Bread and waratahs

Looking Backward: Old Left, New Left and the ALP

When Overland began, the Left in Australia was fairly easy to define. It consisted of a large, blokey faction in the Labor Party and the unions, plus a fast-shrinking Communist Party, plus a small crowd of intellectuals and peace marchers orbiting those organisations. Everyone in this Left assumed that working-class militancy was the great engine of change, and a workers’ republic was the goal. When I joined the Labor Party in 1966, my membership ticket had printed on it the famous Objective: the socialisation of industry, production and exchange.

This was not an absurd idea. Australia at the time was well advanced on a path of import-replacement industrialisation. This was exactly the strategy for peripheral economies being urged by the famous UN think tank CEPAL (United Nations Economic Commission for Latin America) in Santiago de Chile, though I don’t think Bob Menzies read Spanish. Steel mills had been built; Holdens were in production; the Snowy River was being dammed; an industrial working class had come into existence. It was conceivable that this class would take control of economic growth.

That didn’t happen, as we know. The local ruling class, backed by American and British capital, fought off the challenge. What, however, working-class pressure did win, from the 1940s to the 1960s, was an Australian welfare state. This meant a social safety net and better housing for the white working class, Keynesian policies for full employment for men, and a tremendous expansion of public education for working-class kids.

When the next wave of radical activism emerged, it took some unexpected directions. The New Left did depend on the Old Left for organisational support, especially in contesting the horrifying war on Vietnam. Certain Labor Party leaders, notably Dunstan and Whitlam, attracted some New Left energy into state-sponsored reforms. But the main action – which was fast and furious – was at the grass roots. Within a dozen years, we saw the radicalisation of students, the launch of Women’s Liberation, an explosion of radical culture (from progressive rock to psychedelia to the Pram Factory), new Aboriginal activism, experiments in communal living, Gay Liberation, attempts at workplace democracy and radical environmentalism. The revolution was suddenly more colourful.

There were no membership tickets in the New Left and no new Objective was printed. But there were overlaps between different campaigns, and common styles of action. The most important, to me, was a practice of direct democracy. This meant breaking down hierarchies, including socialist ones – no more vanguards. It meant trying to bring the new world into being, not by passing resolutions or pining for ‘the Revolution’, but by actually doing it here and now.

At its best, this made for wonderfully creat­ive practice. Among the best (though not the best known) was that of young progressive teachers who, with some support from progressive bureaucrats, carved out space to involve children and communities in controlling their schools to make more relevant curricula and livelier pedagogies. The Disadvantaged Schools Program, launched in the mid-1970s, in schools surrounded by dire poverty with high proportions of migrant and Indigenous children, produced some of the most inventive work in the entire history of Australian education – until it was disembowelled by right-wing Labor and then strangled by the Coalition.

When the New Left set out on its long march through the institutions, in Rudi Dutschke’s memorable phrase, it did change the culture in major ways. It had a social base in the much-debated new middle class, as the Australian economy shifted towards services and levels of education rose. But no mass organisation came into existence around New Left agendas, not even Women’s Liberation. The movement created no economic program. In the final analysis, its dispersal across so many sites and projects made this style of radicalism vulnerable when the dominant powers recovered from the defeat in Vietnam, the shock of youth revolt and the loss of control in institutions.

Reaction duly came in the era of the Washington consensus, Structural Adjustment Programs, and what we called ‘economic rationalism’ in Australia. The neoliberal agenda meant privileging managers, deregulating capital and labour markets, opening the local economy comprehensively to international capital, privat­ising or starving the public sector, and bloating private wealth. Just as industrial capitalism borrowed some socialist ideas for the welfare state compromise in the 1950s, neoliberalism picked up some New Left ideas in the 1980s. It endorsed organisational flexibility, creativity and equal opportunity but used these to grow corporate wealth rather than to grow democracy.

Australian capitalism shifted gear again, from import-replacement industrialisation to the search for comparative advantage in global markets: the signature strategy of neoliberalism. The advantage was found – ironically for a newly industrialised country – by reverting to the colonial strategy of digging up and shipping out minerals while importing cheap manufactured goods. As our industrial towns and suburbs turned into rust belts, the labour movement groped for a strategy. There was another moment when the Left might have set the agenda – and a union group tried to do just that in the 1987 report, Australia Reconstructed.

But the moment was lost – or, more exactly, it was seized by a machine politician from the most corrupt, ruthless and successful faction in the Labor Party. Federal treasurer Paul Keating’s 1986 ‘banana republic’ statement signalled the Labor Party’s attempt to be the party of government within neoliberalism, riding the surf of market-driven change and even getting ahead of the wave.

In the global North, neoliberalism is linked with the names of Thatcher and Reagan. In the south Pacific, it was labour parties that made the turn – the conservatives just made it worse. The ALP launched the selling of heavyweight public assets such as Qantas and OTC (Overseas Telecommunications Commission), with guidance from transnational management consultancies (who were making a mint from privatisations around the world) and the hidden complicity of public sector managers (who stood to gain a pot of money as private sector executives). The turn to the market went deep. By an alchemy never quite explained, prominent Labor leaders, both state and federal, began to reincarn­ate as millionaire businessmen and mates of developers, media moguls and financiers.

The current Labor agenda directly descends from the Keating strategy. Kevin Rudd’s rhetoric to the contrary, there is little about our present government in 2010 that is not neoliberal. It is completely in character that its banner strategy on climate change is an emissions trading scheme – a device to allow corporations to buy and sell rights to pollute. The central problem with an ETS is not that these rights are effectively given away to polluters at the start. That is just a minor scandal. The big issue is that creating property rights in pollution actually prevents popular control of the environment over the longer term.

The neoliberal turn has driven a split between parliamentary Labor and social movements (including the union movement) much deeper than in the Whitlam/Dunstan era. The party has no mass membership now that could serve as a connecting belt. Its support collapsed in the 1980s and 1990s. The Labor Party is more and more a shell company – a rentier of residual support from unionists and working-class communities, and an entrepreneur in the world of corporate-funded media politics.

Social movements too have changed. Some entirely new political forms have emerged, such as blogging and web-based organising. The Obama campaign famously used online fundraising and campaign outreach; some social movements have also been very active on the net. A deconstructive queer politics that gained momentum in the 1990s has invigorated debates around sexuality and identity. The environmental movement has more continuity, but it too evolves. In a key shift, environmental radicals began to target Australia’s great contribution to global warming – coal exports. The attempt to create a new rad­ical party, the Greens, has not done particularly well electorally but has shown us how to build democratic culture into a party machine.

Though there have been fresh starts like these, it has been increasingly difficult for the Left to mobilise on a broad basis, even when it seemed to have public support. Despite majority opinion against the Bush regime’s invasion of Iraq, opponents of our complicity gained no political traction in 2003. At present, there is hardly an audible voice against Australian soldiers killing people in Afghanistan.

Though a coalition for change finally got rid of the lying, bloodstained Howard government, the Australian Left seems to be landlocked again. With all electorally credible parties neoliberal or worse, and radical alternatives squeezed out of the public sphere, why would anyone want to be on the Left today?

Looking Around: social reality now

When Overland began, it was easy to justify a commitment to the workers’ republic. Workers were exploited, the capitalist system led to poverty and war, and the fantastic productivity of modern machine civilisation could, under a different social system, make a good life for all. Some trusting souls believed that the Soviets had already shown the way.

The world has turned, and we have learned more about the lying, bloodstained Soviet government, as well as its Cold War opponents. We need to keep on learning, too. Any system of doctrine, any powerful concept, becomes in time an excuse for not thinking: Marxism, radical feminism, deconstructionism, post-­colonialism, the lot.

This is not to say we should grab any pop sociology that hits the airport bookstands. There is now a genre of excitable books that give us maps of a brave new world – the leisure society, the therapeutic society, the cyber-society, the creative classes and so on. Often they contain a little truth but are focused on the world’s privileged and therefore miss most of what’s around us. We need harder thinking, not fluffier thinking, about social reality – and that includes rethinking the ideas earlier generations of socialists worked with.

Take, for instance, the concept ‘the capitalist system’, which still influences most socialist thought. Is global capitalism really a coherent system, grinding out growth or crisis by an inexorable logic, as both mainstream economics and Marxism suppose? I doubt it. World capitalism today looks more like an agglomeration of many qualitatively different structures of privilege, exploitation, brutality, theft and fraud, on which governments and transnational corporate managers are desperately trying to impose order.

Certainly, there are still horrible low-wage cotton goods factories pumping out surplus value, as Marx described in the famous Chapter 15 of Das Kapital. But they are now in Sri Lanka or Vietnam, built on local patriarchies and authoritarian politics, while Manchester and the Ruhr rust, or become insurance hubs. Not just a local economy of time, but five hundred years of imperialism, are vital to transnational corporate strategies. Neo-colonialism, racial hierarchies and the exploitation of women all thrive and evolve. In front of your nose.

A lot of wealth-creation doesn’t resemble the old surplus-value model at all. I’m not thinking only of pirates with their rusty Kalashnikovs off the coast of Somalia but also bankers and insurers in the fine glass towers of Sydney and Melbourne. Most observers agree that finance capital is central to the world economy nowadays. It displaced industrial capital in the lead role some decades ago and triggered the recent crisis.

How do giant finance companies make their profits? Essentially, by running a system of private taxation. They skim a little GST of their own from each of the millions of transactions the population of the country need to perform in everyday life – being paid, getting cash, using credit, having a house, running a car, insuring goods, funding super and so on. Night and day, the skim floods in through the corporate computers. It’s remarkable – and much more efficient than Kalashnikovs. No wonder that the people who make these schemes work – Gail Kelly, for example – are paid their tens of millions of dollars by grateful stakeholders.

We used to think that capital was one thing and the state was another. But what do we make of China or Singapore or Saudi Arabia or Dubai, now? In many parts of the world – to some extent, in all parts of the world – the state has become a development machine, generating capital and profit, and not just coordinating them. The growth of sovereign wealth funds as major players in world finance is one sign of this. Another, in a small mean way, is the cabal of businessmen who currently run the government of NSW in the name of Labor.

Around these development machines, a multi­­national ruling class of a new kind seems to be forming, privileged by education, wealth, language, political access and control of the means of violence. It is not united in strategy, as Copenhagen 2009 showed. But it is linked up by interwoven investments and constant negotiations between the development machines. At a personal level, its members are connected by training (the MBA is emblematic), transnational careers, air travel, Louis Vuitton and secure electronic networks. If peasants, migrant workers and favela dwellers (between them, half the world’s population) have little access to such benefits, they have full access to the environmental and industrial disasters the development machines leave in their wake: mass poisoning in Bhopal, Chinese coal mines, giant dams, Mexico City air, the wrecking of the Niger delta, the chopping down of Sumatran forests … and global warming.

Australia is part of this world – and, in some respects, a privileged part. Just before Christmas 2009 the Sydney Morning Herald published a column telling, as it claimed, ‘a few home truths’ about Australia. The piece was written by the Herald’s political editor Peter Hartcher, a right-wing journalist (though not one of the paranoid ones). Hartcher recited the proofs of Australia’s good luck and good management, using official statistics and commercial surveys to show that we are not only one of the richest countries in the world but also one of the fairest, with little income inequality, abounding opportunity and widespread happiness. Of course there are problems – Aboriginal Australia occurred to him – but we should count our blessings, because we live in ‘a country of unsurpassed harmony and hope, that offers wide-open opportunity for the ambitious and a social safety net for those who fall by the wayside’.

This is pretty much the vision of Australian society on which Kevin Rudd and Tony Abbott agree. People within the broad population are more or less equal, and more or less content. Social problems only concern a minority who fall by the wayside. With the help of tough love and the Salvation Army, they can be fixed through social inclusion, doubtless including the occasional Intervention. Politics is not about basic social change. It’s about how to fuel and steer the neoliberal development machine that now delivers prosperity to Australia.

Now, there are things to be said about the dodgy surveys, selective statistics and creative history on which Hartcher’s tale is based. To start with, he bizarrely calls Australia’s massive postwar industrial growth ‘a long, postwar economic malaise’, in order to suggest that neoliberalism under Hawke and Howard was needed for Australia to ‘snap out of it’. I could go on, but Overland readers will do the critique themselves if they look up Hartcher’s text: it’s a piece that epitomises the deep complacency and shallow thinking of the Right in contemporary Australia.

No-one who has looked at the figures will doubt that a large part of the Australian population is, by world standards, materially well off. Some people are doing fabulously well: our corporate and professional elites are active players in the emerging world ruling class. Absolute poverty is limited; more Australians die in car crashes than of starvation.

Let’s add a few more reasons for pride. Australia has kept at a very low level the HIV/AIDS epidemic, which became a social catastrophe in Africa and is an emerging crisis in south Asia. Australia built one of the best university systems in the world – a little surprising that, for a famously anti-intellectual country. Over several generations, Australia established one of the best systems of protection for workers’ rights. In the last generation a functioning system of Indigenous land rights has been created, in a dramatic break from Australian history.

These blessings were hard to achieve and are not guaranteed to last. A high level of HIV prevention was achieved by painstaking mobilisation and education in a grief-stricken gay community. The university system, which we owe to popular pressure and the hard work of two generations of Australian academics, is currently being torn apart by neoliberalism. Part of the workers’ protection system has gone, and a weakened union movement isn’t able to win much back. Land rights were trumped by the Intervention, at least in the Northern Territory.

What we have of wider prosperity, then, isn’t a gift from our ruling class, smiling benevolently from their yachts. It was won by social struggles, of many different kinds, and it is based on the daily labour put in by millions of workers – the people who don’t get fat annual bonuses, don’t wear Prada and don’t make stock market killings.

Further, a more affluent society has more room to make collective choices. The maldistribution of its resources becomes less excusable, represents a greater violation.

In the final analysis, we should never get complacent about Australian affluence because we don’t live alone. As an economy, ‘Australia’ now effectively includes the Korean workers who stoke the furnaces burning Australian coal, the Indian workers who answer calls on behalf of Australian firms, and the Malaysian workers who generate the profits to pay Australian university fees for their employers’ children. No country is an island, entire of itself.

It’s the unequal distribution of power, resources and respect on a global scale with which, ultimately, socialism has to grapple. It is on that scale that we now confront a neoliberal order where development machines and corporate power have, in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, broken free of most social and cultural restraints. This is having long-term environmental effects that few of us can bear to think about – and, in the much shorter term, it produces strategies that amount to mass murder.

How else can we regard the modern arms industry, worth more than fifty billion dollars a year in international trade alone, that equips armies, militias, dictatorships, mafias and domestic killers around the world? How else can we regard the pharmaceutical industry that priced antiretroviral medication out of reach of the world’s poor while the AIDS epidemic grew to a devastating extent? What can we say about the states and corporations that built a playground for the global rich in Dubai behind a rampart of half a million dead in Iraq? And what could anyone say about the states and corporations that built the 23 000 nuclear warheads that exist in the world this year?

Looking Forward: a postcard to the next Left

It doesn’t have to be this way. That is the basic case for the Left – and always has been. The violence and insecurity, the exploitation and in­equality, the corruption of culture, the threats to the future of the planet, are the work of humans, not the law of God. And what humans have built, we can build otherwise. Otro mundo es posible.

How? I once thought we could lay down a plan. In fact I wrote a bright red pamphlet, Socialism and Labor: An Australian Strategy, which solemnly tried to wrap Old Left and New Left together in one package and show it could be a jukebox hit. That one went into the dustbin of history: current social movements are impatient with blueprints, even in red covers.

We still need to be concerned with practical­ities, with how social and economic structures might actually change and be made to work. The next Left therefore has to be concerned with economic life, with how the needs of working-class and peasant families can be met, and how the mechanisms for meeting those needs can operate democratically. The basis for economic democracy is already here. Despite the ­rhetoric of competition and managerial innovation, most goods and services are actually produced through cooperation. It is workers’ know-how and inventiveness that make a capitalist econ­omy function, day by day.

We have many models of cooperative labour: there is a rich international and local history, ranging from cooperative childcare centres to farm and craft production to Internet shareware. Among current experiments are the factories in Argentina that, when threatened with closure under neoliberal restructuring, were occupied and run by their workers. Some later received government support that gave them legal stability.

How can cooperative forms of labour scale up to the size of a whole economy, especially in an environment of neoliberal globalisation? No-one has done anything like that yet. But the most exciting work now seems to be happening in Latin America. In Bolivia, Ecuador and Venezuela, for instance, progressive governments operate in an environment of mobilised social movements which, among other things, are creating a new era in Indigenous politics. In this region, neoliberalism is being more frontally challenged than anywhere else in the world.

The Australian Left, like the rest of the country, is accustomed to taking its political and cultural cues from Europe and North America. In the 1950s this attitude was called the ‘cultural cringe’, and Overland’s founding declaration of Australian bias was a protest against it. The instinctive opposition to the cultural cringe was sound but we need a base wider than a single country. In many ways, our economic and cultural situations parallel those of other countries in the global periphery. Some of the most penetrating social and political thought of the past two decades has come from India, South Africa, Mexico and Brazil. One of the most useful things the Australian Left can do right now is to build up connections around the periphery, with the majority world.

A democratised economy doesn’t just involve changes in daily work, it also involves equality and security. A basic feature of neoliberal society is manufactured insecurity – the dark underside of competition and the cult of the entrepreneur. Until there is secure employment and secure entitlement to services, specifically health, education and housing, we don’t have much chance of shifting the culture of long hours, the unequal gender division of labour, or racism. We don’t suffer from any lack of resources in Australia to make secure and healthy lives but we do need a different design of institutions.

The Women’s Liberation movement opened up issues about the politics of intimacy, including the politics of bodies, that have been explored creatively ever since. One of the liveliest movements in the last decades has been around queer politics, with young people doing surprising and inventive things to disrupt oppressive norms. I’m sure that a radical politics of embodiment will continue, and I think it will be particularly important if it connects with the politics of care.

This doesn’t mean New Age sentimentality about Mother Earth. ‘Care’ means a quality of practice in social relations: loving childcare, good neighbourhoods and good sexual relationships. Care is a quality common to feminist work against domestic violence, struggles for forest protection, and attempts at healing in the aftermath of colonialism and war. There might not be a peace movement in the old sense any more, but some of its threads continue.

One of the important lessons about care, particularly taught by Women’s Liberation, is that a movement for change needs to look after its activists. To challenge power is always an experience that is bruising and sometimes worse than that – all the major development machines are violent, buttressed by police and military force. A movement for change has to be sustainable over the long haul, and some forms of radical activism are not. We need to give honour to the support work and the support workers, and find ways of doing change that generate care relations within a movement.

A sustainable movement also needs an imagination. We don’t want blueprints any more, as we expect to feel our way into the future. But we certainly need utopian thinking, the capacity to break out of the given, to find beauty, to create symbols. The Waratahs matter, as well as the Bread.

Cultural politics too has been a great field of invention and upheaval in the last generation. We are still coming to terms with the idea of plural cultures and multiple knowledge systems. New technologies, hyped and commercialised as they are, have great possibilities for decentralised sharing of ideas. Yet we haven’t exhausted the democratic potential of old technologies, the bicycles of the cultural world. This is what I like about Overland, still exploring the edges between new writing and radical politics, as it steps into a digital era while keeping the power of print alive. I am looking forward to the next two hundred issues.

Raewyn Connell

Raewyn Connell is the author of the prize-winning Southern Theory; co-author, some time back, of Class Structure in Australian History; and author, even further back, of Socialism and Labor: An Australian Strategy.

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