Australian politics

Feb 27, 2012

Where government’s reign but don’t govern – the demise of zombie politics.

The ensuing crisis will ensure ... a form of politics in which the government might reign but it no longer governs. For a new world we need a new politics. For bringing this to the attention of many we should be grateful to former PM Rudd.

Bob Gosford — Likes birds and people, not necessarily in that order.

Bob Gosford

Likes birds and people, not necessarily in that order.

Image by Alex Johnson

This is a guest post by my legal, cycling and sea-kayaking mate Martin Hardie from the School of Law at Deakin University.

You can see more of his scratchings and thoughts at his New Pathways for Pro Cycling and his Auskadi sites.

The Demise Of Zombie Politics

A number of academic critics of the global neoliberal system have observed in recent times that in fact the neoliberal is a zombie system, and that in this respect we are governed by a model which embodies the dead walking. Similarly, the focus on the ‘personality’ clash within the Labor Party has starkly revealed the party itself as a zombie party.

In the end the crisis of the Labor Party is not a personality crisis but a crisis of relevance for the way politics is done by the major parties. In the case of Labor, no matter how many times Gillard repeats her mantras, such as the latest, Albanese inspired ‘Great Labor Values’, she will never be able to transform the party into a progressive force that it may once have been.

Doing the hard work on delivering neoliberal reforms or coded dog whistling to the more racist elements of the country do not reflect progressive values, whether ‘Great Labor Values’ or not.

The Malaysia Solution and her inaugural ‘Australia is a sanctuary’ for ‘hard working families’ speech has set the tone of her reign.

Whatever the individual faults of former Prime Minister Rudd may be, they are overshadowed by the collective faults of the Labor Party and its continued masquerade as having any relevance as a progressive force in Australian politics. They are overshadowed by the irrelevance of Canberra, its politicians and media to real politics.

It may be true that the party rooms elect the leaders of the respective ‘political’ parties (‘political’ because really they are no more than managerial elites).  But no matter how many times Crean lectures us on the reality of the system he will never convince people on the street that the Labor Party is doing a good job. Whether they are or not is irrelevant.

Crean, Gillard and others seem to believe that if they continue to appeal to our rational side and understand that they really do have our best interests at heart we will all come to our senses and see their particular light on the hummock.

Their particular appeals to the reality of the political process are smothered with the rhetoric of democratic centralism and of being good neoliberal managers. But what they seem incapable of understanding is that the rest of world is no longer the same as the small one which they inhabit. In the world of the global society of the spectacle what passes for politics is exactly celebrity Big Brother. In this world it is events that shape the future and not the rolling out of good policy.

Like it or not this is the world we live in.

The appeal of former Prime Minister Rudd may simply be that it consists in the fact that he seems to speak directly to people, that he seems to want to engage them in the process of governance. His appeal may quite simply consist in the fact that he seems to have not been beholden to the elites of the Labor Party and the bureaucracy. Some people seem to actually like the fact that he kept bureaucrats waiting for three hours, that he behaves badly, that he is an ideas man, that he speaks to the people and not the centralism of the Labor caucus.

In the end former Prime Minister Rudd may not be the answer to a new progressive politics, but he may well still continue to serve as a catalyst that will more than likely see the continued transformation of the political system in Australia. In the face of a wave of new progressive democratic movements across the globe, such as the Occupy movements and Real Democracy Now in Spain what we will probably see is the demise of Labor as the pretender of progressive politics in Australia.

The next election could well see more informal voting, the election of more independents and more Greens along with an Abbot PM. The ensuing crisis will ensure the slow demise of democratic centralism of the collective party rooms as we continue to see people walk away from a form of politics in which the government might reign but it no longer governs.

For a new world we need a new politics.

For bringing this to the attention of many we should be grateful to former PM Rudd.

 Martin Hardie. School of Law, Deakin University.


Leave a comment

2 thoughts on “Where government’s reign but don’t govern – the demise of zombie politics.

  1. Michael Wilbur-Ham (MWH)

    The myth which is pushed by both major parties and all of the media (including the ABC and The Age) is that Labor represents the progressive side of politics and that the Greens are irrelevant and in loony land.

    Is there really much difference between what Labor has done (or tried to do) compared to what Howard would have done if he had won in 2007? Not only in there a long list of things which are about the same, we can even list some things more to the right than Howard (the Malaysian solution, wanting to censor the internet, etc).

    The myth that Labor is progressive is maintained because the major parties and the media are complicit in pretending that Australia is a fairly centre country, and we almost never hear any comparisons with other OECD countries.

    I’m pretty sure that in almost every political and economic comparison Australia is on the right of the OECD average. The biggest comparison is taxation – we are well below the OECD average (less money in means less money out). Yet both Labor and Liberal in 2007 promised a major tax cuts.

    Education provides a good current example. Is there any OECD country where the government partially funds the very richest private schools? Rather than pretending that such funding is normal it should be seen for what it is – an Australian exclusive.

    One of the ‘looney’ Greens policies for many years is that Australia needs a massive funding boost to education just to get us up to the OECD average. We now have some figures – about 10 billion will get us to OECD average. The 5 billion currently being discussed is a good start.

    Essential Research has just found that 68% support a massive increase in education funding.

    As Christine Milne said on Q&A last night, if it were not for The Greens having some say in parliament then the likely outcome from the major parties would probably be to end up making no major changes. Even with The Greens sharing power I will be very surprised if the full recommendations are implemented. Just like with the Carbon Tax, the Greens will have to accept Labor watering down the recommendations – but at least some improvement may happen.

    I’m sure that if the public were better educated about the real policies of each party and where Australia sat compared to other OECD countries that the Greens would have much more significant support.

    One reason we are not in this position is that most progressive / left intellectuals in Australia are locked in to wanting Labor to become progressive and cannot see that Labor has changed. For example on the previous Q&A Eva Cox slams Labor, but does not mention the Greens as an alternative.

    The ABC now mainly give voice only to those they think are prominent – so that means both major parties and big business. Anyone else is lucky to get mentioned. Their coverage of our troops in Afghanistan is a great example because from the ABC TV news you would never suspect that there was anyone against our troops being there.

    The Age is basically wanting Greens policies but in most articles which slam Labor and Liberal will not mention the Greens. Their coverage of public transport issues is a great example because even though Labor and Liberal are so similar, when the current government stuffs up they only get a response from the opposition. At least with the Herald-Sun most readers know that they are biased towards the right.

    And I’ll conclude this stream-of-conciusness-rant by saying that I think the Greens are failing. It is not their policies that are wrong, it is not their integrity, but it is how they communicate.

    Most Greens ‘marketing’ is written for those who are already Greens supporters and who already believe that the Greens have integrity.

    Instead I think they need to do their best to tell people where Australia stands compared to the rest of the world (OECD), where Labor and Liberal are, and then what the Greens want. They need to show that Australia at the moment is led by Zombies, that overall both major parties are conservative and to the right, and that many Greens policies are at the OECD average – thus not looney and not extreme. Or, as is shown by the Essential Research on eduction – the Greens policy is closer to what most people want than either major party.

  2. martin hardie

    I didn’t want to go into the background of the zombie stuff in depth in the post but for those are interested i was drawn to the zombie reference by a recent article on Karl Polanyi which I have been reading in my research on competition as the supreme form of governance in the neoliberal age, the reference and an extract are below:

    Double movements and pendular forces: Polanyian perspectives on the neoliberal age
    20 Current Sociology 60(1)

    As Peck et al. (2010) have argued, as an intellectual project, neoliberalism is practically dead, even while it blunders on as a mode of crisis-driven governance. In this scenario, it is entering a post-programmatic, ‘living dead’ or ‘zombie’ phase, ‘in which residual neoliberal impulses are sustained not by intellectual and moral leadership, or even by hegemonic force’ – as in the 1980s and 1990s, during the neoliberal ascendancy – ‘but by underlying macroeconomic and macroinstitutional conditions’, including enforced public austerity and global indebtedness, ‘and growth-chasing, beggar-thy-neighbor modes of governance’ (Peck et al., 2010: 94).

    Peck et al. are not alone in identifying the zombie as a metaphor appropriate to the socioeconomic present. Mark Fisher (2009: 15, 78) drew attention to the zombifying logic of neoliberalism, Colin Crouch (2011) described neoliberalism as undergoing ‘Non-Death’ and Time magazine hailed the zombie as representative of ‘some real American values’ and anointed it as ‘the official monster of the recession’ (Grossman, 2009).10 Gillian Tett (2009) had earlier recruited the metaphor to a more specific purpose, in designating the phalanx of businesses and private equity firms that are ‘too weak to flourish but too complex and costly for their lenders to shut down’, such that they remain ‘half-alive, poisoning the corporate world by silently spreading a sense of stagnation and fear’. John Quiggin (2010) and SOAS economist Ben Fine (2010) adapted the metaphor – as ‘Zombieconomics’ – to refer to mainstream economics in the neoliberal age: an approach that is dead in that its methodology has been comprehensively debunked, but undead in that it persistently returns. (It blunders around ‘looking for applications out of the incidence of market imperfections, whether in the dimly incorporated real world, or through appropriation and degradation of the material of other social sciences’ [Fine, 2010: 167].)

    Adding to the gathering crush of zombie metaphors, finally, are Chris Harman’s Zombie Capitalism (2009) and David McNally’s Monsters of the Market: Zombies, Vampires and Global Capitalism (2011), for whom the zombie, together with the vampire, symbolize capital. Capital, writes Harman (2009: 84), ‘is labour that is transformed into a monstrous product whose only aim is to expand itself’. It is ‘dead labour’, in Marx’s phrase (in Harman, 2009: 84), ‘that, vampire-like, only lives by sucking living labour, and lives the more, the more labour it sucks’. In this use of the vampire metaphor Marx is making three interrelated claims: the argument for exploitation (that capital feeds off living labour), the idea of invisibility (like vampires, capital’s bloodsucking is shrouded in darkness) and the notion of alienation – the dead dominate the living (McNally, 2011: 140). Equally, capital can be likened to zombies. Although zombies in literary and cinematic culture of the first decades of the 20th century figured specifically as mindless labourers (or Caribbean slaves) and in the second half as mindless and flesh-eating consumers, analogies with the capital–labour relation in its totality should not be overlooked, argues McNally (2011: 141):

    In awakening past labour, living labour raises it from the dead, makes it undead. Indeed, only the vital activity of labour keeps capital from lapsing into a death state: ‘Living labour must seize on these things, awaken them from the dead’. In so doing, living labour also alienates and deadens itself. ‘All the powers of labour project themselves as powers of capital’, thus rendering workers appendages of the animated monster. In a perverse dialectical inversion, the very powers of labour that re-animate the dead also deaden the living, reifying them, reducing them to a zombie-state. Having escaped human control, capital’s goals are determined – like zombies – by impersonal forces and not by conscious human volition.

    Harman’s use of the zombie analogy is akin to McNally’s, although his creatures more closely resemble one species of the zombie tribe: the denizens of Romero’s films. Like Romero’s zombies, global capitalism, for Harman (2009), is not only parasitic upon living human labour and dead to the needs of living human beings but is prone to erupt in savage bouts of activity that inflict chaos all around. The threat it poses is apocalyptic, a catastrophic collapse of social organization –in Harman’s allegory, through runaway climate change.

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