The Role of Identity Politics in Current Crisis

The Australian didn’t end up being able to give this piece a run, so it is appearing on Pearls and Irritations today.


LINDY EDWARDS. Identity Politics is central to the current political crisis, but not for the reasons Paul Kelly argues.

Paul Kelly’s recent article ‘Could disruption be the ruin of western liberal democracy?’ was a thoughtful account of the challenges facing western democracy, and I would agree with some of what he described. But in the spirit of the constructive engagement he laments as missing in current debate, I offer up a different line of causality.

Kelly described the growing public hostility to the political class, a loss of support for the major political parties and a distrust in the integrity and utility of governments as fundamental threats to liberal democracy. He argued we are in the midst of a massive disruption and if it does not destroy democracy it will change it.

He went on to lay responsibility for this crisis at the feet of identity politics, growing individual narcissism, fueled by the digital revolution. He argued the internet is facilitating an instant gratification electorate who are putting overwhelming, irreconcilable demands on a system, which the system can’t possibly meet.

That our system is failing to meet the demands on it is undeniable. It is also true that identity politics is an important part that crisis. But not because it is a threat to liberalism as Kelly argues, but because it is the very embodiment of it.

The birth of capitalism has given rise to a dynamic of political evolution in the west. Capitalism is a process of creative destruction driving constant social change. Each time the reach of capitalism has expanded it has empowered a new group of people. That group have leveraged their new economic power to demand a seat at the liberal table of equal political rights.

The first group to claim political rights in the name of individual equality and freedom were the early capitalists who wanted to be given the same rights as the aristocracy. Their argument was that people of great wealth were equal irrespective of the conditions of their birth.

Since then the march of liberal democracy has seen a seat offered to all property owning men, then to all adult men, then to women and non-whites.

When women stand up and demand equal pay for equal work, to be judged on their merits and to be able to choose their own path in life, they are not rejecting liberalism. They are embodying it.

Similarly when people who have been subject to colonization stand up and ask for their property rights to be treated with the same respect as other people’s property rights. When they argue for self determination and the opportunity to be masters of their own destiny, judged by their efforts not the colour of their skin, they are also seeking a seat at the liberal table.

These movements are not attacks on liberalism. They reinforce everything it holds dear. But they are central to the current political turmoil.

Our two party democracy system emerged in the course of this political evolution. In Australia, the Liberal versus Labor divide emerged at the time that employers were being challenged by working class white men for a more equal share of the national bounty. It was a fight that split the electorate roughly in half.

In this world our democracy had a reasonably simple task. Its job was to mediate these competing demands and find a socially sustainable accommodation. It led to a capitalist system buffered by regulations around minimum wages and supplemented by a welfare state that ensured the most urgent demands of the working classes were met.

When the wheels of capitalism turned again, empowering women and non-whites, the task for democracy got more complicated. It no longer had to deal with one social cleavage, but several.

The impact of the rise of these groups was felt most acutely in the coherence of the left. The left endeavoured to gather up all these movements under the broad umbrella of a commitment to social justice and equality. Yet below this headline value, the interests represented by these groups didn’t necessarily gel.

This development highlighted that there are a number of different power structures that organise our societies. And a good many of us are powerful in some structures while we are victims of others.

The impact of these structures multiplies, so we can point to the extreme winners and losers easily enough. Upper class white men were the beneficiaries of all of these structures, while non-English speaking migrant women tussle with Aboriginal women as worst victims of poverty and violence.

But for the great majority of people, they were beneficiaries of some power structures while being victims of others. This creates enormous problems in building a coherent political movement.

In contrast to the days of old, where you could divide the world into goodies and baddies, and advocate highfalutin ideals that also happened to line up with your interests.In this new world, supporters needed to recognise their privilege and campaign against their interests on some issues, in order to receive support on other issues. It is an immensely complex thing to ask of a mass movement.

These problems on the left have found their echoes on the right. The right has historically been defined by its opposition to the agendas of the left. But they are now at a loss as to which particular agenda they are opposing. Are they liberals opposing Labor’s class agenda, or conservatives opposing the changing status of women.

The emergence of social media is not the source of these problems. The fragmentation on social media is symptom of the underlying political reality.

The disillusionment with our political parties is because they haven’t been able to come up with a story that weaves all these interests together in a compelling way.

Instead, in their flip-flopping attempts to appeal to the different social fragments, our politicians have come across as cynical and self serving. The public are reading malevolence into what is really a crisis of ideas.

The current political crisis is, in part, because the two party system is past its use by date. We need a new democracy that can deal with these higher levels of complexity.

Dr Lindy Edwards is the author of The Passion of Politics: The Role of Ideology in Australia, Allen & Unwin.


Turnbull’s Budget Test: Will He Reign In the Big End of Town

The key test of this budget for the Turnbull government is whether or not they have managed to tame big business. The strength of the big business lobby politically knobbled the Liberals in their first term and pulling them into line is essential for the government to be viable.

For all the noise about the ideological differences between Abbott and Turnbull both were brought undone by the same forces in their first three years.  The backroom power of big business left them looking like bully boys for the big end of town, despite clear indications it was neither man’s personal inclination.

Prior to becoming Prime Minister Abbott was known as a big government conservative whose track record was to be economically interventionist and socially conservative. He was the man who tried to talk John Howard down on Workchoices because it would be seen as unfair. The disasterous 2014 budget with its reverse robinhood reputation was deeply at odds with everything we knew about his values.

Similarly Turnbull came to power acutely aware of the problems of that budget and arguing that it was crucial government policy was seen to be fair going forward. Despite his clear diagnosis of the problem every economic proposal he put up that required the big end of town taking it share of the pain was stymied.

For all their differences, both men are struggling with the same demon. It is the power behind the throne that seems hell bent on driving them to electoral oblivion.

This is the real problem that is making the Turnbull government a drifter.

Turnbull came to power hoping to centre his government on the economic reform agenda, and sidestep the divides between liberals and conservatives on social issues. But the difficulties in taming the backroom power of business has left him with now where to go.

Addressing the budget deficit and economic reform should be at the heart of the former business man’s political narrative. But unable to come up with a politically palateable agenda that secures backroom support he has been reduced to sabre rattling on 457 Visas and Australian values.

The real bar for tonight’s budget is whether there are any signs he has reigned in big business influence.

Taking Economic Power Seriously

Ten years after the Global Financial Crisis, the failure to shift the economic paradigm, has led to the rise of Trump and the polarization of politics across the much of the western world. Groups are emerging on the far left and the far right angrily rejecting the status quo, but without a clear vision of an alternative.

Responsibility for the crisis has to be laid at the feet of left intellectuals who in the wake of the collapse of socialism have failed to develop an alternate vision to free market globalism. Even as the Labor Party is rediscovering the language of equality its solutions are deeply embedded in a view of the market that limits their solutions to fiddling around the edges.

The extent of the ideas failure was highlighted in a 2012 book I co-edited a book with Damien Cahill and Frank Stilwell, Neoliberalism: Beyond the Free Market that brought together all the major schools of academic thought making critiques of free market neoliberalism.  The picture that emerged was fragmented and disjointed with thinkers operating in different frameworks, talking at cross purposes, with no clear and coherent alternative way of thinking about the economy.

However, when you dig a little deeper it turns out all their analyses are premised on a view that when we think about the modern economy we should be thinking in terms of long production chains and that the crucial question is how wealth is distributed along the chain. In different ways, they all argue that the way that wealth is distributed along the production chain is a product of history, culture, politics and power.

In this view, globalization is increasing inequality because it has shifted the power balance along global production chains in two ways.  First by bringing the world’s unskilled labor into the competitive mix it has undermined the bargaining power of the working classes in the western world, undercutting their wages.

Secondly it has increased the bargaining power of the elites of the mega corporations. Their enormous economies of scale have given them unprecedented bargaining power in the supply chain. The increased mobility of capital has also given them the power to compete democratic governments off against each other for lower tax rates and regulations.

The combined result is that the wealth created by these long production chains has been concentrated into those links in the chain controlled by the top 1% and the wealth has been stripped out of the links in the chain provided by lower and middle income workers.

This view is at odds with free market economics which assumes each link in the chain is paid what they are worth. The models being relied on by our political leaders are based on the belief everyone gets paid according to their contribution.

This view has meant that for thirty years our political leaders and policy makers have argued that whatever happens in the production chain is fair game. Anyone who complains is just a whinger wanting special treatment because they can’t compete.

Even the ‘Abuse of Market Power’ laws that are currently under consideration in the Parliament work on this basis. They assume an abuse of power has only occurred if it results in prices being pushed up for consumers. There is no concept that an abuse of power could result in wealth being redistributed between the weak and the powerful within the production chain.

If we are to address the current political upheaval, we need to find new ways of thinking about the economy that address people’s concerns, and acknowledge issues of power and exploitation.
Avoiding the rise of the far right depends on it.

Dr Lindy Edwards is an academic at the University of New South Wales Canberra and author of How to Argue with an Economist: Re-Opening Political Debate in Australia, Cambridge University Press.