Radio Days: An Australian foothold
Loggers accused of dudding Manusians

Trapped by capitalism

Guerrilla capitalismPHILIP FITZPATRICK

TUMBY BAY - One of the most significant impacts upon the Australians working in pre-independent Papua New Guinea was exposure to a totally different culture and lifestyle.

This was particularly true of people like kiaps, didimen and teachers working in rural areas.

It is also true that the inherent advantages in that culture and its social organisation were not wholly appreciated.

As workers from a supposedly advanced society it seemed axiomatic that the lives of the local people could be improved by the adoption of modern methods of economic organisation, in short capitalism.

Introducing a relatively benign money-based system in Papua New Guinea seemed like a good thing to do at the time.

In retrospect it was an arrogant assumption but back then capitalism was a much kinder and more equitable system. The savage brutality of neo-liberalism was only just on the horizon.

Today, however, Australia and Papua New Guinea, like many other countries, are trapped in the savage maw of neo-liberalism with no apparent avenue of escape.

That in itself is not unusual. There are also societies in the world trapped in communist and autocratic dictatorships. In some places medieval feudalism still exists. Escaping them is equally problematic.

Many people in supposedly democratic societies are now working harder and longer just to maintain housing and keep food on the table.

The neo-liberal capitalist mindset separates the economy from society, as if it exists apart from people, communities, government and the environment.

Runaway climate change, war, mass migration, widespread poverty and ever-increasing authoritarianism are the inevitable results of an economic system that rewards corporate actors for their absolute commitment to profit, regardless of the broader consequences.

Neo-liberalism has turned the economy into a machine, fuelled by profit and competition. It has created a new class of dictatorship, one where wealth and influence over government are the controlling forces.

Neo-liberal capitalism is not broken, as some commentators claim. It is working all too well, concentrating money in the hands of the few by exploiting the many.

It seems to have been invented by men lacking any sense of empathy or fairness. Their limited imagination only extends to looking to solidify the rules that protect their own wealth or their dreams of obtaining it.

While many victims of neo-liberal capitalism want a new kind of economy where the people and the planet are prioritized over profit, they remain sceptical that such a thing is possible.

However, some people, having observed pre-industrial societies in places like Papua New Guinea know that there are ideologically viable frameworks upon which to base more equitable economic systems.

A popular website suggests “ways to reject capitalism in your personal life”. They include things like making your own clothes, building your own house and sharing your food.

They sound remarkably like the way things traditionally operated in Papua New Guinea. A simpler lifestyle that incorporates care of the community and the environment.

While the idea of seriously considering the adoption of a stone-age philosophical base may seem ludicrous to most people stranger things have happened. The so-called paleo diet has taken off so why not the philosophy that accompanied it?

The physicality of a stone-age lifestyle is obviously not now a viable alternative but the underlying social structures that underpinned it certainly now have a relevance worth considering.

That lifestyle did, after all, survive through 70,000 plus years. Compare that to capitalism’s paltry few hundred years.

The upheaval of the coronavirus crisis and the subsequent exposure of the shortcomings of neo-liberalism to cope or provide solutions might just be the signal needed to begin examining and adapting the sort of philosophies that once informed those traditional societies in places like Papua New Guinea.

Comments

Feed You can follow this conversation by subscribing to the comment feed for this post.

Martyn Namorong

History has a habit of repeating itself and I think the main reason is that those in the "present" tend to have a nostalgia for the "former glory" or "good old days" or in Trump's words - Make America Great Again.

We see Putin annexing Crimea as if he is trying to restore the glory of Empire. Of course the Russian Tsar was supposed to be Ceasar 2.0 - the rebirth of the glory of Rome in the east.

In China they built a wall in the 14th century and of course a Firewall in the 21st century.

Despite its "mask diplomacy" China isn't behaving like the new global leader - maybe it doesn't want to just as it did in the past sailing junks to the African coast with a powerful navy only to return home and build a wall.

Hopefully the proposed Pacific Bubble leads to a better kind of regionalism that could replace the old post colonial Pacific Islands Forum.

Bernard Corden

A fascinating article Chris that reflects and aligns with the work and commitment of Ernst Mandel to social democracy

Chris Overland

Neo-liberal capitalism has taken over our lives by stealth.

I date its rise from the realisation that ordinary citizens could be offered easy access to credit, whereby the perceived actuarial risk involved was largely mitigated by the sheer numbers of people who used credit cards and similar facilities.

This single decision ushered in the Age of the Consumer, whereby people who had hitherto been citizens were understood to be and described as consumers, that is to say as economic units.

The role of the consumer is to purchase the endless supply of goods and services generated by an ever growing economy.

The economy is, in fact, a gigantic hamster wheel, which must be made to spin faster and faster in order to maintain the growth that generates the profits that allow the consumption of ever more goods and services and so on ad infinitum.

We consumers are, of course, the hamsters.

To encourage the hamsters, there is a vast advertising industry which is designed and operated by often very smart people whose sole task is to persuade us to purchase as much as possible as often as possible. They are very, very good at this task.

The fashion industry exemplifies consumerism, with its emphasis on incessant changes in the favoured "look", so that no amount of clothing in a wardrobe is actually sufficient to fulfil our desire to look and feel good.

Our ancestors overwhelmingly valued clothing for its utility and robustness. They could not afford fashion for its own sake. Only the truly wealthy could afford to value clothing purely for how it looked.

We all now are encouraged to value the look of clothing for its own sake. Neither utility or robustness figure prominently in advertising except for clothing aimed at those who do manual work for a living.

The same can be said for a vast array of stuff that no-one actually needs but which can be made to seem desirable or even necessary.

Thus neo-liberal capitalism may be in some sense efficient but the resultant consumerism is astonishingly wasteful, extravagant and, very often, adds no real or lasting satisfaction or value to our lives.

As consumers we are the servants of the economy, not vice versa. Our political class now consciously prioritises the economy over us as citizens.

Recently, at least one academic economist has seriously suggested that as Covid 19 primarily kills the elderly, we should allow it to do so, thus culling those economic units who are no longer productive plus creating herd immunity to the disease..

This is illustrative of the mindset that now informs some of the thinking about neo-liberal economics.

It is reflective of the 19th century mindset whereby, for example, coal miners were sent down unsafe mines and it was accepted that the resultant deaths and disability , while unfortunate, were just a cost of doing business.

Of course, there is enormous hypocrisy with neo-liberal capitalism.

Ultra competitive corporations and individuals ostensibly value creative destruction right until the moment when they look like becoming its victims.

They then immediately demand government help, so that the taxpayers are obliged to rescue them.

They always plead "special" circumstances, ignoring the fact that their ideology doesn't make any allowance for circumstances.

In a PNG context, far too many international corporations are really only predatory rent seekers, good at spinning tales about how much government largesse they need to get "development" started and adept at explaining the many reasons beyond their control whereby such development somehow never translates into much benefit for the hapless citizenry.

It is time that we all woke up to this nonsense and demanded major reforms to how capitalism works. It is entirely possible to do this. The genius of capitalism is its ability to transform itself to meet changing circumstances.

I am quite sure that it can do so again but it will require forcing those who are the major beneficiaries of neo-liberalism to accept changes that will diminish both their wealth and their influence in favour of ordinary citizens.

This has been done before, notably in the post war period in the UK and Europe, and it can be done again.

Verify your Comment

Previewing your Comment

This is only a preview. Your comment has not yet been posted.

Working...
Your comment could not be posted. Error type:
Your comment has been saved. Comments are moderated and will not appear until approved by the author. Post another comment

The letters and numbers you entered did not match the image. Please try again.

As a final step before posting your comment, enter the letters and numbers you see in the image below. This prevents automated programs from posting comments.

Having trouble reading this image? View an alternate.

Working...

Post a comment

Comments are moderated, and will not appear until the author has approved them.

Your Information

(Name and email address are required. Email address will not be displayed with the comment.)