Neoliberalism and the Novel.
This is an unusual and valuable book in providing a detailed study of a number of recent New Zealand novels, and approaching them from a distinctive political perspective.
Building on a series of previous essays, including a 2013 essay in JNZL 31.2, Lawn explores the political and economic transformation of New Zealand since the start of Rogernomics by means of its influence on fiction--not through developments in the publishing and sale of books, or the political lives of writers, but through the lives of fictional characters. The 'social novel' provides a vivid representation of 'the forces that have been at work' in daily life (10) and how people have resisted or sought to exploit those forces. Although New Zealand does not have a large tradition of political fiction, and 'Initially, writers made surprisingly little reference to the social instabilities introduced by the economic reforms' (16), nevertheless Lawn has found enough relevant novels for a wide-ranging discussion in which she combines politics and sociology with literary analysis.
'Neolberalism' is a contested term, applied by its critics rather than by its champions, but the book shows the usefulness of the term in summing up the movement which took power in our country in 1984. In the local form of Rogernomics, it promoted the down-sizing of the state, privatisation, competition and 'politically assisted market rule' (226), and in individual terms it preached the 'enterprise values of resilience, financial know-how and self-sufficiency' (21). As Lawn says, New Zealand's version of neoliberalism was exceptionally thorough-going, being embraced as a form of 'messianism' (225). (I used to describe it as a cargo cult.) One of Lawn's conclusions is that 'some essential level of trust and empathy between New Zealanders was lost or compromised during the 1980s and 1990s, though all writers find avenues of recuperation.' (45)
Each of the four central chapters is devoted to a particular theme: Society, Politics, Indigeneity, and Creativity. Each begins with an interesting political overview, then explores its theme through a selection of novels. The two halves of the chapters do not always mesh fully since the overview tends to range more widely than the fiction, but establishing a detailed context enables important issues to be raised. Some readers may desire more aesthetic discussion of the novels, but what makes this book special is its political focus, though it does also offer unusual angles on the fiction.
The novels chosen were 'written about the period from 1984 to 2008, rather than during it' (20), and needed to have a strong 'political consciousness' of some sort (9). The novels discussed in detail for 'Society' are: Maurice Gee Crime Story, Nigel Cox Dirty VTork, Anne Kennedy The Tast Days of the National Costume, Alix Bosco Cut and Run and Slaughter Tails. For 'Politics': Janet Frame Intensive Care, Bob Jones The Permit, C K Stead Smith's Dream, John Cranna Arena, Damien Wilkins The Painter, and Charlotte Grimshaw Soon. For 'Indigeneity': Patricia Grace Dogside Story, Wifi Ihimaera Whanau and Whanau II, Alan Duff Once Were Warriors, plus Alice Tawhai's short stories. And for 'Creativity': Ian Wedde The Viewing Platform, Paula Morris Hibiscus Coast and Eleanor Catton The Rehearsal.
Lawn raises some particularly interesting questions such as why certain New Zealanders with a 'left-liberal' background were drawn to neoliberalism. Then there is the major question of how neoliberalism has articulated with the de-colonising and bicultural 'partnership' process that has coincided with it. Whereas neoliberalism in the U.K. was linked with a 'neoconservative "family values" agenda' (3), in New Zealand it 'advanced alongside, and through, a settler cultural populism and a particularly effective indigenous movement for tribal self-determination' (3). While I do not fully share Lawn's views on how this juxtaposition took shape, I agree it is a very important topic, and for me was the most thought-provoking aspect of the book.
Another central issue is how and why the concept of 'class' has faded and been replaced in public discussion by 'cultural' issues such as race, identity, and ethnicity. Lawn sees the term 'culture' as playing a central role in the era of neoliberalism, but I would have liked her also to discuss the fact that hard-line neoliberals hated that term. Their attitude troubled me during the 12 years I spent as a board member of NZ On Air, finding that Ministers deliberately avoided or scoffed at 'culture.' In my experience, the term 'cultural capital' only surfaced when ethnic, artistic or academic groups were desperately trying to find a place for themselves within the new paradigm. It's true that 'culture' did later became a business buzz-word but with a very diluted meaning. I think Lawn's comments on the place of 'culture' within neoliberalism oversimplifies what at the time was a complex and bloody field of battle.
Overall, Lawn implies that New Zealand's version of the 'materialist left' (a term which she does not clearly define but presumably means the Marxist tradition) has failed to make an adequate critique of neoliberalism because it has not fully grasped its 'cultural' dimension. It has failed to understand the opportunities that neoliberalism offered to at least some Maori, and the ways in which it could be 'culturally affirmative' (221). Lawn has some very interesting things to say on this subject as she traces the transition from Maori protest in the 1970s to negotiation and treaty settlement in the late 1980s, with a shift of focus to self-determination, partnership and biculturalism. Some Maori saw advantages in 'affiliating to marketable identities and leveraging their "cultural capital'" (4). Lawn remains well aware of the limitations of neoliberalism but hopes that in her book: 'What has emerged is a more nuanced appreciation of neoliberalism as a utopian, productive, multiphasal and flexible discourse that both entices identity-based movements, and compromises the gains that they have made....' (133). If 'resistance must constantly update itself to the quickly evolving new forms of capital' (143), Lawn implies that traditional leftwing thinking in New Zealand has not always kept up with developments, and presumably she is also urging our novelists to do so.
It is inevitable that a political book gives rise to disagreements, and I want to raise some of my own, starting with the question of style. In my opinion, a book discussing political questions with broad relevance should seek to enlarge rather than narrow the potential audience. Lawn writes in a highly abstract style likely to attract only fellow academics. This love of abstraction has become the prevailing mode in our universities. (1) Large generalisations are combined with fashionable theory (such as Slavoj Zizek's, in Lawn's case). Lawn is definitely not one of the worst examples, but the academicism stands out in this book because its subject-matter is politics, and because novels have a strong experiential aspect and are written for a broader audience. Ironically, in analysing The Last Days of the National Costume, Lawn notes that a character is trying to fight the 'desire...to retire to the haven of [academic] abstraction' (71), but that haven is where most of her own comments on the novel seem to have come from, concluding (for example) that its overall lesson is that 'the abject are "instrumentally constitutive of the shared imaginary repertoire of the dominant culture'" (79).
I value theory when it is underpinned by a suitably complex and down-to-earth sense of lived experience, when it makes an effort to be as clear and precise as the subject permits, and when it honours the obligation to consider other possible interpretations. (2) The problem in Lawn's book is that 'neoliberalism' sometimes becomes a single-factor explanation, and her enquiry does not immerse itself sufficiently in the dismal details of practical politics. I was especially troubled by her use of Bill Pearson's 'Fretful Sleepers' and Robert Chapman's 'Fiction and the Social Pattern' to illustrate what she saw as the 'elitism' of 'cultural nationalism' (49-52, 90-95). It's true that some of Chapman's ideas have not worn well, but both essays were well-written and accessible. Pearson and Chapman were academics, as were other theorists of cultural nationalism--such as Keith Sinclair, Allen Curnow and C. K. Stead--and their essays were punchy, memorable and packed with ideas. They reached a wider audience than just academics, and indeed that was an important aim of cultural nationalism, part of its politics. I say this not to embrace the ideas of those writers but to urge today's academics to make a greater effort to compete with them in terms of relevance and readability.
Lawn gives Pearson a very hard time, seeing him as guilty of 'a kind of performative enactment of the conformist syndrome that he is critiquing' (90). She argues that his ideas 'were able to chime with the implicitly masculine, self-actualising self projected by early accounts of neoliberalism' (28), and his 'rhetoric chimes with the early neoliberal accounts of [Friedrich von] Hayek and [Milton] Friedman' (93). She sees in his work a 'colonized consciousness' (90). This is a caricature of the Pearson I remember as a committed socialist who did important work in bringing Maori issues to the attention of Pakeha. Also, linking his ideas with 'masculine' neoliberalism is an odd way to describe a sensitive man who suffered greatly for being homosexual in the decades before the 1986 Reform Act.
The author's aim is to characterise 'cultural nationalists' as elitists who helped to pave the way for neoliberalism. During the '70s and '80s I was a member of a generation that rebelled against the cultural nationalists, but not for Lawn's reasons. I continued to respect those writers as individuals because I had experienced enough of earlier decades to understand the obstacles they had had to overcome and the experiences on which an essay like 'Fretful Sleepers' was based. Critics and biographers today who write about the 1940s and '50s without having lived through those decades seem to me often to oversimplify, because the abstractions used now had different associations in the earlier context. To accuse the cultural nationalists of elitism because of their supposed 'distaste against the average man' (52) skims over the socialist activism of many writers. Some, like Pearson and those associated with TeAo Hou, were deeply aware of Maori issues. Bruce Jesson was both a nationalist and a Marxist, and like a number of other writers he had working class jobs. I cannot share Lawn's critique of 'the left's innocence' (65) or her claim that 'free market fundamentalism' was 'precipitated in part from the earlier cultural nationalists' critique of New Zealanders' mass mentality' (87).
Muldoon's so-called 'welfare state' or 'liberal democracy' was a fossilised, bureaucratised version. The activists of the 1970s and early '80s were confident that something more intelligent and cosmopolitan would follow Muldoon, and most were dismayed by the neoliberal coup in 1984. Lawn needed to discuss this third option--the type of politics that many on the left had hoped to come next. Lawn is correct that there were artists and writers who found something positive in Douglas's revolution but it was often for expedience rather than ideology. In the case of film, for example, all through the 1970s we were desperate to get the new wave of film-making launched, but the 1972 Labour government failed to respond to our pleas for a Film Commission. Muldoon created a Commission in 1978 but gave it only a tiny budget. Meanwhile the country's supposedly public service television system was a closed shop. The only way the film makers could fund their projects was to be entrepreneurial and to use edgy financial methods. So, yes, some did flirt with neoliberalism, but in a pragmatic spirit.
Similarly, the fact that some Maori benefitted from neoliberalism reflected the complexities of our political situation. Those critical of the state were interested in downsizing it, and one way was for the state to hand over certain programmes to be administered tribally. But was that--or the Waitangi settlement process--an inherent feature of neoliberalism, or a trade-off, involving complex aspects of realpolitik) The 1970s Maori protest movement had forced both Labour and National governments to pay more attention to Maori issues. The Labour government of 1984 had to keep its traditional supporters happy while it was revolutionising the economy. Later, in 2008, National and ACT needed the Maori Party to consolidate its majority and so offered it some ministerial portfiolios. Maori voters continued to play off National against Labour. The creation of a Maori TV station (141-42) was in conflict with the spirit of neoliberalism because it was a state-supported, public service network, another product of pragmatism, the fruit of a court case that had to be fought all the way to the Privy Council by brilliant Maori lawyers.
One other frustrating aspect of the book is its curious view of Leigh Davis and And magazine. Lawn claims that we, as editors, excluded 'any writing that declared its politics overtly or referenced a common social world' (17). Personally I thought our cultural politics was quite explicit, 'overt' in the essay on anti- intellectualism, in the feminist contributions, in the environmental activism, in the survey of the local hip-hop scene, and in the article about the attack on Mervyn Thompson, which itself produced some heated political controversy. If such material was not political or social, then I do not understand Lawn's definitions of those terms. She also sees Emma Fergusson's attack on 'Davis's praxis' as 'convincing' (17), whereas I thought that caricature had long ago been discredited, and did my best to provide an alternative view in my essay for JNZL 32 (2014).
For all my disagreements, I am grateful that this book has been published. The author and her American publisher have performed a valuable service in promoting the discussion of political and cultural problems that certainly did not end in 2008 but remain deeply important to us all.
(1) How the pendulum has swung! In 1984, in And no.2, I accused local culture of being too eager to avoid theory. Now academics worry about not using enough. But unlike France where literary theory has gained a solid grounding from the study of philosophy and history, our local academic scene is often awkward in its theorising--like writing large cheques without having enough in the bank to cover them.
(2) To be as complex as necessary but as simple as possible. To quote Albert Einstein: 'It can scarcely be denied that the supreme goal of all theory is to make the irreducible basic elements as simple and as few as possible without having to surrender ... adequate representation....' (Philosophy of Science, 1.2 (April 1934), 165--or see https://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/Albert_Einstein). In 1950 Louis Zukofsky in A-12 wrote a 'simplified' version which has become better known: 'Everything should be as simple as it can be, / Says Einstein, / But not simpler.'
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|Title Annotation:||Neoliberalism and Cultural Transition in New Zealand Literature, 1984-2008: Market Fictions|
|Publication:||JNZL: Journal of New Zealand Literature|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Jan 1, 2017|
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