September 11, 2005
Beyond Right and Left: Introduction
This is an excerpt from the first chapter of my book, "Beyond Right and Left: New Politics and the Culture War" (Allen & Unwin, Sydney, 2005).
Do the terms Right and Left mean anything anymore in politics today? Political pundits use the terms Right and Left but like any words repeated over and over, the meaning starts to disappear. So many people are skeptical. We routinely describe the John Howard's Liberal-National coalition government as Right. Logically, then, Labor, is Left. But is this accurate or even helpful? The meaning of these terms, like the ideas of those parties, has been transformed in recent times. When Kim Beazley was elected leader of the Labor Party for the second time in 2005, the former Liberal Prime Minister, Malcolm Fraser commented that there was not a single issue on which Kim Beazley 'is on the Left of me'. Then there is Iraq. George W. Bush (on the Right) made war and was joined by Britain's Labour Government (on the Left). Meanwhile, the French Government (Right) and the German government (Left) opposed the UK-USA war.
What's going on?
The Right is defined as conservative and the Left as radical in their attitudes to social change. But the radical economic changes in Australia over the last two decades have been driven by both major parties. When John Howard and Peter Costello took government in 1996, the modified but did not basically change the direction of economic policy from that of Bob Hawke and Paul Keating. Yet voices on the Right and Left have protested this overall direction on which the mainstream parties agree.
The Right-Left model assumes that all the big questions of the day can be fitted on this spectrum. But is this true? Where do concerns about the environment fit? Is alarm about climate change and loss of biodiversity a 'left wing' response? Is it 'right wing' to be worried about the family? Moreover there is a widespread expectation that people must choose either Right or Left, as if all the wisdom lies on one side or the other. We often feel frustrated that policies and ideas are put in one box or the other rather than being judged in their own terms.
In this book I argue that the Right-Left confusion is a symptoms of a broader historic shift in cultural, social and economic ideas. This shift offers new opportunities for breaking out of the Right-Left bind and creating new ways of seeing the world. Quite unprecedented problems, above all in the global environment but also in the family, require this. Untangling the Right-Left knot is the key to understanding the direction of new ideas, which take from both Right and Left.
In this book I want to challenge a number of complacent beliefs of the Right and Left. This is vital because these beliefs are the hidden underpinnings of decisions that affect our daily lives and will affect the lives of our children and their descendants. These ideas define the meaning of key terms such as the common good, individualism, care for others and freedom. The names for these sets of philosophical ideas are liberalism, socialism and conservatism. These ideas are little discussed although they motivate policies and stances of governments and parties. They have a new relevance today with the rise of debates around 'values' in politics. They have also been joined by historically very new ideas such as environmentalism, feminism and multiculturalism whose meaning and application is the subject of intense conflict.
The new ideas and old ideas are still trapped within a linear political spectrum of Right and Left. I believe that shaking up and breaking up this Right-Left spectrum is the key to advancing issues such as the environment, the family, economic inequality, cultural diversity and even deeper issues about purpose and meaning in our lives. Many people instinctively feel, as I do, that the established spectrum of Right and Left is inadequate and this book will explore where this might take us. In the next chapter I begin this journey by examining the most powerful - yet little understood -- set of ideas of recent times which are those of the Right.
Originally, the idea of Right and Left stemmed from the seating arrangement of the National Assembly after the French Revolution of 1789. The deputies on the left of the chamber wanted to carry through the goals of the revolution - liberty, equality, fraternity - through to their logical and radical conclusion. The Right of the chamber was opposed to this. It was wary of radical experiments which implemented abstract ideas such as equality and it tended to value traditions. In nineteenth century Europe the Left became more clearly defined as a socialist force, wanting to redistribute the wealth of the newly industrializing nations to the working class. The Right became the description of those who thought the existing order worked well and was divinely ordained and who benefited from it. This period set the tone where the Right was defined as conservative and the Left as radical.
In the twentieth century, the Left and Right came to be defined more by those supporting a greater role for governments, either in its social democratic or Marxist form, and those who opposed it. In the cold war the Right and Left were defined by attitudes to communism and anti-communism.
The Right-Left model originated in Europe and although it did not translate in a simple and direct way into Australia enough of these ideas and traditions permeated to Australia to make the Right-Left way of thinking part of a generally accepted discourse. For many reasons, among them the globalising economy and the collapse of the cold war, this basic way of thinking about politics is now being transformed. Today however the Right-Left spectrum is increasingly useless as a way of talking about many issues. And while the Right-Left binary remains in popular use, what is actually meant by Right and Left has changed dramatically. The content of the ideas of Right and Left has changed greatly in recent decades.
At the level of major political parties in Australia, the Right-Left distinction was once very pronounced on economic policy. Today this distinction has narrowed dramatically and there is now wide acceptance of what can be loosely called free market economic theories. Since economic theories also express an attitude to wider social and philosophical ideas including the role of government, there is a significant degree of convergence between the major parties. Debates on economic policy today are about identifying the best managers and not about the most convincing planners for change or the social goals of economic policy. This convergence has been accompanied by a certain reversal of roles. Where once Labor was the party of ideology, vision and conviction, today the policies of the Liberals and even the Nationals often have a more distinct ideological tinge. Where once Labor was influenced by the various theories of socialist ideology, today the most significant ideological input in Australian politics comes from the intellectual circles of the Right, especially from its policy 'think tanks' and Labor prides itself on its pragmatism. Pollsters have detected a public desire for what they call 'conviction politics' but this now tends to translate into support for the Right rather than to the former partisans of principle on the Left.
The social classes that once underpinned the Right-Left spectrum have also changed. The industrial working class, once the heartland for Labor, has shrunk and Labor can no longer take its allegiance for granted. Today workers are noted for their social conservatism not their radicalism. The middle class, once the conservative heartland for the Liberal Party, has grown in size and part of it now consistently supports Labor and a small number are drawn to the Greens.
In the wider political debate outside the major parties, the meaning of Right and Left is becoming harder to define simply. The rise of Pauline Hanson's One Nation party, for example, bluntly expressed cultural fears about immigration and indigenous Australians. It was therefore on the Right. Yet its economic policies, driven by rural bank closures and the human casualties of economic rationalization, shared concerns with those of the socialist component of the Left.
On cultural issues, the division between Right and Left is longer a useful descriptive tool. Is it 'left wing' to support a women's right to abortion? Apparently not, since many members of Liberal Party also support the right for women to control their fertility. The Right once opposed policies favouring multiculturalism and cultural diversity, but today these continue under a conservative government. Moreover during the Hanson outbreak, prominent members of the Liberal Party such as Malcolm Fraser, John Hewson and Jeff Kennett took a sincere stance against racism.
The meaning of Right and Left has destablised over the last two decades by a growing number of issues which cannot be understood or analysed in traditional Right-Left terms. To put this another way: political ideas and philosophies are meant to help us understand and solve problems, yet increasingly the ideas of Right and Left offer us no ready answers. The new emerging faultlines are about issues such as the following:
- Problems of the environment, especially those with a global dimension are historically unprecedented issues for humanity. The political ideas of Right and Left arose to deal with the conflict between powerful social groups or conflict over moral issues. But environmental challenges represent a conflict or tension between the natural world and the whole of humanity and this is a conflict which no political theory has been designed to explain. Is it 'left wing' to be concerned about global warming? Why then are an increasing number of businesses and conservative governments beginning to imagine how a sustainable of economy might work?
- Unending material progress is seen by Left and Right as one of the main ways to ensure a good life. The struggle for better living standards underpins the labour movement and the rationale for free market economics is economic growth. But as many now reach a materially comfortable lifestyle, this is increasingly questioned, not only on the grounds of its ecological sustainability but also on whether it truly satisfies human needs. For a growing number the problem is not a lack of money but a lack of meaning.
- Poverty was once seen as the result of low wages, and unemployment which were the result of the cyclical nature of capitalism. Today the causes of poverty seem more complex and include family breakdown and drug abuse. Financial support for the poor is necessary but not enough. Welfare dependency is now a recognised problem. Such issues cannot be simply understood in Right-Left terms.
- With both parents in paid work, a crisis has emerged about balancing work and family life. Jobs require longer hours of work than before and make no allowances for the needs of children. Over 40 per cent of marriages break down. While the Right has much to say about family values and while feminists on the Left defend the gains of women, no coherent program to deal with this crisis has emerged.
- A new set of ethical issues about health and the body around euthanasia, genetic engineering, human biotechnology have emerged which do not 'fit' established paradigms. Is it left wing to support euthanasia and right wing to oppose it? Yet supporters of Left and Right can be found on both sides. Conservatives like Francis Fukuyama warn of the dangers of human biotechnology and so do many Greens.
- Globalisation and economic liberalisation have made our lives less secure and communities less cohesive yet we revel in the individual choice and diversity which has accompanied these. Traditions no longer limit our choices yet increasingly some people yearn for the security of tradition. The Right supports economic globalisation and is wary of cultural globalisation. The Left stands for the reverse. Yet there is also a great deal of cross over between individuals on the Right and Left on these issues.
- Increasingly politics is discussed in terms of values. But Right and Left are both inconsistent on key values. The Right is economically liberal and the Left is socially liberal. The Right wants moral regulation, the Left wants economic regulation. Yet opposites also attract. The liberal Right and liberal Left sometimes agree (opposing censorship) and the Old Right and the Old Left sometimes agree (opposing deregulation).
The trouble with the self-contained boxes of Right and Left is that we often want a bit of both. We need a society in which members support and care for each other and we need an economy which is competitive and productive. Governments are seen as the guarantors of the former and markets the guarantor of the latter. Getting the balance right is hard. Market forces can undermine the institutions of civil society such as the family and community. Governments can also undermine civil society by providing services and income with little or no obligation. Also out of balance is our relationship to the natural world. We live in high energy society which is living off the earth's capital and not just its interest. The lifestyle of advanced industrial countries like Australia cannot be generalized to the rest of the planet's inhabitants and will not be enjoyed in the future by our own descendants and coming generations of Australians. We need a new balance, a new sustainability. This requires that our current philosophies go beyond Right and Left.
The right rethinks
The problems in the Right-Left dichotomy in politics are not new. But something else needs to be said. In the 1980s and 1990s the terrain on which Right and Left were in conflict changed. In the 1980s a new intellectual leadership emerged on the Right. Armed with new ideas generated by think-tanks often inspired by the Thatcher and Reagan governments, the Right took bold steps. It developed a new aggressive confidence. This was surprising. The Right are usually depicted as hidebound conservatives, fearful of change. This rethinking on the Right was an era of profound internal debate for conservatives which is still barely understood by its opponents on the Left.
This ideological revolution of the Right had a remarkable result. It gave it the ascendancy in the battle of ideas and values in Australia and elsewhere. Even where it did not directly succeed in taking government, the Right succeeded in dominating the political agenda and promoting its values and world view. The price of this renewal was the destruction of the older kind of Right and the creation of a new and radical Right. The old Right had always been an alliance of at least three forces. There was social conservatism, based on family and nation, a progressive kind of social liberalism (the 'wets') and a strand of economic liberalism. This revolution on the Right saw the triumph of the minority strand of economic liberalism, the defeat of the social liberals and the reformulation of social conservatism. The point is - and it has been hard for many commentators to grasp - the conservatives are no longer afraid of radical change. In fact they embrace it.
In Australia this occurred in the 1980s with the rise of the think tanks and the displacement, within the Liberal Party of 'wet' MPs. Today more people are referring to the contemporary Right as 'neo-liberal' or as 'radical conservatives'. The other factor which disentangled the old Right was the dissolution of the glue of anti-communism which occurred when the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe collapsed. This too accelerated a rethinking of the Right's purposes and goals. These changes occurred worldwide and their most successful local beneficiary was the Liberal and National parties under John Howard. I explore these crucial (and often misunderstood) changes in the ideas of the Right in Chapters 3 and 4.
Any process of ideological rethinking requires vision and daring, risk-taking and radicalism. The last element, radicalism, proved to be the unexpected quality of the revolution on the Right. The Right ceased to be a conservative force in any straightforward sense when it adopted the free market economics and philosophy of thinkers like Friedrich Hayek (see Chapter 3). Setting in place market mechanisms both in the economy and well beyond it leads to a society being constantly transformed. In Australia this transformation has meant the rise of commercial values in place of older social and moral values. The slow permeation of commercial values into areas far removed from the economy may turn out to be the most insidious and radical consequences of all as I discuss in Chapter 2.
Today the radicals are those who want to drive economic liberalism even further, while conservatives want to slow it down. The radicals want the full privatization of Telstra along with the deregulation on the labour market. The Left, once a radical force for social change, opposes this. It has scaled down its goals to more modest and conservative tasks such as defending social welfare and trade union rights against an aggressive Right. In this sense the market radicals of the Right have reversed the previous meaning of Right and Left as Conservative and Radical.
It would be tempting to claim that the ideological rethinking on the Right has been paralleled by a similar rethinking on the Left side of Australian politics but this has not occurred. Within the Labor Party a fitful and unproducitve debate about Labor's beliefs and purpose has gone on for many years. The most public (and damaging) expression of this is the conflict between the 'traditional heartland' and the 'middle class progressives'. This conflict about long term beliefs and purposes underlies clashes such as those between Tasmanian forestry workers and those opposed to logging. It exists on other social and economic issues in less dramatic form. This lack of a clear and agreed vision within Labor and the Left is one of the reasons for the hegemony of the Right.
The new, re-formed political Right, while economically liberal and radical, also draws a great deal of its strength from the kind of conservatism associated with the promotion of 'conservative values'. The short lived leader of the Labor Party, Mark Latham, put this succinctly: 'For century or more, Labor parties won the votes of working people on the basis of economic issues. Now we are losing them in the values debate.' The values debate is not some artifact of conservatism but arises from real economic and cultural changes in Australia the last 25 years. Social researcher Michael Pusey, for example, studied 'middle Australia' in 1996-2000 and described in great detail their 'moral anxiety' about damage to the 'values ecology' of communities, families and work.
This cultural instability and moral anxiety is what lay behind the rise of 'One Nation', the name itself expressing a desire for a common unifying values and a strong national identity. The Hanson upsurge began a political sea change for Australia through which we are still living. Since its high tide John Howard and the Right have continued to address the moral anxiety and cultural losses felt by many Australians. They have largely recaptured the One Nation vote for the mainstream Right and they done this through a 'culture war' over values. Phrases like 'family values' and 'moral values' along with 'border protection' and 'national security' which capture the spirit of popular anxiety and the desire for something stable and secure. Too often, the Left dismisses these slogans without addressing the genuine fears behind them. It can sympathise with economic insecurity but finds it harder to do the same with cultural insecurities.
The culture war over values
One effective weapon in the culture war widely used by the ideologues of the Right in parliament and the press is the characterization of opponents as an 'elite'. Left-wing elites are said to be deaf to the needs of ordinary people while they lecture them on political values and cultural etiquette. These are the elites who sip lattes in inner-city cafes and drink Chardonnay while they busily undermine the values of ordinary Australians, the 'battlers'. Just before the 2001 election John Howard commented proudly that he was 'scorned by the elites and held in such disdain'. Playing on suspicion of elites is an enormously powerful device in a country like Australia with a long standing and popular streak of egalitarianism and anti-intellectualism. It is used to great effect by populist journalists such as Piers Akerman and Andrew Bolt as well as Liberal Ministers such as Tony Abbott. This is the political rhetoric which commentator Robert Manne describes as 'conservative populism.'
The Right's dismissal of critics as 'elites' who are out of touch with 'the battlers' is, as journalist Geoffrey Barker says, 'an extraordinary charge coming from neo-liberal fundamentalists whose privileged lives rarely bring them close to anyone who has had to 'battle' for anything'. But while it is true that the Right's charges of elitism are grossly hypocritical, such rebuttals cut little ice. The discourse damning cultural elites is powerful because it connects with a real weakness of the Left. The Left's world view was based on class which had a strong populist element. Until relatively recently it was the Left which spoke the language of 'elites' in the name of the People. This class ideology, originating in socialism, identified elites on the basis of their wealth and political power. Today class has much less resonance and the Right has constructed an ideology around the perceived power of an elite with cultural influence.
One of the reasons for this decline is that class ideology was based on what economist Clive Hamilton calls the 'paradigm of material deprivation'. This paradigm means that the main political task is the fight against material inequalities and for redistribution of wealth. In its most common form it supported government regulation and intervention and in its most extreme form, it involved the abolition of capitalism. This ideology had a powerful resonance for a long time because of widespread problems of deprivation. While Labor was never socialist, its ideas were grounded in this paradigm of material deprivation. It captured an essential part of the reality of much of 20th century Australia and inspired a great deal of Labor's idealism. But this world view has been under siege for a long time. For many decades capitalism has proved to be more dynamic and innovative than most imagined. One result has been the achievement of higher living standards and a degree of everyday affluence unimaginable even by trade unionists and leftists in the 1950s.
Other related changes have long been recognised. The world view of class and deprivation grew out of a largely male working class which performed physically hard jobs and had a more or less unified collectivist 'battlers' outlook. Each of these assumptions was slowly eroded as more women joined the workforce, white collar work grew and workers developed a more individualist identity based on consumer choices offered by affluence. Their sense of collectivism, the ethos of battlers, is now more likely to be expressed as a cultural phenomenon, defending, for example, a traditional notion of Australian cultural identity, rather than an economic class identity. While modern industrial societies still have gross material inequalities and an underclass of poor, the paradigm of deprivation is no longer adequate as the foundation stone for a world view. (These and other issues are explored in the second half of this book.)
The Right's charge of Left elitism also relates to issues around gender and ethnicity. These were part of a slow cultural revolution which made Australia a better place. But this cultural revolution brought losses as well as gains. Family life changed and marriage became less secure. Stable identities and expectations of mother, father, , wife, husband and children changed. What it meant to be 'Australian' became less clear; assumptions based on an Anglo-Celtic population with shared values could no longer be made. Combined with the waning of the old-class-based Labor paradigm, the vision of Labor and the Left became even more complicated. Above all, among the old and new supporters of Labor there is a lack of a common vision (These ideas are further developed in Chapters 6,7 and 8.).
One consequence of this lack of an agreed common vision is a vulnerability to 'wedge politics' in which the Right has successfully identified issues on which differences exist within the Left and exploited this division. The most obvious has been 'border security' on which the middle class Labor supporters tend to differ from Labor's blue-collar constituency. Others have been gay marriage and the teaching of values and literacy in public schools. A culture war and wedge politics are now a permanent features of modern politics because the Left side of the spectrum is now a coalition of social forces. It lacks a unifying set of ideas which was once provided by class-based ideology. This is most apparent in the Labor Party but it reflects the situation in broader progressive thought. While the Right has reconfigured its ideas, this has not occurred on the Left yet is vital.
Rethinking Left values
Although this book involved a great deal of traditional research and is written by someone in a university it is not intended as an academic study of some interesting political processes. Its intended audience are those members of the public who are interested in ideas and in politics and the connection between them. It is an extended argument with two premises. First, it argues that the problems of the Left reside at the level of ideas and philosophy. Tinkering with policies, presentation and leadership is not enough. Second, it argues that it is only by confronting certain flaws in cherished ideas that the Left can rebuild its intellectual and values framework in the wider Australian society. By 'Left' I use the term in its broadest sense of the members and supporters of the Labor, Democrat and Green parties, in the unions and community groups, and unaffiliated progressive opinion which includes current and erstwhile supporters of the Liberal and National parties.
Such a rethinking in progressive politics in Australia is long overdue and will take time. Yet it is urgently necessary. The ascendancy of the Right has meant that the Left finds itself now in a defensive position, holding grimly to familiar ideas, worried that a shift will open up new vulnerabilities and new defeats. Perhaps a more appropriate metaphor for the Left is that it is standing on a sandbank which is slowly eroding from under its feet. Buffeted by the surf, it manages to hold its position. But survival lies not in immobility but in striking out in new and scary directions. These new directions mean rethinking the Left's intellectual framework and methods, while retaining its basic values.
One positive response to the inadequacy of past Left ideas has been the emergence of the Australian Greens. The Greens not only exist in local, state and national governments but also in the activist movements so vital for progressive change. Significantly, the Greens see themselves as 'neither Right nor Left but in front'. In basing themselves around the idea of a sustainable society and economy, they have grasped a vital truth which no other party has done. The presence and success of the Greens is a welcome sign in the ability of progressive politics to renew itself and to grasp new ideas. Another sign of hope comes from the Right. A number of people on the Right have taken a public stance against the aggressive reborn Right of John Howard. People such as Robert Manne, former Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser, the Liberal MP Petro Georgiou have taken principled stands opposed to Howard's agenda. They represent a strand of 'social liberalism' that was once on the Right but now is hard to classify.
Another sign of hope comes from within the embattled Labor Party. Often, the first step toward wisdom is recognising the problem and asking the right questions. One of Labor's more thoughtful spokespeople, Julia Gillard, argues that Labor needs a new vision a 'new animating force'. In the face of the conservative onslaught, she argues 'Labor and the Australian Left have not been able to articulate an answering guiding philosophy.' Progressives need to define a new 'transformative ideal' and vision. The issues which appeal to Labor's tertiary educated supporters 'need to be sited within a broader vision of Australia, which is inclusive of those who rightly worry about jobs, health, education, roads, border security and the like.' Similar views have come from fellow MP Lindsay Tanner.
Developing a new vision will not be easy. It is not a simple arithmetical 'adding up' of a list of progressive causes and demands. Rather it involves far more complex syntheses of ideas and policies. For example, it involves a synthesis between the world of paid work, class and material equality with the world of family, home and gender. Paid work and family life are intimately connected in modern societies in ways they were not before. Economic policy deeply affects family life, as I explore in Chapters 2 and 7. In similar fashion a synthesis is needed based on both the ideals of cultural diversity and the virtues of social cohesion and common values (see Chapter 8). Another issue concerns the widely held support for ever-increasing progress in living standards. The welfare of humans has to be reconciled to the need for a sustainable economy and this may be the challenge of the coming century.
At a less abstract level, all these syntheses which form part of a common vision must be translated into policies and practical stances. These must respond to issues as they arise and strike a resonance with ordinary Australians. This book is not the last word on all of this. In many ways it is 'first words'. But it will, I hope, provoke and stimulate the kind of debate needed to develop this common vision.
Posted by David at September 11, 2005 12:11 PM