Philosopher-Kings and Public Intellectuals

Revised version of the Lecture to the 1996 Auckland University Winter Lecture Series, Still Fretful Sleepers: the Intellectual in New Zealand. 20 August, 1996.

Keywords: Political Economy & History;

Still fretful sleepers?(1) Has not New Zealand changed since Bill Pearson finished his “Sketch of New Zealand Behaviour and its Implication for the Artist” with that resounding call for the need to awaken New Zealanders from their fretful sleep?(2)

Of course things have changed in the five decades since Fretful Sleepers. We are rid of that rampant militarism captured in “if the National Party was more astute it would have a V[ictoria] C[ross] as its party leader”;(3) there is an active Council for Civil Liberties indicative of a greater public concern for human rights; many of those marginalized at the time of the original essay – women, homosexuals, Maori – have a more prominent and vigorous role in New Zealand society; the arts are flourishing beyond the wildest expectations of those who dreamed of a renaissance; the dictator-leader that Pearson feared is much less likely. So is New Zealand still the society of conformists which the essay portrayed? Surely today there is a diversity in New Zealand which is celebrated, rather than condemned.

However Fretful Sleepers does not present a static account of New Zealand society. It contains the following prediction: “[t]he breakdown of puritanism is the dissolution of one of the cementing elements of our society: when every man cooperates only as far as he has to earn money and in his leisure pursues his sensual pleasures, society is due to breakdown.”(4) So the puritanism and conformism held New Zealand together, and as it faded – replaced by a cash nexus – society would break down. That is not too bad a forecast – made 45 years ago – of New Zealand today. And yet I want to argue an account of how New Zealanders behave, which has parallels with Pearson’s, but which differs in some crucial ways.

Bill Pearson was writing about the 1940s when he was in his twenties. In particular, and as he has said of himself, “Fretful Sleepers is partly based on my close contacts with New Zealand troops between 1942 and 1946.”(5) This is a time when New Zealand males were heavily institutionalized in a military environment where conforming to authority was required. Yes, they were conformist in a general sense, in that they were reluctant to resist the direct pressures from authority. In a different sort of social environment, with different sort of pressures, New Zealanders behave differently. My account is more pessimist than that of Fretful Sleepers because it implies that New Zealanders have less foundation than even the conformist puritanism it describes. But my account is also more optimistic, because the different characterization is in some ways more attractive and more rebellious to the pressures which worried Pearson.

For there is a sturdy resistance to authority in the New Zealand makeup, illustrated by Bill Pearson himself. In the 1950s my father backed a trailer up to a beach and filled it with sand. I asked him whether it was legal – perhaps my childish eye had been caught by a notice prohibiting the removal of sand. Dad replied that what he was doing was not illegal, it was only illegal to be caught doing it. Today I know enough about the ecological role of sandhills to be a little embarrassed about the story, although I did have a lot of fun in the resulting sandpit. May I redeem the transgression by using it to illustrate two diametrically opposed accounts of the meaning of that event? It no doubt happened in some form to almost everyone else of my generation.

The first account is that we grew up with the belief that it was only wrong to get caught. It is an ethic (if we may give the attitude such a distinguished status) which led to the Wild West show of corporate greed and dishonesty in the 1980s evident, among other places, in some of the evidence to the Winebox Enquiry.

The second account treats authority at best as a guide, with each of us to judge the right or wrong of an action in terms of some higher standard than the law. Dad was not, after all, seeking his own personal gain from the theft of the sand – he was doing it for his children. Note how my adult embarrassment is not that we were breaking a law of man, but that we were interfering with nature. It is also the approach that many New Zealanders have taken over the Winebox affair – the issue is not just whether the corporations involved have broken the law; they are expected to perform to a higher standard of ethical behaviour than just to abide by the law.

Nevertheless, however attractive to internal authority or higher principle beyond the law is, the exercise of such ethics is complicated and dangerous, fraught with the possibility that as we each pursue our own ends there will be a breakdown of social harmony. There is an apparent answer to this in the theory that in a market in which only voluntary transactions occur, the “invisible hand” coordinates our individual decisions into some overall social good. That view has been central to the reforms of the last decade, especially in its New Right philosophy summarized in their notion of “liberty”. Thus the societal breakdown, of the foreshadowed replacement of puritanical conformism by hedonistic individualism, was to be resolved by the capitalist market.

While there are many strands which could be pursued here, time limitations confine us to but one. In keeping with the series topic I want to consider the role of the intellectual in this transformation, and the reforms which, while intended to resolve the potential breakdown, seem to have exacerbated it. The term “intellectual” is a complicated one, involving at least two distinct notions. The first use of “intellectual” covers anyone who works primarily with their brain rather than their muscle. It is a matter of record that the number of intellectuals in this sense has increased dramatically over the post war era. In 1951 professional, technical, and managerial workers were just 9 percent of the labour force. In 1991, they were 36 percent – four times as many by proportion and eight times as many in number.(6)

But all brainworkers are not intellectuals in the other sense. Edward Said describes “the intellectual’s role is to represent a message or view not only to but for a public and to do so as an outsider, someone who cannot be co-opted by a government or corporation.”(7) That immediately rules out most occupational-intellectuals, because they are insiders typically loyally working for the government or corporations. Said’s “public intellectuals” – as I shall call them – the critics and consciences of society, are outsiders.

Within the occupational-intellectuals there is a key group who provide its leadership. Although a few were politicians and businessmen, historically in New Zealand the key leaders have often been public servants. In 1952 they included Bernard Ashwin, Clarence Beeby, and Alistair McIntosh. During the revolution of the 1980s again the key leadership came from public servants, although most subsequently moved into the private sector. The best known are Rod Deane, Roger Kerr, Graham Scott.

As the title of this lecture indicates, this leadership group may be thought of as philosopher-kings. Recall how in Plato’s Republic they were the ones who broke their shackles in the cave, climbed outside to see a reality, and who returned to tell us – in the case of New Zealand’s most recent philosopher-kings – that the ideal was business. Ironically our philosopher-kings, being public servants, came to their conclusion without themselves having had much experience of the market, cosetted as they were in the highly protected public service bureaucracy. They looked at the public service system they ran, decided it was failing, and concluded that private business was better, even though they knew little about that which they idealized. As George Stigler said: having listened to the first singer in a competition, they awarded the prize to the second without even having heard her.

Being a philosopher-king involves having a high degree of certainty as to what the truth is: a certainty which enables their kind to sacrifice the lives of others – literally in many instances – in the undeviating pursuit of that truth, and to ignore any indication that the truth they seek may be wrong, or the costs they incur too high. Writing The Open Society and its Enemiesto condemn the regimes Bill Pearson fought against, Karl Popper characterized their fascist philosophical underpinnings by the writings of Plato.

The public intellectual in Plato’s writing is clearly Socrates. Although Plato’s portrait was intended to make Plato’s own ideas more acceptable, his Socrates is nevertheless a humble seeker of truth, one of society’s critics and consciences, who saw himself as a servant of that truth and of society. Socrates was not a philosopher-king, even if he vies for the title of king of philosophers.

Socrates would not have lasted long in Plato’s republic. Nor would have, and Plato is explicit about this, poets and associated artists. (Nor would have Said’s public intellectuals.) In Plato’s view poets tell lies. In the same sense so do public intellectuals because they are continually challenging the “truth” that philosopher-kings tell. Intellectual control becomes key in Plato’s republic, for there is only one truth, that held by the philosopher-kings. Any challenge to that truth is treachery.

Fortunately Plato’s republic has never dominated human society. There has been always one poet, one artist, one intellectual, who has challenged the philosopher-kings’ monopoly on the truth, and succeeded – albeit usually in the long run and often at great personal cost. So when the current regime of philosopher-kings came to power in the mid-1980s they were unable to immediately shoot the intellectuals, as Lenin advised after the revolution. Instead there has been a steady squeezing of the centres of intellectual dissent, usually justified by improving the accountability of those involved to the government.

My book, Commercialisation of New Zealandscribes this process in some detail – in broadcasting, science, the arts, health, heritage, and education. Let me give but one example. Suppose you had told Bill Pearson some decades ago about a university system organized as follows:
1. The appointment of the senior academic (the vice-chancellor) requires the approval by the cabinet or a cabinet committee;
2. The public funding of the teaching activities of each university is directly determined by the government;
3. The content of each university course is increasingly determined by a government-appointed agency;
4. Public policy does not distinguish between a liberal education and vocational training.
5. The research funding and content of each university is increasingly determined by a government agency;
6. The board of governance of each university consists predominantly of government appointed persons.

Given such a description, Pearson would have said then, I think, that these were the characteristics of a university in a fascist state. And yet in the 1990s in New Zealand those six features almost characterize the New Zealand university system.
1. Vice-chancellorial appointments have to be approved by a cabinet committee;
2. There is no University Grants Committee or equivalent intermediary between the government and the universities;
3. The government appointed Qualification Authority approves many tertiary courses;
4. The Hawke Report, on which the tertiary reforms were founded, specifically said there should be no distinction between education and vocational training.
5. Most research funding is controlled by the Foundation for Research Science and Technology, or other directly controlled government agencies;
6. At least one University Council seems to be advocating the removal of faculty and student representatives, giving greater weight to government appointees.

It is not enough to say that academic freedom in New Zealand is guaranteed by law. Totalitarian states have such laws. A statute does not protect the universities from authoritarian interference by a central government, nor does it guarantee that an institution will pursue its legislated goals.

In summary, the New Zealand university system has been increasingly coming under the direct control of the government. This is not to say the government of New Zealand is, or the individuals (politicians, advisers, acolytes) in it are, totalitarian. It would be easier to discuss these issues if they were. But if totalitarians were ever to take over the government, they would find it increasingly easy to impose their ideology in teaching and research, and to repress dissidents.

How has this happened? The current philosopher-kings have an extremely simplistic account of the ideal society. Only two forms of public organization are allowed in their ideal state. One is the business organized private corporation, the other is the government agency under direct ministerial control. All other organizations are to be converted into one or the other. Ideally they should be converted into business corporations. That is the underlying justification for corporatization and privatization. If a business form is not possible the institution is placed under the direct political control of the minister. Having resisted privatization, the universities have been systematically forced under political control.

This has interesting implications for Said’s public intellectual who is beholden neither to corporations or the government. In the old regime it was possible to exist in the miscellany of organizations which were neither purely private corporations nor purely government departments. These peculiarities of control created niches from which public intellectuals could function effectively. The scorching of this ground cover, and the herding of all into fortified villages, closely supervised by politicians or business people in the best traditions of military operations against guerilla forces. has exposed some intellectuals, cowed others.

I do not think that our philosopher-kings usually did this deliberately. But their vision of society led them to destroy all possible resistance centres to their utopian vision. A recent worrying example is Roger Kerr, chief executive of the Business Roundtable and recently appointed by the government to a university council, who stated “you cannot attribute any of [the extraordinary changes in New Zealand] to the intellectual community as represented by the university communities. The faculties have provided critics, but not opinion leaders. In Asia, it [is] people in universities that have pushed governments in free market directions. Here they have been resisting.”(8) Like many of Kerr’s statements this one is not wholly accurate, for there are university personnel who have publicly supported the changes (and no doubt are deeply disappointed that the Roundtable has not noticed them). Others have selectively done so, supporting a more market direction of economic regulation, but not the extremism Kerr expounds. But it is also true that the universities have provided critics of the changes, some uncritically hostile, some cerebrally thoughtful. Universities are charged to be such critics in their statute, which also requires them to be consciences of society. One has the uneasy impression that if Kerr were to have his way, that criticism would be eliminated.

What appears to especially irritate Kerr is that there has not been widespread support from the university economics departments for his political position. A 1990 survey found that within the economic profession, those based in universities were much more cautious about the reforms than those in government or the private sector.(9) (However there was general support for a more market direction of economic regulation.) Yet despite the main thrust of the central reforms being economic throughout the country there has been, with rare exceptions, little public criticism from university economists. Contrast for instance, the substantial number of books about the reforms written or edited by academics from this university from such subjects as accounting, education, geography, history, law, management studies, Maori studies, political studies, and sociology. Multiply Auckland University’s effort across all universities and however you measure it the economists cannot compete either in terms of criticism or support, even though economics was the central organizing principle behind the reforms.

The reason for the muted record of university economics needs to be discussed elsewhere, but there is an lesson to be learned from it. In contrast with the 1970s, university economists have been almost irrelevant in the public economic debate, as it has moved off-campus. Today if a journalist wants a comment, he or she is much more likely to go to an economist in the financial sector who frequently provides poor quality opinion representing his sector’s self interest, rather than independent and informed view. This change does not merely reflect the impotence of the university economists. It suggests, ominously, that once another centre of occupational-intellectuals starts up, the centre of the professional debate moves to them. Where the university has excelled in its role as a critic and conscience of society has been where there has been no competition from elsewhere in a profession. Where there has been an alternative centre the university professionals have lapsed into irrelevance.

One fears any significant discipline can be neutralized by the development of an off campus profession in exactly the same way, but it would be a centre which has no independence from its paymasters, and would bias the public debate in their favour. Even if the thrust to control universities through an increased share of ministerial appointments fails, there are other means of making them impotent, reducing them to mere vocational trainers of occupational-intellectuals. The prospect for New Zealand universities remains that described in the report of the 1925 (Reichel-Tate) Royal Commission on Universities which commented that New Zealand “offer[ed] unrivalled facilities for gaining university degrees but … [wa]s less successful in providing university education”.(10) Degrees are qualifications, often used for vocational enhancement. Education involves a wider achievement.

This is not just a New Zealand problem. In his 1995 Massey lecture, Canadian philosopher John Ralston Saul said:

“… we are faced by a crisis in language and communication. This crisis is being accentuated, not eased by the universities. … While the universities ought to be centres of active independent public criticism, they tend instead to sit prudently under the protected veils of their own corporations. We are faced by a crisis of memory, by the loss of our humanistic foundation. The universities, which ought to embody humanism, are instead obsessed by aligning themselves with specific market forces and continuing their pursuit of specialist definitions …” (11)

What might be added is that New Zealand universities have succumbed to the disease more than the overseas universities they admire and try to imitate.

An easy way, especially in the social sciences and humanities, to sterilize the university is to have a policy with the effect of appointing only people with foreign backgrounds. Of course a university must have a balance of those from overseas, those which are its own graduates (preferably with overseas experience), and those from other New Zealand universities. However a dominance of any one group is an indication that the department is not functioning well. Too many foreigners means that there will too many on the staff who have little connection with New Zealand, and unable to function as public intellectuals. Recall that Said specifically describes their role as “to represent a message or view not only to but for a public.” It is very difficult to do this if the academic has little connection with the public, especially if any research is not based in some New Zealand context. (Again I am not demanding that all research should be New Zealand oriented: it is a question of balance.)

The foreign imbalance often reflects a colonial cringe, the attitude that New Zealand intellectual endeavour is inferior to that overseas, and therefore any overseas work is necessarily superior to the domestic product. This is a question with which Fretful Sleepers wrestles, because Pearson was wrestling with it in his personal life. Peter Simpson suggested that the essay was the catharsis which led Pearson to conclude that despite all its faults, New Zealand was his home to which he must return. The message in the essay can be summarized as “New Zealand is awful, England is worse”.(12)

There has to be a tension between the rich active intellectual life in many countries and the thinner gruel here. Again it is too complex to explore in full in this lecture, but the cultural cringe permeates all New Zealand occupational-intellectuals, right through to the philosopher-kings. Perhaps they obtained their inferiority complex from their university teachers, perhaps from their overseas experience, perhaps it is the cross that all local intellectuals must bear, especially in small English speaking countries (which is a key reason why the Pakeha has drawn so much strength from Maori intellectuals).

What is clear is that the philosopher-kings decided to imitate some idealized model of an overseas economy, ignoring the characteristics of the local one. This is most evident in the publications of the Business Roundtable, which typically commissions studies of very ordinary overseas academics, selected for their conformity with a New Right ideology, but presented as though their scholarship is world class. I recall a Roundtable pamphlet on immigration policy by an Australian academic who did not even feature in a survey of the Australian scholarly debate on their immigration policy. Yet his conclusions were treated by the Roundtable and its acolytes as though they were the work of a leading expert.

Alas the problem has not been confined to the Roundtable. The Treasury has had a policy of importing foreign advisers, consultants, and staff, who are out of touch with New Zealand in all sorts of ways. I recall a paper on the local business cycle, presented by one who had been at the Treasury for a year, and which replicated work that had been done in New Zealand some years earlier. Neither the foreign presenter nor, apparently, his Treasury colleagues were aware of this local research, and the new material was no better in quality or insight than the old.

Another example is the health reforms where it seemed to be a matter of principle that the economists who were involved knew either nothing about New Zealand or nothing about health economics. No wonder the health reforms have collapsed into a shambles. Indeed it is no wonder the economic reforms in general have been so unsuccessful, for not only did the philosopher-kings ignore the aspirations of New Zealanders, but they failed to design a system for local conditions.

This uncritical acceptance was not confined to the philosopher-kings. For reasons I leave them to explain, academic economists failed lamentably to provide a research program on the reforms which would have been world class and internationally interesting. Their task need not have been to have provide a critique of what happened, but simply to provide an account of what happened. This is not an unreasonable demand. One only need contrast the alacrity with which political scientists are investigating the transformation from an FPP based to an MMP based electoral system. Although we have not yet had the first election under the new regime, there are two major university research teams, plus a number of other projects in the other universities, at work with already a substantial literature. In contrast, with the economic reforms now going back over a decade, there are a couple of significant university based books albeit with a substantial off campus contribution. Neither are particularly accessible to the general public, nor do they show the degree of integration mixed with the disagreement that comes from a strong research program and open debate. The one significant institutional research program about the reforms involved the N.Z. Institute of Economic Research, a research institution which the local university showed little interest in acquiring when discussions took place about a decade ago.

My point is not there has been no good quality economic research in the universities. There has been some – but that with rare exceptions the academic economists failed miserably to seize the opportunity to make a significant contribution to the world economic profession, when the golden opportunity of monitoring the reforms presented itself. One contrasts the vigorous role of the Australian economics academy in the world profession. It is insufficient to say this is because New Zealand is so much smaller than Australia. We do not accept our population size as an excuse for failure in international rugby, or even cricket. Why should we accept a lesser standard in intellectual life?

Of course there are areas in which New Zealanders are making an international contribution. I do not just mean those of exceptional talent who have worldwide acclaim: Allen Curnow, Colin McCahon, Keri Hume. There is now a solid artistic achievement of recent years which has international standing, so that New Zealand art, writing, film making is not judged as if from a provincial backwater. Although some is boringly imitative of international fashion, prominently displaying the cultural cringe, the best is a complex combination of indigenous experience in a wider cultural context. The Maori did this as the developed their indigenous roots, but many Pakeha have found the balance too.

Yet as much as we may take pride – and hope – in the achievement of New Zealand arts in recent years, there is a notable omission. Perhaps the artistic community has not carried the burden the Fretful Sleepers saw for it, for there is little art which addresses the social experiences arising out of the recent reforms, in contrast to the vigorous role it played in the preceding prime ministership of Robert Muldoon.(13) For instance in the novel there is only Maurice Gee’s Crime Story, and Fiona Kidman’s True Stars. In part this reflects the sheer difficulty of portraying economic and political events in a fictional form; in part the fact is that writers have been concerned with other issues. But I cannot help wondering whether the tacit understanding is that providing the intellectual community does not criticize the reforms, it may be left alone. Recall the menace in Roger Kerr’s “the faculty have provided critics, but not opinion leaders”. Not providing anything may well be acceptable. With the ground cover destroyed, with the only safe havens the fortified villages managed by the government and business, the remaining options are compliance by avoidance, and outright defiance.

As is appropriate in a university winter lecture, I have illustrated my thesis by reference to universities. But the same point applies to other institutions of intellectual life as they have been either moved into the private sector or put under greater direst political control, especially where public funding is involved: arts, broadcasting, literature, science. It is no accident that investigative reporting has all but disappeared in the last decade: the Wellington reader of the morning newspaper is painfully reminded of the dumbing down of intellectual life in the capital city. The nature of the public intellectual is that it cannot be subject to tight political control by the establishment. Instead public intellectual activity must be suppressed. The consequence of philosopher-kings is bad public philosophy and a general deterioration in the intellectual life of the nation, a conclusion which will surprise no reader of Plato for the best bits are where the original Socrates is involved, and the worst where he becomes a mouthpiece for Plato.

Ironically this lowering of the quality of public debate has rebounded back on the philosopher-kings. Roger Kerr has recently complained about what he called the “chattering classes”, referring – it would appear – to those on radio talkback.(14) Kerr’s complaint is that they criticize his business masters, but the way they do it is not very different from the way his own side argues: the conclusion is forgone and the argument is constructed to obtain the desired conclusion. In the end there is not a lot of difference between radio talk back and, say, a Dominion editorial. This is vividly illustrated by the Dominion’s editorial cartoonist, who cannot draw, is not funny, and clings to the editorial line. In general, cartoonists are the one group of public intellectuals who have continued to represent a message not only to but for a public, and from an outsider perspective. Their trade depends on them being critics and consciences of society – the limitations of the Dominion cartoonist shows what happens if such fundamentals or ignored.

The Dominion editorials themselves are often not greatly different from the Roundtable arguments. I am not referring to political content, although that is true enough too, but the quality of the argument, where a preordained conclusion is determined, and arguments are dug up to support it, while alternative views are ignored or misrepresented. It is too easy to present two over-simplified options for the nation, one of which is unacceptable, and the other of which is advocated. The reformers did that by suggesting the only economic courses were those of Robert Muldoon and Roger Douglas. It was analogous to the grossly absurd simplification of the Cold War: communism or capitalism – Muldoonism or Rogernomics. As the fear of Muldoonism receded, they sought other simplifications, disguised behind the shadows of offering “liberty” and “choice”, terms which have a somewhat different meaning from everyday usage. Our philosopher-kings have not been endowed with intellectual subtlety.

As one whose life has been dedicated to attempting to raise the quality of public argument – not with much success I regret to report – I find the Business Roundtable quality of argument as uncomfortable as that of the chattering classes. It is not redeemed by the footnotes. But can the so-called “chattering classes” be redeemed? They are a central concern of Fretful Sleepers, with their portrayal as conformist and subservient to authority. The picture in recognizable to this day. Consider “few of us have the guts, at the challenge, to uphold any moral principle (except in social conduct) when it is flouted by a party of greater number than ourselves.”(15) If we extend the statement to an unwillingness when faced by a party more powerful than ourselves – irrespective of the numbers – we have a simple explanation of why there was so little public resistance to the recent reforms.

And yet there is something in the New Zealander of stauncher quality than this – something attractive enough to make Bill Pearson want to go home to the intellectual desert he saw as New Zealand. If Fretful Sleepers was prescient in many aspects of the following five decades, it has little explanation for the civil disturbance in 1981 we label “The Tour”. It was not just as if the country wanted to reject the label of “passionless people”. Something happened when the population divided over a political issue, and literally fought in the streets to promote their point of view. Explaining that offers a more positive account of the character of New Zealanders, and a more hopeful one for the role of intellectuals.

The explanation starts a long time ago, when there was a public protest – mentioned in Fretful Sleepers – against the sending of a Maori-less rugby team to South Africa in 1949. Initially it was just a few people, who felt passionately about race relations. They probably did not expect to stop the 1949 tour, but the believed that it was necessary to witness publicly the grave injustice which they saw. Over the years that few steadily recruited more to their cause – from its beginning Pearson was a member of the Citizens Association for Racial Equality which confronted sporting relations with South Africa as well as domestic issues.

The point is not that these people were anti-racist; many other New Zealanders in their own way and in their day held similar views, even though they did not express them in public. What was important was that a few ordinary New Zealanders chose to flout the convention that one conformed, that one did not stand out in a crowd, that one’s principles were private not public matters. Their witness led others to join them, incrementally, till over the thirty odd years there were enough to lead to that extraordinary display of public protest which we know as “The Tour”. This is not a unique phenomenon in New Zealand: the peace movement, feminism, and the Maori renaissance are other outstanding examples. The history of New Zealand is littered with reform movements which started with a few outsider witnesses, but who built up a public support which gave a success beyond the instigators’ boldest hopes.

This suggests a more promising account of the New Zealand character. Sure it tends to be conformist. Sure it tends to be concerned with things practical rather than things of the mind. But it is not hopelessly subservient to authority. New Zealanders will strike out in a direction which does not conform with authority if the community environment is favourable. The function of the public intellectual is to provide the quality analysis which supports that environment.

Author of The Lucky Country Donald Horne has written “[t]he general idea of `public intellectual life’ is more useful than the `public intellectual’.” He goes on to describe how public intellectual life “provide[s] a kind of public acclimatization society for new ideas. All kinds of people may play a part in working up these ideas down in the subterranean passages of critics’ culture and others may take over the business of negotiating them in the public sphere.”(16)

To put this point another way, sometimes one may ponder as to who are the public intellectuals in New Zealand society – perhaps to admire them, perhaps to shoot them. But that is not a helpful approach. Rather we should ask what contribution is each person making to the totality of public intellectual life? (Better still, ask yourself “what contribution am I making to public intellectual life?”)

What can we say about public intellectual life in New Zealand? First it is thin, perhaps inevitably given the smallness of the country. Size also means it suffers from an excess of colonial inferiority, so that the overseas expert often has a status out of line with her or his competence. More generally we confuse public intellectual activity with occupational intellectual activity. This is most evident in Wellington, the centre of government, where a mediocrity’s intellectual status becomes enormously enhanced by patronage. (How often have you gone to hear the chairperson of this or that, and learned that he or she knows absolutely nothing about the subject?) Indeed there is a continual struggle by government and business to overwhelm public intellectuals by captured mental eunuchs: we do not always have the discernment to distinguish quality. Yet public intellectual life goes on in the way Edward Said describes: outsiders functioning in the margins of the society, and yet ultimately having an enormous impact on its central core. Even so public intellectual life was not robust enough in the 1980s to withstand the onslaught of Rogernomics. There were two reasons.

First, most of the niches in which public intellectual life occurred were the result of substantial public sector funding. When the new philosopher-kings scythed through the public sector, public intellectual life lost its base. Institutionally we had relied upon the public sector to protect genuine intellectual activity, as it largely did even under the worst excesses of the Muldoon era. The attack on the public sector ripped out the institutional structures.

Second, the attack came from an unexpected direction. Public intellectual life in New Zealand does not focus greatly on economic and social issues, its concerns have been foreign affairs, human rights, moral issues, the environment, and the arts. With a few exceptions there was little awareness of the changing political economy which provided the substratum to the revolution, nor the rise of the New Right overseas.(17) For we must acknowledge that whatever their failings the philosopher-kings were grappling with real economic and social issues, perhaps inevitably given that they were pressured by being in the centre of the government system. Most public intellectuals were concerned with issues far more peripheral to the revolution. So the attack was unexpected, the guns of defence were turned in the wrong direction, prepared for the wrong enemy.

For the reformers were bolsheviks of the right, a small group of men who succeeded by surprise and determination, seized power by unconstitutional means, and are now consolidating their position by eliminating centres of dissent, most by notably the destruction of public intellectual life. Meanwhile public intellectuals have been too busy regrouping, creating new institutions less dependent upon the public sector, to provide the leadership role that the public yearned from them.

Even so electoral reform has been one extraordinary success of public intellectual life. By the late 1970s there were a few outside witnesses – university political scientists, perhaps responding to the oddity of the 1978 election when Labour obtained more votes but less seats. They used their discipline plus overseas experience to propose another way of electing parliament. Their vision was probably realized much earlier than they might have expected, given the traditional reluctance by the public to innovate constitutionally. Yet despite the reluctance, the public voted for MMP in 1993. This was not a vote by a conformist people reluctant to challenge authority, which – it will be recalled – was almost unanimously opposed to electoral reform. Rather it was an angry people, infuriated by the way the economic reformers had ignored them. They had found a way to rebel.

One is left with a picture of New Zealanders less like Fretful Sleepers described, and more like Bill Pearson must have hoped for when he decided to return. As with the soldiers with which he fought, we may as a people be slow to wrath, but we are strong in battle. Given leadership, from artists and other public intellectuals, given a robust public intellectual life, New Zealanders will reject authority that they loathe, and chose alternative ways to those desired by the Establishment.

For with one caveat, the success of the philosopher-kings may be a short lived victory. They may have devastated the countryside, and corralled the populace in their fortified camps. But they have not won the hearts and the minds of the people. The 1996 election offered an opportunity for another peaceful revolt. Probably the only chance the philosopher-kings have of retaining such authority they have arises from the way in which – through their actions based upon a their colonial inferiority complex – they have handed more power over to outsiders than at any time in the last 60 years. It is not just symbolic that the Business Roundtable is dominated by foreign-owned companies, and its members are but satraps for multinationals. The room for manoeuvre – for the ability of New Zealanders to determine their own destiny – may remain very small if we are but a commercial colony of a distant imperium.

George Macaulay Treveylan remarked that it was still too early to form a final judgement on the French Revolution.(18) New Zealand’s reforms are but a decade old. It took the Soviet Union three generations to throw off their bolsheviks. It remains the task of public intellectual life to take a lead in awakening New Zealanders from their fretful sleep.

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1. I am grateful for comments by Professor Bob Chapman, who also chaired the presentation.
2. Page references are to W.H. Pearson, Fretful Sleepers and Other Essays , Heinemann Educational Books, Auckland, 1974.
3. op. cit. p.4. That one has for a contemporary audience to expand “VC” into Victoria Cross to distinguish from Vice Chancellor (or Viet Cong) is an indication of how far things have changed.
4. op. cit. p.27
5. pers. com.
6. Using a slightly different classification. Data from the Population Censuses.
7. E. Said, Representations of the Intellectual , Vintage, London, 1994.
8. Sunday Star-Times , July 14, 1996, p.C1.
9. W. Coleman, “Concord and Discord Amongst New Zealand Economists: The Results of an Opinion Survey”, NZEP , vol 26(1), June 1992, p.47-82.
10. Reported in R. Butterworth, & N. Tarling, A Shakeup Anyway: Government and the Universities in New Zealand in a Decade of Reform , AUP, Auckland, 1994.
11. J.R. Saul, The Unconscious Civilization , Anasi Press, Ontario, 1955, p.73.
12. After the lecture, Bill Pearson expressed a concern that the essay might be taken to imply that he was anti-British, an accusation made by others. He suggested it would be better to have said “If New Zealand might be unattractive, England is worse.” I have kept the phrase of the original lecture, not only because it presents better, but because it captures better, I think, the high spirit of the young man who wrote the essay. But it would be wrong to think that man, then or now, was anti-British. He was simply forming a view of English society and concluding that he preferred his own, for all its faults.
13. B.H. Easton, “Piggy in the Middle”, Metro , August 1996, p.82-87. (It may be of historical interest that working on this essay precipitated the idea of the lecture series.)
14. Dominion , August 3, 1996, p.2.
15. op. cit . p.9.
16. Australian Book Review , July 1996, p.19.
17. This is elaborated in B.H. Easton, In Stormy Seas: The Post-War New Zealand Economy , University of Otago Press, Dunedin, 1997.
18. Speech, National Book League, 30 May 1945.

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