Listener: 13 February 1999.
Keywords: Political Economy & History;
It was perhaps inevitable that Bruce Jesson, growing up in the Canterbury of the 1950s with a freezing worker father, would study Marx. Christchurch is often said to be our most class conscious city. Actually, all our big cities have acute class differences. In Wellington it matters whether you are a political insider or an outsider; in Auckland the measure is money. Because Christchurch does not have the politics or the easy money, its differences are more evidently social status.
Marxism is often applied as an unthinking ideology, generating slick answers. (The New Zealand Right is guilty of the same laziness.) However it can be used as a powerful framework to analyze social, political, and economic phenomena, providing a different penetrating perspective from the conventional wisdom. (The best short summary of marxism is “it’s the economy, stupid,” that is economic behaviour explains many political and social phenomena too.)
Bruce is New Zealand’s best marxist intellectual. Not for him the colonial cringe which has dominated policy for two decades. Recognizing the dependency status of New Zealand made Bruce an early proponent of republicanism. This was not simply replacing the Queen with a president. That is symbolic of a wider issue. In any case an independent New Zealand is only part of the prescription. True republicanism involves a society in which no man or woman is socially superior – a society in which there are no classes, which is an egalitarian democracy.
Graduating in law, but never practising as a solicitor, for that involved an oath of allegiance to the Queen, Bruce shifted to Auckland, as a part of a companionate and affectionate marriage with Jocelyn. For most of the 1970s he was a househusband caring for their two daughters, while Joce taught. But he also produced an extraordinary periodical “The Republican” (recently amalgamated with the “Political Review”). Originally gestetnered and consequently difficult to read, Bruce’s articles and editorials were insightful, well researched (he would spend weeks down at the companies office, sifting through files), and thought provoking. In the early 1980s, Warwick Roger snapped him up as the “Metro” political commentator. Although Bruce today describes his profession as journalist, he is really an intellectual without an institutional base, one of New Zealand’s few – and most important – independent scholars.
He began to investigate the Kerridge-Odeon cinema chain, moving on to Fletchers. This lead to a small book The Fletcher Challenge, which developed into the highly successful, and seminal, Behind the Mirror Glass, a shrewd investigation of the financial boom of the times. Bruce was not surprised by the 1987 share-market collapse. There has been no better observer of the Auckland business scene.
In 1989 he turned from Auckland to Wellington with his timely Fragments of Labour, which came out just as Prebble was sacked from the Labour cabinet. The study is not just an account of the collapse of the Labour governments, for there is an underpinning notion of the `historic compromise’ in which business gave up some of its freedom in return for labour moderating its demands for socialism. The compromise’s breakdown in the 1980s, and the increasing colonialization of New Zealand, led to Bruce taking the unusual course, for a New Zealand intellectual, of joining a political party: first NewLabour, subsequently the Alliance. With hindsight he may have regretted that decision, for it limited his independence as a commentator. But when as Alliance candidate he was elected to chair the Auckland Regional Services Trust (ARST), he gained crucial experience by observing a financial corporation from the inside.
(ARST were instructed that the Yellow Bus Company be privatised. Bruce delayed, arguing there was conflict in the law. His letter to the minister hit the too hard basket. So the ARST did not sell the asset for the $35m expected. Over the following years ARST received dividends about equal to the expected capital sum. This year the Company was sold for $111.6m. Auckland’s infrastructure will benefit from Bruce’s delaying tactics. The Second Harbour Bridge should be named after him.)
His latest book, to be published shortly by Dunmore Press, Only Their Purpose is Mad, brings together his reading, observing, legwork, and insider experiences. It is a vigorous indictment of the financial sector, arguing that although it is competent, the outcome of that financial competence is detrimental to the interests of New Zealanders. As it currently functions, the finance sector does not benefit the economy, but damages economic growth and social welfare, and increases dependency. The thesis is closely and lucidly argued. The book is one of the major analytical studies of rogernomics and the finance sector. Being doubtful about the financial sector is common today. The book provide facts and analysis which can convert gut reactions into a coherent understanding.
Despite his being one of our few genuinely original thinkers, there may be no successor to this book, for his next book on contemporary New Zealand politics may not get finished. He has terminal cancer. Even so his ideas – his spirit – will reach out to us long after his body is gone.