Thinking about a new progressive vision

I’d like to begin by recalling the words on the invitation to this seminar, in which we describe the aspirations of many people for a better society — and also the way Australian society falls short of these aspirations. Then we added the following:

‘…underlying these concerns is something else that is rarely discussed: it is the crisis of ideas and values which express alternatives. In spite of the current economic crisis, the rise of neo-liberalism reminded us that social change depends on political ideas embedded in an intellectual and moral framework. The motive for this seminar therefore arises from the need to find a space to discuss the development of intellectual and moral frameworks for progressive politics in Australia.’

By putting it in this way,  we are talking about the connection between ideas and politics. Or what would once have been called the connection of theory to practice.

A crisis of vision

The lack of a broadly agreed set of ideas for the non-conservative side of politics  is
reflected in a number of ways.  Perhaps the most obvious, at one end of the spectrum, is the decades-long crisis of vision within the Australian Labor Party. That party once had a vision which was based on using government to regulate and civilize capitalism. Yet it was a Labor federal government which ushered in privatization and deregulation in the national economy.  In a different way, the radical left in Australia was, historically, a small but significant part of the Australian political scene. It had a highly developed analysis of society, centering on the social consequences of private ownership of property and the market. Most of the radical left has now disappeared altogether, including the Communist Party of Australia to which I once belonged. Some of the remaining parts of the radical left, as far as I can tell, seem to be groping towards a vision of ‘ecological socialism’. Others look determinedly backwards to past glories.

Yet while the anti-corporate left has largely disappeared, problems about the role of private corporations in democracies like ours have not disappeared.

The crisis of vision extends to other social movements, such as the women’s movement. This movement achieved tremendous gains in social equality and  opposition to discrimination. These changes, combined with the inflexibility in the economy and workforce, have lead to a situation where we now have what Barbara Pocock calls a ‘work-life collision’. In many families neither partner is able easily to fulfill the role of carer of small children. More broadly we have the continued devaluation of caring itself in a society focused on work, economic efficiency, consumerism, and individualization.

The crisis of vision also touches on matters of cultural diversity. Progressives have championed acceptance of cultural diversity against its detractors such as John Howard and Pauline Hanson. Progressives were also key supporters of acceptance of other forms of diversity around sexuality. Indeed, if you asked many younger people today the meaning of the political term ‘the left’ may would respond in terms of its support for cultural and social diversity.

In celebrating diversity, it’s worth recalling what has happened to an older progressive virtue — that of the common good and the notion of a common interest. In a society in which the forces driving individualization are powerful, the notion of a common good has been a casualty.  Even so, some thinkers dismiss such a notion at the level of theory. However, if one abandons a notion of the common good, one is reduced to promoting particular and small constituencies. Yet members of small constituencies also have communal identities — as Australians, as users of a health care system or an education system.

Many of us want to retain support for acceptance of diversity, but we also believe that political action to address some of the major crises facing us is impossible without a notion of common humanity which shares a common fate and which needs to identify a common good.  But how can a new balance be achieved?

Other problems exist between progressives based on the labour movement and the new and growing environmental movements. The need to address climate change will mean the dislocation of industries, and the need to end jobs in certain industries such as coal mining, and this is causing growing problems. My own view is that the need to address climate change will move to the centre of political ideas and practice. This situation will require the creative and bold application of progressive

A lesson from neoliberalism

In discussing the crisis of ideas for progressives, I think it is useful to look at a parallel and opposite case back in the 1970s. In those days it was the Right which had a dearth of credible and inspiring ideas. In the 1960s and 1970s, the old conservative Right found its dominance under challenge by ideas of social change. Old notions of nationalism, of racism, of deference to authority and of the naturalness of privilege were being undermined.

But some individuals and forces within the Right sought an intellectual renewal, not by defending old shibboleths but by exploring old ideas which, in their view, suddenly had a new relevance. This was the beginning of the era of the ‘think-tanks’ and the rise of economic liberalism or neo liberalism.

This ideological revolution of the Right had an instructive result. Over a period of time, it gave the Right the ascendancy in the battle of ideas and values in Australia and elsewhere.  Even where the Right did not directly succeed in taking government, the ideas of the new Right dominated the political agenda and promoted its values and world view. It is only now, after decades of dominance, with the global financial crisis that this extraordinary movement has received its first effective opposition and undergone a significant challenge to its credibility.

In its days of success, neo liberalism had one advantage, and it contains a useful lesson on the reason for the rise and fall of ideas which aim to have social impact.

That advantage, and a key to the success of neo liberalism, was that it was in tune with deeper social changes. In my view the set of ideas known as neoliberalism evolved as one response to the age of affluence. Probably even its originators were not fully aware of this, but it suited the social changes which were sparked by material prosperity. Let me explain. The material prosperity of countries like ours is extraordinary and unprecedented in human  history. This wealth gives most people a range of choices of which the most obvious are in supermarket shelves but which extends to a vast number of choices about where to live and how to live. It extends from choice about whether or not to have children — to choices about which overseas destination to travel to. With choice comes a degree of personal freedom for ordinary people which, as I said, is unprecedented in history. It was not surprising that a set of ideas arose which celebrates choice and freedom  and see these abstract notions as the basis for a good society. On this basis, neoliberal economic and social policies foster a strong individualism and self interest.

As I said, I believe that properly understood, this has lessons for us. Every successful movement for social change has invariably had one major advantage over bigger and more powerful forces. That advantage is the ability to identify problems emerging from beyond the horizon and to articulate a new social vision.

Why is that? Well, because certain forces have a logic of their own: they impose themselves on events regardless. Things are forced to change – and if you are in tune with that change, if you understand something like climate change in all its shocking implications, then you can do one very important thing. To put it bluntly you can seize an opportunity when it arises. Because when things begin to change, those who have a vested interest in the present state of affairs don’t want to recognize the new reality, they want to tinker with it, they hope for the best. Those who do not have a stake in the present, but who have a vision of the future which is both principled and pragmatic can have an enormous influence.

Because you never know what is over the horizon. Let’s say in the next 12 months an unprecedented drought occurs. Let’s say Melbourne and Sydney’s water supply once again dips down below 30 %, down to 20% or less. This sort of frightening example of climate change would also be the kind of event which forces the whole society to consider new possibilities in public policy and politics. Being able to explain these events gives you a tremendous advantage in being able to suggest a course of action.

Seeking a coherent new vision

A new vision needs to have a degree of coherence. That is, your economic policy has to be in alignment with your social policy. If you want to encourage, for example, home care for children , then you don’t want economic conditions that force women back to work immediately after giving birth. Or, if you want to fight carbon pollution, this has big implications for your economic approach as well as your social policy.

In raising the need for a coherent social vision, some might see this as a return to an
oppressive orthodox theory of society. And that is the tendency after the collapse of the grand narrative of socialism. Indeed in as far as I can understand postmodern ideas, they have  a decided preference for localizing politics and rejecting anything resembling a synthesis. And this is understandable up to a point, since it’s perfectly possible to argue that the trajectory of Marxism which began to liberate working class, ended by enslaving them. Whether you accept this rather simplistic argument or not, it seems to me that the age of theories which purport to explain everything from world history, to current politics to the future of humanity, is over. Like certain kinds of religions, such theories tend toward a fundamentalism.

But to reject so called ‘theories of everything’ is not to reject sets of ideas which try to explain more than local events and issues. Diversity is good and I don’t wish to impose an orthodoxy on progressive politics. But in complex societies such as ours, some sort of coherent vision seems almost unavoidable. To take an obvious example, if you want to say something about the environment, it’s necessary to have a view on aspects of the economy. Indeed you could argue that the fundamental issues of the environment are now issues of political economy and vice versa.

My personal view about a new politics is that it means searching for a new ‘social philosophy’ which deals with problems such as sustainability and the balance between the life-world and the market. Another view is that politics will increasingly be oriented around the need to reduce carbon emissions — and that this will involve a clash with entrenched corporate power as well as a challenge to deeply ingrained ways of life shared by large numbers of people.

Developing a new vision will not be easy. It is not a simple arithmetical ‘adding up’ of a list of progressive causes and demands. Rather it involves far more complex syntheses of ideas and policies. And the need to explore some of those processes is what brought this collection of thinkers and authors together.