By now, I would imagine that the half-dozen or so people in the higher echelons of the Labor Party who retain any trace of a social vision are fit to spit about the continued shellacking that the party keeps getting from its supposed friends and allies.
“We’re working under difficult conditions …” I can hear them whining. “The public switched off big visions long ago, we have no power over global markets to do anything about them anyway, the Murdoch press has spent most of the campaign being a psychotic killing machine (until the likelihood of Labor winning made it modify its style), commercial TV current affairs is peopled by incurious morons who follow the Murdoch lead, and Fairfax consists of right-wing columnists, and articles about Sex and the City II, so there’s no countervailing power.”
They would be getting particularly incensed by the fact that these criticisms are starting to come from the centre and the centre-left rather than the further left. Thus Dennis Glover, former ALP speech writer, and someone who has hitherto argued vociferously with many on the left, that criticism of the ALP should be kept more in-house, launched a pretty comprehensive attack on Labor’s lack of vision in the Oz yesterday (and no it doesn’t count as balance, he was attacking Labor).
And Paul Kelly, the Polonius of Australian political commentary, has attacked the lack of ideas in Australian politics. And everyone is decrying the flatness of the campaign launch. And Mark Latham, well let’s not go there.
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Bruvvers, I sympathise with the remnant members with an idea of progressive politics at least. The Feeney-Shorten-Arbib axis (whose collective resemblance to the Three Stooges, is so uncanny as to be beyond coincidence) who pitched us into this, and then ran the worst election campaign in modern memory for its first fortnight, are of no import and will eventually move on to whatever telecoms/media/etc consultancies they can, or already have, lined up.
But what of those people who still believe the ALP might be a vehicle for making a genuinely better society one that attacks poverty and inequality, while using the prosperity we have to give people more freedom and power in their own lives, and providing leadership to address the global challenges we face, as a community and as part of the world.
Yeah, well, uh, good luck with that. Leaving aside the breast-beating about “whither the soul of Labor” etc, you can see that the party has essentially imploded as a real political-intellectual force with its own centre of gravity. Now there’s little more than the space where it once was, and some floating debris to indicate the shape it once took. I’m not suggesting that Labor has lost its soul blah because it has abandoned the socialist objective, etc, etc, — rather I’m arguing that Labor has suffered a double calamity.
Having lost the power to connect progressive ideas to political rhetoric and campaigning sometime ago, it has now lost the ability to run any sort of integrated campaign at all. The de facto campaign that has appeared in the past fortnight has been built as much from without as within i.e. by political commentators giving the diffuse blizzard of moments a shape, so they have something to talk about. The launch speech represented the apogee of that, resembling nothing more or less than a Year 11 essay thrown together on a Sunday night, the only “big idea” fusing broadband and remote health care a technical fix, potentially as regressive as it is progressive.
God knows at what point late at night someone came up with that gimmick it looks like an adaptation of the UK’s NHS Direct program, where you have to jump through a few hoops before you actually see a GP. Should Dr Broadband supplant, rather than supplement, face-to-face care, then it will just be a way to deny public health users access to specialists. The idea that it’s a big idea is a measure of how small the whole thing has got. The fact that Labor can present a surrender on a commitment to universal public health as joined-up high-tech social democracy for the 21st century is a measure of their success in lowering expectations among the punditry. Whether it will do so among the public remains to be seen.
Labor wonks reject any such analysis and criticism of such bread’n’butter politics as wankery, which would be fine if such concrete politics yielded results. But the melancholy fact for Labor is that it has gone from a commanding position under a Prime Minister who provided a vision of sorts, to a point where victory, if it occurs at all, will be touch and go. The decline in Labor’s fortunes began not during the period of Rudd’s most ambitious schemes, but during the serial abandonment of them, beginning with the ETS. Faced with this initial lack of success, the Labor brain trust speeded up the process, until political failure had become comprehensive.
How did Labor get to that point? It’s usual here to quote the adage that insanity consists of doing the same thing over in the hope of a different result, and the other one about everything looking like a nail if your only tool is a hammer. Let’s combine them and say that Labor, both its nihilistic machine-men, and those with a remnant of progressive cachet, live and work under the sway of an ideology so powerful they can’t think outside of it.
The ideology is, if you like, behaviourism and scientism. It’s the transition from a belief that politics is an art, a cause and a vocation augmented by social science techniques such as polling and social psychology to one where the science crowds out everything else. Starting in the ’80s, and across the anglosphere, centre-left parties have responded to the simultaneous withering of their base, and the onslaught of capital through its propaganda machines such as News Ltd, with a determination to win by thinking smarter about their interaction with the public, and achieving a more dependable result.
Labor, in that respect, was drawing on ideas that already existed within the social democratic tradition i.e. that social life was systematic and structured, and that it could thereby be reshaped to yield less inequality and greater genuine freedom (the modern profession of polling, after all, emerged from university sociology and psychology departments during WW2).
That process is not without its complications, even when a party retains something of a mixed class composition, in the period of industrial modernity. But when party and society shift, and it becomes a party dominated by the “executional” professions — lawyers, managers, lifelong political professionals, etc, in a society increasingly dominated by media and consumption, then a somersault occurs, and the means becomes the end. At some point, the only way that Labor can see social life is not as interconnected communities of human beings, but as sets of behavioural responses that can be cued by a targeted micropolicy or a phrase designed to retrain thinking processes. The human and the social disappears from the equation.
That doesn’t work for the simple reason that you can’t drive to Bourke in a photograph of a car. It’s simply a category error about what human beings are creatures oriented towards meaning, comprehension, and interpretation. As Labor forms ever more mechanistic models of electioneering, the very process by which they work starts to become visible to the people they attempt to stimulate in political-Pavlovian fashion. Disaster! The dogs can see the bells!
But, of course, by this time Labor has become incapable of working out what is going wrong when the method surrounds it. They have no other relationship to a wider public, and no capacity to think outside the process, because it’s become their worldview. Repeated negative or indifferent results only confirm that you’re not doing it hard enough, not the truth, which is that you’ve got the whole thing entirely arse-backwards.
That’s how you dissolve a commanding presence in 2008 into a desperate struggle for existence in 2010. It takes a special sort of anti-talent to do that, and Labor’s current inner-core has that in spades. Having defined the public as no more than a set of behavioural responses to special concerns, it remains surprised when the public manages to grasp en masse that a party composed of nothing other than targeted micropolicies is no party at all, and scarcely a candidate for leadership. In other words, the public was able to think more comprehensively and holistically about Labor, than Labor was about them. The fact that Tony Abbott became a contender was overwhelmingly due to Labor’s self-defeating targeted politics. It made the Coalition who have at least, the ghost of a worldview and an identity about them look like potential “natural” leaders of the country again.
“Labor is in desperate straits if it loses this election,” Polonius Kelly remarked. But Labor’s not in great shape whatever happens. Victory will defer any need to have some sort of genuine reflection on what it is for, and the Three Stooges and their stooges will act like this haphazard improvised f-ck-up was some sort of zen-Dada strategy, and deliberate all along. Business will continue as usual, until they come to the 2013 election in a similar state of improvisational panic. Indeed, a single loss wouldn’t even shake the tree. It would take a loss in ’13 as well to really get the party to some sort of crisis in which there was no alternative but to think about what it was for, and what sort of political-ethical basis it worked off. At that point, the Coalition would have dominated Australia for two decades, with the Rudd/Gillard term a mere odd interregnum.
Mind you, the Coalition is also in the same sort of situation. Though it has far more successfully drawn on its own political-cultural traditions to project a worldview, an idea of life, victory would simply leave unresolved the fissures between its moderate and conservative wings an arrangement that would come under greater pressure as the challenges that divide moderates and conservatives, from refugees to climate change, become real issues of governance. A loss would take this fight out into the open again. Long and bloody, the Liberal party has to have it sooner or later, and decide what sort of party it is.
The same workaday pundits who cover this election like it was a greyhounds meet will put such talk in the tired old “idealism versus realism” box. But for both parties, though particularly for Labor, the polarities have been reversed their “realism” has become the fantasy they project onto the public, and some sort of idea (not “ideas”, which are just gimmicks with pretensions), some fundamental re-encounter with their founding ideals for the contemporary world, has become what they desperately need to re-enter the real.