Book Review: The Interregnum, ed by Morgan Godfery

Available now in bookshops nationwide.

cv_the_interregnumThe Interregnum promises a collection of essays by ten of New Zealand’s “sharpest emerging thinkers”. It’s ambitiously framed around the idea that we’re living through the titular period of uncertainty, described by Italian Marxist theorist Antonio Gramsci as an interval where an old dominant ideology is dying, and the new is yet to emerge. Gramsci reckoned that in this interregnum, “a great variety of morbid symptoms appear”.

The collection is edited by prolific Wellington writer, commentator and trade unionist Morgan Godfery. In the introductory essay Godfery drops us into an anti-TPPA rally, which he says is evidence the “neoliberal political settlement” is beginning to fray as people reject the “market values” he alleges have come to dominate our political space over the past three decades. Godfery also cites the emergence of populist movements around the world, such as Corbynism in England and the democratic socialism of Bernie Sanders, as evidence that many of us are beginning to be fed up with the free-market liberal consensus.

It’s an engaging introduction that had me hoping we were about to get stuck into 1) an exposition of a new left-wing policy program to replace neoliberalism, and 2) a series of polemics against New Zealand’s most craven establishment hacks. Basically, I was after a readable Kiwi version of Thomas Piketty, mixed in with a few withering attacks on Key and Hosking.

But I was disappointed with a lot of what followed. Don’t get me wrong: five of the ten essays were entertaining, informative and genuinely thought-provoking. The others were not.

The best pieces form the core of the book, and redeem it somewhat after a decidedly mixed start. Carrie Stoddart-Smith’s essay gives an especially interesting perspective on radical Kaupapa Maori politics and her view of its potential to reshape the country. Lamia Imam provides a valuable overview of the place of identity politics and social media in modern New Zealand.

The most interesting chapter in the book is probably Holly Walker’s essay on the challenges of balancing being a mother and an MP, and Walker refreshingly provides some actual, concrete steps we could take to achieve true gender equity in parliament.

The essay by Salient alumnus Wilbur Townsend is also worth a look. It’s an exploration of the well-founded concern that robots are about to steal all our jobs, and Townsend makes a number of interesting points about the challenges that increasing automation poses for the labour market. He ties it all together with good local examples, like those horrible screens at McDonald’s, and he’s also got genuine flair for pretty hilarious writing.

However, the book’s sorely let down by the other chapters. These include a plodding overview of New Zealand’s well-documented failures to enact meaningful climate policy, and an earnest little piece which did little more than reiterate the prevailing left-wing line on Key’s (admittedly deplorable) personal attacks on Eleanor Catton.

The worst is saved for last: number nine is a puzzling analysis of what Pope Francis’ recent encyclical on climate change means for New Zealand (the reader is left none the wiser by its end), while the concluding essay is a dire little meditation on “The Politics of Love”. Here we’re treated to author’s idea of how “the politics of love could refresh political language and address loneliness”, which seems to be some sort of half-baked theory that if we’re more polite to each other then we can somehow overcome the appalling everyday injustices of unfettered capitalism. One of the worst things I’ve seen in print, and I’ve read both of Shane Warne’s books.

In my view, the book lets itself down in two key areas: 1) the lack of any vigorous, novel application of theory, and 2) its lack of humour or irony. The title and introduction seem to promise that Marxian ideas and theories would be applied in the New Zealand context. But nowhere are we treated to any sort of application of hard theory, and in fact the only place Marx is cited is in Godfery’s introduction. But the greater crime is the weary earnestness of many of the pieces.

The Interregnum offers some interesting takes on kiwi life in late-capitalism, but it looks like we’ll be waiting a while yet for a genuine left-wing manifesto for 21st century New Zealand, and many readers will find it more than a little preachy.

Note: for an example of a left-wing writer who combines hard theory with great writing, please read Sam Kriss, especially his recent post “In Defence of Personal Attacks”:

Reviewed by George Block

The Interregnum
edited by Morgan Godfery
Published by Bridget Williams Books (Texts)
ISBN 9780947492649