If anything has marked this election campaign, it’s the detached way that much of the Left outside the ALP has treated Labor’s performance and the likelihood it will lose. In Overland on Wednesday, Michael Brull summed the feeling up well, arguing that, ‘For a leftist, what hope can there be for an election? Either the ALP will win, or the Coalition will. On leftist issues, the results will be disastrous.’ In another Overland post, Tom Clark argued that things have gotten so bad on the Labor side that it deserved to be thrown out of office.
These sentiments can be found not just among those who, like Brull, were scathing of Gillard on a range of issues and have continued to be under Rudd. The Greens, who were supportive of the previous PM’s achievements, now seem unwilling to wholeheartedly back the ALP against Abbott, instead campaigning on constraining him once he has already won. Even many fanatically partisan ALP backers under Gillard seem to have sunk into half-hearted support for their party, accepting the inevitability of defeat despite the relative closeness of the polls.
It is the reasons for this rapid shift from partisan frenzy to sullen resignation on the Left that I want to address. Few have openly acknowledged it, and when they have it has tended to be explained away in terms of Rudd’s great policy betrayals, especially on asylum, which make him no better than Abbott. Yet any honest accounting would acknowledge that Rudd’s policies are not qualitatively worse than Gillard’s, and that (as Brull points out) the ALP’s record has been awful – and awfully close to the Coalition’s – on very many issues for a long time now.
Something else must be going on.
The real problem for the Left is that we are seeing the eclipse of a century-long era institutionalisation of politics around a rigid Right/Left axis. Further, Rudd’s project of directly attacking the remnants of labourism (that is, the organised intervention of the trade union bureaucracy in official politics) has created a situation where the traditional reference points are no longer there to orient more radical political projects. Those political foundations – which found expression in distinctive ideologies, policies and organisational forms inside the working-class and social movements – have not only been hollowed out but, with Rudd’s return, are missing in action.
With labourism exhausted, the old Left–Right battles now no longer seem to have the same relevance. They become the object of a kind of complicated bereavement, in which the Gillard interregnum was merely a transitional phase of anger, denial and bargaining, all to no avail.
Three main reactions to this have started to crystallise on the Left, usually connected with one another. These are at best inadequate and at worst wrong responses, as I outline below: the Left can pose a real alternative only if it faces up to what is actually happening politically.
The first response has been to blame ordinary people for the mess. This has been clearest when it comes to asylum seekers, where much of the Left has characterised Rudd’s PNG deal as an electoral move in response to cruel/racist/alienated swinging voters. As I (and others) have pointed out, there is little evidence of the issue shifting voting intentions, or of Rudd believing it does. But such a belief tempts Leftists into posing themselves as morally superior to the bulk of voters, separating themselves from those who disagree with them and scolding them for their ignorance, as with the Greens’ ‘Not With My Vote’ campaign, which rails against everyone but the already converted.
The second response has seen a lapse into a kind of impotent nostalgia for when politics was ‘better’. In this version what is sought is some kind of revival of the old arrangement where bosses and workers each had their own party, their own representation, however imperfect. This kind of thinking has even led some Marxists to suggest that the ALP tradition they have spent years excoriating actually had a heroic element that is now lost:
The key problem is that, even though Labor in its early years was ostracised from the political establishment, it was from its very inception a party that saw social change as coming through parliament. This didn’t mean that it was never capable of resisting the pressure to accommodate to the big business interests and the media which dominate the parliamentary arena. But as the years went on and Labor governments were elected, it got itself into the disastrously compromising business of running Australian capitalism.
Given that labourism, from its very inception, acted to politically incorporate the working class into the capitalist state, such claims are revisionist to say the least. Australian labourism was not just a particularly conservative and un-ideological version of social democratic reformism; it championed the three key planks of the Australian ruling-class program for most of last century: economic protectionism, industrial arbitration and White Australia. Most importantly, such nostalgic reimagining cannot be translated into practice, simply because the material basis for labourism no longer exists.
The third response has been a retreat into a kind of movementism. Brull puts it thus: ‘In short, we must fight on non-election days too … We must fight, we must organise, and we must force change.’ A more conservative variant of this argument is that of the ACTU leadership, which unenthusiastically supports Labor’s re-election but seems keener to simply push on with its own campaigns around precarious work. A more radical version, on the other hand, counterposes ‘real politics’ that ‘is about struggle’ to ‘slogans worked out through focus groups’.
There is no question that the weakness of social resistance to the political establishment is a major problem for the Left. But there is no royal road to political success through the return of mass struggle. The last fifteen years has been punctuated by major struggles against governments, never more so than with Australia’s biggest-ever protests – against the Iraq War. Yet each time they dissolved with no clear left-wing political alternative coalescing (with the partial and contradictory exception of the Greens). What is missing in such conceptions is what kind of political alternative is needed to deal with the very specific circumstances where the old reference points have lost most of their social basis. The problem is not that the depressing state of affairs in Canberra is not ‘real politics’ but that this is what real politics is today.
Each of these three responses essentially clings to the old, decaying political order, whether through hopes for its rehabilitation, imagining a movementist space within its structures, or via moral elitism reminiscent of that which animated traditional social democracy. The result is a tendency to see the Left’s prospects as dismal, because the official Left’s decay is seen as proof of the limited possibilities for a more radical politics. And the crisis of official politics is therefore seen – paradoxically – as a negative rather than an opportunity.
It is here that understanding the contradictions of Ruddism is so crucial. Rudd grasped more than any other politician of his generation that official politics cannot be renovated on the same social basis as before. By using anti-politics – positioning himself as working over the heads of an exhausted political class, rejecting its ideological argy-bargy as part of an irrelevant ‘old politics’ – he was able to maintain unprecedented levels of popularity for three years, two of them as prime minister. In that time he saw off three Liberal leaders. It was only when he was convinced to drop his climate agenda as a matter of political expediency (by the very people who would soon overthrow him) that he started to look like just another member of the political class he had attacked.
Rudd’s return just two months ago revealed how much the ALP’s electoral survival depended on spurning its traditions, and the first weeks of his second prime ministership once again showed the political efficacy of his unique ability to trash the political order he presided over. Yet it seems that once the campaign started (earlier than Rudd seemed to want it to, apparently under pressure from a twitchy party machine) Rudd pulled back from continuing to drive that message home. I disagree with Guy Rundle that the problem was that anti-politics is hard to do from government; Rudd managed it just fine in 2007–09. But anti-politics is high-risk in an election campaign coming from behind, and Rudd fell into playing the part of post-politics technocrat rather than anti-politics avenger. Ironically Rudd’s timidity on this score has allowed Abbott’s claims that he is just another ALP politician to have some effect. It is telling that Rudd blames his own abandonment of emissions trading in 2010 on the Liberals and Greens rather than admitting it was a mistake he made under pressure from the recalcitrants in his own party.
The flipside of the crisis of politics is a detachment from, bitterness towards, and hatred of politicians and politics. Thus, if Rudd loses it will not be because Abbott’s outdated (if incoherent) right-wing agenda has found favour with large numbers of voters – but because Rudd has failed to carry through the political project he promised. Today people vote much more against, rather than for, politicians and governments. It is this that led to historically high levels of informal votes, abstention and non-enrolment in 2010. It lies behind why many young people have not enrolled this year, and why so many Australians (especially young people) report suspicion of democracy:
For the second year in a row, the annual Lowy Institute Poll has found that less than half of 18-29-year old Australians … choose the statement ‘Democracy is preferable to any other kind of government’ when presented with three options about forms of government and asked to say which one comes ‘closest to (their) own personal views about democracy’.
How this crisis of authority plays out at the top and bottom of society is the central dividing line in Australian politics today, more important than the ossified Right-Left divisions that Abbott seems intent on being the last committed practitioner of. The key division is between an insider political establishment and the millions of people who feel shut out of political life; to whom the old ideological fixations are a symptom of the problems they face, not a solution. For the Left outside the ALP to orient around those old divisions therefore makes little sense and risks dragging us into further debacles like the Greens’ alliance with Gillard, which served to prop up unpopular neoliberal governance rather than mobilise opposition to it, and saw many on the Left complaining that the government’s record was being ignored by an ungrateful electorate. It means recognising the progressive element in the popular hatred of politics and not being seduced by the idea that we need to return to a time where official politics had greater authority.
The Left’s lapse into a form of ‘plague on both their houses’ arguments is another phase of an unresolved grief reaction, in which a positive alternative cannot be imagined because there is not yet a coming to terms with the loss of the old institutions, let alone the possibilities of radical rupture that loss opens up. Whoever wins the election, the political order will remain unstable and open to challenge because of its weak social foundations. The question is whether we can take advantage of that reality or find ourselves stuck wishing it wasn’t happening.
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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