Attack of the knuckle draggers

In an article in the latest edition of The Monthly, former Iemma staffer Mark Aarons says this of Labor Right backroom artists Mark Arbib and Karl Bitar:

Enter Arbib and Bitar and their focus groups. Their technique involves targeting the least politically committed voters in key marginal seats. Swing voters of this kind care most of all about themselves and are not loyal to any particular party or leader. The Arbib-Bitar theory is that these people determine who wins government, and that their views should therefore predominate in policy-setting. In a bizarre reversal of conventional political wisdom, leadership is redefined as following such people by pandering to them.

Arbib and Bitar are the inheritors of Graham Richardson’s ‘whatever it takes’ approach to the maintenance of power and were, of course, part of the shadow-team that rolled Rudd and installed Gillard. If Aarons is correct, the move against Rudd was in large part a response to the fidgety vacillations of 250000 self-interested, knuckle dragging (generic, non-racial sense), swinging voters as measured by Labor’s ‘internal polling’. The other macro factors at play in their decision to move on Rudd were the Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme and the Mining Super Profits Tax, both of which were vehemently and vociferously opposed by the mining industry in expensive, well-organised public relations campaigns. Clearly, Gillard has been promoted on condition that she delay action on climate change to some indeterminate time in the future and soften the mining tax. But we know all that.

The conjunction between the interests of the resources sector and those of swinging voters in marginal seats is food for thought.

The resources sector is largely controlled by global capital in the shape of multinational corporations from the USA, UK, China, Japan and some lesser players. In the same issue of The Monthly in which Aarons’ article appears, Paul Barry writes of the massive capital investment that flowed into Australia from China at the height of the GFC when the dollar was low. China was looking for places to invest its burgeoning cash reserves, reserves that were no longer providing adequate returns from struggling US Treasury bonds which, incidentally, had been used to finance the US wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, resulting in the stratospheric debt levels Obama inherited from The Shrub. At the same time, access to global capital was shrinking because of the stress on banks created by (or sometimes caused by) the GFC. Anyway, China has all this spare cash which it decides to invest in Australia almost willy-nilly, such is the rush to find a safe haven. Barrie claims that 26 of 40 major new mining projects in Australia are ‘Chinese-owned, Chinese-funded, have a Chinese joint-venture partner, or all three.’ You can understand, perhaps unsympathetically, why Australian magnetite magnates like Clive Palmer sucked up this money with alacrity and, consequently, why they spat the dummy when Rudd et al advanced the RSPT.

Pause for a moment to consider this: China is governed by a communist regime that is now, almost ironically, the world’s most successful exponent of capitalism. China has invested heavily in Australian resources in order to feed its own rapid development as a consumer society and to build its export industries, which sell consumer goods into lucrative foreign markets, like Australia. The principal measure of prosperity in Australian society, let’s face it, is socioeconomic or, put more crudely, the relative capacity to consume. Houses, cars, white goods, electronic goods, clothing and a plethora of products of questionable use value. If Aarons’ characterisation of swinging voters as self-interested is accepted, then their self-interest could likely be quantified by real and/or aspirational levels of consumption. A strange circle indeed.

Note here the propaganda deployed by both major parties in the first weeks of the election (and to which Mr Rabbit is sticking to like shit to the blanket), the often implied but sometimes explicit association chain of which goes something like this: boats-invasion-Asians-overcrowding-traffic-prices-jobs-Asians-unfair-stop the boats. A second chain goes something like this: climate change-maybe-tax-electricity prices-squeeze-no. Clearly, these messages are tailored to voters with an average Year 9 reading age, the sliver of the electorate to which Arbib, Bitar et al and their Coalition equivalents (in the style of Andrew Robb and formerly Lynton Crosby) strive to appeal, the sliver that deliver power. As a result of a quirk in a democracy not dissimilar to that which threw up Steve Fielding, we are reduced to rule by and for knuckle draggers. Gillard and Mr Rabbit are falling over each other in their attempts to dumb down their messages to appeal to this group while the 65% who consistently poll as being in favour of urgent action on climate change watch with mounting incredulity.

So, the interests of the SVs matter (cynically) to the political powerbrokers of both parties only insofar as they are the key to gaining and sustaining power. The interests of the resources sector matter, laying aside the substantial question of political patronage, because we need to sell our non-renewable natural assets to multinational and state capitalist entities so we can buy them back as consumer goods and various forms of industrial infrastructure. The major parties have no plan for what will happen when the digging is done, no credible plan for addressing the threat of climate change, no coherent plan for securing our food supply, no plan for abating hyper-consumption, no plan for anything other than pretty much more of the same forever and ever.

Finally, the mass media, including and sometimes especially the ABC, is entirely complicit in this political charade. Let’s leave aside as unworthy of comment the virulent anti-Labor campaign in the Australian and the tawdry analysis of Hartcher et al in the Fairfax papers, to focus on The Insiders which Sunday morning aired a pissy Barry Cassidy interview with Julia Gillard that was book-ended by breathless panellistic discussion of the way her campaign had been hijacked by Kevin Rudd and, latterly and with predictable menace, the perennially disgruntled Mark Latham. The Insiders panel conducted a kind of meta-commentary which simultaneously slagged the media for its obsession with the Labor shenanigans at the expense of serious policy debate, and wallowed itself in the same obsession. As was the case during the invasion of Iraq and at any time when issues of national interest are at stake, the ABC buckles under the weight of competition from their reductionist, populist competitors and delivers a soupy drivel. In particular, the question of which of the two leaders is most ‘real’ irritates me to distraction when, clearly, ‘they’ and the complex nexus of forces they ‘really’ represent are walking, breathing exemplars of Baudrillard’s notion of hyperreality, under the tyranny of which we are destined to struggle.

Boris Kelly

Boris Kelly is a Sydney-based writer with an interest in theatre, literary fiction and politics. In 2009, he was the recipient of a Varuna Fellowship for work on his first novel.

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    1. Priceless, Clare. It’s hard not to be unkind with the use of sterotypes but, in a sense, what we are seeing in the margins is a failure of progressive activism.

  1. It’s good to see those cheeky chaps at it again.

    Also a failure of progressive media, education and parenting, dare I say. Fearful, disempowered people with low self-esteem are easy targets … and kinda dangerous.

  2. Yes … despite your rather elitist characterisation of the more unenlightened elements, the analysis is spot on … and your point in the comment section in response to Clare about \the failure of progressive activism\ is even more spot on … how to make our presence more popular and national is a huge challenge which generally we are yet to even acknowledge let alone begin to take up.

  3. Hi Narodnik. My characterisation is explicitly elitist, let’s be frank, so thanks for that note of generosity. There was a time when activism began with workers and those who, for a variety of reasons, lacked the benefits of education. This was, of course, one of the primary functions of trade unions.

    Since the Hawke Accord of the 1980s, however, that function has been gradually attenuated and the vacuum has not been filled by subsequent generations of political activists. In its place has come the ‘aspirational’ politics championed by Howard et al. Unions have largely become more right leaning and in tune with the goals and methods of multinational business, notwithstanding the relative benefits of Labour’s current IR policy. The argument as to whether all this is a good or bad thing remains open.

    Elsewhere in the world, as I am sure you are aware, progressive activism maintains the traditional methods of the Left by engaging with the largely disenfranchised sections of the population and providing an alternative view of the structures and functions operating in society and politics.

    In Australia, the emergence of virtual communities has gone some way to reviving traditional activism but, in my opinion, this kind of distribution channel tends to create closed communities which reinforce their internal views, opinions and prejudices without effectively reaching out to other, disparate communities. For all its wonderful attributes, the Overland community could be regarded as an exemplar of this mode.

    Although the Greens have faults, their capacity to organise in rural communities and bring real value and benefits to what has been, historically, a rather hermetic, reactionary sub-culture, is evidence that with the right degree of focus and something good to say and offer, it is possible to rebuild communities capable of responding to the rapidly changing circumstances of the times.

    In my view, and I am not a member of the Greens, it is that party which offers an effective model of political activism which could be applied to greater effect in marginal seats. Of course, as Green activism becomes more effective, the backlash against it will also increase. That’s what I reckon, anyway.

  4. Actually, BK, I agree with you. People substitute time spent online for activism (like people used to, or still do, substitute philosophy for activism). These self-reinforcing communities don’t translate into anything other than the discussion of ideas so I don’t think we should pretend that they’re more than that.

    Coincidentally, there is a Guardian article addressing some of these issues this morning: Clicktivism is ruining leftist activism

    Gone is faith in the power of ideas, or the poetry of deeds, to enact social change. Instead, subject lines are A/B tested and messages vetted for widest appeal. Most tragically of all, to inflate participation rates, these organisations increasingly ask less and less of their members. The end result is the degradation of activism into a series of petition drives that capitalise on current events. Political engagement becomes a matter of clicking a few links. In promoting the illusion that surfing the web can change the world, clicktivism is to activism as McDonalds is to a slow-cooked meal. It may look like food, but the life-giving nutrients are long gone.

    Exchanging the substance of activism for reformist platitudes that do well in market tests, clicktivists damage every genuine political movement they touch. In expanding their tactics into formerly untrammelled political scenes and niche identities, they unfairly compete with legitimate local organisations who represent an authentic voice of their communities. They are the Wal-Mart of activism: leveraging economies of scale, they colonise emergent political identities and silence underfunded radical voices


  5. This is a brilliant analysis thanks Boris – and touches on all my concerns with this current election. You also highlight what are so obviously the key issues of Australia in 2010 and give an excellent and despair-inducing argument about why they continue to be ignored by the major parties. This coupled with the media’s failure to engage intelligently with the election is enough to make me wonder about the virtues of our democratic system.

    And I have similar reservations about the political function of virtual communities you make in your comment, their tendency to become closed communities not reaching into other communities. It’s something I’ve been thinking about myself. So interesting you agree too Jacinda – and great quote from the Guardian. Will check out the article now.

  6. I just had to look up Baudrillard. “Abstraction today is no longer that of the map, the double, the mirror or the concept. Simulation is no longer that of a territory, a referential being or a substance. It is the generation by models of a real without origin or reality: a hyperreal. The territory no longer precedes the map, nor survives it. Henceforth, it is the map that precedes the territory – precession of simulacra – it is the map that engenders the territory and if we were to revive the fable today, it would be the territory whose shreds are slowly rotting across the map. It is the real, and not the map, whose vestiges subsist here and there, in the deserts which are no longer those of the Empire, but our own. The desert of the real itself.

    In fact, even inverted, the fable is useless. Perhaps only the allegory of the Empire remains. For it is with the same imperialism that present-day simulators try to make the real, all the real, coincide with their simulation models. But it is no longer a question of either maps or territory. Something has disappeared: the sovereign difference between them that was the abstraction’s charm. For it is the difference which forms the poetry of the map and the charm of the territory, the magic of the concept and the charm of the real. This representational imaginary, which both culminates in and is engulfed by the cartographer’s mad project of an ideal coextensivity between the map and the territory, disappears with simulation, whose operation is nuclear and genetic, and no longer specular and discursive. With it goes all of metaphysics.”

    All I could think of was Stoppard:

    Rosencrantz: I don’t believe in it anyway.
    Guildenstern: What?
    Rosencrantz: England.
    Guildenstern: Just a conspiracy of cartographers, then?

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