So who the bloody hell are we? (Would it get your attention if I told you this post was sort of about Lindsay Tanner?)

It was around four in morning when I pulled the car over to the side of the road and switched off the engine. I was a hundred or so kilometres out of Perth and when I killed the lights everything went black. When I stepped out of the car I was afraid I might not find my way back.

I’ve never felt so much nothing all in one place. The only thing I could see was a few stars and the only thing I could hear was that sort of faint hissy noise generated by my own ears. That’s the thing about being nowhere, you end up turning in on yourself and listening the noise of your own head. If it goes on too long you feel as if your body is no longer real and that you and that all the noises and voices in your head might evaporate like Harry Joy into the trees.

In the end it was the road that kept me together. Flicking on the headlights brought it back and I was on my way again.

I suspect Lindsay Tanner hears the head noises of the political wilderness when he worries about the disintegration of the left. In 2005 he wrote:

People on the Left no longer share a common analysis and narrative. In the absence of a single clear and coherent message that defines its adherents, the Left does not really exist as a distinct entity. It consists of a diverse collection of groups and individuals who identify with different and sometimes even conflicting political traditions.

A political movement needs a road and, perhaps, a light on a hill to show where it goes. But in politics, the lights and roads are collective hallucinations. For progressives it’s imaginary futures that point everyone in the right direction. Shared visions of the future illuminate the narrative path running from an unacceptable past, a hopeful present, and a new and brighter future.

Narratives connect the past, present and future — that’s how they work. Like a road, they link where we’ve been to where we want to go. And if progressive narratives point to somewhere new and better, conservative narratives point back home to a past where things were maybe a little more relaxed and comfortable (before leftists stuffed everything up and got us lost, as conservatives would say) .

When the left first hit the road, it was to flee a capitalist past and head towards a better big government future. Unlike the market, government would ensure equality for women. Government would stop greedy business owners from destroying the environment. And by funding services like health and education government would offer opportunity to all. While the right might draw on voices of nostalgia and fear, the left would appeal to hope and the better angels of our nature.

But somewhere in the 1980s the better angels caught up with the light on the hill. The left’s leaders had decided we already had enough government and the left’s destination made a shocking appearance in the present. The light seemed much smaller close up, and the angels flitted about it like lost moths around a headlight.

When the left found itself marooned in the wilderness staring at its own headlights, some people felt that the only thing that would hold the warring voices together was the badness of where we’d come from. So the past became a receptacle for atrocities. The dispossession of Indigenous Australians. The racism towards Asian migrants. The reckless destruction of the environment — not to mention the sexism of the traditional blokey Australianess that less politically engaged people thought defined the national character.

Economic progressive Paul Kelly made a special point of warning us off the past. Kelly wove the racist White Australia policy into his Australian Settlement along with tariff protection, wage arbitration and our old habit of clinging to the mother country’s apron strings when the world got scary.

Buying into a narrative like this made it hard for the left to see itself as the heroic actor that held past and future together. If the left was tied up with the labour movement, didn’t that make it responsible for things like White Australia, the marriage bar and the wage fixing system?

In the introduction to his new book, Politics With Purpose, Tanner writes:

Since the apparently inexorable onward march of social democracy stalled in the late 1970s, progressive parties around the world have been intellectually disoriented. While still winning elections, and sometimes governing successfully for a time, they have largely lost any sense of a wider intellectual narrative.

In his introduction to Tanner’s book, Paul Kelly sums up the argument by saying: "Labor has now become a party for whom ‘nothing else matters’ but winning. It has substituted victory for purpose. Such a trade-off is fatal". Now that the left has ushered in an era of permanently large(r) government, is there anything left to collectivelly achieve? Or is evaporating into the trees like Harry Joy at the end of Peter Carey’s Bliss all that’s left of the story?

Of course Tanner would never put it this way. He prefers the down to earth Peter Corris to the ethereal Peter Carey. He’d probably think the whole metaphorical adventure was a bit of a wank.

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9 years ago

What caught up with the left in the 80s was communism. It tarred left-wing politics so thoroughly that even Barack Obama’s centre-right administration gets labeled Marxist for introducing a healthcare reform, designed by conservatives, that herds citizens into the arms of insurance corporations.

Since the Cold War, any serious discussion about the future of lefist thought and ideals has been eagerly dismissed as plain old communism in a Groucho mask, and doesn’t gain any traction.

Outright rejection of capitalism didn’t work, and that allowed the right to fallaciously carry on as though the market, therefore, always succeeds. It’s only since the global financial crisis that even the slightest dents have appeared in that ideology, but Labor has irreversibly committed itself to the right’s ideas of market capitalism.

As the well-worn quip goes, why vote for Liberal Party Lite when the full-strength version’s available?

9 years ago

Having driven and camped beside a number of outback roads, I appreciate the metaphor with political parties. But I think the real problem with political parties and politicians is that the good ones are risk averse, while the bad ones are less so but then get tagged as conviction politicians. Surely the likes of Barnaby Joyce should just be derided as populist and so foolish. The good ones know the direction, but are too afraid to enunciate what they really feel in an emotional way.

But the last part of your post annoyed me the most. The problem with such narratives as Lindsay Tanner’s and Paul Kelly’s is that they’re self-serving bullshit and ignorant of history. For example, your quote of Lindsay:

“Since the apparently inexorable onward march of social democracy stalled in the late 1970s, progressive parties around the world have been intellectually disoriented. While still winning elections, and sometimes governing successfully for a time, they have largely lost any sense of a wider intellectual narrative.”

Surely there’s ebb and flow. So the left won some battles in the 70s and thought it would forever win? Seriously? What about reversion to the mean? Then he practically ignores that the ALP was in power from 1983 to 1996 and had a wider intellectual narrative. Think Paul Keating’s Redfern speech, Mabo and its implementation.

Then we have Paul ‘Weather-Vane’ Kelly prognosticating that:

“Labor has now become a party for whom ‘nothing else matters’ but winning. It has substituted victory for purpose. Such a trade-off is fatal”.

What? Compared to the born-to-rule conservatives? Seriously, he thinks this trade-off is fatal? What other party is going to fill the void in the next decade or so? The Greens?

I’m not suggesting the ALP is in a good state or that I like all of their policies, but compared to the alternatives, it’s the best of a shit deal

9 years ago
Reply to  dave

One of the few good things about the Greens is that they are opposed to the Internet filter. Once upon a time, people calling themselves “Progressives” believed in free ideas, free speech and human rights. Now they squelch any voice that stands up against them and the rights of humans are progressively redefined. Of course when you are the little guy trying to get bigger, you want free speech. When you are the big guy trying to put the thumb on a bunch of little guys who want to take your place, free speech is the last thing you want. Self-serving behaviour does seem to be a remarkably common thread. I presume that if the Greens ever got powerful enough they would suddenly take an interest in censorship.

I agree though that ignorance of history is rife, but then again history means what you want it to mean, it isn’t a reproducible experiment.

murph the surf.
murph the surf.
9 years ago

“it’s the best of a shit deal.”
there’s your narrative right there!