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  1. The Staggers
13 September 2023

This is what plutocracy looks like

We should applaud Tim Gurner for his ghoulish honesty.

By Sohrab Ahmari

Tim Gurner is an Australian property developer with a net worth north of £500 million and an obsession with the pseudoscience of “anti-ageing”. Members of Saint Haven, his private club in Melbourne, skinny-dip in ice water, take IV drips, retreat to “meditation caves” and partake in something called “cryotherapy”, among other steps aimed at halting the ravages of decrepitude. When he isn’t fighting human nature, Gurner wages class warfare.

At a recent property summit convened by Australia’s Financial Review, Gurner ventured to explain what ails the world: namely, working-class people’s relative gains in terms of wages and power amid tighter labour markets brought about by the pandemic and its aftermath.

“We need to see unemployment rise,” Gurner declared. “Unemployment has to jump 40, 50 per cent in the economy. We need to see pain in the economy. We need to remind people that they work for the employer, not the other way around. There’s been a systematic change where employees feel the employer is extremely lucky to have them, as opposed to the other way around. It’s a dynamic that has to change, we’ve got to kill that attitude, and that has to come through hurting the economy, which is what the whole global – the world – is trying to do… to increase unemployment to get back to some sort of normality.”

Gurner’s remarks have been “ratioed” online, as the kids say. Yet he deserves gratitude for venting the id of neoliberal capitalism, giving voice to the fundamental assumptions that have guided economies across the developed world for the better part of two generations, but that usually go unmentioned by more polite neoliberals. For opponents of our political-economic consensus, Gurner’s remarks also helpfully pinpoint what it will take to overturn it.

Neoliberalism is a fuzzy signifier imbued with a multitude of meanings by those who deploy it. Critics associate it with deregulation, deunionisation, privatisation, financialisation and corporate-led globalisation, as well as an impoverished “politics” in which material conditions and the common good are occluded by questions of identity and self-expression. These associations aren’t incorrect, but they don’t get at the basic purpose of the neoliberal order: what the economic geographer David Harvey calls a “restoration of class power” that rescinded the class compromises struck, on both sides of the Atlantic, after the Depression and two world wars.

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[See also: Peter Turchin’s empty prophecies]

The other elements of neoliberalism all serve this deeper purpose. Privatising public goods – including firefighting and emergency services in the US – not only opens up fresh avenues for profiteering, but shrinks the public realm where ordinary people can contest the distribution of social resources. The takeover of the real economy by finance transforms the corporate form into a pure servant of short-term private gains, heedless of any larger public benefit. Neoliberal globalisation allows capital to play states against each other in a race to the bottom to “attract investment” – and removes decision-making from popular sovereigns and into the hands of transnational bodies and “experts”.

Nowhere is this neoliberal will to power more apparent, however, than in the direct assault on labour’s power – the stuff of Gurner’s tirade, in other words. As Gurner made clear, in order to ensure the domination of the asset-less many by the asset-rich few, it is essential to restore what he considers “some sort of normality” in labour markets. And “normality”, by Gurner’s reckoning and that of his neoliberal confrères, means slack labour markets, in which higher unemployment translates into lower wages and thus a smaller wage share of the social income. Introducing slack into labour markets via high interest rates – “what the whole world is trying to do,” as Gurner put it – also instils a greater sense of fear and precarity that makes workers less likely to exert political or on-the-job pressure for better conditions.

Boosting interest rates is the classic strategy for achieving this, deployed notoriously by the Federal Reserve chairman Paul Volcker in the 1980s to tackle the “stagflation” that characterised the previous decade – causing exactly the kind of recessionary “pain” Gurner fantasises about today. And while the Biden administration is in many ways opposed to the neoliberal consensus, Volcker’s current successor, Jerome Powell, has made it clear that he views the wage-price component of inflation – as clear an index of worker power as any – as the main problem (not, you know, shareholder greed for profits).

Maddeningly, neoliberals and libertarians insist that employers and employees enjoy the freedom to enter into and exit employment agreements, and thus their relations are ordinarily optimal and shouldn’t be interfered with by unions or government. At the same time, they militate against full employment, precisely to create lopsided power asymmetries between workers and bosses.

In the US, the results of Gurner’s “normality” have been stagnant real wages for the bottom half of workers going back two generations, and an economy in which half of fast-food workers and a quarter of adjunct college teachers have to rely on welfare to make ends meet; and in which four in ten Americans would struggle to come up with $400 in cash to pay for an emergency procedure, according to the Fed. Under the Thatcher-Blair-Gurner dispensation, Britain has similarly moved towards a low-wage, low-worker-power economy.

Progressives and others who seek more decent societies and more resilient economies should double down on worker power – and tell the Gurners of the world to betake themselves to their meditation caves and stick their social remedies, along with their eternal-youth enemas, where the sun don’t shine.  

[See also: Commodify your dissent]

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