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New Zealand's Burning — The Settlers' World in the Mid 1880s

Capitalism, socialism, altruism

page 128

Capitalism, socialism, altruism

There can be no doubt about the settler economy's basic capitalism, but it was a capitalism facing strong counter currents. Capitalist society is characterised by the private ownership of capital and the sale of labour as a commodity, giving it two main classes—capitalists and labourers. Its main mechanisms are the widespread use of monetary values and the dominance of market forces. The colony's capitalism was undercut by a widespread lack of separation between ownership and labour, especially among yeomen, shopkeepers and artisans; by personal, non-monetary exchanges of various types; by colonial developments of the gentry noblesse oblige tradition; and by elements of utopian altruism.

Pioneer conditions and localism both worked towards a socialist serving of the common good, reminiscent of the medieval manor. A good illustration of this outlook can be found in the small farm associations which the Stout-Vogel government was fostering in the mid 1880s to settle new country. Each such association consisted of a group formed in an older settled district to find a suitable piece of new country and settle it. In banding together, finding their block of land, and planning for their joint occupation of it, the group got to know and trust each other. Individuals who would never have ‘gone it alone’ as pure, self-seeking capitalists were prepared to attempt backblocks pioneering as members of a ‘band of brothers’ undergirded by a sense of community, and by an awareness that there would be a pooling of talents and a group commitment to the common good. This was merely the raising to a higher level of the general ‘village’ outlook of the colony. In his In Search of the Common Good Charles Erasmus reports on several decades of study of similar rural communities, drawing on wide field experience, especially in Latin America, Africa and Israel.25

The benefits of reciprocal altruism which Erasmus found in primitive peasant communities have parallels in the mutual support, working bees, and simple road board politics of frontier New Zealand. Erasmus's discussion of exchange labour also has strong New Zealand parallels. He shows how it works best in small close-knit communities because it requires knowledge of the other person, good communication opportunities to work out arrangements and mutual responsibilities, and community disapproval of anyone who cheats on their labour-exchange obligations (p. 50). Erasmus describes the advantages of labour exchange as ‘the availability of a labour pool to help meet peak work demands on subsistence farms' (p. 48), the superiority of exchange labour over hired labour (‘each works for the other as he would work for himself) (p. 54), and the superiority of working together over working alone, arising from competitiveness, so that ‘while each man accomplishes competitively no more than he could have accomplished page 129 alone, he actually accomplishes two or three times as much’ (p. 74). My article ‘Community in Rural Victorian New Zealand’26 gives varied examples of our settlers' use of exchange labour.

In one sense exchange labour has a strong ‘capitalist’ element, in that it involves careful ‘keeping of accounts’ of mutual obligations and its object is to further the productivity of each individual farm enterprise. But there was much giving and serving in colonial life which was not linked to any careful bookkeeping. The family enterprise, so common both in country and town, provided a thorough induction into a regime of all-encompassing mutual reciprocity. For rural New Zealand it is well documented from the mid 1880s in the letters to ‘Uncle Ned’ of the children's page of the New Zealand Farmer. These show the teamwork of the yeoman family manning the farmyard, garden, dairy, orchard, fields and home, meeting the unpredictability of pioneer life with the predictability of their mutual trust and support, and sharing the fruits of their labours according to their needs. The semi-subsistence nature of yeoman farming meant that there was an easy extension of this sharing to the wider community. Frequently a cabbage patch, a farmyard hatching, a plum tree crop, a hunting expedition, would provide a surplus for which there was no available market. It took just a little thought and effort to share the bounty with one's neighbours. The sharing of scarce resources in equipment and skills made equally good sense. As Richard Titmuss has shown in his study of blood donors in The Gift Relationship,27 there are circumstances in which the appeal to altruism is superior to the workings of capitalism, giving a cheaper, more reliable supply of a superior product. Pioneer yeoman New Zealand provides ample illustrations for his case. But with the passing of time the subsistence approach gave way to market forces and, in Erasmus's words ‘brotherhood becomes an otherhood; strangers become quasibrothers, and the high visibility of the small community is replaced by the low visibility of large communities' (p. 46).

At the larger regional and colonial levels it was the gentry who responded to the opportunities to step beyond capitalism and work for the common good. They largely manned regional, civic and national politics, until democracy was strong enough to produce more popular leaders. They founded townships, schools, churches, racecourses and cricket clubs. Even when serving their own capitalist interests the rural gentry were often serving yeoman New Zealand in ways it had neither the means or vision to do for itself. They played a major role in establishing Agricultural and Pastoral shows, in acclimatising livestock and crop varieties, in introducing and adapting new farm implements and machinery, and above all in introducing refrigeration and nurturing it through its difficult pioneer years.