Can progressive politics find a new vision?

This is a talk delivered on August 5 2006 to the Blackheath Philosophy Forum, a community meeting in the town of Blackheath, in the Blue Mountains in NSW Australia.

The title of my talk today is 'Can progressive politics find a new vision? It's a rhetorical question, of course, and my answer is yes. But you might respond in a quite different way. You might ask -- What exactly constitutes progressive politics anyway? It's a rather nebulous term. Why not talk in terms of the Left?

This nebulous nature of what constitutes progressive politics or the broad Left is significant - it indicates that much of what we might call progressive politics relies on a vague and sentimental attitudes. It is more often than not a shopping list of items and attitudes which don't form anything coherent. It relies heavily on an oppositional stance, not on a stance which projects a positive vision and certainly not on a coherent intellectual framework. Not only that, but that different parts of progressive politics actually pull in opposite directions - think of militant trade unionists in coal-mining and logging industries on the one hand, and environmentalists on the other. In the same vein, think of a related problem: the struggle to achieve higher and higher living standards was once a central goal of the Left. But is it still a central part of the vision of progressive politics? Or are ever increasing living standards part of the problem?

Or to take a different issue: look at the way in which opinions are divided about phenomena like 'welfare dependency' - is it real, does it exist ? is it a problem? Or is it part of some right wing move to condemn vulnerable people?

Nor are all of these issue merely confined to the fringes of political life in this country. The Australian Labor Party - like progressive politics - has been undergoing a crisis of belief and ideal for quite some time now. What exactly does it stand for? Is it still a party of representing workers? What does the concept of 'representing workers' mean today? Labor once had a rough and ready vision based on this notion. Today Labor represents a patchwork of constituencies with no unifying vision.

So these issues of an underlying vision of political movements are, in my view quite real and significant. And not confined to the margins of political life.

Indeed, I would argue that the decreasing impact of progressive politics in Australian political life is fundamentally due to the lack of any coherent new vision. Just to make the point historically - when Malcolm Fraser took office in 1975, a small but significant radical movement existed which challenged his every move and which had a significant impact on the political agenda of Australia. Has this occurred under the last 10 years of John Howard - the comparison is embarrassing. Instead there is passivity, demoralization and an inability to combat him on the terrain that was once the Left's strength - the terrain of values and ideas. Worse then that there is an attempt by some activists to carry on a radical left wing style of doing politics whose day has passed and which has no attraction to potential supporters, especially young ones.

The difference between the Fraser years and the Howard years is that under Fraser one could still speak in meaningful terms of a progressive movement which had something approaching a coherent vision. This gave it the intellectual resources and confidence to challenge a government which had a strong mandate from the ballot box. Today this is not possible. And in this lies the key weakness of the left or progressive politics

Let's take this comparison further. The progressive movement that existed, say 30 years ago, was really the political Left which was defined in a way that does not exist today. This political Left was a force which had its roots in a cluster of political theories around socialism and Marxism. These gave a central role to the workplace and to paid work. Thus the trade union movement was the political sun around which other planets orbited. In turn this was a reflection of the theory that 'class' was the determining reality in advanced capitalism.

These theories gave the Left that existed then a real strength. What happened in the intervening years is that those theories have became increasingly unable to explain the world and inspire a confident movement.

This view of the world was challenged from two directions. On one side were the new social movements which offered radical challenges but which did not rely on a class view of the world - I am thinking here of the emergent women's movement, the environment movement and the movement of cultural libertarianism and radicalism.

On the other side was a challenge from a reinvigorated Right which emerged with Margaret Thatcher. This new Right is and was a movement based on One Big Idea - the idea of individual freedom and choice. It is a movement based on the philosophy of liberalism, That is, it is an ideological movement.

But more than that, the new Right was a movement in tune with the times. By this I mean that it responded to one of the most significant features of our society - the rise in material well being of ordinary people. The expansion and cheapening of the number of consumer goods led to a growing expectation of greater individual choice in satisfying material wants. When we look at the product of affluence we immediately recognize the cultural revolt of the 1960s which it spawned but the less recognised consequence is that affluence laid the material bases for the neo-liberal, free market Right. Its philosophy of personal freedom and choice was in tune with the experience of many people.

Today we see this philosophy of choice and individualism reflected in the Howard government propaganda for the changes in industrial relations - one of the most radical changes ever implemented by a government in Australia.

The rise of the neo-liberal Right has lessons for the other side of politics - the progressive side. In crude shorthand the lessons are, first, if you want to have an impact you need a coherent political philosophy and, second, that to be successful that philosophy must be in tune with objective circumstances and the spirit of the times.

Let's look at these in turn.

As I said Marxism and socialist ideas once were the core of the intellectual framework of the left. Marxism acted as a kind of well spring of ideas and intellectual strength whose influence rippled out into the Labor Party, into cultural and academic life and into the society generally.

Today this is no longer the case. But I think it is important to understand why, if for no other reason than to avoid making the same mistakes again.

Central to the socialist vision was the struggle against material deprivation and for material equality and for material abundance. Material deprivation certainly exists in Australia society. The ABS reported recently that, in the past 12 months, due to a money shortage, 13% of Australians said that they had gone without meals or had been unable to heat their home.

As against that, on a longer time frame, real incomes in Australia have trebled in the last 50 years. Many, many working Australians enjoy a lifestyle undreamed of by their parents. Four wheel drives, home entertainment systems, overseas holidays etc. My point is not to brush poverty under the carpet but to point out that a vision based centrally on addressing material deprivation is misplaced

Until relatively recently, socialists thought that capitalism would eventually plunge large parts of the working class into poverty - and that it would then become obvious that that poverty could only be ended by large scale government control, if not ownership, of productive resources. But it is has not turned out this way. Capitalism has proved to be very dynamic and very productive. Indeed this may prove to be the real problem.

The socialist Left with its class analysis also saw clearly who the agent for change would be - it would be the working class. Today it is doubtful whether this way categorizing people really has any use at all. particularly if your theory prescribes that this class will somehow develop a class consciousness

The most striking characteristic of workers in modern times is one of great fragmentation. The work-force has been transformed by part time work, by white collar and service jobs. There are wide discrepancies of income in the working class - a layer of employees are very affluent others in genuine poverty. The gender composition of the workforce also changed radically. The idea that this class, as a class, could act in any unified progressive way is a utopian dream.

There are many more things you could say about the flaws of classical socialist Marxist theory, and some of these are outlined in my book.

I now want to move on to perhaps a more familiar political force -the group I have called in my book the cultural left. This describes the broad political force which emerged out of the cultural revolt of the 60s and 70s.

The cultural left recognized long ago the inadequacies of the old Marxist Left's intellectual framework with its narrow focus on class and its economic determinism.

It rightly focussed on things like cultural identity as central to human experience and it argued that racism and gender inequalities could not all be explained by the capital-labour contradiction. But the central ideas of the cultural left are also limited and flawed.

It made a fetish of cultural identity. It celebrates the variety of cultures, tended to romanticize all 'oppositional' cultures to the dominant culture. The diversity of cultures should be celebrated but if that is all you do, then this has dire political consequences.

One consequence of this has been a deep alienation of much of the cultural Left from the mainstream cultureâ€â€not surprisingly, since this is seen to be the oppressive normâ€â€and the cultivation of marginality. In turn, this has meant that much of the cultural Left not only finds it hard to communicate with the bulk of people of Anglo-Celtic-origin in Australia, but sees no role for such people in shaping the kind of cultural transformation it would like to see occur.

The cultural left's preoccupation with diversity has meant that the cultural Left often finds it hard to talk about politics in terms of an overall vision, 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, the person who has most effectively articulated ideas about an overall Australian identity has been our old friend John Howard.

AS the Melbourne academic Judith Brett argues, Howard has made the Liberal party the part y of Australian popular nationalism - a role that was once reserved the Labor party and the trade union movement. AS I said Labor now looks like a patchwork of noisy dissident group with no unifying ideas.

A new vision

All of this unraveling of the problems of progressive politics may sound terribly depressing. Nevertheless I think it is important.

But what of the future of progressive politics? Can it fashion a new vision that is inspiring, challenging and realistic. Moreover a vision which addressees real problems, not the ghosts of yesteryear?

I think it can and as I have suggested this involves developing a new framework of ideas and values. I put it that way to make it clear that I don't think any new progressive vision will be expressed as a rigid system of ideas likes Marxism or liberalism. Rather it will be a coherent, but less defined set of values..

What are the element of such a new vision?

Perhaps it's the last remnant of Marxism within me but I think the best place to begin to answer this question is with the actual material reality and with the actual problems which the world faces - rather than with a set of utopian ideals.

The first bit of material reality to my mind is the growing problem of how humanity -especially the developing world -- can live a good life without destroying the ecological basis for that very life.

An analysis of the environmental crisis is a basic starting point, it seems to me.

This marks a distinction with the previous basis of progressive politics which foregrounds the increasing material well being. Bluntly, we have to stop thinking in terms of a movement which sees an ever increasing level of living standards as the main goal.

On this basis our conception of the economy must radically change -- the economy in future includes what are called ecological services - that is - the constant renewal and cycle of water, of the atmosphere, resources, its air -- considered as part of the economy,

On this basis we live in a society and an economy which is ultimately unsustainable -- and we have a particular form of capitalism which relies on the endless expansion of the economy and ever increasing of production of commodities. This libertarian capitalism has no concept of 'enough' -- and this is big problem.

The second basis for a new vision revolves around the issue of care. Care for children, care for the old and care for sick or disabled. This is a society which really does not value care. A large part of the work of care is unpaid or poorly paid. Think mothers, health workers or child-care workers. Moreover, juggling work and care is one of the really profound problems for many ordinary Australians- greater than their living standard.

Progressives politics 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. In fact the Right is utterly hypocritical on family values - and this makes it very vulnerable,. 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.

For too long the Left and supporters of feminism have damned the phrase 'family values' as simply a code for intolerance and discrimination.

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. Re-thinking 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 provision for care -- say through a generous paid parental leave ---- become a new goal for progressive politics?

The third issue on which I think progressive politics can be renewed concerns a vision of Australia, a vision of what we all hold in common, a vision of the public interest, One of the great strengths of the Right has been to frame a set of values about what constitutes Australia and Australians. It has mobilized and articulated a national sentiment -- one built on such appalling things as xenophobia but nevertheless one which strikes a resonance with many people. Progressives must overcome the fetish of diversity and their distaste for anything that smacks of nationalism. We must re-learn the way to articulate a populist philosophy imbued with progressive values.

Progressives used to be populists -- in the original and the good sense that they took up the concerns of ordinary people against the elite. This was true of the labour movement, the trade unions-- to some degree they still express this quality. Today progressives are successfully depicted as an elite and this strikes a resonance because of the behavior and politics of some of the cultural left.

The fourth issue concerns self-image. Progressives see themselves as radicals who stand for social change. Given the rapid economic and cultural changes of the last 20 years, this is actually a liability. More than that, it is not really true. The real radicals are the advocates of libertarian, deregulated capitalism. We refer in short hand to Howard's government as a conservative government but it is not. The so -called conservatives are no longer afraid of radical change. In fact they embrace it. That is what the new Industrial Relations laws are about -- human labour is reduced to a commodity and the most vulnerable are the worst hit.

When you put the market in charge of a university, a health system or a community then you begin to transform the values of that community, and more importantly you transform the social bonds between people. The market radicalizes society -- it destroys old habits, old values and old relations --

So it is the free market liberals who are the radicals, not progressives. Progressives need to realize the value of terms like - security, caution, and social cohesion -- with which the Old Right are associated. These can and should be re-framed as an agenda demanding stable jobs and communities, common values and social solidarity, rather than a society based on more individualism, more choice and ever more freedom.

On this basis it would make more sense for progressives and people on the left to frame their appeal as people who want to conserve and who reject market-driven social change. Conserving the environment, preserving families and communities in the face of a relentless individualism -- seems to me to be a new and important way to exploit a gaping vulnerability of the new Right. So the old idea they we progressives are the radicals, and that the Right are the conservatives is not true and we should cease to think this way.

Fifth, progressive vision can be renewed on the basis of values. Traditionally progressives appealed to the public at large on the basis of unacceptable material inequalities. Today a more relevant and powerful appeal can be made on the basis of humanist values.

And the neo-liberals of the Right are vulnerable on this. Their policies and philosophy promote the rise of commercial values in place of older social and moral values. If a university course does not attract students in the short term, then we cancel it - it has no intrinsic value, other than its market value. Nothing has any value, other than short term popularity expressed in the votes of consumers through their buying power. Commercial populism reigns.

More than ever before we live in a society in which everything is valued in dollar terms, everything is valued in terms of efficiency. All human needs are commodified and can only be satisfied in a market.

It is a world instrumental processes, of rational objectives, a new age of Reason. But this world creates a material abundance and a spiritual emptiness. Ultimately this is an anti-human world because humans can not live by bread alone. We need much more than that. That is the reason for the seeming paradox of the rise of evangelical religions in a society like ours -- and this need for a spiritual or transcendent side to our lives is also part of the explanation for the rise of environmental consciousness.

In a clash of values, where the commercial logic of neo-liberalism is pitted against a movement based on a new kind of humanism -- I don't have any doubt about which values will succeed. But to get to that point requires a lot more attention to renewing the worldview and values of progressive politics.

And all of this I explain in a far more detailed and less crude way in my book Beyond Right and Left (available from Allen & Unwin ).