Economist Brian Easton says the nation-state continues to thrive despite the pressures of globalisation and social diversity

Economist Brian Easton says the nation-state continues to thrive despite the pressures of globalisation and social diversity
A FLAGGING EFFORT: John Key's great failure was his attempt to decolonialise the flag; it was meant to be his legacy achievement .but he confused nationalism with commercial branding.

This is a re-post of an article originally published on It is here with permission.

I have written three books about nationalism. The Nationbuilders looked at some New Zealanders who in the fifty-odd years after the Great Depression consciously developed the economy as a part of building a nation. One of the reasons I wrote it was that nationbuilding by the state came was by terminated Rogernomics; neoliberalism has no loyalty to any nation.

Globalisation and the Wealth of Nations looked at the nationalism issue from an international perspective. It observed that the nation-state is a relatively recent phenomenon. Most states have risen only in the last two and a half centuries. Although it is common to call upon antecedents, their histories are about cultural continuities rather than any sort of political continuity.

Cultural continuity can exist without political continuity. For instance, Jews have maintained a continuity for more than two millennia. Israel does not contradict this assertion; were it to disappear there would remain a vibrant Jewish Diaspora community.

Locally, Maori also have this continuity without a state. There is a pressure to construct a sort of Maori quasi-state, just as Jews have wanted Israel (modern Zionism is only just over a century old).

Pasifika people offer another prospect. They have their island homelands but it is not inconceivable that the island-states will wither away because they are too small to be economically viable (some will be drowned as the result of global warming). Yet a Pasifika community may continue – I hope so.

If nation-states are a recent phenomenon then they may not last forever. Perhaps we may see their withering. The place where this seems most likely is Europe where most national boundaries are artificial. Despite popular histories pretending otherwise, the peoples of Europe have been in continuous flux for thousands of years. Yet the individual nation-states of Europe are not withering and remain in rude health. (Brexit is an extreme manifestation of robust nationalism.)

I returned to the particularities of New Zealand nationalism in my just published Not in Narrow Seas: The Economic History of Aotearoa New Zealand, which is a description of the development of a nation from an economic perspective. Part Six, a kind of summary, opens with a chapter, ‘Aotearoa New Zealand in a Global World’, which explores the extent to which New Zealand can be an independent nation-state in a globalising interconnected world. It points out that even were we to adopt economic and other autarchy – almost inconceivably of course – we could not avoid the interconnectedness which comes from global warming.

Or, as occurred after the book was published, from today’s raging pandemic. Yet the interconnectedness has led to partially isolating the nation from the rest of the world by restricting movement across the borders. The various pressures to open them up – even a little – illustrate just how powerful the forces of globalisation are.

If globalisation is one threat to nationalism, another is social diversity. People may want to belong to a nation but at the same time belong to social communities within it which others in the nation do not. In some countries these differences have created tensions. One thinks of the US but others include Belgium and India. In the 2005 election, Don Brash campaigned ‘kiwi vs iwi’ promoting majoritarianism and ignoring diversity.

Earlier, the Clark-Cullen Government had been elected with the purpose of reversing the neoliberal policies of its predecessors. They did so for many but left behind others (some of which the Ardern-Peters Government has addressed; some not). But they hardly tackled nationbuilding. There were a few exceptions: Jim Anderton’s Kiwibank, the abolition of titles, promotion of the arts and the return of the Unknown Warrior (apparently the nation’s enthusiasm surprised them). The failure needs to be explored at length somewhere else. My guess is that Helen Clark was chary because nationalism is often associated with overriding domestic divisions by aggression towards  a foreign outsider. (The Trump strategy, except he aggravates internal divisions for domestic political purposes.) Clark was probably the best policy wonk of the Prime Ministers in my time, but she was not inspirational which is what nationbuilding is also about.

Neither was John Key. He latched on to rugby which is the symbol to many of the New Zealand nation (even Air New Zealand converted its planes to black). Probably that is because New Zealand does so well in an (admittedly minor) international sport; it is a variation on nationalism through foreign aggression. The America’s Cup was less successful, probably because it is so overtly a rich man’s sport – we await the day when a Maori or Samoan captains Team New Zealand. Mañana man Key certainly had no vision of nationbuilding, even reintroducing titles. His great failure was his attempt to decolonialise the flag; it was meant to be his legacy achievement .but he confused nationalism with commercial branding.

Jacinda Ardern is no policy wonk but she certainly is inspirational, well-illustrated by her handling of two great crises in her first term and the appeals to national solidarity that were inherent in her responses. I imagine that the intention of the Mosque Massacre terrorist was to trigger racial/community riots, as could well have happened in many other countries. Instead Ardern led the calm and measured reaction of an almost unified New Zealand.

The Covid Crisis has been an even bigger challenge. Flanked by Ashley Bloomfield, whose demeanour (akin to your local GP) and expertise reinforces her message, Ardern  has emphasised the 'team of five million'. (‘Team New Zealand’ having already been appropriated for narrower purposes). The message is that we are all in this together and while some are making bigger sacrifices than others, we will do our best to share the burden.

The last time this happened was during the Second World War, when repressive economic measures were broadly accepted. Years later, the retired Secretary of the Treasury, Bernard Ashwin, mused that he was surprised that the widespread controls were so effective.

Hence National’s strategic election problem. It was nicely captured by the Stuff cartoonist Sharon Murdoch with a picture of Ardern and Bloomfield building a wall while Judith Collins and Gerry Brownlee try to undermine it. Nominally the wall is to keep Covid viruses out but it is also an exercise in nationbuilding.

What is the Opposition to do? It can whine about some of the construction – sure there have been mistakes -- but unless the wall falls, wellbeing has been protected at not too great an economic cost. Mobilising such nationbuilding tends to to reward the incumbent. Attacking the leadership of a winning team is not a promising strategy, especially if the wall limits the virus even with a few faulty bricks.

In a couple of generations, someone will ponder the nature of the nation-state, which may continue to survive despite the pressures from globalisation, migration and social diversity. I hope my books will make some contribution to her or his thinking as they trace the fortunes of nationalism and of New Zealand.

Brian Easton, an independent scholar, is an economist, social statistician, public policy analyst and historian. He was the Listener economic columnist from 1978 to 2014. This is a re-post of an article originally published on It is here with permission.

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Brian, as you're an economist and likely better versed in the matter I am loathe to challenge you on matters economic, but this statement raised my eyebrows; "Earlier, the Clark-Cullen Government had been elected with the purpose of reversing the neoliberal policies of its predecessors. They did so for many but left behind others" My view of the Clark Cullen Government is that they entrenched the neoliberal policies as far as the ordinary Kiwi was concerned. On their watch the housing crisis achieved a momentum that made it almost unstoppable, while they denied that anything of concern was happening.

My view of the Clark - Cullen Government was that they were more self-serving than most, driving personal agendas at the expense of the people of this country. These two thought they were cleverer than history reveals they actually were (which is not uncommon for politicians), and far more damaging than most believe.


Share that perspective Murray. The Clark/Cullen government became, rather surprisingly and rather too easily, quite arrogant. We know, we say, you do. The speeding stalinist motorcade was a fair example. They ended up being unpalatably dour and sour. Both academics, one academically conceited and the other academically cynical. To start off the Key government thus looked rather fresh and modern. That too did not last. Corporate NZ took over, the blue wave of blue suits etc. The last half of the government, complacent, conceited and careless. Well in summary that has been our government(s) then this century for 9/11, Afghanistan, 2nd Iraq invasion, Far East Tsunami, 2008 GFC, E Q’s, wild fires, Terrorist, CV19. Amongst all of that you could find a good argument surely for more self dependence if not nationalism.

My overriding concern is those who call for longer electoral terms. These in my view undermine democracy, making these types of Government less accountable to the people. The western decline has been presided over by governments such as these, yet we perpetually hold their leaders up as shining examples!

I used to think the same way - I was opposed to a longer term so we can vote them out faster. You've probably heard it before, but a 4 year term is a good idea. A 4 year term means we really get to see what a government can do (or not do) with the years between the honeymoon year and the build up to the next election. It would mean we'd be less likely to believe excuses that they've only just managed to undo the [insert pejorative statement here] of the previous government because they would have had 2-3 years to bed in their policies rather than 1-2 years. A 4 year term would probably lead to some governments not achieving a second term because voters saw they were hopeless, or only having '8 years of neglect' rather than 9. If Covid hadn't upset the apple cart under a 4-year term we'd have had another year to see if the coalition was able to do anything (signs weren't good earlier in the year).

Unlike other western democracies which have longer government terms, we don't have an upper house. Our Parliament is uniquely powerful and has been called 'the fastest legislature in the west'.

In absence of an upper house (or some other check on government power that comes from the collective will of the people), we should keep our 3 year terms.

MMP has served this purpose to some degree, with no party having gained an absolute majority.

I agree with the four year term.

We seem to have a nice trend of staying with the same Govt for 9 years. Regardless of proficiency.
They get 1 term to plan, 1 term to act, and 1 term to explain why nothing worked.
At least with four year we would have 1 term to act and plan, and 1 term to explain.

End result is they are out in 8 rather than 9, and we saved on an election.

I've not thought of it in those terms, and i must admit it makes sense, but there is a huge assumption built in there. You're assuming the voters would see through them after two terms and boot them out. A popular Government could convince the gullible, as they do today, to give them three terms and we're stuck with them for 12 years not 8. They will change their rhetoric from three years not being long enough to four years not being long enough, and we are in the same boat, but stuck with self serving pollies for three years longer!

No, I think our Governments need to plan and work to tight time frames. Good policy,and good legislation should garner some level of cross bench support as we occasionally see today. But in a democracy, and especially OUR democracy, I feel our Government must be fully accountable to the people. the more often the better.

Arrogrance indeed. It's what I see with Robertson et al. He acts very pleasantly, but if there is a dollar to spend, he spends it.
And looks down on us doubters as he does so.

Before the Covid crisis he was very conservative in his spending.

Reading David Runciman's book How Democracy Ends right now. It's pretty interesting on the the weaknesses of democracy in the face of large or existential problems: governments will in turns sleepwalk for as long as possible, then walk a tightrope for as long as possible. Until things get so bad that action is forced.

Makes sense in that Clark and Key's governments sleepwalked through the housing crisis getting worse and worse, and now we see the current government and the Reserve Bank walking the tightrope of trying to avoid collapse and push things out for as long as possible.

We saw it with Muldoon pushing action out for as long as possible, refusing to confront the problem until NZ looked like going bankrupt and Lange and Douglas could not avoid action.

It is interesting that Asian community is always left off this kind of discussion purposely or not.

I agree in some respects Xingmo, it would be interesting to hear their perspective but I doubt they'd be up for the scathing and frankly sometimes borderline racist commentary they'd probably receive. I don't think they are being left off, I just don't think they are here to start with.. which is a shame really.

I agree as well, we need to hear more from our Asian brothers and sisters.

Agree. Could be a generational thing as well.

Our nation is small enough, ring fenced enough and of a mind enough, to perhaps survive.

Others - the USA being a classic and China a possible - will disintegrate. We are headed for permanent de-growth; something this writer still avoids (I've put it under his nose). That says local - eye-ball distance is the extent of trust when faith in systems, fails. Transport will fall off a cliff. Triage will take increasing effort. Age of Empires in reverse, with the forests chopped down, the atmosphere cooking us, the ocean a plastic soup and too many fighting over ever-less.

Who knows how that pans out? All I know is that the prognostications of a temporarily-relevant echelon (economists) will be viewed through a lens of jaundiced hue.

People may want to belong to a nation but at the same time belong to social communities within it which others in the nation do not. In some countries these differences have created tensions. One thinks of the US but others include Belgium and India.

Er, what about Northern Ireland and Palestine, Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Turkey, Ukraine and Yugoslavia? Social diversity can be deadly.

I think Brian makes a fair point Roger, and indeed it is an issue that NZ faces. How do we take social diversity and use it to strengthen us as a nation while preventing tribalism?


Slow down the rate of change.

I completely agree with you. Immigration is like alcohol - refreshing in moderation and potentially deadly in excess.

One problem is the mix - would another 10k typical Aussies, Samoans or POMs make any significant difference to social diversity? Whereas say 10k Rohingya arriving together would be adding diversity but more problematic since they would be harder to assimilate. Those poor displaced Rohingya are almost inevitably more deserving than most of our migrants. The trouble is such discussions easily breakdown into ethnic racism. Maybe that is why no political party is willing to discuss immigration policy however none have advocated open door immigration.

Agreed, it gets deadly when religion is mixed in

So does journalism - just ask Pundit

"Nationlism" is meaningless. A bit like the term "equality."

I think most people would prefer "civic nationalism" than "ethnic nationalism."
What's the difference?
Civic nationalism: When in Rome, do as the Romans do.
Ethnic nationalism: Rome for ethnic Italians only. Kick out the foreigners!


Have to first counter the knobs who will say "NZ has no culture of its own" and "there is no need for assimilation, expectations of assimilation are racist!" Clearly the second is based off an erroneous assumption that people seek ethnic nationalism not civic nationalism. The first is simply ignorant: unless people have been exposed sufficiently to the sheer level of difference between a highly corrupt society and NZ, they can seem to have rather idealistic notions of all other societies being largely the same as NZ.

Just look at the Liquor store owners.
That sort of corruption is endemic in developing countries.
Probably the biggest reason they never reach the first world.

The terms First, Second and Third world are Cold War terms referring to the Western Bloc, the Soviet/Eastern Bloc and the Non-Aligned nations. They have nothing to do with the level of economic development of a nation.

Since 1990 the term "Third World" has been redefined in many evolving dictionaries in several languages to refer to countries considered to be underdeveloped economically and/or socially.

@ Weld. How about calling it "independent self interest" for our nation state.


"wellbeing has been protected at not too great an economic cost."

[Citation needed].

Although in seriousness, I see two types of wellness in NZ: One in Wellington where incomes never drop and the huge public sector workforce is insulated from reality, and the rest of the country, where ends still have to be met regardless of whatever peril the economy is in. One is maintained at the expense of the other.

One is maintained at the expense of the other.

Agree - and we've been doing the same thing with soaring housing costs too. Protecting them at the expense of the end of the country where ends still have to be met. Creating two insulated, parallel economies with nurtured wealth at the expense of others.

No simple answers. National's plan of freezing headcount did not work, but only created a gravy train for contractors at twice the price of permanent staff.

True. National's headcount freeze was another misdirected attempt in the small vs big public sector argument.

The aim should be to introduce better performance assessment and monitoring criteria in order to enhance efficiency of public spending. This won't come easy as every public department and agency will have its own set of criteria.
We could learn more from countries such as Singapore who have successfully embedded a strategic investment perspective into their public sector, keeping their government highly efficient while attracting talented workers into the system.

...Except that performance assessment and monitoring means months of months of meetings and policy gatherings to decide what the targets should be and how to monitor them, workshops on best practice for auditing according to these guidelines, hiring people to do the auditing... more bureaucracy... and more timidity borne of fear of not meeting some arbitrary benchmark.
We all want transparency and efficiency, but trying to artificially enforce them has a huge overhead. This is what I witnessed in my brief time in the education sector -- meeting all the accountability measures (there for admirable reasons, of course) took more time than doing the actual work. You have to be masochistic to work in the PS.

quote: "nationbuilding by the state was terminated by Rogernomics neoliberalism":

That's a new one on me

I was there in 1984
It would be the first time I was motivated to get off my backside and vote
Muldoon had rammed the NZ canoe up a creek without a paddle - and the tide ran out
NZ was in a lot of strife as a consequence
Roger Douglas's time had come - like it or not
Please do not re-write history

A challenge to Brian Easton - or anybody for that matter
Describe for me an alternative NZ as if Roger Douglas's crash and slash and burn had not happened and Muldoon had continued on in a drunken rage - what would NZ look like today?

@ iconoclast. It would be a truely awful place now without Douglas then. Shudder

Rubbish. Muldoon was just Douglas's excuse to ram through the reforms that he wanted.
We could have chosen a more middle path like Australia.
All that Douglas's reforms did, along with nationals of the early nineties, was help the big end of town.
It may have taken forever to get your phone connected, but NZ in the 70's with three million people was an altogether more pleasant place than NZ of the 2020's, with 5 million people, and everyone trying to own everyone else's houses.

If you think about it Muldoon was the last real socialist.