Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Ruddism: some thoughts

It’s probably derriere garde—in some quarters—to use the language of blog posts and newspapers as metaphors for understanding contemporary government, but I wonder if it’s worth considering that the projects of the current Rudd-Labor Government are actually happening under or over the fold.

Two years into this Government’s tenure and there is a sense that the mainstream media are propagating a continuation of the sorts of commentator culture warrior, ‘balance’ reporting-interviewing practices, that came to dominate the end of the Howard era. Such techniques seemed to have worked effectively in the early to mid noughties, when economic and national security were presented as constantly under threat and the Leader’s ubiquitous radio presence was sought to establish the firm borders between those who were with us and those against. (We still listen to the ABC’s News Radio of a morning in our household, as we did in the Howard era, and one notable difference is the lack of the Leader’s voice on the radio). So, before looking at the so-called substance of the mediatized products of the Rudd Government, I want to consider the forms of the media-government mix

The current Leader is more a creature of television and the new social media: breakfast magazine-style TV, in particular. Rudd is narrowcasting more than Howard, and this has prompted some mainstream political journalists to draw attention to the repetition of Rudd’s sequences of narrowcasts, suggesting that this technique is redolent with spin and micro-managed manipulation.

Rudd is using media differently to Howard, and these different practices have left the broadsheet, TV and radio political journalist elite at a loss. Consider, for example, the weekly ABC TV show The Insiders. This one hour Sunday morning show is a magazine-style program, which comprises about 8 segments. The primary section of the show is an ‘discussion’ chaired by ex-Labor staffer Barry Cassidy, who presides over three TV, radio or print political journalists/ commentators, as they range over what they see as the main political events of the week. This panel is meant to be ‘balanced’—meaning that to the right of the screen is a culture-warrior News Ltd commentator, and to the left a social-liberal Fairfax or Labor-aligned journalist/ commentator resides. This segment is interrupted by a cross to The Senior Political Journalist—Paul Kelly—whose magisterial analysis is handed down in a language of absolute definitiveness that frequently clashes with the shifting ephemera of week-to-week politics.

The panel, the host, the doyen . . . these are truly insiders, but what they are inside increasingly appears to be the new outside. If Rudd is the king of spin, then these in-outsiders are often secondary spinners, offered one to two minutes to interpret the political rhetoric and events of the week in ways that rarely produce any insight into what is going on, under the fold.

Rudd doesn’t appear on The Insiders. He has, however, been appearing on a talk-variety TV show, Rove, which aims at something like the 18-39 demographic. He also appears on ABC TV’s flagship current affairs show, The 7:30 Report. The point is that the mix of media through which politics is both occurring and being reported is shifting, and that the insiders of the political journalism establishment have attempted to explain changes in this mix by drawing on a discourse which personalizes politics through the leader’s style of leadership. There is, of course, nothing new in this focus on the personal techniques of self of the Leader. But such a focus is, I think, bring prompted by a lack of understanding about what is going on under the fold.

So, as the techniques of governing through the media shift, what is going on? Can these changes be reported in the old ways? Maybe not. Maybe such changes need both a new language of abstract analysis and more narrative-based forms of testimony—even collective testimony—to articulate such changes. A mixture of what can be said and told about what is happening on the ground combined with an analysis of how these forms of practices and thought can be explained at the level of larger organizations, of the state, of NGOs and so on.

What was happening on the ground during the Howard-era was to some extent routed through the figure of the ordinary Australian who was defined in the media as someone whose freedom and values were not to be contained or directed by cosmopolitan elites. Such culture war tropes were neatly allied to the figure of the small-business owner, the mom and dad shareholder, and to nebulous family values. Thus a neoliberal-neoconservative amalgam of practices and pressures circulated through the figure of the ordinary Australian: a figure that was posited as being grounded; as living in the 'real world'. The short-circuiting of this amalgam in the Australian context arrived in various events, not least, the Schapelle Corby drug-trials, the Chaser’s APEC stunt and the anti-Workchoices campaigns. These events, among others, tore at the media complicity in these amalgams of the neolib-neocon project. But the tear in media fabric has been replaced by old ideas about social democracy—fed by Rudd himself—and about Labor’s Whitlamite propensity to fiscal largesse and hence self and national destruction. Rudd’s neoliberalism is thus presented as more of the same, but with a social-democratic heart. The mainstream characterization of Rudd as the King of Spin is to some extent, the judgment of journalists whose bearings are set in an earlier period of government: the Hawke-Keating period. Howard did much to persuade people that his Government was a type of permanent opposition, rolling back the cultural arrogance of the Keating era and its allies in the arts, the universities, the Fairfax press and the ABC. Rudd’s talk appears as spin, because it doesn’t rely on the modes of consensus amongst the political-journalist class that Hawke, Keating and Howard’s spin, did. But what is probably happening is that these forms of consensus are being mediated differently. What appears as repetition to an outsider who was once inside, appears as effective rhetoric and policy to those currently inside, or at least to those connected to government in ways that make the appearance of repetition, an irrelevance--background noise.

In short, what is needed, and what may well be circulating but I don’t know of, is a language that joins the social practices of the ground—of the local, the private, the bodily—to those of the region, the state, the corporate . . . In Foucauldian terms, there needs to be a language that can narrate and explain a new continuum of governmentality.

Now, maybe such a continuum is not a cause for celebration or affirmation, but rather invites and requires critique. Fine. But there is a preliminary need to more accurately narrate and analyse the current continuum. Which brings me, finally, to some suggestive fragments embedded in a recent Guy Rundle essay, “The End of the Whitlamists” in Arena Magazine (no. 102). Rundle’s topic is the residual Whitlamism that has affected the way that some on the Left view the prospects for cultural and social reform that the Rudd Government offers. I have previously analysed Whitlamism as a spectre that haunts the Australian Left, and have argued that its ghostly-ness is evidence of a loss to be worked through. Rundle is taking a similar tack, effectively arguing that one critical component of Whitlamism is that it lingers as a form of melancholy for sections of the Left intelligentsia, especially sections working in the arts and cultural industries.

Rundle has some sharp and, I would say, Foucauldian points to make about the forms of governmentality emerging in the Rudd-era. (He hints that this line of analysis will be expanded on in an upcoming essay in Overland.) So, to the quotes:

‘New Labour’ style regimes mark the end of one type of alliance between organized labour—or the suburban mainstream as it has now become—and an avant-garde intelligentsia, a model going back in explicit form to the 60s, and with its roots in the 19th century. Yet the artistic intelligentsia cannot successfully reflect on its own presuppositions—its rebelliousness hardened into orthodoxy—to mount a sufficiently new critical position on ‘Ruddism’ One can see this, for example, in the somewhat disappointing contribution of centre-left magazine The Monthly to publish contributions with a degree of critical or theoretical depth (some essays by Anne Manne aside) because its implicit ‘Whitlamist’ attitude to Labor, state and culture, lacks a framework with which to analyse the distinctive—and far from emancipatory—approach of the Rudd government to social and cultural life.

One can see this as a renewed push for an explicitly social democratic intellectual movement from a number of left and centre-left writers and activists, one which wears its acceptance of limits as a badge of pride, a sort of reverse radicalism, Yet such moves are occupying a space that has already been carved out by the Rudd-ALP—it is an intellectual movement drawing its legitimacy from a political process, rather than leading it through the application of a critical imagination. That secondary status shunts such people into the position of supply strategies of cultural management to a ruling party—hence a new-found focus on the nature of a progressive patriotism, and a search for ways to manufacture ‘belonging’.

For many the forces of darkness [the neoconservative reaction of the Rudd Government to media-based moral panics, which see Rudd condemn certain figures and which put pressure on censorship regimes: e.g. the Bill Henson affair] are attacks on the big freedoms, which are rarely seriously attacked, while increasing regimes of subjective re-shaping and microregulation of social desires go increasingly unchallenged, because they are wrapped up in various guises (preventative health measures appear to be the most recent) that maintain the old image of social improvement. Only when such processes swing round to take in the artistic community—and that is the Henson case in essence—do such people become aware of the profound transformations of state-society relations taking place.

The avant-garde intelligentsia, by and large, haven’t understood that [there could be different ideas of progress].

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