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"...public opinion deserves to be respected as well as despised" G.W.F. Hegel, 'Philosophy of Right'

Quadrant on "the Left" « Previous | |Next »
September 28, 2009

Quadrant Online has a forum on the Left that picks up on the What's Left series of articles run by The Australian. Here some of Australia’s leading Left thinkers explain what it means to be Left. Left more or less means social democracy, the ALP's light on the hill, social justice and the Rudd Government.

Mervyn F. Bendle says that:

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.

How odd that there is no mention of sustainability by Bendle, given climate change, the dried out rivers in the Murray-Darling Basin and water shortages in the capitol cities. Why the blindness to this? Isn't this destruction of the ecological underpinnings of the economy and the biosphere by business-as-usual a key issue of the day?

Bendle ignores the 'New Left’ that emerged in the 60s and then the green left in the 1970's to concentrate on a social democracy that concentrates on growing the economy to finance the welfare state through redistributing wealth. Bendle says that:

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.

This reduces the left to the the ALP in power and it using its political power imposing its agenda upon the people of Australia. Gee I thought a majority of the people of Australia voted for the Rudd Government's social democratic policy agenda. Or doesn't that count?

What of the critics who contest the failure of the ALP's social democrats to address the issue of sustainability in a substantive fashion. Aren't they on, or of, the Left? Aren't there conflicts and divisions within "the Left"?

Bendle's position is that politics has to be based on fundamental principles – “inalienable rights” - about human beings, 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. So you can swap "sustainability" for "social justice" and still make the same critique about the interventionist state crushing human freedom. Freedom is understood in the terms of classical liberalism---as negative liberty.

Bendle implies that the Left doesn't have any fundamental principles--it's just a professional political caste out to grab power and to hang onto it. The left is consumed by a lust for power---it has been reduced to the NSW Right! What has happened to the old philosopher king/social engineeer meme so favoured by those on the Right?

| Posted by Gary Sauer-Thompson at 4:09 PM | | Comments (21)


Mervyn Bendle addresses the green left in his second Quadrant article---Left Forum: Green Left Weakly, where he says:

the leftist academic, David McKnight, makes it clear that, for the Left, any such [new political visions for Australia] 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.

But he returns to the point mentioned in the post--that such ideas are based on an
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.

hence the Left is bankrupt--all the Left is about are simplistic ideas and slogans, jealousy, resentment, opportunism, and a lust for power and personal advancement.

The "philosopher king/social engineeer" meme gets a workout in Jason Soon's article---Left Forum: "TEH left". Justice is okay as it is about due process and equal treatment before the law. However:

...the notion of social justice is something different, a category mistake, as Hayek recognized. Social justice is the strange notion that the uncoordinated results of these numerous trades should be redistributed so that the final distribution of income and wealth in a society fits the ideal as decreed by some philosopher-king/social engineer, out of some conviction that not to do so would be ‘unjust’.

Rudd is the philosopher king of the ALP. Makes me dizzy just to think of it. In its inner core the ALP is run by philosopher kings. Wow!

Most of Bendle's complaints could just as easily be applied to the Howard government from one election to the next. Big P politics is barely even related to the various ologies and isms of what used to be their intellectual bases, regardless of what Kevin Rudd or Mervyn Bendle write.

Having said that, the NBN is a pretty leftish sort of thing to do, as is rolling the stimulus stuff out through schools, and the insulation thing is a gesture towards the green left. And they all do the blue collar thing as well.

I believe Rundle has made the most intelligent contribution so far. And as he points out, the green left are hated, by both the right in their various forms, and the labourist left. It seems logical that the green left will eventually become the left, particularly in Australia where the last election demonstrated, labour is perfectly capable of taking care of its own interests here.

It's been widely criticised, but I can see merit in Soutphommasane's call for a left nationalism. For mine, it would revolve around the land and the sustainability that could support us all into the future. We already have a basis for such a nationalism in our pride of our biting, poisoning, stinging creatures, tourist-killing landscape and odd flora and fauna. And the oldest living culture in the world. It wouldn't be too hard to build a greeny type popular movement around that.

I'm sorry but I must have dozed through that moment where there was actually anything 'Left' about the ALP.

I agree that Rundle is pretty right in his argument that the greens are the political enemy of both the Conservative right in their various form and the Labourist ALP exemplified by the NSW Right.

I have little problem with Soutphommasane's Left patriotism since patriotism is love of country. That is different from right wing nationalism premised on racist chauvinism and racial dog designed to shape anxiety into fear and hate of the other.

Australian nationalism was formed by the Labourist ALP, and it means immigrants must fit into the dominant national culture.

Right-wing nationalism is articulated by Christopher Pearson in terms of war in his Flawed effort to fire up Left's patriotic zeal in The Australian:

But whatever his attitude to Australia's involvement in Iraq, Afghanistan or Vietnam, for that matter, Soutphommasane simply cannot have an adequate notion of patriotism unless it allows for the possibility of wars, defensive or pre-emptive, waged on foreign soil. In the end, it is patriotism that moves our soldiers to risk their lives to defeat the Taliban, along with a few other unfashionable, taken-for-granted values such as the Judeo-Christian ethos, which was the mother of Western civilisation and our freedoms.

For Pearson it is a given that patriotism is a positive virtue and that Australia's armed might helps America underwrite freedom everywhere---patriotism is collapsed into nationalism.

the level of discourse by some indicates that it is an attempt by Quadrant to foster the culture wars which have weakened of late eg., Bendle's paragraph:

Consequently, he [David McKnight] 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 implication of "unnecessarily increasing the price of energy" etc shows an opposition to Australia making the shift to a low carbon economy. Bendle's position is to continue the use of "cheap" fossil fuels to ensure economic growth. There is no alternative. Climate change is a fiction is the implication.

I used the wrong ism. I meant to say patriotism.

Dave Bath has picked up on the suggestion that leftish notions of social justice are more of a sensibility than a rational position. He suggests the right suffer from a kind of social autism.

There are far more interesting conversations going on than the same old cat fights from the Quadrant crew. The comments threads at Crikey on Rundle's pieces and a couple of posts at LP. Andrew Norton too.

One thing that's fairly clear through it all is that the left still does utopianism, which was supposedly killed off last century. That's a good thing in my opinion.

the Quadrant forum is the same old stuff--eg., Bendle's the Left about "simplistic ideas and slogans, jealousy, resentment, opportunism, and a lust for power and personal advancement"‘

In his contribution Andrew Norton does move beyond Bendle's bile:

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.

That does break away from the old naked lust for power stuff of a Bendle. Norton talks about a left sensibility that seeks out somebody’s suffering; it's an impulse to fix and reform that is always there. That is much more helpful.

Norton acknowledges that social democracy is the dominant political force in Australia, then observes that social democrats in power:

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.

I'll go and see what is happening on Norton's blog.

Dave Barth at Balenus accepts Andrew Norton's "left sensibility" thesis on the grounds that "it is much more coherent and rational than most other self-identifying righties." Granted. It is a concept we can use to help us make sense of a social democratic state.

There are limits here as Norton's left sensibility doesn't mention the market reforms of Keating and Hawke that were designed to open up the Australian economy to a global economy. That was a big reform that had little to do with seeking out somebody’s suffering. It was economic reform along with competition policy within a social democratic mode of governance.

There is also little mention of the tragedy of the commons (eg., the Murray-Darling Basin and global heating). Strange, as this problem has caused social democrats a lot of angst.

hmmm---libertarianism is a common thread in the patchwork quilt of vocal opposition to the Rudd Government's attempts to change the way America is run. It's essential philosophy, that the less government is better as it increases economic and personal liberty, offers a counterbalance to the authoritarian but orthodox anti-liberal conservatism.

Why they are in bed together beats me.

Pearson's take on patriotism sounds interesting (in a pathological way). I've just finished re-reading Orwell's Essay on Nationalism, where he makes much of the distinction between nationalism and patriotism.

thinking about Dave Bath's comment on social autism, it does seem some people are better able than others to imagine themselves in someone else's shoes. Then someone like Norton comes along and stuffs up your generalisations. Yet Norton and Bendle are on the same side of the simple left/right divide.

There's a whole other debate going on over social justice which seems to be confusing social justice with justice as in law. Law doesn't seem too closely related to justice (bikies, freedom of association, for example).

Big Day Out line up announced, tickets on sale, major discussion on the distinction between nationalism and patriotism due in January. Off topic, but I wondered whether, had David Bowie turned up as rumoured, whether the hordes of oldies he'd attract have any impact on the flag-waving thuggery we've seen in recent years.

My mind's wandering. From Orwell to Bowie. Think I need a lie down.

yep by "left" we should not mean the Labor party – it no longer justifies that label.

Gary, I think the Hawke and Keating reforms do fit with my thesis. They weren't carried away with any 'neoliberal' ideology. Their problem was that a social democratic state presumes a strong economy to generate the necessary tax revenues and keep unemployment down. The old social democractic policy technologies weren't in their view up to the task. True, the never carried the broad left, which remained wedded to the old ways. But the new ways were in their purposes consistent with the left sensibility.

re your comment about the Hawke and Keating reforms:

Their problem was that a social democratic state presumes a strong economy to generate the necessary tax revenues and keep unemployment down. The old social democratic policy technologies weren't in their view up to the task.

I agree with that account. I would add that this is the reason they were political innovators, even if they were implementing Treasury's long standing agenda for Australia.

However, the negative effects of their pro-market reforms weighed heavily on both regional Australia and the industrial working class in the manufacturing industry. Lots of unemployment created etc etc and a boom that went bust.

The reason why Hawke and Keating "never carried the broad left, which remained wedded to the old ways", was that they were seen to have trashed the old social democratic sensibility.

I would argue that that means you do need to refine your idea of "left sensibility". As it stands it doesn't really capture the conflicts and contradictions within that way of understanding (or ethos) political life; these conflicts are well described by Don Watson in his Recollections of a Bleeding Heart.

that still leaves the tragedy of the commons scenario. How does that fit into your left sensibility? Social democracy has consistently preferenced economic growth at the expense of environmental protection.

Albrechtson swings into gear against the Left in The Australian. We have a column Beware socialist snake-oil vendors It is premised on"economic freedom” as the cornerstone of a well regulated society and it says little more than this:

While the Left’s catchcry of social justice is intuitively appealing, there is a reason no philosopher has been able to articulate the principles of social democracy. The closer one looks, the clearer it is that the Left’s language of a new social democratic project is deliberately couched in emotional, ambiguous terms as camouflage for an old project of centralising power in the hands of a few elites who presume to know what the rest of society wants ....T hose who advocate social justice by centralising power necessarily diminish our individual freedom.

She too talks in terms of a left sensibility, by which she means moral sentiments that are overwhelmingly concerned with “revealing, in the public realm, one’s intense feelings: we must ‘care’, we must ‘be concerned’, we must be ‘committed’.

Give me a break. Work Choices was social engineering for an old project of centralising power in the hands of a few elites who presume to know what the rest of society wants. Their talk was of rebuilding a better society. Secondly, Albrechtson makes no attempt to address the recent global financial crisis and the recession of the economy whilst denouncing government intervention. Thirdly, there is no mention of market failure or externalities.

Gary - The left sensibility is about motivations and intentions rather than outcomes, many of which have failed to achieve their purpose or done so at great cost.

Peter - I'd argue that the growing environmentalism on the left since the 1960s fits with my thesis that who/what should be helped changes over time. Though the left sensibility typically does not like the idea of trade-offs, they have had tough trade-offs over the last half century. Environment versus growth is one. And the male working class (where the left as a political movement began in Australia) has been hammered while the position of women improves.


"The left sensibility is about motivations and intentions rather than outcomes"

So you would not include outcomes focused utopianism as an element of the left sensibility? I may be nit picking, but are intentions not linked to outcomes in a Kantian ends not means kind of way?

if we are going to use the category of "left sensibility" as motivation and not outcomes (welfare state), then it needs to be broadened to include the ascent of the life instinct over aggression and guilt; the need for meaningful work rather than assembly line/call centre work; the need for beauty and sensuousness over ugliness and bodily repression; freedom as self realization rather than a economic freedom etc etc etc

This is the New Left sensibility and it is subversive of the neo-liberal subjectivity that capitalism depends on and constructs through the processes of the deregulated market. So the Left sensibility is more than the motivation and intentions of social democracy in Australia and would be critical of the sensibility of social democrats endeavouring to civilize capitalism.

It is this new sensibility of the 1968ers that conservatives have continually attacked as threatening to undermine the social cohesion of the social order.

Lyn, Gary - My theory did just start out with the handful of contributors to The Australian's series, but as a parsimonious theory of the general left I think it is reasonably useful. It doesn't preclude utopianism or the New Left sensibility, but clearly significant left-wing movements have neither of these sensibilities.