Gearing Down: To preserve the machinery of capitalism sacrifices will be made - but not by those who own it.
"A MENACING and Punitive Environment". As I watched the YouTube clip of mounted policemen charging student protesters in the streets of London, I couldn’t help thinking how accurately these words describe our present predicament.
From Athens to Dublin; from Lisbon to London; from Washington to Wellington; everywhere; you can hear the sound of political gears shifting down. For the first time in eighty years, the largest, slowest cogs of the state apparatus, its prime drivers, are being engaged.
At this, their most basic level, the relentless and implacable processes of government have only one purpose: keep the state machinery functioning. By any means necessary and without reckoning the human cost, keep the wheels turning. Under no circumstances should the machine be permitted to stop.
Those at the bottom of our society feel the downward shift first. "In all our public meetings, and in many of the written submissions," writes the Alternative Welfare Working Group, "there was a consistent message that Work & Income as an institution has become more intimidating."
The policy has yet be openly acknowledged, but it is already in effect: Get as many people as possible off the Invalids and onto the Sickness Benefit. Get them "work ready". Get them off the books.
What does that mean in practice? One of the beneficiaries who made a submission to the Alternative Welfare Working Group explains: "I have to explain my medical conditions to a different case manager every three months, who is a complete stranger. It is totally humiliating."
But its not only those at the bottom of society who are feeling the effects of the downward shift.
Last Saturday evening, the former leader of the National Party, Dr Don Brash, returned to the popular seaside resort of Orewa, north of Auckland, to deliver a speech. (Orewa was, of course, the scene of Dr Brash’s extraordinary "Nationhood" speech – the message which caused National’s poll-rating to surge an unprecedented 17 points in January 2004.)
On this occasion, however, it wasn’t Maori "privilege" in Dr Brash’s gunsights. This time his target was the National Party’s present leader and Prime Minister, John Key. The lanky economist’s natural civility precluded a direct assault upon his former colleague, but no one in the Orewa Branch of the National Party could’ve been in any doubt as to whom the following sentences were addressed:
"New Zealand is a great country, and we in the National Party are proud and passionate New Zealanders. But our great country is perhaps more at risk today than at any time since the Second World War. I believe it’s safe to say that our relative decline – both in terms of our economy and in terms of racial harmony – will never be reversed if our political leaders allow themselves to be driven entirely by political polls."
As the former Governor of the Reserve Bank of New Zealand, Dr Brash is, naturally, familiar with this country’s precarious financial situation. He knows, too, that the global capitalist system will require a whole generation – maybe two – to absorb the economic, social and political consequences of the catastrophic financial collapse of 2008.
New Zealand’s experience of the Global Financial Crisis has, so far, been considerably less harrowing than that of Iceland, Greece or Ireland. But, as any economic historian will tell you, this country was also slow to feel the full effects of the Great Depression. Dr Brash must know that, in spite of one or two encouraging swallows, the summer of economic recovery is still a very long way off.
Indeed, it is probable that the winter of New Zealand’s fiscal discontent is only just beginning. When it finally takes hold, the political downshift will begin in earnest.
Stripped of their flummery, societies like ours stand revealed as the private property of a tiny elite. To protect that property, and to preserve their access to the capital that makes it a going concern, they will not hesitate to make the lives of the rest of us considerably poorer and more precarious. That’s what has happened in the United States, That’s what is happening in the United Kingdom. And that is what Dr Brash is not-so-subtly telling Mr Key must soon happen here.
A capitalist society in low gear is never a happy place. Governments struggle to retain office and individual politicians become extremely unpopular – as the Irish Prime Minister, Brian Cowen, has discovered. It is precisely at such critical historical junctures, however, that the ability to make unpopular (meaning undemocratic) decisions becomes all-important. Indeed, it is probably the most important duty in a Prime Minister’s job description.
With Dr Brash playing the role of Mr Key’s Work & Income case manager, the Prime Minister may soon discover that he has more in common with invalid and sickness beneficiaries than he could possibly have imagined.
This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 30 November 2010.