On The Future of Everything and Dead Right

These three books – one a comprehensive attempt to reinvent radical social democracy, one a long essay on society and economics, and one a kind of tasting plate of morsels from its publisher’s backlist – all give voice to a widespread feeling that some major change in how we do things – politically, socially, economically – is both necessary and inevitable. Tim Dunlop’s The Future of Everything presents us with ‘big, audacious ideas for a better world’, while Richard Denniss’ Dead Right steps over the corpse of ‘neoliberalism’ and asks us to consider ‘what comes next’. Finally, MUP’s anthology The Knowledge Solution: Politics, introduced by Michelle Grattan, contains 22 excerpts from MUP authors, all of whom have something to say about the state of politics and democracy, and ideas about how to make them better.

Dunlop’s book is the most ambitious and, for that reason, the most interesting. In a series of long, digressive chapters, he anatomises five key ‘institutions’ – media, government, education, wealth and work – and asks how we can ‘rebuild, reinvigorate and rethink them from the ground up’. More specifically, he attempts to rethink these institutions in line with the idea of ‘the commons’, which is to say the belief that the world is, or should be, a common treasury. This idea has enjoyed something of a revival of late, as capitalism comes under scrutiny in the long wake of the GFC and as emerging technologies open up possibilities for radical transformation. The Future of Everything is part of that revival.

Notwithstanding the radical nature of his project, Dunlop proves a sober guide to many of the important issues of the day. On work, for example, which he has written about before in his 2016 book Why the Future is Workless, he rejects the ‘jobocalypse’ narrative as simplistic and hysterical, but rejects as well the Pollyannaish view (which is really a fallacy of composition based on previous ‘revolutions’ in production) that new jobs will be magically created as existing ones are automated. Similarly, in his chapter on media – also the subject of an earlier book: The New Front Page (2013) – Dunlop declines to join the chorus of mainstream media commentators whose assumption of a crisis, not just of news, but of the category of truth itself, is shot-through with self-congratulation. As he puts it, referring to ‘post-truth’s’ poster boy: ‘the key issue with Trump is not that he has chosen to attack the media, but that the media have been so vulnerable to the sort of attacks he has launched’.

Like Rutger Bregman’s Utopia for Realists, The Future of Everything is deliberately pitched between idealism and pragmatism, and this shows up in Dunlop’s suggestions for the future development of his five institutions. To take the example of work: Dunlop is a supporter of universal basic income – i.e. a scheme whereby all citizens would receive a flat-rate sum from the government, whatever their economic circumstances – not only because such a scheme would form a bulwark against rising inequality and unemployment, but also because he wants us to consider why we work at all, and to what end, and whether working less than we do or in different ways is a precondition of ‘joy’ (the subject of his concluding chapter). Again, Dunlop’s thinking here is very much in line with an emerging critique of capitalism in what some regard as its terminal phase, and his combination of practical thinking and quasi-utopian speculation should win him readers not usually sympathetic to a radical social-democratic program.

Nevertheless, his book would have benefited from a more rigorous analysis of the information economy. The concept of the commons is predicated on an ideal of common ownership, and the interesting thing about information, at least from the perspective of political economy, is precisely that it is so difficult to own, or rather to commodify, without recourse to monopoly and rent-seeking models. (As something that can be stored and distributed for free, or as near to free as makes no difference, digital information is social in its very nature.) But while Dunlop notes the winner-takes-all momentum of digital network effects, and presents some radical-sounding suggestions as to how profits might be redistributed, he never really seems to grasp just how revolutionary the emerging technologies are. 3D-printed objects, for example, which rely for their creation on a few lines of code, could transfer manufacturing from the factory to the home, effectively socialising whole swathes of production. In comparison, Dunlop’s argument that digital giants like Amazon should ‘deed ownership of a certain percentage of their shares to the [US?] government’ appears less ‘audacious’ than it might be.

The question of who owns what, and why, is also central to Richard Denniss’ Dead Right, in which the Australia Institute’s chief economist sets out his case against ‘neoliberalism’. There’s no doubt he’s pushing at an open door. It’s now 40 years since Margaret Thatcher assaulted a meeting of Conservative ‘wets’ with a copy of Friedrich Hayek’s Constitution of Liberty, and the suite of policies associated with her government and its analogues – financialisation, deregulation, tax cuts for the rich etc. – have never been in lower water.

The central thrust of Denniss’ argument is that ‘free markets’ are in fact not free at all, and that in the 1970s and 1980s governments of a neoliberal stripe did not so much deregulate as reregulate the economy in a way that gave the whip hand to capital, ending 30 years of social democracy in the process. Denniss is pretty good on this, noting the gap between rhetoric and practice, as well as the way in which ideals of ‘efficiency’ act as ideological cover for an anti-social-democratic program. He’s also good on the central contradiction of neoliberalism in its rightwing form: viz. that it destroys the very social ground from which genuine conservative values can emerge. One of Thatcher’s nastier henchmen once advised the unemployed to ‘get on their bikes’ and look for work. So much for continuity and a bounded existence!

Where Denniss’ essay is less impressive is in its characterisation of neoliberalism itself. It is a truism that neoliberalism means different things to different people. For some it is a body of ideas derived from classical liberalism, for others a whole-world system of trade, for others a distinctive historical period. (Some don’t accept that it exists at all: it’s just liberalism doing what liberalism does, or else a spectre haunting the progressive imagination.) But for Dennis, and the centre-left more broadly, it appears to mean the right of politics as it is currently constituted. This narrow definition – too narrow to be useful – leads Denniss to exaggerate the differences between both ‘sides’ of politics, which are not in fact sides in any meaningful sense but separate cheeks on the same derriere. On the last page of the book, Denniss applauds the skill of the Gillard government in passing the NDIS into law, before stating, baldly, that ‘neoliberalism is dead’. But what on earth is the NDIS, with its opaque bureaucracy and internal market, if not a neoliberal concoction? Denniss asks us to reject the idea of the ‘market society’ and adopt instead the idea of ‘a society with some markets’; but I don’t think he fully appreciates just how deep the market ethos runs in Australian politics.

Then again, it seems I’m in the minority. For not only has Denniss been given the commission for this edition of Quarterly Essay, he also pops up as a source in the Dunlop, and as a contributor in MUP’s The Knowledge Solution: Politics, which boasts ‘the best of our thinkers from across the political and ideological spectrum’ and promises, via Michelle Grattan’s introduction, ‘radical solutions’ to democracy’s problems.

The first in a series of anthologies, the book consists entirely of excerpts from titles published by MUP, as well as essays published in Meanjin. The Meanjin contributions are the best. I particularly enjoyed Melissa Lucashenko’s essay ‘The First Australian Democracy’, which explores the systems of power sharing that existed in Aboriginal societies before Arthur Phillip made landfall, and in so doing punctures Western arrogance in point of its own history of institutional innovation. But otherwise the contributions are rather too short to be useful, and nothing like as diverse as the blurb suggests. Bill Shorten, Paul Kelly, Maxine McKew, Katherine Murphy and Peter van Onselen do not spread out along any ‘political and ideological spectrum’ I’m aware of, though I’m aware that the Canberra press gallery can sometimes write as if they do. Suffice it to say that a few more ‘radical’ voices would have greatly enhanced this anthology.

As for Dee Madigan’s alarming suggestion that ‘voting is actually a brand purchase’ (this from a progressive, mark you), one can only respond that the reports of neoliberalism’s death appear to have been greatly exaggerated.

Certainly there’s a way to go yet before we can reinvent the commons.

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This review was first published in The Weekend Australian.

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Tim Dunlop, The Future of Everything: Big, Audacious Ideas for a Better World

NewSouth Books; $29.99; 352pp

Richard Denniss, Dead Right: How Neoliberalism Ate Itself and What Comes Next

Quarterly Essay; $29.99; 139pp

Various Authors, The Knowledge Solution: Politics

Melbourne University Press; $29.99; 216pp