IAN McAULEY. Brexit, Trump and the Lucky Country 7 – The left went AWOL

Jan 9, 2017

Contrary to right-wing conspiracy theories, there is no significant “anti-business” force in Australia. In fact the left has never been weaker: the traditional unionized left has been weakened by structural change, and the “progressive” left has dealt itself out of contention by abandoning economics.

There is a story, possibly apocryphal, from Nero’s Rome. In the ultimate display of demonizing the “Other” while entertaining the masses, the occasional Christian was thrown to the lions in the Coliseum. In his wisdom and mercy Nero decreed that any Christian who survived three such events would be freed and given Roman citizenship.

Only one Christian, a fit and agile young man, had survived twice. The third time, in order to give the lions a chance, he was bound and buried up to his neck.

Anticipating Nero’s trickery, on the morning of the event he gorged himself on garlic, herrings and aged French cheese. When the first lion bound up to him he blew hard in its face, and the lion, judging that smell was a reliable guide to flavour, decided to find someone more palatable. As the lion passed over him the Christian threw back his head and with all his might bit the lion on its testicles.

The lion leapt away, yelping in pain. And from high up in the stand, where the corporations had their boxes close to Nero’s, a cry came: “Fight clean you dirty Christian bastard.”

There is a certain asymmetry in Australia’s political culture – an asymmetry supported by sections of the media. The left is expected to abide by the rules, while those on the right consider themselves to be free to choose which rules to break and which to keep. The dismissal of the Whitlam Government in 1975 is the standout example. More recently there was Abbott’s the petulant and destructive parliamentary behaviour during the Rudd/Gillard period. The same crimes against parliamentary democracy earn a mild rebuke when committed by a Coalition government and become hanging offences when committed by a Labor government. The general message is that while the right is respectable, the left should know its place, and that place is a subordinate one.

Late last year in an interview on the ABC, Andrew Bragg, head of the Liberal Party-aligned Menzies Research Centre, took aim at a supposedly powerful left-wing movement in Australia outgunning the “business community”. He claimed that “the anti-enterprise brigade has vastly more resources than the pro-business lobby.”

There is no “anti-enterprise” brigade

We can leave aside Bragg’s suggestion that there is some recognisable “business-community” in Australia. It’s common terminology, used by politicians and lazy journalists. It suffices to point out that there is a huge variety of “businesses”. There is very little that binds unincorporated micro-businesses (individuals with a lawn mower, a trailer and an ABN) and large multinationals, entrepreneurs developing renewable energy technologies and coal companies lobbying to thwart energy innovation, family farmers and agribusinesses.

Perhaps the real anti-enterprise brigade is the network of lobbyists whose function is to preserve the privileges their constituents have secured from government. Their main role is to stymie reform, no matter how strong is community support for reform and no matter how strong the economic case for reform. In Australia we are in awe of the power of the gun lobby in the US, but we have our home-grown bunch of reform blockers – the coal industry, pharmacists, health insurers, the alcohol industry, private schools and the gambling industry to name the most prominent blockers and guardians of economic rent. As Ross Garnaut has said, Australia faces the “diabolical problem” of vested interests being able consistently to undermine necessary but hard reforms.

Bragg’s claim about the left’s resources is as laughable as the story of Nero’s lions. The interests of capital have always had the upper hand in Australia. Of course there was a time when the left, as represented by the trade union movement, was strong enough to countervail the power of capital, but due mainly to structural change that period is past, and as for the progressive or liberal left, whatever voice it may have had in the past is now muted, for it has largely removed itself from relevance in the public debate.

I don’t intend to ridicule one individual. Bragg’s statement even while he grossly overstates the power of the left, expresses an often-expressed notion that there is some capital vs labour class struggle, and it fails to acknowledge the very problem of our age which is almost the diametric opposite. That is the too-easy alignment between economic liberals (the right) and social liberals (the left) which has left so many people behind. Those liberals are the so-called elites, against whom many people are rebelling.

In a capitalist economy capital and labour have more shared interests than conflicting ones. A well-paid workforce sustains markets, and workers have a strong interest in seeing that corporations are doing well, so that they can pay high wages and provide good conditions. That’s the basic economics of capitalism.

That economic model was embraced by social-democratic parties, in contrast to communist parties that saw the destruction of capitalism as the path to the workers’ paradise. And for most of the twentieth century a formal or informal alignment of trade unions with social-democratic parties made good sense.

In Australia trade unionism, as a proportion of the employed workforce, peaked at 65 percent in 1948. It was still near 50 percent when the Hawke Government negotiated the Prices and Incomes Accord in 1983. Union membership is now only 17 percent, and is even less (12 percent) in the private sector. And unionists are old – among workers aged 20 to 34 only 11 percent belong to a union.

Much of this decline is due to structural change, as the industries that once had large labour forces in concentrated establishments – ideal for trade unionism – have declined or have replaced labour with machinery. The situation is broadly similar in other countries.

Worldwide as social-democratic parties lost their identified working-class and unionized bases, they turned to other areas for support, particularly social liberals and progressives. In Australia this shift was most strongly marked by the Whitlam Government’s liberal agenda.

There has been friction in this re-alignment. Trade liberalization has been a liberal cause, but understandably many manufacturing union members support protection. On censorship, sexual behaviour and civil liberties there are often divisions between the values of liberals and conservative members of the working class, particularly those for whom their own economic situation is of prime importance.

These divisions are not necessarily about the issues themselves, but rather about their importance. For example, Australian liberals may see same-sex marriage as important, citing opinion polls to support their case, but what those polls reveal is simply that most people – 72 percent – do not object to same-sex marriage. So it is on many issues. One may accept liberal positions on a raft of issues – treatment of asylum-seekers, race and gender discrimination – but if one feels alienated and abandoned these are not first-order issues. Most farmers who run their businesses professionally would be well-aware of climate change, but if they’re facing cash-flow problems, or feel they have been exploited by a dairy cooperative, they have other things on their mind.

To look at those figures on unionism from another perspective, 83 percent of Australia’s employed workforce is not unionized. Included in that 83 percent are those who have enough economic power, or believe they have enough economic power, not to need a union. (I recall one Labor stalwart complaining that Whitlam’s push to widen post-school education opportunities had weakened Labor’s support base.)

The 83 percent includes those who have lost relative or absolute economic power – farmers, self-employed workers operating as individual contractors, people who have involuntary shifted to lower-paid or insecure casual and part-time work. And because it relates only to the employed workforce it doesn’t include the unemployed or those who have had to retire early. These are the people “left behind”.

The trouble for social-democratic parties, particularly those whose model has been based on mobilizing massed workforces, is that they don’t have ways of reaching out to these groups. They’re like corporations who become locked into business models that have been successful in the past but are losing relevance.

All long-lived organizations have the inertia of legacy. Social-democratic parties are no exception. That inertia was on full display in the US presidential election: the Clinton juggernaut rolled on, no more deterred by the warnings from people like Sanders and Reich than a semi-trailer driver would be deterred by a rabbit on the road. In Australia there have been many proposals for reform of the Labor Party, but apart from some important changes to voting rules in 2013, it’s been almost 50 years since Whitlam steered through a raft of reforms at the 1969 ALP Conference.

While progressive liberals may still support parties of the left, a sharing of liberal values does not make for the sort of strength once exercised by a unionized working class. At best they can mobilize around specific issues through vehicles such as Getup!, but these are small gatherings compared with the position unions once held, and their interests are more heterogeneous than the interests – pay and conditions – that held the unionized workforce together.

The left and economics

Also, in a trend that’s been established for at least half a century, those on the left have largely let economic issues slip away from their concerns. There was a time when the left, particularly young intellectuals attracted to Marxism, saw the world only through an economic prism. But then 50 years ago, when the left worldwide was protesting against the Vietnam War, the Shah of Iran, or for the rights of women and racial minorities, economics went off the left agenda. The mathematics was too tough, and Das Kapital is hard-going. It was much easier to smoke a joint, listen to Joni Mitchell, and join a demonstration in the safety of big numbers than to look at serious issues of economic exploitation.

At the same time the left, particularly in France, was embracing the nihilistic philosophy of postmodernism, according to which there is no such thing as an objective truth, but only people’s individual perspectives or viewpoints. In other words there is no objective standpoint, only opinions.

Postmodernism was an understandable reaction against the dogmatic rigidity of the French school curriculum. It was also a reaction against the various “isms” – capitalism, communism, fascism – that claimed (falsely) to be expressions of Enlightenment rationality.

Postmodernism gave license to sloppy argument. There was no need to research the mechanisms of capitalism, to go through the hard slog of gathering evidence, analysing data, working through the complexity of issues, identifying tradeoffs and engaging in public debate.

Unwittingly the left came to reduce the idea of liberalism to a set of causes, and by the 1980s the economics of capitalism wasn’t one of them. It was much easier to see the world through the soft and fuzzy lens of critical theory than through the hard and focussed lens of economics. There was something uncool about joining political parties, particularly the traditional parties of the “left”, and even voting was a bit of a drag. There was even something chic about political disengagement.

As pointed out in the previous section, the right, which had once been the defender of Karl Popper’s rules of scientific inquiry (another Austrian, who carried the torch for the open society) appropriated postmodernism to its own ends. In so doing they abandoned the inherent caution in patient evidence-based policy – an essential aspect of traditional conservatism.

More basically postmodernism, with its emphasis on individual rather than shared perspectives, was compatible with the amorality of market capitalism. That is the economic idea that resource allocation should be left to individuals attending to their own desires – a common but false interpretation of Adam Smith’s notion that in some situations people pursuing their self-interest can contribute to the common good.

The domain within which public ideas are examined and debated rigorously has been shrinking. Universities remain influential, but their rigour is under threat from two sides – commercial pressure from the right, and anti-intellectual cultural relativism and postmodernism from the left. There are independent think tanks such as the Australia Institute, the Centre for Policy Development, and the Grattan Institute, but their resources are tiny.

In any case most of those on the progressive left have seen no need to engage in the economic debate. By and large they have done well for themselves. Many of their causes have become, or are becoming, mainstream.

For those with some creative flair, a few degrees and certificates, a capacity to write an exaggerated resume and an impressive Facebook profile, capitalism isn’t too bad after all. For those who have not entirely abandoned mathematics the finance sector offers some well-paid jobs, while for those who have gone for the soft subjects there is always public relations and advertising.

Capitalism has been kind to them.

As an Economist journalist has written:

In the past quarter-century liberalism has had it too easy. Its dominance following Soviet communism’s collapse decayed into laziness and complacency. Amid growing inequality, society’s winners told themselves that they lived in a meritocracy—and that their success was therefore deserved. The experts recruited to help run large parts of the economy marvelled at their own brilliance. But ordinary people often saw wealth as a cover for privilege and expertise as disguised self-interest. (Economist editorial, 24 December 2016.)


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