Review of Not in Narrow Seas: The economic history of Aotearoa New Zealand by Brian Easton
Landfall 240 Summer 2020
Some years ago, a friend on a brief visit from the UK asked me to suggest a few introductory books on the history and politics of New Zealand. I gave him three from my own library: W.B. Sutch’s Quest for Security, Ranginui Walker’s Ka Whawhai Tonu Matou; Struggle Without End and one of Jane Kelsey’s books on the neoliberal reforms. The first two had been important texts in my own education as an immigrant in the late 1990s, while the third grappled with events that changed the New Zealand known by my partner, who finished university and left for her OE just as the first Bolger government came to power in 1990.
Making sense of the country in those years wasn’t easy: it felt like the scene of a recent explosion, its collective trauma still largely unprocessed. In my search for clues I came across outgoing Prime Minister David Lange’s valedictory speech, in which he took time to ‘thank those people whose lives were wrecked by us, because we did do that’—an extraordinary admission for a politician to make, even while maintaining that his government’s actions were ultimately justified and necessary. Yet the public debate on this and other matters seemed practically non-existent: either I didn’t know how to navigate the public sphere or there wasn’t much of a public sphere to speak of. Brian Easton was one of the few exceptions, writing columns for the New Zealand Listener that laid out trails of crumbs into the economic events of the previous two decades: things I could read up on.
I never asked my friend if he read the books I gave him, but I find it useful to think of the value of national histories beyond the primary audience they are written for. The quest for security described by Sutch was a story I could relate to in my own country and, for that matter, in my own family, just as the struggle for self-determination narrated by Walker is both uniquely situated and paradigmatic of Indigenous movements elsewhere. I approached Easton’s Not in Narrow Seas: The economic history of Aotearoa New Zealand in a similar way—as a book of this place, illustrating ideas that will be relevant in most if not all places.
It wouldn’t make for a very punchy title, but it may be more accurate to describe the book—as the author does in its epilogue—as a history of Aotearoa New Zealand centred on the economy, rather than an economic history in a restrictive sense. Although narrower in scope and not aspiring to the same degree of impartiality, the closest precursor that I know of is Sutch’s bestseller: that is, a history written by an economist with a broad public in mind. While some of Easton’s preoccupations—for instance, whether or not Muldoon was in fact a social conservative—may seem to belong to a general or political history, the book’s most distinctive characteristic is the consistent focus on shifts in the country’s political economy.
So, for instance, while the 1966 collapse in the price of wool is treated briefly in Michael King’s Penguin History of New Zealand as a discrete event affecting a particular sector of the economy, Easton articulates its reverberations and long-term effects on policy and governance on the whole nation across several chapters. While this approach reaches the peak of its explanatory powers in the section on Rogernomics (more below), it is evident from the characterisation of early generations of Maori settlement as a ‘quarry economy’ dependent upon resource depletion, later supplanted in the ‘Green Maori’ stage by the institution of the rahui. The quarry economy will make its return with colonisation and is shown to play a role in the early development of today’s main urban centres, until the century-long shift to a political economy based around the unit of the commercial farm (although farming retains quarry elements in the present day, as the state of our waterways and its appetite for non-renewable phosphate attest).
Alongside this structural focus, there are a few recurrent themes. One is the notion of the ‘hollow society’, which describes the lack of institutional brakes between the government and the people, making it possible to enact blitzkrieg-style reform projects. Bruce Jesson originally deployed the phrase in his 1999 book on the neoliberal reforms, Only Their Purpose Is Mad, but the span covered by this book allows Easton to track this phenomenon to its very beginnings, with the establishment by Hobson of a central colonial government in advance of its (settler) society. A government that precedes social institutions rather than arising from them is persuasively presented as the constitutive element of a hollow society.
Another theme is the debunking of popular myths, and most especially depictions of the country as ‘the land of the long pink cloud’. This refers to the preponderance of histories written from a leftish academic (therefore largely city-centred) perspective, with a tendency to present rural Pakeha as reactionary and their economic activities as backward, as well as to present political progress as having mostly been driven by Labour, in spite of the relative infrequency of its terms in government. While the case for creativity and innovation in the farming sector is well made, it seems important to mention the formation of an actual union-breaking cavalry by the Farmers’ Union during the strikes of 1913—something Easton leaves out. The omission is consistent with the scant treatment of labour disputes and protest movements, whose impacts on the political economy are either portrayed as marginal (1913,1951) or not entertained at all (Bastion Point). This in turn reflects a tendency in the book to equate politics with governance, leaving unanswered the question of what role, if any, political movements such as those for land occupations might play in filling the hollow society (Ihumatao hit the national headlines just as the book went to print).
While the book is impressive for both its scope and its detail, its greater value ultimately resides in the quality of its ideas and the clarity of its explanations. Issues such as the relationship between the terms of trade, employment, inflation and the policies that attempt to regulate all three are part of an education that can be hard to acquire, and too often political discussions suffer from our lack of literacy in these areas. Easton has the didactic verve of a Sutch, and perhaps the best thing I can say is that all of the book is absorbing and interesting, even as the range of its arguments is impervious to summary. It’s an appeal that derives precisely from its shift in perspective, which makes even familiar stories read differently.
There is, however, an undeniable crescendo, a high point, and it comes with the discussion of Rogernomics. This is where the book’s themes converge—from the hollow society to the centrality of the political economy—allowing Easton to write a powerful history, without narrowing qualifiers, of that revolution. The premise is that some form of modernisation was necessary, that the political economy had failed to reckon with upheavals such as the permanent fall in the price of wool, placing intolerable stress on the country’s finances. His conclusion, however, is that the path chosen – neoliberalism, defined here as a policy regime under which ‘the role of unconstrained markets is maximised’ – was an abject failure by its own standards, resulting in a decade of GDP stagnation and leaving people on lower incomes to pay the entire price of restructuring the economy. This is also the story of the brutal method by which these objectives were achieved (`by a small group isolated from their critics and from common sense’), and the further hollowing of society as dissenters were marginalised or saw their careers cut short, while (in what struck me as another blow to a popular myth) ‘the vigorous public economic debate of the Muldoon era collapsed’.
There is no nostalgia for the pre-1984 times in this account, and Easton is more Keynes than Lenin: he would rather we had fixed the broken engine of the market economy according to a socially democratic model than look for an entirely new form of transportation. But even this moderate stance could place vigorous demands on our political system—a call to repair what remains of the failed reforms, including the never-reversed cuts to social welfare benefits, and to fill the hollowness of our polity so as to make it more democratic as it prepares to face existential challenges. Not one for grandiose pronouncements and perhaps mindful of the detachment required of a historian, Easton stops just short of making such a call.
Instead, he concludes the final chapter of his magnum opus with a modest, understated defence of the role of public intellectuals—those solitary figures who did not flee the narrowness of the nation’s public sphere, and in whose ranks it’s not very hard to see the author himself.
A reviewer need not be quite so restrained: this is the culmination of the work of one such committed public intellectual, and an important contribution to the literature on Aotearoa New Zealand.