Libertarian capitalism and the post-socialist age

One of the key problems of progressives and the Left is that unlike the past, today we don't have a broadly agreed set of ideas. The most obvious result of this is the Left is weaker today than it has been in 50 years. Indeed to talk about the Left is to talk about many disparate groups, each with a separate and sometimes conflicting vision. The old post-1970 Communist Party of Australia once had a unifying vision and a social analysis in the form of a particularly creative Marxism. But those days are effectively over and trying to 'put Humpty Dumpty back together again' on the basis of Marxism (or any there totalizing 'theory-of-everthing) will fail. There is no ready-made 'package' of ideas we can pick off the shelf. While cherishing the values of the old socialist left, we have to rethink the bases of our politics.

We could begin by drawing an idealistic blueprint for the good society but I think that gets things upside down. A better starting point, is my view, is to begin such discussions with an account of the problems our society faces today. After all, the theories and views we develop have to be ultimately tested by their applicability to real world problems, and not theorizing for its own sake.

My starting point is the observation that the societies in which we live have been transformed by the political Right over the last 25 years. We live in what a number of people call libertarian capitalism.

This is a deregulated economy, where the ethic of competition is elevated above all else. It is a society defined by choice, self-interest and a narrowly conceived economic efficiency. Central to this is the belief that free operation of the market is the key to the good life which is largely defined in consumerist terms. It is a society in which all other values and needs are sacrificed to the needs of business to make profits. It is a society in which disproportionate power lies with a wealthy elite.

Allied with these facts is another. We live in a society which is the richest in human history. In part this is a long term development since world war two, and in part it arises from deregulation itself which has a dynamic and energizing effect on an economy. For our purposes today, a central point to grasp about this extraordinarily affluent society of libertarian capitalism is that, put simply, it is unsustainable.

First, it is socially unsustainable. Capitalism has always been encased or contained within a social and moral framework in which certain things were not done, no matter how profitable they might be and certain areas were no go areas. For a long time these limitations were largely based on religious beliefs. These have eroded for a long while and very little is now off limits.

That is why in my book 'Beyond Right and Left' I spend time looking at how the family is under assault from libertarian capitalism. A number of people have spoken against the commercialization of childhood and the massive drive to turn small children into consumers. And then there is the issue of working hours and family life. Libertarian capitalism pushes towards a 24/7 society in which commercial values take precedence over family values and over non-commercial values.

There is a relentless drive for the economy to commodify all human relations. Human relationships, with neighbors, with fellow students, with parents, with children, and on and on - all these are pushed increasingly towards market relationships. Historically, market relations began literally in market places with the buying and selling of food and salt - but these are now penetrating far beyond the economy. So students in universities become customers and clients, so sport becomes a billion dollar industry while physical unfitness soars, and so on. This in turn leads to the entrenchment in society of commercial values in place of any altruism, and caring.

Some have called this a 'risk society'. Where the individual must make a vast number of decisions for him or herself because the old certainties, the old institutions have weakened or disappeared. This risk society champions a certain kind of freedom but the flip side of freedom is insecurity. This gives rise to a strong popular desire for security, a desire for protection. And often this emerges in exaggerated and distorted forms - in fears of criminal behavior and of terrorism. In framing a response to libertarian capitalism we need to appeal to people's desire for protection and security - in this case against the unregulated market.

Libertarian capitalism devalues non material, non market relationships, relationships of social bonding, of caring and dare I say it, love of fellow man and woman. Some have described this overall result of libertarian capitalism as form of 'social recession'. [1] Others such as Clive Hamilton and Richard Dennis in their book Affluenza discuss the simple fact that affluence has not produced happiness. [2] In the book The Culture of the New Capitalism Richard Sennett has described how the modern economy shapes and rewards damaging behavior and empties work of meaning.[3] All these and many others are part of a search for what I would call a post-socialist critique of capitalism.

The second and more tangibly threatening aspect of libertarian capitalism is its environmental unsustainability, Libertarian capitalism is extraordinarily wasteful and unsustainable for reasons which we all know, to do with consequences of fossil fuel use. I don't know if you are aware of the latest results of climate change but it all seems to be going much faster than the cautious scientists of IPCC suggested. We seem to be sleepwalking to disaster.

Significantly, even within the Bush administration there is a slow shift to acknowledge the existence of climate change but to reassure everyone confidently that it can be solved by human ingenuity. In Britain there is a more realistic approach. The British economist Nicholas Stern regards the climate crisis as an example of 'market failure'. He said:

'Markets do not automatically provide the right type and quantity of public goods, because in the absence of the right kind of public policy, there are limited or no returns to private investors for doing so…Thus climate change is an example of market failure involving externalities and public goods …. All in all it must be regarded as a market failure on the greatest scale the world has ever seen.'

We will certainly need ingenuity but as Stern implies we need to restrain and tame the nature of libertarian capitalism.

Climate change poses problems of diabolical difficulty. The central one is that much of the good life which many ordinary people enjoy in industrial societies like ours is predicated on unsustainable grounds. To decrease fossil fuels use and change to renewables, the price of energy must rise radically and this will undermine much of the lifestyle we enjoy. The political problem is that no one wants to tell people this unpleasant truth - certainly not a government or an opposition which wants to be re-elected.

So what I am doing today by sketching out the consequences of libertarian capitalism is to outline the new nature of the struggle for a good society.

There are other big issues in society which I have not mentioned, but these two sets of objective circumstances - unsustainable social relationships and an unsustainable environment - seem to me to be the foundations on which to build a new kind of politics. That's the first thing I want to say today.

As an aside, I might just pause and say that, every successful movement for social change has invariably had one major advantage over bigger and more powerful forces. That advantage is the ability to see problems emerging from beyond the horizon and to prepare for them with a new social vision.

Why is that? Well, because certain forces have a logic of their own. They impose themselves on events regardless. Things are forced to change - and if you are in tune with that change, if you understand something like climate change in all its shocking implications, then you can do one very important thing. To put it bluntly you can seize an opportunity when it arises. Because when things begin to change, those who have a vested interest in the present state of affairs don't want to recognise the new reality, they want to tinker with it, they hope for the best. Those who do not have a stake in the present, but who have a vision of the future which is both principled and pragmatic can have an enormous influence.

Because you never know what is over the horizon. Let's say in the next 12 months an unprecedented expansion of the drought occurs, after several years already of drought. Let's say Sydney's water supply once again dips down below 30 %, down to 20% or less. This frightening example of climate change would also be the kind of event which forces the whole society to consider new possibilities in public policy and politics. Being able to explain these events gives you have a tremendous advantage in being able to suggest a course of action.

That's really a diversion into how a strategy of politics must be founded on a long term social and economic analysis. I now want to move back into the area of ideas.

The Left tradition

If I am correct, or mostly correct, about the social and environmental unsustainability, then this poses a kind of dilemma for a certain style of politics which many of us held to be self-evident.

Until now, most politics has been about a struggle over who gets what in a society of scarcity. The political leaderships of the rising working classes of the 19th and 20th centuries stood for many glorious things but above all, they stood for a better material standard of living. This simple human need, harnessed to a long term vision, drove the creation of powerful movements which transformed politics for more than century. Yet today, at least in societies like ours, it is an addiction to material abundance that may be the death of us.

In a very practical way this fact alone poses the need for a sharp rethinking of the goals of 'a good society' today. It poses a need for profound rethinking of the Marxist tradition, and the discarding of several key assumptions.

One of the many valuable things I learnt while in the Communist Party of Australia and while listening to people like Eric and Laurie Aarons was the great pitfall of radical groups - the occupational hazard if you like - is dogmatism. That is, a strong desire to hold on to a familiar set of beliefs rather than to recognize the painful reality that those beliefs have been undermined and how they need to change. And this is mixed up with sentimentality and nostalgia that is very human but which, in the end, does not help in grappling with new realities.

There are a number of reasons why traditional socialist theory is inadequate as a starting point - I set them out in Beyond Right and Left. They include the changing nature of class, the radically new nature of the global environment, the experience of dictatorships established in the name of these ideas. There are many others. I'll just add one issue, relevant to the topic for today of 'the good society'. I once believed that 'the good society' was a socialist society - a society with little or no private ownership of property, where social goods were distributed according to need and not according to the market. When you think of 'the good society' in such terms, its existence feeds back into your strategy and practice for today.

If capitalism is to be abolished in the future, then in today's political work there is no need to, as we would once say, 'reform capitalism'. If the market is the problem and will once day be cast side then there is no need to figure out ways it could be used to promote socially valuable goals. And so on.

But if we have learnt one thing coming from the socialist critique it is that capitalism is extraordinarily flexible. It can take an almost infinite variety of forms, depending on the social political and moral framework within which it operates. On the one hand there is 19th century style exploitation (which still exists in the 21st century) and there is fascism, and on the other, Swedish-style social democracy, and various other kinds of democratic and progressive society.

Today I think we won't abolish capitalism but we'll force another change to it, to create a kind of green capitalism, in which the full cost of natural resources, water, and energy are part of the calculation of what we today call the economy.

In this struggle the majority of the existing corporate world will be an opponent for a long while, because it has a material stake in the ways things are. A minority within business will be allies because they can see that it is unsustainable.

New goals, new ways of arguing

But I want to now turn to new possibilities which are opened up by the new situation in which we find ourselves. Let's look at what becomes of progressive politics in libertarian capitalism. Once again I emphasize that I am restricting myself to certain issues, largely confined to the economy and its moral and environmental frame work.

One of the key strategies therefore is to build a moral and environmental framework for this new kind of capitalism while not having the illusion that it can all be abolished. The key contradiction therefore is between deregulated capitalism and humanist values. This is the crucial weakness into which we have to drive a wedge.

I want to close with three brief examples.

The first puts the traditional left alongside strange bedfellows. One of the destructive aspects of libertarian capitalism is the profit drive towards unrestricted 24 hour liquor sales and unrestricted gambling. It's part of the same demand that we should all be available to work 24/7. If we move into this territory of values - and the struggle for a sustainable society, we find the ground has been colonised before. The language of values and the assertion of society against the economy has been the language of religion. We need to recognize and welcome this. In another area - the pressure on the family by libertarian capitalism - we need to value aspects of the family by asserting a new kind of family values.

The second example is more familiar and traditional. One of the most crucial struggles against libertarian capitalism is the union campaign to roll back the deregulation of labour laws represented by WorkChoices. This is a classic struggle for human values against instrumental and morally bankrupt neo-liberalism. But it has been fought in new ways, for instance by asserting the need to protect the family and working life, rather than using a more traditional language based on inequality and exploitation. Also significant, has been that the support that came from the churches.

The third example is not so well known, it touches on issues of multiculturalism. Deregulated capitalism has no problem with diversity because diversity means new, separate marketing niches. Diversity can be great - but too much can undermine shared values.

One powerful impulse towards diversity and division today is the movement away from public education and toward private provision of health care. One of the most powerful tools to argue against this is often not used. This is the argument that these institutions are institutions for social cohesion. Progressives tend not to use this language. We automatically talk in terms of equality and inequality but this cuts little ice today.

Protecting public education means recognizing how schools integrate the community and how they assert common values, especially in a society based on migrants. Using a language of protecting Australian values and calling for social cohesion is not familiar, but it picks up on peoples' desire for security and protection in a deregulated world and in a risk society. Defining Australian values in progressive terms - and not assuming it inevitably means narrow nationalism - is a positive ways to engage in the battle of ideas.

All of these campaigns involve a clash of values, a battle of ideas. These campaigns assert a humanist set of values to those of libertarian capitalism. Both assert sustainable social relations against the values of self-interest and commercial freedom.

So the struggle for a good society is different today. Unlike the previous era, it is not based centrally around work or the workplace, though the labour movement remains important. It is much more a social struggle and an environmental struggle than it ever has been. Finding common ground between these three sectors - social, environmental and work-based - is absolutely crucial.

We face a big challenge today, which is the challenge to re-define and rethink what progressive politics means in a post-socialist age. This means developing a new kind of politics which meets and asserts human values in the face of threats to them, but a kind of politics which can ultimately have a broad popular appeal.

Most important of all is a serious debate about these issues and I am glad that the SEARCH Foundation is starting to give more emphasis to this aspect of the challenge.

[1] See for example a pamphlet by a group of former members of the British Communist Party, 'Feel-bad Britain: a view from the democratic left' downloadable in PDF from

[2] Affluenza: When Too Much is Never Enough, Allen & Unwin 2005. See also the 'Manifesto for Well Being' :

[3] Richard Sennett, The Culture of the New Capitalism, Yale Univerity, 2006