Guest post by Adam Brereton
Antony Loewenstein and Jeff Sparrow, in the introduction to their new book Left Turn: Political Essays For The New Left, invite the reader to imagine current examples in popular culture that envision a future ‘in which the world to come is, in any respect whatsoever, an improvement on the present.’
‘Not so easy? What does that say about the cultural moment?’ they ask.
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More prevalent, they note, are apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic fictions – anarchy, dystopia and a glut of zombie fiction, inspired by current anxieties about ruptures in the world around us:
We imagine the future by extrapolating the present…the endless, low-level wars…the pockets of already-existing environmental collapse; the media’s delight in summary executions and enhanced interrogations; and all the rest of what we see on the evening news…Capitalism’s accomplishments no longer seem distinguishable from its failings…it’s in this very present that we discern, however dimly, the shape of the future that scares us.
What is less obvious are the new ideas that will displace what the Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek has called the ‘Fukuyamaist’ attitude that prevails across the political spectrum; that ‘free market’ capitalism and liberal democracy is the natural ‘final’ system, the flaws of which might be ameliorated through more equality and tolerance, the welfare state and the like.
Loewenstein and Sparrow rightly note that plenty of Australians are receptive to a ‘new Left’ project that breaks these strictures. Sixty-nine per cent of polled Australians supported the concerns of the brief Occupy Sydney and Melbourne protests. Campaigns for environmentalism, womens’ and queer rights, and other traditional Left causes, have become mainstream to an extent that many activists would not have thought possible.
But Left Turn is emphatically not a manifesto, Loewenstein told Crikey. It’s asking questions about the current order, but ‘what the answer should be, who the hell knows. That’s what’s to be discussed.’
In this spirit, the book lays out issues that might be of concern to a resurgent ‘new Left’. The compilation’s essays are too wide-ranging to deal with in any detail, but they encompass a range of both new and familiar Left issues. Racism, sexism and homophobia are addressed, alongside welcome discussions of the media’s cheerleading for the War on Terror, the Israeli Boycott, the Divestments and Sanctions movement, and the utopianism of Occupy Wall Street. Tracker editor Chris Graham’s contribution on Aboriginal violence is one of the stand-outs.
Whether many of the topics in Left Turn could be described as ‘new Left’, given that most are variations on old arguments from the 1970s, is another thing altogether. This is to say nothing against the importance of those movements, but we’re in the post-crisis 21st century. Where are our best Left-wing writers and thinkers on technology, international law, Wikileaks, high finance or bioethics – or even the mining boom, for that matter?
Greens Senator Lee Rhiannon, writing about the future of her party, is one notable exception. ‘The history of many parliamentary parties,’ Rhiannon writes, ‘is a stark reminder that progressive values and vision are often compromised or sidelined in the quest for votes, seats and power.’ Given the recent outrage over the Greens’ reluctance to buy into the asylum seeker politics of the major parties, such a discussion could hardly be more relevant both inside the party and among its supporters.
One obvious omission is a discussion of the decline of the ALP. That wasn’t an editorial decision, Loewenstein said, ‘[because] we don’t really think the ALP has any real chance of being a party who could harness a serious left vote on issues that matter,’ he said. While he doesn’t consider the Greens to be the ‘ipso facto answer’, Loewenstein thinks they’re in a position to harness both the disaffected Labor vote and those who have been excluded from the political process – new migrants, for example.
Members of the ALP’s Socialist Left might take umbrage with such a claim. For many in that branch of the party, Green politics has typically been viewed as a conservative, bourgeois concern that has little to offer workers. One could also argue, as do some of the sexier far-Left thinkers like Žižek, Alain Badiou and Jaques Ranciere, that environmentalism, as a symptom of our new ‘post-political’ world, has replaced religion as the increasingly legalistic and bureaucratic voice of prohibition. In this sense, Tad Tietze and Elizabeth Humphrys’ chapter on decoupling the climate debate from the market is a strong chapter, but one is also left wishing for a beefier Left critique of Australian green politics.
Many of Left Turn’s more polemical essays seem to lack an identifiable antagonist. If environmentalism, marriage equality, anti-racism and so on are becoming mainstream issues, with whom are we arguing? In fact, we’re already seeing many of the traditional ‘identity politics’ causes of the Left reorganised under a conservative or centrist rubric. The new Greens’ Senator Peter Whish-Wilson, who until becoming a Green had been a dyed-in-the-wool Howard conservative, may be the best example of how formerly incompatible positions may be reconciled in the one person.
One could argue, and many of Left Turn’s authors do, for matters of emphasis or position – ‘liberal choice’ feminism versus a more ‘collective’ feminism, to use Jacinda Woodhead’s excellent contribution on the state of contemporary feminism as an example. But it seems problematic to respond to the mainstreaming of much of the Left’s project as ‘a great success’ by bemoaning the public for getting the details wrong. If anything, Woodhead’s point that identity politics must be located inside a collective movement is all the more important by the ongoing conservative co-option.
What’s more, once activists for the current trendy causes win their gay marriages, increases to aid budgets and the like, will they bother to stick around without a deeper economic or structural politics? When our generation’s Patrick Stevedores arrives, how many members of GetUp! will be willing to go to gaol?
Loewenstein agrees with the proposition, conceding that ‘it’s not something many young people on the left do address’, but isn’t pessimistic. The Occupy protests have made economics sexy again, he says.
‘The central point of it was to question the economic reality in the US and Europe, that was the key question that engaged a lot of young people—the economic system doesn’t work.’
This is where the best essay of the collection, Crikey contributor Guy Rundle’s critique of Westfield mega-mall culture and casual employment, absolutely hits the mark. It’s the most prescriptive, and that’s a good thing. As G.K. Chesterton said, ‘definitions are very dreadful things: they do the two things that most men, especially comfortable men, cannot endure. They fight; and they fight fair.’ Rundle definitely fights fair:
From the New Left, there exists a remnant puritanism around the act of consumption, a celebration of austerity. Among progressive forces there remains a focus on the systemic and managerial, rather than the possibilities for the transformation of everyday life.
Rather than try and pull legal levers to regulate individuals’ behaviour, Rundle suggests ‘a program where the state is an enabler of real choice between genuine life alternatives… Since it is time and space that have been colonised by capital… it is at this nexus that a struggle must be waged’.
This would mean arguing for the extension of benefits to the expanding casual and part-time workforce, fighting the developer-local government nexus to ensure the building of houses affordable on a single full-time wage and breaking the stranglehold mortgages have over peoples’ lives – reducing precariousness, and ‘stabilising and guaranteeing security in what already exists.’
If precariousness and alienation are the killer issues today, as Rundle says, then the authors’ original zombie analogy only does half as much work as it could. While post-apocalyptic fiction certainly does mirror the current pessimism, it also contains its own conservative utopian ideal: rugged survivalism.
Once all the moralists, feminists and technocrats have been eaten by the living dead, the real men will rise again to claim the earth. Stoicism with occasional necessary violent outbursts will be the order of the day. Every decision is life and death – no time for democracy. Everyone imagines they’d be the survivor who leads the group, not zombie fodder.
But in America this post-apocalyptic situation is becoming real for many following the 2008 financial crisis. The individualist ideal has become further entrenched by the Tea Party and the rising popularity of American libertarianism. Corey Robin, author of The Reactionary Mind, calls the push ‘democratic feudalism’ – capital offering lower- and middle-management petty privileges over women, migrants and the underemployed in return for fealty, made possible by a lack of civil society and legislative push-back.
Similarly, the conservative tide in Australia is already coming back in. One suspects that the ALP, now beyond the pale and scheduled for termination, will be missed by even its critics before too long. Does the new Left have time to continue pondering models to replace the global order? Perhaps it is time for manifestos. After all, to quote Chesterton again, ‘modern broad-mindedness benefits the rich; and benefits nobody else.’
Antony Loewenstein and Jeff Sparrow’s edited collection, Left Turn: Political Essays for the New Left is available now through Melbourne University Publishing. RRP 27.99
— Adam Brereton is the Associate Editor of newmatilda.com. He tweets at @adambrereton