During the Nuremberg trials at the end of World War II, crimes for which Nazis were hanged included the “inadequate provision of surgical and other medical services.” I think on this as I consider the billions of dollars stripped from hospital funding in the recent federal budget.
Ideology is a word that seems to get tossed around a lot lately. I was pleased to hear Bill Shorten make use of it in his budget reply speech. But what exactly does it mean? Let’s stop for a moment and see if we can’t put some substance to this rhetoric, starting with a few possible definitions:
1. The body of doctrine, myth, belief, etc., that guides an individual, social movement, institution, class, or large group.
2. Such a body of doctrine, myth, etc., with reference to some political and social plan, as that of fascism, along with the devices for putting it into operation.
3. Philosophy: The study of the nature and origin of ideas.
4. Theorising of a visionary or impractical nature.
Neoliberalism is the name given to a school of economic thought which emerged between the two great wars of the last century, and is usually attributed to Friedrich Hayek, Milton Friedman and the Austrian and Chicago schools of economics. For the purposes of this inquiry I will refer primarily to the former.
In the 1930s British conservative Harold Macmillan speculated a ‘middle way’ between the perceived threat of Marxist collectivism and the laissez faire economics which had led to the great depression. In contrast to this, Hayek’s capitalism-on-steroids boasts of the virtues and rigour of a global market economy, privatisation, deregulation and free trade, demanding nothing less in return than the systematic destruction of the institutions of the sovereign nation state. With all resources, (labour, minerals, food, water, air, you-name-it) surrendered to private capital, and services (finance, welfare, healthcare, education, etc) supplied by private industry, the problem reduces to an elegant equation.
Forget every conspiracy theory you’ve ever heard. Forget the Zionists, the Illuminati, Rothschilds, Reptilians, UFOs and the aliens who walk among us, forget HAARP and geo-engineering, nothing will prepare you for the nightmare ideology of Neoliberalism and its powerful acolytes, from the early postwar propaganda of the Walter Lippmann Colloquium to the Mont Pelerin Society (MPS), an elite clique of businessmen, bankers, statesmen and academics who’ve done more to overtly influence political thought and shape the foreign policies of governments in the last 75 years than all the great economic theorists of the last two centuries combined.
For a better historical account you could refer to Philip Mirowski’s work, or any of Adam Curtis’ great documentaries; however for the sake of this argument I find myself reaching for a Brodie’s Notes version, so here goes:
Neoliberalism stretches Adam Smith’s idea of rational self-interest and competition about as far as it can be stretched, stating that “only the mechanism by which prices are determined by the free market allows the optimal organisation of the means of production and leads to the maximal satisfaction of human needs”. In a nutshell it places individuals as consumers at the bottom of the food chain with corporations their rightful rulers. Within this paradigm the free market mechanism is sacrosanct, and the sole purpose of government to ensure that whatever money wants, money gets. This is the true blueprint for corporate statehood; a brave new world of milkshake sized lattes and 14 hour work days.
It’s fair to say that Hayek was not a huge fan of democracy, and terrified of socialism. He was similarly unimpressed by notions of altruism and the common good. By all accounts if Hayek was ever confronted by a noble savage he would probably stab him in the back and steal his purse. You might say that his was a rather pessimistic world view, or perhaps he was simply a product of his time. Markets by contrast he perceived to operate with mathematical precision, and when freed from the distortions of state intervention would be impervious to the boom-bust cycle that had plagued generations of economists.
How this ideology played out across the political landscape of the last century is a story deserving of much more thorough investigation, but crucial to its success was the establishment and proliferation of independent neoliberal ‘think tanks’ across the world, including London’s Institute for Economic Affairs (IEA) and closer to home the Institute of Public Affairs (IPA), of which Gina Rinehart is a member and major financer (the Liberal Party was the brainchild of the IPA, c. 1943.) The MPS agenda found powerful allies in media types like Sir Keith Murdoch, funding from the Rockefeller Foundation and popular support within the old European aristocracy. Clandestine operations like the dismantling of the Bretton Woods monetary system, achieved in 1971 when Richard Nixon floated the US dollar and abandoned the gold standard, subsequent control of the global resource market, and the expansion of Thatcherism throughout the West in the 1970s, provide some idea of the scope of the programme
One doesn’t have to look far to see the reach of the MPS in Australia. (In the 1930s Murdoch Sr. had used his papers to run a fierce campaign against the Scullin Labor government, sound familiar?) It is not so much a secret society as hidden in plain view, among its many public faces the aforementioned Institute of Public Affairs, the Centre for Independent Studies, the Tasman Institute, H.R. Nicholls Society, and The Sydney Institute. All fairly innocuous sounding names, but the honour rolls of these debating clubs read like a who’s who of Australian political life, and I don’t mean just the usual suspects. They are all there, from academic advisors to financial sponsors to key speakers. Names like Murdoch, Kerr, Howard, Kennett, Costello, Hewson, Bolt, Keating, Reith, Greiner, Kemp, Abbott, Abetz, need I go on?
The Liberal Party of Australia held office for a record 23 years from 1949 to 1972. With Menzies electoral victory secured amid cold war hysteria, media backlash against the Chifley government’s plans to nationalise the banking sector, and widespread public opinion that Labor had become ‘soft on Communism’, a double dissolution election and referendum to outlaw the Communist Party was called in April of 1951, returning Menzies to power with control of both houses of parliament. The Liberal-National Coalition was now unstoppable, and throughout the fifties and sixties Australia moved gradually toward military alliances outside of the British Commonwealth, committing troops to the Korean War and later Vietnam, signing the ANZUS treaty in 1951 and SEATO in 1954, and stepping up trade agreements, particularly with Japan.
By the end of the sixties the post war boom was showing signs of decline. Typical of fashion trends in the pre-internet age, Australia’s sixties revolution happened in the early seventies. With American Pie at the top of the charts and the troops safely home from Vietnam it was an age of optimism. Whitlam’s promise to buy back the farm had captured the mood of the electorate and no doubt caused some minor irritation to the powers that be, but his threat to blow the whistle on Pine Gap, (a secret U.S. intelligence installation in Australia which was most recently used to coordinate drone strikes on civilians in Pakistan), was the final straw. As history tells it, Governor General Sir John Kerr exercised his vice-regal powers, Whitlam, Cairns, and Connor were swiftly removed from office, and it was back to business as usual. (Ironically it was Labor’s own policy think tank, the Central Policy Review Committee, which stymied many of the Whitlam’s government’s reforms, effectively eroding the party from within.)
My argument that the ALP has long pursued a neoliberal agenda should not come as a shock to anyone. Neoliberalism is a perverse and pervasive ideology which has woven itself into the political culture over decades, and the ALP has not been immune. Hawke and Keating were in it up to their eyeballs, beginning with the serious business of labour market deregulation and leading up to the big asset fire sale, with national institutions like Qantas and the Commonwealth Bank (both established under the Chifley Labor government) the first off the lot.
The Howard government continued the trend taking a more direct approach to wages through an open attack on unionism, and liquidated over $100bn worth of public assets. With the mining boom in full swing, so too was Howard’s profligacy as he played to the electorate tipping money back into the private sector through tax relief, sadly too little too late to save his political career.
If one thing is abundantly clear it’s that Australians have short memories come election time. Fast forward to September 2013 and we see another big Murdoch campaign and the Abbott government picking up where Howard left off, with $100m thrown at a Royal Commission into union corruption set to drag out for most of the electoral cycle and hopefully deliver a few Labor heads just in time for the 2016 election, and another one into the pink bats scheme which would seem to have no objective other than to smear Kevin Rudd. Whichever way you call it, the prime ministerial gloves are clearly off, but you can rest assured there won’t be a Royal Commission into Commonwealth Bank fraud, as the Abbott government seeks to further deregulate financial services. Privatisation continues, but in true Orwellian doublespeak it’s now dubbed “asset recycling”, a game where the Commonwealth puts the squeeze on the states by offering a 15% cash bonus for the sale of assets, while taking $80bn out of school and hospital funding with the other hand. Well played I have to say.
Meanwhile the real protagonists of our story are still hard at play. The IPA’s policy wish list is being delivered one item at a time, with the imminent repeal of the carbon and mining taxes, the abolition of the Department of Climate Change and Energy Efficiency, and delegation of major environmental impact decisions to the states and territories. Health services are on the chopping block with pending changes to Medicare and a bill before parliament to remove the National Preventive Health Agency (cigarettes and alcohol are bad for you, but good for business; so apparently is gambling, and no prizes for guessing which son of a media mogul has his finger in that pie.) Other items which can be checked off the list either now or in the near future include removing subsidies to the car industry, removing family tax benefits, cutting funding to the Human Rights Commission, downgrading the NBN and cross-media ownership laws to allow the News Ltd an even greater stake in Australia’s media, and of course negotiating new regional free trade agreements including the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement (TPPA).
Attorney General George Brandis remains steadfast in his determination to repeal section 18c of the Racial Discrimination Act in spite of substantial public outcry and a raft of submissions to government which won’t be made public due to privacy laws. (How many is a raft? I wrote one, did you?) This move should not be mistaken as a defence of freedom of speech, nor excused as just another downsizing of state power, rather it should be seen for what it is; a direct attack on one of the true freedoms afforded by civil society, the freedom from persecution. (Also conveniently getting Andrew Bolt out of a lawsuit.) How sad, how thinly veiled, and how hard to swallow, when at the same time we see Queensland and Victorian state Liberal governments removing our rights to public assembly and peaceful protest.
You see, the first principle of Neoliberalism is freedom, but probably not freedom in the sense that you or I know it. Rather it is the freedom to take what you want, from who you want, when you want. The appointment of Tim Wilson, cherry picked from the ranks of the IPA to the newly created, high salaried position of Freedom Commissioner has scarcely raised an eyebrow, meanwhile Graeme Innes has been unceremoniously dropped from the role of Disability Discrimination Commissioner, and will not be succeeded.
A brief look at coalition attitudes toward the fledgling clean energy industry serves to further highlight the divergence between classical and neo-classical economics. In our neo-classical world view the value of a tonne of coal, nickel or iron ore is what a company in China, India or Japan is willing to pay for it. (In real world terms, a tonne of iron ore costs $50 to produce while its price has fallen from a height of $150 per tonne and is predicted to bottom at $75.) Hence it is undervalued, as the Greens rightly argue, not just in terms of environmental cost, but in opportunity cost. Renewables is the next boom industry. The Clean Energy Finance Corporation which the Abbott government is currently seeking to abolish has been an absolute bonanza for the private sector. The carbon tax itself has returned some $7bn in the last financial year, well ahead of expectations, and as a result of global investment solar PV and wind alternatives are now cheaper than coal.
Last year the future seemed bright for Australia. How do we find ourselves suddenly chained to a resource economy certain to be left behind as the rest of the world embraces renewables and prepares to cap and trade emissions? Rather than confront the problem of adjusting to inevitable change, (How long before India is able to source its thermal coal from one of its northern neighbours ending in ‘stan’?) the men in blue ties are hell bent on expanding mining, logging, roads and ports. With the carbon tax certain to be scrapped when the new Senate sits, and direct action likely to be blocked by the Greens, Australia will soon find itself without a climate policy. How many extreme weather events does it take to change a conservative’s mindset? When will they get it through their heads? Genocide is no doubt a policy outcome deserving of more than cursory investigation, but even for a conservative, the false economy here is simply mind boggling. The resource boom is over, already!
Once again the body politic has proven its incapacity to address long term problems, and shown its complete ineptitude in the face of certain and catastrophic risk. The coming collapse of the mining economy is as plain as the shit on Abbott’s nose, and mother nature will most assuredly have her day. Whist Howard’s battlers, weak at the knees but with staunch backs go on dutifully digging their own graves, we can only hope the former comes sooner.
Now let’s take a peek at the proposed $7 GP co-payment. Forget the fact that none of that $7 will be used to address Labor’s so-called debt and deficit disaster; would anyone care to guess the administration cost of collecting that $7 per patient, per visit? Will employing 10,000 extra public servants make up for some of those they’ve recently laid off? Seriously, let’s take a modest guesstimate that $4 out of every $7 will go in administration costs alone. That leaves $2 to go to the GP and $5 to a medical research future fund that doesn’t exist yet. Who do they think they are fooling? It doesn’t take a degree in applied math to show you that this policy will lose money. The Coalition have already blown this one out of the water by leaking the words ‘price signal’. The policy is so plainly vindictive that I refuse to even argue the case against it, but suffice it to say, if it is implemented, people will die.
If one three word slogan could perfectly capture the current political mood, it would be inequality for all. However Neoliberalism never promised us equality, instead we are offered equality of opportunity and the freedom to screw whoever gets in our way. To me this speaks less of Hayek’s promised free market utopia and more of Thomas Hobbes “war of all against all” in which men’s lives are “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short”. Austerity is not the way forward, but to a neo-feudalist dystopia.
While it’s tempting to believe that electing a Labor government tomorrow might somehow slow the rate of decay, the truth is, whether you’re a Liberal or a Labor voter, our successive elected governments have been committing treason against the people of Australia for generations. Maybe we still have a chance to put some things to rights, (if for example, Labor would let go of the boats issue and show some moral leadership,) but industry and wages are almost certainly a lost cause. Sometimes I think if we could go back a couple of centuries to when modern economics began, when price bore a fixed relation to labour rather than marginal utility, we might go some way toward a fairer society, but then I suppose the global economy is probably too far gone to be saved by fair trade coffee and free range eggs.
As long as our politics is based on a cruel and arcane ideology of paranoia and greed, with government-by-proxy and a world class conservative wingnut steering the ship, we the people are little more than spectators, powerless to do anything more than grumble in dissent. Any greater undertaking would require that a million or so Australians get off their backsides and take to the streets in outright defiance of this pathetic excuse for leadership, which is unlikely to happen, especially during footy season.
Given to flights of fancy I sometimes find myself thinking about possible worlds. More specifically, a world where our puppet democracy is finally exposed for what it is, Gina and Rupert are stripped of their wealth and power, and Abbott, Morrison and the rest of their scumbag cronies are tried and convicted of their crimes against humanity.