Labor’s leadership issue: it’s not the media’s fault

On the weekend, the Age’s editorial calling for Julia Gillard to stand down for Kevin Rudd spurred outrage all over social media.

There was, without doubt, something a little grotesque about the leader writer’s suggestion that a Gillard resignation would somehow produce ‘vigorous, policy-driven democratic debate’. The Age is […] despairing of the vacuum in policy debate,’ explained the piece, as if the editor of a major newspaper played no role whatsoever determining what was debated and how.

Yet the extent of the anger suggested that many people see the media as responsible for Labor’s leadership crisis – and that’s simply not the case. The Gillard-Rudd war is real, and it’s disorienting to blame the newspapers for what’s taking place.

Certainly, political journalism today often seems to consist of polls, of personalities, of the easy narrative of Julia versus Kevin, with none of the ‘policy-driven debate’ that the Age apparently craves.

But no-one can argue that the Labor contenders have been pursuing an intense policy debate that’s somehow been obscured by the triviality with which it’s been covered. On the contrary, both the Gillard camp and the Rudd camp have, right from the start, made their public claims to leadership almost entirely on the basis of style and popularity. Gillard deposed Rudd because of bad polling; if Rudd’s candidature once more seems viable, it’s for entirely the same reason.

More importantly, while the divisions in the ALP might, for the moment, centre on the competing ambitions of two individuals, the leadership ruction should be understood as a symptom of the party’s woes rather than the cause.

A decade ago, the late John Button published a Quarterly Essay analysing the Labor Party’s fortunes back then:

Federally, the party is in retreat. Its primary votes, its membership and the breadth of people it sends to parliament are all shrinking. These things are intimately connected, and they are made possible by a party structure that has barely changed in the past century, that is moribund and out of touch with contemporary society.

[I]n 2001, Labor’s membership is lower (relative to the population) than at any time since the party became a major political force. With no comprehensive national database, a figure of 50 000 is a reasonable estimate of total membership, even including the large number of members signed up at concessional rates in branch-stacking campaigns. This, as South Australian Senator Chris Schact has poignantly observed, is about the same as the membership of the Adelaide Football Club. It is a woeful figure.

Button concluded with an anecdote:

The other day, in a street near where I live, I ran into Lym Fraser. She and her husband Ken have been members of my ALP branch for twenty-four years. They’ve done the letterboxing, the handing out of cards on polling day, the talking up of the party to outsiders – everything a good party member is supposed to do. I asked her if they were still members. She replied, ‘Yes, I am, but when I rejoined this year I told them on the form what I thought.’

She told them it was not the party she joined twenty-four years ago. It no longer represented people like her. She didn’t like the ALP toadying to the electorate when it should have principles of its own that it stood up for. […]

Lym and Ken no longer go to branch meetings. ‘You know,’ she added. ‘I think there are a lot of people who think like me, but these days there are more of them outside the Labor Party than in it.’

Since 2002, all the problems Button identified have, if anything, worsened. Think of how, in the endless discussion of Gillard versus Rudd, the views of the ALP’s rank-and-file never even get canvassed, even as every public opinion poll becomes a factional weapon. Here’s a political party engaged in a bitter feud as to its leader … and the members are simply assumed by everyone to be entirely irrelevant. The swinging voters in western Sydney get asked repeatedly for their thoughts on who should run the ALP but not the men and women who actually join Labor. So why should the Lyms and Kens bother to attend a meeting?

It’s commonplace, when diagnosing the ills of the ALP, to decry the pernicious effects of factionalism and union fiefdoms. But both factions and unions are, in theory, eminently democratic. Any political party with competing ideas will necessary harbour factions; trade unions, with their delegates, mass meetings and so on, provide more democratic input than almost any other social institution in Australia.

So where Button calls Labor’s structure ‘moribund and out of touch with contemporary society’, it would be more correct to emphasise the contradiction between the organisational systems of the social democratic tradition and the neoliberalism to which all the ALP leaders remain committed. Labor’s organised as a mass party, in which its members supposedly participate collectively through branch meetings, trade unions, conferences and so on. Yet, from the Hawke-Keating years on, the people running the party have proselytised the neoliberal gospel of marketisation, innately hostile to collectivity of any kind.

You can see the consequences in the way this contest plays out. It’s not simply that both camps harbour very similar ideas, at least at the level of philosophy. It’s also that maintaining the forms of inner democracy without any content leads to an internal politics that’s impenetrably complex, as the organisation becomes a playground for cliques and fiefdoms of all kind.

Furthermore, the withering of Labor’s internal life means that the ALP’s powerbrokers increasingly rely on the corporate media not only to communicate with the public but to send messages within their own organisation. That’s one reason for the reporting we’ve been seeing: the various factional players align themselves with various pundits and journalists, feeding them strategic information to pursue private agendas. Indeed, the distinction between political players and political pundits is now thinner than ever before, as media insiders and political insiders work in very similar ways.

Obviously, though, the neoliberal turn has consequences for more than the Labor Party. If the media seems to be running politics in Australia, that’s attributable to a more generalised degeneration of the institutions that once fostered public engagement in politics: parties, yes, but also unions, NGOs, religious congregations and so on. Wendy Brown explains the consequences [PDF] for the neoliberal public sphere like this:

The model neoliberal citizen is one who strategizes for her- or himself among various social, political, and economic options, not one who strives with others to alter or organize these options. A fully realized neoliberal citizenry would be the opposite of public-minded; indeed, it would barely exist as a public. The body politic ceases to be a body but is rather a group of individual entrepreneurs and consumers . . . which is, of course, exactly how voters are addressed in most American campaign discourse.

If citizens become consumers, public politics gets cast as infotainment, and so the glib, gossipy coverage of the Labor leadership dispute is not anomalous so much as indicative.

That’s why it’s important not to displace all responsibility onto the dread MSM, since oppositional discourse is not immune from the same pressures.

That is, in lieu of mass movements or political parties, the liberal Left increasingly uses social media to voice its positions. Over the last decade we’ve seen, in certain circumstances, how powerful that can be.

But we need to be conscious of how the social media platforms replicate and reinforce the neoliberal era in which they emerged. In his fascinating article, ‘The Thirteen Commandments of Neoliberalism’, Philip Mirowski makes, in passing, the following point.

Chat rooms, online gaming, virtual social networks, and electronic financialization of household budgets have encouraged even the most intellectually challenged to experiment with the new neoliberal personhood. A world where you can virtually switch gender, imagine you can upload your essence separate from your somatic self, assume any set of attributes, and reduce your social life to an arbitrary collection of statistics on a social networking site is a neoliberal playground.

You can see how this plays out in some of the recent Twitter spats, which degenerate, almost at once (or even from their inception) into apolitical snark. Social media isn’t simply about communication – it’s about the construction of a persona via your communications. Because you generate your online personhood through the content you post, criticism of your ideas inevitably seems an attack not on your ideas but on your self. Hence the personalised, nasty nature of the disputes that ensue.

In that respect, social media response to the leadership issues often replicates the worse elements of the mainstream journalism it decries.

On Twitter during the weekend, the most consistent response to the Age editorial involved a call for discussions of policy rather than personality. Yet what would that actually entail in the context of the leadership dispute?

Here’s two major policy areas in the news in the last few days.

New Matilda carried a heartbreaking account of the NT intervention by the Alice Springs activist Barbara Shaw.

They said the Intervention was about stopping children from being abused, that it was going to stop the drinking and domestic violence. But all I have seen is racism and disempowerment of our people. It’s the old assimilation policy back again, to control how we live. The government and many non-Aboriginal NGOs have taken over the assets and responsibilities of our organisations, both in the major town centres and remote communities forcing us to comply with their policies that take no account of Aboriginal culture and our obligations.

Around the same time, the Age published a piece on the effects of bridging visas on refugees.

In the cramped confines of a four-bedroom weatherboard house on the outskirts of Geelong, a group of Tamil men spend their days doing little more than worry about their fate.
They are among 14,812 asylum seekers who, largely because of chronic overcrowding in Australia’s mainland and offshore detention centres, have been granted bridging visas while immigration authorities process their claims for refugee status.
For almost six weeks now they have been living in transitional accommodation, the initial phase of their community release after several months in detention.
But they urgently need to find their own place. If they don’t, they will each be charged $150 a week in rent to stay there – almost double what they are paying – from their $27-a-day stipend.
So far, all of their rental applications have been rejected, possibly because they cannot commit to a lease beyond six months. Based on repeated indications from the Immigration Department, though, they are likely to be sent to another country thereafter.
The house is crowded and, given the number of bunk beds in each bedroom, looks more like a hostel.

How would the Intervention or refugee policy be shaped by the resolution of leadership issue? The answer is that it wouldn’t. There’s no suggestion Rudd would change Labor’s support for the Intervention. As for asylum seekers, leadership spills seem only to spur the ALP into ever more atrocious stances: Gillard deposed Rudd in part because he was seen as too soft on refugees but it’s quite likely that a Rudd return would entail an attempt to neutralise the issue by moving closer to Abbott.

Yet outsider critics seem as indifferent to discussions of these policies as the MSM they decry. Last week, Clementine Ford wrote a good piece denouncing the imperial feminism often invoked to justify Western interventions in the middle east. She argued:

Empowering citizens of any community is manifestly contingent upon them being given the means and support to empower themselves; to pursue the kind of liberation that lines up with their cultural desires, rather than those of a foreign invader. This is especially true of feminism, which is invested in securing women’s autonomy and self-determination. Efforts to liberate non-Western women from oppressive social structures may be well meant, but denying those women the right to lead themselves only further compounds the lack of agency they might experience.

Nowhere has that argument been more vindicated than in Afghanistan, where a war of ‘liberation’ led to the West providing billions of dollars of aid to a corrupt gang of warlords, torturers and drug-runners. We now learn that the US is currently engaged in negotiations with the Taliban, talks that will almost certainly result in at least some of the Taliban leadership becoming part of whatever hideous administration arises from the ashes of the conflict. Entirely predictably, the women of Afghanistan have been the biggest losers of all.

But the force of Ford’s article is entirely blunted by an obvious point: Australia’s participation in the occupation of Afghanistan is taking place under the leadership of Julia Gillard, on whose behalf Ford launched the ‘Women for Gillard’ fundraising project. To put it another way, fighting against imperial feminism in Australia means struggling to bring the troops home – and that means, at this moment, fighting against Julia Gillard, rather than providing support for her.

No doubt many people feel under pressure not to mention Labor’s policies, on the basis that criticism of the ALP provides an easy run for Tony Abbott. But that reverses the political logic of what’s taking place. We should, of course, be warning that an Abbott government will be all too likely to sign up for whatever new imperial wars are in the offing. But we can scarcely denounce Abbott as a warmonger with any credibility if we say nothing about the war Labor’s running right now. Likewise, the Liberals will, without a doubt, launch a fresh assault on refugees. But how can we highlight the cruelty that’s to come, if we don’t speak out against the abominable demonisation of refugees for which Labor’s responsible?

All across the board, political support for the ALP’s rightwing politics normalises the radial conservatism of Tony Abbott.

So, yes, that Age editorial was indicative of the political dysfunction we face right now. But we shouldn’t kid ourselves that the problems can be traced back exclusively to the media, for they run much deeper than that. Irrespective of what happens this week, the crisis in the ALP will not be resolved: what we’re seeing now is merely a curtain raiser to the bloodletting that will take place after the election.

It’s important for the Left not to get sucked into the Labor vortex. We need a much broader conversation about how we can refashion progressive politics in this new environment.

Jeff Sparrow

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

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

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  1. Thanks for the excellent article. Just thought I’d let you know that some of the links to other articles are coming up as email addresses.

  2. Thanks Jeff. Echoing Scott’s overall impression with another side-issue: you offer a characterisation that seems right to my eye: “In lieu of mass movements or political parties, the liberal Left increasingly uses social media to voice its positions.” Lots of interest, though, in what the rank and file of the Right do with the same technological platforms, which I suspect people must be researching already. I’d hazard there we’ll find less emphasis on “voice,” more on “organise.” Many, many conservative hours poured into blogs, news forums, Twitter etc, which are pushing debate powerfully because they can plug into elite structures such as the corporate media. It matches a broader sense that the right is much, more coherent in its objectives than the left these days — thoughtful analysis produces rather different goods.

  3. Jeff I think you are underestimating the degree to which the Gillard vs Rudd leadership contest is media generated. On ABC24 this weekend I watched a bemused Attorney General attempt to announce the launching of an inquiry into discrimination against pregnant women in the workplace. Immediately he was done almost all the questions from the media related to the supposed leadership struggle. At one point he offered to declare the launch closed if he didn’t receive a question pertaining to the matter at hand.
    Similar examples of ALP MPs refusing to answer questions about the leadership contest in the media abound at the moment. Take Bill Shorten’s weary repeated replies of “no” to questions put to him about the leadership question on radio last week.
    Surely if the media were genuinely interested in policy debates they could start asking questions about…policy? To blame the reactionary nature of many of the ALP’s policies and their similarity to those of the Liberal’s for the leadership media circus just doesn’t cut it. If the media want a real policy debate all they have to do is focus on the Greens and their differences with the ALP…

    1. I’m not intending to write an alibi for the media. But too often the focus on the triviality of political coverage carries an implication that, if only the media did a better job, there’d be a flourishing political culture in Australia. And that’s not the case. There’s a deep crisis in the ALP at the moment — and, I think you could say, in our political institutions more broadly.

  4. The crucial point in your piece appears to be that the new forms of social interconnection that have come to centrality via the online revolution, tends to predispose people to a neoliberal approach to personality and life – individually entrepreneurial, fluid, shapeshifting, contractual, etc etc – and that small professional political parties then float above this, their internal policy-free struggles thus becoming soap operas to be covered by the media. This new structure predisposes the media to follow policy-free debates – the problem lies not principally in editorial choices, but in the changed structure of social life, and political reconstruction needs to think and work at that latter level.

    There’s a lot I agree with in that, but some of that which I do is overstated, and I think the core conclusion about neoliberalism and the online revolution is a bit tangled. To go from the top layer down:

    yes, the vacuum in Oz political policy etc does predispose a lack of policy-based media coverage. But that vacuum has some particular features: 1 – Australian political coverage is particularly bad and ideas-free and has been for a long time. This is due to longstanding anti-intellectualism, which survived well into the current era. The ‘cadet’ system recruits a certain type of reporter, eventually rotated into political coverage, which they then treat like they were covering the police rounds, or the greyhounds for that matter. Hence the utter vacuousness of the political columns by the News/Fairfax lifers – ideas free zones, with a simple inability to relate current events to wider movements of the world and history. The process of recruiting journalists elsewhere has its problems – in the UK, you ring Tristan’s uncle you went to Cambridge with and he gives you a job, and in the US you either go from a Masters in global public policy to such broadsheets as remain (or you quarterback for Florida State/are Miss Alabama 2011 and go to cable news) – but they generate a better, smarter, more ideas-based crop of writers.
    2 – compared to what’s going on in the rest of the world, many people in Australia feel themselves to be doing pretty well, and – unlike much of Europe and the US – don’t see the place as ‘broken’. It’s noteable that the two policy areas you quote – indigenous people and refugees – are both ethical policies on behalf of smaller groups, rather than policies concerning the life of the mass. The current condition of Australia favours a conservative politics of the Burkean kind. But that is no longer possible in a 24 hour media cycle, which demands ceaseless stories.

    The new socio-cultural structures created by the online revolution is not implicitly neoliberal but it is implicitly atomised in relation to the socio-cultural-psychological ensembles that existed in modernity. To put it simply: mass parties and organisations, stable over time and with internal hierarchies were possible only in an era when lower-level ensembles – bounded neighbourhoods, solidaristic ethnic/religious etc groups – generated a form of subjectivity that gained its meaning from being bound up with others in an abiding and ongoing fashion. In the 60s, changes in both content and form (everything from increased education, changed mix of intellectual/manual labour, individualising pop culture to cheaper jet travel etc) began to reconstruct this social form. In left politics, this was the transition from the old left to the new left, and on to the social movements era. What was once a meaningful act – to join, to submit to a way of life – became first frustrating and then intolerable and meaningless.

    In the new online era, such commitments are now, for the vast majority, unimaginable. Subjectivity and the social ensembles in which it was bound has been reconstructed to such a degree that new forms of political sociality are coming into being. Thus the dual character of the online revolution and the atomisation arising therefrom: if it creates a more hyper-indvidualised subject, focused on self-fashioning and construction, etc, it also creates a new global form of interconnectivity and solidarity and co-operation, as evidenced by things like the open source movement, the ‘Spring’ movements and the Occupy and post-Occupy ‘mo(ve)ments’ that we now see kicking off everywhere. These processes work best in places where there is an intersection between the earlier forms of modernity – unions etc – and the new online world: Greece, Turkey, Brazil, etc. The problem in the most developed parts of the West is that the politics of this new online layer, tends to occur only on that layer – thus what has really got politics going, blowing up the Republican party on one side in the US, and the left vs liberal-left on the other – has been the NSA Treadstone PRISM revelations. More broadly, the politics of this, at the moment, are overwhelmingly concerned with the issue of information, free speech etc, and less with the material base of life. But if the online revolution were inherently neoliberal there would be no open source movement in science, medical research as well as pop culture, no copyleft, no Wikileaks, no Wikileaks solidarity movement, no Tor, no hackerspaces and makerspaces, no arduino movement, etc etc. The online revolution by making knowledge infinitely distrbutable at cost trending to zero at the margin decommodifies where neoliberalism attempts to recommodify.
    This new world most likely spells the end of political parties in the old form – a form which coincided with the ensemble of the city, the printing press, limited mobility, industrial capitalism etc – and the hollowing out of the ALP is as much evidence of that as the virtual collapse of the UK SWP is. (On the other hand it’s quite possible that people might react to this fluidity etc with a sudden wildfire commitment to a new radical cult – in the same way that Maoism spread through the third world in the high modern era). The social-psychological challenges it is creating – mass isolation, disconnection, the spread of a distinctive type of low-level persistent depression, the undermining of the possibility of commitment to others in many spheres of life – are a general feature of the technology’s dominance, not of neoliberalism per se. They’d occur even if a socialist world had been created in the 50s-70s, and this technology was now evolving within it. Indeed, such social-psychological problems began to develop in Scandinavia in a period when it was most definitely not neoliberal.
    The dual challenge for politics is to make this process more visible, understand it, talk back to techno-utopianism – a lot easier to get a hearing for now than when I was saying this elsewhere fifteen years ago – reconceive the terms of a socially just post-capitalist society within this new worldframe, and reconstruct political methods to adapt to a framework which has made old processes and institutions obsolete.
    Which is enough to be going on with.

  5. I probably didn’t express myself very well — this piece was banged together in a bit of a rush. The stuff about social media was, in a way, shoehorned in from an earlier discussion, after various Twitter discussions about Gillard/Labor etc had been spectacularly derailed into snark and confected outrage.
    I am not saying that Twitter or Facebook or whatever are inherently neoliberal: I’m not even sure what that would mean. But the various platforms did emerge at the height of the boom, and you can see their default settings reflect that. Mirowski talks about the self as an aggregation of statistics. Jane Gleeson-White’s fab book Double Entry is really fascinating about the novelty of capitalist accounting, the mental wrenches people had to undertake to shift from a focus on use to exchange. Now, however, that’s all been internalised. I remember somewhere reading a piece by one of those muppets from Wired or some similar techno utopian sites about how he used a whole series of apps to measure and graph every element of his life — number of calories, amount of sleep, lines written, whatever — so he could constantly chart his progress. The point about Twitter is that, a few centuries ago, the notion that you might represent relationships numerically would have seemed utterly preposterous, since relationships only had meaning in context.
    Now, that doesn’t mean that Twitter is rightwing or something. Indeed, what’s fascinating about the internet is how often it gets used against the grain, with people finding all sorts of ways to make use of applications or technologies by doing things that their inventors never intended. But more on that in a minute
    My point was simper and more concrete: that social media encourages a kind of self-fashioning that doesn’t necessarily lend itself to political debate, since it’s difficult to separate the content of what’s posted from what that contents says about the poster. That’s why, I think, Twitter debates become so insanely heated so quickly.
    Anyway, it’s a minor point.
    You’re not going to like this but IMO your anti-Marxism has pushed you into an odd rediscovery of pre-Marxist positions — or, perhaps, a resuscitation of the vulgar Marxism of the twentieth century, which is kind of the same thing (how do you like them apples! 🙂 ). That is, you read off from your analysis of the epoch into a series of iron laws as to the shape of political struggles, so that it’s the technology that creates disconnection and depression, not the social relations in which that technology’s embedded.
    In part, the problem is that terms like ‘socio-cultural-psychological ensembles’ are so vague as to contain almost anything, depending on the particular argument you want to make. But, more than that, in this argument, as in the last one, you remove politics from the equation.
    That is, if you want to talk about the origins of the ALP’s crisis, the key moment — or at least key moment — comes with the Accord, and the inability of the Left to offer any alternative. It’s not a minor point, since, at the moment, many of ‘reformers’ in the ALP look back to the eghties as halcyon days.
    Likewise with the SWP: you discuss its decline as if it were somehow pre-ordained, on the basis that the online revolution has spelt the end of political parties in the old way. But even with the cursory scrutiny possible from the distance of a different continent, it’s clear that there were all sorts of decisions made along the way that could entirely have been otherwise: most obviously, how the complaint of sexual abuse was treated, but going back to various internal disputes of the past.
    As I mentioned in an earlier debate, I was interested in the discussion about Occupy in the latest Socialist Register, and I’ve now managed to read it. Rather than those protests signalling the end of the party form, Jodi Dean makes a convincing case that, in fact, the success of Occupy stemmed from its temporary ability to replicate the function of a Leninist organisation in a different vocabulary: that is, by providing a way that the most determined activists could cohere a kind of leadership (in the occupation itself).
    Indeed, what comes out of that chapter, and the piece on Occupy Oakland, is precisely how the movement foundered in response to immediate political questions, most of which are pretty familiar. How do you overcome the limitations of consensus decision making? What do you say about the provocations of the Black Bloc? How do you respond to overtures from Democratic politicians? And, in particular, what do you do about the state?
    That last point’s worth stressing, since in the previous argument you focussed a great deal on the significance of the state’s new surveillance techniques. But, actually, that wasn’t the problem for Occupy. As with the much smaller protests here, they were dispersed in a very traditioanal way by cops with batons — and they never recovered from that, partly because their ways of organsiing were so based on the occupation itself.
    My point is simply that, when you read these accounts, it’s very difficult to say that we’re dealing with a ‘framework which has made old processes and institutions obsolete’. At the very least, the problems that those old processes and institutions tried to address are still very much with us, which is why the initial jubilation with which some Occupiers declared that they had solved old organisational problems (via their assemblies and consensual decision making) later turned to despair, as the very familiar problems reasserted themselves.
    Indeed, I think one of the points that’s not stressed enough in these debates is that, rather than representing a divergence from capitalist norms, neoliberalism might be better thought of as a more exact representation of the system’s essence.
    You note that, if the technology ‘creates a more hyper-indvidualised subject, focused on self-fashioning and construction, etc, it also creates a new global form of interconnectivity and solidarity and co-operation.’ But, of course, that’s a perfect description of capitalism, an expression of the tendencies that exist implicitly in the very notion of a commodity.
    I am not trying to say that there’s nothing new under the sun, and that we can simply apply already existing answers. If that were the case, the Left wouldn’t be in the trouble that is. But we need to subsume our analysis of technology to a political analysis, not the other way around.
    Gah. This seems to have become quite long again. 🙁

  6. I want to respond to this in your article, Jeff:

    So where Button calls Labor’s structure ‘moribund and out of touch with contemporary society’, it would be more correct to emphasise the contradiction between the organisational systems of the social democratic tradition and the neoliberalism to which all the ALP leaders remain committed. Labor’s organised as a mass party, in which its members supposedly participate collectively through branch meetings, trade unions, conferences and so on. Yet, from the Hawke-Keating years on, the people running the party have proselytised the neoliberal gospel of marketisation, innately hostile to collectivity of any kind.

    I think there is something more to Button’s argument than you acknowledge. The ALP is not just any kind of social democratic party, but a labourist one (as Gillard made clear in her infamous speech to the AWU). That is, it is not the product of the party and union members (workers) but the trade union bureaucracy. It is the intervention of the bureaucrats into the sphere of bourgeois politics and the state. Therefore, while the hollowing out of party and union democracy is an important trend, we shouldn’t overstate its independent significance; the ALP was never particularly internally democratic because it has been the party of the union bureaucrats, not the members.

    Historically, Australia’s unions rapidly came to have significant social strength yet were also marked by a deep conservatism and willingness to be incorporated into the state (this is what Paul Kelly’s “Australian Settlement” argument, whatever its flaws, captures to some extent). The result was an ALP based on a union leadership that itself stood on a strong social basis (union density never dropped below 40% between 1914 and 1990, not even in the Depression) but which eagerly promoted arbitration, protectionism and White Australia in a fairly corporatist way.

    This totally shaped Australian politics: The bourgeois free traders and protectionists settled their differences to oppose the rise of a powerful industrial and political labourism. It was a labourism that could deliver primary votes of the sort the ALP can’t even dream of now in successive losing federal elections in the post-WWII era.

    The importance of the Accord era and the embrace of neoliberalism has been the way that unions themselves have become much less socially relevant to workers, and how this has impacted on the ability of labourism to sustain itself politically. With union density down to 18% and the unions offering no serious challenge to the dominant employer-friendly legal environment, what does the ALP actually represent in social terms? It is now the party of a relatively marginal social grouping, whose own power has been stripped by the way they systematically neutered independent rank-and-file organisation, confidence and politics, and by the way they also argued that looking after the productivity of Australian capitalism was the central task for the union movement (an argument ACTU economist Matt Cowgill articulates very clearly). It’s not about competing traditions; the ALP and unions are materially organised to implement piecemeal neoliberal economic reform through their influence on organised workers, although much more weakly than at any time in 100 years.

    Further, when the officialdom is so weak, its politics get ever more focused on pathways to careers, influence, etc. through the ALP, and (hence) through the state. In addition, having a direct line to the state gives them authority to wield when winning the argument with their members. Hence why the majority of unions have fought so hard to maintain control of the ALP against Rudd’s technocratic centralism, because those paths would then risk being blocked.

    It also explains why the union leaders are so keen to sell their members this right-wing, crisis-ridden ALP government as the only thing preventing Apocalypse at Abbott’s hands: Because they both cannot envisage serious working class fightback from below and indeed want to prevent such things happening because it would destabilise their own influence over their members. We don’t have an Accord, but by backing Gillard so strongly the union leaders are selling their members the need to follow the government’s pro-employer agenda, with which they largely agree.

    I think it’s important to make this argument because it helps explain why the lack of policy difference between Gillard and Rudd doesn’t make the battle unimportant for the Left to understand and try to intervene in. Simply having the “plague on both their houses” approach obscures more than it illuminates. This is about how politics is organised and therefore any consideration of how the radical Left could take advantage of that must take this into account.

    One way to think about it is to compare Germany and Australia. In the former the left-wing split of the SPD’s support base was to a clearly class-based party, in the latter it was to the Greens. The difference is the relative strength of the working class institutions in each country. In Australia there was simply no basis for a second social democratic or labourist party to the Left of Labor.

    We were totally correct to see the rise of the Greens as a tremendously significant development, even if the Greens in many ways represent the weakness of class politics. It is why it would be incorrect to reflexively accept the idea that we should back Gillard over Rudd because she represents some kind of class politics (via the union bureaucrats) when he doesn’t.

    But whatever debate we have, I think that we need to understand that the way that politics has been materially organised for a very long time is cracking up, and we need to start thinking about how we might shape what follows.

  7. Sorry Jeff yours is an orthodox understanding of what is happening in the ALP. You do rightly point to the fact that all parties have factions but to blame neo-liberalism is lazy.
    if anything, it is the lack of liberalism that has destroyed the ALP. There is no space of aspiration and for a diversity of views in the ALP. It was the injection of liberalism in a labourist white male dominated party by Whitlam, Hawke and Keating that gave the ALP its and broader platform of women, professionals, gays, lesbians, students, migrants and so on.
    And the refugee issue, my god, who other than Fraser now and Petro Georgiou have the temerity to say the truth about refugees?
    I mean come on, wasn’t it Gerry Hand under Hawke that introduced refugee camps? Paul Kelly recounts how Neil Blewett talked about Gerry Hand talking about “the wickedness of boat people, their sinister manipulators (Chinese tongs this time) and attacks on the self righteous attitudes of churches and do gooders”
    Really, do you want to go back to restricted trade practices, tariffs, and demarcation disputes? The Australia Reconstructed document of the 1980s was one of the greatest economic and social documents developed by the ALP – authored by Crean, Ferguson and Keating etal and provided the growth of the modern Australian economy.
    Ideological warriors like Howard and Gillard have destroyed the greatest and most radical political theory – liberalism. Not just a lazy covenant between right wing unions and left wing factions. I am a strong believer in the true liberal left values of progress.

  8. Nice article—and I agree with the analysis of the ALP’s leadership struggle and its reflection in the MSM. But of course I’m going to focus on the vaguest and perhaps least relevant part of the argument which was this crib from another article:

    A world where you can virtually switch gender, imagine you can upload your essence separate from your somatic self, assume any set of attributes, and reduce your social life to an arbitrary collection of statistics on a social networking site is a neoliberal playground.

    I think it’s important to recognise that this remark by Mirowski shies carefully shies away from a claim that online spaces are inherently neoliberal—just that neoliberal relations can be effectively expressed in such a space, with some increasingly tendentious corresponding claims about the breakdown of personhood as it becomes “scale-free”.

    (I don’t doubt that if Mirowski thought that it could be argued that online relations were inherently neoliberal, he would do so. That he doesn’t says something.)

    Personally I do not agree that most individuals online express their personhood in a newly thorough-going neoliberal manner, building a persona distinct from their “somatic” selves with a particular social or economic strategy in mind, or quantifying or strategising their performance in any ways (for example, naively counting “friends” or how well attended an event is, or inflating a CV) that did not more or less already occur offline.

    I think it could be argued that the perception that this is the case is a natural cognitive bias among columnists, essayists, etc (and prolix commenters!) who do make a living through communication, and who do carefully filter their online presences, and “brand” themselves in more sophisticated ways.

    Communications technology precedes economic relations though it may shape them, and though they certainly lead to certain emphases in its use. But it is the field on which social and economic relations of all types take place. It will be the field on which any arrangement that replaces neoliberalism takes place.

    The Internet as a communications technology is not inherently neoliberal any more than the telephone—which, as much as does the net, divorces the speaker from their physical appearance—is inherently neoliberal, and the increasingly shifting individuation of online persons (as expressed today, mainly, through text, works of visual design, and curation of the media of third parties) has been shaped far more thoroughly by the changing constraints of the technologies and services that have permitted it (telegrams, telephones, bulletin boards, mailing lists, personal webhosting, LiveJournal and blogs, Facebook, Twitter et al.) than by changing relations in the social and economic spheres—and by the rate at which those constraints change, and consequently the rate at which we are required to remake ourselves in a new environment in which our self-expression is differently constrained and new niceties apply.

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