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Paul Maunder's blog

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taipoutiniblog

Playwright, writer and cultural activist living in Blackball on the West Coast of the South Island of New Zealand.

The lengthy funeral of feudalism

The Queen’s complex and lengthy funeral reminds me of the long journey away from feudalism and the fact that we never quite put it to rest as a political and social system. It seems there is no mausoleum big enough.

Guardian.uk

It is of course nonsense that because someone is born into a particular family that they have characteristics which make them suitable for leading positions in society. At its zenith it was considered an act of God, hence the divine right of kings (and occasionally queens) to have autocratic power. Economically, for those on the next level (the lords etc), land ownership was involved because it brought with it indentured labour in the form of serfs and bonded peasants. Along with that ownership came civil and legal positions which often brought financial reward. Once again this was justified by birth and a natural right to leadership.

With the advent of capitalism and the merchant, manufacturing and service classes, entrepreneurialism and subsequent wealth in the form of capital rather than land, acquired in a lifetime and not being attached to birth, confused things. But often marriage into the aristocracy or buying a feudal estate from a bankrupt lord brought a pretence of birth right and the blessing of religion.

The nonsense of birth right has been whittled away, yet remains resilient, for capitalism produces little graciousness or formal pageantry. So royal families have persevered and continue to impress – celebrities don’t quite make the grade of princesses when it comes to ribbon cutting. And there are feudal values of service, obedience and faith which contrast with capitalist values of ambition, greed, individualism and consumerism.

Join the queue. Guardian.uk

And of course, birth right is at the heart of indigenous cultures. But once an indigenous people become a nation, the concept of nation and nationality comes onto the agenda. For example, Samoan nationality exists both through birth, but also through citizenship via marriage or naturalisation after a period of residency, so that being a Samoan citizen is not totally dependent on birth.

Māori nationality doesn’t exist in the same way, for there is no Māori nation. If one is not born Māori you can’t be Māori. You can’t ‘become’ Māori through marriage or residency.  There would seem to be an issue here with the treaty, in that it is not a partnership between two sovereign nations, and to become a sovereign nation means giving up the primacy of whakapapa. So, what is the legality? A partnership between a sovereign nation and the iwi leaders who have feudal rights over areas of land. But then co-governance at a combined level over issues and resources which involve all citizens obviously does create some controversy, as we are finding.

Complex issues, able to be pondered on during an eight hour wait to file past the Queen’s coffin. Except prime ministers don’t have to wait, can jump the queue with the aid of a curtsy. Although the Saudi king is dodgy so maybe he won’t be allowed. But that’s another issue. What if the bloodline produces some dodgy characters unfit to rule? We’d need to go back to the beginning of the queue to have the time to ponder that one. And why not get rid of the whole concept of birth right? Pension off the royal family? They don’t even need a pension, they’ve got enough money and lots of castles – 700 rooms in Buckingham Palace, plenty of space for the homeless.

Will this never end might become the motto as we shuffle forward?

Wellbeing

As the aspirational concept filters through from Treasury and it becomes one of the required outcomes of more generally oriented programmes, ‘wellbeing’ has become a buzz word for government departments and their programmes. Suddenly one has to consider it, for departments holding the purse strings are considering it. What comes to mind if I free associate is firstly the Wordsworthian sentiment (which I can occasionally share on a spring morning) that, ‘God’s in his heaven and all’s well with the world’, followed by the memory of first falling in love, followed by the gentlemen’s club custom of a pre-dinner brandy and a good cigar, followed by the more modern chemical addiction of a joint with friends…if you google wellbeing images you find yoga poses and flowers.

But once the bureaucrats get hold of it, it is more complicated, with always the problem of measurability. The following list is from Statistics NZ. Under the heading, ‘Subjective wellbeing’, there is the ‘Ability to be yourself, Family well being, Hope for the future, Life satisfaction, Sense of control, Sense of purpose’. Each of these is pretty complex I would have thought. We move to, ‘Cities and settlements’ and under that heading we have, ‘Access to natural spaces, Commuting time to work; Homelessness; Housing affordability; Overcrowding; and Resilience of infrastructure’. That might seem a little simplistic as well. And then there is ‘Active stewardship of land’ – presumably that means having a garden. When it comes to ‘Health’ there is the startling concept of ‘Amenable mortality’, which proves to be premature deaths; ‘Health equity; Mental health status; Spiritual health, Suicide’. How do they measure a person’s spiritual health or the reasons for suicide? We move to ‘Economic standard of living’ and find: Child poverty, low income after housing costs; Child poverty, low income before housing costs; Child poverty material hardship; Income adequacy; Income inequality; Low income; material well being; Net worth; Value of unpaid work’. After digesting those, we move to ‘Social connections’: ‘Contact with family/whanau/friends; Loneliness; Social support’… The list then moves to ‘Work’, ‘Culture’, ‘Air quality’, ‘Identity’, ‘Leisure’, ‘Waste’…

We’re a long way away from that spring walk and I imagine it keeps government departments in Wellington and elsewhere very busy trying to report on the above. There’s probably some IT wizard designing the algorithm. Union membership doesn’t feature, and given that is a way toward achieving many of the above, including a sense of belonging and identity, it would seem a notable absence. There’s also the conundrum from the 1960s when children (white children mainly) brought up under a new time of relative affluence and full employment rebelled against the suburban wellbeing that was their lot. And a further conundrum: the connectivity and general vitality of the less well off in the developing world.  

A further irony: a friend works for Statistics gathering information for the above. It’s casual work on the minimum wage. To avoid the accusation of zero hour contracts, they’re guaranteed 17.5 hours work a week. I pondered that figure then realised it was set to just below the 20 hour a week which would allow a worker access to Working with Families. That’s pretty mean minded and blinkered I would have thought for a government that is concerned with wellbeing. Not to mention penalising those poor bastards who still need a smoke to cope with the anxieties of being at the bottom of the heap. Or the kids living in motels. Or the rest homes short of 12000 nurses…

Some time during the 1990s, bureaucrats were writing units of learning for NZQA and NCEA. I sat in on a few panels considering drama units and would suffer a headache from the mystification being imposed. Occasionally I would analyse a draft unit, word for word, sentence by sentence, pointing out that it was illogical, often tautologous and bore no relationship to the realities of acting or directing. I would be met with blank stares and that crinkling of the eyes when faced with the recalcitrant. They signed them off and then exemplars were produced. For the practitioner it was a matter of choice: either ignoring it all, getting on with the job and then making up some reporting at the end, or, as newcomers often did, being obedient and teaching nonsense.

As someone wrote in the Spinoff last weekend, this government is brilliant at being aspirational, and rather hopeless at achieving anything very much, with the notable exception of Fair Pay Agreements.

The growing insanity

In 2014 the Swedish writer, Henning Mankell, after being diagnosed with cancer wrote Quicksand, a meditation on life and fate, in which a central obsession was the storing of nuclear waste, the potency of which lasts thousands of years.

Eight years later, a nuclear power station is used as a pawn in a European war and considered a ‘safe’ place from which to lob rockets.  When the UN is unable to intervene, the prospects for the planet are exceedingly grim.

Why isn’t NZ vehemently protesting and expecting others to do the same?

In Norway, a walrus that became a tourist attraction was put down ‘in a humane manner’ because the public were disregarding the recommendation to keep a safe distance. Therefore, according to the director of fisheries, ‘the possibility for potential harm to people was too high’ and the walrus is not an endangered species, there being 30,000 of them. I would have thought that any universalising of the proposition, once considered a useful part of ethical consideration, would have pointed to the obvious abundance of the human species. The walrus had no say in the matter.

Why not let the walrus gnaw at a few people to teach them a lesson and then take her to the nuclear power station in the Ukraine to chase off the soldiers. Any refusing to go should be humanely euthanised.

Repression

I keep finding myself in a surreal space of late, uncertain of what is real. A project will suddenly vanish or become distorted without seeming cause and another language is suddenly being spoken. I am uncertain if I’m real, or whether others are real. Beaming faces remain on the ads and young people are supposedly realising their goals and dreams at the same time as climate crises occur which shatter the prospect of a future.

Salvador Dali

Frederik Jameson makes the point that at times of crisis, ideologies are repressed, in the same way that trauma can be repressed in the psyche. The dominant ideology is that of entrepreneurialism, ‘the setting up of a business in order to make a profit’ with the entrepreneur ‘the person in control of a commercial undertaking’. This is the way to provide services and to solve problems and there is an obsessive energy attached. A variety of other possibilities are suppressed or marginalised or colonised, for example, the concept of public service, or the concept of ecology. Add to this the new technologies of the virtual and, ‘because the virtual is only the virtual, it can intensify in a mind boggling way’, to quote Baudrillard, ‘moving ever further from the real world and losing grip of any reality principle as the operators transcribe themselves into their own networks and their own codes’. This is of particular concern when it infects bureaucracies, where blatantly obvious solutions to mundane problems become repressed.

For example, in the field of state patronage of arts and culture, the need to democratise that patronage geographically and demographically requires a return to a previous community arts model but that cannot be recognised; instead, virtual entrepreneurial solutions of provincial start -ups are imagined. The nurse and doctor shortage crisis could be solved through providing a free education in this field with a bonding system, as used to exist for teachers, but that is never mentioned. A Labour government introduces a history curriculum which doesn’t mention class struggle or the working class input into our history.

It becomes a curious dictatorship. How does one respond? The technique of the magic realism novelists came from situations of absurdity as the personal whims of a dictator were writ large on a nation and embedded in its bureaucratic systems and fantastic events took place. Only fantasy can respond to fantasy and the novelist’s subjectivity challenged that of the dictator. But the novelist has the discipline of writing a coherent whole object and embedding fantasy in reality. The current challenges to the ‘dictatorship’ from populist impulses like Groundswell and the new conservative parties and the general business of fake news and social media simply add to the distortion and are equally driven by entrepreneurialism.

Beneath the magic realists was a continuing communist party in all its South American variety and that becomes the current political absence.

A moment of clarity

I attended a Manatū Taonga Ministry of Culture and Heritage consult involving regional arts people – the Ministry is preparing to brief the government as to cultural policy for the future. They are a government agency who listen and there proved to be a great clarity to the discussion.

On the one hand there were two of us oldies taking the line that art and culture is about presence and community story telling, that a previous structure of community arts officers and local and regional arts councils with secure and modest funding administered locally had done a great job and that a return to that structure is required.

On the other hand, the diverse group of younger people talked of the hope lying in the digital sphere and entrepreneurialism and start ups and marketing and international networking – the creative industry model first introduced by Helen Clark’s government. In their view the regions can attract trend setters, game developers and the like and a brave new world is possible culturally. The diversity people tended to be in this camp for there are business partnerships possible with the corporations as they are open to LGTBQIA2S… washing (it does become more complex on a daily basis).

In response I could talk about the rate of failure in Silicon Valley, the home of startups and the trend of start up entrepreneurs attracting venture capital, buying a house and car, then filing for bankruptcy – you can keep your house and car of course.  And successful startups are always bought up by the global giants.

And then there were the in betweeners, preparing surveys and reports for councils and the like, office holders really, wordsmiths for marginal bureaucracies, attracted perhaps to the radical notion of an artist’s wage if they begin dreaming.

As us two oldies tended to hold the floor, for there are a lack of stories in the other camps and the chief entrepreneurial spokesperson having left – too busy to spend too long on this – I realised the silencing and self censorshp that has taken place with regard to the judging of the failed experiments of neo-liberalism in so many areas of society and the continuing difficulty of picking up the pieces, for often the basic structure has been destroyed and we are left with a creeping parasite.

Whina

Whina is a film of great merit and marks a coming of age of Māori cinema. There is no special pleading; this simply takes the story of a great woman leader onto the world stage with charm and certainty. It solves the difficult task of compressing a long life into 90 minutes by using the land march as a frame from which to open the photographic album. The scripting and the acting are skilful enough to make often brief scenes engrossing, with some lovely cameos of people like Sir Apirana Ngata. The Māori/English mix is superb and both languages are carefully spoken. The photography is absorbing, with often a painterly texture and the music score one of the best.

It looked like there was investment from international production companies and their presence has been a benign one, insisting perhaps that this is not just a local story but an international story for an international audience, signalling that indigenous cultures have become mainstream rather than marginal romances.

It also becomes liberating, for Pākeha can be relieved of a burden of guilt in the matter of factness of the historical canon. For the ability to recreate and tell these facts and the knowledge that they will be heard creates cultural certainty. This is not then a story of loss even though loss is at its centre. Much cultural work has taken place previously to make this moment possible and there is a sense of Māori filmmaking tipuna overlooking and supporting this instant classic. Cultural work can often be ahead of political work and this film validates the Matike Mai framework of constitutional change and the liberation it could bring.

Heritage

A few years back I contributed a chapter to a scholarly publication called Heritage, Labour and the Working Classes. The chapter focused on the experience of trying to establish a museum of working class history and encountering a group of middle class practitioners operating within an identity politics ideology and oscillating between working for the government funder, establishing consultancies to prepare feasibility studies and contracting to curate exhibitions.

The editors of the book defined heritage as ‘not only tangible artefacts, buildings, places, sites and monuments, but also intangible traditions, commemorations, festivals, artworks, songs and literature.’ They went on to say that, ‘These chapters show that working class people have a remarkable ability to avoid reactionary nostalgia and self pity, and can build on their history, traditions and sense of place and community in novel ways.’

The Blackball Museum experience was, at the time, a ‘getting one’s fingers burnt exercise’, healed only by eventually managing to house relevant stories in a couple of containers, which, as an institution supported by unions, has proved remarkably resilient.

Forgetting that previous lesson (perhaps one of the dangers of old age), Te Puawai Co-operative Society which I helped set up has embarked on another heritage project: this time to repair and upgrade the old Jack’s Mill School near Moana so that it becomes a Kotare-style residential school exploring issues in a progressive way through enabling the exchanging of grass-roots knowledge. The site celebrates a past story of progressive education under the first Labour Government, a first exercise in technical education which resulted in the children of this rough-and-ready Coast sawmilling settlement designing, building and furnishing a much-celebrated child-size cottage. We were very grateful when the Ministry of Culture and Heritage granted us the $199,000 required from a covid-inspired innovation fund.

There are problems however: the site is owned by DOC who have a community agreement with the Kotuku Heritage Society and it is a Heritage 1 historic site so Heritage NZ are also involved, and of course Council has to provide resource and building consents. This means three bureaucracies and two community groups have to agree. Partnering with the community group has always been simple: the site is unpeopled and under utilised with most of the effort going into preserving the children’s cottage. This additional purpose was obviously a great idea.

Cash-strapped DOC were also grateful and very pleased that the money would be injected into the property. At the same time, we started to become aware of the heritage game: that a building should reflect itself in a passive manner, like replaced with like and so on. Fair enough, but old people looking into the mirror do not always appreciate what they see. And the heritage game can see a curious regression to infancy with adults playing with toys from the past.

Conservation Plans come into play, the guts of them being advice of replacing like with like with the addition of modern treatments of timber, sometimes to repile, to check the electrics, paint in heritage colours, no heat guns to be used, keep a record of changes and so on ­­- sensible practical requirements encased in value-laden description which seems to hide literary ambition. These plans are lodged with HNZ who become the national custodians of heritage sites, but devolve the administrative role to local bodies. Here we encounter the syndrome I wrote about previously: bureaucrats and consultants passing through a revolving door.

Everyone was supportive of the project until an application for resource consent found council requiring letters of approval from DOC, HNZ and the heritage society as affected parties. The heritage society were immediately forthcoming. DOC remained mute and HNZ wanted to impose conditions that were problematic: waiting for a new conservation plan, sign off of detailed plans and methodologies… The new conservation plan will take months and still won’t mention the upgrade of water and sewage and the fit out of an ablution block, kitchen and dormitory, all of which will have small impact on the fabric of a building which is in need of the repair that will happen. Plan approval on what grounds given that the building consent means that work meets the building code? Do HNZ have other measures for the installation of showers and toilets? And of course conditions will lead to nervous building officers and greater expense.

The exercise became fraught to the point of wondering whether it was feasible. Generally, the web of regulation is leading to the demolition of heritage buildings, for repurposing is made problematic and expensive. Buildings instead, become passive mirrors of themselves as sentimental commodity, slowly sink into dereliction and are then pulled down. But as query followed query, I suddenly read a paragraph in Tolstoy’s War and Peace (I’m doing a study of Tolstoy at the moment): ‘He thought of the meetings, remembered how carefully and at what length everything relating to form and procedure was discussed at such meetings and how sedulously and promptly all that related to the gist of the matter was evaded.’  I suddenly realised that this was simply an exercise in form and procedure, to be dusted off only if there were a disaster and they could then be pointed to.

In turn I wondered about the generality of this phenomenon throughout the bureaucracies and if this is why problems seem insoluble in health, education and so on. Have we returned to medieval scholasticism, with governance being an attempt to reconcile enlightenment knowledge with religion, the religion in this case being identity and ritualistic presentations by multi-faceted and fluid individuals. Sin is intolerance, harassment, confrontation and bullying…

But like scholasticism, the paradigm generates elements of the absurd. For example, in the Nominalist camp of scholasticism only individuals existed rather than ‘supra-individuals’, essences or forms. Try and design a health system around that and imagine the problems that arise e.g. Are two individual high need clients both high need clients because the predicate ‘high need client’ applies to both of them? Or does ‘high need client’ apply to both of them because they resemble an exemplar ‘high need client’. Or are exemplars inevitably oppressive?

Bureaucrats thus obsessed will never be able to tackle the realities of staff and funding shortages, geographic service spread and so on.

This whole paradigm also reflects the current urban-rural divide: of rural areas and their people being dictated to by central authorities and their obsessions. The resulting bitterness fuels populist agenda which the recognition of iwi will not ameliorate. In fact, the combination will lead to an upsurge of settler racism.  It is remarkable how insensitive the current Labour Government is to this development.

War and Peace was written in 1862, about the same time the land wars were beginning. Where did I begin? That’s right: heritage.

Matike Mai

Zooming into a Kotare workshop on the legacy of Moana Jackson, in particular the Matike Mai proposal for constitutional change, and then catching the NZ On Air doco and a couple of conference presentations by this man of great mana, intelligence and integrity, made me ponder the sovereignty question.

In the Kotare workshop I argued that the Matike Mai proposal (a rangatira house, a kawanatanga house and a relationship space), resolves a structural  contradiction that for me, is already creating a resurgence of settler racism.  The contradiction involves a political representational structure based on birthright trying to co-exist with a representational structure based on one person one vote within a single chamber. We are already seeing this in the reaction against co-governance and there are issues for Māori reps of collaboration and reformism.

With the Matike Mai proposal both structures are seen as valid, but separate, and negotiation takes place from  worked through positions, in the same way that workplace collective agreement negotiations take place. In the latter case, both employees and employers have discussed what they want, from within their own structure and negotiation then takes place. The rules of the negotiation have been set and can evolve. The employers may well be thinking of profits and shareholders, the union will be representing a one person one vote constituency; but these representational interests and structures are the business of the particular side.

Behind this is the question of sovereignty. The sovereign (whether king, elected government or dictator) has the right to act as they wish within their nation, will require a bureaucracy to put decisions into practice and need sufficient charisma or apparatus of control to take the majority of subjects along with them. The tiriti promised continuing governance to the chiefs over their territories, but also brought in the overall sovereignty of the British crown for the combined territories regarded as a nation and the promise of citizenship rights of the nation for Māori. It was of course a dogs breakfast conceptually: is governance of a territory the same as sovereignty of a nation? How do the two concepts coexist?  How does tribal membership equate with citizenship of the nation? Behind it was the simplistic desire to control the sale of land and to control unruly British subjects. And then the establishing of settlements continued apace with a seemingly unlimited supply of migrants and the land wars led to confiscation of territory. This was followed in turn by the underhand imposing of privatisation of title which led to the near total imposition of settler sovereignty, bureaucracy and charisma and the disempowerment of Māori governance over a much diminished territory. We know the rest.

Now there is some restoration of territory to iwi (and business and capital and media must be seen as territory}, with some bureaucratic mechanisms in health and education and media under Māori control. The Makite Mai project imagines a reclaiming of Māori governance as a whole together with a bureaucracy and a sufficient level of charisma to have it accepted nationally as part of a shared sovereignty.

There are issues in this imagining. In which chamber do working and union issues sit? How are the high tech secondary health issues governed? What is the role of entrepreneurial global capitalism? Do iwi initiatives ever get listed on the stock exchange and therefore subject to takeovers?  There is already a narrative of primitive capital accumulation within Māoridom. Does the impulse toward co-governance continue within the kawanatanga sphere or will a process of separation be necessary? The relationships in te tiriti were under-defined, confused and in some ways a hopeful imagining and this sphere still seems very complex. There is a tendency for liberal Pākeha to have a religious faith with regard to this complexity. If we ‘pray’ sufficiently fervently and adopt the right language goodness should prevail.  

For me, there is a need to be hard headed and analytic, to stay alert to contradiction and to use the process to resolve contradiction.

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