“a crisis which is at once institutional, intellectual and ideological”

In an interesting piece, though one still constrained in critical reflection by aspects of the ideological crisis it seeks to (partly) challenge, the current Australian Prime Minister has commented on contemporary politics and economics. The piece, which is published in the forthcoming issue of The Monthly, titled “The Global Financial Crisis” (a first-1500-word preview is available online), and commented on in a piece in the Sydney Morning Herald titled “Time for a new world order: PM” does raise some questions yet fails to see beyond terms most familiar. Much like the National apology Rudd made regarding the atrocities and injustices of Australia’s treatment of its First Peoples—which continue to have implications for contemporary Australia (which it is rumored was written by the PM himself), there is some critical engagement and awareness of issues. Perhaps prophetic, and I am certain some could see a connectedness of events, an invisible hand assisting in a convenient timing, the piece is interesting given the author. For me, that such arguments are being presented in the mainstream press, and certain to get some further coverage as they are being made by the PM, locate my interest. Much like Rudd’s, and more recently, Obama’s, election, some will attribute hope/potential for hope of a change. I hope the rhetoric in the air leads to more than just the rearranging of deck chairs.

The opening quote, in bold, sets a prophetic tone:

From time to time in human history there occur events of a 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. The significance of these events is rarely apparent as they unfold: it becomes clear only in retrospect, when observed from the commanding heights of history. By such time it is often too late to act to shape the course of such events and their effects on the day-to-day working lives of men and women and the families they support.

One could ask whether it is arrogance shaping such a perspective, or if actual events substantiate such a reflection. Rudd, much like Obama, though perhaps not as much, comes across as humble. That, and hope for an end to the injustice of contemporary societal politics, shapes my view that arrogance is not basis for such prophesizing, though if this is the end of the epoch as described, I am sure credit will be given, in retrospect, for this piece. From the outset, it needs to be noted that Rudd is a capitalist. A look at his wife’s occupation and income provides a clear indication. It is also implicit in the argument and explicit in many of the ‘sound bit’ statements. For example,

…neo-liberalism – that particular brand of free-market fundamentalism, extreme capitalism and excessive greed which became the economic orthodoxy of our time.

Is soon followed by

Not for the first time in history, the international challenge for social democrats is to save capitalism from itself: to recognise the great strengths of open, competitive markets while rejecting the extreme capitalism and unrestrained greed that have perverted so much of the global financial system in recent times.

This can be read as an I told you so to neo-liberals, with reference to a need for “properly regulated competitive markets”. Rudd’s is very clear:

The second challenge for social democrats is not to throw the baby out with the bathwater. As the global financial crisis unfolds and the hard impact on jobs is felt by families across the world, the pressure will be great to retreat to some model of an all-providing state and to abandon altogether the cause of open, competitive markets both at home and abroad

Perhaps prophetic in itself (i.e. the recent Obama plan to use US steel in reconstruction projects), he also goes on the argue against what is termed by capitalists as protectionism—often seen in placing tariffs on imports. I would demur, however, labeling the approach to banning tariffs as throwing the baby out with the bathwater. For example, how can products priced based on socially just wages compete with those produced in sweatshops? An extension of this, and what I consider a sound basis for the restriction of international trade (referred to, often incorrectly, as protectionism) are environmental implications. I do not see how, for example, it can be defended that crops that can be grown locally are shipped form other parts of the world. I see tariffs placed on such items as essential to reducing our species’ impact on the planet.

Some may argue that to place such restrictions on trade would be at the detriment to ‘developing’ countries. Whilst there is, at times, some merit in such arguments, they do not address that an economy should be based on local trade, not reliant on the foreign. The idea of bioregionalism, coined by Environmental activists in the 1970s (not-coincidentally the same time that neo-liberalism was gaining ground), goes some way to addressing this. A world espousing mutual respect and recognition, not embroiled in bullshit notions as the market, would provide the support necessary to overcome challenges some countries/regions would face—a vast change from what we see today.

To address what I see as potentially the most important aspect of Rudd’s piece is the statement “We therefore need a frank analysis of the central role of neo-liberalism in the underlying causes of the current economic crisis.” Given how neo-liberalism was masked and imposed largely by stealth and via measures to create vested interests (making everyday people shareholders, initially through superannuation schemes/pension programs, etc), I am certain I am not the only one who wants such a discussion to be in the public realm, and covered by the mainstream press. If this does eventuate, I do foresee potential for an end to the epoch of the current variant of contemporary capitalism. What will follow can be more just. How much more? The notion of excessive greed as the source of the current financial crisis does not inspire great hope.

As Rudd outlined in his opening paragraph (albeit different from his intent), and many commentators have expressed since the inauguration of Obama, we need to make the change happen, to force governments to do our bidding. We can’t sit back in the headlights of a post neo-liberal ‘leaders’ hope/euphoria. Perhaps a groundswell of people can foster/force the required/wanted changes to shift towards a genuinely just society…

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