What’s (also) wrong with the Left

May 17, 2013

By Josh Bornstein

Helen Razer would have all aspiring lefties undertake an education in Keynsian economics. But lawyer Josh Bornstein wonders, are modern-day Keynsians really leading the campaigns Razer would support?

Helen Razer’s recent angry excoriation of the Left for, among other things, its “conspicuous stupidity” and “cheesy individualism” reminded me of the anger and frustration I experienced some years earlier sitting in an auditorium, listening to a speech given by one of the parliamentary Left’s best and brightest, Lindsay Tanner.

When Tanner entered Parliament in 1993, he was hailed as a progressive conviction politician with the potential to lead the ALP. Here was a “thinker” with an obvious intelligence, charisma and eloquence. He wrote books. He was articulate. At times throughout his political career, journalists would almost fawn. In 2009, I attended the John Button Memorial Lecture to hear Tanner, the then-finance minister, give the keynote address.

Tanner’s speech focused on reforming and revitalising the ALP platform, a document that aspires to contain a “clear statement of Labor’s beliefs, values and program for government”. When Tanner spoke, the platform still contained a goal of seeking to socialise “the means of production, control and exchange”. His argument for change was compelling. The ALP was no longer a socialist party but a social democrat party.

Tanner then spoke at length on the need for the ALP platform to distinguish itself from the conservatives. A “complex manifesto” that had suited leaders like Ben Chifley, Gough Whitlam, Bob Hawke or Paul Keating was now redundant, he said. He argued for a single proposition that distilled the essence of a modern progressive ALP and that forged a clear line in the political sand:

That was it. And so was born the Tanner Trust Doctrine.

Like an unlucky sperm, it died soon after launch. Sitting in the auditorium, I witnessed its death. It died of inanity.

In retrospect, the experience was another key moment in my growing realisation that the cupboard which had hitherto housed the vision and substance of the Left was not only bare but completely bereft. In fact, it no longer resembled a cupboard so much as a collection of space.

Razer’s central complaint is directed with forensic accuracy to the Left’s failure to engage coherently, or at all, with economics, material conditions and class. On this issue, I have no beef. Similarly, there is truth in her charge that the Left, such as it is, is fragmented and has a tendency to focus on perceived transgressions or aberrant “incidents” rather than stepping back from the fray to analyse and identify broader systemic patterns and themes. In so doing, Razer echoes former US labour secretary Robert Reich:

The fundamental flaw in the Razer critique is that it confines itself largely to the small world of social media activism in Australia and ignores the perilous condition of the Left or progressives, however you define it or them, all across the globe. For these purposes, it matters not whether your preferred brand of Left is socialist, social democrat or broadly progressive.

Undoubtedly, the dominant global economic and political force in the last 30 or so years has been neo-liberal economics, also known as economic rationalism. It has been embraced by conservatives and, to varying degrees, by centre-Left politicians on a grand global scale.

When, in 2008, the global financial crisis struck with a force that still resonates all around the world, Keynesian economic policy suddenly found fashion. Notably, US president George W. Bush flicked the switch to robust government intervention, pumping millions of taxpayers’ dollars into saving a banking and finance sector on the verge of collapse. Orthodox Keynesian economic policy saved Australia from a certain recession.

Some were heard to proclaim the beginning of a new post neo-liberal world. Yet, barely five years later, that new beginning looks forlorn. Somehow, neoliberalism has treated the whole GFC, its causes and destructive aftermath, as a mere flesh wound. As US academic, Henry Farrell, has observed:

The paralysis reflects a lack of political and intellectual leadership and will continue until something like a coherent, distinct, social, economic and political vision of the Left has been developed, articulated and embraced. That vision and the programs and policies that it produces will need to withstand sustained attacks from those who advocate neoliberalism. Never before have private interests so successfully and relentlessly argued that their interests are one and the same as the public interest.

I was recently asked to chair a panel of speakers addressing insecure forms of work, including casual employment and dependent contracting. Among the panel was Brian Howe, former deputy PM and minister in the Hawke-Keating era. He spoke passionately about the damage wrought by neo-liberal economics and urged the audience to “reimagine the Good Society”. When I asked whether he was aware of any country that led the way in building The Good Society, he looked momentarily surprised before acknowledging that there was no such thing.

And there isn’t.

Ms Razer, have you tried to distil a coherent progressive philosophy emanating from the US Democrats lately? Too right-wing? OK, how about the Occupy Movement? What does British Labour stand for now? Do you pine for the Third Way? Let’s look further afield in Europe. Mmm. Spain, Italy, Germany, France. Irish Labour? It attracted 4.7% of the vote in a recent byelection.

Share the wisdom. Share the piercing systemic economic analyses, political organisation and vision for the future of the Left that you demand from the Twitterati of Melbourne and Sydney.

Give me your top three contemporary leading philosophers of the Left. I have only two conditions: they must 1) still be breathing; and 2) not include Joel Fitzgibbon, Martin Ferguson, Kath or Kim. OK, I’ll accept your top two.

Which is to say, by eviscerating local activists for being too insular and missing the point of it all is well too insular, and risks missing the point.

Razer’s other accusation that the Left is now content with pursuing soft or symbolic cultural debates deserves scrutiny. US political philosopher Michael Sandel has recently brilliantly argued in What Money Can’t Buy that the West has transitioned from a market-based economy to a market society, and in doing so, consigned morality, community and civic responsibility to the margins.

Bernie Brookes’ recent observations about the harm wrought by a levy to fund care for the disabled on retail sales at Myer exemplified this phenomenon. As Australian political philosopher Tim Soutphommasane was moved to write:

More power to those who protested against Brookes’ comments. They were reminding us that we still want to live in a civilised society where the economic bottom line should not transcend basic human decency.

If one starts from the proposition that that marriage is an oppressive institution, as Razer seems to do (and like an estimated 99.8% of the population, I don’t), one can understand Razer’s critique of the marriage equality movement. In my eyes, it’s simply a human rights issue and an important one at that. If gay folk want to marry, they should not be deprived of that choice. In any event, the issue is not a Left issue. It straddles the divide.

Razer would have it that all aspiring activists of the Left undertake an education in Keynesian economics. Was it ever thus? There are many on the progressive side of politics who have done so. Are they leading the Left to the sort of campaigns that Razer might support? If they are doing so, it is virtually undetectable to all of the human senses.

The lack of intellectual and political leadership among the Left is a global phenomenon. Until the vacuum begins to be filled, the Left will continue to struggle, to defend and decline. While Razer’s article underlines the problem, the opprobrium and vituperation is excessively harsh and misdirected. Unleashing the wrecking ball risks further fragmentation.