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How the Myths of “Progressive Neoliberalism” Hollowed Out Australia’s Left

Neoliberalism now dominates Australia's formerly left-wing institutions, marginalizing working-class and socialist politics. Yet the center-left "progressive neoliberal" consensus shambles on, a corpse in search of a decent grave.

Bob Hawke and Paul Keating in May 1991. (Peter Morris / Fairfax Media via Getty Images)

Over the last decade, left-populist and socialist politics have made a comeback in the United States, UK, and Europe, but so far Australia has been an exception to this trend. Explaining this is as difficult as it is pressing. Geoff Robinson’s book Being Left-Wing in Australia: Identity, Culture and Politics After Socialism, published in 2019, is perhaps the most thorough attempt to do so yet.

Being Left-Wing in Australia traverses the large-scale collapse of collective politics that has plagued Australia for thirty years. Robinson adopts a broad understanding of “the Left” based on how individuals and groups define themselves. He surveys a range of organizations and leaders, from far-left groups to the Australian Labor Party (ALP) and the Greens, not to mention contemporary political archetypes like the “green capitalist” or the “human rights bureaucrat.”

In particular, Robinson pays close attention to the shift away from socialism toward liberalism, and to the development of what he calls “progressive neoliberalism” within the ALP. Despite the continued grip of this doctrine on the party, it constitutes an exhausted political project — Robinson compares it to a “ghost begging for release.”

Making Peace With Capitalism

Being Left-Wing in Australia is an intellectual history, but not a history of intellectuals alone. Robinson goes to great lengths to document the disintegration of the world that once sustained Australia’s Left.

During the twentieth century, a proletarian public sphere thrived, comprising working-class parties, unions, bookshops, newspapers, and publishers. This world existed both within and against a wider system of “corporate liberalism,” namely, a society “based on the relations between groups,” rather than one based on relations between individuals and the state.

The dissolution of the Communist Party of Australia (CPA) in 1991 was a watershed moment in the decline of this working-class political culture. Prior to 1991, as Robinson notes, the CPA had “occupied a central position in the culture of the left as an alternative focus to the ALP,” and had been a long-running source of “intellectual sustenance” for the Labor Left.

Yet the Australian left was not simply a passive victim swept away by historical processes beyond its control. Indeed, parts of the Left — including left-aligned unions and the CPA itself — were active participants in establishing and shaping the paradigm that followed.

In Australia, as in much of the world, neoliberalism sought to ensure the smooth continuation of capitalism following the high-water mark of class struggle in the 1970s. Australia was exceptional, however, because this project — led by Bob Hawke, from Labor’s right faction — required the cooperation of the trade union and ALP left. This allowed the ALP’s left-wing tendency to come closer to power than ever before. On its own terms, it was, for a time, highly successful.

In similar fashion to Elizabeth Humphrys, author of How Labour Built Neoliberalism, Robinson demonstrates the role figures from the Left played in laying the bedrocks of Australian neoliberalism. In particular, this involved helping push through the Prices and Incomes Accord between the Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU) and the ALP. While Humphrys focuses on the “mechanisms whereby militant union leaders and activists are incorporated into state projects of restructuring,” Robinson places the accord in the context of broader ideological compromises that were taking place.

In 1969, Bill Brown, president of the Victorian Labor Party, addressed a party conference with the following message:

Only the conscious organization of production in which production and distribution are carried on in a planned way can save the world from destruction. This cannot be achieved by simply winning seats in Parliament and seeking to change capitalism into a morally good society. It can only be realized by a complete break from capitalist institutions, culture and morality.

Victoria’s Socialist Left faction was the most left-wing of all state Labor factions. Yet just compare Brown’s words with the career of Brian Howe, a leading figure in the Victorian Socialist Left.

Symbolizing the de-radicalization of the Labor Left, Howe oversaw a series of devastating cuts as a minister in the Hawke and Keating governments. Labor’s commitment to “social justice” offset those cuts, according to Howe. In practice, this meant that he urged the Left and the labor movement to accept “the broad direction of government macroeconomic policy in exchange for support from the right on social policy.”

The goal of social policy ceased to be social or economic transformation. Instead, the ALP confined the welfare state to a much more modest role in helping society’s very poorest members with “relief of poverty replacing a broader egalitarianism.” His service in Paul Keating’s “razor gang” earned Howe a promotion to deputy prime minister in 1991, just over twenty years after Bill Brown had denounced parliamentarism.

Swapping Socialism for Liberalism

As ALP prime ministers Bob Hawke and Paul Keating spearheaded a process of market-led reforms that transformed Australian society, much of the Left dropped even a vague commitment to socialism. This coincided with the hollowing out of the social sphere. The result was a new form of politics that bore little resemblance to what had preceded it.

Pragmatism and policy replaced ideology. Party-political insiders and “wonks” supplanted activists and organizers. In place of Australia’s tradition of working-class autodidacticism, a new breed of “public intellectual” arose who believed that technocratic governance could improve society.

At the same time, social movements declined and became marginal or were incorporated into the state. Communities that had formerly been collectively organized — for example, many Indigenous communities — were atomized into groups of individualized clients. Unions traded militancy and shop-floor organization away to become arbitrators of industrial policy. This made them reliant on federal industrial relations institutions they had previously opposed, reducing their political role to that of pressure groups on the ALP.

This was the world that gave birth to what Robinson calls “progressive neoliberalism.” In his understanding, this was a form of ideology and political practice combining cultural politics that were broadly socially liberal with advocacy for “economic rationalism,” as neoliberalism was then known in Australia. It still dominates the Australian center left. Spend five minutes in the company of a typical ALP or Greens politico, and you’ll likely encounter a worldview built around these concepts.

However, these shifts only lay the basis for Robinson’s account of a contemporary Australian left, whose origins he dates back to 2001 and the reelection of Liberal PM John Howard. Howard’s triumph that year was traumatic for the Left. Many had begrudgingly explained his 1996 victory over the ALP as a consequence of economic uncertainty and even as a vote against the model put in place by the accord.

In contrast, as Robinson notes, “the 2001 election seemed to demand a cultural explanation.” Having long since discarded a substantively “different view of organizing society and the economy,” the Australian left responded rather with “a moral declaration of opposition to racism and xenophobia.” For the center-left this led to an awkward politics that stressed “balancing the interests of the working class and an enlightened middle class,” with the latter supposedly being motivated by “post-materialist issues.”

For Robinson, Robert Manne exemplifies the Left’s embrace of liberalism during this period. Manne was an anticommunist onetime conservative who had voted for John Howard in 1996. By 2001, he had become a key intellectual figure on the Left thanks to his moral critique of aspects of Australian society and Howard’s leadership.

Raindrops Keep Falling

Robinson does not argue that the Australian left lost its traditional working-class base as a result of embracing social liberalism and identity politics. Instead, he demonstrates that this base had been eroding well before there was any cultural turn. That turn itself was a consequence of the collapse of collective, class-based politics.

Desperate to “win back the base,” sections of the ALP engaged in anguished acrobatics, appealing to socially conservative attitudes, or attempting to develop a new “class identity politics,” which regarded “working-class” as a cultural identity, rather than a socioeconomic reality. Robinson treats these strategies with the derision they deserve. His sensitivity to the subject and the breadth of source material he draws on allow him to trace the Left’s prioritization of culture and identity back to multiple sources.

For one example, Robinson cites Julia Gillard’s attempts to redefine working-class identity as “distinctively male, white, ageing, socially conservative, ‘left behind’ and susceptible to the appeal of the populist right.” He suggests that this view evolved along a “crooked road” that can be traced back to “the last years of the CPA” — specifically, the Socialist Forum, a right-wing split from the Communist Party. This shift toward prioritizing culture and identity was also encouraged by an academic left that had largely abandoned Marxism in favor of theorists like Michel Foucault and new disciplines such as cultural studies.

Having abandoned its social, economic, and political vision, the ALP as a whole increasingly found itself unable to differentiate itself from the Australian right on any basis other than culture and identity. Meanwhile, Labor’s Left faction came to distinguish itself internally from the Labor Right in similar terms. The ALP that emerges in Robinson’s book is a party that lacks an engaged membership, led by a political elite still waging old faction fights that date back to the Cold War, with little or no grounding in contemporary Australian politics and society.

Identity also became key to the way the Left in and around the ALP understood itself. Shorn of its organic connection to collective politics, ideology became a matter of moral identification. Today, an online subculture known as “Raindrop Twitter” is emblematic of this trend. Doggedly committed to Labor, it’s a kind of baby-boomer liberalism that breathlessly decries corruption and media concentration while staying largely silent on privatization, Indigenous deaths in custody, or rising rates of casualization.

Robinson also looks back at an earlier “online left” that responded to any criticism of the ALP with defensive hostility. “Bad news about the party,” he suggests, “was met with complaint and deflection” and with “general cycles of outrage produced on social media.” This center-left, Labor-adjacent milieu increasingly boasted of its technocratic superiority to the Right, while claiming to be the true inheritors of Australia’s supposed egalitarian traditions of “fairness” and “mateship.”

What’s Left?

If this all sounds depressingly familiar, it’s because the ALP hasn’t really changed in over a decade. Even the great financial crash of 2008 did little to dislodge Labor from its progressive neoliberal rut. The party has not won a federal election since 2010. Robinson traces the party’s microscopic shifts: some more social conservatism here, a greater focus on “fairness” there. But these modifications have virtually no meaning.

For socialists, Being Left-Wing in Australia can be a challenging read. Although it confirms much about what we thought was wrong, we only play a bit part in Robinson’s account. Although occasionally correct in our analysis, we have lacked the strength in numbers or connection with the working class that could make our project meaningful. But Robinson helps us understand the unique and badly outdated world of Australian progressive neoliberalism that must be replaced. He tells us what not to do — the rest will be up to us.