Academic journal article New Zealand Sociology

The 'Grit' beneath Neoliberalism's Wheels: Harnessing Ambivalence in Public Opinion to Galvanise Social Citizenship

Academic journal article New Zealand Sociology

The 'Grit' beneath Neoliberalism's Wheels: Harnessing Ambivalence in Public Opinion to Galvanise Social Citizenship

Article excerpt


Public empathy towards the unemployed and redistribution has weakened in the neoliberal era. This article, however, heeds Clarke's (2004, p. 44) call to identify "resistances, refusals, and blockages" that challenge the 'Big Story' of global neoliberalisation by highlighting ambivalence and divergence in public opinion that provide opportunities to reframe the unemployed as 'deserving', broaden notions of responsibility and (re)build a sense of reciprocity. Together these shifts could galvanise public support for social citizenship, that is the right for all New Zealanders to have a basic level of economic and social security.


Neoliberalism is often framed as a hegemonic "commonsense of the times" (Peck & Tickell, 2002, p.381). Yet studies highlight the variegated and incomplete implementation of neoliberal policies and ideas across time and place (Bode, 2008; Brand & Sekler, 2009). Indeed, Clarke (2004, p.44-45) argues that:

Dominant strategies do not occupy an empty landscape. They have to overcome resistances, refusals, and blockages. For many reasons, the public realm (and the attachments that it mobilises) is part of the 'grit' that prevents the imagined neo-liberal world system functioning smoothly. It makes a difference to our view of the world if we start by looking for the grit ? taking notice of the recalcitrance, resistance, obstruction, and incomplete rule ? rather than throwing them in as a gestural last paragraph after the 'big story' has been told. Starting with them in mind might create a little more thinking and breathing space by lifting the dead weight of the Big Stories from our minds. The contested fortunes of the public realm are testimony to the limitations of neo-liberalism's plan to rule the world.

Clarke (2004) seeks to explain why neoliberalism's emphasis on the 'private' has not yet fully dominated notions of the 'public'. He acknowledges the importance of neoliberalism but highlights sites of resistance where the political Left might expand and capitalise. Although his focus does not encompass public opinion, this is the understanding of the 'public' examined in this article.

The New Zealand Election Study (NZES) offers insight into this realm as its survey questions tap into changing public opinion towards social citizenship (the right to a basic level of economic and social security) between 1990 and 2011.1 Analysing public opinion data is always fraught with problems: Does a respondent's answer reflect their actual view on an issue or did they misunderstand the question? Would a different answer be given if the same issue was asked about in a different way? Was the response rate for a particular question sufficient to say the results reflect 'public' opinion? But with at least 2000 respondents each survey being asked the same sets of questions over a number of years, the NZES is the most reliable data source for such an analysis. Although determining causality is also always difficult to pin down (Hills, 2002; Burstein, 2010), I used Page & Shapiro's (1983) method of qualitatively analysing 'co-variance' between policy and absolute percentage shifts in attitudes over time against policy changes, spending levels and economic shifts to assess what role policy likely played in influencing attitudes.

This broad-ranging analysis2 found only limited evidence that the public endorse neoliberal values regarding health, education, pensions, while views are mixed when it comes to economic issues such as jobs. However, the NZES data suggest a significant hardening of attitudes towards the unemployed and redistribution that arguably reflect a neoliberal focus on 'welfare dependency' and individual responsibility and seriously challenge the idea that government is responsible for ensuring economic and social wellbeing.

Given this significant hardening in attitudes, the article's three main sections examine how we might: challenge the deserving/undeserving dichotomy; reorient citizen responsibilities and obligations; and (re)build a sense of reciprocity. …

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