Something is happening here – again
ONE OF THE BENEFITS of getting older is that you get a feel for what’s really going wrong. The experiences of young people, especially events leading to profound societal changes, tend to be so vivid that those who go through them become intensely aware of any experience that they feel, even remotely, to be similar. That’s why I feel compelled to say that, from the events happening all around us in 2021, I have a really terrifying feeling of already seen.
Last time around, I had the same ominous feeling that something bad was happening: something that was going to change the lives of thousands of New Zealanders forever, and for the worse; something that couldn’t be stopped; it was in the early 1980s.
Yes, that’s right, the early 1980s was the time when the ideology of neoliberalism began to take root in New Zealand society. It was not then called “neoliberalism”, it was its promoters preferring to identify its objective as the establishment of a “free market”. To achieve this goal, “more market-oriented policies” were needed. Thinking back to the “New Left” movements of the 1960s and 1970s, political journalists began to call this radical movement towards “economic freedom” the “New Right”.
What made this new ideology so frightening was that its effects were already apparent in the two countries New Zealanders (and Australians) identify with most: the UK and the US. Margaret Thatcher was elected in 1979 and Ronald Reagan in 1980. Free market policies therefore had to prevail here. In Australasia, the dominant ideas of London and Washington are culturally compelling.
As editor-in-chief of the University of Otago student newspaper Critical in 1981, I felt compelled to publish articles by students excited by the radical new economic theories that were seeping into the academic community. It was disconcerting for those of us who were on the far left of social democracy. We, too, wanted an upheaval in the way the New Zealand economy was run – but not like this.
With growing unease, I began to see the postwar Keynesian status quo being criticized by both the New Left and the New Right. What I couldn’t see, however, was the New Left winning this escalating ideological struggle. Not with the US and UK weighing in on what looked like the New Right’s shameless call for a return to the let it go 19th century capitalism.
The most important aspect to grasp about the success of the neoliberal revolution in New Zealand is that revolutionaries were mostly found in the upper ranks of the civil service, academia and the media – notably in the Reserve Bank, the Treasury. and the business press. In these places, they were ideally placed to exert a constant (and ultimately decisive) influence over the two groups essential for translating neoliberal ideology into concrete action “on the ground”: politicians and business leaders.
That the Labor Party ended up being the vector of neoliberalism was due, first, to the exhaustion of the Keynesian economy as a source of policies that had not yet been tested to destruction; and, second, the stubborn refusal of National Prime Minister Rob Muldoon to embrace the new-right policies of Thatcher and Reagan. Labor politicians were desperate for a policy model they could come up with as an alternative to Muldoonism, and were delighted to find that the people they would most need help and support to make it happen – the Reserve Bank and the Treasury – were eager as mustard to start the revolution.
Hence the meaning of already seen. All around me, I perceive the same secret repositioning of pieces on the chessboard that characterized the early 1980s. There is the same apprehension as in the public service, academia and the news media, the main ideological transitions have already been made – at least where they matter. Once again, the two essential complements to translate an ideological orthodoxy that is rapidly consolidating into practical “reform” on the ground – a voluntary political party (or parties) and a facilitating business sector – are already in place.
All that was missing was one ‘trigger’ event: the equivalent of the snap election so stupidly called by Rob Muldoon in June 1984. Then came the unprecedented tragedy of the 2019 Christchurch Mosque Massacre, followed closely by the arrival of the Covid-19 pandemic. . If the next political revolution is not already underway, then the Sixth Labor Government is certainly preparing to put the key in the ignition.
the social liberal a revolution in which New Zealand seems certain to be engulfed will be even more heartbreaking than the neoliberal revolution that spawned it, and to which it so closely resembles. Its objective is simple: to prevent the political mobilization of the economic victims of neoliberal capitalism by exacerbating the racial, sexual and gender problems that divide them.
Essentially, the social-liberal revolution was unleashed to protect the socio-economic interests of the Professional and Managerial Class (CMP) which administers neoliberal society. If neoliberalism was the ideological expression of a capitalist ruling class under pressure, and its fundamental aim was to crush organized labor and break down the power of the working class, then social-liberalism is the necessary ideological adaptation. of the PMC, whose role is to keep the working class crushed and shattered.
Like neoliberalism, social liberalism can only be imposed from top to bottom. This is because all historical precedents suggest that the strongest impulses of those who experience economic and social injustice are towards unity and solidarity. It requires a constant and conscious effort on the part of the ruling class and its facilitators to break this unity and undo this solidarity. Hence the need to obscure the common interests of the Maori and Pakeha working class; working class men and women; working class cis and LGBT. The elevation of identity in relation to class is the critical cultural project at the heart of the social-liberal revolution.
Many who are destined to play a role in the social-liberal revolution will shrink from this analysis. They do not see themselves as facilitating the continuous upward transfer of wealth from the poor to the one percent. Quite the contrary. They would position themselves firmly to the left. To subsume the struggles against racism, sexism and gender inequality as class struggles, they would say, is reactionary. If the Sixth Labor government is prepared to legislate in favor of what the right calls “wokeism,” then this only confirms the genuine progressivism of Jacinda Ardern and her colleagues.
What I would invite these aggrieved social liberals to do is engage in a little comparative historical research.
Compare the early Maori mass struggles against the failure of Pakeha society to honor the Treaty of Waitangi (in the 1970s and early 1980s the favorite slogan was “The Treaty is a Fraud!”) With the wealthy iwi-based companies; and the iwi leadership group, which emerged from the crown-controlled treaty settlement process over the past 30 years.
Compare the United Women’s Conventions of the 1970s, the mass campaign to reform abortion laws and the union struggle for the Workers’ Charter of the early 1980s, with the current neoliberal indicator of equality women – the number of women sitting around the boards of directors of New Zealand’s largest companies.
Shine the same spotlight on the contemporary labor movement. Compare the heated public debates of the more than 400 working-class delegates from the private sector who gathered in Wellington for the annual Federation of Labor conferences, with the tiny biannual closed-door leadership conclaves of “middle class” unions of the public sector ”(PSA, PPTA, NZEI, NZNO) which dominate the Council of Trade Unions.
This has always been a surefire way to determine whether or not you are involved in something genuinely progressive, or if you are just advocating for the interests of a narrow elite. Ask the classic revolutionary question: who? Which?
Progressive revolutionary change is springing up from below as a consequence of ordinary people transforming the unity and solidarity they have developed while fighting injustice into mass political action. If the only people who really benefit from your top-down legislative agenda are a small, privileged and well-paid minority: an elite group already in possession of enormous power and influence; then you can be absolutely sure of two things:
It is not progressive.
It is not a revolution.