A federal ICAC? ‘Accountability’ & the decay of politics

by · September 14, 2014

[Graphic: Newcastle Herald]

NSW Liberals bowled over by ICAC [Graphic: Newcastle Herald]

It’s been enjoyable indeed to watch the humiliation of both sides of NSW politics on the ICAC witness stand. But, unlike Peter Hartcher in the Sydney Morning Herald — or the Greens, who have been pushing the idea for some time — I don’t think a federal ICAC would either solve the problem of “political corruption” or hold the political class “accountable” any more than the NSW version has. To understand why, it’s necessary to grasp the social basis of the crisis of Australian politics, as well as the limits of modern representative politics in general.

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.

Greens staffers and MP celebrate “the most important accountability mechanism in the state”

Greens celebrate “the most important accountability mechanism” in NSW

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.

Discussion8 Comments

  1. John Newton says:

    If I understand what you’re saying Tad is that democracy doesn’t work because once elected, then the politicians have no further need to take heed of the electors. There is truth in this and never so clearly shown as with the post election actions of the Abbott government.

    So what system should we follow? Your quotation ‘free development of each’ et cetera comes from the Communist Manifesto. If that is what you are advocating there is one major flaw. Communism is a brilliant system that only works when it is forced upon a population. And people do not like to have systems forced upon then – neither communism nor fascism. Compulsion eventually means overthrow.

    But you’re right in pointing out the flaws in democracy.It us hugely flawed, but it is, as the old cliche goes, the one system that does appear to work, flaws and all. Can it be made better?

    I would maintain that if every party in the process had a set of principles, as do the Greens, then it would work better. Because the politicians would not be subject the external forces – of business or labour for example – but would have a prism through which to examine the problems they are confronted with.

    The Greens did not make a mistake in attempting to ban donations. Donations corrupt the process of decision making. Neither unions nor big business should be able to make them.

    Instead, the cost of political campaigns should be either capped or eliminated by the equable distribution of advertising time and space on the basis of a minimum vote for a part or apportioned according to the percent age of the vote, a not so equitable solution favouring as it would the incumbent.

    As for ICAC, in Voltaire’s – or should i say Candide’s – world, there would be no need for police or gaols. but in the world we live in, such institutions are necessary

    • Dr_Tad says:

      Thanks for your comments.

      Most of my post is really about how political funding is an inevitable part of bourgeois democracy, and always has been, and how attempts to limit it “from above” actually decrease even the limited control citizens have over the political process. I find it hard to see how you can eliminate such things in a capitalist society where the cash nexus is so central.

      The danger is that you eventually go towards what is effectively a technocratic model of statism, where the people get to choose between candidates already vetted and approved of by the state because they show loyalty to the state ahead of the interests of groups in civil society, for example by playing by funding rules or showing they will ignore the interests of their supporters in some “national” interest. This presumes that the state (meant more broadly than the politicians who are elected to it; i.e. the unelected and largely unaccountable higher bureaucrats) can be trusted to carry out this process in a true “general interest”. I have no such faith.

      The anti-democratic implications of the general demand for more ICACs, less private political funding, less direct influence by citizens, etc., worry me. Obviously they address some real problems, but I think they address them in a direction we shouldn’t be going.

    • Dracohouston says:

      “If that is what you are advocating there is one major flaw. Communism is a brilliant system that only works when it is forced upon a population. And people do not like to have systems forced upon then – neither communism nor fascism. Compulsion eventually means overthrow.”

      All systems have been forced upon a population. Capitalism required some pretty drastic revolutionary action to implement, and in many cases, maintain.

      Regardless, Marx should not be discounted because of Lenin and Mao, he was dead before the “Communism” you are referring to.

  2. PK says:

    Interesting analysis. As a committed social democrat I certainly take great pleasure in the many downfalls attributed to ICAC, but am yet to see a persuasive argument as to what it really achieves.

    “The main role of [the dominant party] is not, therefore, to represent the interests of big capital with regard to the administration, for that can now perfectly well be done in a direct fashion” – Poulantzas, State, Power, Socialism, p. 234

  3. PS says:

    Re the last paragraphs: David Held in his book Models of Democracy pointed out what he thought was a significant flaw in Marx’s approach, that to have an ideal future communist society where there was no need for organised politics seemed incredibly utopian. I.E. even in a possible economic classless society it seems there will always be human disagreements thanks to our individual natures and differing goals, values, aesthetic inclinations, etc. So there will likely always be a need for some kind of organised fora for debate, compromise, and resolving differences. Of course such bodies, organisations, institutions could look quite different to their current forms – I like experiments in participatory budgeting for example.

    • Dr_Tad says:

      I don’t think Marx misses out the need for such fora in his own approach. The “politics” he criticises is a politics that stands separately, estranged from humans’ social existence; i.e. a debased collectivity that stands “over against” the individuals whom it is supposed to bringing together.

      So when the Paris Commune happens, he is very excited to see his conclusions taking a practical form appropriate to the struggle of popular masses: direct election and recall of delegates, no separation between legislature and executive, no separate bureaucracy, the same people making the decisions and carrying arms, and decisions over “economic” issues able to be made democratically rather than simply a product of market pressures. There are many problems with the form, and it is an embryonic example, but there is certainly no lack of space for thrashing through disagreements.

  4. Zvyozdochka (@Zvyozdochka) says:

    You know I broadly agree Dr Tad, but with an important point that is missing from your argument.

    Corporates that donate to the LNPUP do NOT want it known for fear of it affecting their business interests. As in the US, they want to buy influence, but they don’t want the cohort of the opposing point-of-view they’re buying boycotting their goods/services.

    This is an important function a federal ICAC can play, should play: highlighting the behind-the-scenes pure manipulation against people’s own interests. It has to be the beginning of returning people to demand progress in their direction.

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