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Oct 23 2013

Anti-politics 4: Discrediting neoliberalism

This is the fourth part of a series about the Australian “anti-politics” attitude and how the green left should respond to it. Part 1 lays out evidence for the attitude and speculates on its causes. Part 2 argues the green left needs to distance itself from political elites. Part 3 discusses how we should communicate about climate change and what policies we should demand. This part discusses debunking the neoliberal ideology of the political elites.

Green populism must discredit the dominant ideology of neoliberalism, which is at the root of climate change denial, inaction, and greenwash. Also known as economic liberalism, economic rationalism, or right-wing libertarianism, neoliberalism promotes minimal government and free markets. Because a timely response to the climate crisis requires a global economic transformation that will destroy the fossil fuel industry, neoliberalism stands in the way of effective climate action.

Assessing the political landscape

Understanding the state of the political landscape requires thinking about politics in two dimensions. One such two-dimensional model is the Political Compass:

Political Compass

In this model, the left-right spectrum refers only to economics. Basically, “right” means greater economic freedom and economic inequality (with neoliberalism situated on the far right), whereas “left” means more economic regulation and economic equality (the extreme left position is socialism). Social ideology is classified on a separate libertarian-authoritarian scale. “Libertarian” means more civil liberties and social equality (the extreme is anarchism), whereas “authoritarian” means greater government control over individuals and social inequality (the extreme is fascism). (In lay discussion, the terms “left”, “right”, “libertarian”, and “authoritarian” are often applied to both economic and social issues. However, for clarity this blog post uses Political Compass terminology.)

Green parties fall in the green quadrant (the libertarian left) with their Four Pillars of environmental sustainability, social justice, democracy, and nonviolence. Environmental sustainability tends to be more affected by the economic scale than the social one because the actions that count are generally those of corporations, not individuals.

Australian political parties can be classified as follows:

Political Compass aus2013 cropped

As you can see, the major parties are extremely right-wing and authoritarian, a graphic demonstration of the dominance of neoliberal ideology. Over time the parties have been moving toward the blue corner of the chart, indicating the ongoing success of neoliberal think-tanks like the Institute of Public Affairs in moving the political centre toward the right. (Although textbook neoliberalism is socially libertarian, neoliberalism as practiced by governments tends to be in the blue quadrant. This may be because restrictions on social freedom are sometimes in the interests of big business, but more likely because neoliberals have allied with social conservatives in order to gain electoral support.)

It’s often assumed that most Australians cast their votes based on economic policy, and that the left-wing base has collapsed because Australians have become richer. Yet polls suggest most Australians’ economic views are considerably to the left of the major parties (I suppose closer to the centre), and we have only begrudgingly accepted the deregulatory policies of recent decades (on the other hand, polls also reveal most Australians are in one of the various stages of climate change denial). And although the traditional left (labourism) may be increasingly irrelevant, the green left is more relevant than ever as corporate-controlled governments allow the destruction of our planet and our future, increase economic inequality, prioritize abstract measures of economy-wide growth over actual living standards, and generally act against the public interest and democratic principle.

If the public is to the left of the major parties, why do so many of us continue to vote for them? If my thinking is correct, then it appears most people who vote are voting not along economic lines but along social lines. The initial success of the Katter party hinted that a significant section of the Australian electorate are socially authoritarian (ie. conservative) but economically centrist. I suspect many who vote for the Liberals, Nationals, or Palmer do so because of their social conservatism and despite, not because of, the parties’ right-wing economics. The Greens need to figure out how to appeal to those conservatives.

Conversely, other polls suggest most Australians are more libertarian than the major parties on at least one issue, same-sex marriage (and most Labor voters are more libertarian on refugees). Presumably some of those people vote for the major parties because of their economic policies.

Solving climate change almost certainly requires economic policies that are anathema to the far right, so we should aim to convince the libertarian left (green quadrant), authoritarian left (red quadrant), libertarian centre-right (moderate positions in purple quadrant), and authoritarian centre-right (moderate positions in blue quadrant). The Greens need to research how many of the Australians who vote for the major parties in the blue quadrant (or don’t vote at all) might philosophically belong in the green or red quadrant, or a moderate position in the purple or blue quadrant; and consider how they might be persuaded to instead vote green.

As I see it, such a campaign should involve three prongs. Firstly, explain to everyone that climate change is real and should be everyone’s priority (see Part 3). Secondly, to shift the political debate toward the economic left, discredit the far-right ideology of neoliberalism and defend the social democratic role of government (covered in the remainder of this post). Thirdly, communicate climate change in a way that resonates with social conservatives (this will be the subject of Part 5).

Deconstructing neoliberal ideology

We must expose the way in which the Liberals’ neoliberal ideology disguises corporate interests as majoritarian ones.

The Liberals misleadingly present themselves as representing the majority of Australians. Photo opportunities at workplaces and rhetoric about freedom, opportunity, and jobs all serve to distract from the reality that their policies actually tend to entrench the wealth and power of a small minority of large corporations and the super-rich. They rail against an evil “big government” oppressing the ordinary people through taxes and regulation, failing to mention that their focus is on reducing taxes and regulation for that same minority. They brand themselves as a party of individual liberty, when in reality they are a party of corporate power and socially authoritarian. They claim a free market offers equal opportunity, ignoring that people start with vast inequalities in economic, social, and political power. They misrepresent regulations that apply to businesses by giving a misleading impression they apply to individuals (for example, they emphasize the impact of a carbon price on consumers rather than polluting companies by calling it an “electricity tax”). They claim to be defending Australian jobs against restrictions on mining, ignoring that the mining boom has driven up the Australian dollar leading to lost manufacturing jobs. And they claim they will address climate change at no cost, but in reality will pay polluting companies to take actions with little effect.

There is also potential for a parallel argument against Tony Abbott on a personal level. As Crikey once pointed out:

Abbott’s goal is to portray himself as a normal voter, one at ease in the Liberals’ western Sydney “heartland”. […] Abbott, educated at Riverview, Sydney University’s St John’s College and Oxford, who currently earns $350,000 plus MPs’ perks, ostensibly makes a poor simulacrum of your average western Sydney bloke, but this is a man with an unusually strong grasp of what narratives work with voters.

The point here is not to make an ad hominem attack on Abbott, but to point out that he is attempting to market himself as something he is not.

We need to defend the democratic role of government. Neoliberals argue for minimal government on the grounds that power corrupts – but corporate power corrupts too. Corporate leaders are unelected, employed to ruthlessly pursue their company’s self-interest, and not accountable to the broader public in the same way politicians are. However corrupt political parties may be, at least in theory we could vote them out and replace them with politicians that would actually represent our interests.

Neoliberals ascribe almost magical properties to “the market”, arguing it is more “efficient” and better informed than government, promoting economic growth and national competitiveness (I’m not sure how the latter is supposed to work since most other countries are also implementing free market policies). But even if these claims are true, it is myopic to see short-term economic growth as the only goal. The collective decisions of free markets are often not in the public interest but in the short-term interests of a wealthy few; most importantly, the market continues to dig deeper into the fossil fuel economy driving global warming. Government intervention is required to protect the public interest. Regulations which neoliberals deride as growth-strangling “red tape” or “green tape” exist for a reason: they are needed to hold businesses accountable in the interests of the voting public. Does it really matter if we, say, forgo 0.1% of GDP growth in order to achieve something worthwhile?

A related belief of the Liberals is that Australia faces increasing economic and fiscal costs and thus can’t afford policies to protect our future or aid poorer countries (though apparently we can afford new roads). We should point out the reality that actually, Australia is richer than ever, has the 5th highest GDP per capita in the world, and its national debt as a percentage of GDP is smaller than that of most countries. As I discussed in Part 1, this certainly does not mean that Australians have nothing to complain about – merely that we don’t really need to worry so much about short-term economics at the expense of more important things like climate policies.

Reducing the size of government will not significantly empower ordinary individuals, it will only further increase the power of the corporate elites and make our problems even worse. I have argued that further neoliberal economic reform would hurt the majority of Australians by decreasing the ability of governments to control the uncertainties in life, redistributing wealth upwards, decreasing the accountability of corporations, and continuing to disrupt the formerly stable climate that has sustained humanity for millennia.

Instead, we need to reverse the trend toward small government – not to infringe upon the rights of ordinary people, but to enforce the responsibilities of businesses. I’m certainly not advocating an authoritarian socialist state like the Soviet Union, but I do think there should be more democratic control of investment decisions. The investment decisions made today will determine whether we have a habitable planet in the future, and it is simply wrong to leave those decisions in the hands of a few corporate boards motivated only by maximizing short-term profits. We should vote for representatives who seek to actually solve climate change and other problems, not merely palm off decisions onto the market.

We should also campaign to reduce the influence of money in politics (eg. banning or restricting political donations, increasing transparency of lobbyists). The Greens already have policies on this, but could be more proactive in promoting them. This agenda needs to be marketed to the public, not to the political elites who benefit from the status quo.

A functioning democracy is more important than a free market. Instead of undemocratic government by the corporations, for the corporations, we need democratic government by the people, for the people.

Countering uncritical cynicism about politicians

Although we want to preserve the antipathy to the political establishment (and channel it into realization that the elites are not representing the interests of the majority), we don’t want voters to continue to see any and all politicians as corrupt. Blanket absolute distrust is just as uncritical as blanket absolute trust.

Therefore we must begin to rebuild the reputation of the profession of politics. We need to remind voters, particularly young voters, that politics isn’t a horse race, political parties are not rival marketing teams, and elections aren’t personality contests. Political parties are organizations seeking to reshape the world according to their ideology. Politicians can make a positive difference, not only a negative one. Adversarial (albeit nonviolent) debate is often necessary to get things done.

The decisions made today will determine the future of humanity and life on Earth. Currently business leaders are making the wrong decisions and have politicians in their pocket. The necessary society-wide decisions can only be made and enforced by governments which we must choose to elect. We cannot afford cynical defeatism and disengagement from the political process, because it solves nothing.

In Part 5, I will consider how to communicate climate change to conservatives.

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