Napoleon declared the end of the Holy Roman Empire on one day in 1806, and it might not have been the most momentous thing he did that day. By that time, Charlemagne’s creation was reduced to a few statelets and free cities banded together. The old world died with a whimper. What did that feel like, I’ve often wondered, to see a thousand-year-old empire, one that claimed descent from the Roman empire itself, end in an afternoon?
Something of the feeling was communicated by seeing Tony Abbott take his seat on the backbench in Parliament this week (one didn’t get the same sense seeing Joe Hockey with him — it simply looked as if Abbott’s bench had crashed, somehow, and the airbag had inflated). There are some on the left, and the right, who want to insist on a continuity between Abbott’s government and Turnbull’s, and policy-wise there is, but I mean really. These days, in thinking about how power is exercised, you have to consider how sovereignty works — and how it changes in an instant. And it has changed.
By sovereignty these days, we mean something other than power as the direct movement of material things, still less of the use of violence. We mean that a regime change can not only change the things we talk about, but the way we talk about things altogether. Not merely a reframing, but a creation of new discursive objects, as it were. The rise of Malcolm Turnbull to PM, the changeover in his cabinet, doesn’t change the party in power, nor the interests behind them, but it changes a whole set of relations between objects of power that changes everything for both left and right (you may have gathered by now that this article would read extra well if you synced it with Iron Butterfly’s In-a-gadda-da-vida or similar).
The most significant thing that has occurred is that an era has been ruled off: the Latham-Rudd-Abbott era, a sort of late transitional period of what we call “political religion”, the idea that politics can not only organise societies, but can supply some sort of transcendental deliverance. That trio was late — near self-parodic representatives of a trend that dominated the 20th century, but they carried a whiff of it nevertheless. Latham, with a suggestion that he was Whitlam’s heir, the working-class kid made good because he had “a desk and a lamp to do his homework on” as Gough said was his aim for every kid.
Latham’s bizarre campaign of reading to bemused kindergarten children was that political religion in action — the idea that politics could re-parent the lost, damaged and missed out to completeness. Rudd’s vision followed, a Maoism for middle Australia, whereby chairman Kevin got elected with the ALP by essentially running against the ALP, all politics and any unmediated institutions. That was the point of the 20/20 conference, its combination of bizarre elitism and lottery selection of average people. It grooved on the idea of an unmediated people’s will, a demotic genius asserting itself without intervening institutions (which made the roll-call of people supporting it, numerous tut-tutters against radical gestures elsewhere, all the more attractive).
When that finally burnt out, the right got their turn with Tony Abbott. But both Latham and Rudd had visions that to some degree fit with aspirations that dwelt in the Australian breast. Abbott didn’t. He was an extraordinary last survival of Christian reactionary politics, a survival Down Under. The bizarre lack of fit between the place he governed and the ungoverned fantasies within him made for chaotic, lurching politics, a foreshadowing doom, and then the disaster.
Now that has gone. And it is not coming back. Whatever the Turnbull government does or is, it is not going to be steered by some hidden, half-crackpot vision of the country it’s governing. Nor is there anyone else in the Liberal side, imminent or rising, who would appear to have any sort of vision, or Big Picture, they want to sell us. But nor of course is there anyone like that in Labor, either. You could see both Latham and Rudd coming from a long way away. They were banging their drum for years, advertising themselves as having not merely a fistful of policies, but a whole politics, even a worldview. Labor today does not lack people who want to change things, even in an integrated manner, but no one is projecting an idea of a new way of life, or a sort of transcendental refounding of the old one.
And that is extraordinary, the end of a long era, because for half a century our politics has been oriented around the coming man or woman, whose transformative vision was either imminent or here. For half a century, it’s been waiting for God Knows. Starting in the dog days of Menzies’ reign and Calwell’s opposition, when it was waiting for Gough, it’s been a process led by Labor. Fraser’s governments were place-holders, holding back a nascent neoliberal push from its right side — and really, just waiting for Hawke, and Keating after him. Hawke’s era was begun with a version of vision — consensus, people’s “summits”, a vague suggestion from Hawkey that “communes” could be established — and the rather more drab process of institutional restructuring was conducted in that spirit. Keating’s double formula of further restructuring, together with an engineered cultural nationalism, was vision on steroids, which went as well as ‘roids usually do. Howard’s reign was defined against a politics of vision — but it was only the fact that there remained a hunger for it within the body politic that made people like Latham or Rudd even plausible as leaders.
This sort of politics was clearly in crisis when first Rudd and then Abbott came to be its dual representatives. Rudd had more or less imported a whole vision and offered it to a Labor Party that could no longer produce one internally. Abbott’s was vision in the sense of Mother Mary coming down in a white light to give you the sword of justice, its mystical and contentless finale.
Now that is gone. Turnbull is offering no transformative vision, but nor is he defining himself as a “common sense” politician against a visionary politics (he was, against Abbott, but that was the means by which we made the transition). Labor is not offering a politics of vision as an alternative to Turnbull’s business-led program — and there is no sign that they will do so. And nor am I suggesting it would be a good strategic move. Indeed, even the Greens no longer lead with a politics of vision, following the handing over from Bob Brown and Christine Milne to Richard Di Natale, and a new leadership and policy style. The rise and fall of the Palmer United Party was the politics of vision in farcical dumbshow. Senate lottery winner David Leyhonhjelm offered an alternative for a while: now, in pursuit of limited government, he has established a vast government inquiry into unlimited government. Nice one. No one, it seems, can set out a bold vision separate from the grinding process of regulation and administration.
There are big historical reasons for such a collapse of projective politics — here, but not elsewhere — but that’s for another time. What’s most pertinent here is that this absence of political vision, or the proposal of alternative ways of doing things, makes all politics difficult to achieve, unless it is of a piecemeal liberal individualist sort, usually around cultural matters. Bigger issues, such as the Trans-Pacific Partnership and what it means for sovereignty, simply cannot be projected — and so the question of its particular provisions becomes a matter of negotiation and trading, rather than of principle and wider questions. This is striking, compared to the situation even a decade ago, when the US-Australia free-trade agreement was the occasion for rallies, vast debate and ultimate opposition from Latham-led Labor. That it is an undermining of national sovereignty is unquestioned, but what positive vision is on offer from which an opposition to it could be mounted? That was at the root of Labor’s clownishly incompetent response to the TPP, the inability to decide whether to be an opposition with an alternative take on how we should live, or a loyal opposition, so to speak, endorsing the deal from the outset, and criticising the government’s negotiation of it. Caught between both, with its base divided between people who will do well and badly out of the deal, pushed and prodded by its internal forces, it appeared to catch the shambolic nature of the Abbott government, like flu, just as the Coalition rose from its bed of pain.
One of the effects of an absence of political vision and projection in the mainstream — the mainstream of a society so individualised, life-privatised and dematerialised that a number of collective causes have no base from which to grow — is that the urge for it tends to flow elsewhere. Thus at the moment it is flowing to the political hard right, whose mix of nativism, nostalgia, a powerful sense of exclusion and a definition via its other — mainstream multiculturalism — has a sort of double concreteness to it. It is offering a concrete vision as to how Australia should be — as opposed to abstract administrative visions from the mainstream parties — and it is combining that with a concrete political culture: rallies, meetings, logos, flags, etc etc. Though rallies in Melbourne and elsewhere have shown that it is smaller than it projects itself to be in the media, it is quite possible that it will start to grow — attracting people not particularly drawn to the pernicious side of its message, but simply to its evocation of a lost collectivity, or a political vision — simply because there is nothing else on offer.
That is not a reason to dredge up an ersatz political vision, nor to have a fake nostalgia for a “golden age”, nor to put the blame on individual politicians, as though they were simply not doing the vision “job”. Nor is the absence of mainstream political vision likely to be permanent, but for the moment, there is nothing there you could call by that name. And that is quite a new situation for us to have, ushered in by the most ordinary and procedural of changes. The old world dies in an afternoon, and the sooner one realises it has, the sooner one can adjust one’s thinking — and vision — to it.