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Beyond right and left

Review article

Tristan Ewins

In this brave offering by David McKnight, the author attempts to forge a new political outlook based upon the synthesis of aspects of the conservative, socialist and liberal traditions, while at the same time providing a wide ranging critique of said perspectives as they have stood in their own right. Embedded within this critique, also, is an examination and re-evaluation of feminism, multiculturalism and indigenous rights movements. According to McKnight, the 'old Left' and 'old Right' share a common grave: both overwhelmed by the torrent of a neo-liberal revolution that simply swept all before it. Indeed, the very categories of 'Left' and 'Right' come under attack for comprising part of a 'linear spectrum' which cannot properly accommodate a great diversity of ideas which otherwise might be expressed in any number of constellations. One consequence of this narrowing of the political field, then, is that older forms of compassionate conservatism and social liberalism are crushed under the weight of the New Right orthodoxy whose neo-liberal foundations leave no place for these formerly influential political philosophies. Considering the ongoing 'cultural war' between progressives and the Right, McKnight concludes that progressive forces need to radically reinvent themselves and move beyond the old Left/Right dichotomy if they are to appeal to the masses. For McKnight, the old Left politics; based upon class consciousness and class struggle, has had its day; the consequence of a shrinking blue collar working class and the overcoming of material deprivation. Primarily for these reasons, then, the author insists on speaking of socialism in the past-tense: and while he feels there are still values worth drawing from in the socialist tradition, McKnight offers no hope of a revivification of the socialist movement. For McKnight, the Left faces a period of transition: a period where weaknesses in traditional Left orthodoxies need to be faced, and where a new underlying philosophy and vision needs to be developed over a wide range of ideas and issues in response to this crisis. It is with this in mind, then, that the author embarks on a study whose subject matter ranges from a consideration of the Enlightenment tradition and its conservative critics, to a critical appraisal of multiculturalism and moral relativism. In his attempt to provide a starting point for the development of a new synthesis of ideas, developing into a new perspective, McKnight's canvas is nothing if not broad. At the core of the process of 'reinvention' mooted by the author is a reappraisal of 'family values', including a critique of the 'Work/Life collision': a term McKnight borrows from prominent progressive writer, Barbara Pocock. McKnight questions the increasing shift to a 'long hours culture', querying whether greater flexibility from employers is necessary to accommodate the needs of families struggling to find quality time apart from the demands of work. Furthermore, the author observes a society that systematically devalues the work of caring and domestic labour that lies outside the realm of the market economy, questioning whether domestic labour ought be provided a wage in recognition of its contribution to social well-being. In arguing this point, McKnight defies the orthodoxy of those he calls 'employment oriented [feminists]', instead putting forward a position that, 'compensation to mothers is miserly, considering the public good involved in child-rearing.' (pp 185-190) Controversially, the author also revives the question of 'human nature', questioning the social-constructivist view that social norms and values are purely the consequence of socialisation. In this sense, 'Beyond Right and Left' revisits the conservative critique of Enlightenment principles once espoused by Edmund Burke, insisting that humanity is far from 'perfectible'. Instead, McKnight asserts a vision of humanity as being bound by a nature that mitigates against the realization of utopian visions driven by abstract principles of equality and liberty. Despite an admitted 'dark side' to conservatism: a side characterized by 'virulent nationalism and suspicion of foreigners', 'militarism' moral condemnation of 'sexual deviancy' and the submission of women (p 90); 'Beyond Right and Left' paints an unusually positive picture of conservative tradition and thought, insisting that concepts of 'Noblesse Oblige', love of nation and sense of 'common heritage' 'merge with a belief in the common good', giving rise to 'an ethic of care and nurturing' where 'the nationalistic bias' 'can provide the bridge from conservatism to collectivism'. (pp 90-91) In particular, McKnight takes such examples as Malcolm Fraser, B.A Santamaria and Robert Manne as being amongst those who, starting with a background of conservatism, ultimately came forward as outspoken opponents of neo-liberalism and economic rationalism. McKnight makes a clear distinction between the conservative traditions of the 'Old Right' and the neo-liberalism of which he is positively scathing. The author makes a searching critique of neo-liberal thought through an examination of the ideas of Austrian economist and founding neo-liberal, Friedrich Hayek. Although admitting the necessity for the operation of price signals, McKnight otherwise accuses neo-liberalism as comprising a form of 'fundamentalism' which dangerously seeks to supplant older traditions of social regulation and solidarity for the sake of free markets 'at any cost'. For the author, Hayek's economic liberalism is 'a rationalist project' which aims to 'impose a model or template on society', and comprises a danger in the same way as any other project to totally remake society through the deployment of Reason does. (pp 72-73) If anything, McKnight is perhaps too sweeping in his critique of Enlightenment thought, and too eager to embrace the Conservative critique offered by the likes of Edmund Burke. While the French Revolution brought with it the Terror, it was preceded by centuries of despotism, oppression and war. What is more, Terror in France and in Cambodia under Pol Pot arose more as a consequence of a vacuum of power than as a consequence of any innate flaw in the principle of Reason. And while the free use of Reason in public discourse alone may not be sufficient to bring about the dawning of utopia, the freedoms secured in the wake of the Enlightenment are certainly worth defending and exercising for the betterment of humanity. Finally, McKnight's identification of Enlightenment thought with the idea of 'unending progress based on the accumulation of material goods' (p 102), is a misrepresentation which does not account for the flexibility and adaptability of human Reason. Nevertheless, the author's attempt to find common ground with conservatives by identifying the rationalist optimism of Hayek's economic liberalism is an interesting move: and one which might possibly provide common ground between different elements of the political Left and Right. By contrast with his condemnation of neo-liberalism, McKnight praises the tradition of social liberalism for its emphasis upon the idea of 'positive liberty': 'enabling' liberty and choice through the provision of health, education, welfare and industrial regulation. This tradition as explained by McKnight: once the domain of the moderate Right, could today be thought of as part of the relative Left. Along with the socialist tradition, however, McKnight declares social liberalism 'dead' (pp 261-262): this in response to the routing of 'Wets' such as Ian McPhee from the Liberal Party in the 1980s. As part of the process of creating a new 'synthesis' from the ashes of the once dominant traditions of social liberalism, conservatism and socialism, McKnight borrows a commitment to 'political equality and political freedom', 'equality before the law' and the 'separation of powers' from liberal tradition. (p238) From conservative tradition, he takes a position which values 'social cohesion and the common good' where a preference for a 'regulatory aspect' favouring ideas of 'social obligation and security' are 'a valuable ally in protecting society from radical economic liberalism' and where due account is taken of the 'limitations presented by human nature'. (pp 239-240) Finally, from socialist tradition, the author takes a 'strong sense of the public interest', 'social solidarity' and a commitment to 'a better work/life balance.' On the basis of such principles, as well as on the basis of 'empathy' (p 229), 'universalism and notions of common humanity' (p227), McKnight rejects absolute cultural relativism and sets out with the aim of postulating 'new, hybrid core values for our society.' (p230) With this in mind, the author proposes a 'new humanism', that places human need at the centre of a new world view, incorporating values of caring and conservation in what he sees as a 'new moral framework' (pp 248-254) At times the author reaches fresh insights that are welcome; for instance, his observation of the relative conservatism of a modern Left which is fighting a rearguard action to retain the remnants of the welfare state and centralised wage fixation, and his call to rescue the mantle of 'family values' from the Right; but at other times the contradictions in McKnight's arguments are telling. For instance: as noted, the author heralds not only the 'death' of socialism, but also the 'death' of social liberalism. In the place of social liberalism and democratic socialism, there is proposed a synthesis which, despite McKnight's Herculean effort, fails to build a truly 'new' social vision. Perhaps, here, McKnight could well be advised to heed his own advice regarding the conservative valorisation of tradition, and appreciation of its weight. The counter-hegemonic struggle for social justice must necessarily entail an effort to create new relativities in the political spectrum: hopefully relativities that restore a space on the relative Right for a more moderate social liberalism to flourish, allowing room for progressive thought to again enter the mainstream. As the author no doubt recognises, the struggle to build a counter-hegemonic historic bloc will necessarily involve the building of alliances across the traditional Left/Right spectrum in an effort to undermine the neo-liberal hegemony. It is here; in building understanding and dialogue between the Old Right and the Left; that McKnight shines, opening up the kind of exchange that is necessary for a counter-hegemonic movement to succeed. But to build an outlook that is 'new'; that challenges the Right 'on its own ground of conservatism'; and to 'reconfigure' Left values 'as a defence of social solidarity, the environment, and regulated civil society' (pp 261-262): this is a project that necessarily borrows from older movements and traditions and, ultimately, cannot disentangle itself from them. In particular, we will now consider the ongoing relevance of socialist tradition. Left traditions and the reassertion of socialist principles The traditions of the Left are of great value, and cannot be so easily replaced with a 'new' vision that does not draw heavily from the past. McKnight openly recognises his debt to liberalism, conservatism and socialism, but wants to claim the mantle of a new philosophical synthesis. In fact, the practical interpenetration of these traditions has been ongoing since their genesis, and yet this has not devalued the worth of said traditions in their own right. Traditions of internationalism and of class struggle have been hard earned since the infant days of the socialist movement. Indeed; today, as globalisation and new forms of investment enhance the mobility of capital, weakening the leverage of national labour movements, never before has the need been greater for international class-based solidarity and co-ordination of government policy in realms ranging from taxation to the regulation of investment. It seems, since the collapse of the Soviet Union, there has been an almost indecent haste to pen 'the final epitaph' of socialism. David McKnight, once a member of the Communist Party of Australia himself, joins this charge to relegate socialism to the 'dustbin of history' (although he would reject this expression given his past commitment to the socialist movement, and the value he places on its legacy) - perhaps with the intent of laying the foundation for a new alliance between a reformed Left and the Old Right, supposedly on the basis of a new politics. But just as Hayek's ideas were once marginal, rising to prominence from the 1970s onwards, so too might socialist ideas re-emerge with new vigour. Perhaps Marxism's greatest flaw would have to be its perceived determinism. And yet Marx also insisted that we make our own history, even if we do not make it 'just as we choose'. A liberal socialist vision that grounds itself in voluntarist principles need not consider itself a 'spent force'. While the dialectic of labour and capital described by Marx has undergone an enormous transformation in the West - accompanied by a decline in the traditional blue-collar working class - in industrialising Asian economies, trade unions are on the rise. Meanwhile, much of South America has turned anew to socialism or social democracy: a development ignored by those trumpeting the 'death' of the socialist Left. While the present no longer seems 'pregnant' with a socialist future, let alone a genuinely Communist one, tensions between capital and labour - as well as between international capital and the national democratic, family-based and community-based institutions it subverts - still hold the potential to spur progressive change. Furthermore, as the current neo-liberal Coalition government's industrial agenda shows, the protection afforded by collective organisation and bargaining power is as relevant as ever in the face of laws designed to provide 'flexibility downwards': a veritable 'race to the bottom' in wages and conditions. With determination, then, the Australian labour movement needs to seek to rebuild and expand its coverage, rather than resigning itself to the current trend which, as McKnight identifies, is towards loss of coverage and delegitimisation in the face of conservative ideological attacks. Perhaps part of the problem here lies with McKnight's understanding of what comprises socialism. Surely, the traditional Marxist understanding of socialism as a period comprising universal state ownership and central planning - as one stage in a longer transition to stateless communism - does not hold a monopoly on what we might call socialist thought. While the author does skim through the alternative offered by 'market socialism', his survey of the alternatives to what is unfortunately called 'state socialism' is far from exhaustive. (Here, the labelling of former Eastern Bloc nations as 'state socialist' has, in fact, acted to create an aversion to all forms of state ownership, provision and control, with modern Left figures straining to avoid the stigma of 'statism', despite the counter-argument that the State must necessarily still play a key role in a mixed socialist economy. McKnight falls into this trap himself, chiding social liberalism for its 'reliance on state-centered solutions to social problems' without really explaining what is so essentially inferior about said solutions.) For instance, should a renewed commitment to 'liberal socialism', blending the traditions of liberalism and socialism into an innovative unity, be tarred with the same brush as Stalinism and left to wither in a common grave? While the kind of blanket state ownership and central economic control of the former USSR could well be criticised for suppressing the operation of market signals, which otherwise might have fuelled a dynamic cycle of innovation, the same need not be said of the aim of building a 'socialist mixed economy'. Surely since Eduard Bernstein, many socialist thinkers have been loathe to encapsulate socialism in the form of 'final goals'. Today, the old Marxist 'final goal' of the socialist movement lies in ruins, but we need not accept the conclusion that this leaves the socialist movement - which, for Bernstein, was 'everything' compared to the 'nothing' of 'final goals' - in an irredeemable position. Today's socialist movement could well comprise an ongoing movement for economic democratisation, humane and just regulation of labour markets, and strategic socialisation, including deployment of wage earner funds, government-business enterprises, public infrastructure and services, and the promotion of co-operative enterprise and mutual societies. Such a movement could aim to democratise the 'commanding heights' of economic activity through the democratisation of pension funds and the introduction of redistributive mechanisms into said funds after the fashion proposed by renowned Swedish economist, Rudolph Meidner. Recent studies by prominent Left intellectual Robin Blackburn, for instance, in the pages of New Left Review, still point to the ongoing relevance of wage earner funds as a strategy for socialisation and democratic control of industry. Unfortunately, McKnight's synthesis of socialism, conservatism and liberalism has little to say about economic democratisation. Specifically, Blackburn favours a 10 per cent share levy to be redistributed to democratic administrative bodies. Here, he proposes a more modest alternative to the 20 per cent levy originally envisaged by Meidner. In particular, Blackburn foresees a 'network of social funds [that] would be organised on both a national, regional and an all-Union basis, such that, say, 40 per cent of the new assets would go to regional funds, 40 per cent would go to a national pension reserve in each state and 20 per cent would go to an all-Union fund'. Currently, the privatisation of risk inherent in the superannuation system provides nothing in reserve apart from a tightly means-tested public pension 'safety net' for retirees. Not only could wage earner funds spur a wave of economic democratization; they could do so while retaining a role for market mechanisms and signals and providing greater security of income to pensioners. Other elements of a revived socialist movement could include tax incentives for mutual societies and co-operative enterprise, including state-sponsored finance, advice and support for enterprises moving onto a co-operative basis. A renewed commitment could also be made to the public provision of infrastructure, especially in places where markets would otherwise refuse to go - for instance, in the equal provision of communications, transport and banking infrastructure in both the city and the bush. Such a process could involve the re-establishment of a series of state bodies and government-business enterprises. Whereas a competitive market would continue to exist in areas apart from 'natural public monopoly' (e.g. communications, energy and transport infrastructure), the participation of government-business enterprises would add to an overall process of democratisation, cross-subsidisation of services for the disadvantaged, and the enhancement of competition. Collective consumption of social services through institutions such as Medicare has also proven popular, and the expansion of Medicare into areas such as physiotherapy and dental care, as well as universal provision of high quality aged care services, are projects well worth considering. This approach would not be without its contradictions. Wage earner funds would effectively extract surplus value from employees, and co-operative enterprise would be under constant pressure to undermine its democratic structures through the issuing of shares or through merger with other, non-democratic enterprises. In so far as a revivified socialism would see its aim as being the democratisation of markets, and not their abolition, these contradictions would be enduring, and the role of socialist reforms in a democratic mixed economy would be ongoing. No longer would there be any single 'final goal' of the socialist movement. Rather, there would be an orientation towards ongoing reform, including the kind of 'revolutionary reforms' imagined by the Eurocommunists, re-emerging through socialist and social democratic tradition. Finally, while absolute deprivation may be marginal in Australia compared to the past, Australia remains a highly stratified society, and relative poverty is as much a problem as ever. While significant sections of the working class defect to the Liberal Party as a consequence of 'wedge politics', which play upon insecurities surrounding terror, immigration and national identity, and creating the perception that an 'out of touch' Left intellectual 'elite' dominates policy, there is a taboo surrounding class politics that prevents Labor from capitalising on rising social inequality. Whereas McKnight sees a new movement as going 'beyond' class politics, a revived socialist movement must shatter this taboo to place in bold relief the current faultlines of class and win back the support of Australian workers. In particular, moving to provide infrastructure to deprived outer suburbs, re-regulate labour markets to protect vulnerable workers, and restructure taxation to provide for social expenditure and restore distributive justice. The 'death' of socialism and of class politics is a self-fulfilling prophecy that we should not accept. Counter hegemonic historic bloc or 'new movement'? McKnight's project to provide philosophical foundations for a new movement is nothing if not bold. While the author fails to create an essentially new moral framework, he does accurately describe his synthesis of liberal, conservative and socialist principles as 'muscular', as opposed to insipid 'Third Ways' that effectively capitulate to neo-liberalism while falsely claiming the mantle of social democracy. Nevertheless, the author relegates two great progressive traditions of the twentieth century - social liberalism and democratic socialism - to historical oblivion, while warning of the futility of attempting to resurrect the so-called 'Old Left' under the guise of a 'Red-Green alliance'. Refusing to frame the emerging Green movement in terms of the usual Left/Right linear spectrum, the author sees pressing environmental crises as being of such broad concern that they transcend the usual political categories. Admittedly, there is some truth in such a view. It is also true, as McKnight acknowledges, that there is potential for common ground between socialists, social liberals and compassionate conservatives on many other issues, such as the establishment of 'family friendly' labour market policies. Despite McKnight's apparent disavowal of the option of a 'Red-Green alliance', the Left's traditional anti-capitalist critique suggests a special cause for affinity between the environmental movement and the socialist Left. It has long been a slogan of the Left that production ought be for 'human need' and not simply for profit. Rather than envisaging an alliance between the traditional Left and other already existing intellectual and social movements, including social liberals, environmentalists and 'compassionate conservatives', McKnight's call is for a new movement that blends selected principles of all the aforementioned parties. That said, McKnight's policy prescriptions borrow heavily from the traditional Left he is eager to disavow. The author's call for reduced and/or more flexible working hours in support of families could easily have come from a socialist program (the 35-hour week in France was won by a Socialist government), and his call for 'good standards of health care for all, regardless of income' as well as 'high quality child care and home care', reflect the traditional aspirations of the social democratic welfare state, extending these aspirations to provide additional support for families in balancing paid work, domestic labour and social and family life. The possibility of building what Italian Marxist thinker Antonio Gramsci would have called a 'counter-hegemonic historic bloc' through an alliance of the Left and elements of the 'Old Right', is certainly a prospect worth exploring. Such an alliance could well be practical rather than theoretical, and need not be bound by the kind of shared philosophical foundations that McKnight seems to feel are essential in the building of a new movement. Of such a movement, McKnight writes: A movement on this basis could be very powerful because it would unite unusual bedfellows - not just welfare and women's groups and trade unions, but religious and pro-family groups. The same might be said of an alliance characterised by an ongoing exchange and dialogue rather than a single set of unifying philosophical foundations. McKnight is correct to take conservatism seriously - and he is correct to see 'compassionate conservatives' and the tradition of social liberalism as having a potential affinity with the Left in attempts to foster social cohesion through labour market regulation, the welfare state and social wage provision. There is no need, however - despite the limitations of a linear Left/Right political spectrum, and a possible overlap between ideologies and programs of the 'old Right' and the Left - to liquidate Left traditions or socialist politics into a new philosophy. Today the Left should again place itself in the vanguard of progressive social change. Though, as McKnight would probably recognise, there are many instances in this struggle where the Left need not and should not act alone.


Tristan Ewins is a freelance writer, teacher and member of the Australian Fabian Society. David McKnight's book is Beyond Right and Left - New Politics and the Culture Wars, Allen and Unwin, Crows Nest, NSW, 2005.


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