2014: A year for 'Glorious Revolution'?

CHRIS TROTTER
Last updated 05:00 03/01/2014

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Chris Trotter

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If we're lucky, 2014 will be a year of non-stop argument. And, if we're especially lucky, that argument will be about whether the top-down economic modernisation of New Zealand, which began in 1984, should be considered a success and, therefore, continue, or, whether it's a failure - making 2014 the year for a new programme of economic and social change - undertaken by the people themselves.

Thirty years have elapsed since the heady days of 1984, when an incoming Labour Government, guided by a tight-knit cadre of Treasury and Reserve Bank officials, took a wrecking ball to the economic and social settlement which had underpinned New Zealand's development since 1935.

In its initial stages, very few New Zealanders disputed the necessity for Finance Minister Roger Douglas's demolition derby. Since 1981, the country's economy had come to resemble one of Heath Robinson's outlandish contraptions: an ad hoc and increasingly complex machine which, ultimately, even its designer and operator could no longer coax into purposive action.

It was only after the dysfunctional Muldoonist machine had been reduced to a pile of junk that the real trouble began. The social and economic regime favoured by the coterie of radical bureaucrats and businessmen driving the "Quiet Revolution" simply could not be sold to anything like a convincing majority of New Zealanders. In these circumstances the "revolutionaries"' political mouthpieces (now located in both major parties) had little option but to lie and lie and lie.

The British historian, Steve Pincus, argues that it is precisely at these perilous political junctures that the modernising efforts of elites are most susceptible to challenges from below:

"It is precisely the modernising state's actions to extend its authority more deeply into society that politicise and mobilise people on the periphery. State modernisation, not state breakdown - increasing state strength, not impending state weakness - is a presage to revolution."

Viewed through Pincus' analytical lens, the last quarter century in New Zealand has been marked by the repeated efforts of those on the periphery of political power to challenge (and if possible roll back) the bureaucratic, business and political elites' "modernisation from above". NewLabour, the Greens, the Alliance, NZ First: all of these insurgent parties are examples of Pincus' politicisation and mobilisation - in this case of those New Zealanders determined to resist the elites' neoliberal agenda.

What has so far prevented these electoral insurgencies from developing into Pincus' revolutionary crisis is the de facto bi-partisan consensus binding the two major parties to the imposed neoliberal settlement. Neither the attachment of NZ First to National in 1996, nor that of the Alliance to Labour in 1999 was sufficient to do anything more than retard the pace of neoliberalism's top-down modernisation. So long as that consensus endured, so too would the post-1984 reforms.

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But what if events were to follow the pattern of the so-called "Glorious Revolution" of 1688?

In his 2009 book, 1688: The First Modern Revolution, Pincus argues that it was the linking-up of grassroots protests against James II's attempt to modernise the British state along Catholic absolutist lines, with key political and military defectors (including Winston Churchill's illustrious ancestor, John Churchill) from the Jacobean regime, that brought about James' downfall. Britain would indeed be modernised, but according to a very different set of political, economic and religio-social principles to those of the hapless Stuarts. The Glorious Revolution ensured that, in Britain, capitalism and democracy evolved side-by-side and without the bloody upheavals that typically accompanied revolutionary change in the rest of Europe.

So, what would be the 2014 equivalent of John Churchill's ride to Axminister? In the New Zealand context it could only be David Cunliffe and his colleagues publicly forswearing their allegiance to the 30-year neoliberal modernisation programme unleashed by their predecessors in 1984.

The radical-populist argument such an announcement would inevitably inspire would very rapidly "politicise and mobilise" the electorate; transforming the 2014 General Election from a mere test of the public's readiness to change political managers, into "a presage to revolution".

- The Dominion Post

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