29 July 2015

Ruth, Roger and Me: Debts and Legacies
By Andrew Dean, published by Bridget Williams Books

Dean's book speaks for a generation which is largely silent and ignored.   It is based firstly on his personal experience of growing up in Canterbury under the economic reforms initiated by the Labour government beginning in 1984, and continued by successive New Zealand governments thereafter, and secondly on his interviews of two key Canterbury proponents of the new economic order, Rod Carr and Ruth Richardson.   Dean made no secret of the fact that he is critical of the new order, but he reports the contrary views of his interviewees with scrupulous academic objectivity, all of which testifies to the underlying strength of his argument.

Markets and moral order

However, Dean fails to adequately critique a fundamental tenet in the ideology of politicians like Richardson and her Labour Party predecessor Roger Douglas by failing which is that there can be Market solutions (or to put it more more broadly economic or material solutions) to moral problems.    This mistaken idea that moral values have a material basis is not unique to the political right.  It is also an article of faith for the left, but with the difference that left and right draw opposite conclusions from their common assumption..

Among the left it emerges as the idea that if people are provided with at least a sufficiency of the necessities of life, or at best material equality with their fellow human beings, they will be less inclined to engage in immoral activities such as theft, robbery, assault, fraud, drug addiction and so on.   According to this view the immoral underclass may be redeemed by being made comfortable, the theory being that comfortably off people behave better because they are not driven to behave badly by their material conditions of life.

The contrary right wing view, the view of Roger Douglas and Ruth Richardson, is that laziness opens the door to the other six of the seven deadly sins, while poverty forces the poor to become industrious, self-reliant, abstemious, temperate, honest and thrifty.  This theory is shot through with contradictions.   It does not suggest that affluent individuals whose income is generated by rents, interest or dividends face a moral hazard from being unemployed, but insists that those unemployed whose income comes from state benefits are at risk.  Nor does it discriminate between types of employment.  In this theory  the prostitute and the parson, the cabinet-maker and the casino croupier, the liquor merchant and the medical practitioner are equally moral when employed at their respective trades, and all equally at risk of moral irresponsibility when unemployed.

Neither the left-wing view that "comfort" makes for integrity, nor the right wing view that "discomfort" has that effect, is sufficiently supported by strong evidence.  Social and economic inequality, often put forward as the cause of a multitude of social vices, is more a consequence than the cause of immoral behaviours.  I am not ascribing to the notion that the immoral behaviour of the lower classes is the cause of their degradation, although in some cases it may be a factor.   Rather I am suggesting that as moral standards decline across the social spectrum - among the working class, the middle class, and perhaps most importantly of all among the ruling class - inequality of income and wealth becomes more pronounced.

On the broad level, there is no denying that harsh economic conditions are frequently associated with declining moral standards,  but individuals are moral, or immoral, for reasons which have little if anything to do with their material conditions.  If it were otherwise, there would be no hope for the world, or for New Zealand in particular, because the immoral and feckless poor cannot, and the comfortably proper rich will not effect the social revolution which New Zealand desperately needs.    That task must fall to the lot of the righteous, honourable and responsible element of the working class.

Having said that, within each social class there is a broad range of moral states.  The best and worst of humanity, for instance, is found among the poor, and although one may struggle to find saintliness associated with great wealth, it is not wealth itself that causes people to fall short of the grace of God.   Many become wealthy because they have few moral scruples, and the sheer numbers of such tend to colour the popular perception of the wealthy classes in general.  Then, all of the conspicuously wealthy - that is those who spend their wealth in the pursuit of personal pleasure and projects of vanity - are by definition morally iniquitous and their conduct, because it is so visible, has a disproportionate influence upon popular perceptions of the moral standing of the affluent classes.   On the other hand, the morally responsible wealthy - those who use their wealth not to indulge personal desires, but for the good of humanity - exist largely unseen and unknown.  However,as society dedicates itself more to material values and the pursuit of pleasure, the numbers of the "responsible rich" are in decline, and the only changes which can come from above will be to the detriment of a decent society.

Deification of the Market

As Dean argues, though not quite in these terms, the solution proffered by secular liberalism to the problem of escalating numbers of both the "irresponsible rich" and the "undeserving poor" is the deification of the Market.   The Market has become the new God of humankind, supreme being, sovereign ruler, hand of providence, and giver of law.  The world of commodities in all its abundance is the Creation of the Market, and the Man which God made out of clay the Market has turned  back into clay.   The Market is both beneficent and wrathful, raising some to the paradise of affluence and condemning others to the hell of poverty, according to their works but in ways that surpasseth our understanding.  The Market raises up nations, and throws them down.   The kings and princes of the world tremble in Its presence, and the priests of the Market incessantly praise Its Name.  The Market, they believe, will make its people into a great people, a people of "integrity" and "responsibility".

But the Market cannot substitute for the God of our fathers, the law and the prophets and holy scripture as the pillars of a moral society because it knows nothing of love and compassion, its texts have none of the beauty of the Psalms and the Gospels, and it teaches nothing that helps to create a caring community.

Dean relates the question which lies at the heart of belief in the moral efficacy of the Market.  "If we had to choose the type of family our own children would be brought up in .. would we prefer one in which the parents while having little money..work hard and teach integrity and responsibility... or one in which integrity and responsibility are meaningless words - but who have plenty of food and good clothes provided by others?"

I would have no difficulty deciding in favour of the former.  In fact, for me the question is not hypothetical, it is the decision I quite deliberately and consciously made in late 1979, yet it did not indicate any sympathy whatsoever for the policies later taken up by Douglas and Richardson.   But that is another story.

The choice offered here (not by Dean, but by Douglas) is a deception.  "Integrity and responsibility" are not necessarily meaningless words in the homes of the poor, and neither are they necessarily meaningful words in the homes of the rich.   They are meaningful words for those who have integrity and who believe themselves to be responsible to God and their fellow man.  "Plenty of food and good clothes provided by others" may come to the poor, if they be so lucky, but the mere fact that they are the poor implies that they can only come in small measure.  "Plenty of food and good clothes" - not to mention shoes, Mercedes Benz cars, mansions in Remuera and holiday homes at Pauanui, luxury yachts, helicopters and shopping trips to Sydney - come to the rich, and demonstrably are provided by others.   The rich do not grow their own spuds and silver beet, they do not knit their own jerseys or repair their own bicycles.   Everything they have and use is quite literally provided by others, and it seems to me that in his effort to be scrupulously fair Dean has failed to demolish the false arguments of the Market believers with the ferocity and finality that they deserve.

Are state benefits degrading to those receiving them?  Do they result in loss of self-esteem, integrity and responsibility? Or is it poverty which has that effect, regardless of the source of income?  Both are credible claims, and both are part of the truth, but the solution to the problem lies not in starving the unemployed, as the right suggests, nor in making them comfortable in their unemployment, as the left would prefer.

Material conditions provide explanations, but they do not provide solutions.  Moral problems require moral solutions.   The poor must be moral despite their circumstances.  They must abjure the drugs, alcohol, gambling, usury, militarism, loose behaviours and other sins which the Market (and at least in the case of usury and militarism, the state)  seeks to impose upon them.   Only then they may free themselves from dependence on the state and recognise that the government is not their friend.  The state may be the only-begotten Son of the Market, an ostensible Saviour and Redeemer from the harshness of the Market's law, but a false God cannot have a true Son .  The Market is a false God, the State is a false Saviour, and the fate which the Market has ordained for us is not ineluctable.   We may choose between economic and spiritual degradation and  revolution.

As it happens, a copy of the Ruth, Roger and Me sent to me directly from the publishers was stolen from the mail by a person or persons unknown.    Were the perpetrators from the "undeserving poor" or the "irresponsible rich"?   Who can say?.  All we can say is that they are undeserving and irresponsible, and that they constitute a problem for us all.   Until the left recognises that dishonesty must be confronted directly, excused in none and condemned in all, it will struggle to find a place in the hearts of ordinary people.

Roger Douglas, "Rogernomics" and the Labour Movement

Dean goes on to observe that "If there is a true precursor to this kind of thinking it is not twentieth century Labour but instead nineteenth century divisions between the deserving and the undeserving poor".   In this he is too kind to the Labour Party of the twentieth century.   He is of course in good company.  Most commentators regard the economic policies of the fourth Labour government as an inexplicable aberration from traditional Labour practice and belief.

However the Labour devotees of the Market, Roger Douglas, Richard Prebble, Ken Shirley, David Caygill, Michael Bassett, Phil Goff, Mike Moore etc, had broad support in the Labour Party.  One could fairly argue that they enjoyed overwhelming support, because the only effective opposition within the parliamentary Labour Party came from Jim Anderton, who resigned to form the New Labour Party after failing to arouse rank and file  opposition to Market policies within the NZLP.

Roger Douglas himself was a Labour man born and bred.  His maternal grandfather Bill Anderton was a member of parliament, and his father, Norman, was a Labour parliamentarian who briefly defected to John A Lee's Democratic Labour Party before returning to the NZLP fold after the second world war.  Roger's brother Malcolm was also a Labour Party activist and parliamentary candidate.  The Douglas family, like the Prebbles, were a born and bred part of New Zealand's  "political class", and is is no small irony that both families dedicated their lives to obtaining and holding positions of power, influence and financial reward within the organs of the state which they so publicly disparaged.  The term "political class" needs to be used with caution, because it implies that politicians have interests and beliefs in common with each other that over-ride any attachments which they may have to those whose normal day-to-day existence lies outside of the political process.   Yet the term absolutely applies to people like Roger Douglas and Ruth Richardson who provide the title and much of the subject matter of Dean's book.  As Dean writes "there was a kind of implicit political compact between Labour and National in which each party in effect inflicted certain unpopular economic policies on the other's traditional constituencies".   In other words, when the policies of political parties are not for all practical purposes identical, they are complementary, and the new role of the political class is to manage the economy rather than to represent the people.

Yet while the Douglas policies were representative of the rise of this relatively new phenomenon of the "political class" they also grew out of the heart and soul of the Labour Party, or to be more precise, out of the anti-clerical wing of the Labour Party from the nineteen thirties and forties.   After  the Christian Socialists who figured prominently in the first Labour government had dwindled away to nothingness, and Labour had distanced itself from religious movements such as the Salvation Army, the Methodist Church and the Catholic Church which had provided many of its early activists, the Party in its new overtly secular and liberal manifestation raised up the Market as a new all-seeing, all-knowing and all-powerful God with Prebble and Douglas as its high priests.   It is not insignificant that David Lange, the one member of the fourth Labour government who retained some slight connection with Christian socialist tradition, eventually rebelled, albeit unsuccessfully, against his own party.  "Ordinary" New Zealanders are susceptible to the lure of ideology, but at the same time they want to believe that their leaders are basically simple, decent and kindly people.   Thus they will give ear, and even enthusiastic support to parliamentarians such as John A Lee, Roger Douglas or Ruth Richardson, but their preferred choice for Prime Minister will be Michael Joseph Savage, David Lange, and Jim Bolger.   For the much the same reasons, they are content to retain the monarchy ostensibly "above politics" and representative of family values.   In fact, beneath the kindly figureheads harsh and brutal policies invariably prevail, and will continue to do so until such time as sovereignty and power returns to the people of the land.

It is widely assumed that Market policies, and the drive towards greater inequality of wealth and income, were a novelty for Labour, but that was not the case.  The policies of the fourth Labour government were foreshadowed by measures such as the Accident Compensation Scheme and Labour's New Zealand Superannuation scheme (annulled by Muldoon's National government in favour of a non-means tested universal scheme which were designed to ensure that inequality of income extended from period of employment into retirement and unemployment due to injury.  As early as 1963, Dr Keith Sinclair, an influential Labour Party activist and parliamentary candidate, was advocating higher salaries for parliamentarians, managers, senior civil servants, and the professional classes, relative to tradesmen, semi-skilled and unskilled workers.  And then the fifth Labour government brought in "New Zealand Superannuation" a voluntary version of the scheme previously thrown out by the Muldoon government.   Thus, very consistently over the space of half a century, the Labour Party has sought to introduce the mass of New Zealanders to the to the idea that the return to capital should contribute part of the income of every New Zealander, thus putting the party's stamp of legitimacy on the continuing rule of capital.   These measures do not just reflect the inequality of wealth and income in New Zealand society.   It only requires the most cursory examination to see that they must also have  aggravated such inequality as already existed.


Dean provides a fascinating chapter on "insulation" which everyone should be mandatory reading for every New Zealander.   The word "insulation" figured large in the policies of the first Labour government, the object being to "insulate" New Zealand from the vicissitudes of the global economy but Dean builds his narrative around a short story by Janet Frame titled "Insulation".  Frame sees insulation in terms of individuals struggling to insulate themselve from the pain and chaos of the society around them.   One could imagine asking the question "Should we insulate the whole house, or just one room? If the whole house, then who will bear the cost?  If just one room, then whose rooms should be insulated?"  Insulating the entire house, in other words collectivism, was the policy of the mid-twentieth century.  Leaving individuals to insulate themselves as best as they can is the policy of the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries.  What are the implications of that shift in policy?   As Dean shows, they go well beyond the question of cost-effectiveness.  They determine to what extent the house is a happy and comfortable place for living, even  to what extent it can be a productive place, and they profoundly and adversely influence both the relationships between occupants and the normal state of mind of each individual occupant.

The very word insula is pregnant with meaning for we New Zealanders who live upon islands and peninsulars.   Our artistic and political thought is shaped by our insularity, our isolation, and our relative unimportance to the world.  We are all island peoples, nga tangata o nga motu. For us the word "motu" means both "island" and "nation".   The notion of the island is central to our being and our self-understanding.   But that does not mean that each of us must be "as an island complete  unto itself" which is the effect of current policies.   The motu is the ground on which we join together.  It is our island home and our wharenui, which we must enjoy and preserve as a people.   Our mistake has been to seek to insulate ourselves as individuals, to make our individual selves into islands safe from the storms raging around us, the storms which we ourselves have helped to set in motion.  If we are to insulate, why not insulate the entire motu so that our children can grow up in a warm environment, our old people can retire in comfort, and all can have cause to believe that we all have right of belonging and responsibility to protect this motu?


Dean confesses that he took little or no part in party politics.  Instead he wrote a book and he has become a voice to be heard.  In that book, however, be regrets that his generation have lost interest (or faith) in politics and voting.   Dean should trust his instincts and those of his generation.  Voting does not give one a voice.  It does not make the individual heard.   It is part of a process by which the mass of the people are drawn into giving tacit support to the political classes who will invariably  follow their own interests in the final analysis. Dean clearly recognises how the phenomenon of the political class has turned democracy, and voting, into a charade, and it is therefore surprising that he should deplore the growing public disenchantment with politics.   The next generation must develop better and authentic modes of political organisation, in which they have a genuine voice.  Writing a book is a positive step in that direction.  Voting in a parliamentary election is not.

Quo vadis?

In his final chapter Dean argues that "At the very least we must discard a political philosophy that values discomfort  ... and labour to broaden the meaning of freedom.."  I believe he is mistaken.   The notion of discomfort or sacrifice is an essential instrument towards the creation of a better world, while the concept of freedom which necessarily implies lack of individual responsibility, is too overblown and too close to the root cause of our present dysfunctions, for us to safely give it extra oxygen at this point in our history.  But in his last suggestion - that the way out of our mess is aroha - I believe that Dean has something. New Zealand will not be able to struggle free from the morass into which the Market has dragged it until individual New Zealanders abandon love of self in favour of love of their fellow citizens.

It is good to see a younger generation taking up the task of objectively yet incisively analysing the state of New Zealand society.   Dean may or may not be conscious of the fact that he is one of a long line of Rhodes scholars who have been astute critics of the society which they left behind in the Antipodes - in many cases never to return except for the occasional brief visit.  In the halls and cloisters of Oxford they muse over what might have been in the land of their birth.  Their appraisals of New Zealand are characterised by wistful regret, as in remembrance of young love lost to time and circumstance.  But if our nation is to find its feet it will need more than New Zealand scholars in Oxford nostalgically casting their eyes back to their native land half a world away.   It will need men and women in Auckland and Christchurch, Taumaranui and Timaru willing to make the supreme sacrifice to draw down the curtain on a century and a half of colonial rule.  That will be no easy task.  Between the wars, many went into the backblocks of New Zealand filled with hope that they could break in the land and force it to yield a bounty.  Many  failed, to walk away from the scene of their labours themselves broken and dispirited.  Working among the poor and dispossessed of this land is little different.  Most who take up the struggle will end by walking away.   Nothing can happen except by the will of the land and the will of God, and what is possible now is signalled and circumscribed by what existed before.

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