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A New Left Forming?

Alison Caddick questions recent discussions surrounding the idea of a new left forming in Australian politics.

In the wake of the global financial crisis and broad acceptance of the reality of climate change, small groups everywhere are asking questions about the politics of the future, especially what a left politics might look like in a post neo-liberal and rapidly warming world.  At one such meeting recently, held in Geelong at Deakin University, the tone was practical: the time is right post the GFC; the evidence is on climate change; we have to tap into and guide an emerging sense of a need to change and a new politics will take shape.  David McKnight led off with his argument for a poltiics ‘beyond left and right’ centred on ‘values’ as a guide to a more regulated market economy and kinder society – what he and others described as new social democracy.  Michael Pusey took over with a gripping account of the kinds of narratives that would lead ordinary Australians out of consumption mania and redirect their latent good sense into a more caring, if still self-interested, co-operative path.  Again, the assumption was very much that the time was ripe: a well-put publicity campaign that targeted key features of the Australian character would go a long way to redirecting our self-obsessions and consuming habits of the last fifteen or so years.  Especially as ‘selling restraint’ is so difficult, we needed a positive story to tell about ourselves that would lead us to want to be responsible for the environment and our collective future, which must involve some kind of reduction in consumption.

The overall narrative to which Pusey, and then others, referred was first and foremost about recovering the Australia nation.  This would have to be the shell for any appeal to Australians, but now turned away from Howards ‘paranoid’ version to a softer nationalism, which could be grown naturally enough upon the bedrock of who we Australians really are.  Pusey’s descriptors included ‘secular’, ‘sharing’, ‘national’ and ‘practical’.  We are at heart, he said, Benthamites – utilitarians, not taken with theoretical or spiritual claims or absolute values, a common sense people with, it would seem, a modest self-interest that had been perverted by neo-liberalism.  In relation to climate change, a cornerstone issue for this future politics, the message must not be overwhleming.  The ‘urgent present’ of current campaigning must be re-narrativised in ‘lived time’ drawing on our ‘historical past’.  Constructing recognisable stories about ourselves that draw on those distinctive traits, we will be able to see ourselves as agents with a collective story at stake.

Overall the conference, over two days, was stimulating.  Not every paper-giver was as upbeat about the possibilties, with Green activists of different organisational alleigances more or less depressed by the hugeness, if not impossibility, of the task ahead.  But the obvious fact of people being engaged, and so many of them being young, was testimony to sense abroad that politics is again on the agenda.  Indeed, it is everywhere being discussed how we might reform our democracies, re-orientate markets, change values.  The emerging ferment is evident in the pages of this issue of Arena Magazine, living by its brief as an arena of a broad Left.  On the one hand, Tom Nairn positively assesses Rudd’s new social democracy from the vantage point of a dismal showing by British Labour, while Guy Rundle, on the other, sees Rudd as a ‘far from emancipatory’ micromanager of comtemporary life.  Andrew Thackrah discusses an influential new British book on climate change strategies and new possibilities for the citizen, as opposed to the consumer, while Russell Marks, countering the ‘racist’ accusation in relation to Indian student attacks, draws on some of the ‘new nationalism’ arguments put at the Deakin conference.  Alternatively, in a virtual how-to build your own, Race Mathews argues for a different tradition of worker co-operatives, while Ted Trainer and John Martin posit a ‘simpler way’ with a rural or close-to-nature orientation, as a kind of lived transitional practice.

The Deakin conference wasn’t nearly so broad a church.  There was a strong sense of an already forming policy orientation, and this has been evident since in The Australian‘s series ‘What’s Left?’.  Also led off by David Mcknight, it has had contributions from a range of writer activists, unionists, and politicians, with Robert Manne providing a broad politico-philosophical framework, also championing the new social democracy idea, as already clear in his writings in The Monthly since Rudd’s essay in that publication in March this year.  No new party is being suggested by this loosely associated group, so it would seem that the task may be to create a think tank or develop a forum that will provide tapped-in ideas and create a culture of new thinking to bolster Labor’s efforts, especially in relation to climate change.

But the rush to policy around a notion of ‘values’ is only partly reassuring, while the rush to confirm the said national trait of utilitarian (no theory, optional spirit and plain practical common sense) is not at all.  While Pusey’s observations may be empirically based, one couldn’t help wondering about both the religion that was once – not so long ago – a common feature of Anglo-Celtic Australian life (when spirit and moral absolute matched), and the many faith-based communities that have come to reside in Australia since the Anglo-Celt’s great secularisation.  And quite apart from this, given that the values and ideals evinced in the long period of neo-liberal ascendancy appeared to have their own transcendent quality, and given that utilitarianism may be a key undergirding of neo-liberal common sense, references back to some typical Benthamite Australian, rather than a break into something actually new, seems likely to be a hollow echo of a need rather than a meaning-laden call to change.

Robert Manne’s framing piece in the ‘What’s Left?’ series provides a larger canvas for this discussion of value and of theory, where some seem to think values can be egged into reality and theory dispenses with because all good people already know the answers.  Manne commences with the French Revolution and the values of liberty and equality (he neglects fraternity) which, he says, set the whole liberal ball rolling and around which the dominant perversions of 20th-century politics were played out: communism in its pursuit of equality denying liberty, and Nazism in its communalist fantasy denying equality on the basis of racialist ideology.  As the century proceeds, the two men left standing – social democracy and neo-liberalism – remain committed essentially to liberty, though of different ilks, with very different outcomes for the question of equality.  All the same, rejecting extremes of earlier communalist fantasies, and now in the death throes of neo-liberalism, those two values, liberty and equality, remain the pole stars of true democracy, indeed ‘social democracy’.

Social democracy in this view is social liberalism, not democratic socialism, and capitalism is simply not a target.  Neo-liberalism certainly is, but the competitive basis of capitalism itself, the forms of utilitarianism it has spawned, its fundamental counter to substantive equality, and indeed its denial of freedom of many peoples in many parts of the world, is simply left out of the equation.  In fact in this key article in a series called ‘What’s Left?’, which is an historical survey, albeit brief, of the key moments of Western political history, and now the key issues of the day, no mention whatsoever is made of ‘capitalism’.

This is intriguing.  The first thing to observe is that Manne is a political theorist, not in any way a social theorist.  The form of society, the means by which people are integrated into the collective life of a social form, the way culture constitutes us historically as significantly different different types of people over time – picket fence individualists (normalised subjects) in modernity, transgressive boundary-crossers (autononous actors) in postmodernity – is not on his radar.  And so any understanding of how these culturqal forms, embedded in deep structures of social and individual experience, underpin and play out in relation tot he valeus of the time and questions of the day is mightily restricted.

Those people with left histories now hopping on board this social democratic train may be deeply contrite about the role played by communism in the radical denial of both liberty and equality in actually existing socialism, and desperate for action in the face of climate change, but they may also be indulging others in writing a very partial history of the modern period.  The values of liberty and equality in Manne’s piece are themselves disconnected from their roots in the rise of modern capitalism and the form of life and power it implied; just as left struggles for 100 years are given no mooring in the depredations of extreme class conditions under domestic capitalism or colonial oppression; just as contemporary assumption about what individuals desire and feel they deserve seem to be denied specific analysis, perhaps for fear, ironically, of our utilitarian bent being upset by ‘too much theory’ and the expectation that good people will simply respond to good values.

There’s no doubting that politically a break into new consciousness has to be made, and that it will be in part arbitrary.  Fear, logic or intuition: a break has to be made from the claims and chains on consciousness that the form of society has over our being (which is never total).  But we must not shy away from a deep account  of the nature of that being, which is always historically re-constituted, and which can help to account for the difficulties in carrying through good programs on the basis of good values that others don’t share, or not yet.  Narratives are one thing, but structural accounts of the specific nature of contemporary social forms offer the more solid ground for working those narratives out.  In this case, while a certain practical attitude may define something about Australian life and national culture, the idea that some past good Australianness can be dug up and appealed to, as if our goodness was simply perverted by ‘neo-liberalism’, is likely to miss the constitutional commitment both of Rudd and the population to a utilitarianism now fed by the expectations of a post-modern market and high-tech solutions to our myriad problems.  If Manne could not name capitalism in his short history, resting entirely on a notion of neo-liberalism to do his work, this must be because it is seen primarily as a political philosophy, which has engineered a system, rather than an efflorescence of deep trends in the meshing of intellectual technique and capitalist development over centuries.

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