I received a beautiful gift from my partner this week, a book called Posters for the People. It contains hundreds of prints of posters created by artists working in the Works Progress Administration, a cornerstone of President Roosevelt’s New Deal. The program provided up to 30 hours of employment per week at market wage rates for up to 3 million people at a time during the Great Depression.
Generally, there is a tendency for us to romanticise the past. However, when it comes to the state of reformist progressive/liberal/social democratic politics there is no doubt that things really were once better. Roosevelt’s New Deal was an historic bargain between Labor and Capital that allowed Labor to increase its income as productivity rose. It brought unheralded prosperity to millions of Americans. By contrast employment languishes under Obama. Where there was once a New Deal, now there is No Deal. In Australia we had perhaps the greatest ever Labor Prime Minister, Ben Chiefley, take the creation of a national social welfare system to a referendum in the 1940s. Prime Minister Gillard, on the other hand, tightened restrictions on the unemployed. For that matter, it takes a special kind of shit for Labor to be outflanked on the left on Immigration by a conservative leader who’s election pitch was a simple and brutal “Stop the Boats”.
Were the 1930s and 1940s some sort of magical time when the broad Left loved the leaders of centre-left reformist political parties? Hell no. When he was President, Roosevelt was regarded by many on the Left as a hypocritical tool of capitalist control – buying off workers to stave off a revolution. In 1949, Chifley sent in the army to break a strike of coal miners and even supported, as Opposition Leader, the conservatives in attempting to ban the Communist Party of Australia (this was later struck down by the High Court – sound familiar?). More sweeping reforms were passed but calculating politicians were still calculating politicians. The difference is today we don’t have sweeping reforms (other than as code for more corporate control) so we’re just faced with the sight of calculating politicians, and it ain’t pretty.
Reams of text have been written about how Labor could be better. There’s been much wailing about how the current crop of politicians compare with <insert favourite historical leader here> (mine’s still Chifley despite what I wrote above). And if only <insert favourite reform here> (such as separating unions from Labor Party, primaries etc) happened then all would be well. I write this because it’s a thought process I constantly fall victim to as I passively wait for the next statesman/messiah.
I think though, I’ve worked out what the problem is with centre-left parties in the West, from Labor to Labour to the Democrats. It’s not the calculating politicians, it’s not the influence of corporate money, and it’s not the craven lack of principles nor even the branch stackers subverting internal party democracy. The problem is not the parties themselves. Reformist politics is what it is, and it always be so.
The problem is the organised Left. The problem is us.
Žižek wrote that liberalism’s ‘problem is that it cannot stand on its own: there is something missing in the liberal edifice. Liberalism is, in its very notion, “parasitic”, relying… on a presupposed network of communal values…’ (p. 76, First as tragedy, then as farce (2009)). Like most things Žižek writes it took me awhile to even begin to figure out what this means, let alone its implications.
But I think if you apply that thought to the current political dynamic in Australia it means that centre-left political parties such as Labor and the Greens cannot stand alone – the constant need to compromise means these parties require something outside of themselves in order to go anywhere. Labor is eating itself now because the state of the organised Left today is not large enough for it to feed off of it with any utility.
For any strategic Left activist in Australia it means we need to stop becoming so preoccupied by either the many apparent short-comings of Labor/Greens or waste time figuring out how these parties can become any better. It is our organising and our campaigning that will push them. Because of our actions parliamentary parties will give us important gains but never the final victory.
The real challenge is for the Australian left to systematically organise around the interests of the people. And I don’t mean interests in some vague “public interest” kind of way. I mean “interests” in terms of immediate ability to make a living, support a family, get decent housing, quality health care etc. It is only through educating people about how corporate power blocks their immediate interests, providing realistic alternatives and then asking them to participate are we going to get anywhere.
That’s why I’d like to give a big shout out of support to activists in New York City today where thousands of them have kicked of a Tahir Square style occupation of Wall Street and the financial district. Their intervention highlights Wall Streets’ pernicious influence in the US political process. What’s more, while there are Twitter reports of riot police circling, their action is already a success. The protest not only draws attention to how much the public has supported (and in turn been fleeced by) Wall Street but underscores their ability to fight back. The next few days could be very interesting on Wall Street.
(Wall Street – it gets a lot of State support. Sourced from here)
The spirit of the Arab Spring has welled up in the centre of global finance. So what are we going to do in Australia?