Neo-Cons Meet The Economy

One thing I share with Neo-Conservatives (and there aren’t too many to put it very mildly) is a belief that politics is and ought to be about much more than the economy (though I deplore their economic irresponsibility). This insight, of course, is not original to Neo-Conservatism, but is also characteristic of the best of the Social Democratic tradition, which is about a collective vision of the good life, in contrast to Liberal individualism. Democracy, too, born of dissensus and struggle, is about agonism – contestation over matters public which nevertheless accepts a consensus which avoids antagonism. There is far too little democracy in the world, and I for one am heartened by recent developments in Syria, though I’d want to question the degree to which our democracies in the West have been corrupted by corporate agendas and financing, the professionalisation of politics and its subsumption into a marketing competition, and the entrenchment of elites who have a positive distaste for civic participation, despite the oft heard rhetoric of empowerment. It can be argued that there was a secular trend towards democratisation in the West (in the sense of citizen participation and interest in politics) which came to a halt in the late 1960s or perhaps 1970s, even as democracy became popular outside the West – another sign we’re living in a postmodern world these last thirty years or so. The Currency Lad has some excellent reflections on this topic, and the issues raised by the title of this post, which I’m really posting just to draw readers’ attention to. Once again, C.L. shows that informed political analysis and unorthodox thinking, and argument, is doable on the right of the blogosphere.

ELSEWHERE: Jason Soon and I debated the question of politics and of liberal constitutionalism at greater length a while back at Catallaxy.

About Mark Bahnisch

Mark Bahnisch is a sociologist and is the founder of this blog. He has an undergraduate degree in history and politics from UQ, and postgraduate qualifications in sociology, industrial relations and political economy from Griffith and QUT. He has recently been awarded his PhD through the Humanities Program at QUT. Mark's full bio is on this page.
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C.L.
2022 years ago

Mark: Readers may be interested in this piece by John Edwards on the economics of John Curtin, the importance to him of Keynesianism and his role in establishing purposeful central banking. An excellent article, with some reasonable revisionism of his role as war leader.

http://www.theaustralian.news.com.au/common/story_page/0,5744,12433283%5E7583,00.html

Mark Bahnisch
2022 years ago

Thanks, C.L. I’ll look forward to reading it in the morning. Is that the economist John Edwards who was Keating’s biographer?

Andrew Norton
Andrew Norton
2022 years ago

“It can be argued that there was a secular trend towards democratisation in the West which came to a halt in the late 1960s,”

Mark – You probably have some idiosyncratic sense of ‘democratisation’ here, but the evidence against this, at least in the Australian context:

* removal of grosser violations of one person, one vote, including in your home state (I think WA and the Senate are the only remaining examples)
* improved democratic procedures for people in the ACT and NT
* rising education, giving people greater competence to participate in politics
* broadening of issue setting through major socio-political movements (green, women’s, gay, etc – though most of these had their origins in the late 1960s)
* more frequent opinion polling
* growth in ‘swinging’ voters, causing parties to take more notice of polls

Ken Parish
Ken Parish
2022 years ago

I agree that CL’s post is worthwhile, and certainly emphasises that thoughtful, nuanced posts aren’t confined to left-leaning bloggers. But it’s also highly problematic.

First, CL’s assertion that “the left seems likely to be drawn further into the role of Loyal Opposition” looks very much like wishful thinking on his part. There are centre-left governments in power throughout Europe, in Britain (of sorts), and in every state of Australia. The fact that there happen currently to be neocon administrations in power federally in the US and (more arguably) Australia hardly justifies CL’s premature triumphalism.

Secondly, the suggestion that centre-left parties’ embrace of aspects of neoliberal economic policy and social libertarianism is belated (“will re-badge themselves as the new economic rationalists”) and “mostly insincere” is ahistorical nonsense. Most centre-left parties (especially Australia’s ALP) have long had a much stronger commitment to civil liberties than conservative parties have typically exhibited, and in Australia at least the economic rationalist/neoliberal policy agenda was mostly implemented by the Hawke/Keating Labor government after the Fraser/Howard Coalition squibbed reform. Even in the US, you can make a respectable case that Bill Clinton was more responsible than Reagan for implementing the bulk of the neoliberal agenda.

Lastly, both CL and the author he extracts (Irwin M. Stelzer) present a misleadingly benign portrayal of neoconservatives. They’re described as just a broad church bunch of people passionately committed to democracy, unafraid of big government and budget deficits to get things done, and rather more concerned about moral values than your typical neoliberal or libertarian. And I’m sure there ARE people who identify as “neoconservative” whom that describes very well. But (albeit in breach of Godwin’s Law) it’s a bit like arguing that Nazism was a pretty OK sort of movement because lots of its adherents just believed in a bit of pageantry, healthy outdoor exercise and making the trains run on time. So they did, but the leaders were much more sinister figures, and so it is with the neocons. The Kristols (whom Stelzer acknowledges as the father figures of neconservatism) are avowed Straussians, as are numerous other leading American neocons. And Straussianism is a profoundly undemocratic, elitist, and deeply dishonest ideology, committed as it is to ongoing imperial adventurism in the cause of uniting the populace, and wholesale strategic lying and the manipulation of symbols and propaganda to manipulate a gullible lumpen proletariat into “consenting” to being governed by their moral and intellectual superiors.

In the US at least, neonsrvatism is hopelessly compromised by its close association with Straussianism, and can’t be saved by misleading references to “broad churches”. The Australian situation is quite different. As I commented in an earlier post, there are no overt signs of Straussian infection among the Australian neocons of the Howard government, and I accept (in the absence of evidence to the contrary) that Howard is a committed democrat who simply has a good faith commitment to conservative moral values. I have no problem at all with that, and in fact I don’t think the Howard government really deserves the neocon label, despite the remarkable coincidence between some of its current policy stances and those of the Bush administration. It’s the underlying corrupt ideology that worries me about the Bush necons, and that seems to be absent from the Australian scene.

Mark Bahnisch
2022 years ago

Andrew, I was thinking of indices of things like voter turnout, citizen participation in political parties, interest in politics etc.

I take your point, of course. It’s a term that could be understood in several senses – another being Huntington’s – where he would argue that the process continues – but I guess I’m talking about substantive or civic democracy rather than formal democracy.

Mark Bahnisch
2022 years ago

Thanks again for pointing out the ambiguity, Andrew. I’ve amended the post to make what I’m talking about clearer.

Homer Paxton
Homer Paxton
2022 years ago

Yes Mark he is and was also his adviser as PM and now is an economist in the Financial markets.

Rafe
2022 years ago

“In the US at least, neonservatism is hopelessly compromised by its close association with Straussianism, and can’t be saved by misleading references to ‘broad churches’.”
Yes, in spades, the parallel with Plato’s totalitarian program is haunting, including the resort to ‘noble lies’ by the Philosopher King.

Getting back to Mark’s leading point, that politics needs to be about more than politics, we have a big difference here, with a major philosophical difference on collectivism vs individualism. That is a topic where Plato was especially damaging, putting forth the false and misleading idea that individualists, for some unspecified reason, have to be selfish and devoid of concern for others.
The leftwing push to politicise every single issue is tempting but dangerous because it ends up with more power to politicians, bureaucrats and petty officials. Get over to Catallaxy and catch up with the Popper and the Open Society seminar where these issues are pursued to indicate how Plato laid the foundations for modern totalitarian thinking on both left and right!

Jason Soon
Jason Soon
2022 years ago

The notion that politics should be about infusing society with greater meaning is a dangerous one and is what neo-cons mean when they say that politics should be about more than ‘mere’ economics. ‘Meaning’ is up to individuals and civil society and the role of politics is to ensure that individuals and groups can pursue their particular ends without ending up in substantial conflict. It is, in other words, a machinery for coordinating individual ends which may sometimes be conflicting and minimising the potential for conflict and working up desirable compromise. Economic notions like externality and public goods are therefore highly relevant to statecrafy in this sense. Economics is not ‘mere’ as it is ultimately about coordinating pursuits in this sense to maximise individual utility. Once politics and the State is regarded as something more than a neutral machinery for such coordination then the potential for destabilising and ultimately Hobbesian conflict arises – the State becomes a prize to be captured by one of the groups in civil society and becomes a predator, the energy for benign mutually beneficial trade is channeled instead into malign rent-seeking and repression.

I would also like to correct the notion that economists are fixated on GDP is a misconception that has arisen because of ignorant talking heads on TV who are versed in macro jargon and little else. As an economist it is ultimately utility and preference satisfaction that matters, and not GDP. To use an extreme example, if it is the revealed preference of individuals in a society that they spend 20 per cent of their time stoned on pot and going to the beach and are willing to wear the consequences of such conduct, then if GDP plummets, so much the worse for GDP and so much the better for total utility.

Rafe
2022 years ago

A bit more on the danger of expanding the scope of government and politics, which I think has rather little do do with the good features of democracy, more to do with the downsides like the vote buying motive that we need to control. The theory of the protective state sees a role to defend the rights of people (nothing to do with trade protection or moral guardianship) against various critics, such as Aristotle, Burke and modern moralists who think that the state has more important things to do than just protection, it should be a moral guardian as well, and maybe also an object of veneration. However the demand for the state to act as a moral custodian would be the end of the individual’s moral responsibility, and that it would not improve but destroy morality. It would replace personal responsibility by various moral fads and fashions that prevail among the rulers for the time being, so it is better that the morality of the state should be controlled by the citizens than the opposite. “What we need and what we want is to moralize politics, and not to politicize morals.”

C.L.
2022 years ago

I think you’ve misrepresented several of my remarks Ken. By positing the notion of a Loyal Opposition, I was actually attempting to de-toxify the usual rightist view of the left as carping and useless critics. To characterise this as my “wishful thinking” is unduly sensitive and combative. In Australia and the US (and Britain almost certainly), the right will be in charge for another half decade. These nations have been running foreign policy and re-aligning the world. The fact that centre-left parties hold power in Swedan and Denmark is true but also irrelevant.

My point is that if left or centre left parties are excluded from the big foreign policy initiatives of our time – and, by and large, they are – they will increasingly assume a role as purveyors of libertarianism writ small (or domestic):

a) watchdogs of prudent economic management – using neoclassical rhetoric; and
b) watchdogs of faulty strategic thinking and abuses of human rights – again, a traditionally liberal focus.

As I argued, that is an important, indeed crucial role: “as crucial to our democracy as destroying Al Quaeda.” Since the President’s inauguration address, the FP communication strategy of the White House has shifted from regime change and WMD to the manifest destiny of liberty. I think that has a lot of merit – as has been proved – but it is prone to being derailed by Abu Ghraibs and the triumphalist ‘whatever it takes’ mentality of the intellectually narrow-minded right.

Why? Because the right sometimes assumes that the combination of scandal and democratic accountability cannot or should not bring FP initiatives undone. It just shouldn’t be so, they say – the WOT is too important. But it is so – get used to it.

The Nazi comparison resembles the one made by former KKK member, Senator Robert Byrd, this week. Kind of Godwinian. The word ‘sinister’ was somewhat overwrought. These are figures who’ve openly published their opinions and been part of the whole think tank phenomenon – with its debates, lectures, books, publications and scholarly disputation – for decades. It’s hard seeing their role or their presence as sinister. That usually implies sub rosa – as in Margo K’s media-owning, manipulative Jews. (I merely note in passing – not in response to your comment as such – that a lot of anti neo-con rhetoric is trenchently and conspiratorially anti-semitic. OK for union leaders to influence public policy; bad for intellectuals with Jewish names).

With respect to the idea of “imperial adventurism in the cause of uniting the populace.” The first criticisms of George Bush the President were that he was returning to isolationism, as was his intention pre 9/11. Moreover, the rhetoric from the left after last year’s US election was not that a “lumpen proletariat” population had been united by war adventurism but that President Bush had inaugurated the 50-50 blue-red state divide which was – we were assured – a Really Bad Thing.

To the charge of my own triumphalism: this I strongly reject. It’s only on the WOT and the justice of destroying tyranny that I would side with the right as a matter of inevitable course. On most other topics I’m either open to persuasion or leftist.

By pointing to left-centrist Clinton’s domestic neo-con credentials – and it being a fact that he had none in FP terms – you reinforce part of my argument. What I’ve never understood is how the left ceased believing in the value of liberalism and democracy in the wider world – why they are now so hostile even to the liberation of nations, why they positively will such nations to fail. That is the real unexplained, sinister (and sad) development of our time.

Andrew Norton
Andrew Norton
2022 years ago

Mark – I’m still not convinced, at least for Australia!

Interest in politics has not declined since the 1960s, there is a bit about this here:

http://www.smh.com.au/articles/2004/10/08/1097089568891.html?from=storylhs

Involvement in political parties is certainly down, but I’m not so sure about politics generally. Issue movements often provide more attractive options for involvement. Data on these things over time is hard to get, especially as political groups tend to be evasive or untruthful about membership numbers. However party identification in Australia, though lower than it was, is still high by international standards.

Voter turnout has decreased elsewhere, but compulsory voting limits that here.

Ken Parish
Ken Parish
2022 years ago

CL

I agree you’re being more constructive in describing the left as “loyal opposition” than the usual epithets of right-leaning bloggers. But I still think my suggestion of wishful thinking is a fair one. You seem to suggest that only Sweden and Denmark have centre-left governments. What about the Social Democrats in Germany, and the Socialists in Spain? And Blair Labour in the UK (although even I doubt Blair’s centre-left credentials). Moreover, the Spanish election showed no sign that Europeans were moving towards placing their trust in governmens of the right for national security reasons during the War Against Terror.

Finally, the fact that Straussian-leaning neocons in the US may have declared their ideological orientation publicly at some point doesn’t make them any the less dangerous or dishonest, because their very ideology itself integrally involves “noble lies” to gull the public. As far as GW Bush himself is concerned, I think it’s an open question whether he was really isolationist when elected and was radicalised by 9/11, or whether his apparent isolationist stance prior to and immediately after the 2000 election was itself an example of a Straussian deception. Certainly there is strong evidence that members of his administration already had well-developed plans to invade iraq well before 9/11.

Mark Bahnisch
2022 years ago

Andrew, I seem to remember we had this debate once before and agreed that it was a difficult variable to measure and that the data was incomplete. Take what I’m saying as a sweeping impressionistic sociological generalisation open to argument.

Ken, Denmark has a Centre-Right government and has had for some time – in fact a coalition with a nationalist party which is somewhat anti-immigration. They also have a Princess whom Tony Abbott gushes over, though.

Jason, we also had this debate once before, at much greater length and I’ve linked to the relevant post at Catallaxy now for interested readers and to avoid repetition:

http://badanalysis.com/catallaxy/index.php?p=132

I should also clarify – though I think it’s clear enough already – that I’m not necessarily agreeing with everything C.L. wrote – though I think his thesis is interesting – I’m probably closer to Ken’s position.

Michael Carden
Michael Carden
2022 years ago

IN terms of centre left govts, I find it really fascinating that South America has been swinging to the left. Uruguay has recently inaugurated a socialist president, I believe for the first time. In fact I stumbled across a right wing US site that was sounding alarms about the left ward drift down in the south and declaring that the US govt had better do something about it.

Also would the return of Congress in India be considered a move to the left?

Re the US and its current crusade for democracy, I remain at the least suspicious. You don’t really install democracy by the barrel of a gun and I think the US push for democracy will only go as far the line Tom Lehrer sang some 40 years ago about sending the marines in “until someone we like can be elected” Certainly what happened to poor old Haiti and continues to happen there gives the lie to any protestastions of spreading democracy coming out of Washington. Another case of the same old, same old.

Brian Bahnisch
Brian Bahnisch
2022 years ago

“It can be argued that there was a secular trend towards democratisation in the West (in the sense of citizen participation and interest in politics) which came to a halt in the late 1960s or perhaps 1970s, even as democracy became popular outside the West – another sign we’re living in a postmodern world these last thirty years or so.”

Mark, I think Wallerstein fingers 1968 as the time when interest in politics, at least on the part of the left, began to wane. He identifies a two step process. First we do what is necessary to gain power (either by voting or revolution). Second we change the world.

The problem was that the world was not changeable beyond a point that was not ultimately satisfying. The world system limited local action. So people, he says, tended to give up on direct political action and got sidetracked, insofar as they still aspired to changing the world, into more specific issues like feminism and the environment.

At least that’s how I think he figured it. I don’t think he was thinking much about Australia.

Jason Soon
Jason Soon
2022 years ago

“Also would the return of Congress in India be considered a move to the left?”

Depends on what you mean by left. Economic liberalisation in India began under Congress and Congress has no plans to shelve it now.

Brian Bahnisch
Brian Bahnisch
2022 years ago

Michael, that’s interesting about South America.

Venezuala is often cited, where, inter alia, they are trading oil for doctors and dentists with Cuba. Chavez gets a bad press from the US though, and sooner or later they will propbably knock him off.

Argentinia and Brazil are also quoted. Lula in Brazil had to make a lot of compromises, from what I can see, and many on the left might be losing patience. I’d like to read more about the participative democracy models which seem to be quite widespread in Brazil at municipal level.

In Argentina I think the Pres was nominally from the right, but necessity made him tell the IMF to get stuffed and he has (shock, horror) told them he’s not paying back all the debt (40c in the dollar was his offer, from memory).

I don’t really know enough to generalise with confidence, but the rampant capitalist exploitation and the negligible economic growth in the last three decades seem to be producing a significant stirring from the left.

Mark Bahnisch
2022 years ago

On Congress in India, that’s where it gets difficult – economic liberalisation in Spain, NZ and Australia, for instance, was started by the Left – three of the only social democratic parties in power in the late 80s in OECD countries.

I have no doubt that Congress is to the left of the BJP. Not only do they stand for the secular foundations of the Indian state, they also have a less aggressive foreign policy, and a focus on not just promoting the extremely high rate of economic growth that India enjoys at the moment, but also on providing employment in rural areas – legislation has recently been passed to implement a guarenteed 6 month employment scheme – not unlike Keating’s Working Nation. The very strong Communist Party in India is also part of the governing majority in the Lok Sabha (lower house of Parliament).

It’s surprising that India gets so little attention in Australia – not only is it a nuclear power in the Indian Ocean, but also a large trade partner, and a large source of international tertiary students, but also one of the rapidly few developing countries with a growing middle class with an advanced skills base (particularly in IT) and largely English speaking. And also obviously the world’s most populous (parliamentary) democracy. It’s probably a mark of Australia’s outdated mindset towards Asia (which PJK tried to shake us out of) that when we think India, we tend to think just cricket and curry. It’s a fascinating country culturally, and in terms of power politics and international economics, a country that Australia needs to engage more with. The Howard government, of course, has neglected the bilateral relationship. I, for one, really enjoyed studying Indian history and politics at Uni but as with Indonesian languages and history, I bet that it’s not taught so much now in Australian universities.

Mark Bahnisch
2022 years ago

Brian, yes, I think I probably had Wallerstein in the back of my mind.

Rafe
2022 years ago

Can we join the Bahnisch family in this conversation:)?
“economic liberalisation in Spain, NZ and Australia, for instance, was started by the Left”
lol! Great spin! Look out Warnie, your place could be in danger.
The fist calls for economic liberalism came from Bert Kelly and associated back bench dries in the Liberal Party, followed by assorted Johnny come lately economic rationalist and the free enterprise think tanks, can they at least get credit for making the correct calls? Was it their fault that Malcolm Fraser was an economic wet? Since when have Bob Hawke and Paul Keating been claimed by the Left?
Lets have some historical perspective on this, Bert Kelly and the Dries are the modern heroes of restructuring in Australia, throw in some old folk like Ed Shan and Keith Hancock from the 1930s. Actually the Big Fella Jack Lang was something of a free trader, among other things.