by Philip Ferguson
The article that follows is essentially one that appeared in the March-May 2003 issue of revolution, a magazine which was one of the antecedents of this blog. I’ve left in some of the examples from 2003, but added a little bit of new material from events since then and changed some of the tenses.
In early 2003, huge demonstrations took place around the world against the threatened invasion of Iraq. On February 15, something like one in ten people in Spain took to the streets in the mass protests. In Australia about 1 in 18 people participated. In New Zealand, only about 1 in 380 protested!
It could be argued, of course, that Spain is historically much more political a country than New Zealand, and this is no doubt true. However, the New Zealand marches were still tiny compared to those in the country we are most like historically – Australia.
There are probably several reasons why the protests in New Zealand were relatively small compared with abroad. One is the weakness of the far left here. The kind of left organisations which provided an important part of the organising muscle for the global Febraury 15, 2003 marches, barely exist in this country. We don’t even have any significant left social democratic formations, let alone revolutionary ones. The biggest peace party in New Zealand at the time was the Greens, but they remaned tiny numerically and were not exactly distinguished for anti-imperialist organising.
Another factor was the way the Labour-led government of the time was able to present itself as some kind of voice of moderation internationally. That they were able, to a marked degree, to get away with this, all the while supporting the whole policy of strangulation of Iraq, itself indicated the lack of any force to their left which could make them pay a high political price for this and really expose them.
Widespread apathy and passivity was – and remains – connected to the combination of illusions that people here have about NZ somehow not being as ‘bad’ as other Western governments and countries, the depoliticising effects of the fourth Labour government and the defeats workers suffered under it and the National government during the late 1980s and early 1990s. Furthermore, there is the underlying nature of New Zealand as one of the most politically stable societies in the world.
The ramping up of imperialist interventions in the Middle East and elsewhere, the growth of inter-imperialist rivalry, and the generally low political level of people here, including the left, make it essential to understand the basic nature of this society. Moreover, without such an understanding, we are hardly likely to be able to chart a course towards the overthrow of capitalism here.
Two basic positions have been, and continue to be, put forward on the left about New Zealand society. One has been put forward by social democrats like Bill Sutch, sections of the old Labour Party and unions, the old pro-Moscow Socialist Unity Party and its splinters and, for a while, the (Maoist) Communist Party of New Zealand in the late 1960s and early 1970s. This is the idea that New Zealand is a neo-colony of foreign imperialism, firstly British and then a combination of US, British, Japanese and Australian imperialism. More recently, the focus has been on Chinese investment. Today, this neo-colony’ view is put forward by what remains of the Alliance and left social democracy, several small Trotskyist and Maoist groups, and a broad layer of left-nationalists not necessarily associated with any specific party or sect.
The other view is that which was always held by the Socialist Action League and which was also embraced by the CPNZ from the mid-70s onwards. It was strongly held by the Workers Party, the revolution group and the Anti-Capitalist Alliance (ACA) formed by those two small currents. (Indeed, this shared position was one of the key factors in the coming together of the forces that made up the ACA and allowed them subsequently to merge into a single revolutionary organisation.) And it is strongly held by Redline today. This is the view that NZ is a junior imperialist and not an oppressed Third World-type country.
Our method of arriving at the position was also important. Whereas some Maoists and Trotskyists adopted a basically arithmetic approach to the issue – adding up how many shares are owned by foreign capital at any point in time – our method was historical-structural. In other words, the method of a Marxist approach.
A useful place to start, then, is with the historical development of NZ capitalism and how this compares with the development, or under-development, of actual Third World countries.
The divergent paths of, on the one hand, the white settler-colonies of Britain (NZ, Canada, Australia) and, on the other hand, the colonies and semi-colonies which were not settled to any significant extent but which were ruthless plundered indicates the difference between Britain’s ex-possesions which themselves became imperialist and those which became neo-colonies or semi-colonies.1
The establishment oof Canada, Australia and New Zealand as white dominions, through the large-scale dispossession of the already-existing populations (eg Native Canadians, Aboriginals, Maori), meant that these countries moved quickly into the capitalist socio-politico-economic system in its fully developed form, a form transferred directly from British capitalist society. Indeed, these countries acquired an even more perfeclty bourgeois-democratic society than Britain itself, since they weren’t plagued with an aristocracy.
Workers in Canada, Australia and New Zealand enjoyed higher living standards historically than British workers. One only needs to read Engels’ Condition of the Working Class in England or sections of the first volume of Marx’s Capital dealing with the conditions of British proletarians to see the difference between workers’ conditions there and here.
In the countries that became semi-colonies (or neo-colonies), super-profits were (and still are) extracted, resulting in mass impoverishment through the parts of Asia, the Pacific, the Caribbean and Africa ruled by Britain. Workers from Britain did not migrate in large numbers to poverty-stricken colonial possessions such as Nigeria or India; they migrated to Canada, Australia and New Zealand because they understood that these were countries where their living standards would be higher than in Britain.
The extraction of super-profits from colonies and semi-colonies in the 19th and 20th centuries was impossible without the denial of consistent bourgeois-democratic institutions there, from representative parliaments to civil rights laws and so on. In Asia, Africa and Latin America, countries (both as direct colonies and, later, semi-colonies) were denied repesentative government and national independence, and had to wage protracted struggles, including wars, to win them.
The masses’ levels of existence were low because not only were they being exploited and oppressed by the domestic capitalists but also by imperialism, as it extracted cheap raw materials and amassed super-profits.
When these countries did get national independence and representative institutions, continuing imperialist domination and the extraction of super-profits required intense levels of repression. Police and military dictatorships, states of emergency, state torture and kidnapping, and coups were a regular part of life in many of these countries. Large sections of the woring class and the vast bulk of the peasantry lived in conditions of impoverishment, often barely able to eke out even a subsistence.
This was, and remains, because the profits extracted by the imperialists leave only the crumbs for the local bourgeoisie. They therefore have traditionally had relatively little manoeuvring room. They simply don’t have at their disposal the kinds of resources the western imperialists do, to buy class peace. They continually have to resort to the stick and rarely can afford the carrot. In other words, you can’t ave stable bourgeois-democracy in a neo-colony because there s simply not the material base.
By contrast, Canada, Australia and New Zealand have had bourgeois-democratic representagtive government, independence without a struggle, the most bourgeois-democratic franchises in the world, and the most developed bourgeois-democratic societies, along with wlefare states and an array of concessions to the working class rather than military repression.
No coups or dictators or struggle for independence
The exploited colonies of the major powers had to struggle for independence. This was not the case with the settler-colonies such as Canada, Australia and New Zealand (and, to some extent, South Africa). They got independence very quickly and without any struggle. Britain took control of New Zealand formally via the mechanism of the Treaty of Waitangi in 1840 and representative institutions were quickly established. A British parliamentary act of 1852 established a parliament for this country and it began meeting in 1854, with more and more powers being progressively handed over to it as a local ruling class grew up out of a layer of settlers, primarily from Britain, and their subsequent progeny. (Even the US had to fight a bitter seven-year war to get independence from the ‘mother country’.)
New Zealand history has not seen a single coup or right-wing dictatorship. Because the ruling class here has ultimate control of the surplus-value produced here, it has always been able to buy social peace, unlike the capitalists of actual neo-colonies.
The New Zealand state has broken from the role of maintaining social equilibrium on only a few occasions – for instance, during the waterside lockout of 1951 and the anti-Springbok tour protests of 1981. And state repression at those times, while a shock to many New Zealanders, was scarcely on the level of Third World dictatorships. No-one was lifted off the street, tortured and murdered in state custody, ‘disappeared’ at the hands of death squads in the pay of the ruling class, no-one was fired on with live rounds by the state, no massacres, no detentions without trial, etc etc.
While hundreds of thousands have been martyred and exterminated in real semi-colonies, only one person has died at the hands of the police during a class conflict here after the state had dispossessed (and murdered) Maori in order to establish a modern capitalist economy and bourgeois democracy. That person was Frederick Evans in the 1912-13 industrial battles.
Role of metropolitan capital
In the semi-colonies, British capital held back the development of indigenous capital and maintained backwardness. As Engels said about British rule in Ireland, it not only stunted Irish development but threw the country back centuries. In India, Africa, the Caribbean and elsewhere, British rule and exploitation required the maintenance of pre-capitalist social relations in huge swathes of territory and widespread poverty, along with feudal rulers and ongoing repression.
In New Zealand, Australia and Canada, British capital played the opposite role. Far from acting as a barrier to development, it was a massive stimulus to development and helped give birth to local capital. Pre-capitalist institutions were swept away and modern, independent, bourgeois-democratic societies were established. In New Zealand after (settler) colonisation, there was no mass impoverished peasantry or impoverished urban working class as in Britain’s Asian, African and Caribbean colonies, whether India, Nigeria or Jamaica or any others. NZ, Australia and Canada had a different historical foundation and a different historical trajectory altogether.
The white-settler colonies resemble each other closely. The only real difference is size of population. If NZ was/is a semi-colony, then clearly the same argument would hold for Canada and Australia. But even a simple comparison of the history, development and social structure of these three countries reveals the big differences between them on the one hand and India, Nigeria, Zimbabwe and the other countries which were exploited colonial possessions of Britain.
The International Monetary Fund (IMF), the World Bank and other institutions of ionternational imperialism have continuously subjected real semi-colonial countries to programmes of ‘structural readjustment’ over recent years. For example, in Argentina, Peru and Mexico.
In all these countries, the bourgeois governments have carried out huge cutbacks to satisfy the IMF, and there have been regular rebellions against the client governments who faithfully carry out themeasures dictated by the imperialist institutions.
Even Britain was subjected to IMF demands in the 1970s, however. New Zealand’s economic restructuring, by contrast, was carried out in the 1980s and not as a result of demands by the IMF or World Bank, but at the behest of, and under the close direction of, this country’s own leading capitalists. At the time they were grouped together in the Business Roundtable (BRT).
In the second-half of the 1980s, the BRT virtually ran the government and the country. It was precisely because NZ is imperialist, and not a neo-colony or semi-colony, that the dominant local capitalists, and not some international imperialist firms or institutions, drove the reforms, The reforms clearly represented the interests of the dominant capitalist elements within New Zealand (the BRT is a lot less important these days, due to the inability of the reforms to really kick-start a new dynamic wave of accumulation – see revolution # 11, for instance).
The anti-‘foreign-control’ nationalists, such as the Green Party and anti-globalisation activists here, often present the reforms as the result of some kind of ‘foreign ideology’ and as serving the interests of foreign capital. But the reforms were clearly driven by the BRT capitalists, represented their interests and were put into effect by the Labour Party, a longtime nationalist party. These capitalists were now so big and their operations efficient enough that they could compete globally. They therefore favoured the removal of protectionist measures and subsidies which once helped them to flourish but were now a drain on their profits – especially in the context of economic crisis – as the subsidies helped prop up inefficient capitalists and increased the necessary costs of workers for maintaining themselves (ie increased the value of labour-power).
The capitalists carried through a barrage of reforms designed to lower the cost of labour-power as well as lowering its value. This was also a reason for removing protection. The cheaper prices of imported commodities would reduce the cost of living of NZ workers and thus lower the value of their labour-power. NZ capitalists could then pay lower wages and receive more surplus-value from labour. Thus the BRT capitalists were prepared to let other NZ capitalists, who still required protection, to either go to the wall or lower the wages of their own workers in order to compete more effectively.
So, all round, the reforms were of, for and by New Zealand capital, a very different situation from a neo-colony.
Unlike neo-colonies, we lack mass production lines of cheap labour, owned by foreign capital. In fact, like typical imperialists, NZ capitalists frequently move production offshore to take advantage of cheap labour elsewhere.
Globally, New Zealand plays the part of a mini-imperialist power. And, to the extent that there are capital flows out of New Zealand, this is a reflection of the fact that 70 percent of all capital flows in the world are in and out of imperialist countries. The unequal capital flow between imperiaist countries reflects the size and profitability of the various economies; it doesn’t make them neo-colonies of one another.
Indeed, if the neo-colony logic was followed through one would have to assume that the United States was an oppressed neo-colony because there is more foreign capital invested in the US than in any other country in the world and, in the 1980s, the US economy was largely kept afloat by Japan. The US itself collapsed from being the biggest creditor nation in the world to being the world’s biggest debtor.
No-one, however, therefore argues that the US is imperialist. What primarily confuses people in relation to New Zealand seems to be simply the issue of scale.
Because New Zealand is a country of only 4.5 million or so people, it’s not a big imperialist shark. But it is still an imperialist predator. And what it lacks in size, it has certainly always made up for in appetite, being far more aggressive historically than other First World countries of comparable size.
Its chief impediment has always been that imperialism is a dog-eat-dog world; small imperialists can only do so much and usually lose out to bigger imperialists, such as the United States. Even major imperiaist pwers like Britain and France lost out to the US during and after World War II. They had to abandon control of their colonies and allow US capital in, for instance. The British pound was replaced by the US dollar as the global currency. In the Middle East, the British and French were rudely shunted aside by the Americans, eventually being humiliated in 1956 during the ‘Suez Crisis’. In the 1990s and early into this century, the chief source of investment capital in Britain has been Japan. Yet neither France nor Britain have ceased being imperialist powers in their own right.
The way NZ imperialism sometimes loses out is no fundamentally different to how one imperialist country frequently loses out to others, or to how smaller capitalist firms are squeezed out of market share by bigger competitors.
New Zealand’s imperialist status can also be seen in its military involvements. NZ has been a player in every imperiaist war since the Boer War (1899-1902). Indeed, British Liberals who opposed that war noted that New Zealand premier Richard Seddon was a bigger jingo and more imperialist-minded than even the British establishment.
Dreams of empire
In the nineteenth century, the NZ establishment dreamed of an empire in the South Pacific. In fact, they started dreaming in this way as early as the 1860s, before they’d even finished disposessing Maori. Thereafter, they set out to get what they could.
They had to be restrained by larger powers and, in the end, only got the Cooks and a few other islands. In 1914, however, NZ invaded Samoa, which it had been after for decades. It proceeded to rule it for almost 50 years, brutally repressing the indepdendence movement and shooting dead peaceful demonstrators (see here). Through two world wars, including a disastrous abortive invasion of Turkey in 1915, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, the invasions and occupations of Afghanistan and Iraq, the New Zealand state has been a passionate imperiaist player.
With the restoration of capitalism in the former Soviet bloc and China in the 1980s and 1990s, the threat of ‘communism’ ceased worrying the NZ ruling class in the Pacific. Our rulers took increasingly bold measures. In the 1980s, they banned US warships from NZ harbours – something no actual neo-colony has ever dared do to its imperialist overseer, let alone get away with it – while stepping up their own (conventional) military involvement in the Pacific to levels not seen since WW2.
In East Timor, it was Austraian and New Zealand imperialism fronted up with troops and steered the newly-independent state into the hands of the West (and actual neo-colony status) while disarming the local liberation forces. Semi-colonies or neo-colonies don’t get entrusted with this kind of work. For instance, Indonesia, which is a real neo-colony, was told to piss off in no uncertain terms and the process of overseeing East Timorese independence, and its future subservience to western capital, was carried through by the Australian and NZ states.
There are no examples where the independence of a colony has been entrusted to even the troops of a fairly-developed neo- or semi-colony (like, say, Argentina). That is directly imperialist business and requires imperialist countries to directly oversee it, countries like New Zealand.
Whether NZ is a neo-colony or a junior imperialist is not an abstract intellectual issue. Rather, it determines fundamental political strategy.
For instance, if New Zealand was a neo-colony then there would be a struggle for national liberation to be fought. It would mean, too, that NZ nationalism would be the ideology of an oppressed people, and supportable in so far as it challenged imperialism, rather than a reactionary capitalist ideology. It would mean that it was possible, even necessary at certain times, for the revolutionary movement to make some kind of tactical agreement or b,oc with a section of capitalists – the ‘patriotic’ or nationalist wing of the bourgeoisie – against the imperialists and their collaborators in a ‘comprador’ bourgeoisie.
If, on the other hand, New Zealand is itself imperialist, then the line of march is not a national liberation struggle culminating, eventually, in socialism, but rather a direct struggle of the working class and oppressed against the NZ caitalist class and for a socialist revolution.
When looked at this way, the idea that New Zealand is a neo-colony is also exposed as wrong. Where is the progressive or anti-imperialist wing of the NZ bourgeoisie?
The ‘closest’ we have to this is Winston Peters and his xenophobic nationalism, expressed in the NZ First party. His party, however, manly represents the interests of petty capitalists and other middle class layers who feel squeezed out by big capital. Both NZ and overseas big capital. But the ‘foreign’ variant offers an easier target, especially if it’s Chinese. Indeed, the anger of these layers, represented by NZ First (with Labour sometimes competing) is directly mainly against ‘Asians’, regardless of class. (Ironically, the once old-time racists of the National Party are quite cosmopolitan by comparison. NZ capital has massive interests in China, something that is overlooked in the palaver about Chinese investment here, and so old-style anti-Chinese racism is now frowned on by National.)
The lack of any progressive, anti-imperialist wing of the NZ bourgeoisie is simply unexplainable by the neo-colony model. It only makes sense if you understand this cuntry to be a (junior) imperialist.
In an imperialist country, you would expect bourgeois nationalism, in all its manifestations, to be reactionary. In New Zealand this is certainly true whether it is the socially liberal nationalism of National and Labour, which are generally well-disposed to overseas capital, or the conservative nationalism of NZ First which is hostile to ‘foreign’ capital. And in an imperiaist country you would expect there to be no radical, anti-imperialist section of the capitalist class.
Peters’ anti-Asian racism, meanwhile, has not stopped left-nationalists from allying with him, having him on their platforms and so on.
Even far-left groups which would formally say NZ is imperialist tend to bend to nationalism. In 1993, when French imperialism was conducting new nuclear tests in the Pacific at Moruroa, the NZ ruling class was irate. Some of them even took to their yachts to sail to Moruroa to protest. In the midst of a campaign of anti-French xenophobia, one of the leaders of the then.Socialist Workers Organisation, Brian Roper, wrote an article in their paper demanding the National Party government send a frigate to stick it up to the French. Apparently the problem with the NZ ruling class was that it wasn’t aggressive enugh about asserting its rights in the Pacific! Twenty years later the Socialist Aotearoa group launched a (thankfully short-lived campaign) to defend the existing All Blacks jersey as opposed to having the logo of a ‘foreign’ company on it.
Today, nationalism permeates the campaign against the TPPA, as it did the campaign to ‘defend’ the State-Owned Enterprises created by Roger Douglas.
Nationalism, the idea that NZ is a neo-colony, is a primary obstacle to the development of class consciousness in this country. And the continuous deference to NZ nationalism by so much of the left, including much of the far left, points up the need for a new left: an anti-capitalist left rather than an anti-foreign money left.
To sum up, New Zealand has none of the characteristics that are exclusive to semi- or neo-colonies.
We have a highly-developed capitalist mode of production, in an independent capitalist state, with one of the historically best-off working classes in the world.
Historically, we have had a big class of free farmers engaged in one of the most developed capitalist agriculture sectors in the world.
New Zealand has never seen masses of impoverished peasants and urban workers as are to be found in any real neo-colony. New Zealand has never had peasants because the settlers smashed up the social system of Maori and installed capitalism without the country passing through a stage of feudal development. let alone ever having feudal-type social relations further entrenched by a foreign power.
We have one of the most completely bourgeois-democratic societies and regimes in the world, without any history of coups, military or police dictatorships, murderous repression, etc.
We had no struggle for independence and no national liberation movement – precisely because we had nbo foreign power holding back our social, economic and political development.
To the contrary, New Zealand’s own, independent ruling class has possessed colonies and neo-colonies in the Pacific, ruling them as an oppressor power and stunting their development.
The NZ ruling elite joins in imperialist adventures abroad not because it is under the thumb of Washington, or anyone else, but because it is pursuing its own imperialist interests.
1. Lenin used the term semi-colony to describe a country like Turkey, which had not been possessed by a foreign imperial power. However, he also used it to describe Argentina, which had been a Spanish possession. It therefore seems reasonable to use the terms ‘neo-colony’ and ‘semi-colony’ as synonyms rather than make some pedantic differentiation. They both refer to countries over which foreign imperialism exerts essential power and from which the imperialists extract super-profits.