Saturday, September 26, 2009

Transforming Labourism

I haven't posted for a while, a hiatus due, I suppose, to the ennui that followed obtaining the doctorate after having to revise substantial sections of what was a stitched together initial submission. While the examiners' reports had some good things to say about the content of the research and some of its presentation, it was generally chastised for poor organisation and structure. Justifiably.

What I find now, after having revised the work to a much more coherent and concise form, is that the blind spots that enabled so much of the argument to proceed, appear wilfully, embarrassingly ignorant. I wonder if this is a common post-research feeling: that the insight gained into a small area of a specific field of knowledge came at the expense of holding other areas at a distance; blurred and unfocussed at the edge of vision's field? At a conference I attended in July, a Professor talked about her earlier research project as being a search guided by the settings of her 'metal detector'--signalling the presence of colonial and post-colonial metals, rather than other cultural and political phenomena. To borrow this analogy my doctoral research's metal detector was set to the transformations of Australian Labor and labourism in the period 1983-96, the rise of neoliberalism and the representation of citizenship in Australian novels by and about young men.

Post-thesis I've relaxed the filters on the detector, and the nationalist, whiteness and masculinist settings--although I was critical of all three of these areas--of the thesis research, appear now as limited and narrowed. At present I feel that having spent so long ignoring other frequencies, all I can hear is noise: I'd managed to compose out a limited combination of cultural and political rhythms, and now that other political and cultural temporalities have become present, I have no idea where to begin writing. Indeed, I find myself increasingly playing and thinking in terms of the piano; trying to marry the left-hand to the right, feeling my way toward stride techniques, focussing increasingly on playing accompanied melody, rather then comping chords while a vocal or instrumental melody is imagined in my head.

Still, the sorts of insight that my doctoral research produced are, for all the blindness that enabled them, worth disseminating. Here then, below, is a summary of some of the key writings on Australian Labourism. A topic that seems to have come back around now that Labor is back in power, federally, and questions of What's Left have arisen. The degree to which Labourism itself was neoliberalised (in David Harvey's and Michel Foucault's senses of the term) is an historical fact yet to be worked through by many who identify as Left. Sorry to say, but a symptom of this malaise is the weirdness of Robert Manne lecturing the Left on what Neoliberalism and Social Democracy are. Manne's definition of social democracy empties it of its socialisation aims, making it a type of social liberalism. His definition of neoliberalism shares much with David Harvey's but, crucially, fails to engage with the subjective dimensions of neoliberalism: the self as entrepreneur of itself, the self as the store of human capital that one must invest in. Studying Grunge fiction, gives you a sense of how neoliberalism is lived with; how it was embedded into everyday life, and, in particular, how it articulated to labourist conceptions of Australian national character, presenting the coming-of-age of Australian society in the 1980s-90s as a labourism growing up by becoming open to the world, productive, flexible, independent.

One indication of this Bildungsroman of Australian Labourism can be seen in the opening chapters of Paul Kelly's The March of the Patriots. Kelly asserts--rather than argues or brings together a set of historiographical writings--that Australian modernity began in 1983 with the deregulation of finance, under the Labor government. Apart from being myopic, and even narcissistic, historiography (it seems that Kelly's reference for his modernisation thesis is his prequel tome The End of Certainty where he argues that the Australian Settlement was demolished or dismantled by the Hawke-Keating governments) the notion that Australian modernity began in 1983 signals that labourism's coming-of-age was achieved through the financialization of labourist characteristics and practices. Thus the neoliberalisation of Australian labourism, for Kelly, marks the emergence of modern Australia, although Kelly would not see this history in those terms.

Kelly is right to mark this moment--1983's deregulation of exchange-rate controls, and relaxation of banking licences--as an important one. He is wrong, however, to equate this moment with the arrival of Australian modernity. Wrong, not least, for the conflation of one sequence of modernization (financial deregulation) with modernity as such. Thus, he posits a singular modernity that on inspection appears to be ultimately governed by the temporalities of finance capitalism. To reduce and singularize modernity to such a narrow conception of political-economy is enabled by a particular sort of blindness. What that is, I'm yet to grasp or understand, although I think Guy Rundle's characterisation of Kelly as a power intellectual (in contrast to the "public intellectual") hints at the uses to which Kelly's commentary and concepts of political-economic history are turned.



Fundamental to a consideration of the periodisation of the long Labor decade is the middle term: Labor and its discourse Labourism. Australian Labourism is a central discursive, ideological, cultural and institutional form of twentieth-century Australian political culture. The cultural and post-colonial projects of the second Keating Government (1993-96) are certainly important but they sit uneasily within those currents of Labor traditions that form around industrial issues and events. Beilharz writes that “[h]istorically [. . .] labourism kept returning as the more durable core of the Australian left. This may reflect its practicability; it also suggests, in one sense, that a weaker distinction than that firmly drawn between socialism and labourism might be appropriate, for labourism after all is also a kind of socialism” (38). But if labourism is a kind of socialism it is “the Australian version of those kinds of socialist reformism which construct socialism as a variation on capitalist civilisation rather than its negation. It is this longer, mainstream labour tradition which is now at risk” (38).

The gap between the discourse of socialism, as the negation of capitalism, and Labourism is made more explicit in Jim Hagan’s The History of the A.C.T.U., where he argues that

[t]he tenets of Labourism were White Australia, Tariff Protection, compulsory arbitration, strong unions, and the Labor party. White Australia kept out Asiatics who threatened the standard of living and the unions’ strength; tariff protection diminished unemployment and kept wages low; compulsory arbitration restrained the greedy and unfair employer; a strong union movement made it [. . .] possible to enhance and supplement arbitration’s achievements; and Labor Government made sure that no one interfered with these excellent arrangements. (1981: 14)

Similar to Hagan, Frank Bongiorno sees the articulation of trade unions to the ALP as the central mechanism of Labourism:
[t]he idea that an independent Labor Party, supported by a strong trade union movement, should seek a redistribution of wealth in favour of the working class through the parliamentary system [. . .] has been a tenet to which any activist working in the Labor Party has had to subscribe. It meant that socialism had to be a gradual affair because Labor sought to achieve its aims through popularly elected parliaments. (“Labourism”)

More succinctly, Beilharz writes that it is “the ideology, or better, the culture of the labour movement as it is articulated politically” (1994: 36). Ralph Miliband argues that its ideology resides in core demands that are industrial first, and social second:

Labourism is above all concerned with the advancement of concrete demands of immediate advantage to the working class and organised labour wages and conditions of work; trade union rights, the better provision of services and benefits in the field of health, education, housing, transport, family allowances, unemployment benefits, pensions and so on. (cited in Beilharz, 1994: 36)

Rob Watts defines Labourism so nebulously that it appears as an orientation towards the state that the social movement formed out of Trade Unionists uses to enact claims solely for improving their material conditions. For Watts, Labourism is merely “a strategy of using the state to advance the interests of the workers, deploying whatever political and discursive material is to hand” (52).

Labourism is a flexible set of practices, institutional relationships and ways of making meaning that articulates the labour movement to the Labor Party and both to the apparatuses of the state in the interests of improving material working rewards and conditions as a first measure, and in gaining social goods and conditions as a second goal. One key question of the long Labor decade for Beilharz was whether or not Labourism was flexible enough a discourse to weather the dismantling of Hagan’s first three tenets without becoming empty and ceasing to be a source of tradition which could be drawn on to generate a political culture capable of participating in shaping the political economy (Beilharz, 1994: 4-5). Furthermore, could Labourism still be said to be active in Australian political culture once the ‘protection’ that it had struggled to institute was disappearing? (3) Was Australian Labourism during the long Labor decade so discredited that it was unable to re-vitalise by re-articulating to formations on its Left and even Right wings? If there was a emptying of Labor tradition, as Beilharz argues, then was this disposal to be rued considering that Australian Labourism had been racist and heavily biased against equal opportunities for women for much of its existence? (McQueen, 2004: 30-44; Sawer, 2003b: 373-75). Was Labourism flexible enough a discourse to be modernised without being entirely lost?

Beilharz’s Transforming Labor is a long, mournful and sometimes melancholic argument against such effective flexibility not because Labourism is not a flexible discourse but because the political economy upon which it functioned no longer existed in 1994. Beilharz’s argument in Transforming Labor is that Australian Labourism is a species of the discourses of modernity, and like modernity comprises an interconnected series of Janus-faces: Social-liberal with socialist; backward-looking Romantic with forward-looking modernist; statist with civic; and utopian with pragmatic (36-48). Of course, Beilharz’s judgement about the culture-political economy relationship in Labourism is not to be taken uncritically. If the Hawke-Keating Government fundamentally altered the governance and shape of the Australian political economy then how are we to assess the degrees and origins of what determined these changes: were such governing changes inevitable considering the shifts in geopolitics and global finance and trade capitalism, or were they contingent and driven by nationally immanent cultural, social and political forces? Was Labourism a large ensemble of traditional forms and principles, utopias and pragmatic alliances, or did it possess a hard core of central tenets that if refused or negated would empty the ‘tradition’ to the point that it could no longer be meaningfully drawn on? Where does Labourism fit into narratives of the long decade? Was Labourism, as a set of principles and traditions, fundamentally recast by the Hawke-Keating Government? Was there a betrayal of a socialist or social democratic project, or were the accusers nostalgic for, or melancholy about, a type of Labourism that had never existed, except as hope and oppositional critique? These are all difficult questions which will be addressed throughout the thesis. The beginnings of an answer, however, requires shifting our focus to the discourse to which Labourism was articulated through long periods of the twentieth century: Social-liberalism.


Works Cited

Beilharz, Peter. Transforming Labor: Labour Tradition and the Labor Decade in Australia. Melbourne: Cambridge UP, 1994.

Hagan, Jim. The History of the A.C.T.U.. Melbourne, Longman Cheshire, 1981.

Kelly, Paul. The End of Certainty: Power, Politics and Business in Australia. Rev. ed. St Leonards: Allen and Unwin, 1994.

“Labourism.” Graeme Davison, John Hirst and Stuart Macintyre. Eds. The Oxford Companion to Australian History. Rev. ed. South Melbourne: Oxford UP, 2001. 374-75.

McQueen, Humphrey. A New Britannia. 4th. ed. St Lucia: U of Queensland P, 2004.

Sawer, Marian. “Reinventing the Labor party: From Laborism to Equal Opportunity.” Ed. Jenny Hocking and Colleen Lewis. It’s Time Again: Whitlam and Modern Labor. Armadale: circa, 2003b. 373-92.

Watts, Rob. “Laborism and the State: Confronting Modernity.” Ed. Paul James. The State in Question: Transformations of the Australian State. St Leonards: Allen and Unwin, 1996. 38-73.