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Book extract: The voices of a new (socialist) generation

The first chapter from The Interregnum, a collection of essays from a Millennials' socialist perspective.

Morgan Godfery
Fri, 13 Jan 2017

Extracted with permission from Chapter 1 of The Interregnum: Rethinking New Zealand, edited by Morgan Godfery, Published Bridget Williams Books, Wellington, 2016

Back in September, Otago political scientist Bryce Edwards described a revival in left-wing ideology with the launch of Sue Bradford’s think tank, Economic and Social Research Aotearoa (ESRA). It may not have created the “revolution” Edwards suggested but the Left has had success in popularising issues from social inequality and child poverty to populist causes such as opposition to free trade. To give NBR subscriber members an opportunity to judge for themselves, we reproduce the introductory chapter to The Interregnum: Rethinking New Zealand, a collection of essays from a millennials' socialist perspective

'Stick close,’ mutters a breathless activist, ‘we’re almost at Wellesley Street.’ Roaming activists are moving from choke point to choke point in central Auckland, blocking roads to the city. ‘This is a TPPA-free zone,’ someone roars. Police come round the nearest corner. ‘Here, sit down, sit down,’ says a middle-aged man dressed in black, as the activists scramble to the middle of the intersection. Horns are blasting, probably in frustration rather than support, and more police begin arriving in squads. Officers in high-visibility vests circle the activists, though none seems willing to make a move.

Journalists are the first to break the invisible line, pressing both sides on what they might do next. ‘We are going to keep the blockade going,’ answers one activist, while the police seem content to play cat and mouse as the city is paralysed. Few cars are making it through the blockades, and bus drivers are on strike for the day, so the only thing moving on Queen Street is a protest body more than 15,000-strong. ‘Ka whawhai tonu mātou,’ chants law professor Jane Kelsey from the back of a pickup truck, electrifying the crowd. ‘Ake, ake, ake,’ they reply.

Pedestrians are squeezing through the crowd; a young man in a suit asks what all the fuss is about. ‘We are here to oppose the TPPA,’ says a dark-haired Filipino woman. ‘It attacks our sovereignty,’ adds a young woman wearing her kura kaupapa Māori uniform. The TPPA they are opposing is the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement, the controversial 12-nation trade agreement that triumphant government ministers are signing in a windowless conference room at SkyCity Grand Hotel, less than a block away from what protestors are describing as the largest direct action since the Springbok Tour in 1981. 

The comfortable consensus on the merits of international trade agreements is beginning to fray, with the anti-TPPA Facebook likes coming to life as New Zealanders from all walks of life use their voice to either oppose or advocate for the deal. The morning papers are publishing comment pieces from opponents and advocates while ‘TPPA’ is the most popular search term on Google for the day. Comments on blog sites from across the political spectrum are numbering in the hundreds, while business leaders speaking on morning radio are suggesting that the opponents are working off misinformation, thanks to the government’s poor ‘sales job’.

‘Free market capitalism is great,’ says a counter-demonstrator on the corner of Customs and Queen Sta, as Kelsey’s pick-up truck creeps to a halt. The central city is jammed from end to end. From mid-morning to mid-afternoon on this day, 4 February 2016, the city belongs to the protestors. What started as a momentous day for trade ministers is ending as a referendum on their work.

The powerlessness in politics
To participate in politics is, for many young people, to experience powerlessness: no matter how many marches we organise, trade agreements are still signed. And if we find the courage to participate in public life, we are condemned as inveterate narcissists who prefer the comforts of ‘virtue signalling’ over the cold and remote logic of political pragmatism. ‘Sensible’ people ask why we persist with our pointless little rebellions, as if our political defeats demand private defeatism. Why bother marching against the TPPA while trade ministers are inking the deal? The answer, it seems to me, is twofold: history, the thing shaping our lives; and hope, the thing making it impossible to stay silent.

In regard to history, as Marx explains, we do not inherit the past ‘under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past’. History is already organising the world as we find it, we merely inherit its triumphs and injustices. There is an element of tragedy here, captured in Fredric Jameson’s remark that ‘History is what hurts, it is what refuses desire and sets inexorable limits to individual as well as collective praxis.’

But to guard against this fatalism – the idea that history is always set and our actions are irrelevant – we turn to the hope that history will not always repeat itself, or the hope that past injustices can be overcome. The Māori renaissance was an uprising against a grim history of economic inequality and cultural suppression, yet what made the movement possible and partly successful was the hope that the country was better than its past.

Hope, coupled with the political struggle it demands, helped overturn more than a century of cultural suppression (we are still working on the inequality part). The same forces are at work in the movement against the TPPA: it involves a political struggle against the history the deal embeds, one that favours international corporate rights over domestic power; and hope – the thing that made the events of February 4th possible – for a political framework that favours individual and collective rights over corporate rights.

Compelling narrative lacks agency
It is a compelling narrative, yet it avoids assigning agency: who is responsible for the history we are struggling against? There must be revolutionaries, so to speak, who are responsible for the status quo, from international trade agreements to austerity states. In the US, Democratic presidential nominee Bernie Sanders blames the ‘billionaire class’ on Wall Street, while in the UK Labour party leader Jeremy Corbyn finds fault with City of London bankers, but New Zealanders need to look elsewhere – our revolutionaries were in government.

Taking their inspiration from Margaret Thatcher’s dramatic reforms in the UK, and exploiting the sense of crisis after prime minister Robert Muldoon mishandled the economy in the years up to 1984, the Fourth Labour Government leapt into a reform programme that we now call neoliberalism, the economic system and political rationality that replaced the old social democratic emphasis on price stability and full employment with an almost religious devotion to unregulated markets. But while their revolution delivered tremendous gains to the already rich, most New Zealanders found themselves worse off.

This trend crystallised in the case of Telecom: thousands lost their jobs after it was privatised in 1990, but the consortium that acquired it walked away just seven years later with a profit of $7.2 billion. More generally, salaried workers, having had their bargaining power cut since the 1990s, ‘have lost around $19 billion a year, or $10,000 per wage earner per year, to the owners of capital,’ writes Max Rashbrooke in Wealth and New Zealand.

Meanwhile, the assets of our wealthiest 1 per cent increased from $94 billion to $147 billion between 2004 and 2010. In New Zealand, as in other OECD countries, taxation has also become more regressive – that is, loading more of the tax burden on the poorest – especially since 2010, when the government generously reduced personal tax rates at the top while raising GST, which hits hardest in poor households.

This was not just a local phenomenon, though. Oxfam calculates that the world’s wealthiest 1 per cent now own more assets than the rest of us combined; in this light, the Occupy slogan ‘we are the 99 percent’ takes on a whole new meaning. With the benefit of hindsight, this was a predictable outcome of reducing top tax rates, opening borders for capital and not labour, and privatising public assets.

Majority remained ordinary workers
"The theorists, of course, predicted otherwise. The likes of Friedrich Hayek and Milton Friedman passionately argued that an economy with low taxes and private ownership would unleash our entrepreneurial imagination. We would all be producers and consumers and thought leaders. But most of us just remained ordinary old workers, except with diminished rights and poorer access to social security. The rising tide did not lift all boats, only the ‘super yachts,’ as former Labour finance spokesperson David Parker put it.

The argument for such political moves is usually that economic efficiency and investment will rise. But the opposite is true. Last year the UN Conference on Trade and Development found that the neoliberal revolution slowed growth rates and spurred unemployment, in effect reversing the remarkable growth in the industrialised world between the 1950s and 1970s.That is neoliberalism’s legacy: weaker growth and increased inequality.

Tragically, it is children who usually endure the greatest hardship. In 2015, 305,000 New Zealand children were living in poverty. Yet, in our nostalgia for a supposed egalitarian past, we tend to forget that New Zealand has known intolerable levels of child poverty for a quarter of a century now. Following benefit cuts of 20 to 30 per cent in Ruth Richardson’s 1991 ‘Mother of All Budgets’, child poverty doubled almost overnight; the children condemned to poverty in that year are adults now, perhaps with their own children in poverty.

Privileges are being lost
Of course, most New Zealanders are enormously privileged, compared to many living in the developing world. But while we retain our global privileges, many of us are losing our local ones: new technology and new industrial centres are wiping out old jobs; the price of things like housing, commodities, currencies and stocks change rapidly; new and seemingly more dangerous non-state security threats are emerging; and the top-down media once thought to shape public opinion is disappearing.

In other words, our economic and social worlds seem increasingly unstable as once reliable assumptions like a ‘job for life’ come under challenge. ‘All fixed, fast-frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions, are swept away, all new-formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify,’ wrote Marx and Friedrich Engels in 1848; ‘[a]ll that is solid melts into air.’

The trouble for the neoliberal political settlement is that people are beginning to notice. We are living through a politics of protest and disruption, from Occupy to the movement against the TPPA. New populisms of the left and right are beginning to challenge the existing order: the Scottish National Party, Corbynism and UKIP nationalism in England; Spain’s Podemos; the governing coalition of communist, social democratic and green parties in Portugal; perhaps even Syriza in Greece or Die Linke in Germany; certainly the Parti de Gauche and the Front National in France; arguably the Five Star Movement in Italy; definitely Black Lives Matter and the ‘democratic socialism’ of Bernie Sanders (and maybe the authoritarianism of Donald Trump) in the United States; maybe Idle No More (and to a lesser extent prime minister Justin Trudeau) in Canada; and undoubtedly Bolivarianism and indigenous movements in South America.

Global connectedness
What is interesting here are the global links, the connectedness of these movements, which is fitting and necessary because neoliberalism is a system without a centre. One reason Occupy Wall Street spread across the world is that, in some senses, Wall Street is everywhere: capital knows no borders. It is easy to think that political upheaval is another country’s problem and that we enjoy the benefit of stable government, but it could be argued that we, too, are entering a period of radical instability, and that politics is merely catching up.

More and more New Zealanders seem to agree, including the 15,000 TPPA protestors who marched down Queen Street, the hundreds who blockaded central city intersections, and the thousands more who marched in other parts of the country, from Ruatoria to Whakatane, from Featherston to Wellington.

It seems that political struggle is back, acting as the bridge between a persistent sense of unfairness and the hope for something better, helping solve the antagonism between the historical and the utopian.

‘The crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born,’ argued the Italian thinker Antonio Gramsci, ‘[and] in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear.’ The word interregnum implies that we are in a time of uncertainty, a space between dominant ideologies.

This book argues that the interregnum can be confronted only through struggle, underpinned by love and but also a fierce desire to radically reshape politics. The centrepieces of late 20th-century governance – a tax credit here, a royal commission there, a bold statement to the Press Gallery – are inadequate. Those left still using them might as well try to find their balance in a storm-whipped sea.

Nearly all of us are under pressure to approach life as a project in self-improvement, not necessarily for spiritual or intellectual development, but for survival in an increasingly competitive world. In between sending our Snapchats and crafting our Facebook updates, life demands careful management. Is returning to university a worthwhile ‘investment?' Is it possible to leverage one’s hobby into a book deal? Is reading for knowledge or pleasure a waste of earning time?

The rise of 'human capitalism'
In Undoing the Demos, political theorist Wendy Brown describes how the market is reimaging life, disseminating ‘market values’ and metrics to every sphere of life and transforming humans from ‘homo politicus’ to ‘homo economicus.’ Brown reinterprets French theorist Michel Foucault’s argument that neoliberalism transforms the individual into human capital, taking it a step further and reasoning that contemporary neoliberalism reconstitutes the individual as financialised human capital.

Every aspect of life is seen as an opportunity for self-investment, competitive positioning, and realising value, with little room left for love. But the heart of Brown’s critique is that neoliberalism undermines democracy. Where Foucault’s key insight is that neoliberalism is more than an economic policy – it is a diffuse and deep restructuring of the state, its discourses and material practices – Brown goes one up and argues that neoliberalism restructures citizens too – and this in turn harms democracy.

Thinkers from Aristotle to John Locke have agreed, Brown argues, that there is a sacred space for the political in social life, a space not subject to the demands of economic rationality. This is where a democracy can prioritise deliberation, rights, duties and equality over the simple demands of economic gain or self-investment. But neoliberalism insists that individuals should maximise their human capital, and so homo politicus – that political person who values democracy – becomes homo economicus.

The Latin terms lend a grandiose edge to the argument, yet it can be reduced to a simple question: rather than focusing on returns (monetary or not) on investment, perhaps we should approach politics for the sake of higher principles and values? This is precisely what the movement against the TPPA proclaims. The deal’s advocates applaud the forecast gains, citing millions here, a per cent there, but its opponents are arguing on deeper premises.

Uniting communities against neoliberalism
Opposition to the TPPA coheres around how it ‘embeds’ neoliberal history in our national policy. ‘The accumulation of organising principles, instruments and institutions,’ Kelsey argues, ‘creates a regime so extensive, coherent and integrated that it cannot be transformed by simply reordering isolated elements.’ The TPPA, with its copyright extensions that protect monopoly power or its investor-state dispute settlement procedures that privilege corporate rights over domestic law-making, embeds central tenets of neoliberalism.

This systematic opposition to neoliberalism, far from alienating New Zealanders or confusing them with its abstractions, works to unite different communities, from iwi to medical unions, and integrates their individual concerns into the whole. It signals a Foucauldian shift to understanding power as diffuse, and a revival of Brown’s homo politicus in that the movement prioritises principles, values and analysis over purported gains.

But what is the role of writers here? Nearly every writer suspects his or her work is probably ephemeral, almost certainly insubstantial and guaranteed to register only with a privileged few. Against the urgency of tangible political struggle, writing can appear self-indulgent. But the interregnum, that ambiguous moment between society-wide discontent and political change, is not merely something to fight for – it is something to think through.

It is up to writers to imagine a future shaped not by faceless historical forces alone, but by the agency of people acting together. And in bringing together a community to confront the world with bold demands for something new, writers can take us closer to this vision.

Replacing melancholy with the politics of love
The writers [in The Interregnum] are determined to resist melancholy – the feeling that progress is better mourned than desired – and replace it with optimism, politics and love. Each writer, in their own way, sketches a future that unites communities, including the community you are meeting in this book; each of us, in a metaphorical way, is part of Courtney Sina Meredith’s va’a, or waka, described in the poem that welcomes you to this work. We are in this together because the interregnum is not merely something that happens to us as a community or a country, instead it is something that we will help shape, but we have our own views on what that means and how it happens.

What we can agree on, as Andrew Dean argues, is that ‘we have reached a point in our politics where questioning what the last three decades has wrought is an urgent necessity, but a point where such questions are only getting harder to ask.’ Dean, who examines the world as our generation finds it, discovers a public sphere that neoliberalism has seriously undermined. That means confronting Gramsci’s ‘morbid symptoms’ in a public forum is an enormous – and controversial – task.

Yet Wilbur Townsend, Edward Miller and Chloe King meet the challenge, scrutinising precisely what the last three decades has wrought. Townsend surveys the current economy and investigates an alternative, Miller examines the politics and economics of climate change (perhaps the greatest threat to our future), and King takes on a work and welfare culture that has lost any sense of justice or love. It is this call for love that is the very heart of each contribution.

Carrie Stoddard-Smith describes how aroha underpins kaupapa Māori politics (and its radical potential to reshape Aotearoa/New Zealand) while Holly Walker calls on Parliament to operate according to a new politics of love. Lamia Imam offers a vision of how to do so with current tools, while Daniel Kleinsman – drawing on Pope Francis and his recent encyclical on climate change – offers a new perspective to hold it all together, one that prioritises relationships of every kind over individual interests.

At the close Max Harris takes love as his subject and imagines how it might reshape our politics and our lives. Rather than strive to maximise returns, what if we work to maximise happiness? Rather than calculate a worker’s value, perhaps we should return to the idea that people are subjects who are ends in themselves, who have a value in themselves?

Imagine a French peasant in 1787, one who is convinced that kings will rule in perpetuity, feudal lords will always starve the masses, and bishops will forever be at their intrigues. The peasant would have on his or her side the authority of history, the overpowering knowledge that nothing has changed in centuries, but he or she would be wrong about the direction history is travelling. It is up to us to ensure that history travels towards justice – and love.

Morgan Godfery is communications and media officer for First Union

Extracted with permission from Chapter 1 of The Interregnum: Rethinking New Zealand, edited by Morgan Godfery, Published Bridget Williams Books, Wellington, 2016

Morgan Godfery
Fri, 13 Jan 2017
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Book extract: The voices of a new (socialist) generation