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!