BY TROY HENDERSON
Alongside tackling climate change and fighting psycho-capitalism one of the challenges of modern life is keeping up with all the high-qual TV series coming out of the US.
I’d fallen badly behind on this front until a recent surge of intimacy with my laptop saw me chew off seasons 1 and 2 of House of Cards and the first season of Boardwalk Empire.
I found them both very zeitgeisty. Very post-West Wing. Post-Hope and Change. Post-GFC. Post post-9/11. (Yes, I realise Boardwalk Empire is set in the 1920s but you know the past is about the present and all that).
In House of Cards Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright play Frank and Claire Underwood, a charming, scheming, double-crossing political powercouple intent on stylishly slashing their way to the top.
Boardwalk Empire stars the ever-ill looking Steve Buscemi as Nucky Thompson, a corrupt Irish-American treasurer of Atlantic City during Prohibition. Nucky just wants to be loved while taking 10% of whatever you make – and you’d better pay up or you’re dead.
From what I’ve seen both series convey the same message: politics is a brutal bloodsport where the bad guys finish first and have much fun along the way. They show that beneath the seductive veil of political rhetoric about the public good and community values lies a naked lust for personal power supported by patronage networks that determine who rises and who falls.
The Underwoods and Nucky Thompson deploy a mix of charm, deception, favours, bullying and violence in order to achieve their ends, as circumstances require.
The realist and the cynic will say: twas ever thus. True enough, as a general statement. But it’s not always true with the same intensity or with the same visibility.
For me the themes and characters explored in House of Cards and Boardwalk Empire resonate with a growing sense that politics is a massive sham n scam in which the ruthless and the powerful play the rest of us for mugs.
I think we can see this pretty clearly in #AusPol.
On the one hand, we have the increasingly empty spectacle of official politics in which our dear leaders mouth their platitudes and perform their rituals with ever-dwindling levels of conviction (Exhibit A: 2010 federal election debates #killmenow).
On the other hand, we have ICAC and the federal budget revealing the truth about how politics is done and whom it’s for.
This increasingly visible tension between superficial farce and underlying reality creates a challenge for politicians like Abbott and Hockey. It’s easier to rule through consent than through coercion but when a critical mass of people stop drinking a particular brand of political Kool Aid it makes the business of screwing them over more difficult.
The best analysis I’ve read of the current political conjuncture is by Tadeusz Tietze. You need to spend some time reading the back catalogue of posts at Left Flank by Tietze, Elizabeth Humphrys and others to get the full ‘anti-politics’ thesis but I’ve found a few pieces particularly useful for situating the Abbott government within a broader – and deeper – context.
Tietze argues that Abbott suffers from a lack of political authority – within his party and in relation to public – that is a symptom of a “general crisis of official politics” linked to an erosion of the “social bases of the established two-party political system”.
In an August 2012 piece in Overland Tietze wrote:
It seems almost certain that he [Abbott] wants to play a similar game to that of recently elected state Liberal premiers, launching a series of attacks around a theme of deficit reduction. But he will do so in a situation where, no matter how big his parliamentary cushion, he will have little popular base to rely on and no coherent program to win consent for. The result is likely to mean more political chaos, not less.
In December 2013 Left Flank post on a similar theme he wrote:
None of this means that Abbott can’t still do nasty things, especially to vulnerable groups like asylum seekers, and especially to try to address his lack of authority. His supporters may even demand a big bang reform package to stem the malaise, one that he will feel unable to refuse. But all this will be from a position of weakness not seen in a newly elected federal government since the Great Depression.
Pretty prescient stuff. This relationship between ‘nasty things’ and ‘weakness’ is clear in Operation Sovereign Borders, the May budget and even in Abbott’s tawdry efforts to make political capital out of the MH17 tragedy.
In a post-budget piece this year Tietze characterised the Abbott government’s “especially destructive attacks on a series of highly disadvantaged social groups” as an attempt to address the “malaise, the aimlessness, and the loss of authority” of its first eight months in office by picking “some ugly fights to prove they are still a force to be reckoned with”.
He argued that the budget should not be seen as a “consistent neoliberal austerity program” or an example of “über-Thatcherism designed to reshape society” but rather as a “pragmatic attempt to keep the economy sputtering along while renovating government balance sheets…enough for ‘future-proofing’ operations ahead; i.e. for throwing money at another financial crisis”.
While I agree with the general thrust of this analysis I disagree on a couple of particulars. I think if Abbott managed to implement the budget in full (unlikely) it would qualify as “über-Thatcherism” and that consistency (ie actually slashing the deficit if you say it’s such an urgent issue) is far less important than the “restructuring” the “budget emergency” rhetoric is used to justify.
What matters here is how widely the need for restructuring (further retrenchment of the welfare state, deregulation, privatisation etc) and the justification for it (the debt and deficit disaster) are accepted as legitimate by both the public and the political class. Evidence cited by Tietze, Richard Cooke, and others, suggests that public support on both counts is on the wane, a factor that clearly exacerbates the political class’s crisis of authority that Tietze identifies.
But while politicians are on the nose and few people believe that more privatisation, deregulation, ‘tax reform’ and ‘flexible labour markets’ will make them better off this does not mean that neoliberalism is dead.
Despite the many obituaries written since the GFC neoliberalism has proved resilient. Political economist Damien Cahill argues that “progressive commentators failed to appreciate the durability of neoliberalism in the face of crisis because of their idealist, or ideas-centred, understanding of neoliberalism”. This approach, according to Cahill, led the likes of Joseph Stiglitz and Kevin Rudd, among others, to assume that because the GFC showed that neoliberal ideas were ‘wrong’ the neoliberal project would be abandoned.
Cahill contrasts an ideas-centred understanding with the concept of “embedded neoliberalism” that emphasises the “ways in which neoliberal policies have become deeply embedded within a growing bureaucratic apparatus of rules that commit states to further neoliberalisation”. These policies are “embedded within a set of class relations which favours the owners of capital”. “Such features”, Cahill argues, “lend considerable inertia and resilience to neoliberal policy”.
This doesn’t mean dismissing the importance of neoliberal ideology altogether. But rather, as Cahill puts it, that “neoliberal doctrines” should be seen as “a malleable set of discursive weapons that can be selectively appropriated to justify all kinds of neoliberal policies, and which have worked in combination with class forces and institutional biases to ensure that neoliberal policies have been the ‘go to’ form of economic crisis management since the onset of the global economic downturn”.
While I agree with Tietze’s characterisation of the budget as an attempt by Abbott to “stem the malaise” and “address his lack of authority”, I also see it as a good example of the “considerable inertia and resilience” of neoliberal policy identified by Cahill.
The big lies about the ‘debt and deficit disaster’ and ‘unsustainable spending’ are examples of the selective use of “discursive weapons” deployed to justify policies that are “embedded within a growing bureaucratic apparatus of rules” that serve specific class interests.
Three examples serve to illustrate this point.
Firstly, ‘small government’ rhetoric is a familiar part of neoliberal patois and we’ve heard plenty from Abbott and Hockey about the need to ‘end of the age of entitlement’ and rein in ‘unsustainable’ spending that will ‘mortgage our children’s future’, and so on.
But the claim that government spending is ‘out of control’ or ‘unsustainable’ is rubbish. As this Australia Institute report shows, after a sharp increase under Whitlam and (early) Hawke, “government spending has tended to hover around 25 per cent of GDP”. However, with about 60% of the $400 billion federal budget going on social security and welfare (34.7%), health (16.2%) and education (7.5%) you can see what the Right’s target is here.
Part of the budget’s solution to the non-problem of runaway spending is to place a medium-term cap on government spending of 23.9% of GDP and to cut $80 billion in health and education payments to the states over the next decade.
The cap is a classic example of Cahill’s “bureaucratic apparatus of rules” that aims at removing important political decisions (ie how much government should spend) from the sphere of democratic deliberation.
The $80 billion cuts are meant to force the states to ‘work it out’ through some combination of spending cuts and tax hikes (ie raise the GST) that would introduce an element of ‘policy competition’ between state governments that opens up the space for business to play off one jurisdiction against another.
Because their target is spending on health, education and welfare both the cap and cuts clearly serve particular class interests by attempting to reduce the genuinely redistributive and (somewhat) universal elements of the welfare state.
Second, the budget asks the public to ‘share the burden’ of ‘fixing the budget’ and getting spending ‘under control’ by accepting a host of changes that will make most people worse off while entrenching the principle of ‘loser pays’. These include the changes to family payments, pension indexation and unemployment benefits, the Medicare co-payment, cuts to Aboriginal services and the further deregulation of higher education.
By ‘loser pays’ I mean that the budget asks those on lower incomes to pay more (in absolute terms) than those on higher incomes to fix the budget emergency that doesn’t exist (see NATSEM graphic below and this paper by Whiteford and Nethery) while further extending the principle of ‘user pays’ to GP visits and all higher education. In the longer term, ‘loser pays’ implies that society owes nothing to ‘losers’ who are unemployed, don’t have private health insurance and can’t afford to pay for their higher education fees upfront. These proposed changes are technocratic, incremental and make use of the existing institutional framework (ie retaining HECs but charging up to 6% interest) to deepen inequality and heighten class distinctions.
Third, the budget aims to lighten the burden on corporations (cutting company tax, abolishing mining and carbon taxes) and to open up new sites of capital accumulation on the principle of ‘heads I win, tails you lose’. On the one hand, Abbott wants to sell off public assets that will provide easy economic rents to private owners (ie the Royal Mint, Defence Housing Australia, the ASIC register and Australian Hearing) and encourage state governments to do the same through the $5 billion Asset Recycling Fund. On the other hand, the state will act as an intermediary between corporations and service users where there might be more risk involved for private operators (ie the $3.7 billion allocated to roads funding and allowing private education providers access to public funding). Again, we have examples of the use of technocratic means within the existing institutional framework to achieve ends favourable to corporations and the wealthy.
The detail is all pretty boring but the consequences of this stuff are hella crap for most people.
We’re at an interesting moment in Australian where the balance of forces between the “crisis of authority” and “anti-political mood” identified by Tietze and the resilience of “embedded neoliberalism” highlighted by Cahill is far from clear.
In his famous 1944 book The Great Transformation about the transition from feudalism to capitalism Karl Polanyi wrote: “to allow the market mechanism to be the sole director of the fate human beings and their natural environment…would result in the demolition of society” and “human society would have been annihilated but for protective counter-moves which blunted the action of this self-destructive mechanism”.
From this vantage point, it’s difficult to discern clear evidence of the “protective counter-moves” that might begin the process of disembedding neoliberalism (although the strong public opposition to the budget could be a sign that such moves are desired). The stark absence of any attractive and coherent alternative being offered by the Left compounds the situation.
But perhaps the current anti-political mood will morph into something generative? If not, at least we have HBO and Netflix to help remove our blinkers and dull our pain.