Jun 26, 2010

Send off the clowns – the Rudd dumping, and collapsing mainstream politics

A leader elected to widespread acclaim a mere few years ag

Guy Rundle


A leader elected to widespread acclaim a mere few years ago, empowered to make real change and sweep away a discredited regime — now on the ropes, a target of the party they had brought to success. Yes, Angela Merkel is having a tough time.
Having come in as the great alternative to a succession of statist and indistinguishable Christian Democrats and Social Democrats, having thoroughly bested the latter in the most recent poll, she is now the object of a deep dissatisfaction from the German public. The difficulty for Merkel is that there is no consensus on what exactly they don’t like about her any more.

Traditional SD union and left blocs have marched against the relatively mild inroads she’s made into the German welfare state – other groups have complained that she hasn’t done enough to change the culture. Pro-Europeans have slated her for dithering on a bailout of Greece; many others now hate her for ultimately agreeing to it. The recent Westphalia regional elections saw the CDU replaced as largest party by her free market coalition partners the Free Democrats.

Merkel is not alone in this despite. The condition is near universal in the West…

Nicolas Sarkozy, once the standard-bearer for European free-market reform is now widely dismissed as a time-wasting clown, Gordon Brown was escorted off the premises, without his opponents being given a commanding mandate, Barack Obama’s successes have been consumed by a strategy of hedging and caution, Japan’s political leadership has collapsed, Greece has dithered its way over the past decade to auto-destruction, the Swedes are likely to make the ‘right-wing’ reformer Carl Reinhardt a one-term PM in September, and it is proving all but impossible to stitch together meaningful governments in the Low Countries.

And then there’s this bloke in Australia….

All unhappy governments are unhappy in their own way, but beneath their very real differences, the predicament is the same. There is now a fatal disconnect between the perceived challenges faced by nations and the entire species, the political system and the leaders chosen by it. Governments that attempt to address structural weaknesses in the economy from the right, immediately attract opposition – often from people who voted them in to ‘do something’.

Those like Rudd elected to make social reforms from the left get opposed at every turn when they show the least sign of concerted effort, and please no-one when they try a steadier and slower pace of change. Leaders of conservative parties such as David Cameron and Tony Abbott, in their very different ways, conversly find it difficult to be conservative in the genuine sense of minimising government action – and thus commit themselves to endless, opportunistic and disconnected ideas often take from social democratic parties. To quote George Orwell Western publics resemble a sick man turning from one side to the other in bed every fifteen minutes, in pursuit of momentary relief.

This sudden collapse of legitimacy has come at the end of a more stable period, in the anglosphere at any rate. Bush, Blair and Howard represented a shared approach to social life – an unleashing of untrammelled market forces, compensated for by a tightening of social and cultural repressiveness, and a projection of power (and problems) out to the wider world.

The public consented to this formula as long as the consumer and service economy, and purchasing power within it, continued to grow. Once it hit a wall in 2008, that consent was withdrawn. What was revealed was not a happy public in tune with charismatic leaders who represented their values, but a disconsolate and dissatisfied public who were both aware that great changes are required, but unwilling to countenance a change in lifestyle. They want strong leaders, but they don’t want the truth from them. They want their way of life to be restabilised, but they don’t want anything done. They want to be involved, but they don’t want to be led by do-nothings. And so on.

Part of that is due to the mendacity of a right-wing media which sells a toxic mix of pessimism and false nostalgia, but no-one can make bricks without straw. The neo-con trio of Howard, Blair and Bush may be the last for some time to enjoy the genuine sense of legitimacy – which for all of them had in any case, evaporated some time before the end of their reign. What is on offer now is a series of ad hoc governments chosen with minimal enthusiasm and consent, and quickly turned on when it becomes clear that they are dealing with problems on a scale that stretches beyond the power of political frameworks inherited from the nineteenth century.

Whether Gillard or Abbott win the next election will make little difference to this. Abbott remains an object of suspicion and dislike outside the News Ltd op-ed rooms, and Gillard’s wave of support derived from becoming the first female PM, and Labor at that, will not long survive a rightward turn on asylum seekers, and other ‘necessary’ manoeuvres.

This collapse of legitimacy comes from two factors that are less coincident than they are different sides of the same coin – as the scale of problems facing Western society has rapidly been revealed, the utter disconnect of deadened elite political parties has come to the fore. Whether people can vocalise it or not, the 2008 financial crisis, combined with an overarching sense of environmental unsustainability, and the apparent absence of any wellspring of economic recovery has created a a widespread awareness that our way of life — as defined by open-ended consumption as its key cultural component — is on the clock.

For thirty years people have been told by economists that the GDP figure is what matters and not the actual types of production that compose it. Now they look around and realise the obvious – that we dont make any shit anymore, what we’ve replaced it with is flimsy and fragile, and that we are massively in hoc to the East, which is in turn, dependent on our (now vanished) continued purchasing power.

In the last decade, they were told that the ‘new economy’ meant that we could live on thin air, and essentially expand for ever without boom-and-bust — now, once again, the obvious appears: an economic system which extends credit using the future profits from that credit is a giant Ponzi scheme. The billions and trillions counted into the Western economy never existed at all. Finally, the clash between system and environment could be ignored when it was couched in abstract language, or expiated with pointless personal recycling tasks. But now that BP appears to have actually punctured a hole in the Earth in a manner beyond our capacity to fix it, well, the attention has been focused.

The same historical development – a switch to an economy and society multidimensionally unviable over the long term – that has created the big problems has made existing political parties unable to respond to it. As class society became more atomised and segmented in terms of interests, the sense of relationship between parties and classes atrophied.
Into that vacuum has rushed narrow political castes, who have made the parties self-sustaining, self-reproducing entities of Mps, advisors and hacks – sustained in Australia by the triple whammy of compulsory voting, non-optional preferences and state funding of political parties. This essentially makes them immune from any real need to have a relationship to a genuine social base.

Given license to manage things during the good times, by a population encouraged not to be involved in the running of their own lives, such parties and their leadership have no public backing or good faith extended when adverse circumstances offer only bad and worse options. Furthermore, those who have risen to power from these political castes find themselves manifestly inadequate to deal with all-encompassing problems, since their training has been largely in petty political and media tactics. Brown, Bush, Merkel, Sarkozy, Blair, Nelson, Turnbull, and now Rudd…all have fetched up on the reef of the twenty-first century. Obama, despite some achievements, looks like going the same way. Intellect or its absence has nothing to do with it, since the problem is deep-seated and structural. The only rule-proving exception has been Greek PM Georges Papandreou, which is undoubtably connected to a family and national heritage of actual lethal struggle. Whether that will be enough remains to be seen.

At first sight, it might appear that Australia has escaped this cycle, given our glorious and obviously never ceasing flow of resources. But really, it was beginning to imapct at the end of Howard’s leadership – not only in the lack of connection with the heartland that allowed them to introduce Workchoices, but also in the way that the oublic so easily dumped him. Now that Rudd has gone, he is being blamed by all and sundry for a lack of connection with, well just about anybody. But it is the very fact that Ruddism could develop its distinctive style – highly abstract depoliticised grand initiatives – in the absence of objections or protest from within the party, that is a measure of how utterly disconnected the political process has come. When the wider crises hit us – and giant quarry or not, they will – whoever is occupying the big seat will be equally flummoxed, out of their depth and quickly discredited.

The coup against Kevin Rudd was seen by all commentators to be a remarkable occurrence, as for example would a dancing building. It is only when you realise that there’s an earthquake moving underneath it, that it starts to make sense.


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7 thoughts on “Send off the clowns – the Rudd dumping, and collapsing mainstream politics

  1. scottyea

    Well written, Mr Rundle, and some very perceptive points raised here.

    As the distrust of the charlatans (politicians, etc.) grows into distrust of charlatanism (“the system”), many people will find that they actually did have the brains to prevent this to start with. Too bad we’re freaking doomed.

    Oh, the irony.

  2. John Bennetts


    Whitlam and Kennett had both clear goals and voices. It was sometimes difficult with Rudd to perceive his goals and to hear his unequivocal voice. I liked much of Rudd’s work, but his salesmanship was sh_t.

    Abbott is certainly no better.

    We live in interesting times.

  3. JamesH

    The problem Rudd etc have is one you have also fallen prey to in this column, Guy; mistaking “unrepresentative right-wing bitching in the Murdoch Press” for “get opposed at every turn”. If any of these people would have the courage of their convictions displayed by Whitlam or even Kennett to crash through or crash, I think they might find the public supports them after all; and even if the public turns on them in the end, they will still set the policy direction for the next few decades. 30 years on from Whitlam, no-one is talking about abolishing Medicare, land rights, arts funding, or anything else that the right screamed “communist conspiracy” about at the time.

  4. Tom Jones

    The major parties and newspapers have long derided the low numbers of union members and that unions shouldn’t be listened to because they only represent 20% of the population. Of course if any political party represented 20% of the population they would be delirious with joy. The churches and their lobby group represent a smaller proportion of the population and yet both Rudd and Abbott held a love in with the religious lobby last Sunday. Political parties have the same problem as all other organisations – people don’t want to join although they will come along for fun and circuses.

    We can look back to Margaret Thatcher and see her legacy – there is no such thing as society was her cry. In taking this point of view however it laid the groundwork for people to disconnect and look at the benefits of particular actions and policy decisions from the atomised point of view. Whereas once loyalty was rewarded the Gordon Gekko “Greed is Good” school ensured that individual sacrifice was laughable. When the right wing ascendancy in the nineties and early 2,000s cemented this viewpoint into the psyche of people there were no structures left to counteract except something like religion or unions. The Muslim faith is seen as threatening because despite its disparate nature there are social bonds. Unions have a somewhat harder time remaining united because those in the union can see how those who remain outside benefit from the union’s investment in time and money without contributing.

    Thus is a sense of entitlement created without any need for individual input, loyalty or hard work. People may like things to be different but they don’t actually want to be the sacrificial lambs.

  5. willnotbeshutup

    Poor Ruddy – he learned a little lesson in politics and democracy or lack thereof – did we? – poll at: http://wp.me/pXIwk-1z

  6. Kevin Rennie

    Some random responses:

    Democracies face chaos when there is no real consensus because then governments have no real mandates. Rudd faced strong opposition from a jumble of mostly single-issue ‘movements’ that had little in common with one another. People may vote against Labor because it is both too weak and too tough on asylum seekers. The preferential system is not enough to save them in that situation. The same can be said for the CPRS, and the Resource Rent Tax. Even the internet filter.

    As Howard found out, it’s not enough to have economic good times. Rudd was not rewarded for avoiding the recession but he would have been destroyed if the opposite had happened.

    The major political parties have been out of touch with their bases and their memberships for decades. There is no real dialogue happening with the elected representatives of the people, with some notable exceptions.

  7. Venise Alstergren

    “but no-one can make bricks without straw” Rupert Murdoch can. And he employs ninety per-cent of the MSM (I’m including all the horrible women’s magazines)

    Pardon me? John Howard charismatic????

    Paragraph thirteen beyond brilliant, Guy.

    Paragraph sixteen isn’t bad either!!!

    I’m looking forward to the day the big miners of Oz have to start mining our garbage dumps. This is the only logical outcome of having mined Australia into extinction.

    This thought may look a tad surreal, but it isn’t. It is THE only logical outcome. Another possibility is building mountains out of rubbish dumps, in the hope of attracting rain-bearing clouds.

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