A passage from Matt McCarten’s article in the Sunday Herald summed up for me not only the approach of Rodney Hide in setting up his Super City but also the neo-liberal project that has been in vogue for the past quarter century. McCarten writes
His public pronouncement that he believed the new city’s public assets should be privatised is one thing but to then set up unaccountable and unelected boards to control three-quarters of our new city’s assets – and appoint individuals of like mind to run them – is outrageous. This is the man who blackmailed the Government by threatening to resign if it even considered having councillors elected by voters on the Maori rolls to ensure a Maori perspective. The hypocrisy of a politician, whose party has 3.5 per cent of the parliamentary vote, vetoing the consideration of Maori representation while appointing his mates to control our city infrastructure and assets is obviously lost on him.
Hides motivations are stated clearly, to privatise public assets. His actions are documented unelected and unaccountable boards. His beliefs, and those of neo-liberalism generally, that private business can do things better than public bodies.
The remainder of the passage however hints at a deeper project of neo-liberalism, how democracy actually operates. Establishing seats for Maori on the Super City is to be avoided whereas handing control of assets over to his mates is something to be desired. Democracy under the neo-liberal model is, as far as possible, to be a financial transaction. It is not to be practiced by citizens acting in their roles as voters within in the political economy but rather by consumers acting within the market.
Society is simply an aggregation of individuals who make decisions based on self interest. Markets exist to fulfill the needs of individuals as consumers. People interact with markets as consumers and influence markets, and society, in their capacity as consumers. The only control people have over markets is as consumers. Public institutions and public spaces within the political economy must be, preferably, privatized or at least become subject to the forces and operations of the market.
A compelling alternative does of course exist. Society is more than individuals; Margaret Thatcher had little grasp on reality when she contended otherwise. It is a collective creation. People act in a number of ways and human subjectivity encompasses more than simple economic decisions. Markets do exist to fulfill society’s needs however there are two important caveats on that statement. First, they are not the only way in which to order society. Second, as they exist to meet society’s needs, they are ultimately subject to the control of society. This occurs not only through our patterns of consumption but also through the ballot box and human agency within the political economy.
Hopefully Auckland will bring to pass another of McCarten’s observations that the centre-left has the chance to sweep the Mayoralty and a majority on the new council. In doing so, it can consign Hides plans, and the wider neo-liberal ideals, to the dust bin for a period of time at least.