Julia Gillard

My god, what are we going to talk about when the ALP gets its crap together? Well that’s a problem for the 2020s. In the meantime, there are laffs aplenty just watching the great and good within this party trying to work out where the hell it has gone so wrong.

In The Oz, Graham Richardson quoted Jack Lang to the effect of, “You can always back self-interest” before saying the actions of Simon Crean and Co. had proven that wrong. In Fairfax Bill Kelty advised the party to “reject the ideas that distract, divide and discount the nation”. Meanwhile the Victorian Right rallied to the cause of reconstruction by … launching a microfactional battle for the seat of Gellibrand.

What was remarkable here and elsewhere was the sheer vacuity of response. Richo, Kelty et al weren’t just playing down crisis — they really don’t have anything to say about the party’s deep dilemmas. The seeds of anti-intellectualism within the party have now yielded a bumper harvest — Labor, once a party that thought hard about how society worked and used ideas to overcome the superior heft of its opponents, has deprived itself of all the intellectual tools that would allow it to analyse its own problems and challenges and come up with new ideas, philosophies, strategies and tactics.

Everyone is trying to interpret last week’s farce as a matter of personalities and snap decisions. But surely it is obvious that such stuff-ups only happen when someone has no framework, no map of the territory? Even when people understand what’s going on they make mistakes — but they don’t make farcical mistakes like last week’s aborted leadership spill. Or the Rooty Hill episode. Or the call-the-election-six-months-early episode. Or … Labor resembles a squadron flying blind, sans radar, crashing into hills. But how did it get this way, and what can the party do in what may be the decade to come out of power?

Some points in what, given the masochistic mood, I would like to call “15 shades of Gary Gray”:

1. Progressive parties stay in business by attending to three things: i) the demands of the class from which they arose, ii) a more general philosophy of the good life, iii) longer-term considerations of the general good. Progressive parties have to open up the space between what is and what could be — not merely in piecemeal terms, but in wider terms. Conservative parties aren’t burdened by this demand.

2. Progressive parties succeed by persuading people that what they think of as “natural” or inevitable is really political and changeable. If a progressive party gets into a position where it only responds to the demands from the class it represents, it’s in trouble. Conservative parties work the other way — they take stuff out of the political realm and make it fatalistic, inevitable. The eight-hour day movement came from the grassroots. But the idea of universal free healthcare or higher education came from the Labor party, proposing to its social class they don’t have to accept disease or ignorance.

3. The ALP’s great century-long internal struggle can be seen as two versions of this mix. The Right has been more willing to accept the given framework of capitalism and work within it, the Left to change it structurally. The Right’s philosophy descended from the Catholic social movement sparked by Pope Leo’s 1891 Rerum Novarum letter “on the rights and duties of capital and labour”, which established the idea of a living wage, etc, while the Left came from Protestant Fabianism and a bit of Marxism, arguing for a greater ability to change structures and human behaviour.

“Labor … has deprived itself of all the intellectual tools that would allow it to analyse its own problems”

4. From foundation to the 1960s, the ALP responded to the demands of a working class who were fairly unified in terms of their fate and prospects. Living wages, minimal pensions, extended education, some health care, national development, etc, was the party’s scope. Wider possibilities — urban reconstruction, universal higher education, etc — were barely considered. From the mid ’60s to the early ’90s, the party was a mixed one, representing the mass of people who wanted a prosperous but settled life with expanded improvement for their children, while also expanding opportunities and possibilities for a rising generation.

By the mid-’90s, the “settled” version of Labor had been largely abandoned — Labor’s elite, of both Right and Left, became entranced by the dynamism of globalisation. Isolated from their constituents, they didn’t realise many found such globalisation alienating and alarming. John Howard grabbed this constituency by promising a more “comfortable and relaxed” life — exactly what Labor had offered its constituency for decades.

5. Howard lost when, and only when, he gained control of the Senate and imposed the discomfort and anxiety of WorkChoices, sending voters back to Labor. But Kevin Rudd’s Labor had become, in the interim, even more “unsettled”, even more devoted to the reconstruction of everyday life, with a relentless focus on growth and education. Such passions went far beyond people’s desire that their kids have opportunities for advancement and improvement — it was a mix of Whitlamism and Keatingism in which the focus was almost exclusively on the future, not the present, on the lives that might be made, rather than what was.

Perhaps that would have been sellable if it had included the genuine Whitlam-era ideal of real self-emancipation. Trouble was, Rudd had no real positive alternative vision. There was no light on the hill, simply a space where it might be put, by crowdsourcing, with the bizarre 20/20 conference, a government leading by asking grandees to tell it where it should go in a one-day conference run by McKinsey. Soon after Rudd was gone in an evening.

6. So now, Right and Left of Labor do not differ on how they should make people’s lives, right now, today, better at an individual and family level. They agree the current population are simply the raw material for social reconstruction. The Right has become enamoured with markets, mobility, Americophilia and the minimal state. People in this faction know that their base remains statist, protectionist and economically nationalist, and so they are determined to bully and push them towards a more US-style economy and mindset. The ALP Left has abandoned any notion of real emancipation and channelled its energies into behavioural control, largely via “nudge” theory, changing behaviour via small changes such as plain cigarette packaging. Such strategies treat people not as citizens or supporters, but as lab rats — as objects, not subjects.

7. People see this with Labor, and they hate it. They hate both the relentless “growthism” where everyone has to get a PhD in cyberengineering before lunchtime, recycle their gruffnuts and wear an implant to monitor their obesity levels. They hate it even when they can see the sense of reducing smoking, etc.8. Neither Right nor Left of Labor can see this hatred, because they are too busy blaming each other for losing public support. The ALP Left continues to believe it represents some sort of will to social progress, when in fact it simply expresses the mindset of “social managers”, policy implementers distanced from the public and close to disdainful of them. Those in the Right are more self-deluded — they channel the old anti-theory anti-socialism of the past and believe they represent the real will of their base. The angrier people get with them, the more they blame various enemies and spit fire at the Greens, whose responsibility, apparently, is to save the fortunes of another political party that is unable to save itself. That’s why Richo, more perspicacious than most, can’t understand how self-interest gets clouded. He’s so accustomed to seeing the Right as the sensible faction he can’t see how it has been sucked into a delusional self-regard.

9. For decades, even at its most conservative and modest, Labor included ideas about society and how it worked into its deliberations. It had to, because its great challenge on the Left was Marxism. From John Curtin, the socialist organiser of pre-WWI days to Whitlam, through to the Labor Essays of the 1970s and 80s, Labor used ideas, theories and debate to think about what was going on. That has now ceased. Labor is the most extraordinary intellectual deadzone, in which any attempt to theorise or think through is taken as the sign of a “wanker”. Kevin Rudd’s essays in The Monthly drew on the theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer and name-checked Friedrich Hayek as a bad guy — but there was no actual social, historical or class analysis. Mark Latham — pretty much the only person who wants the party to be in the business of categorical change — wrote a big book that was pretty much a crib of Francis Fukuyama, and his recent Quarterly Essay, disappointingly, is a series of policies lacking a centre, and often contradictory. Lindsay Tanner loves nudge theory. In Sydney Michael Costa and his cohort proselytise Hayek with the same fervour as he once spruiked Trotsky, and with the same disregard for the real politics of Australia. The “intellectuals” around Labor, such as Nick Dyrenfurth have not even the ghost of an original idea. The only one who does, Tim Soutphommasane, proposes to use cultural engineering to create social cohesion through a rather characterless confected patriotism — a solution for a problem that is far from uppermost for Australia, and that would simply add to the impression people have that Labor wants to push them about and engineer their souls.

10. Labor has done that most marvelous of things — it has created what may be the single worst policy mix of any party in the Western world. It responds to the narrow demands of its social base — for a strong economy, etc (the first part of my original point) — and then imposes the future needs of society such as education and action on global warming. But it almost entirely leaves out presenting people with improvements in their lives in areas where they regarded hardship as “natural” or “inevitable”. Labor relies on the fact that people tell surveys that they are happy and satisfied, in order to take no action on really making their lives better. So when it comes to the election, it has nothing to tell people it is defending, nothing it can warn them they will lose if the Coalition gets in. It attends to early childhood development and aged care, and leaves everyone in between to fend for themselves.

“Labor has done that most marvellous of things — it has created what may be the single worst policy mix of any party in the Western world.”

11. The result is a displacement effect of anger, which would be obvious to Labor if it thought about it. Australians are told so ceaselessly how lucky they are that the truth — that for many life, while prosperous on paper, is squeezed and limited — has no explicit outlet. So it goes into an inchoate anger, which then attaches to the leadership, and especially to Gillard herself. They are squeezed by absurdly inflated house prices, absurdly high grocery and basics prices, overpriced telecoms services, a working day creeping up in length, pitiful parental leave, and poorly designed cities. The social advances of the past 30 years have been co-opted to the squeeze — so the entry of women to the workforce has been entirely absorbed by rising house prices. People know their parents’ and grandparents’ lives were more limited, and oppressive, in many ways than theirs — they also know that a house could be bought and maintained on one wage, that people had more time and space, more ease of life.

12. Labor could have dived right into the heart of such a challenge — creatively offered more possibilities for existence in such a way that would have appealed across the party’s increasingly fractured base. Instead it chose to be the party that imposes discipline — economic discipline, social discipline, behavioural discipline — without reward. It did it with such ardour that the Coalition nipped into the gap and advanced a parental leave policy Labor should have been leading with. By now, in 2013, the higher reaches of Labor have become wholly dominated by a caste — lifers who join the party at university and become intellectually detached from the people they represent, even if they live among them. Eventually they lose all sense that such a division exists. To watch the celebrations over cigarette plain packaging was to watch different abstract elites – pollies, policy wonks, healthcare pros – talking to each other, unaware that anyone else existed, that there was any other way to be or think.

13. Because they now lack any capacity for this sort of thinking, they blunder from one obvious error to another. They have no means of reality testing. They reject any process of wider debate or reflection, become more anti-intellectual, anti-theoretical until they are wholly painted into a corner. Their brightest idea has been to pour enormous energies into attacking the Greens – which managed to depress the Greens polling by a point or two, before they bounced back to their solid ten per cent average. The attacks were obviously more than strategic. The Greens are smarter than Labor, more capable of reflexive thought, and have increased their vote by 900% since 1996. If Labor were to dip lower, to say, a 28% primary, and the Greens rose to 12% or so, then the Greens will have stolen half of Labor’s primary vote. That is a diabolical position for Labor to have got itself into.

14. This could go on for a long time, even in opposition. The Right could continue to insist on its relentless indifference to real quality of life, and that anything other than nibbling round the edges is pointy-headed, and the Left could continue to have nothing to offer but nudge theory and same-sex marriage. But they would do better to try and rebuild the intellectual and theoretical processes they use to have – something beyond narrow policy think-tanks – that connect both inside and outside the party. Quite aside from coming up with a policy which spreads the prosperity in a way that people can live or feel, they will need to come up with a way to connect future needs – preparing for an inevitable global economic recession/depression, and at a longer stretch, that of climate change – with current policies. They will need to create a politics of solidarity that is not based on old, and now superseded forms of class, but assumes and includes the irreversible individualism of contemporary life.

15. Labor’s factional warlords clearly believe – or believed – that they could do what they usually do, take a loss and keep the party. Perhaps they still do – or perhaps even they are now starting to panic. They are now talking of a loss down to 50 seats as manageable. Perhaps what is now required is a catastrophe below a big loss, something of the order of 1975 or 1931. The near solid state of Australian politics makes real party change rare, but the ALP now faces a challenge not only to its inner-city left vote, but potentially – in the form of the Katter party – in its heartland. They are helped in avoiding that by, well, Katter, and his crackpot bumpkins, but if they can excise much of the tinfoil hat stuff, they could eventually lay down a marker in Labor’s heartland. They sure deserve it in places like Gellibrand. Labor has a future – but without a real productive crisis, that future may be as the PASOK of the South.