What’s the difference between a drummer and a drum machine, goes the old joke. Answer: you only have to punch the information in once to a drum machine. Progressives are, I fear, the drummer in this scenario.

Despite a couple of big defeats this year, and the possibility of more on the way, despite the ample evidence that the populist right’s culture wars are finding a receptive audience, some blithe sense of superiority persists. Many people seem to be able to simultaneously declare the apocalypse here because of Brexit/Trump/Hanson, and yet by the same token, see no need for any reflection on strategy, tactics or founding beliefs.

That’s especially so in Australia, where the persistence of a degree of (unevenly shared) economic prosperity has shielded us from the very worst of the collapse elsewhere. The single quarter slight dip in GDP provided a salutary shock that lasted for about 10 minutes. Then everything went on much as before, the implicit assumption that the Hanson One Nation vote is an aberration at the edges, that the Orange by-election has no meaning or import, and so on.

My feeling is that a lot of progressives are going to get a big shock at sometime in the next year or two. The reason will be as it ever was: progressives control media flows, and the realm of debate, and thus widespread, inchoate and atomised dissatisfaction and anger doesn’t break through. The whole notion of a public sphere of shaped debate is itself excluding, if the anger of a whole group in society is, in part, about the exclusion from the realm of the public sphere.

What many progressives don’t seem to understand is that, when a society comes to have knowledge production at its power/economy centre, the relationship to knowledge becomes political. Thus, this spreads from cosmopolitan progressive social values — which are second-nature to progressives, but which many people in more limited contexts feel to be imposed and alien — to the treatment of any and all expert knowledge whatsoever. Thus the notion that medical science is itself an imposed thing creates a space in which anti-vaccination ideas flourish. Climate change, having beaten back denialism for a while, is now being resisted on a variant basis, unspoken: that science is “their” thing, the tool of the smart people, a means of dictating power. Denialism becomes a form of cultural class resistance.

When it all hits in Australia, it will hit hard. One early victim will be — unless it is careful — the Andrews government in Victoria, which has made itself into a sort of flagship for progressivism in Australia. Andrews gained the leadership because no one imagined that the Victorian Liberals would be so mediocre as to lose after a single term. But mediocrity was what they excelled at: a term with two premiers, neither of whom had much understanding of the Melbourne-centric Sweden-down-under state they were running.

Andrews’ victory, and the factional stability pact thereunder, has created a distinctive form of government. The right is allowed to run its neoliberal program — like selling control of the Port of Melbourne for decades, and declaring they would take a knock-down price if Parliament blocked the sale — while progressives, often labelled the left, implement wide-ranging social policy, from devoting half a billion dollars to anti-violence against women initiatives, through mandatory Safe Schools, and other policies.

The latter policies include the good, the bad, and the ugly, but what they have in common is that they’re disciplining regimes, designed to reach into social life and control or change behaviour. This is what progressivism has in its arsenal, once it has abandoned any question of using state power to control or reshape production or capital. In creating a political split in this fashion, the Andrews government is letting a whole middle area fall through: the grassroots social, where people can be enabled by the state, not subject to its marketisation, or direct control by its apparatuses.

No doubt it is doing some of those things too, but with at least some of them — such as replacing level crossings on the Frankston line — it seems to be stuffing up. An election promise designed to gain support, has become a high-handed process, angering many and done without consultation. Since the “Frankston corridor” makes and breaks Victorian state governments, the arrogance being applied is bewildering — unless one considers the possibility that such progressivism tends to impart arrogance to all parts of government.

Victoria may be a far more leftish and social democratic place than it was decades ago — but there’s more than a hint from Victorian Labor that it implicitly believes the whole state to be pretty much like the inner suburbs of Melbourne. They would deny that, but so many MPs and their staffs lives there, that they eventually forget to remind themselves that the ‘burbs and the stix are out there. Whatever social democratic measures they’re willing to support, many people are far less sold on these far-reaching social-control agendas, and the perception of a government obsessed with such will generate its own opposition.

The Andrews government is desperate to stay one step ahead of the Greens, for obvious reasons. But if they become the sort of government that people bitch about, in the way people bitched about the Democrats during the rise of Trump — and I hear an eerie similarity in remarks in places like Bendigo, the outer northern ‘burbs, and down the F line — then a flank will open up to their right, to be take advantage of either by the Libs, or by a hard right, which has managed to get its act together.

If, as reported, One Nation is polling at 10% in Victoria, this is the reason why. That would indicate that the hard right is metastising: a “frontier”-state party like One Nation, drawing initially on rural and racial resentment, can, in the current period, change its form for an urbanised state, and make an elite progressivism — in the absence of other social-good policies — its major focus. With a state-based structure, it may well be able to function as a rational form of the egomaniac freak show up North. Paradoxically, it would be from the centre of Australian progressivism that a well-organised hard Right may arise.

If so, it’s because progressives, and more hard-headed types within Victorian Labor, are unwilling to hear the army marching in the distance, the drummers-a-drumming. Smug progressivism can never really assess itself accurately, because by its very nature it believes itself to be what people “really” want, and no amount of blows will change that. But the Andrews government needs to be, visibly, something more than a “flog it off” and “do this!” government, or it will go out exactly the way it came in, and the right will be in for a decade.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey