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We are not all liberals now

An edited version of this essay was originally published by The Sunday Age on 7 September 2014.  This is re-published with full permission.

Public debate in Australia is in desperate need of repair. A new senator bizarrely tells a radio station that she wants a ‘well-hung’ partner, whilst a senior cabinet minister asserts that people have the ‘right to be bigots’. An indiscreet prime ministerial wink provokes twittergeddon. Sydney’s Festival of Dangerous Ideas schedules a discussion of the merits of Islamic ‘honour killings’.

Punted from the talkfest within 24 hours, Uthman Badar, spokesman for the radical Islamist group Hizb ut-Tahrir, complained of censorship by hypocritical ‘secular liberal Islamophobes’. He’s right in one respect. Australians do sometimes observe their commitment to liberalism more in the breach. That’s a good thing. Free speech is not absolute. Debating the merits of cold-blooded murder crossed a red line. Many felt uneasy with providing a platform for a man who, if so empowered, would almost certainly deny them the same courtesy.

Here is a suggestion for organisers of next year’s FODI. Hold a debate spruiking a genuinely dangerous idea. It’s time we questioned the pre-eminent ideology of our times. Invite Badar along if you like, because we really need to talk about liberalism.

It isn’t saying much to assert that over the past forty years politics across the West and elsewhere has witnessed the triumph of the ‘twin’ liberalisms. Beginning in the 1960s, the liberal left largely won the social/cultural argument. Society is more open, tolerant and permissive. From the 1980s onwards, the neo-liberal right triumphed on economic grounds. The market has largely usurped the interventionist state. The latter story is more complex in Australia where the Hawke-Keating Labor governments of the 1980s and 90s prevented the worst excesses of Thatcherism. The liberal ascendancy, however, transcends partisanship; modern Labor is, to borrow a cheeky phrase, a party equally fallen among liberals.

‘Liberalism is alive’, Maurice Glasman, a British Labour member of the House of Lords and ‘Blue Labour’ guru, colourfully remarked at a 2013 thinktank gathering, ‘and it is killing us’. Hyperbole of course but Glasman is basically right – modern liberalism is increasingly not enough for Britain or Australia.

What’s wrong with liberalism I hear you say? State socialism is dead, buried and cremated. So what if Francis Fukuyama was rather off the mark with his ‘End of History’ thesis? There is no viable alternative. But what if liberalism is not enough? Ultimately, both versions champion ‘negative liberty’, privileging individual rights and personal autonomy over human relationships – whether family or community or even those found in the workplace. Abstract values of freedom, choice and equality are preferred to notions of responsibility, duty and virtue. Neither variety of liberalism has very much to say about the people and places that we love: in other words, the essence of a good life and the foundations of a good society.

But listen carefully and one can hear the liberal consensus cracking. Post-global financial crisis politics is stuck in a rut and we know it. The language of mainstream politics has a soporific effect. The spectre of a resurgent far-right politics haunts Europe. Having (mostly) swapped their jackboots for swanky suits, Greece’s neo-Nazi Golden Dawn, Ukraine’s Svoboda, France’s National Front and Hungary’s Jobbik represent serious electoral threats to the mainstream parties of the left and right. Charismatic populist anti-politics politicians are all the rage. In Europe, one thinks of UKIP’s Nigel Farrage or the Italian comedian-cum-politician Beppe Grillo’s Five Star Movement. Australia has not been immune. In the case of Clive Palmer, it appears that Queenslanders are less to here to help than entertain.

There is another way: it’s called postliberalism. A wonkish term to be sure, but with much to offer. Its ethos can be discerned in the post-Cold War ‘Third Way’ politics of social democrats such as Tony Blair, Gerhard Schroeder and even Bill Clinton. Some call it communitarianism rebooted. Postliberalism’s central claims echo the ancient traditions of civic republicanism, elegantly restated of late by Philip Pettit’s book Just Freedom: A Moral Compass for a Complex World.

It is in post-global financial crisis Britain that postliberalism has generated most interest, attracting supporters from across the party political divide. Philip Blond’s ‘Red Toryism’, a key influence upon David Cameron’s ‘Big Society’, is one expression. Up-and-coming Conservative MP Jesse Norman is a supporter.

On the other side, Glasman and Jon Cruddas, head of British Labour’s policy review, are unabashed postliberals. Ed Miliband is attracted to its ideas. A postliberal ethic is evident in the writings of former British Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks. Former Labor leader Mark Latham’s views once sat comfortably within the postliberal tent.

What does postliberalism have to say precisely? One high-profile advocate, David Goodhart, director of London’s left-leaning Demos think-tank, writes in his influential recent essay ‘A Postliberal Future?’ that postliberalism wants to fix the ‘unintended consequences of economic and social liberalism’ – the fact that despite being freer and richer, many of us seem to be less happy. Postliberalism believes in individual rights and liberties but recognises that without secure, settled lives surrounded by love and recognition, occupied by purposeful activity, individuals cannot truly flourish as human beings. Stability, continuity and familiarity are its watchwords; a love of family, community and patriotism are not to be sneered at.

Crucially, postliberalism seeks to move the political debate beyond the individualist/collectivist dichotomy. People are seen at once as competitive and co-operative, as well as selfish and altruistic. ‘With their emphasis on freedom from constraint the two liberalisms have had too little to say about our dependence on each another’, insists Goodhart. ‘They have taken for granted the glue that holds society together and have preferred regulations and targets to tending to the institutions that help to shape us.’ More controversially, Goodhart alleges that a gulf exists between ‘elite’ middle-class liberals and the postliberal communitarianism of what he sees as the overwhelming majority of ‘ordinary voters’.

Clearly, Goodhart’s essay is based upon the British experience, where the GFC and immigration are more visceral political issues. But there are lessons for Australia, despite two decades of uninterrupted economic growth. And therein lies the rub. The two liberalisms have not necessarily made us happier. Witness the unprecedented reports of loneliness and depression, record rates of divorce and family breakdown. The implications of the ‘ice’ epidemic, especially in rural communities, are only just beginning to be glimpsed. Sociability and neighbourliness are in serious decline. Australians are less trusting of their fellow citizens but also more sceptical of the ability of government to deliver services or solve complex problems.

Nor have the twin liberalisms necessarily made the populace richer, certainly in relative terms. The richest 1% of Australians owns the same wealth as the bottom 60%. Too much of our economic debate occurs in a moral vacuum. Productivity is talked about as an end in of itself. There was something nihilistic about the manner in which the Abbott government effectively killed off the nation’s car manufacturing industry – as if we could not afford to consider the impact on individuals, families and communities of mass job losses and flow-on effect to the wider economy. None ofn us are ‘liberated’ by such change, as Tony Abbott would have it.

Ironically, as government retreats from the economy, power is increasingly centralised in Canberra’s corridors – and it becomes easier for vested interests to distort policymaking. Consider, too, the power wielded by the supermarket duopoly of Coles and Woolworths, as Malcolm Knox revealed in the August edition of The Monthly. ‘Coles and Woolworths want to own everything’, Knox notes of the duo, ‘People might think they’re supermarkets, but they’re the petrol stations, the convenience stores, the bottle shops, the hardware stores, and everybody else …’ In short, we are witnessing the unprecedented concentration of power within both state and market. Bold thinking is urgently required. Postliberalism may well provide answers to some of our biggest and most pressing problems.

Do not misunderstand my argument. The liberalisation of our society was generally a good thing. Few would want to turn the clock to an Australia of the six o’clock swill, inequality for women, ethnic minorities and gay people, cultural conformity and crude economic protectionism. There is no undoing globalisation. Nor is this an argument against the market economy or a Trojan horse for attacking individual rights. As Goodhart suggests: ‘Postliberalism is comfortable with the “individualism plus rights” basis of modern politics but wants to balance it with ideas that mainstream liberalism has neglected: the value of stability and continuity in communities, character, the dignity of labour.’ It is simply time we take stock of decades of liberalisation. ‘The 1960s and the 1980s were not mistakes, they are just not enough. For the big questions in politics today are less about individual rights and more about the nature of our institutions and the quality of our relationships.’

Postliberalism clearly has its weak spots. Its focus, at least as seen in the work of Goodhart, on the evils of some tertiary-educated metropolitan liberal elite whose life-experiences and values are opposed by the silent, often-religious majority is too simplistic and ill-fitted to the Australian experience. The tertiary-educated have families too and the last time I checked are also burdened by many of the same work/life pressures. In any case postliberalism is not a monolithic creature. Amongst its adherents there are different emphasises placed on rights and liberties, varying degrees of attachment to socially conservative beliefs, and divergent attitudes towards how much of the liberal project of the past four decades ought to be overturned in favour of, say, communitarian ideas.

How does postliberalism actually transform into the real world of policy I hear you ask? Relationships or ‘relational politics’ are crucial. A postliberal politics calls for a new grand compact between the market, state and civil society. This compact – call it an accord, if you like – needs to be built from the bottom-up by communities working in tandem with government. We arguably need less government policy, better implemented. In general terms, what is called for is a shift away from the dominant economic model of today. An order based on short-term profits and pure price competition should be abandoned in favour of sustainable, profitable industries centred on quality, innovation and environmental obligations, and which in turn provides for fulfilling, secure and well-paid employment.

The key is to re-embed markets in social institutions. Take the jobs crisis. There is much talk today of a productivity emergency. For the most part this is a confected crisis designed to usher in a new round of workplace law deregulation, which can only exacerbate the real labour market crisis. Unemployment is at a 10 year high with 747,300 Australians out of work in July. Youth unemployment sits at 13%. The underemployed are estimated to number 1.1 million, hardly surprising given that the formal measurement of employment requires one hour of work per week. Good jobs are increasingly being replaced by low-skill, low-wage insecure work that lacks dignity and meaningful career progression.  Part-timers, casuals, outworkers and contractors make up 40 per cent of the workforce (and are thus denied non-wage benefits such as annual leave). These trends are eroding the security of family life and probably harming the holy grail of productivity.

What is needed is an Australian version of the German social market. One idea is making compulsory the appointment of employees on company boards to ensure a fairer distribution of rewards and imbuing management with vocational knowledge of what actually works on the shopfloor. We need to be thinking about the establishment of work council-style arrangements to boost productivity and actually tackle issues around childcare, transport and flexible work.

Instead of talking about the ‘minimum wage’ the debate ought to be reframed in terms of a ‘living wage’: a ‘fair day’s pay means time for parents to spend with their children and engage locally. Another solution to the jobs crisis is drastically increasing the volume and quality of vocational education, linked more closely to labour market entry in the form of subsided private sector apprenticeships. Such a strategy would partly obviate the need for the much-abused 457 visa scheme. Here, employers’ groups and chambers of commerce could play a critical role. Instead of lobbying for Work Choices-style legislation, they could act as a conduit between government, vocational education providers, unions and business.

These kinds of institutional arrangements and a stress on regional banking and investment in long-run profitable businesses have made Germany’s economy dynamic and resilient and its society more egalitarian and democratic. Whereas Australian manufacturing lies in tatters, Germany, which actively supports its industries, is the world’s third-largest exporter. This is an economy built upon workers, companies and government taking a long-term view of the economic common good, rather than chasing a quick buck or bashing unions for political gain. Granted, as Frank Bongiorno notes in a perceptive essay on Blue Labour, post-World War Two Germany did not develop these institutions by accident. Modell Deutschland is the result of a particular historical experience radically different from our own, namely fascism. Codetermination in Germany also arose as an alternative to the nationalisation of industry pursued in Britain in the context of the role played by the occupying power, America. Any Australian adoption of its central ideas, therefore, will need to be calibrated with local circumstances.

Another policy issue is the scandal that is utility prices. As the Australia Institute pointed out last year, the electricity privatisations of the 1990s in Victoria have not worked. The cost of electricity has increased by 170 per cent from 1995 to 2012, four times that of the CPI index. Rather than simply calling for these price-gouging cowboys to be returned to state ownership – New South Wales and Queensland prices follow the same trend and are both publicly-owned – these essential services need to be run in a radically new way. Again, the institution idea of codetermination, whereby employees and consumers also have a say in the operation of their utility companies, including decisions made in relation to investment in poles and wires, and thus price setting, is one potential solution.

Outside of economics, a postliberal politics would devolve the control of services to allow families and communities a real say. Education is ripe for devolution. As Glasman has suggested in relation to the British system, decision-making power ought to be more evenly spread, for instance board of management arrangements where ‘A third of power [resides] with parents, so that the schools are genuinely places where they have power over the education for their children; a third with the teachers so that we can really honour the vocation and expertise of teachers and then a third with the funder, whether that would be the local authority or the state.’ The ultimate goal ought to be creating schools that are not merely tailored towards churning out more productive, high-income earning units – but yielding more rounded, resilient students and stronger, more cohesive communities. 

There is no reason why this logic should not apply to community banking, or the provision of childcare, health and welfare. What may be required to accomplish this is a complete rethink of our political structures. While those colonial-era throwbacks, the states, are unlikely to be tossed into the ashtray of history, we could give greater powers to capital city and regional councils – a nod to Gough Whitlam’s new federalism – in terms of the provision of key public goods.

Can postliberalism prosper in Australia? Whilst postliberalism ostensibly cuts across the left/right divide it is difficult to see the market fundamentalists, oddball libertarians and big ‘C’ conservatives who presently constitute the Liberal-National parties coming to grips with postliberalism, even if it does speak to some of the historic concerns of the Deakinite and Menzian liberalism. The so-called conservative intelligentsia is obsessed with pursuing prosaic culture wars. The Greens may be attracted to aspects of its community-activist agenda and free-market scepticism, but its ‘messy’ attitude to ‘doing’ politics will likely prevent any serious embrace by a party which seems ideologically set in its ways.

Which leaves us with Labor. It should be a no-brainer. Postliberalism is in Labor’s DNA. It reaches back to Labor’s lost traditions of ethical, non-statist socialism and even the earlier influence of Catholic social teaching. For instance, writing in 1909, Labor MP, union leader and Methodist lay-preacher William Spence argued that his party’s focus was ‘the bread and butter question’, but he maintained that it was also ‘dominated by two moral convictions: the Ethic of Usefulness and the Ethic of Fellowship’. With Labor in power, Spence envisaged the creation of ‘an active and enlightened democracy’ in Australia. Shorter working hours and better wages were not ends in of themselves, but would allow citizens to participate in family and community life, voluntary organisations and politics. Spence wanted to create a good life for all based upon an understanding that markets needed regulation but that governments alone could not solve all ills. Spence was alert to one of liberalism’s blind-spots: it can’t conceptualise that democratic, self-governing voluntary institutions – unions for example – can constrain the power of the market just as well as the state, in turn strengthening both liberty and society.

Granted, many Laborites will be uncomfortable with devolving power and not reflexively thinking, in Cruddas’s words, of politics as a vision of how ‘the state does things to or for people’. A critique of markets is familiar territory, but rethinking liberalism’s stress on individual autonomy and the universalism of abstract rights is more problematic. Most frightening may be the idea that politics begins with people, and engages with their deepest desires, fears and prejudices. Politics is not about cobbling together focus-group policies to be ticked off at the ballot box. Nor, as ex-Labor leader Mark Latham argues in his new book The Political Bubble, should it be about outsourcing democracy to independent statutory bodies.

Does Labor have the courage to embrace postliberalism? Its federal leader Bill Shorten (disclaimer – he is my former boss) isn’t a man much bothered with ‘isms’, even if he subscribes to the much of what could be considered liberal creed.  However, maiden and valedictory speeches often encourage politicians to say what they really think. The leitmotiv of Shorten’s speech was people. ‘How to achieve a long, meaningful life in a rapidly changing world’, Shorten informed federal parliament in 2008, ‘is one of the great themes of our new century.’ In fact, talk of ‘meaningful lives’ popped up several times. More recently, addressing the University of Melbourne’s Economic and Social Outlook conference, Shorten said he was a reformer ‘because I believe in the things that have to be done to make people’s lives better’. Yet he also told a room filled with the high-priests of liberalism that he was a ‘conserver — a conserver because I want to save what is great about our nation.’

This is the kind of thinking postliberals are insisting upon. It is about rediscovering a public language around what it means to live a good life, a genuine national conversation in other words. Now that’s a dangerous idea.

About Nick Dyrenfurth

Nick Dyrenfurth

Nick Dyrenfurth is the author or editor of several books on Australian politics, culture and history, including A Little History of the Australian Labor Party (2011, with Frank Bongiorno, co-published with the Chifley Research Centre). His latest book, Mateship: A Very Australian History is forthcoming next year through Scribe.

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