Rethinking progressive ideas in Australia

Author: Dr David McKnight is a Sydney academic and author of 'Beyond Left and Right: New Politics and the Culture Wars'

My book 'Beyond Right and Left' is a book about ideas – political ideas. It begins from the assumption that most sustained political activity arises ultimately on the basis of political ideas and a deeper philosophical vision. Indeed I’d argue that sustained political activity can’t be carried on successfully without a such a philosophical basis.

In case you think my reference to philosophy is high flying academic nonsense, I suggest you look at the current attack by the Howard Government on working Australians. It is founded on the ideological and philosophical notion of choice -- the primacy of individual choice in a market place. His vision is one in which individual employees will sit down and negotiate working arrangements which suit them, with their employer. These arrangements will be flexible, they will be tailored to personal needs and will expressed in an individual contract. In analyzing what's going on here it's important not to be blinded by our own hostility to this nonsense. These ideas of individualism and of choice are grounded in a philosophical vision which is usually described as economic liberalism, neo-liberalism or corporate libertarianism. The rise of the political ideas associated with economic liberalism are one of the most significant political changes of the last 25 years. They are significant because they are deeply appealing notions to many people today -- they are built on a material abundance and choice which we call consumerism -- and this combination partly explains the success of the kind of politics Mr. Howard represents.

With a similar focus on ideas, I ‘d argue that the problems the Labor Party in Australia today is facing –its deep crisis of vision and meaning --- arise from the inability of its ideas and vision to explain a raft of changes in society and to promote an appropriate and inspiring set of values. The idea and vision on which Labor was founded arise from a political tradition which went under various names such as socialism, social democracy etc. What we are witnessing is a historical shift in which the 150 year old tradition of socialism and its offshoots has collapsed. And this the collapse of socialism is not confined o the Labor Party -- it extends to the Left outside the ALP.

In a more positive way the rise of the Green politics is in part due to its ideas --- which constitute a new way of seeing the world – a vital but half formed philosophy based around human dependence on natural world. These ideas respond to very real issues and problems we all face.,

So ideas are important in politics. They are foundational to political edifices although like foundations to buildings of bricks and timber they are usually obscured and hard to see easily.

But my book is not a weighty tome of philosophy – it is written for a popular audience and is based on the events in Australian politics with which we are all familiar.

All good books arise from a passion, from a strong desire to say something significant. This book began in my mind’s eye quite a few years ago when I was considering how the world was changing in the 1990s against the backdrop of my own left wing beliefs. Two thing in particular struck me.

The first concerned the ideas of the Left. The decade of the 1990s began with the fall of the Berlin Wall, an event which I unequivocally celebrated – in fact I have a piece rather ugly East German concrete in polished wooden box in my study .

The collapse of Soviet style communism marked the end of an era in which the great world-historic clash was between capitalism, led by the USA, and communism, led by the Soviet Union. None of us on the Left actually believed in Soviet communism -- it was a tragedy born from a utopian dream -- but its collapse did something very important—it crystallized a broader crisis of beliefs in left wing ideas that had been accumulating for a number of years.

This broader crisis of belief I would explain in this way: like many people on the Left I was part of a cultural revolution of the 1970s – the rise of modern feminism, of the embrace cultural diversity and later, of the environment movement.

At first, all these movements and ideals, seemed to us to fit naturally together with the existing radical ideas of the labour movement. And they all seemed to be clustered together under the one umbrella, called ‘the Left.’

The hey day of cultural radicalism has now passed – and so has the high point of socialist and labour-movement ideals --- and the idea that you can say you stand for Left wing ideas and expect people to know what you mean is also passing – because it is no longer clear what the term ‘Left’ actually means. Moreover the idea that if you are militant trade unionist then you have an automatic ideological affinity to the cause of the environment is no longer true. Nor is the idea that if you are a feminist then somehow you are also naturally predisposed to believe in a socialist or state interventionist outlook.

So the book is an exploration of what has happened to the Left and how we arrived at the state we are in at the beginning of the 21 st century. The book therefore explores what has happened to the intellectual foundation for the set of ideas which we still broadly conceive as making up what might be called a progressive outlook. The no-so-hidden agenda of the book is to stimulate debate on how the values of progressive politics can be reconfigured to provide a more inspiring and modern political vision.

I want to give one example that relates to the fate of the Left and to our outdated notion that politics can still be described as a Left-Right conflict. One of the signs of hope in the current climate has been the rise of the Austrlaian Greens. Both the friends and the enemies of the Greens describe it as a left wing party. Its enemies describe it as a ‘watermelon’ green on the outside but red on the inside. Friends of the Greens also see it that way -- that is, they think the Left is being reborn through the Australian Greens. I think they are totally wrong. What people mean is that they use the term ‘Left’ as a mere signal of approval. The rise of environmental problems and the movement to respond to it mark a quite distinct break in political thought. The 150 year old tradition of socialism was , at bottom, founded on the labor relationship -- between the worker and the owner of property. It was about class conflict. The radical shift in Green politics is to found the its tradition on the relationship between humans and nature.

And if the current relationship between humans and nature is becoming unsustainable --causing problems such as climate change --- then this historical and philosophical shift of the greatest importance. Trying to capture such ideas and squeeze them in a bottle marked ‘Left’ is simply wrong and liable to damage the evolution of this new kind of politics.

But the book is not a plea for Green politics nor is it a funeral lament for socialism --- I argue that a new synthesis, a new set of ideas is needed – but unlike the past this can’t be just the arithmetical adding up of a shopping list of good causes.

The second thing that struck me in the 1990s and which prompted me to write this book was the rise of a new Right, a new kind of conservative movement.

Moreover, it was a successful conservative movement. At first, this was a surprise. As a member of the generation of the 1970s, I was surprised, as time went on, that we were losing the ability to rouse people and to set an agenda. Instead, the ideas of the new Right – as mad and irrational as they seemed – were the ideas inspiring to a small but growing band of intellectuals and activists.

As time went on, in Britain and the US and finally in Australia in 1996, the new Right won popular elections and entrenched the dominance of its ideas. It is not good enough, it seemed to me, to argue that people had been fooled, that the New Right somehow tricked people into believing them., Rather, the ideas of the New Right had something whcih appealed to people – and the ideas of the Left had somehow grown tired and stale. The reason for this - which I mentioned earlier is that the ideas of the new Right synchronized with the rise of a materially abundant society, with consumerism and with the genuine expansion of individual choice. I develop this idea in the book.

But perhaps the more significant thing about the new Right is that its full and unfettered flourishing is reversing the normal meaning of radical and conservative.

We tend to use these words as signals of approval or disapproval and we are in danger of misunderstanding their meaning .

In fact modern, so -called conservatives like John Howard are no longer afraid of radical social change. In fact they embrace it. The new Right does this because it aims to set the market mechanism in place not just in the economy but in the wider society. When you put the market in charge of an industry, or a university or a community then you begin to transform the values of that industry , university of community, and more importantly you transform the social bonds between people.

In the society more generally what you do is to promote the rise of commercial values in place of older social and moral values. The slow but decisive 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, and in reaction, this is fuelling a growing desire by many people for a values-based politics, not grounded in commercial values.


At the level of politics, two very interesting things flow from this radicalization of society through the market mechanism. first, the most effective critique is based not on the growth of economic inequality (in fact the market, by and large, spurs the growth of productivity). The most effective and radial critique is based on the radical and destructive social effects caused by markets. That is, you attack the fundamntal logic of the radical Right: the prmotion of greater productivity in the economy, based on the destruction of society.

Secondly, given that the free market Right is now a radical force, the most effective ground for their opponents is now is as a conservative force -- but conservative in a new and special sense which includes many progressive values,. Again, I make this argument at greater length in the book.

AS I have already said the underlying purpose of the book is to sketch, very roughly, some ideas on how progressive politics could be rethought in a new framework. In my view a genuine and profound re-thinking is the most necessary yet most difficult step. It is difficult because it means having the courage to confront one's own ingrained prejudices and habits of thought. Having confronted them, to then separate what is real value from mere habit and reflex assumptions

So where might such a new vision come from? In my view sets of values and political ideas arise don’t arise from abstract dreams or wish fulfillment, They arise from the circumstances, from facts which demand a response. And if your message strikes a deep chord, people respond and a political movement grows up around those ideas -- and in turn it begin to win wider public support..

That is how socialism arose in the 19 th century when confronted with the rise of large scale industrialization and the factory system.

If we want to develop a new set of ideals and values – which is a patent necessity -- then we must do as Gramsci said and ‘violently address ourselves to the facts’

By the facts I mean the big issues – the emerging issues which Australian face. I’ll just look at two of them:

The first concerns the family

The left has not been associated with concern for the family as such. The discourse of family values has been the territory of the right. And this code phrase is taken by all sides to, mean, for example, shunning gay love and advocating conservatives moral values.

I think the Left needs to re-think its view of the family. The reason for this is that even though the Right talks in the same breath about supporting the free market an supporting family values – in fact these two things pulls in opposite directions. This was the surprising message recently from the new Senator Fielding from Family First. And he drew the logical conclusion – that John Howard’s new industrial relations laws are market friendly – they are not family friendly – particularly when it is likely that ordinary workers will be forced to bargain away annual leave, to work longer hours and unsociable hours.

The real force which undermines family values is not gay marriage it's the unrestrained market, it’s rampant materialism and consumerism, it’s casualised and insecure jobs and inflexible working hours.

This was the message last Monday night from the Anglician Archbishop of Sydney Peter Jensen. Referring to the federal government's new IR laws, Jensen said he was concerned about the 'need for preserving shared time for children, families, relationships for all Australians. That's what life is about, not merely the economy. Without shared time we may as well be robots.'

Jensen's way of framing the issue is very instructive. He poses the conflict as one of values -- between the instrumental cold logic of the economy and productivity --and between the human values represented by the personal and social relationships. Jensen's concern is that Sundays - the day of rest and religious observance -- is becoming like every other work day. Similarly the RSL has today criticised the implicit denigration of Anzac Day in the new work contracts. Anzac Day, Australia Day are just public holidays can be cashed out like any other benefit in the new world of individual work contracts . To put it at its highest, this conflict is between the market and the sacred and between the values inherent in each.

And it is significant that the most powerful arguments against the neo-liberal, free market ideas represented in the IR. changes, come from churches -- because it is churches who today have an strong and independent framework of values. Once this could have been said of the labour movement and the cultural Left but this is no longer so.

The message from all of this --and of my book-- is the development of a new synthesis of ideas and values is necessary and unavoidable to revive the political fortunes of Labor, of the Greens and other progressive forces.


The second issue is one I have already mentioned and concerns the response to the environmental problems associated with modern industrialization. To me these have always been the issues that go beyond Right and Left. I don’t know if Hurricane Katrina, on the one hand, and the rising petrol prices on the other, are the first straws in the wind of global climate change- if they are we are in for a rough time.

It will be rough because our existing political frameworks -- not only neo-liberalism of the New Right but the social democratic ideas of the Left -- are utterly inadequate to deal with this challenge. This is because they are ideologies founded on simple notions of material progress which is assumed to be permanent and without limits. (As Anne Manne said to me recently, they have no concept of "enough")

The ideas of both Right AND left have been oriented to solving the twin problems: how to encourage economic growth and how to distribute the results of that growth – but if we need to restrict certain kinds of growth and if we cannot assume an ever increasing cornucopia of commodities – then we are really in uncharted waters

It will also be rough because a crisis of sustaomnability poses all kinds of questions in radical new ways -- questions of inequality for example. Naturally the rich will seek personal solutions for themselves. Ordinary people are likely to suffer most – both from the consequences of climate change and the consequences of the dramatic steps needed to address and slow climate change.

How then to develop a set of ideas which deal with the problems but is also capable of striking a chord with ordinary Australians? (as an aside I might note that this is not just a problem for the Australian Greens, but for all people concerned with the environment)

The answer to this, to my way of thinking, is that the political vision n for a sustainable society needs to be understood and re-framed as a new and different kind of conservatism.

And I want to spend the last few minutes of my talk using this as an example of how we might reframe our vision without losing its core values.

First, we should note that environmental concerns first arose from what was originally called the conservation movement. It aimed to protect the natural world (and the heritage of the built world) from predatory forces which see the existing world as a mere raw material. Concepts such as the sustainability of the biosphere, I would argue, are conservative concepts and should be proposed publicly as such..

Second, unlike the Left, the politics of the environment are not based on class and their analyses are not reducible to class. The enemy is not capitalism but relentless expansion of an industrial system aimed at generating products to satisfy a consumerism which, past a certain point, substitutes for other meaning and value in the peoples’ lives.

A re-framed approach to sustainability and the environment should emphasize -- as old style conservatives do -- that tradition is important because it represent the refinement of wisdom of that past. As well as the traditions of humans, tradition presents itself to us through the existence of the ecology of the planet. The inter-dependence of living organisms which has evolved though millions of years is a tradition indeed! Allied with tradition is the stewardship on behalf of our ancestors and for our children's children, -- this notion which his so familiar to day in the appeal of environmentalism was originally enunciated by the conservative thinker Edmund Burke. Yet it fits perfectly with environmetnal philosophy. Such conservative notions are central to indigenous and first nation peoples whose societies are extremely conservative.

Finally I would urge that we all begin to think outside the square of right and Left -- and of conservative and radical.

We need to recognize the strengths of the neo-liberalism all the better to oppose it. We need to discard the outdated parts of intellectual superstructure of the Left and reframe progressive politics as a movement based on values.

If we do these things, I believe then the progressive forces of Australia can get off the back foot, get out of the role of a permanent opposition and begin to once more re-shape the political agenda of this country.