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BooksApril 17, 2020

Lockdown letters #22, Morgan Godfery: Do you feel powerless too?

Photo: Getty Images
Photo: Getty Images

Lockdown requires a sacrifice of some form or another from everyone, but the sacrifices never fall proportionately.

Read more from the lockdown letters here.

Four years ago, and yes, this is a shameless plug, and yes, I’m about to turn it into a loud self-vindication, I wrote:

“To participate in politics is, for many young people, to experience powerlessness: no matter how many marches we organise, trade agreements are still signed. And if we find the courage to participate in public life, we are condemned as inveterate narcissists who prefer the comforts of ‘virtue signalling’ over the cold and remote logic of political pragmatism. “Sensible” people ask why we persist with our pointless little rebellions, as if our political defeats demand private defeatism. Why bother marching against the TPPA while trade ministers are inking the deal?”

Almost half a decade after writing that, it feels more relevant than it was in the opening months of 2016 – back before Brexit, before Trump, before Jacinda Ardern’s transformation from a list MP in the New Zealand parliament to the prime minister the rest of the world wished it had. Three weeks into lockdown the feeling that we’re powerless, that everything we did in the last four years is meaningless, is more acute than ever. We, as in the writers in the book I’m quoting above, and my comrades in the trade union movement and in activist circles, spent four years imaging bold reforms, pushing hard for big transformations, and waiting on a moment. That moment is here, but what can anyone show for it?

A wage subsidy for bosses? I mean, good. But also: meh.

I can’t watch the 7pm current affairs shows (or the better description is probably the 7pm magazine shows) because they’re so light and airy. Seven Sharp covering how “tough” small business owners are doing it. The Project covering stories about musicians doing, well, what they ordinarily do – make music. I live in Kawerau, the council district with the worst deprivation statistics in the country, and for my community, lockdown isn’t a time for making sourdough on our marble benchtops, or rearranging the spare rooms, or making cringe art from our studios. Lockdown life is struggle, just like before, but the struggle is more acute when you’re trapped with your dysfunctional family, when WINZ is taking weeks to process your grant application while taking only hours to process a wage subsidy application, or when you earn so little the idea of “panic buying” or “stocking up with a big shop” is luxury you can barely dream about.

The lockdown life I see in the media isn’t a lockdown life I recognise in my community.

There goes the powerlessness again.

It’s a weird feeling, too. Voluntary locking down, consenting to a minor police state, and all in the service of solidarity. I think it’s worth remembering that the point of lockdown, at least from a material perspective, is to protect the people around us. If we eliminate the chances for the virus to spread we’re not so much protecting ourselves as we are protecting others. It requires a sacrifice of some form or another from everyone. The trouble, of course, as I’ve said in every other lockdown letter I’ve written, is the sacrifices never fall proportionately. People in Kawerau pay a far higher price than the big media names in Auckland, or a politician in Wellington, or a big business owner in Christchurch. Lockdown here is real struggle. The struggle to adjust with little to no resources. The struggle to survive in vastly different conditions.

Last week, walking in one of the local parks, a bloke came up to ask whether my old man could take him on as a “client”. The bloke is fresh out of the slammer, and one of his conditions is placement in a rehabilitation programme. In normal conditions the old man could take him on, I’d sort the papers and the funding and whatever else, and we’d be away. But these aren’t normal conditions. I said I’d look into it to the extent that I can, being under lockdown and all. One week later I wonder whether the inability to be placed in a rehabilitation programme amounts to a breach, or whether some discretion will be exercised. Frankly, I’m not hopeful. I wonder how powerless he feels right now. 

Keep going!