“Great then is the good fortune of a state in which the citizens have a moderate and sufficient property; for where some possess much, and the others nothing…a tyranny may grow out of either extreme. Where the middle class is large, there are least likely to be factions and dissensions.” – Aristotle
It’s been a long time since my last blog post, and now seems like as good a time as any to offer some of my insights into the political situation in the nation at present.
It’s election year, and the politicking has most definitely begun. I have to admit I have been an avid follower of the dramatic developments in the political scene in New Zealand recently.
The Nicky Hager book ‘Dirty Politics’ is threatening to derail the bid of the incumbent government in New Zealand for a third successive term. The revelations and accusations are significant, it seems that adjectives not usually associated with New Zealand politics have become glaringly appropriate. Corruption, Cronyism, Cover-ups; all are rather pertinent at this particular juncture of New Zealand’s political history.
Wellington’s version of Watergate I have heard some people gleefully proclaim!
However, while the country seems to be gripped by this dramatic turn of events, (or turned off by it) there still remains a large question that I have been trying to wrap my head around for a while now. I think I may have found the ability to articulate my answer to this question, and my lengthy response is laid out for you below.
It’s wordy, and it’s not always coherent, but it’s most definitely a question we should be all asking ourselves.
The question is this: How is it that a government like National’s, who like its predecessors in the 1990s, lead New Zealand into a situation of poor economic growth, rising inequality and increased racial and ideological polarity, been able to sustain such massive public support?
If you follow me on social media sites you know that I have been often exasperated at the comments and opinions of many in our ‘democracy’. National has done so much that should preclude it from even being considered for another term, but my horrendous suspicion is that they will be able to sneak home with a win in September, irrespective of the outcome of the inquiries generated by the Nicky Hager book. Here’s why.
The spin doctors obviously have done their job for National. It is plain and obvious now that this government has done nothing for the plight of the ordinary New Zealander. Under National, New Zealand has reached its most unequal income distribution point in history. Accompanied by all the social ills that go with it. Increased violent crime rates (that the police minister has tried to cover up, still being investigated), lowering of educational standards in comparison to other OECD nations, a drop in real wages for the lay worker, a shunning of collective responsibility and community by the population, overall fall in the standards of health for New Zealanders especially from low income backgrounds, and yet National continues to enjoy the Lion’s share of support.
Anyone can see that a country beset by all these ills should look to their government for answers. Increasingly though, New Zealanders have chosen not to. The reason being is that we are being duped, duped by the way the information is presented, yes, politics is all about spinning the truth, but I assert that it goes much deeper than that.
New Zealanders have been duped by the system. The democratic system which has been coupled with a neo-liberal economic system has tainted our normative understanding of economic growth and the way it operates and the conditions it creates, reinforced by those at the top, serves to indenture the working class and makes them grateful for their own enslavement.
It is apparent now that every conventional understanding that we have of what an ideal economic situation/arrangement is, relates to the idea of increased GDP, GNI, export growth, healthy balance sheets, etc. Economic growth is therefore measured in terms of the levels of production our economy can reach. The more we produce, the more the economy grows. As the economy grows, so too do the jobs and that is how every boat is lifted by the rising tide of economic growth. So in essence, economic growth is the key to unlocking a happy and prosperous life.
But unfortunately this promised tide of economic growth has not brought benefits to all in society, it’s served to raise the boats of a few and sunk the vessels of a great deal many others. Economic growth based on neo-liberal ideas are not sustainable for society. Ideal for a cash based economy, but not ideal for a fair, equal, egalitarian in opportunity kind of society. The type that social democracies like New Zealand’s have for a long time striven to create.
Conservatives in every democratic system argue for open competition in an economy and by extension, in a society as the fairest way for us to organise our economic and social systems. It may seem like a straightforward and logical position to take. But this is a false idea of equality that can only truly be achieved under certain conditions.
The first condition for true equality to exist is that every boat needs to be starting the race from the same position. In other words, resources must first be equally distributed and fairly allocated before a fair competition can be had. This is not the situation in New Zealand, the indigenous people of New Zealand were effectively economically enslaved by colonisers whose descendants for over a century have enjoyed favourable economic and social conditions claimed by illegal conquest which have given them an advantage in this social, political and economic contest. Amounting to New Zealand’s own version of white privilege.
Moreover for Pacific people, the preface of their welcome to New Zealand was so that they would occupy the lowest rung on the social ladder, in order to complete the jobs that middle class white New Zealand felt was beneath them. Therefore this community were locked into a cycle of low wages, which means in a cash dominated economic model, amounted to low opportunity. Therefore it becomes easier to see why in this community educational outcomes for decades have been stagnant, also locking people into low wage jobs and underscoring this unequal balance.
Migrants from Asia, why are they not poor? I can sense the conservative vultures circling already . The answer to this misconception is quite simple, it’s because for most of them that came to New Zealand, they did so because the New Zealand government encouraged them to, for being ‘highly skilled migrants’ – It was a category explicitly set up by the New Zealand government under its immigration scheme to attract more value added type of migrants. (They were tired of us dumb islanders jumping through people’s windows at night). Therefore Asian migrants tended to be wealthy and highly educated, endowed with skills that enabled them to better navigate New Zealand’s new economic order.
Why is this important then? How does this amount to duping, and how is it related to the title of this post? I have a point, I promise, just bare with me a little while longer.
The point is this, for the past 6 years National has used the same old tropes to bolster its credentials as the best team to lead our country. They have used some of the following rhetoric:
“New Zealand’s economy is growing at a faster rate than most OECD countries”
“Under National, New Zealand’s debt levels are now under control”
“No special treatment, everyone is being treated the same under National”
Just to name a few.
And the public seem to be lapping it up. They think that New Zealand’s modest economic growth of 1%, that’s right 1% is something to be proud of because other countries are doing badly. In actual fact, New Zealand’s economy hasn’t seen such poor economic growth since the last National government from 1990-99. This is not something to be proud of. And yes I know all about the Global Financial Crisis, let’s just stop using that as an excuse.
Additionally, under National, the New Zealand unemployment rate reached its highest levels since, you guessed it, they were last in power.
We really need to be more attentive to what this actually means for us in election year.
What this does, is that it sets up a false dichotomy in the minds of the public. Because conservatives talk about cutting spending in hard times, and we are immersed, and I mean immersed completely in neo-liberal ideas of economic organisation and growth, the public are more likely to turn on each other. It’s a competition, it’s a dog-eat-dog world out there. So if you’re unemployed you MUST be siphoning the system by being a welfare bludger.
Nevermind the fact that by creating conditions of economic competition which seeks to cut costs in production, ie introduce more machinery into the production process of manufacturing firms, and focusing on wealth generation you actually are removing jobs from the economy and creating more unemployment, therefore perpetuating the problem yourself. This small fact is of no consequence to a conservative government.
Competition opens up the economy yes, but unbridled capitalism causes inequality. If left unchecked it leads to social disintegration, the marginalisation of minorities and the exploitation of lower classes. This is why government is needed to intervene, to ensure that the weakest and most vulnerable in our society who are the losers in this competitive environment aren’t left behind, or sunk by the new world order. Unfortunately inequality only serves to increase the popularity of conservative governments.
One of the weaknesses of democracies is how it can be manipulated to suit the needs of a particular group of people who are aware of how it can be shaped into meeting their own desires..
The goal of an elected government in a democracy is not to govern in the best interests of the country, this is a lie that we are taught in school to keep us all in a democratic line! The real goal of an incumbent government is to create conditions that will make it conducive for them to be elected to government again at the end of the electoral cycle. This doesn’t necessarily mean that it will seek to improve the lot of all in a country. It will seek to improve the lot of those who are more likely to be able to help them get re-elected. For conservative governments, it’s business interests and wealthy donors.
As a result, a high unemployment rate is of no consequence, increased child poverty is of no real consequence, rising crime rates are of no consequence. Why? because the fear that this creates in the minds of the public feeds directly into the mechanism that supports their popularity. It feeds into people’s natural reaction to protect themselves in times of strife. It’s a given human condition and every politician knows this. Especially those on the right of the political spectrum.
So National have been deliberately ratcheting up the rhetoric, laying blame on those who are apparently ‘too lazy for work’, victimizing those who have been left behind by our system as a whole, and the public who have seen doom and gloom story after story, roll out in front of them relentlessly in the media, end up turning on each other. So when National shows up as a knight in shining armour promising to vanquish all the demons that are hurting our country’s economic growth, the duped public willingly oblige.
By pushing the neo-liberal logic of better businesses equal better jobs, growing GDP, growing National Income etc lifts all boats through the rising tide of economic growth, it makes for attractive politics. The problem is that with rising technological development, as alluded to before, wealth is becoming more concentrated in those who already have the capital to exploit the new conditions being created by e-commerce, outsourcing of labour and industries, and it ends up leaving the middle class with a rather hollow feeling.
It means that real jobs disappear and working class New Zealand comes under greater strain, however the trope of increased economic growth must mean that jobs are out there right? Yes jobs are out there, but meaningful ones are disappearing. So anyone whose not working, and by default who is poor, is so because of their own poor decision making processes. Therefore the government is right to lower taxes, lower social spending to reward those who are working and driving the economy forward.
Sound familiar? It should, this type of flawed logic is what has created the horrific prevalence of downward envy that permeates New Zealand’s society. People who are from middle class, or working class backgrounds are now looking down at the unemployed and the poor as victims of their own lack of diligence. Yet people can’t work if there are no meaningful jobs available that promises them a dignified living. So they fall to the wayside, and those who have secure jobs believe that those who have fallen through the cracks deserve to be there. The National party look at this in glee, and dial up the accompanying rhetoric.
They dial it up by focusing on policies they say will reward the hardworking. They dial it up by saying that it’s unfair for hardworking New Zealanders to have to subsidise the existence of the unemployed and low income earners. People fall in love with this kind of talk. But in actual fact this kind of rhetoric would have more meaning if the policies of lower social spending and greater tax relief for the hardworking actually benefits the working class. It doesn’t.
The joke is on New Zealand. The 10% of New Zealand’s most wealthy are the only ones who are benefiting. Ownership of resources are being concentrated in the rich, and with the disappearance of the manufacturing sector in the country the hollowing out of the middle class is inevitable. Real wages in New Zealand have fallen under National because rising costs of living are actually more than off-setting the miniscule economic growth that is occurring. What we’re seeing is an increase in productivity, but a reduction of the wealth of the middle class due to the shape of the system, meaning that the pie may be getting bigger, but our share is getting smaller.
Those who are in middle class jobs, unless something spectacular occurs will only ever know this level of wealth without the resource base that the 10% already enjoy. Which means as taxes decrease, the 10% get richer, as social spending gets lower, the social problems like crime, the degrading environment, increased commodity prices affect the middle class and working class so much more. People are struggling day-to-day, and they reject any small suggestion that their tax dollars be spent on helping to raise the boats that have been sunk by the neo-liberal ‘miracle’. They think that their struggle and hardwork must mean that they are morally superior than others.
However most people don’t know that what benefit fraud costs the New Zealand economy (barely anything) is a drop in a bucket compared to the billions of dollars that is being hidden away by New Zealand’s 10% through clever accounting and tax evasion, so not only do they have all the money, they refuse to pay their part of the invoice when it comes to settling the bill at the end of the day.
The struggle is not being felt by the rich, as the middle class and working class have become increasingly squeezed, the belts of the insanely rich have become increasingly loose as they manage to accumulate more of the country’s state assets. like Mighty River Power whose partial sale championed by John Key basically amounted to the transfer of a publicly owned company into the ownership of a narrow wealthy band of New Zealanders. They announced yesterday that profits were up by nearly $100million in one year. Conveniently the year it was sold.
Middle and working class New Zealand not only are enslaved labourers, they are also forced to fill the coffers of the 10% with their patronage, purchasing essential services such as electricity from companies that were once publicly owned but are now controlled by powerful oligarchs.
The trick is though, by reinforcing the fact that New Zealand’s economy is still growing, our own instincts that have been indoctrinated by an education system that places the credence of these economic markers ahead of public well being is spelling the death of New Zealand’s egalitarian tradition.
The working class have become enslaved to the 10%, and they don’t even know it.
Come September, watch as the duped and disenfranchised choose to validate their own enslavement by supporting a government who has manipulated the people so much so, that they see nothing wrong with reinforcing their own economic bondage.
The problem is, people can’t see past their own shoelaces, let alone the fact that they are being chained to a dead ideal of equality to see that change is most definitely needed at the apex of our society.