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Unstable Politics

John Hinkson examines the sources of today’s unstable politics.

It is not really a surprise that Kevin Rudd’s strategy in response to the Global Financial Crisis (GFC) has had its first failure. It was always a fairly safe bet that the rapid spending of money on such a huge scale, whatever the justification, would in some respects end badly. We are likely to see other examples of program failure over the coming year. That the national insulation scheme has brought down the reputation of Peter Garrett, an important environmental campaigner, adds to the significance of the failure.

But examples like this cannot be taken too seriously in their own right, for there is a distinctly larger picture that demands our attention. Within its terms such failure is only one aspect of an unravelling process focused on the Rudd government. How can this be, after the spellbinding hold of Kevin Rudd over the Australian people for the past two years? No doubt a souring of sentiment caused by the GFC is taking its toll, as it has in the United States and the West more generally. Politics usually loses its gloss when economic boom goes to bust, easy money runs out and people suffer. Rudd’s stimulus packages have been widely supported by the broad community, but a souring note can’t help but creep in. People’s confidence has been undermined; their futures are much less likely to be clear. While things could have been much worse, life has been made more difficult for many and, fair or not, this was not what electors hoped for when Rudd offered change from eleven years of John Howard.

This souring of sentiment has in fact come to permeate the four main planks of Rudd’s campaign success. The demise of WorkChoices has not restored the work conditions people can still remember. The whole environment of work is more stressful and unpredictable for many workers compared to twenty years ago, and WorkChoices symbolised this transformation. It is now clearer to people that WorkChoices was a symptom rather than the cause. The revolution in education has largely been a fizzer and bears no resemblance to the opening up of hope and possibility (however romantic some of that feeling may have been) associated with the expanded educational strategies that began with Bob Menzies and were enhanced by Gough Whitlam. Now a consumer mentality and a managerial meanness towards others sits at the centre of educational institutions, reflected in education being sold as a commodity on the world market. This has set a generalised pattern that has its equivalent in school education and Julia Gillard’s competitive grading of schools. The health revolution has amounted to little. And then there is the central promise of the 2007 campaign: that Rudd would take climate change seriously.

While many people are concerned deeply by the prospect of climate change, they manage that concern to a significant degree by compartmentalising it from other aspects of their lives. Yes, we will have to change the way we live, by using a lot more renewable energy, say, or as per that illusory proposal, by making coal clean. Somehow the change can be made without significant cost to or transformation of how we live. The idea is, the economists tell us, that while there will be a slight fall-off in growth and the standard of living we have experienced in recent years, in the main life will go on as before. This view is widespread among both environmentalists and policy makers. It is also the formula adopted by Rudd and is the framework for his Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS), which seeks to integrate climate change strategy into a further elaboration of the market economy.

If the wheels have dropped off Rudd’s policy agenda, it is more true of climate change than any other policy area. One does not have to take a sceptical position on climate change to acknowledge that the ETS generated a valid fear of unnecessary complexity. If some have turned against Rudd because they are no longer convinced of the validity of scientific claims about climate change, others may have taken a more positive turn that looks to wider possibilities in the long run. The slow realisation that any attempt to address climate change and environmental challenges generally will have deep repercussions for how we live is not a negative outcome. It is a gain. While at the moment there is a degree of uncertainty about where to turn, this hesitation may well become an opening to a more realistic and necessary phase culminating in a more serious practical approach. In the short term, while the collapse of Rudd’s strategy for climate change may deeply trouble many people, whatever else, the simplistic solutions of his initial response have lost their credibility.

While these particular elements of public mood and the reassessment of policy are having a significant effect in unravelling the Rudd political ascendancy, there is also a more profound level of change at work. Why is it that politics is increasingly composed of policies and strategies that seem convincing only for relatively short periods of time, where ‘certainties’ last no longer than a few years? This is not a problem merely for the Rudd government; it also characterised some of the problems faced by John Howard, who suddenly saw the certainties of his political world melt before his eyes.

Politics is often described as the art of the possible. Politicians typically address the social issues and conflicts that confront them and move the electorate, while assuming that the underlying social relations that produce conflicts remain largely unchanged. Political immediacy is hardly a new phenomenon. But the world that attitude takes for granted is now a much more complex and dangerous place, as social conflicts no longer arise out of well-known social patterns. In a recent interview in the New Left Review (no. 61) Eric Hobsbawm commented: ‘Historically, communities and social systems have aimed at stabilisation and reproduction, creating mechanisms to keep at bay disturbing leaps into the unknown … How is it, then, that humans and societies structured to resist dynamic development came to terms with a mode of production whose essence is endless and unpredictable dynamic development?’ In this observation Hobsbawm has in mind the restlessness of capitalism as the root cause of this dynamic. But the truth is that the extraordinary nature of our times arises out of a combination of capitalism and a new social principle that drives the dynamic at a frenzied pace and takes hold not only of the mode of production but also our life-ways.

Behind the ‘permanent revolution’ that life in the contemporary world has become lies the high-tech revolution. The intellectual agents of this revolution have been drawn into the ambit of capitalism and rapid changes to many fundamental aspects of human existence have become a fait accompli. Supported by the media on the one hand, including the increasingly popular possibility of living via the internet, and developments in techno-production, the post-human calls to us. We change the balance of our lives by putting aside the substantial presence of others in favour of abstract associations. While resistance to change is still a deep reality, it is nevertheless muted, as people are drawn into processes that place fleeting mobility at the centre of their lives. And this composes that restless reference point of contemporary politics.

These are the processes that provide much of the backdrop and material for the populism of a John Howard to exploit. Populist politics is made possible when broader social changes disturb people, threaten their jobs, alter their sense of selfhood, and are constantly mutating into new social conflicts that may or may not be manageable for the politicians of the day. So the very same society that made it possible for John Howard to exploit a fear of ‘border crossers’ and terrorists supplied Kevin Rudd with the electoral lever of climate change, which helped bring Howard down. The society that gave support to Kevin Rudd in this goal continues at the same time to pursue consumption and growth—of economy and population—with such vigour that climate change and environmental catastrophe more generally seem unavoidable. It may be possible to ride this unpredictable monster in the short term through superficial policy adjustments, but the shelf life of any government is likely to be short.

Every challenger believes they can perform differently. Now Tony Abbott is staking his claim and there are some signs that the electorate is ready to grab even that possibility, at least for the moment. But all such choices avoid coming to terms with the fundamental question of our time. What is to be done about the emergence of a high-tech capitalism that never ceases to provide evidence that such a society is unsustainable?

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