Friday, July 19

It’s the economy – and the spirit, Stupid…

Over the past 30-odd years it’s become almost an orthodoxy to blame or invoke neoliberalism for the failures of New Zealand society. On the left the usual response goes something like, neoliberalism is the cause of everything that’s gone wrong and the answer is ‘more state’.  On the right, it’s more usually, the neoliberal reforms of 1984-1991 didn’t go far enough and the answer is ‘more markets’.

Yet what if the issues run deeper and further back than 1984? We have a peculiar socio-historical amnesia in New Zealand, due in the main to two things. The first is the presentism that afflicts almost all analysis, reporting and commentators.  The ability to consider issues, ideas, events and personalities within a wider and deeper socio-historical, socio-cultural, and socio-political context is sadly lacking in New Zealand. Too few have studied history and learnt from this the need to undertake proper, in-depth research and apply it critically within their writing and thinking. Similarly, too few are able to draw upon sociological thinking and think beyond the surface presentation of peoples and events. What we get is reporting, not thinking, comment and not critique. But to blame the messenger is too easy and too simplistic.  For we also lack an intelligent, receptive reading public willing and able to engage with more detailed and thoughtful critique and analysis.   

Yet to create and maintain such a reading public you also need publications and writers willing and able to provide suitable content. Once upon a time, the National Business Review (NBR) was one such outlet. I’m currently undertaking a project reading through the NBR from 1979-1991.  Such is the wealth of material that I’ve only just made it to 1980 because I am constantly sent off on forays to hunt down and read supporting material referenced in discussion, columns, and analysis.  Similarly, Hugh Rennie’s engaging memoir of the NBR

should be compulsory reading for any economist, sociologist, political scientist or historian interested in the past 50 years, as much for the questions it should raise for any perceptive and intelligent reader. For that was who the NBR was aimed at: people in business, people in politics, people in government, people in farming and across wider society looking to have news, ideas, opinions and analysis provided that made you think and critique – even if you disagreed.  The NBR also sought out and facilitated comment and opinion that sought to place issue and events in that wider and deeper context, providing an outlet for that very rare creature, the New Zealand public intellectual.

Allan Levett is little known today, but he was an important influence on a generation of New Zealand sociology and social science students at Victoria University of Wellington and then, from the late 1970s an influential public sociologist and consultant. The son of a Southland freezing worker, he became a PE instructor, a social worker, and then, after Ph.D. study at the University of Michigan, a sociologist at VUW from 1969-1978.   I want to draw attention to a very perceptive and, I would argue, important article he wrote for the NBR (June 27 1979) because in it he challenges the status quo of late 1970s New Zealand, identifying a central issue that I believe still holds true 44 years on.   Under the heading ‘Welfare stretches beyond planners’ payout view,’ Levett begins by stating “I wish my father were alive today to take part again in discussion on the main purposes of the welfare state in New Zealand. He and his mates at a freezing works in the 1930s, many of whom had been unemployed, argued enthusiastically about social security, state housing and better educational chances for their kids. Most of them hadn’t gone as far as standard six at school.” Imagine what I had to do to try and explain and contextualize even this to a smart class of third-year social science students the other day when I provided a literally cut-and-paste assembled version of his article as a class tutorial reading. Consider too what we have lost as a society when blue-collar unions got destroyed – perhaps because they had already lost their emancipatory educational role.

Levett’s focus is on what is not included in the The Planning Council’s report, “The Welfare State? (1979), noting his “Dad understood two basic things about the welfare state”, firstly it “was not a narrow range of payments and services but a wider spectrum of actions designed to open up opportunity and strengthen the economy”. These were, says Levett, those areas of society “where opportunity was most blocked – health, housing, and education, certainly but also farming, music and the arts, scientific research and trade.” Let’s just pause for a moment and consider this statement and what is included.   I struggle to think of any discussions of the welfare state over the past 20-odd years that have been so inclusive.

Levett’s central point is that “the 1930s welfare state was aimed at the spirit of the nation.” For me, this echoes the call made by Charles Brasch in the inaugural issue of his journal Landfall in March 1947: “What counts are not a country’s material resources, but the use to which they are put. And that is determined by the spiritual resources of the people”.  In other words, why we do something is as, if not more important,  than what we do; for the doing – to be successful and lasting – needs to be informed, driven and shaped by the ethos and values of the ‘why’. Levett was concerned that the focus of the welfare state had become too narrow, shrunk to “the existing social services – health, education, law and order, and income maintenance”. Yet there was also a strong economic concern here for he could not discern any discussion or thinking as to the effects that any changes to these services would have on the economy. 

He also was worried that New Zealand seemed to have forgotten his dad’s understanding  that while the  welfare state increased security for everyone, “it was aimed particularly at people who were the main casualties of society.”  Remove their fear and insecurity,  strengthen their confidence  “and they would  become  dignified self-reliant human beings as well as productive workers.”

 What is missing in all discussions and decisions, in the 1970s and now, is comment on what Levett identified as “the malaise of the spirit in our community”.  Spending on health and education still goes disproportionately to the better off , at the same time that the social conditions for “the poor and the dispirited” gets continuously worse. As he notes,  by the 1970s  in health provision and access, combined with the introduction of medical insurance, we were seeing “greater distance from facilities for the poor” and “greater protection available, for the well-off.” The same occurred in education funding, with universities getting proportionately more funding than primary education, yet everyone goes to primary school while universities were seeing increased participation by the children of the affluent and a decrease in those from manual worker homes. He also noted that kindergartens and playcentres  were “overwhelmingly used by children of the more well-to-do.”

What most concerns Levett is that despite a growth in state spending  on social services  “it has been  marked by  growing inequality of delivery.”  This, he suggests,  is “why there have been steady increases in those signs of social distress which the welfare state was designed to remove  – on the one hand  more crime, mental illness and no improvements in physical health, and on the other hand a decline in economic productivity.”

Such a lament from 1979 has been made every year since by politicians and social and economic commentators. It is not a neoliberal issue but rather an issue of something both deeply wrong and missing at the core of New Zealand life and society.

So what is to be done? The problem, then as now,  is that spending is not on the right targets; in the 1980s as in the 1930s, the target, Levett states,  “is surely the spirit of the nation” . That means “reallocation will be as  important as  reduction of  spending overall.” We should be aiming for  “revitalization of the spirit in the social areas” and this means thinking and taking action beyond “health, education, law and order and income maintenance.” 

In 2023 the ‘spirit of the nation’ is as broken as it was in the 1970s and therefore our focus on neoliberalism, markets or the state as either cause or cure for our ailments is too limited.   Rather, what we need to do is consider how we might begin to talk about the spirit of the nation, a conversation that rethinks the welfare state and its delivery in a holistic fashion, focused on areas where opportunity is most blocked. Secondly, we need more public intellectuals such as Levett addressing those with the power and influence to change things. Thirdly, we therefore also need outlets, such as the NBR once was, prepared and willing to put challenging and dissenting views before their readers – or as we would say today, their audiences.  Finally, we need journalists, commentators, business leaders and politicians both prepared and able to place issues and ideas in a  deeper and wider conversation.

How in 20203 would we address the target of the spirit of the nation, undertaking the revitalization of the spirit in the social areas of life?  Only then might we experience a welfare state successfully tackling the malaise of the spirit of our community, yet also tying together confidence, dignity, self-reliance, and the creation and support of productive workers.  For it is never just the economy, it is also always, a question of spirit. Imagine if this meant,  after more than half a century, we were finally able to ‘open up opportunity  and strengthen the economy.’