Dr Liz Gordon: Replacement theory, wokism, Karens and the politics of the zero sum game


As a young feminist at university in the 1980s, there were a lot of debates about the under-representation of women within the institution.  I remember when I took up a position at the University of Canterbury in 1990, I was shocked to find that only 14% of the academic staff were women. And there were very few Māori, and all at low levels of the totem. 

There was a bit of a backlash against calls for improvements in the status of women in the institution.  I think there was real fear among the male staff of what has now come to be called ‘replacement theory’: the notion that white male dominance would be replaced with something else (this is usually expressed in individualistic terms, as a white male being replaced by a brown/ female /other).

In the end, sheer numbers (by the mid-1980s women outnumbered men as undergraduate students, and more recently outnumbered them in postgraduate courses too) dictated that the proportion of women staff would increase.  The huge rise in Māori studying at tertiary level over the past 30 years led to further expansion. Because of factors such as the growing precariat, and student debt, the road has been rocky, though.

But the point is, this has not been, and is not now, a zero-sum game.  Because diversity is roughly the same thing as inclusion, and if you include more people, the number of academic staff also increases.  The tide rises for all.

The great flaw of replacement theory in all its forms is that there is not a one-for-one swap. Inclusion increases activity in the whole of society.  Removing oppressive barriers liberates everyone.

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Take welfare, for example.  The heart of neo-liberalism involved keeping wages down (having a willing labour force), reducing or removing welfare benefits, thus forcing people into low wage work (Ruthanasia) and reducing restrictions on economic growth.  The problem with that formulation is that the first two of those actions severely limited the ability to take advantage of the third.  This meant that only a limited number were able to exploit the free market and make themselves richer.  In income terms, in the years since 1990, 90% of us have got poorer and only 10% richer. And the richest have got much richer and the poorest much poorer.

And that is only income terms. If you add in wealth, the gaps are exacerbated.

But what happens if you increase benefits and force wages up?  Well, the first thing is that those at the bottom gratefully spend their dividend.  They spend it on power and communications (the two most likely bills to sink people into debt nowadays, according to recent research), on getting out of debt (because the debt industry has hugely expanded and the interest rates and fees are easy profits for the rich, and disaster for the poor). They spend it on living. Oh yes, and of course further taxes revert back to the government in the form of income tax and GST.  The economy booms and expends. There is more room for all of us.

Last year we needed Labour to increase benefits by over $200 per week for a single parent with one child.  The increase was much smaller, and not enough to unpick Ruthanasia.  There would have been enormous dividends if they had been bolder. The advantages would have been:

  • Engaging in a national discussion about income and wealth in the modern age;
  • Bringing about an immediate expansion in the economy;
  • Pressure to increase wages, especially at the bottom; and
  • Over time, being able to reduce the additional services required to support the poorest 30%, most of whom live below the poverty line.

Whether we are considering positionality or economy, zero-sum calculations are incorrect and damaging. Expansiveness expands, as it were. There is nothing to fear.

But to advocate for diverse change nowadays is to be sneered at, even by some on the ‘conservative left’ (whatever that is). The term ‘woke’, which originally meant “awareness about racial prejudice and discrimination” is now used sneeringly by (apparently) both right and left to refer to particular activists presumably wanting wider change.  The descriptions of ‘woke’ people in this redefined universe bear no resemblance to anyone I know.  Similarly, ‘Karens’, who are women who stand up for their rights against oppressive bureaucracy, are denigrated and mocked too. I mean, what are they supposed to do?

Whether it be social or economic inclusion that is being sought, there is nothing to fear. Reducing inequalities by making the poor richer, and by including groups wrongly alienated on the margins of society, is good for them and good for all of us.  There is shocking alienation in our society felt by some groups.  It is unhealthy and noxious. It can be overcome.

The government has the important economic role in lifting those at the bottom.  Bold action now would put them in the history books. All of us have the responsibility for supporting social change, no matter how large it seems or how frightening.


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.


  1. Civil war is already beginning with the increasing gang numbers. These numbers will grow exponentially soon and the asset rich had better bolster their security fast. Eventually the gangs will join forces against the oppressors in parliament. Social unrest is inevitable when a government becomes corrupt and QE and asset inflation, although not regarded as corrupt by the beneficiaries of the corruption, is most definitely corrupt.
    NZ is breaking apart through greed. Ask the dairy owners how cohesive Jacinda is making NZ. This did not have to happen. Orr, Bascand, Jacinda, Key, English, Clarke and Robbo are all the architects of this unfair polarized NZ. They should all be held accountable in a court of law, perhaps one day they will be.

  2. Brought to you by The Ministry of Truth.

    No Liz, “woke” is not used to sneer at critics of neoliberalism. People who focus on advocating for a more sustainable economic system are not “woke”.

    The term “woke” is used to mock those who:
    – are obsessed with ethnicity, gender and sexuality
    – see everything in terms of “power dynamics”
    – believe in 27 different genders and Critical Race Theory
    – believe minorities face an onslaught of “micro-aggressions” in their daily lives, and must consequently be provided with special treatment such as “safe spaces”
    – think we live in a deeply racist, deeply sexist society
    – that we must constantly “celebrate” the achievements of minorities

    Know anyone who might fit that description Liz?

    See Titania McGrath’s tweets for a parody of wokeness.

    • Oh I love clichés.
      On one hand I don’t like labels but despise Johnny Come Lately people who jump on the bandwagon and try to champion social issues without a real grasp of the underlying causes. The idea seems to be to signal that they are a good person rather than a genuine concern for the downtrodden. These people apparently think that the tail can Wag the Dog. Reactionary people to these people often respond by denying the social problems exist or attack the former. Consequently the real issues become buried under a pile of tit-for-tat nonsense.
      I also despise people who become demanding and confrontational when they don’t get their own way and the way they want to get is purely selfish.
      But evidently I love clichés.

    • But I don’t, that’s the problem. The stereotype you outline here comes from the Trumpian right, and I know you are not one of those. Especially the ‘critical race theory’ stuff, which is Q Anon bullshit. Your description can cover anyone who seeks a more equitable future in this most unjust and unfair and skewed society. It doesn’t take some woke stuff – it’s just sociology.
      Does a person need to tick every one of the things on your list, or do tendencies to any one of these, at any time, matter?
      Is there a vaccine? Does social distancing help?

      • Liz I hope you read and take onboard Tui’s comment below – lances the boil of “wokeness” with surgical precision.

  3. Unfortunately the people who have been campaigning for this, got diverted by woke thinking which is now a plague worse than Covid.

    Covid has been a small reprive for NZ workers, and a small reprove for Labour, who were galloping off in the wrong direction, and doing a Tony Blair. (now considered a war criminal in some circles, so easy to go from popular to fascist with one bad decision).

  4. It’s an understatement that poverty is a complex issue, in policy terms, a wicked problem. But yes, I agree Liz, governments have an important economic role in lifting those at the bottom. But it’s no easy task. Take education as an example. The plan 30 or 40 years ago was to widen participation in tertiary education to everyone. Out were the days when only the privileged or socio-economically well-off had the chance to gain tertiary qualifications. In theory, this thinking also extended to the poor, not only the marginalised or socio-economically challenged. The thinking at the time was that any tertiary education was an advantage, and the higher the educational qualification, the higher the salary, the better the individual/ family /whanau standard of living, the better for all. A win-win situation, yes? It was evidence-based policy in the sense that research at the time indicated that further education, skills learned, and qualifications gained provided a way out of socio-economic disadvantage by lifting incomes. Classic thinking of the time.

    It was flawed for sure. Simply putting bums on seats doesn’t get results. Success matters. And as Nick Zepke, an Assoc Prof at Massey, took pains at illustrating, success is not simply a statistical measurement. The system was far too linear for many. People have complex lives. The educational focus also shifted from skills and trade training and that took a while to correct, something we are still playing catch-up on. Inevitably, some qualifications were hardly worth the paper they were written on – in the sense institutions let students down by offering courses that had little or no user value – other than some social capital. It was easy credit, but user-pays created debt, and for many this was an unsurmountable burden.

    Did it work? I suspect for a good many, yes. In particular, did it work for the poor? The poor have got poorer it seems. More than educational opportunity is at play.

  5. No. Labour do not want to improve the well-being of the poor impoverished 22,000+ living in motels racking up massive debt for ‘living’ in a room or two. Nor do they want to improve the lives of the lesser fortunate who are between the bene and the couch in precarious employment without long term sustainable and affordable accommodation.

    Look, Labour suck at dealing with the 7 Crises on their hands.

    Equality without equity means bugga all. The poor know this. Trying to distract them with identity and gender-based politics. To them, it is a foreign language that doesn’t deal with their day to day needs.
    Pakeha’s might have the time to ponder these things that are important to them, but the 200,000 kids deliberately trapped in poverty and the 22,000+ living in motels racking up massive debt trapped in homelessness by this incompetent government don’t really care about the bleeding heart middle class woes.

    • Along with the upwards of 1 million kiwi’s paying for unfunded medicines every week.
      Check out the new medicines site “THE MEDICINES GAP” https://themedicinegap.co.nz/
      58,000 people have viewed last weeks ( Week 5) Chron’s disease post in a week.
      13,000 people have viewed the two week befores (week 3) Amyloidosis post story and this site has only been going 5 weeks and is already getting attention internationally.

    • Yes and it’s false economy to let this keep happening. What we need is a new theory to work by. It’s called The Gush-down Theory.

  6. If you want to avoid tax and launder money just start a charity.

    This follows revelations that KidsCan Charitable Trust last year spent less than 20 percent of the money it raised on its programmes for disadvantaged children.

    How some New Zealand business make billions and pay no tax

    Too many political parties are not paying any taxes, or not declaring donations properly (so many SFO investigations on a range of parties and how you can pay $100k for a list MP seat) and also we have labour scams too.

  7. Too much corporate welfare.

    Let’s make the working class neighbours in Drury pay more in rates so that billionaire developers can spread urban sprawl on the rate payers dime and make a killing in profits.


    So far, this approach has allowed massive increases in house prices as more million dollar houses in the middle of nowhere are built, but still the government gives money to the rich, taken from taxes and thinks that trickle down to the poor will work. It hasn’t worked for 35 years, not going to now! What happened to state houses, because that used to work, not trickle down. The poor and working class and middle class are subsidising the billionaires.

    All over NZ developers are building in the middle of nowhere and the neighbours have had enough. Time to stop subsidising their infrastructure with public money, and then developers will hopefully concentrate closer to urban areas with existing infrastructure that workers can actually get to!

  8. The fucked up thing is, increasing benefits will immediately be soaked up by the worst lazy bludgers of all, the property “investors” and landlord class, bleeding this country dry.

    Get rid of the parasites and watch the whole economy flourish

  9. Woke is often used as a pejorative meaning ‘anything on the left I don’t like’ (see Judith Collins). However more precisely I’d describe it as the ‘street’ or everyday version of (mis)applied Critical Theory, fashionable with leftist identitarians (typically university educated, upper and middle class, overwhelmingly white).

    I find there are degrees of Wokeness, from those who advocate being aware that there are advantages/disadvantages to intrinsic identity markers (which seems reasonable) through to more inquisitional types who believe in group-guilt (original sin) and active shaming and discrimination to achieve compliance and equity or equality of outcome. (see Motte-Bailey argumentation). Equity here being defined in terms of race, indigeneity, sex, gender, sexuality, NOT (or rarely) in terms of class. Leading to material benefit going to whites who can game the system and affluent minorities while ignoring the multiracial working class except to leverage off their plight for ideological or political advantage.

    This is partly why, far from being a counter to neoliberalism it seems to have been actively embraced by it, (see Vivek Ramaswamy, Woke Inc) and why not. It’s ideal for superficial performativity and allows the likes of Big Tech, Ratheon and the CIA and government in general to project the optics and performance of diversity, inclusivity and even moral righteousness. Further it provides justification for increasingly authoritarian actions and legislation for the greater good (see Hot Fuzz).

Things don’t seem that bad in NZ compared to UK and US. However if you think CRT is a QAnon conspiracy please look up for the likes of Colman Hughes, John McWhorter and Chloe Valdary black academics and a former activist who have talked about it in depth and none of whom fit into anything resembling the QAnon pigeon hole.

    To be clear large parts of the right are also completely b*tshit but it’s a surprise that many on the left seem oblivious to the excesses of identitarians on their own side and the power of cultural coercion wokeness is gifting neoliberal elites. Who in turn have only just started to experiment with their new toy in the ‘guise’ of diversity, inclusivity and especially of equity.

    • Great comments. To suggest the push back against ‘woke ideology’ is Trumpian and a QAnon is quite frankly lazy and more importantly incorrect. Or maybe it’s the sign of someone who really hasn’t really observed and understood the current identity politics landscape. Critical Race Theory in it’s current guise doesn’t actually have the tools to combat racism. Robin Di Angelo practically describes white people as possessing original sin, with no chance of forgiveness or redemption. The reality is, people who are racist in its original sense are not going to listen to academics in their ivory towers of elite universities. What we are left with is a huge virtue signalling exercise to relieve the conscience of middle and upper class people who are just desperate to be on the right side of history, whilst being seen to do the right thing.

      • That’s a very good summary of the self defeating nature and lack of utility of CRT. DiAngelo is likely an example of scrupulosity assuming she isn’t just a cynical actor. There’s an argument that what she is teaching is not strictly CRT in the academic sense but it is, like Kendi, a simplified ‘street’ version.

To add another layer to your religious analogy, in DiAngelo’s terms a white person can achieve ‘in-group’ status by always acknowledging their privilege and continuously working to overthrow the system of racial oppression.

If oppressor/oppressed is analogous to original sin/exalted, then in-group/out-group is analogous to believer/heretic and is strongly associated with a moralistic judgement of character. 

        This is a key nuance at of woke ideologues. What you believe (or profess) and ’in-group’ status is far more important that any real-world identity markers. I think this is the root of the woke performativity and coercive social compliance.

        So not just ‘oppressors’ who get it in the neck, note how ‘oppressed’ non-believers and ‘inconvenient minorities’ are treated. You can be black (race) but not Black (political), you can be gay (sexuality) but not Gay (political) the precedence of capitalisation is deliberate. 

The political identities are the ones that actually matter and there is a ready dismissal, often a special vitriol (white-adjacent, race/gender traitor etc) for ‘inconvenient minorities’ and anyone from an ‘oppressed’ group who doesn’t believe and therefore seen to be excommunicated into the ‘out-group’.

        • HI. Two responses. If the woke encompasses such a broad church as you say, then is it really useful as a term, especially as it is so attacked. Martyn contrasts wokeness with ‘class politics’, but my point has always been that capitalism is oppressive but so is social injustice. You can’t have one without the other.
          In regard to CRT, I was referring not to the theory itself, but to how it is used politically. I am not an expert on the former.
          Tui, can I also just say how much I appreciate your comments and the tone of them. I always try not to put people down, be patronizing or hurtful, and I notice you have kept the debate to a high standard.

          • I agree that you need to look at both class politics and social justice. I personally think class politics is the bigger issue but we can walk and chew gum at the same time.

            However I think there is a big difference between social justice and woke or critical social justice (a better term?). I think of critical social justice as a cuckoo in the social justice nest, they are superficially similar but have divergent even opposing worldviews and philosophies.

            So I would not particularly contrast class politics with social justice but I would contrast it in opposition to critical social justice not least because CSJ tends to suck the oxygen out of the room and is perfect for distracting from class issues.


In that sense I think you and Martyn are both right.

            Re political use, CRT is a new toy a lot of people want to play with. The right as a bogey man, leftist identitarians in a counterproductive attempt to advance social justice, neoliberal elites and political authoritarians as a cultural power play. If I have a fear, it’s that we end up with a kind of woke-corporatism.

            Also thanks, kind of you to say so.

    • I find this commentary unnecessarily intellectual and elitist. Frankly, it is ridiculous. Why not talk in plain language. Otherwise your message is lost.

  10. How bizarre to consider that the only way to promote and engage in a national discussion about income and wealth in the modern age is to increase benefits by over $200 per week for a single parent with one child.

    As roblogic suggests, that person gets $200 a week extra and the landlord puts the rent up dramatically. (Accepting the new rules allow one rise in a year.)

    • Peter, government canceled the landlords so I guess $1200 is not that unreasonable for a 1 room hotel and emergency housing. Keep those benefits rising, it’s going to real business now!

    • Hi. I remember listening to the late great Wolf Rosenberg talking about the economics of social credit. To understand it, he said, imagine a helicopter flying all over NZ and just dropping money out randomly. From a social credit perspective, it would not matter where it fell; the stimulus effect over the whole economy would be the point (this is also known as ‘printing money’). But if you happened to have goals beyond social credit systems, then you might look at giving the money out with particular goals in mind -alleviating poverty being a good one. I do agree that the haves have a million ways to wrest a windfall from the have-nots, such as increased rents (a lot of our economic woes seem to come back to housing nowadays). I don’t know the answer to that. But that which was taken from beneficiaries in the 1991 budget – the ability to make ends meet on a benefit – must be restored.

      • Printing money is what the Reserve Bank has been doing – nearly $60 billion in the past 18 months. It’s been going to the banks and wealthy investors. That’s not Social Credit. Mr Rosenberg’s picture was very much simplified, but easy to grasp. Social Credit called it a National Dividend – an equal amount to every New Zealander. But Social Credit also promotes a substantial support package for those on low incomes. $12 billion each year. Read more about that here – https://www.socialcredit.nz/row

  11. The popular interpretation of a Karen is a pejorative term for a white woman seeming to be entitled or demanding beyond the scope of what is normal.
    This is in contrast to your interpretation of
    ‘women who stand up for their rights against oppressive bureaucracy’

    • Yeah, but what is normal? Who judges? Let’s think this through. We all know people/women/men (what is a male Karen called?) who we have seen being entitled or demanding beyond the scope of what is normal. The example that comes to mind is a male – the Nat MP who, when refused more alcohol at a dinner, turned to the waiter and said “don’t you know who I am”. Funnily enough, his name was Aaron (get it – Karen, Aaron???) (he is now an investment advisor, and hopefully has learned his lesson). Such things happen very rarely – this one got front page news and lost the MP his job. But the Karenisation of everyday life is something quite different. If you call a woman a Karen every time she goes to the manager with a complaint, which is definitely happening, then she learns that complaining leads to denigration. The manger, instead of taking her concerns seriously, might roll his eyes and think, or even say, “what a Karen”. In short, it has the potential to be oppressive to women who are merely seeking their rights in an unequal society.

      • Actually it is my understanding that the term Karen is referring to middle class white American women who threaten black people just going about their daily business by calling the cops on them. This is a life threatening action in America, to the black person. These women got caught on video and this is how the term ‘A Karen’ came about.

        • Well there should be quite a few terms for THEM, Lone Comet. Ask my friend Bomber – I am sure he could come up with some! But your point is well made – this term is all over the place and no-one really knows what it means. I wonder if TDB could become a Karen-free zone?

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