Is That It For Neoliberalism?


The recent release of Robert Manne and David McKnight’s edited volume, Goodbye To All That?: On the Failure of Neoliberalism and the Urgency of Change was bedevilled, perhaps inevitably, by a few timing issues. The stocks of neoliberalism and its most prominent Australian critic, Kevin Rudd, have fallen somewhat since then.

When the collection was being assembled last year, Australia was still deep in the woods of the global financial crisis. Our economy has motored along pretty well since then — thanks to the Rudd Government’s stimulus package and continuing demand for our exports. The consequences of the "failure of neoliberalism" — something that most of the authors gathered by Manne and McKnight take to arise from the meltdown of global financial markets from late 2007 — are less prominent for many Australians than they were, or might otherwise have been.

There’s also the fact that the essay that is the centrepiece of the collection — an essay on neoliberalism by Kevin Rudd which first appeared in The Monthly in February 2009 — is republished here just as the predictable left wing disillusionment with the PM takes hold.

Like every ALP incumbent before him, as far back at least as Curtin, Rudd is currently being attacked from the left as an unprincipled sellout and a coward. The excitement many clearly felt about a prime minister appearing to publicly attack what had hitherto been economic orthodoxy has cooled. The Prime Minister has disappointed many on the left principally on the issue of a deferred policy response to climate change — on which other parliamentary groupings who blocked the CPRS like the Greens and the Coalition appear to have been given a free pass.

The polls are now indicating that Tony Abbott has a more than fighting chance of forming the next government. Rudd’s essay may not be quite the fillip for the collection that may have been anticipated. And indeed, as David McKnight, one of the contributors most attuned to the present state of Australian social democracy, shows, whatever the Prime Minister might write about neoliberalism, the Rudd Government is still happy to institute market-based policy prescriptions on childcare and education.

Too often, neoliberalism is defined simply by whatever the person using it disapproves of. To their credit, Goodbye To All That? is concerned with defining neoliberalism and accounting for its origins and the hold it came to have on the minds of policymakers.

Many of the essays do go over old ground; a few include new perspectives; none, as far as I can tell, offers much in the way of positive future directions for social democracy.

The introduction by McKnight and Manne, and Manne’s own essay in the volume, set out a familiar case, which they repeated in their separate talks at the book’s Sydney launch. Their potted history of neoliberalism shows that the concept has always been subject to the exigencies of political and economic history.

Roughly: this thing called neoliberalism consisted first of a set of ideas derived from (and pushed hard by) the likes of Hayek and the Chicago School. It posited a "market fundamentalism" which saw competitive markets as inherently good and government intervention as bad. The objection to intervention was not just because this led to inefficiency, but because it also inevitably led to tyranny: market freedom was in effect seen as the basis of all other freedoms.

After 1970s stagflation put paid to 30 years of Keynesian economic orthodoxy, those who had been arguing that any government interference in markets was a step on the road to totalitarianism had their chance. The 1980s and 1990s saw the deregulation of financial and labour markets, the floating of currencies, the removal of systems of national protection, and privatisation combined with the establishment of quasi-markets in public services. The most disturbing consequence of this for Manne and McKnight has been the atomisation of social and communal life, and the inability of political and economic systems to acknowledge gravely dangerous "externalities" like climate change.

Ian Lowe and Guy Pearse take on climate change directly, which editors and authors alike construe as the primary threat to our social and economic systems, the lack of a response to which can be seen as the ultimate failure of neoliberalism, and an unanswerable argument for stronger government intervention in the way our economies run. But once again, both authors have made similar arguments elsewhere, including in their Quarterly Essays.

Newer thought comes from other contributors. In particular, Jean Curthoys’s essay is interesting for trying to show that Hayekian neoliberalism and Marxism are two sides of a coin: they’re both overly "interesting" political and economic doctrines, which rely extensively on abstraction, whose primary appeal is to intellectuals, who tend to take abstractions such as those found in these theories far too seriously. She calls for a return to a more "boring" politics based on simply reconciling the diverse interests of the governed — one that grows out of liberal and social-democratic traditions. For all that, the role of abstraction in helping people come to formulate their interests seems to have been neglected in Curthoys’s argument.

That said, Curthoys comes closest to telling some important truths about social democracy, especially in its Australian form: that it is more concerned with programs and principles than political theory; that, where intellectuals are concerned, it has most use for those engaged in specialised technical pursuits — economists, say, or lawyers — and that the boring activity of reconciling interests that is the central concern of social democratic governments is most likely to alienate intellectuals first.

What this actually means is that social democracy in practice often has an uncomfortable relationship to the intellectuals who seek to support it. Above all, social democracy of the "boring" kind is apt to move slowly and haltingly. Barack Obama’s pronouncement on the passage of a sub-optimal universal healthcare package this year — "this is what change looks like" — was both a social-democratic admission and admonition: where powerful interests have to be contended with, although you may be guided by high principles, you might not get what you want, and you might not get it on time.

Although they signal the importance of generating ideas for a social-democratic, post-neoliberal future, in the book, the editors admit — as they did under questioning at the launch — that there aren’t too many ideas of "programmatic specificity" to be found in Goodbye To All That?

Of course, McKnight’s previous book Beyond Right and Left was not short of bold policy proposals, and the emphasis on critique and analysis here is in keeping with much of Rudd’s essay. Still, we’re left with mainly a negative sense of what social democracy might mean now. That’s not necessarily a weakness. What may be a weakness is the comparative lack of attention to labour in Goodbye To All That? After all, if anything won the 2007 election for Labor, it was the Liberal party’s assault on working conditions in Workchoices.

Climate change policy looms large as a topic in this book, as it has in progressive circles in recent years. But the level of attention to climate policy has obscured the significant lost opportunity to use concern about working conditions — even in its contemporary guise of work-life balance — as a platform for a broad-based progressive project. Our unions are still pursuing this as a potential election issue, but the left commentariat as a whole may have lost sight of the oldest truth of progressive politics: that work hits people where they live, and talking about it offers the precious glue of solidarity, and a way of thinking more broadly about common interests.

If nothing else, Goodbye To All That? gives us a jarring sense of how quickly a political moment can pass, and reminds us how tenuous compacts between left-liberal intellectuals and politicians — even those who write essays — can be. More seriously, it gives us a sense of where we need to work harder in thinking about how to bring people together again around a broad-based social-democratic project.

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