Perhaps the most notable line associated with the Daniel Andrews Labor win in the recent state election was that Victoria could now be seen as the most progressive state in the land. Is this a good thing or a bad one, and what does it really mean? With federal Labor almost certain to win government in 2019, in the midst of the chaos of the Liberal–National Party Coalition, this is a question with broad application. Indeed it is a label given to most of the assumed ‘Left’ and small-‘l’ liberal movements worldwide, and sits at the centre of contemporary battles over political legitimacy across the West.
In Australia the reference is to what may be the beginning of a turning of the tide against two terms of right-wing government at the federal level, and a much longer history of conservative success that goes back to John Howard. Both periods combined neoliberal economic policy and governance with ‘conservative social values’, with an emerging populist extra-parliamentary Right originally courted by Howard, and more recently radically emboldened in the context of the worldwide alt-Right surge. In Victoria it was specifically a reference to the recent dying-with-dignity legislation, to the ‘safe schools’ program and gay rights, to women’s safety, to the environment and climate change, to compassion for refugees and new deals for Aboriginal people—all ‘progressive’ issues, about which the hard Right holds the deepest of suspicions. The unspoken but clear contrast in Andrews’ rhetoric was between rational discourse and forward-looking social policy on one side and hidebound ideological irrationality on the other. Between people you can talk to and people you can’t; people who are open and those who are closed; people who will respond to rational argument and those who can’t. Progress is an open-ended process that takes rational openness around issues and problems as a given.
But this was not the only theatre in which progress and rationality played their dual role. In fact the overarching theme state-side was Development: infrastructure for economic and population growth; growth for jobs and job security; growth for the ordinary people and their kids, who were the other major Labor target in its pitch around education, and especially technical and further education, which will now be free. If Daniel Andrews won for this message, it must be a moot point as to whether the voter base was progressive in the sense of compassion and rights for others. Rational self-interest, usually meaning that old hip-pocket nerve, likely played a considerable part. In the increasingly densely populated Melbourne and its suburbs, infrastructural and housing development is everywhere palpable: the economy is singing; tradey Melbourne is in heaven: there are jobs, and there’s a future in it—you can feel it. If Andrews was voted back, quite apart from the Liberal leader’s dodgy lunchtime connections and unpopular silverback party fathers, it had something to do with Labor’s record of economic management and promise of prosperity.
While economic management has traditionally been the default virtue of the Liberal Party, Labor has for the last thirty-five years been the optional efficiency brand, with good enough economic credentials, and certainly the progressivist rhetoric that injects hope, especially in circumstances that in truth are a little more hairy than presented. Together with the ‘safety’ offered by a leader like Andrews, who is decent and seems genuinely modest, the problem-solver focus of technocratic Labor seems above board, practical, real. The utilitarian in all Australians is met in Labor—probably in respect of both aspects of the progressive here: progress in social values and via Development.
But is any of the above simply rational, or in what sense rational? Is the progressivist attitude in fact as open as it thinks? What is the role of ‘the future’ in this paradigm, and what does the commitment to development portend?
Before answering these questions, it is worth noting the uniqueness of the Australian Labor Party as a ‘progressive’ party within an Australian polity. There’s no one-to-one translation of ‘progressive’ from the US situation to the Australian, for example, and there could be, or could have been, a number of Australian parties that would be perfectly well placed to be the ‘progressive’ electoral choice given their underlying philosophical commitments: the Liberals, or at least their ‘wet’ strand, if they could dump the Duttonites; the Australian Democrats; the Greens. Labor, however, combines issues of ‘choice’, conscience and identity as add-ons into a deeper labour or more generally collectivist tradition, even if the power of the unions has dissipated and the nature of contemporary capitalism has been radically individualising (viz. identity issues). Labor manages to bring ‘working families’ and the disadvantaged into the fold of a progressivist outlook, and vice versa, both via party structures and in an electoral politics that must connect with diverse claims and needs. In other words, in Australia Labor appears able still to bridge the divide that in so many other places, and especially Trump and Clinton’s America, has set the tone for radically divisive political contestation. Where, in the United States, Trump stands for the people versus the progressives, Australian Labor brings them together, or appears to be able to do so, resting on its broadly left-social credentials.
More specifically liberal traditions, including the US Democrats, grant the individual precedence over the social, or the group—the individual is understood as the originating power in social and economic life. Progressivism in this tradition makes what might be considered a pure claim on the party to represent its legions of difference. Borders, walls and the nation are more likely the reflex counter in this context of always radically open potentiality. But if the collective foundation or ‘group’ that appeals in the United States and many European countries is now the ‘nation’ as counter to such openness, the foundation Labor will conjure is ‘society’. All left-critical parties have been founded in this idea. Unlike the inherently inflammatory ‘nation’, it is a rational concept; capacious in various ways; open to differences of certain kinds yet offering the image and experience of a complex social whole. It also refers to a certain concreteness, whether the established institutions, or community life, or even what experience in family life tells us about how we are not islands unto ourselves.
All the same, this modern (nineteenth/twentieth-century) notion of the social has been creaking for just about the same period as Labor has been proving its economic and technocratic credentials as a neoliberal manager of a globalised Australia. The ‘social’ may still pull us in to vote for ‘Labor decency’, and it is conjured successfully in times of fear and conflict because it also tugs at the heart of what we all hope Labor will be. But this is nevertheless a residual ‘social’, no longer quite the core value or ultimate framework of the party. Indeed where the neoliberal consensus across party lines puts contemporary economy first, and a certain model of the neoliberal individual at its centre, the social itself may be seen as an add-on. A concept of the social or society has certainly been integral with left parties’ success in countering the most barbarous effects of capitalism in the past; and residually it still offers some taming of the neoliberal form. But Labor has not caught up critically at all with the distinctive fissures of the emergent culture and the type and magnitude of the problems it will face.
The claims of identity groups against older forms of social relation may yet prove difficult for Labor, and will continue to bleed it of some of its past constituents. But the most glaring contradiction in the rational-progressivist outlook, and clear in the Andrews win, is in Labor’s total adherence to growth and development. As already noted, this is feel-good policy as well as muscular program. It feels like we’re going somewhere; change is obvious; the future is visible. Despite the often-voiced fears about the pressures of population on city liveability, the much-hated development of inappropriate housing stock in the city and suburbs, and even ‘distant’ signs of economic difficulty globally, we are carried along willingly and implicitly within a well-established cultural logic. Despite the potential total roadblock of climate change and non-retrievable losses through environmental damage, the very cultural logic that has brought us to where we are on these matters is brought into service to solve our problems. It’s so strong an assumption that we can apply rational decision making to any ‘problem’ that even the existential threat of climate change may be managed, we believe and hope, once the right progressive government is in power.
Limits can’t, categorically, be a problem for this outlook. Progress propels us forward; rational decision making approaches problems with an ‘open mind’; means can be found. But what is rational here is no simple procedure applied to reality; rather, a cultural ‘set’ is brought into play. Rationality is not the neutral mind-tool it is usually taken to be. On the one hand neat notions like ‘problems’ and ‘issues’ shape our vision of what is required; what ‘means’ might be available. More, while we all have a certain ‘rational’ capacity, in our cultural setting rationality is an overdetermined cultural paradigm plugged into other dominant values that parade as merely sensible: development for one; high-tech ‘solutions’ another. In other words, rational progressivism, which offers open-ended possibilities, carries its own limits, and hides them exceptionally well. In the case of climate change, it suggests that we can have more of the same—consumption lifestyles, development-led prosperity—without having to change anything fundamentally: new means will fix it. That ‘progressive’ itself might be a value and a limit to our thinking and being does not surface.
As I have been suggesting, everything about the term ‘progressive’ rings positivity. And this is no mere linguistic logic, for it resonates with and against centuries of Enlightenment struggle and assumption. We still get in progressivist rhetoric today the same sense of dragging the old societies into the light—those old social relations, for instance, that seem in this paradigm to be built on no more than prejudice or backwardness, rather than being constituted in different worlds. The light of the Enlightenment was of course rationality itself. Progress is a tight complex of interrelated ideas that in combination with capitalist expansionism and technocratic problem-solving shape our practical worlds so almost thoroughly. In our world today where an older left progressive outlook is combined with Development as a primary value, the notion of the social itself is superseded. The uber-logic of development, with its utter confidence in the rational, punches a hole through the fabric of established social relations and promises a breaching that is uncontainable.