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FIREd Up : Wgtn's Jane Kelsey "The FIRE Economy" Book Launch

FIREd Up : Wgtn's Jane Kelsey "The FIRE Economy" Book Launch

Event report by Sven Solen

Scoop.co.nz Video of Jane Kelsey's Wellington Talk on The FIRE Economy

At Jane Kelsey’s talk about her new book The FIRE Economy at a Fabian Society event in Wellington this week, one of the memorable phrases she used, to describe no less an august body that the IMF, was that people there had somehow managed to “start talking truth to their own power”.

If only that was a precept more people ‘in power’ worked and lived to.

This was just one of the takeaways from a no-nonsense talk about a book that calls out the extremely skewed orthodoxy that sits behind the acronym "FIRE": Finance, Insurance, Real Estate.

In her work in the wider public interest, Jane Kelsey is of course an elemental force herself, from her influential landmark book The New Zealand Experiment (shockingly 20 years old now), to championing Its Our Future - "Kiwi Voices on the TPPA", and taking on the TPP on Al Jazeera and Seven Sharp.

Her's isn’t a lone voice, and the packed lecture theatre at Victoria University on Wednesday evening demonstrated there is a hunger for both clarity around whether an end (happy or not) will ever be in sight for the neoliberal era, and for more people to lead a clarion call in search of alternatives.

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In times of crisis, societies and economies do enter into periods of transition – think interregnums rather than armageddons! – but a clear message from Kelsey was that we’re on the cusp of a new ‘great unknown’, on what just what will come next when current orthodoxies hit the wall, or where New Zealand will fit.

“I don’t think any of us know,” she said.

So what has she observed and what obstacles exist?

>> Order a copy of The FIRE Economyfrom Bridget Williams Books.<<

One obstacle is the way in which our remote island population potters along “in a cocoon”. Exercising a mix of what might be characterised as a ‘we’ll be right’ attitude on one hand, and ‘look the other way’ on the other.

With the common features of big crises looming around the world, we’re still vulnerable to listening to orchestrated (false) fire alarms.

Why can’t those alarms be neutralised? Well at this stage of decades of relentless neoliberalism there is a framework in place that is not just intact, but very, very, very normalised.

One of Kelsey’s strongest observations in her talk was just how the architecture put in place to hold power over all the core economic pillars and levers has been so well embedded from the get-go of Rogernomics onwards.

And just how robust the systemic nuts and bolts of the framework have been made, “to make it [all] as undoable as possible”.

Through bulwarks of legislation such as the Reserve Bank Act and Fiscal Responsibility Act and Public Finance Act Prof. Kelsey argued that the functions of the state have been, stage by stage, privatised.

Elites and bag carriers in the professional services sector, it would seem, have all followed suit and become so detached from their ownership of public interest values and ethos - that those values now need to be somehow actively revived and re-embedded.

Kelsey also put journalists – financial journalists especially – in her sights for the way credit ratings agency reports, for instance, are innocently swallowed and regurgitated without anyone actually reading - or having access to - the full reports. Kelsey's next statement was greeted with good mirth by her audience: “Journalists that cite them uncritically should be fired!”

Using Ireland and Iceland as augurs of consequences thus far eluded by New Zealand in the wake of the GFC, Kelsey took some pains to let it be known that should (when or if) the shit truly hit the fan (not her words) in New Zealand, that she is actually an optimist about the future.

As mentioned earlier, early on in her talk she identified cause for hope in the way that the IMF has been setting about reinventing itself in recent years.

With the discipline of economic history having been conveniently devalued, and with an interregnum beckoning, the challenge she laid out to Wednesday’s (mostly grey-haired) gathering was to take the time ahead to “work out what we want the State to be”.

Politics matter, but the rule of law in New Zealand – per the path of the Treaty of Waitangi – matters too.

The caveats Kelsey expressed in terms of the state of politics to deliver sufficient alternatives were to point to some of the more perverse downsides to MMP (Act, United Future anyone?) and a tendency to run away from political will and backbone at crucial junctures (Labour and the Greens included).

As pointed to by Kelsey, two “unforeseen areas” - that may promise to be more hopeful catalysts and that have steadily gained an elemental force - are the potential twin, global, social movements around climate change and inequality.

As she highlighted, when or if a crisis does hit New Zealand big-time, we can either settle for a largely regressive response or a largely a progressive response.

Speaking to what would have constituted a progressive audience, Kelsey cautioned against whether grand narratives or sloganised alternatives will hold much water.

In other words to dismantle and rebuild ‘the machine’ [the financial machine], you need to know how it works and come prepared with a jackhammer and a key for unlocking the straitjackets we’ve been put within.

Whatever your walk of life, or income, or line of work, a powerful lesson about breaking out of the “cocoon” from Kelsey is that it will involve talking truth to your own power, and being open to bringing new critiques to bear.

I.E. having open ears and open minds.

>> Order a copy of The FIRE Economyfrom Bridget Williams Books.<<


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