The left sensibility

The Australian is running a series of articles on left-wing politics, called ‘What’s left?’. The answer so far is that more than a set of specific beliefs the left is a particular sensibility.

This idea is most explicitly argued for in Dennis Glover’s contribution this morning:

social democracy springs from an enduring but mysterious human desire to create a better society, the challenge for social democrats today isn’t just to produce a newer and smarter program but to appeal to this moral and political impulse on an emotional as well as rational basis. It has to show passion and character, not just logic.

Glover argues that this desire goes back to the start of Western civilization in ancient Greece. The form it takes varies a lot. What was needed to improve the lives of, say, the 19th century working class is very different to the concerns social democrats have today. But the moral impulses are similar.

For Julia Gillard, the left-wing impulse is emotional:

Even when I was at school, … I had a sense of what I thought was right and wrong in a values sense. Instinctively at home, Labor was our team. Even more importantly than the events, we’d talk about the values behind what was happening in the news. A sense of indignation has always burned in me about what happened to my father [who missed out on higher education]. (emphasis added)

This series seems to have been triggered by the work of the suddenly everywhere Tim Soutphommasane. A couple of weeks ago, The Australian ran his op-ed calling for a ‘romantic’ vision of social democracy. Just what social democrats should be ‘romantic’ about the article did not say.

At the weekend, Tim returned to The Australian with a more theoretical piece. He’s not sure what the Rudd government really stands for, and concludes that ‘Australian progressives appear, at least for now, to lack a unifying idea behind reform.’ He says they need to have a robust debate about ‘what a commitment to social justice and equality must involve in the 21st century.’ But aside from mentioning the ideas of some left-of-centre intellectuals, he seems reluctant to start such a debate.

After reading several of his articles, I still don’t know what a bright (Oxford PhD, new book with Cambridge University Press) young social democrat like Tim Soutphommasane thinks social democracy should be about in any specific sense. But he wants to believe in the power of politics to create a better society, he wants to be inspired by a romantic vision.

In institutional terms, social democrats are in a strong position. The welfare state is entrenched, and in Australia at least the formal social democratic party is securely in power.

But it is also understandable that some social democrats are feeling political angst. With power comes the grinding daily realities of trying to make the massive welfare state work a little better, and all the trade-offs and compromises that so disappoint the party faithful. It makes Labor less competitive with all the people who feel passionate and indignant about some actual or perceived injustice, who romantically want to believe in the redemptive power of politics.

29 thoughts on “The left sensibility

  1. This series in The Oz has been really interesting. Tim, Julia and Dennis’ articles have been quite revealing, in part because of the reasons you have covered.

    The Oz has said it will be running a similar series later on the Right. It will be interesting to see what that throws up.


  2. I actually started thinking about this the other day when somebody asked me why I’m a Labor supporter – I started talking about how I think there is a need for government intervention to overcome problems such as inequality that inevitably arise from capitalism etc. But I wasn’t particularly satisfied with my response in that if I had one sentence to convince somebody to be a social democrat, or at least satisfy their curiosity as to why I am one, then that wouldn’t be the best sentence to use. So I thought about it some more. In the end I came to the conclusion that, for me at least, it’s based on your subjective perception of power relationships in society. That sentence isn’t particularly amazing either, so I use an analogy to illustrate what I mean – I think it is largely how you respond to this “dilemma”. Imagine there is a dispute between an employer and an employee, and you know none of the facts other than that there is a dispute over something. Maybe the employer treated the employee very badly by not paying them, or maybe the employee has been taking money from the till, but you don’t know either way – Who would you side with if you had to pick a side without knowing the facts? I tend to think that if you would side with the employee you are a social democrat but if you would side with the employer you are a conservative. You could use the same analogy but replace employer and employee with business and consumer etc. So looking at what Dennis Glover and Julia Gillard have written, I would tend to agree with Dennis that social democracy is based on a particular moral impulse. I also agree with him in the sense that social democracy isn’t a technical program of reform, rather it’s a particular end with means to that end that can change with time – Hence there is scope for revisionist social democracy but there isn’t scope for revisionist classical liberalism, as the means to achieve the end of classical liberalism are pretty simple, just curtail most government activity (taxing, spending and regulation). It’s not that clear with social democracy.


  3. Krystian – I think we could have many variations on your employer-employee example. The left sensibility is to default to favouring the party most likely to be weak or a ‘victim’. I’m not sure that an abstract idea like ‘equality’ is really doing much practical work; rather it is what intellectuals come up with when they try to theorise these impulses.


  4. Krystian – does this mean that, at its core, social democracy is anti-employer and anti-producer, which , by extention, makes it anti-capitalist. 🙂 Would Bob Hawke be a social democrat by this measure?


  5. Andrew – I think equality does matter, even if it is abstract. The fact that somebody is identified as weak or a victim implies that whoever empathises with them is concerned about the inequality which has resulted in them being weak or a victim. You can’t say somebody is weak or a victim without the implication that there is inequality.

    Johno – No, it doesn’t mean that. Because in a real life situation you would have more facts and so you wouldn’t have a situation where the employer/producer is always bad/strong and the employee is always good/weak. I put forward the analogy as an example of whom social democrats would empathise with “by default” as Andrew puts it. I’m sure Bob Hawke would empathise with employees “by default”, but it doesn’t mean he always would, whatever the circumstances are.


  6. Or you can forget about over-intellectualising and note that some form of social democracy is the most successful political movement in the history of the world. Even the reactionary parties, such as Australia’s Liberals and the British Conservatives, have been completely traduced. Both of these two bosses party’s’ adopt as a given, social policies that would have been seen as communist extremism by them within living memory, mainly of course because doing otherwise would destroy them.
    I liked John Howards approach for its consistency, regressive taxes to screw the proles, tax cuts for the rich, union busting galore. No doubts on where he stood.
    Social Democrats do the opposite hopefully.


  7. In the movie Primary Colours there’s a scene where the main character is told he has “True Believer Syndrome”. That is the belief that with the right ideas and inspiration we can solve most of the ills of the world.

    I think the conservative view of the world tends toward acceptance that there are a lot of insoluble problems and that the best we can aim for is the least worst outcome.

    The caricature is then Naive Hope vs. Cynical Realism. I don’t think this incorporates all people on either side and even not many people all the time.


  8. Expanding on Krystian’s idea. Here comes another of my imperfect analogies.

    A simple test. To change a workers actions do you use a carrot or a stick? To change an employers actions do you use a carrot or a stick?

    Howardism I think was to use the stick on unions/unemployed/etc.. and to use a carrot on business/wealthy/etc… The twist Howard used was to somewhat shift the middle class into the second category through the various forms of middle class welfare.

    Social democrats would be inclined to use the carrot to encourage behavioural change amongst the employee/unemployed/poor and the stick to keep business in line. The shift at least in Victoria is that Labor has tended not to use the stick on business much.


  9. ‘In institutional terms, social democrats are in a strong position. The welfare state is entrenched, and in Australia at least the formal social democratic party is securely in power.

    But it is also understandable that some social democrats are feeling political angst. With power comes the grinding daily realities of trying to make the massive welfare state work a little better, and all the trade-offs and compromises that so disappoint the party faithful.’

    Bob Carr made a similar point some years ago to an ALP Conference (I don’t have a link) when he argued something like the ALP needed to recognise that Australia was a social democracy. Governments control around 30% of all spending and over 60% of that spending is on health, education and welfare. According to Carr, social democracy wasn’t a vision for the future – a light on the hill – it was the here and now and social democracy would be judged by how well social democrats in power delivered on the promises of social democracy.

    Arguably Carr failed in this as NSW Premier, but what will be Julia and Krudd’s social democracy legacy – massive debt and deficits, a failed education revolution, failure to reform health and a destructive and unnecessary ETS. Will Krudd’s role in delivering social democracy be a romance, a tragedy or a farce 🙂


  10. I heard Tim S on Radio National a couple of weeks ago where he was talking about recapturing patriotism for the Left. I didn’t get much of a sense of coherent framework from him, just a bunch of assertions. But he speaks nicely (especially for a young Asian) and I assume writes well, so he seems the perfect man for these Ruddian times.

    I think social democrats look to politics for their religion, whereas those on the Right actually believe in God or don’t go looking for the meaning of life so much.


  11. “I think social democrats look to politics for their religion, whereas those on the Right actually believe in God or don’t go looking for the meaning of life so much.” – Wow, that’s a sweeping generalisation!


  12. Well, I’m also an athiest/agnostic. What I mean is that I don’t expect to find my personal salvation in political action – perhaps this is a sloppy way of saying that, unlike what Andrew says about Tim S, I don’t believe in the power of politics to create a better society, other than to get out of the way of course. In this sense, we members of the athiest Right are the only real athiests around – we are the only ones who don’t have any romantic illusions about what it means to be a human being on planet Earth.


  13. Me too in the right-wing atheist camp. I probably have a social democrat-type orientation in the role politics plays in my life, but I see this as a failing (have not developed other parts of my life sufficiently).


  14. Andrew, I think it’s possible to care a lot about policy without taking on the social democrat view, which seems to see politics as a means of moulding society to some evolving utopian ideal. Maybe this is because classical liberals don’t place so much stock in society as a meaningful institution. We might personally like people to behave in certain ways, but we generally don’t think government has a role in motivating them to behave in those ways.


  15. “I don’t believe in the power of politics to create a better society, other than to get out of the way of course. ”

    Rajad – no democracy then? How would we have gotten our present democracy without politics driven by a moral vision? How are people going to live civilised lives in large and complex communities without a political process?


  16. “I don’t expect to find my personal salvation in political action” – Neither do I, and I also don’t think politics can lead anybody to “the meaning of life”. But I do still think that politics has the power to create a better society and improve people’s lives and that’s why I’m passionate about it. And I’m a Christian social democrat – So far it seems that the right-wing commenters are atheists/agnostics and the left-wing commenters believe in the God!
    “Maybe this is because classical liberals don’t place so much stock in society as a meaningful institution” – So “there is no such thing as society?” (I know the quote was used in another context and is misinterpreted, but maybe that’s what Thatcher thought deep down inside!).


  17. Andrew in that other post you say that:
    “My liberalism started with a book …. But social democrats have much less need for such people, and so they have not given high and lasting status to any of their thinkers”
    But I would guess that social democrats were also influenced by books, perhaps especially the great novelists – Dickens, George Eliot et al.


  18. Rajat – I agree with Krystian about the power of politics to create a better society and improve people’s lives. but I want to use that power to allow a ‘classic liberal’ society to function.

    Consider the model Parliament outlined by Hayek in the third volume of Law, Liberty and Legislation. The Parliament was to be democratic and therefore political. The Lower House was to act as the executive branch of givernment making arbitary decisions that would favour one group over another – therefore political like our current social democratic Parliament. The Upper House was to lay down long term legislation based on liberal principles. While the politics of this chamber would be different from the politics we know today, it would still be politics.
    Any human society will have politics, even a classic liberal one, and the sort of person that you want taking an active interest in politics are those who wish to create a better society. We can argue about what a better society means, but, hey that’s politics.


  19. Johno, at one level I agree that we’re all about using politics to create a “better society”. But I still think there’s a difference between the way social democrats view politics and how athiest classical liberals see it. Social democrats see politics as a means of achieving a particular type of better society, in which people behave in specific and fairly uniform ways. They might want a society in which people recycle their garbage and shop at local markets and send their kids to the same State-run school and don’t eat too much junk food, don’t smoke and generally don’t have substantially different living standards. A social democrat would be pretty satisfied if (and possibly only if) most people lived essentially similar lives. If you think I’m wrong, take a walk around Nth Fitzroy and see how judgmental the N-F-Royals are about people who don’t share similar attitudes and values. A classical liberal has a much more limited view of politics and government. A good society is one where certain broad principles apply but most decisions are left to individuals. So the resulting society may be one in which most people go to church every day or eat Maccas 6 times a week. Where some people carry out their shower water to their gardens while others luxuriate in half-hour showers and watch 6 hours of Foxtel a day. I don’t know how certain people might choose to live in a liberal society – and I might not personally find many aspects of it appealing even if I did – so it’s much harder for me to get evangelical about it in the same way that I see social democrats get excited about implementing their vision of a better society.


  20. For mine, it essentially comes down to a different approach to preventing the tragedy of the commons.

    The classical liberals would divide up the commons, apportion it out evenly and then let each person use or overuse their own portion as they chose to. If someone damanged her own portion, she couldn’t expect help from anyone else.

    The social democrats would maintain it as a commons, but regulate the use of it to attempt to prevent overuse and damage.

    Both approaches have benefits and costs – which you prefer probably comes down to instinct as much as anything else.

    The recyling-garbage example Rajat Sood mentions is probably instructive, even in its triviality (perhaps even because of its triviality). A classical liberal instinctively resents being told to recycle her garbage; a social democrat on the other hand instinctively resents his action to recycle his garbage being undermined by his neighbour’s refusal to recycle his own.


  21. Isn’t that just a perspective thing Andrew?
    I think you’d better conduct a forensic examination of how much that second collection of the second bin costs, and why I should have to contribute to it when I have virtually no recyclable rubbish. If you are producing recyclable rubbish then you can pay to recycle it yourself.


  22. Russell – Nice satire. But seriously, as we have no choice but to have recycle bins, and some people feel virtuous using them (this is Carlton, after all), and the effort in registering the difference between the bins is near-zero (indeed, we have the recycle bins towards the rear of the bins area so that lazy people don’t use them), I think those who put general rubbish in the recycle bins are deserving of social disapproval.


  23. Also a right-wing athiest… I think acceptance of the power of price signals, and value of the importance of profit and competition is what sets liberals apart from social democrats and conservatives. Sounds very bland but it does seem the more realistic answer after seeing the destructive nature of the welfare state- making working less rewarding despite the fact it’s broadly effective at eradicating poverty while welfare encourages dependency and welfare dependency (particularly high EMTR’s) entrenches poverty.
    Similiar problems arise with public health and education as public provision makes competitive private provision more expensive- taxes, as well as basically establishing an (inferior) monopoly on low cost health and education, leaving the for-profit private sector only able to compete for the money of the rich.
    There’s a degree of romance there. It’s just that I’m romantic for profit and price signals.


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