Now that all the celebrations of John Howard’s defeat have begun to settle it is worth reflecting on the reasons for the landslide. There are many views about this. In the media the tendency is to reflect either on his personal style — especially his looseness with the truth — his policy mistakes or the mistakes of the election campaign. There is no denying these matters, but the way they are usually taken up tends towards the ephemeral. In this respect reading the mainstream media is reminiscent of reading Time magazine. Many factual matters are discussed, all wrapped up in a myriad of undiscussed assumptions that tend to leave the status quo, in its more basic aspects, untouched and reinforced. In the end, apart from a few foolish moves or strategies, there is nothing really worth knowing: media reports do not give the reader much ongoing material to think about.
It is worth being told that people were unresponsive to the massive tax cuts — once or twice — but without convincing reflection on why they might be unresponsive, nothing is learnt and nothing is left in the reader’s mind to reflect on. It is worth being told that many people have turned against Howard because of WorkChoices, but this is to leave it as a policy mistake. There is little doubt that WorkChoices was a moment of policy excess that soured the nation’s love affair with Howard. But what was it that called this excess into being and tempted him to make such a grave error? Was it merely hubris — a personal failing — or were there more complex structures at work? And what meanings do such structures carry for the future? More specifically, why did certain social forces give broad support to Howard for eleven years and then, apparently, abandon him? Such questions bear on a deeper understanding of how Howard ‘worked’ during his eleven years in power. They also bear on the question of the kinds of forces that will make their distinctive imprint on Kevin Rudd over the next period.
Absolutely the last thing that the media will allow into this discussion is the kind of society that has taken shape as broad support for Howard — or to be more accurate, the Hawke/Keating years in the first instance, then Howard, and now the Rudd era. At best, terms such as the ‘market society’ or ‘neo-liberal markets’ are bandied around. But in the media these terms are like brand names. They have no substantial meaning that could provide food for thought. References to globalisation or global markets serve a similarly obsfucatory role. Superficial in the extreme, they leave readers no wiser. In this way politics is reduced to three broad elements: the personal, particular policy agenda items, and media strategy. These elements obscure rather than enhance our understanding because they are abstracted from the social transformations that give the real meaning to the unique character of contemporary politics.
John Howard, like all of us, has lived through extraordinary times. These are not merely to be gauged in terms of particular events, as important as some have been. More basically, they need to be gauged in terms of a changed structure of social relations. We do not know others the way we used to. Our relations are, by and large, more distanced. Like a television audience, we increasingly know others through various technological media. We are the citizens of the revolution of high technology and we have a society taking shape with, amongst other things, two distinctive institutions: high-tech media, on the one hand, and high-tech global markets, on the other. This society has not merely been modified by certain high-tech developments. Because of the way they give support to global social relations, society has been transformed by them. As such it calls us as citizens into a global order that is set apart not only from history but also from ordinary humanity. It legitimises itself by offering forms of consumption that advertise, arrogantly and foolishly, the hopeless failure of all previous societies. It has at its heart a core contradiction: that the orientation to the global, or to social relations at a distance, largely displaces the substantial face-to-face relations that were common to all prior human societies and that lie at the core of our humanity. As such, this society tends to turn away from local and regional cultures and economies. It turns towards the global city.
This is the social order that has been the intuitive reference point for John Howard’s politics. It has been his beacon on the hill, his image of hope, his source of pride and sense of amazement. This is the social order that was able to grow apparently without effort. Only this society had at its disposal a global financial system that, for a decade or more, could ‘solve’ the problem of inflation while simultaneously generating levels of asset inflation that temporarily allowed this generation (at the expense of the next) to feel unprecedented affluence.
It could hardly be claimed that John Howard understood the special nature of the society he found himself promoting and celebrating — pathetically, as though it was his own invention. But with a certain level of intuitive cunning and undoubted luck he was able to take advantage of developments that accompanied the new society. The extended social mediums embedded in contemporary communications and markets are the key to understanding the emergence of globalisation. They have called some into a global way of life while bringing upheaval to the vast majority of humanity. The populist handling of the first flow of refugees from this development was one feature of Howard’s ‘success’. His exploitation of the fear people have when they know their world is no longer to be taken for granted was his distinctive trademark. And this fear exists on all sides when high technology acts to transform the market into its neo-liberal likeness. Fear of the collapse of borders in one election followed by the fear of rising interest rates at the next — but then something happened on the way to the ranch …
Howard (and many others) thought he had mastered this politics. In truth he did not know what he was dealing with. As the Rudd government will soon find out, WorkChoices is no mere policy. It stands for the removal of most of the protections for workers that had come to be taken for granted over several generations in Australia, but the point is that it actually had an objective basis given the rise of global markets. It was a strategy ‘appropriate’ for the new society. Howard was not wrong to point to the implications of the emergence of China and India. In the context of a global orientation to free trade, the end of protection and the general movement of commodities on a world scale, global markets and trade do mean that Australians have to compete with wage conditions far below those current in Australia. But Howard and the Australian public believe that the good life of the global order can be available to all despite the logic of these objective pressures towards global equalisation. Howard could not understand the contradiction that lies at the heart of needing WorkChoices while also needing the global good life that neo-liberalism promised, but can never deliver to a majority of people. Nor, almost certainly, does Kevin Rudd.
The point is that a rejection of WorkChoices raises a whole range of way of life questions. Do we want that ‘level playing field’ in which — as a consequence of the pursuit of global consumption, global free trade, global tourism and personal mobility — we must trade off our industry and working conditions? Broad cultural choices are involved that will require new kinds of cultural protection against the logic of neo-liberal globalisation. Few people, as yet, are proposing such a solution and it is true that such a society cannot offer anything like the same levels of material consumption. Howard’s intuitive cunning may have worked with the ‘threat’ of refugees but it let him down when he ‘bravely’ advocated the whole hog, being willing to discard industry and work conditions on a grand scale.
If WorkChoices could be said to demonstrate that there is a lot more than policy implicated in Howard’s humiliation, it is even more clearly the case with climate change. No societal form is more responsible for climate change than neo-liberal globalisation. One need only focus on the concept of world trade and global travel for a moment to see the relation. Global trade and travel is inseparable from the burning of fossil fuels on a grand and rapidly growing scale. None of the current alternative energies are able to address this contradiction. It is the focus on the global at the expense of local and regionalised cultures that drives the production of greenhouse gases as never before. The more the dream of the expansive ‘go for growth’ society championed by Howard becomes a reality, the more the contradiction of the public’s deep concern about climate change comes to the fore. Neither John Howard nor the broad public are conscious of the relationship. We are still in the stage of thinking about climate change as a policy issue rather than as a matter inextricable from certain ways of life. Even still, the contradictions at the heart of the neo-liberal global order turned against Howard.
And of course they will turn against Kevin Rudd too unless he is able to come to terms with what neo-liberal globalisation means — whether for WorkChoices or for climate change, and for many other crucial matters. Certainly that golden era of neo-liberal markets that has entailed cheap money and unlimited debt is now drawing to a close. While he may well address many important particulars there is no sign, as yet, that Rudd will be able to address these issues at the level they require. This is not especially surprising. The crisis now facing Australia and the world has no comparison in the whole period of modernity. But a new and searching approach to developing perspectives and policy needs to enter political debate if the initial relief at throwing off the burden of Howard’s legacy is not to turn into a new despair.
John Hinkson is an Arena Publications Editor.