The 1850s was a good decade for John Key

Housing Minister Phil Heatley said it was “absurd” to claim the Government was not committed to homelessness.

He said a three-year investment of more than $104 million towards non-government housing providers was proof it was taking homelessness seriously.

Stuff

The current government has two responses or policies.  In the first they tell us about money, and in the second they tell us about efficiency.  That is all.   Often the two are combined.  According to them we are servants of money and economies.

Take the response above from Phil.  A person at the chalk face of homelessness with a lot of experience and knowledge to draw on complains:

“It’s homelessness in all its guises. It is people living in garages, in cars, having 20 family members living in one room – homelessness is a New Zealand problem so the Government must be involved in it,” Casey told the Sunday Star-Times. “They can start by having a strategy, having a plan or having some legislation that says people have the right to a warm, secure, safe home.”

In response Phil says, “three-year investment of more than $104 million”.  Surprisingly he is not talking about an opportunity on the stock exchange but about – he thinks – homelessness.  Phil goes on:

“We want to get on and get building now rather than running round in circles having mindless and unproductive debates.”

Mindless and unproductive debates.  This means that Phil doesn’t want to listen to people when they talk about ending suffering, and here’s why:

Canadian studies show it can cost upwards of $120,000 per year in health, emergency and justice system services to support a chronically homeless person. It costs less than $43,000 per year to provide permanent housing.

What shall we tell people in fifty years over the issue of love versus money? 

We didn’t help the homeless in a meaningful, supported way because it wasn’t cost effective.

***

We went out to dinner on Friday night at Richard (of RBB)’s house with another couple.  We brought our children.  It was a good night.  A very good night.  We made a mess in every room of their house and were fed in return.  The other couple were doctors.  At a certain point (you know the point, the kids are in bed and the bottles of wine on the table outnumber the guests) we told our tales of woe about society.  I was the sober driver so I was able to listen soberly to all of this and nod.  In the interests of discretion I will leave the details aside.

It was interesting to hear about the health of a community.  The current education policy of the government is to blame teachers for the poor results of disadvantaged students.  It was interesting to hear that this is also their health policy.  In disadvantaged communities the narrative doctors hear from the government is: why aren’t you making these people better?  Unfortunately for doctors and teachers the answer isn’t much of a zinger.  It goes something like: “well, we’re trying hard, but we’re only one possible solution and we tend to be at the end of the chain trying to compensate for a whole range of factors…”  See how your eyes glazed over?

Well, sorry to be blunt, but they shouldn’t.  Here’s where your eyes should glaze over:

“three-year investment of more than $104 million”

Against this I put Martin:

True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar. It comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring.

This is from Martin’s very fine speech called A Time to Break Silence.  It is the moment that he spoke out against the war in Vietnam, but also against capitalism.  If we believe Rage Against the Machine (and we probably shouldn’t), it was also the moment he made himself a highly marked man.

A true revolution of values will soon look uneasily on the glaring contrast of poverty and wealth. With righteous indignation, it will look across the seas and see individual capitalists of the West investing huge sums of money in Asia, Africa, and South America, only to take the profits out with no concern for the social betterment of the countries, and say, “This is not just.”

Of course, in matters of justice or anything else money is indifferent, as the current ad campaign of a bank tells us.

At least our courts haven’t yet gone into public-private partnerships.

***

There’s a book most university History courses get you to read at some point called What is History? by E.H. Carr.  It’s a good book.  Fairly early on he tells you that when you read history books you need to listen for the historian’s point of view, and if you can’t hear one then your historian is a very dull dog indeed.  Eric Hobsbawm, who died last week, clearly had a point of view.  At times it was a pretty extreme point of view, but it made his books good and, crucially, re-readable.  An obituary I read of him in the New York Times had a different point of view.

In 1994, he shocked viewers when, in an interview with Michael Ignatieff on the BBC, he said that the deaths of millions of Soviet citizens under Stalin would have been worth it if a genuine Communist society had been the result.

“The greatest price he will pay is to be remembered not as Eric J. Hobsbawm the historian but as Eric J. Hobsbawm the unrepentant Communist historian,” Mr. Judt said. “It’s unfair and it’s a pity, but that is the cross he will bear.”

Mr. Judt will, of course, be proven wrong.  Mr. Hobsbawm’s comment was undoubtedly silly, and also – it’s worth noting – hypothetical, but I think it is Mr. Judt who has to bear that cross for Eric if he wants to.  Eric did, after all, live for 95 years and write countless excellent books.

Here is a part from the introduction of his book The Age of Capital talking about the period 1848 to 1875:

It was the triumph of a society which believed that economic growth rested on competitive private enterprise, on success at buying everything in the cheapest market (including labour) and selling in the dearest.  An economy so based, and therefore resting naturally on the sound foundations of a bourgeoisie composed of those whom energy, merit and intelligence had raised to their position and kept there, would – it was believed – not only create a world of suitably distributed material plenty, but of ever-growing enlightenment, reason and human opportunity… in brief a world of continuous and accelerating material and moral progress.

Sound familiar?  In my last letter to John I said that I thought he was a relic of another age.  This is what I meant.  John and his ilk are living out the dream that began in earnest in the 1850s as if nothing has changed in the world economically.  What is noticeable to me is not just that the passage above perfectly describes the attitude of many present day politicians, but that things have gotten worse: the moral progress add on has been dumped.

You can see why it was dumped.  Firstly, there was the problem of the moral progress of Europe in the 19th century being racist, sexist, and anti-labour (which is a problem because most people in the world are labour, not bosses).  Once things had been put on a better footing with things like the Declaration of Human Rights in the 20th century (World War Two cleared up a few things about what is important in living), the leader’s of the free world promptly resumed inflicting intolerance on everyone except the folks at home (well, some of the folks at home).  By the 1970s it was clear that material progress was a lot easier to manage than moral progress.  In fact moral progress and material progress began to look a bit mutually exclusive.

Mr. Hobsbawm again:

The historian cannot be objective about the period which is his subject.  In this he differs (to his intellectual advantage) from its most typical ideologists…  The author of the book cannot conceal a certain distaste, perhaps a certain contempt, for the age with which it deals, though one mitigated by admiration for the titanic material achievements.

Indeed.  Hobsbawm wanted more out of the other big revolution that came at the end of the 18th century alongside the industrial revolution in Britain: the social revolution of France.  Which is how he ended up on the side of the socialists and the communists.  Unfortunately.  I say unfortunately because communism as it has been lived so far has been awful for millions of people.  Awful is something of an understatement.

But let’s not pretend that for some people on Earth capitalism hasn’t created a much, much better life.  This is not an argument about the destruction of capitalism, or some paean to a false agrarian Arcadia where life was often nasty, brutish and short.  I’ll take capitalism’s dentistry any day over the health care of the ancient Greeks.

Yet it must be obvious that capitalism needs to radically change.  It has a proven ability to feed people and create civil societies, freedom, better health, and comforts, but our current form of it is clearly heading in the direction of awful too.  A world of diminishing competition between giant conglomerates that buy cheap and sell high; a juggernaut stripping the world of resources and spewing out rubbish, and at the helm leaders who sense only that the elite of the planet who actually vote in the wealthiest parts of the Earth are happier with more money to further plump their overstuffed cushions against suffering.  Communism is not the answer.  Nor is the food and waste dumped everyday by mindlessly competing fast food restaurants around the world as thousands have their lives and dignity twisted out of shape by hunger. 

Any system that permits this is immoral and needs to be changed.

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One thought on “The 1850s was a good decade for John Key

  1. I enjoy reading your writings; they often reflect well my own views including those I express in some of my posts. The issues facing contemporary NZ are much the same to those across so called ‘first world’ countries, only couched in uniquely NZ flavour. In very general terms, what underpins all issues across the globe is never-ending circle of ‘production/consumption/expansion’ formula and separation of those who produce from those who consume. Nothing new really; Marx and Engels knew it in 19th century and some others since ancient times. Except one not so obvious element; to produce one need resources, and those willing to consume. This is where the ‘catch’ unique to our time may lie; depletion of production required resources forcing huge (one we are not able to fully grasp now) shift in consciences. ‘Forcing’ being the operative word.
    Thank you,
    Daniela

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