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.


stephen said...

What a thought-provoking post. Funnily enough, when your birthday came, I was poking around Quilters looking for a suitable gift. I didn't find anything I thought you'd like, but I did buy Sutch's Colony Or Nation.

I am glad to see Sutch and his thinking rehabilitated, remembered and discussed. I couldn't agree more that we need to be grounded in our history to gain extra resistance to future threats.

Giovanni Tiso said...

I haven't read Colony or Nation yet, but Sutch's Women with a Cause is wonderful and on my to-blog list.

James Butler said...

"But The Quest for Security spurns us to be more ambitious than that."

That would be spurs, methinks :-)

Giovanni Tiso said...

Thank you. It's the only way I learn.

GZ said...

Thank you. We're trying so hard to defend what we have - against those who would abolish it on one side, and those who continue concede it on the other (supposedly on ours). So it's a little hard to be ambitious and creative.

It's nice to have a reminder that just such imaginative and forward-looking endeavours were attempted in the past, and succeeded in some measure.

I also had the extra synthesiac enjoyment of the taste of cool sweet beer and a pleasant accented English while reading this post. Don't say blogging never rewards me!

Oliver Woods said...

Hi Giovanni,

Great post. Very well written. I love your other blog posts too. We need more voices like you in the New Zealand blogosphere.

I'm a very big fan of Sutch. I used to run a blog called 'Quest for Security' (though currently it's on 'hidden mode' on Blogspot as some of my views have changed).

I, having lived in Singapore for two years, keep my father's copy of The Quest for Security on my desk at work to remind me daily of the fact that one day I will need to try and rejoin Sutch's quest.

If I can get access to it, I'll pass you over a piece I wrote in a book for a friend recently on Sutch's contribution to political economy in New Zealand. It's relatively superficial and not too long, but it will probably interest you owing to what you have said.

Keep it up mate.


Giovanni Tiso said...

Oh yes please Oliver, I'd love to read that piece. In researching this post I came across several mentions of your blog (including Maps' critique of it) but was disappointed to discover it was for invited readers only. We need... more of that stuff, I think. A whole lot more.

(Was it Easton who pointed out that what Sutch envisaged for New Zealand wasn't a million miles away from Singapore's own development?)

ray said...

Interesting post
I doubt that Sutch was a spy, certainly that's what the jury thought although it is interesting that he would not enter the stand but he appeared to have an arrogance that would lead him to take that position
On the other hand I would love to know what was really taking place

Anonymous said...

Oh cool ;)
I'm writing an essay on the Welfare State provision in NZ, and one of the cas studies is on Sutch...
this helped heaps

Giovanni Tiso said...

Very glad to hear it.