[Didn’t get any takers for this commentary, then it got stale. There may be more opportunities before too long.]
It’s not the salespeople, it’s the product. The product does not serve the people and the people know it, so they keep rejecting the salesperson.
You might think, after a parade of six short-term Prime Ministers, and counting, that this diagnosis of Australia’s political instability might be more commonly perceived, but much of the attention remains on more superficial factors like personality, technology, social media and so on. Even when the political product is questioned few seem to appreciate the depth of its inadequacy.
For thirty five years Australia has been subjected to a regime that glorifies selfishness and projects a stunted vision of who we are. This regime avails itself of concepts, tools and policies that are, in various combinations, misguided, deluded, perverse, self-serving and irrelevant. Parliament has become corrupt and ineffectual. It is not a wonder that our politics is farcical.
The neoliberal ideology behind the regime exalts individualism to the point of denying the existence of society: we are just so many transacting automatons. Those suffering hard times are told they have only themselves to blame. They are to be pulled from the public teat, harassed and vilified.
The most potent component of the ideology is its promotion of so-called free markets, which are supposed to deliver the most efficient possible economy and, by implication, the most desirable society. But the theory behind market fundamentalism is a sick joke. It is based on wildly unrealistic assumptions and it predicts a gentle, balanced system that is nothing at all like the constant churning and wild gyrations of the real economy.
Real markets are like wild horses, powerful but erratic, but mainstream economists pretend they are like rocking horses.
In this perverse vision we are all supposed to be like calculating reptiles: clever, brute materialists without social connection.
Reality is much more nuanced, and much richer. People are both competitive and cooperative. The art of the good life is to balance the two tendencies. We need to balance our personal interests with the interests of our group, be it family, community or society.
Our accomplishments are due both to our individual efforts and to our social circumstance. Being born into modern Australian society gives us many more options than being born into poor societies or traditional communities. Our own health and wellbeing depends on maintaining the health of the society that offers us so much.
We are also totally dependent on the natural living world for our food, water and even the air we breathe. Quite fundamentally, its health is our health and if it dies we die. So we need to balance our personal needs with the needs of our society and of the planetary environment.
From this perspective the regime of the past few decades is pathological. It treats us as materialist brutes and ignores the social, moral, aesthetic and spiritual dimensions of our beings. It denies the existence of society, and as a result our social fabric is frayed and torn. It pillages the natural world, which is degrading rapidly and alarmingly.
More immediately, the neoliberal regime has not worked, on its own terms. In the postwar decades GDP growth was over 5% per annum and unemployment averaged 1.3%. These days those numbers are reversed, and as well we have had the severe Keating recession of the early 1990s and the Global Financial Crisis from which most of the world has yet to recover.
The neoliberal regime has never been popular. We did not want our public assets sold off. We did not want our employment security removed by legislation. We never approved the ‘competition policy’ that pretends or insists the public service, schools, hospitals, even child care are for-profit businesses.
Decades of mismanagement are manifesting in such baleful effects as absurdly over-priced housing, a huge private debt burden, rocketing inequality, insecure employment, anxiety, obesity, scapegoating, xenophobia, racism and other proliferating forms of extremism.
In other countries there are growing movements to break away from this destructive obsession, led by Bernie Sanders in the US, Jeremy Corbyn in the UK and others in continental Europe.
Our older political parties need to give up the snake oil or they will be displaced, as has happened in Italy and France. The Greens need to realise their program will always be subverted unless they step into the main game and return the economy to the more balanced and constructive form it used to have.
We can go beyond the old ideologies. Markets can be managed through incentives and disincentives. We use these tools already, but incoherently and often perversely. We might be surprised how well markets can work if they are aligned with what we want, instead of what a few greedy people want.
Most of all we need to disavow the stunted and pathological model that neoliberalism has tried to foist on us, and assert our full humanity in all its richness.