Confession: It’s winter and I am being haunted. A line in a book dogging me, following me. I say the line willingly to myself, willing it to impart its cleverness to me, but sometimes it, of its own accord, says itself to me. Chants itself to me. In the mornings, when I climb down out of our house, the light just arriving in the sky. When I catch the train home and it’s so dark the whole trip is a tunnel. The inside of the train lit up and hot and full and in the train windows a perfect reflection so there are two trains travelling though the night, and I look at myself in the window, in my great detail, and there I am, saying the line. Those nights in which we know only that we are travelling but nothing of what we are travelling through.
I feel sad and complicated thinking about the line but I don’t know why. I want to know why. Because maybe if I understand why, I’ll understand the book the line is in, and how the book works, and how the book pulls me into my 14 year old self and out again. How it spirals me into the 1980s and whispers things to me about what happened then and what it means and what it changed. The loss. The losses. Okay, it was years ago, but most things were.
It was all gone in a year:
Listen. The first two words you say quickly, then the all is drawn out a little, the gone is slow and emphatic. A dull bell, a dreadful ringing. A pause and in a year, two quick beats followed by a slower subtly stressed beat. The whole thing something like dada-dum-duum-dada-dum.
I listen and climb inside the sounds of the words, I see the shape of the letters arc over me, and then I’m in. The terrible firmness of something being gone, all of it. And how quickly it happens, in just one year. Before we even know what the line is about we know it’s a lament and a line that is grieving. This line that worries me, that sings me to sleep, that wakes me at uncomfortable times to ask What’s gone? What’s all gone?
The book is Pip Adam’s I’m Working on a Building, a story about the life of Catherine who has a great affinity for buildings and understands their complexities. Weight and load and core. She finds people more difficult. She becomes an engineer. One chapter begins with my line and goes on.
It was all gone in a year: the private school, the cars, the boats, the business.
It’s Auckland, I put it at 1988, a year after the global sharemarket crash where people lost a lot. Not just long time investors but people who were new to it and terribly vulnerable.
At this point in the story Catherine is 14, her parents are drunk and passed out on the floor. With the economic collapse, her parents collapse. 'Inspirational' her friend Tansy says. 'Aspirational' corrects Catherine. That night they both leave home and Catherine leaves a note for her sister advising her to get out as soon as she can. I imagine remnants of wealth scattered through the house Catherine has left. A sort of decay that leaves me nauseated. A rot echoed through the book, most hauntingly for me when Catherine and Tansy visit a friend at his parents' house where they observe a decrepit spa pool:
There had been mosquito larvae in it, tiny humping see through things.
So in this first reading of my line the It is money and wealth, and materialism. The comforts of affluence shed suddenly and unexpectedly and now festering. Just with that straight reading I’m excited because New Zealand was burnt worse than any other country in that global ‘87 crash. The losses are large and luminous like ghosts and lit the path for everything that has come after. The eighties had been awful, but in ‘87 the whole place went under. We say unemployment soared, we say benefits were slashed, we say suicides spiked. Because there was something majestic and violent and personal in how awful it was. We’re still grieving. We need to talk about it and write about it. We need stories to help it make sense.
But not just affluence was lost in the 1980s. My friends and I talk about this time, we in different iterations, as teenagers talked through this time. Stories all about losing. How meat works and factories closed down. How people were rebranded out of their offices. How fathers lost jobs and started drinking. How brothers, after years on the dole, finally found work and shortly after killed themselves.
The world became a place of worry and fear and these worries became the tools of governance because everyone who had not lost a job was frightened of losing their job. They could be made to sing and dance and sign away rights and their questions. Because next time, the next restructure, the next cuts might be the ones that affected them. They were obliged to work harder, for longer, for less, in jobs they hated and they learnt not to complain. Those fearing losing their homes or their jobs or their benefits falling over those who had actually lost their jobs and houses and benefits falling over those who had never had jobs or homes or benefits. You could always get poorer.
So here I think about the loss in the line as something like the loss of a communal mood. That for many the focus had to shift from how we might improve our lives to how we might survive them. That depression is such a perfect term for what happened because it describes not just the behaviour of the market in eight successive economic quarters, but the behaviour of the spirit. How limited options slow the mind, distort it, dull it. How the external becomes internal.
But even then, even with the understanding of these profound losses something nags me. It's bigger, I think, It's bigger yet. It was all gone, I think, and the sadness of the line grips me again.
Supply and demand curves
The revolution that happened - and those cheerleading the 1980s reforms and those condemning them both call it a revolution - was based on a very simple idea. That the market, left to its own devices, would ensure the best distribution of goods and services.
The bog standard supply and demand graph I was learning in my dreadful high school economics class was becoming the holy grail of New Zealand policy makers. These graphs have an x axis representing price and a y axis representing quantity. Typically there are two lines forming a cross in the middle of the graph. It shows people will sell lots of a good they get a high price for, and buy lots of a good they can get cheaply. Where the lines cross, somewhere in the middle, the price is set, high enough for it to be worth it for the seller, low enough to be worth it for the buyer.
In the 80s, the equilibrium, long considered a nifty trick of the market, was deified. It became holy, bestowed by neoliberalism's high priests with great magic and recognised as a wonderous force. The invisible hand of the market would ensure an equilibrium was reached and balance would return to the universe.
The thing is in high school, while market theory was taught as fact, we were drilled in the circumstances markets would fail: particularly natural monopolies and the provision of social or public goods things like education, or sewerage. But what was new and terribly exciting for 80s and 90s policy makers, was the idea that the market would never fail. That the market could solve everything. Economic issues, social issues, governance issues, justice issues, education, health, water. You simply needed to translate the problem into something that would fit neatly into a supply and demand graph, understand the correct measurements of price and quantity, type in the numbers, listen to the whirring and bingo, out would pop the equilibrium price and a glorious order would entail.
Society's dominant ethical lesson provided to those of us growing up in the 1980s, girls like Catherine, Tansy, and me was commodification. That the primary relationship between people was of buyer and seller. I think of the day Catherine and Tansy leave home trying to scrounge money from strangers:
‘It’s a hot one,’ Tansy said with a radiant smile to anyone who walked past them. ‘Could you buy us a Coke?’
Tansy and Catherine play their parts well. They're clearly aware of the market value of two young teenage girls beyond the smiles for Coke exchange. Later, they have sex with men in exchange for drugs, shelter or money. There's a cloying neoliberal romanticism that has grown up around sex work, where the work itself not basic rights for workers, or women's economic choices, is repainted as some sort of feminist victory. But in Adam’s story, it’s depicted as a pragmatic decision. Catherine and Tansy would go home with men and
One of them would fuck him, or both of them, but not if they could help it. It was twice the work. They’d stay there while he slept, steal food. It got old quickly and the men started to want to fuck in cars.
There's something here of the loss that I'm trying to understand. Something about public values. How New Zealand voluntarily adopted the most pure form of neoliberalism in the world. It became the poster child of global financial institutions lauded for its commitment to the new market ways. And thriving in the streets of Auckland a market where grown men could buy sex with children.
I think of how, in a messy complex world, theories, especially clean ones that you can graph, are seductive. How nice it must be to think you can reduce everything to two axes, and two intersecting lines. I think of the enormous effort that international and local institutions went to propagating the myth that this was so. The myth that analysis of the world could be reduced to multiple versions of a supply and demand graph.
But the supply and demand graph only works if it's in isolation. If it floats, free of context and conditions. If we dismiss, as if with a wand, the real life consequences of reducing the unemployment benefit, or the impact on local manufacturers of taking away tariffs, or making councils act like they're businesses. It only works if we pretend that people are perfectly informed and perfectly rational and perfectly able to make genuine decisions between producing certain goods and services, or buying from a range of goods and services. As if it's all gleaming fruit displayed alluringly in natural light.
The tallest economy in the world
Each chapter of the book focuses around a building. The first chapter focuses on a replica of the Dubai Burj al Khalifa, the tallest building in the world. Catherine is working on it. There are many descriptions of how they flatten West Coast mountains to make room for the replica. The environment in which the destruction and construction take place are utterly ignored by those behind the project. There's horror in the descriptions of helicopters, cranes, tampers but also awe. It goes on forever, say the workers looking around the vast blasted flatness they've created. Then later:
For weeks the strange new valley shook and boomed as the cranes dropped the weights again and again, packing the ground tighter, and the miners joked, "This is going to make it hard to get anything out,; and laughed and dropped the weight one more time.
For weeks I think about context, and consequence and environment, and how the Burj is a metaphor for the theory of neoliberalism, how imposing an ideologically driven theory demonstrated a willful ignorance of practice, or possibly a manipulation of it. I think about that film that said how the mass loss of jobs in the manufacturing industry was timed perfectly to coincide with the graduation into the workforce of the mini baby boom of 1970. How the policies around the unemployed swung from sympathetic to accusatory at the same moment numbers blossomed.
The nub of the replica Burj sways in the wind. We see Catherine contend with the ludicrous alien project.
She built the tower up on her computer screen and then blew at it from all directions that the wind came from. She went to a meeting and told them they were going to have to build a model and test it in a wind tunnel. 'It wasn't designed for here,' she said. they didn't like that. 'It'll be fine once you get the walls on,' she said. They didn't like it at all. 'It was an idiot plan,' she said...
We see a sickening promotion of meaningless hype around the tower. Where the workers who know nothing of what is being built but are required to attend corporate marketing sessions. A lack of imagination posing as originality, the destruction of an environment posed as a creation, something tired posed as something fresh and clean
...here in the Alps, in the midst of the most beautiful place in the world, we are building another Burj, exactly the same as the other Burj. People will come from everywhere to see and stay and shop at the Alpine Burj. This is how confident New Zealand is.
The lines would be funny if they weren't so believable.
It's the beginning of summer now. I've been writing this forever. I write the same thing over and over. Sometimes I write more about being a teenager and how bad it was for me, sometimes I write more about my economics class, sometimes I write about conversations I have with other feminists online, and how it feels like we are staring at each other with utter bewilderment and confusion because we think so differently and I write about how I think that's something to do with neoliberalism, and something in this book helps me understand it.
I get to this point, when I want to make this point and I get stuck. I need to write it and I can’t. I can’t write anything else but I can’t write this, because I start writing something hideous like my Theory of Everything, and How IWoaB relates to everything, and those things all relate to each other, and it’s like a black hole that sucks into it all sense and story and so I stop and then I try again.
I decide to change the name of my essay to I’m working on an Essay, which will be about how I can’t write this essay. I decide to write a blog post about the book instead. I decide to write several blog posts about it because I can’t write everything in one blog post. I try and trick myself into writing one point about the book. Just one. I decide it is really hard to write anything which is longer than a page even poems. I think about how when I write long poems, my writing group almost always suggests edits which shrink the poem to something that can only fit on to a single page. Where you can see the beginning and end at once. I think about holding the end of something in my mind at the same time as holding the beginning of something and not knowing how to do that, and not knowing how not to do that.
This is the bit where I talk about cause and consequence and how neoliberalism stole it. How I went into the eighties a girl, having grown that far up with Sesame Street and fat feminist books on my parents’ bookshelves, and how I was trained in a million ways to think about myself in relation to the impact I had on the world, and the way the world was impacting me. How I wrote numerous university essays, which no matter the topic, contained the phrase both reflects and reinforces. How you couldn’t think about anything without thinking about what was around it, what came before it, what would come after it. I came out of the eighties into the nineties as an adult, and cause and consequence or more, considerations of cause and consequence were gone. The conversations I always expected to have, had changed
Oh shit, I’m doing it again.
This is the bit where I talk about Pip’s book and how it’s about cause and consequence. How you can’t help but think that Catherine who is angry and scarred and grown up when we first meet her is a consequence of Catherine the child we meet at the end of the book. How in thinking about cause and consequence I come to my realisation that the thing that has been troubling me all along, the “It” in the line “It was all gone in a year”, the thing I’m grieving, is Time.
How the book makes me realise that the market stole cause and consequence, and values, and lifestyle, and security, and it stole time. Neoliberalism, in flattening the world to a series of supply and demand graphs, makes externalities disappear. We must forget who arrived at the market, and why, we must forget what happened before the market, and what might happen after.
This is where I talk about the values of the market and how they spread out and out like an uncontrollable body of water. That market analysis affected the way people lived, and what they were taught, and how the State dealt with them, and where they lived, and who they paid money to, and what luxury items became cheap and what necessities became expensive. But most brutally the values of the market changed the way people thought or were encouraged to think. Market thinking denied us the language and the conversation to think about time. I think about how, with time, comes the things time offers. Reflection and promise and hope.
This marvellous bit of writing. From the end of the first chapter or, in my dual reading, from the very end of the story.
Because it wasn't the dark or the deep that had made it so hard, it was the flash of brightness that came out of nowhere. A promise that couldn't have come out of her, and didn't come out of what she built. It wouldn't strike her so she could lie down and die but forced her to get up over and over again. Nothing would ever surprise her, not waste, nor power, not failure, not hope. She would live for years more, working, but not even the assurance of time could startle her now.
I think time is important. I think I’m Working on a Building is important and interesting because it offers us back time. It’s a tribute to time. I think of Catherine, and how she travels through time in the book. Back through time. And how time carries her forward. Troubled, time and hope plague her, she has conversations with them, and wishes them ill but none the less she is beholden to them.
I let time whistle through my teeth and think about it some more. How a book can bring us back things that were taken. How books in talking of loss can ease it. I write about that some more. Literature and all that. What it should be doing. What it can do. That’s what I go back to. That's where I get stuck.
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