Ruth, Roger, and Me

Ruth Roger and Me, by Andrew Dean

Published by Bridget Williams Books

Ruth, Roger and Me was a bit of a left field media sensation when it came out earlier this year. Andrew Dean, Rhodes scholar at Oxford, is an unlikely voice for the struggling youth of 2015. However, his reflections on the challenges faced by young people today, on growing up in Christchurch and Ashburton, and the impact of the neoliberal policies typified by Roger Douglas and Ruth Richardson are poignant and direct.

Dean doesn’t pull a lot of punches. His book seeks to examine the disenfranchisement of young people today and looks specifically at the “mother of all budgets”, released by National in 1991 in which welfare, healthcare and education all faced devastating cuts, clearly identifying it as a key turning point in the role of the state in New Zealand society. He places a lot of the blame on the policies of this era for the dramatic decrease in the standard of living of low income families, and the rapid growth of inequality which followed.

Dean breaks his analysis into two succinct root problems created by these policies. These two categories he calls “discomfort” and “disconnection”. Discomfort he describes as being the idea that deprivation and poverty is deemed (by the architects of neoliberalism) at worst a necessary evil, or at best, a positive incentive to get people to work harder to improve their conditions. This was reflected in cuts to welfare, the privatisation of state services and shifting the costs of education and healthcare from the state to the consumer. At a social level, this has taken the form of individualistic, “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” fetishism; disparaging those who fail to do so, regardless of circumstance; and socially sanctioned abuse of welfare recipients and the poor. Disconnection he describes as the systematic dismantling of social structures which encourage collective social identity, promoting instead disengagement from collective concerns in favour of individual gain. He relates this to the growing sense of disengagement from official politics, as represented through falling voter turnout and increased representation for parties which appeal to a “protest vote” without offering any actual policy.

He doesn’t ever use the word, but he describes exactly the Marxist theory of alienation. The problems this causes are articulated well, in language and with personal analogies familiar to many of us who grew up through the same period. So too does he describe the way that the ideals of the ruling class, which for the last 30 years have been neoliberal ideas, have been pushed upon working people. However, while his critiques of neoliberalism are powerful, he stops short of generalizing that criticism to capitalism as a whole. This leaves a lingering sense of a “paradise past” we need to return to, instead of advocating for a different future.

What sets this book apart, though, is that he takes these theories back to the very architects of the policies he identifies as being problematic. Candid and occasionally confrontational interviews with Ruth Richardson, and also Rod Carr (Vice Chancellor of Canterbury university, who oversaw a drastic overhaul of education there, as well as a key architect in the restructuring of the NZ healthcare system in the 90s), provide some stark insight into the minds of those who were responsible for the significant poverty inflicted on many working-class people. Roger Douglas is given a voice through contemporary quotes. The rhetorical style Dean uses allows Richardson and Carr to speak freely much of the time, revealing more than they might otherwise have chosen. Often these statements are allowed to hang without challenge, as self evidently damning.This was a slightly risky choice, as it assumes that their words are sufficient to hang themselves with. However, this forgets that every element of modern “common sense” defends and justifies their views. That said, his counterpoints, when made, were articulate and compelling, well illustrated with statistics and facts direct from publicly available data. While Carr at least indicates some remorse for his role in the damage done to many working people’s lives, Richardson is utterly unrepentant. The only problem with her policies, she argued, was that they weren’t pushed far enough: “Your words of discomfort, loss and disconnection”, she said, “don’t resonate with me at all”.

Being only a few years older than Dean myself, his personal reflections resonated strongly. The social tendencies and difficulties he noted in his youth were as true of South Auckland as they were of Ashburton. However, his conclusions felt like he was struggling to find clarity. The final chapter, Aroha, struggles with the limits of the very reformism which Richardson championed. The idealism of a more communal social spirit was not matched with concrete proposals for how this could be achieved. Like so many people seemingly wedded to the logic of capitalism, he seems unable to offer a real way forward. This work should be required reading for anyone interested in inequality and New Zealand society, especially those under 30 or so. But it needs to be paired with a theory for radical change – with strategy – if his words are to carry the weight they deserve.