Where do ceremonies come from? They start as real functional events, then the world changes and they lose their function. Crucially, at some point, everyone forgets what the thing was for in the first place, at which point it becomes a venerated ritual. Thus Christmas, the actual summoning of the sun at the winter solstice by a celebration of rebirth. Thus, also, Labor Party reviews.

These will continue for centuries with the form they have now acquired. Labor grandees, who have run the party as a bureaucratic/administrative machine to manage GDP growth and foreign wars, will be summoned together to meet in camera for several months. No one will remember why, least of all they. Eventually they will emerge and intone the sacred texts —  “grow the membership … re-connect with the public … outreach to youth” — in a language they no longer understand (unaware that no one ever understood them). Then everyone will go about their business as before, as if nothing has happened.

Judging by the Bracks-Faulkner-Carr review, this process is 80% done. The preliminary report has the same ritual dances and chants, as ever: more power to the members, specific grants for outreach, a national organising officer and so on and so forth. All that’s missing is a response to the core question: why would anyone join Labor now in the first place? What is it for? What would be the meaning of such an act in someone’s life?

The answer to those questions are the questions themselves. There is no reason to join a party that has no ambition but to narrowly manage a peripheral capitalist economy, introduce the mildest of tinkering reforms, and march in lockstep with an increasingly discredited and confused US.

The membership figures bear this out.

As the report reveals, and contrary to some expectations, membership rose during the Howard years, after a dip, and began to full precipitately after the 2007 election — by 20%, from 50,000 to 40,000. Some of the rise and then fall was due to the manic branch-stacking required to get a few dozy right-wingers over the line — most of that bewildered Turks being minibussed up and down the Great Ocean Road — and whose membership was then allowed to lapse, but far from all of it.

The only conclusion one can make is that people joined the ALP in the Howard years because, by default, it stood for something — that is, for not being the Howard government. Once it came to power and continued many of its policies in whole or part — on asylum seekers, Afghanistan, school funding and the NT “intervention”, inter alia — membership fell off the cliff.

Labor had acquired an identity, defined against Howard’s positive one. Once Labor had to act in its own right the emptiness at the core of the party was laid bare. Joining Labor these days has all the existential heft of taking an entry-level position at a photocopier repair company, with branches in six states. You’re either after a permanent job, or you’ve made a fundamental error of judgement.

The ritual BFC review has the same powerpointy obsession with form as does any organisation devoid of real content. Recommendation after recommendation is concerned with nothing other than jiggling the machine and hoping that somehow this will make it work better. Voting ratios, conference procedure, outreach, community dialogue … how did anyone even manage to write this stuff down without being overcome by a sweeping sense of futility?

There is a prior step to working out why ALP membership is falling off a cliff — identify what the thing is that people are being asked to join. Labor has had several incarnations — Imperial Socialist Party from 1901-1942; Nationalist Social Democracy 1942-1983; Nationalist Social Market Party 1983-1996; £$%*&^! 1996-present.

Each incarnation may have been honoured more in the breach, but at all times there was, at the base, and however rudimentary, a theory and an ethic — an argument about how society worked, and how it should be changed, in line with an idea of how it should be. Even the third “social market” period — when Labor fell in love with neo-liberal globalisation — had an idea of how the proceeds from such should be plugged back into some form of social nation-building. It was pretty threadbare, but at least you could argue with it.

Now? Zilch. Nor is there any framework to develop one, which is in part why the two people who, in different ways, tried to create one — Mark Latham and Kevin Rudd — came to grief. There was no context which would have welcomed their ideas and thereby mitigated their personal failings. But it’s also the reason why developing ideas became such an idiosyncratic, individualist process in the first place — because the party, as a whole, has simply given up the practice of really doing it.

Nor will it start now. Labor will have to go through really bad times before it gets serious about really renewing itself as a party — through both retheorising society and rethinking how its ethic expresses itself in the 21st century. The ALP benefits from a unique quadruple lock of compulsory voting/exhaustive preferences/public funding/union dues — which can then be augmented with business contributions. Thus armoured, it can stagger on as an elite quasi-state apparatus run by a caste of life-long devotees for quite a while to come.

Many of its apparatchiks actively want a smaller party, one which can be manoeuvred more easily, which is why they always consent to reviews of the ALP’s arcane and impacted bureaucratic procedures by grandees who succeeded by mastering its arcane and impacted bureaucratic procedures. The genuine alternative would be a real and sustained series of conferences and conventions by the party, drawing in supporters and sympathisers, to try and define what sort of society it should be working for.

The party was founded in an era of collectivised class life, shaped by various religious, racial and imperial identities. That conception — dropping the racial bit — survived through to the ’80s. Partly because of global social and economic change, and partly because of the policies the Hawke-Keating government ramrodded, that collectivised base has utterly fallen away.

Now, to echo some points by m’colleague Keane, we live in a profoundly individualist and atomised society, in which people build identity through media and markets. Everyone now realises that this creates a cultural crisis of meaning. The Right deals with that by fusing free-market individualism with conservative ideals — patriotism, etc — which free-market individualism undermines.

Labor offers a pallid version of this. Sooner or later it will have to come up with something else — a genuine program which posits new ways of putting society together to respond to human needs and desires that atomised market life cannot offer.

Sooner rather than later, because eventually, also, the cash machine will stop working. Another global recession, a Chinese stall, and Australia will join the rest of the world in a fairly sluggish downturn. At that point Labor will be utterly discredited and new groups will emerge in its heartlands, drawing populist policies from both Left and Right in a new mix. Having lost its inner-city/left activist base to the Greens, it will lose its working-class base to the new populism. The forces that sustained it from 1967-1996 will squeeze it from both ends.

Should Labor renovate its ends, then its means will matter less. When it cannot think about its ends, then the focus on means becomes a fetish, obsessive and pointless, an empty ritual for a purpose long forgotten. There is no better demonstration of it than the questionable, in some ways tragic, history of the principals involved in the review.

Bracks is a nice guy manoeuvred into place like a cigar store Indian on a trolley, who led a government with no aspiration other than to manage. Bob Carr, who in his current role as Dymocks’ shil, trashes not only PIR but any notion of cultural protection — and beneath it, the notion that anything distinctively Australian is worth holding back from the market.

And most tragic of all, John Faulkner, who probably inspired many people to join the party by taking the fight to the government in the Howard era — and equal or greater numbers to quit perhaps — by taking the job of running a pointless and wanton war in Afghanistan in the years since. If they want this review to be more than an empty ceremony, they could start by acquiring a mirror.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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