Not only was the late Bruce Jesson (1944-1999) one of New Zealand’s most important leftwing intellectuals, he was also deeply concerned with this country’s anti-intellectualism together with the ideological poverty of the political left. Therefore Laurence Simmon’s Speaking Truth to Power: Public Intellectuals Rethink New Zealand (2007, Auckland: AUP) constitutes, in many ways, a fulfillment of Jesson’s pleas for the left to take seriously this defect. Fittingly the book is also dedicated to Jesson (as well as Michael King), and contains a very good examination of Jesson’s approach to these issues, written by retired professor of Political Studies, Andrew Sharp. In this, Sharp spells out Jesson’s frustration with the ‘mindless activism’ of the NZ left, his despair with the state of the media, and his love-hate relationship with NZ politics. [Read more below]
Bruce Jesson saw NZ politics and society as being characterized by a ‘flight from thought’: ‘There’s always been a flight from thought in New Zealand politics. It’s the number 8 wire mentality and it’s got a long history’ (Jesson, 1988: p.1). According to Sharp, ‘The accusation of anti-intellectualism was to be a recurring theme in his writings in the Republican and in Metro’ (Sharp, 2007: p.75). Jesson had a particularly institutional focus to his attempt to understand and explain NZ’s anti-intellectualism. Writing in 1997 he blasted the institutions that the left supposedly inhabited:
New Zealand is an intellectually shallow country… it has lacked the institutions needed to sustain a vigorous Left. The union movement has never been more than a bureaucratic shell. The universities and the public service have been populated by time-servers (Jesson, April 1997: p.113).
This lack of institutions was partly a result of our very state-centred society: 'New Zealand was a state-created society because of its colonial origins, and has lacked vibrant institutions such as a vigorous press and an independent trade union movement, existing outside the realm of government' (Jesson, April 1999: p.33).
Added to this, many of these state institutions became even less accommodating as fora for public intellectualism – let alone leftism – due to the neoliberal reforms: ‘there is not much of a base for the Left in a public sector that has been corporatised, privatized and transformed along business lines’ (Jesson, October 1997: p.30).
For Jesson the problem was therefore structural – individual intellectuals existed in decent numbers, but tended to be individually marginalised:
I have known plenty of New Zealanders who have been well-read, intellectually-stimulating, non-conformist, courageous and sometimes eccentric. They have tended to be marginalized, however. There is something about the structure and culture of this country that fosters the mediocre conformist (Jesson, April 1999: p.31).
This all meant, Jesson argued, that NZ lacked the necessary ‘public sphere’, in which ideas and debate could be facilitated:
Anti-intellectualism runs deep in New Zealand society and we are losing the few forums of discussion that we used to have. Current affairs television has been reduced to entertainment. The Listener, which was once a journal of intellectual quality, has been reduced to a TV viewers’ magazine. Talkback radio caters for bigots. The universities don’t fulfil a critical function in New Zealand society, but lead a sheltered and self-satisfied existence (Jesson, January 1991).
Jesson apparently never called himself a journalist nor worked as an academic, but instead called himself a ‘writer’. According to Sharp, he would have also been reluctant to call himself a ‘public intellectual’, as that term would be ‘too celebratory, too romantic, too narcissistic’ for Jesson (Sharp, 2007: p.69). But he was definitely a theorist concerned with social action and the social reality of his times. As Sharp puts it, ‘Jesson was first and foremost a writer on matters of public concern: on politics, society and economics’ (Sharp, 2007: p.70). Certainly, ‘he intended to move his fellow New Zealanders to political action. He had no great interest in private or sectarian activity, and none in being influential only in a limited area’ (Sharp, 2007: p.71). This meant that Jesson had a great deal to say about the necessary relationship and balance between political action, the production of propaganda, and the development of political theory. None of his writing was particularly aimed at the technocratic goal of influencing public policy – Jesson was interested in discovering ‘what the difference was between intervening on a policy level (not very interesting) and changing the mindsets of an audience (the more important thing)’ (Sharp, 2007: p.70).
The leftwing intellectual crisis
Again and again Bruce Jesson expressed his frustration about the ‘mindless activism’ of the left in NZ. By this he meant that the left acted too much like headless chickens. In 1997, when looking back on the history of the left, he commented that, ‘Only a handful of people were interested in political analysis and discussion. Most leftwingers were more interested in the kneejerk politics of moral outrage and misery-mongering’ (Jesson, October 1997: p.27). Sharp summarises Jesson’s belief that ‘The antidote to anti-intellectualism and its consequence in self-centeredly pragmatic or romantic politics was, he continually insisted, “theory”’ (Sharp, 2007: p.78). In this regard, Jesson was constantly more impressed during the 1980s and 1990s with the operations of the New Right:
the fault everywhere [on the left] is the same. Intellectual mush. In this respect, the contrast between the Left and the New Right is a telling one. The New Right sees itself as an intellectual-political force and puts quite a lot of energy and resources into thought and discussion (which is not to say it does it well). The characteristic New Right organization is the think tank, which is a role the Roundtable has assumed. The Left in New Zealand puts its energy and resources into activism and electoral campaigns. The characteristic leftwing structure is a committee (Jesson, October 1997: p.32).
The near-total investment of the left in the parliamentary political parties was a particular concern, which Jesson felt needed to be counterbalanced by leftwing think tanks of some kind:
Essentially, all of the resources of the Left still go into mindless activism. In recent years, a large proportion of the energy of the Left has gone into the electoral and organizational work of the Alliance. Virtually nothing has gone – in any organized way – into the sort of intellectual-political role that the Roundtable fills. Yet that is the area of greatest need, given the total confusion on the Left as to what its role is. What is badly needed is a policy-research-proselytising institute rather like the New Right think tanks (Jesson, October 1997: p.33).
Jesson clearly believed in the need for a programmatic approach to social change involving theory, activism, and a well-organised political vehicle. According to Sharp:
the point was to understand the situation before leaping into action. And it was because he was seduced by theory that he gradually came to eschew the activism of demonstration for that of party political activity, and much more than that, writing. Only those who could see their actions in the light of the knowledge that theory generated and organized were capable of effective action (Sharp, 2007: pp.78-79).
In particular, NZ’s anti-intellectualism led to a failure to take economics seriously. Sharp says that Jesson was condemning of all parties for this,
including the New Labour Party and the Alliance, in whose policy-making circles he moved for a time, for not taking economics seriously: for leaving it to the professionals. This, too, was the fundamental flaw he saw in the intellectual classes of New Zealand. The politically committed knew and cared little about the alien forces that were controlling them (Sharp, 2007: p.82).
While in the midst of Labour’s Rogernomics revolution, Jesson complained about this anti-intellectual trend: ‘Even now in most left-wing meetings if someone tries to put forward a reasoned intellectual argument there will always be someone who’ll get up and say “all this mind-bending stuff is no good, let’s get down to practicalities”’ (Jesson ,1988: p.1).
The complaint that the NZ left was in an intellectual crisis was not merely an abstract or elitist complaint. Jesson’s concern was that the mindless activism combined with the anti-intellectualism produced a weakened left that would severely reduce its ability to make progress on, or defend, its political programme:
Intellectually, the Left was too soft to resist the New Right coup of 1984. It was obsessed by social issues and by foreign affairs, and couldn’t debate economic issues. In the early stages of Rogernomics, it tended to concede the big issues of economic policy in return for some concessions on foreign policy and social matters (Jesson, April 1997: p.113).
A major strength of Bruce Jesson’s writings was the fact that he was a left dissident and not a left apologist; he believed strongly in the need for the left to be self-critical and to bravely and openly speak about where mistakes were being made. Hence he was a left ‘outsider’, never really part of the left ‘mainstream’ because he challenged the left orthodoxy and trends. For example, during the 1970s and 1980s one of the key trends was the left’s embrace of social liberalism at the expense of working class socialism. According to Sharp, this made Jesson rather critical of the left social liberals:
He mocked the “social liberals” of the middle class when they demonstrated against the authoritarianism of Robert Muldoon, the USA in Vietnam and apartheid in South Africa. They should turn their attention to their home country. He savaged them when they took refuge in cults of personal self-development, and he cast a cool eye on them when they colonized the Labour Party in the late 1970s (Sharp, 2007: p.75).
As Jesson himself told the Labour Party journal Labour Network in 1988:
I think the left caved in because it became liberal. It ceased to be socialist and became liberal. That left which identified with the working class, with unions, with the welfare state created in the 1930’s, died in the 40’s and 50’s, in that period when the working class dropped out of the Labour Party, when it became almost a shell without a membership. And when the Labour Party revived in the 70’s it wasn’t a socialist working class left in that sense, it was a liberal left concerned with individual rights and opposed to Muldoon because he was authoritarian and opposed to centralization and bureaucracy and all those things (Jesson, 1988: p.3).
Jesson astutely picked up on another important negative trend of some of the modern left – that of anti-science and anti-rationality:
In fact in some areas the left will sometimes oppose rationality… In dismissing the cold-blooded logic of something like economics they’ve tended to go too much into an anti-rational area and dismiss scientific thought as a matter of principle. I think the left has to come back and claim rationality for itself. It’s absurd for us to give rationality to the right and let them say they are more rational than us, and yet that is exactly what is occurring (Jesson, 1988: p.1).
Jesson’s focus was ‘the political world’, but in many ways it was a subject that he disdained – particularly parliamentary politics. Jesson, Sharp says, ‘never found satisfaction in the concrete life of politics, or its practitioners. He was fascinated by the spectacle of politics, he endlessly talked and wrote about it, but he did not love the activity’ (Sharp, 2007: p.81). Much of his commentary on politics was therefore about exposing or unpacking the workings (and inadequacies) of ‘official politics’. This approach is best set out in an important statement that he makes in one of the few political science textbooks in which his work appeared:
One of the most tantalizing things about politics is that things are never as they seem. At a formal level, parties hold conferences, make policies, produce manifestos, fight elections, change laws and take responsibility for the administration of the state…. At an informal level, things happen in a quite different way (Jesson, 1992: p.365).
Again, Jesson was strongly critical of the anti-intellectualism in mainstream politics – as Sharp explains: ‘Politicians were, in Jesson’s book, no better. Their anti-intellectualism took the form of pragmatism in action and vagueness in ideal. The major parties, National and Labour, were pre-eminently parties of pragmatism’ (Sharp, 2007: p.76). When the more ‘principled’ or ‘truly political’ politicians were discussed, Jesson would often give them their due and recognize their theoretical strengths. Sharp elaborates: ‘Muldoon, no great theorist… at least had “definite ideas” and policies’ (Sharp, 2007: p.76); ‘As for Douglas, he was almost alone as a theorist in a party completely devoted to the blind pursuit of power’ (Sharp, 2007: p.77). Sharp explains that Jesson, ‘demanded of both Left and Right (he found the Centre hardly worth discussing) that they develop theory to inform their too pragmatic policy orientation’ (Sharp, 2007: pp.78-79). He often bemoaned that those that would rise to the top in politics were typically the less talented and intellectually-able. For example, in 1999 Jesson stated that, ‘Most cabinet ministers are intellectually inferior to the people who work for them’ (Jesson, April 1999: p.31).
The character of politicians came under especially strong scrutiny and critique by Jesson, as he condemned their lack of politics and principle:
Most of our politicians are in politics because of their own self-importance, rather than their political beliefs, and are truly awful in their ignorance of political thought and history. The National Party used to draw its MPs from small-town big-wigs, the Bolgers and the Birches. Labour drew its MPs from the denizens of the party machine. These days, parties are choosing pushy personalities with big mouths and big egos – Rodney Hide, Trevor Mallard, Tau Henare, John Tamihere (Jesson, April 1999: p.31).
It is not surprising therefore, that Jesson ‘developed a deep suspicion of the politics of policy-making and policy-selling’ (Sharp, 2007: p.82). The NZ public policy-making process was not the rational one of the academic textbooks, but the deranged one of an unequal world where class distorts everything. Jesson was after all, some sort of neo-Marxist. In Sharp’s view, Jesson was a Marxist-Hegelian, and was strongly influenced by a whole range of important Marxist thinkers such as Antonio Gramsci and Georg Lukacs (Sharp, 2007: p.78).
Sharp says that Jesson characterized many university academics in NZ as being,
mere technicians, even if some were technicians in the great Western humanist tradition. They kept their heads down and sustained the status quo. Their functions lay in the moulding of future subjects, filling their fellow subjects head with trivia (Sharp, 2007: p.82).
According to Sharp, Jesson was almost contemptuous towards the achievements and role of such intellectuals:
Jesson’s charge against New Zealand’s intellectuals was even more serious. They gave their compatriots nothing at all: no idea of what the vibrant political life of a republic of equals could be; no respect for intellectual systems of any kind; above all no understanding of the economic relationships that made a life of republican equality so difficult and the triumph of free market dogma so easy. When the neo-liberal revolution arrived they were silent (Sharp, 2007: pp.82-83).
Jesson himself stated his disappointment in 1988 – when he talked about the lack of public participation that leftwing academics were playing in the fight against Rogernomics:
As far as intellectual arguments go the biggest responsibility is with the universities. But if you go into the social science faculties, to anthropology, sociology, political studies, they’re universally opposed to what’s going on and no-one does anything about it. They’re intellectually lazy – they don’t fulfil their function as social critics, debating the issues in public (Jesson, 1988: p.3).
Later he saw that NZ universities had become a victim to the neoliberal revolution themselves, as these institutions came into line with the rest of the managerial new public service that would marginalize the activity of left intellectualism: ‘Nor is there much of a role for the Left in a university system that is devoted to the production of tangible outputs rather than the disinterested pursuit of ideas’ (Jesson, October 1997: p.30).
As hyper-critical as Jesson may have been, he didn’t shy away from also critiquing his own industry: the media. This of course raised the contradiction of a writer working in the media strongly criticizing the nature of the NZ media. Jesson was therefore not often popular with colleagues for saying things like, ‘Most of my colleagues have been suffocated by a deadening conformity’ (Sharp, 2007: p.76). Of course in biting the hand that fed him, Jesson never became the highly sought after writer that he should have been. Employment was precarious, and although he had a long run as a Metro columnist, when Bill Ralston took it over, Jesson was sacked.
Furthermore Jesson was not above referring to individuals in the media, and even published an extensive examination and critique of journalists [which a future liberation blog post will discuss]. He was particularly severe about those journalists involved with reporting on politics:
People are put in the [parliamentary] Gallery who have no political background, and therefore no critical faculty. They have no need for it, because they are a conduit between the politicians and the readers, and are paid to take the politicians seriously. Accordingly, there isn’t any more intellectual content in the media than there is in parliament (Jesson, April 1999: p.32).
And after playing the role of a politician himself – Jesson was elected as Chair of the Auckland Regional Services Trust (ARST) – he remained aghast at political journalism. His experiences in local body politics merely reinforced his view of the thinness of the media. Reflecting on his time in the ARST, he said, ‘Perhaps the most disturbing aspect of the situation is the quality of the media scrutiny…. we could feed whatever message we liked into the media, with no critical evaluation of it’ (Jesson, April 1999: p.31).
Typically, Jesson’s explanation for the state of journalism returned to an institutional approach, with him saying that, not only had the function of the media been entirely commericialised and turned into infotainment, but that the institutions of the media and politics now overlapped too much. For example, he said that senior journalists like Bill Ralston and Paul Holmes ‘are actually part of a celebrity circuit. They mix with celebrities, interview celebrities, are interviewed as celebrities and take the other celebrities seriously, even the politicians’ (Jesson, April 1999: p.32). Commercialisation of the TV news, Jesson argued, was simply the logical conclusion of the commercialization of NZ as a whole. In 1992 he complained that ‘Television journalism has long lost any vestige of integrity, having been corrupted by the infotainment of Holmes and Nightline. Through the medium of television, commerce and finance are creating a world in their own image’ (Jesson, April 1992: p.74).
Sharp sums up Bruce Jesson by saluting his ability to avoid the daily trivial surface changes in politics in favour of understanding the bigger picture: ‘Jesson was in Isaiah Berlin’s famous terminology, a “hedgehog” not a “fox”: one who tried to see One Big Thing and not just the Many Things that strike the mind’ (Sharp, 2007: p.78). There is probably a lesson here for bloggers in NZ, including myself. I think if Jesson was around today he would be enthusiastic about the potential of ePolitics, but would also be incredibly critical of much of the quality of the analysis and debate that occurs. As with the above quote about the search for the One Big Thing, Jesson might suggest that bloggers pay less attention to the analysing and highlighting the minute-by-minute occurrences in the ‘the froth and burble of parliamentary politics’ (Jesson, October 1997: p.28) and instead step back and use blogging to reflectively analyse some of the deeper trends occurring in politics, economics and society. Partly inspired by Bruce Jesson, this is certainly what this blog is attempting to do.
Bruce Jesson died in May 1999.
The Bruce Jesson Foundation was set up in Jesson’s memory, and aims to promote ‘vigorous political, social and economic investigation, debate, analysis and reporting’. To join the Foundation, send an email to this address: email@example.com
Andrew Sharp has also edited a collection of writing by Jesson entitled Bruce Jesson: To Build a Nation, Collected Writings 1975-1999.