Why has the Right gained the ascendancy in political ideas and values?

This talk at the Australian National University also appeared in slightly shorted form in the Newsletter of the Australia Institute (Dec 2005).

I'd like to begin by posing one of the questions that inspired my passion for the book. Why has the Right gained ascendancy in political ideas and values in Australia? In the short term there are two major reasons why John Howard has won recent elections -- one is the steady performance of the economy and the other is the threat of terrorism.

But I'd like to look at some deeper reasons and I'll do so by making three points.

The first is the observation that the possibility of adequately fitting contemporary politics into a Right-Left spectrum is disappearing.

We all routinely describe the John Howard's Liberal-National coalition government as Right and Labor as representing a broad Left. But is this accurate or even helpful? The meaning of these terms, like the ideas of those parties, has been transformed in recent times. When Kim Beazley was elected leader of the Labor Party for the second time in 2005, the former Liberal Prime Minister, Malcolm Fraser commented that there was not a single issue on which Kim Beazley 'is on the Left of me'. This is more than a cheeky crack on Fraser's part. I believe it says something about the deeper forces at work in our political system.

The Right-Left model assumes that all the big questions of the day can be fitted on this spectrum. But if this is so, then where do concerns about the environment fit? Is alarm about climate change and loss of biodiversity a 'left wing' response? Is it 'right wing' to make the family central to a political vision? I don't think either of those assumptions make any sense any more.

The neo-liberal revolution

Part of the key to understanding the current ascendancy of the Right is that in the 1980s the Right underwent an intellectual revolution. The Right became a force centrally based on militant economic liberalism.

The price of this liberal renewal was the destruction of the older kind of Right and the creation of a radical, neo-liberal Right. This new Right is dominated by economic liberalism, and in a supporting role is a new kind of conservative populism . But if we focus solely on the conservative populism of the Right we miss a vital element, I believe. That is that one of the consequences of these changes is that the so -called conservatives are no longer afraid of radical change. In fact they embrace it.

The radicalism on the Right is radically transforming Australian society. Setting in place market mechanisms not only in the economy but well beyond it, in the wider society, leads to a constant and swift evolution - to give just two broad examples, the old Right stood for two key institutions: on the one hand the family and on the other, a patriotic idea of the nation. Free market policies are undermining both of these institutions, The family as an institution is being undermined by the intrusion and needs of the economy - most obviously in the shape of long hours of work by both parents. The national economy (and any sense of sovereignty) is being undermined by the forces of the global economy.

The other consequence of the penetration of the market mechanism is the rise of commercial values in place of older social and moral values. The slow permeation of commercial values into areas far removed from the economy may turn out to be the most insidious and radical consequences of all. Indirectly, this is fuelling a growing desire by many people for a values-based politics. While this is widely recognized, I would emphasizes that part of this is a desire for non-commercial (and sometimes pre-modern) values in an increasingly commercialised modern society.

As I said, the point I am making is that the neo-liberal Right today is a radical force. Its goals and the kind of economy it prescribes are having radical effects on social institutions and on civil society.

Two things flow from this: first, the most effective critique of neo-liberalism can be based on these radical social effects, rather than the traditional Left critique based on inequalities of wealth.

Secondly the market radicals of the Right have reversed the previous meaning of Right and Left as Conservative and Radical. The most effective ground for the Left to stand on now is as a conservative force -- with conservative defined in a particular way. I develop this unusual argument at some length in my book.

The collapse of socialism

The other reason that the Right- Left spectrum is becoming irrelevant is that the ideas of socialism, as an explanatory framework for Left politics, have definitively collapsed.

There are many reasons for stating this but the one on which I will touch briefly concerns the passing of social class as a broadly useful explanatory mechanism.

In its time, the class analysis of socialism was an enormously powerful weapon. It cut through the ideologies that obscured the self-interested actions of the corporate elite both locally and internationally. More importantly it gave a confidence and inner-strength to working class movements. The central role of class in a political vision was the idea that all workers shared a status in that they were oppressed by the same force and that this was the basis for class-wide solidarity, - the first expression of which was the formation of trade unions, on which were founded labour and socialist parties in the late nineteenth century.

The fact of social class is still important in understanding Australia, and indeed any advanced industrial society. The social power and privilege conferred by individual wealth to a small elite is a central feature of such societies. But my point is not to deny this. Rather it's to say that a world view based on class presumed that workers would develop a collective interest and that this would be expressed in trade unions, and labor parties. With this class consciousness the working class was to be the designated driver of social change. But this has not happened and will not happen, in my view.

Moreover, the great issues of our time concerning race and the environment cannot be explained in terms of class except by the most extreme economic determinism. And class inequality within a society has today much less power to explain the causes of a range of social problems.

The most immediate political consequences of this is the undermining of parties built on class and of institutions built on labour. It means that today the trade union movement is one social movement among many others. It seems only a short time ago, when the trade union movement was the sun around which other planets orbited, a reflection of the theory that 'class' was the determining reality in advanced capitalism. Today the trade unions are just one social movement among many. The other local consequence which is obvious in all of this - the decline of socialism as a world view and the inadequacy of class analysis in the real world, are some of the deeper driving forces of the crisis of belief and vision in the Australian Labor Party.

The culture war

I now want to turn to what is usually called -- at least by the Right -- The culture war over values

If the free market revolution is one of the broad forces shaping political discourse in contemporary Australia, the other is the backlash against the cultural revolution of the 1970s - in particular the rise of feminism and the acceptance of cultural diversity. In sum the Right is winning this culture war.

Before we go any further we should note just how paradoxical this is. The battle over culture wasn't meant to be won by the Right, it was meant to be won by the Left. In the 1970s as old style socialism faded, culture became the chosen terrain of battle of the new Left which emerged from the new social movements. This new Left increasingly rejected the inadequacies of class analysis and preoccupation with economic analysis. It saw that the working class was not particularly radical and it seemed quite content to insist on a fairer division of the consumer spoils of capitalism. Social change was blocked not by armed force but by comfortable beliefs and values which in sum constituted capitalist culture and ideology. By contrast the new social movements of women, youth, ethnic groups and gays challenged the values and beliefs of dominant culture and ideology. Their terrain was not the factory floor but the public culture. Starting from activist campaigns, demonstrations and a multitude of creative protests, the new Left set an important cultural agenda. It waged a culture war and it had enormous success. A new Cultural Left emerged alongside the old Economic Left.

But as I say this is ancient history now because the people who are winning the culture war are the Right.

But why is this?.

Broadly speaking, the reason for this, I think, is the fact that while many people experienced the cultural change of the 1970s and 80s as liberation from religious and conservative restrictions, others experienced it (and still experience it) quite differently -- particularly as changes occurred in the family and as the effects of economic globalisation began to take hold. Rather than experiencing liberation, some began to experience disintegration. Rather than feeling free, they felt fractured. Instead of gains, many felt the loss of stable families and stable jobs and the ebbing of familiar truths. Nor was this merely imagined. Divorce did rise, the incidence of certain crimes did increase, social change occurred rapidly. And progressive ideas with their emphasis on liberation and personal change were blamed for this.

These concerns are often dismissed with a wave of the postmodern hand. They are mere 'moral panics' and 'anxieties'. Such phrases often amount to an evasion of genuine moral issues. Unless everyone celebrated every social change, it seems, they are conservative. While intellectuals may revel in unstable identities, blurred boundaries and shifting meanings, most people don't, because when such abstractions are translated into social practices they can result in aimlessness, anger or alienation.

Diversity and the common good

I now want to turn to a related aspect of all this which is a notion of cultural diversity -- and discuss how it has played out in national politics

I begin by noting that this notion marks a significant break from the traditional Left's adherence to social justice, equality and to socialism in various forms, which was based on a philosophical universalism. It saw all people as equal without significant difference. In this older framework diversity usually meant some kind of inequality.

At the high water mark the new cultural Left, the idea of cultural diversity was made into a kind of fetish. While it legitimately celebrated the variety of cultures, it tended to romanticize such feelings and saw them as laudably 'oppositional' to the dominant culture. The consequence of this has been a deep alienation of the cultural Left from the mainstream culture -- not surprisingly, since this is seen to be the oppressive norm -- and a cultivation of marginality.

This loss of the universalist component of the Left has meant that the approach emphasizing cultural diversity often finds it hard to talk about issues in terms of an overall vision, in terms of a national interest or a common good. It has little to say to society as a whole but in its own fragmentation addresses a series of separate constituencies.

By contrast , from the 1990s onwards, the intellectual Right in the Liberal Party increasingly began to articulate their politics in new terms by a new kind of common good. This was a culturally-defined common good revolving around a national identity of Australian-ness. This meant that John Howard and the Liberal Party talked about egalitarianism and the 'battlers', which is a bold form of cultural politics since it is code for making an appeal to the Anglo-Celtic working class Australians. (All the while their economic policies are destroying the institutional bases of the egalitarianism of 'old Australia'.)

One of the consequences of all this is a phenomenon with which you are all familiar. This is the characterization of people like us as 'elites'. The elites are those who sip lattes in inner-city cafes and drink Chardonnay while they busily undermine the values of ordinary Australians, the 'battlers'.

This appeal to a cultural identity neatly turns the tables on the old Left and the Labor ethos. All of this is set out in Judith Brett's recent work, as well as mine. In the 1950s left wing intellectuals such as historian Russel Ward began to construct a vital definition of Australian national identity. In an Anglophile society they insisted that Australians should be proud, instead of ashamed, of their convict origins and of Australia's pastoral working-class pioneers. They argued that the convicts, shearers and drovers embodied a spirit of rebellion and egalitarianism. Thus it was the Left which associated the common man, the battlers and mateship with the 'true spirit' of Australia.

John Howard, that master of cultural politics, consciously cultivates this very ethos to win the allegiance of part of the Labor Party's base. One of the strengths of Labor's former leader Mark Latham was to recognise this and to skillfully try to recapture this allegiance by a more nationalist foreign policy and by framing his policies as an appeal to ordinary Australians

I want to leave you with two new ways of thinking about political issues.

The first concerns the family. The left has not been associated with deep concern for the family as a central political issue. Rather, the discourse of family values has been the territory of the Right. And this is taken by all sides to , mean , for example, shunning gay love and advocating conservatives moral values.

I think the Left needs to re-think its view of the family-- indeed I think it is central to the revival of the fortunes of the opponents of the Right. The reason for this is that even though the Right talks in the same breath about supporting the free market and supporting family values - in fact these two things pull in opposite directions. This was the surprising message recently from the new Senator Fielding from Family First. And he drew the logical conclusion - that John Howard's new industrial relations laws are market friendly and they are not family friendly - particularly when it is likely that ordinary workers will be forced to bargain away weeks of annual leave, to work longer hours and unsociable hours.

For too long the Left and supporters of feminism have damned the phrase 'family values' as simply a code for intolerance and discrimination. Rather than challenging in the meaning of 'family values' they have allowed themselves to be positioned as opponents of something with which most people sympathise. Ceding the terrain of 'the family' to the Right allows it to speak in the names of many millions of people who are themselves not necessarily prejudiced or intolerant but who are worried by rapid social change and dislocation. Yet the real forces undermining families are the forces of the market, of rampant consumerism, of low pay and of long and inflexible working hours. Rethinking family values means focussing on the private and the social meaning of care -- and how care will be paid for. Will it be resolved in the marketplace -- with what Ann Manne calls the industrialization of child care? -- or will we try to retain care out side the formal economy-. This a theme I develop in my book

The second concerns how we conceive of environmental issues. Many people see the rise of Green politics as the replacement for the Left. They see environmental politics as leftwing. I think this is entirely misconceived and to achieve advances we need to re-think the meaning of green politics. To my way of thinking, the essence of green politics needs to be understood and re-framed as a new and genuine kind of conservatism, moreover a kind of conservatism that has a positive appealing to Australians broadly.

How might we do this? First, Green politics first arose from what was originally called the conservation movement. It aims to protect the natural world (and the heritage of the built world) from predatory forces which see the existing world as a mere raw material. Concepts such as the sustainability of the biosphere, I would argue, are conservative concepts.

Second, unlike the Left, green politics are not based on class and their analyses are not reducible to class. The enemy is not capitalism but relentless expansion of an industrial system aimed at generating products to satisfy a consumerism which, past a certain point, substitutes for other meaning and value in the peoples' lives. Rather than abolishing markets, it arguably makes more sense to increase and regulate the market price of timber, of coal, of oil, and of fresh water in order to lower their destruction or wasteful use.

In conservative thought tradition is important because it represent the refinement of wisdom of that past. As well as the traditions of humans, tradition presents itself to us through the existence of the ecology of the planet. The inter-dependence of living organisms which has evolved though millions of years is a tradition indeed! Allied with tradition is the conservative notion of stewardship on behalf of our ancestors and for our children's children, -- a notion originally enunciated by Burke -- which fits perfectly with green philosophy. Such conservative notions are central to indigenous and first nation peoples whose societies are extremely conservative.

Finally then, my summing up is this: the paradox and challenge to those who identified with the original values of the Left, but whose intellectual framework has collapsed, is to re-frame their values and create a new political discourse which has a particular kind of humanistic conservatism at its heart.