John Passant discusses neoliberalism, worldwide rejection of political establishments and the ramifications for workers.
ITALIAN PHILOSOPHER and Marxist Antonio Gramsci wrote:
'The crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum, a great variety of morbid symptoms appear.'
Morbid symptoms are everywhere. Donald Trump’s election to the presidency of the United States is but the most obvious example. He may send the patient into palliative care.
In Australia, Malcolm Turnbull – the Dorian Gray of Australian politics – continues a long line of Labor and Liberal neoliberal disasters, caught between slashing and burning, and remaining popular and in power.
Trump’s agenda is attacking workers. Turnbull’s agenda is attacking workers. The rise of reaction across the globe is a response to neoliberal policies — a response that does not challenge neoliberalism, but reinforces it. In doing that it portends darker forces arising.
The quest to restore falling profit rates has seen a certain uniformity of policy responses worldwide, often called neoliberalism.
These policies include:
- cutting government spending, especially to the poor and less well off;
- doing little or nothing to address existential threats like climate change or immediate threats such as domestic violence;
- undermining and hamstringing unions;
- cutting workers’ living standards, either directly through reducing real wages or indirectly through cutting back on the social wage (health, education, transport and so on);
- extending the working day so that more and more unpaid labour is extracted from workers;
- cutting company taxes;
- subsidising big business operations to the tune of tens of billions of dollars;
- spending billions on infrastructure for big business (but not for the benefit of workers);
- cracking down on welfare recipients;
- going easy on big business tax avoidance;
- winding back the eligibility for various government payments, including the aged pension; and
- privatising government instrumentalities.
On top of all this, government policies do not have at their core ensuring full employment. This means there is a reserve army of labour living up to $200 a week below the poverty line that puts downward pressure on wages and helps keep strikes and other industrial disputes at very low levels.
Although the ABS unemployment figure (seasonally adjusted) is 5.7%, this is misleading because if you work just one hour you are no longer unemployed by ABS standards. According to Roy Morgan figures, actual unemployment is 9.8% and under-employment is 8.4%.
Neoliberal policies all have one aim: to restore profit rates. The parties of the left and right might disagree on the best way to implement them, but implement them both left and right do.
However, the problem is that the tendency for profit rates to fall is intrinsic to the way capitalism is organised.
With the reassertion in the late 1960s and early '70s of that tendency after the post-war long boom, the political response was not far behind. With the U.S. supported coup in Chile on 9 September 1973 and then the election of Thatcher in the UK in 1979, Reagan in the U.S. in 1980 and, in Australia, the Hawke Labor Government in 1983, neoliberalism became the dominant economic and political ideology to address falling profit rates.
While the result for employers was, to some extent, increased profits, the result for workers was falling real wages, or all the benefits of increased productivity going to capital – evidenced, for example, by a 10% shift in the share of national factor income going from labour to capital – increasing inequality and, among other things, reduced or non-existent vital government services.
These policies require a programme of distraction. "Othering" is a key part of neoliberal strategy. Thus, in 2016, we had the government, the media and, also to some extent, the opposition decrying the usual "suspects" — refugees, Muslims, dole "bludgers", "wealthy" pensioners, terrorists and, of course, the eternal other of Australian society, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.
However, this top-down othering is dangerous. Because of the ongoing crises that have destroyed their livelihoods, many small business people and workers across the globe have turned against traditional political establishments. Those who lap up othering the most are often the angriest. It is a very dangerous combination, as the 1930s shows us.
Brexit, Trump’s election, the rise of Pauline Hanson — all reflect in some way this disillusionment with politics as usual, but in a reactionary direction.
In France, the leader of the fascist National Front, Marine Le Pen, could possibly win the presidential election this year. In Austria, 46% of voters voted for a neo-Nazi to become their president. In Poland and Hungary, extreme nationalist parties are in power.
It has not been all one way. On the back of mass demonstrations and strikes against austerity, SYRIZA, the party of left-wing social democracy in Greece, won power and promptly began implementing the very policies it had railed against.
In Britain, socialist Jeremy Corbyn has convincingly won the leadership of the Labour Party in two Party elections. His programme of reforming capitalism for the benefit of ordinary people has won him support within and outside the Labour Party with ordinary people and members. He could win the next British election, given the parlous state of the Tory Government.
The problem he would then face, as SYRIZA in Greece did, is the iron law of falling profit rates, perhaps telescoped by the extreme economic and social dislocation Brexit will produce over the coming years. Corbyn has attempted to mobilise workers and others to take to the streets, and to fight in their workplaces for better wages, against government cuts, for refugees and so on.
After 30 years of neoliberalism from both major parties in Australia, a recent ANU study shows deep dissatisfaction with both democracy and politics in Australia. It is a gap the likes of One Nation, with its openly racist and victim blaming agenda, and crackpot economic and environmental ideas, could – and is – filling.
The Greens continue to receive around 10% of the vote, although their mainstreaming is producing tensions within the Party, as the rise of the anti-capitalist group Left Renewal shows.
In Australia, there is no Jeremy Corbyn or even a Bernie Sanders. Anthony Albanese is no Jeremy Corbyn. He is a long-term establishment politician and a minister in a number of neoliberal Labor governments.
If the enthusiastic and popular response to Corbyn and Sanders is any guide there is a gap that a genuine and radical social democratic party or figure in Australia could fill. Such is the state of Labor (and the Greens) that they cannot do this.
Unless there is a mass upsurge of demonstrations and strikes, and a consequent revitalisation of the working class and socialist movements, the long slow death agonies of capitalism could throw up "solutions" that hark back to the dark days of the 1930s.
It is time to organise. It is time to fight back.
John Passant is a former Assistant Commissioner of Taxation. Read more by John on his website En Passant or follow him on Twitter @JohnPassant.
Signed copies of John Passant’s first book of poetry, Songs for the Band Unformed (Ginninderra Press 2016) are available for purchase from the IA store HERE.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Australia License
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