by Philip Ferguson
The following was first written in the late 1990s as an attempt to provide a theoretical framework for understanding the development and imposition of the ‘White New Zealand’ immigration policies in this country in the period c1880-c1920
1: Reification and ‘race’
Given that the Chinese were seen as an ‘alien race’, it is necessary to look at the question of ‘race’ as a category of thought and what it reflects as such. This includes how racial thinking and non-white immigration have been recorded, conceptualised and analysed in New Zealand by historians and sociologists and the more theoretically-developed work done internationally. Reviewing some of the most important international literature enables us both to measure the progress being made in these studies in New Zealand and to find useful approaches to developing an understanding of the interplay of the social structure, politics, non-white immigration and racial thinking in this country in relation to the Chinese.
In 1976, Kerry Howe noted the “now very extensive published literature on race relations in New Zealand dat(ing) back to the early nineteenth century. . .” However, in terms of theory, writing on race/racial thinking is still in its infancy. Recent literature appears to be closely linked to political pressures associated with the rise of Maori nationalism, the Maori cultural renaissance, the desire of successive governments to redress long-standing grievances and also an officially-perceived need to create a new New Zealand national identity (sometimes conceived as incorporating a subset of ‘cultural’ identities). The literature is thus still very much concerned with developing ‘race relations sociology’ and a liberal ‘race relations’ industry in which inclusionary and exclusionary processes and mechanisms are crucial for resource allocation on ‘racial’ or ‘ethnic’ bases. At the theoretical level, moreover, the idea that Maori and pakeha constitute separate and discrete peoples is largely taken as beyond dispute.
The acceptance that difference is innate and inevitably causes problems between groups such as Maori and pakeha has been simply transferred recently onto other population groups such as the Chinese. For instance, Manying Ip, the leading academic in New Zealand on the Chinese, writes of the development of exclusionary laws in the late 1800s, “The root of the problem lies in the cultural and physical distinctiveness of the Chinese.” This echoes Michael Banton’s view in the 1970s that “There has always been a tendency for people to prefer those of their ‘own kind’ and be wary of strangers” and that contacts between white Europeans and other peoples were “obviously” of “import(ance) to the development by Europeans of racial categories.” It also echoes Australian work on the subject three decades and more ago. For instance, H.I. London, in his study of the White Australia policy, claimed, “Subjugation was the natural concomitant of contact between the races.” For London, “Fears and antagonism engendered by differences, and exacerbated by direct competition” allowed “the bastions of white supremacy to pass legislation against the non-white intruder.” 
David Pearson argues that racism “refers to a form of social categorisation based on beliefs about biological or other ‘inherent’ differences of a deterministic kind.” It is “an ideology” which contains “a more or less coherent set of beliefs, which some people draw upon to comprehend and explain the nature of their own social existence and that of others around them.” As a form of social categorisation, racism “is always connected to beliefs about innate properties of persons and groups. . . Distinctions are made on the basis of beliefs about the inbuilt inferiority of a group. . .” For Pearson, racist ideas involve cultural as well as biological distinctions: “(i)nvariably, beliefs about biological distinction go beyond mere appearance to embrace notions of cultural difference.” Moreover, “It is hard to imagine a situation in which beliefs about physical differences are not enmeshed with perceptions of cultural distinction.” Indeed racism “always implies a sense of immutability in physical and/or cultural terms. Races, except one’s own, are deemed inferior because they are biologically or culturally incapable of changing.” “The word ‘deterministic’ is also central” to his definition of racism. Thus
Put most simply, but most tellingly in terms of oppression, racism implies that the subordinate are biologically and/or culturally incapable of achieving equality with the dominant. Why? Because they are different. And why are they different? Well, because they just are. Such logic is not easily rebutted by reasoned argument. . . 
Pearson argues that by grounding an approach in terms of “how people make sense of their surroundings and the similarities and differences they see between themselves and others” it is possible to avoid both biological and cultural determinism. As he continues, “Group relations do not arise, as if by magic, from inbuilt qualities or cultural tendencies; they are based on the creative interaction of human actors and the way in which they perceive their world.” Pearson and Thorns argue that while scientific research has rendered ‘race’ boundaries “scientifically dubious”, ‘race’ as a term
“still has important sociological connotations because beliefs about the social implications of physical appearance or innate biological differences shape the perceptions and actions of many men and women in pluralistic societies such as New Zealand. Hence, while we can seriously question the biological basis of ‘race’, the term cannot be arbitrarily discarded. . . .”
These are all very useful insights. The question remains, however, as to why particular physical features should become an issue at all and be perceived to have any particular – and usually they are negative – social implications. In much New Zealand writing on ‘race’ and ‘ethnicity’, difference and its apparently innate power to cause discrimination – the very thing that actually has to be interrogated – is taken for granted. In contrast, it is necessary to develop an approach which interrogates, as a section of the more recent and critical international writing does, the specific social relations which result in physical and cultural features being given significance as markers and which determine forms of consciousness. Writers such as Robert Miles and Christine Guillaumin have contested the very concept of ‘race’ and ‘race relations’. Guillaumin argues:
“. . . the very use of such a distinction tends to imply the acceptance of some essential difference between types of social relation, some, somewhere, being specifically racial. Merely to adopt the expression implies the belief that races are ‘real’ or correctly apprehensible. . . moreover it implies that races play a role in the social process not merely as an ideological form, but as an immediate factor acting as both determining cause and concrete means.”
Kenan Malik notes the way in which ‘common-sense’ definitions of ‘race’ permeate academic, legal and political discourse. Furthermore, “the concept of race is borrowed from everyday perceptions of differences and subsequently acts to legitimate as true the very definition on which it was based in the first place. Leading social constructionist David Roediger further argues, “race is given meaning through the agency of human beings in concrete historical and social contexts, and is not a biological or natural category.” Robert Miles has developed an entire critique of ‘race relations sociology’ and the race relations industry. He sees ‘race’ as a reified category, by which he means that it represents nothing that is real. He also points to the tautological nature of existing categorisations of race, noting that these amount to the idea that “a ‘race’ is a group of people defined by their ‘race’: this formulation assumes and legitimates as a reality that each human being ‘belongs’ to a ‘race’.” ‘Race’ is, in effect, thus a piece of ideology: “the use of the word ‘race’ to label the groups so distinguished by such features is an aspect of the social construction of reality: ‘races’ are socially imagined rather than biological realities.”
From this it follows that people who talk in terms of race relations “have employed uncritically the common-sense notion of ‘race’, reified it and then attributed it with the status of a scientific concept.” The notion of reification is also important for Nancy Stepan, who notes in relation to scientific racism: “To the typologist, every individual human being belonged in some way or another to an undying essence or type. . . The result was to give a ‘mental abstraction an independent reality’, to make real or ‘reify’ the idea of social type when in fact the type was a social construct which scientists then treated as though it were in fact ‘in nature’.”
While rejecting ‘race’ as either real or an explanatory concept or useful category for understanding social relations, Miles is vitally concerned with racism. This, he argues, must be contextualised “as a process of signification”, which is linked to mechanisms for the allocation of economic positions to some and the exclusion of others from “economic rewards and political rights.” He also argues that a “particular process of signification” frames “class relations and class struggles in a particular cultural form” and creates “the ideological foundation for the organization of political alliances between and within greater or smaller sections of different classes. Therefore, “these allocative and exclusionary processes” are “dimension(s) of the historicity of capitalist development.” In other words, whereas earlier liberal race relations sociology tended to focus on individual attitudes of, for instance, whites, Miles is chiefly concerned with the connections between ideology, racism and exclusion and the “wider structure of class disadvantage and exclusion”. Miles is interested in the articulations between forms of discrimination – such as racism – and nationalism and examining the way in which exclusionary practices are derived from racist and nationalist ideologies “in the context of the reproduction of the capitalist mode of production.” With the rapid development of science following the industrial revolution and the application of scientific principles to the natural world, “‘race’ increasingly came to refer to a biological type of human being, and science purported to demonstrate not only the number and characteristics of each ‘race’, but also a hierarchical relationship between them.”
Nevertheless there are some problems with Miles’ use of the concept of reification, which is itself a term used by Georg Lukacs and derived from Marx’s concept of commodity fetishism. For Miles, reification suggests that there is no reality to the object or phenomena, it is a social construction, and thus the word ‘race’ itself should be banished. Yet Marx’s own view of the surface appearances of capitalism is rather different. In Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy (1859), Marx notes that “it is a characteristic feature of labour which posits exchange-value that it causes the social relations of individuals to appear in the perverted form of a social relation between things.” That commodity fetishism involves a mystification rather than a pure invention is made more explicitly clear when Marx explains how in the case of money,
“A social relation of production appears as something existing apart from individual human beings, and the distinctive relations into which they enter in the course of production in society appear as the specific properties of a thing – it is this perverted appearance, this prosaically real, and by no means imaginary, mystification that is characteristic of all social forms of labour positing exchange value. This perverted appearance manifests itself merely in a more striking manner in money than it does in other commodities.”
In other words, Miles’ concept of reification is that the object, here ‘race’, is like a mirage and exists only in the mind; but in Marx what is involved is more like a distorted mirror image, where the image is real, but we cannot, merely by looking at the image, derive the actual content of what is being reflected in the mirror. In particular, Marx’s concept of commodity fetishism involves the analysis of how relations between people (social relations) are expressed in capitalist society as relations between things (commodities). It is specific to capitalism, because capitalism is the system of generalised commodity production. It is the first human society in which commodity production is dominant; i.e., most of the goods and services necessary to sustain life are produced for sale on the market to realise a profit, rather than being produced and consumed directly as use-values. And here in Marx is the two-sidedness of reification: what is reified ‘ghostwalks’ as a social character and at the same time as a mere thing.
This is a particularly useful approach for analysing ‘race’, which, given that it has no basis in biology – or any other science – is a fetish. In the case of ‘race’, what is a social relation (i.e. a relation between people) specific to capitalism appears as a ‘natural’ relation derived from/defined by physical characteristics, namely characteristics of ‘difference’. Thus it is also transhistorical – and, thereby, ahistorical. If we extend the approach of commodity fetishism to ‘race’, our approach would be to find out how specifically capitalist social relations produce ‘race’ as a phenomena which appears in both social and natural forms and takes on the appearance of being self-standing or given, that is, it appears independent of the specific social relations which produced it. Since most people, in the course of everyday life, have no more need to question the inner workings of the social system than they do the inner workings of the solar system, the surface appearance remains unquestioned. And, since it is a real appearance, it is assumed to be self-explanatory. This also explains why no capitalist conspiracy is necessary to ‘hoodwink the masses’, as is often suggested in crude left-wing analyses where the mass media is seen as the tool of capital pulling the wool over the eyes of the masses. It also explains why, “Most (of the scientists who constructed racial ideas) were not racist.” Often they were humane people, including opponents of slavery. Essentially, “(t)he scientists who gave scientific racism its credibility and respectability were often first-rate scientists struggling to understand what to them appeared to be deeply puzzling problems of biology and human society.”
2. Labour migration, unfree labour and ‘race’
Gilroy notes that ideas about race have an “intimate association” with “the employment of unfree labour” and that this “should be a warning against conceptualizing racial ideologies as if they are wholly autonomous.” The ‘political economy of labour migration’ has provided one of the principal challenges to ‘race relations’ approaches, approaches which see ‘race relations’ as things-in-themselves. The political economy approach developed initially as a form of analysing post-World War II labour migration, particularly from Third World to First World countries and the racialisation of the migrants. In the seminal work, produced in 1973, Castles and Kozack argue:
“Historical and international perspectives on the position of immigrant workers and similar underprivileged groups cast doubt upon the validity of the race relations approach. Virtually every advanced capitalist country has a lower stratum, distinguished by race, nationality or other special characteristics, which carries out the worst jobs and has the least desirable social conditions. . . race and racialism cannot be regarded as the determinants of immigrants’ social position. Instead. . . the basic determinant is the function which immigrants have in the socio-economic structure. Through this function immigrants have an important effect not only on economic and social developments, but also on the political situation, and hence on class structure, class consciousness, and class conflict.”
The specific function of immigrant workers is to do the least desirable work, thus they form a “bottom stratum” of the working class. Their lower position in the labour market is reflected in poorer housing and social facilities and often segregation. Other workers react by seeing such immigrant workers as “an alien competing group. Prejudice hinders communication and prevents the development of class solidarity”, while the very existence of a lower immigrant stratum allows “social advancement to large sections of the indigenous working class.” There is either upward mobility through promotion in their jobs and higher incomes, or a subjective mobility where they gain a higher status due simply to the existence of a lower status group, an interesting point when considering the relationship between Chinese and European workers in late Victorian and Edwardian New Zealand. In this situation the local working class may cease to see society in terms of itself and the class of employers and, instead, view themselves as part of a hierarchy where the immigrant workers occupy the lowest place. “This view of society,” they note, “is conducive to acceptance of ideas of individual advancement, rather than collective advancement through class struggle.” We might note that this could be particularly so in a colonial society, where there are already better prospects for individual advancement than in the older, more rigidly stratified, colonial power.
In the view of Cohen, one of the other leading figures in this field, “capitalism successfully combines labour of differing statuses.” It has a strong tendency to use “substantial numbers of unfree or semi-free labourers.”. This was “characteristically” done “at the edges of the regional political economy.”. Piore notes that one of the characteristics of the process of migration from underdeveloped to developed countries is that “for all practical purposes, the supply of potential immigrants is completely elastic, or. . . inexhaustible.” This is an interesting insight, because the abundance of Chinese labour was one of its attractions to employers in the white dominions; and yet this very abundance came to be perceived – fairly quickly in the eyes of white workers and later in the eyes of the white elite – as threatening. China became the site not of a usefully abundant supply of labourers, but of teeming hordes threatening civilisation in the mainly white Pacific Rim countries.
Piore also outlines characteristics of migrants from underdeveloped countries – that they take up jobs which the local workers refuse to perform; that they see themselves as temporary migrants and plan to return home, although many fail to do so; they are generally unskilled and often even illiterate in their own language. These characteristics are generally true of the Chinese immigrants in late nineteenth and early twentieth century New Zealand. His view of the relationship between immigrant labour, its plentifulness, low wages and the resulting reaction of labour in the host country is also of use. He notes, “The supply of migrant labor is, in the long run, virtually unlimited at any conceivable wage. Without some regulation, the wage therefore is likely to fall eventually to a level which threatens the employment of the native workers and offends their sense of equity.”
This was certainly how white labour in New Zealand perceived the Chinese, although whether the perception went beyond the surface appearance is another question altogether. In Piore’s view it is reasonable to expect society to prevent such threats to native – i.e. white – workers. And whereas, with the local workers, falling wages might lead to less labour being less available, in the case of migrants the labour supply increases as each worker now has to stay longer in order to earn the same money.
Robert Miles is also vitally concerned with labour migration, the use of unfree labour and the relation between these and ‘race’. He argues that acquiring and retaining labour-power requires “judgements about the characteristics and capacity of the human beings to deliver it”, including judgements about “the signification of real or imagined differences of the labourer and the development of an explanatory system linking those characteristics with the capacity to provide labour power.” These are made in a range of situations, including “where there are immediate shortages of labour and therefore where labourers have to be recruited from other social formations. . .” Thus signification of specific characteristics is “a necessary and inevitable feature of the process of labour recruitment and retention, while racism is a historically contingent mechanism of signification.”
Unfree labour was necessary for capitalist production in a range of colonial settings. This had a particular effect on racial stereotypes. For instance, “emigration under relations of indenture of dispossessed Indians was accompanied by an image of the docility of Asian ‘races’” and Chinese labour “was considered suitable because of its alleged docility.” In other words, people were placed in the position of being unfree labour and the very condition of their being unfree – a product of the social system – was interpreted as a natural or biological feature of their skin colour or nationality; in more general terms, their ‘race’. The more “embedded” the unfree labour, the more it was “sustained by racialization”.
In her study of the world labour market and immigration, Lydia Potts notes that a substantial coolie system came into being in the second quarter of the nineteenth century and that Chinese were those most widely used. Some were contracted, others were abducted. Coolies’ conditions “were characterized by a total lack of rights”. She reprints, as well, a coolie contract from Cuba in the 1880s, which states “I furthermore declare that I am in complete agreement with the wage stipulated, although I know and understand that the free wage workers and slaves on the island of Cuba earn far higher wages.” By the late 1800s, many tens of thousands of Chinese were serving as coolie labour across the globe from the Caribbean to Southeast Asia and the Pacific. In the most advanced capitalist economies, such as the United States, their conditions were still extremely hard. Indentured labour was widely regarded as more oppressive than slavery. In 1871, Lord Olivier noted how in British Guiana black slaves looked down on indentured labour. Moreover, the desire of the Imperial authorities was that such labour remain without the benefits of ‘free men’, which were slowly being extended to sections of the working class in Britain and the white-settler colonies. As Sir Thomas Hyslop put it, “We want Indians as indentured labourers but not as free men.” The same applied in relation to the Chinese.
What is significant about all this is that the widespread need in the capitalist colonial economies for unfree labour placed the Chinese in a subordinate position. The existence of this labour could then form the material basis for white labour in countries like Australia and New Zealand to begin viewing Chinese workers as degraded labour, even if only a small minority of Chinese labour in Australia and none in New Zealand was actually coolie labour. In other words the pre-existence of relatively large-scale Chinese coolie labour formed the basis for the view on the part of European/white workers in Australia and New Zealand that equated the Chinese as a people with degraded and servile labour. The idea came after the reality.
This could offer us several supplementary insights. For instance, that once the idea of the Chinese as degraded labour became entrenched, its truth content in the Australian and New Zealand contexts became almost irrelevant. The stereotype could become a powerful force in its own right, influencing European/white workers’ actions towards Chinese labour in countries such as New Zealand.
Several things would still have to be explained, however. For example, how the view endured, given that a flood of degraded and servile Chinese workers descending on Australasia – which was the fear – did not eventuate. Indeed, the fear of such an occurrence seems to have been in inverse proportion to its actual occurrence. Fears among sections of society, especially fears which appear as irrational and/or out of all proportion to actual events constitute a form of moral panic. These usually reflect broader social changes over which people feel they have little control; insecurities and frustrations increase and find some vent or scapegoat and become fixed on these. It is therefore necessary to look at the broader social structure and dominant ideology/ies and at what kinds of changes might have been taking place which increased popular fears and insecurities and why these would find a vent in scapegoating the Chinese. Since the nation state and New Zealand nationalism were emerging it is necessary to contextualise anti-Chinese sentiments and campaigns within these ambits.
3. The nation state, nationalism and ‘race’
Chinese migrant labour was first considered as a means to overcome a shortage of workers. Racial thinking in general also emerged around this time, or slightly before, in Europe and was brought to New Zealand through British colonialism. As Spoonley notes, “The dominance of British colonial links saw explicit ideologies concerning ruler and ruled reproduced in the New Zealand context.” Spoonley sees these as focussed in part on British notions of superiority and the right to rule over others, which had relevance in the New Zealand context as the local elite had visions of their own colonial empire in the southern Pacific. Ideologies centred on ‘race’ “were critical to the political agenda (in New Zealand) from the 1870s. . . through to the Second World War.” Indeed he argues that racism against groups such as the Chinese “dominated national politics at various points” and were bound up with “petty-bourgeois beliefs that ‘race’ was a key variable in political and economic relations.”
While Victorian Britain provided the framework for racial thinking here, such thinking in New Zealand and Australia also took on particularities derived from local conditions, including the formation of the nation state and the development of national identity and nationalism. Keith Sinclair has argued, for instance, that (pakeha) New Zealand nationalism arose out of the forms of administration developed in New Zealand by the British rather than creating the original framework of the nation-state, as was the case in Europe where nationalism arose first and itself shaped the formation of the modern nation state. Pearson has further noted the way in which, in settler societies such as New Zealand, elites use the state to link ethnic elements of nationhood with state formation. In New Zealand, McKinnon has argued, “nationality and citizenship are indistinguishable”, with nationality being viewed as an “ethnic nationalism” which gives greater standing to Anglo-New Zealanders than to Maori, Asian and Pacific Island inhabitants of this country. Thus racial thinking formed a part of the development of the New Zealand national identity from the beginning.
Nationalism, notes Spoonley, “typically identifies national boundaries with racial boundaries or with specific ‘racial interests’ so that nationalism and racism become part of the same argument. The appeal to national interests is synonymous with racial concerns.” Miles indicates one basic way in which this impacts on the working class, namely that “the nation-state constitutes the framework for working class political organization and representation.” Jon Stratton argues that “the nation-state (is) a machine which produces strangers as it produces friends and enemies” and that “the stranger. . . threatens the integrity, the homogeneity, of the nation by calling into question the assumptions through which the nation constructs itself.” Dealing with Australia, he notes that this was “a settler-society where the nation itself had to be brought into existence. . .” Moreover, “As the colonies moved towards federation and an increasing independence from Britain so race became the crucial marker of the nascent Australian identity, the signifier of both inclusion and exclusion.”
Other useful insights are provided by political geography. This field has shown the way in which boundaries to the free movement of people are connected to the development of the nation state, and the role played by the state in regulating social relations in general, including the movement of people. Much of the work in this field is concerned with the political economy of nation states, migration and labour markets. In one of the earliest and most influential works in the field, S. Whittemore Boggs noted how borders constitute a wall between peoples. The wall and the state that oversees it prevent the free interaction of peoples. The chief function of boundaries is negative, primarily being to restrict free movement by immigrants. One of the chief results of the rigidity of the boundaries is that they “instil fear and despair.” Additionally, frontiers functioned to teach people “that boundary lines are partitions between the people one loves and the people one hates, instinctively, violently, ‘patriotically’.” The tightening of national frontiers meant, “it is impossible for a human being, an ounce of gold, or a piece of paper currency to cross the frontier without permission from a central government.” Meanwhile, immigration and passport controls are ways of illustrating how the nation-statein attempting to be homogeneous as an ethno-cultural unit, necessarily attempts to regulate people’s movements. The nation-state “must erect and sustain boundaries between nationals and non-nationals rooted in the legal category of nationality. . .”
More recently political geographer Elizabeth Petras has noted that the export and import of both free and unfree labour has been “integral” to global inequality. She sees labour importation as “a cyclical expression of the uneven expansion of capital accumulation among economic sectors, among nations, and within the world economy.” She points out that immigration restrictions usually quickly follow economic downturns. Governments move to impose restrictions. This raises the role of the state and borders, with “national boundaries hav(ing) traditionally been employed by the state in the interests of core capital to regulate the quality and quantity of alien labour. . .” More generally, she argues that the capitalist state manages and mediates the interests of capital, including through the erection and removal of obstacles to the functioning of the system. These include boundary regulations. (It is important to note here, as Cohen does, that the interests defended by the state are those of the capitalists as a whole. This does not, therefore, rule out conflict between the state and the sectional interests of certain employers since these “do not correspond with the hegemonic and collective interests of their class.” In fact, there are “constant wars of attrition between the state and sectional employer interests” over questions of immigration. Cohen also notes, in relation to “the stigmatisation of immigrants”, that “the state and its agencies serve both to condense the major ideological expressions of hostility and to give them greater legitimacy.”)
Boggs and Petras’ insights are useful because the period of anti-Chinese campaigning and immigration restrictions is a period in which New Zealand as a nation-state was really being established. Before the abolition of the provinces it was more like a string of separate settlements with little in the way of a national state apparatus, frontier controls and a nationalist consciousness. Thus the immigration controls can be seen in part as a formative factor in the establishment of the nation state and national consciousness.
The nation-state emerged in New Zealand as the country was consolidated through the defeat of Maori (1860s), the spread of settlement, transport and communications in the Vogel years (1870s) and the establishment of universal male franchise (1879). Yet this emerging nation-state was quickly confronted with the major challenge of the Long Depression. The founding ideas of New Zealand nationalism, especially those associated with avoiding the sharp class divisions, inequalities and attendant social problems of Britain, were brought up against the universal realities of capitalism, such as the tendency of boom and bust. The Long Depression “forced the colonists everywhere to ask how to achieve once more the promise of the New World in a more urban and industrial society. . . Slums, poverty, unemployment, prostitution, drunkenness and larrikinism became more visible. The depression forced people to think about how best paradise might be regained.”
Thus New Zealand nationalism and national identity in the last two decades of the 1800s confronted the issues of what the nation was, who constituted it, and what it stood for, not in a period of economic expansion and optimism, but in a period of depression and anxiety which only began to lift around the turn of the century.
4. Nationalism, ‘race’ and social crisis
Hall reminds us that while racism may draw on some ‘cultural traces’ from the past, it is historically specific, arising out of existing, not past, conditions and can only be understood in that light. This specificity means for Gilroy that when looking at racism in a period like the 1970s and 1980s in Britain, “The stress and turbulence of crisis have induced Britons to clarify their national identity.” This is done through asking, “What kind of people are we?” “Their self-scrutiny,” Gilroy continues, “has prompted a fascination with primary, ascribed identities that is manifested in an increasingly decadent preoccupation with the metaphysics of national belonging.” The uncertainty created by the crisis “requires that lines of inclusion and exclusion that mark out the national community be redrawn”. A “homogeneous national culture” can be reconstituted, especially in adversity, emphasising supposedly distinct national characteristics which can get people through the crisis.
This is of particular importance, for it is far from always the case that people who sell their labour-power in order to exist necessarily live their experiences in terms of class. British workers in the 1970s or New Zealand workers in the 1880s would only live their experiences through the prism of class if there were a vibrant working class movement and a sharp working class consciousness. In the absence of these, individual workers live experiences through other prisms, such as ‘race’. Just as a white British worker could experience the socio-economic problems in the 1970s as a result of black immigration rather than capitalist crisis, so a New Zealand worker in the 1880s could view the problems of that period through the lens of ‘race’ rather than class relations.
The usefulness of this for my examination of pakeha perceptions of, and actions towards/against, the Chinese is that this process can be seen in New Zealand in the late nineteenth century. Here, as we are dealing with a new nation, it was not so much a ‘reconstituting’ as a constituting of “supposedly distinct national characteristics” that was taking place. New Zealanders were certainly asking who they were and what kind of country this should be. And the answers being given were in some ways inclusive – e.g. votes for women – and in some ways exclusive – e.g. no Asians, or as few as possible. How this worked will be examined in the course of the thesis itself.
A particularly useful further analogy here is the critical examination, undertaken by the Centre for Cultural Studies at Birmingham University, of ‘mugging’ in Britain in the 1970s. They explored the way “society enters a moral panic about ‘mugging’,” the way this ties into a broader moral panic about violent crime and how “both these are about other things than crime, per se.” The authors see these panics as “an index of the disintegration of the social order, as a sign that the ‘British way of life’ is coming apart at the seams.” Mugging comes “to serve as the articulator of the crisis, as its ideological conductor.” They ask questions such as: “to what social contradictions does this trend towards the ‘disciplined society’ – powered by the fears mobilised around ‘mugging’ – really refer? How has the ‘law and order’ ideology been constructed? What social forces are constrained and contained by its construction? What forces stand to benefit from it? What role has the state played in its construction? What real fears and anxieties is it mobilising?”
If we substitute ‘the Chinese menace’ for ‘mugging’, we find that these questions offer a fruitful line to pursue in this thesis. Thus this critical, social approach is an essential element of the methodology and framework for this thesis. An integral part of this framework is why people perceive things in these forms. Why does society come to perceive certain things – ‘mugging’ or the ‘Chinese menace’ – as “an index of the disintegration of the social order”? Or, put the other way around, why do people perceive problems of the social order in other terms – as problems of ‘race’, or ‘crime’ or young people out of control, or whatever?
This is a particularly fruitful line to explore in relation to New Zealand. Just as the economic crisis in Britain in the 1970s and 1980s followed a long postwar boom, and therefore was traumatic, so the Long Depression in New Zealand was unexpected and traumatic. In New Zealand this might be especially the case since people had come here specifically in the expectation of a better life. Similarly, both periods – the 1970s and 1980s in Britain and the 1880s and 1890s in New Zealand – saw the lines of inclusion and exclusion drawn very sharply and a homogeneous national culture being constituted in a time of adversity. This national culture, excluding blacks and Asians in Britain and Asians in New Zealand, emphasised characteristics which would get people through such a time. Moreover, in New Zealand the characteristics attributed to the Chinese were those which did not allow for survival and renewal of prosperity.
All the objections revolve around the way the Chinese character is seen to be inherently fixed – Chinese are naturally coolies or degraded labour, they are naturally immoral, they are naturally unassimilable, they are naturally unable to exercise the rights of free citizens. This ‘nature’ of the Chinese means they inevitably degrade society as a whole and undermine a democracy of free citizens who are equal before the law and in the voting booth. Thus the rise of modern democracy and the modern nation state are seen as in danger of being retarded or corrupted by the presence of the Chinese.
In contrast to the Chinese, who were frequently used as coolie labour in the white dominions, were the European immigrants. These “moved to escape European poverty. . . in the expectation of a more prosperous and secure life for themselves and their descendants.” Moreover, through “emigrating when they were young they were able to reap the gains over most of their working lives.” In the New Zealand case, these emigrants expected a continually improving standard of living, upward mobility, a say in politics, and these things were important parts of the emerging New Zealand nationalism. By looking, in the New Zealand case, at both the way in which democracy and the modern nation state were perceived by their makers, and at how these actually developed, we can situate attitudes towards the Chinese in their fuller context.
Lastly, falling under this category in terms of framework, is the notion used by Saxton of the Chinese as the ‘indispensable enemy’. In his work on the development of the labour movement and anti-Chinese campaigning in California in the second half of the nineteenth century, he sees the Chinese as being what we might call the necessary Other against whom white labour is defined and organised into a labour movement. Anti-Chinese sentiment and campaigning provides a crucial focus for emerging labour action in the trade union and political spheres. It unites (white) workers into a labour movement and, by providing a visible (and perhaps, also, rather weak) enemy, it gives that movement coherence and strength. At the same time, Saxton’s focus on just the working class is too narrow. Anti-Chinese sentiment and activity also unites workers with sections of both the middle class and the capitalist class. It obscures class divisions and unites society, or at least the white majority, along racial, or racialised, and national lines.
5. Class consciousness and the perception of ‘social problems’
Finally we come to the question of how people, including of different classes, come to perceive the social world and social problems. In the section on ‘race’ and reification, I have already outlined the key aspects of commodity fetishism and reification. Before returning to these, I want to introduce Gramsci’s concept of hegemony and a recent work which offers examples of hegemony and social control.
Hegemony is defined by Gramsci as the point in the relationship of political groups in which the ruling group not only exercises ideological dominance but incorporates the interests of subordinate groups. Political questions are then posed not, in appearance anyway, as representing the interests of sectoral and conflicting groups. Instead, there is “a unison of economic and political aims, but also intellectual and moral unity, posing all questions. . . on a ‘universal’ plane, and thus creating the hegemony of a fundamental social group over a series of subordinate groups. Put another way, “the dominant group is co-ordinated concretely with the general interests of the subordinate groups.” The state is seen as playing a critical role in this, fusing the interests of dominant and subordinate groups, while the interests of the dominant continue to be paramount. Where the ruling class incorporates other groups through an expansive hegemony, involving active consensus, the result is the creation of what Gramsci calls “a national-popular collective will”. Gramsci also notes how, in the more developed capitalist countries, the superstructures tend to be more able to contain and slow down and make more prudent the action of the masses. Furthermore, the strength of civil society in the western capitalist democracies – Gramsci mainly compared these with Tsarist Russia – tended to strengthen the hegemony of the ruling class and narrow the scope for revolutionary challenges. The question of hegemony is, ultimately, a question of social control. This is especially the case since, as Gramsci notes, it is still the interests of the ruling class which prevail over the rest of society.
Social control is a vital focus of Allen, who sees it as a deliberate ruling class policy, facilitated through the invention of the white race. Employers, argue Allen, balanced “the economic and social aspects of rulership” by reserving jobs for white workers. He investigates how ruling elites include elements of those below them through the creation of “certain inviolable spheres of development. . . which afford them an appropriate degree of independence and security.” This is done as “a general principle of social control. . .” Since Allen’s book deals with the USA and Ireland, his examples are drawn from there. Nevertheless, his point that there was a “social process of recruitment of Euro-Americans into the ‘white race’ social control formation. . .” in the 1800s offers useful insights into the privileging of white over Chinese labour in New Zealand.
The approaches of Gramsci and Allen certainly allow us to ask some important questions, which have so far not been asked, in relation to White New Zealand. For instance, following Allen, was White New Zealand – in any way, or to any extent – a deliberate ruling class policy, aimed at social control through the creation of a ‘white race’ here? Following Gramsci, did it represent the point of hegemony in New Zealand, where the ruling group incorporated interests of the subaltern group/s and forged a “national-popular will”? What role was played in this by the state? Did the ruling class absorb “the elites of the enemy classes” – e.g. the trade union officials who were the elite of the working class, the intellectual professions which constituted the elite of the middle class – and thereby render them, the working class in particular, politically harmless and unable to function as a class opposition? This is particularly important if Olssen is correct in his stance that in this country “racism was perhaps as important as anything else in forging a basis for working class consciousness.”
At the same time, there are some problems in both Gramsci’s, and especially Allen’s, approach. Although the invention school approach, used by Allen, is useful in demystifying traditions and showing both the modernity of many of them and that they are socially constructed rather than natural, it tends to imply that ruling elites have virtually unlimited power to invent identities for themselves and other social groups. Moreover where these identities come from, and why particular ones should be invented is difficult to explain except by some form of conspiracy theory, such as deliberate divide and rule tactics. Although there are circumstances in which elites certainly do consciously plan their activities and resort to divide and rule, this is not really how society works on a day-to-day basis. It is the normal operations of the market which creates the divisions in the first place. These divisions are then rationalised as either ‘natural’ or are seen to be socially constructed by elites. But in either case, it is the divisions which come first and then have to be made sense of.
Wolton, for instance, points to the degree to which, in a market economy, no-one is really in control of society in the way the invention theorists imply. She argues that this school overestimates the degree of ruling class control. Observation of the apparatus of domination leads the invention school to forget that “these tools are a response to an inability to determine the behaviour of the rest of society. The establishment introduces mechanisms of control precisely because it is trying to run an out-of-control system. Kenan Malik, in also arguing that ruling classes, even if they wish to, cannot simply create racial divisions, continues, “Racial differentiation emerges out of real social and economic mechanisms, out of dialogue and struggle between different social groups, out of the interaction between ideology and social processes.” In order to grasp the meaning of race, “. . . we need to investigate how the understanding of the relationship between humanity, society and nature is socially and historically constructed. . .”
The concepts of commodity fetishism and reification allow us to develop such an understanding. By identifying the way in which social relations under capitalism appear at the surface of society in real, but mystified and mystifying forms, they identify how problems specific to the existing social system appear as general ‘social problems’. This also means that it appears they can be solved by general social measures, formed, carried out with the backing of, or representing, “a national-collective will”. For instance, in a period of depression which may have been preceded by significant levels of immigration, as was the case in New Zealand in the 1880s, it will appear to many that immigrants have taken jobs off local workers and/or if immigration is halted more local workers will have jobs. People can easily unite across class lines to call for a halt to immigration and some governments may be highly amenable to this solution. There is, in this case, “a national-collective will” at work. In this situation, there is an obscuring of whose class interests this serves and what causes recessions and depressions. There is no necessary link, for instance, between economic recession or depression and immigration. The Great Depression of the 1930s was neither preceded nor accompanied by large-scale immigration.
The key point here is that people make sense of the social world on the basis of its surface appearances since it is these which people confront in their daily lives. Workers’ consciousness, like that of everyone else, reflects an attempt to comprehend and deal with these surface appearances, not the social system itself which is simply taken for granted. This helps explain why workers can perceive the world through categories such as ‘race’ or nation – and even gender and sexual orientation – and generally do so, rather than class. Even where the world might be seen through the lens of class, it is in the narrow context of a class in itself rather than for itself.
This process affects all classes. This also helps explain Marx’s point that the ruling ideas of society are those of the ruling class. In other words, this is not simply because the ruling class controls the production of knowledge and the media, but because the categories of bourgeois thought coincide with the actual surface appearances of society and therefore coincide to some substantial degree with the experience of the working class. Moreover, since the workings of capitalism are spontaneous, ruling class initiatives are often an attempt to gain some measure of control over these operations and their (often destabilising) social effects. Lukacs argues, for instance, “the situation in which the bourgeoisie finds itself determines the function of its class consciousness in its struggle to achieve control of society. The hegemony of the bourgeoisie really does embrace the whole of society; it really does attempt to organise society in its own interests (and in this has had some success).”
Its success is due to owning the means of production and having “the intellectual, organisational and every other advantage. . .” But the fact that the workers are confronted with the same surface appearances means that the hegemony of the bourgeoisie does not have to be coercive or repressive in a blatant way, or at least not in the advanced capitalist world. This means, as Gramsci notes, it is possible for ruling classes in capitalist society to dominate with the active consent of the dominated rather than through blatant coercion and passive consent. The limitations on the consciousness of workers was also of acute concern to Lenin who, as early as the turn of the century, noted how workers’ own efforts resulted not in class consciousness but trade union consciousness and “trade unionism means the ideological enslavement of the workers by the bourgeoisie.” This is because trade unionism accepts the wage-labour/capital relationship fundamental to capitalism, while merely arguing over the conditions under which it will continue and thus is a form of “bourgeois consciousness”.
While class consciousness, reification and hegemony remain under-explored in New Zealand, they have been the subject of a substantial international literature. Most relevant to New Zealand, due to the similarities of history, social structure and politics is the Australian work. O’Connell and Irving, for instance, have noted the hegemony of “populist radicalism” over workers in Australia in the 1840-60 period. Its goal was to protect middle class interests but it was more than a middle class movement. The commercial bourgeoisie needed mass support to gain parliamentary power and did this by, for instance, co-operating with small producers and workers in political campaigns. The language used by the radicals was not that of class, but ‘the people’, who were seen to be oppressed by a land-holding oligarchy. The middle class aspirations of an underdeveloped working class meant that workers could be drawn into this cross-class alliance. Connell and Irving note that, on the practical level, “The bourgeoisie set the tasks for the alliance against pastoral capital.” On the ideological level, “the tasks of economic development and the maintenance of the superiority of the British race in Australia were heavy with liberal bourgeois values.” They are thus in no doubt as to who exercised hegemony: “Moreover, in the practice of these tasks, working-men were cast as followers.” They further point to the way in which “bourgeois political leadership was effected by capturing the leadership of the radical mass movements of then working-men” and give a number of examples of the mechanisms for this – the establishment of a host of organisations, radical reading rooms, mass publishing, public meetings, electoral politics. They point to the effects of this alliance in relation to immigration exclusion: “Similarly, the practice of race relations, in the campaigns against the Chinese and Melanesians, saw workers endorsing the bourgeois model of the social order, in which equality of opportunity stemmed from the freedom of wage labour, and rejecting the stratified ‘plantation’ model resting on ‘unfree’, indentured coloured labour.” Citing a number of academic works over the previous decade, Chamberlain notes that “in contemporary Australian sociology it has become somewhat of an academic orthodoxy – or at least an extremely widespread view – that there is a ruling culture which does penetrate deeply into working class consciousness.”
The significance of all of this to the topic of this thesis is that the organised labour movement, the middle class and the capitalists in New Zealand all came to support a White New Zealand policy. This can be theorised as the formation of a “national-popular collective will”, a moment of hegemony of the elite of businessmen, big farmers and politicians over the working classes, not through repression but through active consent. The active consent, however, still has to be explained. The way in which working class consciousness is, like that of the elite, derived from the surface appearances of capitalism and thus, generally, does not advance beyond a trade union consciousness gives us a fruitful line of exploration into how people with divergent class interests can unite around political questions. This also avoids a crude economic determinism which might suggest that if workers supported a White New Zealand policy they must have been materially better off by doing so, a crude ‘false consciousness’ argument which suggests that workers can simply be hoodwinked by the elite and a crude conspiracy theory which suggests a plot by the ruling class to divide the working class.
Examining White New Zealand policies from the standpoint that they represented the formation of the “national-popular collective will”, and that the analysis contained in the concepts of commodity fetishism and reification explain how that will could come about, also require us to look at the social, economic and political processes involved. It thus offers the potential of a far richer understanding than has been gained through the existing methodology which isolates White New Zealand and treats it as a “thing in itself”.