Bipartisan Neo-liberalism

As a scramble takes place in the Labor camp to save Gillard, on one hand, or to install Rudd on the other, one really has to wonder about the structure of recent Australian politics that has led us to this point.At one level there is a compelling reason from Labor’s point of view to rid itself of Gillard: we face a right-wing resurgence, headed by Tony Abbott and every day compounded by other developments that suggest a broad culture of resentment, defensive self-assertion, entitlement. Partly constructed by the confident organs of right-wing ideology, in large part the consequence of underlying social change, it is a fetid, fertile ground for an Australia that many simply do not recognise: the humanist, moral middle class and liberals of various kinds especially. Robert Manne has taken the lead again in championing Rudd in this respect: Julia Gillard does not command the respect of the Australian people; Rudd still has that chance. But we cannot know at this point any details of the supposed Rudd alternative; and Manne, among others, seems happy enough for Rudd to ride on past efforts at moral vision and political acumen that many found spurious, even deeply disturbing.

It seems pretty clear that for many of the reasonsonly revealed at the time of Rudd’s prime ministerial demise, those who would be his ministers again, seriously don’t want him, and retrieving their loyalty if he were to win would likely be a very basic problem. Minister after minister has recently come out saying his style of leadership was/is inappropriate: arrogant and self-centred, and ultimately ineffectual on so many of his key claims to power. Gillard, on the other hand, seems to inspire in them a degree of loyalty; theirs’ seems to be a genuine celebration of a certain strength: her determination in pushing through an agenda, the achievement of a working minority government, her approachability as a leader, and so forth. No doubt apparent elements of older style labourism and the Labor program also satisfy many in Caucus. She’s not only a doer but what she does isrecognisable: work, education, health.

For them Rudd’s whole modus operandi was wrong. Labor has long been a technocratic, social engineering kind of Party, with an aspiration to social democracy, and individualism a burgeoning element of its erstwhile class identification since Whitlam at least. But the spirit of opposition has lingered long in its self-identityas the working people’s party; the trade unions remain powerful sources of support and social opposition; and that oppositional spirit flowed into many people’s understanding of why Labor would take up women’s, gays’ and environmental ‘interests’. Even if these elements of Labor too have misrecognised not only the role of labour, in contemporary society, but also their own technocratic transformation as part of the neo-liberal consensus, a social concern with roots into times past has pervaded much of what those supporters have tried to do, or believed they were doing.

The problem was that Rudd’s wasn’t just a technocratic approach, but an intellectualist one, and priggish at that; the corporatism and sectorial wheeling and dealing of labour-style post-war technocracies was reduced to a super brain processing detail at the nerve centre of government; feeling, sentiment, the meaning of a common history―all those important elements of making friendships and welding together a corporate identity, of that horse-trading and the instincts of the political animal, just aren’t the matter of the super brain. What Manne and others still hope for from Rudd is exactly this elevation above the political fray. Yet as others have reminded us, this dodgy mix of super brain and prophet aren’t disconnected from Rudd’s previous incarnation as ‘Doctor Death’; from self-assuredness to unsentimental execution of the tenets of neo-liberal government, the job losses he engineered are still remembered by many in Queensland as his defining moment. They seem not to be willing to believe that Rudd is capable, even under Manne’s moral injunction to pay attention to his self, to change those particular stripes.

The problem is not one of self or person; it’s not even one right now of policy, or policy difference; Labor, and no representatives ofit, can escape theeffects and moral implications of the fundamentally transforming force of neo-liberalism and its poorly understood sources in the culture and economy of late capitalism.There may now be a panic about an Abbott victory and the need to avert the apparently unthinkable, and indeed the prospect is not a pretty one. But the fact is that whatever the differences between Gillard and Rudd or their supporters, they have all been party to the neo-liberal consensus, which is now displaying some of its specifically political costs.Who could have thought that right-wing ideology would ever have spoken this loudly, and often viciously, as in The Australian, with prospects perhaps just as vicious on the ground (think only of Alan Jones’s appearance firing up the crowd outside Parliament House, or the general reaction, on the other hand, to the Aboriginal demonstration against Abbott, in much the same space)?

One is tempted to say it is a little bit like appeasement: step onto neo-liberal terrain, and you will find the ground beneath you moving. Try to stay the momentum and you’ll find you are already caught up in how that ground is defined; its shifts more predictable that you thought. But that would actually be a lie. Although many Labor supporters might feel the shifting ground scenario to be their own history, Labor in Australia was the first party in government to embrace neo-liberalism. Whether through Hawke and Keating’s financial reforms, Dawkins’ university reforms, or state and federal Labor’s intensive zeal-filled transformation of public administration and obsession with managerialism, they were intent on being better managers of the new opportunities of late capitalism than their opponents―a once common refrain in the sphere of work and industry was that old-school Australian capitalists were inefficient; Labor would do it better. (Hubris has not just been a Rudd problem.) Of course in so doing, so the idea went, work would be assured and conditions guaranteed. Education and welfare, though both themselves transformed, would, through this management of the free-market, remain humane and affordable.

This latter ethical sense, the view of work, education and welfare, was what set Labor apart from what was to emerge as the vigorous Johnny-come-lately zeal of Howard and the whole shift in the political culture out of Labor’s hands and into a much more heightened and uncertain right-wing, more directly ideological context. But even as they spoke about their commitments, it was already in the realm of spirit and justification rather than bearing much resemblance to what was happening in real processes in educational institutions, welfare organisations and workplaces.

And today it is no different. Bill Shorten, who does seem capable of shifting his alliance to Rudd, despite his key role in knifing him a year and a half ago, was effusively selling the Gillard line on work, work, work only the other night after sackings and various projected job losses were in the news. There are more people in work in Australia than ever before, he said; a fact pure and simple to be widely celebrated. But it is a double lie: as if all work in contemporary circumstances is the same (was he meaning to include the three hours a day of the female bank teller, or the three hours a week of the sessional ‘lecturer’) as if work per se is thesupreme value (what of the single mother forced off benefit and into paid work instead of childrearing, or the fly-in fly-out social and environmental obscenity of work for the mining boom)?

Even more disturbing, and sitting at the core of Labor’s incapacity, is climate change and environment. Core because neither old nor new Labor can within that term ‘labor’ possibly attend to the principal contradiction today that is contained in the notion of growth (already a distinctly high-tech version of such) and our environmental capacity for,or the moral-cultural desirability of, such. On the one hand read Alan Roberts in the issue of Arena Magazine on the still slim possibility of, but all the same possible, geo-engineering ‘solution’ to global warming. On the other read Pablo Brait and Taegen Edwards on Martin Ferguson’s Environment White Paper. Read them both and weep.

It is in this context that we can only applaud the young people and old who have recently taken to occupying streetsand squares in Australia, perhaps in lesser numbers than in Europe and North America where circumstances are dire, but who here have had the special foresight and moral energy to take action now. Indeed we need to build that response into a larger, more general manifestation of disapproval. But there remains a great deal to talk about. Activism is a key response. The work of GetUp, for instance, has proven effective in some immediate campaigns in recent years. But without insight into one’s hopes and programs, and the vehicles one employs, unintended consequences are just as likely in the activist camp as in the Labor Party (see Adam Brereton’s article in this issue). The small ‘l’ liberal hopefulness of the Rudd supporters, the energetic but often unexamined actions of some youth groups, the still rigid old-Left categories of some Occupy activists, the remaining hopes of Labor supporters―they all need to be put into the melting pot of reflection and debate if the model of life and value bequeathed by bipartisan neo-liberalism and its distinctive underpinnings are to be seen for what they are, and resisted.


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