17 November 2016
By Warwick Smith
The forward march of the neoliberal consensus had for decades appeared to be unstoppable.
Somehow the wealthy elite managed to hoodwink us into believing that competition was the key to prosperity, including competition between workers. They played down the inherent divergence of interests between employees and employers and mounted a multipronged attack on organised labour, resulting in workers competing against each other rather than working in solidarity for their shared interests.
Massive global trade deals touted as “free trade” were drafted in secret to favour and protect the power of the world’s biggest corporations and were championed by both sides of the narrow political divide in most of the world’s countries, Australia included.
Across much of the developed world, particularly the English-speaking world, this neoliberal paradigm had achieved political consensus. Here in Australia it was primarily the Hawke/Keating governments that cemented the consensus, privatising public institutions in the name of competition (and creating private monopolies and oligopolies in the process), taming unions into irrelevance and opening the economy to competition. The Coalition could never have gotten away with such neoliberal reforms.
It was this consensus that made neoliberalism appear unassailable for decades. Even the Global Financial Crisis didn’t result in any meaningful change to an obviously corrupt system but merely reinforced the subservience of the public to the financial elite as the former bore the costs of the latter’s decadence and folly.
However, it turns out that the consequences of the global financial crisis were on slow burn. The Occupy movement saw the problem but fizzled out due to lack of solution. There was a brief opportunity where established power was weak but progressives had no coherent plan with which to step into the breach.
When the dominant paradigm is breaking down, a new narrative is needed. If a new narrative is not created, old ones will re-emerge. That’s Trump and Brexit. There is nothing new in either story; bar the details.
Nationalism and xenophobia combined with nostalgic delusions of a past that never was are old, tried and true rally cries for the disillusioned. That said, the negative elements of Trump should not be overplayed. Many voted for Trump despite these things, not because of them. They voted for Trump because he wasn’t the status quo. In addition, many progressives didn’t vote, seeing an option between a misogynist, racist liar and the deeply imbedded political establishment represented by Clinton as a no-win choice. What would have been really interesting, is if Bernie Sanders had run against Trump.
The neoliberal consensus is broken but Trump will not give the disillusioned what they want. He has no serious or plausible plan to “make America great again”. This represents the biggest opportunity for progressives, both in the US and elsewhere, since the 1970s. If we can create a narrative and a genuine plan to replace neoliberalism, then we can step into the void that Trump will inevitably leave (and that is opening in Australia and elsewhere). The established political elite will have a great deal of trouble stepping back into that void with any hope of stability. They don’t have what the people want and their excuses are no longer palatable. They have been seen to be wearing no clothes.
There is a path from here to a reinvigorated and practical progressive politics. In fact, a populist cracking of the neoliberal consensus may have been the only such path – though one form of it could have seen Bernie Sanders in the White House instead of a serial sexual predator and bully.
Nationalism is a reflexive response to a loss of solidarity and belonging. Neoliberalism, and its underpinning in neoclassical economics, sees labour as a commodity just like any other. Absent is the acknowledgement that labour is the people who should be the beneficiaries of the system, not just another exchangeable part in it. Thus, labour (people) is expected to be mobile; willing to move wherever work is. It doesn’t matter that this dislocates people from family and friendships, that’s not part of the equation. When you include employment created as a competition between workers, you have a perfect recipe for isolation and loneliness.
The nuclear family has become the fundamental social unit, often dislocated from a broader support network. All of this combined with long commutes to work and high housing costs creates a society where everybody is perpetually busy and tired with no meaningful sense of belonging or purpose. Is it any wonder that people are abandoning business-as-usual politics and politicians?
A vote for Clinton was a vote for business-as-usual. A vote for Trump was a vote for shaking things up. Things do need shaking up.
We can shake things up in a positive, progressive and inclusive way and if we’re to manage it then we need to speak to the disillusioned and disenfranchised. Efforts to reinvigorate and modernise unions and other forms of worker solidarity are critical, as are careful consideration of urban planning and decentralisation.
Moving towards a four-day work week or a six-hour working day would help reduce unemployment, reduce pressure on families and create more time for socialising and community building.
In short, right now we have an opportunity to wrest some power from those who benefit from labour as a commodity and return it to the population. We should be asking what it means to live a good life in the 21st century and then shaping society in such a way that people can live that life; not just the wealthy, but all of us.
This is a real vision of the future to offer the disillusioned and disenfranchised. We should measure the progress of our society not by GDP but by the capacity of the broader population to live a fulfilling life. Of course, the health of the economy is important but only in that it serves the people. Growth as an ideology, untethered from human wellbeing, is ludicrous.
What’s missing from the modern political narrative is any sense of value or of progress aside from narrow and unfulfilling consumerism. In recent years, stagnating wages and out of control housing costs are combining to deny people even the illusion of progress through consumerism. This is a great opportunity for progressives but mere facts and arguments are incapable of creating change; we need a story of hope, progress and redemption. Like what Trump offered but without all the lies, misplaced reminiscences, bigotry and xenophobia. Doesn’t sound too difficult to me.