per capita

“Per Capita invites you to lunch with Alastair Campbell…”

Oh thank you gods of the copybook headings. Just when it looked like I had no pretext for one more go around on Labor and the 2019 election, the group at the heart of the intellectual failure underpinning Labor’s recent loss is bringing out Tony Blair’s old press secretary — a man who was expelled from Labour after he publicly announced he had voted Liberal Democrat in the recent European Parliament elections.

That was merely the finale to a long goodbye. Campbell, like his former master, has long been a near-pariah in the new UK Labour, in part because of his key role in fomenting the Iraq invasion and unleashing hell across that country. Campbell’s role was to sell it, in particular the “dodgy dossier” of alleged proof that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction.

This wanton catastrophe has poisoned Blair in the historical memory and taken Campbell with him. Per se he is not of great matter now. Nor is the fact that he’s speaking to Per Capita. What matters is what it says about Per Capita, and the role the think tank plays in making Labor what it is.

Per Capita is a think tank that focuses on the economic dimension of life. Founded in 2007, it was designed to remedy a perceived absence of hard-headed numbers analysis in Labor’s hinterland. That some number crunching and hard-edged policy making was needed was not in doubt. But over the years, Per Capita has grown to fill all the available spaces within Labor, push other approaches out, and reshape the party’s imagination to the point where economic thinking is taken to be a form of social thinking.

A quick glance at what their website offers only confirms this, with its papers organised around the topics of “progressive economics”, “gender”, “ageing”, “work and workers” and the like. Many of them are excellent papers on reforms and social change, but the organisation of them leaves no place for any sustained reflection or analysis on what “the social” that they’re trying to improve actually is, or the many ways in which it is changing. 

There is little that has done more damage to Labor than its forgetting of the social and collective dimension of life. The party has reached a point where it confuses thinking about groups of individuals as thinking about social life, and Per Capita appears to have been the engine room of much of that misperception.

Hawke/Keating Labor did inaugurate an individualisation of Australian life which means (as your correspondent noted with the three-stage tax cuts) some tough strategic choices must be made at the level of the daily political. But that means there is all the greater need for a social democratic party to have a stream of thinking about what the “social” is now, and how such a party’s general ends can be embodied in particular policies for a given society.

The Per Capita priorities and process make that close to impossible. The implied person of Per Capita papers isn’t the neoliberal homo economicus marketplace point particle of the right. But they’re not far off it — a sort of Rawlsian subject, disembedded from all real social connections and contexts, constructed as the rational core of the actual subject. It’s this false conception of the person that leads to the debacle of the franking credits push, for example.

Not only is Per Capita substantially unable to think through “the social”, it is unable to think through why it can’t change its own process. Perhaps this is because its personnel are drawn from the knowledge-associated elite. I don’t doubt their desire to make things better. But the combination of their mechanistic approach to social change with a conception of what they are acting upon as a “response group”, to be poked and prodded with incentives, nudges, context redesign etc, makes it almost impossible for them to mount a critique of their practice and class position, even when they are partly responsible for a monumental and epochal political failure.

“Labor is a brand,” one of the Per Capita founders said to me when it was being set up. But that sometimes useful metaphor has led to the hollowing out, not only of Labor, but of much of its intellectual hinterland, such that inviting a ghastly figure like Alistair Campbell to the feast seems an obvious response to electoral disaster.

The greatest service Per Capita could offer at the moment is to withdraw for a time to the eyrie and have a bit of a think about what it does. The new Labor leadership needs to open a wider process of reflection on ends, means and the context in which the two are to be connected. And to draw on a wider range of groups in doing so.

Meanwhile, it seems that Campbell will be talking about mental health and depression, which is to left-neoliberals what the 18-course banquet at the Inn of Celestial Happiness BYO is to the NSW Right, something to do in the endless political afterlife. Kennett, Gillard, Campbell, they all do it — partly because treating depression is the ultimate atomised policy response to the atomised byproduct of an atomised society.

Not that that’s the only cause. In the case of Alastair Campbell — who has been pretty open about his own struggle with the black dog — it may be old skool stuff, like repressed guilt. He is, after all, a man of decent progressive instincts who lent his talents to a process that killed hundreds of thousands of people, based on lies, cynical domestic politics and enabling the deranged Napoleonism of his boss. 

Perhaps relief is as simple as admitting getting it wrong and reflection on why. Perhaps Labor could get in the habit.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey