Does Leadership Matter? Part 2

Words to live by

“It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it.” A principle as relevant today as in the time of the Ancients (a philosophical exercise for which can be found here). Too often in our increasingly superficial and click-bait driven mediascape we are encouraged to dismiss distinctions such as that between the speaker’s personal character on the one hand and on the other; the substantive claims made in their analysis of a given issue. But I find that living with this principle, call it ideological tolerance, can enrich your life with perspectives that conflict with and challenge you to reexamine your own in light of new evidence and counterargument, leading to a more layered and nuanced worldview.

It is in that spirit that I maintain, sometimes through politely gritted teeth, conversations with a small number of acquaintances who are ideological children of the far right on the political spectrum, with a range of views from libertarian opposition to state-imposed collectivism (in the Australian context this would mean anything with the word ‘National’ in it for example education curriculum or Broadband Network) to authoritarian neo-fascism under the guise of anti-terrorism and macho-militarism. A test to determine where your political views might fall can be found here.

bothaxes

Picking up from my recent post on whether or not political leadership matters, I was talking to one of my conservative friends recently and he was exasperated at ‘how Leftists could possibly support Malcolm Turnbull’s [albeit clandestine for the moment…] candidacy for the Liberal Party leadership. Given that he has something in the ballpark of $200 million in his personal fortune, and what with his history of working for Goldman Sachs, surely this makes him a pariah of the 1% to be pilloried and scorned, not embraced. Isn’t he just another Tall Poppy for you to cut down in your class envy? Anyway, you’d never vote for him, so why bother campaigning on his behalf?’ I’m paraphrasing from memory, but that was the substance of the complaint.

Here I’d like to reiterate Aristotle. Turnbull is by no means the Left’s ideal leader, and the analysis that few will ditch the Green or the ALP to vote for him is accurate. But we must compare him to his competition, PM Abbott.

Turnbull is left on social issues (symbolic ones like the republic, gay marriage, and also very palpable ones like putting the environment’s needs ahead of those of the major polluters), but right on economic issues.

Abbott on the other hand is far right on social issues and far right on economic issues, being essentially a Bizarro World Gough Whitlam from the perspective of the Left. Thus, through simple political arithmetic, we may deduce that Turnbull is an improvement on Abbott. Much like Alan Alda’s moderate Republican character in the final series of the West Wing, Arnold Vinick, whose Turncoat Democrat campaign manager explains that he’s switching sides in order to achieve system change beyond what’s achievable through party alone, Turnbull’s leadership of one of the 3 major parties would drag the political centre to the left, with implications for the kinds of policy debates and priorities that would change with the leadership.

Personally however I imagine the austerity agenda would stay the same. Relentless cuts to health and education, 100k uni degrees, pressure to privatise Medicare and other public services, sweetheart deals with loyal LNP parties lobbies – particularly mining and the financial sector, all could be expected to continue under Turnbull or for that matter Julie Bishop or anyone else’s leadership. That’s simply the institution that the Liberal [Tea] party is today. But anything has to be better than Abbott. The Left is now in a strange position of ascendancy while remaining out of office electorally given Abbott’s historic unpopularity, the unlikelihood that he could win a 2016 federal re-election and the uncertainty surrounding whether he will remain as leader. Collective choices need to be made about how civil society will engage with the state, and how radical a leftist agenda can be pursued so that this opportunity to achieve progressive ends is not squandered.

For a more jarring perspective (not that I necessarily agree with the entire substance of it, but thought-provoking nonetheless) of why Turnbull may appeal to a cohort of the left (the often derided highly educated, high disposable income, latte-sipping, granola-munching, bike-riding champagne socialists of inner city Melbourne and Sydney who probably use far too much French in everyday conversation, sooooo passé, darlings) the World Socialist Web Site has the following analysis of how the changing class dynamics of the 1960s-70s onward led to the upper-middle class intelligentsia co-opting the agenda of Leftist political party machines, abandoning and often behaving in a way that is hostile to the working class base. Syriza is used as a case study for the article. For more on the complex coalition of 13 parties and is currently facing off against the Troika of the EU, European Central Bank and the IMF, refer to my recent blog on their reformist agenda after they won the Greek elections last month.

The events of the past month constitute a major political experience for the working class in Greece, Europe and internationally. The role played by Syriza is a devastating exposure of the essentially reactionary character of a form of “left” middle class politics that developed amidst the ruins of the radical student politics of the 1960s and 1970s. While the working class was led to defeat after defeat by the old Stalinist, social democratic and reformist labor organizations, sections of the middle class benefited, directly and indirectly, from the explosive rise in global stock exchanges following the accession of Thatcher and Reagan to power and the international ascendancy—especially after the dissolution of the Soviet Union and the restoration of capitalism in China—of neo-liberal policies.

As it grew increasingly affluent, the social and political attitude of sections of the privileged middle class toward the working class passed from estrangement and indifference to increasing hostility. This socio-economic process was reflected in the ideological repudiation, by these layers, of Marxism, whose identification with the revolutionary role of the working class and the struggle against capitalism had become totally unacceptable.

In place of the politics of proletarian class struggle, the affluent middle class embraced a panoply of “identity agendas”—of race, ethnicity, gender and sexual orientation—which formed the base of the political program upon which it pursued its interests. Far from desiring any overturn of capitalist class relations, this affluent social milieu and its political parties have been preoccupied, principally, with achieving a more equitable distribution of wealth within the richest 10 percent of society. Envious of the extremely rich, they despise and fear the working class.

Syriza is only the most prominent of the countless political organizations spawned by this socio-economic process. It differs from such organizations as the Left Party in Germany and Podemos in Spain, not to mention many smaller groups throughout the world, only in that it is the first to assume the leadership of a national government.

The World Socialist Web Site’s characterization of these parties as pseudo-left is not a rhetorical exercise but a precise political definition. They are bourgeois parties representing elite sections of the middle class that are bitterly hostile to the workers. They are not allies but relentless enemies. Working people must break with them, and seek to destroy any political influence they have over the working class.

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