NEW ZEALAND now boasts one of the most diverse parliaments on the planet. In terms of gender, ethnicity and sexuality, the governing Labour Party’s caucus, in particular, bears testimony to the work of many progressive politicians, over many years, to transform “diversity” from a pious ideological aspiration into a flesh-and-blood political fact. Quite an achievement.
But, it is also an achievement fraught with danger. Because, as Bryce Edwards points out in his recent Guardian article, the Labour Party’s diversity does not extend to class. The fact is that New Zealand has a parliament – and a government – drawn overwhelmingly from the Professional-Managerial Class (PMC). The perils of this social monoculture should be obvious. It can only raise a formidable barrier to understanding – and hence addressing – the needs of those living in the bottom half of New Zealand society.
This is not simply a problem founded on ignorance: a case of Labour not knowing what it doesn’t know about life in the Otaras and Flaxmeres of New Zealand. It’s much worse than that.
The PMC is distinguished by the role it plays in mediating Capitalism’s relationship with its most injured victims. Without the PMC army of lawyers, probation officers, social workers, health professionals, academics, teachers, journalists and “communications specialists” to extinguish the fires ignited constantly by economic exploitation and social exclusion, the whole of capitalist society would soon be engulfed in flames.
The PMC is what you create when the price of relying exclusively upon police officers, judges, jailers and soldiers to keep the bottom half under control grows too high. It’s the velvet glove that Capitalism pulls on to hide and soften its iron fist. For this subterfuge to work, however, the PMC has to believe that it knows much better than Capitalism’s casualties what’s good for them. There is one very simple reason why a government comprised overwhelmingly of members of the PMC will find it almost impossible to understand what the bottom half of New Zealand society needs: because it is supremely confident that it already does.
Nowhere has this “we know best” attitude been on display more clearly than in Oranga Tamariki. A more compelling example of the PMC’s inability to comprehend the sheer scale of its failure is hard to imagine. The idea that the “lower orders” might actually have a better grasp of what is needed to keep their children safe is simply inconceivable to the bureaucrats set in authority over them. These people are the “problem” – so how could they possibly be included in the search for solutions?
One has only to watch Melanie Reid’s harrowing Newsroom video to see the PMC at work. The employees of Oranga Tamariki quite literally put themselves between the victim and the Police – not to protect the young Maori mother, but to do everything possible to ensure that the “uplifting” of her child is effected without recourse to actual force.
The PMC’s stock-in-trade is institutional violence. The injuries it inflicts may be no less severe, but they are certainly more easily hidden than those caused by physical violence. For Capitalism, internal bleeding is always preferable to blood on the streets.
Those Labour supporters feeling confused and distressed by the Government’s apparent deafness to the cries of need arising from the poorest and most exploited New Zealanders should understand that when it comes to Labour’s caucus that deafness is a feature, not a bug. Alert Labour MPs to overt displays of misogyny, white supremacy, anti-Islamic prejudice and/or homophobia, and watch them spring into action. These are injustices that Capitalism is only too happy to help progressive politicians eradicate. Socio-economic injustices, however, are a different matter.
Any serious attempt to eradicate these wrongs would constitute a direct challenge to the capitalist system as a whole, and since the PMC looks upon capitalism as the most effective and efficient system for allocating resources that humankind has so far developed, undermining its operation in any serious way would be considered irrational. While it is perfectly acceptable to help those “doing it hard” to respond to capitalism’s needs, expecting capitalism to respond to their needs (in any meaningful way) is politically unrealistic.
The Ministry of Social Development (the clue to its mission is in the name!) will organise job clubs and offer help with beneficiaries’ CVs, but it will not pay a benefit which ensures them a secure and dignified existence. What incentive would there be to kowtow to the boss if, secure in the knowledge that they could live easily on the unemployment benefit until a better opportunity came along, employees felt free to tell employers where to stick their lousy jobs? For capitalism to work, so must the rest of us, at wages and under conditions set by the bosses – not the workers. Employees who no longer fear the sack are capitalism’s worst nightmare.
The members of Labour’s parliamentary caucus – the largest ever – will undoubtedly bridle at the very suggestion that they belong to a class made up of capitalism’s little helpers. Many will, no doubt, wax eloquent about their working-class origins, or the years they spent on the DPB. Not the point. The effectiveness of the PMC is, in large measure, guaranteed by so many of its members’ historical proximity to poverty. Being able to say: “I know what you’re going through, I’ve been where you are.”, makes the PMC’s advice and solutions all the more credible. After all, if these important people got up and away from the shitty world in which the poor remain trapped, then maybe they can too.
This is, of course, capitalism’s oldest and most persuasive narrative: from rags to riches (or, at least, from a benefit to a six-figure salary). Except of course, the story is only ever about individual – not collective – emancipation. Capitalism can cope with people moving from rags to riches one at a time; but not all at once. Celebrating identities over which we have no control (ethnicity, gender, sexuality) poses no threat to the institutions that keep the capitalist system on its feet. Telling people that they have the collective power to build a new world, on new foundations, does.
I, for one, would be delighted to hear capitalism’s little helpers in the Labour caucus giving voice to such dangerous ideas. I am much more likely, however, to hear them bragging about their caucus being, at last, a true reflection of New Zealand society. And if, by that, they mean Labour’s team faithfully reflects the forces preventing New Zealand society from becoming a fairer and more compassionate society, then I can only agree.
This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Thursday, 26 November 2020.