Helen Razer’s piece about the failures of the ‘Left’ is a political version of an Escher drawing. Chastising what she sees as vacuous symbolism and the Left’s disintegration into individuality, Razer appears wholly unaware of the irony in calling this out in the exact manner she decries. Her criticism doesn’t take you anywhere; you just end up talking in circles of pithy cynicism.
To her credit, she doesn’t actually seem to deny this. Unhelpfully, though, she sees it as someone else’s job. There’s a certain hollowness in such a defence: cursing the darkness while at the same time trying to extinguish candles that have been lit by others leaves us all in the dark.
Moreover, there is something slightly mean about telling everyone else that they are doing it wrong without doing anything about it yourself. Of course, pure criticism has its place. But to me it seems disingenuous to berate the obsession with symbolism and individualism on the part of the Left as a commentator with apparently little interest in doing anything material about the social problems you identify. I would be happily proven wrong on this point. Razer is perfectly positioned to write about those problems she is concerned about and pose interesting and compelling alternatives. But she seems to prefer confecting her own outrage about the confected outrage of others. That is, her criticism is basically an individual, symbolic act.
Which does make me ponder: who is Razer talking about when she talks about the ‘Left’? There’s a big difference between progressive liberals and people who see class and poverty as fundamental drivers of social trends. I have sympathy with some of Razer’s criticisms of progressive liberals: I make a lot of them myself. But while I might participate in many of the same campaigns with progressive liberals, we have very different objectives and strategies. It’s pretty easy to lump us all together without bothering to dissect this, but it ends up becoming a straw man argument.
Part of the problem seems to be that Razer’s orientation, like those she likes to criticise, appears to be entirely towards the media, as though this is the only place in which these debates take place. To my mind, this is an emblem of a much larger problem of modern political engagement, particularly in the age of social media: credibility increasingly correlates to the amount of noise you can make online. I don’t want to overstate this in relation to Razer, but she seems to be punching well above her weight in relation to the ‘debate’ about the ‘Left’ despite not seemingly being part of any Left movement at all. That is, she might profess to have left-wing ideas, but my schooling in left-wing politics was structured not simply upon philosophising about the world: the point was always to change it.
This is something that has become a feature of the modern ALP. More so than any other time in history, the ALP is accessible to the public and engaging with the political process through the media. But never has it looked less democratic: candidates are chosen by a captain’s pick, the PM (at least momentarily) preferred taking direction from a citizen’s assembly rather her own party and marriage equality is endorsed at almost every level of the party, but has still been kyboshed by the PM. It’s totally understandable why no-one – not even Senator John Faulkner, it seems – sees the point of joining a party like this. Labor’s almost entirely lost its material base and the only answer it can come up with seems to be more superficial engagement. Untethered from its working class roots, it naturally drifts into dangerous political waters.
This decline in political traditions and the disintegration of traditional modes of political engagement has consequences. That’s not to be nostalgic about the old days when ALP branch meetings could take place outside of a telephone booth. Nonetheless, such is the political reality with which the Left must contend. Political engagement happens less through political parties, unions and public meetings and increasingly through the echo chamber of social media. So of course, there’s something right about what Razer is saying: the creep of symbolism into modern political debates belies a big problem for the Left in terms of a loss of traditional organisations, structures and demands. But there is potential in this loss also.
This leads me to the alternatives to Razer’s nihilistic version of politics. Outrage by progressives about the latest pop culture transgression is no substitute for genuine political debate, but calling out sexism or other bad behaviour is not inherently invalid or unimportant. The question is what comes next.
To use Razer’s example, it’s true that the passage of marriage equality will ultimately be symbolic, as in most instances, the formal legal inequalities are all but ameliorated. But the campaign has also attracted thousands of people to its cause and built genuine political networks. Success has the potential to breed success: the campaign creates relationships and organisations that can continue to frame demands in relation to inequality and discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. This is fertile ground for rethinking the concept of marriage altogether and opening up new attitudes about social units like the family and the role it plays in society. More generally, a victory in the equal marriage campaign has the potential to inspire others to think that change is possible in all sorts of aspects of their lives. Or in the case of discussions about rape culture, I also have concerns about the way this term remains persistently amorphous and is used to justify regressive calls for tougher sentencing. But this creates an opportunity to discuss alternatives to the brutal aspects of punitive justice and the role of legal system in systemic marginalisation of the poor.
So symbolism can have a place. Such struggles are not inherently bad; the challenge is to turn symbolic change into material change. Politics is not a zero-sum-game, with only a limited set of demands at the expense of others: it can be exponential. The more people talk about politics and organise around them, the greater number of political demands can be discussed.
But to achieve this actually involves intervening into the debates, patiently proposing alternatives and building alliances in good faith, rather than cutting everyone else down. That’s precisely why Razer, despite being pithy and talented, leaves me cold. She has a platform and the skills to discuss some of the key issues she feels are neglected and expand the political possibilities. She has the power to create an antidote to the problem she identifies but chooses not to. It’s disappointing and unimaginative, not to mention mean. Like the current political climate, there is great potential there, but at present, Razer is taking us nowhere.