The Monthly has cunningly made available the first 1500 words of Kevin Rudd’s manifesto on the global economic crisis. It’s a significant document, not so much for any argument it makes but because of what its publication represents. Five years ago, no mainstream politician would have dared write a critique of the free market. More than that, because the marketisation of every aspect of our lives was so universally accepted, no mainstream politician would have written at length about political economy at all: there was, after all, nothing to debate.
Rudd’s effusion thus signifies the new political period we’ve now entered, an era of ideological uncertainty and social instability (for example, the current industrial unrest across continental Europe and, more worryingly, the nativist wild cat strikes in Britain). Political argument is thus very much back on the agenda. More than that, it’s inescapable – to borrow a phrase, you may not be interested in the economic crisis but the economic crisis is interested in you.
That being said, Rudd’s own manifesto is a pretty damp squib.
‘Not for the first time in history,’ he says, ‘the international challenge for social democrats is to save capitalism from itself …’
An odd rhetorical flourish, since Rudd’s specific example is FDR in the wake of the Great Depression, which seems to define ‘social democracy’ so broadly as to strip of it of any meaning whatsoever. Well, perhaps that’s the point. After all, the classical instance of social democrats saving capitalism from itself (almost literally under that banner) came in Germany in 1919, when Ebert’s SPD – the flagship of international social democracy – restored order in Berlin by calling upon the proto-fascist Freikorps to shoot down the malcontents.
So how are the twenty-first century social democrats going to save capitalism?
[By a] reliance on the agency of the state to reconstitute properly regulated markets and to rebuild domestic and global demand. [But they must not] throw the baby out with the bathwater. As the global financial crisis unfolds and the hard impact on jobs is felt by families across the world, the pressure will be great to retreat to some model of an all-providing state and to abandon altogether the cause of open, competitive markets both at home and abroad. Protectionism has already begun to make itself felt, albeit in softer and more subtle forms than the crudity of the Smoot-Hawley Tariff Act of 1930. Soft or hard, protectionism is a sure-fire way of turning recession into depression, as it exacerbates the collapse in global demand. The intellectual challenge for social democrats is not just to repudiate the neo-liberal extremism that has landed us in this mess, but to advance the case that the social-democratic state offers the best guarantee of preserving the productive capacity of properly regulated competitive markets, while ensuring that government is the regulator, that government is the funder or provider of public goods and that government offsets the inevitable inequalities of the market with a commitment to fairness for all. Social democracy’s continuing philosophical claim to political legitimacy is its capacity to balance the private and the public, profit and wages, the market and the state. That philosophy once again speaks with clarity and cogency to the challenges of our time.
Now, that passage has been provoked considerable huffing and puffing amongst the perpetually outraged old gentlemen at the Australian. But that’s what they’re paid for. Really, it’s difficult to see that Rudd’s argument means anything much at all.
It’s not just that it’s all so deliberately vague (in that respect, it’s almost a Laborite version of George W. Bush’s original ‘compassionate conservatism’ slogan), it’s also that there’s a little matter of timing. Had Rudd campaigned against neo-liberal extremism back in, say, 2004, his stance would have entailed considerable courage. Back then, a denunciation of the ‘inevitable inequalities of the market’ would have necessitated a head-on confrontation with the Bush gang and its local leg-humpers – precisely the kind of confrontation, in fact, that brought down Mark Latham.
Today, however, the world’s a different place. Every national leader now talks about government regulation; every national leader acknowledges the need for intervention in the market. It was George Bush, the neo-liberal’s neo-liberal, who presided over the first stage of the astronomically expensive banking bailout. In the current context, a suggestion that markets shouldn’t simply be let to rip seems entirely unremarkable. In that respect, Rudd’s simply articulating the new orthodoxy, in the same way as, during the election, he reiterated the old one (back then, he was, you’ll recall, an economic conservative and, for good measure, a social one, too). As the commentators at LP note, the real purpose of the essay seems to be to rebadge Labor sufficiently that the label of neo-liberalism can be affixed to Malcolm Turnbull, even though the philosophical differences between the parties remain wafer thin.
Nonetheless, as I said before, the debate itself matters more than anything Rudd actually argues. For the first time in years, there’s space opening in which alternative positions might yet develop.