What ground is ‘left’ when it comes to land, assets – and nationalism?

Whose land is it?

It’s the issue that won’t go away [and here], so it’s probably a good time to ask “Where should the left stand on the land (and ‘our’ assets)?”

Stand in the place where you live” – so sang REM in what was apparently meant as a call to action. But is that what the ‘left’ should do in this case?

Our relationship to property – especially to ‘real estate’, to the land – has often been ambivalent.

For Ayn Rand, the individual’s right to property makes real all other rights:

Just as man can’t exist without his body, so no rights can exist without the right to translate one’s rights into reality, to think, to work and keep the results, which means: the right of property.

Similarly, for Ludwig von Mises, property is the start of civilisation itself:

If historical experience could teach us anything, it would be that private property is inextricably linked with civilization.

For others, the right to property – especially land – is the thin end of a wedge which, once inserted, will increasingly drive us apart and lead to exploitation and conflict.

As soon as the land of any country has all become private property, the landlords, like all other men, love to reap where they never sowed, and demand a rent even for its natural produce.  (Adam Smith,Wealth of Nations)

What we call real estate – the solid ground to build a house on – is the broad foundation on which nearly all the guilt of this world rests.  (Nathaniel Hawthorne)

The first man who, having enclosed a piece of ground, bethought himself of saying This is mine, and found people simple enough to believe him, was the real founder of civil society.  From how many crimes, wars and murders, from how many horrors and misfortunes might not anyone have saved mankind, by pulling up the stakes, or filling up the ditch, and crying to his fellows, “Beware of listening to this impostor; you are undone if you once forget that the fruits of the earth belong to us all, and the earth itself to nobody.”  (Jean Jacques Rousseau, A Discourse on the Origin of Inequality)

It may not be outright war quite yet, but the continuing political conflict over foreign ownership of land – and assets – in New Zealand seems to weigh in favour of the naysayers, like Hawthorne and Rousseau, who saw nothing but trouble coming from private ownership of land.

And one of the most interesting features of that conflict is that it has highlighted a revealing and instructive division amongst those on the left.

First, the background.

Debate leading up to and following the approval for the sale of the sixteen Crafar farms to the Chinese company Shanghai Pengxin – as well as the likely prospect of asset sales as a consequence of the election result – has been all about just who should be able to own New Zealand land and assets.

Yet, given that New Zealand land – at least farms – are privately owned, does it matter who owns it? (The same point arises in the case of asset sales – if public assets are sold to private interests, does it matter which private interests own them?)

‘Former’ neo-liberal, Michael Fay supports New Zealanders (specifically, his consortium) owning the land. Corporate iwi support Maori (specifically, them) owning the assets. (In fact, given that Fay’s consortium largely comprises himself and iwi groups and some others, the two are very much shoulder to shoulder on this issue.)

The issue, overall, has created some fascinating bedfellows:

  • NZ First shares common cause with the Greens (and Mana and, perhaps, Labour);
  • Winston Peters shares common cause with Michael Fay;
  • Fran O’Sullivan  and WhaleOil share common cause with a post on the ‘Liberation’ blog (see below) in seeing the spectre of xenophobia and racism in opposition to sales to overseas owners.

And, in the (left)wings, Chris Trotter (citing Professor Jane Kelsey in support) points out that New Zealanders have ‘gone along’ with pro-free trade governments over recent decades, so “It’s a little late, now, to shout: “Stop!”

Not quite ‘I told you so’, but a good poke at just how much New Zealanders want their cake and eat it too when it comes to foreign ownership.

The debate has revolved around two main questions:

  • Is opposition to foreign ownership of land and assets (partly) based on some particularly racist form of xenophobia?
  • Is foreign ownership of land in New Zealand good for New Zealand(ers)?

The two questions could be answered separately, but here I deliberately conflate the two. (The very idea of New Zealand, and New Zealanders, it turns out, is part of the issue.)

In relation to the first question, evidence that opposition to the Crafar farm sales is racist has focused mainly on the fact that many tens of thousands of hectares of land have previously been sold to other, non-Chinese, foreign investors. Over those sales there has been relatively little fuss. Now there is a fuss.

The response to that criticism – from those who oppose the sales – has been to point out

  • either that the Crafar farms sale has generated more interest not because of the ‘racial’ dimension but, instead, because of the earlier animal welfare issues on the farms, the earlier rejection of another bid from a Chinese led company and the drawn out process (the point is also sometimes made that, if New Zealanders had known about all the other ‘under the radar’ sales to Lichtensteinians, etc. then they would have been just as ropable); see the comments on Brian Rudman’s article (linked to above) and the Dimpost’s response to the same for a taste of these arguments.
  • or that the bid has been, through some cunning financial subterfuge, backed by a government (with its sovereign reserves weighing in), and one with a poor human rights record, to boot, which therefore distinguishes this sale from others. (Cue, discussion of human rights abuses in, and by, ‘western’ nations.)

As mentioned, one of the more notable features of the public debate has been that criticism of opposition to the sales has come from the ‘left’ as well as the ‘right’. The internationalist, ‘radical’ left has – for the purposes of this debate – lain down with the neoliberal ‘lamb’, and largely embraced the argument that opposition to the Crafar sale to Shanghai Pengxin is racist xenophobia.

Briefly, the more ‘internationalist’ left-wing view has posed the thorny question of why local capitalists are to be preferred to foreign ones.

[In fact, the split over the sales has cut across the right as well – the neoliberal inclined favouring the sale to the highest bidder; the nationalistically conservative resenting the ‘loss’ to foreigners. But, here, I’ll focus on the issue from the point of view of the left.]

In that vein, John Moore, in a special guest post on the Liberation blog a few weeks ago, produced a thoughtful piece on the history of xenophobia and, often, racism from elements of the ‘left’ in New Zealand as a way of highlighting the xenophobic aspects of opposition to the Crafar sale (if not state asset sales in general).

He’s not alone. An extended comment thread on The Standard blog rehearsed the arguments – from the left – over whether opposition to the sales has xenophobic/racist overtones in its focus on the Crafar Farms purchase.

Where, then, should the left ‘stand’ on land and asset sales to overseas interests?

Moore argues that many ‘lefties’ – with what he claims is their particular opposition to the Crafar sale – buy into a new ‘post-conservative’, ‘liberal’ form of nationalism and patriotism and so continue a xenophobia, and invite a racism, previously encased within a conservative world-view.

He suggests that,

“New Zealand’s left has always been at its best when it has rejected nationalist sentiment, solidaritised with oppressed people internationally, and rejected the idea that they should make common cause with local capitalists because we are somehow ‘all New Zealanders’.”

To that extent, when the left adopts ‘patriotic’ talk of ‘New Zealand ownership’ it also buys into the divisions implicit in the very notion of the modern nation state (e.g., notional ‘New Zealanders’ set up as distinct from, for example, notional ‘Chinese’) and thus repudiates the ‘internationalism’ that should unite workers and the oppressed, wherever they may be, against the capitalist class.

Moore is right to be very wary of nationalism. As I’ve argued before, much nationalism exists largely as a means to co-opt ordinary people to elite causes.

But Moore seems to be conflating two forms of nationalism that are well-distinguished in the literature: ethnic nationalism and civic nationalism. I’m not sure if he’s aware of this distinction, but his description of the ‘liberal’ form of nationalism seems similar to the definition of ‘civic nationalism’ used in the literature. As Pehrson et al. (2009, p. 26 – Social Psychology Quarterly, 72(1), pp. 24-38) – beyond the paywall but links to this and other papers here – explain:

“In the study of nationalism, a common distinction is made between ethnic and civic nationalism, whereby ethnic nationalism defines the nation in terms of some supposed shared ancestral, linguistic and/or cultural homogeneity and distinctiveness. Civic nationalism on the other hand defines nationality in more voluntaristic terms, using criteria such as citizenship, as well as the institutional commitments and participation that this entails (Smith 2001).”

The problem for Moore’s claim that this type of ‘civic nationalism’ is supportive of xenophobia, anti-immigrant sentiment (as in the New Zealand left’s past) and prejudice is – in short – that it isn’t. At least it isn’t according to the research on it (see the papers on the link above).

In addition, as Reeskens and Wright (2011, p. 1460 – Psychological Science, 22(11), pp. 1460-1462) – also beyond the paywall but reported here – clarify:

Although both models of nationalism arguably appeal to conservative tendencies by erecting boundaries between “us” and “them,” the nature of these boundaries reflects opposing values. Ethnic nationalism encourages xenophobia (Pehrson, Vignoles, & Brown, 2009) and suppresses both trust and associational involvement (Reeskens & Wright, in press); thus, it reflects self-enhancement values, especially of power.

By contrast:

civic nationalism encourages greater openness to immigration and pluralism (Wright, Citrin, & Wand, in press); thus, this type of nationalism should encourage greater trust and social engagement (Reeskens & Wright, in press).

‘Civic nationalism’, therefore, is less about racial and xenophobic inclinations and more about solidarity amongst those who see their common commitment to each other and to equal participation in the institutions that comprise their common citizenship.

In that rendering, such nationalism is not that much different from the kind of solidarity expressed through class identification.

And this leads to what is probably the central point of Moore’s argument, when he raises the question:

How is ownership by local capitalists in anyway [sic] preferable to foreign capitalist ownership? Does New Zealand’s corporate elite have some special genetic or cultural trait that makes them more socially responsible and caring owners and mangers [sic] of local resources? The reality of course is that all capitalist [sic] aim to maximize profits and enrich themselves through the labour of their workforce. And all major business players, whether local or foreign, aim to push for an economic and political environment that’s is [sic] conductive to them making maximum profits.

Of course, it is probably easier to battle against – and constrain – a local elite than a distant one, but the point is clear: ‘Who cares who, in particular, owns the yoke that’s around your neck?‘ ‘Our’ common interest is to remove the yoke, even if it has been attached by a fellow New Zealander.

The task for the ‘progressive left’ has always been to establish a strong sense of class awareness. That means making class markers more salient than, for example, geographical proximity, ethnicity, etc.. But there’s at least two ways to go here.

One is the ‘new broom’ approach, that involves sweeping aside – as quickly as possible – previous loyalties into the ‘trash-can of history’ so that the new loyalties (between members of the same class) can thrive (i.e., create an internationalism that isn’t strangled by the ‘cross-cutting’ growth of other loyalties).

The other way is to work with the energy and momentum of pre-existing loyalties to transform them – without annihilating them – into a universalist (i.e., internationalist) response to capitalism.

This second way works through the human ability to empathise, by analogy, with the situations of others that create suffering. That is, you see what destroys your way of life, your family, your community and you come to recognise that the same process is happening elsewhere.

In a post on just this tension, Barbara and John Ehrenreich begin by quoting from E. P. Thompson’s famous work, ‘The Making of the English Working Class‘.

“Class happens when some men, as a result of common experiences (inherited or shared), feel and articulate the identity of their interests as between themselves, and as against other men whose interests are different from (and usually opposed to) theirs.”

— E.P. Thompson, The Making of the English Working Class (My emphasis)

They describe the difficulties of organising the ‘99%’ in such a way that the heterogeneity of that large grouping come to understand that their interests are in common and, importantly, that they are in direct conflict with those in the ‘1%’.

The task is to get the ‘99%’ to see themselves as a united ‘class’ despite the fact that it is a class that must encompass the unemployed, the unskilled, the shopkeeper, the manager and the ‘liberal’ professional.

It may not be a palatable reality for the ‘progressive left’, but solidarity – perhaps more than any other leftwing impulse – begins at home. Otherwise, it never really begins at all.

The challenge for the left, therefore, is always one of building on those narrower, organic forms of solidarity to meld them together into a common, universal movement.

When it comes to foreign ownership of land and assets those on the left should look closely at the potential for building this broader solidarity from the existing civic – rather than ethnic – forms of nationalism.

Here’s what I mean.

The underlying impulse behind most forms of solidarity/unity is as old as the species. Put briefly, our evolutionary history has ensured that our main guarantee for survival is our sociality. Importantly, the reason we group together is in order to retain or gain control over our (collective) destiny.

When you listen to the detailed debate over land and asset sales, very often the nationalism is expressed in terms of collective ‘control’ over ‘our’ resources, ‘our’ land. (Even though the land is not, technically, ‘our’ land at all).

That word ‘our’ is important. It is an expression of common interests of those who participate in the institutions – and therefore share the fate – of this country. In the terms I’ve been using, it is an expression of civic nationalism.

The kind of civic nationalism derided by Moore, then, may well be the best available starting point to create just the kind of internationalist, class solidarity that he presumably would like to see.

That looks like some solid ground upon which the left can stand – at least to me.

But there’s a remaining uncertainty.

As the quotations I used at the start suggest, civic nationalism is the modern form of the ‘civil society’ that Rousseau identified as the first born child of the original assertion of private property which, for Von Mises, is the necessary prerequisite for civilization.

Backing ‘civic nationalism’ as a basis for a broader class solidarity for the ‘99%’ is a gamble that the first-born child of private property may rise up, like Oedipus, to slay – unwittingly – its father.

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