Tuesday, 3 July 2012

Part 7: Responding to the Challenge of the Greens: Political Philosophy And the Case for Government

The End of the Party? Labor History and the Rise of the Greens

Responding to the Challenge of the Greens: Political Philosophy And the Case for Government

Philosophically, Labor must explicitly and forcefully make the moral case for electoralism to progressive voters. In general, progressive voters are highly engaged with politics and more interested in the philosophical case for political actions than the typical voter. This presents an opportunity to combat The Greens’ characterisation of Labor as a party of Hollowmen who prioritise political self-interest over the moral consequences of their political actions by demonstrating the benefits to the progressive movement of securing government.

In this respect Labor must explicitly make the case that far from being cynical or self-interested, the pursuit of Government is the moral imperative upon which the modern progressive movement must rest. Labor must emphasise, as Gough Whitlam famously told the Victorian Branch of the ALP, that the principle of electoralism has always been the defining tradition of the Labor Party:
“There is nothing more disloyal to the traditions of Labor than the new heresy that power is not important, or that the attainment of political power is not fundamental to our purposes. The men who formed the Labor Party in the 1890s knew all about power. They were not ashamed to seek it and they were not embarrassed when they won it.”
Labor must assert that the collective achievements of the Australian progressive movement over the past 120 years are a function of Labor’s ability to secure and retain Government. It has been the touch stone of the achievements of all the great Labor leaders.  In this respect, Labor must aggressively call out the Australian left’s habit of engaging in what Christopher Hitchens has described as ‘grave robbing’, the stealing and repurposing of the legacies of Labor’s past heroes. Current Labor leaders are frequently held up for comparison against a revisionist imagining of Labor’s past in which electoral matters are absence and ideological purity was the order of the day. Not un-coincidentally, this golden era has always existed just beyond the immediate memory and experiences of those proclaiming it.

In reality, the heroes of Labor’s past against which the ideological integrity of Labor’s current MPs is compared were invariably themselves electoralists rather than ideologues. When talking about John Curtin’s record as a party hero, few progressives raise the fact that he was vilified by the left for opposing the existing ALP party platform in order to send conscript soldiers overseas to fight in the Pacific theatre. Fewer still raise the fact that when confronted with ongoing opposition from the left in caucus, Curtin simply stated that “what is irrelevant can be endured”.  When lauding Chifley’s commitment to the Light on the Hill, few modern left wingers bring up his use of the military to break up a communist led strike in the Australian coal industry in 1949. Fewer still recall the “whatever it takes” electoral practices that he employed to fight Lang Labor during the 1930s. Yet these electorally critical actions were all essential to the ability of these great leaders to secure Government.

In a similar way, the Whitlam Government is constantly cited by those on the left as an example of ideological rigor that ought to be followed by the modern ALP. Yet most conveniently forget that Whitlam's famous ‘crash or crash through’ comment was a reference not to the parliamentary obstructionism of Malcolm Fraser’s Liberal Party, but instead to the ideological obstructionism of the left wing of 1960s ALP. Indeed, Whitlam’s leadership was made on his electoralist resistance to the Left, most famously when he castigated the hard left controlled 1967 Victorian State Conference for their disregard for the consequences of electoral failure. 
“We euphemise deep disasters as ‘temporary setbacks; the nearer Labor approaches electoral annihilation, the more fervently we proclaim its indestructibility. We juggle with percentages, distributions and voting systems to show how we shall, infallibly, at the present rate of progress, win office in 1998. Worse, we construct a philosophy of failure, which finds in defeat a form of justification and proof of the purity of our principles. Certainly the impotent are pure.”
Another current darling of many a green voting modern progressives, Paul Keating, was infamously hostile to the Left’s resistance of his efforts to modernise Labor policy. Few remember now that Keating summed up the agenda of the left wing of the 1980s ALP as being about:
“wider nature strips, more trees and we’ll all make wicker baskets in Balmain. Then we’ll all live in renovated terraces in Balmain and we’ll have the arts and crafts shops and everything else is bad and evil.”
Keating long insisted that his role was to resist the Left’s efforts to shift the focus of the ALP from electoralism to ideological orthodoxy, stating on one occasion that
“(The Left) are trying to make my party into something other than it is… They’re appendages. That’s why I’ll never abandon ship, and never let those people capture it.”
To be sure, Curtin, Chifley, Whitlam and Keating all were champions of the Labor movement who achieved great things for the progressive cause. But they all understood the self-evident truth that without government, and all of the compromises, trade-offs and sacrifices to obtain majority support that it entails, they could achieve nothing.

They understood the truth of George Orwell’s characterisation of the uneasiness that many progressives feel when contemplating the necessities of political engagement:
“We see the need of engaging in politics while also seeing what a dirty, degrading business it is. And most of us still have a lingering belief that every choice, even every political choice, is between good and evil, and that if a thing is necessary it is also right. We should, I think, get rid of this belief, which belongs to the nursery. In politics one can never do more than decide which of two evils is the lesser, and there are some situations from which one can only escape by acting like a devil or a lunatic.”
Or to put it more succinctly, as Governor Willie stark did in Robert Penn Warren’s magisterial account of the political practice, “All the King’s Men”:
"You got to make good out of bad. That’s all there is to make it with."
Instead, Labor must confidently assert that the only thing in politics that can be definitively labelled as immoral in democratic politics is prioritising a desire to be seen to do good over a willingness to actually do what is required to achieve good. It is those who put their own feelings of purity and ideological superiority above the practical necessities of the democratic process who are the real cynics. To this end, as David Foster Wallace has written, the most common mistake of ostensibly well intentioned progressives is: 
“not conceptual or ideological but spiritual and rhetorical—their narcissistic attachment to assumptions that maximize their own appearance of virtue tends to cost them both the theater and the war.”[i]
It is well to ask whether one is taking a political position out of self-interest, but it’s worth recognising when doing so that an individual’s self-interest can encompass a range of needs. Knowingly adopting an unpopular position is frequently just as self-interested and philosophically hollow as adopting a position that is likely to attract popular support.

Part 8: Responding to the Challenge of the Greens: Progressive Policy Making in the Real World

[i] Wallace, D. (2005), “Consider the Lobster: And Other Essays”, Little, Brown and Company.

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