Well, the TPP has been signed and either triumph or disaster has occurred, depending on who you read — the one thing you can’t read, of course, being the TPP itself. This remains a secret text, despite the fact that we are now signed up to it, a delicious bit of Kafkaesque logic. The secrecy of the TPP during the negotiation process was claimed on the grounds of diplomatic practice — that treaties could never be debated openly.
The continuing secrecy is conducted in terms of commercial-in-confidence, which is what it has been all along really. The “diplomatic confidence” excuse is from an era when states were the dominant powers over territories, and the business that went on within and between them. The process by which the TPP was negotiated recognises that that territoriality has become a limited form of power, given the changes to the material forms of communication and production. With that has come a change to capital, which can now move instantaneously.
The secrecy around the TPP and the particular conditions attached to it, on matters like pharmaceuticals, data, etc, are worth fighting for if you’re on the left, but only if we get it clear in our heads what a rearguard action this is in so many spheres, and how radically the ground is shifting beneath our feet. Beneath everyone’s feet. We are trying to work out a radical response on the part of the vast majority of people who are powerless, and yet the lines of connection and division within that broad group are realigning as we speak. It is not merely the institutions of governance and political parties that are outdated, it is the dual axes of left/right, and liberal/conservative themselves. No one side of politics is left unaffected by this, and whoever can adjust to it fastest will set the agenda, which is why it is worth thinking through.
Get Crikey FREE to your inbox every weekday morning with the Crikey Worm.
The wider dilemma of which the TPP is part is exemplified on the left by the ALP’s cack-handed response to it. This is the party that pinned its colours to globalisation, deregulation, liberalisation, etc, etc, for two decades. Since 1996 it has been functionally brain-dead, so desperate for an intellectual framework that it turned first to Mark Latham and then to Kevin Rudd to fill out a program. Following Rudd/Swan’s successful avoidance of a recession, Gillard completed her latest term with a modest but popular program of piecemeal reform.
That was all to the good, but it was essentially a conservative social-democratic program conducted in a historical breathing space, provided by the 2008 global crash. The US has come out of that to a very limited degree, due to Obama’s old-skool, limited Keynesian stimulus, and with the Middle East off the books — and now the province/problem of Russia and Iran — we are in a situation that is analogous to the US/Western position after 1991. Then the Cold War had concluded, and so global market power did not need to be so subordinated to the nation/state, ushering in an era of neoliberal globalisation.
Now, Obama has spent two years getting the Middle East off the books – withdrawal from Iraq and Afghanistan, hands-off in Syria — so that a new market-centred neoliberal process can open up again. The logic should be obvious: the US’ competitors rely on nation-state power, China especially. This is still an efficient form for industrialising powers. But they are trapped in a conundrum: they are completing the industrialisation process at the same time as they have entered an era dominated by information/culture production, one in which value and surplus are encoded as much in the rapid pace of innovation and automation, as they are in old-style surplus from labour. That, essentially, is Obama’s pincers: he is trying to extend US power for another couple of decades by shifting the process of power from old nation-state force — which it is not good at — to a renewed process of abstraction and dematerialisation of global forces.
Why is this a huge, huge problem for the left? Because the old working class-“new” class coalition, founded in the ’60s, now has such divergent interests that it can no longer be held together. For many people who would vote “left”, who would never vote Liberal, and have now found their home in the Greens, the new era represented by the TPP is going to have an awful lot going for it. The more the barriers come down, the easier it is going to be to market a whole lot of information/culture/policy services bounced off a satellite or via a Pacific co-axial cable. That is going to conform to their existing culture: globally oriented, multicultural, hybrid, diverse. Their support for Labor — this ancient wheezing, cronyish, exhausted, resentful, lachrymose, faux-Irish, zombie party — is about to fall off a cliff. In Australia, the long alliance between the suburban working-middle class and the “new” class of the ’60s — now become the culture-knowledge-policy (CKP) class — was fomented because economic progressivism and social progressivism were the same thing. Labor, in the late ’60s, under Whitlam committed to a whole series of things, free tertiary education, anti-censorship, etc — that the new class wanted, and that the right, in fealty to the Country Party and the DLP, could not offer — and managed to capture the left-liberals. History has presented that as an inveitability. It wasn’t.
Labor held that coalition together for 40 years, give or take. But in its success is its failure. The more that a progressive social-democratic society was normalised by a generation of Labor rule (1972-96, with an interregnum), the more that the shared interests ceased to matter, and the cultural differences came to the fore — allowing Howard his 1996 victory, his 1998 defeat (on the vote) showing how tentative it was. Furthermore, the arrangement always relied on the CKP class being so numerically and economically insignificant that they had to rely on the mass working-class vote, and settle for scraps.
Well, they’re not settling for scraps now, Jack! (To quote the great political commentator Jon Lovitz.) The working class is now split down the middle between precarious workers and working-middle class surburbanites with property and super. The CKP class, now heading towards 15-20% of the population, is united. They have a system of shared beliefs, worldviews, orientations, etc, and the inherent notion of borderlessness and globalisation looks very good to them. They believe in progressive taxation, a welfare state, help to the least — but they are starting to look askance at their salaries and the tax taken out. They will preference Labor, for the moment, but they have never felt less connected to a leader than they do to Bill Shorten.
That’s the great shift that is about to take place. This decades-long coalition is breaking up, and breaking up underneath it, is the base that Labor stands upon. It is not breaking up because Bill Shorten is a time-serving dullard — it would be breaking up even if he were appealing. Any Labor leader is going to have to make a hell of a decision – to spruik a localist and protectionist politics, and keep faith with the 25% of the population who form a local, deskilled, left-behind working class, or to jump with the suburban working-middle class and the CKP class to a politics that accepts the new globalisation, and works within it – while still trying to offer some crumbs to the left-behind?
That can’t be done within a single party, which is why Labor was doing so well out of the Abbott period, and will start to do badly out of the Turnbull era, providing Turnbull keeps a steady centre-right course. The Labor Right are the worst kind of right, gangsterish and hidebound, their best people squeezed to the margins, and the Labor Left have a whole series of social values — global equality, cosmopolitanism, etc — that their purported base don’t share. They can’t go full nativist because they’re not that type of people. Really, most Labor-left MPs are natural Greens voters, but simply insisting there is no contradiction anymore is not going to fool anyone.
The idea that there could somehow be a reconciliation between the interests of these great groups is a self-serving illusion. What we need is a thorough recombination of political representation that recognises these fundamental divisions. This could be done, without party split on the left, by Labor restarting a process of intellectual reflection — such as was current between the fall of Whitlam and the ascension of Hawke — about how they could offer a comprehensive new deal, by which the mass global changes could be integrated while providing transitional deals for those marooned by them. This is so far beyond the current leadership of Shorten and his good ol’ boy cronies installed to prop up his ego as to be not worth worrying about for 2016. When he’s gone someone might recognise that this process has to start.
If the Liberal Party get to it first, drive out their own right into a pointless batshit-crazy party and create a new centre-right liberalism for the 21st century, then Green-Liberal preference exchanges will go to 25%, 30%, 35%, the sky’s the limit (of course the Greens face their own huge internal fight over borders and localism, too). The NSW left that resides in the NSW Greens will then have to make a choice between staying in a centrist new-class party or leaving — also to likely irrelevance. The only scope I can see for a genuinely new formation would be a “Party of the Excluded” bringing together the urban poor and precarious, rural excluded, benefit-recipient groups, housing estate tenants, etc, in a great refusal — a party aimed at capturing two to four Senate seats, with the hope of getting a swing position, shorn of left fantasies that the poor and excluded are somehow naturally internationalist and radical, and giving support to whomever would give them the least worst deal.
But whatever happens, we have to be clear about this. These formations, which have governed our lives and our political imagination, are breaking up, and a defence of localism, of local autonomy and the like cannot be undertaken within these old frameworks. The TPP is simply the start of a new process we’re on, with a new politics to boot.