Back in 2001, I wrote an article for Quadrant titled ‘Naming the Right’ (pdf) which tracked the changing terminology used to describe the free-market right. It argued that ‘New Right’ had largely gone out of fashion, and that though ‘neoliberalism’ was on the rise, ‘economic rationalism’ was the still the most common label. Re-reading it now there is a striking omission: ‘market fundamentalism’, which has attracted recent attention from Kevin Rudd’s use of it in his Monthly article and his CIS lecture (pdf), along with critical commentary from Jason Soon in the blogosphere and Tony Abbott in the SMH.
Market opponents have long used religious allusions in describing market supporters, branding them ‘zealots’ believing in an ‘orthodoxy’ of ‘sacrosanct’ markets as a ‘path to salvation’, including using the phrase ‘economic fundamentalism’ (these are all from a paper on economic rationalism I wrote in the early 1990s). But I am pretty sure that in omitting ‘market fundamentalism’ in my 2001 article I was not making a lexicographical blunder. It just hadn’t caught on then.
These days put ‘market fundamentalism’ in www.google.com.au and you will still be going with new examples tens of Google’s pages later. I found only one use, from 1999, that pre-dated my Quadrant piece, though search engines are not ideal for research stretching back into the days before putting things on the web was standard practice. The 1999 link referred to zillionaire speculator and would-be public intellectual George Soros who is fond of using the term; it was also popularised by the poorer but academically far superior Joseph Stiglitz.
As others have pointed out, the term itself cannot withstand much scrutiny in the way Rudd uses it. What interests me here is the sharp shift in the connotations attached to the labels for free-marketeers. We have gone straight from a term that alludes to the anti-religious forces of reason, ‘economic rationalism’, to one that alludes to the irrational dogmatism of religion, ‘market fundamentalism’.
Why the change in language? It may not always be deliberate. When looking for a way to describe their opponents, lefties often seem to just press ‘go’ on a random right-wing label generator and use whatever comes out – ‘neoconservative’, ‘neoliberal’, ‘economic rationalist’, ‘market fundamentalist’, it’s all the same to them. If ‘market fundamentalist’ is put in the mix it is going to be selected sometimes.
But I can see some strategic sense to it. ‘Economic rationalist’ is hard for the punters to understand, and to the extent that it is understood it is associated with Labor’s market reformist phase of 1983-96 as well as the Right. For someone like Rudd, this is why he has to distinguish his support for markets from Howard’s – Adam Smith versus Friedrich Hayek, as he implausibly argued in his CIS lecture. The use of ‘fundamentalist’ is also an attempt to make the link between character and argument. Especially in irreligious, moderate and pragmatic Australia, ‘fundamentalism’ is not a good thing. Labor MPs try to work the words ‘extreme’ and ‘ideological’ into every sentence referring to the Howard government for the same reason.
Like ‘political correctness’ on the Right, ‘market fundamentalism’ is a critique of a phantom. Since nobody ever says that they are politically correct or a market fundamentalist, there is nobody to concede defeat and so the war can go on forever. Or at least until the next and more politically convenient label.