Neoliberalism has been a catalyst for an abysmal state of politics characterised by political gamesmanship – played with issues of fundamental public interest – and the rise of populist authoritarianism. The many groups working for a better future in Australia need to come together around some shared principles for political change.
Human societies face intersecting environmental, social, cultural, economic and political risks for their future. Climate change will undermine human health and social functioning through extreme weather, contagious disease, forced migration and loss of food supply. Parallel social challenges include socioeconomic inequality, socio-political conflict, gendered violence, xenophobia and extremism. Health is at risk from obesogenic food environments, tobacco, alcohol, pollution and psychosocial stress. The global market economy is a major underlying driver of all these problems and thus is undermining the social and ecological foundations on which it (like all of us) depends.
In the face of these profound problems, the ability of national governments and international bodies to take action and defend the public interest is blocked by a species of politics variously involving populism, authoritarianism, manipulation of public opinion, repression of dissent, denial of scientific evidence and political influence of corporations. The emergence of this politics has been shaped by the rise of neoliberal ideology since the 1980s, dogmatically favouring free capitalist markets, free trade, private property rights and individualism. Neoliberal practices include privatisation, competition policy, trade reform, reduced taxes and public spending, anti-union activities and ‘corporatizing’ the public sector. Although neoliberalism notionally favours a minimal State, in practice it simply co-opts the powers of the State to promote private interests.
The great, self-justifying claim of neoliberalism is that liberal capitalism is the best of all possible systems because it won the cold war and defeated Soviet state socialism; a view that conveniently ignores a third alternative, namely social democracy. Post cold war, the neoliberal tactic has been to construct a confected picture of its opposition as a powerful left-green elite, poised to impose all sorts of horrors on the ‘aspirational’ classes – from higher taxes to red tape, political correctness or global government. The game has many standard tactics such as attacking scientific evidence when it contradicts the preferred narrative; presenting the left-green elite as soft on the threats or deficiencies of demonised minority or ‘outsider’ groups; and constructing climate change as a partisan issue – an invented or exaggerated problem being used by the left-green elite to pursue its nefarious agenda!
The ideology and political playbook of neoliberalism, developed in countries such as the UK, Australia, Canada and the USA, has opened up space for the rise of populist, authoritarian leaders such as Donald Trump, Rodrigo Duterte and Jair Bolsonaro. Perversely, the people hit hardest by the consequences of neoliberal dominance, or deceived by its climate of fear, appear just as inclined to vote for a demagogue as for any credible alternative.
My reason for setting out this analysis is to preface a discussion of politics in Australia – the politics we have now and the politics we need – which cannot be properly understood outside of the context outlined above. What, then, is our situation and what should we do?
Obviously we are caught up in all of the issues described. To some extent we have been shielded from the worse impacts of globalisation because of social democratic policies such as universal healthcare and education, work entitlements and minimum wages, regulation of the tobacco industry and environmental protections. However, none of those measures protect against climate change, and many are being gradually undermined. Inequality in Australia is high by OECD standards and rising. Social division is apparent on many fronts. Absolutely fundamental issues of public interest are at stake for us: ecological health, public health, the quality of our democracy, and ultimately the viability of our society.
The present Coalition government is incapable of addressing these vital matters of public interest, because it is captured by neoliberal ideas and has deeply embraced a raison d’être of political gamesmanship. Coalition politicians are global leaders in constructing climate change as a politicised issue. Coalition governments cannot address the corrosive social effects of growing inequality because they are committed to demonising the ‘less well-off’ as deficient individuals. They cannot regulate the market in the public interest because they are tied to the notion that unregulated free markets and the public interest are the same thing, and to corporations as political sponsors. The success of neoliberalism has also infected the Labor Party; suckered into game-playing rather than building their politics on the primacy of the public interest.
Outside of government we have many organisations prosecuting the case for many worthwhile causes, including on climate change. However, the potential for these voices to drive substantive political change is weakened by a lack of a clear shared political agenda, adequate to the challenges of our times. So, what are the political principles and values around which a movement for change and an alternative policy could coalesce? I propose five principles, none of them new, but perhaps this is the very thing that needs to be done – to renew and restate ideas for our time.
The contest of ideas between neoliberal and social democratic politics has always been about the roles of the State and a capitalist, market economy in delivering on the public interest or, if you like, the common good. Neoliberalism is grounded in the notion of the invisible hand; that the pursuit of many, separate, private interests within a market economy serves the common good because it delivers material wealth. This view underpins arguments that the role of the State should be limited to facilitating the market economy. The social democratic response has always been to point out that a market is a useful mechanism for producing and circulating good and services but, without appropriate controls, market practices can also undermine the public interest, and externalise costs onto the public purse. Never has this been more blindingly obvious than it is today. Instead of the invisible hand metaphor we must attend to the tragedy of the commons, which says that the expression of many individual interests do not necessarily add up to the common good at all. Thus, a social democratic stance recognises a fundamental role for the State to regulate market activities and use public resources to ensure the public interest. This is the first principle of the politics we need.
The second principle (of course, of course) is to recognise the urgent duty of the State and every citizen to address climate change and move to an ecologically sustainable society, as an essential matter of public interest. This still could be the great unifying and healing purpose of our time.
A third principle of the politics we need is to recognise human development, health and wellbeing as core public interests (see my new article on public wellbeing here). Again, this principle is informed by a social democratic critique of unregulated market capitalism and neoliberal politics; that inevitably they drive inequality and leave many people without access to the basic resources needed for health, development, living a decent life, and constructive participation in society. Thus, the countering social democratic stance has been to position universal human development as a central pillar of ethics; good for individuals and essential for a healthy democracy and modern economy.
The fourth principle of the politics we need is to engage the energies and capabilities of people and local communities in processes of creating a healthy society. Although government-led policy, resources and services are crucial to protect and promote the common good, they are not enough.
The fifth principle – and a crucial element of all the others – is to follow the path of change and reconciliation set out in the Uluru Statement from the Heart.
It’s now up to all people concerned about the future of our society and the utterly pathetic and puerile state of politics in Australia to come together around some shared principles for the politics we need, and demand systemic change.
Matthew Fisher is an artist, political philosopher and public health researcher. He works as a Senior Research Fellow with the Southgate Institute for Health, Society and Equity at Flinders University in Adelaide.