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Fixing Australia

Australia is broken. Democracy has holes in it, cracks in it, and it needs fixing. Since the 2004 Federal election we know that our government is not going to fix it. I think we need to do that fixing, and this blog is a start of getting some ideas together.

Friday, October 29, 2004

The aftermath: moving ahead from the 2004 election

The 2004 Election: An Analysis

Part Two

In the last 30 years, Australia along with every other country in the world, has experienced sustained and radical economic, and consequently, social restructuring. (I hesitate to use the word "reform" as that should imply an improvement). The sum total of these changes on a worldwide scale is what we popularly describe as globalisation.

These changes have seen the near total destruction of manufacturing industry in developed countries with the shift of such work to low wage developing countries; the mass flattening of business structures, shedding in the process thousands of jobs; the adoption of new technology which has underpinned the reduction in numbers of workers and the expansion of hours worked. Alongside has been destruction of the post world war two social democratic consensus, either by restricting access to, limiting the scope of, or totally privatising, many aspects of the public sphere of service delivery. Many of the rights to support, assistance and security people once enjoyed as citizens have now become rights to purchase such services as consumers.

The outcome is of course the very familiar wealth polarisation of Australia. The middle income group have shrunk, bulges have appeared at each end of the spectrum and wealth differentials from poorest to wealthiest have spread enormously. The losers in the exercise are stuck in either harshly administered welfare poverty traps, or in low paid, often casual, underemployment. Many of the so called winners have increased their incomes and wealth, but are hanging on to jobs with increasing hours, upward spiralling production requirements, insistence on displays of "positive, enthusiastic attitudes" or have made the transition to self employment or contract work.. Many of these people have done well out of the changes - far more however think they will do well. This is the first ever generation in which the population have thoroughly internalised the mores and ethos of the capitalist economy. They believe they can accumulate and better their positions. This was the argument expressed under the rhetorical metaphor of greed in the original analysis.

The loss of security - job security, social security - spreads across the board. Obviously the losers are acutely aware of this. But as I argued in the original analysis, the winners are generally aware of this as well. But their "internalisation" of the capitalist value system means that they accept the mantra of "Thee is no alternative". They believe they have to provide for themselves, to replace the lost security with one derived from wealth; always conscious that if they get it wrong, or circumstances (political and economic) turn against them, they will lose both their gains and their potential security. And one of the biggest risks to these people is the revival of the social democratic project, because that may mean greater tax burdens which will undermine their quest for security. Hence the hostility to welfare. This was the argument expressed under the rhetorical metaphor of fear, to which I added the fear of the "other", who represents the "barbarian at the gate" in the minds of the majority of the voting population.

The point if restating my original argument in these terms is to make clear that the people who voted for the coalition did not "get it wrong". They made a conscious, rational decision based on how they see the world. I stand by the philosophical concept that the real is rational. In this context, that means that the election result (a real event) must be seen as a rational event; i.e. one appropriate to the electors of Australia at this time. This argument is not to be confused with saying that it was "right" in the sense of morally correct. That is a normative argument, which merely serves to disparage people and lock the critics into a ghetto of smug self satisfaction ("we know you got it wrong you ignorant fools"). For Australians who have done well out of the changes, or believe they will do well, the choice of a coalition government was rational.

Recognising these facts, and recognising how they are tied to long term economic trends, we have to draw a number of unpalatable conclusions. Firstly the neo liberal consensus will not be undermined until it fails the people who have accepted it. Until the current economic long wave trends down (and on past experience this can be expected in 10 to 15 years time), people will still believe they are winning or can win.

Secondly we have to recognise that, like it or not, the world has changed, and the social democratic consensus is broken. (And it truly was a consensus - the post war welfare project was built as much by non labour governments in the west as by labour bases ones. Think of the Menzies years in Australia, the Eisenhower administration in the USA, Christian Democrats in Italy and West Germany, Gaullists in France, the Macmillan years in the UK). All of these "conservative" governments maintained, extended and enhanced the broadly speaking social democratic policies of the post war state. But that consensus has gone; the political will has left. Previous services and entitlements delivered as rights or now either turned into commodities and consumed as purchases or subject to ever tighter and tighter restrictions as the public sphere contracts.

And thirdly in Australia, we have to expect at least two and possibly three more terms of coalition government. And certainly for the next three years, a government with near absolute power, thanks to its domination of both houses and the limited protections within the Australian constitution.

The traditional tactics of the "left" - pressure campaigns of petitions, lobbying of MP's; protest meetings and marches, public pronouncements exhorting people to look to the principles of caring for the disadvantaged, being fair, collective solutions, are thus all totally out of compatibility with the spirit of the time. A hard conclusion; one many of us donā??t want to hear, but in fear, all to true.

I wish I had some answers to offer. At this stage I can only suggest a rethinking of basic principles, a conscious attempt to recover consciousness and memory of how people have struggled before against difficult odds and learn from those, a willingness to experiment with different ways of struggle and expression. We need to create a new paradigm of how to be "left" (and even consider whether we keep that word) in an era of postmodern hyper-capitalism.

As a basic roadmap, I think as a whole Australians who are opposed to the system being impose don us need to do three things:

Recover the political left. This has basically died in the last twenty years. The ALP is not part of the solution - it wishes to offer exactly the same things as the coalition to exactly the same people ("aspirational voters") only slightly more nicely. Post communism, the surviving political left are largely nostalgic old comrades; blinkered sectarians, or wonderfully earnest young activists who are unfortunately seduced by the siren calls of postmodernism into rejecting all "grand theory". Part of this involves revisiting the sources of socialist tradition, and this includes the complete and authentic Marx; not the partial Marx of the traditional left parties. In many ways I feel that Marx's theories are only coming in to their own now - he stated that he sought to analysis capitalism as a complete system which had conquered the world - and only now are those conditions met. In one of his prophetic early statements Marx talked about all the normal ties of human relationships in capitalism been torn asunder and replaced with the cold calculations of the cash nexus; and in the ever increasing commercialisation of virtually all human relationships we can see that now - think of Thatcher's famous "There is no such thing as society - there are only individuals and enterprises". So, despite being junked 15 years and proclaimed irrelevant, there may still be lesson (or perhaps lessons for the first time) in revisiting this old body of thought. As a starting point for this excursion I recommend the writings of Cyril Smith; particularly Marx at the Millennium, as well as the works collected in the Cyril Smith Archive on the Marxists Internet Archive website.

Reconnecting with the social left. As the political left vacated the scene, the fray ahs been increasingly abandoned to the social left. By this I mean that network of very active hard working people involved in combating on the ground, the daily advances of neo liberalism. I mean the welfare lobbies, activists and volunteers; the grass roots environmental campaigners; the mums and dads fighting rearguard actions in public schools or in defence of health whatever remains of a public heath system. These people have been left to fight noble and desperate battles against unfair odds, often without the benefit of any practical analysis of what is happening in the world. I recently addressed a meeting of a welfare peak group, and was stunned to find that it had been "years" since they has had contact with a political activist. So this is an essential alliance.

Building a whole new way of doing politics. The old method of parties has run its course. The more recent method of protesting, activist social movements is too easily split, overrun and defeated in detail. We need a way to create unity with diversity. I urge people to look to the World Social Forum movement, and within that in particular the fascinating connecting networks being built in poor countries between autonomous local culture, social activists, environmentalist and political activists as a model to learn from. Another good starting point is the work of Andy Blunden, For Ethical Politics.

Finally, on the strength of this roadmap, reaching out to the mass of Australians who have supported the coalition. Reaching out by listening; finding the things they fear and love and building human bridges across these. To rebuild a broad coalition we must be humble and listen, not lecture and impose; not make noisy "look at me" gestures, but work very hard at finding whatever common humanity unites us with the coalition voters. Subcommandante Marcos of the Zapatistas, an iconic figure of the 1990's anti capitalist movement, said he had nothing to say to the people of Chiapas; he did not teach, he only listened because the people already knew what to do.

We need to find projects that people can unite around. Margo Kingston's democracy project is one - recapture the idea of democracy as something active, done by people, not a triennial ritual. There must be other projects with scope for drawing people in, engaging their interests and permitting the development of social change.

Circumstances are currently against us. Rebuilding and regrouping will be hard; emotionally draining, intellectually challenging; practically difficult. And victories will not be easy, cheap or quick. There may in fact be many years of defeat. We must cultivate the stoic mood of Antonio Gramsci "Optimism of the intellect, pessimism of the will". We know that in the long run things will change and that the actions we undertake now will in some small way, like ripples in a pond, impact on the long tern future. But we realise that many of our immediate actions will fail and our short-term goals will not be achieved, as the balance of forces is too strong. But giving up is to vacate the field totally to the forces that we oppose, and that is to surrender the future to them. Therefore, despite all, we must continue to act. But we must do our work beyond the surface, out of sight. In the last chapter of A beginners guide to anti-capitalism, Simon Tormey talks about the metaphor of the rhizome, a perennial underground plant, whose scattered surface manifestations look like different plants, but in reality are part of one tangled mass of roots below ground. Left alone, the rhizome keeps growing underground until there is nothing else, just a network of roots multiplying and sending up shoots and leaves. The task for us after this election result is to work out how to become this rhizome.

Now is the time to be creative; to try new ways, to think new thoughts; to experiment with political forms; to revisit and learn from old traditions and forgotten histories with new eyes. "Let 100 flowers bloom, let 1000 schools of thought contend".

<<<-- Return to Part 1


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