I am beginning to wonder whether the real nature of humanity is not care or nurture, but psychotic violence. It’s not just the relentless streams of the latter that flow past me in the news. It’s something I discovered directly, the other week.
I was in my home town of Napier, taking a photo of the town pier. I usually do – I’ve been collecting images of it in all sorts of lights, weather conditions and so forth.
I was about 150 metres from the pier when I set the latest picture up. Alas, it turned out that there were some people underneath it, apparently living rough. And as soon as they saw me with a camera they emerged and walked towards me, screaming abuse and threats.
The way to avoid being hurt in a fight is not to have the fight. I walked off, leaving these abusive strangers to vomit all their hate at me.
My crime, apparently, was looking at the pier they were living beneath from a distance of 150 metres.
A few days later, in the middle of quiet suburban Napier, I had to stop my car to avoid running through a group of youths who were sauntering across a road, without any concern for the traffic. Normally, if you stop to let pedestrians through, they thank you. This lot became angry and swore. I got the impression they were deliberately obstructing the right-of-way to force cars to stop.
It’s becoming more common these days. All you have to do is glance in the direction of a stranger, and they’ll take it as a threat to be avenged with violence. And it’s ape behaviour. I mean, literally. Gorillas do it, because to them, the gaze of another is a threat to their status. Apparently this is also true of humans. Not surprising, I suppose; humans are, after all, a species of great ape. But our minds, our civilisation – all were meant to be able to set aside the animal within us.
That façade seems to be wearing very thin just now.
It’s easy to find surface reasons why individuals behave in particular ways, but to me the issue has become endemic, and has to be a product of much wider forces. These are not hard to find; they are right there, in plain sight. The parameters around which western societies – and, to a significant extent, world cultures – have been re-shaped since the late 1970s are so ubiquitous as to go unnoticed. There’s the reduction of social relationships to contract, agency and monetary value. There’s the way that, somehow, the dispossessed have been induced to vote for those who dispossess them.
In reality, that system broke a dozen years ago, during the General Financial Crisis. That showed up the folly of the Hayekian deregulated wet-dream around which the world had been pivoting its economic policies for two generations. The Market, it seemed, had shrugged. And the bankruptcy of the neo-liberal approach seemed clear. But, as George Monbiot pointed out in the Guardian a little while back, there was no new thinking to replace it. And, of course, those who had enriched themselves from that system weren’t going to stop the flows of money that they had directed to themselves. I suspect a part of the ideological issue was that debate had been reduced to childish polemic: IF you didn’t support the monetarist system THEN you had to support whatever the monetarists demonised, such as ‘socialism’ – which, itself, was reduced to caricature in this vision. Such thinking dominated the terms of discussion and destroyed the potential for a completely new approach to emerge.
So the neo-liberal monetarist carcase limped on into the 2010s, becoming more and more extreme as the wealth generated by ordinary people was transferred to an ever-smaller number of rich, and as the ideology underpinning it was reduced to ever-more simplistic polemic.
History tells me that social inequities, inevitably, provoke social trouble. I also suspect humanity has always had difficulty dealing with societies larger than about 150 individuals. And in a large society where the have-nots vastly outnumber the haves, I think the façade of civilisation can be all too easily broken. The dispossessed revert to their underlying ape behaviour – such as attacking strangers for no better reason than that they think (wrongly) that they have been glanced at.
When this is combined with the way that yesterday’s ideological extremes have been normalised, and where new extremes intended to preserve that ideology swiftly become ordinary, I fear for the future. The latest global lurch, I see, includes a purely Orwellian effort to demonise ‘socialism’ as a form of ‘fascism’ . Thinking, quite literally, seems to have been turned upside down.
All of this – the way ordinary people lash out at strangers over nothing, the way the ‘one percenters’ are twisting the frameworks of ideology in an ongoing effort to lead the dispossessed into supporting them – to me, smacks of end-game. It’s where societies go as the foundations on which they rely to survive are breaking, and those on board the sinking ship of society become increasingly desperate. And that’s a pity.
It seems true in New Zealand as elsewhere. Here, thanks to the mixed-member proportional representation system that forces government-by-compromise, and a pernicious act passed by the neo-liberal ‘reformers’ in 1994 – never repealed – government policy is essentially still framed by its mid-1990s settings. The fact that, at the time, this approach was called ‘Rogernomics’, ‘Ruthenasia’ and ‘Jennicide’ – riffing on the first names of its architects – has been forgotten. And although societies are built from a very wide-ranging mix of forces and pressures, the structural inequities that these economic approaches have created – founded in a mind-set that reduces social interactions to ‘price’ and ‘value’ – inevitably, form a significant part of the guiding framework.
What is needed is a new attitude – one that can be reflected by government in its policies. A worldwide shift is needed, one as significant in its own way as the adoption of Keynesianism was from the 1930s. Here in New Zealand, that was reflected – and extended – by the government of Michael Joseph Savage from 1935, brought to reality by his Minister of Finance, Walter Nash. Obviously any new approach must be different again; what worked then won’t work now. Society has moved on, the production base is changing with the unfolding ‘information age’, and new answers need to be found. However, the attitude of kindness, care for those whose misfortune was not their own doing, and a genuine desire to improve the social lot of all people – all of which was at the core of what Savage did – seems a useful foundation and starting point.
One outcome of that attitude – which Savage called ‘applied Christianity’ – was that New Zealand, from 1938, developed one of the world’s first comprehensive welfare states, in which people were helped – not punished – by government; and where capitalism was nurtured as a mechanism to benefit all in society. Savage’s portrait was hung on the walls of many ordinary New Zealand homes at the time, alongside that of Christ. And with good reason. The finance minister Walter Nash, incidentally, had close ties with Napier. His son lived two doors down from my grandfather; and my Dad knew Nash’s grandson Hal very well. New Zealand is not a large place.
That worked – and worked well – through the mid-twentieth century. Societies change, of course, so by the 1970s there was need for a structurally different approach. Welfare had become a lifestyle choice, which was not what the Labour government of 1935 intended. What New Zealand got, though, was the neo-liberal reforms, which pivoted on the notion of ruthlessly smashing every government system, every regulation, effectively giving away every asset owned by the public to foreign corporates; then allowing ‘the market’ to generate a new social nirvana from the wreckage. It didn’t happen, although a few people became very rich indeed. Curiously, this neo-liberal reform process was remarkably close to the occupation scheme Japan developed for New Zealand in 1940, which I’ve read – it’s in the Prime Minister’s files in Archives New Zealand, and was explicitly designed to economically exploit New Zealand to the benefit of the invaders.
The problem is that successive New Zealand governments have only ever tinkered with the edges of the 1990s policy mix. And the social issues among the dispossessed – now entering their second generation of that situation – are a result. It is this that underpins the problems with gang violence, with the way petty crime and street anger has been normalised. New Zealand is not alone – it’s a world problem and the causes are the same; pure neo-liberalism doesn’t work in the longer term.
It is not the first time this has happened. Back in the eighteenth century, the transformation of mercantilism into capitalism – which in its initial expression was unbridled, untrammeled and with no social conscience – similarly produced an underclass of dispossessed. And, after a couple of generations, they were powerful enough – and angry enough – to start breaking the fabric of the society that had dispossessed them. The nineteenth century was called the ‘age of revolution’ with reason. Worse, the same pressures produced a mirror-inversion of unbridled 1840s-style capitalism: communism. This was equally unable to function as a long-term system, but the two positions then became the framework by which political ideology was measured. Then, when communism collapsed in economic and ideological bankruptcy in the 1990s, that fuelled the sense that the prevailing version of capitalism at that time – neo-liberalism – was the only way forward. History, analyst Francis Fukuyama insisted, had come to an end. Of course it hadn’t. All that neo-liberalism had done was introduce a short-term way of making a few people very, very rich. It was an extreme edge of the broader capitalist system, and – as we’re discovering now – it wasn’t sustainable.
What is needed is a new vision for society, one that engages with where society has gone and in which government is responsive to the people. This is true world-wide. It does not mean getting rid of capitalism. On the contrary; a new vision is needed to save it. Call it a re-balancing. That means finding ways to modernise the philosophy and avoid the extreme and unworkable edges. That’s particularly so given that the production base is changing from physical things to information – a switch as profound, in its own way, as industrialisation was from the mid-late eighteenth century. For humanity to have a future, any new balance in the capitalist system must also be sustainable. Terms such as ‘bio-capitalism’ or ‘ethical capitalism’ have been bandied about, among others. Perhaps there is another way forward. New Zealand, the ‘social laboratory of the world’, has opportunity to lead the way – and back in the early 1970s, almost did so, at the hands of a Labour government under Norman Kirk. But he died in office before bringing his vision to reality.
Those older approaches won’t work now. Society and times have changed. However, given time, a constructive new approach will hopefully undo the damage done on so many levels by extreme neo-liberalism. Alas, the current New Zealand government has been supine about it. Nor are they listening. A few weeks back I wrote to the Minister of Police, Stuart Nash (the great-grandson of Walter) with a request for comment on any policy government was taking to address the social issues that have emerged, exemplified by my Napier experience. I knew he’d be busy and didn’t mind waiting for a reply, but what I got from his staff merely referred me to media commentary on another matter (and they admitted it was different). It was an unsubtle brush-off. When I apologised for wasting their time and indicated I’d withdraw my vote from their party, they promptly offered a personal meeting with Nash – obvious damage control. I declined to further engage; the original message had been clear.
Copyright © Matthew Wright 2020