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.