Friday, 16 April 2010


Stalemate: New Zealand can move neither forwards, nor backwards, and yet it cannot stand still forever - but try telling New Zealanders that!

NEW ZEALAND stands at an impasse. Though New Zealanders’ deep-seated desire to break free of the economic and social constraints in which they find themselves remains undiminished, fears are growing that escape is no longer possible. At every turn, arguments for change are met with counter-arguments for doing nothing. For every bold step the National-led Government takes forward, it then takes two cautious steps to the side. Pundits mutter darkly of "government by opinion poll" and lament the lack of "strong leadership". New Zealand has stalled – and refuses to be re-started.

New Zealanders’ reactions to this impasse vary. The business community, for example, shows every sign of being in a state of denial. Confidence surveys reveal a wild optimism almost entirely lacking in evidentiary justification. Most economists agree that economic recovery – where it is happening at all – is occurring at a snail’s pace, and that there is significant risk of a second downturn. When required to focus exclusively on their own firms, most business-people share the experts’ pessimism. But ask them to pronounce on the prospects for the nation as a whole and what can only be described as "magical thinking" takes over.

It’s as if they cannot – or will not – allow themselves to entertain the thought that "their" Government is economically out of its depth, bereft of credible policies and drifting ineffectually on the unpredictable currents of public opinion. Rather than admit such a crushing dénouement to their hopes and dreams they’re attempting to will an unequivocal economic recovery into being through the collective projection of positive thinking.

But if the country’s business-people are wildly and unreasonably optimistic, its trade union movement is mired in a state of industrial and political passivity without precedent in New Zealand’s recent history. While the CTU’s fraternal peak organisations in Greece and France pour workers onto the streets in loud protest at their respective governments’ retrenchment policies, their Kiwi counterpart seems to have forgotten how.

Like the business community, the CTU is also in denial. Rather than admit its cowardly failure to defend trade unionism in the face of the 1991 Employment Contracts Bill – an admission that would at least allow it to "move on" from its current passivity to a more assertive stance – the CTU doggedly continues to repress its shameful historical memories.

The moral and organisational inertia created by this repression is manifested in the anti-democratic control-freakery and addiction to process that distinguishes today’s trade union leaders from the militant battlers of the past. In this respect, at least, the industrial wing of the labour movement is in perfect harmony with the political wing.

Ever since New Zealand became an unwilling host to the neoliberal army that ideologically occupied its intellectual landscape 25 years ago, both the CTU leadership and the Labour Party’s parliamentary wing have adapted themselves more-or-less willingly to life in the Occupation’s "Green Zone". The implementation of neoliberal policies in New Zealand’s workplaces and homes would’ve been next to impossible without the Labour Movement’s active collaboration.

"Waitakere Man" – the aspirational working-class battler who deserted Labour in the 2008 General Election – is almost entirely the product of this betrayal. Denied the opportunity to fight for his class through union and party, he has – since the debacle of "Rogernomics" – learned to fight for himself and his family alone. The diminished ideological horizons of this struggle have produced a corresponding diminution in the scope of his political engagement. Matters that impinge upon him and his family directly – interest rates, taxes, crime, healthcare costs and the education of his children – have retained their political salience. Those that do not have not.

For younger workers with no memories of New Zealand’s solidaristic and collectivist past, the narrow individualism which neoliberalism enforces is simply the norm. And yet, like their parents and grandparents, they also feel the loss of the worker-friendly economic order that neoliberalism swept away. Like the itch in an amputated arm, it bears witness to something that no longer exists – and that absence is resented.

Labour has yet to grasp the way in which Waitakere Man’s resentment is being played out politically – as punishment. It simply can’t understand why more and more "Labour people" are willing to cut off their noses to spite what they see as their erstwhile Party’s supercilious and unrepentant face.

Middle-class New Zealanders are also at an impasse.

Though not averse to the fundamental principles of the new economic order (which were, above all, the bourgeois principles of private enterprise and individual responsibility) they are nevertheless struggling to accommodate Neoliberalism’s practical consequences.

The social pathologies generated by burgeoning inequality are forcing middle-class people all across the Western World to embrace harsher and harsher methods of social control. It’s only recently begun to dawn on them, however, that these hard-line "solutions" necessarily entail the surrender of the moral and political foundations upon which bourgeois culture ultimately rests.
Increasingly, the progressive and humanitarian achievements of middle-class reformers in the 19th and 20th centuries are being challenged by extreme neoliberals touting remedies (like torture) which pre-date the era of bourgeois democracy.

That neoliberal and democratic values may not, in the end, be compatible is a frightening thought – but not as frightening as the sort of measures decent middle-class people will eventually be forced to condone once the cords of democratic accountability are severed.

Not surprisingly, these are prospects few middle-class New Zealanders are ready to contemplate. They, too, are in denial.

And thus we come to the very heart of the impasse in which New Zealand finds itself. We long to rid ourselves of the economic and social constraints that have steadily shrunk the space in which individual liberty can be meaningfully exercised, but we are not yet ready to accept that the origin of these constraints is the very neoliberal order we embraced more than a quarter-century ago to expand our freedom. That’s hardly surprising: who, after all, relishes confronting a difficulty without a solution? Or participating in an argument where no agreement is possible?

"The crisis", wrote the Italian socialist, Antonio Gramsci, "consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear."

Thus is the impasse defined. Though "morbid symptoms" are driving our politics, we find ourselves both unable and unwilling to treat them.

This essay was originally published in The Independent of Thursday, 15 April 2010.


Anonymous said...

Agreed, NZ is a watery mess, with no solid leadership, and a waffling, unsure govt. Bring back Labour, NZ First or someone with spine, or decline, decline, decline. Where are the supermen?

Anonymous said...

Anon 7:50pm - National & ACT are far from waffling and unsure. They are rapidly implementing full scale privatisation of prisons, schools and health through PPPs (public-private partnerships), while pretending to 'smile and wave'.

Chris - the problem is the same it has been for 25 years. Social liberalism elevated individual rights to the pinnacle, which dovetailed nicely with the libertarian capitalism both Labour and National embraced in the 1980s. Nothing has changed since. In your words, "we are not yet ready to accept that the origin of these constraints is the very neoliberal [capitalist] order we embraced more than a quarter-century ago to expand our [individual social] freedom."

It is the social liberal focus on individualism that has turned 'Waitakere man' inwards, and rendered Gramsci (and Kelsey etal) unwilling to proclaim alternatives to liberal capitalism. As you put it, "...who, after all, relishes confronting a difficulty without a solution?" Rephrased, this is the foolish belief that there is 'no one correct answer' which gets translated into 'we should put up no system as a possible answer, in case it's not perfect'.

Liberalism is fine up to a point, but when it becomes the sole guiding ideology (post-modernism, or relativism) of a nation, then we have adopted Thatcher's maxim that 'there is no society', just individuals (making free choices about consuming products and services). No wonder the unions stall.

Can you name one area where "...economic and social constraints ... have steadily shrunk the space in which individual liberty can be meaningfully exercised"? I cannot. Individuals ARE free in our liberal society, in everything but their choice to act collectively. Free to buy sweatshop clothes, free to chop down 'their' trees, free to pollute with massive V8 engines. Just not free to say NO to such destruction, and YES to alternatives (like public transport and clean power) as a society.

Mad Marxist

Sara said...

I note there has been an interesting development in the UK elections with the Liberal Democrats suddenly in the picture after the first election debate.

People there seem to be looking for something other than the neoliberal orthodoxy of their two main political parties. I think the same could happen here with Winston Peters the likely beneficiary at the next election.

Olwyn said...

The big question is "how." If you read the blogs of many present Labour members, they have read "The Spirit Level," they are concerned about the lack of manufacturing, the housing bubble, inequality, unemployment, the squeezed middle class etc, but it is not clear if they have solutions. Muldoon, who seems to have seen this coming, saw an answer in borrowing enough to make us self-sufficient, challenging the international banks to tow us away when they asked for their money back, and turning us into a strange little conservative Cuba. Roger Douglas imagined we could become the "Switzerland of the South Pacific" if we got in quick enough, and seems able still to cling to this vision against the evidence. Michael Cullen, at a talk in Mt Roskill a few months ago thought that savings were the answer - nations with savings have a say in what happens to them and a choice in what they do. Goff's suggestion of modifying the reserve bank act deserved more attention than the media gave it, and may offer some promise if it gets any attention when he brings it up again, as he said he would.

I think, however, that we will only prove able to face up to these challenges when we are each able to see ourselves within the context of a larger picture, rather than clinging individually to our little places in an ever-diminishing sun. Take just one example: $70,000pa is a high wage in NZ - the median wage according to Mary G is $28,000, the average wage $48,000. People on all these wages, with families, are not far from being in the same boat however, since the cost of living is high in our cities, so that the latter are propped up with various doles, cards, etc, while the former is not. Hence the former is angry because he/she is a high wage earner who still has to pay close attention to the price of a loaf of bread, and the latter are angry because their work does not deliver a living wage and they still have to go cap-in-hand to some social agency or other. Not to mention, the latter are ring-fenced from luck unless it is really big luck - earn a little more and pay it back to WFF. Life in NZ is raddled with contradictions of this sort, from house-prices to farmland and what it produces, all of which keep us treading water and sniping at each other. It is only when we come to think in terms of "us" rather than just "me and mine" that we will be able to grasp the nettle.

Anonymous said...

Mad Marxist

You ask for one area that demonstrates Chris's proposition that "...economic and social constraints ... have steadily shrunk the space in which individual liberty can be meaningfully exercised"?

Might I suggest the modern 'white colour' workplace, permeated as it is with a culture of conformity and discipline...and woe betide you if you step out of line!