Something on the Politics of Social Engineering

Over the years here at KP I have episodically written about the impact of ideology on social order and the debates that revolve on what constitutes the “proper” way in which to organise society. In that light I have mentioned the subject of social engineering, that is, social reform projects initiated by both Right and Left-leaning governments that use public policy to influence social behaviour in pursuit of specific collective outcomes. Here I shall return to the subject, with particular reference to how it has an impact on the upcoming NZ general election.

Some readers may recall my writing about the social engineering aspects of the neoliberal projects of the 1980s-2000s in NZ and elsewhere. To recap, the practical success of neoliberalism as an ideological construct went something like this: neoliberalism started out as a Chicago School approach to macroeconomics that was premised on the belief that finance capital was the leading edge of capitalism and could therefore guide societies towards the most efficient material outcomes. Known as “monetarism” as advocated by Milton Friedman and his acolytes, it was given practical application in the authoritarian laboratory known as Pinochet’s Chile and, in less draconian fashion, NZ under the likes of Roger Douglas and Ruth Richardson. (as some will recall, Douglas and Richardson even copied some of Pinochet’s labour laws as part of their NZ reforms).

The operating premise behind the turn to monetarism was that the Keynesian welfare state had exhausted its natural limits and outlived its usefulness, leading to parasitic rent-seeking behaviours on the part of interest groups tied to bloated public bureaucracies represented by corrupt unions that also were more interested in feeding at the public trough rather than pursing the common good. In order to break the grip of this perverse alliance of leeches, a dramatic structural reform project needed to be undertaken in which the State sector was reduced in size, public good provision was privatised, union power was constrained and people were forced to look to the private sector for their immediate and long term needs (and perhaps the wants of a fortunate few).

Note that this was purely a structural project, that is, a macroeconomic effort to reshape national economies in ways that would promote efficiency and reduce waste. Rather than State managers in places like Central Banks, Ministries of Finance or Economy, investment led by international finance capital would determine those areas in the national economy into which resources were directed using neo-Ricardian principles of comparative and competitive advantage. Codified in the so-called “Washington Consensus” adopted by the World Bank and International Monetary Fund, it had severe dislocating effects on the populations in which it was applied, something that required authoritarian imposition in places like the Southern Cone of Latin America but also serious reductions in collective rights in democracies like NZ, the UK and the US.

It turns out that in order to create the “laboratory” in which neoliberal prescriptions could work as theorised by the Chicago Boys, the human subjects needed to be denied their rights via repression (state terror in the case of the Southern Cone experiments) or drastic reductions in their collective rights in the marketplace (in places like NZ). Legally speaking, both in terms of what workers/employees could address as well as with regard to their modes of representation, the overall impact of neoliberalism was a diminution of wage earner’s ability to defend their interests in the labour market (albeit without the repression in NZ that was deemed necessary in less complacent societies like Chile).

The broader idea was to use structural reform projects to break the welfare statist mould and replace it with a stripped down and leaner State focused on core areas such as defense and security while the private sector assumed de facto control of macroeconomic policy via the appointment of its representatives to State economic oversight, management and regulatory agencies. Having done so, behavioural changes in society would inevitably follow because the state-centric mindsets of the welfare state era would give way to more market-influenced approaches by both individuals and groups. What those changes in concrete terms might be mattered less so long as they conformed to market-driven logics.

In this view monetarist structural reforms would lead to market-dominated social logics. Everyone would become a self-interested maximiser of opportunities within the rational limits of their individual choices given the market conditions in which they operate, with the overall aggregate of choices leading to market clearance at a societal level. Reproduced over time and across generations, market-oriented public perceptions of the “proper” society would become self-fulfilling. Those who accepted the premise would succeed in life and those who refused to accept or could not cope with the individualistic focus and atomising impact of a more market-driven social order would be left behind in its wake. Eventually the societal market would clear based on the sum total of the interactions between people acting as homo economicus in the first instance, to which then could be added the ascriptive (non-material) aspects of human endeavour.

This market-oriented project has certainly succeeded in NZ, even if not by original design. The architects of the early structural reforms were focused on institutions and public policy involved in economic matters, not specifically on social behaviour. But as the influence of those reforms seeped deeper into society, accompanying cultural reforms began to be proposed. To the structural reforms of the first phase of the neoliberal project were attached superstructural addenda that helped cement its ideological grip on public perceptions and behaviour. Remember that ideology is a social construction, that is, an idea about how things should and should not be. Ideologies exist in concrete material conditions with their own historical circumstances and legacies as well as their immediate contexts. In that light, ideology specifies the relationship between the imaginary and the real and the preferred path between them (which among other things raises the notion of the perfectibility of humankind). Neoliberals have an ideological bias in favour of the individual rights and freedoms; Leftists have a bias in favour of collective responsibilities and the public good.

Neoliberals are morally agnostic when it comes to social behaviour in market societies, limiting their preferences to broader freedoms of choice for individuals in such circumstances. Leftists have a normative preference for collectively beneficial social dynamics in which individual rights and responsibilities are equitably balanced with the common good.

In that light, at the superstructural level neoliberalism is an ideology that purports to demonstrate the proper way in which human societies should be organised and how people should interact within them using unfettered property and individual rights as cornerstones of the social contract. There can be no doubt that when compared to the early 1980s pre-neoliberal period, NZ society today is largely governed by market-driven principles and market-oriented institutions. And as a result, NZ social behaviour has changed.

Rather than discussing neoliberalism and market-oriented social engineering any further, let me simply point out that it started out as a conscious structural reform project that morphed into a a way of looking at the world. That in turn led to changes in society as the impact of the structural reforms took hold and deepened over the years. Market-oriented social engineering was a product and consequence of the structural reforms rather than something that was specifically envisioned from the onset. In a sense, the social engineering aspect of neoliberalism, insofar as producing behavioural changes in society, came as a bottom-up, spontaneous response to structural reform rather than as a top-down, deliberately thought-out project that extended beyond issues of political economy.

Think of it this way. Once the nature of the game is altered (say, from cricket to basketball), so too the rules of the game change, followed by changes in who plays and the way they play the new game. It may even determine who is more likely to win. But even then, the way in which the new game is played by those favored and disfavored by the new rules may be unanticipated by those who changed it in the first place. That is the essence of the social engineering consequences of the shift from welfare statism to neoliberalism in places like NZ. They were not preordained or foretold. They just happened as a “natural” consequence or response to the market-oriented structural changes undertaken. Neoliberals are comfortable with that alone, figuring that things like the balance between comfort and security will be sorted out by the interplay of social market forces.

That is where Left social engineering projects differ, and often fail. Unlike the neoliberal approach, which focused on structural (macroeconomic) reform that eventually bubbled up through the layers of the social division of labour in civil society to become new social norms and modes of behaviour, Left social engineering projects are consciously top-down in nature. Unlike market-driven social engineering projects, which focus on the downsizing reform of State institutions and regulations in order to free up policy decision-making space and freedom of manoeuver for private interests, here the primary focus is on changing collective and individual behaviour using the regulatory State as the agent of reform.

Left-leaning social engineering is what economists call “nudging” projects, but on steroids. In this context “nudging” are efforts to make discrete policy adjustments that encourage changes in social behavior, for example, by painting hopscotch, tic-tac-toe or even rainbow arcs on staircases in transportation hubs in order to encourage healthy stair climbing rather than indolent escalator riding. However, the thrust of Left social engineering projects is large rather than small, macro rather than micro, overt rather than discrete. It is “nudging” on a grand scale, or if one were to view such projects negatively, “shoving” the body politic in a particular behavioural direction.

Leftist social engineering involves “think big” projects like the recent “Zero Road Toll” land transportation campaigns or the move to replace automobile lanes with cycle and bus lanes in urban centres (where Left-governed councils use funding from the Labour-led government to make changes to local roading systems that discourage the use of cars and encourage substitute modes like bicycles, buses and trains). They focus on inducing big behavioural changes such as the lowering of smoking rates via high taxation of cigarettes or the switch to electric cars via increased taxation on diesel and petrol cars levied in tandem with rebates on new electric car purchases. The focus is on changing behaviours, not underlying structures, in a reverse of the neoliberal approach.

What these top-down Left social engineering projects do not do is alter the macroeconomic system as given, nor fully account for the microeconomic and unanticipated non-economic behavioural responses to their initiatives. The premise is that if policy-makers use State powers to constrain or frame certain types of human activity or behaviour via taxation, regulation, re-organisation and persuasion, then they will elicit specific types of responses. Rather than morally agnostic when it comes to outcomes, they are normatively-driven (aka biased) towards producing preferred collective outcomes. For example, if you narrow city streets by installing bike and busways and prohibit surface parking without increasing off-street parking spaces, the assumption is that people will abandon their cars and seek alternative modes of transportation whether they live in urban centres or commute to them. Vehicle congestion will be lowered, airborne particulate and street wastewater pollution will fall and people will get healthier by walking more and cycling.

The problem is that this does not account for the universe of car usage, to include the need to transport children and household supplies, the limited availability of disabled transportation access or presence of health issues that make cycling or access public transport difficult, the need for private vehicles for work, lack of transportation alternatives in satellite communities connected to urban employment centres, etc.

In other words, no major structural reforms are adopted, and no hedge is made against unanticipated responses to the implementation of grandiose projects. Market-led capitalism remains untouched as the core of the national economy, with modifications in tax policy nibbling around the margin of the macroeconomic model and broader behavioural changes in society encouraged–some would say imposed–by State fiat. This is the reverse of the neoliberal project, which focused on immediate structural changes and consequences and did not indulge in offering preferences when it came to longer-term social behaviours.

The results for the Left (such as it is in NZ) are often disappointing: With insufficient police resources to enforce road safety policies that are designed to reduce the road death and injury toll, the toll remains static in spite of millions spent on advertising campaigns. In places like West Auckland, ambitious traffic reduction schemes are implemented in places originally designed to attract rather than discourage car usage (e.g. around the Henderson mall and adjacent shopping areas), thereby resulting in gridlock, anger, protests, large-scale violations of the new traffic guidelines and eventual abandonment of the project altogether in the face of community resistance to the change and at a cost of millions of wasted taxpayer dollars.

The same can be said about recent approaches to water provision. The Three Waters project is designed to rationalise water rights, quality and supply by centralising managerial authority in a reduced number of districts while providing better voice for indigenous partners. However, rather than be welcome as an improvement in public good provision, what it received by way of response was both a racist backlash against improved Maori representation as stakeholders and pushback from those who see the removal of decentralised decision-making (however incompetent or inefficient it may be) as an erosion of democratic rights to self-governance when it comes to local water management.

The top-down approach to social engineering is based on one of two logics: that people will respond as required given what they have been legislatively told is in their best collective interest; or people will willingly comply with what they perceive as beneficial for the common good. The catch is that with atomising, individualistic neoliberal perspectives and logics deeply embedded throughout society in NZ, the former will be resisted or ignored and the latter will be met with non-compliance. Given the ideological influence of “legacy” market-oriented social perspectives in contemporary NZ, their impact on general acceptance of 6th Labour government social engineering projects has been deleterious to say the least.

This was seen in the reaction by NZ anti-vaccination, anti-masking and anti-mandate campaigns to the government’s pandemic mitigation efforts, where world-leading prevention, containment and mitigation strategies developed by public health professionals and epidemiologists faced concerted resistance from the business community, conspiracy theorists, rightwing political opportunists, media figures and assorted tinfoil hat “cookers” that culminated in the Parliamentary protests and riot of 2022, and which continue to percolate and be mainstreamed today. In that case a declared national emergency demanded a rapid social engineering response in the face of an immediate existential threat, and yet even then it was repeatedly challenged as an authoritarian over-reach and infringement on basic freedoms. If ever there was concrete proof that the neoliberal ideological championing of the primacy of individual choice was firmly embedded in NZ society, it was in this type of response to what was otherwise a clear case of the State acting on behalf of and defending the collective interest (specifically, public health and welfare) against a common threat.

The point of this rumination is to help understand why the current government may lose the October election. Although it objectively has had more successes than failures during very trying times, it is the combination of market-dominated macroeconomic logics, deeply rooted neoliberal social perspectives and resentment against “top-down” approaches to social engineering that has swayed public opinion against it. That, more than unearthed scandals, media “gotcha” moments or the policies of the parties themselves, seems to be the root cause behind the apparent electorate desire to replace the current government with a Right coalition in which the racist, extremist tail will wag the vacuous “moderate” dog.

That is of concern not only because it threatens to undo some of the good work of the 6th Labour government, but mostly because not all Right social engineering projects are of the bottom-up variety to begin with and all of them require a turn to some form of authoritarianism in their initial stages (as the turn to neoliberalism in NZ in the 80s demonstrates). With ACT being the ideological/dog-whistling tail on the National dog, the turn rightwards will be top-down and harsh.

9 thoughts on “Something on the Politics of Social Engineering

  1. Hi Pablo, and thanks for this.

    I have wondered deeply myself why the electorate has turned against Labour (not necessarily the Left? – the Greens are still pretty strong – as always) – given the success of NZ’s response to the pandemic, the floods (some may argue against that – but I always imagine what National’s response would have been like, if they had been in govt – not as effective or benevolent at all) … and all the other problems that seem to come our way these days. Testing times.

    I cannot understand it. And I think it is complex, as you suggest. But essentially what you are saying, is that Labour/the Left has a mixed message, they are trying to uphold the neoliberal way (largely economic) introduced by them in the 80’s and work within that, while introducing more social reform as per their original ethos from when they were founded, way back. They were always for social reform, social policy.
    I think the element within our society who believe in conspiracy theories, Trump, etc are pretty much a minority. That took a while to take hold, but has received so much publicity (and possibly overseas funding as well), especially after the occupation and riots in Wellington. I remember my sister, who began to subscribe to such beliefs, initially was very concerned about the pandemic, she sent me masks she made, and I remember after the 1st lockdown she visited and it was like a celebration, that we, NZ, had got through it with wise leadership and some big decisions – even the support for businesses. It took a while for her to ‘turn’.

    Something else I wonder, is whether there are a lot of people who are very well-off, thank you, in NZ today. Who seek to keep their status quo, their comfortable income, thier valuable real estate, their overseas trips – I wonder why it is that repeatedly the Labour govt refuses to bring in a wealth tax, or a capital gains tax. Is it because the electorate, the majority of the voting public, is just too well off?
    Then I think again of the Working for Families support, which makes a large majority of middle income NZers dependent on a state top up because they do not seem to be able to make ends meet without it. I have met farmers’ wives who receive this.

    It is a subtle thing that you are suggesting, that the neo-liberal, essentially economic reforms from the 80’s and 90’s are responsible for a shift in consciousness. Of course they promote the individual over the collective. But that will ultimately fail, we depend too much on our neighbours, our community, to survive. Mankind is essentially a social animal … we cannot live in isolation.

    There are many threads running through our community today.
    Like you I despair of a change in govt. I hope against hope the others will hang themselves somehow before the election, damaging their chances. But if what you say is true, a shift in consciousness, then it may take a long time to effect any kind of change. It has been almost 40 years since the Lange govt …. it may take a similar time to alter things for the better. And however that may happen, or what it may look like, I cannot answer, however much I rack my brain. I do tend to think biblical, that there will be more disasters, given global warming et al.
    I do know that it will be different. We will not go back to the way things were.
    And we will come out the other side. I am an optimist

    Kind regards.

  2. Thanks Barbara,

    For the thoughtful comment. I guess my purpose in writing the post, besides getting it off my chest, was to highlight that the deep ingraining of market-driven logics, however unplanned at the onset of neoliberal experience like that in NZ, has made it extra difficult for Left-leaning governments to adopt big social engineering projects. The situation has been exacerbated by social media and hyper partisan winner-take-all approaches to partisan politics, where even something as straight forward as pandemic mitigation became the subject of heated partisan pushback, vitriol and conspiracy-inspired seditious behaviour on the part of fringe groups that receive foreign funding and support but are mainstreamed by conservative media platforms. So what may have been plausible in the pre neoliberal era has become impossible in the post-neoliberal age due to a combination of socio-economic legacies and new ideological influences that play on the hyper-individualistic and atomising social impact of the market-focused project. That in turn makes implementing top-down social engineering projects using the State as the agent of change all there difficult because, at a minimum, the market ideologues will immediately object to spending taxpayer money on them, to which are then added the silly but effective complaints about “communism,” “authoritarianism,” “government over-tech” and the like.

    I do think that the Greens have the most detailed policy platform in the current election buildup, and although I discount pretty much anything they say on defense, intelligence and security issues (and a fair bit of their foreign policy stance as well), I have respect for their domestic policy proposals and support many of them. Plus Chloe Swarbrick is rapidly turning into one of the best prepared and focused politicians in the House, so I have good expectations from her in particular. Now if only the Greens could tone it down on the identity politics front and concentrate on bread and butter issues involving the environment and the contradiction in the social division of labour under contemporary and near future market conditions, then they could be a much more important presence in any Left-leaning parliamentary coalition that helps cancel out the tail-wagging being done by that hideous assortment of misfits, bigots and jerks known as ACT. One can only hope.

  3. An interesting insight into how we got to where we currently are, Pablo. It has occurred to me many times over the years that it was the social engineering of the Clark government that put paid to that particular Labour government in the end. I remember people being very grumpy about things like lightbulbs and shower heads which became symbols of the perceived and real social engineering of those days .

    Things have got very complicated, especially since the pandemic and I think everyone is very tired (especially our politicians) and, like Barbara, fear what a National/ACT government will mean for us all. Not a lot that’s good, I suspect.

    Labour has made some very positive changes for many of us, but it’s been too difficult a time, for obvious reasons, to be able to successfully effect the largest ones and their timing was completely wrong – i.e. they muffed their electoral mandate opportunity – in terms of changing the health system to a centralised one during a pandemic. Three Waters is the other biggie. I know of many people who are agin it, but not for any racist reason (I know these individuals welcome Iwi involvement as I do) but more from the perspective of the funding model which seems pretty risky when one delves into it. Also, I live in a province where our water infrastructure has been very well managed and much of it rebuilt post-quake. Those are my two biggest quibbles with this Labour government, but I’d rather have them at the helm, looking after everyone, especially the vulnerable in our society.

    It does look very much as if the clock will be turned right back to the dark days of the 90s, if the polls are correct. It is something I am truly dreading. But I do have the thought that what might be in store for us is social engineering of a different sort, what with the number of conservative Christians in National (abortion law changes?) and the possibility of repeal of the recent gun laws which National said they will tinker with and ACT will certainly push for. Not fun times at all and I think there will be a fair amount of “buyers remorse” if we do end up with a change of government.

  4. Di:

    My hope is that NACT leaders will continue to reveal themselves as the bigoted chauvinists that they are and voters will adopt a “lesser evil” approach at the polls. Although I have no regard for their positions on defense, security and foreign policy in general (except for their stand on human rights), I find the Greens policy proposals to be well thought out and costed.The main thing that has to happen is for the left centre parties to adopt a post-neoliberal approach to policy-making that rejects the public cost-cutting and low tax nonsense that continues to be the bottom line of budgetary policy.

  5. Yesterday I had occasion to visit my sister, who lives in the Rangitikei electorate. I drove out through Feilding, a small local town in the same electorate. I was surprised at the number of billboards for National and Act in the area, a huge number. And Act seems to have changed its spots – colour – to pink. (I always thought it was yellow ? Not that it matters much, but I wonder about the psychology of that.) I saw one billboard for Labour, in Feilding. This huge and largely rural electorate is traditionally National (though Feilding has a small less well-off minority) but is up for grabs this time around.
    Interestingly, and in parallel to this, the Newsroom website is running an on-going report into political donations (among other things).

    This last report was from August 23rd.
    I find it really depressing – the inequity in political donations, and it must explain in large part for the heightened visibility of both these rightwing parties throughout the country, no matter the particular medium, whether billboard, facebook, youtube, or whatever.

    Sobering stuff.

  6. Thanks Pablo. I have the same hopes. There is still time and it seems to me that the media are finally taking a closer look at what National & ACT’s policies will mean for us all. There’ll be some winners but an awful lot of losers, if they do win, and my feeling is that that is beginning to sink in, judging from some of the analysis of the last couple of days. Hope I’m not being a Pollyanna!

    To Barbara: A friend visited yesterday and made a very similar comment on her observations about all of the ACT party billboards up around the rural areas in the upper South Island on a recent visit up that way. She couldn’t get over the number of them.

  7. Barbara:

    Interesting that you note the ACT presence in the countryside. My wife, who studies political lobbying and is currently researching the history of farmer’s lobbies in NZ in comparative perspective (she tends to do European political economy but has shifted recently to looking at NZ in broader context) mentioned to me that the presence of ACT in rural areas is significant because it is moving out of the Epsom stronghold based on appeals to farmers fed up with “stifling” regulations regarding methane emissions, water and land pollution, animal welfare, assorted worker safety matters and employment issues (especially for seasonal labourers), land usage regimes etc. Although big donors will have a bob each way with National and ACT, many in National’s “natural” constituency are drifting rightwards towards ACT because of what they perceive to be National’s weak approach towards defending farmer’s interests and enacting policy reforms that defend or enable market forces when it comes to determine the country’s most profitable productive sector. The hypocrisy of farmer’s always looking for financial subsidies, tax incentives and public sector relief during times of drought/flooding/animal disease is no barrier to this rightward march, to which can be added the thinly veiled racism at play when it comes to things like 3 Waters etc.

    The good news from my perspective is that the proliferation of fringe rightwing parties will siphon votes more from ACT than National but also lower their combined overall numbers. This is good because the Left side of the NZ spectrum is not as divided nor as extreme in any event (certain te Pati Maori statements notwithstanding). The combined number on that side of the aisle may, hopefully, add up to more than what the NACT coalition can muster even if Winston First is included (he will also lose votes to the likes of Tamaki’s ego onanist party and some of the other nutters). To be sure, all of the nutters plus ACT and NZ First can push National over the top, but my hope is that enough is siphoned off of their totals so as to make coalition negotiations on that side a cacophony of shouted demands by tinfoil hat squawkers, gun freaks, Deep State and conspiracy theorists and other such rabble. That may make it difficult the NACT dog to gain control over its extremist tail in order to form a government.

    If that proves true and the Greens can hold on to 10-11 percent of the vote, then I think that it is possible for Labour to get re-elected either outright or as a second coalition leader so long as it does not get blindsided by a scandal or some other media beat up that sends fickle voters over to the dark side.

  8. I love your way with words Pablo lol
    But I hadn’t twigged that Act may be going for the rural vote. You are right!
    I suspect my sister may be a closet Act voter too, though we try not to talk about it ;-)

  9. In the circumstances as they have developed over recent weeks, it would seem to be highly desirable to have NZF and W. Peters in a pivotal position in the new regime, in order to temper and moderate the more extreme ideas of the Act side as well as the inexperience of the Nat leadership.

    The biggest concern about this however would be that W. Peters forgoes the foreign ministry so that he can concentrate on the domestic scene. On the other hand, it has also been rumoured around Wellington that Brownlee could be nominated as speaker. In which case we might see either McClay or Collins as foreign minister. I fear that Collins’ stronger personality may prevail in that regard…..

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