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