Sunday 23 June 2024

The Realm Of The Possible.

The People’s House: What would it be like to live in a country where a single sermon could prick the conscience of the comfortable? Where a journalist could rouse a whole city to action? Where the government could be made to respond to the people’s concerns? Where real change was possible? And we could make it.

IN A YEAR of important elections, some already held, some yet to come, one common factor has become very clear. The ideological shift that rescued mainstream political parties from the seemingly endless crises of the 1970s has, in the intervening decades, become a serious electoral liability.

Neoliberalism may have provided the political mainstream with the circuit-breaker it was looking for in the 1970s and 80s, and its success in burying the social-democratic orthodoxy of the post-war era may have provided mainstream politicians with a field cleared of credible opponents, but the problems its adoption was supposed to solve have not disappeared. Indeed, many have grown.

Certainly, forty years on from the Snap Election of 1984 and the neoliberal revolution it ushered in, New Zealand’s mainstream parties stand in urgent need of a new circuit-breaker. If a tsunami of radical populism is not to roll over the centre ground, then a new set of answers is required to the key questions of democratic politics: “What is possible – and what is not?”

Since the late-1980s, for example, nationalisation, or even significant public ownership of key infrastructure and services, has been rejected outright as politically impossible, or been characterised with some asperity as the least effective alternative to untrammelled private ownership. At virtually every level of government, and regardless of the manifest severity of key infrastructural failures, both legislators and administrators continue to shy away from the most obvious and financially rational solutions.

Since the state is far ahead of all other borrowers in terms of how much it can borrow and at what cost, it makes obvious sense for it to take over New Zealand’s “three waters” and carry out the necessary upgrading and extension projects that long ago exceeded the ability of local authorities to finance. Cost recovery could be negotiated with the local government sector over a period of sufficient length to render it fiscally bearable. Easy-peasy?

Apparently not. That the option of straightforward nationalisation was never considered seriously by either Labour or National bears testimony to the remarkable persistence of the neoliberal vision. Even in the United Kingdom, where the privatisation of water is an accomplished fact, the abject failure of the experiment – as attested to by the open sewers that were England’s rivers and streams – has been insufficient to make nationalisation the preferred option of anybody except the voting public.

Restoring the organised working-class as one of the great “estates” of the realm has similarly been dismissed as impossible by the neoliberal clerisy. Their reticence on this subject is understandable, since it was the growing power of the trade unions in the advanced capitalist states of the 1960s and 70s – especially their real or potential influence over the major parties of the Centre-Left – that made the identification and introduction of an ideological circuit-breaker so urgent.

New Zealand’s destruction of organised labour in the early 1990s was of a thoroughness unequalled in the democratic West. Over a period of 30 years, union density declined from just under half the workforce to less than 10 percent. Take out the unions representing teachers, nurses, salaried medical specialists and public servants, and the percentage of private-sector workers enrolled in trade unions shrinks away to something not much better than nothing.

Except that, as is so often the case with the neoliberal “reforms” of the past 40 years, the cure for the apprehended “socialist” disease has proved to be worse than the complaint. The elimination of union power removed one of the most powerful drivers of productivity. By making it possible for employers to keep wages low, investment in more efficient plant and machinery, and the uplifting of employee skill levels, could be more-or-less permanently deferred.

The consequences of making it possible for businesses to ‘live’ with low productivity are clearly illustrated in the widening gulf between wage levels in New Zealand and Australia. That this differential (upwards of 30 percent) acts as a powerful magnet for what skilled workers New Zealand has left, not only strips the country of the people best placed to lift its productivity, but also entrenches its status as a low-skill, low-wage economy. The downward spiral becomes self-reinforcing.

The stripping-out of New Zealand’s manufacturing base, justified by the neoliberals’ unbreakable attachment to the Eighteenth Century economic doctrine of “comparative advantage”, may have offset the effects of declining real wages by lowering the price of manufactured goods, but it also robbed the New Zealand working-class of the pride and dignity that attaches to those who make real things in the real world. Emptying container-loads of manufactured imports is a poor substitute for the satisfaction derived from participating in their creation.

Allowing your best and brightest workers to seek a better life elsewhere, while allowing the self-esteem and skill levels of those who remain to fall in unison, is a recipe for socio-economic polarisation. It encourages those positioned higher on the socio-economic ladder to look down on those below them – a disdain which is all too easily translated into self-reproach and self-loathing by those so regarded. Just because the comfortably positioned in the social hierarchy do not have to endure the hidden injuries of class does not make them any less real.

New Zealand was once a society in which the exploitation of citizens was deemed unacceptable. The most dramatic illustration of this determination to be a nation in which few were rich and none were poor may be found in the story of Dunedin’s “sweated” tailoresses – women and girls paid starvation wages for sewing garments all day and late into the night.

An 1888 sermon, “The Sin of Cheapness”, penned and delivered by local clergymen, the Rev. Rutherford Waddell, inspired a local journalist to take up the tailoresses’ cause in The Otago Daily Times. At a public meeting the following year middle-class and working-class activists, acting together, decided to form the Tailoresses Union. In 1890, the New Zealand Government felt sufficiently pressured to set up a Royal Commission of Inquiry into “sweated labour”. Legislation followed.

Harriet Morrison of the newly formed Tailoresses Union attacks the monstrous practice of sweated labour in this New Zealand Observer cartoon of 1892.

A Christian preacher, a crusading journalist, a conscience-stricken middle-class, an energised working-class, New Zealand’s first union for women, a Royal Commission, legislative reform, socio-economic change. In 1888, all these factors contributed to defining the realm of the possible in New Zealand.

It was precisely to reduce the constantly expanding scope of what was considered possible, and to address the radical implications of such expansion for the social and economic future of the nation, that persuaded so many powerfully placed New Zealanders to unleash the neoliberal revolution of 1984-1993.

Few would argue that they did not succeed in lowering Kiwis’ expectations of what their society, their government, and they, themselves, were capable of achieving. This shrugging-off of what were depicted as excessively onerous collective responsibilities made it much easier to believe that individual success had been made correspondingly easier, and that individual failure, while regrettable, was no longer society’s business.

But, forty years on, are we really better off for living in a political environment where so little is considered achievable? What would it be like to live in a country where a single sermon could prick the conscience of the comfortable? Where a journalist could rouse a whole city to action? Where the government could be made to respond to the people’s concerns. Where real change was possible?

And we could make it.

This essay was originally posted on the website on Monday, 17 June 2024.


new view said...

Chris I believe your first and last paragraph to be correct but disagree with a lot in the middle.
a/ Yes the state can borrow money more cheaply and I hope will make that finance available to Councils who IMO are right in wishing to control their water for their rate payers.
b/ The destruction of the Unions came about not only because they became too big and powerful but because productivity was dropping off. Productivity only justifies increased wages if there is increased output which in turn creates a stronger economy to sustain those wages. That didn't happen as was shown in the endless strikes in the the Freezing works in the 70's 80's where the more the wages were increased the more demands were made.
c/ IMO manufacturing in NZ failed not because of whatever Neoliberalism is but simply we couldn't match the cheaply produced goods from overseas. Globalisation had arrived and we could choose to hide from it for a while or face the music and join it.
What Chris has pointed out is that what we have isn't working and I agree. My analysis of what we have is the result of a continuous stream of governments from both sides that have proven to be incapable of initiating a balanced program of social and economic progress. There is no secret to good government. Economic expansion coupled with good socially responsible policies that give the majority a chance at getting ahead in life. Our current political parties are always half right and half wrong. They either push for social justice with no clue how to achieve it without destroying the economy, or they are brilliant at encouraging economic growth but are inept at ensuring social justice. That's what we have.

David George said...

"individual failure, while regrettable, was no longer society’s business"

And what is the individual's responsibility in all of this?

I read a compelling essay on the manifold failings of Australia's Aboriginals, the addiction, violence and almost every problem imaginable.

Of course colonisation etc. is suggested as a cause but how to explain the shocking moral, social and economic collapse of, for example, European American individuals and communities and why do some fall into despair while others flourish. I saw my hometown (Kaikohe) go through this with no end in sight despite huge well intended effort and expense.

I think general life success is founded on trust; trust in those around you and faith in the future. I've seen first hand what happens when that is lost - nihilism, envy and resentment take it's place.

"The successful among us delay gratification. The successful among us bargain with the future." Jordan Peterson

The Barron said...

With the stirring Dam Busters March in the background, the Lancaster bombers of 617 Squadron flying lower than designed for let loose the bouncing bomb to skip over the water to avoid torpedo nets. Ingenious and innovative, it was a boy's own story of how to bring down crucial infrastructure.

Northland 2024, a pylon is knocked over - power is lost to 200,000 and all northern business. Marlborough Sounds 2024, a navigation glitch and the only rail ferry between the main islands of NZ is suspended.

Resilience. It was hailed as a virtue after earthquakes, pandemics and floods. But it was also used as an objective. Our infrastructure, essential service delivery and housing was to be readied for any future crisis, be it global weather change, pandemic or natural disaster.

This tripartite government has not done so, and for accounting proposes, postponed, delayed or cancelled any previous plans. This is a betrayal of the suffering of all victims of quakes, flooding or Covid19. Their sacrifice has been made in vein. No lessons learnt and no preparation for future events. They are sold out, and all future people left vulnerable. With a specific and relenting policy to loosen elected government control over vital infrasture, it is a government that has an ideology to isolate essential services to those with money (user pays) and control to those with vast wealth (public - private partnerships of privatization).

When we watch Britain, we see an ideology that has failed a people and a nation. While we may view the upcoming election with the music of The Surfaris in our head, we really should be asking ourselves why we have a government following policy that has been proven harmful and left a nation vulnerable?

Anonymous said...

Hi, I suggest you read Peter Turchin’s book “End Times”

John Hurley said...

Surely we will have the same problems as before with an extra million people.

Debunking Immigration Myths _ Recalling Aotearoa 2000. Paul Spoonley Augie Fleras.
Myth: New Zealand is swamped with immigrants. Even with proposals to attract a net migration gain of 10 000 new permanent residents each year in a country of 3.7 million, it would be an exaggeration to say that the 'floodgates' are being opened to 'fly-by-night' operators who are putting a strain on an overloaded infra-structure when we should be 'looking after our own' (Winston Peters, in Venter 1998). It would be more accurate to say that New Zealand is swamped by those wanting to leave ('disapprovals') rather than those who wanted to enter ('approvals'). Between 1976 and 1995, the number of people who left New Zealand outnumbered those who entered by a worrying 49 089 according to Statistics New Zealand. In the period from 1984 to 1989, a total of 95 900 more New Zealanders left the country than entered as immigrants (Bedford et al. 1995). The contribution of immigration to population growth is not impressive. Even if the time frame is expanded to take in the period from 1971 to 1996, to account for surges in migration, the net gain in population by international migration amounts to only 85 980 (Pool & Bedford 1996). At 15 per cent of the total population, net immigration since 1945 has been a relatively small albeit constant component of overall population growth (Zodgekar 1997)

Paul Spoonley: (later) "we are globalizing" (as you do). "Everyone is us. Try to keep up."

Larry Mitchell said...

Sacrifices in "VEIN"... Err ... in " VAIN"?

Freudian or literally accurate?

That is ... was blood actually spilt? ... or somewhat less sensationally was this all ... mere Vanity???

The Barron said...

Self editing has never been my strong point. Still, it was directly after the mention of Covid19, and inoculation was in vein, so I plead Freud

Tom Hunter said...

Here you go Chris, and don't say I never do anything for you. This article, The Bleak Genius of Michel Foucault is a review of the man's academic thoughts by a former Trotskyist.

Now personally I think that Foucault is over-rated and although his writing is at least comprehensible (unlike fucking Derrida, whom I found densely obscurant and frankly not understandable most of the time), I don't think his "thinking" is that useful in analysing our world.

And this reviewer acknowledges how annoyed Marxists are by Foucault's emphasis on individual identity breaking down their original focus on class as the central fact of social organisation, but reckons that Foucault had a very good and prescient view of neoliberalism, as well as a definition that might help those who just blindly throw around the term as meaning little more than "I hate the Right".

I'll be interested to see what you think of this definition of neoliberalism:

neoliberalism wasn’t merely a restoration of classically liberal governmentality after a brief social-democratic interval, during which market economies embraced planning, welfare, and class compromise. Neoliberalism wouldn’t rest content with merely restoring the autonomous price “veridiction” of the 18th- and 19th-century market, which had been eroded somewhat in the three decades postwar. Now, the economist (and the corporate executive) inveighed upon the sovereign to adopt market mentalities and mechanisms as the very logic of politics. Prices had to be permitted to pursue and tell their “truth” in the sphere of exchange—and in every other sphere, as well. Whereas classical liberalism had merely demanded that society leave the market alone, neoliberalism “governs society by the market,” in Foucault’s famous formulation.
Under neoliberalism, the market took full control of freedom.

sean kerrigan said...

Gosh, what a breathe of fresh air that was Mister Trotter and following on quite nicely from Peter Zeihan's featuring in a very recent Joe Rogan podcast. All I really need now is something from Gabor Mate to tie it all together by illustrating the psychology of trauma acting out on societal levels... because then I could have about three hours of intermingled dialogue, per se, which amount to three different perspectives on what, in my view, amounts to the same things but alas, in a world so stringently desperate for answers even more quickly digestible than a 30 second soundbite, I might have to wait for the biggest pile of debris available, after the dust settles, to proceed with my sermon on that particular mount.
Interestingly, for me anyway, I wasn't displeased with Rodger the Dodgers (Mr Douglas) opening up of our markets, as it were, as it was a tide coming in and for a small island at the bottom of the world not so long off the teat of Great Britain, which somewhat allowed us these socially driven experiments time to get a foothold, a really quite succinct move, alike, steer the ship into the wave good god, otherwise we'll be engulfed!
But then, and bless us all, we got lost in that tide, that opulence of a magazine feature life even after '87 suggested it might be time to 'dig in' as it were.
Oh well, anyway, for anyone whom may have got this far (and hopefully too caught the offhand approximate minute within the Joe Rogan Peter Zeihan wherein the big clue resides, 1.22.09-1.23.18, that of culture wars and belonging) then I suggest as many Gabor Mate books you can be bothered reading, vids for the lazy (though they're often better), to potential open up all the subconscious wounding no one, in their right minds, driving the whole messy shebang!