Robert Manne is an interesting thinker. His personal trajectory from anti-communist intellectual and ideological conservative to social democrat has been well documented in his own writings and in reports on the controversy over the end of his editorship of Quadrant magazine. He has distinguished himself among Australian academics working in political science both by his willingness to enter current controversy as a public intellectual, and in his fostering an interesting set of thinkers in edited collections such as The Howard Years and Whitewash.
Manne, in his column in the Age jumps on the election post-mortem bandwagon. In short, his argument is that Labor lost because it failed to understand the new political geography of Australia – the inner city “left-leaning cosmopolitans”, the Liberal-held “affluent leafy suburbs” and the “outer suburban marginals” of “Middle Australia”. In effect, according to Manne, Labor is cursed because of the disconnect between its two voter bases – the traditional working class, and the “post-materialist left-leaning professional class”.
This is not a new argument, either generally in cultural and political analysis, or in Manne’s work. Before assessing the validity of Manne’s thesis, and its implications for Labor as it struggles to find a way forward in both electoral and policy terms, it is worth doing a quick review of Manne’s analysis of Australian society in his Intro to The Howard Years. (Chris Sheil has a neat review of Manne’s chapter in the archives at Backpages.)
In The Howard Years, Manne identified two “revolutions” which have shaped Australian society and politics. The first was a “cultural revolution” – beginning in the late 60s and involving the “repudiation of… settled attitudes to ethnicity and race”. In other words, multiculturalism, an end to White Australia, redefining relationships with Indigenous people. The “economic revolution” refers to the rise of economic rationalism, the end of Paul Kelly’s ‘Australian Settlement’ – in other words the neo-liberal moment. According to Manne, its advent in the 80s unsettled a country already disturbed by the “cultural revolution”.
Manne’s analysis of the politics of these “twin revolutions” is cast in terms of a now-familiar dichotomy – the elites and the ‘ordinary people’. The elites are further divided into left-leaning (“academics, teachers, journalists, social workers, creative artists and so on”) and right-leaning (“economists, managers, entrepreneurs and so on”). In a sort of replay of the class compromise between Labor and Liberal bourgeoisie which founded the Australian settlement, the two elites’ projects were woven together by the great storyteller, Paul Keating. Ordinary Australians, of course, were locked out of this consensus, and written out of this narrative. They (we?) were also inevitably divided into the winners and losers familiar again from numerous tomes on globalisation, including those authored by one Mark Latham.
I’ll come back a bit later to what I think are some of the problems with this analysis, but first, let’s take a look at what Manne thinks this way of looking at Australian political sociology implies for the Labor Party after the 4th victory of the Howard years.
It’s all pretty simple really, for Manne. Latham was right to say that there was no place in the (post?) modern Labor party for Philip Adams and what he stands for. Labor’s embrace of an “elite” agenda plays badly in the burbs with Ordinary Australians, and Howard masterfully drives this wedge even further into the wound. All this is epitomised by (what else?) the forest policy – allowing Howard to pose as the friend of the worker, and reinforcing the anti-Keating line that Labor governs for the “special interests” so dear to the heart of the inner city set (and the leafy suburbs). It’s hard to know whether Manne is analysing or prescribing at the end of his piece. But his conclusion is that an influx of the “post-materialist left-leaning professional class” and its student and youth offshoots into the Greens may make them –
a more professional, more economically responsible, less feral political outfit. In addition, the final divorce between Labor and the left might help strengthen Labor’s links with its working class base and the suburban middle classes of the great Australian mortgage belt, without which, even when the next economic downturn comes, it cannot return to power.
What to make of all this? There are two basic problems with Manne’s argument and thus his predictions/prescriptions for the ALP.
The first is the simple one that his political sociology rests on a series of generalisations. The only evidence cited in The Howard Years for his division of Australians into elites and Ordinary Australians is a 1998 article in the Australian Journal of Political Science by Simon Jackman which utilises AES (Australian Electoral Survey) data. Jackman found that politicians were to the left of voters on “all matters touching ethnicity and race”. This is a slim basis on which to make the claim Manne does, and some operationalisation and testing would have to be done on his categories to see if they do in fact explain variation in opinion among meaningful social groups.
This leads to the second problem. Manne’s training was as a historian and his great talent is for weaving a narrative that is attractive, intuitive and appealing. However, his analysis of political and social trends leans far too much on what we might call the common wisdom of the punditariat. There is a difference between rigorous analysis of differing opinions and voting patterns and the imposition of a pre-given set of categories (“elites”, “Ordinary Australians”) on reality. The crux, for me at least, is that Manne’s analyses are static, and paradoxically ignore the power of politics and political discourse in creating them.
To tease this out – Manne’s analysis at heart is a very traditional type of elitism in political science. Elites contend among themselves, but are unified by a desire to control the institutions and to minimise popular participation. A number of things – the media, the remoteness of politics from everyday life, the tendency to treat politics as a horse race between two teams, the professionalisation of the political class, assist the elites in diminishing the responsiveness of the system. Where popular discontent explodes – as in the Hanson phenomenon – it is harnessed by the system and incorporated into it (Howard’s appropriation of Hansonite rhetoric and policy).
In Manne’s Australia, an Australia about which he appears deeply pessimistic, elites are able to impose their agenda of economic rationalism and create losers without too much being able to be done about it. His similarly pessimistic prognostication for the ALP is that it must adapt to the implications of the “twin revolutions” and the “shift to the right in the political culture”. I have a lot of respect for Manne as a human being committed to progressive change and humanism, and as a scholar, but I think that his analysis gives far too much ground to the very forces whose success he bemoans.
What all this ignores is the role of politics in actually shaping the conditions of social reality and also the terms in which we analyse it. Manne, I think, would acknowledge the power of John Howard’s ability to weave a disparate (and often contradictory) set of policies and appeals into a (relatively) coherent narrative. What he does not see is that Keating tried to do this as well – but failed. Keating had (arguably) a much more appealing story to tell about Australia, but he failed to communicate it, and after a while, gave up. He could never believe that Howard’s alternative story of who we all are would be bought. But it was.
Latham’s problem was that a lot of his story telling was based on the same set of categories (“elites” vs “Ordinary Australians”) on which Howard’s success (and Manne’s analysis) rests. What is needed instead is a new set of ideas, images, and a new story that will cross some of the divides so deeply entrenched in political discourse today and reinforced by media and pundits’ analyses. These sort of categories have been constructed by and for the interests of the Howardians over the years – their greatest success being to shift the Australian political culture and the terms in which we think of it. The Left can play that game too – though with greater difficulty due to the entrenched conservatism of much of the mass media. There is no inherent reason why “Ordinary Australians” need to be opposed to “Left-leaning professional classes” if someone can find a new song to sing which identifies their common situation, and their common stake in a different Australia.
Personal Note: I want to thank Ken for inviting me to join the Troppo crew. It’s a pleasure to be here! I’m in the throes of finalising my PhD thesis for submission at the moment, so posts may be thin on the ground for a bit, but I look forward to participating!