‘New Bourgeoizealand’ by Richard Meros
It seems like many, many years since New Zealand was the land of milk and honey. And while there are those who are creaming it, and the hives are still buzzing, many of us are living lives of lack.
There are not enough jobs, and the ones that we do have are precarious.
There are not enough houses, and the ones that we do have are expensive, leaky and cold.
There are not enough government services, and the ones that we do have are making cut backs.
There is a lack, there is a lack, there is a lack.
These appeals to lack have a rich immediacy: we feel half-emptiness and we let each other know it could be better. Every complaint, we might hope, contributes to the death of the government.
But when killing the government, even if it is one criticism at a time, we all become executioners. The problem with being an executioner is not that each individual criticism is in some way wrong or immoral. Instead the problem is that, in the end, we end up with the executioner mindset, seeing the world as one powered by corporal justice. And whoever considered ‘off with his head!’ to be a prescription for the good life?
I fear that all the correct social democrats focussing on the failure of the present government to provide are not spreading ideas to sustain the social democratic ideas for tomorrow. The glass isn’t half-full or half-empty: it is completely empty.
But more broadly, my concern is that when we focus on everyday political lack – lack of jobs, lack of housing, lack of health and education services, public infrastructure – some of this framing starts to seep into our more general understanding of what constitutes the world. When I write ‘what constitutes the world’ I mean this as a psychological as much as a material frame. I am writing, equally, of what we think constitutes the world in terms of the worth of oceans and farms as much as of how you and I consider our societies to be.
Before going on to the guts of my response to this focus on lack, I just want to emphasise what that this set-up is not.
By seeing difficulties that arise when a politics highlights lack I am not saying “don’t complain!”, “don’t be negative!” or “don’t be militant!” The criticism of lack is necessary. I’ll repeat that: it is necessary to highlight when governments fall short and fail.
But any project that makes specific demands against government needs to be augmented by a concurrent increase in optimistic alternatives. A similar compact exists in Gramsci’s saying “I’m a pessimist because of intelligence, but an optimist because of will”. Where Gramsci locates optimism in his own being – his will – the heart of this essay will focus on a similar optimism but one located in the material abundance of the world.
A land of abundance or lack?
The framing of the world as a place of lack is fundamental to the discipline of economics, and as such it extends to many other disciplines whose faculties have been colonised by economic reason. In economics, the world is defined by a lack known as scarcity. Our micro-economic lives are defined by our all-too-human choices when confronted with the scarce time and scarce resources at our disposal. Governments’ macro-economic legacies are defined by their response to the scarce space in which they are delimited. This is the fate of economic man: our insatiable desires and our infinite wants lead to the need to make choices.
Marxists were amongst the first to challenge the centrality of scarcity to economics. This strain of thought is known as post-scarcity economics. Marxists suggest that needs and wants are not as infinite as economists had traditionally conceived them. Marxists instead focus on the more equitable distribution of existing resources within a planned economy and the potential for new technology to end widespread need. A planned economy must still deal with scarcity, though the desires of the individual – those winsome, infinite wants – are first subjugated to the needs of the many. You can have your second home, mate, but only once everyone else has their first.
Despite their opposition to lack and scarcity, Western Marxism never quite got to a point where it could embrace abundance. Whether this not quite there was a function of the external aggression of capitalist nations, or something more fundamentally awry with a centralised politburo, does not matter for this consideration. The optimism of spirit that Marx wished for his ideological offspring never quite became practice or policy, at least not in the West. There were always too many lacks of the ruling class to focus on, always the fervour for the coming revolution after which we could celebrate abundance. But in the meantime, the worldview of Marxists was of the lack of the big Other of capitalism.
A philosophy of abundance is most clearly seen in the heretic economics of Georges Bataille’s The Accursed Share (heretic, I would suggest, due to the lack of his interest in quantification, and for ignoring the planned vs free market debates of his time). Bataille is better known for his novels of death and the erotic but he has written a number of substantial works of philosophy such as the luminescent On Nietzsche.
The first volume of Bataille’s three volume series on economics starts by his asserting that the earth is a place of abundance. “It is not necessity, but its contrary, luxury” he states, “that presents living matter and mankind with their fundamental problems”. Gesturing to the expanses of greenery produced by the vast energy of sunlight, Bataille concludes that there is a vast potential for human cultivation of the planet that is unmet. To him, that humans slough off a tiny proportion of this energy for their own needs indicates vast potential for the production beyond human needs. Thinkers who focus on abundance tend to be sidelined as utopian or metaphysical. Jean Paul Sartre scolded Bataille for just this, dismissing him as “the new mystic”, a title that was not wholly unwelcome to Bataille.
Bataille flips the traditional economic question of how to make tough choices when faced with infinite wants, into an anthropology of how exactly how humans have dealt with the excess production that surrounds them. His answer speaks to two general directions: humans either use this abundance to reflect their own greatness back to themselves through art and feast, or they destroy this excess by deploying it in a fight with one another upon the nearest battlefield.
I am not about to start listing the potential choices of what New Zealand should do with its excess. Instead, my task is the psychological buffering of those who critique the present government. I side on the left for this task because I see the contemporary right as the being fundamentally doubting of humanity, as made of lack as the ocean is salty. The right hides their distrust and disinterest in their fellow man with an allegiance to a language of ambition. But the ambition of the right, as uplifting as it might seem, is always of a future that never comes. I call this the spirit of New Bourgeoizealand because of the petty attachment to status and wealth, and a mean rejection of any potential for a collective good.
While faith in a better future may be psychologically necessary for all humans, the version of this perpetuated in New Bourgeoizealand does more harm than good – think of the quip by Steinbeck that, “Socialism never took root in America because the poor see themselves not as an exploited proletariat but as temporarily embarrassed millionaires.” The faith in the future is a far distant thing that will never be realised, while the doubt in society is always present and disarming of even the most basic acceptance of abundance.
To allow the critique of the current lack of housing and jobs in New Zealand, those on the left need an understanding of how things could be better. This understanding might manifest itself in terms of a utopian project – full employment, house ownership for all – but to get to that point the contemporary left needs to realise that despite the political and economic lack that they experience and witness every day, the country – indeed the earth – is a land of plenty, is abundant and blooming. Though there’s no need to reach the jagged peak of optimism in a Hosking rant, the left needs to remember the awe, the sublime, and the sheer magnitude of possibilities for living.
The aim then, is for those of us in the paper cut factories – we who seek to end the right through a thousand cuts – to see that while the emphasis on lack is a tactical necessity, strategically we must refresh ourselves by seeing the world as a place of abundance and potentials. If this sounds theological – think of the Christian concept of ‘abundant life’; think of pre-Christian harvest festivals – that is because it is: it’s a top down world-view, it’s an ontology verging on metaphysics.
We see this desire for affirmation in the concept of Yacht Communism, where the asceticism of socialism is morphed into an affirmation that under communism we will all have yachts. I like to think of this as something of a correct version of the misattributed and/or mistranslated quote Dang Xiaoping: “to get rich is glorious”. Or as my friend Tim puts it – paraphrasing Alain Badiou – consider what a socialist paradise we would live in without the planned obsolescence of capitalism.
Compare Yacht Communism to one of the favourite knives used in our 1000 cuts project: what the $36m of America’s Cup funding could buy in hospitals or food for kids. Yacht Communism is a different kind of critique, not a substitute but a hazy co-ideal: hard to grasp and even more difficult to deploy in the debating chamber.
To conclude then, I’d like to take a page out of Richard Rorty’s Achieving Our Nation and ask how we can recapture some of the spirit of abundance that drove the pre-Vietnam era leftists. The fundamental question for the left for Rorty was: how can we both embrace participation and self-determination through democratic means as well as consider the institutions that enact these decisions as something of which we can be proud? Those institutions aren’t just nations, but could be communities or worlds, families or islands, hapu or cosmos.
There is not enough, there is not enough, there is not enough. These words – utterances and incantations – hint at a universe that will definitely implode due to the cumulative undermining of all that is good. But most of us will wake up tomorrow, we’ll squint at the sun, we’ll be pushed along by the wind, we’ll grow out gardens and we’ll hopefully admit, through our craggy exteriors that new things grow and there is a tomorrow that might be better than today.