Neoliberal New Zealand: no place for the poor

caringimageA few weeks ago a reader commented on my Facebook page: “where within the practice of neoliberalism is there room for caring for the poor?” The unfortunate answer is there is no space in neoliberalism for consideration for others. This is a depressing thought when we realise that neoliberalism is not only firmly established in New Zealand amongst our political decision makers, but regulates many of our own individual values and beliefs.

So what is neoliberalism? As a recent Guardian article pointed out, many of us are unable to define it despite the fact that it has been implicated in the global melt down of 2007-8; in child poverty; in the increasing gap between the rich and poor; in the rise of Donald Trump; and in Brexit. Neoliberalism is an ideology – a series of economic, social and political concepts that have come to be accepted as common sense in many parts of the western world including New Zealand. Generally speaking neoliberalism is associated with the relaxation of government restrictions in relation to economic policy. Neoliberalism promotes free trade, a free market and the reduction of government control over the economy (Harvey, 2005).

Although neoliberal ideas began developing and circulating at the end of World War Two, it wasn’t until the early 1980s when Ronald Regan became President in the United States and Margaret Thatcher Prime Minister in Britain, that these ideas began to be set in political doctrine around the world. The Fourth Labour Government, elected in 1984, introduced neoliberalism into New Zealand policy as it privatised state assets and reduced the role of the state in economic activity. The emphasis was on private enterprise in a free-market environment. Since that time neoliberal ideology has become firmly established as a common sense normative vision in this country. So established has it become, that a change of government will not dislodge its hold over policy-making: neoliberalism is held to be the right way – the only way to develop and manage New Zealand’s economic and social policy.

Neoliberalism relies on the assumption that all individuals in society should be, and indeed would want to be, financially independent. It takes for granted the economic self-interest of individuals operating within freely competitive markets. An emphasis on individual responsibility and competition is a central feature of this ideology. Individual responsibility means that we all willingly participate in the free-market supplying our labour and purchasing goods. This has obvious implications for those individuals who rely on welfare. As George Monbiot has written: “someone who is given wealth without providing labour in exchange is clearly evading the labour market, and guilty of evading their own individual responsibility to provide for themselves”. Obviously then, those who shirk their responsibility for market participation must be incentivised by the state to take part. As I wrote last week, this incentivizing entails reducing welfare payments to below the level of subsistence and attaching harsh conditions to the receipt of welfare. In a neoliberal society individuals need to accept predefined roles that maintain the natural order of the market. The government’s role in neoliberal welfare is limited to compelling people into these roles.

Under neoliberalism all interventions by the state – including welfare interventions – are assessed in terms of economic viability. In New Zealand it is now no longer possible to argue against economic progress as the goal of good leadership: this goal has become common sense as economic rationality has come to dominate all aspects of life. Every political and social decision is justified on the basis of whether or not it makes good economic sense. We hear a chorus of “we cannot afford the welfare state” which has led to its dismantling being justified in “cost benefit terms” (Foucault, 2008) and to future spending being rejected on the basis of non-affordability despite the growing numbers of New Zealanders living in poverty. The neoliberal economic argument as Johanna Oksala (2013 p.37) has argued, “has simply won in this governmental game of truth”.

Neoliberalism does not just determine policy; it also shapes the way we think about that policy. We have accepted the dismantling of the welfare state as responsibility for welfare has shifted from the government to the individual. Those in poverty are to blame for their situation. Individual responsibility means that if someone cannot provide for themselves or their family this is clearly their own fault. If they do not have skills that can be exchanged in the labour market or have children who they cannot feed, they must have made poor choices: they did not take advantage of their educational opportunities or had more children than they could afford to provide for. There is only a focus on success or failure seen in terms of an individual’s efforts or talents. There is no recognition of individual circumstances, of disability, of class, race or gender privilege. Structural inequalities are reinterpreted as individual problems and these are subsumed by an individual’s responsibility to participate in the market.

Those of us who do succeed (or at least survive) in this system, helped along by circumstance and any number of unnamed privileges, have stopped noticing the focus on unfettered individualism and competitiveness that has come to dominate our way of life. Neoliberalism has slowly displaced our compassion, our willingness to share resources, and our concern for others. It has become common sense to assess our actions and those of others in economic terms. We have become impatient with those who cannot participate in the market: why should our taxpayer dollars help them out? Success depends on hard work, and responsibility for success lies with the individual. Our sense of social responsibility has lessened and in the process dissolved important social bonds. Individualism has diminished our sense of social obligation and as it has disappeared it has been replaced by a disdain for the provision of public goods and services.

So in answer to the question posed at the beginning of this post – the poor have no place in a system that assesses all aspects of life in terms of economical rationality, and is buoyed by belief that success is solely the result of individual effort rather than structural privilege. Recently Paul Verhaeghe claimed “neoliberalism has brought out the worst in us” and it’s difficult not to agree.


Foucault, M., & Senellart, M. (2008). The birth of biopolitics: Lectures at the Collège de France, 1978-79. New York : Palgrave Macmillan

Harvey, D. (2005). A brief history of neoliberalism Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Oksala, J. (2013). Feminism and neoliberal governmentality. Foucault Studies, (16), 32-53.

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  1. Pingback: Why are we running around for these people? – Benefit of the Doubt

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