Tag Archives: liberalism

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