The Contradictions of Direct Action

abbott indonesiaOne of the great illusions of political analysis in Australia is that the Coalition has a “cunning plan”, a unified and coherent agenda for governing the nation. This is manifested in both left and right variants. On the left, we tend to think that there’s a neo-liberal toolkit just waiting for activation. That was the basis for a lot of Labor’s negative campaigning in the last election.

To be fair, Campbell Newman’s audit/sack double step might have given some weight to this apprehension. But on the other hand, some of the loopy stuff the Newman government has done (and some of its extremism in environmental and ecological vandalism) falls outside the story book. Similarly, the Queensland Premier has restrained some of the impulses in his own party for mass privatisations, an early election and various species of fundamentalist madness. Any LNP or Coalition government has to straddle competing, often irreconcilable impulses in its own base, let alone tack to the centre enough to sustain itself in government.

On the right, there are various modalities of “magical thinking”. Positives about the Coalition are just inverted negatives about Labor, or attempts to shut eyes and ears to whatever phenomenon of reality is distasteful to #boltcommenters and the like.

The Abbott government, it’s fair to say, has got off to a confused and shaky start. That’s not just because it’s a new administration, etc, etc, and it’s certainly not because of the Labor leadership contest, or whatever tired Inside The Beltway nostrum gives the media cover for not actually reporting and analysing stuff.

There are reasons for this.

As Piping Shrike writes in an astute post:

It’s probably overdue to turn attention away from Labor’s convulsions and focus more on the Coalition now that it is in government. But it’s not easy.

The convulsions in Labor over the last three years have left a legacy not only with Labor, but with the Coalition as well. Behind the Rudd-Gillard feud was an institutional one between the reformers and the power brokers, but behind that was a more profound problem that affects both sides of politics: namely how parties, formed in the last century to represent particular groups in society, now adapt to having lost their social bases.

With Labor the problem is more an institutional one as it grapples with the decline of the unions as a social force. It is demonstrated by the eroding influence of the AWU within the party, with its leader flapping around like a fish in front of the cameras telling an uninterested nation why he won’t be contesting a vacancy that doesn’t exist (a wonderfully self-indulgent performance showing once again that Howes has still not kicked the habit of conducting internal Labor affairs in front of the TV cameras).

But this problem affects the Liberals as well. With unions no longer a thing, the point of the non-Labor parties primarily set up to oppose them is lost. While Labor’s is more an institutional problem, for the Liberals it tends to be felt as an ideological one.

The Liberals epitomise the paradox of modern conservatism. While feigning loyalty to traditional institutions, its purpose in opposing organised labour and the role of the state leaves it relying heavily on what it is against – even to the point of undermining the institutions it seeks to protect. This need to oppose is especially the case in Australia where the traditional institutions are weak and generally borrowed in a half-arsed manner from abroad.

We need much more of this sort of analysis. In part we need it because we need to remind ourselves that we – civil society – have power, and that finding the contradictions and fractures in the Coalition “agenda” redresses the power balance against the LNP.

Go read the whole thing.

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17 responses to “The Contradictions of Direct Action”

  1. Patrickb

    “We need much more of this sort of analysis.”
    Do we? The conclusion that there is a fundamental conflict in modern conservatism between tradition and neo-liberal economics was reached sometime ago. I think we need to move the analysis on to try and discover why it is that, despite having almost no idea what they will do, electors endorse a government as hollow and bereft of any positive ideas as the current one.

  2. Golliblog

    If you are genuinely interested in what is happening on the Right side of politics you really do need to pay attention to what the major Right idea factories like the IPA, CIS and associated intellectuals etc are doing and saying and you really do need to read what the LNP is saying to itself.

    The Piping Shrike has written an embittered polemic that is apparently innocent of any knowledge of the abovementioned and I cannot for the life of me work out why you think more of the same ought be encouraged.

    The Piping Shrike writes:

    The Liberals epitomise the paradox of modern conservatism.

    Well, no, the Liberals are primarily a party of classical liberalism and conservatism and these two strands contain contradictions. Note that Andrew Norton, Sinclair Davidson and various others of a classic liberal bent took issue with the conservative social democracy nature of the Howard years.

    Please look outside the fishbowl.

  3. Tim Macknay

    It’s interesting how far Conservatism has now gone in adopting an anti-environmentalist position as a unifying strategy to bind the economic liberal and socially conservative elements of the movement.

    The Piping Shrike notes that anti-Communism was a very successful unifying agent for the Conservative parties during the Cold War period. There has been something of a tendency in modern Conservatism towards treating environmentalism as “the new Communism” for a while now, but it seems to have grown particularly strong in the last few years, and is now having significant implications for public policy.

  4. jules

    ….despite having almost no idea what they will do, electors endorse a government as hollow and bereft of any positive ideas as the current one.

    I’m fairly sure they electewd this lot cos they were sick of the last lot. Thats it basically.

    i don’t think they cared for politics or policy they just wanted an end to “it” whatever it was.

  5. Snorky

    I agree with you up to a point, Patrickb. I too would love to understand what it was that was in peoples’ heads when they went into the ballot box, but ultimately, I don’t think we can ever know for sure. In which event the most cogent explanation that occurs to me is that they were so eager to be rid of the former government (for a variety of reasons), they were prepared to support what they thought was the only realistic alternative, even if that meant Tony Abbott PM. If so, it makes something of a mockery of the government’s claim to a mandate, not only to repeal the carbon tax, but for anything.

  6. Mindy

    Don’t underestimate the power of fear. The Murdoch press ran with the Budget Emergency, the Govt that had lost it’s way, the incompetent Govt etc for years before the election. That paved the way nicely to get people pumped up about money being wasted, asylum seekers swamping us and causing crime waves, taking our jobs, and so on. The Liberals presented themselves as ‘the adults going to be in charge’ and people fell for it.

    As for Direct Action – environmental groups are hoping that there is money in it so that they can go and do what needs to be done quietly. If many trees have to be planted lets do it with the right species in the right places.

  7. Patrickb

    @5 & 6
    I agree that both those factors (annoyed with incumbents and a press generated climate of fear) played a role. But I still find it passing strange that people wouldn’t look at their material circumstances post GFC and think that staying with the current lot was the best way of ensuring that those circumstances are maintained.
    Of course that observation could have the opposite effect in that people feel that if their is only a small risk to their circumstances then exchanging current lot for a shallow and negative alternative looks like a bit of fun. F*cked if I know and I don’t have the time to find out but I wish someone would.

  8. Russell

    “With unions no longer a thing, the point of the non-Labor parties primarily set up to oppose them is lost. While Labor’s is more an institutional problem, for the Liberals it tends to be felt as an ideological one.”

    I dunno, I think the conservatives consistently start from a position that lower taxes and small government is best. They moved out of there to buy votes – but they have that ideological base. Labor started out from a position of building up community, as a path to opportunity and as a safety net, and have moved out of there to buy votes.

    While both sides are pulled to aspects of the other’s agenda, the left seems more confused to me. As far as I can see the W.A. ALP position is exactly that lower taxes and smaller government is best. As I mentioned earlier, I heard Doug Cameron say that he doesn’t agree with Gary Gray about anything – as you would expect. I’m not sure the Libs have characters with such obviously opposite views – but I guess we’ll see over the next 3 years.

  9. Nickws

    On the right, there are various modalities of “magical thinking”. Positives about the Coalition are just inverted negatives about Labor, or attempts to shut eyes and ears to whatever phenomenon of reality is distasteful to #boltcommenters and the like.

    Normally I’d agree, but there’s this amazing fact of Bolt appearing enthusiastic about a piece written by some wussy Cosgrove-style liberal internationalist (hell, and I’m taking a stab in the dark that this guy is even that far Right of centre), `Abbott Is Not A Neocon’.

    Could be nothing. Or there could be something going on in an important section of Aust. tory ideology; rebranding, protecting the new govt from the legacy of 2003; maybe the expunging of Alexander Downer & peeps from Coalition orthodoxy, because f*ck those losers, there’s a new cadre of Deal Leaders to serve.

  10. Patrickb

    That article is rather naive. Abbott in opposition was more US Tea Party than Edmund Burke. I suspect that the reverse will be the case for Abbott in govt. This is the same trick pulled by Howard in 1996 (although there was no Tea Party, just Newt Gingrich). The problem for Abbott is that he doesn’t have the kind of ‘Mafia Don’ control over the party as Howard did so there’s a greater likely hood of Tea Party ideas disrupting the calm and considered approach. Of course given the current state of mind of the polity a couple of years of bashing progressives could be considered fun.

  11. Helen

    “IPA, CIS and associated intellectuals”? I’m sure they’d like to describe themselves as such, but “hacks” is a better description.

  12. John D

    Abbott in opposition was more US Tea Party than Edmund Burke. I suspect that the reverse will be the case for Abbott in govt.

    The problem for Abbott is that a majority of his parliamentarians are climate skeptics and seem to harbor a raft of other Tea Party ideas. His other problem is that the conservatives have got into government by courting the working class voters by playing on their fears while disregarding their need for a better deal. It will be interesting to see how Abbott deals with these pressures – he may need to stay as ‘Tea Party Tony” to avoid being chucked out of the leadership.

  13. jungney

    Golliblog @ 2: if you provide some pointers as to who we should be reading among this group then I’d be grateful. If you don’t, or can’t, then it means either that you don’t know what you’re talking about or you’re not game to have an (intellectual) go. Either that or you’re being coy. No need to feather your fan dance here on LP.

    As to ‘conservative’ commentary: there’s always the Oz but, in my view, none of its journos or opinion writers really know what the are talking about when it comes to liberalism. So what about it? Ante up with a few references.

    Piping Shrike and Tim MacNay @ 3 are entirely correct that environmentalism is the new communism when it comes to reactionaries finding a new external/internal threat to the very fibre of social life etc against which we all have to unite etc. Which is why the FBI have listed members of ELF and the ALF as ‘terrorists’ when the real purveyors of terror, the National Rifle Assoc., are treated as patriots. What a joke.

    Just watch how the trial of Jonathan Moylan works out to see this new ideological front being formed in Oz.

  14. Golliblog

    Jungney @13:

    I gave two names in the comment. You also appear to be confusing the less precise term liberalism with the more precise term classical liberalism.

    Owing to this and your penchant for mixing names etc I doubt any further engagement with you would be profitable.

  15. jungney

    Golliblog: I looked at Sinclair Davidson’s publications in international refereed journals and most are pay walled. The problem with his work, going by the titles, is that he appears to be an economist who, unlike Quiggin for example, lacks the ability to contextualze economics in relation to democracy and social life. It is therefore not especially relevant to a general intellectual project. The other author you cite doesn’t appear to have any such publications.

    Tell you what, what say we both read the same text at the same time and discuss it. I’d propose something like Polanyi’s The Great Transformation so that comments are at least on the same page.

  16. Nickws


    That article is rather naive.

    Oh, it’s quite bizarre—but, even though I suspect the author is genuinely fooling himself that Abbott is Turnbull in disguise, the overall effect of Bolt ‘me tooing’ him is indicative of something else.

    If the GG columnists were to also come out and support this argument, then there’s a rebranding push on.

    At which point the question becomes, Why on earth is Abbottland rejecting Howardland’s worldview like that? There’s just so many rationales connecting the Iraq adventure with their ongoing policy offensives in climate change and asylum seekers, it’s not funny.

  17. faustusnotes

    Sou at hot whopper calls them ecocidal. This fear of the environmental consequences of capitalism is what unites them. It can’t be argued with so they cultivate ignorance.