Goals & Values:bruce Jesson Was Not Just a Journalist, but a Political Economist

Listener: 5 November, 2005.

Keywords: Political Economy & History;

Once upon a time, economics was “political economy”. It was not only interested in the technical issues of how the economy worked but also its impact on politics and society (assuming they can be distinguished). David Ricardo (1772-1823), for instance, developed a theory about rents on lands, wages and profits, because they were the foundations of the power of landlords, capitalists and workers.

Perhaps the greatest political economist was Karl Marx (1818-83), although he is frequently misunderstood, and some of his followers have given him a dreadful reputation. (The same happened to Jesus.) Marx’s critics add to the confusion by misrepresenting him with banal slogans. (Ditto.) Marx was a 19th-century economist, and of course he did not get everything right – he was notably weak on technological change. But he offered a framework to view the world, which remains useful despite subsequent economic and social (and technological) change. (Christians would say the same about Jesus.)

Sadly, the economics profession has largely abandoned this 19th-century approach to political economy, without offering a serious replacement. New Zealand history is similarly bereft of an economic dimension.

So one of the joys of talking to Bruce Jesson (1944-99) was his thorough knowledge of political economy, including familiarity with those who had intelligently updated it, like Antonio Gramsci (1891-1937). Jesson was not strong on the technical economics, which evolved after Marx’s death. Even so, his creative intelligence applied old-style political economy to provide shrewd insights into current issues, a humbling reminder to modern economists of what we have lost.

Although Jesson wrote mainly as a journalist, his was not a superficial commentary to wrap fish and chips a day later. The just-published selection of his writings, To Build a Nation, is a timely reminder of the perceptive framework shining through his writings.

Of course he misjudged some contemporary events, just like you and me. Unlike us, though, he frankly admitted his errors, for he was not an ideologue, impervious to the evidence. He subjected everything he wrote to rigorous scrutiny. His Marxian framework was an engagement with reality, not an imposition over it.

Sometimes he got events more right than his readers deserved. The opening article’s assessment of Robert Muldoon has a truth that the shallow ideological commentary since 1975 has distorted. Its authority comes from Jesson having read widely – including all Muldoon’s parliamentary speeches. This was for an unpaid article in the Republican, the monthly he edited, produced and posted for over 20 years.

The selection, chosen by Andrew Sharp, professor of political studies at Auckland University, relates the history of the last quarter of the 20th century. Despite its incompleteness, it is so insightful, because Jesson was. All the usual suspects appear, including three fascinating columns on Donna Awatere’s Maori Sovereignty. His penetrating commentary on her drafts made it a significant book.

But the collection is not just history. Jesson’s underlying concerns continue to challenge us. He is scathing about the failure of the political left to have an account of the period, almost contemptuous of their issues-based politics, and derisive of their failure to deal with the New Right. (Is “derisive” the right word? It would be, were he not so modest.)

Jesson’s alternative was based on republicanism. This was not the replacement of a governor-general with a president, but a way about thinking about New Zealand’s history and political economy. He apologises that he did not offer more of an alternative, but, like many original thinkers, he was unable to progress until others caught up and challenged him. We failed him, and so we failed ourselves.

Jesson was proudly a New Zealander, committed to us despite our faults. “To Build a Nation” was his last essay both in the book and ever. It was to be the beginning of his next book, a manifesto for his republican political economy. It still speaks to us, six years on. “Most people flinch from economics because it tends to be presented as a series of technical problems, to do with matters such as savings and investment. There is beneath this, however, the more fundamental level of goals and values.”

To Build a Nation: Collected Writings 1975-1999, by Bruce Jesson, edited by Andrew Sharp (Penguin $35).