This year is starting to look like the early Sixties without the protest songs. Out there, loose protest movements are forming and increasingly people point to issues like child poverty, inequalities born out of a once equal society and the loss of community. Millionaires here and overseas are saying they want to share the tax burden and so make society fairer, but it’s a message Government free marketers don’t want to hear.
In their eyes there is and always has been only one alternative. Anything else is economic heresy even though it might represent social progress. And so out of sight and sometimes disturbingly not, the toxins brew. Forty years ago as he lounged on the grass of the lower marae in Waitangi, Poet James K. Baxter summed another movement about to take flight.
Chewing on a paspalum stalk he grinned at the thought and said: “The pot is on the boil”, meaning Maori activism. Now the pot is once more on the boil, but this time it’s a stew with more universal ingredients. It’s not just the mutterings of the dispossessed here in Godzone. It also lies in the reasons critique of our tax system by millionaire (and former economist) Gareth Morgan and his co-author, Susan Guthrie.
In a much lauded article in the New Zealand Herald they wrote:
‘There comes a point when people become so alienated from those who control the institutions of a society that public disorder is the only weapon they can respond with…. And those people in the streets of Tottenham don't have to be materially poor, either. Social or financial alienation is sufficient to inspire such reactionism. An economic model that increasingly serves the interests of the few to the exclusion of the many is not sustainable. Polarisation promotes its own impoverishment.
‘It is not far-fetched for New Zealand's tax and transfer regime to be overhauled so once again it can recognise the value of unpaid as well as paid work, it can ensure everyone has an inalienable right to live a dignified life and it can encourage self-reliance and maximum productivity (in the broadest sense)’.
That must have felt like an unexpected cold shower within Treasury, but a glance through newspapers shows a growing reaction against the rigid orthodoxy of the free market. In a range of countries throughout the world, the anger is palpable.
It isn’t the Valhalla we were promised. Salesmen-politicians starting here with David Lange, told us how the market would set us free. But has it? The reasons for increased opposition world-wide range from environmental concerns, rich-poor income gaps, the growth of poverty and genuine concerns over loss of sovereignty. The issues have been around for the last 30 years, but now people are no longer acquiescent. Once passive people are on the streets, putting themselves at risk in attempts to rein in free market excesses.
Take China’s port city of Dalian. The Daily Telegraph reported that despite ranks of riot police, 12,000 middle class Chinese marched in successful protest demanding the closure of a chemical plant which nearly had a major toxic leak. But most significantly in a country which has seen among other scandals, poisoned baby formula, the Telegraph reported ‘a growing revolt against what the People’s Daily recently dubbed ‘Bloody GDP’.
Coming from China, the words leapt off the page. The accusation was aimed at what the Telegraph said was ‘economic growth that puts Communist party prestige (and officials’ kickbacks) before the welfare of the people.
Fast forward to India, where 74-year-old Anna Hazare was on a hunger strike protesting about - corruption. Or to Israel and Chile which, unlike Greece, Chile and Israel have been enjoying steady growth and low unemployment.
In Chile 100,000 people took to the streets. In Israel the biggest demo saw 300,000 out protesting. Both societies had seen similar results under neo-liberal experiments – corporatism, more wealth distributed upwards to an elite and beneath that, a struggling middle class.
And then as if to add unintended (or was it?) momentum to all this, Pope Benedict XVI visited Spain this month. This most considered pontiff, lost no time denouncing economic structures that ‘put profit ahead of people’ when he addressed thousands of young Roman Catholics. He told them:
“The economy cannot function only with mercantile self-regulation, but needs an ethical in order to work for man”. He might have added the environment. For, just like youth, its future looks less than healthy in the free market’s self-regulating universe.
Youth unemployment in the UK is 20.2% according to a recent European Union report. The highest rates were in Spain (45.7 %), Greece (38.5 % in the first quarter of 2011). By comparison ours (for those aged between 15 to 19) is 27.6% according to Statistics New Zealand. The NZ Herald pointed out that this was the highest number of unemployed youth since the Great Depression of the 1930s.
Fifty years ago protest movements were driven by privileged youth, now baby boomers. Imagine a future when youth, denied the possibility of education, training and job certainty, take to the streets – again, but this time with nothing to lose.