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Is this the impossibility turning point?

Written By: - Date published: 8:11 am, February 14th, 2017 - 49 comments
Categories: Deep stuff, democratic participation, Economy, Globalisation, labour, national, poverty, workers' rights - Tags:

There’s a wonderful fiction still propelling the world that the 21st century will bring an ever-expanding arc of freedom and prosperity to the vast majority of humanity. Can we stay liberal, rich, and democratic?

As during the oil crisis of the 1970s, we appear to be entering a great questioning of this inevitability. But where that great surge of questioning progress built on liberative movements from a decade earlier, this decade of questioning is arising from governments propelled by hard-headed democratic initiatives.

Liberalism and democracy are fuzzy words. Modern liberalism is a product of the 19th century. And it is hardly a clear concept with an accepted definition. Does it mean individual rights? If so, which? Does it mean a set of social mores that defines and contains that power of government? If so, what are they?

Does it mean religious tolerance and a society open to all ideas, no matter how challenging? My thumbsuck is this: liberalism means that the state should be strong and reflexive enough to defend and expand the realm of personal freedom, where freedom is defined both against the constraints of want and harm, and towards a generous, generative and thoughtful life.

But the critical factor is this: the argument for liberalism and democracy has rested on economic success. More wealth for more people has been generated in societies calling themselves liberal, democratic, and capitalist. The fusion of economic prowess and national strength have seemed to make an iron-clad case for the unique machine of democracy, liberalism, and capitalism.

Since World War Two, more bodies have demanded more stuff. Since democratic societies loosely organized around the fuzzy idea of liberalism practicing what came to be known as market capitalism were actually pretty good at making more stuff (food, clothing, shelter), the idea crystalized that history had reached its apogee. In other words, it doesn’t get any better than this; no system is better at providing for basic needs and wants the Western liberal democracy. And thus all countries should inevitably move toward this form of governance.

But we can all see the picking away at this knot of political, social and economic promise. Maybe it’s going to be as big as the 1970s, or as big as the 1989-1995 waves of reform after the fall of communism. Lots of maybe’s.

On the left we have become accustomed to prophecies about the unravelling of our modern order through resource exhaustion and climate change. But we haven’t heard such revolts against the myth of the ever-expanding arc from the hard right. We have now. Those revolts are the most successful movements around.

It’s almost banal to compare how close traditional left melancholy now is to the right’s own populist melancholy in sensibility and effect. The revolt is against the great ever-expanding arc of the inevitability of freedom and prosperity to the vast majority of humanity: they want those benefits limited to themselves. But I’m not proposing simple categorical collapse. I’m signalling that kinds of revolt could have similar signals.
In the next decade there will be no increase in pan-regional cooperation. The first moment to breaking the old arc is to see retreat to nation-state borders. Given the current turn to protectionism and currency wars, lights are going out.

So in the retreat to the remaining functions of the state, New Zealanders can re-state useful lessons to tell the world. Before any leader proposes yet another great set of structural economic reforms such as massive tax breaks and spectacular deregulation, check out New Zealand. We were the most courageous experiment in structural reform. It led to large spending and tax cuts, the sale of state-owned enterprises, cuts in subsidies and tariffs, and deregulation of industries. There were plans for a flat, low tax rate. After a wave of business collapses and bank failures, however, the program was quickly wound back. The government was rejected at the ballot box and took more than a decade to return to power. Today’s reformers won’t fare much better.

The second lesson we can offer is the results. After all that reform, all that promise, thirty years later we are not paying our way.

Decades after the promises of greatness were made – from Prime Minister Lange, we are not a country of spectacular weightless innovation. Nor are we prepared for a world of retreating globalisation. I don’t need to tell you gentle reader about our distribution of wealth and poverty, jails, child poverty, and suicide either.

Much of the democratic world is ushering in governments from an intuition that the sustained exclusion of common people from common benefits, and their lowered expectations, are lowering still further.

Is this heading towards the wheels coming off the great machine of liberal, democratic, capitalism society as a self-replicating machine? Nothing is inevitable, but the old machine seems in fast decline. Both left and right can now see it. Is this the impossibility turning point?

49 comments on “Is this the impossibility turning point? ”

  1. Tamati Tautuhi 1

    We are nearly at the bottom of the barrell, many countries have reverted back to feudal societies with the wealthy and the corporates controlling Governments and Government policies. People in NZ living in cars, caravans and tents while working full time jobs, NZ has definitely gone backwards under neoliberalism in the past 30-40 years, trickle down economics was a con job, which transferred State Owned Assets to the Private Sector?

    Question: Are we going to turn the corner?

    Answer: If we don’t change the way we think and act NO, we are not going to turn the corner.

    NZ needs fresh thinking and new ideas, doing the same thing over and over again trying to get a different result is the definition of insanity?

  2. garibaldi 2

    Thank you advantage. A very good post. My answer to your final question leans more towards probably rather than possibly.

  3. greywarshark 3

    There could be a slight change to the image for the post that would demonstrate your theme. One sign could point to the bright new future’s Turning Point Just Ahead and the other sign say Tipping Point Are we nearly there? and that sign would be hanging from one nail pointing diagonally downwards.

  4. Pat 4

    and to have any hope of dealing with this impossibility, co-operation and commonality of purpose is critical….factionalism is the antithesis.Any solution is going to require a recognition that there will be less overall and somehow that less needs to be shared…..history has recorded how human beings of all races, cultures, genders behave when such pressures are applied and it makes for unpleasant reading.

    NZ is possibly the best placed both geographically and in terms of size/density to achieve the impossible….but without a massive shift of focus from the individual goals to a societal outlook it will remain impossible.

    This is not about human rights, freedom, justice or even democracy…..it is existential.

  5. Tamati Tautuhi 5

    New Zealand was once a sharing and caring society which valued and looked after it’s people, under neoliberal economics that all changed and it became dog eat dog, and I’m alright Jack. The them and us philosophy?

    Ideology which came out of the US Universities in the 1970’s-1980’s from the likes of Milton Friedman which was eagerly picked up by the likes of Roger Douglas and Ruth Richardson. Our current National Government operates under the same modus operandi.

  6. McFlock 6

    Well, there’s a pendulum, but in general I’d say that things are progressing generally well over the last 2 or 3 millenia.

    The Greeks and Romans came up with some interesting ideas, but kept slavery.
    The Barons’ self interest paved the way for Wat Tyler.
    Henry VIII and Martin Luther broke the supremacy of the Church.
    The English Civil War and the Glorious Revolution created constitutional monarchy, and a variety of wonderful documents proclaimed freedom for all people (although it took them a while to realise that People” included all people).
    Now we have an internationa court of justice.

    It’s not going too badly, in the greater scheme of things

    • Ad 6.1

      Turn your mind to the current century.

      • Tamati Tautuhi 6.1.1

        Look to the positive, things could improve in a century or two once we realise neoliberalism was a failure and the wealth acquired by the Rothschilds and the One Percenters (1%) is redistributed back to the common people?

      • McFlock 6.1.2

        Why? It’s but a three frame cut from the filmreel of human existence. No point in worrying about “turning points” at this stage. A pothole, I grant you, but who knows whether it’s a longer term direction?

    • adam 6.2

      McFlock – this wee video about the glorious revolution is a real eye opener. Actually the whole series is rather good.


      • McFlock 6.2.1

        lol I’m not going to watch an hour of tv just for a throwaway line when the main advantage of GR I was thinking of was the codification of a set of basic rights that is valid to this day, is more comprehensive than the Magna Carta, and predates the US Declaration of Independence and some of the promising bits from the french Revolution before they went all stabbychoppydrowny.

        Maybe it’ll come on telly when I’m watching.

        • adam

          NO! It was for your fun and enjoyment, not to win an argument. Actually supports your point, just really good viewing.

          Just somthing to watch in the background whilst cooking.

    • Peter ChCh 6.3

      Your analysis is confined soleley to the west, where only a small portion of humans live or have lived.

      Sadly the progress you mention ignores China, Africa, Arab countries and so on. New China has made huge economic progress but social progress has really been confined to the last 20 to 30 years (rememeber Tianamen Square and its associated massacres is less the 30 years ago).

      And slavery is now, according to the UN, more numerous than ever before. And if you live in many Islamic countries and are a women, freedom is somewhat restricted. Even more so if you are gay.

      McFlock, whilst what you say is true, i personally beleive the progress is realtively local in nature: the west predominantly.

  7. Draco T Bastard 7

    Since World War Two, more bodies have demanded more stuff. Since democratic societies loosely organized around the fuzzy idea of liberalism practicing what came to be known as market capitalism were actually pretty good at making more stuff (food, clothing, shelter), the idea crystalized that history had reached its apogee.

    As Piketty pointed out, the Good Times between 1945 and the early 1970s was an aberration and was brought about by the highly socialist laws in force at the time. All other times capitalism just creates vast inequality and, inevitably, the collapse of society.

    That short aberration came to an end because capitalism, even with all those socialist support laws, still doesn’t work.

    Both left and right can now see it. Is this the impossibility turning point?


    Of course, the right-wing vote in demagogues that promise one thing and then deliver even more inequality and higher rates of poverty.

  8. Tamati Tautuhi 8

    It is interesting how Trump operates very similar to National and JK, promise things like the Brighter Future, however do the opposite, tax cuts for the wealthy and GST increases for the poor. Say the right things to get voted into Government then do as you please.

  9. adam 9

    Austerity is a hurtful thing. Indeed after a life time of it, ( I agree that the 1970’s are the turning point) it has done nothing to improve anyone’s lot. No wait, the top 5%, have done rather well, thank you very much.

    I’d argue we at a point of two options – more democracy or less. I’m on the side for more. Authoritarianism has always been a lose, lose for the majority. Look no further than the Soviet Union or Chile.

    Also I think materially we have passed the golden age, especially in the West. We need to look at what we do well, and replicate that. Rather than cheap consumer goods with built in obsolescence, we need to make stuff which lasts.

    • Peter ChCh 9.1

      Or how about we let the consumer choose for themselves? If they want cheap consumer goods with built in obsolescence, that is their choice.

      Afterall, you did in that very post you support more democracy, and the freedom to choose for oneself is part of that.

      • stever 9.1.1

        “Choice” is a word that needs unpacking.

        It was used a lot first in the Thatcher years and was used to promote many things (privatised shares in industry, schools, health care…) because it sounds good to say “you have a choice”.

        But, it needs unpacking since “choice” is actually meaningless and empty unless you have both components: opportunity and means. Opportunity to decide between alternatives (which once there are alternatives on offer we clearly have) and then (the crunch) the means to put our decision into effect, and that usually means money to buy something. And that, of course, is what most people do not have freedom over.

        So, to say “let the consumer choose for themselves” is using the same distraction as the Thatcherites did: put an array on show to give opportunity, but ignore the fact that most people don’t have the means for a meaningful, full choice.

        A lot of people don’t chose (in the full, truthful sense of the word) cheap consumer goods…they cannot merely afford otherwise.

        • Peter ChCh

          Goodd points Steve, as usual things not black.and white.

          Nevertheless, if someone has constrained set of choices due to income and so on, and cheap poor quality is all they can afford, then it is great that such cheap goods are available. The alternative would be totally going without otherwise. Its a trade off between quality and price. If price is a factor, accepting lower quality is necessary.

          • One Anonymous Bloke

            The alternative would be to ensure that everyone can earn enough, using employment legislation, just like other successful countries do.

            Oh, except the people at Cabinet Club might whine a lot, and you wouldn’t like that.

            • Peter ChCh

              Which successful countries?

              • One Anonymous Bloke

                Ones with effective minimum wages – whether legislated for, or protected by the freedoms of speech and association (aka unions). It helps if they have lower inequality too.

                The OECD compiles the data, so I’m sure you’ll be able to find it.

                And then you won’t be able to pretend there is no alternative anymore. It’s best you don’t hear it from me because that will make you reflexively deny it and cling even harder to your false beliefs.

              • Craig H


                To name a few.

                • Peter ChCh

                  You seriously believe these countries do not have poverty? I have worked 12 months in Germany and many of the process workers were incredibly poor. Its a little dangerous to be sitting in NZ and reading some stats off the web without first hand experience of what goes behind them. Germany has incredible inequality.

                  Same with France. Ever been to Marseille and seen the incredible poverty (and assocuated crime, graffiti and vandalism)?

                  The inequality ofbtge countries you mention is one of he drivers of Islamic terrosim and terroism support in theae countries, as the immigrants are at the bottom. Living in poverty.

                  It always amazes mr the sheer ignorance, arrogance and racist condescention of many posters on here. It takes more than undergrad uni study to truly understand the world. Try experiencing it first hand and then make you bigoted judgements.

                  • In Vino

                    Get off your own high horse, PeterChCh. I worked in West Germany for nearly 2 years (1978, 79) then did 2 in France (80, 81). You are not the only one to have lived elsewhere. But you do have that eager “let me tell you what I have learnt’ thing that so many travelling NZers display upon returning here. Now that Germany is a unified country, there is poverty there, (more than when the poverty was mostly in the East), and France has always been a country of amazing contrast.
                    But you are young. When I first saw queues of largely black unemployed in London in 1977 with such hopelessness in their eyes, I was proud that we had nothing so strikingly obvious as that here in NZ back then. Now we do, and the skin colour thing applies. That is our problem.
                    We went wrong? My perception is that you think we should accept it rather than fight for social justice. Do you really believe the right wing theory that if we make the pie bigger everyone will get a bigger share? That theory has already signally failed here in NZ. As a society I believe we are now less healthy than we were in 1970.

                    • One Anonymous Bloke

                      Germany GINI: 30*. “incredible” says Peter.
                      NZ GINI: 36*. “Way to go NZ! In your face Germany!” says Peter.

                      *source: World Bank.

                  • One Anonymous Bloke

                    Berates people for relying on peer-reviewed research (ie: the OECD stats mentioned above).

                    Promotes personal anecdata as far more reliable.

                    Isn’t it time right wingers were automatically eligible for a disability allowance?

      • adam 9.1.2

        Sorry Peter ChCh you said choice not me. (thanks stever for good analysis there) Also democracy does not equal shopping. What a odd world view, do you really think that?

        And anyway if goods are reasonable and last longer does that not make more economic sense?

  10. Peter ChCh 10

    And Adam, I would say that authoritarianism has achieved incredible things for the likes of Singapore and New China. Maybe authoritarianism is good for some cultures and societies at certain parts of their development cycle.

    • In Vino 10.1

      How patronising – or are you subtly suggesting that we also need to regress to a more primitive societal form and benefit from the authorities you favour?

      • Peter ChCh 10.1.1

        You are so arrogant you think our way is the only way? No doubt you supported the evangalist invasion of Iraq. Afterall, that was the ideological motivation behind it. An incredible ignorance and arrogance that our way is the only way, the best way, for all socieities no matter what their history or culture is.

        Countries with no history of democracy and that consider personal freedom to be well and truly of less value than the group or nation just cannot be force fed our views.

        • McFlock

          wow, nice false dichotomy: we need to choose between authoritarianism and evangelicism?

          See, the funny thing is that the PRC actually tried democracy, listening to the people. They called it the Hundred Flowers campaign. Then they started shooting people when the people’s wishes proved to be incompatible with those of the leadership.

        • In Vino

          Not at all. the kind of Authoritarianism you appear to support with tongue in cheek is what I see as causing the stupid ‘evangelistic’ invasion of Iraq. It lives with us. Maybe we have both leapt a conclusion too far?

        • stever

          I’ve just realised….authoritarianism over democracy….and a Peter….are we in the presence of riches? 🙂

    • Ad 10.2

      Let’s not go meaninglessly Godwin please.
      Address the post.

    • adam 10.3

      Sheesh Peter ChCh work on your trolling. Singapore, where police beat up LBGTI people on regular basis. Where they hang people out to dry for a joint. Or cane you for being disrespectful of the leader. I also think maybe you need to talk to some Chinese about life in China.

      The liberal democracies for all their faults, are way more preferable to any authoritarian regime – not matter it’s ideological position.

      • Peter ChCh 10.3.1

        Agree. But what i am saying is that, like it or not, no country could develop as quickly as New China has without authoritarianism. Now China is and will continue to move away from that and towards an increasingly liberalism.

        And without any doubt whatsoever i know a hell of a lot more about China and its people tgan yiu woukd. Studied it. Lived and worked there tor 6 years. Married now to Chinese person i met there. Run a business now that 8s NZ based but sells to China.

        • adam

          The United States from 1941 to 1945. No one has matched them for what they did in production or development – no one.

          • In Vino

            Not that simple. The Russians started with far less, moved most of their industry east, then massed produced tanks and aircraft to defeat 80% of Hitler’s war effort. Japan’s output was a doddle compared to Germany’s, and the USA dealt with less than 20% of Germany’s war effort. The Russians did the hard work. Their tanks were good enough to cope with the superior but fewer German tanks – the Sherman tank was not. Sure, the Americans, starting with a huge advantage, did out-produce everyone, and out-developed them in air power and nuclear research, but in terms of quality production combined with actual fighting, I am inclined to give the gold medal to the Russians. We hear much about Monte Cassino and Bastogne, but that was simply commonplace for what was quite often happening on the Eastern Front .

            • adam

              Not going to argue on the effort that the Russians put in, in military terms. They did have help with production from the liberal democracies. Both technical and materially.

              My point was about production, and development. The USA just ramped it all up in the time frame I suggested.

              They could produce a Destroyer in a week by 1945. They could build and outfit a aircraft carry in a few months. The expansion of roads, and other infrastructure has never been matched. My point is a liberal democracy can, and has produced fundamental economic structural change in a very short amount of time. One does not need a totalitarian state to do it.

              • In Vino

                All true… but we have always assumed that capitalism is best because no advanced industrialised country has ever tried socialism. Russia has always been a poor country. It performed a miracle by becoming a superpower inferior only to the USA. Unfortunately the socialism was contaminated by totalitarianism, and we have been propagandised into believing that socialism is totalitarianism.
                A rich, industrialised country like the USA was always capable of doing what you describe. I am still inclined to give more credit in WW2 to the poorer country that achieved more.

        • In Vino

          Your optimism is refreshing. I would love to see China become more liberal in our terms, but I don’t see it happening very quickly. More likely a crisis of some kind will provoke reversion. I respect your connections with China, and hope you are right…

  11. Steve Alfreds 11

    Part of the problem is the lack of change in mainstream economic and political thought after 2008 and the GFC. Where’s the next Keynes,F.D.R or Michael Joseph Savage who came to prominence because of Black Friday in 1929 and the effects of unregulated capitalism?

    • Ad 11.1

      In the absence of widely quoted theorists or economists in common discourse, we have the rise of statism and the elected leaders who defend strong states. It’s taken since the late 1980s for people to get elected and tell the world: the state is back.

      And that message keeps coming not from the left, but from the hard right.

  12. Skeptic 12

    On reading this article I could see an inevitability of argument – autocracy vs meritocracy (or democracy as we call it) appearing. What I did not expect – given the orientation of this paper – is a craven blind acceptance of the current financial regime as espoused by Peter Chch. Either he’s a right-wing troll – or he’s too young and too uneducated to know there’s far, far more economic systems than that proposed by Adam Smith/Milton Friedman. Never is the saying “we are all pygmies standing on the shoulders of giants” more true than this article suggests. Anyone with a vague sense of history and a basic knowledge of politics will know how Plato, Aristotle and Augustine shaped the medieval political world of aristocrats and peasants. They will also know how Hobbs, Rousseau, Mill, etc shaped early modern Europe. They will know of the 3000 year struggle of the ordinary man to achieve UDHR, government by the freely elected representatives and rule of law. Really, it is a simple choice between autocracy in its many guises, and meritocracy/democracy. Economically, the choice is far wider, free market capitalism, command economy, co-operatism, managed economy (Keynsianism). and a mix of some of these. I probably share the same generational outlook as the author, grew up in the 60s, started work in the 70s, was horrified at the 80s, survived the 90s, was a bit optimistic in the 00s, and now am appalled by the 10s. No – I don’t think the outlook is what was envisaged for the 21st century. For that I blame the greedy and the selfish of my generation who could not see beyond their own back pocket – the spoiled little bastards. In short I think we’ve left an appalling legacy to our children and grandchildren – a wasteful economic system, a polluted earth, poverty (both relative and absolute), and worst of all – misplaced idealism without a necessary healthy skepticism resulting from a rounded education. in order for the next generation to make good, they first have to know the alternatives. Peter Chch is an obvious example of someone who does not, so I’m pessimistic about the future.

    • In Vino 12.1

      Well said, Skeptic. I suspect that the only reason for PeterChCh’s presence is the troll one.

  13. Bill 13

    @ maybe mostly for Ad And Peter ChCh, but for anyone else wanting to have a broader think about the subject of the post. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/oct/14/-sp-western-model-broken-pankaj-mishra

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