Anthony Albanese’s election win is a vote for change, but it’s another dying breath of an old order
Poet Matthew Arnold wrote, “The bridge is crossed and we drive slowly.”
That sums up this election. Arnold’s poem Stanzas from the Grande Chartreusse was his search for meaning in a faithless world. It perfectly captures the mood of our political times.
Labor crossed the bridge to enter government, but without a big mandate, without radical reform, without a big vision.
It was less a resounding vote for Labor – a dismal primary vote below 32% – than a reflection of disillusioned voters, tired of politics as usual and leaving the main parties in droves.
It’s a slow ride. Anthony Albanese charts rough seas.
“The autumn evening darkens,
“The wind has picked up and is blowing away the rain.”
We are living “The shattered dream of a dead time”.
Liberal democracy around the world is being undermined. He’s worn out. He appears to be out of ideas.
No enthusiasm for large parties
The Australian election campaign ended with Albanese and Scott Morrison acting more like mortgage brokers trying to sell us a house. Buy now, pay later. We even refund the deposit or let you plunder your super.
This is what neoliberalism has brought us: a “what do I gain” election without enthusiasm for the big parties and without serious discussion about what really afflicts us.
Western liberal democracy throughout the 20th century was built on two great ideas: the New Deal that drove American politics from the 1930s to the 1980s, and neoliberalism that promised a post-Cold War world of globalization and technological progress, the removal of barriers to trade and the erasure of borders: free movement of goods and people.
The New Deal was built on a pact between labor and business with a strong social safety net that helped fend off the lure of socialism or communism.
The stagflation of the 1970s – a mixture of high inflation, low growth and high unemployment – dealt a mortal blow to the New Deal.
When the Berlin Wall came down, those days were over.
Neoliberalism appeared triumphant. Economies grew, poverty was reduced, progressive parties like Bob Hawke’s Labor Party in Australia, later Tony Blair’s Labor Party in Britain and Bill Clinton’s Democrats in the United States married their social program with the market-dominated economy of the British Margaret Thatcher and the American Ronald Reagan.
An engine of political earthquakes
While stagflation mortally wounded the New Deal, the global financial crash severely damaged neoliberalism.
People felt abandoned and left behind. Inequalities have skyrocketed. In the United States in particular, it has fractured the political system.
Neoliberalism’s faith in the market has eroded communities. A divide emerged between rural and urban populations – what British political writer David Goodhart has called “some and anywhere”.
This division has caused political earthquakes like the Brexit vote and the Trump presidency in the United States.
Historian Gary Gerstle tracks this phenomenon in his book The Rise and Fall of the Neoliberal Order.
He says, “Losing the ability to exercise ideological hegemony signals the decline of a political order.
Neoliberalism does not exercise ideological hegemony. His downfall coincided with a global democratic recession marked by an erosion of freedom, loss of faith in institutions, and democratic capture by autocratic strongmen.
It’s about protest and politics
On a global scale, there has been a dismantling. Identity is the key. Democracy has been marked by tribal culture wars.
Neoliberalism was founded on a paradoxical alliance of free market ideology with what Gerstle called “neo-Victorianism” led by the socially conservative religious right.
On the left, Gerstle says black rights groups, feminism and multiculturalism also thrived in the neoliberal order that disrupted traditions and promoted hybridity and cosmopolitanism.
The fracture of the neoliberal order, however, has opened wide the identity wars. The marginalized occupied the centre. Liberalism does not speak to them. In some cases, these movements seek to overthrow liberalism itself.
Black Lives Matter is an example of this, breaking with the old civil rights leadership of the Martin Luther King Jr era. people to the promised land is not working right now”.
Urgency and anger drive these movements that won’t wait. They’ve heard it all before.
Rawlsian liberalism, with its “veil of ignorance”, its neutrality and its weightlessness, cannot support the weight imposed on it by groups that feel abandoned or left behind. From left to right, identity groups are as much about rupture as they are about change.
It is about protest as much or more than politics.
A wave of protest
The end of neoliberalism has created a void but few answers. It’s a long death with the old guard of politics clinging to the corpse of neoliberalism, trying to breathe life into it.
Here, a wave of protests swept over our federal elections. The people speak, but the political leaders only hear what they want.
Scott Morrison praised the strength of our democracy, and rightly so, but that democracy kicked him out not for what he did, but for what he didn’t do.
A vote against Morrison is not a vote for Albanese. The new Prime Minister says there was a mood for change, but it is not Labor change. It’s a change out of frustration. It’s a cry from the heart.
A bad moon rises
It is wrong to think that this is a personal rejection of Morrison – that is part of it – or that Albanese will be a savior. It’s another dying sigh of an old order.
It’s a vote for change, but where is our goal? Has he delivered us a parliament for the difficult times ahead?
A bad moon rises. War is raging in Ukraine and we are told to prepare for war in our region. The world is in an inflationary cycle that is driving up interest rates and that will fuel rising unemployment.
Supply chains are disrupted.
We are facing a trillion dollar debt. It will cost more to pay it back.
China is remaking our world, an authoritarian superpower that is on its way to becoming the world’s largest economy. It extends its reach into what Australia considers its sphere of influence, the Pacific. The Salomons-China security pact was a wake-up call.
The 21st century will be defined by the great power rivalry between China and the United States. It will determine everything from the global economy to conflict to climate change.
Does a parliament with a teal cross-bench, more Greens and a small-target Labor government have the answers at this age? We can hope so. More voices can bring more ideas.
“The line is drawn”
Anthony Albanese says he has always been underestimated. Let’s hope so because Australia needs more of him than he has shown. Her personal story of The Lodge’s humble beginnings is inspiring and a testament to her strength and determination.
Albanese now has a window to lead and embrace the tough questions he avoided during the campaign. Yes, he presented a small target, but he’s not without a warrant.
He can seize the opportunity to change climate policy and finally bring an Indigenous constitutional voice to a referendum.
But he has little time to move and little space to manoeuvre.
As Bob Dylan wrote, “The line is drawn, the curse is cast.” Leadership in these times is as much a curse as a blessing.
The order fades quickly. The answer does not come from the resuscitation of the old neoliberal order. He disappeared, but we have nothing to replace him.
As Matthew Arnold wrote, we “wander between two worlds, one dead, the other helpless to be born”.
Stan Grant is ABC’s international business analyst and presents China Tonight Monday at 9:35 p.m. on ABC TV and Tuesday at 8 p.m. on ABC News Channel, and co-anchors Q+A Thursday at 8:30 p.m.
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