Eleanor Catton and the Sociocultural Logic of Kiwi Neoliberalism


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ELEANOR CATTON was always going to be trouble. With her fine china good looks, transparent intelligence and uncharacteristic (for a Kiwi) articulateness, she was a political reprimand just waiting to happen. One had only to read her books or hear her speak to know that the same intuitive grasp of the human condition which had secured her the Man Booker Prize was never going to let her line-up alongside the vacuous celebrities that accessorise the power brokers of the Right.

Catton’s beauty is a significant factor in the current controversy. No matter how unfair, a regular set of human features confers a very special kind of power upon those fortunate enough to possess them. In a culture as saturated with advertising as our own, beauty has come to enjoy a mutually reinforcing relationship with authority. In a nutshell: beauty is believed, therefore, beauty sells. It also carries a potent sexual charge. Like it or not, messages, of whatever kind, have a much better chance of making it through our defences when they’re delivered by a George Clooney or a Scarlet Johansson.

That is why the Right becomes more than usually incensed when it is challenged by good-looking opponents. They know that their messages will reach the public unfiltered; that their audience will not be distracted by bad hair or crooked teeth. It’s been that way since (at least) 1960 when the handsome, tanned and supremely confident John F. Kennedy easily overcame the jowly pallor and five o’clock shadow of a perspiring Richard Nixon in the first televised presidential debate. (Interestingly, those listening to the debate on the radio gave the victory to Nixon.)

The other great sin the Right could lay at Catton’s door is the near faultless diction of an upper-middle-class girl raised in the comfort and security of a loving academic family. Accents are an instant indicator of one’s social origins and a usually reliable guide to one’s place in society’s pecking-order. Deploying cut-glass vowels has always been an excellent way putting the lower orders at a disadvantage. Under no circumstances should they be unleashed publicly on members of one’s own class!

The third strike against Catton was her possession of a rich vocabulary and the wit to deploy it with jarring political accuracy. In other words, she was an intellectual. Even worse, she obviously felt no special obligation to hide her intellectual accomplishments under a bushel.

The Right loathes intellectuals. The life of the mind offers little to those who place their faith in tradition and prejudice. Conservatives are, consequently, the natural enemies of critical thinking and evidence-based decision-making. A young, attractive, well-spoken and intellectual woman speaking truth to power is bound to be a cause for concern to the Right. But, when that woman is also an internationally celebrated Man Booker Prize winner, ‘concern’ doesn’t nearly cover it.

One suspects that to the lengthening list of her sins Catton’s critics were especially keen to add the sin of deceitfulness. How could someone from such a good family; so well-spoken and accomplished academically; the winner of a prestigious international literary prize; turn out to be a bloody leftie?! Had the NZ Herald known about these “progressive” tendencies when they advanced her as New Zealander of the Year? Surely not! And did Creative New Zealand know, when they were doling out all that cash to the little minx, that she was going to turn up at the Greens’ campaign launch and endorse them? One certainly hopes not.

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And then, of course, there was Catton’s use of the term “neoliberal” to describe the governments of New Zealand, Canada and the UK.

It is one of the peculiar quirks of neoliberalism that its adherents not only vehemently deny that they, themselves, are neoliberals, but also that neoliberalism itself exists only in the minds of economically illiterate leftists. Their denial is born of a strong unwillingness to be thought of as ideologues. The neoliberal project is, above all else, an effort to have the market regarded in the same way as natural phenomena – no more amenable to human intervention than the weather. Their great objective is to have their highly contentious ideas accepted, finally, as simple common-sense: the unremarked wallpaper of twenty-first century life. This cannot happen if people are encouraged to view them as the ideologically-driven zealots they truly are.

It is here that Catton’s gender, her beauty, diction and intellectual prowess become entangled in what the Australian sociologist, Professor Raewyn Connell, describes as “an embedded masculinity politics in the neoliberal project”.

“With a few exceptions”, writes Connell in Understanding Neoliberalism, “neoliberal leadership is composed of men. It’s treasured figure, ‘the entrepreneur,’ is culturally coded masculine. Its assault on the welfare state redistributes income from women to men and imposes more unpaid work on women as carers for the young, the old, and the sick. Its attack on ‘political correctness’ and its rollback of affirmative action specifically undermine the gains of feminism. In such ways, neoliberalism from the 1980s on offered middle-class men an indirect but effective solution to the delegitimation of patriarchy and the threat of real gender equality.”

The particular venom of the Right’s reaction to Catton’s criticism of John Key’s “neoliberal” government – exemplified by Sean Plunket’s vicious verbal backhanders: “traitor” and “ungrateful hua” – derives from the very special character of the “masculinity politics” embedded in the New Zealand neoliberal project.

In democratic states, neoliberalism, as a political phenomenon, is constantly in search of a viable electoral vector. Under John Key, that vector has become the overwhelmingly male, determinedly anti-intellectual, painfully inarticulate, culturally moronic and sports mad portion of the New Zealand population. The part that reacts with frightening emotional fury against everything people like Eleanor Catton stand for. Theirs is the militant egalitarianism of the “ordinary bloke” who would instantly identify in Catton’s unblemished features, rounded vowels and polysyllabic vocabulary the absolute embodiment of an “up-herself bitch”.

Catton was wrong to invoke New Zealand’s tall-poppy syndrome as the explanation for her personal cultural Calvary. In the term coined by the South Korean sociologist, Jesook Song, Eleanor Catton is the victim of the “sociocultural logic” of Kiwi neoliberalism.


  1. If the cult of beauty and intelligence are the elements working against Eleanor Catton, one might cringe at the obeisance played to every utterance of the cult of brutish male sports, some semblance of beauty, and smarts (???) afforded to Richie McCaw as an unasailable buddy to the right-wingers. When Lorde eventually rocks out with a political voice, will it be her leanings that decide the media and govt response? –whatever, she will through beauty and intellect carry a big punch. Well done Eleanor!

  2. A particularly insightful political analysis Mr Trotter.

    “Conservatives are, consequently, the natural enemies of critical thinking and evidence-based decision-making.” – as evidenced by such eloquent rebuttals as “No … you’re wrong” – or in regards to hard data, “I find those figures questionable.”

    There is a great irony unfolding which seems reluctant to live a short life, whereby the “viable electoral vector” responds to a critique citing “shallow, self-interested, jingoistic” behaviour, with a rousing encore of the very same behaviour, thus nailing the point to the wall. The conservative’s dearth of critical thinking invariably creates an oral vacuum, into which both feet can comfortably be placed.

  3. Lovely, a clear and very effective skewering of the Neoliberalism underpinning of current “orthodoxy”. Well done, Chris.

  4. Chris, you have a tendency towards hyperbole.

    The Right are not threatened by Catton, in fact they love this sort of thing.

    In imitation of US culture war politics, the Right (in the absence of reasoned argument) are happy to see the strawman (woman) of Eleanor Catton act as a symbol for culturally sophisticated, intellectual lefties.

    This strawman is extremely useful for attracting the venom of New Zealanders who hate sophistication and nuance.

    With such a strategy, no nuts and bolts arguments are needed about things such as selling state houses. It’s much easier to just generate hatred by taking advantage of cultural differences.

    Hell, maybe Key and his cabal can attract plenty of NZers who have absolutely no economic interest in voting National.

    Look how comfortable Key looks when talking about this whole thing, it’s a blessing.

  5. ” Like it or not, messages, of whatever kind, have a much better chance of making it through our defences when they’re delivered by a George Clooney or a Scarlet Johansson. ”

    DId I not say , many , many months ago , perhaps years ago , that any genuine opposition to Neo Liberalism should hire an actor ? Did I not say that ? Yes , I did . Well done me . Thank you .

    • Ha ha well done you ….I actually remember you saying that and thought it was spot on….people are taken far more seriously if have the looks!!!

  6. WTF? Eleanor is amazing, her looks have nothing to do with it. I actually find most of what you have said condescending, sexist and a whole lot creepy. The thing she has that is awesome is GUTS and her OWN MIND. Many people are so sucked into bullshit these days, fake superficial twits. Even the news now has a tits and arse feature or hairy rugby men huddled in a scrum with their heads ups each others butts. It isn’t just woman getting a shit deal with neoliberalism it’s everyone who falls for the mind numbing fluff we are being force fed. The National Radio Station’s Kathryn Ryan came back from holiday talking like How Now Brown Cow as if she were the fucken queen! Was she hanging out on the farm with Annabel Langbein. Another fake media celeb who puts on a fake accent with the botox lip snarl smile. These fake toffs are hilariously revolting. It all sounds so stupidly rehearsed and put on. We live in bloody NZ for god sakes, or do we?

  7. I think part of their chagrin lies with the fact that they thought they had gotten rid of the hot beds that nurture people like Eleanor Catton. Having lumbered people with student loans and made career prospects largely contingent on impressing people like themselves, they think that by now pretty people should all be simpering and asking for selfies with them, not bagging them. The Booker Prize is an establishment endorsement, and it is infuriating for the right when someone who would make a fine trophy for their club publicly disdains it. It presents a counterexample to the idea that “everybody whose anybody knows to get with the program.”

  8. Can you provide some concrete evidence to back the assertion that Catton’s looks, or accent, or status as an intellectual have anything to do with ‘The Rights’ alleged antipathy to her Chris?

    And can you also explain how the comments of one talk back host are valid grounds for very broad generalisations about the nature of wide swathes of NZ society?

    • Concrete evidence of what? Chris is surmising that those who are angry with her are doubly piqued because her photo will attract the attention of many of our undiscerning public, and her eloquence will add weight to her ‘damaging’ words. As a form of evidence for that surmise Chris had already quoted good-looking JFK’s TV win over Nixon, whereas radio listeners had judged Nixon the winner. What more do you need?
      As regards talkback radio, I assume you realise that the hosts are selected for their ability to project a view that many will agree with, and some argue with. But they never use someone with whom nobody would agree. The usual pattern is that host starts off a topic with a rant, and then a mass of like-minded people will phone in to agree and amplify, while a few may argue against – usually a minority. I would agree that the likes of Plunket do represent a swathe of society. Like it or lump it.

      • Exactly In Vino.
        Chris is ‘surmising’.
        I was asking for some evidence to back the supposition.

        I won’t get any of course. There is none.

  9. Though I agree with her sentiments regarding the neocons I think Trotter has over-cooked the controversy. As I understand it, the fracas is mainly around the ‘tall-poppy’ comments which – if were not about her not winning best book at the NZ Book awards – she’s made no effort to clear up.

    • Like many, you do not appear to realise how deceptively our media presented Catton’s full text. Catton was answering questions from Indian reporters the whole way through. She had to speak about ‘Tall Poppy Syndrome’ because when it was mentioned an Indian reporter did not know what it meant and actually asked her to explain the term. By omitting all the questions our media have made it look like a long, rambling rant where she jumps from subject to subject because of her own weird obsessions. People need to know that our media are biased to the right, and that we are being manipulated into certain attitudes. Catton has explained all this, but somehow it did not get great media coverage. Can you guess why?

      • She is quoted as saying “There was this kind of thing that now you’ve won this prize from overseas, we’re not going to celebrate it here, we’re going to give the award to somebody else.” just after The NZ book awards.
        If this made up or she wasn’t referring to that there is no issue, and I’m open to that possibility but I don’t think anyone is contending that?

  10. “the vacuous celebrities that accessorise the power brokers of the Right” – nice line. I immediately think of the All Blacks who became overtly politicised at the last election

  11. Put on the spot she was honest. She delivered her message in a time and a place that most political right minded male psycophants would rather have cut off their penis than speak the truth- the free lunch crowd are offended because they play the game as is expected of them- she is a tall poppy, red and in full bloom let’s hope others bloom along side her, the sooner the better

  12. “The neoliberal project is, above all else, an effort to have the market regarded in the same way as natural phenomena – no more amenable to human intervention than the weather.”

    The irony is that the neoliberal silence was truly deafening during the GFC and subsequent bailouts “required” for their failed policies.

  13. A small afterthought: This is mostly about power, which in a capitalist society is all about money and connection. People like Dotcom, for example, have the money but not the connection. Sycophants have the connection but not the money. It is also about those whose historic role is to hold power to account.

    When a Labour Party, like the 80’s version, says “We are so good that even business now loves us,” it is the Labour Party that is selling out. When the National Party says, “We are so good that even the intellectuals love us,” the intellectuals are the ones selling out. In each case the failure to hold the powerful to account is framed as a positive, as if the powerful are meeting high standards rather than conning or bullying those in question out of defending their standards. Good on you Eleanor, for breaking the mold.

  14. Ok . I’ve just read your Post in its entirety @ Chris Trotter and how can you be more dead on target than being completely dead on target ?
    You’ve exactly described neo liberal tactics so precisely that I’m in awe of your most erudite self once again .
    I’ve come to understand a thing or two myself , about the wily ways of neo liberal agendas so when I say ‘ Know your enemy ‘ I don’t mean have a fucking ice cream under a sun umbrella, all you Right adoring dullards. Because, you do know right ? That being Right is Wrong right ? To say one’s Right is to say you’re a liar , a swindler , a cheat and a traitor to, not only your country, but to your friends , family , work colleagues and those others whom you share breathing space with but you don’t yet know .
    And being Left isn’t about being some weirdy , hippy , free loader . It’s not about being a wild eyed Unionist agitator hell bent on bearing Luddites to hairy legged pseudo-Lesbians OR limp wristed, braces wearing, pint sipping , piano playing dandies either .
    I think it’s time to remove the terms Left and Right from political discourse actually because their implications are misleading . They’re anachronisms in these modern , enlightened times . They’re NOT about two political factions at logger heads over how best they might serve their country are they ?
    I’m thinking Humans and In-Humans ?
    I’m beyond proud of the gorgeous and stunningly fabulous ELEANOR CATTON . What an amazing, pen wielding jewel to have on the side of us Humans ? Honestly ? If I were to meet her , I’d swoon with a giggle then crawl off to check my make up . What an army ? A cadre of beautiful , intelligent New Zealand women leading the charge against neo liberalism OMG ! I need a cup of tea and a lie down at the thought of it . A Lord / ELEANOR CATTON alliance ? Where’s the bromide ? Another, of the many , outstanding NZ woman ? Lydia Bradey ! http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lydia_Bradey . She only climbed Mount Everest without oxygen ! She’s an outstanding woman . Put that in your pipe and smoke it , you flouncing, man-panty wearing, all bought and paid for, All Blacks .

  15. Excellent piece Chris, incisive, surgical even, and chock full of bon mots.
    And, quite probably completely opaque to those you have skewered.

  16. I’m a middle aged male beer drinking evangelical Bible believing born again Christian, fervent Rugger fan, think Richie and DC also walk on water, while detesting the US Empire, supporting Royal Forest and Bird, voting Green and just love what Eleanor Catton has brought to our political discourse. Should I seek treatment?

  17. Im not sure if I agree or disagree. What an incredibly shallow place the world must be now, if your looks determine how effective your words and actions are.

    I actually think, sometimes when we are in such a shallow world, that is when you want real people to lead, who speak from the heart and from some sort of ethical and moral position, not from focus polls and spreads in woman’s weekly.

    That is when Georgina Byers wins over Paul Henry – there is still many people in NZ (I hope) that actually hate the marketing and shallowness of the political system as it is becoming.

    That is when ‘cut the crap’ talk starts to strike a chord in the population.

    Anyway I don’t think Little has come enough through with cut the crap, but I guess Labour is trying to evolve.

    I also think Catton has done a lot of good.

  18. All this rhetoric regarding various stereotypes I find rather tiring. If the political left is graced by various elites with all their sophistication and intellect, it’s rather anomalous how the right are seemingly in the ascendant and the left haven’t really developed an alternative for the past four decades, seemingly rather content to repeatedly go into battle with the same archaic and predictable battle plans, and ultimate failure.

    Find various voices on the left whose self-adulation suggests they are an elite who define their success according to their idle sophistication and intellect, while to the right the elite who define their success by their excessive accumulation of wealth. In between these two ivory towers deep below lie the great unwashed, a tired audience subjected to the condescending loud mouths above. Hardly surprising why many are disengaged from politics.

    I appreciate what Catton said, but some of the rhetoric in this blog post, like some previous posts, concerning social status doesn’t appear much of an ally to a side of the political spectrum which strives to achieve a classless society.

  19. AWESOME!!! You have just captured the core ‘spirit’ of the Kiwi flavour of neoliberal-supporting “Blokeism” perfectly. Best description of that particular UGLY beast that I have ever seen. Congratulations!

    It was to those Blokes that JK was appealing when he made his Richie McCaw comment, and, no doubt, it would have resonated big time with them.

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