Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Post-liberalism in Australia?

As a poliblogosphere, Australians probably pay less attention than is warranted to British politics and too much to American politics when it comes to detecting long term trends that will affect our politics. While there are links between the Democrats and Labour and the Republicans and the Liberals which are useful perhaps more for practical matters - e.g. Obama's start of the art campaign management and GOTV machines, and the Tea Party's ability to suck money out of billionaires - it is the Old Dart where our federal politicians most often look for ideological inspiration.

In this vein, former Bill Shorten staffer Nick Dyrenfurth had a screed published in the Fairfax press on the weekend extolling the virtues of something called post-liberalism (the Chifley Research Centre published a non-edited full version). The premise of it as an ideology is hard to define, which is why articles on it tend to call it a "disposition" rather than a coherent creed. Its very elusiveness is part of its construction at this point. The final paragraph of a Financial Times article from May 2012 from one of its architects from the Demos think tank perhaps summed it up best:
The story of British politics since Margaret Thatcher has been described as the right winning the economic argument and the left winning the cultural one. Starting from where we are today the reverse would make better post-liberal sense and, if the current fiscal orthodoxy fails, it may be the only way to unstick British politics.
The following are the core tenets of post-liberalism, that I can figure out. Thatcher and Reagan, with Francis Fukuyama as their John the Baptist, were supposed to have heralded the end of history by establishing economic and cultural liberalism as the omega point for civilisation, after which no improvement could be made. This has led to the left and right sides of two-party systems in western democracies losing their competitive edge, as they both adhere to this liberal orthodoxy with only minor disagreement as to the details of its execution. The GFC has shot this orthodoxy to pieces by proving that a system based almost exclusively on personal freedom, individual rights and open markets can still fail disastrously and cause the global depression we now know as secular stagnation. The GFC culminated in the bail-outs, which went against everything that liberalism stood for and, to make matters worse... they worked. Nevertheless, the status quo's hold on political elites is so strong that nothing new has been able to get any sunlight to grow past these withered old vines, and the crisis that started in 2008 shows no signs of abating for most of the 99%.

So far, so good. I'm with the post-liberals on this critique, all the way. It's a tough situation to solve with just one ideology. I'm glad someone is stepping up to the crease to swing for the fences.

So, what is this solution we're all waiting for? Post-liberalism sets up some oppositions.

  • Instead of liberalism's tendency towards centralised government, post-liberalism seeks to devolve decision making on policy for public institutions away from bureaucracies and towards professional guilds, community groups and other smaller local bodies;
  • Instead of liberalism's ambivalence towards capitalism's historical predilection for accreting national oligopolies, post-liberalism foresees the establishment of regional banks and various measures to encourage easier money at a local level; mandated appointment of employees to corporate boards to break up the old boys club; and something called the "mutualisation of markets", which is rather nebulous but indirectly suggests a carbon price;
  • Instead of liberalism's reification of the openness of markets as a secular end in itself, post-liberalism seeks to reapply a moral framework over discussion of economic issues, with - undeniably - a strong Christian element, specifically Catholic;
  • Instead of liberalism's emphasis on open borders to encourage free movement of labour, post-liberalism would cut immigration but also focus on building "social housing" for those immigrants they do let through;
  • Instead of liberalism's attacks on entitlements to social security and unemployment benefits, post-liberalism emphasises the "contributory element of the welfare system", which means a higher pension or dole for those who have paid into the system previously, but denying benefits to recent immigrants or the young;
  • Instead of liberalism's attacks on the minimum wage, post-liberalism encourages companies to set their own "living wage" at much higher than the official minimum wage, as KPMG does with its staff in London with apparently net-positive results.

There is much for either side of the political divide to like and plenty to hate, which is no doubt why the ideology remains fodder for meaningless seminars at the fringes of both the Conservative and Labour movements in Britain. Dyrenfurth claims Tony Blair's Third Way as an antecedent, but it also shares a communitarian focus with the Big Society concept which fuelled David Cameron's landslide Tory victory in 2010, and has since been accused of being a cloak for mindlessly slashing the state, especially since Cameron has since cut even Big Society programs deeply as part of his liberal commitment to economic austerity.

Dyrenfurth commits a drive-by criticism of focus group politics, which is no doubt a dig at Zombie Bruce Hawker and Rudd-era obsessions. Post-liberalism as described by disaffected Poms feels a bit like the sort of bubble-and-squeak ideology a British focus group would come up with, though. Take Blair's Third Way and combine it with Cameron's Big Society, add in a few reactionary anti-immigrant elements to please the UKIP-voting recalcitrants, chuck in some sops for the grey power vote about how those lazy young people don't deserve the dole, throw the poor a bone by saying you'll have a non-binding word to multinational corporations about their pay packets... and just a pinch of Catholic brimstone. Lovely jubbly!

It is no wonder that Dyrenfurth references the Accord in his article, since to pull off such a radical transformation of society as is detailed in post-liberalism would necessitate the construction of a consensus as strong as Bob Hawke worked so hard to achieve in 1983, so a campaign like this really is in Labor's DNA as he says. The only problem is that the Accord was actually the mechanism to implement the Thatcher/Reagan liberal hegemony in Australia, so we're a bit once-bitten-twice-shy around here about that sort of thing.

Even with an Accord 2.0 to bring in the full post-liberalism platform driven by as talented a politician as Hawke, could it ever work? Can you imagine the AMA and/or nurses union having final say on policy in a privatised health system? How would the vice-chancellors committee and/or teachers union maintain control over a decentralised education industry? Can we trust the banks to police themselves? (Hint on that last one: no.)

Post-liberalism correctly identifies a disconnect between the populace and political elites, which is why modern politics is a war between populists and elitists. Its solution is to wave hands in magical fashion to imagine an agreement between the populace and the elites, whereby the elites promise to be good and the populace have to accept their word. Post-liberalism requires the removal of the coercive power of the state to fix public institutions. This is a very English construction: expecting the peerage, OBEs and GCMGs to act on behalf of the people, without any direct accountability apart from public shaming. I would have thought this line of thinking was laughable ever since Yes Minister, because political elites have lost pretty much all of the shame they once had. That might not quite be true in Britain even at this late stage as their elites still maintain some vestige of knightly commitment to service, but the trends are not good and one should not base a political philosophy on it.

A lot of what post-liberalism has to say is about the failings of economic liberalism, and fair enough, but it skates over the implications of rolling back social liberalism. There are mentions of re-capturing nationalism, presumably from the likes of UKIP. While they don't come out and say it in the open, post-liberals would put a price on carbon as a part of applying a moral aspect to markets. What does post-liberalism have to say about abortion, or free speech, or affirmative action, or multiculturalism? These issues are finessed, when they are mentioned at all.

There are too many spinning plates in post-liberalism for me, and not enough responsiveness to democratic will. A resurgence in Catholic control over government is precisely not what is needed, or wanted given societal trends. The proponents of this Aristotelian utopia seem to me to want to be the chosen few in the old Greek's characterisation of authority residing in "the one, the few or the many", making their credo just another anti-democratic repudiation of the Magna Carta which conveniently forgets to include democracy as a key component. This article makes that explicit, by also invoking Edmund Burke to raise the prospect of "virtuous elites" acting as mediaries between institutions and the populace. A crusading coalition of Catholic Cromwells! Saints preserve us.


  1. I am in the neo-liberal camp.the GFC didn't show up its failures.
    Sub-prime was most about bad regulation not neo-liberalism.
    Keynesianism and neo-liberalism are good bedmates.

  2. I disagree, Homer. Deregulation is an integral part of the neoliberal agenda. Dodd-Frank is anti-liberal.

    Those who seek to ameliorate neoliberalism around the edges will eventually get mown down by the true ideologues.

  3. M0nty,

    The general principle is deregulation is usually the best option but only if it boos competition. If it doesn't then you do not de-regulate

  4. That's not what most of the liberals say, Homer. They start from the premise that all markets should be completely unregulated, and are only dragged kicking and screaming to a conclusion that laissez-faire doesn't always work.

  5. being supportive of free markets and competitive markets are not the same thing.
    I always support the latter but never the former.
    One also has to recognise there are times you cannot get a competitive market.

  6. Try telling that to economic liberals, Homer.

  7. I think most agree. It is the ones aligned with the 'right' who wish to be ideologues and ignore evidence who are the ones you talk of. I agree on that.