Tuesday, March 17, 2020

Light reading


I wonder whether someone in the Beehive's coronavirus crisis team is reading these tomes tonight. They were commissioned after World War 2, & describe, in almost overwhelming detail, the radical bureaucratic & economic improvisations the Labour government made to deal with a global crisis.

Romantic leftists are fascinated by the years 1913 & 1951, with their strikes & streetfighting, but it was arguably in the '40s, under the dour leadership of Peter Fraser, that modern NZ moved the furthest left. War forced Fraser to intervene in every part of the economy.

The Fraser government appropriated large parts of the private sector & dedicated them to the war effort, put strict controls of capital movements, banned many luxuries of the rich, & let many unions run de facto closed shops.

I suspect that when she announces emergency measures to protect the economy from coronavirus in a couple of days, PM Ardern will dip into Fraser's box of tricks.

Fraser was a pragmatist; he took radical measures because of the demands of war & because of protest at home. As Japan advanced south a vast grassroots movement called Awake NZ demanded the total mobilisation of the economy. The Home Guard was a largely spontaneous phenomenon, as rural Kiwis banded together to discuss guerrilla war against a Japanese invasion.

Workers had potential power during the war, because of the nation's labour shortage. Wildcat strikes forced the nationalisation of the mines.

Not all of the interventions of the Fraser government were necessarily socially useful. Fraser commandeered virtually the entire building sector, as he constructed forts & bunkers along NZ's coast. By the time the war ended, NZ had a serious housing shortage.

And there was a dark side to the popular pressure for radical measures during World War Two. Some of the same grassroots groups urging the appropriation of wealth & capital demanded severe measures against aliens & conscientious objectors. Fraser often acceded. Thanks to the NZ Electronic Text Centre, you can read Taylor's book about the Home Front and Baker's study of the war economy online.

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