Utilitarian Socialism: a need for pragmatic politics.

Once upon a time the left was known for fighting for causes outside of their own self interest. It generally didn’t matter the location of the battle or who the injustice was enacted upon, the left always appeared keen to do their bit. This morality continued for decades and still continues amongst pockets of people. Enter 2018, where the ‘pretend left’ have expanded their politics no further than their melanin levels and genitals. In reality, the left is a confusing wide range of groups all claiming to having some theoretical link to an egalitarian ideology. These tribes span from the Democrats in the US, a distinctly corporate led party, tenuously claiming to be for the people. Through to Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour party who continues the fight to keep Labour for the people and away from Blairite neoliberals. Of course we also have specific Socialist, Communist and Marxist groups among others to round it off.

What is worrying is not the array of groups per se, although, some of them are about as left as Reagan or Thatcher, no the problem is; what are the foremost issues for the left today and why. For some, primarily on the right of the political aisle, identity politics is considered the issue and the hallmark of someone with left leaning views. This is also conveniently utilised by right wing media, such as Fox News to repeatedly discredit the left and it must be said, with good effect. Yet for many lefties, myself included, this political arena is deeply flawed, divisive and exclusionary. It is contradictory in as much as it argues vehemently against stereotyping certain groups, yet identarians will consider certain groups, for example ‘all white males’ to be privileged. Which in itself is a huge generalisation, completely disregarding; socioeconomic, educational and environmental factors while drawing these deeply suspect conclusions.

Many on the left still consider class and socioeconomic factors created by capitalism as their main focus. In effect, it is a structural problem, starting with governments and corporations who engage in some kind of reciprocal power sharing pact. Particularly following the crash of the Berlin Wall, capitalism has been sold to the masses as the only viable game in town. Further to this, anything outside of this narrative is considered not only to be crazy, but a danger to society. The current abuse and anti-Semitic allegations aimed at discrediting Jeremy Corbyn is a recent example of identity politics being used as a weapon to protect the corporatist status quo. We are now all systematically conditioned to be producers and consumers, with most people not even being able to envision a world outside of endless malls, Starbucks and Amazon.

The magicians wielding their power; Zuckerberg, Bezos, Gates, Musk, Buffett, Murdoch, the Koch’s and co work with the world’s most powerful politicians to ensure the earth runs exactly to their specifications. To highlight this, the US in 2015 spent $2 billion on lobbying the government. Many of the biggest corporations have upwards of 100 lobbyist working to secure their interests. What has been proven in varying studies is that any issues that poorer people care about, are less lightly to be reflected in positive policy change, whereas the opposite is true of rich people. To summarise we have government of the rich, by the rich, for the rich.

Business Leaders Gather For B20 Summit In Sydney
Rupert Murdoch, propagandist in chief

It is indicated that although using money to influence policy is clearly helpful, one of the key factors is socialisation. People in government typically have much more in common with CEO’s, bankers, top lawyers rather than working class people. Consider the amount of MP’s who attended Eton, proportional to the general population. There have been 19 Prime Ministers who have darkened the doors of Eton including David Cameron, other recent notable MP’s being Boris Johnson, Jacob Rees-Mogg and Zac Goldsmith. Further establishment luminaries from Eton include; Alex Wilmot-Sitwell former CEO of USB investment bank, Martin Taylor former CEO of Barclays Bank, Charles Moore former Editor with the Daily Telegraph and Nathanial Rothschild financier.

These people tend to operate in very similar circles, therefore, it’s not entirely surprising that they are more inclined to look after one another as opposed to someone from a council estate in Middlesbrough (UK). It’s worth noting that only 7% of children in the UK attend private schools and just a fraction of these are lucky or rich enough to go to Eton. Despite this, 71% of senior judges, 62% of armed forces officers, 44% of the Sunday Times ‘Rich List’, 43% of newspaper columnist and 33% of MP’s attended private schools.

A similar trend is apparent when investigating Oxbridge. Although only 1% of the population attend Oxbridge, former graduates make up 75% of Judges, 59% of the cabinet and 47% of newspaper columnists. The US has a similar theme; George W Bush, John Kerry, George H W Bush, Steve Mnuchin (US Treasury Secretary) and Robert Kagan (influential neoconservative writer) all attended the secret ‘Skull and Bones Society’ at Yale University. This concentration of wealth and power among a few very well connected people is of no surprise and has been continuing for decades.

So what’s my point? Put simply, unsurprisingly I propose our most pressing dilemma is a concentration of wealth. We have a class system that seeks to retain power by coercing government and manipulating people into thinking that this current system is the optimal way to run society. In contrast to this, there is a section of society who tenuously claim to be on the left, who are convinced that the biggest issues we face revolve around gender, sex and race, not economic inequality. These groups are at best fickle, they often fragment and are repeatedly ‘naval gazing’ while claiming to be oppressed or at least more oppressed than other competing groups. This search for victimhood is commonly performed in the name of self interest. Feminists may claim women are oppressed, but what if these weekend activists are white or straight, remember there is always someone out there more oppressed than you.

This approach helps nobody, certainly not the “greatest number” as required by utilitarian’s. For identarians, recipients of oppression are settled upon by gender and race, even if the perceived oppression is by group association only. Whilst the working class single parent, who is struggling to pay rent and feed the kids, doesn’t get a look in, as they fail to check the required boxes for any compassion. This divides society, by producing a group pecking order of victims and of therefore, perceived importance. This has the effect of dissuading people from fighting for these particular causes. For example, only 7% of Brits identify as feminists and yet two thirds agree with gender equality.

I suspect the initial goal of these activists was well intentioned, fighting to gain recognition for marginalised groups. In recent years, however, identity politics has shifted away from inclusion to exclusion. For example; you can’t talk about abortion because you’re a man, regardless of any possible expertise you may possess. Outgroups are voiceless, and if they still want to support an in-group, they are given the title of ally, but must remain mute. Luckily (cue sarcasm), identarians are concerned with hot topics such as; cultural appropriation, mansplaining and manspreading.

While identarians are in the midst of these deep deliberations, people all over the world are being severely oppressed and many killed. In Yale the identarian mafia in one of America’s most privileged universities were apoplectic with rage a couple of years back, over Halloween costumes and the advice of what one should wear. Resident Professor and acclaimed academic Nikolas Christakis among many communications suggested, “if you are offended by a costume look away or talk to them about it”. What ensued was nothing short of the actions of a cult.

Watching episodes such as this over something that is frankly trivial, it isn’t surprising that groups such as these do not gain much widespread support. It also serves to discourage people engaging with the left, as you hear simplistic comments such as ‘loony lefty’. What we should be striving for, are issues that binds us together not what blinds us from our biggest problems. This is why I suggest looking towards a utilitarian way of conducting our politics, more pragmatism and less emotion. This may well help us deal with our many issues.

Jeremy Bentham, the 18th century British philosopher offered the “greatest happiness” principle suggesting “it is the greatest happiness of the greatest number that is the measure of right or wrong”. So with this in mind, we could compare how many potential people identarians would help with their ideology, as a net value. Then one could compare this with how many people would benefit if we made a concerted, cohesive decision to tackle the system of neoliberalism (unbridled capitalism) and the people who gain mercilessly from the efforts of others. I’m relatively sure that under this ‘utilitarian type thought experiment’ the latter would win a unanimous decision.

One glaring problem with identarians is that they are commonly unconcerned with economic difficulties, as many of them don’t have any to think about. Identity politics has fast become a middle class pursuit that allows participants to appear virtuous while not rocking the economic boat from which they have benefitted. Social justice activists often argue that a utilitarian philosophy neglects minority groups, but in this case economic inequality affects all groups, regardless of; religion, race and gender. Are some people worse off than others? Of course. But why make things better for a few, when we can challenge a system that currently causes misery for many? Further to this, we need to explore why neoliberalism and the economic inequality it causes is indeed our biggest problem.

Some background, in 2017 Oxfam stated that 8 men had more wealth than the poorest half of society, that’s 3.8 billion people. On top of this, more than 3 billion people currently live on less than $2.50 a day. All the while Jeff Bezos who pays wages too low to live on, makes (not earns) $230,000 (US) per minute. He has amassed a fortune worth approximately $150 billion. He’s achieved this by selling us shit we don’t need, while destroying many small businesses along the way. If at this point if you fail to see an issue with this, you are part of the problem and have succumbed to neoliberalism, hook, line and sinker.

I’m sure billionaires and their sycophants will vehemently counter that these people work exceptionally hard for their wealth. This may be true, but doesn’t a janitor (cleaner), a nurse or a builder not work hard? To put this in perspective, Jeff Bezos using $ per minute rate accrues $13,800,000 (US) per hour, whereby a janitor in the US earns on average $10 per hour. With this ‘proportional work’ theory in mind it would mean Jeff Bezos works 138,000 times harder than a janitor. Now, even taking into account that Bezos has arguably more responsibility, I would offer that it is not to the tune of 138,000 times more.

Admittedly this veers towards the extreme end of the scale regarding differences, but what is patently obvious is this is a ludicrous way to organise society. There have been a plethora of studies concluding that people at the top have often enjoyed excellent education, consistent support (parental or otherwise), are often middle to upper middle class and have a safe environment in which to live and learn in. However, one of the most important factors on top of all this is luck.

In several studies conducted in this area, they concluded that the most successful are also the luckiest. In an effort to tie this together, take Bill Gates; he came from a upper class background, had access to computers when only 0.01% of his generation had this privilege. Furthermore his mother had social connections with the Chairman of IBM. Is it just me or is that some sort of luck. The lesson is, don’t be fooled by people who tell you they attained their perceived success through their own hard work because nobody succeeds (whatever that means) entirely alone.

So, from a utilitarian perspective I think I should outline why economic inequality is one of our biggest issues. Sticking with our ‘greatest happiness’ principle, economic inequality has huge negative affects on the economic stability, social mobility, education, crime, health and social cohesion. It’s important to mention that it’s not just absolute poverty that causes these detrimental effects, but primarily economic inequality. So lets elaborate on this. Economically unequal countries have stronger links to economic instability, financial crisis, debt and inflation.

One such reasons for this is what’s called rent seeking. This is when people at the top of the income spectrum use their position to increase their personal gains beyond the amount needed to sustain their employment. Which as mentioned earlier is used to influence political debate. Secondly social mobility, it is well established that countries with high economic inequality have lower levels of social mobility. Furthermore, children of highly paid people are more likely to be highly paid themselves, while children of poorly paid people are likely to be lower earners. It is proposed that the principle mechanism regarding social mobility is education. Research has found a correlation between low maths and reading scores with the inequality between countries. In other words, countries who are more equal, attain better maths and reading scores than their unequal counterparts.

social mobility

There are well established links between economic inequality and both property and violent crime. Rates of crime are higher in countries that are more unequal, even when accounting for other determinants of crime, such as low employment and low income. It is suggested that economic inequality influences the way we think, act and relate to each other. Health also suffers in an unequal society; life expectancy, infant mortality, mental illness and obesity are all improved in more equal societies. The most plausible explanation for the disparity in outcome is ‘status anxiety’. It is thought that this occurs as inequality places society in a socio-economic hierarchy that fosters status competition, leading to stress, poor health and other negative outcomes. Rounding this off we have social cohesion.

Income inequality alters the way we interact and engage with society. This manifests in a decline in altruism, lower social and civic participation and reduced levels of voter turnout. One underpinning issue surrounding these problems is lower levels of trust in more unequal societies. It is thought that economic disparities increases the social distance between you and other members of the population, reinforcing the belief that they are different to you. This can lead to a lack of trust, reduced future relationships and a more fragile society.

A weakening of societal bonds and trust is fertile ground for violent crime. These mechanisms can also have an affect on how people view themselves and others. A study in the US found that people who lived in less equal states of the US were less likely to be compassionate, agreeable, cooperative, altruistic or trusting. This just about concludes my case as to why we need to reduce economic inequality. It’s my belief that this one aspect affects millions of people in a variety of ways, whilst reducing society’s potential, and therefore, the quality of life for most people.

So what’s the answer? That’s quite simple, power. Nothing can change without power, regardless where you may be in the world. To achieve power for the people you need a concern that appeals to the majority of people. For the left this will inevitably involve winning back the disenfranchised working class. The very same group who the majority of centre left parties around the world gave up on in exchange for middle class voters in the 90’s early 2000’s. Many of whom received an earful of liberal platitudes, from people such as Tony Blair and Bill Clinton, while losing their jobs and self-respect.

White men are now told by middle class academics and politicians that they are the gold medal winners of the title of “most privileged”. While many struggle to find work that pays enough to feed their family and pay the bills. At the same time the very same band of identarians now ponder on such important issues of the day such as bathrooms for our varying gendered or non-gendered citizens. When you place these types of issues side by side, it really isn’t surprising why the working class walked away from Labour and the Democrats.

Organising a political agenda by race, sex, gender and religion is not going to provide much work or bring people together, however hard you try. On the flip side, most people along the way suffer from the fallout of economic inequality. Not only this, but the people who perpetuate this system are often behind other large global threats, such as wars and climate change. I will conclude by stating utilitarian thinking is not easy and can be counterintuitive. Moral psychologist and philosopher Joshua Greene offers that utilitarian morality requires you to override your emotional instincts.

In essence, this may require “giving up on your convictions to do what’s best generally”. Greene states we can do this as we have 2 systems of thinking; one of automatic processes, intuitions and emotions, the other of deep thinking, logic and rationality. I could guess that most people would agree that where politics is concerned many people resort to an emotional inspired way of thinking, and often nothing gets resolved. I propose that we have to move away from our particular, safe, moral tribes and like Bentham, reason what is actually the best result for the most amount of people.

 

 

 

 

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From Brexit to feminism: Why are complex issues distilled to a binary decision?

Everyday we are posed with challenging dilemmas such as; do you agree with trident, as a man are you a feminist, do you support Brexit, amongst many others. Admittedly some decisions are easier to make than others, but often we are given two choices to a multi-faceted issue. Quite regularly there is a consensus of opinion that drives debate. The problem that arises is if you are not fully on board with the sway of public opinion, then you are cast to the margins, as there appears no room for nuanced debate anymore. Many of these opinions are formed by strong social justice bodies, government departments and corporate lobbyist.

The major issues are not the topics per se, but the fact that the answers are required in absolute terms (yes/no), when morality rarely works in such a way. As individuals our complex thoughts and feelings, which have been developed over time from our genetics, environment, education, personal experiences, family background and so forth are clumsily distilled into a binary decision. More often than not this an over simplification, it generally doesn’t work to the benefit of society and is deeply dissatisfying.

As a lefty there will be aspects of a socialists worldview that resonate with me more than others. In my opinion, to critically think your way through each issue as it arises is healthy, as opposed to taking the entire medicine given with no questions asked. Sadly, in a world that has become increasingly polarised, nuance has been replaced by blind belief. That’s not to say I’m a centrist, nothing of the sort, but within my left (more than) leaning ideas there are an array of complex and sometimes contradictory thoughts, that with compelling evidence may be subject to change. If we stop asking questions regarding our own ideas, then who are we to challenge people with differing views. We could quite easily find ourselves on the road to following a religious type system rather than something that is anchored in research and moral rigour. If after an internal inquiry, our political ideas are incongruent with our core moral beliefs then I suggest we are in trouble.

So lets look at an extremely emotive and controversial topic for a variety of reasons and that is feminism. There are some subjects that I think I possibly shouldn’t write about on this blog, however, I am equally happy to be provoked and to provoke. Firstly I will begin by suggesting feminism is used by politicians as a political football, in as much as they support the rights of women as they are the people who support them. For example lets take Hillary Clinton…………as far away as humanly possible hopefully. In all seriousness, Hillary has used feminism and feminists to the nth degree. She has been more than happy for her wealthy backers and showbiz celebrities to project her as this beacon of feminism, all the while supporting military campaigns in Iraq, Libya, Afghanistan and Syria.

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Incidentally, these are countries where many women and children have been murdered and obliterated by years of bombing by the US. Which begs the question; how down with the sisters is she really? Another disturbingly memorable moment occurred in New York during her failed Presidential bid, when fellow war-hawk and ex Secretary of State Madeleine Albright threatened a rally crowd yelling “there’s a special place in hell for women who don’t help each other”. Which is interesting as I don’t remember her helping out Serbian women whilst they were being bombed back to another millennia. I guess like I alluded to earlier, life isn’t straight forward. Maybe you can be a feminist whilst condoning mass murder of thousand of civilians in Kosovo, many of whom were women. Although that distinctly sounds like Orwellian doublethink to me.

Quite possibly the question some might want answering is; am I a feminist? I would have to answer with a wry smile on my face and declare that it’s not that simple. However, do I believe women and men should get paid equally for the same job requiring the same experience and skills, without question. To complicate matters, do I believe there is systemic wage gap as suggested by Obama, Trudeau and any other relatively liberal leaders? Well yes and no, evidence suggest it exists but not at 79 cents a dollar as Obama hinted, it’s more like 1.6%. The reason being most studies crudely take the mean pay of women and divide it by the mean pay of men. This crude arithmetic does little to explore a true gender pay gap. For example if a male police sergeant with 15 years experience gets paid more than his female colleague of equal experience, that is obviously an issue and needs to be corrected.  Most of the studies unfortunately do not compare ‘apples with apples’ and instead fall back on the use of means or medians for their methodology.

At this point in people’s minds, I may be considered by some who are reading this as a misogynist for not buying into the gender wage gap theory, but as I did concede earlier life can be particularly challenging. Obviously I wouldn’t suggest such a controversial opinion without a chance for you to read the data. The study I refer to has been described by some in NZ as American in an attempt to delegitimise it, however, the study utilised data from 33 different countries. To add a further layer of complexity to this debate in an attempt to dispel binary thinking, it is without doubt that there is a problem with gender and employment in as much as there is a dearth of women at the top end of the employment chain. Men dominate in high paid roles and boardroom position, which is why the crude version of the ‘gender pay gap’ looks more like a chasm.

The term gender pay gap is actually a misnomer, the main problem is getting women into the upper echelons of the employment chain, for those who wish to do so. It’s the politicians who like to peddle catchy slpay gap crapogans such as ’79 cents on the dollar’ for women to rally around and often get angry at men who question it. When in reality there is a difficulty getting to the top, where you will find the very politicians and corporate leaders trumpeting ‘the gender pay gap’. The good news is there is an excellent reason for companies to increase the amount of women employed at the top end, that is, corporations and organisations alike gain substantially. Greater gender diversity is associated with an innovative work culture and from a bottom line perspective, woman in the boardroom is linked to a 15% profit increase. Reading further down the previously mentioned article it also suggests how to recruit, develop, promote, reward and retain women in the workplace. I hope I’ve started to demonstrate that life is much more than ‘either or’. We don’t have to accept the entire stack of an ideology if we don’t agree with what is being presented, we can pick and choose, particularly if there is compelling evidence on the contrary.

Unfortunately it would appear that in the 21st century if you are not in the club 100% then without question you are banished from the village and cast as one of life’s Dr Evil’s. This ensures that no dissenting voice or indeed debate is heard in the confines of the tribe. This cultivates a cosy echo chamber of which can be found within all political parties, social justice groups, religious groups and race orientated organisations. Sadly the echo chamber insulates you from uncomfortable opinions, opposing theories, straight forward general enquiry and even truth. Within this bubble the belief system strengthens and positions harden, as they are rarely allowed to be challenged from the out group. One such environment that is a regular feature in liberal colleges and used by the likes of feminists are ‘safe spaces’.

Contrary to being a helpful environment, it’s suggested that these safe spaces shut women away from public life and back to the metaphorical kitchen. Suggesting women are incapable of looking after themselves or their emotions, which is frankly ludicrous. This whole problem of an ideological retreat is disturbing, in so far as; how do we know what we are opposing if we are not prepared to listen to any challenging points of view. On many occasions we have already decided what our opponents are espousing before we’ve really heard them. To listen doesn’t mean you have to agree, at times it can strengthen your current position in a healthy way, by analysing your views through discussion. In fact recently it appears if we don’t hear what we expect, quite often we create a ‘strawman’ to justify our attack, this style of engagement is a regular occurrence on social media.

Brexit Direction Sign

It would seem as there is no direct physical threat on social media, we therefore, feel less need to negotiate with our foes, thus we often adopt polarised views. There is nothing more evident than Brexit, where our opposing views are entrenched, our detractors are vilified and finally dehumanised with nicknames such as ‘remoaner’. Personally, I haven’t got a side, because it is my view that this was a neoliberal construct to further unpick the last remaining stitches of society. However, each side proclaims that the rival faction is stupid, uneducated and easily led by the media, without them even listening to one another.

To many liberals ‘brexiteers’ are often described as racist, although I suspect it’s highly unlikely that nearly half the voting nation is racist or/and xenophobic. Unfortunately we now inhabit a world of black and white thinking rather than shades of grey, whereby every person who voted to leave will be lumped together along with UKIP and Britain First supporters in a nice neat parcel with a purple bow on it. This is regardless of any individual underlying reasons that may have contributed to their decision-making processes and this of course works on both sides of the Brexit divide. The pro-Brexit clan are as equally dismissive as the pro-Europe contingent and this behaviour pushes the two parties back into their respective corners.

So, do we have to agree with every view we encounter? Of course not, we are not obligated to shift from our initial ideas one inch. Equally we don’t have to subscribe to the full catalogue of ideas that make up, feminism, the Labour Party, socialism, libertarianism, religion, immigration, Brexit or any other stance or ideology. It doesn’t have to be a meal deal, we can look at the information presented and choose what we want to consume. Maybe watch Fox News, for Kiwis read Mike Hosking in the Herald or for Brits browse the Daily Mail at some point and rather than dismissing it, look at it with a critical eye.

Critique what you are witnessing in the moment, not what your pre-conceived ideas are telling you. You may draw the same conclusions, but at least you will have done this consciously rather than using a ready made mental script. If I look for example at ideas such as the theory of the ‘patriarchy’, I think this view is littered with flaws and is essentially highly simplistic, as it ignores any individual agency. So when I dig down and weigh the information regarding the ‘patriarchy’ I often side with the right leaning media. This for me as a lefty who reads Bakunin and the likes is incredibly annoying and perplexing. All of which confirms that indeed life is complicated, nuanced and eternally confusing. More importantly we are wonderfully unique, we are politically made of complex shapes that don’t fit in to neat little boxes and that’s a good thing.

 

Turn left, turn left, TURN LEFT!!! Hey New Zealand where have all the Socialists gone?

New Zealand has an election on the 23rd September. Currently it’s fair to say, I have nobody particularly inspiring to vote for. Economically it would appear whichever way it goes; a right coalition or a left coalition, neoliberal policies will still persist the following morning. That’s not to say there are no differences, but they are to be found in funding certain programmes or the nuances of the said programmes rather than a re-structuring of a failed economic system. So far during the run up to the election, the ‘NZ left’ have had an interesting time of it. Firstly Labour unveiled Jacinda Adhern as their new leader, which initially caused euphoria among progressives. jacindaThis was known unimaginatively by the press as ‘Jacindamania’, which has only slightly started to wane over the last few weeks, primarily because her mention of the dreaded ‘T’ word, that is taxes. Then Metiria Turei, the joint leader of the Greens fell on her sword, after admitting she lied to authorities, therefore, claiming more benefits than she was entitled to. Ms Turei in her defence stated her actions were nothing more than trying to “survive as a solo mum”. The point of this was to initiate a debate regarding the most vulnerable sections of society and the major problems regarding welfare. Instead Turei’s admission became a starting pistol for intense abuse by right wing factions, both National and ACT desperately portrayed Ms Turei as nothing more than cheat and a criminal. This would be laughable, if it wasn’t so tragic. This very National government has consistently allowed corporations to dodge tax and create an environment that provides socialism for the rich and capitalism for the poor. The tactic of using the poor as an object of aggression, for having the temerity to survive, while the rich get ever richer, is seen all over the neoliberal world and is used to perfection in an effort to keep societies divided.

I came to live in New Zealand from England in 2011, having visited here on our honeymoon in 2010. The longer I spent here, the more I realised that the people are essentially egalitarian, however, this communal spirit stops with a government that is ideologically neoliberal. The differences in NZ from life in most parts of the UK are palpable and hugely welcome. Fruit from your trees gets shared out at work, fish is handed over the fence if somebody has had a good day on the water and people are generally happy to give you hand if you get stuck. Quite often your labour can be used instead of money, for something you may need. For example my last batch of fire-wood was paid for by helping my friends to chop and split wood for the day. Although to most people in the UK this may seem odd as products are bought with that stuff they call money, here it’s pretty normal to exchange goods for your labour. At first I thought maybe this was because I live in provincial New Zealand, therefore as the saying goes ‘if we all get along, we go along’. However, after living in Auckland which is bigger, more frantic and less personal it is still my opinion that even Auckland is a much friendlier place than the average English city. After a few years here I have concluded that this friendly Kiwi attitude permeates pretty much all over the country. So imagine my surprise whilst getting to grips with NZ politics, when I noticed there were no prominent left leaning parties, a problem that still persists today. This blind devotion to neoliberalism hasn’t always been the case, but it’s a doctrine that was borrowed off the US and the UK in the 80’s. The effect of this was to push all acceptable politics to the right and to marginalise the left.

Like most countries in the Anglo-American world Social Democratic parties swung wildly to the right following free-market capitalism being the adopted orthodoxy. It’s not difficult to find examples of this lurch to the right from supposed peoples parties; Bill Clinton took the Democrats to victory in 1993, likewise Tony BlairMSC_2014_Blair_Mueller_MSC2014_(cropped) swept to the top job with Labour in 1997. Both leaders were similar with their liberal rhetoric and easy charm. At the heart of their success, however, was an adherence to a market economy, which managed to sway the support of the corporations and the media. Both Clinton and Blair accomplished the task of achieving relative longevity by balancing neoliberal economic policies, while offering social justice concessions. With this heady cocktail of ideas, often known as the 3rd way, both were able to successfully lure the electorate. Clinton brought in the Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993 while Blair was instrumental in introducing a minimum wage in the UK. These types of policies softened the blow of deregulation of the financial sector and masked the damage that would occur in years to come. One of Bill Clinton’s most destructive actions was to repeal the Glass-Steagall Act which was initially designed to separate commercial and investment banking, this act had been in place since 1933 following the depression in the US. It’s fair to acknowledge that a lack of these types of safety mechanisms among others were a reason the global financial crisis was allowed to reach the devastating conclusion it did. Meanwhile under Blair’s watch university tuition fees were ushered in and privatisation by stealth for the health service increased. The UK and US are not alone regarding their acceptance of a neoliberal doctrine. New Zealand has it’s own tale to tell, which could very well shed some light on the original question “where’s the left”.

New Zealand had always been considered a social democratic state prior to the mid 80’s. From the 1930’s onwards the state owned many assets including Post, Railways, Inter-Island ferries, electricity generation, major public construction works, public housing, hospitals, mining and broadcasting to name a few. The government looked after their citizens and unemployment was quite often below 1%. By the early 80’s people were becoming tired of the National Prime Minister Rob Muldoon from a personal perspective. While many businesses in Auckland were becoming frustrated by a tightly controlled economy. To the surprise of many, Muldoon called a snap election in June 1984, this proved to be his undoing as his opponent David Lange was victorious by a landslide, leading the 4th Labour government. On the night of the election results and following celebrations, David Lange was saddled with the news that the previous government had accrued huge amounts of debts and NZ dollar was massively over-valued. douglasThe newly crowned Finance Minister Roger Douglas who was heavily influenced by the neoliberal ideology of Milton Friedman seized on this New Zealand financial crisis. Douglas had already written a book outlining a radical change to the NZ economy, which was considered ridiculous by most people in the political world. But what Douglas and the rest of the Troika (Richard Prebble and David Caygill) would do next, however, was classic ‘shock doctrine’ as described in Naomi Klein’s wonderful book. This ‘shock therapy’ as used in Chile, Russia, Argentina, US and UK, was to utilise a disaster such as a coup (Chile) or a financial crisis (US and UK) to usher in ideologically driven capitalism. This method, still used today, is consistently in the form of massive deregulation and the privatisation of state assets. These proposed economic changes were heavily supported by the NZ Treasury and the Business Round Table, an exceptionally right-wing think-tank. Within a short period of time New Zealand was transformed from one of the most regulated countries economically to one of the least.

The Labour government proceeded  to sell off national assets worth $2.5 billion at bargain basement prices, while slashing top tier tax from 66% to a paltry 33%. Company taxes were reduced in a similar fashion, at the same time a new regressive Good and Services Tax (similar to UK VAT) was introduced. The Labour regime limited the right to strike, as real wages declined by 10%. Furthermore unemployment climbed from 8.5% to 16.2%. To counter any excessive payments regarding high unemployment the government reduced benefits and abolished payments for under 18’s. As neoliberalism took a hold in NZ, it was common practice to reduce unemployment payments if the gap between declining average wages and the dole became too close. In classic ‘disaster capitalism’ style, Roger Douglas declared that reforms had to be done as quickly as possible, to avoid any form of resistance to them. He even tried towards the end of his tenure to introduce a flat tax, which was a bridge too far for Lange. Following Labour’s resounding defeat in 1990, the country was now in the hands of National, where there would be no let up on the neoliberal doctrine. While in the 80’s NZ had Rogernomics, the 90’s resulted in Ruthanasia. images.duckduckgo.comRuth Richardson was now the Finance Minister and was prepared to put free-market capitalism on steroids. It was their goal to privatise anything that wasn’t nailed down, including health, education, while reducing unemployment, sickness and welfare benefits. Active campaigns using adverts and TV programmes were used to demonise welfare recipients such as benefit cheats, unfortunately the same amount of effort was not expended on tax evaders/avoiders. Like their traditional opponents the National government were happy to maintain high levels of unemployment purposely to keep wages low and therefore, inflation low. Any collective in the form of unions which opposed these draconian reforms were systematically dismantled, with the Employments Contract Act. This intentionally individualised the employment relationship and pitted employee versus employee, this also had the dramatic effect of lowering wages. Although Ruth Richardson was gone by 1993, the National government continued until 1999. By then the die was cast, most people didn’t know any better than capitalism and consumption. The incoming Labour government led by Helen Clark managed to put the breaks on runaway capitalism, but by then individualism and consumerism were ingrained on a national psyche that once stood for egalitarian values.

So I guess the question is, why socialism, why go left? The answer is simple, unbridled capitalism does not have the answers to our very serious problems, both nationally and globally. If you are uncomfortable with socialism. then fine call it something else. The important thing is we need to move away from a massively individualistic society to a collective one. Jeremy Bentham stated “it is the greatest happiness of the greatest number that is the measure of right and wrong”. Not only is that a moral statement, but a practical one when we think that we live in a finite world and what we do has direct consequences on someone or something else. To live a life as if we are in isolation is foolish and irresponsible. To emphasise this point, the worlds 8 richest people have more wealth than the poorest 50%, while 1 in 9 people will go to bed hungry. How does this make sense? Gandhi famously said;

“The world has enough for everyone’s need, but not enough for everyone’s greed.”

So lets get to our pressing problems and why New Zealand needs to turn left. First up homelessness, a report by Yale University concluded that New Zealand has the highest homeless rates in the OECD. More than 40,000 people live on the streets or in emergency housing or substandard shelters, this equates to almost 1% of the population. While there is one person living rough or in sub-standard accommodation, in my opinion we have failed as a society. This is clearly a difficult problem to solve; there is indeed the physical aspect of having enough accommodation, psychological problems, such as people feeling disenfranchised with society and many other complex contributing factors. But the answer is not how many houses to build, or how we increase mental health provision. The answer is the government needs to find the political will to actually complete these projects regardless of any barriers that may exist. Government’s seem to find money to fund war or bank bailouts, but somehow the cupboard is bare when it comes to the most vulnerable in society. This is quite simply an ideological decision to allow certain sections of society to suffer.

New Zealand has some highest suicide rates in the world. NZ youth suicide has twice the prevalence of Australia and five times that of the UK. Although the reasons are multi-faceted, economic inequality is a huge factor with regards to mental health problems. Feelings of worthlessness and status anxiety increases, while trust decreases. The very fabric of society disintegrates, at a time when many people would benefit from a supportive network. Inequality also has a huge effect on child poverty, in 1982 child poverty was 14%, now it sits around 28%. All the while the incomes of the top 10% compared to the lower 10% have increased from 5 times to 10 times greater. The examples I have mentioned highlighting where NZ falls down have one thing in common, ‘people’. If the wealth of the rich compared to the poor widens, yet many health and social indicators show NZ is severely lacking, this indicates to me that the system has failed and the government has no inclination or desire to change course. One last thought on this; New Zealand’s richest two men (Richard Chandler and Graeme Hart) have more wealth than 30% of the poorest people. That in itself is sickening.

On to my last reason for NZ to turn left. The most important issue we face on this planet is climate change. The National government have signed up to the Paris accord, however, this according to renowned climate scientist James Hansen doesn’t go far enough to avoid temperatures elevating by 2 degrees. Climate scientists warn that this rise would have dramatic affects; one in which seas will rise by more than 5 metres over the coming centuries, and one in which droughts, floods and extreme heatwaves will ravage many parts of the world. Currently National seem to be randomly tossing figures around without any concerted plan. For example the government have stated that it will aim for a 2030 target of 30% below 2005 emission levels, which actually is equivalent to cutting emissions to 11% below 1990 levels. Their rhetoric is meaningless as are their actions, but this shouldn’t be surprising as it’s a party wedded to big business, including the fossil fuel industry.

During this election cycle, National have ran an exceptionally negative campaign towards Labour and the Greens. This has been a two pronged attack; ridiculing Labour by stating their proposals are not affordable, while scaring the public into believing they’ll be paying masses of tax to pay for services. One of the stand-out moments was Steven Joyce the current Finance Minister, claiming there was a $11.7bn hole in Labour’s budget. steven joyceThis was of course total rubbish, but it didn’t matter, it had the desired effect. In the right-wing world there is no requirement to tell the truth only the result matters. These tactics were designed to make Labour seem indecisive regarding taxes, at the same time slowing the Jacinda effect. My thoughts are Jacinda Adhern should have been bold the moment she took office, stating; these are the problems, this is what we’ll do, this is why we’ll do it and here’s how we’ll pay. Obviously the only way they could pay is through taxes. Bizarrely, New Zealand, appears to be tax phobic, which would indicate that the people are heavily taxed. This couldn’t be further from the truth, tax is a little less than most OECD countries and is a lot less progressive than it once was (top tax rate was 66%). Tax is obviously spent on services such as health, education, police, prisons and welfare. Therefore, what we pay on tax is directly linked to what sort of services we want in New Zealand. Tax is no more than the pooling of our resources to make the nation better. Scandinavia is well known for their high taxes, but have an excellent standard of living, often topping rankings in; education, low crime, good health outcomes and excellent social cohesion. Tax isn’t the only solution to problems in New Zealand or anywhere else for that matter, but it does offer a means to improve services and reduce inequality.

So why do I keep harping on about inequality? It’s quite simple, inequality is directly connected with; increased crime rates, poorer health outcomes, less social mobility, substandard education, a decrease in social cohesion and a less stable economy. The ruling elite will continue to divide society, convincing the middle class to blame the poor, while the poor blame the immigrants. All the while the rich will get tax cuts or avoid tax completely. Rather than looking at the most marginalised and the vulnerable in society we should be looking towards the ruling elite to locate where the problem lies. As I stated at the top of this piece, the choices for the election are not particularly stark, but I still hope for a change of government and maybe a step in the right direction.