A time for new values?

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In these days of pandemic, in my community, the sound of aeroplanes has been replaced by sounds of lawn mowers; of chain saws, as people get their firewood ready for winter. People are in their gardens. Odd jobs are being done now ‘there’s finally time’. The smells of hearty dinners waft over fences. Facebook is filled with celebrations of home cooked meals shared with family. Neighbours who never knew each other become friends from a distance. People still working, from home, are enjoying extra leisure time as they avoid their usual commutes. Though GDP is expected to decline, by other non-standard measures, productivity is high.

On the other hand, the reality of job losses and economic contraction starts to unfold. Affecting both the precariat, the under-paid, and the intelligentsia; those on SkyCity’s gaming floor, aloft with Air New Zealand, on the air waves (Radio Sport), and in our culture and magazines (Bauer Media). These high-profile redundancies and lay-offs are the tip of the iceberg of joblessness. The Ministry for Social Development is struggling to cope with more than 20,000 calls a day and is hoping to hire another 300 staff to deal with the expected tsunami of the unemployed. The population per centage of those unemployed may reach double digits for the first time in over thirty years. Those out of jobs are likely to feel unvalued, and struggle to survive.

As with the myth about economic growth being a rising tide that lifts all ships, it’s also not true that the falling tide effects all workers equally. Some of the CEOs on multi-million-dollar salaries who were paid – and failed- to anticipate business disruption, face a cut to their incomes, but workers lose their whole livelihoods.

But despite facing joblessness, maybe homelessness, some people find lockdown cheaper than ‘the old times – Before CoronaVirus’, because they don’t leave the house and can’t shop – though when they do, they’ll find the price of groceries on the rise. There’s a freeze on rent increases – which must be just the start, because the jobless will be unable to pay, and homelessness is already immorally high. Despite the uncertainty, people are grateful for the breather from the hamster-wheel world of commuting and endless work. Work that has diminishing returns –where the cost of living and working is so high you live just to work and work to survive.

But imagine if we measured the value of people’s happiness as they worked at home-building, as they grew their own veges, looked after their families, cooked and ate together – healthy home grown and home-made meals? Imagine if we valued people for their contribution to society instead of their contribution as workers to profits. Imagine if people didn’t struggle to survive, whether it was in the formal or informal economy, in paid or unpaid employment, or not in employment at all. Imagine if those we now know are ‘essential’ were given the respect they deserve? Imagine if we redefined the value and nature of work.

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Simon Mair, a Research Fellow and ecological economist at the University of Surrey, says we’re at a global turning point, the pandemic is ‘a world making event’. He says the economic collapse from Covid 19 is creating an opportunity to imagine alternative economic futures – because there’s no going back to the past. And that among those alternative economic futures are scenarios that recognise the value of labour and life for its own sake, rather than for exchange and commodity value.

Mair identifies four different general scenarios in the post-pandemic world. He says the options are state capitalism, state socialism, mutual aid, and barbarism, but notes these typologies are extreme cases, and in reality our economic journey might move through different elements of the various scenarios at different times.

State capitalism sees a centralised system of business and social welfare with economic support related only to a worker’s exchange value (ie they get a subsidy based on how much they were deemed worth in their old jobs), and stimulus for businesses, as the state seeks to stabilise the economy to allow the market’s continued function in the longer term. This model would see state ownership as a life support system keeping the market afloat only until critical businesses can again return to profit. At that time, nationalised and protected industries could be privatised again, and typical inequalities and exploitations remain.

State socialism also sees a highly centralised state role “but values life itself”. Hospitals, welfare and production and supply systems would be run by the state to support lives, not to support the continued operation of markets and profits. In this case, state ownership, for example, could ensure bailed-out building companies like Fletcher Building, house the homeless, maximise positive urban design outcomes, create quality communities, respect sacred sites and landscapes like Ihumatao, and do not extract profit from land and lives. In the state socialist model, lives are valued equally, and CEOs aren’t paid millions for the work done by people enduring long hours on the ‘factory floor’.

The Mutual Aid scenario involves a decentralised role for the state, and life is valued, and supported within strong community networks. In a future of barbarism, the state has a limited role, and it’s dog-eat-dog as people are valued for what they can yield, not for their intrinsic worth.

Indeed, Mair says that the Government subsidies being paid to enable people just to survive during the pandemic lockdown, embody the radical idea that “people deserve to be paid to live, even if they can’t work”. The reframing of ‘essential workers’ inverts the usual status and privilege that values the executives and directors – the least productive but highest paid in any production chain.

The Covid-19 pandemic and lockdown show that Governments can act quickly -if not unequivocally- when crisis strikes. Governments can intervene to save citizens, as well as to save capitalism from itself.

Right now we have 12 million apples rotting on trees. Around 5000 pigs a week are ‘surplus to requirements’ as local butchers are closed. Internationally, there are meat mountains, potato gluts, as consumers are stuck at home. But here, Minister Phil Twyford proudly celebrated the Government’s support for continued shipment of lobsters to China – of all the newly defined ‘essential’ services, I would never have imagined lobster exports was one. But unless Governments intervene, genuinely important goods and services, and opportunities, will go to waste. Food will rot on the vine while people can’t work, and starve. Houses will sit empty while people live on the street.

Nationalisation of failing companies will allow Governments to achieve strategically important goals. Empty hotels are already housing the homeless. Auckland Council staff caterers are already preparing and distributing food. Families are already reclaiming the streets for carbon friendly transport, fitness and fun. Care networks are already providing mutual aid. Local butchers and vege shops with perishable goods otherwise wasted in the lockdown are redistributing supplies to foodbanks. Compulsory redundancy payments, labour redeployment, supported retraining, a shorter working week, and valuing community and family labour as a contribution to social and economic productivity will all add to the reframing of the value and worth of labour for workers and society.

In reality, Shane Jones is getting impatient with the high economic cost of preventing a worse public health crisis. He sees the pandemic as a further opportunity to hold up environmental reform. And Phil Twyford seems to want to build more roads. My plea to Jacinda Ardern is not to try to return to the old ‘normal’ with its inequalities and imperatives inimical to wellbeing and ecological sustainability. With her significant political capital and the wide consensus on the importance of state intervention at this time, support for the extractive, socially and ecologically destructive, commodity driven values of capitalism aiming to return profits to shareholders, is no longer appropriate. Now is the chance to build on the wellbeing budget to develop a wellbeing economy. An economy that values life – and leisure; quality of work –not just quantity; paid, and unpaid work; workers, and CEOs. An economy that is run for people, not for profit. An economy fit for a sustainable future, – a democratic, eco-socialist economy. Capitalism is just a step away from barbarism, but socialism is compatible with a caring state, community solidarity, and mutual aid.

11 COMMENTS

  1. Well here we are in the middle of a crises worried about shareholders profit. Any citizen of New Zealand would correctly say that relying on a strategic rival (China) for producing all of our products and services with very little final assembly done in New Zealand is an operation transgression of the highest order and would quit immediately.

    But then some of those same kiwis put on there directors hats and have to protect the interests of shareholders which profits which means kiwi manufacturing and production can suck eggs, all because Chinese labour is cheaper than the average kiwi wage and isn’t it funny that all those screaming it’s xenophobia for suggesting immigration and foreign investment settings are turned up way to high?

    • 100% Sam and Christine.

      This time reminds me of 1953 as an eigt year old in Napier living the sheltered NZ ‘socialistic’ life of egalitarianism (shared wealth of our nation during that day)

      A far better era I learened a child.

      • If we look at John Keys time as prime minister it’s fairly clear that’s what he ran as. His rhetoric was full of stuff like “Business is broken by both sides, I will fix the system and bring bi-partisanship solutions to our problems.” He wasn’t promising “The Kiwi Dream” towards a more egalitarian agenda, he was promising to fix politics with a sort of radical centrist-ism.

        Mr Bridges campaign has been pretty different from Mr Key’s. Bridges is actually promising a return to normalcy (ie regular politics) but his policy platform is among the most patrician the National Party has ever had. Bridges also spends a lot of time attacking Jacinda, which is what he’s done his whole life even back when he was a crown prosecutor. Where as John Key was in the centre of everyone including back then and also generally barked at everything. But Key did focus on centrist solutions to solve the nation’s problems.

        If we separate the two men from their 8 years together, they don’t really have much in common besides both being National MPs.

        Where as Jacinda has loads in common with Andrew Little, David Cunlife, Phill Goff and of course Helen Clark. There just isn’t a whole lot of fresh policy work and implementation right now.

        We are getting some blocks here and there but we need a big, nationally coordinated and integrated block of trade hubs connected by rail AND road, ports, air ports and space ports that fit seamlessly into the South Pacific block and rest of the world and that means renegotiating trade deals for higher domestic wages.

        So I just want to ire on the side of caution about where all these changes might likely come from.

  2. “An economy that is run for people, not for profit. An economy fit for a sustainable future, – a democratic, eco-socialist economy. Capitalism is just a step away from barbarism, but socialism is compatible with a caring state, community solidarity, and mutual aid.”

    lol, you do realise Christine that our government has BORROWED billions to do this and will need to borrow billions more?

    You do realise that when governments borrow then ‘taxpayers’ have to pay the Principal + INTEREST back to the creditors? (US FED in our case)

    You do realise that when governments borrow this massive they then create massive inflationary monetary pressure on the economy, thus our domestic currency buying power becomes diluted? Everything will cost more……EVERYTHING!

    Sorry…but profit IS needed to pay back DEBT, ALL DEBT private & public.

  3. There are enough of us Boomers that are still OK in the head to remember when everyone grew most of their own vegetables . And how to grow them. Most sections still have enough room to make a contribution.
    It will be a long time before rural and provincial New Zealand give up on a responsible civilised society remembered before the time of Roger Douglas.
    The extreem neoliberal capitalism since his transformation of society has run it’s course . We are in the middle of it’s invertible destination. It didn’t cause the virus, but the virus was the trigger that tripped the dam. If it hadn’t been the virus it would have been something else . It was time.
    Now what emerges from the wreckage is open to new ideas. But we Boomers grew up in a country that seemed pretty bloody decent. Education was free. It should have been withdrawn from students who did not put more effort into it than I did , but it wasn’t. When Lee Kuan Yew came out while our health service was being organised along neoliberal Douglas lines and observed “New Zealand has the best and most cost effective health service in the world. Why are you changing it?”
    There is the opportunity to cut the ties that constrain us into the global system and reestablish the measure of self sufficiency we once had. Sure we exported more of what we produced and imported more of what we consumed than almost any other country on earth, but we did a lot more of what we needed than we do now. Prices Foundry in Thames could still make locomotives if it were offered the contract. Most of what we import is crap we don’t need anyway. We should take the opportunity of withdrawing from any international trade agreements that dictate free access to overseas manufacturers of anything we can perfectly well make here , employ ing people made redundant by the virtual end of tourism , and export only what another country wants to buy from us because they need it, not because we have negotiated a cleaver deal to make them take it when they don’t.
    Lots of folk would like to imagine this being the end of capitalism. It won’t be ,and neither should it be. But it should be the end of Laissez Faire . Capitalism is human nature and will always exist in human society while a reasonable degree of freedom exists. But it must be the servant and not the master of society as neoliberalism makes it. And to establish that the critical device that the government must control is the means of exchange. We must have a sovereign banking system or all the pain will be for nothing.
    D J S

    • Very good points indeed, @DJS.
      Especially as far as Food Security and Finance is concerned. Hopefully, the skill for backyard gardening (from seed production to food conservation) and other rural cottage industries is maintained and transferred to the youngsters.
      One nice day, they may probably need those… early Raiffeisen cooperatives also had a farmers’ credit union wing.
      https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IU_Ls2Ci3WM

  4. Something kinda screwy when lobster exports and cigarette factories are considered essential services….

    I’m sure the seafood industry and cigarette industry are great donors to politicians though!

    Sad to see Phil Tyford seems to still be obsessed with roads, weirdly we now have no congestion and prior to the lockdown the volume of traffic had eased congestion significantly, just with less flights into NZ, I wonder what the quick and cheaper answer is?

    Since road and transport budgets now seem to be of the upmost importance for tax payers money from both the councils (Auckland Transport gets approx 50% of all the Aucklander’s rates) and Roads were going to get billions in government handouts (while not employing local people thus actually adding to the burden to services in NZ by adding more demand into NZ instead of reducing it).

    Less roads, more healthcare should be fairly obvious at this point, but maybe not to those politicians in NZ who seem to have friends with benefit relationships to many polluting and dysfunctional industries like commercial fishing and construction that enjoy generous corporate handouts.

  5. “My plea to Jacinda Ardern is not to try to return to the old ‘normal’ with its inequalities and imperatives inimical to wellbeing and ecological sustainability.”
    Don’t hold your breath Christine. Whilst JA is probably the best hope we’ve had in a long time, you’re no doubt aware of the people that surround her including, (and unfortunately) GR, and a few others. And not that they’re committed to the neo-liberal as others are that surround them.
    And then of course we have a second wave of public servants from the empire – and usually it’s not where they come from so much as it’s often how they’ve been parachuted in on the basis of their (neo-liberal) creds who then impose their will and try to convince “us” how we should behave.
    It’s something that ‘lil ‘ole NuZull that punches above its weight has not yet overcome, and probably something places like Canada are ahead of us on.
    As much as JA wants us to function as being part of the ‘grown ups’ amongst the nation-states. we’re not there yet. Getting there tho – I mean Christian Amanpour is well impressed eh?, and BBC world, and a few others
    But then there’s people like retail politicians she has to deal with (not sure when old white men characters like Winston are going to wake up – bearing in mind also that I’ve had some interesting conversations with a bro), cargo cultism and all the shit, and the fact her adult life has been in an environment knowing no other that JA has to deal with. (Shane Jones will, btw, turn out to be Winston’s worst enema if he’s looking for a legacy and I really can’t understand why others in the NZ1 cabal haven’t stepped forward to call the wanker out)
    Don’t put too many expectations on her. There’s an unholy amount of push.uphill.shit to get over and a huge amount of plotting going on amongst the scared, elf-entitled
    So far, she’s doing pretty damn well

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