Promo Photo2 Dr Lindy Edwards has worked as an economic adviser in the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet, a press gallery journalist for the Sydney Morning Herald and was head of policy to Natasha Stott Despoja when she was leader of the Australian Democrats. After extensive experience in the Australia political system she returned to academia to complete her PhD at the Australian National University.

Dr Edwards has been a Fellow of the Australian Prime Ministers Centre, the Centre for Policy Development and a board member of the think-tank Catalyst and the Economic Advisory Board of the Australian Conservation Foundation.  She has had a fortnightly column in The Age newspaper, a fortnightly slot on ABC radio and her research featured in documentary ‘Make it a Big Deal: is Our Democracy for Sale?‘ She is a regular media commentator who has appeared on The Drum, The Project, Compass, ABC News24,  Sky News and her writing has been published in The Sydney Morning Herald, the Canberra Times, The Times, The Australian,  the Malaysia Straits Times, The Monthly, The New Daily, The New Matilda, Pearls and Irritations.

My Research Agenda – What will come after Neoliberalism?

My research stems from working in Parliament House in the mid 2000s and witnessing Labor politicians dismissing their traditional supporters’ objections to their economic policies on the basis that they ‘weren’t educated enough to understand’. I saw this as a sign of an ideological crisis, where there was an elite consensus on economy policy that didn’t align with the views of the parties’ support bases. The corrosive effect of this misalignment on our democratic politics was already evident then, and has turned into a full blown crisis now.  It is argued to be a contributing factor for the dramatic decline in public trust in western democracies and is implicated in the rise of right wing populism.[1]

I returned to academia with the goal of making the biggest ideas in social science accessible to a wider audience, and to facilitate public debate about the question: ‘what will come after neoliberalism?’

My most significant contribution has been to argue that to overcome this misalignment between voters and their representatives, and to re-open democratic debate about the management of the economy, research needs to shift from talking about ‘market economies’ to talking about ‘long chain economies’.  My work has explored the political significance of the heuristics we use to make sense of complex phenomena and to translate academic theory into the simplified language of public debate. The heuristics frame the debate and foreclose the range of policy options considered. I argue the debate about economics can be opened up by using a heuristic that acknowledges modern economies are characterized by very long value chains. Neoliberal approaches to the economy assume that impartial market forces of demand and supply determine how wealth is distributed along those chains. Opposing views argue that economic power, class relationships, government laws and regulations, cultural norms including attitudes to race, gender and the environment, all impact on how wealth is distributed along those chains. Reframing public debate about the economy in this way enables better democratic representation of the variety of community experiences of the economy. 

My 2020 sole authored book, Corporate Power in Australia was a very large empirical study that demonstrated the utility of the ‘long chains’ framework for explaining what has become the flashpoint critique of neoliberalism. The book is the most substantial study of corporate power in Australia in the last 30 years. It examined case studies involving Australia’s ten most powerful companies’ policy battles with government.  It found that each of these companies towered over long supply chains and that their conflicts with government were over laws that determined where the wealth was realized in the value chain. It revealed how neoliberalism’s neglect of the role of power in value chains had allowed the corporate leaders to scrape the wealth out of the chains and to concentrate the economic gains into their own hands. It found Australia is teetering on the edge of a ‘Medici Cycle’ where economic and political power become mutually reinforcing and the largest companies are able to use their political power to secure laws to further entrench their economic dominance, creating a persisting oligarchy.

The Research Journey – Edwards’ Body of Work

These research findings have been the product of  five major research projects has been a systematic exploration of the question ‘what will come after neoliberalism?’  This research agenda has covered an enormous breadth of scholarship, interrogating a number of subfields, seeking insights to this question. It has encompassed broad historical sweeps, and deep dives into specific case studies, embracing work on pure theory and robust empiricism.

My ‘long chains’ argument has been the product of a research agenda that has progressively examined neoliberalism’s impact on public policy making and democracy, the alternatives to it, the nature and drivers of ideological change, and then finally, how I think the political debate could and should move on from the neoliberal paradigm through offering both a politically mobilizable conceptualization and an empirical mapping of the flashpoint critique of neoliberalism.

Neoliberalism and Public Policy

L.Edwards (2003,2007) How to Argue with an Economist: Reopening Political Debate in Australia. Cambridge University Press:Melbourne.

In this book I conducted an analysis of the mainstream microeconomic paradigm that was being treated as a value neutral tool in the federal public services.  I demonstrated that as a theoretical framework it had the core structures of an ideology. I demonstrated how the application of this paradigm in policy debates by the central agencies of government was creating an ideological lens that filtered government making. I made the case that this led to a number of quite legitimate citizen concerns being systematically excluded from the public decision-making process. I argued this phenomenon was of importance to the health of our democracy because an ideologically captured elite were not being representative of, or responsive to, the legitimate concerns of citizens.

Neoliberalism and Democratic Decline

B.M. Edwards (2005) Democratic Decline, Social Capital and Neoliberalism. PhD Dissertation, Australian National University: Canberra.

I began my PhD seeking to explore whether the big idea of the moment, Putnam’s concept of social capital, could provide an anti-dote to the challenges of neoliberalism. A critical engagement, however, took my analysis in a different direction.

Robert Putnam’s famous Making Democracy Work study had found an empirical relationship between co-operative community behaviours at the local level and well-functioning democratic governments. Putnam theorized his findings to argue that dense social networks, which he called social capital, created incentive structures that led to pro-social and pro-democratic behaviour. His research rang alarm bells about the decline of co-operative community networks as signalling a threat to democracy.

Putnam’s theorization of his findings came under attack from sociologists who pointed out dense social networks could enforce a variety of social norms and not just co-operative ones.

My thesis re-theorized Putnam’s findings to argue the heart of social capital was a belief in co-operation as the best way of solving problems, and that its decline was associated with the rise of neoliberal ideology. It conducted an analysis of neoliberal thought and argued that at its core neoliberalism was an argument that co-operation failed, and that competition between self-interested actors was a better way of organizing society.

In the analysis of the neoliberal theory, it argued that neoliberal thinkers’ critiques of co-operation rested on using either or both of two intellectual moves. Firstly, the analysis excluded the notion of gains from co-operation to reduce public questions to ones of distribution in zero-sum-games.  Secondly, it re-defined rationality to an extreme short termism in which it was no longer considered rational to consider others reactions to our behaviour in our choices.

This analysis led to a desire to explore the alternatives to neoliberalism.

Alternatives to Neoliberalism

D.Cahill, L.Edwards and F.Stillwell (2012) Neoliberalism Beyond the Free Market. Edward and Elgar Press, UK.

This book was an edited collection that brought together the range of alternatives to neoliberalism from the various political economy literatures in the wake of the Global Financial Crisis. In the course of this project I came to understand that in different ways, all the alternatives to neoliberalism were arguing that markets were socially constructed. However, none offered a likely candidate that could be politically mobilized as an alternative to neoliberalism. This led me to want to examine how alternatives might arise.

Understanding Ideology & Ideological Change

L. Edwards (2013) The Passion of Politics: The Role of Ideology in Australia. Allen & Unwin: Sydney.

This project was ostensibly about wanting to understand ideological change, the forces that drive it, and where a challenger to neoliberalism might come from. It was presented as an account of Australian political history and how each wave of ideological change had driven social reform.

Integral to this project was the question of ‘what is the left?’ I was considering this question against a backdrop where socialism had collapsed, the liberation movements were represented as a grab bag of single issues, and the notion of grand narratives had been disavowed in preferences for a multiplicity of infinitely diverse discourses. My argument was that discourse analysis had over-reached in the dissolution of ideology and that there were core principles that were enduring and which accounted for the ‘family resemblances’ of ideological schools of thought.

I set out to identify heuristics that captured these core principles and which could act as the interface between political theory and political practice. The heuristics sought to be recognisable to scholars of political theory as capturing the fundamental principles of theory on the one hand, and also to also be able to be identified in the rhetoric of politicians and the justifications of reform on the other. I then used these heuristics to map the different ideologies, and to place them historically in the process of political change. The lessons learnt about the drivers of ideological change then underpinned my next project.

A Post Neoliberalism Paradigm

L. Edwards (2020) Corporate Power in Australia: Do the 1% Rule? Monash University Press: Melbourne.

This project presents an enormous empirical project, which compares big businesses policy preferences at the beginning of policy development process to the final legislation to determine how often big business preferences prevail. It is that. However, its underlying conceptual structure is built on the theoretical lessons taken from all of the projects that came before it.  

Firstly, the lesson from the work on the history of ideology is that ideological change comes from the ideas that are used to make sense of pressing practical problems. To the extent that the growth of wealth of the top 1% is the flashpoint critique of neoliberalism, the way that we conceptualize that problem and the solutions to it, will become the basis of ideological change.

Secondly, the work on neoliberalism and democratic decline had left me with the insight that neoliberals won the battle of ideas in large part by re-theorising democracy. Faced with a system that was popular and worked, they re-theorized it from being about the collective deliberation on the common good to be a means of mediating between competing interests. Having reframed what were seen as democracy’s central strengths, they then began to be able to regulate it in accordance with their principles.  My insight was that this is what the left needs to do to the economy. We shouldn’t accept the delineation between the market and government, to leave the market to the right and see the role of the left simply as being to argue about the size of government. Rather, the left needs to re-theorize the economy to identify the wealth generated by specialization and co-ordination as gains from co-operation, and something it values. Having identified these products of co-operation as socially valuable profits, it can start to distinguish that from the exploitative profit maximizing behaviour which doesn’t create wealth but redistributes it along the value chains and into the hands of the most powerful.

Thirdly, I took from my work on heuristics that I needed a simple heuristic that could convey the socially constructed nature of the economy. I concluded that by focusing the imagination on the long value chains of the modern economy, it was possible to simply convey how economic power, law and cultural norms could influence how wealth was distributed along the chains.

The Corporate Power project is a very large empirical project that demonstrates the utility of the ‘long chain economy heuristic’ as a way of making sense of the practical realities of modern political economy, and particularly the key shortcoming of neoliberalism.  It demonstrates that neoliberalism’s failure was to ignore all other forms of power and to argue that the market and the impartial forces of demand and supply determined the distribution of wealth along the value chains. It shows how the centres of economic power have been able to strip wealth out of the value chains and to concentrate wealth in their own hands.  It describes how, unfortunately, the answer to my long running question about ‘what will come after neoliberalism?’ appears to be oligarchy.

[1] C. Mudde et al (2018) ‘Studying Populism in Comparative Perspective: Reflections on the Contemporary and Future Research Agenda’, Comparative Political Studies, 51 (13): 1667-1693.