Sunday 4 July 2010

The Independent: 1992 - 2010

Goodbye to all that: Jenni McManus (above) co-founder of The Independent with Warren Berryman and Tony Timpson in 1992, remains a firm believer in Berryman's vision of a publication dedicated to "the free marketplace of ideas". But, in a world where shareholders value regular dividends over critical journalism, Berryman's and McManus's dream could not be sustained.

I WAS THIRTY-SIX when the first issue of The Independent hit the news-stands, and fifty-four when the last paper rolled off the presses. A child born in the same year as the feisty business weekly launched by Warren Berryman, Jenni McManus and Tony Timpson will be eligible to vote in the next general election. What expectations will that eighteen year-old citizen carry with her as she enters the polling booth for the first time?

As a young New Zealand woman, born in 1992, she will expect to be treated as the equal of the young man entering the polling booth alongside her.

It is difficult to overstate the importance of this expectation. In only a handful of countries are such hopes even remotely realistic. Most of the world’s women remain serially subservient to their fathers, brothers, husbands and bosses.

In Guatemala or Somalia the quasi-official Kiwi feminist slogan: "Girls can do anything!" would ring decidedly hollow in young women’s ears. But that is not the case here. New Zealand’s women and girls may have a long way to travel before achieving perfect equality, but already our eighteen year-old voter has come a lot further than her sisters overseas – and she expects to go farther still.

The young man casting his first vote in the adjoining booth is likely to be much less confident of his place in 21st Century New Zealand society.

The jobs that once defined the classic Kiwi male: farmer, shearer, fisherman, soldier, miner, labourer, freezing-worker, tradesman; are nowhere near as numerous as they were in the first 150 years of New Zealand’s history. The occupations that await today’s young school-leavers are not the sort that work up a sweat. Nor are they likely to inculcate the values of rugged independence, mateship and solidarity that once epitomised the "ordinary Kiwi joker".

Eighteen year-old Kiwi males have spent their entire lives under the neoliberal order of Roger Douglas and Ruth Richardson. Competing with every other participant in the labour market for the good things in life is what they expect. And everywhere they look – in textbooks, computer games, movies and reality TV shows – the message is the same: "winning" is both its own reward and its own justification. No one wants to be a "loser".

The individual which emerges from this dog-eat-dog environment is a very different beast from the "good Kiwi bloke" of yesteryear. In place of rugged individualism we find a virulent strain of adolescent narcissism. "Mates" have been replaced by carefully assembled audiences of "friends" – some real, some in cyberspace. Solidarity, when it manifests itself at all, is the solidarity of winners against losers: the solidarity of America’s Top Model and Survivor.

Combine the expectations of eighteen year-old Kiwi males and females and the result is unlikely to fill most fifty-four year-old New Zealanders’ hearts with confidence. Self-obsessed, overconfident, ruthless and hungry for all the material trappings of success, these first-time voters are perhaps the least reliable custodians of the traditional New Zealand values of egalitarianism and fair-play that their elders could imagine.

For someone like myself, a left-wing Baby-Boomer who has spent the past eighteen years writing columns dedicated to preserving those old-fashioned values, the kids who have grown up alongside The Independent are the living proof of my utter failure. The market for the social-democratic ideals and institutions that made my own generation the most fortunate in human history has steadily shrunk.

When The Independent first saw the light of day New Zealand politics was being driven by two newly-formed insurgent parties – the Alliance, led by Jim Anderton, and NZ First, led by Winston Peters. Between them, these two attracted more than a quarter of all the votes cast in the 1993 General Election. Looking back, however, it is clear that their electoral success represented the final cri de coeur from an "Old New Zealand" that was, quite literally, passing away.

The leaders of the insurgency, Peters and Anderton, both got their chance to radically alter the nation’s course and return to the status quo ante. Both failed.

Neither politician was able to match the sheer brute strength of the status quo; and in a surprisingly short space of time the two major parties, National and Labour, had reclaimed – if not in body, then most certainly in spirit – their prodigal sons.

Not that the major parties had any more luck than the Alliance or NZ First in gaining control of the nation’s steering mechanisms. New Zealand continued to follow the neoliberal course set by Douglas and Richardson and no party or politician seemed to possess either the strength, or the will, to change it.

Half of The Independent’s life was spent under a Labour Government led by Helen Clark and Michael Cullen – both of whom in their youth boasted radical political leanings. Once in power, however, Clark and Cullen were able to make only the most marginal of social and economic changes.

The tiller was not for turning.

But if people could not, or would not, change the policies of the neoliberal state then, in a grotesque vindication of Newton’s third law of motion, the neoliberal state’s policies would start changing the people.

If history was indeed over, as Francis Fukuyama’s best-selling book (published in the same year as The Independent’s launch) insisted, then what was the point of attempting to master – either conceptually or politically – the swirling clouds of instant information blowing out of that other great artefact of the early-90s – the Internet.

The free and open marketplace of ideas that Warren Berryman had dreamed of – and which The Independent at its best came so close to creating – was attracting fewer and fewer browsers. The new consumers, in the new century, were increasingly drawn to outlets stocked with products – ideological as well as material – they already knew they wanted. The world-wide-web made it easy.

Neoliberalism and its technological homologues, the PC, the cellphone, the Internet, have radically changed what it means to be a citizen – and what’s required of a newspaper.

Democracy was once a game that all the people played, and it was newspapers that taught them the rules. Today, "politics" has become a spectator sport, which the media allows them to watch.

The Independent is closing its doors because, after eighteen years, it has simply run out of people to teach.

This essay was originally published in the final issue of The Independent on Thursday, 1 July 2010.


Anonymous said...

It comes down to truth.

Truth is in one's living, not the in-personal imposing.
Truth is peace.

Politics and particularly positions of influence within politics of any kind, creates layer upon layer of blocks for the individual to their births right of knowing truth. As one deceives others, so one is deceived is a eternal truth, & the collectivisms required for a successful political life (left or right) only ever hardens one into those realms of the material's un-winnable transient turmoils rather than it's eternal concords.

When the political animal is removed from the material distribution systems, the political battleground will still call & find a new sphere, but it will be a new one of additional understanding for development just as this one was from the previous different reality, paving the way for greater truths.

The factioned masonic orders have indeed kept a kind of peace (although a very messy & clumsy one) from their factioned planet engulfing World War Two of still relatively recent recall, but the next age of truth is not destined to be of such political forms, trying as they are to 'evolve' theirs.

mike said...

A pessemistic analysis with the ring of truth, Chris.

The comments on todays youth is particularly acute. Has the New Right prepared the ground for a massively stratified society, of leisured Eloi ruling over subjugated Morlocks?

Or will all these young narcissists get the shock of their lives in the next decade or two, as they struggle to stay alive in a post-oil, post-supermarket, post-jobs, post-American Idol reality?

Tiger Mountain said...

@ Anon. “One toke over the line, sweet Jesus...”

Fair enough to grieve for a bit Chris at the demise of ‘your’ publication, but unless you intend to retire it is no time for defeatism. Yes NZ is brimming with connected, gadget toting self obsessed people on under $50,000 grand a year, negative equity property etc. what winners...

The neo libs are ahead on the ideological contest, the perceptual, subjective factor, while continuing to fail miserably (and measurably) at objectively improving lives or reducing inequality for the majority. They have FAILED globally, as the awful UN statistics present. As always opression does not necessarily give rise to mass organisation, but there is certainly a lot more global activity with 10 international union federations such as the Geneva based IUF doing great work with millions of workers.

The neo libs have not won yet, another finance capital wobble, peak oil, the BRIC working class getting organised, all signal history is nowhere near it’s end.

Unknown said...

Idiot Savant does not like your column but for me I can see not a great deal wrong. I agree the Independent was actually a very important paper and the right wing cabal still rule although I (predictably perhaps) think Helen and Michael did a much better job than you suggest.

Anonymous said...

Given that I am neither male nor pakeha, the main beneficiaries of traditional NZ, I prefer the post 1984 version where I actually have a chance of realising my ambitions instead of being relegated into a lessor position because of who I am.

Your time has passed and NZ is all the better for it.

Chris Trotter said...

Ah, the joys of false consciousness!

In fact, Anonymous, the opportunities for an independent and prosperous life were considerably greater for young people (including Maori women) in the 1970s.

The opportunities for young New Zealanders coming of age in the 1970s to gain a useful academic or trade qualification, purchase a house, start a family and pursue a career in the public and/or private sector with some measure of job security provided them with a much higher quality of life than those who have come of age in the post-Rogernomics era.

Student loans, dumbed-down culture, impossible house prices, all-powerful bosses? This is your "better" New Zealand?

My time may have passed, but I wouldn't want to be eighteen in 2010 for any money!

mike said...

@ Anon #2

Wow! You managed to refer to yourself ("I" or "my") five times in one sentence. I wonder who your worldview revolves around?

Anonymous said...

Can't help thinking that you are just a little insular. i've been a volunteer firefighte and a volunteer bush fiew fighter, and I've seen young men and women keen to do their bit. But it's not just on the fireground. I've seen Kiwis workng hard to provide joined-up services in a Government department, and I've seen employees and contractors working together as a team on a building site.
Maybe the problem is that political journalism is so dog eat dog that you don't realise that other people do work together and do achieve good things.

Anonymous said...

Come now... i think some of us know ( or maybe not lol! ) that the "all powerful bosses" versus the rest is abit of an emotive cul-de-sac to the detriment of confronting the actual causative factors.
Or would you maintain that 'Bosses' somehow have only the sins & not the graces potential inherent in all people?

Chris, you are after all, the boss of this blog...

“Whoever fights monsters should see to it that in the process he does not become a monster. And if you gaze long enough into an abyss, the abyss will gaze back into you.” —Friedrich Nietzsche

Anon #1.

Anonymous said...

"In fact, Anonymous, the opportunities for an independent and prosperous life were considerably greater for young people (including Maori women) in the 1970s."

So you're telling me that as a white, educated middle aged Pakeha male you know how much better things were for my mother, that she had more opportunities than I have today?

I don't go around telling white, educated middle aged Pakeha males that I understand their pain (since it is impossible) so I consider it incredible that you can pretend to do the same.

Chris Trotter said...

There's this discipline, Anonymous, called "Sociology", which studies the behaviour of human-beings in the aggregate. There's another, called "Psychology", which studies the behaviour of the human individual.

The knowledge organised in both disciplines is available to everybody - "Pakeha Males", "Maori Women", the whole human race in fact.

Anonymous said...

There is also a discipline called economics which takes ideas from psychology and sociology and applies it to explain aggregate human behaviour. I hear its not doing so well given that its failed to anticipate the events in the past two years.

The same can also be said of socialism but after 20 years some of its adherents are slow learners.

Face it Trotter, you're a disciple of a failed ideology harking back to a golden age which you think is superior where surprisingly enough the prime beneficiaries of a institutionally racist and sexist system were people like you and which was closed off to people like me.

Sorry but I'm not going pull an uncle tom and agree with you.

Chris Trotter said...

No, Anonymous, it wasn't closed off to "people like you".

There were many Maori back in the 1960s,70s and 80s who availed themselves of New Zealand's publicly provided tertiary education system.

A few even enrolled with the clear political goal of becoming university teachers, positioning themselves to fill the next generation's heads with with the curious mixture of orthodox neoliberalism and bog-standard identity politics that they - and you - seem to believe constitutes a credible world view.

Tiger Mountain said...

The anonymii are coming out of the woodwork again. What’s that old quote, “None are more hopelessly enslaved than those that falsely believe that they are free”.

Anonymous said...

Post 1984, we have taken 2 generations of New Zealanders now and thrown them on the scrapheap.

The baby boomers, and to a lesser extent, generation x grabbed the universal super, award wages, universal health care, free tertiary education, job security, trades training, guaranteed work, peppercorn state house rentals, family benefits, Housing Corp mortgages at 3% (like Paula Bennett), and decided we werent good enough for them.

They have taken the future that young people had and blown it on tax cuts.

It looks set to be easier now to get into prison than to get into university, and with the government look set to employ more prison guards and police officers than teachers and social workers, it is going to be a very depressing future ahead.

Oh well Anon, at least you may be lucky enough to get a scholarship from your iwi using all that settlement money that was taken from a perfectly good education to begin with.

I guess we all have to make sacrifices.


Tauhei Notts said...

The Independent began to die straight after the death of one of New Zealand's greatest journalists, Warren Berryman. The man was legendary, and he had never ever been to journalism school.
I stopped my Independent subscription when it dawned upon me that the only part I read were your erudite columns.
Okay, we lost Berryman; Chris, live a healthy life so we can argue about your writing well into the future.

David Edwin said...

Right on Analysis of Present-Day/Past NZ Chris, and likewise, your prognosis seems the best available...but as ye ole folksong might paraphrase things, it's now all over bar the shouting, and the rot has well and truly set in - but the majority prefer it thus and so, and last I heard, things aren't likely to change anytime always look on the bright side of life, do-de-do, yes, always look on the bright side of life, do-de-do, yes always look on the bright side of life...or as me old mate Mr Dagg'd put it, We Just Don't Know How Lucky We Are - or we...

Cheers (things could always be/get worse) - and doubtless they will!!!

David Bernhardt

P.S. And here was I wanting to get your newsmagazine to publish my latest manuscript!