Monday, July 27, 2015

How New Zealand works

Asked by Mr Hatherley during his recent visit if I could recommend a book about New Zealand’s political history, I quickly decided that I couldn’t think of one that told the whole story, or enough of it. In the end, I passed on to him the three books I picked up most often from my library: WB Sutch’s The Quest for Security, Ranginui Walker’s Struggle Without End and Jane Kelsey’s The New Zealand Experiment. Together, they cover a lot of historical, political and cultural ground, enough to give a fair sense of how the nation’s institutions got to their present state. They are also deeply critical books, which is what makes them still valuable decades after they were written.

In The New Zealand Experiment (1995), Kelsey carried out a forensic examination of the first and most radical phase of our neoliberal revolution. She has now returned to the same topic with The FIRE Economy: an attempt to place the now fragile but still deeply embedded neoliberal project in its wider international context, describe its operation and suggest how it could be dismantled.

FIRE stands for Finance, Insurance and Real Estate, and describes economies that have shifted from a focus on manufacturing to the ever-growing reliance on financial services and debt-fuelled consumption. It’s a term that has been around for many years, and is in some respects a curious choice of both title and theme – after all, the story of financialisation has been told several times. But one of the recurring claims of the book is precisely that this economic model is obsolete, outmoded, staggering towards its next and quite possibly fatal crisis. We are, says Kelsey, quoting Gramsci, in an interregnum: a phase of dearticulation of the old order that preceeds the articulation of the new one. Yet it is essential that we don’t just wait for the crisis to hit us to press for change, if only because if it were to happen in a void of alternatives, it would pave the way for a devastating austerity programme such as was adopted by Ireland or foisted upon Greece.

The main strength of the book lies in how it integrates analysis and description with the call for an effective counter discourse, and for a reorganisation of the social forces that were locked out of the political process in the transition to neoliberalism. The central subject is not really the FIRE economy, but rather the neoliberal system on which the continued survival of FIRE is predicated.

Kelsey is at her most effective when she updates the story she told in The New Zealand Experiment, detailing how the system was embedded within our political, economic and legal institutions. It’s a story that emphasises continuity and an enduring consensus: Reagan built on the work started by Carter at the end of his term in office, while Clinton brought deregulation to its extremes. Blair intensified the financial reforms started by Thatcher. At home, Kelsey notes that
[w]hile the decade of Labour-led government in New Zealand from 1999 softened the raw edges of Rogernomics, the government's modernisation actually served to embed neoliberalism more deeply […].
Similarly, the initial response in the UK and the US to the Great Financial Crisis appeared to signal a change of approach, but those countries ‘deviated from the orthodoxy only long enough to stem its collapse.’

And this is where we are: a post-GFC world in which the transnational financial elites that benefited the most from neoliberalism are still in control of the levers of political power and (de)regulation, but in which the consensus is finally beginning to waver, even within traditional bulwarks such as the World Bank and the IMF, and in which new powers are emerging.

Then, tucked away at the bottom and to the far right, is old New Zealand: a country wallowing in the myth of its rock economy status whilst blissfully playing down the many indicators – beginning with runaway real estate prices and one of the highest levels of household debt in the OECD – that put it at risk of an acute crisis. On top of which, we stubbornly refuse to adopt any of the prudential measures that even the most radical champions of deregulation consider necessary: we remain, Kelsey tells us, the only developed country with no permanent deposit guarantee scheme to protect depositors, and our oversight of investment practices is considered woeful by international standards.

Those who demand that critics come up with an alternative could answer this at least: what is it that compels us to sit at the far extreme of free-market orthodoxy? And what has this orthodoxy ever done for us? Since adopting neoliberalism, New Zealand has become vastly more unequal, lost the majority of its industries, and opened itself to capital flows that were supposed to help create competitive businesses and new jobs, but never did: as it turns out, foreigners with money to spend will rather speculate on our non-productive assets or push up the dollar to take advantage of high-interest term deposits than put themselves at the mercy of our poorly regulated capital markets. Result: thirty years on from the beginning of the New Zealand experiment, the country remains a primary producer with a real estate fixation and rather pathetic delusions of high-flying entrepreneurial grandeur.

It needn’t be like this, and the task of coming up with a broad range of critical responses is more urgent than ever. Kelsey’s model in this respect is both explicit and implicit: explicit, when it points to the areas in which we should focus our work, or reminds us that neoliberalism is an integrated system that cannot be dismantled in piecemeal fashion, but must be regarded as a whole; implicit, when its at times fierce analysis becomes the sharpest of critical tools.

In its best chapters, The FIRE Economy is a handbook of how New Zealand works, and how its reforms were embedded and made democracy-proof through pieces of legislation such as the Reserve Bank of New Zealand Act 1989, the Public Finance Act 1989 or the Fiscal Responsibility Act 1994. These, the most apparently dry and technical pages of the book, are also the most illuminating and useful: by exposing the workings of the state and of its public and private agents, they define a field of political action that is utterly alien to the rhetoric of our elected representatives. But that is where change must be directed, and where politics must return.

Jane Kelsey. The Fire Economy. Wellington: Bridget Williams Books with the New Zealand Law Foundation, 2015. RRP: $50 (print) | $20 (ebook)

Monday, July 20, 2015

The life and death of the political author

This week's post, on the implications for our democracy of the Nicky Hager court case, is now up at The Pantograph Punch.

Monday, July 13, 2015

The Periodic Table

The Periodic Table ends with one of my all-time favourite short stories.

It tells, in plain language, the tale of an atom of carbon, made up yet also literally true, for ‘the number of atoms is so great that one could always be found whose story is the same as one invented out of whim’. One day in 1840, this atom is prised by the stroke of a pickaxe from a block of limestone, then travels in the atmosphere in the form of dioxide until it lands on a leaf – where, fixed by a ray of sunlight, it becomes life – then follows a series of vicissitudes and transformations, in compounds both organic and inorganic, into the body and finally the brain of the author, Primo Levi, in the present in which the story and the book are being written – 1970 – where it becomes involved in an immensely complex series of chemical reactions leading to the penning of the period with which the book ends:
This one.

It may be incorrect to say that Primo Levi was a chemist before he was a writer, but possibly no other writer has ever owed more to his or her other profession than he. Not just life, in the literal sense of surviving the Lager, then later the vocation to write in order to bear witness of those atrocities, but a worldview: a method for understanding both chemistry and writing as meaning-making activities.

Thus The Periodic Table is a book that reads like an autobiography but isn’t quite an autobiography. It’s a story about memory and sense, filtered indissolubly by chemistry and writing.
It seemed to me that I would purify myself by narrating


I wrote page after page of the memories that were poisoning me


It was exhilarating to search and find, or to create, the right word, that is, proportionate, short and strong; to recall things from memory and describe them with the greatest rigour and the least encumbrance. (…) It seemed to me that, by writing, I was growing like a plant.

It’s also a political book, and the chronicle of a youthful illusion: that chemistry might offer its diligent acolyte a refuge from the ambiguities, from the hypocrisy and the lies of Fascism, as if science itself wasn’t an instrument of power, and the key to ever-more advanced weaponry and the production of Zyklon-B. And so, pausing only briefly on the years of imprisonment chronicled in If This Is a Man, Levi focuses here on the before and after, setting at length the atmosphere of the slow wait for the ruin to come:
Outside the walls of the Institute of Chemistry it was dark, and it was the night of Europe: Chamberlain had returned defeated from Munich, Hitler had walked into Prague without firing a shot, Franco had subdued Barcelona and reigned in Madrid. Fascist Italy, a minor pirate, had occupied Albania, and the premonition of imminent catastrophe formed like a slimy dew on the houses and in the streets, in the cautious conversations and the sleeping consciences.

From the illusion follows the disillusion: chemistry doesn’t offer a surer path to Truth, but its study disciplines the mind, like the practice of writing. By structuring his stories as if following Mendeleev’s table of the elements, Levi toys with his muse and with the reader, for his periodic table is a plaything oscillating freely between the metaphoric and the literal. Thus ‘Argon’ is the story of Levi’s ancestors, whom he likens to inert gases due to their contemplative outlook, their aversion to changing their world, and ‘Iron’ the story of his formative friendship with Sandro Delmastro, who went on to become a martyr of the Resistance; but elsewhere – ‘Nickel’, ‘Gold’, “Carbon’ – the elements star as themselves, confounding the temptation to pursue the chemical symbolism further.

For The Periodic Table is also a book about work. About the work of living – as in the title of the aphoristic diary of poet Cesare Pavese, beloved to Levi – but also the work one does for a living. Here, as in his novel The Wrench, Levi indulges in his passion for exploring minutely the daily practices involved in people’s trades, beginning with his own.

Finally, this is a book about the work of memory. Of the futility of attempting to bring Sandro Delmastro back to life through his book, Levi writes:
I know today that it is a hopeless task to clothe a man in words, to bring him back to life on the written page: and especially a man like Sandro. He wasn’t a man to tell stories about, nor dedicate monuments to – he laughed at monuments. He lived through his actions alone and now that his actions are over, nothing of him remains. Nothing but words, precisely.

But then he dedicates the memory of his friend Alberto – the Alberto of If This Is a Man, who left the Lager on a forced death march and whose fate is unknown, save for the certainty of his death – the most heart-rending page in the book.
For him resignation, pessimism, despair were abominable and culpable: he didn’t accept the concentrationary universe, he rejected it both with his instinct and with his reason, and he didn’t let himself be corrupted by it. He was a man of good and strong will, and had remained miraculously free, and his words and his deeds were free: he hadn’t bowed his head, he hadn’t bent his back. A gesture of his, a word of his, a smile of his could make you feel like you were free, they ripped a hole in the rigid fabric of the camp, and everyone who came in contact with him realised this, even those who didn’t speak his language. I believe that nobody, in that place, was loved as much as he was.

Primo Levi was in Auschwitz on the 27th of January of seventy years ago, when Soviet troops liberated the camp.

Originally published at Overland

Monday, July 6, 2015

Zanni's hunger

At this point Zanni has not yet become the shrewd servant of a merchant from Venice or Padua. He’s still the impoverished farmer of his origins, forced to flee to the city by the cyclical crises of the agrarian economy and finding no jobs for him there, nor land on which to at least subsist. His small plot, if he ever owned it, would had long been swallowed up by the neonate banking system.

Francesco del Cossa, Farmers at work dressed in the manner of Zanni

This is Italy in the sixteenth century, and Commedia dell’Arte has just been invented. At this time Zanni – a regional variation of Gianni, short for Giovanni – is the generic name for a male farmer in the lower Po region, in the same way that John has been a universal designation of various groups of unidentified males at various times in English language use. This Zanni becomes one of the earliest, archetypal masks: the precursor to the likes of Brighella, Harlequin and Punch.

Zanni is primarily a comic buffoon (whence the English word zany), but his historical origins are marked by poverty and displacement which are frequently carried over into the sketches. Playwright Dario Fo recovered (or possible reinvented) and staged one such sketch, to which this is an attempt at a brief introduction so you can enjoy the video at the bottom of the post.

‘La fame dello Zanni’ (Zanni’s hunger) is possibly my favourite piece of theatre. In theory I could offer it to you as is, without subtitles, given that it’s not in Italian or any other language, but rather in the so-called Grammelot, a made-up, highly improvised tongue designed to mimic the pattern and rhythms of actual speech. However in practice the Grammelot used by Fo is intelligible to speakers of northern Italian dialects – or Romance languages generally – to a much greater degree than, say, Adriano Celentano’s wonderful mock-English song Prisencolinensinainciusol to speakers of English.

To help you appreciate ‘Zanni’s hunger’, then, I really need to at least tell you what happens, and let you pick up what you can of the rest. But first, a couple of words about Mistero buffo, the play it comes from. The title literally means ‘comic mystery’, although what is meant here by mystery is the medieval passion play. The first version of Mistero buffo premiered in 1969 and contained, beside ‘Zanni’ and other monologues on the birth of the Commedia, pieces on a religious theme, primarily from apocryphal gospels. These later earned the play the appellation of ‘most blasphemous show in the history of television’ from the Vatican. But it still made a star of Fo, who went on to win the Nobel Prize for Literature in no small measure because of it.

The version of the sketch I chose among those available on YouTube comes from the 1977 RAI broadcast, featuring Fo and the late, great Franca Rame. Here it’s Fo only, at the peak of his powers.

The monologue begins with Zanni lamenting the pains of a hunger so profound and desperate he wishes he could eat his own body: the eyes, first, which he would suck like eggs, followed by the ears and the guts: and then foot, knee, cock, shoulder, torso, head, until all that is left is a mouth in the act of chewing. Zanni is so angry he could eat a donkey roasted by a single one of his powerful farts. He could eat the audience members, one by one, then climb up to to heavens and eat God Himself, with a side dish of cherubs. The deicide consumed, Zanni proceeds to hallucinate in great detail the preparation of a pantagruelic meal, pausing only to anticipate the taste of each succulent ingredient. But then, inevitably, just as he sits down to eat, the daydream ends and the banquet disappears. I’ll leave unspoiled the wonderful comic resolution, which needs no explanation as the words are entirely superfluous.

My country has known hunger at several times in its history. When most people think of Italian emigration, they picture Sicilians and other southern Italians leaving for North America or Australia. However an earlier, even larger migration, at the turn of the twentieth century, came from the North-East – the land of Zanni, but also of the most virulent forms of contemporary Italian xenophobia – towards South America. It accounts among other things for the fact that a full third of the population of Argentina is of Italian origin. They, too, were hungry, to the point of starvation. That was not very long ago, in the heart of Europe.

Watch this, it’s worth eight minutes of your time.