Public Books and the Sydney Review of Books have partnered to exchange a series of essays with international concerns. Today’s essay, “The Necessity of an Alternative,” by James Ley, was originally published by SRB on February 10, 2020.
Margaret Thatcher made her notorious claim that there is “no such thing as society” in an interview with Women’s Own magazine published in September 1987. She had, at that point, been Prime Minister of Great Britain for eight years. She had just won her third election, thrashing the hapless Labour leader Neil Kinnock to be returned with a comfortable parliamentary majority of over 100 seats. Never one to lack conviction, she had more reason than usual to feel confident in her opinions. When she said it, she certainly wasn’t kidding. In fact, she said it twice.
Thatcher would later claim that the line was taken out of context, and with some justification. As a bald assertion, it is indeed preposterous. But even with its cushioning nest of qualifications, it is a revealing admission. It was seized upon, quite rightly, because it encapsulated not simply an attitude, but the moral abrogation that sits at the very heart of her ideology. Here are the relevant sections of the interview, which are worth quoting at some length:
I think we have gone through a period when too many children and people have been given to understand “I have a problem, it is the government’s job to cope with it!” or “I have a problem, I will go and get a grant to cope with it!” “I am homeless, the government must house me!” and so they are casting their problems on society and who is society? There is no such thing! There are individual men and women and there are families and no government can do anything except through people and people look to themselves first. It is our duty to look after ourselves and then also to help look after our neighbour and life is a reciprocal business and people have got entitlements too much in mind without obligations, because there is no such thing as an entitlement unless someone has first met an obligation and it is, I think, one of the tragedies in which many of the benefits we give, which were meant to reassure people that if they were sick or ill there was a safety net and there was help, that many of the benefits which were meant to help people who were unfortunate—“It is all right. We joined together and we have these insurance schemes to look after it.” …
There is no such thing as society. There is living tapestry of men and women and people and the beauty of that tapestry and the quality of our lives will depend upon how much each of us prepared to take responsibility for ourselves and each of us is prepared to turn around and help by our own efforts those who are unfortunate.
The striking thing about the raw transcript is that the argument is so contorted and shambolic. Thatcher seems to have twigged, even as she was speaking, that flatly denying the existence of society could be construed as something of an overreach. She retreats to safer ground, launching into one of her stern moral lectures about personal responsibility and mutual obligation, then tries to sugar the dose with some pious waffle about caring for other people, only to lapse into rambling incoherence as it becomes apparent that providing government benefits for people experiencing hardship is itself a way of caring for others. When she regains her poise and tries to double-down, she runs straight back into the contradiction she has set up for herself—what is a “living tapestry of men and women” if not a “society?”
The confusion follows from the significant slippage that occurs in the first sentence, which starts out attacking the idea that one of the roles of government is to address social problems (which Thatcher describes tendentiously as individual problems), then tries to rationalize this view by conflating “government” and “society.” To receive assistance from the former, she insists, is to be a burden upon the latter.
So government is society—and yet there is no such thing as society. With this rhetorical sleight of hand Thatcher asserts a double-standard that uncouples representative government from its social responsibilities. Government, she suggests, can claim to represent society when it wants to impose “obligations,” but it can declare itself nonexistent when disadvantaged members of that society seek their “entitlements.” It is our “duty” to help others, but only by “our own efforts”—in other words, not through the government, even though the government is elected to represent us.
Thatcher’s argument rests on a precise inversion of the lexicon of democracy, since a genuinely democratic society is one in which ordinary people are quite literally entitled. We are citizens. The government serves at our pleasure. The “obligation” in this relationship lies with the government, not the people. We have every right to expect that those entrusted with the responsibility of administering the state will do so in the interests of all of its citizens, regardless of wealth or personal circumstances. We have every right to demand that the government, as a matter of priority, will ensure universal access to the basic necessities of life—water, food, shelter, education, health care, security—and grant even the most “unfortunate” members of society their stake in the prosperity of the nation.
Jane Goodall and Guy Standing both cite Thatcher’s famous denial, and they make the same observation: she was using the wrong tense. As Standing drily remarks in his preface to Plunder of the Commons, Thatcher might just as well have said “there should be no such thing as society.” At the time, her aggressive neoliberal policies, variations of which were being pursued simultaneously in the United States by Ronald Reagan, represented a radical break with the Keynesian blend of capitalist enterprise, progressive taxation and redistributive social programs that prevailed in most Western democracies in the immediate post-war period. Her basic policy prescription—privatization of public assets, deregulation, tax cuts, slashing government services, smashing organized labor, winding back welfare provisions—has since become the economic orthodoxy. After four solid decades of this astringent medicine, its antisocial consequences are no longer debatable.
The flattening of progressive taxation has, unsurprisingly, made the rich much richer, leading to levels of economic inequality that would astonish even the most decadent aristocrats of the ancien régime. Large multinational corporations can now operate beyond the realm of public accountability, many of them exempting themselves from the obligation to pay any tax at all. Privatization and deregulation have bred exploitation and corruption. In Australia, recent Royal Commissions into the finance sector and for-profit aged-care providers exposed appalling cultures of fraud and abuse. Employment conditions have eroded and wages have stagnated, hollowing out the middle class. In its place has arisen a new class of vulnerable workers, known as the precariat (the subject of an earlier book by Standing), who have been forced into positions of chronic financial insecurity. In 2017, an Australian Senate inquiry into violations of the Fair Work Act found that underpayment is “so prevalent in some sectors that it can no longer be considered an aberration; it is becoming the norm.”
In his book Saving Capitalism (2015), the American economist Robert Reich records that a staggering 47 million people in the United States can be classified as “working poor.” His latest book, The Common Good, includes the notable facts that while his nation’s economy doubled in size between 1972 and 2016 the average wage adjusted for inflation went backwards, and that between 1984 and 2016 the wealth of the typical American household declined by a hefty fourteen percent. Goodall notes in The Politics of the Common Good that nearly a quarter of British children are living in poverty. Standing records that in 2018 the number of homeless in Britain stood at 320,000—a record figure that included a growing proportion of people who were unable to find permanent accommodation despite having jobs.
One could be forgiven for thinking that policy failures on such a scale demand, at very least, a reconsideration of underlying principles. But to expect as much would be to underestimate the extent to which Thatcher’s antisocial assumptions have been naturalized, how incontrovertible they have come to seem to the majority of the political class. Neoliberalism is, as Goodall observes, “fundamentally antipathetic to the common good.” It was forged in the heat of the previous century’s ideological battles as an unabashedly pro-capitalist rejection of even the mildest forms of democratic socialism, and it has retained its absolutist quality. It is built around a plain refusal to acknowledge certain social realities and human costs, but like all doctrinaire ideologies it also conceives of its narrowness as a universal truth, claims for itself the mantle of common sense. Deliberate policy choices are thus presented as ineluctable and their deleterious consequences a reflection of the natural order of things. The justification for brazenly skewing the political economy in the interests of capital is a self-absolving confidence trick: the ontologically uncertain concept of “society,” with all of its messy human complications and unquantifiable elements, is simply subsumed by the concept of the “economy,” so that the government’s claim to be attending to the needs of the latter—defined arbitrarily and exclusively as the demands of capital—becomes, ipso facto, a claim to be attending to the needs of society, irrespective of any demonstrable social harm that results.
Goodall provides a small but illustrative example of this specious logic in action near the beginning of The Politics of the Common Good. She recalls a regional town-hall debate that was broadcast nationally as part of the ABC’s 2016 federal election coverage, during which the then Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce was asked about the underfunding of local hospitals. He responded, in part, by reiterating a point he had emphasized throughout the debate, arguing that adequate funding for social services depended on the health of the federal budget, which demanded strict fiscal discipline.
As political rhetoric, Joyce’s assertion was unremarkable. He was doing little more than regurgitating an undigested talking point. But as Goodall observes, there is something extraordinary in the spectacle of a high-ranking government minister in a prosperous nation standing before a room full of his own constituents and telling them that the provision of such an essential service is conditional. Joyce was suggesting, in effect, that even their most basic human needs are secondary concerns, that something as fundamental as their health can be taken into account only after the economic gods are appeased. This amounts to a frank admission that the prioritized needs of the “economy” are not identical to the needs of society. But more importantly it is, as Goodall points out, “a bizarre form of triage.” And the fact that Joyce could present this argument in favor of austerity as evidence of the government’s responsibility, confident in the knowledge that any appeal to the capricious demons of economic necessity will automatically be regarded as unquestionable, is an indication of just how remote considerations of the “common good” have become from mainstream political discourse.
The problem that immediately arises when one evokes the concept of the (or even a) common good is that there is no consensus about what it might mean. Even among this small cross-section of recent books, all of which are concerned to reintroduce the idea of collectivity into political considerations as a necessary corrective to the ravages of unchecked neoliberalism, there is no clear agreement about the grounds on which to base such an argument.
For Reich—a “liberal” in the American sense of the word, who has served as an economic advisor to several Democratic Presidents (and one Republican: Gerald Ford)—the idea of the common good is just that: an idea. His argument in The Common Good stresses the importance of civic responsibility and respect for public institutions, the need to cultivate an educated and informed populace, and the social capital that is invested in trust and respect for the truth. “The common good consists of our shared values,” he proposes. “If there is no common good there is no society.”
The vulnerability of these noble sentiments is suggested by the last sentence, with which Margaret Thatcher would have no in-principle disagreement. An appeal to shared values has no persuasive force unless those values are already shared. “We can’t hate our government,” Reich insists, treading a fine line between an imperative and incredulous pleading, “for it is the means by which we can come together to help solve out common problems.” He proceeds to list the things that “we” believe in (when Reich uses the first-person plural he always means “Americans”): the right to vote, free speech, separation of powers, equality before the law, and so forth. “The central moral question of our age,” he declares, “is whether we are still committed to them.”
The limits of Reich’s argument are set by the fact that he still considers this a question. His argument is directed against people who have made it perfectly clear that they do not respect public institutions and have no interest in coming together to solve common problems. The Republican Party has spent decades gerrymandering, stacking the judiciary, and pursuing policies of voter suppression in a concerted effort to tilt the playing field in its own favor. The United States has long been more plutocracy than democracy, and there are plenty of powerful vested interests that want to keep it that way. Much of the hard evidence Reich puts forward in The Common Good speaks of a breakdown of civic culture driven largely by the degradation of corporate culture and the corrupting influence of money in the American political system, a situation enabled by the bizarre fact that corporations and money have been granted the same legal standing as individuals.
Reich recognizes the urgent need for reform to address his nation’s obscene levels of material inequality, but he remains wedded to the principles of reregulation and amelioration rather than wholesale systemic change. His social vision comes with a large dash of New Deal nostalgia. The Common Good recalls a lost bourgeois wonderland in which employment was secure, wages were sufficient, and corporations felt obliged to behave in a socially responsible manner. The basic equivocation of his stance is summed up in the full title of his earlier book Saving Capitalism: For the Many, Not the Few, which tries to fashion the proverbial silk purse from a sow’s ear by redefining capitalism in softer terms that echo (coincidentally, one assumes) the slogan of the British Labour Leader and lifelong socialist Jeremy Corbyn.
Reich is not necessarily wrong to emphasize the importance of cultivating shared values. And he recognizes the fatal flaw in pinning one’s faint hopes for a marginally better world on something as fragile as trust. As he points out, every time a public figure violates trust or lies with impunity, every time corrupt or unethical behavior goes unpunished, trust itself is eroded and social bonds are weakened. Yet this very observation gives the foregrounding of his ideals of civic virtue the air of an ineffectual exercise in belatedness. “We must not normalize public lying,” he declares, slamming the gate on an empty stable. In the current climate, in which a brace of unscrupulous politicians have found a way to advance themselves by flagrantly violating the expectation that elected representatives will behave with at least a modicum of integrity, it seems almost comically anachronistic to be pointing out that societies “traditionally enforce the common good through honor and shame.” The likes of Donald Trump, Boris Johnson and Scott Morrison are no more likely to be influenced by notions of honor and shame than a piranha is likely to start spontaneously playing the piano.
On one level, Reich can see all of this perfectly well. Trump, he intones, “has no shown no capacity for shame.” But the fact that he deplores the damaging social consequences and the anti-democratic implications of entrenched inequality, yet clings to the kind of accommodating centrism (seasoned with a pinch of both-sideism) that has allowed this situation to arise in the first place, makes The Common Good seem like an altogether too feeble response to what is, in effect, the systematic destruction of his political ideals. It is the work of someone who can’t quite believe that his implacable enemies refuse to play fair, that they have found a way to turn his cherished virtues into political liabilities, and so responds to their barefaced mendacity and undisguised contempt for his social values by reaching for the lever marked “decency” even though it’s not connected to anything.
Guy Standing and Jane Goodall address several of the issues raised in Reich’s monograph—Goodall, in particular, devotes space in The Politics of the Common Good to a discussion of the role of trust in public life—but they develop more expansive historical arguments. Goodall’s wide-ranging book finds inspiration in the Diggers and Levellers of the English Revolution; Standing’s Plunder of the Commons begins even earlier with the Charter of the Forests, a less-famous legal document ratified at the same time as the Magna Carta, which enshrined access to the commons and the right to subsistence in English law. Both authors seek to bring us back to the basic point that the prevailing neoliberal order most strenuously disavows: that all private wealth draws from the store of common wealth. In doing so, they insist upon what the venerable French philosopher Alain Badiou calls “the necessity of an alternative.”
Goodall’s The Politics of the Common Good has several aims. It sets out to examine the intellectual origins of neoliberalism, which it traces back through Thatcher’s intellectual mentor Friedrich Hayek to the work of Adam Smith, Thomas Malthus and Herbert Spencer. Goodall is concerned to demonstrate that while neoliberalism affects to be a rational economic doctrine, it is better understood as an ideology, with a “selective ear for history” and an unrealistically narrow conception of human nature—specifically, it assumes that we are all incorrigibly self-interested creatures, who will always act as individuals to advance our best interests. As someone with a gift for self-sabotage, I can confirm that this is simply not true.
In giving an account of the way in which this meretricious worldliness has established its hegemony, Goodall not only emphasizes its failure to provide a credible explanation for the complexity of human behavior and its blindness to the inherently collaborative nature of human endeavor; she also sets out the negative consequences of such a constrained view of the world. The Politics of the Common Good highlights the fact that neoliberalism encourages an attitude toward disadvantaged members of society that is often far worse than mere indifference. The maliciously punitive measures directed against the poor—the recent “robodebt” scandal provides one grotesque example—could perhaps be interpreted as evidence of that recognized tendency of rigid and narrow ideologies to manifest themselves as the antithesis of their stated aims. But in this instance it would appear to be intrinsic to the rationale. The brazen hypocrisy is less a case of vice paying tribute to virtue than the very essence of the ideology’s appeal to the ruling class. The utility of the basic Thatcherite double-standard is that it simultaneously games the system and licenses a patrician view of the undeserving lower classes, who must be subjected to the strictest discipline. For all the libertarian posturing of its loudest champions, neoliberalism is a socially regressive and coercive philosophy. As Goodall argues, it is “all about control.”
Much of Goodall’s detailed analysis, which is addressed primarily though not exclusively to the Australian context, is broadly supported by the reams of evidence gathered in Standing’s Plunder of the Commons, which is British in focus but similarly concerned to open up the discussion of ideological questions. It is the kind of polemic that makes its case dispassionately but forcefully, through sheer weight of accumulated evidence. Standing grounds his argument not in the abstract notion of the common good, but the tangible and legally recognized concept of the “commons.” He identifies five distinct realms in which human beings can be seen to have a collective stake, considering in turn the natural, social, civil, cultural and knowledge commons. In each case, he details the various mechanisms through which these public realms have been enclosed, privatized and exploited.
Goodall and Standing are at one with Reich in recognizing that the neoliberal regime of the last few decades has resulted in a massive upward transfer of wealth and the consolidation of power in private hands. This has created a situation where governments are increasingly beholden to corporate interests. The two spheres have, to a significant degree, merged—in Australia, it has become routine for government ministers to leave parliament and step straight into lucrative “consulting” roles in the corporate sector. This contributes to the corrosive impression that the mechanisms of government are compromised, that there is one rule for the rich and another for the rest of us, but that there is no potential for any kind of structural change. Goodall notes that not even the massive shock of the Global Financial Crisis was sufficient to loosen the stranglehold of the “zombie” ideology of privatization and deregulation on the political economy, while Reich makes the not unrelated point that no executives from any of the major banks were prosecuted for their role in creating the crisis. Near the end of Plunder of the Commons, Standing observes that the publication of the Panama Papers in 2016 implicated the then British Prime Minister David Cameron (and indeed the Australian Prime Minister at the time, Malcolm Turnbull). When you have a situation in which national leaders are avoiding their own tax laws, claiming for themselves the Thatcherite prerogative to opt-out of their obligations toward their own societies, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that the system is broken.
The question of how it might be repaired presents a particularly diabolical problem. Goodall argues that our conception of the common good needs to be rebuilt from the ground up. She suggests that the twentieth-century conflict between socialism and capitalism “needs to be put aside.” She calls for a comprehensive rethinking of our attitudes toward work and the environment. Her Australian focus inevitably compels her to acknowledge the nation’s original sin—the violent dispossession of its Indigenous people—and reflect that the long overdue recognition of Aboriginal sovereignty might begin to reintroduce a degree of trust into the political system, and provide an opportunity to reorient our relationship with the environment, away from exploitative notions of ownership and towards the more sustainable notion of custodianship. As an immediate and practical proposition, she urges engagement at a local level, finding hope in examples of small communities mobilizing to enhance their lives and protect their interests. Goodall is under no illusions about the distance between such grassroots activity and the kinds of oppressive structural factors she opposes, but insists that maintaining a belief in the possibility of change is a precondition of change. “Optimism is an indulgence (albeit a helpful one at times),” she concludes, “but hope is a discipline.”
Standing advances a more radical idea. He styles Plunder of the Commons as a “manifesto.” Each chapter develops an argument for a set of specific propositions, which are collected in a single document at the conclusion of the book as an updated version of the Charter of the Forests, setting out the rights of the commons for the twenty-first century. In his final chapter, he takes up the subject of his previous book, Basic Income and How We Can Make It Happen (2017), to argue for the creation of a Commons Fund raised from modest but precisely targeted taxes on private companies, in recognition of the fact they invariably exploit the commons in one way or another (giant tech companies profiting from our personal data being a salient example). This money would then be paid back to citizens as a royalty, providing a small but guaranteed income. Such an arrangement, he argues, would “give people basic (not total) security in an era of chronic insecurity. Basic security is a natural public good. You having it does not deprive me of it; indeed, we gain from others having it.”
Irrespective of the ingenuity of Standing’s detailed proposal, which appropriates the logic of rentier capitalism in the service of the common good, he is essentially reviving the old idea that a redistributive tax system is a necessary condition of a fair and just society. The frenzied attacks and claims of ruination this heretical notion would attract if it were taken up by a mainstream political party can be taken as read. But beyond the question of how one might go about building the kind of mass political movement capable of achieving such a goal, it faces the basic difficulty that arises with any meaningful attempt to reform the system—namely, that any such reform could only be undertaken at a national level, but capitalism is global phenomenon with the ability to evade regulation.
This difficulty is, as Alain Badiou suggests, both practical and conceptual. For a Politics of the Common Good is a slight book—a potboiler, really. It consists of transcripts (garnished with an absurd quantity of exclamation points) of a series of conversations between Badiou and Peter Engelmann, who is mostly deferential but occasionally skeptical of the famous philosopher’s more outlandish pronouncements. Badiou differs from the other authors under consideration in that he is an unabashed Marxist, who is prepared to argue that it is “in our best interests to hold onto the term ‘communism,’ because it’s a historical concept and also one that’s notorious and discredited. But it’s precisely that status as a discredited concept that makes it suitable to bring about a rupture.”
Badiou’s outré and, in many respects, defiantly anachronistic stance nevertheless throws some fundamental issues into relief. He insists that any genuinely progressive politics must be universalist, inclusive of “the whole of humanity,” both as a matter of principle and because the global nature of capitalism requires resistance on a global scale. Fascism, he argues, “has a precise definition: it’s a politics of identity.” He notes that “capitalism succeeded in winning people over largely thanks to nationalism.”
The element of unreconstructed idealism in Badiou’s thought invites horselaughs, but it identifies the basic triangulation that has underpinned the neoliberal order. The contemporary right serves the interests of unrestrained global capital, but relies on appeals to nationalism in order to maintain power. For the right, this is merely political duplicity 101—a way of benefitting electorally from the economic insecurity it has created. But for anyone who believes that there must be a better way, who believes that the present system is neither ethical nor sustainable, it means there is an urgent need to connect local, national and international issues. The environmental catastrophe we are facing can only be addressed on a global scale, and the only way to do so effectively is via the cooperation of nation states at a government level. We need trust in the efficacy of the federal political system at a historical moment when that trust is compromised and its regulatory mechanisms have been weakened; we need coordinated global action at a moment when internationalism is viewed by many people with suspicion.
Because things do have to change. The simple fact is that the system as it is currently constituted, based on the principle of perpetual growth and the economic fantasy that the rapacious destruction of the natural world does not constitute a cost, is not only unsustainable but endangering. When I sat down to begin writing this essay, Australia was in the middle of its worst bushfire season on record. Hundreds of thousands of hectares were being incinerated. Towns were besieged by swirling walls of flame; homes were being destroyed in their hundreds, then their thousands. More than a billion native animals were being wiped out. People were dying. Sydney, Melbourne and Canberra were blanketed in a thick cloud of toxic smoke so large it eventually reached all the way to Chile. There were fires everywhere, but they were concentrated with particular ferocity in the usually lush south-eastern corner of the continent, both the ferocity and the scale of the catastrophe confirming, with uncanny accuracy, the predictions of a CSIRO report from 2009 on the likely consequences of anthropogenic global warming, which warned that by 2020 Australia would be facing more extreme droughts and an extended bushfire season characterized by “an increased risk of severe fire weather, especially in south-eastern Australia.”
In the years leading up to this disaster, the federal Coalition government had done everything in its power to ignore the implications of such reports and thwart any meaningful action designed to mitigate the unprecedented threat of global warming, the overwhelming evidence for which grows with every passing week. They repealed carbon price legislation that was bringing down emissions. They slashed funding for the environment and for renewable energy projects. They have advocated building even more coal-fired plants. They have subsidized the polluting fossil fuel industry with vast quantities of public money. In 2017, the then Treasurer Scott Morrison came into parliament carrying a lump of coal given to him by a lobbyist, which he waved around to taunt the opposition while his colleagues smirked and guffawed. So impressed were they with this asinine stunt—which will haunt him forever—they installed him as Prime Minister, when a party room lousy with climate deniers decided to knife Malcolm Turnbull for the second time, once again for proposing what amounted to little more than a belated and inadequate acknowledgement of reality.
The government’s contempt for expertise was on full display in the months before the fires. In mid-2019, some former fire chiefs were so concerned about the impending bushfire season they sought a meeting with the Prime Minister; he refused to see them. In early December, as the fires were beginning to burn, independent MP and former army officer Andrew Wilkie suggested—correctly, as it transpired—that the threat was so serious the defense forces may need to be mobilized; the Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton sneered at him as an “armchair expert.” As the fires were building in intensity through December, the Energy Minister Angus Taylor was at a UN summit in Madrid, doing his best to undermine the coordinated international response to global warming, a performance that one climate scientist in attendance labelled “disgusting.” On December 31, as the fires were reaching a peak of intensity, with thousands of people trapped on the beach at Mallacoota while the town burned around them, Taylor, displaying his famous political acumen, published a flatulent opinion-piece asserting that Australia should be “proud” of its efforts to address climate change. As a fitting culmination of this obscene procession of arrogance and criminal negligence, it was revealed that Morrison had jetted to Hawaii for a secret holiday, managing to get himself photographed lounging in a foreign paradise at the very moment vast tracts of the country he was supposed to be leading were being reduced to ashes.
When Morrison was finally roused to return and began floundering about looking for someone to blame for his dereliction of duty, with the rest of the world looking on in horror and astonishment and no doubt failing to suppress the thought that karma is a bitch, there was a naked-emperor moment. It was possible to see with appalling clarity what it means to have a government that serves powerful vested interests before and, when required, against the interests of its people. The moment did not last, of course. Those vested interests are incapable of shame, and so is the government. The fires were not even out before it was back to the usual game of bluster, evasion, obfuscation and denial. Suicidal foolishness remains the order of the day.
Our dependence on the environment is the ultimate proof that there is such a thing as the common good. The path we are on will eventually render the planet unlivable. Common goods don’t come much more fundamental then breathable air. We now have no choice but to recognize the reality of our shared fate and begin reforming our societies accordingly. The alternative doesn’t bear thinking about.