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Shifting Ground by Alison Caddick

Julia Gillard has announced the date of the next election. As she dons spectacles for the first time in public, perhaps hoping for the well-known ‘halo effect’ of glasses suggesting intelligence, here perhaps rationality, the message is all about purpose, planning and technical competence. What we’re getting is a PM …

Julia Gillard has announced the date of the next election. As she dons spectacles for the first time in public, perhaps hoping for the well-known ‘halo effect’ of glasses suggesting intelligence, here perhaps rationality, the message is all about purpose, planning and technical competence. What we’re getting is a PM and a party serious about policy. In an already complex world, with ministers managing highly controversial issues and the ground shifting on various fronts, climate change and international affairs not least, here will be a haven of clear thinking and considered action. That’s what a definite term in office will deliver, or so we are told. The contrast with Tony Abbott’s well-known ‘muscular’ approach is obvious, even if Abbott is also promoting a particular image at present—of woman-friendly man—and attempting to out-do Labor on social policy with the promised introduction of his parental leave program.

Needless to say, Gillard’s promotion of an image of technical competence for her government was immediately challenged, if not by journalists and others savvy to her timing (Craig Thomson’s arrest, two ministerial resignations), then in a Newspoll that saw her popularity with voters decrease post-announcement, and Abbot’s increase. Whatever the image Gillard is trying to promote, the message seems not to be enough. Despite technical competence in fact being a high aim of Labor in power, it is an incomplete and unsatisfying image for voters, if for divergent reasons according to constituency. Of one thing, in any case, we can be sure, the instinct of the political animal is ever-present behind Labor’s contemporary technocratic aspirations. It is a hallmark of Gillard’s personal style, and, in a self-fulfilling prophecy, that very attribute, held in such deep suspicion by voters, will be more than ever necessary for Gillard’s success if Abbott’s fortunes remain so high.

Whether one thinks that this apparently rational setting of the election date will make a difference to the quality of the policies is one thing. Asa ploy to introduce a very long election campaign and to offer a political challenge to the Coalition to put its policies up for scrutiny, it could be.We could hope, for instance, that climate change policy would, given its complexity, and unpopularity, be seriously explained to the public, with the justifications and options laid out, and Minister Combet and others responsive to broad-ranging public discussion of it. But even if that utopian version of policy making were to come to pass, the political field is dangerously divided and the appeal of merely technical solutions is highly doubtful. It is the attitude of voters to the latter, perhaps more than anything else, that seems to elude Labor.

Labor’s horizon is that in office it will be the responsible party, that  whatever the deals that have to be done, and whatever the neoliberal imperatives that drive decisions, policy making is where they excel, and around which an ethics can be constructed. This is certainly where huge amounts of time and energy are expended by committed ministers, for instance. But whether history will confirm this as the moment for rational-purposive action above other political arts is highly doubtful. The setting of an election date does nothing to allay fears associated with deep shifts in culture and society, or to help trace out the complex problems associated with such shifts, which are of another order than politics as usually thought of, with its assumptions of a common and accepted ground of action, and its embodiment in representative democracy.

Those concerned about the planet and the quality of life for all in late capitalism, or the directions being set for our collective future, surely must find mainstream politics a strange, unworldly, maybe supra-worldly other dimension; a world constantly with us all but somehow only dancing on the surface, hardly touching down on the same ground as we live on, with all its complex indications of turmoil, change and possibility. This is the same ground most Australians are in touch with, and that’s why disengagement from electoral politics is manifest across the political spectrum. Across the ideological divides we all tend to think our politicians don’t ‘get it’ and we don’t trust them for that reason. They are meant to be ‘representing us’, yet they seem to have little feel for our concerns and circumstances, variously felt and understood. It is arguable that we all have the very same pressures, problems and conundrums intimated to us every day,even if we respond to them in different ways, some, for example, as Tony Abbott supporters; others as Greens.

Whether representative politics represents anyone in a period of deep change is a complex question. I am taking this deep change to be the emergence of neoliberalism and postmodernity: basic changes at the level of culture and self, society and politics, most profound in consequences of the pursuit of Development, as in the case of climate change and consumption capitalism, and the various identity confusions that especially arise from the latter. The contemporary idea of political representation especially follows a rationalistic and highly individualistic understanding of people knowing what their best interests are. But is that at all clear today? On what ground does one make a decision? How might one do that on a shifting ground? And then, in coming to have a better grasp of what that ground might be, is that the question we would want most to ask? For instance, what if part of that ground is a decaying and destabilised planet, with ramifications at the level of life lived within a regional economy on a beloved landscape, or in a city no longer capable of adequately feeding its people? On the other hand, if part of that new cultural ground is those neoliberal values now pressed down into social life and shaping individual identity, where might we come to judge our best interests to lie?More basically the question is where do we get to discuss what makes up the fundaments of our life world, the ground of social structure and social practice, that once was able to be taken as more or less stable?

In the political sphere, the calculating individualist is epitomised as the intelligent voter. S/he will pick the policy set that best fits his/her individual circumstances. This is the figure of the undecided voter, especially in those key electorates where elections are won or lost on a handful of votes.This voter is indeed a key to election success today, but s/he also appears as a fetishised identity in terms of the media presentation to electors of who they are and should be. In modernity, individual representation—one man/person, one vote—rested on a much broader, more corporate ground of identification in the thinking of those who voted—largely class identification. Broader again, both liberal and socialist identifications had something of a common humanistic core that pushed outwards through class towards an idea of a common humanity. As we know, in the welfare state, social liberalism and democratic socialism, two sides of the modernist political coin, came pretty close to being identical in terms of some policies and programs. People’s needs and aspirations were thought to have some common basis—a corporate identity in the largest sense.

This outlook has massively changed both with neoliberalism’s erosion of the things that gave us a sense of being in common—replacing public with private, society with consumers and the like—but it has also been a result of ‘postmodern’ political theory, including feminist, subaltern and environmental critiques of modernist political representation. What was assumed to be human was revealed as a biased transcendent, with many actual and emerging identities finding little in the way of specific representation within the public sphere of the late twentieth century. The problem of the break-up of the old electoral constituencies has been taken up in a small-l liberal sense of attempting to expand the identifications (women, gays, Aborigines, migrants) that might be represented,by both the Liberal Party and the Labor Party, to more or lesser degrees. It is also taken up in the much more challenging, and possibly disintegrative, terms of some on the Left, where electoral representation as such is seen as an incorrigibly modernist hangover, or an incorrigibly capitalist one, or both.

Arena Magazine’s diverse contributors are keen to the sorts of questions raised above. In this issue, we see precisely the novel hybrids and new contradictions that frame our politics. Whether in Boris Frankel’s critique of Marcia Langton’s Boyer Lectures, largely on the grounds of her uncritical support of mining development in the north; Maarten Stapper’s critique of scientific farming and its consequences in land degradation and depleted food values; or Justin Clemens’ essay on the digital slavery of internet users who think themselves independently free and even self-creative, we have revealed to us some of that shifting ground that unsettles our sense of ordinary life being able to be simply lived; where assumptions of continuity simply cannot any longer hold true. In these examples, of a deep-going cultural commitment to Development, of the consequences of a similar mindset in the collapse of life-giving ecosystems, and to technologies of ‘freedom’ that have radically altered meanings when examined, we glimpse more of the kind of society we are becoming than our political representatives ever reveal, or could, exactly because they are so deeply enmeshed in the new ‘cultural givens’ and imperatives of postmodern capitalism.

In other articles in this issue, John Hinkson reviews a recent book on ‘The New Depression’, in which the consequences of neoliberal financial arrangements and the GFC are said to be massively entrenched and ongoing, with shocking implications of hardship and austerity for the peoples of Europe and North America,and possible also for Australia, an integral link in the world economy through our relationship with Chinese developmental needs. In an article by Pietro Castelli Gattinara and Caterina Froio on the Italian elections, with a focus exactly on party political representation, we find, as elsewhere in Europe, new divisions around populist ideologies in large part a response to the extreme case of the technocratic management of the Italian economy, and in consequence Italian polity, of appointed prime minister Mario Monti. Finally, in an ongoing debate Patrick Jones and Andy Scerri argue over the principles for responding to some of the key destabilisations of the ground as discussed above: climate change, ‘powerdown’ and the consequences of  commodity capitalism. Will we have to accept forms of voluntary ‘austerity’, that might be better understood as modest and creative forms of communal life? And what role will the state and indeed policy play, when the actual conditions of our existence are adequately explored and come to constitute the base of assumptions on which a new politics is played out?