Peter Skilling on inequality & market ‘realism’: Why do we want what we’ve got?

Public opinion surveys in New Zealand and elsewhere show that most people are concerned about existing levels of economic inequality. The same surveys, however, show a much lower level of support for policies and parties that promise to reduce inequality (especially where there is any mention of increased taxation as part of a response). These findings were confirmed in focus groups that I convened to explore public attitudes towards inequality and redistribution.

Participants in these focus groups – when asked individually – expressed an overwhelming preference for a more equal distribution of income. These same people, however – when engaged in discussion – were easily convinced that the ‘reality of the market’ made their preference for greater equality impossible.

Witness this exchange between Jessica and Roger (names changed), where Jessica was arguing that low-paid workers should be paid more:

Jessica: I believe [paying everyone well] is the responsibility of the company, I think every fair-minded business should look after its people…

Roger: … The wages that a person gets for the job they do, in my view, is simply governed by the laws of supply and demand, and there’s a million people who can be cleaners, and very, very few who can be CEOs, and that’s what governs the money that those people get. If there’s very few, they’re worth a lot more, if there’s very many, they’re worth a lot less.

Jessica: You mean they’re valued less.

Roger: Well it’s the law of supply and demand, it’s a basic law.

Jessica: It’s unfortunate.

Roger: It is unfortunate, but it’s the truth.

It’s unfortunate, but it’s the truth. Exchanges such as this suggest that we ought to be careful when we hear simplistic assertions that neoliberalism constitutes the hegemonic common sense of our times. They show that neoliberal ideology, and its understanding of unequal outcomes as the natural result of unequal contribution, has not been enthusiastically embraced at any conscious-cognitive level.

What we see – more minimally – is simply the resigned acceptance that there is no alternative to the free market and whatever outcomes it delivers. In the famous quote associated with Frederic Jameson, Slavoj Žižek and Mark Fisher, “It is easier to imagine the end of the world than it is to imagine the end of capitalism.”

“Neoliberal ideology has not been enthusiastically embraced at any conscious-cognitive level.”

Consider here the thoughts of three other focus group participants on the huge discrepancies between the incomes of high-paid and low-paid workers:

Anne: That is done by the market, and you can’t change that.

Julian: I wish we could bring it down, globally, but it’s impossible.

George: It’s market driven, so we’ve got no control over that.

This situation – where many people are unhappy with the way that things currently are, but where they feel powerless to change the things they dislike – is precisely, literally depressing. This is the state that Mark Fisher (2009) describes as “reflexive impotence”, where our belief that we “can’t do anything about it” is not merely a “passive observation” of reality, but a “self-fulfilling prophecy”.

What was most interesting in the focus groups was the supreme confidence of those who most strongly articulated the ‘market realist’ position. In each of the three groups, a strong majority of participants (typically nine out of ten) expressed a desire for a more equal distribution of income. In each group, only one participant declared themselves comfortable with existing levels of inequality.

Despite knowing themselves to be in the (numerical) minority, these market realists spoke calmly and authoritatively. In each case, their body language expressed their assurance that they were simply stating the truth. On the other side of the discussion, those participants who argued most strongly against existing levels of inequality spoke tentatively, and their body language expressed their sense of vulnerability, despite knowing that they were articulating views apparently shared by a strong majority in the room. As Wendy Brown (2015) observes, within neoliberal societies those who refuse to accept the truth of the market are seen as refusing reality itself.

Again, free markets – and their attendant inequality – were not enthusiastically embraced here. Rather, there was a grudging, resigned acceptance that they were simply an unchangeable reality. There is a great puzzle here: why does this grudging acceptance persist? Why are people so easily convinced that the progressive change they desire is not possible?

“Within neoliberal societies those who refuse to accept the truth of the market are seen as refusing reality itself.”

There are many possible answers to these questions. A full answer would consider the ways that the institutions within which we live – the education system, the labour market, the welfare system – shape our desires, fears and expectations. It would also consider the psychology of legitimation. The phenomenon of system justification names the deep psychological drive to accept and justify the existing social order.

As Lissa Johnson explains, “Believing in the existing social, economic and political order helps people to feel safe and secure… connected to others through a sense of shared reality… [and it asserts] that life holds coherence and meaning.” It is, therefore, psychologically easier for people to see inequality as an unfortunate event, or as an individual failing, rather than as a symptom of a fundamentally unjust system.

Indeed, many focus group respondents offered individualised explanations for income inequalities:

Stanley: Different people have different aspirations for their life. Some people want a nice, normal low-key aspiration for their life, and others want to get ahead.

Stella: If we choose not to get paid NZD 17/hour, if we see ourselves as a NZD 20/hour person, then we’ll drive ourselves, as individuals we slot ourselves where we value ourselves.

(Note that Stanley and Stella both believed that low-paid workers should be paid more.)

In fact, no-one in the three focus groups attempted to construct a structural argument that the labour market was systematically biased against the poor and – specifically, in this case – against low-paid workers. This was true even though several individuals had, in earlier one-on-one interviews, expressed sympathy for such a view.

It may be, then, that many people were so easily persuaded by the market realist position because they simply did not have a language with which to express their desire for their preferred alternative. It is clearly salient here that arguments against the free market – arguments, for instance, that labour tends to systematically exploited by capital, given their asymmetries of power – have lost a prominent voice over the past three decades.

“It may be that many people simply did not have a language with which to express their desire for their preferred alternative.”

From the 1990s, and in line with similar parties in other western democracies, the New Zealand Labour Party adopted a so-called Third Way stance built on the denial of antagonisms (see Mouffe): the Third Way, for example, asserts that the goals of economic and social development, are not in tension with each other, but rather “go hand in hand.”

Labour, the party of organised labour, thus came to accept that social objectives such as equality and opportunity depended on economic growth and business-friendly policies. In the absence of a viable alternative political vision, the neoliberal mantra of TINA (there is no alternative) became a self-fulfilling reality.

All of this suggests that there is a latent appetite for a politician or a party articulating a clear case that another way is indeed possible. Indeed, when Jacinda Ardern took on the leadership of the Labour Party in August 2017, her case for change – including an explicit focus on inequality, and an explicit repudiation of neoliberalism – drastically increased Labour’s popularity and ultimately saw them win government.

During the campaign, however, Ardern’s message of hope was almost immediately opposed by the evocation of fear: Ardern was said to be untested, and Labour in favour of a range of new taxes. These criticisms – and broader concerns about the acceptability of certain policy proposals – led to significant moments of compromise and ambivalence within Labour’s campaign. In a subsequent post, I consider why National’s fear-based attack ads were so effective, and what it would take for a clear alternative to market realism to become politically feasible.

Peter Skilling is a Senior Lecturer in Management at the Auckland University of Technology and a member of the New Zealand Work Research Institute.