Labor, Public Policy and the Infiltration of Economics

The points Tony Judt makes in this lecture are so relevant to Australia and the Labor Party right now, that it is as if he had this country in mind when he was developing his thesis. Either that or we are politically far more similar to Europe than we think. These ideas have since been solidified and published in his book, ‘Ill Fares The Land’, which I would highly recommend to read.

I have personally transcribed some of the essence of Tony Judt’s lecture on social democracy. The quotes are in chronological order and develop as a narrative. The only other transcription available on the internet is an adaptation from his speech notes for the New York Review of Books and is quite different to what Judt actually says.

Tony Judt, in his lecture, ‘What is Living and What is Dead in Social Democracy?’:

“There is this curious cognitive dissonance between the ends that people are willing, in very large numbers, to approve and even seek, than the means that they are willing to consider.”

“Our problem is not sociological, it’s not economical, it is… discursive, we don’t know how to talk about these things anymore.”

“We have lost the capacity to think of public affairs except in, and in a very restricted sense, in economic terms. When we ask of a policy or a proposal, is it good or bad? We don’t actually ask, is it good or bad? We ask, is it efficient? Is it productive? Would it benefit gross domestic product? Would it be efficient in that respect? Would it contribute or not contribute to growth and so on. We ask, in a very restricted sense, economic questions, we talk economics as a language of public policy. That is not a natural condition, it is an acquired one.”

“How did we come to think in exclusively economic terms? Such that, when we have a purportedly national debate about whether or not we should fix our collective arrangements for health care, we can only ask, how much will it cost? Who will pay? How much are we willing to sacrifice? And will it be efficient? Rather than, is it good, is it right, is it wrong, is it bad, is it just, is it fair?”

“It’s not accidental that today in Europe social democrats do badly again and again and again at elections, even in traditionally social democratic countries, even in the midst of a shameful, catastrophic financial crisis. The reason is because their language no longer bears any convincing relationship to their programs.

Social democracy emerged as the alternative within the left to Marxist socialism and a little later to Communism. If you look at the great texts of the social democrats in the 30s and 40s they are all defensively targeted towards their left. “We are democratic”, they say, “not authoritarian, we believe in freedom, not repression. We are not communists”, to some extent, although this varied, “we are not Marxists, we are democrats who happen to believe in social justice” and so on.

When the main objective of social democrats was to show that they were not communists and to implant themselves firmly in liberal societies as plausible alternative governments this made sense. Today this rhetorical tick makes no sense. It’s not accidental that Angela Merkel can win an election in Germany against a social democratic opposition with a set of policies that essentially resemble theirs.

The social democrats of today have a problem, they won in Europe. Social democracy in one form or another is, with apologies to Moliere, ‘the prose that people speak’, so social democrats have nothing distinctive to offer, they have no narrative to offer, no story which distinguishes them from the centre and centre right, and the mainstream. It’s different in this country (America), I’ll come back to that.

But social democrats need a new language, they need to begin by asking how should we talk politics before asking what are our policies. The policies are not the problem. So what can be recovered? Well we could begin with the practices of social democracy.”


Now a small number of you may ask, what does this have to do with Australia? Well, if you haven’t thought of any examples I’m gathering you may have read these quotes passively and have not taken Judt’s thesis in, in which case I would ask you to re-read it or come back to it later. If you’re on the ball today you may have applied this argument to the Australian Labor Party and/or some of its policies and policy debates. Now this is stating the obvious, but there really is very little distinguishing them from the Liberal Party anymore, and this is because they have lost their hold on the language of social democracy, or rather, this language has become an empty signifier (for all socially democratic parties). There is a scattering of linguistic relics which remind us of what once was; a party for the worker who primarily looks after lower-middle class interests. Or what PM Gillard would now refer to as caring for “working families.” This stark change is of course a natural product of history and progression. No one expects the Labor Party to stay the same; a strongly unionist, hard left, socially democratic party. The only problem is that Labor still thinks (to a slightly lesser extent) and promotes publicly that this is what they are and that these are the same values they continue to stand for. This is, in my opinion, far from the present reality.

So what then isn’t quite working for Labor at the moment? I believe that we all have an intuitive feeling that Labor merely lacks an ability to communicate their policies well. But as Judt points out, it is more than that, it is a failure to speak about issues within a socially democratic discourse and this highlights a fundamental tension between the old Labor values and the new. The new Labor lives in a world centred on obsessively economic-focussed policy creation. There are obviously good reasons for this focus with global competition becoming more intense, economies becoming more linked and a constant fight for growth. But what we miss, what we lose, in this public and legislative discourse is the ability to weigh more equally the economic with the moral, equitable, fair and ethical questions and dimensions of policy. At the moment it seems that the numbers, efficiency and growth are more important than the actual outcomes. This can be said for Labor’s health policy (where is mental health in all of this?), Paid Parental Leave Scheme, seriously depleted tertiary funding, empty and superficial changes to education from a Federal level (MySchool, National Curriculum etc.) That is just scraping the surface, and don’t get me wrong, the Liberal Party also suffer from this, but the difference is that they don’t purport to be a party with socially democratic values, they are liberal conservatives and they make that position fairly clear.

I do not want to dismiss the Labor Party’s attempts to improve socially-supportive policies such as a proposed increase in superannuation to 12%, the NBN, an un-capped number of CSP-supported tertiary places, a change to and relaxing of the criteria for Youth Allowance and their continued welfare support to those in the community who truly need a little help to get back on their feet. My point here is that if Labor is looking to be a credible, robust and distinctive long-term alternative to the Liberal Party (and the Greens), something radical needs to change in party thinking. And personally, I care about this because of the current and future effects this current direction will have on a balanced liberal and socially democratic policy creation in Australia. Foresight and innovation is required for Australia to transition into this new carbon-conscious and sustainability-focussed world and with that said, I’ll leave it there.

Liberal Party and conservatism post to come…


Filed under Ideas, Politics

9 responses to “Labor, Public Policy and the Infiltration of Economics

  1. Hi Amy,

    Well said, here and on Unleashed.

    I have some things to say about Labor on my own blog, the most recent being

    As you’ll see, I think the core problem is Labor being seduced by neoliberalism, close to what you are saying. Only I probably say it more strongly and with more specific, as you can see if you follow links, such as

    I’ll add your blog to my blogroll.

    • Hi Geoff,
      Thanks so much for the feedback and kind words.
      I had a look and I especially loved your piece on neo-liberalism. Very insightful. I’m putting link to it on twitter as we speak! 🙂 I wonder if you have read Tim Jackson’s ‘Prosperity Without Growth’? Your perspective reminded me of a lecture of his.

  2. I agree with your observations which you share with an growing band of commentators on the current plight of the ALP. In search of political power the ALP has lost much of its rationale for existing. Remnants of socially progressive policy remain but increasingly the ALP dances to the tune of the market. Tony Judt is also correct when he notes the ‘economization’ of political discussion and its negative impact on social democratic parties world wide.

    However I thyink you are deluding yourself if you see any chance of Labor attempting to reclaim the progressive mantle it threw out ‘Post Whitlam’ in search of a quick return to government. Only a protracted period of opposition (which they may be about to get) might get that discussion started.

    Even then to imagine that a return to its roots as a champion of social justice and the source of progressive policy in the Australian political spectrum would strengthen Labor’s chances of gaining and holding government in future requires a degree of historical blindness.

    Historically there have been few instants when progressive governments have shaped the trajectory of the nation’s development. Except in times of national emergency (war, depression etc) centre-right governments whether under the umbrella of the Coalition or of the ALP are the norm. If you argue that we are in a national emergency I would not disagree but most voters don’t see it that way (yet).

    They will not turn back towards social democracy because the current ALP leadership still yearns after some version of Tony Blair’s market driven ‘Third Way’. They also know that progressive votes directed to the Greens will generally find their way back to the ALP via the preference system.

    They know that to win elections they must capture the voters in marginal electorates nationwide. Their incessant polling of these voters tells them that progressive policies don’t cut through in these electorates. Losing ground in the marginals will simply cause them to redouble their efforts to grab them back from the Coalition. It will not promote a resurgence of social democracy.

    Labor looks likely to lose the next election and thereafter the only hope I see for progressive government in the foreseeable future involves co-operation between the ALP which has transformed itself into a Liberal Democratic Party (and won’t be going back) and the Greens which are emerging as Australia’s Social democratic party.

    To do this would require the ALP somehow undoing the ridiculous scaremongering in respect of The Greens that it is currently committed to. It will also require government to somehow stare down the representatives of big capitalism who increasingly regard the government of this country as theirs to direct, make or break.

    If this can’t be achieved (no easy task) I think it will be many years before the Coalition is displaced from government. By then untold damage will have been done. The future looks grim to me.

  3. Hi Amy, thanks and you’re welcome. I have Tim Jackson’s book and haven’t got to it yet in my stack of “must-reads”. 🙂
    And here’s my latest comment on neoliberals: calculating reptiles

    If no-one articulates a real alternative, then the punters will back the status-quo. Labor has been trying to be Howard-Lite, and people tend to prefer the real thing. By not articulating any real vision, Labor traps itself in the Coalition’s framing of things, and is forever on the back foot.

    I think their strategy is now unravelling – many punters said very clearly last year “A plague on both your houses”, which is why Greens and Independents have the balance of power.

  4. Another point of interest – some people have got tired of waiting:

    Replace The ALP

  5. Geoff
    I think ‘a real alternative’ would entail telling the electorate that an unencumbered market economy is a device for maximizing private profits and does not guarantee our future. It would require the government to set goals grounded at least as strongly in social and environmental well being as in the hip-pockets of marginal voters. It would entail facing down the self-interested and increasingly arrogant demands of big industry which demands that maximum profits be protected at all costs. It would require government to somehow to prevail against the conservative media’s relentless negative characterization of any aspect of the political sphere that they perceive as inimical to its interests. Neither major party is likely to attempt (let alone achieve) any or all of this.

    The Greens despite their growing pains and resultant awkwardness do constitute ‘a real alternative’. But their moderate social democratic policies are widely regarded as extreme and struggle to attract more than one in ten voters. I think this is because Australia is a well off conservative society that historically has always preferred centre-right governments and turns to progressive governments and parties only when a storm of one kind or another is seen to be threatening.

    There is some nervousness about the interlocked environmental and resource crises already impinging on us but no general awareness of them as a threat to our well being yet. When this comes I anticipate a substantial increase in the policies of the Greens but chances are by then it ill be too late to avoid the disaster the climate scientists warn of.

    This is my analysis, uninformed as it may be. This is the reason for my pessimism about our future.

    I had my first brief look at your web site and I’ll be back for a more careful look around. Also I have to question the usefulness of another Labor Party. Why not just back the Greens? I’ve read many of their policies and can’t imagine that there is much for serious social democrats to disagree with there.

  6. James Donnelly

    Nice post.

    I’d love to hear your thoughts on this little mystery that I’ve been musing on for a while. Why are the liberal party socially conservative? Can they not forward economic liberalism whilst not being socially conservative?

  7. Doug-
    “Australia is a well off conservative society that historically has always preferred centre-right governments”
    But Oz has never been as right-wing as it is now. It’s not a coincidence, it’s the result of a concerted right-wing campaign, with most of the media on board.

    Conversely, if someone were willing to articulate a real alternative, I think opinion would shift back, to some degree. I just don’t buy this “Oz is conservative line” your average punter is bombarded with right-wing propaganda day in, day out.

    I no-one ever tries, then we’ll be right wing and doomed to an unpleasant future. If someone tries, then perhaps we won’t suffer that fate. I we just sit back and say it can’t be done, we’ll be right.

    As to why another party, as you said many are uncomfortable with the Greens. Partly that’s social attitudes, but partly it’s mythology – basket weavers etc. They can trade preferences and not be seriously worse off.

  8. Geoff
    I’m on your side but I’m afraid it’s not necessary to do more than examine which governments Australians have elected over the century since Federation to see whether or not my statement is justified. You correctly characterize the situation that exists today, right wing media, huge pressure from rampant industrial lobbies etc. However that doesn’t erase the historical record. Even more than the historical preponderance conservative governments I would even suggest that the acceptability of Labor governments in recent decades has had much to do with their market friendly conservatism. I don’t think I’m alone in holding that view.

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