By Situation Theatre 19/5/2019
It may be tempting to draw reactionary lessons from this calamity. These are the lessons of establishment journos and smug politics, and they are lessons we can ill-afford in an age of climate emergency.
Before the corpse of Labor’s 2019 election campaign is cold, the media class has already drawn three key lessons from last night: they can no longer pre-release policy, they must present a small target, and they must become more centrist.
A shocking endorsement of the status quo from our national media there.
Those on the left are more likely to utter sentiments like “we’re doomed”, “voters are morons”, “Queensland is shit”, or “that’s it, I’m moving to New Zealand”.
Although understandable on a night of such frustration and sadness, these sentiments are no more helpful than the asinine answers of the media class.
They might be even worse, because the mainstream media has always been our enemy, but we know our the only hope for escape from Kamikaze capitalism lies with the left.
Let’s deal with these counter-productive media and left-wing responses in turn, before moving on to to more constructive reactions.
It’s no surprise that most political analysts and their donkeys will now run hard on the “Labor was too bold” line, especially in the context of an Australian media landscape which makes North Korean state TV look like Democracy Now!
And lest you think this will be confined to News Corp’s legion of Liberal mouthpieces, prepare to be bombarded by Barrie Cassidy, Leigh Sales, Annabel Crabb, and Andrew Probyn with the new political consensus – you have to campaign as a hollow-headed fuckwit to get elected in this country.
This is, quite frankly, total bullshit.
It’s a status quo-serving analysis that might have passed muster when we didn’t know the world was going to end unless the world turns eco-socialist within a decade. Now it’s nothing short of ecocidal.
It simplifies the enormously complex panoply of factors at play last night, including the idiosyncrasies of seat by seat races, the role of the preferences harvested from a mining billionaire’s $70 million advertising blitz, the blanket endorsement of the Coalition government by a media empire controlling 60-70% of our media landscape, as well as a national broadcaster which the Liberal Party is transforming into yet another propaganda arm.
It fails to understand that although Labor did present a mild re-distributive agenda to the left of where they’ve been for two decades, being to the left of Margaret Thatcher isn’t saying very much.
It trumps up the problematic role of pre-releasing policies and how “scary” the Australian people find reform (ignoring the enormous amount of social research which says otherwise), and downplays just how uninspiring was the Labor narrative and leadership, two aspects which are absolutely fundamental to the success of a campaign.
Most importantly, it fails to grapple with the fact that there is literally no alternative to bold progressive leadership on a dying planet and neglects the fundamental journalistic duty to “tell the truth” of this to the general public.
Common responses on the left range from nihilism to escapism to seceding from Queensland. None of these are super helpful in the context of a climate emergency and a generally fucked political, economic, and social system which urgently needs radical change, change which can only be achieved by the pressure of popular mass movements.
In this context, the worst possible response to Morrison’s re-election is an echo of the popular response to the NSW election: “voters are morons”, “voters are idiots”, “voters are stupid”, “Australia sucks”, “how bad are voters?” and so on.
This is a bad case of smug politics, a valuable concept from an invaluable 2018 book called Trigger Warnings by the insightful author Jeff Sparrow.
This book should be mandatory reading for all progressives to cease and desist our daily self-sabotage.
To briefly outline Sparrow’s argument, smug politics emerged on the Western left partly as a consequence of the rapid decline of the anti-Iraq war movement and partly because of a broad reorientation of activists from the working classes, in what he describes as “direct politics”, to the well-educated, in what he describes as “delegated politics”. The assumption became “only lawyers or politicians or other professionals would be interested in reforms on matters with which ordinary people didn’t concern themselves”.
Activists shifted from a belief that “the masses themselves could (and often would) fight to change society” to the belief that “they were acting on behalf of a passive and perhaps indifferent constituency”.
When the anti-war movement disintegrated, “the notion that the population couldn’t be mobilised became the conviction that the population was the problem – that if people weren’t protesting the war, it was because they were idiots, gullible morons from which nothing better could be expected”.
In the United States, the “hegemony of smug politics” manifested in books like Stupid White Men, films like Idiocracy, and TV shows like The Daily Show.
In Australia, “many progressives now saw the masses not as a force capable of improving society, but as a foolish and slightly terrifying reservoir of cultural and political backwardness….As the left lost confidence in the masses, the claims of the Australian – and similar institutions - to speak for the majority of the nation became more credible.”
Participants in smug politics think not about the flaws of their narratives in connecting with the masses, and instead find solace in the idea that the “masses are too dumb to grasp the cogent arguments being presented to them”.
Sparrow describes this strategy as “politically disastrous”. “By dismissing the people as fools, progressives confirmed everything the culture warriors said: they openly embraced the condescending stereotype of the liberal elitist”.
It doesn’t take a political science PHD to feel the resonance in the dominant progressive reactions to last night’s result.
There are of course plenty of progressives who reject smug politics and urge us to cling to what author Rebecca Solnit described as “Hope in the Dark”.
Greenpeace Australia Pacific’s David Ritter summed up well what’s required at this historical moment.
Anti-capitalist Brisbane based organisation Unite shared the sentiments “Don’t despair, it’s time to organise” and “we the people must help each other”.
Solidarity activist and Senior Researcher at the Jumbunna Institute for Indigenous Education and Research, Paddy Gibson, wrote on Facebook,
“Let’s just say this is a re run of the 1969 election when everyone thought Labor would win and then they didn’t. The class struggle and social movements radicalised and exploded then next election was Whitlam...”
To which one tremendous individual responded “you’re dipping the shit in glitter and I like that”.
As climate and ecological breakdown loom, we desperately need to dip the shit in glitter then turn the whole lot into fertiliser.
We need to reject both the self-serving fairy-tales of the media class and cold comforts of smug politics.
We need to ditch the condescension and re-orient ourselves to the masses by telling a better story.