Discussion – Contending Judith Brett’s class: an argument about Labor’s past and present … and future by Nick Dyrenfurth

That Labor’s performance at the 2004 Federal election constituted a debacle would seem to be an understatement. In particular the ‘Tasmanian forests policy’ release may go down as one of the more unbelievable events of Australian electoral history. The comical scene of timber workers and their families in rapturous applause welcoming John Howard was as disturbing as it was plain embarrassing. That said the range of contributions in the latest Blue book ‘After the Deluge?’ ( Arena Magazine , no. 74) provided critical food for thought to those genuinely concerned by such happenings. Two questions immediately come to mind. Will an inwardly dysfunctional Labor actually listen to any of the critiques raised, or more importantly actually act upon them? And will any of the Australians whose life experiences are completely unrepresented or reflected by modern Labor actually care about or read such internal ruminations? Regrettably, I doubt it. It would seem axiomatic to suggest that Labor’s former core constituency is completely detached from the political process, and by association, devoid of individual ‘political’ interest. In a similar vein, to argue that class no longer frames the social and political understandings of individuals and groupings and their conception of self-identity is an increasingly repeated ‘truism’. However there is clear difference between such statements and arguing that class and by implication class analysis no longer matters. In that light Judith Brett’s Blue book offering ‘Good folk trooping all together’ and her more significant contributionAustralian Liberals and the moral middle class deserve a significant riposte. Despite being the most significant addition to a rather patchy historiography of the Australian Right, there is room for significant concern in its methodological treatment and its (perhaps inadvertent) conflation of past and present conceptions of class.Australian Liberals is a major step in overcoming an unhelpful historical amnesia. If we are to understand Labor’s current malaise then an understanding of past struggles and historical formations is crucial. In that light it is appropriate to examine Brett’s historical repositioning of class and party politics, both past and present, on the way suggesting an alternative path to regeneration of Labor’s organisation, belief and direction.

It is appropriate to review some of Brett’s central arguments.Australian Liberals is divided into roughly two parts. The first half seeks to detail the travails and political consummation of the relationship between Australian Liberals and what she evocatively describes as their core constituency, the imagined community of the ‘moral middle class’. As Brett argues “From Deakin to Menzies, both the moral middle class and Australian Liberals were based in Protestantism, Liberal ideas of citizenship and the conservative habits of sound finance.” The latter half documents the ways in which social changes, particularly de-secularisation, have undermined this symbiotic set of relationships. The greatest strength of Brett’s work (and possibly most problematic facet) is that it delves beneath the parliamentary party seeking to investigate the social bases, represented through intrinsic values and Protestant belief, which established and sustained its political organisation and representatives. Brett appropriately subsumes the various incarnations of liberals and conservatives under the name ‘Liberal’. On this count, Charles Richardson, in his inadequate review ( Arena Magazine , no. 69), erroneously suggests that Brett really bequeaths the title Conservative to all Australian Liberals (whereas she only strictly applies such terminology to the turbulent 1920s). Brett’s Liberals are not an unchanging or monolithic ‘thing’, but a contingent and malleable tradition of political belief and action – a sometimes-uneasy coalition of conservatives (often simply non-labour) and liberals. Brett is right to point Australian Liberals'”distinctive Australianess” and “political creativity.” Their most creative and oft-repeated claim is to represent the ‘whole’ (or national interest) – bound up within the paradoxical denial of class by a class-derived party.

With her narrative of Liberal formation and reformation, swinging between flowing narrative and critical language analysis, Brett avoids another mundane study of institutions by focusing on the complex intertwining of belief and representation, skillfully melding the discourses of individuals with parliamentary and extra-parliamentary groupings. Despite Brett’s innovative take on the bases of Liberal tradition, understandably most attention has been directed towards her understanding of current Prime Minister John Howard. And as far as Brett avoids the tendency towards reactionary criticism of the Howard years, this is probably appropriate. However commentators seem to have missed her most controversial argument: that the formation of the Australian two-party system owes less to the operation of class than historians and political scientists have traditionally argued. In the final chapter dealing with the Howard ascendancy, class is again pushed towards the periphery. Whether wittingly or not, class and class conflict is written off, the past and present somewhat awkwardly conflated. Brett bases this argument on the discourses and public (often symbolic) representations by which individuals and groups sought and seek to make sense of the social world.

In the chapter ‘Organisation and the Meaning of Fusion’ Brett argues that Australian Liberals have distinguished themselves from Labor along organizational (justified and understood as ‘moral’) lines. This caveat is necessary because Brett contends that Fusion was not the inevitable meeting (of shared class allegiances) that political historians have generally ascribed it. Borrowing from Duverger’s sense of party organisation, Brett gives credence to the agency, indirectly or otherwise, of the middle classes and their Protestant derived ‘values’ and ‘beliefs’, as realised through the non-labour parties. In Brett’s view both Liberals and the moral middle class historically envisioned themselves as possessing such ‘virtues’ as individuals, not as members of a (economic) class. However she arguably obfuscates the links between Liberal belief and discourse, class relations, and cultural values. Brett is right to argue that a strictly class-based explanation is wholly inadequate. Such a simple model cannot explain the continued electoral success of Australian Liberals. Nevertheless this explication, whilst rightly correcting past romanticised accounts, hermetically obscures values, languages and collective strategies, which are undoubtedly class(and ideologically) derived and sponsored. Labor’s pledge and the supremacy of caucus should be read as a class based institutional forms. E.P. Thompson’s classic notion of ‘experience’ is still instructive. Labor’s organisation was class induced and derived; despite or because of its constitution as a survival strategy, yet framed by industrial and human experiences, expressed in and outside of parliament.

On the other side of the coin, the Deakinite Liberals’ sense of masculine judgement and conscience (which Brett sees as preventing Fusion with Labor, rather than quibbles over policy) was also drawn from the experience of class. Not only were such discourses of middle class liberal independence drawn (as Brett acknowledges in regards to expressions of financial autonomy) from a material basis, but also such conceptions of individual judgement and conscience were formed in relation to and contrast with theirperception of other classes (even if the process doesn’t present itself to those actors as such) – in a somewhat perverse sense of false consciousness. The effect of such hegemony is always to conceal from class actors the basis of their own power – or to ‘naturalise’ it. Beneath the (albeit heartfelt) rhetoric of autonomous, dutiful and publicly minded ‘good’ and ‘moral’ citizens – what Perry Anderson has termed the language of ‘abstract egalitarianism’ – lay what Brett accurately describes as “a direct challenge to Labor’s appeal to people’s class consciousness.” Attempting to see Fusion from the Deakinite Liberals’ position is historically inclusive and proper, and indeed Brett’s thesis of independent judgement is extremely persuasive. Yet to accept at face value their genuine belief in a politics above the fractious ties of class and class interests is another, perhaps uncritical methodological turn. Likewise this seems to flow on into a slightly uncritical take on Deakin. When Deakin mocked the organs of pledge and caucus insinuating that the Labor member might be lacking the judgement of an independent man, he did so in class language, however coded. In less respectful terms, his was the language of class snobbery. One can’t avoid the impression that he and other liberals felt that Labor was rising above its station: the province of good government was the monopoly of autonomous middle class liberals, with their claim upon what Brett terms “superior moral qualities.” Organisation was clearly the force that prevented Fusion with Labor, but the rationale or language of masculine independence was a mediated form of class discourse and identity.

The class argument seems to break into contradiction in the Blue Book. Brett clearly admits that “… the party organization and the trade unions were … understood as political organizations whose purpose was to transmit the experiences and the demands of working class Australians …” If this is so it would evidently make sense that Liberals and their fellow travelers, the moral middle class, would respond in class terms: materially, literally and symbolically. And as Brett details, the great strength of their responsive strategy over the past century had been to portray the illegitimacy of Labor’s class politics as well as disclaiming the class content of their own language, amid the actuality of class conflict. I am not proposing a simple reclamation of the base-determines superstructure model but rather, as Poulantzos suggested, that the social relations bound up within the economic base are also political and ideological at once. Instead of merely replacing a crude materialism, we need to blend notions of cultural and discourse analysis with materialism. For culture, represented through the language of values and symbolism, is never really independent, however obfuscated, of the superstructure. As I indicated earlier Brett’s approach becomes still more problematic when she suggests that class is largely irrelevant to the present and presumably the future. As Brett suggests in the Blue Book with regards to current Australian society, “Class no longer organises the social and political landscape. It still figures but has to compete hard to with other bases of identity – ethnic, regional, religious, generational – and with a pervasive, commonsense understanding of people’s core political interests as based in their private domestic concerns …” Yet if class wasn’t so important in the foundational years of the Australian polity and isn’t now, then when was it? Such theoretical and implicitly political turns are symptomatic of what English historian Jon Lawrence terms the tendency to reduce the historical certainty of the “rise of class politics.”

Two points immediately come to mind. Firstly, class has never really flown solo. It has always competed hard with other identity politics. However for most of the past two centuries it was triumphant. Of course this was largely because the simultaneous socialist and working class projects held it as the prime objective. In differing proportions and reacting to contingent situations, identities such as gender and race have been marginalized and on occasion labeled what Stuart Hall terms ‘deviant discourses’. While this was clear in mainstream politics, internally the dominant masculine discourse of class, and overarching class culture, also acted hegemonically, restraining the claims of other identity forms. To argue that past class models are still important is not to argue that class was the only vision of the social order. Patrick Joyce’s important British study Visions of the People and two local studies by Ray Markey and Frank Bongiorno are all good examples demonstrating how a ‘populist’ vision of the social order was important in giving shape though ambiguity to class politics. We should also be aware of the role that institutions such as the Labor Party, and of national politics in general had in creating class-consciousness, not the other way round. This is where the so-called ‘linguistic turn’, critically applied, is of value. Secondly some caution is required with language analysis. Not only does class language and symbolism need to be read in terms of class relations, but one must always be aware of the ideological and restraining content, while not however assuming that language utterly governs social life. Just because people base and understand their decisions on ostensibly non-class issues and divides, does not mean that class wasn’t in action foremost, either in the past and present. Reading the last three decades of increasing neo-liberal orthodoxy, concurrent with the increasingly explicit and unabashed power of capital, the seeming lack of class language and identity may merely prove the successfulness of the Liberal’s language and political hegemony. The complete ontological separation of social from political life, the atomization of society into competitive individualism, overlaying the ever-increasing abstraction (though paradoxical de-collectivisation) of the public sphere, serve to reinforce and make natural this apparently de-classed society.

On the other hand Brett’s second major argument is far more satisfying. Brett argues that the Australian party system’s electoral alliance of Labor and Catholics also owes less to the simple class based explanation which suggests that Catholics, on account of their dominant location in the working class, were naturally drawn to Labor. In Brett’s account agency is accorded more to the fact that the great majority of Australian Liberals were Protestants (and even when they were not, the virtues on which they based their claims to govern were Protestant virtues). Protestant’s rising anti-Catholicism, focusing upon accusations of disloyalty and individual judgment, allegedly drove Catholics towards the Labor Party. Through Brett’s reading of the early Liberal’s sense of loyalty and the national interest, we are able to understand the historical bases of the current party, in particular its view of group rights such as multiculturalism and Aboriginal claims, most recently sensed in the Howard governments much publicised approach. Brett’s take on the Howard era is possibly the most satisfying addition to our knowledge of the Australian Liberals. Howard is indeed the “creative” equal of Menzies: successfully reworking the “images, themes and arguments of Liberal Party philosophy.” Brett’s is clearly the most satisfying account of Howard’s political ascendancy, capturing the context and contingency of his discourse within and against the limits of Australian Liberalism. Australian Liberals is an important addition to the historiography. Despite my cautioning note on class, Brett is able to explore and detail the crucial links between formal and informal politics, personal experience and public policy, and the role that values and religion played in the schisms of national politics. However if the current crises of the Left and Labor are to be overcome, recognising the enduring relevance of class, even populist class analysis, in both past and present struggles needs to be recognized and placed at the forefront of our historical and political stories.

So where now for Labor? A return to some form of class analysis and language might be a constructive, if unlikely starting point. The Labor party is a vibrant and real alternative only when it affirms its understanding of Australian capitalist society as fundamentally flawed in terms of material ownership and wealth distribution. No, Labor MP’s and members need not scurry for copies of Marx or even Althusser: though a little theoretical reflection could help. But more importantly, and central to the point to which I have been trying to get across, and here I think I am merely saying more explicitly what John Button and Brett couldn’t bring themselves to say, is (life) experience is crucial. Drawing on our critical conception of class and class experience as providing vitality and the cultural building blocks of institutional and representational forms, a significant injection of such experience is vital. Chris Scanlon is right. It is the economy and the culture. They are bound up within each other and the only way of reconnecting the critical sense and relation of the two is re-engagement with people’s life experiences. Without that Labor might as well give up the game. Of course overcoming the capitalist media’s unrelenting association of class with illegitimate, militant, violence fuelled, male blue-collar unionism is a significant problem.

Such representations of course obscure the fact that class is still everywhere. For instance, privatisation is a class issue. Take Telstra. Transferring an essential service, a monopoly, from collective ownership into the hands of a few, who blindly remunerate glorified CEO‘s with multi million dollar packages, is a class issue. The casualisation of especially young labour, justified by business claims that workers desire ‘flexibility’, is too. Even more blatantly, the Private health insurance rebate and the outrageous funding provided to wealthy private schools, provide damning evidence of class inequalities. Regardless of the identity forms and so-called ‘values’ that allegedly obscure class most Australians are still governed by their relationship to the means and ownership of production. Workers in the proliferating fields of telesales and often mindless world of retail might lack the backdrop of evocative satanic mills, but poor working conditions, pay and rights, uncertainty and anxiety, not too mention the unrelenting casualisation of ostensibly full-time employment reveals the true picture. This is without even mentioning Boris Frankel’s sense of ‘Sado-Workism’ (Arena Magazine, no. 73). These are all the experience of actually existing class and class relations. This understanding badly needs to be injected into the branches and wider culture of the ALP. Forcibly, if so required. John Button is right about the unrepresentative background of the membership and MPs, and the insidious nature of the modern factional system. But he also needs to realise that an injection of diverse and real experiences might well rally against what he blandly and passively terms the “economic transformation of the 1980s.” In democratising the membership and providing a real sense of representativeness, talk is not good enough; change must be actively sought and forced through. That the Liberals, as Brett points out, are looking more representative than Labor is an absolute disgrace. Experience and the re-opening up of branch membership might have unexpected and unpleasant consequences. Grievances stifled by years of factional and elite smothering may flare. Some views may not sit well with party orthodoxy. Nevertheless such democratisation could lead to an effective reformulation of populist class analysis.

If such suggestions seem airy-fairy they need not be, given a simultaneous re-attention to issues of practical and if need be, pragmatic political strategy. Labor needs to fight with fire. How about talking about the minority and elite interests that the Liberals and their fellow travelers represent? A tiny minority of Australians are wealthy CEOs and corporate elites yet as we know their interests are more than over represented at the seat of government. Guy Rundle’s accurate sense of Howard as foremost the ‘servant’ of capital needs to be filled out and shaped into a coherent political story. Internally, and more importantly publicly, Nick Economou is right to argue that Labor needs to be weaned off the Whitlam legend, and though he doesn’t say it explicitly, perhaps the Keating legend’s misleading aura of venomous though amusing partisanship. Labor badly needs to challenge the era of conservative populism, not simply accept it and go with the flow. The time is right for an inclusive populist class analysis, whether explicit or not. Of course the negative connotations of populism, with it’s admittedly exclusivist history, will for many on the Left be hard to overcome. However as the argument presented here suggests, women, regional Australians, the young, indigenous and ethnic groups could play a central role in bridging the illusionary realms of the social and political. These identities, far from being caught in irresolvable tension with each other and class, are natural allies at the table of discontents against an atomizing and pervasive late-capitalism.

On this count, one final point also needs to be made, and it is startling that no one in the popular media or academia has made it. What if, instead of turning to the usual suspects, middle-aged men, in the rotations of Beazley, Crean and now Latham, Labor had finally turned to a woman? The well performing Julia Gillard or the chronically underutilised Jenny Macklin? How would John Howard have responded? Insulated by three decades of a culture of incestuous male politicking and having never worked for, or against, a formidable female, I might suggest very badly. For a party both reviled and in other quarters lauded for its pragmatism, Labor’s failure of pragmatic imagination, bound up as it is in the ossified factional system, has robbed us of such a fascinating moment. Imagination, creativity and an actual engagement with the class realities of Australia will be critical for Labor in the next electoral period. In that sense the control of both the lower and upper houses of a rampant Howard government may be a blessing in disguise. The cheers of an impatient and boorish business community may expose Howard or push him beyond his pragmatic conservative populism. In that case, Labor may be well placed to exploit significant potential contingencies, if only it can imagine the value of the past to the present. And the future.

Nick Dyrenfurth (School of Historical studies, Monash University).

This article was initially published in Arena Magazine, February-March 2005. ERAS and the author wishes to thank Matthew Ryan and Chris Scanlon for permission to reprint.