The meltdown in global financial markets had some commentators, most prominently Robert Manne, advance the view that neoliberalism was finished. The dominant economically rationalist strand of liberal ideology, which coloured policy making in the preceding 30 odd years, was revealed to be intellectually bankrupt. Like night follows day this meant, we were told, that neoliberal ideology would no longer influence public policy.
We needed to gear up for a left turn.
The sentiment was captured in a collection of essays on neoliberalism with the triumphant title Goodbye To All That.
But "all that" has hardly gone.
Quite to the contrary throughout much of the western world fiscal austerity, following an initial Keynesian priming of the pump to bail out the rich from the consequences of their own greed has held sway. In many parts of the world the crisis is being used as an opportunity to further liberalise labour markets and to continue the erosion of the welfare state.
In a useful and highly readable series of essays for "the new left," published under the heading Left Turn, the editors, Antony Lowenstein and Jeff Sparrow, studiously avoid this error.
You will struggle to find anywhere a triumphal dismissal of neoliberal ideology or the notion that the broad contours of policy making shall soon shift toward a more social democratic, let alone socialist, direction. This forms one of the important premises that underpin the book, and it can be readily discerned in discussion of issues that go beyond the purely economic.
For instance in Chris Graham's essay on Aboriginal disadvantage and dispossession, which burns the reader's hands so do his words set page after page on fire. Graham relates that, "suicide and self-harm rates in many Aboriginal communities are world beaters." Aboriginal children, in the world's wonder economy, as young as 10, hang themselves out of sheer hunger. Where Jacinda Woodhead draws a link between the co-option of feminism by the public relations industry and neoliberalism. Woodhead observes, "in an era dominated by market logic, the most successful feminist is the one with the most successful brand."
Indeed it is the very absence of alternative voices that compels the authors to put pen to paper.
Lowenstein and Sparrow write that it was the discerning of a "weird inversion" that motivated the book. That inversion is identified as; "the more difficult and pressing the challenges facing Australia and the world became, the less discussion ensued about solutions that might be available."
The forgoing constitutes the analytical strength of Left Turn. It is the best book written for a broad audience that encapsulates a left wing analysis of contemporary Australian society and politics. The book is self-consciously published for what it calls "the new left."
However, the book contains a number of significant flaws and omissions that need to be brought to relief if "the new left"project is to be successful.
The first is a persistent, though the essays by Tom Bramble and Rick Kuhn are a special category, error made in the book, namely that the "the market," and neoliberal ideology that reified the market, should be the core concern of the Left.
The key issue, rather, is corporate power. Ours is an economy and society dominated by corporations. It is not the "invisible hand" of the market that governs economic, social and political affairs. It is the very "visible hand" of corporations, which engage in central planning and develop strategic alliances, that largely dominates the economy and structures public policy.
It is not intellectuals, the Manne view, or the market, the Left Turn view, that rules the roost.
Consider what is often called "global trade." International trade transfers mostly occur within the subsidiaries of multinational corporations and interactions between strategic alliances linked through global supply chains. We are supposed to stare in wonder as economists regal us about the wonders of comparative advantage and "free trade." Neoclassical economics functions as an ideological shield behind which the real centres of power, corporations, advance their interests and concerns.
Even when we speak of consumption and the consumerist society, a key concern of the chapter by Guy Rundle, it is not the sovereign consumer that underpins the "law of supply and demand." Rather, a massive public relations industry, through emotional imagery backed up by extensive research into the formation of public attitudes and desires, manufactures wants.
We buy a dress because Jennifer Hawkins wears one. We buy deodorant because it is brutally male. In a truly free market economy not dominated by corporations the sovereign consumer has no need for a public relations industry to tell her what she wants.
The Left, new or otherwise, would be making the most basic of errors were it to suppose that the task that lies before popular movements dedicated to social change is to overcome the sovereignty of markets or the power of neoliberal ideas. No. The objective must be to overcome corporate power and the sway that these highly hierarchical and amoral profit maximisers have throughout the social and political domain.
Within the pages of Left Turn, unfortunately,plenty can be found about "markets" even "neoliberal markets" but very little about corporations; what they are; how they operate; the means by which they influence public opinion and the realm of the possible in the political sphere; their specifically Australian history and so on. Consider the words of Woodhead cited above; in an era dominated by market logic. If that were true there would have been no bank bailouts.
The Left cannot create a new world if the current world that is the subject of critique and that is to be the object of struggle is not adequately identified and analysed.
Bramble and Kuhn are Trotskyite Marxists, one of the editors, Jeff Sparrow, also has been a noted Trotskyite, and they do not readily succumb to the above error. However, their writing displays a disturbing ideological rigidity. Kuhn frames his analysis through standard Marxist political economy and so dedicated is he to this analytical framework he even couched his chapter within Marx's labour theory of value. There are many Marxists, let alone your ordinary run of the mill bourgeois economist, that see this as one of Karl Marx's great mistakes but it would seem that for Kuhn Marx could do no wrong.
If that's the case then why a "new left"exactly?
There are in fact little alternative voices within the Left presented in the book. There are no chapters written by anarchists, libertarian or autonomous Marxists or even from prominent members of the Socialist Left of the ALP. What do they say about our times and the alternative paths that the Left might take? One cannot know by reading Left Turn.
Indeed at one point Sparrow states that the old debates within the Left, say between Marxists and anarchists, are no longer relevant. Sparrow asks what Bakunin, Marx's key anarchist protagonist, might have to tell us about social media, but then immediately goes on to praise Marx.
One of the key concerns of the book is the Occupy Movements, which are singled out for repeated praise.
Yet these Movements, with their emphasis upon self-assembly and self-governance, even their use of autonomous information networks and media, are heavily influenced by, and indebted to, anarchist and autonomous thought.
Surely it would have been easy for the editors to include chapters from both an anarchist and ALP left wing perspective; there are still members of the ALP Left that have a commitment to socialism, believe it or not. Either they didn't want such perspectives or couldn't find anybody to present such perspectives. One suspects the former.
A very serious omission in the book is the absence of any discussion of the international dimension.
Australia is a small country on the periphery of the global economic system. The prospect for social transformation of the type often discussed in the book, for example from Tad Tietze and Elizabeth Humphreys who argue that action to alleviate global warming requires going beyond market mechanisms such as an emissions trading scheme, requires coordinated international action.
Even mild social democratic reforms to humanise capitalism need international coordination. The Australian Keynesian social welfare and developmental state was able to exist and thrive because the Bretton-Woods global economic system constructed after World War Two limited the free flow of capital and regulated exchange rates.
Australia is far too small to get away with transforming capitalism on its own. The Left in Australia, new or otherwise, needs to be cognisant of this and It needs to link up with social movements elsewhere and to analyse contemporary affairs in a way that pays special heed to the international dimension.
The study of international relations and Australia's role in the world is an absolute necessity for emancipatory social movements. Don't expect to find much of this in Left Turn.
Christos Tsiolkas writes a superb chapter. He states that much of the Left is bourgeois. It is. When the Left is seen as being largely constituted by intellectuals and public commentators then the Left has a problem. The Left is the collection of grassroots social movements dedicated to promoting social justice, overcoming illegitimate authority and expanding the realm of democracy. To a very considerable extent the Left must, in a capitalist society, consist of a labour movement based on the working class.
But that's, as Tsiolkas points out, the Left's problem. It has no class. The voice of the Left for too long, precisely during the "neoliberal era," has been academics armed with the latest fashions from the intellectual salons of continental Europe. In the public mind the Left no longer is about unions, about picket lines, about class and class consciousness, and so on. Indeed we have a supposedly left wing Prime Minister whose main philosophical idea is that class struggle is but merely "yesterday's battle."
It isn't. It is today's battle. And it is tomorrow's battle so long as we continue to live in a capitalist society, dominated by corporations, where the key point of social stratification and differentiation occurs across class lines.
It is not the Left that today speaks to the working class. It is the Right. It is the Right that speaks about cost of living pressures and which successfully ties these bread and butter issues to the politics of climate change and asylum seekers. The Left, by contrast, is seen as being elitist and dominated by the concerns of the intelligentsia. Even the co-option of Australian nationalism by the establishment is couched within the framework of the little Aussie battler.
These concerns are not unrelated to a lengthy chapter by Senator Lee Rhiannon on the Greens. Rhiannon, correctly, argues that the Greens will remain the parliamentary voice of Australia's social movements only if the party's internal procedures remain framed around the principles of participatory democracy. There does exist the danger that the parliamentary party will hijack the Greens and take it in a more centralised and conservative direction.
The Greens can become the authentic political party of the Australian working class. By engaging in grassroots activism in working class communities, for instance through campaigns on local issues and local elections, the Greens can slowly build a base of support as happened in the inner-city. The Greens might also engage in grassroots activism within trade unions. It is possible to build a red-green alliance in this way, which would give working class communities a real say in parliamentary politics.
Labor's rotten boroughs out in the working class suburbs of urban Australia disenfranchise working class communities. The Australian Labor Party has become a mechanism for keeping the hopes and aspirations of working class people in check.
Though there is much to commend in Left Turn one cannot but help wonder whether the working classes will read it but also, more importantly, whether it was written for them; there is too much cultural theory mumbo jumbo.
So long as the Left has no class it has no future.