Daniel Kleinsman: The C*#! Word

In an attempt to get year 10 students thinking more about social justice and inequality, a group of us presented them with a scenario: 10 students and 10 chocolate bars. But instead of giving the students a chocolate bar each, the first was given five, the next four were given one each, and the remaining five were given one to share between them. The one who received five chocolate bars was, of course, very happy with himself. The five to whom the leftover chocolate bar was (literally) tossed, obliged by (literally) fighting over it.

We explained that this reflects something of the situation in New Zealand, in terms of the distribution of wealth. We then gave the ten students a chance to come together as a group and find a solution, and touchingly (even if under tacit coercion) the student with the five chocolate bars gave away four of them so that every student had one each. We applauded this gesture and observed that, while there is a problem, there is also a possible solution. But no sooner had we done so, than an earnest and attentive student asked (with grave concern), “But isn’t that communism?”

The discussion that followed astounded me in terms of the political engagement of 14 year olds in Aotearoa New Zealand, and this is something that should be fostered further. Nonetheless, those students who condemned this gesture of redistribution as communism were unable to explain what communism is, or what its problems are, beyond saying “It’s where everyone gets the same amount, and it doesn’t work”.

Obviously, communism has only ever led to authoritarianism. But I think there is another reason why it doesn’t work, which points also to the problems of our existing neoliberal structures and the problematic nature of our engagement with these issues: cost. Communism and neoliberalism alike are all about cost and economy, and neither addresses the complex needs of a society. Michael Sandel has long espoused this. And indeed, our political structure in New Zealand - under the influence of neoliberalism - has become increasingly econocratic, such that issues are increasingly dominated by economic language and considerations. Even efforts to address inequality are framed as “investment”. Ultimately, this fails to meet fundamental need, alienates the general public and denies community.

Max Harris’ book, “The New Zealand Project” tackles this problem and proposes a values-based politics of care, community and creativity.  But his proposal has engendered responses similar to those of the students above. The National Business Review called it “neo-socialist”, while another commentator on Twitter suggested that he had rebranded “the most murderous ideology in history” and pretended it was something new. It is much easier to write off that which challenges the status quo, than to critically engage. It is much easier to understand ideas according to preconceived labels and categories, than to admit that we ourselves don’t already have the answer.

In an era of inequality, climate change, mass migration and digitalisation we face many challenges. I believe that we can tackle these challenges, and that we must, but that doing so comes at a cost. This makes it difficult. We need to be able to sacrifice ideas and even images of ourselves, so as to take responsibility for our actions, decisions, and perpetuation of these problems, and so as to be able to hear the voices and ideas of others.  I expect that the upcoming OECD Forum on Bridging Divides in Paris will challenge me to do exactly this.

All posts by Institute delegates reflect their own thoughts, opinions and experiences, and do not reflect those of the Institute.

Posted on May 28, 2017 and filed under OECD Forum 2017.