As COVID-19 spreads around the world, nations have had to radically and rapidly redefine the role of government in their lives, going against decades of neoliberal rejection. Susie Byers explores how we got this far, and what the left needs to continue to stand for.
On 2 December 1844, London played host to the first meeting of the ‘Society for the Protection and Employment of the Distressed Needlewomen and for Clothing the Poor’. The Society was concerned that the enthusiasm for capitalism that characterised England was ravaging vulnerable citizens in its appetite for cheap and disempowered labour. The Society rejected the ‘received opinion among the employing and purchasing part of the public, that the miserable pittance now given for doing needlework is a necessity of the age’. Instead, it demanded that the market be subordinated to the social good (see Illustrated London News, 7 December 1844).
The nineteenth-century version of precarious, under-paid and insecure work in factories, coal-mines, shops and homes was so appalling that growing movements demanded government intervention in the market to protect people from capitalism unbound. The history of capitalism has demonstrated many times that to protect communities from being torn apart by market whimsy, we need government intervention and a state apparatus strong enough to enact this intervention – but this principle was hard-won. As a journalist noted of the Needlewomen’s Society, although its founders had ‘many a warm wish in their favour’, the ‘spirit of modern commerce and the maxims of political economy, each the reverse of warm, are almost wholly against them’.
This is partly because of what Karl Polanyi described as a ‘belief in spontaneous progress’ which makes us ‘blind to the role of government in economic life’. Far from being rationalists, Polanyi accused the capitalist cheer squad of having an ‘emotional faith in spontaneity’ and a ‘mystical readiness to accept the social consequences of economic development, whatever they may be.’ Capitalists in the nineteenth century attacked governments and the state apparatus as unwieldy and misdirected, and their efforts as hopeless, because it was deemed impossible to stand against the dynamic force of capitalism. It is unsurprising that neo-liberals in the twenty-first century continue and expand these attacks – even in the face of the COVID-19 crisis, which to any reasonable person has made the need for government services more apparent than ever.
Neo-liberalism has gotten so far into our culture that rejecting government has come to seem liberating. Janet Albrechtsen runs a classic formulation of this line: ‘As the power of bureaucrats expands, our power as citizens shrinks.’ Needless to say, this is a highly disingenuous line of argument, coming from an economic rationalist. Albrechtsen and friends wax lyrical about the benefits of civil society at precisely the same time as they attack the very institutions that provide citizens with power, including the power to challenge the status quo – like a well-resourced and independent ABC.
But proponents of unregulated markets learned a long time ago that the commodification of all aspects of life is not popular. So instead of saying that government needs to get out of the way so that the market can take over everything from your local park to Medicare, they say that the government needs to get out of the way so that communities can flourish unimpeded by red tape and government stickybeaking. Turning away from the importance of government is not a phenomenon only of the right. As sociologist Paul du Gay has noted, thinkers of both the left and the right are proclaiming that government is ‘an anachronism in a globalised world, an ideological disappointment, and a totalitarian threat to individual liberties and freedoms’.
Part of the problem is people’s sense of alienation and mistrust of government. In the face of the collective failures of many of the world’s democracies to fairly and competently respond to global crises such as climate change and the plight of refugees, people are turning away from ‘politics as usual’.
Part of the cause of this broad-spectrum anti-instututionalism is what academic Anna Yeatman calls ‘reducing voice to choice’. When the cadences of neoliberalism inflect our whole political language, we find it hard to distinguish between the freedom to buy something and the freedom to say something. We have a tendency to equate economic deregulation with political liberation.
In 2015, scientist and climate activist Tim Flannery and entrepreneur and philanthropist Catriona Wallace set out a program for restoring power to the hands of the people and in doing so neatly illustrated this conflation. Their essay, Fixing Politics: How online organisation can give power back to the people contends that politicians from major parties are captured by vested interests and failing to act for the benefit of citizens, which in turn is contributing to a loss of trust and a widespread disengagement from mainstream politics. The old political system has, the authors argue, ‘reached breaking point’.
Panning traditional power structures, the authors don’t distinguish between structures of the left and structures of the right. Trade unions are judged the same as any other vested interest that has captured our democracy; and the only useful thing to do with power is to disperse it. The authors also equate economic deregulation with political decentralization. They argue that ‘From Snowden’s war on government secrecy to the rise of companies, like Uber, that threaten vested interests, people are acting or organising politically and economically. The response from government is to seek greater power, or to use fear-based, polarising debate to deflect from the fundamental problem.’ This is where their underlying analysis becomes the most clear – government power and market power are basically the same, and anything that challenges either of them is good. The conflation of the Snowden and other transparency activists with private taxi company Uber is (apart from being somewhat insulting to whistleblowers) illustrative.
It’s more than reasonable to point out that there’s a problem with a politics-as-usual that has seen a hollowed-out polity powerless to prevent blasé government overreach. The trouble is that the contraction of government and withdrawal of public services leads not to freedom but towards more intense coercion. We need public institutions that are both strong and well-governed in order to have a political system that is healthy and that can be held accountable. We can’t hold the government to account without a well-funded public broadcaster, without good schools that teach critical thinking, without regulators and health officials and good policy advice. We shouldn’t mistake voice for choice. Shrinking the role of government doesn’t lead to a freer society; rather it engenders the kind of coercion and bondage that arises from a disintegrating social safety net and a state unchallenged by organised community voices. As du Gay put it, despite the disappointments of the state, its withering away does and will continue to bring forth predictable monsters’. It has for some time been the role of the social democratic left to defend the role of government and of well-funded public services. With segments of the left being captured by a romantic anti-institutionalism, the role of the ALP in constantly seeking to fulfil the promise of government is more important than ever.
If we fail at this task, we risk more than the crumbling of public institutions and services (devastating as that is). We risk losing the very foundations that hold our society together – and COVID-19 has now given us a hint of what that might look like. Under neoliberalism, small government has burrowed so deeply into our culture that every day brings new ‘innovations’ in privatising government and selling off public services.
With the privatisation of the visa system and of security clearances, we’re allowing the market into data and information. With robodebt, we allowed it into core decision-making. And for some time now, the government has been outsourcing even its thinking, with increasing reliance on outfits like KPMG for policy analysis. The material consequences of this cultural shift are profound and the stakes are high.
We can be proud of institutions and structures that generations of activists have built. Proud not just of social democratic achievements such as health, education and welfare systems but of the structures that have held them up: the never-perfect but still astonishing feat of wrangling that is the modern bureaucracy. We need the left to be able to explain social democracy with all the simplicity and confidence with which Liberals defend ‘the market’. We need to come together around a platform in which government is not a relic, but the foundation of the public institutions and common spaces that this country relies on so heavily. Without a sense of the value of government, there is no hope for substantive freedom or for fairness. Today this task is more urgent than ever.
Susie Byers is the Director of the Communications and Campaigns Unit at the CPSU and the President of Victorian Labor.