How to fight neoliberals: The New Zealand experiment revisited

The people behind the Think Left blog yesterday circulated a piece from the Independent about the way in which New Zealand has reacted to the imposition of an austerity agenda.  It’s an old piece, but the landscape is strikingly familiar – food banks, homelessness, benefit cuts, soaring crime.  The piece points out how New Zealand’s progressive traditions have been traduced.  The first country to give women the vote, the first country to introduce universal benefits, once held up by Aneurin Bevan as a model for the future.  Up until recently, if you wanted to sum up the New Zealand ethos in one phrase, it was the “Fair Go” – the belief that everyone had the right to share in the good things in society and make the best for themselves and their families.  Now, if you hear it at all, it’s likely to be a shallow justification for deregulating business.

The piece had me reaching for Jane Kelsey’s magnificent book on the neoliberal takeover of New Zealand, The New Zealand Experiment.  Not an easy book to find in the UK, I bought my copy in New Zealand back in the 1990s; it remains a vital and urgent book, because its themes resonate so powerfully with our experience of austerity in post-2010 Britain.

Two of Kelsey’s themes strike home particularly hard.  First, the use of crisis to undermine democracy.  Kelsey points out that neoliberalism does not win elections; crisis must be used to create the illusion of necessity and to invalidate alternatives.  She describes the proponents of neoliberalism as “technopols”, an uncanny prescience of the imposition of “technocratic” Governments in Greece and Italy to drive neoliberal reforms.  The spectacle of European governments lining up to join a neoliberal treaty that would effectively outlaw expansionary economic policy, the creation of secret trade agreements in which corporate tribunals will be empowered to overrule democratic governments, or the construction of the lie that austerity economics is the necessary antidote to profligate public spending; Kelsey foresaw all these.

Second, Kelsey points to the complicity of avowedly left-of-centre parties in bringing about the neoliberal coup.  Economic reform was instituted by a Labour government in New Zealand, and was generally known as “Rogernomics” after the then Labour finance minister, Roger Douglas.  Once again it’s a powerful reminder that, years later, British austerity economics was imposed because an apparently left-of-centre party was prepared to put into office a Conservative Party that had just failed to win an election (the Liberal Democrats being, of course, an example of a party that, having been captured for Neoliberalism by its Orange Book faction, sought to present a soft centrist image to the electorate).  But it’s also important to remember that many of the salient features of British austerity had their roots in Labour’s years in office.  NHS outsourcing, the introduction of private capital into education, workfare, university tuition fees, cutting benefits, asset sales; all of these are core Labour policies that the Coalition has simply taken to their logical conclusion.  Labour is committed to keeping the Coalition’s public spending cuts and considering more of its own; it offers no alternative to the austerity agenda.  It differs from the Coalition in degree and presentation rather than substance; Westminster remains a place of neoliberal consensus.

These are not of themselves startling insights in 2013 (although the prescience of a book written in 1994 is startling). What makes Kelsey’s book really compelling twenty years on is a four-page appendix entitled A Manual for Counter-Technopols.  It sets out a checklist of strategies for resistance: it seems to me to be just as important and apposite now as when it was written.

It’s obviously written from a New Zealand perspective, and recognises that in New Zealand in the 1990s, as in Britain and Europe in the 2010s, much of the pass had already been sold.  But the important thing is the conceptual framework, and the pointers it gives towards developing an effective critique of neoliberalism – especially when faced with parties of the centre-left that have thrown in the towel, but also perhaps to more radical groupings who find themselves going native once they’ve arrived in political office.

A quick Google search suggests that although excerpts have been reproduced on line, nobody has done so in its entirety.  So here it is: it’s a formidable piece of work.

Appendix: A Manual for Counter-technopols

If the architects of structural adjustment are pooling their experiences in a manual for technopols to help them impose their agenda on the rest of the world, those who want to stop them should do the same. A preliminary checklist of potential pitfalls and strategies for resistance, drawn from New Zealand’s experience, might include the following:

Take economic fundamentalism seriously – what initially appears like extremism, if not effectively challenged and discredited, may in a short time be considered orthodox.

Nip it in the bud – early changes can be the most fundamental and deliberately difficult to undo; once the structural adjustment agenda is under way, its internal logic has a domino effect on all policies and programmes.

Be sceptical about ‘crises’ – anticipate a ‘crisis’ in the making, and move quickly to examine the real nature of the problem, who defines it as a crisis, and who stands to gain. Demand to know the range of possible solutions, and the costs and benefits of each to whom. If the answers are not forthcoming, burn the midnight oil to produce the answers for yourselves.

Watch for the blitzkrieg  – constantly monitor, document and expose what is going on behind the scenes. Act on instinct and anticipate the logical next step. Waitng until all the facts can be documented will probably be too late.

Remember the Tories are not always the worst – social democratic parties  and governments can neutralise potential opponents and initiate vital changes which provide the thin end of the wedge. Fighting to prevent  a party’s capture by zealots is important. But once the party has been taken over, maintaining solidarity on the outside while seeking change from within merely gives them more time. When the spirit of the party is dead, shed the old skin and create something new

Take economics seriously – economic fundamentalism pervades everything.  There is no boundary between economic, indigenous, social, foreign, environmental or other policies. Those who focus on narrow sectoral concern and ignore the pervasive economic agenda will lose their own battles and weaken the collective ability to resist. Leaving economics to economists is fatal.

Expose the illogic of their theory – neo-liberal theories are riddled with bogus assumptions and internal inconsistencies, and often lack empirical support. Agency and public choice theories in particular need to exposed as self-serving rationalisations which operate in the interests of elites whom the policies empower.

Evaluate the argument carefully – acknowledge the valid aspects of arguments for change and meet them with alternatives which address the substance of the concern.

Challenge hypocrisy – ask who is promoting a strategy as being in the ‘national interest’, and who stands to benefit most. Document cases where self-interest is disguised as public good.

Expose ‘stacking of the deck’ – name the key players behind the scenes, document their interlocking roles and allegiances, and expose the personal and corporate benefits they receive.

Maximise every political obstacle – federal systems of government, written constitutions, bicameral parliaments, complex voting systems, supra-national institutions and strong local governments provide barriers which can neutralise the blitzkrieg approach and slow the pace of, if not prevent, undesirable change.

Maintain a strong civil society and popular sector – extra-parliamentary politics are essential to complement resistance through traditional party channels, and may become the front line once institutional politics fall captive.

Work hard to maintain solidarity – avoid the trap of divide and rule; sectoral in-fighting is self-indulgent and everyone risks losing in the end.

Do not compromise the labour movement – build awareness of the structural adjustment agenda at union branch and workplace level, so union members can demand accountability from their leadership. Openly debate the pros and cons of political party ties, and the costs and benefits of compromise. Concessions intended to forestall more radical change tend to deepen co-option and weaken the ability to resist the next step. Publicly challenge the failure of union bureaucrats to defend the interests of workers and the unemployed. If the leadership doesn’t listen, disobey.

Employ the politics of international embarrassment – if the forums of institutional politics have been taken and local resistance neutralised, marginalised or suppressed, the most potent political arena may be the inremational stage. Neo-liberal governments and free market economies depend on foreign investment and international approval. Image is everything. The international sphere is one arena they cannot effectively control.

Reinforce the concept of an independent public service – undercut attempts to discredit, sideline and colonise the public service by acknowledging deficiencies and promoting pro-active models for change. Create a constituency of support among client groups and the public which stresses the need for independence and professionalism, the obligations of public service, and the risks of the managerial approach

Encourage community leaders to speak out – public criticism from civic and church leaders, folk heroes and other prominent ‘names’ makes governments uncomfortable and people think. The fewer public critics there are, the easier they are to discredit, harass and intimidate. Remind community leaders of their social Obligations, and the need to look themselves in the mirror in the morning.

Avoid anti-intellectualism – a pool of critical academics and other intellectuals who can document and expose the fallacies and failures of a structural adjustment programme, and develop viable alternatives in partnership with community and sectoral groups, is absolutely vital. They need to be supported when they come under attack, and challenged when they fail to speak out or are co-opted or seduced.

Establish well-resourced critical think-tanks – neo-liberal and libertarian think-tanks have shown the importance of Well-resourced and internationally connected institutes which can develop an integrated analysis and foster climates favourable to change. Unco-ordinated research by isolated critics can never compete.

Develop alternative media outlets – once mainstream media are captured it is difficult for critics to enter the debate, and impossible to lead it. Alternative media and innovative strategies must be in place before people and financial resources come under stress. Effective communication and exchange of information between sectoral groups and activists are essential, despite the time and resources involved.

Raise the level of popular economic literacy – familiarise people with the basic themes, assumptions and goals of economic fundamentalism. Insist that economic policy affects everyone, that everyone has a right to participate in the debate, and that alternatives do exist.

Educate popular and sectoral groups in advance – draw on international experience, networks, publications, speakers and examples to put people on the alert. Identify the likely strategies, policies and effects of structural adjustment for sectors like labour, education, health, local government, community work, public service and the media. Encourage sectors to workshop counter-strategies in advance. There will be little time for this when people are struggling just to survive.

Resist marketspeak – maintain control of the language, challenge its capture, and refuse to convert your discourse to theirs. Insist on using hard terms that convey the hard realities of what is going on.

Be realistic and avoid nostalgia—recognise that the world has changed, in some ways irreversibly, and the past was far from perfect. Avoid being trapped solely into reaction and critique. Many neo-liberal criticisms of the status quo are justified and will strike a chord with people. Defending the past for its own sake adds credibility to their arguments and wastes opportunities to work for genuine change.

Be proactive and develop real altematives – start rethinking visions, strategies and models of development for the future. Show that there are workable, preferable alternatives from the start. This becomes progressively more difficult once the programme takes hold.

Rethink identity and alliances – combine a critical analysis of economic, political, cultural and social models of the past with a forward-thinking vision of what a socially just future might look like. Recognise that the legitimate expectations, insights and vision of indigenous peoples are no just a matter of social justice, but offer the foundation for an alliance which can forge a new way ahead.

It is impossible to tell in retrospect how far these strategies would have hindered, let alone prevented, the onset of economic fundamentalism inNew Zealand. They most certainly would have made the ‘successful’ implementation of the structural adjustment programme more difficult, and given time for opponents to rethink, regroup and resist

Sadly, the time for many of these strategies has passed. It is going to be enormously difficult and costly to bring about changes which genuinely empower people in Aotearoa New Zealand to take control of their lives, within communities where they can play an active, equal and valued part. Yet the potential is still there for alternative forms of economics, politics and identity to emerge, and there are strategies which can exploit the soft underbelly of the new regime to bring them into effect. The beginnings of a manual for counter-technopols in this post-structural adjustment phase might include the following:

Challenge the TINA svndrome – convince people individually and collectively that there are alternatives. Carefully analyse present barriers and future trends to produce options that combine realism with the prospect of meaningful change. Actively promote them and have them ready to be implemented when the market fails.

Promote informed debate and critique – build a constituency for change through alternative information networks and media; use tribal, community, workplace, women’s, church, creche, union and similar outlets, and harness technology where available, to balance the good-news machine with critical analysis of the economic and social costs.

Promote participatory democracy – encourage people to take back control; empower them with knowledge to understand the forces affecting them and the points at which they can intervene. Stress that no one has a fail-safe recipe for change, and that everyone has a contribution to make. Recognise the skills, resources and insights of tribes, individuals, communities, sectoral groups and civil society, and the right to act both separately and in concert.

Embrace the Treaty of Waitangi as a liberating force—moving forward means facing up to the past. Healing the wounds from over 155 years means restoring to Maori their economic and political power. Constructive debate on a treaty-based republican constitution can provide a liberating framework within which Maori and Pakeha can co-exist.

Encourage progressive counter-nationalism – celebrate diversity rather than uniformity; Work to build identities and values which replace xenophobia, racism and nostalgia with multiple identities and progressive visions for the future.

Develop multi-level strategies – take action at local, sectoral, regional, national and international levels, and co-ordinate those activities through informal networks and formal linkages.

Hold the line – the structural adjustment programme is not yet complete; the state still plays an active role in providing social services and public goods. Sustained and co-ordinated action in communities, sectors and national politics can effectively hold the line.

Localise politics – recognise the power held by regional and local authorities and the ability to secure information and influence decisions at that level. Encourage accountability of local officials and participation in local politics. Continue local struggles to maintain services which provide for local needs; build solidarity, political awareness and a belief in the possibility of change.

Ginger up party politics – maintain pressure on political parties through popular mobilisation and public education campaigns, document failed policies and unacceptable practices, and use the politics of embarrassment at home and overseas to complement the work of party activists within.

Invest in the future – provide financial, human and moral support to sustain alternative analysis, publications, think-tanks, training programmes and people‘s projects that are working actively for change. Create alternatives to state dependency by providing financial, personal and moral support for alternative economic developments.

Support those who speak out – intimidation and harassment of social critics works only if the targets lack personal, popular and institutional support. Withdrawing from public debate leaves those who remain more exposed.

Promote ethical investment – support overseas and local investors who genuinely respond to indigenous, ecological and social concerns. Expose and attack unethical investors who don’t. Boycotts have proved a powerful force internationally and in New Zealand, including anti-apartheid, anti-nuclear, environmental and safe product campaigns. ‘New Zealand’ companies can be most easily embarrassed and called to account. ‘Foreign’ companies are often targets of co-ordinated campaigns overseas that welcome information, participation and support.

Think global, act local – develop an understanding of the global nature of economic, political and cultural power, and those forces which drive current trends. Draw the links between global forces and local events. Target local representatives, meetings and activities which feed into and on the global economic and political machine.

Think local, act global – actively support intemational strategies for change such as people’s tribunals, non-state codes of conduct, non-governmental forums, and action campaigns against unethical companies, practices and governments. Recognise that international action is essential to counter the collaboration of states and corporations, and to empower civil society to take back control.

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2 thoughts on “How to fight neoliberals: The New Zealand experiment revisited

  1. Brilliant and very useful post! New Zealander Bryan Gould.. was the only Labour MP to really understand what was happening in the 80/90s. I suspect that it wasn’t only his understanding of economics but also the New Zealand early-adopter experience.

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