On the election campaign’s fixation with the future

Less than two weeks to go. And what is NOT being talked about in this campaign is at least as important as what appears on the daily round of press releases and photo opportunities. Has anyone for instance, heard any policy yet that treats the growth in income disparity and/or child poverty as a matter of urgency?

New Zealand currently has incidence rates of Third World diseases (like rheumatic fever) among our children at 14 times the OECD average. Does anyone seriously think that John Key or Phil Goff have a plan to turn that situation around?

To a fault, the economic arguments in this campaign have been future-fixated, on outcomes for financial year 2014/ 15 – and on whose set of promises will get the government books back to surplus by then, within sustainable levels of borrowing. As a result, the campaign’s economic dialogue has been dominated by arguments over spending cuts, deficit reduction and borrowing levels in future — and not by plans to create jobs, promote tax fairness or alleviate poverty in the country we happen to live in right now.

One of the few policies from either of the major parties that would provide immediate relief for current hardship has been Labour’s removal of GST from fruit and vegetables, and that has been dissed for its logical inconsistencies. Better to have no policy at all for relieving poverty, it would seem, than one with a few arbitrary features.

The only people who seem to be taking income inequality seriously are in the Occupy movement. Over the last few weeks, the Occupy encampments have also become engaged with helping some of the victims of income inequality – the mentally troubled, the alcoholic and the homeless. So, this morning here’s a guest column by Anne Russell, a participant in (and reporter on) Occupy Wellington.


This is what democracy looks like: Why Occupy Together exists
by Anne Russell
November 14, 2011

Even as Occupiers have (finally) started taking serious steps towards participation in their own governance, there are still a lot of determinedly inane articles floating around the Internet about how the Occupiers “Don’t know what they want! *gasp*” As is the case with the cry “What do women want?!” answers are best found when one actually asks the protesters. But despite the coherent goals and policies articulated by many protesters, critics are fond of painting them as a bunch of rudderless hippies who are “just protesting for the sake of protesting”. Those kids should probably get off Wall Street’s damn lawn.

Exemplified by the We Are the 53% Tumblr, many people have this rather strange idea that everyone should stop whining about the problems. If one person can work 3 jobs and simultaneously study fulltime then anyone can; and should, apparently. Hmm. See, I could possibly survive a snowstorm wearing only a polar fleece, but I’m damned if I’m going to try when the man sitting next to me has two fur coats and isn’t even using one of them. Likewise I won’t lie down and pretend that working a 60-hour week is how it should be in the greatest country in the world.

But come on, the critics say, look at Syria, look at Yemen! Now those are countries with real problems. We Kiwis should be glad we’re not getting stoned to death for anything. Stuff.co.nz has jumped on this idea with alacrity, and as such its coverage of Occupy has frequently been strikingly dismissive. What particularly got my goat was this article with economist Shamubeel Eaqub, who said that Occupying was ‘unjustified’ in New Zealand because our economic situation isn’t as bad as in America.

What the? Protesting isn’t something that is done on a ‘justifiable’ basis. It’s an extension of basic democratic rights. If you whack me repeatedly on the elbow with a baton, you can bet I will tell you to stop. You’d need balls of steel to tell me that I am not ‘justified’ in doing this – or even that I should be ‘grateful’(?!) – just because hey, at least you aren’t shooting me in the head. It is my body, it is my democracy, and I have a right and a duty to protest when someone else wilfully hurts it.

The thing is – and I’m sure we’ve all experienced this – problems in the first world are still problems. A hungry child in New Zealand can be just as hungry as a child in America or the Congo. And they are: there is a systematic problem when reports show that a sixth of New Zealand children are raised in poverty. But even if the society a hungry child lives in is relatively efficient at feeding her, the pain in her stomach is not in itself any less. Human suffering is not a zero-sum game; the extension of human emotion is much larger than many of us realize, possibly infinite.

For centuries we’ve built a market economy, which is zero-sum. Capitalism doesn’t work for everyone because resources are not infinite; when the US budget allocates 51% to military spending, there is by definition less money available for healthcare and education.

It is naïve to think that a market economy won’t expand into a market society, where every social good becomes just another commodity with a price tag. Like it or not, the market shapes the way we conduct our daily life to a phenomenal degree. To take a particularly invasive example, it is arguable that the market logic of resource scarcity helps to form the way many of us perceive romantic relationships. Many people who find themselves in love think it’s because this person is “The One” – apparently everyone is allocated only one ‘true’ lover (as though the others are lies) apiece. In such a situation two people form two halves of a whole; therefore if your partner also loves another person that must mean he or she loves you less. Would it be possible for the people involved to grow from the experience? Apparently not.

Capitalism has created a radically miserable society, where good things are scarce and altruism leads to *shudder* a loss of capital. Everything is work, and all resources are held in unequal balance. Positive emotions are something earned – women ‘earn’ the right to feel good about their body via 2 hours of exer-cycle daily plus breast implants. But she better not feel too good about herself, or she’ll make other women feel bad.

It’s clear that with such limited emotional resources, people must fight others to be able to enjoy life. People have started doing cost-benefit analyses with reference to human life; the Sensible Sentencing Trust has the gall to send me press releases that say removing prisoner’s rights would “save the government (and all of us) money.”.

If everyone knew their neighbours personally this probably wouldn’t happen, but our society’s working structure – where each person works at a different time of the day to keep the machine running – frequently prevents communities from forming. Despite the ‘individualism’ capitalism claims to espouse, many workplaces – factories and the hospitality industry, for example – treat people as interchangeable, disposable commodities. Such a deliberately anti-social framework leaves many feeling isolated and alone.

The Occupations are a step away from that, towards community. At Occupy Wellington I have come across people who share my views on a rich variety of things, from spiritual philosophy to electoral systems to a fondness for Moomin books. Yet I would have passed most of these people in the street without a word, were we not living in the same space. Occupy Wellington is a visualization of our community, and is attempting to collectively work out the same problems that the larger society around it struggles with. A key problem at camp has been working out how to deal with sexual harassment – although we do not yet have a definitive process for managing problematic people, the discussion is happening.

Forget demands, forget objectives – the discussion about our society is Occupy’s fundamental raison d’être. The movement is made up of those who are crying out to participate in their own governance and community; it happens to be anti-capitalist because capitalism is anti-community. Occupy has risen out of the desperate optimism that life doesn’t have to be this hard, that people can be good, that there must be something better than the status quo. Developing that Something is a work in progress, so please stop asking Occupiers “what their final goals are”. No one expects politicians to have their “final goals” immediately sorted, and they’re professionally trained and paid to do their job.

Numbed by the monotony of daily routine and disillusioned with the squabbling in Parliament, people tend to forget that politicians are our employees. We hired them, and we can fire them if we want. My community and I have paid our taxes so the government will do certain jobs for us (e.g. preventing corporate crime, and the environmental damage from the Rena grounding), and they haven’t followed through. Moreover, they don’t have a clear agenda; well gosh, it’s almost as if “They don’t know what they want!” I suppose we have to set the damn agenda ourselves.


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