The leader of the FPALP, Julia Gillard, today gave a Chifley Research Centre address titled <a href=”http://www.pm.gov.au/press-office/labor-australia-movement-address-chifley-research-centre-canberra”>Labor in Australia is a movement</a>.
In it she outlined some thoughts on party reform but also tried to express what Labor stood for. The rather unfortunate title – which made me think of the normal output of a “movement” – was explained in the peroration;
<em>Because ours has never been solely a parliamentary caucus or a campaigning organisation.
Labor in Australia is a movement. A movement of people, in a great cause for change. A movement for the future and a Party of hope.
That is what we have been on our best days. That is what we have been on our bravest days.
I firmly believe it is what we remain on this day in this House. I absolutely know it is what we will remain in all the days to come.</em>
In explaining that movement she tried to answer the question “What do you stand for?“ Her first answer was “Opportunity for all, not as a theoretical concept but as a call to arms,” but opportunity was mostly focussed on the opportunity for a job and for education.
The second was “Not leaving any one behind” which was a reference to health, disability and aged care.
The third was “Recognising our responsibility to the Australians of the future” which frame “the social, economic and environmental reforms which will create Australia’s future prosperity.”
Finally she stood for the union heritage and union links – and semed to relate these most directly to the “fight against conservative forces, … who represent the interests of the privileged and the powerful.”
After detailing how these words had been reflected in deeds she said it was her role “To do everything in my power to ensure our Party is always its best self. Being our best means facing up to some hard truths. We meet in difficult days for social democracy – at home and around the world….The grand paradox of this lean season for social democracy is that it is occurring when the catastrophic global costs of markets focussed on profit but devoid of responsibility have never been more evident.”
She then went philosophical, “Indeed, I believe this clash of the choices of modernity with our need for security in life is one of the reasons that there is a sense of anxiety in the community.” This was followed by a defence of “collective tradition” and “collective method” ending with “we have argued for collective action through Government, through a fair distribution of risk.”
She then talked of “our historic mission of ending want” (not really having mentioned it before) and said “we have achieved so much.”
She gets close to a grand vision saying “Friends, this mission of fairly distributing opportunity and sharing risk is not yet done.”
She then diverted to say that “collective action” wasn’t an end in itself, “Understand, collective action was never simply an end in itself: we saw strength in shared endeavour in politics, we saw value in sharing risk through government, for a reason. Because we wanted to empower “the great mass of the people”, all those the conservatives would leave behind.”
She then came to her grand challenge “our ethos of collective action must respond to individual needs and demands for choice and control” and “our great party of collective action must embrace new ways of enabling individual empowerment.”
And so the leader of the ALP walked away from democratic socialism into the arms of small l-liberalism.
As Crikey’s Bernard Keane put it;
<em>It was a long rhetorical bow to link Labor’s tradition of collective action to the provision of individual choice and empowerment, particularly given her earlier comments about the anxiety induced by information overload and too much change. But it serves as an apt reflection of the contradictory and occasionally confused ideological moment Labor finds itself in, particular under Gillard, who has adopted an almost Thatcherite focus on the redeeming quality of education and hard work. A party traditionally of the Left, the advocate of collective action and government intervention, one that still retains a “socialist objective”, that now finds itself arguing for market solutions and liberal economics against conservatives arguing for the sorts of populist interventionist policies Labor would have been proud to own four decades ago.
The structural reforms may get up at the party conference in December, and they may even work to breathe some life into the base of the party. But the party’s ideological problem is one that will remain far less amenable to repair.</em>
Much as I disagree with Ms Gillard’s statement, much as I think it undersells the real battle of Labor which is about addressing the way power is weilded to the disadvantage of the powerless, she is right to recognise the need to reconcile socialism with liberty.
Socialism suffered much from the practices of Soviet Communism. It suffered more from the way the champions of liberty – such as Hayek and Friedman – managed to describe socialism as collectivism as a process by which decisions for you are made by others.
But socialism and collective action are not essentially anti-liberty. They can also be used to empower the powerless so that the exercise of liberty can be shared by all, not just those endowed with wealth or talents. Even Hayek in Road to Serfdom cautioned against hubris from those whose position of power comes from their initial endowments.
Just as the forces of privilege rebadged classical liberalism and jetissoned its core values of mutual concern (we are all responsible for everyone’s happiness not just our own) and relabelled it “neoliberalism” so too can socialism rebadge itself where the focus is on equally empowering the individual through collective action rather than on collective ownership.
(there is however a branding challenge as <a href=”http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Neosocialism“>neosocialism</a> has a corporatist background, though others <a href=”http://savageminds.org/2010/02/16/why-not-neosocialism/“> have used it in</a> in something close to the sense here. It was even <a href=”http://online.wsj.com/article/SB123359648072740013.html“>ascribed</a> to Kevin Rudd’s musings on “social capitalism”. Though a CIS writer <a href=”http://www.cis.org.au/media-information/opinion-pieces/article/123-the-rise-of-neo-socialism“>took the view</a> that there is nothing new in either neoliberalism and that calling the Rudd stuff neosocialism doesn’t mask a huge shift to “Government control. But that is, of course, the issue. We need to break the nexus between collective action being government control, we want collective action to empower the individual.
“New Socialist” on the other hand seems to be even deeper in the mire of attempts to resurrect direct state control. See for example http://www.newsocialist.org/, http://www.thenewsocialism.org/ and http://ricardo.ecn.wfu.edu/~cottrell/socialism_book//index.html
An important distinction to make is that the socialism that we write about here is not a program to “plan the economy”. Nor is it just wishy-washy third way stuff.
Interestingly one other <a href=”http://www.wired.com/culture/culturereviews/magazine/17-06/nep_newsocialism“>of new socialism</a> is the collectivist nature of much modern IT, including open source platforms and other collaborative endeavours. As an example a good socialist policy process is one that favours and facilitates that kind of creativity.)