The ‘Promise of Australia’ and why progressives can’t inspire
It is never desirable to begin a piece with ‘by the time you read this’, but it is sometimes necessary. So, by the time you read this, the campaign for the 2022 federal election will be under way—whether or not the election has been declared—accompanied by a crop of recent examples of the absurdity, vacousness, venality and exhaustion of the political process, especially from the Right. Scott Morrison’s ‘washing of the hair’ and Barnaby Joyce’s rescinding of a damning judgement of his own prime minister, current at the time of writing, will presumably have been overtaken by further acts in this absurd-sinister carnival, in which the central questions facing the country and the world—the destruction of life-supporting nature, and the radical inadequacy of the system by which the world is run—cannot come to the fore.
The election comes at a time of political impasse in Australia, a subset of that occurring across the Western world. The last decade has seen the failure of the centrist form of neoliberal progressivism that occupied the left parties in the face of an onslaught by right-wing populism, which mobilised forces old and new to present themselves—in Brexit, with Trump, with France’s Le Pen, in Scandinavian and Eastern European ethnonationalists, with Bolsonaro in Brazil and in Indian Hindu nationalism—as a response on behalf of the people against the entire ‘political/media’ class, as represented by those in power. The broader target was, in the West at least, the holders and users of abstract knowledge, in new abstract knowledge economies. Trump’s wilful and wily stupidity—presented as being a ‘very stable genius’—combined with the ‘anti-expert’ discourse of Brexit to make intellect itself the enemy. This rapidly began to spread more generally, so that areas of intellect hitherto seen as on the side of the people—such as medical science, whose face was the friendly and knowledgeable family doctor—came to be suspect.
The dilemma now is that both of these asymmetrical forces have been discredited, and there is no salvation in the land. Forces that powerful populists were able to unify—such as Trump’s idolatrous ‘base’—have started to come apart, so that their wilder parts have drifted towards grandiose and ever more wilfully absurd conspiracy theories and mythologised fetishisations. Yet the renewed ‘centre’ found on the Left—of the Biden or Macron types—which has sought to position itself as the party of reason, has been unable to draw any enthusiasm for reason as a modern force of movement and belief. This is largely because that reason has continued to be employed in the service of neoliberal rationalisation and masked austerity, and none of the centre-left movements have mobilised other forms of reason, in particular critical or interpretive reason, to question, to resist or to offer alternative ways of living.
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Within this uninspiring landscape, Australia sits as singular nation, protected against the two decades of slow withering elsewhere by its relentless demand-fed resources market, an export sector based on resources so large and extended into the future that governments have stopped pretending or even bothering to think of ways to significantly reinvest in a value-added cycle, or some sort of cross-funded green new deal. The Coalition recently announced a $2-billion fund for innovation, but no one believes it is anything other than a pre-election announceable designed to give a bit of flanking coverage to any Labor charge that it is not ‘thinking about the future’. Since Labor is making itself into a target so small it practically constitutes nanotechnology, it too has no joined-up and comprehensive future proposal. Both parties, if they did, would be offering, it should be noted, an uncritical and unreflective future of quantitative development: more jobs, more hours to them, and more high-volume and high-frequency consumption. It is clear to many that the housing-market bubble, as a source of prosperity and macroeconomic valuation, is now almost as essential to the economy as resources export, thus locking in inequality and inflexibility. None of this can be relied on into the future, in any absolute sense, but this three-decade run has separated Australia’s trajectory from the world’s as effectively as a nation like Switzerland has been protected from the full brutality of recent cycles.
But the result in Australia has been the same as in any resources fiefdom: the development of torpor on the part of the opposition, and, on the right, a self-hollowing by the dominant party of capital. With the decline of mass political participation—and the absence of any reviving movement such as that associated with Bernie Sanders or Jeremy Corbyn—the mediating gap between client parties and the sections of capital (or labour as capital-dependent, laced in through the superannuation industry) they work for has disappeared, and essentially taken politics with it. That leaves a clientalism and cynicism so bare and burning, so corrosive of the basic common functions of government, that many cannot look directly at it. And so, in the commentary produced by the mainstream news oligopolies, intra-party maneouvre, personal presentation and gesture politics— reading the significance of a grimace at a garden party, for example—take centre stage.
It is amid all this that a man like Scott Morrison has come to the fore, and succeeded to a degree where others—rated as the potential politicians of their generation, such as Tony Abbott, Malcolm Turnbull, Mark Latham and (in office) Kevin Rudd—have failed. These latter were formed in and of an era when politics remained a mediating force between the movement of capital, information and media on the one hand, and a public with some remnant lineaments of social identity—class, ethnicity—on the other. Those such as Abbott, whose sense of meaning and self was wholly anchored in the previous cosmic Cold War battle of religious-political meaning, failed absolutely and were exposed as artefacts, as simply ridiculous beings. Morrison, a Gen Xer, was born and incubated in an environment more like a Don DeLillo plot—his father a mayor, cop and preacher in his own garage sect; Morrison himself a TV child actor (mainly ads), a Christian literalist and tourism-industry PR guy, and an inhabitant of the great nospace of Sydney’s ‘The Shire’ megaburb—than anything that has gone before.
Morrison and the people around him are native postmodernists: they have never read Jean Baudrillard or Francois Lyotard (while many of the plodding strategists on Labor’s side have); they simply live wholly in the world that those writers once described in prospect. They are at home in the simulation, the unplace, where for any sort of visual stunt the PM gains points simply for doing the stunt itself. One level of very backward and basic voters really believe it is Scott building the cubbyhouse, pulling on the blue singlet, wheeling the Woolies trolley behind Jenny, but it’s the middle layer of voters above that the party is interested in—those for whom doing the stunt is doing the job. Morrison’s famous media stunts now have a tight, stylised aesthetic, part Maoist social realism, part performance art à la Cindy Sherman: patterned fantasies of the viewer’s own Real, which do not need to claim truth value to be effective. Complementary to this is the repurposed nationalism that Morrison draws from the religiosity he is at home in. In the last election he, or his team, came up with ‘the promise of Australia’, a vague, undefined transcendental element that produced snorts of contempt among progressive groups but found an appreciative murmur among many people of great variety but whom one might describe as the true middle: of varying ethnicity, regionality and opinion, but unified in being of very modest upward prospect (and only if the status quo persists). Having no dependence on direct benefits, and unlikely to at any time, the management of their family life paths now profoundly individualised—through superannuation, health insurance, school selection, housing—they appreciated Morrison’s capacity, in a pithy phrase, to give some sense of ‘what it was all for’.
Morrison’s ‘promise of Australia’ answered the question Manning Clark had drawn from Dostoyevsky to pose as the Australian dilemma. It was meaning-giving, with a light touch, something characteristic of modern evangelism of the Hillsong style, which in their megachurches and vast counselling operations draw their parables from the small struggles of everyday life to illustrate the presence of God, and are thus able, in politics, to reverse the process, and infuse the everyday with a certain luminescence.
Now with the shrinking of Western industrial capitalism and class politics as it once was, the common cause that held the two wings of the progressive movement—physical/repetitive workers and the intellectually trained—together has come apart, the latter group now marching on the road to class power, if of a novel kind. This newly strengthened and functionally central class, now oriented to the domination of others not through capital but through discourse and control of authorised culture, finds itself on the opposite side of the political-cultural spectrum.
One can see this in the rapturous greeting that attended Grace Tame’s refusal to smile at the 2022 Australian of the Year ceremony. There was more than a touch of kabuki about this; it was the absence of a gesture that for several days rocked the progressive dimension of the country and brought the powers low. The absent gesture was furiously fought over by the Left and Right, but the Left and Right of a politics of gesture, in an empire of signs. The tussle was a sign itself that this struggle between two groups—a right-wing elite summoning the fantasy consent of an unspeaking mass, and the progressive leadership of an emerging class behind it—was becoming the whole of politics. Ever larger swathes of the population were simply the ‘they that cannot represent themselves’, the ‘party of no part’, or Baudrillard’s ‘shadow of the silent majorities’—that is, all shadow, without a projecting substance.
The command centre of the Right understands this, at a sort of bored-ape level of functioning. Labor and its tame intellectuals have actively turned away from the sort of intellectual framing that would allow such insights to steer policy and strategy towards a renewed (and transformed) idea of twenty-first-century social democracy. To surrender the ‘labourist’ construction of class and social formation, through economic status, would be to surrender to the persistence of what one might call ‘eternal Whitlamism’, in which the deep-seated common cause of the classes of that era persists unchanged, while everything changes around it. This is the meaning of much of Labor’s war against the Greens, who have an organic party relationship to the intellectually trained, in whose wider habitus they live and thrive, and who can express a real and integrated (if limited and accommodated) politics.
Finally, the Left, the further Left, have had the most paradoxical, but predicable, reaction of all. Having mastered and deployed the discourse and practice of postmodernism in the 1980s and 1990s—with some success in reconstituting an integrated set of social movements—they have now, as that postmodernism becomes the exact and acute description of both system and life-world, have largely abandoned it for a recrudesced Marxism whose organising advantage lasted no more than half a decade in the wake of the Occupy movement.
Now, in the United States and Europe these new socialist movements are reduced to ticking off small successes in this regional assembly or that mayoralty to give the impression that a useful analysis and a movement informed by it persists. What the last decade has revealed, however, surely, is that those taken up in the postmodernist revolution—while variously overclaiming that its insights were the general nature of the world—were rather a picture of the particular character of the period, or the period to come. Theirs was a kind of science-fictive theory-forecast of a world that has substantially arrived. Just as that becomes a map of some use, what remains of a materialist Left has turned to the theory whose grand failure, in the multiple events in and around 1968, was what promoted the evolution of political postmodern thought in the first place.
It is this double impasse that joins the apparently vacuous situation of Australian politics at the heart of the coming election, to the great struggles of the world. The Right is using a populism that has eaten away at itself through its cynicism, to gain one more victory aimed against a phantom ‘progressive union’ that no longer exists—but which Labor’s leaders are happy to affirm, for their own identity needs. Willing to throw over essential moves like coal decommissioning, Labor can’t make the move it always claims some imaginary groupuscule is pushing it to: adopt suburban values over inner-city ones. Focused both strategically and neurotically on the Greens’ claim to be the party of bold progressive courage, it thereby empowers the Greens to be the only party that has a unity of leadership and membership and a clear, shared historic vision. This in turn confirms the absolute and anti-pluralist—indeed sometimes soft-totalitarian—self-conception of the Greens as to unitary social values and a single standard of ethical truth. Despite the gross inequality that has grown over decades of privatisation, the slow leaching away of wage power, and the cementing of traditional inequalities of access and opportunity, it seems highly unlikely that these conditions will come to the fore and resituate the culture-political wars within an older-style class politics.
If it does, then paradoxically it may indicate that we are at a less advanced stage than I am suggesting, since it would confirm a politics around an outdated, simple notion of a defined capitalism (which is not to say that people should not fight for better wages) as the root producer of the contemporary and future social order. I would wager that this election will be a processional shadow of the politics of the future, from which we remain cut off by history’s impasse.