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A Vessel for Our Hopes?, by Alison Caddick

Identity and emotion appear to be playing a role in politics neither tapped in opinion polls nor understood very well by politicos of the Left, and the centre-Left especially.

Published: 24 Jun 2019

While we may have hoped for a Labor victory in the recent election, for many it was only ever as a reprieve—a small taking back from a course of action already well in train. In other words, if Labor had won, it could have been a moment of pulling back from the brink, although only from some of the worst features of what is an encompassing social-cultural trajectory.

Climate change and the ‘social wage’—to refer to that Labor deal that repackaged the social and tied it absolutely to a global productivist logic—were where we hoped for relief: for some elements of ‘decency’ and sensible restraint, all the while still harking back to the social promise of the nineteenth century.

Implicitly, then, many who voted Labor imagined themselves abstractly as part of a social whole; they would forgo immediate self-satisfaction via a knowledge that the channels of redistribution, of state provision and economic management, would address the needs of others, and in the end benefit all. Increased Newstart payments, better wages for women workers, an end to negative gearing to aid the young especially—Labor’s program called on supporters to see such reforms in this light. Climate change, too, appears to demand restraint and care, some ethical discipline of the self and a reaching out towards something larger. The ethical attitudes forged socially in the modern period would implicitly, in some degree, carry over to attitudes towards our imagined non-human kin and even to an abstract notion of an environmental ‘whole’.

Of course there was another, more updated pull than the reverberations of the nineteenth century, even if the latter still sits deep within some of us. Indeed the Labor Party not only promised something like fairness, with a nod towards equality, but also all the expertise of technocratic government. To again hark back to the Hawke/Keating Labor years, and carried on ever since in one guise or another, technocratic means have been Labor’s speciality—from Paul Keating’s levers of the economy to Kevin Rudd’s all-encompassing flow charts and diagrams to Chris Bowen’s supreme confidence in Labor’s policy expertise. On top of a residual sense of a social whole, we were likely comforted by this promise of government ‘knowing what it was doing’, of its being invested in some kind of efficiency, in such obvious contrast to the Coalition. This would have included an approach to climate change in much the same vein, and a concomitant imagination of the environment as a set of systems to be adjusted and managed. Indeed, rational policy implementation carried so much of Labor’s hopes in this election, but as is made clear in the contributions to the forum on the election result in this issue of Arena Magazine, this missed other crucial dimensions of the reception of its proposals.

Whether, as suggested in the forum, Labor’s loss was partly tactical—that is, an inability to sell a narrative that would break through voter perceptions of self-interest—identity and emotion appear to be playing a role in politics neither tapped in opinion polls nor understood very well by politicos of the Left, and the centre-Left especially. To rely on an emotional charge associated with that old-fashioned notion of a commonwealth and social whole seems not to reflect the primary triggers of many voters’ emotional commitments or points of cultural-political identification. On the one hand the social is a residual category and feeling; on the other the social democratic (or something in Labor’s hands approximating it) fails to truly inspire as vision, even if, as framework for the rational application of means it is a vessel for in effect grouping a range of disparate hopes and identities.

A fading social principle and experience, and a purposive-rational commitment to getting things done, rather than a substantive vision of a world, make for instability both within and at the edges of the party system. Needless to say, this is a situation ripe for the (further) desertion from Labor of its once core constituency of battlers and workers, as witnessed in Queensland; more broadly, it is a moment of a kind of hystericisation of politics as divisions are, as they say, weaponised, and new and old identities face off—city versus country, ‘elites’ versus battlers, superannuants versus the young, the North versus the South. These are emotional divisions all too eagerly exploited by the likes of Home Affairs minister Peter Dutton in chilling actions and denunciations, especially around our ‘security’.

Identity, and identity politics in particular, has been an ongoing theme in Arena Magazine commentary for some time. Not only has the assumption of old left politics of the world dividing most importantly along class lines largely collapsed, but as a form of politics a focus on identity tends to unleash forces centred on the self, and the passions and limited points of view that that suggests. But it is not self-interest as such that is being expressed, rather a deep-seated insecurity/advocacy about one’s worthwhileness: about recognition of the ways in which we believe our specific lives to be meaningful. Whereas we typically associate this kind of concern with the identity categories of the ‘cultural Left’, in this election the same principle was emphatically brought to the fore in the cultural-political identifications of rural voters and Queensland battlers. Jobs, yes, but the insult of the city ‘elites’, not to mention Bob Brown’s caravan, trumps what that ‘elite’ thinks of as rational assessment (the risks of climate change, the small number of actual jobs offered via coal and so on) and fuels the pleasures, often ugly, of identification played out in a febrile context.

Guy Rundle in this issue suggests that the deeper-going causes of the Labor loss are associated with the neoliberalisation of the person, achieved under governments of both stripes over the past thirty years. This individualisation of political sensibility reaches across all the social groupings and makes appeals to any form of solidarity difficult, let alone any assumption of Labor/left identification according to old class positions. In the rise of the knowledge economy, on the other hand, a new class is coming to consciousness of itself, similarly disembedded from older forms of social structure and communal stability but emergent in terms of a sense of its own special capacity and closed to the worldviews of older forms of social being. John Hinkson, in this issue too, puts the emphasis on the emotion fuelled by the destruction of assumed ways of life, and the propensity of that emotion, often inchoate in the face of impersonal global forces, to be directed under authoritarian tutelage towards extreme actions, hate and cruelty. Exaggerated emotion and identity instability combine in a potentially explosive mix. Intriguingly, Maria Rae, also in the forum in this issue, adds fuel to this bonfire in her observations about which social-media strategies won out for the two parties in this election—underlining the key role and the form of social media itself as emotional drivers of political identification and voting patterns today.

All this points to a generalised brittleness in the culture, and an incapacity to look in an encompassing way at where we may be headed. Action and Reaction bolsters righteousness, disrespect becomes a vital currency; the feeling of being misunderstood or disregarded leaves one open to emotional escalation; and the clever party becomes the one that can best coin the trigger meme, intuiting the ‘tribal’ usage and identity inflections that will convince or inflame. If this is the political game at present, formed in the clutch of a variety of coalescing forces around individual and group identity formation, then we must understand that momentous issues, complex questions and generosity of spirit are likely to be sacrificed—in the name of the political win, for the clarity of the political message, for the end that justifies the means, for our protection. 

The reality, if strangely offstage still for most people, is of a capitalist order supercharged by scientific technology and administered by neoliberal governments that is radically destructive, of the social, of the environment and of the individual. What is likely to be most shocking in the coming period is the sacrifice of individual scapegoats in the ramping up of that tutelage around security concerns, and the flagrant support of war power to discipline nations that disrupt what we are told is the security offered by the neoliberal global order, writ large in the vicious power of the United States. Witness, in this issue, the lineaments of the pursuit of Julian Assange. We can expect much more of the security discourse domestically and to live under the shadow of threat, with intractable international conflict continually re-emerging to justify itself and to hold us in its thrall.

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