Ye Are Many – They Are Few: Thoughts on Labour Day, 2013



THINK, OAMARU. The steam-punk capital of the South Pacific, with its whitestone Victorian architecture and its intriguing galleries filled with Donna Demente’s magical artworks, is a pretty little North Otago town of roughly 13,000 inhabitants.

It’s a fascinating place, with some very interesting buildings and some truly entertaining citizens, but honestly, Oamaru is hardly what you’d call a mover or a shaker in the greater political scheme of things. How could it be – with just 0.3 percent of the New Zealand population?

But what if Oamaru, instead of being the home of retailers, moteliers, stock-and-station agents, retired cockies, quirky artists, restaurateurs and tourism operators, was inhabited entirely by people earning more than $250,000 per annum? How powerful would it be then?

The question isn’t entirely fanciful, because 13,000 is the number of New Zealanders earning more than $250,000 every year. If you want to quantify this country’s ruling-class, 13,000 is a good number to start with.

TDB Recommends

Included in that 13,000 figure are all the bosses of the big corporations, the big SOEs and the big Government departments, ministries and agencies. It encompasses the justices of the Supreme Court, the Court of Appeal and the High Court; the heads of the armed forces and the police; the vice-chancellors of the universities, the chief executives and editors-in-chief of the largest print and electronic media organisations as well as their highest-earning “stars”. (Yes, Mr Hosking, that means you!) Also included among the rulers are the leading members of the major professions, cabinet ministers and the mayors of New Zealand’s largest cities.

Put them all together in one place and you’d have a town the size of Oamaru.

Just think about that for a moment. All that aspiration out there in the population: all those people striving to make it to “the top”; this is the cut they’re devoting their entire lives to making; to being the one person in 323 who gets to live in “Rulerville”.

Most of us, of course, haven’t a hope of making the cut. But there are some who could reasonably aspire to taking up residence. The 5 percent of New Zealand income earners paid between $100,000 and $250,000 per annum – 100,000 individuals, tops – are in there with a chance.

So, we’re looking at a figure of 100,000, considerably less than the population of Dunedin (126,000) competing like mad to join a group no larger than the population of Oamaru. That puts the quantum of the entire New Zealand ruling-class – plus those who might reasonably aspire to join it – comfortably within the population parameters of Tauranga.

Indeed, at just 113,000 individuals, the New Zealand ruling-class (plus its realistic aspirants) would fall short by a margin of 40,000 votes of the 5 percent MMP threshold. (Approximately 153,000 votes.) In other words, if there was a party made up exclusively of New Zealanders earning more than $100,000 per annum, it would, almost certainly, fail to win any seats in Parliament.

And yet, they rule.

In the last General Election 1,058,636 New Zealanders voted for the National Party. That figure represents just over one third of all the eligible voters in the country. Brought together by the New Zealand ruling class in 1936, primarily to defend its vital economic and social interests from the “socialist” policies of the Labour Party, National’s ability to enlist so many voters in a cause which, objectively, is utterly at odds with both their personal and familial interests, is little short of miraculous.

A core group of less than 1 percent – rising to a maximum of 4 percent if its aspirant members are included – has devised a way of convincing hundreds of thousands of its fellow citizens that the preservation of its power and privilege is, somehow, vital to the well-being of the whole of society.

Somehow, the brute facts of income distribution in our society – e.g. that more than three-quarters of us earn so little that we don’t even qualify for the middle tax rate – fail to register with the ordinary voter. We ignore the fact that we spend most of our lives paying off various kinds of debt. We pretend to be classless and free – somehow blotting out the fact that we spend a huge part of our waking lives taking orders from a ruthless collection of supervisors, managers and bosses. We point proudly to our democratic heritage, only to wake up one morning to discover that a property developer has won the right to drastically alter the street where we live – and there’s not a damn thing we can do about it.

The most bizarre phenomenon of all is that even after these facts of life are pointed out to us; even after we’ve been forced to acknowledge that we’re neither classless nor free, and that our lives largely belong to the bosses and the banks; it makes not the slightest long-term difference to our behaviour. It’s as if we’ve all been subjected to the memory erasure technology featured in the Men in Black movies. No matter how many times we are made aware of the truth, the lies of the ruling-class have a mysterious way of reasserting themselves.

What we should be reminding ourselves of, on this day of all days, is that it was not always so. The was a time when the ruling-class found huge swathes of the working-class to be stubbornly immune to the memory erasure beams deployed by their very own “men in black”: the churches, the schools, and the news media. On “Labour Day” workers and their families celebrated the fact that without the contribution of labour, “capital” could be nothing more than a ledger-entry. What good was a butchery or a bakery without the butcher or the baker?

What these workers of a hundred years ago had learned to do, and what we appear to have forgotten, is how to count. They looked at their world and they noticed that the working-class were numerous and the ruling-class was not. They discerned that a society run upon democratic lines – a social democracy – would reduce the ruling-class’ influence to something more closely approximating its infinitesimal numbers.

As Ralph Chaplin wrote in that great union anthem, Solidarity Forever:


They have hoarded untold millions that they never toiled to earn,

But without our brain and muscle not a single wheel can turn.

We can break their haughty power, win our freedom when we learn,

That the union makes us strong.


How long shall a nation of 4.2 million be dictated to by a ruling-class the size of Oamaru?


How much longer before we recall the lines, written by the radical romantic poet, Percy Bysche Shelly, in the aftermath of the bloody Peterloo Massacre?


Rise like Lions after slumber
In unvanquishable number –

Shake your chains to earth like dew
Which in sleep had fallen on you
Ye are many – they are few.


  1. Hi Chris,
    Where do you obtain the figures from on relative income/the numbers of people earning over $100K/$250K?

  2. Chris

    You haven’t a hope of ‘making the cut’ because you despise the market rewards that exist for those who are prepared to serve customers and be rewarded for their effort.

    That opportunity exists for every New Zealander, and if every socialist put as much energy into serving others as they did into whining then two benefits would accrue. The noise pollution would reduce and our economic GDP would increase.

    • Brendon is there no room for unpaid work in your strange world? No value in mothers, volunteer workers, people who accept modest pay but contribute by, say, science research? …..

    • I know plenty of hard working people who excel at being “prepared to serve customers”. They are not rewarded for their effort, mainly because they have to accept a minimum wage or not work at all, and because their employment is mostly casual, or part-time, because the employer prefers it that way. Your comment reveals much more about your own set of prejudices than it does about economic realities for hard working New Zealanders.

    • Brendan, you omit to acknowledge that there will still be only around 13,000 earning more than $250k even if every single person strives for it. Of course in that striving there will the failures, most of them actually, and of course in striving for $250k no-one will be able to afford to be a caregiver, the rubbish collector, YOUR barista, the supermarket checkout operator. In other words if EVERYONE sets out on a path to $250k society will actually tip over.
      A bit more respect for those who keep the wheels turning in order for you to set off on your path to $250k

  3. Just for the historical record – Shelly was an anarchist – not just a radical romantic poet – hell he’s the reason I’m one!

    So does this mean
    A) anarchist are only good when there dead
    B) Anarchist are good for inspiring – but damn we don’t really like them
    C) Russel Brand is a bloody anarchist – and f*&k him, how dear one of those scum from the working classes rise his voice up in discontent

  4. But you forgot one thing, Chris, they (the 13,000 and the others belonging to those 1 to 4 per cent) think the sun shines from their backsides, and without that there would only be “darkness” around the country.

    They are the inheritors, the stake holders, the big “savers”, the “investors”, the “leaders” bred mostly by elitarian private schools, and they think they are something closer to “half gods” than to the rest of us mortals.

    Yes, it makes you wonder, but having networks and key people in the crucial places of the system, where the control over power sits, that is making the real simple difference.

    If only the common workers, beneficiaries and even “survivalist” middle class members would join together, and work together, and take a stand for more fairness and so, things could change over night.

    It requires awareness, spirit, courage and above all knowledge, to do what those “top” stakeholders do, to take over the control, and sadly too many are missing somewhere, hence we are stuck where we are.

    Mammon, the gods and idols of consumerism and distraction rule instead, all being instrumental in keeping us down and divided and ill informed.

    So what are we waiting for? Open eyes, minds, learn, take courage, look at yourself, your hands, body, face, mind and abilities, and take action! Connect with others, for a start, and change is at your hands.

  5. Most workers are reactionary conservatives. What Reagan did in America was appeal to their prejudices and fears of the progressive elements of American society – which was vastly outnumbered by these workers despite the illusion that the anti-establishment movement was dominant – As one of the members of Country Joe and the Fish said in the latest Uncut music magazine when talking about the recording of “Feel Like I’m Fixing to Die Rag” – it didn’t matter whether you wrote an anti-Vietnam War song or just had long hair, ten miles in from the coast you were likely to get beat up.

    Reagan (and the Republicans to this day) appealled to these prejudices to get working class people to vote against their own interests. The same thing has become the norm in New Zealand as well.

  6. You have a dangerously commonsensical mind Chris Trotter .
    Heard of Professor Stanley Milgram and his wily colleagues ?

    It’s really quite easy for the few to control the many . Especially since the advent of TV . Just beam your script into their fragile minds as they try to avoid the anxiety and worry they’re also been beamed .

    Only just now . On TV One , they were beaming away . According to a poll , jonky is even more popular than before and poor old David Cunliffe is flat lining .

    I read a dismal rag , sadly too scratchy to put to better use as toilet paper , called the Sunday Star Times over the weekend . It was disturbingly blue . No , really . The ink used was primarily blue in hue . And it was just full of right wing gibberish and adds .

    @ Brendon . Chris Trotter hasn’t a hope of making the cut , presumably like you , because if there’s one thing I’ve noticed about Chris Trotter is that he has that which is essential to be missing when ‘making the cut ‘ . Bible Bashers call it a ‘ soul ‘ . Have you heard of one of them things ? If you have then you must lament at having handed yours over at the bank . And banks are where Bible Bashers call Satan lives . We all know this and there’s no point in pretending you have an argument @ Brendon because , like all seedy , devious money fetishists , their arguments turn to dust when poked by logic , love and commonsense .

  7. I’ve just found this interesting little link Via Boingboing .

    Give poor people no strings attached money and voila !

    @ Gosman . You outed yourself as a professional fiddler of other peoples money in a previous comment on TDB therefore I regard you as not only the enemy but as someone with an ongoing and irrelevant opinion on such matters . Especially when concerning matters of the human condition that transcend figures on a ledger . Something that you must be completely mystified by , you poor dear . I bet you live in Oamaru .

    This is the last time I react to your pointless , negative drivel . Ask your Mistress to tighten the straps and leave us alone .

  8. “Keep you doped with religion and sex and TV
    And you think you’re so clever and classless and free
    But you’re still ****ing peasants as far as I can see
    A working class hero is something to be”

    Great article, Chris.

  9. Pretty well written Post, even if you take out the Stats, it fits perfectly in every country since the people who are controlling are less than 5% but the most powerful 5% of the Globe, In Simple words you cant question the bosses of the bosses 🙂

  10. Just a minor point, but those 13,000 people tend to have a spouse earning rather less, and some number of dependent children old enough to vote, as well as extended family who may benefit in some way from largess.

    So they’re probably more like 40,000 votes. Add the aspirants and you’re looking at enough to total maybe 300,000 by close kinship to such funds. And they all vote you know, two or three times in local elections.

    And you have to remember the people who used to earn that much, the retired rich, and the folk who believe themselves on a ladder toward an aspirational status, and all their extended beneficiaries in turn.

    While not all these people vote National, it’s pretty easy to see why the party of the rich only need to set a few working poor against the unemployed or sickly, a few religious types against the idea of progress and inclusiveness, to suddenly leap up to a million votes.

  11. Is it just me or is Chris rhetoric getting more and more fanciful . We live in a capital society. Socialism is gone, except in the fanciful heads. Only the religious socialists could wish such harmful returns of emotional redistribution.

    Shelley did write one decent poem ‘Ozymandias’
    but oh dear

    “Rise like Lions after slumber
    In unvanquishable number –
    Shake your chains to earth like dew
    Which in sleep had fallen on you
    Ye are many – they are few.’

    • It’s just you.

      And, without a great deal of unrecognised socialism the capitalist society would not survive.

      Or have you no one to call on for a helping hand who doesn’t have the other one out for dosh? Freely given just because you’re you. You’ve missed out on one of life’s great joys, if that’s your situation.

    • If you want to know something about the ‘harmful returns of emotional redistribution’ check out the story of King David, Bathsheba, and Uriah the Hittite. Then come and tell us about ‘harmful returns of emotional redistribution.’

  12. I’m getting annoyed at how much free airtime the Conservative Party is getting. It’s anti-democratic. They are not an elected party to parliament but they’re getting air time based on the possibility of getting in next year. It’s anti democratic, and I hope the left takes time to call them out on this.

  13. I had been wondering where you had gone Chris. What a well written piece, thank you. The secret of great speeches is to make it relevant to the listener/reader and in comparing it to cities, you did that beautifully.

  14. Think you Mr Trotter for that number. Now I can complete my aphorism – something I coined decades ago: ‘If New Zealand’s Democracy is government of the people, for the people, by the people, then New Zealand has a population of 13,000.’

    I don’t count the aspirants. You will find, as ever, that social mobility in this country, especially over the last nearly 40 years, has been predominantly downwards. At that, the ones who do make it to the heady reaches of the upper crust, have a way of slamming the door shut behind them.

    They say that cream rises to the top. Indeed it does, and possibly some of those 13000 deserve to be in that number. But also rising to the top is scum, many of whom I wouldn’t hire to clean my dunny.
    What do you get when you mix cream and scum?

    Yep: scum.

  15. What a warped view of the world you have Trotter.
    Perhaps you would prefer if everyone earned the same, and wore the same clothes..
    Oh wait that’s right, it’s been tried. How well did that work?

  16. I cannot agree with your view – ruling is about power and whereas money can purchase a certain amount of power, equally there are people with money who are not or no longer interested in wielding that power.

    Power can be obtained in many other ways other than money.

    I voted for National last time – not to keep out labour socialist policies, rather because Labour had lost the plot. They started inventing a small few policies to focus on winning votes of certain people, or to counter National policies, rather than having grounded collections of policy than is required to manage the complexities of managing a country and moving it forward.

    I must admit I am rather disappointed in National but I do not see that Labour or the Greens have made any progress against them.

    I don’t earn over 250K though I have at several periods in my life done so. But both now and then I have never been concerned with ruling, more so to keep moving forward in achievements in a range of areas, sometimes financial to be sure, other times lifestyle, learning, experiencing. This is what I want for everyone in NZ.

    So to me the real ruling class in NZ are those that have momentum – i.e. they are changing things, moving their lives forward in many ways and carrying many others forward with them. Those who have made it tend to have stalled and though they have money are no longer instigating the change that is happening at a great rate – which is obvious if you would just step back and look from a wider perspective.

Comments are closed.