Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Winston takes Deng Xiaoping for a drive

It was one of those prepared phrases, those would-be soundbites, which politicians like to squeeze into televised debates in the last precious moments before the moderator shuts them down, and turns the audience's attention to another election candidate. The phrase didn't win even a flutter of applause from Television New Zealand's studio audience, and it was ignored by the other participants in the Minor Leaders Debate, but it deserves at least some discussion, because it tells us a great deal about the politics of one of the most influential figures in this year's election.

"I don't care whether the doctor is black or white or brindle", Winston Peters had said, leaning over his lectern and attempting to hold the gaze of a wavering television camera, "as long as that doctor, male or female, can fix me".

Peters used this curious formulation during an argument with other party leaders over the problems of Maori in contemporary New Zealand. After condemning the 'separatism' which the Maori seats in parliament and Maori-language schools supposedly foster, Peters had argued that lack of educational and economic opportunity, not racial prejudice, was to blame for Maori problems. By junking kohanga reo and other 'separatist' educational facilities and creating more jobs, a New Zealand First government would, Peters suggested, make sure more young Maori moved out of poverty and into the middle classes. The slogan about black or white doctors was apparently supposed to underline Peters' argument that the route to achievement was the same for all young New Zealanders, regardless of their ethnicity.

Peters' slogan appears to have been cribbed from Deng Xiaoping, the effete, guttural-voiced dwarf who fought alongside Mao during China's Revolutionary War, was persecuted for his insufficient revolutionary fervour during the Cultural Revolution, and finally became effective leader of his country after the Great Helmsman's death in 1976.

In the 1980s Deng opened the Chinese economy to market forces and foreign investment, while at the same time machine-gunning students and workers who had the temerity to demonstrate for freedom of speech and free elections.

Attempting to justify his departure from Maoist economic orthodoxy, Deng coined the slogan 'It does not matter if the cat is black or white, as long as it catches mice'. That phrase may have been less resonant than 'All power grows from the barrel of a gun' or 'A revolution is not a dinner party', but it became the cornerstone of 'Socialism with Chinese Characteristics', which replaced Maoism as the official doctrine of China in the '80s (for some peculiar reason, the term 'Dengism' has never caught on, although it is sometimes used in a derogatory way by hardline Maoists opposed to China's new paradigm).

I'm not sure what Winston Peters' supporters would think of him quoting a Chinese communist. As a young National MP in the 1980s during the chilly last years of the Cold War, Peters was fond of 'reds under the beds' rhetoric. In 1986 he bemused parliament and the media by claiming that the Mikhail Lermontov, the Russian cruise ship which ran aground and sunk in the Marlborough Sounds, had been on a secret KGB mission.

In the mid-'90s, after parting ways with National, Peters firmed up support for his fledgling New Zealand First Party by running a scare campaign against Asian immigration to this country, speaking in RSA clubs and Housie Halls up and down the country about the dubious loyalties and criminal tendencies of slanty-eyed Kiwis. Although Peters' Asian-bashing has become less pronounced over the years, it is still a part of the arsenal of New Zealand First. In the lead-up to the 2008 election New Zealand First Deputy Leader Peter Brown warned of 'a flood' of Asians arriving in this country, and at the beginning of this week Grey Power, an organisation with close connections to Peters and his party, asked the Auckland City Council to consider whether Asian immigration to New Zealand's largest city should be curbed.

But perhaps we shouldn't be surprised that Peters has found a slogan in a strange place. The man's speeches and interviews have always been collages drawn from the most diverse and contradictory sources.

Peters can take inspiration from high as well as low culture. In a speech he gave to a mass meeting of Grey Power in 1992, when he was courting expulsion from the National Party by opposing its plans to cut the old-age pension, Peters quoted Dylan Thomas' famous elegy for his father, urging his audience to "Rage, rage against the dying of the light".

A decade later, when he was under fire for his Asian-bashing campaign, Peters discussed some of the linguistic and DNA research which had established that what we now know as mainland China was the ultimate ancestral homeland of the Austronesian peoples. Peters pointed out that he was a Maori, and that Maori are a Polynesian and therefore Austronesian people. How then, he asked, with mock bewilderment, could anyone accuse him of racist attitudes towards Chinese people? Clearly he was himself Chinese! Peters didn't mention that the Austronesians left the land now known as China more than eight thousand years ago, long before the emergence of Chinese culture.

Peters can bowlderize high-falutin' literature and breaking research in the human sciences, but he's also happy to work a dodgy joke or two into his performances. He's fond of saying that, because he has both Maori and Scottish heritage, he has the advantage both of a natural suntan and an understanding of the importance of fiscal restraint. In the early '90s he caused controversy by telling a joke about a Jewish man who knelt in his synagogue and prayed for a winning Lotto ticket. As nervous laughter spread through his audience, Peters described how the walls of the synagogue began to shake, and God's thunderous voice delivered the message "Give me a break, Jew, buy a ticket". This joke was so good that Peters apparently retold it in 2005.

A lot of political commentators have described Peters as an outdated figure, an old man who cannot hope to maintain his political career in the second decade of the twenty-first century. Arguably, though, Peters' contempt for logic and conventional political categories and his chaotically entertaining style of exposition make him a very contemporary figure.

The British sociologist Gregor McLennan has talked about how, with the end of the Cold War, the decline in class struggle in most Western countries, and the dumbing down of popular culture and the media, many politicians have ceased to identify themselves with the left or the right of the political spectrum, and instead embraced a 'vehicular' approach to ideology. According to McLennan, politicians like Tony Blair have became adept at adopting an idea, 'driving' it to a particular political destination, and then abandoning it.

In New Zealand, Winston Peters has been a pioneer of vehicular politics. During his nearly four decades in the political game he has reinvented himself again and again, 'driving' one set of ideas and slogans after another. The right-wing Peters of the 1980s was replaced, in the early '90s, by the social democratic Peters, who defended pensioners against the neo-liberal policies of the Bolger-Shipley government, and who had come to see the value of Maori seats. Peters took a turn to the right when he joined the Bolger government in 1996, and rediscovered his distaste for Maori 'separatism' at the end of the decade, after falling out with the New Zealand First members who had won the Maori seats off Labour. Peters moved left again when he joined Labour in government in 2005, and he has even appropriated some of the slogans of the Occupy Wall Street movement in recent weeks, in an attempt to play to the mood of disgust with the financial sector which he detects in his audiences.

As this blog has noted, Peters is not without his youthful supporters. It can be argued that, with his preference for resonant soundbites over extended argument, and his disdain for hoary notions of left and right, Peters is well-placed to appeal to a generation raised on twitter and on claims that the old ideological battles of the twentieth century are dead. Winston may be driving for some time to come.

[Posted by Scott/Maps]


Anonymous Anonymous said...

there is an auenthentic dengist organisation in nz...the organisation for marxist unity, formerly led by don ross

6:04 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Organisation for Marxist Unity – New ZealandFrom Wikipedia, the free encyclopediaJump to: navigation, search
The Organisation for Marxist Unity (OMU) was founded in the 1975 as the Preparatory Committee for the Formation of the Communist Party of New Zealand (Marxist-Leninist), by former members of the CPNZ including Don Ross, Alec Ostler and Peter Manson. They were opposed to the CPNZ's break with the Communist Party of China after the death of Mao and continued to uphold China under Deng Xiaoping as a model socialist state, although they are presumably looking for a different model in light of China's recent embrace of the free market [1].

In 1988 they changed the name of the group to the Organisation for Marxist Unity, and ceased production of their monthly newspaper in favour of the quarterly magazine Struggle. Since the mid-1990s the OMU has been in merger negotiations with the Communist Party of Aotearoa, another more recent split from the CPNZ, although as of 2008 no merger had taken place.

In recent years members of the OMU have also been active in the group Campaign Against Foreign Control of Aotearoa (CAFCA).

[edit] References1.^ http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2008/oct/13/china
Ron Smith, Working class son: my fight against capitalism and war: memoirs of Ron Smith, a New Zealand communist: self published, 1994. ISBN 047302909X

6:05 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

plus the FARC is dengist

6:08 pm  
Blogger Dave Brown said...

FARC the authentic Deng. His experience was that or restoring capitalism which makes it a bit out of frame as a reference for Peters.

Peters is a populist which accounts for his economic nationalism, broad egalitarianism and social conservatism. He was old national of the Muldoon type that reconciles the contradictions of empire and colony in the form of economic nationalism. That's why the old folks like him he is living in the NZ they recognise. He is the populist centre around which the other parties whine and dance to the tune of the Banksters. Labour and National have both shown greater amplitude than Peters as they fawn to globalism. That's why Peters got kicked out of the neoliberal Nats for opposing more market reforms. Peters basically stopped Rogernomics in its tracks in 1996. Labour could have done it in 1993 if the Alliance had rejoined Labour but that's another story. Anyway, no need to make up some new theory of black is not white when there is a much more parsimonious one - semicloned populism.

And FARC the sociologists end of ideology. Its always amusing to see Marx, socialism and class sent back to the British Museum when all the while the dialectic is plotting to make fools of them. These days we could call it square bashing.

8:57 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


10:08 pm  
Anonymous Scott said...

'[Deng is...]a bit out of frame as a reference for Peters.'

That's the point though: Peters picks up scraps of ideas and language from the most bizarre and outwardly inappropriate places.

He's a strange sort of postmodernist. His refusal of a permanent home on the left or the right, and of the narratives of the left and right, forces him into this weird eclecticism. That's the paradox of his sort of populism: it makes him eccentric.

But those who try to write Peters off as a fossil ignore the way that he opened the road that other parties - United Future and, more recently and much more notably, the Greens - have set out down. The Greens are moving determinedly this election into the same unstable centrist space that Peters had traditionally tried to annex. They're 'neither left nor right but out in front' (that slogan always makes me want to puke).

And it is quite notable that, as they have moved further and further from the traditional social democratic left, with its set of economic verities and its cohering historical narrative, the Greens have become quite ecelectic, adopting fashionable ideas and imagery to try to cover and justify their move. Back in 2006, for instance, near the beginning of their journey, they became infatuated with Jared Diamond and his very fashionable but quite problematic vision of human history:

More recently the Greens have picked up, and sometimes dumped, a whole range of flakey ideas, including even, in Jeanette Fitzsimons' case, conspiracy theories about 9/11. That's the paradox, again: being a centrist makes you a flake. You lose your moorings.

10:29 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


"Before you rush off thinking 'Ah, here comes one of his racist jokes' - which I never tell - I did Hebrew for my language at university."

The boys gave a tentative laugh but Mr Peters was serious. "I did. Before some journalist rushes off and misinterprets what I was going to say, the Old Testament was my textbook."


11:21 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I thought the Austronesians came from Taiwan/Formosa?

1:37 am  
Blogger Dave Brown said...

The point is the social basis of populism, petty bourgeois leaders attempting to reconcile social contradictions, not the language or arguments used. Behind all the imagery is the appeal to national unity. Even very left populists like Chavez want to include all 'citizens' to remove reference to class relations. The very existence of populism is based on attempts to suppress the class contradiction by burying class in nation. Its 'eclecticism' is a function of its needs to canvass a wide range of appeals to win popular support.
The Greens were never social democrats since they had no base in the unions because their green platform sacrificed jobs. Global warming has made them more respectable to 'green' capitalism.

Getting back to the original interview. Lets see if we can get a self-conscious working class movement out of this election to face up to the increasingly ruling class reaction. The Greens, Peters and other tiny factions are just noises off in this class war.

11:11 am  
Anonymous Roger said...

1968 was a catastrophic year for the left and the takeover of our parties everywhere by middle class tossers wearing Che Guevara T-shirts under business suits is the cause of our present problems.

And the 1930s depression ended with the European left literally destroyed – dead, renegades, in prison or in hiding – from Lisbon to Vladivostok.

Only the unrepeatable and inconceivably costly victory of liberal America and Stalinist Russia in WW2 produced the revival in our international fortunes that we take for granted.

With no world war in prospect that anyone can meaningfully win there is no future for the left or for human civilisation.

Winter is coming and it is unlikely that any of us will alive today will ever see another spring.

1:42 pm  
Blogger Giovanni Tiso said...

It should be noted that the lottery ticket joke is an old yiddish joke. It takes on a slightly sinister tinge when Peters tells it, but I wouldn't go as far as to call it racist.

5:55 pm  
Anonymous AHD said...

I always thought that Peters could be understood as a producerist -- someone who reviles the poor, the very rich, those who are not producing material and producing society.

I wonder if Phil Goff could be heard to say, 'I don't care if the cat is black or white...'.

7:46 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Giovanni is right. That's a very old Jewish joke, and one of the better ones. Live somewhere with a large Jewish community and you'll hear them all the time. Perhaps it sounds odd in NZ because we don't have much of a jewish community.

10:25 am  
Anonymous Keri Hulme said...

brindle = a grayish-brown colour with darker markings.

"Doesnt matter if a person is black white or brindle- they are a person, and you treat them as such" was one of my Nanna's sayings (i.e it was common in earlier generations.)

1:33 pm  

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