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We are all neoliberals now



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.

Cover image from JG Ballard's Concrete IslandHe drove past it everyday to and from 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.

This inversion of John Donne's famous line 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 are unable to conceive of any alternative.

As neoliberalism has emerged as the hegemonic worldview it's come to encompass far more than a market-centred economic theory — neoliberalism, for example, now shapes discourses about liberal rights, government bureaucracy and the rhetoric of choice.

So, when Paul Keating recently said it had 'run its course', he was articulating an economic reality that, for economists who've objectively analysed the post-GFC data, 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, the always-meticulous Greg Jericho ran the numbers and, passing judgement on Keating's comments, determined the correct response to be: 'well, duh'.

What is more significant, though, is the second part of Keating's statement: 'Liberal economics 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) 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 and tinkering around the edges of the already existing neoliberal framework.


"The Left's failure is not so much that neoliberalism has failed, but that when it did there existed no alternative that could challenge its dominance."


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.

The Left's failure is, therefore, not so much that neoliberalism has failed, but that when it did there existed no 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 rather than the exception under capitalism, it's worth thinking about what such a response would entail.

One of the challenges for progressive parties is to look beyond the existing neoliberal framework for solutions to the current malaise. Labor's chief propagandist, Van Badham, suggests the ALP is uniquely positioned to do this because 'its union base is reinvigorated' (union membership is at historic lows), and 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 per cent — 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 MPs have far more in common with their colleagues across the House than they do with 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 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' 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 doing so. 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. 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 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. But these two worlds remain more separate than ever and, even if there was the will to rescue those trapped, they no longer have the tools.

By the close of Ballard's novel, Maitland, half deranged, still utters platitudes about getting off the island, but he's largely resigned to his new life. He's come to accept his own oppression.


Tim RobertsonTim Robertson is an independent journalist and writer. He tweets @timrobertson12

Topic tags: Tim Robertson, neoliberalism, Paul Keating



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Existing comments

If "neoliberalism" means the pure market economy, then it has barely been tried. Hong Kong 1950ish-1996 is a rare example. It was a spectacular "neoliberal" success - especially for the poor. The Left has never been able to account for it, and quietly sweeps this massively uncomfortable Fact of History under the rug. Unfortunately the "neoliberal" tag too often mixes in Keynesianism and other crony capitalist elements to sully the pure market idea. And then when it fails, all blame is sheeted home to the "market". One thinks of "privatisation" debacles where government monopolies are handed over to legally enforced "private" monopolies and the "free market" is blamed for the ensuing mess. The analysis is beyond pathetic. Then there is an angst-ridden discussion on this site about housing, and I've pointed out that under our so-called neo-liberal regime, there are 540 regulations that need ticking off for a house to be built in Victoria, driving prices through the roof (sic). If neo-liberal means free market, what's neo-liberal about that?

HH | 19 April 2017  

I wonder if you could dignify Bill Shorten and his out-of-touch acolytes with the "neo-liberal" nomenclature, Tim? Mere opportunists perhaps? You are quite correct in your analysis, along with many others, that, economically, things have broken down. The difference John Maynard Keynes had from the likes of Piketty is that he was not just another ivory tower theorist, but a practical money man who accumulated a fortune and his ideas were given a chance to be put into practice. They were appropriate for the times and they worked. The problem is that they may be inappropriate for these times and may not work now. There are actually economists who think for themselves - I would class Satyajit Das of Sydney as one. Like Keynes he has worked successfully in the real world. Most of his books are critiques of the current situation, but I think he has shown signs of the sort of insight Keynes had. Whether our mentally constipated politico-bureaucratic leaders would take any practical new ideas from him - or anyone else - aboard is a moot point. We certainly need new voices and new leaders to bring us out of the maze we are in.

Edward Fido | 20 April 2017  

Much of this is true. But I object to all of us being characterised as neoliberal. I certainly am not. And I do not believe that neoliberalism can be reconciled with the teachings of Jesus. We need to move to a new paradigm which recognises that society is a complex system that cannot be be analysed in a linear fashion. It is experience that is the great teacher, not word games.

Lee Boldeman | 20 April 2017  

Mark Latham: ‘Having studied the literature, and, at one time, been part of these debates, I can identify just three credible ideas that have been advanced for the renewal of the social democratic project. Each seeks to move beyond economic issues, beyond the material realm of politics, to stake out new ground. The first tries to reclaim social capital, the rebuilding of mutualism and community, as a Labor icon. The second positions Labor as an anti-establishment party, breaking down the entrenched centres of power in society. The third champions a crusade on climate change, an uncompromising attempt to roll back the materialism of western society in favour of environmental values.’ (‘No Exit – The Future Lies with the Green Movement’, The Monthly, November 2010.)

Len Puglisi | 20 April 2017  

The fundamental aspects of choice, capitalism, competition, citizenship vs non-citizenship and economic rationalism has devolved into a form of 'participatory' governance that has choice but no voice at its heart. This means that 'party' politics can no longer influence the 'system' as much as corporations and big business. 'Choice' is enacted through self administration or where we choose to spend the dollar. Far from empowering when you are a mother managing the new administrative nightmare of multiple family members. What is sad is that my children inherent a world that isn't dis-similar to that which belonged to my Victorian grandmother. Children were seen but not heard and sat within industrial schools servicing the tasks of a socially stratified system. They were then put out to service. No much has changed really.

Belinda | 20 April 2017  

The analysis is too extreme. Most social democrats throughout the world have been able to modify the neo liberal hegemony with notions of a fair go for all and social justice and delivering when in government for the working people who vote for them.

Angela | 20 April 2017  

I think the thing that happened around the Kinglake National Park on Black Saturday in 2009 is a metaphor for these post modernist times. The Green movement (who stronghold is inner city Melbourne) lauded the beauty of the “un-spoilt’ bush. We now enforce our desires on other communities and impose our ideologies from afar. The ecological timebomb that went off on Black Saturday is a prelude to the economic dilemma facing the civilized world

Ron Rumble | 20 April 2017  

There is much force in Tim Robertson's piece; his reference to Piketty is welcome to me because I think there is too great a failure to bring into public focus that analysis and its consequences. The ALP deserves criticism because it has shown little evidence of having absorbed the lessons of the failure of neo-liberalism let alone propagated the policy lines that may be necessary to adjust economic and social governance settings in response to those lessons. However Robertson's line of reasoning, and the comments it generated here seem to me to attempt to much to demonise the ALP for not coming up with leadership into policy areas that are extremely problematic especially in an Australia dominated still by institutional settings that regard departures for neo-liberal precepts as heretical and deserving of ferocious counter-attack. So frequently, discussions of this kind seem to descend into argumentation about conflicting ideology or heresies and heretics. Nor is the solution to be found in the arrival of a charismatic policy iconoclast who will sweep public opinion into support for the relatively radical redistributive policies that seem necessary. I would like to see much more public discussion, free of partisan venom about the consequences of the economic and social settings that have emerged form the neo-liberal ascendancy; part of that discussion might be an acceptance that the most practical way of redressing problems that have emerged will be a progressive consolidation of almost discrete sets of measures directed to particular and pressing defects and injustices in the system that has emerged. Neo-liberal Rome was not built in a day, nor will it be unbuilt in a day by populism or charismatic dialectic; I would hope that the interests that the ALP was created to serve will elect to patiently deconstruct and rebuild, stone by stone, and find a way to win community acceptance e for the necessity to do so.

NamePaul Munro | 20 April 2017  

There are various sources of tension among the people of the world. - that Great Human Body/Race; - that hinder harmony and progress; notably,1, the privileged against the under-privileged, and 2, the needs/demands of the individuals against those of groups or communities. These are all exemplified in the human body which is made up of trillions of cells, each with a life and function of its own. Most of them are not even human, but independent bacteria living in our intestines, and essential for our digestion and nourishment. All have found a way to harmonise and so thrive, but we humans with our vaunted intelligence and good-will cannot find similar success. Until we accept it as an ideal and work towards it, we will forever flounder and fail. It is complicated, because we band together in communities, some of which become 'privileged', and others 'under-privileged.' And so it rolls on. But it can and should, and MUST find a way to harmonise.

Robert Liddy | 20 April 2017  

don't object too strongly, lee. the heading isn't meant to be taken literally. in fact, i wanted it to sound deliberately ambiguous... it's a play on milton friedman's 'we are all keynesians now' line.

Tim Robertson | 21 April 2017  

Socialism has comprehensively failed. Paul Samuelson, Robert Heilbroner, J.K. Galbraith all admitted as much, way after they had seducing everyone into adamantly holding on to the opposite. We don't need another lefty to sing us hosannahs to a vague, big-government future.

HH | 21 April 2017  

So powerfully analytical, I've gone 360. Don't you think, while there are political parties and parliaments, nothing will change?.

Cam BEAR | 22 April 2017  

What solutions do you propose or envisage Tim?

Maureen keady | 23 April 2017  

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