Which stories shall we tell ourselves?
Article for New Zealand Books, issue 50
"Nothing is more important to a country," onetime Australian Treasurer and Prime Minister Paul Keating told the Knowledge Wave conference in August, "than the way it thinks about itself." Right now, this country, barely a nation, thinks it is small, far away and slipping off the pace.
That is light years distant from the early British colonists' dream of a "bigger and better Britain", as James Belich has described it -- a Pacific powerhouse of 40-50 million population. A century and a-half later we are a tenth of that and for a long period in between we hid in the bosom of empire, determined to be "better" if not "bigger", but still British.
In the late 1940s these displaced Britons of the South Pacific, battered by a decade and a-half of the insecurities of economic depression and war, agreed security should be their prime imperative. It was a democratic choice, in the deepest sense of that word, a consensus that hardly needed to be articulated to be endorsed. Novelist M K Joseph wrote in 1979 of the 1950s: "We had seen enough of wars and ruins; so we married happily, built homes, raised families and built careers." The 1950s decade was the realisation of a long quest that had its starting point in the displacement and degradation of ordinary folk during the industrial revolution in Britain. And it proved achievable.
This quest was not the model of collectivism often claimed for it. The colonists were individualists: security was for "me", "mine" and "my mates", not for some abstract notion of "community". The colonists were also practical. From the earliest days the state was a useful instrument of economic development and individual security. But this state was not the self-defining entity of some socialist theory; it was the servant of the individual.
The national choice for security was well understood in the politics of the 1950s. National's Sid Holland blustered a bit about free enterprise in the 1940s but once in office from 1949, after a flurry or two, he respected the security choice. National's understanding of the essential individualism in that choice assured it dominance of governments until the 1980s.
In 1980s the 1940s settlement blew apart. An elite bred in a surfeit of security and chafing in a swaddled and wallowing economy gave primacy to the economic imperative. In simple growth terms it worked. After 30 years at half the OECD average, economic growth per capita roughly matched the OECD average (though growth was magnified by coming off a base of low employment).
But the elite's 1980s model did not work socially: there was a high cost in disrupted lives. And it did not work politically. There was no consensus, no new national choice to underpin it. The elections of the 1990s amounted to attempts to tell the elites of business, the bureaucracy and government that ordinary folk did not agree. The 1999 election got that message through. Helen Clark's approval ratings since attest to that. So do the majorities telling pollsters the country is on the "right track" after a decade or more of "wrong track" majorities.
But something bigger was going on in the 1980s. The real revolution was not Rogernomics, into which most of the arid debate of the 1990s was subsumed. It was independence.
Independence could be seen coming first in the crafts and then the arts, which at last found a defining voice as the surfeit-of-security generation gained confidence from the early 1970s. This voice was qualitatively distinct from the self-conscious separation from Britain of earlier attempts at a national big-C culture. It was the end of colonialism here.
Independence revolutions, even if they shed no blood, are bloody affairs. They tear up the social contract. They divide generations. They scramble the words of the national script. The storyline breaks off and must be restarted with different characters and a new plot.
And this country's independence revolution took place just as we began to be gripped by an international revolution that, as did the industrial revolution, is degrading and displacing ordinary folk. The industrial revolution subsumed local economies into national economies, at great cost to individuals and localities. The information revolution is subsuming national economies into a chaotic, brutal international economy, again at great cost to individuals and nations.
And, the seers tell us, we ain't seen nothing yet. The next stage, the biotechnology dimension of the information revolution, will, "experts" say, make the past 20 years silicon stage look like child's play. Life will get worse -- and, of course, better -- assuredly unpredictable.
This isn't ideology. The worldwide e-protest movement which now dogs summits from Seattle to Melbourne to Toronto to Genoa is an ideological response to an impersonal force. Of course, there are ideologies of the accelerating globalisation the information revolution drives and there are visible winners, the rich-country capitalist behemoths. But this hurricane of change doesn't need an ideology to drive it, any more than the industrial revolution did. Having been set in motion, it is feeding itself and feeding on itself.
And just as local communities during the industrial revolution could not defend themselves against the ravages imposed by the new chaotic rules, neither can nation-states now defend their citizens against the ravages the information revolution is imposing and will continue to impose. Only the nation-state, reorganised to respond to ordinary folk, could regulate the new national economies that sprang from the industrial revolution and, through regulation, spread the wealth more equitably. It will take supranational political mechanisms to regulate and make more equitable the new international economy that is assigning riches and poverty according to the new, chaotic rules.
Add to the information revolution two other powerful international forces.
One is global warming, which even sober scientists now tell us will wreak havoc with weather patterns and so ways of life throughout the world -- with this country's weather-dependent economy among the more vulnerable. Only concerted international action can provide a response and that is not much more than a wistful notion, though at least there is now a rudimentary agreement for action.
International demographics are the second powerful international force. As this country's carefully sheltered economy centred on Auckland, where the consumers were, from the 1950s on, talent was drained out of the provinces. Now other countries are vacuuming up Auckland's talent. This will get a lot worse as the population of rich European countries ages and those countries go looking for reasonably well-educated English-speakers. Imagine this whole country in the depleted condition of the East Coast, where a dearth of initiators and innovators means revival depends on outside help. That spectre looms for this country in 15 years or so.
So what is a tiny new nation, distant, defenceless, disoriented, divided and damaged, to do about these huge forces?
We cannot simply reaffirm the 1940s national choice, as the 1999 election hinted we would like. There are too many complicating factors.
First, the Treaty of Waitangi, at last revived in fact and mythology, poses complex issues of power and culture that were entirely absent from public life in the 1940s. As a challenge to the nation, that is among the biggest. Failure to reach resolution could at worst make this place another Palestine.
Second, there are three overarching imperatives, not two as in the 1940s: the environmental imperative now intersects with the social and economic. This greatly complicates any new national choice of the weight to be given to each.
Third, the economy no longer supports first-world security: hospitals cannot be staffed, universities are overburdened, third-world diseases sweep some suburbs. For social policy reasons, even if for no other, the economic imperative logically might command more emphasis.
And, fourth, this is a new nation, just independent. Genealogies of tradition do not paralyse the grammar and the vocabulary of the stories we tell about ourselves. Our new national choice can be free. We can choose to treat the information revolution and climate change and the Treaty tangles as opportunities instead of problems. That way would be more likely to write a positive storyline.
The old stories, the colonial stories, of pioneering ingenuity and a better (egalitarian, richer) Britain and landscape and brilliant amateur sport no longer ring. We could still tell them to ourselves and even believe them in the 1950s, our most successful decade, as we cemented in that 1940s national choice. Now the meandering and muddled stories we mumble to ourselves are of bewilderment, resentment, cynicism, squabbles and fear. Our writers are among the prime mumblers.
Perhaps that is our storyline in the brutalising international economy now forming and perhaps our choice as a new nation is to chart a route to genteel poverty on the world's periphery. But perhaps not: as Belich pointed out to that transitory Knowledge Wave conference, our forebears, polynesian and British, were great adventurers, their astonishing expansions "two of the greatest human explosions in history". Perhaps there are opportunities to take, daring to be done, enriching uniqueness to be invented. Perhaps there are other stories to tell. This decade will tell us if there are.