Tulia Thompson's essay 'In the Under: Being Poor and Dreaming the End of Capitalism' is a raw and honest account of the author's own struggle with poverty and asks the question 'whether we need to radically recognise the failure of neoliberal capitalism, as a prerequisite to meaningful social change.'
PERHAPS IT CAN be interpreted as a sign of the times that Tulia Thompson hesitated before writing this fine essay. Although we like to think of ourselves as a democratic society where competing views jostle for attention, some views are less equal than others. Certainly we on the socialist left know that. Thompson explains:
"I felt worried (I am a very anxious person!) writing this essay, in case anti-capitalist writing would damage my chances of getting any paid writing work – the way we think of ourselves as brands now! I had to tell myself that few people will read this, and definitely only those who are already Left! I worried it could alienate me from friends who are Left, but comfortable-with-capitalism Left. I wondered if I would seem too radical; or worse, too dull."
She also worried that she would end up being pitied rather than understood. But Thompson moved beyond her personal and political self doubt to write what is a powerful and, at times, raw account of what it means to be poor in New Zealand today. While an essay like this could have been a routine, almost apolitical, 'slice of life story', Thompson interweaves her own story within the context of a failed neoliberalism that, nevertheless, continues to stalk the country today.
While competing parliamentary politicians argue about poverty armed with wildly different sets of statistics, Thompson writes of the reality of not having enough money to pay the rent or having to delay a visit to the doctor because she can't afford it. Or contemplating the price of a bus fare.Or sitting on one drink in an Auckland bar for so long that eventually the barman asks her to buy more drinks or move along. Tulia moved along. She writes of struggling with depression and anxiety but still having to endure regular stressful visits to Work and Income:
"What I want to unpack is the way that the actual situation with WINZ has become so immensely stressful for me that avoiding it feels better than getting money I am entitled to. Yes, some of me feeling stuck and helpless is due to my internal world, but even then, WINZ is triggering. And yes, I have taken advocates from AAAP, and yes they help, but overall the experience is still so deeply demoralising. You present WINZ with receipts, and letters, and payslips and they come back with a low amount that bears no relation to the evidence you have gathered."
She also reveals that even the writing of her essay was shaped by a lack of money. That's because she couldn't pay her library fine so she couldn't get the books she wanted:
"I tried to write it without more books; I have a lot of books but mostly fiction and poetry, not the theoretical works I needed, apart from the old popular press versions of The Communist Manifesto and Capital I had claimed from Mum’s house. When I got paid, I went into Onehunga library and paid $30 to get it down to the amount of fines I could still borrow with."
Thompson has little time for the so-called conservative and liberal solutions to poverty. She's equally scathing about both camps because they both ignore that " the entire working- and under-classes cannot be lifted out of poverty without serious social change."
Tulia studied creative writing under Witi Ihimaera and Albert Wendt (she also has a doctorate in sociology) and she draws on her extensive literary knowledge to illustrate her views, although she does note that "In literature, even progressive literature, poor lives are frequently represented as being in the past, as the ‘before’ to an affluent future.'
Her essay opens with an introduction to the dystopian novel In The Chimes by New Zealand author Anna Smaill. She is particularly drawn to a phrase used by a set of characters in the novel:
"The phrase ‘In the Under’ sifted and shifted within my consciousness so that I use it for the weeks when I am Under: short of money, and in a changed, bleak emotional landscape.'
But the essay does close with optimism. Thompson writes that under capitalism, although we are alienated from ourselves in so many ways, we do have glimpses at what we can be and in those moments 'we are able to recognise that being human is separate from the ideas imposed on us by neoliberalism.'
In the end, Tulia recognises that the beast cannot be tamed with 'kindness', as Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern seems to think, and quotes the late Ursula Le Guin who observed that although capitalism may appear all powerful, "Any human power can be resisted and changed by human beings. Resistance and change often begin in art, and very often in our art – the art of words.”
Thompson concludes that resistance begins with words and places to imagine the end of capitalism: "To imagine the end of the Under".
'In the Under: Being Poor and Dreaming the End of Capitalism' appears in Life on Volcanoes: Contemporary Essays, published by Beatnik Publishing. Tulia Thompson is the author of the children's novel Josefa and the Vu.