The neo-liberal state and its legitimation crisis: @OpenStateSA in South Australia

South Australia’s government is running an ‘Open State’ festival with all the usual buzzwords about innovation, participation, engagement blah blah blah. I’ve been to three of its events, all of which were good for thinking with – not about ‘innovation’ and ‘democracy’ (the events were deeply problematic)  but about how the neoliberal state tries to make it seem that it is listening to “the People” while continuing to do what it sees best, for itself and for the great god Economy.

And though I want to talk about the failings of each event, and how each could have been improved within the same space, with the same budget, I am MORE interested in how the neoliberal state is using the rhetoric of ‘peer-to-peer’ and ‘prosumers’ and all that ‘social innovation’ malarkey to defend itself and raise  (but not too high!) expectations as the future comes a-crashing around our ears.

So, a few concepts are in order. What do I mean by neoliberalism and the neoliberal state? There are serious bunfights over neoliberalism and its meaning, but if you had to boil it down to a sentence, it would be “the market will magically provide, efficiently, while the state is always inefficient and leads to the gulag”.  From the end of World War 2, where the credibility of the State and planning was high (they’d beaten the fascists etc) to the early 1970s, “everyone” believed in the power – and responsibility of the state to guide/shape/chivvy “the Economy”.  But in the mid70s there were a series of shocks to the system, beginning with the US ending the gold standard, the first oil shock, Watergate, the US defeat in Vietnam, and, most significantly, the combination of inflation and mass unemployment at the same time  (so called ‘stagflation’, which had been thought impossible).  And along came the advocates of the “Free market”  (who’d been beavering away in the Mont Pelerin Society, the Institute of Economic Affairs) and who seized the moment.  The election of Thatcher (May 79) and Reagan (November 80) were the signal moments.  In Australia, it was Hawke/Keating (1983-1996) From then the rhetoric (and reality) of the neoliberal ideology kicked in, with the reduction/abolition of (some) tariffs, the privatisation of publicly-owned companies, successful attacks on trade unions, and the increasing ‘marketisation’ of society.  This has had really important implications for the way individuals think of themselves and the solutions for problems, both personal and societal, but that’s a bit beyond our scope here. [this looks interesting]

So, the neoliberal state is one in which “intervention” in the economy is dismissed, and the state shrinks to providing a few core services (roads, law and order etc) and private corporations start to provide health, education etc, and this is regarded as a good and inevitable thing always.

The problem for the neoliberal state is where is the tax-base to pay for these things coming from (anyone who watched seasons 3 to 5 of the magnificent TV show ‘The Wire’ will recall Mayor Carcetti’s desperation on this topic).  And so we come to another of David Harvey’s concepts –   the spatial fix.  Capital is (especially since the 1980s) hyper-mobile, able to slosh around the world at a moment’s notice.  Labour and government is ‘stuck’ in one spot, mostly (the opposite of what David Ricardo witnessed, but I digress).   So, how to attract capital, and keep it long enough in order to get some tax dollars that can then be used to pay for the stuff that people expect (police, roads, emergency ambulances, schools etc).  Well, you have to make yourself attractive to capital.  And since high—tech capital wants certain niche things, such as good transport links (airports, container ports, good roads), connectivity (broadband/pervasive wifi/highspeed internet fiber-optic wazoo), stable/predictable political setting (no policy oscillations/uncertainty) lots of cultural and sporting things for highly educated knowledge workers to distract themselves with (so, festivals and sporting stadia) and, above all, a highly educated workforce (so, think universities).  The city I am from and the city I live in – Manchester and Adelaide – are both well into this.  And they see themselves not as competing with other cities around the world, not necessarily nearby cities.

So, almost done with the concepts.  Bear with me.  So, neoliberalism and the retreat of the state has been part of a ‘legitimation crisis’  (the other part, which leftists forget, is that it wasn’t all a bed of roses when bureaucracies ran stuff. See Jeremy Seabrook’s ‘What Went Wrong?’ for a contemporaneous account.  After all, bureaucracies shit on powerless people, especially the poor). The state is regarded as both incompetent, and overtaxing, but at the same time, politicians are blamed for everything that goes wrong.  An obvious example is the death of a child when it turns out the parents were a clear risk – ‘why wasn’t something done?’ goes up the cry.  But if something is done (lots of children removed from risky parents)  then the Nanny State has Gone Beserk/interfering busy-bodies.

And the final concept (for now) is a related one – ‘political amnesia’ which I’ve stolen from Laura Tingle, who is a fricking genius.  She makes the point that ‘institutional memory’ of bureaucracies, political parties and the media has shrunk as the ‘old hands’ have been offered early retirement etc etc.  So even ten years ago is ancient history, and lessons of previous failures (and successes, such as they are) are simply not available.

So, finally, on to the three Open State events. I will keep this short.

The first event was a finalists-pitch-their-innovations and the announcement of the winner.  What was interesting is that although the judges were able to ask questions to the pitchers, the audience was NOT, at any point. We were there to be grateful witnesses of the cleverness of the technology nerds and the wise state appointed judges.  And in his speech announcing the winner, SA Premier proudly stated that South Australia’s greenhouse gas emissions had gone down 8% by 2014 on a 1990 baseline.  He didn’t mention (and almost certainly does not know- see political amnesia) that in 1990 South Australia committed to reducing its emissions by 20% by 2005.  Oops.

The second event was a wretched ‘foresight’ exercise.  I generally avoid anything with the word 2050 in the title because they are simply avoiding the short-term necessity of decarbonisation and allowing us all to dream a distant future for which we have no responsibility, and today’s politicians can get the credit for without having to do any of the heavy lifting. I refuse to collude in that sort of masturbation.  So why was i there –  I’ll admit that I stumbled into this because I got my dates wrong.  What was interesting was that we were sat at tables of three or four and, after a lecture about how we should avoid certain cognitive biases, set to work on what they wanted to talk about (and it was woefully vague). We were not encouraged to find out who the other people in the room were, what expertise and experience with ‘foresight’ exercises they might already have. We were not asked to participate in how the session was designed. The outcomes were not clear (though there was some embarrassing guff about how if we were sufficiently ‘open’ to the experience it could lead to ‘personal transformation’ [I. Shit. You. Not.].  It was a dismal ‘world café’ bastardisation, where all we could do was scribble down random thoughts on a sheet of paper, and then circulate.  Think a palimpsest of pure mush.  Meanwhile, inevitably, a photographer circulated, taking evidence that could be added to some glossy report to the funders.  And people circulated, asking ‘interesting’ questions.  It was diabolical.

The third event was the most laughable.  I have to be careful here about libel laws etc, especially in ascribing motivations or thoughts to the panellists.  It was allegedly about democracy via face-to-face and digital methods of ‘engagement’. We were sat at round tables, but all eyes were to the front, to the seven sages on the stage.  We were told that there would be time for questions and interaction from the audience. And guess what; after 55 minutes of a 60 minute session, the compere, who had made the promise, had finished asking her questions to the panellists  and so it was over to us. For what was going to be a single question, but was stretched to two because the first one was dealt with very quickly.

Not one of the six panellists – all of whom doubtless believe in the importance of interaction and engagement – tried to get any information from the assembled ‘odd’ citizens about who they were, what they knew etc.  Not one of them tried to hold the chair to the initial promise of opening it up to the audience.  How’s that for speaking truth to power, and challenging stale formats?  I won’t say more than that (libel laws).

What COULD have happened was that we on each table were given 5 minutes to get to know each other and then generate an agreed key question.  Tables could also have been asked to generate ideas for how South Australia’s government might solve problems with previous ‘engagement’ processes (and there have been many).

Look.  The crapness and top-down-ness of these events was not some neoliberal conspiracy, designed to dupe the heroic citizens.  How do I know this?  Because the “left” also runs its meetings and events in the same crappy way.    The game is the game.  So why write this?  Because the gap between what was promised (and the subject matter) and what was delivered was just too much to bear.  It undercuts the credibility of the South Australian government, and it also devalues the very meaning of ‘participation’.

The common features in all three events

  • Sages on the stage (en)act expertise, while the audience is there to cheer them on.  The words participation and innovation are thrown around with great abandon.
  • A complete failure to find out from the audience what their actual expertise was, how they might have genuinely contributed (scribbling words on flipcharts? Don’t make me laugh).
  • A total silence on the intermediary organisations between the individual and state (trades unions, churches, community groups, NGOs) that might help the individual make sense of what is going on, AND help them engage in long, drawn out, and costly (in terms of finance, emotions etc) ‘engagement processes’ with state bureaucracies.

So, two more concepts to finish with

The audience at these events was treated as ego-fodder.

The process was one of facipulation.

Further reading

The key stuff on neoliberalism and the late 70s onwards is by David Harvey. You could also read on Karl Polanyi and his notion of the ‘double-movement’

On the spatial fix, see also Richard Florida and all the guff about the rise of the Creative Classes and so on.

Extracting value from the Festival of Ideas #AdlFoI

Show me. Don’t tell me. Show me that sharing and challenging are important enough to keep a clear promise to a 2/3 to 1/3 split between sage-on-the-stage and audience interaction.

Alternatively, if you’ve no intention or capability to enforce a 30 minute/15 minute split between talking and Q and A, then don’t promise it. It’s very very simple. Just say ‘x is going to talk for 45 minutes. You can email him (or, less likely, her) if you like.’ If you do this beforehand, then people can make an informed adult decision about what they will attend. If you lack the honesty or competence to keep your promises, don’t be surprised if someone calls you out for poor chairing. Actually, be surprised, because most people are far too polite, which is part of why the bad behaviour (and it is bad behaviour) persists.
</End of rant>

Right, Michel Bauwens. Several people whose judgement I trust rate him very highly. And they are right to. He’s clearly able to give a clear, compelling and fruitful overview of the long duree. He’s read prodigiously, and is able to communicate clearly, even while giving you flashbacks to Donald Pleasance circa The Great Escape (“take me with you, I can see perfectly!”)

Bauwens started out by looking at three nurses all doing exactly the same job of caring for an elderly person. One is doing it via a family/church situation, and has no ‘GDP’. The next is a public sector nurse, and this is seen as a drag on the economy. Only the third, private sector, nurse is ‘generating income (i.e. surplus value for shareholders/investors). Bauwens points out that this is weird – three people doing the same job where only one counts as ‘profitable.’ This is his ‘way into’ the notion of value regimes, and they change more often than you might think.

Citing a book called The Structure of World History: From modes of production to modes of exchange by Kojin Karatani, he lays out four value regimes (and none exists in a pure state). In a nomadic tribe, there is simply a sharing/pooling of resources (and the hunters were often the last to choose what they got). In villages you have reciprocity/gift economies. After ten thousand years of this, you get to conquer, plunder and redistribution – i.e. feudalism. And then the market (thanks to double-entry book keeping, the printing press and the Reformation).
The book looks at this in detail, with the end of the Roman Empire (5th Century) the persistence f the class structure, Charlemagne’s tries to re-establish it. In the 9th century you get knights stealing from the church, nobles stealing from the peasantry – a plunder economy. But then the monks of Cluny start confronting the knights with their sins… and it worked! So along comes feudalism and ‘noblesse oblige, ‘primogeniture etc.
Bauwens argues that there are two ways of creating wealth today – extraction from land/soil etc and extraction from people. But these are radically unsustainable ecologically – climate change, resource depletion, the sixth great extinction) and also socially (rising inequality since the 80s, recent rise of radical right in Poland and Hungary, possibly France and Austria too, with inequality destroying the middle ground. In the UK the calculation is that there are only 100 harvests left thanks to soil exhaustion

Clearly a generative regime, that creates wealth by adding, is required. Bauwens points out that something like Facebook is valueless without the input of its users. He points out that the new companies like Uber and Airbnb are not investing in their own infrastructure, or hiring workers, and that we are moving from a salary worker economy to freelancers. Give it another 15 to 20 years and you’ll see a lot of pauperisation (16m in UK with less than 100 quid in saving).

So, what is to be done? Bauwens points to the “commons. He talked about networks as ‘nomadic technologies, with the Internet making people independent of place, and more able to pool resources. (Bauwens spoke of ‘commons-bound-peer production and the self-organising ability to organise production and distribution via ‘open contributory systems’. He cited the wikihouse and wikicar – a 1/5th of the fossil fuel usage, apparently.
Bauwens pointed out that entre-preneur means ‘taking between’, an extractive mode, and the word should instead by entredoneur – giver between. He bigged up ‘Enspiral: more people working on stuff that matters’, 300 New Zealanders with an open source decision-making process (loomio) and also co-budgetting. This is all ‘infrastructure of cooperation.
He pointed to the ‘capital-nation-state’ formulation of Karitani (nation as in the imagined community created when the State and Capital had screwed over the older ways of being). He then segued into Karl Polanyi’s The Great Transformation, and its narrative (the “double movement”) of how the market tries to get its own way, succeeds and then 20-30 years later there is a revolt of the nation – popular protest creates social movements that force the state to re-regulate the market. Has happened a bunch of times, but now capital is truly transnational, states don’t have the power to discipline the market.
So, where is the productive civil society going to come from? Depends what you mean by productive, doesn’t it!

So, Bauwens argues for value sovereignty (think back to the three nurses), and the need to create a ‘membrane’ around ourselves has value flowing in and sticking around.
After further arguments, he proposed we all take a closer look at the website he’s part of helping grow – 21 thousand articles, 40 million views, trying to “observe and take not, and try to learn”.

Books he suggests we read:

There were three minutes for questions. Three minutes. I asked about what the vested interests might do in response, to defend themselves. I also pointed out the gap between the rhetoric of sharing versus the reality of talking for 42 out of 45 minutes which drew predictable gasps and jeers from some of the audience (the sheep, basically).
Came the answer ‘if all citizens take action, they can’t all be stopped. Choose your battles carefully. Do things in the interstitial spaces until strong enough’. He gave two examples – of AirBnB being fought to a standstill in Barcelona, with the battle leading on eventually to a new politics.
The second example was of ‘the Bologna Regulation for the Care and Regeneration of Urban Commons’ of roughly ten yeas ago.

The second brief question was about the outcomes of system change efforts/advice in Ecuador. Bauwens impressed me with his frank appraisal that the efforts having not succeeded, (the national state decided ‘nope’ and so it’s moved to a city level). Commons Transitions Coalition in Melbourne

Other things to read-



Seven blog posts about one event? Really? #tediousselfpromotion

The only way I know what I think is to read what I wrote. Sort of.  And then that writing serves as an aide-memoire (and, yes, a calling card on occasion).  Here’s a list of the ones I did after today’s Festival of Ideas event.

Athenian Democracy?  A few funny things will need to happen on the way to the forums

Sustainable jobs in sustainable communities

I’ve seen the future and it’s … social media.

Solar Citizens launch

Climbing out of the abyss?  Not so sure on that

Roads to ruin, pathways to prosperity

Ideas about festivals of ideas

No guarantees that I’ll do the same for tomorrow. After all, my brain will probably give up the ghost, especially after I inflict the latest Jack Reacher movie on it…

Ideas about the festival of ideas #AdlFoI

[Seventh of a series of blog posts about sessions at the Adelaide Festival of Ideas on Saturday 22nd October]

So, had a great time at the Adelaide Festival of Ideas today. Met some very interesting people (some famous-ish, some as obscure as me).  And  while not ever disgruntled, I was also not completely gruntled. I never am.

As well as ‘welcome to country’ and acknowledgement of the importance of the land to the original occupants, there could be two other pre-beginning things.

  1. An acknowledgement of carbon dioxide – its growth in the atmosphere as the central geo(physical)political fact of the 21st century, and the fact the kind of life we attendees take for granted is part of that growth [here’s an example]
  2. An acknowledgement of the isolating impactof neoliberalism and many top-down forms of communication (such as being ego-fodder at an event).

    And there. therefore the MC asks everyone to turn to a person next to them or behind them (i.e. a stranger) and  simply greet them, verbally or with a handshake and perhaps chat for a minute.

next up – and this is crucial – all the speakers to spend no more than a third of their time on the diagnosis of what is wrong, and two thirds of their time on what they would do about it/like to see done about it.

We really need speakers who can address the ‘why have we failed in the past’question.  What road blocks prevented us from achieving what (we knew) needed to be achieved, in the 70s, 80s, 90s, 00s (pick a decade, any decade).  What do we need to do differently to sustain social movement pressure?  How do we avoid the perils of the smugosphere?

Keep data on who asks questions (age and gender) and aim for 50/50 (on the basis tha

Before Q and A, have people turn to the person next to them to get help honing a question. This may improve the gender balance of questions  (see this blog post on ‘meetings are institutionally sexist‘)

‘Roads to ruin, pathways to prosperity’ for South Australia #AdlFoI

[Sixth of a series of blog posts about sessions at the Adelaide Festival of Ideas on Saturday 22nd October]

Finally today, John Spoehr looked at South Australia’s future ‘Roads to ruin, pathways to prosperity’.

Again, he bigged up Labor’s response to the GFC, compared the Abbott government’s 2014 budget as a throwback to Fightback (!), the 1990-1993 neoliberalism writ-large of the Hewson Liberal Party (which went on to lose the unloseable election, done slowly by Paul Keating).

Spoehr warned that the ‘personal empowerment’ rhetoric for services was seductive and attractive.  He argued that there are alternatives to the current ‘nuclear waste dump to pay for the stuff we want to do’ proposals of the State Government.
He didn’t shie away from the challenges ahead, especially for male full-time employment as major employers shut up shop.  If Whyalla’s steel works were to close, it would, for example, be very messy indeed.

He invoked Don Dunstan on the question of ‘we intervene or we sink’.

Anyway, I asked the question I always do – about how social movements can be clever and resilient enough to cope with the inevitable two or thee years down the line political a) ‘fuck off’ or b) ‘yes, we will do what you say’ (followed by broken promises that demoralise further). How can social movements avoid either co-optation or repression?

Spoehr pointed to engaging younger people, the internet, convergences between issues, and predicted that climate change would be a major driver of the next wave of protest over the coming years.

FWIW, it’s something I write a lot about, at a ‘micro’ level, of how the normal ‘rules’ of social movement events (protests, rallies, meetings etc) usually exclude anyone whose face doesn’t fit, who isn’t willing and able to spend ages in boring meetings etc etc. For recent examples about South Australia, see here here and here. Plenty more where that came from, just ask, or google ‘smugosphere’, ‘ego-fodder’ and so on.

In response to another question (on resisting the siren song of ‘personalisation’) he suggested we read the work of Dexter Whitfield

Dexter Whitfield seminar
Dexter gave a talk on ‘Capitalist dynamics reconfiguring the state: alternatives to privatising public services’ at The University of Nottingham on Wednesday 16 September 2015.

A recording of his talk from the event is available via the Centre for the Study of Social and Global Justice (CSSJG) website.

Climbing from the Abyss? Not sure on that… #AdlFoI

[Fifth of a series of blog posts about sessions at the Adelaide Festival of Ideas on Saturday 22nd October]

Barry Jones really is a living legend. The list of his achievements and honours is very very long.  But…

But this.

When Jones gave the Don Dunstan Oration today (Dunstan was a game-changing Labor leader of South Australia in the 60s and 70s), he did not deliver an explanation of “climbing up out of the political abyss” that the title and blurb promised, but rather described that abyss and how we got in it.  That description was erudite and entertaining- this is Barry Jones, after all – but it was not what the audience had come for (I spoke afterwards to a couple of people who left half-way through it). The audience was mostly elderly, described to me by one entertaining person as “Whitlam’s offspring; the rat in side the boa constrictor of the system” [Whitlam introduced free tertiary education during his 1972-1975 Prime Ministership].

All that Jones said; that Labor has been the party of change and reform; that the debate has become infantilised and reduced to the purely economic and the personal; that there seems to be an inverse relationship between our access to knowledge and the capacity of our political systems to deal with the concatenating wicked problems – all this was true.

But we in the audience knew that, I think.  We had come to hear how he thinks we should get out of this godawful mess, not to hear (entertaining) comparisons between Trump and Lincoln, enumerations of all the silences (on class, problem gambling, the power of lobbying groups, growth as an end in itself, the destruction of human rights, the environmental collapse, the rise of surveillance etc). and an enumeration of the toxicity of media, digital media and social media cycles.  And yes, political parties are hollowed out (representing, at best, 0.6 percent of the population, and state funding is simply ‘ armour plating for existing structures’ and factions being – in the words of Robert Ray ‘a whole production line of apparatchiks”  Yes, all true (although he didn’t mention it, Jones lost his Minister of Science gig because of factional bargaining, back in 1990).

Yes, the EO Wilson quote on our species having paleolithic emotions, medieval institutions and god-like technologies was entertaining, but it’s still just an aphorism of the apocalypse.  Yes I will look up Mark Thompson’s “Enough Said” but there just wasn’t – to paraphrase Gertrude Stein – a there there.

The word courage in politics is always an excuse (not used by Jones) to refer to the classic scene in Yes Minister about ‘courageous decisions’, so here goes.

I think Jones very probably does have many important and interesting things to say on the question, but he spent so very long outlining the problems that we just didn’t get to hear any of those things. Nor was there a chance for any questions from the floor, which is a bit ironic, since one of the problems is surely a lack of dalogue, no?

Solar Citizens launch at Adelaide Festival of Ideas #AdlFoI

[Fourth of a series of blog posts about sessions at the Adelaide Festival of Ideas on Saturday 22nd October]

Next up was the launch of Solar Citizens. It covered the ‘solar rooftop revolution’ (1.5million Australian houses with solar panels, from a basically standing start 8 years ago), the start of solar citizens and its plans for a ‘fair and orderly transition.’

This was done via an engaging talk that took in President Carter’s 1979 installation of solar panels on the roof of the Whitehouse, Reagan’s 1986 removal, and Obama’s 2014 re-installation (by which time the price had dropped by a factor of 40). In the last few years the rooftop solar ‘revolution’ has at a conservative estimate, 19000 jobs, reduced energy bills and 24 million tonnes of carbon saved. An interesting comparison was made with the millennium drought, which also brought a sense of personal connection/responsibility for consumption patterns.

Solar Citizens’ origins were linked to the ‘direct attacks’ on renewables emanating from the big ‘gentailers’ (Origin, AGL and Energy Australia) and the owners of the transmission lines (the ticket clippers).

In May 2015 they’d proposed a solar surchage of $100 per year on people with panels in South Australia, simply to raise revenue.  Thus do incumbents defend themselves…. The regulator (AER) said ‘nope’, it went to court and the courts said ‘nope’, while local groups rallied, petitioned and generally raised cain (effectively).

Solar Citizens are also trying to get ‘big solar’ on the agenda.  They’ve combined with Get Up! To produce a ‘Homegrown Power Plan’ .

Here’s their video-

It seeks to remove roadblocks , ‘reboot the system’ [e.g. end the situation where people only get a derisory amount for energy they sell back from to power companies, that then flog it on at ‘normal’ prices to other customers) and repower the country” (concentrated solar thermal etc).

These sorts of normative entrepreneurship efforts are crucial to any transition, be it energy, food or whatever.  They often get written out of the official histories (we can’t have citizens making  a difference, after all, they might get wrong ideas about democracy and their own power!], but boy do they matter…

There’s a Solar Citizens event on October 31 in Adelaide. Sadly there was no time for questions – I’d have asked about their relationship (competition?) with BZE…