Brett Hetherington

Banner photos: Cornelia Kraft

Letter from a (political) cult refugee

[A shorter version of this article was first published under the title "The Market Forces Cult" in Catalonia Today magazine, December 2018.]

Religious cults regularly churn-up public interest but another kind of powerful group that has many of the classic attributes of a cult is the political party that has, until very recently governed nationally in Australia for over a decade. This is the Liberal Party of Australia. It is “liberal” by name but has become a force for conservative ideas only. It is, in many ways just a skillful apologist, a mouthpiece and a helping hand for the much larger cult of “free-marketeers” or “market forces” devotees. In Australia, they are the party that constantly does their bidding, and puts into practice the theories of this powerful cult which provides the entire basis for the economic system which most of our world runs on.


The question can here be asked: “How can you compare this organization with mind-robbing, freedom taking cults?”


Here I am taking the term ‘cult’ in a broad sense. A cult is, essentially, a committed body of adherents with great devotion to an idea, together having a system of strong beliefs or dogma. Why do I think this? Because of years of personal experience and close involvement, I am well qualified to comment on the collective mentality of the party. Spending countless hours in my late teens and early twenties with Liberals, working with and for them, it was impossible not to be strongly influenced by them.


Equally, over this formative decade my education of the doctrines of the free market cult was furthered while studying political science, economics and history at university, working in a small business, and in teaching at government high schools. These are all places where believers in market forces have a surprising amount of influence.


As a naïve fifteen-year-old kid I joined the ‘youth wing’ of the Liberal Party, called the Young Liberal Movement. I was to remain a financial member for eight years until 1993, when by this time I had transferred to the ‘Senior’ Party. At age nineteen I was elected to the relatively important position of Australian Capital Territory (A.C.T.) Young Liberal President, which meant representing the members from the city of Canberra at the “prestigious” national level. After almost three years in this role I went on to be an office holder in the Queanbeyan branch of the party and the Eden-Monaro Electorate’s councils, which stretched down to the south coast of the State of New South Wales.


In addition to the entirely voluntary work that many party members do, I did a paid job, as a temporary replacement, for a short period in the Parliament House office of (former Federal Liberal Defense Minister) but then Opposition Frontbench “rising star,” Ian MacLachlan. He had been an outspoken free-trader from the powerful lobby group, the National Farmer’s Federation.


A few years later, I was employed as the Senior Advisor for a compassionate and independent-minded back-bench Liberal named Louise Littlewood, who was a member of the A.C.T. Legislative Assembly until the election of March 1998. After the party hierarchy allocated her a highly questionable position on the ballot paper, she lost her seat in the general election that followed, by just forty five votes. She is practically the only person holding an office of responsibility in the Liberal Party that I can honestly say I still have a great respect for.



Let Freedom Ring Through Every Market


It is however, the arguments against free market economics though, that I find most compelling, (at least as much as the insights I gained in the hours and hours of both formal and more casual education into the strange world of the market-forces cult.) After years of believing very strongly in so-called “economic rationalism,” I now understand it to be a long-winded theoretical way of simply saying that almost no obstacle should be allowed to inconvenience those who want to become boundlessly rich.


The illusion that has been successfully sold to the Western world is that anyone can become wealthy if they work hard. This is no more than a spin-off of the Protestant work ethic. It has the same hollow ring for millions of people as the laughable but widely-accepted notion that any American can, if they just wish hard enough, one day become the President of the United States.


It is true that less affluent individuals in society can occasionally ‘rise’ to the (now rapidly shrinking) middle classes, as the Liberal Party and other market forces cultists assure us. They might even make it into the rich elite. But, as a consequence, this increasingly remote possibility naturally pits one person against another in a battle, not necessarily for survival, but for a limited number of shaky footholds at where the excess is.


Clearly, it is impressed on every man or woman who aspires to be rich, the only way you can get near being moneyed is at the expense of others. The swindle that has deluded much of our society is that those forces of the free market work in the interests of the majority. We are now wakening to the undeniable fact that this current economic and social arrangement continues to deny the basic humanity of most of those who live as part of it.


Free market dogma expressly state that ‘labour,’ meaning people who work, must be subject to ‘supply and demand’ in exactly the same way as inanimate objects are in the economy. A human “resource” is therefore no more ‘valuable’ than a tree or a piece of coal, or even a purely abstract concept like a dollar bill.


If this entity called “the market” (which I’ll come to later) decides that a unit of labour (a human being) has to be paid less, has to work longer or shorter hours, has to move location, or has to effectively vanish into thin air, then nobody should stand in the way. The free market cultists maintain that it is not the role of a government or a trade union or anyone else to prevent the operation of this always ‘reliable’ market.


If a person is unfortunate enough to not fit what is at that time considered to be “economic” then they simply must adjust themselves in the required way. This was the exact argument put to rural families in Australia by elevated members of the market forces cult, in the 'Telstra' fiasco of a few years ago. They were told that they were not as deserving as others to have telephone lines, because they were less "economically-viable" living in small towns. It is a cast-iron rule of economic ‘rationalism’ that people can be ‘rationalized’ just like stock.


I, myself, as a former cultist, was actually fully convinced that an ‘impediment’ to the operation of pure supply and demand economics was itself ‘artificial.’ Therefore, this meant that I was, in good conscience, able to believe that somebody who was, for example, unfortunate enough to have a serious accident, or contract a terminal disease should pay for their own medical treatment or insurance cover. If the government was involved in financially helping, then this was a gross “distortion” of a beautiful economic system. I contend that most devotees of the free market cult, deep down inside (in places they do talk about at parties) still believe exactly the same thing.


The cult of market forces is not only one that deceives others but is duping its own followers as well. It is mistaken about some important aspects of human nature. Their most serious error is that the doctrines of this cult are entirely based around the central idea that consumers will (even when they are not necessarily consuming) without fail, act rationally.


In other words, every individual, whether they are a child making their first purchase of a chocolate bar that they happened to see advertised on TV; someone choosing a sexual partner, or selecting between Coca-Cola or Pepsi; or even a chain-smoker with lung cancer buying their last cigarette: they all do so, every time for one reason only. That is: “opportunity cost.”

This means that all decisions made by all human beings are done after a kind of mental cost-benefit analysis. It is a belief of the free market cult that everyone is hell-bent on “maximizing” the level of satisfaction of their various needs and wants. We act only out of self-interest, and (it logically follows that) altruism cannot exist in human relations.


So, we are making supposedly rational and self-interested decisions in every waking moment. This suggests then that there is a cold, quite detached weighing up of the pro’s and con’s before all choices. It exists in the mind of a drunken man, or a psychotic killer, or a hormonal teenager, in a hateful army Lieutenant, or in a neurotic housewife. It must be there in the gambling addict, too. Before he or she spends them self into complete poverty, maybe they can be consoled with the thought that at least it is in their self-interest. The economic rationalist textbooks say so, anyway.



To Market, To Market


But, what then is the core belief about the mystical entity called The Market?


According to the cult it is, in short, a ‘mechanism’ that ensures that the ‘demands’ of all consumers for goods (for example, petrol) and services (for example, a train ride) are met by the ‘supply’ of all producers (given available resources.) This so-called “market equilibrium” (that is, the money-price paid by consumers) will vary depending on how much consumers are prepared to pay for each and every good or service.


It is standard free market theory that if a price for something is low then more people will purchase it. As the price rises, then fewer people will supposedly buy it. This remains true, it is believed, whether it is a loaf of bread or a trip to an island resort that we are talking about.


This concept of the free market is based on the old-style market place, where traders would display their homegrown vegetables or the family’s handmade clothes physically in front of them at their open-air stall. Buyers would walk up and haggle with each shopkeeper over the price of what they were interested in. A price might be eventually agreed upon, and a purchase could then take place.


This pre-industrial, drawn-out procedure still takes place in certain parts of the world today and essentially the world’s many financial stock markets operate in a similar way, though at a speedier pace. There however, it is perceptions of a monetary value that are bought and sold rather than physical goods. These particular markets run on the wobbly premise that the money-value of a share or a commodity price can, and in fact should, change hugely from one minute to the next. So when this sudden “adjustment” happens to a large amount of shares very quickly (when certain humans panic) a major stock market ‘crash’ occurs.


The Great Depression of the 1930s, which caused immeasurable suffering to an equally immeasurable number of people, is just one example of the direct results of free market theories being put into practice internationally. The last big crash happened in 1987, also causing large-scale job losses and other immeasurable miseries across the world. It was labeled by many rationalist economists as nothing more than a ‘correction’ of the economy’s ‘balance.’ Only in the strange mind of the market forces cultist can the hardship of countless men and women be thought of as correct.


In the medieval-age of simple village squares and relatively limited consumer expectations, this basic economic model might have made some common sense. Today, and for some time now, it is surely absurd to continue living based on these out-dated principles in a modern global society that is technologically fast-paced, and massively productive.




Caught Between The Market and a Hard Place


It is only wrong to persist with a fundamentally free market economy that damages so many in society if you actually believe in humanitarian fairness though. If providing better lives for those who do not benefit from market forces is not considered as important then the power of the free market cult can justifiably roll on.


It is apparent that the people hit hardest by the market’s darker moods are the increasingly large numbers of the working poor living on subsistence wages, as well as those in greater poverty. To paraphrase Bob Dylan, “it took a stranger to teach me to look into justice’s beautiful face…” Here I refer to George Orwell, who amongst many other things discovered some important, but overlooked facts. In a detailed, very personal study in England during the Great Depression of the 1930's, he noticed that for those with meager incomes, every penny is spent on something virtually ‘essential’ for body or soul.


Every living creature needs the basic of life. These can be crudely broken down into: food, drink, shelter, and in a more reasonable scheme of things, (but never mentioned by free market cultists) what could be loosely-termed ‘piece of mind.’ Some would also add love to this list. It is a free market doctrine though that all prices must be determined by the market system. It follows from this of course, that if many people buy something, it is in great demand and will be set at prices by those doing the selling.


What the free market does, as Orwell found, is to make these needs extremely difficult for those on low-incomes to meet. It makes finding ways to do this into almost full-time occupations for a great number of people. At the same time it permits almost limitless luxuries for those with the skill or luck to get the means to buy them. Low income-tax policies and reduced welfare spending, which the Liberal party in Australia has ensured, on behalf of their fellow cult members, only further exaggerates the inequality.


The market though, is the vehicle for humanity’s continuing progress, argues the cult. It guarantees economic growth in its ‘natural’ cycles they say. In truth, what it does certainly create is a mentality that defines “winners and losers.” Little money equals big loser. Success is measured by the size of your wallet or bank balance.


These are just a few of the theories that are also being taught in most universities around a great deal of the world right now, and have been for some time. They have been wholeheartedly embraced or quietly accepted without question by thousands of academics, professors, in banks and industry, and enforced by armies of bureaucrats in the “developed” world. And why? Mainly because it suits the self interests of the free marketeers.




The Free Market Clubhouse


With the fall of Communism internationally, in Eastern Europe the market forces cult is finding fervent, fresh devotees there, and many more in the rapidly capitalizing economies of Russia and China where large numbers of new ‘Business Schools’ are training eager young minds.


Of course, on the surface, to the wholly-open, unformed mind, as mine certainly was in my teens and early twenties, or to those not given to unprejudiced analysis, the ideas of a party like the Liberals, espousing the benefits of economic freedom, are attractive.


These theories conveniently explain away the complexity of human motivations, simplifying us into creatures that act from various kinds of greed alone. The free market cult is the ultimate clubhouse for those taken with the allure of the dollar. It pushes the ‘instinct’ of acquisitiveness. It substitutes our natural desire for self-identity and inner-understanding with an insatiable want for the things that only money can buy. It encourages an outlook of seeing your fellow man or woman as little more than a social-economic competitor. It reduces something as mystical and exquisite as a poignant feeling into a shallow impulse that exists just so it can be hosed-down with a purchase, only to be quickly replaced with a different, but equally empty act of buying. It manufactures the tawdry lie that you need a new car, a bigger house, or a breast implant because they are the kinds of things that will finally bring you the happiness that you are looking for. It takes out everything else from awe-inspired, ambitious striving for wisdom, and slots-in “materialism.” It sustains life through paid work for the fortunate, but robs so much too.


The free market cult can also produce some sad outlooks. In a disturbing turn of phrase, a former friend once told me that, from his rationalist point of view, marriage was nothing more than “an economic decision.” The cockamamie falsehoods of the cult had corrupted his mind to the extent that he had no concept of love, even as something to grasp at for himself. He has been a long-time office-holder in the Liberal party and was a middle-ranking Treasury and Finance department economist. He was married seven years ago and was recently rewarded for his loyalty to the cult with a government posting in Paris.


I don’t think this man is unusual. I think he is quite a typical member of the free market cult. The life of the economic rationalist is subsumed by figures, ‘outcomes,’ and processes that are far removed from emotions. Humans are often little more than a statistic for them, especially if they are humans who happen to be paid some kind of welfare benefit. It is no surprise therefore that the devout free marketeer lives in an often passionless world.


I wouldn’t say however, that a follower of the cult is unable to have genuine feelings for somebody else, (they may love their children in a certain hollow way) but I have great doubts that many could truly experience for example, any genuine empathy for a stranger’s suffering. Unconditional love is ultimately foreign to market forces cultists.



The Free Market Cult: Alive and Thriving In Australia


The all-pervasiveness of free market cult ideas across our society is hard to over-estimate. There is almost total blind faith in the glories of it’s worth in the Liberal ranks, but varying degrees in their government coalition partner, the National Party and the opposition Labor Party. Since the early 1980s it has come to be accepted wisdom by governments of both persuasions though. Any political leader nowadays who took on a skepticism towards always trusting the market to ‘get things right’ (as former Labor Party leaders Whitlam and Dunstan both did in the 1970’s) would come in for severe treatment from much of the mass media.


George Orwell also said that “the people will believe what the media tells them they believe.” For those in Australia who tune into commercial television current affairs shows or talk-back radio to find out what their own opinions will be, any upstart politician who challenged market cult principles would undoubtedly find that the chances of “keeping the dream alive” are suddenly under serious threat. Some of the back-bench Liberals I knew were remarkably frightened at the prospect of a bad word directed at them on the airwaves by one of these types of “gurus.”


Under recent conservative rule, major changes have occurred in Australia’s public education system. Most notably, government schools are now being run by “managers,” who still use the quaint, but misleading title of ‘Principal.’ The days when the ‘Head’ as a figure of authority would support their teaching staff in a battle against the misers in the Department are gone, it seems.


In the last decade especially, decisions about schools are being made from financial considerations alone, and questions of budgets, fundraising, and cost-minimization are what now largely occupy the attention of the school hierarchy. There is precious little time, energy (or even interest) for discussion about how or what is being taught. The purse strings matter most now, and those holding them enjoy knowing it.


Equally, there is a solid lack of belief in universal, free education within the Liberal party and the wider market forces cult. I distinctly remember making a fruitless argument at a Young Liberal meeting held at the Canberra Press Club in the late 1980s. One point I made revolved around public education being what I called “a vital human infrastructure.” The term was noted by a fellow member who thought it “sounded nice.” My proposal was voted down though, and it was apparent that we were obviously in a small minority at this gathering, who collectively thought this was a principle that was fine to ignore.


In fact, this particular belief and others like it, have been termed “ a wet policy,” by many and opposed by the “dry” faction, who have maintained control of most of the Liberal Party for over a decade. The re-election of John Howard to the leadership, then to Prime Minister, made the “dries” elated and moist with anticipation. Federal Treasurer Peter Costello and others have not left them disappointed, and it proved to be the final nail in the coffin of any significant moderate or progressive, ‘small-l’ Liberal elements.


It should be noted though that a kind of political debate does actually exist in some of the rank and file of the Party. There are bound to be plenty of “policy motions” drafted then put-up for discussion and adoption into various documents. There are almost always more than enough speakers at the well-attended State-wide or national policy forums.


On the whole however, a majority of the issues that the average member puts on the agenda paper are what was often admitted to be “motherhood.” This means that they are about as controversial as motherhood. Everyone is in favor of motherhood, everyone agrees with it of course. The raising of any topics that are genuinely contentious, and where there are sharp differences of opinion are quite rare.


Liberal party members can get as heated as most people over questions of personality or in a factional dispute, nasty and hateful even. But to have a major, passionate disagreement about an actual idea is, highly unusual. (The Goods and Services Tax debate in the early '90s was an exception to this though, I think.)


John Howard has repeatedly claimed that his party is, as he puts it, “a broad church.” This has a certain limited, truth to it. The members of his congregation all believe in the same god, and that is the god of the free market. A questioning of whether this holy being deserves to exist at all would be unthinkable, inconceivable, and practically heresy.


If someone were to suggest a radical examination of a principle that under-pinned the private enterprise economy, (as I did, once only, at a national conference of Young Liberals in the early 1990s) they could expect to be viewed the same ways as me. As close to a lunatic, or a kind of dreamy philosopher, unneeded and unheeded.


As is now obvious, the Liberal party machine is made-up of extremely conservative people, young and old. Historically, it was created in the 1940s to represent, or rather take political advantage of, former Prime Minister Robert Menzie’s so-called “forgotten people” from the middle classes.

However, it has long shed any pretensions towards genuine government ‘interference’ in the economy, and the ‘little man’ in his small-business or shop has been effectively over-looked in favor of ‘laisse faire’  (leave it alone) economic theories.


Along with this approach has come a rapid abandonment of one of government’s most vital responsibilities: to help the needy, and create improved social justice. In their heart of hearts, the market forces cultists who have run the administration and economy of Australia believe that this task should be carried-out by volunteers and charity groups alone. Unofficial Liberal policy is for this also, and as a result, their government pursed the "farming-out" of welfare support to Christian organizations, in particular. 

There was, and still is a strong belief in the Liberal party that public servants are pro-Labor and therefore highly suspect.  Until late 2007, the Howard government spent over a decade simply following-through after the bitterness that was stored inside them during thirteen years in opposition, and through extensive privatization, slashed public sector worker’s job. These exact same market forces approaches to social security were widely proposed, and strongly supported, at many levels of the party organization when I was a member. The Howard government spent a great deal of its energy delivering them.


One of the reasons I finally moved overseas eight years ago, and have decided to stay away indefinitely from my country of birth (about which I naturally still greatly care) is because of what that bunch of quietly vicious, money-eyed free market cult leaders have done to it.

Former Prime Minister John Howard’s successful 1996 Election slogan: “For All of Us” took on many disturbing tones. We should watch out for the ‘us’ part, as we continue to live by the economic system that the free market cult has put in place around us.