The new nationalisation
“Tony Abbott has suggested that the military be sent in to operate gas production in Victoria and New South Wales …”
Say what now? These days the federal government is difficult to keep up with, having apparently split into its “moderate” and “armed” wings. With summer coming up, and anticipated heavy demand on power for airconditioning, Malcolm Turnbull, leader of the increasingly ill-named Liberal Party, is considering ad hoc compulsory direction of gas export ratios, while his deputy prime minister, Barnaby Joyce, is adjudicating industry management plant by plant, commanding AGL to either repair or sell-on its ageing coal-fired Liddell power station. “It’s like driving a car off a cliff rather than selling it,” Joyce wailed in incomprehension.
The member for New England, at time of writing, does not appear to understand the concepts of “depreciation” and “competition”. He is a former accountant. Both he and Turnbull are wimps in comparison with Abbott, who has apparently decided to abandon the market and private property altogether. What a time to be alive.
Perhaps it is on my part an act of disloyalty to the left, but I can’t be the first person to have suddenly realised that the regime the Turnbull government most resembles is that of Venezuela, whose Chavista red caudillos have been fond of micromanaging the economy for two decades. The late Hugo Chávez once rang into a radio station as he drove past a shopping mall under construction, to announce that this was exactly the sort of thing that shouldn’t be built, and that resources should be directed to facilities for impoverished youth. This was perhaps one reason why non-oil investment faltered in Venezuela, and the sort of thing that the neoliberal op-ed crowd jumped up and down about, and pointed to as the failure of “socialism” – the inability to guarantee a stable investment framework, in the absence of a rule of law.
Now, apparently, to judge from the cowed silence, following brief protest, of the right-wing “free market” think tanks, it’s okay to call in the heads of Big Energy on a fortnightly basis for a patriotic chat about their national duty. Give it a few months, and Turnbull will be conducting these in Bolivarian pyjamas, Cohiba cigar in his mouth, while a tame jaguar lolls at his feet. “Gentlemen, Mingus has not eaten in days. Now let’s talk about wholesale pricing for interstate transfer, mwa ha ha.”
The Coalition cheer squad tries to present this sort of thing as “non-ideological pragmatism”, but it is nothing other than panicked meddling. Politically, Turnbull and the government have no choice. Should the power supply sink below hitherto unheard of levels, then so, too, will their already terrible two-party-preferred vote. The general public wants action. More exactly, they want to never have got into this situation in the first place.
It’s worth considering what this immediate impatience represents: the longstanding disregard in Australia for market ideology. Arguments you can get away with in the United States, you can’t get away with here. There is little patience for the abstract value of “freedom”, if it is the freedom to swelter, for children to get sick, and for the aged to die, while gas is sold overseas. The impatience with it is immediate, and the absurd attempts to blame the crises on the development of renewable energy worked only for a few people and only for a while. Now most Australians understand that our energy crisis is a product of a double whammy: privatisation in the 1990s, followed by deregulation in the 2000s, a process that essentially traded away our energy security and the stable underpinnings of modern life. Because of this and other disasters here and abroad, both social ownership and regulation are back. The “free” market era is far from over, but what is finished is its unquestioned legitimacy, and the rule of the idea that giving capital open slather represents “liberty” for the average citizen.
There is no real mystery as to why people, deep down, believe that the economy should be regulated by community interest, via means of social ownership of major resources, selective protection of local industries and practices, and regulation of those parts of the economy dedicated to profit-making. Put thus, it is simply common sense. But for three decades and more, right-wing memes spread through the culture, and had great purchase: first, the idea that the profit-oriented business firm was the only way to manage large organisations; second, that the state that regulated them on our behalf was some sort of pure negative, a dead hand. Everyone was encouraged to damn “red tape” and think like a chief executive.
Such thinking took off in Britain and the US at the end of the 1970s, and for obvious reasons. The partially social economies put in place decades earlier – the New Deal, postwar British socialism – had been born in high-industrial, class-regimented societies. They had failed to evolve with a changing society, to make social ownership and control more, not less, democratic and agile than the market. When postwar prosperity collapsed beneath them, there was a whole intellectual movement ready to argue the point. As postwar social democracy dawned, the “classical liberals” – Hayek, Mises and others – had retreated to the slopes of Mont Pelerin to finesse ideas that had been bubbling since the late 19th century: that there was no such thing as collective good, or even a collective entity; that any form of social action that wasn’t individual and contract-based was unsteerable; and that private property was the only form in which such action could be anchored.
Such thinking drew on an austere and simplistic form of epistemology, the theory of knowledge, which saw the base of true knowledge as little more than observation by the senses and mathematics. Such atomised logic generated a politics that encouraged the idea of atomisation as a positive good. By the late 1970s, popular culture was creating a similar feeling of individualism: the creation of the “self” and the “me decade”. Who wouldn’t want a phone/gas/train company in which everyone could own shares? Or to throw off the shackles of red tape?
But the ideas of classical liberals were reverse engineered, a philosophical justification for a political position. They had emerged in the 19th century in Vienna, the first major city to have socialist policies on housing, pensions and social control of the economy. Classical liberalism was a sort of political hysterical reaction. Its philosophical base is asinine and generated the now notorious programmatic absurdity enunciated by Margaret Thatcher, that “there is no such thing as society; there are individuals, and there are families”. Such ideas succeeded as a program only because, deep down, no one really believes that life is like that – but that, for a time, running part of it as if it is might produce a growth support. At some level everyone, save for a few libertarian comb-overs, understands that that cannot be a program lasting any length of time.
Now, everyone can see that such a fatal conceit has started to eat into the base of everyday life. Nothing says absurdity like power cuts because a privatised system requiring regulation was deregulated. The arrangement generates not freedom, but its opposite: being subjected to the rule of brute nature in the form of excess heat, cold and darkness. These particular insights lead to more general ones about the system as a whole: that markets elevate a “means” – exchange and profit – to the status of “ends”, and annihilate the notion of meaningful life altogether.
As market capitalism has become monopoly capitalism – markets without competition – the potential capacity to see beyond it becomes ever greater. Today, in a society benighted by privatisation, such as Britain, people can begin to see again what they had forgotten: that water, power, transport and other entities are social in nature, and should be controlled thus. They can see that the “freedom” offered by postmodern piecework merchants such as Uber can be questioned. In the shadow of Grenfell Tower, for instance, London has refused Uber a licence renewal, pending a clean-up of its arrogant bullying tactics.
It is obvious to many that entities such as Google and Facebook may have started as private bodies, but are now simply “social knowledge” and “social connection”, and should be socially vested and regulated accordingly. Parties that can present sensible, modulated, pluralist programs for mixed economies, social ownership and regimes of regulation will prosper. Those who persist in the worship of the Molochs of Mont Pelerin will find themselves engaged in just as much regulation, because the public demands it. The difference is that this regulation will be of a meddling, inefficient and unfree nature. The classical liberals are right about that; ad-hoc controls pile up unco-ordinated interventions creating contradictory effects. It is only through visible, systematic and democratically controlled social ownership and regulation that the good society is possible. For the Turnbull government, whatever happens, it’s going to be a long hot summer.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Oct 7, 2017 as "Sermon on the Mont". Subscribe here.