Crucial to the success of the “unfriendly capitalism” indicted by Winston Peters has been its stalwart bodyguard of “expert lies”.
Ever since 1984, when its unfriendliness began gathering pace, a seemingly endless procession of “experts” has been summoned to represent this new “unfriendly” capitalism’s cruelty as kindness.
Some of these so-called experts were paid for by the big corporations. Others were commissioned by government agencies to prepare the way for changes destined to place an ever-increasing number of New Zealanders at the mercy of private economic power.
None of the core institutions of the New Zealand State were exempted from this “restructuring” process. Health, education, social welfare, the trade union movement, the universities, local government: all fell victim to the “gleichschaltung” (co-ordination) demanded by an increasingly foe-like capitalist system. And, in each case, these government “reforms” were presented to the public as the only rational response to what was, after all, “expert” opinion.
In a tiny number of cases, the tendered “expert advice” was so extreme that the Government of the day simply balked at introducing reforms that seemed so patently politically unsaleable. For the most part, however, the experts’ findings were accepted and implemented.
That these arguments, for what can only be described as dramatic and socially-wrenching change, were received uncritically, and then promoted enthusiastically, by the news media was a crucial factor in their success. It encouraged the view that economic management had become such a complex business that “ordinary people” could not, realistically, be expected to play any useful role in the formulation of economic policy.
It required the system-threatening shock of the Global Financial Crisis of 2008-09 to set off a world-wide revolt against what we now call “neoliberal” economic orthodoxy – and the “experts” who have for so long expounded and defended its “principles”.
This revolt has come late to New Zealand because, through the worst years of the Global Financial Crisis, the Chinese economy’s absorption of so many of this country’s exports shielded it from the high levels of unemployment and the swingeing austerity programmes which have unsettled so many larger western nations.
On October 20, however, the NZ First leader, Winston Peters, from the stage of the Beehive Theatrette, told New Zealand that: “Far too many New Zealanders have come to view today’s capitalism, not as their friend, but as their foe. And they are not all wrong. That is why we believe that capitalism must regain its responsible – its human face. That perception has influenced our negotiations.”
In that moment, it was clear that the revolt against neoliberal economic orthodoxy and the lies of its “experts” had finally reached New Zealand’s shores. That, in his declaration for a Labour-NZ First-Green Government, New Zealand was experiencing its very own “Brexit” moment, would become even clearer when Peters declared that he and his party had rejected the option of a “modified status quo” in favour of “real change”.
Just how much “real change” Jacinda Ardern’s government is willing to countenance will be revealed in the people she chooses to advise her.
At the APEC summit in Vietnam in early November, where she is hoping to persuade the remaining 11 signatories to the Trans-Pacific Partnership to allow New Zealand to renegotiate the Investor State Dispute Settlement provisions of the agreement, who will Ardern include among her expert advisers? A prime minister whose ambitions extended no further than slightly modifying the status quo would limit her APEC entourage to all the usual MFAT and private sector suspects. A prime minister determined to signal her commitment to “real change”, however, would invite Professor Jane Kelsey to join her in Danang.
A “Real Change” Government, determined to reverse the draconian policies adopted by a Ministry of Social development advised by neoliberal “experts”, would call upon the experience and expertise of Sue Bradford and Metiria Turei. Those who find themselves astonished and/or offended by the thought of two such bitter opponents of this country’s actuarially inspired and excessively punitive welfare system being asked to advise Jacinda’s government on its root-and-branch reform should, perhaps, pause and consider just how radical (albeit from the opposite end of the political spectrum) was the “expert” advice that created it.
In his review of four recent books addressing the worldwide “rage against the elites”, Professor Helmut K Anheier, of Berlin’s Hertie School of Governance, writes: “It is well within elites’ power to make decisions that benefit all of society, rather than narrow interests. Elites have surely failed in this regard over the last quarter-century, but they need not continue to fail in the future.”
But, is it reasonable to expect “real change” advice from the same neoliberal elites whose ideologically-driven recommendations created the very problems our new government is pledged to solve?
Capitalism with a “human face” has no need of a bodyguard.