Manne-ing the Barricades?

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.

Elsewhere: Backpages commenters discuss Manne’s article, Jason Soon suggests an opposite way forward for the ALP to Manne’s, and Jack Strocchi ropes Manne into his “cult-progs” theory.

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!

About Mark Bahnisch

Mark Bahnisch is a sociologist and is the founder of this blog. He has an undergraduate degree in history and politics from UQ, and postgraduate qualifications in sociology, industrial relations and political economy from Griffith and QUT. He has recently been awarded his PhD through the Humanities Program at QUT. Mark's full bio is on this page.
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Robert
2022 years ago

Excellent! I’m glad to see you break out of the comments threads, Mark.

cs
cs
2022 years ago

Good on you Mark, although I warn you – things can get pretty ugly over here at Troppo – not the residents, of course, but there is a low barrier to entry … which brings me to ‘elites’.

There is a lot in your post, most implied of course. Let me pick just one point, which is the suggestion that Manne has made it all the way to ‘social democrat’. To me, this doesn’t gel with the concessions he’s made, as you sharply point out. No thorough going social dem could, I think, so readily confine the meaning of the ‘left’ to an elite location, separate from working people. On the contrary, my own by numbers categorisation would always place the ‘left’ precisely on the side of non-elites, an absolute inversion of Manne’s position. His obvious (praiseworthy) humanitarianism clearly excludes him from the category of arsehole, but I’m not sure where he goes after that. A dissident conservative probably, or perhaps a small l liberal?

Mark Bahnisch
Mark Bahnisch
2022 years ago

Chris, I’m taking Manne at his own word here – he refers to his conversion to “social democracy” in The Barren Years: John Howard and Australian Political Culture. I can’t find the exact reference at the moment, but I remember when I first read the book it struck me very much – largely because like you, I think it’s a mischaracterisation of his actual position. That position is fairly difficult to define. He admits in The Barren Years that “I had been preoccupied by the crimes of the communist regimes in Europe and Asia, because, I am sure, my political identity had been shaped by the knowledge of the Holocaust.”. This was no doubt how he found himself part of the Quadrant mob. I think that’s the key to a number of aspects of Manne’s politics – an abiding concern with history, remembrance and forgetting, a sensitivity to intolerance towards the Other, a deep pessimism, and a largely negative politics (in that he seems most passionate about what he opposes). I first came into contact with him in 1995 when he rang me to interview me for his book on Helen Darville/Demidenko – I had been at uni with her. His great worry then was that ‘postmodernism’ had led to an elision of history and thus a tendency to relativise the Holocaust.

I must confess that I haven’t been through his writings with a fine toothed comb to identify what he stands for, but my impression is that he’s fairly unclear, or just doesn’t really talk about the sort of society/polity he would like to see – except in generalities. This is consistent with what I see as motivating his politics.

I would agree with you about the left and the elites. Necessarily, to stand on the left is to oppose concentration of power (at least in my book – I’ve no time for strong-statist leftism). And concomitantly, I think you are right to be sceptical of his credentials as a social democrat.

I’ve always seen him as kind of an Antipodean version of John Gray – a dissident Tory but moulded by Australian experience and culture – and I’d add Victorian culture. Gray strikes me as a more original thinker, and sometime, I’d like to write something comparing them. There may also be some clues in Gaita’s thought (which I normally find confused) and I wouldn’t be totally surprised if Manne shares something with his Latrobe colleague John Carroll – despite their (now) different political stances. What has led me to admire Manne is the courage and the passion with which he has fought on the side of Indigenous people in particular – in the face of a lot of abuse from the Right.

cs
cs
2022 years ago

Robert has done a lot of good work. Interesting guy. Colourful history. Energetic bugger. But Antipodean John Gray, made in Victoria, is the whole story.

Mark Bahnisch
Mark Bahnisch
2022 years ago

I get the feeling, Chris, he was a big Beazley fan and may have also aspired to playing a similar role in establishing a Beazley hegemony with his columns as Gray did with his columns for Blair in 94-97.

cs
cs
2022 years ago

Yeah, but totally pissed with Beazer over children overboard. I think he’s to the ‘left’ of whatever he was before. Perhaps oddly, my punt is that he’s a dissident neo-con – a moral reactionary, which leads him in progressive directions in these strange colliding days, but always on an individual basis, which he’d defend to the death. I can’t but feel Robert would have deep trouble with unions.

Ken Parish
Ken Parish
2022 years ago

I think it would be interesting to explore and develop just what sort of “story” might appeal to and unify both the “elites” (or urban professionals etc) and “ordinary Australians” (or “aspirationals” or whatever). Of course that would involve rejecting precisely these characterisations of innately oppositional interests, while recognising the reality of the perceptions that shaped them and gave them their persuasive force.

The major deficiency of social democrats IMO has been a failure of imagination in synthesising persuasive stories to compete with those of the neoliberals and neocons. And a big part of that has involved a failure to deal effectively with the fact that we humans are indeed selfish, pleasure-seeking creatures as well as ones capable of being motivated by love, altruism, duty, self-sacrifice, sense of community etc. A successful narrative needs to acknowledge, accept and unify those two sides of human nature.

Mark Bahnisch
Mark Bahnisch
2022 years ago

Chris, you may be right – there are elements of the neo-con in the Beazer too. The ideological atlas of Australian politics at the moment – if there were such a thing – would be a very confusing text!

Ken, it’s certainly true that social democrats have failed to tell a compelling story in recent years (if not decades). It’s partly because they’ve lain down in front of the neo-lib rollercoaster. You may have a point about self-interest – there’d be a good argument to make that self-interest is best served by strong social connections, rich networks, and a healthy social bond.

Ken Parish
Ken Parish
2022 years ago

Mark

I couldn’t agree more that “self-interest is best served by strong social connections, rich networks, and a healthy social bond”. I think the current dog-eat-dog ‘greed is good’ phase of neoliberal capitalism is very much a passing fad, and that it will fairly soon be discovered that flexible, co-operative learning, social and workplace networks are far more productive and congenial in every way. I also think that playful competition embodying respect for rules and other contestants is much more satisfying, meaningful and sustainable than the current “fight to the finish”, anything goes, win at all costs mentality that pervades business, politics and sport in modern western society.

But those realisations will probably come about only gradually, as the labour oversupply of the last few decades reverses itself, and as industries that can easily and profitably be organised for repetitive, production-line processes are relocated offshore to low-wage countries. But such realisations might be hastened if social democrats were able to synthesise stories as persuasive and potent as the ones the neoliberals and neocons have been able to sell, and have accepted as unchallengeable truth, over the last couple of decades.

Andrew Norton
Andrew Norton
2022 years ago

Ken – Spare us the ‘greed is good’ stuff. Apart from a character in a 1980s film I don’t think anyone advocates that. Firms which treat their workers badly generally don’t do very well over the longer term, so there are perfectly good reasons entirely within the logic of ‘neoliberalism’ for what you propose (and which is more-or-less the reality in most workplaces now). It was the old system which institutionalised conflict.

Mark Bahnisch
Mark Bahnisch
2022 years ago

Ken, you make an interesting point about labour oversupply. Of course, the flipside is labour demand and the long term efforts of corporations to reduce labour costs through outsourcing, casualisation, de-unionisation, shifting training costs to the public sector etc. that have gathered pace since the profit squeeze of the late 60s/early 70s. There is some evidence that this is turning around – at least in terms of an appreciation of human capital as a resource rather than as a cost – but it’s certainly something social democrats could usefully intervene in – again to change the terms of the discourse…

Mark Bahnisch
Mark Bahnisch
2022 years ago

Andrew, as Keynes wrote in the long term, we’re all dead and one structural pressure against a humane workplace is the short-termism of the profit horizon and market expectations in Anglo capitalism. This in turn is a response to secular trends in the productivity of capital, and attempts to speed up the valorisation cycle. There are still a lot of firms out there who haven’t heeded the message about human capital as a resource.

Ken Parish
Ken Parish
2022 years ago

Andrew

I accept that flexible, co-operative networks and playful competition are increasingly the norm in “knowledge-based” industries like the ones where you and Jason Soon work. But those sorts of practices and organisational structures are far from the norm in the building industry, transport, tourism and hospitality, or most traditional secondary industry areas. These sectors remain characterised by fairly ruthless exploitative practices, and rigid “us and them” structures and attitudes. Those attitudes are entrenched and amplified by the current federal IR enterprise bargaining system, which institutionalises knock-down-drag-out bosses versus workers conflict at the end of every enterprise bargaining period. The picture of a coperative neoliberal workplace paradise that you are trying to paint is largely just a part of the attractive but mythical neoliberal “story” we’ve been discussing.

Alex
Alex
2022 years ago

Ken, I’d agree with you that “those sorts of practices and organisational structures are far from the norm in the building industry, transport, tourism and hospitality, or most traditional secondary industry areas”. However, that doesn’t mean that they are restricted to “knowledge-based” industries. A glance at the annual reports of some large Australian companies (eg Woodside, BHP, Rio, Woolworths) suggests that they have long since learnt the need to empower the workers and enlist their capacity for cooperation and innovation. In the end, Rio’s long fight against the unions (Robe River etc) has proven to be a liberating influence for workers. I’m sure that the Howard government now intends to do as much as it can to similarly liberate workers in the industries you mentioned, which are still locked into the confrontationist “us vs them” paradigm.