Down Under diary: is it time for Social Democracy?

Tom Nairn
14 August 2009


Lord, it is time. The summer was too long.
Lay your shadow on the sundials now,
and through the meadows let the winds throng

Rainer Maria Rilke, Herbst/'Autumn', 1902


Rilke's elegy was for a range of dying Victorian '-isms', and he found himself longing (with justified nervousness) for the winds of an incoming century. A similar autumnal cloud has recently been gathering in Australia, and the poet is none other than the country's Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd.  Back in February, over a year after his Labor Party came to power in the 2007 federal election, its Leader informed readers of Melbourne's Monthly magazine what the vote had really been about: he reckons it's time for 'Social Democracy', after the ‘Great Financial Crisis' (his title).

The ‘GFC' his government walked into has determined the timing, and he feels this may not be all bad. Social Democracy has been forced to shed its old skin. It used to be a compromise (or muddle) between the opposing poles of state Socialism and all-out Free-trade Capitalism. But since both of these have fallen flat on their faces, and neither is showing signs of rebirth, the old ‘middle ground' has been unable to avoid inheriting the earth. Social Democracy may have been initiated in the northern fringe of Europe, but has now ceased to be a preserve of the Baltic states. Australia too will have to make the best of it; and Rudd's calculation is that his country (not just its present government) may be better placed than many others to take what was once the less-trodden path.

There are two sides to this: recent experience, and inherited structures of both class and polity. Outside Australia, it is often not grasped just how drastic its period of neo-liberal government was between 1996 and 2007. Under John Howard's Liberal-Coalition regime the ‘Neo' was taken seriously, even passionately. In a nation where identity has always posed unusual problems, Australians were volubly encouraged to over-identify with the global trend. A model-capitalist polity would tell them who they really are, and thus help foster something like a new ruling class - a practically Leninist vanguard of future faith and development, exemplary in its brazen individualism and rejection of clammy public welfare and regulation. Howard's intention was shock-treatment, and it succeeded beyond anyone's dreams. However, one consequence is that the counter-shock of failure is correspondingly great. Here, the summer was indeed too long, and too eagerly imagined as eternal; so when the shadows fell at last on Down Under's sundial, they were really black.

More generally, it should be kept in mind that this Neo-Liberal ascendancy incorporated much mythology. There was no universal 'tide' of sameness following the Cold War victory of 1989 and later, except on the plane of ideology. Journalists and pundits may have explained ad nauseam that such was the case. But in fact capitalism's triumph impacted quite differently on various societies, depending on their assorted histories or 'peculiarities' - and also, often crucially, on the timing of the changes. Rudd describes the Howard Liberal-National coalition as like a 'seismic shift' for Australians; but much of the quake came from belatedness, exaggeration and a will to 'normalize' Australian modernity - against an inherited conviction of marginality and suivisme. His essay is mostly devoted to these effects, as well as to the strategic therapy proposed.

The shift must be remedied by government, the term he constantly reiterates. Even Neo-Conservatives like the American Bushites found themselves forced along this track. Would it not make more sense for elected leaders who really believe in pro-active government to take up the reins, and help restore public-sector economics and guidance? The real belief to which Rudd appeals, however, is also that of an electorate partly driven by a powerful inheritance of resentful egalitarianism, the idea of a 'fair go' given a chance by a public sector awarding opportunity to more than business companies and 'fat cats'.

There is a quietness and modesty about Rudd's tone and arguments, as well as the academic style and its presentation in the pages of the relatively high-brow Monthly: not a trace of chest-beating, assumed authority or Ministerial rhetoric. This must be deliberate too. He's addressing a public scorched by non-stop propaganda, columnar put-downs and compulsory Futurity - the more likely to be accepted, the louder it was proclaimed. Disappointment has followed, naturally. And in the shadow-time now upon us, a measure of diffidence and moderation is more likely to take effect.

Rudd is a Queenslander, and the only Australian Premier since World War II not to come from New South Wales or Victoria states. An administrator by trade (invariably 'a bureaucrat' in party diatribes), he went to the Australian National University and studied Chinese language and literature between 1976 and '79, before joining the Canberra Department of Foreign Affairs. Postings to Stockholm and Beijing followed, before his return to Labor Party politics. Best remembered in Queensland for his encouragement of foreign-language teaching in schools, he has consistently inclined towards external policies distinct from the post-imperial nostrums of the 'Anglo-Celt' (i.e. British) tradition. A convert to Catholicism from the Anglican Church, he advocates a communitarian or 'social justice' approach to faith in politics, and three years before 'Social Democracy' published a lengthy piece on his hero Dietrich Bonhoeffer. There he 'challenged the religious Right's contention that Christianity is all about individualism by arguing that it has a strong tradition of social justice more in line with the Australian Labor Party's philosophy than that of the Liberal Party.'

Of course the Rudd debate has coincided with Gordon Brown's stumbling downfall at Westminster, and the all-round defeat of the centre-left in the recent Euro-elections. Yet its trend is plainly contrary. The Australians suffered belatedly from the great Neo-Liberal offensive of the Millenium. Are they now reacting prematurely in the other direction, by searching for a reconstructed centre-left? As for the trend, it isn't in fact confined to Australia. The newly-published Breaking Up Britain (Lawrence & Wishart, 2009), contains essays suggesting the same thing: there is no alternative to one or other version of 'Social Democratic' nationalism, as the formula for superseding Great Britain. I particularly recommend Richard Thomson's 'The social-democratisation of Scottish nationalism' in the workings of the new Edinburgh Parliament.

A different terrain ...

While all such trend predictions should be tentative, I think one can at least say the one indicated here is nothing like that seized on recently by Slavoj Zizek: the 'global process' whereby 'the virus of authoritarian capitalism is slowly but surely spreading around the globe', because 'the link between democracy and capitalism has been broken'. He founds this on a comparison between the recent Iranian election and the antics of Silvio Berlusconi in Italy. So much for the 'new spirit of capitalism' that some have detected at work, and imagined as encouraged by the 'GFC'; for Zizek, only the old spirit is still around - that of the capitalism of the nineteen-seventies to the 'nineties, now more than ever fixated upon unquestioned authority, and unable to conceive of anything but a restoration of later Cold War ideology.

The diversity of human 'species-being' was (and remains) fate, qualified but not undone by choice and development. If Rudd's right, the same will be true of 'Social Democracy', in this rightful-inheritance sense. With 'globalization' the cards have been dealt, and can't be returned; but of course, the real game is just beginning. 'Prematurity' is part of any such deal. Just how the inheritor form of 'Social Democracy' will develop and foster new ideas of both right and left, ought to be a long-term matter. And I don't think Premier Rudd is offering another ready-made ideology like British  'New Labour' of the 'nineties. In the issue following 'The Great Financial Crisis', the Monthly published a round table of comments titled 'Is Rudd Right?', including contributions from John Gray and Eric Hobsbawm. The latter pointed out that circumstances have altered far more than most journalists realize. Getting over it is likely to involve something like a 'third industrial revolution' - a peaceful equivalent of the war efforts which cured the previous major crisis of the nineteen-thirties. This is at an early stage, and will presumably depend upon a great expansion of sustainable energy production, via the harnessing of fusion power as well as of wind, tides, and sunshine.

On the other side, as the Monthly's Robert Manne caustically observed, the most striking response has been unmitigated bankruptcy - 'not only parochial and myopic but also remarkable ill-tempered' - as if Neo-Liberals remain unable to see the Crisis as other than a hiccup, and 'that often painful process known as thought has not yet even begun' (March 2009, No.43). We don't know how 'the framework of the post-theological world of interacting mixed economies can come into being', Hobsbawm wrote, but we do know that 'this cannot be tackled by the profit-seeking market any more than the development of nuclear energy or the conquest of space' (May 2009, p.29). Occlusion of thought and parrotting of platitudes were once characteristics of Eastern Marxism; they seem to have found a new home among ultra-marketeers unable to believe history was not theirs for good, or to accept anything short of return and repetition.

In his earlier Age of Extremes, Hobsbawm pointed out '...it may well be that the debate which confronted capitalism and socialism as mutually exclusive and polar opposites will be seen by future generations as a relic of the twentieth-century ideological Cold Wars of Religion' - as futile as earlier contests over 'true Christianity' (Abacus, p.564). How far has this transition gone, as indicated in Rudd's influential article? 'Not far enough' is a common yet dubious response: but in today's conjuncture, direction remains surely more important than instant policy-making; and here the 'GFC' is bound to leave a lasting imprint. Rudd is saying that 'Social Democracy' is no longer a cause, or a novel '-ism'. It is more like the single remaining terrain of battle and achievement. No prophets were involved, the 'cunning of history' alone has fixed the emergent battlefield, the resources and the likely weather conditions.

'The Road Less Traveled' was Robert Frost's famous evocation of such moments: his imagined traveller reaches a point of decision, and decides on the path 'no step had trodden black' - with a sense of no return, and the likelihood that 'somewhere ages and ages hence' he might tell with a sigh how little was understood at the time, even though the departure had 'made all the difference', as one way led onto another, and a different world appeared. There have been some criticisms of Prime Minister Rudd for an over-speculative approach, as opposed to nut-and-bolt policy-making. My own doubts are different: does 'Social Democracy' go far enough, and face the very great shift entailed? As Roberto Unger has regularly argued, more 'experimentation' was badly needed to re-establish a credible Left. Needed, yet difficult (often impossible) to bring about, above all in larger and more traditionally configured countries - of which Anglo-Britain's 'Westminster' remains the prime example. But is this quite so difficult in Australia, New Zealand and the recently created polities of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland?

Religion doesn't figure directly in this. On the godly side, it is relevant to note that Rudd had already (as mentioned previously) paid his dues in advance. His earlier Monthly essay, 'Faith in Politics' (October 2006, No.17), described Dietrich Bonhoeffer as 'without doubt, the man I admire most in the history of the twentieth century'. This Lutheran theologian was also  'a man of action who wrote prophetically in 1937 that... there was no moral alternative other than to fight the Nazi state with whatever weapons were at his disposal'. Executed in 1945 after his support for the attempt on Hitler's life, Bonhoeffer is best known for his Ethics (1965) in which the idea of a 'religionless christianity' was presented as one feature of his theology of sociality.

Rudd does not of course claim that Howard's Neo-Liberal faith is a contemporary version of Nazism, against which martyrdom is appropriate. However, it plainly represents for him an orthodoxy that sought systematically to encourage piety and bien-pensant morality - the kind of thing Bonhoeffer criticised in the German 'thirties as colluding with the ascending state power. And no doubt the Prime Minister hopes to divert pious denunciations of social democracy as incipient godlessness from analogous quarters in Australia. The Howard Liberal-Coalition years were marked by something like an American resurgence of evangelical Protestantism, as in the amusing autobiographical account in Tanya Levin's, People in Glass Houses (2006), on the Hillsong Church movement. Boris Frankel's Zombies, Lilliputians & Sadists: The Power of the Living Dead and the Future of Australia (2004) give a devastating overview of Neo-Liberalism at work in the Howard years. The 'reds' may be out from under the bed, and indeed making a new one; but 'fundamentalism' of all sorts remains reluctant to accept a new deal. Overground (institutional) churches and parties are invariably more conservative than shifting reality.  It must be said, Bonhoeffer's austere form of Protestant morality looks like a safe bet today, far removed from older suspicions about complicity in the 'ethic of capitalism'. Rudd clearly aspires to harness it against the ethic, not of capital accumulation as such, but of the picturesque fantasies sprouting from the luxuriant Neo-Liberal undergrowth of Howardism, and as yet refusing to die off.

Left-wing diehards remain vocal in indignant opposition to the unrepentant Right. Alain Badiou has joined Zizek in condemnation of the triumphalist Rightists. What such hasty polemics overlook is the sheer peculiarity of post-1968 'capitalism': a socio-economic order feeling itself under siege both from outside and from deep sources within, that responded by a defiant hardening of orthodoxy and intransigence, a new systemic rigidity that would attain 'maturity' via the absurdities of Neo-Liberalism in the nineteen-eighties and 'nineties. But this was no more essential to capitalist economics in a wider sense, than Stalinism and the East-German dictatorship have been to socialism. Now globalisation is demolishing both. Isn't Rudd's Social-Democratic prescription at least a more realistic forecast than dizzying calls for more revolution and pure-essence 'Communism'?

...  within a new Global Imaginary

It may also be worth recalling that there has been a significant previous exploration of social-democratic possibilities for Australia, as in the Australian Council of Trade Unions' 1986 delegation to Scandinavia, Germany, Austria and Britain. Its report Australia Reconstructed was described by Andrew Scott as the 'most comprehensive policy manifesto ever published by the mainstream left in Australia'. Though its impact appears to have been limited at the time, Rudd's 2009 essay can surely be seen as a reprise of the same preoccupations and outlook, in the novel circumstances of 'GFC' disorientation. Unexpectedly, more effective possibilities of reconstruction have arisen compared with three years earlier: a world anchored to permanent-seeming parameters has been partly liberated, as well as ruined, by the 'GFC' crisis. And isn't Social Democracy resurfacing as part of this dislocation: secular rather than religious emancipation from the constraints of zealotic ultra-capitalism?

What's really at stake may be describable in other ways too: for example, as emergence from the Adam Smith version of modernity - that is, from a longue durée developmental arc, some of whose characteristics have only been decisively revealed by the 'GFC'. Nor is the marginal or 'remote' location so surprising. The tyranny of distance may be turning into its redemption. Anti-metropolitanism is a likely feature of profounder shifts. In his own day, Adam Smith's Scotland was marginal, on the very edge of what Kes Van der Pijl has recently re-baptized as the 'Lockean heartland' of North Atlanticism. Scots contributed all too much to the emergent orthodoxy of capital-based development, in 'the West'. The later, 20th century social-democracy came to be primarily identified with the Baltic countries of Northern Europe: 'outsider' societies in which experimentation was more possible, and also more politically guided and popular - polities democratic at a deeper level than the much larger states that dominated first-phase economic development. That Australasian and South-East Asian societies should resume this tendency, in globalizing circumstances, is surprising only to the kind of parochialism deposited by imperialist failure and contraction. The Bush-Republican regime was a form of the latter; but it may be too soon to say, the final form. President Obama remains dismayingly fond of talking leadership and 'hegemony' (the lounge-suit attire of posthumous empire).

Germaine Greer has also weighed into the developing argument, with an article in Melbourne's Age on 21st May 2009: 'Hey, it's the Australian Way', accusing the Prime Minister of ignoring his and the Labor Party's role in getting Australians into the mess in the first place. After all, wasn't it Labor leaders like Gough Whitlam, Bob Hawke and Paul Keating who carried out the 'modernization' that implanted Neo-Liberalism so firmly in Australia? And now one of their successors has the nerve to complain about it! 'The GFC is a kind of auto-immune disease', she concludes, and  'Auto-immune diseases cannot be cured, at best they can be controlled...and Rudd doesn't have the answer.'

It's true that in the 'nineties aspiring British New Labourites went on missions to Australia and studied the Whitlam-Keating experiences, with (putting it mildly) dubious results. But one may also suspect that Greer hasn't taken the moles of 'implantation' seriously enough, and is herself succumbing to old-hand cynicism. At the time she mentions, 'Neo-Liberalism' had to be acknowledged, to prevent socialism from collapsing into quasi-religious sectarianism. But happily, Shakespeare's moles have kept on tunnelling away, deep underneath all the manifestos, watch-chains and armed reasonableness. After downing the Communist Internationale, they have now thrown up the Great Financial Crisis, and indicated the limits to any narrowly capitalist interpretation of the emerging landscape. In February 2008, Rudd was the author of the great 'Apology' to native Australians, an attempt to strengthen the foundations of Antipodean identity - surely inconceivable without social-democratic initiatives and the strongest public support. His Social Democracy debate is a valiant attempt to broaden the argument again, and to include questions of nationhood, identity and community within (in Manfred Steger's phrase) the new 'Global Imaginary'.

Like other states, Federal Australia has to tackle the provision of an essential infrastructure for the development of any economic or other future, Social Democratic or otherwise: broadband internet. Early on in Rudd's government, the privatized successor to the former public telephone network, 'Telstra', requested permission for the new construction. The application was refused, and it was made clear that such a vital service had to be provided by and retained in the public sector - shielded from crisis, and part of the 'democracy' in Social Democracy.

Nor should one forget the big plus he and all democrats have still to come, in the shape of the Republic question. This failed ten years ago; but one doubts if it will do so again, given the foundering of United Kingdom statehood and Westminster's prestige that has taken place in the meantime. As far as anyone knows at present, Rudd remains a committed Republican, like the new leader of the Liberal opposition in Canberra, Malcolm Turnbull. Perhaps the 'Anglo-Celtic' tradition and Australian morale have depended not simply on older origins but on a semblance of continuing vitality - the life-blood of the monarchy and the 'Old Constitution'. If the former dries up and the latter collapses in its homeland, then surely a revived republican spirit may soon support the style of Social Democracy being projected here? And couldn't that in turn have a seriously healthy effect upon Great Britain itself, now (at last) undergoing a shake-up towards constitutional change and novelty?

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