Rethinking political ideas - the search for Australian values

The following article appeared in the Autumn 2006 edition of 'Green' magazine, the publication of the Australian Greens. It argues that free market economics is a radical not a conservative idea. The true conservatives are those who want to conserve communities and the environment, not destroy them.

The power of ideas to shape societies is profound although we are largely unaware of their effect. Buried underneath peoples' common sense and the slogans of political parties are sets of philosophical ideas and values. These new ideas often begin with a small committed group, then filter out into the surrounding society. If they find fertile ground they can spread and transform societies.

But I am not talking about environmental ideas and Green parties. Instead, I am talking about the most powerful new political movement based on ideas in the last 20 years which has been the New Right. Few progressive people bother to think about and analyse the Right of politics -- the terms 'right wing' and 'conservative' are simply words of abuse, not analysis. Yet the New Right is the force which largely calls the shots in Australia and the world and whose activities have to be challenged. In this article I want to discuss how this might be done but first I want to analyse what we are up against.

Also described as neo-liberal or 'market fundamentalist', the new Right's economic ideas support free trade, privatisation, deregulation. Its social ideas revolve largely on the individual providing for themselves -- in health, educaton and so on. Like all deeply ideological movements (religious and political) it believes that it has discovered a magic key which explains the world and guides the path to a better life.

Perhaps the most striking characteristic of this New Right is that it is a radical force. It is radical in re-shaping society along the lines of its libertarian economic ideology. And the consequences are radical. I say this for three reasons: First, it believes in the endless expansion of the economy and of production of commodities. It has no concept of 'enough'. This presents a radical challenge to the earth's carrying capacity. Second, its fixation with economic growth damages the social fabric. Human relations become more market-driven and anonymous. Working hours actually increase and the family comes under pressure. Increasingly, we live in an economy not a society. Third, it is an amoral force. Its values are commercial values and economic efficiency is its main yardstick of worth. These clash with many human values such as altruism and care for the community which are still entrenched in spite of years of cultivation of competition and self-interest.

All of these things - -endless expansion, damage to community, and amorality mean that neo liberalism is a radical force. How have people reacted to these changes? Many react in a conservative way. They want to conserve what exists. They feel uncomfortable with an libertarian ideology of individualism and the glorification of self interest.

In this article I want to argue that opponents of the new Right, including Greens, need to think about drawing on conservative attitudes and instincts as a way of re-thinking political ideas and their political appeal. Not to 'become' conservatives (in the disreputable, right wing sense) but to realise the potential of issues of security, caution, and social cohesion -- with which traditional conservatives are associated. These can and should be re-framed as an agenda demanding stable jobs and communities, common values and social solidarity, rather than an agenda based on more individualism, more choice and even more freedom.

The British sociologist Anthony Giddens is also one who argues the modern free market economy brings radical changes. An ever-expanding capitalism runs up against the environmental limits of the world and the freer play of markets and globalisation has the effect of making communal life less traditional, he says. The security associated with regular jobs, stable community and family life is undermined by the spread of markets beyond the economy and into society.

As a result of this radicalism, he argues, "what might be called philosophic conservatism - a philosophy of protection, conservation and solidarity - acquires a new relevance for political radicalism today".

The old paradigm of Right, meaning conservative, and Left, meaning radical, is eroding. A conservative frame of mind - -as opposed to Big 'C' political conservatives -- is not necessarily defined by the old verities of race, church and nation.

Conservative instincts often lie behind the political support of the Greens. Take the issues of genetic engineering and biotechnology. Many regard criticism of biotechnology as left-wing, but one of its thoughtful critics is the American conservative Francis Fukuyama. He fears that continuing to apply biotechnology to humans will alter human nature and will move us into a 'post-human' stage of history. The stage may see the rise of new problems such as a genetically superior social elite, the creation of generations living well over 100 years, the possibility of new types of quasi-humans. He wonders what would happen to the notion of human dignity and equal worth of all humans. So do Greens.

Green ideas intersect with the conservative tradition in other ways. The conservative British philosopher Michael Oakeshott argued that to be conservative "is to prefer the familiar to the unknown, to prefer the tried to the untried, fact to mystery, the actual to the possible, the limited to the unbounded, the near to the distant, the sufficient to the superabundant, the convenient to the perfect, present laughter to utopian bliss".

To prefer the sufficient to the superabundant could well be the motto of a society which rejects consumerism and which does not seek fulfilment through ever-increasing material goods. Frugal habits have been abandoned as a cornucopia of commodities are endlessly generated. This is common ground between Greens and conservative church figures in Australia today. And this common ground is not an accidental blip.

Tradition is central to conservatism and Green thinking. Practices handed down to us are the result of many generations of trial and error and should be valued.

But as well as the traditions of humans, tradition presents itself through the ecology of the planet. The inter-dependence of living organisms which has evolved through millions of years is a tradition indeed. But the radical market ideology driven by profit attaches no value to ecological tradition.

Conservatives in this instance strive for sustainability. The conservative philosopher Professor John Gray says that there is a natural congruence between the ideas of the great British conservative Edmund Burke and green ideas. Burke saw society governed by a social contract, not as an agreement among anonymous ephemeral individuals, but as a compact between the generations of the living, the dead and those yet unborn. This conservative idea that the present generation must act as stewards of heritage, on behalf of our ancestors and to the yet unborn generations, is virtually identical to that found in the Greens.

At its heart the shared ground between conservatism and Green ideas is in scepticism towards ever-increasing progress. By contrast, Enlightenment theories of liberalism and socialism share a notion of unending progress based on the accumulation of material goods. Such theories have no concept of 'enough'.

This version of the good life and progress is understandable, since material deprivation for masses of people is still in living memory in industrial countries and is a living reality for millions in developing countries. But endless material progress on the model of advanced industrial countries cannot be applied to the rest of the world because it is simply unsustainable at a global scale.

I say all of this to try to provoke new frameworks of thinking which I see as the pre-requisite to a renewal of progressive politics at national level. I explore this more deeply in my recent book 'Beyond Right and Left'.

On the other hand, some Greens supporters seen their party as the rebirth of a defeated Left. They frame their political appeal around traditional radical Left watchwords. They emphasise it is not just an environmental party but one which stands for human rights, trade union rights and radical egalitarianism. In this mixture the genuinely new and profound ideas on the environment are sometimes in danger of being lost.

This plays into the hands of critics who label the Greens "watermelons": green on the outside and red on the inside.

But the Greens is not a rebirth of the Left nor should it be. Of course, privately owned corporations, as they are constituted, are major vehicles of environmental destruction. They are very powerful, they encourage over consumption and public needs are sacrificed to private profit. Massive changes are needed to economic activity. But abolishing private ownership and abolishing the market (ie. socialism) is not the answer, even if it were possible.

The clash between labour and capital is not fundamental to a Green analysis of the world. Rather, the clash is between humanity and the natural world need to sustain life.

The economic battle is not to redistribute wealth to create equality nor to abolish the market but to make the economy sustainable. Some environmental thinkers have seized on the market mechanism as one way of allocating scarce resources, by attributing a much higher value to water, coal, oil and other finite resources. And some private corporations are profiting from creating the building blocks of a sustainable society.

If the Greens are to consolidate their gains and expand, they need to recognise that part of their message is a conservative one. It is deeply attractive to certain conservative instincts in the broad public and this should not be a matter for embarrassment but for celebration.

The image of green politics as left-wing and radical not only drives away potential supporters, it more importantly straitjackets new thinking into old categories.

David McKnight is the author of Beyond Right and Left (Allen & Unwin, 2005). He teaches in the humanities faculty, University of Technology, Sydney.