CoViD-19 and the neoliberal chokehold on Australian politics

Unsettling scenes and stories emerged from Melbourne’s inner west as nine public housing towers, home to around 3,000 residents, were placed under ‘hard lockdown’ on 4 July 2020, ‘effective immediately’. And the New South Wales-Victoria border was abruptly closed on 8 July for the first time since the last major pandemic a century ago, with both police and military resources deployed. But without a permit system in place the measure led to fear, ‘anger and confusion’, with reports of terminal cancer patients cancelling cross-border medical appointments.

Victoria’s state premier, Daniel Andrews, has told us ‘this is going to be with us for a very long time’. For Andrews and his advisors, this apparently means ‘until there is a vaccine or a drug or a cure, there is no such thing as “normal”’. Yet leading infectious disease experts have sounded clarion calls warning against this type of thinking, unequivocally advising there may never be an effective vaccine or cure.

However, rather than being a ‘second wave’ of the coronavirus pandemic as such, I see this as the dance sequence playing out from the ‘hammer and the dance’, predicted in March as a likely outcome in many countries. This means a genuine plan is needed to manage the CoViD-19 public health crisis for the long run.

Right now, a key concern in Victoria will be the remaining winter months, which are comparatively cold by Australian standards. Melbourne is also normally a city that voraciously consumes culture in all seasons, be it sport, performance, or a myriad of other events and spaces. And then there’s Melbourne’s diverse and vibrant multicultural population, with home gatherings constituting a key mode of social interaction.

But it’s not obvious if there is a strategy to ride this out in a socially sustainable way. At some level, even the capability to develop and implement an effective medium-term approach in the foreseeable future should probably be questioned. The current police focussed response is unnecessary, ineffective and victimises the most vulnerable people in our community, and still leaves them unreasonably exposed to risk of infection. Be that as it may, the ideological strictures of neoliberalism ensure coercive styles of governance are widely accepted as both reasonable and necessary.

A tale of two states

The post-Second World War welfare state, and elements of the traditional liberal-conservative state, are being radically stripped back in search of ever more sources of wealth for upwards ‘redistribution’ or outwards transfers – public to private, onshore to offshore – to sociopolitical elites and multinational corporations (MNCs). As a result, the public goods and services that create the conditions for a reasonably functional liberal democracy are critically eroded.

In modern western societies this leads to increased disadvantage, exclusion and vilification of already marginalised social groups. This in turn drives behaviour that, rather than being seen as a predictable function of social and economic policy that increases rather than decreases inequality, is seen as antisocial and therefore warrants and requires a police response.

Something like this has played out in Victoria over recent years. There has been a doubling of the prison population in Victoria in the last decade. Aboriginal people, women and people with mental illness are unjustly over-represented, a situation that has only worsened with this increase. And since the 2015 ‘crime wave’ was brought under control by expanding police resourcing and operations, the Andrew’s Labor government has significantly boosted police funding.

This included new initiatives to the tune of $2 billion in 2018, adding over 3,000 new personnel to the force. Since introduction on the urban rail system in 2012, there has been incremental increases in the roles, powers and numbers of Public Safety Officers (PSOs), effectively state-employed, armed security guards for public places. This kind of scope and function creep was readily predictable from the get-go, and is now being officially described [pdf] as an ‘Expansion of PSO mobility and flexibility’.

However, using policing, security or corrections policy to address unmistakably socioeconomic problems in the sprawling metropolis of Melbourne acts like a smokescreen for lack of investment in fundamental public goods and services that prevent crime, build community trust in institutions, and generally enhance social cohesion and wellbeing – the types of programs that would have supported a much more equitable and effective response to the present crisis.

As was the case before the pandemic, what the people in postcodes most affected by CoViD-19 need is better social policy, not more policing.

An unnecessary show of force

It didn’t have to be this way. Victoria didn’t need to respond with an overwhelming police presence. First, from 2 July areas of Melbourne with higher than background rates of community transition were placed under stricter stay-at-home directions, bringing them back under a ‘lockdown’ situation. These ‘hot zone’ postcodes were mostly outer suburban and traditionally working class areas, all of them facing some level of socioeconomic disadvantage, many with relatively high proportions of migrants.

But rather than social workers, health care teams and interpreters, the best trained and equipped police in the state patrolled their streets. The Critical Incident Response Team deployed to enforce emergency directives in these suburbs is classified in Australia as a police tactical group. This is the highest non-military capability and broadly equivalent of a United States style ‘SWAT team’, with core roles including rapid response to active shooter and armed hostage taking situations.

Next, the residents of nine public housing towers in the city’s inner west were placed under ‘detention orders’ issued by the state’s deputy chief health officer. Effectively in police custody, initially around 500 police were deployed, one for every six residents. Many of the residents are from migrant communities, including refugees, and some have language requirements that aren’t being met in this public health crisis. Reports from residents and advocates indicate appropriate support mechanisms were severely lacking, and what was provided in terms of food, disinfecting public spaces and access to medicine was woefully inadequate.

Meanwhile, as an approach to stemming the resurgence of community transmission of SARS-CoV-2, the targeting of specific postcodes has failed, and a ‘soft’ lockdown has been expanded across all metropolitan Melbourne. All but one tower are now on the same footing as the rest of their suburbs, with police maintaining hard lockdown on the remaining tower in North Melbourne close to the central business district.

The timing of the second phase of lockdowns in Melbourne coincided with a change at the top at Victoria Police. Shane Patton, who has a background in counterterrorism, was sworn in as the state’s Chief Commissioner of Police just five days prior on 27 June. For 2019-20, budgeted operational resourcing [pdf] for ‘Policing and Crime Prevention’ in Victoria was $3.6 billion, up 6.3% on the previous year. As at December 2019, there were more than 15,000 full time equivalent sworn police and almost 1,500 PSOs.

Every country has handled the CoViD-19 pandemic differently, with more or less success, depending as always on the criteria for success. Yes, Australia has done very well by international comparison in controlling and mitigating the impacts, even bettering New Zealand’s valiant effort on some measures. But pointing to deep sociopolitical dysfunction in the US or Brazil (both, incidentally, with comparatively high rates of endemic societal violence) is one of the least compelling arguments that can be made in this context.

Despite the securitised approach to managing the situation in Melbourne, it is hardly under control seen from the Australian context. Victoria is now sustaining concerning rates of community transmission, recording 273 new cases on Sunday 12 July. This compares to five new cases in NSW for the same period. Nonetheless, that state’s premier Gladys Berejiklian warned of going ‘down the path of Victoria’, after identification of a ‘cluster’ in Sydney’s lower socioeconomic status south-west.

From hostage taking …

The neoliberal mode has rarefied the social science of economics into a surgical implement for hoovering up as much ‘value’ from whomever it can whenever it can. On this playing field, cowboys and carpetbaggers pass themselves off as ‘free marketeers’ and ‘economic rationalists’. Snake-oil sales pitches delivered through legitimising vehicles of management consulting firms offer public sector solutions that promise the unachievable.

All human societies of any complexity require inequality. In fact, inequality is the engine of social dynamics, providing a matrix in which friction and striving for superior and avoiding inferior social status drives innovation and expands horizons, physical and mental. But an unequal society is also one always pit against itself, one that will always have winners and losers.

In unequal societies, the logic is simple: those on the top want to stay on the top; those on the bottom don’t want to be there. Social mobility is the ultimate enemy of inequality – which is why education is so politically contested.

Add in a middle class, as emerged in western Europe following the sixteenth century Christian Reformation, and it gets more complicated and more interesting. The elite can now align its interests, instrumentally of course, with the middle class or the lower class. To the middle classes they hold out the possibility of elite club access, in return for support and expertise, and on the understanding it is a limited and conditional arrangement.

And to the lower classes they offer the magic dust of dreams; of princesses and fairy tales; of riches, hedonism, and vainglorious violence. In return they seek legitimacy through the popular will of the demos. Still, going along with the fantasy is enforced by the coercive apparatus of the state, backed always by the threat of violence – European history is littered with tragic tales of those who opposed crown or church.

The elite’s status is traditionally legitimised by virtue of aristocratic merits, differing from society to society from caste and class to occupation (e.g. priests), bloodline and beyond. But once members of the aristocracy, there is no requirement for continuing legitimisation, and any opposition is seen as treason against the body politic, a cancer that needs to be eradicated post-haste.

Middle class power ultimately derives from technical capabilities, providing the clerks, bureaucrats, lawyers, doctors and other professionals required to run even a moderately complex state. The technocracy by necessity operates on performance legitimacy, although the professions have flourished due successful use of closed occupations evolving from medieval guilds. Thus, they are ultimately accountable to, and therefore disposable by either or both the elite and the lower classes.

The lower classes have no real social power that requires legitimation. To avoid being seen as disposable by elites and the middle classes, they need to be able to provide various levels of in-demand labour, skilled and unskilled, regardless of education or experience. And in something of a double bind, it is also expected they not be too bolshie in demanding more wealth or status.

… to hagiography making

In reality, sociopolitical elites are dependent on both the brains of the middle class and the brawn of the working class – without them the state collapses.

The effect of removing the former was seen in the aftermath of the 2003 invasion of Iraq, when the broader public sector was purged of Ba’athists. But as Ba’ath Party membership was one of the few avenues for middle class ‘success’ in Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, the result was the functional annihilation of the public sector. And this at least aided and abetted the consequent sociopolitical collapse into sectarianism and violence, if not causing it.

We know the working classes are absolutely essential. After all, who else is going to grow food and make clothing and shelter for everyone? And we have been shown the truth of this in stark terms with the economic onslaught of the CoViD-19 pandemic. Like a miracle too good to be true, essential workers became valued – for a moment. Until prime minister Scott Morrison, echoing wartimes past, made a pronouncement that ‘Every single job … is essential’.

Next, ‘tradies’ were valourised as the driving force behind our do-or-die economic recovery. In neoliberal terms, that’s effectively the same as saying they’re heroes of our nation. And the rhetoric is backed by the $688 million Homebuilder program providing rebates for high-end home renovations. A new brand of hero was called on to help rally people to the flag in this time of radical social uncertainty.

Australia’s nation-building, world-war mythologising is now over 100 years old, far from the radars of today’s young people: digital natives whose lives were already mediated through technology well prior to the pandemic. And tradespeople, ironically the original core of the labour and trade union movements, had already been politicised during the deeply influential prime-ministership of conservative John Winston Howard. A new equestrian class emerged, with their steely tools and trusty ‘utes’ as steeds.

Co-opted and mobilised on the electoral battlefields of western Sydney, they became the new generation of ‘Aussie battlers’ – but rather than struggling to make ends meet, i.e. to literally put food on the table, some were raking in the cashola and investing in rental properties like there was no tomorrow. Many had become socioeconomically middle class, but remained conservative on political and cultural fronts. They came to symbolise the ‘aspirational’ voter.

What this actually meant is they were post-consumers. Unlike earlier liberal ideals aspiring to privileged status of ‘noble’ classes, for whom conspicuous consumption of luxury goods was the order of the day, the aspirational Australian basked happily but modestly in the banal realms of material production and social reproduction – food, houses, babies.

Australia’s first gen-X prime minister, salesman turned politician Scott Morrison, inherited the Liberal Party’s all-time-legend mantle from Howard with his stunning 2019 election win. He has not wasted the opportunity presented by CoViD-19 to raise the erstwhile artisan’s once humble way of life yet another step up the ladder of the Australian national pantheon, from beatification to canonisation, so to speak.

Neoliberalism’s many lives

A key element in the success of neoliberalism has been its ability, like a veteran recording artist with decades of hits, to continue to reinvent itself. It has repeatedly defied Marxian-inspired predictions that again saw the sure signs the contradictions deriving from capitalism’s ‘internal logic’ would bring it down from the inside. Neoliberalism is the creed of ultramodernity, the Kim Kardashian of political economy.

There have even been those, both right and left, who thought it would be a neat idea to be able to ‘accelerate’ the process of capital accumulation by exploiting the cybernetic properties of the neoliberal supersystem. This has now been adopted as an ideological prop by internet and social media based neo-nazi elements in the US, and featured heavily in the ‘manifesto’ of the Australian perpetrator of the 2019 Christchurch massacre.

As the beast becomes more desperate to feed on the economic lifeblood of society it becomes more vicious, and it becomes more and more an all-in, negative-sum game. Indeed, the neoliberal stripping back of the state has been particularly savage post-GFC, with atrocities masquerading under ‘austerity’, a euphemism for pillaging public assets and impoverishing citizens.

As economic sociologist Wolfgang Streeck has outlined, capital accumulation under neoliberalism has been achieved through several waves or tranches of increasingly extractive economic policies.[1] First was the relatively high inflation of 1970s, which provided for wage growth at the same time as allowing ample rent seeking, thus kicking the can of political-economic reckoning down the road.

The second wave in the 1980s, now considered classic neoliberalism, involved public asset stripping through ‘privatisation’ of utilities and divestment of property, and deregulation to reduce internalities and therefore increase the cost of externalities borne by the public or individuals. Facilitating increased economic outflows from the public to private sector entities and individuals, including through tax ‘reforms’, thereby undermining the fiscal foundations of the welfare state.

Taxes, by definition progressive when people earning or consuming more pay a higher proportion of that value, are a primary means of stemming upward flows of resources in democratic capitalist societies. With public debt to gross domestic product (GDP) ratios skyrocketing, the next turn in the neoliberal story saw promotion of high levels of private debt in the 1990s into the 2000s. In Australia, this has resulted in one of the highest levels of household debt in the world, and triggered a housing boom that landed substantial capital gains for anyone already in the market.

At the same time a whole generation of younger, first time, potential home owners were effectively frozen out in favour of rent seekers buying ‘investment properties’ – anyone for a game of Monopoly? We all know how this chapter in the neoliberal experience ends with the 2008 Global Financial Crisis (GFC). But still they were accused of squandering their modest incomes on ‘smashed avocado’ brunches, of all things.

Political-economic Stockholm syndrome

Our elites need to continually accumulate more capital, for that is what it is to be upper class under capitalist social ordering. Everything else they do is just part of a strategy or a tactic for achieving this end. Whether they or anyone else are cognisant of this reality.

The infernal engine cannot be stopped from the inside – that, if anything, is the true internal logic of capitalism. While this characteristic is inherent to liberalism, the neoliberal rebuild around Hayekian market totalitarianism pushes it to the next level. Unprecedented levels of global inequality, embodied in the rise of the ‘billionaire’ class, bear grotesque witness to this appalling reality.

The fourth wave of neoliberalism has taken aim directly at the state apparatus itself. The state’s ability to wield policy levers has been dramatically reduced by the evangelising of ‘fiscal conservatism’ as a new orthodoxy, enforced by global and regional economic multilateral institutions. This was promoted by asserting the absurd macroeconomic fiction that the federal government’s financial operations were just like a household budget – and any galah knows you can’t spend more than you earn or you’ll have to put it on the credit card!

Politicians’ and the media’s obsession with ‘debt and deficit’ and ‘balancing the budget’ narrowly framed the conversation, closing out other voices of reason. In this climate, expenditure couldn’t go up, so provision of public goods and government services became a game of swings and roundabouts. However, this didn’t stop both major parties in Australia from continuing to offer ‘generous’ tax cuts at election time. The lower revenue base was then used as a pretext and/or justification for further defunding of essential public services in a politically motivated race to the bottom.

At the same time, we have seen increased subsidies to commercial interests, including for fossil fuels contributing to hypercatastrophic climate change, and private individuals. Prime examples of the latter are superannuation tax concessions that overwhelmingly benefit higher income earners, and the refundable tax credits for ‘franked dividends’ that the ALP so badly miscalculated, snatching defeat from the jaws of victory in the 2019 election.

Another factor in the erosion of public finances has been the normalisation of tax avoidance by MNCs, which continues rampant despite the damning revelations of the Panama Papers in 2016. Possibly even more of a concern is the ability for MNCs to trump state sovereignty through opaque investor-state dispute settlement ‘tribunals’. These ‘arbitrations’ can have profound impacts on poorer countries when they go the way of global capital and against the interests of citizens.

A house in order or a house of cards?

This all results in a positive feedback loop accelerating erosion of public services, requiring more reliance on private resources and networks, leading to increased inequality. It also leaves a public sector under-resourced and lacking adequate capabilities to meet a major global crisis (even if predictable except for the timing). Institutional know-how and networks had built up over decades and longer, working reasonably well in the scheme of things. But under successive waves of neoliberal public sector reform they have been broken, left to wither, or captured by private interests.

The expansion of policing and carceral dimensions of the state in the Anglophone west is inextricably linked to what philosopher John Gray calls the ‘permanent revolution of unfettered market processes’.[2] As the public sector has become dangerously undermined by the hollowing out of the state, the conditions that made the neoliberal social order possible in the first place are fundamentally jeopardised.

If we allow the loss of jobs and publicly funded social supports that ensure those who cannot provide for themselves in an open market can live a dignified and meaningful life, then when calamity strikes there is little resilience left among the most vulnerable in our communities. Like the thread held too tight, there is no elasticity to absorb the shock of a crisis like a ‘novel’ pandemic. In these conditions, reactance to a heavy regulatory burden imposed without consultation or consent is entirely predictable and arguably avoidable.

A well-worn slogan from the Howard era was ‘welfare to work’. Borrowed from Tony Blair’s spin-heavy ‘New Labour’ in the United Kingdom, it was actually about getting people off welfare so the freed-up funds could be redistributed upwards and outwards. Disturbingly, confusion between the appropriate roles of policing and social policy in neoliberalism’s current iteration may end up with ‘work to custody’ as its calling card.


Image: Nick Carson

[1] Wolfgang Streeck, ‘The crises of democratic capitalism’, in How Will Capitalism End? Essays on a failing system (London: Verso, 2016).

[2] John Gray, ‘The undoing of conservatism’, in Enlightenment’s Wake (Abingdon, UK: Routledge, 1995), 132.

Published by Kurt Vall

Based in Melbourne, Australia, Kurt studied linguistics, philosophy and Asian history at the Australian National University and is currently a graduate student in international relations at the University of Melbourne. He has over a decade's experience in public policy and administration in Australian federal and state government.

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