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News from nowhere: on Labor’s leadership woes

Who was the Left candidate in Labor’s leadership clash yesterday? Who was the candidate of the Right?

Such questions – the customary starting point for any political stoush – no longer even get raised in reference to the ALP. How could they be? Here was a challenge in which, like a scene from Alice in Wonderland, each contender stood to the Right of the other. Remember, the replacement of Rudd by Gillard came about as a rightward lurch, meant to mitigate the effects of an anti-Labor push by mining bosses, while Crean’s misfire was spurred, in part, by concern that Gillard had unwisely picked a fight with media tycoons, an issue on which the new Rudd team would presumably have retreated.

It’s easy to say that the ALP no longer believes in ideas; that if the party’s become a car that only steers rightward, that’s because whoever’s behind the wheel cares only about poll numbers. Certainly, yesterday’s fiasco would not have played out in the absence the obvious disparity between Gillard’s abysmal figures and the supposed popularity of Rudd, just as Gillard’s ascension depended on Labor’s backroom geniuses finding Rudd’s polling intolerable.

Yet the common assertion that modern Labor lacks conviction can’t really be sustained. On the contrary, the ALP, at least at its parliamentary level, stands more philosophically unified than ever before. Three decades ago, the Left of the party presented, however equivocally, a wide-ranging set of policies: a critique of the US alliance, an opposition to uranium mining, a commitment to nationalisation of key industries, hostility to private schools, and so on. If you consult Dr Google, you can find documents from Socialist Forum, the caucus to which Gillard once belonged, on various rightwing blogs, where they’re presented as proof that she represents the red menace creeping its way into power. Of course, their significance is entirely otherwise. What those old typewritten tracts remind us is that, as late as the mid-1980s, an ambitious Labor careerist might still describe herself as dedicated to ‘fostering socialist development.’

But that’s all archaeological now. Today, every serious Labor player endorses free market economics, the American alliance and all the rest of the rightwing agenda that the Labor Left once existed to challenge. If there’s no discussion of these positions, it’s not because they’re not deeply held. On the contrary, they’re now simply taken for granted, so much so that debate becomes superfluous.

With the contenders in furious agreement, the arguments over leadership take place on a quite different basis.

Think, for instance, of Labor in NSW, a state in which the ALP seems less a family than The Family, in the Sicilian sense of that term. But even after the exposure of great chunks of the party as a kind of matey kleptocracy, the recriminations takes place via vicious feuds over arcane personalised wrongs, since no-one’s prepared to challenge the NSW Right’s almost theological devotion to neoliberal economics (especially since Bob Carr, the high priest of that particular church, has become foreign minister).

Indeed, because the philosophies of the Right are now both everywhere accepted and nowhere discussed inside Labor, the response to the party’s problems become ever more bizarre. Who, for instance, would have imagined the reinvention of Mark Latham (!) as the ALP’s conscience, as per this extraordinary spray against Graham Richardson and sundry Rudd backers. Then again, Latham’s recent Quarterly Essay illustrates how deeply ideas once associated with fringe neo-liberal thinktanks percolate inside Labor, with the essay laying out a program for renewal that entails breaking ties with the union movement, abandoning any lingering doubts about the market and dispersing the poor from their suburbs. It’s the My Lai approach to internal reform – destroying the party so as to save it. Yet it illustrates how much the intellectual centre of gravity remains on the Right. Certainly, you couldn’t imagine a manifesto of equal daring coming from the Labor Left.

One of the more striking aspects of yesterday’s challenge was how much Laborism has defined the terms of its own reception. The philosophical uniformity within today’s ALP means that spectators end up viewing such contests in an oddly personalised frame, with Twitter yesterday dividing its time between berating the media for its obsession with the leadership, and then updating every few seconds with annotations about the fortunes of Team JG and the Ruddinator.

The leadership question has been settled now. But as Tom Waits says somewhere: ‘The large print giveth, and the small print taketh away.’ For why did Labor even think of going back to Rudd, an act akin to the proverbial dog returning to its vomit? Does not the very consideration of re-installing Rudd proclaim a lack of other options? What if Labor’s problems stem not from personalities but rather from politics – in particular, a set of politics that’s entirely shared by all the available candidates? In that case, you can re-arrange the deckchairs however you like but you’re still sailing on the Titanic.

Politics doesn’t have to be like this. It hasn’t been like this in the past; it needn’t be like this in the future. An obvious point but worth stressing, in the face of what Orwell once identified as ‘the instinct to bow down before the conqueror of the moment, to accept the existing trend as irreversible’.

Certainly, parliamentary politics seems particularly woeful at the moment, with an Abbott victory now more likely than ever. But the dispiriting antics playing out in Canberra don’t represent the sum total of possibilities. Rather, we’re seeing a particular set of political choices reaching their depressing conclusion. It’s never been more important to start discussing alternatives.

Jeff Sparrow is the editor of Overland. He is the co-author (with Jill Sparrow) of Radical Melbourne: A Secret History and Radical Melbourne 2: The Enemy Within, the editor (with Antony Loewenstein) of Left Turn: Essays for the New Left and the author of Communism: a love story, Killing: Misadventures in violence, and Money Shot: A Journey into Censorship and Porn.  On Twitter, he's @Jeff_Sparrow.

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  1. It’s not just the Labor Party. It’s a symptom of our society. I’ve started reading Death of the Liberal Class, by Chris Hedges. A very good read so far.

  2. I don’t think I entirely agree.

    We need to go back to what the ALP Left represented materially, not just in terms of alternative ideas and policy positions, but in terms of real social interests. The ALP has always been the party of the trade union bureaucracy wanting to influence and/or run the Australian capitalist state. The factions used to be a somewhat rigid and distorted expression of the various component parts of the workers’ movement, some more radical than others but normally quite conservative in their institutional form. Therefore the tensions between the Right and Left reflected real differences in reformist strategy — from the most cravenly pro-employer (e.g. the old AWU) to the most radical (e.g. the Victorian Left unions in the 1960s and 70s).

    The Rudd-Gillard battles reflect a different tension now that the social base of Laborism has been so dramatically weakened and hollowed out: The tension between the old power bases located in what is left of the ALP’s industrial and political wings on the one hand, and a minority who want to follow a more determinedly Blairite path of detaching the political class entirely from that withered base so as be freer to win elections through different kinds of appeals to different social groupings.

    You’re correct not to want to choose between them, but I think we need to go further and see that most of the Left beyond the ALP thinks that backing Gillard is the more progressive option, even as they watch her grouping destroy the party in order to save their power bases. There is a polemic to be had against this because it seeks to reconstruct a degenerate version of the old, instutionalised, labour-capital, Left-Right set-up of Australian politics. Yet simply by asking the question of whether such a reconstruction is possible we should be clear there is no social basis for it to happen right now, and as Marxists we wouldn’t want it to either.

    Therefore, while it is true that, “Politics doesn’t have to be like this. It hasn’t been like this in the past”, we shouldn’t look to the past for a model, and nor should we be invested in trying to defend that model as it gasps desperately for air. Yes, that model provided an institutional basis for working class representation in the state, but it also systematically subordinates independent class politics to the state. The old model of the radical Left defending the ALP as being “at least organically tied to the working class” doesn’t have the same meaning when you also have a more left-wing Greens party and the breakdown of the ALP’s old supports.

    So when you say “it needn’t be like this in the future” we need to think about what that means. What is the truly new thing we can build, because it is not likely the old can be rebuilt?

    In that sense, looking to the unravelling of the old political orders in places like Spain or Greece may help us understand better what is really at stake for us on the Left.

    • That unravelling is in the context of a catastrophic economic crisis which has exposed the idea of managing capitalism for the folly that it is. Not every nation wishes to be so lucky, as it were.

      • But the origins of the Spanish and Greek social democratic meltdowns lies in a longer period of hollowing out of their social bases that has been common across the neoliberal era in the West. We just haven’t had “part two” (the economic crisis exacerbating the process) and so it is more obvious here what “part one” was all about.

          • Well, I don’t think the crisis has really solved it for the Left there either — but the key factor making solutions possible has been the rise of social resistance (more coherently in Greece, but also in Spain, much less effectively in Italy).

            The problem is that even many of the new Left political forces are either anti-political (as the Indignados movement was, at least initially) or drawn by the lure of “better” Left governmentality (as Syriza is proving to be). Nevertheless, the resistance also creates the possibility of clear independent politics — based on the agency of mass movements from below but unafraid to engage with the concentration of politics in the state — to emerge.

            The substrate for such politics is certainly present in Australia. I learned a lot from what Jeff said at the Sydney launch of Left Turn. He posed the current political situation as not Left/Right but outsider/insider. We have to find a way to mobilise the outsiders, with their understandable hatred of the political class. The tragedy of the Greens in recent years is that they went from building an outsider politics (however problematic and limited) to seeking to direct their supporters to passively back their newfound insider status.

    • “most of the Left beyond the ALP thinks that backing Gillard is the more progressive option, even as they watch her grouping destroy the party in order to save their power bases.”

      Where does this come from? Is it the ghost of the Socialist Forum? Genuine question, because it’s quite bewildering to me that she can be seen as the more progressive option (insofar as there is much at all progressive about either candidate) and I can’t fathom why.

      • I think her image as being closer to the old Left and the unions is part of it, but more important has been the fact the Greens gave her political cover for two-and-a-half years (and still back her over Rudd). She gave them access to government, Rudd didn’t. This has had a massive impact on disorienting Left politics down the path of govermentality.

        Some on the Marxist Left say “a plague on both their houses” but from a standpoint of “we refuse to engage seriously with really existing politics”. The latest article by Ben Hillier on the SAlt website gives you an idea of this approach, of seeing “real Left politics” as not at all engaging with how actual politics is centred on the capitalist state. Therefore it misses the way the contradictions in the ALP project are playing out, instead favouring an eternally correct but abstract “reform/revolution” framework.

        • (I’ll answer here because I can’t above – too nested)

          A political movement that begins with drawing out the excluded – what Mana Party leader Hone Harawira calls the poor and the disenfranchised (regrettably I forget the Maori phrase) – is what gets my vote at this point precisely because it starts by defining the social group it seeks to materially represent, and is always explicit about this aim.

    • Hi Tad,
      Thanks for the comment.
      If it came across as suggesting that we need to rebuild the Left factions inside the ALP, that wasn’t the intention. The piece wasn’t supposed to be a programmatic thing so much as a response to the widespread support for Gillard on social media by leftists who back her along the lines articulated in Anne Summers’ recent Age piece — basically, well, of course, she’s not perfect and I don’t agree with her policies on refugees/NT intervention/gay marriage/etc, etc but she’s the best thing going, so what are you going to do?
      It seems to me that the lack of political options has been so totally internalised that it’s no longer perceived as a lack, so that decrying the absence of a Left comes across almost like decrying our absence of wings. Hence there seems some value in reminding people that, not so very long ago, it was perfectly mainstream for Labor members to be anti-nuclear and pro-natioanlisation, not cos that option’s necessarily available today but as a reminder that there are options.

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