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 communities.

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 Minister.

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 Watson).

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.