Love in the time of crisis

Author
James Robins,
Section
Opinion,
Publish Date
Wednesday, 16 March 2016, 9:35AM
An anti-TPP protester confronts the police guarding the Sky City Convention Centre where the free trade deal was being signed on February 4, 2016 (Getty Images)
An anti-TPP protester confronts the police guarding the Sky City Convention Centre where the free trade deal was being signed on February 4, 2016 (Getty Images)

Opposition against neoliberalism in New Zealand could not be more fragmented, or weak. A group of young writers, activists, and thinkers are trying to solve the problem. James Robins reviews The Interregnum: Rethinking New Zealand, a collection of essays from publisher BWB.

As I walked through central Auckland the morning after the anti-TPP protests in February, I came across a discarded placard resting against a shop-front. “Mother, should I trust the government?” it read.

What a curious little quip. Usually protest posters are aggressive things, decrying this idea or insulting that politician. Pinching a lyric from Pink Floyd, it had an air of doubt to it. Like the person who carried it amidst the thousands-strong wave was a little unsure of their place, alongside the opposition.

You could consider that discarded cardboard as a symbol for the part of New Zealand society which is new to the idea of protesting, which hasn’t raised their voice in anger before. The February action was, we’re told, the largest mass mobilization since the Springbok Tour campaign in 1981. Marches of this size and volume are rare, and you could forgive a few of them for being a little uncertain.

Morgan Godfrey, the editor and compiler of a new collection of essays called The Interregnum: Rethinking New Zealand, opens the book by comparing that moment of immense noise and power to other anti-austerity or anti-capitalist movements overseas: Bernie Sanders in the US, Jeremy Corbyn in the UK, Podemos in Spain, Syriza in Greece, and so on. “It is easy to think,” Godfrey writes, “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”.

It’s too soon yet to judge whether opposition to the TPP has been a Damascene Road for New Zealand politics. The whole affair did, however, reveal and illustrate a great many things: The resilience of Māori protest against white supremacy’s attempts to discredit, crush, or ignore it. The vacuity of parts of the media elite who scoffed and jeered at the ignorance of the very people it was duty-bound to educate. The willingness of a self-proclaimed “moderate” and “pragmatist” government to indulge ideological orthodoxy. And as Godfrey point out, “opponents are arguing on deeper premises…[the TPP] ‘embeds’ neoliberal history in our national policy”.

The Interregnum, through the scribbling hand of ten young writers, activists, and thinkers, argues on deeper premises as well. Unlike the rest of the millennial generation (to which I belong too), they aren’t mired in careless sardonic “hot takes” or outright apathy and indifference. They’re taking all this very seriously indeed.

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In a book of large claims and seemingly outlandish solutions, the biggest assertion of all is in the title. It riffs on a quote from the Italian theorist Antonio Gramsci: “The crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum, a great variety of morbid symptoms appear”.

What crisis though, comrade? Turn on the tap and the water runs clean. Roads aren’t potholed (well, maybe outside of Christchurch). Supermarkets shelves are always stocked. Armed militias don’t maraud neighbourhoods. Thirty years of this “neoliberalism” and the sky hasn’t fallen in. Like in that ridiculous metaphor, didn’t the rising tide lift all boats?

A conservative reading would the date the birth of our present predicament to 2007/2008 and the Great Recession. The unemployment rate has barely fallen since its skyrocket upwards then. The detonation of American financial capital spawned a kind of nuclear winter, but the neoliberal bomb was actually constructed in the 1980s. The Mount Pelerin Society and the Chicago School were its designers, Maggie Thatcher and Ronnie Reagan its cheerleaders. In New Zealand, the Rogernomics of 1984 gave way to Ruthnasia in the 90s – a radical upturning of the social-democratic consensus of the post-War years. Andrew Dean (who contributes an essay on political discourse to The Interregnum) adeptly noted in Ruth, Roger and Me that neoliberalism arrived almost overnight in this country - “a social phenomenon without a history”.

And what has it wrought? Journalist Max Rashbrooke has pointed it out many times over: “The gap between those at the top and bottom of the income ladder in New Zealand opened up more rapidly than in any comparable society”. The extremities are most telling. The working class’ income only marginally increased between 1984 and 2013, while the upper class’ income increased by 75 percent. The same disparity can be found in who owns capital: the wealthiest ten percent held $180 billion more in 2010 than they did in 2004, while the poorest ten percent saw their debt increase.

Between 1986 and 2013, the productivity of the nation increased by an astounding 58 percent. And yet the average hourly wage only rose by 6.8 percent. In other words, people are working more for barely-rising pay while the greatest wealth is seized by those who already own too much of it.

In her essay ‘Welfare and Precarious Work’, activist Chloe King gives a human face to the obtuse and mystifying stats and figures. With journalistic and polemical prescience, she provides a retort to the widely-accepted diktat that if we all work hard enough, we’ll make it one day: “Despite the promises of a ‘rock star economy’…up to one third of workers, including many young people, are in work that is insecure, foisting on them fluctuating start and finish times, little or no guarantee of hours, limited access to benefits like sick leave, and inconsistent paychecks. Increasing numbers of young people…are forced to take any work they can find, no matter how depressing, low-paid, irregular, or insecure. This is not the prosperity that was promised.”

All of this uncertainty, anxiety, pain, and yes, damage so that companies can hire and fire at will? So the “flexibility” of the faceless business owner is protected? The proper order of things has been turned on its head, and that promise – of more freedom and opportunity and choice – has been proved thoroughly empty. This is by design. It is precisely how neoliberalism works.

And all the while, successive governments cowered before the invisible hand of the ‘market’, failing to invest or encourage any industry other than dairy and gifting a complete monopoly to Fonterra. Now, as the entire system reaches breaking point, New Zealand’s banks are exposed to the tune of $40 billion. Our sub-prime mortgage moment looms.

So yes, this is a crisis. But as Gramsci puts it above, “the new cannot be born”. There is no impassioned opposition to all this unfairness and inequality and exploitation, no movement which confronts it head-on – and successfully. It would’ve been so easy for the authors of The Interregnum to simply criticise this failure (like I do) and not propose alternatives.

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Thankfully, all the young writers in The Interregnum have a sense of progress. None of them mourn a forgotten utopia nor eulogise the death of the Kiwi Dream (which never existed anyway). They place themselves at the beachhead or vanguard of an infant movement which seeks to overturn and destroy the prevailing consensus, and de facto rejects the crustiness of some of their comrades who maintain that the best elements of our society lay in our past. Those zombies need not rise again. But Morgan Godfrey does resurrect an important concept: the idea of the human being.

“Rather than calculate a worker’s value,” he asks, “perhaps we should return to the idea that people are subjects who are ends in themselves, who have value in themselves?” One might disagree with using the term “subjects” (“citizen” might do better, though it’s certainly better than “taxpayer”), but the point seems so obvious as to be stupid. Surely it’s not that simple?

And yet Max Harris bookends The Interregnum with a similar, equally obvious theme. He calls for a “politics of love” as a foil for greedy, self-centered elites and a bulwark against the alienation and loneliness that neoliberalism inevitably encourages. On first reading, it’s mawkish and sentimental stuff, closer in tone to a TEDTalk than a critique of society’s failing structures. He appeals to the “humility” of sports stars (perhaps not understanding that Brendon McCullum’s graciousness is a media strategy) as a simplistic but emotive example.

He flounders in the abstract until he turns his eye to political language. I’ve addressed this topic before (and probably sound like a stuck record on the matter), and will repeat it again: The cold, stale, dehumanising language of neoliberalism is nothing but innuendo made, as George Orwell imperishably wrote, “to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind”.

Harris understands this well, and advances love as a solution. “Words…reflect a politician’s view of politics, and the words [Prime Minister John] Key chooses imply a sadly stunted vision of politics as little more than technocratic corporate management…The politics of love could help reinvigorate the language of New Zealand politics – and provide a deeper, more substantive standard for what it means for the country to be in ‘good shape’”.

Consider Harris’ idea for a moment and it seems easily within our grasp. By all means, be repulsed the next time a politician on television talks of “finding efficiencies”, or the next round of job cuts are called “restructuring”. And at your next work meeting (after you’ve “touched base”) quietly giggle to yourself whenever somebody mentions “processes going forward”. Actively rebelling from this meaningless jargon means rebelling against the smoke and mirrors which either supports, justifies, or obscures the cruelty of neoliberalism.

Even such a simple action has the potential to ‘rehumanise’ those swallowed up by the ‘rising tide’ (or is it the trickle-down? I can never remember). We’re all able to do it pretty easily. No protest meetings or sitting down in front of traffic or throwing dildos. Just refuse the lie. The rest, however, might involve some pavement-pounding. 

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Of The Interregnum’s stable, Wilbur Townsend offers the most radical solution of all. He opens his essay ‘Reimaging the Economy’ with a charming story about his time as a labourer in Lower Hutt and the characters he worked with: the man who took too-long lunch breaks and the old hand who will “get one of those houses buses” when he retires to “spend my years with the missus on the road”.

The end is nigh for these grunts, however. The self-checkout at the supermarket was the first sign, the Amazon delivery drone another. It is a future where robots steal our jobs.

For now, the idea of machines and computers replacing everyday tasks that consume our labour is a dystopian one. Under neoliberalism, the robots build themselves to replace us while a kleptocratic super-elite swim in the profits of free productivity. There’s nowhere for us to turn. Mechanised assembly lines build prefabricated houses or fridges. Driverless cars replace cabbies. Retail workers and bank clerks and bartenders are made (quite literally) redundant. All these menial tasks done by Arnold Schwarzenegger in The Terminator or HAL in 2001: A Space Odyssey – and they can’t be unionised.

And yet the complete automation of labour is perhaps the most radical opportunity humanity might have, as Townsend notes, to “restore the worker’s humanity by giving them capacities a machine cannot emulate”. A world in which everything is automated or roboticised frees us completely. Even Marx himself couldn’t imagine this kind of liberation. As John Lanchester writes in an excellent essay in the London Review of Books, “we don’t have to work in factories or go down mines or clean toilets or drive long-distance lorries, but we can choreograph and weave and garden and tell stories and invent things and set about creating a new universe of wants.”

Lanchester emphasises that this is only possible if “ownership and control of robots is disconnected from capital in its current form”. Townsend arrives at a similar conclusion. He advocates owning the machines “through our sovereign wealth funds” and the income they generate turned into a universal basic income. Suddenly we’re back at Thomas Paine’s Agrarian Justice. But with added robots.

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There are, however minor missteps in The Interregnum. Daniel Kleinsman appeals to reactionary religious dogma for sustenance, while Lamia Imam’s zig-zagging personal essay only brushes up against issues like identity politics and social media without engaging them fully. Nevertheless, each chapter (including the two just mentioned) sprawl outwards with a palpable, infectious passion. Whether radical Māori politics (Carrie Stoddart-Smith), climate change (Edward Miller), or former MP Holly Walker’s touching note on Parliament’s culture of viciousness, the depth and prescience here is enough for us to consider it as prefiguring a manifesto for a new political movement.

No doubt the usual retorts from the Right will follow, and sensitive liberal types will be daunted by the ideas discussed and solutions proposed. The political class too might be threatened by this kind of intellectual challenge to their consensus.

Yet the crisis must be arrested somewhere and somehow, stopped in its tracks. The Interregnum diagnoses the “morbid symptoms” Gramsci mentioned, and might yet provide a cure.

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