The culture of neoliberalism

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The left in Australia is weak. No force has come close to occupying the space of the old Communist Party or been able to provide a political vision that has gripped the minds of a new generation. We can point to innumerable “subjective” failures on the part of the leaders of the unions, the mainstream left and the far left that have made the going tough. There have been failures to identify opportunities that have existed to rebuild, failures to fight at all, collaboration with the enemy and over the moon assessments of what was possible.

Yet there is not one country in the Western world where the revolutionary left, in all its different sizes, politics and perspectives, has made a serious breakthrough. There must be something about the objective situation that has led to such difficulties.

The collapse of ‘socialism’

British former PM Margaret Thatcher famously said that “there is no such thing as society”. The goal of the neoliberal project she championed was to dismantle the welfare states and institutional barriers, in place since the 1930s and 1940s, that were seen to stifle the ability of corporations to make huge profits. It sought to break the bonds of social solidarity and create a culture and economy in which every human is an entrepreneur-manager of their own lives. The neoliberal ideal is a transactional world in which human relationships take on the form of buyer-seller exchanges and in which everything and everyone is debased, reduced to a market valuation.

Thirty and more years of union busting, privatisation of state assets, deregulation of markets and undermining social welfare have given some reality to that vision. The welfare state still provides more than what was on offer previously, but wealth inequality is back to the levels of the 1920s. Importantly, members of the so-called “millennial” generation (18-36 year olds) find it difficult to see the world through any other lens than individuality.

Two of the main contributing factors to this neoliberal success story are the sustained decline in working class struggle and the collapse of socialism as an authoritative alternative to liberal capitalist ideology.

Almost a century ago, the Russian Revolution proved in practice that a new world was possible. For decades, millions of workers around the world viewed the Soviet Union as a beacon of hope in an otherwise oppressive and exploitative capitalist world. Counter-revolution had by the late 1920s transformed the country into a brutal dictatorship, yet it wasn’t until the events in Hungary 1956 and Czechoslovakia 1968 that many of the Western left’s illusions were undermined. With the Soviets putting down rebellions in the Eastern Bloc, Stalinist parties faced a crisis of legitimacy from which they never recovered.

It proved an ideological crisis of the left more generally. The insistence that the Soviet Union still had something to do with socialism undermined the case for Marxism and pushed people away from revolutionary politics. But of the currents that emerged in reaction to the failures of Stalinism, none managed to build mass organisations out of the 1960s upsurge. As the radical wave ebbed in the ‘70s, most faced their own crises, moving toward political pluralism and identity politics as the workers’ movement was put on the defensive.

The successes of the Western ruling classes in reviving economic performance after the multiple economic crises of the mid-1970s and early 1980s further undermined the left. The collapse of the Soviet Bloc at the end of the decade was the symbolic nail in the coffin. Since the 1800s, history had been on the side of the working class and the socialist mission. Now, it seemed, history had finally proven Marxism a fraud.

With the left in disarray and the ruling class on the offensive, the political right’s assertion that “there is no alternative” to neoliberal capitalism was widely accepted – and forcefully rammed through. The resultant splintering of social life can be seen in myriad ways.

Atomisation

 Working class communities, within which existed natural bonds and associations, were long ago fragmented by the geographical expansion of suburbs. That process has been accelerated in our largest cities, where the sprawl creates satellite suburban wastelands kilometres from amenities and often more than an hour’s drive from the CBD. They were packaged as oases of certainty and security in an uncertain and insecure metropolis. But in these isolated ghettos full of quarter block housing, people’s new frustrations are inaudible to the rest of the city.

Research by economics professor cum Labor MP Andrew Leigh has found that people today have, on average, fewer friends, fewer relations with neighbours and fewer connections to community organisations. The latter is particularly true of young people. This isn’t because youth are inherently selfish; there just hasn’t been any great struggle that has fostered a sense of collective identity against the prevailing conditions.

Union density has dropped from more than 50 percent to less than 20 percent (for those under 25, it is less than 10 percent). The end of centralised wage fixing and the move to enterprise bargaining and individual contracts have left more and more people on their own against the boss. The Australian Council of Trade Unions’ submission into last year’s Howe Inquiry into Insecure Work showed that precarious labour – casual, temp and contract work – has steadily increased to one of highest rates in the West. And as academic Michael Pusey has noted, “[T]he deregulation of the labour market has left us with working hours that intrude more into family and weekend time than in any other OECD country except Italy.”

Today “the local”, the establishment where people go to talk after work, is more likely to be the lounge or the bedroom – where people are absorbed in TV (for three hours on average per night) or interacting through social media. The 2012 Yellow Social Media Report found that more than 60 percent of people on the internet use social media, typically for more than six hours every week. The figures dramatically increase for those under the age of 40.

It has become fashionable to link social media to greater social engagement and events like the Arab revolutions. But the rise in usage is also linked to this broader trend to atomisation that has transformed the way many people experience the world. For every twitter-endorsed rally in Tahrir, there are millions of people who, despite being “connected” to more people than at any time in human history, have never been more alone.

Cultural decay

 The German philosopher Hegel argued that the only true knowledge is the knowledge of freedom, and that only in freedom can true knowledge be acquired. Writing in the 19th century, he knew that humanity wasn’t yet free, but argued that its nature is to become free. For Hegel, freedom doesn’t exist until humanity makes it a universal condition, a truth for all. This was a truly revolutionary insight.

His standpoint, later developed by Marx, was a thorough critique of conservative politics as much as anything else. Positing an unchanging (and, for some, unknowable) “inner essence” of things and people was, he thought, stifling: if the truth lies in what is, rather than what could be, then we are condemned to a world in which freedom is already denied. Humanity deserves much better.

Neoliberal culture, full of confronting sexual imagery and gore, is so often labelled “radical” and “boundary-pushing” in its representations. But it is the epitome of the stifling conservatism Hegel railed against. Everywhere it counsels us to turn our back on the world, and the future, to turn inward as individuals and unearth “who we really are”.

An example of the painful confidence trick this undertaking represents is captured every other night on reality TV. Rarely is a singing contestant’s soul deep enough for the Idol judges. Every third person breaks down in the humiliation of finding out that what they privately love and enjoy so much – that intimate expression of “who I really am”, as many confide in the judges – is considered a public horror. But for the sacred few, there is the glory of having the x-factor – that something within that sets them apart.

We may shrug that it is only a TV show. But it illustrates the broader logic of contemporary culture. It is implicit in almost every aspect of neoliberal existence that what is unmarketable is worthless. A whole generation judges its inner worth by its capacity to match the artificial forms of fashion models or the carefully cultivated images or skill sets of superstar athletes and singers. But in the world of Photoshop and the new eugenics of the “next top model” or “biggest loser”, everyone is found wanting.

The impact of this inward turn, of transforming human existence and intimacy into marketable goods, has been profound. Powerlessness, uncertainty and displacement are permanent features of society. The epidemic of mental illness, which affects a staggering 45 percent of Australians at some point in their lives, is the sharp end of it. Its more mundane reflection is in the general acceptance, even if not articulated, that there is no alternative but to retreat into those very personal lives that often seem the source of anguish yet, tragically, seem also to offer potential salvation. So industries geared to redressing imperfections – self-help, dieting, cosmetics, therapies, supplements – flourish. And the more inadequate people are, the more distant perfection seems, the more extreme the products become.

Human experience under neoliberalism has become, to quote Hegel, “so poor that, like a wanderer in the desert who languishes for a simple drink of water, it seems to crave for its refreshment merely the bare feeling of the divine in general”. Except that the divine is no longer God; it is celebrity.

Democratic deficit

 If neoliberalism has deeply penetrated private lives, it should be no surprise that it has impacted the operation of public institutions.

The last 30 years have deepened what has been termed the “democratic deficit”. This refers to the process through which the parties historically associated with the labour movement have become indistinguishable in many respects from the conservative parties of the rich. It also refers to the ways in which governments have either ceded power to or had their democratic mandate undermined by unelected capitalist institutions such as the World Trade Organization, the World Economic Forum, the European Central Bank etc.

In Australia there is both a perceived and a real deficit.

The perceived deficit is reflected in the electoral statistics. On one hand, the vote for the minor parties and independents – which is usually based on their capacity to construct a “political outsider” narrative – has climbed from less than 10 percent in the 1980s to around 20 percent in the 2013 election. On the other, the informal vote has risen and the voter turnout declined: if the 1990s average for these had been maintained, there would have been some 700,000 extra valid votes cast at the 2013 election.

The real deficit is evidenced not just in the rightward shift of the ALP, but in the transfer of certain powers from democratically accountable (in whatever limited way) governments into the hands of unelected bureaucrats. An example of the process is the fate of the Reserve Bank. Financial deregulation in the 1980s removed governmental control over monetary policy, except for manipulation of the interest rate. The bank gained full operational independence in the early 1990s. Today this “independence” is held sacrosanct by the ruling class – but only because the bank is controlled by its proxies on the board.

Other institutions have emerged in the last decade and a half, such as the Productivity Commission, an advisory body that facilitates the development of neoliberal policy. It doesn’t have statutory authority, but it doesn’t really need it: such is the success of the neoliberal project that all high state officials and political leaders are adherents. It is almost inconceivable that today’s politicians would formulate policy starkly at odds with the recommendations of the commission or the economists in the Treasury.

 Politics

One way that social alienation is transposed into politics is through the liberal moral justification for greed – that if every individual pursues their own self-interest, then the greatest welfare will accrue to society as a whole – finding expression in the “be the change you want to see” ethos that is so pervasive today. Many of us rightly pour scorn on the self-absorbed and indulgent nature of such “politics”. Yet there is little doubt that it is a product of the times – politics as self-help.

The democratic deficit compounds this phenomenon. In Western democracies, the default position of people seeking social change is to use democratic institutions like parliament to replace the people administering the system. The more difficult it is to distinguish between alternative ruling parties, and the more impotent governments seem in the face of state institutions and corporate interests, the less credibility politicians have.

The greater the perceived deficit, the less investment people are likely to have in the institutions. That is something to be welcomed. But in the absence of some other realistic alternative that can address the particular grievances at hand, it creates rival pressures. On one hand it reinforces the retreat into private lives as people attempt to escape perceived injustice, rather than challenge it. On the other, it can lead to profoundly anti-democratic conclusions. That can be seen not only in places like Greece and Hungary, where fascism is a significant political force. In Australia, the 2013 Lowy attitudinal poll found that only 39 percent of people 18 to 29 years old consider democracy “preferable to any other form of government”. (The figure is 74% for those over the age of 60.)

Where people do seek out avenues to connect, it is often in a way that mimics the logic of the market, such as with the “clicktivism” phenomenon of online signature gathering. The clicktivism rank and file of organisations such as Get Up! generally remain as disengaged from any real world struggle as ever. They lend their identity and delegate their cash to unelected and unaccountable professional “campaigners”. The success or otherwise of the campaign seems to be judged only by how much advertising is created.

Where there are small radicalisations or outbursts of activity, they tend also to reflect the social alienation and indifference (or outright hostility) to “politics” that neoliberalism has fostered. This could be seen internationally during the rise of the indignados, a 2011 youth-led rebellion for “real democracy” in Spain, the Movement of the Squares in Greece and the Occupy Movement.

Organisation

 It would be easy to draw nihilistic conclusions from the foregoing impressions. Some people do, declaring that everything has changed so dramatically that the left must do things differently, stop trying to build revolutionary organisations and instead just participate in “networks” or dissolve into the new formations that are intermittently thrown up.

We shouldn’t underestimate how quickly the working class can be “reconstituted as a political subject” (which is a pretentious way of saying “able to break out of its passivity, identify the enemy and start swinging”). Whatever changes neoliberalism has wrought, the world has not been qualitatively changed. In some ways, the neoliberal economic agenda has pushed us back into the pre-World War Two past more than it has thrust us into some uncharted future. The basic structures and dynamics of the capitalist system remain: there is a minority of capitalists at the top exploiting the majority of workers at the bottom. The competition between the bosses enforces an incessant drive to accumulate capital, which leads to crises. Revolutionary movements inevitably break out in one place or another as a result.

The absence of mass struggle in Australia is crippling, but there have been great retreats in other times and other places. They have never lasted. We have seen in North Africa and the Middle East just how rapidly the political situation can be transformed in a time of crisis. In parts of Europe also, while there has not been a mass radicalisation, the social struggles against austerity continue to create headaches for the establishment.

People are transformed and develop their capacities through these struggles. That is why socialists are always arguing to mobilise people in rallies and demonstrations and picket lines. Even if the results are not world shattering in the here and now, they can help lay the basis for the future by drawing in new people who would otherwise have few options but to turn inward and accept things as they are.

In every new struggle, participants grapple with very traditional questions: Who are our allies and who are our enemies? Do workers have the power and capacity to change the world? Do we need only social reform or do we need revolution? Do we need only a movement or do we need a party? The questions are not always posed in such straightforward ways. Even when they are, the answers are not always obvious to those grappling with them. They nevertheless inform the strategic and tactical responses of every person and group in a movement.

Yet struggle alone will not teach masses of people the correctness or otherwise of revolutionary politics. Winning people to socialism requires people who are educated and trained in revolutionary politics being able to make convincing arguments about what to do. That can’t be done by adapting to prevailing moods or pretending that political differences – like that between reform and revolution – are unimportant. In any setting where the question “What do we do now?” is posed, political differences can be papered over only for so long before being thrust into the open when a serious tactical or strategic disagreement emerges.

People can be trained as revolutionaries only in the course of fighting for their ideas, not fudging them. Even then the task is not simply winning people over to socialism in the course of struggling alongside them. Many radicals can quickly come to see the correctness of Marxism’s critique of capitalism or its usefulness as a guide to action, but there are further questions that have to be addressed. Earlier generations had what many considered a living example of socialism to back up their arguments. Today the legacy of Stalinism still weighs down even those political currents (such as Socialist Alternative, the publisher of Red Flag) that have been most hostile to it. Being able to explain convincingly the hows and whys of the failures of Stalinism and social democracy is as crucial to re-establishing a genuine revolutionary Marxist tradition as being able to explain the hows and whys of the failure of capitalism.

That’s why, despite the changes we have witnessed over the past 30 years, and the ways in which those changes have impacted society, building clearly revolutionary groups remains of vital importance. Without revolutionary organisations that can collectively train and educate their members, the prevailing ideas and moods ultimately win out.

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