On the rescue of society

Writing in the New York Times (Jan 10 2019), David Brooks proposes the “remoralization of the market” as the correct response to economic populism. In an America besieged by Trumpism and Never-Trumpism, by identity politics and MAGA caps, by mass shooters and a permanent war faction in its political elite, by declining life expectancy amidst a mass opioid crisis and Randian wealth apartheid imposed by its super-wealthy, Brooks looks to the moral fibre of the all-American firm of the 1950s and 1960s to restore a society where “it’s easier to be a good person.”

It was, in Brooks’ telling, oddly political decisions – deregulation and tax cuts starting with President Jimmy Carter in the 1970s and accelerating under Reagan in the 1980s – that led to this unleashing of immoral behaviour in the market. “As a matter of policy,” he writes, “we privileged economics and then eventually no longer could even see that there could be other priorities.” Still, this political climate endorsed closing “the moral lens” in firms. Companies now valued only their shareholders, not their stakeholders. “Anything you could do to make money’ now became OK. Massive tax evasion through overseas havens became the norm. Society was demoralised by a “secession of the successful” that erased the sheen of material prosperity. In summary he writes:

“A deadly combination of right-wing free-market fundamentalism and left-wing moral relativism led to a withering away of moral norms and shared codes of decent conduct. We ripped the market out of its moral and social context and let it operate purely by its own rules. We made the market its own priest and confessor. Society came to be seen as an atomized collection of individual economic units pursuing self-interest. Selfishness was normalized. As Steven Pearlstein puts it in his outstanding book, “Can American Capitalism Survive?” “Old-fashioned norms around loyalty, cooperation, honesty, equality, fairness and compassion no longer seem to apply in the economic sphere.” David Brooks New York Times

It is an argument with a lot of sense. Although Brooks writes with the usual American journalistic narcissism, with the belief that the world begins and ends in the USA, his observations of the demoralisation of society hold true to my own experience in the Great Southern Land. Some time in the 1970s, the economics profession was installed as the mercenary eunuchs who governed on behalf of the merchant elite. Society was abolished and in its place was placed the image of the market. Government was reconceived as a failing family business, and high priced lawyers and consultants were brought in to strip its assets, to minimise tax, to redirect revenues to the new private owners of what once was proud public infrastructure, and to lobby a newly supine political class to ease all rules and obligations on the wealthy elite.

Still, we did not end up with quite so bad a society as America the Brave. We kept a functional health care system. We preserved and strengthened a targeted social welfare system that at least in its payments, if not in its services, works as well as anywhere. Thanks largely to the boon of being the commodity supplier to China, we have enjoyed a prosperity in which both the poor, the middle and the rich have all got richer. Social cohesion has been strained at times, but yet has managed ongoing large migration, with minimal friction and fuss. We have never indulged or celebrated the celebrity and super-rich class as much as America, and the few grandiose miners and media moguls who pretend to such status are pilloried more than privileged. Philanthropy in our country is more the helping hand of a neighbour in response to fire or flood or other emergency, than it is the personalised pseudo-government of a Soros or a Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

We have not done so well in culture and our political institutions. But our problems are not the same as America.

Our culture is in decay. Its roots have been over-watered by bad education, supplied by universities that have decided above all to export education to overseas students and to commercialise knowledge with industry, rather than to preserve, teach and contribute to the infinite conversation of true culture. Our culture’s leaf canopy has been deprived of light by liquid modernity and its relentless search for a clickable meme. There are now but a few gardeners left who know the old traditions that take care of the old tree. We certainly have many wonderful new plants blooming all around us, and who could not deny the pleasures of this golden age of television drama? But what will this garden be, what shade and seclusion will it offer us against the glowering sun, when the grand old tree at its heart withers and dies?

Our political institutions are decayed too, if not in the state of rotten crisis of that failed state the USA. We have displaced Italy in international rankings of the instability of political leadership and entertain the BBC, eager for distractions from the failure of Westminster, with stories of being the coup capital of the world. Our parties have hollowed out, and become shells controlled by a new condottiere class of political mercenaries, who look to the debauched electoral politics of America for the latest trends, techniques and treachery towards citizens. Our parliaments do not function as deliberative assemblies. You do not look to them for searching debates on the great issues of the time, or elevated rhetoric entrusting the moral conflicts of our society into the language of Disraeli or Gladstone or Lincoln. Now we just have dumb social media posts, tatty little scandals of personal indulgences, and endless virtue signalling aimed at micro-targeted groups of the electorate. Our bureaucracies – once a bulwark against clientilistic politics – have, in turn, been thrown open to a spoils system run by this degraded political elite

There are many still within our country who look back mistily to the great “era of reform” from 1984-2006 when Hawke and Howard, Keating and Costello led a series of economic reforms that opened up the country’s trade with the world and laid the foundations for the great period of prosperity we have enjoyed. However many years it is now- 27? – since we last had a recession? What greater achievement could we ask for from our political leaders? And how they have fallen since? The high priests of market fundamentalism in the bureaucracy look on the current state of politics and cry. Ken Henry, former head of the Treasury, advocate of the view that the one great reform the country needs is changes to tax rates (not a joke), takes aim at this degraded spectacle of political mercenaries turning parliament into a social media pile-on.

“Our politicians have dug themselves into deep trenches from which they fire insults designed merely to cause political embarrassment. Populism supplies the munitions. And the whole spectacle — the whole dreadful spectacle — is broadcast live via multimedia, 24/7. The country that Australians want cannot even be imagined from these trenches.” Ken Henry, National Press Club via The Australian (23 Feb 2017)

Ah, but he without sin should cast the first stone. Ken Henry’s stern moral views seemed to melt into thin air, when as Chair of the National Australia Bank, he appeared before the Banking Royal Commission. When tested on what his response was to immoral, even perhaps criminal conduct, by the banking executives he employed and supervised, Henry shrugs his shoulders and said, “sure we paid them bonuses, what else would we do… sack them all?” He tells the Banking Royal Commission, in the indulgent phrases of a philosopher-bureaucrat who has grown too used to admiration, that:

“The capitalist model is that businesses have no responsibility other than to maximise profits for shareholders. A lot of people who have participated in this debate over the past 12 months have said that’s all that you should hold boards accountable for, is that they are focused on the maximisation of profits for shareholders. …. It’s open, obviously, to the commission to enter into this rather important debate. It could play a valuable role by doing so. But anyway, for what it’s worth, NAB’s view clearly today is that incentives should be aligned with customer experience.” Ken Henry, quoted in Australian Financial Review 27 November 2018

So, we are back to Brooks’ observation that morally hollow business leaders, stimulated by a political and cultural celebration of the free market, have brought us to a kind of social crisis, that requires a remoralization of business as an antidote to populism. It is as if Dostoyevsky’s fable of the Grand Inquisitor was misapplied by some ambitious economic student without fear of the consequences. Yes, everything in the market should be allowed, and all old traditions and virtues pushed aside before the great wave of reform. But what we see in Henry’s answer is that the mind that despises populism and engineers economic reform is the same mind that cannot apply standards of common decency to the operation of a business.

But we are also at the heart of a paradox with Brooks’ observation. The initiator of the change in society in Brooks’ tale is government. It is the Presidents who change the rules, and the ideologies – free market fundamentalism and moral relativism – that reshape the culture. But after that catalyst, government retreats from Brooks’ story. And it is not in government that Brooks looks to an answer to this republic in distress, undermined by populism. Rather, Brooks looks to a remoralisation of the market, and a restitution of moral virtues – the “old-fashioned norms around loyalty, cooperation, honesty, equality, fairness and compassion.”

But one cannot hope to rescue society from the market by making the market be more like society. Rather, we all must try to live more of our lives outside the modern prisons of market, consumption and celebrity. And in the political realm, we need an insurrection of virtue that restores to the ordinary acts of governing the essential character of dignity, compassion, truth-telling and humility. In so doing we may create or repair public institutions so that they can provide ways of life – not rule by the market in the service of an amoral merchant elite and its political condottiere.

image source – Wikimedia Commons

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