Future Focused? Can Labour's finance spokesperson, Grant Robertson, shrug off his reputation for caution and embrace the sort of policies that would signal to voters that Labour has ceased to fear Neoliberalism and is now ready to challenge it? This week's "Future of Work" conference will offer the beginnings of an answer.
WHILE COVERING last December’s COP21 climate change conference in Paris, American broadcaster, Amy Goodman, made an alarming discovery. Climate scientists, the people the world relies upon to tell them the truth about global warming, were pulling their punches. Interviewing Kevin Anderson, of the Tyndale Centre for Climate Change Research, for the current affairs show Democracy Now! Goodman elicited the following admission:
“So far we simply have not been prepared to accept the revolutionary implications of our own findings, and even when we do we are reluctant to voice such thoughts openly… many are ultimately choosing to censor their own research.”
When asked why he and his colleagues were self-censoring, Anderson replied:
“What we are afraid of doing is putting forward analysis that questions the paradigm, the economic way that we run society today… We fine-tune our analysis so that it fits into the economic reality of our society, the current economic framing. Actually our science now asks fundamental questions about this idea of economic growth in the short term, but we’re very reluctant to say that. In fact, the funding bodies are reluctant to fund research that raises those questions.”
So absolute is the hold of the neoliberal economic paradigm on the minds of the professional classes that not even an existential threat to human civilisation can loosen its grip.
Anderson’s last sentence is particularly chilling, because published research is the royal road to advancement in the twenty-first century university. No academic can afford to have his or her research funding cut off. If a research proposal questioning the long-term viability of “the economic way we run society today” causes those holding the purse-strings to raise their eyebrows, then researchers will very quickly learn to ask less dangerous questions.
But, if neoliberalism (a.k.a the free market system) is going to be be the death of us, how do we explain the success of neoliberal political parties around the world? Why: when neoliberal policies are driving the spectacular growth in global inequality; when the real incomes of even middle-class workers are stagnant or declining; when high levels of personal indebtedness – especially among young people – have barricaded the road to a secure future; and when the capitalist economic system, itself, is in the process of triggering abrupt (and probably irreversible) climate change; is the global electorate so willing to re/elect neoliberal politicians such as David Cameron, Tony Abbot and, yes, even John Key, to office?
The answer would appear to be the general failure of “mainstream” opposition politicians to conceptualise a credible alternative to “the current economic framing”. Rather than use their sojourns in opposition to formulate such a challenge, the parties of the centre-left have tried to come up with ways to temporarily blunt the sharper edges of neoliberal policy. Providing short-term relief from neoliberal pain takes precedence over constructing long-term alternatives.
This refusal to challenge neoliberalism at a fundamental level leaves the primary purveyors of the ideology in the political box seat. As National demonstrated with such force at the last general election, the defenders of “the way we run society today” will not hesitate to present their “neoliberal-lite” political opponents as, quite literally, a ship of fools.
This week the New Zealand Labour Party has given itself a grand opportunity to demonstrate its willingness to move beyond the neoliberal paradigm. Its “Future of Work” conference is being held on Auckland’s AUT University campus and will feature presentations by former US Labor Secretary, Robert Reich, and Guy Standing, author of the best-selling book The Precariat: The New Dangerous Class.
There are two political guarantees that would undermine neoliberalism fundamentally: guaranteed work, and a guaranteed income. The former could take the form of the state establishing (and ensuring) a minimum number of hours to be worked by its citizens over the course of their lifetime. The originator of this idea, Andre Gorsz, set the number at 20,000-30,000 hours. In return, the state would guarantee every citizen a universal basic income – not huge, but sufficient to maintain a dignified and secure existence.
These two guarantees would, necessarily, entail a radical redistribution of wealth from the richest 1 percent of citizens to the remaining 99 percent. Equally radical political and social changes would follow in its wake – but no more radical than the political and social upheavals that followed the imposition of neoliberalism in the 1980s.
If Labour is willing to embrace these two guarantees, then it will be well-positioned to stake its claim to the new political territory of the twenty-first century. If it fails to be bold, and continues, instead, to court the “respectability” that comes with paying fealty to the dominant neoliberal paradigm, then its “Future of Work” initiative will founder.
Like the self-censoring climate scientists exposed by Amy Goodman, Labour will have sacrificed its long-term survival for short-term safety.
This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 22 March 2016.