Monday, June 22, 2015

The myth of New Zealand exceptionalism (1): a workers paradise

New Zealand. High Commission (Great Britain). New Zealand wants domestic servants; good homes, good wages. [ca 1912].. Information about New Zealand for domestic servants / issued by the High Commissioner for New Zealand...London, [ca 1912].. Ref: Eph-A-IMMIGRATION-1912-cover. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand.

There is a perception held by many that New Zealand as a nation state is somehow exceptional. 'We did things differently here'; 'we are unique and unlike any other nation in the world'. From this stems a number of myths, from 'the best race relations in the world' myth to 'our liberal democratic traditions'. In this way, the feel-good, capitalist, settler narrative succeeds in its task: the reproduction of the capitalist settler state. 

One myth of New Zealand exceptionalism that I addressed in Sewing Freedom: Philip Josephs, Transnationalism & Early New Zealand Anarchism (AK Press, 2013) was the idea of nineteenth century New Zealand being a 'workers' paradise'. This was important to bring up, because this idea seemed to deny the need for (or the existence of) an anarchist movement in New Zealand. In this post I'm sharing parts from Chapter Three of Sewing Freedom.

Despite an upsurge of new unionism where workers “began to see themselves as representatives of a class rather than a craft or trade” (culminating in the national Maritime Strike of 1890), New Zealand at the turn of the twentieth century has predominately been viewed as a ‘Workingman’s Paradise.’1 The arcadian imagery of New Zealand that was sold to its early immigrants—a ‘land of milk and honey’ where natural abundance and the innate moderation of its inhabitants would abolish the necessity for social organization and its by-products of wealth, power, and status—has lingered on, partly because the workers who packed up and left the Old World did not want to admit that their sacrifices had been in vain, and also because “powerful mechanisms prevented the formation of alternative and contrasting visualizations.”2

Historical narratives are one such mechanism. In Miles Fairburn’s The Ideal Society and its Enemies, casualized labour relationships and mobility between employment; the prevalence of the individualist, nomadic, and transient single male; and a minimal development of working class communities (or cohesive social organization in general), are upheld to illustrate that New Zealand society, at least before 1890, was relatively free of hierarchy and class divisions.3 One historian even goes so far as to ask whether New Zealanders “have or have had a bourgeoisie and a proletariat, and a struggle between the two.”4 Relatively progressive laws, coupled with perceived egalitarian attitudes of the population, led historians and contemporaries alike to promote the country as an equal society: a land without strikes.5 From 1894, when legislation was introduced that outlawed strike action and forced unions and employers into negotiated industrial awards governed by the Arbitration Court (known as the Industrial Conciliation and Arbitration Act, or ICA), until a strike by Auckland tramway workers in 1906, there were no recorded strikes in New Zealand.

Yet such a view conveniently precludes the existence of class struggle outside of strike action. The notion that the colony was free of class and hierarchy also neglects the fact that New Zealand’s Pākehā culture was founded on the destruction, exploitation, and colonization of the local indigenous population and their resources. And while it is true that before 1904 explicitly anarchist activity is minimal, it hides the fact that from the arrival of its very first settlers in the early-nineteenth century, New Zealand has been a capitalist society—divided by class and informed by social relations of production and accumulation in both urban and rural New Zealand.

Hierarchy, gender division, the subordination of all aspects of life to work, and the constant reproduction of capital is intertwined with such relations, and whether those relationships were casualized, sporadic, or isolated does not negate their existence. Even if workers had managed to avoid the wage relation for a short time (and worked for themselves), wage relations dominated the wider society in which that labour was performed. “Capitalism is not just a social system that exploits people through work,” but does so through its ability “to turn all of life into work for its own reproduction.”6 In other words, individuals—directly or indirectly—were always dominated by capitalist relations. As one of the world’s youngest colonies, New Zealand was no exception.

It is clear that the global reproduction of capital was a driving factor in the colonization of New Zealand. Capitalist relations were “transplanted quite deliberately by the sponsors of the New Zealand Company,” an organization that competed with the British government in the quest to monopolize New Zealand pastures. In response to the American and Australian example, and in order to give capital the opportunity to accumulate in New Zealand, the director of the company, Edward Gibbon Wakefield, repeatedly argued that:

the ruling authority should put a high price on virgin land so that the labourer would have to work a considerable time before he could save enough to become a landowner… before he withdrew [from the labour market] he would have to work long enough to provide capital accumulation for the original landowning employers and to save a sum to provide a fund to bring out other wage workers to take his place.7

Accordingly, land prices were kept high to ensure a class of labourers, agricultural mechanics and domestic servants would be available for exploitation by landowners who remained home in England, helping to cement “not a subsistence but a capitalist economy.”8 This economy, geared to provide British capital with fruits from New Zealand’s “quarry of stored-up natural resources,” relied on the suppression of Māori and the labour power of the working class.9 As a result, New Zealand soon featured the evils many immigrants thought they had left at the docks: wage labour, want in a land of plenty, strikes, and unemployment. The withdrawal of labour as acts of protest broke out in 1821, 1840, and again in 1841, and as early as 1877, large meetings of the unemployed could be found on the street corners of the colony.10

One early example is telling. Problems with the Pākehā settlement of Nelson by the New Zealand Company caused many issues for workers. Class relations were deliberately transplanted to Nelson by the Company: in 1842 four ships carried 60 cabin passengers and nearly 800 labourers, while two-thirds of Nelson land-owners were absentee (remaining back in Britain). This led to under cultivation and unemployment, and for months workers and their families had to survive on meagre aid from the Company. As Bill Sutch notes, many lived on fern roots, native berries, and potatoes (when they were available).

On 14 January 1843 a petition by 'The Working Men of Nelson' was sent to Captain Arthur Wakefield, the brother of Edward Gibbon Wakefield and the Company's agent in Nelson. "You sir are well aware that we have been seduced from our fatherland our homes and friends by the flattering pretensions of the New Zealand Company," began the petition. Arguing they had come to New Zealand as "honourable and Industrious men wishing only to live by our own industry and to produce a comfortable maintenance for ourselves and our family's," they wanted Wakefield to look into their situation and improve the Company's rations. "If you refuse to stand by the working men of Nelson you sign its Death warrant & seal its doom as a colony."

The workers' predictions almost came true when the Company stopped paying relief in 1844. Facing starvation and the swearing in of special constables at the request of landowners, workers squatted on Company reserves, and in the end the Company allowed settlers to lease or buy small allotments of land from the absentee landowners.

Teething pains for the new colony? No. If class was solely based on income (which it is not), one could also point out that between 1903 and 1904, 0.5 percent of the New Zealand population owned 33 percent of its wealth.11 Stevan Eldred-Grigg in New Zealand Working People notes that many landowners earned £20,000 to £30,000 a year, often tax free, while the wages of a farm labourer were £41 per year. Female nursemaids working the same estate house sometimes earned as little as £13 annually. While an idle few pocketed huge fortunes, such as Sir George Clifford and his £512,000 worth of assets (over 30,000 times the average working wage), the majority worked, and worked hard—a simple commodity in the eyes of some employers. “I just look on them as I do on a bag of potatoes,” claimed one factory owner.12 Again, it was worse if you were female. When the Wellington Domestic Workers’ Union asked the Arbitration Court for the hours worked by maids to be reduced to sixty-eight a week, they were turned away.

There is no doubting the fact that early colonial New Zealand was a considerable improvement on the Old World for Pākehā, that individualism was the prevalent ideology, and that some immigrants did find relative freedom when compared with their past lives. “It is clear that there was a high degree of transience and that the working class was fragmented in New Zealand,” writes Melanie Nolan, “fragmented by sex and race into pockets, and by the smallest of workplaces and communities.”13

But this does not equal a society without class. Likewise, the colony may have been free of recorded strikes for a short period, but it was never without capitalist relations—locally or globally. No amount of state liberalism in the form of women’s suffrage, pensions or law-locked unions could ever abolish hierarchy, class and gender divisions. In reality, these reforms were the direct response of capital to the resistance of New Zealand workers in the late 1880s, and while they certainly improved some aspects of working life, they simply helped file down the rough edges of capitalism’s chains. As Edward Tregear, ex-Secretary of the Labour Department, wrote: “there had been a feeling (perhaps unconscious) that they [the Government] had to settle every [Parliamentary] Session with how few bones could be thrown to the growling Labour Dog to keep him from actually biting.”14

1. Herbert Roth, Trade Unions in New Zealand: Past and Present, Reed Education, 1973, p. 10.
2. Miles Fairburn, The Ideal Society and its Enemies: The Foundations of Modern New Zealand Society 1850–1900, Auckland University Press, 1989, p. 22. 

3. Ibid. 
4. W.H. Oliver, “Rees, Sinclair and the Social Patern,” in Peter Munz, (ed.), The Feel of Truth: Essays in New Zealand and Pacific History, A.H. Reed, 1969, p. 163. 
5. Stuart Moriarty-Patten, “A World to Win, a Hell to Lose: The Industrial Workers of the World in Early Twentieth Century New Zealand,” Thesis, Massey University, 2012, p. 6; p. 117. 
6. Harry Cleaver, “An Interview with Harry Cleaver,” available online at  
7. W.B. Sutch, The Quest For Security in New Zealand 1840 to 1966, Oxford University Press, 1966, p. 8. 
8. Bert Roth & Jenny Hammond, Toil and Trouble: The Struggle For a Better Life in New Zealand, Methuen, 1981, p. 10; Keith Sinclair, A History of New Zealand, Penguin, 2000 Edition, p. 158. 
9. Sutch, The Quest For Security in New Zealand, p. ix. 
10. Roth & Hammond, Toil and Trouble, p. 12–14; Sinclair, A History of New Zealand, p. 168. 
11. Moriarty-Patten, “A World to Win,” p. 6. 
12. Steven Eldred-Grigg, New Zealand Working People 1890–1990, Dunmore Press, 1990. 
13. Melanie Nolan, “Family and Culture: Jack and Maggie McCullough and the Christchurch Skilled Working Class, 1880s–1920s” in John Martin & Kerry Taylor, (eds.), Culture and the Labour Movement: essays in New Zealand Labour History, Dunmore Press, 1991, p. 165. 
14. Sinclair, A History of New Zealand, p. 209.

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