Jim Chalmer’s Monthly essay is an attempt to prepare us for a shift in the coming budget, from the era of neoliberal domination to giving more attention to non-economic factors. But we need far more than that given we are headed for catastrophic global breakdown.
Chalmers’ move is commendable and a few decades overdue, but it is a sad testament to the state of things. For a start it is so vague and timid, carefully crafted not to irritate the business sector and to persuade it that “values capitalism” will be good for it too.
Apart from that we are not told much about what it means. It just seems to be about looking for policy initiatives which benefit society while also increasing opportunities for the business sector. Happily this is going to be a cooperative win-win affair, avoiding any notion of redistribution or impact on profitable investment opportunities.
The business sector is not opposed to intervention in the sacred market system … so long as it benefits them. The system is far from being a free market system; it is highly interventionist, regulated, and subsidised. What Jim is saying is that he now wants to do some intervening that achieves social values while also creating more opportunities for good business. There is some scope for that, but you can’t make good profits investing in the most urgent social problems, like homelessness, anxiety and depression, care for chronically ill people, lack of community … unless the state pays you to do it…or it would be being done now.
Much more important is the fact that Jim’s proposals are not going to make much difference to an economic system that is intrinsically and irredeemably unjust, incapable of being sustainable, and driving us to catastrophic global breakdown.
Exaggerated? Consider the global situation, which Jim seems to be totally unaware of. For fifty years many scientists and a mountain of literature has been telling us that levels of production, consumption, “living standards” and GDP in rich countries are far beyond sustainable. There is a a strong case that they are around ten times the levels those that all the world’s people could ever rise to. At last this is being widely recognised, evident in the emergence of the Degrowth movement. The manic and mindless quest for endless increases in business turnover, affluence and GDP is now not just absurd, it is suicidal. It is fuelling the depletion of resources and the destruction of the planet’s ecosystems, it is depriving poor countries of a fair share because the rich countries are hogging resources, and it requires resource wars to secure scarce resources.
But Jim is eager to reassure us that he is devoted to growth. Of course if he didn’t his promising prime-ministerial career path would promptly end.
Nor does Jim seem to understand the nature of the market system, or the fact that we cannot achieve a satisfactory society unless we prevent it from determining our fate. In a market things go mostly to richer people, because they can pay more for them. Profit, not need, determines who gets them. As a result around 600 million tonnes of grain are fed to animals in rich countries every year while around 800 million people are hungry all the time. And investment goes into ventures likely to yield most profit to those who own capital, not into what most needs producing.
Growth, market forces, production for profit and the private ownership and investment of capital are fundamental, defining characteristics of capitalism. You cannot reform that system to not have them or their effects. Tinkering in order to find options which benefit both capital and society cannot make a significant difference to the present global acceleration towards a time of great troubles that could be a terminal. Increasing numbers are realising that this system is heading for self-destruction.
This society is incapable of solving its big problems, the main reason being that the fundamental cause of the problems, the obsession with growth and affluence, is not even recognised. The answer must be eventual transition to far simpler lifestyles and systems. At present the chances of such a society emerging are negligible, but in poor countries literally millions are turning to it in Campesino, Zapatista, Rojavan Kurdiah, Satygraha, Ubuntu, Catalan and similar movements. The hope has to be that as rich societies deteriorate many people will realise that they must develop and run local cooperative systems enabling frugal sufficiency, security, supportive and inclusive community, and rich cultural provision.
Given the dominance of capitalist ideology Jim’s initiative is admirable and well judged, just getting on the agenda the intention to do something about the neo-liberal con trick with as little risk as possible of provoking the establishment to deal with him. But we need far more than “values capitalism” to save us Jim.