Tuesday, 10 June 2014

Progressives need to change the conversation

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Part of the reason the country - if not the world - is drifting rightwards and disappearing into the unegalitarian vortex of late capitalism is because conversations about the economy, about politics, and about democracy are not just dominated by right-wing blowhards but are driven by right-wing ideas. Everything from balanced budgets and carbon taxes to “entitlement abuse” and immigration are discussed according to right-wing understandings of what is and isn’t desirable. If progressives want to change things, they are going to need to start presenting their views and beliefs, not just as responses to right-wing practices and talking points, but as tools for shaping debates and writing policy. They are going to need to change the national conversation.

It was the Occupy Wall Street movement that made equality a global political issue. Recently, the issue has been given some intellectual heft by French economist Thomas Piketty with his book Capital in the 21st Century. And now, even the IMF - one of the homes the sort of neoliberal policies that entrench economic stratification around the world - is warning that “rising income inequality is weighing on global economic growth and fuelling political instability.”

Nice of them to notice.

Here in Australia, it was the first Abbott/Hockey Budget that put the issues of equality and fairness front and centre.

With some justification, we think of ourselves as a nation in which the “fair go” is a defining national characteristic, a precious social value, even if it is one that we more or less take for granted.

The Budget made us realise that taking it for granted was no longer an option.

Australians were a bit like the eye of Sauron, focussed elsewhere and distracted by other battles. But when the Budget dropped, we were suddenly aware that our Gollumesque prime minister was standing on the edge of the precipice and was about to fall arse-backwards into the cracks of doom, taking our precious with him.

It’s been quite a moment in our political history, and it is one that should give progressives great hope.

So overwhelmingly negative has the general response been to the unfairness of this Budget that The Weekend Australian felt the need to editorialise some steel into the Government’s spine.

“The Coalition must win back friends and crush its enemies”, they bellowed in their print edition, reminding us once again, not only that they see their role as to rally the Abbott Government behind an agenda they helped create, but that while progressives resile from confrontational language for fear of appearing untoward, or of being accused of engaging in a class warfare, the right positively relishes it.

The Government must crush its enemies!

The Budget backlash has also removed the “balance” bullshit from the eyes of some establishment commentators.

Ross Gittins, for example, seems to have rethought his original attempts to play down the unfairness of the Budget. As I noted on these pages a few weeks back, his column the day after the Budget was full of mealy-mouthed exhortations that we not get too upset about things, writing stuff like:

This budget isn't as bad as Labor will claim....

and that

It's undoubtedly the toughest budget since John Howard's post-election budget in 1996, but it's hardly austerity economics.

This week, however, (with no acknowledgement of the shift in his position), he was saying something quite different:

But even if the budget passes intact, it contains the seeds of its own destruction.

Pensions heading inexorably below the poverty line? Pressure throughout the public sector for wages - including for nurses, teachers, childcare and age-care workers - to rise no faster than inflation, while private sector wages continue rising in real terms with productivity growth?

The vice-chancellor herd given total control over how high uni fees (and graduate debts) rise, including whether they make training for jobs as nurses, teachers and even government lawyers financially untenable?

This budget is unsustainable because the wider implications of its measures haven't been thought through. By knocking back its worst features, the Senate will be doing the Coalition (and the nation) a favour.

It’s a hell of trip from it’s “hardly austerity” to it’s “heading inexorably below the poverty line” and “this budget is unsustainable”, don’t you think?

The point is, we’ve had our wake-up call. Even Ross Gittins has, apparently. So the question is, what do we do next?

Well, there is a hint in my opening sentence: “inequality” has been embraced as a topic worthy of even the “very serious people” because of a street protest.

Yes, it’s lovely that we have Piketty’s book, and it’s terrific that the IMF is paying attention, but the agenda was set by a bunch of concerned nobodies standing on street corners around the world.

As British academic Chris Bertram said on Twitter when the effect of Occupy was becoming apparent: “Not in the mood for sneering superiority from ‘intellectual’ bloggers re occupy. [Occupy changed] the agenda, you didn't.”

The idea that strikes and protests can be a powerful force for change is something that has gotten lost in progressive circles. I know I’ve been going on about this in various articles for a while now, but we need to remind ourselves.

Even in the US, where Abbott-like economics have had longer to establish themselves and thwart all resistance, progressives are starting to realise what they have to do. As US activist Sarah Jaffe pointed out in The Washington Post recently:

McDonald’s might raise its wages, according to its recent filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission. Wal-Mart is considering supporting an increase in the minimum wage, or at least that’s what spokespeople for the company have been floating in recent interviews (though at other times the company has denied this).

It seems that strikes and multiyear pressure campaigns by low-wage workers have some impact on their employers. McDonald’s even admitted as much; the SEC report noted “increasing public focus on matters of income inequality” and worker actions were affecting their public image. Labor organizing, often declared dead on arrival, is having some impact. Even President Obama’s decision to raise the minimum wage for workers under future federal contracts was inspired by seven different strikes by low-wage workers at places such as the Smithsonian and the Pentagon.

Another US example is the recent successful minimum wage negotiations in Seattle. The minimum wage was raised there after a committee that included government, business and worker representatives agreed on a proposal.

But in examining how that committee even came into existence, one thing was very obvious. As unionist David Rolf put it:

“The process was a good process,” SEIU’s Rolf said. “But I think the real lesson here is an organizing lesson not a process lesson. For progressives, the lesson is change the direction of the wind.”

That means strikes and protests and candidate forums and election-year leverage, the kind of on-the-ground organizing work that can turn the middle-out message Hanauer described into a tool that shapes debate and writes policy.

Or consider this Australian example. The employees of Apple’s stores recently “negotiated” a pay deal that left them with a lower base rate than employees at Coles supermarkets.

What was the difference between the workers at Coles and those at Apple? Well, as Peter Lewis from Essential Media tweeted:

Memo Apple geniuses - difference is Coles workers have a union agreement

Organised resistance matters. And a key to the success of organised resistance is public protests of various kinds. Remember this the next time someone in the political or media elite tells you that street demonstrations are too old fashioned or too rude or too alienating.

As I’ve noted before:

What we all have to remember is that politics is about power and power is about the status quo. It is only by upsetting the status quo that we will ever get the change that the polls (opinion and electoral) indicate we are seeking.

This means more demonstrations, more strikes, more letters to editors and local MPs, and more of all the other sorts of legitimate protest that are the essence of democratic practice.

Indeed, part of the reason the reaction against the Abbott/Hockey Budget has been so virulent, sustained and far-reaching is precisely because of demonstrations coordinated via social media and rolled out on the streets of capital cities, and even in the studios of the ABC.

Without such public displays of disapproval, the government might just about have got away with it.

Without them, the national conversation would have been - just as it was before the election - much more dominated by the right wing apologists in the media and their “balanced” counterparts in the rest of the fourth estate.

The lesson we should learn, therefore, is that progressives simply have to change the national conversation, and that public protests facilitate this. They have to shift the discussion from deficits and entitlements to fairness and prosperity for all.

In a sense, this means talking more about ends rather than means. It means enunciating a vision of a democratic nation where everyone has the opportunity to thrive, not a winner-takes- all non-society where the market decides everything.

If we define the ends, the means will take care of themselves. That is to say, if your goal is a well-educated, healthy and prosperous nation where we all have a fair go at a decent life, then it becomes more or less impossible to make the case that what is needed is to add co-payments to doctor’s visits, or deregulate and charge market interest rates on higher education fees, or to allow the unemployed to go without benefits.

Those sorts of “solutions” only make sense in an environment where we buy into the neoliberal logic of austerity and inequality.

Let me run with a thought.

I’m not sure if this is true, but my feeling is that changing the agenda is actually more important than changing the government. Maybe this is just a harm minimisation strategy, but given who is currently in power, and given that electoral history suggests that they are unlikely to lose power after just one term, then at least making it as near as impossible as we can for them to implement the sort of unfairness inherent in their first Budget is an important interim step.

Because make no mistake, implementing such measures not only does harm in and of itself, it shifts our whole understanding of what an economy is supposed be for so far to the right that we end up arguing amelioration (student scholarships, or “emergency assistance” for the unemployed, for instance) rather than actual progressive reform.

Think of it this way.

If the question is what sort of country do we want? and the answer is, one in which everyone has a fair go at living a decent life, then a significant percentage of what the right argues simply disappears into the obfuscation from which it came.

It is very hard to argue that everyone is going to get a fair go and the opportunity for a decent life if your agenda consists of stuff like lowering taxes on the rich, charging much more for healthcare and education, chucking young people off the dole, lowering the dollar value of the pension, and all the rest of the right-wing agenda.

The other advantage a focus on ends brings is that it provides a rallying point. It is almost impossible to get passionate about technocratic means (however ultimately important they might be). Means tend to be bloodless. But ends are a different matter. The prospect of a decent life and a fair go is something that can rally a broad coalition of support.

Academic Jason Wilson noted the other day that right-wing policy advocates were more successful than their left-wing counterparts because they argued with more passion. He suggested this needs to change:

Rather than keeping up the pretence that expertise is post-political, some left thinktanks might think about how they too can combine policy nous with consistent appeals to the kind of values that activate political passions. There is a willing audience right now for the message that inequality hobbles democracy and that everyone benefits when we limit the power of wealth. In insisting on the values of equality and democracy, they could focus less on informing the ALP, and find ways instead to twist its arm. They could also pick some more messy fights.

For heaven’s sake, Clive Palmer is currently making better progressive arguments against the Budget than Labor is. This is not because he is progressive - don’t make me laugh - but because he isn’t scared of being accused of being a dreaded “leftist” or a “socialist” in the way that Labor is.

One of the reasons we Australians have, until very recently, been a bit complacent about the shift to the right is because many of us still tend to think that there is something inherently egalitarian about Australian elites, even those who identify as conservative. And it is true, that in the post-war period, until, say, the mid-80s, there was a case to be made that rising wealth was, to use the cliché, lifting all boats.

But the logic of late capitalism has changed, and it has drastically undermined those sorts of presumptions.

The middle class that arose during that earlier period of capitalism and democratic governance is now being gutted. In her new book, Expulsions, sociologist Saskia Sassen puts it this way:

People as consumers and workers play a diminished role in the profits of a range of economic sectors. For instance, from the perspective of today’s capitalism, the natural resources of much of Africa, Latin America, and central Asia are more important than the people on those lands as workers or consumers. This tells us that our period is not quite like earlier forms of capitalism that thrived on the accelerated expansion of prosperous working and middle classes. Maximizing consumption by households was a critical dynamic in that earlier period, as it is today in the so-called emergent economies of the world. But overall it is no longer the strategic systemic driver that it was in most of the twentieth century.

She goes onto say that:

Today’s is a form of primitive accumulation executed through complex operations and much specialized innovation, ranging from the logistics of outsourcing to the algorithms of finance. After thirty years of these types of development, we face shrinking economies in much of the world, escalating destructions of the biosphere all over the globe, and the reemergence of extreme forms of poverty and brutalization where we thought they had been eliminated or were on their way out.

Just as importantly, Sassen notes the way in which it is now more difficult to identify the culprits for the rise in inequality:

Rich individuals and global firms by themselves could not have achieved such extreme concentration of the world’s wealth. They need what we might think of as systemic help: a complex interaction of these actors with systems regeared toward enabling extreme concentration.

Such systemic capacities are a variable mix of technical, market, and financial innovations plus government enablement. They constitute a partly global condition, though one that often functions through the specifics of countries, their political economies, their laws, and their governments. They include enormous capacities for intermediation that function as a kind of haze, impairing our ability to see what is happening—but unlike a century ago, we would not find cigar-smoking moguls in this haze.

Today, the structures through which concentration happens are complex assemblages of multiple elements, rather than the fiefdoms of a few robber barons.

It is these sorts of transformations that are leaving Australia vulnerable, and we currently have a government less willing than any in our history to stand against such forces and more than willing to let wealth gush upwards, with little or no desire to redistribute it on the basis of a fair go for all.

Under such circumstance, politics as usual simply isn’t going to be enough.

In other words, while it is perfectly understandable that those disaffected with, and alienated from, the Abbott government are, by default, arguing for a double dissolution to get rid of them; or are pining for Julia Gillard; or are turning their lonely eyes to Malcolm Turnbull or Clive Palmer; or are waiting for the ALP to reform itself root-and-branch-stacking, the fact is, none of that is going to solve the problem.

The ALP is not going to save us. Julia Gillard is not going to save us. Clive Palmer won’t either, and for god’s sake, neither will Malcolm Turnbull.

But maybe they can help if progressives can drive the conversation and help set the political agenda.

If you really believe in a fair society, that the direction Mr Abbott and his one percent are taking the country is wrong, then you are going to have to communicate in no uncertain terms that what is happening - as represented by Budget - is not acceptable.

And here’s the simple truth.

You can’t beat Mr Abbott - and the pro-unfairness crowd that supports him - with money. They have most of the money.

You can’t beat them with backroom deals. They inhabit the back rooms and have their lips permanently attached to the ears of the powerful.

Even voting itself isn’t enough. You only get to vote once every three years and the electoral systems props up the major parties by channelling any protest votes to them via preference deals.

All you’ve got is feet on the ground, your ability to organise in sufficient numbers to upset their status quo, and your passion for a better, fairer nation.

Is that enough? Of course it is.


Tim Dunlop

Tim Dunlop writes regularly for The Kings Tribune, The Drum and other publications. His new book, The New Front Page: New Media and the Rise of the Audience, was released on August 26.

Follow him on Twitter @timdunlop