Rewilding capitalism: COVID-19 and the rebooting of Australia’s neoliberal order

In her bestselling book The Shock Doctrine, The Rise of Disaster Capitalism, leading activist and commentator Naomi Klein observes how systemic chaos, disruption and collapse present perfect opportunities for plutocrats to reshape economic order. Klein notes how many of the postwar upheavals in the Middle East, South America, the United States, Europe and elsewhere occurred when democratic institutions and civil societies were weakened as a result of war, widespread corruption, economic collapse, inequality and natural disasters. Extreme violence involving attacks on trade unionists, opposition leaders, the media and civil organisations also accompanied these tumultuous episodes.

Guided by neoliberal economists like the ‘Chicago boys’, plutocratic elites and their puppet governments were keenly aware that if opposition was to be crushed, institutions ‘reformed’ and economies fully marketised, then change had to be swift and focused. Traumatised populations could only stand by and gaze in horror as public institutions were carved up and sold off, actions justified on the pretext of ‘economic reform’ or simply because ‘there is no alternative’.

Thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic, Australia is now experiencing its own version of the shock doctrine, presided over by one of the most conservative governments in the nation’s history. The neoliberal reboot couldn’t be clearer. Scott Morrison has already set out his stall, and it’s a familiar one, guided by such inspirational ghosts as Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher. Proposed measures include business and income tax reform, deregulation (cuts to ‘red and green tape’), wage freezes, industrial relations ‘reform’ and cuts to public expenditure (the latter not yet in full swing, but inevitable). The main mantra is, of course, equally predicable: jobs and growth.

Little time has been wasted in prosecuting this agenda, which has been enthusiastically supported around the country. Already across a number of states, environmental regulations have been watered down, with expedited development applications and reduced work hours and penalty rates hard on their heels. On another front, we are witnessing record-busting coal, gas and iron-ore exports to China to stimulate its own ailing economy. Buoyed by the prospect of revenue raising, the NSW government has recommitted to coal production, effectively breaching the Paris agreements and thereby ensuring that Australia is on track to miss its already modest emissions-reduction targets. As well, massive coal seam gas extraction is planned across regional New South Wales, with the enthusiastic approval of the Morrison government. Nationally, funding cuts to the ABC and radical changes to university student fees (including the doubling of fees for social- and behavioural-science courses), the gutting of the superannuation scheme, and a huge boost to defence spending are key elements of a rapidly evolving neoliberal reform agenda.

But that’s only part of the story. It’s not yet clear which lockdown measures will remain in place, and what sorts of regulatory regimes will be used to manage civil dissent. The groundwork has been laid by means of a litany of legislative measures to curtail public protests, with more to come. Other ominous signs are already apparent, with the federal government seeking to extend the powers of intelligence services, the arrest and harassment of journalists, the ongoing trial of Witness K and Bernard Collaery, and the abandonment of Julian Assange, who languishes in a British prison awaiting an extradition trial. These are the threads of the security state being pulled ever tighter.

We’re on the cusp of returning to the wildest and most repressive forms of laissez-faire capitalism, but this time defined by a crisis that has already inflicted great hardship and suffering on the poor and marginalised. In wealthy Australia, over three million people live in poverty, hundreds of thousands are experiencing food insecurity (with well over a million reliant on food banks), and homelessness is on the rise as the recession bites. (Interestingly, while generous subsidies have been granted to the wealthy for household renovations, little or nothing has been allocated for social housing.) Defaults on debts, and housing foreclosures and predicted falls in house prices may further convulse the nation’s ailing economy. Later, when various support payments are due to end and when businesses and ‘zombie’ jobs disappear, the situation for those facing economic hardship will deteriorate even further. Australia’s unemployment rate is predicted to hover around 10 per cent, while youth unemployment will likely be double that.

All this comes as we lurch towards the future in the full knowledge that there’s worse to come as a result of climate disruption and ecological collapse. We’ll do so with hugely depleted economies, increased inequality, weakened civil societies, and more state repression.

The challenge for those seeking an alternative to resuscitated Thatcherism and Reaganomics is to settle on a persuasive counter-narrative that can offer hope to beleaguered populations. The script for this progressive story is already out there, as I note below. We need this story to promote a vision of what should and could be rather than what is. And we need different voices to shape that story—a story relevant to people’s lives and one primed for collective action and radical change.

The problem right now, however, is: which mess are we going to address first? There are so many of them. Prior to the pandemic there were growing global demands for climate justice, but COVID-19 has now drawn our attention. Many of us have made the mistake of separating the pandemic from the egregious effects of neoliberal capitalism—they are, in fact, deeply enmeshed, as the genesis of the crisis and its differential effects testify.

In seeking to respond to this situation, progressives face excruciatingly familiar problems of unity, relevance and timing. Rather than creating straw men and conjuring secretive cabals, as is the way in some quarters, there needs to be focused attention on the corrosive consequences of rapidly deepening inequality, political corruption, corporate media ownership, environmental destruction, and the erosion of democracy. Our response should turn on what Stuart Rees refers to as the ‘language of humanity’. This urges us to bridge divides and support a change agenda focused on human needs and the rights of citizens who find themselves in states of powerlessness, fear and vulnerability. It’s a language that recognises the deep interdependence inherent in all life and the harm and destruction caused by rapacious capitalism. It identifies the sources of cruelty that pervade many nations, including Australia, and seeks peace with justice. It is also a language that privileges, among other things, sharing and caring over greed and avarice, and altruism over egoism. As Rees observes: ‘Language to promote the interest of a common humanity envisages societies based on respect for human rights, for internationalism and on policies for planetary survival. Such vocabulary crafts a future based not entirely on shopping, but on sharing and self-sufficiency, on realizing that greater equality can contribute to health and happiness and even to a robust economy’.

Getting to a point where the progressive movement, in all its variegated manifestations, can organise around a language of humanity is our greatest challenge, especially now as corporate power consolidates.

In No Is Not Enough, Naomi Klein demonstrates how disparate progressive elements can merge through common purpose. She and her colleagues have had extraordinary success in this regard, pulling together a range of organisations to develop Canada’s Leap Manifesto, a bold blueprint for a future based on social justice, rights and ecological regeneration. Unlike the free-for-all of market fundamentalism, Klein proposes both local solutions and a role for governments in the restructuring of economic systems founded upon ecological democracy and Indigenous rights.

The story of the Leap Manifesto is both inspiring and compelling; it demonstrates what can be achieved when participants commit to an agenda bigger than their own. Klein has been careful, though, to draw back from proposing Edenic localised cultures that run the risk of exclusivism, and she is wary about the silos formed around identity politics, albeit recognising the huge advances made by various social movements in the postwar period. She argues for the politics of intersectionality that enables different groups to find a common voice. Klein has sought a political agenda that goes beyond critique and simple oppositional politics, instead promoting achievable solutions to the crises we face. Unity, in this regard, is everything.

In many respects, however, Australian progressives appear as fragmented as ever, still floundering in the search for ideological purity and ascendancy. We remain stuck in adversarial politics, unable to bridge the divides, and often unwilling or unable to listen to, let alone embrace, countervailing stories. We also confront the barriers imposed by the mainstream media intent on shutting out alternative political and economy agendas.

Still, there are optimistic signs around the world in the emergence of the School Strike for Climate and Black Lives Matter movements. From small beginnings these spontaneous movements have embraced disparate elements around a range of core issues.

The global momentum for a radical rather than faux Green New Deal also holds much promise, particularly in bringing diverse groups together around a shared story. The case for a Green New Deal in Australia has been made by various commentators, but it has been most enthusiastically endorsed by the Australian Greens. While the Australian Labor Party (ALP) continues to experience internal ructions over energy and environment policies, recent discussions show a willingness among senior figures in the party to support elements of a Green New Deal. Others have suggested the establishment of a European-style alliance between the ALP and the Greens for ‘a Green New Deal underpinned by an alternative economic program’. Described by Frank Stilwell as a ‘political game changer’, support for the Deal has gained momentum among Australian progressives and holds the promise of a coherent program around which a major pollical force can be built.

Support for the Deal is growing internationally, including in the United States, where it was first proposed. Voting in recent US primaries reveals how elements of the Deal have attracted considerable support among the US electorate, reflecting the same impetus that occurred during Bernie Sanders’ leadership campaign. Australia can learn from this.  

Whatever transpires, new and existing movements will have to contend with the focused exercise of neoliberal power. Clearly, conservative governments across the globe have been compelled to act against their ideological instincts by propping up decimated economies (though they have never been reluctant to subsidise fossil fuel and other industries). Sooner rather than later, however, as I have already indicated, the focus will shift lock, stock and barrel towards the more familiar economic concerns of conservative governments: ‘small government’, ‘balanced budgets’, low taxation, cuts to government spending etc. 

The normative assumptions underpinning such policy positions need to be countered, and urgently, before the full-spectrum shock doctrine kicks in.

In Populism Now! The Case for Progressive Populism, David McKnight has usefully proposed three core principles as the foundation for a new progressive movement: 1. Naming power—identifying the key structures and relations of power that sustain the current order; 2. Inclusion not exclusion—rejecting the politics of fear and division, and replacing this with an emphasis on universal citizenship and the common good; and 3. Broad coalitions capable of creating a ‘united front for social change’.

These outcomes are best achieved, McKnight argues, not through the old hierarchal models of organisational power or leader-led movements but through grassroots organisations working in concert to achieve agreed aims. What’s also needed, say Jeremy Heimans and Henry Timms, is a collective commitment to ‘new power’, a more spontaneous, open-ended orientation that embraces organisational self-governance and networking as well as more collaboration, ‘crowd wisdom’ and ‘open sourcing’. New power invites DIY activism rather than rigid organisational structures and encourages many different levels of participation, both short and long term. This understanding of decentralised power, facilitated in large part by new technologies, enables spontaneous eruptions of collective dissent as well as solidarities around newly established coalitions.

As noted by the Commission for the Human Future in Surviving and Thriving in the 21st Century, this new direction requires the inclusion of citizen voices in shifting from the econo-centric to the eco-centric. Each and every element of the current system requires radical change. ‘This means’, says the commission, ‘that many existing systems which we take for granted—our economic system, our food system, our energy system, our production and waste systems, our governance systems, our community life and our relationship with the Earth’s natural systems—must all undergo searching examination and reformation’. There are of course many pathways to change. ACTU president Michelle O’Neill has, for instance, proposed a plan for ‘national reconstruction’ that, if grafted to elements of the Green New Deal, could provide much-needed regenerative and caring jobs for tens of thousands of citizens, and might also enable a narrative around which individuals and organisations could cohere. Such transformations require grassroots activist pressure and citizen support. Above all, we need a tangible vision of what could be rather than what is—and we need that vision now.

About the author

Richard Hil

Dr Richard Hil is Adjunct Professor in the School of Human Services and Social Work at Griffith University, Gold Coast, Adjunct Professor at Southern Cross University and Convenor of the Ngara Institute. Richard is the author of numerous books, the latest being The Sacking of Fallujah: A People’s History (with Ross Caputi and Donna Mulhearn).

More articles by Richard Hil

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