On Liberty (and Social Democracy, the State and citizen empowerment)


I call myself a libertarian social
democrat but many of my left wing mates condemn such a position as a
contradiction. They forget that the potency of the French Revolution lay in its
marriage of Liberty with Equality and Fraternity, and that left libertarianism
has a fine pedigree.

Social democracy ensures collective
intervention in the market place to enhance structural equality and advance the
full development of our potential as human beings. Libertarianism cultivates a
skeptical attitude to the self-serving claims of state bureaucracies and rent
seeking businesses alike, and ensures vigilance against the encroachment of our
governments on individual and community freedoms. Taken together these two
approaches can promote alterative ways for us re-imagine the old Westminster
public service as a democratic commons more accountable to grassroots

Many Australians, especially in
traditional Labor areas, have lost faith in the capacity of government to
deliver even the most basic services, and restoring faith in the ‘public’ is
one of the key challenges for the left. [In this essay I am not arguing for less public
intervention. Rather I challenge the left to think beyond the frequently
illiberal bureaucratic state as the only way to achieve social goals.]

The United States extols liberty above all else,
but without the balancing commitment to equality, it can be a land of the
strong rather than of the free. Communist countries that relied on an
authoritarian state to force through equality not only produced societies
damaging to human life and the human spirit but also created a class of
bureaucratic overlords who were manifestly more equal than the masses they
claimed to elevate. Its important to get the balance right.

The cry ‘Death or Liberty’ was a call to
arms for a host of revolutionaries, rebels and reformers transported as
political prisoners to Australia. Irish republicans, Scottish radicals,
seditious pamphleteers and publishers, English Chartists, rural protesters and
the martyred trade unionists from Tolpuddle had no reason to idealise the
British state that had exiled them to our fatal shore, and saw themselves first
and foremost as defenders of liberty.

Wariness of the state has deep roots in the western
and Australian left, though it has found less fertile ground in the ALP.
English socialist William Morris was appalled by both the Marxist and Fabian
obsession with the state as the agent of reform or revolution, believing it
would extinguish the rights of free born Englishmen as surely as industrial
capitalism. He was critical of Fabians Sidney and Beatrice Webb’s technocratic
faith in Labour winning ministries and converting the civil service to their
goals, the method adopted by both the British and Australian labour movements. British
Labour Party intellectual G.D. H. Cole was interested in the extension of
democracy to people’s working lives and in turn argued that many of the
functions of government could be conducted through guilds of producers.

In the United States and also Australia the
Industrial Workers of the World revolutionaries were influenced by the
anarchist critique of the state, and advocated a syndicalist socialism based on
unionism – an idea that had some currency amongst radical unionists in
Australia until the new Communist Party of Australia succumbed to a Marxist-Leninist
recasting of the state as the dictatorship of the proletariat.

Many stalwarts of the Sydney intellectual left cut
their radical teeth in the bohemian Sydney Push, at the philosophically core of
which was the prickly Libertarian Society. Inspired by free-thinking Sydney
University Professor John Anderson, the Libertarians were critical of communist
claims that authoritarianism could deliver a utopia, conservatives reliance on
censorship to keep us pure and Labor’s faith that state power was neutral. In
defiance to the orthodoxies of the 1950s and 60s they styled themselves
pessimistic anarchists, cautioning that even the most idealistic reformers
become a new elite, coveting the power and perks of office. Since the late
1960s many on the left have lived libertarianism as freedom of sexual and cultural
expression, and gone to war with the state over censorship and the right to
publish freely. Since the 1980s new generations of Australian left thinkers
have mulled over the postmodern critique of the state to question the capacity
of managerialism in both public and private corporations to deliver on their
spin, whether that be remote Aboriginal housing, the latest transport plan for
NSW or the War on Terror.

Armed with a healthy scepticism of the state we on
the left can deepen democratic accountability of collective institutions that
deliver social goods and consider alternatives to the traditional public
sector. In doing so we can draw on older ideas like cooperatives and mutual’s
to devise new types of partnerships between the communities and markets. But
the Australian Labor party is obstinately romantic about the state and uncritical
about the exercise of ministerial power over ordinary people by often
heavy-handed government departments like Centrelink, the Department of Immigration
or the Classification Board. 

Newly elected Labor Ministers certainly might impose
new policies on their minions and change the officers at the top of the public service
pecking order, but the actual form of the state remains unchanged: centralized,
secretive top down bureaucracies with little avenue for citizen participation. Simply
having as Minister a pollie hailing from the Socialist Left does nothing to
change the power relation between the state and its citizens. Back in the 1970s
New Left British political scientist Ralph Milliband warned Labour Party reformers
that the State in Capitalist Society is never neutral, and even the most
determined socialist is seduced by the pomp and circumstance of Her majesty’s Government
and ends up identifying the sectional interests of business with the national
interest. To prove his father’s point David Miliband became a Blairite

The ALP’s love affair with the state was implicit
in its birth in the defeat of the Shearers’ and Maritime strikes of the early
1890s. Henceforth it would capture parliament and government from the bosses
and use it’s power to deliver for working people and /or advance social
democracy. Labor found common ground with the New Liberals like Deakin, who
jettisoned laissez faire for the belief
that some state intervention was needed to ameliorate the worst excesses of the
market and produce a modern industrial nation. Together Labor and New Liberals used
the federal state to civilise capitalism, striking a balance between social and
liberal democracy that was appropriately called a ‘commonwealth’. The
Australian settlement, described by visiting French social scientist Albert Metin
as ‘socialism without doctrine’, served the nation well for nigh on sixty
years, delivering a high degree of social harmony between classes and promoting
industrial and infrastructure development.

But ultimately the settings of fortress Australia-
tariff protection, empire preference and white Australia – became an economic
and cultural straight jacket, and required liberalisation as a matter of
urgency. It was the Hawke/Keating Labor Government, not the liberals, who delivered
the long delayed liberalisation of the Australian economy, because the Coalition
had become captives of the business status quo that their policies had long
shielded from competition. At this point Labor leaders showed they could be
market libertarians, while still delivering the social democratic promise to civilise
Australian capitalism through a host of state interventions, from Medicare to Environmental
protection. But the form of the state remained unreconstructed.

The ALP does have a counter-tradition. During the
period of Labor’s birth there was great debate internationally and in Australia
about the most appropriate way to civilise capitalism, deliver public services
and for the more radical, create a socialist society. Many working and middle
class people were more practical in the face of the private sectors’
indifference to their needs, and set up mutual building societies so they could
borrow for a home, or set up cooperatives for the provision of groceries or
other necessities. Such institutions of social service were controlled by
members living locally rather than unseen bureaucrats or arrogant ministers in far-flung
capitals. Unions and early Labor leaders embraced this grassroots
experimentation, and extended mutualisation to the provision of funerals for
the poor and roadside motor service (this championed by like PM John Christian

Yet in recent years the mutuals and coops such as
the NRMA have rushed lemming like to the stock exchange and become private
companies. Meanwhile in Europe cooperatives like Mondragon have grown to become
giants of the economy. A leading promoter for a reconsideration of mutual’s and
cooperatives is Melbourne Labor activist and academic Race Mathews, but state
labor Governments have remained committed to privatisation or the Third Way
orthodoxy of Public Private Partnerships, with mixed results and negligible
participation by the public.

Notable revisionists of Labor’s state fetish in the
last decade were Mark Latham and Peter Bostman who joined with Noel Pearson in
the book The Enabling State, to
criticize the initiative-sapping effects of welfare dependency and
over-regulation of private life on communities to ask how social support might
be better provided so that governments empower, rather than lord it over,
poorer people.  At some point, many on
the left abandoned their 1970s critique of the welfare state as at best a
necessary half-measure on the way to the good society, to a defensive position
that merely defends the status quo, defending people’s right to be a passive
welfare client of the state as if this was the last word on progressive social

The left protests when ministers and
officials favour business mates or cruelly lock up refugees, but many of us
have a vested interest in the status quo. As compensation for its authoritarian
streak, the state has become a generous benefactor to progresssives either
employing us to manage its utilities and programs for the marginalised or
making everyone from artists to community groups to scholars jump through hoops
of red tape in a scramble for the next grant. But the state is more tar baby
than magic pudding, leaving a residue of compromise and passivity on those too
dependent on its patronage.

I grew up in working class Port Kembla and Dapto,
from a blue collar family. A child of the 1970s, I owe my education, good
health and much of my working life to the remaking of the state that occurred
under Gough Whitlam and Neville Wran. But somewhere in the 1980s and 1990s the
quality of government services declined in the wake of corporatisation, so that
these days it is with trepidation that I enter a public hospital, jump on a
train or commit to a comprehensive high school. It is traditional Labor voters
in working class communities like the Illawarra who have been let down by the
infestation of government services by management consultants and cronies.
Privatisation gained traction because the unreconstructed monopoly public
corporations like Telstra or the CES were so unresponsive to consumers. Ask a
‘working family’ fallen on hard times what it thinks of Centrelink.

If Australian governance alienates most of us
perhaps it is because its form retains many colonial features designed to do
just that. Whereas government services such as schools and police in the United
States and Britain are often accountable to local communities through direct or
municipal election, here they remain trapped in the colonial model where the
centrally located representative of the Crown dispatched its officers to
administer the HMG’s laws to a people who could not be trusted. Though
self-government was introduced early, the people’s participation was limited to
parliamentary election and juries, rather than an ongoing say over the
operation of schools, hospitals or the constabulary. Where boards exist they
are too frequently stacked with political mates rather than meritocratic or
reflective of the community or stakeholders. The post 1990s triumph of
managerialism and PR has only served to further distance ordinary people from
the institutions that govern their lives, and all but extinguished the
principle of ministerial responsibility. For evidence look no further than the
Howard government’s AWB and immigration debacles or the ongoing tragic-comedy
that is the NSW Government.

Just as Labor has come to appreciate the value of
markets to economic prosperity and infrastructure investment so too can it
enlarge its concept of the commons beyond the old colonial idea of the Crown,
ministers and public service.  Here a
shift to a republic is important as a means of enhancing democratic
accountability and citizenship.  But Labor
needs to move on from the Keating/Turnbull obsession with merely changing the
head of state. The Rudd Government should build on the governance work of
Carmen Lawrence and Senator John Faulkner and accompany the campaign for a
republic with democratic reforms to the operation of our parliaments and quangos.
Meanwhile the broader left should debate the creation of new public
institutions, both centrally and especially at the local level where municipal
government is moribund, that will enhance our say over the services that most
impact on our lives. The Rudd government will reach for old style PPPs to
realise its worthy infrastructure vision, but NSW shows that this model has
pitfalls for the tax payer. Better to think of new ways of marrying the public
with the capital and energy of entrepreneurs.

I have long argued for the election of public
boards and local officials. Why? Increasingly party
discipline, complexity, secrecy, the preselection of staffers and a
presidential style of leadership have weakened the public’s capacity to
scrutinise or control the acts of government through MPs. Traditionally
Labor has prioritized people as producers rather than consumers of services. In
a land of oligopolies both public and private service providers have long got
away with looking after their management and workers ahead of consumers, and
consumer power has never had an advocate of the stature of Ralph Nader. I
prefer to think of the users of public services as citizens rather than the
vogeuish ‘customer’, and call for a new politics of citizen power over
services. The public sector needs to be opened up to alternative modes of
public delivery that empower citizens to have a say over how area health
services, local schools or police to meet the needs of communities.

Libertarian social democrats believe in the
enlightenment idea of the citizen harnessed to new collective mechanisms to
deliver equality and strengthen social bonds, at both the local and national
level.  As argued by Tim Soutphommasane,
shared citizenship is the glue that binds disparate ethnicities, classes,
regions and cultural, religious and occupational trajectories. Libertarian
social democrats like pluralism and freedom of expression, seeing them as part
and parcel of an open, globalised economy and contributing to a nation’s
creativity and prosperity. However for a just and secure polity to exist the
centre must also hold around a shared commitment to truly participatory institutions
of governance.

While the Labor party would likely still baulk at
the idea of libertarianism as the creed of Balmain basket weavers or the feral
abaci of right wing think tanks, its governments have actually been the
greatest defenders of both economic liberty, breaking up cozy monopolies and
forcing our companies to compete in the world, and cultural liberty, limiting
the states surveillance of what we can read or publish and what adults do in
the privacy of their bed rooms. These were two important waves of reform that
made Australia a better place. By contrast the liberals (in the party so named)
are hampered by economic and social conservatives in their ranks. But Labor
governments, like their Coalition counterparts, also championed managerialism
and continue to boast at state and federal level men and women more
bureaucratic than democratic. They will oppose any diminution of their
authority over citizens, just as they have done so within the ALP itself where ordinary
members have never been so powerless. Nevertheless, the campaign to liberalise
governance in Australia is coming as the next great wave of reform, and
libertarian social democrats will be first to the barricades.

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