Mr Market, slavery and the future of democracy

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Over 30 negative Newspolls for the LNP. Their banking mates revealed to be a rogue’s gallery. Their budget full of gifts for the rich. And still the Opposition Leader is less popular. Is this the Twilight Zone? Mike Dowson makes some suggestions.

(Image via pitzlfinancial.com)

YEARS AGO, a human resources director, who had the office next to mine, solicited for a less Orwellian department name. My suggestion was “modern slavery”. She found that hilarious. I wasn’t joking.

The truth about slavery is that it was never abolished. It was modernised.

Once upon a time, to persuade you to build Pharaoh’s pyramid, or pick Master’s cotton, the powerful needed control over the food supply and a large man with a lash. That crude system endured for a remarkably long time. But it wouldn’t work today in most places.

The lash has been superseded by a media machine. Its owner is adept with the more sophisticated tools of envy, outrage, fear, misinformation and marketing.

These are hardly the fields of the antebellum South. But bondage doesn’t become freedom just because you reduce the violence.

This is not to make light of the unfortunate people all over the world, including wealthy countries like Australia, currently being exploited in physical captivity. There are more of them now than at any time in history. Many are trafficked. Many are children.

Mundane oppression is harder to recognise because it is ubiquitous and systemic. With so many decisions, livelihoods and basic needs in the hands of big government and big business, genuine self-determination is out of reach for most communities.


The cottonfields resounded with pleas to the god of the oppressor. Today, a different god presides over the exploited. Warren Buffet knows him well. His name is Mr Market.

Warren Buffet once said that you always want to know what Mr Market is thinking, but you never want to take his advice. Someone should tell our governments, because they’ve been in a frenzy to relinquish to him the functions we elect them to perform.

Mr Market is an ancient god. He was there beside the pyramids and in the cotton fields. But there’s something else you should know about Mr Market. He’s a fraud. Like the Wizard of Oz, once the curtain is pulled back, you can see how very frail and mortal he is.

Mr Market doesn’t have any supernatural powers. He’s just the sum of the fears, desires and neuroses of people with money. Mr Market wants you to keep working, borrowing and shopping. And he wants you to make new people and use up more of the Earth. When you do those things, his confidence grows.

The first big problem with Mr Market is he only cares about money. That makes him dangerous. There may be a lot wrong with government. In that case, we need to fix it. But leaving everything to Mr Market is not the answer.

The intelligent investor shouldn''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''t ignore Mr. Market entirely. Instead, you should do business with him- but only to the extent that it serves your interests. - Benjamin Graham

The second big problem with Mr Market is he has a very powerful priesthood. And they have the ear of politicians and bureaucrats. That’s one thing wrong with government. And that’s why governments ignore Warren Buffet’s advice and listen to Mr Market instead.

The members of the ruling caste, who pay these priests of mammon, also fund election campaigns, proffer cosy post-ministerial jobs, and sponsor a swarm of industry groups, think tanks and lobbyists. But most of all, to goad us beyond conscience, compassion and conviction in their quest for profit, they rely on that slave driver with the media machine.

Like Egyptian Pharaohs and Southern plantation owners, they lay claim to a natural order. Their superior position comes from being "innovators" and "wealth creators". Without their invocations, the blessings of Mr Market wouldn’t reach us ordinary folk, whose lot is to toil for the promise of an afterlife — perhaps a cruise, or a road trip to usher in our twilight years.

It takes a lot to shift an entrenched order like this. Civil war and violent revolution have been popular choices, but usually only after years of misery. If only there was another way.


It’s far from perfect, and has some idiosyncrasies, but Norway leads on many important indices of wellbeing. It has some things in common with Australia, including some of our problems.

Norway is second only to Australia for residential property mortgages as a percentage of private debt. We are equally badly off for our household debt servicing ratio — what that debt costs us. And like Australia, Norway is at the end of a resources boom.

But there are some important differences. As commodity revenues fall, Australia has inadequate infrastructure, beleaguered social services and rapidly rising inequality. Norway has high wealth and income equality with almost no poverty and the world’s largest sovereign wealth fund.

Why such different outcomes? Norway has significant public ownership of sectors like banking, citizen representation on boards and quotas for female participation. This thwarts the “game of mates” that now runs Australia. But how did it come about?

Ordinary Norwegians suffered long years of violently enforced deprivation at the hands of their ruling class. But they built solidarity from the grass roots up and, once the elite saw them coming en masse, a peaceful redistribution of power became preferable.

In Australia, we started the post-war boom with a more egalitarian social order, but eventually our rich and powerful were able to dismantle it from the top down, while we were partying and buying real estate. Whereas Norwegians had to fight for a share of power, putting rules in place to prevent a reversion, we modern Australians fell asleep in the sun. Now we are waking up with a sunburn and our wallets missing.


It’s never too late to learn. But we need to get cracking. He Who Must Not Be Named has fixed his gaze on The Lodge and, if ageing conservatives decide to exact further electoral revenge on the young for having their lives ahead of them, it won’t be long before some of us “bleeding hearts” are making unplanned excursions in the middle of the night in the interest of “national security”. I don’t mean to trivialise the horrors of the past. Their origins were just as banal.

I recently asked an at-risk person who she was going to vote for. She said anyone who would give her what she wanted. I know what desperation feels like, but that attitude is guaranteed to keep us on the losing side. That’s how demagogues get elected.

Paid parental leave or public funded child care? A universal basic income or a job guarantee? Assistance to small business or higher minimum wages? Why not all the above? Someone wants us embroiled in contests. Why do you think Caesar had the colosseum built? After that, it was thumbs up or thumbs down at the Emperor’s pleasure.

We need to stop competing and start cooperating. Unions, farmers and middle-class reformers joined in Norway’s transformation. They didn’t agree on everything, but they shared the conviction that government must answer to the people.

Labor won’t voluntarily turn around and become the workers party again. Nor will the LNP revert to Menzies’ vison. Both are committed to letting Mr Market’s tantrums tear up the country like ravening wolves. The only difference is which electorates get first aid.


The rich and powerful are well-organised. And they’re good at cooperating for mutual benefit. There are many more of us, but that’s useless while we’re divided.

Seriously, this is the eleventh hour. You may be reading this in a quiet, sunny corner of the Lucky Country, but I guarantee not too far from where you live is a level of poverty, disadvantage and societal dysfunction that would make you ashamed. And it’s spreading.

Join a union. Join a co-op. Join a minor party. Join GetUp. Talk to your friends. Talk to your local candidates. Demand they push to increase transparency and end political donations. Most of all, get behind our young people. Listen to them. Take them seriously. Help them.

And no, voting for unprincipled bastards from a stronghold of tax-advantaged investments is not helping them.

To anyone who cares about our country and our world I say let’s put aside our superficial differences and our traditional allegiances for a time and unite to undermine the clandestine rule of Mr Market, his conniving priests and his cadaverous media overseer.

Mike Dowson is a private management consultant. 

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