In a blog post last week – Financial services agreements – the EU as a neoliberal, corporatist project (November 13, 2018) – I wrote about the way the EU compromised the capacity of elected Member State governments to advance the well-being of their nations by the way they negotiate trade arrangements in services, particularly with respect to the financial services sector. For all those Europhiles that regularly deny the core agenda of the EU is to compromise democratic outcomes in favour of capital, that analysis, alone, should be sufficient to discourage those thoughts. Of course, that isn’t the only manifestation of this neoliberal, corporatist bias in the way the EU has developed over the last decades. I mostly conduct my analysis at the macroeconomic level but I am also interested (as my publication record demonstrates) in urban and regional analysis. At the level of the European city, the EU is behaving in the exactly the same way – to curb that ability of city authorities to render their cities favourable environments for the residents who live there.
Regular readers will know that I have spent a lot of time writing about the demise of the Left political parties as they became subsumed with neoliberal economic ideology, which blurred the political landscape as the ‘centre’ moved to the Right. That topic was the focus of our current book – Reclaiming the State: A Progressive Vision of Sovereignty for a Post-Neoliberal World (Pluto Books, September 2017). The neoliberal infestation has left these parties with declining electoral support, fractured internal organisations and cultures, and a seeming inability to abandon their flawed economic narratives. But there is a mirror image to this demise and that is playing out on the conservative side of politics. In Australia in the last week (but building for years) the far right conservative elements from within the government have brought down their own leader and our Prime Minister in a spiteful clash of ideologies between the more moderate elements in their party and the extremes out on the right. The internal tensions that drove this suicidal mission are being played out around the world. Think about the way that Trump is compromising the Republican party. Think about how Brexit is splitting Tory ranks in Britain. And so on. The problem for the conservatives is that citizens are realising that the neoliberal economic approach has failed to deliver on its promises. And that economic model is ‘owned’ by the conservatives. The adoption of neoliberal economics by social democratic parties is not part of their DNA. It is largely because their ranks have been infested by careerists who have come from the ‘elites’ and have little resonance with workers. The gaps in the policy space that these fractures have created is being occupied by extremist groups. It will be much easier for progressive parties to reclaim that space than it will be for the conservatives who are in the process of a death spiral. But to do that, the social democratic movements has to abandon every vestige of neoliberal economics – the concepts, policies and language and framing. That is the challenge.
One of the principle ways in which so-called progressive political parties (particularly those in the social democratic tradition) seek to differentiate themselves from conservatives is to advocate large-scale public infrastructure investment as a way of advancing public good. You can see evidence of that in most nations. Nation-building initiatives tend to be popular and also are less sensitive to the usual attacks that are made on public spending when income support and other welfare-type programs are debated. Capital worked out long ago that public spending on infrastructure provided untold benefits by way of profits and influence. In the neoliberal era, the bias towards ‘competitive tendering’ and public-private partnerships has meant that private profit tends to dictate where and what public infrastructure is built. The problem is that large-scale projects tend to become objects of capture for the top-end-of-town. Research shows that these ‘megaprojects’ typically deliver massive cost overruns and significantly lower benefits than are first estimated when decisions are being made about what large projects to fund. Further, evidence suggests that this is due to corrupt and incompetent behaviour by private project managers (representing their companies) and empire-building public officials. They lie about the costs and benefits so as to distort the decision-making processes in their favour. Any progressive government thus must be mindful of these tendencies and behaviours. A progressive policy agenda needs to be more than just outlining a whole lot of nice sounding public infrastructure projects that the government will pursue. The whole machinery of public procurement that has emerged in this neoliberal era needs to be abandoned and replaced with decision-making processes and rules that privilege the advancement of public well-being over profit.
It is Wednesday and so a short blog. I am working on a number of things at present but getting the material sorted for my next book with Thomas Fazi is a priority at the moment. My snippet today though is about a study that has just come out in the American Political Science Review – Bias in Perceptions of Public Opinion among Political Elites – by two US academics. The title is indicative. They explore what they argue is a disjuncture between what the politicians think voters want and what the voters actually want. This lack of congruence is also biased towards right-wing views. So, the politicians “believed that much more of the public in their constituencies preferred conservative policies than actually did”. They trace this bias to biases in the way the politicians get their information. The takeaway is that the progressive side of the debate has to be more active in framing distinctive messages and using multiple ways and avenues to communicate those messages to the candidates seeking election and the politicians that have been elected. And it must refrain from using conservative frames which advisors think neutralise difficult concepts etc. I think this sort of research provides some hope. I will be writing more about this in the weeks to come. And after that listen to some really classic minimalism from the C19th, which you might suspect on listening is very contemporary such was the genius of the composer.
My home town (where I was born and still spend a lot of time) is Melbourne, Victoria. It is a glorious place, at least the inner suburbs within about 3-4 kms of the city centre where I hang out mostly. It recently ‘lost’ its top place in the Economist Intelligence Unit’s Global Liveability Index (most pleasant place to live) to Vienna (Source). One wag thought it might have been because the Economist got confused between Australia and Austria. Economists are easily confused! But the reason I mentioned this is because it is symptomatic of how neoliberalism has reconstructed our realities and degraded our sense of community. The ‘competitive’ narrative, even though firms go all out to use power and deception to fix and rig markets in their favour, now dominates our perception. While I identify with Melbourne and would think a significant part of my identity is linked to that identification, the neoliberal narrative with its distinctive language, aims to reconstruct the community and communities of Melbourne, not as social and cultural artifacts, but as ‘products’ competing with other cities of the world for supremacy. I was thinking about this as I scope out the structure of the next book that Thomas Fazi and I will publish next year as a follow-up to our current book – Reclaiming the State: A Progressive Vision of Sovereignty for a Post-Neoliberal World (Pluto Books, 2017). Thomas and I have advanced our ideas and we will, in part, be focusing on how communities and the nation state work together to advance progressive outcomes. In our first book together, we set out how nation states can operate from a technical perspective and what they should do to provide for a progressive future. In the next book, we will dig deeper into the ways people and their communities have to re-empower themselves. Language, construction, vocabulary, and framing are all significant in this regard.