Neoliberalism and the Energy Deficit for Social Activism

Tulia Thompson makes the connections between the impact of neoliberal policies and our capacity to engage in social activism.

This article was written in mid 2013 and makes reference to the state of the welfare system in Aotearoa New Zealand, and political leaders in that country (John Key, Prime Minister and Paula Bennett, Minister for ‘Social Development, of the conservative National Party). For more information on resistance to neoliberal welfare ‘reforms’ see Auckland Action Against Poverty

 StopWarOnPoor

In a blogpost called Where is Our Anger? Steve Gray points out that prior to the 1990′s there were more marches in Aotearoa. Neoliberalism has meant the anger and energy needed to organize has been sucked into the struggle of day-to-day survival. He challenges our political left to challenge National more effectively, saying:

“Our anger is being directed at surviving”

Steve Gray’s words resonated with me, and so this is a more reflective blogpost honoring the multi-layered impact of social injustice and energy deficit in my own life at present.

In the last few weeks I have been coming to terms with the news that someone close to me is seriously unwell (to respect her privacy, I will refer to her as Zoe). This news has been interrupting my thoughts and my sleep. It’s been tugging the kite strings of my heart back towards home. And when news items come across my screen – the social or political issues I might usually blog about – I can’t summon the sustained presence needed to draw the different nuances together. I am in shock, and my body is working at slowing down the reverberations. So I am in energy deficit. I can’t muster energy for my usual critical thinking or social activism as well.

Alongside her illness, Zoe is having to deal with the institutionalized cruelty of WINZ (Work and Income New Zealand). She went to WINZ and applied for a sickness benefit. There have been a number of delays, including WINZ requesting more evidence from her doctor. This meant more time without money and unnecessary doctor’s fees. The sickness benefit is only $219 per week. I don’t know how anyone is supposed to live on that in Auckland.

When I say institutionalized cruelty, I mean that the culture of beneficiary bashing that is pushed by Paula Bennett is so endemic to WINZ that WINZ staff are only able to deal with people through a prejudicial lens of doubt. The number of forms and sign-offs and requirements for evidence are a bureaucratic nightmare – they serve the purpose of keeping the costs down by leaving people waiting for weeks during the unofficial stand-down period of evidence collecting – but they certainly don’t assist those who are unwell and under considerable stress. Paula Bennett and her ilk are driven by neoliberal ideology and global austerity. And yet people who are unwell deserve dignity and compassion.

So in this context, I found it hard to swallow mention of John Key’s chummy relationship with David Cameron, the man who has managed to entirely mangle the NHS in Britain. Meadows says,

Key recounted texting his British counterpart David Cameron, the world leader he was “best mates with”, to point out that the deficit in Cameron’s budget was bigger than New Zealand’s entire GDP.

“It gives you a sense of perspective.”

Well, it gives me a sense of perspective.

So, thinking about Zoe and the need for her to simultaneously negotiate both the waiting times our under-resourced health system and WINZ has been making me sick. And angry. But it’s a useless whirlwind of late night angst because I am both geographically distant and too emotionally involved to manage any effective advocacy. Imagine this angst multiplied by all the people in Aotearoa with loved ones who are seriously unwell. From space we probably look like little bonfires burning away into the darkness.

Ironically, the lack of justice for Zoe has given me moments of fear that I might lose the love that I usually feel for Aotearoa/ New Zealand. I know it probably sounds old-fashioned – not to mention airy-fairy – to talk about loving the place you are from. And yet, my love for Aotearoa and the Pacific feels tangible to me, it’s what drives my writing and my need to be part of broader social change. But this week I’ve wondered if the bitterness I feel at the thought of Zoe suffering – and others not helping her – might blunt my ability to do social justice work and writing. To keep facing towards humanity with the same hopefulness and naked optimism. I write about fairly bleak topics. You need to have a fairly resilient sense of purpose to sustain that.

OurAusterity2So at the moment I need other people to think critically and advocate. I need other people in Aotearoa to write placards and stand outside WINZ offices. I need other people to dream up better, fairer policies for supporting our most vulnerable. So that I can focus on refocusing my energy, and emotionally supporting Zoe and her other family.

And yet, neoliberal capitalism is fundamentally effective at keeping people busy at both ends of the production chain. As workers, we are underpaid, underemployed, and working long hours to sustain a living. As consumers,  we face the endless onslaught of advertising and the need to buy things. It doesn’t give anyone much time or energy for thinking outside their immediate lives, let alone for thinking critically about political and social issues and for acting on them. There is nagging, pervasive energy deficit even when you are not in crisis.

I don’t know what the answers are. I’m not in the right space to find them. I hope wherever this finds you, you find ways to resist the energy deficit and dream up ways of healing all the bones where we are collectively broken. Imagine all of us make up the body of a sleeping giant. The bonfires we light from our own suffering can be collective consciousness; the giant’s soul.

 

Tulia ThompsonAbout the author 

Tulia Thompson is a New Zealand-born Fijian/ Tongan/ Pakeha queer feminist writer, living in Aotearoa. She blogs about social issues, her day-to-day experiences, politics, gender, culture, books, activism and writing process. Tulia has a PhD in Sociology and her academic interests include post-colonial studies and queer theory, and intersectional feminism. Her children’s novel (ages 9-12) Josefa and the Vu, was published in 2007. She is currently writing a novel while completing a MCW at the University of Auckland.

Tulia’s Facebook: A Cautionary Tale was previously featured on Plan to Thrive.

Photo credits: Simon Oosterman, AAAP protest at National Party conference and AAAP Langham Protest (2012),  from the Auckland Action Against Poverty Flickr streamCreative Commons Licensed.

How does the energy deficit impact on your activism? How can we collectively address neoliberalism, while we simultaneously experience its impact? 

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