In my previous post I suggested that 2022 was arriving like a Medieval butt-trumpet, with all that this implies. This wasn’t entirely for satirical effect though, you have to admit, Medieval butt-trumpets are pretty funny. But there’s a serious issue behind it (see what I did there). Back at the beginning of 2021 I joined a lot of other people hoping that after the hell year of 2020, things would get better. They didn’t. Actually, things got a lot worse – wa-a-a-a-a-y worse, and there’s no sign of that trend changing any time soon.
It’s easy to blame Covid. That’s turned the world upside down, and the rising tide of protests at restrictions – including here in New Zealand – has made clear that populations used to freedoms and easy gratification of wants don’t like being constrained. But to me Covid has merely been a trigger for deeper anger that reflects deeper issues in society. These stretch back over 40-odd years, effectively two generations.
If we step back and look at these wider trends it’s clear that the broad sweep of neo-liberalism that began at the turn of the 1980s in the US and Britain, and which has engulfed much of the developed world since, has hit its end-game. It’s not hard to see why. Economic systems that funnel wealth from the poor and middling groups to the rich are never going to work long-term. The cracks in society were showing well before Covid drove a wedge through them.
The issue has been acute ever since the Global Financial Crisis of 2007-10, which was going to lead to a second Great Depression. It didn’t, because one government after another bought their way out of it with ‘stimulus packages’ and ‘quantitative easing’ (printing money). And the rich went on becoming rich while the poor and middling groups paid for it. But that, as my economist friends made clear to me, was just kicking the can down the road. It didn’t fix the problems of growing inequity and house-of-cards financial systems. Just to put numbers on that, and to use the United States as an example, US household incomes on average grew by just 0.3 percent annually between 2000 and 2018. But the proportion held by the rich skyrocketed. In 2018, on Forbes data, just three men – Jeff Bezos, Warren Buffett and Bill Gates – had a combined wealth greater than that of the poorest 50 percent of the US population together.
Worse, governments did nothing to change the fundamental causes of the GFC, which flowed in large part from the deregulation of the finance industry and the commoditisation of money, both of them integral with the neo-liberal approach to capitalism. Here in New Zealand, for instance, the Labour government of Jacinda Ardern was elected in 2017 on the basis that they would move the country away from the inequitous structures of the so-called ‘Rogernomics’ era. Did they? No. All they’ve done is play with the edges and, instead, start up a programme of social liberalisation which – because it engages issues that are emotionally deep – is likely to split the very groups who have been dispossessed by the economic liberalisations.
In part the immobility over fundamental socio-economic structural problems is because political parties, these days, draw funding from the business sector – which, inevitably, doesn’t want its mega-profits reduced. But it also reflects the way society has been re-framed by two generations of a particular system. This has reached the point where neo-liberal capitalism – which in reality is only a version of the wider capitalist system – has been re-defined as the only version; and where any dissenters are abused as ‘socialists’. Though it’s clear that those doing the abusing have no concept of what the word actually means. Here in New Zealand, Ardern has been dubbed ‘socialist’ for economic policies that, fifty-odd years ago, would have been decried as far right. The point demonstrates both that history is relative – that it cannot be defined as an objective truth – and shows how the political compass has swung.
One outcome of the unwillingness of government to undo the fundamentals of the neo-liberal system is that the dispossessed are powerless to change things. A friend of mine summed it up this way: back in the old days, the attitude of the rich was: ‘I’ve got mine, so fuck you’. Today it’s ‘I’ve got yours, so fuck you.’ An apt point in an era where prominent billionaires, instead of helping the poor, use their money to build penis-shaped rockets for rich tourists. In the past this sort of behaviour usually resulted in mobs eventually turning up at palace doors with pitchforks and tumbrils. Switching the focus of their anger into a new direction can only work for so long.
The answer, incidentally, isn’t a return to the prior capitalist version – for want of a better name, ‘social democracy’. That won’t necessarily work a second time, though it’s still followed to a large extent in Scandinavia. Societies have changed, so a new version of the system has to be found: ‘green capitalism’, for instance. Or something. The problem is that proper debate on any of these issues has been absent.
New Zealand is far from alone, of course – every nation has been paralysed in their own ways. The United States has already had one attempted insurrection – something, I fear, which suggests that Jefferson’s bold experiment in democracy and exceptionalism will fail within a generation if the underlying issues aren’t properly fixed.
Where is Covid in all this? As always we have to differentiate between deeper social trends and proximate narrative events. Covid has provided a focus for longer-standing socioeconomic stress and added an immediate and very sharp overlay. Mix into that the effects of social media – a global mechanism for swapping village gossip in which ‘algorithms’ designed to maximise engagement and hence advertising profits act as a reinforcement loop for misinformation – and it’s easy to see how issues flowing from structural problems could become focused around Covid restrictions. But that’s merely a symptom, not a cause.
None of this has been fixed in 2021 – hence, as I say – there’s every likelihood of the year being worse. I hope it isn’t. I hope that 2022 improves things. But I’m not holding my breath.
Copyright © Matthew Wright 2022