What currently passes for political commentary includes excited discussions about whether the Leftist Labor dog is being wagged by a“toxic” Greens tail; why right-wing Labor is in dire straits; whether centrist Labor is resurgent; and whether the extremist Greens are doomed.
Balance, in political commentary, is supposed to lie somewhere between Labor and Tony Abbott, who often seems to be regarded as just a somewhat aggro conservative.
Such commentary reflects remarkably limited perspectives that fail to take into account two major developments over the past five decades. The first is the rise of the radical Right. The second is the manifest failure of radical Right policies.
Labor and the Coalition have been profoundly affected by these changes. The old meanings of Left and Right no longer apply, though they are still often used in the old ways. The long-term view of balance in public discussion is very different from what passes for balance today. The Greens are not simply, or even mainly, a party of the Left.
That these claims will be contentious, despite clear and readily available evidence supporting them, is symptomatic of a political correctness far more pervasive and effective than any alleged Leftist PC the Right rails about.
In 1962, the Left referred to socialism, which came in many degrees. Labor was by then a mildly socialist social-democrat party dedicated to getting ordinary people a fair share of the pie and to some socially progressive causes. Being a broad church, it was not uniformly consistent in such aims, but that was the general thrust.
The Right, in those days, referred to conservative, which meant a strong slant to big business and a tendency to social conservatism. Malcolm Fraser’s view is that the Liberal Party was “classical liberal”, anti-communist and socially progressive. The Country Party, now the National Party, was socially conservative but fond of socialist-style subsidies and market protections.
Through the post-war years a new right-wing movement, now called neoliberalism, was promoting itself. Neoliberalism is an amalgam of free-market fundamentalism and libertarianism, the latter advocating the dissolution of social structure.
Neoliberalism is the mirror image of communism – the one advocating competition at the expense of cooperation, the other advocating cooperation at the expense of competition. Neoliberalism is not conservative; it is extremist. Social bonds and cooperation are as central to our humanity as independence and competition, and we must learn to balance them for a healthy life.
Neoliberalism took advantage of the oil shocks of the seventies to claim that the loosely-Keynesian economic policies of the time were the problem and that neoliberal program was the solution. Neoliberalism triumphed with the elections of Margaret Thatcher in 1979 and Ronald Reagan in 1980.
Ironically, it was Hawke and Keating who set about vigorously implementing the neoliberal agenda in Australia. Howard, Rudd and Gillard have continued the program, with deviations for political expediency (Howard) and token sops to old Labor values (Rudd and Gillard).
As a result, Australia today has greater inequality, and is more divided and divisive, more selfish, more insecure, and more fearful. The insecurity leads to xenophobic and racist behaviour and policies. The core institutions of our open, democratic society – the rule of law, fundamental legal and human rights, open communication, the electoral process – have been diminished.
A lot of our insecurity derives from job insecurity, a direct result of the neoliberal view that employees are mere commodities, disposable cost items, as encapsulated in the euphemism “labour market flexibility”.
More insecurity comes from the weakening of family, community, and social structures that is a consequence of longer working hours, reduced local and national support for communities and social programs, and implicit neglect or overt derogation of the value of social relationships.
Yes, goes the modern mantra, but that is just bleeding-heart Leftist whinging; we are much better off now because neoliberalism has been such a great success economically. Well, no. Here especially, the narrowly channelled groupthink of the neoliberal era is most obvious. The evidence of perfectly standard indices has been almost totally overlooked.
Economically neoliberalism was never better than mediocre. It then led to disaster. It never measured up to the post-war decades in GDP growth (5.2 per cent then, 2-4 per cent lately) and unemployment (1.3 per cent then, 5-7 per cent lately). Inflation was hardly different then (3.3 per cent) than lately (2-3 per cent), though that is now regarded as impossible with such low unemployment. The wealth that has accrued has gone disproportionately to the wealthy, so inequality has increased markedly.
Worse, though, the deregulation of the financial sector led directly to a huge build-up of private debt that collapsed under its own weight in the Global Financial Crisis of 2007-8, triggering the worst recession since the 1930s. The fringe of Europe and much of the US are in depression conditions.
Australia has (so far) been spared the worst effects of the GFC because of the fortuitous occurrence of a mining boom, and because of Kevin Rudd’s much-maligned expansionary spending – school halls, pink batts and all.
Under Coalition neoliberal policies, we would have suffered much more. Europe, under its current neoliberal management, will inevitably crash further, and China is slowing, so our turn may come.
So neoliberalism has made a minority very rich, put the rest of us Australians on a materialist treadmill for only moderate gain, thrown the rest of the world into deep recession, and done a great deal of damage to Australia’s relatively open and tolerant society. It has also promoted accelerating environmental destruction. Suffice to say here that none of our clever technologies have changed the fundamental fact that we human beings are totally dependent on a healthy biosphere.
The rise in fear fomented by neoliberalism has increased the ranks and visibility of xenophobes. So the Right, these days, includes reactionary xenophobes as well as neoliberals, with a strong dash of racism. These people are not conservative, they are radical. It was this division in the Liberal Party that unseated Malcolm Turnbull and handed the leadership to Tony Abbott.
So the Liberal Party is now dominated by the radical right. The Nationals these days are mostly reactionary. Labor is somewhat less radical Right.
The Greens, if you look past the hysterical rhetoric of the radical Right, are environmental and social progressives and economic pragmatists. Their environmental and social positions are not far ahead of the electorate, so they are not extremists – they are just far ahead of the other parties. They do not advocate large-scale government ownership, so are not socialist either, certainly no more than, say, Robert Menzies. (Disclaimer: I have no affiliation with the Greens and do not support everything they do.)
The manifest failures and harmfulness of neoliberalism seem to be almost invisible to mainstream commentary. This is not just due to laziness and myopia, though they undoubtedly play a role. As well, there is a sustained chorus of enforcers who ridicule, vilify and intimidate anyone who dares to question the received wisdom. Attack-dog commentators and shock jocks permeate all of our media. Many emanate from right-wing think tanks dedicated to furthering the faith. That is the real political correctness under which we suffer.
We need to move beyond the false dichotomy of socialism and old-style capitalism. A new understanding of economies as self-organising systems shows that markets in fact need to be managed. The theory that supposedly underpins free-market fundamentalism is so flawed that its application amounts to pseudoscience. Incredible as this will seem to our political mainstream, there is no justification in theory or in practice for the claim that free markets automatically make the most efficient use of resources, let alone yield a desirable result.
Most people recognise anyway that markets often malfunction, and so need to be managed. We have been doing this for a long time, though timidly and rather incoherently. We ought now to go ahead unapologetically and use incentives and disincentives, and some regulation if necessary, with the goal of inducing markets to support the kind of society we wish to live in. Harnessing markets to our purposes is not socialist, nor Left, nor Right; it is something new to challenge ossified minds. Economies should serve us, not rule us.
The new understanding of economies also implies we can align our economies with the requirements of a healthy biosphere. We can live well as the natural world thrives around us.
The old parties are oblivious to these realities and opportunities. The old Left/Right labelling misses both the profound political changes of the past half century and the quite different challenges and approaches of the coming decades.
We need to break the shackles of political correctness so we can get on with life, and try to retrieve some decency, and a half-decent planet, for our grandchildren.