The age of retail politics

When I worked in a call centre in the 1990s, we often had political questions tacked onto the end of marketing surveys. First we asked respondents to rate a few common products or ads, then a handful of controversial notions. Collecting data about whether ‘homosexuals should be actively discouraged’ was a rich source of hilarity among co-workers, but also a pretty depressing insight into how the phrasing of a question could manipulate the answers given.

The juxtaposition of these political ‘value’ questions with marketing questions seemed like an uncomfortable contrast to me at the time – I was an idealistic political science major. But it strikes me, during this bland and depressing election campaign, that the framing of political opinions in the language and shape of products for sale has now become the standard mode of engagement with political life. We live in the age of retail politics.

Retail politics used to mean the baby-kissing and town-hall mode of campaign time, which we can still see: witness Abbott’s awkward military boot camp squats in Darwin, or Rudd’s awkward selfies with Muslim voters in Western Sydney. But this performance feels tired and incidental to the game somehow.

In politics circa 2013, retail politics also describes what happens behind the scenes as the parties subject themselves to hard analysis, not of policy but of market dynamics. If this Labor government has been characterised by anything other than bloodthirsty purges, it’s the apparent wavering around polls and policy, and the loss of clarity about its ‘message’. All this wobbliness is evidence of a drift deeper into neoliberal thinking, where every relation becomes a capitalist relation.

We saw this with the baby bonuses, the schoolkid bonuses, the one-off cheques that might ease day-to-day living but do little to address the circumstances – huge levels of household debt, low and punitive welfare, the cost of living pressures, particularly in housing markets – that make that living difficult, even in a strong economy. Rudd replaced Gillard because she didn’t test well, with male voters it turned out. He has since been running a campaign more or less like a man in one of those TV game show shopping sprees: will he go for the single parents, the gays, the retirees, the NBN, or is it it’s high speed rail!

The government no longer thinks of us as ‘the people we represent’ or even ‘the people’ but rather as consumers of their policies, which makes us atomised self-interested individuals – the opposite of civil society. The ALP has shed the last vestiges of social democracy, despite Gillard’s attempt to revive traditional policy areas with the much-lauded disability insurance scheme and swallowed ‘no such thing as society’ Thatcherism. Even the Rudd of 2007’s Monthly essay – someone who told us about an obligation to help the most vulnerable in society and campaigned around homelessness – is barely recognisable. Nowadays there is hardly a soup kitchen in sight. (Perhaps they didn’t test well with focus groups.)

If the choice offered to voters this September feels a bit pointless, then it’s at least a pointless choice we’re familiar with. It’s a Coles vs Woolworths choice, with the same meaningless noise and harping jingles, the same indistinguishable discounts and spot specials, the same influence of vague brand loyalty or geographical convenience. The asylum seeker policy on offer even looks like a hellish version of that (already hellish) ad with the giant hands: ‘Down, down! Human rights are down!’ it sings, while a boat capsizes in aisle seven.

Much has been written over the last few years about Labor’s trouble with narrative. The party seems convinced its message wasn’t getting through to voters, because of a hostile media or bad party discipline or the fact of Gillard’s gender. Some of the analysis of this narrative cliche has been excellent: Bernard Keane looked at how that narrative is constructed in Crikey; Tad Tietze pointed out at Left Flank that the problem is positional, not tactical, and can be traced back to the 1980s when Hawke ushered in the Accord – ‘Labor became incapable of articulating a clear “narrative” not because it lacked good storytellers, but because its agenda no longer reflected or cohered a clear set of social interests.’

I’d trace that agenda back further, to 1949 perhaps, when the Chifley government sent in the military to break the NSW coal strikes. If pressed, I might argue that Labor’s betrayal of the workers is the closest thing it has to a core value. And perhaps that contradiction is what drives this eternal search for the narrative that will expurgate its terrible, hollow soul.

But when Labor says narrative, it really means the same thing marketing department thinks it means: brand. And this error appears to stem from seeing politics as a retail business. In retail politics, all problems can be solved by changing the image of those problems. Appeals are made to niche markets – those discouraging homosexuals get another look in as Rudd promises to consider same-sex marriage, for example. But it’s a marketing decision; it doesn’t come from a place of conviction. If it did, there would be a change to party policy – and no sending LGBTI asylum seekers, many of whom are fleeing persecution because of their sexuality, to PNG, where their sexuality will be just as illegal as it was in Iraq. The symbolism of the apology to the stolen generations would not be followed by six years of continuing the Intervention, regardless of its detrimental effects in Indigenous communities. And so forth.

Data-driven polling is partly responsible, as is the close relationship between politicians and the corporate media, and the latter’s brazen campaigning is a pretty stark reminder of the need for independent media – especially when you live (as I do) in a state where both major newspapers are Murdoch vehicles. But also at work, I think, is an Australian failing – a kind of supermarketisation of our national identity. A suburban closed-mindedness, a resentment of having to make any uncomfortable choices, or think about complex problems that require courage and conviction, like climate change or Indigenous health or the consequences of war. It is easier to concern ourselves with false and minor conflicts; to treat our politicians like a doorknocking ISP, offering competitive discounts on a quiet life.

Between shifts at the market research centre, I was writing mediocre essays about globalisation: the way the nation state was losing power to more mobile, multinational and adaptive corporations. The nation state, the 1990s told me, may soon be a thing of the past. But the Australian state is simply surviving a corporate context by becoming a corporate entity. It mimics corporate behaviour and a corporate mode of decision-making. It requires a brand now to know it’s alive.

The Coles vs Woolworths election probably won’t be remembered as a turning point in political life; let’s face it, the choice is banality incarnate. But it’s worth asking why the machinery of running a state has come down to a sort of corporate visioning, and what effect this is going to have in the long term.

In this context, Abbott’s imaginary army of follow-bots is nothing short of scary. These are the bots that will surely replace us, as we gradually abdicate our choices to increasing levels of automated preference predictability. We, the consumers of retail politics, will soon be able to relax our minds completely.


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Jennifer Mills was Overland fiction editor between 2012 and 2018. Her latest novel, The Airways, is out through Picador.

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