neoliberalism

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Fresh audio product

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Sat, 31/07/2021 - 8:02am in

Just added to my radio archive (click on date for link):

July 29, 2021 Rupa Marya and Raj Patel, authors of Inflamed, on the social and ecological causes of disease • Robert Pollin, co-author of this article, on the role of giant bailouts in neoliberalism and the greatness of Hyman Minsky

Review of Anne Applebaum, ‘Twilight of Democracy: The Seductive Lure of Authoritarianism’

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Thu, 29/07/2021 - 6:00am in

I suppose that many people throughout the world were, whether they realized it at the time or not, Fukuyamaists in roughly the first decade following the collapse of the Berlin Wall in 1989. During this period, it really did seem like a nascent spirit of neoliberal modernity was spreading throughout the world and heralding the opening of nations and markets. From 2001 onwards, of course, all of this would begin to collapse. First there was 9/11, incorrectly perceived and promoted as a “clash of civilizations”, which triggered a series of misprosecuted US-backed wars throughout the Middle East. Then there was the devastating international financial crash of 2008, which paved the way for Brexit, Trumpism, and the host of reactionary nationalisms now plaguing the geopolitical community. Today, even Fukuyama is no longer a Fukuyamaist in the traditional sense given his recent acknowledgement that “certain things Karl Marx said are turning out to be true” and his expression of support for the return of basic socialized initiatives.

In light of these factors, reading journalist Anne Applebaum’s latest book, Twilight of Democracy: The Seductive Lure of Authoritarianism (2020), was a somewhat strange experience for me. Throughout this well-written little book, Applebaum justly indicts the rise of reactionary authoritarian nationalisms all over the world while expressing virtually unwavering faith in the Fukuyamaist neoliberal ideals of the past. In this regard, she is somewhat of a nostalgic, though, I would argue, one of the worst variety given that she seems virtually unaware of just how naïve her Centre-Right faith in the thoroughly discredited ideology of neoliberalism now appears. In essence, while Applebaum is a trenchant critic of the current symptoms that now register our global ailment, she fails to correctly diagnose the disease itself, which is the toxic, unsustainable system of neoliberal capitalism that kicked into high gear following the collapse of the Berlin Wall back in 1989.

Applebaum opens her book by recalling a New Year’s Eve party that she and her husband, Radoslaw Sikorski, threw for a group of journalist and political friends at their Poland manor house – yes, you read that correctly – back in 1999, which anyone old enough to remember was indeed the year that we all did “party like it’s 1999”. Whether Applebaum realizes it or not, what comes across in this section is her own enormous sense of bourgeois bohemian privilege. Describing her circle of friends, she writes, “[A]t that moment in history, you might have called most of us liberals. Free-market liberals, classical liberals, maybe Thatcherites” (2). I must admit that Applebaum’s willingness here to acknowledge her Thatcherite leanings simultaneously shocked and compelled me. Shocked, because, to acknowledge my own political leanings, I have published a Stuart Hall-influenced academic essay vociferously indicting Thatcherism and exploring how it aligns with some of the reactionary authoritarian populist currents now plaguing Britain and the wider geopolitical community. Compelled, because, well, to be candid, I had actually forgotten how Thatcher was historically viewed as somewhat of a hero to many Poles who had vociferously opposed the system of totalitarian communism that had dominated their nation. After all, as demonstrated in the documentary The Shock Doctrine (2009), which is based on Naomi Klein’s superlative 2007 book, The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism, Thatcher had been feted as a hero by many Poles when she met with Lech Walesa, the leader of the anti-communist trade union movement Solidarity, during her visit to Poland in 1988.

Perhaps because of her second-hand knowledge of the horrors of totalitarian communism given her status as an American-born Pole who later moved to Poland in the wake of communism’s demise there, Applebaum maintains a justified deep-rooted skepticism of regimes that claim to speak “for the people.” In this respect, however, she largely fails to differentiate democratic progressive populism from that of the reactionary authoritarian variety, though this is not the main problem that I divine with her book. I am, after all, in basic agreement with Applebaum’s implicit “horseshoe theory” premise that totalitarianism has historically emerged when either extremist Left (e.g., Leninism) or extremist Right (e.g., Hitler’s fascism) regimes have altogether dwarfed the notion of individual rights and desires in the name of sham “collectivist” appeals (23-24).

To put it bluntly, my main problem with Applebaum’s book is that it betrays the questionable worldview of its author, who is in my opinion too much a byproduct of her privileged milieu and educational background to recognize how her intense faith in notions of individualized meritocracy often come across as being alarmingly naïve. For example, when Applebaum essentially praises free market neoliberalism by writing, “A rigged and uncompetitive system sounds bad if you want to live in a society run by the talented” (27), I found myself thinking of the grand American progressive populist critic Chris Hedges, who in his book Empire of Illusion: The End of Literacy and the Triumph of the Spectacle (2009), writes, “The real purpose of the richly endowed schools is to perpetuate their own. They do this even as they pretend to embrace the ideology of the common man, trumpet diversity on campus, and pose as a meritocracy” (98).

Is there not a sense in which “meritocratic” America is also, to use Applebaum’s phrase, “rigged”? Are we really to believe, for example, that the American socioeconomic system was functioning healthily under Obama, who was obviously a far better leader than Trump but essentially neoliberal “lite” in terms of his policy orchestrations? I here again turn to Hedges, who in Empire of Illusion, critiques Obama, for whom I have qualified admiration, as being a byproduct of an Ivy League-system predicated on fostering a sense of entitlement and faith in au courant technocratic “wisdom”: “Obama is a product of this elitist system. So are his degree-laden cabinet ministers. They come out of Harvard, Yale, Wellesley, and Princeton. . . . They speak the same easy language of entitlement. The education they have obtained has served to rigidify and perpetuate social stratification” (113).

If there is a key flaw in Applebaum’s overall line of reasoning throughout Twilight of Democracy, it is that she is too prone to simply attribute our current global disharmony to people having lost faith in the reigning neoliberal system of governance. In essence, she does not spend much time reflecting on why people have lost faith, thereby paving the way for opportunistic reactionary populist “leaders” like Trump and Hungary’s Viktor Orbán to seize power in order to realize their Machiavellian aims. With specific regard to her birth nation of America, Applebaum, after justly alluding to some of the limitations that inhered in the Enlightenment ideals of the founding fathers (143), proceeds to write the following ahistorical comments, which caused my jaw to drop: “But what really made American patriotism unique, both then [the Enlightenment] and later, was the fact that it was never explicitly connected to a single ethnic identity with a single origin in a single space” (144). This is a remarkably glib analysis considering America’s historical Calvinist foundational socioreligious values and WASP socioeconomic infrastructure, which continue to influence contemporary American notions of meritocracy and their relation to America’s neoliberal cultural-political-economic value system.

The issue is not that America and other nations have slid dangerously close to neo-fascism due to a paranoid loss of a shared cultural-political-economic consensus, but rather that the entire US exported and coordinated system of neoliberalism has now mutated into something so grotesquely unjust that it has corrupted entire national body politics, thereby threatening the very prospect of healthy internationalism. How, precisely, such a knowledgeable, experienced, and well-traveled journalist as Applebaum misses this issue is, frankly, beyond me, as she provides one of the best critical diagnoses of Trumpism that I have yet read. As Applebaum points out, Trump, with the advice of his then chief strategist Steve Bannon, seized the 2016 electoral conjuncture by fomenting a faux “revolutionary” appeal that manipulated ostensible Left and Right elements: “By 2016, some of the old elements of the Marxist Left – their hatred of ordinary, bourgeois politics and their longing for revolutionary change – met and mingled with the Christian right’s despair about the future of American democracy” (152).

Compellingly, Applebaum marshals well-documented evidence to demonstrate how Bannon, who despite being insidious is actually a highly educated and remarkably well-read man, has in the past compared himself to Lenin (152) and channeled the revolutionary sentiments of the extremist-Left 1970s Weathermen group (152-153). The point here is not that Trump had any significant appeal to contemporary radical Left voters (though he did win some 6-9 million former Obama voters in 2016), but rather that he marshaled a reactionary authoritarian populist campaign predicated on fomenting open disgust with the very process of democratic politics itself. Trump was not operating in the legitimate, historically grounded American tradition of a progressive populist like Howard Zinn, author of A People’s History of the United States (1980), or Bernie Sanders, who sought to ignite a socially progressive democratic uprising oriented towards building a more just, multicultural cosmopolitan America that could potentially foment a socialistic form of internationalism. No, Trump’s appeals were predicated on a logic of destruction and contempt for the very process of democratic politics itself. To this end, Trump did receive indirect support from some elements of the American extremist Left via their apathetic refusal to participate in democratic politics and their eagerness to see the nation-state burn under his dangerous reactionary appeals, which they saw as a necessary destructive step towards the realization of their revolutionary ambitions. Applebaum here makes a valid observation about how the messianic faith of the American evangelical Right bears a similarity to the teleological “end-of-history” beliefs of certain extremist Left cults, which I have personally researched in the past.

The ultimate letdown for me with Applebaum’s book was its ending, which ties back to her opening recollections of partying away back on New Year’s Eve in 1999 with her bourgeois bohemian Centre-Right friends. Discussing an August 2019 party thrown at her Poland manor house, she gushes about the array of people invited. The section is so, well, priceless that I feel the need to partially quote from it here:

Some of the guests were familiar. One friend who came from New York in 1999 returned in 2019, this time with his husband and son. . . . There were others, too, including neighbours from the village, the mayors of some nearby towns, and, again, a small group of friends from abroad, flying in from Houston, London, Istanbul. At one point, I noticed the local forest ranger engaged in heated discussion with the former Swedish foreign minister, Carl Bildt, with whom my husband created the Eastern Partnership between the EU and Ukraine several years earlier. At another point, I saw a well-known lawyer, the grandson of a notorious Polish nationalist of the 1930s, engrossed in conversation with a London-based friend who was born in Ghana. In the previous two decades, the world had shrunk sufficiently for all of them to meet one another in the same rural Polish garden. (180)

Applebaum then proceeds to altogether reject the admittedly debatable “Somewheres” and “Anywheres” distinction (180), attributed to the heterodox progressive journalist David Goodhart, noting, “At our party, it was simply not possible to tell who belonged to which category” (180).

Disregarding for the moment how Applebaum acknowledges having at least one legitimate working-class person at her party in the form of “the local forest ranger” (180), it is hard to ignore how she takes pleasure in, consciously or not, drawing attention to her social capital by citing the well-connected international coterie of people who make up her circle of friends. This passage alone, rife with bourgeois bohemian privilege, permanently marred for me what was an otherwise engaging read and detracted from some of the better points of Applebaum’s subsequent ruminations, in which she astutely notes,

The liberalism of John Stuart Mill, Thomas Jefferson, or Václav Havel [a hero to me] never promised anything permanent. The checks and balances of Western constitutional democracies never guaranteed stability. Liberal democracies have always demanded things from citizens: participation, argument, effort, struggle. They always required some tolerance for cacophony and chaos, as well as some willingness to push back at the people who create cacophony and chaos. (189)

Applebaum’s problem is that she elides serious consideration of how neoliberalism has facilitated Trumpism and other reactionary politics. She essentially presents these political matters as cultural issues that emanate from xenophobia, “fake news,” and the increasing polarization created by tribalized online media, thereby implying that the problem is a loss of faith in the consensus-based politics of the past.

It is not that I disagree with many of Applebaum’s cultural critiques, which are generally trenchant. My issue is that she fails to discuss neoliberalism and recognize how it in itself is a cultural-political-economic ideology that is the key driver behind the destruction of our international community and environmental ecosystem. Here I am actually in deep sympathy with some of Applebaum’s pronounced skepticisms about the reductive, vulgar “base-superstructure” Marxist orthodoxies of the past. Complexity thinking will be the key to a more just, sustainable international system, which will clearly require the sort of “glocalized” collaboration to which Applebaum fleetingly alludes. In order to achieve a true sense of democratic “glocalism,” however, we will have to find innovative ways of creating the possibilities for the measure of a leisured life for all.

Such a process will not be found in “cultural solutions” alone such as Bobo-chic Robin DiAngelo-style racial bias seminars and mandatory HR diversity training for the “proletariat.” Chiefly, it will require an entirely reconfigured international economic system that allows for ethical consumption, entrepreneurial energies, and socialized or at least socialistic provisions that will address unemployment, underemployment, and precarity. This will allow working people throughout the international community to have the necessary leisure time to nurture their intellectual curiosity and altruistic dimensions. It will help ensure that they do not anxiously perceive recent immigrants and migrants as racial and/or ethnic Others who pose existential and socioeconomic threats to their own security, but instead welcome them as fellow human beings who should be treated with openness, compassion, and respect. Such a course of action would, it seems to me, be in keeping with much of Applebaum’s Enlightenment-bequeathed faith in progress and development. After all, as that perfectly self-aware rascal and American founding father Benjamin Franklin noted, “Time is money” (129), though perhaps not in the sense that many naïve neoliberal-minded Americans have come to think.

Cover image: Donald Trump and President of Poland, Andrzej Duda

The post Review of Anne Applebaum, ‘Twilight of Democracy: The Seductive Lure of Authoritarianism’ appeared first on Progress in Political Economy (PPE).

This Is How Universities Die…

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Fri, 23/07/2021 - 3:02pm in

What lies behind the ruthless exploitation of higher education?

Renegade Inc. host, Ross Ashcroft, met up with Author and Professor of Organisation Studies at Sydney's University of Technology, Peter Fleming, to discuss.

The post This Is How Universities Die… appeared first on Renegade Inc.

This Is How Universities Die…

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Fri, 23/07/2021 - 3:02pm in

What lies behind the ruthless exploitation of higher education?

Renegade Inc. host, Ross Ashcroft, met up with Author and Professor of Organisation Studies at Sydney's University of Technology, Peter Fleming, to discuss.

The post This Is How Universities Die… appeared first on Renegade Inc.

Care in the Time of COVID

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Thu, 22/07/2021 - 3:02am in

The long-discounted chains of dependency in caring for humans and environment

In the midst of the smoke, fire and tragedy-filled days of early 2020 it seemed for a while impossible to imagine that resuming ‘normal’ life would ever make any sense. Climate change was upon us, searing, terrifying, deadly. Then COVID-19 came to fulfil half-made promises of radical change. Sheltering in place, working from home, the ‘new normal’ at first seemed likely to realise a decoupling from frenzied lives that had too little time left for care. 

So many desires for change flowed through this time. Long periods of watching each other only through screens connected us in new ways, even as it allowed us to glimpse a human withdrawal from the world, leaving the environmental home we have plundered to recover for a while. We witnessed wildlife reclaim the emptied streets and cities, while mountains emerging on city horizons freed from smog appeared as implacable witnesses of our transience. As we have waited for ‘normal life’ to return and release us, many have hoped that this momentary withdrawal means that the economies and politics that devour our planetary home may be reset. 

In a set of short reflections by artists on what the pandemic means for their practice, Anuradha Vikram offers a list of common beliefs challenged by the virus, including that

  • [w]orkers need to convene for a third of their waking lives or operations will derail; 
  • smog is just part of living in cities; 
  • culture is about visiting and caring for objects; 
  • childcare is something that happens outside the workplace…

The sense that the pandemic opens new potentialities and allows new aspirations forms an identifiable arc of responses to its meaning. Among the many things that could be said about the metaphorical load the virus bears is its appearance as an agent of change. 

Indeed, as a disease of populations more than of individuals, like the 1918 influenza pandemic to which it is most often compared, COVID-19 readily appears as the companion and aftermath of a kind of civilisation-ending moment. At both a grand and an intimate scale it raises profound questions of mutual obligation, of vulnerability to others, and of intergenerational justice. Its spread is driven by behaviour, including defiance of the constraints that containment demands, but also by the invisible traces of breath in air, signalling an implacable and involuntary community. It is a disease of the communal intimacy of bodies in constant but unseen gaseous exchange, but also a disease of inequalities. Described as ‘indiscriminate’ in its targets, the virus has in fact raised public awareness of racial and gendered distributions and unequal burdens of death and disadvantage. The virus is embedded in a narrative of planetary scale in terms of its sociopolitical agency, yet its inevitable impact on the home provokes deep questions about the places, routines and order of everyday things.

‘Pandemic’ derives etymologically from pandemospan, everywhere, among the demos, the people. This ‘everywhere’ has been managed through lockdowns and borders, but it has also posed thorny questions about where the responsibilities for care fall. Care for the elderly became a divisive question when the price of preserving lives was calculated against the economic cost of a lockdown. The ugliness of this debate reflected long patterns of neglect, entrenched in scandalously underfunded aged care. However, the social solidarity that rejected such calculation was also on show. Care has displayed this double face throughout the crisis: as a residual site of deep connection, the common air of vulnerability we breathe is at odds with the priorities of economic systems that foster and feed off a faith in individualism that denies and devalues the needs and dependencies that care addresses. 

When the lockdowns began in March 2020 and paid work was abruptly moved into the home in response to the global COVID-19 pandemic, the leadership line was ‘we’re all in this together’. Yet the kind of productivity that counted in GDP was to be maintained where possible. Notably, those whose work in the home is not counted as work picked up considerable extra hours. As schools closed, for some life changed more than for others. In what was optimistically named ‘home schooling’ working parents had to supervise quickly thrown-together lessons, presented on Zoom by harried teachers. Many of the teachers were themselves doing double time managing their own children. For some, it meant squeezing a corner of space to work in a cleared-out wardrobe or on a shared kitchen table. Time also had to be found for shopping and the preparation of three times the usual amount of food for families stuck at home. And for some, it meant being trapped with partners who responded to stress with controlling or violent behaviour.

As working from home was mandated, distorting metrics for counting productive work while discounting care were shaping policy responses, just as they have long shaped exploitation of the equally undervalued environment. The tax and transfer arrangements which are an extensive underpinning of economic life and play a significant role in shaping women’s fates regard the home as a cost-less resource. Many of the other ways in which we think about ‘work-life balance’ or ‘flexible work’ have as their implicit background inequitable and inefficient ways of ‘not counting’ work, especially women’s work, both in the care economy and in the home. A very significant range of assumptions shaped the ease with which the decision to move (paid) work into the home was made, and they framed the invisibility of its imposition on those who stepped up to mitigate the crisis. The backgrounds of both requirement and adaptation have roots that run deep in the gendered organisation of care and responsibility. If home was ‘free’, it was also a standing reserve for appropriation in an emergency. The way a home often functions as a site of gendered relations of care and labour did not form a point of consideration in planning. Instead, by taking employee flexibility for granted, and presenting working from home as a privilege offered by generous employers, rapid adaptation was simply required as the price of keeping a job. 

In the COVID-19 crisis that enveloped the world, lockdown served valid ends. But aside from this instrumental question, what did its gestures assert about power: the power to use, to extract value? How did it deepen entitlements that are linked to systemic violence against women, notably as these flow through the individualism supported by economic systems that both exploit and devalue care work? Although lockdown measures have been opposed by some, there has been no large-scale opposition to state mandates requiring work to take place from home. Indeed, the risk of losing jobs altogether has loomed large, making those working from home seem lucky. Employers appeared flexible and generous in ‘allowing’ working from home, rather than being seen as demanding the use of the home and its care. Yet the arrangement nonetheless asserted the power to use, to take, and to validate the needs that drive the act of taking. What I have elsewhere described as an act of requisitioning the home gave a distinctive political form to the emergency. 

The most insidious and prevalent forms of violence are those that cannot be seen. Often their systemic form is masked by ideas about the responsibility of agents whose actions are thereby extracted from wider conditions and sequences. In her recent book on violence against women Jacqueline Rose draws attention to a press photograph of a group of white men in dark suits, looking on as their president signs an executive order banning US state funding for groups anywhere in the world offering abortion or advice to those seeking it. No more funding, that’s all. This is, for Rose, a paradigmatic instance of quiet complicity in misogyny. The ‘global gag rule’ with which Trump inaugurated his presidency did not have the same shock value, perhaps, as his more overtly sexist behaviour, yet it meant an increase in deaths by illegal abortion for thousands of women throughout the developing world.

The misogyny expressed in such an order is not only casual but tied to a sense of office and duty. For those who signed or approved the executive order, the consequences of their actions, far downstream, may constitute deeply traumatic lived realities, yet these they need not trouble themselves about. Any thought about consequence is blocked by imagining that what they do is ‘morally right’—protecting the rights of the innocent unborn. Those who sign will not be among those who care for the women who must give birth or seek unsafe abortions, nor will they be among those to care for the infants if and when they are born. Here the invisibility of care, the uncounted nature of its costs and risks and who bears them, is also a support for the invisibility of systemic violence. Violence is a form of entitlement, as Rose also remarks: entitlement to a protected place in the distribution of costs and risks, entitlement to use violence with casual impunity, entitlement to a schema of selective visibility and to the disappearance of inconvenient truths. To remain entitled depends on all of this, upon distribution, impunity and invisibility remaining as they are.    

Recognising misogyny as an aspect of individual behaviour can be in tension with recognising these wider structural aspects. The present focus on misogyny in Australia’s parliament has concerned acts ranging from sexual violence to the everyday disrespect that women encounter in the workplace. The prime minister, after failing for many weeks to grasp the seriousness of any of these issues, ordered a taskforce into being under the leadership of the Minister for Women, Marise Payne, who had, to that time, issued no media statement at all on the parliamentary scandals. The composition of the taskforce tells a tale whereby being a woman is supposed to be in itself a sufficient opposition to misogynistic culture. 

Among the key players in this taskforce is Superannuation Minister Jane Hume. Just days before the taskforce’s establishment, she had tried to push through a policy in which women who were fleeing domestic violence could access money from their own super funds to support themselves and their children. The redoubling of their victimisation by ‘allowing’ them to take out money intended for their already underfunded retirement (generally, women’s superannuation holdings are far smaller than men’s) met protest and was dropped. Yet Hume was invited to take on the task of promoting ‘Women’s Economic Security’. Social Services Minister Anne Ruston, who presided over the return to poverty of thousands after rescinding benefits made available during the most disruptive phases of the pandemic, became responsible for ‘Women’s Safety’. Since Ruston has denied there is a measurable poverty line at all, let alone one below which many Australians fall, there is considerable irony in this role too. For poverty condemns many women to insecure lives, and to remaining in unsafe homes. The Assistant Minister for Women, Amanda Stoker, meanwhile, is a prominent critic of abortion rights, is a sceptic about reported levels of rape on university campuses and has been dismissive of the very claim to existence of transgender people, treating this as an illegitimate ‘choice’ of gender. Stoker was immediately called out for her willingness to accuse women of playing the ‘gender card’ and her support for people such as Bettina Arndt speaking up for men’s rights against alleged feminist overreach. 

The reasons for the inception of the taskforce (which amount to a crisis response to recent government failings in managing public perceptions, as much as anything else) risk keeping the debate at a level of judgement on right or wrong, appropriate or inappropriate behaviour. Although the wider questions of gender inequality have certainly been flagged, too little regard is given to factors such as poverty, or the more profound ways that gendered and racial distributions of entitlement and privilege are maintained through a fundamental devaluing of the kind of care work that women still predominantly do. To this extent, it seems likely that questions of violence will only be superficially addressed as they affect the majority of women in Australia. 

Yet perhaps there is cause for hope. Care has become visible in a new way during the COVID-19 crisis. The availability and limits of care have become part of the stakes of the crisis. The question of who provides it and how under ordinary conditions of life has become an issue that also matters. The providers of the supports of ‘normal life’ are often the lowest paid, and they have become noticed only as their usually backgrounded roles undergo disruption. It is also evident that, as they were required to remain at home during periods of lockdown, men have participated in care in new ways. At the same time, however, huge setbacks to previous progress on gender equality have been remarked everywhere in the world where the pandemic has brought lockdowns, as women have given up jobs to take on new burdens of care in the home, or have lost jobs in disproportionate numbers in work such as hospitality. How will our ‘taskforce’ tie these many threads together?

It is all too easy to divide them. On the very same day on which Julia Gillard made her now world-famous speech condemning misogyny, the Social Security Legislation Amendment (Fair Incentives to Work) Act 2012 was passed by the parliament she led. The Act ensured that as of 1 January 2013 those recipients of the Parenting Payment who were partnered would cease to be eligible for the payment once their youngest child turned six years old, or eight, in the case of single parents. Most of these parents would instead be moved onto Newstart, the general job-seekers’ allowance. Labor’s 2012 amendment removed a ‘grandfathered’ protection from single parents who had received single-parent benefits from before 2006, and were previously entitled to them until their children turned sixteen. The amendment saved the government $700 million. Indeed, since first introduced by the Howard government in 2006, pushing single parents from the parenting payment onto Newstart has saved $5 billion. The costs have been borne elsewhere, in the deprivations endured in the home and in lives exposed to lack of care and opportunity. 

One third of single-parent families in Australia are now estimated to live in poverty, and one in six children. Underpinning the lack of widespread shock at these appalling statistics are stories about individual responsibility, a category that again serves to conceal and distribute violence while posing as the underpinning of an economic morality of merit. Stereotypes of single mothers depict them as lazy, manipulative and out to get what they can from welfare. Aboriginal mothers, who face a long history of both racial prejudice and government interference, are especially denigrated. Yet clearly the circumstances that have brought about the conditions of these women’s lives (which include state violence, economic policy, and domestic violence) circumscribe severely the domain of ‘choice’ that women are nonetheless supposed to have exercised in electing to raise children, and the ways they manage this task. 

The misogyny that is ingrained in suspicion regarding women unmoored from the sustaining provision of a ‘breadwinner’ merely intensifies an allocation of responsibility for reproductive life to women in general. It is astounding how wedded our society remains to assuming that responsibility for the care of children lies in the private sphere—that it belongs to women to offer their lives and bodies to such roles in ways that systemically disadvantage them in economies organised around the values of paid work. Or that where women are able to pay for the care of children, it will fall to other women, and disproportionately women of colour, to do this work at minimal rates of pay.  

The lessons this economic sexism reveals connect with those that can be drawn directly from the arrangements made to deal with the public emergency presented by the pandemic. The avowed aim has been to restore normality, including the normal distribution of costs and risks and the conditions under which they become visible. The kind of crisis management that was most prevalent in the particular shitstorm that was 2020 emphasises the calculation of impacts in financial, legal or human terms, using a rational calculus, albeit one that was much disputed, in which government is seen as weighing the costs and benefits associated with planning for and mitigating specific crisis events. Emergency management, as is typical, has been focused on the level of decision-making and allocation of limited resources for care, rather than on cultivating attitudes more appropriate to the protracted lived experiences of looking after one another during crisis, or of breathing a common air. That dichotomy was visible in the rapid withdrawal of social support schemes such as JobKeeper the moment they were seen as no longer strictly essential for the good of the economy, regardless of the people this then delivered into insecurity, homelessness and poverty. 

One way to expose systemic violence is to reveal who bears costs and risks and, in doing so, to disturb schemas of selective visibility as they flow from power. Alongside this gesture of criticism, though, other forms of responsibility demand both acknowledgment and cultivation as ‘normal’ comes into question. Carol Gilligan’s account of an ethic of care contrasts the kind of thinking that calculates costs and risks with the relational work that involves ‘seeing and responding to need, taking care of the world by sustaining the web of connection’. Gilligan saw a dichotomy between calculative moral thinking, or the kind of thinking modelled on moments of decision, and the work of care, a dichotomy she related to gender roles. We might also relate it to the different contours assumed by individual responsibility, as contrasted with the ongoing rhythm of breathing air that necessarily overflows individual boundaries, placing us in common need. 

In general terms, we have come to think about responsibility in highly individualised and linear ways, as if we are only responsible for the actions we individually and intentionally take. Yet caring thwarts such boundaries. It is often unchosen and is responsive to a sense of shared life. It is true that if care has to be given to maintain or restore the order of ‘normal’ then it has to be provided by somebody, somehow. But relations and demands of care also reveal connections that exceed and support such terms of possibility. While it ‘takes a village to raise a child’, for we children of economic rationalism there can be trauma in what Gilligan describes as the ‘rediscovery of connection, in the realization that self and other are interdependent and that life, however valuable in itself, can only be sustained by care in relationships’. This trauma today presses itself upon us. It haunts us in the experience of climate change as being already here, as well as in the experience of the pandemic. Government management of the COVID crisis has intersected with widely acknowledged crises in care, both in the rich sense that Gilligan gives to care as ‘relational thinking and work’ and in the ‘crisis of care’ in capitalist economic settings. Here care occupies the delicate—or unstable—place of balance between something that has to either be purchased, transacted as part of a labour market, or given absolutely unconditionally, without price attached. 

The most fundamental conditions of life only rarely become visible as such, and the results of their becoming so is often a moment of grave disquiet. But these are also rare times of opportunity. What economists call ‘externalities’ guide and reflect what is seen and unseen. Air pollution from industrial production and practices is estimated to kill 8.5 million people a year. These preventable deaths, however, are for the most part invisible as aggregate effects. If someone sufficiently far off and low down in a chain of dependency pays the price, an enterprise remains apparently costless. Now, however, climate change is disturbing that comfortable distribution of costs and risks, and the drivers of relative wealth and poverty fail to guarantee the security of anyone. The crisis of the Black Summer gave the lie to the logic of externalities, amplifying signs of a violence wrought on climate. The effects begin to track long-discounted chains of dependency. To amplify their claims on us is to weave the threads together. It is past time to begin remaking social policy centred on practices of care and to put attention to the living world on which we all depend at the forefront of consideration.

We have choked not only on foul air but on a visceral realisation that such networks of dependency include us in their fragile support of life. The very distribution of cost and risk has been an effect of the industrial practices that our governments endorse and foster as generators of wealth and the security it brings for a few. And all that we count as ‘normal’ presently depends on its quiet arrangement of life chances. We need this time of rethinking and engagement with care to be worked into our sense of the time of pandemic, to trust it as opening new potentialities, new aspirations. Pan-demos. Everywhere, people. Not yet quite back to normal, this ever-narrowing space to do things otherwise remains at least a fraction open. 

Why Study Economics?

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Thu, 22/07/2021 - 3:00am in

The Sydney Morning Herald’s Jessica Irvine (1 July) has reported a Reserve Bank study highlighting the dramatic fall in enrolments in Year 12 economics, especially among female students.

Perhaps the students are wiser than the investigators think. Teachers over many decades have attempted to make the syllabus palatable. But there is an inevitable ‘trickle down’ from the tertiary syllabus. And there’s the problem.

The Reserve Bank study includes the text:

‘Surveys…of university students have found perceptions of economics to be largely negative. For students at Australian universities at least, economics is generally viewed as abstract, difficult, dull and boring, not relevant to the real world, lacking an ethical dimension…’.

Exactly. Why flog a dead horse?

The problems with university economics are deeply rooted. They rest on two axes to which the ‘discipline’ bows down—one methodological, the other ideological.

Methodological virtue is preferred to substance. Ideologically, power has to be structured out of the system and the market mechanism is the appropriate vehicle.

Methodological and ideological imperatives combine in the axiom of ‘methodological individualism’. It is claimed that the individual is at the centre of the system and that they, rationally, pursue an optimal personal outcome—three wrong assumptions in one. From the late nineteenth century on, the mathematical calculus has informed and channelled the conceptual orientation. That predilection tells us nothing about human behaviour in a social context.

Methodological and ideological imperatives also combine in the ideal of ‘perfect competition’ or ‘general equilibrium’, mythical market conditions long emphasised in the syllabus’ compulsory core.

In this theoretical world, the state is off-stage, yet regularly employed as a deus ex machina. Hardliners, via their ‘economic theory of politics’, see the state under democratic polities as innately corrupted—not by corporations but only by would-be progressive forces.

The corporation? The limited liability corporation is effectively invisible. Yet it is at the centre of the economic universe. Why the anomaly? For both methodological (one can’t mathematise it) and ideological (naked unmediated power) reasons. 

Wage labour and the question of wage/salary determination? The division of labour? Don’t ask an economist, because the analytical equipment is lacking. This vacuity explains why separate departments of industrial relations were previously established in economics/commerce faculties.

The environment? The market is the solution to ecological collapse and climate change. So the vehicle that facilitated the problems is to provide the solution?

The quip attributed to Abraham Maslow applies: ‘If the only tool you have is a hammer, you tend to see every problem as a nail’.

The significant spatial determinants of economic life? Leave that to low-status geographers.

International trade? Free trade is the unequivocal ideal, albeit one that has never been achieved. The only mob who believed in its merits were the mid-nineteenth century British. But they were then top of the pops and could orchestrate the nature of the exchange. ‘Comparative advantage’, a related axiom, now textbook-entrenched, has its origins in a crude example of the imagined mutual benefits of British–Portuguese trade in cloth and wine. That Portugal was effectively a British colony at the time was omitted from the fairy tale. 

When non-economists opined that East Asian countries had developed on principles differing from Anglo textbook truisms, the establishment panicked. No way! Thus the World Bank’s 1993 The East Asian Miracle and the IMF’s 1996 Growth in East Asia. Both documents are puerile, but they who control the syllabus (and the journals) dictate the truth. For example, that Japan’s development was based on the resurrection of pre–Second World War state-centred kierestu and that South Korea’s development occurred under a brutal dictatorship, both facilitated by the Cold War protocols of Pax Americana, lies wholly beyond the lexicon of respectable economics. One has to go to elsewhere for enlightenment.

The mainstream of the discipline has implicitly acknowledged something is amiss. Thus have appeared diversions, in the form of game theory and behavioural economics.

Game theory at least recognises ‘the other’, but it is too analytically demanding for the typical undergraduate. More important, its insights are limited. Methodological and ideological demands again dictate the emphasis—the need for simplicity and/or elegance and the preference for determinate (equilibrium) outcomes of competitive/conflict resolution.

Behavioural economics is also a natural reaction to the mechanical analysis of mainstream (Neoclassical) economics. But whereas game theory emphasises the hyper-rational, behavioural economics emphasises the irrational. The potentially erratic psyche of individuals is real, but the claims of this school as game-changing are misplaced.

If Neoclassical orthodoxy, game theory and behavioural economics differ in their vision, they are all conceptually rooted in methodological individualism. Ultimately they are diversionary intellectual games. They all ignore what matters: the structured economic societies and cultural systems in which individuals are subsumed.

The Reserve Bank authors talk of the need for students to achieve economic literacy:

…it encompasses an ability to apply economics skills and frameworks to explain or debate much of the world in which we live—from understanding opportunity costs in our personal decisions, through to forming a view about the efficacy of economic policies.

It is rather condescending to emphasise ‘opportunity cost’, already understood implicitly by the populace. Tell that to a battler having to decide whether to turn the heat on or to put food on the table. Young couples face the choice between parenthood and borrowing a million plus to buy a residence—many will not be able to do both.

As for ‘the efficacy of economic policies’, I suggest a few lines of inquiry.

Why have the Reserve Bank ‘experts’ pushed interest rates down to near zero when it is dramatically distorting the housing market and savings options? Why do banks not have a duty of care to borrowers, with the livelihoods of countless foreclosed-upon borrowers destroyed by bank malpractice? Why is there systemic predation by corporates against small business and why has the competition authority failed to address it? What forces lie behind the typical multinational corporation’s ability to evade and avoid paying its fair share of tax—or indeed any tax at all? Why does highly educated Australia rely for exports on unprocessed minerals and for domestic ‘growth’ on uncontrolled building construction fuelled by high immigration levels? And so on.

A meaningful tertiary syllabus (with ‘trickle down’ to its high school offspring) requires a pedagogical revolution.

The compulsory core would be necessarily institutional in focus, empirically and historically based. Universalising textbooks would be pulped. Theory, desirably pluralist rather than monolithic, would provide potential insight on the margin. Inevitably, insights will be drawn from other academic disciplines.

Economics students should be exposed to big-picture issues. Why so much brutality in the growth of material ‘prosperity’, and was/is it inevitable? Why do economic systems vary across ‘capitalist’ countries? Whence came the welfare state and why the decades of attacks on it? What forces lay behind the unique post–Second World War ‘long boom’? What forces lay behind the push for privatisation and deregulation? Why and how the ‘financialisation’ of economies? Can the earth sustain ongoing industrialisation and consumerism? 

Fixing high-school economics enrolments requires fixing university economics. Good luck with that utopian project.

Co-operation should be us

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Fri, 16/07/2021 - 8:13am in

Have just attended – via Zoom – the new book launch of ‘Ours’ by the American thinker and author, Peter Barnes. His concept is that Kate Raworth’s Doughnut Economics (click to enlarge): allows us to ‘capture’ money from natural resources as well as from state facilitated functions such as financial trading or individual property rights... Read more

The NHS is unsafe in Conservative hands

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Fri, 16/07/2021 - 5:43am in

This is the Coventry South MP, Zarah Sultana’s withering take: We might care to think too that since the Conservatives have come to power – and prior to Covid there are/were: 100,000 fewer doctors & nurses 17,000 fewer hospital beds 100 fewer A&E facilities Hospital waiting lists have doubled. That is a litany of the... Read more

Financialised capitalism never benefits equality

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Tue, 13/07/2021 - 10:21pm in

No less than the Institute for Economic Affairs has sanctioned a survey which suggests that the upcoming generations have little time for capitalism. The first two conclusions are: 1. Millennials have long been portrayed as a politically disengaged and apathetic generation. In recent years, however, that portrayal has changed drastically. The rise of mass movements... Read more

Raw sewage didn’t usually preclude profit

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Mon, 12/07/2021 - 7:46am in

The news that Southern Water has received a fine of £90m for pumping untreated sewage into the sea was shocking enough in itself. But there is more… It transpires that three Southern Water directors are appointed by JP Morgan; one by UBS and one by Hermes. These directors know much, much more about financial engineering... Read more

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