Friday, November 28, 2003

Everybody's a Socialist

It’s gotta be tough being a socialist in New Zealand these days.

The problem may not be so much about politics in the post-Rogernomics era, the prevailing cultural predilection for libertarian grumpiness, or the virtual invisibility of organised labour. No, the real problem is who you have to share the bed with. All sorts of people call all sorts of other people socialists. And the very few people who call themselves socialists don’t tend to be a very happy or progressive bunch of campers.

I’ve got a theory that politics in Aotearoa have been so traumatised by the Labour/National reforms of the 1980’s and 1990’s that the political spectrum itself has been distorted beyond recognition. Here’s how the theory works. A nominally social-democratic party that calls itself Labour brings in a series of right-wing, neo-liberal reforms. Shocked lefty voters abandon the party and National takes command, finishing what Labour started and going even further.

Cue economic stagnation, growth of poverty and crumbling public infrastructure.

So here’s how the process of trauma works itself out. People who used to identify themselves as democratic socialists are so ashamed of themselves that they cease to participate in the kind of social democratic politics that are fairly successful (in varying degrees) in most other western countries. And they stop calling their politics socialist.

Meanwhile right-wingers are so shocked by Labour’s adoption of all their pet projects, and so fearful of an ensuing loss of identity, that they take up the rhetorical device of naming Labour as socialist. It’s nonsense, of course. And it’s a tricky standpoint to maintain, given that in reality there is little significant difference between a National government or one headed by Labour.

That may change as a result of Brash.

So now we have a situation where nobody self-identifies as a socialist, but everybody calls anybody who has the faintest social conscience a socialist. Witness Media Cow ( yet another liberal commentator ) calling Russell Brown a “neo-socialist.” Now I like Brown’s stuff. I read it regularly. But even he is the first to deny that he has a socialist bone in his body. And he’s right. Liberal left might be a more appropriate term. Or just critical.

The problem is that there are no social-democratic politics in New Zealand. And that absence has created a crisis of definitions.

Tuesday, November 25, 2003

Foreigners at Our Borders

It is obvious that there is a great deal of difference between being international and being cosmopolitan. All good men are international. Nearly all bad men are cosmopolitan. G.K. Chesterton

Last Friday I walked into Borders, a giant chain bookstore in downtown Auckland. That’s because Friday is the day that I buy a copy of the Guardian Weekly for some weekend reading.

The Guardian Weekly is a wonderful thing; it has that strange post-empire concern for the global, for stories from all the other countries and continents that we never seem to hear about unless they are the object of military actions from the United States.

And living in New Zealand, with its not-yet-post-colonial cultural imagination, there is something rather quaint about buying and reading a U.K. paper. Buying a cultural product from overseas makes me feel as though I am finally “fitting in.”

Walking to the back of the store, I discovered that the shelf of international papers had been moved. I asked a passing employee for help.

“Excuse me,” I said, “can you tell me where The Guardian is?”

In that great tradition of Kiwi retail performance, he wordlessly conducted me down a flight of stairs, along a hallway, down another flight of stairs and around a corner where he suddenly stopped.

“All along these shelves,” he said. I knew somewhere he was trying to be friendly. I looked at the books. I couldn’t see what I was looking for. I told him so.

“The Guardian,” he said, “I thought you said Gardening. Is that a foreign paper?”

“I guess so,” I said, disturbed by his use of the word foreign. “There used to be a whole shelf of international papers…”

“We don’t sell foreign papers any more,” he said, looking bored.

“Why?” I blurted. “Don’t you like foreigners any more?”

“They don’t sell enough, I guess. All I know is that we just stopped selling all the foreign papers.” And with that he moved silently away.

In Canada, “Foreign” is not a word in frequent circulation. There’s something definitely pejorative about it, something suspicious. In a country that is self-consciously multicultural, it carries significances of intolerance and prejudice.

In New Zealand, you hear “foreign” all the time. And I am convinced that underneath, and linked to its meaning of “not New Zealand” are other, intended and unintended meanings: bad, not-us, them…something to be feared. But there are things which are not from here and which are not foreign, and therefore good.

Anything British, for example.

So why would Borders stop selling The Guardian? My guess is that there is another definition of the bad in this country.

Anything that doesn’t sell enough.

Sunday, November 23, 2003

Auckland: Return of the Repressed

I have been working in another virtual space recently, setting up a site for my partner and I to show our friends back home what our life is like in New Zealand.

There's nothing like trying to find good pictures for a site like that to make you start to wonder about the place you live. And about Auckland, in particular.

Most people in New Zealand already know that Auckland is one of the most awful cities in the western world. It's not news. Occasionally, some international group insists on ranking Auckland as one of the top cities in the world, but you have to wonder if these people have ever actually been here.

Why is it so bad? Simply put, Auckland is not a city. It's a giant small town surrounded by suburbs. Beyond the confines of Queen Street, Auckland presents itself as an unending sprawl of villas and "haute" cafes. As Matiu Carr, from Auckland University's School of Architecture, Property and Planning has said of the villa:

A villa in my opinion expresses an attitude on the relationship of the occupants to nature...a villa...I believe attempts to exercise control
on the landscape [and] nature...

The modern suburban villa nostalgically points back to the Roman dwelling, an architectural form only possible in a slave-owning and strongly patriarchal society, where the family unit contained in such a dwelling was typically a large, extended family. Contemporary villas specifically exclude (because of their size) the possibility of an extended family. They also represent the domination of feminine ( see Beatriz Colomina: Privacy And Publicity, Modern Architecture as Mass Media) space by patriarchal power; thus the nostalgic reference to Roman times.

If anything, Auckland is anti-urban. It lacks difference, cosmopolitanism and diversity. Much of it has to do with the reasons why New Zealand was colonised in the first place.

James Belich, an historian of New Zealand, points to the fact that much of the impetus to emigrate to New Zealand was fueled by a middle-class horror at the rise of urbanism in England. Although the 19th century saw the rise of different class precincts (the first suburbs as well as worker's neighborhoods) it simply wan't good enough for many. Arcadian New Zealand offered people the chance to live in a specifically non-urban, monoclass environment.

Meanwhile, Jock Phillips, in his book A Man's Country: A History of the Pakeha Male points to a revulsion with what was precieved as the effeminate nature of urban experience. This essentially homophobic and misogynistic horror with the city is a significant feature of New Zealand cultural life. He quotes emigration activist Charles Hursthouse:

rather than grow up [in England] wanderer of the earth with no better chance than that of finding myself some day behind the counter with a bonnet on, measuring tape and bobbin to morning misses, or becoming the snubbed clerk with the pale wife and the seedy children, nailed to the dingy desk for life for 60 [pounds] a year, I would turn and breast the current; pull off my coat, take six months at some manly handicraft, and then, spite the dark warnings of Aunt Tabitha, spite the twaddle of my male friends in petticoats, I would secure cheap passage to Australia or New Zealand and...achieve a good deliverance from that grinding , social serfdom, those effeminate chains, my born and certain lot in England.

In this respect, it's no wonder that the closest that Auckland comes to urban experience is K road. K road is the one part of this city that has diversity. And it's also the one part of Auckland that harbours the feminine within the masculine: drag queens, gay culture and prostitutes. Call it the return of the repressed.