Capitalism Driving The People: Standing in the way of “bold persistent experimentation” are the ideas, organisations and orthodoxies that constitute its deadliest foes. The idea that human-beings are made to serve the economy, rather than the economy being made to serve human-beings. Unregulated capitalism is the organisational expression of this idea, and neoliberalism is its orthodoxy. Post Pandemic, these are the things we can lose.
“EVERYTHING MUST CHANGE so that everything can stay the same.” So says the Rabelaisian hero of Prince Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa’s novel “The Leopard”. Published in 1958, Lampedusa’s unfinished, posthumously-published novel catalogues the efforts of the fictitious Prince of Salina to preserve his aristocratic way of life amidst the tumultuous social, economic and political upheavals attendant upon the nineteenth century unification of Italy.
Like the Prince of Salina, New Zealand also faces a Herculean effort to preserve its way of life in the midst of tumultuous events. As the nation emerges from its Covid-19 Level-4 lockdown and into the economic havoc which the Pandemic has wrought, its citizens will need all the guile and flexibility of Lampedusa’s hero. But, before dealing with the “how” of national recovery, New Zealanders will need to address the “what”.
What, precisely, do we need to preserve? What beliefs, institutions and values must remain non-negotiable? More importantly, what ideas, organisations and orthodoxies should we be ready to let go? Only when we have sorted out the answers to these questions can the practical work of recovery and resurgence begin.
Each of us will present a slightly different set of “must haves” and “no longer requireds”. Here, for what they’re worth, are mine.
The core belief of the archetypal Pakeha New Zealander is that Jack and Jill are as good as their masters. If you are looking for the reason why so many people travelled half way around the world to settle these islands, then you will find it in the settlers’ desire to begin again in a new land where people’s hopes aren’t circumscribed by the circumstances of their birth. Where personal success and fulfilment no longer depend on who your parents are. Where it is possible for ordinary people to make something of themselves on their own terms. Where the future is fashioned by “us” – not “them”.
It is this core belief that undergirds New Zealand’s core institutions: a House of Representatives, democratically elected; independent courts of law; publicly funded health and education providers; a welfare safety-net to support us through times of adversity; an independent news media to keep us informed and hold our leaders to account; trade unions to defend workers’ rights on the job. Take away these core institutions and Jack and Jill’s masters will very soon reign supreme.
The core value animating these institutions is Fairness. For the overwhelming majority of New Zealanders nothing can be good if it is not also fair. A more high-falutin people might have designated Justice as their core value: but for Kiwis the notion that everybody is entitled to “a fair go” says it just fine.
It is interesting to speculate about the extent to which these Pakeha beliefs, institutions and values have been influenced by the Maori concepts of Kotahitanga (Unity), Whanaungatanga (Kinship), Kaitiakitanga (Stewardship) and Wairuatanga (Spirituality). What is not in dispute, however, is that the ultimate sources of well-being in both cultures have complimented and reinforced each other down the years.
This, then, is the “what” that I would be willing to change everything to keep the same. As to the “how”, I can think of no better example to cite than Franklin D. Roosevelt, the American President who guided his people out of the very depths of the Great Depression.
The day he was inaugurated, most of America’s banks had closed their doors. Hundreds-of-thousands of his fellow citizens had lost their life’s savings. Millions more had lost their jobs. The line from Roosevelt’s inaugural address that is most often quoted is: “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself”. But, the FDR quote that captures my imagination, and which is most relevant to our own time, is this.
“The country needs and unless I mistake its temper the country demands bold persistent experimentation. It is common sense to take a method and try it. If it fails admit it frankly and try another. But above all try something.”
Standing in the way of “bold persistent experimentation”, however, are the ideas, organisations and orthodoxies that constitute its deadliest foes. The idea that human-beings are made to serve the economy, rather than the economy being made to serve human-beings. Unregulated capitalism is the organisational expression of this idea, and neoliberalism is its orthodoxy.
These are the things we can lose.
This essay was originally published in The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Thursday, 9 April 2020.