Good news for Monbiot
George Monbiot

THE PREVAILING IDEOLOGY is so overpowering that it’s rarely named. So suggests George Monbiot in the UK Guardian. His recent column must have struck a chord, since it has been shared online 233,000 times with comments closed after 3964.

Monbiot identifies the “coherent philosophy” as neoliberalism.

According to the headline, neoliberalism is “the ideology at the root of all our problems”, and his new book How Did We Get Into This Mess? collects earlier columns that survey the devastation.

In Monbiot’s account, neoliberalism portrays “competition as the defining characteristic of human relations”. Among consequences, competition relies on quantification and ranking, which lead to a “stifling regime of assessment and monitoring, designed to identify the winners and punish the losers”.

As “something admirable” about the neoliberal project, Monbiot nominates the patient organising of a network of thinkers and activists, ready with a clear plan when the inadequacies of Keynesianism became apparent in the 1970s.

In turn, John Maynard Keynes made a comprehensive economic theory available when laissez-faire economics led to catastrophe in 1929.

From the success of both Keynesianism and neoliberalism, Monbiot draws a lesson that “it’s not enough to oppose a broken system. A coherent alternative has to be proposed.”

And so what is neoliberalism’s replacement? It’s not Keynesianism, which recommends stimulating consumer demand to promote economic growth, and consumer demand and economic growth are the “the motors of environmental destruction”.

Disturbingly, Monbiot finds that the “left and centre have produced no new general framework of economic thought for 80 years.” So, he issues a call:

For Labour, the Democrats and the wider left, the central task should be to develop an economic Apollo programme, a conscious attempt to design a new system tailored to the demands of the 21st century

This is where I step in.

I have come up with a general framework of economic thought. Taking an embarrassing number of years, the task has indeed felt like an Apollo program.

Astronaut Buzz Aldrin stands on the Moon
Apollo person

Seriously, I know a lot about neoliberalism, and have a sound response – to the extent of 100,000 words. If I haven’t posted on this blog for a while, it’s been putting the finishing touches to a complete draft.

Where to begin? The working title: Gastronomics: Because Meals Matter More than Money.

The book is a critique of not merely neoliberalism, because neoliberalism essentially institutionalises the narrow assumptions of mainstream economics. These axioms have become so ingrained that even leftish political philosophers and economists have difficulty breaking through the illusion, and my list of offenders spreads beyond the familiar Hayek and Friedman. As Monbiot ruefully observes: “We are all neoliberals now.”

Even Monbiot under-estimates neoliberalism’s capture of ideas, so that, to most of us, economics can seem to be something they do, when it is potentially the most caring of all disciplines.

Not that I have invented much. Instead, I offer the twin advantages of persuasiveness and surprise – by bringing a gastronomic focus to reasonably established economic and social theory, political philosophy, and intellectual history.

The answer to market fundamentalism is not some other fundamentalism, but is intrinsically complex. Not that this prevents clarifying the meanings to words and re-formulating basics.

To encapsulate the answer in one word, liberalism. Liberalism, not neoliberalism.

This is the liberalism of Hobbes, Locke, Smith, Brillat-Savarin and many others who used to know that meals matter.

Now to find a publisher …

Meals matter more than money

The flat white in an age of disruption


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I leave Wellington for five years, the flat white adjusts, and I’m not convinced it’s for the better.

In late 2011, I extolled the flat white as the Antipodes’ greatest contribution to world gastronomy.

As Australians living in New Zealand for seven years, we found milk coffee, perfected – blending the best of both textured milk and espresso.

But, with change the only constant, on last month’s trip back to Wellington, flat whites seemed disconcertingly inconsistent, and certainly no longer typically in the distinctive, tulip cup.

I should quickly report excellent versions at Lamason Brew Bar, and one day we even had the dream-team – Dave Lamason and Dan Minson – at the machine together. Paul Schrader retained the tulip cup at the eternally-wonderful Nikau Cafe. And our daughter had an excellent barista lesson from Longe Nguyen.

Inconsistency might have come from complacency, because I don’t think I’ve overly romanticised the scene five or so years ago (or perhaps my home-barista skills have improved?). However, at least for changing the cups, we might try blaming Jeff Kennedy. After he sold his L’Affare coffee business, he launched Acme coffee cups in 2011. These filled a gap left when Italian firm ACF went out of business, along with their pastel colours.

Within two years, Acme (made in China) cups dominated New Zealand cafes and moved into Australia, US, UK and elsewhere. The thicker, lighter, larger-handled cup shapes include a tulip, but that is now deemed a “long black” cup, with flat whites shifted into the wider, straighter-sided shape (left). At least the volume remains the same (around 150 ml).

At the risk of sounding stuck-in-the-mud, novelty can be over-done. Some things are classics, requiring only ever mere tweaking. We need some comfortable predictability to the day, especially with our coffees. Our “conservative” tastes mean we often want the same drink we’ve grown up with.

In a complicated world, I have to admit that flat white coffees earlier benefited from change. New Zealand took world leadership in espresso-making when it still lacked an entrenched coffee culture in the 1990s. The new roasters searched the world for the best, and improved on it, especially the Australian flat white. Meanwhile, the long-established coffee cultures of France and the U.S. are only slowly admitting improvements, including flat whites.

Change or no change? Predictability or novelty? Comfort or disruption? Nothing like being unsettled by a transmogrified flat white to bring sobriety – as a smart pair warned in 1848:

Constant revolutionising of production, uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions, everlasting uncertainty and agitation distinguish the bourgeois epoch from all earlier ones … All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face with sober senses his real conditions of life, and his relations with his kind.

To interpret: an excellent cup of coffee reminds that, just as conservationists are the new conservatives, neoliberals preach eternal disruption.

That’s their word – “disruption”. The new Australian plutocrat Prime Minister, Malcolm Turnbull, whose wealth multiplies in a Cayman haven, carries on about disruption as “our friend”. We must embrace our “disruptive environment”.

Turnbull is hailed for replacing Tony Abbott’s three-word slogans, getting them down to one in this case. But the problem all along has been the ideology.

In his first speech as Prime Minister in September, even before he had got his certificate from the Queen’s representative, Turnbull committed his government to “freedom, the individual and the market”. A foodie welcomes choices, healthy bodies, and laden market benches, but Turnbull meant no such things.

His three ideals explicitly reaffirmed the neoliberal agenda: freedom at the expense of equality; the individual against the collective; and the market to replace democracy.

I feel unhappier with the system, and less welcoming of disruption, as the years go by. But I can always make a true, consoling cup …

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Tulip cup by ACF

How weird is Andrew Leigh? As exposed by Annabel Crabb, culinary investigator

Kitchen Cabinet - New Season

LABOR FRONTBENCHER and “economics brain box” Andrew Leigh enjoys the same lunch every day in his Parliament House office, Canberra. A staff member, Jennifer Rayner, confirmed “it’s pretty well the only thing I’ve seen him eat.”

Training an average hour daily for marathons – he has run three so far this year – Leigh told television journalist Annabel Crabb: “I run a lot, so I can basically eat what I like.”

And so what is his “usual”? His daily indulgence is peanut butter. Every lunchtime, Andrew Leigh spreads his canola margarine and peanut butter on a white bread roll.

Why smooth rather than crunchy peanut butter? inquired Crabb. “I can eat it more quickly.”

The former economics professor organises his life according to cost-benefit analysis, he explained, and peanut butter “tastes good, and doesn’t take long to prepare”.

Why then devote so much time to running marathons? Crabb countered. He must get pleasure from them, he decided.


The senior politician said his grandfather, Methodist minister Keith Leigh, had celebrated his 50th birthday by running 50 miles, which is almost two marathons, back-to-back. He died shortly after, running up Mount Wellington in the snow, a route that Andrew Leigh repeated in his grandfather’s honour on 17 November.

Leigh’s lunchtime interview is Episode 13 of Annabel Crabb’s Canberra Al Desko, which is an online companion to her Kitchen Cabinet, a series in which a politician cooks the main course, Crabb brings a dessert, and they chat.

Her culinary reports have been condemned as “fluff” that “humanises” politicians. But such a reading certainly does not work for de-humanised Leigh. He must come near the top of the list of politicians Crabb showed to be manifestly uncomfortable in the kitchen.

Under the heading, “Junk food journalism: Why Annabel Crabb’s Kitchen Cabinet is toxic”, Amy McQuire expressed her “disgust” (New Matilda, 29 October 2015). This was not my main complaint that Crabb’s vegetarianism unfairly narrows the menu. Rather, McQuire reported that the show was “about as nutrient rich as the majority of her desserts”.

For McQuire, the show represents the “insidious spread of propaganda, soft interviews with hard-line politicians”. The interviews coat “with sugar frosting” the “numerous acts of structural violence” by some of the most powerful Australians.

Agreed, her kitchen visit with former hardline border protector, now Treasurer, Scott Morrison, showed him to be not quite as freaky as I had originally thought, but that was pretty freaky. As usual, Crabb was much sharper than “fluffy”, leaving my companion fuming at Morrison’s shallow, self-satisfied theology. In her defence, Crabb does not over-grill her cooks in the manner of the 7:30 Report, but brings out their natural flavour. The politicians’ openness in the informal setting is Crabb’s own defence.

Incidentally, if we believe in “structural” forces, then Morrison surely showed himself to be victim of capitalism, authoritarianism and chauvinism, all wrapped up in the Shirelive church’s prosperity gospel.

Furthermore, Crabb’s “humanising” is indiscriminate, revealing Greens leader Richard di Natale to be a culinary star, reaching back into his Italian roots to make salami and pizze. Sharing Ricky Muir’s beloved campfire showed the four-wheel-drive and wheelie enthusiast to be an unusually earnest politician (for whom fellow Senator di Natale also admitted admiration).

Fairfax television critic Ben Pobjie found it “easy to be nauseated by last week’s KC [Kitchen Cabinet] episode, wherein Annabel had a spiffing old time cooking with Scott Morrison, trading amiable banter while carefully avoiding the topic of irredeemable evil. Crabb is generously acting as a bonus PR arm for Australia’s parliamentarians.” I go along with Crabb’s belief that she’s helping democracy, rather than joining in its typical trashing.

Law academic Sarah Keenan discovered that the show “reproduces a culture of white Australian entitlement to master and consume any and every cultural product, regardless of who it belongs to”. She went on: “As Crabb and Morrison joyfully prepare and eat the food [samosas] of the very people Morrison prevented from entering Australia, they perform their white Australian entitlement to own and consume what does not belong to them.”

Anticipating the bush tucker of Indigenous politician Nova Peris, Keenan predicted: “Crabb will devour the food hungrily, remark upon its delicious flavour and allow the nation to keep unsavoury topics like structural racist violence off the table.”

Like many of the show’s politicians, these critics reveal frighteningly little appreciation of the gastronomic basis of life. They have fallen victim to the same dehumanising institutions and inhospitable policies as the ascetic Andrew Leigh, spreading his peanut butter, not offering any to his guest, and then even refusing to eat in front of the camera because eating would not look “attractive”.


War and peace, and Anzac theatricals

WE DID A READING recently of a play I was always told was mere escapism. The drama SV300309 (2)turned out to be slightly more significant than that, being set in an old mansion whose staff gently meet clients’ escapist fantasies, such as a trade union leader working on, and never finishing, his revolutionary tract. A ballerina dances late in the proceedings.

The play won the first Adelaide Festival of Arts play-writing competition in 1960. I was young, but enjoyed that short opening season, which was probably its last, until we gave Goodbye to Number Six its recent airing. Our interest came from its author being my grandfather, Alex Symons.SV300315 (3)

Detracting from family pride, however, the play had only won and been performed because the conservative board running that first festival had over-ruled the experts’ recommendation, which eventually proved to be one of Australia’s most enduring plays, Alan Seymour’s The One Day of the Year.

SV300311 (2)I attended the world premiere of that, too, put on by many of the same Adelaide theatricals some months later. We bumped into my grandparents during interval, and I still recall my grandfather’s silence, which took me many years to really understand.

The One Day of the Year is a clash between father and son over Anzac Day celebrations. By the 1950s, the national holiday (25 April) had come to represent drunken diggers (by then, veterans of at least three wars). Anzac day officially commemorated the failed and deadly campaign by Australian and New Zealand troops sitting helplessly from 25 April 1915 to 9 January 1916 on the Gallipoli peninsula in Turkey.

What were they doing there? A good question.

Encouraged especially by Prime Ministers Bob Hawke and John Howard, Anzac Day has in recent years become a massive, national festival. Thousands clamour for the limited tickets to the dawn service at Gallipoli itself. On the eve of this year’s centenary of the landing, our unpopular Prime Minister Tony Abbott urged everyone to get to a dawn service to show “our defiance of those who would do us harm [read “terrorists”] and we’re supporting our country’s [newly-invented “Judeo-Christian”] values and our armed forces [including those I am now sending back to Iraq]”.SV300319 (2)

Some veterans would never go near such a bun fight, including my grandfather, who was awarded a Military Cross and endured a year’s surgery that still left metal in him. The death and destruction were sufficiently painful that he left London in 1922 to live in South Australia, never to return.

No-one recalls Alex Symons ever speaking about his experiences of the so-called Great War, except for once to his daughter, Janet. Just back from an Anzac Day service during that next conflagration, she asked why he never attended. He looked pained and answered, according to my aunt’s memoir:

“It was all about the killed and the killing.” When he had to lead his men “over the top” from the trenches in the Somme the majority were killed. He and one other were wounded and lying in the mud for 48 hours before being rescued. … he said he had to live with that, knowing how many men were killed and that the action had not been of any value.

In South Australia, he became the much-loved General Manager of the SA Housing Trust, and retreated into writing “escapist” plays and a musical, several performed.

Alex’s son, my father, went off to the Second World War and only ever attended Anzac commemorations as a radio commentator. But he was beaten in any contempt for arms by my mother, whose two brothers had been psychically damaged, one of them a young fighter pilot who became a problem alcoholic, and who always went to Anzac Day reunions. In fact, when unable to work and living with us, he went to daily reunions. He was a lovely guy, his life ruined and shortened.

I could hear my mother’s anguish when I read the other day how all “9 acres of guns” had to be made non-operational, with the firing pins removed, at the annual convention of the right-wing front-group, the U.S. National Rifle Association. That’s the NRA that wants loaded guns in schools to protect from guns – a policy of “mutually assured destruction” (or MAD).

A libertarian Senator believes Australia is a “nation of victims”, unable to protect themselves with weapons. He spoke in response to the Martin Place siege, in which two hostages were killed, one by police fire. Leyonhjelm’s case seemed even sillier when, a few days later, in a Walmart in Idaho, a two-year-old killed his mother with her gun that he found in front of him in her shopping cart. From the killing rates, the highly armed U.S. is by far the greater “nation of victims”.

Whatever way it came down to me, I was left loathing militarism, an opponent of the Vietnam War, another distant venture to which a conservative Australian government sent young citizens. When I say “citizens”, 20-year-olds were conscripted but we had to wait another year to vote. It’s the half-century anniversary of that, too, by the way.

This present Anzac carry-on is not all chauvinist belligerence and calls for more “defence” spending. I have tried to avoid media coverage, but it is wall-to-wall, and I have found plenty of genuine sorrow for the killed, maimed, and forgotten. The notable absence, however, is discussion about how to end the barbarity. Where’s the pacifism?

From my reading, many libertarians genuinely oppose war. The “free” (ha-ha) market is the only legitimate power, they believe, making the military as invalid as any other non-market force. They manage to ignore, however, enormous “market” pressures from the military-industrial complex that President Eisenhower warned against in 1961.

They also detest world government, which I am not convinced might not be an improvement on self-appointed sheriffs in continuous action (Groundhog Day meets High Noon).

Not very gastronomic, I hear you say. Where are the meals? Yes, that’s the point.

You may call it escapism, but I retreat from the horrors of war and unlimited growth (more on another occasion) to meals. Meals matter, SV300305 (2)and importantly as a rejection of armaments.

Meals are the antithesis of war. Enemies make peace at the table. The genuinely free market is not going to spontaneously combust. The land flowing with milk and honey is no scorched earth.

I contemplated such matters when planning my small birthday dinner on what also happens to be Anzac Day. It’s also the 50th anniversary of conscription for Australian males turning 20, as mentioned earlier.

It should be an anti-armaments dinner, I decided. But meals are intrinsically anti-armaments, swords left at the door.

So, I’ve just collected some anti-war buttons to be worn by diners who want.