Tame Iti and mate Jenny Shipley, the Tory prime minister of NZ at the time and a keen advocate of ‘respect for diversity’.

The article below first appeared in issue #14 of revolution magazine, dated Xmas 2000/March 2001.  The introduction to the article stated that it argued “Trendy liberal race relations nostrums are more about social control than emancipation”.  Footnotes have been added for this re-publication. 

by Philip Ferguson

From cultural safety in nursing training to the banning of vegetables from primary school play groups – use of vegetables to make, for example, potato stamps is now regarded as ‘culturally insensitive’ because ‘traditional’ Maori society didn’t use spuds for such frivolous activities – Maori culture appears to be increasingly important and respected.

Virtually everyone from the far left through to much of the National Party (with the exception of the minor-league redneck element typified by the now-retired John Banks)[1] appears to be in favour of cultural diversity and the ‘empowerment of Maori.

Yet, as has been noted in this magazine before, the cultural revival coincides with a worsening of the actual material conditions of the majority of Maori (see, in particular, revolution #7) and the collapse of old forms of collective class organisation.  It is in this situation that some Maori have retreated into idealised versions of the past.  This retreat coincides with an interest on the part of the ruling class in finding new forms through which to mediate conflicting interests and establish social control in the midst of the decay of society itself.

Changing ruling class ideology

The ruling class ideology today is clearly not the one which existed in the decades before 1984 and was reflected in commitment to the welfare state, monoculturalism and the kind of old-fashioned patriotism and nationalism epitomised by powerful right-wing groups like the Returned Servicemen’s Association (RSA).

Today’s ruling class, for instance, actively promotes multiculturalism, liberal pluralism and has no problem with homosexuality and other things that were taboo in the past.  A lot of formal legal inequality has been abolished as it was an obstacle to the needs of a new round of capital accumulation and the new style of managing an increasingly fragmented society.

For someone seen as right-wing economically, such as recent National Party prime minister Jenny Shipley, ‘respect for difference’ is a key principle, as she made clear when opening the gay Hero Parade in Auckland in 1998 and 1999.[2]  Can anyone imagine Muldoon or Holyoake – or Norman Kirk, for that matter – prattling on about the importance of ‘cultural diversity’ and telling Hero paraders how wonderful they were for being gay/bi/transgendered?

People who embrace ‘new right’ economics in New Zealand are generally liberal on social issues like abortion and gay rights, and actively embrace cultural diversity.  It is part of the ‘free market’ notion of ‘choice’.  Old prejudices, especially those codified in law, have been increasingly seen as artificial obstacles to the spontaneous workings of the market.  It is the operations of the market, rather than laws imposed by the state, which are supposed to rule.

Even Richard Prebble can be found wandering around the annual gay cultural day and market (Big Gay Out) in Wellington and telling a Queer Nation interviewer how great he thinks it all is.

In other words, the ‘new right’ economic reforms of the decade, during the last Labour government (1984-90) and the first term of the following National government (1990-93) have been perfectly compatible with the removal of old-style discrimination, something feminists, gay rights campaigners, Maori activists and much of the left simply fail to appreciate.

Social context

In looking at the rise of Maori sovereignty politics, cultural safety, multiculturalism and the whole gamut of the race relations industry, it is not enough to simply say that Maori are oppressed and they are now reclaiming their culture or that good liberal politics have triumphed in the state apparatus.  What is needed is a more critical examination of society today and the way in which the contemporary malaise has created the conditions for the rise of these specific trends.

After all, ideas which have been around since the 1960s remained marginal to mainstream politics until the fourth Labour government, the very government which initiated a sweeping programme of ‘new right’ restructuring.

Marxists, unlike liberals, do not accept social phenomena or political ideologies as given, but are concerned with specifying the preconditions for their existence.  This is central to Marx’s whole method – in Capital, for example, he does not assume that money, means of production and commodities are capital (as bourgeois economists and historians did and still do), but is concerned with specifying the conditions under which they can become, and function as, capital.[3]

So, how does Marx’s method help us approach tino rangatiratanga politics, the race relations industry (and the new dominant race relations paradigm) and social control?

Well, specifying the conditions for the rise of these politics is essential.  The struggle for Maori liberation, for instance, could take a number of different forms just as the struggle by workers in general could and does.  What has to be explained, rather than taken for granted as so much of the left does, is why a specific form of politics – whether it be tino rangatiratanga, labourism, feminism or, for that matter, Marxism – arises and becomes powerful.

Such an analysis must look at the broader changes within society – changes (and problems) in the process of capital accumulation and social relations and how these are manifested.

It should be clear from doing this, that significant changes took place in New Zealand after 1984.  The market reforms, or ‘restructuring’, were about stepping up the rate of exploitation of the working class and about trying to cut down on drains on surplus-value.  They required, and led to the development of, new thinking in the ruling class.

The bourgeoisie of today, and those who manage things for them, are products of the liberal 1960s, when they were growing up, and of the tussle with Muldoon in the 1970s and 1980s, not the conservative 1940s and 1950s.

Left’s lack of analysis

Most of the left, unfortunately, do not at all derive their politics from a materialist analysis of the actual (and changing) state of society, but from a set of slogans drawn up in the 1930s that have assumed the status of Holy Writ.  To these slogans they have added a few ideas from the 1960s.

Much of the left acts as if old-fashioned racism is still dominant and as if ruling class ideology has undergone no significant changes at all, except in the economic sphere.  The connection between the economic and the political seems to thoroughly elude them.

In a number of articles in revolution (see issues 4, 7 and 9) members of our collective have argued that the broader social trends of economic slump, social fragmentation and the decline of the old ideologies of the cold war period have been the key features underpinning the rise of the new liberal politics of race.  At the same time, the destruction of huge swathes of manufacturing and service industries which employed Maori has led to the weakening of any kind of class consciousness.  The vacuum has been filled by cultural identity and tino rangatiratanga politics.

Since these social trends are continuing, TR-type politics will also continue for some time.  As a product of social atomisation and pessimism about societal transformation, these politics are even less likely to lead anywhere – apart from advancing a few careers – than did the Maori radicalism of the 1970s.

Moreover, as the workings of the market have disaggregated  and fragmented society, the ruling class has had to consciously set about creating new buffers and new means of social control.  Creating a Maori middle class has been an essential aspect of ruling class policy in New Zealand since at least the mid-1980s, if not even earlier, and has been pursued assiduously by both Labour (1980s and today) and National (1990s).  This is why affirmative action has been promoted by the government within the spheres of employment it controls, not because there is a demand for it from the oppressed.

The ruling class and its state and the TR milieu have come together, albeit with a bit of inevitable bruising but no serious wounds, because their interests fundamentally coincide or, at least, are reconcilable.  One group of TR enthusiasts have been trying to set themselves up in a bargaining position for incorporation in the new mechanisms of social control needed by the ruling class in the new post-prosperity, post cold-war war; the other wing is retreating into rural idiocy.[4]

Meanwhile, the vast majority of Maori continue to exist at the bottom of an increasingly directionless and slump-ridden society, fobbed off with waiata, karakia and whakapapa research.  But for them the hope of liberation lies not in invented and essentialised culture, separateness and a return to the moko, but in a struggle for a new society: one looking enthusiastically towards the twenty-first century and beyond, not nostalgically to the nineteenth and before.

 Race, culture and social control

Useful work on the role of cultural sensitivity-type projects has been done by the British-based Marxist A. Sivanandan.  In particular, his critique of ‘Racial Awareness Training’ or RAT, which he describes as a “degradation of black struggle:, “the blight of the black struggle” and “a result of the flight of race from class”, provides insights into the array of cultural invention and sensitivity projects which litter New Zealand today.

Sivanandan notes that the experience of Africans, Afro-Caribbeans and Asians in Britain tended to bring them together.  A collective sense of themselves as ‘black’ grew out of the racist treatment to which they subjected in Britain.  Because they were overwhelmingly working class and came from parts of the world with legacies of anti-imperialist struggles, often influenced by radical socialist ideas, “their struggles, though informed by a resistance to the oppression of black people, were directed towards the liberation of class.”  They understood

“that any struggle against racism which deepened and extended the class struggle was the right struggle.  Conversely, any struggle that led to the cul-de-sac of reactionary nationalism was the wrong one.”

The linkage of race and class gave black struggles in Britain a particularly radical thrust.  Although, as long as they remained separate from the white working class, they could be contained – a point Sivanandan tends to underplay – they nevertheless had a potential radicalising effect on white workers, youth and intellectuals.  “It was no accident, therefore,” notes Sivanandan,

“that the state should, as of nature, go for the cultural jugular of the black movement, with strategies to disaggregate that culture into its constituent parts – and then out them up for integration.  And integration, as defined by Home Secretary Roy Jenkins in May 1966, was to be seen ‘not as a flattening process of assimilation but as equal opportunity accompanied by cultural diversity, in an atmosphere of mutual tolerance.’  But ‘equal opportunity’ never got off the ground, nor was it meant to, and the plea for ‘mutual tolerance’ proved to be conclusively cynical with the passage of yet another racist Immigration Act two years later.”[5]

He goes on to point out that the development of the race relations industry in Britain, racial awareness training and pluralism presented racism not as “a matter of racial exploitation and oppression, of race and class, but of cultural differences and their acceptability”.

The racial awareness training so in vogue today in New Zealand stems not from any real analysis of the material basis of racism, but from programmes devised in the US Army in the late 1960s when, as Sivanandan records, black urban rebellions forced a rethink in the US Defence Department in order to prevent radical ideas spreading among black soldiers.  Its usefulness in mystifying the real causes of racism and in regulating racialised conflict mean that it was soon taken up in wider state institutions in the US and subsequently spread to Britain.

Johnson, Nixon and multiculturalism

In fact, the US government under reactionaries such as Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon promoted it.  The ‘Nixon Tapes’, released in late 1998, show that the latter was both an advocate of equal opportunities and a racist, and that the two things can be complementary rather than contradictory.

Nixon held, for instance, that black Americans were simply “incompetent”.  But, as he says on the tapes, “you can usually settle for an incompetent, because there are just not enough competent ones, and so you put incompetents in and get along with them. Because the symbolism is vitally important” (Nixon quoted from the tapes, Independent on Sunday, December 28, 1998).

Anti-racist symbolism had, in fact, be come important after World War II, primarily for international consumption.  The US and British ruling classes were worried that racism in the US and in the European colonies was driving independence movements in Africa and Asia in the direction of communism.

Ruling classes were perfectly capable of rejecting their old racist practices in order to advance their interests in changed circumstances.  Thus, Field Marshall Montgomery’s ‘master plan’ “to turn Africa into a ‘white supremacist bulwark against communism’ was rejected in favour of black self-government” (Guardian, January 1, 1999).[6]

New Zealand establishment

The NZ establishment has found biculturalism, multiculturalism, ‘cultural safety’ and related programmes useful, which is why they often pay big bucks for them.

Today’s capitalist elite preside over a society which has ground to a halt and in which old institutions and forms of social regulation are no longer sustainable.  In attempting to find new forms, the interests of the capitalist elite coincide with the interests of a layer of white middle class liberals and aspiring Maori bourgeois who have such forms for sale.

A small cluster of such people have made careers and no little amount of money for themselves setting up businesses to organise and run these ‘cultural’ courses to sidetrack, pacify and politically de-radicalise Maori.  Former leading Maori radical and current ACT MP Donna Awatere made her fortune out of selling such programmes to government departments and business.[7]

Fob off

Most importantly, fobbing off Maori youth – who have a 50 percent unemployment rate – with a newly-invented, sanitised and socially respectable ‘culture’ is aimed at keeping them under control.  Since the middle class always fears those beneath them in society – much more than they loathe those above – social control has always been dear to their hearts.

The British middle class financed and provided the troops for organised superstition – in the form of Protestant evangelism – to moralise and contain the wild working class of Victorian times.  Today’s New Zealand liberal middle class is doing the same thing in imposing an artificial culture on Maori youth to similarly neuter, respectabilise and contain them.  The fact that this artificial culture is presented as ‘Maori culture’ makes it more effective in controlling Maori youth than the old conservative practice of teaching them how to behave ‘appropriately’ by means of police batons and detention homes, although these remain in reserve.

As Sivanandan perceptively commented back in 1976:

“Within ten years Britain will have solved its ‘black problem’ – but solved in the sense of having diverted revolutionary aspiration into nationalist achievement, reduced militancy to rhetoric, put protest to profit and, above all, kept a black underclass from bringing to the struggles of white workers political dimensions peculiar to its own historic battle against capital.”

In NZ, the state has operated on a similar path, aiming to solve the problem of potential Maori rebellion over appalling economic and social conditions by forging new means of social control.  Means of social control are most effective when they are seen as natural and when they are imposed from within an oppressed community.  Thus while traditional forms of control – like police violence and open discrimination – have become unacceptable, new chains have been forged.  Maori are now used to police Maori, through imprisoning Maori youth and workers within ‘traditional culture’ and authority.  And the state certainly found that sovereignty ideologues like Donna Awatere were only too happy to “put protest to profit”.

Partnership with ‘Crown’?

It is also no accident that even the most ‘radical’ sovereignty activists talk not about ending the social relations which require the exploitation of the working class and the oppression of Maori, but about establishing a “partnership with the Crown”.

This is nothing more than wannabe elites making deals with already-existing elites.  Those of us who wish to achieve a society of equality and liberation are interested in overthrowing the ‘Crown’ – by which we mean capitalist social relations – not entering a ‘partnership’ with it based on lording it over the rest of the population and rubbing noses with the ruling class at Waitangi and other ceremonies.

The liberal left meanwhile patronises Maori by going along with, and even helping invent, ideas of ‘difference’, ‘cultural diversity’ and racial essentialism, leaving intact the very social order which consigns Maori to the bottom of the heap.

Far from giving credence to the cultural invention industry – in reality the social control industry – it is necessary to subject it to the most withering criticism possible and begin to develop a truly radical critique pf racism which points to its interconnectedness with capitalism and the need for a fundamental transformation of society.

To those sovereignty ideologues and pakeha liberals who have done very well for themselves allying with the capitalist state in developing the most effective mechanisms for keeping disadvantaged Maori under control, and to the ‘radicals’ who divert protest energy into harmless channels – and those who have “turned protest to profit” – we must say: the game is up.


[1] Since the article even John Banks has become much more politically correct on a number of issues, indicating just how hegemonic the politics of pc are now in New Zealand.

[2] For an update on ruling class ideology today, see “‘Respect for diversity’: modern NZ capitalism’s necessary ideology”.

[3] Historical specificity absolutely permeates Marx’s method.  For a useful discussion of this see the chapters on ‘historical specification’ in Karl Korsch’s excellent book, Karl Marx (1935).

[4] If I was writing this today, I wouldn’t make the jibe about rural idiocy.  It was a rather silly reference to some of Tame Iti’s silly activities at the time, like serving notices on pakeha neighbours in the Ureweras.  I had originally had a certain  respect for Tame Iti and took no pleasure from his rightward evolution.  Today he is a member of the thoroughly bourgeois Maori Party, which represents the growing Maori wing of the ruling elite in this country.

[5] It’s a mark of how backward and unreflective most of the NZ left is that, 50 years after one of the smartest British capitalist politicians (Roy Jenkins) enunciated the importance of ‘cultural diversity’, this idea is seen as some sort of radical politics by them.

[6] A very interesting article on Nixon and Montgomery, which I draw on here, is G. O’Halloran, “Race Attack”, Red Action, Feb/March 1999.  This was a left publication by a group of the same name in Britain.  The RA comrades were a key force in Anti-Fascist Action, the main organisation which fought the neo-Nazis on the streets of Britain; concerned with mobilising the working class against the neo-nazis, RA tended to have a more sophisticated analysis of the race relations industry than many others on the British left.

[7] For non-NZ readers, ACT was established in the early 1990s by a coterie of former Labour and National Party leading lights and members, most notably Roger Douglas, to advocate ultra-free market positions.  As minister of finance in the fourth Labour government in the mid-late 1980s, Douglas had been the architect of the most vicious attack on workers’ rights and living standards since the Great Depression.  Always hostile to pakeha workers, Awatere, who had styled herself as this country’s leading Maori radical, was logically drawn to ACT.  Awatere had successfully leveraged her pseudo-radical CV into a lucrative business in selling her ‘racism awareness’ programmes to departments of the state and some private businesses.  In recent decades a chunk of the NZ ruling class has enjoyed the frisson of mixing with this or that ‘dangerous’ Maori ‘radical’ who isn’t – and, in Awatere’s case, never was – dangerous at all.

See also: Political correctness and social control

  1. […] From the vaults: Race relations and social control (written in 1999/2000) March 24, 2017 […]