Wednesday, September 13, 2017

The neoliberalism question: notes on the Ardern/Espiner interview

Six weeks ago I wrote in Overland that politics had made a sudden comeback in New Zealand, following Metiria Turei’s revelations of her struggles as a young mother on the DPB and Labour’s dramatic decision to replace its grey, centrist leader with his far more energetic and inspiring deputy. That article is looking pretty stupid right now. Or maybe there really was a window – an opportunity to shift the ground of the political debate in a progressive direction – and it was shut down all too quickly. Either way, it hardly seems to matter now. Normalcy has been restored, and the wall in which that window briefly appeared looks perfectly smooth, as if it had never been breached.

I share some of the frustrations that Joe Nunweek has expressed in a brilliant piece for the Pantograph Punch concerning the 9th Floor series of interviews conducted by Guyon Espiner with five of the country’s surviving prime ministers. Nunweek focuses in, rightly, on the uniform lack of regret offered by those eminent statespeople as they oversaw a period of rising inequality and deep social trauma.
The leaders in The 9th Floor set us a terrible example, a series of excuses and tendentious rationalisations belying their demeanour of plainspoken and secure intellect. Above all, it’s profoundly alienating to experience regret, to try and suppress it or process it every day to ones’ harm or development, only to see those at the top celebrate its lack as a strength.
It’s a shame that John Key wasn’t included in the series (I’m told he turned the opportunity down) as it would have been intriguing to hear a much more recent prime minister give a summation of his time in office. However, Espiner has taken to asking current political leaders a question that came out of the Jim Bolger interview – namely, whether or not neoliberalism has been good for the country. And the effect of asking that single, simple question has been to take the interviews outside of the political present – which is predicated on a myriad daily acts of wilful amnesia – and into something approximating history.

Yesterday, it was Jacinda Ardern’s turn to take the pledge, and she didn’t hesitate for a moment. ‘Yes,’ she said. Neoliberalism has failed. This may be what the majority of her supporters wanted to hear her say, but it also turned every other answer she gave in the course of the half-hour interview into a test of that premise. This in turn underscored that it is one thing to look at Labour’s policies going into this election as a series of discrete (and largely desirable) interventions into various areas of New Zealand’s life; quite another to view them in aggregate as an expression of an overarching political project. Which – since the leader is so adamant that neoliberalism has failed the country – ought to be a project of anti-neoliberal reform.

The term ‘neoliberal’ is often said to be excessively vague, but its value in this context was in fact to give specificity to Espiner’s line of questioning. Most obviously: would Ardern consider revisiting the Reserve Bank Act, the Public Finance Act or any of the other legislative instruments that have allowed the last four governments to put neoliberal reforms into practice?

The answer – need I say it – was no. And in the process of the fairly gentle interrogation that followed, the much-vaunted boldness of the Ardern project evaporated. She thinks that climate change is the ‘nuclear-free’ issue of our time, but wouldn’t commit to divesting from coal or even ceasing to issue new licenses for deep-sea oil exploration. She wants to end child poverty, but wouldn’t resile from her predecessor's foolish commitment to contain spending to 30% of GDP and keep guaranteeing operating surpluses – one of the main causes of the staggering, crippling rise of our household debt – nor does she think that the government needs to seek more revenue through taxation. She is even open to getting the TPP back on track, subject to conditions that she would not reveal in order not to show her hand in the upcoming negotiations.

In other words: Ardern gave every indication that under her leadership, and with a much diminished contribution from the Greens, Labour remains committed to the continuation of the fundamental policies of the last 30 years. Call it the interlude we get to have every nine years or so in-between Tory governments. We’ll see the back of some truly dreadful ministers, associate ministers and undersecretaries. Some people’s living conditions will improve, or at least stop deteriorating – which of course is not insignificant. It never is. But the desire for deep and lasting change that the enthusiasm surrounding Ardern both evokes and demands will likely remain unfulfilled. Nothing illustrates this prospect better than the literal papering over of last month’s empty, self-defeating slogan – ‘a fresh approach’ – with an even emptier one – ‘Let’s do this.’ This what?

All this is related to how stupid the article I wrote six weeks ago looks. For there really was a window. An opportunity. Instead of playing her part in the political assassination of Metiria Turei, Ardern could have used her new position and her extraordinary popularity to stand by her side. Together, she and Turei could have broken the siege that has prevented beneficiaries – which is to say, a significant portion of the working class – from leading a dignified life and participating in society. Such a decision would have carried its own risks, naturally. But then this is what defines political courage, and it’s nothing if not courage that we desperately need.