The utopia of economic liberalism

A talk to a forum on the government's 'Workchoices' law in Newcastle,

26 May 2007.

Ideas are the foundation stones in politics. And as with a house or building, the foundations are often hidden. Being aware of the foundations and examining their weaknesses and strengths is crucial to understand the more visible political superstructure.

So the organisers of today's talk are to be commended for putting a discussion of Mr Howard's ideas at the start of the agenda for today's discussion on the Workchoices laws.

The ideas behind Mr Howard and his Workchoice laws are fairly simple.

They are ideas which have become increasingly popular for the last 20 years - they are ideas based on the free market, or to put it more technically, they are the ideas of economic liberalism. Economic liberalism first emerged at least 200 years ago when the early merchants and traders want to throw off restrictions on commercial freedom.

These were ideas which first emerged on the recent world scene with Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s. They are ideas associated with what was called 'the new Right'. These ideas have been so successful that today no one uses the phrase 'New Right' anymore - because the ideas of free market and economic liberalism ARE the Right. They dominate the Right. As I say in my book Beyond Right and Left, this transformation of the Right by the single ideology of the free market actually opens up weaknesses for them. Certainly, the rejection of this by parts of the Old Right, such as former Prime Mnister Malcolm Fraser, is a significant indicator of this historic change.

Until recently Mr Howard's ideas on the free market have not really had a decent chance to show what they mean in practice. Until recently he did not have control of the Senate. So it is only now we are only just beginning to see what a true Howard government actually looks like.

What does it look like - when his ideas are put into practice?

To put it simply we are being pushed towards a free market in labour where labour is treated as any other commodity in a marketplace -- which means it will be bought and sold at whatever price it can get. Labour is on the road to deregulation, like the finance industry and banking sector.

But labour - human labour, otherwise known as our working lives - is not like other commodities. It is not like petrol, or eggs, or coal or iron ore.

Human labour is special because it is attached to a human being. The price of labour -- whether it goes up or down - affects the lives and potential of human beings. Once upon a time it affected whether people live or died. Today, a free market in labour will affect not only the lives of particular people, it will also shape and fashion the kind of society we live in the future.

Perhaps the most dramatic effect will be the creation of large, low paid underclass - something similar to what you see in the US - because those with least bargaining power, least education, least skill, will increasingly be at the mercy of those who want to buy labour as cheaply as possible. We can see this already happening before our eyes in the dozens of stories about people being given no choice but to sign AWAs which take away penalty rates, paid public holidays etc. The cumulative effect of this will be to create this impoverished underclass, and that in turn will affect everything and everyone else.

My point is that Howard's ideas, expressed in Workchoices, give us a foretaste of a different kind of future Australia, a different kind of society.

But what is happening to labour is a symbol of what is already happening more generally in our society. For a long while we have been moving towards a society in which the most supreme values are those of self interest and commercial freedom.

One of the things which happens in a society based on economic liberalism and the market is that things begin to lose what was once considered their intrinsic value. Their value is reduced to their commercial value -- a price at which something can be bought and sold.

It used to be thought that education and learning - and wisdom - had an intrinsic value. That is, that there was a general common good which was served by the increase in education - and if we were lucky an increase in wisdom. Universities used to be the place where this was meant to occur --But as those who work in universities know, universities are on the road to becoming a new kind of factory - producing commodities which are bought and sold in the market. Today universities are big earners of export income, they have a 'corporate brand'.

There are other obvious examples, like sport which is now a global billion dollar industry and whose intrinsic values of health, community participation and recreation are being eroded. And at the other end of the spectrum there is the value of the family friends and civil society which has an intrinsic value which cannot be measured in dollars and cents.

This process of increasing commercialisation is the latest development of our economic system which some have called the New Capitalism. It is a form of capitalism which is dynamic and productive and in which individuals must be mobile and flexible. It is a world in which all of us are simultaneously products and in which we are all consumers. It is what some have called a libertarian capitalism .

But today on two counts these ideas are failing and offer no long term solution, in fact they represent a threat.

First, as the governing logic of society, economic liberalism has a problem with purpose. What is the ultimate purpose of all this deregulation, of all this struggle to break down restrictions on commercial freedom? If you ask the theorists of economic liberalism , it boils down to the following: it is to create more products, to build higher growth and to develop freer trade and generally to infinitely expand commodity production. This, the assume, will satisfy human needs.

This is an extraordinarily narrow view of human beings. It is spiritually empty and it is amoral, meaning it is bereft of any moral purpose. But more importantly, apart from the fact that humans do not live by bread alone, it makes the fatal assumption that the planet can accommodate infinite expansion.

Second, the ideas of economic liberalism make a false assumption about the economy. These ideas developed in a world where the economy was defined as being wholly about raw materials, labour, money, capital, trade and so on.

But of late we have come to realise that the economy is much more that. The economy is a subset of the global environment. This is what provides not only the raw materials but the conditions which make life biologically possible.

An economy and a society both require an atmosphere which provides the right amount of warmth but not an excessive amount. An atmosphere is not a commodity. It cannot be bought and sold or replaced like another commodity. It has an intrinsic value because it sustains human life. Similarly for the oceans, land mass etc.

Such problems do not make sense in an ideology based on markets where the supreme value is commercial freedom.

Finally, to return to the start. Ideas are foundational in politics. The ideas which lie beneath Mr Hoard's deregulation of labour are part of a dominant set of ideas that have triumphed for the last two decades.

They are part of a right wing utopian vision which believes in a paradise of free markets. But like so many utopias this is a fundamentalist vision that will ultimately create its opposite. It could even help destroy the world as we know it.