The Guardian • Issue #2040

Capitalism with a human face

Chalmers’ oxymoron

  • by Anna Pha
  • The Guardian
  • Issue #2040

A worker is smashing the capitalist system. Faithfully adapted by mAlkAv from the Vladimir Mayakovsky’s original.

Treasurer Jim Chalmers says it is time to “rethink capitalism,” time for a “values-based capitalism” with “efficient markets.” He is critical of the neoliberal responses adopted by previous governments to the global financial crisis, the COVID crisis and a “third [crisis] with its roots in the inadequate response to the previous two.”

Chalmers spells out his concept of “values-based capitalism” in The Monthly Essay, “Capitalism After the Crises.” The responses to the essay by some sections of the media and economic commentators have been hysterical.

Murdoch’s extreme right Australian newspaper went as far as comparing Chalmers’ ideas with communism. Just mention of the word “equality” is enough to set The Australian off.

Another commentary in Nine’s Sydney Morning Herald ran with the headline: “Chalmers takes on capitalism as we know it in bid to save stretched households.” Wow!

“Social democrats always argued that sharing growth was right in itself – that economic inclusion is the measure of a decent society.” And “Our local communities can gain choice and control over their own futures,” says Chalmers.

But there is no indication how such outcomes can be achieved. The long-winded essay with all its fine-sounding platitudes has no specific detail.

“And the same regulatory frameworks that ensure that for-profit capital in the private sector creates value for investors can generate public value in the for-purpose economy. This is what values-based capitalism can look like,” says Chalmers.


Under capitalism values are class based – either working class or capitalist class. Capitalism serves the interests of capital – private for-profit businesses through the exploitation of workers. Workers are not paid the true value of the wealth they, not their bosses, create.

“Governments and investors can be partners, not protagonists,” he writes. Of course they can under capitalism. Capitalist governments share the values of capital, they serve the interests of capital.

Capitalist values are based on the never-ending drive for the maximisation and accumulation of private profits.


“As the influential economist Mariana Mazzucato has explored in her work, markets built in partnership through the efforts of business, labour and government are still the best mechanism we have to efficiently and effectively direct resources,” Chalmers claims.

There is nothing new about cooperation or partnership between business, labour, and government. It was ably pursued by the Hawke/Keating governments under the Accord. The Accord saw trade unions restraining wages and suppressing struggle while employers never let up in their pursuit of draining more and more blood from workers. Tripartite partnership is based on the capitalist myth that workers and their bosses have common economic interests. It is class collaboration.


Chalmers: “Collaboration is just as important as co-investment. The private sector is key and central to sustainable growth, and there’s a genuine appetite among so many forward-looking businesspeople and investors for something more aligned with their values, and our national goals,” Chalmers said, reasserting Labor’s commitment to the private sector.

“It’s not just our economic institutions that need renewing and restructuring, but our markets as well. Here, government has a leadership role to play: defining priorities, challenges and missions – not ‘picking winners.’ ” It aims to do this through partnerships with the private sector.

Labor has already announced a National Reconstruction Fund, a Housing Australia Future Fund, and a Rewiring the Nation Corporation Fund in addition to the Clean Energy Finance Corporation (CEFC). These public funds, based on debt, are to assist the private, for-profit sector with finance for projects. Government debt to subsidise the private sector.

“Across the social purpose economy, in areas such as aged care, education and disability, effective organisations with high-quality talent can offer decent returns [read profits] and demonstrate a social dividend – but they find it hard to grow because they find it hard to get investors. Right now, the market framework that would enable that investment in effect doesn’t properly exist.”

The policy is to expand the role of private for-profit organisations in these areas, and we can add health care to the list. The present problem with social spending is the private sector which is driven by the profit motive instead of people’s needs. Nationalisation, not expansion of private sector involvement, is required.

Chalmers’ essay is a revamp of the oxymoron “capitalism with a human face” and the capitalist myth that workers and employers have common economic interests.

“Values-based capitalism” is a rehash of former Labor PM Bob Hawke’s social contract (Accord) and former Labor Treasurer Paul Keating’s “saving capitalism from itself” which ushered in neoliberalism, class collaboration, wage restraint, and record profits.

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