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Defining hegemony

Whatever happened to the Left?

John Harms

Whatever happened to the Left? The fair dinkum come-the-revolution Left? The comrades who kept the beret industry going? The true believers who sat around drinking heavy beer and looking forward to the inevitable day when the working class would unite, throw off its chains, and seize the means of production from the North Shore Virginia's who controlled it?

The Australian Left is dead. Actually, no, that's not true. The visible Left is dead. There are still plenty of dyed-in-the-wool socialists drinking heavy beer. They still laugh at the myth of the classless Australian society. It's just that you don't see them. The Left exists - but it is now anonymous, concealed. Its voice has been excluded from the mainstream media; it struggles to be heard in the public debate; it is occasionally spotted in portside branches of the ALP. It has been caricatured and lampooned in the conservative press to the point that it is perceived as archaic, irrelevant and even silly. Such attacks demonstrate that those theories of power bandied around universities weren't far off the mark.

When I was a student in the early eighties (ahhh, the good old days, when Politics I lecturers were still shamelessly righting the balance) one of the most eye-opening books I read was Bob Connell's Ruling Class Ruling Culture. Applying the ideas of the Italian thinker Antonio Gramsci he argues convincingly that the ruling class, because of its control of the principal institutions like media and education, is able to disseminate those ideas which entrench it. We have been conditioned to sit passively and nod our heads, unaware of our oppression, condemned to mediocre lives of survival. It's the same throughout the Western world. Ours is a false consciousness.

In Australia we have Bob Connell. In the US they have Michael Moore, a man arguing from a similar philosophical position - only he's much, much funnier. His television shows TV Nation and The Awful Truth have won him a legion of supporters - as have his books.

Moore loves Americans and his modus operandi is to make them laugh, not to help them escape, but to encourage them to overcome the inertia which prevents them contributing to a just and lively community. He writes: "You are not stranded ... The bad guys are just a bunch of silly, stupid white men. And there are a helluva lot more of us than there are of them. Use your power." Moore's heartfelt mission is to grab his stupified countrymen by the shoulders and shake them into the realisation that they have been conned, that the ruling class in America is ripping them off, and will continue ripping them off unless they start fighting back.

Hence his latest book, Stupid White Men, is a polemic of exasperated rage against the sorry state of the nation. His writing is energetic, engaging, insightful, and, at times, hilarious. It keeps coming at you. Michael Moore is John Pilger with a sense of humour; P.J. O'Rourke with a conscience; Kim Beazley on tequila. He is the charismatic tutor who takes you to the uni bar and blows your suburban undergraduate mind. ("Really, they couldn't get away with that ... Could they?")

Moore uncovers the fiasco which was the US Presidential election - "The Coup". He paints a sad picture of George W. Bush, the "Thief-in-Chief", the "functional illiterate" who has no right to be President. He introduces "Who's Who in the Coup", those who keep the wheels of the corrupt government turning, portraying them as a cast of corporate stooges who have been easily bought. They diligently chant the mantra of recession on behalf of their lords and expect working class America to accept that the erosion of state services - like education - just can't be helped. But times aren't tough for some - the rich fiddle and play. And laugh about it.

Because he builds his argument with humour Moore attracts the standard chestnuts from his opponents. The Right brand him a ratbag of the "Looney Left". Amusing as his style may be, however, it never clouds his message. Moore deals with the most elemental issues of life in the US. And his material is seriously researched (and supported with notes and sources at the back).

In strict terms Moore is not of the socialist Left. He is closer to being a traditional liberal and an advocate of participatory democracy. He gives practical tips (like email addresses and phone numbers) to get people protesting. It says something of our time that his views are seen as radical.

Serious scholars may think it sad that a writer resorts to humour to make his point. But a robust democracy needs voices of dissent and making people laugh is one of the few remaining ways to capturing their attention.Besides, it would be a tragedy if real social reform were stifled because no-one could define hegemony. (And I thought I'd never be using that word again in my life).


John Harms is a journalist and author. His books include: Memoirs of a Mug Punter (Text Publishing: 2000), which is about a racing syndicate where each member had 1/132nd of a horse called Courting Pleasure. The syndicate was called SAMRA (the Salvadore Allende Memorial Racing Alliance) and it raced a hourse in the interest of the revolution; and, Confessions of a Thirteenth Man (Text Publsihing: 1999), the story of radical anti-authoritarianism, ratbaggery and larrikinism from the perspective of the democratic outer. His new book is called Loose Men Everywhere (Text Publishing: 2002), and looks at the place of footy in Australian culture. Stupid White Men by Michael Moore is published by Regan Books (an imprint of HarperCollins), $39.95. This review was first published in the Sun-herald Magazine, Sunday Life.


Suggested citation

Harms, John, 'Defining hegemony', Evatt Journal, Vol. 2, No. 5, July 2002. <>


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