Saturday 9 May 2015

Power To The (Right) People! How Neoliberalism Stole The Left's Best Ideas.

False Pretences: The extreme unpopularity of neoliberalism forced Labour's neoliberals to mask their true intentions behind a rhetoric that owed as much, if not more, to the Left than the Right.
AT THE CORE of contemporary New Zealand politics lies a bitter argument about the nature and purpose of the state. Eighty years ago the Labour Party radically changed the configuration and responsibilities of the New Zealand State, setting in place a legal and institutional framework that endured, largely unchanged, until the mid-1980s. Between 1985 and 1995, however, both the Labour and National parties embarked on an historic (if unmandated) mission to both re-shape and re-purpose the New Zealand State.
In this they were only partially successful. Much of the First Labour Government’s “Welfare State” remains in place. Health and education retain their fundamentally public character. Sixty thousand “State Houses” and their tenants continue to call the state their landlord. And, twenty-five years of privatisation notwithstanding, much of New Zealand’s key infrastructure: the railways, an airline, energy generation and transmission; remain either wholly or partially in public hands.
The Right is impatient to complete the neoliberalisation of the New Zealand State. The Left, however, cannot make up its mind whether it should defend the institutions and achievements of the past (including those of the 1980s) or set about creating a new state – one fit for twenty-first century New Zealanders to live in. The National Party’s remarkable political success since 2008 is explained almost entirely by this left-wing indecision. If Labour and the Greens cannot agree, and quickly, upon a common forward path, then the neoliberal transformation of New Zealand will become an accomplished fact.
The completion of the neoliberal project will not, however, be undertaken honestly. Most New Zealanders, if asked, will reject the idea of privatised health and education – just as, when they were asked in the 1980s and 90s, they rejected the idea of privatising the Bank of New Zealand and NZ Post. In 2014, campaigning openly and honestly for its hard-line neoliberal programme, the Act Party attracted just 16,000 Party Votes nationwide – less than half of the Mana-Internet Party’s 34,000.
The extreme unpopularity of neoliberalism forces neoliberals to mask their true intentions behind a rhetoric that owes as much, if not more, to the Left than the Right. Charter Schools, for example, are sold to the public as the only effective means of raising the educational attainment levels of society’s most disadvantaged groups. A crude education-for-profit boondoggle is thereby represented in the most vivid left-wing hues: a radical solution to the problems caused by an indifferent, highly-bureaucratised state. After all, what could be more conducive to achieving social justice and freedom than empowering local communities to organise themselves out-from-under the overbearing, one-size-fits-all tutelage of the public education system?
And how does the Left respond? In just about every case, by championing the bureaucracy, standing behind the sector unions (whose symbiotic relationship with the bureaucracy is seldom acknowledged) and by condescendingly denying the capacity of poor and disadvantaged parents to recognise what is good for their children. The reaction of these parents – who are also voters – is readily imagined.
The sadly ironic fact about this all-too-effective political jiu-jitsu is that the Right borrowed it more-or-less holus-bolus from the radical reformers of the 1960s and 70s. Leftists from that era will readily recall the book Summerhill by A. S. Neill – which demanded the radical devolution of pedagogical power to its intended recipients – the pupils themselves. Nor will left-wing Baby Boomers have forgotten radical psychologist R. D. Laing’s ruthless deconstruction of the bourgeois nuclear family (with all its attendant psychopathologies). In a society that was itself insane, argued Laing in The Politics of Experience and The Divided Self, those whom we label “mad” may actually be the most well-adjusted of us all.
In short, the intellectual leaders of the so-called “New Left” did not hesitate to identify the highly-centralised and deeply authoritarian institutions of the bureaucratic welfare state as prime targets for radical reform.
Not even the trade unions escaped the New Left’s revolutionary critique. The leaders of organised labour (who, in the United States, had come out in favour of the Vietnam War) were branded as collaborators and sell-outs whose overweening power and influence needed to be redistributed downwards to the workers on the shop-floor.
If these themes still resonate politically, it is only because the New Left’s critiques of the post-war Welfare State were all-too-accurate. What began as a means of liberating working-class people from the “five giant evils” - Want, Idleness, Ignorance, Squalor and Disease - which had tyrannised them throughout the laissez-faire era, had, by the 1960s, morphed into an equally overbearing overseer of the citizen’s social conduct. Rather than freeing working people from the ravages of capitalism, the Welfare State had only made them more fit for its purposes.
Near the end of Ken Loach's 2012 film The Spirit of ’45, a number of the contributors draw attention to “the worm in the bud” of the Labour Party’s radical 1945 programme. Its weakness, as they saw it, lay in the fact that the nationalised industries were to be run “for and on behalf of” – but not by – the people. Stripped of its potent symbolism, Labour’s programme amounted to little more than replacing the competing (and, therefore, highly inefficient and often dangerous) hierarchies and bureaucracies of the private sector with a smaller number of new hierarchies and bureaucracies operated by the state. In the immortal words of The Who’s Won’t Get Fooled Again: “Meet the new boss – same as the old boss.”
The extraordinary success of the neoliberals’ wholesale appropriation of the New Left’s rhetoric against highly centralised, authoritarian bureaucracies – especially those operated by the state – can only be countered by a Left that’s prepared to re-appropriate and intelligently advance its pilfered political programme. By once again promoting devolution as a general political principle, left-wing parties would immediately expose the falsity of the neoliberals’ position. The advocacy of genuine “consumer rights” in our schools, universities, hospitals, shops, offices and factories would alert working people to their true position in both the private and public bureaucracies of contemporary capitalism.
Those who object that the Labour Party would never embrace such a radical strategy have obviously never heard of the devolutionary, worker empowering initiatives of the Fourth Labour Government. The Regional Employment and Access Councils (REACs) which operated on a tripartite basis – i.e. their members were drawn equally from employers, unions and community organisations – would have intervened even more successfully in the labour market had they been required to operate with just a little more transparency and accountability. The Trade Union Education Authority, generously funded to equip union delegates with the skills necessary to be effective workplace advocates, was another successful initiative of the Fourth Labour Government. (The Rogernomes didn’t have it all their own way!)
Today, of course, we have Whanau Ora. Conceived by Tariana Turia as a means of empowering Maori families to avail themselves directly of the services and resources currently provided piecemeal through a bewildering multitude of state welfare agencies, this Maori Party initiative is probably the most radical exercise in devolution ever sanctioned by the New Zealand State. Considerable criticism (much of it merited) has been directed at the programme, but that should not lead to it being rejected out-of-hand by the Left. With full transparency and accountability built into its processes, Whanau Ora could yet furnish New Zealand’s progressive community with a whole new model for “consumer” empowerment.
A state in which initiatives like Whanau Ora can flourish will look very different from the state created by Labour in the 1930s. But the Left must not be afraid to both re-imagine and re-purpose the sort of institutional structures needed to deliver a better life for working people in the twenty-first century. The neoliberals have already proved the rhetorical and political potency of the proposition that people should be allowed to manage their own affairs. To do so, however, they first had to steal the Left’s best ideas. It’s high time the Left repaid the compliment by stealing them back.
This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of 8 May 2015.


Brendan McNeill said...

“…people should be allowed to manage their own affairs.”

We may be about to witness Labour’s first heresy trial.

Anonymous said...

DYes buy shares in Fletchers

David Stone said...

Hi Chris
Like neoliberalism for instance
Cheers David J S

aberfoyle said...

Always was a hard answer,left leaning winning the Poms election,when they like their opposition was not to far removed in policy from them.

As like our electrol system,the fence sitters the unclaimed not made my mind up yet,the selfish uncaring just me,has done the damaged,the self security.

Guerilla Surgeon said...

I can't speak for all unions, but the relationship between the teachers union and bureaucracy, at least at the rank-and-file level, is somewhat fraught. (Although to be honest I'm not QUITE sure what you mean by symbiotic.) Hence the old joke about the three biggest lies, the last one of which is "I'm from the Ministry of education and I'm here to HELP you."
It seems to me – without an explanation of symbiotic, that this is an old chestnut, similar to "they are led around by the nose by their wildly left-wing leaders."
Also, to me the suggestion that parents know best for their children has its fishhooks. Some of them simply and flatly don't. It also implies that somehow children are positions, with which we can do what we like. That has its dangers too. Still, an interesting take on where we could be going.

aberfoyle said...

Whats these new highlight blue in our comment line.Has the capitalist culture got the right now to weasel its way of ingratiating us into their free give away rorts.

peteswriteplace said...

WE will have to look at reversing the worst of the Right's so-called reforms, and reorganising many others. We have never reversed the ECA, just amended it.
Fletchers owe the Labour Party for its early success. Neo liberalism must be reversed. How, you may ask? That for the economic experts. Making unionism compulsorily voluntary was a real joke. The EU doesn't rule NZ.

Jigsaw said...

Stunning! In the paragraph that begins...'And how does the left respond, in just about every case, by championing...etc. You have summed up beautifully and exactly how Labour and The Greens treat the ordinary parent and the arrogance of the teacher unions and the bureaucracy. I was part of that union attitude which in my opinion has got decidedly worse in the last 20 years. Education belongs to the parents as consumers NOT to the unions and bureaucracy who think that they know better.
I copied that paragraph and pinned it on the wall!!Well said!

Anonymous said...

Chris, you have (finally?) discovered the central flaw of socialism - it does things for and to people rather than by and with them.
It's not too late - come join the right side.

Anonymous said...

Chris, Do you think that is possible with the current electoral system for Labour? The shock all round if they were to take that approach would be something to see.

Guerilla Surgeon said...

Ah of course, the right want the government out of our lives. Except when they don't :-).

Gary Young said...

Anonymous @19:37

And the central flaw of the 'right side' is that it does things to people, for it's own profit, regardless of the hurt this may cause them.

Guerilla Surgeon said...

It's interesting how the right always claim that parents know best, yet continually rail against parents who "don't feed their kids properly" – "inculcate the wrong values in their kids", "don't send them to school", "initiate them into a life of crime", turn them into those mythical welfare queens et cetera et cetera et cetera. Obviously only nice middle-class parents know what right for their kids.

Anonymous said...

Chris, I negotiate PPPs. They're not called that, but that's what they are. Although they are not devolution as such, they share a common feature, in that something otherwise done in the aggregate by a large Govt entity is done in components by subcontractors - some large firms, and of course, they in turn subcontract down lower value activity again. Now I'm not saying Govt has to do everything, or always has, but there is quite a difference moving to devolve some activity that either time has proven has needed to be done centrally, or else even if in theory that is not the case, by dint of time, that is where the institutional capability lies. What you get if you move from a Govt entity that was doing 100 things in a mediocre way, to 100 entities doing it, is not nirvana. You get what you see here, which is 100 new ways to create inefficiency, 100 new organisations needing CEOs, CFOs etc, 100 new weak smaller organisations whose total existence is politically oriented (all funding is via taxes, they have no existence independently e.g. through selling widgets to consumers), 100 new hiding places for corruption, 100 new forms of fragmentation etc.
I'm not saying devolution can't work, but it can't work as an ideology, only as a very considered and selective step in particular cases: otherwise you will simply end up humiliated in Parliament and out of Government, death by a thousand scnadals. As night follows day, if you replace strong even if ineffective institutions, with a multitude of smaller ones, you will get embarrassed. For all their faults, Govt departments tend to have a high general level of competence, low levels of corruption etc and be easy things for Minister's to own, manage and control. I think this could run a cycle, but I'm saying that ultimately, after enough time (say 10 years), the results would be in and things would swing back the other way, any other result would not be sustainable. And no, with enough time, those hundreds of devolved organisations would not all learn to be competent, efficient etc. Some, sure, but enough wouldn't as to inflict the damage. Ministers answering to things they don't fully control, that go out of control, well that ain't sustainable, and devolution has this as a baked in feature.

pat said... are rght about multiple levels of (private) bureaucracy and opportunity for corruption etc...but somehow I dont think Chris' ideaof devolution extends to privatisation, or even PPPs...I suspect (and correct me if Im wrong) it is more devolving from central government direction and control to regional or local public control and "ownership"

Jigsaw said...

As usual GS you manage to distort what people actually say to suit your own ends. I didn't say and have never said that people necessarily know what's best for their children but given they have the responsibility for them, then they have the right to decide what is right for them - even if in the end they are wrong. As soon as you say that someone else can decide what is best for the child(when there are no obvious problems -like being into crime or neglected) - then you are on the very slippery slope to one meaning the state will make a better parent. Perhaps that is what you really think. Strangely I thought that this had already been tried before - a whiff of Hitler youth or East Germany there?

Robert M said...

Legislatively the New Right Acts restrict expansion of the Government and Council roles, but under Clark and Bill English a lot of incremental moves have been made to change NZ back into a controlled social welfare state which with the new powers of feminists, social workers, police and surveillance cameras is actually even more unattractive to intelligent people than the before 1984 society.
The new cafe society has survived but the 24 hours cities have gone and the major NZ cities that buzzed and rocked 19/24hrs at least 6 days a week are not only on Friday and Sunday.
The major feature of Australian and UK neoliberalism the privatisation of education and health never happened in NZ and the huge cost of property in Auckland means that the money that would have been spent on private educations is now spent on property.
I think the argument for more choice and consumer sovereignty in Schools, Universities and health care is not just a new right trick and reforms introduced by Gordon Brown and Osborne are obviously popular. Under Brown and Blair people got to choose and change their doctor for the first time and the GP role was extended to include previous specialities.

Guerilla Surgeon said...

Jigsaw, as usual you didn't read my post. Or it's possible I was unclear if so I apologise. I said "the right". This is not the only site where I argue with right wing people. I was referring to right wing people in general, not necessarily you in particular.
I would still take issue with parents being allowed to decide everything for their children. Children are not possessions. And sometimes "getting it wrong" means the death of a child. So someone at least has to set standards.

Guerilla Surgeon said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
vortexx said...


Did you get on your kids' schools boards of trustees and try to claim the education system that belongs to you?
Were you there to experience the Government bureaucracy taking more and more of it off you? Were you there to scoff at having more aspects of your freedom taken away yet hear the previous Act MP relish the opportunity to have charter schools where communities could have freedom?

dean Parker said...

The Spirit of 45 was, of course, directed by Ken Loach, not Mike Leigh, a simple mistake. A number of people have pointed out that Loach has in the past not held such rosy views of Atlee. We've all been remorselessly pulled rightwards over the past three decades...
A note on R D Laing. Some years ago I came across a 1970s publication by Peter Sedgwick warning that Laing's anti-psychiatry arguments -- so fashionably echoed by many of us back then -- would be used by governments to slash health budgets. I remember later Paul Maunder responding to someone who quoted Margaret Thatcher's infamous claim "There is no such thing as community" with the comment, "Yes there is -- it's the place where they put mad people."

Anonymous said...

According to Mike Cullen Neoliberalism was killed by Jim Bolger in 1993 when he sacked Ruth Richardson and returned to Holyoake style incrementalism. Interestingly in Cullens speech he noted the term neoliberal is still used as a pejorative by the hard left to describe conservative voters in general - get your arse out of the dark ages and stop fighting the battles of the 80's Chris you crusty cobweb covered old paleo red.

With respect to the 'neoliberal' charter schools - how about just giving them a go, sure the education unions will lose members and money and theyre bootlickers on the left will howl with rage - but lets just try, who knows they might just work for some of kids from the bottom of the pile, wouldnt that be inconvenient for the haters from the left.

Chris Trotter said...

Oh crikey, Dean, you're right!

Don't know how I got those two confused.

Duly corrected.

Many thanks.

Guerilla Surgeon said...

Charter schools have been tried in other countries. They don't work. Well – some of them do but they tend to carefully select students rather than take whoever happens to be around. And they have been organised in New Zealand so that we can't actually find out how well they're doing, because it's all done in secret. I thought the right was big on transparency. Obviously only when it suits them. Just as they are with welfare.

I don't really regard myself as hard left, but I do have some aversion to private enterprise regarding our education system is something to be plundered. Similar to our transport system. I mean can anyone really regard the privatisation of Wellington's railway system as a success? A fucking plundered it, forgot all about maintenance, and then flogged back to the government for a huge profit – shame to those who bought it back as well. But I see where you're coming from anonymous, judging by your spelling obviously the education system did not work for you.

Anonymous said...

"Charter schools dont work in other countries" - actually some of them work incredibly well, which wouldnt be a problem but for the fact they pit the interests of a disadvantaged brown underclass against a white liberal elite. Easy fix, brand them as neoliberal and bury them.

For those of us who give a shit about the brown underclass (unlikely any of the readers of this blog) and are not wedded to dogma (neoliberal or paleosocialist) charter schools are worth a crack, the results coming through from Vangaurd are startling and will hopefully be replicated.

Davo Stevens said...

Good points GS @ 10.30.

In Florida the Charter Schools are closing down because, with all the fanfare, they are a colossal waste of time and money.

The issue I take with all the privatisation is the secrecy that surrounds it. Commercially sensitive, we are told. Yet, it's our tax money and we have a right to know where every dollar is going. If the companies don't want to disclose what they are doing then they shouldn't be in that business.

Chris Trotter said...

To: Anonymous@12:39

Insult Bowalley Road's readers, or use the word "paleosocialst", just one more time, and it will be your last on this blog.

Guerilla Surgeon said...

Worldwide, Charter schools at their best perform no better than public schools. They don't even do any better than American public schools, and they are far inferior to New Zealand ones on the whole. The ones that do perform well tend to choose their students rather than taking anyone who applies. Even if they take anyone who applies, aspirational parents are more likely to apply. They tend to very quickly expel anyone who causes problems, and public schools don't have this easy option.
They are cheaper, but often because they don't provide services like special education.
They are subject to corrupt practices, because they are often profit driven, and as I said there is no transparency compared to public schools. We pretty much don't know what's going on in most of them.
Those that are not motivated by profit are often run by fringe organisations that don't like of mint curricula. Like teaching evolution.
Christ the Internet is full of stories of charter school failures, including a couple in New Zealand. And I might be a paly of socialist whatever the fuck that is but I do believe in research and here is some.

"The largest national studies have been conducted by Stanford University–based Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO), an organization generally supportive of charter schools. Comparing math scores of charter and public school students, CREDO’s 2009 study found that 17 percent of charter schools had superior growth in math scores, 37 percent were inferior, and 46 percent were “statistically indistinguishable” from public schools. Averaged across all schools, the impact of attending a charter school was a slight—but statistically significant—negative impact for both math and reading gains (CREDO 2009, 3, 22)."

So stop telling me they're brilliant, and particularly stop telling me I don't care about poor brown kids you arse, because I work with them all the time. I doubt you ever see one from one day to the next.

Anonymous said...

It is not obvious what the labour Party stands for in 2015. It is chipping away at aspects of the present government's approach to things but that is what it is, chipping. Since the failure of the Labour Party government in the 80s it has not known what it has stood for.

If it does not know what it stands for it cannot expect its likely constituency to know either.

The Clark government had nine years of power. Where did it improve the labour laws? Why did it drag its feet on getting proper wages paid to workers? What support did it give to ensuring that unions remained part of the work seen in New Zealand?

Is not a matter of talking about neoliberalism or Socialism or any other ism. It is a matter of knowing what you stand for. At present the New Zealand Labour Party cannot do that.

The only hope is that it will find out before it is too late.

Jigsaw said...

Vortexx- Actually I was on the BOT of a NZ school-duly elected - I also taught in Ontario where a left leaning government tried the same thing-taking power away from parents but using a very centralised system - top down system. I spoke up against that. When I returned to NZ I was approached by several people from Canada who wanted to know more about our 'charter school system' that was well before ACT introduced them. They just saw our schools post-Tomorrow's Schools, as being free of the centralised system they had-a system incidentally that promoted some of the most incompetent teachers I have ever known to be principals and managers.
There was very little freedom within the Ontario school system.

Charles E said...

Naming something makes it exist in some philosophies but it may not help when talking to average folk.
So we currently have 'neo-liberalism' and the now banned 'paleo-socialism'. To me they are unhelpful, both of them. Even 'The Left' & 'The Right' says only something about one's primitive tribalism. Although I like its apparent clarity of a place to stand with fellows.
The way we are now, the way we are governed, how we got here etc are clearly from a complex mix of influences, ideas and philosophies, from both 'sides' and none. It is where we go from here, not who done it, that is the question.
Currently the voters almost everywhere favour what the so called centre right puts up, leaving the left baffled and biting itself like an abused and neglected street dog in the third world. Why?
My feeling is that the centre right has largely moved past the past tribalism of philosophies previously reasonably clearly left or right, on to a winning (ie it works) pragmatism that clearly appeals to the majority. And that majority are not like us, in that they really have no idea what is right or left and if you explained it to them they would either say that is irrelevant today or politely say 'how interesting' then move way from the strange person.
It may be that there is no return to left and right. They may have passed their 'use by' date. After all they have not always existed and came about around the time of Paine and Burke, and bloody revolutions. So arguably they have killed a lot of people, especially last century so perhaps good riddance. Welcome to www: 'Whatever Works World'

Guerilla Surgeon said...

"British Columbia, Ontario, and Alberta are the top performers among all the provinces, earning “B” grades on the Education and Skills report card.
Manitoba, Saskatchewan, New Brunswick, and Newfoundland and Labrador all earn “D’s” overall, while P.E.I. earns a “D–,” scoring worse than the lowest-ranked international peer country.
The largest provincial differences occur on student reading, science, and math skills—with provinces earning anywhere from an “A+” to a “D–” grade."

Interesting then jigsaw, that Ontario is one of the better provinces as far as education goes. Getting a B in the International stakes, where is Norway, which has been experimenting with the right wing voucher system actually gets a D.

Guerilla Surgeon said...

It's always the right wing "pundits" who decide that the words right and left are no longer applicable. Is just distraction folks :-).