I have avoided discussing the British and French parliamentary elections to date, mostly because I couldn’t stomach the outcomes – May back and the neo-liberal Macron dominant. I also was tired of reading stupid columns from the likes of William Keegan and the rest of the Guardian neo-liberals raving on about Brexit and Jeremy Corbyn. Keegan is like an old record that lets the needle get stuck in a groove. He seems to have written the same column since June last year where the reader is told about the Brexit disaster and how Britain will be impoverished. But both elections, particularly the British outcome confirms what we have been noticing for a few years now – there is finally what we might call a true oppositional Left forming and gaining political traction in these nations. This is a Left platform that concedes little to the neo-liberals. It is vilified by the conservatives and the so-called progressive commentariat (such as the Guardian writers) and politicians (New Labour in Britain) as being in “cloud cuckoo land” and predictions from all of sundry of electoral wipeouts have been daily. But the results demonstrated that the message (such as in the Labour Manifesto) resonates with millions of people (40 per cent of those who voted in Britain). It is now a mainstream Left message that has taken over the British Labour Party and the Blairites are hiding under rocks. There is hope. People will only tolerate being bashed over the head for so long. There is now retaliation going on.
Earlier this year, the French collectif Ecolinks, which is a group of economics academics and students in various French institutions published their Petit manuel économique anti-FN, which carried a preface from Thomas Piketty. The group says it is opposed to the current consensus in economics yet its blog seems to be full of Paul Krugman or Wren-Lewis quotes or links to their articles (or other New Keynesians – who are the ‘consensus’, unfortunately). They are obviously worried about the political popularity of FN (Marine Le Pen’s National Front) and have thus produced their anti-FN book as a critique of FNs economic approach. They claim that FN proposes policies that represent “le repli sur une identité étriquée et une vision fantasmée de la nation, rendent cette perspective catastrophique” or in translation, “a retreat into a narrow identity with a fantasised vision of the nation, which would be catastrophic”. The book has received some coverage since its release by a French press that is increasingly worried about Le Pen’s popularity. Please do not interpret in what follows any hint of support for FN from this blog other than as a ‘cat among the pigeons’ force in European politics, anything that upsets the right-wing, neo-liberal, corporatist elites that run the show is to be welcome. I also support Marine Le Pen’s observation that the “The EU world is ultra-liberalism, savage globalisation, artificially created across nations”. That is why I hoped the Leave vote in Britain would win. It is a pity that she marries these views with other hostile views towards immigrants etc, although I am not an expert on immigration so I do not write much about it. It is also a pity that the so-called progressive Left in France (or elsewhere) has left it to the likes of Le Pen to articulate what I would consider to be progressive economic policies. Although, that assessment has to be tempered by the observation that Le Pen’s approach to economic policy is somewhat confused – in part, by her ‘political’ assessment that France is not yet ready to leave to Eurozone. At that point, some bizarre contradictions emerge and the anti-FN book correctly points them out.
In 2012, while unemployment and underemployment was still at elevated levels after rising in the early days of the GFC, non-government spending was weak, the external deficit was around 4 per cent of GDP, real GDP growth remained well below its trend in the 5 years before the GFC, and the economy was no-where near full employment, the then Treasurer, Wayne Swan launched into the largest fiscal shift away from deficit in recent history (in the modern era since 1970). He was obsessed with ‘getting the budget back into surplus’ in the following year because somehow he had gleaned from the work of John Maynard Keynes that a responsible government has to pay back deficits with surpluses. The Australian government’s deficit had risen because tax revenue had fallen as a result of the slowdown in activity and because the Government introduced a rather large fiscal stimulus, which saved Australia from going down the recession route that other nations were mired in. Maintaining that deficit or enlarging it with further stimulus is what a responsible government should have done. But Swan, apparently thought that with Europe heading further into the morass (as a result of mindless austerity) that he had to show the world what a good government does – run surpluses. Apparently, he thought the credit rating agencies would close the government down. Apparently, he thought inflation would runaway from its low levels. Apparently, he believed the lie that fiscal deficits pushed up interest rates. Apparently, he didn’t know that introducing fiscal contraction when non-government spending was weak would further slow the economy and damage confidence. All of which happened. Quite obviously he didn’t know a thing. Swan, ever the politician (but in opposition now) is apparently thinking differently – now he is claiming fiscal deficits have to rise to push the economy towards full employment. This chameleon-like performance is rather sickening given the damage he caused when he was actually the Treasurer in charge of fiscal policy and full of neo-liberal lies and confusion.
When you have a madman sounding, well “presidential” (according to the obsequious US press) what would you expect a Democrat politician to say in response? Yes I am talking about the Democratic response to the speech given by the US President on February 28, 2017 to the joint session of the United States Congress. The last thing I would want is for the response to begin with a report card on how the responder was fiscally responsible because he had achieved fiscal surpluses during the GFC. But then this is the Democratic Party circa 2016 we are talking about. The Party that lost an unlosable election to a showman who is sparing of the truth. This is the Democratic Party that having just lost an election because its candidate was seen as part of the neo-liberal establishment that has brought grief on millions of Americans, decides to replace its administrative head with another neo-liberal corporatist. But this problem is not uniquely American, although Americans do like to think they are unique. All around the world, political parties who should be defending workers and the poor have morphed into right-wing look-a-likes preaching fiscal rectitude (they would do it fairer) and cuts to public services and all the rest of it. They have so let down their natural constituents that real right-wingers preaching hate against immigrants and refugees and the like have seized the political initiative and taking votes from them. Trump is a sort of hybrid of that. Until the Left abandons its notions that fiscal responsibility does not mean running fiscal surpluses as a matter of course, it will continue to lose ground. And, we will all be worse off as a consequence.
Australia is suffering the conjunction of a number of events in recent weeks which demonstrate the poverty of the neo-liberal approach that governments on both sides of the political fence have followed over the last three decades. Electricity prices are rising and the governments have bowed to pressure from the power companies to end the favourable feed-in tariffs that promoted the widespread adoption of solar power by households. Further, our climate change denying federal government has seized on recent power outages in South Australia to attack that state’s accelerated move to renewable energy. The federal government claims it validates its decision to back coal (and they are planning to provide $A1 billion to the Adani group to build transport infrastructure for a new coal development that will never be economic. The problem with the federal narrative is that in the extreme weather Australia is now enduring (very prolonged hot spells with major bush fires) the state with about the lowest renewable mix in its electricity also had to cut power late last week. Further investigation shows that the privatised electricity generating sector has been deliberately manipulating the supply of power (maintaining spare capacity) to exploit price spikes while the captive regulator turns off power to thousands of homes and businesses. Profits before public service – that is what privatisation has delivered. And then, we have to put up with a rising ‘star’ treasurer who thinks government infrastructure spending is unfair to future generations and more privatisation is required. It is best not to put all this together – it is not good for one’s equanimity.
Less than two weeks ago, Britain sent a bombshell into the conservative, neo-liberal policy agenda and the narrative that supports it. I have read a lot of comments that the Referendum result was a reflection of racist attitudes towards minority immigrants. While it is no doubt that the open borders policy that allows firms to batter down wages growth and keep a constant excess supply of labour as a threat was an important part of the debate and vote, that in itself, was a reflection of the underlying tension that people and their communities have with the neo-liberal policy agenda. There would be much less concern about migration if there was full employment. The same sort of tensions that pushed the majority of British voters to support the Leave campaign have been apparent in the Australian Federal election which was held on Saturday (July 2, 2016). Australian voters have rejected a first-term conservative government. It is a rare event for us to reject any first-term regime of either persuasion. The conservatives in Australia are now in tatters without credibility and the unstable situation that has arisen as a result of the political uncertainty provides a great opportunity for the Australian Labor Party, who did very well in the poll on Saturday, to refresh their outlook and reject their neo-liberal tendencies to reflect the big shift in sentiment in the Australian electorate. A similar opportunity exists in Britain and I hope Jeremy Corbyn takes it and expunges the Blairites from his own Party.
Last week, the shadow British Chancellor, John McDonnell confirmed that the British Labour Party under Jeremy Corbyn will not be part of a progressive realignment of the public debate regarding fiscal policy. By that I mean, they have chosen, probably for misplaced ‘political’ concerns (leaving aside total ignorance), to reinforce in the public mind the neo-liberal myths relating to the capacities of a currency-issuing government to spend and advance prosperity. I have no doubt that John McDonnell desires, genuinely, to advance the material well-being of the working class in Britain. His public career to date would suggest that. But like many on the Left, he has been seduced by the neo-liberal snake oil into believing that fiscal rules that bind a currency-issuing government to balance, in total or in part, the fiscal situation and that such a government should submit itself to the dictates of a technocracy full of mainstream economists, is a necessary requirement of responsible fiscal management. His most recent statements really amount to surrender. The British Labour Party is staying faithful to its Monetarist roots, which were established in 1974 under Harold Wilson’s second tilt at the top job. The distractions of New Labour and now Jeremy Corbyn has not really changed anything. This is a neo-liberal party no matter what they claim and their advice and underpinnings are firmly neo-liberal.
The GFC clearly, in my view, demonstrated that the political positions held by both the left- and right-wing governments in the West with respect to economic policy were untenable. Both sides of politics in each major and country adopted versions of market liberalism where the overlap was more dominant than the differences. While the left maintained some emphasis on social policy and the right maintained an emphasis on individual freedom (which was more about corporate freedom than anything), the fact remains that these differences were blurred by the dominance of the free market approach in each of their platforms. It is ironic, that as a consequence of the GFC, the bureaucratic state is more dominant now than it was, especially in the European Union where the political and technical elite interacts with the so-called market to create what has been called the democratic deficit. We now have technocrats in the European bureaucracy, in the IMF, in the World Bank and other multilateral organisations who contrive to implement policies which have allowed the benefits of economic activity to be increasingly diverted to beneficiaries who are at the top end of the income and wealth distribution. Today’s blog continues reporting some of the research I’ve been doing for my next book on the demise of the Left and the subjugation of public purpose in the name of austerity. It seems that we have concentrated on fiscal austerity but the general notion of austerity, which is now the centrepiece of political positions in most advanced countries, goes well beyond just fiscal policy. The response to the recent events in Paris demonstrate how far the state is willing to centralise authoritative controls on the rights of their citizens.
Last week, I re-read an article from May 1, 2012 by Abraham Newman – Austerity and the End of the European Model – that was published in Foreign Affairs. The article carried the sub-title “How Neoliberals Captured the Continent”. The author is a US political scientist and observed that given the unprecedented austerity that the European politicians have inflicted on their nations with such damaging consequences, the “Tea Party loyalists in the United States should be green with envy”, The hard-line US Republicans don’t go close to their European brethren. The thrust of the article was that independent of the short-term effects of the austerity it “will transform Europe’s political economy in the long term, lending credence to neo-liberal ideas of limited government and loosely regulated markets. The irony of this transformation is that it reinvigorates the very ideas that helped cause the financial crisis in the first place …” This is a theme that I share. It is also a starting point for a very interesting essay I read last week by Slovenian lawyer Bojan Bugaric – Europe Against the Left? On Legal Limits to Progressive Politics – published May 2013. I have been seeking to understand these perspectives more deeply as part of my larger book project concerning the demise of the European left.
The tale of two nations – two monetary systems – two continents – Canada and Portugal. It is reasonable to assume that when voters in so-called free democracies elect members to their parliaments who then freely coalesce across ‘party’ lines to form an absolute majority that they will be given the right to govern irrespective of the ideology they represent and the policies that they have put forward to the voters to win their approval. That seems to happen in Canada. It definitely doesn’t happen in Portugal. The Portuguese President dropped his so-called “bomba atómica” last week when he refused to endorse the coalition of parties that held the absolute majority of seats in the Assembly as a result of the recent national election. He indicated that he would not allow a government that would relax the fiscal austerity and consider exiting the Eurozone. His motivation was that financial markets had to remain appeased. It was an extraordinary intervention and will come back to haunt the nation given that the conservative austerity government will lose its authority as soon as it puts its platform to the new Parliament for endorsement (within the next 10 or so days). Then the nation is in chaos and the President will be compelled to accept the anti-austerity left coalition or something worse will happen. But, happily, in Canada, the election of the Liberal Party is a rejection of the obsession with fiscal surpluses – at least for now.