A tale of two little red books

by · September 28, 2010

On holiday last week I read the latest book by French philosopher Alain Badiou available in English, The Communist Hypothesis. Fittingly for the former Maoist, his book was smaller than your average paperback, bound in a red cloth cover and embossed with a gold star. Badiou is one of the few French thinkers of his generation to refuse to be pulled in by the post-structuralist fashion that swept academia in the wake of the failure of the May 1968 events to transform society.

In recent years he has been involved with building a movement in defence of the sans papiers, immigrant workers who have repeatedly been attacked by the government and the far Right. Intellectually, he has faced down the demoralisation many on the Left read into the election of Nicholas Sarkozy as President, with a polemic that was prescient in its estimation of the weakness of the right-wing leader and the political class he emerged from.

Badiou has also been preoccupied with resolving the impasse of the radical Left in the age of neoliberalism. He was part of organising the sell-out London conference, The Idea Of Communism, which pulled over 1000, mainly young people in March last year. I’ve only read two of Badiou’s books and a handful of shorter pieces, so I cannot pretend to have a handle on his philosophical oeuvre.*

However, Badiou makes a very important point that the broader Left’s degeneration has in part been due to its attachment to politics that lie within the logic set by the state, either on the Stalinist or social democratic model. It is fitting to have a think about this when one considers the release of another little red book, the Red Book written by Treasury for the incoming ALP government, which has been leaked to the media in a censored (“redacted”) form. For anyone hoping that the current government will be socially progressive, it makes for chilling reading.

Michael Pusey has convincingly argued that the ALP’s recruitment to the neoliberal project was driven by senior public service bureaucrats in Canberra. The tales of Paul Keating being “captured by Treasury” in the 1980s were legion, an explanation for the ALP’s championing of policies identified most closely with the likes of Thatcher and Reagan on the world stage. As Badiou’s thesis would suggest, the Labor Party had a politics that led it to be captured by the state machine it was allegedly intending to use to champion the interests of working people.

Treasury’s Red Book message is crystal clear — that neoliberal reforms must remain central to the government’s actions. There are three main lines of argument in the document. First, that the Australian economy is doing so well that dangers of “wage inflation” need to be headed off at the pass. Second, that government deficit reduction must be prioritised. And third, that “market mechanisms” remain the best way to do… well, just about everything.

Much of the discussion of Labor’s social agenda is framed in terms of Gillard’s preferred “social inclusion” framework, which is formulated around maximising workforce participation. Read: push everyone to look for work, no matter how disadvantaged or disabled, by whatever means available. This is social inclusion as a mechanism for increased labour market competition and downward pressure on wages. Such policies, given that unemployment and underemployment have not returned to pre-GFC levels, let alone the lows of the true “full employment” era of the post-war boom, can only mean more hounding of the most vulnerable in our society.

The Treasury bureaucrats point to the growing storm clouds overseas that threaten to destabilise Australia’s economy. Yet while they argue that high levels of mortgage debt make Australia vulnerable to external shocks, and that the government holds very low levels of debt, they then warn that “delivering on the fiscal strategy [to cut public debt] is essential”. This concern is taken straight from the G20’s recent reconversion to cutting sovereign debt as the global priority. In other words, it’s OK for governments to spend like crazy to save banks, financial institutions and big business, but ordinary people will have to pay with cuts to public services and increases in taxation. Indeed, on the question of tax, the report argues that mobility of capital means there should be less taxation on capital income and more on “land, resources and consumption”. And there is talk of rejigging the tax system to pressure people back into the workforce by overcoming “disincentives” to work.

Finally, there is much made of markets as being the efficient centre of the universe. While “market failures” are acknowledged, this is only meant in the sense that governments should make the markets work better. Chiefly this is spelled out in terms of market mechanisms to cut emissions, which are lauded as “the most cost-effective way to achieve carbon abatement”. Which class they are cost-effective for is a question whose answer is assumed rather than stated because, well, why would it have to be spelled out?

Interestingly, the Red Book recognises that the problems the major parties faced during the election were driven by “manifestations of the costs of structural adjustment, both perceived and actual”. But it warns that:

Many of the policy options to deal with structural adjustment will have cost of living implications, which, in itself, will be an impediment to reform. It is our firm view, however, that it is optimal for markets to be allowed to operate freely, letting the true costs flow through to consumers, with an appropriate safety net provided for disadvantaged groups.

If we were to believe Kevin Rudd when he penned his infamous Monthly essay, the GFC marked the death of the neoliberal project. Neoliberalism is deeply unpopular in the community and Tony Abbott’s policy schizophrenia suggests that not even the favoured party of Australian capitalism can run on an openly economic rationalist program anymore. But as Treasury’s little Red Book shows, the logic of market capitalism stops for no government, no matter how much of a “new paradigm” it seeks to sell.

* Badiou’s analysis, in The Communist Hypothesis, of what he sees as the radical edge of Mao’s Cultural Revolution jars violently with my understanding of what happened. It strikes me he has tried to renovate socialist politics from within the logic of Maoism, yet I would reject his premise that Maoism was about overturning capitalism at all. Rather, the Communist Party had long before 1949 dropped any substantive commitment to workers’ power as the basis for socialism. Badiou’s response to Slavoj Zizek on the nature of Maoism in the appendix is unconvincing.

Discussion11 Comments

  1. Stewart J says:

    "If we were to believe Kevin Rudd…the GFC marked the death of the neoliberal project." But why would we begin to believe this? For me the ongoing failure of the social democratic project has always been linked to its unthinking acceptance of a market model. We have devolved into a mess of social welfarism that looks alot like charity and paternalism all too reminiscent of 19th century "deserving poor" critiques. But lets also not forget that we've had 17 years (since Keating was captured by Treasury, day 1 of the Hawke Government) of a neoliberal agenda in this country. The Red Book (or the Coalitions Blue Book! – back to colour coded politics) is nothing more than a continuation of this tradition, as it is 'tradition' (as accepted wisdom) that neoliberalism has become. The radical becomes the reactionary etc etc

  2. Dr_Tad says:

    Stewart, I think it is important to see both continuity and break in the social democratic tradition. The continuity is that they have always wanted to work within the constraints of capitalism. But the difference is that the terms of that constraint were different during the long post-war boom, allowing a big space for economic growth to provide welfare, full employment and continually rising living standards for the mass of people. Of course there were deep contradictions in this process – we would not have seen the revolts of the 1960s and 70s if all had been well. But that post-war period of successful state capitalism (mirrored by developments in the Communist bloc) has provided much of the popular mythology and hope that social democracy is capable of something more than the tawdry liberalism we see today.There is a further break: Under neoliberalism social democrats have consciously moved away from claiming to represent working class interests, with Blair probably getting furthest in openly trashing the class nature of his party's mission. This has created the feeling among their traditional supporters that if we "returned" to a past era where these things still mattered, the parties would act differently.Rudd's reduction of the idea of social democracy to that of state intervention to save capitalism merely accepted the new premises in which governments had to operate post-GFC.

  3. Boris Kelly says:

    Another interesting post, Tad. Do you see any examples, anywhere in the world, of what you regard as 'best practice' in socio-political organisation? I find your analysis is intriguing but I wonder if it is not a symptom of Utopianism. I don't mean that as a criticism but I do wonder if what you implictlly advocate as an ideal does or can ever exist. When asked similar question, Chomsky pointed to the anarcho-syndicalists of the Spanish Civil War. What's your cup of tea?

  4. Adam Bell says:

    Tad, a good read and in the main I concur but, I suspect like Boris, I'd like to see you articulate with real policy alternatives. Bashing the ALP with scant policy framework is a bit reminisce of The Monk.I voted Green in both houses in the recent election, admittedly in protest to the Red and Blue more than an endorsement of the Left, Green or Watermelon. I'd now like to see the Greens and The Left Flank step up, acknowledge the wide support they have garnered and respect it with comprehensive economic, health, education, wage, welfare, communications, and resource policies. The Left has a chance to govern this country in 20-30 years but it won't happen purely on the back of voters' Red or Blue disconnectedness.

  5. Dr_Tad says:

    You guys ask the $64 million question, but I have to disappoint you and say that there is not a worked out program of action here… not yet, anyhow. We are supportive of the Greens, obviously, but not uncritically.Like everyone else on the Left we have experienced the same setbacks and defeats of the neoliberal era and we're trying to stake out some positions that will help us engage with people who will (slowly) work on a common project to build a new New Left.We do see a rediscovery of Marx and the best of the tradition he started as essential to make sense of what to do today. Hopefully that will become clearer as the blog and other things we are involved in continue.

  6. Dr_Tad says:

    But, Boris, I promise a post on the not-Utopian basis of my analysis soon. :D

  7. Boris Kelly says:

    Tad, it seems to me that the essential ingredient missing is cohesiveness. The Left is wildly disparate and un-co. This is why the debate on the reconstruction of the left has to be opened up and an important part of that opening up lies in the use of language. The left has lost its capacity to speak to workers in terms that both engage and educate. I don't mean that in any condescending sense. The post industrial, western working class is bound to the rock of capitalism but unaware of the vulture at work on their liver. There was a time when trade unions served an educational purpose but, as we know, the Hawke Accord was the beginning of the end of that. The educative function of the left must be revitalised and I do not see that happening unless trade unions are re-engaged politically. Control of the narrative must be regained and that is a question of language and direct engagement, IMO.

  8. wrongarithmetic says:

    I think the question of cohesiveness is right, but needs to be posed as a question. How do intellectual consistencies emerge? It is a logical question. We cannot think what is inconsistent, if something consists we can think it. The Left at the moment is unthinkable, and I think this is a large part of the disorientation.If we look at any discipline, there is some common framework that people work around. There is a collective engagement in a field. So geologists work with common assumptions about radiocarbon dating, about valid research practices, a common language and so on. These common standards allow some sense to be made, come communication to happen, between different researchers or groups of researchers.The Left doesn't have these things. It doesn't behave as though it is a serious discipline that needs these things. It alienates the discipline from itself to some big Other–usually social democracy, or 'the working class'.Another of Alain Badiou's arguments is that developing a new left is the development of a discipline of thought. That is what Marxism once gave the Left, if only formally. The Left needs to actually work through its break with Marxism, to move forward and develop some common assumptions about practice. The horror for large parts of the Left will be how much of Marx they are in fact groping towards rather than rejecting. To put in Gaston Bachelard's terms, we are in a period of non-science, which is aurally not far from nonsense.

  9. brucek says:

    I'm new to the blog but admit I feel old to the Left. I'm encouraged by the train of thoughtful thoughts in the comments… Actually Stewart J it's 27 years since Keating embraced Treasury. But other dates strike me as just as 'key': Sept 11 1973 with the coup against the Allende govt in Chile, followed by the ousting of Whitlam on Nov 11 1975, then the collapse of the Stalinist state structures from 1989-91. 'Key' because they threw both the Communist Party and the Labor Party projects into disorder, or at least seemed to reorder Labor's as no more than the economic growth plus paternalistic welfare others have outlined.Until the 1989 events the ALP left in the parliament and the Communist Party – ALP Left in the unions advocated different policies to the Right of the ALP / unions and their project was genuine, not merely an alternative career ladderThe 1983 Accord removed struggle from the equation as all disputes were routed through union head offices and 'solved' with the ALP, ACTU and Treasury. So we now have nearly 2 generations of almost zero experience of workplace politicsThis is a good radio summary I think:http://www.abc.net.au/rn/hindsight/stories/2010/3018680.htmI agree unions remain best placed to mass educate workers on politics and some of them sometimes do an OK job: the anti WorkChoices campaign, the LHMU (NSW) on climate change, the ASU (NSW) on refugees and the worth of community work(ers)While the Left is rudderless and impotent, there are a lot of us. Questions are (how) can we/it be reorganised to actually represent our size and potential power, and to what purpose exactly? We are without a strategy. We mostly don't know/talk to one another…

  10. Adam Bell says:

    Yea, OK. So 12% primary vote (1.5m votes) doesn't equate to releasing comprehensive, detailed and advertised policies covering ALL major ministerial disciplines? The Nationals polled roughly the same (The Nats + Lib Nat Qld), and we know where they stand, unfortunately! I don't think it's unreasonable to demand policy detail advocated in more ways than a party website statement. In this game you have to put your neck on the chopping block, argue your case in the areas I've mentioned and roll the dice. Especially now The Greens will target another 1-2 House of Reps seats at the next election. I'm very supportive of The Greens on many issues, perhaps most, but I would like to see them argue a more wide-ranging case for a better society. What are they afraid of?

  11. Stewart J says:

    Apologies Brucek, yes, 27 years (the first time I voted in a federal election – I should remember it better!!).