by Phil Duncan

On the New Zealand left, one of the most misunderstood questions is that of the state.  One reason for this is that the state in this country has played a particularly instrumental role in the creating and cohering of society, frequently stepping in to do things capitalism simply could not, like constructing much of the infrastructure of the economy – roads, rail, bridges, dams, telecommunications, for instance.  The state was also the necessary instrument through which the education and health of each new generation of workers could be guaranteed – markets couldn’t do this either.  The third role played by the state was in guaranteeing cheap inputs for industry – so coal and other primary products were often extracted through being owned by the state and the operations being organised by government departments.

The ‘mixed economy’ model confused many on the left about a middle way between the rampant capitalism they associated with the United States and the state totalitarianism they associated with the Soviet bloc.  The ‘mixed economy’ model, particularly when administered by a Labour government, was indeed viewed as a kind of ‘New Zealand socialism’.

Thus the capitalist state in New Zealand was seen simply as the state.  On the left, people talked about “the state” far more than “the capitalist state”.  Since state ownership was associated with socialism, the state was simply not seen as a key institution of capitalism.  The left were always calling on “the state” to do this, that or the other, as if such action somehow was socialist.

The existence of a large social-democratic political movement, the Labour Party, and before that the Liberals who also used the state to mediate between capital and labour and carry out social reforms, further confused matters.  The reforms of both the Liberals in the late 1800s and the first Labour government, including the welfare state reforms, ultimately benefited capital by ensuring a healthy and fit working class and also class peace – both necessary prerequisites for the smooth flow of capital accumulation – many on the left only saw the benefits accruing to the working class through better access to health and education.  Illusions in “the state” were enhanced.

And while today Labour is a liberal-bourgeois party with very few members, and more middle class than proletarian in its social composition, much of the left remains in its thrall.  The ostensibly Marxist groups are all soft on Labour.

Another crucial factor in illusions about the state is the strength of New Zealand nationalism.  The ideology that coheres New Zealand capitalist society pervades the left.  We are supposed to be proud of New Zealand because it is “different” to other capitalist societies and one of the differences we’re supposed to be most proud of is that here there is a long history of an interventionist state, helping people through life from the cradle to the grave.  Although the left generally opposes imperialist interventions in the Third World, these are frequently seen as American imperialist adventures, and NZ imperialism is overlooked.  There’s little understanding that, as a highly-developed capitalist society, this country is part of the imperialist club and the NZ ruling class pursues its own class interests first and foremost; it doesn’t simply do whatever Washington wants.

The left’s full-on embrace of the anti-TPPA campaign – with the exception of this blog and the AWSM comrades – also indicates that while the ostensibly Marxist groups reject kiwi nationalism in theory, they cannot break with it in practice.  Criticising the nationalism of the TPPA campaign while participating enthusiastically in it makes as much sense as being part of Labour while formally criticising it.  It’s reminiscent of the 1970s public morals campaigner Patricia Bartlett who used to specialise in going along to plays and films she knew had nudity in them and then complaining all over the place because the plays and films featured . . . nudity.

A further factor in illusions is that in New Zealand, the state only rarely has to show its repressive face.  While the state organised the dispossession of Maori, and this certainly involved making war, this was not on the same scale as the repressive use of the state in many other countries in oppressing either indigenous populations or exploited classes.  It was over with relatively quickly and the state subsequently used legislative means like the Public Works Act to expropriate Maori land, means which caused little stir among the wider public.

For 150 years, it has only been about once in a generation or more that the naked force of the state has been deployed – in 1890 against the maritime workers, in 1912-1913 against the waterfront workers, miners and other radical sections of the class, in 1951 against the wharfies and their allies, and in 1981 against the anti-Springbok tour protesters.  While the state mobilised a 700-strong paramilitary force to end the 1977-78 Bastion Point occupation, this was a much less violent removal of protesters than in 1981.

The repressive state has been seen since then in one-off heavy-handed operations such as the 2007 police raids in Tuhoe country, but nothing on the scale of those earlier-mentioned conflicts.  Police violence is also still meted out to Maori and Pacific working class youth on the streets of several Auckland and Wellington suburbs, but these incidents are not part of a state-coordinated effort to repress any political movement and they are little-known outside the communities where the beatings take place.

So the relatively peaceful nature of this society means that most people are far more likely to experience the state as providing them with services they need rather than truncheons around their heads or shots fired into them.

The final factor in the widespread illusions on the left, even on the far left, about the NZ capitalist state is the absence of Marxism as a current of any real strength in this society, either in terms of the intellectual thought of NZ society or within the working class movement.  Far left groups frequently fall in behind social-democratic views of the state and state ownership, the most recent example being in the campaign around the sale of 49% of the shares in several state-owned capitalist enterprises and, as noted above, the nationalist anti-TPPA campaign.  In the first case, the fact that these enterprises were actually capitalist and had been established by the capitalist state precisely to be capitalist companies was overlooked.  Much of the left proved to be pro-state capitalist.  In the second case, the left tagged along behind NZ nationalism in practice, while making meaningless criticisms of that nationalism in its  not exactly widely-read publications.

Below are some articles that have appeared on this blog on the question of the NZ (capitalist) state.

Capital and the state: a Marxist view

State intervention: a handout to capital

SOEs: corporatised business as usual

State companies, capitalism and the left: a Marxist view

“Our asset” lays off 125, threatens more

Neither private capitalism nor state capitalism, but workers power: what Solid Energy and Mainzeal reveal

What are anti-capitalist politics?

  1. Pete says:

    “While the state organised the dispossession of Maori, and this certainly involved making war, this was not on the same scale as the repressive use of the state in many other countries in oppressing either indigenous populations or exploited classes. It was over with relatively quickly …”

    Hmm, 1860 to 1881 (some would argue the conflict carried on to 1916 (Maungapohatu)) is quite a long time given that settlement by Europeans started relatively late. Also, I am not sure how you can measure and compare the atrocities carried out by colonial regimes or how that is particularly useful. You could make numerous statements about the wars of the 1860s: Maori were bloody good at fighting back; Maori soon realised that the don’t stand a chance militarily and developed other forms of resistance etc. etc.

  2. Phil F says:

    You’ll note I was referring to actual war. In NZ it was not just limited in time, but in geographical scale.

    There was a reason that atrocities were not carried out on the same scale here as elsewhere: European racial thinking of the 1800s tended to regard Polynesians as the next best thing to Europeans and Maori as the ‘best’ Polynesians. Seddon could therefore point to the benefits of intermarrying and interbreeding. He held up James Carroll as an outstanding example of Maori-pakeha miscegenation.

    Maori men even, initially, got the vote on a *wider* franchise than pakeha men, the Maori seats were created to ensure participation in parliament and Maori were guaranteed seats in the Upper House.

    This is clearly *very different* from the treatment of Aboriginal people in Australia or Native Americans in the United States (and Canada). So I don’t think it is useful to suggest the treatments of indigenous peoples can’t really be measured or compared; the real issue is *explaining why* they differed.

    I agree with you that Maori were bloody good at fighting back. In fact, essentially they won the Northern Wars in the early 1840s. The problem was that they were eventually massively outnumbered and, as you say, developed other ways of fighting back.

    If I was writing an article about state treatment of Maori, there would be more emphasis on the dispossession and the violence that *followed* (ie the greater levels of poverty among Maori, the poorer health and education, the greater rates of incarceration, etc etc.)

    However, the point of the piece on capitalism and the state was to explain why illusions in the state are so pronounced in this country. And a key reason is that the state here hasn’t had to use the iron fist anywhere near as much as many other (capitalist) states.