Interview: Trading Places
Safety: Snow Job
Politics: In the Vanguard
Unions: Gentle Giant Goes For Gold
Bad Boss: 'Porker' Chases Blue Ribbon
International: Cruising For A Bruising
History: Under the Influence
Economics: Working Capital
Review: Fahrenheit 9/11
Poetry: Bad Intelligence Rap
Satire: Osama Bin Manchu
The Locker Room
Tom Goes Asexual
Road Rage At Work
Democracy In Action
In the Vanguard
In 1947, at the exclusive Hotel du Parc, on the slopes of Mont Pelerin in Switzerland, a small group of academics and economists gathered to discuss what they saw as the alarming growth of government intervention in the economy. Among them were Friederich Hayek and Milton Friedman, economists who would, for the next half century, be in the forefront of the neo-liberal attack upon democracy.
Those gathered at the meeting in Switzerland became known as the Mont Pelerin Society. During the remainder of the century it grew into an international network of neo-liberal activists dedicated to waging what Hans-Peter Martin and Harald Schumann in their book, The Global Trap, describe as a 'freedom struggle on behalf of capital'. Their targets were the welfare state and Keynesian economic planning.
Since World War Two, the struggles of labour movements around the world had forged a social consensus in many countries around the notion that governments had a strong and positive role to play in providing a fairer redistribution of the benefits of capitalist economic growth. For Hayek, Friedman and the others gathered in the Mont Pelerin Society, this was the enemy that had to be destroyed. Unlike many academics, Mont Pelerin members did not believe that words alone were sufficient to bring about change. Hayek urged the conference to 'train an army of fighters for freedom'. By freedom he meant private property freedoms - the freedom of capital to act without restriction from governments or unions.
Hayek's words were taken up with vigour by his Australian followers. From the late 1970s onwards, inspired by Mont Pelerin and other overseas organisations, Australian neo-liberals founded a series of think tanks and forums to promote free market ideology. What began as a disparate array of individuals and small groups advocating a fringe political viewpoint grew, within a decade, into a well-funded political movement - a radical neo-liberal movement. Most politically aware Australians would be familiar with the names of these radical neo-liberal think tanks: the Centre for Independent Studies; the Institute of Public Affairs; the Tasman Institute; and the H. R. Nicholls Society. For the past 25 years the radical neo-liberals have engaged in a sustained assault upon the welfare state, trade unions, social justice movements and the Left in general. Using terms like 'politically correct', 'special interests', the 'guilt industry' and the 'industrial relations club' the radical neo-liberals have demonised progressive causes. They argue that capitalist markets, when freed from government interference are the most efficient and most moral way of providing goods and services in society. And to achieve this the radical neo-liberals advocate deregulation, privatisation, marketisation, and massive cuts to government expenditure. A generally sympathetic media has helped them propagandise beyond their small, elite social base.
What enabled the radical neo-liberals to emerge from a small fringe movement into mainstream political commentators was the support they received from key corporate sectors in Australia. Such support should not be mistaken for philanthropy. Rather, Australian corporate leaders have funded what is a strident and ideologically fundamentalist because it has served their interests. A bit of explanation is necessary.
When the oil shock of 1973 triggered an international economic crisis, leading to high inflation and unemployment, many corporate leaders began to rethink the desirability of government commitments to full employment, market regulation and the provision of social services. Employers from the mining, finance, small business, farming and retail sectors, as well as the largest Australian corporations, (from 1983 represented through the Business Council of Australia), mobilised in order to put pressure upon governments to dismantle many of the institutions and social truths that had been taken for granted in Australia for decades: arbitration, tariffs, market regulations of all kinds and public sector spending.
Many employers were also concerned about the power of organised labour and the increasing corporate regulations resulting from the successes of the environment, feminist and Aboriginal rights movements.
In this context it is easy to see why corporations poured millions of dollars into radical neo-liberal think tanks. Funding the movement allowed key corporate sectors to ensure the circulation of radical neo-liberal ideas. It enabled the existence of groups who would take the attack up to environmentalists, trade unions and other non-profit groups who sought to curb the rapaciousness of Australian capital. That think tanks rarely reveal their funding sources meant corporations could remain at arms length from such ideas. This left the capitalists to pursue their own interests in a more favourable political climate.
The 'fighters for freedom' called for by Hayek in 1947 have been paid for by corporate Australia. And that investment has produced a good return. Whether it be attacking the 'left-wing bias' of NGO's and the ABC, downplaying the state of inequality in Australia, advocating 'vouchers' for education or glorifying the casualisation of work, the radical neo-liberals have been in the vanguard of neo-liberal capitalism. They have demonised neo-liberalism's opponents and naturalised its policy solutions. They have been in the vanguard of the transfer of resources from public to private and the transfer of power from labour to capital. This, after all, is what neo-liberalism is all about.
Dr Damien Cahill is an Honorary Research Fellow in History and Politics at the University of Wollongong and a Research Officer for Michael Organ MP. He has recently completed his doctoral thesis on the radical neo-liberal movement in Australia.
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