David and Goliath Struggle: Critics of Greenpeace have condemned its latest protest against deep sea oil drilling as folly. But, in a world made miserable by the “wisdom” of our neoliberal masters, “folly” may be exactly what people are looking for.
BE CAREFUL what you wish for, Prime Minister. If the New Zealand electorate has shifted as far to the left as the polls show the British and American electorates shifting, a Labour Party committed to re-nationalising the partially-privatised energy SOEs and Air New Zealand may not be as unpopular as you think. By the same token, Mr Cunliffe: “Profligate Communist!” may not be the insult you assume it to be.
Across the world, but especially in the developed world, there is a growing sense of enough being enough. Enough inequality. Enough unemployment. Enough insecurity. Enough retrenchment. Enough austerity. Enough of swallowing the lie that all of these things are as immutable as the seasons. Unalterable. Just the way it is.
“Enough of that!” People are saying. “What was made by Man can be changed by Man.”
Enough is enough.
It’s been slow to arrive in New Zealand. Nearly three decades of bipartisan agreement on the essentials of neoliberal economic policy have seen to that. A whole generation has grown up believing that this is as good as it gets. That the Reserve Bank Act, the Public Finance Act, the State Sector Act and the Employment Contracts/Relations Act – like the stone tablets Moses brought down from Mt Sinai – are laws written by God.
But the problem with raising up a massive, all-embracing, hegemonic structure is that, eventually, it has to deliver. People will tolerate a slow start – especially if the system being replaced held sway for a long time and embedded its values deep in the national psyche. At some point, however, the new system has got to work. And by “work” the average person means “work for everyone – not just a privileged few”.
Thirty years has been more than enough time for the neoliberal system to have proved its worth. That it has delivered the world we live in today argues pretty decisively against it being much more than a mechanism for making the rich richer and the rest of us wretched.
The newspapers and the electronic media may tell us that things are not as bad as they seem, and that, really, our government’s “common-sense” policies are working splendidly; but their spin is counter-spun by our lived experience. The content of our day-to-day lives is constantly constructing a powerful “counter-hegemony”. We “just know” that things are not getting better.
And, knowing this, we are constantly bemused, amazed and (more recently) aggrieved that the political parties purporting to offer a challenge to the status-quo do not seem to be aware of it. Or, even if they are aware of it, remain steadfastly unwilling to embrace the sort of policies that might do something about it.
Mr Cunliffe’s unwillingness to be labelled a “Profligate Communist” reveals the power that neoliberalism still wields over New Zealand’s political class. Every editor, every political journalist and commentator in the country would declare his unequivocal pledge to renationalise the energy SOEs utter folly – and the Leader of the Labour Party has balked at the prospect.
But, in a world made miserable by the “wisdom” of our neoliberal masters, “folly” may be exactly what people are looking for in a Labour leader. The “holy folly” that inspired the Saints: that prompted Martin Luther to nail his manifesto of protest to the cathedral door; that kept Rosa Parks in her seat, immovable, on a Montgomery bus.
We New Zealanders have a soft spot for that sort of holy foolishness. It’s why we cheered when Norman Kirk dispatched a frigate to Mururoa. It’s why we applauded when hundreds of little boats sailed out to blockade the nuclear warships of the US Navy. It’s why, deep down, and in spite of all the sneers and jeers, we are willing Greenpeace’s little flotilla to stay the distance and succeed.
When we see the size of the drilling vessel: the way it dwarfs the little craft that have sailed into Anadarko’s forbidden zone to bear witness against the reckless gamble that is deep sea oil; something in us reaches out to them – law or no law.
“This will not stand”, whispers the voice of holy folly. And then, loud enough to disturb his whole Government, that same voice makes a second promise: one our Prime Minister was certain he would never hear – and now recoils from:
“They will not stand alone.”
This essay was originally published in The Waikato Times, The Taranaki Daily News, The Timaru Herald, The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 29 November 2013.