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Good Old Fashioned Solidarity

Written By: - Date published: 3:41 pm, November 1st, 2009 - 27 comments
Categories: uncategorized - Tags:

Matt McCarten writes a fine opinion piece in today’s Herald. He hits four main points:

1. The neo-liberal dismantling of NZ’s egalitarian society ideal in the 80’s and 90’s.

2. The new subservience of the State to corporate interests.

3. Dramatic increases in productivity over the last 30 years that have been almost entirely captured by a tiny capitalist elite; a huge transfer of wealth away from working people.

4. The substantial rise in working hours and household debt that has been the direct result.

The simple, undeniable truth is that neo-liberal economics has been a dismal failure, except of course for a wealthy minority.

As I’ve said several times recently, it’s amazing how people get all panicky and obsessive about wage inflation (especially in the context of the minimum wage). The truth is that unions have been regulated to within an inch of their lives and with only 20% penetration in the NZ workforce it is risible to suggest that unreasonable wage demands have anything to do with inflation.

Yet at the same time massive asset price inflation, driven by a very lightly regulated finance sector was allowed to run unchecked for almost a decade… and few people seem to notice the disconnect. The underlying reason is simple and deep rooted… it’s all about class.

New Zealand now has the sixth highest GINI score of the OECD nations; According to the OECD, New Zealand had the biggest rise in inequality among member nations in the two decades starting in the mid-1980s.. That’s actually rather appalling.

Now while I still regard the Clark/Cullen govt with respect, in all fairness they really only managed to slow the neo-liberal rot, not reverse it. Several forces were at work against real change. Clark and Cullen, for all their genuine beliefs, are fundamentally conservative people, it was easier for them to take a stand on social/moral issues than attack the well funded and powerful capitalist elites. As Muldoon Bismark once said, “politics is the art of the possible” and for the modern Labour Party, that was always going to be a battle too far. Moreover New Zealand, like much of the rest of the western world has been captured by the cult of the individual; we’ve had our faith in the unifying power of the collective systematically undermined and eroded for decades.

For all the real and valued social gains that the left has made in the last 30 years, the moral foundations of the movement have been hollowed out and economic injustice has risen unchecked. The numbers that Matt quotes (and similar that MartyG has repeatedly shown here on The Standard) demonstrate the depth of the failure. The very first Labour Party meetings were held in Baptist Church halls, and for decades simple Christian notions, such as ‘I am my brother’s keeper’, and the parable of the Good Samaritan, were the glue that held the movement together and drove it forward. The power of that understanding now seems lost to us.

Nowadays opinions are a multitude, everyone has one…and everyone demands to be listened to. While no-one expects, or desires uniformity of thought (that’s the hallmark of a cult), it’s far too easy for our efforts to be scattered uselessly in argument and alienation. Our diversity and depth of thought will only be of use if it is harnessed in unity, and for that to happen the left must above all discover a common set of values to share. This is the simple lesson the left must re-learn at every generation, a lesson that old dinosaurs like Chris Trotter keep trying to remind us of… that it is still all about the rejection of class privilege, snobbery and injustice, it’s still about rising above these things and inspiring the best from each other.

Matt concludes:

Workers today are more productive and work longer whilst wages are going backwards. Conversely shareholders wealth and executive salaries have skyrocketed. No wonder the elites don’t want to draw attention to the true purpose of Labour Day. Workers might start thinking.

That’s why they dumb down our media and entertainment, and fast cycle 10sec soundbites…they don’t want us thinking. That more than anything else scares the hell out of the power hungry elites, because there is far more of us than there is of them.


27 comments on “Good Old Fashioned Solidarity”

  1. Robert Wade, here earlier this week, thinks very much like Mr McCarten on some issues.

  2. Nick C 2

    “The simple, undeniable truth is that neo-liberal economics has been a dismal failure, except of course for a wealthy minority.”

    That statement is obviously an opinion, you achieve nothing by trying to claim that it is the ‘truth’. Using words like ‘simple’ and ‘undeniable’ doesnt make it any more convincing.

    • Zorr 2.1

      And the crash of the past couple of years was just a small blip in the “rising” star of neoliberalist economics?

      Try pulling the other one Nick.

    • So Bored 2.2

      Except Nick C, you cannot conclusively demonstrate otherwise, the facts just dont support any contention to the contrary. Truth is a different issue but empirical measures will do for me, and in the case of neo liberalism they demonstrate a huge failure at best for the average person. Now if you are rich, thats another matter.

  3. JD 3

    So what you’re saying is that life under Muldoon was so much better?

  4. Quoth the Raven 4

    Just thinking aloud here. On the issue of the left I like to recall Ernest Lesigne letter

    “There are two Socialisms.
    One is communistic, the other solidaritarian.
    One is dictatorial, the other libertarian.
    One is metaphysical, the other positive.
    One is dogmatic, the other scientific.
    One is emotional, the other reflective.
    One is destructive, the other constructive.
    Both are in pursuit of the greatest possible welfare for all.
    One aims to establish happiness for all, the other to enable each to be happy in his own way.
    The first regards the State as a society sui generis, of an especial essence, the product of a sort of divine right outside of and above all society, with special rights and able to exact special obediences; the second considers the State as an association like any other, generally managed worse than others.
    The first proclaims the sovereignty of the State, the second recognizes no sort of sovereign.
    One wishes all monopolies to be held by the State; the other wishes the abolition of all monopolies.
    One wishes the governed class to become the governing class; the other wishes the disappearance of classes.
    Both declare that the existing state of things cannot last.

    and so on and so fourth. The important point from the poem is “The first will fail; the other will succeed.” It goes to the heart of the differences between those on the left and that is the state. The radical anti-authoritarianism of the left had largely receded so maybe it’s farily meaningless to talk of the ‘left’ now or ‘socialism’ and merely speak as Robert A. Heinlein put it:

    Political tags – such as royalist, communist, democrat, populist, fascist, liberal, conservative, and so forth – are never basic criteria. The human race divides politically into those who want people to be controlled and those who have no such desire.

    • RedLogix 4.1

      Or perhaps the human race divides into those who think there are 10 different types of person… and those who understand binary.

      But seriously QtR, thought provoking as always. Although we often seem to talk past each other I do appreciate the quality of what you say, and the eloquence with which you write.

      My response is along the lines that neither the State, nor the individual can be pure and absolute sovereigns. Down each path lies a particular hell. The reality is that both must exist in balance with each other, each with a mutual interdependence upon each other.

      The mediating force between the two is the community and it’s value system.

      • Quoth the Raven 4.1.1

        I see no contradiction between individual sovereingty and community. Though one should avoid absolutes. And that comment was writted particularly poorly. I should’ve proofread it.

  5. Tom Semmens 5

    Just a correction – Otto Von Bismark said “politics is the art of the possible”, not Muldoon.

  6. Zaphod Beeblebrox 6

    It always makes me curious where the elites or the ostentatiously wealthy make their money in NZ. We don’t have much of a manuacturing base to speak of (save Fonterra and some food producers like Dick Hubbard), our mining industry is small and our media and banks foreign owned.

    Makes me think that the elite in NZ have to rely on things such as property or retail development or expropriating government guaranteed monopolies.

    As I don’t see much future for property investment in NZ the only way I can see the elites maintaining their power and influence will be through state funded corporate welfare or in the case of the Central North Island Iwi re-expropriation of their ex- assets.

    Will be interesting to see how they (the wealthy in NZ) will justify fighting to retain their wealth in a world where the rich are threatened with diminishing returns.

    Even someone like Graeme Hart (who flips over previously unprofitable, unloved enterprises) has had to look off-shore to maintain his wealth

  7. sk 7


    Very very perceptive post. Rising inequality and loss of community is the challenge for all Western countries (Krugman’s primary theme in the NYT for years). And as you say, NZ has had the worst rise in inequality in the OECD. This is a much bigger issue than our lagging of Australia (where the damage was done in the 1970’s and 1980’s anyway).

    Celebrity or style-driven politics is about avoiding this persistent widening inequality, and sustaining the status quo.

  8. Quoth the Raven 8

    As I’ve said several times recently, it’s amazing how people get all panicky and obsessive about wage inflation (especially in the context of the minimum wage). The truth is that unions have been regulated to within an inch of their lives and with only 20% penetration in the NZ workforce it is risible to suggest that unreasonable wage demands have anything to do with inflation.

    I thought you were interested in the abstruse economic work of a certain elitist english aristocrat? I don’t know too much about him but I believe he was concerned that wages didn’t fall enough during a recession, that is his “sticky wages” and how to make it so they did, even though they actually do. I also believe that adherents of this have in the past blamed labour unions.

  9. sk 9

    Also, great link on the Gini co-efficients. Our standing is much worse when one takes into account it includes non-OECD economies such as Hong Kong, Singapore and Israel.

    Surely, this is the issue for Labour to start again on . . .

  10. vto 10

    Good post. QtR’s post above, where he says “It goes to the heart of the differences between those on the left and that is the state.” regarding the Ernest Lesigne letter, I think sums up an awful lot about todays NZ politics.

    Imo many NZers are split between the nats and labour. Most kiwis in my experience are socialist in nature (incl. me believe it or not). The push which swings them away from labour is highlighted by QtR’s point and can be illustrated by the recent (Clark/Cullen/r0b) labour party / govt obsession with government. This attitude clashes with NZers innate sense of freedom from servitude etc, formed when the european immigration of 1800s resulted from a desire to escape the class system and effective dictatorship of the old country.

    People had had enough of no hope and being subjects and servants. That resistance and attitude survives in spades still today. And that is why, when orgainsations and people raise the state as the only possible way of achieving society’s ends, many kiwis almost throw up. And the socialism and egalitarianism that is virtually the default setting for most kiwis gets shunted aside for fear of bringing back that dictatorial State.

    This is Labour’s loss. Last election = full proof. Labour should abandon / amend their idolation of the State and they would connect with another whole chunk of NZ. Perhaps even become the natural party of govt, as Clark apparently dreamt…. but that one major flaw stopped it.

    That Ernest Lesigne letter and QtR’s points are spot on.

    Some 2c

  11. George.com 11

    McCarten is pretty much spot on with his comments about neo-liberalism as a political project and its ‘achievements’ to date. The current world slump is the legacy of neo-liberalism. This is not only a lack of regulation of financial markets but also the wealth transfer that has occurred under 30 years of no-liberalism. The link between productivity-wages & rising living costs through the 1950s, 60s and early 70s was severed by neo-liberalism. The current crisis was a crisis of debt brought about by a lack of purchasing power amongst wage and salary earners. People used debt to maintain lifestyles they were unable to through rising wage levels. An environmental probem of rising energy and food costs tipped over the neo-liberal financial casino – people lending money they did not have and people borrowing money they could not repay. Some good left wing source of analysis of neo-liberalism and the economic slump include David Harvey and Alain Lipietz.

  12. prism 12

    RedLogix refers to changes and problems for Labour. One being fragmentation. This is a problem for the Left with small groups forming under a banner for a pet ideal, I noticed in French stats after rabble rouser anti-immigrant Penn was nearly elected that the left had far more votes but were split into 16 I think, different factions. The Right can concentrate on goals of getting more money, directing more of what is available to themselves and criticising the less successful or well-off, its very uniting.
    NZ Labour has become too middle class. The work of unskilled and semi-skilled is derided and users of technology are lauded. But manual work tends to be in producing real things, while computers etc manipulate and plan with many merely shuffling accounting figures, not designing, modelling, preparing for new or improved machinery etc.

  13. prism 13

    George.com. Right on the nail with this –
    The current crisis was a crisis of debt brought about by a lack of purchasing power amongst wage and salary earners. People used debt to maintain lifestyles they were unable to through rising wage levels.

    I think if NZ had not been able to borrow at low interest as they have, Labour would have been called to account by workers who would have chafed at their inadequate income. Labour a number of times raised the minimum wage but working conditions and pay for ordinary people would still have stung without the plastic.

    • George.com 13.1

      The financial world became disconnected from the real world, this is your financialisation and fractional lending and slicing and dicing of debt etc. Alongside that demand has become debt driven rather than wage driven. Apparently US wages in real terms are little different than they were 40 odd years ago. That is, there has been little growth in real wage levels since the 1960s. Debt fueled demand that met an energy and food crunch 18 odd months ago upset the finacial amusement park. Result – it fell apart. Trouble in America, trouble for all of us.

  14. Draco T Bastard 14

    like much of the rest of the western world has been captured by the cult of the individual;

    The face of individualism 1, 2.

    From Joseph Tainters The Collapse of Complex Societies

    • Quoth the Raven 14.1

      Draco – Certainly individualism is understood in different ways, but you seem to continually and willfully wish to misunderstand it against commonly held views of individualism. Individualism is not about atomism, it is not about isolation. It recognizes that humans are soical creatures. It is about the freedom of the individual, it is against the subservience of the individual to the collective. It’s not just about individualist anarchsim I’ve read socialist and even communist discussions of individualism time and again in a positive manner. Indeed Oscar Wilde said Socialism itself will be of value simply because it will lead to Individualism. Surely they don’t hold to whatever confused conception of individualism which you do. What do you hold individualism to be?

      • RedLogix 14.1.1

        If by your own axiom, humans are social creatures, then there must exist a bilateral relationship between the individual and the collective. In the extremes, the collective cannot exist if the individual is crushed out of productive existence, equally the collective becomes utterly impotent if every individual insists on their own unfettered freedom.

        The individual and the collective (which in the modern incarnation is the nation state) must therefore exist in a mutually balanced relationship. Anything else is a tyranny of one form or the other, a subservience of the individual to either the collective, or the powerful . The history of the 20th century has rightly sensitised us to the perils of the former, but the briefest dip into history prior to that should clear our heads about the misery of feudal life, subject to the whim of petty and rapacious overlords, packs of roving bandits with little or no recourse of legal protection or redress.

        The agonised, long drawn out process by which we arrived at the nation state, with it’s wholly pivotal and novel concept of all citizens being equal before the law, including the ruling classes themselves, and it’s institutions of democratic accountability, while far from perfect… have evolved as a direct solution to the ancient problem of balancing the powers and rights of the state, against those of the individual.

        While we can readily point to concrete existence of an individual, and at the institutions and powers of the state… the notion of community is essentially an abstract. Yet community is on closer examination, performs what might be though of as the vital mediating role between the individual and the state.

        Governments perforce plan and develop policy, not in terms of individuals, but in terms of the desired effect on the community of citizens, or at most sub-communities of special interests. Equally it is not the individual who elects, directs or holds the govt accountable… it is the community as a whole. In this model, it is the community, and vitally the consensus of values of that community, that determines the boundaries and parameters in which both govt and the individual can act.

        • Quoth the Raven

          I don’t argue that what we have now is an improvement on the past. However, I fully believe that man and his social relations are perfectible and we have far yet to travel and eventually we will move towards a free society. But it’s not inevitable and we must work at it which means smashing the state.
          The recognition of man as a social creature is much greater when it comes with a basic recognition of his individuality. Communities would be enhanced under a free society because they would be based on free voluntary relations organised from the bottom-up, fully participatory with individuals relating to each other as equals. In a free society government truly would be by and for the people. The state an inherently violent institution with centralised power, living parasitically off the labour of its people, beholden to elitist interests and with derisory democracy stands in the way of vibrant organic community organisation based on the prinicples of individualism, democracy and non-aggression that anarchists hold.
          The state holds together the current social relations, hierachical relations based on authority, coercion, and violence. We oppose these, we want a society where people freely cooperate without hierachies. We must “strike the root”.
          Furthermore, the nation state is a harmful idea which has given forth to much violence. Why should it be that we divide the world up into ficticious little enclaves, why cannot people move about the earth freely, live and associate with others where they wish?

  15. RedLogix 15


    So you prefer King Log to King Stork then? The age old fable of course omitted to mention that the frogs desire for a mighty king may have stemmed from more than mere vanity. Perhaps they wanted a leader who could protect them from the greedy and rapacious, and King Log proved useless for the task. The ancients in their own brand of black humour then had Zeus send them the frog’s worst enemy, King Stork as replacement. Ultimately neither the log nor the stork where any use as Kings. No King that Zeus could send was able to meet that need; the frogs needed to find their own leader… something they were unlikely to achieve as long as they kept thinking as frogs.

    Private and political morality may spring from the same root; but the one has often flourished where the other has remained stunted. Perhaps this is only natural. Human nature seldom develops equally in all directions. Men who are intensely concerned with the right ordering of their relations to neighbours, friends and family; may well forget the larger community in which their private circle is contained.

    HWC Davis, Medieval Europe.

    Or to put it in a more modern context; it’s a common vanity to imagine that if you ignore politics, that politics will ignore you. The point is, the personal and the public are intimately linked regardless. The real leadership, the real State we want is one that we authentically participate in, one that is part of who we really are as a nation.

  16. John Ryall 16

    I am sorry that I missed Matt’s column today. Sounds very good.

    However, I don’t know about “the new subservience of the state to corporate interests”. The history of trade unions and working class organisation in Aotearoa/New Zealand would show that this is not “new”, but very old indeed.

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