Thursday, April 3, 2008

40 years on

Writing a biography of Helen Clark, as I am, is in some
ways to write the political history of New Zealand over
the past 40 years. Clark was politicized by student
activism over issues like the Vietnam war in 1968; the
story of her rise to power is the story of the long march
through the institutions by that generation of activists.
Now, of course, they have wound up managing and
maintaining the paradigm of economic policy laid down
by Roger Douglas and his right-wing friends in the
1980s. It would be wrong, however, to see Clark, Phil
Goff & co as “radical left-wingers” who, over the
decades, morphed into respectable custodians of
capitalism. Capitalism was never under threat from
what the French modestly call les événements of 1968
and after; the left in New Zealand, such as it was, had
no viable critique of economics, being far more
concerned with social issues, identity politics and
international relations. That is precisely why Douglas
was able to do what he did when he got power in 1984.
He had an economic plan; the left didn’t. This is not to
negate the profound effect of left-wing issue and
identity politics, which have changed New Zealand
much for the better. But it might help us—it’s helping me,
anyway—to understand why even the Clark Labour
government, enlightened and progressive in many
respects, is unable to seriously contest the power of
capital, both global and domestic.

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