Morbid symptoms: The political meaning of Eddie Obeid

by · March 12, 2013

How the SMH visualised the end of NSW premier Nathan Rees

That aspect of the modern crisis which is bemoaned as a “wave of materialism” is related to what is called the “crisis of authority”. If the ruling class has lost its consensus, i.e. is no longer “leading” but only “dominant”, exercising coercive force alone, this means precisely that the great masses have become detached from their traditional ideologies, and no longer believe what they used to believe previously, etc. The crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear.

— Gramsci, 1971, Selections From The Prison Notebooks, pp. 275-6

Watching last night’s ABC Four Corners one could easily think that Eddie Obeid is just the latest (and most extreme) exponent of the systems of patronage which have long characterised ALP influence in NSW. But Obeid’s singular power and murky dealings were also a function of how the party’s factional structures have had their social and political meaning hollowed out in the neoliberal era.

This occurred thanks to simultaneous shifts in power from party organisation to professional political class, and from a base of strong (if conservative) trade unions to the ossified and self-interested bureaucracies of a deeply weakened union movement. As we have noted here previously, it is no mere crisis of ideology, narrative or belief. And the labour movement’s disaster was most centrally the product of a period of self-transformation that it deludes itself into believing represented the peak of its historic achievements.

This was the trajectory of a neoliberalised Labor Party: Towards patronage denuded of a material class base and any vestige of progressive ideology. No longer was big business to be opposed, not even was it simply to be cravenly backed in the name of “growth” and “jobs”, no longer were former ministers to land plum consultancies and directorships, but now its political patrons in the ALP saw it as completely natural to be “in on the action” while in office.

To say it is sickening and helps explain the ALP’s current disastrous standing in public opinion and polls only tells part of the story.

More importantly it should make clear that when people imagine that the neoliberalised ALP can simply weather this “downswing” in the “political cycle”, they misunderstand that a crisis of political authority of this sort does not operate on the basis of swings and roundabouts. What we are seeing is one part of a secular unraveling of the Australian official political system, with no guarantee that even if it survives that it will simply reconstruct itself around the old, institutionalized axis of Laborism v conservatism. And that has profound implications for how we think something “new” can be built as the “old” crumbles.

Meanwhile, expect yet more “morbid symptoms”.

[SMH photo montage from here.]

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Discussion2 Comments

  1. Geoff Robinson says:

    I think these phases of crises and corruption also reflect the collapse of any coherent governing platform and formual for electoral sucess. So the factional disintegration and crisis of the early 1920s when Communists & the AWU combined against the Miners Federation & the MPs was because the 1920-22 Labor govt demonstrated Labor couldn’t simply go back to the good old days before Hughes. The corruption of the last phase of Lang’s Inner Group after 1934 was also a response to fact that after 1932 the ‘Industrial Labor Party’ was incapable of electoral victory.

  2. Don Sutherland says:

    2 quick comments: for a few years now I have been calling the ALP, the neolaboral party, happy to stick with theeir own misspelling of “… labour”. Your reference to ossified union bureaucracies is very crude, and also wrong. There needs to be a really thorough discussion about why the union movement is weaker, including the origins of its bureaucratic features, but not limited to that. For example, the attitudes towards strikes / industrial actions, the definition of a union, the understanding of social movement unionism and socialism, the weak intellectual endeavour, the members themselves and the contrtadictions that run through all union moevemnts. I could go on.