Progressives still speak the language of the neoliberals but then dream of change

Its Wednesday, so a collection of snippets, ads and music. One of the things I am working on as part of my book venture with Thomas Fazi, our followup to – Reclaiming the State: A Progressive Vision of Sovereignty for a Post-Neoliberal World (Pluto Books, September 2017) – is the way the Left and Right are responding to the current crisis. It is clear to me that the Right are seeing it as a way to really entrench new beach head gains on their long term agenda to divert public spending away from general welfare towards the top-end-of-town and to use the legislative/regulative structures of government to further their aims to divert more of the national income produced towards capital, particularly financial capital. Meanwhile, it looks as if the Left has gone to asleep – or better – they haven’t really woken from their long-term slumber as they dream their standard narrative that global capital has made the state unable to pursue independent fiscal agendas that will improve the lot of all humanity. So I am looking into that sort of narrative and collecting evidence as one does to compile into a coherent argument.

There was a great interview with Philip Mirowski in the Jacobin Magazine last week – Why the Neoliberals Won’t Let This Crisis Go to Waste (May 16, 2020) – which touched on these themes.

Philip Mirowski said that the Right:

… have built up a deep bench of ideas and people able to move very quickly when crises arise and achieve their ends. I argued that’s what they did in 2008, and certainly that’s what they’re doing now.

The dream on the Left seems to project that the virus is going to go away and people are going to wake up and see that global warming really is the problem and change the way they look at the world. But this is so far from the neoliberals’ own political understanding, of their need to strike while the iron is hot. The neoliberals talk among themselves, too, and already at this stage of the crisis there are discussions of what they see as current political successes. You don’t get that feeling from the Left’s discussions, or from the wider media.

The whole article is worth reading.

You can see the way the Right morphs as part of their ability to adapt to circumstances but keep to their goals in the way all the right-wing think tanks – Adam Smith Institute, Centre for Policy Studies, Institute of Economic Affairs and Policy Exchange (for example) – which usually argue relentlessly against government intervention, any hint of authoritarianism, etc – are now busily demanding more public spending, higher deficits and large public capital works projects.

See UK Guardian article – Rightwing thinktanks call time on age of austerity (May 16, 2020) – for more detail.

But the Guardian is also publishing articles that demonstrate this ‘dreaming’ syndrome on the Left.

Today, I wasted 3 minutes reading this article – A new normal? Instead Australia looks like it could return to ‘business as usual’ after the pandemic (May 20, 2020) – which demonstrates key elements of the Left’s failure to confront the situation with tactical thinking.

The sub-heading of that article was – “The nation has handled the crisis well so far, but we must not let this opportunity for reform pass”.


Last week the ABS told us that 594,300 jobs disappeared in the 4 weeks to around April 12.

Unemployment officially measured rose 104,500.

The labour force shrank by 489.8 thousand as workers gave up looking for jobs that weren’t there.

Monthly hours of work fell by 9.2 per cent.

Underemployment rose 4.9 points to 13.7 per cent.

There are now 2,639.4 thousand workers either unemployed or underemployed (19.9 per cent).

That number swells to 3,142.6 (or 23.4 per cent) if we add the rise in hidden unemployment back into the ‘jobless’

And the author, David Hetherington, who is “a senior fellow at the thinktank Per Capita” (an alleged progressive voice) thinks the government has handled the crisis well.

The government’s interventions have been a failure.

Not only have they chosen to oversee a jobs massacre but they have paved the way for wage cutting and further undermining of conditions of work.

There was NO reason for unemployment to rise much at all if the government had have guaranteed all jobs.

The author then argues that “At present we are seeing hundreds of creative ideas spring forth about how Australia – and the world – can be different in the wake of Covid-19” but that it is likely Australia will just lapse back into “business as usual”.

He correctly cites the command that “priviliged groups” have on the narrative, the lack of action on “climate change” (our government announced yesterday that they are not aiming for zero emissions by 2050 – like wow!), and etc.

I agree with that last assessment.

The Right and the vested interests that support it are strategic, well organised and well funded. They are working at all levels – micro and macro to make sure they get what they can out of the fiscal stimulus but also pressure the government to deliver more ‘micro’ gifts to them – reduction in working protection etc.

When financial capital thinks their position is safe, then they will ramp up the ‘we have to reduce the debt’ narrative and the target will be the unemployed and other disadvantaged groups.

But there is another thing that hasn’t changed and David Hetherington seems blithe to the significance of this.

He writes:

There’s the repeated insistence from senior ministers that reducing debt and deficit must be high on the government’s future agenda, despite a unique opportunity to invest in public capacity with borrowing costs at record lows.

He thinks that is a progressive statement.

I know it is a disastrous concession to the Right that the progressive side of the debate continually make, which is why its position is so weak and why it has been difficult to define a new progressive path.

According to Hetherington, it is okay to borrow for public purpose when interest rates are low but presumably not so okay when interest rates are high.

There are so many problems with that sort of framing.

First, if we are really wanting to present “creative ideas” why not go for the neoliberal jugular?

Why not blow the basic myth that is used so powerfully by the neoliberal Right – which is that the currency-issuing government has to borrow?

Why not educate the public about the true capacity of the currency issuer?

Why make out that the ‘market’ controls interest rates, which then make it easy or hard for governments to “invest in public capacity”?

That is the problem.

In that last phrase, David Hetherington surrenders to the neoliberal orthodoxy and is then left running with his tail between his legs when the ‘how are you going to pay for it’ question starts the trail of abuse against any notion that public deficits should be used for public purpose.

What the Left needs is a “Powell Manifesto”. And that is what I am working on at present with others I am organising with!

More maps

In yesterday’s blog post – The job losses continue in Australia but at a slower pace (May 19, 2020) – I analysed the latest regional data from the ABS documenting the job losses across Australia.

I have now compiled maps for all the Australian States (not the two territories) and they are available on that post’s page.

They give a stark visual guide to the job loss disparity across the regions.


The questions are rolling in – thanks – and we will begin our program next Wednesday (May 27, 2020).

As part of the on-going development of our MMTed project, we are introducing – MMTed Q&A – which will be a weekly live program screening on Wednesday nights starting at 20:00 Australian EST.

This will be at:

10:00 Dakar
11:00 London
12:00 Paris
13:00 Helsinki
19:00 Tokyo, Kyoto and Dili
03:00 San Francisco
06:00 New York

The program will run for 30 minutes each week and the format will be around 5 questions will be answered with discussion.

Each week, we plan to bring in some of the MMT experts who can help answer your questions.

If you want to ask a question the process, as a trial, will be to submit your enquiry via the – MMTed Q&A – page.

We do not guarantee that your question will be answered but we will do our best.

Only submissions will valid E-mail addresses will be accepted.

The links to the live stream each week will be published in advance on the site and via Twitter and on this blog site.

Call for MMTed Support

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Music – Africa from Rico Rodriguez

This is what I have been listening to today while working.

It is one of my favourite trombone players – Rico Rodriguez – who sadly died in September 2015 at the age of 80.

He was born in Cuba but made his name in Jamaica after being taught by none other than Donald Drummond, one of the all-time best brass players from Kingston.

The undoubted best jazz, reggae trombone player of all time.

He played devotional music (rasta) with Jamaican hand drummer – Count Ossie in the 1950s and later with Winston Rodney aka Burning Spear.

He then moved to the UK and started playing jazz reggae before joining The Specials and playing ska.

His best album was in 1976 – Man from Wareika – from which this track – Africa – is taken. It is a really hot album.

One other track – Lumumba – is his tribute to – Patrice Lumumba – who was executed in a coup in February 1961 at the age of 35, while he was president of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. He was a major driver of the independence move and the break from the oppressive colonialism of Belgium.

His death was shocking in that he called on the UN to intervene against political instability promoted by the Belgians and the foreign mining companies, aided and abetted by the UK and the US.

The UN Security Council was petitioned by the Soviet Union to demand that Lumumba be released from prison after the military take over and to call on the Belgians to exit the Congo and to cease supporting the insurgency against the elected President.

The vote went 8-2 against the petition. That was on December 14, 1960. A month or so later he was executed and the announcement was withheld for a further three weeks.

Lumumba was a supporter of Pan Africanism and was thus despised by the Belgians and the US. The CIA had already tried to kill him but failed. It was a very sordid affair.

Anyway, Africa … I hope you enjoy it as much as I have for the last 35 years or so. I still keep putting the record on my turntable.

My own band Pressure Drop – is still in lockdown as the government has not allowed live music venues to open.

That is enough for today!

(c) Copyright 2020 William Mitchell. All Rights Reserved.

This Post Has 15 Comments

  1. Presumably by ‘”The nation has handled the crisis well so far” he means you haven’t killed tens of thousands of your fellow citizens through sheer incompitance like some other amazing countries. 😉

  2. What the Left needs is a “Powell Manifesto”. And that is what I am working on at present with others I am organising with!

    I’m pretty sure you’re supposed to keep it a secret!

  3. That era when the right were starting to panic was a precious moment in history to be remembered. The capitalists were able to propagate Powell’s manifesto through huge amounts of paid effort. Simply writing it didn’t make it happen.
    That sheer dogged determination and subtle background manipulation of existing law, by a handful of people, applied to effect the subversion of a popular mass movement, is a study in what it takes to alter the course of political evolution.

    The other lesson to be taken from history, is that any proposed replacement for the historically dominant right wing paradigm, cannot leave behind a legacy of personal accumulations of wealth large enough to allow monied interests to simply buy a collective effort out of existence, as happens repeatedly.

  4. In 2008 neoliberalism destroyed itself but quickly rose triumphantly like a phoenix from it’s own ashes because there was no broadly-accepted alternative socio-economic narrative for the public to embrace.

    Fast forward to 2020 and the situation remains unchanged – the public simply cannot imagine anything different to the current system.

    Some progress has been made in the past few years in academic and professional circles – but for the public at large, it’s like leading a horse to water.

  5. Agree the left need to attack they have wasted too much time already ! Winning office with marshmallow economic policy waste of time!
    We have had three events already in the 21st century the Dot Com Bubble the financial Crisis and now this one ! time for a reboot!

  6. Superb post which nails the underlying issue and the almost certain neo-liberal victory coming out of this crisis (or partially coming out of it).

    In the UK already, massive amounts of money have been given to private tech industries and other companies to administer things connected with the pandemic:

    One can also here the neo-liberal script being delivered with perfect timing:

    1. Johnson thanks the NHS workers for saving his life (many who are migrants) THEN slaps punitive fees on migrant workers for their own health care in order to keep the Brexit xenophobic vote alive.
    In one case an ex-Army Fijian man was given a bill for £27,000 for medical treatment.
    2. Johnson is used as a tousled hair ‘cheeky chappy’ when facing the grey but competent Starmer. This way, although he burbles crap incoherently, he can appear o be anti-establishment. The Left has no equivalent (unless Starmer were to wear a red nose and sit on whoopee cushions in parliament)
    3. Despite manifest lying, misinformation and continuous missing of targets the support for the Government never falters. The lying is transparent yet the public perception is that those who point out the lies are establishment stooges. This reality inversion and the habilitation of shysterdom seems to be a prominent feature of the Right’s success.
    4. The Left keeps issuing articles about the new progressive world that can now emerge in denial of the reality ahead.
    5. The Right is building on ten years of grooming the public by attacking the ill and vulnerable, propagating American Dream B.S, connecting house and property ownership with moral status and monstering the immigrants by positing them as the source of housing shortages and pressures on social services (which the Right have cut to the bone).
    6. The Right spend money and claim their is ‘fiscal headroom’ but keep the debt burden myth going as a preparation for future austerity.

    The U.K public have now become serfs who are in awe of their captors whilst pockets of the Left make impotent attempts at claiming change is on the way.

    Things don’t look good.

  7. Can’t help agreeing with every word you say Simon Cohen. I regularly read Richard Murphy’s blog and he talks as though it’s all over bar the shouting and that neoliberalism is dead. To win a war you need to fight and the Labour Party has thrown in the towel. Starmer is a neoliberal and the Labour Party back again to being Tory Lite. After this we settle in to more austerity. Makes me feel ill even without covid19.

  8. @J Christensen

    Your comment was what I should have aimed for, rather than simply going for the glib quip.

    I was analysing the effort represented by the Powell memo as something like a stage illusion. The ingredients of a successful illusion are:

    1. an inordinate amount of work;
    2. targeting the cognitive biases of the audience;
    3. so that they never see the mechanics of the trick.

    So, sure, the amount of effort required is unbelievable compared to the apparent pay-off, but it is all useless if you let on where the ball is hidden, or who are the confederates in the audience. To touch on your second point, skimming from a large number of people to benefit a much smaller number is the easy way round, and of course much more common.

  9. @SimonCohen,

    ” The U.K public have now become serfs who are in awe of their captors whilst pockets of the Left make impotent attempts at claiming change is on the way. Things don’t look good.”

    Apart from three post-war decades, it was ever thus. We are reverting to the norm, where the wealthy few owned literally everything in sight, and the rest were lucky if they had a shirt on their back or food on their plate.

    Like the Terminator, the wealthy and powerful will never, ever give up. As Tony Benn explained, the same battle needs to be fought by each generation, and there will be no final victory or defeat.

    But it’s exhausting, and the upper classes are most certainly winning at the moment.

  10. “Apart from three post-war decades”,

    Weren’t those decades the outcome of parliamentary elections? Of our allegedly hopelessly-flawed FPTP electoral system?

    So what’s all this (reminiscent of Kenneth Williams) “We’re all doooomed, I tell you” talk?

    What’s the use of vituperation? Doesn’t get anyone anywhere.

    Of course there’s always that other option:- bloody revolution. We haven’t had one of those for 370 years now so perhaps it’s time for another one. Although come to think of it didn’t that one end in a military dictatorship?

  11. Carol:- “Scottish undertaker Private Frazer, Dad’s Army!”

    Yes. of course. Silly me. I remember now.

    I could have sworn I heard it in my inner ear being spoken in Kenneth Willlams’s tones (in “Round the Horne”). But you’re right of course – Private Frazer it was – the late, great, John Laurie.


  12. I just had a great deal of trouble trying to find a link to the infamous ‘coding error’ by Rogoff & Reinhart for someone on FB who was taking Rogoff seriously. Apparently he’s known as Dr Doom.
    Sorry for the diversion. I won’t do it again.

  13. Hello Bill, are you familiar with how the Treasury auction of bonds being conducted? How much of the most recent $2 trillion corona bailout bond auction was bought by the FRB and how much was bought by private individuals/corporations/pension funds, etc.? What are the intermediate steps and details of these transactions?

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