Monday, 16 February 2009

Taking Your Time

Pt Chevalier 1964: This superb photograph by Ans Westra captures the carefree spirit of New Zealand's post-war, youth-oriented, culture.

Two extremely pertinent postings on the deep-seated social malaise undermining our democratic political culture – the first here, by Bryce Edwards, and the second here, by Kiwipolitico’s "Pablo" – have prompted me to post this speech, delivered to the New Zealand University Students Association’s bi-annual conference on 12 July 2003. It’s rather long, but does, I think, helpfully address and expand upon the themes so powerfully introduced by Bryce and "Pablo".

IT HAS BEEN more years than I care to remember since I last addressed a meeting of NZUSA, so long ago, in fact, that many of you in this theatre would not have been born.

In one sense that is very good news for NZUSA. It shows that your national organisation has become a permanent fixture in the array of interest groups with which the New Zealand State must negotiate.

Yes, that’s right, you are up there with Federated Farmers and the Plunket Society.

From my own perspective, however, that gap of 22 years covers a period in New Zealand history during which much of what made this country a uniquely positive place in which to live has disappeared, or changed beyond all recognition.

What I say to you today is, therefore, being communicated across a great abyss of experience and expectation. For you are, indeed, the children of the Rogernomics Revolution, and I am an overweight and ageing survivor of the ancien regime.

Let me describe a little of the country I lived in when last I spoke to NZUSA – not merely for nostalgia’s sake – but because I believe it will help to place in context the challenges that face the present generation of student politicians; challenges which, rest assured, constitute the substance of my address to you today.

In 1981 tertiary education was almost entirely subsidised by the state. Sure, there were a number of token payments at the commencement of every year, the largest of which, I seem to recall, was my studass fees, but, by and large, my tuition costs – and a respectably large chunk of my living expenses – were paid for by the State.

The State itself was much larger then - employing between a quarter and a third of the entire workforce. It owned two of the country’s largest banks, all of its telecommunications network, its airlines, its railways, its biggest bus service, a shipping line, its entire electricity generation system, its largest construction force, most of its forests, a chain of tourist hotels, all of its television networks, nearly all of its radio stations, a weekly newsmagazine, thousands of rental properties, and a host of other services which I have forgotten. Capitalism existed in New Zealand, but only on terms established by the New Zealand people in the wake of a protracted global depression and a genocidal world war.

But the thing that I remember most vividly about the world before Rogernomics is that people had much more time.

New Zealanders back then did not live to work, they worked to live. Unless you were employed by an emergency service – or the corner dairy – you had the weekend off.

For two whole days every week the entire economy virtually shut down. And if the Boss wanted you to work more than eight hours in a single day during the week – Boy, did the trade unions make him pay. Time-and-a-half, double-time, and on public holidays – triple time.

If you were lucky enough to get a holiday job in a hospital over Christmas-New Year, you could earn a normal week’s wages in less than 16 hours.

And if you grew tired of your job, if you got bored with the routines of office or factory, you simply jacked it in. Full employment meant that you could step out of the workforce whenever you felt like it – take time out to go fishing, or tramping, or go in search of the big OE in Australia, London or Kathmandu. It was a wonderful time and a wonderful country in which to be young. There was time to grow up, time to learn, time to become a real human being.
And that’s what I miss most about the world that passed away in the 1980s and 90s – the automatic assumption that, as New Zealanders, we had all the time in the world.

It was an assumption that could only be made in a workers’ – not a bosses’ - world. The ability to limit the amount of time individuals are able to devote to themselves and their families is the true measure of Capitalism’s social, political and economic power. The more time you are forced to spend working for the money you need to survive, the more dependent you are on your employer, and the less freedom you have to tell him to get stuffed.

Have you ever noticed how angry politicians and business people get about unemployed people on the dole "going surfing"? Even if the capitalists cannot find a job for you, they and their minions in the State apparatus still expect you to devote all of your time to looking for work, or acquiring skills, or visiting your case worker at WINZ. In societies like ours, Time and Liberty are very closely related.

So, how much time do you have in 2003 – and are any of the principal political parties proposing to offer you more of it?

This is not so abstract a question as you might think. One of the earliest demands of organised labour – dating back over a century – was for a limitation of working hours. And one of the first things the First Labour Government did in 1936 was to reduce the length of the normal working week from 48 to 40 hours.

In a very real sense the entire socialist programme was about how to disengage the individual from the tyranny of the employer’s clock. What, after all, is profit, if it is not the time you spend working for the capitalist rather than for yourself? Public ownership, by doing away with the need for profit, was supposed to reduce the amount of time required to keep society functioning – thereby making more time available for individuals and families.

Let’s begin with Labour. How much time are they offering you?

Not a great deal, I’m afraid. Even though the Labour Party itself is in favour of legislating for an extra week of annual leave, the Labour Government has announced that it will not be happening before the next election.

There is, however, a real possibility that paid parental leave may be extended from 12 to 14 weeks – a small but very welcome donation of time to mothers and their babies.

Michael Cullen’s "Super Fund" – into which so much of the State’s income is now being poured, may - and I emphasise "may" - be enough to prevent future governments from extending the time we have to spend working for a living – which is good. Not as good as Rob Muldoon’s reduction of the age of retirement from 65 to 60 in 1976, but better than nothing.

For students, however, no time seems to be available. Labour still expects you to compress the years it takes to acquire the necessary tertiary qualifications to the absolute minimum consistent with retaining your sanity.

The idea of pursuing knowledge for knowledge’s sake, which still had some purchase on reality in my days as a student, has no place in Steve Maharey’s brave new lecture theatres of the future.
If you want to study classical literature, when the Tertiary Education Council wants you to study biotechnology, then you’ll have to pay the full tuition costs of a classical education out of your own pocket.

Steve and his mates want graduates who can earn – not citizens who can think.

Of course with a $30,000 student debt hanging over your head, you will want to earn too – as much and as often as possible. There won’t be a lot of time for anything else.

Those student loans – by the way – are a lot more dangerous than even NZUSA has let on. In fact, they are proving to be sociological and demographic time-bombs.

A healthy democracy requires a large and relatively secure middle class, and if that democracy is to be long-lived, it needs a middle class which is ready, willing and able to reproduce itself.
Massive student debt is making middle class reproduction extremely difficult. Not only is it causing young adults to postpone marriage, but it is turning home ownership into a distant dream.

Most middle class people will not contemplate starting a family until they have a home of their own, so parenthood is being pushed further and further into the future. That means much smaller families. The norm for my parents was three or four children. The norm for the parents of the 21st Century – that’s you - will be one or two.

The rapidly expanding middle class that characterised the period of the post-war boom is a thing of the past. Today the middle class is shrinking, and with it the tax base that makes a decent and democratic society possible.

New Zealand society used to be shaped like a rugby ball, now it resembles a Balinese stupa – a broad flat base with a narrow spike of obscene wealth and privilege rising up out of the middle.
So, are the other parties any better? Well, if our criteria is time, the answer – with the exception of the Greens, which I shall come to presently – is an emphatic "No."

In fact, National, ACT, NZ First and United Future are all committed to increasing the amount of time people have to spend working for the capitalists. They opposed paid parental leave, they are adamantly opposed to increasing the amount of annual leave, they see no alternative to raising the age of retirement to 67 - or beyond - and they are determined to restore "flexibility" to the labour market.

New Zealand’s flexible labour market is, of course, the National Party’s greatest contribution to the new economic order. The Employment Contracts Act effectively destroyed private sector unionism in New Zealand, and with it all the numerous restrictions workers had imposed on their employers’ ability to control the speed, intensity and duration of paid work.

Given that most of our adult lives revolve around the workplace – it is, after all, where we spend the bulk of our waking hours – the destruction of the New Zealand trade union movement and the introduction of authoritarian managerial models to the workplace was the New Right’s single most effective blow against the rights and freedoms of New Zealand citizens.

National and ACT are also really keen on "Welfare Reform" – otherwise known as "working for the dole". It is hard to imagine a better illustration of the way in which capitalism seeks to monopolise the time of even those who cannot find regular employment.

The reasoning behind the Right’s obsession with welfare reform is, however, perfectly logical. By reducing the state-provided income of the unemployed to subsistence level, and then requiring them to work for it, they are immediately transformed into a vast army of wage reducers and work intensifiers.

And that means that the workers in paid employment are constantly looking over their shoulders and wondering what it will take to keep the boss from replacing them with someone cheaper.

"Longer hours? – Sure Boss." "Work faster? – Yes Sir." "Can I come in weekends? – No problem." "Am I asking for a wage rise? – Hell no!" "Unions? – Never heard of them."

Ever wondered why ecstasy and methamphetamine are the drugs of choice for your generation, when marijuana and LSD were the drugs of choice for mine? Well, it’s simple, grass slows everything down, while speed – as its name suggests – allows you to do more with less (less sleep, less food, less morals). LSD suggests that the workaday world is only one of many realities, while E makes the realities of the workaday world temporarily bearable. Our escape was into time, your escape is out of it.

Small historical footnote: Both Russian and German troops at Stalingrad were fed vast quantities of amphetamines – it was the only way their officers could keep them killing each other. That should tell you something.

It should also give you a hint as to why Nandor Tanczos and the Greens are in favour of decriminalising cannabis.

The Greens grew out of the Values Party – which laid claim to being the first "post-materialist" political party in the world. I wasn’t old enough to vote in 1972, when Values was launched, but I well remember the impact it had on young people all over New Zealand.

Here was a party that looked forward to a world where there was less work and more leisure.
I remember Mike Ward from Nelson – now a Green MP – telling his television audience that Values was about giving us more time to do the things that really mattered - like making love and playing with our children.

That was not the sort of political campaigning we were used to hearing in New Zealand: – Vote Values for more sex and play.

Even the Left found it disconcerting. Did you ever hear Jim Anderton say - Vote Alliance for more sex and play? Can you imagine Helen Clark distributing a little card promising that - "under Labour New Zealanders will be free to play around?"

The Greens – as far as I can see – are the only political party which truly understands that social progress is about reducing the amount of time required from every citizen for providing the necessities of a civilised existence, and the expansion of the amount of time available to every citizen for personal growth and development.

No one else gets it – not even Labour. For Helen Clark and Michael Cullen and Steve Maharey government is all about the quantity of life, not the quality of life.

They sincerely want us to be better qualified, better paid, and more productive as a nation. And, to achieve those goals, they have been willing to strap us into what the New York Times columnist, Thomas Friedman, calls the "golden straightjacket" of free markets and free trade.
They desperately want us to accept what that guru of the Third Way - Anthony Giddens – insists is "the fact" of globalisation. But what they cannot seem to understand is that the economic and social order created by free markets and free trade is absolutely incompatible with the existence of free citizens.

As Freidman is so fond of saying: "The purpose of the new capitalism is to shoot the wounded."
The "new" capitalism is also, I might add, incompatible with a living planet - which means that the choice we have to make is not simply between – as Rosa Luxembourg wrote – "socialism and barbarism" (that choice, I fear, has already been made) but between a living planet and a dead one.

So, you see, the stakes we are playing for have gotten very high.

Too high for the Greens, alone, to win.

The challenge facing all progressive New Zealanders is to how to translate their analysis of what is wrong with the world, into political action capable of putting it right.

There are those who argue that the world can be saved only by building an alternative culture in the nooks and crannies 21st Century capitalism has yet to colonise. That the pursuit of power is a project doomed to failure, because power has no location – it is always in the next room, or on the next floor up.

I do not agree. In fact, I violently disagree.

Let me tell you why.

Twenty-two years ago, in 1981, I was part of the Dunedin organising group against the Springbok Tour. A week or so before the Springboks arrived in Otago, we decided to organise a training run up to Carisbrook. About 500 of us gathered on the motorway, linked arms, and began marching towards the ground. After a few steps we started chanting: "Amandla! Amandla! Amandla Ngewhetu! Power to the people."

I’ll never forget the way the chanting, and the marching, and the linked arms transformed that group of ordinary New Zealanders. It was as if an electric charge was flowing through them and around them. Their eyes shone and their faces glowed. For the first time in my life I understood the awesome and unstoppable power of solidarity; of people united in a common cause.
Change can only come through mass political action.

Just as the only source of profit is human labour, the only source of political power is human organisation. The capitalists are organised to a degree that beggars belief, but working people, young people, progressive people seem to have lost their way.

How the Dick Cheneys and Donald Rumsfelts of this world must laugh at the progressive movement’s cumbersome consensus-based decision-making, and its "affinity groups". How puny they must appear alongside their aircraft carriers and Abrams tanks.

But how much more dangerous progressivism would seem if it was organised into a single, disciplined, political party - with roots extending into every city, every suburb and every street of the nation.

Oh, how their laughter would cease when a party like that started rising in the opinion polls. And, oh, how quickly their power would crumble when that party became linked to a militant trade union movement, with members in every factory, in every shop, in every office, and – yes – in every university.

"Don’t mourn", said the great American union leader, Joe Hill, as they led him out to be executed, "organise!" And he was right.

It can be done. It has been done – right here in New Zealand. The Labour Party, in its socialist phase, had all of the attributes that I have listed above, and it used them to transform New Zealand.

It is one of the great ironies – and the great tragedies - of our history, that it was Labour which, fifty years after the election of Mickey Savage’s Government, set about destroying its socialist legacy.

But what they could not destroy was the shining lesson of that transformative moment. And it remains the duty of each one of us to take the time to learn that lesson all over again.

My time for learning it came on a Dunedin motorway, one winter afternoon in July.

When and where you will learn it, I cannot predict: - perhaps it will be while fighting the lifting of the GE moratorium; or for the right to strike; or for a new covenant between Maori and Pakeha; or even in your long and principled struggle for free education.

But whenever and wherever your time for learning comes, you will be amazed at the lesson’s simplicity.

In Spanish it goes like this: Los pueblos, unido, jamas sera vincido!

The people, united, can never be defeated.


Anonymous said...

Chris - I come from a different part of the spectrum but respect the integrity of what the beliefs espoused in this speech.

I think your analysis of your childhood suffers through a short historical perspective. Our ancestors came to an undeveloped but lush country but worked hard over decades to develop that land. By the early 1950's New Zealand was among the wealthiest in the world. It is my feeling that New Zealand spent (literally) the sixties and seventies transferring that productivity through social welfare and inefficient state owned enterprises. By 1984 the country had reached crisis and there was no alternative.

You may reject that analysis but the simple fable of the ant and the grasshopper is apposite.

I would be interested in your view on that context.

Additionally you seem to view leisure as the only fulfilment of humanity. There is some value in the "joy through work". Think of your satisfaction after a lot of time spent researching and writing. Your product is thoughtful writing. Would you prefer just to sit in front of a television drinking beer and eating bbq. Is that genuine fulfillment?

Equally the house builder, the farmer, the engineer and even the meat factory worker expertly butchering a carcass can get satisfaction from work. I would accept it is difficult for a Mcjob worker to gain satisfaction but to me that is more critical to address than simply questioning the basic need for work.

It is interesting to note how much smaller the France workforce is compared to NZ & Anglo saxon countries. From memory somthing like 20-25% less in employment (NB not unemployed) A society in gentle leisurely decline.

There is a balance to be had in there somewhere and I am sure we do not have it right.

Anonymous said...

Sagenz, a very nice post. I agree entirely.

Nostalgia is certainly a wonderful thing, and the dream time of the 60's (I could easily be one of those Pt Chev. teenagers)was magical indeed. But things began to unravel, not just here but more dramatically in the UK. Reality began to bite.

Thatcher in the UK had to confront "progressive" forces, and we in our own way had to battle and overcome Muldoon's restriction and over-regulation.
A lot of that battle has since been lost and the bureaucracy holds sway in much of our lives.

Could it be that Key has opened the door to the mystical "3rd way" Could his brand of progressive engagement usher in a new 60's era ?

Chris Trotter said...

Sagenz, While it is entirely possible that some people derive immense satisfaction out of working for someone else, my own experience suggests that the happiest people are those who work at something they love.

For these lucky individuals the distinction between work and leisure all but disappears. For the rest of us, however, work is what we do to pay the mortgage and put food on the table. Our full emotional commitment is reserved for our family, friends and hobbies.

There are two ways to address this problem of alienation. The first is to win more leisure time from one's employer (the NZ solution 1936-1984); the second is to gain more control over the job itself - securing a much greater say in what is produced and the purposes to which it is put.

Paradoxically, from the point of view of a convinced neo-liberal like yourself, both of these options tend to increase productivity. The first, by forcing the employer to invest in more efficient, labour-saving machinery. The second, by giving the worker a greater stake in the enterprise, encourages him or her to work smarter and more enthusiastically (as the Japanese discovered decades ago).

The solution adopted by neo-liberals in New Zealand - making people work harder and longer for less - removes any incentive to upgrade plant and machinery, just as stripping workers of any control over the job (the intended and inevitable result of destroying the trade union movement) makes any genuine improvement in productivity that much harder to achieve.

After all, what's in it for the workers when increased effort and improved efficiency merely result in the shareholders receiving a larger dividend?

Anonymous said...

Respectfully I must disagree with the idea that only someone working for themself as you define can give complete emotional commitment. Stonework on European cathedrals, the inadequacy of british plumbers, a well written journalists commentary, the cynicism of Douglas Myers and the Hotchin brothers, everyone who votes and believes their vote counts in a democracy, teachers, nurses, firemen, policemen are all examples of people who give more or less emotional commitment and get more or less monetary return.

I dont believe the unions that caused holiday strikes and destroyed industries had the common good at heart. Demarkation had far more of an impact on job specialisation than the employment contracts act which allowed employees and employers to freely arrange what suited them both. So we can negate unions as agents interested in gaining more control for workers. After control certainly, but not for workers benefit.

I agree with you though that loss of control and empowerment is the critical difference between job satisfaction of old and current lack of engagement with work as a source of fulfillment.

My point was that the sixties and seventies were a false nirvana. the price of that leisure was paid before and after.

"what's in it for the workers when increased effort and improved efficiency merely result in the shareholders receiving a larger dividend?"

That really is the crux of the issue. Advanced industralisation has meant incredible specialisation. The end sharholder in most large companies is most likely to be a collection of pension investors through agents completely removed from the reality of ownership or the individual workers providing that larger dividend cheque.

Having worked for large and small companies as well as for my own profit what strikes me is how socialist large companies are in behaviour and outlook even though they would be highly unlikely to admit that. Success and advancement is most likely to be achieved through conformity. The software system SAP that is proudly used by so many large companies is centrally determined and demands compliance rather than original thought.

The simple union vs shareholder adversarial approach is utterly obsolete in this world.

Funnily enough the bankers newly discredited creed of "eat what you kill" is close to what you appear to be endorsing in your final paragraph. There is a direct correlation between skill, effort and reward.

Anonymous said...

Ignore all the rest. It comes down to this. Aspiring to excellence rather than mediocrity. Not everyone will own a business and work for themselves but if the product of their labour is excellence and they are justly rewarded there is satisfaction for both producer and buyer. that applies whether a teacher nurse or farmer.

If we agree on that we can agree on measures to stop exploitation. Whether from the employer unwilling to pay a fair wage or the union causing strikes on holidays and pay rises far above the value of the product. US car workers pension rights and UK civil servants are both good examples

Rich said...

Public ownership, by doing away with the need for profit

How? I'm personally involved in a non-profit cooperative organisation that runs a festival. We still need to aim for a surplus each year, in order that we have the cash to cover growth and so that if we have a downturn in ticket sales one year, we can survive and keep going.

I don't see how any organisation is different (and if a publicly owned company is succesful, governments will tend to leach off it as a tax source).