SOME COSMOLOGISTS SAY that ours is but one of an infinite number of universes. It’s a wild thought, because, if they exist, this infinity of parallel universes grants us an infinity of parallel lives. Whatever we can imagine ourselves doing has already been done, is happening right now, or will be done at some point in the future, in one of these alternate worlds. In this universe we may be powerless paupers, but elsewhere – in at least one of these parallel universes – we are kings.
How’s that for a comforting thought the next time you’re feeling down?
The idea that there are other worlds, adjacent to this one, is far from new. In the myths and legends of many cultures we find tales of people who left their homes on hum-drum errands, only to encounter mysterious beings who, in the twinkling of an eye, transported them to places of wonder and enchantment. When they return home, time itself seems to have been stretched and twisted. By their reckoning, their absences can only have lasted a few hours, but in the country they left behind, many years have passed. Loved ones have died, or grown old, and our baffled heroes pass, unrecognised, down streets that did not exist when they set out – only a day before.
All very Einsteinian (or should that be Schrodingerian?) but rest easy, there is a purpose to all this esoteric speculation.
Nowhere is the experience of contingency stronger than in the realm of politics. Politicians and political activists may live in this universe, but their heads and hearts are filled with the multiple worlds that could exist – if only the voters; the proletariat; the national community; were courageous enough to bring them into existence.
This multiplicity of possible worlds is often expressed in the musings of what are called “counterfactual” historians. How often have we heard someone pose the question – “What if?”
What if the Archduke Franz Ferdinand’s car had turned down another street in Sarajevo – instead of the one where his assassin, Gavrilo Princip, was eating his lunch?
What if JFK had toured Dallas in a standard – instead of an open-topped – presidential limousine?
What if Roger Douglas had been hit by a Wellington trolley-bus on his way to Parliament in 1983?
Whenever questions like these are posed, we sense the presence of alternate pasts: histories of worlds that might have been – but never were.
So now, arriving at the crux of the matter, I intend to pose a question of my own. A question which, simply by being asked, raises before us that shimmering membrane which separates the world as it is, from the world as it might be. A world that, even now, could break through the web of contingency – but only if the leaders of the Labour-NZ First-Green Government can find the courage to change course.
It has been nearly 40 years since the imaginations of New Zealanders hungry for change have been seized so forcefully by an incoming prime minister and government. The last time the thin membrane separating the parallel worlds of political reality and political aspiration shimmered so brightly was in 1972.
The difference between now and then, however, is that Norman Kirk and the Third Labour Government actually attempted that most dangerous of all political manoeuvres: the merging of “what is” with “what could be”. Kirk made a wonderful start, but like so many other political leaders who have attempted the manoeuvre, it proved too much for him. With his death, the two worlds straightaway began to disentangle themselves. On election night 1975, the once bright membrane shimmered faintly – and went dark.
At this point, I feel duty-bound to explain the enormous difference between attempting to bring into being that which has never before existed – which his immensely difficult – and allowing the ideas and practices of the past to break through into the present.
The relative ease with which this can be accomplished was demonstrated by the prime ministers and governments that followed Kirk’s. Political and economic concepts that many believed dead and buried passed effortlessly from the world of “what was” and into the world of “what is”. Once inside this world, the world of the present, these ghost concepts began to transform it. More rapidly than many believed possible “now” began to look like “then”. Mass unemployment returned. Inequality grew by leaps and bounds. Homelessness became commonplace. The streets filled with beggars. New Zealand soldiers went off to fight in other people’s wars.
The ghosts of the past are easily summoned. The angels of the future require considerably more persuasion.
What then should Jacinda and her government do?
I will answer that question with a story.
It concerns a political journalist who, in fulfilling some hum-drum errand, found himself in the company of a mysterious band of revellers who insisted that he accompany them to a marvellous party.
He awoke the next morning in a deserted mansion shaded by tall macrocarpa trees and enclosed by a tumble-down and ivy-covered wall. Pushing open the rusted front gates, he stumbled into the streets of a city that seemed greatly changed.
What has become of all the cars? He wondered. And why is the Tino Rangatiratanga flag flying above the library?
When he put these questions to a passer-by, the person looked at him strangely.
“That the flag of the Aotearoan Republic, stranger, and has been these last 25 years.”
The journalist scratched his head in confusion. Only then did he notice the name of the building: ‘The Jacinda Ardern Library and Public Resource Centre’. Making his way inside to the information desk, he asked the librarian for an explanation.
“It’s named after the Prime Minister who ushered-in the Republic back in 2022 – after the uprising.”
“Uprising? What uprising?”
The librarian shook his head in disbelief.
“What uprising? Where have you been for the past quarter-century? When Jacinda and her coalition introduced what was soon being called “The Rollback”, the neoliberals did everything they could to prevent it from happening. When a crazed junior staffer from the Treasury attempted to assassinate the Prime Minister in the Beehive Theatrette, hundreds of thousands turned out to demand the passage of her government’s reforms. The protesters, led by rangatahi, stormed Parliament and proclaimed the Bi-Cultural Republic of Aotearoa. With the neoliberals ousted, and Jacinda elected President, the real changes began. Aotearoa rapidly became a beacon for equality, freedom and ecological wisdom across the whole world.”
“And Simon Bridges?”, asked the journalist, hardly able to believe what he was hearing.
“Bridges! That rogue! Hah! He fled to Australia – still there as far as I know.”
“And Jacinda? Is she still alive?”
“Still alive! Where have you been! Jacinda Ardern is Secretary-General of the United Nations!”
Wide-eyed, the journalist, had only one more question.
“So, who’s running the country now?”
“Why, President Swarbrick, of course. She’s halfway through her second term. In two years’ time, the presidency will pass back to the Tangata Whenua. Most people are picking Pania Newton to succeed Chloe.”
The journalist, thanked the librarian and, plucking a free map of the city from the counter, headed off in what had, only the day before, been the direction of his home.