26 October 2011

Occupy the Beehive

…that’s the practical aim of politics.

But, ideologically speaking, who will get there first? The protestors, or those being protested against?

One way of understanding National’s current political vulnerability is to propose that the soundbite-free Occupy-just-about-everywhere movement may have (deep down) won more middle-class hearts and minds than any politician of any hue right now. Don’t we all more or less get the point now that unfettered markets, or deregulated capital, have screwed most of us?

The kind of capitalism that John Key represents (and by which he made his personal fortune) is simply not working for the vast majority of us.

The Occupy Wall St protest-claim that virtually 99% of Americans have been left out of the action (or even made jobless and homeless) is not entirely off-mark if applied to New Zealand. And we have known about this for some time now.

If I may quote from my own book:

“An economic study of inequality in gross household incomes over the period 1984 to ’96 concluded that ‘the bottom 80 percent of New Zealand income earners suffered a reduction in their share of the total incomes paid out, while the top 5 percent enjoyed a 25 percent gain after twelve years of painful restructuring’ (Podder and Chatterjee, 1998, p. 25). This trend was driven by cuts in welfare benefits and by the significant employment advantage held by high-skilled earners in high-income occupations. In fact, the rate of increase in New Zealand’s income inequality (as measured by the Gini coefficient for household equivalent disposable income) during the mid-1980s to 1990s was far more rapid than that for Australia, Canada, France, Sweden or the US (Statistics NZ data, cited in O’Dea and Howden-Chapman, 2000). The periods during which increases in inequality were greatest were characterised by tax-cuts for high- and middle-income earners” (Duncan 2007, p. 227).

Things did not improve much under Clark’s Labour-led government – although Working for Families appeared to help reduce inequality a little. And then the 2008 Crash, the rise in unemployment, tax-cuts and (proposed) asset-sales for the well-off, have not assisted to reduce inequalities since then.

National’s weak-point, then, is in the failure to represent and to defend materially the very classes (the middle classes) upon whom it has historically relied for propelling it into the Beehive. Once the RWC effect wears off, ‘hard-working’ middle New Zealand has little to celebrate, in terms of economic prosperity.

And middle New Zealand has little to gain from National’s key forthcoming policy platforms: competitive provision of workers’ compensation is good for insurance-company executives and shareholders, and that’s about all; asset-sales benefit only the richer ‘Mums and Dads’; bashing the beneficiaries gives middle income-earners a feeling of Schadenfreude, tinged with insecurity… and nothing more.

What middle-class New Zealanders can look forward to is leaner public services, meaner employment policies, oil on our beaches, cow-shit in our rivers.

In 2008, many middle-class voters said: ‘Key made a fortune for himself; so he will do the same for the country.’ For those who can’t personally see much economic gain, if any, from the last three years, and in the light of an emerging politics of class-inequality, that positive view could easily flip into: ‘Key’s one of the 1%; so he doesn’t represent us.’

The irony is, though, that an embarrassing three-way handshake may have done more electoral damage than any hard economic realities.

And what I have yet to describe is an even deeper problem that National has exposed from behind its ‘relaxed, liberal’ façade: a tendency to authoritarianism. More about that later…

Meanwhile, watch this.


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