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Is SA's "Marxist" start the key to unlocking our mojo?

Analysis

South Australia needs to look to its idealistic origins to unlock the enthusiasm and direction it once had to shake off our pessimistic and rudderless attitude, writes Richard Blandy.

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The ideas prevalent in Britain at the time of our first settlement are fundamental to our identity as South Australians.

South Australia was conceived as a planned society from the outset under the South Australia Company and the Wakefield Scheme.

Karl Marx made a number of references in Das Kapital to the plan for the development of South Australia, a plan that he regarded as capturing perfectly the essence of capitalism.

Under the Wakefield Scheme, capitalist landowners were to buy land from the state, the revenue so raised being used by the state to fund the migration of sufficient workers to be employed by the landowners to yield profits sufficient to justify the landowners’ purchases of the land in the first place. QED – Karl Marx.

As we know, the Wakefield Scheme and the South Australia Company both failed, the state only being saved from ruin by the fortuitous discovery of copper at Burra.

But the idea of a planned political and economic entity has continued to the present day, true to the radical political philosophies that were alive in Europe at our foundation in the 1830s.

South Australia’s early history leaves its mark on us today as a planned, government-interventionist, protectionist, technologically-adept, socially-advanced, dynamic democracy. This historical legacy is very important in constraining our politics.

America feels culturally different to South Australia, because America broke off from Europe in the 17th and 18th centuries during the so-called Enlightenment period.

The Enlightenment places high value on the possibility of collective progress through individuals’ free pursuit of their own ends, politically, materially, scientifically and religiously. America is quintessentially Adam Smith country.

Australia, by contrast, broke off from Europe 100 years later. Egalitarianism, fraternity, the collective organisation of labour, and state intervention to improve economic and social outcomes rose in prominence alongside freedom and democracy.

South Australia is Jeremy Bentham and Robert Owen country.

Any voyager to America from South Australia cannot fail to be struck by how far to the right the American political spectrum is compared with our own. This difference derives quite naturally from the different historical periods of our origins.

South Australia’s early history leaves its mark on us today as a planned, government-interventionist, protectionist, technologically-adept, socially-advanced, dynamic democracy. This historical legacy is very important in constraining our politics.

To get ahead in the world, the government must lead the way, even if its plan is to be less interventionist and protectionist in the light of new global circumstances.

What South Australia has to do in light of its foundation and history is to see how it can act not only consistently with that history, but also effectively in the new world circumstances in which we find ourselves.

The largest problem facing South Australia today is the absence of a credible utopian vision that accomplishes this task. Pessimism and anxiety about the future is the result. People cannot see where the state is going, or even where it is trying to go.

Their existence has become “defuturised”.

It has to be accepted, regrettably for our foundation and history, that the world has moved decisively against old-style, planned, state-interventionist, protectionist societies.

Globalisation, free trade, privatisation and market solutions to economic and social problems cannot be wished away.

They have become accepted as the way forward because they have been shown to yield better outcomes.

As Noel Pearson has eloquently argued in support of empowering local indigenous communities to run their own affairs (Weekend Australian, 30-31 January, 2016, p.20):

… Allowing individuals and corporations to choose according to their own lights, in pursuit of their own interests, is much more productive than governments picking winners.

This applies just as powerfully to the work of governments in supporting citizens and communities. Governments can best develop enabling policies and establish systems that allow players in the market place to best determine what needs to be done, and how to do it.

The proper role of ministers and departments in their executive functions is a subtle one: to enable maximum choice in the marketplace…

Premier Weatherill has said that strong government is part of the way forward.  a view appears to be based on a misunderstanding of the nature of power in a community with our sort of highly democratic history.

As Noel Pearson argues, precisely the reverse is needed if our inventiveness and dynamism are to be stimulated. The reason is because it is people who do things, not governments.

About 30 years ago (you see how old I am) an article appeared in the Journal of the Chinese Academy of the Social Sciences discussing the reason for the failure of strong central planning to deliver fast economic growth in China.

The reason, the Chinese author argued, was that, under those conditions “the people lose enthusiasm”.

Or, as the saying used to be in other places under strong central planning: “We pretend to work and they pretend to pay us”. Lao Tsu, the famous Chinese General and philosopher said many centuries ago: “When the best leader’s work is done, the people say, we did it ourselves”; and “To lead the people, walk behind them”.

Any place that is willing to focus on building creative ideas, skills, courage, integrity, alliances and relationships is likely to become wealthy in the new era.

We need a government that is going to tell us the truth: that the way forward is for the South Australian Government to encourage and support conceptual thinkers and entrepreneurs, the development of world class skills and personal qualities, and the formation of global alliances and relationships with like-minded persons and organisations.

They must encourage and support excellence and global competitiveness, wherever it may emerge.

The “state plan” must be to do whatever is necessary to create incentive and opportunity for the citizens to do it themselves, with enthusiasm, with the government walking behind them, not in front, “leading”.

The capital values of the enterprises that will carry us forward in the new economy are going to depend even more than in the past on streams of future earnings generated by ideas, concepts, competence and connections, rather than the ownership of bricks and mortar and things. 

This has an upside for a place like South Australia wanting to rejuvenate itself: a place does not have to have a history of great wealth to be wealthy in the “new economy” era.

Any place that is willing to focus on building creative ideas, skills, courage, integrity, alliances and relationships is likely to become wealthy in the new era.

This is the state plan that the South Australian Government must develop and sell to us: it is to focus on us becoming the only class that is going to be good enough to get the state out of its present hole – world class.

Richard Blandy is an Adjunct Professor in the Business School at the University of South Australia.

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