Danyl Mclauchlan: Wrong About Max, Bad For New Zealand

Danyl Mclauchlan
Danyl Mclauchlan

Danyl Mclauchlan is a smart guy. Funny guy. Smart, funny guy. So I guess if he’s feeling sad after reading Max Harris’ new book The New Zealand Project, well, that’s his prerogative. But he’s also being a jerk about it, and that’s just bad spon-con. After reading his article I will now no longer be using LifeDirect by TradeMe for my life insurance needs this election year. A left wing thinker tearing down another left wing thinker in an article bemoaning the left’s inability to motivate people behind leftist ideas is folly of a type that literally makes Hooton’s case for him. It deserves to generate no brand loyalty.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m generally a big fan of Mclauchlan; for five years in New York the Dimpost has been basically the only NZ political journalism I read consistently. But damn, the Key years have given him a wicked case of Stockholm Syndrome. Crosby Textor plus technocratic managerialism worked for the National Party for three elections, ergo Crosby Textor (or equivalent) plus technocratic managerialism is the only plausible path back to power for the New Zealand left. At least, I think that’s the argument. The whole thing is pretty incoherent: Mclauchlan argues that the left is fundamentally correct but fatally unpersuasive; he then argues that trying to find language that is more persuasive is a fantasy. He also says that he’s a Green party member who agrees with everything Max says, and then that conservatism is essential for New Zealand politics because taking bold action to stop climate change or address inequality would probably lead to catastrophe. It’s not hard to see why Hooton, Thomas et al. loved it. It’s imbued with a defeatism they would never dream of engaging in.

(Full disclosure: Max is a friend. But listen: I first met him at a debating tournament in Hawera. He chaired the final, and between rounds stood up and recited a perfectly rhymed little ode to Hawera that he had jotted on the back of a notebook, just for the hell of it. Max is rad.) (FWIW, he didn’t see this before it was published.)

The trouble, I think, is that for all of Mclauchlan’s claims about the progressive left in New Zealand living in a fantasy, he can’t let go of his own: that one day, someone will come along and show the left how to Play the Game with the same ruthless, data-driven, meticulously-focused-grouped effectiveness of the right. (See here for his signature appreciation of Key’s ability in this respect.) That The New Zealand Project is not that book is, I think, the major source of Mclauchlan’s frustration. Which is a shame. Because such a solution is a fantasy. Here’s the end of the article:

Harris’s agenda contains enough reform to keep at least the next five left-wing governments busy. Now that we have it all set down in one place, maybe the left can stop talking about What Must To Be Done and start thinking about How To Actually Do It. I wish someone young and gifted and brilliant with world enough and time could go figure that out. That’d be a smart thing to do.

What Mclauchlan misses – or has perhaps forgotten – is that people on the left already figured out How to Actually Do It, and what they figured out was that Actually Doing Left Politics doesn’t mean figuring out how to do right wing politics better than people on the right. It means transforming politics itself, so that it’s not just a bunch of old white men in suits agreeing with each other that the economic case for lowering taxes is overwhelming. You convince people that politics can be more than something they hate and avoid by being willing to approach it as something they shouldn’t hate and avoid. It’s a hard sell! And sure, Mclauchlan realizes this. He even quotes the one line of Max Weber that everyone knows – that politics is a strong and slow boring of hard boards – in service of the point that, uh, the drill battery of the New Zealand left is dying. Weber himself passed in 1920, so it’s an interesting update to the metaphor, but the larger issue is that it completely misses the point. Here’s the full quote (sic on the pronouns):

Politics is a strong and slow boring of hard boards. It takes both passion and perspective. Certainly all historical experience confirms the truth – that man would not have attained the possible unless time and again he had reached out for the impossible. But to do that a man must be a leader, and not only a leader but a hero as well, in a very sober sense of the word. And even those who are neither leaders nor heroes must arm themselves with that steadfastness of heart which can brave even the crumbling of all hopes. This is necessary right now, or else men will not be able to attain even that which is possible today. Only he has the calling for politics who is sure that he shall not crumble when the world from his point of view is too stupid or too base for what he wants to offer. Only he who in the face of all this can say 'In spite of all!' has the calling for politics.

If Mclauchlan is looking for someone young and gifted and brilliant to teach him about New Zealand politics, he shouldn’t be trying to back-seat drive Max Harris’ research agenda. I’m pretty sure Max would agree that he’d be far better off spending some time with someone like Kiri Allen, who is currently running a campaign she will almost certainly lose to the Minister for Social Development, Anne Tolley, in the East Coast electorate. Here’s some stuff she’s been up to:

Here she is at Standing Rock last year:

(Right okay so yes, I also know Kiri a bit, she’s married to an old uni mate. I didn’t make it to the wedding but it looked awesome.) (Kiri also didn’t see this before it was published.) Point is, here she even is talking about civic education to young people in an engaging manner, with the Labour Deputy Leader:

In conclusion: capitalism is an unrelenting machine of environmental destruction and human exploitation that can only be safely controlled - maybe - through democracy. This is a depressing realization. Convincing other people that it is true involves a lot of hard work with no guarantee of success. If you’ve lost you enthusiasm for doing so, that’s fine. Just don’t dump on those who haven’t. Please.

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