ALLAN PATIENCE. Anyone for disruption?

The ugly chickens of the neoliberal era in Australian public policy are relentlessly coming home to roost: stagnating wages, high unemployment (especially among young people), declining standards in public hospitals, schools, universities, and TAFE institutes, homelessness on the increase, more beggars on the streets, increased social conflict (crime, racist violence, domestic violence, home invasions, road rage, car-jackings, sexual harassment), the death of manufacturing, more and more people experiencing anger, despair, anxiety and depression, unprecedented growth in socio-economic inequality, big corporations bullying governments and the general public (big banks, mining companies, media organisations) …

The latest public figure to call attention to the truly perilous state of the Australian economy and society is the courageous ACTU secretary, Sally McManus. She correctly notes that ordinary workers have absolutely not benefited from what the purveyors of aggregate economic statistics claim is a world-beating, healthy Australian economy. Despite the stats, she points to the mere 1 per cent of the Australian population that now owns and/or controls more wealth than 70 per cent of the population. And it’s getting worse. There are no policies in place that would arrest this serious development.

Ms McManus is calling for “disruptions” to the neoliberal economic agenda that has created the mess we are now in, while fools like federal treasurer Scott Morrison and prime minister Malcolm Turnbull would have us believe that everything in the economic garden is rosy. It’s not. The garden is full of noxious weeds and strangling vines. Only those at the very top of the tree are benefiting from what is the laughably self-proclaimed sound economic husbandry of the Coalition government.

Earlier this year Ms McManus proposed that if laws are unjust we should be prepared to break them. This is a time-honoured sentiment that goes back at least to the time of the late 17th  century Liberal philosopher John Locke. He argued that if governments misgovern us, we not only have the right to disobey them, but we have the duty to overthrow them. He was arguing this in an era when the doctrine of the divine right of kings was still fashionable (and which is still fashionable on the extreme right of the Liberal Party).

So Ms McManus belongs to a very great tradition in democratic thought that, among other great things, motivated the writers of the American Constitution to create the American Republic. Predictably, News Ltd hacks and their ilk went ballistic following Ms McManus’s remarks. She was accused of encouraging lawlessness, violence, mayhem and many like things beside. (Interestingly, John Locke faced similar accusations and had to flee to France to avoid decapitation in the Tower of London. Will Ms McManus be forced to flee to New Zealand to avoid the confected wrath of Rupert and his minions?)

The News Ltd creatures were notoriously silent however when three federal ministers – Greg Hunt, Michael Sukkar and Alan Tudge – barely escaped a conviction for contempt of court – a conviction that could have seen them jailed but for a very late-in-the-day cringing apology. The silence of the right in politics and the media on this occasion speaks volumes. The ministers and those they hang out with in Parliament claim to be conservatives, arrogantly cloaking themselves in a tradition stretching back to the great 18th century Irish philosopher and Member of the Commons, Edmund Burke. That tradition surfaces vividly in the 20th century writings of the political philosopher Michael Oakeshott (see, for example, his brilliant essay “On Being Conservative”).

Genuine political conservatives in the Burke to Oakeshott line would never imperil the functioning of the separation of powers by being found to be in contempt of court. Most members of the right in contemporary Australian politics are in fact faux conservatives – even anti-conservative – espousing a callously anti-social ideology of individualism while drifting increasingly towards the falangist end of the political spectrum (see, for example, the recent draconian moves to tighten citizenship laws in this country).

Ms McManus is calling on the Trade Union movement in Australia to confront the way we are presently being governed and to disrupt the policy manacles imposed on the body politic by neoliberalism. She is absolutely right to advocate disruption. But the question is: How can this be successfully achieved? Disruption is needed, but are we able to guarantee the outcomes?

Before the Trade Union movement can engage in effective disruption of the neoliberal yoke under which we all labour, it needs to look to its own institutions and organisations. It needs to ask why so few workers in Australia today are union members. It needs to get rid of the sources of corruption and criminality that have pervaded some unions. It needs leaders who genuinely connect with real workers, who truly understand – and share – the harrowing conditions, poor wages, insecure employment, dangerous working conditions, and merciless bosses that real workers have to endure each and every day.

Trade Unions in short have to clean up their act – comprehensively – if they are going to be part of a movement to first disrupt and then to clean out the Augean stables of neoliberalism.

In the meantime, real workers and their allies need to look closely at what is happening in France where the En Marche movement under President Emmanuel Macron is shaking the very foundations of the neoliberal agenda that is half the cause of the weakness of the French economy. The other half is caused by a recalcitrant trade union movement that has been a mindless complement to the woes that neoliberalism has imposed on the French people.

We need an Advance Australia movement in this country that Ms McManus could perhaps help create, to finally disrupt forever the depredations that neoliberalism has rained down on the Australian people for far too long. May the Australian Trade Union movement come clearly to the fore of this urgently needed reform.


Allan Patience is a political scientist in the University of Melbourne.

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7 Responses to ALLAN PATIENCE. Anyone for disruption?

  1. Andrew Deakin says:

    Re “the harrowing conditions, poor wages, insecure employment, dangerous working conditions, and merciless bosses that real workers have to endure each and every day.”

    Looks like the world as seen by a rentier snobbishly surveying the hoi polloi from the relatively privileged and easy employment of academia.

    Remarkably, most Australian wage employees in the private sector forego union membership. Maybe they feel a lot better off not having chip-on-the-shoulder agitators telling them how to organise their working conditions.

    Allan’s disdain for ordinary people and their lives would be funny if he didn’t inflate it so much with outdated class analysis. The latter makes his employment seem futile, old fashioned, and a waste of money. No doubt some like his courses and subcribe to his views. His academic salary no doubt funds a good many enjoyable lunches. Bon appetit!

  2. Julian says:

    Crikey Allan, you have covered a fair bit of territory very quickly and for that you have my thanks. Incidentally, I note your reference to the “…three federal ministers…”. Such ignorance and foolishness is beyond belief.

  3. Jim KABLE says:

    Gosh! Apart from addressing our war-mongering and human rights abuses/murders of asylum-seekers – you have managed to encompass just about every other aspect that I see re the problematic/managerialist (thanks, Paul F) inequity 1%er in our body politic – those ugly leaners on the 99%. And every part of the solution has to reform itself so that the struggle against those selfish few – those vested-interest servers – will be the more effective – as you point out, Allan. Thank-you!

  4. Mary Tehan says:

    A great article, thanks Allan! Unfortunately the Australian Union Movement didn’t harness the energies of women who needed support for mutual work-flexibility, child-care, and a regular income for everyone when they were looking for issues to advocate for … these same women would have also supported the rights of our young people. Now our young people – our future – are in a worse position than ever.

    Neo-liberalism is far more insidious than managerialism … the ideology of the market as God means that the idea of manumission (an owner releasing a slave from bondage) is no longer in the lexicon at all … in earlier ages, manumission was granted on both an individual (by an individual owner) and societal level (on the death of a monarch or head of State) so that people could re-build their lives beyond the eternal damnation of bondage. Today the means to enact manumission is not currently available at a societal level … perhaps manumission could be considered as a disruptive influence? …

  5. paul frijters says:

    “real workers and their allies need to look closely at what is happening in France where the En Marche movement under President Emmanuel Macron is shaking the very foundations of the neoliberal agenda that is half the cause of the weakness of the French economy”

    don’t get your hopes up too much. It is early days, but I fear Macron is on the side of the rent-seekers.

    In general, I think the use of the word ‘neoliberal’ to signify the rent-seekers is a big mistake. It is both incorrect in terms of connotations and far too flattering to them, drawing us into senseless ideological debates where the ‘neoliberals’ will pose as pro-market and pro-growth (whereas in fact they are anti-market and hyper-regulators). The term thus plays into their hands and neuters our arguments. Why not call them corrupt, traitors to the public cause, or, if you have to use an ideological term, managerialist?

  6. Geoff Davies says:

    Good summary of the state of our wonderfully managed nation.

    But Allan, Macron is “centrist” only in relation to Le Pen and the neoliberal “Socialists” that he advised. He is neolib through and through.

    It is Mélenchon who is the disruptor. As Macron’s policies fail and are hated by the populace, Mélenchon’s star will rise. Le Pen’s star was rising, but it has just been strongly rejected so she’s less likely to be the beneficiary of continued Euro policies.

  7. michael lacey says:

    The change is coming!
    A few weeks after the Russian revolution Lenin, Trotsky, Stalin and the other leaders sat down and opened the new books that had been taken from the secret police ministry that they could finally open and they found that half the leadership of the Bolshevik party was working for the police. The conclusion they drew was when the wind is in your favour it does not matter. In the years before the Soviet Union imploded in 1989. Nobody not the Soviet secret police nor the CIA had any inkling this was going to happen it was impossible but it still happened change can move to the unthinkable to the immediate very quickly. America is talking about socialism again they did not do that before !

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