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Hatred of politics (and a complicated bereavement)

If anything has marked this election campaign, it’s the detached way that much of the Left outside the ALP has treated Labor’s performance and the likelihood it will lose. In Overland on Wednesday, Michael Brull summed the feeling up well, arguing that, ‘For a leftist, what hope can there be for an election? Either the ALP will win, or the Coalition will. On leftist issues, the results will be disastrous.’ In another Overland post, Tom Clark argued that things have gotten so bad on the Labor side that it deserved to be thrown out of office.

These sentiments can be found not just among those who, like Brull, were scathing of Gillard on a range of issues and have continued to be under Rudd. The Greens, who were supportive of the previous PM’s achievements, now seem unwilling to wholeheartedly back the ALP against Abbott, instead campaigning on constraining him once he has already won. Even many fanatically partisan ALP backers under Gillard seem to have sunk into half-hearted support for their party, accepting the inevitability of defeat despite the relative closeness of the polls.

It is the reasons for this rapid shift from partisan frenzy to sullen resignation on the Left that I want to address. Few have openly acknowledged it, and when they have it has tended to be explained away in terms of Rudd’s great policy betrayals, especially on asylum, which make him no better than Abbott. Yet any honest accounting would acknowledge that Rudd’s policies are not qualitatively worse than Gillard’s, and that (as Brull points out) the ALP’s record has been awful – and awfully close to the Coalition’s – on very many issues for a long time now.

Something else must be going on.

The real problem for the Left is that we are seeing the eclipse of a century-long era institutionalisation of politics around a rigid Right/Left axis. Further, Rudd’s project of directly attacking the remnants of labourism (that is, the organised intervention of the trade union bureaucracy in official politics) has created a situation where the traditional reference points are no longer there to orient more radical political projects. Those political foundations – which found expression in distinctive ideologies, policies and organisational forms inside the working-class and social movements – have not only been hollowed out but, with Rudd’s return, are missing in action.

With labourism exhausted, the old Left–Right battles now no longer seem to have the same relevance. They become the object of a kind of complicated bereavement, in which the Gillard interregnum was merely a transitional phase of anger, denial and bargaining, all to no avail.

Three main reactions to this have started to crystallise on the Left, usually connected with one another. These are at best inadequate and at worst wrong responses, as I outline below: the Left can pose a real alternative only if it faces up to what is actually happening politically.

The first response has been to blame ordinary people for the mess. This has been clearest when it comes to asylum seekers, where much of the Left has characterised Rudd’s PNG deal as an electoral move in response to cruel/racist/alienated swinging voters. As I (and others) have pointed out, there is little evidence of the issue shifting voting intentions, or of Rudd believing it does. But such a belief tempts Leftists into posing themselves as morally superior to the bulk of voters, separating themselves from those who disagree with them and scolding them for their ignorance, as with the Greens’ ‘Not With My Vote’ campaign, which rails against everyone but the already converted.

The second response has seen a lapse into a kind of impotent nostalgia for when politics was ‘better’. In this version what is sought is some kind of revival of the old arrangement where bosses and workers each had their own party, their own representation, however imperfect. This kind of thinking has even led some Marxists to suggest that the ALP tradition they have spent years excoriating actually had a heroic element that is now lost:

The key problem is that, even though Labor in its early years was ostracised from the political establishment, it was from its very inception a party that saw social change as coming through parliament. This didn’t mean that it was never capable of resisting the pressure to accommodate to the big business interests and the media which dominate the parliamentary arena. But as the years went on and Labor governments were elected, it got itself into the disastrously compromising business of running Australian capitalism.

Given that labourism, from its very inception, acted to politically incorporate the working class into the capitalist state, such claims are revisionist to say the least. Australian labourism was not just a particularly conservative and un-ideological version of social democratic reformism; it championed the three key planks of the Australian ruling-class program for most of last century: economic protectionism, industrial arbitration and White Australia. Most importantly, such nostalgic reimagining cannot be translated into practice, simply because the material basis for labourism no longer exists.

The third response has been a retreat into a kind of movementism. Brull puts it thus: ‘In short, we must fight on non-election days too … We must fight, we must organise, and we must force change.’ A more conservative variant of this argument is that of the ACTU leadership, which unenthusiastically supports Labor’s re-election but seems keener to simply push on with its own campaigns around precarious work. A more radical version, on the other hand, counterposes ‘real politics’ that ‘is about struggle’ to ‘slogans worked out through focus groups’.

There is no question that the weakness of social resistance to the political establishment is a major problem for the Left. But there is no royal road to political success through the return of mass struggle. The last fifteen years has been punctuated by major struggles against governments, never more so than with Australia’s biggest-ever protests – against the Iraq War. Yet each time they dissolved with no clear left-wing political alternative coalescing (with the partial and contradictory exception of the Greens). What is missing in such conceptions is what kind of political alternative is needed to deal with the very specific circumstances where the old reference points have lost most of their social basis. The problem is not that the depressing state of affairs in Canberra is not ‘real politics’ but that this is what real politics is today.

Each of these three responses essentially clings to the old, decaying political order, whether through hopes for its rehabilitation, imagining a movementist space within its structures, or via moral elitism reminiscent of that which animated traditional social democracy. The result is a tendency to see the Left’s prospects as dismal, because the official Left’s decay is seen as proof of the limited possibilities for a more radical politics. And the crisis of official politics is therefore seen – paradoxically – as a negative rather than an opportunity.

It is here that understanding the contradictions of Ruddism is so crucial. Rudd grasped more than any other politician of his generation that official politics cannot be renovated on the same social basis as before. By using anti-politics – positioning himself as working over the heads of an exhausted political class, rejecting its ideological argy-bargy as part of an irrelevant ‘old politics’ – he was able to maintain unprecedented levels of popularity for three years, two of them as prime minister. In that time he saw off three Liberal leaders. It was only when he was convinced to drop his climate agenda as a matter of political expediency (by the very people who would soon overthrow him) that he started to look like just another member of the political class he had attacked.

Rudd’s return just two months ago revealed how much the ALP’s electoral survival depended on spurning its traditions, and the first weeks of his second prime ministership once again showed the political efficacy of his unique ability to trash the political order he presided over. Yet it seems that once the campaign started (earlier than Rudd seemed to want it to, apparently under pressure from a twitchy party machine) Rudd pulled back from continuing to drive that message home. I disagree with Guy Rundle that the problem was that anti-politics is hard to do from government; Rudd managed it just fine in 2007–09. But anti-politics is high-risk in an election campaign coming from behind, and Rudd fell into playing the part of post-politics technocrat rather than anti-politics avenger. Ironically Rudd’s timidity on this score has allowed Abbott’s claims that he is just another ALP politician to have some effect. It is telling that Rudd blames his own abandonment of emissions trading in 2010 on the Liberals and Greens rather than admitting it was a mistake he made under pressure from the recalcitrants in his own party.

The flipside of the crisis of politics is a detachment from, bitterness towards, and hatred of politicians and politics. Thus, if Rudd loses it will not be because Abbott’s outdated (if incoherent) right-wing agenda has found favour with large numbers of voters – but because Rudd has failed to carry through the political project he promised. Today people vote much more against, rather than for, politicians and governments. It is this that led to historically high levels of informal votes, abstention and non-enrolment in 2010. It lies behind why many young people have not enrolled this year, and why so many Australians (especially young people) report suspicion of democracy:

For the second year in a row, the annual Lowy Institute Poll has found that less than half of 18-29-year old Australians … choose the statement ‘Democracy is preferable to any other kind of government’ when presented with three options about forms of government and asked to say which one comes ‘closest to (their) own personal views about democracy’.

How this crisis of authority plays out at the top and bottom of society is the central dividing line in Australian politics today, more important than the ossified Right-Left divisions that Abbott seems intent on being the last committed practitioner of. The key division is between an insider political establishment and the millions of people who feel shut out of political life; to whom the old ideological fixations are a symptom of the problems they face, not a solution. For the Left outside the ALP to orient around those old divisions therefore makes little sense and risks dragging us into further debacles like the Greens’ alliance with Gillard, which served to prop up unpopular neoliberal governance rather than mobilise opposition to it, and saw many on the Left complaining that the government’s record was being ignored by an ungrateful electorate. It means recognising the progressive element in the popular hatred of politics and not being seduced by the idea that we need to return to a time where official politics had greater authority.

The Left’s lapse into a form of ‘plague on both their houses’ arguments is another phase of an unresolved grief reaction, in which a positive alternative cannot be imagined because there is not yet a coming to terms with the loss of the old institutions, let alone the possibilities of radical rupture that loss opens up. Whoever wins the election, the political order will remain unstable and open to challenge because of its weak social foundations. The question is whether we can take advantage of that reality or find ourselves stuck wishing it wasn’t happening.

 

Comments

  1. So Brull isn’t enthusiastic enough about the PM’s genius … and that somehow means he doesn’t relate to the mistrust of official politics. If only he had been more appreciative of Rudd, he would have, somehow, related to this mood which manifests itself as ‘a detachment from, bitterness towards, and hatred of politicians and politics’.
    You criticise everyone else for saying the result of the election isn’t important – and then you conclude that ‘whoever wins the election the political order will remain unstable’.
    Brull is wrong for arguing ‘we must fight, we must organise, and we must force change.’ But you say there is ‘no question that the weakness of social resistance to the political establishment is a major problem for the Left.’
    You insist that the left has failed to outline a new kind political alternative – but then you don’t outline one either.
    It is really just a big troll, isn’t it!

  2. I wouldn’t have put it as snarkily as rankanfilist but I did have a somewhat similar response. In particular, I really don’t get what you are arguing about Rudd. As I’ve said in previous exchanges, I do find your characterisation of Rudd as the embodiment of anti-politics, such that he’s fundamentally different from all other politicians, quite unconvincing, cos most of the examples provided are of acts or statements that the majority of the population paid very little attention at all. To the journalists on the couch on Insiders, he no doubt seems like a bull in a china shop tearing down the foundation of politics but to most voters (largely indifferent to the battles inside the ALp), I suspect Rudd seems entirely akin to every other weightless politician, which is why his popularity has (as predicted) slumped so quickly.
    But even accepting your thesis, what follows from it? You seem to be criticising both Michael and Tom for being insufficiently appreciative of Rudd, which seems quite odd. If the main division is, as you say, between insiders and outsiders, well, Michael’s attitude seems pretty well attuned with the popular sentiment. Certainly, it’s hard to see how the Left could capitalise on the hostility to politicians you describe by appearing enthusiastic about Ruddism.
    As for struggle being insufficient, well, sure I agree with that. It’s necessary but not sufficient — and if some articles don’t stress the ‘not sufficient part’, that’s understandable, since they are mostly not putting forward a full program so much as pointing out the necessity for activism. (Which is how I read Michael.)
    Finally, in terms of the political project that would turn this potential struggle into something more durable, I agree we need something new. But what? What form might this take? What arguments are central, for the tiny Left that now exists to make gains? Despite its polemical sharpness, your article doesn’t give much of a sense what you are arguing here. But I think that would make the basis of an interesting discussion.

    • I don’t think Rudd is the “embodiment of anti-politics”. Anti-politics is a political method or strategy that politicians (and not just Rudd) use. What is unusual about him is that he has used it successfully from a very powerful position (opposition leader and prime minister) and for extended periods of time. Far from arguing that Rudd is “fundamentally different from all other politicians”, I have spent some space in this post pointing to his inability/unwillingness to pursue the anti-politics consistently. I think there are a number of reasons for this, but I didn’t want to make an already long post longer by detailing them here.

      The people on the couch on Insiders and most other MSM journalists have never come to grips with the sources of Rudd’s popularity, or why it collapsed, and nor have they really understood the decline of the social basis for labourism and the two-party political system. In fact they spend a lot of time making excuses for politicians as a group and the political system, and rarely canvass issues regarding the material structure of politics.

      In large part this is because they refuse to accept the idea that 30 years of neoliberal governance has been anything other than a massive political success. Much of the Left in its own way tends to accept this idea also, making claims about the fundamental changes to social relations wrought by marketisation and commodification, or the deep ideological power of free market belief. So what you tend to see is a denial that there is a crisis of politics — it’s always a crisis of personalities, or problems with the media, or a policy problem, or a loss of meaning, or whatever. But the fundamental political structures that rule over us are portrayed as robust and for all intents and purposes eternal.

      I’m not asking either Michael or Tom to be positive about Rudd, if that’s what you mean by being “appreciative”. It should be clear that I think he has failed the fulfil the promise of his return to the top job. But I do think we need to be attentive to why and how he has been able to play a role, however temporarily, in addressing and attacking the problems of the political establishment.

      If we are to be honest about it, the radical Left has tended to write Rudd off — even in his first, wildly popular, three years — and wait for him to fall to earth. It was almost as if nothing needed to be explained. At the Keep Left conference we attended a few weeks ago the same problem emerged. Few could put their fingers on Rudd’s record. In much the same way, the British far Left made a lot of predictions that Blairism would be a right-wing flash in the pan, but in fact the Blairite project was incredibly successful against its opponents until the Iraq fiasco.

      The Greens were completely at sea trying to find a way to break through in 2007-10 also. I know because I was heavily involved and the incomprehension about Rudd was astounding (at that time I was unclear and felt frustrated that I couldn’t come up with a convincing explanation).

      The point I’m making is that if all we do is wait for the political class to fail we never try to understand why it is able to outmanoeuvre us the rest of the time. Building an alternative hegemonic politics (c.f. building defensive, piecemeal resistance to attacks from above) requires more than cynicism about the politicians or the state. It requires the ability to pose an alternative that turns the hatred of politics into a creative force, one that people can sense has the potential to liberate them from the shackles of the current set-up. Many people now disappointed with Rudd saw him as someone who could save the country for the interminable dog days of the Howard era (including the interminable exhaustion of the ALP).

      A few people seem to want me to put some kind of formed alternative here. I don’t think that is the prerequisite for criticising the way that much of the Left clings to the old political order, and for how that blocks even starting to think about what a new project could look like, one that could shape social resistance in a progressive direction.

      If we’re going to develop a radical anti-state politics then we’re going to have to understand how the enemy acts to govern and rule over us. That’s kind of all I’m saying (and have been saying). But most of the Left seems to think things are just going to go on much as before. In my view this reflects a worrying fatalism and passivity.

  3. For mine, the leftist malaise you describe so well, which is where I sit too, is more one of bemusement than anything, and I’m quite happy to wait for something more transformative to come along. Political alternatives can’t simply be manufactured and remain genuine, I suspect, and latching onto Rudd in a positive way sure doesn’t cut it with me.

  4. I get wary of questions on what should be done when there is clearly no agreement on what the problem is in the first place. To me it just looks like evasion.

    The Rudd phenomenon may be over, but his popularity (and indeed its decline) that has dominated Australian politics for the last seven years surely needs to be explained, especially as it cannot be within the normal left-right framework.

    Otherwise describing what is happening now is left to such spurious explanations as power of the media or worse, strength of right wing ideology. These may be comforting reasons for those who think they’re immune, but would make what’s coming next inexplicable. And if you don’t understand what is happening, how would you know what to do?

    • there may be no agreement on what the problem is, but we clearly have a stated opinion on the nature of the problem (or problems), from someone who is obviously highly educated, politically astute, & has spent an apparently lengthy amount of time in analysing and deliberating on the problem.

      as such, i too share a desire to see this kind of analysis & insight given some kind of greater significance, through some kind of discussion as to what kind of form positive, “alternative action” could be taken, & how it might be orgainised… by & with those of us this type of analysis (the proles?) is ultimately hoping & seeking to engage.

      or do i simply see this a self perpetuating academic naval gazing of a very highly evolved order?

  5. A few things are referenced in the article which explicitly point to a difference in the positioning and activity of the left. Refugees, the election, etc. You can only write so much in one post, but the OP signposts a fair bit. More importantly, there are a few key ideas in the OP which I think would be fruitful for the left to discuss and investigate further. One is the much tighter conception of Laborism that is involved (and articulated further elsewhere in Tad’s recent stuff) – which I think has real explanatory power and quite superior to other accounts of the ALP I’ve encountered in terms of informing what you can do. The second is the crisis of politics in Australia, and its obverse the growth of the appeal of anti-politics (providing the basis of a specific account of Rudd’s odd role). The third being the significance of the absence of a strong left current *with something coherent to say about what is going on*. It follows that unless you have a body of people who see the value of and are engaged in the process of having something relevant to say about what is going on, it is completely irrelevant what organisation or activity you propose. Hence the starting point is a discussion about what is going on.

  6. Isn’t Rudd’s a specifically *Insider* anti-politics (vs ALP Labourism, for ‘A New Way’ vs old Left-Right factionalism)? As such it was always going to have rather limited appeal to the more general ‘anti-politics’ evidenced in the disengagement from politics by the young, abstention, non-enrolment, widespread cynicism etc. This sort of chronic disenchantment with politics seems to me much more fertile ground for a Beppe Grillo, or worse, than for either Rudd or the Left.

    • Rudd might be an insider in terms of his origins in the bureaucratic state elite, but he has long been an outsider to politics; distrusted and disliked by his own party. He actually had massive appeal to many who had disengaged from politics, including young people. And for a long time — as Piping Shrike notes, Rudd has dominated Australian politics for seven years.

  7. point form reply. not sure i said what you think i said, or not in that article anyway –

    the question is what you think has gone, that yr mourning. some possibilities, not exclusive

    1) the western working class, unified in interest and class character, large enough to demand and get a significant degree of social ownership of production? definitely gone, in Oz in classic form. quite aside from any false consciousness, divided in its interest by privileged position in global system, and against itself by personal capital investments – home ownership, super etc.

    2) an expanded notion of the working class as all wage earners. too broad to sustain a single movement, and different forms of work/habitus form different worldviews/subjectivities eg labour/greens/pirates/socialist [n.b. socialist product not available in all areas]

    3) a labourist programme of social ownership and management? disappears from the political imagination when a level of wages above subsistence is consistently delivered, and other alternatives – time trade off etc – have been deferred, for complex economic/cultural reasons.

    4) a strong social democratic programme of social economic control, decommodification of areas of life, ends-steered decision – ie climate change – distributed social power etc?

    The thumbnail sketch of why the politics you want has disappeared might be: sectional advantage in western societies and atomisation of social life in both western and developing societies ie theres no socialist movement in china either.

    The possible answers: 1) it re-emerges quite suddenly in crisis situations, 2) marxism was as it turned out a theory of long durees and determinist system evolution not of decisive ntervention, and leninism gave an illusion of possibility that lasted for a century. politics in long interim periods will be stuff of mild reform. 3) nothing much was ever possible and a mixed social market system will only be transformed by tec change – robotics, 3d printing, ultra-automation – that destroys the value form of capitalism.

    is yr bereavement in other words of a real person, or an imaginary one – a much beloved character in book, or an online connection which turns out to be a practical joke.

    after all, the right/left thing didnt die. the right won and the left is now the politics of the minimum program. once that is accepted, left victories can be seen as quite substantial on their own terms, and laments in the manner of michael b a case of applying the wrong frame.
    G

    gr

    • Hi Guy. Will get back to you with a more detailed response later. Just quickly, the bit of your Crikey piece I was referring to was this:

      “When Rudd returned he seemed to be willing to, as Tad Tietze has noted, try anti-politics again, present himself as the man of the people beyond all that palaver, the only guy who could keep the crazy Labor Party under control. That was abandoned early, probably because it can’t be sustained from government.”

  8. I don’t think this argument has the explanatory power that you guys think it does. Leaving aside Rudd’s first term for the moment (although it’s worth noting, given all this talk of anti-politics, that much of the Kevin 07 phenomenon was devoted to reassuring voters of continuity rather than change, with Rudd repeatedly identifying himself as a social and economic conservative devoted to not rocking the boat, in a way that scarcely sits with this notion of an anti-politician tearing down conventional structures), what is the mystery that needs to be solved about recent events? Because of the inability of neoliberal politicians to deliver reforms, there’s a general tendency for incumbents to become steadily more unpopular, even broadly despised, as we saw with Gillard. During that process, Rudd was positioned as the ‘road not taken’, simultaneously in the parliament (and in the public eye) but not held responsible for the failings of the government, and able to present himself as a nebulously-defined alternative that was illegitimately cut short by Gillard’s treachery. In that context, there was nothing particularly surprising about his popularity relative to Gillard.
    Nor was there anything mysterious about the bounce he received once he returned. Abbott has never been popular, and, compared to the novelty of a revived Rudd, he appeared like the incumbent — the politician who had been in the job for ages and of whom voters were already heartily sick.
    What happened then? Rudd set about neutralising all the issues identified as problem areas in the traditional Laborite way — that is, by rightwing lurches cooked up on the fly, much in the manner adopted by Gillard when she took over from him.
    Entirely unsurprisingly, it’s worked about as well now as it did then, with the gloss slowly but steadily coming off Rudd’s polling and that of the party as a whole.
    I agree that politics today is very unstable and anything might still happen but at present it looks very much like Labor’s heading for a devastating loss.
    What about this is surprising?
    What worries me about the ‘anti-politics’ thesis is that it takes the (correct) point that politicians can tap into the widespread cynicism and hostility to politics, and transforms it into the key to all mysteries. The polemical tone in Tad’s piece seems to suggest that accepting this argument is central to a revival of the Left’s fortunes, which is why, I think, so many people have pushed him to explain exactly what it is that the Left should be doing.
    IMO, given the state the Left’s in now, I’m very suspicious of claims that an analysis of mainstream politics makes much difference, if only because it’s not a terrain on which the Left’s currently capable of contending. That is, even if this argument had any predictive powers (which I don’t think it does), what would then follow for a Left that’s entirely relegated to the fringe? I am not saying that understanding the shape of mainstream politics is not important, because obviously it is, just that one needs to have a realistic idea of what is possible from where we are at.
    Yes, the Greens have suffered from the perception they’re no longer outside the tent and have become insider politicians in their own right. I agree totally with Tad about that.
    But it’s not a particularly controversial argument, on the far Left at least.
    Again, that’s why, I think, people have pushed Tad to outline what he thinks should be done differently. As I said, most people on the far Left are entirely on board with an outsider project — that was how I took Brull’s argument about the need for campaigning. The main difference here seems to be about what political shape into which such campaigning needs to cohere. But the argument about Rudd doesn’t provide much guidance, since it’s most unlikely that the far Left’s going to be able to mount any kind of electoral challenge any time soon.
    So why then this polemical differentiation?
    Marc says that the way forward involves the creation of ‘a strong ;eft current *with something coherent to say about what is going on*.’ But that’s the nub, isn’t it!
    _Everyone_ is for a strong Left current — but the implication here seems to be that a strong explanation of the fortunes of Rudd versus Gillard will somehow generate it.
    That seems like a fantasy to me. Obviously, having a coherent explanation of the political situation is better than not having a coherent explanation. But even if the account being put forward had the explanatory power that you guys think (which, obviously, is something of which I am scpetical) what exactly would happen then? How would it conjure a new Left into existence? Actually, the far Left has repeatedly put forward a far more coherent explanation of world events than other political currents and that in itself has meant nothing. Had the predictions made about Rudd’s return been correct, well, what would have happened then? How would articulating this analysis have led to a practice fundamentally different from that of anyone else on the left?
    IMO there’s an impatience that underlies this analysis, a frustration with where the Left’s at that’s not very helpful. At it’s worst, the argument occasionally comes across as a kind of left Ruddism, with Rudd cheered on as a proxy for the missing mass Left organisation. More often, though, it just seems like a stick with which to beat others, without providing any alternative.

    • Hi Jeff!

      My emphasis on explanatory power was actually in reference to the understanding Laborism specifically, (though more tentatively I’d say the same thing about many of the propositions Tad has advanced). It is connected to, but not the same thing as, the analysis of the crisis of politics and anti-politics. Which is connected to but not the same thing as the more immediate commentary about what Rudd’s manoeuvrings represent in terms of attempts to outflank both Abbott *and the left*. I’d encourage you to try to tackle some of this on its individual merits, rather than at the level of some ‘keystone’ crux moment in the whole thing. If we set ourselves the task of figuring out everything at once we’d never get anywhere.

      (And for gods sake, can we give up on the straw Rudd Is Great person? Pointing out what Rudd has been/has been trying to do has got very little to do with supporting him. We can surely recognise effective manoeuvres and learn from them even when they come from our enemies.)

      In relation to Laborism specifically, there are a range of different theories about its social basis, historical formation, how it works, and how you relate to it. This is true even within the far left grouposcules. The forms that the left broadly defined have adopted in Australia, both in organisation and in argumentation, have all grown up in the shadow of Laborism. We have to a greater extent than we are willing to admit defined ourselves in relation to Labor, and many of our assumptions about what to do presuppose certain things about the way the ALP and its supporters are likely to act. This is true even of the Greens.

      And if indeed, something epochal is happening with Laborism, we need to understand what this is, why it is happening, and what it is likely to mean for working class politics. This will likely have significant impacts on the effectiveness of certain forms of argument or practices. Not to mention that the transition itself may present opportunities that failing to analytically understand it will condemn us to miss. Hence more than ever a sharp critical look at our assumptions in this area is necessary (and this would be true even if those forms and assumptions were all correct yesterday, which I’d contend that they weren’t).

      Speaking of the far left, I’d argue we’ve been both sloppy and lazy on this. Sloppy in that we’ve elided backwards and forwards from distinct concepts like Laborism and Social-Democracy, which in practice are derived from quite different contexts, that only loosely describe the similar things (bourgeois workers parties). There are important concrete differences which change the way the common features play out, and beyond simple classification the utility of a theory of the ALP that general is dubious. But by sliding all over the shop, we’ve covered over the fact that we’ve never actually elaborated a decent fully worked out theory of the formation and development of Australia’s main political party, and the predominant influence in Australia’s working class. You can’t seriously argue that that failure in the realm of theory is unconnected to the left’s inability to make serious inroads in winning workers away from Labor on an explicitly left wing basis.

      I’m a bit bemused and by the reception these arguments get. The bulk of political people engage with the cut and thrust of contemporary politics, but are reluctant to engage in more serious theoretical discussions. Even among activists this bias is broadly true. Yet among my far left associates, the bias is inverted. They’ll talk about the nuts and bolts of debates in the Second International as if they were happening around them, while remaining sublimely oblivious the actual chop chop of today. So the first group is actually heartened by a bunch of Marxists and other lefties writing something from within our tradition about the events of today. The second group sees us engaging in some cute journalistic project at best, and a call to liquidation (or Ruddism) at worst. I’d chalk it up as an oddity and move on, but I think there’s something lurking underneath it which is quite dangerous.

      Not arguing out a more immediate analysis of the situation is simply making your active theory implied, rather than explict. We all act on some notion about what is happening that is far more specific than “surplus value extraction” or “class struggle”. The only difference is the extent to which we make it explicit, rigorous, useful and continuously improve it. If you don’t articulate your active theory, your ideas which are explicit are separated from the ideas that guide your action in practice. You end up acting on a kind of left ‘common sense’, which may not be very sensible after all. The de facto effect is not really modesty about the possible, it is just a refusal to submit ones active theory to critical scrutiny. And that way lies madness.

      The crudity and generality with which the bulk of the far left approaches politics is part of the problem. Part of the correction to that is an attempt to develop a more immediate set of ideas to help understand the situation and how we might act on it. I don’t see this as an optional extra or a task to be put off until some indefinite point when spontaneity delivers us a situation that shakes us out of our mental torpor. To wait is to lapse into an essentially fatalist approach, relying on necessity or providence to deliver not even a revolution, but merely a half way decent start to an organisation. Not convinced. We should begin carving out a more serious intellectual and practice space now, and continue it. It is part of cohering the strong left current I referred to. I simply don’t accept the apologetics that suggest the left’s weakness and relative lack of impact is exclusively due to external factors – part of the problem is weak politics.

      Of course, the luxury of the skeptical approach is that it never needs to be tested either way. We’ll just be waiting for the great leap forward :)

      • But what do you mean? Basically what you wrote could be summarized as ‘we need to explain what is going on in mainstream politics and pose an alternative using left ideas.’ What does that actually look like?

        The danger you identify – willingness to engage in theoretical discussions rather than day to day politics – is seemingly the fate of this thread.

      • Um, I wasn’t arguing against theory. I was arguing, firstly, against this particular theory, in which, IMO, an interesting enough insight about antipolitics has been extended into a magical explanation of everything in Australian politics, in a way that’s become completely unfalsifiable, since, in most of the iterations I’ve read, ‘antipolitics’ is so loosely defined as to mean almost anything (eg, the discovery of antipolitics in Rudd saying ‘we need a new way’ or some other anodyne political commonplace) and, indeed, is often identified (in a completely circular fashion) by its results (when Rudd’s leading in the polls, it’s because of antipolitics; as soon as the polls slump, it’s cos there’s been insufficient antipolitics). I was also arguing against a second claim running through this thread — the notion that the failure of the Left stems entirely or in a large part from its inability to recognise one particular shibboleth or another. That seemed to be implicit in your contribution above. Now, fair enough, we need new thinking, new ideas, new strategies, for what we’ve been doing up to now has not been working so well. But big claims require big evidence. Yes, obviously, we need to ensure our analyses of the ALP is as up-to-date as possible. Obviously, we do. But let us imagine that your argument above is immediately adopted by everyone who identifies with the far Left tomorrow. What happens then? Are we suddenly a mass movement or, rather, are we still a collection of individuals and small groups, except with (what you regard as) a better analysis of the ALP?
        After years of fruitless turns and get rich quick schemes, a certain humility in these questions seems important.

        • Jeff, the recognition of anti-politics both as a widespread popular sentiment and a political practice is not a theoretical innovation. It is a description of responses from below and above to the breakdown of the political structures that have shaped Australian society for the last century. That breakdown is the more important issue for me — one that is systematically ignored/downplayed/denied by most of the far Left in Australia. I have tried to detail some of that in the posts I link to above, especially the empirical stuff on the hollowing out of Labor’s social base in the trade union bureaucracy.

          If one doesn’t accept that basic analysis then there is no need for any explanation of how we are governed beyond more of the same (except, of course, with ever more right-wing characteristics). This then results in seeing the alienation of ordinary people from politics as an uncontradictory positive for the ruling class, a strengthening of the state’s control over the people. In my view this leads to conclusions that are the inverse of what I think is really going on — that capitalism is politically more stable than ever in Australia.

  9. Anyway, only half of the half of the gender divide seems to care anout the political “issue” raised here, as males under 30 don’t, as recognised by the post, and females vaished altogether, seemingly, with the self-banishment of Gillard. So what’s the argument about?

    • This is worth repeating, with more conventional spelling:

      Anyway, only half of the half of the gender divide seems to care about the political “issue” raised here, as males under 30 don’t, as recognized by the post, and females vanished altogether, seemingly, with the self-banishment of Gillard. So what’s the argument about?

  10. I find this discussion a little hard to understand, but maybe I don’t mix in the right circles. On this issue of Rudd, there seems to be an attempt to look at the last few months and read everything back from there to dismiss him.

    So let us recap. Rudd led Labor to its only victory in the last twenty years, in a campaign that was almost wholly based around him. He then became the most popular PM since they began recording such things thirty years ago (why?). Despite that, he was the first Labor PM to be dumped by his own party in his first term (why?), and then his popularity was such that then Labor broke its own record again and did the even more extraordinary act of reinstating him (why?). Labor’s 2007 victory was unique in the last 20 years and the convulsions since then unique in its history – and they were all centered around one man, even if they weren’t caused by him.

    This may be terribly “mainstream” and so not worth worrying about. But as far as I know these are the most significant political developments to have happened in Australia in the last decade. For people who want to intervene in politics but unable to explain the current political convulsions, or even worse, not think its worthwhile doing so seems bizarre to me. Maybe there’s something else of more political significance going on that I haven’t heard about. But then, as I say, maybe I don’t mix in the right circles.

    • It’s not very surprising that, a week before an election, people are focused on the current poll rather than 2007, especially since, until recently, you seemed to be using this year’s election of proof of your thesis.
      As for mixing in the right circles, I appreciate that you are being facetious but, actually, it’s a real point, for it’s difficult to have this discussion without a consensus as to the problem we’re trying to solve. That is, there’s a disagreement about the adequacy of the argument presented here as an explanation of the parties’ electoral fortunes. But there’s also a related argument about whether an appreciation Rudd’s success is key to the revival of the far Left. Are you interested in the second question? If not, there’s not much point debating it.

      • If your concern is with the far Left then I’ll expand on a point I made above. The far Left largely relates to activism and social struggles, yet with Rudd’s ascension to the leadership of the ALP most of that struggle outside parliament dissipated. It’s been very slim pickings indeed since 2007, despite the very limited social gains the Rudd and Gillard governments have delivered. The back of the kind of (limited) resistance we saw under Howard was rapidly broken. And this occurred while a very union-hostile ALP leader took Labor to a big victory in 2007. A leader whose popularity was, as Shrike says, higher than any on record. And when Rudd was overthrown we saw the union leadership regain influence on the party, and yet cling to it against his possible return as it almost went down to a defeat of staggering proportions. What do these things mean for the unions, still among the largest civil society organisations in the country? What does the unions’ behaviour mean for the possibility of other struggles and campaigns?

        If we cannot coherently explain these historical realities alongside the ones that The Piping Shrike points to, then any attempt to revive the far Left (or create some new project that can do what the far Left thinks it is doing) begins on the ground of avoiding what is really happening, as if you can build a political project without accounting for the effective terrain on which you are operating.

        The Australian far Left is very weak at understanding how the state and the political class govern over us. There is a tendency to think these are secondary questions, or that when Labor gets into power the union leaders. etc., simply “sell out” to protect a friendly government, thereby shutting down the space for the far Left to operate in. Yet how we are governed is key: We need to grasp how social resistance is shaped and structured by politics, which under capitalism is inherently concentrated on the state. We need to understand how Ruddism inspired hopes, temporarily stabilised politics on the Left and demobilised struggles beyond Labor and the state. We also need to understand in what ways it broke with the material structures of labourism, and in what ways it was weighed down by them.

        The “plague on both your houses” approach I criticise is not wrong in the abstract. In the end we are talking about different pro-capitalist parties seeking to run the capitalist state. But it is an unmediated, reductionist understanding of how politics works (and how politics breaks down).

  11. He started that way when he returned but has since lost it, which is why he is losing, IMO. But nevertheless the degree to which anti-politics is shaping the political environment (and will continue to do so) might hold some important lessons for how society sees politics and the state in 2013.

    The purpose of understanding the current situation is to get some idea how to change it. In my view we are seeing the culmination of profound changes in the nature of politics over the last 20 years that stem from the end of the Cold War and the participation of organised labour in politics. It is happening in different ways in Europe and the US, the Rudd phenomenon and the impact it has had on Labor is how it is being seen in Australia.

    In that context, the narrow and ultimately uninteresting task of saving splinter groups of little social significance does not seem worthwhile, in my opinion. New political parties can be easily formed. It does however seem much harder to throw away old ones, no matter how irrelevant.

  12. ‘In that context, the narrow and ultimately uninteresting task of saving splinter groups of little social significance does not seem worthwhile, in my opinion’.

    That doesn’t seem like an entirely helpful way to engage with the far Left,which might be a problem given these are the people most actively engaged in attempting to change the current situation.

    I wonder what your co-thinkers regarding the Rudd ‘anti-politics’ thesis might make of this position?

    • Dave, you make it sound like helpfully engaging with the far Left is an end in itself. It’s not. The building of mass revolutionary parties (those with real capacity to shake up politics) from small revolutionary groupuscles is the historical exception rather than the rule. Indeed, the one exception everyone clings to – the Bolsheviks – was a faction of a larger social democratic party that didn’t seriously split from the Mensheviks until 1912 (and fully not until 1917 in the midst of revolution).

      This is not to write off this or that small group, but to reject the subordination of a clear understanding of the political situation to the internal needs of building the far Left. Without a clear political perspective you might get a bigger far Left, but you are highly unlikely to get one that has any serious social influence.

    • Dr T always puts it more politely than I. The problem is that having a starting point of “reviving the Left” (rather than fundamental social change) as usually happens, ends up sticking with many of the assumptions of the far Left rather than a more deeper re-think that is required.

      This is perhaps where I would differ from Dr T (just to show we are not joined at the hip) as what we are seeing is not just the dissolution of traditional left-right axis (as I believe has been the case for 20 years now) but a problem with political thinking itself. I gather there are some fans of Karl out there. Perhaps they should (re-)read his view on politics.

  13. Tad, I’m confused. Can you complete this sentence for me:

    “Only when the left develops a proper understanding of Ruddism will it be able to _________.”

  14. Tad, in that last post you seem to think the Left needs to be able to explain ‘these historical realities’ as a key basis to ‘revive the far Left.’ If this is your project (unlike the Piping Shrike, it seems?) then the key feature to come to terms with seems to me to be increasing cynicism with the political class. It’s cynicism which either defines or degrades something you seem to think is powerful: Rudd’s ‘anti-politics’. How that particular dynamic works is interesting and relevant but surely it is also ancilliary to the question of how this cynicism can be politically drawn upon to build a decent left current.

    I think there are a couple of outcomes of this trend that the left need to come to terms with. Firstly the possibility that it can give rise to far right, libertarian politics and crystallising these differences is often challenging when there is so much common ground. But also, it opens up considerable instability amongst a mass of people open in new ways to resisting government power and state authority. There are plenty of opportunities for the left in many of these movements, but there is a sense that they aren’t seen as the left’s traditional terrain. Lastly of course, there is the biggest challenge: turning cynicism into action – be it rallies or intervention and transformation of traditional social structures, like unions for example, to get them oriented towards some of the key politicial campaigns of the day. (A trend that is part of a much longer decline than just the slim pickings of 2007).

    Sometimes I get the sense that Tad you think left groups don’t sufficiently grasp the Rudd dynamic and are therefore not politically making the arguments they need to. We might agree to some extent on the latter, but I reject that the former is the problem.

  15. After reading all that, well no wonder I’m more cynical than ever. What is ‘the left’? What is the far left? As a leftist/unorthodox Marxist of several decades, all this discussion seems like drivel. Sorry, being cynical seems like a valid place to be. I’m passionate about politics, but I’m too busy avoiding any election material at present. It’s just too boring. Also I’m too busy just trying to survive as a disability pensioner. The future of the left is a fantasy for me. I’d rather watch ‘The Simpsons’, ‘Dr Who’ and ‘Escape to the Country’.

  16. still a little unclear as to why, though tad’s piece mentions and links to arguments which suggest that the absence of a political left of any heft is due to deeper structural causes, eg

    “Most importantly, such nostalgic reimagining cannot be translated into practice, simply because the material basis for labourism no longer exists.”

    and

    The problem is not that the depressing state of affairs in Canberra is not ‘real politics’ but that this is what real politics is today.”

    the questions remain at the strategic and political level (quite aside from some irritation at the “you havent understood one up-personship…).

    If the left’s program was social and democratic control of production it has lost both the struggle for that and even the minimal aim of it being on the agenda. the right won, and the decisive years of defeat in the west were 1945-1970, altho it lingered on into the early 80s in some places.

    not saying it couldnt quite rapidly re-emerge in a real crisis ie a total global depression, but it is certainly off the menu now. but i dont really understand how there can be so much talk about the state of the left without any discussion as to what its content should be, even in the most general terms.

    im not arguing for crunching out just so schemes but for the analysis such as being done above to be more specific and material.

    ie if there is no widespread demand for socialism, or even a social democratic advance, is this because of a)manufactured consent, b)general hegemony c)working class decomposition and embourgeosification, including advantageous spatialised inequality, ie $2 socks means burger-flippers can buy x-boxes and vodka, d) transformation of socio-cultural-psychological forms by a highly abstracted society that has made class and politics itself – matters of the polis – incapable of being done, leaving only admin and reform, and spectacle/performances where politics was, e) a more deterministic structure of history than we assumed, meaning that a lot of what we thought was going on as assertive collective politics was nothing of the sort…

    genuinely dont understand why these questions arent asked in these terms in discussions like this. after all, the political left hasnt died at all. but socialism – its core proposition, its definition since the mid-19th c — has. either for the moment or for good.

    otherwise it sounds like a company talking marketing opps and rebranding without mentioning that it has no sales and no production (yeah, i know)..

    g

    i really dont understand why these d

    • The said embourgoisified “burger flippers”, as Francis “End of History” Fukuyama Guy Rundle disparagingly referred to them above, have just recently gone on strike across the US, demanding that their pay be increased from the federal minimum of 7.25 per hour to 15.00 per hour.

      Putting aside the situation in Australia for the moment — where reality remains temporarily held at bay by the twin resource and housing bubbles — the lives of working people around the world are marked by by unemployment or precarious employment, with ever more exploitative conditions, indebtedness and bankruptcy for essential costs such as health care and education. This is not to mention foreclosures and homelessness. If this is what “embourgoisification’ amounts to, then maybe one needs a reality check.

      Much of the discussion around this subject seems to be informed by a consciousness and outlook that arose during the second half of the 20th century, when capitalism in the core countries of N. America, W. Europe and Japan, was able to average annual growth rates of 3% without too much difficulty. This post-war period of “normal” growth came to an abrupt end in Japan 1990, although it sputtered on for a further eighteen years in Europe and N. America. It is reasonable to project that the Japanese pattern, which has now entered its third decade, ie low growth and failed attempts to resuscitate capitalism through mixtures of brutal austerity for the working class and Keynesianism for various sectors capital, will now be reproduced in N. America and W. Europe.

      Liberal, Social Democratic or Labourist reformism, as political programs or forms of political consciousness, remained viable while the capitalist system was humming along in its post-war Fordist overdrive. To mix metaphors, the wheels of that postwar system began to come of with the collapse of the Bretton Woods agreement in 1971. The inevitable denoument was only held at bay through increasingly desparate measures (international restructuring of production, attacks on the working classes, financial bubbles, ponzi schemes and outright criminality in the financial sector). Beyond throwing social reformism overboard, and replacing it wth a program of austerity, endless wars and apparent preparation for dictatorial forms of rule, the ruling classes do not have an answer to the crisis in which they now find themselves. Hard as it may be to fathom from these increasingly sunny antipodes, the ongoing discrediting of the state and the bourgeois and social democratic/labourist parties, along with the accelerating bureacratisation and ossification of the official labour movement, are manifestations of this deepening global crisis of the capitalist social system.

      Given the intention of the ruling classes to make working people the world over (including the “burger flippers”) pay for the deepening economic crisis and the bankruptcy of their system, it seems fitting to paraphrase Mark Twain: reports of the end of the class struggle and history are somewhat premature.

      • ‘put aside the australian situation for a moment’???

        Tad’s entire originating post is about the australian situation. thats the whole point of the discussion. widen it out and the topic becomes too large to be meaningful.

        my point or question relates to that – how much of the evacuation of left politics in australia is due to the income gap between australian workers and the wider world – a gap that allows for a degree of discretionary consumption, ie fun stuff, on the part of the former, and which thus gives them an incentive to support the overall system? and how much is due, alternatively, to ideological framing of experience.

        If ‘burger flippers’ and embourgeoisified are value-laden terms for you, theyre not for me. people flip burgers for a living. In the US they’re striking, because they cant afford any sort of life. In Oz theyre not. Is that because they can afford more of a life? is that in part because our imports from the US are cheap because of low US wages?

        As to embourgeosification – if a whole section of wage-earners have houses appreciating in value, and super funds invested in the stock market, what word would you use? and why assume they have any incentive to disturb the system?

        might be hard to believe in the sunny antipodes that people are resisting etc etc etc – but it’s actually not that easy to believe in a lot of other places. one of tad’s points was that sporadic upsurges of protest have led to no sustained mass movements. thats been true of ireland, the UK, and most of the US, recent events notwithstanding. asking why comes back to the questions i asked: would real and visible struggle pop out again quite suddenly given another lurch downwards? or are classes in a global system so decomposed that no unity is possible? are the current systems carrying ideology so all-embracing that no outside is possible, barring total disruption, eg war, etc? or is the system so determinist that ongoing political action on anything other than liberal issues etc is simply a waste of time, and life?
        all questions which seem to require more than a bretton woods retread and a repurposed mark twain quote.

        • Your argument about the embourgeoisification of the working class through rising house values, rising superannuation portfolios is premised on an unstated (and absurd) assumption of Australian exceptionalism in the world economy.

          You say that “widen it out and the topic becomes too large to be meaningful”. On the contrary, I would point out Australia is completely integrated into the global capitalist economy and cannot be meaningfully discussed in isolation from it.

          Returning to the assumptions of national economic exceptionalism, these have been heard before (US, Spain, Ireland) where they notoriously foreshadowed the large scale destruction of paper claims to wealth and a reproletarianisation of the “middle class”. In the late late 1990s and early 2000s the US was touted as the very model of the “new economy” where a virtuous circle of capital investment and rising asset prices in stocks and then in the housing sector led to ballooning household and corporate paper claims to wealth which in turn fueled booms in household consumption, the construction sector and further capital investment. When asset bubles finally collapsed, the virtuous circle turned vicious, the 401(k) retirement plans shrank to 201(k) plans and the working classes who had come to see themselves as investors in property markets were foreclosed on by the banks, etc. The US can safely be said to have caught a version of the long term stagnation which began to affect Japan with the puncture of the Japanese asset bubble in the early 1990s.

          Chinese investment and trade surpluses were initially driven by the boom in US consumption and the position up to 2008 of the US as the consumer of last resort. With the partial abandonment of this role by the US in 2008, China embarked on its own unsustainable debt binge which has, thus far, kept resource prices high and temporaily stabilised the Australian financial and asset price bubbles (including the value of housing “investments” and superannuation funds). However, it is simply a matter of time before the debt, asset and investment bubbles that have in recent years fuelled growth in China deflate. How the the Chinese ruling class of nouvea riche gangsters and bureaucrats in the CCP will manage the transition to “normal” capitalist rates of growth (ie long term stagnation à la Japan and the US) is a question best speculatied on elsewhere.

          Anyway, neither the Australian working classes nor Australian house prices nor superannuation portfoilios are going to be indefinitely insulated from the global systemic crisis. Indeed, anybody who has any political sense whatsoever knows that the neoliberal restructuring of Australian society that began under the Hawke-Keating period is going to be reprised and intensified by the ruling class in the coming years — to the severe detriment of the position of the working classes here. As a capitalist response to the deepening crisis in Australia, we should expect a program of austerity, the dismantling or privatisation of public education and health care, together with attacks on wages and working conditions.

          Thus the Australian working class will, in its own way, have to come to terms with the reality that liberal or social democratic/labourite reformism is an increasingly hollow promise and that, like workers in the US and Japan and much of Europe, increasingly “they cant afford any sort of life”.

          Understanding where we are today requires much more than a postmodern retread and a repurposed Francis Fukuyama end of history thesis.

          • byron

            Tad’s original question and piece was directed to politics now, but also to the wider question of whether the deep structural conditions for a left had disappeared for now, or for good.

            My response was to both the question of immediate political quiescence in australia, and to the wider question of a deep structural transformation of conditions.

            To the immediate situation. surely you must recognise that class composition is bound up, at some point, with interests, and that classes can become decomposed by different circumstances? Why is it absurd to say that a fitter/nurse/teacher/office worker with a house in appreciating in value and a super account invested in the stock market by their superfund is not embourgeoisified? they have capital, and it’s capital in use. It may be at several arms length, but it is nevetheless money being earnt from others’ labour – very clearly in the super case, less so in the house case.

            Someone with a super fund invested diversly – what is their interest in global solidarity? every material advantage they have in their life is gained from a split working class, and from returns on investments. If a super fund is invested in cadbury, then the super exploitation of cocoa workers is in the interest of workers whose super is invested.

            I don’t doubt that such conditions can collapse quite quickly, and a quite radical situation take hold. My question – in relation to tad’s implicit question about whether left activism was even worth it in conditions of stasis – was whether it was worth considering that marxism was a theory of much longer and relatively immutable processes, rather than the more voluntaristic idea of politics that arose with October 1917 and may, in the west, have been misleading.

            That is not an end of history thesis – as i said, one argument is that hyper-automation will destroy the value form of capital autonomously. it seems certain to me there will be new stages and forms of human social being.

            The question Tad raised, I think, is whether trying to achive this in the received form of the The Left is a meaningful project, or a just a waste of time.

            Your unwillingness to consider the particularity of the situation in australia seems to verge on an Idealism – there’s a transcendent thing called the working class, they will come to see their global collective and real interests and things will kick off again.

            My suggestion is that this cannot be sustained in the face of evidence. It’s not merely australia. why is there such a paltry Chinese working class movement for example? It can’t be simply a repressive state – Chinese farmers have been in a state of ceaseless uprising for a decade against land alienation. why does China have 19th c work conditions, but no real 19th c working class movement? Is it because there immiseration is less worse than 19c europe? Is it coming, or can it be endlessly deferred? if the latter, what does that tell us about Left prospects?

            and that goes back to my determinist argument again….

    • Guy, a quick response. When I mention the eclipse of the material basis of Labourism I mean the material *political* structures, not some fundamental change in the overall social relations of production that would, say, lead to Marx’s idea of the two main classes (or either of them) to be no longer relevant.

      So, again, it’s the specific material structure of politics — how we are governed — that I am mainly talking about.

  17. Newman writes: And for gods sake, can we give up on the straw Rudd Is Great person?
    Shrike writes Twitter: ‘Rudd can do it better. But at least Beattie’s doing it. RT @SmartState1 Public sick of politics the way we play it’

  18. Stanley Aronowitz on the politics of fear:

    We live in a time when liberal reform is dead. Not just because capital waged a successful war on labor and the social welfare state, but also because the liberal opposition is fragmented, their organizations shriveled, their leadership intimidated by the attacks and huddled into corners of impotence. We are at a moment when the liberals will offer the terms of surrender to their adversaries: “cut back Medicare and Social Security, but modestly raise taxes on the wealthy as a symbolic gesture so that we can save face.” They have permitted the Right to seize the initiative and, exceptions by unions notwithstanding, are still plagued by the ghost of the radical movements that still send them into the arms of the neoliberals. In fact, the distinction between the welfare liberals and neoliberals has all but vanished. Despite signs of organized discontent, we are still plagued by a mass psychology of fear. The risk-takers have been relegated to the margins, their numbers overtaken by those seeking security, conformity and compromise. The decline of the radical imagination hobbles attempts at resistance, let alone creating alternatives.

    The system survives on the eclipse of the radical imagination, the absence of a viable political opposition with roots in the general population and the conformity of its intellectuals who, to a large extent, are subjugated to the great fear.

    Stanley Aronowitz is a distinguished professor at the CUNY Graduate Center and the author of more than 25 books, including Left Turn: Forging a New Political Future.

    Full article: http://ow.ly/or9XK

  19. Apologies to all that I haven’t yet responded further (and thanks to all for making comments). I am currently O/S on holidays — and perhaps leaving my nation at its darkest hour, from the look of the polls. :(

    I will try to reply more in the next couple of days — internet access a bit limited on this first leg.

  20. The left in Australia always defines itself in relation to the Labor Party. It is clear to me that much of the discussion here is ignorant of how things inside the Labor Party actually work. I am distressed that there isn’t more examination of your internalising of populist notions about Labor politics. Kevin Rudd actually appeals to a traditional part of the Labor base, Christian/Catholic socialism. It is not hard to understand when you look at the way he expresses himself to do with ‘moral’ ideas. That is very popular. The Greens appeal to the same tradition. The coming crisis that both the left and the Labor Party is about to face is much more serious than people realise. Without enough members of parliament, Labor cannot provide much opposition to the neoliberal agenda. We don’t have state nor federal governments to provide a basis for opposition for everyone. Lets not pretend that left Labor politicians haven’t always provided the resources and the base for activists. Without that resource left activists have to rely on their own resources. Student organisations, various advocacy groups etc. Please consider this prospect. We also need to learn how to do politics from the Labor Party because there is an enormous amount of collective knowledge about how to do electoral politics within that party. This is based on the assumption that one is a democratic socialist and not a revolutionary socialist and wishes to engage in electoral politics. I would argue that it is also necessary to make party branches have a role outside of electoral politics engaged within their local communities. This is the project we are embarking on in our local community.

  21. This is by way of reply to the comment by Guy Rundle above.

    Guy writes:

    Why is it absurd to say that a fitter/nurse/teacher/office worker with a house in appreciating in value and a super account invested in the stock market by their superfund is not embourgeoisified? they have capital, and it’s capital in use. It may be at several arms length, but it is nevetheless money being earnt from others’ labour – very clearly in the super case, less so in the house case.

    Hilariously, as examples of the”embourgeoisified” you provide teachers, nurses and fitters. Nurses and teachers, who work in education and health, precisely the areas which the actual bourgeoisie have targeted for restructuring and cost cutting in their drive to austerity over the last thirty years, and will single out for brutal restructuring in the future. Fitters and turners? One could scarcely find a subsection of the Australian working class more vulnerable to the ongoing processes of deindustrialisation and the relentless drive of the real bourgeoisie to restore profitability in the face of the long term stagnation by rolling back the conditions of the working class.

    I suppose that at this point you are going to raise the mining industry, and the high wages that industrial workers such as fitters and turners apparently obtain in this sector. Let me preemptively address this argument by pointing out that:

    Workers in the mining industry have been suffering degradation of their working and life conditions as the unions have bargained away their working conditions for pay rises, much as the United Auto Workers Union did for auto workers in the US in the period 1950-75 (and we know how that ended).
    The high wages in the mining sector are very much dependent on the resources boom which is propped up by the bubble economy in China. It is merely a matter of time before the Chines bubble economy deflates, bringing down resource prices with it. The best case outcome of this scenario for the global ruling class is long term stagnation in China, of the sort which Japan has experienced over the last two decades (and counting).
    As it is, the mouthpieces of the ruling class (that is the real bourgeoisie, as opposed to supposedly “embourgeoisified” teachers, nurses and fitters/turners), regularly publish loud complaints about the drag that high wages and low productivity in the Australian resource sectors are having on the profitability of the resource giants that control the sector.

    Housing values. Most people who live on wages (rather than off capital or investment) are not in a financial position to own their houses outright. They are paying for their houses through loans and, more often than not, these loans are a cause of financial stress. Furthermore, unlike a capitalist who can sell shares or divest and realise the value of an investment, the worker who holds a mortgage typically does not have any practical way to realise the nominal value of his or her supposedly appreciating asset. The holder of the mortgage is also at risk of being foreclosed on should he/her lose employment. Finally, those with large mortgages are at risk of being left underwater if and when the Australian housing and resource bubble bursts (see remark on stagnation and China above). Contrast this precarious situation of the working class mortgage holder with a member of the actual bourgeoisie who typically own several dwellings outright. How being beholden to financial institutions for the bare necessities of life such as housing marks a typical wage worker as being “embourgeoisified” remains a mystery.

    Superannuation. This is scam has been consciously designed by the ruling class to enable them to confiscate a proporition of wages for investment in various financial ponzi schemes, under the guise of saving for workers’ retirement. The benefits of such a strategy are three fold; firstly the inflow of funds into financial markets tends to prop up or further inflate the value of the market, most of which is held by the bourgeoisie. Secondly, the financial sector profits by charging exhorbitant fees to (mis)-manage the superannuation funds that are held in the name of waged workers. According to figures quoted by Ken Davidson a few years ago, the fees “earned” by the financial services “industry” in this way alone exceeded the then annual cost to the Federal Government of the old age pension. Thirdly, the superannuation system has been set up to work as a tax shelter for the wealthy.

    As I pointed out earlier, the same US workers who, at the height of the US housing and financial bubble, may have seen themselves as investors in housing markets and 401(k) plans (the US version of superannuation), found themselves underwater or foreclosed upon, the value of their 401(k) plans written off. So much for the “embourgeoisification” of the US working class.

    While you seem to acknowledge that US is currently a low wage economy, you convinently overlook the long term processes (deindustrialisation,financialisation, restructuring, class warfare from above) that have lead the destruction of the US “middle class”. Is this because and acknowledgement that the same processes mutatis mutandis are at work here would lead to the obvious conclusion that his thesis of “embourgeiosification” of the Australian working class is just so much old ideological chloroform?

    Your unwillingness to consider the particularity of the situation in australia seems to verge on an Idealism

    Of what particularity do you write here, other than the apparently widely held assumption that Australia will remain immune from the global crisis that presently only shows signs of deepening in the main centres of capitalist accummulation? While the US, Japanese and European bourgeoisie, or the the CCP bureaucrats and nouveau rich who run China, are collectively not able to guarantee “normal” rates of growth let alone protect their individual economies from the crisis — notwithstanding their desperate measures such as austerity, quantitative easing, etc — you seem to be trading on the belief that the gang of criminals, hole diggers and buffoons who comprise the Australian bourgeoisie have discovered some magical capitalist elixir that will stave off stagnation here, in the face of a global crisis. This sounds more like garden variety national hubris than any other particularity.

    That is not an end of history thesis – as i said, one argument is that hyper-automation will destroy the value form of capital autonomously. it seems certain to me there will be new stages and forms of human social being.
    The question Tad raised, I think, is whether trying to achive this in the received form of the The Left is a meaningful project, or a just a waste of time.

    Absent a revival of a human emancipatory project which, in its own way, addresses the fundamental issues of exploitation exploitation and class oppression, the default course at the moment seems to be the ruling class agenda of austerity, inequality, endless global wars, environmental destruction, militarisation of the state apparatus and apparent preparation for dictatorial forms of rule. Is this what you mean by new stages and forms of human social being? Where do actual humans fit in this project of endless wars, austerity, etc.

    why does China have 19th c work conditions, but no real 19th c working class movement? Is it because there immiseration is less worse than 19c europe? Is it coming, or can it be endlessly deferred?

    The culpability of Stalinism and Social Democracy in stabilising capitalism in the 20th century has been well documented. Whereas Western ruling classes have since the 1970s have gradually abandoned Social Democracy as a means of stabilising their rule, the longevity of Stalinism in China probably goes a long way to answering this question.

  22. I wonder if the anarchist and IWW traditions are somethings that need thought here. Verity and Meredith Burgmann pointed to the influence of some of these ideas in Green Bans Red Union, the last time trade unionists brought political economy/ecology together across classes (if I can use the term). David Graeber, author of the book Debt the first 5000 years, a wonderful source of ideas from history too, has recently written on “Bullshit jobs” http://www.strikemag.org/bullshit-jobs/ from this direction. he looks at how we seem to have been corralled into useless work to keep us occupied and with cash in our pockets (although the last is under threat). Bill Mitchell has a critique of Graeber’s short article on his blog. http://bilbo.economicoutlook.net/blog/?p=25265 Bil has great economic points, regarding consumerism etc, but its an example of the economism talking past the other traditions, and the grip economic growth needs have on us. I don’t pretend to know an answer here, but I think Guy is in tune with this, (and superannuation always strikes me as a feature that takes away from collectivism and co-operation towards maximising individual concerns and returns and I better stop that as I will drift even further). and the Occupy Movement, that Graeber was/is a part of, tried to address this. results not so great but election voting trends and actions around the world seem to strongly indicate a disgust with the current political economy.
    I guess read William Morris (whose Useful Work versus Usless toil says it in its title, Fourier Marx, etc etc

    Just sayin’ as my daughter might say.

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