Subscriberthon guest post: Guy Rundle on Ruddism and the progressive patriots

Guy Rundle is one of the most versatile writers in Australia. He provides daily commentary for Crikey, has long been associated with the political tendency around Arena and has just finished the forthcoming Max Gillies’ show Godzone. He’s also written the lead essay for Overland 197, a comparison of Ruddism and British New Labour, in which he argues:

When it comes to reversing liberatory potential into a system for administering social and psychological life, Rudd Labor has thus gone one stage further than Blair. Rudd’s latest intervention – an attempt to end the ‘history wars’ by courtly fiat – is a similar attempt to draw the untidy processes of debate into service to the nation. Ruddism is a mode of post-social democratic labour adapted to Australian conditions and history, one that displays no real interest in challenging an atomised neoliberal social order and must therefore explore increasingly specific coercive measures in the management of a population.

For more of that essay, click here. But Rundle’s also contributed a guest post for the subscriberthon, which follows below:

Before the current Liberal cabaret burlesque got under way, sections of the media were much exercised by talk of the ‘new progressive patriotism’ , as outlined by Tim Soutphommasane in his short book Reclaiming Patriotism (reviewed by me in Crikey here, and forthcoming in Arena Magazine). In a nutshell Tim argued that ‘Teh left’ (to use Mark Bahnisch’s useful label of the Right’s fantasy object) had dropped the ball in the Howard years, and let the Right take over the notion of patriotism and love of country. In this he was building on Judith Brett’s argument that Howard’s idea of the ‘battler’ had successfully taken over notions of equality, mateship etc hitherto owned by Labor.

Brett had argued that recognising this switcheroo could guide a new political strategy for the Left, in the manner in which it talked about its goals – something the Ruddistas appeared to take up, with their wall-to-wall cry of ‘nation building’. Soutphommasane’s argument went further: most Australians were patriotic. To talk to them so must progressives be. But a lot of patriotism was either old anglo nativism, or ‘sentimental mush’ about VB, meat pies and the beach. Hence patriotism must be reconstructed by intellectuals and policy wonks, as a bonding and commitment to an idealised Australian history, in which its positive strands – struggle for democratic and workers rights, transition to a polycultural society – should be taken as the country’s true essence, and the other stuff seen as an aberration. This progressive patriotism might involve among other things, the abolition of dual citizenship, and a compulsory citizenship knowledge test for all Australians prior to being allowed to vote. To give it ‘myth’, the most progressive and abstract aspects of its past – Gallipoli as an expression of mateship – would be employed, even though ‘we’ knew that the stories told about them were false.

So far, so familiar. Soutphommasane’s programme is similar to the elitists of the 1920s – people like Ortega Y Gasset, Coudenhove-Kalergi and others – who saw the threat of Bolshevism as requiring a cultural re-engineering of Europe. The masses were taking over, they realised, so better to control what they believed than to try and resist them (Coudenhove-Kalergi founded the pan-Europe movement, which proposed a whole lot of Europa kitsch – the starred flag, ‘Ode to Joy’ as a European anthem – taken up by the EU today). Many of the new elitists were ex-socialists, who had gone to the nationalist side in the Second International split brought on by the first world war, and often continued through to fascism. Among a rising generation of would-be policy wonks, it is not unusual that such an unreflectively elitist notion of cultural reshaping and manipulation would emerge.

What is bizarre is the way in which such ideas have been drawn into the active movement towards a new social democratic left, a process that seems to have been kick-started once again by the SEARCH Foundation, the fund created to conserve the assets after the dissolution of the Communist Party of Australia in 1991 (the current user of than name is the old Socialist Party of Australia, the Soviet-loyalist split-off dating from 1971). In a series of meetings across the country, SEARCH has been drawing in a coalition of people who – whatever their virtues – can only be described as of the left with a degree of latitude that takes you, well, to the right. Soutphommasane is one such; Robert and Anne Manne are two others. At the middle of this new group sits SEARCH, the Eurocummunism of its last party form converted into an increasingly social conservative social democracy, and at the ‘left’ are a group of former activists who have trekked through the wastes of late far-leftism, through postmodernism, and the new Idealist Leninism of Zizek and Badiou, to a position advocating a ‘moderate univeralism’ – with Habermas as a guiding figure – as the underpinnings of a new politics.

To which one can only say, ‘what the-?’. The enthusiasm for Soutphommasane by figures like Bob Carr is understandable – they have always been of the Right – but how is it that former internationalists are so willing to define a new left as one which can include support for ‘the ecstatic myth’ of Gallipoli, and a figure such as Robert Manne, who, in his approach to relations between state, nation and society, remains a Burkean conservative?

The answer I suspect is repeated failure of analysis, stretching back to the CPA’s conversion to Eurocommunism in the 70s, and a failure to do what is surely the best part of the communist tradition – sit down and rethink the fundamental categories through which one interprets society, and builds a strategy. Eurocommunism was a jerry-built strategy which ultimately saw the CPI absorbed into the Italian state, and then dismembered by it. In the manner of Zizek one might say that it can be seen as a success only if one presumes that its goal was to create Berlusconi.

In Australia it generated a series of accommodations – Socialist Forum (Red Julia’s old hunting ground), Australia Reconstructed – which did ideologically what the CPI did politically, dissolving notions of the worker and the human into larger ideas of process (or abstract competency, as Australia Reconstructed had it). After the CPA

dissolution, it progressed through a series of initiatives – the depressing New Left Party of the 90s, the ‘Now We The People’ top-down mass movement of the 2000s – which failed in a manner predictable to anyone who had really thought through the changed nature of class, economy and subjectivity in the West. The failure of analysis was captured in David McKnight’s book ‘Beyond Left and Right’, the vainglorious title for a useful analysis of some trends that nevertheless ended up presenting a political programme which was little more than that of the Australian Democrats of the time.

With McKnight and others suggesting that the Left should get into the business of defending ‘the family’ (with no real thought about what the family was, what sort of family, at the expense of whom, etc), the addition of Anne Manne’s acutely analysed but ultimately, in policy terms, conservative approach to the commodification of life and sexuality in contemporary culture, and Tim Soutphommasane’s de facto multicultural Howardism, it should have been clear that this group of people were working from a centre-right base. The Mannes had never said they weren’t. Soutphommasane is so deep in elitist policy-culture that he can’t recognise the anti-democratic nature of his own proposals. And the SEARCH grouping seem to have moved right by a series of increasingly desperate measures and analytic failures, focused on having some input into a government which is really a self-contained Labor caste.

But what the hell is the excuse of the ‘left’ of this group? Having lived through two decades of system stability (the collapse of Communism a mere blip in this process), preaching radical change all the while, they now – at a time when multiple contradictions of interconnecting global systems are becoming clear to masses of people in their daily lives – at this very moment choose to revert to a ‘left conservatism’, a defence of universal values, the left as mere custodian of the enlightenment.

What can possibly have persuaded them that this was the moment to shy away from doing the job of radical intellectuals – pointing out radically other ways to live, and the contingency and contradiction of the present? The process is too absurd not to have a deep logic to it. Circumstantial features are part of it – the conservatising process of professional academia, personal frustration with marginal political existence, a desire to have more sway on current reality, as the years slip by – but ultimately it seems to come from a desire to preserve inherited ideal structures of social action, of social existence, of subjectivity. Since the paradoxical processes of the current period (a capitalist crisis which no-one turned up to…) are re-organising political categories to a degree which makes notions of ‘The Left’ about as relevant as the Anglo-Catholic movement, the role of intellectuals is surely to be more radical in thinking through what emanciaption might mean in this period, and what is possible, not what is impossible. At the moment much of that is occurring through Zizek’s irritating clownish Leninism, and Badiou’s oracular Platonic communism. Surely those who have stormed stock exchanges (remember stock exchanges?) have something more to offer than Gallipoli-as-mardi-gras on one hand, and infinite thought on the other?

Jeff Sparrow

Jeff Sparrow is a Walkley Award-winning writer, broadcaster and former editor of Overland.

More by Jeff Sparrow ›

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

If you like this piece, or support Overland’s work in general, please subscribe or donate.

Related articles & Essays

Contribute to the conversation

  1. I work at the SEARCH Foundation, was in the CPA and New Left Party, and helped to organise the Now We The People process from 2000-2005. I strongly sympathise with Guy Rundle’s cry for a radical movement against contemporary capitalism, and his rather withering comments about some of the so-called left debate going on.

    However, Guy is mistaken to think that the SEARCH Foundation has organised forums at which Robert and Anne Manne are speakers, or that David McKnight represents the views that have been adopted by the SEARCH Foundation about capitalism today and about possibilities for socialism.

    Now We The People was a grassroots movement against neo-liberalism, economic rationalism and war, at a time when the left itself was very demoralised and fragmented. It appealed to people not on the left who objected to the Howard – Bush project. Far from being ‘top-down’, it was very light-on for support from big organisations. However, it provided a pole of opposition and brought together groups of people who otherwise would have worked separately.

    I suspect that Guy doesn’t know much about the New Left Party (1989-93), but it was sad that it folded rather than developed, since that left to the Greens the field to the left of the very rightwing Labor Party, and to the left sect groups he refers to. The Greens are a very positive movement, but very parliamentarist, and much like the Labor Party pre-1983, without the working class consciousness.

    The Socialist Forum formed in 1984 as a form of rejection of CPA radical politics and represented the option for joining the Labor Party, or ‘getting close to power’, which Guy criticises. The CPA strongly rejected that notion and pushed on to help form the New Left Party because it saw the need for an independent political party for a modern socialism, carrying the radicalism from the BLF-Green Bans and other campaigns of the 1960s and 70s which Guy Rundle seems to value.

    Eurocommunism was ‘Euro’, not Australian. The CPA had strong links with the Italian CP, the Yugoslav CP and the Spanish CP and followed these debates closely. The CPA was working on radical campaigns which could transform the economics, politics and culture of Australia in a liberal democratic context, not a war-time crisis such as that experienced in Russia, Germany and Italy in 1917-19, or in central Europe, China, Vietnam, and Indonesia at the end of World War II. So the Eurocommunist debate was important, but the CPA did not conclude that it should become some kind of left social democratic party, as the CPI did in the 1990s.

    The SEARCH Foundation today is continuing with the efforts of the CPA that stopped operating in 1991, and the Roundtable series is part of this process.

  2. Whoops – sorry for the misattribution. I don’t disagree with the sentiments behind the New Left Party, which I was around to see rise and fall – but the idea of diving into an old style party directly after the CPA dissolution seemed silly to me at the time, and time hasnt changed the judgement. The radical social shifts which made a Communist Party irrelevant made a new start-up irrelevance squared.

    I think the Eurocommunist thing was pretty important for the CPA in its final phase, but I may have overstated it.

    But happy my error has been corrected on the SEARCH thang

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.