Bill Mitchell-en Progressives still speak the language of the neoliberals but then dream of change
(i) Sarrera gisa
… One of the things I am working on as part of my book venture with Thomas Fazi, our followup to – Reclaiming the State: A Progressive Vision of Sovereignty for a Post-Neoliberal World (Pluto Books, September 2017) – is the way the Left and Right are responding to the current crisis. It is clear to me that the Right are seeing it as a way to really entrench new beach head gains on their long term agenda to divert public spending away from general welfare towards the top-end-of-town and to use the legislative/regulative structures of government to further their aims to divert more of the national income produced towards capital, particularly financial capital. Meanwhile, it looks as if the Left has gone to asleep – or better – they haven’t really woken from their long-term slumber as they dream their standard narrative that global capital has made the state unable to pursue independent fiscal agendas that will improve the lot of all humanity. So I am looking into that sort of narrative and collecting evidence as one does to compile into a coherent argument.
There was a great interview with Philip Mirowski in the Jacobin Magazine last week – Why the Neoliberals Won’t Let This Crisis Go to Waste (May 16, 2020) – which touched on these themes.
Philip Mirowski said that the Right:
… have built up a deep bench of ideas and people able to move very quickly when crises arise and achieve their ends. I argued that’s what they did in 2008, and certainly that’s what they’re doing now.
The dream on the Left seems to project that the virus is going to go away and people are going to wake up and see that global warming really is the problem and change the way they look at the world. But this is so far from the neoliberals’ own political understanding, of their need to strike while the iron is hot. The neoliberals talk among themselves, too, and already at this stage of the crisis there are discussions of what they see as current political successes. You don’t get that feeling from the Left’s discussions, or from the wider media.
The whole article is worth reading.
You can see the way the Right morphs as part of their ability to adapt to circumstances but keep to their goals in the way all the right-wing think tanks – Adam Smith Institute, Centre for Policy Studies, Institute of Economic Affairs and Policy Exchange (for example) – which usually argue relentlessly against government intervention, any hint of authoritarianism, etc – are now busily demanding more public spending, higher deficits and large public capital works projects.
See UK Guardian article – Rightwing thinktanks call time on age of austerity (May 16, 2020) – for more detail.
But the Guardian is also publishing articles that demonstrate this ‘dreaming’ syndrome on the Left.
(iii) David Hetherington
Today, I wasted 3 minutes reading this article – A new normal? Instead Australia looks like it could return to ‘business as usual’ after the pandemic (May 20, 2020) – which demonstrates key elements of the Left’s failure to confront the situation with tactical thinking.
The sub-heading of that article was – “The nation has handled the crisis well so far, but we must not let this opportunity for reform pass”.
Last week the ABS told us that 594,300 jobs disappeared in the 4 weeks to around April 12.
Unemployment officially measured rose 104,500 thousand.
The labour force shrank by 489.8 thousand as workers gave up looking for jobs that weren’t there.
Monthly hours of work fell by 9.2 per cent.
Underemployment rose 4.9 points to 13.7 per cent.
There are now 2,639.4 thousand workers either unemployed or underemployed (19.9 per cent).
That number swells to 3,142.6 (or 23.4 per cent) if we add the rise in hidden unemployment back into the ‘jobless’
And the author, David Hetherington, who is “a senior fellow at the thinktank Per Capita” (an alleged progressive voice) thinks the government has handled the crisis well.
The government’s interventions have been a failure.
Not only have they chosen to oversee a jobs massacre but they have paved the way for wage cutting and further undermining of conditions of work.
There was NO reason for unemployment to rise much at all if the government had have guaranteed all jobs.
The author then argues that “At present we are seeing hundreds of creative ideas spring forth about how Australia – and the world – can be different in the wake of Covid-19” but that it is likely Australia will just lapse back into “business as usual”.
He correctly cites the command that “priviliged groups” have on the narrative, the lack of action on “climate change” (our government announced yesterday that they are not aiming for zero emissions by 2050 – like wow!), and etc.
I agree with that last assessment.
The Right and the vested interests that support it are strategic, well organised and well funded. They are working at all levels – micro and macro to make sure they get what they can out of the fiscal stimulus but also pressure the government to deliver more ‘micro’ gifts to them – reduction in working protection etc.
When financial capital thinks their position is safe, then they will ramp up the ‘we have to reduce the debt’ narrative and the target will be the unemployed and other disadvantaged groups.
(iv) Aldatu ez dena
But there is another thing that hasn’t changed and David Hetherington seems blithe to the significance of this.
There’s the repeated insistence from senior ministers that reducing debt and deficit must be high on the government’s future agenda, despite a unique opportunity to invest in public capacity with borrowing costs at record lows.
He thinks that is a progressive statement.
I know it is a disastrous concession to the Right that the progressive side of the debate continually make, which is why its position is so weak and why it has been difficult to define a new progressive path.
According to Hetherington, it is okay to borrow for public purpose when interest rates are low but presumably not so okay when interest rates are high.
There are so many problems with that sort of framing.
First, if we are really wanting to present “creative ideas” why not go for the neoliberal jugular?
Why not blow the basic myth that is used so powerfully by the neoliberal Right – which is that the currency-issuing government has to borrow?
Why not educate the public about the true capacity of the currency issuer?
Why make out that the ‘market’ controls interest rates, which then make it easy or hard for governments to “invest in public capacity”?
That is the problem.
In that last phrase, David Hetherington surrenders to the neoliberal orthodoxy and is then left running with his tail between his legs when the ‘how are you going to pay for it’ question starts the trail of abuse against any notion that public deficits should be used for public purpose.
What the Left needs is a “Powell Manifesto”. And that is what I am working on at present with others I am organising with!