17 May 2007 LEFT IS RIGHT
In 1976, while still living in the UK, I devised an art event based on what I termed a universal political slogan Left is Right. It took the form of an A3 poster bearing the slogan, being sent anonymously to every Member of Parliament, every member of the General Council of the Trades Union Congress and to the Director General and chairmen of the committees of the Confederation of British Industries, all told to 702 of the most politically active men and women in the country.
The idea of a universal political slogan expressed my disillusionment with politics. At the time I felt that the difference between Labour and Conservative government in practice was barely perceptible in everyday terms. I no longer subscribe to the view that left and right are virtually indistinguishable. However small it may be, the difference between them is crucial, particularly at the time of an election.
The fundamental distinction between left and right politics is as true today as it ever was. Left politics tends to favour the have little over the have lots and right politics tends to favour the have lots over the have little.
In the 2000 US presidential election, Ralph Nader’s high-minded candidacy, which came down to his view that the Democrats and Republicans were essentially alike and equally unworthy, cost Gore the presidency. Given that GW Bush became president, Nader’s self-indulgent superiority amounts to a tragedy for the planet both in terms of what has happened during two terms under Bush and what might have happened under Gore.
It is clear that the grinding, thirty year ascendancy of free market orthodoxy with its pursuit of maximum profit and efficiency has shifted global politics significantly to the right, so that the core left values which inspired the pioneering post 1945 social reforms in health care, education and social security, have become anachronistic. Free market orthodoxy has altered the political dynamic by valuing individual freedom over the common good. It has unleashed the rather ineptly named globalisation on the planet and in the western world has had two equally destructive and pernicious consequences for individuals and communities. One was the mass sacking of the workforce in both the private and public sectors which has led to today’s exploitative workplace where large-scale sacking can still occur. The other is that relationships outside the circle of family and friends have become increasingly commercial and less human (I shall cite examples to illustrate my point in the latter part of this article). People have had a long time to become inured to this development, a fact which is bound to undermine their ability to recognise, challenge and seek to change it.
Looking back to what seems to have been a better age in the liberal democracies, the period from 1945 to 1975, than the period since 1975, I first need to ask if this is really true. By better age, I mean the post World War 2 period, when governments protected full employment and encountered a robust civil society because politics appeared to reflect broad human values rather than, as nowadays, reflecting the narrow values of business where every human activity tends to be seen in terms of its monetary worth. I mean an age which brought to an end more than 500 years of European colonial rule. I mean an age when the common good was widely fostered in the community and by all sides of politics so that governments willingly provided a host of services which were deemed to be useful and necessary, even if they did not pay for themselves; an age before market deregulation let the destructive genie out of the lamp.
But I am forced to concede that some significant social advances have occurred since 1975, such as the changing attitudes to smoking and to drinking and driving, a concern for the environment, an improvement in the status of women and of gays and the vastly increased availability of tertiary education. These were not issues in 1945 and if at all in 1975, they lacked the social impact which they subsequently achieved. In my view the gains, indispensable as they are, have come at an extremely damaging price.
The terms left and right are now considered by many to be politically unfashionable, even irrelevant, because meaningless, but they are still needed to loosely define politics. Little wonder, though, that they no longer seem to be taken seriously as a definition of opposing political beliefs. The current tendency to downplay the differences between left and right is neither smart or responsible. On the contrary, it is dangerous and proto-fascist and represents the apotheosis of the politics of market orthodoxy and the triumph of the right. Aided by its control of most of the media, the right has succeeded in variously demonising the union movement (admittedly helped by union abuse of power), the poor, the unemployed, asylum seekers, the handicapped and other disadvantaged people, while seeing to it that the privileged are given more accolades than they deserve.
So complete is the triumph of the right that it has been able to banish the idea of redistributing wealth from the political agenda by branding it the politics of envy. Which means, for example, that the ALP dare not now risk denying the richest school in Australia generous additional federal government funding, even though the school neither needs or deserves it. The branding is not only scurrilous, it has had the same debilitating impact on political debate as George Bush’s “if your’e not with us your’e against us” dismissal of dissent after 9/11.
Having wrought havoc on the market-regulating politics which preceded it, the politics of free market orthodoxy continues to be a monstrous and apparently immovable impost on human societies, given the contempt with which it regards them. Margaret Thatcher, one of its most ardent proponents, notoriously stated that there is no such thing as society – an opinion defining a political era with a capacity to be as uncaring of people as the market from which it has drawn its inspiration. A prime example is the Australian government placing boat people, including children from a very young age, in its detention centres.
Politics was quick to embrace the market with the cost-cutting retrenchment of large numbers of public servants and the resulting privatisation of service provision. Arguably as socially harmful as the sackings was the morale-sapping denigration of the public service ethos which has led to the politicisation of today’s bureaucracy. The influence of the market was also evident when bureaucrats were encouraged to see people as customers or clients rather than as people.
Typical of the present self-serving nexus between politics and business is the trite and dubious claim, rammed down our throats by an alliance of politicians and media pundits, that what is good for business is good for everyone. In fact the opposite is true; that what is good for business is primarily good for the directors and owners of businesses and by default, harmful to everyone else. Because it is not overtly condescending, the claim is a more plausible version of the discredited trickle-down-effect and crumbs-from-the-rich-man’s-table assertions. They are all about as credible as the classic one word market joke: self-regulation, the market’s answer to criticism about unfairness.
The immense disparity in pay between top executives and the workers they employ, exposes the good-for-business claim as the antithesis of attaining greater social equity through a redistribution of wealth. Bosses can earn millions regardless of whether they are presiding over a profitable company or a loss-making business and having to sack thousands of workers. The past excesses of trade unionists at their worst pale into insignificance compared with the excesses of the corporate world.
Free market orthodoxy is about individual good, that of the wealthiest, as the growing gap between rich and poor amply demonstrates. If individual freedom is promoted to the nth degree it leads to the law of the jungle or the law of the market. Whereas fostering the public good is a desireable curb on any socially destructive tendency of excessive personal freedom. Free market orthodoxy’s pursuit of efficiency is illusory because it initially led to high unemployment in the industrialised nations, a situation which applies today in some key European economies, notably France and Germany. The figures in countries with nominally low unemployment are a lie insofar as they hide the large number of people in the workforce unable to make ends meet. And while unemployment may produce efficient businesses, it can never produce an efficient society.
Since the dawn of time, as communication between human beings has become more complex and varied it has become less physical and more aethereal. This process started with rock art and the advent of writing and the artefacts to which it gave rise. So that now, in the weird, wired world, direct human physical contact is redundant, which means that in affluent countries such contact plays a smaller part in daily life than ever. The wired world is now a major contributor to the increasing commercialisation of relationships between people, generated by free market orthodoxy. The following examples may not all resonate, but they indicate the reach and insidious nature of this dehumanising process.
An early and perhaps the most widespread example of such a relationship is the recorded telephone answer. It is a poor substitute for the live voice of a human being answering the phone. None of the repeated assurances as to one’s importance can mask the underlying disdain with which one is being treated. Ironically, it seems that the number of phone calls one makes that are answered by a recorded message, is matched by the number of nuisance phone calls one receives from people in call centres trying to sell a product or service. In the instances where the caller is speaking from overseas and may have an accent which is hard to understand, the product or service providers are guilty of cynically exploiting both caller and recipient. They are exploiting the caller’s need for work, regardless of their suitability for the job. While recipients interested in paying for a product or service may end up with something they did not ask for because they had difficulty understanding what the sales person was saying.
Another widespread example, in Australia at least, has been the closing of bank branches in the self-fulfilling hope of expanding the use of telephone and internet banking by denying customers accesss to a bank branch and the opportunity to transact with a fellow human being, which so many prefer. A curious footnote to the mass closures and sackings is that the banks managed to make tidy profits with a full portfolio of branches and their staff.
A third example, resulting from the increasing willingness of individuals to resort to litigation in seeking compensation for injury, is the need for costly third party insurance where none existed before. At its worst this led to the disbanding of long established community organisations and to local events being wiped off the calendar. The fact that too many claims appear to have been at least as much due to the claimant’s own folly as to the negligence of others and that the damages sought and awarded can be obscenely out of all proportion to the injury sustained, punishes and damages society as a whole and adds insult to the injury of genuine victims of the negligence and culpability of others.
This tacky state of affairs reflects a scarcity of two closely related phenomena which were once commonly part of and enriched public life, namely the common good and common sense. Now we have political correctness which often flies in the face of both.
I recently went to see a film in a multiplex cinema. Not that long ago tickets and refreshments were sold separately, allowing the customers’ varying needs to be respected. Now, the people selling the tickets were also selling the usual over-priced snacks and refreshments in an uncompromisingly commercial bid to get more people to buy them. The fact that I only wanted to buy a ticket wasn’t good enough, so I was ‘penalised’ by being forced to wait while the people ahead of me, having bought their tickets, first selected and then were served their refreshments.
In defiance of the situation which has prompted my remarks about the commercialisation of relationships, I need to place on record my feeling that overwhelmingly throughout my life, my contact with my fellow men, women and children has been a total delight. It is a recurring pleasure which I experience each day and is among the precious things which makes my life rewarding and worth living, not least because moments of the keenest enjoyment can as readily occur with a complete stranger as with family and friends.
The need for a restatement and resurgence of left politics in the liberal democracies is overdue. The well-being of the developing world is likely to depend on it. The restatement should, inter alia, fully allow for the global impact of the internet. It will also need to address the vexed issue of how immoderate user demand, based on irresponsible expectation, threatens the sustainability of service provision. The lie that what is good for business is good for everyone has to be exposed and the redistribution of wealth must be put back on the agenda so that the genuinely disadvantaged can benefit. People also need to be told that every person alive today in the developed world owes an immense debt of gratitude to the union movement as one of the great civilising influences on humanity.
The right has held sway for too long. Unfortunately there is no reason to think that its dominance is about to end, but were a Democrat to be elected president in 2008, US politics should move more to the centre. Although old style left politics is on the rise in a number of South American countries, they lack the financial resources to match the impact on the rest of the planet, of a resurgent left in the liberal democracies.
Since 9/11, a war-mongering US president and his cronies have fed us a daily diet of misguided militarism regularly mixed with scare tactics. In their eyes, their war on terror, as unwinable as the war on drugs, appears to be the great cause of the new millennium. It is folly to confuse defeating terrorists with defeating terrorism.
Terrorism must be thwarted as much as is humanly possible (we can do no more), and, acknowledging that political change will also have to occur, this requires the liberal democracies to commit the resources needed for the eradication of poverty and its associated diseases and providing basic education for all, throughout the developing world. This would indeed be a great and noble cause and a far better expenditure of money and human energy than the disastrous war in Iraq which incites rather than curbs terrorism.
Climate change, the other major challenge of our time, is more of a threat than terrorism because, unlike terrorism, it impacts on our planetary life support systems. How ironic that the world hears the incumbent US president speak overwhelmingly of war while it hears the man he defeated in 2000 speak of climate change.