A while back I posted wondering what had become of the populist left. The idea was that there are no shortage of seriously angry and pretty extreme right wing pundits. There are some predictably left pundits, but there’s nothing that I can think of on the left that matches people like Alan Jones on radio. Anyway, I was leafing through Mungo McCallum’s recent book on something or other – it’s in the stores now and it’s one of those interminable political analyses where the author goes through the various weekly dramas of the last parliamentary term and prognosticates and masticates over it all.
Anyway at one point McCallum who I am assuming is safely left of centre on most things comes to Rudd defending the mining tax. It was this issue that prompted my original post and this is what I wrote.
One upshot from the mining tax episode seems to be that there’s nothing there any more for the left to appeal to. Here the government is with a tax to sell that’s a left wing populist’s dream. In fact it’s a quality tax, which will raise economic output whilst raising lots more revenue. Throw in the fact that it’s notionally levied on companies, not voters, and that indeed they’re the ones most likely to bear its incidence (in contrast to most other taxes like company tax for instance), that it falls disproportionately on billionaires and foreign companies and you can see its appeal to a left of centre Government.
Yet when Rudd emphasised its incidence on foreigners and rich people for a day or so, it didn’t seem to earn him any brownie points from the hoi-polloi to offset the explosion of outrage about the Politics of Envy by those whom God sent to lecture us on such things.
And sure enough, McCallum responds to Rudd’s mentioning that the firms are foreign owned with outrage, saying things to the effect that xenophobic dog-whistling was supposed to be Howard’s forte, that we elected Rudd to sweep all that away. The only difference is that in this case the ‘foreigners’ were foreign money, not people offering quite different ethical contours to the discussion. The ethical import of that distinction is that given we were talking about foreign money not people, the overwhelming consideration should have been national expediency. Now there’s a reasonable expediency case to be made not just for not discriminating against foreign capital, but indeed for discriminating in favour of foreign capital. I’ve made it myself, though I’d not do it in this context. But it’s a reasonable argument.
But so keen was Mungo to flash his centrist credentials that he asserted a moral equivalence between taxing foreigners and the digusting things we have got ourselves involved in regarding asylum seekers. Again, I’m not really seeking to argue the toss here. One can also argue for something like our current policy on detention on the grounds of deterrence and/or preventing further deaths at sea.
But one of the characteristics of politics is that people have a kind of instinct for one side or the other. High brow righties and lefties are typically indulgent towards the excesses of their populist cousins on the same side. This often goes all the way to the extremes. Thus, notoriously, lots of lefties were fellow travellers with Stalin, and even when they decided Stalin was a nasty piece of work, were still much more tolerant of him than they might be of similar extremes from some right wing US backed dictatorship in Central America for instance.
Likewise we witnessed the unedifying spectacle of Friedrich Hayek patently explaining that General Pinochet might not be you favourite guy, but he was ‘authoritarian’ you understand not totalitarian – like that awful Mr Allende was – well was inevitably going to be (according to certain theories which turned out to be about as accurate as Marx’s prediction of the inevitability of proletarian revolution.)
But none of this is true now. The right have spent the last couple of decades rubbing the left’s nose in their tolerance for totalitarianism. And fair enough too. But those on the centre left like I imagine Mungo imagines himself or at least as many imagine Mungo to be are shocked, shocked! that Mr Rudd could be so crass, so populist as to mention that a lot of Australia’s major miners are foreign owned. And of course all this has been proceeding at greater pace in the US.
Here’s Peter Daou’s arresting list of the things that have been going on there. Keep in mind that with virtually everything on the list one would imagine that the Obama administration is doing what it’s doing reluctantly.
Let’s face it, these are dark days for the left. As we barrel toward the November elections and an almost certain triumph for the GOP, we are losing the national debate and making giant stridesbackward on key issues.
It’s the new (un)reality:
- George W. Bush is steadily and surely being rehabilitated and now the question is how much gratitude we owe him.
- Sarah Palin can move the public discourse with a single tweet, promoting a worldview consisting of unreflective, nationalistic soundbites.
- Glenn Beck, Rush Limbaugh and Fox are dominating the national conversation, feeding a steady stream of propaganda packaged as moral platitudes to tens of millions of true believers.
- In the face of overwhelming evidence, climate deniers are choking the life out of the environmental movement and willfully condemning humanity to a calamitous future.
- From ACORN to Van Jones, liberal scalps are being taken with impunity.
- Feminism is being redefined and repossessed by anti-feminists.
- Women are facing an all-out assault on choice.
- Martin Luther King Jr.’s legacy is being co-opted by a radio jock.
- Schoolbooks are being rewritten to reflect the radical right’s anti-science views.
- The rich-poor divide grows by the minute and teachers and nurses struggle to get by while bankers get massive bonuses.
- We mark the end of a war based on lies with congratulations to all, and we escalate another war with scarce resources that could save countless lives.
- An oil spill that should have been a historic inflection point gets excised from public awareness by our own government and disappears down the memory hole (until the next disaster).
- Guns abound and the far right’s interpretation of the second amendment (the only one that seems to matter) is now inviolate.
- Bigotry and discrimination against immigrants, against Muslims, against gays and lesbians is mainstream and rampant.
- The frightening unconstitutional excesses of the Bush administration have been enshrined and reinforced by a Democratic White House, ensuring that they will become precedent and practice.
- Girls and women across the planet continue to get beaten, raped, ravaged, mutilated, and murdered while sports games induce a more passionate response.
All this a meager eighteen months after a wave of hope swept the nation and gave heart to progressives who had battled for sanity and rationality during the dark days of Bush. Well, these days are much darker. Already the national discourse is conducted on the right’s terms. The marginalization of liberal thought under Bush-Cheney has only accelerated under Obama, and we must accept that indeed, America is — or is becoming — a center-right nation.
Now try to somehow reverse the roles, and produce an analogous populist left list of things that a centre-right government in the US or here would feel somehow forced to do. It’s not possible.