness for Mao's writings and Jack's!

Especially as Jack is not a big fan of the former...

(I also like some of Marx; and Engels - I like Engels and Marx on Britain and the working classes and early "man" and how Labour "evolved" etc Marx's).

A historian I liked a lot years ago was Gordon Childe who wrote "What Happened in History".

11:34 pm  
Blogger Richard said...

Dutton has a point here -

Dutton used his editorship of the journal Philosophy and Literature to criticise many literary and cultural theorists for a writing style that is, "no better than adequate -- or just plain awful."[7] In 1995, his Bad Writing Contest criticised the prose of Homi K. Bhabha and Fredric Jameson.[8] In 1998, the contest awarded first place to University of California-Berkeley Professor Judith Butler, for a sentence which appeared in the journal diacritics:

"The move from a structuralist account in which capital is understood to structure social relations in relatively homologous ways to a view of hegemony in which power relations are subject to repetition, convergence, and rearticulation brought the question of temporality into the thinking of structure, and marked a shift from a form of Althusserian theory that takes structural totalities as theoretical objects to one in which the insights into the contingent possibility of structure inaugurate a renewed conception of hegemony as bound up with the contingent sites and strategies of the rearticulation of power."

[!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! What the -!! Sounds bit like one of my poems!!]

Dutton said, "To ask what this means is to miss the point. This sentence beats readers into submission and instructs them that they are in the presence of a great and deep mind. Actual communication has nothing to do with it.".... the affair briefly became a cause célèbre in the world of academic theorists. Dutton then ended the contest.

11:52 pm  
Blogger Richard said...

Dutton sounds like he was an interesting character...I see he died recently, that is sad.

His art book might be well worth a read.

I suppose he occupies a middle ground, rather like John Needham of "The Departure Lounge: Travel and Literature in the Post-Modern World."

He is obsessed with post modernism, which he takes that philosophy (as he sees it) seriously enough (he is sometimes so, almost too, concerned about (Jameson, Baudrillard, and others) it inhibits him from giving us a deeper take on his own views) to not totally "debunk" everything about it, has some interesting anecdotes and points.

But he maybe protesteth too much.

12:19 am  
Blogger Sandra - too heavy to stand on a soapbox, but undeterred said...

"Munz said that instead of pointing to a particular community or event and saying 'hey look, this doesn't fit with Fairburn's talk about individualism and isolation' the man's critics should have tried to construct their own alternative general theory of Pakeha New Zealand history."

I have been thinking about this. I'm not familiar with the review or the book it reviews - living on the West Coast does have its drawbacks in terms of library limitations. But, let that not stop me from a comment anyway...

Although I see the logic in the falsification argument, that doesn't automatically make it a relevant argument. Just because Fairburn came up with an ambitious and interesting argument with a pile of evidence to back it up, does not mean that the only good response is to make another highly generalised and sweeping thesis about the process of living in colonial New Zealand.

The atomisation which Fairburn describes is really one side of a dichotomy, the push and pull of which characterises the formation of New Zealand society. The primary source of Nearly out of Heart and Hope is one of the most marvellous and almost magical resources I have encountered. The surviving written form of a labouring person's life is so rare for the period, most particularly for such an 'atomised' subject.

But for all the transience, the people opting not to join groups and go to church and 'settle', at the same time many people did form strong community bonds and set up structures where newcomers could fit in and participate and begin to make meaning out of their patch of ground as kind of home. The push and pull of atomisation versus community building is what characterises the experimental townships of the nineteenth century. For example, in my family still is the ownership of a town section in Chertsey, which is a tiny non-place near Ashburton (possibly less tiny now than when I discovered it 20 years ago as I think it is lifestyle block country now and thus perhaps 'revived'. It is where my great great grandfather owned a stables in the 1870s when plans were drawn up for the township. He moved and married and settled in the working class Catholic area of Sydenham, Christchurch which Lyndon Fraser wrote of in From Tara to Holyhead. The plans for the town of Chertsey were disbanded in favour of Ashburton.

The forces of community and settlement lost in Chertsey but they won in many other places. Atomisation was a feature which deisappeared in some places earlier than others. To suggest that critics were wasting their time critiquing Fairburn's thesis on the basis of the places they knew from long study is to suggest that the only history of merit is that which generalises on the entirety of New Zealand. Fairburn does something important not merely in his grand theorising and the intellectual fun it offers for those who particularly enjoy explicit discussions of theory, but in his elevation of an ordinary silent man from Nearly out of Heart and Hope to the dignity of a close study. He also puts the roamer to the front of history (though largely unnamed in his Ideal Society) whereas the 'settlers', to describe them literally, have formerly dominated historical constructions.

I never saw myself explicitly as a regionalist until I started reading your blog and conversing with it, Maps, but now it is a badge I wear with pride. The historians you name as enjoying I would agree with. I don't have a name for 'best' historian to offer, despite careful thought.

2:11 am  
Blogger Sandra - too heavy to stand on a soapbox, but undeterred said...

You have written persuasively of late about the value of pursuing obsessions. Certainly Judith Binney and Anne Salmond have produced fantastic work from doing just that. Short of considering generalist histories as better than micro studies (you'll note already that I don't wish to rank the generalists above the smaller scale obsessives), it's impossible to separate out what speaks to me personally from what might objectively be the best historian. I am looking forward to what Greg Ryan writes next on the history of alcohol in New Zealand because it is a subject I am interested in and because I rate his intellect highly. I suspect his writing on sport is very good, but I've only not read it because I have almost no interest in sport in any form.

So without claiming first place or top ten status for either, I will mention two books which I have a particular affinity for. Anne Else wrote a history of closed stranger adoption A Question of Adoption in 1991 and I think of it still. As a child of the early 1970s, so many of my friends were adopted and I saw the dream of adoption as the perfect solution unravel around me for some. One of my favourite things about blogging is the opportunity to see another side of Anne Else on her blog ( she also contributes to The Hand Mirror and has a food blog, most poignant now as she grieves for her recently deceased husband.

Last summer we went to Golden Bay, possibly the most beautiful landscape on earth. In a small shop ( that visually appears to be in the middle of nowhere, I found a book called Swamp Fever, by Gerard Hindmarsh. I loved that book and I don't think I fed my children until I finished it. There was a powerful sense of connection as well as a well written book and sure enough when I checked the family history book back home, I have ancestors who spent time there. But I recommend it here because it is not merely a story of Golden Bay and particularly of the eventual assimilation of the hippies into mainstream Golden Bay life and culture, but also I think is a window into the shift from penniless hippies to neo-liberal advocates. Richard Prebble is one example, unless I have misremembered completely.

2:11 am  
Blogger maps said...

Hi Sandra,

I suppose that whether we judge a society as atomised or not depends upon the standards by which we define atomisation and its opposite. I know this sounds pathetic, but I didn't realise what a modern and what an atomsied society New Zealand is until I went to Tonga and Samoa, and saw how integrated life is in the villages of those countries. One can live in the village of (say) Drury and not have anything much to do with one's neighbours, because land title is individual, utilities like power and water are accessed individually, and there are so many threads - television, the internet, the worksite and shops one can commute to - by which the individual living in Drury can connect with the world outside the village. In Samoa, by contrast, one can get fined for not going to the local church, and in Tonga it can be shameful even to spend a day alone, away from the company of the wider family group and the village (as a fan of the solitary stroll, I was amazed to learn that a lot of Tongans don't even like to walk alone: if a Tongan is given an errand to run, he or she is quite likely to seek out a companion before setting offf...). In the villages of both countries there are far more ties which unite people and far fewer threads to the world outside the village. I know all this is obvious: but it somehow hadn't registered with me.

There is a sense in which there aren't any villages in New Zealand, except perhaps in areas where Maori still hold large amounts of land collectively and in areas where ruggedness and sheer isolation demand a considerable amount of local cohesion and collective labour.

As someone born about the same time as you I remember the ubiquity of adoption by strangers. I also remember that some kids didn't know they were adopted until they were told by a classmate or someone else outside either their adoptive or birth family. Some kids would actually get spooked that they might be adopted: I remember a friend of mine saying something like 'my parents wouldn't lie to me about being my real parents, and anyway they have pictures of me as a baby...'

Have you read Geoff Park's book Uruora: the Groves of Life? There's a superb chapter in there on the area west of Takaka, and on the Maori and Pakeha families with connections to it. I expect you might be interested in the Peter Simpson's soon-to-be-released biography of Takaka boy Leo Bensemann, too?

2:35 am  
Blogger maps said...

On a slightly different, but not totally unrelated, subject: here's an interesting article by high-profile US expert on the Middle East Juan Cole on the sociological and historical background to the current turmoil in Egypt:

'[in the '50s and '60s] Nasser conducted extensive land reform, breaking up the huge Central America-style haciendas and creating a rural middle class. Leonard Binder argued in the late 1960s that that rural middle class was the backbone of the regime.

Abdul Nasser’s state-led industrialization also created a new class of urban contractors who benefited from the building works commissioned by the government...

From 1970, Anwar El Sadat took Egyptian in a new direction, opening up the economy and openly siding with the new multi-millionaire contracting class...But whereas Abdel Nasser’s socialist policies had led to a doubling of the average real wage in Egypt 1960-1970, from 1970 to 2000 there was no real development in the country. Part of the problem was demographic...

The ever-increasing population also increasingly crowded into the cities...So the rural middle class, while still important, is no longer such a weighty support for the regime. A successful government would need to have the ever-increasing numbers of city people on its side. But there, the Neoliberal policies pressed on Hosni Mubarak by the US since 1981 were unhelpful...The state was thus increasingly seen to be a state for the few...

The military regime in Egypt initially gained popular legitimacy in part by its pluck in facing down France, Britain and Israel in 1956-57...Cairo’s behind the scenes help to the US, with Iraq and with torturing suspected al-Qaeda operatives, were well known. Very little is more distasteful to Egyptians than the Iraq War and torture. The Egyptian state went from being broadly based in the 1950s and 1960s to having been captured by a small elite. It went from being a symbol of the striving for dignity and independence after decades of British dominance to being seen as a lap dog of the West.

The failure of the regime to connect with the rapidly growing new urban working and middle classes...set the stage for last week’s events.'

2:43 am  
Blogger maps said...

Via the Solidarity Centre:

Translation of original in Arabic into English:

Press Release

Date: Sunday, 30 January 2011

Today, representatives of the of the Egyptian labor movement, made up of the independent Egyptian trade unions of workers in real estate tax collection, the retirees, the technical health professionals and representatives of the important industrial areas in Egypt: Helwan, Mahalla al-Kubra, the tenth of Ramadan city, Sadat City and workers from the various industrial and economic sectors such as: garment & textiles, metals industry, pharmaceuticals, chemical industry, government employees, iron and steel, automotive, etc… And they agreed to hold a press conference at 3:30pm this afternoon in Tahrir Square next to Omar Effendi Company store in downtown Cairo to announce the organization of the new Federation of Egyptian Trade Unions and to announce the formation of committees in all factories and enterprises to protect, defend them and to set a date for a general strike. And to emphasize that the labor movement is in the heart and soul of the Egyptian Peoples’ revolution and its emphasis on the support for the six requirements as demanded by the Egyptian People’s Revolution. To emphasize the economic and democratic demands voiced by the independent labor movement through thousands of strikes, sit-ins and protests by Egyptian workers in the past years.

6:40 pm  
Blogger Richard said...

I never heard of adoption when I was a boy - but that was in the 50s.

I agree that NZ is in many ways, compared to Tonga or Samoa say, very "atomized". We have no village or villages. People don't speak to other much. That changes in crisis situations as we do have that deep need fro intercommunication and contact...and Blogs are good way for people to intercommunicate; for some it IS therapy, a way of interacting that they find very difficult in the "real" world.

It is almost irrelevant what one blogs or writes on a Blog or a site or is contact we crave. It is a sense of being - and that may also drive some of us to create or "do art" or to write history books, be involved in politics in some way (even if deep down we don't really want to be bothered; it isn't others as such we care about or "progress", it ourselves with others we want..), and so on.

We have lost each other.

12:14 am  
Anonymous Pete O'Keefe said...

If you say there is no world, I’m not sure where the heck I am. So... I clearly am not where I think I am, so I must be in the wrong place. It would be difficult for me to be any clearer, since I don’t know where I am.

12:19 am  
Anonymous Whaleoil said...

Homophobia and Violence of the Left
The left likes to think they are mature in debate and all things politic. They jumped all over Sarah Palin for some¬how being respon¬si¬ble for a lone crazed gun¬man shoot¬ing a Sen¬a¬tor. They wrongly blamed the Tea Party for bring¬ing vio¬lence into Amer¬i¬can pol¬i¬tics and also more broadly smeared the right in gen¬eral by say¬ing they were violent.
Often too the left likes to claim that they are more tol¬er¬ant, pinker than any¬one else and rain-bow friendly. Except of course they are no dif¬fer¬ent from any other polit¬i¬cal group¬ing in attract¬ing the vio¬lent, the intol¬er¬ant and the nasty.
And so we see that all come together yes¬ter¬day with Labour con¬tin¬ued Key Derange¬ment Syn¬drome inspired attacks.
Trevor Mal¬lard thought he was being witty when he called John Key the “Prime Min¬cer” in par¬lia¬ment. He even put up a “raw meat” post, as Bomber likes to call dog whis¬tle posts, and encour¬aged com¬menters to add to the insults. It isn’t there¬fore sur¬pris¬ing that he got exactly what he was seek¬ing and more.
That’s right, that is a com¬menter, on Red Alert, the Labour MPs blog being allowed to sug-gest that he pours petrol on right wingers and set them alight. It wasn’t and still isn’t mod¬er-ated (like Scott Hamilton’s shrill nasty blog) and it is on a post encour¬ag¬ing anti-homosexual com¬ments about “min¬cers”. Of course the com¬ment is light-hearted we know this because the com¬menter put a smi¬ley face on it.…yeah right. This is the under-lying vio¬lence that Bomber likes to rant about and there it is, encour¬aged, on a Labour Party MP blog. UPDATE: Have had an email from Trevor Mal¬lard, the com¬ment above has now been deleted.
Idiot/Savant aka Mal¬colm Har¬brow at No Right Turn got, rightly, upset with the homo¬pho¬bic taunts in par¬lia¬ment yes¬ter¬day. Say what you will about Mal¬colm, per¬son¬ally I detest his equally shrill nasty blog myself, but he is con¬sis¬tent in call¬ing out the nasty side of politics.
Clare Cur¬ran joined in the homo¬pho¬bic rants as well, and even more bizarrely claimed that it was John Key con¬cerned with his hair when her own leader dyes his.

Kris McFaafoi, some¬one who should know bet¬ter about stereo¬typ¬ing minori¬ties joined in

What will Phil Goff do to reign in his out of con¬trol MPs?

11:16 am  

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