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Days of Whine and Poses - the cultural left

By Malcolm King - posted Friday, 7 November 2008


Since the 1970s the Cultural Left has worked its way up to senior positions in the Australian film industry, universities, arts organisations and some quarters of the public service, fighting yesteryears lost battles: post modernism, relevatism, “whole of language” teaching in schools and arts funding for highly sectional interests.

They should not be confused with the political left, born from the union movement, who seek to roll back the more rapacious effects of an increasingly deregulated labour market.

David McKnight in his book, Beyond Rght and Left hit the nail on the head when he wrote:

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The battle over culture wasn’t meant to be won by the Right, it was meant to be won by the Left. In the 1970s as old style socialism faded, culture became the chosen terrain of battle of the new Left which emerged from the new social movements. This new Left increasingly rejected the inadequacies of class analysis and preoccupation with economic analysis.

The new left or the Cultural Left believed social change was blocked not by armed force but by comfortable beliefs and values which in sum constituted capitalist culture and ideology.

The Cultural Left lost the plot somewhere in the 80s. People got sick of the “bleatings” of ethnic and green groups, of NIMBY’s and the multitude of small pluralist groups trying to effect sectional social change.

While some people applauded this alleged cultural liberation from the tyranny of “mainstream attitudes and beliefs”, others experienced it (and still experience it) quite differently - particularly as change hit families as the effects of economic globalisation took hold.

McKnight said:

Many people started to feel social disintegration. Rather than feeling free, they felt fractured. Instead of gains, many felt the loss of stable families and stable jobs and the ebbing of familiar truths. Nor was this merely imagined. Divorce did rise, the incidence of certain crimes did increase, social change occurred rapidly. And progressive ideas with their emphasis on liberation and personal change were blamed for this.

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Many felt the loss of stable families and stable jobs and the ebbing of familiar truths keenly. Divorce rose, the incidence of certain crimes increased, social change occurred rapidly. And “progressive ideas” with their emphasis on liberation and personal change were blamed for this.

Enter John Howard. I’m no fan of the Howard government or more correctly, the Howard Junta. I’m still - some might say anachronistically - a punch drunk fighter for the Keating vision of an international Australia.

The genesis of the demise of the Cultural Left is a curious phenomenon that requires some examination. These are my own observations, drawn largely from working at university and in the media.

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About the Author

Malcolm King works in generational workforce change. He was an associate director at DEEWR Labour Market Strategy in Canberra and the senior communications strategist at Carnegie Mellon University. He also runs a professional writing business called Republic.

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