JERRY ROBERTS. Populism and Social Democracy.

Mar 14, 2018

So-called “populist” parties in recent European elections have all but wiped out established social democratic parties.  The exception was Britain where Labour improved its position under the uncompromising social-democratic leadership of Jeremy Corbyn.  Two questions arise at home.  What fate awaits our social democratic party, the Australian Labor Party?  More importantly, what is populism?

In his new book to be released in April Australian writer David McKnight takes a positive view.  The book is called “Populism Now! The Case for Progressive Populism.” According to the publisher’s flyer, the author sees populism as a backlash against free-market globalisation and advocates a progressive populism “to address the genuine grievances of everyday people without scapegoating immigrants or ethnic minorities.”

In the brilliant essay, “Populism for Oligarchs,” published in the July/August 2013 edition of New Left Review Marco D’Eramo traces the use of “populism” as a term of political abuse to the Cold War.  I won’t attempt to summarise the argument here but it is a wonderful read, highly recommended for people who are interested in politics, who are thin on the ground in Australia but who, happily, are gravitating to John Menadue’s Pearls and Irritations.

Marco D’Eramo notes that the platform of the People’s Party, also known as the Populist Party, will have a familiar ring for today’s readers. This statement was proclaimed in 1892 in the great railway junction city of Omaha, Nebraska, where my Dad often changed trains on his speech-making journeys around the USA during the Cold War.

We meet in the midst of a nation brought to the verge of moral, political and material ruin. Corruption dominates the ballot box, the Legislature, the Congress and touches even the ermine of the Bench. The people are demoralised…. The newspapers are largely subsidised or muzzled, public opinion silenced, business prostrated, homes covered with mortgages, labour impoverished.

That was mid-west America, 1892.  Writes D’Eramo: “Through to the middle of the 20th century, then, many would have been proud to be called populists.  The battle lines were clear; those who stood on the side of the people and those who were against them; those who wished to see the plebs become people and those who believed that the people were nothing but plebs.”

It is mere speculation but it does seem likely that if the Blairites with their weasel wordy ways had succeeded in dislodging Jeremy Corbyn from the leadership British Labour would have shared the near-death experience of their social democratic colleagues across the Channel who are only alive today thanks to Melenchon’s break-away campaign.

In Australia, the Liberals are so determined to lose the next election by insisting on corporate tax cuts that Labor appears to have an iron-clad guarantee of victory. Nevertheless, the ALP would be well advised to heed Bill Mitchell’s warning to Corbyn.  “In part, under Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell, Labour is making progressive noises on a number of fronts,” writes Professor Mitchell in his billy blog of 27 February. “But ultimately, where it really matters – the macroeconomic narrative-they are remaining firmly neoliberal and this will blight their chances of pursuing a truly progressive agenda.”

Bill Mitchell is Professor of Economics at Newcastle (Australia) and a leading exponent of Modern Monetary Theory, a school of thought gaining ground among students of economics.  I know nothing about it but hope to learn something from Bill’s new book co-authored with Thomas Fazi called “Reclaiming the State: A Progressive Vision of Sovereignty for a post-Neo-Liberal World.”

Even the dismal science should have room for common sense and Bill Mitchell’s point that fiscal policy should be adjusted to accord with context rather than fixed rules about surpluses and deficits makes sense to me.  This brings us to what must be one of the major myths of modern international governance –- that “independent” central banks do a better job of managing the economy than sovereign governments.  Nugget Coombs maintained that economic decisions (such as interest rates) should rest with the government of the day because it was members of the government, including the Prime Minister and Treasurer, who were answerable to the people and had to front-up for re-election every three years. In his working arrangement with Ben Chifley, the government needed to advise its reasons in writing if it rejected the Bank’s advice.  It never reached that point but the bank’s backside was covered.

Like Bill Mitchell, I see contemporary politics worldwide as a massive smoke-screen designed to avoid talking about the only subject that matters – macroeconomics and its relation to an equitable society. It was probably an over-reaction on my part but I thought Andrew Leigh’s campaign against the $100 note belonged in the dustbin of trivial pursuits along with such rhubarb as the dual citizenship controversy and the tormented love lives of our parliamentary Romeos and Juliets. Andrew knows the next global financial crisis will not be caused by fat bookmakers and motorcycle gangsters waddling around the place with pockets full of $100 notes.

His outburst, which fortunately appears to have fallen flat, reminded me of Dorothy Dix questions where young MPs earn their stripes by standing on their hind legs in the Parliament and asking self-serving questions that would insult the intelligence of a cockroach. A strong Speaker would rule such questions out-of-order and tell the government of the day to stop wasting Parliament’s time and taxpayers’ money and find another way of blowing its own trumpet. This thought, in turn, reminded me of the primitive initiation ceremonies in universities that have been in the news lately and that turned my thoughts to a story from the Wood Royal Commission where an 18-year-old police recruit in the midst of his induction course was sent on patrol with seasoned coppers who took him to a restaurant located under a brothel where he was wined and dined to excess then taken upstairs for further entertainment, all on the house.  The kid was corrupted before he had started.

From the parliament to the universities to the police these practices all have the same goal – to humiliate the individual, degrade the institution and corrupt the society.  Join the club. Sure, it is a cruel world. But boys and girls, can’t we do better than this?  Can our federal parliament drag itself out of the gutter into which it has crawled and be of some use to Australian society?  Probably not. With each stunt from honourable members I find myself thinking of the proposal from Nicholas Gruen to create what you might call parallel parliaments, perhaps using crowdfunding and social media, ignoring the existing parliament and press gallery and bringing together people interested in public policy who have grown out of the adolescent ego-tripping phase and who are not trying to wangle jobs in merchant banks.

After 30 years of crawling to the Right does the Australian Labor Party have the flexibility and the personnel to observe trends in Europe, edge away from the precipice and sneak back to the Left, or at least to the centre, a la Corbyn?  Again, probably not.  I am hoping to have a cup of tea soon with one of the delegates to the ALP national conference, At least I hope he is a delegate.  He got my first preference in the 22 votes we West Australian members cast to elect delegates. Conferences are so stage-managed nowadays with Party minders fearful that outspoken delegates might frighten the horses and attract adverse coverage from the Murdoch media, but a star has risen in the labour movement in the shape of Sally McManus and hopefully she will be supported by a team of union heavies who will make some noise and liven up proceedings.

I blame Sir John Kerr for what happened to Labor.  The treachery of Kerr, Fraser and Buckingham Palace in the Whitlam dismissal hardened Labor’s heart to steel and turned the blood in the Party’s veins to ice. Labor resolved to be every bit as ruthless and power-hungry as the conservatives.  As a side effect, the Party lost its idealism.  In other words, the Left left and went to the Greens.  I hate to see Labor fighting the Greens. Labour will not win government by fighting the Greens. Indeed, how many elections would Labor have won this Century without Green preferences?  Maybe one, last year’s landslide in Western Australia. The two parties belong on the left side of politics.

Marco D’Eramo describes the 1967 conference on populism at the London School of Economics where the keynote lecture by American historian Richard Hofstadter was entitled “Everyone is talking about populism, but no one can define it.”  Another speaker, Peter Wiles, took the history of populism back to the 17th Century Levellers and Diggers and included the Chartists, Gandhi, Sinn Fein, Ataturk, Julius Nyerere, Nasser, Peron among many others.

The oligarchs in D’Eramo’s “Populism for Oligarchs” are the central bankers mentioned above and their ilk.  D’Eramo wrote in 2013: “The IMF, World Bank, WTO and European Central Bank evaluate and interdict national economic policies according to their own “expert” priorities.  The assessments of the rating agencies, which are private entities in law, have a decisive impact on the lives of individual citizens.  No Greek, Spaniard or Italian has ever elected the Board of Moody’s yet whether that citizen will receive treatment for a tumour, whether her daughter will be able to go to university, may be determined by their call.”

Describing the limited policy purview of the world’s parliaments, D’Eramo writes: “The scope of democratic decision-making has become tightly circumscribed.  Most of the government’s economic, fiscal, spending, social security and social policies now elude popular choice.”  D’Eramo is not referring specifically to Australia’s Liberals and ALP when he says the choice for voters is between a centre-centre-right and a centre-centre-left but the description fits.  He illustrates how far the centre has moved to the right by noting that President Nixon’s proposed health care legislation in the early 1970s was rejected by the Democrats because it was too right-wing, but Nixon’s proposal was a long way to the left when compared with the Obamacare of 2010 that was opposed because it was too left-wing.

According to D’Eramo, we have reached a historical moment “when the developed world is advancing into an oligarchical despotism and the opposition between oligarchs and plebs has returned; when anti-popular policies are imposed just as the word ‘people’ is erased from the political lexicon and anyone opposed to such policies is accused of populism.” The masters of the universe retreated to the alpine sanctuary of Davos after the plebs kicked them out of Seattle on America’s Pacific north-west coast.  Some Australian viewers including this correspondent watching the excellent Seattle riot may have been overheard encouraging the protesters to throw bigger rocks and heavier bricks at the parade of limousines.

Bill Mitchell describes the oligarchical removal of power from the world’s parliaments as a process of “depoliticization.” Jean Curthoys relates this process to ideology in her 2010 essay that rekindled my interest in politics.  Jean likens the absence of traditional political debate in communism to today’s unaccountable neoliberal oligarchical control described by D’Eramo.  She writes: “Of decisive importance is that both Marxism and neoliberalism have an attenuated view of politics….For both see freedom as residing fundamentally in their ideal ‘system’ rather than in the ‘eternal vigilance’ that sustains – and is sustained by – a rich political life.  In short, neoliberalism presents itself as the definitive critique of Marxism when, in fact, it is its ideological flipside.’

None of the above happened by accident.  Nor are the economic arrangements of our time the result of historical inevitability.  They are the product of deliberate policy foreshadowed in plain English by Milton Friedman in “Capitalism and Freedom,’ published in 1962.  This grossly over-simplified view of economics is a beloved hymn of praise to Yankee-doodle, dog-eat-dog, boom and bust capitalism.

“There is no such thing as a social or political responsibility of corporations,” wrote Friedman.  “The wider are the range of activities covered by the market, the fewer are the issues on which explicitly political discussions are required.”

Perhaps the reason our parliaments resemble poorly behaved kindergartens is that they have nothing serious to discuss, their business having been whisked away to Davos and the City of London.  We can’t say we were not warned.  Milton spelt it out in simple language.

The European elections should remind hard-core political power players of a fact they prefer to forget.  In our western democracies people are free to stand for election to public office and the general public – the populous – is free to vote for them.

A major Party can become minor overnight.

Jerry Roberts is a former parliamentary reporter and a member of the Australian Labor Party

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