Friday, July 19

Thatcher’s whanau… and a renewed social contract?

Back in 1980, writing an end of year piece for the NBR,  Colin James noted:

” Two perceptive senior men one in each main party, have recently concluded to me that the emerging dominant mood in the electorate is ‘the family’.

In other words, the disenchantment the polls are recording is deeper than inflation or unemployment or interest rates, though no doubt they heighten it.

The ‘strain’ felt by the electorate may be at the more fundamental level of moral and social values, which have been dislocated by the liberal excesses of the National and Labour-run 1960s and 1970s.
“There is no political remedy for such a condition.”

This came seven years before Margaret Thatcher famously said, “There is no such thing as society. There are individual men and women and there are families.”

This statement, in its succinct quotability, has taken on a life of its own and for many has come to be a socio-political short-hand for both Margaret Thatcher and Thatcherism – and in fact for neoliberalism more generally.

Yet, let’s remember that politicians from both National and Labour had observed a national mood, in New Zealand, some seven years earlier that aligns with what Thatcher stated.  In what I realise for many will be a very problematic suggestion,  I think, sociologically speaking,  Thatcher was correct; the problem is that all Thatcherite and neo-liberal responses (remember the ‘more markets’ drive arose in the early 1970s) have meant the last 50 years has been much better for individuals than for families.

Yet if we go to that interview, there are a couple of nuances that raise some interesting possibilities. The first is that Thatcher states “a family is not only mother and father and children—it is grandparents, it is aunts.”

Secondly, “the moment you live in a community, you have got to have some rules by which to live. You have got to say: ‘These are the rules and we have to live by them!’ Of course they will be broken from time to time, but that is quite different from there not being any rules.”

Thirdly, in regard to what people demand from Government (and I realise by quoting Thatcher in such a way I am at risk of losing  many people here –  but stick with me) “they are casting their problems on society and who is society? There is no such thing! There are individual men and women and there are families and no government can do anything except through people and people look to themselves first. It is our duty to look after ourselves and then also to help look after our neighbour and life is a reciprocal business and people have got the entitlements too much in mind without the obligations, because there is no such thing as an entitlement unless someone has first met an obligation.”

And then again (and I know this is really trying your patience): “There is no such thing as society. There is living tapestry of men and women and people and the beauty of that tapestry and the quality of our lives will depend upon how much each of us is prepared to take responsibility for ourselves and each of us prepared to turn round and help by our own efforts those who are unfortunate.”

 And yet more:

 “…a nation of free people will only continue to be a great nation if your family life continues and the structure of that nation is a family structure.

Now it still is, you know, in spite of everything. It still is. The overwhelming majority of people live in the traditional family. Yes, there will be problems. There always will be and there always have been in life, but the overwhelming majority of people live within the structure of the family and the family continues…most of the problems will be solved within the family structure. You have to accept that these problems will occur, but it is best to have them solved within the family structure and you are denying the solution unless the family structure continues.”

Perhaps understandably,  the focus of response to this interview in Woman’s Own centred in on the ‘no such thing as society’ remark, taken to be a hallmark of Thatcherism as a social policy as well as an economic one. The degree of response resulted in an explanatory statement issued by No.10, at the request of the Sunday Times and published on 10 July 1988 in the “Atticus” column: “All too often the ills of this country are passed off as those of society. Similarly, when action is required, society is called upon to act. But society as such does not exist except as a concept. Society is made up of people. It is people who have duties and beliefs and resolve. It is people who get things done. She prefers to think in terms of the acts of individuals and families as the real sinews of society rather than of society as an abstract concept. Her approach to society reflects her fundamental belief in personal responsibility and choice. To leave things to ‘society’ is to run away from the real decisions, practical responsibility and effective action.”

That’s probably far more Thatcher than most people will want to read, but I have included it for two reasons. The first is to remind ourselves that an extracted comment from a piece often fails to do justice to the wider discussion. The other is to reconsider both the challenge that Thatcher threw down  – and what rethinking society from ‘family up’ might involve here in New Zealand in the 21st century.

For a start, we need to ensure the family unit is more than just a traditional nuclear family and even Thatcher endorsed that. Her ‘traditional family’ was not a traditional nuclear family.  But almost 40 years on, I believe we both need to and should expand what family as  ‘sinew of society’ can and does mean.

There are two ways to widen our thinking here. The first to borrow the associative, chosen family concept from the Queer community. This means ‘family’ expands from the biological and legal connection into the network of associations we choose to have play a significant role in our lives. This recognizes that for many the biological and legal connection ‘family’ is often a harmful, problematic and not-working set of connections. But in experiencing such issues, rather than in the main reducing us to atomized individuals, as social creatures humans have always expanded familial connections to those who provide meaning and value and support to our lives in new ways.  To include such an expanded notion of family within our discussion of family as the building block of society means we can and should reconsider how we can facilitate such associative and chosen families to occur and thrive.  We can think about economic and social and housing and employment policies that reflect and support this option. What can be undertaken to facilitate familial bonds and lives of this kind,  to empower people to expand and build upon the agency they have already exerted in rethinking and remaking family in such a way?  Yet this is only half of the options, and one that could apply to any society.

There is another option that is specific to this country that is already in ‘crossover’ mode into wider society. This is the concept and experience of whanau and especially, whanauatanga.  This latter term is described by the Te Aka  Māori dictionary as “relationship, kinship, sense of family through shared experiences  and working together which provides people with a sense of belonging. It develops as a result of kinship rights and obligations, which also serve to strengthen each member of the kin group.  It also extends to others to whom one develops a close familial, friendship or reciprocal relationship.”

This is why I believe the concepts of whanau and whanauatanga are extremely useful and provide a way forward when thinking about society within New Zealand. They also involve those central elements of rights and  obligations which are essential to any development and experience of a social contract. Within New Zealand, in the 21st century, I believe we should be prepared to both proclaim and facilitate, from the flax-roots up and from Government down, whanau as the basis of community and community as the basis of society. Therefore, if we desire a social contract we need community contracts and whanau contracts too – that is, the reciprocal relationship between these units and the state that build upon their internal reciprocal relationships.

This is also why I hate the concept and terminology of ‘working for families’ as it is really just middle class welfare and a recognition that the cost of living is too high. And the ‘for’ puts it as a top-down government decision and response of working ‘for’  certain families as economic units  – and also only ‘for’ certain types of families as relational units.   As such, it is the state deciding what and who counts as a ‘family’ it will decide to ‘work for’; a decision that takes no account of societal familial reality. It is, in the end, much closer to the singular, divisive,  individual competitive focus that has driven the past 50 years, while steadfastly ignoring the central, reciprocal role of ‘families’ (or rather, whanau) in all their diversity. This is why I stress the last 50 years have been far better for individuals (or rather, certain individuals) than for families.

A way forward is a recalibration of our thinking and language whereby any social contract is two-fold. On the one hand, the continuation (and necessary reimagining and rearticulation) of that between an individual and the state, based on a notion of rights and obligations.  But,  in an antipodean expansion and remaking of Thatcher’s claim, I’d also like to see a recalibration of the social contract to be strongly based in a notion of  ‘working with whanau’. What would a whanau based society look like?  What would whanau based policy look like?  We won’t know until we try – and unless we proceed from facilitating whanau contracts into community contracts, we will never be able to imagine, articulate and facilitate an inclusive, reciprocal social contract that takes seriously the issues, opportunities and possibilities  of living in  21st century New Zealand. Hopefully then, the next 50 years will be as good for whanau as they will be for individuals.