above: Tony Blair urges Bill Shorten to 'Return to the Centre'
By Tristan Ewins
The ‘Weekend Australian’ (8/10/16) quotes former Labour British PM, Tony Blair as urging Bill Shorten to tack “back to the centre”. Typically, Blair holds that the occupation of ‘the centre ground’ is crucial to building a significant-enough constituency to carry an electoral majority. And that regardless of this ‘it is the right thing to do’. Furthermore, Blair contends that Australian Labor must not only “talk to its core constituency”. (ie: we might reasonably assume he means ‘the traditional working class’).
Blair also warns of the danger of unions becoming a small ‘c’ conservative force: mainly fixated on the public sector, and unable of grappling with the nature of today’s private sector – where unions have long been in decline.
Finally, Blair makes the usual assertion that parties of the ‘centre-left’ must be about ‘growing the [economic] pie’ – with the implication that ‘dividing the cake more fairly’ runs contrary to this.
British Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn is dismissed as ‘ultra-left’, with Blair raising his head as the champion of the globalist, cosmopolitan ‘third way’ ‘social democracy’ popularised by Giddens and others. Importantly: ‘globalisation’ is not some single, homogenous phenomena. There are desirable aspects of ‘globalisation’ as well. Though specifically, here, we are concerned with its neo-liberal guise; including how that applies to world investment and trade.
To briefly engage with some of Blair’s contentions before moving on:
There is truth in the observation that organised labour must ‘return to the private sector’. Indeed a strong foothold in the public sector could provide a base from which solidarity could be extended to less-secure private sector workers in the midst of industrial upheavals. Furthermore, Labor’s legacy of labour market deregulation must be reconsidered ‘at the lower end’ – with the aim of ending the exploitation of various workers in areas as diverse as child care, aged care, cleaning, retail, hospitality and so on.
Labor’s ‘natural constituency’ – the broader working class – is still very much in the majority (if one focuses on the social relation of wage labour, as opposed to peoples’ ‘self-identity’). Labor’s difficulty is not the dissolution of the working class: but the development within it of various conflicts and contradictions. Including conflicts of ‘consciousness’ and ‘identity’.
For example: there are residual delusions on the part of some white collar workers that they comprise ‘the middle class’ ; which are reinforced by social democratic reluctance to actually speak of ‘the working class’ – and elucidate what that really means today. Also: there is the supposition that ‘Labor’s base’ can be taken for granted – and that it’s ‘the swinging middle’ that really counts.
Class loyalties do not necessarily shift straight away – but over generations. Surely the United States shows the consequences where the US Democrats have long spoke only of ‘the middle class’, and could not bring themselves to prioritise discussion of ‘the working class’. They did not deliver workers from the ravages of deindustrialisation and ‘the neo-liberal version of globalisation’. And demagogues such as Trump have filled the vacuum. Trump does not represent workers’ interests; and this could be made apparent if only the Democrats would rise to the occasion. Similarly, Labor must overcome and heal the internal divisions within the Australian working class to promote a social democracy which appeals to the interests of the majority of voters.
Also admittedly: Unions are not ‘essentially progressive’ even if their class location positions them to effectively promote the interests of the majority of the labouring masses (as against a minority bourgeoisie). German unions, for instance, were central to mobilising the war-effort in Germany in 1914 ; and beforehand had turned against more radical elements who had traditionally led the Social Democrats, and who would come to oppose that conflict. That war decimated German social democracy, and also the German working class.
Revisionist socialist scholar and parliamentarian Eduard Bernstein also warned that specific unions had the potential to become ‘corporate interests’ who furthered their own dominance of particular markets and industries without prioritising the position of the broader working class and labour movement, and others amongst the disenfranchised and oppressed.
In Australia, meanwhile, (with a much different phenomenon) some right-wing unions have promoted agendas of privatisation and economic neo-liberalism; and some (such as the right-wing ‘Shop, Distributive and Allied’ union – or ‘SDA’) have at times abandoned their own members’ interests in order to secure industry coverage (and hence political power within the Labor Party) due to collusion with employers. Sometimes unions are seen as vehicles for political power and political careers, as opposed to being primarily vehicles for workers’ interests, and social democracy.
That said: these instances should not be taken as ‘typical’ of the Australian labour movement. Despite legitimate misgivings about The Accord years and their aftermath, for example, Australian unions waged a vigorous campaign against the Howard Government’s regressive ‘Workchoices’ industrial legislation. They are still capable of representing and mobilising their members, and of waging successful campaigns.
With regard the old shibboleth that neo-liberal economic policies are required to ‘grow the pie’: something ‘traditional social democracy (supposedly) is not positioned to do’ , we might make another series of observations. The Nordics have demonstrated that it is possible to build a robust public sector and welfare state; with saturation levels of unionisation ; and a culture of solidarity. In the ‘golden age’ of the Swedish ‘Rehn-Meidner’ economic model, this combined effective full employment with low inflation, and the extension of welfare and social services. If not for a series of tactical errors, economic democracy might also have been entrenched through the ‘Meidner wage earner funds’ initiative during the 1970s and 1980s.
In fact, today it is ‘the systemic imperatives of capitalism’ and capitalist Ideology that stand in the way of fulfilling the personal and social needs of humanity. Amidst greater abundance than has been known ever before in human history, we are informed repeatedly that we must ‘tighten our belts’. Welfare and social services are progressively cut. Education is for ‘industry needs’ and not ‘the development of human potential’. And of course ‘the user must pay’ (though this is taken to mean students; and not the corporations who benefit from the various skills and aptitudes which are developed). Improved life expectancy is seen as a ‘curse’ rather than a ‘blessing’. So the retirement age is pushed upwards incrementally. The elderly are made to feel they are ‘a burden’ , and working class people are expected to exhaust their assets and savings to pay for ‘aged care’ which denies them dignity, comfort or happiness.
Alongside an increased age of retirement, the intensity of labour increases. Capitalism demands growth into new markets to preserve its own stability; but with ‘globalisation’ (just for now interpreted as the expansion of international trade; though it has other interpretations) reaching its limits, markets for consumption depend on increasing the sheer volume of labour (and hence purchasing power). Though casualisation shows it does not always work out that way (‘capital mobility’ is another aspect of globalisation; as is the rise of a ‘global culture’ that emerges via improvements in communications technology; Marx himself had observed the emergence of a ‘world literature’ as early as the 19th Century).
Where technology does not improve productivity, instead productivity is tied to that intensity of labour. In Australia today improvement of wages and conditions are largely ruled out without such productivity improvements. Hence for a great many wages and conditions stagnate or are rolled back. Organised labour is vilified. The working poor are even played off against the vulnerable welfare-dependent with ‘the politics of downward envy’. In response the Left must promote a politics of respect and solidarity.
A move back towards a social democratic mixed economy could stabilise national economies and the world economy over the short to medium term as a consequence of superior cost structures. But this is eschewed for reasons of Ideology, power, and private greed. Instead trade agreements are deployed to break down any ‘barriers’ preventing the fullest possible exploitation of potential markets by multinational corporations. ‘Natural public monopolies’ could stand to be criminalised (ie: sovereign governments could be sued); as well perhaps as ‘market distorting’ initiatives which may promote economic democracy (for example, any scheme providing assistance to co-operative enterprise of various sorts). Amidst all this ; and even after the cataclysm of the 2008 Global Financial Crisis – Tony Blair and ‘The Australian’ are still trying to sell us ‘neo-liberalism with a human face’.
From the outset it is also worth observing that historical traditions other than ‘modern third way social democracy’ have also claimed the ‘centrist ground’ (for instance Catholic ‘social Centrism’ in Germany, and the Swedish ‘Centre Party’). Defining ‘the centre’ is fraught with possible confusion. As opposed to a linear ‘left-right spectrum’ a ‘political compass’ accommodates both economic egalitarianism AND personal and collective liberties. But Blair is employing a more ‘traditional’ left-right spectrum.
Hence Blair’s ‘centrism’ is confusing: sometimes comprising a mish-mash of liberal and authoritarian positions. Hawkish foreign policy; rejection of class struggle; embrace of economic and cultural globalisation; according to some interpretations implementation of ‘punitive welfare’ and labour conscription; and effective rejection of a traditional mixed economy in favour of privatisation and what we have come to know as ‘neo-liberalism’.
Also importantly: ‘the Centre’ is always RELATIVE. A political party which makes a habit of ‘passively occupying’ ‘the middle ground’ rather than striving to RE-DEFINE and shift it resigns itself to a passive or even reactive response to social issues and conflicts.
Under Hawke and Keating – who Blair praises profusely – Australia moved decisively to the Right on many fronts– embracing small government, privatisation, deregulation, dilution of progressive taxation, rejection of class struggle; widespread deindustrialisation ; and so on. Whereas Blair followed Hawke and Keating, Australian Labor in turn followed Blair. The consequence was a ‘rightward-spiral’ which was the undoing of social democracy and labourism as we had known them.
In a further article in ‘The Australian’ by Troy Bramston (8/10), poet, W.B.Yeats’s ‘The Second Coming’ is taken very much out-of-context. The title proclaims “Things Fall Apart – The Centre Can’t Hold’. Bramston is very much with Blair, fearing the decline of the ‘centre-left’ as a consequence of a more unambiguous left-turn by Corbyn. Corbyn (and perhaps by implication, Shorten) are portrayed as wanting ‘a return to the past’ rather than ‘progressing forward’. Ironically this implies the in-some- ways similar notion of a ‘progressive teleology’ as proposed by Hegel and Marx; and more recently by Fukuyama. ‘Neo-liberalism’ is upheld as ‘the progressive and objective direction of history’: in a way which denies historic choice; and the meaningful contestation of history by social actors.
The problem with Blair is that his position is very much one of ‘convergence politics’. ‘Convergence on the centre’ actually dissolves genuine ‘centre-left’ politics as we once knew them. Whereas democratic socialists once claimed ‘the centre left ground’ – roughly halfway between liberal centrism and the unambiguously revolutionary Left traditions; today ‘convergence on the centre’ is the undoing of meaningful democracy. It is the undoing of meaningful choice.
As French social theorist Chantal Mouffe has insisted ‘convergence politics’ ‘empties out’ democracy by denying real choice and democratically-mediated conflict as a consequence of ‘a rush to the Centre’. It is worth briefly considering her position – and that of critical theorist, Jurgen Habermas – to critique the ‘Blair-ite Third Way’ from different perspectives.
Whereas Habermas supposed a ‘deliberative democracy’, with the pursuit of a ‘perfect speech situation’ – or ‘communicative rationality’, Mouffe does not believe rational exchange and engagement can resolve all differences and conflicts. Still strongly-influenced by Marx, though, Habermas continues to suppose a ‘historical telos’; which will be realised through ‘communicative action’ (ie: rational engagement, argument and deliberation by social actors). Importantly, as opposed to Blair, Giddens, etc, Habermas was optimistic enough to suppose that this process would ultimately lead to socialism (realised via communicative rationality and not only through ‘traditional’ class struggle; hence some divergence from Marx’s original position).
Both Habermas and Mouffe are radical Leftist democrats, however; and BOTH Habermas’s ‘communicative action’ and Mouffe’s ‘Agonism’ reject ‘centrist convergence’. What is notable with Mouffe’s position is essentially that history is not assumed as ‘having a fixed direction’ (or ‘telos’). And as opposed to traditional Marxism, neither are particular social actors (such as the working class) assumed to have any ‘essential and fixed historic mission’. For Mouffe history is contested by social actors who articulate ‘counter-hegemonic strategies’. History is not pre-determined but rests on our CHOICES. Though Mouffe does accept that despite this capitalism has systemic imperatives and ‘logics’ that no isolated individual can challenge.
Here ‘meaningful choice’ – central to democracy – must mean a robust pluralism. But as opposed to older notions of class struggle, Mouffe’s ‘post-Marxism’ insists that:
“within the ‘we’ that constitutes the political community, the opponent is not considered an enemy to be destroyed but an adversary whose existence is legitimate.”
And most preferably these assumptions must cut both ways! (though it will not always be the case) Importantly, Marx argued for the dissolution of the bourgeoisie as a class; that is the dissolution of particular social relations – as opposed to the wholesale murder of human beings as occurred under Stalinism. But Mouffe insists an ongoing and legitimate place for pluralism, and hence appears to reject Marx’s notion of communism as ‘an end destination’ (or to put it in Marx’s own words, ‘the end of pre-history’).
So Mouffe assumes mediated conflict as being central to meaningful democracy. And the silencing of dissident voices by ‘third way, cosmopolitan, neo-liberal globalism’ could perhaps even lead to a technocracy – governance by ‘experts’ – and rejection of the proper place of democratic conflict.
Effectively siding with Blair, ‘The Australian’ has predictably embraced ‘neo-liberal globalism’.
Shorten has ‘been taken to task’ for a very modest step back towards traditional social democracy and labourism. Under Shorten there has been talk of enforcing corporate taxation and effectively tackling ‘corporate welfare’. There is talk of holding the banks accountable. ‘Small government’ is no longer explicitly endorsed (though neither is ‘big government’). “Trickle-down” is rejected. In the ranks of Labor there is some talk of tackling obscene superannuation concessions which feather the nests of the unambiguously wealthy (to the tune of tens of billions annually) at the same time as vulnerable pensioners are vilified by the Conservatives for the sake of ‘budget repair’. But Shorten still insists on ‘budget repair that is fair’.
None of this is particularly radical! But as the Anglosphere and parts of Europe continue to turn Left in the wake of the 2008 Global Financial Crisis the voices of Conservatism and neo-liberalism have become more shrill. Modest reversions to ‘traditional social democracy’ are ‘fought tooth and nail’ as they ‘set a bad example’ which may provide a ‘turning point’ away from neo-liberalism, and the prioritisation of corporate interests in economics and trade policy. Bernie Sanders has seen the rise of a distinctly Left politics ‘into the US mainstream’. Accused of ‘ultra-Leftism’, in fact British Labour Opposition Leader, Jeremy Corbyn is also reverting to more-traditional Labour perspectives on the mixed economy, rights of labour; affordable education; and support for progressive tax; with a commitment to the NHS (National Health Service); as well as a rejection of ‘Hawkish’ foreign policy. This ought not be seen as ‘going backwards’ – because (contra-Marx) there is no objective definition of what ‘progressing forward’ actually means anyway.
With his warnings of ‘impending doom’ for British Labour – as well as the need for a ‘policy correction’ by Shorten in Australia, Blair does not seem to perceive the shift Leftwards in parts of Europe, and even the ‘Anglosphere’ itself. Ironically it is Blair who is ‘looking backwards’: to the 1990s – when ‘the historical moment was his’. Similarly ‘The Australian’ looks back to the ‘reform era’ where Hawke and Keating to a significant degree liquidated much of what had before-hand passed as labourism, social democracy and democratic socialism in this country. That’s not to say ‘Third Way’ theorists cannot strategise such as to set the agenda once more. But such success in the past is no guarantee of success today or in the future.
So history does not stand still. Over a quarter of a century after the fall of the Soviet Union neo-liberal triumphalism is beginning to wear thin. The Stalinist nightmare is fading from living memory; and the Democratic Left is finally re-emerging from behind its long shadow. Bernie Sanders has brought the American democratic socialist Left ‘into the mainstream’. McCarthy-ist hysteria is largely in the past. And despite defeats, parties like Syriza and Podemos have heralded the return of the Democratic Left after years utterly eclipsed by a ‘Third Way consensus’ in European social democracy.
Again: Amidst all this Shorten’s tentative shift to the Left is very modest. And hand-wringing by Blair and ‘The Australian’ that Shorten Labor must ‘return to the Centre’ clearly demonstrates how narrow a political milieu certain interests, as well as ‘the media establishment’ would have us choose from. ‘Convergence on the Centre’ denies politics; denies pluralist, democratically mediated conflict; and denies real democratic choice.
Nonetheless; Mouffe’s ‘Agonism’ suggests the possibility of a new pluralist democracy – where the democratic Left and the democratic Right accept each others’ ‘right to exist’ – and indeed their ‘legitimacy’ in the sense that voters and citizens must always be posed with real choices in order for democracy to flourish. And that certain liberties are necessary to overcome alienation; and socialists perhaps should even think of their adversaries here.
Perhaps therefore the Left could accept a place for Conservatism in a pluralist democracy; and on the basis of an inclusive public sphere; a more ‘level playing field of ideas’. But in Australia the monopoly mass media is dominated by figures such as Murdoch and Rinehart. The monopolists think they are in control and beyond effective challenge. Hence they do not discern any compelling pressures to accept a more inclusive public sphere; or say ‘active-critical’ civics and citizenship education curricula which also promote ideological and political literacy, and hence informed and participatory citizenship. Some would argue when the opportunity comes the advantage must be pressed. And so long as the Conservatives are not willing to accept the democratic and authentically pluralist principles promoted by the likes of Chantal Mouffe – then perhaps they have a point.
Also ‘social rights are human rights’. No less essential than civil liberties. And ideally should be constitutionally enshrined. Even though these matters should nonetheless be deliberated upon freely. There is the challenge of balancing the aim of ‘pluralism’ and hence ‘openness to change’, while striving for a ‘baseline consensus’ of liberal and social rights which is acceptable to the various social actors. Habermas believed this (and ultimately socialism itself) could be achieved via ‘communicative action’.
In many parts of the world ‘the tide is beginning to turn’. PERHAPS once again the future belongs to radical social democracy.