Tuesday, 28 October 2014

Freedom From Fear

The economic elite has extensive means at its disposal to direct political discourse and form policy to further its interests, including exerting influence over the media and the machinery of state.  National's third election victory and Labour's resounding defeat make it even more obvious that large numbers of Kiwis have been persuaded their interests correspond with those of the economic elite.

Part of the process of persuasion is very simple - it's an appeal to avarice and hubris. People who have sufficient money to buy security and opportunity are free from the fear of privation and they can exercise relatively high levels of control over their own lives.  Many believe they get this abundance of things and opportunities through their own hard work and abilities. They also believe that people who lack their advantages have failed in some way.  

They choose to ignore the fact that the keystone in the protective arch of their comfortable lives is debt - and if, for any reason, they become unable to service that debt, the arch will fall.

The other part of the persuasion process is a bit more complex and is to do with the extension of human rights and civil liberties. 

My last post on Labour Day ended: "All the while that industrial and finance capital was tightening its throttle hold on the neck of organised labour - it allowed certain domestic human rights and civil liberties. "  

Over the past 40 years or so, as corporate capitalism has thrown off its Keysian fetters and has been sucking the world dry like some bloated, psychotic vampire, it has continued to yield to some demands for the full legal and social equality the capitalist system promises. 

The 'neo-liberal revolution' has been so destructive because it has been startlingly effective and one of the reasons for that is there has been a steady progression in individual rights and freedoms which has obscured the dramatic shift in power in the relations of production back towards capital. 

The attacks on organised labour, the erosion of workers'  pay and conditions, the increase in the gap between rich and poor, the increasing concentration of wealth and the hyper-exploitation of labour in those countries to which capital took flight have all occurred alongside progressive changes in race relations, women's and minority rights  - seen most dramatically in the first world countries and especially here in NZ. 

Of course these have had to be fought hard for and were often ceded grudgingly. At times they run against the tide of public opinion and they can be reversed. But, for the economic elite there are benefits in granting to some others a little of the individual freedom to do and to be which it has always enjoyed - as long as those freedoms do not interfere with its pre-eminent right to exploit human and natural resources for maximum profit.  

They have learned that the extension of formal equal rights to women, people of colour and minorities yields greater benefits to the educated and affluent, stimulates consumption and  reinforces the buffer zone between them and the increasingly impoverished and alienated bulk of the population.  

What is not given much prominence is the fact that those who have slipped into the realms of the necessitous, and those who are at risk of doing so, are less and less engaged with the politics of individual choice and more and more engaged with the business of physical and psychological survival. 

Their ideological arguments obscure the fact that, even here in NZ with its relative affluence, people's ability to enjoy their liberty, to do what they want, to forge their own identities as women, as people of colour, as LGBT people, as people with a disability -  is powerfully conditioned and constrained by their individual socio-economic location and prospects.  

The declarations that neo-liberalism signalled the 'end of history', the 'end of ideology' and the end of the battle between capital and labour - are more the product of the ethnocentricity and ahistoricism of the writers than an objective analysis of what has been going on over the past 40 years or so. 

The basis of the capitalist market always was, and remains, the freedom to enter into contracts. In the world of work the thing being bought and sold is labour. Whether it is work by hand or by brain, what's being exchanged for money is part of the life of the seller - in temporal, physical and psychological terms. 

To be able to enter into a legal contract to sell part of yourself, you have to be free from any other legal constraints and obligations. A slave is not free because s/he is owned by another person. A serf is not free because s/he owes fealty to a lord. An indentured labourer is not free because s/he is bound by another contract. A woman is not free when her legal rights are subsumed by those of her husband or father. A person below the legal age of majority is not free because their legal rights are subsumed by those of their parents or guardians. And so on.

The notion of the rights of man has moved from its origins in white, propertied male demands for political and legal equality through the abolition of slavery, the extension of suffrage to non-propertied men, women and people of colour, the formal acceptance of the principle of equal pay for equal work, and beyond - into rights of prisoners and the mentally ill, the decriminalisation of homosexuality, criminalisation of spousal rape, legalisation of prostitution, civil union and same-sex marriage and the removal of the parental defence of castigato moderato

No-one can argue with the fact that the freedom to be, to express oneself, to have genuine equality of opportunity form the main supporting arch of a truly civilised society but how many people accept that the keystone of that arch is the freedom from fear of poverty, disease, homelessness and tyranny which can only be attained and maintained through collective action?  How many appreciate the fact that, without the keystone, the entire edifice will fall?

Harry Smith, the 91 year-old British Labour Party member who spoke so movingly about the need to protect the NHS, said he didn't want his past to become our future.  His political battles had been for freedom from the fear of poverty and disease.  

This is not a rarefied philosophical debate about the distinctions between the absence of coercion and the ability to exercise self-mastery – it’s about the basic preconditions of human rights and civl liberties.

Being nominally free to enter the labour market to sell your labour is no freedom at all if there are no jobs available, or if the wages on offer are below subsistence, or the working conditions are life threateningly dangerous.  Having the right to retire in old age with a pension is meaningless if the hardships of your work and private life mean you die before retirement. 

Most people in the world today subsist by exchanging their labour for a wage that is so low they can never save.  Many are crippled by debt created by being forced to borrow money at extortionate interest rates. Most human beings live on the edge of a financial precipice and their only safety nets are the ones they and their stressed families and communities can fashion from their meager resources. 

This was the reality of the lives of many Kiwis before a Labour government initiated the welfare state - and it is a reality that we are heading back to.  The growing disparities in wealth, and in the power and freedom that wealth buys,  should result in unceasing and tumultuous outrage from those at the base of society but instead result in more anomie  - expressed almost exclusively as horizontal crime - and alienation from the political process.

In part, this is because in NZ we still have the remnants of the social provision that was created to ameliorate the worst excesses of a rapacious colonial capitalism.  It's in part due to a poorly informed and blinkered populace - which has more information at its fingertips than ever but less in its head. It's in part due to the fact that we have a fairly large and relatively prosperous middle class whose well-padded backside is positioned in the social and political foreground where it usefully obstructs both the view of the depleted lives of the poor and the opulence and excesses of the rich.  And it's also due to the fact that it was the NZ Labour Party that enacted monetarist economic dogma and has  severed many of  its connections to its past. 

I lived in the UK in the midst of the Thatcherite revolution - and remember the tsunami of vicious attacks on trade unions and the left in general. I will never forget or forgive the almost complete subservience of the mainstream media in a propaganda war that was extraordinary both for its malevolence and its flagrant disregard for any principles of integrity and natural justice. 

It was no accident that the second item on the monetarists' agenda - after removing all controls on the export of capital - was to attack organised labour. As they labeled trade unions as 'the enemy within' and started dismantling the welfare state and emptying the public purse into private pockets, they also injected more of that illusory compensation for the growing economic and political powerlessness - the notion of the individual freedom to do, and to be which was easily achievable by those who worked hard and made the right sort of choices.

The price being paid by our own poor is high enough but is less than that being paid by workers in those countries to which capital migrated to extract greater profits from lower wages and conditions and slack environmental controls.  

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