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.
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.