CONFRONTED WITH THE CHALLENGE of a worsening cost-of-living crisis, what would a democratic-socialist government do? Right now, answering that question coherently and believably is the Left’s most important assignment.
The Right’s response to this challenge is relatively clear: throw the economy into recession, maintain strong downward pressure on aggregate demand; reduce public spending. The Centre-Left’s approach to the crisis differs in no serious respect from the Right’s. It hopes to achieve the same goals, using the same methods, but in such a way that their inherent social violence is masked by the rhetoric of “kindness”.
Unfortunately for Jacinda Ardern and her Cabinet, there is no “kind” way of bringing inflation under control while remaining within the ideological parameters of neoliberalism. The classical definition of inflation: too much money chasing too few goods; more or less writes the neoliberal government’s policy for it.
The first and most important objective is to reduce the amount of money in circulation. Neoliberals achieve this key goal by raising the cost of borrowing money. Those with mortgages are required to pay more, leaving households with less to spend. The price of capital also rises, applying the brakes to business expansion and investment. In the face of these developments the labour market contracts: raising the level of unemployment, increasing workers’ fear of “the sack”, and setting off a steady decline in real wages.
In short order, the problem of too much money in too many people’s pockets simply disappears – along with their cash and credit. But wait, there’s more. If a farmer cannot make a dollar by supplying the market with one cabbage, then he will supply it with two. There will be more cabbages to buy, and at a lower price.
And there you have it! The cost of living falls. The inflationary tide recedes. The problems confronting neoliberal economists and politicians are solved.
All well and good for the neoliberal economists and politicians, but not in any way good for the human-beings on the receiving end of their decisions. The great virtue of these macroeconomic measures, from the neoliberals’ perspective, is that they save them from having to deal with the devastating micro effects of their policies.
They don’t have to witness the expression on workers’ faces when they’re told that their employer is “letting them go”. They don’t hear the sobs of the young couple leaving the house they struggled so hard to buy, but whose mortgage they can no longer afford. The small businessman who cannot make the numbers add-up, no matter how hard he tries, suffers alone – a casualty of the “creative destruction” of “market forces”. The real-world effects of a neoliberal government’s economic policies occur in places where the politicians who set them in motion seldom visit.
In the long run, though, everyone is better-off for having helped to beat inflation and bring the cost-of-living under control. Such is the refrain of the neoliberal decision-makers. It is a bleak sort of consolation, akin to that of the General who praises the sacrifice of thousands of conscript soldiers – all of them killed by the murderous ineptitude of his military tactics. There are ways to win battles that do not necessitate slaughter. There are ways to beat inflation that do not depend on simultaneously beating-up the nation’s poorest and most vulnerable citizens.
But, what are these ways? How can inflation be beaten without inflicting economic pain on the weakest members of society?
For democratic-socialists the answer lies in using the enormous power of the state to regulate the economy. Exactly the same power that neoliberalism currently uses to entrench the power and privilege of the capitalist elites.
Because the power of the state does not have to be used to keep the private sector profitable. The power of the state could just as easily be used to freeze mortgage rates, cap the prices of necessities, and control rents; to raise appreciably more revenue from its wealthiest citizens; and to levy “windfall” taxes on all those corporations guilty of racking-up excessive profits during the Covid-19 pandemic. (Even Boris Johnson’s Conservatives did that!)
At the same time, a democratic-socialist government could remove GST from basic food items. It could re-nationalise and centralise the generation and distribution of electric power, and then retail it to citizens at an affordable price. A democratic-socialist government could nationalise the public transportation system and make it free for everyone. A democratic-socialist government could even impose a “Carbon Footprint Tax” on imports. Only among neoliberals are “subsidy” and “tax” dirty words.
To be fair to Jacinda and her Finance Minister, Grant Robertson, they have made a modest effort towards subsidising petroleum and public transport. They have also provided many New Zealanders with a “Winter Energy Payment”. These are good moves, but they are nowhere near enough.
Sadly, the full mobilisation of the state’s powers to bring down the cost-of-living, tax excess wealth out of circulation, and reconfigure the ownership of what are, in truth, “social” industries for the benefit of the many, not the few, is still beyond the range of this Government’s political imagination. Nearly 40 years of neoliberalism has robbed Labour of the courage and creativity that, in the 1930s and 40s, made New Zealand a model democratic-socialist state.
Conservatives reading this post will shriek “Muldoonism!” And, they will be right. But there is another way to look at Rob Muldoon’s economic management, apart from using it as shorthand for everything that was wrong with New Zealand in the 1970s and 80s.
It is possible to recast Muldoon’s policies as proof of how deeply ingrained the determination to look after the interests of ordinary people had become in the New Zealand political system. Muldoon subsidised and regulated and controlled because the alternative – letting “market forces” rip – would leave far too many casualties in its wake. When Rob Muldoon promised “New Zealand the way YOU want it” – he meant it.
That the Labour Party was willing to inflict those casualties; that to keep the good opinion of Treasury and The Business Roundtable it was willing to abandon its democratic-socialist principles; and that, to this very day, its political creativity remains stunted by the neoliberal dogma it cannot seem to abandon; strikes me as a far greater crime than any Rob Muldoon may have committed. In the end, even the Springbok Tour made New Zealand a stronger country.
But, neoliberalism has not made New Zealand a stronger country, it has made it weaker. When the instinct of both their major parties is to use the nation’s weakest citizens as economic cannon-fodder, then surely it is time New Zealanders made “neoliberalism” a dirty word? Imposing cruelty in the name of kindness has only ever left humanity with more that is cruel, and less that is kind. It is not what democratic-socialists do.