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New Zealand’s ethical deficit

New Zealand’s ethical deficit

By John Bevan-Smith
2 September 2014

When the Minister of Finance announced in his 2014 Budget Speech that there ‘will be a small surplus next year’, he failed to add that his government would also be delivering an ethical deficit by way of the Machiavellian apparatus it had established to denigrate its political opponents and anyone of significance it suspects of disagreeing with its policies.

I do not wish to examine that apparatus here. What I am interested in are the possible reasons why this deficit has grown to such staggering proportions under the current National government, indeed, to the point where even senior public servants have recently announced that they, like the Prime Minister who apparently cannot tell the difference between himself and his staff, also have difficulty in distinguishing between the Prime Minster and the Prime Minister’s Office.

The hubris that fuels this ethical deficit is truly breathtaking. But where does it come from?

A clue may be found in the Waikato speech given on July 26 by Dr Jamie Whyte, leader of one of National’s coalition partners, the ACT Party. In that speech, Whyte claimed that ‘collective responsibility’ and its corollary ‘“identity politics”’, which has ‘ancient roots in mankind’s tribal history’, have been overcome by ‘personal responsibility’, which, Whyte added, is ‘one of the great achievements of modern civilisation.’ Of course, Whyte’s proposition, based as it is on the principle of non-contradiction, is untenable, not least because personal and collective responsibility are not mutually exclusive ideas but ones that most of us manage in tandem quite happily, as Whyte himself appears to do: he belongs to a collectivity, ACT, through the promotion of which, he, as a personally responsible individual, hopes to make a positive difference to that even bigger collectivity to which he also belongs: New Zealand society.

This valorising of the individual subject in combination with classical economic theory had a profoundly destructive effect on those societies Europe targeted for domination and exploitation during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. More recently, hyperindividualism proved particularly potent in its alliance with Hayekian politico-economic theory, foisted on the West during the 1970s and 80s by Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan, and landing in New Zealand under the name of Rogernomics in 1984. This fusion of distorted individualism and free-market fundamentalism could take for a slogan any part of the following from Gordon Gekko’s Wall Street speech: ‘Greed, for lack of a better word, is good. Greed is right. Greed works. Greed clarifies, cuts through, and captures, the essence of the evolutionary spirit. Greed, in all of its forms . . . has marked the upward surge of mankind’.

In particular, the discourse of neoliberalism, which doubles as a belief system, promotes the idea that the individual, in partnership with ‘the free market’, will not only be set free from and triumph over collectivism, from which companies and corporations are conveniently excluded, but will also be elevated to a godlike status through the attainment of personal wealth, neoliberalism’s barometer of achievement. The consequences of this malignant thinking are all around us and plain to see, including the once unthinkable levels of child poverty, along with the ever-widening gaps between rich and poor, between Pakeha and Maori, between Pakeha and Pasifika, which continue to discolour if not rot this country’s social fabric. As Sir Edmund Thomas noted in 2013: ‘The outcome, as in other countries that have pursued the neoliberal creed, has been extreme and even obscene inequality.’ This is now evident in New Zealand where ‘[t]he top ten per cent of the population owns half of the country’s wealth and the bottom 50 per cent owns only five per cent of the wealth.’ Furthermore, ‘the material self-interest that now dominates western societies’ has meant the loss of ‘the sense of collective purpose which was inherent in the values of social democracy.’

Arguably, it is this blind belief and total immersion in neoliberal ideology, in partnership with hyperindividualism, which has led to the ethical hollowing out of political life in New Zealand. In the process, neoliberalism has produced a new political ‘truth’, convenience, the masterly use of which is demonstrated ad nauseam by New Zealand’s Prime Minister through his numerous public denials, evasions and persistent memory loss, and delivered, more often than not, with a hollow smile.

This ethical hollowing out has not only produced a national ethical deficit, but also has implications beyond New Zealand’s shores. It means, for instance, that the leading role New Zealand played when a former Prime Minister sent two naval frigates on an ‘“honourable”’ mission to protest French nuclear testing at Mururoa Atoll in 1973 has now been supplanted by the obsequious Realpolitik of the current Prime Minister who condones and supports assassination as a political tool and means of executing justice, along with acceptance of the loss of innocent civilian life that accompanies this new form of remote mass murder. Furthermore, he is responsible for the Government Communication Security Bureau, headed by an old school friend, which supplies information to do just that.

Politics may not be an occupation for the fainthearted. But the size of our current ethical deficit has underscored the need to radically re-examine our democratic institutions, perhaps even to raze some if not many of them and to rebuild a new political landscape where service, not power, is the principal motivation for political involvement, and concern for the other, not self-interest, the principal aim of those who serve. If nothing else, Dirty Politics has demonstrated the urgent need to remove from our socio-political landscape the malignancy of neoliberalism, ‘with its baggage of mantras, shibboleths and myths’, as Sir Edmund has it, including the elevation of the individual over the community, but also and most importantly, to forestall our collective falling further into this ethical abyss.

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