A question of values

Max Harris. Photos supplied.
Max Harris. Photos supplied.
Prof Jane Kelsey has called for a return to values in politics.
Prof Jane Kelsey has called for a return to values in politics.
Naomi Klein has, like Mr Harris, talked in recent times of the role love can play in politics.
Naomi Klein has, like Mr Harris, talked in recent times of the role love can play in politics.
French political economist Thomas Piketty has helped to put inequality back at the centre of...
French political economist Thomas Piketty has helped to put inequality back at the centre of economics.
UK Labour opposition leader Jeremy Corbyn is championing a kinder politics, but Max Harris says...
UK Labour opposition leader Jeremy Corbyn is championing a kinder politics, but Max Harris says that has only been possible by riding a wave of popular movements. Photo: Reuters
A protester in Trafalgar Square during a march for health, homes, jobs and education in London...
A protester in Trafalgar Square during a march for health, homes, jobs and education in London last week. Photo: Getty Images

Far from the bear pits of New Zealand politics, young New Zealander Max Harris is thinking about how we might do it better. Tom McKinlay reports.

What we in New Zealand need is love, says Max Harris. "Ultimately, the aim could be to make love a national value.''

We could call it aroha.

Max Harris is writing a book about New Zealand politics on the other side of the world in a big stone cottage with wood panelling in Oxford. Photo: Getty Images
Max Harris is writing a book about New Zealand politics on the other side of the world in a big stone cottage with wood panelling in Oxford. Photo: Getty Images

And before you jump to conclusions, he has not just popped in from in a commune in Takaka, having recently finished braiding his long grey locks. Mr Harris is clear-eyed and freshly minted, and his thoughts on love are the final word in the recently published collection of essays The Interregnum: Rethinking New Zealand.

His is the final essay in the collection and finishes by suggesting love could become a value for which our nation is known.

Each chapter in the book is by a different young New Zealand thinker, avowedly progressive all, searching optimistically for new ways forward for the country, ways to achieve escape velocity from the morbid tug of the drily orthodox ideologies of the past 30-odd years, as they see it.

Those decades of "neoliberalism" have afforded us only weak growth and inequality, writes the collection's editor Morgan Godfrey. 

It is quite a project, but for Mr Harris it is not the half of it. For Mr Harris has a lot of big ideas and, fortunately for him, and potentially the rest of us, the wherewithal to do something about them.

For now, that's to write a book of his own: The New Zealand Project.

He's writing it in Oxford, at the university, where the New Zealand Rhodes Scholar has one of the very best fellowships they hand out: he's an Examination Fellow of All Souls College.

What that means, among other things, is that he is indeed surrounded by a certain amount of wood panelling.

"Yes, wood-panelled room,'' in a "big old stone college'', he concedes of the environment in which he has taken the phone call. "But to be honest,'' he says "I find some of this old-fashioned stuff quite tiring and not so fun, so I try to get out and about as much as I can.''

Apparently, escape velocity in Oxford is quite straightforward. He looks for more colourful, lively spaces in which to write, cafes for example, where there are more voices than just his own. But write he must.

Here's his precis for the book project: "It is an effort to widen and deepen political debate in New Zealand in order to try to engage my generation of New Zealanders and others who could be more interested in politics if it mattered to them.''

Individualism, competitiveness, and tiered thinking - hierarchical capitalism - have seeped into many aspects of our culture and society, he says. We need to wind our way out of that mode of thinking. 

So The New Zealand Project will address the paucity of what passes for economic debate hereabouts, the advantages of an independent foreign policy, constitutional change and race relations, justice, the environment, work and the workplace. For starters.

Ambitious, yes, but that's part of the deal: New Zealand has known ambition in the past, Mr Harris says.

The first Maori explorers travelling the Pacific, the high principles of the Treaty of Waitangi and world-first policies such as votes for women. We need to rediscover a little of that.

It's the sort of book you might write if you were only going to get one shot. Which is what Mr Harris thought for a while there.

Diagnosed with a rare genetic heart condition, he discovered the average life expectancy of sufferers was 26. 1 years. He was 26 at the time. Fortunately, surgery means he can now expect to live as long as anyone.

"It absolutely made me think, 'what can I do to contribute?', and writing was immediately what came to mind.''

It's a daunting project then, made heavier by a sense of responsibility. But Mr Harris sounds unfazed. He could, with his relaxed Kiwi phone manner, be discussing sport.

In fact, sport does get a mention. In that chapter in The Interregnum he says Brendan McCullum's leadership of the Black Caps has helped to re-elevate the status of humility in the national psyche.

Alongside humility, and love, Mr Harris would like to elevate care, creativity and community, three values he says could be employed to reinvigorate a values-based politics. He's not alone in this.

Among others to have called for a rediscovery of values in recent times are New Zealand academic Professor Jane Kelsey.

In her book The Fire Economy, she calls for changes underpinned by a "new ethics and commitment to values that stress the public responsibilities of finance, corporation and professions, as well as the public sector''.

Across the Atlantic from Mr Harris, Canadian journalist Naomi Klein, in her book This Changes Everything, suggests love for the land will ultimately stand in the way of unsustainable practices by extractive industries.

Both call for a broadening of debate in response to the big issues of our time, inequality and climate change.

And then there's the paradigm-shifting French political economist Thomas Piketty, whose work has put inequality back centre-stage, and who admonishes economists for hiding behind "supposedly scientific methods'' to mask the "vacuity of the content''.

The Frenchman warns that the past will devour the future unless things change.

Deploying McCullum humility like an old pro, Mr Harris recoils at any suggestion his work might be bracketed with theirs, but does allow that he is "trying to stand on the shoulders of the thought that good ideas can make for a better politics''.

Good ideas, better politics, more engagement, more ideas. It will be a virtuous kind of circle. There's work to do though, as disengagement is all around, in long-term trends of declining voter turnout, for example, especially among the young.

Mr Harris says some of his friends and family have disengaged, convinced politics cannot change things, or feeling they don't have a stake or a reason to be involved.

The disenchantment is in part, he says, because of the way in which the politics of the past 30 years has narrowed.

The reforms of the '80s put some economic decision-making beyond democratic debate, while international agreements have put limits on the "policy space'' here.

There needs to be some "pushback'', Mr Harris says. It's voters who should decide where the limits are and be in a position to reward good ideas as they arise.

Of course the prevailing wisdom since Roger Douglas has been that small government is good government, it should be limited, and that leaving as much to the market as possible works best.

Mr Harris is having none of it. Mantras about the superiority of the market are increasingly being shown to be damaging to social wellbeing, he says. As well as selective.

There is some interesting work in the UK about a more entrepreneurial state. There's an economist called Mariana Mazzucato who talks about how actually the State is behind a lot of key technologies that have been important for economic growth.''

The internet, for one. So his chapter on the economy will argue there is room for robust regulation and redistribution and an entrepreneurial state for New Zealand.

Besides, talk of a small state does not always bear scrutiny, Mr Harris says. Take prisons.

Despite Finance Minister Bill English's declaration that they are a "moral and fiscal failure'', there are calls for more as a resulting of a burgeoning prison population.

In that example the State, as jailer, is getting very large indeed. Some better ideas, and the application of care, creativity and community, could both shrink the State and be better for people.

"Living in a community, as we learn at primary school, involves difficult characters and putting up with a small degree of risk and working through some of the challenging characters in our community,'' he says.

There are more creative solutions out there, if they are allowed into the debate.

Mr Harris nominates problem-solving courts, a US innovation, and Kim Workman's efforts here in Rethinking Crime and Punishment.

In the case of foreign policy, an independent stance might simultaneously provide new perspectives and shrink the State by leading to fewer interventions in the affairs of others.

Mr Harris is clear that young people must be allowed a say, bringing their strong opinions and ambition to take on the big issues, applying their imaginations, contributing to a "broader and deeper pool'' of voices. Think climate change movement Generation Zero. Civics in school would help, he says.

In many ways, Mr Harris is his own best argument for including younger voices.

His impressive CV lists degrees from Auckland and Oxford universities, stints working for Chief Justice Sian Elias, for Helen Clark at the United Nations Development Programme, and at the American Civil Liberties Union, and with JustSpeak, a criminal justice advocacy group here. All in a few short years.

But he's not relying on his own experiences.

As part of the process for writing his book, Mr Harris has been conducting interviews here, there and in Norway, searching out good ideas, not exclusively from young people by any means, but certainly some, and unearthing "cutting-edge research in order to find solutions to our challenges''.

Given his confidence that fresh perspectives are required, does he find it curious that two of those in the vanguard internationally offering alternatives are a couple of old stagers: Bernie Sanders and Jeremy Corbyn?

"In some ways what's more interesting is not the old white men who are riding the wave but the wave beneath them,'' he says.

Both have risen on the back of strong popular movements that have drawn out the young with the old, and tackled a range of concerns.

Importantly, they show what can happen if you can stir popular movement into action, particularly around values, he says.

"Corbyn has talked about a kinder politics, which is not far, I think, from what I am trying to say in the book around politics, love and care. Sanders has said similar things.''

It also confirms that people are disenchanted with politics as usual, that doesn't live up to our highest values.

"I would like to see them both be a bit braver. I still think they are talking within a relatively familiar frame of social democratic or socialist politics. I am not sure they are yet really providing genuinely exciting ideas to address issues like climate change and inequality. But certainly they are making a start and trying to edge outwards that window of what's seen as politically possible.''

Somewhere on the other side of that window is, potentially, a Fourth Way: not capitalism, nor socialism, nor the Third Way of more recent experience.

Precisely what that looks like will be the focus of the final chapter of his book.

"I think a few of the things that it might revolve around are a rejuvenated vision of what the State should do, in the economy and in society, a values-based politics which is clear on values ... And genuine people power, which involves real listening to people, structures being changed to include people in politics, a new kind of politics.

"So all of those things are a response to the conditions of capitalism, that in its current form requires more state steering and oversight, a capitalism that has been drained of some core values and requires a new injection of values, and a capitalism that maybe makes people feel powerless so requires people-power to tame it. But it has to go beyond capitalism as well. It is also trying to address conditions in our society that might be tangled up with capitalism but might also be part of some other things.''

Again, Mr Harris is not alone in this.

British writer George Monbiot has a new book How Did We Get into This Mess?, in which he argues that a coherent alternative to neoliberalism is required, if not to address financial meltdowns, the offshoring of wealth and power, the slow collapse of public health and education and resurgent child poverty, then the epidemic of loneliness that marks our age.

It's the loneliness of an atomised, overly competitive, individualistic society.

Mr Harris is concerned about loneliness too. There's an epidemic, he says. We feel more disconnected than we once did, cut off from a sense of shared endeavour.

But he may have the beginnings of a solution. On the face of it, care and community appear good options, probably creativity. Also love.

It would be interesting to see.

The book The New Zealand Project will be published next year.



Max Harris is speaking at the Aspiring Conversations festival of ideas in Wanaka on Saturday morning, at the Lake Wanaka Centre, 11.15am, in conversation with conservative pundit David Farrar and Finance Minister Bill English. (www.aspiringconversations.co.nz). His book The New Zealand Project will be published by Bridget Williams Books in early 2017.



Add a Comment

Our journalists are your neighbours

We are the South's eyes and ears in crucial council meetings, at court hearings, on the sidelines of sporting events and on the frontline of breaking news.

As our region faces uncharted waters in the wake of a global pandemic, Otago Daily Times continues to bring you local stories that matter.

We employ local journalists and photographers to tell your stories, as other outlets cut local coverage in favour of stories told out of Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch.

You can help us continue to bring you local news you can trust by becoming a supporter.

Become a Supporter