Tom Nairn replies to his comments

Tom Nairn
9 September 2009

I greatly appreciate this opportunity to reply to comments on my recent openDemocracy essay, and (I hope) pursue the argument farther. This hope isn't just piety: I realize more clearly than before how much needs to be done - it's a relief to see that the general tenour and range of the comments suggests a major debate may be just around the corner, with openDemocracy seemingly an ideal location for pushing it along.

Read the original essay, Down under diary: is it time for Social Democracy?By definition, any 'major' argument is on different levels at once. I think that was part of Rudd's motive: he was arguing that 'Social Democracy' has ceased being simply an ideology or a programme. It's what the world is left with, after not one but two colossal crashes of previously prevailing ideologies and policy-programmes. Of course the 'General Financial Crisis' is the immediate environment of Australian, as of many other governments and polities. But no-one should forget for one moment that it had been preceded at no great distance by another - the disappearance of the Soviet Union and its East-European communist imperium. With all its absurdities and failures, that '-ism' none the less represented a political direction different from the Cold War's victors: state-political (or 'public sector') control of socio-economic sources and forces, rather than the opposite - the 'Neo-liberalism' convinced that markets must constitute politics and the larger culture.

Tom Nairn is an expert on globalisation, nationalism, British institutions and Scotland. He is innovation professor in Nationalism and Cultural Diversity at the Globalism Institute at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology (RMIT University), Australia

His many books include Faces of Nationalism: Janus Revisited (Verso, 1998), After Britain (Granta, 2000) and Pariah: Misfortunes of the British Kingdom (Verso, 2002), and Global Matrix: Nationalism, Globalism and State-terrorism (Pluto Press, 2005)Now most are persuaded that public 'regulation' will be needed for that constitution, to prevent future crises; but negative regulation is a long way short of pre-1989's positive social or public route-maps.

Direction remains the vital issue, deliberately foregrounded in Rudd's Monthly article. Leaders, parties and movements have to provide a new compass, some signposts, at least suggestions for a future map. Yet the 2008-9 context makes this very difficult. For the ambiance of the crisis has come to be dominated by the weird resurrection of both old ideologies, in the development of China. That is, the state 'public sector' of the world's largest country is now devoted to the fostering of markets, entrepreneurial capitalism and free trade without democracy. This totalitarian mutation has replaced democracy with a specific, highly-charged version of popular nationalism. Ernest Gellner pointed out how mainstream nation-building was dominated by uneven development in the North Atlantic area, and led to the competitive '-ism' of nationality politics. Communities had to be re-imagined along novel and aggressive lines - something like a societal version of Charles Darwin's 'natural selection'. Emerging at the end of this developmental arc, China has recapitulated many of its features in a condensed, even exaggerated form - a great-nation rebirth of France's Nicolas Chauvin, displaying extreme sensibilities about status, unity and rights.

In reply to my endorsement, and implication that the Australasian landscape isn't all hopeless, commentator ‘Not Relaxed and Comfortable' wrote: "Australia is a mediated corporate democracy, much like Singapore but without the death penalty..." (2009-08-18). Some readers may need to be reminded that in Australia 'relaxed and comfortable' has long been a shorthand for references to Howard's Australian Liberal Party, as well as to his coalition government of 1996 to 2007. He was urging Australians to give up a 'black armband' view of their own history, as enforced colonists and oppressors of the aboriginal peoples. It was time, he said, to become more comfortable in a history more like other zones of industrializing culture than had been admitted. Fair enough, one might add. But regrettably, his government was also convinced that 'nineties Neo-liberalism accurately represented that culture - so that taking out an Australian subscription to the general complacency would solve the problem. The title ‘Not relaxed and comfortable' is a way of distancing the author from such delusions. When North Atlantic complacency abruptly disintegrated over 2007-8, relaxation and comfort have become intolerable for quite different reasons. Like most other market societies, Australian marketolatry was left without a toehold.

But isn't that precisely what Kevin Rudd was stating, in the famous Monthly essay? Your correspondent, however, sees this truism as a way of sliding over onto another track : that of a conventional old-Left rant against social democracy itself - with or without capital letters, and renewal-claims. The allusion to Singapore gives away the game: a preposterous comparison between a continent founded on two-party egalitarianism and a micro-state of indurate capitalism based on breakaway Chinese entrepreneurship and high finance. The point is exemplified by the rest of the text: Australian Labor has moved consistently to the right, and embraced corporate billionaires and Rupert Murdoch, because that's what social-democrats do - it's in their craven and unchanging nature, their need to betray the majority, keep themselves on top and everyone else in their place.

It has often been noted how 2009 Neo-liberals seem unable to do other than hark back to Bush and Thatcher; but aren't some 2009 socialists doing just the same thing on their side of the ancient, rotting fence? 'Values' is the customary trumpet: the secular faiths of Lenin, Clement Attlee and Gough Whitlam, the old ragged crosses and flags. So who is this Rudd to decree abandonment of the fence itself, with its graves and sacrifices, and claim that a middle ground has inherited the whole kingdom? Never! If that's Keynesianism reborn, we should have none of it. Germaine Greer has echoed the complaint in her recent Overland essay, maintaining that history has already shown social-democrats to be good for little but treachery and surrender, notably among Australians. More detached views from a gender perspective have been published in both New Left Review (Nancy Fraser, March-April 2009) and Foreign Policy (July-August 2009, Reihan Salam and Valerie Hudson).

The dismissal is compounded by something more poisonous, and yet plainly expressed in some of the critical remarks: Ruddism may be contemptible partly because it's Australian. Your commentator ‘Chazza' (2009-08-14) can't resist voicing his scorn: ‘...the idea that truth and light will shine out from the great southland... and south-east Asia!... Australia is the quarry at the end of the Chinese rainbow not a beacon of hope'. I must say that southland truth and light never occurred to me, either when I first read Rudd's essay in the Monthly or later. It was more like the opposite - an unusual and distinctive southland caution and realism, worthy of note (as I did point out) because of its marginal address, and the analogies with the earlier forging of social democracy. This took place in a Baltic zone away from the self-consciously central capitals, and their metropolitan intelligentsias. Location is very important for understanding ideologies, I agree, both in time and geographical space. In fact, important enough to consider soberly, and avoid being bounced into peremptory judgements.

In this light, it's worth reiterating how relatively fortunate Australia has been. Has any other wider political culture benefited from the kind of debate fostered by Melbourne's Monthly and Griffith Review 25 (‘After the Crisis', Spring 2009) ? Aren't Scandinavia, the periphery of the British-Irish archipelago, parts of Africa and of South-East Asia, and Australasia capable of playing some role in general evolution? "Chazza" puts ‘Malaysia, Thailand and Burma' on his dismissal-list; but what about East Timor, West Papua and New Zealand? May not one advantage of intensifying globalisation be to augment the impact and the accessibility of changes in zones previously too ‘remote' and societally ill-equipped to contribute much?

There is a welcome emphasis in "rcshreeyan's" comments (2009-08-17) upon democracy as the vital element. Although unjustified for the example of Kevin Rudd and Australian Labor, it's surely right to stress its significance in many other places (albeit in unnecessarily capitalized letters, as Anthony Barnett pointed out!). These are positions familiar to all regular visitors at openDemocracy.net.

I must both thank Lawrence Efana for his remarks (2009-08-14) and warmly endorse his underlining of climate-change politics. Kevin Rudd has long supported such steps, even if his government has been slow in policy-enactment (like carbon-emission reduction) because of the simultaneous economic recession - much less grave in Australia than other developed economies. Of course Labor had no magic wand to exorcise inherited disgraces like those cited by "Not relaxed" - especially aboriginal disadvantage. However, these too are inevitably part of a longer-term programme, in which it is surely premature to perceive only the hopelessness of the ‘Fair Go' tradition.

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