An anatomy of neoliberal angst, Hugh Roberts

Neoliberalism and Cultural Transition in New Zealand Literature, 1984-2008 
Jennifer Lawn
Lexington Books, $95.00,
ISBN 9780739177419

The 1984 Labour government’s legacy has been a curious Rorschach test over the years. I can recall talking to my students in classes at Victoria University in the mid-1990s and being shocked at their unquestioned assumptions about the New Zealand I’d grown up in: they envisaged a grim, Soviet-style dystopia where life revolved around the eternal wait to get government approval for your telephone service or a licence to buy the monthly allotment of the state-sanctioned brand of toothpaste. They stared at me in frank disbelief when I said that I and my generation had all grown up thinking of ourselves as living in a Western, first-world, democratic and welfare-capitalist society, not radically unlike many others.

More recently, I’ve been struck by the rhetoric of tragic dispossession and traumatic discontinuity one frequently hears on the New Zealand left. Prior to 1984 and “Rogernomics”, New Zealand was an Edenic sort of super-Denmark in which citizens lived in glorious equality and cradle-to-grave security; subsequently it has become a dog-eat-dog hell hole of unfettered capitalism, a kind of Mad Max with business suits and lattes. Neither of these portraits rings wholly true to me, and yet it’s clear that some profound shock to the nation’s self-image and the stories it tells itself about its identity occurred in that tempestuous time.

I’m grateful, then, to Jennifer Lawn for her erudite, exhaustively researched and wide-ranging study of Neoliberalism and Cultural Transition in New Zealand Literature, 1984-2008. Lawn describes the book as a “study of politically-committed fiction set in the period” defined by her title. These are works, she hypothesises, which raise profound questions about “the form and function of the social imaginary at a time when the competitive market model was extending its influence from the economic sphere, narrowly construed, into the institutions and practices of everyday life.” If I remain skeptical about some aspects of Lawn’s analysis, there can be no doubt that this study sheds extremely useful light on the ways in which New Zealand writers, and New Zealand culture more broadly, have struggled to come to terms with and explain to themselves “what happened” in 1984 and its aftermath.

Lawn devotes a chapter apiece to each of four different aspects of this question: the social, the political, the Māori, and the creative class. Each chapter has rather different strengths and weaknesses, in part because each is taking up a somewhat different theoretical approach to the problem in hand. The chapter on the “social novel,” for example, explores the impact of the “neoliberal” revolution on “the quality of social bonds” and the “channels and obstacles of social energy” through readings of Maurice Gee’s Crime Story, Nigel Cox’s Dirty Work, Anne Kennedy’s The Last Days of National Costume, and the Anna Markunas novels by “Alix Bosco”. Here, in essence, we are working in a reflective or expressive model of the relationship between the socio-economic and the literary: how economic and political realities manifest themselves in literary texts. This chapter’s central theme – that all of the novels suggest “that some essential level of trust and empathy between New Zealanders was lost or compromised during the 1980s and 1990s”, seems broadly persuasive, but perhaps rather predictable. This is the left-liberal consensus about the period, after all, and what else would one find in a group of novels by contemporary left-liberal New Zealand authors writing about the era? It seems a far cry from, say, Georg Lukács teasing out a vision of the emergent dominance of the bourgeoisie in the writings of the ardent monarchist Balzac.

The chapter on “political culture” seeks evidence of “cynicism or disengagement” from the political process. This chapter represents Lawn’s biggest departure from the rubric of “fiction set in the period” that she announced at the outset, including studies of Bill Pearson’s 1952 “Fretful Sleepers” essay and C K Stead’s dystopian 1971 novel, Smith’s Dream, in both of which Lawn attempts to tease out evidence of a serpent in New Zealand’s pre-neoliberal Eden, a tendency among intellectuals to despise the people en masse that, in her view, made the neoliberal evacuation of collective political action only too easy. This is certainly a strikingly non-obvious claim and a thought-provoking one. Does the recurrent theme of disappointment in the small-mindedness, provincialism and latent fascistic tendencies of the typical New Zealander in the early- and mid-20th century signal a fatal trahison des clercs that left them willing to accept a neoliberal regime in which risk is individualised as an heroic (and heroicising) solution to our self-satisfied torpor? Lawn, perhaps, over-eggs her argument in claiming to see direct affinities between the far-left socialist Pearson and “the early neoliberal accounts of Hayek and Friedman”. The point of Pearson’s essay, after all, is to insist on the duty of New Zealand’s intellectuals to “live not only among but as one of the people”, to feel with them their “problems … hopes … gripes and gropings” and to build, together, a new social (and socialist) order “that makes possible a meaningful liberation of the[ir] talents and energies”.There are also readings in this chapter of John Cranna’s Arena, Damien Wilkins’s The Fainter and Charlotte Grimshaw’s Soon.

In many ways, the most intriguing and suggestive chapter is the one on “the capacity and nature of self-determination as framed within Māori viewpoints”. In nuanced and suggestive readings of Alan Duff’s Once Were Warriors, Witi Ihimaera’s Whanau and Whanau II novels, Patricia Grace’s “Wendel” and Dogside Story, and Alice Tawhai’s short fiction, Lawn negotiates the complex and contradictory territory of Māori self-understanding in relationship to post-1984 New Zealand. It is entirely to Lawn’s credit that, despite her own profound ideological opposition to the neoliberal position, she recognises that Māori have been able to leverage aspects of the new neoliberal consensus to bring about significant social, legal and political advances. The continuity between the neoliberals’ “mistrust of the paternalistic state” and the rise of the Treaty settlement process with its “transition from a national based Māori sovereignty movement to a framework based more for iwi self-determination” is a key insight. Lawn does not find the effects of this change an unmixed good, but she acknowledges that it complicates any left-liberal account of post-1984 New Zealand’s historical and political development as sheer loss. By the same token, her reading of Duff’s much-maligned Once Were Warriors goes far beyond the usual attacks on Duff’s supposedly “Calvinist New Right morality”, instead positioning him as a figure who precisely fingers the contradictions of Māori self-identity in a neoliberal world. For Lawn, the controversy engendered by Once Were Warriors, its embrace on the right and its repudiation on the left, was only as intense as it was because the novel “exposes the common ground between them”.

The book concludes with a chapter on “the theory and practice of creative work in the era of immaterial labor”, asking how “writers perceive the nature and role of artistic practice in an era when creativity has been appropriated as the engine of the postindustrial economy”? For answers, she turns to Ian Wedde’s The Viewing Platform, Paula Morris’s novel Hibiscus Coast and short story “Testing,” and, in what is one of the longest engagements with any work in Lawn’s study, Eleanor Catton’s The Rehearsal. Lawn is certainly able to marshal a hefty array of examples of portrayals of the “creative” act that are riddled with doubts as to its authenticity, its efficacy, and its honesty, particularly in relationship to a marketplace which would mysteriously convert artistic into monetary “value”: “A kind of war of all against all, where what is raided and accumulated is a store of humiliations, and where the old win only because they have been doing it for longer.” It seems difficult to know, however, how one is supposed to distinguish the exact contours of this neoliberal angst from any one of a host of post-Romantic crises of artistic conscience and confidence that have preceded it for two centuries.

Taken all in all, though, Jennifer Lawn has produced an indispensable book for anyone who is trying to think seriously about contemporary New Zealand literature and about the development of New Zealand society and culture in the years since 1984.

Hugh Roberts is a New Zealander who teaches at Irvine, University of California. 

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Posted in Literature, Non-fiction and Review
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