DR CHRIS HARRIS has been inspiring me for more than 20 years. He is one of those rare individuals who sees clearly the lines of force connecting individuals, classes, events and institutions in the present historical moment. His latest insight: that neoliberalism has replicated in the advanced economies of the West the same master/servant, foreign/indigenous power dynamic which once characterised colonial societies; is particularly exciting.
Colonisation presents a distinctive and consistent historical narrative. Foreigners in pursuit of specific economic objectives arrive in other people’s territory. The newcomers’ cultural confidence, supplemented by their superior firepower, quickly overawe the indigenous elites, who are easily persuaded to grant them privileged access to the resources they seek. In return, the local rulers are promised a share of the newcomers’ profits. Thus compromised, the ruling elites’ legitimacy is undermined and the newcomers move swiftly to fill the resulting power vacuum. The colonised population, if it is unlucky, then succumbs to the newcomers’ microbes and declines into demographic and economic irrelevance. Or, if they remain demographically significant, are forcefully reduced to economic and political impotence. Sullen enemies of the new order, they wait for their colonial overlords’ to make a mistake.
The parallels with the arrival of neoliberal ideology are striking. There was the same extraordinary confidence that the new economic doctrine was, essentially, irresistible. That, putting it in the simplest terms, there was “no alternative”. The intellectual and economic corruption of the existing elites similarly mirrors the colonial experience – as does their political collapse and replacement by the most ruthless exponents of the new, now dominant, ideology. With their old leaders and old institutions gone, the populations of the advanced western economies found themselves in the same powerless position as the victims of colonisation. Uncertain as to whether resistance or accommodation offered them the best hope of individual and familial security, they became involuntary participants in the complete transformation of their societies.
The question raised by Harris is whether what is happening in the advanced societies of the West: Brexit, Trump, the gathering momentum of populist leaders and parties in the formerly liberal nations of Germany, Denmark, Italy and Sweden; is in any way comparable to the anti-colonialist revolts that shaped so much of the twentieth century? Certainly, the near collapse of the globalised capitalist economy in 2008, and the mortal wound it inflicted on the credibility of neoliberalism, is analogous to the blows inflicted upon the power and prestige of the British and French Empires by the Japanese during World War II. The white imperialists, it seemed, could be beaten. Much of their power was bluff. Meaning: the moment colonial peoples found the courage to call their masters’ bluff, the days of empire were numbered.
Nowhere, argues Harris, can this analogy be drawn more sharply than in the United States. In the eyes of more and more Americans the “Establishment” has become the source of all their woes. People’s trust in the system is evaporating, and with it is disappearing what little legitimacy it still enjoys. Drawing on the writings of the radical writer, Umair Haque, Harris characterises the United States as “a profoundly unstable imperial patchwork-quilt with a large population that does not enjoy full citizenship or personhood”. In his view, the United States is undergoing “an internal decolonisation revolution against a hated and distant elite that has made the locals into a helot underclass in the land of their birth.”
New Zealand is by no means exempt from the effects of this unravelling neoliberal hegemony. In this country, also, there is a large colonised population presided over by a distant and hated elite. We, too, have constructed an underclass whose full citizenship and personhood is routinely denied in overcrowded prisons; at the counter of the local WINZ office; and by “unconsciously biased” teachers, medics and cops.
That the sharpening of social tensions in New Zealand is happening at a much slower rate than in the United States or Europe is due, almost entirely, to the relative ease with which New Zealand passed through the Global Financial Crisis. Even so, by 2017 the National-led government’s increasingly obvious inability to treat all of New Zealand’s citizens as full persons left it with insufficient support to continue in office. Its replacement, the Labour-NZF-Green Government stands pledged to restore full citizenship and personhood to those Maori New Zealanders still suffering from the effects of the country’s original colonisation; as well as to the internally colonised victims of neoliberalism’s thirty-year rule.
The biggest problem faced by Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and her coalition partners is how to transition New Zealand from the cruelties of neoliberalism to a new economic and social order guided by the “politics of kindness”. It’s a problem accentuated by the absence of the “revolutionary carnivals” that have so often accompanied the throwing-off of colonial rule. Like the Brexit vote in the UK and the election of Trump in the USA, what happened last September and October in New Zealand represented the downtrodden voters’ confused reaction to the manifest failings of neoliberalism – not their confident endorsement of a coherent alternative.
The failure of the National Government’s opponents to develop a coherent alternative to neoliberalism is beginning to define their political and economic management. The victims of the old order still stagger under the burden of an essentially unmodified status-quo. The situation now prevailing is, therefore, akin to a hard-pressed colonial power granting its subjects the mere phantom of self-rule. The neoliberal colonisers, in their pith helmets and baggy shorts are still in charge, and the longer they remain so, the more ridiculous their phantom government will be made to look.
Revolutions are not made by half-measures.