Book Review:
"Only Their Purpose is Mad,
The Money Men Take Over NZ"

by Bruce Jesson, Dunmore, Palmerston North, 1999


The book opens with a clear definition of the target that Bruce Jesson is about to analyse and refute:

"Since 1984, New Zealand politics has been dominated by the idea that the marketplace is rational. Left to itself, with no interference from the state, the market will allocate resources in the most efficient manner and will produce the outcome that is most beneficial for everyone. Accordingly, whatever the market touches should be dominated by it. If the market doesn't exist in some area, it should."

The late Bruce Jesson was an accomplished intellectual of the Left, and one of the few who stood up during the 1980s and 1990s and took on the ideologues of what he called the New Right, who espouse the ideology of the market. This book is his last, completed just before he died of cancer last year. It is a fitting last word, in which he analyses and refutes the madness that took over New Zealand in 1984; forces which prevail still.

Bruce writes not just from an intellectual standpoint, but as a former chairman of the Auckland Regional Services Trust. Under his three-year leadership the Trust was turned from a debt ridden embarrassment to a cash rich, highly profitable group of businesses. He showed that a public body can perform as well as, or better than, the private sector. He clearly demonstrated the lie that has been foist upon Aotearoa New Zealand these last 16 years, the lie that only the market works.

The book looks at the New Zealand model of the market economy, then at how it became. I have long wondered why New Zealand was not really a country of communities (apart from Maori communities) with a strong sense of community, but seemed more a country of individuals interacting with central government. Jesson describes this as a basic flaw, the fact that although we have community organisations, we have nothing like the civil society of Europe; nothing of substance between the individual and the state.

"New Zealand was a hollow society, a society without texture, a society without centres of resistance, as 1984 and its aftermath have demonstrated. ... New Zealand had such a shallow culture that most New Zealanders knew little about their country's history. Amnesia is not a recent development, but is part of the colonial condition."

We Maori intuitively understand that, although with little effect in ameliorating the continual assault of that hollow society upon our own richly endowed and historical heritage.

The dominance of finance then comes under scrutiny, and the idea that money has moved from its role to facilitate the movement of goods and services to become a commodity in which people speculate. Jesson looks at the effects of that speculation on the economy, at the politics of the sharemarket upheavals, and at the culture of finance.

The culture of finance colonised the public sector in New Zealand, it disempowered the political process, which is an essential democratic process, and it reduced everything to dollars and cents. People were moved out of the equation.

I enjoyed the chapter on privatisation for a very personal reason. I have long thought that Dr Rodney Deane, one of the main architects of the takeover of New Zealand, was highly over-rated. I maintain that Blind Freddy could have turned around Electricorp and Telecom without privatising them, but Deane built a reputation as a guru, on the strength of what Blind Freddy could have done from a one-wheeled wheelchair.

Jesson takes a close look at Deane's reasoning, and concludes that his "argument actually has little serious intellectual content", and "this is a sort of fly-by-night argument". Sweet words.

Much of the reasoning of the New Right centres around the bald assertion that there is no alternative (TINA). At the Auckland Regional Services Trust Jesson showed that there was an alternative to privatisation, only to find another strategy of the New Right - if an alternative exists, abolish it. And that's what they did with the successful Auckland Regional Services Trust.

The penultimate chapter of the book discusses globalisation, and looks at the many ways globalisation has not produced the promised returns, and has failed the New Zealand people. There are alternatives, and Jesson lists a number of them, and a number of people with good ideas about alternative futures. They mostly agree that the economy has been run for the benefit of speculative finance, at the expense of the productive economy, and that that must cease.

In looking for a way forward Jesson again lamented the thinness of New Zealand society:

"With the shelter of the state removed, New Zealand society proved unable to resist the finance culture. It swept straight through, meeting little in the way of resistence. ... The fatal flaw was not in the individuals who make up the society, but in the lack of texture of that society itself. There were not sufficient institutions or networks that were independent of either the finance culture or the state. The unions, for instance, succumbed without resistence, which isn't surprising considering their dependence on the state."

The institutions that might have provided an alternative to the finance culture have either been destroyed, transformed, or colonised, leaving little of substance upon which to build an alternative culture.

Bruce Jesson prophesied that even if a Labour/Alliance coalition did win the elections it wouldn't have the constituency, and it wouldn't have the nerve, to take on the dominant culture of finance, and make real changes. He might just have been right.

His legacy is a challenge to all of us whose minds are not held in the iron grip of the finance culture, to build that alternative culture. To build a new nation where people matter.

Book Reviews