Book Review: “All That’s Left: What Labor Should Stand For”

At the same time that I got my hands on Confessions of a Faceless Man, I also got a copy of the latest soul-searching Labor “where are we heading” book, called “All That’s Left: What Labor Should Stand For” edited by Tim Soutphommasane and Nick Dyrenfurth.

All That's LeftThis book deserves somewhat more than the quick and dirty review I gave Paul Howes election diary. It comprises of ten chapters written by some prominent (and not so prominent) social democratic figures, including Lindsay Tanner, Geoff Gallop, Denis Glover and Larissa Behrendt (who is the only woman contributor to this book). The chapters range in topic from re-starting the culture wars, standing up for the States and cooperative Federalism, the role of trust in politics, the future of unionism and progressive economics.

Overall I found the book to be well worth reading, and a few chapters aside, the authors contributed well-reasoned and well-written additions to the large corpus of Labor-themed hand-wringing. What I found interesting was the central focus of exploring modern “social democracy” that tied the chapters together. I particularly agree that the prescription for Labor’s woes, that we move “beyond left and right” is a capitulation rather than evolution in progressive, left-wing discourse:

It seems indulgent, therefore, to suggest we must move ‘beyond’ Left and Right out of respect for passing intellectual fashion. And it seems too pessimistic to believe, as with many social democrats around the world, that the Left must exist only to preserve past gains. Now is not the time for timidity or despair. Social democrats may not have the opportunity to remake society, but they can still build a better one. (p.14)

Nevertheless, I felt that none of the chapters ended with a solid conclusion that answered the question posed by the book’s title: “what should Labor stand for”. Perhaps only the politicians’ chapters even tried to answer this question. The book’s conclusion (or postscript) tried to answer it, but instead simply summarised the challenges without posing a conclusion.

I feel as though if you were going to edit a book about What Labor Should Stand For, there should at least be an attempt to provide a conclusive answer, and despite the interesting discussion in some of the chapters, Dyrenfurth and Soutphommasane leave us hanging. A constant refrain in the book is that social democracy seeks to “civilise capitalism” – but there is no discussion of what this means or entails – which is a shame. Perhaps I should read Latham’s effort.

Certainly, Wayne Swan in his launch speech for this book tries his hand at answering the question, embedding modern Labor in a narrative of opportunity and social mobility, centred around a strong economy and jobs growth.

Joining Labor doesn’t mean signing up to unworldly idealism leading to inevitable disillusion. Membership of the Labor Party is a summons to public service. It’s an expression of love for our country and for its working people.

While I find Swan’s prescription rather tasteless – in fact in my view a focus on “social mobility” and “prosperity” is hardly different to the sloganeering of the conservative parties – I admire his attempt to place idealism front and centre of Labor. The unspoken line of thought here is Whitlam’s maxim that only the impotent are pure, and that Labor’s mission is achievement over idealism. The reason why Labor is obsessed with winning elections is that real progressive change can only come through exercising the levers of Government (this is a point made by Lindsay Tanner).

A key issue that is not addressed by this book or its authors or editors is “who is this book for”? There is a sense that the constant anti-Labor bashing by the Murdoch Press has wormed its way into the minds of the authors – who have come to accept the echo chamber of “Labor has no vision” or “Labor stands for nothing”. This formula was used against UK Labour for many years by the Murdoch Press, and while it was aimed at the electorate, its real impact was on the activists, intellectuals and policy wonks who support Labor and Labour. Something similar is happening in the US targeting the Democrats and Obama.

The damage to Labor’s morale is far more corrosive and toxic than to the electorate at large – afterall, few people read The Australian. What we have seen is Labor’s intellectual and activist support wane in the face of this conservative barrage – resulting in leakage to the Greens Party. We, Labor supporters, begin to question what Labor stands for – and the many speeches and articles by Labor’s leaders in answer to this are rarely (or never) reported. (See this insightful article over at The Political Sword for more on this phenomenon.)

Books like this are useful, but only useful when the go beyond the few hundred people that will buy and read this book. The ideas and agenda of the social democrats who have contributed to and edited this book need to do more to engage more broadly. This is the role of a modern Labor Party, the modern union movement, and think-tanks like Catalyst, Per Capita and Centre for Policy Development.

It is this lack of practical solutions that is probably the biggest letdown of “All That’s Left” – it is too theoretical in places, too general, too short.

What follows is some thoughts of the main chapters of the book (although not all of them), and at the end some of my own thoughts about answering the question of “What Labor Should Stand For”.

It’s the culture, stupid, Nick Dyrenfurth

Dyrenfurth, a post-doctoral research fellow at the University of Sydney, opens “All That’s Left” with an engaging discussion of the importance of “an all-out culture war on Labor’s behalf… to prosecute a reformist legislative agenda.”

Following its victory of sorts in the 2010 election, where now for Labor? Reclalibrated ‘Kevin 07’ slogans or celebrity politics will not suffice in office, nor will simplistic denunciations of capitalistic avarice or fantastic visions of the coming triumph of the organised working class appeal to the citizens of a society far more complex in structure and outlook than that which confronted Laborites of earlier generations. Labor’s task, however, remains much the same: to enlarge, once more, the outlook and ambition of this country. In this chapter I argue that social democratic public policy requires the cultivation of a distinctive political culture. (p. 18)

With this clarion call, Dyrenfurth takes us on a journey through Labor’s history, from the Tree of Wisdom to the first Labor Prime Minister Andrew Fisher, then Chifley, Whitlam, Hawke and Keating and finally Rudd. He makes the point that Labor has always been more “cultural” than “ideological”. He cites the various Labor myths – the Tree of Wisdom in Queensland, the great speeches of Labor tradition, from the Light on the Hill, to Men and Women of Australia, and the True Believers; he also suggests that where Labor has great heroes, it has terrible villains, like Billy Hughes and more recently Mal Colston.

The crux of this Labor culture was that it was about more than electing Parliamentarians – it was about movement building.

The wider labour movement waged a relentless campaign to shift the nation’s political culture to the Left, transforming the electoral contest beyond that of its hitherto natural arrangement: liberal versus conservative. To achieve progressive reforms, Laborites understood the need to cultivate collectively-minded values, so that citizens saw Labor’s program as not only justifiable but the consensus viewpoint. (p. 23)

Dyrenfurth’s critiques of Labor, his summary of its woes are more or less on the money, all the more poignant when enunciated by a sympathetic voice. He concludes that Labor’s fundamental challenge is to place an “ideological impulse behind its public policy.” More than the standard trope trotted out by many Labor spokespeople and MPs that “Labor needs a narrative” or “Labor has a good story to tell”, Labor must embed within everything it does and says the values of solidarity and egalitarianism – and what’s more, social democrats must take the fight to unfamiliar territory: mateship, patriotism and other shibboleths.

This chapter stands amongst the best of those in “All That’s Left” – and although it does not suggest some practical, specific programs that Labor and its allies could undertake, it is a cogent call to arms for the social democratic left.

Social justice and the good society, Tim Soutphommasane

In possibly the most disappointing chapter, Soutphommasane treats us to a dissertation into the definition of “social justice”. As a theoretical exercise it is rather pedestrian and as a formula for What Labor Should Stand For it is content free.

Soutphommasane starts by trying to define social justic – trying to counter the view that it is a nebulous, hard to define concept. This is where the essay starts – literature review of the prevailing views of social justice, morality, emotions, etc. Political philosopher Martha Nussbaum is invoked, as is John Rawls’ “A Theory of Justice”. From this base, Soutphommasane artices that “the basic idea of ‘justice as fairness’ highlights an article of faith among those who would regard themselves as left-liberals or social democrats: a value of fairness exists prior to our basic social structure.”

Taken together, these ideas point to how social justice concerns an idea of individual freedom and self-realisation within a community of citizens. Social justice means ensuring that all citizens of a community have the means and the ability, however variously defined, to be able to pursue a good life without being burdened by disadvantages that weren’t of their own making. (p. 43)

The clumsy, overly-theoretical passages of Soutphommasane unfortunately do not add much to “All That’s Left”. Following this pedestrian definition of social justice, the essay continues – this time putting the counter Rawlsian arguments in the form of large quotes from Amartya Sen, who emphasises “committed citizens” over “just institutions”.

For a movement that prides itself on practicalities, this chapter never rises beyond an undergraduate level of theoretical exploration and summation that is expected from a book written by social democrats. Soutphommasane does an admirable job of summing up the views of the major intellectuals in the area of social justice theory, but his writing is without character or purpose. While he does examine the term “social justice”, the other part of the article – “the good society” is largely overlooked.

His voice is drowned in the essay-style the chapter is written in – and it further suffers from overly technical and philosophical jargon: “hybrid vigour” “pluralistic approach” “solidaristic communities” “deliberative democracy”.

There is of course a place for this kind of higher level writing, but unfortunately Soutphommasane does not make it beyond the wading pool. Which is a shame, but perhaps social democrats should not try to nail down a definition of “social justice” that would inevitably exclude rather than include.

Progressive economics, David Hetherington

Hetherington makes the case, in the post-GFC environment, for a reregulation of the market for social good.

The challenge for social democrats is to harness the power of market forces to stimulate innovation and broad-based wealth creation, while being ever vigilant against the market failures that hurt the most vulnerable in our community. This requires an acceptance that well-regulated market economies remain the best system of resource allocation yet developed, aligned with a willingness to use the power of the state to intervene wherever market failures generate social costs. (p. 107)

Perhaps Hetherington comes the closest to defining social democrats’ mission to “civilise global capital”: could it be “market design by governments; and… the integration of social costs and benefits into economic decision making”? Certainly, Hetherington rejects to efficient financial markets theory that is the cornerstone of Chicago-school style “free-market economics”.

Labor, Hetherington argues, should take the approach of integrating social costs and benefits into markets – emphasising “progressive values of prosperity, fairness, community and sustainability”. With the failure of the “free market experiment”, Labor now commands the mantle of most-trusted party to manage the economy – a position it should exploit, alongside its traditional domination of health and education.

Hetherington sets out some areas where this can be done: Regulating some markets, using pricing mechanisms, providing no frills public options for some financial products, introducing a cost to emit carbon pollution, and putting a priority on finding jobs for the unemployed. He also suggests the creation of a long-term investment fund paid out of the minerals resource rent tax to fund “economic and social infrastructure outside the resources sector.”

A Red–Green coalition, Dennis Glover

The most annoying thing about Dennis Glover’s chapter is his fabricated distinction in trends of the “Left” between “Red” (industrial) and “Green” (environmental and middle class). This distinction alone makes the chapter nearly worthless – as his argument boils down to “Red and Green should get along and work together”. Glover’s prime example of the falling out of Red and Green is the failure of the CPRS to get pass through the Senate.

The first is for Red and Green Left to recognise that their shared goals give them a political interest in sticking together – and that this will sometimes involve compromise and sacrifice from both. In the twenty-first century, neither union members nor environmentalists will ever form a majority of the electorate, but together they might.

… The second is for the Red Left to recognise the extent of its success in solving the problems of material deprivation and explore a vision of society that places less emphasis on excessive consumerism and more on increasing other avenues of human fulfillment.

… The third is for the Green Left to recognise the importance of maintaining the hard-won social gains of social democracy. (p. 168-69)

It is a picture that is grossly simplistic, and more to the point, wrong. Glover simply constructs crude straw men against which to tilt. Firstly, if Glover is using “Red Left” to equate to Labor, then it is clear that “union members” can form a majority – it did so in 2007 and has done for more than a decade in various States. Secondly, I am not aware of any union or “Red Left” MP advocating for “excessive consumption” – in fact the goal of social justice (explored in other chapters) to me suggests that social democrats have for a long time turned their attention to “other avenues of human fulfillment”. Finally, I’m no fan of the Greens – but the Greens Party does not “scoff at the aspirations of working class people”.

All of this is mere political caricature – and poor caricature at that.

The rest of the chapter is a summary of how a modern Engles would find tackling climate change very important, and the great socialistic endeavour of Marxism was in part a rebellion “against the pollution of Manchester” and its cotton mills.

If Left and Right are political definitions that have been drained of meaning and poignancy, “Red” and “Green” as political shorthand are so barren as to be entirely lifeless.

Twenty-first century unionism, Paul Howes

Howes produces a readable but ultimately unnourishing chapter about the role of unions. There are three strains in this chapter: 1) Modern unions engage with business and the government; 2) modern unions are professional organisations that recruit from outside the nest; and 3) modern unions take organising and recruitment seriously by adopting the organising model.

His chapter is very much a product of its time – when it was written the debate and negotiation around the Resources Super Profits Tax was still underway. Howes is nothing if not a pundit and commentator, and his chapter delves into the current affairs of Labor and unions, reducing its utility as a broader comment on “twenty-first century unionism”. Nevertheless, Howes uses the opportunity to push a growing trend amongst union leadership, and that is the strategic use of workers’ capital embedded in superannuation.

Currently there is over $1.3 trillion invested in Australian superannuation funds, much of which is held in industry funds of which unions are trustees. Unions could look at innovative ways of directing superannuation investments into regional Australia while ensuring that fund members receive solid returns. (p. 188)

This regional focus also makes an appearance – much of Howes membership lives in regional Australia – and he argues that unions have a key role to play in stimulating regional areas, especially promoting skills and jobs.

Unfortunately, this interesting line of thought is only mentioned in the conclusion and not explored. The rest of the chapter serves as a summary of recent union history, the success of the Rights at Work campaign and a declaration that unions are still alive and well.

Trust in politics, Lindsay Tanner

Tanner’s chapter – really an edited speech he gave as a John Button lecture in December 2009 – is one of the more interesting, more practical chapters. His speech rephrases the question “What Should Labor Stand For” to “If we are to have believers, what are our beliefs?” His answer is that “trust” should be the “central theme around which modern Labor can build its program.” In this regard, like Banquo’s ghost, Tanner evokes the spirit of Latham, who argued that social capital was based on trust.

The role of “trust” in our society cannot be mandated, but can be fostered – and that is Labor’s task – although recently, Tanner argues, that objective has been implicit rather than explicit. He cites efforts such as regulating excessive executive salaries, strengthening unfair contract laws, increasing anti-terrorism protection, enforcing anti-discrimination laws, reducing carbon emissions, extending mutual obligation in welfare, protecting the rights of vulnerable workers and reforming electoral laws as initiatives aimed at increasing trust. “Securing trust means reducing fear, unfairness and insecurity” and this is not the role of government alone, but other social institutions “such as sporting clubs, schools, unions, churches and volunteer community organisations”.

Tanner’s most incisive comment unfortunately is not a reflection on Labor, but instead on the Greens Party:

As Stuart Macintyre said in an address to an ALP national conference, true believers need beliefs. The Greens have appropriated elements of the belief system of Whitlam Labor and, free of the constraints of seeking to govern, intensified them to a point where they have no prospect of attracting majority support. Labor can only compete with Green grandstanding at the price of an indefinite period in opposition. (p. 197-98)

This view reminds me of an article I read recently about the German Greens Party:

The Greens’ attraction isn’t explained by their policies. In fact they have surprisingly little to say on a range of important economic issues and many of their social policy proposals are unaffordable. What makes them irresistible to many people is the impression they give of always being on the right side. This is a feel-good party. It gives people a reassuring sense that they will somehow be morally elevated if they vote for it. Green voters hardly ever feel they have to justify their choice — that is a major advantage in the competition for votes.

The SPD remains tainted by the deep welfare cuts it imposed in 2003 and 2004, and people still think the party isn’t really serious about social justice. The CDU, for its part, is still widely regarded as a little dusty and old-fashioned, despite the best efforts by the party’s leadership to shake off that reputation. Meanwhile, support for the FDP has slumped amid accusations that it is just pursuing policies that suit the interests of its wealthy clientele.

People who vote for the Greens, by contrast, don’t need to explain their choice. Who isn’t opposed to climate change? Who isn’t in favor of protecting seals? Who doesn’t have doubts about the safety of nuclear power? And who doesn’t think that men and women should have equal rights?

The more I turn my mind to the Greens Party, the more I am convinced that they are transforming into modern-day ruling class tendency of the kind of the Liberal Democrats in the UK, or the Whigs and Free-trade Parties of the 19th and early 20th century – effectively bourgeois liberalists.

Overall views of “All That’s Left”

All That’s Left is a worthwhile, but ultimately unsuccessful contribution to the library of books about Labor, its values and its future. It is let down by some less than stellar chapters (notably Soutphommasane’s chapter), and for a book that asks the question “What Labor Should Stand For”, it stumbles in actually answering it.

I found the book overall an interesting paddle through the various streams of social democratic thought. More than anything, it highlights at once why “What Labor Should Stand For” is such a hard question to answer, and perhaps why it should not be nailed down.

What should Labor stand for?

In answering this question, I am reminded of Antonio Gramsci. Labor without a doubt (and as argued in this book) is a social democratic party, whose role historically and now has been to “civilise” capitalism. There is little passion left for a socialist program (if there ever really was one). Nevertheless, in the war of position socialists are compelled to form a united front to win from the ruling classes the consent of the subaltern classes in Australia. Participation within Labor is part of a program of building civil hegemony for working people – while acknowledging that Labor itself is a bourgeois party, albeit with genuine working class elements and links.

Labor’s task – as the party of a united front – cannot be narrow. It must build consent from a range of classes – the technicians of capital (judges, lawyers, school teachers, academics, bureaucrats) as well as the working classes themselves (who in Australia have historically had an underdeveloped class consciousness). It must aim to govern for the majority, and build a broad consensus against the conservatives and allies of capital.

Change can only come through the hegemonic power of the state. In a bourgeois liberal democratic nation like Australia, parliament is the chief way to organise, educate and mobilise the working class (ironically, this situation is a chief reason for the atomisation of the working class as a cohesive political force).

Because of this mission – this historical task to govern in the interests of working people through the consent of the working classes and the technicians of capital together – Labor will regularly compromise and accommodate the wide variety of interests within it – including bourgeois interests!

What does this mean for Labor?

Civil society is the environment in which social classes compete for social and political leadership or “hegemony” over other classes. Hegemony is in large part gained through controlling the levers of government – as Mao said, political power comes from the barrel of a gun, and the state is the monopolist of violence. It is imperative therefore that Labor continue to work towards building parliamentary majorities. To paraphrase Lindsay Tanner and Whitlam, nothing can be achieved in opposition.

Labor is not a revolutionary party. It does not seek to remake social conditions, but to reform them. In the absence of a socialist program, Labor should aim broadly to build progressive consensus on a range of issues: employment that ensures dignity for working people; action on climate change that integrates a just transition with strong pollution reduction; ending discrimination to the most vulnerable people in Australia, including Indigenous Australians and people with disabilities and mental illness; ensuring quality universal services available to all but especially to those who need them most; quality education that empowers Australians from cradle to grave; and a well-funded, quality and comprehensive health system that operates in the public interest.

In his True Believers speech, Keating summed up what the true believers believed in: “a cooperative, decent, nice place to live where people have regard for one another.” At its heart, this is a pragmatic clarion call – intimately tied to the goal of governing, of wielding the levers of power to promote inclusion, access and equity – and a modern restating of the Light on the Hill. Chifley, in that famous speech defined the movement as one “that has been built up to bring better conditions to the people.”

In 2010, Gillard’s call for Labor is:

To build consensus in the community, and majorities in the Parliament, for the “betterment of the people”… Equity and opportunity for all is at the heart of the Labor faith.

Labor’s values and beliefs must necessarily be broad, its ambitions wide, its programs specific, its goals pragmatic.

The area that I think Labor has failed in most in recent years is the withering of its membership. Labor cannot rely simply on controlling the commanding heights – although that is important – it must also carry the masses of working people. Community outreach and rebuilding of the rank-and-file membership is essential in my view to building Labor’s position as the party of a united front.

Labor must as a matter of urgency start a program of genuine membership recruitment – reengage with the hundreds of community groups who share its board vision for Australia. Labor as a political party must run leadership development programs for its activists, training for its members and town-hall meetings for its supporters. As Dyrenfurth, the culture war must be restarted, and Labor must win through building a “distinctive political culture”. It must build progressive coalitions within the community (and seek compromise where necessary with independents and the Greens Party in Parliament).

7 responses to “Book Review: “All That’s Left: What Labor Should Stand For””

  1. @redrabbleroz Avatar

    Something that irks me a lot is grouping left-liberals and social democrats. left-liberals are not the same as social democrats. They do not have the same values of collectivism and solidarity or have a concern about the impact of markets such as commodification.

    One of the problems is that many people forget that social democracy (I use it interchangeably with socialism) arose in reaction to capitalism and its dispossesion of people. That needs to be the starting point. Having read The' Great Transformation' by Karl Polanyi recently, it's a book that should be widely read as it gives a strong critique of liberalism and a clear statement of social democratic values and beliefs that remain relevant today.

    1. Alexander White Avatar

      I agree re: "Left Liberalism", but not with the equation of social democracy with socialism. Socialism fundamentally is about changing the relations of production, while social democracy wants to ameliorate the worst excesses of capitalism. There is a lot of common ground between socialists and social democrats, but they aren't (IMO) interchangable.)

      Let us never forget that liberalism gave us neo-liberalism…

      1. @redrabbleroz Avatar

        I disagree only because the social democrat/socialist debate is more about semantics these days. What it comes down to is analysis. The problem is that most people who label themselves social democrats aren't actually social democratic at all, they are neoliberals.

  2. Haza Avatar

    Excellent article, though I would strongly disagree with the characterisation of the Greens by Tanner, the article you quote from, and yourself. Calling the Labor party a social democratic party is also a bit rich, considering their policies currently and even historically. For example, Max Odgen, an over 30 year union official and former ACTU Industrial Officer has stated that: 'There is little evidence that the ALP has ever embraced serious social democratic traditions, except for a tentative step during the ALP/Accord '83-'96, but that is long gone.' See article

  3. Haza Avatar

    I also feel there is considerable myth making over what Labor has actually done while in office and what it likes to promote. Never forget that this is party in which in 1911 a Labor attorney general introduced penal powers against unions, the QLD labor gov in 1927 dismissed the entire staff of the railways in 1927, and the Ben Chiefly gov sent troops in to break the 1949 miner's strike, to mention a few among many. Hardly a party standing in solidarity with the working class, or even much of the middle class.

  4. Haza Avatar

    Furthermore, I really don't think they will begin to become an actual social democratic party (like one that actually has some credentials and achievements to its name, like the Swedish Social Democratic party) without more pressure from those further left on the spectrum (though I do find it hard to even call Labor left now, as their policy and rhetoric tend to resemble the Liberals more and more, except for their constant refraim of being 'progressive'). After all, governments of any persuasion will generally fail to hold up to their promises without constant public scrutiny, protest, and popular engagement.

  5. Haza Avatar

    As an example: If the Socialist Alliance ever posed an actual electoral threat to Labor at an election, I think Labor (unless they managed to build a succesful red scare campaign) would actually be forced to hold up to its supposed social democratic ideals for fear of losing government or facing mass disenchantment.

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