Your dead are buried, ours are reborn
You clean up the ashes while we light the fire
They’re queuing up to dance on socialism’s grave
– The Mekons, This Funeral is for the Wrong Corpse (1999)
‘The end of history’ was a phrase that came to dominate Western political discourse following the summer of 1989. It signaled the era’s growing anxieties. The essay from which it derived—penned by the Japanese-American political scientist Francis Fukuyama—presented a take on the social and political upheaval that had gripped much of the world and left many in a state of shock. (1) Liberal democracy, Fukuyama argued, had triumphed in the great ideological battle between east and west, Left and Right—but without extinguishing the crudely imbalanced conflicts, volatile factionalism and subterfuge that give much of political life its dizzying uncertainty. “The End of History?” was published by The National Interest in its summer 1989 issue. A few months later the Berlin Wall fell. It looked as though Fukuyama’s prognosis was reaching its moment of fulfilment as the world witnessed the fall of the Left.
In Aotearoa New Zealand, the late 1980s and early 1990s gave rise to our own unsettling pivot and our very own ‘end of history’. It is from the morass of local turn-of-the-decade politics that 1991, a recent moving-image work by Aotearoa-based artist Tim Wagg, gains impetus. It presents—with stunning clarity—the warped and barbarous logic at the heart of neoliberalism, to convey just how a country once revered for its egalitarianism came to be a paragon of right-wing economic reform and a haven for the elite. (2)
The disembodied voice of 1991’s central character, Ruth Richardson (Finance Minister, 1990-1993), animates an assemblage of high-definition shots of her home. Richardson “celebrate[s] the individual” she tells us, confidently extolling the virtues of selfishness by another name. And as she goes on to express her desire to “unleash the dynamic that individual talent brings to the table” the camera pans over a set of exercise machines, one of which bears the Tour de France logo. Here the visual and the verbal coincide to suggest how neoliberalism and the world’s most (in)famous cycling fraternity similarly demand that we suspend our disbelief to partake in their fictions of honest and fair competition. And just as the withering polemicist Christopher Hitchens once dismissed Fukuyama’s work as ‘self-congratulation raised to the status of philosophy’, (3) Richardson, too, might be accused of a similar smugness.
In his book The End of History and the Last Man (1992) Fukuyama followed on from his essay, asserting that humankind’s ideological evolution had reached its peak through the ‘triumph of the West, [and] the Western idea’. (4) (Notice how the title—sans question mark—had, by that stage, become a declarative statement.) This, he argued, was evident ‘in the total exhaustion of viable systematic alternatives to Western liberalism.’ (5) As he acknowledged, his was not an altogether novel proposition but an inversion of Marx’s idea that ‘the direction of historical development was a purposeful one’, destined to ‘come to an end only with the achievement of a communist utopia that would finally resolve all prior contradictions.’ (6) Indeed, an end point had been reached but—contrary to Marx’s prediction—that end point was capitalism.
For Wagg, a child of the 1990s, born less than two months before the delivery of Richardson’s budget, this foray into documentary is a means of engaging with a contested form whose history closely aligns with the questioning of ‘truth’ in literary and philosophical realms. (The aspersions cast by postmodernism on documentary as a genre are, perhaps, most noteworthy in this regard.) (7) For many non-fiction image-makers, contemporary art’s ‘documentary turn’ offered a much-needed reflexive subjectivism lacking in so-called traditional documentary. The form began to embrace its own failure as an objective, evidentiary tool that guaranteed its viewers anything beyond the facticity of its own existence. (8) It is therefore fitting to have 1991’s fragmented and discontinuous shots making manifest one of the most pernicious fictions of our time: that of neoliberalism’s success and sustainability (as told by one of its fiercest proponents).
Unsurprisingly, Richardson and another former Finance Minister, Roger Douglas, have become two of the greatest figureheads of ‘80s and ‘90s, supplying New Zealand’s history books with the symbolic characters we so desperately desire. (9) As we lurch from one epoch to another we search for momentous ruptures. And in constructing their tragic and triumphant emblems, we often neglect history’s longue durée, with its subtle continuities and recurring conceits. So the defeat of collectivist ideals in Aotearoa is seen as one located in the neoliberal reforms of the 1980s and early 1990s, a period said to mark the dissolution of a once-great ‘social-democratic paradise’. (10) That this little island nation has—since the arrival of the first colonisers—witnessed the erosion of Māori rangatiratanga (sovereignty) is thus neglected. Many on the Left opt, with insouciant short-sightedness, for a non-identitarian narrative around the defeat of working class solidarity. (11) Yet all tauiwi (non-Māori) who pine, unadvisedly, for the days of free education and unionism, might do well to recall that late capitalism is an exacerbation of a long-standing struggle. That this struggle is, today, as underpinned by distinctions of race as it is by gender and class divisions is a fact worthy of our constant reaffirmation.
“Neoliberalism: Oversold?” is the title that sent ripples across much of the English-speaking world in June 2016. (12) The paper for which it served as a heading, penned by a trio of prominent economists from the International Monetary Fund (IMF), presents an admission of neoliberalism’s shortcomings—an acknowledgement whose shock lies less in its content and more in its provenance. And so, with these ideological failures all but confirmed what will become of the Ruth Richardsons of our world? Those amongst us who once sought to expose the machinations, obfuscations and relentless sleights of hand in their philosophies find ourselves confronted by just how little there is to reveal since theirs is, quite simply, a blithe disregard for capitalism’s barbarity. As for Fukuyama’s prognosis and his attempt to preclude alternative, anti-capitalist futures, the Mekons offer us these words as a rejoinder:
But how can something really be dead when it hasn’t even happened?
(2) See Max Rashbrooke, “How New Zealand’s Rich-Poor Divide Killed its Egalitarian Paradise,” The Guardian, 12 December 2014, https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2014/dec/12/how-new-zealands-rich-poor-divide-killed-its-egalitarian-paradise; Branko Marcetic, “New Zealand’s Neoliberal Drift,” 15 March 2017, https://www.jacobinmag.com/2017/03/new-zealand-neoliberalism-inequality-welfare-state-tax-haven.
(3) James Atlas, “What is Fukuyama Saying and to Whom is He Saying It?” New York Times, October 22, 1989. http://www.nytimes.com/1989/10/22/magazine/what-is-fukuyama-saying-and-to-whom-is-he-saying-it.html
(4) “The End of History?” 3.
(6) Ibid., 4. The idea of history as a dialectical process with a beginning, a middle, and an end was one taken up by Marx from the German philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (1770-1831).
(7) See Erika Balsom, “The Reality-Based Community,” e-flux journal #83 June 2017, http://www.e-flux.com/journal/83/142332/the-reality-based-community/
(8) Ibid. The film scholar Erika Balsom suggests the ensuing crisis from postmodernism’s critiques of the genre became a catalyst for the emergence of ‘new documentary’, which responded to ‘epistemological uncertainty by turning to reflexivity, artifice, and performativity’, all the while ‘foreground[ing] the construction of contingent truths.’
(9) Roger Douglas (Finance Minister, 1984-1988); Ruth Richardson (Finance Minister, 1990-1993).
(10) First under the Labour Party and subsequently under the National Party’s rule Aotearoa New Zealand introduced neoliberal reforms on unprecedented scales. Controls on wages, prices, rents and interest rates were all done away with; finance markets were deregulated, and restrictions on foreign investment were either slackened or removed altogether. The welfare system was overhauled in ‘particularly swift and severe’ ways. In 1986, Labour slashed the tax rate for high-incomes and introduced a goods-and-services tax (GST). This change effectively hiked taxes on low- and middle-income earners, given that they spend a larger proportion of their wages on consumption. In 1991, legislation was introduced to eliminate many hard-won labour reforms that protected the rights of workers such as compulsory union membership and compulsory employer-employee bargaining. Branko Marcetic, “New Zealand’s Neoliberal Drift,” Jacobin, 15 March 2017. http://www.jacobinmag.com/2017/03/new-zealand-neoliberalism-inequality-welfare-state-tax-haven
(11) For a cogent argument against the myth of an identitarian and non-identitarian Left, see Uday Jain, “White Marxism: A Critique of Jacobin Magazine,” New Socialist (11/08/17). http://newsocialist.org.uk/white-marxism-critique/
(12) Davide Furceri, Prakash Loungani, Jonathan D. Ostry, “Neoliberalism: Oversold?” Finance and Development 53, no. 2 (June 2016): 38-41.
Tendai John Mutambu is a Zimbabwean-born curator and writer based in Ngāmotu (New Plymouth) on the western coast of Aotearoa New Zealand. He is Assistant...