Wednesday, 3 August 2011

Winners And Losers

A Winning Attitude: The laboriously assembled inventory of our personal possessions may not be what life should be about, but for most New Zealanders it's the only measure of whether or not they're holding their own in the rigged game that is life under modern capitalism. For these Kiwis the only thing more despicable than the game itself - are those who refuse to play.

EVERYBODY LOVES A WINNER. Even those who by no reasonable measure could be assessed as “winning” insist that success is just around the corner, and that any evidence to the contrary is only temporary.

Such people simply refuse to be labelled a “loser”. Why? Because they suspect that New Zealand is about to become an extremely dangerous place for “losers”. Indeed, if (or is it ‘when’) National wins the November election, they’re pretty sure it will be “open season” on “losers” of every kind.

This will happen for the very simple reason that more and more ordinary New Zealanders are no longer prepared to see their taxes given to people who’ve stopped trying to win.

They know, of course, that we can’t all be Rich Listers. But “winning”, in their eyes, is not about having the biggest bank balance or the biggest house or the biggest car: it’s about having a “winning attitude”.

The “winners” they’re talking about are people who try hard, and keep on trying, even when success is elusive and the deck seems to be stacked against them. Ordinary people, like themselves, who simply refuse to be beaten by misfortune: who never give in – or up – and who come through the other side of hardship because, no matter what life throws at them, their “winning attitude” never falters.

As far as they’re concerned, it’s the loss of this “winning attitude” that turns people into “losers”.

PEOPLE ON “THE LEFT” are scornful of such attitudes – dismissing those who hold them as either dismally materialistic, woefully ignorant – or both.

A lifetime of struggle against a deck that is indeed stacked, say the socialists, cannot possibly be the definition of “winning”. Men and women deserve a better memorial to their time on earth than a laboriously assembled inventory of personal possessions.

“Winning” on your own, the socialists argue, is a myth. Society’s wealth is created collectively – not individually. And the only reason some people are able to amass more property than others is because our legal system makes it possible for single individuals and corporations to transmute the collective efforts of the many into the private profits of a few.

According to the socialists, the only way to become a true “winner” is to devote one’s energies to building a society in which individuals enjoy equal access to the social wealth their combined labour and skill has created.

This is why socialists favour progressive taxation and economic policies designed to generate full employment. It’s the rationale behind the maintenance of public schools and hospitals; the provision of public housing; the public ownership of essential utilities and services; and the wide array of benefits and pensions available to citizens who are sick, disabled, unemployed or retired.

To a socialist, “winning” is defined as the extent to which these, the core elements of the socially protective state, are preserved and enhanced.

“FINE IN THEORY”, say the battlers of 'Struggle Street', “but not so clear in practice.”

The essential collectivism of the human enterprise may have been self-evident to the tiny bands of hunter-gatherers that roamed the earth 100,000 years ago. But, in the teeming cities of the 21st Century, where each individual’s contribution to the whole is so small as to be practically invisible, most people’s acronym for the human enterprise is YOYO – You’re On Your Own.

The pressures and demands of contemporary New Zealand society require most Kiwis to embrace a sort of involuntary existentialism.

With no control over the hand they are dealt, the best they can do is resolve to play it through to the bitter end, relying on luck, a bit of bluffing, and at least one of the other players making a mistake, to finish the game all square.

In a rigged game, with a stacked deck, they learn to treasure those few decision that are theirs alone to make: the choice of their partners and friends; the way they raise their children; whether or not they behave decently and honestly towards their neighbours and workmates.

Perhaps more of them would embrace socialism if those who preached it were to be found in and around Struggle Street, instead of in university common rooms, or on lifestyle blocks at the edge of their angry cities.

But until that day, they’ll go on playing as if winning was still a possibility, and they’ll go on despising those who give the game away.

Because that’s the one thing a “winner” does not do. It’s the one thing he will not become: a “loser”.

It’s what John Key learned in Burnside, and Phil Goff has forgotten in Mt Roskill: the grim, uncompromising existentialism of ordinary New Zealanders; their life-long battle against the odds; their final triumph – painfully acquired after a lifetime of effort.

To be laid in their graves with their “winning attitude” undiminished.

This essay was originally published in The Press of Wednesday, 3 August 2011.


Anonymous said...


A sublime jest, Chris, perhaps not made in the bad faith that characterises the mental life of the battlers of "Struggle Street".

On a more serious note, this mentality has little, if anything, to do with existentialism and more to do with the proliferation of moronic "self help" books, some of which, to be fair, are comprised of bowdlerised versions of existential philosophy.

I recently saw a New Zealand management magazine quote Aristotle in support of some venal practice (accompanied by a picture of him). One can only imagine what he would have thought.

These people have no shame, and will appropriate anything that takes their fancy, whether it be ancient tribal customs or Che Guevara's image.

Anonymous said...

Those silly old leftists!
Thank goodness there are no conservatives cluttering up the common rooms or lifestyle blocks.
Oh well. Now that we've had a wee sojourn around the one way side streets of Chris Trotters mind its time to get back to the examining the actual material realities of our social environment.

Chris Trottert said...

And thus does the Left persist with its fruitless pursuit of the perfect statistical series, the quintessential sociological observation, while all around them the individuals they purport to represent go on their merry, thoroughly subjective, ways.

Human-beings aren't laboratory rats. They do not live their lives according to the "actual material realities" (if they did the revolution would already be years old) but according to the values they, their families and their friends hold dear.

And if you think not being regarded as a "loser" isn't central to the value structure of most New Zealanders, then you don't know very much about the country you're living in.

As for existentialism, I'm using the term here in its broadest sense: a way of living which focuses on the condition of human existence, especially on the individual's emotions, actions, responsibilities, and thoughts.

On "Struggle Street" I imagine it's pretty hard to think about anything else.

Victor said...

One of your finer items, Chris

'To a socialist, “winning” is defined as the extent to which these, the core elements of the socially protective state, are preserved and enhanced.'

....and not just to the socialist.

Anonymous said...

Abstractions and rhetoric are not enough Chris , gees, Banksie was forever bleating on about "struggle street" on his populist right wing radio show.
Of course people live according to "actual material realities" - where else - their values - and families and friends grow out of those.
Second rate column from you after a couple of good ones, move on.

Brendan McNeill said...

"This is why socialists favour progressive taxation and economic policies designed to generate full employment. It’s the rationale behind the maintenance of public schools and hospitals; the provision of public housing; the public ownership of essential utilities and services; and the wide array of benefits and pensions available to citizens who are sick, disabled, unemployed or retired."

Chris, based upon that list, I think we should declare 'game over'. The Socialists have won.

Personally, I don't agree that Kiwi's are focused upon being 'winners' in the sense that there must automatically be losers in the game of life.

Most of us surely, are focused upon earning an honest living, caring for our children, and looking after our mates. Some may extend their charitable good will beyond the boarders of kinfolk, and all strength to those that do.

What Kiwi's dislike is people who have given up on any attempt to earn an honest living, neglect and abuse their children, and view State funded benefits as an entitlement.

God knows, there is a good deal of that happening right now as well.

Tiger Mountain said...

Sitting on an orbiting rock in an emotionally neutral quantum particle continuum, born unasked, departing alone, makes for human existentialism. Though I guess at some tiny atomic level we do all hang in there for a very long time.

How we relate to our fellow travellers is what makes it both interesting and at times difficult to bear. The stubborn false consciousness of a number of Kiwis cuts no ice with me and they could care less. Heh.

Robert Winter said...

Somehow, this Thompson quote from "The Making of the English Working Class" springs to mind:

"Sociologists who have stopped the time machine and, with a good deal of conceptual huffing and puffing, have gone down to the engine room to look, tell us that nowhere at all have they been able to locate and classify a class. They can only find a multitude of people with different occupations, incomes, status-hierarchies, and the rest. Of course, they are right, since class is not this or that part of the machine, but the way the machine works once it is set in motion - not this or that interest, but the friction of interests - the movement itself, the heat, the thundering noise..."

Anonymous said...

Actually, one rarely hears the word "winner". It's always "loser" - initially adopted from American gangsterism and now imbued with right-wing notions of cultural and racial superiority to describe what Key and Laws call the "underclass". Or simply as an alternative to "arsehole". In the states it's primarily about relative wealth, as is almost everything, and the ultimate put-down.

Here, not so much. Even our right-wing fruitloops are amateurs by comparison, bought up in the long shadow of Savage: cultural change to true cruelty takes time, and years of merciless governance to cultivate.

Sometimes it's even used affectionately; "poor old Bill, one of life's losers, but at least he got to be deputy PM once". Give it time, but: a few years of ACT calling the shots over the current headless Joky custodian of Helen's progressive legacy, and we're all cruisin for a losin.

Anonymous said...

I'm aware of two, maybe three New Zealand university academics who could be fairly described as socialist.
Can't think of a single one on a lifestyle block though.
Who are all those lifestyle block lefties?

Chris Trotter said...

Good Lord! It's rapidly getting to the point, in this dumbed-down little nation of ours, where political allusion is becoming next-to-impossible!

The reference to university common-rooms and life-style blocks was a dig at the Labour Party!

Helen Clark came to Parliament from the Political Studies Department of the University of Auckland. Phil Goff lives on a life-style block at Cleveden - south-east of Auckland.

Oh, and if you really can only think of two or three left-wing academics, then I can only assume that you don't know very many.

I'm not going to embarrass these ivory-tower socialists (or risk their careers) by naming names - but, believe me, there's a lot more than two or three!

Anonymous said...

A thoughtful column as usual from Chris. Interesting in the light of the Greens’ “lifting children out of poverty” announcement (I’m not sure whether the timing was coincidence). This Green policy just screams “It’s okay to be a loser and the Left is for losers” and will trigger a massive collective groan from culturally conservative working class battlers who have become thoroughly disillusioned with National, but who now may be once again wary of the deadbeat-pandering, identity politics-obsessed Left. Handing truckloads of OPM to the underclass just entrenches the welfare lifestyle and if the Left cannot deliver more “aspirational” policies then it might as well give up. Sad to admit because my background and ideology is thoroughly Left – but “old school” left.

Anonymous said...

"The reference to university common-rooms and life-style blocks was a dig at the Labour Party!'


But lets please get a bit real here. Neither Clarke nor Goff, could by any stretch of the imagination be said to "preach socialism'.

The last time "socialism" was referred to in any positive way by a Labour leader was when Bill Rowling defined it as :
"lending your neighbour your lawnmower.

Chris Trotter said...

And now, Anonymous@10:18, you're just being silly.

Helen Clark was proud to attend meetings of the Socialist International (of which the NZ Labour Party remains a proud member).

Jacinda Ardern served as the President of the International Union of Socialist Youth.

And the Labour Party's constitution remains committed to advancing the cause of democratic socialism.

The Cold War made any open declaration of their socialist convictions by Labour MPs extremely unwise - but that did not prevent them from subscribing to the ideas and advocating the policies I have summarised in this posting.

The alleged quote from Bill Rowling is presumably taken from the speech he gave to the 1976 Labour Party conference during which he described the generous character of the ordinary New Zealander. In the same speech he defined socialism as a quest for social justice driven by universal humanitarian impulses.

Victor said...


You're being unfair to Anonymous @ 6.16 am and perhaps to the rest of us out in the suburbs.

Failure to keep Beltway obsessions top-of-mind does not, in itself, constitute being dumbed-down.

Moreover, I'd have some difficulty recognising either Auntie Helen or the hapless Goff as 'Socialists'.

Has either of them, at any point in the last three decades, called for the social ownership of the means of production and distribution?

Maybe we need a new, more inclusive, term to describe all of us who recognise that we're not islands but 'part of the main' and that policy should reflect this reality.

Olwyn said...

@Anonymous, 10.13am: when you give up on manufacturing in your country, without a serious alternative plan in sight, then special interest groups and beneficiaries come to form a larger part of the constituency on the left - the working class bit of NZ now largely resides in Australia, from whence it is uncertain whether they will vote here or not.

And as to this so-called "underclass" where did they spring from? We did not always have a group going under that description. We clearly did not import people to provide us with an "underclass" so they must have been created and categorised in this vile manner right here.

And how did we create a category under this description? By doing away with manufacturing and not replacing it. By importing foreign "experts" where there is work, to avoid upward pressure on wages. By putting downward pressure on wages so that two incomes are required to generate a modest income, though without the necessary infrastructure to make this broadly workable.By allowing house-prices to rise beyond reach, while at the same time putting extra pressure on state housing. By a steady flow of press releases from the right, informing us of who we should despise. And by deciding that those upon whom these conditions have the greatest impact must be worthless in comparison with those who have somehow managed to seize and defend some little piece of earth.

Victor said...

Oh come of it, Chris!

The dominant parties of the Socialist International all gave up Socialism years ago.

Some of them, e.g. the German SPD, are committed in theory to the 'Social Market Economy' and have been so since the late 1950s.

In practice, most of the SI's member organisations now have policies way to the right (in socio-economic terms) of those of the 'conservative' parties of the early Cold War era.

If Churchill, Eisenhower, Adenauer and De Gaulle all came back to life, found themselves in office and started to re-apply the domestic policies of their respective administrations, they would soon be denounced as communists, if not as the Antichrist!

Which brings me to a less polemical point. Our interdependentness used to be assumed by all mainstream parties in advanced industrialised democracies but is so no longer.

I think we need a new vocabulary for explaining the bl..ding obvious!

Anonymous said...

Anon at 10.13

What does your "old school socialism" consitiute exactly? Sounds like you've become a tory, but still like to think of yourself as being for social justice

Anonymous said...

This is one of the more intersting comment sections, but one of the stranger columns, especially in the Christchurch Press. Didn't the state of liquefaction equalise everybody's situation and lead to random acts of kindness and solidarity. Or are we becoming like Americans, as in Bob Dylan's 'Positively Fourth Street', "you just want to be on the side that's winning." As a random example, getting the taxpayers to employ PR people to effectively pay to be on the Letterman show is a good illustration, and no sign of any great moral purpose there from John Key, just another commercial transaction. And is it only Labour politicians who have lifestyle blocks and don't vote National?

Don Franks said...

Jacinda Ardern may have served as the President of the International Union of Socialist Youth.

In my one interaction with this proud socialist she initially agreed to allow me two minutes to plug UNITE's $15 minimum wage petition at a meeting of Labour youth. Then, soon after that maybe after consultation with more senior proud socialists, she came back and said no, absolutely not.

Perhaps that was her contribution towards abolishing the wages system.

Robert Winter said...

Lord, take me back to the Socialist equivalent of the men's changing room - my materialism is bigger (and better) than yours. The dribbling by some of the commentators in this exchange displays many of the worst elements of internecine (and irrelevant) sectarianism that has dogged the Left since - Hungary? Popular Fronts? Trotsky and Stalin? The Second International? Is it any wonder that the Left remains so isolated when its mode of thinking and analysis remains far from the lived experience of its "proletariat"? That was the point of Thompson's quote, it seems to me. That's the challenge for the Labour Party, too, a point on which I agree with Mr Trotter

Anonymous said...

"As for existentialism, I'm using the term here in its broadest sense: a way of living which focuses on the condition of human existence, especially on the individual's emotions, actions, responsibilities, and thoughts."

That's not what existentialism actually means (bad dictionary definitions aside). Hence my earlier confusion at your using the term. The "battlers of struggle street" would be paradigmatic cases of inauthenticity to an existentialist like Sartre, being enmeshed in society's pointless status seeking game.

I think my initial criticism holds. Those who think like this have internalised the message of the self help movement, which, if nothing else, teaches the dangerous irrealism that reality is malleable in accordance with one's wishes. The associated self esteem movement has created people incapable of honest self criticism.

Genuine achievement in life for both individuals and societies requires ultimate acceptance of both internal and external limitations, and both require a strong and uncompromising realism. New Zealanders have little capacity for this.

You don't have to be a lefty to believe this. Those on the right have noted the propensity of the electorate to vote itself free money at the expense of future generations. No amount of pro democratic pieties will disguise the fact that democracy has reached the end of its useful life. We in New Zealand are better off than most, but the trend is visible here as well.

Democracy is not the solution. It is the problem. Anyone who hasn't yet realised this is going in circles.

Voting is for "losers".

Brendan McNeill said...

@ Anonymous 9:15pm. I appreciated your comments regarding the failings of democracy, particularly in relation to the propensity of weak politicians to become captured by the mood of a selfish and self serving electorate.

This is perhaps biggest risk to our way of life here in New Zealand. It is not 'them' whoever we define 'them' to be, it's us.

We can debate the meaning of socialism, we can rail against the destructiveness of neo capitalism, we can lament the growth of a violent underclass, but if we allow our political elite to 'borrow and spend' our way to bankruptcy, with all the enthusiasm of a 50 year old retired Greek beneficiary, then we have no future.

At least, no future that looks like the present.

Seemingly fiscal responsibility has drifted out of our public discourse, and even Don Brash showed no enthusiasim for a policy of 'zero debt' and a 'balanced budget' when I suggested it to him recently.

Am I the only one left (or right), who thinks that perpetual deficit spending is unsustainable?

Anonymous said...

Do you know Miles Fairburn's book Nearly Out of Heart and Hope, Chris? It's based on the voluminous diaries of an itinerant labourer in turn of the century Wairarapa who was often hungry, but steadfastly refused to drop what you call the 'YOYO' attitude and embrace the socialist ideas which were becoming popular at the time. Every New Year's Eve Fairburn's subject would count up his meagre possessions and savings and resolve to do better over the next twelve months. Heartbreaking stuff - but it does tell us something about a certain strand in Kiwi society (and, thank the Lord, the story Fairburn tells does have a happy ending, as the exhausted, malnourished labourer is admitted to a pleasant home for the aged where he lives out his days in comfort and contentment ).

Unknown said...

Perhaps more of them would embrace socialism if those who preached it were to be found in and around Struggle Street, instead of in university common rooms, or on lifestyle blocks at the edge of their angry cities.

Perceptive comment Chris. The Labour Party is full of the sons and daughters of the working class who enjoyed fine education and social mobility established by Micky himself, Nash, Kirk, Lange to an extent and Clark. There is also the odd careerist. For the sons and daughters like me (I am a lawyer and the son of a boilermaker) it is logically and emotionally correct to have a society where the next generation of the working class should also have the opportunities we had. We also realise that environmental protection, climatic or otherwise, is absolutely vital.

The tories have worked tirelessly to undermine the institutions of working class activism (Unions) or intellectual thought (Universities). They relish in pushing through any change that will weaken union vibrancy, whether it be union access to worksites, minimum wage levels or funding for union education. They attack these areas with venom.

Universities have become pale versions of the intellectual strongholds they used to be. Bcoms and marketing is more important now than classics or sociology.

The direction is clear, undermine the unions ,dumb down the universities and attack any idea of collectivism.

The tories are winning but also losing. National is no longer a mass movement party, it is now just a collection of cheque writers. Labour is not in great shape but has a core of activists with skills that money cannot buy.

Egypt et al show what can happen when mass movements are rekindled. Hopefully it can happen in NZ.