Friday, June 19, 2015

Musings on left and right: does it matter?

Its been quite cold and wet in Sydney. Technically, Sydney has a sub-tropical climate, so we are not geared to the combination of cold and wet. I wish the rain would go inland where it's really wanted!

Looking at my stats, the most visited post this month by a country mile is Mixed income/rental models in social housing. That's actually good to see.

Today's post is triggered by a piece Tim Dunlop on the Drum: A good political 'narrative' is no substitute for actions. Here I want to focus not on the general points made by Mr Dunlop but on one point summarised in the following quote:
For a start, it (the argument) overlooks the fact that mainstream discourse is dominated by right wing voices - a case I have made time and time again.
I don't think that statement is true.

Like many of us, I struggle to make meaning of the distinction between right and left. Personally, I just don't fit in with the conventional definitions. The pop quizzes place me just to the left of center on the range of criteria used in judgement. However, on particular issues I span from far left to well on the right. It depends on the issue.

Accepting definitional ambiguities, it is hard to see that mainstream discourse is dominated by the right. The usual argument is to point to the dominance of the Murdoch press or the influence of certain talk back radio hosts. They are important in slices of the market, but they are not dominant. If you move beyond the media to include the totality of mainstream discourse, the case is a little stronger, especially in the public policy sphere.

Now here we have to come back to definitions again.What do we mean by right wing voices? There is, I think, a dominant thread that argues for a reduced role for government, for lower taxes, for deficit reduction. I think that its also true that this thread gained its dominance from right voices and intellectuals dating back many generations and from conditions at that time. But this thread, this way of thinking, is not totally dominant.

For every right wing think tank, there is an opposing one. For every newspaper such as the Australian Financial Review, by far the most important of the right wing voices on economic matters, you have an opposing one. You only have to look at the rise of the Guardian in Australia to see the size of the center left market.

Most importantly, and to the despair of elements of the right, they have actually been losing the battle for public opinion. You only have to look at the response to the 2014 Australian budget to see that.

One of the real difficulties for the right is actually trying to define what it really is. The right has always been riven by internal tensions, for there are many different rights.

There is the libertarian right, that group that focuses on individual rights and freedoms and takes pride in a long intellectual tradition. This is the right of Hayek, of Adam Smith.or David Hume, of Friedman or Thatcher. It is also the right that came to establish a now challenged dominant position in economic and public policy more broadly.

This right contrasts with the statist right. Central to the statist right is either the preservation of the existing order (the state) or, conversely, its replacement by a new order that will better promote the state. Mr Abbott arguably belongs to first, Adolf Hitler the second. Both groups overlap with other political definitions such as conservatism or populism. In Germany, conservative forces supported Adolf Hitler because they saw him (wrongly) as protecting or re-establishing an existing order threatened by Bolshevism.

In all this, the real problem for the left is that the intellectual framework that guided the left over the last two hundred years has simply collapsed. In turn, this has created a problem for the right, for over that time the right has partly defined itself in opposition to the left. Both are confused.

I first became really aware of these tensions when I was researching the Country Party, for this was a party that initially defined itself in terms of opposing the nostrums of left and right, seeking to distinguish itself from both, How do you do that when the left-right world view is just so dominant? What language do you use when you are challenging the established order, rejecting some things, accepting others?

I'm not sure that I ever came up with an answer. I could point to the Party's successes during that tension period when it was opposing both views, but in the end it got sucked in to the existing structure.

I have sometimes compared the Country Part to the Greens because they faced similar electoral challenges in a day to day sense. Unlike the Country Party, the Greens are a left party. Like the old Country Party, their challenge is to determine to what extent they will compromise their views to achieve power. .      .       .        .        


Anonymous said...

the Australian Financial Review is an interesting one - Laura Tingle makes a lot of socialist type statements while Greg Sheridan speaks solidly for the big end of town.

Jim Belshaw said...

It's a mixed paper. The main economic line expressed through editorials and the balance of reporters and commentators is clearly right, but other views do appear. In the lead up to the last Federal election, the paper tried to set the economic agenda. There was something almost despairing in some of the later reporting and editorial coverage as the reality began to diverge from the aspirations as set by the paper.

2 tanners said...

Same for the 2014/5 budget. The Fin discovered more quickly than The Australian that its readership and indeed client base weren't impressed, but the initial support for tax breaks and tough medicine was there.

The sudden rise of the Guardian I think rather proves Mr Dunlop's point. That was a completely empty space in mainstream media that it came to fill. The public 'narrative' was being controlled by the right, even if the public themselves had become less convinced or even alienated.

I haven't read the Northern Australian paper. Given that it rose out of the aspirations to protect/extend the hold on Northern Australian by a political party, it sounds like balance has been restored. Your assertion that it misses a lot of external context is unsurprising. It is designed to be internally focused, so the rest of the world is mainly an export opportunity. I will lay odds that there is relatively little in there about addressing the potential effects of climate change on the (rather vulnerable) north of Australia as well.

2 tanners said...

Sorry, I entered the North Australia comment on the wrong subject.

On the Greens, I hope they've learned their lesson. Ideological purity cost them a climate change control regime, because they joined forces with those completely opposed to climate control measures rather than accept an inferior solution (as they saw it). Compromise is essential in politics.

On the other hand, they do need to be careful. My take is that Meg Lees allowed the destruction of the Australian Democrats by eventually supporting the introduction of the GST. The party's standing suffered, the usual infighting started and that was the end for them.

Jim Belshaw said...

Hi 2t. On the White paper, climate change doesn't (as I remember) get a mention. The paper is internally focused.

On the FR and the 2014/15 budget, the initial support was there. The shift that came came, I think, because the paper saw the Government stuffing up the sales job. I don't think that the rise of the Guardian quite supports Mr Dunlop's point. I would agree that it demonstrated a gap in the media space. But Tim was talking about the now. Outside the Murdoch press and certain radio stations, and based on textual analysis, I would argue that the rest of the media is centre left.

I think that you are right on the Democrats. I miss them. They became my default vote when I was unhappy because they were a sufficiently broad church. I see too many negatives in the Greens.

2 tanners said...

I think the Greens are the new Democrats. I remember the appalling first Green Senators (Bib and Bub as the cartoonists cruelly and accurately depicted them) and the following pretty fair call of 'watermelons'. They appear to have gained sense. Do I buy their entire agenda? No. Do I buy MORE of their agenda than anyone else's? That's a trickier question.

Jim Belshaw said...

I agree that they are evolving, 2T. Note your last question!

Evan said...

And yet you use the terms left and right Jim.

For me things started getting interesting around the 60's (human rights for all, not just the majority or dominant culture) and 80's (sustainability - Green issues).

Jim Belshaw said...

Hi Evan. Despite the heading of this piece, I still use the terms left and right because of the absence of an alternative. Perhaps an alternative is not possible, that we should juts do away with the terms full stop? Green issues began earlier than the eighties. Ironically, or so it now seems to me, I was arguing what would now be called a Green line in the early seventies.

Evan said...

Yes the Green issues emerged long before the 80's. Maybe the most convenient date would be Carson's The Silent Spring.

Jim Belshaw said...

Checking, Silent Spring was published in 1962. It certainly had a major impact. There are a number of threads to the story, some dating back well before Silent Spring.The emergence of the Greens as an organised force comes later, although the Australian Greens trace their history back to 1972, claiming to be the first Green Party in the world.

Anonymous said...

No mention of Jack Mundey or, overseas, Petra King?


Jim Belshaw said...

Jack Mundey coined the phrase green bans in 1973. His work in Sydney is certainly part of the story. I know the name Petra King, but her role escapes me.

Anonymous said...

Head of the German Green movement, I think.


Jim Belshaw said...

That helps. Petra Kelly - a sad story ttps://