Watching The World Burn: What was it that Michael Caine, playing the role of Batman’s butler, said: “...some men aren’t looking for anything logical, like money. They can’t be bought, bullied, reasoned, or negotiated with. Some men just want to watch the world burn.” Just substitute the word “worthwhile” for “logical” and replace “money” with “human decency” and you’ve defined the amoral narcissistic pyromania that is neoliberalism.
IF SOMEONE TOLD YOU they could jump off your roof and float gently to the ground, you’d doubt their sanity. Gravity is something we all experience. All of us – bar the seriously deluded – understand that it cannot be overcome. At least, not without the help of parachutes, gliders, hot-air balloons, aeroplanes and rocket-ships. Most of us – but, bafflingly, not all of us – are similarly convinced that the earth is a sphere. Significantly, this conviction is born of the faith we place in science. A spherical earth is not something most of us are able to grasp intuitively. Rather, it is something we trust to be true because we accept the explanations of people clever enough to prove it. In short, most of what we believe derives from direct personal experience. The rest we take on faith. This can be a problem.
For example. If someone attempts to convince a Treasury official that the performance of state institutions is improved by appointing leaders on the basis of their proven expertise and long years of experience within the relevant organisations, and by offering state employees secure lifetime employment, then the chances are the official will respond as if you have just declared that the Earth is flat. Since the number of state servants who can still remember how the public sector functioned before the neoliberal revolution grows smaller with every passing year, the Treasury official’s dismissive response will, almost certainly, be based on faith not direct experience.
Were you to suggest that the entire neoliberal ideology – from which his ideas about the best way to organise the state sector are derived – makes no more sense than the notion of a flat Earth, he would be astonished. He would struggle to believe that any sane person could doubt the veracity of neoliberalism. Mentally, he would file your suggestion under “N” – for nuts.
The events of the past few days: the appalling failure of our neoliberalised state sector to keep our borders secure from the threat of the Covis-19 virus; ought to produce the same reaction from its defenders as a person who, having jumped off a roof, mysteriously finds himself failing to float gently to the ground.
Certainly, it is difficult to imagine a more convincing example of the way in which neoliberalism has corroded the whole ethos of public service. The civil servants of 50 years ago would have been a rock against which the special pleading of selfish visitors/citizens, and the asinine braying of journalists, would have broken without effect. They would have understood that officials like themselves were all that stood between the people of New Zealand and a renewed outbreak of the disease which had already gouged a huge hole in their economy. Unmoved by the howls of protest of people unaccustomed to being told what to do they would have enforced the rules without fear or favour. What does it say about the state of our state that the only people who can now be relied upon to protect it are the personnel of the NZ Defence Force?
The person I feel most sorry for is Dr Ashley Bloomfield. His own professional training (which, unusually in the neoliberalised state sector, actually relates to public health) told him that granting “compassionate” exceptions to the strict requirements of self-isolation and quarantine would be extremely unwise. That ruthlessly defending the border against Covid-19 was the only way to eliminate the virus. He had reckoned without the faux outrage of a news media seemingly unable to understand the need for all responsible New Zealanders to close ranks in the interests of national survival.
Day after day the journalists bleated. “What would you say to those who cannot say farewell to the their loved ones?” Simply by asking that question they must have known that they were helping to dismantle the crucial defences against a resumption of community transmission.
Would their counterparts at the time of the Blitz have asked Winston Churchill such a question? Would they have turned the natural grief of families caught up in a once-in-a-generation national crisis into an excuse for embarrassing the government? Would the journalists of 1940 have deliberately compromised the nation’s resistance for a cheap headline? Not bloody likely!
In the New Zealand of 2020, however, after years of neoliberal corrosion, the Parliamentary Press Gallery knows exactly how to break a civil servant’s resolve. They are well aware of the fundamental caution which utterly pervades the state sector. They know how determined senior members of the public service are to protect their ministers from the clamour of an aroused populace. Evoke sufficient emotion; enlist sufficient support from Opposition politicians; apply sufficient pressure; and to protect his Prime Minister even an Ashley Bloomfield will break. This is how we got compassionate exemption. The Gallery broke the will of the Director-General of Health and forced the Prime Minister to bend. I hope they’re happy.
And, of course, they are happy: in fact they’re delighted. So delighted that they’re still doing it. Still asking the Prime Minister and her Director-General: “What would you say to … ? Don’t you owe an apology to … ?
What was it that Michael Caine, playing the role of Batman’s butler, said: “...some men aren’t looking for anything logical, like money. They can’t be bought, bullied, reasoned, or negotiated with. Some men just want to watch the world burn.” Just substitute the word “worthwhile” for “logical” and replace “money” with “human decency” and you’ve defined the amoral narcissistic pyromania that is neoliberalism.
No matter how high the casualties pile up, broken and bleeding, on the ground below, Neoliberalism keeps pushing humanity off the roof. Because, in their eyes, nobody is falling. In the world defined by their demented vision, we are all floating gently to the ground.
This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Friday, 19 June 2020.
For once I agree with you wholeheartedly Chris. The Fourth Labour government, ably assisted by an ideologically driven Treasury, set out to destroy the career public service and succeeded. Where once senior public servants delivered their best professional advice and assessments to Ministers without fear or favour, their successors now tailor their advice to what they believe their Minister wants to hear, always aware that their finite contracts are essentially in the Minister's gift, despite all the window-dressing about the State Services' Commission running the show. The public service has been steadily degraded and politicised. It is no longer fit for purpose and it is difficult to ever see its mana ever being restored again.
Neo-liberalism to blame? I think not. More likely the natural human emotion to grieve.
I know that many people make the comparison of Covid with the Blitz. But this is nothing like that. The great majority of us are living our lives barely unchanged. The country is not on a war footing.
The press will act as per normal times. They don't have to contend with "D" notices or the Official Secrets Act. They are not censored.
So in short we have normal democratic accountability. And it is not neo-liberalism gone rampart!
For years we have been told about the benefits of immigration, now Kiwis are returning from India and China and the taxpayer puts them up @ $4000 each.
Our borders are currently closed, with migration therefore having all-but dried up.
ANZ senior economist Miles Workman, in a forecast update on migration, said the Covid-19 crisis has turned New Zealand’s recent model of migration-driven growth "on its head".
Migration-induced population growth has been "one of the most dominant drivers of economic activity in recent years", but our per capita GDP growth has trailed behind the official GDP measure.
"This was never a sustainable source of growth," he says.
The tourist industry "boomed" (=increased), Chinese outnumbered locals and we fought over bus stops. Real wages fell. Now they are parked up on welfare.
CORIN You don’t want immigration to fall, though, do you? I just want to say something. I saw you in a speech after the Budget, and you were speaking to a big room of businesspeople – some of the biggest business minds in the country – and you stood up and you said, “Don’t worry about Treasury’s figure or estimation that it will go back to the trend of 12,000.” You were confident it was going to be a lot higher than that.
JOHN I just think it’s unlikely it will go to 12,000.
CORIN But it was like you wanted immigration to go up, because you were telling them, “Don’t worry. The demand in the economy is going to stay there. That’s what’s keeping New Zealand afloat.”
I always feared they would tank the welfare system.
Chris, I disagree with your premise that it is unsafe to allow for compassionate exemptions to the quarantine rules. It should actually be quite easy to manage a few compassionate exemptions for people to visit their dying parent/relative or attend a funeral if the proper systems are put into place. For example, a Covid19 test can be done in less than a day and all those applying for compassionate leave should be tested and shown to be negative before being released. They then should have a management plan in place to limit the number of people they come into contact with during their next 14 days in the community - keeping a diary of who they meet, when and where. If this procedure was followed there would be almost zero risk to NZ. However, what we saw was a completely inept Department of Health with no auditing for compliance simply releasing people from quarantine without testing! There is no excuse for this except for poor management and planning. This is a common theme for this Labour coalition unfortunately and the coalition has been shown time and time again to be unable to deliver on their promises, to lie about the current situation and to blame others for their failings. Simply the majority of the cabinet ministers have no experience in managing large teams and it is showing through weak management systems within their Departments, no accountability for failures (David Clark at a minimum should have been removed as Minister of Health), and therefore in the eyes of the public a growing loss of confidence in their ability to deliver on any of their promises! We can only hope that the Country realizes this at the coming election and elects people with a track record of success in delivering on promises not simply those that state idealogical wishes as if they can be delivered. Housing, the health system (waiting lists for surgery have increased), infrastructure (roads cancelled in favour of rail projects now back on after a delay with no other benefits eg. light rail on hold and likely cancelled) Child Poverty (7 of 9 measured factors are worse), Homelessness (more houses cancelled than built eg. Ihumatau cancelled 480 houses vs kiwibuild (395 houses), the economy, Pike River reentry (a waste of taxpayer money - no bodies will be recovered as admitted by Andrew Little despite all the rhetoric prior to the election), all have had no improvement or have become worse since Labour took over. How much more do people need to see Labour does not deliver and society gets worse?
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