As the ‘left’ moves to the centre, I find myself on the further margins of the spectrum. Here I am, left of Labour and greener than the Greens, looking for everyday solutions as well as system level change to solve the problems of our era. I can’t see how incremental and conservative capitalist prescriptions can ever be the remedy for environmental collapse, economic inequality or social exclusion at their present scale. I don’t believe we can solve the big problems we face, with the same system that caused them. ‘System change not climate change’, not more exploitation and extraction to solve scarcity and waste. But even small-scale steps toward greater justice seem out of reach of even the best government we’ve had in a decade.
Even though globalisation gives us access to diversity in what we buy and where we can go, it often comes at the cost of local jobs, and environmental and social justice offshore. But local and global equality can’t be separated. And environmental, social and economic justice and equality can’t be divorced from each other either. Just as workers in New Zealand deserve safe jobs with dignity and decent pay, so do workers in factories and fields overseas. Injustices to communities off shore, or of other species or systems, are just as morally indefensible as those injustices perpetrated at home.
I’m not an economist but I’m trying to apply the same tests to the (CP)TPP as I did to the TPP. So far there’s nothing that gives me confidence that the new and improved ‘progressive’ trade deal secures any more public or private benefits than the last TPP. Minister David Parker’s promises of billions of dollars of benefits, remind me of the promises of trickle-down economics. We’re still waiting for that theory to deliver, and blind faith in idealogues’ projections is for someone less cynical, and less left wing than me.
If free trade offers such benefits, I can’t see why, even after decades of various free trade deals, we’re seeing more imported plastic shit on our shelves (and beaches), fewer domestic manufacturing jobs, and growing inequality, rather than the wealth, equality and social justice we’re still being promised with the CPTPP. If the promised advantages of free trade are more jobs and (economically) rational movement of goods, services and trade leading to more universal equality, we should have seen some of those benefits by now. How long should we have to wait? Sure globalisation and trade liberalisation have been good for New Zealand’s farming and tourism sectors, but even there the benefits and costs are unevenly spread, with costs borne disproportionately by the environment and precarious, low paid workers, while profits continue to accrue in the hands of bigger companies and bigger operations. The ‘new and improved’ CPTPP looks to deliver more privatised profits and socialised costs as free trade has always done. That just doesn’t look like a successful economic, social, or environmental model to me, when, in a generation, the nation’s rivers have become unsafe to swim in, and ‘wilderness’ areas are like some theme park so full of people and rubbish, as to be not worth visiting if you’re a Kiwi because they’re just not wild any more.
Sustainability is a three-legged stool, balancing economic, environmental and social values. Moral sustainability requires reconciliation of short and long term ecological health, local and global social equity, respect for all life and all species and commitment to maintaining integrity of ecosystems. Addressing these concerns are an anathema to capitalism and the ideology of growth.
Many of us standing on the far left can easily describe the problem. Finding solutions moderate enough to satisfy the rest of the spectrum, including the huge bloc centred around ‘middle New Zealand’, that can remedy and avoid the worst injustices, is a harder challenge when there’s massive pressure to maintain the status quo.
Is a conservative incrementalism the best that we can do? Do we just accept TINA, There is No Alternative, because in the face of the power of the global market, there really isn’t.
We’re reduced to standing on the sidelines shouting at the powers that be ‘ban the (plastic) bag’, ‘stop rodeo’, ‘end zero hours / pay all care workers fairly and equitably / regulate for workplace safety / end homelessness…’, ‘stop fisheries dumping, and by-catch to prevent extinction of endangered species’. But it feels like we’re crying into the wind ‘more justice, give us a little change’, while fishing, mining, gambling, farming, and corporate interests are escorted through Parliamentarians’ front doors with snivelling gratitude. (Electoral donations much?) If you have faith in the invisible hand of the market, rationality of well informed workers and consumers, you can trust business-oriented government. But don’t piss off industry for a start. But workers are literally and figurately more disposable. And people should be happy to have a job, any job. A rising tide lifts all boats after all.
So far, so hopeless for any prospect of moving anywhere near where the left used to be, before neo-liberalism changed the framework of options, the realm of the possible. That’s not to say that under the current paradigm we couldn’t do better. Observe Helen Clark’s support for this country to ‘ban the bag’, and to pursue drug reform with a focus on harm minimisation. These weren’t policies she openly supported or pursued when she was Prime Minister but can do so with distance from electoral sanctions.
Not known for their progressive political views, even Portugal, Spain and the United States have liberalised recreational and medicinal drug use to greater or lesser degrees. But not educated, liberal New Zealand. Taiwan and other countries have banned plastic bags, straws and other disposable plastics, but not clean green New Zealand. Australia and various Pacific Island nations have installed cameras on their fishing fleet to ensure transparency in harvest practices and to address by-catch of non-target birds, marine mammals and fish – but not ‘the world’s best fishery’ in New Zealand.
Labour-led government Animal Welfare spokesperson, Meka Whaitiri defends rodeos despite pre-election commitments to the contrary, because ‘they’re a cultural tradition’, forgetting that slavery was once one of those cultural traditions too. Our treatment of animals is an indicator of our progress toward justice, and Labour are failing to consider animal rights justice against any assumed human ‘right’ to abuse animals, treat them as property or entertainment. New Zealand has one of the highest per-capita incarceration rates in the world, disproportionately high child poverty rates, domestic violence, suicide, inequality. We can definitely do better.
Free trade, neo-liberalism, deregulated primary production and self-reporting compliance, hasn’t been so good to us so far.
Out on the left of the spectrum sometimes feels pretty lonely, as people cluster around celebrity politics on either side of the centre. The political capital available to the Labour-led government should enable them to make courageous and brave decisions. The last Labour Government was known for its glacial incrementalism. In the ‘ever upward trajectory of justice’; the current regime seems as slow, as cautious, and as wedded to entrenched interests as any. If we can’t even achieve small (promised) wins around the environment, pursuit of holistic justice seems a distant dream. System change from within, seems impossible.