18531Re: socialist unity with the living dead
- Jun 5, 2005Bob Gould is predictable. Such that he has been promulgating the
very same line for two years and a half on this list at least --
its his mantra.
I have too, come to think of it, as I have returned often to the
theme of defending the Socialist Alliance project and commenting on
its nuances and potentials. And anytime I make a comment that may
touch upon his patented attributes, Gould wants to fit me up with
his own indigenous brand of McCarthyism.
As for my ageism -- well I pass Joaquin by two years, with two kids
of my own and at 56 with chronic disability I know my political
limitations when it comes to street heat and sundries. I also know
who I have co-existed with on the socialist left flank these past
36 years. I know my onions, I'd hope.
But since he drags in a seeming extraneous example -- that of Jamie
Doughney's recent article in Seeing Red I thought I'd share it with
the list (BELOW)as Bob seems incapable of rising above the level of
Now I admit to being discursive as i often try to explore a
particular point such as the one I thought Joaquin failed to
address --one that undercut the relevance of his polemic. That I
dared to mention "Zinoviev" in this context was surely a red rag to
a raging Gould (as Bob wants to claim the exclusive anti-Zinoviev
franchise there in down town Sydney). I sure pushed his abuse
Jamie Doughney, independent of me, basically is trying to deal with
the same issue, I'd guess, without referencing the "Z" word.
But while I know my limitations (and frankly I regret them, all of
them )I also suffer from a gross unwillngness to simply go quietly
into the night and join the living dead. Thats' not one of my
limitations apparently. I can say that because, unlike Bob, I've
signed on with Peter Pan and simply refuse to grow up and away from
activist perspective I embraced so many years back..and it seems
that Jamie Doughney feels the same way too. Bully for him.
Jamie's apparent mistake which earnt Bob's wrath was to
insist "Tough times are ahead, to be sure, but hope thrives in an
activist perspective unsullied by the ALP."
That, according to Bob Gould, is a crime worthy of any number of
verbal punishments. That in the face of his maligning we should
simply wither away in shame or fear and not bother obstructing his
desire to get a good kick at the Socialist Alliance.
Rambling reflections on the state of Australian politics
BY JAMIE DOUGHNEY
"Where do correct ideas come from? Do they drop from the skies? No.
Are they innate in the mind? No. They come from social practice, and
from it alone "
Mao Zedong 1963
Hitherto I would have rather poked out my eye with a burnt stick
than open an article with a Mao quote. Where did the idea come from?
I have no idea. It just came to mind when I began to question
Australian politics four months after Labor's Waterloo. Perhaps,
despite its discomfiting source, it symbolises a pre-emptive
response: "Do. Don't think! Do. Act. Don't think!"
I should confess that I have just juxtaposed Mao and John Kennedy.
Not John F but the legendary Hawthorn coach. For those unfamiliar
with Australian football, in the 1975 grand final Kennedy gave a
rousing half-time speech to his team, who were then trailing North
Melbourne by 20 points. Kennedy was an educator, and he knew his
classics. His speech is now legendary, as is the quote he derived
from Horace: Don't think, just do!
Of course, I offer this only half-seriously. After all, Hawthorn
went on to lose. Thinking is important. Computer manuals, Barbara
Cartland, Dan Brown, comics, thinly veiled fundamentalist science
fiction, L. Ron Hubbard, pornography, Tony Parkinson, creationism,
the Murdoch press and pathological reading obsessions aside, one can
never read too much. That applies evenperhaps especiallyto tracts
with which we disagree.
My point is that we cannot make sense of Australian politics today
by contemplation alone. We need engaged contemplation: the sort that
accompanies practical social activism. Iraq. Refugees. Razor wire.
Bush triumphant. Mendacity. Howard. Corporate greed. Mutual
obligation. Do I need go on? None of these have changed. Do and
think! Think and do! Do, think and read!
Please forgive this hectoring. It is just that, in the four months
since the election, there have been hundreds of analytical articles,
and 99 per cent of them fail to take an involved perspective. It
becomes very frustrating. Even the best of the analyses, many by
insightful and well-meaning writers, turn in on themselves. They
become maudlin, even morose. By the end of the article you, too,
begin to lose hope. You wonder why you ever started to read it.
I think there are two reasons why such analyses self digest.
However, before I suggest what they might be, it will be useful to
give an example. The example is Robert Manne, who has been an
exemplary critic of Australian government policy and in The Age of
20 December 2004 presented his final column for last year.
Titled "Howard the Pied Piper triumphant", it concluded:
I have been aware for the past several years that the issues in
Australian politics that have preoccupied meAboriginal
reconciliation, refugees, truth in government, the blind loyalty to
American foreign policyhave little traction in an electorate
overwhelmingly concerned with personal and family security. This
year the thought sharpened. If Labor were to embrace the views of
those who think as I do, its electoral stocks would almost certainly
While economic conditions remain buoyant, Coalition rule seems
likely to continue. When economic circumstances deteriorate Labor
must be able to present a credible, economically responsible and
moderate alternative, which will neither frighten mortgage holders
nor arouse the ire of the Murdoch press. The political needs of
Labor and the human rights or foreign policy or environmental agenda
of the left-leaning intelligentsia cannot at present be reconciled.
Conscious of ending on such a wrist-slashing note, Manne said: "Let
me not end on this note". Two short paragraphs followed. He
reaffirmed his faith in Australia and thanked "those who have not
lost faith in the struggle" to make it better. As my friend at early
morning coffee said, these additions read as if someone had
pleaded: "Robert, you can't end it like that!"
However, "like that" is precisely how many progressively minded
people in Australia feel today. The wave of social progress has
broken, and they feel powerless to stop its retreat. That dispirited
feeling, the ebb tide of hope, is itself a political factor with
which to reckon.
Before my friend arrived and jolted me out of my Manne-induced
misery words of T. S. Eliot's were competing with Mao's for space in
my brain: " burnt out ends of smoky days'. I remembered them from
school, more than 35 years ago. Yet the surrounding words were
vague. Later in my office I consulted Google and searched: . What
did I get? Google gave me little Eliot but a lot of Andrew Lloyd
Webber, Marina Pryor, Barry bloody
Manilow and Cats!
Much has happened in the past 35 years. A web search in the late
1960sa thought experiment, of coursewould have given pure Eliot.
Much has changed. The irritating 99 per cent of post-election
articles will tell you this, too. Yet they are right.
We do live in a different time, and the difference is more than one
of mere economic buoyancy. While the "it's the economy, stupid!"
argument has traction as part of any electoral explanation, it is
equally true that economic growth will hit its limits. Economic
uncertainty, at whatever level of GDP per capita, will deliver
But this is not the main difference. That has to do with changes in
the texture of contemporary capitalismthe types of work we do, our
interests, concerns and desires and the ways we live. It is partly
about the erosion of a "sense of class affiliation".
This is a controversial statement. However, it is not a post-modern
lurch; nor does it question the underlying socio-economics of class.
Take it rather as being partly an empirical statement about the
enlivened state of false consciousness. Take that any way you like,
but take it nonetheless, because it is a contemporary truth. It is
reflected in the falling level of unionisation, and it means
something for what I will say about the Labor Party below.
What other main political conclusion do the serious analysts draw?
Here they make an illicit conflation, and it is palpable in the
quote from Robert Manne. This is that the Australian people have
conservatised, turned inwards, become more right wing and become
even more mean-spirited. The illicit conflation is to confuse the
politics of the government with the sentiments of the people.
Doubtless there is a strong degree of coincidence. One Nation's vote
fell, and it went to Howard. Government (and Opposition) policies,
statements and postures are influential. They help to shape how
people feel and think. They help to cultivate the mood of the times.
We have to recognise, therefore, that there is some truth in what
the analysts say. Show me someone on the left who did not think,
mumble or shout that "bloody Australians have got the government
they deserve!" and I will show you a pretender.
The trouble is that the analysts exaggerate. I suspect that many are
not too comfortable among people in the outer metropolitan working
class seats that were collected by the Liberals this time round. At
best they have sparse knowledge of them. It is not that
the "intelligentsia", such as it is, looks down its inner city nose
towards the outer suburbslet us not tumble into the "elites" trap.
There is, however, a widening social disconnect. Unfamiliarity
Here I am reminded of an essay I read recently written by a friend
of Robert Manne, the philosopher Raimond Gaita. His approach, in the
Quarterly Essay (2004, 16) lead article "XXXXX", is different. Gaita
burrows deeper than does Manne and other analysts into the psyche of
voters in the shape of "people we know". He finds most,
unsurprisingly, to be honest and fair-minded people. When, in
Socratic mode, Gaita interrogates would-be Howard voters on
refugees, Aboriginal issues and so on he exposes an underlying set
of decent and compassionate beliefs.
But let's not get carried away by this line of thought. All I am
saying is that "the people" are not as bad as all that. There is
hope. We know that in our left-wing bones when we talk to friends,
family and workmates. We love them, share lives with them and learn
from them: that in itself says something. As my son told me today,
he sells Green Left Weekly in Parramatta to 25-35 year olds who
think Howard is a lying rodent, are disgusted by Australia's refugee
policy, want genuine reconciliation but are worried about their
mortgages. They reluctantlyfoolishlyvoted Liberal.
For what it is worth, both Raimond Gaita and I think it is
reasonable to be worried about mortgages and interest rates. If I
had one, I might be worried. I would worry nonetheless if my
children had them. One can be decent, compassionate, green, fooled
by the Coalition, uninspired by the Coalition, chilled by Howard,
worried about mortgages, and put off by the Labor Party all at once.
These are common patterns of sentiment. So, too, are the sentiments
of "rusted on" Labor voters who are decent, compassionate, green,
fooled by the Coalition, uninspired by the Coalition, chilled by
Howard, worried about mortgages, and put off by the Labor Party.
Reasonable people often make a pig's ear of politics.
Now we are getting close to the nub of the problem. Why are the
analysts' perspectives so bleak? Why overstate the shift to the
right? Why whistle a cowardly retreat for the ALP from its already
cold and miserable trench?
One irreducible explanation is the ebb tide of hope. However, two
practical reasons transport many to this sad emotional state. The
first isdon't laugh, I'm seriousage.
Those of us on the worst side of 50 feel desperate to preserve
whatever scraps of true progress we can from the sky-blue shirted,
bone-panted and brown-R.M. Williams-booted barbarians. (For those
mystified by this last reference, please observe Liberal men and
women distributing how-to-vote cards the next time you vote. The
women will have their collars turned up. Their hairdos will defy a
force-10 gale. The men will have navy crew-neck sweaters draped over
Most analysts are of an age to settle for what they can get. "It
might not be much, but at least there will be some progress during
my lifetime!" It is all about death. If it means that we must clutch
at Labor, and if Labor will have to be more conservative, so be it.
Never trust anyone older than 50. The inexorability of death has a
way of shrinking perspective. Even older revolutionaries are
insidious. Keep us around to tell stories or just for our good
looks, but find a way of wresting leadership from us.
The other reason for the ebb tide of hope is the Labor Party. Why?
The answer is that most analysts see Australian politics through the
Labor prism. The ALP has been The Opposition during their lifetimes.
Its fortunes are confused with progress.
The bleakness of the Labor Party explains the bleakness of
perspective. They should try to recall what Paul told the
Corinthians: "Guys, talk about looking through the glass, darkly!"
Paul was right. The ALP is a shadow: a chimera, an illusion. It is
Banquo's ghost at the table. Vote for it ahead of the Coalition.
However, look elsewhere for social progress. The absence of a vote
for the ALP is not necessarily a vote against progress. Looking back
on the 1980s and 1990s now it is easy to see that, in the context of
a changing social economy, Labor governments did irreparable harm to
the level of working class affiliation to the ALP.
Whatever the ALP might have been in people's minds before, new
generations experienced it as it was. These are the under-50s. Most
do not even have nominal affiliation via their unions. To talk to
them about the historical roots of the ALP in the unions and the
working class just doesn't resonate, is, indeed, a sheer waste of
breath. Those days are gone. What people see is what they see.
They see a party of cheap double-breasted suits, floral shoulder
pads, bad ties and smudged lipstick (politically speaking, that is).
Its factions are a nasty mob of small minded but clumsy white-collar
villains led by ambitious nobodies. Really, does anyone expect to be
inspired by Stephen Conroy? Martin or Laurie (!) Ferguson? Kim Carr?
Only their mothers could love them. What do they stand for? All I
can think of is branch-stacking, numbers, seats and the shines on
the bums of their creased pin-stripes and Fletcher Jones twin sets.
I am serious. Challenge me. Test me out. Write in and tell me what
these losers stand for. I dare you.
They are losers, but they are not the worst of it. The worst are the
greys: the back-room dullards who devise the strategies. These
hapless, sapless shadow "intellectuals", fixers, marketers, PR
people and pollsters who cannot even do treachery well. Whatever
they touch turns pallid: policy, presentation and people. I have to
say feel sorry for Mark Latham. After they acid-washed him the most
endearing thing I can recall is that he once tackled a taxi-driver.
Oh, yes, I almost forgot to mention the state Labor politicians.
Funny that! Peter Beattie is smart in a Queensland sort of way, Bob
Carr matches Howard for rodentiality, Steve Bracks looks half
reasonable in a wet suit, Claire Martin lives in Darwin, Mike what's-
his-name must be something and Geoff Gallup has a reasonable pair of
glasses. Yet what is it that they are actually doing? From even the
limited perspective of progress, what is the point of their being?
Whatever they might think they are doing is irrelevant. Alas I fear
that, at best, the main thing the state Labor governments are doing
is to keep the seats warm for the sky-blue shirts.
"Jamie, don't end on that note!" Of course, I will not. Tough times
are ahead, to be sure, but hope thrives in an activist perspective
unsullied by the ALP. That sounds very trite, but it is no less true
for its limp expression.
Jamie Doughney is a Seeing Red editorial board member.
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