Australia’s ‘Left’ in government. Part 1: The graveyard of progressive politics?

by · September 13, 2011

The alliance partners in happier days. Er, two months ago, that is

The stench of death surrounds the Gillard Government.

It is impossible to exaggerate the historic depths to which the ALP has fallen in the polls, with last week’s 27 percent in Newspoll confirming that there would be no “bounce” once the carbon tax announcement was digested by the electorate. Even the temporary revival of sleaze allegations against Craig Thomson was more about the government’s crisis than the substance or seriousness of the “affair of the credit card”. The current race to the bottom on asylum seeker policy, with the High Court and even Tony Abbott managing to hold positions clearly to the Left of the ALP, will undoubtedly create even greater electoral problems for the party’s standing.Lest anyone believe that a 27 percent vote is unlikely at a real election, they should recall similar wishful thinking prior to the humiliation of NSW Labor at this year’s state election. These are numbers not seen since the Lang split during the Great Depression. Despite an unpopular leader in Abbott and without even a semi-coherent set of policies, the Coalition looks set for a landslide victory of historic proportions — if the government survives to an election, that is. This is not to say that the Liberals (or Abbott in particular) don’t suffer from a lack of authority themselves, but they currently have that other type of “advantage of incumbency” — not being in government.

But this is not just a crisis for the ALP. The Greens have to date failed to capitalise on their newfound centrality to the workings of federal government, with their polling flatlining, even fading somewhat, since 2010.

A glaring omission from most discussion among progressive commentators has been the question of what the crisis and eventual fall of the government will mean for the future of prospects of the Australian Left more generally. In this post and the next I want to argue that the Greens’ decision to effectively enter into government with the ALP has been a disastrous mistake for the Left, one which needs to be addressed right now, not after the government finally expires, if any useful lessons are to be salvaged.

The current mess is a clear representation of what happens when the Left enters government in a period of crisis. The government’s woes, therefore, represent not just a political crisis for the ALP, but a troubling impasse for the Greens and the wider Left.

Such an analysis of the Greens’ strategy is important not just for the party’s prospects but for the future orientation of any independent Left that can be built in the wake of the current mess. This debate cannot simply occur in abstraction from the real links the Greens have with progressive activists and political organisations around the country. As I wrote in my analysis of the Greens and the Left in Overland last year,

For the Left outside the Greens, the space remains limited, simply because without a resurgence in mass struggle, politics has a tendency of being refracted through existing institutions. Nevertheless, the inability of these institutions to provide more than temporary solutions to the ecological and economic crises (or even the appearance of them) means that schisms are likely to emerge. But the dominance of the Greens means that they cannot simply be bypassed on the Left when breaks occur. The internal discussions in the Greens are also likely to be both a partial reflection of debates in wider society and, in turn, to impact on developments inside social movements and the working class.

It is not enough to merely stand by the tracks watching this slow-motion trainwreck, smugly announcing that we were right and the Greens were wrong. There is a grave risk that without clarity there will be deep damage to the confidence and consciousness of the very wide layer of people who must be central to any resistance to Abbott and the capitalist and state elites who stand behind him.

This will be a different scenario to that in NSW, where the Greens have been able to play a role in developing resistance to O’Farrell. Federally the Greens will find it much harder because they will have (quite correctly) been seen as part of the Gillard government’s failure rather than an independent force to its Left.

Italian lessons: How the ‘Left of the Left’ let itself be eaten

There is a recent historical analogy for this crisis, from Italy in the last decade. To be sure there were different forces arrayed there, and the process was much more concentrated, but the central strategic question of the independent Left’s position with respect to official politics was remarkably similar.

Like Australia in the early 2000s, there was a widespread revival of political activism on the Left. This came against a backdrop of disenchantment with the mainstream Democratic Left (PDS) — former Eurocommunists turned Third Way social liberals — and then the latest iteration of Berlusconismo, which also provoked significant industrial action (a series of set piece national strikes and protests mostly called by bureaucratic union leaders).

Into this situation came Rifondazione Comunista (PRC), a section of the old Communist Party that had broken with the PDS after an unhappy coalition in 1996-8. This was of key significance, as the party built the massive protests against the G8 in Genoa in July 2001, the anti-war movement and the highly successful European Social Forum in Florence. The PRC leadership went further than just this activity in declaring that, “The central objective is the growth of the movement, i.e. its capacity for persistence, development and effectiveness that goes beyond one-off dates set by its opponents.” Furthermore, as the same account explains:

At the end of this cycle of struggles Rifondazione found itself part of a head-on clash with neo-liberalism and of the challenge to the hegemony of the moderate left, despite a certain countertendency to support the centre-left city, provincial and regional governments. Its actions in the movement enhanced its reputation in the eyes of the many thousands of people, not only in Italy but all over Europe, for whom hope had revived that another world is possible. The construction of an alternative left to that of the market was at a more advanced stage than in other countries of Europe.

While there were many independent strands of activism involved in these movements — from autonomists and radical trade unionists to anti-corruption campaigns and local Social Forums — Rifondazione was able to present a political focus that was clearly seen as on the “Left of the Left”; outside the cautious parliamentary socialist (social democratic) limits that had dominated since World War Two.

But, as they say, something happened on the way to the Forum.

The accumulation of discontents against Berlusconi eventually led to the real possibility that he would lose the next national election. Yet in Italy’s electoral system no single progressive party could do this alone; the PDS would have to rule with other forces to its Right and Left. It is at this point that party leader Fausto Bertinotti launched a campaign (through the mass media) for a sharp change in PRC strategy. They claimed the party had a duty to not just help get rid of Berlusconi but to deliver a Left government that would be able to take the aspirations of the movements into parliament. This would be different to past coalitions, which had disappointed their supporters and allowed the Right to revive electorally.

By being within a Left coalition, Rifondazione could shape its politics and win outcomes that would fall by the wayside if they merely continued their orientation on movement building. It was an argument the party won among wide layers of activists, in part because it was the only serious Left agenda for engagement with the popular desire to beat the Right electorally, but nonetheless there was a demobilisation of movement activity as all focus came on the parliamentary arena.

Yet, far from delivering such promises, the coalition that came to power in 2006 was a catastrophe for the Left in Italy. Despite its obvious significance to the coalition — with Bertinotti being elected Speaker — the PRC immediately pledged itself to the survival of the government ahead of the survival of its progressive program. It supported an intensification of the neoliberal economic and social agenda inherited from Berlusconi, and even voted for the continued financing of Italy’s military presence in Afghanistan. It used a thin electoral majority and the fear of Berlusconi’s comeback to argue against any break from this trajectory.

By 2008 it was bundled out of office in a landslide to the Right and Berlusconi’s return to power in coalition with far Right extremists like the Northern League. The PRC’s own vote was halved and it lost all of its parliamentary representation (41 seats in the lower house and 27 seats in the Senate).

The impact was not just demoralisation at the electoral result. The demobilisation of movement activists in the hope that a governmental solution would deliver meant that when Berlusconi allowed local authorities to unleash anti-immigrant pogroms and attacks on civil liberties there was political despondence and confusion. Splits over strategy emerged within Rifondazione, but with fears that the party might fall apart a full accounting of the strategy has not yet happened. Union leaders failed to seriously mobilise for many months against Berlusconi whereas in the early part of the decade they had brought millions onto the streets against him.

In just a few short years the most powerful Left in Europe — built around serious nationwide political networks — was reduced to being a weak, splintered mess, one which has only recently started to show signs of revival despite the scandal-ridden and unstable nature of the Berlusconi regime.

Similarities and differences

Australian parallels with Italy should be obvious — a significant revival of social movement activity in the early 2000s, the ability of a party clearly to the Left of traditional social democracy to provide a national political focus for those movements’ aspirations, and that party’s decision to commit to being inside government as a projection of the movements’ aims into the arena of official politics. There are important differences. The anti-capitalist movement here went into a deep crisis in the wake of 9/11, and the while massive the subsequent anti-war movement was much less radical in character than Italy’s. The Greens have not articulated as radical an anti-capitalist politics as Rifondazione did. And in 2005-7 the ALP could channel anti-Howard sentiment without the need to rely on the Greens beyond preferences. This allowed the Greens to play a much more independent role politically, especially when the government unravelled spectacularly in 2009-10.

Yet when Gillard failed to win an outright majority last year, the Greens were all too keen to play a similar role to that of Rifondazione. It is to the impact of this that I turn in the next post.