Monday, June 11, 2012

Something New

We feature each week Nicholas Reid's reviews and comments on new and recent books

“CHILDREN OF ROGERNOMICS – A Neoliberal Generation Leaves School” by Karen Nairn, Jane Higgins and Judith Sligo (Otago University Press, $NZ45)

            Forgve me, but I’m going to take a long time getting around to discussing this week’s “Something New”, Children of Rogernomics – A Neoliberal Generation Leaves School, a sociological study of New Zealand youth. That is because I want to tease out the meaning of one relevant word which the study inevitably entails.

            Like you, I often find myself getting confused by words that have political or ideological connotations.

            Which of their many meanings am I meant to take in any given context?

            Consider the word “liberal”. I know it can mean open-hearted and generous. Nineteenth-century novelists wouldn’t hesitate to use the word in this sense in sentences such as “He was an honest and liberal fellow”. I know that it can mean progressive and enlightened as in “Conservatives opposed racial integration but liberals supported it.” I know that American conservatives sometimes use “liberal” as a term of abuse and scorn and (quite inaccurately) as a rough synonym for “radical” or “socialist”. I know that when spelt with a capital letter,  Liberal can refer to specific political parties, like the defunct English Liberal Party, which was more-or-less progressive when compared with the old Tories, but which believed in free trade and opposed socialism. (And, just to totally confuse matters, the Australian Liberal party is really Australia’s conservative party whereas the Canadian Liberal Party is more-or-less centre-left.)

            I could continue with other nuances of this one word, just as I could with any other ideological descriptor.

            So it’s appropriate to begin a review of the book with “Neoliberal” in its subtitle by going back to what “liberal” originally meant when it first had political currency.

            The first liberals were those children of the Enlightenment who opposed the old absolutist monarchies. They thought the world would be improved by more personal freedom, more liberty – hence liberal. They proposed the liberal freedoms – of speech, of assembly, of worship, of the press etc. So far, so admirable, and leading to the widening of the franchise, freeing of slaves, emancipation of women and other commendable social movements.

            But there was always a shadow side to liberalism. Knowing centralised, organised government only in the form of unrepresentative, undemocratic monarchies, liberalism came to lay an excessive emphasis on individual freedom, often at the expense of the common good. Entrepreneurs, said liberals, should be free to trade and do business with the minimum of government interference. Taxation should be low. Governments should be kept from regulating things and intervening in the free flow of capital. We didn’t want a repeat of those old absolutist monarchies riding over our freedoms, did we? Thus the pattern was set for liberals supporting the enrichment of the middle-class and a laissez-faire attitude towards poorer members of society. Why didn’t the poor just get rich the way the middle classes did? They enjoyed the same liberal freedoms, didn’t they?

            When famine hit Ireland in the 1840s, British liberals wrung their hands and said “Oh dear. How dreadful. But we can’t let the government do anything to relieve starving people, as that would require taxation,  give the government too much power,  distort the market and interfere with food prices. Let us rely on private charity and hope for the best.”

            Result? Hundreds of thousands died.

            Reactions against liberalism could take extreme, untenable forms too (roll on Marxism and a return to absolutism). But in democratic countries by the mid-twentieth century, there was a broad consensus that the liberal freedoms have to be balanced with good, tax-funded social welfare. The welfare state was widely accepted.

            So when, in the late twentieth century, monetarists and advocates of untrammelled private enterprise set to work undoing the welfare state, they were quite rightly called neoliberals. They were reviving the old liberal beliefs that the best government is the least government, that taxation should be low, and that there should be as little interference as possible with private entrepreneurs enriching themselves. In England it was called Thatcherism. In New Zealand Rogernomics. In both countries there was the unproven (and quite fallacious) Friedmanite theory that the enrichment of the few would lead benefits to “trickle down” to the masses. In both countries neoliberalism (allied to monetarism and consumerism) had a profound effect on both how the state was governed and how people saw themselves.

            So how has neoliberalism affected the young people of the 1990s and 2000s who have grown up in New Zealand when neoliberalism has been such a dominant force in public discourse?

            At this point you may breathe a sigh of relief as I at last get around to considering the book on hand, Children of Rogernomics – A Neoliberal Generation Leaves School.

            The project of which this book is part was funded by a Marsden Grant. Otago and Lincoln University academics Karen Nairn, Jane Higgins and Judith Sligo spent four years (2003-2007) interviewing 93 young people who were in their last year of high school, sometimes assisted by “peer interviewers” (young people the same age as the interviewees) when it came to more intimate or delicate questions. Interviewees were then asked to respond a second time, after each had been out in the post-school world for a year or so. The aim was to get a sense of young people in “transition” between school-life and work or adult family responsibilities.

            It should be noted that the interviewees were not demographically representative of New Zealand youth. Of the 93 interviewees 70 were young women and only 23 young men, meaning the project had an in-built quasi-feminist bias. Also, in demographic terms, Maori and other Polynesians were over-represented. There were 53 Pakeha interviewees, 20 Maori, 15 Pasifika and 5 of other ethnic origins. All this the authors admit in their introduction. They also make plain that one of their prime concerns was to determine how young people perceived themselves, or as the authors would phrase it , how they “constructed their identities”. How much influence did the “neoliberal discourse” have upon they way they thought and the way they planned their futures? How much had they internalised the language of the market and individualised entrepreneurship?

            From the book’s title onwards, we can see that the authors are predisposed to see these young people as very influenced by neoliberalism. The authors’ own views are fairly explicit. “Arguably, the [neoliberal] reforms of the 1980s put in place deep structures of inequality which remain decades later”, they say on Page 13 of their Introduction, and proceed to explain how, in New Zealand, the concept of full employment was abandoned and welfare reform followed market reform.

            They follow this introductory chapter wth two chapters explaining their methodology. Chapter 2, entitled “Identity – a Project of the Self”, notes that there is now a greater expectation in New Zealand that young people will go from school to tertiary education rather than straight into full-time paid employment; but there is also greater targeting of youth in the “consumer-media discourse”. The authors make much of the concept of “cultural capital” and the fact that middle-class youth tend to have the type of “cultural capital” that favours them in terms of the way our education system is currently structured. Hence the widespread self-perception of working class youth that they are “not brainy” as their “cultural capital”  does not so easily translate into academic success. Chapter 3 explains how the authors recruited their “peer researchers” and got their interviewees to prepare “anti-CVs” in which they said what their real aspirations and priorities were, as opposed to the things that might best sell them to a prospective employer.

            I think it is only once these theoretical and methodological underpinnings have been negotiated that the young people’s voices are really heard. And one of the things I find most interesting is the way the young people often confound the authors’ initial expectations.

            In the chapter entitled “Beginning Post-School Transitions”, the authors suggest that, while interviewees are not unanimous or lacking individuality, they are nevertheless heavily influenced by a neoliberal discourse of “choice” and “personal responsibility” and therefore likely to ascribe their successes and failures to their own effort. Yet in the relevant interviews, many interviewees admit the importance of their family group and its values. Most do not believe they will walk into jobs. Most believe that a university degree is a passport to prestige. One participant says [Pg.42] “Anything that gets your hands dirty and rquires a lot of physical effort, there’s not really a huge amount of people wanting to go into it because everyone is driving them towards uni and office work and all of that sort of thing.” The authors hasten to suggest that young people too often lack “labour-market literacy”.

            When they interview three young people about their working futures (Chapter 5 “Great Expectations”), the Samoan and the Pakeha young women both get into tertiary education and also expect to achieve much before they get married and settle down – but they still do want to marry and settle down. The working-class Maori guy says he just wants to earn enough to get married – not exactly a neoliberal aspiration. He also says of school (which he left as soon as he legally could) “it’s basically yourself, you know, it’s got nothing to do with the school. I mean the school’s there to teach you and that’s what they’re doing, it’s whether you want to accept it or not.” (Pg.58). This seems to me an admirably straightforward and self-aware statement by the young man. But, possibly because they would see the young man’s interpretation of his own experience as being unhealthily influenced by a neoliberal discourse of  “choice”, the authors proceed to lecture us about the boy’s lack of cultural capital and how “Pakeha versions of cultural capital tend to be legitimated and rewarded in ways the Maori and working class capital are not.”

            Oh really?

            Does this mean that, after the guy has said he chose not to work at school, they are in fact patronising him and showing no respect for his testimony by such editorialising?

            When they interview two young Maori women who actually got into university, and one young Pasifika woman who only pretends to attend university so as not to upset her family (Chapter 6 “Performing Collective Identities”) the authors basically ignore the personal choices made in these situations. Instead they speak of the “forced choice” of young people who opt for university (as there is no job market to absorb them) and who imagine graduation will open up careers pathways. I can’t help wondering, too, if the authors didn’t grit their teeth a little when a Maori interviewee tells them that her family took advantage of the lack of school zones (a neoliberal initiative) to get into an area where she could improve her academic chances by attending a prestigious high school.

            What I am suggesting in all this is that there is sometimes a tension in Children of Rogernomics between lines of questioning and what the authors perhaps expected to hear on the one hand, and the attitudes and values that interviewees are often expressing on the other. As sociologists, the authors do not impose their own values on the interviewees or indeed express overtly their own values. But the book is structured, and its chapter titles chosen, in such a way as to indicate the authors’ intentions and tendencies. Willy-nilly, there is a framework of interpretation.

            In Chapter 7, “Spirituality as a Resource”, we find that, as we would expect, the Polynesian kids see religion as intertwined with family and identity more than the Pakeha kids do. Of the five interviewees the authors choose to make case studies, four are Christians. In Chapter 8, “Young People Re-creating”, designed to be about the consumer culture, there is the obvious point that not all interviwees are socially equal and therefore they cannot all afford the same things. A number of Polynesian interviewees speak of the importance to them of “Polyfest” (the Polynesian cultural festival) and of the Christian Parachute festival. In both cases I gain a clear sense of young people influenced by, but not overwhelmed by, the values of the marketplace. Hence what they say very much calls into question the validity of dubbing them Children of Rogernomics.

            To sustain the book’s title, the key chapter should have been the one entitled “Children of the Market”. Oddly, this focuses on three young men, rather than the young women who dominate the volume. The authors comment “All three used the discourses of entrepreneurialism and meritocracy in talking about crafting their worker identities.” (Pg.111) This seems clear evidence of the neoliberal influence the authors wish to emphasize. Yet in all three cases, the young men have other things on their minds (family, relationships, Christian moral values etc.) as well as job and income aspirations. Indeed, of one of them, the authors are forced to say “We cannot … construct Ian unproblematically as an entrepreneurial, neoliberal subject.” (Pg.120).

            Translation?  “Oops! He didn’t say what we thought he might!”

            As I fear I have summarised too much already, I will not weary you by synopsising the chapter on the young interviewees’ “gender roles” and the one on unmarried young mothers. Of the latter, though, I do once again note how many of the young mothers spoke of the importance of family support networks; and I endorse the authors’ remark that, while negative comments on young mothers once focused on the fact that they were unmarried, they now focus on fears of welfare dependency and the middle-class having to foot the bill. (So roll on current plans for heavily-subsidised contraception.)

            In the last two chapters there is an attempt to draw general conclusions from the follow-up interviews each participant underwent. The authors admit that it is hard to see any clear pattern emerging from their research in terms of how the interviewees “construct” their identities. There is, however, the interesting observation that the parents of the interviewees are often more concerned about the interviewees’ future than kids themselves are.

            How do I sum up this book, and does it really show us that the consciousness of young New Zealanders is saturated with neoliberal values?
            It is salutary to be reminded, as the authors do so often remind us, that people are not necessarily the “rational, autonomous, choice-making” indviduals of neoliberal discourse. We all fit into a social context of some sort, are all somehow attached to, dependent upon or responsible for other people. We are all to some extent formed by our background, upbringing, webs of family and institutional relationships, culture, inherited mythologies and belief systems etc. We are not all free units waiting to plunge into the market, or sizing up all things in terms of the monetary or status advantage they may give us as individuals. In short, despite individualist ideologies, we are all part of society – a word dreaded by montarists and neoliberals, as in Maggie Thatcher’s inane statement that “there is no such thing as society.”

            So far so unexceptionable. I endorse this (frequently implicit) viewpoint in Children of Rogernomics.

            Often, however, the methodology of this book is very loaded. Given the skewed nature of the selection of interviewees, are these young people truly representative of New Zealand youth? And if not, then why have they been chosen? The title of the book suggests an agenda and the pre-loading of a thesis. Children of Rogernomics? Really? Much of the evidence the book itself gives shows that these young people are the children of many other things as well. If, as the authors say, individuals “construct” their identities, then the authors’ own practice suggests that sociologists “construct” their sense of society, and often, as in the case of this book, by being too partial and limited in their selection of subjects and in their commentary upon them.

            I come away from this book, therefore, torn between enlightenment and annoyance. I note the concept of values is absent as it is in many works of sociology, because it would be wrong for the authors ever to get judgmental. There are only “narratives” that people tell themselves in order to “construct” their identities. Therefore there are few grounds for a real critique of such “narratives” as people tell themselves. Above all, though, I believe that many of the answers these young people give to interviewers express the same concerns (for family, for personal relationships, for belief systems, as well as for careers) that their parents or grandparents would have expressed in their day.

            Rogernomics has had an impact on their circumstances, but it is not the only thing that has moulded them.

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