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.