Rhetoric and reality

I’ve been noticing an unusual phenomenon over the past few weeks – National MPs drawing attention to the plight of the poor, the greed of corporates and the illusory nature of private property.  Are we living in an upside down world?

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It all started when I found myself in the unusual position of agreeing with Paula Bennett on the plight of poor beneficiaries.

Bennett drew attention to “absolutely sub-standard” yet “well over priced” housing, and landlords taking advantage of vulnerable people who couldn’t find housing elsewhere.  She asked such landlords to “have a good look at themselves”, provide housing they’d live in themselves, and show a good Kiwi “element of fairness”.  She even said she was looking at ways of “helping people towards home ownership”.

The funniest part about the whole thing is that she was responding to comments by Annette King on the accommodation supplement… so we have Labour criticising the welfare state and National pointing the finger at the propertied elite.

Of course, Bennett’s rhetoric falls flat when we remember that her party is entirely sold out to an economic system and worldview where the propertied are the good guys, individual self-interest is the universal incentive, and any fairness or concern for others is an optional extra.

So in criticising a few ‘bad apples’ among landlords, she’s actually endorsing the ideal of a ‘good landlord’, charging fair rates to their poor tenants even while getting filthy rich off them.

And any vague attempts to “help people towards home ownership” will be upstream rowing at best so long as they rule out ever taxing the proceeds of owning other people’s homes.

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A similar phenomenon happened the other day with Gerry Brownlee pointing the finger at private insurance companies for avoiding and delaying pay-outs in quake-hit Christchurch.  Although risk management/status quo protection is something that “the private sector claims it can do so particularly well”, Brownlee points out that it’s failing to do so – in fact, EQC, of all Kafkaesque government bureaucracies, is doing far better.

But is he really doubting the National party line that everything is better when owned and operated by private profit-maximisers?

When we look at another instance where the private sector is failing Christchurch, housing, his response was considerably different: Let the market sort it out.

So what’s the difference?  Well, firstly, as the minister in charge of EQC, Brownlee has a horse in the race.  But it’s also interesting that in an insurance crisis, it’s the property owners that suffer, and he’s taking umbrage.  But in the housing crisis, only the poor and ordinary people suffer, while the rental property owners prosper – and Brownlee can only see positives there.

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The worst example of this phenomenon, of course, has been John Key’s recent refrain that “nobody owns water”.

Key’s arrogance has reached new heights in this casual dismissal of traditional, Treaty-enshrined Māori rights.  Like a dog to its vomit, the Māori Party have returned to the fold after an assurance that National won’t legislate against Māori rights or claims – but you don’t need to legislate against something if you’re just going to use your legal prerogative to ignore it.

But Key’s use of the phrase “nobody owns water” to misrepresent Māori water claims is just as bad.

He’s portraying Māori as money-grabbing “opportunists” trying to take a vital natural resource away from ordinary New Zealanders, by referencing what we all instinctively know – that it’s wrong to be selfish and greedy, that nobody can really ‘own’ what belongs to everyone/nature/God, that property is ultimately theft because the world is everybody’s and nobody’s, etc etc.

But once again the reality belies the rhetoric when we see that he is using this line of thinking to dismiss Māori stewardship of public waterways, so that he can smoothly transfer hydro-electricity generation into the private hands of rich investors.

The fact is, the selfish opportunists are the very people National holds up as our role models, and the very people to whom they want to sell our power companies.  Key affecting an opposition to private property is a joke.  His party thinks everything should be private property – including water when it suits.

As Tim Selwyn put it, “Interesting how the Nats suddenly start espousing anarcho-socialism when Māori property rights are involved!”

In reality, as Tapu Misa eloquently explains, Māori rights surrounding water are far more in keeping with these anarcho-socialist ideals than the Pākehā/capitalist concept of private property.  Māori “ownership” means caretaking and free public use of everything that National wants to carve up, commodify and sell to the highest bidder.

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The consistent thread in all these stories is the way that National are co-opting quasi-socialist rhetoric to further their capitalist causes.

It’s hilarious, as well as worrying, that while the Labour leadership are still scared of sounding too much like a Labour party, even National can see the populist appeal in leftist language and the universals of fairness and co-operation it touches upon.

To paraphrase Slavoj Žižek, the only proper reply to such shrewd ideological manipulation is: “if you really believe in social justice and sharing the world, then why are you doing what you are doing?

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2 comments

  1. Pingback: Malcolm X was right about house negroes and about the media « Cut Your Hair
  2. Pingback: Landlord, local MP, regional czar, next-door-neighbour-to-my-doctor, guy-who-took-a-photo-of-me-once | Cut Your Hair

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