Social justice – under the neoliberal table

January 8th, 2016  |  Published in Economic (in)justice, Favorites


“Whenever a small group of men become powerful enough to control an economy,” says David Brin, “they will do so according to biased perceptions, in-group delusions and fatally limited knowledge”.

Australian neoliberal politicians are prime examples, and their particular biases, delusions, and limitations are incompatible with social justice imperatives.

In this post I will explain my position as someone with a long-term commitment to social justice and a neophyte’s knowledge of political economics.

The economy, society, and people

neolib30I wouldn’t be the first person to have compartmentalised ‘the economy’ and ‘society’ or the only one to have been trained to separate ‘society’ from ‘the individual’. These distinctions mirror academic disciplines – economics, sociology, psychology – and territories are fiercely defended.

My own struggle to socially contextualise the ‘individual’ of psychology has been the work of many years. Tackling the intersection with economics is a relatively recent adventure.

“It’s [still] the economy, stupid”

My first alert was when I noticed the following kinds of topics infiltrating my backlist of reading:

  • Government dependence on revenue from private companies (including gambling, alcohol and tobacco industries) (here and here);
  • Corporate lobbying and its influence on policy (here and here);
  • Roadblocks to climate action erected by corporate power (here, here, and here);
  • Inverted totalitarianism (the corporate state) and its erosion of democracy (here);
  • Corporate ethics (or lack thereof) (here);
  • The secrecy surrounding the (6000 pages of the) Trans Pacific Partnership (here);
  • The negative relationship between wealth inequality and long term economic growth (here);
  • The vested interests of big business and government in austerity measures (here) and their impact on everyday lives (here);
  • The need to establish a basic income (as Finland is exploring on a trial basis)  – which could reduce worker exploitation and encourage entrepreneurship (here, here, here).


Such articles were stockpiling, alongside others I would earlier have considered the core of my social justice project:

Entering neoliberal territory

My second alert was an article by Lissa Johnson about current politics in Australia and its emphasis on small government, privatisation, minimal intervention in business, reduced public expenditure on social services, and free trade.

Johnson’s key points are that neoliberalism:

  • Promotes markets free from government intervention, but not government subsidies and bailouts;
  • Applies ideas of small government to education, health and welfare services – all ideally privatised – but not defence, border protection, national security, and surveillance;
  • Favors ‘free trade’ agreements (free from accountability, not just tariffs), commodifies everything including people (who become ‘human capital’), opposes unions, and endorses weakening of workers’ conditions (such as penalty rates);
  • Encourages freedom to amass personal wealth, and makes individuals responsible for their own fate if they fall on bad times, depicting the welfare state as the arch-enemy of freedom, and welfare as fostering ‘entitlement’ (although tax breaks for the wealthy and tax havens are fine);
  • Precludes requirements for ethics beyond the ‘invisible hand’ of the competitive market, which supposedly tempers self-interest with social-interest;
  • Perpetuates itself (despite being an economic failure across the globe) through the myth of merit-based success, and the trickle-down fiction of neolib24Reaganomics.
    The narrative of the self-made, responsible, aspiring individual is seductive and powerful. It conveniently obscures the uneven playing field occupied by socially marginalised groups, and works against the interests of the many who are systematically co-opted into the ‘othering’ and victim-blaming of divide-and-conquer strategies.
    Meanwhile the few beneficiaries (meritorious or otherwise) surge up the ladder, kicking it out behind them.

Neoliberal shibboleths widen the wealth gap

To state the obvious, neoliberalism favors the interests of business and wealthy individuals over rank-and-file workers and ordinary people. In David Brin’s terms, “those who most-loudly proclaim Faith In Blind Markets (FIBM) are generally also those proclaiming idolatry of private property as a pure, platonic essence”.

The wealth gap in Australia is not as extreme as in America, but nonetheless the richest 20% now earn around five times those in the bottom 20%.

socjus (34)

Factors contributing to the yawning wealth gap include three cornerstones of neoliberal policy: (1) minimal intervention in business; (2) elimination of penalty rates; and (3) privatisation of government services.

(1)   Minimal government intervention in business

neolib35The policy of minimal government intervention in business (so different, for example, from the heavy-handed intrusion in remote Indigenous communities) provides a breeding ground for scams and rorts – such as the sham contracts used by 7-Eleven, Pizza Hut, Myer, and other employers to defraud workers of income, penalty rates, superannuation, and insurance.

The exploitation of workers on international student visas – made to work many more hours than paid, and then threatened with immigration breaches for working more hours than allowed – is a poor advertisement for industry self-regulation.

Corrective action by government would, however, risk being seen as ‘interventionist’, so sweeping changes are unlikely.

Minimal intervention and a light regulatory hand also enable high levels of corporate tax evasion. Almost 600 of the largest companies in Australia paid no income tax in the 2013-14 financial year.

(2)   Elimination of penalty rates

By contrast, penalty rates for low-paid shift workers have been on the chopping block since the current Liberal and National Party (LNP) government came to office in August 2013. Current treasurer, Scott Morrison, has declared the subject “boring” and wants the hatchet job done and dusted.

neolib10First on the agenda are penalty rates for Sundays.

Sunday, the story goes, is not that different from any other day, so why should people be paid more for working on Sunday?

Why, some might alternatively ask, are people not paid more every day, given that Sunday rates apply in jobs that are generally low-paying – hospitality, cleaning, retail, and aged care, for example – traditionally female areas, already under the hammer from scams such as sham contracting?

Rather than eliminate penalty rates, a government committed to “fairness” (as the prime minister claims to be) might revisit what that means, or risk being vetoed by voters, even in key LNP seats.

(3)   Privatisation of government services

Moving along to a third cornerstone of neoliberalism that brings me out in hives, I’m told private industry and competition have their virtues; maybe so, but not, as far as I can tell, in terms of government services such as education, welfare, and health, and I’m pleased to be able to enlist several credible sources to support my position:

  • Michael Bachelard notes that those growing rich from Australia’s privatised vocational education system are the providers and brokers “who sign up the poor, uneducated, mentally disabled, and those living in Aboriginal communities, for useless online diplomas at a cost of $20,000 each”.
    Education and the free market are clearly a bad mix.
  • Laura Tingle uses the example of rorting within the privatised employment services to make the general point that contracting out public services has failed.
  • Ross Gittins challenges the extension of competition policy to healthcare as well as education and employment. Proposals in the Harper review, he writes, rely on an old economists’ trick of taking an area that has always been outside the marketplace and marketising it. This thinking, he says, has already led to a series of disasters in privatised education and employment services, so why extend the problem into the additional area of health?
    Why indeed?


Turning the tide

The selling point for idealisation of ‘small government’ and belt-tightening for the hoi-polloi is the promise of a thriving economy – an article of faith that survives absence of evidence, weak arguments, damaging effects on governance, and demonstrable risks of rorts and scams.

In lieu of the mirage, what we get is increasingly concentrated wealth plus diminishing access to quality free public services – acting in tandem to further increase the wealth gap and make it yet harder to bridge (see US economist, Joseph Stiglitz, for more on spiralling inequality).

“Free” education is already a misnomer; poorer students are already dropping out of university at a greater rate than those who have money behind them, and proposals for further deregulation will make this worse.

Social groups most affected by this neoliberal cocktail include women, Indigenous, migrants, people with disabilities, and other traditionally disadvantaged groups.neolib16

Turning the tide requires a paradigm shift of the kind proposed by Bernie Sanders, US presidential candidate, who describes his framework as democratic socialism and calls for the following as minimum requirements for economic justice:

  1. An end to corporate welfare and tax evasion
  2. An end to tax havens for the wealthy
  3. Free public health care
  4. Free tertiary education
  5. A living minimum wage

None of which is particularly radical, but all of which is essential to economic justice, and hence to social justice.


As I come to the end of this essay, it seems pretty silly to have needed to write it at all. Of course I should always have realised the importance of economics.

But perhaps, pre neoliberalism, it was more feasible to expect that challenging discrimination at a sociopolitical level would open up opportunities for marginalised groups, and economic justice would follow?

That is, if we focused on subverting racism, sexism, heterosexism, ableism, ageism and their intersections, the playing field would be levelled, and all would be well with the world. Wouldn’t it?

Such a position now seems naive. In current neoliberal times, social justice and economic justice are inextricably linked, and work towards one needs to encompass both.

Building bridges across disciplinary boundaries is part of this project, and extends beyond economics, sociology and psychology (those considered in this post) to include law and politics as well – as a minimum, as far as I can see at this stage.

wake up

Scroll down to leave your comments…Joan Beckwith

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22 comments on “Social justice – under the neoliberal table”

  1. stellab says:

    Hi Joan –

    Yeah, technology is great – when it works 🙂 I wonder sometimes if real tecchies fully understand some things.

    I’m glad you found the links valuable and that one especially has become part of your treasure hunt. One of the best things we can do is keep circulating the ideas, info and support.

    Have a great week.

  2. stellab says:

    Hi Joan –

    Saw your reply above and hit reply but the box appeared here at the end? Hope you’ll see it.

    Thanks for those links. Quite interesting. As far as critiquing neo-liberalism, have you heard of Dr. Henry Giroux? He’s an engaging interview subject and prolific author.

    His page:

    As far as voting or acting against one’s own interests, I’ve seen it first hand. I’m a retired prof, and the last faculty contract we voted on before I retired has a clause in it that was really to the benefit of the administration. But NO, they wouldn’t even table an up/down vote to have it further studied, we HAD to vote that day. Well it passed, so yes, people will do that.

    Here’s an interesting post I found some time ago with a different angle on this phenomenon (you’ll probably recognize I left a reply, but with another screen name!):

    Anyway, great post and this has been a good discussion!

    • Hi stellab, something might have gone awry with the embedding feature of WordPress. I’ll see what happens with my response to you and check it out if it’s not working properly. (All the technological aspects of blogging create another big learning curve!)
      Thanks for both the links you’ve provided. I’ve come across Henry Giroux, but look forward to wading around his extensive site. The other article, and the site it’s on, are both great finds for me – a bit like parts of a treasure hunt (so much appreciated).
      Even though I started my blog nearly four years ago now, I’m only at the very early stages of finding my way around the niche (well, establishing the niche is also a journey of discovery). The horizon for ‘consolidating’ is ever-receding.
      ( P.S. Hmmm…I see my reply to you has embedded under your second comment, so don’t understand what happened with yours. Will treat as a temporary glitch for now and hope it corrects itself.)

  3. stellab says:

    Hi Joan –

    Searching around (these issues are very important to me), I found your blog. I’m quite impressed with your list of resources (!)

    I’ve noticed lots of what you bring up in this article. These problems are really interconnected and not easy to solve. And as Peter Minards noted there is a history (ongoing, I believe) of somehow convincing folks to actually vote or act against their own interests

    I’m in the U. S. and wonder if you heard of the Congressional Budget Office report recently released that showed wealth inequality has been increasing here.

    Carry on.

  4. Additional article: “What is Neo-liberalism and why knowing matters” which came out after I had published this post, but that I wanted to have on record.
    And here is one by Joseph Stiglitz that covers themes consistent with my post – reassuring in one way (he is a Nobel prize winner in Economics), but depressing in its confirmation of the construction of inequality (“It didn’t just happen. It was created”) and where it is heading (worse to come):

  5. Link to a primer on Modern Monetary Theory, recommended by Avis Williamson (via Facebook):

  6. GregH says:

    I found Joan’s article to be a very helpful summary and characterisation of neoconservatism. If there is one (positive) thing that Tony Abbott’s ascendency to the Prime Ministership did for me, it was to reawaken my longstanding interest in our political processes. Passively, approaching my 60th year, I had joined the growing crowd of citizen-electors that found it increasingly difficult to distinguish LNP and Labor politicians, and, in dealing with daily life, I lost interest. Two years down the track, while I believe that to be still true in practical terms, I have come to understand much more clearly the fundamental differences between the underlying ideologies. Faced almost daily with Abbott & Co’s collective meanness, arrogance, cruelty, unswerving ‘market-only’ focus, stupidity and deception, I sought to understand what it means to be a neoliberal/neoconservative and how a human being becomes one. To maintain my ‘rage’ in this enquiry, I’ve looked at the IPA’s ‘to do’ list, paid attention to enlightening internet articles (like Joan’s) and radio & TV programs, heard and read some of Naomi Cline’s work on Milton Friedman and the (continuing) influence of the ‘Chicago School’ of Economics, but, frankly, Abbott & Co have done so much, and so regularly, that maintaining the rage has been a breeze. I agree with Avis’s comment ‘… we simply didn’t take enough notice of what the Neo-conservatives were doing, and we actually helped them open the door in order to walk in and take over.’ I hope that 2020socialjustice can inform and motivate others, who, like me, didn’t take enough notice.

    • Picking up on your comments, Greg, and also again on Avis’, it seems as if the public mindset has become gradually colonised over decades, so bringing that longer term perspective to the story is really important. People born in the later part of last century and this one have been immersed in ways that may not be obvious to them because they have little to contrast with. Not that we necessarily want to reclaim earlier times (after all, that’s where Abbott headed in many ways in terms of social policy) but to see more clearly that we are caught in a reality that is not necessarily permanent. Things have been different, and can be in (yet again) different ways.

  7. Peter Minards says:

    Great article Joan. It highlighted a paradox in the minds of those that are struggling against the tragedy within global governance that I hadn’t considered.
    There have been innumerable books and journal articles written on this subject, so anything I write here will be simplified, but Avis is quite correct in identifying the 60s & 70s as the era that neoliberalism sprang from in its current incarnation. The ructions within “the establishment” as a result of the successfully wielded power of a united population against the policies of substantial and numerous governments and institutions, as seen in the anti-war movement and the 1968 uprisings, cannot be underestimated. Serious ideologues of the right, in the form of the Mont Pelerin Society, identified run-away inflation as the scenario under which a foundation could be laid to combat the erosion of their power. Supply-side or Trickle down economics under Regan and Thatcher was born. However, while these are important factors, it would all be for nothing if the support of the population was not gained.
    I feel that the financialization of the general public was the key to the NL project’s success. As an example, in the US at this time, and elsewhere, legislation passed to mandate pension funds of city workers invest in ONLY municipal bonds. Actions such as these not only ensured individuals became interested in the positive performance of stocks and bonds, they also broke the back of collectivization. Today the finance report is a standard segment in all news bulletins. Superannuation today in Australia is a sacred cow, while union membership is at an all time low.
    I tried to keep it brief, and therefore my argument is sketchy, but you get the idea. But behind all of these machinations is an ideology that is ingrained. As one who has seen the inside, this ideology is fueled by a fear that thing could have been quite different in 1968.

    • So, let me try and get this straight, Peter. “The people” had too much power for the comfort of the powerful in the ’60s, as exemplified by the anti-war movement. That people-power has now been eroded, partly by coopting “the people” into acting against their own interests. And that is certainly something I see and puzzle over: people ARE voting against their own interests, and may well continue to do so unless…well, unless… that is the big one, isn’t it?

      • Peter Minards says:

        I know that I’m invoking a mysterious agency within stereotypical groups and it sounds so conspiratorial. Talking about complex and nuanced subjects becomes difficult in formats such as these, however it may be better stated in the Deleuzian concept of Territorialization/Reterritorialization (if that helps!!!). As for the manipulation of the general public to act against their best interests, a long history of such things is well documented in the likes of “The Century of the Self” and many works of Noam Chomsky. Also Steven Lukes’s “Power: A Radical View” updates the False Consciousness idea well (not the psychological concept). The answer to all of these dilemmas is, of course, elusive, but a Whitlam type shake-up that de-centres the market (a la Karl Polanyi) seems to me to be the best way forward. But then , what do I know???

        • It sounds like you know quite a lot, Peter, and it doesn’t seem conspiratorial to me; just complex and messy. And, perhaps the challenge for all of us with an interest in change is to tame the messiness sufficiently to enable others to make sense of it without resorting to the kind of three-word slogans we have been served up by politicians.

          • Peter Minards says:

            I wholeheartedly agree Joan.

  8. Rick Harvest says:

    Terrific article Joan.
    I make no comment about the economics / social justice areas.
    These are too enormous and I am too ill-informed.
    These things go round and round and round.
    Little changes. Little stays the same.
    Despite the fact that there seems little to celebrate, and little to celebrate from your article, reading it makes me feel just a touch more positive.
    I thank you

    • Not sure how reading my piece made you “feel just a touch more positive”, Rick, but I’m glad that it did. I guess, for me, the prevailing situation is pretty depressing, but writing about it does help me become a bit clearer about what I think we are up against. If the big picture becomes clear(er), and can be effectively communicated, and awareness raised, then we have a basis for building change. Well, that’s what I believe on a good day.

  9. Rod Upward says:

    A good post Joan.

    My observation will focus in this first post on the interface between economics and society. The thing about Stiglitz is that he does not go far enough. I would suggest to you that what is needed is to apply a Modern Monetary Theory lens to the problem. The rationale for this is very simple. Modern monetary theory is a descriptive theory. It reflects the way the modern monetary system functions. It provides a way forward – towards building a non-disruptive transition economic system – that is not elitist – and protects the interests of all citizens – not just the ‘entitled’ soft and hard NeoConservatives.

    In Australia, we have some great progressive economists to often ignored by mainstream media. People like Bill Mitchell who is one of the key architects of MMT. They there are other people like Phil Lawn and Steven Hail – all great people with first class minds and ideas.

    More generally, the world does have the economic and philosophical insights to provide the framework to attack the absurd notions that underpin NeoLiberalism / NeoConservatism. However, what is needed is a group of people who are truly committed to building an alternative narrative to counter the fallacies within the dominant NeoLiberal ‘glad wrapped’ spin and discourse.

    • Many thanks for your helpful comments, and the names, Rod. I have now signed up to Bill Mitchell and Phil Lawn for their blogs, and Phil Lawn and Steven Hail on Twitter. Couldn’t find Bill Mitchell on social media, but did also find someone with your name, and left a request to follow.
      I totally agree with the need for a “group of people…to build an alternative narrative” and wonder if you agree with me that it would ideally be interdisciplinary? My own background is psychology, and there are probably many like me, from a range of disciplines, who have a common interest in “building an alternative narrative”, getting it into the public domain, raising awareness, and subverting neoliberal politics.

      • stephengb says:

        I have discovered, from the horror of the Neoliberal approach to a free market and also as a result of the Abbott factor, been studying as best I can understand MMT, Bill Mitchell, Randall Wray, Stephanie Kelton and Stephen Keen, all of whom talk of alternate economic policies that w8rk for all,8f us rather than the Oligarchy.
        I follow AIMN and find that John B Kelly who writes fror AIMN, writes about MMT, promoting and urging people to be ome educated about the creation of money and the role that the RBA and commercial banks play in that policy and process.
        It is absolutely essential that people learn how money is created, what role that taxes play, so that we are no longer lied to by our elected representatives of all pursuations.

        • This post has produced an amazing range of ideas and names of people who write about them; hopefully, some of us will follow some of them up. Thus the word spreads. I feel as if I have collected such a list of ‘homework’ that I may never rise to the surface again! Such is ‘retirement’; not that I’m complaining.

  10. Avis Williamson says:

    You are so right. All along since the mid 1970s and Reagan, Thatcher, and including Roger Douglas (NZ) and also Paul Keeting, it’s been about economics. A good start was Paul Wolfowitz in the US who began the entwining of monetary policy and finance. The rest of us simply followed suit. I have read in a number of articles lately, that the seemingly sudden moves to Neo-conservatism, which is at the base of Neo-liberalism, was in fact a reaction to the ‘freedoms’ of the late 1960s and early 1970s. I suspect this is true and while the freedom seekers of that era had moved on and were delving into personal potential stuff, we simply didn’t take enough notice of what the Neo-conservatives were doing, and we actually helped them open the door in order to walk in and take over.

    • Great to hear from you on this forum, Avis, having appreciated your involvement on Facebook for some time now. Your comments about the reach back to the 60s and 70s are particularly interesting (and I would love some links if you have any easily accessible) although I also feel increasingly annoyed with myself for being blindsided. An additional blinker for me has been my espoused position as ‘political but not party-political’. This, I now see, has kept me distanced from economics which I have seen as embedded in party politics. I am still unpicking a lot of this and building a more holistic narrative. Blogging about it, and getting responses, push the process along.

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