A market for a nation: beyond the neoliberal grind

David Ritter is a left-leaning expatriate Australian legal academic who holds similar views about “neoliberalism” to David McKnight (namely that it’s the font of all evil). Perhaps the most bizarre aspect of his hypothesis is the straw man rhetorical tactic of setting up the fifties and sixties as an “almost golden age” when “the individual and the collective good were in some degree of balance”, since which era we’ve all gone to neoliberal hell in a handbasket.

Ritter’s essay excerpted below is something of a caricature in my view, but it behoves all sensible centrists to develop a reasonable understanding of the world views of ideologues of both extremes.  Moreover you might even agree with me that there are a few shafts of insight in there.

Choice, choice, choice. Counting how often a key term is used in a speech can be a crude tool, but not so here. In Gillard’s rendering of Labor’s values, the word ‘society’ is not mentioned once, while the word ‘choice’ appears more than twenty times. In her interpretation of Labor values, the Prime Minister left out any sense of how community – which is essential to an enduring sense of the secure self – is meant to cohere or function in the face of the hurry and instability of liquid modernity. You cannot mend the existential insecurity of too much choice with more choice. In the Prime Minister’s vision of the good society, there is no real sense of the communal as having a value beyond the fulfilment of self, or of any abiding purpose beyond realising gain on the part of individuals. It is a near complete inversion of John F Kennedy’s soaring exhortation: ask not what you can do for your country, but what your country can do for you. The life paths referred to by Gillard are also revealing. She reifies the ‘aspiration’ for a ‘decent job’ and the ‘dream’ of running a ‘decent small business’, but mentions nothing else: vocations, professions, public service, farming and full-time care, for example, are hidden behind more narrowly economic possibilities.

The Australians imagined in Gillard’s speech are also uncannily invulnerable. Care is impliedly conceptualised as resulting from poor fortune, to be provided for as a ‘service’ rather than something essential to realising our humanity. Incapacity is spoken of as a ‘risk’, as if it were somehow possible to never be a baby, or to avoid the mortal need for tender succour that precedes our dying. The implications of Gillard’s choice of words are momentous. So invisible have the assumptions become that the current Labor Prime Minister defends a neoliberal conception of human relations as an expression of imperishable Labor values. The heart and soul of the country have changed.

Inside the walls, the condition of twenty-first century life for the majority of Australians is material abundance, accompanied by tiredness, time-poverty, jadedness and anxiety. Qualities of personal character like trust, loyalty and mutual commitment are eaten away by work that is short-­‐‑term and ‘flexible’. Institutions have been transformed for the worse by the application of the profit motive.

Keep reading …

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About Ken Parish

Ken Parish is a legal academic at Charles Darwin University, with research areas in public law (constitutional and administrative law) and teaching & learning theory and practice. He has been a legal academic for almost 12 years. Before that he ran a legal practice in Darwin for 15 years and was a Member of the NT Legislative Assembly for almost 4 years in he early 1990s.

9 thoughts on “A market for a nation: beyond the neoliberal grind

  1. Many thanks for pointing me towards this essay. It is encouraging to read from one who understands that revolution is needed and that evolution is an inadequate response to neoliberalism.

    Perhaps David Ritter is locked in the 1970′s. Perhaps also, me with him.

  2. At the risk of getting shafted by an insight, must say above is pretty much my view.
    Nor is it difficult, in contemplation times past, to observe that some things have worsened since the end of Hobsbawn’s Golden Age as well as some improving.
    Because we are prosperous, does it make us free?
    If we coudn’t console ourselves in hedonism, escapism and avoidance, say if the mining boom suddenly stopped, how would slipping back into poverty feel, when one discovers the unions have been busted, social infrastructures are failing, a network of distorted security laws is operative and dumbed down to censored media where the best broadsheet left in the emptied bucket is hardly better than Volkischer Beobachter.
    Watching the Panorama doco the other night on Michigan and Detroit, showed too well to me what a Sunday morning might look like after the night before.

  3. I couldn’t force myself to read the whole thing, but when the concluding paragraph talks about how the purpose of economics should be this and not that, you know that lots of woolly thinking preceded it.

    One of the weird things about lefties is how they lament the lack of freedom they see around them which they imagine is the product of the large reductions in centralised control of society that have occurred as the unions have shrunk and govts become less active economically.

    Paul, I’m pretty sure you’re at no risk of being shafted by an insight.

  4. Anyone on the moderate left who is tempted to admire this sort of stuff needs to take a second look. This is classic conspiracy theory, poorly painted over with selective memory of days gone by, dismissal of the real achievements of Australia’s mix of market and government. And it follows a familiar formula.
    The first step in the formula is to avoid at all costs writing of any of the shortcomings of the previous system – the shortcomings which provoked all the changes the author now bewails. As Ritter shows, you can make any number of grand-sounding statements about economic policy in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s if you just dodge any acknowledgement of the actual economic problems emerged within Australia through that period.
    This was Michael Pusey‘s trick in the early 1990s. In the culture wars, it has also been the strategy of choice for any number of right-wingers intent on showing how divorce, homosexuality and welfare have ruined society over the last 40 years.
    The second step in this sort of writing is to summon up a cause for the change of policy direction.
    Pusey’s relatively sophisticated choice – in his Economic Rationalism in Canberra, at least – was the malign influence of monetarist theory that universities forced on student economists. Alex Millmow, a man who takes the history of ideas seriously, neatly exploded Pusey’s claim by pointing out the timeline didn’t work: the people who had thought up and implemented the 1980s changes in economic policy had been schooled in Keynesianism, and had turned to other solutions only because Keynes didn’t address the dilemmas they were actually facing.
    Ritter’s preferred theory is cruder than Pusey’s. Ritter puts it all down to the unseen capitalist overlords who control our fates:

    Capitalism was husbanded into a new form that was elusive, transnational, ubiquitous and vastly more powerful. And Australia, ever obedient to the needs of empire, got with the program of redesigning the nation in order to conform to the new way of things. The project was as much metaphysical as economic: the market, it was foretold, would make us free.

    Note the language here, carefully designed to avoid having to make a detailed claim about who, precisely, forced us down this path – who did the husbanding, the programming and the foretelling.

  5. I’d go all the way with Ritter on that near perfect summary of the REAL world and recent history, especially the GFC.

  6. “Dalek theory”: any theory which describes the entire system of world governance being controlled by all-powerful but unseen and unidentified forces. Has a nice ring to it. John, you’ve just added to the language.

  7. Can’t help but note how the Griffith Review is funded by the Australia Council and the Qld and Fed Governments.

    As to Ritter’s prescription for the ills of neoliberalism:

    ” Reaching  back  to  a  slogan  of  the  sixties,  we  must  be  realistic  in  
    demanding  the  impossible,  seeking  a  reconfiguration  of  society  and  economy   that  is  more  faithfully  conducive  to  our  flourishing.  Space,  time  and  place  must  be  reclaimed  for  human  relationships;  politics  and economics  reset  within  environmental  limits,  and  the  market  re-­‐‑embedded  within  society.  Hearts  can  beat  warmly  again;  souls  may  yet  be  set  free;  the  fate  of  the  natural  world  is  still  redeemable;  the  grinder  can  be  halted.”

    Well I’ve heard it all before. But was does any of it really mean? How does one legislate for these things without doing more harm than good?

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