10 July 2011

Neo-liberalism without doctrines?

Are we living in an ‘anti-political’ and ‘anti-ideological’ age, and, if so, does that make the nice (but bland) Mr Key a politician who best personifies those qualities of our times?

This is my summary of the point made recently by Bryce Edwards – and responded to by Chris Trotter.

You don’t have to go far to find ‘anti-political’ sentiments. Cynicism about politicians and about their behaviour is heard often enough in everyday conversation. ‘They behave like children’ etc.

But a common trend in western democracies, including New Zealand, is towards lower voter-turnouts, lower political-party membership rates, and lower self-reported ‘trust in government’ (whatever the latter may mean). There may be exceptions to these trends, but they are generally regarded as regrettable, as they seem to signify a detachment between the political classes and ‘the masses.’

I’ve always been impressed by Richard Sennet’s book The Fall of Public Man. My take on one major theme of this book is that, in a world dominated by TV for the consumption of political ‘information’ (or ‘disinformation’), the consumer becomes a passive observer, and the attention shifts to the face and voice of the leader, his/her televised persona and apparent ethical integrity – and away from the substance and the critical appraisal of public policy.

On those grounds, it may be said that we live in an ‘anti-political’ age. TV focuses our attention on conflict and scandal, rather than reasoned debate. ‘Politics’ becomes a dirty word, and politicians are the people we most love to hate. Under those circumstances, a nice, but bland, exterior could be the right mask to put on. But is this anti-political, or just part of the character of politics today? It depends on what you mean by politics!

What about this ideology of our being ‘anti-ideological’? As Trotter rightly pointed out, New Zealand has for a long time been seen as pragmatic in its approach to policy-making. The social legislation of the 1890s was described by a French observer as ‘socialism without doctrines.’ The Liberals of that era tried to present themselves as representing a ‘classless’ society, upholding the interests of all, rather than the sectional interests of a few.

And consider this passage from John A. Lee, published in 1938 when he was still a Labour MP:

“Rather than be theoretically radical, New Zealanders have sought to achieve their radicalism with their hands as well. Plain blunt men wanted [old-age] pensions and legislated. Should they first have written tracts? Parlour revolutionaries can erect imposing theoretical edifices, but people who have worked in the industries of a country know that socialist housing, for instance, is a matter of bricks and mortar and sweat.”

Well that almost supports the point about the anti-ideological and pragmatic approach of New Zealanders, except for the fact that he did say socialist housing. Which MP would dare use that word in defence of a policy today?

Since 1938, however, fascism and the Cold War have given the very idea of ideology a bad name in the democratic west. And on the most recent occasions when New Zealand politicians sought rigorously to apply a set of preconceived social and economic theories (I’m referring to neo-liberal ideology, in the period 1984-96), the results were often disastrous and the public had good reason to feel they’d been deceived.

So, the disavowal of any ideological leanings is a common ploy in the game of ideology. It is always one’s opposition who are being ideological, while one’s own policies are the rational and effective ones.

It follows then that I am only willing to see the present age as ‘anti-ideological’ in the sense of a pretence to be non-ideological.

John Key is not so much a consummate politician of the present, as a politician who is typical of New Zealand’s political history: pragmatic, cautious and trying to please a wide audience. Underneath that, the substance of his real-world policies does follow a discernible ideological pathway. So, the Key government is seeking opportunities to promote and advance a neo-liberal political agenda, while avoiding the appearance of being rigidly dogmatic, and trying to bring voters along for the ride. It’s easy to point to examples of their policies that support this, but I’ll leave that for another day.

For now, I’m not backing the ‘anti-political and anti-ideological’ description of these times. As for whether Mr Key personifies present-day New Zealand, that’s another matter.


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