Exactly 40 years ago to the day I was having a white Christmas – on the summit of Mr Fyfe overlooking Kaikoura. Today I celebrate another Christmas, high on another mountain, in another part of the world – with a light dusting of very dry, very icy snow drifting on the wind. The decades in between represent the prime of my adult life and I beg your indulgence to reflect a little on what has happened.
I’ll refrain from a dull recitation of all that has changed – some for the better, some for the worse. Those of you who are old enough will know anyway, and those too young don’t believe us oldies anyhow. But the 70’s were indeed a remarkable period of pregnant possibilities. If we recall Norman Kirk’s ohu initiative – and then consider how utterly impossible such an experiment would be today – then we have one small measure of what was lost.
Perhaps more than anything else I’m struck by the insane inversion of reality that as a mass society we have been sold. Christmas itself has become a parody of what Jesus stood for. Celebrating the birth of a man who who said “It is easier for a a thick rope to pass through the eye of a needle, than it is for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of Heaven ” – with an orgy of materialistic over-consumption is but one symptom of this inversion. As I look out the window I can often see the clouds in the valleys trapped under an inversion layer – so maybe I’ll use that as my metaphor- clouds of rampant possibility smoothly captured by the invisible.
Another symptom is how we have subverted the word freedom. In his excellent book The Predator State James Galbraith coins the pithy phrase ‘the freedom to shop’ arguing that:
The free market reactionaries promised that some combination of monetarism, supply side economics, balanced budgets, and free trade was the solution to America’s woes. The mantra “free markets” provided an easy antidote to “planning” that was said to constrain recovery and growth. As each conservative policy was tried, however, it resulted in obvious and even spectacular failure. In truth, all economies are always and everywhere planned—for the simple reason that planning is the use of today’s resources to meet tomorrow’s needs, something that all societies must do if they are going to survive—so the only question is who is going to do the planning, and to whom are the benefits going to flow? There are still a few true believers (principled conservatives that Jamie compares to noble savages in the political wilderness), but most conservatives realized that there is no conflict between “big government” and “the market” as they abandoned the myth but usurped the “free market” label. All we are left with is the liberal who embraces the myth out of fear of being exposed as a heretic, a socialist, or a fool. Thus, the liberal pines to “make the market work better”, never challenging the view (abandoned by all but the most foolish conservatives) that government is the problem.
Economic freedom is reduced to the freedom to shop, including the freedom to buy elections, and anything that interferes is a threat. “Market” means nothing more than “nonstate”, a negation of use of policy in the public interest. Jamie provides a careful analysis of the frontline battles on many of the most important issues–Social Security, health care, inequality, immigration, security after 9-11, trade and outsourcing, and global warming—showing how “market solutions” are designed to enrich a favored oligarchy through a spoils system administered through the state’s structure. The policy “mistakes” in Iraq or New Orleans or at Bear-Stearns do not result from incompetence—indeed they only appear to be failures because we apply inappropriate measures of success. There is no common good, no public purpose, no shareholder’s interest; we are the prey and governments as well as corporations are run by and for predators. The “failures” enrich the proper beneficiaries even as they “prove” government is no solution.
But the inversion runs deeper than this. Each of us has two primary domains in our lives; the private, personal part of our life and the collective, public persona. By its very nature freedom is personal; it is the freedom to move, freedom to associate, freedom to express, freedom of ideas and faith, the opportunity to be creative, excellent and to be of service to those around us. It is the freedom to love, to be compassionate and to direct our own feet along the path of our inner lives. It is the freedom to make choices, take responsibility for their consequences and to both give and receive forgiveness. Freedom is essentially the power to give unique meaning to each and everyone of our lives.
While at the same time whenever we engage in our work, businesses or any kind of political or collective life we are immediately confronted with the need to fit in. There are always policies, rules and laws to abide by, standards and procedures to follow, customs and conventions to observe. We willingly sacrifice our individual freedom of action in this domain because in return we receive the immensely greater benefits of civilised society.
These distinctions are important because they mirror a constant and largely ignored dichotomy underpinning political life – the divide between the authoritarian and the libertarian. Easily entranced as we are by surface appearances we’ve been comfortable debating the old left-right economic argument, but rarely addressed ourselves to this hidden, emotive power. For here is the underlying inversion – that the natural domain for the libertarian impulse lies in defending personal freedom ; while the authoritarian finds a legitimate outlet in planning, ordering and improving our collective economic life. At some point around 1980 this natural arrangement was thoroughly turned on it’s head.
The idea of choice was sold to us as the ‘freedom to shop’, and as Galbraith describes, that markets became the sole and legitimate expression of human need to be ‘free’. While a bit of competition is a good and necessary thing, this a terribly limited thing compared to political freedom and democratic process on the one hand, and personal human needs on the other. Galbraith “argues how amazing it is that the real meaning of freedom in every normal sense was replaced by this narrow view of ‘market freedom’. Amazing as it is that this nonsense could last so long and run so deep” . Furthermore I argue this bogus libertarian usurpation of our collective life has been paralleled by an insidious invasion of the authoritarian impulse into the realm of the personal where it does not belong.
In one sense there is nothing terribly new about this, we have always tended to judge ourselves by our intentions and others by their actions. But as the brouhaha over Len Brown recently demonstrates; we’ve no longer much scruples about collectively invading individuals personal and family lives, commenting, evaluating and judging, trampling our own metaphorically muddy boots over inner sanctums. First radio, then television and even more potently the net has seen us gradually blur, and now erase the boundaries between personal and public. It is as if a sort of ‘neo-Victorian’ prudishness is wrapping it’s tentacles around our minds. (Of course was all hypocritical cant – the Victorians were always as robust and earthy as any generation. They just raised denial about it to a particular art form.)
But the inversion is even more layered than this. How rarely for instance do we actually talk to each other anymore except when sheltered behind psuedonomynous masks on the net? Politics, religion, art or simply expressing how you really feel is no longer tolerated in the modern workplace. TV, sport, the weather or an insipid recitation of ‘what I did in the weekend’ are the permitted topics. Even in less regimented social settings, loose talk that might disturb the flow of vacuous drivel which usually passes for conversation these days is quickly subdued with a dose of collective disdain. Asking awkward questions is verboten.
You cannot see this cage. As with the cloud you cannot see what holds it in place; yet it is real. Only in the hindsight of forty neo-liberal Christmases do I get sense what has changed, that the legitimate drive to order, regulate and control was decoupled from our collective life and has seeped instead into our personal lives – all the while we were being told that our personal freedom was to be satisfyingly re-defined as the freedom to shop in ‘free markets’. But they were of course no such thing; when the left abdicated from the collective, democratic right to order our economic affairs, it was happily snapped up by large corporates and big finance to be rigorously re-ordered for their advantage and the manifest disadvantage of the rest of us.
We’ve seen a long running debate on the left pivoting on the distinction between identity politics and economic politics. In part I think that it’s largely one of those silly unhelpful false dichotomies, or the usual weird old binary thinking. But also the evidence of the last forty years is clear, the left has been permitted to argue and win it’s reforms around various identity factions, just as long as we never threatened the economic order.
My underlying question is this; why should anyone care about anyone else’s gender, colour, sex-life, disability or culture? Poking our nose into other people’s private lives, and making judgments is authoritarianism in it’s worst guise. If instead of arguing for specific identity rights, we had argued for the fundamental, pure freedom to be who we were – whatever identity we claimed- that argument alone would have won the battle on all fronts simultaneously. The 1945 Declaration of Rights was crucially a Universal declaration, yet he left was persuaded to take it’s eye off this big universal ball and focus instead on a collection of worthy yet ultimately smaller ones instead – but in doing so exposed itself to that most ancient of tactics employed by elites of all time – divide and conquer.
While at the same time under the guise of giving us ‘choice and freedom’ these same elites subverted our collective rights as a society and bent it entirely to their own ends.
As for that Jesus bloke. It is worth bearing in mind that 2000 years ago he was just another inspiring crank with a bunch of crankier followers. One of many in that turbulent era. The reason why he is remembered all these years later is because he understood precisely where the locus of this inversion lay. He was tolerated, popular even – until the day he entered the Temple and overturned the money-changers tables. That single action sealed his fate, and inexorably led to the events which make today Christmas.