1983 was a watershed moment in Australian society.
Before 1983, politics was a simple game: the Liberal Party represented big businesses, the Labor Party represented trade unions and their members, the Country/National Party represented farmers and rural constituencies and the Democrats represented angry teachers.
The conventional wisdom was Liberal/National Coalition governments would be in power for long periods of time and occasionally the electorate would get sick of them and you’d get a Labor government which would quickly screw things up and the Coalition would immediately be back in power.
After 1983, things changed.
The ALP government lead by Bob Hawke went about deregulating the Australian economy and opening the country’s doors to the rest of the world. Paul Keating and the leader of the ACTU at the time Bill Kelty established the prices and incomes accord to contain inflation and wages growth which had spiraled out of control under the Fraser government. Enterprise bargaining was implemented to transition the industrial relations system from centralised wage fixing to the realities of the modern age in a balanced, fair, flexible and productive way. Most importantly compulsory superannuation was introduced to deal with the long term demographic stresses that would impact the social security system as well as making sure every working person living in the country would be able to afford a decent standard of living and quality of life in retirement.
Many of the so called “left” saw these reforms as “neoliberalism” even though the ALP never pursued these reforms for ideological purposes. The difference between the Hawke and Keating governments, Tony Blair’s “Third Way” in Great Britain and Bill Clinton’s “Vital Center” in the United States is the fact that the ALP government actually believed in looking at what the data said and making pragmatic decisions in the nation’s interest. It wasn’t done in order to concoct some marketing slogan to capture the middle ground at the expense of the working class constituent. They actually believed in what they were doing.
If they were an ideological government, they would have remained stuck in the old Australian model which broke down in the early 1980’s. Nor did they swallow an economic textbook that adhered the dogmatic ideology of neoliberalism whereby the concept of the market becomes the overriding political philosophy. The idea behind that government was one of pragmatic transition.
That’s also why you don’t hear pseudo-intellectuals and “left of centre” academics in Australia come up with big fancy names for what that government did besides the one dimensional “neoliberal” name calling.
I’ve previously written about levels of development as they apply to values systems and emotional communication using Lawrence Kohlberg’s three stage model of moral development. I use this simple model as a way of identifying and understanding where people are at and where they’re coming from:
Stage 1: Pre-Conventional
- A primal need for safety from the big bad world
- Power for ego’s sake and to hell with everybody else
Stage 2: Conventional
- Discipline through obedience to an authority figure
- Order via a hierarchical structure (follow the leader)
- Mutual Responsibility via the social contract
- Success and achievement through rational scientific method
Stage 3: Post Conventional
- Fairness, equality and social justice
- Respect and tolerance for all values systems
Individuals and groups progress through these stages in order to solve the problems of the previous stage. In other words, you don’t go directly from a Pre-Conventional stage to a Post Conventional stage. The Conventional stage emerges as a solution to the problems of the Pre-Conventional stage and the Post Conventional stage emerges as a solution to the problems of the Conventional stage.
You have to experience life at each stage and go through a process of objectification to begin to solve some of that stage’s problems in order to progress to the next stage where the solutions to the previous stage’s problems create an even more complex set of problems (which also perversely includes the problems of all of the previous stages you’ve gone through).
Put simply: development is a complex and evolving process.
This is reasonably easy to understand. Here’s a slightly more complicated model as it applies to cultures.
Stage 1: Foraging
A foraging culture tends to operate on the most basic hunter/gather instincts. You do what you can to survive by any means necessary.
Stage 2: Horticulture
Some bright person figured out that it’s easier to survive by using tools, planting seeds and growing crops.
Stage 3: Agrarian
An even brighter person figured out how to hook a plough to the back of an Ox which created an even more complex societal structure. You’ll see this type of society whenever you watch anything on television on Ancient Egypt, Greece or Rome etc.
Stage 4: Industrial
This stage emerged with the discovery of science, invention, liberation etc. You got various forms of technology such as steam engines and the concept of mass production. You also get the rise of the various liberation movements such as civil rights, feminism and so on because they’re no longer oppressed and excluded by the Agrarian societal type.
Stage 5: Informational
With the invention of computers, the microchip, unlimited distribution space and sophisticated technology, the need for the production line and the manufacturing plant diminishes in value and we see the rise in value of education, health as well as products and services that promote self actualisation and a means of expressing oneself. You also get the rise of pluralistic democracy and popularity in highly annoying philosophies like postmodernism.
What many don’t appear to get is between 1970 to the present day, the world shifted a stage in its economic development.
The Hawke and Keating government’s shifted Australia from the industrial age to the informational age. Instead of working at a manufacturing plant and doing manual work with our hands, advances in technology, culture and the introduction of international competition to the marketplace which lead to cheaper prices for everyday goods and services and a higher standard of living and quality of life for most people made knowledge and information valuable in our economy. We became knowledge workers.
This is the reality of the modern age. The production of value has shifted from our hands to our heads.
If there is one thing that annoys me more than anything else, it’s when I see people on the left who want to alleviate suffering and help people lift themselves out of poverty take aim at Labor governments and progressives for advocating for market economic policies based on either data or pragmatism over ideology which are designed to achieve that outcome.
What’s often the case is the same people will advocate for policies that effectively regress the economy back to the declining industrial, manufacturing age while ignoring the fact that many of the things we take for granted and that have enabled these people to make the criticisms have come as a result of the process of competition in the market economy and the democratisation of the means of production in the first place!
Worse still is when the current Labor government, who are also pursuing policies to pragmatically transition the nation, attempt to play to “the base” by communicating a policy narrative based around returning the economy to the period of the old industrial age. This usually is seen in the form of over protecting declining manufacturing industries, deliberate attempts to confuse the Fair Work Act with a return to centralised wage-fixing and engaging in the race to the bottom with the Coalition on asylum seeker policy.
Sure, there are issues regarding inequality and people at the top getting compensated in an obscene manner. But the process of how the economy works as a system is a far bigger issue than a few greedy super rich people and their “neoliberal” worshipers.
The reason I gave a brief overview of Kohlberg’s developmental model is because I want to emphasise something that often gets lost in the noise: you can’t get to the Post Conventional levels of economic development without going through the market economy. The market economy is a solution to the problem of the rigid, inflexible system where you had no social mobility that preceded it.
Similarly, you can’t get to the stage of having a market economy without first having a bureaucratic, rigid, inflexible system with no social mobility to begin with and so on. It’s the exact same process. One stage emerges to solve the problems of the previous stage and they’re built on top of one another to form a complex, interdependent system. Each stage must transcend and include the previous stage. They can’t repress and deny them as that would be like amputating a limb for no reason other than the thrill of doing it.
What progressives who are triggered by fairness and social justice should be doing instead of raging at the evils of the free market, the “neoliberals” and the greedy super rich people is looking for ways to improve the process from the Conventional stage of economic development to where they’re mostly at which is at the Post Conventional stage of economic development. Otherwise the rage turns into a perverse advocacy of poverty and a trap for the many people who are struggling day to day to make ends meet. In effect, they’re hurting the very same people they want to help.
Life, society and the economy are extremely complex systems and getting caught in the adherence to a dogmatic ideology on either side of the political divide is a fool’s game that leads to you getting mugged by reality and ending up confused and miserable.
I’ll end this post with one of my favourite quotes:
“The subject of one stage becomes the object of the subject at the next stage” – Robert Kegan