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QUARTERLY ESSAY 21 What’s Left?

 

Correspondence

Guy Rundle

There’s much to agree with in Clive Hamilton’s essay: he’s spot-on in arguing that the ALP can no longer base itself in a heartland of scarcity, not only for the sake of electoral success, but also for the sake of low-paid workers and those dependent on benefits. A progressive party needs a comprehensive program to address the needs of these groups, but it can’t make that the centrepiece of its message to the public. Activists are right to emphasise that this minority is quite a large one – but it is not large enough to command sufficient political heft to counterbalance the broad middle of relatively prosperous consumers, whose support the party must win. If Hamilton’s essay does nothing more than hammer this point home further to a few of the more nostalgic members of the shreds of the Socialist Left, the trade union movement and the community sector, it will have done a service.

Nevertheless, I have reservations about both particular and general features of Hamilton’s argument. I would suggest that not only is it too pessimistic with regard to the chances of the federal ALP – and the degree to which a federal ALP could have a progressive dimension – but also far too optimistic that the social and cultural dilemmas we face can be solved within the framework of politics as traditionally understood. The paradox, as I hope to show, is only apparent.

God knows, you’d have to be a saint or a masochist to get involved with the federal ALP at the moment. Ten years that should have been devoted to the slow development of a new centre-left/centre-transformational politics have been squandered in blundering between a small-target strategy and single-issue (Medicare Gold) vote bidding. The party is dominated by men – Beazley, Crean, Ferguson – who seem like decent people, but who are living their fathers’ lives, without, deep down, any clear idea of why they are there or of the degree to which the world has changed. The ALP has twice made leader a man who has already confessed to having achieved his life’s ambition by being a defence minister two decades ago, and whose greatest service to the party would be to vacate the leadership immediately and retire, instead of hoping that John Howard will be found in bed with a dead under-14s netball team or a live Chippendale six weeks before the next poll. Most of the party’s vaunted “new breed” are dim-bulb ex-student politicians, and the few genuinely talented new recruits are being sidelined if they lack factional backing. Furthermore … but, well, why recap the essay? Labor is a rag-and-bone shop, and there seems no reason, given current circumstances, to expect victory in the next two federal polls. 

But that is given current circumstances, and one of the things missing from Hamilton’s essay is consideration of the dynamic nature of the present moment. The transformation of class and income (I’ll presume that Hamilton’s argument that class has ceased to exist is shorthand) has created a newly prosperous middle band, but it is one dependent on an economy that is overextended both nationally and globally. China – whose purchase of raw materials is funding much of our growth – is a runaway economy that could easily trip up; no one really knows whether its reported growth and earnings are matched by reality or likely to persist. A major reversal, runs on overstretched banks, a recession/depression – such things are scarcely unprecedented. Since a lot of Chinese holdings are in US Treasury bonds, deficit-ridden America would be hit with a major withdrawal of capital, and it would pretty much go from there. Many in the newly prosperous middle band in Australia would then get a reminder that class does exist and that they’re in the “working” section of it – when redundancies and cuts in wages and working hours make it impossible to service credit-card and mortgage debts. 

Should this occur, Labor would be in prime position to paint the government as wastrel incompetents who sold us down the river of private debt, and thus harvest the anger directed at the government. (It should have been preparing for this for years, by educating the public about the degree to which the government has failed to invest in national development – education, training, R&D, high-end industry development – and allowed the wheels to keep turning on the strength of a Visa card.)

Had Labor done the hard work of stoking the political imagination this past decade, it could be in a position to win power under any set of economic circumstances. As it is, even the scenario outlined above – which economists from across the political spectrum see as feasible – does not guarantee it an inside run. 

However, should victory be gained, progressive elements in the party would be revived, and progressive programs implemented. Labor may have to – in fact, must – adopt a centre-right program on big-ticket items such as tax cuts, but labour governments do hundreds of small things that improve people’s lives, and in which genuine social change is facilitated. Bill Shorten is right to argue that what Labor needs is “success”. As the Coalition in the ’80s and ’90s showed, and the UK Tories demonstrate today, the simple fact of being in opposition is often enough to make failure a vicious circle.

That should not excuse Labor for its failure of initiative. As Hamilton notes, this failure has its roots in a deep anti-intellectualism within the party – and yet it is precisely a connection between the different parts of progressive politics that Labor has so desperately needed these past years. Compare and contrast the UK Labour Party, which transformed itself through the ’90s by extended interchange with think-tanks like Demos – which combined social democrats with former communists of a Gramscian “eurocommunist” stripe to produce a range of new ideas about how a progressive government should interact with social and economic life – and also with writers and thinkers such as Anthony Giddens. The result? When the Tories finally fell over, Labour managed not only to take power but to capture it in a landslide, and to transform the political landscape of the UK. From the left some of that program has to be opposed immediately – New Labour’s relentless attack on civil liberties uppermost – but there is no doubt that the lives of tens of millions have been transformed for the better by the myriad of programs that arose from those intellectual conjunctions. Politically, they gave Labour a weapon and a language with which to recapture the political imagination – something the ALP has failed to do and which all progressive parties need to achieve if they are to take power. 

Yet here lies the paradox – in the current framework, British Labour is about as good as it is going to get, because we live in a world in which the politico-cultural framework allows no other substantial initiative at the party-political level. I think this is why the program that Hamilton outlines at the end of his essay seems to be both similar to a raft of current ALP initiatives and, I would suggest, also unachievable. It seems, in style and substance, to be a prescription for Scandinavian-style democratic socialism down under. That’s been tried in a lot of places and the only one where it works is, well, Scandinavia, where social democratic parties have held power for so long that they have shaped the culture and personality of their nations to such a degree that what would be contentious radicalism in other polities has become commonsense in theirs. 

There’s no hope of that here, even if we didn’t have to contend with a far-right Murdoch press and a right-shifted Fairfax. Even Scandinavia may find it tough to hold onto because the very structures of contemporary Western life undermine the cultural capacity for politics with a collective dimension (and there is a fairly heavy-handed statist dimension to aspects of Scandinavian life). It is not merely prosperity – not the content of social life, but the form of it as created by the dominance of the global media and market – that is rapidly making conventional politics obsolete. Extended media and an extended market now act as the key formative constituents of the contemporary person, who experiences life as “hyperindividualised” – identity springing not from class, church or other collectivities but from the obligation (rather than the choice) to form a self and a world through self-fashioning (conscious and unconscious) in the market and media flux. Acquisition and consumption, therefore, are not simply add-ons – bad habits that can be got over on a mass scale via a new spiritual politics – but are in fact the essence of self-expression and existence within a media-consumer society. The ironic novelty lapel button “I shop therefore I am” is also dead serious. We’ve now had two generations of the latter, and most people under a certain age don’t know any other way to be – and seem, most of the time, to be content enough with it (even if, from another angle, it looks passive, incurious and far from the ideal of the fully human). That is not to buy into the idea that rising generations have “sold out” a ’60s revolution, but simply to suggest that major transformations of the cultural framework can rapidly shift the ground under political positions and debates. Hence Hamilton’s use of “alienation” is unhelpful – people feel deeply at home in a consumer culture. They also frequently feel anxious, fearful, empty, depressed and panicked, but they accept these feelings as existential features of everyday life. Making visible the connection between a form of social life and its negative dimension cannot be achieved through an appeal to the joys of austerity. It was possible in the ’60s – when society was on the borderline between old industrial society and consumerism (and when socialism, the idea that people might democratically control the forces that shape their lives, was on the table) – but not any more. The cultural-social transformation has been accomplished that makes such a world, for the moment, a distant memory of hope. 

That goes also for old-style politics. Trade unionism, party membership – for the mass of people these are not merely turn-offs, they are category errors, as out of time and place as if one were to ask them to join the Knights Templars or take ship on a fast clipper bound for China. Hamilton’s least useful idea is that we need a new progressive party. Another party? More sitting in draughty church halls, drafting programs, having splits etc.? No. Not going to happen. The Greens are the last progressive party to emerge for the foreseeable future, because they are an organic political expression of a new social class: knowledge producers and administrators. Several more election defeats could see the ALP recomposed as a post-union centrist party, but it would have essentially the same undemocratic, technocratic structure as it has now. The modern political question – market or socialism? – has been resolved in favour of the former, and neo-liberalism is now consolidating its cultural hold, manufacturing a new type of person who is wholly bound (save for family) by the market and the media, and who can hence imagine no alternative. In that respect, major-party politics is over as anything other than a contest between rival plans to run nation-sized sections of the global market, and the people attracted to it will be those interested in implementing piecemeal programs, or in naked, amoral power. It’s still worth having progressive-branded parties in power, and for people suited to that sort of politics to work within it. But it’s the wrong place to look for transformative social movements. For people intent on the latter, one option is to try to make visible the profound contradictions between the current cultural and economic trajectories (which much of Hamilton’s work does) – individually and globally – and both hasten and prepare for a time when those contradictions crack open and new possibilities emerge. 

 

Guy Rundle is the writer of political satires performed by Max Gillies and the author of Quarterly Essay 3, The Opportunist: John Howard and the Triumph of Reaction, published in 2001. 

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This correspondence discusses Quarterly Essay 21, What’s Left?. To read the full essay, subscribe or buy the book.

This correspondence featured in Quarterly Essay 22, Voting for Jesus.


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