The politics of last resort: Kiwis trust the state in a crisis

As people around the world accuse their governments of using Covid-19 to impose oppressive rules, Kiwis have largely collaborated with the state’s response so far, according to a recent study.

Paddington and friends keep watch during lockdown from a Wellington window. Photo: Revena Correll Trnka

Published in British journal Anthropology Today, ‘From lockdown to rāhui and teddy bears in windows: Initial responses to Covid-19 in Aotearoa/New Zealand’ by Associate Professor Susanna Trnka from the University of Auckland, examines the relationship between the state and its citizens over the first lockdown period in New Zealand from March to May 2020.

“A closer look at citizen-state relationships during this period reveals a collaborative dynamic in which people actively engaged in establishing the state of emergency,” says Dr Trnka, a social anthropologist in the Faculty of Arts.

And the speed and ease with which the lockdown took place in a society known for embracing ‘neoliberal individualism’ makes it even more astonishing and worthy of examination, she believes.

“It suggests the need for a broader look at how collective responsibility, care and blame play out in this type of unprecedented situation, not only in relation to governments, but citizens as well.”

She says further study will not only reveal the complexities of the state-citizen relationship, but also shed light on those who might be judged in this, and future situations, as being ‘non-compliant’, and therefore become the targets of backlash and collective blame.

Doubt, dissent or antagonism towards the government doesn’t necessarily rupture long-founded views of the state as the last possible way of securing protection or justice.

Associate Professor Susanna Trnka Faculty of Arts

Recent scholarly interest in government responses to Covid by countries like Italy also suggest the state of emergency was used as a cynical exercise in government manipulation, and a potential misuse of state power.

“They also imply that states of emergency are somehow inherently unjustifiable and depict citizens as either weak, overwhelmed or duped by the workings of the state, which I think ignores the possibility of democratic processes continuing within, and shaping, those situations,” says Dr Trnka.

But even though the economic damage of the first lockdown in New Zealand was noticeable from very early on, initially at least, there were few public demonstrations against social distancing or other measures; in contrast, for example, to the large-scale protests in the United States, Germany and Australia.

Similarly, far-right critiques and conspiracy theories against the state, while present on some online forums, didn’t initially gain much public traction here.

Recently however, public sentiment has shifted and appears to have become more divided, which  makes understanding the expressions of solidarity voiced during the first few months of the crisis even more important to understand, Dr Trnka believes.


'Bikini bear' takes it easy on a West Auckland driveway during lockdown.

“Doubt, dissent or antagonism towards the government doesn’t necessarily rupture long-founded views of the state as the last possible way of securing protection or justice. In what I’ve referred to elsewhere as the ‘politics of last resort’, people often turn to the state even when they don’t trust it.”

So while much has been made of neoliberal individualism in societies such as New Zealand, individualism, when it occurs, she believes, is actually made possible by a myriad of interpersonal, collective and state-citizen obligations.

“The state-citizen contract therefore remains a powerful ideal, even if it’s constantly undermined, and perhaps even more so during times of crisis."

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