October 24, 2012
The Big wilderness's veto on development column by Nick Cater in The Australian spells out the conservative's imaginary that lies underneath, and supports, the myth of the real Australia being usurped by the election of Gillard and The Greens. The myth holds that the real Australia will soon be restored. Hence their obsession with Gillard.
The 30th anniversary of the Franklin campaign is an opportunity to assess the relative power of conservationists and industrialists and the state of play in the conflict between the wilderness industry - the anti-industrial industry if you like - and the industry that drives progress, productivity and prosperity.
His claim is that big wilderness, by inference is anti-progress, anti-productivity and anti-prosperity. It has a veto over development. The corporations have lost their power. The inference is that it needs to be returned if progress, productivity and prosperity are to achieved.
The above is a very bad state of affairs for conservatives because the proper order of things should be one in which big corporations have the power to outwit and outgun environmentalists at every turn. That was the case before the 1970s and the campaign to stop the Franklin Dam. It's been downhill since then.
So there needs to be a fightback against the environmental state. The general strategy of the political right is to deny the seriousness of environmental problems and to adopt scepticism as a tactic to combat environmentalism. However, with Cater, we are a long way from the traditional conservative instincts about the environment, localism, society, community and family based on the attachment to the home.
Cater, as a journalist at The Australian, is working with the freedom, efficiency and profit ethos of neo-liberalism. This is deemed to be economic orthodoxy, with its development v environment duality, its mode of governance based on the commodification of nature, its desire to roll back of the environmental state and its appeal to the self-regulating market. Many environmental regulations (e.g., factory pollution standards, automobile emission standards) were widely criticized as unwarranted intrusions on business and personal freedom --ie., the free market---when they were first introduced in Australia not so long ago.
What is left unsaid is what constitutes a "free market", given that some state regulations (and the rights and the obligations that they support, or even create) are accepted, such as automobile emission and safety standards. For neoliberals the free market is equated with the perfectly competitive market of neoclassical economics, and they assume that the market has primacy or supremacy that emerged spontaneously from the natural order of things. Non-market institutions, in contrast, are seen as human-made substitutes that emerge to address market failures.
Politics opens the door for sectional interests to distort the rationality of the market system, and the neoliberal solution to this problem is to depoliticize the economy. This is to be achieved by restricting the scope of the state (through deregulation and privatization) and by reducing the room for policy discretion in those few areas where it is allowed to operate.
One problem with this neoliberal conception of the free market is that it ignores that the "free market" is a political/social construct. iThe establishment and distribution of property rights and other entitlements that define the endowments of market participants is a political exercise. Neoliberal economists take these property rights as given, but water entitlements as property rights, were only created in the Murray-Darling Basin in the 1990s. A market in water was created by politics.
This indicates that market rationality, which the neoliberals want to rescue from the corrupting influences of politics, can only be meaningfully defined with reference to the existing institutional structure, which itself is a product of politics.