Monday, December 20, 2010

The politics of hysteria

In the twenty-first century we are continually being urged to register and express our emotions. The days of the stiff upper lip and suffering in silence have well and truly gone, as unctuous TV talk show hosts and 'self-help' books scream at us to 'grow emotionally' by blubbering our deepest secrets and confessing our most recalcitrant feelings to our partners, to our friends, and
to perfect strangers.

It might be argued that, for all their intellectual vapidity and relentless avarice, Oprah Winfrey and Marla Cilley are healthier guides to human behaviour than, say, Colonel Blimp or Billy Graham. But even if today's fashion for silly self-expression beats the ethos of self-denial and emotional repression which was once promoted and enforced in Western societies, it can nevertheless be argued that our new obsession with our emotions, and our corresponding lack of interest in less subjective ways of experiencing the world, has had a serious impact on the quality of our political discourse.

Today, anyone who is interested in the peculiar, almost arcane practices of historical, sociological, and political analysis - interested in the gathering of data on societies and their different aspects, the discovery of faultlines and connections between classes and other interest groups, the understanding of the relations between the industrial and commercial 'base' of a society and the ideas and cultural practices which constitute its 'superstructure', and so on - has to swim into a strong and cold current. Today the media and mainstream political parties routinely take sociological concepts and categories which were moulded and refined by generations of scholarship and debate and redefine them in wholly subjective, frequently hysterical terms.

The tendency has become most extreme in the United States, where concepts as weighty as 'fascism', 'socialism' and 'ruling class' have been appropriated and impoverished in the harangues of politicians like Sarah Palin and broadcasters like Bill O'Reilly. The right of the Republican Party has had no hesitation in branding Barack Obama both a fascist and a socialist, and in describing the Democratic Party's liberal fringe as the 'ruling class' of America. Terms like 'socialism' and 'fascism' have become mere conduits for the expression of anger, the equivalent of the rows of bloated exclamation marks used in kids' comic books or the tiny grumpy face emoticons which can be left beside an online sentence. For Palin's followers in the Tea Party, Obama is a fascist and a socialist because he is a really bad leader, and because fascism and socialism are both, you know, really bad things.

In America and elsewhere, the left is often no less subjective than the right. The moronic attempts of Palin and other right-wingers to cast Obama as a latter-day Stalin or Hitler, or as a combination of the two, had a precedent in the 'BUSHITLER' signs and slogans deployed by some of the less rational members of the movement against the invasion of Iraq and other parts of Bush's War of Terror.

A reader of this blog who was born in New Zealand but lives in the United States recently made some interesting comments about the incoherently subjective way that our own nascent 'Tea Party' movement uses political and sociological concepts. 'M' noted that:

I've found there to be an increase in what I can only call 'right wing' politics by the likes of Coastal Coalition and the New Zealand Centre for Political Research.

I seem to hear a lot about the Maori 'aristocracy' lately. Perhaps this is a common term back home now, but it's rather new to me...

The thing is, I find the term to be at odds with what little I know about aristocracy in general...I just don't see the whole property and wealth accumulation thing being concentrated into the hands of a priviledged class of nobles who have the backing of some ruling monarch. From what I can tell, tribal society seems to be more of a collectivist redistribution model...

In short, I just don't think that the 'aristocracy' label fits...

The Coastal Coalition and the innocent-sounding New Zealand Centre for Political Research represent that faction of New Zealand's right which has never accepted either the Treaty of Waitangi and associated notions of biculturalism or liberal social reforms like the legalisation of abortion and the Human Rights Act. Muriel Newman, the boss of the kooky NZCPR, specialises in the same nostalgia for the emotional repression and official monoculturalism of the 1950s that Sarah Palin sells in the United States. Like Palin, though, Newman and her local supporters express their desire for a return to this idealised and austere past in rhetoric which belongs to the Age of Oprah. Concepts and categories are handled in an emotional rather than analytic way, and emotive soundbites are preferred to anything resembling linear argument.

M refers to the way that Newman and John Ansell, the Wellington advertising man who fronts the Coastal Coalition's campaign against Maori rights to the seabed and foreshore, like to present themselves as the enemies of a 'Maori aristocracy' represented by the business arms of iwi like Kai Tahu and Ngati Porou. In a blog post he made back in August, Ansell warned that New Zealand would become a 'tribal aristocracy like Tonga' if iwi businesses were able to run commercial operations on the country's coasts.

The notion of a 'tribal aristocracy' has no more intellectual content than the Tea Party's definition of Obama as a 'fascist socialist'. A 'tribal aristocracy' is a contradiction in terms: an aristocracy is formed in a feudal society, and to create a feudal society it is necessary to break the bonds of the tribe. In a tribal society, people are linked to one another by genealogy, and a subsistence economy characterised by some level of communal land ownership and shared labour is normal. Feudalism is based around the exploitation of a class of serfs by a landowning class which has become culturally and genealogically distant from them.

In his classic book The Evolution of the Polynesian Chiefdoms Patrick Vinton Kirch shows that pre-contact Polynesian societies could be organised in very different ways. Some, like Tonga and Hawaii, were very hierarchical, and could be considered post-tribal and at least proto-feudal, whilst a few, like Pukapuka and Rekohu, were extremely egalitarian, and had economies based on small-scale subsistence farming or on hunter gathering. Most Polynesian societies fell somewhere between these extremes.

Some Maori iwi were very egalitarian, especially those in the south of the South Island, whilst others, particularly those in the far north, were larger and more hierarchical. Kirch calculates, though, that the largest political unit in pre-contact Maori society only had 3-5,000 members. Maori had nothing to compare with the quasi-feudal systems which had evolved in Tonga and Hawaii. There was rank in Maori society, and there was also, on a relatively small scale, slavery, but there was no class of nobles exploiting serfs.

The King Movement created in the 1850s might seem like a good place to find avaricious aristocrats, but it was essentially an attempt to modernise Maori society from within, in response to the threat posed by land-hungry Pakeha. The economy which operated in the lands controlled by the King Movement combined production for export with communal land ownership and labour, and can thus be considered a sort of fusion of capitalism and a pre-contact subsistence mode of production. Kings Potatau and Tawhiao may have been the leaders of a de facto Maori state, but their political pre-eminence did not translate into economic domination of their subjects.

The business ventures which have been created by iwi in recent decades, often on the basis of cash and land given to them as part of Treaty settlements, cannot be understood with references to feudalism. They are, for better or worse, fledgling capitalist enterprises, relatively small players in a New Zealand economy dominated by foreign-based companies. Why can't John Ansell recognise this rather obvious fact, rather than resort to such ungainly formulations as 'tribal aristocracy'? The answer, of course, is that Ansell is in the habit of using concepts according to the emotional charge he receives from them, rather than according to their relation to reality. He is an admirer of capitalism, and he is disinclined to want to extend a concept with a positive emotional charge to organisations he clearly despises. Ansell would rather deploy the terms 'tribal' and 'aristocracy', which create negative emotional charges. A recent discussion at the increasingly demented indymedia website showed Ansell's dismal approach to political discussion has parallels on the left of twenty-first century New Zealand politics. After wandering into the rambling, often bizarre comments thread under an indymedia post about the Pike River tragedy, I got involved in a series of arguments about the nature of capitalism with several members of New Zealand's activist community.

Sarah Watson, whose opinions have already been the subject of one post to this blog, had decided, in the wake of the death of twenty-nine miners at Pike River, that 'capitalism IS mining'. This seemed to me, and still seems to me, a rather strange formulation. I find it hard to believe that the ancient Britons who built Stonehenge, the Tongans who mined the massive stones that became the langi of their old capital Mu'a, and the Maori who mined the coal reefs at Taupiri well before the arrival of Europeans were all capitalists. But none of these objections can matter for Sarah Watson, because her definition of capitalism is based not on history and sociology, but on her feelings. She was, like most New Zealanders, upset and angry about the Pike River disaster, and for her 'capitalism' is a sort of swear word she uses when she is upset and angry.

The tendency to equate anything bad with 'capitalism' and anything good with 'anti-capitalism' is one of the banes of the twenty-first century left, in New Zealand and elsewhere. Visitors to indymedia can sometimes observe Matt McCarten being characterised as an anti-capitalist, just because he does good things like occupying unused houses and speaking up for low-income workers. In reality, McCarten is, according to his own testimony, an old-fashioned left-wing social democrat, who favours regulating and managing capitalism to make it fairer. It ought to be possible to praise McCarten's good deeds without misrepresenting his politics.

More conservative trade union leaders like Andrew Little are condemned at indymedia as 'capitalists' when they refuse to call for strikes, or decline to launch the sort of hard-hitting protest campaigns McCarten's union has become associated with. I don't know Little personally, but I'm fairly certain he doesn't have a large share portfolio or own a factory or two. He's a highly-paid bureaucrat with rather centrist political views, not a member of the Business Roundtable.

It seems to me that, whether they know it or not, some of the self-styled radicals at indymedia and similar sites share their intellectual method with Sarah Palin and Oprah Winfrey.


Anonymous Edward said...

"Today the media and mainstream political parties routinely take concepts and categories which were moulded and refined by generations of scholarship and debate and redefine them in wholly subjective, frequently hysterical terms."

Too true. And it only serves to make the task of serious debate that much harder. As you say, it isn't just conservatives who are guilty of this either. Thanks for this thought-provoking post Maps.

9:33 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

So the left is dead...What about the students of Britain and the young workers of Greece confronting the state and the IMF and fighting the cops on the streets - or are they not THEORETICAL enough for you???

9:38 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

PS how do YOU define capitalism anyway???

9:39 am  
Blogger Jack Ross said...

"Anonymous" appears to have proved your point for you, Maps ... Yes, let's turn off the tap of fatuous emotive drivel and start doing a bit of thinking again.

10:05 am  
Anonymous pete o'keefe is back with the truth said...

Communist policies specifically designed to devastate the free market economy as well as impoverish and punish the upper and middle classes leading to their elimination so that the Communist "Dictatorship Of The Proletariat" can be introduced. It is important to note that in each and every historical instance Communism has been introduced into democratic countries and they were all swiftly changed to totalitarian dictatorships of a single leader benefiting from a "Cult Of Personality."

Policies virtually identical to these were implemented by:

Vladimir Ilyich Lenin in 1917 Russia
Josip Broz Tito in 1945 Yugoslavia
Mao Zedong (Tse-tung) in 1949 China
Fidel Castro in 1959 Cuba
Hugo Chavez in 1999 Venezuela

and now they are being implemented by

Barack Hussein Obama in 2009 United States of America.

1:09 pm  
Anonymous pete o'keefe is back said...

Ask why so many of those around O'bummer are ATHEISTS

ha ha but so are you people here

and most NZers too going into the fiery lake of hell

1:10 pm  
Blogger maps said...

'PS how do YOU define capitalism anyway???'

Well, this is what I wrote on indymedia:

Following the understanding developed by Marx and used by many subsequent leftists, Marxist and non-Marxist alike, I'd argue that capitalism is a mode of production - one of many modes of production which exist in our world. A mode of production includes social relations, eg the way we organise ourselves to produce, and also the technology we use to produce. Virtually every society contains different modes of production, but in most places today the capitalist mode of production dominates the other modes.

New Zealand is a very modern society, and is very much dominated by a capitalist mode of production, but we still have the remnants of what sociologists have called a peasant mode of production in areas like the Hokianga and the East Coast, where Maori still collectively own much land and communities make a partly-subsistence living off it. Even in our cities there are remnants of past modes of production. Feminists sometimes use the term domestic mode of production to describe the way work is organised within individual households.

I've argued lately that in Tonga the capitalist mode of production is still quite weak, and the old feudal and peasant modes of production are still surprisingly strong ( I think a post-capitalist mode of production might be emerging in Venezuela, where workers are running hundreds of factories and thousands of cooperatives are running with government support, but it is still quite weak and subordinate to the capitalist mode...

1:43 pm  
Anonymous Edward said...

Why should fighting cops on the street be a de facto prerequisite of being a member of leftist politics? I guess if one is a passivist, or, god forbid, actually has respect for police officers, then they are part of the capitalist right, huh? Such raw analytical and altruistic intelligence. Truly breathtaking. I'm off to go listen to some anarchistic punk, act all angsty and anti-intellectual, and pretend I'm relevant now.

2:02 pm  
Blogger maps said...

The claim that the student protests in Britain have been motivated by a desire for confrontation with the police reminds me of the sort of shallow, fetishistic thinking which flourishes nowadays at Aotearoa Indymedia.

When people can't - or, more to the point, won't - use general statements and theories to understand the complexity of the world, they instead fetishise individual things, and give those things mystical properties. Thus an individual cop, who in reality probably earns less than the average worker and has little or no authority over policing, let alone over any other aspect of society, becomes the incarnation of the capitalist system. Attack him and you're somehow attacking Wall Street and the City of London as well.

The confronations with cops during the student protests in Britain have occurred not because students and their supporters have had the aim of confronting the police, but because the police have gotten in the way of the protesters' ends.

The cops have kettled students on Westminster Bridge, preventing them demonstrating where they wanted to demonstrate, have prevented them from getting close to parliament, have tried to stop them from occupying Tory party HQ, and so on. The protesters have scuffled with cops in pursuit of their ends of blockading or occupying institutions like Tory HQ and key banks. The confrontations with the cops have not been treated as an end in themselves.

The protesters, at least, have been smart enough to realise that it is not cops who run capitalism.

3:37 pm  
Blogger Chris Trotter said...

Your definition of aristocracy may be a little narrow for the purposes of arguing New Zealand politics, Maps.

Certainly there was little in pre-European Maori society to match the classic feudal social and political structures of Medieval Europe or Japan.

But aristocracy is not an exclusively a feudal concept. In the pre-feudal societies of Greece and Rome aristocrats certainly existed - alongside the remnants of tribal societies from which they grew. The same might be said of the Highland Scots.

One of the key concepts in any discussion of aristocracy must surely be lineage: the idea that one's worth is, at least in part, derived from one's ancestors.

It is my understanding that this concept of lineage was (and is) very strong in Maori society. Being able to trace one's genealogy back to an illustrious ancestor was an important aspect of "mana". Not sufficient in itself, for prowess required demonstration, but certainly a predisposition towards such prowess and respect.

Lineage was also an important aspect of political leadership in many Maori tribes, and it is here that the Maori concepts of aristocracy got drawn into our own.

It was the custom of British imperialists to govern through the pre-existing political structures of the societies they drew into their empire (India being the best example).

Our own Treaty of Waitangi, with its central guarantee to preserve and protect "the power of the chiefs" is of a piece with many other examples of this British preference for governing in co-operation with the indigenous ruling-class.

Even after the Land Wars of the 1860s and 70s, the colonial authorities were careful not to disturb too greatly the internal tribal hierarchies - if only because it was a lot easier to subborn a single chief than an entire tribe.

The effect of this was to slowly but surely create a layer of Maori society exercising a considerably greater amount of political and economic power than those below it. Through the education of its children in elite Maori schools and their subsequent employment in the civil service; this privileged layer was able to build upon and expand the agricultural and/or pastoral foundation/s of its power.

The Settler State's response to the "Maori Renaissance" of the 1970s and 80s was to turn to this privileged layer: relying upon its traditional authority to "manage" the Treaty settlement process. At the upper reaches of both Pakeha and Maori society there was a strong common interest in preventing the settlement process from acquiring too "democratic" a character - an outcome which would have been destabilising to both.

It is in this context, I believe, that Muriel Newman and John Ansell have developed the "aristocratic" rhetoric you condemn. And in such a context it may not be as intellectually risible as your posting suggests.

1:43 pm  
Anonymous Blobbing said...

There is also a bit of resonance between the so-called "Maori aristocracy" and the so-called "Browntable" (which I believe has been invoked and criticised on this very blog).

Even so, it's always a pretty murky mixture of rhetoric, fact, and intepretation with these pressure groups.

It also has to be acknowledged that certain Maori radicals are not averse to some fairly inflammatory and emotive post-colonial rhetoric (e.g. "Kill a white"). Or could this be construed and therefore excused as part of "general statements and theories to understand the complexity of the world"?

4:33 pm  
Anonymous Edward said...

I think you may be giving Ansell and Newman too much credit. I think they are using it (aistocracy) in the common pejorative sense which could be exchanged for 'decadent, authoritarian, and elite' or some such, rather than literal interpretation. Besides, the notion of an aristocratic class in NZ prehistory holds less evidence then most people realise, or, at least it is overstated far too often while ignoring the dynamism of pre-European social organisation. Also, Newman believes in the 1421 hypothesis and that the Wairau Bar is an academic conspiracy, so again, I wouldn't credit her with the ability for great historical/contextual anaysis.

4:51 pm  
Anonymous Edward said...

I forgot how averse to general theories people were these days...If the next post contains the statement "knowledge is dead" I'm leaving.

4:57 pm  
Blogger Jared Davidson said...

Maps, I think you should lay off Sara. From what I know of her, she does suffer from mental illness — hence her comments. I would totally agree with your comments, but I just think before you pedestal her you should investigate a little more.


9:07 pm  
Anonymous herb said...

'certain Maori radicals are not averse to some fairly inflammatory and emotive post-colonial rhetoric (e.g. "Kill a white")'

What a pisspoor 'eg'. Titewhai Harawira made a speech twenty years ago in which she the future there's a danger Maori kids might fall into a blind anger and want to 'kill a white and die a hero'...the emdia makes a fuss...

but this was never a's a line from an old speech...the ony people who drag it up are the knuckle dragging rednecks like mr ansell...

11:09 pm  
Anonymous herb said...

'lay off Sara. From what I know of her, she does suffer from mental illness'

Free speech for the mentally ill but not their critics? This is typical of the post-Marxist liberal left. Back in the '70s we'd never have any of this bullshit. We played the man not the ball. If you talk shit you get called out. It doesn't matter who you are. But of course that was when political arguments took place in public at trades halls and rallies not in cyberspace. shut this indymedia down and save everyone a lot of bother.

11:12 pm  
Anonymous herb said...

PS where is that Maoist Richard Taylor? I have some old WCL documents for him. He can read them and then give them back to me so I can wipe my ass with them.

11:13 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Chavez is a 'communazi':

12:05 pm  
Blogger Jared Davidson said...

I have no problem with Maps critiquing what Sara wrote, but that's not the same as lumping the rest of us Indymedia posters with them. I totally agree that her comments were downright odd.

6:07 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"In a tribal society, people are linked to one another by genealogy, and a subsistence economy characterised by some level of communal land ownership and shared labour is normal."
so our modern iwi are not a real tribe?

and : "a governing body or upper class usually made up of a hereditary nobility"
is not an acceptable definition of aristocracy?

10:47 pm  
Blogger maps said...

Nope. The whole point of a tribe is that everyone is related, albeit sometimes circuitously, to everyone else. An aristocracy differentiates its bloodline and also differentiates itself culturally. Compare and contrast the traditional leadership of, say, Nga Puhi and the Tonga royal family, which speaks its own language and doesn't marry commoners. The basis for this sort of differentiation is a large amount of surplus production, which wasn't possible in pre-contact Maori society.

10:37 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"Terms like 'socialism' and 'fascism' have become mere conduits for the expression of anger, the equivalent of the rows of bloated exclamation marks used in kids' comic books or the tiny grumpy face emoticons which can be left beside an online sentence. For Palin's followers in the Tea Party, Obama is a fascist and a socialist because he is a really bad leader, and because fascism and socialism are both, you know, really bad things."

The scary part is the way in which this type of non-thinking gains currency among already conservative pro-militarist Americans who have a tendency to apply silly labels to politicians like Obama within the US but also to the likes of Ahmadinejad or Chavez in order to validate US self interests with the rationale that the only way to combat socialism or facism domestically or internationally is with conservative US lead capitalism (imperialism?).

To the list of conservative politicians and commentators you already mentioned like Palin and O'Reilly, you can add Glen Beck, John Stossel, Sean Hannity, and Judge (Andrew) Napolitano who have all at one time or another invoked the 'S' word (socialism) or the other 'F' word (facism) for the emotional charge that this offers while baraging viewers with their freqent anti-immigrant, anti-minority anti-worker views.

These shows are the reason I try to catch Rachael Maddow and Amy Goodman over at Democracy Now.

I appreciate you taking the time to tackle the concept of Maori 'aristocracy'. I see that you did so much sooner than I anticipated given that you're already 5 posts deep since the last time I visited.

Thanks also for pointing out Patrick Vinton Kirch's work. While looking this up at Amazon I also found something else that might be worth a read by Timothy K. Earle entitled 'How Chiefs Come to Power: The Political Economy in Prehistory'.

Also significant to me in your post was the reply from Chris Trotter. His reference to Maori aristocracy in one of his earlier posts at his blogsite was actually the trigger for me to want to get a 'second opinion' as it were.

It's interesting that the use of such concepts can be found on the left and right of NZ politics.

Thanks for this insightful post Maps.


12:38 pm  

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