Thrown on the industrial scrap heap

18:37, Nov 12 2012

The figure struck New Zealand like a bombshell. It had been 30 years since numbers like these had been published.

Memories were stirred. Fearful memories of one's own or one's parents' abject surrender to the pitiless forces of an economic system in extremis.

It was October 1967 and the number of New Zealanders registered as unemployed had risen to 5458. Worse was to come, by June the following year the number stood at 8665.

New Zealanders' horrified reaction to the economic recession of 1967-68 and the rapid rise in unemployment which accompanied it was entirely reasonable.

Forty-five years ago people possessed a much clearer understanding of the essential elements underpinning the welfare state. They knew that it could only be paid for by a workforce that was fully employed and in receipt of incomes sufficiently large to maintain a healthy demand for goods and services. Everyone accepted that any return to mass unemployment would first weaken and then destroy the foundations of the welfare state.

Throughout the 1950s and well into the 1960s the number of New Zealanders registered as unemployed seldom rose above three figures. People used to joke that the prime minister knew each unemployed citizen by name. Some economists even advanced the theory that New Zealand suffered from "over-full employment"; that skilled-labour shortages were hampering the country's economic advancement.


For ordinary wage and salary-earners, however, full employment stood for personal, family and social security. It also guaranteed a measure of working-class dignity. If an employer treated workers unfairly, or paid them too little, there were always plenty of other employers looking for staff. Bad bosses could be told to stick their jobs where the sun don't shine, and with more than half of the workforce enrolled in trade unions there wasn't a helluva lot he could do about it.

In rehearsing these facts we are also measuring how very far New Zealand has travelled since the 1960s and '70s. The history of the past 30 years is, in many respects, the history of the slow and deliberate dismantling of the economic and social settlement negotiated by the Labour Party in the 1930s and '40s, and preserved (at least in its essentials) by the National Party right up until the critical year, 1984.

In a week which saw the number of unemployed New Zealanders swell to more than 175,000, or 7.3 per cent of the workforce, the moral gulf separating 1967 from 2012 appears vast. And yet, had the Government been able to announce that the number of unemployed had fallen to 125,000 it would have been loudly congratulated.

To keep the all-important inflation rate within the desired range of 1 to 3 per cent per year, the unemployment rate needs to be pegged at around 6 per cent. That's how successive New Zealand governments have preferred to manage the economy since the late-1980s - and there's precious little evidence of a change of heart.

Keeping more than 100,000 New Zealanders enlisted in this "Reserve Army of Labour" does, however, require a very considerable hardening of the heart. A political class which can watch with impassive detachment while individuals, families and whole communities are stretched and broken on the rack of enforced idleness is not one that answers to anything but the crudest utilitarianism.

The biggest problem these controllers of human suffering face are the altruistic impulses of the unemployed's fellow citizens. The natural human urge to extend a helping hand to those in need (an urge once institutionally embodied in the Labour Party) must be constrained. With the cynicism only the truly emotionally dead are able to wield, the victims of neoliberal economics are transformed into vicious parasites and anti-social monsters: "baby-breeders" and "child abusers" - depraved criminals as unworthy of our pity as they are of our taxes.

Having recast these largely innocent victims of capitalist dysfunction as members of the feckless and undeserving poor, it requires cruelty of particular refinement to then order them, on pain of being deprived of life's necessities, to enrol in a labour market already over-subscribed to the tune of 175,000 souls.

It was long ago (1972) and far away (Scotland) that the radical trade unionist Jimmy Reid addressed the students of Glasgow University - who had just elected him rector:

"To appreciate fully the inhumanity of [unemployment] you have to see the hurt and despair in the eyes of a man suddenly told he is redundant without provision made for suitable alternative employment . . . Someone, somewhere has decided he is unwanted, unneeded, and is to be thrown on the industrial scrap heap.

"From the very depth of my being, I challenge the right of any man or any group of men, in business or in government, to tell a fellow human being that he or she is expendable."

How very, very much we have forgotten in 40 years.

The Press