Max Harris’s book The New Zealand Project is an urgent attempt to confront the monumental issues facing our country. It is a bold, unashamedly idealistic vision of what the future of New Zealand could, and should look like. It confronts our deepest problems – political, cultural, social and economic – and proposes radical solutions. It is a book about values: a book about change, and hope, and love, that dares to consider the impossible. I found it conventional and frustrating, and deeply, deeply depressing.
If you pay more attention to politics, and read online commentary, or go to political conferences, or progressive hui, and listen to more brilliant left-wing intellectuals agree on What Must Be Done, it gradually becomes apparent that the progressive left has the answer to every problem in politics, except for the problem of how to actually persuade voters to listen to them, and thus affect meaningful political change.
All the talk about What Must Be Done starts to feel less like activism and more like a form of fantasy roleplaying, only instead of pretending to be dragon-slayers, or vampires, progressive intellectuals pretend to be people who are relevant to contemporary politics.
Personally I am a fan of fantasy roleplaying. I am currently a Norse warrior fighting Catholics in the 900s.
Civics education is his preferred solution. It comes up in almost every chapter. Schools should teach children to think what Harris wants them to think: that would solve an awful lot of problems.
I think a number of countries have succesfully trialed this method.
But what about reframing politics via the values of care, community and creativity? Won’t politics with those values beat politics without any values every time? Let’s think about this. Harris’s main complaint about New Zealand politics is that it is dominated by neoliberal ideology. In his chapter on social infrastructure he talks about the homeless, and how we need to help them. And I agree. But when Harris challenges his own argument, as he frequently does, he writes about “hearing people on talkback radio” who say that the homeless are there because they’ve made bad choices, so we shouldn’t help them. Harris reminds the reader that one of his cornerstone values is caring, and that politics should be about those values so we should agree with his policy solutions (housing the homeless and “an end to public and political indifference to homelessness”).
But neoliberalism is more sophisticated than angry blokes on talkback radio, and Harris should realise this because he’s written an entire book denouncing it. What a neoliberal economist or politician would say to his argument is: “Yes! We need values! Caring and community must be at the heart of politics and economics. That’s why we need to understand that people respond to incentives, and make choices based on perceived consequences. If you minimise the individual cost of making bad choices by mitigating the consequences and transferring the cost of those choices to the community, more people will make bad choices, and the cost to the community will be much, much greater. By trying to help them you’ll make many more lives worse, because you’ve encouraged more people to make bad choices, and you’ve made the lives of everyone else in the community much worse as well because they’re meeting those higher costs. To truly honour those values of community and care we need to do the opposite of what Harris wants to do.”
One of the reasons Danyl can be such a good analyst if he understands how the other side thinks. He is right that those on the right will also say we want care, community and creativity. We just disagree on how to achieve them.
Now everyone has values and everyone agrees on them and the debate is about the correct policies to support those values. This needs to be litigated, and the neoliberals – or their conservative or populists heirs – will respond with their own arguments and data, which many intelligent and reasonable people will find genuinely more convincing that those of the progressive left. Now we’re in a world in which the left does not occupy the moral high ground because only they have values and everyone else is an idiot or a monster
Too many on the left do believe that they are the only ones with values, and the right are uncaring monsters or idiots.
As a result there’s still an optimistic faith in those circles that the left’s problems aren’t institutional, or intellectual, or cultural, or social, but rather something that can be solved by finding just the right combination of clever words and metaphors to deploy against its foes.
All they need is a left version of Crosby Textor!
Politics is technocratic because modern societies are complex: many things could be better, but almost everything could be much, much worse, and all the high-minded values in the world are worthless if you can’t keep the lights on.
People value an economy that provides them and their families jobs and a decent income. They value hospitals and schools that are safe and trusted. An electricity system that keeps the power on, a communications network that connects them etc.