The Virtues Of A Simpler Life: Two members of the 1970s Wilderland commune attempt to persuade their workhorse to regurgitate their clothes. Though it is hard to believe in 2013, in 1974 the Kirk-led Labour Government announced its support for state-subsidised communes ("Ohu") on Crown land.
JUST TRY TO IMAGINE THIS. A New Zealand government which announces a scheme designed to, among other things: “assist people in becoming self-sufficient from the land”; “give people a chance to develop alternative social models”; “promote the virtues of a simpler life”; and “provide a place of healing for participants as well as for society as a whole”.
Impossible? No – it happened!
Forty years on, the Kirk Labour Government’s “Ohu Scheme” (state-subsidised, self-sufficient communes on Crown land) still possesses the power to shock and surprise. Taking their name from the Maori word for “working together”, and their inspiration from the Israeli kibbutzim, Kirk’s communes represent what is indisputably the high-point of utopian policy formation in New Zealand.
The inspirational role played by the kibbutzim (radically egalitarian and self-supporting communities established by Jewish settlers in Palestine from the early twentieth century) reflected the very close links that had grown up between the Israeli and New Zealand Labour Parties since the birth of the State of Israel in 1948. By the 1960s, spending a few weeks or months on a kibbutz had become a rite of passage for many young Kiwi socialists. The kibbutzim’s role in entrenching the ideals of solidarity and cooperation within Israeli society was openly admired by Labour activists.
The 60s and 70s were also the decades in which powerful intellectual challenges were mounted against the individualism and materialism of what the American economist, J.K. Galbraith, called the “Affluent Society”. All over the Western World, young people were questioning the values of consumerism and loudly contesting the moral legitimacy of any “Establishment” willing to overlook the horrors of the Vietnam War.
The desire to withdraw from this brutally acquisitive society, and experiment with new forms of social organisation, was strong. Culturally, this longing manifested itself in the “hippy” movement, whose followers were invited to: “Turn on, tune in and drop out.”
It was the confluence of these two intellectual streams: the powerful political model of the kibbutzim; and the so-called “counter-cultural” impulses of the hippies; that gave the Ohu Scheme’s promoters a fighting chance of success.
Even so, it is unlikely that such a utopian project would have been given the go-ahead had New Zealand not, in the early 1970s, been caught up and swept along on a great wave of progressive activity.
In 1972, the Royal Commission on Social Security recommended that: “The community [be] responsible for giving dependent people a standard of living consistent with human dignity and approaching that enjoyed by the majority, irrespective of the cause of dependency.” The Kirk Government responded by introducing the Domestic Purposes Benefit.
In 1974 – the same year that the Ohu Scheme was officially launched – New Zealand’s ground-breaking and world-beating Accident Compensation Corporation was given legislative life.
Kirk’s Attorney-General, the erudite and highly principled Dr Martyn Finlay, shocked conservative New Zealanders by observing that no prison should be made so secure that it destroyed all hope of escape in the minds of its inmates. An “escape-proof” prison, he seemed to be suggesting, was an affront to the indomitability of the human spirit.
Like the Ohu Scheme itself, Dr Finlay’s comment simply does not compute in the grim context of the twenty-first century’s second decade. Can anyone imagine John Key’s Attorney General, the coldly acerbic Chris Finlayson, suggesting that Her Majesty’s prisons be deliberately designed to protect the indomitability of the human spirit? And what awful punishment would the Justice Minister, Judith Collins, visit upon him if he did!
It would, of course, be very wrong to suggest that the whole of New Zealand suddenly turned into left-wing hippies in the 1970s. Because that simply isn’t true.
I vividly recall the day Prime Minister Kirk announced the cancellation of the 1974 Springbok Tour.
I was walking down Fergusson Drive in Upper Hutt when an old fellow wearing an RSA badge accosted me – presumably for the offence of being young and having long hair – and berated me for several minutes on the undemocratic character of the PM’s decision. Noticing the plethora of badges attached to my waistcoat (it was 1973!) he scrutinised them carefully for the emblems of New Zealand’s traitorous anti-Apartheid movement. Finding none, he grumpily sent me on my way. (He did not know how close I came that morning to pinning on my Halt All Racist Tours badge!)
But, if the progressivism and utopianism of the early 1970s was by no means universal, it was, nevertheless, entirely real. New Zealand warships were dispatched to the waters around the French nuclear testing-site at Mururoa. Racist rugby tours were cancelled. Pristine southern lakes were placed in the hands of environmental “guardians”. And, the government was prepared to set up rural communes.
We approach our utopias only by daring to dream. In disavowing their existence, we forget how to do even that.
This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, July 23, 2013.