In this final part of his three part series, Dr Geoff Davies surveys the current political scene, including the disarray of the Labor Party, from a longer perspective.
THE RISE AND FAILURE OF THE RADICAL RIGHT
There has been a dramatic shift to the political Right compared with the postwar decades, and what is now called Right is radical rather than conservative. The shift was driven substantially by a concerted long-term campaign by market fundamentalists. So-called balance now is well to the Right of Menzies. Labor abandoned its constituency to join the Right. Although the Right remains politically powerful, its policies have failed. Economically it achieved only mediocrity followed by disaster. Our social fabric, democratic processes, legal rights and human rights have all been weakened. The radical Right’s only future options are oblivion or authoritarian rule.
PART THREE: CONSEQUENCES AND PROSPECTS
The rise of the Right was the result of a long-term campaign by neoliberals and their wealthy sponsors.
Neoliberalism is based on an absurdly abstract and unrealistic theory, and its application achieved only mediocrity followed by disaster. It has weakened the social fabric and promoted insecurity. It retains power through its alliance with the wealthy, and through its false promise of more security, which appeals to fearful reactionaries.
From this vantage many of the symptoms currently manifesting in our society are more explicable — the superficiality of mainstream politics, the unease and ambiguity of people about the state of society and the economy, and the rise of demagoguery. The political mainstream doesn’t understand the real issues facing us now — the widespread but poorly articulated unease, concerns about the global economy, the degrading environment. The extreme right can only prescribe more of the same. The less extreme right occupied by Labor can only apply bandaids and, having abandoned their home ground, are always on the defensive.
From their vantage, the extreme Right view everyone else as Leftists. However, in their usage Left no longer just means socialist. There are almost no socialists left anyway, though the Right loves to raise the socialist bogey man. Rather, Left refers to anyone willing to acknowledge the malfunctions or dysfunctions of markets, or anyone advocating policies less destructive of our social fabric and the environment. With the rising level of reactionary hysteria borne of insecurity, Left has also come to mean anyone with an informed opinion contrary to the simplistic slogans of the extreme right and those possessed by reactionary fear.
The alleged bias of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation is revealed as being merely its traditional presentation of more balanced news and more informed opinion. Unfortunately it is being dragged to the right by a board stacked with right-wing ideologues and a managing director, a former Liberal Party staffer and Fairfax journalist and executive, slowly shifting the news to more tabloid presentation, entertainment to being more about celebrities and the rich, and opinion featuring many from the extreme-right.
The viability, balance and quality of the commercial media has recently become a focus of attention. A proposal to enforce quite minimal standards of responsibility has raised howls of outrage that a “free” press is under threat, apparently meaning free for the very rich. In this context, claims by commercial media to the mantle of “quality journalism” are laughable. Commercial media have always sensationalised, and thereby severely distorted our view of ourselves and the world. Lately, the distinction between reporting and commentary seems to have become thoroughly blurred, with news reports full of loaded, judgemental words.
My own first-hand observation is not atypical. A rowdy demonstration by Aboriginal protesters was falsely portrayed by the media, apparently without exception, as a riot — implying violence. Even the ABC couldn’t just report the events, it put its judgement front and centre by beginning its bulletin [IA emphasis]:
'Australia Day celebrations were marred by …'
The result of all this misreporting was another defamatory lie about our already severely disadvantaged Indigenous people.
Another egregious example is the hoax phone call by two Australian commercial radio presenters perpetrated on staff at an English hospital where the Duchess of Cornwall, Kate Middleton, was a patient. One of the staff who was deceived by the call subsequently suicided. Most of the Australian media persisted in referring to the call as a “prank call”. However, the hoax was not just a foolish impulse of the presenters, nor was it an isolated incident, merely a relatively extreme one. Commercial media routinely attempt to invade the privacy of the famous, which they do to boost the profit of their owners. The abuses of privacy by the Murdoch media in the British phone-hacking scandal were on such a scale as to suggest widespread corruption and to require extensive criminal investigations.
The Australian newspaper seems no longer to care about, or even understand, the distinction between reporting and commentary, as documented in some detail by Robert Manne. It conducts explicit vendettas against anyone who incurs its displeasure. On many topics, its reports and commentaries are highly selective, emphasising one side of debate. This is most explicit on global warming, as it shamelessly promotes the views of any crackpot willing to claim global warming is a hoax and a conspiracy. The Australian no longer deserves to be called a serious newspaper. Often, it is merely a propaganda rag spruiking the highly self-interested world view of its owner, Rupert Murdoch, and the reactionary paranoia of its editor-in-chief, Chris Mitchell.
Murdoch, of course, is the owner and promoter of Fox News in the US, which sets the global standard for presenting ignorant ranting as news. The absurdly rich Australian mining magnate Gina Rinehart is now following Murdoch’s lead. She will probably gain representation on the board of Fairfax, or buy it outright. If that happens Australia’s commercial media will have lost all pretence to “quality journalism” and will join The Australian in the gutter.
A different kind of symptom of the times is that economic commentators scold people for being unreasonably cautious in spending their money, implying people are ungrateful for living in the best economy in the world. Of course, most economists are blind to the continuing parlous state of the global economy, as they were blind to the approach of the GFC. They don’t understand that many people are nervous and want to pay down their debts more than they want a new TV.
A related symptom is that people complain a lot that it’s hard to make ends meet and life is a rat race. Economists and moralists tend to scoff, pointing out that Australians are among the richest people in the world, and getting richer. They overlook the way the neoliberal program has undermined peoples’ job security, and generated a housing price bubble — both of which have put people on an accelerating tread mill. People are both very rich in dollar terms and stressed by their personal economic and social circumstances. That is the paradox of the neoliberal materialist addiction.
Another important symptom is a steady rise in cynicism about politics and disengagement from the political process. This shows up in a rise in votes for minor parties and Independents, and in people voting informally or not voting at all. In the 2010 election, 12.4% of the enrolled electorate refused to give a preference to the major parties. Instead, they voted informal (5.6%) or did not vote (6.8%). These are dramatic figures in a country where voting is compulsory and preferential. A further 11.8% gave their first preference to the Greens and 6.6% to Independents and others.
The Labor Party is the main loser from this disillusionment. This is no surprise given the history outlined earlier. It is hard to see how Labor can survive as a serious potential government. People know they are being sold out.
The right-wing parties are hardly regarded any better. In an election where so many were disillusioned by Labor, the Coalition should have romped in. Instead it also failed to gain a majority and a hung parliament resulted, unusual in our traditionally highly-polarised two-party politics. Labor was able to form a minority government with the support of the Greens and some Independents. It is claimed the Coalition will win a landslide in the next election, but that is based on the habitual reduction of polls to a “two-party preferred” vote. The polls have also been quite volatile in recent months. If many voters declare “a plague on both your houses”, then a substantial Coalition win is not assured.
Australia is ripe for a major political re-alignment. Labor has abandoned its traditional support for ordinary people, preferring to appease the right-wing press and prostitute itself to the big end of town. It has even been claimed that some in the Party would like it to become explicitly liberal or libertarian. The Coalition, as the chief protector of neoliberalism, increasingly depends for support on the fearful reactionary vote. Its current leader and its messages are negative, simplistic, inconsistent and a betrayal of its liberal founders, just as much as Labor betrays its own founders. Neither deserves to survive.
Unfortunately the major parties are culturally entrenched and very difficult to dislodge, and the vast fortunes of the coal industry and other miners are now being used explicitly to support the current regime, which is greatly to their advantage. The Greens have made some slow progress, though some ground has been lost recently. Although the Greens have a broad and fairly sensible platform, they are still widely perceived as tree huggers and social extremists and have yet to make the bigger issues their own. No other grouping shows any sign of gaining a foothold, though there has been a rise in numbers of Independents in many of our parliaments.
In summary, the continuing use of the simplistic, one-dimensional political spectrum of Left and Right disguises some major shifts in Australia’s politics and society. There has been a dramatic shift to the Right compared with the postwar decades, and what is now called Right is radical rather than conservative. The shift was driven substantially by a concerted long-term campaign by market fundamentalists, abetted by circumstances along the way. The Left used to refer to socialism, but now refers to socially progressive, compassionate or environmental views, and even just to well-informed commentary.
Although this rightward shift is claimed to have been a major success, especially in the economic area, the evidence contradicts this claim. Economic measures in the neoliberal era, from about 1980, fall well short of the performance achieved in the post-war decades, and ultimately the deregulation of the financial sector led to the Global Financial Crisis that continues to wreak great hardship on many people in much of the world. The theoretical basis of the belief in free-markets is completely wanting by the criteria of real science — its assumptions are absurd and its predictions are dramatically contradicted by market crashes and other readily available evidence. Not only has the neoliberal program failed economically, it has caused great social harm through its emphasis on hyper-individualism and competition at the expense of social relationships and cooperation, which are also an essential part of healthy human experience.
The old Left is in disarray. The Australian Labor Party, that used to occupy that ground, abandoned it in the 1980s. Labor is now without any clear reason for existing and it is plausible that it is in terminal decline. Many Left-leaning individuals and organisations have also yielded ground.
The new radical Right is temporarily in the ascendant, but is unlikely to last in its present form. Two possibilities present: either the logic of the Right will continue to drive it to ever-greater superficiality and fear-mongering, so that it becomes explicitly authoritarian in the manner of Mussolini’s original Fascism, or it will exhaust the tolerance of the people and it too will face its demise. The recent re-election of President Obama in the U.S. and the consequent disarray of the Republican Party suggests U.S. voters may have had enough of Tea Party extremism, though it is early days yet.
A comparable checking of the extreme Right in Australia would be facilitated if new political groupings could emerge that eschew both market fundamentalism and old socialism, which does not work very well. At present, the Greens are the only significant grouping of that sort, but rumblings of forming a new labor or crystallising a grouping of social progressives and old liberals can occasionally be heard.
The way forward is indicated by an emerging conception of economies as dynamic self-organising systems. Markets are clearly powerful, but there is neither theoretical nor observational evidence for the claim that free markets automatically produce a desirable result. The resolution of this conundrum is to recognise that markets will follow financial incentives, which can be managed to yield the results desired. This will not be simple, but we have already been doing it for a long time, though in a hesitant, incoherent and conflicted way. Many other aspects of economies also need reform, for example by emphasising alternative ownership arrangements, such as cooperatives and local ownership bodies and through leasing, and by recognising that land cannot be manufactured and is not simply a commodity. The broad approach and many more options are outlined more fully in my eBook The Nature of the Beast.
We can thus transcend the old and destructive dichotomy of socialism versus capitalism. Economies in the new conception can take many forms, so every society can tailor its economy to support its own culture, thereby reducing the conflict between the demands of the economy and the requirements of a healthy society. All economies can potentially be brought into consistency with the living environment so, instead of slowly dying, it comes to thrive around us.