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”: https://samkriss.wordpress.com/2016/05/26/in-defence-of-personal-attacks/

Reviewed by George Block

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

Debating New Zealand: Morgan Godfery, Holly Walker, Courtney Sina Meredith

All Writers Week events have rightly started with thanks to the sponsors, and I would like to take this opportunity to thank some people as well. Firstly, thanks to Sarah Forster at Booksellers NZ for regularly commissioning me to cover NZ literary festivals. [ed: no worries, E!] Thanks to Kathryn Carmody and Claire Mabey for putting together such an extraordinarily rich and stimulating Writers Week. Thank you to all my fellow reviewers, especially Charlotte Graham and Ellen Falconer of Radio NZ for their heroic live-blogging efforts. It’s great to feel part of a crowd (and helpful to have someone to cross-check my quotes against!).

Thanks to all the volunteers and staff of Writers Week, the NZ Festival, the Embassy Theatre, Bats Theatre, Unity Books, and Ticketek, who have been uniformly charming and helpful. Thanks to Harriet Elworthy for giving me the pro tip about the good food and quick service at Five Boroughs (no coffee queues!) so that I could dash out between sessions and fend off dehydration and/or general collapse. (Yes, I know I ought to have brought snacks from home, but my handbag is full of books.)

Back to this afternoon’s first session. In Debating New Zealand, Linda Clark chaired a panel discussion at Bats Theatre with political commentator Morgan Godfery, former Green Party MP Holly Walker and poet Courtney Sina Meredith, all contributors to the latest of the BWB Texts, The Interregnum: Rethinking New Zealand. If you haven’t yet discovered the Bridget Williams Books Texts series, I highly recommend them.

 

Clark was, as you’d expect, a superb chair, keeping the conversation flowing and the ideas sparking. She quipped “once upon a time I used to be well known”, before saying the festival couldn’t find a journalist currently working who would attack neo-liberalism. Although I know she meant this as a joke, I think it is neither true nor helpful; there are plenty of journalists working in NZ today who are criticising the dominant ideology. However, it was just one misstep among a generally excellent discussion.

As Charlotte Graham points out in her review, this session wasn’t a debate by any stretch, and Clark acknowledged that they were preaching to the choir. Nonetheless, it was useful to discuss these important ideas, and I was heartened by the fact that Bats Theatre was completely packed out.

morgan godferyGodfery, who works a lot with trade unions, spoke about the demand he sees within Aotearoa to radically reshape politics. We have two options: disruption or resignation. He says that young people are increasingly choosing the former, although he acknowledges that this is reflected neither in political polls nor in voter turnout. He spoke about the attack on traditional institutions of dissent (eg media, unions).

Walker said “I came out of three years of Parliament much more cynical than when I went in”. She revealed how her experience in government had made her feel like she had lost her voice entirely. “I found that I lost my ability to reflect and think about what am I here for.” It was an exhausting, two-person job. Interestingly, Walker reported how her conversations with students have changed over the years. A decade ago, students were agitating for the end of the student loan scheme. Now, they’re so used to it that they’ve stopped questioning the rationale behind it. “The dominance of the status quo makes it really difficult to imagine how things could change. Things like the universal basic wage feel like a fantasy.”

courtney sina meredithMeredith works at MIT in Otara. “So many young people are degree pioneers in their family, and they’re paying for an education we can’t even confirm will happen. Critical thinking won’t feed anyone.” She pointed out that debates about home ownership ignore the fact that different cultures have different concepts of ownership. Families living in communities where they have social housing can also feel that they own their homes, even if their names aren’t on the title deeds. “People stay within their communities just to survive”, where they are part of a group to which they add value just by being alive.

Naturally there was an audience question about the flag referendum. Godfery said “it’s a really weird debate”; it’s strange to not acknowledge that the flag only has the meaning that we put on it. Meredith commented that the flag debate has engaged people who were previously politically disengaged, and that that can only be a good thing. The session ended with an upbeat call to embrace the politics of aroha: “Let love be our rallying cry!”

Attended and reviewed by Elizabeth Heritage

Debating New Zealand: Holly Walker, Morgan Godfery and Courtney Sina Meredith
Chaired by Linda Clark
All attendees had written BWB Texts, get this fantastic range of short books on big subjects at bookshops nationwide.