Tuesday, March 29, 2011

What Do People Do All Day?

This is Busytown. My, what a nice town!

The year is 1968. The place is a small town in the United States, somewhere indefinite: think Springfield, except running on coal instead of nuclear power. And as the name suggests, in Busytown

That is a powerful statement, if you think about it. Richard Scarry wasn’t afraid to paint contemporary American society in such bold strokes. Nor was he afraid to explain commerce and capitalism to children. Observe:

Farmer Alfalfa grows all kinds of food. He keeps some of it for his family. He sells the rest to Grocer Cat in exchange for money. Grocer Cat will send the food to other people in Busytown.

Today Alfalfa bought a new suit with some of the money he got from Grocer Cat. Stitches, the tailor, makes clothes. Alfalfa bought new his new suit from Stiches.

Then Alfalfa went to Blacksmith Fox’s shop. He had saved enough money to buy a new tractor. The new tractor will make his farm work easier. With it he will be able to grow more food than he could grow before.

He also bought some presents for Mum and his son, Alfred. Alfalfa put the rest of the money in the bank for safekeeping. Then he drove home to his family.

I return to a favourite topic: books for children and what they tell them (and us) about society, and especially about work. I continue to operate on the basis of an anecdotal hunch, not yet supported by a systematic and quantitative survey of the literature: namely, that we don’t do this any more, that there is no longer a market for this kind of book: the comprehensive telling of how the economy operates, along with attempts to place the individual in it. This is not to say, as usual, that the accounts are uncomplicated, nor that they are ideologically transparent or sympathetic. But rather that it may say something that we’ve stopped even trying – something about the less visible, tangible nature of work, but also about our diminished capacity to understand and represent it.

Scarry’s supremely fluent style is based on a panoptic principle: every window is open, every wall or outside surface is potentially see-through. Every building and every structure can be made to open up to the child’s meticulous scrutiny. The drawings are deliciously detailed but not in an overly technical way. The text is more informative than lyrical. And the scope of the work is genuinely impressive: What Do People Do All Day? is 64 pages long. It covers farming, domestic work, several clerical, retail and services professions, road building, the provision of healthcare, sea travel, railroad travel, policing, fire-fighting, the extraction of coal and its use in the production of electricity, the collection, purification and reticulation of water, saw milling and the paper and pulp industry. The occupations represented include mayors, newsagents, street cleaners, private detectives, policemen, watch repairers, shoemakers, hoteliers, newspaper reporters, newspaper editors, book printers, photographers, secretaries, artists, story writers, poets, janitors, photographers, models, violinists, booksellers and saleswomen – and that’s just in the first two pages.

The tone is generally cheerful, but watch out for the occasional weird touch: Scarry’s trademark gridlocks-cum-pileups, undermining the idea of the smooth flow of people and goods on the urban grid, and those wonderfully thing-shaped vehicles of his – the apple cart, the egg van, the baguette car – straining against the opacity of symbols and abstractions.

Nonetheless, Busytown is a place that works. Literally, in that it appears to enjoy full employment, and also in the sense that it has few obvious social problems. The police force, consisting of Sergeant Murphy, Policeman Louie and their chief, is charged with ‘keeping things safe and peaceful’ and ‘protecting the townspeople from harm’, which appears to largely consist of directing traffic, ticketing hoons and apprehending the town’s notorious thief, Gorilla Banana.

Now of course one could opine that it’s in fact diffuse surveillance and self-surveillance that keep such remarkable order. All those open windows and doors, all that neighbourly cheerfulness, have a slightly sinister edge to them, if you’re inclined to look for it, as do the lengths that some of the citizens will go to in order to promote proper behaviour amongst children.

Gender roles could also use some deconstructing, for while it is nice of the author to acknowledge that ‘Mother’s work is never done’, it would be even nicer to give the poor woman a scene in which she’s not wearing an apron. In this section we also find one of the most striking images in the book, that of the mother struggling to keep a brush salesman at bay.

You could recycle this one wholesale to describe Internet shopping. But otherwise these rigidly gendered vignettes do get Scarry in a bit of trouble with the publishers, who have developed something of a habit for doctoring his work to suit today’s more sensitive audiences.

Comparison between the 1963 and 1991 editions of Scarry’s Best Word Book Ever. A father appears in the kitchen in the later edition. From kokogiak’s excellent Flicker set, which includes several more examples.

Another distinctly of-its-time section – and it gets predictably omitted in the abridged editions – is the one in praise of coal digging to ‘make electricity work for us’. In contrast with other children’s authors of his time, like Tison and Taylor, Scarry here is refreshingly unencumbered by environmental concerns, to the point of allowing himself a little sight gag, whereby the fox’s electric barbecue produces a far larger and denser cloud than the smokestacks at the mine or at the power plant.

However I am just as impressed but the extent in which Scarry’s work has in fact not dated very much at all. While the book covers an almost bafflingly broad range of occupations and includes sections on the extraction and transformation of raw materials, there is one notable omission: large-scale manufacturing. And without industry, from a Western perspective the book seems in fact almost presciently current. Some of the jobs the author describes have evolved, very few of them have all but disappeared (you can’t easily bump into a blacksmith, much less one who sells tractors); the texture of our cities has changed and those little shops have given way to larger chain stores; but by and large we still do the things that occupy Scarry’s anthropomorphic menagerie: we fix the sewers and serve the meals and cut down the trees and drive the trucks and cultivate the land and so forth. It’s almost as if Scarry made a conscious effort to draw only the jobs that could not be outsourced overseas, and had thus future-proofed the book for his domestic audience.

Which rather begs my usual question: so why is it that we no longer make these kinds of books? Why is it that we have shifted our focus to how things work or how people used to work as opposed to how people work now? Is it that work is too elusive, that new economy jobs are harder to draw? Can we not deal with the fact that Alfalfa has become a derivatives trader? But work of course is far from invisible. It’s not just that we do so many of the occupations lovingly drawn by Scarry, and in more or less the same way. It’s also that people still work in manufacturing, only mostly elsewhere. We could teach our children about that, just like we teach them that everybody poops. They both seem worthy topics. And it will be fraught, of course, and the politics of it will seem hard to navigate – because they are – but that’s not a valid reason not to do it.

Above all 'what do people do all day?' strikes me as such an excellent and important question. If you’ve ever had to explain to a child what it is that you do, you’ll know it can be a rather sobering exercise, rather like in that series of radio sketches by David Mitchell and Robert Webb where in order to keep your job you’d have to explain it to a panel of old ladies first. How do we occupy our time, and how valuable or fun or enriching is it? To attempt a proper answer that goes back to the first principles means having to reflect on what we mean when we use words like economy and ecology, and to frame these reflections imaginatively, as children’s literature requires, adds further value to that. Simplified, purified, prettified, the economy as depicted by Scarry seems so much more humane, so much less monstruous, yet also perplexing and strange, in that everything is de-naturalised and has to be re-learned, which is to say reimagined.

It would be far too grandiose to call it the beginning of an education in utopian thinking, wouldn’t it?

Richard Scarry. What Do People Do All Day. New York: Random House, 1968.

This benefited from a conversation with and linky suggestions by Jolisa Gracewood, whose blog is, if I may be allowed to say so, practically eponymous.

Go to part one in this series, About Dustmen. Also in the series: The Happy Worker, Work-Slash-Life.

Monday, March 21, 2011

His Journey

Yes, The Conscience of Zeno is an autobiography. It just isn't mine.

(Italo Svevo)

Some time before the last American election I listened to Obama’s two memoirs, Dreams from My Father and The Audacity of Hope, read of course by the man himself. Both books are well-written, engaging – in spite of the substantial lack of political analysis and content – and flawless in the construction of Obama the candidate, Obama the blank slate, Obama the post-Clintonian, late-Blairite progressive. What struck me the most at that time was the insistence to place demands on the voter and on society, and not just peddle to their aspirations. The two books, and especially the latter, seemed to be at times curiously less about Obama himself and more about the American body politic, albeit in a manner that was more descriptive and wishful than critical or analytic. In time, both pre-election pamphlets will become interesting texts through which to read the mood of the first decade of this century in America, and against which to read the failure to materialise of those inchoate hopes, as well as of some of the more concrete and legitimate ones. There will be, no doubt, post-Presidency memoirs with which to compare and contrast Obama’s earlier mythologies of self, and the extraordinarily powerful public narratives that they briefly sustained.

It’s in that spirit that I rather looked forward to reading Tony Blair’s latest memoir, his first as an ex-politician. Not because I expected it to offer any honest insight into his own conduct or dispassionate examination of the interaction of social, political and geopolitical forces during his years in office; but rather because I figured that the sheer enormity of the task of justifying retrospectively everything that had happened, and fitting it into a bold and coherent, always-already-formed project, would likely produce at the very least tiny fissures, little cracks that might let some light through.

When it comes to this kind of book, I always like to start from the cover. Leaving aside the resemblance to John McEnroe, and compared to, say, Roger Douglas’ debut into political biography, this is at first glance an unexceptional image. Blair looks into the camera, his mouth slightly open, half smiling, half preparing to speak. His gaze is fixed on the reader, suggesting frankness. The dark blue shirt subtly points to Blair’s retirement from active duty and the armpit-staining effects of vigorous political oratory. The title, A Journey, is unassuming, utterly forgettable. Not a messianic The Journey, nor an introspective My Journey. Just A Journey. It could be anybody’s.

But of course this isn’t anybody. It’s Tony Blair. And one of the threads in the book has to do to the extent that this is in fact his story: not his party’s, not his country’s, but strictly his own.
There is only one person who can write an account of what it is like to be the human being at the centre of that history, and that's me. [xv]
Constantly we are reminded that there is no ‘we’ in team. Blair is not an expression of the Party, or the leader of a movement, or the interpreter of the aspirations of a social class, but a transcendent figure, sole repository of a bold, definite and unquestionably correct set of ideas about state reform and international relations. He is also the saviour of the left: the only politician capable of transforming Labour from occasional one-term spoiler into the natural party of government. On election night, 1997, for a moment he fears that he may be just too good at it:
The moving line at the bottom of the TV screen was showing over a hundred Labour seats. The Tories had just six. I began to think I had done something unconstitutional. I had meant to defeat the Tories and do so handsomely; but what if we had wiped them out? [6]
But in the end it’s just a victory, albeit ‘in a landslide’ (for no cliché is left unturned – that’s something you quickly learn about this book). And here is the first instance of Blair portraying himself as the victim of his own success: for a perception begins to form in various quarters, including within the Party, that New Labour is ‘just’ a formidable electoral machine, and that its reform project is a purely rhetorical construct. But the leader is sincere in his convictions and has one thing on his side: the electorate. It’s having connected directly with the people – that messianic streak, again – that enables Blair to pursue an agenda on government and economic reform that he can now candidly describe as Thatcherite and an ‘open’ (read: pro-Europe, but also interventionist) approach to international affairs, all against the multiple areas of resistance in his own party and in the various institutions that stand in his way.

However, this is not to say that Blair is actually fond of people. He knows that their love for him will wane; he is wise to the cyclical nature of the public’s political infatuations, and the media’s capacity to accelerate the downward trajectory. He also lets slip at times a remarkably stereotyped dislike for whole categories of his fellow humans.
One of the greatest myths of human existence is that as people get older, they get more benign, more long-suffering, more relaxed and more phlegmatic in how the world treats them. Not in my experience. Your average Rottweiler on speed can be a lot more amiable than a pensioner wronged, or, to put it more accurately, believing they are wronged. [299]

At any rate Blair never actually regards the public except as a vast, sympathetic, amorphous demographic, as if a segment of the middle-class – however broad and like-minded – was actually coextensive with the whole of the people:
There was no doubt in my mind that this was where the majority of the public stood, where the sensible, serious centre ground could congregate and where we could define an agenda that was essential third-way material: personal ambition combined with social compassion. [318]
These model citizens are the product of modernity and globalisation, they exist ‘in the 21st century’, with the implication that people whose circumstances or aspirations differ from theirs or advocate a different brand of politics – most especially socialism and the trade union movement – are obsolete models existing in the past, irrelevant to the point of being inexistent.

The imperative to modernise according to this narrow and self-serving purview morphs seamlessly into imperialism when it is applied to the peoples outside of Britain, and Muslims in particular. Here Blair in the aftermath of 9/11 – and whilst protesting far too much against the meaninglessness of the ‘neoconservative’ label – puts forward the view that bringing the Muslim world into the 21st century is a matter of survival for the West and paints himself into a frankly bizarre corner, again under the guise of being a victim of his own superior clarity of vision.

Blair’s position on Iraq goes, roughly, as follows: I did what I thought was right; furthermore, if I knew then what I know now, I would still take the same decision, on the grounds that Iraq and the world at large are better places since the Coalition got rid of Saddam. But this is where things get problematic: the aftermath of the invasion was planned badly, this Blair will admit. However, that Iraq would become the actual theatre of the war on terror via the radicalisation of the insurgency and the irruption of foreign fundamentalists is in fact entirely consistent with the presumption – on which Blair and Bush both claimed post-facto to have been operating – that al-Qaeda would seek such a confrontation. This displacement into Iraq of the wider conflict (‘we’re fighting them there, so we don’t fight them here’ as Bush said and Blair is wise enough not to reprint) became in fact retrospectively one of the justifications of the war itself and proof positive that the neoconservative analysis of the situation was correct. But then how was this eventuality not planned for? This is where Blair’s own rationale, supposedly more nuanced and less facile than his ally’s, runs aground. If the war was fought for the benefit of the Iraqi people, then visiting upon the country a transnational fundamentalist insurgency can’t possibly have been part of the plan; and if the escalation hadn’t been anticipated, then the countries that adhered to the Coalition didn’t really believe that they had been declared war against on 9/11, which is a major premise of Blair’s argument. Conversely, if the war in Iraq was pursued in order to precipitate this confrontation with evil, then the coalition ought to have prepared for such an outcome, and not having done so would be a criminal dereliction of duty to the ‘liberated’ country, as opposed to a staggering miscalculation.

Blair doesn’t see any of this. His regret never turns into apology, and he reserves most of the pity for himself (‘I was between numerous rocks and innumerable hard places’ [424]). In what is probably the single most grotesque passage in the whole diatribe, he blames the enemy for being unaccountably successful (unfair!):
The al-Qaeda leader in Iraq estimated that between 2003 and 2006 there were thousands of suicide bombs that they successfully detonated. My point is very simple: take those out of the equation and the security task would have been enormously different: tough but manageable. [467-468]
When the reader and the author are confronted with the enormity of the suffering that was caused, Blair’s truly heroic determination to deflect guilt leads into a syntactically incoherent non sequitur:
Think of the horror. My responsibility. [572]

What makes this incoherence even more astounding is that Blair at this point is in conversation with himself, and not under hostile questioning. I thought quite often of Frost/Nixon whilst reading this book, and the lines by Sam Rockwell’s character on how the country needed to hear Nixon admit what he had done, and apologise for it. There is a touch of irony in the association, because Frost, the inquisitor, is portrayed in the film by Michael Sheen, who has played Blair twice[*], in The Queen and The Special Relationship, and on the face of it quite sympathetically, accentuating his occasionally exuberant warmth and attenuating what John Lanchester has called Blair’s 'inner chilly hardness'. Both films in fact broadly reflect the story as later told by Blair in A Journey, save for the coda of The Special Relationship, when Clinton makes way for Bush and the film cuts to actual footage of that famous first press conference with Bush and Blair at Camp David.

No longer played by Sheen, Blair is left to be himself, and at the mercy of an ally which he would later delude himself to be capable of influencing. It is an understatedly subversive ending.

However, there is another film that undercuts Blair’s memoir rather more savagely, and it’s Roman Polanski’s The Ghost Writer. Here the truth about Iraq extends the conspiracy to the realm of the fanciful, as the ghost writer in charge of fixing up the memoir becomes convinced that the Blair character – Adam Lang, played with nothing but chilly hardness by Pierce Brosnan – had been recruited into the CIA as a young man at Oxford and was helped by sinister forces to scale the leadership of the Party and do America’s bidding. I’m not going to give away the final twist, which is rather good, except to say that it involves a paranoically close reading of the book, and the truth is revealed in the form of a sort of acrostic.

If there are hidden clues to a criminal conspiracy in A Journey, I wasn’t able to find them, but I suspect that – under no coercion other than that of writing, at length – Blair let on more than he should have if he was interested above all in establishing a reputation for honesty: and not just by putting his final signature on a paradoxical case for the war in Iraq and his entire approach to foreign intervention, but also by articulating a philosophy and set of political ideas that – if they were truly always held, as he claims they were – would have necessitated the conduct of a profoundly duplicitous relationship with the Labour Party and its membership.

It is bad enough that Blair admits that he didn’t think that a Labour victory was the best thing for the country at the 1983 elections (‘and I was a candidate!’ [15]), or that he reserves in the book his most consistent vitriol to the unions, whose votes helped him secure the leadership. It’s the unleashing in the book’s Postscript of a torrent of unabashedly right wing positions: starting from an analysis of the economic crisis that exonerates the markets and, largely, the banks (thus, by implication, his tenure) and calls not for Keynesian remedies or a reassertion of the role of government, but on the contrary for an acceleration of market deregulation and public sector reform (‘[g]etting value for money in services like health care, opening up competition in areas like education, radically altering welfare’ [669]) accompanied by a reduction of the deficit via an increase in regressive taxation; and moving on to a staggeringly limpid formulation of the neoconservative credo in foreign policy that borders on the fascistic:
We need the suasion in argument of an Obama (or Clinton) and the simplicity in approach of a Bush (or Reagan). We need an intellectual case, brilliantly marshalled, combined with a hard headed ability to confront. Now is the time to do it. [...] In doing this, we should renew confidence in our way of life and the values it represents. [676]

But the single most illuminating line is dropped almost nonchalantly, like a passing afterthought, on page 690 (out of 691): ‘I have always been more interested in religion than politics.’ So this is the twist: Blair was working under instructions not from the CIA, but from God. I am not being entirely flippant: as Lanchester has noted, these religious ideas that supposedly trump Blair’s politics are completely absent from the book. Without them, and in light of this final revelation (at least in the context of the narrative, if not the public record), one feels that what the story needs is another retrospective adjustment, another rewriting that accounts for this fundamental intellectual dimension of a leader that – it must be remembered – had claimed up to that point to have acted exclusively on his own instincts, exercising the closest thing to pure and unmediated political will that a Western democracy will allow.

In another sense it’s as if after governing for over a decade as a closeted Catholic, Blair couldn’t reintegrate this fundamental component of his personality in intelligible form, illustrating how it informed his decision-making in the normal course of his memoir, but could only blurt it out, inappropriately, as if under a compulsion, or due to the exertion of that long interview with himself, and thus had undermined further his case for truth in biography and truth in politics. I hope he shall be given the opportunity to make other confessions, and that the twist again will be in the ending.

Lang's manuscript is carried by the wind in The Ghost Writer

Tony Blair. A Journey. London: Hutchinson, 2010.

John Lanchester. The Which Blair Project'. The New Yorker, 13 September 2010.
David Runciman. 'Preacher on a Tank'. The London Review of Books, September 2010.

[*]Actually, three - see W. Kasper in the comments.

Monday, March 14, 2011

The Quest for Security

Masses of people could see the effect of this in their daily lives. Higher wages, shorter hours, longer holidays, better pensions, these were manifestations that all could understand. Even the Nationalists, therefore […] could not deny that the Government had made a radical and far-reaching effort to place the claims of welfare before those of wealth.

From a report on New Zealand in The Round Table of March 1939

This year is one of those years when we get to have a fight to defend welfare. It has well and truly begun, of course: the Welfare Working Group has reported to the government, and whilst some columnists have taken issue with its findings, I think we can reasonably expect the media to fall in line with all but the most grotesque right wing measures and campaign accordingly in the lead up to the election. In the opposite corner, the Alternative Welfare Working Group has had its say and will continue to agitate, and there are a number of dissenting voices with a not insignificant capacity to make themselves heard: Sue Bradford at Pundit, Gordon Campbell at Scoop, and the Unity blog, to name a few. I don't despair that we can have the semblance of an informed debate, and organise effectively. Fought against the backdrop of the reconstruction in Christchurch – which will likely sharpen our reckoning of the model of society that the country wishes to pursue – it's a campaign that is going to test our solidarity, our cohesiveness and our social imagination, but I have every confidence that it can be won. (Much as this confidence derives partly from having defined ‘victory’ down considerably, but I’ll get to that.)

My own very modest contributions to the debate are going to be primarily centred, as they have been in the past, around historical vectors and the recovering of earlier stages of this particular struggle. I do this as an outsider, educated in quite a different set of historical and ideological circumstances, with no lived experience of the reforms of the Eighties or familial recollection of their pre-existing conditions. But this is not meant by way of disclaimer, for having to rely mostly on books is not altogether a bad thing.

I think it says something of New Zealand’s relationship with its past as much as of the workings of its publishing industry that W.B. Sutch’s The Quest for Security in New Zealand is no longer in print. The first edition of the book, published in 1942, was enormously successful, having sold over 100,000 copies. The extensively revised and updated 1966 edition is widely regarded as a classic. Yet both books are only available in second-hand shops and fairs, or through the library systems in the main centres, and even then often by way of research stacks or the reference desk. For a country that supposedly prides itself on its pioneering record in the area of welfare, I think this is lamentable, for there are few other books (and none, unless I am mistaken, in the area of history) of comparable focus and scope.

Writing in 1966, Sutch proposed to tell the story of social security in New Zealand from 1840 up to the present day. The book is extensively researched and documented, but unabashedly polemical in tone. Central to the argument is Sutch’s conviction that the economic system that the country inherited from England in the nineteenth century bred poverty, most especially in the colonies, and that the imperative was to transition from a monocultural economy at the service of the mother country into a diversified sovereign economy, in order to insulate the citizenry from the recessions and depressions created by the cyclical downturns and long-term downtrend of the prices for its narrow range of primary exports. While Sutch undoubtedly had some Marxist sympathies, this was a broadly socially democratic project in which he himself played a role initially as an advisor to conservative politician Gordon Coates, in 1933, before joining Labour under Savage and Fraser and returning to the fray in the Fifties as one of the principal architects of the second stage of that transformation, for which he is mostly and somewhat reductively remembered today.

All this is to say that there is no pretence of neutral observer positioning in Sutch's account, nor there could have been given his very public role. But neither is the book an hagiography of the first Labour government or of the trades union movement, that come in for their share of heavy criticism. It is, more simply, the story of that aspiration for security and employment, which motivated so many of the colonial immigrants and later came to be broadly shared by Māori, and of the social and political forces that worked for and against it (roughly along the lines of workers and manufacturers versus the propertied classes, and farmers and financiers in particular). As such its usefulness is not solely historical and documentary, for it reminds us also of how the limits of the political discourse in New Zealand changed over time, and how even some of the most crudely retrograde attitudes are still to be found in some form today. Thus in documenting the opposition to the Old Age Pension bill of 1897, Sutch records that the Conservatives
objected to the Bill because it might mean higher income and land tax, and would make workers more independent—they preferred that the workers make weekly contributions; hence they argued that it would sap the self-reliance of the working classes, discourage thrift, pander to criminals and drunkards, attract degenerates and imbeciles to the country, create an army of sturdy beggars, demoralize the old people, break up the family and 'gradually destroy our civilization'. [91]
Of some interest in our present circumstances are also Sutch's vivid accounts of the worker relief schemes in vogue during the Depression, when the zombie idea of work for the dole reached extremes that were at times paradoxical:

'16 sturdy New Zealanders hitched to a set of chain harrows, after the style of Volga boatmen' – Sutch mentions this photograph on page 130 of The Quest for Security, and I was delighted to find it on Timeframes.

at times openly sadistic:
[In Christchurch] it was a rule that men under 65 who could not do heavy work had to report for light work. At one time 500 of these men were 'working' with one grubber and three shovels at Bottle Lake. Some of the men suffering from asthma, arthritis, rheumatism and epilepsy took from 8 o'clock to noon to cover 2 miles to report for duty; one woman pushed her husband in a wheel chair to Bottle Lake and called for him again in the evening. This was administrative incompetence, but there was no invalidity pension and the principle laid down was 'no pay without work'. [136-137]

But we should be heartened even at this far remove by how far the ground shifted in the space of less than a decade, and that as late as 1949, and in spite of the climate created by the Truman doctrine (under which 'the stage was quickly reached when those who sought to change economic institutions were regarded as worse enemies than those who sought to reduce the minimum standard of living' [336]), the Tory campaign manifesto going into the election included the following statement:
The National Party fully recognizes the desirability of providing various forms of Social Security Benefits and pledges itself not only to maintain all existing benefits at their present value but also to introduce improvements as circumstances permit or require. Nevertheless, the Party believes that by ensuring full employment and by a nation-wide campaign to remove, or at least, reduce greatly the causes of sickness and disability, it will be possible to lessen the need for people to apply for sickness, medical and pharmaceutical benefits. Good health and productive employment are much better than medicines or sick and relief payments. [461]

All this reminds us that the history of how our national attitudes to welfare have changed is above all just that – a history. The admirably egalitarian streak that New Zealand society still clings to is not a fixed given: it is the fragile but nonetheless lasting legacy of past struggles and movements that saw enlightened moderate politicians join forces with radicals who were in the main not revolutionaries themselves, but reformists. It is discomfiting to contemplate the juncture that we have come to, with no option but to defend pallid, regressive and discriminatory provisions such as the Working for Families scheme, or punitive ones such as the current benefit system for the sick, the disabled and the unemployed. But defend them we must, and the coalition needs to be broad, to the point of refraining from pointing out or in fact even appearing to have noticed what a huge tit Phil Goff is, and how complicit he and is party are in the narrowing of our political horizon. (See, I'm not even mentioning it.)

This rear-guard, conservative battle is one we can win, as it is an old-fashioned battle for the electoral centre that is going to ask little of the shared political imaginary. But The Quest for Security spurs us to be more ambitious than that. Above all, and somewhat unusually for a reformist, Sutch is relentless in pointing out at each step and in every area of social intervention the gap between what was achieved and what was left to achieve, reserving his greatest contempt for the politicians on the Left who pushed back or declared that the work was done, like Labour Social Security Minister W.E. Parry did in 1947 in front of a small group of critical but sympathetic public servants:
I don't understand you young blokes. Labour has achieved the programme it battled for, and it was battling before some of you were born. The family benefit to all is the coping stone. We have the best social security in the world. Everybody has a job. We have the protection of the Arbitration Court. Everything is done. [341]

This kind of talk is anathema to Sutch, who – armed with an admirable capacity to detect and denounce capitalist realism – rejects at every available opportunity the contention that adopting social justice as the State's overarching political objective is incompatible with having an economy.

There would be much more to say about this remarkable book, but it's best left to the author himself: and so, also in the interest of producing a manageable post, I've compiled separately some extended quotations on the Old Age Pensions Act of 1898, education and the role of public intellectuals, the burning down of the new Social Security Department offices in Aitken Street, and housing under the first Labour government. These will give you a sense of Sutch's lucid and impassioned humanism, and of the continuing relevance of his writing, whereas if you're after an evaluation of Sutch's political economy, I refer you to the sterling work of Brian Easton linked at the end of this post.

But there remains another aspect to account for, and it has darker undertones. You cannot read the deeply concerned and scathing sections of the book on wartime censorship, Cold War-era anti-sedition legislation and the smearing tactics used against the likes of Cecil Holmes and Jack Lewin without shuddering at the thought that the remnants of those illiberal measures would end up striking Sutch himself, who at the end of his life was famously charged with espionage, under suspicion of having disclosed unspecified information to a Soviet agent in Wellington. The trial, that he is said to have endured in reasonably good spirit, ended in his acquittal but is still likely to have hastened his death the following year, in 1975, aged 68. I won't go the details of the case, and refer you instead again to a useful summation of Brian Easton's, except to note a New Zealand Herald editorial written only five years ago, in the wake of the publication of a book by one of Sutch's persecutors. With the benefit of thirty years of hindsight and in spite of the complete lack of evidence and due process that led to the shameful trial of one of the nation's foremost intellectual figures, our paper of records chose on this occasion to remark that the Sutch case was nonetheless 'the single known example of the necessity for counter-intelligence in this country'. The title of the piece? 'An enduring study in treachery'.

'Demonstrators outside the Supreme Court, Wellington, during the Sutch trial, protesting about the Security Intelligence Service.' Image from Timeframes.

In the preface to the 1966 edition of the book, Sutch recalls with what must strike us as bitterly ironic prescience Joseph Heenan's advice – upon the shelving by Prime Minister Fraser of the first edition – that his friend should lock the papers away, 'and leave them there a long time' [xiv]. And so The Quest for Security, as if punning with its own title, reminds us that dissent is still fraught with risk, and that not just the headline-grabbing raids but also the intimidation and harassment suffered by the likes of Tao Wells are by no means minor or benign incidents, but belong to the same violent history and repressive logic. Stay united in the months ahead, and be mindful of this.

W.B. Sutch. The Quest for Security in New Zealand, 1840 to 1966. Wellington: Oxford University Press, 1966.

For an extended biography and critical evaluation of Sutch's work, including his ideas on the economy, see chapters 8 and 10 of Brian Easton's The Nationbuilders (Auckland: Auckland University Press, 2002). Brian Easton's site is a wonderful resource on Sutch and he has made the two chapters available online here and here.

Sutch's secret service file and target assessment are available as PDF files through Public Address, and Russell Brown wrote about their publication here. It may be worth repeating the link to Brian Easton's analysis of the court case.

Tim Bollinger's 2008 piece on Sutch for White Fungus magazine is available online through Scoop.

All the quotations from the book that I compiled externally are available via this link.

With many thanks to Hilary Stace for introducing me to the book and being so wonderfully staunch.

Monday, March 7, 2011

Palombella Rossa

What does it mean to be a communist? It’s a feeling, a feeling of totality. But what is this totality? It's a field, a playing field… a pool. It is surrounded by angels, the supporters, and they look at you, they scream, they see you, but you keep silent… goal!

(Raoul Ruiz, Palombella Rossa)

I can't remember anything that happened before two weeks ago.

(Matt Damon, The Bourne Identity)

I was in time to vote for the Italian Communist Party, but only just. I turned eighteen in February of 1989. The European Elections were held in Italy on the 18th of June of that that year. So on that day, which was a Sunday, I walked down to my old primary school and did what over nine and a half million of my fellow citizens did: I voted communist. The PCI returned 27.56% of the vote, second only to the Christian Democrats on 32.91%. It would never compete in another nation-wide election.

Then, on the 9th of September, Nanni Moretti's Palombella Rossa was screened at the Venice Film Festival.

The usual explanation for why this film has garnered so little critical attention internationally compared to Moretti's later work is that it requires extensive knowledge of Italian politics, its sub-affiliations and its vernacular in order to be understood. I've never been entirely convinced by this. I think that too much has been made of Palombella Rossa's historically specific references to the identity crisis of the PCI, and that to the extent that this is in fact the overt subject of the film, its reflections are applicable to almost any decade in modern Italian history, and I suspect across borders as well, at least within Europe. But in fact the film is about personal/political identity in its wider sense, how it is constructed and maintained, how it is refracted within culture. It is also quite surreal and very, very funny.

Michele Apicella is a young member of Parliament for the PCI and a veteran water polo player. He has a car accident on his way to a game that leaves him physically unharmed but suffering from memory lapses. People make repeated mentions to something he said or did during a nationally televised political appearance earlier that week, but he has no recollection of it. He travels from Rome to Sicily along with the rest of his team and his daughter Valentina for a season-deciding game, and there he finds a young and clueless journalist, two politically motivated stalkers, a fascist he once victimised at university, a young Catholic and two old comrades, all eager to talk to him about his TV appearance.

Almost the entire action of the film takes place during the water polo game, while the television in the café of the pool complex shows David Lean's Dr Zhivago. But there are other timelines as well: the flashbacks from Michele's beginnings in water polo as a child, and those from his beginnings in politics as a young man (which take the form of an actual film that Moretti shot in super 8 in 1973 entitled La sconfitta – the defeat); the excerpts from Michele's recent televised political appearance; the excerpts from Dr Zhivago; and, woven amidst all of these, an intricately modulated filmic time, with extensive use of slow-motions, frequent intrusions of the musical score into the diegesis (for instance, when Michele wakes up on the massage table after the accident and tries to remember the melody of Nicola Piovani's piece for the opening credits) and the even more frequent overlapping of the timelines. Like in the sequence below, when Michele answers a possibly imaginary question by one of his interviewers in the middle of an offensive play.

The clips are not embedded. Click here to go on a new page with the YouTube video and subtitles of sorts.

The timelines come together in the film's protracted climactic scene, which lasts almost fifteen minutes. Michele's team, down by one goal with a few seconds to go, is awarded a penalty. Michele is going to take it. But first the players and the audience relocate en masse to the adjoining café to watch the ending of Dr Zhivago, cheering the preordained outcome as if it was a sports match and it could be influenced.

Click here to watch the clip.

Back in the pool and poised to take his shot, Michele has one last flashback and finally gets to remember (or possibly reimagine) what it was that he had done during that television programme: it turns out that in the middle of his answer on the way forward for the Communist Party he had broken into song, morphing his rote-learned speech into the lyrics of Franco Battiato's 1984 romantic pop hit E ti vengo a cercare (And I Come Looking For You). When the action returns to the pool, the audience joins him in the bellowed rendition, which segues in turn into the chant of support for the home team.

Click here to watch the clip

A little digression: After the release of Palombella Rossa, Moretti toured several branches of the PCI country-wide for a 40-minute film entitled La cosa, the thing, in which he documented, cinéma verite-style, the discussion amongst members following the proposal by then secretary Achille Occhetto that the party should transition into a new entity, whose working name, believe it or not, was actually 'the thing'. It was a lacerating process that I remember very well – I was in my first year at university when it took place. Eventually the party split in two: a minority component founded the Partito della Rifondazione Comunista, aspiring to refound the party of Gramsci on the old revolutionary principles, whilst the majority – which held on to most of the property as well as the membership – moved on to create the Partito Democratico della Sinistra, the Democratic Party of the Left. In the process the party's symbol went from this.

To this.

The hammer and sickle, significantly shrunk in size, now lay at the foot of a majestic oak tree, symbolising wisdom and renewal. Then in 1998 the PDS dropped the P and became Democratici di Sinistra – Democrats of the Left, as it if had somehow stopped being a party. In the process, and for no apparent reason, the hammer and sickle disappeared from the symbol altogether, to be replaced by the red carnation of the European Socialists.

Then in 2007, in another genius move, the party dropped the S and regained the P! So now it's the Democratic Party, but no longer of the Left (demonstrating once again that when a term is omitted on the grounds that it's implicit, it actually never is). On the botanical side of things, the carnation and the oak tree were replaced by a single olive branch, symbolising the definitive end of any residual attachment to class warfare or indeed to struggles of any kind.

At this rate the next symbol will be a dozen red roses and a blowjob. But the reason why I mention all this is to illustrate to what extent the process of transition from the old Communist Party to a modern and broad-based centre-left party was predicated on deliberate acts of amnesia, and the gradual deletion of old symbols and ideas, as if in order to reclaim modernity the Left had to get rid of its past wholesale first. That is the sense of the shrill, desperate-sounding slogan of the Partito Democratico at the national election of 2008: Un'Italia moderna si può fare, A modern Italy can be achieved. Standing for the united centre-left, as a broad coalition and no longer the mass party of old that was always marginalised when it came time to form a government, the Democratic Party at the European elections of last year garnered 26.13% of the vote – less than the PCI in 1989.

What Palombella Rossa does is dramatise this process of unbecoming, in a modality that I would suggest is applicable to many other places and times in history. Ultimately, asking who we are is the same thing as asking who we were, and this has always been true, or at least it certainly has been in my lifetime for the militant Italian Left, whose foremost preoccupation has always been the very problematic affirmation of its own identity. In 1989 the party counted almost one and a half million active members, and seemingly every one of them was a theorist, as La cosa ably illustrates. Those endless and fiercely historicized discussions, that sometimes appeared to exist in an entirely self-referential plane, never prevented Left-wing activists inside and outside the party to operate in very concrete ways to change Italian society; inhuman utopia rather than humane pragmatism was in fact arguably the lifeblood of all those mass movements and organizations.

And so Palombella Rossa's main preoccupation is not only with loss of memory but also with loss of language. The nonsensical title (palombella is the lob shot in water polo, hence 'red lob') is the distorted mirror put in front of Michele's insistence that 'words are important', and all of the film's competing and patterned voices, each with its highly specialised armoury of tropes, gradually lose their capacity to mean things, including the protagonist's, until political speech turns into pop song lyric, albeit a highly literate one, and ideology is reduced to the choice of which corner to aim for.

To the right... to the right… I must look to the right and shoot to the right… the goalkeeper leaves me room on the left but I'm going to shoot to the right… NO! Maybe it's better if I shoot to the left!…

The penalty, naturally, results in a save. But Michele's trembling incoherence, which two decades later must strike us as acutely prescient, has far more catastrophic consequences: and so, on the way back to Rome after the game, he ends up driving off the road and down a steep bank whilst obsessively repeating the words 'We're like everyone else, but we're different! We're like everyone else, but we're different!' As he and Valentina climb out of the car, preternaturally unharmed, the cut-out of a sun is raised at the crest of the hill, and the assembled crowd – which turns out to comprise many characters from Michele's past, including his childhood self – spontaneously form a tableau, their right hands outstretched towards the old socialist symbol: il sol dell'avvenire, the red rising sun. Fittingly, in a sequence that is pure symbolism, the last line of the film is non verbal, and belongs to Michele as a young boy:

This laughter is a sardonic summation of the kind of spectacle that was the end of history in Italy: played out more as farce than as tragedy, animated more by confusion than by despair. Having lost its memory and its voice, the Left whimpered off the stage. And it had all been carefully mapped right here, in this curiously neglected film, oft-cited but seldom watched, whose highest praise is that it speaks so much more clearly now than it did back then.