Monday, August 23, 2010

The Latham Diaries

I bought a copy of The Latham Diaries on the weekend. The former Labor leader sets out his political beliefs clearly enough in the introduction.

Latham worries that there is a crisis in civil society. He believes that individuals have become alienated from their communities and are less willing to trust and cooperate with each other:

It is the alienation of the individual from community life that is the cause of so many social problems. (p.16)

He focuses on two culprits for this. One is the market. He criticises "a grotesque expansion of market forces into social relationships" and also consumerism as a form of middle-class escapism.

The second culprit is conservatism. Latham believes that there is a conservative establishment which stymies change and is intent on hoarding power for itself. He sees himself as one of the outsiders attempting to break down hierarchies of power.

It's a flawed view. I'd agree with Latham that individuals are increasingly socially alienated, that our culture is excessively individualistic, that there is too little political engagement and that consumerism and a cult of celebrity are ultimately empty forms of escapism.

But how do you achieve a real depth of community? I would argue that you need to allow stable forms of social life to develop over time and that you need a shared identity based on real forms of connectedness.

This is not what Latham is looking for. He does not want to maintain either stability or commonality. He believes instead that community should be encouraged as the basis for "a sweeping program of social justice" and so that people will "reach out and trust in strangers" from around the globe and support "the redistributive functions of government":

As a society we are poorly equipped to meet the challenges of globalisation: building strong communities that are prepared to reach out and trust in strangers - people, values and information from across the globe.

The crisis in social capital is also a crisis for social democracy. If people do not practise mutual trust and cooperation in their lives, they are not likely to support the redistributive functions of government...

The task of social reformers is extraordinarily difficult ... Not only must they rebuild the trust and cohesiveness of civil society, they also need to motivate people about the value and possibilities of organised politics ... they then need to win majority public support for a sweeping program of social justice. (pp. 16-17)

In one sense he is right. When people are more closely connected to their communities they are likely to have more altruistic attitudes. Social reformers have, in the past, drawn on this altruism to win support for programmes that were not in the interests of the mainstream.

Such reformers could, as an alternative, rely on the apathy of a socially alienated population to force through their programmes. But Latham seems to have too much of a populist streak to find this an appealing option. He sees himself as representing those who are outsiders to political power (the insiders are by his definition the bad guys, the "conservatives"). Latham seems to want to lead a grassroots movement of "social democracy" to push through his sweeping changes - and that can't be done when altruism and social engagement are low.

Finally, Latham is wrong to claim that the establishment is conservative.  His line is that those in power (the insiders) want to preserve their control and therefore are in favour of social hierarchies and the status quo. That's why, surmises Latham, he met such opposition to his reform programme.

But much of the opposition to Latham came from within his own party. So he is led to the idea that the ALP itself is a conservative organisation, run as an oligarchy by half a dozen union officials. He describes the ALP as follows:

The Party's defining purpose now revolves around power and patronage, the fuel that sustains its factions but that ultimately drains the True Believers of conviction and belief. It has become a conservative institution run by conservative people, the worst elements of machine politics. (p.8)

In contrast to this, Latham presents himself as in no way attached to the status quo:

Over time, our national political culture has become more conservative and uniform ... I battled against this tendency inside the Labor Party, determined to maintain a bold approach to public policy. I believed in adventurism as a way of public life. (p.20)

It's a misleading picture of Australian politics. Yes, there is entrenched power. But it is power at the service of an increasingly radical liberalism. When Kevin Rudd, for instance, raised immigration to record levels, it was difficult to see this as a conservative measure designed to keep things as they are.

The orthodoxy is a liberal one. Latham doesn't see this because he has in his mind the idea that being progressive means attacking power hierarchies as a dissenting outsider. Therefore, the insiders who hold the power are, by definition, the non-progressives - the "conservatives". He ends up believing that ALP powerbrokers, ABC journalists and the like are Tories.

But this means that he can't engage with the liberalism that is so influential amongst the political class as a whole. And I don't think you can truly understand the shifts in modern society, including those toward social alienation, without considering the role played by this liberalism.


  1. Latham is missing a most important point: it is the government itself that causes alienation. For example, it is well known that goverment redistribution programs reduce charitable giving. What better way to make people disenage than to eliminate any personal stake in both giving and the outcome of your contribution?

  2. I take as a starting assumption that being a Labor supporter is not really consistent with conservatism. That's because Labor prioritises a sectional group, the worker or Labor supporter, over the nation, and a concept, fairness, again over the interests of the nation.

    Having said that Latham is appealing to "conservative" Labor supporters I suppose. People who have a sense of community and national identity and who don't feel they're being represented by the mechanisms of power.

    It is hard to take a person seriously though when their behavior is so erratic.

  3. Latham was spot on about the alienation but wrong on it's cause. And the idea that there is some deeply conservative "establishment" holding onto the reins is nuts.

    It's like saying:

    Socrates was a man, I am a man, therefore I am Socrates.

    There is an establishment, it does hold onto it's power jealously. But it is a liberal one, and increasingly a left liberal one.

  4. Latham makes a bold move to say what everyone knows--we're alienated--in the hopes that he can use it to attack conservatism. This is Cultural Marxism at its edgy finest!

    Remember, to hard-core leftists everything looks right-wingish.

  5. It sounds like he's making a left liberal complaint about the fact the labour party has become right wing economically.

    Unfortunately for the liberal left, multiculturalism and left wing economic policies don't travel well together, so Labour has largely ditched the later.

    Since 1979 there has been a general shift in the West towards neoliberalism in economic policy and multiculturalism in social policy. Some left liberals hope to eat their cake and have it to by trying to recreate the economic egalitarianism of the 50s in a multicultural format -like some episode of the deluded British soap opera Eastenders.

  6. I would quibble with the assertion that Labor is right-wing economically. First, government plainly has no constitutional or rational purpose in interfering with voluntary and spontaneous commerce carried out by innumerable citizens out of countless motives of profit or interest.

    Second, as Newton discovered the laws of Nature (poetic hyperbole perhaps), so Adam Smith penetrated the inner mechanics of political economy. Free trade is simply more advantageous and just. This is particularly so when the merchants, or buyers, engaged in the trade possess similar grades of intellect and racial disposition, say all the Europeans, Chinese and Japanese, their descendants abroad, etc. Kenyans or Solomon Islanders are obviously incapable of prolonged competition with the manufacturers of cleverer nations.

    However, I must qualify this belief in the general - and diffuse - benefits of free trade, with the notice that even Smith himself advised tariffs for instances where the national government meddles to secure an artificial advantage for their merchants and manufacturers, as the Communist Chinese or virtual slave labour employed to pick bananas cheaply in the Philippines. Tariffs to redress the injustice in such cases are more profitable, and fairer, than free trade.

    In this matter, as many others, the Liberal Party ought to read less of Brougham's Edinburgh Review, and more of Lockhart's Quarterly Review. Figuratively I mean, they ought to show more the Tory and less the optimistic Whig.

  7. As a society we are poorly equipped to meet the challenges of globalisation: building strong communities that are prepared to reach out and trust in strangers - people, values and information from across the globe.

    This is vacuous only in the most charitable reading, completely bonkers otherwise. There can be no "communities", no human scale, where hierarchies of trust do not exist, distinguishing the inner circles of social interaction from the outer. One may as well say "building strong families that can accept every other human being on earth as a family member".

    We already "reach out and trust in strangers" and people and information from across the globe - and have done so for centuries. There would be no trade, no travel, no global information exchanges if this were not so. I leave out the utterly vacuous "values" - one only exchanges "values" as one exchanges goods and information if one has already been reduced to a gutted, cultureless widget - alas, too true of many Westerners. But I doubt any thought was put into that inane phrasing.

    There is nothing new about globalisation per se; humans have been "globalists", have had vast trade and cultural exchange networks, since at least the Paleolithic. What is new and invidious is the almost religious belief that "globalisation" is not a means to an end (improvement of human existence), but an end in itself, to which all other human needs must be subordinated, even if this results not only in the destruction of intangible social goods, but the very material well-being of a society that it was originally alleged to infallibly improve..

    Latham and his ilk are trying to square the circle: the foundation of modern utopian "globalisation" - the unfettered movement of labor as well as capital and goods - must destroy all community to be realized. That destruction is a necessary feature, not an unfortunate side-effect subject to melioration.

  8. It makes no difference what men think of war, said the Judge. War endures. As well ask men what they think of stone. War was always here. Before man was, war waited for him, the ultimate trade awaiting the ultimate practitioner. That is the way it was and will be. That way, and not some other way.

    From Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy.

    There is no New Man. Strangers will never trust each other, nor should they if their respective causes conflict. Life is Us vs Them, forever. War endures.