Social Democrats Need to Wage a Renewed Cultural War

Nick Dyrenfurth

This is an edited version of an article which appeared in The Australian’s What’s Left series (9 October 2009).

In 1894, ‘Vox Populi’, a regular correspondent to the Australian Workers Union’s official newspaper, The Worker, advocated ‘social democratic government – government by the people and for the people, and not for the Fat Man’. ‘Fat Man’ was the fin de siecle labour movement’s sardonic short-hand for capitalism and big business – and its use by the self-­appointed voice of the people is a reminder that Australian social democracy is more of an ethos and cultural phenomenon than doctrinaire philosophy.

To be sure, when trade unionism took the parliamentary plunge 120 years ago its leading propagandists understood the battle of the ballot box was prima facie a cultural conflict. Thus the labour movement waged a relentless campaign to shift the political culture of the nation to the Left and transform the electoral contest beyond that of its hitherto natural arrangement during the nineteenth century: liberal v conser­vative. Indeed, early Labor-in-politics did not merely concern itself with boosting the number of Labor parliamentarians elected, but with changing the very meaning of politics.

Union-backed newspapers emerged to sell Labor’s case and unionism more generally. Labor politicians stumped the length of the country with a religious zeal matched only by the rank and file. Some, such as AWU boss and Labor politician WG. Spence, penned books, in his case Australia’s Awakening (1909), devoted to prosecuting Labor’s cultural war. Later, Victorian ALP-owned radio station 3KZ emerged to put the Labor case in another medium, as did the NSW ALP’s 2KY Sydney, for the ‘Education of the workers on class lines’. Other institutions such as the Workers’ Education Association promoted the higher education of working men and women.

These efforts were remarkably successful. Labor was the first social democratic party in the world to hold office at a regional level (1899 in Queensland) and repeated the feat nationally when it formed minority (1904) and later majority (1910) administrations, again world firsts. Whilst the limits of reforming capitalist democracy from within were to become evident within a few short years, the emergence of Labor governments made significant improvements to the lives of working people the continent over. And their mere presence prevented many legislative evils as well.

Nowadays the institutions that buttressed Labor’s precocious success. have long been in decline. Partly as a result of the restructuring of the Australian economy but also because of its own foibles, the union movement is a shadow of its former self. It only recently stemmed the debilitating collapse in membership. The movement’s newspapers are long-forgotten. The Worker lives on; ironically, its production is now conducted by a corporation it would have once hailed as the Fat Man:  Australian Consolidated Press.

The ALP, torchbearer of social democracy in this country, is a vastly different creature. It long ago cast off its socialist -aspirations, embracing freer markets and an open-trading economy. The party itself is less working-class based. Union influence is less pronounced; although membership is now open to, and likely to be dominated by, middle-class reformers, and the branches have collapsed. Truth be told, the party is a less democratic institution than it once was; rank-and-file activism is low and collective decision-making, whether at conference or in the parlia­mentary caucus, is effectively neutered.

Perhaps the biggest problem for modern social democrats is that the social base underpinning the labour movement has been eroded. Older style social democracy was buttressed by widespread material deprivation and class inequality across western society. Unlike communists, social democrats took the constitutional democratic road to addressing this problem. With the shameful exception of Aboriginal disadvantage (and discounting much of the developing world), extreme poverty no longer exists in Australia. The recent economic downturn proves the point. Compared with the 1930s Depression. Australians have suffered negligibly.

Society itself has transformed. We live in a fast-paced, technologically driven globalised world. Resultant cultural shifts and three decades of neo-liberal public policy have fostered a society in which many Australians see their primary social identity as autonomous individuals or consumers, not as active citizens and members of a geographically fixed community. This situation, of course, worries not only social democrats but conservatives too.

The breakdown of familiar social structures can be witnessed in record rates of mental illness, anti-social violent behaviour and family breakdown. Some call this social atomisation, others the loss of social capital. Whatever its nomenclature, hyper-individualism strikes at the basis of social democracy: the desire and means to collectively better one’s society. As Mark Latham, in his otherwise bile-filled The Latham Diaries, suggested: ‘If people have no interest or experience in helping their neighbours, why would they want the public sector to help people they have never met?’

Nonetheless, the early 21st century is a potentially exciting time to be a social democrat. Challenges abound that can be met only through  collective action and (global) co-operation. Although centre-left parties have recently suffered humiliating defeats, as in the case of Germany’s SPD and likely British Labour this year, this is because of their association with what Kevin Rudd has termed ‘extreme neo-liberalism’. The recent election of George Papandreou’s Greek PASOK party and Rudd Labor’s soaring popularity and likely re-election in 2010 are evidence of a trend towards the centre-left, when social democrats properly differentiate themselves on economic policy, while not throwing the market-driven baby out with the neo-liberal bathwater.

However, Rudd and Co need to recognise that social democracy does not merely entail Keynesian-style pump-priming and nation-building infrastructure investment. Social democracy cannot survive as some top­down preserve of Labor governments. It must be a wider movement and social democrats need to wage a renewed cultural war. That is for progressive public policy and other forms of collective life to enjoy the approval of the electorate, Labor politicians, unionists and other progressive actors must ensure that such a world view is vigorously defended and promoted to the point of naturalisation. Take, for instance, the concept of reform. As Rudd implied in his notorious essay in the Monthly during early 2009, the neo-liberal project has effectively taken ownership of the term. Reform is exclusively taken to mean smaller government, privatisation and deregulation.

It is not desirable for the old sclerotic statist model to return in some unreconstructed form, yet for social democracy to mean anything, reform must incorporate progressive policies on everything from collective bargaining rights, gay marriage and fully-paid maternity leave to concern for the environment and the establishment of a republic. Perhaps Rudd’s stimulus success and pragmatic emissions trading scheme legislation may herald the beginnings-of a rhetorical renaissance. Away from the drier pastures of economics, as Tim Soutphommasane argued in his newly released book Reclaiming Patriotism: NationBuilding for Australian Progressives (Cambridge University Press, 2009), progressives also need to reclaim the meaning of patriotism.

Ultimately, the best means of revitalising social democracy is by the exercise of good government, marrying prudent economic management with practically minded, socially progressive public policy. Nevertheless, if the Rudd government wishes to be remembered as a social democrat giant it must be prepared to expend some political capital and take a few hits in the polls, because the social democrat impulse towards a more equal and healthier world is something more than retaining office.

Nick Dyrenfurtb is a postdoctoral research fellow at the University of Sydney and associate editor of the journal, Labour History. He co-edited Confusion: The Making of the Australian Two-Party System (Melbourne University Press, 2009).