2016: The fracturing

Friday, 30 December 2016 

One of the fascinating things about Australian politics is its sensitivity to global politics, a sensitivity that is often disguised unconvincingly by politicians and those with an interest in pretending that it all emanates from the security compound on Capital Hill – even though much of the public is fairly wise to the fact that it doesn’t. It has been useful looking at Australian politics over the last decade because it gives some details on a period in global politics that is now coming to an end.

For about roughly the last 20 years, global politics has had what can be described as a strong strain of technocracy. Hollowed out political parties either shifting key functions to unelected bureaucrats or behaving like ones themselves. At the national level this involved governments responding to the increasing lack of legitimacy of political parties and institutions by handing functions such as interest rates, economic management, and even basic democratic rights (mis-leadingly called “human rights”) to unelected officials and judges.

The benign anti-democratic nature of it even extended to elections, being considered a bit of a bore (which to be honest they sort of were), and terms extended and their timing taken out of the hands of elected governments in the Westminster tradition, but instead fixed (even in Westminster).

This was an era of “policy” earnestness and experts, rather than the assertion of old fashioned sectional interests. In Australia, it harked back to the Golden Age of Hawke and Keating, which apparently was Golden because Keating used to come out and explain policy in detail to journalists which they obligingly passed on to the rest of us, rather than of course being Golden because of the co-opting and emasculation of Labor’s most important sectional interest, the union bureaucracy (which were admittedly pretty co-opted and emasculated already).

Internationally it was signified by the prominence of the EU, an institution that was never as undemocratic as its detractors said but rather a congealment of unaccountable but democratically elected national governments which they could hide behind.

But perhaps the most important international symbol of this period of technocracy was China. The rise of China following the crushing of its own entrepreneur class during Tiananmen typified many of the myths of this period. First there was the belief that government was merely a matter of “intent”. Reaction towards the edicts of the Chinese government typified the belief in the West that all that was lacking at home was political will to make it happen – whereas experienced Chinese observers would know the woozy déjà vu of policy announcements that mirrored the exact same announcement a few years before – which never got implemented either. China brought the anti-democratic strain in this technocracy to the surface – sure there was a problem with human rights, but at least China got things done.

Instrumental to the success of China was another important feature of this period, the fusion between the political class and finance, in China’s case, foreign capital. This period was marked by shift in political-economic focus from the point of production, wages, unions etc. to the financial markets. Partly this was because there was no need with the diminishment of unions, but also because these hollowed out political institutions, with little social weight, were incapable of intervening even if they could.

This period of close alliance between politics and finance, has been mistakenly called “neoliberalism” by the left, with little knowledge of the financial industry and the avalanche of regulation that swamped it during this period. Unsurprisingly this close alliance between two highly incompatible forces has not been productive – to be blunt there was not a single financial institution in the US and Europe that collapsed in 2008 – 2012 that did not have its balance sheet and practices signed off by the regulators, even encouraged by them. It would have been thought that after the billions pumped into the economy and the nationalisations in response to the 2008 crisis that “neoliberalism” would be due for a re-think, but never under-estimate the resilience of a theory that is more about left arse-covering than understanding a world they have little influence over.

Both politics and regulatory finance existed not only detached from society and the economy, but antagonistic to it. It was not just the anti-democratic tendencies of government to pass off responsibilities from elected governments that admittedly didn’t generate that much democratic enthusiasm in the first place, but in a political outlook that either viewed the electorate as homogenous blocs of key demographics, or as uneducated slobs uninterested in the fascinating policy dilemmas generated by the latest MYEFO report.

In Australia, this technocratic period roughly spanned the 2000s with the coming to power of hugely successful technocrat state governments, usually Labor, breaking electoral records often because they weren’t really Labor at all, no longer representing the unions that finance them but supposedly the provision of public services against the old “argy-bargy”. It reached its height with the ascension of a technocratic government in Canberra in 2007 that was highly popular because it pitched itself against the old political system, which in turn exacted revenge and produced nothing remotely as popular since.

Rudd’s fall can be marked to the failure of the Copenhagen talks in 2009 and the technocrat fantasy that China would step up and fill the gap left by the US on that most technocratic and anti-sectional issue, climate change. It was a period when the decline of the US seemed to be able to be managed by a new delicate balance of responsible blocs, a power-sharing seemingly accepted by a new technocratic and responsible President in the White House. The collapse of that fantasy left Rudd exposed against forces in his party for reasons that had nothing to do with climate change and the rest is history.

That was six years ago, but now 2016 marks the year when technocracy in global politics suffered severe blows, against the “experts” in the Brexit referendum, and against the delicate but eroding global balance of power under Obama with the shake-up promised, intentionally or not, by Trump. Add to that smaller humiliations, like the defeat in Italy of an obtuse constitutional change to effectively erode regional influence, and it marks the end of period spanning much of the time since the end of the Cold War.

Unsurprisingly the reaction against what are essentially democratic results has been vitriolic and well, undemocratic. They have been dressed up in faux democratic arguments such as having another form of the EU referendum in the UK, and in the US an appeal for electors to overturn the wishes of their state voters justified by a sudden focus on the popular vote which would have been not only news to those voters living in deep red/blue states and therefore didn’t bother to vote, but also the Republican campaign which didn’t once campaign in the most populous state, California, but instead foolishly focussed on the key states as though they actually were.

This reaction is unlikely to last. In the UK, those seriously wanting a recount are likely to be perhaps enough to make the Lib Dems look viable, but the equivocation of Labour a death knell. In the US, as seen by the backfire to the attempted electoral college coup, the Democrats have more to worry about their own division than anything, something a weakly placed President Trump will be only too keen to exploit.

In Australia, politics remains paralysed for the moment. For now, there appears a lack of opportunists capable of exploiting long standing dissatisfaction with the political system like Rudd did in the last decade, and Trump and Boris Johnson did this year. Certainly not Bernardi and other “conservatives” who have completely misunderstood what is now happening. So things will look paralysed probably awaiting something international to respond to.

In the meantime fragmentation will likely continue. Bernardi and Abbott look set to be catalysts in the Liberals (but others are likely to join), but nor should the security of Shorten be assumed, even if he does well in the polls. Indeed the real possibility of Labor resuming power may make challengers more restless.

The attention internationally will be on Trump and much of it will be silly. In the US, there will be talk of “resistance” from those who couldn’t even organise an effective election campaign let alone a genuine opposition. All the pundits who were so certain that Clinton would win will now be saying how Russia swayed the election to Trump. Those who got 2016 so wrong are barely taking a breath because Brexit and Trump are so appalling that to not see either coming is regarded as sheer decency, meaning they will carry on into 2017 with moral clarity, if clarity in no other area – and of no use to anyone else.

Posted by The Piping Shrike on Friday, 30 December 2016.

Filed under International relations, Key posts

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6 responses to “2016: The fracturing”

  1. Cavitation on 4th January 2017 2:10 pm

    We can think about this in another way. Really, the last half of the twentieth century was characterised by the growing worship of business. In Australia, the Liberal Party was the party of business, and for the Labor Party being a manifestation of the working class, that class was only working because it was paid by business. The Country Party evolved from representing farming families to become the National Party when its key supporters were replaced by mining companies and agribusiness. Business became paramount, and its importance expanded over the period to eventually result in the doctrine of neoliberalism, which asserted that business was by far the most important interest group in society whose needs must come first ahead of any other group. The right to conduct business was holy under neoliberalism; a right that should not be constrained by any regulation or impairment.

    Business contributes to dangerous global warming, you say? Rubbish, they answer, global warming does not exist, or else we have faith some new business will appear in the future to make a profit combating any climate warming. Cigarettes kill smokers, you say? Again, rubbish, they reply; there is no such connection, or if one does exist then smokers have the right to die the way they want, and the tobacco business should not be regulated, nor should advertising to gain more smokers be prevented or limited. Problems are growing in the economy, you say? The answer they give is always going to be for lower business taxes, more business subsidies, less regulation for business, more money paid to business executives, and higher share prices for business owners. After all they say, business operates most effectively by removing any barriers to moving money, goods and workers wherever it best suits business.

    But it is interesting at present, now that the neoliberalism doctrine has reached its zenith, that the wider public have split into two minds. Half are willing to take neoliberalism further; pushing the doctrine to its extremes. The other half are willing to become apostates, turning their backs on business worship and rediscovering a zeal for nationalism, tribalism and protectionism.

    The Trump coalition soon to run the US government is a perfect example. Half the cabinet are business oligarchs while the other half are protectionists and nationalists. President Trump, of course, is in both camps at the same time. We can watch the coming battle between the two groups play out within the confines of the US government; that should be a fascinating spectacle. In Australia, the current government is split along similar lines. But it will be interesting indeed if the winners turn out to be different here from those in the United States. Because Australia followed more the European socialism-influenced faith, it was a late convert to the church of neoliberalism, but managed to catch up just as the belief system started to collapse. How closely we match the US in the outcome to the neoliberalism religious war remains to be seen; we were never as devout believers as America, but our leaders pretended to be. Now we must see where faith leads us.

  2. Troy on 4th January 2017 4:15 pm

    A really insightful post with a lot to mull over. There’s much more here to help understand and contextualise what’s happening in both local and international politics than in the MSM which seems obsessed with trivialities or obvious barracking for their team – and don’t understand why people are switching off. Thanks.

  3. Luke on 16th January 2017 9:18 am

    “For now, there appears a lack of opportunists capable of exploiting long standing dissatisfaction with the political system like Rudd did in the last decade, and Trump and Boris Johnson did this year.”

    What are you talking about. Rudd was elected because he was perceived by the electorate as “a safe pair of hands”, not because there was widespread dissatisfaction with the Australian political class in 2007. We’re talking about a time in which Howard enjoyed over a decade as PM. If there was widespread dissatisfaction at that point in time, surely Beazley or Latham would have been elected. They weren’t, because Keating economic reforms and Howard as PM made us all ‘comfortable and relaxed’

  4. DM on 16th January 2017 2:15 pm

    Luke, Rudd’s appeal was because he didn’t seem like a regular politician, which Latham and Beazley well and truly were. Rudd was an anti-politician politician.

  5. Luke on 16th January 2017 5:11 pm

    Rubbish. Rudd looked at the electoral success of Howard and very deliberately styled himself both in presentation and policy in this vein. Latham was perceived as inexperienced and reckless, whereas Rudd successfully bet that he would become PM by seeming as governmental competent as Howard. Of course, this all began to fall apart when he took on too much at once, and failed at Copenhagen.
    There was nothing “anti-politician” about Rudd. Anti-politician in the current political context correctly refers to someone like Trump. Not a bureaucratic, Mandarin-speaking ex-diplomat.

  6. The Piping Shrike on 17th January 2017 9:31 am

    First I don’t get Rudd styled himself on Howard to the extent you claimed. Rudd’s economic conservatism did follow Howard, although even on that he distinguished himself against Howard (“this reckless spending must stop”) during the campaign.

    On Kyoto, the apology, the Iraq war, Workchoices Rudd had quite clear differences. If anything, on those issues, Howard followed Rudd.

    Second Rudd was quite clear on being against what he called the “argy-bargy” of the “old politics”. This was especially true for his own party and the traditional power bases of factional and union leaders, for which they got their revenge.

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