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The real crisis of democracy

Norman Abjorensen is co-author of Australia: The State of Democracy, to be published in June by Federation Press. His essay The real crisis of democracy was originally published on Inside Story, and is republished on Webdiary with Norman’s kind permission.

The real crisis of democracy
by Norman Abjorensen

In 1975, in the midst of the energy crisis, a powerful organisation called the Trilateral Commission, set up by American banking interests and made up of representatives of big business and government in the United States, Western Europe and Japan, published a report commissioned from three eminent political scientists called The Crisis of Democracy: Report on the Governability of Democracies to the Trilateral Commission. Its key theme was that democracies had become ungovernable, that governments were suffering from an overload of both decision-making and expectations. In short, there was too much democracy, too much regulation, too much welfare.

Helped along by radical economists such as Friedrich Hayek and Milton Friedman, this was the thinking seized on by Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher and used to dismantle much of the post-war Keynesian safety net. (John Howard in Australia was a later, though no less ardent, disciple.) The object of the exercise was to create a global market – an American global market, which we now call globalisation – under which much of the world slipped back into laissez-faire economics thinly disguised as deregulation.

Three decades later, unfettered capitalism has been discredited once again. But it could have been far worse if those associated with one of Australia’s most stridently pro-business think tanks, the ironically named Institute of Public Affairs, had had its way more often. Behind its very establishment address at 410 Collins Street, in Melbourne’s commercial heartland, lies political extremism in a smart suit and tie: the ideological headquarters of cowboy capitalism.

Under the banner of “free people, free society” the IPA has exerted significant influence on Australian political and social life for more than six decades. It was the driving organisational and ideological force behind the formation of the Liberal Party and the architect of a massive stream of propaganda that sought, successfully, to discredit Australia’s very moderate Labor Party as a socialist tiger waiting to pounce once the war had ended.

The IPA is, of course, concerned with private rather than public affairs, its extreme neo-liberalism and deification of the so-called free market displaying a thoroughgoing contempt for anything public: public ownership, public service, public transport and, indeed, the public itself. It is the ideological mouthpiece of very private enterprise that likes to glorify in the name of “free” enterprise.

Leaving aside the vexed question of whether liberty really does reside in a system that confers economic rights on a tiny, unaccountable, property-owning few over the powerless many, the IPA might have been expected in the current crisis to tone down its rhetoric. Not so. It is as ebullient as ever, and its executive director, John Roskam, is busily building branch support for a crack at a safe Liberal seat in Melbourne.

The latest issue of IPA Review carries a full-page house promotion, featuring a graphic of the mythical monster, and the accompanying headline: LEVIATHAN IS BACK. But who is Leviathan? Many of us, and possibly most, might well regard the uncontrollable rampant beast of that name as the representation of the globalised private sector rather than the elected governments who should (but seldom do) regulate in a way that benefits the many, not the few. (In 2004 the respected Australian Election Study showed almost one-third of those surveyed feared the power of big business, far ahead of any fear of government or unions.)

In its exhortation to “reject the State-Monster” and support the IPA (“the most concrete way you can support limited government and individual freedom in Australia”), it is evident that the spirit of cowboy capitalism is far from spent. The organisation warns of an emissions trading scheme “set to raise the price of everything.” Well, yes, the free use of the people’s environment for private exploitation and profit is simply unsustainable. The jibe of “environmentalists pushing bad science at the highest levels of government” is scarcely disguised climate change denial.

The IPA also opposes “wasteful government programs like GroceryChoice being proposed at every opportunity.” It has been a consistent critic of consumer protection measures, seeing in them an illegitimate trespass by the state on private matters. Only a strong state can protect the public interest; the IPA’s constant harping about reducing the size of the state is really aimed at reducing the capacity to protect.

Industrial relations changes are seen as “handing power back to militant unions,” quite ignoring the fact that unions never had real power, that they are representative of far more people than the IPA and its employer cronies, and that union militancy is dormant, if not extinct. And the IPA also opposes “taxpayer’s (sic) money being used to bail out failed firms.” This is, of course, the economic Darwinism of neoliberalism talking: failed firms have social consequences for displaced employees, whom failed employers happily abandon. Perhaps it is time to rethink this policy of bailouts and give displaced workers the option of taking over and running the failed firms.

Unsurprisingly, the IPA is also opposed to governments bringing in budget deficits. There is an enormous hypocrisy at work here that is also reflected in the Liberal Party’s blustering and posturing: the much-vaunted reduction in public debt during the Howard years, much of it financed from selling off the people’s assets, was not so much a case of good economic housekeeping as a transfer of public debt to private debt.

But the most problematic – and dangerous – aspect of the IPA is its utter contempt for even the most basic democratic rights. It has waged a relentless war against non-government organisations, themselves a response to the shrunken public sphere under neoliberal assault. In this it reflects the Trilateral Commission’s view of democratic processes. Crisis of Democracy spelled out quite clearly the need for the public to be discouraged from political activism: “The effective operation of a democratic political system usually requires some measure of apathy and non-involvement on the part of some individuals and groups.”

According to the report, a crisis of democracy can occur when the populace becomes too well-informed about the true goals and motivations of its rulers and begins to demand that those in power shift their focus from self-aggrandisement to providing for the people’s common needs. After all, “order depends on somehow compelling newly mobilised strata to return to a measure of passivity and defeatism… At least temporarily the maintenance of order requires a lowering of newly acquired aspirations and levels of political activity.”

This accords with the IPA’s feeble and passive definition of democracy, courtesy of former Keating government minister, Gary Johns. Dr Johns, who has led the ideological attack on NGOs, wrote: “Our attitude is shaped by our conception of democracy, which is at odds with the current fashion for participatory democracy… Participation merely crowds the field with agents (for example, non-government organisations) who may or may not provide solutions to those issues that require government action… The IPA argues that the strength and role of NGOs may give the appearance of an active democracy, but it is in reality a sign of an active citizenship.”

The IPA joined with the American Enterprise Institute in 2003 to “debate NGO influence and accountability” at a conference in Washington, an event publicised with the breathtaking claim that “the extraordinary growth of advocacy NGOs in liberal democracies has the potential to undermine the sovereignty of constitutional democracies…” In fact, corporations, whose donations keep the IPA and AEI afloat, have done more to undermine national sovereignty than any humble NGO could ever dream of.

The neoliberal experiment has cut a swathe through society over the past three decades, setting back popular sovereignty, further removing people from decision-making and engendering a critical disenchantment in, and detachment from, the political process. It has led us to the point of global crisis, greater hardship and considerable uncertainty. The doctrines that have inspired it – those preached by the IPA – have effectively seized the public space and stifled real debate and deliberation; as such they represent the gravest threat to popular democracy.

This, more than anything, is the toxin in the body politic. The only antidote is greater awareness of the essentially anti-public nature of this doctrine and more, not less, citizen involvement in the political process. The alternative to be consume, be silent and die.

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You have me confused

Anthony Nolan, Lyndon LaRouche  is a French Nationalist. I love La Marseillaise ... however, that's enough.

You believe in one world government. I believe in one world.

Without even mentioning deficit

The problem with people asking for more democracy is that they're always found asking for more of "their" kind of democracy. This writer doesn't disappoint.

He has written a political ad, pure and simple. Unfortunately littered with economic drivel and folk stories. He seems more concerned convincing himself, rather than anyone else. I'd say his belief system is wavering, and has been for some time. It's not called the cold hard face of reality for nothing.

Let me be frank and earnest: western "left wing" governments succeed by running policies they pretend (for the uneducated masses) to be against. It's a classic double sided coin - every side's a winner. Any person thinking either the American or Australian Governments are going to change anything (excepting cosmetic) is delusional. They're locked in, they know they're locked in, and it's time to get theirs. That's business, and that's the business cycle.

Three decades later, unfettered capitalism has been discredited once again.

I don't know why people bother repeating this nonsense. Maybe they believe if you say something enough it'll come true. The cycle has changed, and that's all. It'll change back eventually. We never had unfettered capitalism at any rate. Never anywhere near such thing. I guess it all depends on your standards: selling a private car would be considered unfettered capitalism to a communist, say.

No, I can't get very excited about the "revolution". All I see are things the same as they have always been. Plus the fact the only guy I ever really knew that got deep into such things ended up on drugs and living on the streets thankfully always made me a little risk adverse to such puerile nonsense.

Work hard, learn from the right people, and follow the basic rules that have always existed, and the last thing you'll need is a revolution! I can't offer any better than that.

Incoherent rantings

I suggest, Paul Morrella, that as you are so confident of your ideological position you might put it to good use perhaps by offering your services to the Lyndon LaRouche organisation amongst whose members I believe you would find many fellow travellers.

David R: (mildly) interestingly, the Australian LaRouche affiliate, the Citizens Electoral Council started sending us all their stuff a while back ...

Ruling class pillow talk

This is a terrific exposure not of an event or scandal but of an ongoing mindset.  These people have normalised their own contempt for others not of their class to a degree that is profoundly dangerous. Burkean fear of "the masses" is alive and well it seems:

After all, “order depends on somehow compelling newly mobilised strata to return to a measure of passivity and defeatism… At least temporarily the maintenance of order requires a lowering of newly acquired aspirations and levels of political activity.”

Thanks to Norman Abjorensen for having the intellectual and psychological fortitude to read enough of this muck to be able to write about it.  He has provided excellent access to how these people think. The arrogance is astonishing. Who are these people?  Come out of your clubs, I say, so we can see you in the broad light of day.  Out from under your rocks more like.

Limiting participation

I agree with Norman Abjorensen that organisations like the Trilateral Commission and the IPA have had a hand, perhaps a major hand, in limiting popular participation in political decision-making. I would like to add to the list those anonymous individuals who after the Vietnam War decided that the press should never have such freedom of reporting again. In this way, participation is limited by being shaped and formed by vested interests.

What is of greatest threat to democracy is the practice of governments of pursuing policies which are never discussed, let alone brought before voters. The object of the exercise for all Australian – Federal and State – governments has been and still is to create a global market. This is the explicit goal of the recent Bradley Report into tertiary education, for instance. The major parties are in agreement over this so there is nothing to discuss. It is simply a question of who does it better. When that is all we can vote on, where is the democracy?

At last!

I recall something Paul Morrella writing about "bozos".

These IPA pr-cks must be the ones he was referring to.

But Norman Abjorensen's piece expresses so much better everything a number of Webdiary contributors, including this contributor, would feel about their disgusting lies.

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