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Sunday, May 26, 2019

Emotion and Ideology: Liberal Strategies and Labor Responses

Dr Tristan Ewins

The Conservatives won the recent election in Australia largely because ‘they pushed all the most effective emotional buttons’ ; and had the ‘Power Resources’ to do so most thoroughly. Labor had comprehensive, rational policies in the economic interests of a clear majority of Australians.  And yet still Labor lost. 

In order to trace some of the causes beyond this result we need to consider the place of emotion and moral judgement in political activity and choice.

What follows is a brief consideration of the science: after which there is a much more significant consideration of the political ramifications. 

In his work ‘Hayek versus Marx’ , Socialist intellectual, Eric 
Aarons ; who had a background including a Science Degree in University: noted that

“The cortex or thin covering layer of the frontal lobes of the brain is the focal point for our reasoning capacity.”   (Aarons p 107)    

He further considers the observation of the scientist, Damasio, that:

“secondary” emotions…have to go through the cortical reasoning centre to activate the body..”

Thus he concludes there is a:  “connection between emotion, reason and action…”

For Aarons, this is corroborated by Damasio’s work in the case study of “Elliot’:

Here an “orange-size tumor” was “removed from the right frontal lobe of his brain…” When tested [he] did well in moral judgment – and in providing solutions to social problems… But thereafter he remarked “And after all this, I still wouldn’t know what to do!”  

Damasio realised: “the connections between the emotional and the reasoning centres of Elliot’s brain had been severed by the operation to remove the tumour from his right frontal lobe…”

Thus, in light of this analysis, we are provided with a rationale as to why:

moral sentiments spurred action more strongly than reason”… (Aarons, pp 107-108)

Reason and moral sentiments (partly emotional in origin), thus, ought be taken together: the entirety of the human psyche directed towards the tasks of justice, solidarity, kindness, progress and survival. 

Again ; Labor’s loss can be explained in part by the Conservatives’ superior Power Resources.  A sympathetic Conservative Press, a cowed ABC, the active support of a billionaire willing to pour tens of millions into a campaign to channel preferences to the Liberal-National Coalition.

Reforming Civics Educations has some potential to get people thinking rationally and making consistent values-based decisions. (which is why some Conservatives oppose curricula reform for  active and critical citizenship ; even where there is no Ideological prejudice)  But it will always be a mix of reason and emotion ; and emotion will be perhaps the most significant motivating factor.

Obviously Labor still has a very significant working class base ; but there are also 'working class Tories' - who while a minority,  do a lot of damage.  A 3.5% swing to Clive Palmer ; and a comparable vote for One Nation – were enough to swing the election on preferences. And unless we can somehow restore a sense of class consciousness, things will get worse.

The problem is that Conservative propaganda is carefully crafted around a series of ‘mythologies’ .  And it works. The stigmatization of class conflict ‘from below’ (while rationalising and naturalising class warfare ‘waged from above’). 'Aspirational' Ideology ; the stigmatisation of distributive justice as 'the politics of envy'. We have to tear these ideas apart in the public sphere or we will always be operating in a context of Liberal Ideology. That must involve a mixture of rational deconstruction ; and appeal to emotions of Hope, Love, Social Solidarity and Righteous Anger.   

Genuinely progressive policies can inspire Hope exactly because they appeal to instincts of social solidarity and compassion ; while addressing fears of homelessness or joblessness ; or being ‘cast adrift’ amidst medical costs (eg: dental) which can spiral out of control.  A rehabilitation of some ‘class struggle’ discourse could also emphasise that the class war is being actively waged against the working class and the vulnerable. But that a struggle for justice is not some ‘politics of envy’ , and does not deserve stigma.

But perhaps part of the problem is the dominance of emotion in politics - especially fear. As opposed to rational consideration of policies within a values framework.  German intellectual Jurgen Habermas strove for  a ‘Perfect Speech Situation’ of enlightened and rational exchange to deliver socialism.  But to a degree we have to come to terms with the place of emotion. Because it cannot be entirely changed. And emotional themes can add power and momentum to our own policies.  That’s not entirely bad.  The problem is that it also leaves us open to cynical manipulation.  

Conservatives in Australia have always rejected trade unions and class struggle waged by workers ; whether for ‘a fairer share of the pie’ in its modest form ; or socialism in its radical form.  Religion has also played a part. Divisions between Catholics and Protestants, and ‘loyalty to Empire’ fueled Philip Game’s dismissal of the New South Wales Lang Labor Government in the 1930s.  At the time several quasi-fascist militias had also been formed ‘for fear of Communism’ (and Catholics)  Lang had refused to repay ‘war debts’ to Britain incurred in the mobilisation of the First AIF (Australian Imperial Force) – which suffered over 60,000 casualties (deaths) during World War One. But Catholic hostility to Communism also led to the split of the Labor Party in the 1950s, and the formation of the Democratic Labour Party – which supported and reinforced Conservative Governments for decades.

Historically, the emotional/moral climate shifted significantly during the Hawke years.  Hawke’s themes of ‘reconciliation’ helped capture the imagination of a generation ; not least of all because it brought the corporate sector on board.  The corporates saw they could gain under a Hawke government via corporatist arrangements.  (though temporary because of the labour movement’s decline ; and the resulting disinterest of business once it had got what it wanted)  Partly this involved economic restructuring and reforms that were helpful for the Australian economy’s continued success.  But it also involved a ‘management’ of the labour movement’s decline as opposed to a stronger fight to prevent it.

The right to withdraw labour in many circumstances was abandoned while promoting rhetoric of ‘reconciliation’. Industrial action was reduced in the public imagination to “disruption” ; where ‘conflict’ was considered ‘bad’.  This confirmed popular aversion to “union power”.  Unless it was ‘responsible’. (ie: cowed and passive) For years the message was hammered home: industrial action was ‘disruptive’ ; and Labor’s relations with the unions could prevent industrial action.  Blue collar unions were stigmatised (in the media and by the Liberals) in a play to old class prejudices between ‘white collar’ and ‘blue collar’ workers ; with persistent delusions by some that they were ‘middle class’.  There is still much of this with popular perceptions of the CFMEU.

In part you could say it was a matter of ‘Power Resources’ ; with a compromise based on the balance of class forces. But Swedish unions never compromised as much as Australian unions under the Accords and after.  And the Accord never delivered anything remotely ‘Nordic’ in scale.

Since then the monopoly mass media has carefully ‘pushed our emotional buttons’ to shape the political climate of the country.  ‘Union power’ equaled ‘thuggery’ and ‘disruption and inconvenience to the public’. Apparently, so do mass protests. Amidst structural unemployment, the jobless were  vilified as ‘freeloaders’ and pressed into forced labour.  An ‘aspirational’ Ideology was developed to divide the working class ; and con middle income workers into supporting economically Liberal policies which were not in their interests.  “Aspirational” Ideology was contrasted with policies of ‘Envy” and 'Class War' ; which were morally dismissed as undermining social cohesion ; and ‘getting in the way’ of those willing to “have a go”. (the Liberals' most recent rhetoric in undermining what remains of the nation’s egalitarian traditions)  

The campaign to ‘stop the boats’ played overwhelmingly on Fear ; and ‘the Tampa election’ (2001) was won on the basis of moral condemnation and fears founded on false claims of refugees ‘throwing children overboard’. 

Importantly ; the rise of the New Left in the 1960s - and its later development into today’s social movements - was depicted in such a way as to split the working class.  Conservatives developed a discourse on so-called ‘Left Elites’ ; ‘the Latte set’ and ‘Chardonnay Socialists’ - who were ‘out of touch’ with ‘mainstream Australia’. Social conservatism was cultivated in much of the monopoly mass media , and was appealed to in order to divide ‘the Left intelligentsia’ from ‘the mainstream’. (ie: the majority of the working class)  The most ‘extreme’ examples of ‘Political Correctness’ were reported at regular intervals in order to maximise popular resentment. And ‘the PC class’ was depicted as being ‘arrogantly judgmental’ against the popular majority. (who just happened to be the working class)

The impression that Labor might repress ‘religious liberties’ may also be a ‘bridge’ too far. There is a conflict of rights here which can only be negotiated – it cannot be resolved. Long term, the Reaction cannot and will not ‘turn back the clock’ on sexual liberties.  But if Labor is not careful – and allows a polarisation to occur - a resurgent Christian Conservatism could be instrumental in delivering victory to the Conservatives.

Right-Libertarian small government philosophy (manifest at times in the Institute of Public Affairs and Centre for Independent Studies) has promoted the idea that capitalists and workers all have an inalienable right to whatever wages, profits or dividends they receive in the ‘marketplace’. Labor had been complicit in the small government and privatisation Ideologies for decades.  Finally under Shorten Labor embraced significant (though still modest) progressive tax reform. But now that a scare campaign has contributed to its defeat, it might be reluctant to venture there again. 

The idea that “tax is theft” undermines notions of social solidarity, collective consumption and social insurance.  Even though these deliver significant results for all workers. Implicit is a moral judgement: “tax is theft, and no-one has a right to take YOUR money”.  A ‘death tax’ (eg: an inheritance tax or death duties) is thought to be particularly offensive ; hence the (dishonest) Liberal scare campaign. It is no coincidence that inheritance taxes could mainly impact upon the bourgeoisie. And the fact that employers expropriate surplus value from workers apparently has no place in this discourse.

These efforts have not been entirely successful.  Again, Labor retains a significant base.  The New Social Movements which emerged from the New Left together involve a significant base of mobilisation and influence.  Though they are not a replacement for the strategic location and significance of the working class.

Arguably, humanity possesses instincts of social solidarity which have been essential to its survival. And most people care for family who might end up enduring horrors in under-resourced nursing homes ; or may linger for over a year waiting for home-care packages. 

Exploitation of workers – especially of those on the lowest wages – can also be argued as theft.  Citizens have every rational reason to fear that Conservatives aim to gradually undermine the nation’s ‘social safety net’ ; and atomise workers and lower wages while reducing their bargaining power. And to lose your job usually means relegation to destitution under NewStart ; and forced to exhaust your savings. For both young and mature workers job prospects can often be bleak.  Conservative hostility to Socialised Medicine (eg: Medicare) is also much more than a ‘Labor scare campaign’. A ‘flat tax’ may seem fair superficially ; but would take from low to middle income workers and redistribute to the rich.  Finally there has been a backlash against the open ended detainment of asylum seekers in concentration camps ; and indifference and narrow self-interest in face of the threat of Climate Change to the Planet.

By contrast there is the Hope that a Labor Government could fund a National Aged Care Insurance Scheme.  It could re-regulate the lower end of the labour market ; subsidise the wages of child care workers and aged care workers ; consolidate and increase Newstart while abolishing labour conscription ; consolidate the ‘social safety net’ – expanding Medicare into Dental ; expanding public housing ; funds to eliminate homelessness.  Labor could ‘fine tune’ the NDIS. (National Disability Insurance Scheme)  Further ; Labor could implement onshore processing of asylum seekers.  It could lead the way on climate change with direct investment in renewables.  And it could restructure the tax system: including the addition of new brackets, and the indexation of lower brackets to prevent the vicious cycle of bracket-creep and regressive tax cuts.  (leading gradually to flat taxation)

Again, though:  Labor faces an imbalance of Power Resources.  It must fight to end the influence of ‘Big Money’ in Politics.  And together we must resist moves to ban organisations like GetUp from actively campaigning during elections. We must mobilise our own resources to challenge the monopoly mass media.  And upon achieving government we must implement policies for true media diversity.  In the face of massive opposition we need to develop the strategy and tactics to fight the Conservatives against the odds and win. 

There is also the possibility that the Liberal victory is a ‘poison chalice’ in that escalating tensions and trade war will help lead to economic downturn. 

There are those who will argue that some of these policies ‘have been tried but failed’.  But if Labor renounces a distributive justice agenda it abandons its very reason for being.  Labor must respond with regroupment, rather than retreating into an insipid Blairite Centrism.  Labor must be the Party of progress ; though for that we also need some idea of what we want to progress towards.  I have suggested a short term agenda here ; but long term we must ask more fundamental questions about capitalism.  By making emotional and moral appeals ; with a mixture of messages at a variety of levels – from the complex to the simplified and the concise.  And also promoting clear moral judgement and policy evaluation. 

Labor needs to re-evaluate its strategy and tactics without abandoning substance.   That is the path to a possible future Labor victory.


Aarons, Eric; Hayek versus Marx And Today’s Challenges; Routledge. New York, 2009

Saturday, May 18, 2019

Labor must draw lessons from Electoral Defeat - But not Compromise its Values

Sco-Mo ; supposedly 'the every-man's politician'

Dr Tristan Ewins

Labor has lost what had been seen as an unlosable election. How could everything go so wrong? How could the polls have got it all so wrong?

Firstly, here, is the United Australia Party vote and Clive Palmer’s money. Regardless of whether he achieves a Senate seat, Palmer is channeling roughly 3.5% of the vote in the form of Liberal preferences.   What can Labor do about ‘big money’ in politics?   Nothing straight away ; but over the long term the rules must be changed so billionaires cannot ‘buy their way into parliament’. Or otherwise 'harvest preferences' for the Conservatives.  Labor needs to run hard on this over the long term.

Secondly, there was the re-invention of Scott Morrison – as ‘Sco-Mo’.  ‘Sco-Mo’ was supposed to be ‘an everyman’s politician’.  With his baseball cap ; at various sporting events ; a dad and a Christian. 

This may have been clearly shallow for many of us ; but obviously it gelled with a great number of people. The Liberals chose to focus on ‘the character of Sco-Mo’ and to distract from the dysfunction within ‘the Liberal Team’.  The strategy was reinforced in Newscorp media over months.  Labor failed to smash this invented idea of ‘Sco-Mo the every-man's politician’ when it should have tackled it head on.

Thirdly: the Liberals turned to all the usual prejudices against Labor. The propaganda asserted ‘Labor can’t handle money’ ; and warned of  ‘the Bill Australia can’t afford’.  The fear campaign was not sufficiently interrogated in the media ; and ultimately it worked.  Labor failed to establish that deficits have continued under the Liberals – and much more than necessary because of measures enhancing the incomes of the –already-rich; and that a deficit was in fact necessary under Rudd in order to stimulate the economy and avoid recession.

In fact there was a narrow base to much of Labor’s tax reform.  Measures on franking credits affected less than 5% of the population.  But Labor did not establish this in the public consciousness  either.

Further, there is the melding of neo-liberal Ideology and the legacy of 80s ‘reconciliation politics’.   

The Hawke-Keating governments delivered Medicare, superannuation and various tax reforms.  But they also consolidated in the public consciousness that class conflict was ‘bad’.  And it was up to unions to ‘take a hit’ with wage restraint for the sake of the economy ; but without the delivery of anything ‘Nordic’ in return.  The problem was that once the unions traded away a general right to withdraw labour, and conceded to enterprise bargaining – as its position further weakened it had little else to bargain with.  And ‘reconciliation’ was seen as organised labour’s responsibility to be flexible in response to ‘employer needs’.

The ALP started talking about reducing the number of days lost to strikes as a virtue in of itself ; when in fact it was also a signal of a weakening movement.  Where the legitimacy of industrial action itself had been reduced to an impression of ‘disruption, thuggery, and unnecessary inconvenience to the public’.    Here all redistribution is also reduced to ‘the politics of envy’. 

The Liberals speak of “a fair go for those who have a go”.  But was Morrison arguing that cleaners, nurses, child care workers, aged care workers, teachers – do not ‘have a go’?  This is the same kind of warped take on ‘meritocracy’ which ‘naturalises’ privilege and inequality.   But Gina Rinehart did not ‘work her way to prosperity’.  And yet inheritance taxation is still stigmatised as a ‘death tax’ ; and this also featured in Liberal disinformation and scare campaigns.

Morrison tried to ‘shame’ Shorten for ‘not looking a man on a $200,000 income in the eye’ that he was increasing his tax by 2 per cent. (!)  Shorten should have responded strongly that the flattening of the tax system had to stop ; and everyone else was paying the price.  But he did not confront Morrison directly on this.  This was a wasted opportunity that let Morrison off the hook in constructing his ‘meritocratic mythology’. 

For decades the ALP was also complicit in the politics of ‘small government’.  Breaking that consensus was always going to be difficult after all this time.   As things are reform here has to be slow, deliberate and cautious.  But without such a plan Labor cannot achieve any significant reform agenda.

Also there was the question of Morrison’s alleged Christianity and the case of Israel Folau.  Themes of ‘freedom of religion’ could have been a real sleeper issue which influenced a significant number of votes.  Labor needs to balance freedom of religion with anti-discrimination measures. Much scripture in many faiths contains elements which grate against the grain of modern liberal society.  But effectively repressing the expression of the contents of scripture might simply consolidate a significant portion of ‘the Christian vote’ in the Conservative camp.  There’s a clash of liberties and rights which simply cannot be resolved: it can only be negotiated.  But even accepting religious freedoms, there will be no ‘turning back the clock’ on minority rights when it comes to issues like  equal marriage.   At the same time we cannot make it easy for the Conservatives to 'divide and conquer'.

This is a devastating loss for Labor. It amounts to a victory of fear over hope and vision.  But Labor cannot give in.  It needs to draw tactical and strategic lessons without abandoning its values.  Labor cannot give in on the project of re-structuring the tax mix to pay for social wage and social insurance measures.   Next time Labor needs to look at tax reform in the vicinity of 1% to 1.5% of GDP: but squarely aimed at the top 10% demographic.   And Labor needs to establish that the remainder will not be adversely affected.   With the exception that superannuation tax concessions still need to be tackled ; and may cost the Budget tens of billions into the future if this is not done. And perhaps with the additional exception of a dedicated progressive levy to fund a National Aged Care Insurance Scheme.  The Aged Care Royal Commission should provide momentum.

Labor also needs to establish that a ‘flattening of the tax system’ means that most of us pay proportionately more: not just through the tax system itself ; but also as a consequence of the user pays which ensues.

The coming term will be marked most likely by economic crisis – intensified by the trade war between the US and China.  And by the moral imperative of responding to the Royal Commission on Aged Care.  If the Liberals take Australia into recession Labor needs to punish them on this relentlessly.  And ‘burst the bubble’ of ‘Liberal economic management’.  In addition to pressing hard for a full implementation of Royal Commission recommendations on Aged Care, Labor needs to continue focusing on restoration of funding for the NDIS and Gonski education recommendations.  Next time we need to provide certainty that we will legislate for a higher minimum wage ; and also address the income of low-wage workers more broadly.  (that includes through the social wage)

Most importantly Labor needs to debunk the Liberals’ warped construction of ‘meritocratic Ideology’.   Labor needs to establish that all kinds of people work hard ; and we should not be naturalising privilege.  This is a core Ideological battleground which Labor must contest if it wants to embrace policies involving distributive justice.  And to make sure the public is fully aware of the arguments next time the entire movement needs to begin campaigning on these principles and issues immediately.  We have three to four years and we cannot afford to waste a single day.

Finally there is the question of the labour movement and broader social movements’ response to inevitable Conservative austerity.   Progressive social forces need to prepare for a defensive fight against austerity ; and continue the fight for wage justice at the industrial level.

The danger is that Labor will retreat into a conservative ‘small target’ strategy.  Instead Labor needs to draw tactical and strategic lessons while remaining true to its values.

Friday, May 10, 2019

Lack of Funds amounts to Elder Abuse: But neither Party is Talking about it

Dr Tristan Ewins

In a reflection in Saturday’s Age (11/5) Merle Mitchell explained that institutionalization in aged care left her without a home.  Institutionalized care can mean loss of social networks and community.  In her opinion, there was the feeling that death would be a better resolution for everyone.  Fortunately, though, she did not lose contact with all her friends, and that helped preserve her “cognitive capacity”.   She presses the case for a counselor for all residents and for staff. And suggests that if the effort was made to keep residents engaged that may enable stimulating discussions on all manner of issues.   Merle also enjoys extra exercise half an hour a day ; but that is an ‘extra’ that has to be paid for ($50 a day).    Many cannot afford it.  In the end some of the biggest problems are the lack of ratios, and of personal control over everyday life. With ‘institutionalization’ you get up when you’re told to ; you eat when you’re told to ; you go to bed when you’re told to.

Merle’s story is one of an extraordinary number being considered by the Aged Care Royal Commission.  Unless the process is somehow corrupted the Commission will almost certainly advocate for better ratios for nurses and staff. It will consider the quality of food ; the provision of privacy ; the provision of mental stimulation – whether through discussion of politics, philosophy, religion ; or if you prefer - discussion of the football ; and remembrances of years past.  Just sitting people in common rooms to stare at televisions is not the answer!

Better ratios would mean more time to dress and wash in the morning.  It could help ensure residents stay healthy and actually eat their food. Gentle exercise should be provided for everyone capable – regardless of cost. There must be a wide range of books, and increasingly internet access as well.  A nurse on site 24/7 is crucial in the case of emergencies.  And morphine must be made available to the dying.  (I have been told it’s only available in hospitals)  There must be outings for those capable.  And preferably facilities must include gardens where residents can relax and be at peace.  Personal choice must be extended as far as possible.

At home care must also be a viable option and there has been progress ; but some are still left waiting too long for packages. Staying at home in familiar surrounds full of memories is very important.  But again maintaining social engagement is crucial. Including several outings a week ; taxi vouchers ; gatherings with like-minded individuals ; in short – general quality of life.  The support of family is crucial in all this ; but some families neglect their elders (and some lack family as well) , and in such instances communities must step in to provide support and affection. Obviously not everyone can do that work ; only people whose hearts are ‘in the right place’.

A lot has been made of elder abuse recently.  And there are some shocking stories.  But Conservatives prefer to focus on individual instances and deflect attention away from SYSTEMIC ELDER ABUSE in the form of insufficient regulation and funding.  So far in the current election campaign neither side has had anything much to say about Age Care reform, and provision of extra funding.  The initiatives suggested here are crucial to the well-being of our loved ones ; but they come at a cost: probably billions a year.  Meanwhile Conservative PM Scott Morrison focuses on tax cuts for the already well-off and thinks he can hoodwink us with mantras on ‘economic management’.  Those tax cuts will also mean austerity ; some of which will hurt the poor and vulnerable.

Sometimes  Aged Care workers (mainly women) need better training ; and to retain the best workers a Labor government should subsidise Aged Care worker salaries – as it is doing with child care workers. It can be a grueling job ; but it is one of the most important jobs of all to care for the most vulnerable of all. Loved ones we would not forsake for all the world.  Those workers need respect ; and they need support.

Labor is bringing in money from tax reform ; closing loopholes and so on ; but is not yet committed to significant aged care reform.  Beyond already-mooted reforms it is emphasizing its attempt to outbid the Coalition on a Surplus.  But when the Aged Care Royal Commission hands down its findings it must urge Labor to somehow dedicate comparable funds to those made available for the National Disability Insurance Scheme. (NDIS)  (assuming Labor wins the election)  Even if it means imposing a dedicated-purpose, progressively structured levy.  The political parties have treated this issue like a political football for over a decade.   That has to stop ; and we need real action on Aged Care NOW. 

Shorten is beginning – tentatively – to ‘break the mold’ – on small government.  The sufferings of the aged ; and their need for love and dignity is too important to again “leave it until next time”. Morrison is a hypocrite ; parading his ’Christian credentials’  while preferring tax cuts to caring for the vulnerable.   But Bill Shorten needs clarity and resolve.  It is an argument he can win.  We’re talking about our loved ones here ; and possibly of our own futures.  Bill Shorten must foreshadow the necessary commitment of resources now ; or he must support an immediate shift of policy on funding, ratios and standards following the Aged Care Royal Commission.   Lack of funds amounts to systemic abuse of our elderly.  Elder abuse cannot be ‘fixed’ without the provision of extra billions every year. 

Aged Care Reform NOW.