Monday, October 25, 2010

The Lives of Others

The extent of the reforms in New Zealand was so great that it is difficult to describe them in short compass.
(Don Brash)

The situation could not be clearer: either we stop them or they finish us off.
(Richard Seymour)

In June of 1996, Don Brash travelled to London to deliver the fifth annual Hayek Memorial Lecture at the right-wing Institute of Economic Affairs. It was a tribute to the decade of radical economic reforms of which Brash had been one of the principal architects and, while it conceded that the reforms remained bafflingly unpopular, it blamed the successive governments that had promoted them for not adequately communicating their benefits. Brash concluded his speech with another statement that is often found in the speeches of fellow champions of the New Zealand experiment, namely that
[t]he best security against the reversal of recent reforms is to continue with reform in order to encourage growth and employment.

Therefore: if the reforms are unpopular, it is because they haven’t been explained well enough, and not because they have actually failed to raise living standards; and if they haven’t raised living standards, it’s because they haven’t been pushed hard enough, or are not entrenched enough, because politicians have been too fearful to do what is necessary. So it comes back again to an issue of consensus. But in fact, that the governor of the national Reserve Bank could deliver such a politically charged speech is due to the extraordinary bipartisan support that those reforms enjoyed, which effectively made the New Zealand public unable to vote their proponents out of office in election after election. (The speech by Phil Goff covered last week may in fact be the first actual disavowal of the neoliberal turn by either of the major parties.)

Brash’s speech was published with a very upbeat title, New Zealand’s Remarkable Reforms, and a rather wonderful cover in which the country surged upwards, as if via a massive tectonic shift, lifted out of the very ocean by all that remarkableness. Of course if one had to plot our relative growth compared to that of Australia, or the stagnation of the median incomes against those of comparable countries, it might have been more of a sinking. But who can argue with the evidence of a pretty picture, even when it’s a graph unsupported by actual data?

Much as I am impressed with the semiotic audacity of the cover, there is another reason why I’m rather fond of this book, and it’s the handiwork of an unknown reader on the frontispiece of the copy held at my local library.

I know many people whose lives were destroyed by the ‘remarkable reforms’. It intrigues me that the withering comment is written in pencil, respectfully, perhaps to give the librarians the option to delete it and restore the integrity of the book and its message. Nonetheless, I think it’s a significant gesture. I wish I could date it, in order to evaluate better the climate in which it was made, how monolithic the neoliberal consensus was at the time. Since the book was published in December of that year, I know for a fact that it post-dated David Lange’s reference to the ‘people whose lives were wrecked by us’ in his valedictory speech, of which the pencilled comment is a most interesting echo.

Lives were wrecked, but whose exactly? In the UK, the debate rages: on one side, the coalition government and its apologists are touting the massive public expenditure cuts announced last week as progressive; on the other, economic analysts, community advocates and social and political critics are showing whom the worst hit will be: those on lower incomes, welfare recipients, disabled people . The political success of this round of cuts, which doesn’t equate to the structural reforms of Thatcher and Douglas but is rather the latest plunge of the dagger that they unsheathed, will be played again on the background of a discursive struggle for who can best document and communicate these outcomes. From the point of view of the Left, this translates into making those regressive effects visible, shining a light on the lives that are about to be affected. The Right will respond, as it always does, by trying to elide the concept of class altogether.

David Cameron is second from the left, top row. Image via K-Punk.

Mark Fisher justly excoriated last week the current incarnation of the ‘we’re all in this together’ rhetoric, highlighting how it represents an opportunity to be exploited:
The "we're all in this together" slogan may turn out to be a phrase that comes to haunt the Tories in the way that "Labour isn't working" dogged Labour for a generation. Classlessness might have seemed plausible for a moment when fronted by John Major, who didn't go to university, or by Tony Blair, the poster boy for (leftist) post-political administration. But that moment has long passed, and cuts of this kind being forced through by a cabinet of aristocrats and millionaires make brutally apparent a class antagonism that the New Labour government obfuscated. Whenever the ruling class tells us that "we're all on the same side", it is a sure sign that we can hurt them.

I would add to this a further qualification: neoliberal reformists will always be largely unaware of this weakness of theirs and of how it can be exploited simply because they just can’t help themselves. When last year French minister Pierre Lellouche apologised for calling the British Tories ‘autistic’ with regard to their relationship to the EU, he explained by way of justification that his own Prime Minister, Nicolas Sarkozy, often gets called autistic too. While I agree with Charlotte Moore that we shouldn’t condone the use of the term, I think we can probably agree on its meaning in this context: the inability to perceive the psychological life of others which to this day is still commonly (and incorrectly) attributed to autistic people. In fact neoliberal would be a far more accurate descriptor for this systemic failure to empathise, and the total lack of self-awareness that comes with it. Consider this image.

If you didn’t know better, you might think that this is a thriller involving a heartless serial killer, rather than Roger Douglas’ impassioned defence of himself and his ideas. And for all of his protestations that the principal beneficiaries of the reforms will be the most disadvantaged, one needs only close the book and look at the cover to get the full, chilling impact of Douglas’ brand of caring, a Charles Bronson-like approach in which helping can be phrased much as one would taking revenge.

Three years later, Douglas could be seen smiling at us from behind his desk, the title of his new oeuvre softened into the less ghoulish Completing the Circle, but even that move seems forced, a crude and obvious massaging of the image. In real life, for instance in this recent BBC interview, Douglas still has the same sharp, cold edge in his voice, the same fondness for gliding over the real-life repercussions of his ideas.

And the neoliberals still protest far too much. It’s a point I made last year when covering Brash’s 2025 Taskforce Report, but it bears making again: when a politician needs to repeat to the point of obsession that they are on the side of the weakest members of society, the reality is likely to be the opposite, and this needs to be shown just as relentlessly.

It is not simply a matter of hammering home the sacrosanct notion that both the crisis and the resulting deficit are themselves the result of neoliberal policies, and that bankers are the real bludgers, but also of telling the story of the human casualties, and bringing to light the class rifts that the dominant media narratives – which are all about reducing the populace to a largely homogenised consumer class fitting the principal viewer and reader demographics – would rather conceal. The persistence of class and of race and gender discrimination, the changing face of work: if at times this blog seems to be about little else, it’s because I believe uncovering and recovering these realities to be a vital task, and central to the social and political work of memory.

Medialogically, it’s not an altogether impractical undertaking: quite often the stories of these other lives – ruined or otherwise – have what is known in the business as a human interest angle. I routinely recommend Alister Barry’s films on these pages not just for their value as social documents, but also because they make for very compelling viewing on precisely those grounds. And they exemplify quite brilliantly the further, necessary step in the process: suturing those stories into their political and social context and the history of the antagonist movements, highlighting past struggles and their languages and strategies. Much as one might at such times lapse into brief moments of nostalgia, this doesn’t have to be a backward looking move, and is especially valuable if it allows to establish useful genealogies and recreate the discursive spaces in which alternatives to the status quo could be spoken.

But mostly, these stories can sharpen and give contextual substance to the anger that is always simmering in our societies. To the extent that I share Mark Fisher’s optimism regarding the possible outcomes of the anti-capitalist struggle at this juncture, it comes from the knowledge of times in history – and more specifically, the history of my country – when such an anger found creative outlets, rapidly and with lasting effects, in experiences that haven’t been wholly submerged by what came after, the tidal wave of reaction and quiescent conformity. It looks like we might just get to have another wack at it; there may in fact soon be no alternative.

A couple of things I didn't manage to include: China Mieville's impassioned appeal to/indictment of progressive Liberal Democrats; Philip Challinor's take on Nick Clegg's charm offensive at Desert Island Discs on the Beeb. Hilary Stace has offered further details (PDF) on the ongoing assault on provisions for disabled people, and her information has led me to this petition that I offer for your consideration.

The two Brash quotations are from New Zealand's Remarkable Reforms (London: Institute of Economic Affairs, 1996), on pages 24 (the epigraph) and 47 (the quote in the post proper) respectively.