Welcome to Fantasy Land? A Review of Max Harris’s The New Zealand Project

In this review of Max Harris's manifesto for a new progressive politics, The New Zealand Project, Luke Craven examines tensions between advocates of more radical and pragmatic approaches and asks, in the desired move towards more a values-based polity, whose values are being represented?

In September last year, Australia hosted a visit by Professor Michael Marmot, the President of the World Medical Association, the Director of the University College London's Institute of Health Equity, and a leading researcher on health inequality issues for more than four decades.

During his time in Australia, Professor Marmot appeared on ABC’s QandA, where he advocated the redistribution of power, money and resources as the foundation for a healthier society. He was told he was living in Fantasy Land. The reality, another panelist interjected, is that radical wealth redistribution is simply impractical to achieve in a world like ours. Marmot countered by quoting the former Director General of the World Health Organization Halfdan Mahler, who famously said, “what sounds idealistic today, becomes realistic tomorrow.”

The exchange has stuck with me. As someone who considers myself to hold progressive values, I find myself constantly torn between these competing visions. Does it make sense to advocate for a radical progressive politics if we have little hope of really changing the system? Or, should pragmatism also shape the way we envision, hope for, and implement political change?

Max Harris’s new book The New Zealand Project is, in many ways, an attempt to answer these same questions. A daring and vibrant book, The New Zealand Project is a manifesto for a new progressive politics, one steeped in and informed by values, and one that offers solutions to challenges as varied as climate change, wealth inequality, and mass incarceration.

The New Zealand Project has undoubtedly struck a chord amongst politically-engaged New Zealanders. Others have noted that, at the launch of the book, the room was literally overflowing. As a hopeful, unashamedly idealistic vision for New Zealand, it has people talking.

Many, many others (including here, here, and here) have now reviewed the book and its contents. Perhaps unsurprisingly, much of the commentary finds itself split between those that laud Harris’ brazen idealism and those that are wary of a vision without a practical, tangible roadmap for how we might achieve it. The debate, like too many on the left, finds itself split between radicalism and pragmatism.

And it isn’t a pretty discussion, either. Danyl Mclauchlan’s critical, pragmatically-oriented review has found itself lambasted in progressive circles. Michael Dobson, writing on Huffington Post, suggests that to tear down another left wing thinker’s ideals and arguments because they could be seen as practically infeasible, which is the accusation he makes of Mclaughlan, is foolish and defeatist. It is fine, Dobson suggests, for progressives to value pragmatism over idealism, as long as they refrain from critiquing those that don’t.

The irony is clearly lost on him. Frankly, it is ridiculous and insulting to suggest that pragmatic progressives should be quiet and let the true radicals talk amongst themselves. At the very least, it rubs against the politics of listening that Harris argues so ardently for. Being pragmatic is not defeatism. It does not nullify your progressive credentials. Indeed, many would argue that pragmatism is a value that should underpin progressive thought and action. This is not a marginal opinion. Deeply radical thinkers on the left have endorsed concepts such as visionary pragmatism, radical incrementalism, or realistic utopias. Pragmatism doesn't mean we have to sacrifice our ideals, just that we should question the value of spending time arguing about ideology if we lack the pathways to achieve practical change.

And, crucially, the only progressive folk that have the privilege to think and pontificate about radicalism devoid of pragmatic considerations are those that have their immediate material needs met. For them, politics is not about survival. The problem is, though, that for a whole bunch of others, politics is about survival. For this group, the promise of tax cuts next election will always trump a broader values discussion. To have a conversation about progressive values that elides the everyday necessities of pragmatic thought is to disconnect it from the actual lives of those progressive politics seeks to serve. 

Whom, then, is this book is really for? Whose values? For what purpose? Other reviews have emphasised similar questions, but I think we have found ourselves talking in circles. A commentator on E Tangata, for instance, has noted that the book champions the centrality of Maori values, while Maori have not been the major players in the public conversation about it. It is a book that sells its message as an antidote to the trend toward technocratic and expert-led policymaking, and yet its pages are literally full of expert opinions, from professors of this and that, academics of various stripes, and other ‘informed observers’.  My worry here is the implication that expertise is fine, but only as far as it confirms a predetermined narrative.

But perhaps most problematically, conspicuously absent from both the book, and, as far as I can tell, from much of the public discussion it has spurred on, are these same non-expert, non-academic, non-pundit voices. If Harris’s aim is to champion a vision for an inclusive New Zealand; one that tackles the everyday realities of income inequality, incarceration, climate change and settler colonialism head on, I’m not entirely convinced a statement of our values absent those voices is the right place to start.

How, then, could we craft a progressive politics that begins from the values that people actually hold? What would a political vision that listens to the values, concerns, and attitudes of everyday New Zealanders look like? As a nation, how could we realise this shared vision in a political and economic system that, so long as we only tinker at the edges, will always favour the status quo? For me, this is the project that demands the attention of intellectuals, activists and, perhaps most importantly, of the public at large.

I don’t doubt that The New Zealand Project helps steer us in the right direction, nor that many New Zealanders would endorse care, community, and creativity as cornerstones, as Max puts it, of a values-based politics. Others, though, are unlikely to be so enthusiastic. And, for those that are on-board, it seems reasonable to expect substantial disagreement over the exact meaning of each of these values.

Building a politics across these vast and criss-crossing differences requires a recognition that we live in a messy, complicated world. Realising our values is always going to be stuck between, often competing, utopian visions and practical realities. My point is that we shouldn’t run from these conflicts. It is the diversity of opinions, and of values, which sustains the kind of political creativity that Max calls for. A politics devoid of diversity is not really a politics at all.

The New Zealand Project is the beginning of a conversation rather than the end, an opening and not a closure. If its reception is anything to go by—and I think it is—Harris’s provocation has brought into sharp focus the malaise that surrounds contemporary political life. It has created a space to question the future of New Zealand politics, our social and economic structures, and the values that underpin them.

The sad reality, though, is that our political system is itself a structural barrier to the kind of values-based politics that Max advocates for. Absent a fundamental shift in the way we do politics, the more things change, the more they are likely to stay the same. Pragmatic values, therefore, are a necessary part of these conversations. We should do more to embrace, rather than relentlessly criticise, those that hold them.

My hope is that, moving forward, we can do more to imbue our conversations about politics with the same values Max champions for society at large; that they are inclusive of difference and conducted in the spirit of care, cooperation and consensus; that they embrace the often productive tensions between pragmatism and idealism; and that they sow the seeds of future worth hoping for.

Luke Craven is a PhD Candidate at the University of Sydney and the Sydney Environment Institute, and is a moderator for Power to Persuade.

Posted by @jrostant

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