If we are seeking an explanation for the instability of the political, and, in particular, the electoral system in the wake of the Coalition spill motion, we should not be tempted by the shallow commentary on how the electorate is more discerning than it used to be or that poll-driven swings in party popularity are democracy in action. It may be that the public can no longer stand ‘politician speak’ and that they have developed a nose for politicians’ lies, of which Abbott’s were spectacularly blatant. It seems also, as in at least two recent state elections and the response to the Hockey/Abbott budget, that the electorate still believes politicians should have a relationship with them, on the ground and through the time-worn channels—parties and branches, back benches, so as to gain a feeling for the issues on the street and around the barbecue. If they had listened, Abbott and his Cabinet colleagues may indeed have understood a little better that Australians are not natural neoliberals, and even if confused about their allegiances, still hold to beliefs in cooperation and the social bond that do not figure in the market-driven vision of society. Nevertheless, the electorate doesn’t yet understand that the very problems it identifies in its politicians are merely the outer signs of deeper changes in the form of governance as an operational structure within a much larger global social development. Much more than a shift into a phase of ‘volatility’, we need to see that it issues from transformations that substantially empty out core categories like Left and Right, indicating the passing of the era we have called modernity, and the forms of sociality, inquiry and economy that shaped its politics. That the majority of voters have themselves been largely willing, if also unknowing, participants in the shift to neoliberal governance and all it entails, having no explicit argument with its fundamental assumptions, yet still wish to enact elements of older social and political ways, actually suggests confusion about what is politically possible in the given framework: intellectual and existential confusion perhaps, rather than discernment and democracy.
As everyone knows, over the past thirty years the agendas of the major parties, the two-party structure of Western democracy representing Left and Right, have converged. We tend to think of this in terms of the emergence of a common advocacy across the political parties for a shift in economic and social policies, towards deregulation and privatisation, for example. As ‘advocacy’, the shift has been seen as willed and subject to political debate. As ‘policy’, similarly, it is thought of as a rational process of transforming beliefs and goals into guidelines for action; a public process more or less accessible on the surface of political life. This convergence has not been towards the old centre of politics, however, which we can see in the break-up of the post-war social compact (full employment, the welfare state), the nadir of an underlying class division yet historical conciliation, within an accepted form of the state. Most commonly, this shift is seen simply as a shift ‘to the Right’. But whether this is an adequate conceptualisation is a moot point. For the moment let us just say that the ‘centre’ of political debate today has shifted. New assumptions about the state and governance, the role of politics and the nature of society, even human nature, now seen through the prism of the market, today undergird the discourse of mainstream political actors, especially the two-parties.
The once commonsense idea of the ‘pendulum’ of modern representative politics held that when the programs of one of the two ideological forces went too far Left or Right we would see a shift back in the direction of the ‘other side’ over time. After a reasonable period—at least since Menzies, two terms in government—one party would replace the other. This was a view that took it as granted that there was common sense somewhere in the middle, and that there were ideological anchors in extant political constituencies to the pendulum’s swings. In stark contrast with today’s electoral ping pong, the pendulum, ironically perhaps, suggested a common reference point across the political field, at least the core point of division between the defining social groupings of the modern period. In particular, the metaphor was tacit recognition that the fulcrum was the concept and issue of class, and the social forms and interests that flowed from it. If the centre in this one-dimensional imagery has today shifted, it certainly upsets the imagery of and confidence in a stable pendulum, and old Right/Left preferences and assumptions will be askew. But it also suggests that the conditions of political action have changed and, potentially, that new contradictions are having their effects at the surface of political life.
If the field of political choice has not simply narrowed but shifted, then it is about this shift that crucial questions emerge. One is about neoliberal governance specifically as a set of distinct structures and how they condition or delimit the possibilities of mainstream political decision making. Another, deeper one is about the full scope of this shift: the nature of the new terrain on which the political now sits, its underlying conditions in the culture broadly and its core features, which cast doubt on the continuing salience of class as the core and final reference point of politics. The present demise of ideological politics, the mercurial nature of political allegiances and ‘volatile’ voting practices relate to this new terrain.
On the question of neoliberal governance specifically, we know that neoliberalism at home is the offspring of globalisation abroad. Rather than that willed and rational process of policy change, neoliberal governance is more importantly the expression of a deep-lying structural logic that is driving forward a certain range of economic and social choices and options within a renovated global capitalism. Neoliberal governance at home legislates not only favourable conditions for international corporate penetration of the national economy but also divests itself of a range of traditional responsibilities, whether it is full employment, through deregulation of the labour market; outsourcing of certain responsibilities to private industry (the new ‘disability industry’, for instance, public transport, our corporate universities); deriving complex infrastructure deals in public-private partnership; or handing over regulatory functions to adjunct bodies tasked with the ‘technical’ direction of various matters—all attempting to divert political capacity away from areas once core to political debate and electoral outcomes. Neoliberalism at home also agrees to binding international agreements, as embodied in the WTO, and in prospect for Australia, in the Trans Pacific Partnership, that in turn, and again, come to limit the scope of possible political decision making domestically. Such insights into neoliberal globalisation go a considerable distance in explaining aspects of voter frustration and incomprehension at the narrowing of political choices. In turn they partly explain the volatility in the polls and at election time as voters scramble to find or wheedle out of politicians some sort of commitment to those things they still value but which are essentially ruled out by the logic of the new mainstream.
For some commentators of the ‘classical’ or modern Left the basic issue here remains a ‘shift to the Right’, which means the consolidation of the interests of certain groupings through the institution of neoliberal structures of governance. That is, the economic and financial phenomenon of neoliberal globalisation underlines the scope and entrenched power of a class and its associated elites, and suggests the final death throes of representative democracy as analysis plainly shows the constrictions placed on the parliamentary form in the interests of capital. Here the pendulum is still swinging, if out further to the (far) Right, although on this count we can also expect it to swing back in radical action on the (far) Left, now seen as emerging in various parts of the world, as in the Greeks’ rejection of their party of the (centre-) Left, PASOK.
But so much more than class has been at stake, or class interests the underlying cause of change, over the past forty years. And this much more general upheaval also sits at the base of voter volatility and the misunderstanding of the new terms and forms of life that make modern democratic structures unsatisfying, if not unworkable. Rather than the continuity with modernity that classical Left accounts suppose, these changes mark a discontinuity, casting a shadow on the capacity of received categories and their accounts of society and politics—even oppositional ones. For Arena, and especially as in the seminal work of Geoff Sharp, the emergence of a different form of society can be traced to the coming into dominance of a social mode carried by the makers of a revolution in culture, inquiry and the sciences, and those who have routinised that revolution in the various instances of our post-modern world. All of the transformations of the past generation—the incessant change, the emptying out of local economies that abandon manufacturing and substantial jobs, the decline of the middle class, the globalisation of culture, our networked social and working lives, the shaking of our certainties as to the continuity of life on this planet and prospect of a post-human future—can be related to new technoscientific capacities in communications, commodity production, finance and war-making, which neoliberal governance ultimately seeks to manage and advance. These are the institutional and existential outcomes when our intellectual institutions, transformed by a revolution of technique, join with capitalism and remake it for a globalised world.
If the modern political parties no longer have an adequate connection to a voter base; if traditional party agendas cannot be depended upon; if a range of policy issues are presented as if they aren’t up for political debate (and in a certain sense they aren’t); and this within a long-noted tendency to technocratic government and a broad upheaval in our lifeways generally, people are more likely to act, at least for a time, merely as ping-pong voters, frustrated and prone to the vagaries of political image-projection or ‘branding’, rather than as active citizen-participants in any deeper political process. Unless, of course, the terms of a more existential politics emerge, and then who knows what forms politics will take.