NZ budget 2015 – the on-going struggle between ‘left’ & ‘right’ Part 1. Click here for Part 2 of this two part series.
Analysis by Carolyn Skelton.
Political and social changes are usually a result of evolution as much as revolution. The so-called ‘neoliberal revolution’ in western countries since the 1980s is part of an on-going struggle. This is largely between the ‘right’ (those with most power) and the ‘left’ (usually those with less power, but critical of the minority with most power). The exact make-up of the ‘left’ and ‘right’ and their policies have always undergone change, from the origins of this left-right naming in the French Revolution. In the ‘neoliberal’ era, many left wing ideals have been deviously co-opted in the service of financial and political elites.
Many have proclaimed the latest NZ government budget’s policies on beneficiaries is a leftward move – an indication that it has moved beyond ‘neoliberalism’. In fact, it is very much in keeping with moves by powerful entities in western countries in the 1980s.
The impact of children growing up in households experiencing financial hardship will be felt by all of us as an increase in social and educational problems and challenges. These are all our children, and a significant part of the future of our society.
The ‘neoliberal revolution’: devious shape-shifter
David Harvey, in his book A Brief History of Neoliberalism (2005) shows how the right stumbled towards ‘neoliberalism’, with on-going policy changes, often pragmatic, and often in contradiction with the great neoliberal narrative: one of free markets, small government, diminishment of public services, etc. He concludes that the only consistent outcome of the changes was a recapturing of the ground the right had lost to the left over the preceding decades: a re-instatement of class power (13, 16-17, 119).
Similarly, for Wendy Brown (2015: 21)* ‘neoliberalism’ is a reaction against Keynesianism and democratic socialism. In practice it ‘economized’ aspects of society previously understood in terms of other values; moving away from humanist and social values to those using economic terms. In doing this ‘neoliberal’ is continually changing, taking a variety of shapes, forms and language; and often hiding its true consequences.
John Key, Margaret Thatcher & ‘compassionate conservatism’
John Key has claimed that the latest budget is “compassionate conservatism”, but the policies contradict such a claim. In her interview with Sept 1987 Woman’s Own, Thatcher outlines a more substantive kind of ‘compassionate conservatism’.
She talks about the need to shift the balance away from a sense of entitlement to government initiated hand-outs, to one where the provision of state welfare incorporates responsibilities and obligations by the beneficiaries,
…so they are casting their problems on society and who is society? There is no such thing! There are individual men and women and there are families and no government can do anything except through people and people look to themselves first. It is our duty to look after ourselves and then also to help look after our neighbour and life is a reciprocal business and people have got the entitlements too much in mind without the obligations, […]
But it went too far. If children have a problem, it is society that is at fault. There is no such thing as society.
But later Thatcher acknowledges there is such a things as society as “structure”, and as “way of life” with dominant values. Thatcher also uses the term “society” to explain some of its realities. The practical changes wrought by Thatcher’s government include a big shift in the structure of many institutions that make up the fabric of our society.
In the Woman’s Own interview, Thatcher, as with the NZ and UK governments now, shows a patronising middle and upper class view, out of touch with the realities of work for the most insecure sections of our society. Thatcher articulates a belief in the satisfaction gained from a good day’s work – a re-articulation of what is often called the ‘Protestant work ethic.’ But in the second decade of the 21st century, the notion of a workforce, fully employed in satisfying, secure jobs is no longer a reality, if it ever was. This is shown in the amount of people underemployed, and the amount of working poor.
Thatcher’s aim always was to shift the balance from full social security, to a minimal welfare safety net: away from state support, to individual “responsibility” and “obligations” for one’s own success and failures, within strong family structures. She argues that once an individual has ensured the wellbeing of self and family, then s/he can look to helping their neighbours. In a nod towards ‘compassionate conservatism’, Thatcher also talks about her support for organisations that work to counter violence and neglect of children. In contrast, Key’s mention of “compassionate conservatism”, as state provisions of social security is further undermined, just looks like empty rhetoric.
To be continued in part 2.