Hello there, and welcome to what is one of Angus’s repeated endeavours on the internet, writing and wordpress in particular. I’ve written many, and I’ve had an attempt at a podcast – one which I’m not giving up, incidentally. I’ve found that long-winded introductions never particularly serve the writer, and that self-deprecation is only really appropriate when one has a sufficiently large reputation or identity in the first place. If you’re reading this, you likely know who I am, so you really need little introduction. And with that, we begin.
[As a clarification, I use both ‘Liberal’ and ‘liberal’ in this piece. ‘Liberal’ refers to the Liberal Party. ‘liberal’ refers to the word in its more Americanised fashion, in the sense of being a reformist and generally less conservative.]
It is interesting to see where we are in Australia. After re-opening my Facebook account, my feed is awash with various anti-government stories – critiques of Pyne’s ludicrous inquiry into the national curriculum, detailed accounts of the depraved inhumanity of our treatment of those with the least means, as well as announced cuts and expected privatisations. To many, this would symbolise the effective functioning of a free press, yet to me this only appears to be so at face value. For beneath this veneer of accountability lies the mechanisms through which we are all inculcated and implicitly produce the very Liberal policies that we speak so strongly against.
What we must remember is that for all this condemnation of the Abbott government – and most of it really being tremendous coverage, to which the Guardian in particular must take credit, in fact almost complete credit given how dismal Fairfax has been for quite some time – this is coming from the same journalists who were very happy to let the then-Liberal Opposition set the tone for every article and interview they ever conducted. With a small respite from more liberal commentators in op-ed pieces – which really mean very little – the dominant message of the mid-late Labor government was concerned with reducing the amount of boat arrivals, reducing the budget deficit, and questioning the mandate [to me an entirely manufactured concept] and the efficacy of the carbon tax. These journalists were more than welcome to let the opposition set the tone.
In part this is natural – there is simply issue with a model of journalism that seeks ‘balance’ and tries to ‘reach across the aisle’ to ‘find the real truth’, as if both sides of the argument are valid, or as if they’re genuinely different ideological viewpoints. In reality, most think-tanks are relatively right-wing, and those that are classified as ‘left-wing’ are typically very technocratic and tend to lean towards some notion of economic rationalism. Most economists themselves are the same. Other interview guests – such as academics – are often counterpoised with corporate spokespeople, despite the fact that the former, whether correct or not, has spent a considerable amount of time in research on a certain topic, whereas the latter is literally paid to defend the profits of their employer, at whatever cost, lest they lose their gig. So whenever any government attempts any reform, no matter how minor, the coverage is inevitably skewed against it. Even a reform as widespread and popular as Gonski, with all the technocrats firmly lining up behind it, was forced to undergo quite significant concessions to the private school lobbies – the very thing they were trying to reduce the power of. Marxist state scholars have a term they call ‘structural selectivity’, which refers to the manner in which nearly any meaningful change is compromised, unwound or nipped in the bud, and here is simply one of the mechanisms.
So at no point are these people, these cogs in the system, really particularly our brothers or sisters in arms. This amazing blog details precisely why such concepts of ‘left unity’ are at best haphazard. Labor and prominent pundits will come out against some hideous actions of the Abbott government, undoubtedly, but at no point must we forget why these actions came about in the first place. Abbott’s unabashed militarism towards asylum seekers would never have come about without the Labor government continuing to demonise ‘boat people’, without developing one hideous policy after another. Of course now after all the stomach churning that the various Young Labor crowd would’ve gone through – to their credit – they can rest easy, knowing that it’s not them who are exacting any of these policies, being out of government and all. Which is precisely the point of centre-left parties. They do not exist to be relevant, or to institute real change, or even to take responsibility for their actions. Now that Abbott is in power, people can feel good about being against the government and the awful policies that their own party was entirely complicit in supporting.
Of course this is not to say that working in the system is necessarily politically unsound or morally wrong. We all inevitably do so, and indeed there is much to be said for the active Labor campaigner as opposed to the strongly-worded blog author [ahem]. Yet there is a moment when people’s priorities and character are revealed as they function within this social structure. That is: it is very easy to be in opposition, but when your own party is in, you truly reflect where you stand. I can’t remember where I first heard it or saw it, but I can certainly attribute the general notion to Cornel West (as well as Tavis Smiley), who themselves were widely eviscerated within the black community after Obama’s election, only to just recently being welcomed as being highly accurate in their critique of Obama’s unabashedly corporatist and militaristic domestic and foreign policies. You could see it happen in real time, watching Bill Maher (you’ll have to believe me, that pun was deliciously unintended). Maher’s relentless criticisms of the military-industrial complex, of the pharmaceutical lobbies, corporate corruption of politics and income inequality were not entirely cut-off when Obama came into power, but were very much replaced with a focus on making fun of the Republicans. Not unwarranted, but given that the Democrats were now indeed in power, should that not have been his focus?
Call this analysis long-winded, but I find it important to bring up specific examples, to demonstrate quite clearly how this tendency works. Critique is fine when not in power, but when in power, well you’ve got to support your party through thick and thin, and hey they’re just doing their best. At a fundamental level, some people are more loyal to the party than they are the policy. Any kind of notion of sane, reasonable Australians against the barbarism of the Libs really belies the fact that many people would not bat an eyelid or would even fundamentally defend many similar policies if enacted by their own party. There is no doubt that the Liberals are indeed ludicrously right-wing and far worse than anything that Labor could do on their own, but we must understand that the Liberals do not exist in separately to Labor but rather in complete tandem – you cannot have one without the other, as they mutually legitimise each other. Liberals assert the demands of particular sections of society, including a very radical conservative streak, while Labor derives its legitimacy from popular opposition to these tendencies, which are then incorporated into the Labor machine of parliamentary politics. When popular reforms are enacted – minimum wages, factory legislation, Medicare, Gonski, NDIS, etc. – Labor can firmly take credit, having cannibalised popular actions and sentiments. Whatever the virtues of these reforms – and there indeed many, and parliamentary representation is of course highly important – the issue is that partial reform is where the last stop on the Labor train. After responding to the popular impulses which typically get them elected, piece-meal reforms will be enacted, and then precious little fight will continue, as once ‘reform’ is enacted, the task becomes the ‘proper management of the Australian economy’, and servicing the needs of capital continues.
So continual critique of the Abbott government is at best misleading, and at worst rather dishonest. Undoubtedly the government needs continual critique, and to the extent that Labor and various journalists do this, so much the better. Yet at no point must Abbott and his cronies be seen as the particular issue, and attempts to portray the Liberals as the only issue do miss this point. Like the in UK, while Tories are certainly completely bereft of morals, the fact that they sit across from a party who, reluctantly or no, enacts many of the same policies, is a point to remember.
Where do we go from here? Well, we must establish our own patterns and construct our own accounts of this era. We cannot allow the mainstream press nor any self-interested political parties – and this without a doubt includes the Greens – to co-opt what are genuine grievances, not political machinations. Of course this just brings us back to the classical problem of sufficient organisation and popular uprising to truly not only make demands of power but to shape our own destiny – the problem namely being that such goals are intensely difficult, and rarely achieved outside of a few historical circumstances. But it is here where we must try. And in more practical terms, stop making Abbott out to be the devil. By doing so you make Labor the saint, and remembering Rudd and Gillard should be enough to remind you that’s a bad idea.