Holding the Truncheon

It was like night and day, from one hour to the next the national conversation took a hard right turn, where it has languished since the May election. Cowed and kowtowing, even the ABC shifted from talking about the worthiness of income tax cuts for the rich to discussing how consumers might best spend their “newfound fortune.” In the aftermath, the government has found uninhibited freedom in its agenda. Whereas a mandate to Labor may have provided room to move on economic redistribution, the mandate to the Liberals has instead meant the whipping out of the truncheon and the beating down of the poor, foreign, and queer, all with the acquiescence of the media who grant them this freedom.

In a recent editorial penned by Kevin Rudd, the former PM argues the power of News Limited and now Nine/Fairfax to shift the national conversation and win elections for their apparent partners in crime — the Liberal Party. Whist this is true, notwithstanding the undue influence of right-wing ideologues in our media, a progressive Labor agenda managed to secure 48% of the two-party vote. In truth, News and Nine are only able to significantly influence low-information voters who have only a passing understanding of national affairs, making them easily duped by a bit of fearmongering and rhetorical flourish, and who consume only a limited media diet which leans heavily on the right-wing commercial media. I am not attempting to downplay the issue, but there is more going on than a vicious octogenarian American.

It is obvious the tremendous impact the movement of only a small number of voters can have, mostly owing to our exaggerative voting system for the House of Representatives. Having disproportionate intellectual power over a volatile segment of the electorate can a kingmaker make. One caveat I wish to address is the further complicity of the non-Murdoch media. There are alternatives, such as Ten, Seven, the ABC, the Guardian and…well that’s about it as far as national influence is concerned.1 That segment of the media, however, can play its role in keeping the national conversation in a sane and fair region of play, in keeping the Overton window firmly rooted to a moderate centre. The Guardian makes a fair run at this, as being the only mainstream Australian outlet with an editorial agenda that isn’t right-wing, but they limit themselves to an online presence only.

The capacity of the ABC to play ball is limited, but it still has some flexibility, such as in its chosen foci. It doesn’t necessarily need to follow the national narrative, but can forge one of its own, within reason. I of course applaud the ABC for being one of only a few serious and independent investigative media sources in this country, but that applause is mitigated by the fact that this journalism is in part mandated by statute. Additionally, there are plenty of journalists ‘stuck’ at other news organisations just trying to make a living who would undoubtedly prefer to be doing something more than tabloid trash with their career. The issue is that these other organisations elect to keep an editorial agenda which largely follows rather than forges the national agenda. Complacency, therefore, forms part of the problem of media bias in this country. If you’re going along with the national agenda then you might as well being writing the right-wing editorials which direct it. The commercial outlets are particularly egregious in this regard, with Seven mostly being a carbon-copy of Nine but with a red logo instead of blue. If only those colours were tied to political leaning.

One can argue, and I certainly would, that the problem is deeper than just Murdoch or Nine. It is the fundamental problem, as Rudd rightly identifies in his editorial, of being able to buy elections, either through donations, or as concerns the present topic, saturation media coverage. Though it is maintained by News that The Australian runs a profit, there’s little public evidence to back up this claim, and the Oz is only one of a number of Murdoch vanity projects intended to ‘buy’ political influence. Not everyone can afford to set up a national broadsheet or 24/7 news station in order to disseminate their personal views. Likewise, we aren’t all rotund mining billionaires capable of shifting the political disposition of a state through systemic economic exploitation, direct political influence through networking, and of course $60 million of campaign advertisements. The porous borders between corporate and political Australia, the unfettered access and influence that a market-fetishistic economy can allow one to buy, are the foundational issues at play here.

Unquestionably, we need stronger antitrust laws, any kind of media regulation, including media freedom regulation, to both provide the freedom to report and the freedom from reporting on topics bought with monetary influence. Use the sovereignty of the state as imparted upon it by the people it supposedly represents: break up News Limited, increase funding to the ABC and SBS, unleash the beast of the ABC by allowing more freedom in editorial expression, entrench in law a prohibition on intimidation attempts by law enforcement towards whistleblowers and those who work with them. Revealing the fundamental injustices of the system is part of what sustains it, it encourages reform and keeps the elite on its toes. The goal is thus: let the polity seize back control from the corporate masters who would seek to steer the state as if it were their Sunday car.

Let’s be realistic, however. Rudd calls for no more than a Royal Commission into the media as his solution. This in part owing to the gargantuan complexity of the problem which could surely only be disentangled by a well-resourced national inquiry, but it speaks also to Rudd’s own realism. He knows, I know, we all know what is and isn’t achievable. That laundry list of breaking up News etc. is really just fantasy and couldn’t realistically be achieved in the current situation. Getting there will be a long and tough fight that will involve pushing back on that same front where sanity is losing, by attempting to redirect the national agenda. Elections are one way this can be done, and will be necessary in getting there, but a Labor government without a plan might as well be a Liberal government with one, because there will need to be massive exertion to move the ostensibly immovable object. Rudd’s answer is a royal commission, which could only be set up by a Labor government. I agree with this, but I also add this contribution:

Stop holding the truncheon. Like I said, “If you’re going along with the national agenda then you might as well be writing the right-wing editorials which direct it.” If you aren’t stopping the truncheon then you’re the one holding it. You are an accessory for not fighting back against the aggressor as they pummel their victim, as the only one in the room with the power to do so. The non-Murdoch media needs to get off its arse and try harder, especially the commercial and tabloid media. It is not strictly necessary that tabloid media must be right-wing. It is not strictly necessary to beat down the poor and the foreign in order to sell papers and get clicks. There is another enemy, far more powerful and deserving of a good beating, whose beating is not only palatable but will draw in those same clicks. Turn the truncheon on the rich. Expose those in the backrooms working against the national interest. Use any leverage and space that you have to change the national conversation. That’s journalists and that’s people too. When the topic comes up, don’t just shrug off your friend’s inadequate understanding of the world. Help them to understand who the real enemy is; be part of holding back the truncheon.

  1. Ten is only part owned by News. ↩︎

Johnson's Irish Knot

Johnson cutting the Irish knot (Alexander cutting the Gordion knot)**Image credit:** [Wikimedia](https://commons.m.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Alexander_cutting_the_Gordian_knot_by_Andre_Castaigne_(1898-1899).jpg#mw-jump-to-license)
Johnson cutting the Irish knot (Alexander cutting the Gordion knot)1

Just as it was the case for May, so it is for Johnson. Approaching the knot from behind doesn’t alter the ironic necessity of making one’s own contortions in order to decipher the Brexit puzzle. Johnson has already repeated May’s error by having drawn a red line, which is the definite departure from the European Union on the 31st of October. He does however have the benefit of having only one red line, as opposed to May’s many. Having accepted a no-deal scenario as palatable has opened up a much wider number of possibilities for a course of events going forward. I would argue the most likely course of events ends in a Brexit with a deal, most likely within the next 12 months. That is, that Johnson intends to use a sword to break the knot, a quick and aggressive way to resolve the impasse.

Flowchart of possible events
Flowchart of possible events

Firstly, it’s already been established that Johnson intends to pursue renegotiations with the EU. He will seek alterations to the current deal. The EU has already stated the unpalatability of substantive changes, but has offered cosmetic alterations to the political declaration. I believe with sufficient pressure from the UK, the two parties may meet in the middle and make some minor changes to the substance of the agreement, perhaps better rights for UK citizens in respect of Europe. But that doesn’t untie the Irish knot; the UK will still have to choose between a hard Irish border and a customs union, neither of which are palatable to a Commons majority.

Therefore any deal struck by Johnson will not satisfy the Commons. His deal may perform better and close the gap to a majority, but it will still fail, especially since there has been an effective role-reversal within the Conservative party. Remainers and moderate Brexiteers, having been evicted from Cabinet, now have nothing to lose in breaking with the party and voting against whatever deal Johnson puts to the parliament. What then is Johnson to do in the scenario where his deal fails?2

Talk about town is about suspending parliament. That’s made on the assumption that parliament would act unilaterally to extend the Brexit date should the 31st of October near with No Deal a prospect. This is based on the Commons having previously resolved against a No Deal in an indicative vote. The only way for Johnson to circumvent this and hold his promise of exiting on the deadline is to suspend parliament, which indeed he can do. It would however be subject to litigation in the UK Supreme Court, and may result in an injunction preventing Brexit. That doesn’t matter so much as it would mean the deadline had been pushed out not of Johnson’s volition, same goes if the Parliament resolves an extension unilaterally. Expect some nasty rhetoric directed at the Courts and/or the Commons.

Assuming either the Commons or the Supreme Court issue an extension or injunction, the date gets pushed out either way. This is the most likely event; I don’t expect Johnson to be able to force a No Deal purely with executive power. The next decision for Johnson is whether to wait out or to act in respect of the extension/injunction. Johnson has never been one to sit still, and the success of his premiership rests on resolving Brexit one way or another. He seems determined to crash through and has the carte blanche with which to do so and for that reason I say he will call an election or a second referendum, whichever is most likely to deliver some kind of Brexit. With Corbyn as his adversary, Johnson would most likely be returned with a hung or majority government, Labour staying in Opposition. This has the lowest net gain but also the lowest risk. He’s highly likely to win but it most likely puts him back where he started, fighting with the Commons. Which way a referendum would go is unclear and therefore high-risk, but it is also high-payoff for Johnson. Assuming he gets the Commons to “build-in” automatic approval for whatever the referendum result dispenses, it provides a swift means to deliver Brexit, assuming he wins the vote. Losing means the end of his premiership, making this extremely risky.

I don’t know Johnson and I don’t know how much he’s willing to gamble. I do judge however that he is able to see the course of events in front of him and that he considers ending up in a quagmire like May did to be the absolute worst case scenario and the one he will most likely try to avoid. For that reason alone I would say he takes the gamble on a referendum. I say that referendum, assuming it uses some kind of instant runoff voting, delivers a Brexit with a deal as its outcome.3 The Remainers would provide their runoff preferences to a Brexit Deal and these would combine with moderate Brexiteers to deliver a majority for a deal.

Can I commit 100% that this is the course of events that will occur? Definitely not. Brexit is still volatile, and in fact even more volatile than ever before. Johnson is unpredictable, the Commons and the general public are both bitterly divided and on a razor’s edge. However, on balance, the most likely outcome is Brexit with a deal before 12 months has passed.4 Whether the course of events I have outlined is the way we get there is less likely, but still in my view a reasonable projection to make given the current variables. My projection is further reinforced by immediately recent events such as Johnson’s ruling out an election and the decision to fund government advertising for a No Deal.5

All of that said, political junkies like myself are going to be fascinated to see the ultimate outcome. The British public is probably much less enthusiastic, or enthusiastic for very different reasons. Such is perhaps indicative of the social rupture that caused this political upheaval in the first place.

  1. Image credit: Wikimedia ↩︎

  2. His deal might not even make it to parliament if the ERG has serious objections due to lack of substantive changes, course of events continues in any case ↩︎

  3. I imagine a two-tier question: Brexit or Remain? Then in the event of Brexit, Deal or No Deal? ↩︎

  4. sufficient time needs to be allowed for a referendum ↩︎

  5. This will draw people into the Brexit camp in general in the event of a referendum. Leave, indeed, will have a big leg-up. ↩︎

Rebooting the Left

“Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez - Caricature” -  Credit:  Wikimedia

“Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez - Caricature” - Credit: Wikimedia

Social democratic parties are on retreat across the Western world in the face of a new kind of politics which is eventuating from the profound economic and social reforms experienced through the 1980s and 1990s. The Right has begun adapting to the new circumstances, whilst the Left has floundered and tried to find comfort in ideas of the past, be they socialist or liberal. Neither socialism or liberalism will bring electoral success like they once did. Both new-liberalism1 and old-socialism are and were responses to the circumstances of their respective eras.

What is the answer? To push the ideological envelope and articulate a new set of ideals based on broad Leftist principles which depart from both old-socialism and the new-liberal consensus today comprise the totality of the mainstream Left. The Right has already started on its own ad-hoc project called the alt-right, which cobbles together old and new both conservative and reactionary concepts to create something that right-wing politicians will hope to be palatable or even excitable for the electorate. They know quite well that the new-liberal consensus is coming to an end and a new path forward is needed, and not just in terms of ideological elucidation, but also raw political strategy. They’ve developed a proto-ideology that it is hoped will grow into a mainstream worldview which can defend the old institutions the Right has always defended: aristocracy, wealth, and hierarchy.

I would like to stop here for a moment and emphasise that though the Right is ahead of the Left, there is no reason the Left can’t or won’t catch up. It’s done so before: the overwhelming consensus between aristocrats and capitalists was broken in 1917; and before that, the compact between feudalism and the peasantry was disrupted by mercantilism. Though today the bourgeoisie merchants responsible for the reset in terms with the old Western aristocracies are from our perspective nothing crusty capitalists, at the time capitalism itself was radical. The Left pushed the world forward through these radical changes, with the Right fighting and sometimes winning the preservation of old institutions. They held back the hordes and prevented the total annihilation of European aristocracy.2

The Left must move to develop a prototype ideology not unlike a sort of ‘alt-left.’ Be mindful I’m not advocating for an alt-left or right to become a political mainstream, merely for each to act as a petrie dish from which political operatives can locate a message and worldview that can win electorally and provide a path forward for societal evolution in this new era of social, economic, and climatological disruption.3 New4 ideas such as negative income tax, universal basic income, parliamentary juries, full employment (notwithstanding economic rationalism), are all the sorts of things that may excite a new progressive coalition and form a framework on which to build a new overarching worldview.

Now, let’s talk strategy. None of the policies I just mentioned are immediately self-evident in their purpose. Concepts like universal suffrage and universal healthcare were much easier to see and understand as a layperson than parliamentary juries, they were tangible in benefit rather than abstract.5 What is needed is to bind these new ideas together with common principles, many of which will be found in the old Left.6 Make the argument that we are in a class war and they shot first. That is what covers these broad sweeping reforms to taxation. As an example close to home, Australian Labor threw the 2019 election because it spent so much time trying to make people understand franking credits. I still don’t understand how the fuck they work. They should have been out there talking about how the right-wing was in it for itself and that greed shot first, not the workers and lower middle-class.7

Furthermore, the Obaman ideal of “when they go low, you go high” is bullshit. You will lose if you ignore the base strategies of your opposition. You need to fight on the same fronts as them. You can’t give up a theatre of conflict because the other side wasn’t fair to open it in the first place. What I’m talking about is the blatant lying used by right-wing populists and reactionaries which has found itself bleeding into the mainstream Right, especially through social media platforms. Though lying has always been a part of politicking in some form, it’s gotten much worse, having departed from even the faintest vestigial bind to reality. A viable Left opposition must be firing on all cylinders, they must be articulating the intellectual argument to capture the intellectuals, but they can’t rely wholly on that because they think themselves above getting down in the slop with the pigs. You combine your pig-wrestling with fully fleshed out arguments which are accessible and transparent.8 You know what? This concept isn’t even new, it just seems to have been forgotten. The Bolsheviks knew how to message properly; they spoke of “bread, food, and land” to the peasants whilst they elaborated on the fantasy of communist utopia with the intellectual gentry.

Chiefly, what I’m saying is that the Left needs to abandon its anxiety around remaining morally righteous. It is possible to hold the ‘correct’ views whilst also arguing those views across all forms of media and in all rhetorical paradigms. I’m not talking about lying, I’m talking about addressing the fundamentals of the reactionary Right by putting clear 140-character counters to theirs which aren’t condescending and overly intellectual, which are combative but targeting the opponents and not their (potential convert) followers. Talk about “bread, food, and land” to one group and “utopia” to another, and hold no qualms in the fact that they can mean the same thing. Lift the veil and reveal the oppositional talking heads for what they are: sycophantic bootlicking rabble-rousers living in extraordinary privilege and wealth in the inner-cities cordoned off from those whom they purport to represent. But don’t, please don’t do it using those words. I’m a condescending prick9 and I’m not the sort of person any politician should be emulating with the hopes of winning; condescension and verbosity don’t win elections. Nor does being sassy or bitter.10

In conclusion, I’ll put it plainly. To the Left: you need new grand ideas and to revive old ones with merit. People want change but they don’t want to be scared by it. Always emphasise the spend side instead of the tax side. Think of spending as giving away the sweets whilst taxes, no matter how fair and pro-worker, as like going to the dentist.11 Be ready to talk shit to your opponents and take the fight to them in all forums, whether its in long-form media interviews with tough journalists or in the tabloid gutter press or social media. Those who can’t do that or think they’re above that need not apply. I’ll give credit to Labor leader Anthony Albanese, he may have swung to the right on policy (which is definitely not what he should be doing), but he talks to the gutter and right-wing press, taking the fight to their home turf. 12

I would end by pointing the reader to ContraPoints, the prolific philosophic-political YouTuber, who published a quite interesting piece over a year ago on where the Left should be going in order to win. Also take a look at this piece in the Guardian on the idea of full employment as an example of disruptive and potentially popular policy.

  1. I choose to avoid neo-liberalism as a term in this blog post as it has too many negative connotations on the Left and may distort what I’m trying to articulate. ‘New-liberalism’ I define as meaning the tenants of classical liberalism as applied to the late 20th century. ↩︎

  2. Much of the world is still today reigned over by a monarch, albeit as a powerless one. See HRH. ↩︎

  3. I refer to climatological disruption separate from the economic and social so as to emphasise its importance as an underlying factor. However, it itself does not in my view form a ‘third head’ of disruption. The Left needs to learn this and emphasise the importance of climate always through the socio-economic lens, rather than a lens of virtue. ↩︎

  4. Relatively new ↩︎

  5. Parliamentary juries are the idea of ‘raffling’ off a subset of parliamentary seats at random to anybody on the electoral roll. Some more radical proposals are too raffle off the entire parliament. It would create something like how a jury functions in a courtroom, but in respect to legislation and public policy. ↩︎

  6. It is these concepts that have always and will forever distinguish Left from Right, in my view, perhaps owing to the neurological causes of political affiliation ↩︎

  7. Excuse the clumsy Star Wars reference, I know Han really shot first. ↩︎

  8. Think about having a massive 100+ page policy document going into an election that is available to journalists, properly developed to emphasise the most potent points, then distilled into its most useful parts for campaigning. This is not unlike what is already done in the United Kingdom with party manifestos. ↩︎

  9. Though trying to fix that ↩︎

  10. Bill Shorten, I’m looking at you. ↩︎

  11. People know they need to go to the dentist. Children, however, do not, and require careful guidance. ↩︎

  12. An even better leader, one who recognises the impending death of the new-liberal consensus and who also participates and engages even more across all forums, would be Wayne Swan. Too bad he left the parliament, and too bad his colleagues didn’t see what an asset they had. He may be federal president of the ALP but he can’t do much from outside the parliament. ↩︎