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The End of Politics? What absolute nonsense.

What’s with all these ‘end of’ theories? First we had Daniel Bell’s The End of Ideology: On the Exhaustion of Political Ideas in the Fifties (1960), then there was Francis Fukuyama’s The End of History (1992), and more recently, The End of Politics and the Birth of iDemocracy (2012) by Tory MP Douglas Carswell. Now it seems we in Australia have our own ‘end of’ prophet – the ABC’s Jonathan Green. Last week he suggested that ‘The next great reform will be of politics itself’, and this week we have ‘We need to subcontract the budget process’. What he seems to have in mind is an end to the two party system – which is roughly true of all these other ‘end of’ writers to which he is a footnote. They all assume in their different ways the end of the two competing sets of political ideas that underlie the two party system.

In last week’s article, Green is arguing that the work of economic reform has been done, leaving governments seeking for purpose. ‘We are stuck with the theme so elegantly essayed in the ’80s and ’90s, of open economies and liberated markets,’ he writes. ‘And next?’ All that is left is apparently ‘fuss around the detail of an economy now making its way in the world.’ ‘[W]e now have an economy working in fundamental accord with accepted best practice. The liberation of an open market economy is pretty much a one-time reform: that job is done, unless some future fashion or orthodoxy should decide that renewed central intervention makes more sense.’

Fundamental accord with best practice? Forgive me, Jonathan, if you are being ironic, but I fear you aren’t. What can this possibly mean? Best practice according to neo-liberal economists like Hayek and Friedman? Fortunately our economy isn’t anywhere near as free from ‘central intervention’ as they would advocate. Best practice in terms of a balanced budget? Even if such a policy were best practice – and it isn’t – we don’t look like achieving it any time soon. But even if we were achieving some sort of ‘best practice’ compared to other countries, this ‘liberation of an open market economy’ would still be an economic system which left unchecked, institutionalises inequality and encourages destruction of the environment and dangerous climate change. It’s pretty easy to answer his ‘And next’ question.

This week, the management of the federal budget has become ‘mired in politics’; ‘the increasingly serious necessity of making our national ends meet, whether through a trimming of largesse, a deepening of the revenue pool, or a combination of the two, seems continual hostage to the siren call of popularity and power.’ The answer? Take it away from those nasty politicians bent on personal advantage, and give it an independent body, for example, ‘an office of Budget Balance’. As Green describes the role of such a body, ‘It might suggest to government that revenue needs to be raised by a certain percentage, or conversely that cuts of a certain severity need to be made: the choices would be political, but there would be no escaping them, and the blame, fundamentally would lie outside of politics, in independently expressed fiscal reality.’

I almost don’t know where to start with this. There’s a lot of evidence that successful societies – ones where there are not great disparities of wealth – most commonly run budget deficits. Modern Monetary Theory teaches us that surplus budgets come at the cost of increased private indebtedness. An ‘independently expressed fiscal reality’ doesn’t exist; the desire to achieve a deficit, a balance or a surplus are all themselves products of a particular economic world view, which results in quite different opinions about what is good for the economy at any given time. Green’s idea sounds a bit like the Republican Balanced Budget Amendment campaign. He says he is concerned about the ‘structural deficit’, and quotes former Treasury Secretary Martin Parkinson on the dangers of failing to deal with it. But anyone who describes government spending as ‘largesse’ has me worried.

What Green seems to wilfully ignore in both these articles is that there are winners and losers in market capitalism. The winners are the large corporations, the banks, those already well off and a few entrepreneurs who have made personal fortunes. The losers are the dispossessed, the young, the unemployed, and increasingly the working poor. And also the environment.  Anyone taking what Green says at face value would assume that the whole political class is interested only in power for themselves, and that they have no concern for the rest of ‘us’, as if all of our interests were the same.  Which they are not. This ‘us’ versus ‘them’ attitude reduces politics to the self-interest of politicians, rather than being a battle between competing economic and social interests. He talks of ‘the hollowly unrepresentative calculus of Liberal versus Labor’, and of ‘the mistrust and misrule into which we have slowly stumbled.’ This is another version of the two party system is terrible, Labor and Liberal are both the same, and as bad as each other. (And while we’re on it, it’s all their fault. The electorate and the media bear no responsibility for the situation.)

Of course politics is about power. You can’t do anything without it. And yes, many of the people we’ve elected to represent us do seem to have a sense of personal entitlement. Disliking politicians is a national sport. But what we don’t need is to confuse not liking them much with seeing them as all holding the same ideas, or representing the same interests. They don’t. That’s why there are two main parties. The Liberals are for low taxes, small government, private provision of services and minimal government intervention in the economy (except in the interests of their major corporate supporters). Labor is for intervention in the economy to promote employment, including through public/private partnerships, public provision of services like health and education, an adequate safety net to reduce inequality, a progressive taxation system and an appropriate response to climate change. Neither side always adheres to their basic philosophies, and this is usually because of the need to get elected. But why are these fundamental differences so hard to grasp? One reason is that journalists like Green wilfully ignore them.

There isn’t a clear distinction in Australian politics between the haves and the have nots; people vote as they do for any number of reasons – some well-thought out, some shallow, some focussed on their own needs, others on the community. What separates the two sides has changed significantly since the implementation of Green’s ‘open economies and liberated markets’. Labor and Liberal have had to respond to a changed electoral dynamic, and aren’t finding it easy. But that doesn’t mean that the policies they espouse are now the same, or in some way more trivial than during the period of economic ‘reform’.  The challenges are greater than they ever were, as we struggle to find an equitable response to climate change – not just within Australia, but across the world. The current options are the free market versus the ‘renewed central intervention’ Green speaks so dismissively of. What political battle could be more important? Like it or not, we haven’t come to the end of politics.

8 comments

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  1. Rosemary (@RosemaryJ36)

    Malcolm Fraser was part of a group trying to establish a new political party (see Crikey) – Renew Australia (a name already in use elsewhere, apparently, so why not “New Australia”?) – which would be far more centrist than any existing party except the Greens.
    To my way of thinking it would have appeal to small ‘l’ liberals, ex-Labor supporters who feel Labor has moved too far to the right and even to some who support the Greens but see some of their policies as being too extreme.
    Capitalism is divisive and supports the already wealthy. Socialism is too regulated and still divisive. The existing major parties are too much alike – look at Shorten’s acceptance of the metadata legislation, ignoring appeals from all over not to capitulate – and meanwhile NOBODY IS DOING ANYTHING ABOUT THE CHILDREN IN DETENTION!!!
    Malcolm Fraser has proved to be the most humane among former and present Prime Ministers – look at how the Vietnamese mourned his passing.
    His approach to refugees should be an example not just part of history.
    We are spending huge amounts to victimise genuine refugees when we could be befriending them, helping them and so enabling them to contribute to our economy. Make friends not enemies.
    Who said “It’s the economy, stupid!”? It really is!

  2. stephentardrew

    Ah yes Kay the glorious self-regulating market, deregulation and all of the imperatives of supply side neo-con economic rationalism are in place due to the complicity of left and right however the whole paradigm is built upon a smoke screen of invisible hands like some God like apparition guiding us to a mythical accord of little empirical reliability but massive ideological self-interest, rabid dogmatism and inherent cyclical failure.

    You can trust us? Where have I heard that before? Usually before some sort of massive economic failure, recession and depression brought on by a completely dysfunctional economic paradigm of the time. Things are pretty much how we want them to be; the one percent own it all; the rich are getting richer and the poor well they are just surfs of the system shuffled like so many expendable and expedient pawns with little opportunity or future.

    What a con. They have got us where they want us and now it’s time to merge left and right into the ultimate goal of corporate fascism. Fukuyama’s book is a load of right wing crap.

    Economics has never been is such dire straits as we head towards yet another financial collapse and serious environmental degradation.

    These are some of, if not, the the biggest bunch of snake oil salesmen to have lived on this planet.

  3. gangey1959

    Most enlightening Kaye. Once again.
    And very entertaining once I re-read it for the third time.
    I woke up in hospital a week or so ago via another ambulance trip, so I am way out of sync with the goings on of Canberra / abbott / shorten /etc. I was a bit surprised to see a planet still there when I came out the doors, (yay), and I don’t understand why (white)folks are surprised that indigenous Native Title holders in Queensland are exercising power of veto. I am only surprised it took this long.
    Let’s be fair, THIS time it is to stop the creation of a great hole in the ground that none of us want any way, and certainly not in the control of an Indian company with no social or environmental conscience at home so why would they start here, but I digress.
    Let’s face it. Politics will end when there is ONE person left on Earth. I can’t get agreement between my 2 brothers, 1 sisther, and mother at Christmas as to which charity(s) to support instead of buying adult presents. I want to look after the Kilsyth puppy shelter. Younger brother thinks Cambodian orphans are more important. Sis likes anything Green. Mum gets upset either way. Who is right?
    As far as I can tell, the “correct” eco/political path lies in the hands of those in control of the most other people holding the biggest sticks.
    Until someone finds a solution to this that, that is not based on violent social revolution of one form or another, then nothing is going to change, but in saying that, the 1% are never going to stop looking over their shoulders either.

  4. The AIM Network

    Hope you are OK, gangey.

  5. Matters Not

    Good article Kay but I wonder whether Green has his tongue firmly in his cheek. He does conclude:

    It might be a good idea, it might be madness, but the existing reality serves no interest but the demands of the immediate political present.

    As you argue:
    .

    there are winners and losers in market capitalism … as if all of our interests were the same … being a battle between competing economic and social interests … what we don’t need is to confuse not liking them much with seeing them as all holding the same ideas, or representing the same interests

    If Green is being serious (I have my doubts based on other works), then his views fit neatly into a ‘functionalist’ view of society, which is somewhat ‘dated’. Like you, I think a ‘conflict’ perspective constructs a much more accurate view of how a society operates and advances or regresses.

    But I tend to give Green the benefit of the doubt, (he was just ‘stirring’), for the moment at least.

  6. Annie B

    @ Gangey …. sincerely hope you are enjoying some better health, than you obviously have been recently. … Best of good fortune to you. … And I agree with much you have said.

    ………..

    Ref. this very well constructed article by Kay Rollinson.

    No – we haven’t come to the end of politics – and we never will… It reigns in many places, the home ( yes ), the neighbourhood, in offices and large corporations, in volunteer organisations, in charities, and in all shifty global political and power game playing. …….. Not to mention in our own nations’ Governmental hubris, and that of its’ opposition.

    So maybe it’s time for ‘first past the post’ voting ? Sure – that weighs against the TPP, which we adopted – and did not think out for ourselves so many decades back.

    BUT – if it’s good enough for a party to cast votes by show of hands, or secret ballot – i.e. – whoever shows the most support for a proposal, wins …… why should it not be good enough for us ?

    Money ? …. Which party (who) would support a ceiling or limit on monies donated to them towards an election ? Probably nobody …. . However, if there were a limit put on monies donated to ALL parties… this would surely even the playing field, and give the voters some chance at deciding for themselves, who has had the nous to promote their ideas – through mail box drops and innovative communication to voters, some TV advertising ( according to the way they run their election budgets ), and all the ideas put forward by competing parties, in a positive way.

    This would bring everybody into the arena. …. to be judged, by the voters. …. Much the same as a good cow or bull is judged best at a Royal show. ( I MEAN that ).

    How could we call for a ‘first past the post’ voting regime ?

    Anyone have any answers to that one ? …. If there IS no answer, we are stuck for years to come with one ultra-right wing party, and one who heavily leans to the right.

    Which does NOT give us any choices. ……. No way, no how.

    It will be years before the Greens, or any other party can get one toe in the door of the higher echelon political climate of today.

    Again I ask ( seriously ) – has anyone else any other ideas on this ?

  7. Harquebus

    The end of the Pacific Ocean – Fukushima.

    Jonathan Green’s articles are always superficial as is this one. Neither Green nor Kay Rollison seem to be aware of underlying fundamentals. It is not power, it is energy. Productivity depends on energy, always costing more, and economic growth requires surplus energy. Politicians, economists and bankers do not factor this in their flawed equations. Their infinite growth model is exceeding our capacity to sustain it so, it does not matter who controls what, while growth is pursued, they will fail and that is all there is to it.

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