ONE OF THE BENEFITS of getting older is that you get a feel for when something really bad is happening. The experiences of youth, especially those events leading to profound societal change, tend to be so vivid that those who live through them become acutely sensitised to any experience which feels even remotely similar. That is why I feel obliged to say that, from the events occurring all around us in 2021, I am picking up a truly terrifying feeling of déjà vu.
The last time I experienced the same ominous feeling that something bad was unfolding: something that would change the lives of thousands of New Zealanders forever, and for the worse; something that could not be stopped; it was the early 1980s.
Yes, that’s right, the early 1980s was the period in which the ideology of neoliberalism first began sinking its roots into New Zealand society. It wasn’t called “neoliberalism” then, it’s promoters preferring to identify its goal as the establishment of a “free market”. To achieve this goal “more-market policies” were required. Thinking back to the “New Left” movements of the 1960s and 70s, political journalists took to calling this radical movement towards “economic freedom” the “New Right”.
What made this new ideology so chilling was that its effects were already apparent in the two countries with which New Zealanders (and Australians) most closely identify: The United Kingdom and the United States. Margaret Thatcher had been elected in 1979 and Ronald Reagan in 1980. Free Market policies were, therefore, bound to make their way here. In Australasia, the dominant ideas of London and Washington are culturally irresistible.
As Editor of the University of Otago student newspaper Critic in 1981, I felt obliged to publish articles from students excited by the radical new economic theories percolating through the academic community. It was disconcerting for those of us positioned on the extreme-left of social-democracy. We, too, wanted a shake-up in the way New Zealand’s economy was run – but not like this.
With growing unease, I began to see the post-war Keynesian status-quo coming under fire from both the New Left and the New Right. What I could not see, however, was the New Left winning this intensifying ideological struggle. Not with the USA and the UK weighing-in on what looked like the New Right’s unabashed call for a return to the laissez-faire capitalism of the nineteenth century.
The most important aspect to grasp about the success of the neoliberal revolution in New Zealand is that the revolutionaries were located overwhelmingly in the senior ranks of the public service, academia, and the news media – most notably in the Reserve Bank, the Treasury, and the business press. In these locations, they were ideally placed to exert a steady (and ultimately decisive) influence over the two groups essential to translating neoliberal ideology into practical action “on the ground”: politicians and business leaders.
That the Labour Party ended up being the vector for neoliberalism was due, firstly, to the exhaustion of Keynesian economics as a source for policies that hadn’t already been tested to destruction; and, secondly, to the pig-headed refusal of the National Prime Minister, Rob Muldoon, to embrace the New Right policies of Thatcher and Reagan. Labour’s politicians were desperate for a policy template they could offer up as an alternative to Muldoonism, and were delighted to discover that the people whose help and support they would most need to make it happen – the Reserve Bank and Treasury – were keen as mustard to get the revolution started.
Hence the sense of déjà vu. All around me I perceive the same secretive re-positioning of pieces on the board that characterised the early 1980s. There’s the same apprehension that within the public service, academia and the news media, the key ideological transitions have already been made – at least where they count. Once again, the two essential adjuncts to translating a rapidly consolidating ideological orthodoxy into practical “reform” on the ground – a willing political party (or parties) and a facilitative business sector – are already in place.
All that’s been missing is the “trigger” event: the equivalent of the Snap Election called so foolishly by Rob Muldoon in June 1984. Then came the unprecedented tragedy of the 2019 Christchurch Mosque Massacre, closely followed by the arrival of the Covid-19 pandemic. If the next policy revolution is not already in motion, then the Sixth Labour Government is certainly getting ready to turn the key in the ignition. It would have been the purest folly to let these crises go to waste!
The social-liberal revolution in which New Zealand seems certain to be engulfed will be even more wrenching than the neoliberal revolution which spawned it, and which it so closely resembles. Its purpose is straightforward: to forestall the political mobilisation of neoliberal capitalism’s economic casualties by aggravating the racial, sexual, and gender issues dividing them.
Essentially, the social-liberal revolution has been unleashed to protect the socio-economic interests of the professional and managerial class (PMC) which administers neoliberal society. If neoliberalism was the ideological expression of a capitalist ruling-class under pressure, and its fundamental objective was to smash organised labour and break the power of the working-class, then social-liberalism is the necessary ideological adaptation of the PMC, whose role it is to keep the working-class smashed and broken.
Like neoliberalism, social-liberalism can only be imposed from the top down. This is because all historical precedent suggests that the strongest impulses of those on the receiving end of economic and social injustice is towards unity and solidarity. It requires constant, conscious effort on the part of the ruling-class and its enablers to break up that unity and unravel that solidarity. Hence the need to obscure the common interests of working-class Māori and Pakeha; working-class men and women; working-class cis and LGBT. The elevation of identity over class is the critical cultural project at the heart of the social-liberal revolution.
Many of those destined to play a role in the social-liberal revolution will recoil from this analysis. They do not see themselves as facilitating the continuing upward transfer of wealth from the poor to the One Percent. Quite the reverse. They would position themselves firmly on the Left. Subsuming the struggles against racism, sexism, and gender inequality to those of class, they would argue, is reactionary. If the Sixth Labour Government is prepared to legislate in favour of what the Right calls “Wokeism”, then that just confirms the genuine progressivism of Jacinda Ardern and her colleagues.
What I would invite these aggrieved social-liberals to do is engage in a little comparative historical research.
Compare the early mass struggles of Māori against the failure of Pakeha society to honour the Treaty of Waitangi (back in the 1970s and early-1980s the preferred slogan was “The Treaty Is A Fraud!”) with the wealthy, iwi-based corporations, and the powerful iwi leaders’ group, that have emerged from the Crown-controlled Treaty settlement process of the past 30 years.
Contrast the United Women’s Conventions of the 70s, the mass campaign to reform the abortion laws, and the trade union-led struggle for the Working Women’s Charter of the early-1980s, with the current neoliberal indicator of female equality – the number of women seated around the boardroom tables of New Zealand’s largest corporations.
Turn the same spotlight on the contemporary trade union movement. Compare the lively public debates of the 400+ private-sector working-class delegates who gathered in Wellington for the annual conferences of the Federation of Labour, with the tiny, behind-closed-doors, biennial leadership conclaves of the “middle-class” public sector unions” (PSA, PPTA, NZEI, NZNO) that dominate the Council of Trade Unions.
It has always been a sure-fire way of determining whether or not you are involved in something genuinely progressive, or are simply promoting the interests of a narrow elite: pose the classic revolutionary question. Who? Whom?
Progressive revolutionary change bubbles up from below as the consequence of ordinary people transforming the unity and solidarity they have developed while fighting injustice into mass political action. If the only people to actually benefit from your top-down legislative revolution are a small, privileged, and well-remunerated minority: an elite group already in possession of enormous wealth and power; then you can be absolutely sure of two things:
It ain’t progressive.
It ain’t a revolution.
This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Wednesday, 15 December 2021.