Through Immigrant Eyes – Some historic context
25 November 2020
ADELAIDE - While I have a lot of sympathy with Bernard Corden’s characterisation of neo-liberal capitalism in his Through Immigrant Eyes series, it is wrong to conceive of this philosophy as some sort of malevolent conspiracy.
Neo-liberalism is, as the name suggests, simply a reconceptualisation of the classic liberalism that prevailed during most of the 19th century and into the early 20th century.
In essence, classical liberalism prioritised the market above everything else, with government’s doing as little as possible to interfere with its operation.
Only slowly and reluctantly were governments in places like Britain, Europe and Australia effectively forced to intervene in things like occupational health and labour relations.
They did so only when the grotesque unfairness and inequity involved became socially and politically intolerable.
The USA, as usual, was the exception. It was only with the election of Franklin Delano Roosevelt as President in 1933 and the implementation of the New Deal that the US federal government finally moved to ameliorate the worst excesses of America’s rampant “winner takes all” version of capitalism.
Karl Marx’s famous and influential work Das Kapital (published in 1867) was a devastating and accurate critique of classical liberalism as it then operated. It gave rise to the socialist and revolutionary communist movements, with the latter becoming an existential challenge to western liberal democracies.
With the collapse of communism in the USSR and its reinvention in China as ‘socialism with Chinese characteristics’ (state controlled capitalism) there was, for a time at least, a belief that there was no viable alternative to the globalised neo-liberalism spawned by the Chicago School of Economics.
The USA, in particular, launched itself into a frenzy of deregulated technological, industrial and financial innovation but this was accompanied by more than a little speculation.
The rich became richer and the poor were left floundering in their wake. The rising tide did not lift all boats as the apostles of neo-liberalism had assumed.
The painful lessons of the past have apparently been forgotten by the more strident proponents of neo-liberalism and by a political class with little or no knowledge or insight into why movements like Marxist Leninism gained so much traction during the 19th and 20th century.
What Bernard is pointing out is that those old evils are arising once more, this time cloaked in language that extols the virtues of a free market above everything else and portrays organised labour as inherently bad for that mysterious thing called ‘the economy’.
In short, satisfying the needs and interests of capital is seen as hugely more important than doing so for workers.
The system is deemed to benefit workers because of the so-called trickledown effect, whereby the fruits of business success are shared between capital and labour.
This turns out to be true to some degree but only for certain classes of workers (e.g. those in information technology, computer science, health care, banking, and certain trades) with the overwhelming majority clearly receiving little or no benefit.
Modern gig workers and small business operators (the latter being Marx’s petit bourgeoisie) are free in the sense that they are largely unconstrained by regulation in terms of how they work but, conversely, they also are largely unprotected by the state and suffer from the gross asymmetry in power relative to their employers or the huge multi-national corporations which are such a dominant economic force.
There are obvious parallels with the 19th century, where the working class endured appalling living and working conditions while their supposed social betters flourished.
The private affluence and public squalor of that time was accurately described by people as diverse in outlook as Karl Marx and Charles Dickens.
Like their working class predecessors, gig workers today are very vulnerable to the often very sudden and capricious changes in “market conditions” such as the current pandemic. This is the downside of the workforce ‘flexibility’ so beloved of neo-liberals.
As Bernard has pointed out, it is new immigrants and asylum seekers who are especially vulnerable to the vagaries of the market because they typically work within the least regulated and worst paid areas of the economy.
Fortunately, in the current circumstances, most governments across the world have at least temporarily abandoned neo-liberal principles to save their national workforce and business sector from the worst impacts of the economic collapse that the pandemic has triggered.
Not so fortunately, there are signs that many conservative governments, including Australia’s, have begun to once again view the world through their ideological goggles so there is a high risk that the good work done in the crisis will rapidly be undone in the post pandemic recovery period.
My personal view is that the neo-liberal philosophy has exhausted its potential to do good and, in fact, now has more potential to do considerable harm.
There are clear signs of growing inequality and lack of opportunity for an emergent under class of workers who cannot find secure, fulltime and stable employment.
They are the so-called ‘precariat’, a word derived from the Marxist notion of the proletariat, who were the undeniable losers under classical liberalism.
It is terribly sad that we seem determined to repeat the errors of the past in the mistaken belief that this time we will avoid them.
If history is any guide, there is no way that the current economic system, based as it is upon an unfettered market, rampant consumption, growth at all costs and a winner takes all approach to economics and business, is going to survive.
The tides of history are strongly against this outcome. Rather, they point to some sort of corrective action, which may be either gradual or sudden and violent.
Of course, no-one can predict exactly what path we will collectively take, only that we must surely take another.
My belief is that there will be a great deal of distress and pain for many people before our political class finally and belatedly take action to ameliorate the worst excesses of global neo-liberalism.
All this is relevant to Papua New Guinea in so far as it seems destined to be one of the victims of neo-liberalism, not one of its beneficiaries.
It lacks the power and influence to play any other role. The weakness and corruption of its governments make it comparatively easy prey for the corporate and state predators now at work across the world.
At best, it may simply be swept along by events and ride out whatever storm may come. At worst, it will become an unwilling focus of great power competition in the Pacific region.
Fortunately, as Phil Fitzpatrick and others have previously observed, its large class of subsistence farmers seem likely to be insulated from the worst impact of any crisis that may emerge.
Their comparative isolation from ‘the economy’ may turn out to be a protection rather than a burden.
Most investigations always endeavour to oversimplify risk or uncertainty and place it into distinct categories.
This often mistakenly assumes decision making is rational but most decisions are arational, unconscious and typically involve satisficing.
Investigations invariably disregard the rhizome or ecology and the phenomenology of perception, which includes intercorporeality and interaffectivity.
The brain is not a computer on top of your body, it does not make decisions, it merely hosts conversations.
Some fascinating reading on this includes:
a) Guy Claxton - Intelligence in the Flesh
b) Maurice Merleau-Ponty - Phenomenology of Perception
c) Michael Foucault - The Birth of the Clinic
Posted by: Bernard Corden | 26 November 2020 at 09:03 PM
It now transpires that Telstra has been ripping off First Australians on Mob Plans.
It looks like according to Rod Sims a $50 million fine can be expected.
This will come off the backs of the Shareholders;
what pray may I ask,
Will' be the category this is to be classed under Bernard;
Greed, Power or Hubris.
Posted by: William Dunlop | 26 November 2020 at 04:38 PM
The late 'Top Level Ted' (Sir Edward) Houghton Lyons, who was a confidante of Queensland premier Joh Bjelke Petersen, was embroiled in the Rothwells saga along with many others from the white shoe brigade.
Sir Leslie Theiss, Russ Hinze, Emil Kornhauser, Kevin Seymour et al all were mentioned in the Fitzgerald Inquiry into corruption and their legacy remains entrenched in Queensland politics.
Top Level Ted was once pulled over one evening driving his Rolls Royce erratically and, after a telephone call to the police commissioner, the charge sheet was screwed up and thrown in the waste paper bin and he was provided with a police escort home.
It is not just greed. Power and hubris are also significant contributory factors.
Posted by: Bernard Corden | 25 November 2020 at 01:53 PM
The following links have much more relevance to PNG, especially Bougainville and juxtapose the inequitable
Posted by: Bernard Corden | 25 November 2020 at 12:05 PM
Some time ago I mentioned the late Keith Dowling, also known as the quiet John Spalvins of Queensland, a former kiap and PNG businessman.
I recently came across a chap called Dowling in Facebook who had listed a photo and comments about his MGB auto. I queried was he any relation to Keith Dowling. He replied in the negative.
However, I had a reply from a financial reporter confirming he was a good friend of Keith's and went on to say he had been a fly on Keith Dowling's office wall in Brisbane the day the bidding war for Rothwells went on between Laurie Connell and Cristopher Skase. Connell won.
We all know the outcome of this infamous pair, governed by their God aka Greed. However, the great wheel rotated on them both.
Posted by: William Dunlop | 25 November 2020 at 11:13 AM
Dear Chris and Bernard - Greed.
Posted by: William Dunlop | 25 November 2020 at 10:48 AM
I'm glad you cast a sympathetic eye towards Marx Chris.
So often we just get diatribes and predictions that Marxism is dead when in reality works like 'Das Capital' have decided relevance today. His theory of historical materialism still holds very true.
Capitalism's mantra of continued growth, as echoed in Morrison's "jobs and growth" slogan will be its final downfall when it runs out of resources and has wrecked the planet.
And we are seeing that wrecking occurring at an increasing pace with climate change.
Posted by: Philip Fitzpatrick | 25 November 2020 at 10:22 AM
The former Boeing CEO Denis Muilenberg was rewarded with a golden parachute worth US$ 62.2 million following its recent 737 Max disasters involving Lion Air and Ethiopian Airlines:
The bereaved dependents each received US$ 213,000 from an assistance fund:
Posted by: Bernard Corden | 25 November 2020 at 10:11 AM
Bernard - Not forgetting the generosity by CEO's and directors to their own hip pockets in cash and share bonuses.
A classic example being Australia Post's previous incumbent's bonus and payouts of some $12 million (prior to the latest incumbent's watch fiasco).
Yet when things go horribly wrong; as in the case of Dreamworld, the shareholders foot the fines ad infinitum.
Posted by: William Dunlop | 25 November 2020 at 08:41 AM
I should also add the Hillsborough stadium disaster to that list.
The prolonged campaign for justice on behalf of the bereaved families, dependents and many injured survivors lasted almost three decades amidst relentless delay, deny and die legal tactics.
During the campaign Liverpool Football Club plc sent the Hillsborough Families Support Group invoices for the cost of hiring of conference rooms at the stadium.
Posted by: Bernard Corden | 25 November 2020 at 08:13 AM
Dear Chris - There is a fascinating book written by Thomas O McGarity entitled 'Freedom to Harm: The Lasting Legacy of the Laissez Faire Revival':
This book tells the story of how the business community - and the trade associations and think tanks it created - launched three powerful assaults during the last quarter of the twentieth century on the federal regulatory system and the state civil justice system to accomplish a revival of the laissez faire political economy that dominated Gilded Age America.
This gained even more momentum following the infamous Lewis Powell memo and the corporate call to arms in the early 1970s, which also involved Eugene Sydnor Jr, Bryce Harlow (Procter and Gamble), John D Harper at Alcoa and many others:
It eventually created the establishment of a cluster of right wing think tanks along Massachusetts Avenue NW in Washington DC and the concept of George Stigler's regulatory and policy capture from the Chicago school of economics emerged.
This was reinforced under the Reagan administration and an alliance with Margaret Thatcher via the chimera of trickle down economics, which degenerated into corporate welfare, socialism for the rich, privatising profit and socialising loss. Qu'ils mangent de la brioche.
Although the consequences of these assaults became painfully apparent in a confluence of crises during the early twenty-first century, the patch-and-repair fixes that Congress and the Obama administration put into place did little to change the underlying laissez faire ideology and practice that continues to dominate the American political economy and other alleged democracies including the UK and Australia.
I would hardly categorise events like Upper Big Branch, Deepwater Horizon, Boeing 737 Max disasters and Rio Tinto's destruction of the indigenous rock shelters as a conspiracy theory.
The primary objective was the myopic deification of shareholder theory or the Friedman doctrine and placing profit over people and the environment.
Indeed how can any corporation be socially responsible if its only objective is to accrue profits for its shareholders?
Posted by: Bernard Corden | 25 November 2020 at 07:11 AM