[For some time I have been frustrated by the very limited perspective of mainstream political commentary in Australia, and by the difficulty of establishing a longer perspective in the standard 800-word commentary piece. So I decided just to write until the case was made. Hence this 6000-word essay. It refers to the Australian context, but there are parallel stories in other countries.]
The political spectrum is traditionally characterised in terms of Left and Right, but the way these terms are used has changed so much they have become quite misleading. Today they are more about tribal identification, and their use is more of an epithet than a description.
The main reason for these changes is that the Right has shifted to quite extreme positions, compared with a generation or two ago. The modern Right not only espouses free-market fundamentalism, it promotes an extreme individualism that overlooks or dismisses the importance of social relationships and even denies the existence of society. There seems to be no standard of factual basis, sense or consistency required for its claims, so any opinion, however uninformed or misinformed, apparently is to be accorded as much validity in the public domain as any other.
As a result anything that is socially liberal, anything involving compassion, indeed anything that reflects actual knowledge of the subject at hand, is attacked and denigrated, and the favoured pejorative is “Leftist”. Labor and much of the nominally Left, progressive or liberal commentariat has been intimidated by sustained attack from this extreme Right and has abandoned much of its ground.
For most of the twentieth century, Left referred to ideas that involved some form of socialism. The Left ranged from the communist hard left to mild social democracy that was more about socially liberal reform than socialist economic policies. Socialism involves government ownership of significant parts of the economy, especially those parts involving natural monopolies such as the distribution of water and electricity and key infrastructure such as transportation. Communism involves government ownership of the whole economy.
In Australia the Labor Party was for many years the party of ordinary people and the widely perceived remedy for capitalist excesses was socialism in one form or another. Labor was never more than moderately socialist, even though some communists tried to deflect it, and it became less socialist with time. The last attempt to institute a seriously socialist policy was probably when Ben Chifley proposed to nationalise the banks in 1949. He provoked a hysterical campaign by the media and the rich and lost the election of that year to Robert Menzies.
The last time Labor was led by someone you could reasonably call a socialist was in 1967, when Arthur Calwell lost (again) to Robert Menzies. Gough Whitlam subsequently became the Labor leader. Despite the hysteria accompanying Whitlam’s three years in power, 1972-1975, his government was much more about socially liberal reforms than socialist economic policy.
I want to be clear that my own views are neither socialist nor traditional capitalist in its various guises. I have concluded, for reasons I will mention later, that markets are powerful but the incentives under which they operate must be carefully managed if they are to yield desirable results. We can, in this view, transcend the false dichotomy of socialism versus capitalism.
It is also necessary to counter some of the myths about Whitlam’s government. It is charged with being economically incompetent, but this claim ignores the oil shock imposed by the OPEC oil cartel, a shock that dramatically affected all Western economies. There was also a much-overlooked credit bubble, documented by economist Steve Keen. Together these factors triggered high inflation and “stagflation” world-wide.
The high inflation of the Whitlam years was thus due to global factors much more than to the presence of a moderately socialist Treasurer, Jim Cairns, who actually did a fair job in difficult circumstances (and much better, for example, than governments in the US and Europe in recent years). Various other scandals, notably the Khemlani loans affair, were not atypical for many governments of both sides, and pale beside the undermining of core democratic institutions and procedures by governments since 1996.
Labor spent eight years out of power after Whitlam, and was about to regain power under Bill Hayden when a last-minute internal coup by the Labor Right installed Bob Hawke as leader and Paul Keating as shadow treasurer. Bill Hayden would probably have pursued moderate social and economic reforms, though more cautiously than the flamboyant Whitlam, but we will never know.
As it turned out, Hawke and Keating soon won power and set about implementing the program of Labor’s right-wing opponents. The double irony was that, on the one hand, Hawke’s predecessor, Liberal Malcolm Fraser, was lambasted by the Right for being too timid in introducing right-wing policies, and on the other hand Hawke became known as Australia’s best conservative Prime Minister.
Quite why Labor turned so sharply to the Right will have to be sorted out by historians. By all appearances, Hawke and Keating believed in what they were doing, and were not simply making concessions to the vociferous Right that dominates Australia’s media. They came to power during a concerted global campaign by neoliberal ideologists to promote free-market fundamentalism and libertarian social policy, which is to say as little social policy as possible. The neoliberals took advantage of the problems generated by the oil shocks and financial bubbles of the 1970s to claim Keynesian economic policies were discredited and had to be replaced. There never was a serious basis for this claim and subsequent economic events have shown how hollow it was, as I will get to.
One can only assume that the Australian Labor Party as a whole was intimidated by the orchestrated right-wing hysteria of the Whitlam years and by the neoliberal campaign that culminated in accessions to power in Britain in 1979 (Margaret Thatcher) and the US in 1980 (Ronald Reagan). Otherwise why would the party abandon its reason for existing, which was to look out for the interests of ordinary people? Of course there are always those in politics whose addiction to power overcomes any ideal or principle they might once have espoused.
Eventually this spectacle of a Labor Party implementing laissez-faire, big-business-friendly policies was papered over by the British New Labour movement of Tony Blair under the guise of the so-called Third Way. The Third Way was supposed to be a middle path between neoliberal excesses and Labor’s founding concern for ordinary people, but of course that simply describes the social democracy that had prevailed in the Western world since World War II. The Third Way, rather, conceded the fundamental power in society to neoliberalism, and confined itself to applying band-aids to some of the wounds neoliberalism systematically inflicted in the social fabric.
Hawke and Keating between them ruled from 1983 to 1996. They implemented much of the neoliberal agenda by privatising many publicly-owned, and profitable, enterprises, deregulating business and finance and diminishing the rights and power of employees. They were succeeded by Liberal John Howard, an un-apologetic neoliberal who continued the same agenda.
Howard was not, however simply a neoliberal. He was a cunning and adroit politician who did not hesitate to do anything that would continue his hold on power. He was in fact a big-taxing, big-spending conservative, because he implemented the regressive Goods and Services Tax (GST), passed most of the proceeds to the states and spent the rest of his tax take to electoral advantage.
The GST was highly unpopular and Howard would almost certainly have lost the 2001 election were it not for two fortuitous circumstances that he took unprincipled advantage of. The first was a small flow by boat of asylum-seeking refugees who were being vilified by a vocal minority of reactionary xenophobes. In August Howard suddenly decided to block their access to Australian territory, implemented by his unsuccessful attempt to prevent the Norwegian vessel Tampa from delivering rescued refugees to Christmas Island.
Howard then joined and increased the vilification of legal asylum seekers. This culminated just before the November election in his government alleging that refugees had thrown their children overboard to force the Australian navy to rescue them. This was a whopping lie built on an early misunderstanding. The misunderstanding was quickly corrected by navy personnel but the Government did not want to know. The election was held in the midst of the ensuing hysteria.
It became clear after the election that there had been a large conspiracy among some senior military, public service and government people to preserve the appearance that Howard did not learn the truth before the election. None of those involved in this “truth overboard” was ever brought to account.
The second fortuitous event was the September attack on the World Trade Center in New York. Having embarked on his race to the bottom with his “stop the boats” policy, Howard enthusiastically fanned what genuine concern there was about terrorist attacks into more unreasoning Australian hysteria. He even managing to persuade many Australians that refugee boats carried terrorists, as if terrorists would choose such an arduous and risky means of entry when they could fly in (along with many other asylum seekers, about whom, strangely, there is no xenophobic hysteria at all).
Labor, meanwhile, had made a fateful choice to support Howard’s anti-boats refugee policy. This infuriated and disillusioned a significant part of Labor’s support base, already very uneasy over Labor’s implementation of right-wing policy over the previous two decades. A steady decline in party membership accelerated, along with a drift of votes to the allegedly left-wing Greens. A decade later Labor is in dire electoral peril. It is widely perceived as standing for nothing, and it is plausible that Labor is in terminal decline unless it can find some ground of its own to champion. It shows little sign of doing so.
Howard won the 2001 election, but only narrowly. Subsequently Howard implemented a draconian regime of “anti-terror” laws, with only minor quibbles from Labor. Fundamental legal protections dating back hundreds of years were rapidly jettisoned. Courts that dissented were vilified by the Government. Laws that were inconvenient were changed, finessed or ignored. International treaty obligations were serially violated and associated international organisations vilified. Dissenters were vilified and accused of favouring terrorists. Electoral procedures were manipulated to the Government’s advantage. Australia’s borders became comically elastic, moved every time a refugee boat reached a new destination, all to deny refugees fundamental legal process and human rights. Refugees were interned in remote “detention centres” that are more accurately described as concentration camps, typically for many years, while their cases allegedly were being processed, very slowly.
In other words the rule of law, Australians’ legal and human rights, and Australia’s democratic institutions were attacked and diminished. Both the Liberal-National Coalition and Labor were complicit. As is typical in such authoritarian excess, it was all done in the name of defending “freedom” and protecting us from terrorism. However our own representatives have done far more damage to Australian democracy and society than any terrorist was ever likely to do.
Australia’s relatively open and tolerant society, our democracy and our legal system have been subverted. The perpetrators were not shadowy cells of alien terrorists but our own Parliamentary representatives, abetted by the unscrupulous media and a large contingent of right-wing shock-jocks and media agitators. It is fair to call these perpetrators subversives.
Australia has thus shifted strongly to the Right in its mainstream politics, in public discussion and in the media. It might be depicted something like this:
This might give some perspective to the insistent calls from the Right for “balance” in public discussion, and in particular its claim the the ABC is a hotbed of leftists.
Actually this extended spectrum is still too simplistic, because the so-called Right now comprises several streams in addition to traditional conservatives: free-market fundamentalist economics, hyper-individualist (libertarian) views on society and personal values, and reactionary xenophobia and racism. It would be more sensible not to try to force these differences (and others) into a one-dimensional spectrum, but that would be asking too much when even the diagram above is evidently too subtle for many of the opinionated.
The reality and severity of the shift in the Right is attested by conservatives themselves. Former Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser resigned from the Liberal Party two years ago. The occasion was the ousting of Malcolm Turnbull as leader in favour of Tony Abbott, but this was only the last straw. Fraser was disgusted by Howard’s failure to condemn the xenophobic views of Pauline Hanson in the 1990s and by Howard’s co-opting of Hanson’s ideas in the blocking of the Tampa and subsequent treatment of asylum seekers. Over a longer period he had been disturbed by the Party’s shift towards market fundamentalism and libertarianism.
Fraser sees himself as liberal (in the classic sense, not in the American sense of leftist). For him the Liberal Party had been an anti-communist bulwark that was also socially progressive. With the fall of the Berlin Wall and the passing of the communist threat he perceived threats from other directions. One was an unreasoning faith in free markets as an organising principle in human affairs. Another was Pauline Hanson’s xenophobia, whose ideas, he wrote, posed an “extraordinary danger to the unity and cohesion of a fair-minded, democratic Australia”.
Robert Menzies, founder of the Liberal Party and longest-serving Prime Minister, would surely also have resigned, were he still around, and if he didn’t he would be thrown out as a pinko lefty. After all he spent a lot of government money on such things as the Snowy Mountains Scheme and universities, he presided over considerable “intervention” in the economy, he tolerated strong unions prone to frequent strike action, and he allowed the continuation of many public enterprises including a major bank, two airlines and much infrastructure. He was, from the current perspective, as much a moderate social democrat as a conservative, though he was always a friend of big business.
The shift to the Right in Australia parallels that in other countries. As is often true, the trend is more extreme in the US. US economist Brett Bartlett said of the domination of the Republican Party by Tea Party extremists “They have descended from the realm of reasonableness that was the mark of conservatism. They dream of anarchy, of ending government.” David Frum, the Bush speechwriter who gave us the term ”axis of evil” writes that allegedly smart, sophisticated people, including canny investors and erudite writers, believe President Obama is driving the US to socialism, and that ”No counter-evidence will dissuade them from this belief: not record-high corporate profits, not almost 500,000 job losses in the public sector, not the lowest tax rates since the Truman administration.”
What has caused this dramatic shift? The conventional answer would be that we all realised free markets really are the best organising principle for society. However that does not explain the rise of xenophobia and racism, and a pervasive unease in our societies, an unease that seems only to increase as our material wealth also (supposedly) increases.
Nor is it even true that free markets have been economically successful, though you’d never guess that from mainstream commentary. The actual record is of mediocrity leading to disaster. The disaster was the Global Financial Crisis that started in 2007 and is not over yet. It was a direct result of neoliberal deregulation of financial markets, and it has visited immense harm on much of the world, with near-depression conditions existing in much of Europe. Even before the GFC, the neoliberal record of growth (2-4%), unemployment (5-7%) and inflation (2-3%) never matched the post-war decades, during which governments were much more involved in markets: GDP growth 5.2%, unemployment 1.3%, inflation 3.3%.
So the swing to the Right was not driven by the strength of the evidence. Three other factors can be found. First, simple ideas of supply and demand seem to make sense. Second, an elaborate theory, dating from the late nineteenth century and called the neoclassical theory, purported to prove that free markets ensure the most efficient use of resources. Third, rich people like to be told the best thing they can do for the world is to make money as fast as they can. Put these factors together and you have the potential to powerfully advance the free-market idea. Friedrich Hayek in 1947 founded the Mont Pelerin Society dedicated to pushing free markets. The push gained momentum in the 1970s when they claimed the old Keynesian economics was discredited by the economic disruptions of the time, conveniently ignoring the dramatic effect of the OPEC oil embargoes. It culminated spectacularly in the elections of Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan.
One should be suspicious of conspiracy theories, but it’s easy to verify the existence of the Mont Pelerin Society, and the fact that Thatcher’s heroes were Hayek and Milton Friedman, himself a disciple of Hayek. Reagan surely didn’t understand much about free-market theory, but evidently he sure liked the sound of it. Unfortunately the neoclassical theory is based on absurd assumptions and its central prediction of equilibrium is plainly contradicted by financial market crashes and much other evidence as well. Simply put, it is pseudo-science. Nevertheless the confluence of conviction, simplistic arguments and money prevailed, and the free-market doctrine triumphed.
To find the source of the rise in unease and xenophobia we must dig a little deeper. Social researcher Hugh Mackay has found that each of three generations of Australians feels insecure. Older Australians are unsettled by the direction of change, and they fear for the future of their grandchildren and for their own safety. Baby boomers are unsettled by relentless change, and by the unexpected instability of their middle years. Younger people often feel alienated, depressed and unfocussed. So people are actually fearful as a result of the rightward shift of thinking and policy.
Xenophobes and others that I will call reactionary are also clearly fearful, to the point of irrationality. For example, refugees arriving by boat pose only a minor challenge. The few thousand annually are a tiny fraction, 1-2 per cent, of the 200,000-300,000 total immigration intake. Their number is small compared with tens of thousands of illegal visa-overstayers. They are roughly equalled by refugees arriving by plane, about whom you hear almost nothing. The image of a leaky boat full of desperate, alien, moslem and probably terrorist refugees is the lightning rod of their fear.
So it is with other favourite topics of reactionaries and their shock-jock agitators. Aborigines are just lazy parasites, never mind that we destroyed their livelihoods, much of their culture, and many of them. Prime Minister Julia Gillard is called Ju-Liar because of one broken election promise, though John Howard gave our children the enlightened concept of the “none-core promise” and told more porkies in a day than Julia does in a month. Moslems are trying to take over our society and impose sharia law, though they comprise just a few per cent of our very diverse population.
Global warming, of course, is the issue that really sets the dogs baying. Climate scientists are part of a great conspiracy to fund themselves and impose a greenie global government. The science is alleged to be false or highly uncertain, even though the judgements of climate scientists are something like 97% for, 1% against, 2% undecided, and even though every national science academy in the world endorses the conclusion that human-caused global warming is real and a serious threat.
This level of irrational fear can be called paranoia. It is most developed and best illustrated again in the US. Both Bartlett and Frum, mentioned earlier, believe a lot of it is fomented by right-wing media like Fox News. Frum says the billionaires who fund the extremists are not just playing a cynical game: “They watch Fox News too, and they’re gripped by the same apocalyptic fears as the Republican base.” Bartlett says “[We] public policy analysts aren’t meant to make comparisons with the 1930s, but it is beginning to look like the Weimar Republic.”
So there are various degrees of unease, anxiety, fear and paranoia abroad in our society, but what is causing the anxiety? You don’t have to look far. The neoliberal program has changed ordinary peoples’ lives in some basic ways: employment is less secure, working hours in Australia have increased substantially, and social activities and services are less supported.
Neoliberalism explicitly promotes “labour market flexibility”, which means treating employees as just another cost and commodity, to be disposed of at the whim of the employer. Employees need not be given any acknowledgement, need feel no loyalty, and their knowledge and experience are (supposedly) irrelevant or replaceable. As a result, employment is not only less secure, there is less reason to commit to the work or make a job ones’ own, one is in competition with fellow employees, and the workplace is less socially engaging. In other words employment is both less secure and less fulfilling.
The Australia Institute reports that full-time workers in Australia now work an average of 44 hours per week, more than in either the US or Japan. This is far from the aspiration of thirty years ago to reduce the standard working week from 37.5 hours to 35 hours. Furthermore a significant fraction of that work is in the form of unpaid overtime. Excessive working hours contribute to poorer health and less time with family and community. Family and community, it is increasingly recognised, are central to our physical, social and spiritual wellbeing. As our supporting social network is weakened, so our anxiety rises.
Neoliberalism has also reduced or eliminated many formerly publicly funded services. This has had a less visible negative effect on wellbeing. Along with indirect effects of insecurity, including poor health and increased crime, our social fabric has been systematically weakened.
That neoliberalism weakens families, communities and the social fabric is not incidental, it is central. Neoliberalism extols competition and derides cooperation as interference in the competitive market place. It advocates replacing social interactions with market interactions, as happens when baby-sitting is replace by corporate child care and small shops and local markets are replaced by big-box stores and malls. Ironically, neoliberalism is a mirror image of communism, which extols cooperation and derides competition as leading to exploitation. Each doctrine is an extreme parody of our humanity, which embraces both competition and cooperation. Indeed, the whole living world is pervaded by cooperative relationships, along with the competitive “red in tooth and claw” image that it has been simplistically characterised with. Real life is not so simple as either extreme doctrine.
In real life there is a healthy tension between our competitive and cooperative urges. We need the support, acknowledgement and love of family and community, just as much as we need to develop our unique individuality. The need to balance competition and cooperation means life is never simple, but it also gives life its richness. The challenge is not to let one side dominate. On the one hand, it is not healthy to submerge our identity serving someone else’s purpose. On the other hand, it is neither healthy nor necessary to express our individuality at someone else’s expense. Competition in the absence of social connection quickly turns destructive, generating resentment, anger and hostility that serves no-one. Acting without social restraints is sociopathic. Many of our modern institutions are sociopathic, the corporation being an obvious example.
So our society is dominated by a doctrine that denies an essential part of our humanity. It is not surprising then to find people are uneasy, anxious, fearful or paranoid. With our social anchors seriously weakened, we are vulnerable to simplistic solutions and to demagogues promising security. Crazy theories are proliferating, the blogosphere is full of anger and denial, and politicians seem increasingly willing to say whatever people want to hear, no matter how simplistic, inconsistent or counter productive.
Neoliberalism was borne of insecurity. Its central theory of markets is a theory of allocating scarce goods. It grew out of the disruptions of the English and European industrial revolutions. Ironically it presumed scarcity just as greater abundance was being created. The problem was that the social supports of traditional communities were being disrupted and people were being forced into factories and cities. Out of England’s dark satanic mills was born the robotic, disposable, asocial “agent”, the “rational economic man” of economic theory. Even the rich, with little social support to tide them through hard times, lived in greater fear of losing their wealth. Neoliberalism was born in fear and propagates fear.
The power of neoliberalism is that it promises security even as it systematically undermines our security. It is a doctrine of individuality, and it attracts leaders who succeed through their own ruthless strength. They present as stern father figures who will keep us safe, thus attracting the least secure in our society. Unfortunately their program only makes us more insecure, so their promises become more simplistic and more bombastic. This is the road to Mussolini’s authoritarian world – the original fascism.
This political spiral is perfectly mirrored by consumerism in the economic domain. Our lives feel incomplete, and marketers promise that if only we buy product X our lives will be complete and people will love us. However the effect of product X soon wears off, and we come back for more. Yes, and product Y is just the thing for us.
That is why our lives are filling up with stuff, why our vehicles, houses and mortgages get bigger, why the economy must keep growing inexorably, and why we are destroying the planet around us. The living environment of Earth, simply and fundamentally, is our life support system, and none of our clever technologies has altered that basic fact in the slightest. Neoliberalism has fostered an addiction to materialism, and our addiction will destroy us if we do not overcome it.
From this vantage many of the symptoms currently manifesting in our society are more explicable. The political mainstream doesn’t understand the real issues facing us now – the widespread but poorly articulated unease, concerns about the global economy, the degrading environment. The extreme right can only prescribe more of the same. The less extreme right occupied by Labor can only apply bandaids and, having abandoned their home ground, they are always on the defensive.
From their vantage, the extreme right view everyone else as leftists. However in their usage Left no longer just means socialist. There are almost no socialists left anyway, but the Right loves to raise the socialist bogey man. Rather Left refers to anyone willing to acknowledge the malfunctions or dysfunctions of markets, or anyone advocating policies less destructive of our social fabric and the environment. With the rising level of reactionary hysteria borne of insecurity, Left has also come to mean anyone with an informed opinion contrary to the simplistic slogans of the extreme right and those possessed by reactionary fear.
The alleged bias of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation is revealed as being merely its traditional presentation of more balanced news and more informed opinion. Unfortunately it is being dragged to the right by a board stacked with right-wing ideologues and a managing director slowly shifting the news to more tabloid presentation, entertainment to being more about celebrities and the rich, and on-line opinion that features many from the extreme-right.
The viability, balance and quality of the commercial media have recently become a focus of attention. A proposal to enforce quite minimal standards has raised howls of outrage that a “free” press is under threat, apparently meaning free for the very rich. In this context claims by commercial media to the mantle of “quality journalism” are laughable. Commercial media have always sensationalised, and thereby severely distorted our view of ourselves and the world. Lately the distinction between reporting and commentary seems to have become thoroughly blurred, with news reports full of loaded, judgemental words.
My own direct experience is not atypical. A rowdy demonstration by Aboriginal protesters was falsely portrayed by the media, apparently without exception, as a riot, implying violence. Even the ABC couldn’t just report the events, it put its judgement front and centre by beginning its bulletin “Australia Day celebrations were marred by …” [my emphasis]. The result of all this misreporting was another defamatory lie about our already severely disadvantaged indigenous people.
The Australian newspaper seems no longer to care, or know, about the distinction between reporting and commentary, as documented in some detail by Robert Manne. It conducts explicit vendettas against anyone who incurs its displeasure. On many topics its reports and commentaries are highly selective, emphasising one side of debate. This is most explicit on global warming, as it shamelessly promotes the views of any crackpot willing to claim global warming is a hoax and a conspiracy. The Australian hardly deserves to be called a newspaper any more. Too often it sinks to being a propaganda rag spruiking for the highly self-interested world view of its owner, Rupert Murdoch.
Murdoch of course is the owner and promoter of Fox News in the US, which sets the global standard for presenting ignorant ranting as news. Absurdly rich Australian mining magnates are now following Murdoch’s lead. Gina Rinehart will probably gain representation on the board of Fairfax, or buy it outright. If that happens Australia’s commercial media will have lost all pretence to “quality journalism” and will join The Australian in the gutter.
Another interesting symptom of the times is that economic commentators scold people for being unreasonably cautious in spending their money, implying people are ungrateful for living in the best economy in the world. Of course most economists are blind to the continuing parlous state of the global economy, as they were blind to the approach of the GFC. They don’t understand that people are nervous and want to pay down their debts more than they want a new TV.
A related symptom is that people complain a lot that it’s hard to make ends meet and life is a rat race. Economists and moralists tend to scoff, pointing out that Australians are among the richest people in the world, and getting richer. They overlook the way the neoliberal program has undermined peoples’ job security, and generated a housing price bubble, both of which have put people on an accelerating tread mill. People are both very rich in dollar terms and stressed by their personal economic and social circumstances. That is the paradox of the neoliberal materialist addiction.
One modern symptom not so far mentioned is a steady rise in cynicism about politics and disengagement from the political process. This shows up in a rise in votes for minor parties and independents, and in people voting informally or not voting at all. In the 2010 election 12.4% of the enrolled electorate refused to give a preference to the major parties. Instead they voted informal (5.6%), or did not vote (6.8%). These are dramatic figures in a country where voting is compulsory and preferential. A further 11.8% gave their first preference to the Greens and 6.6% to independents and others.
The Labor Party is the main loser from this disillusionment. This is no surprise given the history outlined earlier. It is hard to see how Labor can survive as a serious potential government. People know they are being sold out.
The right-wing parties are hardly regarded any better. In an election where so many were disillusioned by Labor, the Coalition should have romped in. Instead it also failed to gain a majority and a hung parliament resulted, unusual in our traditionally highly-polarised two-party politics. Labor was able to form a minority government with the support of the Greens. It is claimed the Coalition will win a landslide in the next election, but that is based on the habitual reduction of polls to a “two-party preferred” vote. If many declare “a plague on both your houses” then the Coalition may not win by so much.
Australia is ripe for a major political re-alignment. Labor abandoned its traditional support for ordinary people, preferring to appease the right-wing press and prostitute itself to the big end of town. The Coalition, as the chief protector of neoliberalism, increasingly depends for support on the fearful reactionary vote. Its current leader and its messages are negative, simplistic, inconsistent and a betrayal of its liberal founders, just as much as Labor betrays its own founders. Neither deserves to survive.
Unfortunately the major parties are culturally entrenched and hard to dislodge. The vast fortunes of the coal industry and other miners are being used explicitly to support the current regime, which is greatly to their advantage. The Greens are making steady but slow progress. No other grouping shows any sign of gaining a foothold, though there has been a rise in numbers of independents in many of our parliaments.
In summary, the continuing use of the simplistic, one-dimensional political spectrum of Left and Right disguises some major shifts in Australia’s politics and society. There has been a dramatic shift to the Right compared with the postwar decades, and what is now called Right is radical rather than conservative. The shift was driven substantially by a concerted long-term campaign by market fundamentalists, abetted by circumstances along the way. The Left used to refer to socialism, but now refers to socially progressive, compassionate or environmental views that advocate both direct programs and the retention of some regulation to temper the negative effects of markets.
Although this rightward shift is claimed to have been a major success, especially in the economic area, the evidence contradicts this claim. Economic measures in the neoliberal era, from about 1980, fall well short of the performance achieved in the postwar decades, and ultimately the deregulation of the financial sector led to the Global Financial Crisis that continues to wreak great hardship on many people in much of the world. The theoretical basis of the belief in free-markets is completely wanting by the criteria of real science – its assumptions are absurd and its predictions are dramatically contradicted by market crashes and other readily available evidence. Not only has the neoliberal program failed economically, it has caused great social harm through its emphasis on hyper-individualism and competition, at the expense of social relationships and cooperation, which are also an essential part of healthy human experience.
The old Left is in disarray. The Australian Labor Party that used to occupy that ground abandoned it in the 1980s. It is now without any clear reason for existing, and it is plausible that it is in terminal decline. Many Left-leaning individuals and organisations have also yielded. The new radical Right is temporarily in the ascendant, but is unlikely to last in its present form. Two possibilities present: either the logic of the Right will continue to drive it to ever-greater superficiality and fear-mongering so that it becomes explicitly authoritarian in the manner of Mussolini’s original Fascism, or it will exhaust the tolerance of the people and it too will face its demise.
The latter course would be facilitated if new political groupings can emerge that eschew both market fundamentalism and old socialism, which does not work very well. At present the Greens are the only significant grouping of that sort, but rumblings of forming a new labor or crystallising a grouping of social progressives and old liberals can be heard.
The way forward is indicated by the emerging conception of economies as dynamic self-organising systems. Markets are clearly powerful, but there is neither theoretical nor observational evidence for the claim that free markets automatically produce a desirable result. The resolution of this conundrum is to recognise that markets will follow financial incentives, which can be managed to yield the results desired. This will not be simple, but we have already been doing it for a long time, though in a rather incoherent and conflicted way. Much can also be achieved in other ways, for example by emphasising alternative ownership arrangements, such as cooperatives and local ownership bodies and through leasing. The broad approach and many more options are outlined more fully in my eBook The Nature of the Beast.
We can thus transcend the old and destructive dichotomy of socialism versus capitalism. Economies in the new conception can take many forms, so every society can tailor its economy to support its own culture. All economies can potentially be brought into consistency with the living environment, so instead of slowly dying it comes to thrive around us.