08 November 2012

Blasts from the past

The Fabians still exist and we attended a meeting to hear Lindy Edwards, ADFA academic, ex-journalist and ex-political advisor to Senator Stott-Despoja, speaking on ideology in politics and how ideologies influence political ideas and actions. It’s the concern of her new book, The passions of politics, and the talk was to launch the book. To my ears, it’s a satisfying, historical view of politics that seems informed and with meaning.

It’s a common theme that our current politics is disheartening and I can only concur. Political philosophies, ideologies in politics, provide a base and a direction for decisions in place of the politics of immediate political wins and confused paths that comes with focus-group and shock-jock-responsive politics. Lindy had embarked on her book to make accessible the big political ideas, revive Australia’s history as radically democratic and egalitarian, and, on a personal note, to help her decide just what she believed in. She thinks that important ideas are simple but forgotten. She outlined three waves in the history of recent ideological thought: Marxist, Liberal and the dissolution of ideologies under Post-modernism. Amongst her evidence was the absence of ideologies in favour of political mechanics in current teaching in university politics and a more specific observation that a major political conference in the US that she had registered for (large! ~7,000 participants) had no sessions with titles that mentioned ideology. In contrast, communications from the current US presidential election highlight ideological matters as guides for voting and, anyway, we just have gut-feelings of ideologies underlying many policies. She argues there’s a disconnect here between practice and academia. Ideologies are historically and geographically specific and display multiple strands, but they have relevance for current politics, they inform policies and they are often shared across nations. She identifies Social democracy as one of three major ideologies (the others being Conservatism and Liberalism). Political ideologies have assumptions about human nature, share approaches to coordinating society and ideals of the good. I liked that she argued that political parties and policies are a balance of all three ideologies; no-one is pure; no one approach is without its weaknesses and strengths. The key marker of Social democracy is that it organises society through “collective deliberation on the common good”. This has dangers of elites taking control, loss of individual autonomy, deciding who’s in and out, and conflict from different meaning systems. Conservatism and Liberalism have their own problems, and all politics is always a matter of mix or balance, anyway. She wondered whether the Western ascendancy of recent centuries was fragile and prone to failure. Also whether Social democracy is the least stable of the three ideologies and whether it was durable outside the socio-economic circumstances of the last century-or-so. She argued that ideas, to gain support, must explain social reality, be consistent with existing beliefs, serve our interests and appeal to a notion of “the good”. She mentioned that the Ancient Greeks had thought about these very requirements. She said the challenge for Labor / Social democrats is to build a mass movement that supports social justice and that this social justice must support the interests of individuals in the movement. The problems to be encountered are in changing the economic structure and a splintering battle for justice. It’s here that she wondered if Social democracy is just a product of a specific era or set of circumstances.

Inevitably some interesting chatter arose from questions. Industrial social democracy was about economic equality between men, so those men may lose in new formations of Labor. Can democracy even functions without ideologies? Very interestingly, she noted that Gillard and Abbott are our first pair of leaders who were student politicians and asked whether this is why we have the point-scoring politics we now have. Megan and I came away chattering about ideologies and the state of current politics and political philosophies and with a copy of Lindy’s book. This was a frustratingly brief visit to a very large topic. Ideology has a bad name, but as political philosophy it’s admirable and a worthy concern and, if Lindy’s right, essential to an effective democracy. I particularly liked the notion of mix or balance between ideologies; that policies, parties, individuals balance political approaches in developing and applying their policies, and that all ideologies have strengths and weaknesses and that their prominence and development are functions of historical conditions. The local Fabians were a disappointingly small and mostly greying group, but the session was worthy and informed and this was a stimulating intellectual outing. Dr Lindy Edwards spoke to the ACT Australian Fabians on ideology in Australian politics and its implications for Labor.

The passion of politics : the role of ideology and political theory in Australia / Lindy Edwards. Sydney : Allen & Unwin, 2013.

1 comment:

Stumpjumper said...

Why don't lefties like paragraphs?