Monday, January 19, 2009

The Oz's resident burnt-out leftie

I wrote a while back about The Oz's op-ed columnist David Burchell and his use of Neoliberal language. Burchell is a political science academic who specializes in the Australian Labor Party, and whose recent appearance in The Australian as an opinion-page cultural warrior is puzzling, especially as his pieces are consistently aimed at what the right in the cultural wars present as being the soft, liberal and cultural left.

Today's column is firmly within the culture warrior genre, with the upcoming US Presidental inauguration made the backdrop to Burchell's critique of US Left cultural war attacks on George W Bush. That there might have been a Right-wing front to the US, and Australian, culture wars is not mentioned in the article. Maybe this is because the assumptions of the Right's culture war forays have been:

they started it

we won

they want to take our freedom away

what the pseudo left call culture we call morality.

I've been tempted to write another post about Burchell's articles in The OZ but after reading Guy Rundle's piece from Crikey today, this paragraph puts it better than I could:

David Burchell [is] the resident burnt-out leftie in the Oz, whose current role in life seems to be to make Gerard Henderson pleasant-reading by comparison. Burchell's sneering, snide, exhausting tone is sour grapes, raised to the level of vineyard status -- joining the Communist Party well after Prague '68, editing the Australian Left Review until it died beneath him, then developing a Foucault-obsession, and a political mancrush on Mark Latham, the sole argument of this lifelong inner-circle editor and academic is that he's a voice against the elites. For Burchell, Obama's popularity will melt as surely as Rudd's has done in Australia.

Quite possibly, but you have to be seriously ignorant of what's happened in America -- or only interested in denying the legitimacy of any political event that passed you by -- to believe that much comparison between Rudd and Obama is of much use at all. Quite aside from the historical import of the Obama election as an event – if nothing else happened, it would still be significant -- the situation of America, of US society, is so fundamentally different that the challenges and possibilities presented to Obama are of a different order. To make some modest reforms to the US health system -- something achievable given the corrupt US set-up of, well, everything -- would save tens of thousands of lives, and alleviate a great deal of unnecessary uffering and fear for tens of millions of people.

For America, the odest and centrist administration proposed by Obama is radical, because it is rational, and we haven't had much of that in the past eight years. Some cultural liberals may well be disappointed, but so what. The Obama victory was a mass movement, not a few articles in the New Yorker (though it's easy to think so if ou confuse the limits of your study with the limits of the world). Burchell sounds like most of the US right, and they didn't get it either, which is why
they lost.

Burchell's trajectory is an interesting one that, as Rundle recognises, passes through the Foucauldian governmentality school. That such a passage could lead to the Neoconservative camp is perhaps not so surprising. Mitchell Dean argues that for all its followers' claims to it being neither "descriptive nor normative but 'analytical and diagnostic'" the governmentality approach to considerations of political power is indeed normative and descriptive. For Dean, the usefulness of governmentality as a heuristic

is limited unless combined with a set of minimal presuppositions about the nature of the political and the project for governing society. Otherwise, the study of governmentality will tend to be captured by its own privileged object, the governmental discourses found in liberal democracy (Governing Societies, 2007: 50-51)

Burchell, on this account, has not so much moved away from the Foucauldian method of governmentality analysis as let the animating presuppositions of a Neoconservative culture war backlash, which aim to restore the damage down by 30 years of Neoliberal consensus, appear as the commonsense of his op-ed articles.

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