2016: Where does the Left go from here?

Jack Howard

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‘Someone once said that it is easier to imagine the end of the world than to imagine the end of capitalism. We can now revise that and witness the attempt to imagine capitalism by way of imagining the end of the world.’
Fredric Jameson, Future City, 2003

When I began writing this article, it was intended as a set of observations from the federal election in June and suggestions as to the future of the Labor electoral project. As further events unfolded rather dramatically over the course of the year which made 2016 what it was, this expanded to include not only my immediate thoughts on Labor’s prospects at home, but also the political conditions of the working class in the US and the UK as well as addressing the more radical criticisms of our project.

The consequences of the Brexit vote and the election of Donald Trump as President of the United States will have huge consequences for the future of the Labor Party project in Australia. What is in fierce contention, of course, is what these consequences will be – and what they will mean for the Left. The events of the last 12 months have been a chilling and frightening reality that challenges to the core the dreams and aspirations that millions of Labor’s people have for their democracy. And it goes without saying that for those on the left, the events of this year have been utterly demoralising. That is why the way that the ALP and the Labor Left respond to these challenges is crucial.

This essay will take a “year in review” approach to tackling some of those challenges. Few would have confidently predicted the beating the status quo has taken in 2016 and whilst all of the challenges presented by this fallout are yet to become apparent, the greatest is: how does the Left respond and capitalise on them for our own project into power and reform? So what’s happened, why did it happen and what do we do?

The Trump Effect

As a sceptic of both capitalism and free trade, the Brexit vote and election of Donald Trump did not come as a great surprise to me. It felt odd in the aftermath of the Brexit vote to be one of the few leftists viewing it as a genuine and democratic challenge to globalisation and oligarchy. The challenge for the Left is how to act from government or opposition to ensure that democratic rejection of neoliberalism is not manipulated by oligarchs and ultra-conservatives to construct a more dangerous, virulent and destructive version of capitalism.
Pundits in the Australian and British Left were quick to dismiss the vote as racist or stupid, but as they do the lessons sail swiftly past their ears.

Similarly, referring to the shock election of Donald Trump as a ‘whitelash’ ignores the complexity of the coalition and economic conditions that elected a reality TV star to the White House. We should approach the electorate of Trump and Brexit as two broad demographics. The populism of Trump delves in to two long established currents of political thought and practice. The first, is the undoubted deplorable. This is Trump’s channelling of the historical George Wallace and the current Tea Party Movement. His rhetoric attacks the great diversity of America in cruel tweets and bitter catch phrases. The second, is those who chose the economic populist message and their economic concerns over the visible unacceptability of Trump’s experience, character and rhetoric. The populism of Trump, much like that of Huey Long – the Depression-era populist governor of Lousiana – demonstrates that the American people are genuinely malleable to a non-Marxist redistributive and protectionist trade platform.

Since Trump has begun to form his cabinet, it is clear that Trump has neither the intention nor the impetus to tackle Wall Street or drain the Washington swamp. But on the day of the election, voters were presented with two candidates deeply embedded in the bourgeois business aristocracy of the US. Two candidates based in New York, synonymous with Wall Street and trade – each vying to be considered protectionist and market sceptic by varying degrees. It is no shock that the result was volatile. It’s worth noting that Clinton’s image is not always her own doing. Apologists for her candidacy are correct when they call out the way she is held accountable for her husband’s presidency and character. That unfairness considered, who among us was surprised Clinton’s economic message didn’t cut through? Clinton’s campaign message revolved around her experience and her opponent’s lack of it. Trump’s message stuck to the age old adage of ‘keep it simple stupid’, he told America he would save jobs and that he would end the practice of US foreign interventionism. On this simple level, it is no surprise that a tired electorate chose a phony over another perceived as too pro-market and too hawkish. In the case of Brexit a bizarre coalition of the conservative and racially motivated rural South (Kent and the Home Counties) and the market sceptic, working class North combined their votes against more cosmopolitan London, Scotland and nationalist areas in the North of Ireland. The result was a United Kingdom divide upon multiple unclear lines.

Undoubtedly, if I were a woman, a person of colour, an immigrant, disabled, gender diverse or queer I would be frightened and it is easy to analyse this tragedy at its simplest level: white people voting against an increasingly diverse and economically unstable world. I’ve heard and seen it put that Brexit and Trump voters are seeking a return to an impossible dream of a mid-20th century conservative working class paradise. It is without doubt that this is a poorly constructed reductionist argument. It represents the condemnation of a sailor drowning in the sea, waving his hand for help and latching to the first floating object – regardless of its suitability. Instead of condemning the choice made in desperation and conflating it with something unrepresented, we should be asking why are our policies unpopular? Why are they failing? Why have we been rejected? Return with a class conscious, socialist and popular program to rebuild confidence in the state and rebuild suitable conditions for the disadvantaged.

The US Democratic primary

A great case study is the recent Democratic Party primary in the US. The Party was essentially divided into two sets: one made up largely of black and Latino voters demanding response to their immediate concerns from a centrist, establishment candidate and the other made of the white or rural working class and young university students demanding broader reforms to the mechanisms of injustice. In that political battle, concepts of electability and responses to more immediate concerns triumphed. There is no proof and no way of knowing for certain that another candidate may have fared better in November than Hilary. But I think it was a mistake to run an election celebrating an establishment legacy so many were revolting against. It was a failure not to visit the Rust Belt and Wisconsin regularly. It was a failure not to celebrate Obama and the Democrat’s defence of the car manufacturing industry. A faith deficit was constructed on the perceived inability of the Democrats to break from liberalism and the free market. Those desperate to protect themselves from the racist, sexist rhetoric of Trump and his supporters locked in behind Clinton. But white women and non-college educated men (many of whom backed Obama in 2008 and 2012) chose to prioritise radical change over concerns of Trump’s suitability. It should be no surprise to anyone that suitability and experience fell by the way side in an election decided by economic policy and jobs. Equally, Sanders would have faced a complex fight against the establishment snake oil salesman in Trump. He was untested and unknown to much of the American voter based. His message of deep political and economic reform which resounded so strongly with the young would have faced a blistering attack from the hegemonic capital and media complex.

The Australian connexion

The union movement and its Labor/Labour parties were established to better address the issues of the industrial working class. It was clear to the founders of our union movement that a vanguard party was unlikely to succeed in the western world at that time and in those material conditions, thus betting it all on a revolution would undoubtedly result in the ongoing suffering of working people where something could be done. And where that ‘something to be done’ found the form of the legislative agenda of the trade union movement it was largely successful. It’s impossible to argue that the legislative achievements of the union movement in the form of a restricted work week, minimum wages, sick leave, annual leave, maternity leave and domestic violence leave are failures. But whilst Labor has clearly been correct on these matters, it’s also complicit austerity, privatisation and the restrictions to unions under the FairWork Act and Australian Building and Construction Commission. The fact that it took until the dying days of the last ALP government to improve lunch room and workplace access in the Act is close to irredeemable.

The criticism of social democracy by the radical left is, that amongst other failings, it prolongs and extends the existence of a liberal capitalist system and state.

That criticism is not misguided – the ALP has certainly done its fair share over the years to sustain the capitalist system albeit with the intention of sustaining social mobility and economic prosperity. I started this essay by talking about the difference between addressing immediate concerns/demands and addressing the ultimate solution, but we also need to reflect on what the Labor electoral project has actually been doing. For the most part, unfortunately that the project has been acting to sustain and protect a liberal capitalist economy that has very little interest in the prosperity of those who put their faith in the project. Far too often, the right wing of the labour movement talks of sustaining the capitalist economy as if it were the same as the as addressing the immediate concerns of the working class. There is a false equivalence between the sustaining liberal capitalism (in a fairer manner than the Liberals) and addressing the immediate concerns of the working class. Reflecting on the Rudd/Gillard government’s response to the GFC, it’s clear that despite success at protecting the Australian people from the excesses of capitalist depression – the bailouts and stimulus packages existed to protect the capitalist system.

An alternative is possible: Jeremy Corbyn and UK Labour

At the advent of the failed summer coup against Jeremy Corbyn, there were some signs of hope in statements to the BBC when asked questions as to his own health and own wellbeing. He responded with addressing the immediate concerns of ordinary people in Britain, the things that keep working and middle class people up at night. That’s how you win people over. This is the great lesson of 2016, when you talk about the little, ordinary things like jobs, health and education you can win people over. Winning popular support and winning government comes with a responsibility to then act more permanently. We have to put nationalising rail, breaking up monolithic corporations and rebuilding the NHS on the agenda and in the policy book. It’s yet to be seen whether Corbyn can successfully tap into people’s concerns and build a coalition capable of a people’s Brexit and beating the Lib Dems, Tories and UKIP in 2020. Here there is another case study for the Left. The ascendency of Corbyn should be cause for hope, but as of yet has failed to make its mark. The great failure of the British Left is the absence of skilled political operators. If the hope of the Left are organisations like Momentum, then there is little hope indeed. We should not be afraid to be the bad guys in the struggle for organisational and structural control. In Australia, the Young Left must put itself at the forefront of the struggle to retake the party. The recent majority given to the Left on the National Policy Forum is positive, but more must be done. Take control of your local branch, build power, recruit carefully and train up new activists.

Writing home: Challenges for Australian Labor

‘It cannot be too strongly maintained that this is still not Social-Democracy, that the Social-Democrat’s ideal should not be the trade union secretary, but the tribune of the people, who is able to react to every manifestation of tyranny and oppression, no matter where it appears, no matter what stratum or class of the people it affects; who is able to generalise all these manifestations and produce a single picture of police violence and capitalist exploitation; who is able to take advantage of every event, however small, in order to set forth before all his socialist convictions and his democratic demands, in order to clarify for all and everyone the world-historic significance of the struggle for the emancipation of the proletariat.’

Vladimir Lenin, 1902, What is to be Done?

And now to return home. Two moments from the 2016 federal election campaign will remain with me. Firstly, the level of fear and shock that the Medicare campaign gave the Liberals – brought to a head by Turnbull’s rambling and disorganised election night speech. Secondly, a rather brief phone-banking call with a Labor leaning voter who responded to my attempts at conversation with: “I don’t want anything to do with any of you, all youse wanna do is put up taxes and the price of smokes.” The simplest way to put to you the conclusions I have drawn from those two experiences is this: Labor does well when we talk about the things that matter and the things that differentiate us from the Liberals; and despite the revolutionary or nation building ambitions of the Left, working class voters often just want to pay their taxes and get on with life. Too often we look at left wing politics as a spectrum, something like this:

Immediate Concerns ———————–Middle Point————————Major Socialist Reform
(Addressing IC seen as pragmatic) (Addressing MSR seen as too far)

We usually try to pick a certain point along that spectrum based on the situation and pitch from there. It is my view that this is a misstep. Immediate demands and major reform should be looked at as two separate responses to inequality, and the solution to inequality as the joint use of these responses. The first making you electable by eliminating or limiting the hope deficit and the second solving the problem by conscious structural reform of capitalism. The fundamental question moving forwards is how the Labor Party reconciles the immediate demands for survival from the working class and greater challenge of reforming, rebuilding and reprioritizing the state. How do we see them as two responses? And how do we apply them in equal measure? This question is difficult because our priorities have to be put in the right order in order to be successful. Without the correct prioritization, such an experiment will be a complete failure. Indeed, so far our experiments with focusing on immediate concerns has failed. It would be easy for one to class this as the responsibility of the right of the Party, whom so often pontificate on its ascendency. As a whole though, the labour electoral project in the 21st century has failed to recognise that reforming the holistic conditions of the liberal capitalist society are just as important as making day to day life easier for ordinary people. I spoke earlier of a conversation with an ordinary voter and that revealed the fragility of life on the edges. In Labor circles, there exists the idea of the primary responsibility the party being to win, so that it can help marginalised people. Whilst I accept this argument on the basis that we have a duty to act in the interests of Australia’s most desperate, the paradigm, ultimately fails to actually diagnosed the reasons for that fragility and therefore necessity of power/government. The New Labour project was successful at winning government, that much is unquestionable, but for all its supposed success it still allows for working people to struggle in a system that is not capable of acting in their interests. When the Government is eventually voted out the everyday protector of working people is no longer there and pressure is forced on the union movement. Ultimately, working people again begin to suffer or suffer more significantly to cuts and attacks from conservative governments and capital.

The Tories are never afraid to remake the state – cutting services and rolling back the welfare state which is the achievement of the Labor movement. I never have any concerns about whether or not their actions will be perceived as much but the Labor Party is always deathly afraid of being seen as ‘too hard, too fast’. This means that in government parties will likely to tinker around the edges or make subtle changes that whilst extremely important don’t actually ever ultimately change the conditions of ordinary people. This means that our greatest challenge is now organising a response to the question between the immediate demands of survival and the ultimate question of what we want an Australian state to look like. It is unrealistic to build a political paradigm on the necessity of continual government. The Labor electoral project can never be in power permanently. Governments eventually end in all liberal democracies. This means that we cannot operate on a legislative and political agenda that relies on continuous government to be successful. Without actually addressing the fundamental problems of liberal democracy and capitalism, the labour electoral project will be permanently vulnerable to populist responses. Snake oil salesman like UKIP and One Nation exist to exploit the silence of mainstream social democratic parties. When the movement stops diagnosing the woes of working people as a direct result of market assaults (privatisation, offshoring, lay offs etc) populist, racist movements start blaming those woes on migrants and people of colour. We know that the jobs crisis in Australia is the result of poor public policy, but that’s not as tangible as blaming it on Muslims and migrants.

Drafting a response to the question requires change from both the Left and the Right of the party. Firstly, the right needs to categorically move out of the 80s and 90s. By choice or by force, they’ve gotta move on. The working and middle class people of Australia can no longer afford for the cycle of incremental reform to continue. Secondly, the left need to address the fact that despite our ‘revolutionary wants’ (be they in the mode Sanders & Gough, or closer to Lenin) the demands of the ordinary people are far simpler. Workers want governments and unions to be addressing their immediate concerns. From that mandate, we can then set about building a system that eliminates those concerns out right rather than allowing the solutions to be built and then toppled every three/four years. Further, the Left has to be able to pitch socialist solutions in the same way that Blairites can pitch Blairite solutions. We must match them in the way we organize internally and externally.

This means building a union movement that no longer relies strictly on political outcomes, and aggressively changing the industrial relations system to allow freedom of industrial power once again in this country. The Fair Work system is not working and hasn’t been working. The rise of agreement transfer techniques (as in the CUB dispute and notoriously exploited across the mining & construction industry) and agreement cancellation (as in the Griffin Coal and Murdoch University disputes, forcing workers off Union Agreements and onto outdated awards) have threatened the livelihoods and futures of communities and workers. These deep attacks on the union movement have gone with little response from Canberra. The Labor Party needs to put a reset of the industrial relations system at the forefront of its policy response to neoliberalism and populism. Only by returning collective faith in the education, health and industrial relations system will the ALP be able to convincingly shield itself from the political earthquakes of 2016.

Conclusion

‘As Naomi Klein documents in The Shock Doctrine, neoliberal theorists advocated the use of crises to impose unpopular policies while people were distracted: for example, in the aftermath of Pinochet’s coup, the Iraq war and Hurricane Katrina, which Friedman described as “an opportunity to radically reform the educational system” in New Orleans.’
George Monbiot, Britain’s Shock Doctrine, 2010

So what do we do?

I’m of the view that the answer to every political problem is organisation. In 2016, neoliberalism was dealt a devastating blow. The EU and Clinton only really represent the last 20 years of centrist, internationalist fiscal policy but their defeat represents far more. Whilst the neoliberal movement succeeded in tearing down hallmarks of the social democratic welfare state across America, Europe and Asia, the internationalist institutions like free trade, the EU, NATO and the UN remained relatively untouched until now. The ultra conservatives at the heart of the Trump and Brexit efforts are forcing a crisis in the instruments of the last 50 years of global power. Interfering with that plan and capitalising on the crisis in collective confidence is essential to constructing a party and programme of the left. The rise of populism exists in a vacuum. It’s clear to most pundits that the 2008 economic collapse should have been the death knell for global capitalism. Ever since that system has been running on fumes, lurching from crisis to crisis. It has been unable to offer solutions to its inherent contradictions and crises outside of more austerity, more privatisation and more capitalism. Within our party the roaders and capitalism apologists in the Right and the aspects of the Left are stuck without an argument. The Right no longer holds the economic and political ascendency within the party, their power is simply structural. So in 2017, let’s take that from them too.

The Left need their own shock doctrine. Take the crisis of capital and liberalism as our advantage. The collapse of faith is an enormous opposite for socialists and social democrats to make meaningful and engaged strides towards the Light on the Hill. The union and Labor program of the 21st century cannot be survival; it must be to determine the course of the next century. This means chasing union growth and advocating for radical changes to the political and economic system. The objectives of the ACTU, as stated in its constitution, are as follows:
1. The socialisation of industry;
2. Organisation of wage and salary earners in the Australian workforce (within the trade union movement);
3. The utilisation of Australian resources to maintain full employment, establish equitable living standards which increase inline with output, and create opportunities for the development of talent.
But in recent years you would hardly know it. The union movement has spent the last 30 years attempting to coddle neoliberalism into allowing its survival rather than building an agenda for a stronger Australia.

The National Left needs to be brave in its demands for the future of the Labor movement. We should not be afraid to mark the differences between our traditions and those of the Greens and the Labor Right. Contrast is essential to constructing a powerful movement. We know that the Greens are a bourgeois party, void of union and working class representation and we know that the Labor Right are apologists to capital, clinging to neoliberalism and hoping for survival. Their analysis, their strategy and their politics have been shattered and broken in 2016. The future of the ALP relies upon building a broad, worker dominated popular party. The 2016 Federal Election demonstrated that Labor is powerful and electable when it fights on the health, education and jobs. Our battle is to ensure that an elected ALP delivers long term, sustainable solutions as well as short term reprieves to the attacks on our people’s security and living standards. That means youth activists need to be building power at all levels. Learn the rules of the party and learn to exploit them. Our recruitment strategy should be vanguardist: recruit carefully, train new faction members, operate centrally and sign up your friends. Never be afraid to be the bad guys in the fight for control.

2017 is a new battleground and all our activists should be working towards building a strong, united and fighting Left.

Caleb Gardner is Secretary of WA Young Labor and works for the Australian Manufacturing Workers’ Union. The views expressed in this article are his own.