Friday, October 16, 2009

Sloughing off the skin of Labourism

**Below is a long off-cut from the Phd. It summarises and evaluates a variety of political histories: Greg Melleuish's work on Australian Liberalism, George Megalogenis' The Longest Decade and Ken Wark's essayistic analysis of Australian political and cultural postmodernity.**

Paul Kelly’s extremely influential tome The End of Certainty stands out as the most widely read and referred to sources on the long Labor decade, and is still to be found on the reading lists of Australian University subjects in political science and government. Kelly’s main argument in this political history, that is densely filled with insider-detail, is that in the 1980s the exhaustion of the Federation era ‘Australian Settlement’ both became apparent and was wilfully, rightly dismantled by the Hawke-Keating government. Kelly’s text is the central history of the long Labor decade, and his heuristic of the Australian Settlement widely circulates in Australian political culture as the commonsense in popular Australian historiography of the period. As a number of critics of Kelly’s text and central heuristic have argued The End of Certainty is both a history of politics and a profoundly political historiography that claims that Australian modernity was prevented by long exhausted traditions instituted at the time of federation which were inward-looking and stunting, leaving Australia unprepared for the maturity and growth that are demanded by the new conditions of globalisation (Beilharz, 1993b, Macintyre, 2004 and Walter, 1996: 27-42). The argument of the text is that these traditions, the five pillars of the Australian Settlement,[i] are marks of an immature nation then and in 1992 and that their final dismantling under the supervision of the Hawke-Keating government  modernised Australia. Ultimately for Kelly in The End of Certainty the long Labor decade is the period of the long overdue modernisation of Australian political culture whose central hero was Paul Keating. However, the politics of this tome are located in its use of the Bildungsroman narrative form in order to use the cultural identification between Australian national character and Labourism that Russel Ward had written of in The Australian Legend (1966) to argue that the Labourist Australian national character was "a paradox: a young nation with geriatric arteries" which needed to mature by sloughing off the "Sentimental Traditionalism" of Labourism (Kelly, 1994: 13 and 2). 

Greg Melleuish’s essayistic history of post-federation Australian political culture is less inclined to see the long Labor decade as modernisation forced by global realities. Rather he sees it as a dual attack on moral and collective freedom and the traditional institutions that reproduce the conditions for these forms – the family, the Christian churches and the unified nation – by an expanding government in league with Unionism. Melleuish speaks from that morality of Liberalism that Judith Brett argues is central to the Liberal tradition in Australia (Brett, 2003: 7-12). For Melleuish "[t]he Labor mission was fundamentally corporatist and efficiency-based rather than individualistic and liberal’ and its ‘measures to deregulate the Australian financial sector and float the dollar were not introduced to enhance individual economic liberty" but were "always intended as a form of disciplinary control rather than as a tool for creating greater freedom" (1998: 55). Melleuish calls the economic rationalists ‘new liberal’ and in an assessment that chimes with those of neoliberalism in the Foucauldian school writes, “[t]hose who attacked protection and regulation used the language both of liberty and of managerial efficiency . . . the language and rhetoric [of which] achieved a wide currency [that] became embedded in public debate as an ideal measure against which the real world could be evaluated “(56).

Melleuish sees Australian political culture as having been subjected to cultural transformations that have been ‘sold’ to the Australian public through packages promising transformation and redemption (72).[ii] These packages operate against what Melleuish sees and values as the liberal propensity of localised free associations in civil society to conduct their own lives outside of any ‘’package’ that the government and the state has sought to impose on [these] ordinary Australians" (84-5 and 93). Melleuish’s analysis of economic rationalism shares much with Foucault’s analysis of Neo-Liberalism, except Melleuish has normative commitments to family, nation and church organisations as a Burkean conservative who values institutions which function to reproduce social forms that have a moral framework. The similarity then lies in Melleuish’s critique of economic rationalism as a set of practices which compel freedom: "Freedom compelled is no freedom at all. Efficiency disguised as freedom, and used to coerce individuals into forms of behaviour that economic managers desire, is no better. Despite its talk of liberty, economic rationalism – as state policy – smells too much of coercion’ (85).

There are a number of other political histories which intersect the long Labor decade. George Megalogenis, journalist for News Ltd.’s national broadsheet The Australian, in his The Longest Decade (2006) argues that the economic boom that began in 1991 and continued into 2006 is a useful periodisation on which to fashion a political-cultural history. For Megalogenis Paul Keating and John Howard’s rule should be considered as a continuous enactment of the project of economic reform. Of course Megalogenis is writing before the institution of Workchoices: a set of regulations that placed the individual contract at the heart of employment relations and also ultimately aimed to de-unionise Australian workplaces. As Megalogenis observes in his revised version: "Howard had the deregulation equation the wrong way around. He was preaching reform in the personal economy to make employees more productive. But when pressed on global warming, he reverted to a protectionist formula. He said he would not be exporting Australian jobs to Asia"(2008).

As a distinct period in the historiography of Australian political culture ‘the longest decade’ (1991-2006) is given coherence by the continuous economic growth that proceeded the recession of 1990-1991 and by Megalogenis’ claim that this ‘boom’ is the legacy of Keating and Howard’s shared project of reforming, meaning neoliberalising, the Australian economy. But Megalogenis’s periodisation is focused on the aftermath of the embedding of neoliberalism in Australian political culture rather than excavating the techniques by which it became embedded and contested. Megalogenis writes,

The boom of the past 15 years has not secured social cohesion. Instead, it has encouraged a mass outbreak of social climbing. Deregulation has taught Australians to see their self-worth through bricks-and-mortar and the size of the bribe they can extract from government. Avarice is the new black, and the political system has sanctified it with the term ‘aspirational voting’. [ . . . ] The open economy has flipped the clich├ęs of the Australian character. Egalitarianism is now the motto of the haves; capital gains, the mantra of the punters. (2006: 299)

This is breezy, punchy journalistic history, that is colloquial in tone and firm in its evaluations. Megalogenis is an economist who marshals demographic statistics into his argument in order to support his claims like that above concerning the lack of social cohesion over the period. Yet as Megalogenis’ post-2007 election revised extract above makes clear the continuous narrative of the so-called longest decade cleaved around three central, and as I will argue below, ghostly pillars of Australian Labourism: Protection, Arbitration and Unionism. In this sense the return of spectres of Australian Labourism roused by the Coalition’s Workchoices legislation draws attention from the fact of 15 years of economic growth and the cultural politics of managing the boom over that period to questions concerning the history of Australian Labourism. For if the ‘longest decade’ ends with these Labourist ghosts haunting the body politic we must wonder at the extent to which and how the living forms of these ghosts were interred, discarded and lost. The periodisation used in this thesis – the long Labor decade – complements Megalogenis’s, while their overlapping period (1991-1996) points more to the contested legacy of the Keating Prime Ministership and to the disorienting temporal effects of a neoliberalising Labor government than to any defects in either that the other can explain.


“The Hawke legacy is a laboratory of empirical experiment that is, among other things, a ‘third way’ between dogmatic insistence on a politics of rationalism and a do-nothing politics of pragmatism” (Wark, 1999: 335). McKenzie Wark’s writing on the long Labor decade is mediated through his experience of being in a Liberal Party stronghold as the results of the 1993 election are announced hearing Keating’s speech on the true believers and reflecting on how this signifier makes him feel (1999). It is also mediated by three ‘documentaries’ (two are fictionalised documentaries) on Labor in power. The first is True Believers focussing on John Curtin and Ben Chifley in office, the HV Evatt leader in opposition then The Dismissal which hones in on the final period of the Whitlam government and finally Labor in Power the short Labor decade. Wark calls each an epic and there is something of the formation of nation in each media text, and a monumental size to the importance of the three government projects, their obstacles, conditions, opponents. In a sense what Wark does is similar to what Beilharz does in Transforming Labour, which is to assess Labor tradition through ‘historiography’ so as to assess the fidelity of the Hawke-Keating government to Labor tradition. While Beilharz’s politics are enunciated from a moving position across a spectrum of Left ideologies as he attempts to  stay left as the old certainties dissolve and Labor in power shifts right, Wark’s approach is cultural and minimal and libertarian: "I used to be true believer, and a labour movement leftist, but these days I’ve lost faith in anything but the practicalities of forming electoral majorities out of a commitment to [. . .] [m]inimising avoidable suffering – if there is a feeling that structures the whole of Labor culture, I think that’s it" (Wark, 1999: 181).

For Wark the Labor party is adept at producing and circulating fables which have to reach their publics and constituents through contemporary media like radio and television. For Wark these reinventions of the fables of Labor always have this structure of feeling – minimising avoidable suffering. Wark is adept at picking up on the key implications of shifts in policy and events like the Accord, which signal that the Australian Labor Party and ACTU agree to forego short-term pursuit of wage claims, compensated for by an increase in social wage, in order to address high inflation and high unemployment.

Effectively Wark re-rells the story of the long Labor decade through the Labor in Power documentary, with short excursions into his ideas about the vectoral nature of ‘politics’ and celebrity (179). Key events are summarised: the Accord, the float, the 1985 tax Summit. Wark’s narrative shifts to a focus on Keating, to the problems with Keating’s manichean, black-white, right-wrong rationalism in opposition to Hawke’s empiricist- consensual style of decision making. Keating as the celebrity starts to ascend for Wark and then we move into the 1986 Banana Republic episode (200). Next Wark unpacks economic rationalism: idealist extrapolation of understanding of part of economy to whole economy operating through an idealist and utopian faith in a future that the present actions can bring forth (201). Wark is of course astute, bringing to bear his sociology of culture:
It envisages a change from political to economic time where change that cannot be measured, the eventfulness of fortune, gives way to uncertainty that can be quantified, the calculus of risk. This pure quantifiable time never arrives [and displaces and defers in through the techniques used to move toward it], but it acts as a permanent alternative dreamtime, the purity of which stands as a measure of the impurity of the sordid political time of the present. (Wark, 1999: 201-02)

Wark also writes that, 

The changes Labor itself unleashed when in office created an economy, a polity and a culture that were considerably more dynamic than the quiet backwater in which people my age, who I’ll call Generation Gough, were probably the last to experience. The sense that there may be profound qualitative changes afoot in the 90s contributed to the resistant mood of the information proletariat and the reactionary instincts of Hansonite populism. (Wark, 1999: 260).

For Wark these judgements are preliminary to his (post)modernist advocacy of the need for Labor to enter the information and postindustrial age by carrying their ethos of “minimising avoidable suffering” into cyberspace through the urbane and cosmopolitan cultures that travel on the vectors of celebrities (260-64).[iii] Wark’s postmodernity is a particular brand of modernity[iv] in which the traditional and even modern cultures of Labor and Labourism are to be sloughed off as redundant skins suited to suburban and therefore ineffective politics. To make his point Wark enlists the memory of those for whom Gough Whitlam was only ever a figure on television: “Besides being culture and politics, the Whitlam fable is also television. For some of my contemporaries, it was more television than anything else” (265). Thus for Wark, “[p]art of the challenge for Labor at the end of the 90s became that of finding ways of articulating this broader, less directly political memory of Labor’s past to the party’s future electoral ambition” (267).

The key sections in Wark’s book, in terms of his writing of the long Labor decade, are ‘Steering the Third Way Leftwards” and “Postindustrial Class Struggle” (272-285). In these chapters Wark argues that “[s]ome on the left of the Labor party” need to join “the public consensus on what actually happened in the 80s and 90s” (273). Via Lindsay Tanner’s gloss on Kelly’s Australian Settlement thesis, Wark argues for a new Labourist pragmatism. What is missing from Wark’s vision is any account of labour that is not postindustrial or any account of culture that is not mediated by television. That culture might be experienced while playing footy or netball is somehow too suburban for Wark and thereby ‘traditional’. For Wark the social body can be re-assembled. In the language of Deleuze it can make new assemblages, in order to accommodate the new global flows of information and culture. Yet the gains of such cheerful positivity are hardly accessible to all. Indeed as the social body reassembles those parts no longer contemporary, urbane, or able to couple are perhaps simply abjected. Wark’s conceit is that they tell fables while he deals in facts and actualities (274).

The central problem in Wark’s ‘narrative’ is that he confuses the culture of neoliberalism with cultural globalization: effectively arguing that any of the side-effects of globalization can be squared away through the more egalitarian cultural governance that such globalization brings in its wake – if only we are urbane enough to heed the call of and fall into line with the cosmopolitan slipstream. This is a dangerously circular argument that treats all blockages in the flows of globalization as opportunities for (good) cultural, and thereby economic, reform (283 and 290-2).[v] Culture is not merely as response to political economic forces not are political economic forces driven by changes in culture. Wark’s model of politics would seem to place culture in the position of that which mediates technological change and thereby is at the avant-garde of political and economic change: “[t]he medium through which economic or political change or negotiation takes place is partly cultural” (337). While there is a case for this conception of a cultural determinism, and theories of cultural materialism do give a central place to the material effects of culture, the claim that cultural forms precede political ones and that thereby politics needs to turn the forms of the cultural avant garde to its advantage, albeit guided by a specific ethos, is a more an academic disciplinary move or gambit whereby the methods and metaphysical commitments of political science and sociology are to be subsumed by those of cultural studies. Wark’s key slippage is between culture and economy: economy is a type of culture (283). Again there is some truth in this definition, but to argue that economic forms and systems are in part cultural is not to concede that the distinction is thereby redundant and the economic to be subsumed by the cultural. Equally, as John Frow among others argues, the cultural sphere is traversed by commodification and is itself an industry, part of the economy (1997 and Jameson, 1991). The other point that needs to be made is that Wark is confusing the social life of the post-commodity (the uses of information after it has been exchanged) with what is social about commodification: for Wark commoditized information cannot be reifying or alienating as information has a social life that exceeds the exchange. This is to read one temporal condition in the social life or career of a thing – the moment of use or waste or gift – onto that different temporal state of being a commodity (Frow, 1992). This is rhetorical and textual de-reification that takes information out of the circuitry of commodification by focussing on that type of information that is popular, already public and ‘cultural’. That certain information might be highly guarded, and patented, that it might constitute knowledge and disciplinary expertise within a field of technical specialities is bracketed by Wark due to the focus on popular culture, television in particular, in his text. This subsumption of economy to culture under the new conditions of media vectors in the postindustrial, information age opens the door to a discourse on cultural governance which can present itself as governance as such.[vi] What is missing in Wark’s post-long Labor decade account is a greater reach into the culture of Chicago School Neoliberalism and its focus on the microeconomics of human capital and the rationalities by which the human subject as labour becomes that human subject as enterprise and as entrepreneur of one’s potentials and capacities. Wark is too fixed on consuming and meaning-making subject to entertain the notion that information can be an investment in one’s own human capital, and that egalitarian access to information might be less a matter of keeping the postmodern light on the hill on than of furthering the Neoliberal project of embedding governmentalities which function to form the self as entrepreneur of one’s own human capital (Foucault, 2008).

[i] I will return to a more extensive analysis of Kelly’s conception of an ‘Australian Settlement’ later. However, the five pillars of the ‘exhausted’ Australian Settlement were: a white Australia which protected white male jobs from Asian emigrants and promoted White citizenship rights over Aboriginal ones; a system of industrial tariff protection which enabled employers to vouchsafe the jobs that were to be paid a ‘living wage’ according to need rather than means; an Arbitration Court which adjudicated on these wage cases and upon the principle of a living wage; a paternalistic utilitarian State which sought to support and assist its citizens in achieving ‘happiness’; and an expectation that Britain (then America) would provide an imperial benevolence in terms of financial and physical security (Kelly, 1994: 1-11).

[ii] Transformation and redemption are both operations of narrative. Melleuish has missed the obvious narrative form of the coming-of-age ‘package’.

[iii] On the meanings of culture, celebrity and cyberspace Wark writes:
If Labor is a culture then it is flanked on one side by the problem of celebrity and on the other by the problem of cyberspace. By celebrity, I mean the need to create an image for the vectors of the media, through which the public reads proposal for what it could desire. By cyberspace, I mean the need to learn empirically from the great wealth of information available and create the peculiar kind of specialized knowledge that is the guile of the political generalist. (1999: 264)
[iv] John Frow suggests that postmodernism, as a word,
[c]an be taken as designating nothing more and nothing less than a genre of theoretical writing. [ . . . Y]our first major gambit must be to predicate the existence or non-existence of the postmodern. . . . The classical structure of this gambit [ . . .] is this: first, you assume the existence of a historical shift in sensibility, which you call the postmodern; then you define it by opposition to whatever you take the modern to have been; finally, you seek to give a content to the postmodern in terms of this opposition. The content, that is to say, is deduced logically from the axiom of existence and only then described as historically real. (1997: 15)

Peter Osborne argues that modernity is a multiple, qualitative and not chronological concept (1995 and 1992). For Zygmunt Bauman the historicism of a post modernity elides, again, the qualitative shift in that experience of time and space that is better explained and connoted by the figuring of a move from a solid to liquid modernity (2000). Furthermore, the alternative modernities ‘school’ that surrounds the Chicago University based Public Culture journal, including Dipesh Chakrabarty, argue that the paths to and through modernity are multiple and that to fix any one path is often Eurocentric if not also teleological (Goankar, 2002: 4 and Chakrabarty, 2000:6-16).
In Wark’s account of the lessons for Labor of the long Labor decade revenants, ghosts, hauntings and utopias are suburban and backwards, to be blasted away by synchronising with the techniques and social forms enabled by the new modernity that is transnational, cosmopolitan and led by mediatised postindustrial information technologies. While this is a manifesto for a certain formation of Australian Left-intellectuals, not all intellectuals are caught in the slipstream that Wark argues is dragging humanity into the Network age, nor is his “temporalisation of time” (Osborne, 1995) able to account for disjointed time (Derrida, 1993) or the experience of multiple times which Ernst Bloch argued was one of the key techniques the Nazi leadership used to conduct the arrhythmic temporalities of a bloc of social formations in the 1930s (Bloch 1991: ).Overall Wark’s project for a postmodern Labor Party and Labourism is hampered, in a similar way to Paul Kelly’s project for a new Australian Settlement, by its politics of time: its deterministic modernisation that divides the social realm into those who are going forward, those stuck and those heading back.

[v] Wark writes that
whether anyone likes it or not it [Labor] will have to be open to the global information vector to some degree, for it is through globalisation that new sources of wealth creation will produce the pudding to be shared out to Labor’s traditional base. The paradox is that the only way for Labor to honour its traditional communities is a leap into a modern, perhaps even postmodern future.(1999: 292)
This is view that could be almost entirely substituted for the one Paul Kelly proffered in 1992 in The End of Certainty, save that while Kelly proselytisers for free markets Wark speaks for free information. It’s the teleological inevitability of both positions that is identical, and this is surprising since Wark’s use of the term postmodern should suggest that a teleological conception of history is rejected. The opposite is the case. Chapter 3 explores discourses of modernisation and postmodernisation in depth.

[vi] Carol Johnson is sceptical about those more ‘positive’ and triumphalist narratives, like Wark’s, in which the inevitable political implications for any Left response to a wholesale shift into the post-industrial information are glibly presented:
A modernist belief in the inevitability of technological progress and the grand narratives of economic liberalism have been combined with more postmodern conceptions of an information and cultural economy. . . .Various governments have used the information revolution to justify policies of free trade and deregulation that have a long history in neo-liberalism. Nor has the cyber-age succeeded in undermining traditional identities and power relations, rather those identities and power relations have been adapted to the new conditions. . . One needs to be deeply sceptical regarding the way in which politicians use arguments about the ‘inevitable’ implications of unprecedented social change. (2000: 138-9)

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