No left turn, either

Tuesday, 14 April 2009 

Clearly some markets are more evil than others.

For someone who thinks the market is pure wickedness, Rudd certainly spent a long time trying to get it to provide us with a national broadband network. The Prime Minister has invoked the setting up of the national railways in the 20th century as a forerunner of this latest national infrastructure project for the 21st. But the national railways ended up being set up by government because, unlike the UK, or even the US, the national economy was not established enough to offset the vast distances and make it economically viable. Presumably some of the same considerations led to the half-hearted response of Telstra and the smaller players to the government’s call for tenders for national high-speed broadband.

But it did not stop the government from trying. As Hartcher so well describes, it was only at the last minute, forced to concede a market solution would be impossible, that Conroy and Rudd hastily cobbled together in mid-flight a public/private mish-mash with the details of the government’s actual involvement still to be worked out.

This does not sound like the determined return of Keynesianism. It sounds in fact exactly what we have right now, a reluctant government being dragged ad hoc into patching up the failings of the market but without a clear idea how. Rudd’s attack on ‘neo-liberalism’ is more a political ploy to play with the heads of the right, rather than a plan of action. What he is doing is catching them out on their charming little con over the last thirty of taking credit for the boom as a triumph of the free market.

This is something that George Megalogenis misses in his Saturday piece in which he argues that we are seeing a shift to the left that has in reality been there for some time. If this blogger ever managed to get into George’s office, the first thing to do would be to smash up his calculator. When Megalogenis focuses on providing in-depth political analysis, like The Longest Decade, there are some useful insights, but when he gets caught up in numbers, he loses the plot. Maths is an abstraction, not an argument.

Megalogenis adds the Green vote to the Labor vote (isn’t that pretty well called the two party-preferred?) to show that the ‘centre-left’ have always been the leading political force since the early 1970s to 1980s. He is right in saying that the right’s dominance was always more apparent than real, with commentators constantly confusing the weakness of Labor with the ascendancy of so-called Liberal ‘values’. But Megalogenis makes the same mistake about Labor’s support now.

That Labor weakness behind Howard’s tenure was not a passing phase, but represented the exhaustion of the remnants of the Labor project after Hawke/Keating had finished with it. Indeed it was this that underpinned the Greens’ support; aping much of the old left of the Labor party but for those that felt little need to worry about being part of it. By treating the Green and Labor vote as one ‘centre-left’ entity, he brushes over the hollowing out of Labor that lay behind the Greens’ rise. (Amusingly, one of those commenting takes Megalogenis’s flawed logic to the absurd conclusion it deserves by resurrecting that old Labor chestnut that the Menzies years were an illusion as well, because if you add the DLP vote to ALP’s etc. etc. If the DLP was ‘centre-left’ what on earth was centre-left? The DLP merely showed that the conservatism of Australian politics has always come more from the conservatism of the left than the strength of the right.)

Rather than Rudd representing the revival of Labor, his arrival represented the terminal stage of its decline. The death of the factions, marked by the Ministers in charge of cutting government spending (Tanner) and bringing in Labor’s most anti-union legislation in its history (Gillard) both coming from the Left faction supposedly most against both, or the implosion of the NSW Right in all its glory, show that there is no resurrection for what had been the Labor party for much of the 20th century.

Nor is there much desire for it to revive. While there is a widespread call in the electorate for the government to try to do something about the economic crisis, there is also just as widespread recognition that there is little the government can do in reality. Megalogenis sums up what must appear to some a contradictory mood when discussing the exit polls from the recent Queensland election. Indeed one of the reasons behind Rudd’s popularity is his willingness to express these low expectations about what government can do. His ability to be ‘up front with the Australian people’ by acknowledging that there is ‘no silver bullet’ to the economic crisis would not be possible if there existed high expectations of what government can achieve, and it is this that was a key prerequisite for the recognisable left of the past.

The dilemma for Rudd is that while admitting the limitations of government may fit in with political reality, it leaves open the question of the purpose of government at a time when people will be wanting more and more answers to the increasingly serious questions brought on by the increasingly serious economic crisis. So they need to be appearing to do something, and it lies behind the increasingly moral tone of the government. But, this dilemma is by no means confined to the Australian political class. This need to be seen doing something was why the world’s political class met in London a fortnight ago. But when they are too weak to bring about decisive action together and too weak to go their separate ways, we end up with a glorified photo-op. But ask yourselves, do those smiles look real?


Posted by The Piping Shrike on Tuesday, 14 April 2009.

Filed under State of the parties

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6 responses to “No left turn, either”

  1. Tad Tietze on 15th April 2009 12:57 am

    While I agree that, in Rudd’s current actions, there is no return to the kind of Keynesianism that is imagined by the social democratic left to have existed in the past, I think there is a wider significance to his pronouncements in The Monthly and elsewhere than just playing with Turnbull’s head.

    The rapid economic meltdown has created an ideological crisis for the economic and political elites–their model of the last 30 years of neoliberalism (read: free markets, deregulation, privatisation, attacks on labour, small government, etc.) has been exposed as the emperor’s new clothes. Of course neoliberalism was never as neoliberal in practice as it was in theory, but among opinion-formers there was acceptance of its validity. Even in more radical left circles, the collapse of Stalinism in the East led many to believe “there is no alternative” to the market.

    The current turn by leaders everywhere to state bailouts of business is a far more openly state capitalist approach than has been countenanced since the 1970s. Like state capitalism in the past, there is nothing inherently progressive about it.

    The point about Rudd’s articles and speeches is that he wants to paint his policy on the run as a return to that imagined “progressive” state action, call it “real social democracy”, “Old Labor” or “Keynesianism”. He’s not just confusing the Liberals, but striking a chord among the electorate (especially Labor’s traditional base)–filling an ideological vacuum created by the meltdown, however dishonestly.

    Even among the Left inside and outside the ALP (e.g. inside the Greens) there is widespread, mistaken, acceptance of the progressive character of what Rudd is doing. I see this as much more than just wanting the government to “do something”. Social attitudes surveys over the last two decades have shown growing progressive opinion on a wide range of issues that is reflected in the growth of the Greens vote and the electoral dominance of the ALP in all states and now federally. People don’t just want “something” done. They want action to correct the problems that neoliberalism brought. By openly promoting massive state intervention to save the capitalist class, Rudd (like leaders elsewhere) risks encouraging wider demands for state action of a progressive nature–part of the reason others in the political class are so desperate to stop state intervention being rehabilitated.

    But, as I’ve argued before, the contradiction between the aspiration people attach to Rudd and what he is willing to deliver must eventually play itself out.

    Of course there are also countervailing trends to a Left revival: the vulnerability of many people to racist and/or punitive moral campaigns while they also crave an otherwise more egalitarian society; the lack of industrial action despite growing inequality and work pressures; the weakness of sustained left activism despite widespread anger over issues like the Iraq War and Workchoices; and most importantly the way that the traditional centre-left party (the ALP) has refused to give serious practical expression to its constituency’s desires.

    But it is a mistake, IMHO, to too closely read the state of popular opinion and potential for Left revival off the institutional markers you often (correctly) identify. In my view there is a contradiction between the ALP and its base that has led to its institutional class character being weakened, hollowed out and depoliticised–rather than, as you seem to imply, the degeneration of the ALP representing the actual impossibility of the working class and progressive social movements to be political actors.

    I would argue that the danger in your analysis, as acute and devastating as it is when you describe the political class (and which pisses all over most so-called analysis in Australia), is that you end up like those who have previously written off the prospects for a real Left to emerge just as the circumstances occur for it to be possible again. Think of poor Daniel Bell and “The End Of Ideology”!

    I don’t think anything is preordained, but the risk in your analysis is that you demoralise those who want to win real change by implying that it has become structurally impossible. Given your progressive stances on most issues, I find it hard to believe that this is your intention.

    Anyway, just some thoughts on your latest stimulating post. About to leave on holiday so you’ll be spared such lengthy missives for a while! Keep up the good work.

  2. The Piping Shrike on 15th April 2009 6:21 am

    Many of the points you have raised are interesting, which is why I tried to address some of them here. What Rudd is up to I’d like to come back to soon.

    But at the end of the day I don’t want to see the revival of anything. Something new, please.

  3. Tad Tietze on 15th April 2009 7:41 am

    Me too. If the new Left is like the old we’re doomed to repeat failure. But it will have to be some sort of “Left”.

    Whatever that Left is, it will have to come to grips with Laborism’s ability to attract support despite being the hollow shell you so neatly describe.

  4. Graeme on 15th April 2009 9:36 pm

    Chris Curtis, the fella with ALP + DLP formula (thesis?) was guilty of mistyping rather than insanity. He wrote that the two parties were socially of the left, when he could only have meant they were economically and structurally of the left.

    If labels are needed, Labor is now economically centre right, if tacking erratically to its interventionist roots in the maelstrom of the GFC. As you imply, regularly, the only upside of the financial turmoil is the way it has blown the hollow veneer of the presumed liberal market consensus.

    Labor’s symbiotic relationship with the Greens is built less on shared progressive social values as on rejection on conservative social values. Rudd in this respect is closer to Calwell than any Labor leader since, raising doubts he can keep the informal coalition afloat for too long another reason to invest in Gillard stocks.

    Opposing WorkChoices was as much a social issue – eg symbolising concern for a minority of vulnerable workers – than an economic or structural issue.

  5. The Piping Shrike on 16th April 2009 7:02 pm

    Hi Graeme. The DLP gave their preferences to the Liberals, so pretending they didn’t, by adding their vote to the ALP as Curtis did, seems pointless. It highlights how confused the left-right debate is nowadays. Even on the issue of a greater state role, the government’s attempt to get a market-based approach to broadband shows that this is not to be assumed.

    Similarly, I think Rudd’s promotion of Gillard, Garrett, Wong and Bryce shows that Rudd’s ‘social conservatism’ is not straight forward either, to say the least. An Asian-born lesbian in cabinet! Arthur must be spinning in his grave like a top.

  6. Ric on 17th April 2009 9:52 pm

    Does Rudd really owe anything to the former ALP legacy?

    He never mentions Hawke, Keating or Whitlam, for starters. Never. No lights on hills. No desks and lamps. No shearers strikes.

    He might be like Neville Wran, described by Bob Carr as the “barrister the ALP briefed to win the election for it”. Barristers regard themselves as taxis for hire and anyone – Liberals, Nationals, Democrats or whatever – could by implication have briefed Wran to win the election for them.

    So I’m sure Calwell’s vision, like Whitlams, Hawkes, Keatings, whoever, has no impact on Rudd. Instead we get Bonhoeffer, Hayek (in the negative), Wei Jingsheng, various relatives and a mixed bag of others who are more worthy of influence on Rudd.

    Re the Greens – I think too much is made of the link with the ALP. For good or ill, its a preferential vote and the Green voters have no other choices but between the centre right, the angry right and the loony right, so they go for the centre right.

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