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