Reflected Gory: The Greek hero, Perseus, used Athena's bright shield to defeat Medusa. If Grant Robertson means to slay the neoliberal Gorgon he should, like Perseus, be guided by what he sees in Wisdom's Mirror. Neoliberalism can only be slain by the thing it set out to negate: the political economy of solidarity and generosity.
HOW TO ELIMINATE one’s rival without getting one’s hands dirty? It’s a problem with a prodigious political pedigree. King David’s lust for Bathsheba drove him to order, Uriah, her unfortunate husband, placed in the front line of battle – where he was promptly and conveniently slain. King Henry II, thwarted in his ambition to dominate the English Church by his old friend, Thomas Becket (whom he’d foolishly made Archbishop of Canterbury) cried out: “Will no one rid me of this turbulent priest!” Whereupon four of his knights immediately took it upon themselves to terminate the Archbishop’s turbulence with extreme prejudice. In neither case, however, did matters end well for these errant kings. God was watching David, and Henry had a Pope to placate.
Then again, there’s the legend of Perseus. If they’d had opinion polls on the Greek island of Serifos back in the days of King Polydectes, then the hero, Perseus, would have been the people’s preferred monarch. To protect his throne (and get his lustful paws on Perseus’ beautiful mother, Danae) Polydectes tricked the hero into promising to bring him any gift he cared to name. Without missing a beat, the King ordered Perseus to bring him the head of Medusa – the monstrous Gorgon who had only to look upon a man and he was instantly turned to stone.
Now in the ordinary run of things, Perseus would have been a goner. But, of course, as Zeus’s son, he had friends in the highest of places. And so, with the help of the gods Hermes and Athena, he was able to cut off Medusa’s head without being turned to stone. Returning to Serifos, Perseus bore the monster’s head to Polydectes who was, predictably, petrified.
Now, it strikes me that Andrew Little was born too late to have been enthralled (as I was) by the Children’s World Record Club’s magnificent rendering of the legend of Perseus and Medusa. [It’s how middle-class Kiwi parents entertained their children in the years before television!] Nevertheless, there is more than a hint of Polydectes deadly errand in Mr Little’s decision to confer the Finance Spokesperson role upon his most formidable political rival, Grant Robertson.
"Slay what?" Labour's Finance Spokesperson, Grant Robertson.
The confident predictions of right-wing political commentators notwithstanding, Mr Little is expecting a great deal more from his Finance Spokesperson than yet another recitation of the neoliberal catechism. Mr Robertson has been given twelve months to come up with something new in the way of economic policy. Something that moves the Labour Party on from its 30 year infatuation with neoliberal dogma and introduces it to a practical and progressive set of economic alternatives.
Polydectes would be proud. Because Mr Robertson’s quest is full of perils. If ever there was a menagerie of solid rock, it is that vast collection of economic ideas upon which the neoliberal Gorgon has cast her petrifying gaze. Mr Robertson would not be the first social democrat to have his career turned to stone for the capital crime of embracing heterodox political economy. Just consider the fates of the US Democratic Party’s Walter Mondale, or the German SPD’s Oskar Lafontaine.
But perhaps the very myth that exemplifies Mr Robertson’s predicament also points the way to its solution.
According to story, Perseus was gifted with several crucial items by Hermes and Athena. From the god he received winged sandals, upon which he could fly; Zeus’s sword, that cut through brass and iron; and Hades’ helmet, which made him invisible. From the goddess he received a mighty shield in whose polished surface he could safely view Medusa’s harmless reflection. It was Athena’s – the Goddess of Wisdom’s – gift that guided his sword-arm at the critical moment.
What, then, is the mirror image of neoliberalism? To learn the answer, Mr Robertson need look no further than this morning’s (12/12/14) NZ Herald editorial. Responding to the recent OECD report in which New Zealand is singled out for the size of the gulf separating its richest and poorest citizens, the leader writer wrote:
“In one sense this is not a surprise. New Zealand was a highly protected economy until the mid-1980s with a strongly unionised labour force, high taxation and universal benefits. It had removed these arrangements rapidly by the mid-1990s, conscious that it was opening itself to world markets later than most and with trade disadvantages of distance and scale.”
It would seem that Mr Robertson’s search for an alternative to the iniquitous neoliberal prescription should begin with the things that neoliberalism was intended to replace: policies that enable New Zealand-based businesses to grow and prosper; laws that ensure the rights of employees are protected and that their remuneration is both fair and adequate; and finally, the overarching determination that (as the OECD’s report itself recommends) the nation’s wealth be redistributed in ways that permit all of its citizens to aspire to full, productive and happy lives.
An economic policy elaborating these three themes would, indeed, be a mighty sword in the hands of a Labour Finance Minister – especially one who had taught himself to see, in Wisdom’s mirror, exactly where to strike.
Reviewing the tasks Mr Little has set Mr Robertson, it is possible that I have done him a disservice in comparing him to the evil King Polydectes. If the Labour leader’s true purpose had been to send his rival upon a quest he could not complete, would he have put him in charge of Labour’s broad-ranging inquiry into the future of work? Is it not more likely that, by giving Mr Robertson this responsibility, Mr Little has indicated the direction in which he wishes Labour and its finance spokesperson to march? To a New Zealand where the rights of citizens and their prosperity are inextricably bound together, and where the true purpose of political economy is to ensure the continuance of both.
Sometimes the best way to eliminate a rival is not to turn him to stone, but to allow him to blossom and bear fruit. The Gods, they say, help those who help themselves – and each other.
This essay was posted simultaneously on The Daily Blog and Bowalley Road blogsites on Saturday, 13 December 2014.