New Zealand, the distant paradise, has resemblances to Nazi Germany

Mark Webster
Jan 4, 2017 · 9 min read

New Zealand neoliberalism has resemblances to Germany 1933–1945

The article ‘Urban Poverty, Structural Violence and Welfare Provision for 100 Families in Auckland’ detailed evidence of similarities between work practices at Work and Income New Zealand (WINZ) and the beliefs and practices of German bureaucracy 1933–1945. Neoliberalism, the guiding philosophy behind the state agency policy of the current New Zealand government, bears disquieting resemblances to a regime that took millions of lives and spread destruction on an unprecedented scale.

Defining Neoliberalism

Neoliberalism arose in 1947 from a meeting in Switzerland attended by economists including Friedrich Hayek and Milton Friedman (Princeton University Press, p.4). Since then, people have found neoliberalism hard to define, but liberalism (from which neoliberalism took the second half of its name) centred on the notion that the market should set prices for products and services. Under neoliberalism, this was expanded so that market forces decide the outcome of non-market concerns too: neoliberalism was expected to regulate physical, cultural and social activity as if it could be ‘priced’ as a commodity or service.

Neoliberalism is “masked by a lot of rhetoric about individual freedom, liberty, personal responsibility and the virtues of privatisation, the free market and free trade” (Harvey, 2010, p.10) but has actually served to centralise wealth and power, increasing inequality. This has been true in New Zealand over the last two decades, where “the incomes of the top 10 per cent of income earners increased annually by an average of 2.5 per cent. The bottom 10 per cent had annual average increases in income of just 1.1 per cent.” Those officially considered as “living in poverty increased from 6 per cent to 12 per cent” (Hodgetts, Chamberlain, Groot and Tankel, 2014, pages 2036–2037). Neoliberal states have enacted practices that favoured “strong private property rights, the rule of law, and the institutions of freely functioning markets and free trade” (David Harvey, p188, 2005). In New Zealand, neoliberalism is reflected in laws governing employment relations, taxation and access to core services and in stronger protection of property rights and enclosure.

Germany 1933–1945

The German form of Fascism which took power in 1933 as the Third Reich was a body of political and economic doctrines instigated and led by Adolf Hitler, propelled by a huge financial decline which created widespread societal and political destabilisation. The philosophy included the principle of totalitarian government and a belief in eugenics in which the Germanic peoples were assumed to be racially superior to everyone else. German state control by the National Socialist (or ‘Nazi’) Party resulted in global war, widespread destruction and suffering, millions of deaths and systematic subjugation and persecution. In its last stages it included genocide against targeted groups (Timothy Snyder, 2015, and as documented by many othes).

Any hint of New Zealand’s core policies having similarities with Nazi policies is cause for concern. Nazism scapegoated Jews and other minority groups, including the intellectually challenged, certain Christian denominations and those who were believed to be ‘work-shy’. It targeted gypsies, Communists, Socialists, Anarchists and the LGBT community: anyone, in other words, considered unrepresentative of idealised Germans. These groups were ‘problems’ the Nazi regime had to deal with. Defining and demonising problem groups is one of the areas where New Zealand governmental policy towards beneficiaries bears comparison, as I shall discuss.

New Zealand neoliberalism and German Fascism

Philosophically, similarities already exist between neoliberal and Third Reich theory. Competition was the cornerstone of Nazism based on the theories of natural selection formulated by Charles Darwin in the preceding century. These beliefs had permeated political thought to the point that Hitler was far from alone in believing some people were superior to others and should be in positions of overlordship. As Hitler wrote in Mein Kampf, “the weak were to be dominated by the strong” (Snyder, 2015 p22), so that through competition, “the strongest will be destined to fulfil the great mission” for Nature itself “leaves these diverse groups to compete with one another and dispute the palm of victory”. Neoliberal theorists have claimed that unrestricted competition, driven by self-interest, leads to innovation and economic growth. In a discussion of neoliberalism, Monbiot stated “The war of every man against every man — competition and individualism, in other words — is the religion of our time.” (Monbiot, 2016, p10). Competition pits one group against another and demands not just winners, but losers — the more losers, the greater the benefits reaped by the winners. If there’s any cause to wonder from whence inequality has increased dramatically in almost every Western Democracy over the last four decades, this gun was loaded by the neoliberal theorists influcencing national and international bodies.

The totalitarianism of the National Socialist Party, perhaps surprisingly, also has a philosophical commonality with neoliberal theorists, since neoliberalism is also profoundly suspicious of democracy. In neoliberalism, as with extreme right-wing governments, “Governance by majority rule is seen as a potential threat to individual rights and constitutional liberties” (David Harvey, 2005, p.166).

To be sure, there are clear differences between Nazism and neoliberalism — the militarism of Nazism is not embraced by neoliberals, apart from its attraction as a profitable industry to mine — but the systems of Nazism had structural similarities to present-day neoliberal practices in New Zealand. In New Zealand, beneficiaries are subjected to a deluge of bureaucratic requirements that emphasise helplessness, that dehumanise and which monopolise valuable time. Anyone needing the assistance of Work and Income New Zealand (WINZ) has to go from office to office gathering up the results of a paper trai, using up their time, energy and resources (Hodgetts, Chamberlain, Groot and Tankel 2014, p.2042). As Nazi bureaucrat Adolf Eichmann recounted at his post-war trial, Jews and other victim-groups of the Nazi regime had problems beyond general public persecution and vilification. For example, if they tried to escape Nazi-controlled territory through official channels, then “the chief difficulty lay in the number of papers every immigrant had to assemble” (Arendt, 1963, p.14). Jews seeking anything from the Nazi regime found themselves going “from counter to counter, from office to office, and comes out at the other end without any money, without any rights …” (Eichmann testimony, cited by Arendt 1963, p.15). The effects are the same: forced to undergo time consuming and wasteful processes designed to systematically sap them of their will to proceed, underscoring society’s fostered vilification of them as people wasting time and not ‘prepared to work’, despite high unemployment.

WINZ, along with other New Zealand state agencies, obscures its actions behind euphemisms and jargon. The mechanisms of Nazism engendered a bureaucracy in which faceless officials moved numbers around as if they did not represent humans. In Nazi bureaucracy, euphemism was used as a mask to hide the human reality: “the law and most of the internal bureaucratic correspondence avoided the word Jew” (Timothy Snyder, 2015 p227). In the language of the Nazis, ‘special treatment’ (Sonderbehandlung) meant execution; anti-Jewish actions were described as being undertaken ‘against bandits’ and Jews in the genocidal systems were referred to as Stücke: bits, or pieces. In neoliberal New Zealand, beneficiaries are euphemistically referred to as ‘clients’ as if they are somehow purchasing services and taking part in the market, which couldn’t be further from the truth: they are objects of antipathy: recipients of state charity.

The prewar German state sought to ‘other’ its intended victims by stigmatising them to depress any feelings of sympathy other citizens might manifest towards them. A similar approach is ascribed to the current New Zealand government’s policies in the 100 Families Study: welfare dependency is characterised as a “personal deficit” and seen as “maladjusted behaviour” (Hodgetts, Chamberlain, Groot and Tankel, 2014, p.2037), emphasising how beneficiaries don’t fit within the idealised neoliberal picture of how New Zealanders ought to be.

Punitively, the 100 Families Study outlined WINZ’s strategies of restricting rights to “cohabitate, move home or engage in certain forms of work or recreation. These processes of bonding come to embody violent relations through disciplinary technologies of monitoring, regulation, management and control of the poor by state institutions” (Hodgetts, Chamberlain, Groot and Tankel, 2014, p.2039). This statement would serve as an accurate description of the Nazi policy of diminution and ‘othering’ that eventuated in the ability to send so many Jews and others to their deaths while the general public ‘failed’ to notice. Up to this point, the intended victims had been progressively dehumanised: “Edict after edict stripped us of our most basic rights” (Eva Slonim, 2014, p.44). The Nazi government converted long-standing racism and resentment towards Jews into support for a German ascendency over Europe.

A strong thread of victim-blaming characterises neoliberalism: personal failure is attributed to personal failings. Many of the participants in the 100 Families’ study detailed personal ridicule, criticism of their behaviour and ignoring of needs and control in their dealings with WINZ. Client relationships with WINZ were “routinely described as unequal, disrespectful and abusive” while “Hardship is exacerbated by a cynical non-response to material and psychological needs of families” (Hodgetts, Chamberlain, Groot and Tankel, 2014 p2046). Hitler would have understood this suppression of empathy in the service of a segregationist philosophy: “Ultimately this struggle, which is often so hard, kills all pity”, he wrote in Mein Kampf (Marrus, 1987, p.13).

While eugenics is not a stated notion of neoliberalism, New Zealand state policies achieve something similar. Anti-beneficiary measures devolve onto the poor, who are represented unequally by culture. In the 100 Families Study, those studied over one year reflect the unequal distribution of those in need: of the 100, 40% identified as Māori, 25% as Pacifica, 13% as Asian and other minority groups. Just 22% of those in the study group identified as European, yet it is by far the largest single cultural group in New Zealand (74% in the 2013 census http://www.stats.govt.nz/Census/2013-census/profile-and-summary-reports/quickstats-about-national-highlights/cultural-diversity.aspx).

Tension between taxpayers and welfare beneficiaries has been deliberately fostered and converted explicitly into racial antagonism by the New Zealand government via the media under which, in part, a “neurotic ‘fantasy’ of a savage Māori welfare underclass was used to manage citizens’ anxiety” (Hackell, 2016, p.868). The “government was able to transform long-standing racism and resentment towards Māori into support for its neoliberal agenda” (Hackell, 2016 p.874).

Conclusion

The individuals charged with enacting Neoliberal policies at the interface between those needing the help of New Zealand social agencies may not think of themselves as acting as agents of neoliberalism, and certainly not of Nazism. Yet the labyrinthine bureaucracies they work within help mask the human ignominies they’re supposed to be alleviating. These same structures make personal moral decisions by civil servants hard, if not impossible, to enact. This is the ‘structural violence’ that Hodgetts, Chamberlain, Groot and Tankel repeatedly reference in their 2014 study in which the workplace structure, jargon, budgets and workplace directives effectively sideline, if not preclude, any personal moral agency on the part of WINZ workers.

Clearly, WINZ is not doing the same thing as Eichmann: shuffling papers and numbers representing humans destined for death camps. But more than the first steps have been taken to implement an official structure along similar lines to the regime of Nazi Germany. Apart from any evidential results of increased inequality due the rise of what Thomas Picketty calls the ‘rentier’ class (Picketty, 2014, first on page 264) and other actual problems, the parallels outlined above should give all New Zealanders cause to consider if this is a political and societal path we are comfortable to tread.

(With thanks to Peri Chapelle for notes and edits.)

References and sources

(Note: page numbers in iBooks change depending on text size and screen size of the device viewed on, but you can type in a phrase and go to that point in the text instantly.)

Arendt, H; Eichmann and the Holocaust (2005), Penguin Books (excerpted from articles first published in 1963).

Hackell, M; Managing anxiety: neoliberal modes of citizen subjectivity, fantasy and child abuse in New Zealand, (2016_) from Citizenship Studies, Routledge, Taylor and Francis Group.

Hodgetts D, Chamberlain K, Groot S and Tankel Y (2014) Urban Poverty, Structural Violence and Welfare Provision for 100 Families in Auckland, from journal Urban Studies (from a paper first received February 2013; in final form July 2013).

Harvey, D (2005) A Brief History of Neoliberalism, Oxford University Press (iBooks version).

Harvey, D (2010) The Enigma of Capital and the Crisis of Capitalism, Profile Books.

Marrus, M R (1987) The Holocaust in History, Penguin Books.

Monbiot, G (2016) How Did We Get Into This Mess? Politics, Equality, Nature, Verso Books.

Picketty, T (2014) Capitol in the 21st Century, the Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.

Slonim, E (2014) Gazing at the Stars: Memories of a Child Survivor, published by Black Inc (an imprint of Schwarz Publishing Pty Ltd Australia; iBooks edition)

Snyder, T (2015) Black Earth: The Holocaust as History and Warning, The Bodley Head, (iBooks Edition).

Additional reading:

Duhaime’s Law Dictionary description of Nazism retrieved from http://www.duhaime.org/LegalDictionary

Heynen, N; McCarthy, J; Prudham S and Robbins, P (2007) editors of Neoliberal Environments: False promises and unnatural consequences, Routledge (Massey University Library)

Merriam-Webster Dictionary (online) http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/Nazism.

Taylor D and Grey, S (2014) From Class-Struggle to Neoliberal Narratives: Redistributive movements in Aotearoa/New Zealand, New Zealand Sociology (online).

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Mark Webster

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New Zealand historian, publisher and tech writer