THERE IS SOMETHING quite seriously out-of-kilter with the universe when I find myself agreeing with Richard Prebble. Commenting in this morning’s (2/12/20) NZ Herald, Prebs states with unnerving accuracy: “Labour won the election but we elected a conservative government. Gone from the government programme announced in the speech from the throne is any promise of ‘transformational change’. Instead we have the false promise of every Tory, ‘stability and certainty’.
Many conservatives will disagree with Prebble’s analysis. In their eyes, Jacinda Ardern is still “a pretty communist”, and her party a collection of fire-breathing “Cultural Marxists” hell-bent on transforming New Zealand into the Venezuela of the South Pacific. [No, I’m not really sure what a “Cultural Marxist” is either – but the term is very big right now in right-wing circles!] The conservatives’ confusion is understandable, however, given how common it has become for radical ideas about culture and identity to be conflated with the ideology of the “Left” in general.
Prebble is not so easily distracted. He won his political spurs in the days when leftism was mostly about the economic, social and political consequences of being born into a particular social class. The Labour Party he grew up in took as its starting point the condition of the New Zealand working-class and how it could be improved. The point of Prebble’s admirably acidic column is that this “Labour” government has begun its second term from a very different starting-point: namely, the condition of the New Zealand middle-class and how it can be protected. Hence, its very public commitment to “stability and certainty”.
The problem, of course, is that keeping conditions stable and certain for the middle-class more-or-less obliges the Government to refrain from implementing policies likely to produce significant improvements in the condition of the working-class. Most especially, it obliges Jacinda Ardern and her colleagues to do next-to-nothing for the poorest and most vulnerable members of the working-class. Improving their lives would simply be too costly. It would require precisely the sort of new taxes and tax increases that Labour has already ruled out of contention.
Not that Prebble is the least bit interested in tax rises. His big worry is New Zealand’s woefully low levels of productivity. Like any good Rogernome, he sees the solution to this country’s poor productivity in terms of upping the rate of exploitation: i.e. making the nation’s employees work harder and longer for less. He’s all about further deregulating an already comprehensively de-regulated labour market. Yes, he would start by undoing Labour’s minimal improvements to paid leave and minimum wages, but it wouldn’t stop there.
The funny thing about Prebble and his ilk is that the solution to our low rate of productivity has always been staring them in the face. The fastest way to lift productivity is to force employers to substitute innovative technology for the absurdly cheap and indifferently-skilled human labour that has, since the 1990s, been permitted to take its place. By dramatically lifting wages and improving working conditions, a reforming government would require inefficient businesses to either find a way to work smarter or close down. The inevitable rise in unemployment would be met with a massive state programme of upskilling and employment creation.
Not that this government would dream of implementing such a solution. Not only would it outrage the small-business sector, but it would unnerve the professional and managerial classes. Those who work for salaries are extraordinarily sensitive to what we old trade unionists used to call “the relativities”. Put simply, any appreciable rise in the income of the “lower orders” unmatched by a corresponding upward movement in the income of their “betters” will be construed as a direct attack on their social prestige and position – which, of course, it is. Maintaining the yawning gap in the life experiences of wage workers and salaried professionals is one of those unspoken and unbreakable laws of capitalist society that “reformers” ignore at their peril. Fortunately for the class that dominates Labour’s caucus, Jacinda doesn’t do peril!
But, if the Sixth Labour Government is unwilling to follow either Prebble’s path, or the path of uplifting the working-class, then how can it hope to escape the latter’s anger and disillusionment when they realise that in spite of all her “kind” words, Jacinda is not going to help them? Tragically, my gut instinct tells me that she and her colleagues are going to try and distract them.
For quite a long time now it has been clear to those who make it their business to keep an eye on such things that most of this country’s blue collars are to be found around brown necks. So many of this country’s most poorly paid jobs are being done by Maori, Pasifika and immigrant workers. They make up the bulk of the “working poor” and they are represented disproportionately in the ranks of beneficiaries.
These are the people who struggle to pay the rent, or, far too often, struggle to find a landlord to pay rent to. Theirs are the schools that are failing. Theirs the hospitals that are underfunded. It is their mothers, daughters, sisters and wives who are abused for wearing the hijab. It is their fathers, sons, brothers and husbands who are pulled over by the cops. Most of all, they are the New Zealanders for whom the daily injuries of race are experienced much more directly and painfully than the injuries of class.
What could be easier than to portray racism as the root cause of their misery? Especially when it is so much cheaper, politically, to persuade people that their problems arise out of the personal failings and prejudices of their fellow citizens, rather than from the structures of economic exploitation and social subordination in which they are trapped. As an explanatory tool, race has the added advantage of being something we cannot do anything about. Those who are born poor, on the other hand, are not bound by their genetic inheritance to remain so. To make race the problem is to choose a war that can never be truly won. Healing the injuries of class, however, is something human-beings have done before – and can do again. What’s more, the great thing about combatting the injustices of class is the way it renders racial differences increasingly unimportant.
When an injury to one is treated as an injury to all, the only colour people tend to see is red. It’s a colour that has bugger-all to do with “stability and certainty”, but it used to have a whole lot to do with Labour. Even Richard Prebble knows that.
This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Thursday, 3 December 2020.