Anne Salmond: The idea there's no such thing as society is extremely damaging
OPINION: Across the Anglo-American world in the 1980s, including New Zealand, neo-liberal doctrines went viral.
In 1987 Margaret Thatcher, then Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, gave a speech in which she declared, "There is no such thing as society. There are individual men and women, and there are families."
Unfortunately, however, she was mistaken. There is such a thing as society. Since time immemorial, human beings have worked together in groups beyond the individual and families to ensure their well-being and survival. The emergence of language, and kinship, the nation state and other forms of social organisation are key markers in the history of our species. Homo sapiens is above all, a social animal.
In a globalised world, if we are to survive and prosper, human beings have to learn to work together in increasingly complex and sophisticated ways. This requires a measure of trust, and empathy, and mutual understanding.
Since the 1980s, however, neo-liberal doctrines have led us in the opposite direction. The idea that there is no such thing as society was not just wrong, but extremely damaging.
As the idea of the cost-benefit calculating individual took hold, selfishness and greed were reframed as virtues. Families were weakened. Fraud and profiteering became commonplace. Rivers, lakes, beaches and fisheries were ruined. Trust and empathy began to fail.
With no understanding of the purposes of institutions above the level of the family, these have been remodelled in the image of the cost-benefit calculating individual. Schools, universities and hospitals are set to compete with each other, even if this defeats the functions for which they exist – passing on knowledge, and healing the sick.
Fractured, fractious, highly unequal societies, in which many people feel radically alienated and dispossessed, are the logical outcome. Not surprisingly, policies based on mistaken ideas about how human societies work, and what it takes to succeed in the contemporary world, have proved to be dysfunctional.
In New Zealand, this transformation has been particularly traumatic. A small, intimate society that was once relatively equal, where ideas of decency, integrity and a 'fair go' were fundamental, has struggled to cope with the impact of neo-liberal philosophies. Many New Zealanders today are incensed by the sight of families sleeping in cars, children living in poverty and dying from third world diseases, and other evidence of radical disparities in wealth and life chances.
They are sickened to see lakes and rivers turning toxic, to hear forests falling silent, and to know that the vast majority of native species of birds and fish are at risk. They feel that their own best values – and their country – have been betrayed.
In many ways, they are right. In any society, the balance between individual aspiration and freedom, and the common good is delicate. In the early 1980s, there is no doubt that many New Zealanders felt stifled by the imposition of collective restraints.
Today, however, there are many who feel that the balance has tipped too far in the opposite direction, and that the neo-liberal promise of freedom was dishonest, or just for a privileged few.
They yearn for a Kiwi bottom line that is not just about money, but upholds basic values which most New Zealanders still cherish – integrity and decency in governance and commerce; a good life for ordinary people; affordable homes; clean rivers and beaches; and a fair go for all.
In this lies a sense of optimism, and hope. Irrespective of which political party is in power, or whether we are dealing with central or local government, iwi leaders or the civil service, the corporate sector or other institutions, New Zealanders from all walks of life have the right to demand that their basic values are upheld.
So many Kiwis are sick and tired of cynicism and greed, lies and spin, and profiteering at the expense of people, land, sea and waterways. It is not just many corporates, but also government itself in New Zealand that is in danger of losing its social licence to operate.
It must be past time to draw a line in the sand, and tell our leaders what is unacceptable, and what kind of country we want. It is time to take care of our beautiful land.
Dame Anne Salmond is a Distinguished Professor at the University of Auckland, and was the 2013 Kiwibank New Zealander of the Year.
- The Dominion Post