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What’s the big idea? We’re still not sure.

3 June 2010 1,220 views No Comment

JAMES Walter, who co-edited with Brian Heads the 1988 study Intellectual Movements and Australian Society, has produced a valuable account of the politics of ideas in Australia. Walter, professor of political science at Monash University, argues at the outset that in endeavouring to understand politics, “nothing is more important . . . than recognising that it deals in ideas”.

This is the fundamental thesis of What were They Thinking? It is an argument that Walter and his research assistant Tod Moore (who wrote two key chapters) advance with skill and clarity. Indeed, to carry the notion further, Walter quotes from Don Watson’s classic portrait of Paul Keating, Recollections of a Bleeding Heart: “Politics and history are alike in that the craft of both is storytelling.”

As Walter points out, one of Kevin Rudd’s responses to the global financial crisis was to write an essay, while Tony Abbott’s successful challenge for the Liberal Party leadership was preceded by a well written and cogently argued book, Battlelines, which he immediately updated for a second edition.

Unsurprisingly, Walter’s narrative of political thought in Australia gives prominence to Rudd’s exegesis, The Global Financial Crisis, published in The Monthly in February last year.

Drawing on the diverse intellectual and ethical example of John Maynard Keynes, Rudd expounded the notion that “from time to time in human history there occur events of truly seismic significance, events that mark a turning point between one epoch and the next, when one orthodoxy is overthrown and another takes its place”. Such changes were indeed under way last year, the Prime Minister argued, with “fault lines yielding to fractures which in time may yield to even deeper tectonic shifts”.

Rudd’s other great intellectual and moral influence, he claims, is heroic German theologian, Dietrich Bonhoeffer. In his trenchant February 2009 critique of the “alleged excesses of neo-liberalism”, also published in The Monthly, Rudd presented social democracy as “rejection of both state socialism and free market fundamentalism”.

As Walter explains, Rudd’s elaboration of the “social democratic” task, as opposed to ideological neo-liberalism, borrowed much from the so-called third way that had been pushed by Tony Blair, which in turn was “said to have been adapted from [Bob] Hawke and [Paul] Keating”.

Walter helpfully examines the background to the “socialist objective” of the Australian labour movement and the ALP, and usefully illuminates the historic 19th and early 20th century battles between the proponents of free trade and protectionism.

In his conclusion Walter reveals that he began this exploration of the politics of ideas with the present Prime Minister, “not because he was specially gifted, or his message was unusually deft”, but because Rudd “illustrated something that is a recurrent feature of effective leadership”: that “crafting a narrative for the times” is essential for any effective political leader.

He also quotes John Howard in support of this idea, from February 2009: “Those who triumph politically are those who have not only superior arguments but also the capacity to present those arguments in a compelling fashion.”

Yet as Rudd’s essays make manifest, the influences of distinctly Australian ideas seem few and far between. Indeed, as Walter writes, when Robert Manne sought responses to Rudd’s GFC essay for publication in The Monthly in May last year, he “deemed Australian reaction so disappointing that only the great and good of other metropolitan cultures were commissioned to reply”. The Monthly published pieces by Eric Hobsbawm, David Hale, Dean Baker, Charles R. Morris and John Gray, which seemed a prime example of Australian intellectuals still looking to “the great elsewhere”, to use Sylvia Lawson’s memorable line.

However, that cannot be said of Goodbye to All That?, edited by Manne and David McKnight, a collection of essays in which most of the contributors (all of whom are from Australia) tackle what they regard as the economic and fiscal failure of neo-liberalism.
Most also canvass the urgency (or not) of policy change, especially when it comes to climate change and the economy, which they maintain are interconnected.

In a section headed The Economics of Greed and Risk, the editors open with a reprinted version of Rudd’s GFC essay, which is treated with something akin to undue deference. This is probably because the editors — Manne in particular — applaud what they take to be the end of the era of extreme free-market capitalism and excessive private greed, which they enthusiastically argue “was founded on the belief in the superiority of the market over government intervention”.

Yet as even Manne and McKnight concede, many previous books that have suggested that “civilisation had reached a moment of crisis” have proved to be exaggerated or radically wrongheaded. The wolf has not appeared, despite cries to the contrary.

But with “the looming danger of catastrophic climate change”, Manne, McKnight and their carefully selected contributors argue the situation now is fundamentally different: “With the arrival of this threat, the wolf is finally at the door.”

So what is there to differentiate Goodbye to All That? from other precautionary tomes? Even though the editors stress “the very real harm” that neo-liberalism and human-induced climate change has inflicted, my guess is very little. Human experience suggests that even if wolves sometimes do appear at our door, usually they can be handled.

Moreover, if the economic and fiscal fault lies with the conservatives, as the Manne group implies, what are we to make of the British Labour Party and its recently departed leader Gordon Brown, beside whom Rudd has regularly stood with pride? During the period Brown wielded power as chancellor and then prime minister he advocated “regulation with a light touch”. For all this time, with the Conservatives out of office, London was a centre of the world’s financial system, yet the economy was approaching crisis. About this crucial fact the contributors to Goodbye to All That? are strangely silent.

Fortunately, not every contributor to this collection toes what seems to be the editors’ party line. Thus, while John Quiggin suggests that in his GFC essay Rudd had “struck the right rhetorical notes”, he rightly points out that in practical terms the Rudd government has shown “little evidence” of a renewal of social-democratic thinking. Quiggin also points out, again quite rightly, that Australia has “suffered only modest and indirect effects from the global financial crisis”. In part, he maintains, “this favourable outcome reflects good management; but good luck has been at least as important”. Trusting to luck that Australia will be “similarly favoured in the future”, would be unwise.

The most thoughtful contribution is Anne Manne’s essay on The Question of Care. While all her co-contributors agree we face “the looming catastrophe of global warming”, Manne maintains that “this is not simply caused by the burning of fossil fuels” but it “derives from a fatal flaw in our system of accounting”. As she points out, we “track social progress” by the “narrow measurements of economic growth and gross domestic product”. Although she does not mention it, the sacred cow of GDP is worshipped not only in Western countries but in the rapidly growing economies of China and India as well.
But we do not measure the cost of that growth, in terms of climate change but also in terms of quality of life, which ought include care and concern for the young and old and the impoverished and disposed in our societies. Climate change, Manne maintains, has “dramatically confronted us with the folly of our obsession with growth at the expense of every other aspect of human existence”.

Mainstream assessment bodies, including the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, she argues, are recognising this crucial point. As OECD secretary-general Donald Johnston wrote in 2005, “What does gross domestic product really tell us about economic and social progress?” It is hard to argue with his conclusion: as an indicator, not much. It is certainly hard to disagree with Robert Kennedy, who once remarked that the GDP “does not capture the health of our children, the quality of their education, or the joy of their play — it measures everything, in short, except that which makes life worthwhile”.

One consequence of ever-rising GDP that Manne does not mention is ever-increasing population growth, which is ravaging human societies across the planet. This is a problem even for Australia, with our population estimated to reach 35 million by 2049. In his contribution to this book, Ian Lowe writes that “delusion that economic growth could continue seamlessly forever” was dispelled by the GFC, then usefully adds: “We will have [to stabilise] our population and our per capita consumption so that the sum total of human demands can be met sustainably by natural systems.” That whole question of global population control is worth a book of its own.

By Ross Fitzgerald, Australian Literary Review, 2 June 2010.

What Were They Thinking? The Politics of Ideas in Australia, By James Walter, UNSW Press, 400pp, $39.95

Goodbye to All That? On the Failure of Neo-Liberalism and the Urgency of Change. Edited by Robert Manne and David McKnight, Black Inc, 278pp, $32.95