A Winning Attitude: The laboriously assembled inventory of our personal possessions may not be what life should be about, but for most New Zealanders it's the only measure of whether or not they're holding their own in the rigged game that is life under modern capitalism. For these Kiwis the only thing more despicable than the game itself - are those who refuse to play.
EVERYBODY LOVES A WINNER. Even those who by no reasonable measure could be assessed as “winning” insist that success is just around the corner, and that any evidence to the contrary is only temporary.
Such people simply refuse to be labelled a “loser”. Why? Because they suspect that New Zealand is about to become an extremely dangerous place for “losers”. Indeed, if (or is it ‘when’) National wins the November election, they’re pretty sure it will be “open season” on “losers” of every kind.
This will happen for the very simple reason that more and more ordinary New Zealanders are no longer prepared to see their taxes given to people who’ve stopped trying to win.
They know, of course, that we can’t all be Rich Listers. But “winning”, in their eyes, is not about having the biggest bank balance or the biggest house or the biggest car: it’s about having a “winning attitude”.
The “winners” they’re talking about are people who try hard, and keep on trying, even when success is elusive and the deck seems to be stacked against them. Ordinary people, like themselves, who simply refuse to be beaten by misfortune: who never give in – or up – and who come through the other side of hardship because, no matter what life throws at them, their “winning attitude” never falters.
As far as they’re concerned, it’s the loss of this “winning attitude” that turns people into “losers”.
PEOPLE ON “THE LEFT” are scornful of such attitudes – dismissing those who hold them as either dismally materialistic, woefully ignorant – or both.
A lifetime of struggle against a deck that is indeed stacked, say the socialists, cannot possibly be the definition of “winning”. Men and women deserve a better memorial to their time on earth than a laboriously assembled inventory of personal possessions.
“Winning” on your own, the socialists argue, is a myth. Society’s wealth is created collectively – not individually. And the only reason some people are able to amass more property than others is because our legal system makes it possible for single individuals and corporations to transmute the collective efforts of the many into the private profits of a few.
According to the socialists, the only way to become a true “winner” is to devote one’s energies to building a society in which individuals enjoy equal access to the social wealth their combined labour and skill has created.
This is why socialists favour progressive taxation and economic policies designed to generate full employment. It’s the rationale behind the maintenance of public schools and hospitals; the provision of public housing; the public ownership of essential utilities and services; and the wide array of benefits and pensions available to citizens who are sick, disabled, unemployed or retired.
To a socialist, “winning” is defined as the extent to which these, the core elements of the socially protective state, are preserved and enhanced.
“FINE IN THEORY”, say the battlers of 'Struggle Street', “but not so clear in practice.”
The essential collectivism of the human enterprise may have been self-evident to the tiny bands of hunter-gatherers that roamed the earth 100,000 years ago. But, in the teeming cities of the 21st Century, where each individual’s contribution to the whole is so small as to be practically invisible, most people’s acronym for the human enterprise is YOYO – You’re On Your Own.
The pressures and demands of contemporary New Zealand society require most Kiwis to embrace a sort of involuntary existentialism.
With no control over the hand they are dealt, the best they can do is resolve to play it through to the bitter end, relying on luck, a bit of bluffing, and at least one of the other players making a mistake, to finish the game all square.
In a rigged game, with a stacked deck, they learn to treasure those few decision that are theirs alone to make: the choice of their partners and friends; the way they raise their children; whether or not they behave decently and honestly towards their neighbours and workmates.
Perhaps more of them would embrace socialism if those who preached it were to be found in and around Struggle Street, instead of in university common rooms, or on lifestyle blocks at the edge of their angry cities.
But until that day, they’ll go on playing as if winning was still a possibility, and they’ll go on despising those who give the game away.
Because that’s the one thing a “winner” does not do. It’s the one thing he will not become: a “loser”.
It’s what John Key learned in Burnside, and Phil Goff has forgotten in Mt Roskill: the grim, uncompromising existentialism of ordinary New Zealanders; their life-long battle against the odds; their final triumph – painfully acquired after a lifetime of effort.
To be laid in their graves with their “winning attitude” undiminished.
This essay was originally published in The Press of Wednesday, 3 August 2011.