Labor’s crisis, misogyny and the Left’s response

by · June 22, 2013


From October: Winning acclaim for challenging Abbott’s sexism

My latest piece at Overland Journal — “Not a crisis of misogyny: a crisis of political authority” — went up yesterday. It was written in response to a series of recent arguments on the Left, most especially “If Julia Gillard isn’t safe from the Liberals’ sexism, who will be?” by Van Badham, which appeared in The Guardian on Wednesday.

Here’s a snippet from my article:

[I]f the only road to defending ourselves from nasty governments depends on restoring the authority of politicians and the institutions of rule they inhabit, we have a real problem, because we remain at their mercy. And if the way to stop Abbott is to downplay the current government’s failures, to reject the disdain so many people feel for official politics, then the Left cuts itself off from very healthy disrespect for those in power – a disrespect that, in the past, it would’ve been trying to mobilise.

Painting ordinary voters as complicit with Abbott (because they are sexist or at least won’t stand up against sexism) is designed to shift the blame for the political establishment’s decay away from it. Worst of all, it has the effect of shutting down debate about the way forward for the Left generally – and on how to deal with the problem of women’s oppression specifically – reducing it to a question of first lining up with Gillard politically.

The discussion under the post has been wide-ranging, but I think it’s worth highlighting my response to a really interesting argument made by BCC, who said:

But I think on one key aspect, you’ve actually got your priorities the wrong way around. A new left isn’t going to form without both input and strength from strong grassroots movements — feminist, trade union, indigenous, environment etc — and even more, a central orientation to building and supporting said movements.

I replied:

I totally agree that we need a grassroots resurgence, social resistance on a greater scale. But we also need to ask ourselves why since the great Seattle protests a series of wonderful resurgences — against corporate globalisation, for refugee rights, against the War on Terror, against WorkChoices, for serious climate action, etc. — have briefly disrupted or shifted things but then we seem to be left with very little politically better on the Left. Indeed, I would argue that while the radical Left has engaged and built all those struggles, seemingly paradoxically the reformists (Labor, Greens) have gained far more politically. Worse, since 2007 those movements have largely evaporated, leaving organised radicals even more isolated.

My argument (and here I’m being very general) is that the Australian radical Left has not understood how to be political in a way that can build a truly different type of hegemony. We have often been great activists, have built organisations and have argued a lot of ideological positions. But we have not built a new hegemonic project. And part of that comes from a movementism that starts from a correct rejection of bourgeois parliamentarism but thinks that you can merely counterpose subaltern resistance to it. You cannot; we need our own politics — not in a sense that overrides the tremendous disruptive and creative force of mass movements, but a politics that understands how and how hard we have to fight against the structuring and disorganising politics that centre around the state.

Discussion3 Comments

  1. Don Sutherland says:

    Thanks for this thinking, and for putting it into writing. I moved from the extracts above and read the Overand piece (but not yet the comments / debate that followed). A couple of suggestions though: you hint at a critique of “movementism” that may be very useful in the ongoing quest for an Australian left STRATEGY. Can this be elaborated on and made clearer? Also, I plea that that elaboration be in much plainer language. In my work I spend a lot of time with male blue collar workers. Most of them don’t like our political system and many don’t like Gillard very much. For some this is expressed in heavily sexist / misogynist terms. In practical discussions this is often tricky to sort through. We need very much to encourage a critical take, a rebelliousness, on the Australian political system (it mainly deserves the resentment it is getting), but that needs to translate into positive demands for more and better political democracy, including its extension into that most undemocratic site, the workplace and industry. At the same time we have to stop the misogynistic and sexist expressions that are systemic but get more public exposure when they are directed at a PM who is a woman.

    • Dr_Tad says:

      Thanks for the comment, Don. I think the movementism expresses itself in the idea that if we fight back we will break through the bad politics that dominate the working class movement or other social movements. You can see it in radical Left calls for “a real fightback” or “we need mass struggle” or simply “we need to get organised”, as if this will sweep away the conservative influence of union leaders, ALP politicians, etc.

      There is a big element of truth to this idea: As mass struggles have shown in the Middle East and some parts of Europe and North America, the self-activity of workers/ordinary people can shift the balance of politics. But it doesn’t simply neutralise the political arguments coming from above, it just pushes them onto more favourable terrain. What we do to start to politically shape the resistance from below with some kind of positive project is really important.

      Too often the radical Left has seen the answer to the problem of politics as “education through struggle” combined with building some kind of organisation that embodies the revolutionary traditions. The organisation I was in for 13 years (the ISO) did this kind of thing. What we lacked was a positive intervention into politics, leaving ourselves with just “getting organised/build the party” and having the right ideology. We simply didn’t systematically strategise on how we might lead people politically.

      You can tell we were weak on this because we didn’t put much effort into developing a detailed, concrete analysis of the state of existing politics. Therefore when political arguments came up we mostly reacted to them issue by issue (and often did this well, based on our principles) but not as part of a wider view of where things were heading.

      One of the things Liz and I decided in setting up Left Flank was to pay attention to that gap. Now, our analysis may be wrong but at least it’s an analysis that people can argue with based on the evidence, rather than the radical Left formulas like “the ALP has gone neoliberal and they would be more popular if they returned to social democratic policies” or “if the union leaders led a mass radical fightback we could beat Abbott”, which are untestable because they ain’t gonna happen like that.

      The question of what to do in the workplace is an area that is much trickier for me to have a clear answer for, but the state of politics (as it is) seems to me to shape the potential (or lack thereof) for workers to create something new. But it seems to me we need to argue for very radical forms of democratic self-organisation not only as a means of resisting capital but of arguing for workers to be the producers of a new type of social organisation that won’t replicate the mess we see at the top of ours. To do that we have to argue on the basis of a considered analysis of the crisis of Australian politics, to mobilise the disrespect people feel for politicians into creating their own sources of democratic authority.

  2. lorry says:

    Very interesting read Tad