Do you know more about Latham the Larrikin than Latham the
Leader? If you would like to know more about the theories behind
the man, delve into some of Latham’s Literature with Chris Saliba.
While the media has happily given maximum coverage to some of
Mark Latham’s more colourful utterances – arse licker, conga line of
suckholes, skanky ho – his literary ouevre remains ignored. The
Australian’s Paul Kelly has written, ‘Never has a politician published
and thrown about so many ideas’. Ironically, the ideas detailed in
books like Civilising Global Capital and What Did You Learn Today? have
created minimal to zero public interest.
sooner had the press gallery gasp gone up at the announcement of
Latham’s leadership win than I found myself reserving all of the new
Opposition Leader’s books. Who was the real Mark Latham, the potty
mouthed, arm breaking bully, or misunderstood seer and visionary? The
following is a punter’s guide I have prepared of his collected works to
Reviving Labor’s Agenda (1990)
A sixty page pamphlet that deals
mostly with local council issues (Latham was Liverpool Council Alderman
at the time of writing). The standard neo-liberal economic prescription
is given for the running of local councils, using ‘modern techniques
for management and industrial relations’. This is to be mixed with more
access for citizens to the decision making process. Ted Mack’s reforms
with the North Sydney Council are described and lauded. This philosophy
of people and markets working together is explained thus: ‘If public
policy allows, people can respond to market incentives while sharing a
concern for the community in which they live.’
The other half of the book features two
major Latham themes in embryo: free markets and ‘social capital’. He
calls on the need to wind back services (‘More than ever before, people
are taking services for granted.’), to be replaced by community and
volunteer groups. In an attempt to hack away at the legitimacy of the
public sector, which Latham abhors, the author writes: ‘By the
standards of consumer choice, the public sector in Australia only
survives by virtue of government authority and monopoly.’
Another major concern is that the Australian
economy pull up its socks and stop being lazy. For inspiration we
should look to Asian economies, with their ‘common Chinese culture.’
This will no doubt surprise many, that a free market democracy should
look to communist China for inspiration. Latham continues: ‘While
Australians have focused debate on the distribution of wealth, our
competitors in East Asia have developed policies which create both
wealth and overwhelm the interests of political factions.’ In short, we
should have less democratic Australian politics and more free markets.
The pamphlet ends with a call on the Labor party
to give away power and empower the people, through greater access to
local government. ‘The biggest change for the ALP will be to
de-centralise power, both within and outside the party. Only then will
labor politicians understand how real power comes from giving power
Social Capital (1997)
A book of four essays,
published by conservative think tank The Centre for Independent
Studies. Latham contributes a forty page essay titled, The Search for
Global Capital. The essay is basically an overture for Civilising
The welfare state (‘vertical social
institutions’, in Latham jargon) is costing too much and making people
lazy, hence government has to nurture ‘horizontal social capital’,
which is a kind of halfway house between the state and the people. The
left and right have got it wrong when it comes to delivering essential
services, and so the time has come for a ‘middle way’, or following
Latham role model Tony Blair, ‘radical centre’ solution.
What is horizontal social capital? It is
creating a more trusting and co-operative society. When that is
accomplished we will all see the advantages in helping each other, and
will want to create civic associations that will more and more absorb
traditional state functions. Even law and order will be in some way
delegated to these ‘civic associations’. Latham, who frequently mangles
language, has a special word for this: ‘associationalism’.
As a dry economist, Latham has constant
performance anxiety over the state of the Australian economy, and that
is the shadow that lurks behind Latham’s bucolic Middle Earth
splendour. The do-it-yourself approach to welfare will take the heat
off government spending, and globalisation (which Latham discourages
democratic societies debating the pros and cons of, as it is
inevitable) will be given more room for its natural, rightful advance.
Civilising Global Capital (1998)
The War and Peace of the
Latham oeuvre. The book can’t be explained without discussion of its
style. It is ironic that Latham blamed universities for the
‘mystification of language’ in What Did You Learn Today? because
Civilising Global Capital is thoroughly unreadable.
With most books reading feels like a
conversation, where the author offers a narrative or information or
opinion, and you feel your intellectual input in listening is welcomed
and respected. I felt ignored. Latham is overly fond of a technocratic
style of language, favoured by business elites. There are lots of long
tortured sentences, piled high with jazzy sounding words. The effect is
it all looks very ‘intellectual’, but when you break it down nothing
much is really being said.
For example, instead of calling a country a
country, he prefers ‘nation-state political jurisdiction’. The book is
so overloaded with buzzwords you feel nauseous: vertical and horizontal
social capital; endogenous growth; radical centre politics; zero sum
choices; downwards envy; mutuality. A lot of the book cannot be
fathomed without deciphering its own internal language and logic.
Here’s a sentence picked at random: ‘As noted
earlier, one of the contradictions of the competitive advantage
paradigm is the way in which it loads extra responsibilities onto the
budgets of government while also seeking, in the accounting systems of
nations, to blame public sector dissaving for the problems of a current
account deficit.’ See what I mean?
Enough of style, onto substance. The argument of
the book seems to run thus: Globalisation, like it or lump it, is an
unstoppable force. It is useless for democratic societies to discuss
the pros and cons of this phenomenon, as they have no real choice in
the matter (Latham won’t even talk up the benefits). Open economies
create much social upheaval, constant change and uncertainty. The role
of government is not to hinder the work of free markets, but rather to
try and ameliorate such negative effects as systematic unemployment and
a widening gap between rich and poor.
This yummy recipe seems to offer something for
everyone, a free market for economic dries, and a safety net for
bleeding hearts. However, Latham has a sting in his tail, which is hard
to reconcile with the book’s aim at humanising tooth-and-claw global
Firstly, the losers of the new economy cannot
expect a ‘free ride’ on welfare, and must learn the concept of
mutuality, much like John Howard’s ‘mutual responsibility’. Secondly,
the modern state, according to Latham, is in dire fiscal straits (the
reasons why are never explained), and cannot afford the upkeep of
welfare programs. The author explains:
‘Social democracy has normally tried to
protect those citizens vulnerable to the changing nature of a market
economy by boosting the level of public expenditure. It is clear,
however, especially with the exposure of national economies to
internationalisation, that this approach is now limited by the fiscal
carrying capacity of the state.’
Civilising Global Capital is in a lot of
ways a long, dreary dirge for the state. ‘There can be no sound reason
for tolerating the failures of the modern state,’ Latham says
dramatically. Social democracy is constantly equated with failure. In a
bizarre line, Latham writes, ‘In many respects the social democratic
project has been a victim of its own success.’ But how can this be?
How can a successful democracy be a failure because it is so
successful? Across the board welfare, including education and health,
is to blame, which has created a culture of ‘free riders’.
Another interesting concept we are given is that
of what the author calls ‘downwards envy’, that is, the better off
becoming envious of the worse off. Latham is not interested in tackling
the paradox of the rich envying the poor, but thinks such ‘downwards
envy’ bordering on legitimate due to ‘the widespread public
perception.’ He’s almost giving the wink that it’s okay to dislike
welfare recipients, and they deserve our contempt. There’s more than a
touch of John Howard here. Yet he needs more reasons than ‘widespread
public perception’, which is spread by a sensationalist media anyway,
to stoke community prejudice.
How are we to get out of this welfare state
dependency impasse? The answer is a do-it-yourself, self-reliance
approach. Essentially, Latham sees a middle tier between governments
and markets taking charge. Community groups and grass roots collectives
should be encouraged to take the burden off government, thereby
allowing the state to ‘rationalise its equity goals’.
To me this sounded all very airy-fairy, and one
wonders, how would it actually work? I can imagine the Chadstone
Chapter of the Brides of Satan performing exorcisms, but performing
heart bypasses? I quote:
‘Devolution, of course, does not mean
transferring power to new types of parliaments or departments. It
involves the replacement of vertical systems of state control with the
possibilities of horizontal social capital……..Governments need to
create room at the middle of society for the formation of
self-governing mutual bodies. The devolution of public functions in
health care, welfare and civil sector employment are well suited to
The most troubling part of Civilising Global
Capital is Latham’s antipathy to our democracy. He undoubtedly thinks
it is broken and should be downsized in favour of ‘horizontal social
capital’. But I have serious doubts whether democracy will be improved
if we move from government providing key public services – which we all
pay for anyway – to so called ‘community groups etc’. Maybe he should
lay off calling us clients and the state our patron.
Surprisingly, after 330 or so pages of trying to
convince his readers of the need to dismantle the welfare state, Latham
on the last page states Labor’s aim to ‘reform and strengthen the
welfare state, not dismantle it.’ Come again? Still bamboozled as to
what Latham stood for, I moved onto his next book.
What Did You Learn Today? (2001)
drops the tortured prose on this one, although his addiction to uppity
buzzwords (the virtuous circle; aspirational equality; lifelong
learning; the politics of personal sovereignty) remains irritatingly
present. Page one sets the scene. We are told that education was formerly about teaching the ‘virtues of reason and tolerance’. In the
Information Age, however, traditional education has become superseded.
‘But today,’ Latham writes, ‘in the new economy, learning is much more
than a pathway to social enrichment.’
Latham’s new education model can basically be
seen as a part of the economy, with all education, or ‘lifelong
learning’, as the author prefers, seen as an engine to national
economic growth. No where in the book does Latham discuss the merits of
study outside of pure vocational training. Latham seems to see no value
in, for example, religious, cultural or political studies in an age of
so-called terror and global instability.
One of Latham’s key educational themes is what
he terms ‘the virtuous circle’. This involves the ‘synergies released
by networks of skills, social trust and economic collaboration.’ This,
Latham further explains, is the ‘virtuous circle of human capital,
social capital and financial capital’. All of this will be fuelled by
what Latham calls ‘lifelong learning’. The use of language is
interesting. Not once through the book does Latham use the word
‘study’, which is an active word, but continually employs the passive
‘learning’ ad nauseam.
Many will be heartened to hear that Latham is
passionately committed to education and consequently to injecting more
cash into it. (I was surprised – or maybe not – to see this
contradicted only a few pages later, in two sticky, manipulative
sentences: ‘The ideal of free, universal education is promoted as a
superior model. Viewed objectively, however, every trend in education
policy is undermining this approach.’) However, with this carrot comes
the stick. Here Latham tries to sell his lifelong learning accounts.
Started up with government seed money, and contributions added by the
citizen, these LLA’s will be tied to super and only drawn on for
educational purposes. Australian students already owe some 10 billion
dollars to the government, I wonder if they are prepared to put away
I agree with Latham that education is of utmost
importance for the future of Australia. Who doesn’t? We need to be
innovative and creative. But when Latham starts talking such
wishy-washy nonsense as ‘the globalised learning environment’ I feel
like he’s trying to sell me some pyramid selling scheme. My jaw dropped
when he declared ‘universities have lost their 900-year-old monopoly on
learning’, this in favour of ‘new learning centres’, examples of which
are ‘interactive television and creative social entrepreneurs’. To
suggest that universities have stifled western development for 900
years must be Latham’s greatest piece of hyperbole.
The book’s short length was more than enough for
me. Determined to completely dismember our common understanding of
education and replace it with some type of mystery cult, he leaves us
with a stark choice between the notion of ‘knowledge radicals, who
stand for the open societies, with the diversity and experimentation
that goes with radical knowledge creation,’ and ‘knowledge
conservatives, who value tired and tested old knowledge and prefer a
slower rate of innovation’. Please!
The Enabling State (2001)
mish-mash of third way ideas, edited by Mark Latham and Peter Botsman.
Most notably it features a piece by Noel Pearson. Latham, besides
editing, contributes five pieces.
Of all Latham’s writings, this one talks most
about third way politics. The third way, we are told, is a welding of
the best parts of left (welfare) and right (free markets) to create a
political consciousness known as ‘triangulation’. Or put in the terms
of the ‘Hegelian dialectic,’ we have moved from ‘thesis to antithesis
to synthesis.’ Latham pronounces the old left / right tug-of-war over,
and the new dawn of the third way upon us.
Latham is much concerned in the Enabling State
with our moral decline. Governments, he tells us, need to ‘position
civil society as an agent of moral dialogue’. This moral dialogue,
which will be led by political leaders, he calls ‘communitarianism’.
Most of the moral improvement needs to be done in communities overly
dependent on welfare. The enabling state, Latham explains, ‘uses mutual
responsibility policies to provoke activity and initiative in welfare
dependent communities.’ Latham also goes on to discuss a tendency to
laziness in disadvantaged people. I quote:
‘It is hardly surprising that disadvantaged
people, once they are given a position of power and hierarchy, tend to
exploit their new found authority and establish their own level of
There is a refreshing call for more direct
democracy in the Enabling State. Politicians should listen more, as
people know better how to run things than bureaucracies (the subtitle
of the book is ‘People Before Bureaucracy’). Unfortunately, direct
democracy does not have Latham’s full confidence. What was implied in
Civilising Global Capital is now stated explicitly:
‘I do not share Dick Morris’ view that
direct democracy will be applied across the board. The Federal
parliament’s delegation of power on economic matters – to bodies such
as the reserve bank and the World Trade Organisation (WTO) will remain.
This is a logical consequence of globalisation.’
But Latham does not let business off the
hook that easily. He quotes the Productivity Commission’s astonishing
statistics: We, the tax payer, spend 18 billion a year on corporate
welfare! ‘This financial assistance should only be paid to companies
which comply with a Code of Corporate Citizenship, based on decent
employment, environmental and social standards.’ While this is an
admirable sentiment, it is given nowhere near as much prominence as his
concern over the welfare state.
From The Suburbs, Building a Nation from our Neighborhoods (2003)
A bouquet of Latham essays, speeches and
various papers. The introduction is a call to cultural revolution.
Whereas John Howard and his government bad mouthed left leaning
commentators and writers as ‘elitists’, Latham has the novel approach
of demonising both left and right chatterboxes, which he calls
‘insiders’. These insider networks, a covert cabal that secretly runs
the country, are best exemplified by voting trends for the referendum
on the republic. The closer you lived to the city, the more likely you
were to vote yes for the republic. ‘The outsiders were unwilling to
support an insiders republic,’ Latham writes of outsider ‘no’ voters,
‘one in which the politicians would have elected the President’.
Nowhere in Latham’s writings could I discover what his position on this
issue actually was.
Taking an even greater leap forward, Latham says
the Labor party must become anti-establishment, and says the main
thrust for this will come from the ‘outsiders’, those who live in the
outer suburbs. He spends a lot of time romanticising the noble
suburbanite who knows better than the decadent elites, but who does not
have access to the centres of power (‘Poor communities have more to
teach us than we them.’). If John Howard can have his battlers, then
Latham can have his outsiders.
The above reads like a call for greater
democracy, but is really just a vehicle for selling his ‘social
capital’ paradigm (see above). As throughout his work, he continues to
tell us that we cannot trust our own government, just like Tony Abbott
warned not to trust politicians. ‘Indeed, it is difficult to find a
section of society that remains positive about the work of the
government.’ When it comes to grass roots political activism, the only
model he will brook discussion of is his ‘social capital’ model, which
could be merely a tool for clearing the way for global capital.
Latham is big on Tony Blair’s ‘third way’, which
keeps him very busy throughout much of this book. Wanting a ‘new’ all
of his own, he calls his version of social democracy ‘new social
democracy’, which will be fuelled by ‘social and business
entrepreneurs’ who are all about ‘change, creativity and enablement’.
Latham’s new social democracy is also anti-government and tells us more
is to be learnt from these ‘entrepreneurs than by listening to
parliamentary sessions and interest groups.’
writings are so contradictory and muddled that I found it difficult to
distil any kind of tangible philosophy. The Third Way seems more a
cake-and-eat-it caper than anything else. Latham answers Third Way
critics in The Enabling State, and admits it only has a half formed
agenda, but declares this is the only option between rigid left and
right politics. But is it? Surely there has to be more out there.
Besides, Tony Blair’s new labour is looking more like an old war horse
When reading all this stuff about free markets
and so called social capital I wondered which was closest to the
author’s heart, communities or markets? Did he want us all to become
self sufficient and non reliant on the government so we could part like
the Red sea and allow free markets their unhindered passage? Latham
writes in The Enabling State:
‘Ending welfare dependency is not just about
a fairer, safer, more cohesive society. It also makes for an efficient
economy. Only an inclusive nation – with each of it’s citizens job
ready – can avoid skills blockages and inflationary pressures, thereby
maximising its economic cycle.’
And what of his call for moral standards in
society, especially among the lower orders? How should we contrast this
with his famous comments about himself being a hater, and teaching the
same vice to his children?
Nor did I know how to take his calls for greater
democracy. More participation in the decision making process was
limited to local community groups, anything that will devolve the
welfare state. But there was no advocating greater access for citizens
to our political institutions. Rather, he spends most of his time
deprecating our political system and telling readers it’s not worth
getting involved in. This of course won’t be stopping Latham running
for the top political job in the country this year.
But don’t believe everything I say. Get out
there and start reading Latham yourself. Get hip to the Latham program.
Who knows, he could be PM before the year’s out. You don’t want to be
left looking like a stunned mullet when he starts talking about
‘communitarianism’ and ‘associationalism’, while the masses nod
knowingly in agreement with him.
Chris Saliba can be reached on the email address: [email protected].
Alternatively, visit his website at:: www.geocities.com/csaliba68/chrissaliba.html
He’d be more than happy to receive your feedback.
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