Liberalism is alive, and it’s killing us. Why post-liberalism is the answer


By: Dr Nick Dyrenfurth

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

Punted from the talkfest within 24 hours, Uthman Badar, spokesman for the radical Islamist group Hizb ut-Tahrir, complained of censorship by hypocritical “secular liberal Islamophobes”.

He’s right in that Australians do sometimes observe their commitment to liberalism more in the breach but here is a suggestion for organisers of next year’s FODI. Hold a debate spruiking a genuinely dangerous idea. It’s time we questioned the pre-eminent ideology of our times. Invite Badar along if you like, because we really need to talk about liberalism.

Over the past forty years politics across the West has witnessed the triumph of the “twin” liberalisms. Beginning in the 1960s, the liberal-left largely won the social/cultural argument. Society is more open, tolerant and permissive. 

From the 1980s, the neo-liberal right triumphed on economic grounds. The market has largely usurped the interventionist state. The latter story is more complex in Australia where the Hawke-Keating Labor governments prevented the worst excesses of Thatcherism.

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

What’s wrong with liberalism, I hear you say? Ultimately, both versions champion “negative liberty”, privileging individual rights and personal autonomy over human relationships. Abstract values of freedom, choice and equality are preferred to notions of responsibility, duty and virtue. Neither variety of liberalism has very much to say about the people and places that we love: in other words, the essence of a good life and the foundations of a good society.

But listen carefully and one can hear the liberal consensus cracking. Post-global financial crisis politics is stuck in a rut and we know it. The language of mainstream politics has a soporific effect. The spectre of a resurgent far-right politics haunts Europe. Charismatic anti-politics politicians are all the rage. Australia has not been immune. In the case of Clive Palmer, it appears that Queenslanders are less to here to help than entertain. 

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

It is in post-global financial crisis Britain that post-liberalism has generated most interest, attracting supporters from across the party political divide. Philip Blond’s “Red Toryism”, a key influence upon David Cameron’s “Big Society”, is one expression.

Glasman and Jon Cruddas, head of British Labour’s policy review, are unabashed post-liberals. A post-liberal ethic is evident in the writings of former British Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks.

What does post-liberalism have to say precisely? One high-profile advocate is David Goodhart, director of London’s left-leaning Demos think-tank. He writes that post-liberalism wants to fix the unintended consequences of economic and social liberalism – the fact that despite being freer and richer, many of us seem to be less happy.

post-liberalism believes in individual rights and liberties but recognises that without secure, settled lives surrounded by love and recognition, occupied by purposeful activity, individuals cannot truly flourish as human beings. Stability, continuity and familiarity are instead its watchwords; a love of family, community and patriotism are not to be sneered at.

Goodhart’s essay is based upon the British experience, where the GFC and immigration are more visceral political issues. But there are lessons for Australia, despite two decades of uninterrupted economic growth. And therein lies the rub. The two liberalisms have not necessarily made us happier.

Witness the unprecedented reports of loneliness and depression, record rates of divorce and family breakdown. Sociability and neighbourliness are in serious decline. Australians are less trusting of their fellow citizens but also more sceptical of the ability of government to deliver services or solve complex problems. Nor have the twin liberalisms necessarily made the entire populace richer, certainly in relative terms. The richest one per cent of Australians now own the same wealth as the bottom 60 per cent.

In creating a society built upon abstract rights and freedoms, we have lost sight of what really matters. Too much of our economic debate occurs in a moral vacuum. For example, productivity is talked about as an end in of itself. There was something nihilistic about the manner in which the Abbott government effectively killed off the nation’s car manufacturing industry – as if we could not afford to consider the impact on individuals, families and communities of mass job losses and the flow-on effect to the wider economy.

Ironically, as government retreats from the economy, power is increasingly centralised in Canberra – and it becomes even easier for vested interests to distort policy making. Consider, too, the power wielded by the supermarket duopoly of Coles and Woolworths, as Malcolm Knox revealed in the August edition of The Monthly.

Do not misunderstand my argument. The liberalisation of our society was generally a good thing. Few would want to turn the clock to an Australia of the six o’clock swill; inequality for women, ethnic minorities and gay people; cultural conformity and crude economic protectionism. There is no undoing globalisation. Nor is this an argument against the market economy. “The 1960s and the 1980s were not mistakes”, Goodhart suggests. But “the big questions in politics today are less about individual rights and more about the nature of our institutions and the quality of our relationships.”

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

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

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

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

Outside of economics, a post-liberal politics would devolve the control of services to allow families and communities a real say. Education is ripe for devolution. The ultimate goal ought to be creating schools that are not merely tailored towards churning out more productive, high-income earning units, but which yield more rounded, resilient students and stronger, more cohesive communities.

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

Can post-liberalism prosper in Australia? It ostensibly cuts across the left/right divide and has won a hearing in segments of the British Tory party, but there is little reason to believe that the market fundamentalists, libertarians and “big ‘C'” conservatives of the modern Coalition will seriously consider post-liberalism. The so-called conservative intelligentsia is obsessed with pursuing prosaic culture wars. The Greens may be attracted to aspects of its community-activist agenda and free-market scepticism, but its “messy” attitude to “doing” politics will likely prevent any serious embrace.

Which leaves us with Labor. It should be a no-brainer. Post-liberalism is in Labor’s DNA. For example, it reaches back to the earlier influence of Catholic social teaching. Granted, modern Laborites will be uncomfortable with devolving power. A critique of markets is familiar territory, but rethinking liberalism’s stress on individual autonomy and abstract rights is more problematic.

Most frightening may be the idea that politics begins with people, and engages with their deepest desires, fears and prejudices. Politics is not about cobbling together focus-group policies to be ticked off at the ballot box. Nor, as ex-Labor leader Mark Latham argues in his new book The Political Bubble, should it be about outsourcing democracy to independent statutory bodies.

Does Labor have the courage to embrace post-liberalism? Bill Shorten (disclaimer – he is my ex-boss) isn’t a man much bothered with “isms”. However, maiden and valedictory speeches often encourage politicians to say what they really think. The leitmotiv of Shorten’s 2008 speech was people. “How to achieve a long, meaningful life in a rapidly changing world,” Shorten informed federal parliament, ‘is one of the great themes of our new century.”

In fact, talk of “meaningful lives” popped up several times. More recently, addressing the University of Melbourne’s Economic and Social Outlook conference, Shorten said he was a reformer “because I believe in the things that have to be done to make people’s lives better”. Yet he also told a room filled with the high-priests of liberalism that he was a “conserver – a conserver because I want to save what is great about our nation.”

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

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