Death of Labor?

It is a measure of the depth of despair and even bitterness felt that many pro-Labor people have recently been talking about the ‘death of Labor’. They are not talking about electoral success or failure. They are talking about whether Labor can any longer fulfill the hopes and aspirations that party has reflected, however dimly in recent years, of a co-operativist alternative to the rampant individualism and culture of competition of its opponents. Even at its thinnest under Julia Gillard’s brief period as prime minister, and despite Rudd’s incapacity to act in the way needed on climate change, the ethos has survived in some programs, and in some of the rhetoric.

But of course this is part of the problem. Supporters gather the crumbs thrown their way and their identification with this cornerstone institution of Australian life, or broader hopes for an ethic of co-operation, commits them again to vote Labor, leaving them ever more prone to cynicism and negativity when Labor fails to understand them, again. Other voters of course seem to accept that politics is about marginal seats and swinging votes, with hip-pocket considerations uppermost in this calculative approach to politics. These voters may be cynical too, but they will make this corrupt form of politics at least work for them.

At one level it is clear enough that left-wing cynicism and accusations of Labor irrelevance have emerged because of Labor’s failure on climate change under Rudd. The longer standing criticism gathering steam for many years is the so-called convergence of the parties, which is really a general shift to the Right—by those old standards of political difference—of both major parties, with Labor perhaps shifting furthest.

But it is still common, in letters to the editor and in conversations with a broad range of people, to hear a tone of incredulity; just why Labor has moved the way it has seems never to be really understood, and never to be satisfactorily explained. People are incredulous not just because they don’t understand what the shift means (and some sense it means something beyond the range of their common sense), but perhaps even more because Labor itself seems not to grasp what is obvious to others—that the party’s would-be goals and principles, as we still imagine them to be, are practically undercut by its actions and policies. This seems fair enough when you think of Rudd’s ETS solution to climate change that would have funded polluters and turned carbon to profit-making; or Gillard’s education revolution that continues to fund private schools so grossly and insults teachers by offering them monetary incentives to do their best by students; or that deeply disturbing humanitarian intervention into Aboriginal communities in the Northern Territory. Solutions, revolutions and humanitarian interventions have turned out to be their very opposite. (See Bill Hannan, and Andrew Lattas and Barry Morris in this issue.)

For the person who looks on in disbelief this mismatch is disturbing, but it is indeed to the other sense of the ground shifting beneath their feet that we should turn. In another register these same observers must know that Labor has gone down the neo-liberal path—Labor generally makes no bones about it; we know that the market matters to Labor—we have heard it clearly in its defence of any number of policy initiatives; we know that there is this thing called ‘modern Labor’, which Hawke and Keating put on track and which has been unfolding since Whitlam. No one inside the party is trying to hide the fact that modern Labor has adjusted itself to a globalised neo-liberal reality. It has felt the power of the high-tech economy oriented to consumption and individualist satisfactions. As Labor itself makes plain, any social vision it has is utterly tied to growth—understood economistically and universalised as the greatest good from which all others flow and to which all social goods must contribute. No wonder unions now sit down with business in ways they never could have in the past. Today their interests seem self-evidently to be the same. (See Phil Cleary in this issue.)

So is it just a question of these fundamental-change deniers, that so many of us are seeing the Labor Party for what it is, and either getting fully on board the mega-engine of high-tech growth or alternatively, voting Green as many have and may well now do permanently? Has it just been too hard, too gut-wrenching to admit that the good old party, once and for all, is finally dead, or certainly dying? Or is it also because the prospect held out by modern Labor at its heart is in fact unbelievable?

Consciousness of social change is a complex, often self-denying state—one simultaneously of knowing and not knowing, of living change but also fearing or denying it; of witnessing one level of life and action but also sensing change at other levels of being that haven’t yet fully revealed themselves or been integrated into belief or rationality. The neo-liberal prospect (whether the Liberals’ version or Labor’s) of an exponentially expanding society of hyper-individualist consumers built on a-social market principles thought fundamentally not to be humanly controllable is a dystopian vision if ever there was one. Why would we want to face this vision squarely? And then it might also take some hard work to do so, yet this too is denied us as the neo-liberal university, and especially Labor’s vision of education, was thoroughly re-geared towards economism and high-tech productivism. There is nothing (and no interpretive position either) outside of the economy. What is left to Labor, in that other guise as expert technocrat manager, is merely to most efficiently deliver the social goods it believes can be engineered from this market’s bounty. This is the crying shame of modern Labor’s difference from the Liberals. All the good things about those who continue to support the Labor Party, their attachment to deeper values of care and co-operation, have nothing necessarily to do with modern Labor’s core attachments.

So it is not that ‘means’ have perverted the message: that Labor has chosen the wrong methods to deliver its education program, or to deliver its humanitarian goals, and that it is these that need to be changed, as many seem to hope will be possible. Rather, Labor has come to share the same basic model of society, the same basic goals: it has been carried along on the curl of a mighty techno-economic wave and believes it will garner a social dividend from it. For modern Labor, practically speaking, this is what the social is. This is not to say that Labor politicians and the broad array of its supporters don’t value a fuller experience of the social than the notion of a dividend implies. It’s just that the Labor Party is essentially uninterested in the question as a political (or philosophical) one.

On the one hand, politics is about managing the economy and delivering the dividend; on the other Labor already knows what the people want, which is to go on living the way they do, if in ways bigger and better than before. Politics is about technical know-how, with citizen-subjects lost to meaningful awareness of the social changes filtering into life and reshaping their aspirations, as surely none of the central political players have any purchase on the social meanings and consequences of the techno-economic shift, and no inclination to discover them.

The question of just how society is constituted always returns in periods of far-reaching social change. For the present Labor is not questioning its frame of reference.

* * *

As the Greens win in Melbourne and their vote across many seats exceeds expectations, we may not be seeing much of this kind of preparedness to search deeply either. A good part of the vote will be part of that bitter anti-Labor protest mentioned above. A good part of it will not reflect a single thought about the nature of the social, or even see the main task in the face of the neo-liberal market as the reassertion of its primacy. There will be plenty of technocrats within Green ranks, explicit or implicit, of the mind that technology will solve the planet’s woes. But at base the question of growth and alternatives to the version of it we already know is in play. The question of the social form in which we live is pressing beneath the surface of contradictions confusingly experienced—how to live well without consumerist notions of what that entails or, most recently, how a population might express itself in a degraded liberal-democratic form in which the cornerstone parties had nothing to say about the most pressing issues of our time.

More immediately perhaps, a fundamental valuation of the natural world is being held up as a counter to the economic vision associated with modernity, which is to say of either the Left or the Right, and which is just so out of date. As an autonomous realm of value vis-à-vis the techno-economic, and of potential new meanings for cultures positively oriented to the future, any practical defence of it will draw in questions of social being and organisation, and they won’t take the form of distributive questions primarily, and not at all in terms of ‘dividends’.

Alison Caddick

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