Analysis of The Political Situation for Progressives
Progressives have been in retreat for the last 30–40 years. This has been due to a myriad of factors which will be discussed in this essay. We need to find solutions before society goes significantly backward, I hope this collections of related essays helps in this process. Much of what I cover is from a progressive point of view, I generally like the new and want to live in a just and fair society, and currently from my perspective, society works to perpetuate and exacerbate inequality.
On Progressives and Conservatives
Some people view social change with fear, they like to cling to the certainty of the old ways and resist any attempt at social progress. They aren’t evil, they want to protect those they love, what has given them the safety and certainty thus far in their lives. Others, such as myself see the present as full of injustices, society as backward and greet the new with enthusiasm. We want a better future, a more just society, a better world. Many are somewhere in between, wanting progress on some issues and are content with the status quo on others.
Studies of political attitudes among progressives and conservatives show fundamentally different ways of perceiving the world. It is important to understand that both ‘sides’ want what they think is best for the people they care about. Progressives have a tendency to view the new with interest, to find new things interesting and to identify with more groups outside of their own identity and experience. Conservatives view the new with suspicion, the tendency for the latest wave of immigrants to suffer the most aggressive cases of racism is a result of their culture being seen as foreign and threatening. They want to protect what they have, what they love.
Lived experience and social environment can make people more progressive or conservative, which is demonstrated through the differing political preferences between people living in the country and in the city. People in the country are a lot less likely to be exposed to new cultures and subsequently are more likely to believe negative stereotypes portrayed in the conservative media. People in the city are living in a social environment awash with different cultures, beliefs and ways of being and subsequently are more likely to like different cultures and people with different ways of being because they aren’t foreign or new, they are a part of the every day.
The Decline of the Left
This section surveys the modern political history of various progressive movements and organisations to try to explain how we find ourselves in this situation, and hopefully provide some insight into what we can do to advance progressive ideas in the modern context. I have been an activist since 1996, so have lived through a lot of this. Everything in this essay is generalised and there are plenty of people who have maintained and developed great politics over this period, they have just gone against the dominant trend.
What Does Left Even Mean?
Left-wing politics supports social equality and egalitarianism, often in opposition to social hierarchy and structural inequality. It typically involves a concern for those in society whom its adherents perceive as disadvantaged relative to others, as well as a belief that there are unjustified inequalities that need to be reduced or abolished (by advocating for social justice). The term left wing can also refer to “the radical, reforming or socialist section of a political party or system”.
‘The left’ is a very broad term that encompasses a wide range of views, approaches and solutions. Where the Pirate Party differs from the authoritarian left is on our approach to the state. Social democrats (like the left of the ALP and some of the Greens) and state socialists (Bolsheviks, see below) are less wary of state intervention and are quicker to use the power of the state to crack down on what they view as abhorrent behavior.
Then there is a tradition within the left of left libertarianism. The most widely known expression of this tendency are known as Anarchists. They seek to abolish the state and form society based on voluntary cooperation. We are a bit more moderate in our objectives, we only wish to weaken the state’s power over individuals and reform it, not destroy it entirely, but we fit in the same broad tradition. (I’m over simplifying but don’t want to get bogged down in theoretical debates)
The Mainstream Left Goes Right
Or if it has always sucked, was it ever left to begin with?
My father’s generation have a rosy view of the Whitlam government and not without reason. The Whitlam government got Australia out of the Vietnam war, instituted free education, made steps to recognise aboriginal land rights and marks a break from the culturally conservative Liberal governments that preceded it. It marks the high point of Australian social democratic government.
With the election of the Hawke-Keating Labor government in 1983 we saw the beginning of the 30 year domination of Australian politics by a right wing economic agenda, with bi-partisan support for selling off public assets, deregulating the economy, side-lining Unions (First by the ALP through the Accord) and forming a cosy relationship with business interests. Part of this was a result of popular thought within mainstream economics at the time, and part of this was the ‘donations’ being poured in by corporate interests who saw benefit in buying off the party that was meant to represent the interests of the workers.
The ALP has always been kinda shit. They were enthusiastic supporters of the White Australia policy and have always represented some of the worst instincts of the Australian working class. Because of this, a significant part of the left have always remained outside of the party.
A similar path has been chosen by the Democratic Party in the US and the Labour Party in the UK. The Democrats abandoned it’s working class base in favour of ‘the meritocrats’, a concept explored in an excellent essay After The Fumble. This led to anti-working class policies and trade agreements which amounted to an assault on ordinary voters lives and conditions. Bill Clinton signed NAFTA which did more to undermine the wages and conditions of millions of ordinary people than 8 years of Reagan. Tony Blair’s ‘New Labour’ represented the same forces rising in the UK.
There are now more progressive forces on the move within British Labour and the Democratic Party in the US. Bernie Sanders came rather close to winning the Democratic nomination, so close that the Democratic National Committee felt a need to rig the Primaries contest to ensure their corporate friendly candidate got elected. Equally Jeremy Corbyn has pushed British Labour to the left, which has seen the right wing Labour MPs revolt against the wishes of the parties’ rank and file members.
The new, actually progressive positions of Sanders and Corbyn represent some hope that the mainstream parties can adopt policies to tackle rising inequality, crony capitalism and the disconnect between voters and the government.
Australia, having a decent preferential voting system is less likely to see a similar movement within the ALP due to genuine progressives populating smaller parties. The ability for the Greens to get many reps into the Senate and for minor parties to have a half a chance, means there is no need for progressives to join a party that supports human rights abuse, appeals to racists and is generally a bit right wing.
The Decline of Bolshevism
Or how could purging 10 million people even be seen as progressive?
Outside of mainstream Parties the left was dominated by Bolshevism since the time of the Russian revolution. Quick history lesson, the Bolsheviks were the Russian Communist Party before they seized power (when they changed their name to Communist Party). The ideological tradition is internally quite diverse. In Australia the Communist Party was huge, they were the official Communist Party, linked to the Soviet Union through the Third International. They were pro-Stalin, whilst he was in power and followed the official Soviet line, only forming criticisms once ‘Comrade Stalin’ was dead. There are also various groups who either call themselves Trotskyists, or get called Trotskyists by the official ‘Communists’.
The Trotskyists are still scattered around in small groups, each separated from each other over what from the outside, seems like minor disagreements, but from the inside, seem to be life and death. These are the groups that Monty Python were making fun of with the People’s Front of Judea Vs Judean People’s Front antagonism in The Life of Brian.
What links the Bolshevik types is adherence to ‘orthodox’ interpretations of Marxism. Karl Marx postulated that the primary driver of history is class struggle. So the Marxist analysis of the political situation in Australia is that capitalists (the bourgeoisie) act as a class to oppress workers (the proletariat) using parliament to write laws benefiting corporations. The big donations to the mainstream parties, as well as the media (think NewsLtd) promote political parties that support the capitalist agenda. (This a condensation of 160+ years of Marxist history and theory compressed to a single paragraph, so I’m glossing over all of the nuance).
Depending on the organisation, Bolshevik types tend to have anti-racism, feminism, and queer rights as part of their platform, because minorities are clearly part of the working class and suffer extra oppression which needs to be fought. The goal is to unite the working class, and as a class, overthrow capitalism.
The idea of uniting the working class (as in the other 98%) to make a better world is powerful and the bit that sucks everyone in. The problems within Bolshevik organisations however are deep and inadequately addressed by the organisations themselves. Marx spoke of the need for a ‘Party of the Working Class’ I.E. the Communist Party. The actual Bolsheviks had a centralised command structure when they overthrew the provisional government (which overthrew the Czar) and strict party discipline which, due to the ‘success’ of the Russian revolution was emulated by most other Marxist groups.
Due to the centralised command structure, criticism, even well meaning criticism could lead to people being purged from the party. This is what leads to splits over minor political differences, and what leads to the People’s Front of Judea problem. Of course getting purged in a Communist country was even less fun.
Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Bolshevik left have been in decline, but still exist to this day (Socialist Alternative seem to be the most active in Australia). The upside is that there is less in-fighting and campaigns aren’t suddenly being abandoned by groups of people who were only really there to recruit. The downside is the loss of a group of activists committed to building solidarity between different groups of the poor and keeping it all tied together with solid class analysis.
The Decline of the Union Movement
Or What is the Point of Being a Member of an Organisation to Defend My Interests If It Refuses to Fight?
Unions are meant to be organisations of workers who use their collective power to fare better in dealings with their employers. Unions have won many of the working conditions that we enjoy in Australia today, the 38 hour week, overtime loading, four weeks annual leave for full time employees and are at the forefront of calling out workplace safety issues and looking after the well being of employees.
As mentioned above, the Accord struck between the Hawke ALP government and the Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU) did serious damage to the official union movement. It marked the beginning of a long trend of decline, spurred on by the changing nature of work, laws being passed to outlaw most strike action and a self-serving union bureaucracy that is often more interested in angling for a career as an ALP politician than defending workers rights.
Unions are not designed to deal with the modern work environment. Casuals are often treated as second class members, not invited to Union meetings and generally sidelined from discussions between employers and workers. There is a growing trend of people holding jobs in different sectors, meaning that if they want union protection they have to pay 2 unions for coverage.
Sadly some Unions have been screwing their members at the behest of employers. The Shop Distributive and Allied Employees’ Association (SDA) have even signed agreements that are worse than the Award. There have also been some high profile union corruption cases in recent years, most notably the Health Services Union expenses scandal that engulfed the then sitting ALP MP Craig Thomson.
All of these factors have been eroding the Union movement, which was once the foundation of progressive politics, upon which all else was built, filled with leftists of all shades.
The Left In Retreat
Or How the Right Labelled Us Inner City Elites
When I used to be part of the Anarchist movement, people would talk of the inner city ‘activist ghettos’. I didn’t know what they were talking about at first, Wollongong is too small for such a thing to really develop. In larger cities there has been a process of progressives moving to the inner city and vacating the outer suburbs and congregating with other progressives.
There are a number of reasons for this, Universities are centres of activism, and most are located in inner city areas. People move close to University to study, they make friends, enjoy the life-style and stay. Some LGBTIQ people move into the area because they suffer more intense discrimination in the ‘burbs, and even worse in rural areas, the progressive inner city is much easier to exist in. There is also more to do in the inner city, making the life-style more attractive. In the past a smaller proportion of the population went to University and the geographical divisions between uneducated workers and educated workers were not so pronounced.
For progressives in the inner city, politics develops with little to no reference to what people think and do in the outer suburbs. When people who have studied Arts for three years and spend their time analysing politics with other people who have studied Arts, it creates a false view of where everyone else is at.
People in the suburbs who got a job straight out of high school usually don’t have the same understanding of society and politics, and often come across as bigoted mainly because they haven’t taken the time to do a complex analysis of society. The developing culture of aggressively calling out minor acts of bigotry just alienates these people as demonstrated by the massive backlash against ‘political correctness’. These are the very same people progressives need to win over to have any real influence.
Living in a small city, and getting out of the University campus, my approach to politics has to be aimed at talking to ‘ordinary’ people. Dealing with sexism for example, I have had to spend a lot of time explaining to (older) work colleagues that women can do any job a man can do, and deserve equal pay for equal work. There is also having to make sure everyone understands that violence against women is bad and so is sexual harassment.
Debating the use of the word ‘cunt’ in the Australian vernacular just isn’t important by comparison, sure it can be fun and interesting, but getting angry about it is only going to alienate you from the very people you need to convince of more important things.
Identity Politics and the Loss of Class Analysis
All of these factors play into the current malaise that the left finds itself in. Mainstream left organisations such as the ALP in Australia or the Democrats in the US have moved to the right on economic issues and have abandoned traditional working class people to the whims of globalisation. They have abandoned class analysis because it undermines the ideology they espouse in the economic sphere.
The end of the Soviet Union has seen an acceleration of the decline of Bolshevik organisations who, for all of their faults, were continuing to carry on the struggle to look after the interests of the working class. Unions have been co-opted to some extent and have been unable to reform well enough to remain relevant for many workers who can’t get adequate protection due to the fragmented nature of their working lives.
Along with the trend of progressives moving into inner cities, these factors have created an intellectual environment where class is often overlooked in social analysis. Academics studying structural disadvantages have increasingly focused on one form of inequality in isolation. This has led to the rise of a new, aggressive form of identity politics, which in turn has further alienated progressives from the very people they need to win over.
Heterosexual white males are the most privileged of the oppressed sections of society, but we are still oppressed. Real privilege is being a billionaire and being able to influence politicians to do your bidding, or even bank-roll your own political career. Class, in the Marxist control the means of production and buy politicians/ politics sense, is the identity that Trumps all others. Many people have forgotten this.
Activists fighting bigotry of all forms have every right to fight back against their own oppression, they need support from those of us who only have to deal with the oppression of being not filthy rich. The us and them mentality within the broad working class needs to stop, it is dividing people that need to be allies.
Ideas for a way forward
I am sure much of this is obvious to anyone who read the whole essay. We need to ensure that addressing economic, social and political inequality are central to pushing progressive politics. The mainstream left having drifted right over the last 30 years or so, coupled with the decline of Unions and the Bolshevik left have created a situation where progressives have largely abandoned broad working class solidarity as the basis of politics.
We need to advocate for a better life for all. We need to address climate change and we need a politics that people want to be a part of. Activists need to understand and have respect for non-activists. Most people want a decent standard of living, they want a better life for their children and they want to have a happy life. Fighting for a better life for all is a goal that is self-evidently good.
People struggling against sexism, racism queer-phobia etc. need the support of all of the other 98% and need to see themselves as part of the broader coalition of progressives. Bigotry is everyone’s problem, and blaming relatively more privileged parts of the working class only creates enemies amongst people who need to be allies. Equally, the more privileged parts of the working class need to be more conscious of disadvantage faced by others and help them overcome issues they face due to their position in society. This requires being conscious of the complexity of social relations and that everything you do with other people has a political aspect.