The Certainty Myth

 

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“The uncertain election result is the worst possible outcome and the major parties and crossbenchers must act quickly to form a government, business leaders say.”

– AAP, July 3, 2016

Since when did the primary role of government become providing “certainty” to the business community? In fact, it’s hard to read a newspaper or turn on the TV these days without some rent-seeking plutocrat whining about the democratic process getting in the way of the grubby business of making money.

Of course, business leaders have a legitimate stake in the political debate and have a right to express an opinion. But their current tendency to drag out the “we’ll be rooned” rhetoric at the first sign that policy might diverge from their desired “reform” agenda speaks volumes for the degree the state has been captured by powerful lobbies.

We saw it six years ago when multi-national miners, fearful of an international precedent being set, ran a deceitful advertising campaign against the then Labor government’s attempt to earn a fairer share for the common wealth from our publicly owned resources. Labor, under a new PM, rolled over and neutered the tax.

We saw it again a year later in the almost effortless whiteanting by licensed clubs of the government’s modest proposal to limit the life-destroying excesses of poker machines.

One of the Abbott government’s first initiatives in 2013 was to sneak through new measures just before Christmas to water down hard-fought protections for consumers against salesmen masquerading as financial advisers. The attempt was later defeated in the Senate by a vigilant opposition working with crossbenchers.

And, of course, there was the utterly dishonest campaign against carbon pricing, fuelled by claims of $100 lamb roasts and entire towns being wiped off the map.

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In every case, rent-seeking industries attempted to mask their own grubby interests as the public interest. In every case, they pleaded that was is all about jobs and investment and the need for “certainty”. In every case, they were aided by the wilful distortions of the Murdoch media which seeks to persuade its readers to vote against their own interests.

The democratic process, in the eyes of some in the business community, has become bothersome sand in the wheels of commerce, Governments’ role, in this view of the world, should be to underwrite business profits and socialise losses.  Worker protections must be sacrificed to the great god productivity and safety nets must be minimalised. Making a profit must be separated from taking a risk.

In short, “certainty” must be denied everyone but the wealthiest and most powerful members of the community. The rest of us, through three decades of neoliberalism, have gradually been stripped of our life protectors and told to sink or swim. Our work is insecure, our healthcare can no longer be guaranteed, our kids’ education is increasingly determined by the size of our bank accounts and our retirement is at the mercy of the roulette wheel of the equity markets.

We are told that we are our on our own, that government guarantees are gone, that “the economy” trumps society. If you want to get ahead, gear yourself into half a dozen investment properties and claim the losses against your income. Honest work is not enough anymore. It’s death or the spiv economy.

Now, with another indecisive election outcome, the business cassandras are out in force again, blitzing the media with doom-laden press releases – each of them faithfully recycled by a media that has come to accept uncritically the message that business interest and the public interest are one and the same.

The rebellion against elites that is so remarked on in the media right now is in fact a fight to reclaim society from “the economy”. It is a delayed response to the financial crisis of 2008 which challenged the underpinnings of neoliberalism and the notion of “the market” as the arbiter of every aspect of our lives. People are waking up to the hegemony of a business class whose voice is automatically accorded primacy in any clash with the public interest.

According to the US economic philosopher Philip Mirowski, in his magisterial book ‘Never Let a Good Crisis Go to Waste: How Neoliberalism Survived the Financial Crisis’  the long-term project of the neoliberals is not to depower the state but to capture it and own it.

“One way to exert power in restraint of democracy is to bend the state to a market logic, pretending one can replace ‘citizens’ with ‘customers’ ,” Mirowski writes. “Consequently, the neoliberals seek to restructure the state with numerous audit devices (under the sign of ‘accountability’ or the ‘audit society’) or impose rationalization through introduction of the ‘new public management’; or, better yet, convert state services to private provision on a contractual basis.”

The business call for “certainty”, if it continues to hold sway, will mark democracy’s final capitulation to a form of capitalism that destroys any remaining social fabric, that wipes out any possibility of solidarity, and that cripples the possibility of a human community governed by any other value than money.

Further Reading, Viewing and Listening:

Do Keep Up

Man-with-megaphone-000080450985_LargeFor millions of Australians forced to save for their own retirement, ‘finance’ is Alan Kohler on the news every night telling them what happened to the Baltic Dry index that day or explaining why Stock A’s share price went up when their earnings went down.

The truth is that what happened in the global and domestic financial markets on any one day is hardly relevant to the vast majority of people  whose investment horizon is measured in years, if not decades. The day-to-day stuff is meaningless noise, of interest to day traders or speculators or financial journalists, but not to the rest of us.

Political journalism works the same way. What matters for the overwhelming majority of the voting population in relation to politics are longer-term outcomes. Politics is significant insofar as we feel the debate is about ensuring the society we live in is fair and decent and one that puts humans before the needs of the system itself.

Are our children getting an adequate education? Are they choosing the right degrees? Assuming they graduate, will there be jobs for them? How will they afford a home? Is the system fair? How are “insiders” treated in comparison to “outsiders”? What happens when we age and no longer can look ourselves? Will climate change make our grandkids world unliveable? Is our destiny in our own hands anymore?

These are tough questions, but you won’t hear political journalists talking about them to any great extent. Like their financial counterparts, they are too busy watching the daily horse race. Who won the week in parliament? Does Scott hate Malcolm? Is Malcolm “cutting through with the punters”? Will Bill’s makeover work for him in the polls?

The commentators or race callers, because that’s what they are, see their job as providing a real-time form guide for those people who view politics as an end itself, an occupation for a class of people who have never really known any other line of work. They’re not really that interested in what the wider public actually thinks, beyond the occasional condescending reference to “pub tests” or how it plays in “struggle street”. They’re more intent on representing the powerful to the rest of us, rather than the other way around.

Peter Hartcher in the SMH exemplifies this, seeing himself as a kind of unofficial chronicler or real-time biographer of whomever the great political poohbah of the moment seems to be. Perhaps there’s an element of self-interest in this, because if you sufficiently ingratiate yourself with your subject you’ll be put on the drip for “exclusives”. But whatever the motivation, this week-to-week attempt to represent noise as signal leads to the scenario where each column can completely contradict the one before.

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Like the politicians they cover, political journalists are mostly on the inside looking out. And there’s your problem. There are simply not enough people who are as plugged into or who care enough about who said what five minutes ago to offer meaningful comment. So inevitably they all end up talking to each other and reading the entrails of opinion polls, starting with the narrow window they look through every day and attempting to pan out from there. Try it. It doesn’t work.

The ABC’s Jonathan Green admirably tried to get around this issue by convening a weekly ‘Outsiders’ radio show featuring ostensibly the “unusual” suspects of the commentariat. But the underlying requirement that the show be about “the week in news” meant his talent pool was a shallow one,  inevitably including the token IPA “research fellow” or a member of the voiceless Murdoch press to keep the ABC’s balance Nazis off his back.

To be fair, political media is broken because politics is broken – or at least what we call politics – the charade that takes place in Canberra or any other world capital each day featuring people and parties who don’t really believe in anything anymore, but making sure they posture and pontificate in a way that suggests they do. And the media, having so much invested in the semblance of a left-right, blue-red, coke-pepsi contest, is forced to play along with the whole silly game.

The rest of the population senses the breakdown. And not just in Australia. This is a global phenomenon, reflecting the end of a 35-year era in which neoliberal capitalism looked to have destroyed all other contenders. Politicians of the nominal left and right swallowed the consensus whole, leaving them to fight ridiculous and infantile ‘culture wars’ to justify their own sorry existence.

But ironically “the market knows best” people don’t seem to have figured that the wider population understands the issue better than the insiders do. The big problems we face are global in nature – climate change, people movements, adequacy of resources, the impotency of central banks, the dislocations wrought by “free” trade, the rise in the power of stateless corporations at the expense of people, the encroachment of “markets” into every aspect of our lives and the power of well-funded lobbies that sell private interest as public interest and destroy the possibility of people-oriented change.

THAT’S why politics is broken. And THAT’s why the media does not appear to have a clue about what’s going on right now. Oddly enough, this is a much, much bigger story than whether Malcolm loves Scott.

Do keep up now.

(On what’s really ailing us, have a listen to Philip Adams’ excellent recent panel session ‘Advance Australia Where?’ with Bob Brown, Kerry O’Brien and Julian Burnside or for a global view, check out Paul Mason on the Guardian)

 

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