By Chris Trotter*
The discovery of “Utopia” has been the highlight of my summer. Only eight years after the series first screened on Australian television, I have been savouring its humour and insights on Netflix.
If the classic television series “Yes Minister” showcased the arguments for the neoliberal revolution of the 1980s, then Utopia serves up its consequences forty years down the track.
The series creators and principal writers, Rob Sitch, Santo Cilauro and Tom Gleisner, have captured to perfection the excruciatingly solipsistic world of the professionals and managers who keep our neoliberal society and its institutions running.
The use of the word “running” is, of course, entirely ironic. At the heart of Utopia’s humour is the sheer impossibility of a neoliberal bureaucracy running anything at all – other than its own self-promotion. (Otherwise known as: “Communicating government policies to key stakeholders.)
Tellingly, the writers of Utopia do not describe their work as “satirical”, preferring instead to call it “observational”. Judging by the shrieks of recognition from real-life employees working in institutions reality-adjacent to Utopia’s fictional “Nation Building Authority” (NBA) the writers’ claim is valid. Apparently, not even comic geniuses like Sitch can make up absurdities to equal the all-too-real absurdities of the contemporary white-collar office environment.
For those of us who have attempted to keep track of the success or failure of the multitude of government initiatives announced over the past few decades, however, Utopia makes for extremely uncomfortable viewing. In episode after episode, the viewer is confronted with massive infrastructure projects that defy every attempt by CEO Tony Woodford (played by Sitch himself) and Nat Russell, his long-suffering Chief Operations Officer, to convert them into reality.
Watching Utopia, it suddenly becomes clear why KiwiBuild’s ambitious promise to build 100,000 houses was never real. Like the fictional NBA, KiwiBuild was a political construct, fashioned by political publicists, to meet a very specific set of transitory political needs.
While the rest of us believed (rather naively as it turned out) that KiwiBuild was about constructing real houses from concrete, timber, glass and roofing iron, its creators always understood that what they were actually promoting were symbols. Symbolic houses are not built with hammers and nails, but with ideas – the most important of which is the idea that the Government is committed to doing something about middle-class homelessness.
This explains why, in Utopia, the two most effective characters are Media Manager, Rhonda Stewart, and consultant Karsten Leith, her ever-willing media and marketing content creator. In painful contrast to the NBA, these two institutional bulldozers are absolutely brilliant a getting things done. If the media needs to be seeded with the first tentative musings concerning a yet-to-be-approved scheme, then Rhonda is your woman. Should the Cabinet approve a scoping study, Karsten is right there to whip-up a glossy brochure, or wow everyone with a flashy promotional video.
Reality poses no obstacles to Rhonda and Karsten. Always keen to “push” the achievements of the NBA (keeping the billions flowing) these two media manipulators are constantly re-announcing projects and re-launching them. Told that a major building project had yet to pour a single slab of concrete, they work up a glitzy multi-ministered “launch” of the fence surrounding the building-site!
Nuts? Well, yes, it is. But just cast your mind back to the number of media events organised to mark the “progress” of KiwiBuild. There were the ministers in their hard-hats and hi-viz vests: silver shovels in hand; smiling bravely for the camera.
Symbols piled upon symbols, but never bricks upon bricks.
Being Aussies, Sitch and his fellow writers invite their older viewers to recall the grand, nation-building infrastructure projects of yesteryear. CEO Tony references the Snowy River Project of the early post-war period. New Zealanders of a certain age will, likewise, recall the great hydro-electric schemes on the Waikato and Waitaki rivers that punctuated the same era.
The point which the creators of Utopia are constantly making throughout its four series (so far) is that the institutional madness depicted on-screen is the inevitable outcome of a neoliberal system which has set its face ideologically against the idea that the fundamental role of the state and its bureaucratic apparatus is to serve the needs of its citizens – especially those services out of which the private sector finds it almost impossible to extract a profit.
In both Australia and New Zealand neoliberal advisers and administrators have gone to considerable lengths to ensure that even if politicians are tempted to “do something” about an issue of genuine public concern (housing, public transport, climate change) the legal and institutional machinery needed to make it happen is no longer at hand.
The most obvious victim of this process in the New Zealand context is the Ministry of Works. Imagine what this government might have achieved on the housing front if it had had at its disposal a state-owned and controlled construction organisation which was capable, historically, of throwing up entire towns – Otematata, Twizel – to house workers engaged in building vast hydro-electric dams and canals for the state-owned electricity generator.
But, the long-term future focus which state ownership makes possible simply does not compute in the minds of the twenty-first century’s politicians and bureaucrats. Even if the future-proofing of society is a concept enjoying massive public support, the dangers associated with giving the voters what they want are simply too great to be risked.
This is the inconvenient truth which Utopia’s plot-lines are constantly presenting to the viewer. People want nation building. The country urgently needs the massive infrastructure planning and investment required to future-proof their security and prosperity. But, what do the politicians and bureaucrats do? They set up a flash Nation Building Authority and install an idealistic CEO to run it. But they don’t let it actually do anything – other than announce plans and launch fences.
Perhaps the most objectionable character in Utopia is Jim Gibson, the Government’s liaison man. The squinting, leering Gibson (superbly played by Anthony Lehmann) is nothing more nor less than a neoliberal commissar. Always there to steer any project offering too many public goods into the hands of private profiteers. Always working behind Tony’s and Nat’s backs, hand-in-glove with Rhonda, to preserve the public’s faith in the NBA’s nation-building mission while making sure that no project ever gets beyond being re-announced and re-launched.
The big reveal, politically-speaking, in 2022 is whether our own CEO, Jacinda Ardern, proves herself to be an idealistic but ineffectual “Tony”, or an amoral, but surprisingly effective, “Rhonda”. Will New Zealand continue to go nowhere fast? Or, will its people continue to accept the endless re-launches and re-announcements of its media savvy prime minister?
Utopia tomorrow and Utopia yesterday – but never Utopia today.
*Chris Trotter has been writing and commenting professionally about New Zealand politics for more than 30 years. He writes a weekly column for interest.co.nz. His work may also be found at http://bowalleyroad.blogspot.com.