Labor Going Nowhere  

Posted by Big Gav in

Guy undle seems to have disappeared from the Crikey staff, with just a lone appearance in the Fairfax press since, looking at the rudderless state of the Labor party - The Gillard transfer.

Ever since various roads to democratic socialism ran into the sand in the 1970s, the entire mainstream political spectrum has been reorganised on a single assumption. Effectively, in the 1980s, the Labor Party handed over the business of shaping the social and cultural frameworks by which we live to the market, and backed its deepest implication - that freedom was best and only expressed as a series of consumer choices.

The idea that there might be other forms of freedom and choice - collective choices around inherently collective enterprises such as the health system or the condition of cities, among others - fell by the wayside. To the naked eye this has occurred in a period of great prosperity within the West. Looked at more closely, one can see the smoke and mirrors. Tax cuts have shifted public development to private consumption - the plasma screen you can afford is the university place your state-educated kid won't get - and the expansion of debt has driven up the cost of living. Thus we have gadgets and petty luxuries early generations only dreamt of, but a home-owning family can barely be supported on a single wage, overtime has become necessary, commuting eats up the day (as unpaid labour), and so on.

Such a way of life is not only a disguised increase in labour and lack of control over one's own life, it is also places consumption at the heart of cultural meaning, and with it a degree of atomisation and isolation. The rather harsh, even vicious, culture we have developed - from border protection to Australian Idol - is one result of that, occurring so gradually that many people do not notice.

True, the process did not pass unnoticed. Paul Keating appears to have realised at some point that opening borders, capital flows etc could ultimately dissolve a country's identity - and came up with an electorally disastrous commitment to high culture and history to answer it. After that, and with the brief interregnum of Mark Latham, Labor spent a decade as an ideas-free zone.

Thus when Rudd came along with his abundant charts and plans for a series of revolutions, it was easy for a desperate party and a coterie of centre-left intellectuals to essentially treat his project as the intellectual renovation of Labor - even though behind the scenes not much had changed. Rudd's revolution, for all its genuine determination to make people's lives better, carried with it the same assumptions - that core economic processes could not be challenged, and that social power could not, and should not, be more widely distributed - except via rarefied elitist models such as the 20/20 summit.

Ruddism thus occupied the empty space in Labor where progressive and liberatory politics should be. When it collapsed, there was nothing of that nature to fill the space - and so the only recourse has been to stuff it with motifs of the Howard era, down to the Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, messing about on navy boats. No doubt this has stemmed the flow towards the Coalition in the polls to some degree. Yet it is a desperate strategy that concedes to the opposition the power to set the terms of the debate. Labor can only fight this way because it never used the victory of 2007 as a starting point to change the terms of the debate. This is something it should have done, not for moral reasons, but for political ones - a progressive and humanist party can never decisively win that sort of contest against a conservative party, since their ideology is merely an elevation of fear and xenophobia to the status of a general principle.

As Prime Minister, Gillard is therefore continuing on with most of what Labor was doing behind the razzmatazz of the Rudd spectacle, of change through elite review and ''implementation''. It is not that she has deserted the subfaction of the Left to which she belongs - it is simply that she has moved with it, as its lack of a gravitational centre, an alternative take on social possibilities, has drawn it remorselessly towards a dead centre. That drift has continued long past the point where even the most gullible person would believe in the cornucopia qualities of the new economy. It is looking more likely that the activist George Soros is right and that all the bubbles that surround us - real estate prices, dotcoms, derivatives - are contained within a ''super bubble'' of Western indebtedness. Indebtedness to the East, to itself, to its future earnings. That civilisation-wide focus on consumption - not merely as an economic driver but as a source of personal meaning - locks parties and governments into a mindset in which left and right have very little meaning in terms of governance.

What happens when that implicit social contract - carry a half million-dollar mortgage, win a TV - can no longer be delivered remains to be seen. But there is no doubt that its acceptance has emptied labour parties of even a vestigial capacity to suggest an alternative. Witness British Labour's current leadership battle, with four identical meat puppet contenders, all outdoing each other denouncing a government they were part of.

Should Labor win the coming poll, it will probably be able to patch itself together to win another. If it loses, it is through the floorboards, and it will stay there for quite some time. Its warlords of the so-called Right and Left have shown no interest in regrounding Labor intellectually and morally and they are now reaping the whirlwind - they have nothing left in the bag of tricks except a pallid Howard imitation.

The hopes that attach to Gillard are a trace memory of the politics Labor once pursued - that there could be some dialogue between party, ideas and people, nostalgia for a period when mainstream politics itself was not in question regarding its ability to address the national and global challenges we face.

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