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Democracy Evacuated

An understanding of politics without culture is empty writes Alison Caddick

In a recent Good Weekend article on Peter Garrett (15 August), just after his decision to approve the Beverley Four uranium mine (see Jim Green’s article in this issue), and just before a final decision on the Gorgon gas project off the sensitive Kimberley coast, the author, David Leser, asked Garrett the question so many people want to put to him: Why did you do it (join the Labor Party); where have your Green credentials gone?

But Leser also neatly put the two sides of what he could only presume was Garrett’s dilemma: the desire to act and bring about ‘real’ change means having to do what politicians do: work with what they’ve got, the art of the possible. He notes the competing pressures on Garrett — the controversies and decisions he inherited, the legal constraints under which he operates, the legitimate competition of different interests, and so on, against Garrett’s putative, ‘real’ values. It all sounds reasonable. Garrett himself actually gives nothing away, repeating the well-rehearsed line about now being a member of the ALP and government, and being bound by the rules of Party and Cabinet. He says nothing about the ethics of his situation or his conscience, or the alternative choices he might have made. No doubt staying mum on this point is advisable talking to the media, but the lack of moral seriousness in the answer can only make him pathetic.

Perhaps the more interesting reference in this personalised vignette is to the larger dilemma in which so many people find themselves today. Their relationship to the given political process may be exemplified in the inadequacies of Garrett’s situation. Garrett wants to ‘really do something’, so he chooses a parliamentary party that has ‘real’ power. He is ‘forced’ to as no amount of back-biting from the sidelines can, in the normal course of things, really carry through specific change. We too must vote; and it makes sense that we channel our opinions and values through to the organ of our choosing, and ultimately to government (whether ‘our party’ wins or loses), as the institutional endpoint of our multiple deliberations.

In a parliamentary democracy, we at some level accept that constraints on our personal views will operate, and we in part accept that as the cost of ‘civilised’ or ‘tolerant’ society. Change, when it is indicated in our political choices, will move relatively slowly. When revolution was in the air, social democracy or social forms of liberalism coined the notion ‘gradualism’. Progressive change, even socialistic in its intentions, would move at a pace that was non-destructive, and, in an important sense, processually democratic. (Of course the ‘democratic’ part of liberal democracy would never have come into being if it had not been for revolution, or at least mass extra-parliamentary action — either as motor of specific institutional changes, like male and later female suffrage, or as instrument of fear in the hearts of the respectable middle classes whose consciences, under pressure, could be pricked towards instituting ‘social policy’.)

The tragedy is that Garrett seems unable, actually, to get anything more ‘done’ than if he was still protesting from the sidelines. His options, if he is in fact still Green at heart, are radically locked up. Similarly, while we voted Labor because Mr Rudd promised real action on the looming emergency of climate change, we are locked into a crippled political process. Rather than a policy that makes a real contribution to the reduction of carbon emissions, we have the cruel joke of the ETS, which promises to reduce emissions by 5 per cent by 2020, while providing discounts and loopholes to industries of the worst carbon-emitting kind. We want action, but in some way unbeknown to us as ordinary voters, government is radically beholden to interests beyond our democratic control. How could Garrett, and how could we, not know this?

Well, we always did, in the sense of the balancing of interests as per the description above of some ideal liberal or social liberal consensus around progress through moderate change. And yet, there is more to it than this. Something has shifted practically in that paradigm of political interaction and appeals to it may now be either merely nostalgic or deceptive. Is this why, sickening as it may be, many people now feel in their gut that something is going to have to give?

* * *

Recently, older statesmen of the Labor Party John Cain and Race Matthews in Victoria, and John Button previously, lamented the widespread practice of Labor Party branch stacking. It is corrupt, yes, but more importantly, it is crippling of the democratic process as they once knew it to exist within the Party. The possibility of bottom-up policy making that genuine membership in local branches might once have meant — a connection of the Party to real people with real concerns and views — is virtually dead. The Party is a media confection for infrequent, highly individuated voters on the one hand, and a grinding political machine on the other. In the former case there is management of voter perception; in the latter the management of powerful sectoral interests. Beware the disconnect is never allowed to surface!

The mediation of interests that Garrett and other ministers are involved in is different. That earlier democratic model of competing interests, as in individuals from different social bases meeting at the ballot box to vote for parties with roots in lived social formations, is long gone. While the Marxist Left never swallowed the assumption of fairness in the liberal-democratic description, and social democrats were prepared to go along with it for peace and security, and real material gain for working people, the institutional structures nevertheless had some meaning and purchase in reality. When the old, if submerged class model broadened to take account of the raft of new social movement issues and identities, life was breathed into a reformed Labor and, for a short time, the model again proffered practical outcomes that accorded with aspirations for change.

But of course, with the emergence proper of neo-liberalism things changed, fundamentally.

We are used now to saying that the political spectrum has shifted to the Right, that Left and Right have merged (and that there is such a thing as a radical Centre, see Geoff Sharp in this issue), but this could not be but for a common understanding among the old parties of ‘Left’ and ’Right’ that the modus operandi of government itself has shifted. That is, it is not just a matter of values having shifted as so many letters to the editor tend to suggest, as important as ideas and values are, but also of the structures that institute or give them body and, in certain respects, now have a life of their own. What one may now be ‘democratic about’ has shifted because the range of ‘legitimate’ issues has changed, but also because what is ‘legitimate’ has institutional bases that direct and constrain. False hope, which resides in a mismatch of implicit understandings and changed circumstances, is part of the ‘disconnect’, mentioned above, that political parties and government must manage.

When we are not living in a fool’s paradise in that part of our brain that says we inhabit a democracy, that part of our (historical) pre-consciousness that still takes democracy for granted, we also know that neo-liberalism has dispensed with the venerable ethic of public service as such; that the executive has become highly ‘politicised’; that lobby groups now wield tremendous power; that governments act to produce ‘results’; that leadership is dead; that management is the name of the game. A great deal more work needs to be done to examine just what the institution of an entrepreneurial ethic in the machinery of government means practically, but it seems to be the meeting of entrepreneurialism with management to that end that defines the mood and limit of our ‘democracy’.

* * *

In the end, the respectable middle classes of the ’60s and ’70s didn’t, in that century, have to worry about revolution from below, at least not from the ‘lower classes’. The revolution came from the Right, not the Left. And yet again, while this is true in some obvious sense, it does not at all grasp the conditions of the emergence of neo-liberalism as ideology and form of government, or the continuing importance of those conditions for a more self-conscious politics of change today. These intimations of post-modernity have certainly emerged from below.

When Jürgen Habermas warned against technocractic government 40 years ago, it wasn’t the ‘nanny state’ as such that concerned him. He saw an ossification of the social democratic model, which had come to depend on a soulless machinery for carving up the ‘social product’; a political system dedicated merely to ‘redistribution’, the sine qua non of politics and government in the post-war years. This dying political form was running up against the emerging values of the new social movements and the re-patterning of life they foretold: a ‘new grammar of life’; anti-rationalistic and, potentially as he meant it, open to discourse in the fullest sense of ethical and political contestation and communion. It was a politics as politics should be — about the ‘good life’: about how we wanted to live.

The pity was, the new social movements themselves were never creatures ex nihilo. While they represented a new politics, they could not see that they were the children of the same social conditions that would open out to neo-liberal victory, which would work its way through the institutions and lead to democratic impasse. They were unconscious of their roots in postwar growth (and their contribution to its generation in high-tech capitalism), which would later become a conscious mantra and lie at the base of our newly ‘unconscious’ political form. Our culture of entrepreneurialism, in which democratic ‘leadership’ is reduced to muscular action on the one hand (think Brumby on planning decisions or water policy, or Macklin on the Intervention — see Inga Ting’s and Melinda Hinkson’s articles in this issue), and the tightest technocratic management on the other (think Rudd and Garrett), is one political expression of the freedoms bought by growth and carried forward through the extreme individualism afforded by high-tech growth that sees the world, and thus politics, as embellishment of the self (see Mark Furlong’s article in this issue).

If we now find it difficult to wean ourselves off growth and all it entails as we surely must, both ethically and for survival’s sake, let’s hope that a culture of opposition this time round is conscious of the stakes, especially through an examination of the conditions of its own formation. Politics is never most basically the preserve of values; values do not emerge ex nihilo; all references to pendulums swinging are a-historical; politics without an analysis of culture and the formation of its underpinning institutions is empty.

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