The Mad Monk claims that the Tories want to embrace direct action — as a means of responding to an environmental crisis he doesn’t believe in. John Faulkner invokes direct democracy as a necessary response to a Labor Party in crisis — but only as a sop to members who are fleeing in large numbers (The Wran speech: the full transcript, June 9, 2011).
A review of the ALP’s performance in the 2010 federal election — conducted by Faulkner, Steve Bracks and Bob Carr — made various recommendations. An editorial in The Sydney Morning Herald laments the fact that these recommendations — like those of previous reviews charting the party’s internal decline — will likely be ignored. The response of factional bosses seems to confirm this: in fairness to Mark Arbib and Kim Carr, they have a point when they dismiss proposals which will erode their dominance. After all, while all ALP members are equal some — including these bright sparks — are more equal than others.
The average age of ALP members is 50, and the average age of Liberals, at least in Victoria, is more than 60. And, as we report on the Focus page today, the haemorrhage of members has become dire in the Victorian ALP. Of the 13,000 party members last year, 2100 – 16 per cent – did not renew this year. The number whose membership is the result of branch stacking is unknown, but some estimates place it as high as one-third of the total. It is hardly a picture of a party in good health, and astonishing for a party that holds office nationally and, until recently, governed in all states as well.
Yeah well: maybe. But it’s certainly possible for political parties to be both empty of active members and to successfully capture government, The Corrupt Knight’s assemblage of various chancers being a case in point. Further, the ALP will always likely dominate the trade union movement, and in general union leadership is a strictly ‘no ticket, no start’ proposition.
Otherwise, Nick Dyrenfurth and Frank Bongiorno reckon that the Australian Labor Party remains work in progress (The Australian, June 11, 2011):
When the Australian two-party system emerged in 1909, Labor was the party of Australian nationalism; strong on defence and nation-building yet loyal to the British Empire. In 1910 it became the first labour or social democratic party in the world to form a majority government. But World War I proved a rugged testing ground for Labor’s philosophy and machinery, and the party split over conscription for overseas service.
Noticeable by its absence in this account is the commitment which Labor shared with its ‘conservative’ counterparts: the White Australia policy. Joolya shares in this historical amnesia:
The signature values of nations are often defined by the circumstances of their birth.
This is as true for Australia as for other countries.
And for us there’s one value above all others that we identify with as truly our own.
It’s the value that emerged out of the circumstances of Federation, which coincided with the industrial turbulence of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
That value is fairness. Or as we like to put it: ‘the fair go’.
Which is all rather odd, especially given that — as angry White men across the country know — one of the first Acts of Federal Parliament was the Immigration Restriction Act. This Act (together with the Pacific Island Labourers Act 1901) formed the legal cornerstone of the White Australia policy; the Conciliation and Arbitration Act — which in Labor Party mythology has ensured a ‘fair go’ for ‘working families’ for the bulk of the country’s history — was only assented to by Edward VII in 1904. Further, while 100 years ago the Gub’mint couldn’t get rid of the Pacific Islanders quick enough, they now wanna import them — albeit if only for a coupla years…
One of the other problems with Dyrenfurth and Bongiorno’s account is the way in which it credits internal party reform for the (party’s) successes of the late 1960s and mid-1970s, while simultaneously ignoring the fact it was during this period that vital ‘new’ social movements emerged, ones from which the ALP was better able to attract votes, and which transformed Australian society and politics in important, if not necessarily fundamental, ways: a narrative in which, inter alia, ‘working class progressives’, in particular, are written out of history.
See also : The ALP facing extinction? (January 31, 2009) | How Labour Governs, Vere Gordon Childe (1923).
Faulkner’s Seinfeld moment — it’s all about nothing
June 10, 2011
Good god there must be some snappy way to open a piece on John Faulkner’s Wran oration, something piquant expressing the paradox about the way in which the most admirable figure in the Labor party has delivered a set of solutions which simply recapitulate and deepen the problem. But I got nothing, nada, zip.
It’s just very depressing to have to echo, of all people, Mark Latham, to speak of, of all people, John Faulkner: the address Annabel Crabb describes as the “speech of his life” is, in fact, his Seinfeld moment: it is a speech about nothing.
Faulkner’s Wran oration says little more than commentary on the Labor Party has been saying for the past two decades — that it is becoming a narrow professional outlet, separated from a dwindling membership base, steered by daily public opinion and reliant on an increasingly personality-focused media.
Indeed, this recitative has now become a part of Labor tradition itself, stretching back to Gordon Childe’s How Labor Governs of 1912 [sic], his excoriating attack on Queensland’s professional machine Theodore government. Labor, in this account, is always fallen from its former view of purity and intent. Labor loves these Eeyore moments — it appeals to its mendicant Catholic Irish soul.
That notion of original sin is never very helpful in getting a clear-eyed view of what’s gone wrong, and never more so than now. For Labor genuinely is in dire straits, subject to a double whammy — having become the depoliticised machine that Childe slated early on, it has now ceased to be an effective version of it. The tragedy of modern Labor is that it does nothing well, neither holding a political-ethical line, nor delivering sure and steady governance and reform.
Disentangling that double problem is tricky, and the arguments Faulkner brings to it don’t do the trick — indeed he has no arguments about why this has occurred, merely a recitative of what has occurred. To a degree this represents one of the problems that has beset Labor: it is not that Bondi flotsam such as Karl Bitar washed up on the shore of the party, but that the people who most want to reform it lack even the ghost of a theoretical framework to reflect on how modern society and parties work.
Faulkner, like many of the activists Labor attracted in the 1970s and ’80s, were those who always cleaved to the anti-theoretical side of life. Emerging from the social movements of the day, they were never attracted to the Marxist tradition — and the declining theoereticism and sectarianism of that period propelled them further away, not merely to being anti-big-T-theory, but to anti-systemic thinking. To linger on anything other than practical reform was held to be self-indulgent.
Perhaps I exaggerate and someone will dig up various writings by Faulkner and others in that spirit — but let’s stipulate for the record that there is nothing of that sort in the Wran oration. Faulkner cannot even understand his own causes, and older models of Labor, except in that dissected, atomised way. Here for example is Faulkner on what Labor used to stand for, and actively debate:
It should be obvious to anyone that practically all these issues are isolated social movements (albeit with some kick-on), which have little to do with what should be Labor’s core mission — advancing the notion of a good society based on universal human flourishing, collectively and individually, achieved largely, but not exclusively, by redistributing economic power to create something approaching genuine democracy. State socialism, and then social democracy, were two ways of trying to do that, but they should not be confused with ends in themselves.
Faulkner can only figure that core aim as a defensive one — defending unions in the workplace — and their practical applications, free education and healthcare.
What he figures as vigorous debate between the factions, about these issues, wasn’t per se about these issues — it was about two differing conceptions of the political role held by two factions, the Catholic Right and the Socialist Left, who would otherwise have been different parties.
The Catholic Right had a conception of labourism that was conservative not emancipatory: based on Rerum Novarum, it asserted that Labor’s role was to limit the nihilistic process of capitalism in the name of an ordered society, extending positive freedom — freedom from hunger, freedom from penury — to the working class. The Socialist Left — stretching back to the decision of the Victorian Socialist Party to join with Labor in the 1910s (bringing a young John Curtin with them) — had an entirely different conception of the political, even if this came and went.
They were not communists, but they shared a conception of political possibility with the communists to a greater degree than current political history is willing to admit (both Chifley and Curtin, for example, were interested in, if barely informed of, the Italian Communist Party’s gradual creation of an alternative model to Stalinism, which would eventually become eurocommunism).
The main game was not per se Vietnam or apartheid — it was what Tony Benn once succinctly summarised as the purpose of genuinely progressive Labour parties: to create permanent irreversible change in the periods when it was in power, even if that meant spending a lot of time out of it.
Indeed, by the time of the period Faulkner is talking about, the late ’70s and into the ’80s, when he remembers bitter factional disputes, that debate was already over. In the mid ’70s, the whole spectrum had been radical and transformative — the Whitlam government was pursuing the idea of buying up the entire resource base of Australia, and pursuing the Swedish “Meidner” plan of buying up the private sector through the stockmarket to socialise it. Bob Hawke’s ACTU was pursing the model of creating a producer-consumer circuit via worker-owners such as Bourke’s department store, and the Solo petrol station chain. An impossibly radical plan today, at that point it was being attacked from the left as lacing people into consumption.
With the collapse of the left very rapidly in the 1970s, an entirely different idea of Labor’s path to redistributing power took over, one conceptualised within the “social market” neoliberalism of Hawke-Keating. Ostensibly more radical it was limited in aim — conforming society to market-generated ideas of human being and the good life. Labor became an agent of means, not ends.
Not only did left and right collapse into each other within the Labor party, but Labor essentially conformed itself to the explicit agenda of the non-Labor forces, who saw no contradiction between the market and the good life. But to acknowledge this is to acknowledge a collapse within Labor that cannot be reversed by the mean contained within its own structures — administrative reform, reconnecting with the activists, etc.
Were the Labor Party to have a genuine idea of a better way of living, it would be able to reach effortlessly to reconnect with people who were once its constituents, but who can no longer be described as a unified working class (a point I’ll return to on Monday). They don’t want state socialism or even social democracy, but they would go for permanent irreversible change in the fabric of their lives — like using the power of the state to create affordable housing by fixed rate state mortgages, compelled land release, large-scale urban replanning and the like.
Labor should use this and public bond issues to guarantee everyone can get a first home, close to good facilities in any major city for $150,000. If it partnered that with extended paid parental leave, mandated flexible working hours, and real action on climate change, it would be in power for ever.
In that situation, it wouldn’t matter a damn about the decay of Labor cadres, the profusion of maggots at the top, focus group obsession, etc. A philosophy of life that flows to policy is what Labor needs. The rest is noise — and sadly Faulkner’s Wran oration adds to it.
So long Labor you fucken scumbags. It’s been real:)
Rundle: what’s wrong with Labor? There’s no reason to join
February 23, 2011
Where do ceremonies come from? They start as real functional events, then the world changes and they lose their function. Crucially, at some point, everyone forgets what the thing was for in the first place, at which point it becomes a venerated ritual. Thus Christmas, the actual summoning of the sun at the winter solstice by a celebration of rebirth. Thus, also, Labor Party reviews.
These will continue for centuries with the form they have now acquired. Labor grandees, who have run the party as a bureaucratic/administrative machine to manage GDP growth and foreign wars, will be summoned together to meet in camera for several months. No one will remember why, least of all they. Eventually they will emerge and intone the sacred texts — “grow the membership … re-connect with the public … outreach to youth” — in a language they no longer understand (unaware that no one ever understood them). Then everyone will go about their business as before, as if nothing has happened.
Judging by the Bracks-Faulkner-Carr review, this process is 80% done. The preliminary report has the same ritual dances and chants, as ever: more power to the members, specific grants for outreach, a national organising officer and so on and so forth. All that’s missing is a response to the core question: why would anyone join Labor now in the first place? What is it for? What would be the meaning of such an act in someone’s life?
The answer to those questions are the questions themselves. There is no reason to join a party that has no ambition but to narrowly manage a peripheral capitalist economy, introduce the mildest of tinkering reforms, and march in lockstep with an increasingly discredited and confused US.
The membership figures bear this out.
As the report reveals, and contrary to some expectations, membership rose during the Howard years, after a dip, and began to full precipitately after the 2007 election — by 20%, from 50,000 to 40,000. Some of the rise and then fall was due to the manic branch-stacking required to get a few dozy right-wingers over the line — most of that bewildered Turks being minibussed up and down the Great Ocean Road — and whose membership was then allowed to lapse, but far from all of it.
The only conclusion one can make is that people joined the ALP in the Howard years because, by default, it stood for something — that is, for not being the Howard government. Once it came to power and continued many of its policies in whole or part — on asylum seekers, Afghanistan, school funding and the NT “intervention”, inter alia — membership fell off the cliff.
Labor had acquired an identity, defined against Howard’s positive one. Once Labor had to act in its own right the emptiness at the core of the party was laid bare. Joining Labor these days has all the existential heft of taking an entry-level position at a photocopier repair company, with branches in six states. You’re either after a permanent job, or you’ve made a fundamental error of judgement.
The ritual BFC review has the same powerpointy obsession with form as does any organisation devoid of real content. Recommendation after recommendation is concerned with nothing other than jiggling the machine and hoping that somehow this will make it work better. Voting ratios, conference procedure, outreach, community dialogue … how did anyone even manage to write this stuff down without being overcome by a sweeping sense of futility?
There is a prior step to working out why ALP membership is falling off a cliff — identify what the thing is that people are being asked to join. Labor has had several incarnations — Imperial Socialist Party from 1901-1942; Nationalist Social Democracy 1942-1983; Nationalist Social Market Party 1983-1996; £$%*&^! 1996-present.
Each incarnation may have been honoured more in the breach, but at all times there was, at the base, and however rudimentary, a theory and an ethic — an argument about how society worked, and how it should be changed, in line with an idea of how it should be. Even the third “social market” period — when Labor fell in love with neo-liberal globalisation — had an idea of how the proceeds from such should be plugged back into some form of social nation-building. It was pretty threadbare, but at least you could argue with it.
Now? Zilch. Nor is there any framework to develop one, which is in part why the two people who, in different ways, tried to create one — Mark Latham and Kevin Rudd — came to grief. There was no context which would have welcomed their ideas and thereby mitigated their personal failings. But it’s also the reason why developing ideas became such an idiosyncratic, individualist process in the first place — because the party, as a whole, has simply given up the practice of really doing it.
Nor will it start now. Labor will have to go through really bad times before it gets serious about really renewing itself as a party — through both retheorising society and rethinking how its ethic expresses itself in the 21st century. The ALP benefits from a unique quadruple lock of compulsory voting/exhaustive preferences/public funding/union dues — which can then be augmented with business contributions. Thus armoured, it can stagger on as an elite quasi-state apparatus run by a caste of life-long devotees for quite a while to come.
Many of its apparatchiks actively want a smaller party, one which can be manoeuvred more easily, which is why they always consent to reviews of the ALP’s arcane and impacted bureaucratic procedures by grandees who succeeded by mastering its arcane and impacted bureaucratic procedures. The genuine alternative would be a real and sustained series of conferences and conventions by the party, drawing in supporters and sympathisers, to try and define what sort of society it should be working for.
The party was founded in an era of collectivised class life, shaped by various religious, racial and imperial identities. That conception — dropping the racial bit — survived through to the ’80s. Partly because of global social and economic change, and partly because of the policies the Hawke-Keating government ramrodded, that collectivised base has utterly fallen away.
Now, to echo some points by m’colleague Keane, we live in a profoundly individualist and atomised society, in which people build identity through media and markets. Everyone now realises that this creates a cultural crisis of meaning. The Right deals with that by fusing free-market individualism with conservative ideals — patriotism, etc — which free-market individualism undermines.
Labor offers a pallid version of this. Sooner or later it will have to come up with something else — a genuine program which posits new ways of putting society together to respond to human needs and desires that atomised market life cannot offer.
Sooner rather than later, because eventually, also, the cash machine will stop working. Another global recession, a Chinese stall, and Australia will join the rest of the world in a fairly sluggish downturn. At that point Labor will be utterly discredited and new groups will emerge in its heartlands, drawing populist policies from both Left and Right in a new mix. Having lost its inner-city/left activist base to the Greens, it will lose its working-class base to the new populism. The forces that sustained it from 1967-1996 will squeeze it from both ends.
Should Labor renovate its ends, then its means will matter less. When it cannot think about its ends, then the focus on means becomes a fetish, obsessive and pointless, an empty ritual for a purpose long forgotten. There is no better demonstration of it than the questionable, in some ways tragic, history of the principals involved in the review.
Bracks is a nice guy manoeuvred into place like a cigar store Indian on a trolley, who led a government with no aspiration other than to manage. Bob Carr, who in his current role as Dymocks’ [shill], trashes not only PIR but any notion of cultural protection — and beneath it, the notion that anything distinctively Australian is worth holding back from the market.
And most tragic of all, John Faulkner, who probably inspired many people to join the party by taking the fight to the government in the Howard era — and equal or greater numbers to quit perhaps — by taking the job of running a pointless and wanton war in Afghanistan in the years since. If they want this review to be more than an empty ceremony, they could start by acquiring a mirror.
@ndy, your analysis is crippled by your resistance to historical materialism. For instance, Julia’s identification of “fairness” with “racism” is a perfectly solid position. We merely have to understand the concept of “fairness” as a historically constructed entitity, rather than as a transcendent truth (which Julia might claim it to be, but make no mistake, that’s just ideological fodder for the middling and lower classes; the bourgeoisie are all dialecticians: fairness means what they say it does).
So, even as we must (as good dialecticians) understand fairness’ historical role as fairness for some and unfairness for most, we must understand “Labor party” today as meaning “Party of the managers of the Labor force”. Shedding a bit of excess chaff probably doesn’t matter, unless those 2100 were all CFMEU shop stewards or something, which would probably signify something interesting. It’s not like “party” has meant “mass-membership organisation” for a long time, anyway.
On another note, your use of interesting but misleading titles to lead me to your blog is reactionary badthink. Further instances will result in your deportation to the appropriate labour camp (the postmodern state does NOT lump commie/muzlim/jew/hippies into one category, but rather sorts and subdivides them most obsessively to better “celebrate” their differences… celebration is historically determined).
As a Groucho-Marxist, I adhere to hysterical materialism.
1. Even if we admit that Newtonian mechanics is “wrong”, we may still use it as a useful tool for everyday situations. It’s only a problem if we surrender our ability to reason to someone else’s reasoning (which wouldn’t be very Marxian of us).
2. Whether or not Noam Chomsky likes or understands something has very little impact on anything. Apart from Noam Chomsky. His homespun truthiness is about as attractive as George W. Bush’s when he gives an utterly naive account of the War on Drugs (he essentially claims it’s a big conspiracy theory; there are conspirators, to be sure, but not enough to run the war).
3. He’s probably right about jargon. I’m working my way through a book which I’ve had to read three other books to understand, and the political concepts are roughly as useful as crimethinc (which, to be fair, I’ve developed a soft spot for… did you know they’re turning into insurrectionists?). On the other hand, one could use his line of reasoning to say “Shakespeare uses a sonnet to express his desire to bone to his mistress. He should have just written ‘fuck me’ and left it at that. It’s a waste of time studying his poetry when you could be reading bathroom graffiti”. Of course, if Chomsky has the power of his convictions to make that case, I’ll tip my hat to him. As soon as I remember where I left it.