Hartcher is scathing of all the political parties bar the Greens, but singles out Clive Palmer for voting for and pushing legislation in his own interests. Yet the reason the political class (most acutely in the case of Palmer, but this holds true across the board) appears to be increasingly self-interested and unaccountable has little to do with a fundamental change in its historic patterns of behaviour. In fact politicians, far from representing some kind of pure “general” or “national” interest, have always acted at least in part in the interests of their bases of support in civil society, as well as in the interests of the state itself. To imagine that Liberal MPs have only recently started doing favours for business supporters is to obscure the reason for existence of the Liberal party — to provide a pro-business bulwark against Labourism. Similarly, the idea that the ALP is only these days feathering the nests of union bureaucrats who have always been central to the party’s operations is more than a little weird.
Once you realize that much of what is being caught out now has actually been business as usual in the past, the issue starts to look a little different. It also explains the perplexity of many politicians as to why they should be punished for what is just normal politics in their eyes, and why they complain that the rules are simply becoming too tough or, in Tony Abbott’s tin-eared view, too confusing to understand.
The real problem for the political class doesn’t lie in the shady dealings that have long infected politics, but in the way that the social bases of the “representative” political system that dominated last century have eroded, hollowed out and in some cases dissolved entirely. It was the relationship of politicians and parties to broad and powerful social groups that provided the material basis for the appearance that “representation” meant the representation of general social interests. When the ALP was the political arm of a trade union movement that not only had as members three or four times the current proportion of employees, but also had active and self-organised networks in workplaces across the country, the party’s sectional base could not be written off as a narrow, irrelevant rump. And the Left-Right polarity of the post-WWII era could have the appearance of playing out, in political form, the great labour-capital divide of modern Australian society. (For a more detailed examination of the hollowing out of Labor’s base, see this from 2012.)
With the loss of such roots in society, the political class is unable to pose as being representative of society in the way it once could, and this is the key reason for its loss of authority over the last 30 years. It no longer appears accountable to a large part of society, only to its very narrow base of core supporters, or in PUP’s case to Palmer’s personal business interests. It is this state of affairs, one that exists not in people’s heads but in reality, which drives an increasingly punitive popular anti-political mood. That this mood has started to spread to the middle class and even sections of big business, especially after the catastrophic inability of the Abbott government to win consent for its pro-business Budget, suggests just how difficult the situation has become. While having a different view of the causes of the crisis of politics to this blog, Paul Kelly has spelled out the worry among elites as to where this might all lead:
I think our political culture is being debased and I’ve argued that we are now in what I call a crisis of the system. For me, this is the main takeout from the entire Rudd-Gillard period. And I argue here that what this period shows is that governing is becoming a lot more difficult, and reform, national interest reform is becoming even more difficult still.
The less connected with society the politicians are, the less they can drive through agendas of the kind that Labor did during the Hawke-Keating years: winning its own supporters in the unions to accepting sacrifice in the interests of boosting weak capital accumulation and more power for bosses relative to workers in the workplace.
To think that a body like ICAC can overcome these kinds of systemic problems is entirely misplaced. All that does is strengthen the idea that the state itself must police its political class, increasingly free of any popular accountability. When NSW Greens MP John Kaye called ICAC “the most important accountability mechanism in the state” he was feeding this logic. Despite my caveats later in this post, surely democratic accountability is far more important than that imposed by an unelected state commission that has broad powers of surveillance and coercion?
The deference to ICAC is part of the same constellation of ideas that looks to greater (or even full) public funding of parties and election campaigns, often alongside selective or blanket bans on private donations. In each case the aim is to reduce direct financial control by private citizens over the political process. This is part of a longer-run trend of the political class coming to terms with its withered base and therefore looking for a stable financial and organisational basis for its activities that no longer relies on a populace increasingly hostile to it. The current scandals over developer donations are themselves the result of the decline of previously much broader sources of party funding. The retreat of the unions, for example, has left the ALP more reliant on other sources of cash, and the likes of Eddie Obeid were central to trying to fill the gap. This happened alongside increasing state funding of election campaigns since the 1980s, so there is less pressure for parties to build the same kinds of mass organisations and networks that sustained them in earlier times. Combined with compulsory voting, these trends have obscured the decomposition of politics, although in recent years things have started to become much clearer — especially as both sides of NSW politics have been sucked into the ICAC singularity.
Sadly, the NSW Greens have been leading the way on such arguments, giving them a Left veneer. When they collaborated with the O’Farrell government to outlaw organisational donations to parties on the basis that this would limit “corporate” influence, the legislation ended up being successfully challenged in the courts not by big business but by NSW unions, who rightly pointed out how the laws had further diminished working class influence over politics. The end result for the Greens was a painful internal debate alongside public humiliation for their stance. Without for a minute defending the financial dealings that have been central to the political system for over a century, it should be possible to recognise that limiting popular influence over politics is a move away from — and not towards — a more democratic society. No amount of hand wringing over the socio-economic disparities that underpin inequality of political representation should lead us to think that the state can or will solve that inequality by political or legislative fiat.
So perhaps the alternative is a return to a more socially rooted, more truly “representative” political system? Leaving aside whether there is a social basis for the rebuilding of those institutions, such a view misunderstands the limitations of political representation in the capitalist state. In developing his critique of the state, Marx argued that the separation between civil society and state in bourgeois society could not be resolved through representative democracy. This is because the state stands “over against” the competing interests of a civil society of atomised private individuals. As Lucio Colletti lucidly summarises in his introduction to Marx’s Early Writings:
At this point one sees how Marx’s critique of the separation between state and civil society is carried to its logical (and extreme) conclusion. Even from a formal point of view, the representative principle of the modern state is shown to be a fundamental contradiction in terms. In so far as parliamentary deputies are elected by the people, it is thereby recognised that the principle of “sovereignty” or power belongs in the popular mass itself. It is admitted that delegates “draw their authority” from the latter — and so can be no more than people’s representatives, bound by instructions or by the “mandate” of their electors. Yet no sooner has the election taken place and the deputies been “sworn in” then this principle is up-ended: they are no longer “mere delegates”, mere servants, but independent of their electors. Their assembly, parliament, no longer appears as an emanation of society but as society itself — as the real society outside which there remains nothing but a formless aggregate, an inchoate mass of private wishes.
The severely limited and alienated nature of political representation cannot be overcome through a reconfiguration of representative forms, or even of the state itself. That is, it cannot be solved at the level of politics because it is the product of deeper social contradictions. Rather, it requires a more fundamental social reorganisation where the interests of individuals and those of society as a whole can be brought together, not in the form of the “illusory community” that is the political state but through “an association, in which the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all”. Such an arrangement — far more democratic than anything we have today — would resolve the question of accountability in a way that today’s ICAC boosters cannot even begin to imagine, precisely because they are committed to trying to rehabilitate the “illusory community” currently decaying before everyone’s eyes.