I ACCUSE (EMILE ZOLA, 13 JAN. 1898)
The dark side of the proposed Code of Social and Family Responsibility.
Open letter to the people of New Zealand.
One hundred years ago, the French writer Emile Zola wrote an open letter,
published on the front page of one of the main papers of the day (L'Aurore),
starting with these words, "I Accuse", and denouncing what, in his views,
were unacceptable anti-semitic practices by the French Military and
Government of the time.
This open letter expresses collective views and profound concerns about what
is unacceptable in the "Public Discussion Document, Towards a Code of Social
& Family Responsibility" recently released by the New Zealand Government
(February 1998), and the questionnaire attached to this document. The views
expressed here are grounded in years of personal experience and research on
a number of continents and islands. For reasons that will soon become
apparent, a nom-de-plume is used.
Disquiet and fear in the Land
The "Public Discussion Document" has been distributed to all New Zealand
households. Apparently, at time of writing (one month after its
circulation), only about 50,000 replies have been sent; less than 5% of the
people in age of replying to the questionnaire; an extremely low rate of
return so far (replies are accepted until 24 April 1998). Considerable
disquiet about this publication has been expressed in the media. So far,
however, the concerns addressed in the present letter have not been made
explicit. They relate not just to this publication but to the whole so
called public discussion process.
A number of people from various walks of life (not just government
employees) have voiced in private not only their own disquiet but also their
fear of speaking up, including their fear of losing their jobs if they voice
too openly their concerns. That ordinary people in a supposedly democratic
society would express such a fear reveals something profoundly insidious
about the process currently underway.
Bland "motherhood and apple pie" or maybe something stronger?
While here so many people, including politicians, find it difficult to
articulate clearly their concerns, in Europe and in a number of other
countries this process would be immediately identified and named for what it
is. This is because, over many decades, people in many other countries have
not been so lucky. They have painfully learned to recognise that things of this
kind have a fascist character and that the only response to give is a
dignified, firm and uncompromising NO, no to the process itself, and no to
the underlying factors. Certainly real public discussion and dialogue on
issues of social change and transformation are worth supporting and engaging
in, but not this.
The use of the word fascist may startle more than a few readers. What?
Here, in New Zealand? This letter is not commenting on the good intentions
or otherwise of the Government. It does not say that the Government or
anyone in particular is fascist. It expresses the view that the present
Government of New Zealand, and the people it attempts to govern are
traversed, apparently unknowingly, by a social process that is not
This letter attempts to explain as concisely as possible the nature and
origins of this fascist trend, why so many people feel so uncomfortable, and
why they also find it difficult to pin-point clearly the cause of their
disquiet about the publication of the "Public Discussion" document.
Discussion or propaganda and manipulation?
Wanting to discuss social and family responsibility surely is a good thing.
Who could object? Is this, however, true democratic public discussion or
consultation? The style, content, and structure of the document, the
phrases, and the form of questioning used, all railroad readers to act,
think, and reply in particular ways and in a particular language to the
pre-set questions asked by the government.
Sadly, this approach will be very familiar to many overseas people. They
will recognise it instantly as ideological propaganda. Such question and
answers pamphlets, "little red books", codes of good citizen or party member
behaviour, have been used many times. Systematically, the locals have
learned painfully what these documents and the programmes they herald
usually really meant in terms of the social control of those not in power.
The Code already rules OK. What next?
Every single aspect of our lives is meant to be ruled according to the
gospel of market value. Some Nobel Prize winning economists have even tried
to analyse marriage in this way. Along with unbridled consumerism, the last
few decades have seen a growing focus on a cartoon-like "private individual"
programmed to maximise exclusively his or her self-interest. This is the
so-called "utilitarian" logic that flimsily underpins most of contemporary
text-book economics. Numerous researchers and critics, notably figures like
Humberto Eco, Jean Baudrillard, Serge Latouche, and more recently William
Greider, have pointed out the relentless control of our lives through codes
and models, especially of the economic kind. They have singled out this
codification of our lives as a central feature of our times, one that has
progressively emerged since the aftermath of the last World War.
A fake codified world
We would want to think that there is far more to our lives than pluses and
minuses, dollar signs, and utilities to be maximised. Surely we are not
robots. However, in the seventies, the French social critic Jean
Baudrillard was quick to highlight how in our daily lives our sense of
reality, our thoughts and actions are constantly undermined, preceded,
conditioned and simulated by the code of the market.
Just note how our politicians are ever so fond of waxing lyrical about those
"price signals" that are supposedly coming to us from some mythical
"Market", how, if we obey the signals, this "Market", as in some post-modern
cargo cult, will, one day, sort-out all of our problems. Baudrillard pointed
out that, because the economic code has come to be always ahead of us,
preconditioning our lives, we end up with a sense that the world we live in
is "more real than real, hyper-real", in other words, a fake, a simulation.
Under the global Code, the haves keep having more, and the haves-not less
This simulation of social life under the economic code is often referred to
as the so-called "post-modern condition". How it came to engulf the whole
planet has been abundantly researched in Europe, North America, and
Australasia over the last three decades and is now fairly well understood.
One of its central features is the growing concentration of wealth in the
hands of a few. Globally, in 1970, the 20% wealthiest people owned or
controlled about 70% of the world's wealth. By 1992, the 20% wealthiest
owned or controlled over 85% of the wealth (UN data), and at current rates,
within less than a decade, they will own and/or control more than 95%. In
the US, the 1% wealthiest now own over 35% of US wealth. After the US, New
Zealand and Australia are among the industrialised countries where this
trend is the most pronounced.
This trend is understood as the flip side of what has been called "economic
globalisation", and more accurately transnationalisation, since the
codification of all life systematically undermines nations and
The "Public Discussion Document" points out that "whilst New Zealand has a
strong economy and is competitive internationally, social problems continue
to be of concern. In 1980 we spent $4.5 billion... Today we spend $25
billion [on social services programmes] (Page 1)." What it fails to
acknowledge is that, in our codified world, a strong internationally
integrated economy and a blow out of costly social problems are the two
sides of the same coin.
Codified irresponsibility of the have-nots
Anyone in their right mind can see that the global situation is becoming
intolerable and unsustainable. No country is insulated from it; certainly
not tiny New Zealand with its economy wide open to global trade. There is
urgency: "Unless we awaken to the existence and nearness of scale limits,
then the greenhouse effect, ozone layer depletion and acid rain will be just
a preview of disasters to come, not in the vague distant future but in the
Everywhere the transnationalisation, codification and simulation of life
give rise to huge social stress, endemic feelings of uncertainty and
anxiety, and of not being in control of one's life. Everywhere people, and
in particular the poorest, endlessly struggle to "make ends meet".
While they relentlessly try to regain control over their lives, they
constantly find themselves in a position of irresponsibility: their lives
are systematically premodeled and pre-codified by impersonal economic
processes which they do not comprehend, and over which they have no power,
and which place them in positions of utter dependence.
Even the haves abdicate to the code.
Only an increasingly shrinking minority, with higher income and education,
retain a feeling of being "in control". Like anybody else's, their lives
are nonetheless largely played-out according to the prevalent economic code
of value, and the simulation of "the good life" through endless consumption.
As to the broader social tensions and issues, and the fate of the majority,
most wash their hands of it. They leave it to the God of the Market to sort
it all out with its price signals. Overall, the global post-modern system
generates irresponsibility. It constructs people as fundamentally
irresponsible, and dependent.
Treat people irresponsibly and they will behave irresponsibly.
When people are placed in positions of irresponsibility, and, as a
consequence, are profoundly denied their dignity, respect and autonomy, they
often end up by despairing and actually behaving extremely irresponsibly.
No matter the pamphlets, public discussion documents, slogans and adds on TV
or on billboards, they will drink and drive, engage in violence, sexual
violence, and racism. They will fail at school, commit suicide, "do drugs".
The list is endless.