Jane Kelsey is probably the most important leftwing academic in New Zealand today. Her published criticisms and records of the implementation of neoliberalism in New Zealand remain the definitive accounts of that time. So her views on intellectualism in NZ are bound to be of interest. In her interview chapter in the new publication Speaking Truth to Power: Public Intellectuals Rethink New Zealand, edited by Laurence Simmons (2007, Auckland: AUP), Kelsey argues that NZ used to have a much more intellectual culture, that the Labour Government is philosophically empty, obsessed with managerialism, and hostile to criticism, and that there is currently a small revival in intellectualism and dissent. [Read more below]
20th Century intellectualism and anti-intellectualism
According to Kelsey, NZ’s anti-intellectualism is more of a product of modern times: in the early 20th century intellectualism was much stronger, and pervaded the labour movement in particular,
If you look back to the role of the Workers’ Educational Association, and the way that political debate and theory formed an integral part of everyday politics early last century, you see that this was critical to the political life of the country. Trade unions were deeply intellectual in terms of political analysis, as were many of the debates that occurred within communities, much more theoretically informed than the populist kind of debates that you have now. In that sense New Zealand was deeply intellectual (p.142).
As well as the labour movement, the artistic community also provided room for intellectual discussion. Kelsey points to the Landfall journal, in particular, and how you also had ‘the important role of New Zealand cultural icons coming through and starting to express things in a way that I would consider to be intellectual’ (p.142).
Kelsey maintains that the decline began after the election of the First Labour Government, when the labour movement lost its concern for political discussion and debate: ‘During the Keynesian era, the edge went off much of that politics, and certainly in the trade union movement you had quite a strong anti-intellectualism’ (p.142).
The post-war period was obviously a time of ideological convergence, at least for the two main political parties. But the golden age of consensus politics certainly ended in the 1970s when an economic slump became the dominant feature of New Zealand politics, its immediate effect being to throw the basis of the consensus into disarray. Unsurprisingly then, Kelsey locates this period as a time of revived intellectualism and critical politics:
It was, I suppose, the 1970s before you started to have academics, and journalists, and others playing that much more critical role that we might define as the critic-and-conscience-type intellectual within the public intellectual arena. When you think of the rise of disciplines like sociology and political science, the 1970s really was a time when you had much more critical thinking. It was the time internationally when Left thinking and feminist thinking and critiques of colonialism started to gain currency (p.142).
This was obviously the time of her own political awakening, and Kelsey also mentions the important impact that Antonio Gramsci had on the intellectual left of that period, saying that, ‘They were the days in which Gramsci’s popularity was at its height, when arguments about the role of the media, the crises in hegemony, gave a contemporary edge to some of the old Marxist thinking’ (p.142).
Critical intellectualism then faltered in the 1980s, yet remnants remained. Kelsey cites as an example, the Frontline documentaries of the late 1980s that provided 'challenges to government policy that were well researched and well documented’ (p.147). She laments that ‘we don’t see those anymore’. Following the 80s, ‘The 1990s was a desert in terms of critical engagement with issues’ (p.151).
The ‘marketisation of tertiary education’ was part of the problem, and Kelsey (who was formerly the president of the Association of University Staff) says ‘It’s my deep regret that even though as a union we fought to try and stop the marketisation of tertiary education, we have largely failed’ (p.146). Now Kelsey thinks that academics are failing to fulfil their role as conscience and critics of society. She firmly believes that academics should be ‘taking unpopular positions, articulating unpopular, risky, unorthodox positions, not for their own sake but as part of the dynamic of growing knowledge’ (p.146). And as with other intellectuals interviewed in the Speaking Truth to Power book, Kelsey points to the need for academics to be working for the public not just their own career. Because she sees herself as someone who is being paid to do a job that she loves, she feels she owes it to her 'community to reinvest in them, and to be a part of them and to contribute’ (p.145).
Managerial politics and the Labour Government
Although she works in the legal studies field, Jane Kelsey has been one of the most perceptive critics of the current Labour Government. Her main criticism is that despite claims to the contrary, the modern Labour Party is essentially still neoliberal. After clarifying that ‘“the new social democracy” is the New Zealand Labour Government’s term for the third way’ (p.149), Kelsey puts forward the strong claim that Helen Clark’s government is still firmly committed to a Blairite third way:
It’s residue is still there in the rhetoric of partnership and business-friendly government. The economic fundamentals of neo-liberalism have not changed, we just have the new rhetoric about putting a social face on globalisation. It is a third way strategy where the Labour Government basically says we’re not going to reverse the changes of the last twenty years of neo-liberalism, even though we claim that we’re not like the fourth Labour Government of 1984 to 1990 – despite the fact that many of our ministers were ministers in that government. In fact all they’re doing is embedding neo-liberalism and trying to knock off the rough edges (pp.149-150).
It is not just the content that Kelsey is critical of, but the managerial and anti-intellectualism of the current Government (as well as opposition parties). She paints a picture of a Labour Government that is philosophically empty, obsessed with managerialism, and hostile to criticism:
We have a tension between governments that are driven by focus groups, and polls and spin, governments that are therefore intrinsically unsupportive of critical challenges, and the need to reopen the space of public debate. It was very worrying the other day to see a statement attributed to the Prime Minister that New Zealand needed more think tanks, but it was think tanks to develop empirical policy research, not think tanks that are critical. That I think is part of the political management of information (p.147).
The Labour Party’s managerialism and populism, Kelsey argues, is deeply problematic, and actually leads to the disarmament of the leftwing in NZ, paving the way for a stronger rightwing:
They only intervene where crises emerge, like Air New Zealand or the electricity re-regulation or sick buildings, and so on. That raises really serious problems, because if your focus is on short-term political management, if your focus is on populism and you don’t address the hard questions, then not only do you store up the crises for them to hit you or someone else in the future, but you create a situation where the resurgence of the right, the resurgence of a Brash-led National Party alongside ACT, can’t be countered with any sort of philosophically and principle-driven alternative (p.150).
In this sense, Kelsey thinks the Labour Party made a deliberate attempt to kill off their leftwing ally the Alliance party, because Labour could not bear to be criticised from the left, and that the result has been a further decline of political ideas and intellectualism:
what Labour did in killing the Alliance was a short-term, expedient strategy to get rid of those who were potentially going to cause problems by highlighting the deficiencies, the intellectual poverty of the third way approach, but it has in the medium term undercut the potential for a real contest of ideas in the political arena and in the social arena (p.150).
Interestingly, Kelsey does not come across as a big fan of MMP – mainly because she thinks it isn’t the ‘quick fix’ that many others on the left thought it might be. She claims that she was always skeptical of MMP, especially because she didn’t believe that it would solve the ‘crisis in participatory democracy’ and political illegitimacy of NZ party system. To her, electoral reform merely meant relying on a top-down change in Parliament instead of building a more civil society oriented response:
by relying on a shift in the electoral system and leaving it to people in Parliament to do, we were abdicating our responsibility to try and fight to open up the spaces. Those were the days when the unions had basically given away the responsibility, as had an increasing number of community organisations, NGOs and so on (p.153).
Furthermore, Kelsey agreed with MMP’s critics that the new electoral system would be handing over too much power to what are currently very unhealthy organisations:
I still think, that it reposes far too much power in the hands of political parties, and political parties in New Zealand are machines that are very tightly regulated and disciplined. They are exclusionary, not inclusive, and their ability to dominate and manipulate the mass media provides a degree of power which I think is even more intense than the old first-past-the-post system (p.153).
Maori politics and inequality has long been an area of expertise for Kelsey. In the Speaking Truth to Power chapter, she makes it clear that she remains outside the elite consensus on race relations. In particular, Kelsey is critical of the market model of empowerment for Maori, saying, ‘the new Maori economic development model that Te Puni Kokiri is promoting offers globalisation as liberation for Maori, for Maori to participate in the global economic market place’ (p.157). And although Kelsey has long been a fan of Treaty settlements as a way forward, she is increasingly concerned with the outcomes that this process is delivering for working class Maori:
you’re also increasingly talking now, especially since the Treaty settlements, of a Maori entrepreneurial and market-driven elite, and the mass of Maori, be they in the cities or in rural and provincial areas, who are desperately trying to survive. So you have real class structures emerging in Maori society, largely as a consequence of the way that governments have framed those settlements (p.157).
As with other intellectuals in this book (such as Michael King), Kelsey raises the issue of ethnicity and their problematic groupings:
And then there is that whole new dimension and difficult set of challenges about how those who aren’t Pakeha and aren’t Maori fit into a country that still only talks in terms of Maori and Pakeha (p.157).
21st Century intellectualism and dissent
Despite some disappointment and disillusionment in the historic state of intellectualism and dissent in New Zealand, Kelsey seems to still be optimistic:
if you look now at what’s happening with the mobilisations on the war, and the mobilisations on GE, it’s getting safe and acceptable now for people to be back on the streets…it’s a reawakening…. it’s happening internationally I think, and we’re starting to see now a revival of people on the streets with the so-called anti-globalisation protests (p.144).
She lists the important contemporary intellectual forums and platforms as being Morning Report, Checkpoint, and Insight on Radio New Zealand National (p.147), as well as the periodicals of the Listener, Political Review, and Red and Green (p.150). She thinks that academics and journalists have to continue to play the role of participating in the ‘contest of ideas’ (p.150). Some NZ unions, too, she notes are ‘trying to move outside the old tripartite structures and take a new worker-based approach to organising, but organising differently’ (p.150).
The role of new technologies in facilitating intellectualism and dissent in New Zealand is not deemed to be significant by Kelsey, but still helpful:
Undoubtedly it has facilitated the rapid transfer of information and knowledge, and I certainly find that in the international campaigns we’re involved in. But you still have to do face to face, you still have to be able to produce videos that you can sit down with people and discuss and debate afterwards. So I think that the passive absorption of those new media is not going to provide an inspiring and stimulating new political force. Rather it will add to the menu of options (p.148).
Hopefully this blog can indeed play a part in adding to that menu.