Issue 6, October 2007 | David McKnight


This address was delivered on Tuesday, July 24, 2007, at UWA's University Club Theatre Auditorium, as part of the inaugural New Critic Lecture Series.

We meet tonight at a time of hope for those on the progressive side of politics in Australia. At the moment it seems likely that Australia will have a federal Labor government by the end of the year. This is by no means assured but the auspices look better than at any time for 10 years. It’s now clear that an element of desperation is creeping into the Howard Government public stance.

As well as feeling hopeful on this score, progressives have reason to feel vindicated over several issues on which they have taken stands and for which they have been roundly attacked. For example, after September 11 most progressives were deeply skeptical about the proposed invasion of Iraq.  Apart from being the wrong way to conduct international affairs, we feared it would turn into a murderous folly. And unfortunately we have been proved right.  Instead of being the seedbed of democracy in the Middle East, Iraq has sprouted toxic forms of inter-Islamic and anti-Western terrorism. 

Another vindication is the issue of global warming. This issue, about which progressives warned as early as two decades ago, is now increasingly accepted as a major threat confronting humanity. Governments and corporations are now finally making the first tentative steps to plan an economy less reliant on fossil fuel.

Yet paradoxically, none of this marks a real revival of progressive politics, however you define this shorthand term. There is no sense in which any deeper tide has turned. If federal Labor is elected its policies in many areas which reflect a high degree of consensus with the conservatives.

Tonight I want to unravel the reasons why this has come about. Not in order to downplay the significance of a possible defeat for the Howard Government but to look at some deeper changes in political ideas.

My first observation is that the possibility of adequately fitting contemporary politics into a simple Right–Left spectrum is disappearing.

We all routinely describe the John Howard Liberal-National coalition government as Right and Labor as representing a broad Left. But is this accurate or even helpful? The meanings of these terms, like the ideas of those parties, have been transformed in recent times. When Kim Beazley was elected leader of the Labor Party for the second time in 2005, the former Liberal Prime Minister, Malcolm Fraser commented that there was not a single issue on which Kim Beazley ‘is on the Left of me’. This is more than a cheeky crack on Fraser's part. I believe it says something about the deeper forces at work in our political system.

The Right-Left model assumes that all the big questions of the day can be fitted on this spectrum. But if this is so, then where do concerns about the environment fit? Is alarm about climate change and loss of biodiversity a ‘left wing’ response? Is it ‘right wing’ to worry about the family and to see an important role for it in any political vision?  Many people would have once answered ‘yes’ to these questions but I don’t think this really makes sense any more. 

The neo-liberal revolution

My second observation is that the political force we call ‘the Right’ has held an ascendancy for quite some time. It has been able to do this because in the 1980s the Right underwent an intellectual revolution. The Right became a force centrally based on militant economic liberalism.

The price of this liberal renewal was the destruction of the older kind of Right and the creation of a radical, neo-liberal Right. This new Right believes in a form of economic liberalism, and in a supporting role is a new kind of conservative populism. One of the consequences of their economic stance is that the so-called conservatives are no longer afraid of radical change. In fact they embrace it.

The radicalism on the Right is transforming Australian society. Setting in place market mechanisms not only in the economy but well beyond it, in the wider society, leads to constant and swift changes. Just to give just two broad examples: the old Right stood for two key institutions: on the one hand the family and on the other, a patriotic idea of the nation. Free market policies are undermining both of these institutions. The family as an institution is being undermined by the intrusion and needs of the economy – most obviously in the shape of long hours of work by both parents. The national economy (and any sense of sovereignty) is being undermined by the forces of the global economy.

The other consequence of the penetration of the market mechanism is the rise of commercial values in place of older social and moral values. The slow permeation of commercial values into areas far removed from the economy may turn out to be the most insidious and radical consequences of all. Indirectly, this is fuelling a growing desire by many people for a values-based politics. While this is widely recognized, I would emphasize that part of this is a desire for non-commercial values in an increasingly commercialized society where self interest is more powerful than ever.

As I said, the point I am making is that the neo-liberal Right today is a radical force. Its goals and the kind of economy it prescribes are having radical effects on social institutions and on civil society.  

Two things flow from this: first, the most effective critique of neo-liberalism can be based on these radical social effects, rather than the traditional Left critique based on inequalities of wealth.

Secondly the market radicals of the Right have reversed the previous meaning of Right and Left as Conservative and Radical.  The most effective ground for the Left to stand on now is as a conservative force - with conservative defined in a particular way. I develop this unusual argument at some length in my book, Beyond Right and Left

The collapse of socialism

The other reason that the old Right-Left spectrum is becoming irrelevant is that the ideas of socialism, as an explanatory framework for Left politics, have definitively collapsed.

There are many reasons for stating this but the one on which I will touch briefly concerns the passing of social class as a broadly useful explanatory mechanism.

In its time, the class analysis of socialism was an enormously powerful weapon. It cut through the ideologies that obscured the self-interested actions of the corporate elite both locally and internationally. More importantly it gave a confidence and inner-strength to working class movements.  The central role of class in a political vision was the  idea that all workers shared a status in that they were oppressed by the same force  and that this was the basis for class-wide solidarity, - the first expression of which was the formation of  trade unions, on which were founded labour and socialist parties in the late nineteenth century.

The fact of social class is still important in understanding Australia, and indeed any advanced industrial society. The social power and privilege conferred by individual wealth to a small elite is a central feature of such societies. But my point is not to deny this. Rather it's to say that a world view based on class presumed that workers would develop a collective interest and that this form of class consciousness would drive certain kinds of social change. But this force has run out of steam and will not revive, in my view.

Moreover, the great issues of our time concerning race and the environment cannot be explained in terms of class except by the most extreme economic determinism. And class inequality within a society has today much less power to explain the causes of a range of social problems. 

The most immediate political consequences of this is the hollowing out, in terms of ideas,  parties built on class and of institutions built on labour. It means that today the trade union movement is one social movement among many others. It seems only a short time ago, when the trade union movement was the sun around which other planets orbited, a reflection of the theory that ‘class’ was the determining reality in advanced capitalism.

But the decline of socialism is linked to another phenomenon of great significance.

Central to the socialist vision was the struggle against material deprivation and for material equality and for material abundance.  Material deprivation certainly exists in Australia society. The ABS reported recently that, in the past 12 months, due to a money shortage, 13% of Australians said that they had gone without meals or had been unable to heat their home.

As against that, on a longer time frame, 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.  My point is not to brush poverty under the carpet but to point out that a vision based centrally on addressing material deprivation is misplaced.

Until relatively recently, socialists thought that capitalism would eventually plunge large parts of the working class into poverty – and that it would then become obvious that poverty could only be ended by large scale government control, if not ownership, of productive resources. But it has not turned out this way. Capitalism has proved to be very dynamic and very productive.

Indeed this is proving to be the real problem. The kind of capitalism which has evolved in recent decades is a high energy and high growth economy which is unsustainable. This model of economic development, pursued by the advanced industrial countries and by the newly industrializing countries, such as China, is slowly destroying the biological and ecological bases on which human, animal and much life depends. This issue, it seems to me, must now form a central part of any revitalized progressive force which might emerge.

Let’s look at some facts. The world economy quadrupled in the last half century and is set to do the same in the next. The global population expanded from 1.5 billion to 6 billion in the last 100 years. With this development has come extraordinary advances in the well-being of many people in the West whose lifestyle is the benchmark for billions of others. But the cost of this industrialization has been and will be high.

Most alarming is climate change induced by fossil fuel use. This is inducing the shifting of climatic zones, the loss of biodiversity, extreme weather events and impacts on human health. From a third to half of the world’s forest are estimated to have gone and about half the areas of mangroves and other wetlands. Chemical use is massively expanding. Up to one quarter of birds species may have become extinct, a symbol of the extensive loss of biodiversity of other species. Three quarters of the world’s fisheries are estimated to be at capacity or overfished.

Global environmental problems have been hard to deal with for two reasons. First, they are new problems which traditional sets of political ideas aren’t designed to grapple with: they are both qualitatively different and they are also simply too big and complex. Democracy, neo-liberalism, socialism and other philosophies have neither the explanatory framework nor the terms to analyze what is going on. They are systems of ideas which deal with power and relationships between humans. What is needed are new approaches which grapple with humanity’s relations with nature: our need to live off nature’s ‘surplus’ and not destroy its capital, to use the language of economists.

Second, while various elites control and benefit from the economy, their greed and power alone is not the main problem. Unsustainable growth is driven by the popular desire for a better living standard. Moves towards a more sustainable economy will meet widespread resistance from many ordinary people, not just wealthy elites. For this reason the battle to introduce sustainability will ultimately require persuasive efforts to change popular notions of progress and what constitutes the good life. 

A new progressive vision

In the final part of this talk I’d like to sketch out in six points what I see as the elements of such a new vision.

The first issue is the one about which I’ve just spoken.  The growing problem of how humanity - especially the developing world - can live a good life without destroying the ecological basis for that very life.

Placing sustainability as a basic starting point in any progressive vision seems to me to correspond to the needs of our present circumstances.
This marks a distinction with the prevailing economic orthodoxy which sees economic growth as the be-all and end-all of politics and life. It also marks a break with earlier forms of progressive politics which fore-grounded the goal of increasing material well being.

On this basis our conception of the economy must radically change - the economy of the future must include what are called ecological services - that is - the function performed by constant renewal of water, of the atmosphere, of energy and resources. We must move to what the economists call ‘full cost accounting’ where the costs and benefits of these ecological services are valued as part of the economy and where priority is given to their sustainable use.

The second basis for a new vision revolves around the issue of care and the family. Care for children, care for the old and care for the sick or disabled. This is a society which really does not value care. A large part of the work of care is unpaid or poorly paid. Think mothers, health workers or child-care workers. Moreover, juggling work and care is one of the really profound problems for many ordinary Australians – for some it’s a greater problem than their living standard.

Progressive politics has not been associated with deep concern for the family as an institution.  Rather, the discourse of family values has been the territory of the Right. In fact the Right is utterly hypocritical on family values –The Right talks in the same breath about supporting the free market and supporting family values – in fact these two things often pull in opposite directions.

The real forces undermining families are the forces of the market, of rampant consumerism, of debt-driven lifestyles which require long and inflexible working hours.

Re-thinking family values means contesting the Right’s definition which largely stands for prejudice and intolerance. For too long progressives have been positioned as people who oppose something with which most people identify. But more than this, it seems to me logical that the family be protected from the further inroads of the market just as workplaces are. Indeed defending the two are intimately linked, as we have seen in the ACTU’s skilful campaign against the Workchoices legislation.

One of the central issues is payment for caring. In terms of the care of young children, are we still committed to care solely through the marketplace – in Australia’s increasingly corporatized child care industry? Through what Ann Manne calls the industrialization of child care? Or can we rethink family values to include provision for such care through a generous scheme of payment for parenting, at least in the early years of childhood? 

The third issue on which I think progressive politics can be renewed concerns a vision of Australia, a vision of what we all hold in common, a vision of the public interest. The Right does two things here. One is to frame the public interest largely in terms of their definition of the needs of the economy. The second, even more powerful, is to frame a set of values about what constitutes Australia and Australians. It has mobilized and articulated a national sentiment - one built on such appalling things as xenophobia but nevertheless one which strikes a resonance with many people. In response progressives have repeated a mantra which consists of ‘respect for diversity’ and a desire for even more diversity.

There is nothing wrong with calling for a respect for diversity, but to leave it at that is simply unbalanced and unconvincing. 

The fact is that Australians who differ culturally and socially also share things in common. They have common interests. If progressive politics is going to be reinvented we must find a way of talking about issues in terms of an overall vision, in terms of a national interest or a common good. Otherwise we are left in self imposed isolation addressing only a series of fragmented minority constituencies. Which is another way of saying that unless we do this, we voluntarily leave the definition of Australia and the interests of Australians in the hands of people who are happy to play around with xenophobia for political gain. 

Linked to this, I believe we must re-learn the way to articulate a populist philosophy but one imbued with progressive values. Progressives used to be populists - in the original and the good sense that they took up the concerns of ordinary people against the elite. This was true of the labour movement, the trade unions - to some degree they still express this quality. Today progressives are successfully depicted as an elite who sip lattes in trendy cafes and sometimes this is not a million miles from the truth.

The fourth issue concerns self-image. Progressives see themselves as radicals who stand for social change. Given the rapid economic and cultural changes of the last 20 years, this is actually a liability. More than that, it is not really true. The real radicals, as I have already argued, are the advocates of libertarian, deregulated capitalism. We refer in short hand to Howard's government as a conservative government, but it is not. The so-called conservatives are no longer afraid of radical change. In fact they embrace it. That is what the new Industrial Relations laws are about - human labour is reduced to a commodity and the most vulnerable are the worst hit.

When you put the market in charge of a university, a health system or a community then you begin to transform the values of that community, and more importantly you transform the social bonds between people. The market radicalizes society - it destroys old habits, old values and old relations.

It is the free market liberals who are the radicals. Progressives need to realise the value of a language with terms like - security, caution, and social cohesion. These can and should be re-framed as an agenda demanding stable jobs and communities, common values and social solidarity, rather than a society based on social divisions, on more individualism, more choice and ever more freedom.

On this basis it would make more sense for progressives and people on the left to frame their appeal as people who want to conserve and who reject market-driven social change.  Conserving  the environment, preserving families and communities in the face of a relentless individualism - seems to me to be a new and important way to exploit a gaping vulnerability of the new Right. So the old idea that we progressives are the radicals, and that the Right are the conservatives is not true and we should cease to routinely assume this way.

Fifth, one of the valuable parts of the old socialist heritage was its preparedness to challenge commercial self-interest which places profit before the public interest. Private wealth has a long history of opposing progressive social reforms particularly those which require a greater contribution from the wealthy. Calls for progressive social changes such as a sustainable economy, a better work-life balance or a less commercially-driven public policy bring a knee jerk opposition from the corporate and business elite. A new vision should build a moral critique of greed and self-interest and design policies to restrict the social power of this elite.

Sixth, the progressive vision should be renewed on the basis of values and not an ideology.

On this issue the neo-liberals of the Right are vulnerable. Their philosophy and practice promote the rise of commercial values in place of older social and moral values. They elevate self interest and a version of commercial populism to unparalleled heights.  If a university course does not attract students in the short term, then we cancel it - it has no intrinsic value, other than its market value. Nothing has any value, other than short term popularity expressed in the votes of consumers through their buying power.

More than ever before we live in a society in which everything is valued in dollar terms, everything is valued in terms of efficiency. All human needs are commodified and can only be satisfied in a market. But this world creates a material abundance and a spiritual emptiness. Ultimately this is an anti-human world because humans can not live by bread alone. We need much more than that.

Finally, the world we live in has a great many problems. Many of them stand a better chance of being addressed if there was a revitalized progressive movement. This revitalization crucially depends on the rethinking and recasting of progressive values into a new intellectual framework and set of values. I hope that tonight I have been able to provoke your own thoughts on how this might occur. 

Thank you.