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September 21st 2009 print

Mervyn F. Bendle

Left Forum: The lites on the hill

The Left has no idea what it stands for or why it is in office, beyond pursuing and indulging the perquisites of power.

Principle not narratives: the Left in Australia

What is the future of the triumphant Left? This week The Australian will publish a series of articles on what it means to be on the Left in Australia, and as a prelude has published “A new light on the hill” (19-20/9), a feature article by freelance journalist and political theorist, Tim Soutphommasane, author of Reclaiming Patriotism: Nation Building for Australian Progressives (2009).

Soutphommasane, who is a member of the ALP, has written various articles appearing in the Griffith Review, AQ: Australian Quarterly, and the far-left neo-Marxist journal, Thesis 11. His work perfectly expresses the central postmodernist belief that the world is basically a text and that the essential task of modern politics is to compose and sell to the electorate a persuasive narrative – “a convincing story that engages follower’s values”, as he explains in his Australian article. Consequently, he applauds Kevin Rudd for his “embrace of a new narrative”, based on the trashing of the legacy of the Howard government.

In his own contribution to this task, “Surrendering nationalism” (Griffith Review, 2007), Soutphommasane condemns the Howard government for its “strident exclusionary nationalism”, that fanned an “inflamed national consciousness”, indulged “the politics of fear”, and “fed off the insecurity and prejudices of the electorate”.

In this article, Soutphommasane operates under the erroneous conviction that the Australian Left was once committed to some form of progressive nationalism, chiding its present representatives for indulging an “insouciant cosmopolitanism” that led it to “surrender the terrain of national values and patriotism”, as if the Left ever occupied that terrain.

While this basic historical error about nationalism, patriotism, and the Left both drives and undermines Soutphommasane’s entire project, his work also maps out clearly the fundamental crisis that self-styled “progressives” like himself face as the Left exploits its political ascendancy throughout the country and across the globe.

In short, the Left has no idea what it stands for or why it is in office, beyond pursuing and indulging the perquisites of power.

As he laments in The Australian, whether it is fading New Labour in Britain, the emerging Obama Nation in America, or the ominous Rudd Ascendancy in Australian, “a quick survey of contemporary Left-liberal politics reveals a wasteland” in the realm of political ideas.

Indeed, the very best the Left can come up with as a unifying value is “equality”, understood in various incompatible ways, from the comparatively straightforward nostrums of “equality of opportunity” and “equality of outcomes”, to the more obscure “equality of conditions”, and “equal power to participate in the social life of the community” (with “social life” presumably referring to politics and not “party-time”).

Allied to that ill-defined notion at the core of the social democrat “narrative” is the notorious oxymoron “social justice”, manifest in either its vague “welfarist or capabilities” mode beloved of some Blairites, or as the abstract “theory of justice” proposed by John Rawls in America.  

As Soutphommasane has to point out, Rudd himself has little or no grasp of the ideological tradition of social democracy, and mistakenly has invoked economists like John Maynard Keynes, Paul Samuelson and John Kenneth Galbraith, probably channeling Economics 101 from the 1970s.

Nevertheless, despite Rudd’s limited grasp of the intellectual history of his own self-proclaimed political allegiance, Soutphommasane commends him for “articulating the foundations for a renewed Australian social democratic Left”, as if Rudd is part of the solution and not part of the problem.

And this, of course, reveals the central problem with social democracy and the Left generally, as Soutphommasane reluctantly is forced to concede – for them, it is only about power and the rise of “a new, professional political class drawn from the ranks of advisers and apparatchiks”, committed only to “the art of campaigning to win and stay in government”, and characterized by the “bland yet affable, intelligent yet uncontroversial, poll-tested, sound-bite-spouting, professional politicians” that blight our television screens with their inane policy pronouncements.  

Ultimately, there is an almost tragic aspect to Soutphommasane’s naïve belief that Rudd and the ALP are on the verge of revealing to the social democrats of the world a new ideological vision that will empower them through the 21st century. He doesn’t recognize that the logical conclusion of his own analysis of the bankruptcy of social democracy is not that a new “narrative” or “story” has to be cobbled together so that “progressives” can hold political power and impose their various agendas upon the people of Australia and the world.

On the contrary, the only conclusion that can be reached was arrived at decades, even centuries ago, by Locke, Jefferson, Burke, Hayek, and others, who saw, firstly, that politics had to be based on fundamental principles – “inalienable rights” – about human beings, and not on ideological narratives that can be composed by an advertising agency and marketed to a befuddled electorate; and, secondly, that the state is not intrinsically an enabling or empowering entity that can be used as an instrument of “social justice”, but rather is an inherently burdensome and even deadening presence in the life of a free society.

Consequently, the correct direction to be taken by all those who want to facilitate the fullest flowering of human potential is not to embrace Kevin Rudd in the absurd guise of an ideological messiah, but to condemn and contest the rise of a professional political caste and to work tirelessly to limit the reach and power of the state.