Editorial for Australian Fabians Review, Issue 2
Conventional wisdom has coalesced around the idea that pandemic politics is bad for oppositions, whatever their stripe.
That appears to be true in the immediate sense; we’re seeing governments of either persuasion rewarded with strong approval ratings for as long as they show basic competence, while oppositions have struggled for oxygen even when governments stumble.
However, the longer-run war of ideology extends well beyond election cycles. In that struggle, the pandemic could be one of those seminal moments that herald the end of one ideological era and the beginning of another.
There have been two other such moments in living memory. First, the World Wars of the 20th Century sounded the death knell for laissez-faire economics and the gold standard, ushering in the era of Keynes and the New Deal. The second was the stagflation of the 1970s, brought on by the OPEC oil crisis. This discredited the Keynesian post-war consensus and cleared the way for the neoliberal order that we’ve endured for the last forty years.
One could argue that the Global Financial Crisis of 2008 should be included on that list, as the fatally discrediting moment for the neoliberal order. It may indeed have been discrediting, but unfortunately the fatal ingredient was missing: a ‘New Idea’.
One of the ideological architects of the neoliberal order, Milton Friedman, once said:
“Only a crisis - actual or perceived - produces real change. When that crisis occurs, the actions that are taken depend on the ideas that are lying around. That, I believe, is our basic function: to develop alternatives to existing policies, to keep them alive and available until the politically impossible becomes the politically inevitable.”
Well, when crisis struck in 2008, there was nothing laying around on the left of politics. It offered no serious, coherent alternative model of prosperity, no New Idea.
The pandemic has now accelerated the velocity of neoliberalism’s death spiral. Caught in its wake, the Liberal Party has been forced to abandon the centrepiece of the conservative political project and embrace debt, deficit and activist government intervention in the economy.
In 2002, Margaret Thatcher was asked what she considered to be her greatest achievement. She replied: "Tony Blair and New Labour. We forced our opponents to change their minds."
Well, our opponents have now changed their minds. So does this mean that despite repeatedly losing electoral battles, the left has won the war for the next ideological era?
Is this what victory looks like?
One of my favorite economic commentators, Ross Gittens, thinks it might be. Writing for the Sydney Morning Herald he says:
“What’s true is that the old paradigm fitted our Liberals much more comfortably than the new one does. Morrison and Frydenberg will have their hands full sending their backbenchers to re-education camp. They’ll need to drop their populist fear-mongering over debt and deficit, and their private good/public bad rhetoric. The new paradigm fits Labor a lot more comfortably – provided it doesn’t take too long to realise the wind has changed, and get its courage back.”
I’m encouraged, but not ready to pop a cork yet. To the extent that the Right of politics has given up on its ideology, it only represents half a victory; and as Bill Bowtell argues, it may be no more than a tactical retreat.
My broader concern is that the pandemic has put us in a big spending, highly interventionist paradigm through slap-dash crisis response, as opposed to purposeful design. Many will consider it temporary. This is because it is yet to be woven into a coherent new framework or model of prosperity that can replace neoliberalism and define the next ideological era - what I’ve been calling a New Idea.
After all, “It takes a theory to kill a theory” as Harvard economist Alvin Hansen claimed.
It is my hope that the Australian Fabians Review can be a space for the Fabian movement to build on its long history of political ideas and make some contribution to forging that coherent new framework for the next New Idea.
Speaking of Tony Blair, after another shocking by-election result for UK Labour earlier this year in Hartlepool, he wrote an article in the New Statesman where he suggested that the technology revolution is the central political challenge of our time. Blair argues that those who understand it and are able to show how it can be mastered for the benefit of the people, will deservedly win power. I for one am willing to accept that the only person to lead UK Labour to victory in the forty-seven years since 1974 might know something on this front.
A star contributor to the second issue of the Fabian is himself the only person to win a national majority for the Australian Labor Party in the twenty-nine years since 1993. Kevin Rudd agrees with Blair that technological disruption is one of the ‘mega-challenges’ that will need to be confronted by the modern Left.
In his essay, Rudd focuses on the cancer that Rupert Murdoch’s media monopoly represents in our democracy, but he also sets out four other ‘mega-challenges’, in addition to technological change, that the modern Left will need a clear plan for: recurring pandemics; demographic decline; the rise of China; and the continued economic and environmental devastations of climate change.
In one way or another, each of the contributors to the second issue of the Fabian attempts to engage with these mega-challenges. I encourage Fabians across the country to heed Rudd’s call to help craft a policy vision for Australia’s future that tackles these mega-challenges.
The editorial team greatly appreciated the feedback that members and subscribers gave us after our inaugural issue last year. You’ll see that we’ve listened and have made this issue bigger in size, scope, and yes, font! We’re also pleased to be including letters to the editor, a fiction contribution, and book reviews for the first time.
Thanks to your support, we’re also proud to have again paid our emerging voice contributors union rates for their writing. We have Adam Scorgie’s thoughts on the nation’s hollowed-out manufacturing capacity, and Audrey Marsh and Kiz Jackson exploring the how the Right of Australian politics weaponises LBGTIQ issues to fabricate and fuel a culture war.
As I wrote in our first issue, it is more difficult than ever for new and talented writers to find opportunities for paid work; the expectation that unestablished writers publish their work for free pervades the Australian media landscape. With your support, the Fabian will be a desperately needed exception to this rule.
We look forward to being able to expand our paid platform in the future, and are extremely grateful to all Australian Fabians members who have chipped in to support this necessary work.
With every new Fabians member, our capacity to create valuable and increasingly rare space for paid, progressive writing expands. With that in mind, we encourage you to ask your friends and family to become Fabians members too. Alternatively, we also now have the option to just subscribe to the Fabian magazine for a reduced rate.
Finally, I would also once again like to express my appreciation to the team that pulls this magazine together. Their enthusiasm, dedication and talent is what makes it not only possible, but also a great pleasure.
Zann Maxwell is the National Editor of the Australian Fabians Review.
Series: Australian Fabians Review - Issue 2
Author: Zann Maxwell