Article – Valerie Morse
Starting this week, a nation-wide hikoi is leaving the far north and traveling to Wellington carrying a raft of messages to the government. These include opposition to state asset sales, opposition to the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement (TPPA) …
Anti-capitalist: Why the ‘C’ word needs to feature as part of the hikoi against asset sales
April 22, 2012
Starting this week, a nation-wide hikoi is leaving the far north and traveling to Wellington carrying a raft of messages to the government. These include opposition to state asset sales, opposition to the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement (TPPA) and opposition to expansion of resource extraction (e.g. off-shore oil drilling, fracking, gold and coal mining). There is considerable appropriateness in bundling these issues together, and the opponents of these issues see them as interrelated. Briefly put, the linkage stems from a view that the country is being sold-out to multinational corporations with little or no benefit accruing to the people, and with negative social, political, economic and environmental consequences. It is hard to overstate the validity of these concerns.
However, absent most of the discourse about these issues is what lies at the heart of all of them: capitalism, in particular neo-liberal capitalism. The failure to direct our analysis to the root cause of these myriad social, economic and environmental issues will allow a further strengthening and entrenching of it.
Neo-liberal capitalism – or neo-liberalism in shorthand – is characterised by the privatisation of public assets; deregulation of trade, finance, investment, education and healthcare by nation-states in favour of trade management through a global rules-based system; the growth of multinational financial institutions (such as the IMF and World Bank); the rise of foreign direct investment; the development of intellectual property as a commodity, and a focus on individualism and societal atomisation. Indeed, neo-liberalism has been called ‘capitalism with the gloves off’ because business forces are stronger and more aggressive, and they face less organised opposition than ever before.
This description fits well with the general thrust of the National Government’s political agenda. In reality, however, it is not so different from that of the previous (and potentially next) Labour government. This is why a debate about the more fundamental organization of our economic, political and social systems must be had. This is why we need to talk about capitalism.
New Zealand has already been subject to the extremes of neo-liberal capitalism under the fourth Labour Government and its successor in the 1990s National Government. Under Helen Clark, some of the worst excesses of the neo-liberal capitalist polices were abandoned (like private prisons and charter schools), but in other ways, neo-liberalism became even more deeply embedded into the political, economic and social fabric of New Zealand life. One of the best examples is the vigour with which the Clark government negotiated free-trade agreements and significantly relaxed Overseas Investment Commission oversight of foreign land and asset buying.
New Zealand society and social life has been transformed in the past 30 years. In particular there is a discernable shift from collective responsibility for social issues to individual responsibility. Health care and higher education, once viewed as a right and a collective good respectively, are now sold to us as an individual benefit, the cost of which must be borne individually. As a two-time Victoria University student, I was aghast at the ease with which the University Council raised student fees again and again against significant student protest when they had themselves been the beneficiaries of completely free university degrees.
Capitalism has no country
Part of the uproar about the National government’s approach is simply the brazenness with which it is being carried out. Key makes no apologies to those who don’t embrace his worldview: exacerbating the gap between rich and poor by making the rich richer, blaming the poor for being poor and if possible criminalising them at the same time.
Yet, what is critical for us to understand is that while Key’s approach is utterly odious to those of us who seek a more just world, it is simply part and parcel of capitalism. A government, any government, which operates a capitalist economic system operates a system of unavoidable injustice. That is the very nature of capitalism: it is the theft of the labour of the working class and the transfer of that wealth to the owning class.
The dominant feature of neo-liberal capitalism in the past 40 years is the growth in power of multinational corporations. Again, it is difficult to overstate the power exerted by corporations on the political and economic choices made by nation-states. It is now reported that more than half of the 100 largest economies in the world are corporations. Corporations such as Exxon, Chevron, General Electric, and Walmart have revenues that far outstrip New Zealand’s entire gross domestic product.
While these corporate names may strike you as decidedly American, a number of very well known ‘kiwi’ brands equally well meet the definition of a multinational corporation (i.e. they are a corporation with 25% or more foreign ownership). Included among these are the Bank of New Zealand, Skycity Entertainment Group, Contact Energy and Telecom.
The long and short of it is that the location of ownership is irrelevant; there is no such thing as ‘Chinese capital’ or ‘New Zealand capital’; there is money. The overriding impetus of corporations is to maximise profits. Local corporations exploit the environment and workers just like multinational ones do. The fight shouldn’t be about domestic or foreign ownership; the fight should be about ownership full stop. This is why a fundamental alteration to capitalist economics is so necessary.
In order for us to consider what other ways we can be in the world we must recognise first and foremost that the system is rigged. It is a system reliant on exploitation and inequality. If we don’t want those things then we are going to have to try something else. The first step is to re-introduce the critical discourse about capitalism to the forefront of our struggles; only then we will be able to more clearly see where power lies, and what avenues are available for change.