Is neoliberalism withering? Weighing up the progressive future

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To answer this question – in what perhaps is typical academic style – one might begin by questioning the topic. I’m not so sure that we are ‘after’ neoliberalism. Yes, there’s been lots of talk about government regaining ascendency over markets, with the announcement of ‘nation-building’ projects and ‘stimulus packages’ that seemingly fly in the face of ‘hands-off’ market approaches to governance. However various forms of free-market thinking that owe much to neoliberalism remain embedded in just about all of our civic and private institutions.

Note for example the punitive approach we continue to take to welfare. Or the ongoing pervasiveness of public sector managerialism. Or the pervasiveness of free-market theory in Treasury (and elsewhere such as the current Productivity Commission enquiry into allowing the parallel importing of books). We live in a Benthamite, surveillance-oriented world that is oriented around a fetishised rhetoric of market efficiency and ‘individual responsibility’. This should make those who think neoliberalism is dead – or even mildly ill – blush.

Nor is the conservative political activism that has been the hallmark of neoliberalism since Hayek and Friedman cast the die, somehow finished. Characters like Andrew Bolt, Miranda Divine, Christopher Pearson and Greg Sheridan have retained their ascendency and influence in ways that would seem surprising if an era had somehow ‘ended’. One of the striking things about the Obama presidency is how quickly conservatives have remobilised to oppose his agenda. Neoliberalism is institutional. The organisations that have been the bastions of this strand of free-market thinking and its intrinsic, particular style of political populism, are no less healthy than ever. Conservative think-tanks, the Murdoch media, the Republican machine, or the organised right group that retains so much influence over the Australian Liberal Party are very durable franchises; their infrastructure remains firmly in place.

So we shouldn’t be naïve and suppose an era has simply ‘ended’.

But we do face big challenges that will involve us having to challenge the idea (itself highly politicised) that markets are somehow politically-neutral and the most efficient way of organising a society. The GFC, global warming, water shortages, energy shortages, the likelihood of increasing environmentally-driven mass migrations and struggles, media consolidation and marketisation, the emerging social landscape of ‘digital democracy’. All these things involve us having to think about national and global governance in new ways if we want a progressive, genuinely socially just future.

If what we are talking about here is a renewed round of struggle for the left, then the trick will be to demystify and neutralise the conservative hegemony of the past thirty years. This is especially pressing as this hegemony are already powerfully seeking to undermine what are necessary agendas for change. Look at their success at pushing against carbon trading for example. In this case, as with many of the above, the great strategic advantage enjoyed by conservatives in an era that still owes so much to neoliberalism is that they don’t have to win the argument. All they have to do is sow enough doubt that people become uncertain about change, and the status quo is maintained.

What would progressive politics look like in this new era? To imagine this means imagining putting aside enmities to build the same sort of coalitions around common causes that has made conservatism so successful. We also need a catchy, persuasive rhetoric that will hold the ear of the public in an era of sound-bites and information overload. There’s much to learn from conservatives here. The new progressive language needs to make instant common sense in the same way as conservative arguments against ‘dole-bludgers’ or ‘queue-jumping’ asylum seekers has done. But whereas their language of ‘personal responsibility’ and ‘individual agency’ in the market has always centred on the notion of individual liberty, ours needs to talk of both individuals and collectives – and the necessary relationship between the two.

The latter, perhaps, is increasingly easy to do. Water shortages, global warming, the GFC: none of these things have a solution. We might just be heading into a new era for collectivism where it becomes increasingly clear that just as our problems, for the first time in human history, are truly global and involve all of humanity, so do the solutions.

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