Charlie Prout is a 22 year old student completing a BA in Sociology and Political Science. He has an interest in communicating big complicated issues to the public in simple ways.
Youth cannot get involved in economic activism without a dialogue of an alternative system. I sat down with Dr Dylan Taylor, Lecturer in Social Policy and Sociology, and Dr Greta Snyder, Lecturer in Political Science, at Victoria University of Wellington to discuss alternatives to neoliberalism and how activists can make anti-neoliberal activism appealing to youth.
What is the current economic system? How does it hurt people?
- The general tendency is towards privatisation, greater efficiency, deregulation, all of those components. One of the really interesting things about the current economic climate from the work perspective, there has been this introduction of flexibility to labour. The flexibility you see today is thought to be a good thing [but it is] to the detriment of a lot of the working population.
DT: The current economic system is, of course, a capitalist one. Capitalism is by definition, for the vast majority, a system based on exploitation. And this exploitation can take place in areas you wouldn’t normally think. For instance, when you’re engaging with your peers on social media you’re also generating information that companies like Facebook or Twitter can sell on and make a huge profit from. The genius of capital lies in its ability to extract value from all facets of our lives.
What are the alternatives to neoliberalism? How do we create a counter narrative?
GS: It’s got to be done at a lot of different levels… Occupy Wall Street is a great example…of the potential for a large-scale rejection of the kinds of forces [that perpetuate capitalism]. At the local level, there is all sorts of great stuff that is being done… On the more radical side, you have groups like the Zapatistas who are like “opt out, we will create our own world with emphasis on group autonomy, and self-sufficiency, and sustainable development”.
DT: First we need to ask if we want an alternative that still sits within the capitalist paradigm? If so, then we can turn to historical alternatives such as Keynesianism, and retool them for the current moment. As seen in the bailouts given to financial institutions following the global financial crisis of 2007, states still have the capacity to undertake significant interventions in the economy. Although considering the deepening levels of inequality and homelessness “developed” countries face, this was not an intervention that benefited the majority of people. So a Keynesian style approach would see the state intervene to do such things as create more jobs, build social housing, and regulate capitalism to curb its worst excesses. A counter-narrative in this sense could run along the lines of “we’ve done it before, let’s do it again.”
More exciting, however, is to think how we might move beyond capitalism. Historically the alternative has been called “communism”. The catchphrase of communism is “from each according to their ability, to each according to their needs” – it’s a profoundly egalitarian idea. We each do our bit, what we can, and in turn we’re guaranteed a dignified life. One of the justifications for capitalism is that it fosters innovation and, in turn, improves living conditions for us all over time. But we’re now faced with declining living standards in Aotearoa and elsewhere, along with the wider issue of environmental catastrophe, and innovation is stifled because the most important thing seems to be making profits for the rich. So how about this for the basis of a counter-narrative: “capitalism is holding us back, we can do so much better!”
How do we develop activism around these alternatives that get youth involved?
GS: A resignification of activism is necessary. There are lots of discourses out there that paint activists as virtuous [and promoting them]. It is fighting against economic forces, but [also] against social forces that are really harmful to people. Youth in New Zealand are facing a particularly fraught moment in terms of mental health. A lot of people feel really alienated…by the forces that face them – going to university, paying for university, finding a job. To say “hey this isn’t just your problem, this is our problem and you are not alone” is a pretty attractive thing.
DT: A starting point is developing an understanding of the systems and relations of power we live in. Not just capitalism, but patriarchy, racism and colonialism (and I’m sure there’s more). We need to think about the ways these intersect, and how these “big issues” influence the conditions of our day-to-day lives. So this is a negative process, in a way, asking: “how am I exploited, or oppressed, or held back?” – and also, “how do I exploit, oppress, or hold others back?” This involves critical self-awareness and dialogue with others.
More positively, we can ask what aspects of our everyday lives might, if amplified, form the basis for a better society? Think about the way you treat the ones you love, the way you cooperate with your workmates, how you feel when you’re doing something creative. To scale this upwards, however, we need to build enduring connections with one another. Organisation is needed. And if it’s systemic change we’re after, then we need to find ways of linking different projects and struggles together. We need to think big. Have a vision. Realise our communities, this country, the world as a whole, can change for the better.