Doing All Right? Separated from its former working class allies; dictated to by an international ruling class it cannot control; the New Zealand middle class is, today, almost entirely absorbed with its own survival. House prices, retirement plans, and the fecklessness of the lower orders are the obsessions du jour. The besetting conundrum: how to ensure their children enjoy a middle class existence, without relinquishing their own in the process?
WHAT HAS HAPPENED to the New Zealand Middle Class? Why has the social strata that encompasses our best educated, most highly skilled, most entrepreneurial and financially literate citizens, failed so miserably to respond to our nation’s needs? When did the Middle Class relinquish the moral and civic leadership upon which its claims to social pre-eminence rested? How, and by whom, has the Middle Class been superseded?
Like so many of the answers to the questions about what has gone wrong with New Zealand, the answer to these particular questions must be looked for in the social and economic changes of the 1980s.
Up until 1981, New Zealand society remained the co-creation of its working and middle classes. Beginning with the Liberal Government of the 1890s, this extraordinary collaborative effort assumed its mature form in the First Labour Government of 1935-1949.
Paradoxically, it was the extraordinary success of the governments of Michael Joseph Savage and Peter Fraser that shifted the balance of social power within New Zealand society from the working to the middle class. Labour’s reforms had led to a significant increase in the political weight of middle class votes. A bitter Labour Party joke from the 1949 election expressed this crucial electoral shift: “They walked to the polls to vote us in, and drove to the polls to vote us out.”
The key beneficiary of this shift was the National Party, which went on to dominate the electoral politics of the post-war era. Before it could assume the mantle of New Zealand’s “natural party of government”, however, National was required to pledge its allegiance to the welfare state Labour had created. Memories of the Great Depression were still clear enough in 1949 for middle class voters to understand that it was the social-democratic reforms of the 30s and 40s which had reconstituted their social status and laid the foundation for their prosperity.
The result was a nation in which the middle and working classes advanced together, albeit with the former expanding at a slightly faster rate than the latter.
It was the 1981 Springbok Tour that shattered the unity of New Zealand’s working and middle classes. The middle-class members of the Baby Boom Generation, in particular, felt psychically alienated from working-class New Zealanders. Thanks to the Tour, the latter found themselves despised as an irredeemable collection of racist, sexist and homophobic thugs – who voted for National’s Rob Muldoon.
The prime beneficiary of this psychic break was the Labour Party – a political organisation increasingly dominated by the young, upwardly-mobile, professional inheritors of New Zealand’s fifty-year social-democratic legacy. With no experience of the conditions which had drawn middle and working class New Zealanders together in the 1930s, these were the Labour politicians whose “free market” policies of the 1980s would, in a frighteningly short period of time, tear them apart.
Having watched in disbelief as Labour deliberately cut itself adrift from its working class base, the National Party, in 1990, was quick to take full advantage of the widening socio-economic schisms “Rogernomics” had created. National’s near-destruction of organised labour in the private sector embedded a new layer of middle class managers in the nation’s workplaces. Similarly, the Bolger Government’s mass sell-off of state houses set in motion the apparently irreversible trend towards middle class landlordism. Far from being collaborators in the joint advancement of their respective classes, middle and working class New Zealanders had become economic, social and political antagonists. That the working class was now an increasingly Maori and Pasifika phenomenon, did little to slow the rate at which the gulf between the two classes was widening.
Another widening gulf was that which separated New Zealand’s middle class from the new, essentially supra-national, ruling class, in whose hands the country’s future now rested. Globalisation, and the neoliberal regime which enforced it, didn’t just break the power of the organised working class, it also unseated New Zealand’s complaisant ruling class. The economic, cultural and political elites who had accepted the terms of the post-war social-democratic settlement were replaced by those who understood, and were fiercely loyal to, the policies of the new order.
Separated from its former working class allies; dictated to by an international ruling class it cannot control; the New Zealand middle class is, today, almost entirely absorbed with its own survival. House prices, retirement plans, and the fecklessness of the lower orders are the obsessions du jour. The besetting conundrum: how to ensure their children enjoy a middle class existence, without relinquishing their own in the process?
The generous and collaborative middle class, which won New Zealand international acclaim for its progressive economic, social and political reforms, has largely ceased to exist. Without allies, and without hope, its selfish successor squabbles fractiously on a dwindling sand hill, fatally encumbered by the shabby detritus of its own illusory superiority.
This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 21 June 2016.