The struggle continues

Today is Labour Day in New Zealand, a day commemorating the struggle of the New Zealand working class for an eight-hour working day. A struggle that began with the resolute action of a single carpenter from Petone, and was achieved by the coordinated action of the entire trade union movement. Labour Day reminds us of the importance of solidarity and the continued need for coordinated action to defend the rights of ordinary people. I want to use my Labour Day to reflect on recent political events and their implications for my fellow social workers, and the workers with whom they work.

So, by a curious and convoluted path, the political balance in New Zealand has altered. The term of office of the fifth National government – in power since 2008 – has ended, and their centre-right government replaced by a coalition of the centre-left. That the coalition has a different political sensibility is signalled in references made by Jacinda Ardern and Winston Peters to the failures of capitalism and the need for a capitalism with a kinder, more human face. As Ian Hyslop argued, the fact that the “C” word is in use, and being critiqued, suggests that the political ground has shifted significantly. More than this, there is talk of a return to social protections: to reforming the benefits system, stopping the sale of social housing and improving mental health services.

Not before time. Like other public sector workers, social workers bear daily witness to the impact of unregulated market forces, rentier capitalism and punitive social agencies on Māori, people on benefits and other workers in precarious circumstances. Social workers also know that neoliberal reforms have stretched health and social services to breaking point, made worse by managerial productivity and accountability measures that only increase the exploitation, demoralisation and alienation of workers. Writers in this blog have frequently commented on the National government’s plans to dismantle social welfare services, and replace them with a technocratic, neoliberal, social investment state (Hyslop, 2017; Keddell, 2017), plans that included proposals for alarming experiments in algorithmic risk prediction in child protection services (Keddell, 2016). If a centre-left coalition is willing to halt these dystopian experiments, and embrace new and progressive social policies, then that is to be welcomed. But let us be clear, none of this will be easy. I want to argue that, whilst colleagues may be excited at the prospect of a shiny, new, left-leaning coalition, we (and they) must stay alert to what happens next. There are three reasons to stay alert: one concerns the response of powerful actors outside government whose interests are threatened by the new coalition; a second is the resistance of key actors inside state agencies; and the third concerns the prospects for a deeper, more emancipatory political project.

Firstly, and most importantly, the class whose self-interest has been put on hold by the coalition will organise against reforms that threaten their interests. Of course, to accept this argument, you need to accept that social class is still a valid concept in the twenty-first century; that the capitalist class (described by Oxfam as the 1%) actually exists; and that something called class struggle, or anti-capitalist struggle, is an ever-present social reality. Those of us who do accept these assumptions look behind and beyond electoral politics to trace the dynamics of the struggle as it plays out in a range of different domains: in government, industry, communities and the media. When the power of the capitalist class is threatened, even in a small way (such as the election of a left-leaning, social democratic coalition) they mobilise to minimise the threat; and, as a class, they have enormous wealth, power and influence that enables them to do so. One way to think about the capitalist class is as a social movement from above. Social movements from above have been described as:

…the collective agency of dominant groups, which is centred…around a rationality that aims to maintain or modify a dominant structure of entrenched needs and capacities in ways that either reproduce or extend the power of these groups, and their hegemonic position. (Cox & Nilsen, 2014, pp 59-60)

Pyramid of Capitalist System

Put simply, dominant groups and elites use their existing power and influence to maintain their position and resist attempts to restrain or regulate that power, irrespective of social democratic, electoral choices. In other words, we can expect a series of attempts, propagated through the media, to sully the reputation of individual left-leaning politicians (just as they dragged the reputation of Metiria Turei through the mud), disparage left-leaning policies and lobby government ministers to comply with their wishes. We should expect media headlines shrieking about the dire consequences of being soft on beneficiaries, and business leaders squealing about the effects of the tiniest of tax reforms, or minuscule changes to the minimum wage. Progressive social workers must respond assertively to these arguments and highlight the vested interests of the actors involved.

Secondly, there may be resistance to change from inside government agencies. As Machiavelli (1950) wrote, and all politicians understand:

There is nothing more difficult to take in hand, more perilous to conduct, or more uncertain in its success, than to take the lead in the introduction of a new order of things. For the reformer has enemies in all those who profit by the old order, and only lukewarm defenders in all those who would profit by the new order…(p. 21)

Consider, for example, the complexities involved in correcting the recent National government changes to the Ministry of Social Development or to Oranga Tamariki. Policy papers have been written, legislation amended, structures altered, senior managers appointed and projects commenced. All of the above is geared to implement a neoliberal vision of child welfare premised on social investment, the politics of early intervention (Gillies, Edwards & Horsley, 2017) and a discredited interpretation of neuroscience (Beddoe & Joy, 2017; Wastell & White, 2017). Turning that policy direction around is essential. However, prior material commitments made in the form of senior management appointments, new technologies and business processes will make change as easy as turning an oil tanker in a storm. The temptation for the coalition will be to focus on new and unrelated flagship initiatives that can be more easily launched, managed and controlled. Political principles argued vigorously from the benches of the opposition, can become tempered with political pragmatism in officeProgressive social workers must support coalition politicians by holding them to account, reminding them of values held whilst in opposition and insisting they use their political power to follow through with principled actions, no matter how difficult.

Thirdly, those of us who struggle to realise a more emancipatory politics – whether struggling against economic exploitation, environmental degradation or cultural dispossession – must use the space opened up by a left-leaning coalition to continue to build the movement for social change. We must debate and argue for the resources and policies that will allow us to build truly democratic, culturally responsive, social institutions that support community wellbeing in a sustained way. This cannot be achieved by a better safety net for the victims of the market economy (welcome though that may be), but only through a radical transformation of society. The real choice for people, and the planet, is not between capitalism with or without a human face. The real choice is, as Rosa Luxembourg (1915) framed it many years ago, “…either transition to Socialism or regression into Barbarism”. Happy Labour Day comrades!

References

Beddoe, L., & Joy, E. (2017). Questioning the uncritical acceptance of neuroscience in child and family policy and practice: A review of challenges to the current doxaAotearoa NewZealand Social Work, 29(1), 65-76.

Cox, L. & Nilsen, A.G. (2014). We make our own history: Marxism and social movements in the twilight of neoliberalism. London, UK: Pluto Press.

Gillies, V., Edwards, R. & Horsley, N. (2017). Challenging the politics of early intervention: Who’s ‘saving children and why. Bristol, UK: Policy Press.

Hyslop, I. (2017). Child protection in New Zealand: A history of the future. British Journal of Social Work, 47(6),1800–1817, https://doi.org/10.1093/bjsw/bcx088

Keddell, E. (2016). Substantiation decision-making and risk prediction in child protection systemsPolicy Quarterly12(2), 46-56.

Keddell, E. (2017). The vulnerable child in neoliberal contexts: The construction of children in the Aotearoa New Zealand child protection reforms. Childhood. Advance online publication. doi: 10.1177/0907568217727591

Luxembourg, R. (1915). The Junius pamphlet: The crisis of German social democracy. Retrieved from https://www.marxists.org/archive/luxemburg/1915/junius/ch01.htm

Machiavelli, N. (1950). The Prince and the discourses. New York : The Modern Library, Random House.

Wastell, D. & White, S. (2017). Blinded by science: The social implications of epigenetics and neuroscience. Bristol, UK: Policy Press

4 thoughts on “The struggle continues

  1. Hi, Just wanted to let you all know I’m paying attention. Have not much to add to this as Neil, Liz and Ian have been rigorous in outing what is not just one elephant in the room, but a whole herd!
    The Labour and Greens/ NZ First Coalition got in by the skin of their fingernails… But they got in! National is still strong enough even in opposition to stick the poison in and should not be underestimated. Its going to be still a matter of attempting to ‘heard cats’ for the government to evoke a change in status quo- gaining power in the house is only the first step. They have to refuse to be shouted down.
    Many people in NZ mainstream have yet to get their heads around the reality of the concept of ‘working poor’ and some often have such a wilful misunderstanding of the concept of ‘the precariat’, and are often incapable of having a conversation about the issue.
    The NZ employment environment is one of “small business enterprise” concept – and a few large global franchises taking over the supply of affordable goods and resources. They are terrifying to listen to and even more terrifying to work for. Hard nosed attitudes amongst the NZ ‘Precariat’, don’t even recognize that they are in the ‘precariat’ – mostly operating in the ‘gig’ style workforce / contractor community. Worse still if they are in a position where they have to employ people to survive when they are in survival mode themselves they can be harsh to their employees and even harsher towards their peers.
    It is easy to peddle the ‘scrounger narrative’ and to promote austerity as a social policy to these people, who form a large part of the NZ workforce. The NZ business / employment environment has created this monster,and desperately needs a culture change.
    I would not take the attitude seriously if it was not widely held amongst the employed ;
    Like turkeys voting for a extra Christmas they mostly identify powerfully with the ‘free’ market philosophy in spite of the reality of their situation as members of the Precariat- and often focus on taking incredible risks to join the ‘rentier’ class which they view as a better -more ‘morally correct’ option to fund retirement, over protecting and supporting our National Super scheme. Yet these are the people who would benefit most from supporting the concept of universal basic income.
    The ‘rentier capitalism’ could almost outstrip the wage earning sector contribution to NZ’s economic engine creating what Guy Standing describes – “… policies that appear to help the precariat end up favouring rentiers. When incomes are topped up through tax credits, employers lower wages – and pocket more themselves.”
    Let’s hope the new Government can give this workforce sector a wake-up call and drag them from the land of “us and them” into a better reality for all. We need a united workforce to make change happen.

    1. Many thanks Jayne. I agree that we have a major task of consciousness raising ahead of us. You’re comment reminded me of this post on Jacobin that offers a really nice overview of how we got to where we are today.

      Your reference to Guy Standing’s view on the precariat, and rentier capitalism, is also important. Colleagues may be interested in listening to his presentation to the New Zealand Fabian Society:

  2. Agreed Liz. I don’t want to underestimate just how difficult it will be for coalition. however willing, to alter the direction of travel set in motion inside Oranga Tamariki. And yet, if they do not, their government will be held responsible for inevitable future system failures. They urgently need to get round the table with the trade unions and with alternative advisers to the motley crew hired by Minister Tolley.

  3. An excellent post Neil and a timely reminder that the celebrations will be replaced very quickly by the need for the centre left to respond to a hard, brutal campaign to undermine the new government. And we can see the right wing misogyny of much of what passes for journalism in msm already getting far more airtime than its intellectually bankrupt spokespeople deserve. However I agree with you that there is a less visible threat to the return to a more just and progressive social policy. And that is indeed found in the many social investment zealots appointed by English, Tolley , Bennett et al. Just recently I challenged such a person, a British public servant ‘helping ‘ the New Zealand government, on Twitter after he opined he was here in New Zealand to ‘reform social work’. I pointed out rather sharply that social work is not his to reform. He quickly apologised for clumsy language and deleted the tweet. But it’s an example of what we face. People associated with ‘reform’ of social work in England would be the last people I would employ to tinker with child welfare in Aotearoa. Neo-colonials who would bring us privatisation( Serco running foster care anyone?) and blatant attempts at embedding class privilege right in the heart of social work. No thanks. Social workers, service users and advocates will indeed need to support the new ministers to fight unjust ideologies from within as well as the undermining attempts of disgruntled Tories in the media and the parliament.

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