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The new political paradigm: its roots and its challenge

By Peter McMahon - posted Monday, 20 January 2003


The agonising in the ALP over leadership and party reform mainly results from Labor's disastrous results in recent federal elections. But it also reflects a global process that few people understand: a new political paradigm in response to a global society with global problems. Sooner or later, all political parties will have to confront this sea change in politics.

The politics of the twentieth century were essentially a carryover from the nineteenth, with the process of industrialisation extended from Britain to the US, northern Europe, and even Japan by the 1880s. By 1901 the new nation of Australia was experiencing many of the impacts of industrialisation, with concentrated urbanisation, a growing industrial working class, and a professional middle class being important features.

The great question that politics turned on was: how would the revolutionary new form of social change known as industrialisation develop? In particular, who would benefit and who would suffer? This question needed to be worked out between nations, as well as within nations. Indeed, nations that could do so - the more developed and powerful nations - sometimes minimised domestic conflict by exploiting their advantages over less developed economies. They did this by distributing part of the wealth extracted from undeveloped areas to the working and middle classes to minimise political dissent.

No political party of substance seriously challenged this paradigm of industrial development, and only the communist parties challenged the notion that development should be led by a ruling class defined by historically acquired financial and positional power. By contrast, this idea never obtained a foothold in the fast developing economies of Europe, the US, Japan or Australia, where politics revolved around the interests of the various social classes.

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The result was the evolution of what was essentially a two-party political system in the developed countries. One party, often called Labo(u)r, clearly represented the interests of the working class but also attracted support from lower-middle-class people, and those who supported their typically stronger orientation to social justice. By and large, Social Democrat parties claimed the same constituency. The other political group represented the interests of the upper and upper-middle classes. This situation was sometimes complicated by the role of external business interests, sometimes in collusion and sometimes in conflict with local business.

A further complication was the role of rural or regional interests. In the US, it was this factor that largely led to the Democrat/Republican divide. Although the Republicans increasingly came to represent business, especially big business, the Democrats were prevented from becoming a class-based party by the heavy representation of the south in their ranks, a legacy of the Civil War. In Australia, the focus on rural issues produced a rural political party (the Country Party, now the National Party) who formed a coalition in government with the Liberal Party.

So, in developed countries the political process revolved around this basic contest for influence over the industrial development process and its spoils. At times, especially during or after wartime or some other crisis, parties based on the lower class were in the ascent, but otherwise the financial and positional power associated with the upper-class parties usually kept them in power. The political paradigm was related to the nature of industrial development, mainly defined in terms of growth, and specifically the distribution of the economic spoils.

Recently, however, the whole project of industrial growth has come under question. The challenge has most clearly emerged from the awareness of a growing environmental crisis, occurring on a global scale. It is best typified by global warming and the decay of the ozone layer but other factors such as water and air pollution, species decline, and even pandemic disease, have contributed. Most of these issues are caused by mass industrial development and its large-scale waste, but problems also result from the industrialisation of scientific research, which generates large quantities of inherently radioactive or dangerous substances.

There are additional critiques of industrial development, such as its creation of an increasingly integrated, but no less militarised, world society, which is now experiencing a terrorist phase. Other critiques are of the way an increasingly arid and derivative global monoculture - a 'McDonald's world' - is obliterating socio-cultural diversity, and the way that an intense global society is destroying our capacity to live as fully formed individuals. Yet another is based on fears that our technological inventiveness will create superhuman entities that will make us entirely obsolete.

These concerns call into question the whole trajectory of industrial development in its latest global, mass, and high-technology phase. Critics of many stripes - on the old right and the old left - claim that there are better ways to organise a society. This claim has been made before, and we must learn from what happened in regard to fascism and communism, but it is now taking on new form and energy. The rise of the Greens and far Right/populist parties (such as One Nation in Australia) are indicators of the growing imperative to find a new paradigm. These parties present more or less logical and articulate responses to the development paradigm question, but they share a rejection of class-based politics, and a concern with global issues, sometimes expressed as values.

The new politics may not take the bipolar form of the existing situation, being more likely one of shifting alliances, although, as the specific shape of the debate solidifies, two poles may again emerge. Furthermore, politics will take an increasingly global form itself, with national systems morphing into transnational and international forms.

In Australia, the choices available to the major parties are limited. Realistically, the Liberals can only maintain a temporary holding action, using all their resources to stay in power right up until their position falls apart. This is because there are no viable ideas in their ideology that will address the core issues. Certainly, their recent cooption of One Nation xenophobia as a political strategy has a limited lifespan. Labor faces the dilemma of either trying to create a new policy position, or arranging a collaboration with other parties directly focused on the new paradigm, such as the Greens. Indeed, whoever is ALP leader must deal with this central problem as a priority - how much Labor opens to new ideas, and other parties.

Timing, of course, is paramount in politics, but there can be no question that the tide is turning and that it will sweep away the old ways.

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About the Author

Dr Peter McMahon has worked in a number of jobs including in politics at local, state and federal level. He has also taught Australian studies, politics and political economy at university level, and until recently he taught sustainable development at Murdoch University. He has been published in various newspapers, journals and magazines in Australia and has written a short history of economic development and sustainability in Western Australia. His book Global Control: Information Technology and Globalisation was published in the UK in 2002. He is now an independent researcher and writer on issues related to global change.

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