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An Anatomy of Neoliberalism from New Zealand

Updated: Aug 16, 2019

By Nicholas Birns

New York University

Though neoliberalism has been the dominant socioeconomic system in New Zealand since the mid-1980s, and in Australia since the early 1990s, very few literary or cultural studies have taken this into account. If any sort of extra-literary frame is adduced at all, it tends to be either the Anthropocene, the redefinition of nature by human interference, or the settler-colonial, as the reassertion of Indigenous rights has reminded white Antipodeans of the fragility and tendentious of their own entitlement to the land on which they dwell. These issues go far back and are deeply ingrained in the Antipodean drama. For that very reason, however, any solutions to them lie very much in the longue durèe. Though it will take more than one election to unbind the neoliberal climate (as laudable a leader as Jacinda Ardern seems), it can be done, and cultural criticism can help this happen. Moreover, even if neoliberalism did not inaugurate the problems of the Anthropocene or the settler-colonial, it has definitely intensified them. The arguments for the continued use of fossil fuel and for the disregard of scientific findings on climate change are made almost exclusively in neoliberal terms of economic self-interest. And the logic of the idea of terra nullius that the Mabo decision challenged was not just one of British suzerainty but possessive individualism, a doctrine that neoliberalism did not invent but that it made once again chic and trendy.

Jenny Robin Jones tackles the problem of neoliberalism straight on in her lively, approachable, and above all helpful new book. Jones, who is the author of two splendid studies of nineteenth century New Zealand, is deeply immersed in her nation’s history and literature—one of the most satisfying moments in this particular work is when she finds that she and her father, independently, had developed an admiration for the nineteenth century New Zealand poet Edward Tregear, a writer who tried to create a “mythological heritage” (69) for Pakeha New Zealanders. It is because Jones knows the past that she can see in what ways the present is different. She is especially good in discussing how neoliberalism was initially sponsored in New Zealand by the left wing and anti-American Lange government, and how Labour’s “heady and contagious”(172) embrace of the new ideology sadly helped entrench practices that overwhelmingly strengthened conservatism and conservative tendencies in New Zealand.

Jones was born in 1947, part of a now-senior generation which often tends not to complain about neoliberalism, perhaps because they are so grateful for the alternative it offered to the druggie hedonism of their youth, perhaps because their lives are sufficiently settled so as not to feel the precarity of a world Jones calls “privilege economics” (176). Jones’ arguments will help most the youngest adults among us, who are struggling with student loan debt and grasping for life and work situations whose availability was taken as a given by their elders. As Jones notes, the New Zealand writer who has spoken up most eloquently against the neoliberal consensus is Eleanor Catton, the 2013 Booker Prize winner—as Jones shrewdly notes, Catton was not behaving “as a champion should” (169). Critiques of neoliberalism are often dismissed as coming from resentful sore losers who blame social inequality for their own failures. Catton could just have celebrated her own access to world publishing markets—markets that neoliberalism enabled—and stopped there. But Catton, born in 1985, achieving deserved global success before she was thirty, saw that her generation was in peril, and spoke up for them, worldwide, as well as for her country.

Jones does not urge us to go back to dated ideas of socialism and hard economic planning. She instead urges a greater empathy and a stronger sense of affective community which enriches rather than annuls individualism, and does not see loneliness as the inevitable correlate of autonomy. She is very perceptive about sports as a virtual and vicarious variety of community that enables fans of the national rugby team find belonging in an idea of their country, but is no more exemplary of Herderian nationalism than the American idea of e.g. “Red Sox Nation,” which would include any fan of the Red Sox team, not just people organically ‘from’ Boston. Jones also ratifies her argument by including many stories of personal friends and acquaintances, often émigrés to New Zealand, who tell stories of how they found and lost identities there. Jones combines these with her own reflections and with copious quotations of thinkers past and present to create an ‘anatomy’ in the Burtonian sense, a book that readers can respond to individually, adding their own stories.

As I was reading this book, I happened to be in England at a conference devoted to the twentieth century writer, John Cowper Powys. At this conference, there were two New Zealand expatriates, who had each found great success and a robust sense of context in Britain, but still felt ties to Aotearoa. They were both striving, in their own spheres of interest, for a more humane and compassionate society. I recommended Jones’s book to both. It struck me as we were discussing Powys, who often championed solitude against the mechanization of modern science and the collectivist nightmare of modern totalitarianism, that in the mid-twentieth century the problem was too much conformism, and not enough solitude. In the twenty-first century, this has changed to too much loneliness, and not enough community. Jenny Robin Jones here shows us how we, both in New Zealand and worldwide, have arrived at this position, and—perhaps more importantly—what we might be able to do to dig ourselves out of it.

Jenny Robin Jones,

Wellington, NZ: Saddleback. 248 pp. NZ$ 40. ISBN 978-0-99525-0-7

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