The last two essays have looked at the various meanings of ‘Left’ and ‘Right’ as the terms are used in politics. In this essay I look at their application in our own country. I have spent some years in the UK and the USA,, and visited other parts of the world on a regular basis. In Britain it was clear to me at once that their politics, despite the apparent similarity of parties called ‘Labour’ and ‘Labor’, was not the same as ours, and the longer I was there the more I saw the differences rather than the similarities.
Britain had a class system that was manifest to a visitor; we had perhaps a pale status system. Yes, there were hangovers from your British past, for those who had that past in their ancestry, but it was not the same. There were real socialists in the House of Commons in the 1960s, but hardly any in the House of Representatives in Australia, which also lacked an aristocracy and an established church. Yes, the monarch was the same, but she was mostly on postage stamps in Australia. In Britain she was there, alive and well, and visible. All this meant that Left and Right (no more inverted commas) had different and deeper associations.
In the USA, it seemed to me, the whole party system was further to the Right than was the case in Australia. Some of my American friends were horrified that we had a national health system in Australia — that sounded like socialism; others were envious. In Australia most people were employees. In the USA there was a substantial section of self-employed and small employers — indeed, I encountered everywhere a large and diverse manufacturing industry that was not just General Motors, but also a myriad small engineering, pharmaceutical and food production firms. The people who owned these firms often had university degrees, liked good literature, symphonic music and the arts generally, and supported good causes. To a much greater extent than in Australia, people went to church and took religion seriously. So you could get what seemed to me strange combinations of Left and Right in a group of people, and you could not predict their party loyalty. Their politics was greatly affected by voluntary voting, by the fact that elections could be held on the same day for local, state and federal positions, and by the omnipresent figure of The President, an office that had, and has, no real counterpart here or in the UK.
Some time later I went to South Korea, then several times, and before long I was doing a lecture tour there for the Department of Foreign Affairs. I learned after my official lecture and Q&A that some questions could not be asked in public, but could be asked in late-night beer-drinking in the company of students. I did a bit of that, and learned more. The party system in South Korea, I came to see, was further to the Right even than that of the USA. Their big division was not between Left and Right at all, but between the young and the old. Why? The old had survived the long and dreadful war between North and South that was the cause of my Australian military service in Nasho in the mid 1950s. They had rebuilt their country in an astonishing way. They feared those ruling the North and wanted no contact. The young had grown u in a country that got better every year, and they had no memories of the war. They wanted contact, and a freeing-up of the political order. Fathers and sons were at cross purposes. Australia, the UK and the USA had nothing like that at all.
The Korean students asked me about Left and Right, and I developed a metaphor that seemed to work work well then (the 1980s). I would draw a river in plan on the blackboard, and show its course moving either to the Left or to the Right. In Sweden, I told them, there had been a steady move to the Left from the 1920s onwards. In Australia and the UK maybe the movement of the river was a bit to the Left. But within the river, I said, there was always a Left bank and a Right bank, and at any time you could see the politics of the day as moving one way or the other, perhaps staying in the middle of the stream, perhaps getting close to one bank or the other. But the river itself, I said, was moving as well. They liked metaphors, and I got some good questions.
I still think that the metaphor has a little force to it. It seems to me that over the past thirty years our politics has moved steadily to the Left, partly because of our growing wealth (there has been more that could be redistributed), and partly because more and more have had higher education, see central government as a good thing and the federal system as old-fashioned, and earn their incomes from the service industries. But the old Left/Right dichotomy in day-to-day politics seems to have lost a lot of its old force.
Where, for example, do you place injecting rooms on the Left/Right scale? Where do you put the Greens? Where do you put speed cameras, gay marriage, drug cheats in sport, genetically modified foods, solar power, what should happen about Palestine, hospital funding, shark nets on beaches, very fast trains, medical cannabis and asylum seekers/illegal immigrants? Such issues, and they are part of our daily news, don’t seem to me to fit neatly on a Left/Right scale. It doesn’t help much to talk about them in radical/conservative terms, either. Some of the issues can be placed on a tough-minded/tender-minded scale, and I remember a two-by-two table that had two axes, Left/Right and tough/tender. But the outcome was static — it told you where some people were in a moment of time, but not what was happening to a society over time. My guess is the there are as many tough-minded on the Left as there are on the Right.
I have written about this subject before (for example, here), and by and large I don’t use the terms if I can avoid them. Our political parties try to cover the middle ground, because that is where most people are. They have members and supporters who have extreme views (from the perspective of someone in the middle, anyway), and most of the time the party leaders try to ignore them or neutralise them. At the moment the real division seems to be between those who think that, for example, fulfilling the original Gonski and NDIS goals is more important than the state of the country’s indebtedness, and those of the opposite persuasion. Another way of putting it is to see the division as being between those who think that the country is plagued by inequality that is growing greater, and those who think that there will always be economic inequality, aspiration and hard work should be rewarded, and the important thing is a safety net.
We are a rich, comfortable, creative society that has escaped many of the dramas of the rest of the world, mostly because we are a long way away from the danger spots. I hope that continues to be the case, and I hope also to see a growth in altruism and concern for others. We seem to have lost the interest in what I used to call ‘the Australia project’, the notion of building under the Southern Cross a really good society free of the ills and evils that beset societies elsewhere.
It was alive and well in the 1980s, to the best of my memory. Where did it go?
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Yes, your seventh paragraph above, listing various contemporary issues adrift across the spectrum, shows why the Left/Right idea has become so like that Japanese soup ‘Miso’ where no-one quite knows what’s in it.
i have always thought that North America is a product of the 17th century, the New World aspirations and severities of the Reformation, while Australia, despite the convict floggings, comes out of the 18th century and the Enlightenment, into which must be added the Enlightenment continuance in Utilitarianism.
I think that we have social divisions here, and some of them are intractable. For instance I think there is a deep city/country divide. There is an evident Indigenous/Invader divide, small in its actual reach but broad in its power to affect people’s consciences. And as a migrant here of 50 years, I reckon I detect a ‘Native-born/New Chum’ divide, not along lines of wealth or economic opportunity, but along lines of being admitted as plausible when involving oneself in the sacred stuff of culture which, inevitably, the practice of poetry, fiction and essay is.
These things belong more to our social geology than ‘the River’ because they occur, as it were, just below the level of consciousness, but no less critically for that.
‘It was alive and well in the 1980s, to the best of my memory. Where did it go?’
Think globally, act locally is a fine slogan for the powerless. Meanwhile the powerful act globally and become deluded that we are a country that is a player in a northern hemisphere world. Australia should have been more committed to its partnership with its geographical neighbours. Australia’s education should have included the learning of an Asian language – Indonesian was a popular choice for schools in Canberra but never properly implemented or even integrated into the secondary transition.
My parents travelled overseas for the first time when my father took long service leave in his fifties. Two anecdotes I recall from their travels in ‘the old country’. On a tour they took an American was astonished that my father had such a condition as long service leave and an Englishman said as a put down, ‘Australian?! Oh you’re descended from convicts! ‘ My father quickly replied ‘Ah, but they were English convicts’.
Oh, and Alan, nothing could be simpler than miso soup.
I don’t actually mean powerless in a local sense if it’s about keeping a small footprint – that’s within our powers. I mean technological and geopolitical globalisation which we have no power to control but which has accelerated this century beyond our mental capacity to process it despite an increase in the channels of communication.
My parents had their first overseas trip in 1957, and had similar experiences. An American was amazed that they could speak English (he probably thought they came from Austria). Brits were lofty, as I found, at least occasionally, in 1964 when I first went there).
And do you know of the nice story (against ourselves) of the Irish/Australian immigration official at Sydney airport who took a dislike to an aristocratic Pom and asked, in a surly voice, ‘D’ya have a criminal record?’ The Englishman was startled for a moment. ‘Oh, are they still necessary?’ he asked.
Yes, where indeed did it go. The left philosophy that has been increasingly indoctrinated into our kids since those days has been responsible for most of it. The increasing laissez-faire attitude of parents and govts and the worshipping of the wisdom of youth, has allowed a mindlessness to prevail in our education system.
Possibly a rich, comfortable and creative society is a very unnatural state of existence and can too easily ignore the white ants that are always around the foundations.
It is a SoE that doesn’t happen in other forms of nature.
And the lefties worry about “climate change”?
Ohooo Renewable energy, … the sky will fall in. Yes, where did all that optimism of the 1950’s go?
As so often, David, you miss the point in your eagerness to score a witty one. The optimism was of a generation or two, my own and that of my parents (and to a degree, that of my eldest kids). It flourished in the later fifties and sixties, went into a slump in the seventies and early eighties, and reappeared in the mid 1980s, to slide away again with the Howard Government’s insistence that the perfect state had arrived, and we should be comfortable and alert, but not alarmed.
And that despite a substantial increase in real income for those in employment. Maybe we had optimism but not much sense of how to deliver on the vision. And it was not about more and more redistribution: there was a strong sense of equality of opportunity, not of equality of incomes.
Read What Was it All For? The Reshaping of Australia (Allen & Unwin, 2005), if you want the full story. Yes, I wrote it.
What did ‘it’ look like Don? ‘It’ Slumped in the 70s and early eighties. Reappeared in the mid eighties. And then slunk off again. In what way did ‘it’ manifest itself? I only ask, because I’m not sure if all of us know exactly what you are talking about?
I remember around the time of the fall of Communism (sans China) there was a real, if existential feeling of optimism. The world was changing before our eyes and it felt amazing to bear witness to it. People power! (And no, I’m not a communist.)
But that sensation of optimism came from without. Sort of a once in a lifetime sensation. Maybe similar to the moon landing. The end of WW 2?
What was the optimism level during the Great Depression?
David has a shot, , but it’s surely appropriate…
Renewable power? Sorry. Can’t be done! Give up.
Now that’s NOT the spirit, is it?
Ross, I can’t summarise my book in a sentence or two.You can still buy a copy from A&U, and even from me, if you ask nicely ($24.95 incl p&p).
If you go back to the 19th century, there was a feeling that Australia, the new nation to be, had a chance. The depression of the 1890s, the Great War, the Great Depression and WWII all caused halts, but in my youth the feeling that we had a real chance came back. We needed to build — schools, hospitals, universities, airports, highways, and so on. Infrastructure-building is easy if you have money, and most governments here in the 1950s and 1960s had a fiscal increment (taxes came in faster than expenditure). The OPEC oil crisis of the mid 1970s and the stagflation that followed meant that there was no money to spare. That changed in the 1980s and especially the 1990s, when perhaps there was too much money. I remember writing somewhere that Howard was just plain wrong in saying (in effect) that the nation-building period was over, and that we should and could just enjoy ourselves. Nation-building is never finished.
We then moved into a highly self-absorbed period, and moved again into the single-issue politics that I have written about also. I hope that helps.
Thanks Don, yes. Interesting.
It got me thinking. I absolutely agree with you about the lack of interest in nation building. But where did it start?
In my opinion… it started in the eighties, with powerful corporate clubs (HR Nicholls, etc.) proclaiming that everything should be left to the ‘market’.
One way or another the ‘market’ will provide. Let the ‘invisible hand’ decide.
It appeared to work too. The message, not the theory.
Any form of Government nation building was now seen as an infringement on the markets ‘rights’. Nation building requires money (taxes). It was seen as a form of creeping socialism, as opposed to …well…’nation building’.
So Nation building was suddenly out, and money building was in.
And the only things that got ‘built’ , were bigger corporate empires with accompanying corporate salaries and perks. (What’s not to like?)
I don’t think much has changed since.
The term ‘Nation Building’ has been replaced with ‘Too big to fail’.
Will we ever get back to nation building? Invisible hand says “no”.
Yes, greed is good – Gordon Gecko in Wall St.
“The point is, ladies and gentleman, that greed, for lack of a better word, is good. Greed is right, greed works. Greed clarifies, cuts through, and captures the essence of the evolutionary spirit. Greed, in all of its forms; greed for life, for money, for love, knowledge has marked the upward surge of mankind.”
Ain’t that beautiful?
Unfortunately becoming cannon fodder for a country that we are still alarmingly represented by with a Queen and a Union Jack, lost the flower of our bright future quite early as we didn’t have the population to be able to rebound in a way that more than being ‘lucky’ as the full Donald Horne quote should be remembered.
“that was more” …
Just not enough people, especially after war sacrifice plus a sexist society, a White Australia policy and an inflated view of our importance combined with the suspicion that it wasn’t really warranted. And here we are… still punching above our weight (????)
Part of our charm I guess.
Margaret, the whole point of the film was that Gecko was not only wrong, but disastrously so both for himself and for others.
Well that’s good because I didn’t see it 🙂 … I do remember the particular zeitgeist that caused it to be made though and that has culminated this millennium in Occupy Wall St. and the great wealth divide, the collapse of the middle class.
Don, because you said I was witty, I will buy your book.
“optimism….in the later fifties and sixties” Don? I wonder.
This was the era when Nuclear destruction triggered by Cold War brinkmanship had its most powerful hold on human imagination across all classes, religions, ethnicities. I wonder if Armageddon, in the history of human wipeout, ever had such a penetrating hold people’s thinking and with so much reasonably argued cause. Before Hiroshima, a human wipeout was not imaginable – despite The Somme etc. Nevil Shute picked up on the idea that a Nuclear war could be efficient at the scale of a species, and had a broad readership actually waiting for that idea to be envisaged.
Actually, I reckon the demoralisation that ensued from the efficiency and seeming casualness of such a catastrophe, has been the (nuclear) fuel of much of what is called ‘leftist’ penetration in school curricula and staffing, and a broad, entrenched privileging of the idea of victimhood in the thinking that persists to this day.
It is true that those decades also saw the establishment of a broader affluence, and many instances of willing decolonisation and generous aid for social restructuring. But the Nuclear pall was a new condition…Or rather, it was the re-energising of an old, puritan mindset, that the wrath of God is always imminent, and mankind will always merit it.
Alan, the degree of pessimism at that time that you reflect on today, may have been true for you and the group among whom you moved. “On the Beach” did make me think, and of course well remember the apparent brinkmanship of Khrushchev and Kennedy over the missiles on their way to Cuba. (I see in the news that good old Fidel has had a 90th birthday go at Obama – has Fidel learned anything, I wonder?) But for me and most of my companions, we were just getting on with our lives. However, some years later I was told by a fairly intense Christian of some “wayward” sect, that at the time she was in London, and he in Oz. They spoke by phone (not as simple nor as cheap then, was it? – had to book an overseas call), and he committed that if he got over there to London safely, they would marry, as it would clearly be God’s will. He did, and they did. It is an interesting way to propose, and to accept a proposal. So I think in their case, the pessimism was real, salved to some extent no doubt by a shared conviction that were we all blown to bits, their places in Heaven were secure.
The possibility of a nuclear Armageddon probably accentuated the rebellion of the 60s, but I don’t think it was the springboard. TV and news stories were penetrating the West pretty thoroughly by then, encouraging the younger generation to react very strongly against war, a reaction reinforced by the normal dismissal by every generation of the lifestyles and attitudes and convictions of the preceding generation.
But for myself and most of those I knew, I think we had a general view that as societies we could and would improve things. We were optimistic. I’m still that way, and still have that general view. Perhaps I should join Fidel in his rigidity.
I remember that my son was in Primary school when The Day After was on television. My daughters were mid teens so they of course wanted to see it and I think my son crept out to see some of it. It was the eighties.
As the review says at the end, “And six Novembers later, the Berlin Wall came down, the Soviet Union came undone and somehow, we just didn’t think about nuclear annihilation as much. We found the courage to go on with our lives, but if today’s 40-somethings strike you as a little too cynical, a little too moody, a little too pessimistic in the face of your millennial sunshine – well, cut us a break. Like Paige, we still know deep down that everything could blow up at any minute.”
It’s not a nice awareness to grow up with even if it doesn’t affect your daily life. Your temperament, your era, your experiences, your home life, your education – all make up who you are and how you see the world.
… and where you clock on, on that circular spectrum.
Of course Malcolm Roberts would want to see the empirical evidence for my assertions.
Like Ross, I find Boxer’s description visually poetic.
“Of course Malcolm Roberts would want to see the empirical evidence for my assertions.”
No, Marg, what MR or anybody with any common sense would point out to you is that the difference between [a] nuclear war and [b] climate change is that [a] is a KNOWN recipe for disaster but [b] is mostly natural and a very likely non-problem, until evidence [not modelling] to the contrary is presented.
Funny how the left just don’t seem to have the ability to understand that subtle difference.
Spangled I was being droll.
“Spangled I was being droll.”
Alan, a short answer is something like cognitive dissonance — holding two contradictory ideas at the same time. Yes, we might be blown to bits tomorrow, but in the meantime there was a country to build, and we could build it. I returned from overseas having rejected good jobs in the UK and USA because i wanted to be part of the building.
Yes, “cognitive dissonance” gets it. Certainly when I arrived in Canberra in May ’66 I encountered a more upbeat community than I had left in boarding school Britain where the after lightsout talk was all of “the three minute warning” UK residents got between the time the Russian missiles were fired and when they landed on our dormitory.
But the consciousness WAS divided. On the one hand, one could find well-paid work by walking out the front door to the nearest building site and get taken on as a builder’s labourer for a handsome wage. On the other hand, one looked at the newspaper or journal pictures of Viet children howling from the atrocious agony of napalm wounds. This was the era when the media acquired further capabilitity, and the journalists sought further powers, in making the experiences of all intimate to all on screen, poster or page. Of course the roots of this were in the Pathé News services that came out of WW2 with their footages. But journalistic ambition became to render ‘The Real’, ‘The intimate’, and TV gave it a reach into every loungeroom. Where so much media energy was aimed at being affecting, no wonder so many who wished to be employed in a manner where they could do some good for younger minds wanted that good to be affective. Thus one seeds and waters the idea of victimhood to a level in sensibility it had not reached in earlier eras.
You had a good future ahead of you of course …
… helps with the optimism as does youth. When I think of the sixties I think vibrancy and happiness – yet 1964 in America was race riots, Mississippi burning and post and pre assassinations of presidents, Martin Luther King etc. Who wouldn’t want to be in a country like Australia if you were advantaged.
Margaret, just being in Australia was to be advantaged, I think. Then you can talk about comparative advantage…
1964 – I was in school so Grandma queued to get tickets for me and my friends to see The Beatles at Sydney Stadium. You see, they had joie de vivre that captured all generations.
The most blazoned sandwich board wearer of the era was probably Paul Ehrlich closely followed by the Club of Rome and Rachel Carson but the doomsayers c/w the cold war seemed to instil in people, who had endured two world wars and a depression, a feeling of “so what!” and they largely ignored the threats. The birth of the environmental movement, however, has been mainly a move in the right direction but with lots of baggage attached. The deregulation of the eighties saw some wild times and they were great days if you held on tight. It was pretty unpredictable though compared to our more regulated decades following WW2.
Today, being the 71st anniversary of the end of WW2 is rather special.
I remember all those doom sayers and the permanent threat of nuclear war, but the during 1950s and first half of the 1960s to my friends and I thought Australia was a good place to be, among the best, and the future was bright – a complete contrast with today where all I hear is what a nasty, ignorant pack we are, heading for the sad end we deserve.
It’s all in the mind. By almost all objective measures, including social ones, we are much better off today, but don’t try telling that to the wingers and naysayers who dominate public discourse. Water off a duck’s back to me. Nowhere is perfect, but if you don’t like modern Oz, tell where to go that’s worth the trouble moving.
I’ve always found it “interesting” that the optimism that followed the fall of the Berlin Wall because of the decrease in likelihood of nuclear mayhem, resulted in such an emergence of left wing philosophy in the West.
It showed what percentage of the West were sympathetic to the Marxist philosophy but were never game to speak out while memories of extreme pogroms were fresh in mind and the plain results of Marxist objectives were there for all to see.
Once these were obscured by the take over of Western free markets and the passage of time, Marxism has come out of the Western Woodwork beyond belief.
But in the pre-Marxist countries that experienced the reality, the reverse has happened.
Beyond belief, Drongo? Good Grief! Where?
That doesn’t scan, Rossie. Rearrange it and clean the mirror.
Me? Sorry Drongo, you’ve totally lost me. Are you saying I’M an example of Marxism, coming out of the Western woodwork… beyond belief? Or…something else?
Rearrange it and clean the mirror? Sorry, mate. No idea at all, what your trying to say. Maybe have another go?
I’d say that the Left everywhere has tried to kill off the idea of the nation state, just as Karl Marx wanted the workers of the world to unite. My generation and those preceding it in Australia worked for a nation for a continent and a continent for a nation, the best that we could be, but the activists Marxists who set the agenda don’t believe in borders and have worked deliberately to destroy them. Unfortunately for them, the best that the world has come up with has depended on the nation state, so we had better be ready to defend it because we know that the collective always ends in tears.
There is a problem with the concept “Left” and there is also a similar problem with the term “neo-liberalism”.
As I see it, various political and social forces have and will capture words and use them for their own purposes. Even the key underpinning of the Left-Right dichotomy, namely political economy, has been distorted, particularly with respect to the word “capitalism”. IN part this reflects the efforts of some to protect the capitalist system from critics. [Ricardo used capitalist to differentiate between business people such candles stick makers, and financiers. Today any market participant is deemed to be capitalist].
IN the case of Left and Right – it is useful to recall that the terms arose from the French Revolution when Left meant the new empowering of the masses, and the Right meant retention of the rule by a overlording strata. Sometimes the Left appears associated with the “new” while the Right is associated with the “old” in many contexts even within charitable societies.
This just generates confusion, we end up with Left and Right capitalists and Left and Right Communists and Left and Right Greens and and Left and Right ALPers and even Left and Right Feminists.
In each context Left and Right are clear but the points of demarcation always differ.
So of course there appears to be this issue:
Oh dear, there seems to have been a problem with setting out a blockquote in previous post.
It starts but never closes.
I don’t know why.
Chris, no probs. You make a most important addition to the argument, though I want to claim I had used it in reference to ‘the NSW Right’ inside the ALP, which is supposed to be to the Left of the Liberals. With respect to almost any issue, we can find a left and a right view of it, well, according to the speaker, anyway. The light rail proposal in Canberra is a good example. A right view might be that if there were a need for one a company would propose it. A left view might be that there is a need, and companies aren’t coming forward on their own, so the state has to step in. Of course, there are many other ways of looking at it, with various degrees of self-interestedness. Thanks!
Yes, it is difficult to use Left and Right with respect to the “ALP Right” vs some “Liberals”.
IN fact the ALP Right over the years have tried to recruit to the ALP both Tony Abbott and Kate Carnell so clearly all is blurred here. They are two peas in the same pod.
A further point could be that from an Orthodox Left point of view, it appears that the world is drifting to the Right (from the 70’s) – given the long trail of Fraser, Thatcher, Reagen, Hawke, Keating, Howard, Abbott, Hansen, Trump, Farage – all based, I think, on the emerging strains on OECD social welfare states and a continual string of tremors in the global economic system from the mid 70s.
Some have tried to describe Whitlam as Left when in fact he was firmly Right and his governments achievements – Vietnam, China, education, urban development, Medibank, land rights can be seen more as progressive reforms than running any sort of considered (and needed) Left Agenda.
I also wonder whether having the State come in and develop enterprise is a “differentia specifica” for Left from Right unless it is associated with additional provisions to introduce social equity. However anyone can appear to be Left compared to some shock jock radio programs, fundamentalist religions and US elements such as the Tea Party and bloggist Ann Coulter.
Never heard of Ann Coulter. Perhaps I should not find out more.
Along with Trump and Palin, Ann Coulter is indicative of the emerging move to the Right in America.
A typical quote from Coulter is:
Read more at: https://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/quotes/a/anncoulter452162.html
Yes I remember the old Left and Right – I used to work in the Socialist Party of Australia bookshop.
There are still clearly two sides – progressive and non-progressive perhaps? But the Left’s principles have changed dramatically, and conservatives are at a loss how to differentiate themselves. The Left used to stick up for universal values – Caucasians and minorities were equally oppressed by the class system, and all religions, including Islam, were oppressive. Now it’s the Left who favours one group identity over another.