What happened to the Left?

(This article appeared in the April-May issue of Arena, 'the Australian magazine of left political, social and cultural commentary'. Arena can be found at http://www.arena.org.au/ )

Though battered and bruised, the Left in Australia has good reason to be optimistic, or at least feel vindicated. The invasion of Iraq, as predicted, has turned into a murderous folly. Instead of being the seedbed of democracy, Iraq has sprouted toxic forms of inter-Islamic terrorism. Global warming, which the Left warned about more than 20 years ago, is now accepted as a major threat confronting humanity.

Governments and corporations now grudgingly plan an economy less reliant on fossil fuel. The triumphalism associated with neo-liberal economics has passed as many now perceive its cost: longer working hours, damage to civil society, rising inequality.

At the level of national politics, things look brighter. Many ordinary Australians are now realizing the new industrial relations laws will mean lower wages, and insecure jobs. Labor looks like it might just win the next federal election, introducing an element of desperation into the Howard Government.

Yet paradoxically, none of this marks a revival of the Left, however you define this shorthand term. There is no sense in which the tide has turned in a progressive direction.

The problem is that in spite of telling criticisms, and even defeat on particular issues, the Right still holds an intellectual ascendancy in the world of politics and ideas. Essentially this is based on the Right's intellectual revolution of the 1980s which revived a form of liberalism, particularly economic liberalism. At the level of everyday politics this philosophy of choice and individualism combines with a consumerism which is deeply appealing to many people. Analyzing this was one of the reasons that I wrote 'Beyond Right and Left: New Politics and the Culture War which Geoff Sharp discussed on the last issues of Arena.

One of my conclusions as Geoff Sharp rightly notes, is that there is at the heart of neo-liberalism an ethical void. The market mechanism takes little account of values which cannot be quantified or priced. Market logic is remaking the 'life world' of family and community. It is also mindlessly short termist and is therefore driving an ecological disaster. These weaknesses of neo-liberalism lay the basis for a broad based movement of opposition but one that has not happened yet. How it might happen was another pre-occupation of 'Beyond Right and Left'.

I concluded that whatever particular criticisms we make of neo-liberalism, its greatest strength is that it is not challenged by any coherent alternative. Neo-liberal policies come under effective and sustained attack but opposition, even well based opposition, does not constitute an alternative.

The post-cold war Left has opinions, ideas, criticism, values and a string of causes but these cannot all be arithmetically 'added up'; to form an alternative. Much of what we might call progressive politics relies on a predictable shopping list of views but no confident agenda-setting social vision lies behind it in the way it had, say, in the 1970s and earlier periods in history.

Constructing an alternative to neo-liberalism is difficult because different parts of progressive politics today 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 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 increasing living standards part of the problem?

Nor are these issues merely confined to the margins of political life in this country. The Australian Labor Party - like progressive politics - has been undergoing a crisis of belief and ideas 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. This has largely collapsed and today Labor represents a patchwork of constituencies with no unifying vision. This may be the reason that Kevin Rudd was attracted to my book.

In truth the Left, as such, no longer exists. There are at least two Lefts in Australia. One is an economic Left and the other a cultural left. Each has a vision of sorts, but neither singly nor together do their visions form a coherent and plausible alternative to the Right. Understanding the reason for this is the first step, in my view, to framing a new paradigm for social change.

The economic left's vision

The vision of the economic left has its roots in a cluster of political theories around socialism and Marxism. These give a central role to the workplace and to paid work. Thus the trade union movement is the political sun around which other planets orbit. In turn this is a reflection of the theory that 'class' is the determining reality in societies like ours. Central to the socialist vision was the struggle against material deprivation and for material equality. Material deprivation certainly exists in Australia society yet 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. Theories which rely on redressing actual; material deprivation at best address the needs of a minority and are thus partial and narrow. At worst they provide a justification for ever increasing economic growth regardless of environmental consequences. Moreover, using class analysis to 'explain' things like racism and a host of other cultural phenomena is simply mindless reductionism.

Apart from explanatory defects, the politics of radical socialism has never produced a society which was not some sort of repressive dictatorship combined with an economy unable to deliver as well as capitalism. There are still valuable insights in theories of socialism and Marxism but the continued adherence to its vision of social change by some leftists is a tribute to intellectual inertia and wishful thinking.

The movements invigorated by these theories - trade unions, anti-colonial struggles - historically embodied some of the noblest human aspirations for justice. But a key problem with its vision of emancipation has been the apocalyptic element, particularly of Marxism, which argues that the laws of history will see capitalism transcended and a completely new society introduced. Many realize that this is a quasi-religious belief and that now the choice facing the Left is varieties of capitalism, not some wholly non-capitalist society with no market and no private property. Perhaps this is making my peace 'with the inevitability of capitalism' as Geoff Sharp suggests but it is the result of a long reflection and was not a conclusion which I would have predicted at the start. Like many people whose outlook derives from the Marxist left I would suggest that the greatest triumph of socialism was that it tamed and civilized capitalism. But the intellectual framework of socialism, no matter how updated, is inadequate to deal with the momentous challenges we face today.

The other part of the left, the cultural left, recognized long ago the inadequacies of the old Marxist left's intellectual framework with its narrow focus on class and its belief in the 'laws' of history. It rightly focused 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. It also recognized the inadequacies of social and political theories based Enlightenment rationalism and simplistic notions of progress defined in technical and material terms.. But the central ideas of the cultural left are also limited and flawed.

For a start, it made a fetish of cultural identity. It celebrates the variety of cultures, tended to romanticize all 'oppositional' cultures to the dominant culture. One consequence of this has been a deep alienation of much of the cultural Left from the mainstream culture  not surprisingly, since this is 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 (especially those 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 it often finds it hard to talk about politics in terms of an overall vision or a common good.

One consequence of this is that theories of postmodernism are now largely remote from any kind of political struggle. Their relativism sidelines legitimate notions of truth and objectivity, yet these are vital in real world of politics and life. Did Saddam plan to build nuclear weapons? Is climate change caused by fossil fuel burning? Having an intellectual framework in which facts and truth make sense both at the level of theory and politics (without referring to them as 'facts' and 'truth') is vital .

My conclusion in Beyond Right and Left was that a new vision for social change must be grounded in values rather than in a new, totalizing ideology like Marxism (or neo-liberalism). I call this outlook a 'new humanism'.

In his assessment of this, I think Geoff Sharp misunderstands my position. He says 'there is a basic problem with his [my] approach. He maintains a recognition of a religiously sourced ethic and combines that with what he terms 'a new humanism'.' If I understand him correctly he seems to be suggesting that I propose a new social vision ultimately reliant on religious beliefs. Geoff Sharp may think that Labor Party leader Kevin Rudd's praise for some of my ideas gives weight to this view, given Rudd's own Christian beliefs. It is also true that I refer to Max Weber's view that capitalism gave rise to an inexorable process of rationalization which is replacing the non-rational, non instrumental side of life. And I agree with Weber that religion was the source of non-rational values and ethics.

But while I have rethought my views on religion, I certainly do not regard it as the basis for a new social vision. I am simply making the point that historically, humans developed an ethical framework in and around religion. Just as Weber made the point about early capitalism 'disenchanting' the world by confining the scope of religion, so the New Capitalism is deepening the commodification and rationalization of all areas of life which had a transcendent element and this includes not only religion, custom, the family but also activities such as education, sport, the arts etc.

Religious belief arises from the kind of creatures which humans are. All societies have some form of religion and these beliefs, including a desire for ethical framework, is a human characteristic. I discuss other human characteristics as part of a re-thinking of progressive views on human nature. This part of the book attempts to do what Geoff Sharp suggests i.e. to ground the vision in analysis.

This is too detailed to outline now but suffice it to say that I think human needs and characteristics set limits to social arrangements and ultimately cause some to fail. For example, humans have a capacity for autonomy and self interest, but they also have a need for community and solidarity. Neo-liberalism caters for the first, Marxism for the second, but societies built solely on either principle are in some sense, dehumanizing.

Sharp has argued that in societies like ours we are headed on a dangerous road. He sees the fusion of practical intellect to science resulting in a variety of technologies (genetics, nano-technology) which threatens to 'reconstruct our species type'. I don't wish to minimize the dangers that may lie in such technologies. But it seems, to me that the main danger comes from other quarters, in particular from climate change.

Apart from its obvious threat, climate change poses a unique challenge to many of the comfortable assumptions of progressive politics,. The classical political theories of liberalism and socialism share belief in unlimited material expansion. Ironically, the only theory which does not is conservatism which has a critique of rationalist-based progress. And no political theory or social analysis until recently has tried to integrate the notion that humanity are a species of animals which is as dependent on its habit at as any other.

These questions of theory are vital because in order to combat the threat to our species a political force is needed, in the same way that the civilizing of capitalism required the emergence of a trade union and socialist movement. And no political force has ever come into the stage of history without a new theory and vision. In its own modest way the underlying purpose of Beyond Right and Left was to try to sketch out what such a new vision and theory might be.