Socialists Of the Heart: Why Does the Left Avoid Rigorous Economic Argument

Listener 3 May, 2002.

Keywords: History of Ideas, Methodology & Philosophy;

The Left critique of society was born in the turmoil of nineteenth century European industrialisation, when communities were ripped apart and workers suffered terrible, and often short, lives. Economics was transformed too, with the analyses of Karl Marx and Alfred Marshall leaving behind the pleasant world of agriculture and commerce of Adam Smith and David Ricardo. The Left engaged with the mainstream economists of the day. One can get an introduction to the neo-classical economics of the late nineteenth century by reading the British socialists of the times, who were not nearly as taken with Marx as the world was after the Russian revolution. Their roots are not in Marxists but in the Christian dissenters, such as Methodists.

Many Europeans fled to new lands far from Europe, where the socialist critique had to be adapted, although not always successfully. The recently published On the Left: Essays on Socialism in New Zealand has David Kent’s iconic 1979 poster of Marx as a New Zealander on its front cover. While he sits comfortably in our landscape, his economics forged in the heat of industrial Europe did not. Robert Weir’s essay describes how the New Zealand Knights of Labour, an indigenous response to an American movement, got almost their entire manifesto implemented by the first Liberal Government (1893 to 1911). It, and other historical essays, illustrate the importance of American socialism on New Zealand thinking, perhaps because both were frontier societies.

A major lacuna of the essays is their almost total neglect of the New Zealand’s economics – key players such as Liberal Premier John Ballance and Bill Sutch are hardly mentioned, nor are the great economics debated related from a leftist perspective, almost as if it made no contribution. Yet John Condliffe, Canterbury professor of economics in the 1920s, would recall how he taught three future prime ministers in WEA lectures. The young Micky Savage, Peter Fraser, and Walter Nash knew they had to master the subject if they were to master the governing of New Zealand.

Today, with a few exceptions – Alister Barry, Jane Kelsey and Bill Rosenberg come to mind – there is hardly any engagement by the Left with the economics of the last half century. Any course offered to Lefties would either be hopelessly out-of-date, or have a zero attendance. Bruce Jesson, one of the few to engage with economics in vigorous and creative way, commented that he ‘saw the New Zealand Left as moralistic, and hopeless on economics – their eyes glaze over.’ It is a Methodism without Marshall. A socialism merely of the heart suggesting socialists have no brains.

The moralism leads to active concerns with issues of the environment, social justice, and identity politics, and of course, to international politics (albeit without much understanding of the international economy). Consider the vigour with which the Left has tackled the US- Iraq War. Its significance far exceeds the economic reforms of the 1980s and 1990s, but contrast the Left’s feeble resistance then. Insofar as there was any, it was the economics of nostalgia, trying to defend the past, without any response to what had occurred since, and certainly not using the tools that economists had evolved to analyse it. In a stark contrast to their nineteenth century mission, the Left have become the conservatives.

The Labour Government, many of whose leaders were radicals of one kind or another, gained office in 1984 wanting a major modernisation of New Zealand. A different path from the last decades was needed, especially after the previous decade dominated by the cautious, conservative Robert Muldoon. But the only comprehensive program with a transformation agenda was a rigorously radical right wing one (which, ironically, was just as imitatively colonial as has been so much of the Left). So politicians with, what was then classed as, impeccable left-wing credentials, began implementing policies which were an anathema to the conservative Left – and to the progressive Left, had there been one. Some defend their policies to this day, suggesting they have long lost contact with their roots.

So our left-wing commentaries are either bereft of any economic content or fifty years out of date in their theories. Sometimes their characterisation of today’s New Zealand is just as backward-looking. As their writers sit in front of a computer screen, it does not occur to them that they are bashing out arguments which belong to the typewriter era. Apparently, like Old Testament prophets, they think a passion for social justice is sufficient.

There is a background grumbling among the Left about the current Labour government’s economic policies. My guess is that the government would be sympathetic to a more leftward analysis of the world, but it wants one which is more relevant and more rigorously thought through. As the Left use to say, conservatism and nostalgia for the past wont do.