Not so jolly: Ruth, Roger and Me by Andrew Dean
Right now, in nearly every country outside of the West, tremendous political, intellectual and cultural upheavals are occurring. From the mountain tribes of Bolivia to the peasant farmers of China, the world is changing at a frightening pace. Yet the West is still waiting for its shift. Not since the 1960s has a united oppositional culture emerged and not since the 1970s has the political settlement changed.
Or, in our case, the 1980s. After defeating the National government in the snap election of 1984, the fourth Labour government swept to power and shattered the old post-war consensus. Collectivism was out, individualism was in. The mixed economy fell out of favour, private ownership of the means of production was the new goal. The welfare state was attacked for supposedly creating a lazy, idle class.
New Zealand needed some "stiff medicine", said Ruth Richardson, and after the fourth Labour government was thrown out of office she dutifully continued the work Roger Douglas and his colleagues had started. As in the UK under Thatcher and the US under Reagan, the economic reforms of the 1980s created some spectacular winners. A tiny handful of businesspeople made millions off the sale of public companies and currency manipulation.
Yet the benefits of the reforms – or what many academics and activists call the neoliberal revolution - were not evenly distributed. What gains were made accumulated at the top and, as Andrew Dean demonstrates in Ruth, Roger and Me, an entire generation was thrown to the scrap heap. Dean, an Ashburton local and graduate of the prestigious Oxford University, tells "a story of what we, the children of the Mother of All Budgets, have inherited after three decades of economic reform".
Dean presents a lucid and lyrical account of the empirical effects of the neoliberal revolution, but he also explores how those effects are experienced. The book is part memoir, part polemic and part reportage. Yet it's also much more than its category. Dean brings an acute sense of how the world is and how it ought to be, of what we have lost and what we might gain. We are shown that the real legacies of the neoliberal reforms are "discomfort and disconnection".
Our impoverished public sphere needs more writers like Dean (and more publishers like Bridget Williams Books). Books are a form uniquely suited to empathy, enquiry and a deep immersion in the lives of others. This is not to say Ruth, Roger and Me is a neatly written piece of didactic moralising, instead it's an impressive challenge to the self-congratulatory moral rhetoric of people like Ruth Richardson who insist "freedom" can only mean an economic choice.
Ruth, Roger and Me by Andrew Dean, Bridget Williams Books, $15.
- Your Weekend