In Capital, Karl Marx elucidates the inner workings of the capitalist mode of production by making certain assumptions about the behaviour of real people. He describes capitalists as mere “personifications” of capital and other social relations. But these assumptions are just that: assumptions for the sake of clarifying underlying social processes without having factors like individual personalities, tactical blunders, historical accidents, etc., muddy the waters.
The space in which politics operates, then, is that place where the real living human beings who make their own history do so within the social relations and institutions that dominate the society in which they make policy, argue ideology, and manoeuvre for position.
So it has been with the Rudd-Gillard battle, which finally ended last night with Rudd’s return to the prime ministership (assured by Katter and Wilkie backing him in any confidence motion — the Greens being too scared to risk Abbott being installed by the G-G). Too many commentators have been so obsessed with a whole set of secondary features of the conflict that they have missed what is the single biggest issue in Australian politics for the last seven years — the crisis of the institutionalised political system that dominated the 20th century.
My point is not to discount the role of misogyny and feminism, or Rudd’s sizeable ego, or Gillard’s strength under pressure, or policy mistakes and successes, or deals with minor parties and Independents, or problems of purpose, ideology or narrative. But it is to say that they were shaped within the structures and institutions of a hollowed-out, destabilised political system. Unless we start with the shape of politics as a totality, we cannot understand how these details played a part in the outcome.
So, for example, unless one understands the crisis of authority of the political class, it is impossible to understand how ugly misogyny could have been deployed with apparent effect against the nominally most powerful person in the country. The decision by someone in such a powerful position to then mobilise a bizarre quasi-feminist response in her defence makes little sense either.
As we now look back on the three years and two days of Gillard’s prime ministership, it’s therefore important to not ask why Gillard the person did so badly as PM; rather to look at the political institutions she represented. And this doesn’t require much detective work — her ascension to the leadership was the reassertion of the power of the ALP machine, dominated as it is by ossified and ideologically empty factional power bases, in turn linked to a historically weak and bureaucratised union leadership ruling over a membership that accounts for just 18 percent of the workforce (a union density that never fell below 40 percent between 1914 and 1990).
One of the simple facts about the ALP that has been glossed over in recent times is that the party is not just any kind of social democratic party, but a labourist one (as Gillard made clear in her infamous speech to the AWU). That is, it is not the product of the party and union members (workers) but the trade union bureaucracy — a bureaucracy that has in its history been deeply conservative, as evidenced by its past, decades-long commitment to arbitration, protectionism and White Australia. Even if the unions managed to partially break from such positions in the latter part of the 20th century, they then signed up for the Accord, which constituted not only a massive direct attack on the living standards of Australian workers (one not achieved by either the Fraser or Howard governments) but was a central part of implementing the neoliberal political project in Australia, which included the breaking up of the old industrial order that gave them stability and influence. Given the social effects wrought by this agenda, a period also characterised by a significant shift in the balance of class forces against labour, the social weight and relevance of the unions was deeply damaged.
These transformations flowed through to a weakening of the ALP as the political wing of the union bureaucracy, creating a long-run crisis of social democracy. But this was just one side of a wider crisis of political representation that destabilised the Coalition, which found itself suffering similarly from internal warfare, crumbling party organisations and deep unpopularity at the state level during the Howard years. Whatever Rudd’s personal qualities, he represented a kind of fix for Labor’s problems, articulating a vaguely progressive technocratic dismissal of the old politics.
After the Gillard coup in 2010 the political moves of her backers displayed the same kind of genius that had kept Labor in the federal wilderness for 11 years. There was the “lurch to the Right” on asylum seekers, the neutering of the mining tax and the attempt to ditch climate action — the latter prevented by the need to do deals with the Greens and Independents. The result was completely unwarranted legitimacy for Abbott and the Coalition, whose electoral support rests on shaky foundations, but in the process even greater popular revulsion at events in Canberra.
The contradictions of anti-politics
The anti-politics element of Rudd’s agenda is perhaps the hardest thing for political insiders, even on the radical Left, to understand. Despite his privileged social position and objectively insider status, it has allowed him to play to public bitterness at the self-interested Canberra elite. The unprecedented personalised public attacks carried out by the Gillard camp have actually served to cement his outsider credibility among many voters. It is why the Liberal attack ad showing his colleagues (as well as Mark Latham, the last person one should look to for character assessments!) excoriating him will actually help Rudd make his case for radical reform of the ALP and politics in general. And it is why in his presser last night Abbott looked unsettled, unsure of himself and very much a relic of the “old politics” that Rudd attacks so effectively. Rudd’s anti-politics also allows him to appear to actually want to take on Abbott. By raising the global economic crisis as the most pressing threat to Australia he is able to both draw on his record in the GFC and sweep away the ideological obsession with Budget deficits and austerity that Gillard and Swan surrendered to.
But the remaining institutional weight of Laborism has not disappeared simply because Rudd is leader. The pressure exerted by unions on their caucus affiliates only cracked because of the catastrophic electoral situation facing the ALP. For example, the ASU’s snap poll of members showed 36 percent would’ve voted Labor with Gillard, but 56 percent with Rudd. It means power brokers like Bill Shorten are left damaged because they clung to their union loyalties until very late. Shorten and other late converts will have greater problems staying on message (as Bob Carr’s hesitations on Lateline showed). And despite multiple resignations by Gillard loyalists decreasing the immediate need for bloodletting, Rudd may need to throw his weight around to convince voters he really is in charge. All these factors mean it is likely Rudd will give himself time and an early election would be counterproductive. He needs space to mess with Abbott’s head and show he’s in control.
Such considerations mean that Rudd cannot represent some kind of coherent and durable form of political rule to replace the old setup that is unravelling. A Labor victory also remains far from assured in such an unstable political situation. And if the economic crisis really does hit Australia hard, the kind of rapid fragmentation of politics we see in countries like Greece and Spain could happen here (especially if this provokes resistance from below on a much larger scale). Rudd may be anti-politics but he is no anti-capitalist.
Understanding what the conflict in the ALP is actually about is vital for those wanting to build some kind of alternative project. It is important not to fall into thinking that the relative lack of ideological difference between Rudd and Gillard meant that their battle had no political meaning, as some on the Marxist Left are implying. They presume that an Abbott victory is still certain and that the political environment has not shifted. This either misunderstands what politics is, or is an attempt to pretend that politics can be gotten around.
Importantly, while Rudd may be a right-wing anti-politics technocrat, he also inspires hope that things can be better than Australia’s failing political system has allowed. This contradicts the idea that post-neoliberal Labor needs to return to a clear social democratic program to have electoral success, and that the only correct position to take is a simple “plague on all your houses”. This is part of the reason the Greens have been much more disoriented by Rudd than by Gillard; he infringes on their anti-politics appeal — an appeal now much eroded by their alignment with Gillard. Rudd (the political phenomenon) therefore gives us a unique insight into how the crisis of politics creates the possibilities for new political projects. He also teaches us that if such projects are to succeed they cannot simply try to recreate a version of the old order that has shaped all our histories.