The modern crisis of Australian Laborism (Part 1)

by · September 18, 2013

Hawke Keating colour

In the first of two posts on the modern crisis of Australian Laborism, MARC NEWMAN looks at the roots of the ALP’s problems in its embrace of neoliberalism in the 1980s.

***

Labor’s voter base remained stable for the bulk of the 20th century, through numerous changes in political circumstances. It only dipped below a 40 percent primary on three occasions between 1910 and 1990. This was the core base of Labor’s support.

The exceptions are interesting, because when taken in context, they actually reinforce that picture. The first two occasions were when the entire NSW Labor Party ran on separate Lang Labor tickets. The first of those was at the first election after the Great Crash, and the 1929 Labor Government broke, with the Labor Party splitting. Under those rare circumstances, the combined official Labor and Lang Labor tickets polled only 37.67 percent. On the second occasion, they combined to 41.16 percent.  The third occasion was in 1966 at the height of the DLP’s power. There is no doubt that the DLP functioned to funnel votes away from the ALP yet — despite this factor, with the DLP achieving 7.31 percent — the ALP still won 39.98 percent of the primary.

Labor was in the process of forming nationally when it contested the 1901, 1903 and 1906 elections. By 1910 it registered 49.97 percent of the vote, and had decisively established itself as the pivot against which the post-federation ruling class reorganised itself to try to run the Commonwealth. From that point its primary remained 45+/-5 percent until 1990, with only episodic anomalies.

This core base had held firm in victory and in defeat. In the nine losing elections in 1949-69, Labor registered an average primary of 45.7 percent. Yet by contrast, in its winning election of 2007 it registered only 43.8 percent primary support; by 2010 that had dropped to 37.99 percent. Its stable core vote held through the DLP split, through the vicissitudes of the Whitlam and Fraser eras, only to be broken in the more recent period. On Saturday 7 September 2013 it stood at 33.84 percent. Its 2PP was below 47 percent. Labor won a significantly higher primary (38.75 percent) when it was smashed by Howard in 1996.

The trend vote has dropped by more than 10 percent since 1969. More than a quarter of its traditional voter base has deserted it. Together with the fact that a growing proportion of its residual base must more be characterised as hostages, feeling they need to vote Labor as a bulwark against the even more offensive Coalition, we are seeing not just some episodic but a significant, long term collapse in Labor’s base.

Taking the long view, then, we have to ask, when did this stability in its voter base first break? Going off the numbers, the electoral turning point is 1983 and the Hawke-Keating Governments. After achieving one of its strongest ever primaries in 1983 (49.48 percent), over 13 years of ALP Government, the ALP registered a declining primary at every election, save the 1993 “Fightback” election. The downward trend was restored in 1996, and most significantly, continued during the years of opposition. Only slightly arrested by the 2007 “Workchoices” election, Labor’s primary continues to fall. At best we can say Labor’s defeats are deeper, and electoral recoveries shallower, than for the bulk of the 20th Century, more likely there is a persistent underlying cause at play.

This structural decline, with its origins in the Accord period, is the central reason for Labor’s defeat in 2013. While Labor could have won this election on the basis of tactically relating to “anti-politics”, they could never have won the election solely on the back of their core support, even allowing for a measure of support from the Greens. So while we can criticise the campaign for its failure to relate to the disenchantment with mainstream politics, to “anti-politics” in even the limited way Palmer did, it is clear the main reasons run much deeper.

Various “explanations” have been advanced centring on the personality of the leader, or worst of all “disunity” are symptomatic at best, misleading at worst. These are either episodic — and so cannot explain the historic nature of the decline — or timeless, and so cannot locate the decline and its causes historically. These problems predate Kevin and Julia, a clash that is merely a symptom of the crisis.

Explaining the decline

We have to understand that Labor faces a fundamental crisis, not merely a cosmetic one. As I argued before the election:

Laborism in its emergent period rested on a trade union bureaucracy that was engaged in an active political relationship with i) the layers of active workers within the unions and ii) the layers of more passive but politically engaged workers who identified with the ALP and were its stable voter base. Both of these relations have now been profoundly eroded, and in the same period the factions have become displaced to resting only on a particular subsection of the union bureaucracy. This has narrowed the social basis of actually existing Laborism to the point where its regenerative capacity has been profoundly undermined. It is doubtful, even in a period of opposition, whether forces that narrow can generate a modern edition of Laborism with some life in it.

The erosion of Labor’s broad support base, and the decline in the strength of its remaining support, cannot but have its effect on the networks and machinery that make up Labor as an actual thing, and not merely a theoretical construct. This is true on three levels.

At the macro level, there is simply no way with a union movement having density around 18 percent, that its political arm will be as effective as it was when it had 50 percent density. Nor, with a vastly smaller active membership (or even branch membership) can its electoral machine be as efficient. Its social weight has been reduced, and with it its organic capacity to project ideas and carry the wider population.

At a micro level it has narrowed the base of discussions, debates, critiques and decision making to a degree that is quite profound. Where once thousands of organised participants clashed over the future of Labor, now, I would estimate, fewer than 1000 people nationally are directly engaged in the networks that are connected with meaningful decision-making about the future of the ALP.  This is composed of the most important figures in the parliamentary caucus, the factional leaders, the staffers attached to those MPs, senior union officials and political officers. To these are added a handful of mid- and junior-level union officials and party elders. When we consider that half of this group is employed by the other half, the number of effective decision makers becomes tiny indeed.

Politically, the factions are composed of a demographically very homogenous population who have been selected for adherence to the political status quo inside Labor. What is more, the unanimity between the factions has disrupted any ability for the factions to represent strategic or tactical alternatives for the party as a whole. Shorn of any political function, the factions have increasingly become mere tribal patronage networks, with all the propensity to political and financial corruption that goes with them. Yet these networks retain their effective control of union block votes and influence.

The factions are thus at the same time both the guarantors of the union bureaucracy’s influence within Labor, and the greatest single block to a move away from the politics that have underpinned Labor’s decline.

***

The political decision by the union movement as a whole, supported by all factions and political trends of any weight, to enter into the Accord in 1983 has turned out to be fateful. Every trend bar Labor was effectively wiped out. Labor went into decline. Whatever one’s political analysis, or attitude to the Accord as such, it must be acknowledged that its period of centralised wage “restraint” and suppression of strikes was a completely disastrous policy for the workers’ movement. It oversaw the collapse in union membership, the gutting of our activist networks, the creation of unwieldy, legalistic and narrow structures, and the near total destruction of any kind of working class public sphere. This dynamic had its counterparts inside the ALP, with the withering of branch activism and the final death of conferences as any kind of meaningful decision-making forum.

The organised self-destruction of the union movement through the Accord process was paralleled by a political retreat of the greatest significance. While Labor has never had any kind of coherent anti-capitalist economic program, it once had a more varied ideological make-up that included strands that were strongly in favour of — and could intellectually defend — at least some notion of state intervention for the purpose of progressive reform. Given that the premise of Labor was electoral success to use the state to deliver reforms, these trends were critical to Labor’s ability to, from time to time, buck capitalist common sense and pursue serious reforms.

The period of the Hawke-Keating governments saw the enshrinement of neoliberal economic orthodoxy at the heart of the movement’s political thinking about the economy.  This was most true within Labor’s Left, which had proceeded to bury anti-capitalist economics of any sort, and with it the ideological basis for internal renewal.

Today, the Labor factions unanimously support neoliberalism, though of course there are variations in emphasis. While the Right actively embraces it, the Left sentimentally excuses it on the basis that “there is no alternative”. But there is little difference at the level of their political behaviour.

Even the notionally “Keynesian” interventions to stimulate demand during the GFC were saturated with uncritical worship of the market, which gave us the disastrous private sector implementation of the pink batts scheme and another own goal for the ALP. That pattern is repeated on issue after issue. The NSW Labor Government’s privatisation agenda was a significant contributor to its political weakening, as were the repeat failures of major “Public Private Partnership” infrastructure projects. The relentless ideological chipping away at any kind of alternative economic approach has left the ALP standing for little more than neoliberalism with a human face, and at times, not even that — as its persistently racist refugee policies show most clearly. But this is also evident in the attacks on welfare recipients and numerous other policy fronts.

More fundamentally, managing capitalism in neoliberal terms means resisting anything other than symbolic pro-worker reforms. Most national unions have confronted the late Labor Government’s extreme reluctance to grant reforms, usually on fiscal grounds. The sum total of advice coming from within the Labor factions and think tanks, the public service, the mainstream media, and the opposition, is all singing from the same songsheet — fiscal responsibility, productivity, labour market flexibility, public sector “efficiency”, rationalisation. No section of the Labor factions contains a meaningful challenge to the central assumptions of neoliberalism at a theoretical, political or practical level. It is important to see that these modern examples are the continuation of the economic and political approach which saw the “social dividend” that was to come to workers under the Accord, keep shrinking or being postponed until finally Keating put an end to the farce in 1993 with Enterprise Bargaining.

And its not hard to see where that takes us: A voter base, forged over decades in the spirit of supporting the ones that were for a better world, not only finds that the better world looks pretty much like the other one, but that “their own” politicians are the ones delivering the kickings. The roster of sections of the community who have been attacked over the years in one way or another by Labor in Government from 1983 to 2013 reads like a who’s who of its traditional support base. And this course of action progressively ejects ever greater numbers of Labor’s voters from the ranks of the true believers.

So the defeat must primarily seen in light of Labor’s continuing commitment to neoliberalism. It is the logical consequence of a fundamental economic approach, which sees the role of Labor in government to manage capitalism not merely in the interests of capital in general, but according to a particularly narrow set of neoliberal prescriptions about economic management. This places Labor in its basic economic approach to Government at odds with the workers’ movement which, in its political demands, is placing demands on the state that it act to constrain the market in ways favourable to workers. Labor in Government remains predisposed to support the opposite course. This is in part why unions have had to turn to various forms of community and leverage campaigning to twist the arms of their factional allies in order to deliver even partial reforms for their members.

How neoliberalism stopped being tenable

Labor’s strategic premise is notionally the achievement of electoral success in order to enact some sort of change. Yet neoliberalism has proven to undermine the first term of this equation –— electoral success — in a fundamental way.

A kind of economic realpolitik might still be offered to excuse Labor’s self-destructive addiction to neoliberalism. Even if, for the sake of argument, we concede the central thesis here, that neoliberalism had some value in understanding and managing the economy, it is of limited value now. In 1983, however objectively anti-working class, neoliberalism offered a coherent package of structural reforms. Labor could combine this with a particular way of delivering social peace at the same time, through the Prices and Incomes Accord, which the Liberals could not.

As a consequence of Labor’s and the union movement’s decline, Labor is no longer needed to guarantee social peace, and it is doubtful it would have the political credibility or material weight to do so if it were. So the crisis of Laborism itself means that the winning strategy of the 1980s cannot be replicated.

There is a more basic problem. By 1996, the major structural reforms prescribed by neoliberalism had been accomplished under Hawke and Keating. Neoliberalism after that time has ceased to be a compelling strategy for capital accumulation. Today, its ideological commitments positively get in the way of dealing with infrastructure bottlenecks and labour supply issues, not to mention that financial chaos resulting from neoliberal prescriptions across Europe and the world.

Moreover, no matter its practical achievements, Labor cannot win the argument about being technocratically superior managers of the capitalist economy in more than a momentary sense. In the last analysis, the intrinsic closeness between the LNP and its big business backers will always give the lie to any claims Labor makes on this score. Rudd and Gillard’s incapacity to get any traction on this front, despite an impressive record of avoiding the worst of the GFC, speaks to the truth of that underlying social logic.

Thus neoliberalism fails to yield a viable strategy for Labor today, even if it could be argued that it did from 1983 to 1990, and even if we ignore its consequences for the working class. Neoliberalism has undermined Labor’s ability to conceive and execute enough serious reforms to energise its base and arrest its organisational and electoral decline.  It has therefore become inextricably tied to the institutional and electoral decline of the ALP. Neoliberalism is the concrete political form of the crisis of Laborism in Australia. There can be no sustained resurgence for Labor without a fundamental reckoning with neoliberalism, a project now entering a global period of crisis.

Discussion15 Comments

  1. […] The modern crisis of Australian Laborism Part 1 – Left Flank. […]

  2. Richard Bailey says:

    Hey Marc, I really like this piece. A couple of points for discussion:

    1. What I’d like to see is breakdown where the erosion of ALP primary vote has gone. I think a lot of people assume it’s gone to the Greens but I suspect that is only partially true, that there is a crucial 4-5% that has gone to the Libs. I think that is crucial to your analysis.

    2. The concept of “anti-politics” both you and Tad are using is very under-done IMO. Tad (and most of the Left) more so than you seems to assume it is at worst politically neutral but potentially politically progressive. I don’t think this is correct. I think it is not accidental that this vote has gone virtually exclusively to the right: Hanson, Shooters, Palmer etc. (I don’t think there was any doubt that Palmer was seen as a conservative intervention, despite the refugee rhetoric and populism). What the Greens have picked up is something different I think, a more entrenched broad left vote that has historically cohered around the Democrats or the ALP. The “anti-politics” people refer to IMO is thoroughly conservative. It is a product of the general shift of the Australian political terrain to the right, which I think you correctly identify, has been the product of the ALP embrace of economic conservatism.

    3. Towards the end of the piece you make what I think is the crucial point. The ALP has allowed Australian politics (in its broadest sense) to shift onto a terrain (i.e. bi-partisan economic and social conservatism) where the Libs are the natural party of government. The ALP no longer has a consistent and compelling point of differentiation from which to assert itself as a political alternative. I think this means that they will still get elected in protest against Liberal governments from time to time, but their terms will continue to be shorter.

    4. The most important question I have is what are trying to do here? It’s not clear whether you are intending this as an intervention into the labour movement, the ALP or the Left. The argument seems to be directed at the ALP, that they cannot recover their primary vote unless they shift back to a more progressive economic policy. But then your use of terminology like “anti-capitalist” and not, say, “social democracy”, which seems to suggest a Left audience. The reason why this matters is because I’m interested in how you see this analysis being concretely brought to bear, that is what is the organising project the flows from it and how will that project attempt to shift the political terrain. Huge question obviously, to which I don’t have an answer, nor do I think you necessarily have to either, but that is the key question. I have been speculatively wondering whether a project aimed at intervening in the ALP, probably via the labour movement rather than direct membership, might be a more fruitful approach for the Left than the Greens. I suspect you probably agree with that, but the questions I’d like to see people discussing are how, what, where, who etc.

    Looking forward to part two…

    • Dr_Tad says:

      Richard, the two biggest beneficiaries of anti-politics votes in the last decade were Rudd (especially in 2007, running as Kevin07 rather than Labor) and the Greens (especially in 2010, when they picked up unlikely large swings to them in places like Queensland — FFS, my mother voted for them!). It beggars belief to think that Rudd won by being traditionally Left, or the Greens did well simply by being traditionally Left, yet neither won by being right-wing either.

      This year that vote fragmented more and you’re correct that it went to objectively more right-wing formations. But it is not at all clear that this means that anti-politics is inherently conservative or reactionary.

      Perhaps the biggest outburst of anti-politics in the West in the last few years has been the various squares protests. The Spanish Indignados movement was classic: It called for “real democracy now!” and said “none of them represent us”. It banned political parties and even trade unions from its protests initially. Yet would you call it inherently conservative? Was that really its dynamic?

      The thing about anti-politics is that it is neither reactionary nor progressive but a reaction to the gradual hollowing out of the social base of the political system, and the growing detachment of social groups from their “representatives” in bourgeois politics. That both more left-wing and more right-wing forces can try to appeal to it and politically structure it should not be surprising. But until a political project develops that can take this in a revolutionary direction — at the same time having to appeal in different ways to groups of people more attracted to the memory of the old political order when it was “better” — then we will see all kinds of oscillations.

      But it is the undermining of the structural basis of the old politics that is the key — and I think the data and analysis Marc has presented here really flesh that out very well. It is all very well to say that official politics is moving Right — except at the time Rudd seemed to be a move to the Left, as did the high Greens vote in 2010 (both gave much hope to the Left, and both were not so very long ago).

      But unless we understand that the political system is in a crisis of authority then all we see is a depressingly impenetrable elite hegemony. Ironically, just as to most people that crisis is becoming ever more obvious.

      • Richard Bailey says:

        “Perhaps the biggest outburst of anti-politics in the West in the last few years has been the various squares protests.”

        My feeling is that equating the phenomenon of the Squares protests and the vote for Clive Palmer, beyond saying that it’s pulled in different directions by different subjective interventions, is far too simplistic. But I’m not sure if that’s really what you’re saying?

        “But unless we understand that the political system is in a crisis of authority then all we see is a depressingly impenetrable elite hegemony.”

        The experience of the last 20 years suggests otherwise to me. I think generally the word “crisis” has been so over-used on the left as to have become meaningless. How can there be a crisis of authority in the political system when there is no genuinely existing alternative? Maybe there is some weakening of legitimacy or neo-liberalism. But the squares protests have not threatened capital or the democratic system any more than the velvet revolutions did. I think we need to be honest about that and think about why that is.

        I’m personally more interested in viewing the situation we face as a depressingly impenetrable elite hegemony. First because it reflects my experience of the past 20 years and second because it might encourage us to actually strategically engage with what it might take to shift it. Otherwise we just latch on to the lastest overseas protest movement, read our revolutionary fantasies onto it and pretend we can will something similar into existence.

        • Dr_Tad says:

          “How can there be a crisis of authority in the political system when there is no genuinely existing alternative?”

          Unless one thinks that until that politics based in conflictual (capitalist) social relations can continue forever in a stable form, then such a thing should not be surprising. The very success of the ALP-unions Accord/neoliberal project lay the basis for its own hollowing out and exhaustion.

          I think we still live with the residual pull of an illusory set of alternatives to bourgeois politics on the Left — social democracy and Stalinism being the main ones here. The problem then is that a period like now appears empty of promise because those old “alternatives” (not true alternatives in terms of their actual content) are gone or barely separable from the Right. But the lack of alternatives doesn’t prevent bourgeois politics from being unstable — it actually makes it more unstable because the actual structures, institutions and organic social relationships that propped up the idea of an alternative yet channelled it (more or less) safely within the bounds of capitalism as a social system are now much weaker. The empirical detail that Marc has deployed, and which is similar to stuff Liz and I have written, is meant to point to that “hollowing out” of organised reformism not as an ideological statement but a material one about how politics exists as a set of real social relations.

          Of course the problem is then more sharply about whether the radical Left can pose a genuine alternative, and if so how. Without those old coordinates this much more seems like uncharted territory. Yet there is still a bourgeois politics to be concretely analysed, to try to understand how it both leads to the possibility of social resistance that might get somewhere and how the crisis of politics limits the political expression of such resistance.

          Think of politics as a “container” which “enwraps” civil society movements and struggles. When the political system is hollowed out there is both less ability to contain movements but also less shape for them to take when confronting the reality of the state. That puts pressure on us to build containers which can take things forward. But we can’t build them if we cannot even face up to what politics is right now.

          Rather than projecting over-optimistic “revolutionary fantasies” onto movements overseas, Left Flank has actually highlighted the breakdown of politics and how that has bedevilled movements and the Left itself (see here for an example that summarises the approach: https://left-flank.org/2012/12/30/2012-the-year-that-politics-disoriented-the-left/). The very characterisation of anti-politics at the heart of the squares protests is in reality a warning about the limits of anti-politics, but it would be silly to write them off on this basis also.

          I think what is very clear, however, is that we should stop wanting to get back to the old politics, where Left and Right were powerful and clearly defined and both thoroughly incorporated into the capitalist system. Not because it mightn’t have been nicer back then, but because there is no way that social conditions allow for such a resurrection to take place.

    • Marc Newman says:

      Hi Richard,

      Some of the themes you’ve raised are explored in part 2, which should go up some time this week. So take a look then, and maybe we should discuss further after that. For the moment, here’s a response to the specific things you’ve flagged:

      1. *Any* breakdown in Labor’s base is going to disintegrate in a range of directions given the state of political society. It is certainly not the case that the whole drop in Labor’s votes can be tallied directly to the Greens. However, it *is* the case that a significant component has moved over directly, probably a majority of those moving away from Labor. While it is hard to demonstrate this rigorously, given the realities of secret ballots, etc, every polling analysis I ever saw inside the Greens indicated about a 3:1 to 4:1 ratio of votes being won from Labor as opposed to elsewhere (Dems, Libs, etc).

      I don’t see how we can explain the rise of the Greens in the 2000-2007 period except with reference to Labor’s crisis, and the Greens partially successful efforts to relate to it. Of course, the problems Tad and others have identified with the Greens strategic approach have meant they were unable to capture all of the disaffected Labor votes and have been less successful than they might be. The general weakness of the left’s intervention into politics, including but not limited to that of the Greens, creates a reality in where more conservative chunks of Labor’s base can break in different directions – working class toryism, Palmerism, etc.

      2. “not accidental that this vote has gone virtually exclusively to the right”. I’d agree with you that its not accidental, but I see it as highly contingent on the subjective intervention of the left. Its not an accident in that the left’s failure to intervene effectively has vacated the ground entirely to the right. It is only because of our political and strategic weaknesses that the observable right wing form of anti-politics is the dominant expression of the phenomenon. Of course, a successful left strategy would have the result that anti-politics would become politically framed, and cease, at some level, to be anti-politics. While not wanting to overemphasise international commonalities, this is the significance of parties like Die Linke in Germany – they can frame hostility to the political setup in a political way, allowing it to become more than a kind of cynical inchoate response, and become part of a working class challenge to the existing setup.

      3. “The ALP has allowed Australian politics (in its broadest sense) to shift onto a terrain (i.e. bi-partisan economic and social conservatism) where the Libs are the natural party of government.” I don’t agree with this formulation, although I’m not really sure whether we’d disagree on the substance. While my article focuses on Labor, I’m of the view (as I’m sure you can see from the tail end of the article) that neoliberalism as a meaningful project for capitalist rule has largely exhausted itself. This is true as much for the Libs as for Labor, and is what stands behind the idiotic ascendency of the ‘king and country conservative’ wing of the LNP under Abbott, and the fragmentation on the right end of politics.

      4. Who is it for? The Left, broadly defined. Not the Far Left, not the Greens, not the unions, not the Labor Party, not the social movement activists, but for whichever parts of all of those layers are prepared to engage in a rational discussion about what is going in Australian politics. Indications over the last little while is that a carefully put Marxist analysis of the concrete state of politics can win an audience and shift the way they/we approach political practice.

      The crisis of Laborism, and the broader crisis of politics, dictates the objective necessity of evolutions and realignments. Many of the assumptions of the left in all its guises no longer hold, and we need a more rigorous general discussion of why we’ve failed to gain any real purchase collectively. I think looking to organisational conclusions when the methodological and political gap between even the fragments of the far left are so great is to put the cart so far before the horse its not funny.

      Marc.

      • Richard Bailey says:

        “The general weakness of the left’s intervention into politics, including but not limited to that of the Greens, creates a reality in where more conservative chunks of Labor’s base can break in different directions – working class toryism, Palmerism, etc.”

        I don’t think the direction these trends have gone can be explained by subjective factors alone. I think the deeper structural shifts you identify well in the original piece shape the direction the break with the ALP has gone. But maybe we don’t really disagree about this.

        “I see it as highly contingent on the subjective intervention of the left. Its not an accident in that the left’s failure to intervene effectively has vacated the ground entirely to the right.”

        Maybe my disagreement is that I think you over-emphasise the subjective factors here. Or perhaps it needs to be stated more clearly that a more effective left force could have itself shifted the political terrain and shaped the anti-politics, rather than just simply latched onto it.

        “I’m of the view (as I’m sure you can see from the tail end of the article) that neoliberalism as a meaningful project for capitalist rule has largely exhausted itself.”

        This is a very interesting point. I’m not sure what I think about it. My instinct is to say there is a difference then, between neoliberalism and a more general conservative economic framework. The things you referred to in the original piece: fiscal responsibility, labour market efficiency etc. are definitely still hegemonic.

        “we need a more rigorous general discussion of why we’ve failed to gain any real purchase collectively. I think looking to organisational conclusions when the methodological and political gap between even the fragments of the far left are so great is to put the cart so far before the horse its not funny.”

        My point is that I think the Left has perennially discussed these matters abstractly. It becomes a contest about who is the smartest Left intellectual instead of a more strategic, praxis oriented thinking. That’s what I would like to see.

        • Marc Newman says:

          Hi Richard,

          I reckon we’re not far apart at the level of description. I do think we probably understand the subjective-objective thing a bit differently. Its a corollary of the notion that ‘ideas become material forces as they grip the masses’, that what we might describe as ‘subjective’ or ‘conscious’ factors are themselves objective, when they become mass phenomena. This is precisely why it is worth talking about political ideas and strategy – since otherwise, conscious politics would remain completely and hermetically sealed off from objective effect, and real politics would be a mechanical reflection of economic factors. That way lies mechanical materialism and political quiescence.

          “Maybe my disagreement is that I think you over-emphasise the subjective factors here. Or perhaps it needs to be stated more clearly that a more effective left force could have itself shifted the political terrain and shaped the anti-politics, rather than just simply latched onto it.”

          In order to be “more effective” and “shift the political terrain” and “shape the anti-politics” it is precisely a qualitative step forward in the conscious way politics is approached that is needed. Again, back to the conscious/subjective/objective issue. I do agree with you that uncritically trundling along behind the Palmer and co’s would be madness. This is obviously not what I advocate. My point here is that to simplistically characterise the voters who slip to people like Palmer and Katter as “right wing” is to misunderstand the political dynamics that have led those voters there. To overemphasise the relation between the confused or conservative forms and the actual content of the drift away from mainstream politics, is to misunderstand the way in which political society works. I emphasise the importance of looking at the totality and the way the various social forces are refracted into political society and clash. In this light, the behaviour of the voting population in 2013 is inexplicable except primarily by reference to the crisis of Labor and the ineffectiveness of the left, in the context of the broader weakness of the coalition.

          “‘neoliberalism as a meaningful project for capitalist rule has largely exhausted itself.’

          “This is a very interesting point. I’m not sure what I think about it. My instinct is to say there is a difference then, between neoliberalism and a more general conservative economic framework. The things you referred to in the original piece: fiscal responsibility, labour market efficiency etc. are definitely still hegemonic.”

          You should take a look at the discussions here https://www.facebook.com/tadtietze/posts/10151601143820423 and here https://www.facebook.com/tadtietze/posts/10151592605075423, which air some of these considerations. In any event, I don’t think the grip of those ideas on society as a whole is as strong as it was. If it were, there would not be the degree of rejection of the political elites who remain wedded to them.

          There is a distinction, to be made between neoliberalism as a hegemonic project and the ideological residue of that project. The ideological residue can continue, and can even appear to be unassailable, long after the project has ceased to work. This is particularly true if i) the ruling class does not formulate an alternative hegemonic project as its vehicle and ii) if the working class and its allies fail to generate a sufficiently coherent project of its own to allow it to place that residue under real pressure.

          “My point is that I think the Left has perennially discussed these matters abstractly. It becomes a contest about who is the smartest Left intellectual instead of a more strategic, praxis oriented thinking. That’s what I would like to see.”

          I totally agree with the need for concreteness, hence the attempt to analyse the Laborism and its crisis very concretely, rather than with the usual cant about the inevitable betrayal and “bourgeois workers’ parties” in general. But I do think there is a need for at least the beginnings of a shared concrete analysis of the situation and its dynamics before a meaningful discussion of what flows from it can take place. This article is designed to begin to air the strategic questions thrown up by the crisis of Laborism with a view to starting a discussion about what we do about it.

          Thanks again for the close reading.

          Marc.

  3. MikeH says:

    Interesting article but with a few IMO oversights.
    You mention the Accord and Hawke and Keating’s embrace of neoliberalism as the start of the rot. But the 1980s were the perfect storm for Labor. The rise of neoliberalism coincided with the demise of the Soviet Union and the local Stalinist parties. This robbed the union bureaucracy of an alternative source of recruits. Whatever you may think of those parties (and CPA member Laurie Carmichael was a willing participant in shaping the Accord), they at least provided a left milieu and a source of ideas that meant the difference in the Labor factions occasionally had some political content. At the same time, the rapid industrialisation of China and the decline of local manufacturing has contributed to the fall in union membership which has not been compensated for by organising among the white collar and casual workforce.

    The other major oversight is not mentioning climate change. This changes everything. Do not be sucked in by claims of a “hiatus” or that it will not be bad as the scientists are suggesting. If you follow articles on climate science at the Universities web site The Conversation, it becomes clear that many scientists are well to the left of the ALP and in some cases the Greens on this issue. OK – if you go for a stroll you could be forgiven for wondering what all the fuss is about. So winters are milder, the bushfire season is starting earlier but there is no drought. We are in for a bumper wheat crop. But we are 0.8 C into a projected 4-6 C temperature rise with no indication globally that BAU is going to change with respect of emissions. You are discussing political developments in Labor that occurred over a thirty year period. In the next thirty years climate change will dominate the political agenda like no other issue – particularly in Australia where the mining sector of the bourgeoisie play such a large role in the economy.

    • Marc Newman says:

      Hi Mike,

      Not sure I’d characterise what you’re talking about as ‘oversights’ exactly.

      “Every trend bar Labor was effectively wiped out.” – I include in this group the CPA most importantly. Its turn to eurocommunism laid part of the ideological basis for the Accord, especially on the left. But between the shift to Eurocommunism and the move away from industrial struggle with the Accord, it effectively abolished any basis for it to operate as a distinct trend from Labor. Its organic weight receded, as did its numbers, in consequence. The wind up later on (1990-ish) is the logical outgrowth of those processes. The collapse of stalinism was a significant ideological factor to their final internal crisis, but does not explain why the party was able to maintain significant organisational cohesion and industrial support right up to the Accord period despite its stalinism. You’re right to say that the CPA’s collapse has contributed to Labor’s crisis – the CPA was the Left’s ideological crutch. But both the Labor Left and the CPA walked into the Accord arm in arm, and both suffered as a result. They are intrinsically bound up in the same broad crisis I’m attempting to describe and analyse.

      There is a deliberate reason I focus on the subjective and political aspects of Labor’s decline. Virtually every trend on the left, broadly speaking, is inclined to explain away Labor’s crisis on essentially determinist grounds – either economic factors drove the decline of the Unions, or changes in social structure killed off the basis for social democracy. I am bitterly hostile to both the mechanical dimensions of those explanations, and to the way in which they excuse Labor, and everybody else on the left, from having to develop a hard headed analysis of what *we* did badly that has led to the mess. I also do not think it can be convincingly argued that a collapse from 50% to 18% density was driven primarily by economic factors – hells bells, even the Great Depression did not have even a shadow of that sort of effect. Clearly, something in the way Unions operated politically and industrially changed, and it didn’t work. We need to identify that (and I think this article begins to do so) and reformulate our collective strategies on the basis of that acknowledgement.

      Take it as read that I’m of the view that anthropogenic climate change is real, and a pressing social problem. No argument there. What is much less clear is that climate politics were or are a significant factor in Labor’s crisis. Indeed, the Greens spectacularly failed to get traction on this issue in the 17 years to 2000, and then only as a minor strain to the breakthroughs achieved around refugees, war and the global justice movement. I’m not at all convinced that “climate change will dominate the political agenda like no other issue”. Certainly, it will be talked about, but for the exact reason you identify it is critical in Australia (the relative strength of capital in extractive industries), unless the left collectively responds to Labor’s crisis and begins to intervene more effectively in political society, those discussions will be limited to lame false debates about market non-solutions which will fail to get any stable mass purchase in a political sense.

      Cheers,
      Marc.

      • MikeH says:

        Thanks for the response Marc. I agree with your points on Labor. Look forward to the next part. On climate, I disagree. The point is that for AGW, the last 17 years is highly unlikely to be a guide to the next 17 years.

  4. Simon says:

    Marc – I recently came across your 2004 document on cadre development in SA.

    It would be interesting to know if you think development of a Marxist cadre is still a worthwhile activity and, if so, in what context.

    Simon

  5. Marc Newman says:

    Hi Simon,

    It depends what you mean by ‘cadre’. If you take it to mean people with more or less developed socialist politics who pay attention to trying to lead in the real world, of course we need more. Looking back on it, I think the term is not the most useful one for describing what I was aiming at.

    The question, though, is *how* we develop socialist activists capable of leadership in the real world. While I’d still agree with much of what is in that paper, I do not think it went far enough in criticising the mechanical approach which stressed (very modest) quantity over quality in recruitment and development, and I barely scratched the surface in terms of the causes.

    That paper framed its discussion of Marxist cadre against the assumed backdrop of attempting to grow a fairly tightly organised group, and trying to look rigorously at how to make that activity valuable in the context of getting rid of capitalism. I noted the declining average leadership capacity in the group, and realised that if it continued, the group would cease to have any real positive contribution to make. But I did not seriously question the idea that that was the best, or even the only, way to contribute in the here and now to the end of capitalism.

    Today, I do not see small sects as a particularly useful vehicle for that task. I see that task politically, as opposed to organisationally. This is not to say that organisation isn’t important, but that it is entirely secondary to the political functions of socialist activism. Without an effective political strategy, you can’t build anything more than sterile organisations.

    Hope that helps a little.

    Marc.

  6. Simon says:

    Thanks Marc.

    I think organisation (which tends to be fetishised on the Marxist left) is still an important part of developing and maintaining a coherent socialist politics – be it in the ALP, the Greens or in the form of an independent group.

    The risk of neglecting organisation (in whatever form) is that we end up with loose networks of similarly minded people who connect only via websites.

    Meanwhile capitalists take organisation very seriously – forever searching for new forms of institutions, rules, agreements and pacts to reinforce their power and authority.

    I have no brief for sterile sect building (Hal Draper, among others, identified the problems of such a course over 40 years ago).

    But maintaining and developing a socialist politics in Australia will require some form of combined conscious effort. Too many socialists in recent years (and I include myself here) have been burned by negative organisational experiences, and have instead retreated into the view that what is needed is more effective critique.

    But surely critique can only take us so far?

    The question for me is not politics or organisation, but which form of organisation is most appropriate to the specificities of class and politics in Australia today.

    How you decide to organise will then shape to some extent how you conduct your political analysis.

    The danger of pure critique is that we risk being unable to ground the political implications of that critique in concrete political conditions. Without some sense of how our analysis can and should inform concrete political activity we end up with very little of substance – beyond the rather insular and smug satisfaction that ‘we are right’.

    While I would not describe myself as a Leninist, I think there is considerable merit in expecting Marxist analysis to conclude with a discussion of ‘what is to be done’.

    Simon

  7. […] This article continues the analysis of Labor’s crisis — especially in terms of its meaning for trade unions and social movements — begun here. […]