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September 27th 2009 print

Andrew Norton

Left Forum: ‘What’s left’

‘What’s left’ is pragmatic politics, in which a social democratic Prime Minister can claim to be an economic conservative and a Keynesian big-spender, a critic of ‘neoliberalism’ and the heir to Labor’s ‘neoliberal’ economic reforms. For followers of political ideas, it’s a confusing mix. But for Labor, it might just be a winning electoral formula.

The left sensibility 

Most intellectuals are on the left, but leftism is not at its core an intellectual doctrine. This conclusion about leftism from a series of articles on ‘What’s left’ in The Australian will surprise some. Radical left-wingers are famous for their arcane doctrinal disagreements, opening them to the Judean People’s Front versus the People’s Front of Judea satire of Monty Python’s Life of Brian. Yet if The Australian’s ‘What’s left’ contributors are right, underlying it all is a consistent left sensibility. 

Author and Labor speechwriter Dennis Glover argues in his contribution that ‘social democracy is only the most recent manifestation of a radical egalitarian political tradition that stretches back to the birth of Western civilisation. This makes social democracy in essence a moral impulse rather than a technical program of reform.’ It is a reaction against ‘inequality, injustice and stupidity’. Glover acknowledges that the squalor which motivated 19th century socialists is largely gone but, with ‘infinite varieties’ of social ills, agitation will continue. 

In her article, Deputy Prime Minister Julia Gillard explains that her social democracy comes from experience and emotion rather than doctrine. The Labor leanings of her family were held ‘instinctively’. She tells us that she still feels ‘a sense of indignation’ about her father missing out on higher education because he could not afford it. It ‘angers’ her when ‘talent is wasted and power and privilege are misused’. Consistent with her non-doctrinal approach, however, she insists on pragmatic methods to achieve her political goals.   

Tim Soutphommasane, a young Australian social democrat with a recent Oxford political theory PhD, knows ideological history. But in his two articles for The Australian he too doubts that social democracy is founded on intellectual ideas. He acknowledges no social democratic thinker has the status of Marx in socialism, Burke in conservatism, Mill in ‘progressive liberalism’, or Hayek in ‘libertarianism’. 

Soutphommasane quotes Albert Metin’s remark that Australia had ‘socialisme sans doctrine’, socialism without ideology. But it might be more accurate to say that Australia has had social democracy with many doctrines: protection and free trade, nationalisation and privatisation, empire and republicanism, White Australia Policy and anti-discrimination law. The left sensibility can accommodate many different and sometimes contradictory policies, reflecting changing feelings about who is deserving of sympathy, and how they are best helped. 

While intellectuals with the left sensibility do not provide the impetus for social democratic political movements, they do perform an important role. There are thousands of social democratic books giving details of injustices and suggesting policies to correct them. These help determine what the left sensibility means at any given point in time, even if they do not provide classic social democratic texts that are still read generations after they were written.  

These books also help give meaning to the political lives of social democrats.

In Soutphommasane’s romantic (his word) view of politics, social democratic doctrine seems to have as much to do with the movement’s psychology as its policy. He wants to be politically inspired by a new social democratic narrative, he sees ‘poetry in power’. He has a political impulse looking for an outlet. 

For those of us who aren’t social democrats, this impulse explains why they never let us rest. The left sensibility will always seek out somebody’s suffering, even where that suffering is, as Glover concedes, minor compared to past miseries. The impulse to fix and reform is always there, a hunger that can only ever be temporarily quelled. Like the capitalists they critique, leftists will always find another need to be satisfied. 

The problem social democrats have is that they are in a competitive leftist impulse-satisfying market. As the dominant political force, they face the grinding daily realities of making the massive welfare state work, with all the compromises and trade-offs that involves. Today’s ministerial social democrats offer the left sensibility eventual maternity leave and school renovations, worthy objectives perhaps, but no match for green plans to save the entire planet.  

This is one reason why Soutphommasane’s articles have—despite an entrenched welfare state, despite federal Labor’s electoral success—a  feeling of social democratic angst. What social democrats offer is too piecemeal, too hard to fit into a clear and coherent narrative, to offer an inspirational path to a better future. ‘What’s left’ is pragmatic politics, in which a social democratic Prime Minister can claim to be an economic conservative and a Keynesian big-spender, a critic of ‘neoliberalism’ and the heir to Labor’s ‘neoliberal’ economic reforms. For followers of political ideas, it’s a confusing mix. But for Labor, it might just be a winning electoral formula. 

Andrew Norton is a research fellow at the Centre for Independent Studies and blogs at andrewnorton.info