The demise of the populist left – redux

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.

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11 years ago

“about as accurate as Marx’s prediction of the inevitability of proletarian revolution.”

Well.. it hasn’t happened *yet*.

11 years ago

lol. Maybe just maybe everyone else is not as crazy as you assume them to be.

Matt Holden
Matt Holden
11 years ago

The decline of Western civilisation is running hand-in-hand with the rise of the lunar right … and the rise of the right is a cause of the decline, not a symptom, because of their assault on science and democratic institutions. Scary sh-t…

Gummo Trotsky
11 years ago

…there’s nothing that I can think of on the left that matches people like Alan Jones on radio.

Maybe that has something to do with the way we select radio station owners and the way they select their presenters.

Dave Bath
11 years ago

there’s nothing that I can think of on the left that matches people like Alan Jones on radio

Yep. I’d say if you want bile, inflammatory and untrue statements, you go to the shallow end of the argument pool.

Know /any/ equivalently vicious and truth-twisting lefty pundits from the last half century? OK, in the US, Gore Vidal can twist the knife, but it’s between the lines usually. Stewart of the Daily Show? In Oz… Petty? Ken Davison? They don’t really cut it as vicious and inflammatory.

Perhaps the lefty polemicists aren’t that nasty, because if they were, they’d be righties.

(Not saying all righties are vicious… of course, just that self-centred uncaring folk are /naturally/ predisposed to a politics that gives invisible hand powers to self interest, the politics that lets everybody else get laissez faired to hell)

Don Arthur
Don Arthur(@don-arthur)
11 years ago

Nicholas – I’m not sure if the left wing populism of the past would be recognised as left wing today. For example, how left wing does this sound?

The cultivation of an Australian sentiment, based upon the maintenance of racial purity, and the development in Australia of an enlightened and self-reliant community.

John Passant
11 years ago

Interesting post Nicholas.

Some comments. Marx did not believe in the inevitability of proletarian revolution.

Many on the left were fellow travellers of stalinism, but the revolutionary current – put crudely Trotsky and other internationalists – paid with their lives for their emancipatory views rooted in the realities of working class democracy and production organised to satisfy human need and their principled opposition to the Stalinist dictatorship.

There are a number of factors I think which help explain the collapse of the populist left, although there are some remnants in Australia around some public intellectuals, in some mainstream media and the like.

One important starting point to me has to be the stagnant or declining profit rates in the developed countries since the mid 70s, and the drying up of the pool of surplus out of which meaningful pro-labour reforms can be paid. The social democratic parties have moved closer and closer to their neoliberal cousins as a consequence since there is no social surplus out of which to fund such reforms or perhaps it is rather that the dwindling social surplus is going instead to help address the decline in profit rates.

Second, the neoliberal agenda as a consequence has become the dominant ideological and practical expression of life today and informs and reiforces the way productive relations exist and are regulated. In other words in the fish bowl of neoliberalism concepts like class struggle and liberationary socialism find it difficult to survive let alone grow. So too do re-distributive social democratic ideas and their populist expression among workers. The more precarious economic nature of life under capitalism under the neoliberal agenda, and especially after the first shock waves of the ongoing Global Financial Crisis hit, have helped further and reinforce the retreat into individualism.

This has been exacerbated, at least in Australia, by the historic and willing co-option of the leadership of the trade union movement, left and right, into the role of the handmaiden of capital, a process that accelerated for the left of the union movment under the Accord and has continued to this day.

Not all is doom and gloom. The rise of the Greens represents some sort of inchoate search by a significant section of Australian society for a social democratic New Jerusalem. Given the constraints on reformism mentioned above, it is a doomed project in its current social democratic phase.

Across Europe workers have responded to attacks on their living standards with strikes – not so long ago the sort of actions the conservative intelligentsia thought consigned to the dustbin of history. While the capitalist class may have the upper hand in Greece, the ten million workers on strike in Spain sent a different message to the European bourgeoisie – workers as workers will fight back to defend their interests.

To me this means that in the absence of class struggle in Australia both populist leftists (whatever that means) and the more serious social democratic apologists have little oxygen left as the fire of neoliberalism and its neokeynesian variants in practice and ideology engulf us. If this is any hope it lies with the proles.


[…] This is something I wrote this morning in response to a post by Nicholas Gruen on his blog Club Troppo called The demise of the populist left – redux. […]

John Passant
11 years ago

And to describe or imagine the US Democrats as being on the left seems to me to be seriously misguided. They are one of the two big business parties. The republicans flirtation/arranged marriage with embryonic extreme reaction in the form of the TEA party may see them vacate that big business ground until such time as the US ruling class needs a battering ram politically to smash workers living standards in response to further declines in profit rates.

John Passant
11 years ago

Thanks Nicholas. ‘You say: Btw, I’m not sure what you mean by “the stagnant or declining profit rates in the developed countries since the mid 70s”. Profits were stagnant in the 70s but they’ve been restored to historically high levels since.’ The studies I have seen indicate that here has been some recovery, at the cost of working class living standards, or shifts in the share of the national product, but not back to the levels of the halcyon days of the 50s and 60s. I’ll chase up the references.

I guess otherwise we will just have to disagree. Of course working class people have different individual interests, and different levels of consciousness. But they also have common interests like jobs and wages and improving living standards and a better hospital and education systems and roads and transport, and a better world for their kids.

I praise inefficiency where it is to the benefit of particular groups of workers at the expense of the bosses – where it is an expression of the combativity of workers in winning concessions from the bosses and their state.

To individualise class relations is to obfuscate or deny them, something I don’t think is possible. Of course given the lack of industrial action over the last 30 years it is not surprising many conclude class is dead or doesn’t exist. But to me it is an obvious prism for analysis and understanding.

John Passant
11 years ago

At the risk of boring an already uninterested audience…

Harman in his article in International Socialism called the rate of profit and the world today ( cites various studies about profit rates.

He says for example:

Nevertheless, Fred Moseley, Thomas Michl, Anwar Shaikh and Ertugrul Ahmet Tonak, Gérard Duménil and Dominique Lévy, Ufuk Tutan and Al Campbell, Robert Brenner, Edwin N Wolff, and Piruz Alemi and Duncan K Foley22 have all followed in the footsteps of Joseph Gillman and Shane Mage who carried through empirical studies of profit rate trends in the 1960s.

He goes on to say:

There is general agreement that profit rates fell from the late 1960s until the early 1980s. There is also agreement that profit rates partially recovered after the early 1980s, but with interruptions at the end of the 1980s and the end of the 1990s. There is also an important area of agreement that the fall from the mid_1970s to the early 1980s was not a result of rising wages, since this was the period in which US real wages began a decline which was not partially reversed until the late 1990s. Michl,24 Moseley, Shaikh and Tonak, and Wolff25 all conclude that the rising ratio of capital to labour was an element in reducing profit rates. This conclusion is an empirical refutation of the Okishio position. “Capital intensive” investments by capitalists aimed at raising their individual competitiveness and profitability have had the effect of causing profitability throughout the economy to fall. Marx’s basic theory is validated.

Then he explains:

Profit rates did recover from about 1982 onwards—but they only made up about half the decline that had taken place in the previous period. According to Wolff, the rate of profit fell by 5.4 percent from 1966-79 and then “rebounded” by 3.6 percent from 1979-97; Fred Moseley calculates that it “recovered…only about 40 percent of the earlier decline’’;27 Duménil and Lévy that “the profit rate in 1997” was “still only half of its value of 1948, and between 60 and 75 percent of its average value for the decade 1956-65”.28

Don Arthur
Don Arthur(@don-arthur)
11 years ago

Isn’t one of the aims of ‘neoliberal’ reforms like competition policy to reduce the rate of profit that flows from rents?

One of the big debates in ‘neoliberal’ circles during the post-war period was over government policies to prevent monopolies. German Ordoliberals argued that governments should intervene in markets to prevent the formation of monopolies while classical liberals (like Mises and Hayek) did not.

I would have thought that the aim of many stated ‘neoliberal’ policies is to prevent large business owners from organising as a class and pursuing their shared interests by manipulating government policy. The policies are meant to force them to act as individuals and firms.

Of course you might argue that neoliberalism is a set of practices and institutions rather than an ideology or set of theories about how the world works. And you might define those practices and institutions in such a way as it’s impossible for competion policy and intervention against monopoly to be ‘neoliberal’.

That would be up to you.

Paul Frijters
Paul Frijters
11 years ago

The main thing I find interesting about the US is how potent religion remains there, whereas that kind of blind-faith has become risible in most of the rest of the rich world. Also, I would point to the failure of governments there (left and right) to set up decent minimum standards of education. If you dont educate them, dont be surprised if what they say is not that informed…

As to the general thesis that the left has been in decline, this seems to me a debate couched in terms that are almost irrelevant for today. In many ways, what the ‘social democrats’ wanted in 1900 is now a reality. The welfare state looking after everyone is huge. Almost no one dies of hunger. Minimum living and working standards are enforced. People can choose the partners they want to live with. Equality at the ballot box. Crime and war are at unprecedented low levels. The local environment is cleaner than it has been for yonks.

A much more relevant distinction today is between those who want more regulation and those who want less. If you would equate the regulators with the left, then you’d have to say that the radical left is having a field day. Additional ‘regulatory safeguards’ to our society, be in terms of food or medicine or finance, are put in place all the time, with the implicit pure job-creation that comes with it.

If you equate ‘left’ with greater income distribution then there is still a bit of work left but you dont need to talk about class struggle to talk about the benefits of income distribution. There is already though a fantastic amount of distribution happening already. With near 40% of the nations wealth flowing thought the state and being spent on a variety of public goods and transfers, you would have to be pretty blind to think that somehow the ‘left’ is on the losing side of history.

As to profits and losses, I believe Steve Keen, whom I definitely would count as left of center, would disagree with the idea that profit rates have declined. Quite the opposite in fact: if you include the financial and mining sector, they have gone through the roof and are eminently taxable. That was what the tax review was all about.

11 years ago

whereas that kind of blind-faith has become risible in most of the rest of the rich world.

‘Blind-faith’ in government is far less risible than I for one would like. One might even say it is prevalent, more so in the rich world than the poor (show me an African who thinks that government will fix his problems..).

Otherwise, excellent comment and I agree very much. Have you ever read Virginia Postrel, btw?