I almost don’t know where to start for this post, so I’ll just write. I’m only thirty-one, so I know I’m young. I know I still have loads to learn. To be honest, the more I learn about anything in the world, the more I realise I know nothing at all. And I’m not being sarcastic or cheesy; I’m being completely serious.
But while I might be young with loads of things still to learn, I know enough to say that things just don’t seem to be right with New Zealand’s state of democracy. It seems dead compared to France, where protests have been happening around the country on a daily basis for various reasons ranging from: a local guy being killed by a police grenade while protesting against a dam project (which is in the process of being constructed in a protected ecological zone); a proposed airport which residents don’t want; an industrial size farm project; farmers angry at cheap exports undermining their local produce.
So while I might spend a lot of time whinging about France and the French, I must say that I am damn proud to live in a country with a healthy, well-functioning democracy – one where the people will bloody well hold the Government to account when it’s necessary. In fact, right at this moment I am zoning out from a televised Q&A session where President Francois Hollande is justifying his mid-term progress by answering the critical and often damning questions of average French citizens (I’m quite shocked at the tone of voice these average Joe’ are using with him, one of the most powerful men on earth!).
So anyway, I’m pretty livid with the state of our democracy in NZ. The fact that our Government just recently removed the statutory right to a lunch break would be hilarious if it wasn’t so serious. When I explain this situation to French people they look at me as if I haven’t quite understood that removing the right to a lunch break is not just ludicrous, but it’s completely unthinkable. They assume I must have misunderstood the situation. They just can’t fathom that a whole nation would allow their Government to remove something the French consider a human right! But that’s the thing, our democracy is in such an unhealthy state that New Zealand citizens don’t actually realise that they hold any power. More importantly, they don’t seem to realise that it is our role to hold the Government to account. This is an integral part of a healthy democracy, and it is something Kiwis have let slide to the wayside.
I’m a little bit angry that people will happily spend their time queueing for a bottle of chocolate milk but they won’t even consider walking in solidarity against issues like child poverty, worker rights or against the Trans Pacific Partnership Agreement (see the Lewis Road Creamery shortage). But at the same time, I know deep down that it’s not their fault.
It is the intended result of 3 decades of neoliberalism, where economic growth and profit are worshipped to an almost religious degree, and where critical thinking is shunned. It’s pretty simple really. The only way to ensure the economy continues to grow is to make sure people buy stuff. The best way to make people buy stuff is to provide them with credit and let the marketing and PR machine do what they do best: convince people to buy the next best thing since sliced bread. Oh and don’t forget to give people more credit. This will guarantee there’s always a labour force, given that there will always be someone who needs to pay off their debt.
The problem is after 30 years, the marketing machine has become so successful at portraying neoliberal values as ‘the norm’, that people don’t stop long enough to reflect nor question whether buying all this stuff is even necessary. They don’t really seem to stop and question whether these values are aligned with our own personal values and whether or not they’re even desirable. Our subconscious measures of success are boiled down to whether or not we’re keeping up with the latest trends. While the priorities might be different, being on the bones of your butt doesn’t change these assumptions either. In the backblocks of town people strive even harder to prove their worth. They sport labelled clothes, big cars, expensive pairs of shoes and a fancy coffee habit to match. There will always be a goal in sight: that new lounge suite; that latest flat screen TV; the new generation iPhone. All the while they’re up to their eyeballs in debt. But they look cool and people are envious of how successful they appear to be, so that’s all that matters. Consumption is such a normal part of our lives that we just don’t question any of this stuff. And this is precisely what (a neoliberal) Government wants, because if everyone stopped buying stuff, economic growth would slow down and then we’d have a problem.
Personally, I don’t believe a high GDP/capita and constant economic growth are the most important measures of how well a society is doing, particularly when we have a ‘rock star’ economy at the same time that 250,000 New Zealand children are living in poverty. GDP doesn’t matter to those children who go to school with an empty tummy. So if that is a measure of success, then I just can’t accept its validity. I believe the Human Development Index – developed by Nobel Prize winning economist Armatya Sen – is a more useful tool for measuring the all-round health and wellbeing of a nation. Of course it doesn’t place profit at the centre of the world.
By the way, I’m not trying to be holier than thou or anything. I was neither conscious nor aware of our consumer culture or neoliberal values until my trip to South America (Bolivia in particular). But I wasn’t able to articulate my feelings until I graduated from uni much more recently. I’ve slowly come to replace the neoliberal measures of happiness and success with my own measures. But it’s still a struggle (I would die for a triple shot mocha with marshmallows and chocolate sprinkles but thats way too complicated to ask for in France!). I still get sucked into feeling like I should have this or that (stylish clothes, a house, fancy gadgets to furnish the house) but then I remind myself of my own personal successes and what I have gained instead. Now that I am aware of how our economy functions it is much easier to overcome these feelings (while we’re on the topic, I hate marketing which targets children and tweens. It’s crazy that companies are given permission to prey on the insecurities of children, grooming them to be good consumers).
So anyway, it works in the Government’s favour to have a passive citizenry who are pumped to the hilt with credit (or debt). It’s hard not to sound cynical. I’m just so concerned for our future and wish people would just get angry about stuff, for once I wish Kiwis would act more like the French! I’m particularly scared of the Trans Pacific Partnership Agreement being signed. Once that document is signed…… pffft. I don’t even want to imagine how bad things could get. It’s not just the things that are obvious and evident that concern me (worker rights; investor state disputes; economic sovereignty; environmental protection; the cost of medicine; intellectual property; access to services and information; privacy issues; saying goodbye to public services; freedom of expression ). It’s the things that aren’t at all evident that worry me more. For instance, the neoliberal ideology shapes the agenda, which means that everything is framed as if neoliberalism is unquestionable or natural. Anyone who dares to challenge neoliberalism is bullied, threatened or publically humiliated (read Dirty Politics). And if they are invited to a debate or political panel, they’re often mocked or their ideas laughed at. But if you listen carefully to experts who are concerned about the sustainability of the global economy, they will tell you that the way we are living is completely unsustainable. It’s especially important to consider that climate change WILL force us to re-model our economy, whether the neoliberals like it or not.
It’s not just due to climate change that we’ll have to re-think our economy. We need to tackle inequality, the existence of which is a natural part of our current system. Inequality is something that neoliberals accept as natural, which is why the Government isn’t genuinely interested in alleviating it. They’re simply paying lip service to calm people down. But if you check out their policies, it’s clear they’re not bothered by it. Pick up any neoliberal textbook and you’ll see their central belief is that individuals will work their way out of poverty if they truly want (and those who don’t are just lazy). They also believe in the trickle-down effect where wealthy individuals will be charitable enough to invest in services, which relieves the Government of its duty to fund those services (this theory remains unproven).
We also need to realise that infinite economic growth is impossible. We were fairly lucky in NZ, in that we were somewhat insulated from the completely dire effects of the Global Financial Crisis (GFC). But we mustn’t kid ourselves into thinking that we are safe from further shocks. We are far from safe. Anyone who knows anything about economics will tell you that we (the globe/NZ) are going to experience bigger busts and shorter time frames between economic crises. And when we find ourselves in the midst of those crises, there’s no point in asking ‘what went wrong’. People need to understand that contrary to something having gone wrong, it is simply behaving as expected. Unrestrained inequality and financial crises are embedded in our current economic system. Neoliberals accept these facts. They just pretend they don’t because they benefit from the short term economic gains that come from denying these facts (check out the insurance pay outs, pay rises and golden handshakes that all the big Wall Street firms – aka Key’s mates – received after the GFC).
If we are fortunate to have had a progressive Government by the time we need to shift our mind-set, we’ll hopefully be well prepared. But what Kiwis need to start realising is that the Government of the day doesn’t care about climate change, they don’t give a crap about the impending failure of our current economic system, nor do they give a crap about the mess left over from a possible TPP agreement. By the time we normal people are left to deal with the day to day consequences of these issues, Key and his lot will be retired and living off the millions accumulated through their economic policies. Their immediate concern is short term management of the economy according to neoliberal values – less regulation, less taxation, minimal public services, maximised profits and economic growth.
So unless you are mega wealthy (which still isn’t an excuse), it just doesn’t make sense to support National policies. While some average income Kiwis might like the idea of individualism and the ‘I’ll do it myself’ school of thought, I doubt they’ve thought long enough about how they’ll cope in a post-climate change, post- TPPA affected society whose economic busts are gonna be pretty ugly (don’t be too quick to assume your investments are safe!).
Shouldn’t our primary concerns be about the long term sustainability of our economy and the wellbeing of our communities? If you can secure those things, then you guarantee your own security. I am hoping that people will come to realise this, but I am worried that it will take a cold, hard reality check, by which stage it will be too late (i.e. post TPPA, at which stage our democracy and economic sovereignty will be gutted). So I would prefer that people are given the tools to realise it for themselves sooner, rather than later.
But this is the clincher: our National led Government, the mainstream media and the PR and marketing machines make a joke out of decent critical analysis, expert advice, academics and activists – basically anyone who dares to challenge their agenda. So it’s incredibly difficult to be taken seriously and to have an honest and respectful discussion in the public domain. So given that we can’t rely on the Government nor mainstream media to provide any decent level of critical analysis, it’s got me thinking about how we can engage Kiwis with these issues.
How can we help people have faith and confidence in their ability to engage with these issues? How do we get them to participate in the democratic processes? How do we help people realise that standing in solidarity, like the French do all the time, has the power to shape society? The French (in general) understand the power they have in holding their Government to account. They understand how democracy works. If something smells foul, they will get out onto the street and they will make their voices heard – they will literally hold the economy to ransom by going on nationwide strikes! (check out this link, published 6 Nov, by Alan Taylor of The Atlantic http://www.theatlantic.com/infocus/2014/11/french-farmers-grow-angry/100847/).
We Kiwis used to be like this. We were the first country in the world to grant women the right to vote, we had the waterfront strikes, we were the first country in the world to introduce benefits and state housing, we pushed for Maori rights to be recognised, we campaigned against nuclear testing in the Pacific, we protested against the Springbok tour of “81. It’s in our genes to get out there and make our voices heard. So we can do this. But we have to make people realise the seriousness of these problems. Then we have to get them excited about finding solutions – of which there are plenty, and why I remain optimistic.
First of all, people need to realise that instead of providing any meaningful solutions, our current Government is sticking their head in the sand. As such, they are a big part of the problem.
We need to engage New Zealand people in the political process. Without them, democracy is just an empty, soulless word (demos – people; kratia – rule).
p.s.I am about to post this while watching a tv political debate where French people are discussing EXACTLY what I’ve just posted – the need to reflect on our values, the crisis of capitalism, the power of multinational corporations, the politics of the right. If the French can do it, why can’t we????