Looking Backwards

(Chapter 18 of The Utopia Thieves)

IN 2014, the Māori-issues commentator Morgan Godfery put up a perceptive blog post about the impact of a growing multiculturalism, and neoliberalism’s painful adjustments, on New Zealand society since the 1960s. I’ve kept a careful note of the following paragraph:

When you peel away the forced politeness, the urge to please everyone and suppressed anger in some parts of provincial New Zealand you’ll find a country that’s deeply scarred. If it looks to in the mirror, it’s ashamed. If it looks to the future, it’s afraid. If it looks to the (imaginary) past, it’s at home.

This chapter will concern the appeal to the (imaginary) past. As we have seen, New Zealand’s real past was in many ways that of ‘social laboratory’, one to which leading British town planners and politicians turned for ideas on how best to manage an urban society.

One could cite examples almost endlessly; for instance, of how striking workers achieved an eight hour day in New Zealand as early as 1840. Or, of how one of Ebenezer Howard’s key associates, Sir John Gorst, was an ex-New Zealand colonist who inspired the informal renaming of Christchurch, New Zealand, as the Garden City, after stating in 1906 that Christchurch was a good example of what the Garden City movement hoped to achieve.

The two following Youtube videos, one short and recent, the other longer and historic, give an idea of Christchurch’s subsequent self-definition as a ‘Garden City’.

Even New York’s Central Park was said, by the son of its designer Frederick Law Olmsted, F. L. Olmsted Jr, to have been inspired in part by the town belt of Wellington, New Zealand, a great park encompassing downtown Wellington in a similar fashion to that of Adelaide, and which, like that of Adelaide, is actually a generation older than New York’s Central Park.

But the placement of New Zealand in an international mainstream of urban modernity since the 1840s — at which date, many now-great cities of the Northern Hemisphere were themselves little more than villages— does not, of course, give us the imaginary past to which Godfery refers.

Even after allowing for the fact that the cities of New Zealand were smaller in the past than today, the imaginary past to which Godfery refers is a more radically bucolic one than the one that actually existed.

What is imagined is an ideal society of a rural type, entirely free of urban influences— an Arcadia — which was also taken to task, as a myth, by the historian James Belich in his 1996 book Making Peoples:

Arcadianism, involving native natural abundance and steady, natural, farm-led growth powered by virtuous individuals, contested with utopianism: abundance stemming from the British insemination of raw New Zealand nature, and fast, artificial, town-led growth powered by progressive collectivities. In the colonising era, 1840s-80s, it was utopianism that predominated; only to be retrospectively replaced with arcadianism as a new present rewrote history to suit itself. (p. 306)

Arcadia features larger in mythology; Utopia featured larger in colonial history. (p. 350)

Or, as Richard Thomson argues in a recent, published thesis about the content of touristy coffee-table books about New Zealand’s scenic wonderland whose sales took off in tandem with the rise of colour photography and colour printing,

Caroline Daley has proposed that New Zealand was ‘born modern’; in the colour pictorials, this thesis suggests, New Zealand was also reborn antimodern.

Reborn antimodern, in ways that went way beyond having gardens in the city, lots of planning of the kind encapsulated in such famous phrases as “a knot in a network” and “the next million,” and the development of smokeless hydroelectric power for industry as means of sidestepping the worst effects of what already come to be known, by the 1930s, as carboniferous capitalism. All that was simply another kind of modernism.

Whereas earlier black-and-white picture-books about New Zealand had given equal weight to town and country, and even championed the cities as evidence of progress — black and white tending to favour contrasty architectural themes, of course — the newer colour pictorials overwhelmingly favoured landscape compositions.

A good example is Robin Morrison’s The South Island of New Zealand from the Road (1981) which, if it can be faulted for one thing, omits any urban scenes apart from some picturesque sheds in Christchurch and some neoclassical buildings in Oamaru, a small coastal port with an extraordinary cultural surplus of architecture and monuments for its size. That apart, the urban heritage of the South Island, which has attracted rave reviews over the decades from knowledgeable international visitors such as André Siegfried and Nikolaus Pevsner, doesn’t get a look in with the New Zealander Robin Morrison.

An increasingly Arcadian definition of New Zealand has even extended to academic scholarship of the kind that comes with fewer pictures, a good case in point being Miles Fairburn’s heavily-praised The Ideal Society and its Enemies: Origins of Modern New Zealand Society 1850–1900, published in 1989, which makes the case for the idea that New Zealand society is almost entirely ruled by the legacy of frontier individualism. To make this argument, Fairburn is forced to dismiss nineteenth-century civic Utopianism early on as “untypical” (p. 15), and, even more remarkably, to maintain a nearly perfect silence about Julius Vogel and the railways as formative influences on New Zealand in the period 1850 to 1900.

There are, of course, those who dissent from the idea that the railways and associated systems of planning and urbanisation were of negligible significance in the shaping of late-Victorian and early-twentieth-century society. In the New Zealand context one thinks, for instance, of Robin Bromby’s Rails that Built a Nation and Neill Atkinson’s Trainland: How Railways Made New Zealand, titles that leave you in no doubt as to where the authors of those works stood on that question!

In hindsight, Fairburn’s Ideal Society, which does not cite Boatright’s canonical ‘Myth of Frontier Individualism’ in its references either, seems like a creature of the earliest and most breathless years of the neoliberal revolution: the local equivalent of Francis Fukuyama’s essay on the end of history, perhaps.

But that’s a matter for the academic historians and their courteous debates. On the level of the colour pictorials, things were a bit more crude. For instance, in New Zealand: Gift of the Sea, a coffee table book for which 100,000 sales were claimed between 1963 and 1973, at a time when there were only three million New Zealanders even at the end of that period, the author Maurice Shadbolt struck this tone:

Wrote the English historian [James A.] Froude after a visit in 1885: ‘The English race should not come to New Zealand to renew the town life which they have left behind them. They will grow into a nation when they are settled in their own houses and freeholds, like their forefathers who drew bow in Agincourt and trailed pike in the wars of the Commonwealth; when they own their own acres, raise their own crops, their own sheep and cattle. . . .’

Instead of sticking up for his home city and its subsequent development, Shadbolt contended instead that Froude was right, while adding that the New Zealanders of the 1960s were not really an urban people but only sojourners in their cities:

Froude was right, but from the earliest times Europeans [i.e. Pākehā] had, from necessity, already conformed to his prescription for a nation. Crop-raisers, sheepmen and cattlemen, men with leathery hands and aggressive stance; these are the rock on which a prosperous nation has been built. . . . And our wealth, without which we could have achieved little, still comes from [1973: continues to come from] the land.” (p. 62)

There was plenty more where that came from, such as:

Indeed some historians maintain that New Zealand only came as age of a nation on April 25, 1915, on the bloody beaches and slopes of Gallipoli. (p. 62)

Rugby is a game for warriors. (p. 66)

But the cities still depend on the soil the pioneers won. (p. 84)

For this land is still the home of warrior and poet. (p. 116).

More seriously still, in 1978, the elderly rural geographer, Professor Kenneth Cumberland of Auckland University, was approached by Television New Zealand to write and present a TV series on the essential nature of New Zealand. The result, Landmarks, a sort of on-screen colour pictorial with a coffee-table book to match, screened in ten episodes during the southern spring of 1981.

In the final episode on-screen, Cumberland looked forward to a future in which the main thoroughfares of Auckland and Wellington might have become “deserted canyons,” as urban growth ceased and as New Zealand’s population returned to the land, in ways that he thought would be facilitated by the coming Internet.

The Old Identity as New Identity: Professor Cumberland summons a holographic sheep and shepherd, held still to be the economic mainstay of an imagined 21st century New Zealand, from the final episode of Landmarks. Note also the somewhat more accurate prediction that computers would have flat screens by now. Reproduced with the permission of Television New Zealand.

In the expensive, lavishly-illustrated book of the series, for which Cumberland claimed 70,000 sales, we read that:

In New Zealand, affluence and security have tended to soften people. Machinery, gadgetry and comforts have relaxed them, made them flabby. Today’s New Zealanders seem not nearly as self-sufficient as their pioneering forbears, Polynesian or pakeha. Were they not also resilient, one might despair…

… But in the post-war years of overfull employment and affluence, the effort of New Zealanders slackened and the country’s attainments have slipped. The pioneering ambition and drive to secure better conditions and to develop the country have weakened. As a result New Zealand has been relegated from the first division of nations.

…It is perhaps relevant that since 1936 the proportion of New Zealanders employed in agriculture has fallen from 30 per cent to 10 per cent …

…New Zealanders will change their attitudes again — when they have to. Their response to falling standards and less satisfactory conditions of life will no longer be complaint, but resolve and self-reliance. A rekindling of the vigour of the past is already being fostered among the new generation. (pp. 274, 275)

Such patently reactionary arguments resonated with those a rising neoliberalism, critical of the way that the full-employment welfare state had supposedly weakened the nation’s backbone as well.

In an essay called ‘Politics versus the Economy, 1940–1975’, the more obviously neoliberal historian and politician Michael Bassett also harked back to a 1930s decade in which we were, as yet, unspoiled by the rising expectations that the post-War prosperity, economic diversification and expansion of the welfare state had triggered in New Zealand:

Ministers soon found that it took more than symbolic gestures to quell a generation of rising expectations. . . . The politics of rising expectations were getting completely out of hand. . . . Invariably, rising expectations moved at a faster clip than growth. . . . The problem was that believers in the Santa Claus state were not ready to forgo any of the presents they believed they were entitled to. Since the 1930s the voters had paid little heed to any economic difficulties facing the country; they always demanded action on promises.

There is a name for this sort of thing: Catonism. It was coined in the mid-1960s by the political scientist Barrington Moore Jr, who contended that otherwise unacceptably reactionary arguments were more likely to be accepted if they were coated in some kind of appeal to stern rural virtues and a need to rescue the real (rural) nation of more or less self-reliant villagers, farmers and homesteaders from what is portrayed, in equal and opposite tersm, as the nation’s more recent descent into urban cosmopolitanism, decadence and dependency.

The word Catonism was inspired by the surviving writings of the grim Roman politician and military leader Cato the Elder, who was fond of saying such things as that farmers’s sons made the best soldiers.

Bassett, who at no point confronts the benefits bestowed on New Zealand’s indigenous populations by the maintenance of a condition of full employment and affordable housing in the cities into which indigenous populations were flocking, was not the only neoliberal to adopt a Catonist or even more overtly agrarian position.

Even the 1980s Finance Minister Roger Douglas, after whom neoliberalism in New Zealand was dubbed Rogernomics to begin with, was something of an agrarian chauvinist. In a 1980 personal manifesto called There’s Got to be a Better Way!,Douglas contended — against the thrust of all past Labour policy, and even that of the more conservative National Party of the time — that farming was “the only way out” and “still the key to our economic future.”

With the enthusiasm of a recent convert to the pastoral cause, Douglas claimed that New Zealand’s agricultural production as a whole, and revenues too, could be doubled almost overnight if only the government red tape were cut.

Douglas’s attested source for this claim was a monograph by the aforementioned Eric Ojala, the same one in which Ojala wrote that petroleum imports were consuming the entire revenue of the meat industry! Ojala’s monograph did not say we could double agricultural earnings easily in overall terms, either: only from hill pastures by applying more chemicals in theory, and even then probably not in view of cost and environmental limits in practice. As such, Ojala said that New Zealand should boost agriculture where feasible, but continue to foster manufacturing as well in view of the economic and biophysical limits to agricultural intensification. (More than one critic has said that in spite of a carefully cultivated image as a financial authority dealing in matters too complicated for the rest of us to understand, Douglas was never, in fact, a ‘details man’.)

Though subsidies to sheep-farming were slashed on Douglas’s watch along with support for manufacturing, it is clear that Douglas’s brand of neoliberalism was predicated on the view that farming was more likely to survive and prosper even without subsidies, though new products might need to be explored. In the words of the New Zealand Herald’s economics correspondent Simon Collins, writing in 1987,

He [Douglas] believed we had been using our skills, our labour and our capital to produce things like clothing and television sets inefficiently for our small domestic market. We could have been much better off by using these resources to produce more kiwifruit or venison for the world market, buying, with the proceeds, more clothing and television sets than we could afford to make ourselves.

New Zealand’s then-recent takeoff in manufacturing exports seems to have passed quite without notice among the policymakers of the 1980s, perhaps because it was still too recent to have really embedded a constituency of advocates.

As to what might happen to the cities after the plug was pulled on their industrial economy, this was often tinged with a kind of Schadenfreude or ‘cosy catastrophe’ thinking, of a kind that foreshadowed Anthony Middleton’s later claims that, even if it brought upheavals (it would!), Brexit would ultimately stiffen England’s backbone.

As such, the appeal of de-industrialisation extended beyond the ranks of cranks, Catonists and curmudgeons into the realms of urban liberals, concerned about the effects of rapid urban growth and the future of an energy-hungry and polluting industrial society.

Thus the short 1972 film Start Again, made by some future luminaries of the New Zealand film and media industries, begins with images of wind whistling through deserted urban canyons and the tinny voices of a computerised dystopia, before moving to the countryside, where lifestylers attempt to farm without the aid of modern machinery.

Such hippie ideals resonated with a growing disillusionment with some of the environmental consequences of hydro-industrialisation. In the 1970s, the Upper Waitaki Scheme was, for a time, the largest hydroelectric-cum-irrigation scheme under construction in the world.

While the pristine and forested Lake Manapōuri, further to the south, was saved from a plan to raise it and join it to Lake Te Anau, another large lake in a grassland setting, Lake Pukaki, was doubled in size as part of the Upper Waitaki Scheme.

In The South Island of New Zealand from the Road (1981), the photographer Robin Morrison wrote that

It seems to me that the South Island is there for the use of the all-powerful New Zealand Electricity Department, and its minion the Ministry of Works, which is re-creating the whole island in its own image. So many lakes and rivers have already succumbed to their voracious appetite — in the National Good of course. An example of this is at Lake Pukaki (Plate 49).

The memoirs of public servant Richard Shallcrass, who worked at the Commission for the Environment before joining the Treasury in 1977, Family Silver: From the Provinces to Privatisation, reflect a similar, perhaps even more radical estrangement from the hydro-industrialisation agenda that had ruled New Zealand from the 1920s through to the 1970s: the decade in which the following events took place, as related on pages 109 and 110, describing his life after moving back to New Zealand from a decade or so on Britain and buying a house in New Zealand’s capital city of Wellington:

The Values Party [the world’s first nationally-organised Green Party] was at that time challenging traditional political mindsets, pushing ideas that promised increased protection for the natural environment. Interested in developmental economics, I was drawn to the philosophies of small planet and limits to growth expounded by E. F. Schumacher. The Health Department offered me a job, but instead I approached the head of the recently-created Commission for the Environment. He agreed to take me on.

At the Commission, which was so purist that it even opposed electric rapid rail for Auckland on the grounds that it would only help the city to grow bigger without choking on congestion (another instance of Schadenfreude perhaps), Shallcrass records, in almost the same vein as Morrison, that:

Our enemy of choice was the Ministry of Works and Development, an infrastructure agency that used economic analysis to support projects that often seemed to entail bulldozing the countryside into a sterile playground suited to engineers with no aesthetic values.

This is a little unfair, as the Ministry also employed many architects, town planners and even mural artists — its ethos essentially that of the New Deal, or its New Zealand equivalent — but in any case, you can see how radically estranged many young liberals of the boomer generation had become, with regard to the ‘onwards and upwards’ ideals of what we in New Zealand prosaically term the Depression-and-World War II generation. As late as 2009 that generation, known in America as the greatest generation, only comes in for withering scorn, from a cohort of ex-hippies, for such besetting sins as its unfashionable taste in music:

Were the boomers, perhaps also, the shallowest generation, in terms of an underdeveloped appreciation of history and politics and a correspondingly overdeveloped focus on ‘me’?

Such a claim could indeed be made, and has been. For several generations previously, the lives of those living in modern societies and even some that were ‘underdeveloped’ had been informed by a sense of rapid progress, from planes to penicillin.

And, also, by the ancient Athenian leader Pericles’s timeless dictum that you might not be interested in politics but politics is interested in you: that it really does matter, for example, whether Herr Hitler wins the latest elections for the Reichstag or not: that it might determine whether you stay out of a concentration camp or not. Or in less extreme terms, whether an upcoming vote on a rapid transit proposal means you are going to spend the rest of your commuting life stuck in a traffic jam, or not.

In stark contrast to the consciousness of past generations including the ‘greatest’, the boomers were the first moderns whose most representative and leading influencers seemed to care neither about progress, nor politics.

And who consequently fell for the idea — a latently reactionary one — that the solution to urban problems that can only be tackled politically is to escape to the country in non-political terms, either personally or in small groups.

Though such a growing mood of ‘estrangement from modernity’, as the sociologist Frank Furedi terms it, can be explained in terms of causes other than the city’s growing multiculturalism, it’s hard to avoid the impression that the actual pulling of the plug on policies that favoured planned forms of urban growth and development — and as such, full employment, egalitarianism and affordable housing — was in some ways a product of the aforementioned alignment of age, ethnicity and assets on what was, now, a weak social seam. It’s to this that I now turn in the last chapter in Part Two, ‘Pulling the Plug’.

Note: The quote from Richard Thomson about being born modern and reborn antimodern comes from page 10 of At Home with New Zealand in the 1960s, MA (history) thesis, Victoria University of Wellington, 2014. I have deleted a footnote reference which points to source of the quote from Caroline Daley, given as “Caroline Daley, ‘Modernity, Consumption and Leisure’, in Giselle Byrnes, ed, The New Oxford History of New Zealand (Melbourne: Oxford University Press, 2009), 423–445.” The thesis is linked online in the text, in any case.

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Chris Harris

Chris Harris

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I am an urban historian from New Zealand with a special interest in New World cities. Somewhere along the line I picked up a PhD on planning and economics.