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Civilisation beyond the con of neoliberalism

  • 26 June 2018


It has been a good month for large issues. Just in time to arrest ponderous musings about Western Civilisation, up jumps Richard Denniss' cheeky funeral oration for the neoliberal settlement.

The target of Denniss' Quarterly Essay, 'Dead Right: How Neoliberalism Ate Itself and what Comes Next' is the neoliberal assumption that an economy based on unregulated competition between competitive individuals will benefit society.

He does not spend time arguing with the theory, as most of us do, but points to the results: anxious, overworked citizens, inadequate services, flat wages, growing inequality, rampant corruption in massively profitable corporations and increasing distrust of politicians and institutions.

His most intriguing reason for not engaging with economic theory is that the interested parties have simply used it as a con in order to distract people from what is being done to them. It generates slogans like competition and small government, which, with the connivance of governments, corporations use to transfer resources to themselves at the expense of society.

Although competition can be beneficial, it has been introduced into areas where it is inappropriate, such as public utilities like electricity, and into social services like care for the aged and education. The appeal to small government and the labelling of taxation as a burden enable social needs to be set against economic growth, so that any push for increased benefits for the unemployed or Indigenous Australians can be presented as a threat to working citizens. Society becomes divided while the knowing run away with the loot.

Denniss regards this as a con because neither governments nor corporations believe in competition. On the contrary they use regulation to exclude it.

Privatisation is structured in such a way as to breed oligopolies or monopolies. Regulations on unions are introduced to prevent workers competing with employers; subsidies are offered to large companies to develop coalmines that otherwise would be uncompetitive; the efforts made by the government to prevent the predatory behaviour of the major banks from coming to light speak for themselves. Small government means spending government money for party political reasons on big enterprises of questionable value, such as the inland railway.


"To conceive the good of society as the product of individuals competing economically erodes all the connections that link human beings to one another, and particularly those connections that make strangers into fellow civilians."


Neoliberal doctrine is useful, however, in enabling governments to reject proposals for expenditure that offer a social benefit, such