When the rubric hits the Rudd

Amidst the chancers, hacks and Groupers who comprise the Rudd cabinet, Attorney-General Robert McClelland scarcely seems to belong to the darker side. The owlish, earnest McClelland was born to wear a V-neck sweater under a suit and so it was painful watching him, with his manifest desire to do good, sell his proposed reforms to anti-terror laws inherited from the Howard government.

In parts, the changes were mildly – very mildly – progressive: reducing, for instance, the time that suspects could be held without charge or legal representation. Yet one initiative stood out: a proposal to criminalise the psychological harm caused by threatening or achieving an act of terror. In addition to any physical harm – and to the traditional factoring of alarm as part of the wrong done to the victims – the rather less tangible cocktail of fear, apprehension and inconvenience would become itself a punishable wrong.

McClelland struggled visibly with some of the questions this bold suggestion received. Ultimately, he asserted that post-traumatic stress disorder and similar conditions were as real as physical injury or death, and to not recognise them was unfair. In that way, he anchored the initiative (which was merely part of a suggestion paper) within the Labor tradition. For if Labor was all about fairness, how could it ignore one type of victim while recognising another?

Yet, though the initiative drew on older traditions, it was also intended to be cutting edge, embodying Labor’s rebranding of itself as a party, a movement, committed to novelty and innovation, to the reconstruction of our most basic ideas of social life (in this case, violence), leaving nothing unquestioned. Drawing psychological harm into the mix was certainly a radical notion, and could be defended against advocates of a more reflective and cautious approach by labelling their concerns ‘conservatism’ of the same order as opposition to universal health care or the age pension.

McClelland’s idiosyncratic idea might seem one of those mad notions that excessively energetic ministers get from time to time. But it was more than that. The proposal expressed a certain attitude to society and government characteristic of the ‘New Labour’ tradition in both Britain and Australia, a constituent of what might usefully be called ‘Ruddism’. That is, the core and periphery of Labor’s philosophy and practice have reversed. The party no longer seeks to take control of objects (the products of the economy) for the benefit of subjects (the working class and the Australian people in general) but instead seeks to control subjects (especially the sub-groups and cultures that make up or replace the working class) for the purpose of social reproduction without significant change. This is not a sinister scheme for social manipulation but rather the opposite: a petty series of controls compensating for the absence of a larger vision of the good society, and a total separation of thinking and reflection from the process of governing.

Initiatives of this type have been a major part of Labour tradition in the Anglosphere since the election of Tony Blair’s ‘New Labour’ government in 1997. Blair, Gordon Brown and their circle of advisors effectively took control of the British Labour Party in 1994, following the unexpected death of John Smith, the more conventional but nevertheless centrist leader who replaced Neil Kinnock in 1992. Traditional Labour forces were so demoralised, especially in the wake of the 1992 election loss and the collapse of a Labour Left that it represented, that they could put up little resistance to anyone with a formula to halt the remorseless march of Thatcherism (by then under the command of John Major). The New Labour team’s answer was not merely to throw out much of the older, and dead-letter, commitment to socialism contained under the rubric of ‘Clause IV’ but also to abolish the social liberalism that had been central to Labour’s project since the 1960s.

British Labour had always believed that crime, child neglect and other social malaises stemmed from inequality, and that a serious attempt to lessen inequality would produce rapid improvements in social conditions. Drawn equally from old Methodist, Fabian and European social democratic approaches, this equalitarianism was ultimately expressive of a difference with the Conservative Party not merely over policy but also over the concept of the human. Conservatism saw human nature as rooted in sin, so that traditional frameworks were required to maintain continence and respect within the population. Fiddle with these too much, the argument went, and disorder resulted. Social democracy, on the other hand, believed in the innate good of people, a good that would be manifest once the shackles of disfiguring institutions were thrown off.

Kate Pickett and Richard Wilkinson’s recent book The Spirit Level: Why More Equal Societies Almost Always Do Better, with its voluminous statistical correlations between inequality and social problems, substantially confirms the equalitarian approach. But British Labour abandoned any serious attempt to address inequality through major structural change – such as Meidner-plan style buyouts of the private sector – as early as the mid-1970s, as the governments of Harold Wilson and James Callaghan dealt with the global economic slump, the depoliticised and opportunistic demands of key unions, and the negotiation of an IMF loan. By the time Margaret Thatcher took power, she offered both an economic and social revolution, portraying Labour, not inacc­urately, as failing to address social decay and rising crime throughout the 1970s.

Nor did Labour use its exclusion from power in the 1980s to rethink its social philosophy, being entirely consumed with bitter battles between Left and Right factions grouped around the economic questions over which the voters had thrown them out the last time. The not-inconsiderable rank and file of British Labour continued to hold out against a root-and-branch revision, despite clear signs that the public would not support the party in its older form. The generation that came into Labour in the bitter 1980s – Tony Blair and Peter Mandelson chief among them – accordingly saw themselves as an insurgent force, as did those like Gordon Brown and Jack Straw who had joined from traditions further to the Left. Much of their policy work was done outside the party framework – chiefly in the Demos think-tank, founded by former editor of the Communist Party theoretical journal Marxism Today, Martin Jacques, and Geoff Mulgan.

Demos argued that discrete problem-solving reforms – many quite substantial in themselves – had to be decoupled from any overarching narrative, not merely of ‘socialism’, but even the milder social democracy of the Wilson-Callaghan years. Though institutions like education, health and the workplace might be profoundly interconnected, their decay was best addressed, the argument went, by specific adoptions of individual reforms. In the original Demos formulation, this meant that privatisation – the creation of self-governed city ‘academy’ schools, for example – could accompany both traditionally Left concerns, such as the re-nationalisation of the railways, and more innovative approaches, such as public control of surveillance (the idea that surveillance lost its Orwellian dimension if ordinary citizens, rather than simply police, had access to it).

As any notion of fundamentally transforming the economy left by Thatcher and Major receded, a sociological approach took over from an economic one. Increasingly, it became Labour’s task to fix the legacy that the Tories had passed on. Urban decay, rising crime, profound separation of whole groups from the working world, and the depersonalising effects of ‘social exclusion’ became key concerns. Many claim that Labour decisively won the 1997 election with the slogan ‘tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime’. Quite correctly, Labour argued that criminality affects the poor more than the well-off, who can separate themselves from it. On that basis, the extension of the CCTV regime (begun under Major), the institution of the anti-social behaviour orders (ASBOs) and many other similar initiatives were pitched, not as a retreat from Labour’s older notion that people could be liberated by structural change, but as an expression of it. Those who resisted reshaping society through reshaping the everyday lives of people were dismissed as conservatives who were obsessed with rights and unwilling to face real reforms.

Though some of the discourse about ‘yob culture’ was simply moral panic, the social character of Britain, and the personal comportment of British people, especially the young, had genuinely changed across the decades. The fierce individualism of Thatcherism (a continuation of the punk revolution by other means), and the failure to offer a real reconstruction of a ‘stakeholder’ society in its wake, created a country in which aggression, rudeness, yobbishness and the demand for ‘respect’ became virtues. To a degree, Britain developed into the worst of both worlds – embodying the individualism of America without its (naive but enabling) sense of possibility, and maintaining the sclerosis of Europe while losing its more continent public life and sense of collective value. The resultant society became a laboratory for a post-social democratic Labour party – one which saw its role as the reshaping of subjects, rather than the government of citizens.

It was not a coincidence, as they say, that half a dozen or more leading members of New Labour – including three Home Secretaries – had been members (well beyond youthful enthusiasm) of the Communist Party of Great Britain. The old Stalinist notion of engineering human souls had combined with low-church ideas of moral improvement. But that reconstruction was not in service of a new world created by a new humanity but rather the continuation of the old one – a growth-based globally dominant post-imperial power – by shaping the populace to its particular structure of discipline and outlet. Though its members show no sign of being aware of Foucault’s notion of ‘governmentality’, they have exemplified it – not as critique, but as policy program.

That is, whatever hopes British Labour might have had about tackling the causes of crime, social exclusion and much more fell away pretty quickly (inequality, according to several indices, actually became worse in the decade under Blair-Brown), with social and individual control the cicada shell that remained. Labour realised that ‘middle Britain’ votes could be gained by winding up the civil rights lobby – the liberal-Left grandee Polly Toynbee summed up the Blairite response to any uneasiness about the 3.5 million CCTVs in the country by dismissing concern as ‘middle class’. The (by now shrinking) rank and file of a party hitherto concerned with social liberation was thus put in its place with the dreaded suggestion that it had gone soft. As New Labour moved forward, other policies were added – happiness classes in schools, the monitoring of children born to criminal-genic families, the promotion of short-course cognitive behavioural therapy to address depression and alienation, and so on.

New Labour’s experience has been a major influence on Rudd Labor. Quite aside from the transmission of ideas, half a dozen British New Labour policy wonks of various stripes are in Rudd government offices.

Yet Australia is not Britain. Here, the neoliberal reconstruction of the economy was undertaken by a Labor government, which re-emphasised a collective engagement with the nation, and offered some compensation for the effects of economic restructuring. And, by the standards of Thatcher, the Howard government changed almost nothing of the fabric of Australian life.

In line with its New Labour inheritance, Rudd Labor seeks to manage the reproduction of a society it has no intention of transforming, and must therefore shape social and personal character to accommodate. Federalism means that in Australia many specific New Labour policies are the responsibility of the states. Yet, as the farcical alcopops saga demonstrated, Rudd Labor will grab whatever micro-social issues it can. In the federal arena, social and psychological management forms the core of policy. The proposed internet firewall is one example. Ill-conceived, and probably unworkable, it differs from old-style censorship in that it does not proscribe a certain number of books deemed to be dangerous but a general style of material as harmful, in a mixed psychological-social-therapeutic mode. The concern is not so much that a citizen might act on dangerous ideas but that a subject may be deformed by harmful ‘content’. McClelland’s proposed ‘psychological harm’ legislation has a similar content – it assumes not only that subjectivity is as material as physicality (a reasonable assumption), but that particular theories of subjectivity (such as the current emphasis on trauma and anxiety disorders) can be regarded as ‘true’, in the same way as it is true that an assault broke an arm. The assessment of psychological harm as quantifiable and specifiable implies not a bodily bounded citizen, for whom politics is a matter of action in the public square and whose inner life remains a zone of privacy, but a subject whose inner condition becomes a matter for political action.

The approach extends to wider areas of policy: witness Lindsay Tanner’s interest in so-called ‘nudge’ theory, whereby small changes in the built environment and social process control behaviour. Tanner’s favourite example is that of a fly painted on the bottom of urinals, which forms a target that men tend to aim at. More seriously, small alterations in urban design – such as the elongation and tapering of bus and taxi shelters to promote queuing and minimise late-night fights – become a substitute for, say, adequate public transport. Again, the person is seen not as a citizen but as a behavioural atom to be shaped to given conditions.

By the time John Major was turfed out in 1997, many in the UK were aghast at how their country had been wrecked by Thatcher and Major. They had good reason – over eighteen years whole swathes of the country, all but the south-east, had turned to rust-belt. Poverty had more than doubled; northern cities were rotting at their core; individual anger and aggression had been elevated as virtues. As a society, Britain appeared broken. This was not the perception of Australia at the end of the Howard regime, which means that Ruddism faced no reconstructive challenge.

Equally, though, New Labour never sought to construct intellectual life in the service of the state. Intellectual culture in Britain is too broad and its autonomy generally recognised as a social good. The Rudd government, however, drew on Labor’s old image as a party for intellectuals to subsume debate to a process of problem solving within a set of fixed goals.

In the process by which the intelligentsia were entranced into Rudd’s service – most particularly, the 2020 conference – no space was provided for the more radical questioning that Rudd himself countenanced in his essays on Howard’s Hayekian ‘brutopia’ (something I have discussed in more detail for Arena Magazine). Indeed, the very form of the 2020 event sought to ‘nudge’ people into a microsocial problem-solving agenda and so, not surprisingly, what arose was overwhelmingly a catalogue of measures for social control: more particularly, control by the sub-class from which the conference participants were drawn of the people who weren’t there. The old Whitlam-era relationship with the intellectuals had been reversed, for it was not ideas that Rudd wanted but methods.

When it comes to reversing liberatory potential into a system for administering social and psychological life, Rudd Labor has thus gone one stage further than Blair. Rudd’s latest intervention – an attempt to end the ‘history wars’ by courtly fiat – is a similar attempt to draw the untidy processes of debate into service to the nation. Ruddism is a mode of post-social democratic labour adapted to Australian conditions and history, one that displays no real interest in challenging an atomised neoliberal social order and must therefore explore increasingly specific coercive measures in the management of a population.

The paradox of Ruddism is that the modesty of its aims, its absence of anything other than a series of quantitative, untransformative aims, attracts supporters from the world of ideas precisely when the inadequacy of the conventional political frame to humanity’s challenges is becoming unmistakably clear. In the current period, ‘ideas’ have been radically separated from practice. Ideas festivals are everywhere – there have never been more of the damn things around! – yet they float above an undifferentiated bedrock of a hypermodern marketised society which remains unquestioned and unchallenged.

Faced with the seemingly invincible might of the Howard government, many people struggled to critically frame a relationship to the approaching Rudd era. For many, the Rudd government’s core commitment to coercive policy has been interpreted as its periphery. But if we are to move ahead to a new political frame, it’s crucial to recognise that the seemingly whacky business of painting flies on urinals or criminalising psychological hurt or having ‘the best and brightest’ gather at the court of King Kevin is not the add-on but the essence.

Guy Rundle

Guy Rundle is currently a correspondent-at-large for Crikey online daily, and a former editor of Arena Magazine. His ebook, And the Dream Lives On? Barack Obama, the 2012 Election and the Great Republican Whiteout, is forthcoming.

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