Left Forum: Green Left Weakly

Lites out on the Left!

It is now official: the Deputy Prime Minister of Australia is a shallow, condescending narcissist. That would appear to be the only conclusion that can be drawn from Julia Gillard’s dreadful article, “Indignation at injustice drives my politics” (21/9), which opened The Australian’s series on ‘What’s Left?’ As the letter writers and various commentators have pointed out, her attempt to paint herself as a-battler-who-has-risen-from-her-humble-origins-to-high-office-without-ever-forgetting-the-little-people is simply a labored, cliché-ridden, self-serving piece of propaganda, without even a hint of an interesting idea or original vision.

Someone should have taken Gillard aside and explained, “It’s not about you Julia, it’s about Australia’s future”. The best that can be said is that her effort made all the rest of the generally pathetic articles seem less awful.

Even the Lunatic Left itself was appalled, with Guy Rundle declaring on Crikey (25/9) that “it seems obvious that the real purpose [of the series] is to make the Left look rather bereft of ideas”. Indeed, he believes the plot is even deeper than that, so that when The Australian runs a similar series on “What’s Right?” it will wheel out “more impressive theoretical guns”, than this dismal collection, “thus giving the impression that the Right has more intellectual firepower, which was the purpose of the exercise all along” – which is Rundle’s way of saying that The Australian would have asked him for an article if they really wanted intellectual firepower from the Left.

In his article, “Marxism holds the key” (25/9), John Sutton, the national secretary of the Construction Forestry Mining Energy Union, declared that “a Marxist analysis of the world provides the best understanding of the way the world works”, and followed Gillard in recounting his own life story as evidence that he too feels some sort of noble and mystical attachment to his working-class roots. He also evokes the memory of “great communist leaders such as Pat Clancy and Stan Sharkey”, and claims that “we need a fundamental realignment of power in our society”, presumably towards people like these and himself, an outcome that is being arranged under Gillard at the moment.

The link between the Left and radical egalitarianism is made explicit by Dennis Glover in his effort, “Eternal quest for equality” (22/9), which evokes Norman Cohn’s epic work on The Pursuit of the Millennium (1972) and the revolutionary millenarians of the past. Perhaps he had in mind the dreadful denouement of the “egalitarian millennium” under Thomas Müntzer, the crazed peasant leader and Apocalypticist who was elevated into “a giant symbol, a prodigious hero in the history of class war”, by communist historians in the 20th century. Certainly he believes the Left enjoys “moral superiority and inspirational force over all the alternatives” and he calls for passion and “character”, while deploring the labor technocrats who “survive too long for their own good”.

The leftist academic, David McKnight, exalts the “Left’s family values” in his article (23/9), although by “family” he seems to mean something like “Cosa Nostra”. Channeling the proceedings of a recent conference at Deakin University on “New political visions for Australia”, he also makes it clear that, for the Left, any such visions must be completely dictated by humanity’s subservience to Nature, conceived as a Wrathful god righteously chastising the Wicked West for its consumerism. Consequently, he advocates unnecessarily increasing the price of energy to make expensive forms of “renewable energy” more competitive and minimize the use of the otherwise cheap fossil fuels that have underwritten the development of modern societies. The idea seems to be that the gigantic pieces of clockwork spinning slowly in the paddocks of Australia will be more than enough to sustain our future as a technological society.

McKnight’s effort shares with the last of this week’s articles, “Past another turning point in history” (26-7/9) by Robert Manne, the peculiarly academic conceit that the Left can be diverted away from its core ideological orientation – based on statism, moralism, resentment, tribalism, wishful thinking, and opportunism – towards what they themselves perceive to be more appropriately progressive principles.

For example, McKnight correctly observes that the “the Left has typically not defended the family”, but naively believes that “defence of the family can be a key aspect of a renewed Left”. He also notes that “cultural diversity has long been a buzz word for the Left”, but again naively claims that the Left can be drawn to pay proper attention to “the need for social cohesion and the common good”. Such aspirations are sheer wishful thinking: the Left has no interest in either the family or social cohesion – indeed it regards such values as reactionary, discriminatory, and oppressive of any number of novel forms of inter-personal (inter-species?) relations and eccentric forms of social life.

Manne’s blind spot is his belief that the Left has actually learnt something from the excesses of fascist and communist totalitarianism and that it is now reconciled to the central role that must continue to be played by the market constrained by moderate forms of statist involvement. Consequently, he believes the Left is ready to be guided by neo-Keynesians like Joseph Stiglitz and Paul Krugman, and will turn its back on the voices of the lunatic Left such as Noam Chomsky and Naomi Klein. Again this is absurd: Leftists would crawl across a mile of broken glass before they would read Stiglitz or Krugman, while they would queue for hours at Gleebooks in Sydney or Readings in Carlton to buy the latest turgid effusions by Chomsky or Klein, with which they would then berate their students.

Overall, this series of articles does indeed reveal the bankruptcy of the Left, but not because of any cynical plotting by The Australian, as Rundle alleges in his demented conspiracy theory (where one suspects the Protocols of the Elders of Zion might make a guest appearance). Rather, the Left is intellectually bankrupt simply because it has long known it has no need for ideas of any sophistication. Those, like McKnight, Manne, and Tim Soutphommasane, who waste their time with their special pleading for theoretical rigor, are blind to the horrific reality that all the Left is about are simplistic ideas and slogans, jealousy, resentment, opportunism, and a lust for power and personal advancement.  

Mervyn F. Bendle  is a senior lecturer in History & Communications at James Cook University  

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