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by Jane Kelsey

The contradiction between sovereignty, democracy and human rights on the one hand, and the global market economy on the other, is the burning question of our time. Its centrality in contemporary critical debate reflects the deep disquiet many people feel about our rapidly and radically changing world. The familiar and relatively stable social, economic and political environment of the interventionist, corporatist welfare state has been replaced by a new set of institutions, interests, values and imperatives, designed to meet the needs of international capital and a domestic elite. The process and substance of fundamental structural change has left many feeling alienated and disempowered, not just in Aotearoa, but all over the world.

Concepts of sovereignty, democracy and human rights are important tools with which to challenge this new paradigm. But relying unduly on these mega-concepts runs the risk that we get stuck in the rhetoric. We take them as unquestioned goods on whose content we all agree. Yet if we scratch the surface we quickly discover that is not true. Many people are still nostalgic for the era of the cnetralised welfare state, fortress economy, stable parliamentary democracy and corporatist politics of the past. Others of us argue that this is both undesirable and unattainable. The economic, political and social fabric of the welfare years was far from ideal. It assumed the legitimacy of an oppressive colonial state which stripped Maori economic and political self-determination within their own land and blamed them for their consequent dependence on the dispossessor. For women, the welfare state was centred on the male breadwinner in paid employment, supported by women who serviced the private estate. Political power was controlled through parties, trade unions and lobby groups whose power structures were as inaccessible to ordinary people as the new regime.

Even if we wished to resurrect this imperfect past, we cannot. Its institutional base has been deliberately, and irretrievably, broken down. We need to face up to this and accept the challenge of moving forward, identifying social values, economic models, political structures and processes, and the terms for ethical co-existence between Maori and Pakeha on which a socially just future can be based. In doing this we need to show vision - the ability to think beyond the paradigms of the past and present and believe that there truly is a better way. There clearly are alternatives. The question I want to address is how to make them come about.

We need to be realistic about the barriers in our path. Powerful political and economic forces operating domestically and internationally - so far as that distinction is still meaningful - will seek to prevent meaningful change. The architects of structural adjustment consciously moved as fast as possible to the point of no return. Let us have no illusions about how difficult these changes will be to reverse or set aside.

At the level of policy, a coherent set of norms, premised on unfettered market forces and limited government, has displaced those of the centralised, interventionist welfare state. Each element was deeply integrated in a conceptual and an operational sense. These policy norms are underpinned by a powerful ideology that binds each element together. Their internal incoherence and questionable assumptions are shielded by constant reinforcement in official, media and academic circles. Critics have been marginalised, denigrated and harassed, or have, to borrow an apt phrase from Chomsky, 'collapsed into careerism or subordination'. Altering one element of the structural adjustment programme - health policy, or even monetary policy - will not substantially affect the paradigm. Consciously realigning all the fundamentals would require an exercise as coherent, well planned and ruthlessly executed as the structural adjustment programme itself. There are obviously logistical problems in doing that. The risk of failure is, in itself, likely to deter. The alternative of piecemeal reform and adjustments to detail may leave the neo-liberal paradigm unstable and riddled with contradictions, but still basically intact.

At the administrative level, key technocrats, agencies and private actors have secured a high degree of autonomy from political interference. They control economic policy-making, implementation and information in a way that makes them potentially indispensable and difficult to dislodge. We can be assured that they will resist any moves to dismantle the administrative framework from which they derive their power, or fundamentally to alter its policy direction.

Jane Kelsey, Associate Professor of Law, Auckland University, New Zealand.

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