"But he hasn't got anything on!" - For 30 years New Zealand’s best and brightest business leaders, academics, journalists and politicians have been telling the rest of us that the only reason neoliberalism appears to be promoting a nakedly brutal and inequitable economic and social system is because we are too stupid to perceive the true beneficence of the free market. Painting by Thorarinn Liefsson.
IF THE 2017 GENERAL ELECTION turns into a messy boil-over, it will be the fault of New Zealand’s most successful people. For the best part of 30 years, the high achievers of New Zealand society have aligned themselves with an ideology that has produced consistently negative outcomes. Not for themselves. In fact, they have done extremely well out of the economic and social changes of the past 30 years. For the majority of their fellow citizens, however, the Neoliberal Revolution has been a disaster.
The real puzzle of the past 30 years is, therefore, why a political system intended to empower the majority has not consigned neoliberalism to the dustbin of history. Why have those on the receiving end of economic and social policies designed to benefit only a minority of the population not simply elected a party, or parties, committed to eliminating them?
A large part of the answer is supplied in Hans Christian Andersen’s famous fable, The Emperor’s New Clothes. Those who know the story will recall that the crucial element of the swindlers’ con was their insistence that the Emperor’s magnificent attire could only be seen by the wise. To “anyone who was unfit for his office, or who was unusually stupid”, the Emperor would appear to be wearing nothing at all.
The interesting thing about Andersen’s fable is that it’s actually supported by a critical element of scientific fact. If people whose judgement we have no reason to doubt inform us that black is white, most of us will, in an astonishingly short period of time, start disregarding the evidence of our own eyes. Even worse, if an authority figure instructs us to administer punishments to people “for their own good” most of us will do so. Even when the punishment appears to be causing the recipients intense, even fatal, pain, we will be continue flicking the switch for as long as the authority figure insists that the pain is necessary and that we have no alternative except to proceed. (If you doubt this, just google “Stanley Milgram”.)
For 30 years, then, New Zealand’s best and brightest business leaders, academics, journalists and politicians have been telling the rest of us that the only reason neoliberalism appears to be promoting a nakedly brutal and inequitable economic and social system is because we are too stupid to perceive the true beneficence of the free market. In language ominously reminiscent of Professor Milgram’s terrible experiment, we have been told by those in authority that there can be “no long-term gain without short-term pain”, and, God forgive us, we have believed them – and continued flicking the switch.
Nowhere has this readiness to discount the evidence before one’s own eyes been more pronounced than in our politicians. How many of them, when confronted with the social and environmental wreckage of neoliberalism, have responded like the “honest old minister” in Andersen’s fable, who, upon being ushered into the swindlers’ workshop, and seeing nothing, thought: “Heaven have mercy! Can it be that I’m a fool? I’d have never guessed it, and not a soul must know. Am I unfit to be the minister? It would never do to let on that I can’t see the cloth.”
How else are we to explain the unwillingness of the Labour Party and the Greens to break decisively with the neoliberal swindle? Or, the repeated declarations from National and Act praising the beauty and enchantment of its effects: “Such a pattern, what colours!”
Even as the evidence of its malignity mounted before them. Even as the numbers harmed by its poisonous remedies increased. The notion that the best and the brightest might perceive them as being unusually stupid and unfit for office led the opposition parties to concentrate all their criticism on the symptoms of neoliberalism. Or, in the spirit of Andersen’s tale, critiquing the cut of the Emperor’s new clothes instead of their non-existence.
Eventually, of course, the consequences of neoliberalism are felt by too many people to be ignored. Children who cannot afford to buy their own home. Grandchildren who cannot access mental health care. The spectacle of people living in their cars. Of homeless men freezing to death in the streets. Eventually someone – a politician unafraid of being thought unusually stupid, or unfit for office – breaks the swindlers’ spell.
“‘But he hasn’t got anything on,’ a little child said.
‘Did you ever hear such innocent prattle?’ said its father. And one person whispered to another what the child had said, ‘He hasn’t anything on. A child says he hasn’t anything on.’
‘But he hasn’t got anything on!’ the whole town cried out at last.”
Now, the whole New Zealand electorate may not be calling “Time!” on neoliberalism – and certainly not its best and its brightest – but Winston Peters is.
And the town is whispering.
This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 18 July 2017.