For the past week, The Australian has been running a series entitled ‘what’s left’, with people they nominate to be ‘key left thinkers’ articulating a left vision of politics and society.
Well that was the stated intent anyway. With The Oz you have to assume the purpose is other — and with all due respect to some of the people involved, it seems obvious that the real purpose is to make the left look rather bereft of ideas (not, it must be said, a tough call at this juncture).
The first and most essayistic was a large piece by Tim Soutphommasane, arguing that the left should reclaim patriotism, a piece of brand refashioning that David Goodhart has been arguing in the UK for years. Subsequent contributions (run in a strip down the Op-ed page, about as marginal as they could get without being pushed out entirely) were less inspiring — Julia Gillard’s was without interest of any sort, Dennis Glover’s piece talked of the “mystery of social democracy”, David McKnight had a piecemeal defence of the family, and CFMEU supremo John Sutton defended Marxism by saying it was about restraining corporate power, which suggests he has never understood Marxism.
What was missing from all of these contributions was any idea of what the left’s basic principles are or should be, and what sort of positive programme, rather than reactive policy, they should propose. Not surprising when all the people who could and do this were excluded from the series.
Off the top of my head one could have chosen from: Lindsay Tanner, Bob Brown, Peter Singer, Eva Cox, Mark Latham, Mark Davis (of Land of Plenty), Geoff Boucher, Germaine Greer, Boris Frankel, Mark Bahnisch, Geoff Sharp and others from Arena, Evan Thornley, J.K. Gibson-Graham, your ‘umble correspondent, Jeff Sparrow, and many others — many of whom I’d seriously disagree with, but all of whom have a greater ability to relate the “is” to the “ought” — to offer an analysis of how society is changing, and offer an alternative of how it might.
To be fair to David McKnight, probably the only one of that group capable of making such an account, the room provided — 700 words — was derisory.
However, while we’re on it, it’s worth saying a few things about what the left is or could be, such as didn’t make it into the series. What was common to all the contributions was that they saw their role not as outlining a view of how society worked, how it had changed, and what a better society could be — but outlining a series of micropolicy and strategy initiatives (support the family, reclaim patriotism etc,) which barely acknowledged the profound change in the idea of ‘the Left’ over the last generation (a point to which I’ll return in Part Two).
In Australia, articulating a Left vision which might have mass support is difficult because of one paradoxical fact — labourism (sometimes Left sometimes not) has won. Comprehensively. For a century it has seen off challenges to the arbitration system set up by the Harvester decision — and more importantly the principle behind it, that the public, as represented by the state, should tell the economy how to set its wages.
Whatever limits or transformations have been made to it, its core principles have survived — and, the 2007 result would suggest, been cemented into the culture, even as the industrial era that generated it passes away. To that has been added Medicare, public broadcasting, equal opportunity laws etc etc — all institutions the political right has had to accept in order to regain power. The left may look a bit ragged, but the single greatest failed movement in Australian political history is classical liberalism, if judged by results.
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The problem for any greater transformation within a Left framework is that, as Marxist historians have noted, labourism freezes social relations in such a way that certain types of powerlessness and inequality are also cemented into place. Australia may congratulate itself on being the land of the “fair go”, but for groups outside of the mainstream, it is shockingly backward and unfair. Educational opportunity is some of the worst in the OECD, class mobility — especially from welfare-dependent groups — is terrible, daily life for those groups is one of perpetual poverty, pensions are derisory, services are over-priced, public healthcare is limited in application, and indigenous Australia suffers all of the above at once.
But labourism has been so successful at separating the fate and destiny of the mainstream from the marginal, that the latter have no political clout — and the former have no real feeling of common cause, beyond (politically insufficient) human compassion.
Thus one can see why so many of The Oz‘s authorised “left” thinkers would take on, as Mark Bahnisch remarked, “the courtier role”, whispering in the ear of power, rather than talking to a broad audience. Suggesting a genuinely Left social democratic programme — transitioning large public utilities to part or total public control and/or ownership, schemes for social banking and finance which would make housing affordable, the use of super funds and other worker-derived capital for social reinvestment, public bond issues as an alternative means of infrastructure funding, defunding the elite private schools while increasing funding to community and smaller public-private schools, assisting the development of local economies and post-capitalist production systems in both urban and rural settings, and so on and so on — thus has the air of being futile.
It certainly appears to be well beyond the imagination of the figures that The Australian chose.
Such a programme would be one whose proposed changes are not piecemeal, but are based around a common principle — that economic power and control has to be transferred to social and public control (in forms better developed than old processes of nationalisation), as an expression of right (not rights, right). That is, these institutions — from Telstra to the universities, to mineral resources and the finance sector — are social and commonly owned by their very nature, that their management should be put to social ends.
That may involve managing them within the market, and gearing them towards returning a certain rate of profit/surplus — but that would be the means to an end, of social return, not private shareholder return as an end in itself. That is the basis for a genuine Left, that sees itself as something more than putting limits on the Right.
The thinkers that The Australian chose for its left series weren’t leftists, they were labourists – submitting their intellectual abilities to the pre-ordained goal of selling a stunningly unambitious political programme, and thus reduced to a mixture of PR spruiking (“try new Left patriotism!”), personal anecdotes, waffling about the ‘mystery of social democracy’, sucking up to social conservatism (“defend the family”!) or presenting a defensive and reactive unionism (“limit corporate power”!) as a positive programme.
On Monday, in Part Two of this piece, I’ll suggest why the world is about to take us far beyond the anodyne prescriptions of The Oz’s authorised left — and even beyond the more robust programme I’ve sketched out above.
The Oz meanwhile, will feature a series on the Right, and one can safely assume that more impressive theoretical guns will be wheeled out, with more space — thus giving the impression that the Right has more intellectual firepower, which was the purpose of the exercise all along. Silly, and irritating, of no great import — and very, very, The Australian.