Monday, June 30, 2014

Interfering with each other

The Tonga Festival of Democracy facebook page has invited us all to respond to a question from Tevita Motulalo, who is a former editor of the conservative newspapers the Tonga Chronicle and Talaki.

Tevita is enjoying the kava served up at the Festival of Democracy, but he is suspicious about the d-word and its proponents. Tevita and I have been having a protracted and bewilderingly rambling series of arguments - the meaning of democracy, the alleged failings of Tonga's Democratic Party, the extent of human sacrifice in pre-Christian Tonga, and the relative fighting abilities of New Zealand's and Tonga's armed forces are a few of the topics we've manage to disagree about - on facebook. This is my favourite passage from our debate:

Scott: I hope you don't drive as randomly as you argue, Tevita, or the traffic on Taufa'ahau Road might be at risk. I have visions of you jumping from first to third gear, doing sudden u turns, spinning your wheels in a cloud of smoke...

Tevita: I am not going to dignify your personal rancour that I may be a helter-skelter driver.

Here is the question from Tevita Motulalo that the Festival of Democracy facebook page has asked its visitors to answer:

What is the difference between pro-democracy advocacy and social engineering?

And here's the response I offered Tevita:

The poser of the question appears to think that 'social engineering' is a bad thing, and seems to believe that it would be damaging for advocates of democracy to be involved in social engineering. But in Tongan Ark, the acclaimed feature length documentary film by Paul Janman about Futa Helu and the 'Atenisi Institute, Helu uses an interview to say "The essence of democracy is interfering with other people'.

Helu was pointing out that anybody who makes an argument in favour of changing some political, economic, or cultural institution is, in a sense, 'interfering' with their fellow citizens, and trying to 'engineer' a different society. And, of course, anybody who argues against changing those same institutions is also 'interfering' and 'engineering'. Just as an ordinary engineer seeks to build objects - bridges, roads, buildings, and so on - that help us live us more effectively, so a social engineer seeks to build and rebuild institutions - parliaments, schools, and so on - that will also serve our needs. And just as different engineers will have different ideas about how to build a bridge, so different people will have different notions about how to create the best parliament, or how to run an education system effectively.

The great thing about democracy, and the reason why it has become such a powerful force over the last couple of centuries, is that it is based on the idea that we should all, as citizens of a society, be able to engage in social engineering. We should all, in other words, have the right to debate and vote on the ways our society should be structured and run. The alternative to democracy is not an absence of social engineering - it is social engineering by a powerful minority, on behalf of the majority. A dictator or absolute monarch engineers all of the institutions of the society in which his subjects are forced to live. I vote for democracy over dictatorship!

Note: the photograph at the top of this post shows 'Ite 'Uhila performing at the opening of the Festival of Democracy art exhibition last Thursday. Although he relocated from West Auckland to the Friendly Islands late last year, 'Ite has deservedly made the 2014 shortlist for the Walters Award, New Zealand's top art prize. I blogged last September about 'Ite's Stowaway, a performance dedicated to the Tongans who travelled to New Zealand in the holds of container ships in the 1970s and '80s. The festival's art show features paintings by both Niu Sila-based Tongans like Tui Emma Gillies and Tongatapuans like Tevita Latu and other members of his legendary Selaka Club.

[Posted by Scott Hamilton]

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Cute kids, and other enemies of democracy

Some people maintain that wealthy foreign donors to political parties undermine democracy, but I think that cute kids can do the same job much more insidiously. As a new general election nears in Aotearoa, the Green Party is once again filling billboards and newspapers and facebook messages with soft focus images of kids and flowers and fluffy doggies and hard-hitting slogans like 'For a New Zealand to be proud of'.

I find the Greens' deliberate inoffensiveness considerably more offensive than the campaigning of the nasty right. While the Greens have been lurking on Auckland's volcanic cones, getting carefully blurred photographs of those cute creatures, Act Party's philosopher-king Jamie Whyte has been going from one inner-city hall to another, unashamedly promoting a set of policies that benefit the wealthiest 1% of society. But at least Act lets us know what its stands for, and thus allows us to open a debate.

The Greens are a Janus-faced party - they have some determinedly left-wing members of parliament, like trade unionist Denise Roche and Mana Party co-traveller Catherine Delahunty, and they occasionally take a boldly progressively stand on an issue - their recent call for the reform of this country's abortion law was both sensible and brave. But the Greens have always been far better at wooing well-heeled Kiwis than the residents of struggle street. They grab big slices of the vote in Wellington and Auckland Central and Dunedin North, but embarrass themselves in Porirua and South Auckland and South Dunedin.
As that old mechanical materialist Engels liked to say, social being ultimately determines consciousness, and the Green Party list is now being scaled by a generation of earnest young men and women in expensive suits who believe that the best way to rectify the excesses of global capitalism is to work for Cadbury Schweppes or the Royal Bank of Scotland.

There has always been an individualist, essentially conservative strain to the Greens. Leading members of the party in the nineties and early noughties like Jeanette Fitzsimons and Sue Kedgley often played down the party's left-wing policies with slogans like 'Neither right nor left but out in front', seemed morbidly preoccupied with the shopping habits of their fellow Kiwis, and flirted with conspiracy theories about 9/11 and quacks like reiki 'masters'. The Greens aimed some shameless mating calls in John Key's direction in the months before the last general election, and their sister parties in Germany and Ireland have happily formed governments with parties from the right.

It is hard not to see the Greens' twee, politics-free advertisements as an attempt to disguise their own contradictions. The party doesn't want to alarm friendly Ponsonby lawyers and restauranteurs by emphasising its left-wing policies on employment law and taxation; on the other hand, it doesn't want to antagonise the left-leaning young activists who push leaflets under doors on its behalf in the weeks before polling day. Whether they vote left or right, Kiwis are fond of cute kids and animals, and the party's promise to create 'a New Zealand to be proud of' is so fuzzily inoffensive that it could earn a nod and a smile from John Minto as well as John Key.

The Greens are not the first New Zealand party to adopt a carefully cute approach to election year advertising. During the 1990 general election campaign, Jim Bolger's National Party aired a big budget, low-content television advertisement that showed a group of carefully selected children - half of them were Maori, half of them were Pakeha, and all of them were, of course, impeccably cute - planting small trees beside a gently flowing stream in a forest clearing. A smiling Bolger promised that he would, like those kids, 'build for the future'.

Like the the Greens today, the National Party of 1990 was troubled by extreme political contradictions. A section of the party close to big business was aggressively enthusiastic about the neo-liberal economic policies - the privatisation of state assets, the commercialisation of education, the abandonment of subsidies and tariffs that had protected many domestic industries - that the Labour government had spent six years imposing on an increasingly angry New Zealand. Another wing of the party influenced by farmers and small town businessmen was much less enthusiastic about neo-liberalism, and wanted a return to the much more statist policies of the Muldoon era.

Jim Bolger was smart enough to understand how unpopular Labour's policies had become, and made sure that National went into the 1990 election with a manifesto that promised an end to student fees, the retention of state assets, and other voter-friendly measures. At the same time, Bolger signalled to his shadow cabinet that National's manifesto wasn't to be taken very seriously.

National won the 1990 election easily, after some traditionally left-wing parts of the country, like the West Coast, turned to the party out of frustration with Labour. Shortly after his triumph Bolger junked the manifesto he had taken to the election and set out to deepen the neo-liberal restructuring of New Zealand society that Labour had begun. In 1991 his party pushed the stringently anti-union Employment Contracts Act through parliament, and unveiled a budget that cut many benefit payments by a fifth or more. The economy tanked, unemployment climbed past twelve percent, and National was quickly as unpopular as Labour had been.

Cute kids can be dangerous.

 [Posted by Scott Hamilton]

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Ted weds

Futa Helu, the late and legendary Tongan classicist, educator, and pro-democracy advocate, would have been smiling in Pulotu last week. Last Tuesday a Festival of Democracy dedicated to Helu's memory opened at 'Atenisi, the school he founded half a century ago on the outskirts of Nuku'alofa; and last Thursday, two thousand kilometres south of Tonga's capital, on the sixth floor of an office block in an Auckland oppressed by cold wind and rain, Helu's niece Lose married Ted Jenner, a Kiwi intellectual who has spent his life studying and writing about the Greek philosophers and poets who so fascinated the founder of 'Atenisi.

I'm happy to take credit for introducing Ted and Lose to one another, only three months ago, shortly after Lose had arrived in the strange and vast city of Auckland to pursue her PhD research into Pacific history.

When I asked Ted why he had waited until his sixty-eighth year to get married, he was emphatic. "I just hadn't found the right woman!" he said. "It wasn't due to a lack of romantic feeling...I translated a bookload of love songs by Ibykos: how can I be unromantic?"

Last week's ceremony had the improvised and yet hermetic feel of a classic Ted Jenner poem. Friends and family of the bride and groom were informed of the event at almost the last minute; nevertheless, a surprising number attended. Some of Lose's relatives seem to have gone straight to Fua'amotu airport after getting her text, and taken the first plane to 'Atalanga. "You don't really have to formally invite Tongans to a wedding" Lose told me. "They turn up anyway!" It was good to catch up with some Tongan friends at the ceremony, but I was disconcerted when I realised I was the only person at the event wearing a tupenu and ta'ovala. "It's too cold for that stuff down here", Lose's brother told me. He was right.

In honour of this very romantic event, I'm posting the greatest love song ever written. Sorry Ibykos.

[Posted by Scott Hamilton]

Friday, June 20, 2014

Why Tongan democracy should interest us all

The Tonga Festival of Democracy, which features a series of seminars, an art show, dance performances, and prayers, opened in Nuku'alofa on Tuesday. The festival aims to lift the standards of political debate in the Friendly Islands, and will feature contributions by pillars of Tongan society, like senior members of the royal family, as well as political and cultural rebels, like 'Akilisi Pohiva, the long-time leader of the Democratic Party, and Tevita Latu, the founder of the avant-garde art movement called the Selaka Club.

The festival is timely, because Tonga will hold a general election in November. After winning 70% of the popularly elected seats in parliament but being denied government at the last national poll in 2010, the Democratic Party is promising to make history in November. For their part, the nobles who run Tonga's conservative government remain outspokenly hostile to 'Akilisi Pohiva and his deputy Steven Halapaua, and are desperate to hold onto power.

I was delighted to see photographs and footage from the opening of the Festival of Democracy on facebook, because last year, when I was living in Nuku'alofa and teaching at the 'Atenisi Institute, I worked with the political scientist, Free Wesleyan minister and pig farmer Taniela Vao to help secure funding from the European Union for the event. Taniela and I spent hours in Nuku'alofa's Escape cafe, squinting at the pages of panoptic rules and regulations drawn up by the European Union's funding agencies, and filling out form after form. Eventually we were able to get some money, and this year a team put together by the 'Atenisi Institute has developed a thorough and promising programme for the festival.
I want to use this blog post to argue that New Zealanders should be interested in Tonga's complicated and unfinished journey towards democracy, and in the whole of the modern history of the country, because of the light that Tonga throws on our own problems and preoccupations.

Tupou I's great experiment

Tonga is one of New Zealand's closest neighbours - a flight from Auckland to the airport outside Nuku'alofa takes only two and a half hours - but the history and present of the Friendly Islands rarely interest Kiwis. Many of us discount Tonga because of the country's modest size - its one hundred and fifty islands are spread over an area the size of New Zealand, but they would barely fill Lake Taupo, and its population of one hundred thousand would fit into one of our larger provincial cities.

Despite its size, though, Tonga has had an unusual and instructive history. Unlike every other indigenous Pacific people, the Tongans avoided colonisation by palangi powers in the nineteenth century. In the 1830s and '40s a chief named Taufa'ahau united and Christianised Tonga, which had suffered decades of civil war, and proclaimed himself Tupou I, the leader of a modern and independent nation. The king built a palace and Wesleyan churches, designed a flag for his nation, and began to make laws.

In 1853, when he had suppressed the final armed uprising against his rule, Tupou I visited Sydney to examine Western civilisation first-hand. Although he was impressed by the modern technology he found in Australia's largest town, the king was astonished and upset to see impoverished Sydneysiders sleeping rough in the city's parks. When he asked his hosts how poverty and landlessness could exist in such a vast and wealthy country, he was told that such things were a by-product of capitalism, the social and economic system that Britain had exported to Australia.

After his return to Tonga, Tupou I is supposed to have resolved to protect his subjects from the extremes of capitalist civilisation. With the assistance of  Shirley Baker, a Wesleyan missionary turned anti-imperialist, Tupou I designed a unique social and economic system for Tonga.

In 1862 the king emancipated peasant farmers, who had previously lived as serfs on the lands of chiefs. The constitution Tupou and Baker published in 1875 nationalised Tonga's soil and forebade its sale, but entitled every adult to the permanent lease of a small plot of farmland. The chiefs were deprived of their old arbitrary powers, renamed nobles, paid generous salaries, and made into managers of the land distribution system.

Tupou I's constitution also talked of the right of Tongans to freedom of speech and worship, though when a split developed amongst the country's Wesleyan majority and independent newspapers began to criticise the government it was soon evident that these rights existed more on paper than in practice. Tupou I sought to attract traders and modern technology to his kingdom, but he placed limits on their activities.

It is worth noting the novelty of the system Tupou I created, because the story of modern Tonga is in large part the story of this system and its troubles.

In some other parts of the nineteenth century world, especially Europe, peasants had been emancipated from their old feudal masters, either by modernising rulers or by revolutions. Usually, though, emancipation was accompanied by reforms easing the buying and selling of land. As old feudal estates and peasants commons were broken up, modernised, and bought and sold, money flowed into cities, and peasants followed the money, becoming labourers in factories.

In many Pacific societies colonised by palangi, chiefly or customary lands were taken over by the colonists, who turned them into plantations - huge, outdoor factories where former peasants worked for (very low) wages.

In Tonga, though, the emancipated peasantry was not urbanised, and did not become a rural working class. Tupou I had created a nation of independent small farmers.

Although they leased their land individually, farmers did not live in isolation from one another. Members of the same extended family, or kainga, worked together on the soil, and shared its produce. The kainga was an intricate and elaborate circuit of relationships, which offers its members both obligations and entitlements.

Tupou I's long reign has been viewed with varying degrees of enthusiasm by scholars of Tongan history. Sione Latukefu, the Wesleyan minister who became Tonga's first academic historian, presented Tupou I as a messianic figure, who liberated Tonga from brutal paganism while protecting it from colonisation.

Scholars associated with Tonga's Catholic minority and with the 'Atenisi Institute have been often been less enamoured with the maker of modern Tonga. 'Opeti Taliai, the 'Atenisi graduate who is today the director of the institution, used his PhD thesis to argue that Tupou I built a 'totalitarian' system in Tonga. In an interview with me last year, Lose Helu, a long-time teacher at 'Atenisi and a scholar of Tongan oral tradition, condemned Tupou I as an autocrat and a religious maniac.

In his 2007 pamphlet Tonga in Crisis, another 'Atenisi graduate, the anthropologist 'Okusitino Mahina, offered a somewhat more equivocal view of Tupou I. According to Mahina, the king enacted some genuinely progressive reforms, like the emancipation of the peasantry, but he did so partly because of the pressure from the country's commoner majority, which was ready to throw off the domination of their chiefs. The extent to which Tonga's commoners contributed to the reform of their society by Tupou I in the second half of the nineteenth century remains unclear.

Salote's Tonga: a utopia and its discontents

Tupou I was succeeded by one of his grandsons, who was fonder of wine and poetry than of government, but in 1918 his great grand-daughter Salote took the throne, and continued his strategy of trying to modernise Tonga without giving it over to palangi capitalists and colonists. Salote carefully controlled the quantity of goods that were allowed into Tonga, and the numbers of shops that served Tongans, but she also attempted to give her people greater access to cash, by establishing cooperatives where men could market copra they had gathered together, and where women could come together to sell tapa and other craft objects.

Many visitors to Salote's Tonga were impressed by the happiness of its citizens and the openness of its institutions. Some called Tonga a utopia.

When the anthropologist Ernest Beaglehole visited Nuku'alofa in 1938, he was astonished by the casual, unpretentious ways of Salote's government. Noting that the country's Prime Minister worked out of a small, unguarded wooden fale, and was cheerfully and almost continually available to his people, Beaglehole couldn't help contrasting Tonga with a Europe that was tormented by fascism and the threat of war. In the journal he kept during his time in the Friendly Islands, Beaglehole wishes that the fascism Hitler had imposed on Germany could be replaced with Salote's system.
But twentieth century Tonga was never a completely sanguine society. In a justly famous essay called 'Wry Comment from the Outback', Wendy Pond showed how the residents of the kingdom's remotest and least powerful islands, the Niuas, used public performances of songs and dances to make coded complaints about their lot. Pond, who lived on the Niuas for years and witnessed tours of the group by Tonga's royals, was able to recognise the satirical messages that lay just beneath the surfaces of the performances that Niuans staged for their distinguished visitors.

The double crisis of contemporary Tonga

In the 1940s the system that Tupou had built faced its first serious challenge, as thousands of American and New Zealand soldiers occupied the kingdom, bringing with them cash and a demand for all manner of goods, from alcohol to women to pork. Many farmers walked off their fields and began trading with the newcomers. The appetite for Western consumer goods expanded.

After the war some of the tensions the visitors had brought dissipated, but by the 1980s Tonga had entered a crisis that has yet to end, as the system that Tupou I established was challenged politically by a pro-democracy movement and economically by capitalism.

Encouraged by Futa Helu, the founder of the 'Atenisi Institute, which gave a generation of Tongans an education  in critical thinking in the 1960s and '70s, and by the Catholic church, whose members had been marginalised for over a century by the country's Wesleyan establishment, more and more Tongans began to demand changes to the composition of their parliament, so that commoners rather than nobles could select a majority of seats, and restrictions on the power of their monarchy. In successive elections pro-democracy candidates won the handful of parliamentary seats available to commoners; in 1992 a well-attended and internationally publicised convention on democracy was organised by the 'Atenisi Institute and the Catholic church.

Futa Helu and his allies worked to democratise Tonga's cultural as well as its political institutions. They sought, for instance, to turn kava drinking from an exclusive ritual into an opportunity for education and debate. Kava had traditionally been drunk regularly only by royals and nobles, who sat around a bowl in an order that reflected their status, and talked in a laboriously decorative language. But Helu founded a movement called the fofo'anga, which held debates and fundraising drives in kava clubs established for commoners. Today there are kava clubs in every Tongan village, and politicians seeking the votes of commoners are obliged to spend long evenings there.
Tevita Latu's Selaka Club has become the meeting place for Tonga's avant-garde artists as well as for some of its political radicals. The club's name is a play on the scatological word kasele, and its members serve kava out of a toilet bowl, as they sit beneath a Tongan flag defaced with a swastika. The outrageous rituals and symbols of the 'Selakarians', as club members call themselves, show how devoted a section of the Tongan population has become to free thinking.

Capitalism as well as the movement for democracy has destabilised Tongan society in recent decades.

In the 1970s and '80s tens of thousands of Tongan emigrated to the relatively wealthy West, and sent money home to their kainga, which became less reliant on subsistent farming. At the same time, Salote's successor Tupou IV welcomed more and more foreign companies into Tonga, and opened the country to more and more imported goods.

As the supply of farmland dwindled, and more Tongans had access to cash, the nobles were able to profit from their role as the managers of much of the land. In his 1993 essay 'After the Vanilla Harvest', the Dutch sociologist Paul Van Der Grijp showed how previously independent small farmers on the northern island of Vava'u were being drawn into the web of international capitalism. Keen to grow vanilla, a crop that could be exported abroad to earn cash for consumer goods like televisions and modern fale, the farmers were borrowing large sums of money from newly established banks, and using some of this money to grease the palms of the nobles who controlled access to land. The nobles, in turn, were investing the money in various businesses. Since Van Der Grijp wrote his essay the nobles and Tonga's royal family have continued to make themselves into an indigenous capitalist class.

Problems of Tongan capitalism

But capitalism has not succeeded in conquering Tonga's economy. Attempts to bypass Tupou I's constitution and privatise land have met sharp opposition, and without the ability to own land many multinational companies are reluctant to invest large sums in the Friendly Islands.

Perhaps more importantly, the kainga has acted as a constraint on the ability of Tongan commoners to develop and maintain businesses, and to work for wages and salaries.

In his 2011 book On the Edge of the Global: Modern Anxieties in a Pacific Island Nation, American anthropologist Niko Besnier notes that Nuku'alofa is full of the sad shells of small shops which Tongans established in the 1980s and '90s to sell cheaply imported consumer goods. The relatives of the entrepeneurs who opened these shops demanded free or discounted goods, as well as shares in the shops' takings: such demands made profits and the accumulation of capital impossible, and the shops closed. In recent years many Chinese and Indian immigrants, who live outside the kainga system, have successfully reopened shops abandoned by Tongans.

The demands and rewards of the kainga system affect Tongan workers, as well as businesspeople. Palangi managers of hotels and restaurants in the kingdom often complain that their staff members will vanish at short notice from the workplace for a family get-together, or to help out with a harvest. Tongans have yet to acquire what EP Thompson called capitalist 'work-discipline'.

From crises to explosions

In the twenty-first century the political and economic frustrations of Tongans have fused. In 2005 the country's public servants staged an epic strike in support for their demands for both higher salaries and democratic reform. In a 2006 a pro-democracy rally in Nuku'alofa turned into a riot that saw the shops of Asians, nobles and royals looted.

In the months and weeks after the riot Australasian troops and police were deployed across Tonga's main island; with their approval, Tongan police rounded up and tortured hundreds of mostly young people. Tevita Latu played no part in the riot, but was nevertheless subjected to nine days of beatings at Nuku'alofa's central police station, under the noses of imported New Zealand cops. A team of investigators led by veteran human right activist Betty Blake has catalogued the abuses of 2006 in a long document studded with grotesque photographs.
In the aftermath of the 2006 riot King Tupou V, an eccentric man with little love for his royal responsibilities, negotiated a series of reforms with Tonga's democratic opposition. Tupou I's constitution was rewritten, so that the powers of the monarch were curtailed and two thirds of parliament could be elected by commoners.

But the 2010 general election showed the shortcomings of Tupou V's reforms. Despite winning a massive majority of the popular vote, 'Akilisi Pohiva's party was outmanoeuvred by Tonga's nobles, who were still guaranteed control of a third of the seats in parliament. The nobles teamed up with the minority of anti-Pohiva commoners and formed a conservative government. In 2012 Tupou V died, and was succeeded by his conservative brother, who had been a very unpopular Prime Minister in the 1990s.

Over the past couple of years Tonga's noble-led government has fallen out with Tonga's traditional allies Australia and New Zealand, and has looked instead to China, which has offered the kingdom over two hundred million dollars in soft loans. The Democratic Party has in turn built a strong alliance with Canberra and Wellington.

Is the experiment over - and should it be?

International financial organisations and Western governments have responded to Tonga's recent problems by urging the country to break completely with the system established by Tupou I and allow capitalism to establish itself securely in the kingdom.

In a series of polemical documents posing as analysis, the International Monetary Fund and the Asian Development Bank have called for the ban on the sale of land to be lifted, for the privatisation of state-owned enterprises, and for massive foreign investment. If 'Akilisi Pohiva leads the Democratic Party to victory in November, then he and his comrades are likely to face pressure from their Australasian allies to implement pro-capitalist policies. If Tonga's nobles hold power, then they may face similar pressures from their powerful Chinese ally.

In 2014, then, the future of the experiment that Tupou I launched in the 1850s looks uncertain. The peculiar system that Tupou I built, with its mixture of an autocratic government, an emancipated and yet immobilised peasantry, and free land, has been battered, but not abandoned. Parliament is more representative of the Tongan people, but the monarch and the nobles retain crucial powers. The economy has been partially opened to global capitalism, but the kainga system and the ban on land sales still frustrate Western diplomats and business people.

Some supporters of the Democratic Party consider that Tonga should embrace capitalism as well as democracy; they look forward happily, then, to the wholesale dismantling of the system Tupou I constructed. In an interview with me last year, the sociologist Maikolo Horowitz argued that capitalism was the only system that could alleviate the anger of Tongan people by driving up their living standards in a short time.

But other scholars close to the Democratic Party disagree. In between our form-filling sessions last year, Taniela Vao insisted that the Democratic Party was capable of developing Tonga without abandoning the better features of the system Tupou I created, like the ban on the sale of land.

Vao's belief that there is a 'third way' between the reactionary policies of the Tongan nobility and full-blooded capitalism may not be as utopian as it might at first seem. Over the last decade several South American nations, most notably Venezuela and Bolivia, have rejected the advice of institutions like the International Monetary Fund and attempted to develop industries that mix the muscle of a modern state with traditional, collectivist forms of production and distribution. The cooperatives set up in rural parts of these countries arguably have elements in common with the organisations that Salote tried to establish as an alternative to capitalism in the middle decades of the twentieth century.

Taking Tonga seriously

On the rare occasions when they discuss Tonga, palangi Kiwis tend to ridicule the country as a backwater, and to contrast it negatively with the advanced, democratic nation of New Zealand. By making such a contrast, though, they avoid admitting the very real democratic deficits in their own society.

Tongans may be frustrated by their unrepresentative government, and by the rigged electoral system that produced it, but many of them are justifiably proud of the way that land and resources are shared in their country and in their kainga. Unlike New Zealanders, who worry for much of their adult lives about making rent or mortgage payments,  most Tongans have a guaranteed hold on their land. Where in New Zealand society do we find a parallel to such economic democracy?

While many Kiwis suffer from feelings of social isolation, and lack the sense of connection to a community, Tongans enjoy the security of the kainga system. Is there not something profoundly democratic about the way that kainga networks redistribute goods and services from their more to their less successful members?

By mocking Tonga, palangi Kiwis miss the opportunity to learn from their neighbour. Modern Tongan history offers us the record of a fascinating attempt to build a Polynesian alternative to colonialism and capitalism - an experiment that is not quite over.

Note: the marvellous laione at the top of this post was produced by Emma Tui Gillies, for the art exhibition that is part of the Festival of Democracy. I've written about Tui's zoological studies here.

[Posted by Scott Hamilton]

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

A better, more British banner?

I know I criticised the quest for a new and improved national flag as a fools' game last year, but after goading from certain conservatives, who for some strange reason consider me an Anglophobe, I want to follow up yesterday's attempt to differentiate progressive and reactionary notions of Britishness with a piece of vexillological advocacy.

If conservative Kiwis are sincere about recognising Britain's contribution to certain progressive features of New Zealand - to universal suffrage, mass education, and the right to free speech - then they ought to support my proposal for the Union Jack, that symbol of Windsor inbreeding and colonial viceroys, to be dropped from our national ensign, and replaced with the British Republican flag, which was designed by the Chartist movement early in the nineteenth century, was apparently borne by pro-democracy protesters at Peterloo, before they were slaughtered by the king's hired hands, and was flown defiantly from homes in the East End of London, during the coronation of that very dapper fascist, King Edward VIII, in 1936.

The republican flag has the additional advantage of reminding me of one of that mystical vexillologist Kasimir Malevich's finest paintings, The Red Cavalry.

You can read more about the history of the British Republican flag here.

[Posted by Scott Hamilton]

Monday, June 16, 2014

British democracy, and other myths

Scots may be tiring of the Union, but many Kiwis remain keen on Britain. In an article for the conservative New Zealand Initiative, Oliver Hartwich praises the mother country and deprecates its European rivals in language of almost oedipal intensity:
There is something that is undoubtedly special about Britain. It is not just a small, rainy island in the North Atlantic...Other countries may also lay claim to some socio-political developments or scientific inventions, but none other could boast to have started modernity with the same justification...the UK made the modern world, it dominated it until around the time of the Great War, and it still wields incredible soft power to the present day. Britain’s greatness is not just a historic feature. It still makes Britain a special country today...
Hartwich's article is worth reading, because it expresses a belief about Britain common amongst Kiwis on both the left and the right of the political spectrum. Blighty might have bad weather, bad food, and a bad football team, but it apparently managed to produce, at some never-quite-specified point in the past, democratic institutions and ideas, and then spread those institutions and ideas around the world. Constitutional conservatives like Hartwich tend to try to conflate Britain's sclerotic state institutions, like the House of Lords and the Windsors, with this supposed democratic miracle. If a nation like New Zealand attempts to distance itself from Britain, by removing the Union Jack from its flag or Kate and Wills from the covers of its women's magazines, then the spring of democracy will, Hartwich and co warn, run dry.
There is no doubt that Britain was a nursery, in the nineteenth century especially, for progressive ideas and for democratic movements. The struggle for secularism and the Chartist campaign for working class suffrage are notable and noble parts of the country's history. 
But these phenomena emerged as reactions to the venality and autocracy of Britain's ruling elite. It was the hegemony of Anglicanism that inspired Quakers, Methodists, and other nonconformists to demand the separation of state and church; it was the arrogance and avarice of the British aristocracy and bourgeoisie in the first decades of the nineteenth century that brought crowds of tens of thousands to the great Chartist demonstrations on heaths and commons. 
It is Britain's working class and its religious minorities, not the Windsors or the City of London or the Imperial Army, that we should thank for advancing the cause of liberty.  Britain's ruling class only acquiesced to universal suffrage in the tumultuous period after World War One, when it seemed like millions of returned soldiers might follow the revolutionary example of the Germans and the Russians. And for all the talk of Churchill fighting for democracy during World War Two, the fact is that a large majority of the subjects of the British empire didn’t enjoy the most basic democratic rights in the 1940s. 
When he talks of Britain 'spreading' freedom around the world, Oliver Hartwich seems to imply that the country's empire was intended as some sort of centuries-long, worldwide class in democracy and civic ethics. A slightly more sophisticated case for the progressive qualities of the British empire is made by Niall Ferguson, in his long, detailed, and persistently obfuscatory 2003 book Empire: How Britain Made the Modern World. Ferguson doesn't deny that Britain's empire had its origins in commercial rather than humanitarian interests, but he argues that what was good for British business was ultimately good for the world. In their efforts to grab resources and pacify local peoples, plucky British colonists supposedly brought modern forms of administration and modern notions of citizenship to the world. On these foundations democracy could eventually be built, in societies like India. 
But Britain’s favourite strategy for the administration of its colonies – a strategy that was honed over more than a century, and practiced in places as distant and different from one another as Fiji and Nigeria – impeded rather than encouraged economic and social modernisation.
By the twentieth century scholar-administrators of Britain's empire were using the phrase ‘indirect rule’ to describe the way they channelled power through certain traditional authority figures – chiefs, mullahs, petty kings - in their subject societies. Leaders of tribal, ethnic, and religious groups were given dictatorial powers over their local areas in return for loyalty to the British Crown. The result was the deepening of divisions within colonies, and, often, the frustration of attempts at social and economic innovation.
The British mode of colonial administration was justified with the sort of culturally relativist rhetoric – that indigenous peoples had their own ways of life which couldn’t be reconciled with those of the West, that they weren’t suited to democracy, and so on - that conservatives like Niall Ferguson and Oliver Hartwich now like to denounce. 
Niall Ferguson would have been better off apologising for French imperialism. The French at least talked about bringing the light of progress to their colonies, and making their African and Asian subjects into dark-skinned Frenchmen and women. They governed in a much more direct way than the British, though no more humanely.

Just as we should credit the development of British democracy to the country's subaltern population, and not to its aristocracy and bourgeoisie, so we should connect the development of democratic institutions in British colonies to the local peoples there, and not to Eton-trained, pith-helmeted viceroys. 

It was anti-colonial movements, not colonial administrators, that brought members of different ethnicities, tribes, and religions together. India’s anti-colonial movement eventually splintered along religious lines, but for decades it was a unifying force in the country, linking the various groups - Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs, and Parsees - that the British had tried to isolate.

Indians created their own national representative body, the Indian National Council, in 1885. A mere thirty-four years later, in 1919, the British allowed the creation of a national parliament for India, with the proviso that this body would have no role in the running of either central or local government. 
A mere sixteen years later, in 1935, India's parliament was given limited powers over local government. This great leap democratic leap forward occurred only because Churchill, who was angrily opposed to any form of Indian self-rule, was outmanoeuvred by others in the Conservative Party and by the Tories’ coalition partners. Independence followed a mere twelve years later, after massive protests, a strike wave, and guerrilla war. 

In India as elsewhere, democracy developed in spite rather than because of the British ruling class that Oliver Hartwich wants to defend. 

[Posted by Scott Hamilton]

Friday, June 13, 2014

High winds and low politics

Dr Teena Pulu Brown, who grew up in the Friendly Islands and today works at AUT University in Auckland, has published an angry and meticulous essay about the ways in which both the New Zealand government and Tongan leaders are playing politics with the suffering of cyclone victims in Tonga. 

Like Australia and the US, New Zealand is uneasy at the influence of China over Tonga, and is prepared to use aid, or the absence of aid, to drag Tonga away from the Beijing camp. Brown cites my blog post, 'Letting down the Family', when she discusses the cynical underfunding of disaster relief by our government:

Some New Zealand academics were quick to interpret the real politick at play. Pakeha (white/European) sociologist Scott Hamilton did not hold fire: New Zealand government was straight-up stingy...Tonga’s attention on China as its closest friend and development partner turned New Zealand icy. Hamilton thought New Zealand’s foreign minister Murray McCully was still sore with Tonga’s deputy prime minister Samiu Vaipulu getting his government a gifted plane from China (Hamilton, 2014).

The problem with Vaipulu’s plane was that it put Tonga’s domestic flight service, a New Zealand company called Chathams Pacific, out of business. Chathams said it could not compete with a Tongan government plane flown by a Tongan company, and so packed up and went home, complaining it was hard done by. Of course McCully retaliated because he could. He held the NZAID purse strings.

You can read Teena Pulu Brown's essay in full here.

Thursday, June 12, 2014

i.m. Keith Douglas

Keith Douglas, the greatest English poet of the Second World War and one of the greatest of the twentieth century, died seventy years ago this week after collapsing in a Normandy field. Colleagues from his tank corp examined his prone body and found it undamaged, but later investigations revealed that an almost invisible splinter of glass had pierced his heart.

Douglas was twenty-four, and left behind about a hundred poems,  a book-length memoir of  chaotic tank battles in the North African desert, and a series of casually eerie drawings of the supernatural creatures which had haunted and goaded him.

i.m. Keith Douglas

A garden grows around the saints,
like the silence
of an exhausted audience.

Rommel sits in the shade,
admiring the towers of dandelions,
the bees that land a little too quickly,
like overburdened balloons.

The saints are counting money
because the saints are men.

In heaven even the trees give tips. Gums drop
silver, and kowhai let their gold float
down. How can a soldier spend
such beneficience?

Best to feed coins to those spacies machines,
the ones that track
an endlessly approaching fleet, its wings
as frailly aerodynamic as angels.

The saints are cleaning magazines
because the saints are dead.

Marvell, who made several important contributions
to tank locomotion,
is buried at the northwest corner
of the terrarium, under a rabble
of hydrangeas.The best gardeners
leave themselves to harvest.

Look: Wingate hobbles, in the dirty cloud
of his robe, to the pond
where egreria float and flower,
leaning on the wind
as if it were a walking stick.

Remember to act your age here.
Act your age, and stay safely dead.

The sun flashes like an A bomb, sets.
Tomorrow, perhaps, work will begin.

These saints will amputate grape
from vine, will rip pear
from bough. They will peel lilies
from the ponds like scabs,
and leave stone owls on branches,
and plant a tall handless clock
in a flowerbed.

Now the saints are writing field reports
because the saints are men.

[Posted by Scott Hamilton]

Sunday, June 08, 2014

Shots from Ardmore

Last weekend, at the behest of the Warbirds Association and various other organisations established to satisfy the peculiar nostalgia for the future that is one of the salient features of twenty-first century life, Allied air and ground forces attacked and overran Ardmore air base. I was there, wearing my chronovisor.

Thursday, June 05, 2014

Labour and democracy: a tale of two countries?

Yesterday David Cunliffe denounced 'coat tailing' as a danger to New Zealand's democracy, and promised to end the practice if he leads the Labour Party to power in this year's election.

Under this country's current electoral system, a party must normally win five percent of the vote before it is entitled to list MPs. But if a party manages to win an electoral seat, then the five percent threshold is waived, and list MPs can coat tail into parliament. In the 2008 election, for example, the Act Party fell below the five percent threshold, getting only three and a half percent of the vote. But Act's candidate Rodney Hide won the seat of Epsom, which meant the threshold was forgotten, and the party could claim five list MPs. The recently formed coalition between the Mana and Internet parties is intended to help members from those organisations to coat tail into parliament.

David Cunliffe's statement was in some ways unsurprising. Labour has consistently argued that coat tailing damages democracy, and has already drafted legislation that would abolish the practice.

But Labour's commitment to democratic process seems a little less sure when the party ventures abroad. At the same time that David Cunliffe was denouncing the distortion of New Zealand's parliament by coat tailing, his party's spokesperson on foreign affairs was in New Zealand's closest neighbour, talking about the preparations there for a general election.

After meeting members of Tonga's parliament, David Shearer posted a message on facebook about 'Tonga's transition to democracy', and described his time in the country as 'very constructive'. Shearer looks forward with apparent confidence to the election that will be held across Tonga in November.

But Tonga's upcoming elections should be cause for concern, not confidence, because they will be run according to radically undemocratic rules. In 2010, after years of protest marches and strikes by Tongans wanting democratic reform, and after negotiations brokered by New Zealand, the Tongan constitution was amended, and the rules for the composition of parliament were changed. Under the new rules, two thirds of the seats in the country's parliament were to be elected by popular vote, while the remaining third were reserved for the country's tiny class of nobles.
The constitutional amendments of 2010 were hailed by New Zealand as a victory for democracy in Tonga, because for the first time a majority of the seats in the Tongan parliament were to be chosen by popular vote.

But the flaws in the new system were soon apparent. At the end of 2010 Tonga held a general election, and an extraordinary seventy percent of the seats open to commoners were won by candidates belonging to the Friendly Islands Democratic Party, which has campaigned for decades against the hegemony of the country's nobility.

Unfortunately, a third of the members of Tonga's new parliament were nobles, who were not surprisingly very hostile to the Democratic Party. The nobles were able to put together a government by mating up with the handful of popularly-elected candidates hostile to the Democratic cause. Once it was clear that the nobles would be forming Tonga's next government, several Democratic MPs disappointed their constituents and accepted prestigious ministries in exchange for giving the new government their votes.

Tonga's 2010 election represented a travesty of democracy, not a transition to democracy. The nobles' government has been almost universally perceived as corrupt and inefficient, and Tongans have been waiting impatiently to throw it out of office. Last year teams of Democratic Party activists began holding daily gatherings in the central business district of the Tongan capital of Nuku'alofa, as they worked to enrol voters and spread their message of change. The newspaper Ko 'e Kelea, which was set up by the Democratic Party's founder and long-time leader 'Akilisi Pohiva, has never been more popular. Young artists and musicians use their work to push the democratic cause.

But Tonga's democrats are worried about the upcoming general election, because it will be held under the same unfair rules as the 2010 contest. Even if the Democratic Party once again wins a huge majority of votes, it may be cheated out of power by Tonga's nobles, who will once again be guaranteed a third of the seats in parliament. Democratic MPs have in recent years repeatedly used parliamentary debates to propose changes to their country's constitution that would diminish or abolish the power of the nobility; again and again, these proposals have been frustrated.
It is unlikely that Tongans will submit quietly to another illegitimate government. The strike that closed the country for more than a month in 2005 and the pro-democracy march that turned into a riot and destroyed a third of central Nuku'alofa in 2006 give us a hint of what the future may hold, if the will of the people is not allowed to prevail in Tonga.

If the Labour Party is worried about the relatively minor damage that the practice of coat tailing does to New Zealand's democratic process, then it ought to be apoplectic about the perversion of democracy in New Zealand's closest neighbour. David Shearer should be publicly condemning Tonga's government and warning about the consequences of another stolen election, rather than making misleading facebook posts about a non-existent 'transition to democracy'.

[Posted by Scott Hamilton]

Wednesday, June 04, 2014

A new species, on my mantelpiece

My son and I sat and gazed at the strange creature, which my wife had given me. Aneirin had helped me lean it on the living room's overloaded mantelpiece, after I had abandoned a desultory search of the kitchen draws for a hook and a nail and a hammer.

Suddenly Aneirin's face contorted, and released a strange sound. "GRRRHISSSSS!" he said. "It's repti-lion!'

Aneirin may be only two years and a couple of months old, but he has the makings of an art critic (I'd prefer him, of course, to be a carpenter, or a mechanic, or something sensible: that way he could earn some money, and support his parents in their upcoming old age).
The creature on our mantelpiece was made with black and red ink on tapa by Tui Emma Gillies, a Tongan New Zealander who has been studying the evolution of new, hybrid species in her native land. As I explained, in my usual long-winded way, in this essay on Tui's art for EyeContact, Tonga's first modern king appropriated and aggrandised himself with the British royal lion back in the nineteenth century. Since then vernacular artists, like the women who indefatigably beat and paint the bark of the ngatu tree in Tongan villages, have been localising the lion Tupou I imported from Europe, by giving it the features of familiar animals like dogs and horses.

Now, in Tui's paintings, Tongan lions have suddenly acquired spiky manes, the baleful red eyes of reptiles, and the long, luxuriant tails of snow leopards. Evolution has taken a sudden and strange turn, and the reptilion has been born.

When Aneirin announced his discovery of the reptilion, I couldn't help remembering the field trip that I made last year, with the students of the 'Atenisi Institute, to 'Eua, that high, porous, and generously forested island in Tonga's far south, and the purported model for the planet of Pandora. When we were planning the trip, I asked students what research projects they'd like to pursue on 'Eua. I mentioned a story I'd heard about a little-seen and uncatalogued frog that supposedly hopped across the island's rainforested roof. Perhaps because frogs are non-existent in the rest of Tonga, one of my students became immoderately excited, and vowed to hunt down 'Eua's mysterious creature.

When we arrived on 'Eua and got an impromptu talk from an Australian natural scientist who worked in the highland, I was embarrassed to learn that I had gotten my cryptids muddled up, and that a unique species of lizard, rather than frog, was reputed to be hiding in the bush. My student was disappointed, and spent his nights drinking kava and singing with the locals, rather than hunting frogs.
I don't think 'Euans have tracked down their mystery lizard, but a recent expedition to the northern archipelago of Vava'u by a group of scientists - why, I wonder, do scientists targeting Tonga so often seem to do their fossicking and digging and note-taking in shapely, shallow-watered, heavily beached regions like Vava'u, rather than on 'Eua, a high and rocky island surrounded by some of the world's deepest and roughest water? - discovered a new species of iguana. With its extravagantly long tail, the creature reminds me just a little of Tui's reptilion.

Crptozoologists - those beardy, cardigan-wearing types who devote their weekends to tracking Bigfoot over the Rockies, or to scanning the cold surface of Loch Ness for disturbances from the lounge of a convenient pub - will presumably be excited by the discovery of the Vava'u iguana. But far stranger creatures have been reported by visitors to the tropical Pacific. During World War Two, the Japanese and Allied troops who struggled through the muddy and malarial forests of Melanesia reported meetings with a number of odd beasts. Japanese troops serving in the Solomons described fifteen foot tall, repulsively hairy giants armed with long clubs, and crabs large and hungry enough to devour a man.
Inspired by these hunger and malaria-assisted hallucinations, gullible twenty-first century cryptozoologists have established a taskforce to search the Solomons for giants - and for UFO bases.  Apparently the hairy cryptids of the Solomons have progressed, in a mere seven decades, from crashing through the jungles with wooden clubs to building, flying, and hiding  interstellar spacecraft.

Before this post descends further into the absurdities of cryptozoology, I should mention that Tui Emma Gillies has an exhibition of some of her new paintings opening on Thursday night at the headquarters of arts collective On the Spot in central Nuku'alofa (I wrote about On the Spot, and its many contributions to Nuku'alofa's ongoing arts revolution, here). The show will kick off with some dance by members of the 'Atenisi Performing Arts Foundation, and interpretation of the artworks will be enhanced by free and fast-flowing kava. If you're reading this in the cold country of Niu Sila then you ought to consider taking a fast vaka north for Thursday night's party...

[Posted by Scott Hamilton]