1492163523716 - Max Harris: Young, gifted and political

Max Harris: Young, gifted and political

There is a relentless hunger for new ideas, new words, new faces. Or maybe just new blood. Max Harris, 28, has finished a radio interview and is thinking ahead to a photo shoot for his publisher when Stuff calls. Suddenly everyone wants a piece of him. 

It’s a good problem for a writer to have, if it’s even a problem. Harris’ cheerful demeanour and willingness to reflect honestly and deeply on every question thrown at him suggests it is not. 

“It’s been really heartening,” he says of the attention. 

His major book, The New Zealand Project, was launched at the Royal Society of New Zealand in Wellington on Tuesday. By then he had already been on RNZ’s Nine to Noon and TVNZ’s Q + A and had featured in a four-page spread in the Listener. He will deliver the Michael King Memorial Lecture at the Auckland Writers’ Festival in May. And there is a sense that as much as people like his fresh thinking about New Zealand politics, they also like his story. 

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His big idea is that we must reintroduce “values” to politics. “More people have been more positive about that idea than I expected. I think people also like young New Zealanders doing something.”

He got a joint arts and law degree from the University of Auckland, worked as a clerk for Chief Justice Sian Elias at the Supreme Court and as a consultant in Helen Clark’s office at the United Nations. He also did stints with the American Civil Liberties Union and as a speechwriting intern with the South Australian government. And then there is the old-world imprimatur of Oxford. He won a Rhodes Scholarship and is what they call an Examination Fellow at All Souls College. 

His doctorate will be on executive power in the age of Donald Trump and Brexit. It should take him another four years or so and by then he will have had enough of Oxford’s dreaming spires and ancient quads. He dislikes the hierarchies of British life and notices that it is much easier to talk to a range of people and get into the public sphere in New Zealand than the UK. 

Which returns us to the book and its coverage. It grew from a blog called The Aotearoa Project in which Harris gamely tackled some of the tougher issues we face. The sweep is ambitious: economics, foreign policy, education, the criminal justice system, the future of work, housing and gender issues. Almost everything, really.

Underpinning it is Harris’ emphasis on values and beyond that, a word that is arguably even more unfashionable. The word is “love”. Harris calls for a “politics of love”. 

He writes: “A love-based politics is an extension, not just an application, of values of care, community and creativity. Love is a stronger value than care.”

The book may resemble a fully fleshed-out manifesto for a political party that does not exist, but he says that he wants it to be read by both Left and Right. So the question is whether the use of words like “values” and “love” is a way of avoiding the old Left’s baggage. 

“Even if you ask people on the Left what it means to be on the Left now, they are unclear about it,” he says. “I think we need to do some rethinking about what divides Left and Right.” 

He pauses to do some of that rethinking in real time.

“It doesn’t seem like it’s necessarily individual versus community. Maybe a strict, disciplinary approach versus something empathetic and compassionate, but a lot of conservatives would disagree with that. Maybe it’s state versus market but that doesn’t seem to completely cut it. 

“If we go back to values, that is one way we can try to rethink what it means to be on the Left and Right.”

His friend Morgan Godfery​ started some rethinking in 2016 with a book called The Interregnum, in which Harris aired his “politics of love” idea. Godfery’s title suggested we are in a historical gap between eras, with neoliberalism coming to an end and something – no one is sure what – emerging to take its place. 

The writers Godfery assembled, including another bright Oxford-based New Zealander, Andrew Dean, tended to be young. They were millennials writing their way out of the neoliberal world they were born into. They saw the neoliberal consensus as centrist, too reliant on market solutions and averse to big, new visions. 

“Name it, see it for what it is, and realise it is not necessarily natural or permanent, and then start to think beyond it,” Harris says.

They say it has produced a bland cautiousness in our politicians. In the “politics of love” essay, Harris said then-Prime Minister John Key’s tired, uninspiring language was typical, “a sadly stunted vision of politics as little more than technocratic corporate management”. 

What does Harris make of the language and style of Key’s successor? 

“Bill English is complicated. I think he has a private willingness to take on some long-term challenges. He said prisons were a moral and fiscal failure in 2011. But what disappoints me is that he seems to think the public isn’t willing to work through those debates.”

Harris saw this for himself when he was on a panel with English in Wanaka’s Festival of Colour in 2016. English said that one barrier to criminal justice reform is “you”, pointing to the audience. 

“To me, he is an example of politicians not being bold enough,” Harris says. “There is really interesting research coming out of the US showing that politicians systematically overestimate how conservative voters are. Bill English is too timid.” 

And then there is the “social investment” English has championed, which sounds like more of the technocratic approach. Is the language of “investment” even the right one to use, Harris asks. 

That an unwillingness to confront big issues is seen as a “political” calculation just shows how the meaning of politics has changed. 

“There is a sense that the debate has narrowed. Fewer big proposals are on the table in election years. That is partly to do with the timidity of politicians, partly to do with the ideas not being out there and partly to do with neoliberalism giving us this sense that certain settings are locked in.”

There may even be a nostalgia for when sweeping change used to happen, or when there was at least a difference between visions. He writes that “thinking big has had a bad name since [Robert] Muldoon”. But wasn’t MMP introduced so that unpopular change could not be forced on the New Zealand public as easily as it had been under Muldoon and David Lange? Is there now an impatience with MMP’s slowness and stability and its tendency to push politics towards the centre? 

“Maybe MMP has contributed to embedding neoliberalism,” he says. “But it’s still possible for radical change to happen. There are still dangers to do with executive power. We’ve seen that in Christchurch.”

Harris, Godfery, Dean and others have been published by Wellington’s Bridget Williams Books, which has steadily built up a formidable list of experts and intellectuals. Not all of them are young, but we do seem to be in a moment when millennial voices are sought out. But on the other hand, there is the pigeonholing of thinkers like Harris as emissaries from the otherwise unknowable world of young people who are presented as “one indiscriminate mass”. 

In short, the media keeps framing young people as a problem. A couple of Harris’ recent appearances have been handwringing discussions about why the youth don’t vote in the same numbers as older people. A concern for young people risks becoming patronising.

“That immediate framing of a young person’s ideas in the context of youth disengagement. I can understand it but it’s something I would like to see us get beyond.” 

As he sees it, youth disengagement from politics is just part of wider disengagement. Maori, Pasifika and Asian New Zealanders are also under-represented. And the book, he hopes, will not just be filed away in a sub-section labelled thoughts of a young person.

Even the recent generational debates, with the millennials, baby boomers and Generation X in a three-way scrap over superannuation, are based on a flawed premise.

He keeps hearing about “resentment”. That the millennials “resent” others. But it doesn’t feel like that to him. Drop the language of conflict and try another unfashionable word, which is hope. 

“I hear people talk about how it’s different for our generation,” he says. “There is student debt, there is a whole lot that’s different about our experience with technology, media and insecure work, but I hear less about resentment and more that we need different ideas for a different time.”