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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


  1. Thanks Tristan. Well argued and I agree with all you have stated. I would urge Labor to KISS keep it simple stupid next time. It is no good being right if those you are persuading only read the first line.
    And I also support the idea that Labor must not abandon the progressive agenda it needs to remain relevent.

  2. 1.People get more energised about losing something than gaining so the gains and associated messaging must be much stronger.

    2.Whitlam said something along the lines that the horse called morality rarely makes it past the post whereas the horse named self interest usually wins.

    3.Oppositions don’t get voted in, governments get voted out. Labor had truckloads of shit to throw at the worst Coalition government in my 45 years as a voter yet hardly used it. Not mongrel enough.

  3. Spot on the button Tristan, I wonder if Albo will read it and take appropriate action.

    Meanwhile your article prompted me to recall the blue print for the Neoliberal Agenda personified in the 1971 Memorandum to the American Chamber of Commerce by Lewis Powell Jnr. This memo says it all for me whilst your article is a testemony to the success of the Rights ability to pragmatically think long term and organise long term strategy.