A Turn to Mean.

As I watched various labour conflicts over the past few months, then took in accounts of greed-mongering of various types (the wheel-clamping rort being the latest), I set to wondering if things have turned mean in NZ. I tend to think so, and believe a lot of it has to do with National’s presence in government as well as the increasing stratification of NZ society–something National’s policies tend to exacerbate. Some of this collusion is obvious, such as changes to labour laws that strip worker’s of collective rights while enhancing employer prerogatives when hiring and firing (under the banner of so-called “flexibility”). Some is less so, such as in the “look the other way” approach to the conditions that led to the Pike River and Rena disasters and the hands-off government reaction to them. But the trend towards meanness began well before National returned to government in 2008 even if it has gotten worse under it.

It strikes me that the syllogism involved goes something like this: increased employment precariousness born of economic recession in climates of market austerity premised on cost-cutting in both the public and private sectors leads to increased anxiety, then desperation amongst the salaried classes as their life opportunities narrow. In the measure that collective means of defense and redress are also pared down and stripped of legal cover, agency takes precedence over principal to the point that individual rank and file interests are sacrificed in favor of continued union bureaucratic presence (however diminished) in those economic sectors that remain at least partially organized. In the measure that workers realize that their agents have adopted the “iron law of oligarchy” where bureaucratic self-interest and survival becomes the primary objective to which rank and file interests must be subordinated, notions of collective solidarity are abandoned in favor of individual self-interest. Since this is the dominant ethos at play in unorganized sectors of the economy and amongst the managerial and financial elites, the move to survivalist alienation becomes endemic (and indeed pandemic, if we include the fact that immigrants are socialized into the culture of meanness, thereby propagating the “disease” beyond its original culture). The original agents of transmission, in any case, would appear to be the market ideologues who have metastasized into the managerial elites of the present day.

When survivalist alienation becomes endemic, cultural, ethnic, religious and other forms of ascriptive categorization are used to justify the “me first” approach to social intercourse. Until then people may just be bitter. But this is the point when things turn mean.

I could be wrong and this has always been the case in NZ. My impressions are formed since 1997, so perhaps what existed before was indeed a land of milk and honey. But it seems to me, beyond the inter-generational inevitability of the trend towards hyper-individualism there lay a number of accelerants that have made things worse in the last ten years.


27 thoughts on “A Turn to Mean.

  1. “…the market ideologues who have metastasized into the managerial elites of the present day.” Well put.

  2. Hugh:
    Not that I remember, at least not in this specific way. But even if I did then perhaps it is because the question is well worth repeating.

  3. Well probably not exactly the same question but I do remember a post back when I lived in NZ and you lived in Singapore about how it seemed, from your vantage point, that New Zealand society was getting more conflictual and cleavage-d (forgive the PoliSci lingo). At the time I and a lot of other commenters said that you might have been getting fixated on the negatives, which is always tempting even when your perspective isn’t from outside the country.

    I’ve just spent the last twenty minutes trawling through the archives trying to find it, with no luck, though… although it was an interesting review of your Greatest Hits.

  4. But yea I suppose a few years is enough time to ask again. Although for the record, I think that New Zealand society has been slowly becoming more economically divided since the 1970s, with all that a Marxist view of history would derive from that. And that while it is probably worse than it has been, there hasn’t been any major turn for the worst in the last year or so. It’s always tempting to see the latest outrage as a sea change while forgetting the sea changes we identified a year or two ago.

  5. Once again, it brings to mind Robert Reich’s , href=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JTzMqm2TwgE>The Truth About The Economy video. Weaken a nation’s middle class, and it’ll get antsy and defensive, and vulnerable to finding a scapegoat. Crank it up to 11, and you get a Weimar Republic.

    In a variant of a post-Great Recession joke, here’s how trickle-down economics works:

    A banker, a battler and a beneficiary are standing beside a table with a large pie cut in 12 pieces. The banker takes 11 of the pieces and whispers to the battler, “Careful of that parasite. He’ll kill you for your piece.”

  6. Yeah, you unfortunately arrived some years too late Pablo, the 70s were great in many places in this country. Norm Kirk’s social democratic 1972 government actually funded Ohu, or communes, alternative living communities fer crissakes. Norm also said “take the bikes off the ‘bikies’ (bikers in modern parlance) but as many motorcycles got confiscated as Crusher Collins has managed to crush Evos in reality. And Norm also said no to apartheid rugby.

    A few certain senior civil servants even served as public intellectuals IMO. Union density was higher but union radicalism was never that great, restricted to the marxist influenced or led unions, which by the way achieved some handy reforms like sick pay, Northern Drivers Union vs Winstones quarry 1968, and redundancy pay-combined unions Mangere Bridge dispute. People that hate or ignore unions still want redundancy pay these days.

    Some of the answer lies in the identifiably concrete, and some in the murky malaise of Aotearoa’s still unfolding post colonial situation–dark kiwi, ‘man alone’, ‘dont know, don’t wanna know denial’ and stratification to the miniscule degree which could also be called parochialism in earlier terminology I guess. Rural isolationism etc. Rugby; one writer reckoned was somewhat homoerotic, that ostensibly straight guys without women had some physical touch with other people. Pushing it a bit maybe but… (no pun etc.)

    Lew in his various posts is correct that those that fail to deal with the challenges of post colonial life here just degrade themselves, cheating and leaning on the vulnerable is the finance capital model.

    It is interesting though that Māori have not indulged in the car bomb methodology as other opressed peoples around the world have. In Latin America plain genocide and marginalisation seems to be the rule for indigenous peoples, not too many Waitangi tribunals there. So yes NZ is an interesting case.

    One dictionary of New Zealand History has some great insights. The highest concentration of war memorials in every tin pot hamlet imaginable is in Taranaki, which also over the years has been one of the most racist anti Māori areas.

    To sum up…
    • Surface egalitarianism, glee glee kiwiana, but class system business as usual. $1.8 Bill to South Canterbury Finance bailout, but ‘can’t afford’ to fund improved parental leave.
    • All New Zealanders are immigrants one way or another.
    • Atomisation of communities into individuals and commodity fetishism has ramped up under neo lib for almost 30 years
    • “rabi blancos” are still in charge of most things
    • The pressure is coming down on most people but the means of support or resistance have been depleted
    • The defensive actions of several sections of unionised workers in response to opportunistic employer militancy in a high unemployment environment, supported by the central labour organistion (NZCTU) of this country give some hope: you don’t have to take it.
    • There is marked crossover and combined action among hard and social democratic left groups since the formation of Te Mana Movement

  7. Pablo, and I think this is a good alternative — or complementary — explanation for the phenomenon some folks describe when they talk about how middle New Zealand hates, and does not sympathise with, the working classes since Rogernomics. How they resent the guilt they feel at the hardship caused by those reforms, and rationalise it by blaming the working class for having forced the government into such a position.

    I’m not entirely persuaded by that argument, but I do see the reasoning.


  8. ” In Latin America plain genocide and marginalisation seems to be the rule for indigenous peoples”

    [Citation needed]

  9. @ Hugh: I am not an academic, so you can keep your “citation”. I made a number of generalised asserstions so what interests you about the South American one?

    Each country is different, Bolivia with over 60% of the population identifying as indigenous and Argentina under 2%. Following the Spanish invasions there are numerous examples of whole groups being wiped out for various reasons or confined to woeful conditions in Andean enclaves. It is all there in scores of reputable books. Plus I am in current contact with various South Americans via union business and I have asked questions about this matter.

    Now back to Pablo’s post, NZ unionists have noticed a similar phenomenon to “last place aversion” as referred to in the piece linked to below, where somewhat unexpected people oppose an increase in the minimum wage.

  10. I’ll let Pablo deal with that one Tiger, he’s the Latin American expert. (Although also an academic, so you might not be interested)

  11. Ridiculous post, White NZ has always been like this. Possibly in the past they saved their mean-ness for people outside their own group (white pretend-rural heterosexual men) but they were always ‘mean’ to the rest of us. As for the assimilsation of immigrants, I don’t think so, not all of them. Polynesia is taking these islands back and various other communities take care of their own members egalitarianism exists outsisde ‘mainstream’ nz. White culture will not be the dominant culture in nz in the future, they know it, that’s why they’re trying to cling to their ill-gotten privileges scared somebody will take away their precious white-supremacy. They or their descendents will get over it when they find out real equality isn’t a threat.

    @tiger mountain: white settlers in nz killed 80% of the Indigenous population and stole 95% of the land. Some Indigenous people in South America still have land and resources to be stolen, that’s the difference. Also don’t know where you got your information about Maori refraining from arson and resistance, but it is a good example of how settlers prefer their own myths over anything ressembling reality. NZ’s opinion of their own egalitarianism and non-‘meanness’ when they were wipng out Indigenous culture, colonising the pacific and enforcing the ‘white NZ’ immigration policy is another example. What else happened in the 1970s you think were so great? Homosexuality was illegal, wife-beating was acceptable, Polynesians (and Maori mistaken for immigrants because they were brown!) were terrorised with dawn raids, English immigrants were allowed to over-stay but they were attacked in the streets, many rural Maori lived in actal 3rd world conditions, etcetc. I can see why you prefer the myth.

  12. The problem with this article is that the there is no analysis of human nature; thus no understanding. Oh, also no causation; just correlation with the National Party. Well, you could correlate it to failure of Labour to offer an alternative as well. So is the solution to vote labour, or spurn representative democracy.

  13. Andrew: If you had taken the time to actually digest the post you would have seen that it is posed as a speculated syllogism. It is not an article, and I certainly was not going to set out to analyze human nature (as if!). Nor is there a correlation with National–I started the post by just pointing out things have gotten worse under its rule, but that the trend I was speculating about began earlier.

    Your concluding sentence makes no sense in the context of the post. Rather than critical thinking, you appear to have just stumbled in, read the first paragraph, and burped up some unreflective sophomoric retort. I suggest you go back to reading the NBR and keep that so-called investment advice of yours to other right-wing charlatans.

    NZhater: I do not want to indulge the thread-jack regarding indigenous Latin Americans, but it is ludicrous to equate the relative plight of Maori with the mass slaughter and dispossession of entire populations–including most of the great civilizations of the Inca, Aztec, Auracano, Mapuche, Guarani, Ahumara and Patagones–with the colonial and post-colonial experience of Maori. There was no Treaty for the Latin American indigenous. There was and is instead forced conquest. They were forced off their land, forced to abandon their traditional lifestyles and even killed with impunity well into the 1970s (and 1980s in Central America), and in remote parts of Brazil, Peru, Ecuador and Colombia, they continue to be be so to this day. Their legal rights and entitlements not only pale in comparison to those of Maori; those that they do have have are haphazardly and grudgingly enforced at best.

    Hell, just a cursory look at the current dispute between Mapuche and loggers in Patagonian Chile would give you an inkling as to how much worse things are on the other side of the Pacific (and I should add that NZ-based Fletcher has been an accomplice in the logging industry’s destruction of indigenous land in Chile). So you need to get a grip, at least comparatively speaking, before you set to typing senseless fusillades against the White Man.

    In other words, your rant, while amusing, rests on a profound ignorance of the comparative plight of Maori relative to other indigenous groups around the world. That is not to minimize Maori grievances, but it certainly helps to put them in perspective.

  14. Pablo, you offer the option of placing a website,and deflect from your argue to spurn my website, and disparage me ‘NZ hater’. Why don’t you visit my Australia or Japan, or Philippines, then you will see I’m a “hater” of those cultures as well. The National govt, and I’m not a fan of them, have overseen an earthquake and global recession. Are they great? No, they are best the system will offer, so I say change the system.
    You are right; based on the problems I had with your first paragraph, mostly with the values conveyed, so I lost interest in the rest. I’ve certain standards. They are mine; and to be fair, the quality of my content is dubious at times as well. They reflect my priorities.
    Maori-Latin America; really off topic; but I see no point in drawing lines about levels of suffering; since suffering is personal, not collective, and dead people do not talk.

  15. Andrew: You have confused my response to you with my response to the commentator “iihatenz” at 20:49 yesterday. I replied to you both in my last comment. I am glad that you recognize that reading one paragraph and then stopping leaves you open to critique.

  16. Point taken…I thought I was ‘NZ hater’ because I critique a great deal of things, including NZ values. :)
    I don’t think its wrong to read just one paragraph; any it does not say anything really, since my motives are not open to you, and my standards or expectations are not yours. Just to clarify. Love that your an idealist; just think you are on the wrong path.

  17. TigerMountain: “Now back to Pablo’s post, NZ unionists have noticed a similar phenomenon to “last place aversion” as referred to in the piece linked to below, where somewhat unexpected people oppose an increase in the minimum wage.

    This kind of reverse tall-poppy syndrome also brings to mind Paul Graham’s essay Why Nerds Are Unpopular“:

    Another reason kids persecute nerds is to make themselves feel better. When you tread water, you lift yourself up by pushing water down. Likewise, in any social hierarchy, people unsure of their own position will try to emphasize it by maltreating those they think rank below. I’ve read that this is why poor whites in the United States are the group most hostile to blacks.

  18. Don’t disagree with you DeepRed; but I wouldn’t make a principle out of it (i.e. the moral relativism aside). Kids are like that because they have a poorly developed value system. But you probably know that. :)
    So ‘some’ kids persecute….and its a rather empty type of ‘better’…because you all end up drowning. Same for American poor whites.

  19. Andrew: The big problem is when people don’t grow out of it, and cling to puerile and monochrome world views in a grown-up shades-of-grey world.

  20. Ridiculous comment @pablo, there are many complicated and differences between various parts of S America and NZ. Completely irrelevant, but tbf so was the original post. Sorry, this blog was advertised as “left wing”, obviously falsely. What happened in NZ is called “settler colonialism” fyi. The tactics vary from place to place but the purpose is always to eliminate the native and replace them on their own land. White people in NZ own all the land, there are no more independent tribes here to be wiped out or resources to be stolen, this didn’t just happen, NZ isn’t exceptional in this. White settlers in NZ want to congratulate themselves for being less “mean” than Spanish settlers in America whatever. this isn’t a percieved grievance or a competition between colonised people for the acknowledgement of our colonizers, it is a worldwide phenomenon and pretty well understood by most people who have any claim to be “left wing”. Idon’t know why you are writing about nz if you don’t know anything about NZ’s history. Anyway, please stop advertising this blog as left wing and wasting readers’ time. one thing South America is far ahead of NZ when it comes to any kind of left politics. I’m out.

  21. “The National govt, and I’m not a fan of them, have overseen an earthquake and global recession. Are they great? No, they are best the system will offer”

    I have to disagree with this.

  22. Some of the comments above I must say have pushed this initially contemplative Pablo post towards mescaline craziness. “ihatenz”, fer crissakes, I ‘hate’ very little personally, but severe inability to comprehend the written word nudges the threshold.

  23. I’m no psychologist, but I just came to the realisation that the “last place aversion” syndrome TigerMountain linked to is a subset of that hoary old chestnut called the Inferiority Complex. At school our headmaster told us it was one of the obvious traits of a bully.

    It spans a wide gamut – it’s also the underlying mentality of “keeping up with the Joneses”, kicking away the ladder (a la Paula Bennett and the TIA), the sour grapes towards the Ports of Auckland union, the fiscal cargo cultism of the Smiling Assassin, and the poor whites in “Why Nerds Are Unpopular”.

    Arm it with a gun, and you get Anders Breivik. Arm it with a million guns, and you get the dictatorships of 1930s Europe.

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