Marooned on a traffic island in central London, Robert Maitland, the protagonist of JG Ballard’s Concrete Island, comes to inhabit a world that he always, on some level, knew existed, but that he never really knew. He drove passed it everyday on his way from his home to the office, but its subaltern inhabitants were, until he too finds himself trapped there, as removed from his life as they are from ‘civilisation.’ He initially doesn’t appreciate the gulf between these two worlds, but, unable to escape the traffic island, he comes to lose touch with the old world and is subsumed by the new one. ‘I am an island’, he mutters to himself during a fit of delirium.
The inversion of John Donne’s line (‘No man is an island entire of itself; every man / is a piece of the continent, a part of the main…’) could well suffice as a maxim for modernity: an increasingly atomised society, populated by alienated individuals who are beginning, like Maitland, to realise that all is not right, but unable to conceive of any an alternative.
‘Neoliberalism’ is, undoubtedly, a term bandied about too flippantly by pundits who use it as a catchall pejorative without ever really defining it. This isn’t helped by the fact that it’s meaning has evolved. As it’s become the hegemonic worldview it’s come to encompass far more than a market-centred economic theory – neoliberalism has, for example, come to shape discourses about liberal rights, government bureaucracy and the rhetoric of choice.
So, when Paul Keating, an Australian neoliberal champion par excellence, recently said that it had ‘run its course’, he was articulating an economic reality that, for economists who’ve analysed the post-GFC data objectively, has long been self-evident. Since 2008, Keating added, ‘we have a comatose world economy held together by debt and central bank money.’ Over at the Guardian, Greg Jericho ran the numbers:
From 1990 to 2007 the seven largest economies in the world grew on average by 2.3% each year; since 2010 (which leaves out the two horror GFC years of 2008 and 2009) that growth has averaged just 1.7%. […] In Australia over the same two periods the average growth level has gone from 3.3% to 2.6%. Things have flatlined so greatly since the GFC that the Treasury now views Australia’s long-term average growth level as 2.75% rather than the previous level of 3%.
What’s, perhaps, more significant, though, is the second part of Keating’s statement. ‘Liberal economics,’ he said, ‘has run into a dead end and has had no answer to the contemporary malaise.’ That the dominant responses by western governments, particularly in Europe, to the neoliberal crisis has been a series of neoliberal ‘solutions’ – austerity, business tax cuts, public sector job cuts, etc. – speaks to its ideological dominance. Even now, nearly ten years on, centre-Left political parties can only offer solutions that fall somewhere between looking back to old Keynesian solutions (think, for example, of Labor’s infrastructure spending plan) or tinkering around the edges of the already existing neoliberal framework.
It’s staggering that such a profound systemic failure hasn’t fomented any serious systemic change. The contrast with the rise of neoliberalism couldn’t be more pronounced. It came to prominence during the ‘stagflation’ – rising inflation and rising unemployment – crisis of the 1970s; it provided an economic theory to deal with a problem in the absence of a Keynesian one. As Milton Friedman now famously said:
Only a crisis – actual or perceived – produces real change. When that crisis occurs, the actions that are taken depend on the ideas that are lying around. That, I believe, is our basic function: to develop alternatives to existing policies, to keep them alive and available until the politically impossible becomes the politically inevitable.
The Left’s failure is, therefore, not so much that neoliberalism has failed, but that when it did there existed no left-wing alternative that could challenge its dominance. Keating, even now, proposes no solutions; he offers, simply, a critique.
This has long been more comfortable terrain for the Left, but with crises being the rule, to borrow a line from Ha-Joon Chang, rather than the exception under capitalism, it’s worth thinking about what such a response would entail.
One of the initial challenges for progressive parties is looking forward, rather than back, for solutions; or, more specifically, looking beyond the existing neoliberal framework. Labor’s chief propagandist, Van Badham, suggest the ALP is uniquely positioned to do this because ‘it’s union base is reinvigorated’ (union membership is at historic lows), it won an election in WA (hardly a ground-breaking result in a two-horse race), which has ‘re-consolidated its primary vote’ (last federal election the ALP’s primary vote was 34.9 percent – its second lowest since 1949).
The inter-party discussion about the ‘Buffet rule’ isn’t, as Van Badham spins it, a sign of Labor’s progressivism; rather, the fact that what’s essentially a redistributive tax isn’t already part of their platform is a reflection of their inherent conservatism. These days Labor MP’s have far more in common with their colleagues sitting across the House than the workers they claim to represent.
While much of the intellectual heavy lifting in forming a picture of what a post-neoliberal future may look like will, of course, be done outside organised politics, Labor remains completely unengaged with almost all of these debates. Books like Thomas Piketty’s Capital, Paul Mason’s Postcapitalism and Nick Srnicek’s and Alex Williams’s Inventing the Future, which have found far wider audiences in the last couple of years than economic tracts ordinarily would, present ideas for a future exponentially more radical than anything the nihilist technocrats of the Labor Party have shown a willingness to entertain.
The party is so steeped in neoliberal orthodoxy that, even if it was willing to evolve, it’s likely incapable of it. One can see a version of this inability playing out in liberal democracies around the world – traditional political institution are unravelling apace. This is, in part, a result of the neoliberalisation of the bureaucracy – many of the roles traditionally filled by government have been outsourced to private contractors. The irony is that this quest for efficiency has stripped governments’ of many of the levers they once had to adapt and deal with change – they’re more inefficient now than ever before. Bill Shorten’s response, to date, hasn’t extended beyond doubling down on his economic nationalist rhetoric.
Labor is, undoubtedly, aware of the dystopia that exists just off the motorway. They’re even aware that more people, like Robert Maitland, who once moved in their world are finding themselves marooned there. They may even appreciate that it’s almost impossible for him to escape its clutches. But these two worlds, both partly of their creation, remain more separate than ever before and, even if there was the will to rescue those trapped there, they no longer have the tools.
By the close of Ballard’s novel, Maitland, half deranged, still utters the platitudes about getting off the island, but he’s largely resigned to his new life. He’s come to accept his own oppression, which, I guess, is my way of saying that… I’ve probably stretched this metaphor too far already.
(An edited version of this piece was published in Eureka Street on 19th April, 3017.)