Scott Colvin: Who could have predicted, even two months ago, that a global pandemic would capture so much of the world, robbing us of employment, the performance arts and any form of normal socialising. The fragility of our financial situation has been exposed and untold millions are without work. Economies are faltering and far-reaching stimulus has been required to hold off complete devastation.
But in the ravagings of historical disasters are the furtive materials to rebuild the world in a better image. As the old ways of doing things are undermined and discredited, the landscape opens up for new ways.
So, Jacob — what will be the opportunities of Coronavirus? What do you think will be the future in the wake of this global pandemic?
Jacob Debets: Well, you’re really asking two questions, aren’t you? The first being what are the opportunities at present, and the second being what will ultimately come of them.
The opportunities question is one that I think had many people on the left side of politics cautiously optimistic about in the early days of the crisis. After all, barely two months after the first case of COVID-19 in Australia, a rightwing government fully committed to economic rationalism -- lower taxes, smaller government, deregulation etc -- greenlit the largest economic stimulus in a century, essentially admitting that it’s decade long campaign to deligitimse the Rudd/Gillard stimulus measures in response to the GFC had been a fraud. The wages of millions of Australians were effectively socialised, childcare was made free, and unemployment benefits were doubled; we were all Keynesians now, with government intervention and a strong safety net being strongly endorsed right across the political spectrum.
Against this backdrop, I think many of us initially felt that lasting structural change was likely, maybe even inevitable: a push back against insecure work, re-nationalisation of certain sectors in the economy and genuine action on climate change being just a few big ticket items. If that was too much for the Coalition -- and being candid, it was always going to be -- at least Opposition leader Anthony Albanese could be counted to rise to the occasion and reinstitute a democratic-socialist policy platform along the lines of his counterparts in the United States and the UK.
Instead, what we got was yet another in a long line of capitulations from the ALP, who will reportedly abandon the modestly progressive platform it took to the last election, whilst at the same time fanning the flames of lowest-common-denominator nationalism. With Labor ostensibly unwilling to rise to the occasion (and maddeningly buying into the debt/deficit paradigm which it has every opportunity to repudiate), it feels like a lot of the momentum which progressives had is now at danger of being lost, whilst the forces of disaster capitalism are conspiring to effect an even greater transfer of wealth and influence to the plutocratic class.
Whilst the opportunity is there to swing back the other way, at this point I’m skeptical that it can happen without some kind of mass mobilisation. So I’m cynically bracing for a return to neoliberal hegemony as the status quo, and quite possibly something quite worse by the time we’ve got a vaccine.
Tell me I’m wrong?
SC: You’re wrong that it’s cynical; it’s probably more realistic than anything.
I’m reading A.C. Grayling’s The Good State now, and if there was an overarching message of the book, it would be that the responsibility for protecting and developing democracy lies with us (or at the very least, with human beings).
But I’m not so sure it’s that simple. Sure, we vote for elected officials who are supposed to represent our interests when they legislate, but no one really believes that’s what happens, right? Everyone kind of knows that there are parties to choose from with a suite of policies, not all of which you’ll agree with, and once they’re in office those policy promises don’t always come to much. Four in ten Americans may believe that socialism is a good thing, but you can bet that the States won’t be seeing much socialist policy-making any time soon.
The problem is that there are structural forces at play that are arguably far more powerful than democracy itself. Which is a pretty astounding thought, right? But on reflection, it seems like an unavoidable conclusion. The so-called public sector is measured mostly by the same criteria as the free market (is it cost effective, running efficiently, profitable etc), ownership structures heavily incentivise profit-seeking (especially in the short term) and so on.
These things aren’t going to change because of COVID-19, and just to pick up your point — I’m not even sure if mobilisation will change that much either. I know pockets of the left have been optimistic, or at least have seized on the opportunity to point out the flaws with the status quo, but it’s that real structural change that is needed.
I think that’s the heart of the issue. At present, the architecture of democracy has been calibrated in such a way that it responds to the wrong (see: pecuniary) inputs and therefore produces warped outcomes. We’re reliant on periodic elections and a two-party system, policy offerings which are disproportionately influenced by special interests, and a bipartisan embrace of neoliberal and neoconservative paradigms which the majority of Australians don’t identify with or support.
And yet, with the power of civic institutions like trade unions having been steadily dismantled over the past several decades, the corporatization of universities and the attendant proscriptions that have been imposed on academic freedoms, the hollowing out of newsrooms and local media, and the cancerous overreach of multinational corporations and big tech, the avenues through which previous generations could traverse to engage with and alter powers structures either don’t exist or are hopelessly compromised. Worse, certain institutions -- especially the media and the government -- are regarded with such a high level of distrust that a growing number of people are in favour pulling the whole edifice down rather than reforming it.
It’s here that the relationship between mass mobilisation and the structural change we both agree is necessary deserves scrutiny. For at least the last decade, we have seen mass public demonstrations organised with the explicit aim of critiquing and supplanting the status quo with something more fair and sustainable -- from the Occupy movement in late 2011, to Greta Thunberg’s School Strikes for Climate, to Extinction Rebellion’s highly artistic brand of mass civil-disobedience. And whilst these movements had precipitated what appears to be genuine progress in some places, in Australia they’ve had much less success, despite being at least as conspicuous.
What that leads me to think, and I’m hardly the first person to reach this conclusion, is that a necessary precursor to structural change lies in marrying popular angst with a revitalisation of civic institutions and the construction of new ones: a reinvigorated labour movement; a more expansive community sector; experimentation with initiatives like citizens’ assemblies; and coalitions of otherwise “single interest” groups which might together makeup what political theorist Chantal Mouffe calls a new “hegemonic formation” capable of destabilizing neoliberalism once and for all.
You’re a smart guy Scott, got any ideas about how we might achieve this? Or am I just handballing the question?
SC: The best examples of widespread change I can think of come after moments of extreme angst and anger. I’m thinking of the Marshall Plan and the New Deal in the wake of World War Two, which provided much needed aid for the decimated European nations and set up the US as a functioning welfare state. Obviously with the current debt crisis in Europe and the failure of any kind of reasonable welfare in the US, the effect of those inflection points has faded.
I often feel that people are looking for a similar event now to kickstart reform on a similar scale. There are a few reasons to not want this kind of accelerationism. The first is, simply, why desire something painful even if it leads to long term reform? That is to admit defeat and wish for harm. Second, I would hope that there was still enough faith in democracy for people to believe that significant legislative change is possible. Third, there are many negatives to a generational ‘write-off’ event that we don’t have control over; formal changes we can control, even if there are forces set against us.
People wanted (and still want) Coronavirus to be that cataclysmic event that spurs on change, but I’m not convinced it will be. Least of all, governments have tried to do the right thing with stimulus, even if that stimulus has demonstrated significant shortcomings in the current system. We’ll see how it all shakes out, but I don’t see us on a path towards robbing the public of most of its wealth.
Now, in that context, I would hope that we could be optimistic about electing a new class of political leader who could introduce sweeping legislative reform. There is a whole cadre of them in the US, even with the defeat of Bernie Sanders. Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez, Rashida Tlaib, Ilhan Omar, Ayanna Pressley -- the so-called ‘Squad’. Their legislative goals are a mile high and would usher in a whole new era of policy making. They’ve all made it into the US House of Reps, they’ve all got far bigger ambitions than that, and they’re getting a lot of attention and support.
The legislative reform that this new wave of politicians want to introduce would be as earthshaking politically as the New Deal was, noting that the new progressives have plans for a ‘Green’ New Deal.
I see everything you’ve just said as the groundwork building support for a new generation of political reformers to be elected and bring in once-in-a-generation legislative change. That groundwork is hugely important, and right now it’s working. We don’t need a cataclysm for it to build; the system itself was already alienating people quickly enough without dumping them in ruin.
Australia has yet to see its own emergence of young hotshot would-be politicians, likely because the degradation of society here is behind that of the US. But it will happen, it will come.