Saturday, August 9, 2014

Socialism, Bob Harvey-style

(First published in the Dominion Post, August 8.)
I WAS INTRIGUED to hear Sir Bob Harvey, the personable former Waitakere mayor and tireless champion of West Auckland, describe himself on TVNZ’s Q+A programme recently as a socialist.
Obviously the meaning of the word has changed. The classical definition of a socialist is someone who believes in state control of the economy, but no intelligent person – and Harvey is an intelligent man – could seriously argue that the heavy hand of the state creates happy, prosperous societies.

I mean, what shining examples are there? The Soviet Union? North Korea? Chaotic, wretched Venezuela, perhaps?
The truth is that wherever it has been tried, socialism has been synonymous with economic failure, misery and repression.  That’s why it’s almost extinct. People aren’t stupid.

I can only conclude, therefore, that when people like Harvey describe themselves as socialists, they actually mean something else – perhaps a gentler, kinder socialism that hasn’t yet been revealed to the rest of us.
Here’s my theory. I suspect that to call yourself a socialist these days is to announce to the world that you have a social conscience, and are therefore on a higher moral plane than all those heartless people who are interested only in their own wellbeing.

In addition to that, I suspect that “socialist” has become a code word for someone who feels guilty about enjoying the trappings of capitalism – the stylish clothes, the overseas holidays, the restored villas in fashionable inner-city suburbs.
Most of the people I know who think of themselves as socialists enjoy pretty sweet lives. Capitalism has been very kind to them. I bet Harvey (who made his name in advertising, possibly the least socialist business imaginable) isn’t exactly short of a buck.

But we’re talking about a generation that lived through the heady era of the protest movement, when capitalism was the enemy, and part of them has never moved on.
Even when they’ve grown sleek and prosperous, in their minds they’re still marching down Willis or Queen St protesting against apartheid or the Vietnam War. Calling themselves socialist is a convenient way of resolving the contradiction between their romantic ideals and the reality of their very comfortable capitalist lives.

True socialists like the founders of the Labour Party wouldn’t recognise these people.
Being a socialist in those days meant getting your head bashed in by a special constable on horseback. Now it means sitting around a Kelburn dinner table tut-tutting about income disparity while someone opens a bottle of 2003 Felton Road pinot noir and wonders whether to go to Morocco or France for their next holiday.

* * *

IT’S DECADES since newspapers decided they would no longer accept letters written under pseudonyms. Most require that the writer supply a full name, home address and phone number. It’s not foolproof, but it weeds out most of the mischief-makers who don’t have the guts to put their names to their opinions.
Predictably, the quality of letters improved almost overnight when the rules were changed.

Contrast this with the approach of the Sunday political TV programmes Q+A and The Nation, which seem happy to accept anonymous texts and emails commenting – often scurrilously – on the issues under discussion and the credibility of the politicians interviewed.
Some contributors provide a first name, but the viewer has no way of knowing whether it’s genuine. Occasionally the commenter is identified in full, but most are anonymous.

Given that the comments are displayed on screen almost instantaneously, there’s no way the producers can vet them in the hope of weeding out propagandists and barrow-pushers.
How many of the snide messages running across the bottom of the screen are from party members and activists? There’s no way of knowing. In effect, they’re no better than the cowardly trolls who infest the Internet.

* * *

I WONDER, is there a club for people who can’t stand Te Radar? If not, I might have to start one.
I admit I’m out of step with public opinion here. Clearly, lots of people love him. Why else would TVNZ (or to be precise, the taxpayer through New Zealand on Air) keep paying him to jaunt around the Pacific making prime-time documentaries?

But something about Te Radar irritates me, and I can’t figure out exactly what   it is. The frizzy hair? Those nerdy glasses? That nasal Kiwi voice? The contrived Peter Pan quirkiness? All of the above?
What bothers me most is that the people he encounters in faraway places might make the mistake of thinking he’s representative of the rest of us. Now there’s a scary thought.



Brendan McNeill said...

"Calling themselves socialist is a convenient way of resolving the contradiction between their romantic ideals and the reality of their very comfortable capitalist lives."

I might add, that modern socialists also believe that others should pay for the Government social programes required to molify their conscience.

Declaring yourself to be a socialist today, also identifes you as someone who has no real grasp of the human condition. Someone who believes we are a product of our environment and our genetics alone. Someone who depreciates the signficance of personal choice in determining an individual's economic and social outcomes.

Most consider themselves to be 'progressives' having abandonded the socialist lable long ago because of the failures you alude to.

I applaud all those who have a social conscience. Would that we were all alive to the needs of others. The question is how best to be a neigbour to those in need. It's difficult to avoid the conclusion that an entitlement based social policy, enacted upon the notion of 'collective responsibility' and delivered through the impersonal State has failed many in our communities.

Jigsaw said...

I hear socialists who when challenged as you have done, simply say that it has never been tried-at least not the way THEY would do it and then of course it wouldn't fail but people would enter what amounts to an earthly paradise! Their capacity for self delusion seems almost endless-a capacity that fortunately most of us quickly grow out of. Those old socialists (and we have quite a few in New Zealand) are the saddest of all. You could add Gordon McLaughlan, Brian Edwards, Chris Trotter to your list.
You even get people on line who claim that capitalism has always failed-makes you wonder at their perception of the world around them and how it actually functions.

Jigsaw said...

I'm in the club of those who don't care for Radar and in fact for all of the so called comedians who tell you how funny they are about to be.

devin mynett said...

Like Capitalism there are varying degrees of Socialism. Countries that have large welfare systems, free education, public health systems have all adopted components of Socialism. Thus it could be reasonably argued that countries such as Denmark, Finland and even New Zealand have a base in Socialism.
As for Te Radar he seems like an affable chap and his series and comedic style seem to make many people smile, which is probably in his job description.

Michael Wynd said...

I'll kick in some funding for a club for those who get annoyed by Te Radar. What I cannot understand is how he keeps getting funding for shows given his last effort got taken off air halfway through. Does he have some dirt on TVNZ executives or NZonAir?