John Quiggin argued at the Centre for Policy Development‘s Pushing Our Luck launch discussion at Avid Reader a couple of weeks ago that the best way to view the advent of the Abbott government was that the Coalition had not won on its own policy agenda. Rather, the centre-left had won many battles – for workplace rights, for parental leave, for disability insurance and for investment in schools. That’s not, of course, to say that all is rosy (either with the policy detail or with the likely chipping away that will occur) – and the area where the right has perhaps won the “debate” is around climate change. Though there, reality will prevail against denialism, and alternative energy futures are already emerging.
So there’s no reason for any despair, as I’ve been arguing consistently since the election. Of course, the left’s problems have not gone away (though I see democratisation of the Labor Party and a turn back towards activism from The Greens as good signs). Our biggest problem is that we may have won policy battles, but we have been comprehensively defeated politically. The last ALP governments did their best to destroy themselves, and it’s signally important that a revival of membership and community campaigning saved the Labor party from itself as much as any politician did or didn’t.
Nor do I want to argue that it’s a “good thing” that the Tories won. One of the silliest signs of privilege shown in the campaign was this piece by Andrew Street on the Vine. It went viral, and that’s more significant as a symptom than as an endorsement. Simply put, some can ride out a Coalition government more easily than others, and if “the left” doesn’t realise that – the real damage to lives and prospects Tories do – then it doesn’t deserve the name.
So, the state still does have weight, no matter how optimistic we might be about a power shift to civil society. (And pace Antonio Gramsci, we need optimism of the intellect…)
Thus, emotionally and energetically, there will often be dark times for progressive hearts. How to respond?
I had a short discussion with a young Socialist selling a paper on campus the other week. He was standing next to a sign saying “Hate Murdoch?” and was wearing a t-shirt inscribed with the slogan “Abbott Hater”. I asked him if he thought there wasn’t already too much hate in the world. Apparently he thought there should be more.
That’s by way of segue to this piece by Sarah Burnside, which I read around the same time. I disagree with some of the nuances, but thoroughly agree with the conclusion:
We are citizens, not consumers. We are part of something bigger than ourselves, even if our nation state is set to swerve rightwards. A retreat into our own anger and grief is in some ways a surrender, an embrace of individualism rather than empathy, as though Margaret Thatcher was correct after all and there is truly no such thing as society. To make a real and radical change in our politics, we need something less stylish than belligerent despair: a commitment to the unfashionable notion of the collective good.
Go read the whole thing at New Matilda.