Ten years ago the global economy suffered a calamitous meltdown and millions of people around the world struggled as a consequence. Now, if economists are to be believed, we are looking down the barrel of another recession.
People could be forgiven for not hearing about it, but these concerns have been published a range by media outlets around the world (see below).
Unfortunately, this sort of thing simply doesn’t make the front page of the news. Trump or some other distasteful aspect of United States politics tends to occupy that spot. It is unfortunate that more people in the media and parliament are not talking about it because we are still dealing with the impacts of the last recession, and perhaps most frighteningly, we seem not to have learned any lessons.
The Global Financial Crisis of 2008 was a disaster for many people, but it was also an opportunity to change things. The predatory loans handed out to people from low socioeconomic backgrounds that were largely responsible for the crash should have earned the lenders serious jail time, yet they and everyone else who played a part got away with a fine and a slap on the wrist. Worse, many of the bankers who were bailed out used that money to pay themselves hefty bonuses and, in the absence of the introduction of meaningful legislation to prevent something similar happening again, many were able to carry on conducting business as usual.
For those interested in justice, the failure of lawmakers around the world to punish those responsible was frustrating. The Occupy Movement was the product of the anger and frustration of millions of people around the world disaffected with the way the global economy operates and the disproportionate power wielded by the financial and political elite. As valid as their points were, the media and indeed many ordinary people ridiculed the protesters in typical fashion using generic insults without even bothering to engage with the critiques or solutions the Occupy Movement was discussing.
Trying to understand how the economy works is no easy task, whether it be in the local or global context. Thus, we rely on the information that we regularly receive (the news) and our lived experience. Those of us who are better off than others didn’t notice any immediate or significant change to our lives during or after the GFC, so we have little reason to complain and also little reason to analyse the claims of those speaking out against the status quo. Unfortunately, it is those who maintain this ignorance that are the biggest obstacle to doing things a better way.
This ignorance is not necessarily surprising, but it is incredibly disheartening. We know that the wealthiest 1% holds most of the world’s wealth and power and that accumulation drives many of our socioeconomic problems, which was one of the key points raised by the Occupy Movement, yet we still love to idolise the likes of Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos as though they are our saviours. We are quick to ignore the fact that recessions offer the wealthy and opportunity to seize more assets (as happened with property particularly in the US after the GFC) which further deprives ordinary people the chance to get ahead. Perhaps most disappointingly, even though we know recessions occur every decade, we seem so shocked when the next one comes along.
People are often quick to dismiss socialism as a system that doesn’t work, and perhaps it isn’t a perfect model either, but we cannot continue to live under a paradigm predicated on greed and competition. More, to extol the unequivocal success of capitalism seems foolish when, not because of any anomaly but its very nature, it is driven into crisis every ten or so years, adversely affecting millions of people in the process. Ignorance is one thing, but we aren’t going to get anywhere if we keep repeating the same mistakes over and over again.
I won’t lie, I’m not that thrilled about living in a system that we know is going to go belly up at certain intervals while we routinely do nothing at all to prevent it. The recent IPCC report claimed we have 12 years to stop runaway climate change, but if we can’t even manage not to crash the economy we revere so much, I fear there is little chance we will make the necessary changes that have been recommended to prevent many of the impacts of climate change.
That said, maybe there is reason to be optimistic. By all reports, the fallout from the upcoming recession will be bad, perhaps worse than last time. Also, we in New Zealand were lucky to be insulated from much of the fallout then, and it is likely we will not be so lucky next time. Maybe, just maybe, we will take the opportunity we didn’t take last time and seriously redesign the way society operates, because it may be that we have no other choice. It won’t be easy and will require massive amounts of energy, coordination and will, but another world is possible.
Thankfully, NZ First’s proposed Respecting New Zealand Values Bill is receiving little support from other parties and the public. In line with the party’s irrational fear of migrants and refugees, the bill would allow us to turn away those whose values are not compatible with ours. Citing concerns about xenophobia and freedom of religion, the language and history of NZ First’s prejudice makes it pretty clear that the proponents of this bill are not worried about Australians or Europeans.
Fortunately, there is no need to deconstruct NZ First’s arguments or rationale as most rational people can easily see this for what it is: dog-whistle, xenophobic politics. Nothing new from Peters and co.. However, what it does do is give us a chance to ask ourselves what our values as a country actually are.
We once prided ourselves on being an egalitarian society, but massive wealth and outcome disparities shows that this has not been true for a long time. Sure, we can be quite hospitable hosts to visitors from other countries at times, but there are also many well-documented instances where we have belittled, abused, or robbed tourists.
Controversial figures like Don Brash and the Canadian speakers Southern and Molyneaux showed how divided we are on issues such as race and immigration, and for all this talk of immigrants respecting New Zealand values, we are guilty of allowing their exploitation to occur in our restaurants, orchards and education institutions.
The thing is, I’m not sure we as a country know what we stand for. Like most liberal democracies, we are guilty of engaging in tribal and personality politics. Rather than being “for” ideas, it seems people prefer to be “against” others.
Labour supporters say that while not ideal, the current government’s policies are better than what National did during their 9 years in power, which while true, is no excuse to settle for half-cooked policy or to attack others for their views.
National supporters meanwhile are quick to criticise what the Government does, often before a proper analysis of the facts is conducted and repeat the same tired comments about inexperience and communism.
Politically, we have no shared vision of what the future may look like because all we seem to do is attack politicians and supporters of parties we disagree with over relatively minor issues or aspects of personality. Based on how things are at the moment, many of us would struggle to have a reasonable, rational conversation about what our collective values are.
We talk a big talk about looking after the environment, yet we find it so hard to agree on the smallest steps to reduce fossil fuel consumption, water pollution, and saving native species.
We can’t agree on objective facts, as demonstrated by the anti-1080 movement, anti-vaxxers and climate change deniers.
House prices are going through the roof and so many people are living in cars or on the street, all the while we bicker from left to right about ideas that will do little to provide adequate housing for those in need.
We have an inherently unfair and unequal distribution of wealth in this country, and no political party (except TOP) has any decent proposals to change this. More, we routinely attack and blame each other for our financial situations rather than helping lift people up.
We have so many issues to solve and we can’t do that when we are fighting all the time. Instead of focusing on the minor differences we have, we should be talking about all the things we have in common. Our visions and aspirations for the future are likely more similar than we think, but we allow the left-right paradigm to polarise the discussion, creating tensions that prevent collaboration.
I am glad to be a New Zealander but I think we could be doing so much better. Before we go lecturing others about “Kiwi values”, we need to sort our own shit out first and decide what we stand for, which we can’t do until we learn to listen and talk to each other with respect.
When we talk about helping people overcome depression the solutions we offer involve them finding confidence and improving their self-esteem so they can deal with the challenges they face and ‘live normal lives’, whatever that means. This puts the emphasis is on the individual to change and carries the connotation that the problem is internal. Speaking from experience, I know that the causes are not always from within. In the past few years many researchers and commentators have pointed out that the high instances of depression we see today are likely caused by social influences such as income inequality, consumerism and competitive lifestyles, ideas which have not been talked about enough.
Of course, bar media coverage of a few exceptional speakers and the occasional feel-good stories, we have done a dismal job of talking about mental health in the media, in schools and in the public in general. If we are serious about addressing this epidemic, we should be looking at all the information, something we have not always done well. For example, the common belief for years was that depression is simply a chemical imbalance where low levels of serotonin would cause people to exhibit depressive symptoms that medication (antidepressants) could alleviate. This idea was perpetuated despite a lack of evidence to support it and many doctors reluctantly prescribed antidepressants despite knowing they weren’t necessarily going to make a difference, at least not in many cases.
Thankfully, things have changed somewhat, and now we acknowledge that the causes of depression are unique to the experiences and lifestyles of the individual, and therefore the help a person needs is also unique. But there has still been little discussion of the social causes of depression despite researchers and organisations including the World Health Organisation have been saying for years that the causes of the widespread instances of depression in part result from the way society is structured.
“It is No Measure of Health to Be Well Adjusted to a Profoundly Sick Society” – Jiddu Krishnamurti
To paraphrase Johann Hari who has written on this very topic, rather than viewing depression as the problem that needs to be fixed, perhaps we need to look at it as a symptom of much bigger problems we face. After all, if one in six people in this country suffer from depression and many of them because they are struggling with daily challenges like unemployment, economic uncertainty and material hardship, perhaps the system isn’t working as well as we like to think. Indeed, there are some pretty clear ways this is happening.
The Influence of Social Hierarchy
A popular theory is that top-down hierarchies adversely impacts an individual’s mental health, particularly that of those in the middle and lower end of the pecking order. Hierarchies cause those with less power to avoid conflict with those that control resources and wield economic and political power because they live in a state of perpetual fear; their position and access to resources that sustain their lifestyles are not guaranteed as they are dependent on those with more power. They must tread carefully, for to upset the powers that be too greatly is to risk losing much. Thus, they suppress their emotions, often choosing to keep a low profile and accept the status quo rather than expressing how they really feel, just as the middle and lower classes do in Western societies in the face of injustice. As we know, the worst thing people suffering mental health problems can do is keep things bottled up.
Surprisingly, it is often those in the middle who exhibit higher rates of anxiety and depression than those in the lower section, possibly because their position in the social hierarchy is so precarious. They are not at the top of the order but believe they are almost there, but they are also aware that they are not far from the bottom and only a few missteps could land them there. This fear of being inferior or becoming even more inferior adds to the likelihood of anxious or depressive symptoms.
“…social pressure to be polite and deferential to people with greater status and power results in more emotion suppression among those who occupy low positions within a social hierarchy” (Langner et al., 2012, p4)
The modern workplace is a great example of such a hierarchy. The more responsibility a person holds within an organisation, the more pressure they are subjected to. Those in supervisor and manager roles are subjected to pressure from above, the executive level, and are also the ones that have to deal with the workers and pressure from them. As they embody that precarious middle space, they are often striving for higher office (and therefore pay) while being aware that several mistakes could see them demoted, which would undoubtedly be embarrassing. The workers on the ground floor are equally miserable because they have little control over the allocation of resources and wealth, in particular receiving a relatively small share of the latter. The executives on top of the pile have all the power, significantly more money and less reasons to be stressed, anxious or depressed.
Income Inequality and Depression
Because of the obvious class divide in this country and similar developed countries, it goes without saying that the distasteful levels of inequality are having an impact on our mental health. Numerous studies have demonstrated a positive relationship between economic inequality and depression in countries all around the world which cite a range of reasons for this relationship. One reason is that people compare themselves to others who are better off and feel a sense of defeat at the structural unfairness. Other reasons include associated developmental disorders in adolescents and a sense of withdrawal or shame by worse-off people in a community.
Whatever the reasons, the fact remains it is a serious problem. The graph below shows how in the United States, states that have higher levels of income inequality according to the Gini Coefficient tend to have higher instances of depression.
This phenomena is not unique to the United States, and nor is it limited to mental health. As the graph below demonstrates, more unequal countries experience a range of health and social problems which combine to create a perfect storm for those less fortunate.
In unequal societies, competition for resources and wealth creates a host of problems.
Competition breeds misery
The defenders of the capitalist status quo love the idea of competition because apparently financial incentives foster innovation. To be fair, they are correct. It is amazing how much money and effort companies will invest to extract as much value from workers without paying them their fair share, or how to extract as much capital from the natural environment without having to pay to fix the problems they create. From that point of view, competition certainly does lead to innovative thinking, but not necessarily thinking that will benefit the majority of people.
Elsewhere, competition leads to misery in other ways. Financial wealth is often a determinant of social status, as it allows individuals to afford the symbols of wealth. In our consumerist society, clothing brands, expensive cars and the price of one’s house are common symbols of wealth, and targeted advertising convinces us either subconsciously or consciously to pursue these things. When societies are as unequal as New Zealand is, the class divide is noticeable. Because people want to climb higher up the social ladder, they pursue as much as possible the appearance of high social status, often by purchasing material goods like those mentioned above and often to the detriment of their health and well-being.
What should we be doing about it?
We should be working together
The strength and quality of relationships between people within communities plays a significant role on mental health. Alienation, isolation and loneliness are causes of depression that are themselves caused by inequality. Neoliberalism favours individualism and places emphasis on ‘individual responsibility’, even for socially-created problems, which only further isolates and alienates people. Therefore, we can live healthy lifestyles in which we accomplish things by working together.
In a clip discussing this very topic, Johann Hari presents an anecdote of a woman suffering from crippling anxiety and depression who finds purpose by working with others to create a garden. The best thing about this story is that it isn’t some unsubstantiated ‘hippy cure’ or anything; there are plenty of studies that link improved mental health to exposure to green space and working on collaborative projects like community gardens. We should be thinking how our communities can be restructured to encourage neighbourhoods the care for and empower each other.
We need a society that works for everyone
Perhaps the best way that we can care for each other is by creating a society that is fair and just. Currently, our neoliberal capitalist system is designed to continually advantage a select few while an increasing majority are left with less. This is making the mental health problems so many people face even worse and there is no legitimate reason why such an unfair regime should continue. Not that long ago, the distribution of wealth was more fair and those who earned more than enough would pay higher taxes that would ensure they are making positive contributions to society. Now, with essential services like healthcare and education so underfunded, it is beyond time for them to give back and use their wealth for good.
Currently there are a range of wonderful and aspirational organisations working on initiatives to combat mental health by empowering people, and while it is great they are making a difference in communities, imagine how much more they could accomplish if they didn’t have to rely on charity and volunteers. Imagine how much happier and productive people would be if they weren’t living with the constant anxiety of worrying whether they will be able to make rent or put food on the table. If people were taxed appropriate to their means and needs then those struggling to get by wouldn’t have to endure tax hikes for necessary infrastructure upgrades and others could have access to suitable, equitable education, housing and health services that are needed to improve mental health. Finally, imagine the things we could accomplish if society didn’t pit people against each other and valued cooperation and working for the collective good.
Understand That It’s Not You
Perhaps the most important thing to take away from this is that depression and anxiety are not always caused by chemical imbalances or traumatic experience, but can actually be a response to a world that isn’t right. The problem, certainly in my case, is with the society we have created, a society that compels us to compete with each other and to be critical of ourselves. As we work to combat mental health in New Zealand and abroad, while our efforts should certainly empower people to find joy and purpose in each day and encourage openness about our feelings, we should also be talking about how our values as a society need to change. A happier society will be found when things are more fair and equal.
Gilbert, P., McEwan, K., Bellew, R., Mills, A. & Gale, C. (2009) The Dark Side of Competition: How Competitive Behaviour and Striving to Avoid Inferiority are Linked to Depression, Anxiety and Self-Harm. Psychology and Psychotherapy, 82(2), 123-36.
Lacasse, J. & Leo, J. (2015) Antidepressants and the Chemical Imbalance Theory of Depression: A Reflection and Update on the Discourse. Florida State University Libraries.
Langner, C., Epel, E., Matthews, K., Moskowitz, J. & Adler, N. (2012) Social Hierarchy and Depression: The Role of Emotion Suppression. Journal of Psychology, 146(4), 417-436.
Macintyre, A., Ferris, D., Goncalves, B. & Quinn, N. (2018) What Has Economics Got To Do With It? The Impact of Socioeconomic Factors on Mental Health and the Case for Collective Action. Nature.com, <https://www.nature.com/articles/s41599-018-0063-2>
Patel, V., Burns, K., Dhingra, M., Tarver, L., Kohrt, B. & Lund, C. (2018) Income inequality and depression: a systematic review and meta‐analysis of the association and a scoping review of mechanisms. World Psychiatry, 17(1), 76-89.
Schultz, W. (2015) The Chemical Imbalance Hypothesis: An Evaluation of the Evidence. Ethical Human Psychology and Psychiatry, 17(1), 60-75
When a celebrity commits suicide we have a brief and tentative public discussion about mental health and suicide before it quickly dissipates and we forget about the issue for a time. While we are having that conversation, we remind ourselves and each other again and again that if you are struggling to get through the day that you should reach out to your friends or family and ask for help. Considering the number and impact of celebrities committing suicide and our country’s horrific statistics , it is an increasingly important message. However, as much as we say it is okay to feel down and that you should reach out, it isn’t always that easy. It’s not even easy to admit that you have depression.
Trust me, I know.
Until now I have told only a handful of people, but I feel like I need to do my part to help break the taboo and silence we seem to have around mental health. I want to talk about my experience with depression not because I think I am special or that I have particularly amazing insights or experiences that will help others overcome their problems, but because hopefully it helps at least one person realise that they are not alone in their struggles. I am not after pity or attention because I am okay now, and if I wasn’t alright I doubt I would be so open. More importantly, I hope that if I am willing to admit to having these feelings and can post it online for anyone to read, someone who has suffered in silence might feel that by comparison, opening up to a couple of close people isn’t so bad.
Dealing With The Black Dog
For years I struggled with depression without really knowing what it was. I stayed up late most nights feeling miserable and I would either break down and cry or I just lay there running circles in my mind, overthinking my personal situation and criticizing myself. In my mind, I was dim, unattractive and socially awkward compared to everyone around me. Despite this, I was still a fairly social person and in those moments spent in the company of others, I was happy and content. The problem was that as soon as I was left with my own thoughts too long, the wallowing and self-pity would kick in. I often thought about self-harm and all those dark things, but fortunately they remained thoughts and nothing more. I would often became withdrawn, irrational, and a touch aggressive (emotionally, not physically) although that was normally only inflicted on my partners. Alcohol made everything worse, and more than once I lost the plot during a night on booze.
While it is hard to explain why I felt these things, I know that some of that was down to my insecurity and worrying about how others perceived me. As easy as it is to say “Who cares what other people think!”, it isn’t that simple. In a time where social media plays such a massive role in our lives, it’s hard not to compare yourself to the standards set by others. We see the best parts of other people’s lives on our news feeds and make the assumption, whether consciously or not, that their lives are always like that. Similarly, we are bombarded by ads that promote preconceived standards of beauty and attractiveness, and when we don’t meet those standards, our self-esteem naturally takes a hit. No matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t shake those insecurities because I was constantly comparing myself to people around me and subsequently finding aspects of my personality or appearance to dislike, despite my best efforts to think positively about myself.
I can explain all this with the benefit of hindsight, but at the time I didn’t understand why I felt this way. At almost no point did I think about talking to anyone because if I couldn’t understand what was going on inside my head, how could they? From my point of view everyone was just so confident, they had their lives sorted and knew what they wanted to do, and I was just a mopey kid pretending to be an adult. I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life other than wanting to help others, and I wasn’t sure how to go about doing that. The lack of direction made me doubt everything I did and see those actions as pointless. I often felt like I was just going through the motions day to day. I felt lost.
To make things worse, I couldn’t shake the belief that I had no legitimate reason to feel this way. See, everyone has their own reasons for feeling depressed and they vary. Some people have traumatic experiences that affect their confidence and sense of self-worth, while others experience financial and material hardship that takes an understandable toll on their mental health. Whether is because of failed relationships, losing loved ones and struggling with one’s identity, there are a range of factors that contribute to depression. For me personally, most of these didn’t apply.
I’ve mentioned before that I was raised well. I never went hungry, was never mistreated, I was loved and learned from my parents how to be a good person, which I think I have done a reasonable job of so far. We weren’t poor, but we also weren’t flush with cash. I had everything I needed. Maybe a six-pack or more confidence would have made life a bit more enjoyable but I can’t complain. When I thought about the life I had lived, I felt I had no good reason to feel depressed, which made things even more depressing.
This made me feel helpless and feeling helpless made me feel weak. As we often mention when we discuss mental health and suicide, it is not weakness to ask for help. People like myself don’t reach out because we have this idea that showing emotions is weakness and if we appear vulnerable, people will think less of us. We worry what they might say to others behind our backs, maybe laugh at how weak we are or that they will give us a hard time for feeling down. I felt so weak I resisted the idea that I was even experiencing depression and almost convinced myself that I was just an impostor who was passing their melancholy feelings off as depression. Eventually I did go get treatment, but I threw the pills away before long because I thought I didn’t need them and they weren’t doing anything anyway. To this day, I’m not sure they ever did.
It Gets Better
I have written this in the past tense because much of this no longer applies. As I said earlier, I got better over time. Perhaps the biggest source of my self-loathing was the disconnect between my values and actions. Like so many others who study Arts subjects, I went in wanting to change the world. The more I learned about the social and environmental problems in the world, the more resolved I became to help solve them. This led me down a path many others have walked down before me, where a greater understanding of the global economy, politics and human nature took me from youthful optimism to cynical pessimism, and the problems became so large and the solutions so much more unlikely that there seemed no point to even try make a difference.
I had an idea of the person I wanted to be and I constantly failed to live up to those standards which made me even more disappointed in myself and perpetuated the whole depressing cycle. Things only started to change when I got so sick of being miserable and I seriously re-evaluated what I was doing with my life and questioned how much longer could I continue to wallow in self-pity. I realised that I needed to start living up to the values I believed but rarely lived up to and resolved to do something that in any way, shape or form made the world a better place. I accepted that I may not find it straight away, but if I am moving in the right direction and I am happy with what I am doing then that is enough. This is ultimately what led me to teaching and now, years later, things are much better and I am happier. Having purpose and direction helped me put my insecurities in perspective and while they still affect me a bit now, I don’t get caught up in vicious cycles of overthinking like I used to.
With this and the support of an understanding partner, I managed to overcome many of these feelings, but that doesn’t mean the dark thoughts have gone away completely. Some days I will wake up feeling crap about myself and just feeling downright miserable. And you know what? That is okay. I’ve come to accept that feeling this way from time to time is alright as long as I don’t dwell on things for too long. Those feelings of hopelessness and despair are always there, lurking just out of sight, but if managed right they don’t have to bother me too long. For a while I had convinced myself that I had beaten it, like it was the flu, and that it no longer plagued me. Now I know it’s not something that goes away with the snap of the fingers, but it does get better. For me, accepting that it is an ongoing process and that bad days are a part of that process helps me get by.
What also helps me cope is the knowledge that, contrary to what some would have us believe, the causes of depression are not just internal. We live in a society where we are convinced to compete with each other for jobs and for money, and in order to make ends meet, we are working longer hours for stagnant pay while our bosses and celebrities become excessively rich. Meanwhile, we are struggling to make ends meet, adding stress and uncertainty to our lives. We are materialistic and often place our sense of self-worth in purchased goods that serve as symbols of social status that we use to compare ourselves to others. When we don’t behave or look a certain way, we are ridiculed and made to feel isolated. I could go on, and indeed researchers have linked depression to inequality and capitalism which shows that aspects of the structure of society is exacerbating our mental health problems, but realising that many insecurities are manufactured aren’t just in my head is reassuring.
You Are Not Alone
Remember that this is just my experience. I haven’t reached the lows that other people have felt nor such dire circumstances that led them there, but that shouldn’t diminish my experience. Mental illness is still mental illness, and while some may have it worse than others, comparing experiences accomplishes nothing. Everyone suffering needs love and support from those around them. We all need to start caring for each other and thinking, before we say something that might cause pain, what struggles a person is going through. I would disappoint people if I didn’t get political for at least a moment to say that the government should be funding the crap out of mental health services.
This shouldn’t be something we only do when a celebrity commits suicide. This should be normal. We need to get into the habit of being open with how we feel, not necessarily online for the world to see and not for the purpose of garnering sympathy, but because we should be able to get help from those around us. To reiterate what I said earlier, if you are struggling, reach out to someone you trust. I can’t say to anyone how they might overcome their struggles because we are all unique, but they’re probably not going to be conquered if they remain a secret. I can say that opening yourself up is not weakness but strength, and I know this because writing this up and sharing it is one of the hardest things I’ve done in a long time.
I started writing this as a draft script for a video on New Zealand history, with the intention of creating a visually compelling and informative clip that might debunk some of the myths about New Zealand and Maori history. You know the sort of tired ideas I am talking about, beliefs like all Maori willingly signed away their rights and land or that they are ungrateful, greedy, or have special privileges, uninformed opinions regurgitated by the likes of Hobson’s Pledge. Our goal was to address in some small way our collective failure to understand history that is ultimately responsible for the ignorance we see too often today. But the more I looked into it, the more I realised, or remembered, that facts do little to change people’s minds, at least the more extreme cases. Too often we are ruled by how we feel and what we believe, and it is the myths that remain in people’s minds rather than the facts.
Of all the myths that persist, perhaps the most damaging is the idea that everybody has the same opportunities in this country. We hear it mainly from people who currently occupy the middle or upper classes rather than from lower class people. The belief that we are all equal is accompanied by the assumption that if you are struggling on the benefit, then it is because you are lazy and need to work harder. Stop having so many kids, some will say. Stop having so many kids or wasting your money on the pokies, other sages advise. Despite this wisdom, rarely do they ask why people in such desperate situations do things that clearly are not in their best interest. Clearly, some people lack the ability to empathise with others, if they even know what empathy is.
Empathy isn’t simply putting yourself in someone’s shoes and saying “If I were in this situation I would do this or that…”. That isn’t removing your biases or prejudices. That doesn’t even acknowledge that they are a different person to you with their own unique thoughts and values. All you are doing is forcing your own opinions and perspectives on them and basically demanding that they be just like you. No, empathy is about putting yourself in someone else’s shoes and genuinely trying to understand them. What experiences has this person had, or what sort of life have they led that has made them the person they are today? Why do they think the way they do, and how does that make them act? If you really want to know what makes someone tick, these are the sort of questions you need to ask. We are all shaped by the lessons we learn growing up, from our family, friends and school. We are the products of our environments, so what may seem like a logical decision to one person makes no sense to another.
Those who would say hurtful things about others should certainly bear this in mind, but those of us who (justifiably) call such people out for their bigotry and racism should also bear it in mind. It is easy to resort to anger when you see someone saying some racist crap. When I see someone say something like “If it wasn’t for Europeans you Maoris would still be wearing flax skirts killing each other” (someone told me that once), of course I am going to get pissed off. Feeling angry in a situation like that is only natural and shows your moral compass is correctly aligned, but when you step back and think about it, lashing out at them in anger isn’t productive.
Taking a step back requires you think about why someone thinks it is appropriate to say something so uninformed. Perhaps they grew up in a home full of people that thought this way. It could be they learnt nothing about New Zealand history at school and took what they knew from people around them who also knew nothing. Maybe they have never really gotten to know many Maori people and therefore never had to give much thought to the concerns of Maori in general. It could be a combination of these or something else, but like any other person in the world, their values and beliefs are shaped by their experiences and those around them.
Considering they haven’t been exposed to experiences that might teach them the same compassion or empathy that we might possess, is it really fair to attack them for it? I know it may seem absurd, excusing people who are often the walking definition of ‘privilege’ for racist speech or actions, but if they really don’t know any better, is it really so different from yelling at a child for not knowing math?
The privileged live in a bubble. Many have not known hardship because of their social status and the social status of those before them, granting them opportunities that are simply unattainable by others. To them, that privilege is invisible and a part of their life, making it difficult for them to understand why others struggle. Because of this they assume others simply do not work hard or bring misfortune on themselves. We might know better, but remember that although they are adults they are so stuck in backwards ways of thinking that calling them racist will accomplish nothing other than make them angry and reduce what might be meaningful dialogue to a shit-throwing contest.
While such people may be privileged in the material sense, they are not worthy of our anger or envy. Instead, we should pity them. They might not have experienced hunger or discrimination, but they were also not taught what it means to care for people who are different to themselves, from different cultures or walks of life. They may think of themselves as compassionate or empathetic, but clearly that only applies to certain people in their lives and excludes others. That is their loss. There is beauty in each of the different cultures and worldviews that people in this country have to share, but appreciating them and their people only comes through understanding. Those who would make generalisations about others, try to exclude them or diminish their culture are missing a vital part of what it is to be human in our modern global society.
It seems counterintuitive that the people we would normally call disempowered are the ones with the power to change things, but I think it’s true. People who have lived experience with discrimination have the power to show others a better way of treating each other, and in this sense are privileged. It is our role to help the ignorant overcome their fear of other people and show them some compassion for their fellow man and woman, and it by listening to their concerns and then talking.
There have been articles posted recently saying old white men need to shut up. This kind of nonsense does more harm than good. It assumes based on age and skin colour that they have all experienced privilege and power in their lives. Blaming all men for being overpowering or sexually abusive as some ‘feminists’ (not actual feminists) do assumes men have never been in similar positions. Whether we call ourselves liberal or conservative, left-wing or right-wing, we make some awful generalisations about others that risk making enemies of those who might have supported our cause, but because we insulted and made generalisations about them, now no longer will. I say this because the tactics of some animal rights and ‘feminist’ activists have had this effect on me, making me resent them rather than wanting to listen to what they have to say. Attacking me for eating meat or simply being a man assumes that I am not a good person or that I don’t care about those issues, and their cause loses my support because they pissed me off.
Consider some of the stereotypes we make about old, white and wealthy mean. The general assumption is that they must be conservative, don’t care too much about the environment and probably are a little bit racist. No one would say that about David Attenborough, but they would about Trump. They belong to the same demographic yet represent vastly different ideas and values. Some say white men have held all the power for too long, yet many old white men throughout history have also lived in poverty and without power. On the other hand, some of those old white men who hold positions of power and influence have progressive ideas and are trying to make the world a better place for everyone. Within any demographic there is a spectrum of beliefs and experiences, and while it is true that certain demographics as whole have worse experiences than others, generalising a group of people dismisses both the struggles and contributions of individuals.
Not everyone has the patience to deal with recalcitrant people and that is fair enough. There is also only so long you can try understand someone before you accept they may be a lost cause, but it is important that we try, and equally important that we move away from painting everyone with the same brush. If we are to change people’s minds, we need to understand who they are, what drives them and treat them like we would treat anyone else.
Whether we understand what neoliberalism is or not, the reality is that it affects our lives more than most people may realise, and not in positive ways. We might come across the term in an article or see someone post about it online, and we even heard our soon-to-be Prime Minister claim that it had failed New Zealand in September last year although her government is doing nothing to challenge it, yet if we don’t understand it we may not give it much thought. It is important to talk about it because over the last three decades it has played a significant role in many of the social, environmental and political issues we experience today and in order to address these issues, we need to understand how exactly it drives these problems.
There has long been contention about the use of the term, especially by free-market advocates that claim people, mainly critics on the left, use it as an insult without knowing what it really means. While the term does have an interesting history and the meaning has changed over the years, variations of the common usage of the term have become accepted, not only in the academic literature but also by society in general.
David Harvey gives a definition of neoliberalism as “... a theory of political economic practices that proposes that human well-being can best be advanced by liberating individual entrepreneurial freedoms and skills within an institutional framework characterized by strong private property rights, free markets and free trade.” Basically, it is an economic theory proposes that business without restraint is good for everyone, and as liberterians love to say “the freer the market, the freer the people”. It is the realisation of capitalism’s most dangerous ideals, or capitalism on crack if you prefer.
To achieve this market freedom, deregulatory policies were introduced during the economic reforms of the 1980’s known in the United States as “Reaganomics”, in the UK as “Thatchernomics” and here in New Zealand as “Rogernomics”. Prior to the advent of neoliberalism, economic growth in most developed nations was significant due to government intervention, social welfare programmes and more progressive tax systems. What are now known as neoliberal policies gave greater power and freedom to employers, and soon after unions across industries were disempowered and dismantled reducing the capacity for workers to maintain their rights.
Tax reforms over the years have seen the corporate tax rate reduced from 48% to 30% and top income tax from 66% to 33%, allowing wealth to be concentrated in the hands of a smaller elite. Austerity is often adopted by neoliberal politicians, where concern about government debt results in policy-makers cutting social spending, favouring the economy over the needs of people. Free trade deals, like the controversial CPTPP our government recently signed, are only partially about trade and largely about securing privileges for corporations.
Proponents of neoliberalism somehow believe that the market will regulate itself, as though the demands of consumers will hold companies accountable for their actions, and they also think the concentrated wealth will trickle down to everyone else. This delusional thinking seeks to portray bloated corporations as a vital part of the economy that serves a public good, despite countless examples of free market policies destroying human lives, e.g. Grenfell Tower, human rights, e.g. Apple and most companies that have factories overseas, and the environment in pursuit of profit.
When the government steps back and allows private companies to deliver essential services without supervision, we are all going to have a bad time. Consider the pharmaceutical industry. While Martin Shkreli was demonised in the United States for hiking the price of Daraprim by over 5000%, he is only the tip of the iceberg that is Big Pharma’s distorted ideologies (Watch the Netflix show Dirty Money’s episode on Valeant). But privatisation in any industry is problematic because governments generally pay subsidies, which in the case of British Rail can get rather expensive. It also means workers are exposed to the whims of unrestrained business and the impacts discussed above are exacerbated. Neoliberal Values Have Become The Dominant Values
In a stricter sense, neoliberalism refers to the policies and legislation that favour the freedom of markets, but in order for these ideas to take place, the collective values society holds must reflect those ideals. Thus, neoliberalism has successfully become the dominant ideology in developed nations like New Zealand by embedding its values within society itself and suppressing views and theories that propose different ways of doing things.
People often lament that we have lost our sense of community and our desire to care for each other, and it is pretty clear that individualism trumps collectivism, and we are led to believe that happiness in life comes from looking out for ourselves before everyone else. Look at how we define success. A ‘successful’ person it seems is one that has achieved both fame and wealth, and reality TV stars from shows like Married at First Sight and wealthy businesspeople like Bill Gates or Jeff Bezos are examples of this. Tragically, they are given more media coverage than people working to improve the lives of others and held up as role models for people to aspire to.
Individualistic thinking in this economy can be dangerous because of the impact it has on people’s health. We are led to believe that in developed societies such as ours, every person, regardless of their heritage and situations, are capable of being successful (in terms of social and financial status) if they work hard enough. Coined ‘magical voluntarism’, this way of thinking convinces those better off that they achieved their wealth through their own hard work and nothing else, even though this is usually untrue. On the other hand, those who fail to achieve those goals are convinced they alone are responsible for their failures, inevitably developing confidence and identity issues that can develop into depression and anxiety and other mental health disorders.
Individualism breeds competition, and competition is one of the core principles of free market ideology, justified by claims that economic competition results in innovations that benefit everyone. What really happens when companies compete is that shortcuts are taken that have adverse impacts on everyone but the companies themselves.
Competition turns us against each other, not just to the point where we backstab colleagues for a promotion, even people or entire sections of society we don’t even know. Beneficiaries are the favourite political punching bag of conservatives, who make sweeping generalisations about welfare recipients as lazy dole-bludgers who would rather drink, gamble and take drugs than find a job. The disdain held for the lower class by middle class is one of the key ways in which neoliberal values are upheld.
See, although the majority of the world’s wealth is concentrated in the hands of a very small few, this does not deter the middle class, or even many of the working class, because they genuinely believe one day they will become part of the wealthy class.
They believe this despite evidence to the contrary that shows the wealthy are not in the business of sharing, after all, it is hard to stay rich if you let everyone else get rich, which is why corporation use their economic and political power to monopolise their respective industries.
Corporations are essentially given free reign to do whatever they please. No matter how many times they make mistakes or ruin people’s lives, the punishments are so pathetic they keep going as they are. Going back to the example of the pharmaceutical industry above, it is important to remember that Shkreli was not indicted for gouging consumers, after all, that is fairly standard now, but he was arrested for defrauding investors.
Screwing people over is simply good business, which is why Jeff Bezos is painted as a successful businessman despite so many Amazon employees turning to food stamps to survive. The idea enforced by the media that a good business is one that posts high profits, regardless of the corners cut to get there, and we blindly celebrate it. Like politicians who are blatantly bought out by private interests (e.g. most US politicians) or their more subtly corrupt counterparts (e.g. Winston Peters and the racing industry or Judith Collins and Orividia), we give tacit consent to practices that undermine democracy and our way of living in favour of the private interests of industry.
It is fascinating that greed is not considered an abhorrent thing. We actually celebrate those who accumulate masses of money even though that wealth usually comes at the expense of others, and it is amazing people are surprised when private companies undertake such dodgy actions, after all, by definition their obligation is to profit and their shareholders, not the public good.
How do we move beyond neoliberalism?
The world’s most powerful people and organisations have considerable stake in the status quo, so to challenge these overarching ideologies is to challenge the extraordinary power they hold. That is not to say it is impossible. While the wealthy and businesses hold a lot of power, in a country like ours they must operate somewhat discreetly as opposed to the blatant corruption we see overseas, and more importantly, their will (possibly) can be defeated by the ballot.
Every generation has their own challenges that are different from the challenges of those that came before them. My generation, the millennials, and the Gen Z’s that follow, are set to inherit one hell of a mess. We are deprived of the same opportunities that those who hold the wealth and power now enjoyed, and many of us are struggling to get by or buy a house. Because of this, and more that will be discussed another time, there is a pretty good chance then that when we take the reins of power we are going to do things differently. Just as the Baby Boomers as a whole voted for policies that suited their interests at the expense of others, there is reason to believe that once my generation realizes its power they will vote for more compassionate policy. Indeed, already questions are forming about the future of capitalism and how long we can keep going down this road.
Of course, it is not enough to simply wait for change, nor is the blame or burden to act placed on any one generation. That isn’t to say that there isn’t already well organised resistance to neoliberalism, because there clearly is. Jeremy Corbyn has become hugely popular as leader of the Labour Party in the UK and although he is routinely attacked by conservatives and centrists for his socialist policies, the fact that his policies have so much support from the young and the progressive left give hope that a new model for organising society is on the horizon.
Similarly, the support Bernie Sanders is still experiencing following his presidential campaign and the ongoing success of the progressive movement he started in electing progressive candidates suggests that democratic socialism may well find a platform to challenge the neoliberal model.
Social Enterprise and Alternative Models
Here in New Zealand we don’t really have this sort of “radical” representation in government, with Ardern’s Labour Party being very much a centrist neoliberal party and the Greens moving towards the centre. But there are other ways to challenge the unrestrained ambitions of capitalism, in part by changing the nature of business. Although it is not without flaws, social enterprise does offer a model of business that uses its profits to provide a social good, rather than simply accumulating wealth for the sake of it.
A good example of this is Eat My Lunch. Yes it is a company that is making money, but a good portion of that profit is used to expand its service and facilities while continuing to provide food for children in need. This isn’t simply tokenistic charity to appear philanthropic to promote one’s business, instead it is a different model of operating a business with producing positive social outcomes at the centre of its purpose.Social enterprise is becoming popular in the regions, particularly in rural areas with high levels of deprivation, and many Maori are exploring social enterprise as a way of overcoming intergenerational poverty, although they must be careful of falling into the trap of equating economic development with Maori development.
Transition towns are an example of local resistance to the global capitalist system. This model proposed enhancing the self-sufficiency of small towns by keeping production and consumption of goods local as much as possible, at times even advocating measures like local currencies. Time will tell whether these initiatives will work in the long run, and their success is determined by the level of support, including financial support, they receive to help them get started. Such models show that thinking big but acting small is the first step in the right direction when governments fail to act in the interests of the people.
Understanding to Overcome
Perhaps the most important thing when confronting neoliberalism in any context is to be aware of its influence. Whether you are addressing poverty, environmental degradation or homelessness, in order to find permanent, sustainable solutions one must first acknowledge that neoliberalism is ultimately responsible for creating the situation, and work to find an alternative that challenges that ideology. Merely tinkering at the edge without challenging the status quo in any way will simply yield the same result.
Change has to be truly transformative, and as discussed above, neoliberalism is enforced by values that are dominant in society. These values have changed how we interact with each other, so reclaiming the value we place on community, protecting our environment and caring for each other must occur in order for public sentiment towards policy to follow. We have been conditioned to compete with each other and think of ourselves, so we need to move towards a society that works with each other and thinks about everyone else.
Currently I am interested in how to improve outcomes for people in rural areas with high deprivation, like my hometown pictured below. While the instinct from the Government is to simply throw money at the area and create jobs, there are countless social implications that prevent this from working, things like substance abuse, disenfranchisement and mental health issues.
Overcoming the feeling of being isolated and demonised by others, as so many people in these areas feel, does not come from having a job or money but by being shown by your community that people care about you and they believe in you. As my whanaunga said to me recently, a healing needs to take place, a personal, sometimes spiritual healing that counteracts neoliberal values. Once we have looked after each other’s mental well-being and given each other purpose and direction, then those jobs and that money can help turn people’s lives around.
It’s about money, but at the same time it isn’t. It is about our values and the kind of world we want to live in, and the first step in creating a better world is by actually caring for each other and putting that into practice.
Mere hours after being elected leader of the National Party, Simon Bridges was subjected to attacks from people on the left questioning “how Māori” he really is and hurling insults like “plastic Māori”. The place where this frustration comes from is understandable; as a member of the National Party, he is complicit in the legislation and policies that have perpetuated the disadvantages Māori face, so when he goes on national television to proclaim pride in his Māori heritage, it smacks of cynical politics rather than genuine pride. Some Māori see his position in National as a betrayal against them, just as the Māori Party’s demise in last year’s election was likely a response to the perceived betrayal by aligning too closely with National. But as understandable as the frustration is, these attacks are misguided and counter-productive.
In our modern world, with many Māori sharing that heritage with that of other cultures and nationalities, there is no one right way to “be” Māori. Generally speaking, to be considered Māori requires being able to articulate one’s whakapapa and choosing to identify as Māori, criteria which Bridges meets. Therefore, questioning his lineage simply shouldn’t happen and if anything, we should actually celebrate a little bit. As some in the media have pointed out, many of our nation’s senior politicians are now Māori, and this is great. Seeing people such as yourself gain such influential positions is heartening for minority groups like Māori who are often led to believe that their chances of such success are not that great. Hopefully, we will see even more Māori in politics in the future. However, as great as all this is, representation based solely on a particular identity has its limits, especially in politics.
Consider Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign. Many people were excited at the prospect of having at long last a female president, so much so that many didn’t even care who the woman was, as long as she was a woman. In the Democratic Primaries Clinton came up against Bernie Sanders, an old, white male, the epitome of the patriarchy, with whom she struggled with to gain the female vote, particularly that of younger women. Her problem was that while she and Sanders had almost similar policies concerning women’s rights, she represented a sort of corporate feminism, the idea that women too could be the wealthy capitalists in positions of power, and promoted success within the current system rather than trying to change it. In contrast, the intersectionality of Bernie’s policies gave hope for a more equal, democratic future in which the intertwined struggles of race, class and gender and the systems that enforce them would be challenged. So while it would have been great to vote for a woman, many young female Democrats, rightly so, cast their primary votes based on policy that matched their aspirations rather than the candidates’ gender.
On the issue of race, her 2008 Democratic rival could be also be considered a failure of substance. Obama being the first black President was a momentous occasion in US history, but the reality is that he did little to address the issues facing African-Americans. His loyalties were demonstrated early in his first term when he bailed out the financial institutions responsible for the Global Financial Crisis, predatory companies who thrived by preying predominantly on struggling African-Americans and Hispanics and whose actions made life even more difficult for them afterwards. On education, civil rights and foreign policy, nothing he did differed that greatly from his predecessors or opponents, and as Dr Cornel West pointed out, his cheerleaders who were so wrapped up in the idea of having a black president share the blame for excusing his failures. His most significant failure was that in no way did he threaten the power dynamics and structures responsible for the misery of African-Americans across the country. The lesson to be learned is that just because a politician has the same skin colour, background or gender to you, it does not mean that their actions and decisions will be good for you or your demographic.
There has long been a concern in New Zealand politics that personality trumps policy when many people go to the ballot, and to an extent this concern is valid. Our civic participation can and should be better than this, so when we turn a critical glance on Simon Bridges and the National Party, let us move past questioning his Māori credentials and question his policies and what they do for Māori. Let us critique their stance on incarceration, and help them move away from the Western obsession with imprisonment and punitive justice and towards a more compassionate system of rehabilitation. Let us critique their economic policies that continually favour the upper class and corporations with whom their party has close ties to and encourage them to address the socio-economic disparities that heavily disadvantage Māori. Whether it is tino rangatiratanga, land claims, substance and gambling addictions, promoting Te Reo, and educational inequalities, the list of issues Māori want and need addressed goes on. The views they hold and the actions they take on these issues are the metrics against which the National Party and their Māori leaders should be judged.