Academic journal article New Zealand Sociology

After Neo-Liberalism, What Could Be Worse?

Academic journal article New Zealand Sociology

After Neo-Liberalism, What Could Be Worse?

Article excerpt

Abstract

While New Zealand may have served as a model of neo-liberal policy, the present article argues that the analysis and critique of neo-liberalism is increasingly of historical interest only. This emerges from and extends a 'review symposium' in this journal (vol. 26 issues 1 and 2) that began with a critique of the Key government by Roper (2011). While the achievements of the neo-liberal era are still with us, it is hypothesised here that neo-liberalism, as an historically contingent Anglo-American assemblage of ideas and practices, is in decline. In order to address this hypothesis, consideration is given to the political-economic consequences of China's rapid growth.

Introduction

In your imagination, transport yourself back to 1974. Christchurch hosted the Commonwealth Games and the Vietnam War was reaching its end. Robert Muldoon replaced Jack Marshall as leader of the Opposition in July, and the much-loved Labour Prime Minister Norm Kirk died in office on 31 August. Shifts in the global economy were creating problems for New Zealand, however, as rising oil-prices pushed inflation upwards and Britain's entry into the European common market forced New Zealanders to reconsider their prospects.

The USA had emerged as the West's hegemon, using its economic power to reshape the international order in the wake of World War II. Although many New Zealanders acknowledged a debt to the US for defeating Japanese aggression in the Pacific, others resisted American power, opposed the Vietnam War and rejected nuclear weapons. Nevertheless, a generation was growing up heavily influenced by American music and film. For Maori, however, such imperialism was crowding out indigenous culture. Westminster-style government included only tokenistic political representation, and public services were mono-cultural. Maori had suffered dispossession and institutional racism, but New Zealand was on the verge of waking up to the consequences of this legacy through what became known as the Maori Renaissance, symbolized especially by the Maori land march of 1975 (Walker, 1990). Official recognition of this (through Treaty settlements and bicultural policies) was still some time away, however.

Left-wing intellectuals of the 1970s, in New Zealand and abroad, were often critical of the role of the state and its bureaucratic institutions (e.g.: Illich, 1973; Trlin, 1977). Many shared, however, a progressive vision of economic development underpinned by equality of opportunity, free public services and a strong labour movement. To understand where things were really heading, though, they should have studied the military junta that seized power in Chile in 1973 and that implemented economic policies under the tutelage of Milton Friedman and 'the Chicago boys.' They could have read Chilean critics of the Pinochet regime such as Orlando Letelier (Letelier, 1976). But New Zealand intellectuals can be forgiven for not realising at the time that Chile, with its new economic model, was highly relevant to the future, and more than just a gross deviation from the progress of democracy. Similarly, few foresaw the long-term implications of President Nixon's visit to China in 1972. The signs of what the future holds are not always where we think they are. The purpose of this essay is to think through the implications of that historical lesson for our present-day understandings and critiques of neo-liberalism.

The Neo-Liberal Era

For New Zealand, 1974 was the end of the golden weather. The economic order created by the Allies towards the end of World War II at the Bretton Woods conference was falling apart at the seams. From then on, New Zealand's standard of living relative to its OECD partners lagged behind (Roper B. S., 2005). A kind interpretation of Robert Muldoon's National government (1975- 84) sees New Zealand as struggling to retain the social security, state-led investment and protectionism that had become the norm since 1935 (Gustafson, 2000). …

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