Yesterday in America, President Donald Trump was handed another small gift by his liberal opponents. Just to add to the big pile they helped deliver last November. MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow declared, “What I have here is a copy of Donald Trump’s tax return,” and then righteously tore the wrapper on nothing. Nothing but an endorsement of that monster’s clean compliance with the law. But yesterday in Australia, Trumpism copped its first meaningful public kick. There may be few more stupefied than me that this was powerfully delivered by the Greens.
If we can see past his occasional reflex to behave like a sensitive human resources manager, Richard Di Natale made some urgent sense at his National Press Club address. He had something to say, and it was said in plain language. Most leaders will declare, as Di Natale did, that they seek to speak beyond the press elite and directly to the people. Well, slap my arse with a red flag and call me Antonio Gramsci! RDN actually did it.
This is a nuisance for me personally as I have been adding to a document full of half-written jokes about a party long in the habit of cheesy virtue-signalling. It now seems unlikely that I will reference Larissa Waters’ call to have gender-neutral lavatory signs installed in Barbie’s biodiesel campervan at any time before the next election. But, this is no great cultural loss at all, most especially when set against the gains made from Canberra yesterday.
The leader was not speaking entirely to an audience of sympathetic journalists. He was speaking to voters who have a sense, even if unexamined, of our social approach toward some kind of limit. If RDN wanted to keep his fans at The Guardian and BuzzFeed completely on side, he would have echoed the injunctions that they write and that commentators like Maddow have unstintingly offered since the Western re-emergence of the nativist right. It would have been all, “People vote for meanies because they’re bad” and “white men are toxic” and “love Trumps hate!”
He did not describe Trump, and Trumpism, as a failure of public morality. He described these as the product of economic settings, often endorsed by liberals themselves.
My friend Bernard Keane’s unique understanding of what is meant by the term “neoliberalism” notwithstanding, the distinct policy era to which that term is usually applied was a central focus for RDN. He said that it, “is an ideology that is now so thoroughly discredited, the impacts so widely despised, that the people of America were prepared to elect a dangerous, unstable, narcissist as their president to overturn it.”
The victory of Trump is largely the failure of a market-friendly regime. This is just the sort of thing I’d expect one of the West’s most prophetic political economists to say. Harsh economic conditions govern the behaviour of the people. This is just the sort of thing I’d expect me to say. Government has become a committee for managing the affairs of the rich. Well, we know who said that.
This is not to suggest, as News Corp erroneously has for so long, that Di Natale has come over all Marxist. But, like the post-Keynesian thinkers from which a great deal of Greens policy is now derived, Di Natale appears to share some genealogy with that great 19th-century philosopher. You don’t have to be a commie to agree with the very idea of a political economy; something that is a social organism and not merely a collection of organs. You just have to have a little discomfort with Margaret Thatcher’s two most famous denials: “there is no such thing as society” and “there is no alternative” to what is generously called a “fluid” labour market.
Di Natale had been foreshadowing his speech to media with hints about unveiling a plan for a four-day working week. As he appears, unlike most of the policy class, to acknowledge the growing problems of underemployment and “fluid” conditions, this was total spin. He didn’t really talk about formally reduced labour hours at all — what’s to reduce when the secure 40-hour week is itself becoming fiction?
But we can forgive him this moment of cheap promotion. It meant that he was able to utter a truth many of us can detect with our senses: there’s not gonna be that many jobs soon.
Malcolm can talk all he will about innovation and the infinite capacity for capitalism to produce new employment opportunities. The fact is, the private wealth accumulation our Prime Minister has championed for so long, delivered innovation of such excellence, it’s about to put many of us out of work. The robots are coming, said RDN. This need not be cause for panic. This must not be cause for another dose of Thatcherism. It is cause, he said, for a revised Keynesianism. And then, he broke the seal on the policy discussion we were always going to have, Universal Basic Income. (UBI. In the Green lexicon, Adequate Income Guarantee or AIG.)
If we don’t have the energy to exact all property from the perspiring hands of the investor class, then UBI is the best thing we’re left with. It is, in the view of many economists including Yanis Varoufakis, the best chance capitalism has for survival. So, it’s hardly a communist fancy. In fact, one of its early iterations, Negative Income Tax, was sketched by none other than Milton Friedman. Today, the IPA still tool around with Uncle Milty’s dream. The appeal for the material right is that free money for all will mean an easy end to Centrelink and all programs of welfare for the poor, and some bonus capital for the rich.
Policymakers on both sides have been talking about UBI among themselves for some time — although he did not mention it during his campaign, Bernie Sanders has been in favour of it for a few years. If quietly applied per the neoliberal preference, UBI will simply reinforce the divide between rent-seekers and the rest of us. If spoken about publicly and frankly, it has a greater chance of serving a greater number of people.
And this was RDN’s great achievement yesterday: to speak publicly and frankly about our political economy. Sure, he made concessions to his base and mentioned words like “love”. He introduced the good young speaker Nada Kalam in a fairly clumsy manner. He congratulated the lady journalists in the room. But, he was also the first Australian politician in a very long time to go to all the bother and the risk of honestly describing the national future.
Shit. I’m probably going to have to vote for them now.