THE CENTRE FILLS the politician’s sky like the monoliths in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. In much the same way as his mysterious black stele are credited with being the prime motivators of human enlightenment and progress, the political centre is deemed to be the fount of all moderation and wisdom. Without it’s decisive intervention, say the pundits, electoral victory is impossible.
In reality, the political centre is the most malleable of all electoral clay: capable of being shaped and moulded into practically any shape its sculptors can conceive.
The voters who congregate at the extremes of the political spectrum have needs and interests that are clear, permanent and compelling. But the needs and interests of those in the centre are tied inextricably to those of the rich and the poor, and are, consequently, nothing like so constant. Accordingly, those who mass in the centre tend to oscillate wildly between the two extremes: their manic swings to left and right corresponding to the strength of the latter’s economic appeal.
Consider the role of the manager. Forty years ago the number of people in managerial positions was relatively small. Then along came the neoliberal revolution and the number of managers in the economy exploded.
As New Zealand society was restructured along “free market” lines, those workers lucky enough to keep their jobs were expected to work longer and harder for less. All those new managers were hired to make sure that they did.
Like the commissars of Stalin’s Soviet Union, the new managers’ prime mission was to protect and defend the revolution. In fact, their livelihoods depended on its survival.
Now, which way do you suppose that new managerial strata voted? For the neoliberal revolution’s friends – or its enemies?
The same political dynamic is at work among those who contract for services formerly supplied by the state.
By drastically reducing the size of the civil service and contracting out a great many of the services formerly provided in-house, the neoliberals did not, in fact, save a great deal of taxpayers’ money. On the contrary, one American study revealed that the cost of services provided by private contractors was, on average, a third higher than the cost of those same services when supplied by a public provider.
But, saving money was never the true objective of those responsible for contracting out public services. Neoliberalism’s purpose was to destroy the ethos of public service altogether and replace it with the ethos of individual enrichment by way of profit-taking.
A state that is able to provide its citizens with services that are efficient and cost-effective is a state those same citizens might learn to value and support. Even worse, it might come to be seen as a system worth extending into areas of the economy still dominated by the quest for private gain.
The whole point of neoliberalism was – and is – to prevent that from happening.
Like the new breed of managers, thousands of new contractors found their own futures and the future of the neoliberal revolution inextricably intertwined.
They, too, know on which side their ballot papers are buttered.
Now consider what might happen to the people in the centre if the neoliberal revolution was overthrown.
Imagine a political party which promised to reduce expenditure on taxpayer funded services by 33 percent – by taking the provision of those services back in-house.
Imagine a government which, instead of following economic policies that led to the sacking of thousands of low-paid workers, encouraged the creation of a new kind of workplace. One in which the skills and creativity of the whole workforce was brought to the task of lifting productivity. Such workplaces would have little further need for managers of the neoliberal variety.
Managers’ socially useful skills would not, however, go to waste if a reforming government invited them to become an integral part of the social entrepreneurialism it was pledged to unleash.
All across New Zealand (and in Christchurch particularly) there is a huge amount of work to be done repairing damaged lives and damaged communities.
In her valedictory speech to Parliament, Lianne Dalziel talked about building a “resilient society”. That is a construction job to which the skills of these former managers could readily be applied. Deploying taxpayer resources to foster not dependence but resilience is a public enterprise to which most New Zealanders will gladly contribute.
The political centre currently cleaves to the right because the neoliberal order, so ruthlessly imposed over the last 30 years, makes it worth their while to do so.
All that is required to shift their allegiance is the effective presentation of a social and economic manifesto that makes it worth their while to do something else.
Kubrick’s monoliths were significant not for what they made us do, but for the possibilities they allowed us to see.
This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 24 September 2013.