Margaret Thatcher notoriously once said that ‘There is no such thing as “society” – only individuals and families’. Although the Left once sneered at this, Bryce Edwards and Jane Wire argue in this 1990s article from revolution magazine that her statement is fast becoming a reality in countries like New Zealand. Read more below:
Participation in Politics
In New Zealand we live in an anti-political age where collective and community engagement is at an all-time low. Many scholars have pointed out that New Zealand has shifted significantly from a society characterised by high levels of political participation to one of where the turnout at elections is low, political party membership is tiny, industrial action rarely occurs, community organisations are in decline, and protests are normally attended by few. The very meaning of politics has changed over the past two decades. There is now a retreat from civic and political life, into private activity.
New Zealand clearly now has a low level of political efficacy, yet at one time “joining in” was an important characteristic of New Zealand society. Writing in 1967, Robinson observed that in New Zealand, ‘There is a fairly strong general inclination for participation in clubs and associations of all kinds, an inclination which seems to be present in all strata of society’ (Robinson, 1967: pp.105-6). Public meetings were sometimes attended by thousands. Yet in 2002, few members of the public attend political meetings, at election time or otherwise. Since the 1980s, politicians have had trouble mustering more than a few hundred people for party conferences, public meetings or even election rallies. And as previously detailed in ‘revolution’, National Party membership has fallen from its glory days of membership highs of 200,000 in the 1970s, down to below 20,000, while Labour's membership has similarly plummeted from a level of about 50,000 in 1984, to about 15,000 today, and the minor parties have even fewer members.
Although most of the Left is in denial about it, it is also noticeable that there has been relatively little popular mobilization in the streets in recent years. Despite the onslaught against the working class and the welfare state of the 1980s and 1990s, there was remarkably little participation in protest. Even Jim Bolger noted with surprise the lack of protests that occurred on the streets in response to his government’s reforms (Bolger, 1998: p.55). On the university campuses, likewise, protests against the rising costs of education have rarely attracted more than 10 per cent of students. And while the Vietnam War and Springbok Tour previously galvanised tens of thousands of people into the streets, few can be bothered to protest current wars. In fact the most significant street demonstrations of recent years were organized against French nuclear testing and genetic modification – very middle-of-the-road and almost apolitical or conservative issues.
This depoliticisation has a definite class aspect to it, as evidenced by the declining level of traditional working class militancy. One indicator of this decline is the sharp fall in strike activity. Whereas in 1986 there was 1,329,054 ‘person days of work lost’ in the New Zealand economy, by 1997 this figure had dropped dramatically to 24,614 days (Statistics NZ 1998). Another indicator of the same general phenomenon is the drop in union membership. While in December 1985 there were 259 trade unions and 683 006 union members (43.5 per cent of the work force), by December 1996 there were only 83 unions representing 306,687 members – or about 17.7 per cent of the work force (Street, 2001: p.355).
It is significant that those groups in society possessing the greatest degree of political cynicism are the working class, Maori and other ethnic minorities (Vowles, et al., 1995: p.136). This political cynicism is explainable in part by the marginalisation of these groups from the political process. Both working class and Maori voters have been pushed out of participation in party politics, and today have little connection with the parties. The transformation of the Labour Party, in particular, has significantly altered the political situation. Once a workers party, with significant connections with working people, and an ideology that purported to represent their interests, the modern Labour Party has little in common with that older model. In a former time, the Labour Party’s mass membership and trade union affiliations meant that the party formerly incorporated thousands of workers into political participation and political culture. Now the Labour Party’s tiny membership is overwhelmingly middle class and all the elements of working class representation (trade unions etc) have been totally marginalized.
But it is not just left-wing forces that are in decline, but also those of the Establishment. Long-established mass organisations such as the National Council of Women and the Countrywomen’s Institute have lost large numbers of their members over the past 20 years, as have the SPCA, the Scouts and Guides. Even that bastion of the Establishment, the Freemasons, has seen a greater decline in participation than even the union movement. From a peak of 48,000 membership in 1964, they now have only about 14,000 members (Bone, 2002: p.29).
Nowadays few New Zealanders belong to any voluntary associations. According to Electoral Commission research, 23 per cent of New Zealanders are members of a church (and actual attendance is at record lows), 31 per cent belong to a sports club, 24 per cent are members of a community group, while a further 23 per cent of society belong to nothing at all (Harris, 1998: p.23). It seems that the public distrusts all traditional organisations. Just as political parties carry less authority than ever before, churches and rotary groups are also discredited, and virtually all New Zealand public institutions have experienced problems in attracting popular participation. There is some logic in the idea that disillusionment with politics consequently spreads itself further to a wider disengagement from public life.
Interest in politics in New Zealand has also declined significantly throughout the last four decades. The research of Jack Vowles, in particular, has shown that the amount of people describing themselves as “very interested in politics” declined from 38 per cent in 1963, to 31 per cent in 1981, and then to only 15 per cent in 1990 (Edmonds, 1996: p.100). Research by the Electoral Commission showed that in 1994 only 5.9 per cent of the voting age population described themselves as “very interested” in politics (McLeay et al., Nov 1996: p.26).
Yet despite this decline in civic and political life, few people think that New Zealand society has reached any “golden age” where social and economic problems no longer exist. From the point of view of the public, huge social problems still exist but politics and public participation are less relevant to solving these problems than ever. Quite simply, daily 'life for most people is about the insecurities, uncertainties and pressures of work; about maintaining a regular, reasonable income; and about the provision of accommodation. Politics is unimportant to most people' (Seyd, Apr 1998:p.206).
Individualisation of Society
Much has been made of the fact that New Zealand society has been growing less cohesive and more individuated in recent years. The decline of collective organisations confirms this. The trend of individualism is in the ascendant and is at odds with the essentially collective nature of political organising.
Not only did the successive parties in government during the 1980s and 1990s ruin public confidence in themselves but also managed to tar politics in general with their actions. Furthermore, Barry Gustafson – a National Party member and academic – has shown how the New Right economic restructuring severely damaged New Zealand’s civil society. He says that, not only did the reformers have the goal of a more privatised economy, but they also sought to ‘privatise collective social action by markedly reducing the role of the state in the achievement of citizens' aspirations’ (Gustafson, 2001: p.26). The neo-liberal reforms were, according to Gustafson, an attempt to reject communal values and activity and re-emphasize the individual, and this resulted in a more privatised society:
People retreated into looking after their own interests and became indifferent or even antagonistic to the interests of others. Many individuals became alienated and atomised from the economy, the society, the politicians, the political system, others, and even themselves. Civil society fragmented and democracy itself was increasingly questioned…. Efficiency and paid professional expertise were emphasised at the cost of the well-intentioned, caring, participating amateur. People became more individualistic, self-centred and cynical, and less altruistic and mutually trusting (Gustafson, 2001: pp.26-27).
Certainly a greater individualisation has also resulted from the decrease in class consciousness that has occurred in New Zealand. That which previously made individual workers and those in other classes feel that they were part of a particular section of society has gone. The fact that classes still exist in New Zealand cannot be disputed, but for various reasons, including the breakdown of the political traditions which have prevailed during the past century, fewer people identify as being members of their class, and this has an especially devastating impact on the working class. Workers now experience life and politics as individuals, rather than as members of a class with collective interest and strength.
Loss of Faith in Political Action
Behind the decline of people’s enthusiasm for participation in politics is also a loss of faith in the relevance of political action. A 1999 survey found that 62 per cent of respondents felt that ‘the average person cannot influence’ politics in New Zealand (Levine and Roberts, 2000: p.164). This is, in part, a rational response by the public to the fact that the effectiveness of political action has declined in many ways. As Trotter has pointed out, the public no longer believes there will be much gained from political action:
The most obvious difference between the political environment of the seventies and the nineties lies in the dramatic loss of public faith in the relevance of political action. When tens of thousands of New Zealanders demonstrated their opposition to the Vietnam War, apartheid sport and nuclear weaponry in the seventies and eighties, politicians took notice…. Lacking a parliamentary champion, those groups advocating radical change have become increasingly marginalised from effective politics (Trotter, 25 Aug 1995: p.6).
With political parties now largely disconnected from society, the traditional mechanism of political pressure no longer works. And although political parties have ceased to play this role, there have been no other political organisation able to fill that vacuum.
While interest and participation in politics has declined, so too has the political confidence of individuals. Results from the 1989 New Zealand Study of Values ‘found only 12 per cent were confident in their ability to act effectively in politics, while 49 per cent claimed they had no confidence in their ability to act politically’ (Edmonds, 1996: p.97). The same study showed that a low level of interest in politics, not surprisingly, flowed through to produce a disinterest in political participation – with most people only willing to participate in activities that required little or no effort, such as signing a petition.
The New Politics: Individual Action
Counterbalancing the turn away from active and collective participation in public life is the continuance and even increase in more passive and individualised kinds of public participation. While public meetings and demonstrations used to be the only game in town, New Zealanders are increasingly inclined towards more individualist activism. Making public submissions and complaints to authorities is the modern form of protest. This is seen in recent survey research by the Electoral Commission which showed that 14 per cent of the population had visited an MP’s office within the previous 12 months, and eight per cent had written a letter to the editor of a newspaper (Harris, 1998: p.24).
Typical of this trend, complaints to the Ombudsman have increased dramatically – tripling from about 2000 in 1986 to about 6000 in the year 2000 (Beattie, 2000). In that same year the Advertising Standards Authority received a record 690 complaints – up from 118 in 1999. According to the Authority, such numbers make New Zealanders some of the most ready to make official complaints about advertising in the world (Ruscoe, 2001: p.16). Likewise, there has been a remarkable increase in the workloads of bodies such as Citizens Advice Bureau, law centres and the Equal Opportunities Commission, and the Race Relations Conciliator’s Office. Our governments have adapted to this trend, and now respond to the public’s disquiet by merely setting up bodies and offices such as the Health and Disabilities Commissioner, Human Rights Commission, the Electricity Commission and so on.
Other forms of non-party political activism include the recent popularity of judicial activism on behalf of various leftist social movements. Activists – especially Maori nationalists – are increasingly choosing to pursue social changes through the legal system.
The most obvious example of this trend is that an increasing number of people are signing petitions or participating in consumer boycotts. Taking up the notion that “personal is political”, people are incorporating their political stances into everyday life rather than in overt political action. So while fewer people are involved in group politics and activism, New Zealanders take a greater interest in political acts such as making sure their personal financial investments are only involved in ethically sound services. The increasing use of boycotts and other selective consumption and investment shows that people are increasingly looking to solve social problems through their consumption rather than through political organisations.
Also on the increase - so-called “direct action” politics, too, is often unorganised and highly individualised. Massey University’s 1998 study of political opinions and behaviour found that 89 per cent of the public had participated in signing a petition, ‘but much less so for anything else. Only 17 per cent have joined in a boycott, and only 19 per cent have attended a lawful demonstration. Joining an unofficial strike is something only 4 per cent have done, and a mere one per cent have been involved in an occupation' (Perry and Webster, 1999: pp.88-89). Between surveys in 1989 and 1998 those signing petitions grew by 15 percentage points, and those involved in boycotts, by 12 percentage points (Perry and Webster, 1999: p.89).
So rather than entering a strictly apolitical or non-political age, New Zealand society has become more characterised by a type of individualised and non-collective politics where [people continue to be involved politically with lifestyle issues including environmental politics, health and child care, crime and public order, surveillance and privacy, job security and benefits, the organization of work, retirement conditions, morality in public and private life, the control and content of education, civil rights in the workplace, the social responsibility of corporations, and personalised views of taxation and government spending (Bennett, 1998: p.745).] Clearly we are witnessing the [‘rise of more neutral political forms that might be termed "uncivic," ' (Bennett, 1998: p.745).]
Towards A More Collective Mode of Politics
In some ways there is nothing surprising about the existence of anti-politics and the decline in participation. The New Zealand political system is, quite simply, designed to marginalise dissent, privatise social relations, and reduce the scope for democratic participation. We don’t have a political system in which decisions are made by public, but one where politics is constructed in a private setting divorced from voters and then delivered to the public so that they can only participate in a very individualised and privatised way.
Part of the problem is also due the rise of movements of life, religion, and group identity politics that are coming to dominate. Generally either apolitical or anti-political, these movements are often not optimistic, nor do they encourage belief in human agency. Not surprisingly, therefore, they actually perpetuate disengagement from politics, rather than participation. For if the problems of society are beyond politics, they are also beyond being changed by collective and organised action.
The anti-political mood is clearly not positive. The shift to petition signing and consumer boycotts is not at all radical in any progressive sense. Although the increase in such individualist activities might appear to represent a revival of anti-establishment politics, in fact it merely symbolizes a form of alienation, weariness and hopelessness. Such participation is [not so much an impulse towards empowerment as a gesture of resignation.] In today’s increasingly atomised and individualised society, the need for collective political action is more important than ever.
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