Auckland Council officials have prevailed. We’ve had the noise and fury of our profligate city council flailing round to produce a balanced financial budget and its agenda to 1. sell off airport shares that have tripled in value within the last decade and 2. paid council coffers $40 million in dividends. For no reason except that capitalism demanded it.
The ongoing capital gains of the airport legacy investment – from $600 million to $2 billion – in vital city infrastructure will now go to offshore investors. Moving right along, officials are now touting more untrustworthy budgets while making no visible economies within its burgeoning middle bureaucracy services.
What is driving this awful show that we have to surrender civic assets built up over generations? Where are the promises for better financial transparency? Is there no enquiry as to who is responsible for some extraordinarily poor accounting practices, to say the least?
As any small business owner knows, sooner or later, the rule that ‘If you cannot measure it, you cannot manage it’ comes to the forefront. The city council is run by a revolving door of senior executives answerable to a single chief executive officer. The mayor is hardly in the loop. And nor, increasingly, are the citizens.
Ordinary families on Waiheke are having trouble putting food on the table and many are forced to consider leaving because of rampant costs in a land of plenty.
Who is there to care when the council’s revenue stream from parking fines increases ten-fold in the middle of a bank-made recession? Or Fullers announces price rises enormous enough to kill the island’s carefully curated visitor industry? Or when council starts wanting a further visitor levy of $15.
What is the deeper motivation wired into the capitalist imperative for growth, economic anthropologist Jason Hickel asks in his 2020 book Less is more: How degrowth will save the world.
In 16th century Europe, 11,000 years of agrarian human history was replaced by a new world view that saw man as separate and ‘external’ from nature – land, soils, forests, mountains – but also the bodies of human beings themselves.
“In order to generate profits for growth, capital seeks to appropriate nature as cheaply as possible – and ideally for free,” said Hickel. “The elite’s seizure of Europe’s commons after 1500 [AD] can be seen as a massive, uncompensated appropriation of nature.
“So too was colonisation, when Europeans grabbed huge swathes of the global south; vastly more land and resources than Europe itself contained. Silver and gold from South America, land for cotton and sugar in the Caribbean, Indian forests for fuel and shipbuilding and, during the scramble for Africa after 1885, diamonds, rubber, cocoa, coffee and countless other commodities.”
All of this was appropriated virtually for free, in the sense that they didn’t pay for it, and also that they gave nothing back, said Hickel. “There was no gesture of reciprocity with the land. It was pure extraction; pure theft.”
Enclosure and industrialisation also harnessed the hidden labour power of the lower classes, while in the colonies, indigenous communities that saw the world and its mountains, rivers, animals, plants and the sentient land as alive were a threat.
Such animist world views were seen by Europe’s elites as an obstacle to capitalism and to be eradicated.
Amsel Rothschild, in 1838, wrote that few would understand the new system and the great body of people, mentally incapable of understanding its tremendous advantages, “will bear its burden without complaint and, perhaps, without even suspecting that the system is inimical to their interests”.
Heckel images capital as a virus, a piece of self-replicating genetic code with the sole aim of replicating itself and creating, not profit as such, but more capital. “All that it counts is rampant growth.”
More picturesquely, he also coined the image of planetary capital as an insatiable monster with flailing tentacles lurching out greedily as each phase of extraction was exhausted, from the enclosures and dispossession of working classes to industrialisation and colonisation to 20th century capitalism driven by oil and corporate profits and tech advances.
In the 1980s, the disgraceful sales of public assets and corporate raiding arrived with cold precision, to turn an essentially agrarian New Zealand with virtually no debt and a strong manufacturing economy into one dependent on financial services. When the family silver, the family farms and the public assets were gone, 30 years of stagnant wages kept us worried and cash-strapped while the next, insatiable tentacle of Hickel’s monster filched the country’s housing stock.
Our airport shares were something of a talisman, a sign that we still had destiny over our city. Footage of the deeply divided council chamber as the issue was fought was the latest, frumious tenacle demanding to be fed to the hardwired capitalist imperative for wealth extraction.
By now, we’re not unsuspecting, but we still let it happen. • Liz Waters