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.


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