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The Inadequacy of a Dependent Utopia

This is an edited version of a lecture given by WH (Bill) Oliver, professor of history at Massey University, Palmerston North, exactly 50 years ago, on 1 May, 1963. The lecture was in memory of a foundation member of the university’s teaching staff, Donald Anderson, who had died two years earlier. It is reproduced here, by permission of Bill Oliver, as an intriguing halfway point between the Maoriland Worker essay competition of 1913 and the current ‘Another World is Possible’ essay competition.

The Inadequacy of a Dependent Utopia

The label Utopia is one I am content to apply to New Zealand, not because I think New Zealand to be a perfect society but rather because I think that the experiment has been essentially successful. Here in New Zealand all may stay alive, all may aspire to the good life, and some will achieve it. That is about enough for any human society. However, our living, and our opportunities for a good life, do not depend upon ourselves alone. There are factors, influential enough to fulfil or frustrate our best endeavours, which are beyond our control: the condition of world prices and of export markets, the terms of trade and the conditions of credit. This condition is one of dependency. We may talk then of a dependent Utopia. The condition is patent enough in economic matters; but perhaps less so in those aspects of our common life we can properly, if vaguely, call cultural…

New Zealand’s past history and future prospects are marked by a degree of dependency so great that it is possible to talk of the country’s inadequacy. By this I mean that the processes that have gone to make us what we are, the actual conditions of our present living, the likely conditions of our future existence, all conspire to take us out of our islands into the greater context in which we are set down. They do so imaginatively and actually; our minds go out to other places as we read and think, reconstruct the past and project the future; they do so actually as ship and plane take people to other places, a significant number of them never to return…

I doubt if any New Zealander easily makes the decision to stay away permanently, and I am sure that the decision to do so is normally accompanied by an intense debate in which the whole relationship between New Zealand and, in this case, Great Britain. is rehearsed, a debate in which the ideas which I have labelled dependence, inadequacy, rejection and ambivalence play a full part. Whatever the decision, the person making it will be conscious of two pretty equal pulls. In my view the man who chooses to stay is being as good a New Zealander as the man who chooses to go back…

Our society is in certain respects impoverished and underdeveloped. This is not to say that we share with, say. India and Indonesia, a simple lack of productive capacity and consumer goods; within limits we are not poor in this way. Our rather specialised poverty and backwardness result from our smallness, our lack of key resources and our vulnerability. Because we are poor, we would be ill-advised to invest heavily in cyclotrons, rocket ranges, radio telescopes, learned libraries and art galleries. Note that our relative youth has nothing to do with this; America is not much older, but is incomparably richer and more highly developed. As a result it can afford, not simply radio telescopes, but galleries and libraries that rival and surpass those of Europe. Americans have, thanks to their wealth, been able to buy up a great deal of Europe. Again, the wealth, the diversity, the sheer size of the United States has fostered the growth of the cities on a scale which is unimaginable in New Zealand, and, rightly or wrongly, many people will persist in seeing a causal connection between great cities and civilisation…

We are impregnated with the experience of other ages and other countries: our past, our present and our likely future take us beyond our own boundaries if we seek, not the mere accidents and embellishments of our life, but some of the basic conditions and emphases of our living. This amounts to a statement that New Zealand is at the moment, and is likely to remain for some time, an incomplete country. Just as we lack the resources for economic self-sufficiency, so also we lack the resources for cultural and intellectual autonomy. Our life is that of a province, and we look elsewhere for some of the sources of our vitality. I stress the word ‘some’. I do not mean that nothing of significance has happened here, or has been created here, upon which we may, in part, construct an idea of ourselves. But I do mean that what has happened, and what we have created, are as inadequate bases for a self-sufficient nationalism of the mind as of the economy…

I very much doubt if, in the second century of our history as a place of settlement, our quest for completeness will take us so unequivocally to Europe. It is convenient to be talking of these matters in the sixties of the 20th century. For in the sixties of the 18th century, with the first voyage of James Cook, a century of conflict began between the original inhabitants and the migrants from Europe: the whalers, the traders, the missionaries, the drifters, the colony promoters and the organised settlers – all, in their own ways, contesting the possession of the land with the Maori race. In the sixties of the 19th century a decade of intermittent fighting finally decided an issue which had never been substantially in doubt: this country became a place which Europeans would remake to meet their demands and necessities. Over the last hundred years they have ignored, demoralised and dispossessed the Maoris, and now they are starting to rehabilitate them; they have cleared, drained, sown, ploughed, fertilized; they have cultivated crops, depastured animals, reduced the forest cover to a mere remnant; they have fenced and built and planted, made roads and railways; they have let towns and cities grow up thoughtlessly, ugly but utilitarian. They have mobilised all the resources they could find for the quest for material prosperity: credit, technology, the labour of women and children, the authority of the state, the muscle of a human body and the skills of a scientist. We have, in a century, made our modest Utopia. And in the sixties of the 20th century the whole enterprise has been called into question.

We have, in these hundred years, put an inch and a half of topsoil to striking social uses. We have made prosperity for many, and in the end prosperity for all. First it is the wool raiser in the 1860s and 1870s, and. battening upon him, the merchant, the financier, and the speculator, with a full choir of politicians, Sir Julius Vogel at the podium, chanting the virtues of progress. In the 1880s depression hit possessor and non-possessor alike, the non-possessor more cruelly. The demands of the small man, and especially of the small countryman, dominate the 1890s and the early 20th century. Then it is the dairy farmer, the man at the end of a mud road, and with him the small town worker, the railwayman, the shopkeeper, and still the merchants, the financiers, the stock and station agents, and still the politicians, taking their cue from the giant conductor, Richard John Seddon, who are the favourites of progress, who enter their Utopia. Again, in the twenties and early thirties of this century, there is depression, turning the small farmer into the hired man of the mortgagee, the town worker into the unemployed drudge. Finally, it is the wage earner, characteristically a townsman, and with him all those who deal in his needs, his food, his clothes, his houses and his education, and a new choir of politicians, genially directed by
Michael Joseph Savage, who talk of progress and master-mind an expanded Utopia..

There are two things I wish to extract from this analysis. First, that all this has been done in the context of a European and essentially British tie which has already weakened and altered; and second, that the ending of this century of colonial subordination faces us with problems we may find ourselves ill-equipped to solve. It has been a condition of subordination in economics, defence, sentiment and culture. In the century now ending these four ties have dominated our life, and have begun to cease to dominate it. This, together with significant developments within the United Kingdom which point to the ending of her imperial destiny, make it, at the very least, highly probable that the 1960s will see us move, reluctantly and perhaps unaware, into a new and less comfortable era…

The most striking event we can pinpoint almost to a day – the day upon which Japan entered the second world war in 1941. Or, at least, we can isolate a year: 1942, a year in which Great Britain demonstrated the truth that our policy makers had long suspected, that whatever her goodwill she could not protect us in the Pacific if she was tied up with an enemy in Europe. When Singapore fell, with it vanished a dimension of empire, an essential aspect of the life of the self-governing Commonwealth. We could find, in the end, security elsewhere; in the might of the American navy. Since 1942 our metropolis, the centre of our hopes as far as security is concerned, has been Washington, not London.

We have not taken the initiative in any of this. We have been forced to widen our range of customers and suppliers – we have been forced to shelter under the American nuclear umbrella. Our overall dependence has persisted as our dependence on Great Britain has decreased. Of the four ties of the Empire-Commonwealth, one, military security, has snapped, and another, economic viability, has begun to fray. We are left with sentiment and culture. Have they not weakened too? and must they not weaken even more?…

We tend invariably to think of our culture as British. I doubt if we are any longer justified in so doing, even if it was once a true statement. My guess is that we are as much diluted Americans as diluted Englishmen, and that the aspects of American life we have chosen to dilute have been among the less vital, less endearing aspects of the life of that nation. We are, in some important respects, vestigially British, and incipiently American; the British vestiges and the American portents have at least one quality in common: their drabness. Our domestic architecture is lamentably British: we have taken a Victorian workman’s cottage, knocked off the top floor, added a bathroom and a washhouse, and set the resultant truncated box down in a quarter-acre section, as if we intended to give it plenty of space in which to manifest its ugliness. Our public architecture has been drearily Victorian British: sometimes I have travelled by tram through the main streets of Wellington from the Railway Station to Courtenay Place, looking hard all the way at the skyline. It is a terrible experience of unrelieved anarchy and dementia. Latterly, I think, we have become antiseptically American: we are dotting the landscape with a succession of inverted-V steel frame churches, and the streets of our cities with drab concrete facades and mean windows. The cinema and television, I gather, are dominated by American cowboys, criminals and comedians. I have even been assured that the initial programme fare of our television was determined by the size of the stockpile of soap and horse operas which
American sellers were waiting to unload upon us…

A habit of discrimination will have to grow steadily over the next century if we are to preserve a common life of any value. In saying this I do not wish it to be thought that we can determine the nature of our cultural growth by some such simple action as passing a statute, or setting up an Advisory Council. Overt policy and positive enactment will not take us far; only deeply ingrained habits can direct our growth. We can only hope to direct it by making the capacity to discriminate a keynote of our educational system, at all levels of that system, but most notably at the secondary and tertiary levels. I have a strong suspicion that, so far, the history of popular education in New Zealand is, in everything except the articulation of a structure, a history of frustration. I mean, simply, that we have managed to put the children into schools, to keep them there, to make them, by and large, happy while they are there. But we have not gone much further: we have to reflect upon the existence of a group of school-leavers, by no means a majority but a disturbing and persistent minority, who are marked by violence, lawlessness and disorder at one extreme, and by tastelessness, vulgarity, aimlessness and boredom at another. We have to remember the existence, year by year, of university entrants whose interest in their disciplines is minimal, nominal, and narrowly vocational. We are educating far too many for pointless, aimless, uncritical living…

It is my hope for the future that an educational system as concerned with ends as it is now concerned with means would generate a sufficient minority of citizens to permeate our public life with a habit of discrimination: people who would be a nucleus of a public opinion which would condemn some of the things that have haphazardly happened over the last fifty years. Such things as the construction of characterless and socially disastrous dormitory suburbs on the outskirts of the larger towns and cities; the disfigurement of our cities, more by private concerns than by government, with buildings as large as they are sterile; the niggardly financing of university education, especially of new institutions; the swamping of radio, television, and cinema with mass-produced vulgarity. I do not think this is an entirely visionary hope. Near Wellington, recently, the culpable sociological ignorance which lay behind the design of what will become a new city in the Porirua region has been trenchantly criticised; the conscience of a large part of the country has been stirred by the All Black-Maori controversy to take a second and less smugly contented look at race relations; the politicians have been forced to realise that the electors, or some of them, look for more from them than mass bribery. Signs of health in the community are not lacking. It is not unreasonable to hope that this vigour may be expanded to include the examination of our social constitution, and the influences we permit to determine, in part, its evolution.

I said earlier that in the past century a crucial share of these influences came from overseas, primarily from Europe and specifically from England, and that the history of the last fifty years gives reason for the belief that this source is diminishing in importance. If this latter contention is accepted, then the future, the next hundred years, will show one of two things: either self-sufficiency, or a more diverse and eclectic dependency. I do not think it will manifest self-sufficiency. The greater our dependency, the greater the need for a critical public mind…

This will be the future of a small country in a world of great powers, and not simply of great military powers. From them, from either of them, we may not unreasonably anticipate disaster and even obliteration: our dependence upon them is so thorough-going that the total theme of this lecture may become an irrelevancy. All conjecture about the future of a dependent Utopia lies under the shadow of the Utopia’s possible destruction. We may, legitimately I think, hope that such an obliteration will not take place, and then go on to anticipate the condition of this country in a more or less peaceable world. Such a world will be one of great powers in a different sense – of powers whose size, wealth, and cultural vitality will equip them to overshadow us in the relations we will not want to avoid having with them. Our neighbours will necessarily be greater than us in this sense, as well as in the military sense, and our relationship with them is certain to become more intimate. We look to them, already, for markets and imports; we are constantly reminding ourselves that our destiny lies in the context they provide, that of the Pacific Ocean and of South Asia; we have begun, at least, to wonder if our culture, our painting, music and literature, should not more closely relate to the same context…

A country’s relationship with another is a complex unity. An exchange of cheese and meat for radios and cameras has more than merely commercial implications; other influences flow along the trade routes – cultural influences. We can either uncritically absorb random and superficial influences; or, more adultly, we can approach the civilisation itself which underlies such haphazard manifestations. It is at least likely that the next century will see a growing intimacy between this country and Japan, and between this country and China, India, Indonesia and Australia…

What should we do to prepare for a future in which dependence will not diminish, but become more complex? What can we do in the sphere of education in general, and university education in particular? I take my examples from this sphere for two reasons: because I think it to be a vitally important one, and because I am reasonably well acquainted with it. But the needs of education can simply be taken as an example of the wider needs of the country, the supreme example, perhaps, of the perplexities of our future. We can, if we like, set our faces against this future and fight a rearguard action against irresistible change. We can insist that we are transplanted Europeans, that we deal out to our young only the cards from a European pack. Or, equally unrealistically, we can say that we are in essence white Polynesians, and limit our intellectual horizon to our immediate ocean and its bordering countries. Or, and this I take to be realism, we can remember that even if we are a dependent nation, we are still a nation, that we are not simply a sponge which can be squeezed dry of one liquid and then impregnated with another. Even a dependent nation can discriminate and temper its dependency by an awareness of what it is. It can determine to preserve its identity even as influences of increasing complexity flow in upon it.

The first thing we should do, then, is to deepen our awareness of ourselves: of what we currently are, of how we came to be so, and of what we may become. If our schools and universities fail to give students at the very least an opportunity for an intimate acquaintance with our history, our social structure, our literature and our art, they are doing less for the country than we have a right to expect of them. Further, if in doing this and in doing everything else they are designed to do, they do not foster a critical, inquisitive, and sceptical attitude of mind, they are again failing the country. Finally, if they limit history to social development, literature and art to mere self-expression, if they exclude from the study of man and society those dimensions variously labelled ideology, religion, belief, faith, they will be betraying alike their disciplines and their students. We may expect of our schools and universities an opportunity to learn about this country, to acquire habits of discrimination, to see man and society in the round; but we may not expect them to do this unless we spend more money upon them.

The second thing we should do, and especially at the university level, is to develop centres of research and teaching which will help us to look intelligently and critically at the neighbours which will overshadow us in the coming century, to see them wholly, not haphazardly. It is, in my view, alarming that no New Zealand university maintains a full-scale centre of Pacific Studies, and that only one contains even a small Department of Asian Studies. We have, by contrast, four departments of classics, and five of modern European languages. I do not mean that we should have fewer such departments, nor that the growth of these studies should be curtailed. On the contrary, they should be maintained and extended. But we should strike
a balance…

It is time that I hastened on to my conclusion, which I can put quite briefly. New Zealand is a dependent society in more senses that the economic; this dependency does not exclude a sense of identity nor an awareness of continuity; this identity and continuity, given our smallness and persistent inadequacy, are constantly threatened by the influences which flow in from our context; that context has changed, is changing and will continue to change, from England and Europe to the Pacific and Asia; there are ways of acting and being acted upon within this context which can nourish our nationality, and ways which can only erase it; these ways have a good deal to do with education, with the spread of a critical attitude of mind in the people at large, and with certain specific activities especially in the universities; education so conceived will have to add to its concentration upon means a concern with ends; it will cost a great deal of money, and the results of the investment will not quickly be apparent. We can, if we take thought while we spend it, do something through the spending of money; we can do nothing without the spending of money.

All this is perhaps naive idealism – so indeed may be the very notion that this country has an identity worth preservation and capable of growth. I do not know of anything less idealistic which is likely to have results worth contemplating.

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Feeling inspired? Get writing and enter the Another World is Possible writing competition.

Rules of the Competition

By entering this competition you agree to accept and be bound by the following terms and conditions, and acknowledge that failure to comply with them may result in disqualification.

1. Eligibility
This competition is open to all citizens and legal residents of Aotearoa/New Zealand, with the exception of the judges or executive members of the Labour History Project Inc., and their immediate families.

2. How to enter
Entries can be in English or in te reo Maori. They should be around 1250 to 1500 words in length. Entries should be typed double-spaced on A4 paper, single-sided, on numbered pages. Please do not include photos, drawings or other graphic information. Each entry must be the writer’s original work, complete in itself (ie. not part of a larger work) and not previously published. Only one essay from each entrant will be considered.

On a separate cover sheet, please state:
• Essay title
• Total number of pages of your entry
• Your name (anonymous or collective entries will not be considered)
• Postal address
• Email address if any
• Contact phone number
• Age, if under 19 on 30 August 2013

Note – the information on this cover sheet does not count towards the word length of your entry.

Do not include your name or other identifying information on any page apart from the cover sheet, since entries will be judged anonymously.

3. How to submit your entry
Entries can be submitted:
– by email (preferably) to – anotherworld@lhp.org.nz
Please send your entry as an attachment to the email, preferably as a Microsoft Word document.

– by post to – “Another World” essay competition
Labour History Project
PO Box 27425 Marion Square
Wellington NZ

Your entry must be received by 5pm Friday 30 August 2013. Late entries will not be considered.

Each entry will receive a return message verifying that the essay was received. Entries will not be returned – please keep a copy for your own records.

Judging
The entries, with writer’s name and other identifying information removed, will be judged by:

Cybele Locke – historian, Victoria University
Matt McCarten – political commentator and trade unionist
Jeremy Rose – Editor, Scoop Review of Books and Radio New Zealand journalist.

Entries in te reo Maori will also be assessed by a competent speaker of Maori language.

The judges will base their decisions on:
– the originality and force of the writer’s vision for a better Aotearoa/New Zealand
– the vividness and readability of the language in which it is expressed
– the writer’s ability to appeal to and convince readers of their ideas.

The judges’ decision is final and no correspondence will be entered into.

Awards
The overall winner, runner-up and junior (under 19) winner will be announced in early October 2013.

The winning essay will receive $500.
The runner-up and junior winner will each receive $250.

If a prize is declined or unclaimed, or if the winner cannot be contacted from the details supplied, a replacement winner may be selected at the judges’ discretion.

The three winning essays will be published in the Labour History Project Journal and on the Scoop Review of Books website. The winning entries, and other entries in this competition, may also appear later in a stand-alone publication, by permission of the individual authors. The Labour History Project reserves the right to edit the winning entries for publication.

The “Another World is Possible” essay competition may be repeated annually.

Contact:
Labour History Project
PO Box 27425
Marion Square
Wellington
Email anotherworld@lhp.org.nz
www.lhp.org.nz