Interview: Polar Eclipse
Industrial: Wrong Turn
Unions: Star Support
Workplace: Checked Out
Economics: Sold Out
Politics: Green Banned
History: Potted History
International: Curtain Call
Review: Little Fish
Poetry: Slug A Worker
The Locker Room
Interview with Peter Lewis
Your new book starts from the bold position that the Left and the Right are basically outmoded concepts.
I have been looking at the Right for a long, long while, and not many people from the Left actually look at the Right and study it. The are too busy fighting it and opposing it and so on. It seemed to me, that one of the things that the Right has done in recent years - in the last 15 years - is to really change ideas and the political agenda through rethinking their ideas. This has given them enormous strength politically.
People on the Left don't like talking about this - the Right being strong - but it is such an obvious thing that has happened around the world and in Australia. It seemed to me that coming out of a Left background, that the Left had not and still has not really grappled with some deep philosophical problems. The word philosophical scares people, but really political positions are built on philosophical positions, and the Left still hasn't grappled with its own problems, and that is one of the reasons that it is on the back foot constantly. It is one of the deeper reasons; one of the underlying reasons, because we still have a set of ideas that came out of the struggle against industrialism and were based, almost solely on class.
Yes, class still exists and is still very important, but the world has moved in many strange, and to some of us unpredictable ways, and our ideas are still 20 years behind the times .
One of the points that you make early in your book is that we don't give due respect to the noble ideas driving the Right. That we are too ready to monster the Right. What do we gain by actually understanding where they come from?
One of the things you gain if you look at the Right seriously, is that you realize how important ideas are. As I said, the reason that they are strong is that they went through this period of soul searching and they tossed out an older kind of conservatism - and substituted a newer kind of what we call economic rationalism in shorthand, became the dominant ideology.
That was a massive change, and you had to take that seriously. As I say, if you just want to monster the Right... and I oppose the Howard Government obviously, and many people do, ... but you have got to do more than just oppose, That is part of the Left's problem too, is that we are very good at opposing but these days it is not exactly clear what the Left stands for. How do you define it? , because it runs from unionized logging workers, many of whom I believe consider themselves part of a labour movement and are Left, through to Greens and other people on the cultural and ecological Left. I mean, the word is a difficult one even to use.
I guess, traditionally we saw the Left as people pushing for a radical social change to improve the lives of everyone. I guess that's really what today's right see itself doing ...
One of the things I say in the book is that we have got to stop thinking of John Howard and the Right as a conservative force. They use conservative values that appeal to many people instinctively. Family values are an example. But the kinds of ideas that the Right have are very radical ideas because if you are a true believer in markets and you put them in communities, you put them in universities, you put them in the rest of society and you subject institutions like the family to maximum efficiency through longer working hours, through both partners in the workforce - all of that - this is a radical change, and Howard and the new Right are radically transforming Australia. It is very different from the Australia that I grew up in.
It is not just coming from Howard either. It is a set of ideas that went around the world and the Hawke/Keating Labor Government picked up on them as well. They had certain protections and so on built in but with Howard and co. you see the flourishing of what a lot of people are calling a neo-liberal society.
You talk about a new approach to politics which I sincerely hope is different to Dick Morris triangulation, but could you give a simple of a new kind of approach,?
I think the best way to answer that is to look at the extraordinary rejection of the Government's industrial relations legislation. What happened was that people began to point out the destructive effect that it would have - the IR legislation would have - on family life, on weekends, on holidays, on all those things that are very, very close to the hearts of many, many Australians, who would not regard themselves as radicals in any way - many of them not even unionists.
And by seeing the whole picture of how work and family interact, that is a truly radical way to start to re-think what the Left and the labour movement is on about. Labour and the left are so preoccupied with the world of work and the economy that it brings a kind of blindness to family and social life. They have to reclaim and redefine family values for progressive politics.
The other part of that with the statements by religious leaders was that what exists in the workplace and in trade unions, is not just a set of institutions that have grown up and are bureaucratic even, they actually represent certain values in society. It has an important place in how society runs and in making society fairer. And so those statements by religious figures, including George Pell, which of course many people on the Left don't want to acknowledge, that Pell has this traditional Catholic social justice approach. They only see the other side of Pell.
So, the new things are the politics of the family, or reclaiming the family values, and the politics of values. That is one way that you can see how Right and Left and old political ideas are changing.
Yes. I think a lot of things happened in the 70s. And we all set off with very clear ideas of where things would go, and they didn't all work out that way. One good example of that is multi culturalism. And it is related to this question of conservative and radical. The Left I think, and however you define them - it is hard not to use that term - has actually got to begin to see itself as a force supporting social cohesion in a way that the market - those that support the market - are in fact, whatever they say, what they are actually doing is disaggregating and disintegrating (if there is such a word) the society. In the past we have always seen ourselves as people who fight for radical social change. We see ourselves as the radicals, and really we have got to re-think and see the world through a different lens. Look at the way society is being torn apart and see ourselves in favour of social cohesion.
What do you think the political landscape will look like in 20 years. Do you think the Left/Right dichotomy will still exist?
We may still have a Right and a Left but the terms, if they are still used, they will be completely different meanings. And that is happening right now.
Where I see society in 20 years, I think you would be pretty game to make such a prediction. I don't know. I think that frankly, one of the things that bothers me - I think many people - is where the environmental question will be because if it is as bad as people are beginning to think, then that really does fundamentally change everything. A lot of people don't want to think about global warming because it is such a massive change to every aspect of our lives. To foreign relations; it is a question of inequality globally, where countries like India and China will clearly want to industrialise. That is in the back of my mind all the time if you are talking long-term.
If there is one thing to come out of this book for people reading it, particularly in the way progressive parties operate, what would that be?
In general terms, a real debate about where we are going, because I think a lot of people in all the different parts of the multitude of the Left have got their heads down and are working hard, are in a battle, and it is very hard in that situation to stop and think across boundaries, think what is the big picture now. Where are we really going?
It is really a book written to try and push along a debate across boundaries between the unions; between other social groups; environmental groups, within the Labor Party. There is clearly a crisis of vision there which really needs a long-term vision, not just a quick fix policy - this policy, that policy, this leader, that leader. But also in the Greens. I think the Greens are a very exciting new development, but one of the things I say in the book is that if the Greens think of themselves as Left in raditional terms they will go under and they will destroy themselves. A lot of people probably don't want to hear that, but that would be a tragedy.
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