Ideas and strategy in progressive politics

(This short paper was circulated to the Progressive Ideas Network, a group of trade unions, think tanks and community organizations which has met several times in Sydney in the last 12 months.)

I believe the progressive movement is at a critical moment. On a global level the Right has foundered. The debacle in Iraq speaks for itself; the refusal by the advanced industrial countries to deal with climate change is frightening; the war on terror increasingly results in the demonisation of all Muslims and the revival of religious and race based hatred. On many of these issues the instincts and values of the progressive movement have been proven more reliable and more humane than those of the Right.

Yet the paradox is that the Right remains dominant and will do so in the immediate future, regardless of who holds office in advanced industrial countries. Even if the Bush administration was replaced by a Democrat one in 2008, little would change on basic issues. One of the reasons for the Right's dominance is that there does not appear to be a coherent and plausible alternative. There is a lot of opposition to the Right, but opposition does not add up to an alternative. Too often the legitimate criticisms of the progressives amount to a series of unconnected fragments. Moreover the progressive movement has been in decline for a number of years in large part due to the disorientation and collapse of ideas following the end of the cold war in 1989-91.

But this has not been a uniform decline. Clearly the various parts of the Left which were based in the framework of the 'cold war' have declined. The ideas of radical socialism which inspired people for over 100 years are now largely the property of small eccentric sects. The central movement on which socialist ideas were based - the trade union movement - has shrunk. Hopefully it has reached a floor below which it will not sink further. But other movements which did not depend on socialist ideas and the cold war (most obviously around environment issues) have continued to grow. Yet both sectors could benefit and learn from each other. Indeed the gulf between the traditional and the new parts of the progressive movement is one of the most pressing strategic issues for the progressive movement.

The idea of the economy and economic issues

Ideas are the foundation to any political movement but their importance is not always obvious since day to day issues and campaigns continually thrust themselves into prominence and crowd out problems at a deeper level.

The best example of this concerns ideas around economic improvement and ideas around the environment. Campaign around both these things make sense but at a deeper level there are contradictions which need to be addressed.

The classical Left view of the world revolves around the economy and around the workplace relationship between worker and employers. In this view the battle was over the distribution of the economic product between capitalist and worker. Originally, this vision responded to the material deprivation of the working class. Progress was therefore defined as ever increasing living standards and material affluence. The question is: is the framework still central? Are increasing material living standards compatible with a vision of 'the good life'. Are increasing living standards compatible with controlling climate change? We need to think hard about how to resolve these issues because in a short time, these questions will be urgent practical ones, not theoretical ones.

The world view of progressive thought based around the public economy and workplace is not wrong, just inadequate. The problem is that the 'economy' has changed radically but our ideas about it have not changed. They are still rooted in the middle of the twentieth century. There are two profound ways in which this is so.

First, since the entry of women into the workforce in greater numbers it is impossible to separate paid work and what we used to call 'the economy' from the family and social life. In classical socialist terms, it is no longer possible to separate the production of goods from the reproduction of the society.

This is because today changes in the economy, such as the lengthening of working hours and inflexibility of working hours, have a direct impact on the family in a way that they did not when the sole breadwinner was male. This is not an argument for a return to the days of the male breadwinner (which is impossible anyway) . Rather it calls for new thinking on how the progressive movement deals with issues like working hours. A good example of this has been the ACTU's creative campaign against the Workchoice laws which emphasises family time. This is not just smart PR but reflects a different progressive vision of society and the economy.

Second, much of traditional Left thinking on the economy is inadequate for another reason. It acknowledges the environment but does not integrate it into its definition of 'the economy'. Increasingly as global warming hits, the old definition of the economy is becoming demonstrably inadequate. It is no longer be possible to separate a notion of the economy from the natural world. An economic vision must include the idea of sustainability which means seeing oxygen, carbon, water and minerals as elements of an economy as well as inflation, employment and investment.

Sustainability is a nice word which we throw about but making a truly sustainable economy has radical implications for the old Left view of the economy. A key aspect of a sustainable economy involves radically lowering the use of oil and coal-derived energy. This clearly has radical implications for the workers employed in those industries. But even more confronting is that the most effective way to lower fossil fuel use is by raising its price. Pleas for people to reduce usage are not enough, nor are hopes in energy efficient technology. Real reductions in coal and oil usage can only come about by sending a strong pricing signal to industry and to individuals. And because coal- and oil-derived energy is used in everything (food, transport, manufacturing etc) it means that most goods will cost more.

This has obvious implications for issues of economic inequality. It will mean a change and a decline in what we now regard as living standards.

A progressive vision is not a simple arithmetical 'adding up' of a list of progressive causes. We need a new syntheses based on the family and the environment as well economic inequality.

We need a new vision for the Left and progressive movement. At this stage , the most urgent thing is to air ideas and debate issues about how we challenge some of these problems and how we link the fragmented progressive movement.

In this light one goal to aim for would be national and state based conferences where progressive people can thrash out some of these issues.

David McKnight