A calculated feeding of the beast within

 

There was a piece written in The Guardian last year by Paul Verhaeghe about the way that Neoliberalism has shaped current behaviours, titled Neoliberalism has brought out the worst in us. It touched on something I have been thinking a lot about lately: how the social democracy of my youth has so radically collapsed into our current culture of individualism, privatisation and personal greed.
Now hold on! Don’t get uppity at my use of the word ‘social’ (as in ‘socialism.’) For the record, I’m not a Socialist, Communist, Marxist or Anything-else-ist (not even, as one commenter on my post The Hypocrisy of Hate claimed, ‘Hard Right’, whatever the hell that is supposed to mean!) I’m merely using the word as a signifier for the kind of Keynesian-style economic policies that enabled the building of state houses and other communally beneficial assets, free and universal multi-tiered education and healthcare, affordable utilities, supporting local businesses and industry, full employment – in fact, the kind of supportive social environment that we used to hold up as a marker of ‘civilisation’ (i.e. a society’s ability to care for its most vulnerable.)
Whoa again! I’m certainly not saying that it was perfect! In fact, it was structurally racist and unfair for Maori and for other so-called ‘minority’ groups. Still is. But what it underlined and encouraged, I believe, in most ordinary people, was a belief that we were all in this together, and that we should place people’s needs and human rights at the centre of our decision making. We grew up believing everyone had a right to share the riches of the country: to own a home, to go to school with food in our bellies and shoes on our feet. In fact, we prided ourselves for this, even if the reality didn’t always live up to the hype. But underlying it all was an ethos of generosity and compassion. Of community. Of general goodwill.
These were the values I was raised with, as I’m sure were most of you. We were taught to share. Taught to tell the truth. To help the needy. That worker’s rights deserved protecting. That our environment was precious. That war was destructive and hideous; never to be repeated. Taught that those whom we democratically elected were there to act on our behalf for the greater good. (Ah, the good old 1960s, all that love and peace!)
Now fast-forward through the upheaval of the 1980s, to the current cultural climate we are living with today. Verhaeghe’s thesis is that the kinds of behaviour privileged in “meritocratic neoliberalism favours certain personality traits and penalises others.”  
“There are certain ideal characteristics needed to make a career today. The first is articulateness, the aim being to win over as many people as possible. Contact can be superficial, but since this applies to most human interaction nowadays, this won’t really be noticed.
It’s important to be able to talk up your own capacities as much as you can – you know a lot of people, you’ve got plenty of experience under your belt and you recently completed a major project. Later, people will find out that this was mostly hot air, but the fact that they were initially fooled is down to another personality trait: you can lie convincingly and feel little guilt. That’s why you never take responsibility for your own behaviour.
On top of all this, you are flexible and impulsive, always on the lookout for new stimuli and challenges. In practice, this leads to risky behaviour, but never mind, it won’t be you who has to pick up the pieces[1]. The source of inspiration for this list? The psychopathy checklist by Robert Hare, the best-known specialist on psychopathy today. “
Okay, let’s deal straight away with the first obvious distracting argument that might erupt: namely, that NZ under our current government cannot be labelled as ‘neoliberal’.  Bryce Edwards quoted several refutations of this recently in his excellent summary of the ludicrous response to Eleanor Catton’s comments (The Politics of Eleanor Catton and Public Debate) However, in general terms I think it’s fair to say that we have moved from a more Keynesian-style ‘cradle to grave’ approach to what the British Dictionary describes as: neoliberalism: a modern politico-economic theory favouring free trade, privatization, minimal government intervention in business, reduced public expenditure on social services, etc.  (If you don’t like this definition try: Investopedia for a more business-minded approach or Corpwatch for a more left-leaning view or our own Chris Trotter giving it a more feminist spin or good old democratic Wikipedia!)
We saw the first real shifts, of course, during the Labour Govt’s dramatic U-turn in the 1980s, under arch-ACTor Roger Douglas. And by the early 1990s we were hearing social policy referred to deridingly as the ‘nanny state,’ despite the fact that governments have always been in the business of legislating around ‘best’ behaviour ( voting equity, 5 o’clock closing, milk in schools, swimming pools in schools to promote water safety[2], domestic purposes benefit[3] , recognising and criminalising rape in marriage, free vaccinations etc etc.) – and, despite the fact that this current National Government (many of whom who used the accusation of the ‘nanny state’ as a major weapon against the Clark Govt) continues to legislate similarly socially-engineered policies, such as pegging certain behaviours to welfare benefits, the banning of party pills and synthetic cannabis, adjustments to blood/alcohol limits, new work and safety measures etc. yet fails to see the irony (or hypocrisy) in this at all.
While we have seen some gains at the edges of social policy (think: the miraculous vanishing acts of hospital waiting lists before each election) the overall well-being of the majority in the country has taken a slide, despite the claims that a free and open market will benefit us all by ‘trickling down.’. A fascinating paper on the history of Social Policy (Social Policy History: Forty Years on, Forty Years Back,[4]concludes:
“The needs of families with children are treated residually, particularly if they are dependent on the state. It is not a coincidence that a high proportion of these families are socially, economically at the margins and Maori or Pasifica. A much higher level of inequality has not only become politically acceptable, attempts to close social and economic gaps pose clear political risks to government.”
In Bryce Edward’s article, economist Brian Easton argues that he doesn’t think “we have a ‘neoliberal’ government . . .  In fact this government is  . . . a business-oriented one. Business took on a neoliberal stance in the Rogernomic unwinding of the economic regime which Muldoon represented. But they don’t any longer. Rather they actively use the government to pursue their interests. The Sky City deal was not neoliberal.’ ” Eh?
Certainly, I don’t think it’s as simple as that.  As Verhaeghe points out, with regards to business focused governments such as National, their main preoccupations are always going to be how to “extract more profit from the situation than your competition.” It’s an attitude. A value. A belief in profit above all else.
National knows it daren’t cut funding for social or artistic supports completely (its parsimonious and reluctant handouts the main argument flaunted by those who insist that the Nats are not ideologically driven by neo-liberal theory – see David Farrar’s piece in The Herald .) They know the outcry would be deafening. Instead, they chip away at it through sleight of hand . . . a tweak of the criteria here, a ‘consolidation’ of resources there. Like death from a thousand tiny cuts they undermine the support systems and push the load over to the already cash-strapped community providers, shifting the blame when these structures become so undermined they eventually fail.  With all the slickness of Marine Le Pen’s PR campaign in France to rehabilitate Fascism, they present a sympathetic shark smile, distributing a few stale lollies to the masses while they knife us in the back.
I admit upfront I’m not an economic expert or a social policy analyst[5], but as a writer it’s my job to closely observe what is going on around me and to hone in on the complexities and vagaries of human behaviour.  This is where my observations and thoughts begin to resonate with the underlying theme of Verhaeghe’s article.  What I see is a growing lack of empathy, a rise in bullying behaviour, not only in a work context, but also in the population at large – and, as recent times have shown us, against those with the audacity to dare speak out.  There’s been a steady creep in our values – in the kind of behaviours and endeavours we celebrate in our role models. Yes, of course, we’ve always been swayed by the flash of money, no doubt of that. But it now seems that the cut-throat accumulation of wealth is hailed as the apex of human endeavour – the highest possible attainable attribute – and that end goal somehow forgives the abysmally self-interested behaviour deployed in order to attain it. As Verhaeghe points out:
 “Bullying used to be confined to schools; now it is a common feature of the workplace. This is a typical symptom of the impotent venting their frustration on the weak – in psychology it’s known as displaced aggression. There is a buried sense of fear, ranging from performance anxiety to a broader social fear of the threatening other . . .
Constant evaluations at work cause a decline in autonomy and a growing dependence on external, often shifting, norms. This results in what the sociologist Richard Sennett has aptly described as the “infantilisation of the workers”. Adults display childish outbursts of temper and are jealous about trivialities (“She got a new office chair and I didn’t”), tell white lies, resort to deceit, delight in the downfall of others and cherish petty feelings of revenge. This is the consequence of a system that prevents people from thinking independently and that fails to treat employees as adults.
Our society constantly proclaims that anyone can make it if they just try hard enough, all the while reinforcing privilege and putting increasing pressure on its overstretched and exhausted citizens. An increasing number of people fail, feeling humiliated, guilty and ashamed. We are forever told that we are freer to choose the course of our lives than ever before, but the freedom to choose outside the success narrative is limited. Furthermore, those who fail are deemed to be losers or scroungers, taking advantage of our social security system.
A neoliberal meritocracy would have us believe that success depends on individual effort and talents, meaning responsibility lies entirely with the individual and authorities should give people as much freedom as possible to achieve this goal. For those who believe in the fairytale of unrestricted choice, self-government and self-management are the pre-eminent political messages, especially if they appear to promise freedom. Along with the idea of the perfectible individual, the freedom we perceive ourselves as having in the west is the greatest untruth of this day and age.
The sociologist Zygmunt Bauman neatly summarised the paradox of our era as: “Never have we been so free. Never have we felt so powerless.” “
It is this sense of powerless, I think, which now manifests itself as mouth-frothing anger; the kind of anger that fuels groups of young people to chant out “fuck John Key” and send many of us to Twitter and other social media, needing to gnash our teeth. What they see is their future being stolen away: housing, education, employment, hope . . . and beneath it all a steady eroding of people’s self-respect, because the culture that has been fostered by neo-liberal ideology is to blame the victim, to despise anyone who does not fit the narrow ‘business’ focussed criteria of a self-made man.
 “Our presumed freedom is tied to one central condition: we must be successful – that is, “make” something of ourselves.” 
There’s a reason that we’ve heard John Key tell his state-house-to-millionaire fairy-tale ad nauseum (especially around election times.) It is part of the common myth fabricated by the rich; the carrot on the stick that serves to keep the workers questing for the riches of the kings. But the rules of this mythic world are very one-dimensional. Money equals power, full-bloody-stop.
Where is the place of arts in all this? It’s hard to believe that a Prime Minster who refers to our very own Booker Prize winner as ‘a fictional writer’ cares much about the arts or intellectual debate, or sees any valid reason for their pursuit at all (in fact, you’d  be excused for thinking Key was channelling that spoonerising genius George W Bush.) Yet the irony, and the deep frustration, is that it is often only through the pursuit and practice of arts that we know so much about previous centuries and generations – often one of the only ways – learning from the art and literature left behind. 
But there’s no place for arts or intellectuals in this neo-liberal Utopia, it gives rise to too many awkward  questions, worships at the shrine of higher values that makes profit for profit’s sake seem greedy, selfish, even (quelle horreur) small. Instead, the masses are encouraged to fill their heads with trivia, feed the beasts inside ourselves. Look at the average programming on free to air TV: out with any commentary or documentary exploration, in with crime shows (murder, blood, betrayal  and mayhem), bullying reality shows, pre-fabricated celebrities. Mean, ugly, dark, dark, dark. It suits those at the top to keep us distracted by dreams of short-lived notoriety and easy gains. It suits them even better to keep us in a trumped-up perpetual state of fear.
This is what I see as I look around each day. This is what Verhaeghe sees. Not that human beings are incapable of living peaceful, supportive communal lives (I hate the cynicism of nay-sayers who claim we can’t rise above our animal instincts), but that through cynical manipulation we are encouraged to live shallowly, selfishly, devoid of compassion for our neighbours and suspicious of everyone else.
“There are constant laments about the so-called loss of norms and values in our culture. Yet our norms and values make up an integral and essential part of our identity. So they cannot be lost, only changed. And that is precisely what has happened: a changed economy reflects changed ethics and brings about changed identity. The current economic system is bringing out the worst in us.”
Whew ! Amen.


[1]Remind you of anyone? That fellow with the mansion in Hawaii perhaps?
[2] As an aside, what a shame government has seen fit to close so many of these down as a cost saving measure, while our drowning rates are now reaching epidemic proportions
[3] one of the most important breakthroughs for NZ women EVER
[4]presented by  Massey University’s Michael Belgrade at the  “Affording our Future” Conference, Wellington, 10-11 December 2012
[5]Here you go, trolls, the perfect quote to jump upon!

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