Mediation, Regulation, Critique: Mapping the Relationship between Cultural Meanings and Political Responses to Poverty, 1970-2010
Since 1970 there has been growing concern over poverty in New Zealand in academia, government, and popular culture. From 1970 until 1984, this concern focused on New Zealand’s prolonged recession and falling standards of living in a period of high inflation. Since then, however, poverty and economic disparity have increased dramatically. The 1970-1984 period is now looked upon as relatively generous and committed to economic equality. The increase in poverty in contemporary times is marked by two political features. Neoliberal economic and social policies have resulted in the polarisation of wealth, increased employment insecurity, and reduced income for those reliant on state benefits (Harvey 2005). At the same time, discourses of morality have blamed beneficiaries for their “dependence” on the state. These features are not simply coincidental: the Governments that pursued income supplement reductions in New Zealand also employed the rhetoric of “welfare dependency” (O’Brien, Bradford, Stevens, Walters & Wicks 2010). As such, the link between moral discourse about poverty and political outcomes for the poor seems undeniable. I argue in this thesis that the relationship between these moral discourses and political outcomes is not as straightforward as the narrative above suggests. To make this argument I analyse moral discourses of poverty in the pre-neoliberal and neoliberal periods and find that these discourses are not as clearly aligned with macroeconomic periods as some suggest. Using this analysis, I then draw upon three traditions of cultural studies with macro-sociological theoretical orientations to determine a more fruitful analysis of the relationship between cultural meaning and political outcomes. I propose in this thesis that an analysis of the cultural meaning and political outcomes of poverty requires an investigation into three related spaces of contestation: mediation, regulation, and critique. To operationalise this analysis I focus specifically on newsprint mediation of poverty and neoliberalism, the institutional arrangements of the state that correspond to macroeconomic periods, and anti-poverty social movements. I also argue – counter to trends in sociological cultural studies – that the concepts of ideology and class must be re-introduced to effectively analyse the relationship between the cultural meanings and political outcomes of poverty. In my analysis I find considerable spaces of contestation between newspaper media, state institutions, and social movements. At the same time, synergies between them emerge. In all three, a “cultural logic” that promotes social and ethnic identities over economic identities becomes institutionalized within social movements, state institutions, and media reporting within the neoliberal era. This promotion of identities runs counter to the economic regulation of the period, where polarization occurs throughout society. As this “cultural logic” is institutionalized in the state, it is used to promote the understanding that economic disparity occurs between cultural identities rather than across them. As such, it translates potentially radical claims for economic redistribution into claims for inclusion. From this finding I conclude that the cultural logic, although it is called upon by actors across the political spectrum, nevertheless constitutes an ideology. It not only serves, in economic terms, a limited class at the expense of many, but also masks relative class benefits.