On the 7th of April Elizabeth Farrelly (2016), writing in the Sydney Morning Herald, launched a stinging attack on the right-wing think tank the Institute for Public Affairs (IPA). Judging from the response on social media her column has been well-received by much of the Left: from left-liberals and social democrats to anti-capitalists. However whilst I have no sympathy for the IPA the argument that Farrelly makes is both deeply wrong and also a fine example of the common-sense of the Australian Left: that the state we are in is due to the nefarious influence of bad people and bad ideas.
So, Tony Abbott has appointed Institute of Public Affairs policy analyst Tim Wilson as Australia’s next human rights commissioner. Quelle surprise. The Left in general have gotten in quite a huff over this, despite the fact that the organisation’s previously wall-to-wall leftist commissioners failed to deter the Labor government from its descent to the bottom of the refugee policy barrel.
And sure, Wilson will certainly use the position to push his libertarian agenda, although even Tony Abbott must have seen the irony in appointing an outspoken critic of government intervention in people’s lives (not to mention spending in general) to a plush,$300,000 a year plus taxpayer funded job at a rights lobby.
But in the end, I think there are two key points missing from this debate. The nature of ‘human rights’ as an idea, and the left’s general readiness to jump into the morass of culture wars. Both of which point to a significant misunderstanding of how we should be establishing what Gramsci called a ‘counter-hegemony’ of radical ideas.
Debt. Debt is constantly looming at us. It is now a key element of the political-ideological constellation of our time. Debt expresses both the current crisis of capitalism in its economic guise and also the ‘representation of the imaginary relationship of individuals to their real conditions of existence’(Althusser, 2008, p. 36). Debt is pervasive, all encompassing and seemingly inescapable. The debt of Australian households is steady at 150% of income(Reserve Bank of Australia, 2013). If Australians only spent at the levels of their income it is more than probably that great sections of capital – especially retail – would no longer be viable. The majority of debt is tied up in mortgages: the major asset of most households is not only purchased by going into serious debt but only can maintain its value because the society as a whole is steeped in debt.
Graph: (Bird, 2013)
It was the US Sub-Prime Mortgage crisis that triggered this current, seemingly permanent, economic malaise – and it is now sovereign debt, that is the debt of states, that is the part of its current manifestation. (Neither are the source of the crisis itself – for that you need to look deeper into the structure and history of capitalism.) The sharpest expression of this is the looming possibility that the US will not raise its debt ceiling and thus be compelled to either drastically cut state expenditure or default on its debt. Since US debt, in the form of Treasury Bills, make up a core component of the global economy, such a default would, in the words of IMF Christine Lagarde ‘…cause serious damage to the US economy, but also to the global economy as a result of the spillover effects.’