Thursday, 29 January 2009

Whose Crisis?

Proletarian squalor, as captured by the 19th Century artist, Gustave Dore. For more than a century this has been the vulgar Marxists' mental picture of the working class's predicament. But, in a modern industrial society, such as New Zealand, does the working class really live like this?

STEVE COWAN, in his blog "Against the Current", takes me to task (yet again!) for failing to take the side of the New Zealand working class in my posting entitled "Ending the Phoney War".

This is irritating.

When I insist, as I do in the penultimate paragraph of the posting, that:

What the Prime Minister must not do is seek to appease the greed of those who financially backed his party’s election victory. Any attempt to shift the whole burden of New Zealand’s economic recovery on to the backs of its long-suffering citizens will merely guarantee that John Key leads his one-term National-Act-Maori Party Government to electoral oblivion.

Exactly whose side does he think I’m on?

If, as the British Marxist theorist, Alex Callinicos, insists, the socio-economic territory occupied by the citizenry and the proletariat is, in a modern industrial state, 70 percent co-extensive, then the above paragraph can only be read as a demand that the working class not be required to bear the burden of the economic recession on its own.

Steve also appears to have difficulty with the expression "equality of sacrifice". This is a term with a long and proud pedigree, stretching all the way back to World War I when it was used to demand that wealth – no less than men – be conscripted for the war effort. In the context of World War II it’s meaning was made plain by the imposition of food-rationing, confiscatory rates of progressive taxation, the requisition of stately homes, and the effective nationalisation of privately-owned natural resources such as coal.

This is what most people understand the term "equality of sacrifice" to mean, but for some reason Steve interprets it as "calling for ordinary New Zealanders to pay the price of an economic crisis not of their making".

There are any number of responses I could make to this extraordinary non sequitur, but, for the sake of brevity, I shall limit my reply to just three critical observations.

First. The looming economic crisis is indeed an exogenous event. It’s origins lie in the excesses of the US financial sector, and Steve is quite right to say that Kiwi workers have had no part in its making. Their innocence will not, however, prevent the effects of what is now confirmed as the most serious economic downturn since World War II from washing over New Zealand. And, that being the case, the National-led Government cannot avoid dealing with its impact.

Second. When it comes to the most appropriate governmental response, Steve is clearly of the view that the 70 percent of New Zealanders who belong to the working class should not be asked to play any role in dealing with the crisis. Logically, this leaves the remaining 30 percent of the population to come up with a solution on its own. Now this is rather odd, because, from his own writings, it is very clear that Steve abhors the very notion of the upper and middle classes deciding the fate of working people.

Of course, what Steve might actually be suggesting is that the middle and upper classes should bear the entire weight of the crisis on their own shoulders. If so, I would like to hear him explain why these Kiwis (who are also, presumably, innocent of any role in the creation of the global recession) should be the ones to make all of the sacrifices. Apart from utterly impoverishing these groups (and thereby transforming them into members of the working class) what purpose would be served by such an inherently unjust policy?

Which brings me to my third and final point: Steve’s apparent unwillingness to concede to individual members of the New Zealand working class the slightest hint of personal autonomy or social responsibility.

To Steve the proletariat can only ever be mired in absolute and irremediable destitution. In his mental universe its members no doubt resemble those extraordinary woodcuts by Gustave Dore depicting the poor of Victorian London. These are not people who drive around town in imported second-hand SUV’s, or take out hire-purchase agreements on flat-screen television sets. They do not belong to families who have just come back from a holiday at the beach. They are not paying off mortgages, or helping their kids through polytechnic. They do not have trade certificates and are certainly not paid $28 per hour. In short, Steve’s Dickensian working class bears not the slightest resemblance to the real 21st Century workers passing by him every day in the street.

To suggest that this vast swathe of the New Zealand population possesses neither the capacity, nor the inclination, to participate in any plan for getting their country through the most serious economic crisis since the 1930s is as outrageous as it is condescending.

And, just so there’s no mistake, Steve: Yes, I do support a rise in the minimum wage for low-paid workers. And yes, I do believe that families dependent on the domestic purposes benefit deserve a substantial lift in their weekly income. It might also be a good idea for the National-led Government to offer temporary tax relief to this country’s tens of thousands of small, family-owned and run businesses. It should also embark on a massive state house construction programme, and reverse its decision to halt the insulation of old/cold homes. I’m also in favour of a substantial increase in the top marginal tax rate for persons earning over $100,000.

These are all measures any self-respecting social-democrat would be proud to support, and the NZ Labour Party has already suggested most of them. It’s what we mean when we talk about ensuring "equality of sacrifice".

Because, believe me Steve, if the New Zealand working class is not encouraged to become a leading actor in the unfolding economic drama, then the only role it is likely to be assigned is that of victim.


Steve Withers said...

Completely agree with your last para in particular. The lesson of history - recent and not so recent - is that the folks who don't pay attention end up roadkill on the highway of life. Not just not driving.....but driven over.

rouppe said...

I also broadly support the thrust of this message.

I did find one sentence curious. That "utterly impoverishing these groups..." then "transforms them into members of the working class..." suggests that the working class are all impoverished. Which I dispute.

I have always worked for someone else and am thus "working class". But I also earn over $100,000 (once you take workplace super into account) so am one who Steve presumably feels has caused others to be on the breadline. Rubbish.

The fact is that "working class" covers those on under the minimum wage through to those earning in the hundreds of thousands.

Am I hurting now? No. Could I lose my job? Yes. Would I be screwed then? Pretty much.

I'm tired of ones "place" in the class system (a system that doesn't actually exist in NZ to any great degree) being determined by income as silly as $100,000.

The real power rests with those that employ others in large numbers, because they have the cashflow to work the court systems, and the political push by virtue of weight of numbers employed with which to threaten the country. You need to be considering entities (natural persons and organisations) that have income in the millions when looking for people to share the pain.

Is it reasonable for banks to be making billion dollar profits at a time like this? No. Halving that to the benefit of both borrowers and savers would make a real difference in weathering the storm. Same goes for the energy conglomerates here. Electricity is something we all need. Some real pain can be shared there in order to ease the pain for many many others in the coming winter.