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  • Our economy needs democratic oversight, not the unleashing of animal spirits

Our economy needs democratic oversight, not the unleashing of animal spirits



In a recent speech to business leaders, Prime Minister Morrison made the remarkable claim that ‘we are going to meet our [climate change] ambitions with the smartest minds, the best technology and the animal spirits of capitalism.’Main image credit: Prime Minister Scott Morrison during Question Time in the House of Representatives (Sam Mooy/Getty Images)

You heard right. The animal spirits of capitalism!

It’s not the first time the Prime Minister has used this term. In 2019, he spoke of the need to provoke ‘the animal spirits in our economy’  by removing regulatory barriers to business investment. You know the kind. Barriers like paying a fair amount of tax, paying decent wages, and providing working conditions that offer even a semblance of security.

In the neoliberal worldview, worker entitlements like sick leave (even in the midst of a pandemic!), annual leave, carer’s leave and domestic violence leave are seen as barriers to business investment and economic growth.

This is straight from the neoliberal playbook, the doxa that the role of government, rather than being there to achieve the collective dreams of the many, is to get out of the way to make room for those animal spirits so as to pander to the fantasies of the wealthy few. This is why he wants to 'remove regulatory and bureaucratic barriers to businesses investing and creating more jobs.' Except we know from what remains of the bedraggled IR Omnibus bill, from the defeated and epically misnamed Ensuring Integrity bill and earlier from John Howard’s WorkChoices that when they talk about creating more jobs they’re really talking about creating fatter profits. We also know that putting the screws on workers is neither a path to job creation nor a recipe for economic growth.

And this tells us everything about what the Prime Minister means when he talks about the animal spirits of capitalism or the animal spirits in our economy. Capitalism and the economy being in his view synonyms. In other words, what’s good for the chief owners of private capital is good for everyone. This is naturally followed by the woeful logic that if the rich get even richer, then some of the wealth will trickle down. Now, if you think it’s hard to get in touch with those mischievous little animal spirits, you should try listening out for the sound of the wealth trickling down! I’ve been listening hard for ages and all I can hear is the sound of the excluded still waiting.

It does not have to be this way. You can reconfigure the economic settings, including our industrial relations framework, so that the lives and livelihoods of workers are actually improved and you can even, given the guts and the gumption required by genuine political leadership, do this in such a way that businesses are encouraged to see the longer term benefits of a strong and safe society and a planet that is not fast-tracked for destruction. In the meantime, however, those animal spirits are somehow meant to explain and justify, on one side bumper profits, corporate tax cuts and lavish business welfare and, on the other, stagnant wages, underinvestment in social infrastructure and the wholesale normalisation of inequality and insecurity.


'But Morrison, as far as I can tell, is conjuring up these animal spirits as if they represent what he fervently believes to be the deeply human desire to make lots of money.'


It would be convenient to put aside for the moment the fact that the Prime Minister’s recent invocation of animal spirits was little more than a means of veiling his government’s abrogation of responsibility on the climate crisis. We would be far more relaxed and comfortable, to use his mentor’s favourite formulation, to put aside for the moment the evidence that this is a crisis of such urgency and severity that it caused this country to become an inferno during the summer of 2019/20 and the Torres Strait Islands to be threatened by rising sea levels.

It would indeed be convenient. But the climate crisis is exactly where you end up when you abandon all notions of democratic oversight of economic activity in favour of provoking or invoking those animal spirits.

Morrison is not the first to speak of these animal spirits. John Maynard Keynes, whose economic theories Morrison arguably entertained, albeit fleetingly and superficially, at the beginning of the COVID-19 crisis, defined animal spirits in his 1936 General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money as that 'large proportion of our positive activities [which] depend on spontaneous optimism rather than mathematical expectations… a spontaneous urge to action rather than inaction, and not as the outcome of a weighted average of quantitative benefits multiplied by quantitative probabilities.'

In Keynes’ usage the term refers to the kind of instability that is intrinsic to capitalism, an instability that can yield both positive and negative results, depending on who you’re talking to. But Morrison, as far as I can tell, is conjuring up these animal spirits as if they represent what he fervently believes to be the deeply human desire to make lots of money. For Morrison, it would seem that these spirits literally animate the best of us to take the risks to make more money. And who are the best of us in this schema? Big business. Why else would he address this invocation exclusively to this audience? But who carries the burden of risk. The rest of us.

When Scott Morrison’s time as prime minister is over, his legacy will be, above all else, a deliberately manufactured surge in inequality and insecurity writ large across an economy where we are further disempowered as workers and citizens; a society where we are disenfranchised, and a climate crisis that threatens everything we hold dear.

That’s what you get when you vacate the space for democratically accountable decision making and leave our lives in the hands of the animal spirits of capitalism.



John FalzonDr John Falzon is Senior Fellow, Inequality and Social Justice at Per Capita. He is a sociologist, poet and social justice advocate and was national CEO of the St Vincent de Paul Society in Australia from 2006 to 2018. He is a member of the Australian Services Union.

Main image credit: Prime Minister Scott Morrison during Question Time in the House of Representatives (Sam Mooy/Getty Images)

Topic tags: John Falzon, Scott Morrison, capitalism, neoliberalism, auspol



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Existing comments

Morrison should listen and learn from the Soul Search program on Radio National https://www.abc.net.au/radionational/programs/soul-search/the-pope-and-the-working-man%E2%80%99s-paradise:-rerum-novarum-at-130/13322792 Capitalism is exploitative and the unions and their members have made the lives of working people in Australia so much better than liberalism (original or neo) would have exploited if they had full rein.

Claire Kelly | 06 May 2021  

I didn't think I'd ever write a "Dear John," but here goes... I'm torn, John, torn between the emotions of disliking Scomo, his politics and obtuse persona with an intensity that's boardering on pathological and the need for writers like yourself to craft precise arguments that expose him. But John... dear, dear John, your article which could have given me that moment of joy has been based on an assumed premise. John, you've taken the PM's words then told us what you interpret them to mean ( which you're at liberty to do), but you didn't stop there... you've run with a notion that goes on to assert how the PM thinks and behaves (doxa) based on your own premise of "appearances". This de facto type thinking and accusation is problematic to your case...doxa, no matter how widely accepted is contrasted with episteme ('knowledge') and you just don't know. Adjunct to your dislike of "rich get richer" is the reality that not only do they get richer but there are more of them every day; similarly, there are more poor people too and unless those rich create and spend their wealth the poor people have less to go around. That's capitalism.

ray | 06 May 2021  

John, Congratulations for such a clear and powerful synopsis of the focus and activities of this government. If he sincerely believes he's been called by God to lead our nation, perhaps he should reread the messages of the prophets of the Hebrew scriptures as well as the Sermon on the Mount to discern whether the options he is preaching do actually line up with the Word of the Lord? Thanks again for your incitful article. Mike Schell

Michael Schell | 06 May 2021  

Yes, Scott Morrison (or his speechwriter) is desecrating culture which depends on words which can be trusted to have fixed meanings which can be shared for the purpose of common understanding. Keynes meant ‘animal spirits’ to refer to irrational behaviours that behavioural economics as a discipline is now studying, and rebadging the phrase to mean rational behaviours corrupts a possible language of analysing the difference between a perfect and a free market. Commentators will pick up on Morrison’s use of ‘animal spirits’ and birth a meme based on a falsehood. But isn’t this postmodernism where meanings are plastic, nouns can be verbs and marriage can be same sex? Perhaps Plato was correct and nobody should lead unless they are trained in philosophy.

roy chen yee | 07 May 2021  

As usual John, your analyses of neoliberal capitalism and Scott Morrison's policies are very accurate. Our economic planning does need democratic oversight as well as having far more compassion for those hurt by the economy and the pandemic and there also needs to be an environmental aspect. The Morrison Government has missed many opportunities to address the problems we face because the LNP is totally committed to supporting the very wealthy and the large corporations (who pay little or no tax) simply because they are large donors to their coffers.This is negligence of the highest order and is the reason why we are being foisted with the so-called "gas led recovery" which is no recovery and will cause more pollution. Instead of giving huge amounts of tax dollars to the big end of town, much more money should be directed to the needs of ordinary Australians and to the implementation of effective strategies to deal with the pollution that is causing millions of premature deaths per annum and climate change. It is now well known that there are many more jobs in clean, renewable energy production than there are in the use of fossil fuels. And using these forms of energy reduces pollution. Instead of taxing those who have electric vehicles and solar panels on their roofs, we need to be encouraging people to adopt these initiatives. And the government should be giving incentives to people to do so and tax the polluting industries. Because the LNP Government has listened to the medical profession and the states have had a big say in dealing with the Covid-19 pandemic, Australia has not had many deaths. However, those deaths that have occurred have been due to poor management of the borders (eg the Ruby Princess affair) and the negligent management of aged care installations that has left many with too few qualified carers. With 9000 Australians isolated in India which is weighed down with the pandemic, Morrison has tried to introduce punitive legislation to stop them from returning home because of the lack of effective quarantine centres. Why did his government not establish a number of centres around the country with adequate numbers of trained medical and nursing personnel to effectively manage all those who are returning from pandemic areas around the world? Recently we have been made aware of the problems related to domestic violence and to sexual harassment in the community. These problems have not been well managed in the past because there have been too few qualified police and health personnel to support the victims and too few shelters to ensure that they are safe. The PM claims that his religion guides his political decisions. I don't believe him. The founder of Christianity told his followers to give to the poor, but Scott Morrison and his government - like their right wing fundamentalist counterparts in the US - have only ever persecuted the poor and taken from them to give to the rich.

Andrew (Andy) Alcock | 07 May 2021  

I’m not sure the boss stands for democratic oversight. That ScoMo may feel he was called by God to lead our nation should worry anyone not sharing his version of faith because really, what does he stand for? The “spontaneous urge to action” seems to be the main motivator of this Prime Minister. Doing or saying things he thinks will win the support of his “quiet Australians”. Standing up in Parliament waving around a lump of coal (washed and polished so no coal dust stuck to his hands). Grabbing fire victims by the hand when they didn’t want to touch him (seriously). Telling Parliament that if Christine Holgate didn’t stand down she would be made to stand down. Threatening returning travellers with gaol time, then pulling back. The pattern each time is jumping in when it looks popular, only to back away when the scrutiny and criticism picks up. “I don’t hold a hose, mate.” The behavioural pattern is there and if “the animal spirit of capitalism” gives him any traction, he will push it and what it means for all it is worth. If not, he’ll drop it quicker than a lump of coal. That’s what he stands for.

Brett | 08 May 2021  

Brett. You have described the perfect marketeer steeped in jingoism. Worse, he learnt it at a institution gracing itself with the title "university". The jingoism is indeed cringe worthy and based on American snake oil salesman principles - the flag on the coat lapel, cringe-cringe, the Australian flag face mask, cringe-cringe, and the worst cringe-cringe of all, an American baseball cap. Surely he could have taken a leaf out of the cringe-cringe Howard or Albo books and tried an akubra. I wager he will keep the akubra option in reserve pending the pre-election opinion polls - good marketing.

john frawley | 10 May 2021  

I was wondering if anyone has read "In Catastrophic Times Resisting the Coming Barbarism" By Isabelle Stengers

Pierre | 11 May 2021  

Pierre's Stengers reference reminds that the 'animal spirits' metaphor was coined, not by Keynes who obviously - like the appropriately excoriating John Falzon - employed it against itself, but by Ayn Rand who, as the apostle of capitalism unleashed, declared that religion in general and Christianity in particular were anathematic to economics. The question then is: do Scottie's speech writers even know this? If covering up one's gaffes demand a major effort of politicians, surely he should be told. Incidentally, he's not alone in preaching this so-called 'Prosperity Gospel': last year I involved myself in asking why the National Catholic Education Commission had failed to respond productively to the Gonski Institute's recommendation that school-funding fairness could only be achieved through the integrated schools model on show in various Canadian jurisdictions and NZ. The then Executive Director, only after the intervention of an archbishop prompted him to respond, rejected the idea after appeal to another CIS Randism: 'a rising tide floats all ships.' But there may be worse to come were we to follow Roy's panacea of blaming this mess on postmodernism, which I bet Morrison wouldn't even be able to spell, let alone Roy's forlorn 'train-wreck' bete-noire of same-sex marriage.

Michael Furtado | 13 May 2021  

Michael Furtado: ‘integrated schools….’ The purpose of a ghetto is to reproduce culture. A ghetto which doesn’t reproduce culture is salt that has lost its taste. Given that self-identifying Christians still make up half of the population, it’s only faulty catechesis of parents and children which prevents orthodox Christianity from influencing any sector of the society. If you add theisms which espouse similar moralities to orthodox Christianity, practically all of which come from cultures which are socially conservative, the last thing postmodern elites want to see is a public school system inhabited by theists who have been properly catechetised in their respective theisms. Much better, using the Other People’s Money of consolidated revenue, to fund a Catholic (or Anglican) educational ghetto which doesn’t reproduce the culture which it is supposed to. Ideally, ghettos shouldn’t exist and the properly catechetised should be taking their rightful place as citizens in the state school system. If John Falzon wants to see the spirit of Rerum Novarum as a labour market commonplace, he should be encouraging well-catechetised rerumnovarumites, from anklebiters onwards, to be strutting their stuff in the state schools. There are no denominations in Heaven; why should there be denominational schools on Earth?

roy chen yee | 14 May 2021  

Two flaws in Roy's argument: the first? That parents are the 'first educators', as 'orthodoxy' impeccably knows and teaches, and therefore those parents who know their children and care enough to wonder about what it is and how they are taught should have an inalienable entitlement to influence the context in which their children are formed, especially by secondary educators, rather than hand their children over to the care of teachers who, employed by the state to negotiate and deliver a curriculum to a diverse body of young persons, cannot but hope to influence a small body of learners in a mish-mash of over-generalised and hit-or-miss values that take second position to an emphasis on content as a matter of technique-transmission and pedagogy as a form of 'take-it-or-leave-it' state-sponsored methodology. Add to that the unknown and uncared-about attitudes and values of educators, other than that they should toe a 'don't-get-into-trouble-line-of-least-resistance' and voila: our second problem! That instead of assuming control for all educational-delivery, the state should adhere to the perfectly orthodox principle that, while it may assume the authority to collect revenue, should exercise the devolved power of subsidiarity to invest those resources in those suppliers better-placed to deliver them.

Michael Furtado | 17 May 2021  

‘negotiate and deliver a curriculum’ The room may be different, there may be a crucifix in one room and not the other, but the majority of the curriculum and school room hours are on subjects independent of theological values. ‘That parents are the 'first educators': children from Christian denominations too small to have their own schools attend state schools and religious instruction on a weekend or weeknight where the parents, in their role as ‘first educators’, pull their practical weight in support of the spiritual by supporting a pastor in delivering the instruction.

roy chen yee | 23 May 2021  

Courageous though he is in argument, Roy Chen Yee's latest post here reveals all the hallmarks of those - not all of them Catholic - who have long abandoned the education of their children in Catholic schools. For such a cohort, driven by a combination of fire-proof zealotry and unrelenting criticism of the Church, their usual resort, sometimes encouraged by clergy at odds with the Faith, is to opt for 'home-schooling': that bastion of isolationist fundamentalism usually chosen by those at odds with all aspects of the world and everyday life and who regard grace as accessible only through a ration-book of acquired points, 'stamps' and graces, while perennially at odds with the teacher, whether of mathematics or religious education, and especially the latter, for fear of a latitudinarianism that is always less than the dogmatic context in which some parents promote the co-dependence of their children, especially in regard to their peer encounters. While some Catholic schools of yesteryear used to demonstrate primitive characteristics of what it took to teach a discipline, Roy will find that their keen attention to leadership formation, pastoral care and child psychology, as well as the theological education of teachers, are second to none.

Michael Furtado | 25 May 2021  

Michael Furtado: “is to opt for 'home-schooling'”: which, of course, is how you respond to a post which specifically talks about sending the child for secular education to a state school while taking the time yourself to provide formal religious instruction or to arrange religious instruction through the pastorate outside class hours.

roy chen yee | 26 May 2021  

A good point, Roy. However, you miss the tenor of my argument, which is that well-formed teachers - Catholic or otherwise - teach who they are and, in order to support that principle, inspired school-leaders ensure that this can eventuate by setting the tone of the school, nurturing staff and parents, and ensuring the proclamation of values that are inherently counter-cultural. Your explicit and unswerving attachment to the grammar of religion - rules-based, dogmatic, authoritarian - misses out on an orthopraxis that addresses that most fundamental requirement of any decent educator, viz. to encounter and deal with the humanity around them. What would it profit a catechesis, such as you insist upon it, to cover all the basics, if in the final event it failed to address the reality of the culture outside the school before critiquing it? What a pyrrhic victory would it be were one to lead a reluctant mule to the trough, if by the very means of it being forced towards it, it failed to drink? The authority with which you speak terrifically commends you. However, it is your authoritarianism that actually runs counter to the message of your posts. Your epic battle is within yourself!

Michael Furtado | 28 May 2021  

Michael Furtado: ‘well-formed teachers - Catholic or otherwise - teach who they are and, in order to support that principle, inspired school-leaders ensure that this can eventuate by setting the tone of the school, nurturing staff and parents, and ensuring the proclamation of values that are inherently counter-cultural.’ It was looking to be a nice batch until it was leavened by the yeast in the last four letters --- unless you regard the post-Fall as being counter to the Original Culture, which is fair enough. ‘Your explicit and unswerving attachment to the grammar of religion - rules-based, dogmatic, authoritarian - misses out on an orthopraxis that addresses that most fundamental requirement of any decent educator, viz. to encounter and deal with the humanity around them’: all of the students will become voters who choose which inescapable program of rules-based dogma to support. Given that you are on record as opposing abortion, you have a rules-based dogma yourself, courtesy or not of whatever ‘orthopraxis’ you endured at school.

roy chen yee | 30 May 2021  

You will find, Roy, that not all who oppose abortion, whether Catholic or otherwise, do so for the same reason. In fact, some have no reason at all but do so because the practice appalls. My own reason is that it constitutes an abuse of the human rights of the child, unless the mother's life is at risk. While this happens to be church teaching, there are many Catholics and others, especially of the Westboro Baptist variety, and who share several aspects of your own declared ecclesiology, who believe that all abortion is wrong. I do not hold this view which I believe to be as barbaric and abusive of human rights as those who regard abortion as a mother's sole right to choose. Time you changed the tune, Roy! Your repertoire has to be bigger than that, surely?

Michael Furtado | 31 May 2021  

Michael Furtado: ‘it constitutes an abuse of the human rights of the child, unless….’ And this isn’t dogmatic?

roy chen yee | 01 June 2021  

No; its not dogmatic but logical, Roy! How is it that two 'Kuhns' (in a manner of speaking ;), such as you and I, should battle it out on major issues of theology yet not agree when the issue is a trifle?

Michael Furtado | 09 June 2021  

If it’s not science, it must be dogma. That the foetus has rights is as dogmatic as the view that the foetus has none because science cannot prove that one or the other view is correct. In fact, the only reason Christians say that the foetus is a human being is because they say it has a soul, something which science cannot measure. But, theists may differ among themselves as to when the foetus received its soul: more dogma.

roy chen yee | 10 June 2021  

Roy, being or becoming human, which is what the abortion debate is about, isn't just a matter of dogma. It is also a debate about the existential reality or otherwise - and therefore of its viability and protection - of the human foetus. Sadlly, your absolute weddedness to dogmatism comes, yet again as you reveal here, at the cost of sacrificing your humanity.

Michael Furtado | 14 June 2021  

Michael Furtado: ‘existential reality or otherwise - and therefore of its viability and protection - of the human foetus.’ The fact that you exist as a free man and not a slave derives from dogma that you should be a freeman, not a slave. Given that all material reality derives from a prior reality which is thought, the moralities of when and how to exist are derived from dogmatic truths, most of which are still concealed as Revelation has not unfolded completely and, God being infinite, cannot.

roy chen yee | 15 June 2021  

To relate all 'a priori' reasoning in this day and age to Revelation is a big ask. It might have gone down well in a pre-Modern era, albeit with the assistance of a great deal of extrinsic rethink, but has the empty ring of a tin gong about it in today's complex and multifarious world. The contemporary Doctrine of Human Rights (in many respects new to the Church, especially in historical contexts of witch-burning and the dreaded Inquisitorial auto=da-fe) is widely accepted as a development of The Enlightenment.

Michael Furtado | 16 June 2021  

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