Monday, 4 July 2016

Alone And Friendless: The Curious Fate Of The New Zealand Middle Class.

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 How, and by whom, has the Middle Class been superseded?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.

9 comments:

peter petterson said...

There is still no alternation to Labour as the opposition to an increasingly fascist National Party. So the continued attacks against Labour are not helpful. Labour cannot forget the treason of Douglas, whose father was, incidently, a member of the NZ Communist Party.

Nick J said...

Beautiful summary Chris. I work in commerce and I have seen a similar divide open between those owning small to medium businesses and the new master class of corporate managers. The former used to risk their savings and consequently earn more. The fat cats are now the managers of large organisations who carry no personal financial risk.

Today I have been to a cafe within a government building: you can tell the managerial class from the clothes they wear. They dont stand out because there are so many of them, individual articles of clothing on their backs cost more than that required to wardrobe a child for a year. And these are the masses of six figure salaried public servants that our taxes pay ridiculous amounts to compared to any actual output.

I sense that the business classes will be at war soon. The corporate class has become a leach on the produvctive businesses. The middle classes are going to be caught in the crossfire. Without unions thd profits from production that workers should have captured has gone straight to the top of the pile. Watch the middle classes squeal as they join the working class wages and precariousness.

Anonymous said...

The middle class have been heartless and racist to the working class, they cry out with pride. I am white, I have a house,a job, a good car, fuck the unions, fuck the Maori's and Islanders, please John Key keep the dream alive and keep saying 'fuck the poor'.
The real problem is that the New Zealand Labour party is saying exactly the same message, ask Sue Moron-y'I have got 4 house's' or Jacinda Ard-not earned or Grant Robber-son, then we have our dear leader, "Andrew" just give me a safe seat and I promise to rectify all of New Zealands ills. My fellow New Zealanders our message is quite clear, steady as she goes don't rock the boat, lets not get out of order. We should be government after all it is our turn.

Lets stop pretending the right and the left in NZ are a dog-crap and dogs breakfast in one.

Guerilla Surgeon said...

" "Andrew" just give me a safe seat and I promise to rectify all of New Zealands ills."
Again with the safe seat. You psychic?

jh said...

When did the Middle Class relinquish the moral and civic leadership upon which its claims to social per-eminence rested? How, and by whom, has the Middle Class been superseded?
...
Anti racism became the dominant ideology that separated the middle class from the working class who show that they are better by siding with the migrants. The working classes suffered first but it has been only recently that the rapidly increasing population has affected the middle classes, thanks to house prices and vanishing jobs in the likes of tourism (5917 work visa for tour guides) school zoning etc.

jh said...

Austerity and class divide likely factors behind Brexit vote, major survey suggests
Some 60 per cent now identify as working class and hold strong views on immigration, benefits and the unemployed
http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/home-news/brexit-austerity-working-class-divide-factors-british-social-attitudes-survey-a7109641.html

greywarbler said...

This discussion of the separatism of the middle class and the morphing lower class/precariat seems true from what I know. It brings to mind my experience in 1990 when I did some refresher courses at Polytechnic. The tutors themselves spread the idea of worthy trainees and skilled workers - us, and the drain on the country of slackers which were those on welfare - them.

The middle class are alert to transgressions by beneficiaries and the 'lower classes', each one being used by welfare attackers as a sign of the degeneracy that welfare leads to. At the time there was a furore as a young woman beneficiary had been given a voucher to buy a music player, and the shop had made an issue about it being a dearer type which had been happily picked up by the newspapers.

One tutor at polytech spread this opinion and most students enthusiastically agreed. Another tutor explained that only two per cent of NZs were studying as we were, somehow implying we were a special minority rising above the herd. There was no feeling of congeniality amongst the group in the course, rather a division, and exclusion if someone didn't fit the norm of behaviour held by the group.



greywarbler said...

I thought this radionz piece by Mike Carter from The Guardian about the division between the comfortable classes and those on the bottom rung in Britain echoed a recent post from you Chris. He has done a George Orwell-type walk to get a taste of the feelings about the EU in old, used-to-be working class areas.

audio: http://www.radionz.co.nz/audio/player/201806821 22m
http://www.radionz.co.nz/national/programmes/sunday/audio/201806821/mike-
carter-brexit-walking-from-liverpool-to-london
This week, The Guardian newspaper published a story by travel writer Mike Carter. The piece documented his walk from Liverpool to London and told of the hardships of many people living in the towns that the political system had forgotten. He joins Wallace to explain why it was no surprise to him that so many voted for Brexit.

Anonymous said...


"Today I have been to a cafe within a government building: you can tell the managerial class from the clothes they wear. They dont stand out because there are so many of them, individual articles of clothing on their backs cost more than that required to wardrobe a child for a year." - Nick J @ 1351.

Very perceptive and I agree with your point overall, however keep in mind even the proverbial copier boy is expected to wear a flash suit these days. He's certainly not getting six figures.