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.