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  • Writer's pictureZarahn Southon

The Rock Star Economy

In this essay I will explore the last fifty years of state social welfare reform and its impact on society and the arts community. In particular I will focus primarily on the moral sentiments used to shape policy and public perception. Arguing that moral sentiments and policy that promote welfare - as opposed to neoliberal fiscal rules - are better for the community.

In 1945, when the UK Labour Party transformed society through welfare reforms, British society went through a massive political and social remodelling. The transformation included free medical care, retirement pensions, state housing, unemployment and health insurance, assistance to pregnant woman and a reconstruction of education. Labours post-war society provided more purchasing power and security leading to greater consumerism. In 1959 the Conservative Prime Minister, Harold Macmillan, told the British people “you’ve never had it so good”. Musicologists writing on the positive impact of the 1945 welfare reforms, noted “the young had more leisure time and a bit more money to spend” which encouraged greater freedom and more time to express musical individualism. The words Rock'n'Roll, are cockney slang for receiving the dole “Lost me job, now I'm back on the Rock'n'Roll."

In 1938, answering to worker and social unrest, New Zealand society under the auspices of Michael Joseph Savage’s Labour party - was transformed through major welfare reform. The 1938 Social Security Act enacted ‘free-at-the-point-of-use health system’, various welfare benefits, superannuation for the elderly and compulsory Union Membership. The welfare reform mimicked Roosevelts 1933 “New Deal” and Keynesian economic policies, although, under the pious Michael Joseph Savage the reforms were described as “applied Christianity”. One historian characterised Savage as smelling ‘of the church bazaar, not at all of the barricades.’

Looking back at mid-twentieth century social reforms – despite entrenched discrimination toward indigenous peoples and people of colour and women - the 1950’s were a prosperous time for most people. Roosevelt’s 1933 ‘New Deal’ had saved state capitalism from a working class revolt by co-opting its egalitarian principles. Commonwealth countries applying Keynesian economics compromised between capitalist enterprise and working class socialism. Mass mechanisation in industry and a strong labour movement of returned serviceman led to growth in wages and fewer working hours. In 1958, so that working class families could capitalize on “future benefit payments” the New Zealand Government amended the 1946 Universal Family Benefit to help families fund a deposit on a new home. New Zealand’s social welfare experiment surpassed many such experiments among members of the OECD, hence the fitting epitaph “an Anglo-Saxon lower-middle-class dream of Utopia”.

By 1973, the third Labour government of New Zealand, through pressure from the second wave of feminist protest, furthered its commitment to social welfare by introducing the Domestic Purposes Benefit, providing solo mothers more money to raise their children, with the view that sole parents, in particular mothers, should feel a sense of "belonging and participating" in the community.

Despite a 1972 Royal Commission to “remove all mention of morality from codes regulating benefits”, politicians criticised social welfare dependency and it’s economic value, and vilified sole mothers by invoking patriarchal values of female servitude. A member of parliament, the pietistic Bert Walker famously stated “women should not receive the Domestic Purposes Benefit if they had males coming round to their home”, which led to 500 benefit cuts for sole parents.

The attack on social welfare was about to become more than the frivolous attempts by a puritanical right beholden to capitalist enterprise. The attack was to be legitimized by the orthodoxy of a new, supposedly liberal, economic global order.

During the 1970’s, a new economic orthodoxy was set in motion to revolutionize global markets and counter populist worker movements. The orthodoxy later to be known as neoliberalism from The Chicago School of Economics, was founded by former economist outlier, Milton Friedman with influence from the Austrian economist Frederick A. Hayek.

Friedman’s liberal economic philosophy advocated a "crash through" theory or “shock doctrine” - driving through radical economic policy when markets and democratic institutions are at their most vulnerable. Including, deregulating the market, stripping government assets, cuts to social spending and subsidies with the net effect of moving large amounts of money from the public sector into the private sector. This resulted in huge financial gains for investors and big business, yet ensuring mass inequality for the remainder of the population.

The new economic system, neoliberalism, popularized by Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher, was celebrated as the bench mark of all human and historical endeavour. Once the cold war was over, supporters and philosophers eagerly anticipated a global neoliberal economic order, and any vestiges of social/ist democracy were buried under the soundbite of the “End of History”.

In 1973, England joined the European Economic Community isolating New Zealand from the U.K markets. New Zealand’s vulnerability led to the business community and members of treasury to seek new forms of economic endeavour. Treasury members travelled and studied at the Chicago School of Economics, and on return influenced leading figures within the New Zealand business community and government. A late neoliberal convert, Minister of Finance, Roger Douglas, under the fourth Labour Government was appointed chief architect of neoliberal economic reform.

Even during the 1940’s Keynesian social welfare reforms, critics were quick to point out the “applied lunacy’’ of the new state welfare policies, but by the 1980’s the attacks coming from a new emboldened right, had become so virulent that the state social welfare system formerly lead by the Christian and centrist Michael Joseph Savage, was labelled “Post-Stalinist”. What was once an economic state system inspired by Christian goodwill and capitalist Protestantism - with contributions from its former socialist base - 'You shall love your neighbour as yourself' - morphed under the proponents of the new orthodoxy into Adam Smith’s infamous dictum and critique of capital, namely “Gain wealth forgetting all but self”. Equally elevated was the much vaunted fiscal responsibility, implying total individual responsibility for one’s own life.

Corporate financed public relations campaigns have given neoliberal orthodoxy pride of place in public perception on what constitutes sound economic policy. A 2006 survey of 32 countries found “New Zealanders were less supportive of redistributing income from the rich to the poor than people in any other nation.”

Neoliberal reforms of the 1980’s and 90’s led to recession, record unemployment, and weakened social safety nets - The Employment Contracts Act 1991 repealed worker union membership. Thereby, workers lost the connection to traditional socialist ideals of ‘owning the means of production’ and ‘from each according to their ability, through to each according to their need.”

The neoliberal catch phrase individual responsibility, once an affront to large populations eking out an existence under the disasters of 1920’s laissez-fairre capitalism and subsequent great depression of the 1930’s, became the dominant mantra of the new fiscal ruled workers.

Regardless, whether one argues for or against the sustainability of neoliberalism economic policy or indeed the libertarian individualism shared with many within the left of libertarian socialism; it is worth considering neoliberalism’s anti-humanist traits:

"to reward the lazy and defend bludgers”

Former Labour Prime Minister Mike Moore

Going into the 1990’s, despite the political coup d’état of Rogernomics - free market shift and privatisation of state owned assets - New Zealand still clung to fragments of a government regulated welfare state. Nevertheless, by the 1990’s neoliberal policies under Ruth Richardson (aptly named Ruthanasia) replaced much of the surviving policies of the First Labour Government.

For the past thirty years both Labour and National governments have enforced neoliberal orthodoxy, embracing the neoliberal idea of market freedom, while using the state apparatus to punish its most vulnerable citizens. Hollowing out state infrastructure, to free up markets while maintaining the more coercive elements of state structure, is seemingly a contradiction within neoliberalism. Indeed fundamentalist neoliberals will not shy away from privatising police and military forces, giving rise to an ideology that encourages repressive forms of human behaviour. This is in sharp contrast to the Ministry of Social Development under the First Labour Government’s 1938 social security act which “was to grant not only freedom from poverty, but also dignity and a sense of citizenship”.

In his 1651 book Leviathan Thomas Hobbes proposed that man is essentially selfish, lusts for power, and requires the state to impose its “iron fist” will on the “brutish citizenry”. Hobbesian logic finds its way into the language used by former chief architects of the neoliberal economic orthodoxy:

“The optimism of the ideologues was constantly challenged by the

greed of man…the majority will always approach reform as “what’s

in it for me,” will always end up being surprised at the publics

creeping sense of entitlement.”

Former Labour MP Michael Bassett

The campaign to punish people on welfare has been relentless, and the National Government’s reactionary 2013 welfare policies sought to remove 44,000 people off benefits, including solo mothers and people with disabilities.

From December 2010 to December 2017, the National Government with ever greater efficiency, removed 62,919 people, largely sole parents from the work and income benefit.

In 2017, the Social Security Act 1964 Section 70A benefit sanctions, were rightly recognised as a misogynist policy, as 98% of between 14,000 and 18,000 sanctions were disproportionately women.

Sanctions negatively impact on society and have proven to affect children of welfare families the most. The next step to punishing those dependent on social welfare, was to focus on the most marginalized and fringe cases of intergenerational welfare recipients. The aim was to garner public support for antiquated social and biological engineering policies:

"The fact is, parents who cannot afford to have children

should not be having them."

The NZ Act Party

“I can tell you that they are completely fed up with these

children continuously being born to completely unfit parents.

That’s a step that’s right out there, and I can tell you there

is certainly discussion going on around it.”

Minister of Social Development 2011-2014 Paula Bennett

In 2012, flirting with New Zealand’s 1928 eugenics forced sterilization debate, Minister for Social Development, Paula Bennett, put forth a white paper policy, arguing for state intervention in cases the ministry deems parents ‘unfit’ to rear children. Far right Act Party members called for sterilization, while Paula Bennett advocated a programme of “fully funded contraception for female beneficiaries and their 16 to 19-year-old daughters.” This would be a human rights violation under the United Nations 1994 International Conference on Population and Development in Cairo (ICPD), which defined reproductive rights as “… right of all to make decisions concerning reproduction free of discrimination, coercion and violence as expressed in human rights documents.”

There was public outcry, Bennett’s white paper bill was later amended to the Vulnerable Children Bill without mention of state enforced contraception. Regardless, Ministers have still maintained their belief that ‘unfit’ parents be denied reproductive rights and the state impose sterilisation.

‘We should get much, much faster contraceptive advice in. We should be offering, you know, tubal ligations, all sorts of things..’

Minister of Social Development 2014-2017 Anne Tolley

The recent case of a solo mother from South Auckland having her benefit cut, after going on two tinder dates, is just one example of many where state apparatus - originally intended to provide welfare - has been co-opted and reconfigured to coerce and punish people.

Many benefit cuts are made after the Ministry Social Development receive tip-offs from the public. A majority of the tip-offs are from disgruntled former male partners.

More severe cases involve suicide and death. Wendy Shoebridge took her own life after being harassed by the Ministry of Social Development, that she owed $22,000. It was found that she didn’t owe anything.

These are not isolated incidents, and research has shown a culture of vindictiveness at Work and Income New Zealand. There have been reported cases of intimidation from case managers, and a general bully culture in the Ministry of Social development and Work and Income NZ.

The structural problems are compounded, adding the fact that an academic survey showed "New Zealand has the second-worst rate of workplace bullying in the developed world with one in five workers afflicted.” What happens in the workplace generally spills over into the wider community and impacts public perception and culture.

In 2018 New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern issued a statement calling for an overhaul of the culture at the Ministry of Social Development and Work and Income New Zealand. But will it go far enough? Will it turn back the tide of forty years of neoliberalism and its “might is right” moralistic orthodoxy?

The “general culture” within the Ministry of Social Development is the least problem, as scrutiny should be placed upon the state structure that allowed pulpit liberal class elites to actively preach anti-humanist orthodoxy away from the common good. The music has died:

‘"All You Need Is Love”.. I'm a revolutionary artist. My art is dedicated to change…’

John Lennon

While enrolled at art school in the 1990’s, during the height of Ruthanasia, I attended a lecture by the artist John Pule. He encouraged students to use the welfare system, only to be met with incredulous hostility by students, largely from affluent neighbourhoods.

Upper middleclass indignation carries a certain hypocrisy; former Prime Minister John Key reaped the rewards of state social welfare, growing up in a single parent 1950's state house. His mother used the opportunity provided by social welfare to pay off a $40,000 loan debt by 1973. Today this is considered defrauding the tax payer.

Despite rhetoric to the contrary, there is no evidence that social welfare damages economic growth. An OECD report in 2014 highlighted growing inequality in New Zealand “unprecedented in the post-war period” and found “no evidence that redistributive policies, such as taxes and social benefits, harm economic growth.”

There is also the attribution of public harm due to cuts in social spending and inequality. British epidemiologists, Richard Pickett and Kate Wilkinson found a correlation between rising inequality and suicide rates.

Economist Anne Pettifor provides a good case for increased social welfare spending - arguing for greater public education in economics and the role private banks play in money creation.

Art as Welfare

Since evidence supports the economic value of social spending, it is at this point that I would like to focus on the positive impact welfare, both financially and morally, has on bringing a working class art movement to the fore. If we accept the notion that a vibrant art community reflects the general well-being of a community, we can draw the conclusion that any welfare or universal basic income, should be the top priority in economic policy.

Generally speaking, the long history of leading artists and musicians that act as conduits of talent, are products of their cultural and socio-political environment. In New Zealand, despite the public’s historical indifference to local music and artistic culture, artists have won a hard-fought battle, seeing New Zealand at the forefront of international music, with headline acts like Lorde and artists like Lisa Reihana. The fact is that a working-class base of musicians and artists utilized the welfare system - to share, experiment, learn, and adapt to an increasingly polarized world – all of which falls outside mainstream discourse on art and welfare policy, insofar, that the working-class base provided a platform for young upcoming artists like Lorde to nurture and grow their talent.

Most New Zealand artists will attest that the state welfare system helped their careers both directly and indirectly through family or sole parent support. In the 1970’s, riding the crest of British new wave, the band Split Enz, and punk group the Headless Chickens along with countless other bands, had at one time or another benefitted from welfare support. Artists such as Tao Wells, use the unemployment benefit as artistic statement, to raise issues surrounding work and its environmental impact. For example, that we should be working less is a hot topic among economists and the social sciences - leading to important questions as to why the fifteen-hour week predicted by John Maynard Keynes failed to eventuate.

Anthropologist David Graeber speculated that it’s unlikely the Beatles would have created their musical revolution had it not been for the British welfare state system. They grew up in state houses and all received the dole. For every decade that the welfare state system was at its strongest, Britain produced musical sensations that ushered in new global epochs. Graeber quips “Where is the next John Lennon? Probably packing boxes in a supermarket somewhere.”

On the negative side, artists who become successful are turned into commercial commodities. Art becomes a neoliberal exercise in extreme individualism, pressuring even the most reluctant artists into becoming self-employed business men and women. Art becomes an exercise in selling art to a corporate market. Works of art become unique assets that gain in monetary value, dwarfing almost all other valuables known to mankind (today a painting can attract bids up to $300,000,000). Mick Jagger of the Rolling Stones is said to have become one of the most successful businessmen in the world today, selling his copyrighted music that benefitted from British welfare. The contradictions are immense.

The moralistic bases that form economic policy from both the welfare state years and its neoliberal successors are as different as chalk and cheese. Without over sentimentalizing and nostalgically looking at the past, I am of the opinion, that we need to rethink our attitude to human welfare, mutual aid, work and unemployment. We must defend basic human rights – both on moral and empirical grounds – against the self-interests of free market economic policies.

Imagine a world where the revolutionary ideas expressed in Beatle Mania had been translated into a social reality- or Split Enz having effected cross-cultural narratives for a New Zealand identity, that should culminate in a drunken chorus’ at end of year work functions across Aotearoa (the reality is that ‘end-of-year’ work parties are now subject to OHS regulations, making the employer responsible for the good conduct of the employees – but not for the employer, e.g. corporate lawyers can abuse interns at the party while singing Rod Steward songs about a ‘virgin child’). Or consider the real-world implications of a poor working-class solo mother scratching out an existence yet managing to hook-up for two tinder dates. Real art in such scenarios can only hold up the mirror and hope that recognition will be the first step to make the world a far better place than it is now.

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