Neo-liberalism is designed upon three main planks – a free market unencumbered by state interference, an assumption of individual rather than collective values and the existence of a free marketplace in which we all operate.
Neo-liberalism produces not only particular types of values affecting how humans live, but particular forms of markets (profit-making) (including drug companies), specific methods of interaction in society and modes of governance.
In all four areas, the virus sounds a death knell (or perhaps merely a mortal blow) to prevailing neo-liberal modes. The mass of humanity, acting freely according to their own desires, is much more likely to spread the coronavirus than contain it. If governments order social isolation, then homo economicus falls back on those familiar maxims of ‘fake news’ or personal exclusivity (it doesn’t count for me). Economic man is a slippery bugger, hard to contain and unlikely to easily comply to state rules.
The neo-liberal marketplace is ‘free’. There is a degree of separation between the needs of the public for, say, a cure for Covid-19 and the needs of the drug companies for profits. While in theory a drug company can charge their own price for such a cure, in reality social demand and expectations may require a more humanitarian response. As well, drug companies tend to work on a long game, and may not be flexible enough to respond quickly. This has been recognised all around the world with funds being quickly made available to universities and other public sector research organisations in search of a vaccine or a cure.
Neo-liberalism has changed the way we interact with one another. Ideas are more easily contested today and we are more oppositional. In the workplace, competitive models often dominate and there is little sense in working for the common good. We have become more macho. It was really interesting this afternoon sitting outside a large shop and watching people going in. While the shop itself regulated social distance at the checkout (with taped spaces), outside young men clustered together and postured, revelling in the non-obedience to the sensible rules of play.
This brings us to governance. The rules announced today at level 3, moving on to level 4, are considerably draconian. The appeal that is made is to the common good – the good of all New Zealanders. It cuts across race, class and other inequalities. Once again, it is emphasised that we are all in this together, backed up with an economic package that promises to leave no-one behind. It is a radically social democratic package and will face resistance. Neo-liberal thinking and actions can only shrivel and die under the onslaught of kindness and social care that the government is putting into place.
To this point things are very hopeful. Perhaps no-one will die here. A month’s isolation is not too big a price for most, although for those who are dying of other diseases, or the virus, it is scary that they may not see out this period and reap its rewards in the future.
I noticed that Simon Bridges has come, however late, to the party. No beneficiaries were bashed in his post-announcement speech, and he strongly put his support behind the government or someone for whom opposition is a holy duty, this is a change indeed.
And beyond that? Is it too much to think that we will be changed forever, or at least for the foreseeable future? Having cut us down to size, reminded us that we are but animals spinning around on our small rock, will the Covid-19 leave us better, more empathetic, more careful people? Will the shadows of Rogernomics, Ruthanasia and their legacy, which have stuck with us like a particularly nasty virus, at last be eradicated as surely as Smallpox?
We shall see. This virus might be the making of this government and the heralding of a new political era in Aotearoa.
Dr Liz Gordon is a researcher and a barrister, with interests in destroying neo-liberalism in all its forms and moving towards a socially just society. She usually blogs on justice, social welfare and education topics.